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The British Army is raising a new brigade with a number and badge loaded with historical significance. Information available so far in the public sector on 77 Brigade is almost certainly oversimplified and full of smoke and mirrors (such is the way of press releases) but a number of things stand out.
The Brigade will officially wage ‘non violent warfare’ for ‘the information age’ aimed at ‘dynamically shaping the narrative’, doing this through psychological operations not only in theatre but online, including via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which have been used for recruiting and communication by insurgent groups for some time now, proving especially effective in the 2011 Arab revolutions and more recently in the hands of the Daesh in Syria and Libya.
A true formation for the contemporary age then, although that name and badge recall a very different era of warfare. The Chinthey was the badge of the original 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, formed in India in 1942 under the command of Brigadier Orde Wingate to carry out what he called ‘Long Range Penetration’ inside Japanese-occupied Burma. Wingate’s Chindits – the name based on his own mispronunciation of ‘Chinthey’, which annoyed him greatly – are cited as the natural forerunners of the current brigade, in that their role ‘is unorthodox and controversial’, according to the Guardian and they share the Chindits’ ‘spirit of innovation’, as reported by the BBC.
On the very broadest levels, this might be true. Wingate was certainly unorthodox and controversial – after all, he ate six raw onions a day, dressed scruffily when he dressed at all, and went through his career looking for the next feud. He also aimed at ‘shaping the narrative’; when commanding his Special Night Squads – counter-terrorist units combining British soldiers with Jewish police volunteers – in Palestine in 1938, he intended to instil in the Arab insurgents the idea they were not safe at night or in the isolated villages they used as sanctuaries; in Ethiopia in 1941, he bluffed an Italian force into surrendering to an Anglo-Ethiopian one a tenth of its size by making them think it was far bigger and about to be reinforced, and in Burma he aimed constantly to present the Japanese ‘a situation they did not fully understand’ and in doing so may have provoked their disastrous offensive into India of spring 1944.
However, analogies can be taken too far, and appear to have been here. One could contend, indeed, that the choice of name and badge for the new formation, and the spin put on it, show a basic misunderstanding of what Wingate was actually trying to do. One suspects that like any British commander from before c.1997, he would have scoffed at the very notion of ‘non-violent warfare’ and, being Wingate, would have had some quotable things to say about it. He was always a commander of combat units and had the physical and psychological scars to show for it.
The Night Squads ‘shaped the narrative’ via an aggressively kinetic campaign of ambushes and night raids which killed dozens of insurgents and involved some very physical means of extracting intelligence from prisoners; Wingate also made it clear from the beginning that the Chindits would have to fight major battles against the Japanese and took steps to secure close air support from the Americans, the better to pulverise the Japanese in fixed ‘killing zones’.
Then there is the intent behind ‘Long Range Penetration’ itself, essentially a Wingate-driven evolution from plans for covert operations in Axis-occupied territory drawn up by the MI(R) branch of the War Office in the dark days after Dunkirk. These involved inserting teams of British Army officers and NCOs into enemy territory to liaise with local resistance leaders and provide their irregular forces with technical, logistical and firepower support.
Wingate took this further by arguing that these British teams should actually be fighting units trained and organised for the role, which would act as the spearheads for armed resistance. This is what he did in Ethiopia and planned to do in Burma until the deteriorating situation in 1942 overtook him.
Such activities are a popular strategic option now. NATO’s air offensive in Libya in 2011 saw British, French and Qatari Special Forces fight alongside the Libyan rebels, principally guiding in airstrikes but also getting involved in the fighting at times. However, recently this sort of force seems to have been used far more extensively by the West’s adversaries, some of them having entire ‘fourth forces’ devoted to it. Iran’s al Quds Force trained and supported Hizbullah from the 1980s and Iraqi dissidents from 1991 onwards, was probably engaged against US-led occupation forces in Iraq for ten years, and is fighting ISIS alongside Iraqi militias now.
One might also cite the presence of ‘Little Green Men’, Russian ‘volunteers’ and ‘ex-soldiers’ supporting pro-Moscow militias in Ukraine, who, as Wingate might have prescribed, seem to be doing a great deal of the actual fighting.
It may be, therefore, that Wingate’s real heirs are General Suleimani and Lieutenant Colonel Putin.
Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.