Defeat Into Victory

IWM caption : THE BRITISH ARMY IN BURMA 1945. ...
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A friend sent me a copy of Field Marshal Bill Slim‘s Defeat Into Victory. It has always been on my list of books I’d like to read, but somehow I’d never quite got round to acquiring a copy. The version I have is a reading copy of the original edition, with fold out maps all through it.

The reading style is very engaging and easy to read, especially if you have the space to fold out the map at the end of the chapter so that you can follow all the places when they appear in the narrative. It was the first time I’d read about the ebb and flow of the war in Burma (even though my grandfather drove a DUKW out there). So I found it very interesting, the nature of warfare was hugely different that both Europe and North Africa (and I suspect even the Pacific Islands). In some respects the war fought in Burma was more like recent modern wars with low troop densities, long logistics tails and a massive reliance on air power.

The other engaging bit about the book was that Slim shows you the development of the army from a road bound Western linear fighting force into an all arms, all round defence, jungle fighting machine. In the beginning the British Army is out of its depth and way beyond the ken of its commanders or troops. The Japanese have infiltration tactics that the British just can’t cope with, and are so stubborn in defence that they cannot be shifted when they gain a hold. The British just dissolve and retreat rapidly out of the way (mostly).

It isn’t just a story of the British Army, as well as colonial forces (Indians and Africans mostly) there is also the alliance warfare aspect of the war. He liaises with Vinegar Joe Stillwell and the Chinese Army too.

Later, the British manage to shorten their lines of communication, build defences and work out how to deal with the Japanese. Once they do, then the tables turn, although it takes much stubborn fighting to shift the enemy. There is a good narrative that explains the constraints the 14th Army was operating under, the logistics challenges and how these were overcome and also the details of the operations. Occasionally there are little personal vignettes of visits to the front, or reports of battles.

One of the things I noted was the commentary on how few prisoners were taken, mostly it was a grim fight to the death by both sides. A typical note on a Japanese attack was that there was one prisoner taken and 600 Japanese bodies recovered from the 14th Army positions.

However, great as all this is, the last section of the book is the best. In the last chapter Slim gives his opinions on why things turned out the way that they did and also on what he draws as lessons for the future. Given that this was written in 1957 he has a lot to say that I think was quite prescient about current operations (and it might also have been right for the post-nuclear exchange as well, but thankfully we’ve avoided that).

The thing I do wonder, is why are all our operational games about the European war? The furthest East we manage is the Russian front, when there is whole load of interesting stuff going on out in the Far East. I suspect I may well return to this when I have some time to sort out another game design.

 

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About Author:

James has a keen interest in military history, backed with experience as a TA reservist and a 17th century re-enactor. He has designed and run several face to face social games and is the editor of MilMud, the journal of the CLWG game design group. He is currently working on a book on the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution.

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