William Joseph Slim

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William Joseph Slim

English General William Joseph Slim (1891-1970) was involved in some lesser-known but still critical battles of World War II. He later served as head of the Imperial General Staff, Britain's top military post, and governor-general of Australia.

As a boy, William Joseph Slim had always wanted to be a military officer. During World War II, he took command of allied forces defeated and demoralized by advancing Japanese troops that had overrun Burma and were threatening to invade India. Slim made it his priority to improve the morale of his men, rebuild their confidence, and teach them to adapt to the jungles of southeast Asia. Consequently, he regained the offensive and re-conquered Burma.

Boyhood Dream

William Joseph Slim had always dreamed of becoming a soldier. He was born October 6, 1891, in Bristol, England. The son of John Slim, an iron merchant in Bristol, he moved with his family to Birmingham at the turn of the century. There, he attended St. Philip's Catholic School and then King Edward's School, where his favorite subject was literature. At the time, he was a member of the Officers Training Corps, and he often told people that his great ambition was to be an army officer. But in early 20th century England, the army did not financially support those in officers training, and Slim's parents could not pay for their son to pursue his ambition. Consequently, after leaving school, Slim worked as a clerk and a teacher. Also, he was a foreman at an engineering firm. When World War I began, his military dream was abruptly realized. England was desperate for soldiers to fight against the Germans. Slim was commissioned in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, a territorial troop similar to the National Guard in the United States. He joined the regiment as a private, but when his troop was made part of the regular British army, he was promoted to lance-corporal. He was later demoted to private for drinking from a jug of beer while marching with his men as they marched through Yorkshire on maneuvers. It was the only demotion Slim ever received.

He first saw action when his regiment was sent to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), followed by an engagement in the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, where he was so seriously wounded that it seemed unlikely that he would ever return to active service. However, through a series of subterfuges that Slim never entirely revealed, he was able to rejoin the army and fought in France and Belgium before rejoining his old troops in Mesopotamia. He was wounded again in the battle to capture Baghdad and was evacuated to India.

When World War I ended, he joined the Sixth Ghurka Rifles of the Indian Army and learned to speak their language. From 1917 to 1920 and again from 1929 to 1933 he was part of the General Staff of the Indian Army. During this period he graduated from the Indian Army Staff College in Cambalay and later was an instructor at the college. He returned to England briefly to attend the Imperial Defence School. During the 1930s his effectiveness as a teacher was recognized by British and Indian military leaders; that earned him a promotion to the rank of lieutenant-colonel by 1935. Just before World War II broke out, Slim was commandant of the Senior Officers' School at Belgaum, India.

From the Desert to the Jungle

In 1940 Slim was given command of the Tenth Indian Infantry Brigade and was ordered to use his Indian troops in the Sudan to prevent an invasion of Italian troops. A border town called Gallabat had been occupied by the Italians; Slim and his forces were ordered to retake the town. Although the Indians recaptured Gallabat, Slim decided that defense of the area was untenable and pulled his troops back to safer positions, giving up the town. In retrospect, Slim believed he had made a poor military decision. Yet he gained the admiration of others as a leader who could accept blame during bad times but was quick to praise his subordinates during good times.

Soon after, Slim was again wounded when a low-flying aircraft attacked the vehicle in which he was traveling. While recovering in May 1941, he was given command of the Tenth Indian Division in Iraq and Syria where he successfully fought against the Vichy French forces and later advanced through Iran. He described desert fighting to be suitable because you can see your opponent.

By March 1942, General Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief in India, sent Slim to Burma to take command of the British-Indian First Burma Corps. The situation in Burma was dismal for allied forces. Because of allied problems in 1942 in Europe and in the Pacific Ocean, low priority was given to the military situation in Burma and India. There was no air cover for the allied troops. Intelligence and communication were poor. Japanese forces from the east were pushing the Burma Corps westward and northward through the jungle toward India. They had also cut supply lines to the Chinese armies in the north. Slim tried to regain the offensive, but his troops had withstood heavy casualties and were exhausted. Therefore, he was forced to lead his troops in an orderly retreat nearly 1, 000 miles from Rangoon into India. Thirteen thousand men died during the retreat.

Reinvasion of Burma

After the retreat, Slim commanded the newly formed 15th Indian Corps. He oversaw intensive training to prepare the men for future battles against the Japanese. He restored confidence in his demoralized troops. Slim revised and improved their fighting approach. He gave higher priority to medical attention and made sure drugs were on hand to prevent malaria. In addition, he visited as many units as possible and met as many of his subordinate commanders as possible.

Slim believed that as an officer, he had to set an example for his men. "Officers are there to lead," he was quoted in Phoenix, the South East Asia Command magazine. "As officers, you can neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done these things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world." Slim often paraphrased, as he did in Phoenix, the famous line ascribed to Napoleon, "There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers."

The situation in Burma was soon made worse by allied commitments to the Soviet Union. In an agreement with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, England and the United States agreed to conquer Germany first in return for a Soviet declaration of war on Japan. The re-invasion of Burma was not considered critical to the war effort. Landing craft in the Burma theater were transferred to Europe for invasions against the Nazis. Slim, then, was forced to fight the Japanese through the dense jungle rather than by sea.

By October 1943, Slim was commander of the newly established British 14th Army. In 1944, he deliberately let the Japanese cross the frontier into India, thus stretching thin their supply and communication lines. His fully provisioned army waited for the Japanese to arrive then beat the Japanese forces in decisive victories at Imphal and Kohima. As his troops regained the offensive and marched eastward and southward through the jungle. He and Mountbatten developed a plan in which the army was supplied by air drop, thus precluding the need for supply lines. A total of 600, 000 tons of supplies was dropped by parachute to Slim's advancing army. Also, Slim's reconquest of Burma was based on a two-pronged attack that confused the Japanese and caused them to concentrate forces in the wrong locations. His army forced the Japanese out of Burma and inflicted 347, 000 casualties. Slim was the only general in World War II to defeat a major Japanese army on the Asian mainland. After retaking Burma until the end of the war, Slim's forces fought clean-up campaigns against small pockets of Japanese resistance.

Beloved Leader

By July 1945, Slim was promoted to full general and then commander-in-chief of all allied land forces in southeast Asia. By 1946, with the war over, he was called back to England to be commandant of the recently reopened Imperial Defence College. He then retired from the army to pursue a private life. But by the end of 1948, he was recalled to the army to be chief of the Imperial General Staff. Two months later, he was promoted to field marshall.

In 1953, Slim was appointed governor-general of Australia, representing the Queen of England and British interests in Australia. He made it a point to meet the people and, thus, he became one of the most popular governor-generals in the history of Australia. The Australian prime minister often commented on the affection the Australians had for Slim.

Occasionally, Slim took his mind off his duties by reading murder-mystery novels. He also wrote mystery serials, as well as poems and short stories, under the pseudonym Anthony Mills. In 1956, he wrote Defeat into Victory, considered one of the finest books about World War II.

In 1960, Slim was made a Knight of the Garter by the British monarchy. Eleven universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, conferred honorary degrees on him. He was then appointed Constable of Windsor Castle and left Australia. He held the Windsor Castle position until shortly before his death ten years later, on December 14, 1970. When he died in London, he was given a public funeral with full military honors.

Further Reading

Dictionary of National Biography: 1961-1970, edited by E. T. Williams and C. S. Nicholls, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Keegan, John, and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History: From 1453 to the Present Day, Rutledge, 1996.

Leckie, Robert, The Story of World War II, Random House, 1964.

The Oxford Companion to World War II, edited by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995.

"General Bill Slim, CBI Info,http://www.chiinfo.com/billslim.htm (March 13, 1998).

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