For as long as I can remember I have been an unashamed Monty fan. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading up on his career, and in particular between D-Day and VE Day. To this day I am convinced that he has had a very raw deal from History, primarily due to the efforts of a number of partisan US writers who have denigrated his achievements.
But having read this book, I can confidently state that I have changed my view that Monty was the most able British General of the Second World War. Why? Well, its no to say that I think any less of Monty, but I believe that in Bill Slim we have an extraordinary leader who has really not got the credit that he deserves. Ronald Lewis more than does the man justice here.
The first thing that makes Slim extraordinary is his humble origins. He came from ordinary stock from the West Midlands, and only managed to become an Army officer through the roundabout method of joining the local University Officer Training Corps – even though he wasnt even a member of the University! These humble origins meant that he never lost an ability to talk to the ordinary soldier on a personal level – a rarity indeed for Generals.
He saw action at Galipoli and the Siege of Kut during the First World War. He was seriously wounded at Galipoli, and was awarded the Military Cross. Even so, he could only remain an officer after 1918 by transferring to the Indian Army. He spent much of the period between the wars serving as a Gurkha officer. This experience of working with colonial troops proved valuable when he came to command a multi-national Army in Burma. Perhaps his Indian Army heritage has made him a lesser leader in some people’s eyes? If so, I would ague, as Lewin seems to, that it should not matter which Army a man came from.
Unlike Monty, Slim never let success get to his head. His men – officers and other ranks alike – called him ‘uncle Bill’. Lewin argues that Slim moulded 14th Army in Burma into such a motivated, effective force, a leadership that was only matched by Monty when in command of the 8th Army in North Africa, and perhaps Patton’s 3rd Army in 1944 and 1945. But it is hard to imagine the Desert Rats referring to their commander as ‘Uncle Monty’.
Also unlike Monty, Slim did not have his own band of subordinates. Whereas Monty would bring his own men from one posting to another, Slim almost always gave them men who were there a chance. More often than not they came to admire and respect him. This surely speaks volumes about the man. As well as his subordinates, Slim was well respected by his peers and commanders. The Supreme Commander during his time in Burma was Lord Mountbatten, who was a firm supporter. Slim even managed to get on famously with the notorious anglophobe ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell.
Critics might ponder how Slim would have fared commanding in North West Europe, away from a colonial setting. Lewin’s analysis of his career leaves us in little doubt. In any case, the first time Slim had fought in the jungle was when commanding the retreat from Rangoon. As someone who was able to get on with anyone, would let his generals get on with fighting the battle without micro-managing them, and had the skills to adapt to any kind of warfare, I have a sneaking suspicion that Slim would have fared better in North West Europe than Monty would have in the jungle.
That my views on British Generalship have changed so much speaks volumes about the lucidity of Lewin’s writing. I am normally very sceptical of official biographies – very often they stray into hagiography. But this is more measured. I really would have expected it to be more popular than it is.
Perhaps as the Commander of the Forgotten Army, Slim is the Forgotten General? All the same, it should not take a new book to rectify this – Lewin has than done Slim justice.