My recipe for effective leadership
Some thoughts from the Burma Campaign
You’ll forgive me I hope for jumping on a bandwagon, but I thought this was an opportune time to remind ourselves that war teaches us much about leadership in the most difficult of circumstances. The night before last I was privileged to give a talk at the University of York on the subject of the war in the Far East for the Kohima Educational Trust. One of the themes was the dramatic failure of Japanese leadership in the war. Indeed, the war in the Far East between offers striking contrasts between the qualities of British military leadership during the years of defeat (1941-1943) with those of victory (1944-1945). A contrast is also observable in the qualities of Japanese leadership, which declined markedly between 1941 and 1945. Britain began the war in the Far East in December 1941 with commanders unable to meet the challenges posed by the Japanese. Many British commanders made serious errors. They underestimated the enemy, failed to prepare adequately for logistical necessities, and ignored obvious military deficiencies (such as inadequate training) in their commands. They sometimes also exhibited considerable personal deficiencies, or failures of character. Some were guilty of ignoring advice, of demonstrating poor moral courage, of assuming that rank inferred a monopoly of intelligence, paid insufficient detail to operations, wilfully ignored realities on the ground in favour of their own preconceptions, and displayed a grotesque indifference to the welfare of their men. In short, quite a few were poor leaders.
My observations of studying war in the Far East between 1941 and 1945 is that successful generalship requires four critical characteristics: leadership, strategic sense, intelligent energy and originality. What is abundantly clear is that generals who possess only one or a pair of these characteristics will never achieve what Sun Tzŭ lauded as a ‘Master of War’ or what Clausewitz called a military ‘genius’.
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Strong, personal leadership
The first quality of generalship is strong personal leadership, of the quality displayed by men such as Yamashita Tomoyuki and Bill Slim. Soldiers need to know that they are led by men who have their interests at heart, and who when they frame plans and prosecute campaigns they do so with the least possible loss of life. This characteristic is obviously critical in democratic armies, though less so in armies motivated by obedience to a deeper spiritual ideal, such as bushido. Japanese soldiers demonstrated time and again that they would fight and die with undiminished commitment for Japan despite the mediocrity of the generalship that had placed them in the predicament that threatened their lives.
The greatest military commanders in history have all been dynamic leaders, with strong and often charismatic personalities, able to inspire men and bond them to their own wills, to rouse weary and dispirited men to continue the fight with all the passion and energy with which they started, as Clausewitz commented, all ‘by the spark in his breath, by the light of his spirit, the spark of purpose, the light of hope…
The importance of forceful, visible and dominating leadership to the success or otherwise of military ventures cannot be overstated. Unless an Army believes that ‘the show is in good hands’ confidence will rapidly dissipate. The full-orbed character of the leader and their approach to warfighting – their personality, strategic awareness, energy and ability to be original – is the most important aspect of command in war, and neglected at the peril of those who plan, train for and conduct military operations of any size. ‘The good military leader will dominate the events which surround him,’
Field Marshal Montgomery remarked; ‘once he lets events get the better of him he will lose the confidence of his men, and when that happens he ceases to be of value as a leader.’ The crux of leadership rested therefore on the leader’s capacity to inspire and motivate men and women to endure danger and deprivation.
When all is said and done the leader must exercise an effective influence, and the degree to which he can do this will depend on the personality of the man… What I personally would want to know about a leader is:
Where is he going?
Will he go all out?
Has he the talents and equipment, including knowledge, experience and courage? Will he take decisions, accepting full responsibility for them, and take risks where necessary?
Will he then delegate and decentralise, having first created an organisation in which there are definite focal points of decision so that the master plan can be implemented smoothly and quickly?
Leadership is the measure of a commander’s ability to inspire men to sacrifice their all – ultimately even their lives – for the common cause, and especially to do so when the situation is not going well. In perhaps the most succinct modern definition of all, Slim defined leadership as that ‘mixture of example, persuasion and compulsion [that makes men]… do what you want them to do.’ Slim also recognised that leadership was wrapped up with personality: ‘It is the most intensely personal thing in the world, because it is just plain you.’ Reflecting on the disaster in Burma in 1942 and the long retreat to India, he remarked:
Success is of course the easy foundation on which to build and maintain morale – if you have it. Even without success, confidence in their leaders will give soldiers morale.
Again, he observed that the ‘most important thing about a commander is his effect on morale.’ Many senior commanders, some of them like Arthur Percival in Malaya and Singapore, together with Thomas Hutton and Noel Irwin in Burma, failed the test of ‘greatness’ because of their inability to inspire.
This ability to create ‘followership’ is dependent upon a range of factors. One of the most important is that the commander exercises regular and genuine personal contact with those whom he leads. Generals must be seen, be seen regularly, and be respected in part for the confidence and aura they display.
This raises the vexed question of whether generals have to look the part, and the result on their followers if they happen to look – or appear to look – on occasion, like the unfortunate Percival in Singapore, less than convincing. This requirement is, of course, an easier one to achieve on the relatively small battlefields of the past, where at Waterloo a Wellington, Napoleon or a Blücher could, in a matter of minutes, ride the length and breadth of the battlefield if they so chose, and be visible to the whole of their armies. It is singularly difficult to achieve on the much larger and more widely dispersed modern battlefield. But it is no less important for all that, as the increasing geographical and accompanying emotional remoteness between soldiers and the High Command evidenced itself between the trenches and the châteaux on the Western Front.
The impact on the morale of soldiers provided by calm, unflappable commanders is considerable. The best generals build mechanisms to ensure that they are never seen to loose their temper, or display excessive stress in front of their subordinates, despite the circumstances, a failure for which the 15th Army’s Mutaguchi Renya in Burma was notorious. Slim recalled a desperate moment during the retreat from Burma in 1942 when everything seemed to be going wrong. His men looked to him with that look, Slim said, when soldiers turn to their commander for moral support, seeking assurance that he, at least, will have an answer to their predicament:
‘Well, gentlemen,’ I said, putting on what I hoped was a confident, cheerful expression, ‘it might be worse!’
One of the group, in a sepulchral voice, replied with a single word:
I could cheerfully have murdered him, but instead I had to keep my temper.
‘Oh,’ I said, grinning, ‘it might be raining!’
Two hours later, it was – hard.’
The endless optimism of the famously unruffled General Harold Alexander during the retreat made a profound impression on Lieutenant James Lunt, who met the Burma Army Commander by chance during the withdrawal. ‘Alex was a past master in the art’ of putting a good face on the most desperate of situations, Lunt recalled, and his very presence, ‘as spick and span as if about to arrive at the Horse Guards’ was immensely soothing. Professor Sir Michael Howard recalls the effect that Alexander’s presence had on troops even when they had not met him personally:
…the very knowledge that he was there at once made everything seem all right… providing a calm, gentle, friendly presence whose influence, like an oil slick, spread outward from the small number of people with whom he made contact to the rest of us who only heard about his visit, dispersing the terrors of the battlefield by a kind of urbane normality.
Slim recalls visiting the northern Hukawng Valley in March 1944 and meeting Stilwell at the airfield, the latter ‘looking more like a duck hunter than ever with his wind-jacket, campaign hat, and leggings…’ Stilwell’s self-portrayal was of the tough, hard-bitten, plain-speaking, no nonsense, fighting general, contemptuous of base-wallah’s and staff officers alike. It required a degree of play-acting and stage management that Slim compared to Mountbatten’s perfect grooming. ‘These things have their value if there is a real man behind them’, Slim remarked, ‘and, for the rest, his countrymen should forgive almost anything to a general who wins battles. His soldiers will.’
One of the greatest skills of any commander lies in appointing subordinates whom he can trust to comprehend and deliver his plans. A good subordinate must be able not only to believe in his commander’s plans, but persuade his own subordinates to carry them out. Mutaguchi’s failure lay as much in the distrust, even hostility, of his three divisional commanders – Sato, Yanagida and Yamauchi – as it was in his own unfettered ambition. When Slim took command of the retreating Burma Corps in March 1942 the one bright spot on his arrival was the unexpected discovery that several of his key subordinates were old friends, which meant that he did not have to win their trust: it already existed. ‘By some ‘trick of fate’ he recalls, his two divisional commanders were fellow officers from the 1st Battalion, 6 Gurkha Rifles, and his Chief of Staff had commanded a battalion in Slim’s old brigade. ‘We had served and lived together for twenty-odd years’ Slim recorded: ‘... I could not have found two men in whom I had more confidence or with whom I would rather have worked. The fact that we were on those terms was more than a help in the tough times ahead.’
In Arakan in early 1944 the trust held by the troops of 7 Indian Division in Frank Messervy’s ability to win battles came after they had placed their faith in him as their commander. Brigadier Tim Hely, the commander of the divisional artillery, although initially reluctant to welcome Messervy’s arrival because of loyalty to his predecessor, was quickly won over. He observed that Messervy worked hard to gain the confidence not in the first instance of his staff officers, but of the front-line troops. It was not long before the men all thought he was wonderful, because he lived among them, and conversed with them not as between commander and commanded, but in a relaxed and informal manner as befitted men sharing together one of life’s most intense experiences. The result, Hely observed, was that it did not take long for the men of 7 Indian Division to think that their general was wonderful, and as a consequence determined to follow him unhesitatingly into battle.
They did. At the start of the Japanese Operation Z in Arakan in February 1944, Messervy’s headquarters was overrun and dispersed into the jungle: the whole of 7 Indian Division, scattered in unit-sized pockets across the jungle-clad hills, was surrounded. Taken by surprise, the boldness of the Japanese attack left the outcome in the balance. Well-prepared, however, the division held firm. Hours later, feared dead, Messervy emerged from the jungle into the division’s administrative ‘box’ at Sinzweya, and morale revived perceptibly. Major ‘Nobby’ Clark recalled the feeling of relief that spread itself rapidly across the division:
It was as though suddenly all our worries were at an end, and everything was under control. Rarely can the revelation of the presence of one particular man on a battlefield have had such tremendous effect. Just the very fact that General Frank was alive after all and commanding us, was somehow all we needed to know.
In this most crucial of battles, in which the Japanese were defeated in Burma for the first time, Messervy’s calm resolution contributed markedly to the confidence of the division, cut off and surrounded for eighteen days in a siege that saw the turning point of the Burma war. On the ground he was a picture of sang-froid. To Private Patrick McCormack of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, General Messervy was a wonderful morale booster. McCormack recalled that every day at height of the battle ‘the familiar figure would appear and morale would reach its zenith. He was the coolest customer under fire and reminded one of a country squire surveying his estates.’ Sergeant Harry Liptrot was struck by Messervy’s calculated nonchalance as every morning he strolled ‘amongst the troops in their fox-holes, heedless of the Zeroes which machine-gunned from ground level.’ Every evening, in what became known as ‘Uncle Frank’s bedtime stories’, Messervy would talk to his surrounded division by radio, exercising personal command by the power of his voice. Colonel Patrick Hobson, his Chief Signals Officer, observed that Messervy’s ‘confident calm tone in periods of crisis had a wonderful reassuring effect.’
Messervy’s command of 7 Indian Division during the ‘Battle of the Box’ in northern Arakan in February 1944, and thereafter as a Corps Commander during the advance into Burma in 1945, demonstrates convincingly the power wielded by the personal leadership of a charismatic, competent commander. Successful generalship is concerned with inspiring soldiers to fight what might otherwise be unwinnable battles. It is about inspiration as well as perspiration, visible leadership as well as strategic sense, and above all it is about personal courage. It is what a general means to his soldiers that matters in the end, not the rhetoric, not the planning, nor the hangers-on, but the person.
Soldiers will follow leaders whom they believe have their interests at heart, rather than their own self-advancement or glory. When on 6 July 1944 Mutaguchi demanded a final attempt to break into Imphal, by men literally dying on their feet, an aggrieved officer burst into the tent of the commander of 214 Infantry Regiment, Colonel Sakuma Takanobu, south of Bishenpur, asking why the regiment was being sent to certain death.
[Sakuma] sympathised, but could not say so. He knew perfectly well that after starvation and suffering his men were being condemned to a useless death, but he had to upbraid the officer and order him to leave. The man left ‘Saku’s’ tent and at once blew himself up with a grenade.
The contrast with the armies of the democracies facing Japan between 1941 and 1945 is illustrated by the old piece of military folklore about leadership repeated by General Sir John Hackett in The Profession of Arms:
It is said that there once was a young platoon officer who was believed by his commanding officer to be inclined to run away in battles. This belief was shared by the men in the platoon, not without reason. But the men liked this young officer and wished him no harm. They therefore backed him up stoutly on the battlefield so that he should feel less inclined to run away.
The commanding officer was uneasy about this platoon commander and as soon as possible replaced him with another young officer about whose braveness there was no possible question. When the platoon went into action the new platoon commander was as brave as expected. But now the men ran away.
But it is not enough simply to be a good leader under fire, and to be a model of valour. As Socrates suggested, generals must also be able to plan, and they must be able to understand and contribute to the strategic as well as the battlefield aspects of warfare. Effective command requires strategic sense. Higher commanders need to understand the broader picture and wider context in which their own military operations take place, and thus to structure, plan and mount operations that meet the requirements of this wider strategy. They may not themselves be involved in the construction of grand strategy, but it is paramount that they understand why these decisions are made so that they can make battlefield decisions intelligently.
In Malaya Lieutenant General ‘Piggy’ Heath of III Indian Corps was a superb battlefield commander (he had defeated the Italians at Keren in 1940) but he had little strategic sense. As a result his generalship in northern Malaya was dangerously deficient, and his tendency to withdraw in the face of Japanese pressure entirely undermined Percival’s strategy of forward defence. Equally, Lieutenant General Noel Irwin’s failure in Burma to understand why the seizure of Akyab was critical to Wavell’s strategic plan allowed him to waste time struggling to defeat an entrenched Japanese position at Donbaik, instead of isolating and bypassing it. A continuing Japanese presence at Donbaik would have been a thorn in the British side for a while, but if Akyab had been captured in a quick and decisive advance, the defenders at Donbaik would have been left to wither on the vine.
Likewise, ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell was a man of profound moral and physical courage, and an inspirational battlefield leader, but the bitter undercurrents that convulsed his personality made him a poor trans-national leader and badly suited for anything at a strategic level in Asia other than the defence of American national interest. Likewise, Sato’s strategic ineptness, compounded by Kawabe’s own blindness to the huge strategic opportunity offered to the Japanese at Dimapur, wasted the chance – foreseen only by Mutaguchi – to strike a devastating blow against Slim that would have prevented a British invasion of Burma. But the failure was as much Mutaguchi’s as it was Sato’s. Commanders must be able to plan, and then communicate these plans to their subordinate commanders, who need to understand what the commander intends to achieve by his strategy; in other words, what the ultimate outcome is intended to be. Mutaguchi did not, and suffered as a consequence.
Intelligent, or productive energy
Third, generalship necessitates significant levels of intelligent or productive energy. Generals need to think and move rapidly, and to act boldly and decisively on the battlefield. Sun Tzŭ regarded this attribute to be the epitome of generalship, which if achieved, would grant a general the sobriquet of ‘The Heaven-born Captain’. Energy or determination alone is not enough if it lacks intelligence or subtlety in deployment. As Erwin Rommel observed: ‘A commander’s drive and energy often count for more than his intellectual powers – a fact that is not generally understood by academic soldiers, although for the practical man it is self-evident.’
Fourth, generals must possess originality. Sun Tzŭ taught that this quality formed the basis of successful command. Yet many commanders in war display no original thinking at all, as Noel Irwin demonstrated in Arakan. Being original is fundamental to being able to out-manoeuvre an enemy, both physically and mentally. ‘It is important’, General JFC Fuller observed, for commanders to be able to ‘do something that the enemy does not expect, is not prepared for, something which will surprise him and disarm him morally.’ To be original, leaders need also to be subtle, imaginative, daring and bold, and to do what the enemy least expects. Winston Churchill observed that great commanders needed not just ’massive common-sense and reasoning power, not only imagination, but also a measure of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.’ This is where, between 1941 and 1944, the Japanese held the advantage over their more ponderous and predictable British opponents.
This quality can, of course, be exaggerated, especially when originality is combined with rashness. Major General John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations in the War Office, criticised Churchill for being ‘too inclined to consider boldness a sufficient qualification for high command.’ Yet boldness is a key requisite for generals who have confident and competent troops. Writers from earliest times have stressed this characteristic over all others. Thucydides declared in The Peloponnesian Wars that ‘Opportunities in war don’t wait’; Livy averred that ‘Fortune favours the brave’; Sun Tzu insisted that a courageous general ‘gains victory by seizing opportunity without hesitation’; and von Clausewitz argued that ‘timidity in war will do a thousand times more damage… than audacity.’ Displaying boldness and dash with troops unsure of what is required of them, or insufficiently competent to carry out the manoeuvre required, is a recipe for disaster. The key is to do things differently, and in a manner unexpected by the enemy.
Few generals are blessed with all the qualities of leadership, strategic sense, intelligent energy and originality: when they do combine in a military commander they can create what Sun Tzŭ ‘Master of War’ or Clausewitz’s ‘genius’. How is good generalship measured? Slim believed that the only true test of ‘generalship is success…’ But this doesn’t always mean being successful in the immediate battle (although constant defeats without the prospect of ultimate victory will sap the confidence of the strongest man). Slim recalls the last exhausting moments of the withdrawal from Burma in the hot pre-monsoon summer of May 1942, when the tiny Burma Army had been decisively defeated by the Japanese, and driven into India, ‘outmanoeuvred, outfought and outgeneralled.’
But his men recognised that he had been responsible for leading them to safety, and as they marched into Imphal, ragged and unkempt but still carrying their weapons and recognisable as soldiers under military discipline, they cheered their commander standing on the roadside watching them pass. Slim was deeply moved by this display:
To be cheered by troops whom you have led to victory is grand and exhilarating. To be cheered by the gaunt remnants of those whom you have led only in defeat, withdrawal, and disaster, is infinitely moving – and humbling.
Where do good generals come from? It is clear that Great Britain faced a serious deficit of generalship in the early years of the war. Kennedy claimed that at the start of the war ‘the Army had no single soldier with war experience of high command.’ The problem was that Britain ‘began with an Army which was trying – through no fault of its own – to expand too late, and with a nation which was rousing itself from a deep sleep as the lava began to flow.’
Accordingly, the British generals who entered the Second World War in positions of high command did so without any direct or specific training for their roles. Those who succeeded often did so because they were self-taught. Most senior commanders in the British Army, according to Michael Howard:
…displayed in fact all the good and bad qualities of the Regular Army: excellent in looking after their men, brilliant in small-scale actions requiring flair, dash and leadership, but out of their depth… and inept at higher levels of command…
Senior officers were expected through character, on-the-job training and experience, bolstered for the few by attendance at the Staff College at Camberley or Quetta, and even more rarely by the Imperial Defence College, to be able to master every problem thrown at them. It was not considered necessary to train officers to command anything larger than a platoon (the job of Sandhurst or Woolwich at the start of one’s career) and any consideration of the ‘art and science of war’ was considered a Prussian eccentricity and not the proper fare for the British military tradition, which expected its commanders to develop their character riding to hounds, steeplechasing or on the sports field.
No training in high command existed anywhere in the Empire. A ‘Higher Commander’s’ course, run by General Dill in Aldershot in 1939, appears to have been the only attempt to meet this need. Fuller lamented that even large-scale military exercises (‘manoeuvres’) in Great Britain were abandoned as an efficiency measure in 1925. Likewise, there was little or no effort to define the relationship between political authority and the military, especially in the empire and agreement about who had primacy remained unclear even as they collapsed under the Japanese onslaught.
The result was that instead of doctrine dominating thought and behaviour, the personalities and private predilections of those placed in operational command became paramount. Command was defined on the basis of the personalities of the commanders and the various judgements and prejudices that formed their own individual military experience. This in fact had been the traditional British approach to command: the single military hero – the Wolfe, Wellington or Gordon, endowed with all the virtues of a superior race and schooling, securing the command of his army by virtue of the power of personal leadership. However, experience alone is a poor preparation for dealing with the demands of high command in war, particularly when that experience is limited to peace-time soldiering or, at best, imperial policing.
In these circumstances, the failure of the first three years of war is understandable. Armies, like their leaders, take time to train, although this reality is hard to accept by politicians demanding immediate action and even quicker results. The problem, Kennedy observed, was that when war came Great Britain was ‘…still suffering from the effects of our national habit of neglecting to create an army until after the outbreak of war.’ In the desperation of the moment it was easy to forget that it took three years to train and equip an army and as long to select and train officers for high command. The result was that Churchill ‘preferred to abuse the generals, sometimes with justice, often without.’
Indeed, Churchill raged against the apparent incompetence of his generals. More than once he spoke of having unsuccessful generals shot by firing party. Kennedy recalled a debate he had had with Churchill about the Middle East in 1942. In the end Churchill ‘…lost his temper. His eyes flashed and he shouted, “Wavell has 400,000 men. If they lose Egypt, blood will flow. I will have firing parties to shoot the generals.” Lest he be misunderstood, Kennedy felt it necessary to insert a footnote to the effect that ‘It had become a well-known idiosyncrasy of the Prime Minister’s to talk of shooting generals. But, of course, nobody took it literally, or as other than a vent for his feelings of exasperation.’
Britain’s failure to select generals during peace time on the basis of their military ability alone was clear to Brooke when he became CIGS in late 1941. ‘Too many officers have been, and are being, promoted to high command because they are proficient in staff work, because they are good trainers, because they have agreeable personalities, or because they are clever talkers’ he complained. ‘We must be more ruthless in the elimination of those who seem unlikely to prove themselves determined and inspiring leaders in the field. It is essential to select the best men to fill their places…’
Japanese generalship in the early years of the war was remarkably feudal in comparison to that exercised in the British or Indian Armies, where the army was professional and manned by volunteers recruited from within a largely non-militaristic society. In the Japanese Army a considerable gulf existed between officers and men, far greater even than the clear social divisions that existed between ranks in the pre-war British Army. The principal duty for the Japanese soldier was obedience, and military discipline repeatedly emphasised the virtues of submission to a complex set of closely-entwined ideals that together encapsulated the idea of being Japanese, and of being a samurai. These ideals encompassed Shintoism, nationhood, family, Emperor, and bushido. Professional or familial respect for commanders, common in the British and Indian Armies, was of secondary importance.
The desperate tactics required to throw men into the teeth of enemy fire and to die if necessary depended entirely on this obedience. Soldiers who found themselves still alive after a failed attack were often racked with guilt that they had failed to obey the Emperor’s orders and took their own lives in consequence. The emphasis given in the Japanese Army to the acceptance of death increased in direct proportion as the war went on to the failure of the army to achieve its strategic objectives. The more difficult an operation became, the more the army would be encouraged to accept the need for the ultimate sacrifice. For this to work, soldiers were expected, indeed duty-bound, to obey their orders unquestioningly. In Arakan in February 1944 Lieutenant General Sakurai Shōzō urged the men of 28 Army on with the prospect of a glorious death crowning extraordinary earthly achievements, explaining that ‘they would die and their bodies would lie rotting in the sand-dunes, but they would turn to grass which would wave in the breezes blowing from Japan.’
For the Japanese, death was one way of rescuing an increasingly hopeless operational plan. When things began to go wrong, troops were urged to throw everything, including their lives, into bringing about a successful conclusion, no matter how hopeless the odds. When plans went awry, there was often little attempt to adjust the plans to suit the new circumstances, but rather to press on regardless in the hope that the sacrifice of their men might bring about victory. Generals that bucked this trend were rare.
As the war went on, the British increasingly made use of this inflexibility to their own advantage, such as at Imphal, where Slim relied on Mutaguchi clinging to his scheme long after it had been derailed by the vigour of the British defence, and that trusting that Mutaguchi’s ‘unquenchable military optimism’ would mean that he would never accept that he was wrong. This inflexibility represented a failure of command. Japanese generals had plenty of physical courage, and for the most part aggression, determination and commitment. But they lacked the ability to take morally courageous decisions, and to change their plans when circumstances went awry. This, Slim observed:
… would have meant personal failure in the service of the Emperor and loss of face. Rather than confess that, they passed on to their subordinates, unchanged, the orders they themselves had received, well knowing that with the resources available the tasks were impossible…
One of the reasons for this inflexibility was the reliance of many Japanese commanders on divine grace, the belief that heaven would reward them for their courage, and that this would offset limitations in supply or firepower.
Nevertheless, small-group loyalty, especially in the heat of battle, was as important for the Japanese soldier as it was for the British or Indian, although this was more often than not the product of a set of mutual human obligations established under the stress of battle, and were generally limited to the immediate sphere of a soldier’s relationships – to section and platoon, for example – rather than to any higher formation. Even the company commander, let alone the battalion and regimental commanders, could be a remarkably remote individual to the private soldier in an infantry section, from whom orders tended to come from the Section (a Corporal) or Platoon Commander (a Sergeant or Lieutenant).
Major Gordon Graham, a young company commander with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, recalled after the battle of Kohima in June 1944 coming across a Japanese officer lying against a tree, too ill to move. His batman squatted by him, brushing flies from his face. Unusually, the officer had not sought to end his existence by means of seppuku, and his batman, obedient to the last, did likewise and by so doing preserved his own life, if not his embarrassment at being captured alive. The officer had been a businessman in Shanghai before the war, and spoke good English. ‘Too weak to converse, he merely requested that he be segregated from the other prisoners.’ Graham mused:
While British officers in Burma took care to dress indistinguishably from their men, Japanese officers were recognizable by the swords. Theirs was no citizens’ army. The officers were mostly militaristic by nature and treated their men harshly.
Officers were sometimes respected by their men, but few, if any, were loved to the same extent that was sometimes seen in the British and Indian armies. There were no ‘popular’ Japanese generals that could compare to Bill Slim or Frank Messervy. Nevertheless, Japanese generals could not be described as homogenous in character. They were as individualistic as their British, Indian or American counterparts, and oftentimes far more eccentric. While Yamashita was renowned for his careful moderation, Major General Sakurai Tokutarō, who led the Japanese attack into northern Arakan in February 1944, was well known for an unusual party trick, in which he would strip naked and perform a Chinese folk dance on a table whilst puffing away on cigarettes that protruded from his nostrils and mouth. Bemused junior officers would then be instructed to finish the cigarettes when the dance had come to an end.
This type of display would have been despised by Lieutenant General Yamauchi, commander of 33 Division in the offensive against Imphal in 1944, the cultivated intellectual who had spent so much time in the West that he was accompanied everywhere on operations by a Western-style toilet seat, which his unfortunate batman was forced to carry on his back. Even the highly respected Lieutenant General Honda Masaki, commander of Kimura’s 33 Army in the struggle against Stilwell’s Chinese in northern Burma from mid-1944, had a penchant for obscene stories of such crudity that even his soldiers were left aghast on the hearing of them. Yet he was a cool and calculating tactician and was well regarded by his men.
Duty and obedience were seen in very different ways by the British and Indians. For the pre-war professional British Army duty was based on hierarchic discipline as well as intense personal and small-group loyalties, both to friends and compatriots, but also to NCOs and Officers who in the hurly-burly of peacetime and ‘small war’ soldiering had earned the professional respect of their men. This remained true throughout the war for the all-volunteer Indian Army. Major Graham, part of the 2 Britis
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h Division that fought through Kohima and the Kohima ridge between April and June 1944, recalled the first time he came across British officers and Indian soldiers of Ouvry Roberts’ 23 Indian Division, on the heights at Shenam above Palel on the road leading towards Tamu:
The Camerons took over from a Sikh battalion, commanded by an enormous and cheerful Lieutenant Colonel, his turban immaculate, his beard glistening in the monsoon rain in which they had been fighting for weeks. As he handed over his collection of water-filled trenches on a muddy hillside, I saw something in him that was new to me: relish for war. The Sikhs gave every impression of enjoying themselves.
For the conscript British armies raised after Dunkirk a very different set of relationships and motivations existed. According to Graham, the performance of the conscripted Camerons ‘in Burma drew as much on moral fibre as instilled discipline.’ The British soldier wanted to get through the war, and to return home in one piece. The Japanese were different:
By our standards, they were careless of danger and displayed more blind discipline than judgement in their reflexes. They did not seem to share our reluctance to be dead heroes.
Japanese commanders, on the whole, thought little of their soldiers outside of their corporate commitment to sacrifice. Tanaka’s and Mutaguchi’s respective demands of their starving soldiers on the outskirts of Imphal to ‘consider death lighter than a feather’ was an instruction inconceivable in the British or Indian Army. Even Churchill and Wavell’s Orders of the Day in Singapore to fight to the last man were unprecedented and not taken seriously. But as Slim remarked: ‘Everyone talks about fighting to the last man and the last round, but only the Japanese actually do it.’ In the Imperial Japanese Army, it was hardly felt necessary to order soldiers to die. That was their job, an integral part of the samurai’s role.
In a letter to The Times on 23 October 1942, Wavell took time from his duties as Commander-in-Chief in New Delhi to opine on the subject of ‘Qualities that make a Great General’. Wavell stipulated that the candidate:
… must have handled large forces in a completely independent command in more than one campaign; and must have shown his qualities in adversity as well as in success. Then the considerations should be… his worth as a strategist; his skill as a tactician; his power to deal tactfully with his Government and with allies; his ability to train troops; and his energy and driving power in planning and in battle.
Later in his discourse Wavell added the following comment:
It seems also that he who devises or develops a new system of tactics deserves special advancement on the military roll of fame. All tactics since the earliest days have been based on evaluating an equation in which x = mobility, y = armour, and z = hitting power. Once a satisfactory solution has been found and a formula evolved, it tends to remain static until some thinking soldier… recognises that the values of x, y, z have been changed by the process of inventions since the last formula was accepted and that a new formula and new system of tactics was required.
Did Wavell have anyone in mind when he penned these words in 1942 with respect to the war in the Far East? It is unlikely that he was thinking of a Japanese commander, but if he were, Yamashita could have fitted the bill for the brilliance of his 1941/42 Malayan campaign. So far as the British were concerned no single name came near to warranting what Wavell had described as ‘special advancement on the military roll of fame’. Indeed, as the debacle in Arakan in 1943 was to show, commanders of real calibre were lamentably few. However, the military impoverishment of the years of defeat in Asia between 1941 and 1943 were to be dramatically reversed in 1944 and 1945. Insofar as India and Burma were concerned, one name stands out head and shoulders above all others as meeting all of Wavell’s stipulations, that of Lieutenant General Bill Slim. Given the pattern of British misfortune in 1942 and in 1943 it is not fanciful to argue that without Slim neither the safety of India (in 1942 as well as in 1944), nor the recovery of Burma in 1945, would have been possible. It was a remarkable transformation that owed much to a combination of factors – new training, better medical care, more effective leadership, air supply, artillery and armour – separate threads drawn together and given new life by the generalship of Bill Slim.
Slim’s approach to warfare combined two additional elements to Wavell’s traditional trinity of mobility, armour and hitting power. These were fighting spirit (a) and what can loosely be called the ‘indirect approach’ (b). When added to Wavell’s original formula (possibly represented, following Wavell’s mathematical metaphor, as (a+b) multiplied by (x+y+z)), Slim emphasised an approach to warfare that sought to attack where the enemy was weak, rather than where he was strong. It was an approach that was as much about thinking as it was about doing, and was characterised by subtlety, deception and delegation, and contrasted starkly with the bulldozer approach to tactics applied by men such as Noel Irwin and Mutaguchi Renya.
The measure of a great general lies in the degree to which he can affect the diverse influences that contribute to military effectiveness so as to create, overall, a successful result. However, being a master of strategy, of logistics, of tactics and of technical proficiency as Wavell highlighted in 1942, is important but by itself such mastery remains insufficient. Military command requires someone who can, through dint of personality and inspirational leadership, wield all of these components together so that an extraordinary result transpires.
Most important of all, he (or she, if the gender barriers of the past fall away to allow a woman to command a modern army) must be able to persuade his or her army to go forward into battle confident that the enemy can be beaten, and inspired to give of their utmost to complete the dangerous task they have been set. Without high morale even the best equipped army cannot hope to prevail against an enemy whose heart remains in the fight, despite any paucity of equipment they might possess.
That a man (or woman) becomes one of the most senior officers of his generation is not always evidence per se that he has led or can lead men to victory in battle, the hardest test of which is to maintain the morale of his men in the direst of circumstances and lead them to battlefield success when the omens look less than fortuitous. This, as the early experience by Great Britain in the war makes clear, was where British generalship repeatedly failed. Among the array of senior commanders considered in my book The Generals (Constable, 2006), both Yamashita and Slim experienced failure. Yet both also achieved remarkable success in battle despite the odds against them, Yamashita in Malaya and Singapore by boldness and imagination, and Slim in India and Burma through the complete material, intellectual and spiritual re-building of his army.
That the British and Indian Armies were eventually able to turn the tide in 1944 and 1945 was because generals emerged who proved capable leaders, original in thought and in action, and determined, energetic and inspiring in the field. The goal of Allied generalship was victory with the least expenditure of blood: in India and Burma British, Indian and American armies were made up of volunteers or those conscripted for the duration of the war, and their determination to fight was directly proportional to their belief that their commanders had their best interests at heart.
The ability to persuade the led to follow willingly (as opposed to blindly) comes not from coercion, but from trust, and this is as true of the platoon commander in this story as it is of the general. All too often, by contrast, Japanese generalship had by 1944 and 1945 deteriorated into a means for preserving martial honour in the face of defeat, which led inevitably to the arguably unnecessary deaths of soldiers forced to fight on against impossible odds. The strength of the Japanese Army lay in the willingness of its soldiers to fight to the death regardless of the quality of its generals.
Slim observed that this combination of obedience and ferocity ‘would make any army formidable. It would make a European army invincible.’ But this ferocity could never make up for deficient generalship. Slim saw the results of a Japanese tenacity that was not aligned with flexibility or balance in the execution of command judgements and it was in this that the ‘this the Japanese failed.’
But it had been, as Wellington might have observed, a close-run thing.
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