Defeat into Victory
Defeat Into Victory

(Sir William Slim)

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Defeat Into Victory

A very enjoyable book about the war in Burma, 1941-1945. The "defeat" chapters are more familiar to follows of the American Volunteer Group, since they chronicle the Japanese invasion and conquest of Burma. The author is the British general whom Vinegar Joe Stilwell--who very rarely had anything pleasant to say about anyone--called "Good old Slim." He was a big, jut-jawed man who took command of British Commonwealth forces in Burma after they had already been demoralized by the Japanese onslaught. Back in India, he whipped them into shape for the return, which was a long process. Again, American readers will be most familiar with the exploits of Orde Wingate's "Chindit" force that operated for months behind Japanese lines.

But there was a huge Chinese army in eastern Burma, not to mention the Commonwealth army (mostly Indian, but also including some British and African units) fighting into the country from the west. After a painfully long buildup, the Japanese began to crack, and with astonishing rapidity the Commonwealth divisions drove down the Sittang River Valley to the outskirts of Rangoon. Racing the 1945 monsoon rains--just as in retreat he had raced the 1942 monsoon to get out of Burma--Slim cheerfully bypasses division-sized remnants of the Japanese army.

These were later slaughtered at leisure: "Sakuari, lacking transport and communications, and with his troops in the state they were in, had indeed done well to stage any sort of organized break-out at all, but his losses were devastating.... 4 Corps had taken seven hundred and fifty prisoners--an unheard of ratio, at least ten times as high as ever before.... Against the admitted Japanese twelve thousand killed and missing, we had suffered only ninety-five killed and three hundred and twenty-two wounded. We were killing Japanese at a rate of over a hundred to one."

As a former enlisted man, I found myself a bit irritated by Slim's cheery depicitions of combat. The book begins with this sentence: "It was good fun commanding a division in the Iraq desert." I'm sure it was--but not nearly as much fun humping a rifle across the sand, or later through the jungle! Slim's divisions go into battle with their "tails" held high, as if a trooper were a life form on the level of the mongoose, and they like nothing better than to clear a roadblock "at the point of the bayonet."

No matter. It's good yarn, told with an honesty that few American generals would attempt, and the maps are splendid. (My copy is a hardbound edition; I can't speak for the maps in the paperback.)