Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
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The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Viscount Slim
Russell Miller, W&N (Orion), 8 August 2103
On my father’s shelves I remember a well-thumbed copy, with its khaki dust jacket, of Defeat into Victory, Bill Slim’s autobiography published in 1956. My father was especially interested in Slim, as he had arrived in the Indian theatre just at the war’s close, and subsequently had a lot of Slim’s soldiers under his care. So I was interested to see this Uncle Bill appear on the publishers’ schedules a few months ago. In my ignorance I thought the title indicated that the author was the subject’s nephew – what a dunce! The title refers to the affectionate name given to Slim by the soldiers under his command. Their love and respect for him shines through almost every page of this book. Indeed it is little wonder that it has been written with great help from the family because Slim emerges as one of Britain’s greatest commanders – ever.
After a very moving preface (describing events in a Burmese war cemetery), the first chapter sets the scene of the British Army’s rout in Burma, for which Miller ascribes a reasonable portion of blame to the British Government’s almost total lack of intelligence assets in Thailand and Burma. On St Valentine’s Day 1942 the Japanese Army showed its mettle by massacring 321 patients and doctors in a Singaporean British hospital, and raping all the nurses. For the bigger strategic picture to this defeat the reader has to turn to other writers, eg Arthur Bryant. The chapter concludes rather floridly: “Rarely in the annals of military history has an army commander been handed a chalice so virulently poisoned.”
From a modest family background Bill made his way to grammar school in the Midlands: the major attraction for the young man was that it had an OTC, where Bill excelled, and which enabled him to spend holidays attached to local regiments. By some chance he migrated to the Birmingham University OTC and carried on in the same vein, despite the fact he had started a dreary clerical job. Even at this early stage, his defining feature – an ability to gain the confidence of and interact with folk from all walks in life - was already evident. His immense integrity seems to owe much to his father who advised him that “An English gentleman is someone who pays up, owns up, and shuts up.” !
Aware that a career as an army officer was not feasible for a man of his modest wealth, he secured an interview with a Shell subsidiary by devious and lateral-thinking means. But before he was sucked into the maw of the oil giant, the onset of the Great War intervened, and an Army career suddenly became possible. But, with some guile, tinged at that age with naiveté, he managed a holiday reconnaissance before the whistle to start the four year match was blown.
The young lieutenant distinguished himself in the bloody and fevered chaos that was Gallipoli, where he was disgusted at the high life enjoyed by senior officers when their men were dying in such squalor. A deep-rooted desire for the best possible welfare for the common soldier was never to leave him. Slim’s heroics led to a serious injury. In September 1915 a medical board judged him “permanently disabled but fit for active service in three months”! He was however keen to return to the fray, and another injury, this time whilst fighting the Turks further East, saw him despatched to India for convalescence. This was a happy move, as he had long harboured a career in the Indian Army. It became even happier when Slim met his future wife, Aileen, there. The story of their courtship is a wee bit sugary.
Slim enjoyed a full career and a fulfilling family life in India through the Thirties. WW2 saw him soon serving with 1Essex, and whilst fighting the Italians in Eritrea he was laid low by a bullet in the backside. But on his way back to India he had a fateful meeting with Dill and Wavell, which was to help his career take a more upward trajectory. An avid reader, and desperate to learn from every tactical mistake on the battlefield, Slim excelled. But sometimes his desire to put his men’s welfare ahead of rigid discipline or his superior’s orders, drew (modest) wrath. As George Macdonald Fraser (later an author of no mean repute himself) put it (he had) “the head of a general but the heart of a private soldier”.
Miller does not hesitate to draw out the humour in Slim’s campaigning: the capture of Persia provides a few amusing vignettes. I particularly liked the vodka-fuelled singing of Daisy, Daisy before his Russian hosts (p 157). At this stage Slim received new postings on a too regular basis, and the author leaves one with the impression that the high command in the Middle East was somewhat disorganised. Surely not?!
The book hits its stride, understandably, when Slim is despatched to Burma. Here the enemy had a somewhat different value structure than Slim: some of his men were captured by the Japanese. Tied to trees in the jungle overnight, they were then used for bayonet practice in the morning. The Chinese ‘allies’ were little help. Slim had to withdraw his Army from Burma in the most horrendous circumstances. The remnants that made it back to India were in a pitiful state, yet senior officers there had made little effort to cater for their welfare – a shameful episode in WW2.
Slim rises up through the office cadre, those with whom he comes into contact become men of stature – or not. As Slim has soon earned one’s (or at least my) admiration and respect, one of the fascinations of this volume is how he interacts with his superior officers. Mountbatten, who had led a charmed life, continued to live the life of an Eastern potentate in India whilst in charge of SEAC. The HQ staff lived “among lily ponds, palms and hibiscus trees…a byword for luxury and elegance, of balls and parties, both figuratively and literally far removed from the squalid lives of the fighting troops.” A man who was quick to claim credit for other’s success, and a master at shifting blame, not easily likeable from this distance. His resolve seems about as robust as that of a willow sapling. I must see if a Mountbatten biography makes any redemptive case.