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:

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Prince Philip and the Gurkhas

Sir Peter Duffell (left) introducing HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers at the annual Field of Remembrance on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in November 2012. (source: courtesy of Sir Peter Duffell)

I have always been a huge fan of the Gurkhas, who are among the best soldiers who have served and are still serving for Queen and Country. In that regard, I have the privilege of being in touch with Sir Peter Duffell, author of Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), a former commanding officer of the Gurkhas, who later went on to commanding British Forces in Hong Kong between 1989 and 1992. This impressive and generous military figure also served as British Army’s Inspector General.

Upon learning of Prince Philips’s passing two weeks ago, I wrote Sir Peter to ask him about the relationship between the consort and the Gurkhas. Here’s what he mentioned:

Continue reading “Prince Philip and the Gurkhas”