William Slim – from defeat to victory

“The finest general World War II produced”

Lieutenant General William Slim with the badge of the Fourteenth Army
(Photo: U.K. government)

“Who was the best general of World War II?” is a question often pondered by military history buffs, but is impossible to answer. For one, nobody knows the biographies of every single general of the war. Two, different general staff officers often have vastly different responsibilities – just think of Eisenhower, who never commanded a battle, but still accomplished managerial, logistical and diplomatic feats probably nobody else could have. And third, even generals with similar jobs often had to work in vastly different circumstances, making comparisons pointless.

Nevertheless, we would argue that one of the hallmarks of a truly great general who belongs among the best of the best is to take a defeated force in the middle of retreat, and not only save it but transform it into the eventual victor. General (later Field Marshall) William Slim of the British Commonwealth was one such man. His actions, and the actions of the 14th Army, the so-called “Forgotten Army” in Burma are overlooked, but truly stand as one of the pinnacles of soldiering in the war; it is no accident that Lord Louis Mountbatten
(Read our earlier article), one of the war’s defining British military leaders, called him “the finest general World War II produced.”

William Slim
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Slim (1891-1970) was born into a thoroughly middle-class family. His father’s failure as a wholesale ironmonger meant that only William’s elder brother could afford to go to college, and young William ended up teaching in a primary school and working as a clerk at a metal-tube manufacturer.
 
Sources differ on how exactly Slim first entered military service. Some sources claim that he joined the Officers’ Training Corps of a university he was otherwise unaffiliated with, and was commissioned as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant when World War I broke out. Others claim he joined a territorial unit (something vaguely akin to the National Guard in the U.S.) as a private; was promoted to lance-corporal when the unit was embodied in the Regular Army, then rapidly demoted again for accepting beer from a bystander while on a march.

Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Slim’s first posting, resting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Whatever happened, Slim fought and was wounded at Gallipoli, where his actions earned him a regular commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the West India Regiment (somewhat misleadingly named, as it was recruited in the Caribbean, rather than India). He rejoined his old British unit in Mesopotamia where he was wounded again and evacuated to India, where he became a captain in the British Indian Army after the war. Slim spent the interwar period climbing the ranks and supplementing his meager Army pay as an author, writing novels, short stories and articles under the pen named “Anthony Mills.”

British officers at ANZAC Cove during the Gallipoli campaign during World War I
(Photo: Britannica)
Slim and the Indian units under his command were sent to Africa when World War II broke out, and fought in the campaign to liberate Ethiopia from Italian occupation. He was wounded a third time when Italian fighter planes strafed his vehicle, and was temporarily assigned to the General Staff at the General Headquarters in Delhi while convalescing. He later participated in operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran over the course of 1941, reaching the rank of major-general.
Allied Soviet and Indian troops meeting in Iran
(Photo: Shao / Wikipedia)

Slim’s greatest test, and his opportunity for greatness, however, came not in the Middle, but the Far East. Japan entered World War II in December 1941 by launching surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, the British port city of Singapore, and several other British and American holdings in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. In Burma (today Myanmar), Japan’s primary goal was only to capture the capital city of Rangoon (today Yangon) and use it as a bulwark against future Allied attempts to retake lost ground. However, once Commonwealth troops evacuated the city in late February 1942 and fled north toward China and India, the Japanese gave pursuit to overtake and destroy the enemy while it’s disorganized. They also had a new strategic goal: by heading north and then turning northwest into India, Japan hoped to capture the airfields in the northeast part of the country that the Allies were using to supply Chinese forces on the far side of the Himalayas by air.

Japanese troops on the Burma border before the invasion
(Photo: Imperial Japanese Army)

Major-General Slim was given control of Burma Corps, a two-division formation in retreat, in March 1942. His job was a daunting one: the force, like Commonwealth units in Asia in general, had inferior equipment compared to British troops; they had just been beaten; they were separated from India by hundreds of miles of jungle-covered mountains; and the primitive roads and tracks in the region were clogged with refugees and stragglers.
 
Slim took control of his corps and quickly built up rapport with his officers and the enlisted men. He lacked the aristocratic airs of many high-ranking British officers, and the soldiers quickly grew think of the gruff man wearing a Gurkha hat as one of them. Slim believed that discipline comes not from fear of punishment, but pride in one’s unit, and he nurtured that sentiment.
 
Slim’s motto as a commander was “No details, no paper, and no regrets.” In other words, he encouraged lower-level officers to make their own decisions, cut back bureaucracy as much as possible, and always concentrated on the next task at end instead of dwelling on past mistakes.

A British communications outpost in Burma later in the war
(Photo: unknown photographer)
He also emphasized the importance of officers properly taking care of their men. In one speech to his officers, he said “Almost all soldiers are fundamentally the same. Germans, Russians, Frenchmen, perhaps even Italians. But the British Tommy generally manages to go on five minutes longer than his opposite number. You have to get that [five] minutes overtime out of your men. And, the only way to get it is by giving them the whole of your own time and thought and care. If you do this. they will never let you down.” He also made sure that officers would not bivouac before their men, and that whenever the troops had to subsist on half rations, his own staff would also get the same – not just as a symbolic gesture, but also to motivate his men to solve the supply problems quicker.
                                                           
Tropical diseases were as great a peril as supply shortage or the Japanese. Malaria rates in some of Slim’s units were as high as 70%, as the soldiers refused to take the foul-tasting medicine. Slim strictly mandated long trousers and rolled-down sleeves despite the heat, and started dismissing officers for high malaria rates until the rest got the message and began to enforce medicine-taking more rigorously, causing the rate to drop below 5%.
British soldiers in the Burma jungle later in the war
(Photo: West Point)
The rearguard of Burma Corps reached India in mid-May 1942. It was disbanded, and its units assigned to IV Corps, a part of Eastern Army, whose job was to stop the Japanese from entering India, and then eventually take back Burma. Slim was promoted to Lieutenant-General and given command of XV Corps, also a part of Eastern Army, which was commanded by General Joel Irwin.
 
At the end of 1942, Eastern Army conducted a counteroffensive into the Arakan Peninsula, a region of Burma lying along the coast. The initial advance was to be performed by Slim’s XV Corps, but disagreements between Slim and Irwin spelled trouble. Irwin sidelined Slim and commanded the Corps directly. The half-year long campaign stalled out and was eventually beaten back by the Japanese in mid-1943. There were several bitter lessons from the experience: British and Indian troops were not trained properly in jungle warfare; the rear area administration in India was lacking, sometimes sending reinforcements who hadn’t even completed basic training; and the poor roads and the rough terrain made for inadequate supply lines. Irwin tried to blame Slim for the failure and dismiss him, but ended up being relieved over the fiasco himself. Slim was given command of the entire army later in the year.
According to several sources, Slim asked to change the army’s name on one of his first meetings with Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command, by saying "Let's change this ghastly name Eastern Army. Let's just get a number." Mountbatten agreed and the formation was redesignated as the Fourteenth Army.
A Gurkha carrying a wounded comrade during the Arakan campaign
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Slim began reorganizing the army with vigor, leaning on his experience gathered in the retreat from Burma and his understanding of Asian warfare. Most of the terrain in the region was unsuited for large-scale vehicular travel, so he got rid of most of his vehicles in favor of pack mules and supplied dropped by air. He subjected the men to more offensive jungle patrols and nighttime training to help them overcome their fear of the jungle.
A Gurkha rifleman in the jungle
(Photo: Cecil Beaton)
The realization that air-dropped supplies were the best way to go in the mountainous jungle terrain also the key to a new doctrine to fight off Japanese infiltration attacks. Rather than forming a cohesive line, Slim had his units establish defensive “boxes” in suitable areas, and allow Japanese forces to enter the ground between these boxes. The boxes were cut off from each other, but could still be resupplied by air, and the boxes could launch their own attacks on any Japanese forces that tried to advance past them.
Artist’s depiction of the 81st (West African) Division, part of the Fourteenth Army, being resupplied by air
(Painting: Captain Hugh Micklem) 
Slim’s new tactics were put to the test in January 1944, when a second offensive was ordered into the Arakan Peninsula. The Japanese launched a counteroffensive and quickly surrounded the Indian 7th Infantry Division along with elements of two other divisions. The resulting “Battle of the Admin Box” was named after the fact that a critical defensive box was held only by cooks, drivers and administrative personnel at first until other units could arrive. The Commonwealth offensive was blunted, but the battle proved that Slim’s defensive box system was working.
Sikh soldiers manning an observation post during the Battle of the Admin Box
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Meanwhile, the Japanese were gearing up for their own major offensive, a combination of two operations – in fact, from a Japanese perspective, the Battle of the Admin Box was already a prelude to their grand plan. Operation U-Go was an invasion of northeast India to capture the airfields supplying the Chinese army. Meanwhile, Operation Ichi-Go was launched in the north to defeat China once and for all. Obviously, Ichi-Go relied on U-Go’s success to deprive the Chinese of vital supplies.
Japanese soldiers marching toward Kohima in India in March 1944 during Operation U-Go
(Photo: Imperial Japanese Army)
The massive offensive in China left the Indian operation without enough supplies, so the plan relied on capturing food and other necessities once in India. British signals intelligence had learned about the coming invasion, and Slim was planning to allow the Japanese to enter India and stretch their supply lines to the breaking point before forcing them into battle. He did, however, overestimate the time he had before the Japanese offensive, and the invading army attacked two Indian forward divisions before those could withdraw. One had to fight its way back to safety, and most of the Commonwealth reserves in the area had to be committed to helping them back. The surprising speed of the Japanese attack seemed to threaten the whole of India with a breakthrough across unprepared Commonwealth lines.
 
The main clash took place at the cities of Imphal and Kohima in March and April 1944, respectively. Once again, Slim’s military doctrine and the tenacity of his men in a desperate situation managed to hold back the Japanese. The battles raged on even as the monsoon season arrived. The Japanese forces had run out of food and supplies, but political pressure and a fear of repercussions forced their commanders to continue fighting beyond all reasonable chance of success. Operation U-Go collapsed in July 1944, with over 30,000 Japanese soldiers dead (many of them from starvation or disease) and another 23,000 hospitalized – in contrast, total Commonwealth casualties were somewhere between 17,000 and 22,000.
A Sikh radio operator and British officers listen to reports from patrols during the Battle of Imphal
(Photo: British Information Service)
With the Japanese attempt to invade India a failure, the time came for Slim to finally take the fight to the enemy and begin liberating Burma. The second half of 1944 was spent recovering from losses and preparing for the offensive. By the end of the year, the British Fourteenth Army was, in fact, predominantly non-British: it consisted of two British, seven Indian and three African divisions, as well as six Chinese divisions, two American regiments, and an assortment of tribal militias raised by the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA.
Slim talking to a Gurkha rifleman in late 1944
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The offensive began in November 1944. The hundreds of miles of mountainous jungles that plagued Japanese supply lines before now hindered the Fourteenth Army. Slim used a corps of elephants to build bridges across local rivers; one particular river was spanned with the longest Bailey bridge (Read our earlier article) in existence at the time.
The 1,100 ft (335 m) long Bailey bridge nearing completion across the Chindwin River
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The operation was a race against time. Slim knew the havoc last year’s monsoon season wreaked on Japanese supplies, and wanted to liberate Rangoon before the next monsoon started. He also knew that he couldn’t replace lost men easily: supplying the Fourteenth Army was not a high priority in London, and the Indian army was an all-volunteer force, with only so many Indians willing to fight and die for the British cause. He realized that the Japanese would fight to the death and cause unaffordably high casualties before going down. In order to save time and men, he avoided direct battle wherever he could, preferring to just bypass major Japanese pockets of defense and let them starve to death. This strategy combined with better supply lines paid off in spades: the Fourteenth Army had 21,000 men against 100,000 Japanese defenders, but Slim still advanced inexorably, first liberating Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, then moving in to take Rangoon. The city was taken in the first two days of May 1945 by a combination of ground forces (Slim’s army), a Gurkha parachute drop and an amphibious landing. Rangoon was freed literally a few hours before the monsoon rains arrived.
A field gun being brought ashore during the landings near Rangoon
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Slim could not sit on his laurels for long, as the campaign to free Malaya was coming up. To his dismay, however, he was informed by his superior, General Leese, commander of Allied Land Forces South-East Asia, that he would not be leading the Fourteenth Army in that venture. Instead, he was to take command of a newly formed army to mop up Japanese resistance in Burma. Slim refused the appointment and announced he would rather retire. The news sent the Fourteenth Army into turmoil. Both the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Commander-in-Chief of India pressured Lord Mountbatten, Leese’s superior, to undo the damage. Mountbatten had no choice but to oblige; Slim was promoted to General and told he would succeed Leese at his post. The war, however, ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before Slim could take up his new post.
Slim at his headquarters in Burma in 1945
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
William Slim briefly worked at the newly-formed Railway Executive as a civilian for a short while, but was brought back by the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, as a field marshal to succeed Field Marshal Montgomery as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the head of the British Army, in 1948. He relinquished the position in 1952, becoming Governor-General of Australia. He was a popular choice, as he had fought alongside Australian troops in Gallipoli and the Middle East in World War I. In this position, he welcomed Queen Elizabeth II on the first visit by a reigning British monarch to Australia in 1954. He spent the late years of his life writing his memoir, holding positions on the boards of several British companies, and being Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle, in charge of the castle on the monarch’s behalf. William Slim died at the age of 79. His remains were cremated and laid to rest under a memorial plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Sir William Slim meeting Papuan highlanders in 1956
(Photo: The Sidney Morning Herald)
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