Walter Lentaigne

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Maj Gen Walter "Joe" Lentaigne

Lieutenant General Walter David Alexander Lentaigne, CB, CBE, DSO, (15 July 1899 – 24 June 1955) was a British Indian Army officer. He was sometimes called "Joe" Lentaigne.

He was born the elder son of Justice Benjamin Plunkett Lentaigne of the Burma High Court and educated at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, Birmingham. His family had origins in Navan, County Meath in Ireland, but was domiciled in then Burma (a part of British India). He was one of two domiciled European officers serving Independent Indian army. (Other being Thomas B Henderson-Brooks)

He had a brother, Commander Charles Nugent Lentaigne, DSO, RN, who commanded HMS Gurkha (F63/G63), launched in July 1940, by Mary, daughter of Winston Churchill. The ship was originally to be named Larne, however after the Tribal-class Gurkha was sunk in April 1940 the officers and men of the Gurkha Regiments each subscribed one day's pay to replace her and Larne was renamed before launching. Whilst escorting a Malta convoy the ship was torpedoed 17 January 1942 off Sidi Barani and later scuttled.

Walter Lentaigne joined British Indian Army as 2nd lieutenant in October 1918 in 4th Gurkha Rifles. He fought in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. During World War II he commanded a battalion during the 1942 Burma Campaign and was later given command of 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade. In 1943, he was personally selected by General Archibald Wavell (the Commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army) to form and command the 111th Indian Infantry Brigade as a long-range penetration brigade. In 1944, in the midst of the second Chindit operation (Operation Thursday) he was appointed commander of the Chindit Force and led the force until it was disbanded in 1945. He then led the Indian Army's jungle training programs as commander of the 39th Indian Infantry Division. He served in the postwar Indian Army and rose finally to the rank of Lieutenant General.

Career highlights[edit]

  • 1899 Born
  • 1918 Joined 4th Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles
  • 1919 Third Anglo-Afghan War
  • 1919-1924 Served in Waziristan, North West Frontier
  • 1925-1929 Garrison and Depot duty, Bakloh, India
  • 1930-1934 Served in Tirah, North West Frontier
  • 1935-1936 Attended British Army Staff College, Camberley
  • 1936-1939 Waziristan, North West Frontier
  • World War II
    • 1938-1941 Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General at General Headquarters(GHQ) India
    • 1941-1942 Instructor at the Indian Army Staff College, Quetta
    • 1942 Commanding Officer 1st Battalion, 4th Gurkha Rifles. Took part in the retreat from Burma, into India. Better described in "British Commanders" Published June 1945 by British Information Services in the USA as commanding a battalion which was landed in Burma in time to take part in General Alexander's battling withdrawal. He soon gained a legendary name for bravery. "Once this bespectacled giant had his revolver kicked out of his hand in a hand-to-hand scrap with four Japs. he tore the sword from the leader's hand and killed him with it; then, turning on the others, hewed one to the ground and chased the other two back into the jungle. Another time, when the japanese had captured an ambulance convoy, a wounded officer in one of them heard a noise which he described as like the roaring of the Bull of Bashan. It was Joe Lentaigne arriving. He had charged ahead of his Gurkhas and arrive first, killing several Japs before they caught up with him. The ambulances were saved."
    • 1943 Temporarily commanded Indian 63rd Infantry Brigade in Imphal, India. Subsequently raised Indian 111 Infantry Brigade, a Long Range Penetration formation.
    • 1944 Led 111 Brigade in Operation Thursday, the second Chindit operation. On 24 March 1944 succeeded to command of Special Force / 3rd Indian Infantry Division, on the death of Major General Orde Wingate in an air crash. Commanded the Chindits until it they were disbanded early in 1945.
  • 1945 General Officer Commanding Indian 39th Infantry Division
  • 1946 Attended Imperial Defence College
  • 1947 Director of Military Operations (18 Feb. – 14 May)
  • 1947 Deputy Quartermaster General at GHQ India.(15 May – 15 Aug)
  • 1947 Deputy Quartermaster General at GHQ,British Troops in India and Pakistan.(15 Aug 1947 – 15 Mar 1948)
  • 1948-1955 Commandant of the Indian Army Staff College, Wellington.(16 March 1948 – 12 March 1955)
  • 1955 Retired as Lieut-General and returned to UK owing to bad health.

Lentaigne and the Chindits[edit]

Lentaigne was an outsider in the Chindit organization. He was appointed by General Wavell in the spring of 1943 to raise 111th Indian Brigade as a second Chindit Brigade. Because Wingate was in Burma conducting the Chindit operation (Operation Longcloth), he was unable to influence the choice. Wingate's dislike of Indian Army officers and in particular officers of Gurkha battalions also worked against Lentaigne. He objected to the appointment after he learned of it but was unable to do anything about.

On Wingate's death, Lentaigne took over command of the Chindit organization. He was the seniormost officer in the Chindits and also had the most command experience. General Slim described the problems involved in replacing Wingate within the Chindits: 'To step into Wingate's place would be no easy task. His successor had to be someone known to the men of Special Force, one who had shared their hardships and in whose skill and in whose skill and courage they could trust'. Again. "British Commanders" states "the inevitable choice for the new chief of the Chindits was Major General Lentaigne. He was one of Wingate's closest disciples and a veteran of the Burma fighting.

Amongst his rivals for the position including Mike Calvert and Derek Tulloch there was criticism of this decision. They alleged that Lentaigne was the Chindit leader least in tune with Wingate's methods and tactics. They also pointed out that he had commanded 111 Indian Brigade in the field for only a few weeks. After the war, certain of his rivals used the comments of his Brigade Major John Masters with regard to Lentaigne's age out of context to attack him.

Lentaigne had been a distinguished battalion commander who had fought during the 1942 Burma campaign. The other Chindit brigade commanders were unknown quantities lacking Staff College qualifications or significant time in command of even a battalion-sized formation. Additionally, there was no clear successor to Wingate even among his closest followers. Each of them thought that they would have been (or were) Wingate's obvious successor. Field Marshal Lord Slim wrote in his memoirs of the Burma War, Defeat into Victory, that after Wingate's death, at least three officers went to him, and told him, separately and confidentially, that Wingate had designated each of them as the divisional commander, in the event of his death.

Postwar career[edit]

In his book Red Coats to Olive Green, Colonel V Longer has listed Lentaigne as one of the handful of British general officers to be offered attachment to, and service in, the post-independence Indian Army. Among the others were General Sir Rob Lockhart, Lt-Gen Sir Dudley Russell, and Maj-Gen H Williams, who, as engineer-in-chief, was the last to retire, late in 1955. He was acting Director Military Operations but was eased out as he proposed a 25-mile border corridor in Punjab under British troops to save innocent people.(Ref. Transfer of Power,8 Aug 1947 meeting) Nehru opposed him tooth and nail and was overruled by Mountbatten. In February 1948, he was asked to lead Defense Staff College, Wellington. In 1950, he predicted problems for India after conquest of Tibet by China and sparred with visiting foreign secretary of India at Wellington. (Ref. Himalayan Blunder by John Dalvi). He retired in 1955 and died soon after returning to London.

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