The Generalship of “Uncle Bill” Slim Assessed

I have received a number of responses to my blog rating the Generals of WW2. Some of the correspondance is highly provocative but as none of these respondents used the comments facility, I will instead engage them in future blogs. Their cogent comments deserve a wider audience that my inbox. This is the first of them that I will share.

Main picture: “Uncle Bill” Slim in his classic pose.

The first though provoking comments were made by Luigi who suggested the following: Also ad libbing, I would suggest that Field Marshall William “Bill” Slim, XIV Army, Burma Campaigns 1942 to 1945 is certainly deserving of inclusion in any list of the top 10 generals of WW2, probably in the top 5 and possibly in the top 3. 

My mea culpa for his exclusion was as follows: He did not even cross my mind. The article was based upon Blaine’s list and not mine but he certainly merits inclusion. The ratings were tricky. It all depended where I put the emphasis. Take Kesselring as an example. He was a highly competent Commander but the terrain was in his favour. However as you are aware, I downgraded him due to the slaughter of civilians by troops under his command.

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On reflection I would like to add the following: I have actually read William (Bill) Slim’s autobiography Defeat into Victory some twenty years ago but like most of the actual participants in the Burma campaign, it is categorised as the Forgotten War. My exclusion confirms that sobriquet. The closest that I got to Burma was Percival & Yamashita in Singapore. The point is taken though as I barely can recall anything about that campaign to prevent the Japanese from capturing India apart from the fact that even the military authorities in UK treated it as a backwater. Hence they were deprived of all manner of supplies and equipment.

Secondly on what basis does one measure success? Currently I refuse to read any more books on warfare during ancient times. The level of barbarity is so wilful and appalling that I can no longer endure their modus operandi. Whether it is Caesar, Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, their tactics are equally as appalling but who am I to judge histories greats on the basis of a 21st century human rights culture.

Slim Commander of the Forgotten 14th Army

Slim Commander of the Forgotten 14th Army

Having genuflected to Luigi valid point, he then presented a cogent reason why Slim should be regarded as being amongst the foremost Commanders of WW2. Having slipped from my consciousness, Luigi presented a trenchant argument why he should not be banished to obscurity which is likely to occur.

Your point is well made. The perspective that one adopts or the emphasis one places one certain qualities or abilities – and these are perforce highly subjective – will of course have a very significant impact on the rating that one assigns to these generals.

Singer Vera Lynn with the 14th Army in Burma. She was sent to bolster morale

Singer Vera Lynn with the 14th Army in Burma. She was sent to bolster morale

I was first introduced to the generalship of “Uncle Bill” Slim by my father and then again during a series of lectures at the old SA Military College in VTH (Voortrekkerhoogte) as part of what was then called a “JL” course – nowadays an officer candidate course – while doing my national service in the Army Gym back in 1966. The fellow giving the talks was, as I recall, of Australian extraction, of all things. He had more artificial body parts than I’d ever seen – before or since – on any person and, judging by his at times rambling narrative of personal wartime experiences, had fought in every war since the Crimea! He certainly seemed old enough!!

The Chindits operated in the rear of the Japanese in Burma

The Chindits operated in the rear of the Japanese in Burma

 

Seriously, he was a great admirer of Slim and held him out to us, not only as THE grand master of the art and science of generalship, but as a paragon of all the officer qualities and virtues to which we should aspire. He believed, and I have come to share his belief after doing my own reading and researching, that Slim was unsurpassed as a military strategist and tactician, truly brilliant in both defence and attack, masterly in his early adoption, development and successful implementation of new methods of waging war (to mention but one, his use of air supply and resupply remain case studies at staff colleges around the world today).  His record of success in India and Burma is unsurpassed by few, if any, of his contemporaries on any side in WW2. These were achieved despite being the most under resourced ( especially materials) of  all  allied armies at the end of one of the longest supply chains  in any theatre of WW 2 and in some of the most inhospitable terrain, climate and  conditions in which  warfare has ever been conducted. He was both incisive in his insights into people, especially the varied opponents he faced, and  situations and, just as importantly, was able to “keep his cool” in the many crises with which he had to deal, especially during the retreat from Burma into India in 1942 and later during the Japanese offensive in 1944 to break into India.  He was absolutely unflappable. Slim had the very rare quality among top commanders of not only being able to admit and learn from his mistakes and to do so openly, but he learned from them very quickly indeed. He was very good at selecting capable, competent, energetic subordinates and then displaying every confidence in letting them get on with the jobs that he might set for them.  He had a deep and genuine concern for the well-being, care and comfort of everyone one of “his” soldiers in the “Forgotten Army”. He had an amazing ability to communicate freely and easily with all his soldiers, irrespective of colour, creed and nationality. In fact, he had what was probably the only truly racially mixed army in WW2. They not only respected and admired him immensely  but they had a deep and abiding affection for him – easily more than any other army had for their commander (with the possible exception of the Afrika Korps), certainly during all of the conflicts of the last century and perhaps before. His reputation is immense and I’m told that the esteem in which Bill Slim is held in Western military circles borders on sainthood. If you were to ask me my rating of the three best commanders (army as opposed to theatre) of WW2, I’d say Slim, Patton, and Rommel.

 

1 Comments

  1. Ha! Dean, I see you are blaming me now for not thinking of Gen Slim. Perhaps I should have included the words inter alia as my list was merely intended as a conversation starter.

    I knew about Slim and the high regard in which he was held but, of course, Burma was such a sideshow and I knew so little about it that I decided to leave him off. I’m glad someone picked up on it as he did deserve a mention.

    I briefly considered admirals and air force generals but I decided against including them as a totally different kind of leadership and tactical and strategic thinking is involved. It’s mainly backroom stuff. Possible candidates include “bomber” Harris, Admiral Nimitz, Gen le May, Hugh Dowding, Doenitz

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