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!

Montgomery and Israel

Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es
Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es

Martin Sieff just wrote a brilliant book review in the Jerusalem Post about Monty’s Men, a reappraisal of the contribution of Marshal Montgomery’s forces during WW2 by British military historian John Buckley.

In my opinion, the most significant and insightful passage of that piece is the following:

“In addition to these stunning achievements, Israelis have never woken up to the crucial fact that Montgomery twice played a central, critical role in protecting the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine in the pre-state years. Firstly, he saved them from massacre by suppressing the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the first true intifada. Then he rescued them from total genocidal extermination by annihilating the Nazi drive to conquer the entire Middle East at the Battle of Alamein, in November 1942.”

You can understand why the book review is titled “The Yishuv’s unlikely guardian angel”.

Even though I’m a huge fan on Monty, I have to admit that my knowledge about this part of his career is lacking. And I gather I’m not the only one.

In his recent book about Orde Wingate – who is held in very high esteem in Israel for his role forming the Special Night Squads (SNS), a unit in which Wingate recruited future legends like like Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan – Simon Anglim briefly refers to Montgomery and his involvement in the military affairs of the Mandate:

“The other major factor [in fighting the Arab uprising] was the arrival in Northern Palestine’s of the British Army’s most capable and ruthless senior commander, Major General Bernard Montgomery, assuming command of the 8th Division, including the 16th Brigade, in December 1938. Montgomery’s favoured pattern of operations could have been lifted straight from Calwell or Simson: the British were ‘definitely at war’ and any return to civilian control could only follow the complete destruction of the rebels in battle. There was a resumption of cordon and sweep operations by mobile columns, with the specific aim of killing insurgents, and greater use than before of night-time raids on villages suspected of harbouring guerrillas , now involving all units, not just the Night Squads.” (p. 85).

Of course, this is not sufficient to quench my curiosity about Monty’s military role during the British Mandate in Palestine. But it’s a pretty good starting point.

And knowing that many – not to say most – of the British officials in Jerusalem were then harboring if not anti-Semitism at least a relatively high level of resentment towards the Jewish people, it’s good to know that Orde Wingate has company in Monty as friends of the Yishuv.