Tag Archives: general

Slim: the Standard Bearer by Ronald Lewin

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.

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Filed under Book of the Week, far east, World War Two

British Generalship

I’ve almost finished reading The Making of the British Army, by Allan Mallinson. I will be writing a review in full course, but I’m more than happy to give away a few glimpses now.

Think of great British Generals. Cromwell. Marlborough. Wellington. You can probably add Wolfe, and maybe Kitchener, to that list. But in the twentieth century, nothing. If anything, we tend to think of amateurish fumblings in the Crimea, Haig’s indifferent and incompetend leadership on the Western Front, and evacuation at Dunkirk and surrender in Singapore.

Why is it that we generally can’t offer up a great British General since Waterloo? Especially as in that time we have fought a multitude of colonial wars, won two world wars, and then a plethora of difficult conflict around the world? Certainly, it would take a very brave person to argue that any great leaders came out of the Crimea or the First World War.

Or is it that British Generals have suffered from History? The longer ago a commander died, the more that their faults and vices tend to pale into insignificance. It is often said that the best career move anyone can make is to die – if we look at a comparable military figure, such as Nelson, all becomes clear. To die in battle absolves you of pretty much any drawbacks, even infidelity and vanity.

Nelson brings us on to another theme. Britain, as a country, has always admired sailors. There is something noble about going to the sea, even as a Jack Tar. Yet soldiers have long been thought of as ‘the scum of the earth’. The Royal Navy is the senior service, yet the Army – note the absence of a royal prefix – itself is only a loose collection of tribes. The Royal Navy has a pantheon of greats, from Howe, Anson, St Vincent, Nelson, Collingwood, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Cunningham, and … and I would also argue Henry Leach… plenty more besides.

I have always thought that in Montgomery Britian did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesnt deserve to rank alongside them, the debacle of Arnhem put paid to that, as well as his prickly character which won him few friends. But his military record speaks for itself. He saw active service in the first world war and was severely wounded. Then in the Second World War he managed to extricate his Division from Dunkirk, and gained a strong reputation as a trainer of men. When he was finally called to command the Eighth Army in North Africa, he put together a sound plan that turned the course of the Desert War. And only Montgomery could have overseen D-Day so succesfully.

For almost half a century it has been fashionable to knock Montgomery. Perhaps this stems from his abrasive attitude. But on the other hand, Wellington was a notoriously cold character too. Or it may stem from the fact that historical views of Wellington tend to polarise on US-British lines. This arose from the deep dislike that American generals had for Montgomery. But were they right to be so bitter? Montgomery had seen more action than all of them put together. At the start of the war, Eisenhower was a Colonel. Patton was good at driving forward in a straight line very fast, but came unstuck when he faced strong opposition. And to my knowledge, Montgomery cared too much for his men to slap any of them. If he had, he would have been sacked and retired from the Army. And for all his faults, Montgomery always followed orders. Perhaps his greatest fault was that he was right, and was not afraid of saying so.

American Historians – and not a few British ones too – have dominated the military historiography of the second world war. It has almost become an orthodoxy that Montgomery was over-rated. Saving Private Ryan said as much. In America, every general seems to be respected as a matter of course. Whilst I would not go this far, it is frustrating that in Britain we do not stand up for our military figures as much as we should. We love to knock our heroes, and especially our Generals. The late Robin Neillands wrote some very positive books about Montgomery, so hopefully in time historians will come to realise that his perceived faults have been exaggerated, and by comparison his strengths have been overlooked.

It seems that it is not so much what happened during the war that matters, but how it has been written about. It might be quite possible that had American Historians had found reason to denigrate Wellington, he would not be regarded as being as important as he is now. And that would completely change our view of leadership in the British Army. Are we missing out by not holding up Montgomery as a more important figure?

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Filed under Army, debate, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

Can military and politics mix?

Lord Kitchener - Secretary of War during WW1

Lord Kitchener - Secretary of War during WW1

The news that General Sir Richard Dannatt is likely to have a role in any future Conservative Government has provoked controversy among politicians, with fears that the so-called rule that military figures should not become involved in politics has been breached. The idea being, supposedly, that as senior civil servants military commanders are supposed to be apolitical.

Of course, constitutionally Sir Richard is a civilian, and if elevated to the Lords he will be perfectly entitled to take up an appointment on the front benches. And neither is it unprecedented for a senior military figure to move into politics. Whilst Oliver Cromwell might be an overly dramatic example, the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister after Waterloo. In 1914 Field Marshal Lord Kitchener became Secretary of State for War, after agreeing that he would not become a political figure. Even so, there were frequent problems with him bypassing the army’s chiefs and giving military advice to the Government without consulting them first. In more recent times, Admiral Sir Alan West has become Security Minister in the Labour Government, although this appointment is outside the Ministry of Defence. Abroad, there are the examples of Eisenhower and De Gaulle.

So the unwritten rule that generals do not enter politics is a myth, probably exacerbated by new Labourites who are scared of generals who know too much and speak their mind. Arguably, more damage is done by ex-lawyers, bankers, economist and PR types who become MP’s. The thought of generals becoming ministers is not a problem in principle, but it is the practise of how the individuals concerned work together that is important. The potential for an ex-general to try and take charge of the armed forces is all to clear. The worry is that as a Defence Minister Dannatt would undermine his successors by advising the Government and effectively reducing them to paper shuffling. Traditionally British military practise has been to let the man on the ground get on with his job, unlike the american tendency to apply the 5,000 mile long screwdriver.

Sir Richard has been a frank and honest advocate of the armed forces, and one would hope that he continued that kind of approach in politics. Certainly, it must be better for the forces to have someone in power who can fight their corner than the faceless mandarins and junior ministers we have under the present government. That is of course if Dannatt does not start toeing the Tory line. His predecessor as Chief of General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, had all the hallmarks of being a ‘pull-no-punches’ commander, but surprisingly seemed to be house-trained by new Labour towards the end of his period in office.

What is more worrying, is Dannatt’s overt religious bent. Describing himself as a Judeo-Christian, he has spoken in alarming terms about muslim fundamentalism and the moral vacuum. I believe it is more important that senior figures look beyond their own beliefs and see the broader picture. Generals talking about Judeo-Christianity and Islam is not very helpful thank you very much.

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Filed under Army, debate, News, politics