Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Slim, Sir William Joseph (1891–1970)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

William Joseph Slim (1891-1970), by unknown photographer, 1953

William Joseph Slim (1891-1970), by unknown photographer, 1953

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L15797

Sir William Joseph Slim (1891-1970), army officer, governor-general and author, was born on 6 August 1891 at Bristol, England, younger son of John Benjamin Thomas Slim, commercial traveller, and his wife Charlotte Amelia, née Tucker. Educated at St Philip's Catholic school, Edgbaston, and King Edward's School, Birmingham, Bill showed literary ability, little aptitude for sport, and an interest in the army, but lacked the means to proceed to a military academy. He taught in an elementary school, worked as a clerk with a firm of engineers, and joined the University of Birmingham Officers' Training Corps. On 22 August 1914 he was gazetted second lieutenant, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Seriously wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, Slim was invalided to England. He was granted a regular commission in the West India Regiment, but in October 1916 rejoined his old battalion in Mesopotamia. In the following year he was wounded again, awarded the Military Cross, and evacuated to India. After recovering, he served with increasing boredom at Army Headquarters, Delhi. He transferred to the Indian Army in 1919. Next year he was posted to the 1st Battalion, 6th Gurkha Rifles, of which he became adjutant in 1921. At St Andrew's Church, Bombay, on 1 January 1926 he married Aileen Robertson (1901-1993) with the forms of the Church of Scotland; although the service was followed by a ceremony in the Catholic church at Quetta, he regarded himself as a lapsed Catholic.

Slim's brilliant success in 1926-28 at the Staff College, Quetta, was followed by a term at Army Headquarters and by his attachment (1934-36) to the Staff College, Camberley, England, as Indian Army instructor. From the 1937 course at the Imperial Defence College, London, he returned to India. He was promoted lieutenant colonel (1938), given command of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, and appointed (1939) commandant of the Senior Officers' School, Belgaum, as temporary brigadier. Meanwhile, he also developed as a writer. To supplement his income, he contributed stories and articles under the pen-name 'Anthony Mills' to English newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, and to periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine.

On 23 September 1939 Slim assumed command of the 10th Indian Brigade. In November 1940 he led a force which captured Gallabat (on the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan) from the Italians. In failing to capitalize on this success and take nearby Metemma as well, he blamed no one but himself: 'When two courses of action were open to me I had not chosen, as a good commander should, the bolder. I had taken counsel of my fears'. Wounded soon after in an air-attack, he sent a stoical telegram to his mother: 'Bullet Bottom Better Bill'. He was promoted acting major general and appointed to command the 10th Indian Division in May 1941. A successful campaign (June-July) against Vichy French forces in Syria preceded an easier one (August) in Persia, described by him as opéra bouffe.

Recalled to India in March 1942, Slim was promoted acting lieutenant general and given command of I Burma Corps (Burcorps), then in retreat from Rangoon before the advancing Japanese. Against great difficulties, he brought the exhausted but defiant survivors to Imphal, India. His pre-eminent contribution, as in subsequent campaigns, was in maintaining morale. He spoke to as many soldiers as possible, man to man, and enabled them to hope 'when hope seemed absurd'. Their 'will to live sustained a will to fight'. On Burcorps' disbandment in May, Slim was appointed to command XV Corps. During the Arakan campaign of 1942-43, he clashed with his army commander, Lieutenant General Noel Irwin, who attempted to have him relieved. The outcome was tersely expressed in Irwin's message to Slim: 'You're not sacked. I am'.

In October 1943 Slim was appointed to command the Fourteenth Army. He smashed the fraying legend of Japanese invincibility at Imphal and Kohima (May-July 1944), and at Mandalay and Meiktila (February-March 1945), Burma. The reoccupation of Rangoon in May 1945 completed a series of victories that brought him fame. Lord Louis (Earl) Mountbatten considered him 'the finest general World War II produced'. The transformation of a defeated force into a proud army was Slim's greatest achievement, and he had come to be known by his soldiers as 'Uncle Bill'. After Rangoon was taken, Sir Oliver Leese, commander-in-chief, Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, decided that he would replace Slim. The decision was greeted with dismay and incredulity by officers and men of the Fourteenth Army, and was quashed in London. Promoted general on 1 July 1945, Slim took over from Leese just as the war ended on 15 August. He had been appointed C.B.E. in 1942 and awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1943; he was appointed C.B. and K.C.B. in 1944, and G.B.E. in 1946.

Early in 1946 Slim was sent to London to resuscitate the Imperial Defence College as its commandant. He retired on 1 April 1948. An ensuing term as deputy-chairman of the Railway Executive ended seven months later with his recall to the army as chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was promoted field marshal on 4 January 1949. During the next four years he visited British commands abroad and a number of other countries. In Australia he impressed many people, including Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. He was appointed G.C.B. (1950) and G.C.M.G. (1952).

On 8 May 1953 Slim was sworn in as governor-general of Australia. Menzies had sought a man of stature, one who had no involvement in Australian politics, and one who would represent the monarch effectively. Slim was to see no change of prime minister over his term of nearly seven years. Despite occasional friction, a relationship of trust developed between him and Menzies, based on a healthy respect for each other's intellect and integrity.

Partly because of the royal visit of 1954—the first by a reigning monarch to Australia—but also owing to his own combination of authority and humanity, Slim's governor-generalship was judged to be notably successful, even by those who believed that the office should be held by an Australian. His humanity came to be as apparent to the Australian people as it had been to his soldiers in Burma. Early in his term, however, he occasioned some surprise by the unflattering remarks he made 'about anything or anybody in Australia he regarded as below par'. As a field marshal he was well qualified both to inspire and to rebuke the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia.

The Slims travelled widely throughout Australia. Sir William's speeches impressed by their cogency, dry humour and directness, as did his off-the-cuff remarks to journalists (when implored by one photographer to smile, he replied, 'Dammit, I am!'). His craggy appearance, upright bearing, and jutting chin barely disguised his kindness and approachability. What they did disguise was the pain he continually felt as a result of his wounds. He and his wife both possessed fortitude. She suffered a succession of illnesses, beginning with a serious haemorrhage on their arrival in Canberra. Her determination and perfectionism matched his, and were seen in the improvements she made to Government House, Canberra, and Admiralty House, Sydney. A warmth of heart and manner characterized her presence, whether as hostess or guest, at the many functions attending the vice-regal office.

Slim's three books were all published during his time in Australia. The first, Defeat into Victory (London, 1956), about the Burma campaign, sold more than 100,000 copies and was hailed as one of the best, and best-written, on World War II; he dedicated the book to Aileen, 'a soldier's wife who followed the drum and from mud-walled hut or Government House made a home'. He included a number of his speeches in Australia in Courage and Other Broadcasts (1957). Accounts of his earlier and smaller battles, some previously published in Blackwood's Magazine, appeared in his reminiscences, Unofficial History (1959). The Slims were also interested in the arts and education; the former teacher enjoyed visiting schools and talking to pupils and principals alike.

Appointed G.C.V.O. (1954) and K.G. (1959), Slim left office on 2 February 1960 and returned to England. On Menzies' initiative, Sir William and Lady Slim received Australian pensions and passports. In 1960 Slim was raised to the peerage, taking the title Viscount Slim of Yarralumla and Bishopston. He was appointed deputy-constable and lieutenant-governor of Windsor Castle in 1963 and was promoted constable and governor in 1964. His other posts included chairmanship of the council of the Fairbridge Society, and directorships of the National Bank of Australasia Ltd and Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. He held nine honorary doctorates, including four from Australian universities. He retained his affection for the Gurkhas and friendships with former colleagues.

Failing in health, Slim retired from his posts at Windsor shortly before he died on 14 December 1970 at St Marylebone, London. He was accorded a full military funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor, and was cremated. His wife, and their son and daughter survived him. (Sir) Ivor Hele's portrait of Slim is held by the family, Leonard Boden's by the National Army Museum, London. Slim is further commemorated by a plaque in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral and by a statue at Whitehall unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lewin, Slim (Lond, 1976), and for bibliography
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark (ed), Gables, Ghosts and Governors-General (Syd, 1988)
  • J. Keegan (ed), Churchill's Generals (Lond, 1991)
  • B. Foott, Ethel and the Governors' General (Syd, 1992)
  • J. Colvin, Not Ordinary Men (Lond, 1994)
  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 2 (Melb, 1999)
  • Canberra Times, 15 Dec 1970
  • Times (London), 15 Dec 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar 1977
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Slim, Sir William Joseph (1891–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/slim-sir-william-joseph-11713/text20937, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Joseph Slim (1891-1970), by unknown photographer, 1953

William Joseph Slim (1891-1970), by unknown photographer, 1953

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L15797

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Viscount Slim
  • Slim, first Viscount
Birth

6 August 1891
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England

Death

14 December 1970
London, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation