Slim: The Standardbearer by Ronald Lewin

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


Field Marshal The Right Honourable The Viscount Slim,


1891 - 1970


It is said that to write a successful biography, the biographer must like or even be in love with his subject.  Ronald Lewin is clearly head over heels with Slim, and he is not alone.  The story of Bill Slim is that of an upright and honourable man who, through sheer hard work and an amazing personality, from humble beginnings made it to the top of his profession, and then beyond that to the very pinnacles of achievement in life.  He was one of the very few Britons to hold the four Gs – the highest rank in the four orders of knighthood in Britain.  He became a Viscount, a Field Marshal, a loved Governor-General of Australia and as Constable of Windsor Castle won the personal friendship of Her Majesty the Queen.  When I had finished this book I began to realise how so many people had fallen under his spell, me included; how lucky I was to read it and how unfortunate to miss out on meeting a man such as this.


There are many who would argue that Slim was the best General produced by Britain in WW2; possibly he was even the best allied general in the Second World War.  In a longer historical context, even equivalent in achievement to the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington.


William Joseph Slim was a second son born into a lower middle class family in Bristol and, moving to the Black Country, his family suffered such economic hardship that Bill had to curtail his education and begin to earn, which he did by teaching in a rough primary school before working as a clerk in an engineering works.  He joined the Territorials and then wangled his way into Birmingham University OTC.  At the beginning of the Great War, he was gazetted into the Royal Warwicks (oddly enough this was also Montgomery´s regiment) and fought at Gallipoli (severely wounded) and Mesopotamia (wounded again while officially still unfit to serve).  During the interwar years, despite brilliant reports from his commanding officers and the highest marks at Staff College, he was scarcely able to overcome the inherent snobbery of the Indian Army, and he repeatedly made it to the next rank at the last possible moment before age would have disqualified him.  In India he forged his relationship with the officers and men of the Gurkhas, and many of the senior officers in the successful reinvasion of Burma were acquaintances from the Brigade of Gurkhas.


Lewin writes, “Slim was Hitler´s beneficiary.” He had all the qualifications for senior command, but in peacetime it was unlikely that he would get the opportunity.  He was a senior officer in the attacks on Italian Abyssinia in 1940 (where he was wounded for a third time); in Iraq (again) in 1941 and on 13 March 1942 was in Burma ready to supervise the retreat under Alexander, who had been advised to distance himself from the defeat lest it blight his career.  Slim was ordered to withdraw the army intact if it was impossible to hold Rangoon and to concentrate his forces around Yenangyaung to protect the oilfield.  Slim´s slough of despond was the nightmare of the withdrawal from Burma to India.  This withdrawal was achieved in the context of continuous Japanese attack, infiltration and encirclement.  The army (and thousands of civilians) lost or buried virtually all of its equipment and emerged in a pitiful state on to the plains of Imphal in northeast India. As his tattered force emerged from the jungle into India, the establishment Generals guessed that these were the remnants of a rout.  Slim met with anger their frigid disapproval of these - his - men who had experienced the irresistible Japanese onslaught and had retreated under his command and still in some sort of formation.


Being the kind of man he was, Slim spent some time examining his conscience about the causes and responsibilities for this defeat and he came to the conclusion that his troops were too sick with malaria to fight and that they had been allowed to become overawed by the Japanese and their jungle tactics.  He made the officers responsible for the men taking their foul-tasting anti-malarial prophylaxis and dismissed those who commanded formations whose high rates of sickness demonstrated that they had disregarded his order.  He devised new tactics to defeat the Japanese habit of infiltration, persuading the troops that if the Japanese were behind them, then it was the Japanese themselves who were surrounded and not vice versa.  He became a major advocate of air support and he used his personality to raise morale among his forces to unprecedented levels.  Above all, by improving the strategy and battle tactics of his army, he proved to his men that they were more than a match for the Japanese.


Lieut General Irwin pressed for an attack in the Arakan peninsula and gave the command for this offensive to Major General Lloyd.  Tactics and strategy were not perfect, and Slim was sent to the front with the unappealing remit of reporting to Irwin on the performance of Lloyd.  Slim eventually got the command he desired but it was too late for this attack to succeed, and Irwin then sacked him.  By this time Mountbatten was Allied Commander in southeast Asia and in his turn he sacked Irwin and promoted Slim to replace him.  Mountbatten as overall C in C of southeast Asia and Slim as theatre commander forged a mutually supportive and productive relationship which was instrumental in the victory which followed.


Slim´s strategy was to lure the Japanese into attacking his armies in the plains at Imphal, where they would be at the end of a dangerously long supply line, and there to begin his task of destruction.  The Japanese played their part to perfection, and attacked as he had hoped they would and his armies stood firm at Imphal and Kohima.  As the monsoon arrived, the attacking Japanese were in an impossible position, and their front line crumbled.  Many senior officers thought it impossible to continue to campaign in monsoon conditions, but Slim´s armies then pursued the Japanese into Burma over exactly the same ground along which they had retreated two years earlier.  He feinted for Mandalay and rushed a Corps southwards to cross the Irrawaddy at Meiktila in order to trap the Japanese 33rd Division in the defence of the Mandalay pocket.  Then began the rush to get to Rangoon before the monsoon hit in May 1945.  This was one race in which Slim just – only just -- failed.


The “Forgotten” 14th Army was composed of Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Gurkha troops from India and British, African and other nationalities, whom he moulded into an irresistible fighting force. Because of his long contact with Indian troops during his service in India, Slim found that he could converse with all of them in their own language.  At the far end of an immense logistical chain, he had the least modern equipment of any Allied army, and his efforts tied up immense numbers of Japanese troops who would otherwise have been deployed against the US in the Pacific.  Together with his determined use of air-supply and innovative jungle box tactics, he comes over as the most gifted and complete commander in the Allied forces.  As his nickname shows, he was also very popular with his troops.  He was known as Uncle Bill, and this name gives a flavour of the quasi avuncular relationship he had with them.  Slim had the priceless quality of the common touch and of making himself trusted by his men.  One of them described how he seemed to have a force that came out of him. He had proved himself a master of logistics, a sound strategist, an innovative tactician, a wonderful motivator and leader. He was supreme in all the qualities that make an outstanding general.


Having achieved so much, Slim found that his Commanding Officer ALFSEA (Allied Land Forces in South East Asia), Oliver Leese, judged it right to replace him for the next campaign on the grounds that he must be exhausted after his monumental efforts in the reconquest of Burma.  In an aeroplane journey, Slim showed to fellow general Sir Richard Gale a dossier containing the campaign dispatches of his great victory with the comment, “You wouldn´t think they´d sack a chap for doing that, would you?”    By this time there were enough senior people who recognised this move for the blunder that it was, and for the second time in two years, Slim was promoted to replace the man who had sacked him.


At a dinner at Chequers, Churchill was personally assessing the character of the man who was recommended for the senior army command in Asia because he, Churchill, had once said that he could have no confidence in a man with a name like Slim. He orated long and lustily about his chances in the forthcoming General Election.  When Mrs Churchill pointed out that the ballot among members of the armed forces was uncertain.  Slim added, “Well, Prime Minister, I know one thing.  My army won´t be voting for you.”  Later Churchill said, “When a man cannot distinguish a great from a small event he is no use.  Now Slim is quite different.  I can work with him.”  Vinegar Joe Stilwell, the notoriously touchy Commander of US forces in China, agreed. He considered Slim the only Briton whom it was possible not to hate and collaborated willingly with him.


Slim became the first Commander of the Imperial Defence College after the war, and after his stint was over, he retired from the army and joined British Rail as their deputy chairman. He was on the verge of making enormous differences to the industrial relations scene.  His loss to British industry can only be guessed at and it was probably enormous. But after six months with BR, he was appointed in January, 1949 by Prime Minister Attlee to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff with the rank of Field Marshal.  Montgomery, just leaving the position, remonstrated with the Prime Minister.  Slim could not be appointed because Montgomery had already told General Crocker that he would succeed him as CIGS.  “Very well,” said Attlee.  “You´d better untell him.”


Slim´s appointment in December 1952 as Governor-General of Australia was eventually proved to be an inspired choice.  He had fought with the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli and he was able to forge a fine working partnership with Prime Minister Menzies.  I imagine that his gritty and determined appearance portrayed the kind of personality that Australians could warm to.  He and Aileen, Lady Slim, uprated the standard of the Governor General´s residence and also the prestige of the Queen´s personal representative in Australia to the extent that the Australians, happy with the two year extension to his appointment, were still sorry to see him go in 1959.   Whenever he flew into the outback, Slim would take buckets full of sweets for children who had few such luxuries and copies of papers and magazines for their parents.  His visits were understandably eagerly expected.  Further honour followed with appointment to the Order of the Garter and a Viscounty and the office of Constable of Windsor Castle in 1964.


After the war Slim became co-founder and first President of the Burma Star Association – this was his army family and he achieved so much in keeping it together in terms of memory and of support for the less fortunate.  I imagine that it must already have had its last meeting, but I can remember from my boyhood reports of its annual meetings in the Royal Albert Hall.


Slim´s personal qualities are legion.  He was prepared to sack people who did not do their work properly, but held the principle that you do not criticise in public those who have wronged you in private.  Nor do you blow your own trumpet, since your deeds speak for themselves.  You remain loyal to your wife, family and friends and particularly to the army.  He apparently had such a forceful presence that hardbitten and cynical soldiers served under him willingly and with respect.  Mountbatten visited Slim as he was on his deathbed and Aileen reports having heard them say to each other, “We did it together, old boy!”


The historian Max Hastings wrote as follows: In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him ... His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion.


My view of Lewin´s biography is that he manages to forge an emotional link between his readers and this famous man, which is an odd thing to say about a biography of an outstanding military commander. But in my view "the force coming out of him" was what made Slim so different and it was his ability to harness that force that made him successful. We emerge from reading the book in a state where we can begin to appreciate the force of Slim´s character and the way in which he earned the loyalty of his men.  In conveying this idea so convincingly, Lewin has written a very good book, one in which he succeeds in showing his own immense respect for this man.


It would be good if men like Bill Slim were in public life today.