Field Marshal William Joseph "Bill" Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, Order of the Garter (KG), Order of the Bath (GCB), Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG), Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE), Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Military Cross (MC) (August 6, 1891 – December 14, 1970) was a British military commander and the 13th Governor-General of Australia. He fought in both World War I and World War II. He was wounded in action three times during his career. Slim was one of the most highly decorated British soldiers winning the Military Cross in 1918, followed by the Distinguished Service Order, in 1941, and the first of six knighthoods in 1944. After service in the Middle East in World War II he was given leadership of the Burma campaign, one of the less well-known theaters. After a 900 mile retreat, the longest in British military history he developed new jungle war tactics that slowly pushed the Japanese back, inflicting the biggest land defeat against them.
These tactics have been adopted in subsequent wars. He was preparing to invade and liberate Malaya when the Emperor of Japan surrendered. Noted for his lack of egotism and ability to inspire loyalty and courage in his men, he was elevated to the peerage, in 1969, just after he completed his Governor-Generalship of Australia (1952-59). His term was extended for two years, due to his popularity. For most of his career an officer of the British Indian Army, he was the first officer of that army to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was appointed to the highest rank in the army, that of Field Marshall on January 4, 1949. A career officer, he served his country and her allies faithfully and skillfully. His ability to motivate his men to achieve what seemed an impossible task in the South Asian Jungles represents a material contribution towards the defeat of the Axis Powers. Without such skilled military leaders as this Field Marshall, freedom and democracy would not have defeated tyranny and oppression.
Slim was born in Bishopston, near Bristol to John and Charlotte Slim (nee Tucker), a lower-middle class family. He grew up in Birmingham and attended St. Philip's Catholic School and King Edward's School. After leaving school, he taught at an elementary school and worked as a clerk in Steward and Lloyds, a metal-tube maker, between 1910 and 1914. He joined Birmingham University Officers' Training Corps in 1912, and was thus able to be commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on August 22, 1914, at the outbreak of World War I; in later life, as a result of his modest social origins and unpretentious manner, he was sometimes wrongly supposed to have risen from the ranks. He was badly wounded at Gallipoli. On return to England, he was granted a regular commission as a second lieutenant in the West India Regiment. In October 1916, he returned to his regiment in Mesopotamia. On March 4, 1917, he was promoted to lieutenant (with seniority back dated to October 1915). He was wounded a second time in 1917. Having been previously given the temporary rank of captain, he was awarded the Military Cross on February 7, 1918, for actions in Mesopotamia. Evacuated to India, he was given the temporary rank of major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles on November 2, 1918. He was formally promoted to captain and transferred to the British Indian Army on May 22, 1919. He became adjutant of the battalion in 1921.
He married Aileen Robertson in 1926 (died 1993), with whom he had one son and one daughter. The marriage ceremony was conducted by a Church of Scotland minister. Later, a second ceremony was conduced by a Catholic priest at Quetta. Slim "considered himself a lapsed Catholic."
In 1926, Slim was sent to the Indian Staff College at Quetta. On June 5, 1929, he was appointed a General Staff Officer, Second Grade. On January 1, 1930, he was given the brevet rank of major, with formal promotion to this rank made on May 19, 1933. His performance at Staff College resulted in his appointment first to Army Headquarters India in Delhi and then to Staff College, Camberley in England (as a General Staff Officer, Second Grade), where he taught from 1934 to 1937. In 1938, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and given command of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles. In 1939, he was briefly given the temporary rank of brigadier as commander of his battalion. On June 8, 1939, He was promoted to colonel (again with temporary rank of brigadier) and appointed head of the Senior Officers' School at Belgaum, India.
On the outbreak of World War II, Slim was given command of the Indian 10th Brigade of the Indian 5th Infantry Division and was sent to Sudan. He took part in the East African Campaign to liberate Ethiopia from the Italians. Slim was wounded again during the fighting in Eritrea. On January 21, 1941, Slim was hit when his position was strafed during the advance on Agordat.
Slim joined the staff of General Archibald Wavell in the Middle East Command. Given the rank of acting major-general in June 1941, he commanded British forces in the Middle East Campaign, leading the Indian 10th Infantry Division as part of Iraqforce during the Anglo-Iraqi War, the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, and the invasion of Persia. He was twice mentioned in dispatches during 1941.
In March 1942, Slim was given command of 1st Burma Corps, also known as BurCorps, consisting of the 17th Indian Infantry Division and 1st Burma Division). Slim was made acting lieutenant-general on May 8, 1942. The Corp was under attack in Burma by the Japanese and, heavily outnumbered, he was soon forced to withdraw to India. On October 28, 1942, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
He then took over XV Corps under the command of the Eastern Army of India. His command covered the coastal approaches from Burma to India, east of Chittagong. He had a series of disputes with Noel Irwin, commander of Eastern Army and, as a result, Irwin (although an army commander) took personal control of the initial advance by XV Corps into the Arakan Peninsula. The operations ended in disaster, during which Slim was restored to command of XV Corps, albeit too late to salvage the situation. General Irwin and Slim blamed each other for the result but in the end Irwin was removed from his command and Slim was promoted to command the new Fourteenth Army—formed from IV Corps (India) (Imphal), XV Corps (Arakan) and XXXIII Corps (reserve)—later joined by XXXIV Corps. On January 14, 1943, Slim was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions in the Middle East during 1941.
He quickly got on with the task of training his new army to take the fight to the enemy. The basic premise was that off-road mobility was paramount: Much heavy equipment was exchanged for mule- or air-transported equipment and motor transport was kept to a minimum and restricted to those vehicles that could cope with some of the worst combat terrain on earth. The new doctrine dictated that if the Japanese had cut the lines of communication, then they too were surrounded. All units were to form defensive "boxes," to be resupplied by air and assisted by integrated close air support and armor. The boxes were designed as an effective response to the tactics of infiltration practiced by the Japanese in the war. Slim also supported increased offensive patrolling, to encourage his soldiers to lose both their fear of the jungle and also their belief that Japanese soldiers were better jungle fighters. Famously, the Chindits (Special Force Burma) harried the enemy behind their own lines under the command of Major General Orde Wingate.
At the start of 1944, Slim held the official rank of colonel with a war-time rank of major-general and the temporary rank of lieutenant-general. In January 1944, when the Second Arakan Offensive was met by a Japanese counter-offensive, the Indian 7th Infantry Division was quickly surrounded along with parts of the Indian 5th Infantry Division and the 81st (West Africa) Division. The 7th Indian Division's defense was based largely on the "Battle of the Admin Box"—formed initially from drivers, cooks, suppliers, and so on. They were supplied by air—negating the importance of their lost supply lines. The Japanese forces were able to defeat the offensive into Arakan, but they were unable to decisively defeat the allied forces or advance beyond the surrounded formations. While the Second Arakan Offensive ended in failure, it proved that some of the tactics were very effective against the Japanese.
In early 1944, Slim was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). (The CB was awarded prior to March 31, 1944, when Slim is recorded with this honor in the London Gazette, but the record of the award appears to be unpublished.) Later in 1944, the Japanese launched an invasion of India aimed at Imphal—hundreds of miles to the north. Slim airlifted two entire veteran divisions (5th & 7th Indian) from battle in the Arakan, straight into battle in the north. Desperate defensive actions were fought at places such as Imphal, Sangshak, and Kohima, while the RAF and USAAF kept the forces supplied from the air. While the Japanese were able to advance and encircle the formations of 14th Army, they were unable to defeat those same forces or break out of the jungles along the Indian frontier. The Japanese advance stalled. The Japanese refused to give up even after the monsoon started and large parts of their army were wrecked by conducting operations in impossible conditions. As a result, their units took unsupportable casualties and were finally forced, in July 1944, to retreat in total disorder, leaving behind many dead. On August 8, 1944, Slim was promoted to lieutenant-general, and, on September 28, 1944, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). He was also mentioned in dispatches.
In 1945, Slim launched an offensive into Burma, with lines of supply stretching almost to breaking point across hundreds of miles of trackless jungle. He faced the same problems that the Japanese had faced in their failed 1944 offensive in the opposite direction. He made the supply of his armies the central issue in the plan of the campaign. The Irrawaddy River was crossed (with the longest Bailey bridge in the world at the time—most of which had been transported by mule and air) and the city of Meiktila was taken, followed by Mandalay. The Allies had reached the open plains of central Burma, sallying out and breaking Japanese attacking forces in isolation, maintaining the initiative at all times, backed up by air-land cooperation including resupply by air and close air support, performed by both RAF and USAAF units.
In combination with these attacks, Force 136 helped initiate a countrywide uprising of the Burmese people against the Japanese. In addition to fighting the allied advance south, the Japanese were faced with heavy attacks from behind their own lines. Toward the end of the campaign, the army raced south to capture Rangoon before the start of the monsoon. It was considered necessary to capture the port because of the length of the supply lines overland from India and the impossibility of supply by air or land during the monsoon. Rangoon was eventually taken by a combined attack from the land (Slim's army), the air (parachute operations south of the city), and a seaborne invasion. Also assisting in the capture of Rangoon was the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League lead by Thakin Soe with Aung San (the future Prime Minister of Burma and father of Aung San Suu Kyi) as one of its military commanders. On July 1, 1945, Slim was promoted to general.
After the war Slim became commander of Allied Land Forces in South-East Asia. On January 1, 1946, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. On February 7, 1947, he was made an Aide-de-camp (ADC) to the King. In 1948, he returned to England, where he became head of the Imperial Defence College and then Chief of the Imperial General Staff (the first Indian Army officer to be so appointed). Also in 1948, the United States awarded Slim the Commander of the Legion of Merit.
Slim retired as ADC and from the army on May 11, 1948. However, on January 4, 1949, he was promoted to Field Marshall and, since a Field Marshall holds rank for life, he was officially no longer retired. In September 1949, he was appointed to the Army Council. On January 2, 1950, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) and later that year was made a Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit by the United States. On November 1, 1952, he relinquished the position of Chief of the Imperial General Staff and, on December 10, 1952, was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (GCMG) on his appointment as Governor-General of Australia.
On January 2, 1953, he was appointed a Knight of the Order of St. John (KStJ). On May 8, 1953, he took up the post of Governor-General of Australia. On April 27, 1954, he was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO).
Slim was a popular choice for Governor-General since he was an authentic war hero who had fought alongside Australians at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. In 1954, he was able to welcome Queen Elizabeth II on the first visit by a reigning monarch to Australia. Slim's duties as Governor-General were entirely ceremonial and there were no controversies during his term. The Liberal leader Robert Menzies held office throughout Slim's time in Australia. His appointment was extended for an additional two years.
Commenting on the success of his Governor-Generalship, Michael D. de B. Collins Persse wrote in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Owing to his own combination of authority and humanity, Slim's governor-generalship was judged to be notably successful, even by those who believed that the office should be held by an Australian. His humanity came to be as apparent to the Australian people as it had been to his soldiers in Burma. Early in his term, however, he occasioned some surprise by the unflattering remarks he made 'about anything or anybody in Australia he regarded as below par'. As a field marshal he was well qualified both to inspire and to rebuke the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia.
Slim and his wife "received Australian pensions and passports" before they returned to Britain.
In 1959, Slim retired and returned to Britain, where he published his memoirs, Unofficial History and Defeat into Victory. On April 24, 1959, he was appointed a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter (KG) (Britain's highest award). On July 15, 1960, he was created Viscount Slim, of Yarralumla in the Capital Territory of Australia and of Bishopston in the City and County of Bristol. After a successful further career on the boards of major UK companies, he was appointed Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle on June 18, 1964. He died in London on 14 December 1970.
He was given a full military funeral at St. George's Chapel, Windsor and was afterward cremated. A remembrance plaque was placed in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.
The road William Slim Drive, in the district of Belconnen, Canberra, is named after him.
Slim had a unique relationship with his troops—the Forgotten Army, as they called themselves and despite being very close to defeat at the hands of the Japanese, who had driven them back to the Indian border by 1942, Slim raised training and morale within the ranks. It was this turnaround in the army under him that was a contributing factor to the eventual defeat of the Japanese. Of all the memorials to Slim the one that he would perhaps have cherished most was the impact he made on those he commanded. A half-century later, one of them recalled:
The burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion … it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: The only man I've ever seen who had a force that came out of him. British soldiers don't love their commanders … Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual.
Slim placed a premium of morale, which he defined as:
That intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves.
Slim was awarded an honorary doctorate degrees from nine Universities: Leeds, Birmingham, Cambridge, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Oxford, New South Wales, and New England (NSW). In addition, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely has recommended Slim's memoirs (Defeat into Victory) describing Slim as "perhaps the Greatest Commander of the twentieth century" and commenting on Slim's "self-deprecating style" Slim's 14th Army was composed of an amalgam of Indian (Hindu, Sikh and Muslim troops), British, African, and other troops; he was on the far end of a long logistical pipeline and generally had the oldest equipment of any Allied army. By all accounts, he was a superb logistician, imaginative in his tactics and operational concepts, and—unusually—very popular with his troops. After losing to his troops, the Japanese were on the run, retreating back towards Japan. The Burmese campaign undermined Japanese confidence, raising doubt about whether the war could be won. The Burmese campaign ended in July 1945. Japan surrendered the next month, August 15, 1945.
As a British commander on the Asian mainland, Slim's contribution to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific has often been undervalued. For three years, Slim's soldiers tied down tens of thousands of Japanese troops in Burma that could have been otherwise redeployed against U.S. forces in New Guinea, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, with horrific results.
Military historian Max Hastings comments:
In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him…. His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favors in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion.
The spirit of comradeship Slim created within 14th Army lived on after the war in the Burma Star Association, of which Slim was a co-founder and first President from February 26, 1951. His son, the 2nd Viscount Slim, has been President since his father's death. The first Patron was Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Mountbatten described Slim as the "finest general the second world war produced."
A statue to Slim is on Whitehall, outside the Ministry of Defence, was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. Designed by Ivor Roberts-Jones, the statue is one of three of British Second World War Field Marshals (the others being Alanbrooke and Montgomery).
Slim's papers were collected by his biographer, Ronald Lewin, and given to the Churchill Archives Centre by Slim's wife, Aileen, Viscountess Slim, and son, John Slim, 2nd Viscount Slim, and other donors, 1977-2001.
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