A true soldier’s general in Burma.
Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, (1891-1970) and the British Fourteenth Army, called the “Forgotten Army” due to the lack of media exposure they received during the war, stand as a shining example of resilience and dedication, achieving the impossible in one of the worst fighting terrains of the world.
Hailing from an undistinguished family, Bill Slim was commissioned as a temporary 2nd lieutenant a month into World War I. He fought and was wounded both at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, and spent the time between the world wars as an officer in the colonial Indian Army.
When World War II broke out, Slim was a colonel with the temporary rank of brigadier. He was sent to East Africa and participated in the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation, getting wounded once more, then fought in the Middle East. His finest hour, however, came in Burma and India.
Within half a year of entering the war, Japan has conquered Burma, sending British forces fleeing. Slim received a command in the area in March 1942, his first task being to turn a rout into an orderly fighting withdrawal.
Recognizing that the terrain was unsuited for motorized warfare, Slim got rid of most his vehicles, replacing them with mules and aircraft. He fought the highly mobile Japanese infiltration attacks by establishing “boxes” of defense which could stay in place and receive supplies by air if surrounded.
Unpretentious thanks to his lower-class upbringing, Slim cared deeply about the morale and well-being of his soldiers, making sure to visit every unit regularly and talk to his men in person. He understood that true discipline grew not from fear of punishment but pride and caring about one’s comrades, and so he nurtured those sentiments. That’s not to say he wasn’t willing to punish: 70% of his men suffered from malaria, largely because they refused to take the foul-tasting medicine available. Slim mandated long trousers and rolled-down sleeves in the tropical heat to prevent mosquito bites and started to get rid of officers who didn’t enforce medicine consumption in their units. Eventually, the rest got the message and the infection rate dropped below 5%.
He also insisted that everyone, including clerks, cooks and his own command staff learn how to use firearms properly. British soldiers thought that the Japanese were better jungle fighters, so Slim increased jungle patrols and night training to familiarize them with the environment and overcome their fear. In return, the British rank and file, who never had much of a tradition of liking their officers, nicknamed Slim “Uncle Bill” as a sign of their loyalty and appreciation.
By early 1944, the British were pushed back to India and Japan was poised to invade the subcontinent. The goal of the offensive was not to simply capture enemy territory; without the airfields of East India, the Allies would have lost the ability to supply Chinese forces by air. The push into India was timed to coincide with a major offensive in China for this very reason. A force of 150,000 Japanese troops entered northeast India, but their opposition was no longer the same Brits they had beaten out of Burma. Though the theater was never very high on Britain’s list of priorities for equipment and supplies, William Slim transformed the beaten men into a tenacious force. The Japanese invasion came to a halt at the cities of Imphal and Kohima. Their command, still contemptuous of British fighting skill, pushed their effort too far, into the monsoon season, while failing to secure supplies for an extended offensive. By July 1944, almost the entire invasion force was dead.
The tide of war turned and in early 1945 it was Slim’s turn to lead his own offensive into Burma, commanding the Fourteenth Army as Lieutenant General. The Fourteenth Army was a colorful outfit with 2 British, 8 Indian and 3 African divisions, aided by 6 Chinese divisions, 2 U.S. Army Regiments and various tribal militias armed and organized by the Office of Strategic Services and the Special Operations Executive.
Even so, the task was daunting. Slim’s 21,000 men were facing a Japanese force of 100,000 on very difficult fighting terrain. This time, however, it was the Allies who enjoyed superior mobility. Slim avoided combat wherever possible, preferring to bypass Japanese strongpoints and let them starve to death. He was quick to delegate tasks when needed, allowing his officers to make on-the-spot decisions without having to wait for his approval. Slim, never ignoring the importance of the common soldier, later wrote: “I was, like other generals before me, to be saved…by the resourcefulness and the stubborn valour of my troops.”
During the first half of the year, the Allied offensive pushed into Burma and liberated first Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, then the capital of Rangoon in May, 1945. The Forgotten Army was, however, robbed of the glory they deserved: the war in Europe came to an end on May 8, and news of the Fourteenth Army’s victory and the exploits of one of the greatest commanders of the war were overshadowed by the clamor over the defeat of the Third Reich.