Field Marshall William Slim – “Defeat Into Victory”

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Slim’s 550-page epic details his experiences leading British and Indian troops in Burma from 1942-1945. Whereas many memoirs by generals focus on themselves, Slim details the campaign overall in minute detail, rarely compliments himself, and lavishes praise on his troops. It is an incredible look into a complete military campaign.

Things start out in 1942 with “The Retreat” as the British are routed from Rangoon and Burma, all the way back into India. Burma Corps arrives back in India in shambles – men barely alive, carrying only their personal weapons, having force-marched out of some of the most hostile terrain on the planet as the Monsoons began to descend on the region. Morale and fighting spirit was nil as the Japanese forces embraced the jungle and moved fluidly through it, whereas the British-led troops were road-bound.

Finally given a chance to regroup, Slim rebuilt his army. Not only in organization, but also in tactics and techniques. The trained for jungle warfare and became as swift in navigating it as the Japanese. They learned how to patrol and no longer fear being isolated. The travelled light and kept the engineering formations close to the front – building roads right behind the battle-lines to keep supplies flowing.

His divisions were later converted to 2 mechanized and 1 air-transportable brigade. The air-mobile brigades had their heavy equipment modified to fit into C-47’s. His use of air mobility was inspired. When an airfield was captured, an air-landing brigade was flown in to take over the sector while the mechanized formations advanced on. At one point he used glider troops to seize open parts of the jungle, and then carve out airstrips there to fly in full brigades and even support fighter operations.

His use of timing, deception, tempo, and the mechanics of warfare are as good as you’ll read anywhere. On top of which, he understood and describes the essence of leadership in the field. His division and brigade commanders were left to run their units without interference – and they got results. Troops were always in-the-know about the big picture – everyone felt involved – everyone felt important.

Some of the things the Japanese did – both good and bad – were new knowledge to me. Many of these aspects of the campaign are echoed in more recent conflicts in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But Slim understood his enemy at all levels. He understood the tenacity of the Japanese soldier in defense, their bravery on offense, and their savage treatment of prisoners and occupied populations. He also understood that the Japanese would plan with the assumption of capturing supplies, and responded poorly when plans went wrong. For instance, to meet an unexpected bridge-head over a river they’d throw formations at it piecemeal instead of waiting to mass for an attack. Slim used the Japanese’s boldness against them – knowing that if he just delayed them and denied them capture of key supply dumps, their supplies would run out and they could be attacked.

Given the relatively small number of troops and limited supplies allotted to his forces, what Slim accomplished was amazing. Also how he did it. Using innovative ways to bring troops and supplies to the front and reshaping an army trained for warfare in Europe or North Africa to fight in dense jungles. He used mechanized, air-landing, paratroops, Gurkhas, marines, long-range patrols, tanks, and militias behind the lines. When they ran out of silk parachutes to air-drop supplies, he had more constructed out of jute fibers. They built their own personal navy and landing ships out of local resources when the Royal Navy had none to spare. Their resourcefulness was as remarkable as their tactics.

At the end, it is clear that Slim took the atrocities committed by the Japanese personally. He demanded that surrendering officers to also surrender their swords, and do so in front of their troops. Even though MacArthur issued orders forbidding this, Slim insisted. He felt it was important for the Japanese troops to realize that they had been defeated.

If you are a military history buff, this is a must-read. It’s a little slow and depressing at the start when things are going bad, but things really accelerate once the Brits switch over to the offense. Throughout there are lessons on the Art of Command as well as just basic soldiering that are lacking in many memoirs.