My history hero: Field Marshal Bill Slim (1891-1970)

Comedian, actor and television presenter Griff Rhys Jones chooses Field Marshal Bill Slim as his history hero

Field Marshal Bill Slim

This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Field Marshal William ‘Bill’ Joseph Slim commanded the ‘forgotten’ 14th Army, which eventually triumphed against the Japanese in Burma in the Second World War. After serving in the First World War and being injured at Gallipoli, he joined the Indian Army and became a lieutenant colonel in the Gurkha Rifles in the 1930s. In 1942 he was given command of the Burma Corps, before taking command of the newly created 14th Army. He was governor general of Australia from 1953 to 1959. In 1960 he was created Viscount Slim.

When did you first hear about Slim?

Growing up I used to get weekly comics like Eagle and it was there I think I first read about him. I’ve always been interested in the Burma campaign because my doctor father served in Slim’s army. He occasionally told funny, self-deprecating stories about his time out there, although he never spoke about the fighting.

What kind of person was he?

The British Army was a pretty class-ridden organisation at the start of the war, and Slim’s background was different to most army officers at the time. He was the son of an ironmonger, went to a grammar school and was a school teacher before joining the army. By all accounts, he was unflappable, unstuffy, easygoing and diplomatic. He was quite a literary figure too, writing books and novels throughout his career, under a pseudonym, which rather endears him to me.

What made Slim a hero?

After the Japanese pushed the British out of Burma – one of the most ignominious episodes in British military history – Slim recognised that we were fighting a fanatical enemy in the far east, and that only by boosting the British forces’ morale would we turn the tables on the Japanese. He led from the front, took responsibility for the wellbeing of the troops and turned the 14th Army into a truly effective fighting force. He also came up with the idea of the ‘boxed defence’ in jungle warfare – a ‘defended box’ to be resupplied by air rather than land.

What was Slim’s finest hour?

Probably the battle of Kohima in north-east India in 1944 – which saw a lot of brutal hand-to-hand fighting – when the Japanese U-Go offensive was stopped in its tracks. The Anglo-Indian force holding out in the town of Kohima was relieved, the Japanese were then forced from the positions they had captured and gradually pushed back. It was an extraordinary achievement and depended in part upon Slim being able to convince his men that they were just as good ‘jungle fighters’ as the Japanese.

How do you think you would have fared in your father’s shoes if you’d found yourself in Burma during the war?

I think my father, who was very young when he was sent to Burma, was a bit of a mummy’s boy and found it lonely there. But he rose to the challenge, and I like to think that I would have done too.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

There have recently been allegations that he was implicated in sexual assault against minors during his postwar tenure as governor general of Australia. If true, it goes without saying that the world would revise its opinion of him, and I would have to, as well.

If you could meet Slim, what would you ask him?

I would like to know how he coped with the knowledge that troops were dying as a result of the army’s incompetence when he first took control of the Burma Corps.

Griff Rhys Jones was talking to York Membery. Griff Rhys Jones’s new comedy tour Where Was I? starts on 18 January. For details of the 35 dates, visit socomedy.co.uk/artist/griff-rhys-jones

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Listen Again: General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British Army, chose Bill Slim for an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00dhb1n