In 1942, military forces of the Empire of Japan entered Burma and expelled the British from the country. It was one of many disasters of the war’s early years. At the time, few believed that Allied forces in Burma would be able to reconstitute themselves.
Sir William Slim, who would later prove himself Britain’s most capable general, was brutally candid in describing the reasons for the defeat. His memoirs, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945, do not mince words; his book belongs on the that very short list of truly honest military recollections. Slim even goes so far as to excoriate himself.
His comments on the British defeat in Burma are so compelling that they are worth quoting in full. I will do so below, in the hope that they teach us some vital lessons. Defeats will happen. They are unavoidable. They will be painful and destructive, but if we can set aside our pride and feelings of loss, we can learn what we need to learn in order to continue the fight.
Slim begins with a general discussion of his army’s flawed tactics and thinking:
I had now an opportunity for a few days to sit down and think out what had happened during the last crowded months and why it had happened. The outstanding and incontrovertible fact was that we had taken a thorough beating. We, the Allies, had been outmanoeuvred, outfought, and outgeneralled…
It was easy, of course, as it always is, to find excuses for our failure, but excuses are no use for next time; what is wanted are causes and remedies…
To our men, British or Indian, the jungle was a strange, fearsome place; moving and fighting in it was a nightmare. We were too ready to classify jungle as “impenetrable,” as it was to us with our motor transport, bulky supplies, and inexperience. To us it appeared only as an obstacle to movement and to vision; to the Japanese it was a welcome means of concealed manoeuvre and surprise.
The Japanese used formations specially trained and equipped for a country of jungle and rivers, while we used troops whose training and equipment, as far as they had been completed, were for open desert.
The Japanese reaped the reward of their foresight and thorough preparation; we paid the penalty for our lack of both.
To me, thinking it all over, the most distressing aspect of the whole disastrous campaign had been the contrast between our generalship and the enemy’s. The Japanese leadership was confident, bold to the point of foolhardiness, and so aggressive that never for one day did they lose the initiative…Their object, clear and definite, was the destruction of our forces; ours a rather nebulous idea of retaining territory. This led to the initial dispersion of our forces over wide areas, and error which we continued to commit, and worse still, it led to a defensive attitude of mind…
Tactically we had been completely outclassed…
And here, General Slim reveals his thoughts as almost no general today ever would:
For myself, I had little to be proud of; I could not rate my generalship high. The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted.
Time and again I had tried to pass to the offensive and to regain the initiative and every time I had seen my house of cards fall down as I tried to add to its crowning-storey.
I had not realized how the Japanese, formidable as long as they are allowed to follow undisturbed their daring projects, are thrown into confusion by the unexpected…Thus I might have risked disaster, but I was more likely to have achieved success. When in doubt about two courses of action, a general should choose the bolder. I reproached myself now that I had not.
In preparation, in execution, in strategy, and in tactics we had been worsted, and we had paid the penalty–defeat. Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it…
He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. “Here,” he will think, “I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.”…
He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn in upon himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.
And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets, and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these attacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.
These are stirring words, never equaled in the catalog of military memoirs. Slim would slowly rebuild his forces, methodically and determinedly, and then strike back at the enemy in force. It would become the greatest feat of British arms in Asia during the entire war.