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Orde Wingate Remembered

Dilapidated now but this building was once the army HQ of Orde Wingate. Photos & Text: Lydia Aisenberg

A dilapidated building at Kibbutz Ein Harod, the plaster peeled off down to the bricks underneath, and an equally dilapidated rust-pocked car parked outside, wouldn't normally tweak my interest.

It wasn't the building in particular, nor strong nostalgia for one of the most recognizable of cars with a history going back 80 years, a Volkswagen Beetle (as much part of this writer's 1960s youthful days as frayed jeans and long hair), but the poster on the crumbling wall that truly caught my eye.

The poster was advertising an exhibition at the nearby Beit Shturman Museum, the sign above stating that the almost collapsing building was where one of the heroes of pre-State days once planned brilliant military campaigns still held in high esteem by British and Israeli militarists more than seven decades later.

From the large poster, a handsome man in a British army uniform stares intently into the distance past the famous German vehicle rotting close by. A sign, in Hebrew, fixed on the wall above the poster states that this very building in Ein Harod (Spring of Harod, where Gideon gathered the 300 men to fight the Midianites) had been the Jezreel Valley headquarters of British Army Lt. Colonel Orde Charles Wingate.

A religious Christian whose parents were members of the Plymouth Brethren, Wingate passionately believed in Jewish redemption and the return to Israel. He founded, trained and led the famous "Special Night Squads" against marauding bands of Arabs attacking both the British and the Jews in British Mandatory Palestine, and became known by the Jewish residents – the yishuv - as "HaYadid" (The Friend).

Although highly respected for his military brilliance, the Hebrew speaking Wingate was renowned for somewhat erratic behavior. Admired by Jews, feared by Arabs, the Christian Zionist was by far too controversial for the British, who not only yanked him out of the country but also barred him from returning. He spent a brief period in Britain before being posted for further active duty, first in Ethiopia against the Italians, and then in Burma where he trained a special jungle unit operating behind Japanese lines before being killed in an air crash in the Burmese jungle in 1944.

"Judged by ordinary standards Wingate would not be regarded as normal but his own standards were far from ordinary. He was a military genius and a wonderful man," Moshe Dayan is quoted as saying about HaYadid, featured in the Beit Shturman exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Special Night Squads. A conference on opening day was attended by researchers, archivists, historians and Wingate buffs of diverse ages.

"The Friend is an exhibition created as a tribute to Orde Charles Wingate in recognition of his total mobilization to help us defend our home. His character and his legacy have made him a legend of our time," commented exhibition curators Michal Shachnai and Anat Zisling.

"We have chosen to present this formative chapter in the life of Orde Charles Wingate and in our life here in Eretz Israel: the chapter of the Special Night Squads, centered in Ein Harod in the very landscape where the Biblical judge, Gideon, did battle is where Wingate and the night squads operated and fought.

"The Bible was for Wingate a source of inspiration and guidance. He read it as a military man, and in the story of Gideon and the Midianites he found a doctrine of combat that was precise, modern, surprising and daring."

The photographs, maps, detailed explanations of the SNS exploits and fascinating memorabilia on display is still open to the general public.

One of the first museums established in the country, Beit Shturman is named after Ein Harod founder member, veteran Zionist leader and friend of Wingate, Haim Shturman. A legendary fighter with Hashomer and the Haganah, Shturman was killed when the car in which he was travelling hit a mine on a road in the Beit Shean valley.

At Shturman's funeral Wingate stood in front of the newly-dug grave and saluted his fallen comrade.

Like her husband, Lorna Wingate (who spent time in the country with him) became an ardent Zionist, and following her husband's death in Burma, travelled extensively in North America speaking passionately about the need to allow Jewish Holocaust survivors to settle in Israel.

A short distance from Ein Harod is Ramot Naftali, a community named after the Biblical tribe that lived in the area. The settlement was founded by a group of people who had served in the British Army and who called themselves the Wingate Group. During an attack on Ramot Naftali in 1948, Lorna Wingate joined the pilot of a Piper Cub dropping supplies and ammunition to the besieged soldiers. For extra good measure, she also threw down her late husband's Bible to the fighters below.

The Bible, carried always by Orde Wingate on his dangerous and courageous missions, is one of many treasured artifacts to be found in Beit Shturman.

Beit Shturman Museum, Kibbutz Ein Harod, tel: 04 648 6328. Open Sundays – Thursday 08:00 – 15:00; Saturdays 11:00 – 15:00. Entrance free. 



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Monday, 26 February 2024

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