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Reviews page 3 of 6

Slim
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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


The Sunday Times review
There are few more stirring military stories than that of the British Army crumbling ignominiously before a furious Japanese offensive in Burma in 1942, regrouping, and then fighting back to recover the country three years later. The architect of that remarkable turn-around was Lieutenant-General (later, Field Marshal) Bill Slim, who took command of the demoralised Burma Corps at its darkest hour and eventually led the 14th (“Forgotten”) Army to victory.

With his lantern jaw, Gurkha hat and unassuming manner, “Uncle Bill” Slim inspired great affection among his men. When he brought his ravaged troops back from Burma to northeast India in May 1943, he was cheered — an unusual instance of reverse in the field being hailed in this manner. Even before publishing his bestselling memoir in 1956, appropriately titled Defeat into Victory, he was feted by his army peers, causing him to be dogged with the cliché “a soldier’s soldier”. His Supreme Commander, Lord Mountbatten, called him “the finest general the second world war produced”. But while Slim’s professional reputation remains intact in military circles, his overall achievement and the Burma campaign in general have faded from the public eye.

Occasionally, the exploits of his maverick colleague General Orde Wingate, who led the daring Chindit guerrilla operations behind Japanese lines in northern Burma, are recalled. Given maximum publicity at the time, they helped dispel the myth of Japanese invincibility at a vital moment in the campaign. But Slim’s more measured and considerable feat fails to attract similar retrospective headlines.

Robert Lyman had an opportunity to put this right, but he only partly grabs it. He has written a robust account of the Burma campaign, but he has failed to produce what his publishers mistakenly describe as “the first full-length biography of Slim for 30 years”.

That would have been a revelation. For despite his own book and a fine official biography by Ronald Lewin, Slim remains an enigma. His unflappable nature and common touch are widely attested. But the wellspring of his personality is unclear. One does not find Slim, in the middle of battle, dashing off revealing letters to his wife Aileen. She appears only three times in Lyman’s book, and then because she is unavoidable. There is no exploration, for example, of the differences between Slim ’s Roman Catholic and her Protestant upbringings, which led the even-handed Lewin to speculate that Slim suffered from an element of religiously inspired guilt towards the end of his life.

Lyman’s study is not then remotely like Nigel Hamilton’s controversial life of Montgomery. Framed by an argument that Slim acted as a bridge between the “indirect approach” to war advocated by Liddell Hart and military theorists of the 1930s and modern concepts of “manoeuvre warfare”, it has the feel of a thesis that has been well aired in staff colleges and defence studies institutes. In the heat of battle, as at Arakan in early 1943, or around Imphal a year later, it often reads like an intricate chess game, with the names and numbers of British units lovingly recorded, and those of their Japanese opponents usefully in italics. The maps are not up to unravelling the detail: they date from 1966, the product of the defunct Institute of Army Education.

An effective picture of the Burma campaign does emerge, however. Lyman is good on strategy, as devised usually by Slim, but also by superiors in New Delhi, London and even Quebec, scene of the Quadrant Conference which gave Wingate his head. He juggles conflicting interests, including those of the Chinese and Americans (with their prickly General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell). A former army officer, he is also astute on what it took to fight the war on the ground, with stretched supply lines and the need for long-range air drops.

Towering over everything is Slim. The book starts with the British faltering in Burma in 1942, and his summons from Mesopotamia by General Alexander. Initially he could make little impact, except to engineer his corps’ plucky retreat through the Burmese heartland to India. There Slim’s leadership flowered, as he convinced his men the enemy could be beaten. In early 1944, the Japanese tried to overwhelm British defences at Imphal and Kohima just inside the Indian border. If they had been successful, the road to New Delhi would have been open. But, marshalled by Slim and his well-chosen subordinates, these jungle Stalingrads held firm, and thereafter the Japanese were on the run.

Although not uncritical of his subject, Lyman has little time for doubters, such as General Sir Oliver Leese who tried to sack Slim on the morrow of his Burmese victory. He is similarly severe on Wingate, portraying his Chindit operations as a sideshow. For him, as for Mountbatten, Slim was simply the best general of the war, combining administrative and inspirational skills with military genius in both attack and defence. At least, thanks to Lyman, Imphal will not be totally eclipsed by D-Day in this year’s crop of 60th anniversaries.

Andrew Lycett The Sunday Times


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