Personal Stories

General Sir William Slim's Biography

General Sir William Slim's Biography


Frank Owen



Personal Stories

by Frank Owen

Field Marshall Viscount Slim was referred to by Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten, who was Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia, as "the finest general World War II produced". After the war he was head of the Imperial General Staff, Britain’s top military post, from 1948 to 1952, and was governor general of Australia from 1952 to 1960. This article is reprinted from a 1945 issue of Phoenix. the South East Asia Command magazine.

The General stood on an ammunition box. Facing him in a green amphitheatre of the low hills that ring Palel Plain, sat or squatted the British officers and sergeants of the 11th East African Division. They were then new to the Burma Front and were moving into the line the next day. The General removed his battered slouch hat, which the Gurkhas wear and which has become the headgear of the 14th Army. "Take a good look at my mug," he advised. "Not that I consider it to be an oil painting. But I am the Army Commander and you had better be able to recognize me - if only to say "Look out, the old b . . . . is coming round".

Lieutenant-General Sir William Slim, KCB, CB, DSO, MC ("Bill") is 53, burly, grey and going a bit bald. His mug is large and weatherbeaten, with a broad nose, jutting jaw, and twinkling hazel eyes. He looks like a well-to-do West Country farmer, and could be one. For he has energy and patience and, above all, the man has common sense. However, so far Slim has not farmed. He started life as a junior clerk, once he was a school teacher, and then he became the foreman of a testing gang in a Midland engineering works. For the next 30 years Slim was a soldier.

He began at the bottom of the ladder as a Territorial private. August 4, 1914, found him at Summer camp with his regiment. The Territorials were at once embodied in the Regular Army, and Slim got his first stripe as lance-corporal. A few weeks later he was a private again, the only demotion that this Lieutenant-General has suffered.

It was a sweltering, dusty day and the regiment plodded on its twenty-mile route march down an endless Yorkshire lane. At that time British troops still marched in fours, so that Lance-Corporal Slim, as he swung along by the side of his men, made the fifth in the file, which brought him very close to the roadside. There were cottages there and an old lady stood at the garden gate.

"I can see her yet," Slim reminisces. "she was a beautiful old lady with her hair neatly parted in the middle and wearing a black print dress. In her hand she held a beautiful jug, and on the top of that jug was a beautiful foam, indicating that it contained beer. She was offering it to the soldier boys."

The Lance-Corporal took one pace to the side and grasped the jug. As he did, the column was halted with a roar. The Colonel, who rode a horse at its head, had glanced back. Slim was hailed before him and "busted" on the spot. The Colonel bellowed "Had we been in France you would have been shot." Slim confides, "I thought he was a damned old fool - and he was. I lost my stripe, but he lost his army." In truth he did, in France in March 1918. Bill soon got his stripe back.

Now in this corner of Palel Plain, one of India’s bloodiest battlefields and the scene of one of his greatest victories, Slim tells the officers and men of the 11th Division, "I have commanded every kind of formation from a section upwards to this army, which happens to be the largest single one in the world." (At that time, Slim had under his command half a million troops.) "I tell you this simply that you shall realize I know what I am talking about. I understand the British soldier because I have been one, and I have learned about the Japanese soldier because I have been beaten by him. I have been kicked by this enemy in the place where it hurts, and all the way from Rangoon to India where I had to dust-off my pants. Now, gentlemen, we are kicking our Japanese neighbors back to Rangoon."

Slim commanded the rearguard of the army that retreated from Burma in 1942. He is proud of that. His men marched and fought for a hundred days and nights and across a thousand miles. But this retreat was no Dunkirk. Says Slim "We brought our weapons out with us, and we carried our wounded, too. Dog-tired soldiers, hardly able to put one foot in front of another, would stagger along for hours carrying or holding up a wounded comrade. When at last they reached India over those terrible jungle mountains they did not go back to an island fortress and to their own people where they could rest and refit. The Army of Burma sank down on the frontier of India, dead beat and in rags. But, they fought here all through the downpour of the monsoon, and they saved India until a great new Army - which is this one - could be built up to take the offensive once again. In those days, if anyone had gone to me with a single piece of good news I would have burst out crying. Nobody ever did."

He tells another story. One day he entered a jungle glade in a tank. In front of him stood a group of soldiers, in their midst the eternal Tommy. Assuming an optimism which he did not feel, Slim jumped out of the tank and approached them. "Gentlemen!" he said (which is the nice way that British generals sometimes address their troops) "Things might be worse!"

"‘Ow could they be worse?" inquired the Tommy.

"Well, it could rain" said Slim, lightly. He adds "And within quarter of an hour it did."

The General who had been fighting the Japanese for more than three years tells this young division what the enemy soldier is like, and how to beat him. He dissects the anatomy of the Japanese Army, its strategy, tactics, and supply. He explains its strength and puts a sure finger on its weakness. He analyses, also, the British soldier. "Of course, at root he is no better than any other soldier. 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 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."

Officers are there to lead

Then Slim relates at one critical point in the retreat in a jungle clearing he came across a unit which was in a bad way. "I took one look at them and thought "My God, they’re worse than I supposed." then I saw why. I walked round the corner of that clearing and I saw officers making themselves a bivouac. They were just as exhausted as their men, but that isn’t my point. Officers are there to lead. I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you."

The General stepped down from the ammunition box and replaced his hat. The division rose as one man, and cheered him. A few weeks later, these troops were to cross the frontier river at the point Slim had led his indomitable, ragged rearguard three years before. They dug up the tank guns which the old army had buried there when they abandoned their tanks, and they used those guns to blast open the road to Mandalay.

The spirit which Slim breathed into that division, on that blue, sunny morning in Palel inspires the whole of the 14th Army. His victorious host has now marched back a thousand miles, planted its battle flags on the citadel of Manadalay and above the capitol city of Rangoon, killing 100,00 Japanese on the way. Their achievement must be attributed in large degree to the character of their Commander. Slim does not court popularity, and he hates publicity. But he inspires trust. The man cares deeply for his troops, and they are well aware that their well-being is his permanent priority. The 14th Army has never been out of his mind since that day nearly two years ago when Mountbatten appointed him to the command. Of the Mountbatten-Slim partnership history will record that it was one of the rock foundations of our Jungle Victory.

Slim talks little and swears less, but one day at Army Headquarters the roof lifted when he received a demand that mules should be installed in concrete floor stables in a training camp, well in the rear. "My men are sleeping on earth, and often on something worse. What’s good enough for British soldiers is good enough for mules of any nationality." Slim set his Army hard tasks, but none have been beyond their power. After the great battles of Imphal and Kohima, where five Japanese divisions were destroyed, Slim called on his exhausted soldiers to carry on relentless, final pursuit. "So great were the dividends that could accrue," he confesses, "that I asked for the impossible - and got it!"

Slim affirms "that the fighting capacity of every unit is based upon the faith of soldiers in their leaders; that discipline begins with the officer and spreads downward from him to the soldier; that genuine comradeship in arms is achieved when all ranks do more than is required of them. "There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers," is what Napoleon said, and though that great man uttered some foolish phrases, this is not one."

"What has a soldier got? asks Slim, and answers it himself. "He has got his country, but that is far away. In battle, the soldier has only his sense of duty, and his sense of shame. These are the things which make men go on fighting even though terror grips their heart. Every soldier, therefore, must be instilled with pride in his unit and in himself, and to do this he must be treated with justice and respect."

Slim says that when he was in civvie street he saw men who were fathers of families cringing before a deputy-assistant-under-manager who had the power to throw them out of their jobs without any other reason than their own ill-temper or personal dislike. "That, at any rate, can’t happen in the Army," he declares. "You don’t have to cringe in the Army, though it’s true some incorrigible cringers do. In the Army you don’t have to go out to dinner with a man if you can’t stand the sight of him."

This soldier looks at the poor Indian coolie, and he feels and expresses a sincere pity for him. He would like to give that fellow a square meal and after that a square deal, but above all to create in him the manhood to stand up and get it for himself. "You see people pushing these poor Indian coolies around," he says grimly, "Well, they wouldn’t push around the fighting soldiers of the Indian Army. Nobody would shove them off the pavement without getting hurt."

A soldier "by mistake"

Slim’s military career was accidental. He fought as an officer in the Royal Warwicks at the Dardanelles, where he was severely wounded leading his company. He was discharged from the Army as being unfit for further service, but by some undivulged method he reappeared in the battle line in Mespotamia a year later. There he gained his Military Cross for gallantry in action. When the war ended it was by a toss of the coin that he decided to remain in the Army. He wanted to be a journalist. He thinks it is harder to be a good journalist than to be a good general.

It seems probable, however, that Slim is both, for the 14th Army know that he writes either poems, short stories or Who-Dun-It murder serials. The latter bet is the favourite, for the general is a great reader of murder thrillers. They take his mind off the war. Slim writes under a pseudonym, though nobody has ever been able to discover which one. Questioned, he answers with a grin that he agrees with Dr. Johnson’s remark, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

For 20 years between the wars he was a Gurkha officer, as so many of the 14th Army’s fighting generals were. Indeed, for a time, they were known on the front as the "Mongol Conspiracy." Slim loves the Gurkhas, whose language he speaks. His favourite stories are of Gurkhas. He tells of the paratroopers who were to jump at 300 feet. As they had never jumped before, their havildar asked if they might go a little nearer the ground for their first jump. He was told that this was impossible because the parachutes would not have time to open. "Oh," said the Gurkha, "so we get parachutes, eh?"

One day at Delhi under the walls of the Red Fort drums beat, Punjabi pipes skirled and the flags fluttered proudly from the mast-head. A great body of troops was on parade and the Viceroy had come to present Victoria Crosses to four Gurkhas - or to their widows. One of these Gurkha heroes had no widow, so his father trudged to Delhi from the far State of Nepal in the northern mountains where the Gurkhas live, to receive his dead son’s supreme honour.

This Gurkha was himself a veteran of Slim’s old regiment, and promptly on meeting his old comrades he had got himself full of rum. He could hardly stand up when Slim ran him to earth. "Be a good soldier, Johnny" Slim urged him. "Don’t get dead drunk before the big show tomorrow." The Gurkha promised, but to make the matter secure the general had him locked up for the night. Somebody thought it would be a good idea if he ate a few mints, and put a large bottle of these in his cell. Morning came, and the Gurkha had recovered. Also he had swallowed every mint in a faithful effort to do the right thing.

Slim says "I’m not sure the rum didn’t smell sweeter. However, the old Gurkha proudly paraded and was awarded his boy’s Victoria Cross by the Viceroy. Half an hour after the show was over he was chock full of rum again."

Favourite of Slim’s tales of these wonderful little fighters from the Himalayas is that of the Gurkha who met a Japanese in No Man’s Land. Jap and Gurkha decided to have it out in a duel, each using his own chosen steel. The Jap swiped at his opponent with his two handed sword, which the Gurkha avoided. Then, the Gurkha slashed with his kukri, the broad, curved knife which is his traditional weapon. "So, you missed, eh?" jeered the Jap. "You just sneeze," said the Gurkha, "and see what happens to your head."

"I want to keep a few friends"

Slim has an animosity towards the Japanese based on an intense dislike of all their society stands for. "The Jap is not an animal," he says, "there is nothing splendid in him. He is part of an insect horde with all its power and horror." Slim also dislikes airplanes, and cats, which he believes give him asthma. (But he is perhaps the most air-minded, and certainly one of the most air-using generals in the British Army. His light aircraft takes him everywhere through fire and storm and darkness over his vast jungle front.) He is a modest man. He does not consider himself to be a Napoleon. "A general’s job is simply to make fewer mistakes than the other fellow. I try hard not to make too many mistakes." Asked why he would not project his own personality upon the 14th Army in the flamboyant way that some modern generals have practiced, Slim replied briefly, "I want to keep a few friends in the Army after the war. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to shout the odds about the Fourteenth. Its own deeds will surely get its glory."

The fact is that Slim is a commander of superb perception and foresight. He backed Wingate at the time when that romantic and now almost legendary figure was very far from being accepted in official quarters. With Mountbatten, Slim saw that in Wingate’s theory of having no line of communication winding along the jungle path and of bringing in supplies instead through the roof of the sky, lay the real key to mobility in the Jungle War.

Of Wingate himself he wrote in a penetrating tribute when he had been killed. "He was truly dynamic. When Wingate was around, something had to shift." On Wingate’s experimental raids which set down columns of troops far in the Japanese rear, Slim built up a technique of air-land supply which has revolutionized the campaign in Burma, enabling whole armies to march through trackless terrain entirely provisioned and munitioned by aircraft. On this pattern, Slim has won his victories. It will be the model of future wars wherever vast spaces pose the problem of logistics, which is the science of moving and supplying armies.

Slim talks in a frank, direct manner and with insight into men’s motives. Though his personal attractiveness and transparent honesty of purpose induces goodwill, it is probable that he never unburdened his heart to any man on earth. That belongs only to his beautiful wife.

Probably the central pillars in this rock-like character are his own determined honesty and a loathing of humbug in any shape. In the decisive battles of Imphal and Kohima (1944) Slim deliberately chose to let the Japanese cross the frontier and invade Imphal plain. Thus, the enemy would be fighting at the end of a long and tenuous line of communication across mountain jungle and with a flooded river at his back; nor did he possess an air supply such as ours. In the plain itself Slim had massed artillery, armour, and infantry to receive the invaders. He had stocked it up with food and ammunition, flown out 30,000 non-combatants and flown in 30,000 combat troops, a decisive item which the Mountbatten-Slim firm insisted on in face of every difficulty. Slim ordered his outpost divisions also to concentrate there for the coming battle.

He won a smashing victory. But in a factual memoir of the campaign he pointed out himself that he had made two mistakes. (1) He recalled his forward troops rather late, so that they had to fight their way in. (2) He miscalculated both the speed and strength of the Japanese attack on Kohima. Neither error was fatal to his main strategical plan, and in both cases was covered by the hard-fighting quality of his troops. One of his officers asked, therefore, "Why bring these things up?" Slim replied, "Because that is the truth, and the men who fought there know it."

He demands of his officers absolute loyalty to the Army and duty. Placed himself in difficult or painful circumstances, he has faithfully asked not what is smart or expedient, but what is right? And, then, he has it done without flinching, and without regret. He applies only one test to those who serve the 14th Army and that is: does this man do his job? If so, he is OK with the general, whether he likes him or not. If the man does not do his job, he goes!

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