In the Jezreel Valley, located in the Lower Galilee in Israel, there is a small kibbutz called Ein Harod. The kibbutz — a type of communal agricultural settlement — is one of the oldest in the country, established in 1921 and now split into two distinct halves. Located on a hill opposite Mount Gilboa — where Saul and his sons perished in battle against the Philistines — Ein Harod Meuhad commands a spectacular view of the valley, evergreen in what many who have never visited imagine to be an entirely desert country. The kibbutz is known for its art museum, the first rural museum in Israel and famed for its use of natural light. A smaller museum, however, called Beit Shturman (“the house of Shturman”), is perhaps more fascinating. Amidst a hodgepodge of displays focusing on kibbutz life, history and regional culture, one particular exhibit stands out from the crowd to those for whom military history is of interest: It is a corner honoring the life of British officer Ordge Wingate, better known to the early Jewish community as ha’yedid — “the friend.” 

A Brief History of the SNS

Orde Charles Wingate was born in India in 1903, in British-controlled India, to a military family. After receiving his commission in 1923 with the Royal Artillery, he passed an Arabic language course at the School of Oriental Studies in London in 1926 and served in the Sudan, seconded to the Sudan Defense Force, from 1928 to 1933. He then spent three years in Britain, retraining with British artillery units as they became mechanized, and was promoted to the rank of captain.

In September of 1936, Wingate was posted to Palestine as an intelligence officer with the British Mandate. His obsession with the Bible had a profound effect on his views during this posting, turning him into an ardent Zionist and supporter of the idea of a Jewish state. His arrival couldn’t have come at a more consequential time: The “Arab revolt” in Palestine had just begun that April, an inflection point in which the local Arab population, fed up with both constant Jewish immigration into the country and the Mandate government, rose up in opposition and, increasingly, in violence. 

Wingate quickly conceived of a joint military unit, staffed by both colonial and local Jewish troops, to protect Jewish and British interests, and took the idea to Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell, the commander of British forces in Palestine. Wavell, intrigued, granted Wingate his permission to set up such a unit. Wingate then pitched the unit to the Jewish Agency and directly to the Haganah (“the defense”), the pre-state Israeli military. The Agency, which originally opposed the idea, eventually had a change of heart, and in June of 1938, the Plugot Ha’Layla Ha’Meyuchadot, the Special Night Squads, were born. They based themselves in a building at a small kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where Gideon, the Biblical Jewish hero, had fought against his enemies — Kibbutz Ein Harod. 

The first British troops to join the new SNS were three squads from the 16th Brigade based in Haifa, culled from the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal West Kent Regiment, and Manchester Regiment. Wingate then brought in Jewish men from the Haganah to join the force in the capacity of supernumerary policemen, their appointments coming from Yitzhak Sadeh, the commander of the Jewish FOSH (from plugot sadeh, or “field companies” — early commando-like strike units of the Haganah) and from local Haganah commanders. Fifty more Jewish men would later join the unit, which numbered some 100 soldiers in 1938.

The SNS fulfilled a dual purpose that likely aided its establishment within a colonial administration opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine: Though it indeed fought against armed Arab insurgents who rose up in increasingly violent acts against British forces and against the Jewish yishuv (the settlement in Palestine), the unit’s stated purpose Wingate may have given to his superiors was to protect the oil pipelines of the Iraq Petroleum Company. The southern of two pipelines (the “TAPline”) which spanned Iraq to the Mediterranean ran for over 1,000 km from Mosul to Haifa, on the coast of British-controlled Palestine, and moved over 4 million tons of oil per year (between two lines) prior to the Second World War. This line was increasingly being bombed and sabotaged by Arab bands throughout the revolt, and as it ran through the Lower Galilee on its course to the sea, Wingate could easily patrol its length with the SNS from his base in Ein Harod.

“Course for Hebrew sergeants, under the command of Col. Orde Wingate, part of the Special Night Squads, Ein Harod.” C. 1938. Source: A L’ombre De “l’injure Chinoise” by Yehuda Ben David

Wingate at the Helm of SNS

Wingate led many of the units’ patrols himself, which largely consisted of raiding rebel bases and villages from which the Arab insurgents were understood to be operating. Several important future Israeli military leaders, including Yigal Allon (later commander of the Palmach, the commando unit of the Haganah) and Moshe Dayan, future chief of staff of the IDF, served in the SNS under Wingate. (Dayan would later claim that Wingate “taught us everything we know.” He elaborated: “He had a positiveness, a stubborn lack of compromise. A dominating personality, he infected us all with his fanaticism and faith.”) Wingate, argumentative, eccentric and motivated by religious fervor, was also the type of commander who led by example at the head of a column, a trait that would later become suffused throughout IDF military doctrine, encapsulated by the Hebrew expression achrai, or “after me.” 

Wingate indoctrinated his men with discipline, aggression, initiative and unconventional thinking, all traits that are well known to any contemporary IDF infantryman, paratrooper or commando. He instituted a training regiment that included long forced marches and was famously demanding of his men, though he never demanded anything that he himself wasn’t ready to do personally. His eccentricities were legion and often baffled his men, fellow commanders and higher ups — he had a famous propensity for holding conversations with his men while quite naked, in a manner not dissimilar to that of one Winston Churchill — but he was beloved by the Jewish men of the Yishuv, who thought him a paragon of effective military leadership.