Slim, William J. Defeat into Victory. London: Cassell, 1956.
Preface; maps; photos; index.
Rather than a new arrival, this is actually an old title I had a chance to read for enjoyment while recently on vacation. I was impressed enough to decide to post this quick review.
Slim has been called the best British general of the war (and not just by those rather partisan Yanks who consider there was not altogether too much competition for those laurels), and having now read his book, I might have to agree. Not, I hasten to add, because he tells us what a terrific commander he was. Slim actually takes great pains to confess his mistakes and misjudgments and to point out those occasions when he should have listened to his superiors or his subordinates or both. I can think of the memoirs of more than one other Allied general which would have been much improved by similar forthrightness.
Slim's greatness sprang not from never making a mistake or from never having to change his plans, but from his ability to take a beaten rabble of troops and turn them into the liberators of a geographical area larger than most of the other fronts of war. This he did in a theater that seemed always to be last in line for troops, weapons, supplies, and support. Further, he did it in terrain and climate that were almost unconquerable. And he did it while wrapped in a convoluted chain of command, tied to diverging political-military objectives, and harnessed to some of the most difficult personalities of the war.
As commander of 14th Army this book is inevitably to a large degree about the author himself, but it far transcends mere autobiography. This is the history of an army, its campaigns, and its men. Slim describes the grand strategic decision-making that occurred far above his head, then outlines his planning for each battle according to those directives. But the bulk of the book provides a detailed account of the actual operations of divisions, brigades, and battalions. One of the best scenes in the book is when, very close to the front line, Slim observes a platoon of Gurkhas with tank support as they gradual winkle out determined Japanese defenders from a series of strongpoints. Other, larger actions from the fall of Burma to the Arakan to Imphal and Kohima and back to Rangoon are thoroughly described.
All this is conveyed clearly to the reader while it is also emphasized that the key to victory in Burma -- and indeed anywhere -- was always the ability and willingness of the individual soldiers and non-coms to come to grips with the enemy.
Very highly recommended.
(It should be noted, by the way, that the original edition contains more detailed description of operations than does the 1961 edition.)
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Reviewed 1 August 1997
Copyright © 1997 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone