I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading about some small slice of history when I ran into a mention of something else, looked it up, and ended up learning something that I never even suspected had happened.
A good example? Back in 1959 when Lolly and I met, I was surprised to find that each of us was reading a novel written by John Masters. She was reading “The Lotus and the Wind,” and I was reading “The Deceivers.” We still have her book, by the way, and I genuinely treasure it.
That coincidence led to an interest in John Masters and the time and place he often wrote about — India under the British Raj. I used to go to the “bookstore” in the Payson library to find books, and each time I went there I always looked for his novels. That led to the accidental discovery of his book, “The Road Back to Mandalay,” in which Masters, a major in the British Indian Army, described the fighting in Burma.
Curious about the fighting in Burma in WWII, I ran into one of the best books I have ever read: “Defeat Into Victory” by Field Marshall Sir William Slim. Slim isn’t kidding when he says, “defeat into victory.” That’s exactly what he accomplished.
As you may know, a terrible defeat of British forces in Southeast Asia took place in Singapore, one that cost them 80,000 men. They have called it the “worst disaster in British military history,” and it led to a series of defeats that continued right on into Burma. The Japanese seemed oddly unbeatable. They had taken position after position from forces which for centuries had been undefeatable, sweeping from the Philippines, to French Indo-China, Malaya, Singapore, Siam, and on into Burma.
As Slim’s book begins, things were as bad in Burma as they had been everywhere else. Japanese suicide “banzai” attacks were overwhelming British and Indian Army troops, which had never before known defeat.
But then they ran into Bill Slim!
Slim was not in command in Burma at first, but in 1943 he was placed in command of all British Forces there, and so he sat down and asked himself why the Japanese were winning. It took a lot of thinking, but he eventually realized just how shaky the Japanese strategy was. Being overconfident, they believed they did not have to “waste” men and machines in supplying their forces with the things required in the field, especially food. They relied on their banzai attacks to capture whatever they needed — from the enemy.
Slim thought it over and decided he would not try to hold territory. Why? Because if he lost territory he also lost the supplies stored there.
Just read what he wrote about it: “So our object became not to defend India, not to stop the Japanese advance, and not even to occupy Burma, but to destroy the Japanese Army itself, to smash it as an evil thing.”
How did he do that? He created small strongholds supplied by air, ones that could not be taken even by suicidal banzai charges. The result? With no way to capture supplies from the enemy, the Japanese army fell apart. For example, almost every one of 150,000 Japanese reinforcements sent to Burma in March of 1944 were dead by July, most of them having simply starved to death.
Did you know all that? I certainly didn’t.
And I’d never have known it if I hadn’t just stumbled upon Slim’s book.
See you next week.