'Uncle Bill' - Field Marshal Bill Slim and his leadership legacy

Welcome to The Gurkha Museum’s latest Online Exhibition.

Field Marshal Viscount Slim was known more affectionately by his soldiers, throughout his senior career, as “Uncle Bill”.  Despite his outstanding leadership of 14th Army in the Burma Campaign, and later appointment as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), he is much less well known outside of military historical circles than, for example, his immediate predecessor as CIGS, Viscount Montgomery. Nevertheless, a National Army Museum poll in 2011 ranked him, jointly with the Duke of Wellington, Britain’s Greatest General.

This online exhibition seeks to give him more of the recognition that he deserves, covering not just his time in command in Burma but also his early career and the lasting legacy of his influence on the British Army’s understanding and practice of leadership.

Slim's Early Life

Born in 1891, into a family of modest means in Bishopston, then a village on the outskirts of Bristol (now entirely merged in the City’s sprawl), Slim was an unlikely candidate for commissioned service in the Army, let alone one day to reach its highest rank.  He ascribed his interest in soldiering to a journal British Battles by Land and Sea to which his father, an avid reader, subscribed. He was particularly taken by the story of a cabin boy who went on to be an Admiral (Sir Cloudesley Shovell).

Slim’s Early Military Career

Commissioned into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in August 1914, William Slim first saw action at Cape Helles in July 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign. Although casualty rates amongst Allied soldiers were high, Slim was noted for his efforts to ensure the welfare of his men. Later in 1915, Slim participated in large-scale attacks at the region known as Sari Bair.

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With the Gurkhas on the North-West Frontier

When Slim joined 1/6GR in 1920, the same disarming manner and obvious professionalism that was later to stand him in such good stead as a senior commander, played a key part in overcoming the prejudice that might otherwise have been directed towards an officer ‘posted in’ rather than selected, as was the norm in this close-knit Regiment.

Interwar Period

After his move to the Indian Army, following the end of the First World War, Slim first joined the 1st Battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles (1/6GR). Though initially received with reserve, having been appointed to the Battalion rather than selected by 6GR, he quickly earned the trust and respect of both officers and men through his hard work, professionalism and approachability. This respect was shown by his appointment, in 1921, as the Battalion’s Adjutant.

Before Burma

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Slim was given command of 10 Indian Infantry Brigade.  Like most of the Indian Army, it was not trained and equipped for service in a modern war outside of India.    Indeed, when his brigade was first issued motor transport, Slim had no driving instructors and it was through the assistance of an old school friend (hen the District Commissioner) that instructors were found from local garages or among civilians who owned their own cars.  This sort of improvisation and finding of practical solution when the system fell short was to typify Slim’s command.

To Burma and 14th Army

In early 1942, the situation in Burma looked very bleak indeed.  An ill-advised decision by General Alexander, the newly appointed commander on the ground, to try to hold Rangoon, nearly led to the capture of his entire HQ and a substantial force. Alexander quickly realised that he needed a Corps Commander to fight the battle while he concentrated on the wider political and logistical challenges.  On the advice of his staff he asked for Slim (who he did not know).  By happy coincidence, London had also decided that a Corps Commander was needed and Slim’s name was being considered.  The newly appointed Vice Chief of the General Staff, General Nye, had noted Slim’s talent at the Staff College, Camberley and argued for him.

Slim's Webley Revolver

An iconic image of Bill Slim shows him carrying an M1 carbine as a personal weapon during the Burma Campaign. Less seen but just as present was his personal Webley revolver, which he carried as a sidearm throughout the Second World War.

Slim was aware of the importance of close-combat weapons and sidearms. During the Gallipoli campaign he is said to have carried a knife and sawn-off shotgun as well as his pistol and bayonet, in case of Turkish trench raids.

The Sword of General Tanaka

This sword formerly belonged to General Nobuo Tanaka, commander of the Japanese Army’s 33rd Division, which fought against Allied troops at Imphal and when defending against the Allied advances towards Meiktila and Mandalay in 1944 and 1945. The Division finally surrendered in Southern Burma in 1945. General Tanaka’s sword was presented to Slim and was later presented by him to his old regiment, the 6th Gurkha Rifles.

BEM of Rifleman Bhajbir Gurung

Rifleman Bhajbir Gurung served with the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force) (2/5GR) in Burma, including during the withdrawal from Burma in 1942. In May 1942 Bhajbir was specially selected as the personal orderly and bodyguard to General Slim in his role as Commander 1st Burma Corps and later of 14th Army, in recognition of his courage and loyalty.

Leadership Style and Legacy

Slim’s success as a higher commander, and his approach to leadership, owe much to his experiences in the First world War, to his service as a junior and field officer with Gurkha units and to his extensive study of his profession.

Perhaps because of his different background, he felt a need to demonstrate greater professional competence than his contemporaries . Certainly, his war injuries limited his ability to ride, hunt or engage in as many sports as others and he is known to have devoted much of his spare time to reading and study instead. His excellent performance in his application for the Indian Army Staff college at Quetta, and his first placing at the end of the course, marked him out for further professional development and after a period as an instructor at the Army Staff College in Camberley he was one of the small number of officers (from all three services) selected to attend the Imperial Defence College in London

Uncle Bill

William ‘Bill’ Slim is most often remembered for his command of 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War, but the undoubted skill of this command was underpinned by the professionalism resulting from decades of military training, and a deep understanding of those under his command.

To the British, Gurkha, Indian and Commonwealth soldiers he commanded, he was a true ‘soldier’s General’, building his Army’s fighting capability by ensuring their training, morale and welfare. To his superiors and the officers around him, he built a justified reputation as a sound commander with a keen eye for logistic detail and the administrative requirements of larger forces, as well as an ability rapidly to evaluate a situation before taking advantage of developments. This skill was nowhere more clearly shown than during the re-conquest of the central Burma plains. At the same time, his interpersonal skills were such that even the acerbic American General ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell accepted his command.

To later commanders and students of military leadership, he has stood out both as a highly capable commander and as a truly human one, able to evaluate and appreciate the abilities of his soldiers and deploy them well. It is for this reason that the example of his command of 14th Army has remained important to the ethos and training of the modern British Army and Officer Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst are issued a personal copy of Defeat Into Victory.

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