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Slim, Master of War: Burma and the Birth of Modern Warfare
Constable and Robinson, 2004, paperback 2005
Nothing less than one of the most interesting soldiers of his generation, Slim's 'smart' style of soldiering paved the way for how we make war today.
'This is a very important book.' Lieutenant General John Kiszely MC
'A tour-de-force'. Major Gordon Graham MC and Bar, lately Chairman of Butterworths plc
Mild man of the Jungle
Max Hastings review
A question. Which British general of the Second World War wrote in his memoirs about a battle he commanded: "I was, like other generals before me, saved from the consequences of my mistakes by the resourcefulness of my subordinate commanders and the stubborn valour of my troops"?
To anybody who knows the period, among a cast of strutting prima donnas and embittered failures there is only one candidate for such a frank and modest observation - Bill Slim. It helps to explain why he was adored by the troops he commanded, the "Forgotten" Fourteenth Army in Burma. Tough, solid, unpretentious, constantly mindful of the predicament of the private soldier, he led his men to final victory despite chronic shortages of resources, mediocre subordinates, a fanatical enemy and a dreadful environment.
Robert Lyman, himself an ex-soldier writing his first book, asserts that Slim was the outstanding British general of the war. He is surely right. For complex and dismaying reasons, this country produced few competent, never mind inspired, commanders in the 1939-45 generation - indeed, despite the usual British condescension, fewer than the Americans. Slim not only looks the best of our leaders, he was also the most attractive personality.
He took over command of the collapsing Burma Corps amid the retreat to the Chindwin river in 1942. His army commander was Alexander, the theatre commander Wavell, both of whom put up sorry showings. The British were struggling to hold on to as much territory as possible, while the Japanese focused ruthlessly upon destroying British forces.
On a battlefield of unpronounceable names and fever-ridden swamps, the enemy struck panic again and again into British units by attacking through "impenetrable" jungle in their rear. Slim's immediate superior was Irwin, a sorry creature, who hated Slim because he had once sacked a friend of Irwin's as a battalion commander.
"Burcorps" retreated 1,000 miles in three months, eventually staggering back into India with 30,000 demoralised and exhausted men, having lost 13,000. The Japanese thought the British military performance was pitiful. The British, for their part, were dismayed by Japanese "fanaticism".
Japanese soldiers routinely displayed the sort of courage for which the British were awarded Victoria Crosses. For all their ghastly cruelty, the Japanese displayed a mastery of jungle fighting which shamed the British and Indian Armies.
The eastern war was dominated by the monsoon season, during which almost all military activity perforce ceased for several months. As the Eastern Army regrouped in Assam, Irwin tried to dismiss Slim as scapegoat for a failed offensive of his own. Happily, this ploy failed. Irwin signalled Slim memorably: "You're not sacked - I am." In October 1943, Slim took over command.
He faced two serious problems. The first was Orde Wingate, a messianic eccentric who claimed to be capable of beating the Japanese in the jungle by his own guerrilla methods. Churchill, seething about Britain's humiliations in Asia, made Wingate his protege and at one time wanted to appoint him C-in-C of the whole army.
Slim had to cope with Wingate's absurd demands and constant threats to invoke Churchillian wrath, while himself fighting a proper war. Wingate's first "Chindit" expedition achieved nothing of military substance, but was a huge propaganda and morale success. Thereafter, Wingate was merely a nuisance, a cross Slim had to bear. It was a relief to right-thinking people on the British side, and no doubt a corresponding sadness to the Japanese, that Wingate was killed in an air crash on the fly-in to his second expedition in 1944.
Slim's second problem was to sell his strategy to his political and military masters. Churchill wanted a renewed British invasion of Burma. Slim believed that it would be vastly less dangerous and more effective instead to let the Japanese attack in Assam, and there to fight them on ground of his choosing, with much shorter lines of communication.
This is exactly what happened early in 1944, when the Japanese 15th Army threw itself at Imphal - which Slim expected - and at Kohima further north, which he did not. The Japanese astonished the British by moving an entire division to attack through jungle which the defenders thought quite impassable. But Japanese ingenuity and aggression were in vain. The twin battles were among the bloodiest and hardest of the war, fought in terrible conditions, and the British prevailed. As Slim had hoped, the encounter decided the course of the campaign thereafter, effectively destroying the enemy's 15th Army.
Slim now stepped forward and declared his army ready and able to recapture Burma, while the allied warlords were minded to hold fast on the Indian frontier. He got his way. In 1945, he drove into Burma at the head of five British and Indian divisions - the largest force that could be supplied on the battlefield - and smashed the crumbling Japanese.
All the advantages of resources and especially air power were now on the allied side. But Slim had also created a spirit of self-belief among his forces, a conviction that they could prevail against the Japanese in a jungle war, which had been wretchedly lacking in 1942. He taught his soldiers that if they were attacked in the rear, as they usually were, it was the Japanese who should consider themselves surrounded.
His greatest battlefield triumph was the seizure of Meiktila in the spring of 1945, after which the Japanese abandoned Rangoon without a fight. Astonishingly, at this point Slim's new boss Oliver Leese, a poor soldier who had commanded Eighth Army in Italy, attempted to sack Slim and take over his forces in time to seize the Burmese laurels for himself. Churchill, Alanbrooke and Mountbatten would have none of it. Slim was triumphantly reinstated, and indeed promoted. Leese was consigned to obscurity where he belonged.
Slim has always been loved as well as admired, not least because he wrote the most honest and modest memoir of any World War II commander, Defeat Into Victory.
Lyman's book is a workmanlike march across Slim's battlefields, rather than an exciting canter. It possesses the texture of a Christmas cake rather than a sponge. But it is easy to accept the author's judgments. We shall never know whether Slim would have done better than his peers against the Germans in Europe, but the British were extraordinarily lucky to have him in Burma.
Max Hastings 26 January 2004