Slim transferred to the Indian Army at the end of the First World War, eventually joining the 6th Gurkha Rifles, a regiment he had fought alongside at Gallipoli. During the inter-war years, he established himself as one of the most capable officers of his generation, coming top of his class at the Indian Army Staff College in Quetta in 1928 and then, in 1934, being selected to be the Indian Army’s representative on the instructional staff at the Army Staff College in Camberley, Surrey. When the Second World War began, he pushed for a field command and soon found himself on combat operations in the Middle East, first as a brigadier and then as a major general. His rise through the ranks continued and, on 19 March 1942 and at the age of 50, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the newly formed Burma Corps. That this was something of a poisoned chalice was not lost on Slim. As he noted in his memoires, ‘…I knew enough now to know that a command in Burma was more likely to be a test, and a tough one, than a triumph.’
The problem was that having already seized Malaya, then a British Colony, and taken the surrender of the 115,000 strong British garrison in Singapore, an event described by Winston Churchill as the ‘worst disaster’ and ‘largest capitulation’ in British military history, the Japanese had advanced north from Thailand and were rampaging through the jungles of Burma, sweeping aside all opposition as they applied their own ruthless version of blitzkrieg. The British, whose army in Burma comprised mainly Indian, Gurkha and Burmese troops, had tried to halt the advancing force but to no avail, sustaining thousands of casualties as they suffered defeat after defeat. Things went from bad to worse when, on 9 March 1942, Rangoon fell to the Japanese. This was a huge blow. Most of the Burma Army’s supplies came through the capital’s port and, with no direct road or rail access from British India and with a chronic shortage of transport aircraft, the Burma Army was effectively “cut off from the outside world”.
Given this situation, it is no wonder that Slim had such mixed feelings when he was appointed to command Burma Corps. Having been soundly beaten numerous times, the force he inherited was weak and demoralised. Unsure of what his exact mission was, Slim redeployed Burma Corps to try to wrest the initiative from the Japanese. He failed repeatedly, constrained by a superior who refused to accept the reality on the ground and outmanoeuvred by an enemy who appeared to have an almost superhuman ability to operate in the jungle. A little over a month after taking command of Burma Corps, Slim found himself leading the longest and one of the most difficult retreats in British military history as his force raced north for over 900 miles to the relative safety of British India. Many generals – both then and now - would have found excuses for their failure but not Slim. Showing remarkable honesty and a high degree of self-awareness, he wrote:
“For myself, I had little to be proud of; I could not rate my generalship high. The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted. Time and again, I had tried to pass to the offensive and to regain the initiative and every time I had seen my house of cards fall down as I tried to add to its crowning story”.
Right: Soldiers from the 6th Gurkhas, one of the RGR’s antecedent regiments, during the Gallipoli Campaign (1915 to 1916). Having served alongside Gurkhas in the campaign, the young Bill Slim was determined to transfer to the Indian Army and become an officer in a Gurkha regiment. Although he initially joined the 6th Gurkhas, he went on to command the 2/7th Gurkhas.
Gurkha adventure thriller
Born in 1891, Bill Slim had a relatively comfortable childhood until, at the age of sixteen, his father’s business collapsed and he was forced to leave school and get a job. He started his working life as a primary school teacher in a tough part of Birmingham, leaving after two years to become a clerk in a local ironworks. It is there that he got to know working people, developing the ‘common touch’ that would later characterise his leadership style. When war broke out in 1914, Slim managed to obtain a commission in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, something that would not have been possible in peacetime given his family’s modest circumstances. He proved to be a natural soldier and went on to see active service at Gallipoli, where he was wounded, and in Mesopotamia where, as well as being wounded again, he was awarded a Military Cross for bravery under fire.
Above: General 'Bill' Slim, the legendary commander of the 14th Army, the so-called 'Forgotten Army', whose inspirational leadership led to a stunning victory against the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War.
Field Marshal Sir William 'Bill' Slim (1st Viscount Slim) is one of the UK's most celebrated military commanders and the most famous of Britain's Gurkha generals. He is someone I have long admired and as this website is about Gurkhas and leadership, it seems appropriate to include a brief introduction to this remarkable individual. Of interest (to me at least!), Slim was both a student at (in 1937), and the Commandant of (in 1946/47), the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) in London, the College where I am the Course Director!
Including this brief introduction is also timely for two reasons: the first is that Bill Slim is the first case study I am examining in the book on leadership that I'm currently writing; and the second is because this year is the 50th anniversary of his death (he died on 14 December 1970 at the age of 79).
Note that much of the content of this page was taken from Appendix 10 of my recent commemorative history of The Royal Gurkha Rifles ('Gurkha' - see above left and at the bottom of the page).
How Slim managed to turn the situation around, eventually beating the Japanese in an environment in which they were thought to be invincible, is a remarkable study in leadership. It explains why, in 2011, Slim was voted as the joint winner in a competition run by the National Army Museum to find Britain’s greatest ever general. Slim’s memoires of the campaign (Defeat into Victory) should be a ‘must read’ for all army officers, particularly those in the Gurkhas given Slim was an officer in two of the RGR’s antecedent regiments. Slim finished his army service as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the most senior serving soldier. He was then appointed as the 13th Governor General of Australia, a post he held from May 1953 until February 1960. He died on 14 December 1970 at the age of 79, one of the most celebrated generals that Britain has ever produced.
Above: Gurkhas crossing the River Irrawaddy in central Burma as the 14th Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim, advanced south towards Rangoon.
With heroes, villains, action, adventure, Gurkhas and a bit of romance - and set in Nepal, Dartmoor, London and Edinburgh - this thriller will grip you from the first page! And it even has a few quotes about Gurkhas in it!
'Craig Lawrence, a modern Major General, draws on his army career and bursts onto the literary scene with a novel that begins with skulduggery in the city and ends in the snows of Devon...I really enjoyed it and it's a great choice to hunker down with as the nights draw in. Inspired by Lee Child, Craig turns out a fast-paced adventure (with Gurkha guest appearances) that has appeal for many ages and covers a range of relationships.' Devon Life, December 2015
Right: The painting of Field Marshal Sir William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, which hangs in the Officers’ Mess in Sir John Moore Barracks, the home of the UK based Gurkha infantry battalion.
All about strategy
Above: The Japanese surrender in Rangoon in May 1945. The picture shows Lieutenant General Namata surrendering to Major General W S Symes, the General Officer Commanding South Burma. It was General ‘Bill’ Slim’s remarkable leadership of the Burma Campaign that led to the Japanese defeat.
200 years of Gurkha history
Gurkha adventure thriller
Above: Soldiers from the 10th Gurkhas, one of the antecedent regiment's of today's Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR), clearing trenches on a feature known as 'Scraggy Hill' during the Burma Campaign in WW2.
The Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR) was formed on 1 July 1994 when the existing Gurkha regiments amalgamated to form a single Gurkha regiment of three battalions. Although the RGR has only existed for 25 years, it carries the traditions and history of its antecedent Gurkha regiments and has already established itself as a formidable fighting force in its own right. With a Foreword by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and more than 500 photographs, the book provides a visual history of this elite unit and was an Amazon best-seller in the 'Nepal' category on both the 16 October and 29 December 2019, earning the coveted 'best-seller' accolade! Appendix 10 of the book describes General Bill Slim and the 'Slim Trophy' that is now awarded annually in The Royal Gurkha Rifles to the most outstanding Gurkha officer who has done most to enhance the name of the Regiment over the preceding 12 months.