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Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942–1945 (1956)

by William Slim

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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286868,399 (4.38)17
Field Marshal William Slim stands alongside Montgomery as the outstanding British field commander of World War II. Defeat Into Victory is his classic account of the Burma campaign: a story of retreat, attrition and final hard-fought victory over the Japanese.Told by a commander always at the centre of events, this is a narrative which captures both the high drama and the harsh reality of war.… (more)

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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. ( )
  jmkemp | Jul 5, 2016 |
Well written and interesting account by Great Britain's best WW2 field commander, William Slim. His battlefield and logistics management skills enabled his resource-limited forces to drive the Japanese from Burma. A Gurkha general much as Wellington; who was derided by Napolean as a sepoy general; both were the best British generals of their wars.

According to the historian Robin Neillands, "Wellesley had by now acquired the experience on which his later successes were founded. He knew about command from the ground up, about the importance of logistics, about campaigning in a hostile environment.. Above all, he had gained a clear idea of how, by setting attainable objectives and relying on his own force and abilities, a campaign could be fought and won. This would be apt for describing Slim and he did it with very slim resources and primarily Indian soldiers. Slim often reflected n how frequently and by how much his plans changed but his battles objective rarely did.

It is amusing as well as pertinent to note that when Slim had to reduce his forces, during logistically difficult times, he sent out the Brits and kept the locals because of their lesser support requirements. He would have had similar concerns about Montgomery and many American generals. ( )
  jamespurcell | Apr 26, 2016 |
I knew little about this theatre of WW II but this volume gives a complete over view of the what took place in Burma. India was threaten but the Japanese never actually cross the border. Slim covers every battle from the moment he became involved in 1942 until VJ day and the clean up after.

Slim writes a very refreshing memoir in that he freely admits errors he made that led to defeats or delays in victory. He also points out times when he disagreed with his superiors and then in the end they were correct in their decisions. He spent time with Vinegar Joe Stilwell and Brig. Orde Wingate and goes into the conflicts that arose between them. He is very critical of Generalissimo Chaing Kai-shek and how he was more concerned more about retaining power than fighting the Japanese. He concludes with an analysis of how war will be fought in the future (he wrote this in 1956) and how air transport will be an important factor. He never mentions helicopters but he sure was correct about air transport being a huge factor in how future wars will be fought.
he one aspect of this theatre of war is what the front line soldier experienced. While Slim does give much credit to what these men overcame, he experienced limited moments on the front lines and he was more focused on presenting the over all picture. Now to find a memoir of a solder who fought in Burma. ( )
  lamour | Apr 11, 2013 |
Arguably the best Allied General of WWII; certainly the most attractive character; also the best writer.
  sonofcarc | Feb 26, 2013 |
Not only the best memoir from a British commander of WWII, but also one of the best leadership books. Slim's self awareness is apprent on every page; he makes no attempt to hide his errors and refuses to take more than his share of credit. This is not false modesty, his actions and the effect they had on the 14th Army speak for themselves: he always put his men first and it is they that he credits with forging victory. ( )
  Wilko976 | Dec 10, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Slim, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hastings, MaxIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hogan, David W.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Field Marshal William Slim stands alongside Montgomery as the outstanding British field commander of World War II. Defeat Into Victory is his classic account of the Burma campaign: a story of retreat, attrition and final hard-fought victory over the Japanese.Told by a commander always at the centre of events, this is a narrative which captures both the high drama and the harsh reality of war.

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