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Slim gets the recognition he deserves (no thanks to the BBC)

I’ve been dipping into a book called Churchill’s Generals, which was published in 1991, having been edited by the redoubtable John Keegan. I’m now reading the piece by Duncan Anderson about Field Marshall Slim. During the retreat from Burma in 1942, Slim did very well, no thanks to his superior, the nice but dim, and rattled and incoherent, Alexander.

Alexander’s responsibility as army commander now lay in maintaining the efficient functioning of the rear areas for as long as possible, supervising an orderly withdrawal, and ensuring the successful demolition of access routes. It was Slim’s task to keep the frontline forces intact and conduct rearguard operations. The conduct of these two aspects of the retreat is instructive. The rear areas rapidly fell apart, the administrative troops degenerating into bands of pillaging brigands. Confusion reigned supreme. Major Michael Calvert waited for days for Alexander’s order to demolish a vital railway bridge – an order which never came. Conversely, Major Tony Mains, acting under Alexander’s explicit orders, destroyed a stockpile of fuel outside Mandalay which was almost essential for the successful withdrawal of Slim’s 7 Armoured Brigade. Years later Slim had still not forgiven the unfortunate Mains.

The retreat of the frontline forces, however, proceeded with almost clockwork precision. A brilliant rearguard action at Kyaukse delayed the Japanese, and at Monywa and Shwegyin, Slim extricated his forces from near disaster with considerable skill. Once contact was broken with the Japanese at Shwegyin, the retreat became as much a race against the monsoon as against the advancing Japanese. Slim marched back with his exhausted and now disease-ridden columns up the Kebaw Valley to the relative safety of Tamu on the India – Burma border. Thin and ragged as they were, they still carried their weapons like soldiers.

By rights, Slim’s conduct of the two-month retreat should have earned him recognition in the highest quarters as a general of first-rate ability. Yet in the event it was Alexander as army commander whom the waiting press men interviewed, Alexander who was the hero of A Million Died [the first book written about the Burma campaign, published in 1943], Alexander whom the BBC extolled as ‘a bold and resourceful commander, [who] has fought one of the great defensive battles of the war’. Stilwell knew better. He had seen both generals under stress and knew that ‘good old Slim’ rather than ‘Alex [who] has the wind up’ was the real hero of the piece. ‘Vinegar Joe’ lived up to his name in his acerbic dismissal of Alexander’s BBC publicity as ‘crap’.

What? Biased BBC, in 1942? Yes. In those days the BBC was biased in favour of a previous, more aristocratic sort of establishment, the sort personified by Alexander, and then only being challenged by likes of the strictly meritocratic Slim, whose father was a Birmingham ironmonger.

Slim eventually got the recognition he deserved. His ‘forgotten army’ is not forgotten now, by anyone who knows much of the British military effort in World War Two.

General Slim

A statue of Slim stands, eccentrically but proudly, outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, alongside Montgomery and Alanbrooke, no less.

Alexander is nowhere to be seen. Is there a statue of him in London, anywhere? There must be, but where?

18 comments to Slim gets the recognition he deserves (no thanks to the BBC)

  • The Wobbly Guy

    John Keegan again shows why he’s one of the best miltary historians in the world. I always enjoy his books when I can find them.

  • I am surprised to find this kind of glorification of war on a ‘libertarian’ website. Surely wars and armies are the worst examples of the individual being forcibly conformed to the collective will. Unquestioning obedience, and ‘my country right or wrong’ hardly epitomize libertarian values.

  • Pete

    Well done Brian – Slim stands as one of the finest generals this country has ever had and deserves to be recognised as such. His campaign is used in Sandhurst and other military academies around the world as a model of achievement and army officers, old and new, rank him among the very highest. A true unsung hero, and by all accounts a remarkable, modest and likeable man.

    Keegan, Beevor and Lyn Macdonald: It’s generally worth reading anything they’ve written, IMHO.

  • Paul Marks

    Actually there were lots of leftists in the B.B.C. even in 1942.

    More interestingly the behaviour of some of the British officers in Burma indicates a problem with the British army – the failure to adopt what the Germans called “Mission Command” (“acting on your own….” does not really cover what this means).

    At least in the early part of World War II (less so later on) German officers were given general objectives by their superiors and allowed, as the man on the spot, to decide on the means to achieve those objectives.

    That the commander of the whole army was in charge of deciding exactly when a certain bridge was blown, or whether a particular fuel dump was destroyed (rather than having the general docrine “fuel dumps are to be destroyed unless they can be of use to us in our retreat”) shows that the British army in this area was practicing an overcentralised doctrine of command.

    Why have junior officers if one can not trust them to decide anything?

    Even as late as 1944 (not against the Japanese but against the Germans) this difference in military doctrine – culture was making itself felt.

    British forces in Normandy kept reporting that they were comming into contact with new German units – units that were attacking them.

    In reality a lot of these “new units” were German units that had already been defeated, but had REFORMED and were putting into practice new plans of defence and counter attack.

    The idea that junior officers (indeed noncoms – even private soldiers) could reform “broken” units and create and put into practice new battle plans (without any orders from above) seemed very strange to the British.

    In the British army only elite units tended to act like that. Once mainstream units were broken the normal practice was for men, who were without orders from above, to be very confused about what they should do.

  • Adrian

    There’s a (rather good) statue of Alexander on Birdcage Walk, outside the Guards barracks.

  • snide

    <sarcasm> David speaks for me too! Why are you writing about a man who helped the US and UK defeat a brutal global fascist alliance? As any sensible libertarian knows, in order to prevent Nazi and Imperial Japanese victory, all we needed to do was mind our own business, join hands and sing kumbayah! How dare you gorify the victory of the vastly lesser evil (liberal statism) over the greater evil (mass murderous genocidal totalitarian statism)? </sarcasm>

  • I thought this post was going to be about Eminiem.

  • Richard Cook

    Viscount Slim is amoung the greatest of General’s. We in the U.S. and the UK owe him alot.

    David- you really just don’t know history do you?

  • ernest young

    It would seem that David is muddling his definitions and beliefs of libertarians, with that of liberals.

    I suppose that is what you get when when you only read pamphlets and find real books a bit of an effort to actually open and read.

    David, it is only because men such as General Slim, and many others, that you are still able to believe and spout your socialist drivel without fear of any sort of retribution.

    The Chindits were heroes, everyone single one of them. It was the ‘aristo’ thinking of generals like Alexander that led to many good men dying needlessly, (as in WWI), but yes, that war (II), was all about defending freedom.

    Which, in case you did not realise it, is what Libertarianism is all about.

    A liitle more recognition and respect for their collective effort would not be amiss.

  • The WWII German armies ability to form temporary combat teams ranging from squad sized pockets under the command of whatever Sergeant or Corporal was to hand, all the way up to large army group sized units made up of whatever was free for the use, is very well documented.

    It was one of the things which made the German so hard to fight, and one of the signs of professional and well trained modern army.

    The German were also masters at (re)assigning limted resources to these temporary units too, to act as reaction forces to plugs holes in their lines.

    Clever, and hard to do.

  • David is not necessarily a socialist or a liberal. There is a certain sub-species of libertarian one occasionally runs across who thinks and talks like this. Such people see “war” as some kind of random bad event like earthquakes, but from which, paradoxically, we may somehow detach ourselves voluntarily. Not a coherent view of history, life or reality, but merely a visceral dislike of soldiers, weapons, war and other yucky things.

    The short response is that free societies are rare and precious, and worth defending. Where such societies occur they are also prosperous, which means that they are inevitably envied and hated by their neighbors. Which means necessarily that free societies will be threatened and attacked. Free societies which are unwilling or unable to defend themselves don’t last long — they will be conquered and looted. And, yes, I am calling British India and the British Empire which Slim and his men defended a free society — compared to what the Japanese had in mind for India, it clearly meets that definition. Again, a society need not be perfect, and none are or ever will be, to be worth defending.

    Slim is a hero and an inspiration, a soldier who fought a war which had no glamor to it, with inadequate means, against a fierce and skillful opponent, who rode out bitter defeat and eventually turned the tables. Beyond all that, Slim was an excellent writer and his memoir Defeat Into Victory is very much worth reading.

    The day will no doubt come again when British and American soliders are faced with military disaster, instead of the overwhelming dominance we now enjoy. I hope the commanders on that dark day have a familiarity with Slim’s generalship, and the type of character and skill it takes to survive, maintain order, maintain morale, and not to crumble when all looks lost.

  • Julian Taylor

    “It was the ‘aristo’ thinking of generals like Alexander that led to many good men dying needlessly”

    I trust you are aware that Alexander was the man who held the British forces in North Africa together through what was some of the worst fighting in WW2 in some of the most inhospitable terrain and conditions ever encountered. Certainly in WW2 there were a number of generals (thankfully not many) of the ‘donkey’ mentality but there is no way I would include Alexander, who was one of Churchill’s most favourite generals, among those. Just because someone is an “aristo” does not mean that they are some kind of incompetent.

  • M. Simon

    Compare the statue of Slim with Rodin’s Balzac at the Art Institute of Chicago.

  • M. Simon


    Above is the Balzac. Compare with Slim for attitude.

  • ernest young


    No, I didn’t realise that it was Alexander that did the ‘business’ in North Africa, I always assumed that it was Montgomery that performed that minor miracle.

    I shall have to read more on that campaign.

  • Greg

    On “Mission Command” and the British:
    “Dedication to superior commander’s intention combined with independence of mind is the precise opposite of the attitude that often seemed to prevail among the Western Allies in the Second World War – profound mistrust of a superior combined with enforced blind obedience to his every word.” – Richard Simpkin Race to the Swift

  • ernest young

    profound mistrust of a superior combined with enforced blind obedience to his every word.” – Richard Simpkin Race to the Swift

    This was the attitude born of the horrors of trench warfare in WWI. Too many good men died needlessly at the whim of the ‘aristo’ Generals. Alexander was perceived to be a continuation of that genre, and did not enjoy the trust of those in his command, in spite of Churchill’s approval.

    Going slightly ‘off subject’, I have often thought that the events of WWI had much to do with the birth of ‘the Bolshie Brit’. That was the time when the doubts about any form of leadership were born, whether political, military or economic. The time when Jack realised he was as good as his Master.

    It could also be why the Chindits and other ‘hit and run’ units were so successful.

  • cassh

    Out of interest Alexander was one of the lead instigators in changing British Army training and doctrine after the fall of France along with Paget, Monty and Untterson-Kelso.

    Alex emphasised intensive tactical training and small unit battle drill that would give junior leaders knowledge and initiative allowing them to adopt mission tactics. Alex based his training schemes and pamphlets on German storm trooper tactics of the western front and used the analogy of set plays in sports to sell the idea to his subordinates and contemporaries.

    Alex may have been unsuited for operational level command, but as a trainer of men he excelled and as a political soldier and commander in a multi-national army of the “United Nations” in Italy he was well suited.