Committee member John Murray gave the curtain raiser at the 11 March lecture meeting. His subject was Field Marshal Viscount Slim, the victorious commander of the British and Indian Armies in the WW2 Burma campaign, whose popularity with his men earned him the sobriquet of 'Uncle Bill'.
Slim did not share the privileged background common to most senior British Army officers. Born in Bristol, England, his parents were lower middle class. Attracted to a career in the regular army, but realising that Sandhurst was unattainable, he was obliged to supplement the family income. He became an elementary school teacher in a Birmingham slum. Later he worked as a junior clerk at pipemakers Stewarts and Lloyds.
His break came with the rising tension between Britain and Germany when, with the aid of 'justifiable subterfuge', he joined Birmingham University's Officers Training Corps. He was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 22 August 1914, four days before Bernard Law Montgomery, a lieutenant in the regular battalion of that regiment, went into action.
Critically wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, Slim acquired what was to become a lifelong admiration for the devotion and courage of the Gurkha soldiers he was later to command. After a long convalescence, Slim served in Mesopotamia, where he was again wounded, and where he won the Military Cross. With the war over he was able to overcome his inability to finance the life of a regular, peacetime officer by transferring to the Indian Army as a captain. Ten months later he joined the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles, the unit he had fought alongside at Gallipoli, and after one year became its adjutant.
During the inter-war years Slim underwent extensive staff training, but promotion was slow, and by the age of 47 in 1938 he held only the substantive rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The outbreak of WW2 brought promotion to Major General, but only minor actions. However, this was useful because it enabled him to mark the mistakes of his seniors while escaping the consequences.
Slim's rise to fame began when he was appointed Burma Corps Commander following the Japanese invasion in early 1942. He was faced with the daunting task of evacuating the defeated British and Indian forces from Burma, and reorganising, reinforcing and retraining them in preparation for the expected Japanese attack on India. This was finally defeated at Kohima and Imphal in mid-1944 by what had become the 14th Army with Slim in command. The subsequent reconquest of Burma proved to be one of the most outstanding achievements in Britain's military history.
After the war Slim went on to a peerage, and to become the head of the British Army as Chief of the Imperial General Staff with the rank of Field Marshal.
The trouble arose because medieval English kings owed homage to the French kings for their feudal possessions in France. Much of these had been lost during and after the reign of the English King John, who died in 1216. In 1327 Edward III ascended the English throne at 14. In the same year Philip VI was crowned King of France at 35, having acquired considerable military experience. He demanded that Edward pay him homage for the southwestern province of Guienne, one of the latter's few remaining French possessions.
Edward did this at Amiens while still under the regency of his mother and Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. But on attaining his majority at 16 he soon turned his attention to the lost possessions in France. He first moved to defeat Scotland, a traditional French ally. He then collected allies from northern France and the Holy Roman Empire, and in June1340 the fleet carrying his army to Flanders encountered a French, Castilian and Genoese fleet anchored off Sluys, the port for Bruges. The English longbow men slaughtered the enemy men-at-arms. Philip reacted to his defeat by avoiding battle with Edward while threatening his allies. Edward returned to England leaving his allies unpaid and with great debts that bankrupted several financial houses. He next intervened in a quarrel over the succession to the Dukedom of Brittany. But his main move was made in 1346 when he landed with an army in Normandy. After sacking Caen and devastating the Seine Valley he marched north. At Crecy, north of the Somme, he turned to meet a French army outnumbering him two to one. The French employed many mercenaries, mainly Genoese crossbow men, but their main force consisted of armoured horsemen who were virtually uncontrollable. The English had learned to value their longbow men and spear men, while their armoured knights and men-at-arms fought on foot. The English victory was complete.
At this stage the Black Death, and the demise of King Philip halted hostilities. He was succeeded by John II. He sought to buy peace by granting vast territories to Edward, who in return renounced his claim to the French throne. The grants were not ratified, however, and while John prepared for war, Edward sent his 25-year-old son, Edward the Black Prince, into Guienne. Edward's small army of under 3 000 men was joined at Bordeaux by a substantial force of Gascons. The combined army proceeded to ravage Armagnac, invaded Languedoc and headed east towards Narbonne. It then moved north to face a French force coming down from Normandy, where it had gathered to counter a threat from Edward. The two armies met at Poitiers in September 1356. Once again the English longbow men won the day, this time against France's dismounted chivalry. King John was among the numerous captives.
The Saturday 13 March visit to the SAAF Museum in Pretoria was well attended considering the heavy and continuous rain that made freeway travelling dangerous and prevented closer inspection of some of the outdoor exhibits. The cheerful and ever-helpful attitude of the guide lightened a tour of South Africa's early aircraft and their engines and equipment. Too much was on show for just one visit, and it was agreed that another, at some future date, would be appropriate. The thanks of all those who participated are due to the organiser of the visit, committee member Bob Smith.
The 2004 Society BATTLEFIELD TOUR will be to iNtabamnyama and Vaalkrans, on the weekend of 19 and 20 June 2004. Members from all branches are welcome to attend, anyone interested please contact PAUL KILMARTIN, on 031-561-2905, or 082-449-7227.
Subscriptions were due in January: Single subs cost R120, family R140. So far 369 members have paid, while 167 still owe for 2004. Please check your records in case it has escaped your notice... Direct deposits may be sent to FNB, Bruma Lake Branch, code 256655, current account in name of SA Military History Society, number 50 391 928 346 (spaces for ease of reading only.) Please write your surname in the reference spaces!
This serves as formal notification that the 38th AGM of the Society will take place at 20h00 on Thursday 8th April in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History, Saxonwold.
The Agenda will include:
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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