Home | History | Exam Papers | Memorabilia
William Slim was a St. Brendan's pupil over 100 years ago. This account has been written by SBOB Ralph Murphy (many thanks indeed).
William Slim was born in Bristol on 6 August 1891 at 72 Belmont Road, St Andrews. His father was a commercial traveller who converted to Catholicism to marry Charlotte Amelia Tucker, the daughter of a Somerset landowner and builder. Their local Church was St Bonaventure and at 5 Bill was enrolled at the newly opened St Brendan's College in Berkeley Square, a two mile walk from his home. This remained the home of the School until the late 1950's. The family moved in 1897 to 12 Maurice Road which was larger and more substantial. Bill was interested in tales of adventure and of soldiering in the Victorian era and closely followed reports on the Anglo-South African War that broke out in 1899. He was bullied at school however because of his name which suggested that he was a Boer sympathiser. In Afrikaans, the word "Slim" meant "guile" and papers frequently referred to "slim Boers" to indicate crafty and treachery. The connection was ludicrous but gave rise to cruel playground name calling. As he said in his own biography, " The gibe outraged my pride, my patriotism, my whole being. I remember battering away ineffectually at a bigger boy and blubbering hard, not because he was giving me a hiding, as most of them did, but from sheer frustrated rage and indignation". The experience did nothing to dent his enthusiastic interest in the war. He turned out to cheer troops marching through Bristol to the tunes of "Marching to Pretoria" and "goodbye Dolly Grey".
In 1904 the family moved to Birmingham and Bill enrolled at St Philip's Roman Catholic School for boys (JRR Tolkien was a contemporary). He had no particular aptitude for sport and was average at most academic subjects, apart from English. He was a forceful speaker at the debating society however and already was seen as a "born leader". At 16 he won a scholarship to King Edwards School Birmingham where he joined the Officer' Training Corps. After matriculation, he taught briefly then worked as a clerk in the steel industry but most of his energy was devoted to Birmingham University OTC. He could never have afforded to become a peacetime Amy Officer but with the outbreak of war, he was rapidly commissioned as a second temporary lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He fought with the Warwicks in Gallipoli and was gravely wounded in an attack on Hill Q in August 1916. Although designated as only fit for light duties, he managed to rejoin the Regiment in Iraq to participate in the Mesopotamia campaign against the Turks; he was again severely wounded, this time in the arm in an attack north of Bagdad. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 and with the strong support of the War Office managed to get a commission in the Indian Army where he soon found himself with the Ghurkhas whom he came to revere. He managed to secure a bride on a leave break in the UK; Aileen was the daughter of a Scots Presbyterian Minister who assented to the marriage notwithstanding Bill's Catholicism. Before long they had two children. Bill was always broke and began to augment his income through writing which he sustained until the end of his life.
Bill was well placed by the outbreak of war in 1939 to rise rapidly up the ranks; he had a reputation for solid leadership and sound judgement but his first campaign almost ended in disaster when he was shot again, this time from the air during the defeat of the Italians in Eritrea in 1940/41. He then successfully commanded British Forces that ejected Vichy from Syria in 1941, enforced order in Iraq and invaded Iran to require the Shah, who was inherently pro-German, to sign an alliance with the USSR and the UK. He was awarded the DSO for his efforts and was settling down into new quarters in early 1942 when he was summoned back to India to take charge of BuCorps..
By this time in March 1942, the war in South East Asia was going very badly for the allies and for the British in particular; as BuCorps Commander his priority task was to organise the retreat of the First Burma Corps from Burma to Imphal on the borders of India which they reached in May 1942. They had fought well but they were outclassed by the Japanese and demoralised by their reception in India. The 900 mile retreat from Burma in 1942 is the longest ever carried out by the British Army and was an epic unparalleled in their history. The choice was to fight the Japanese and face certain annihilation or retreat to India. It was of course an ignominious defeat but his conduct of it marked him out as a man of outstanding ability.
In May BuCorps was disbanded and Slim was given command of 15 Corps in reserve where he began to apply the training and motivation that would turn the new Army into the scourge of the Japanese. By March 1943 he was being drawn into an ill fated plan to throw the Japanese out of the Arakan which already showed signs of failure. Notwithstanding an attempt to blame him for lack of progress by his Commander, General Irwin, the latter was sacked and he was given acting command of a new and as yet unnamed formation, pending the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Commander South East Asia in October 1943.
Mountbatten with whom Bill struck up an important partnership, formed a favourable view of Slim and appointed him to command the new force, 14th Army in November 1943; his sole mission was to drive the Japanese out of Burma. By August 1944, the 14th Army had been forged into a formidable fighting machine with an esprit de Corps second to none. The combined operations of the 14th Army in Arakhan, Imphal and Kohima as well as Chindit operations behind the lines in the first 6 months of 1944 virtually destroyed 5 Enemy Divisions, shattering forever the myth of Japanese invincibility on the battlefield and severely degrading the ability of the Japanese to hold Burma.
Operation "Extended Capital" starting in December 1944 was the apogee of Bill's career as a "Fighting General"; in it he showed all of the skills of deception, surprise, speed flexibility and leadership with complete assurance. He completely out - thought his Japanese opponent; after forcing the Shwebo plain he bypassed Mandalay in the first instance and took Meikila after getting his army across the Irrawaddy. Mandalay was then finally seized and the culminating march on Rangoon, which the Japanese abandoned in early April 1945, was almost an anticlimax.
Perhaps the best appreciation of the importance of Slim's contribution to the outcome of the campaign can best be attributed to George Macdonald Frazier, the author of the Flashman series of novels, who was a lowly soldier in the Border Regiment at the time. "The biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion by the lake shore. It was unforgettable. Slim was like that; the only man I have ever seen who had a force coming out of him, strength of personality I have puzzled ever since, for there was no apparent reason for it, unless it was the time and place and my own state of mind. Yet others felt it too and they were not impressionable men. His appearance was plain enough; large heavily built, grim faced with that hard mouth and bulldog chin; the rakish Ghurkha hat was at odds with the slung carbine and untidy trouser bottoms. He might have been a yard foreman who became Managing Director or a prosperous farmer who had boxed in his youth. There was no nonsense of "gather round" or jumping up on boxes, he just stood there with his thumb hooked in his carbine sling and talked about how we had caught the Japanese off balance and how we were going to annihilate him in the open. There was no exhortation or ringing clichés. When he called the Japanese "bastards", it was casual and without heat. He was telling us informally what would be, in the reflective way of intimate conversation. And we believed every word and it all came true. I think that it was that sense of being close to us, as though he were chatting off hand to an understanding nephew ( not for nothing was he known as "Uncle Bill") that was his greatest gift. He thought, he knew, at our level. It was that, and the sheer certainty that was built into every line of him, that gave the 14th Army its overwhelming confidence; what he promised, he would surely do. And afterwards, when it was all over and he spoke of what his Army had done, it was always "you" not even "we" and never "I".
An ill fated attempt by Bill's commanding officer, General Oliver Leese, to remove him from command in May 1945 and transfer him to a Reserve Army for reasons that seem to be connected with a desire to place one of his own supporters in the position and seize more control for himself, was doomed as soon it came to Churchill's attention. Instead Leese was forced out to a lesser pre-retirement post and was replaced by Slim as Commander in Chief Allied Forces in South East Asia. He was not to enjoy this for very long as the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August; after Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered on 15 August.
Slim had the deepest contempt for the Japanese because of their bestial treatment of prisoners and the occupied peoples. He sat next to Mountbatten as the commander of the Japanese Army surrendered in Singapore on 12 September thinking "They sat there apart from the rest of humanity". Macarthur in a submission to sentimentality had decreed that the "archaic practice" of ceremonially forcing the Japanese to hand over their swords should not be enforced. Slim thought otherwise. He ordered that all senior officers should surrender their swords in front of parades of their own troops. When he was told that a Japanese Officer's honour was so bound up with his ceremonial sword that he might continue fighting, or commit suicide rather than surrender it, Bill was unsympathetic. He said that if they wanted to go on fighting, he was ready for them and if they chose suicide, they would be given every facility to succeed.
Bill returned home on Christmas day 1945 with the 14th Army who remained largely unknown to the British people. Mountbatten, Montgomery and Alexander were feted as heroes of the hour. This did not bother Slim as he never cared for publicity. In much of the post war literature, including Churchill's memoirs, Slim was not given credit for these achievements. As he only had his pension, he reluctantly accepted the post of the first post war Commandant of the Imperial Defence College. At the end of the two year contract, the War Office were keen to rotate someone else into the job so he accepted an invitation from Clem Attlee to join the Railway Executive which was charged with the issue of nationalisation, becoming shortly afterwards Deputy Chairman. He wasn't there very long because in 1948 with strong support from Mountbatten and in the teeth of fierce opposition from Montgomery the outgoing CIGS who was going to be Chairman of the Commanders in Chief Committee of the Western European Union, Attlee had Slim recalled to the active list and made him CIGS. Montgomery's vanity was pricked by the idea of an Indian Army Officer replacing him, particularly one held in such high esteem by his contemporaries. His big mistake was to tell Attlee that he had already told his Deputy that he was going to get the job; "well, untell him" came the reply.
Bill was promoted Field Marshall and was CIGS until 1953 where he had to deal with many of the problems, such as National Service, which were part of the transition to peacetime. On one of his tours however he visited Canberra and struck up such a good relationship with the Australians that Prime Minister Robert Menzies put him at the top of his list for the post of Governor General (usually held by an Australian). He served in Australia until 1960 and was very popular. He was given a Peerage in 1960 being accorded the title of Viscount Slim of Yarrumla in the Capital Territory of Australia and Bishopston in the City and County of Bristol ( so he never forgot his roots)
In 1960 Bill became a Director of ICI and a string of major international companies and in 1963 he became a Deputy Constable in residence at Windsor Castle. By 1967 his health was beginning to fail and within a year he had to resign directorships as his mind was wandering. He died on 14 December 1970 from a stroke having recently received a visit by Mountbatten to whom he whispered "we did it together, old boy".
In 2011 the National Army Museum conducted a poll to discover who merited the title of "Britain's Greatest General". The field was winnowed down to 5 and and after a days debate in which each was championed, a draw was declared between Wellington and Slim.
Notes by Ralph Murphy; Drawn from Russell Miller's book "Uncle Bill; The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Viscount Slim"