Friday, February 10, 2012

Fullbore Friday

Do you know who Bill Slim is? You should. Maybe this will help.
Lieutenant-General Sir William Slim, KCB, CB, DSO, MC ("Bill") is 53, burly, grey and going a bit bald. His mug is large and weatherbeaten, with a broad nose, jutting jaw, and twinkling hazel eyes. He looks like a well-to-do West Country farmer, and could be one: For he has energy and patience and, above all, the man has common sense. However, so far Slim has not farmed. He started life as a junior clerk, once he was a school teacher, and then he became the foreman of a testing gang in a Midland engineering works. For the next 30 years Slim was a soldier.
A reader sent along a recommendation of Slim's book, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945, and reading up on the man - someone who I only read about in passing - all I could think of is, "More Slim."

Talk about a Vince Lombardi of leadership. I could do a years worth of FbF on the guy - so I'm not going to get in to any specifics. Let me just give you a few things to ponder in order to have you do some of your own research.
He began at the bottom of the ladder as a Territorial private. August 4, 1914, found him at summer camp with his regiment. The Territorials were at once embodied in the Regular Army, and Slim got his first stripe as lance-corporal. A few weeks later he was a private again; the only demotion that this Lieutenant-General has suffered.
Field Marshall Viscount Slim was referred to by Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten, who was Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia, as "the finest general World War II produced". After the war he was head of the Imperial General Staff, Britain’s top military post, from 1948 to 1952, and was governor general of Australia from 1952 to 1960. This article is reprinted from a 1945 issue of Phoenix, the South East Asia Command magazine.
Again - not just he accomplishments on the field of battle - but his thoughts on leadership demand thought. Nothing radical or new - but they need repeating and if you want to know what makes successful people successful, listen to what got them there.

Want to be successful? Start by benchmarking the best.
Officers are there to lead

Then Slim relates at one critical point in the retreat in a jungle clearing he came across a unit which was in a bad way. "I took one look at them and thought ‘My God, they’re worse than I supposed.’ Then I saw why. I walked round the corner of that clearing and I saw officers making themselves a bivouac. They were just as exhausted as their men, but that isn’t my point. Officers are there to lead. I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you."

The General stepped down from the ammunition box and replaced his hat. The division rose as one man, and cheered him. A few weeks later, these troops were to cross the frontier river at the point Slim had led his indomitable, ragged rearguard three years before. They dug up the tank guns which the old army had buried there when they abandoned their tanks, and they used those guns to blast open the road to Mandalay.

The spirit which Slim breathed into that division, on that blue, sunny morning in Palel inspires the whole of the 14th Army. His victorious host has now marched back a thousand miles, planted its battle flags on the citadel of Mandalay and above the capitol city of Rangoon, killing 100,000 Japanese on the way. Their achievement must be attributed in large degree to the character of their Commander. Slim does not court popularity, and he hates publicity. But he inspires trust. The man cares deeply for his troops, and they are well aware that their well-being is his permanent priority. The 14th Army has never been out of his mind since that day nearly two years ago when Mountbatten appointed him to the command. Of the Mountbatten-Slim partnership history will record that it was one of the rock foundations of our Jungle Victory.

Slim talks little and swears less, but one day at Army Headquarters the roof lifted when he received a demand that mules should be installed in concrete floor stables in a training camp, well in the rear. "My men are sleeping on earth, and often on something worse. What’s good enough for British soldiers is good enough for mules of any nationality." Slim set his Army hard tasks, but none have been beyond their power. After the great battles of Imphal and Kohima, where five Japanese divisions were destroyed, Slim called on his exhausted soldiers to carry on relentless, final pursuit. "So great were the dividends that could accrue," he confesses, "that I asked for the impossible - and got it!

Slim affirms "that the fighting capacity of every unit is based upon the faith of soldiers in their leaders; that discipline begins with the officer and spreads downward from him to the soldier; that genuine comradeship in arms is achieved when all ranks do more than is required of them. ’There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers,’ is what Napoleon said, and though that great man uttered some foolish phrases, this is not one."

What has a soldier got, asks Slim, and answers it himself. "He has got his country, but that is far away. In battle, the soldier has only his sense of duty, and his sense of shame. These are the things which make men go on fighting even though terror grips their heart. Every soldier, therefore, must be instilled with pride in his unit and in himself, and to do this he must be treated with justice and respect."

Slim says that when he was in civvie street he saw men who were fathers of families cringing before a deputy-assistant-under-manager who had the power to throw them out of their jobs without any other reason than their own ill-temper or personal dislike. "That, at any rate, can’t happen in the Army," he declares. "You don’t have to cringe in the Army, though it’s true some incorrigible cringers do. In the Army you don’t have to go out to dinner with a man if you can’t stand the sight of him."
People like to make fun, Monty Python like, of British General Officers, shame though - almost all I read about are more like Slim.
From January to August 1944 a series of decisive battles was fought along the India-Burma border which resulted in the turning point for that theater of war. After two years of failure the Allies wrested the initiative from Japan and destroyed the myth of Japanese invincibility.

The Allies were successful despite a number of challenges, many self inflicted. The first challenge was to organize and resource defenses of the India-Burma border. The second challenge was to train the soldiers to fight in the jungle clad mountains that typified the area of operations. Inextricably tied to this was the challenge of moving and supplying forces in the rugged environment. Developing a feasible and acceptable plan despite the absence of a coherent theater strategy was the next challenge. This challenge was made more difficult by the complex and dysfunctional command relationships. Finally, there was the challenge of defeating an aggressive and fanatical enemy who had an unblemished record of success in the India-Burma Theater.

Fortunately, the Allies had an answer to these challenges in Lieutenant General William Slim. It was Slim who established the training program that taught the soldiers to fight in the jungle, developed the tactics and techniques to move and sustain forces in the arduous terrain, provided the leadership to overcome the dysfunctional command relationships, and unified the theater strategy. Finally, and most importantly, it was Slim who developed and executed the plan that drew in and defeated the Japanese 15th Army thereby setting the conditions for the successful re-conquest of Burma in 1945.


ewok40k said...

Men like him have built the Empire earlier, and his generation - while  defeated many times (Norway, France, Greece, Malaya, Burma...) still refused to surrender and bought enough time to get US and Soviets into the fray, and eventually win the war.

Wstr said...

<span>'People like to make fun, Monty Python like of British General Officers...' I was always partial to Blackadder's General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett myself.  
If you can get it (AFAIK out of print but comes up in Amazon and B&N 2nd hand marketplaces) the book 'Bloody Red Tabs: General Officer Casualties of the Great War 1914-18' (ISBN 0850524636)<span> </span> has good analysis on this very subject. Far from being stuck in the grand old chauteaux knocking back a fine claret, the book mentions some 200 General Officers who were killed, wounded or captured leading from the frontlines. </span>

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Defeat into Victory is a must-read.  Superb book that shows how leadership and force of personality changes history at times. 

In addition. GM Frazier (author of the Flashman series) wrote an autobiographical account of his time in 17th Army in Burma under Slim.  The book is called Quartered Safe out Here.  Incredible, wonderful read, about small unit leadership and cohesion in the most challenging of circumstances.  And a magnificent account of Slim addressing the men before they pushed south after the "battle of the boxes", and some of his leadership in what Frazier rightly calls the "last of Kipling's Army". 

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Er, sorry.  14th Army, sorry.  More coffee.

Aubrey said...

From the point of view of Americans I somewhat blame "Patton" (the movie, not the man) as, for many-if-not-most folks of my generation and later, that movie's portrayal of Monty is the first characterization we really see and remember of a British general. First impressions, especially those formed when you're a kid, are always the hardest to challenge.

IMHO, YMMV, etc, etc...

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Actually, the portrayal of Monty in the movie and Farago's book was pretty accurate, and treated him mildly. 

The crop of British generals from between the wars ran hot and cold.  Much like ours.  And for the same reasons.  When there is no combat performance near current grade level to evaluate, other less indicative benchmarks are used. 

The best of the British tactical commanders in 1942-45 were field grade officers when the war began.  Much like ours.

Aubrey said...

I always wonder about that, but mainly because I know him from the American POV, not the British (Bradley treats him relatively lightly in "A Soldiers Story", but the criticisms, both implied and explicit, are definitely there). As I recall, however, Monty's men loved him...and obviously he had the confidence of Churchill and the British General Staff.

Here's a question - I've never read Rommel or any of the other German generals' books (so many books, so little time!)...what are their thoughts?

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Rommel never really commented on Monty much.  But there is an excellent (and unfortunately unpublished) essay about his time V Monty in North Africa, where he managed to land punches to Monty's chin while Monty was trying to chase dust in a traditional set-piece battle.  And the essay intimates that Rommel, while he had anything close to adequate fuel, regarded Monty as a bit of an easy mark.

Also, while Monty's staff may have liked him, not necessarily so for some of his other British colleagues.

SCOTTtheBADGER said...

I had heard the "You will not sleep" speech as attributed to Monty. It sounds much more like something Slim would say.

prschoef said...

For perhaps a slightly different view, read Stilwell by Barbara Tuchman.

LittleRed1 said...

My dad insisted that I read Slim when I was in High School (I grew up reading naval histories, then was allowed to diversify after having imbibed the True Writ). John Masters's Bugles and a Tiger is another look at the best the Brits had to offer, although from a slightly earlier period.

Back on topic. I was in London in 1992 and as I was perusing Westminster Abbey (IIRC) I found Slim's plaque. Someone had left a small boquet of flowers. The card read, "From a girl in Burma he was kind to."  That spoke volumes.

CAPTJLJ said...

CDR Salamander, thank you for your tribute to a great leader.  If a person were to read only one General's or Admiral's biography, it should -- it must -- be Slim's "Defeat into Victory."  And, to the blogger who seemed to slam him by mentioning Tuchman's book about Stillwell, I point out that, after finally turning the tide on the Japanese Imperial Army, Slim gave most of the credit for success to Vinegar Joe.  Slim's book instructs us in the bloody truth that great leaders are not great because they simply happen to be wonderful, but because they work hard at it, and in so doing, get their real strength, the full force of those they are privileged to lead, moving with them.  (And, he does this not throught boasting, but simply by writing about his approaches to problem solving.)  w/r Captain J

Bill Befort said...

If you can track down a copy, read Slim's "Unofficial History," a series of short memoirs drawn from his earlier military career, including Mespot in WWI, India between the wars, and the Mideast again in WWII.  He was as good a writer as he was a general.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

<span>Excellent call on the Masters book, Bugles and a Tiger.  I have a first edition, one of my prized possessions.  Magnificent read, start to finish.

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