If someone were to select the most forgotten and God-forsaken theater of the Second World War, he would unhesitatingly point to the Burmese theater, assuming he even knew it existed. In this obscure country, hard-pressed and dreadfully neglected British forces fought a tenacious campaign against the Japanese that deserves to be far better known. The general who led the fighting there must rank as one of the least appreciated commanders of the war: William Slim.
The problems started all the way at the top. London had higher priorities than trying to hold onto a distant gateway to India. And for some unknown reason, Prime Minister Churchill took a strong disliking to General Slim. The reason may have had something to do with the fact that Slim hated the game of politics and flattery; this would place him at a disadvantage with other generals, such as Montgomery, who were more scheming and politically astute.
Churchill would even remark in 1944 that “I cannot believe that a man with a name like Slim can be any good.” This was absurd, of course, but it gives us an idea of the mentality that Slim faced from his superiors.
In the early years of the war, the Japanese had made stunning advances all over Southeast Asia. They seemed poised to invade India, and in fact had contemplated doing so. The British strategy was to prevent this from happening, and at some point take the offensive to push the enemy out of the region completely. The Americans, who had a say in such matters, also wished to establish overland communications with the Chinese Nationalist Forces under Chiang Kai-Shek along the Burma Road.
But this was easier said than done. The British never had enough men or materiel, and frequently had to make do with inferior grades of everything. The first few years of the 1940s brought nothing but disaster for British forces nearly everywhere in Asia. In desperation, the High Command brought in a maverick and an outsider.
William “Bill” Slim had already served for many years in the armed forces. He had seen action in the First World War with Anzac forces in Gallipoli, and in the early war years he was stationed in the Middle East and Africa. He was not the typical general. In the 1930s he had published novels and short stories, a fact that displayed an independent streak.
In 1942 Slim was sent to Burma. He had secured a reputation for himself as a soldier’s general, a man of blunt, direct manner who was also willing to listen to nearly anyone. He was not encumbered with arrogance or false pride, and would accept help from whatever quarter it came.
Initial engagements in Burma were a disaster for the British. Slim’s war memoirs, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan In Burma And India, 1942-1945, discuss the reasons for this in detail. His book is a great rarity among military memoirs for its honesty, self-effacing humor, and willingness to admit mistakes. There is none of the bombast or self-aggrandizement that mar the works of other generals of the conflict.
Things were so bad in Burma that Slim was often forced to appoint people to be officers on the spot. He explains:
There was no time for training, nor was it practicable to submit their names through the usual channels and await their publication in the Gazette of India. We needed them now. So my divisional commanders and I told them they were officers and allotted them temporary [brevet] ranks, second-lieutenant, lieutenant, or even captain, as we thought suited to their age and standing.
Such was our poverty of resources that we were hard put to it to provide them with rank badges. One of the young men himself solved this problem by producing his black evening socks–which he was not likely to require for some time–and cutting small squares out of them, which, sewn on his shoulder-straps, adequately represented his new status.
Even with such scrounging and improvising, things were at rock-bottom. Slim’s honest assessment of his army’s weaknesses was a major factor in his later success: by identifying the real problems, he could take specific action to correct them. Results were what mattered, not pride.
As Slim saw it, these were his major obstacles:
Intelligence was terrible.
It was almost impossible to take Japanese alive as prisoners. There were no units or civilians that Slim’s men were in contact with that were behind enemy lines. As Slim so eloquently put it, “We were like a blind boxer trying to strike an unseen opponent and to parry blows we did not know were coming until they hit us. It was a nasty feeling.”
Training was totally inadequate.
Slim observed that the Japanese were able to move much more easily through the jungle than Western soldiers. This was because he traveled light, and got off the roads. British and US forces were reluctant to leave their vehicles for any reason, and this made them less mobile.
Disease and desertions had decimated the army.
This reality affected all belligerents. Nearly everyone had malaria or some tropical disease. A good part of Slim’s forces were Indian, and he noted that they had three loyalties: to their region, their religion, and to their military unit. It was not easy to prevent men from deserting when bad news from home arrived.
Morale for everyone was at rock bottom. The loss of Singapore and Rangoon, combined with stories of Japanese prowess in the jungle, combined to create a cloud of despair over his army. Unless Slim did something to combat this, it would prove to be fatally corrosive.
The locals were not friendly.
While the hill tribes were generally friendly to the Allies, the “Burmese of the plains” (as Slim put it) was not. Some of them actively collaborated with the Japanese.
These, then, were some of the obstacles that newly arrived general William Slim faced in Burma. In future articles, we will examine how he overcame these challenges, brought his force into fighting conditions, and forced himself forward to ultimate victory.
(To learn more about how great men have overcome challenges and obstacles, take a look at my book Pathways.)