Via: Fix Bayonets
Here is, perhaps, World War II’s greatest general, and hardly anyone today knows his name.
Field Marshal William Slim is best known for commanding Fourteenth Army in Burma during the Second World War (1939-45). In taking command, he inherited a disastrous situation in which, with practical skill and quiet charisma, he turned into victory.
Born in Bristol, England, in 1891, he was the son of John Slim and Charlotte Tucker. John’s vocation was that of an iron wholesaler. After completing his primary education at St. Bonaventure in Bristol, William enrolled at St. Brendan’s College to complete his secondary education until his father relocated the family to Birmingham. His family, only moderately middle class, could not afford to send more than one son to university, and that opportunity went to William’s older brother. After finishing his college work, William taught school and worked as a clerk at a company called Stewarts & Lloyds.
Despite his inability to attend university, Slim joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Birmingham in 1912. This decision led him to apply for an officer’s commission at the beginning of World War I (1914). The government offered him a temporary commission as Second Lieutenant and assigned him to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment of Foot in August. Given his middle-class upbringing and calm, unpretentious manner, many assumed that Slim had “come up through the ranks” to commissioned officer status.
In 1915, while serving at Gallipoli — an eleven-month battle that ended in defeat, Lieutenant Slim was severely wounded and required medical evacuation. Upon his recovery, in October 1916, Slim returned to his regiment, which was then serving in Mesopotamia. While serving as a temporary captain, he was wounded again in 1917 and evacuated to India. During his recovery, his earlier battlefield gallantry earned him the Military Cross, Britain’s third-highest medal for displaying courage under fire. After his return to full duty, the Army promoted him to temporary major and assigned him to the 6th Gurkha Rifles in November 1918. At the war’s end, he reverted to captain and joined the British-Indian Army in 1919. In 1921, he returned to the 6th Gurkha Rifles as a regimental adjutant.
In 1926, Captain William Slim married Aileen, the daughter of Rev. John Anderson Robertson of Edinburgh, Scotland. Eventually, the couple would raise a son and a daughter, but soon after their marriage, the Army ordered Slim to the Officer’s Staff College in Quetta.
In 1930, while serving as a staff officer, the Army promoted Slim to Brevet Major, advancing to substantial major three years later. In 1934, the Army assigned Slim as an instructor at the staff college in Camberley, England, where he taught through 1937. He afterward attended the Imperial Defense College, after which the Army promoted him to lieutenant colonel. After his promotion, he returned to the Gurkha Rifles, where he assumed command of the 2nd battalion, 7th Gurkha Regiment. In 1939, Slim advanced to regular colonel in the Indian Army, with a temporary promotion to Brigadier. In June, he was appointed to head the Senior Officers School in Belgaum, India.
Second World War
At the outbreak of World War II, the Army appointed Brigadier Slim to command the Tenth Indian Infantry Brigade of the 5th Indian Infantry Division. During the East African campaign, Slim led his brigade in Sudan — in operations intended to liberate Ethiopia from fascist Italians. While fighting near Eritrea, Slim received his third combat wound during an assault on enemy positions at Agordat.
Although successfully treated for his wound, his injury prevented him from additional field service, so the Army assigned him to the General Staff in Delhi, India. There, he performed operational planning and logistics duties in preparation for operations in Iraq. In May 1941, the Army promoted Slim to Brigadier General Staff. In the following month, Major General William Fraser, commanding the Indian Tenth Infantry Division, fell ill. Slim was appointed to take his place with the acting rank of major general.
General Slim led the Division as part of the British “Iraq Force” throughout the Syria-Lebanon campaign and the invasion of Persia. In 1941 alone, Slim was “mentioned in dispatches” twice.
In March 1942, Indian Army HQ promoted Slim to temporary lieutenant general and assigned him command of the Burma Corps — which included the 17th Indian Infantry Division and 1st Burma Infantry Division. At the time, the Corps was under heavy assault from the Imperial Japanese Army and found wanting in battlefield mobility and military technology. Initially, Slim had no choice but to withdraw the force from Burma into India, where he would refit and retrain for subsequent action. During this period, Slim took command of the XV Corps of the Eastern Army, responsible for the coastal approaches from Burma to India east of Chittagong.
Soon after, Slim had a substantial difference of opinion with his senior officer, General Noel Irwin, Commander of the Eastern Army. In essence, relieving Slim of his command, Irwin took personal charge of the XV Corps’ advance into the Arakan Peninsula, which ended in a complete disaster for the British forces. Higher headquarters restored Slim to his command and removed Irwin from his. At this time, the British HQ decided to reshape the Burma Force.
The newly created Fourteenth Army included IV Corps (United Kingdom), XV Corps (Arakan), and XXXIII Corps (Reserve Force), and General Slim assumed command in January 1943. According to the analysis of two American historians, General Slim was a hardened field officer whose skill in training and troop leading was unsurpassed in the East Asian theater. He had a solid grasp of soldiering in a jungle environment and knew his enemy well enough to defeat him. Beyond his professional skills, Slim was judged as an introspective officer honest enough to anticipate inadequacies and fix them before they became debilitating problems.
One of his best moves as the Fourteenth Army commander was his decision to build the Division around his Gurkha Rifles division, as there could be no better example of combat readiness and aggressiveness than the Gurkhas.
Slim quickly got on with training his new Army to take the fight to the enemy. The General’s basic premise was that off-road mobility was his biggest challenge. Realizing that he could not rely on heavy equipment in low-lying marshy areas or thick jungles, he exchanged land-based equipment for mules and air transportation. Slim kept the number of motorized vehicles to a bare minimum.
To facilitate combat resupply of forward units, General Slim revised his force operational template so that each unit operating on the forward edge of the battle area did so within an imaginary rectangular area. Within these areas, Slim’s aerial logistics effort could drop supplies with reduced chances of air-dropping rations, munitions, petroleum, or equipment into the enemy’s hands. These rectangular operating areas (tactical areas of responsibility (TAOR)) would also help to isolate the enemy should the Japanese attempt to cut the Army’s lines of communication. It was also effective against the Japanese-favored infiltration strategy.
Additionally, General Slim increased offensive patrolling, night-time operations, and low-altitude air insertion. He also taught the men to hold positions whenever the Japanese attempted to outflank Allied movements. In time, Slim’s troops overcame their belief that the Japanese were a superior army and their fear of the jungle.
The Chin Hills region formed a natural defensive barrier to Burma. General Slim would have preferred to avoid this area, if possible. Ideally, he would have preferred to conduct an amphibious landing further down the Burmese coast, but since there were no amphibious ready groups available, Slim had no choice but to make an overland thrust into Burma.
Complicating General Slim’s offensive planning was that his enemy, the Japanese 15th Army, had grown from four divisions at the beginning of 1943 to eight divisions before the year’s end. Also, by the end of 1943, the Japanese had completed their Burma Railway, allowing the Japanese to quickly reinforce their Burmese area army.
As Slim began training his men for the rigors of jungle warfare, he clashed with British Brigadier Orde Wingate, who took away some of Slim’s best-trained Gurkha, British, and African field units for his Chindit commando group. Wingate’s argument was sound, however, especially given his task of creating a commando force that, once inserted by air, could not be quickly withdrawn.
Eventually, Slim approved Wingate’s plan to aid and employ the Burmese hill tribes against the Japanese. Because of the suffering imposed on the Burmese people by the Japanese forces, most of these tribal groups remained loyal to the British. By using the hill tribes against the Japanese, the 15th Army would have to divert troops away from Slim’s Army to deal with them.
During the Second Arakan Offensive in January 1944, Japanese forces quickly surrounded the Indian 7th Infantry Division, along with parts of the 5th Indian Division and 81st West African Infantry Division. The 7th Division based its defense on what was then called the “administrative box,” a defense formed mainly of logistical and administrative personnel (supply, clerical, cooks, mechanics, etc.). It was an effective strategy for “holding the line” against counter-attacking Japanese, but it did not allow the 7th Division commander to push through his assault on the Japanese opposition.
At the start of 1944, William Slim held the official rank of colonel with a war-time rank of major-general and the temporary rank of lieutenant general, an appropriate rank for commanding a field army.
Just after the new year, Japanese Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo approved a plan for victory in Asia, calling it Operation U-Go and code-naming the invasion of India Operation Ichi-Go, intending to defeat China once and for all through its back door. These two operations (in India and China) were closely linked because American air forces regularly flew supplies over the Himalayan Mountains to China. For this reason, the Japanese wanted to close American air bases in India. South Asia and Southeast Asia were so important to the Japanese that they dedicated two million troops to these operations.
Japan’s senior Burma-Area officer, General Renya Mutaguchi, launched his invasion of India on 12 March 1944, boasting that it was Japan’s road to Delhi. General Slim knew of Mutaguchi’s attack plan from early March through the efforts of signal intelligence, but there was nothing Slim could do about it but to meet it head-on with what he had. Given Slim’s force levels, he could not invade Burma and defend against Mutaguchi simultaneously. The principle of economy of force strongly suggested that Slim’s best course of action was to fight a defensive strategy.
By fighting the Japanese from defensive positions, Slim would require the Mutaguchi to expend his human resources while preserving his own. Slim’s advantage in defense was his superior tank, well-developed logistical system, and air power. General Slim reasoned that he could proceed with his invasion plan after he had destroyed Mutaguchi’s combat force.
What caught Slim unaware was the rapidity of General Mutaguchi’s movement over Burma’s muddy and washed-out roads into India. The situation forced General Slim to disengage the Japanese at Arakan, move two entire divisions to the north, and re-engage the Japanese defensively at the new location. He could not have accomplished this without the exceptional support of the R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.C. that relocated these combat forces, resupplied them, evacuated the wounded and dead from the battlefield, and flew combat sorties against Mutaguchi’s forces.
What made General Slim stand out from other British commanders was his devotion to his men — and the degree to which his men reciprocated. General Slim ordered his men to hold their ground, forbade any retreat, and kept them informed about the battleground’s true nature. Slim’s troops trusted his judgment and his word. No one retreated.
(To be Continued…)
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Worrall, S. How Burmese Elephants Helped Defeat the Japanese in World War II. National Geographic Magazine online, 28 September 2014.
 Between 1934 – 1937, Slim wrote short stories and novels under the pen name Anthony Mills. Writing supplemented his meager income as a military officer.
 In the British forces, the term mentioned in dispatches means that a serviceman’s performance in battle was such that it deserved special mention to higher headquarters. It usually reflects well on an individual’s gallantry or courage in combat.
 The Japanese achieved the construction of the Burma Railway through the labors of thousands of Allied prisoners of War — a story fictionalized in a novel by Pierre Boulle and a film by David Lean starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins titled Bridge over the River Kwai.
 These hill people numbered around 7 million of Burma’s 17 million total population.
 Launched in early March 1944, the operation was directed against British forces in the northeast Indian regions of Manipur and the Naga Hills (then part of Assam) but targeting the Brahmaputra Valley.
 Translated, “Operation Number One” involved a series of campaigns between Japan and the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China (fought between April – December 1944, targeting Henan, Hunan, and Guangxi, China.
 The Japanese knew that they lacked the logistical capability to sustain an invasion of India, so one of their assumptions was that the British Fourteenth Army would collapse, allowing the Japanese 15th Army to capture enough food to prevent its men from starving to death. By enlisting the support of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, the Japanese expected the British Indian Army to mutiny, kill all of its British officers, and lay down their arms to a superior Japanese race — in this way, Japan could conquer all of India.
 Scholars characterize Renya Mutaguchi as a reckless eccentric and certified fanatic. His stubborn decision to limit his troops to twenty days of rations over a four-month-long campaign resulted in the starvation death of 55,000 of his 90,000-man Imperial Army. Further note: Of Japan’s 5.5 million men serving in uniform during World War II, roughly 2 million served in the region of Indochina.
 Carl von Clausewitz developed nine principles of war. One of those was the economy of force: employing all available combat power in the most effective way possible, in an attempt to allocate a minimum of essential combat power to and secondary effort.