One way to live : Orde Wingate and the adoption of ‘special forces’ tactics and strategies (1903-1944)




Meyer, John Michael

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Winston Churchill declared Major-General Orde Wingate ‘a man of genius’ for developing what he considered low-cost, high-risk, and high-leverage operations in three theaters of the Second World War. One Way to Live: Orde Wingate and the adoption of 'special forces' tactics and strategies (1903-1944) tries to answer two questions: Why did Wingate and his superiors adopt 'special forces' strategies and tactics, and why did individuals choose to join his 'special forces' units? I use biography and comparative biography to help answer these two questions. I provide a narrative of Wingate's life, but I also construct biographical sketches of some of his peers, rivals, superiors, and followers during his campaigns in Sudan, Mandatory Palestine, Abyssinia, and Burma. I ultimately find that while Wingate's unusual upbringing contributed to his propensity for creating new military units, it was ultimately his aggressive competition with other British officers for scarce honor and prestige that spurred him to create the units he branded 'special forces.' His leaders, on the other hand, adopted Wingate's special forces strategies out of desperation, and only when they lacked the resources to win 'traditional' campaigns. Wingate's followers did not always volunteer to join his units (compulsion occurred in several instances), but many officers joined his ranks with the intention of obtaining a role in violent combat; like Wingate, they sought the prestige and role-fulfillment that some soldiers seek through war. Despite the inherent risks of special forces tactics, many soldiers paradoxically thought their odds of survival were higher with Wingate than in traditional military formations. In many instances, the competition between soldiers required more personal investment than any action against the ‘enemy.’ The extensive use of comparative biography encourages the examination of previously unused sources, including unpublished memoirs and oral histories. My writing, at times, examines stories that do not answer the central questions of the dissertation, but provide a rich understanding of the behavior of British soldiers in Palestine, Abyssinia, and elsewhere. As a social scientist, I attempt to understand the subject as a salient example of organized violence, and not just as a series of unique historical incidents.



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