Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

After the Nepal Wars, the Gurkhas became irregular battalions of the East India Company’s Bengal Army.

During the Indian Mutiny the Gurkhas fidelity and exemplary military performance at Delhi in 1857 earned them a place in the van of a reorganized Indian Army that followed the dissolution of the East India Company.

Here, the Gurkha Battalions were recast as Rifle Regiments and adopted the style, character and dress of the British 60th Rifles with whom they had fought alongside at Delhi. They remained as Rifles Regiments when four of them transferred to British Army at the time of the partition of India in 1947. The Indian Army Gurkha Regiments also retained their titles as Rifle Regiments. So, they adopted the best traditions of the Rifle Regiments and the British Army had the capacity, the good sense, to take on the Gurkha regiments from the old Indian Army. I suppose that partially answers your question.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly. One modest example for you.

Slim had a self-deprecating style and much humility, although he was a calm and robust and at times dashing military commander.

In Gurkha Odyssey, we had a glimpse of your opinions about Field Marshall Montgomery and Field Marshall Viscount Slim. You seem to admire the latter much more than the former, who was part of the Gurkha family. Monty is larger than life in public awareness, while Slim’s contribution is less spread. What is the extent of Viscount Slim’s contribution to victory in World War II? In terms of character, how was Slim different from Montgomery and why has he been eclipsed?

Slim and Montgomery were two extremely effective and well renowned British Generals and both earned their place in British military history books. Both, in their own way attracted the enthusiasm of their soldiers. Both contributed to famous victories in World War Two.

Both were commissioned into Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Both experienced the horrors of the First World War where both were wounded. Slim succeeded Montgomery as Chief of the Imperial General Staff – the head of the British Army. There I suppose the parallels end.

At the end of the First World War Slim transferred to the Indian Army and the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Montgomery, while at Sandhurst, was turned down for the Indian Army.

While both were successful military commanders, in character the two men were very different. Whereas Montgomery was arrogant, prickly, lacking in humility and generally uncooperative with Allies and cautious in his military style, Slim characteristics were the reverse with a self-deprecating style and much humility, although a calm and robust and at times dashing military commander.

The defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army was a famous victory and the result of superb generalship and Slim was widely praised for it, but it did not in itself affect the security of the homeland. Hence the eclipse that you mention.

Montgomery was much the better-known British Commander because his campaigns were fought much closer to home, received huge media coverage and involved thousands of British soldiers. He was the victor of El Alamein – a much needed victory for British Arms that began to turn the tide of the war and the senior British Commander for the D-Day landings and the campaign in Northwest Europe that followed to defeat the Germans. Slim and his 14th Army was a challenging sideshow when compared to the African and European campaigns and the bulk of Slim forces came from the India Army. Thus, his command became known as the Forgotten Army. The defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army was a famous victory and the result of superb generalship and Slim was widely praised for it, but it did not in itself affect the security of the homeland. Hence the eclipse that you mention.

Final question about Viscount Slim. What is the best book to read about him?

Read Slim’s own books – Defeat into Victory and Unofficial History.

I vividly remember reading about this one-armed Gurkha who fought 200 Japanese soldiers during World War II. In your book, there are several mentions of warriors losing an arm during battle, which, to my knowledge, did not prevent them from fighting. Are there other military units, either in the British Army or anywhere else in the world, who have such a high degree of courage under fire?

The Gurkha soldier has a deserved reputation for courage but so do many others. I am certainly not going to suggest that the Gurkhas were any braver than any other soldiers. I will content myself with encouraging your readers to examine their history and come to their own conclusions.

HRH the Prince of Wales cares greatly about his various causes in which he is deeply involved, and has been a warm, sensitive, and generous friend to many. He will be a fine King.

Under your pen, HRH the Prince of Wales is portrayed as a very well-informed and involved character. Alas, he is oftentimes underappreciated in the public space. In your opinion, what are his main qualities and is there an anecdote you would be willing to share that would give us a glimpse about his character?

I have been fortunate to have travelled and been involved with the Prince of Wales on many occasions in the course of my service – not least he has been a great friend of the Gurkhas. He has dedicated himself to Royal service – best personified by the wonderful work of the Prince’s Trust. He cares greatly about his various causes in which he is deeply involved, and has been a warm, sensitive, and generous friend to many. He will be a fine King.

Do you have another book in mind or in preparation? If so, would you feel comfortable to tell us what it will be about?

I am hard at work on another book!

“When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be”

In themselves, these words from His Royal Highness Prince Harry encapsulate the ethos and history of those soldiers who are called the best in the world. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, notably for two months in Helmand, the Duke of Sussex has seen for himself what those legendary fighters are made of.

In his amazing book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), retired General Sir Peter Duffell took upon himself to explain what kind of mettle these exceptional fighters who first encountered the British red coats as enemies on the battlefield of the war on Nepal between 1814 and 1816 are made of. Few people could know the subject better, since the author was himself commissioned into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles at the beginning of his military career.

Having lived for several months in Edinburgh (Scotland), I visited the National War Museum on a few occasions. I was always impressed to read that, during World War I, Germans used to call Scottish soldiers “the ladies from hell” – a distinct reference to their kilt and warrior prowess.

I don’t know how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops (or other battlefield enemies throughout history) called the Gurkhas south of Ypres in the first months of the Great War, but I can easily imagine a similar fright must be instilled in whoever sees one of those Nepali soldiers advancing toward his / her position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of fighter we are talking about, the author recounts that, in the last stages of the Burma campaign:

Continue reading ““When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be””

Prince Philip at Matapan

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (source: Town & Country Magazine)

During my interview with him about the Battle of Matapan, renowned author and professor Craig L. Symonds suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Richard Porter to get a better sense of what the Duke of Edinburgh accomplished during this fateful day on the sea. Dr. Porter is Curator of The Britannia Museum at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

Being fascinated with Prince Philip in general and his role during World War II in particular, I was extremely happy to get in touch with Dr. Porter, who kindly replied to me despite a demanding schedule. Even though the Duke of Edinburgh is no longer front and center in the news media, I’m sure all the enthusiasts of military history will appreciate this text.

Without further introduction, here is the full content of his response.

A Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life.

Prince Philip was appointed to the WW1 Battleship HMS Valiant in January 1940. He was one of 20 Midshipmen out of a crew of 1200. As he put it, a Midshipman was the lowest form of naval life. He also makes the point that with a crew of 1200 information was not easily relayed to all crew members, even so even the Midshipmen were aware that the Italian Fleet was thought to be at sea. Prince Philip thought that there was definitely a ‘special atmosphere of anticipation as the Fleet put to sea from Alexandria during the night of 27 March’. The Prince’s Action Station was on the Bridge and at night he had control of the port searchlight. From that position he managed to gather roughly what was going on.

Continue reading “Prince Philip at Matapan”

The Peasant Emperor

A few years ago, media outlets reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping dined on steamed buns in a Beijing restaurant. Whether this venue was an orchestrated photo opportunity or the instantaneous desire of a world leader searching for a whiff of normalcy in the sometime claustrophobic alleys of power doesn’t really matter. Its true purpose was revelatory of who Xi is; a leader who is and wants to be close to the people.

I was reminded of that outing while reading Kerry Brown’s book The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China (I.B. Tauris), a pertinent and still timely book (2018) on the actual leader of the second most important economy on the planet.

“Of the recent leaders of China since Deng [Xiaoping], in many ways Xi is the one with the most authentic, best-known links to the countryside, and his use of this set of experiences aims to convey this.” Furthermore, and probably because he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, Xi had to make no less than 10 attempts to become a member of the Party. In a nutshell, the General Secretary of the Party didn’t get an easy pass to power. And I’m certain this resonates with many ordinary people.

Continue reading “The Peasant Emperor”

Xi Jinping: micro-manager

Deng Xiaoping (left) and Xi Jinping (right). (sources: Wikipedia and CNN)

I have always been fascinated with anything related to Deng Xiaoping. It is thus not surprising that an article from the Journal of Contemporary China caught my attention a few days ago.

In the scope of a few pages, the late Ezra Vogel compares the stewardship of Deng to the one of the current leader of China, Xi Jinping. The Harvard University academic, who passed away a few days before last Christmas, was also the acclaimed biographer of Deng, who was at the helm of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1989.

Xiaoping, in the author’s words, established “[…] the foundations for the most successful four decades in China’s history”. He rose to power at the age of 74, cumulating decades of experience, notably collaborating with Zhou Enlai and 13 years spent in the inner sanctum of power. This enviable track record prepared him well for supreme responsibility. Well versed in the discipline of power and most probably surrounded by people who were well acquainted with his methods and thinking, Deng could afford to be a macro-manager. To that end, the following anecdote told by Ezra Vogel is illuminating:

Continue reading “Xi Jinping: micro-manager”

“Write me a victory”

“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.

Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.

In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:

Continue reading ““Write me a victory””