Soldier Experiences During the War in Burma from 1942 – 1945: Three Autobiographies that Span the Ranks

In the decades since the end of World War Two military historians have published
thousands of books on the campaigns, operations, and battles fought during this most global of
world wars. The campaign in Northwest Europe garnered the lion’s share of the reporting, the
analysis, and the story-telling. It was followed in popularity by, in uncertain order, the campaigns
waged across the deserts of North Africa, the island hopping operations in the Pacific Theater,
and since the fall of the Soviet Union an increasing number of corrective histories and
biographies on the Russian-German war experience. Throughout this war, one obscure but none
the less highly important area of operations remained consistently underappreciated. This area
and the campaign fought there was the Allied war against Japan in Southeast Asia. Perhaps it
was inevitable that the primary Allied warfighting formation in this campaign, the British
Fourteenth Army, became known by its veterans as the Forgotten Army.
The British Fourteenth Army received units and soldiers from throughout much of the
British colonial empire (the United Kingdom, British East Africa, India (including soldiers from
what would become Pakistan), Nepal, and Burma. It partnered with Nationalist Chinese forces
defending the Burma Road, the only secure land transportation route connecting India’s ports
and supply depots containing the food and supplies, the weapons and aircraft, and the supporting
military elements sent from Great Britain and the United States to train and sustain the Chinese
Forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek in southern China and northern Burma. Today we
would describe this type of warfare as both coalition and multinational, and requiring
interagency integration to insure that the diplomats of the countries protected and promoted the
national interests of their governments, while supporting and sustaining the military operations
of their one of a kind military coalition. It is fortunate then that three of this war’s best histories
are autobiographies written by soldiers that saw combat during the Burma campaigns from three
distinctly different levels of command producing important and highly relevant perspectives on
ground operations.
Major-General William J. Slim was leading the Indian Army’s 10 th Division in Iraq in
early March of 1942 when he was directed to leave the division he commanded and fly to India
to assume another as yet unspecified role but soon to become Commander of I Burma Corps. At
this point General “Bill” Slim had already led British soldiers at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia
during World War I, sought and received transfer to the Indian Army where he eventually
commanded the 1/6 th Gurkha battalion of riflemen on the Northwest Frontier of British India (to
become the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan), graduated from the British
Staff College at Camberley, and instructed in the Indian Army staff college at Quetta. In every
respect he was considered highly capable through his hard work, success in command, and
superior record of service. General Slim went on to lead his Corps with distinction after first
being kicked out of Burma by the Japanese Army, fought to a draw in the Arakan peninsula of
eastern India that would later become part of Bangladesh, reorganize, retrain, and rebuild the
troops and formations under his command that came from many different parts and peoples of
the British Empire. Promoted to command the Fourteenth Army Slim would adopt and perfect
methods of air support that would successfully pioneer supplying formations totally by air, rely
upon medical evacuation (medevac) of seriously wounded or ill soldiers, and pioneer many of
the concepts of joint and multinational operations now relied upon today. Promoted to Field
Marshall and Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the British Armed Forces, Slim obtained the
equivalent position of the United States’ Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Telling his own
story, in his own words, his autobiographical work Defeat into Victory (MacMillan Publishers
Limited, 1986) is generally considered the best of all general’s books to come out of World War
II and frequently appears on many senior military leader lists of best books for both junior and
senior officers to read. Field Marshall Slim relates the defeats as much as the victories and
engages in self-criticism of his own actions and decisions to an unheard of degree by modern
standards. He clearly identifies the causes and the effects, and focuses on the actions then taken
to achieve success, always relating success to the efforts of his subordinates and the
extraordinary efforts they took to achieve victory.
The second book, The Road Past Mandalay (Cassell, 2002, Orion Publishing Group
2012) was written by John Masters and originally published in 1961. It is the second of a two
part autobiography with the first volume Bugles and a Tiger (Cassell, Orion Publishing Group
2012) originally published in 1956. The two books combined tell the true story of Master’s
military service before and during World War II that roughly parallels Field Marshall Slim’s own
experiences. Masters was the son of a British family whose ancestors had served in India for a
hundred years before he graduated from the British Army’s own military academy at Sandhurst
in 1932 and took up service in the British Army in India. Masters would also serve in a Gurkha
battalion of riflemen, the 4 th Gurkhas. His service took him to the Indian Northwestern Frontier
and along the tribal territories designed to limit confrontation between the Pathans (or Pashtuns)
who lived astride this land of hills and mountains and whose tribes raided the lowlanders inside
India proper. The first book then deals with life in this environment and is notable for its focus
on military stability operations and counter-insurgency tactics. The second book deals with the
service of Masters as a field grade officer serving in World War II. Like Slim, Masters served in
both Iraq and Burma during World War II. Like Slim, Masters’ service with Gurkha soldiers and
leadership informed his view of working with coalition and multinational forces. Unlike Slim,
Masters service never extended much beyond the breakup and partition of the Indian
subcontinent into Pakistan and India. Instead, Masters background and experience allowed him
to rise to command of an infantry brigade organized as columns of light infantry called Chindits
and designed for long range penetration raids to interdict lines of supply in the hills and jungles
of northern Burma in 1943-44. Major John Masters was the Brigade Major (a staff appointment
that combined the roles of the executive officer and the operations officer) of the 111 th Infantry
Brigade. With the death of Major General Orde Wingate, Masters’ brigade commander took
charge of all Chindit forces operations during the raids deep into Burma during the spring and
summer of 1944. Major Masters stepped up to command and established the brigade’s defensive
position interdicting vital lines of communication. The heroic defense and losing battle for
Blackpool Block becomes the heart of the powerful narrative of The Road Past Mandalay. Few
military histories are as exciting and moving as this book. After the defeat of the Japanese in
World War II and the breakup of British India, Masters left India and eventually settled in the
United States where he pursued a successful career as a talented writer of fiction based on his
knowledge of India. Several of his novels were turned into movies in the 1950s. His novel
Bhowani Junction became a popular film starring Ava Gardner as an Anglo-Indian lieutenant
and Stewart Granger as a British Army officer commanding a battalion of Gurkhas engaged in
stability operations securing a vital railway line amidst the violence of the Indian partition.
The third author of an autobiography on the writer’s military service is George
MacDonald Fraser. A Scot, Fraser volunteered for service in 1943 in the Border Regiment of the
British Army. His unit deployed to train and acclimate in the Indian theater before participating
in the last offensive in 1945 to retake Burma and finally defeat the Japanese. During the course
of the campaign the author masterfully portrays the life of a serving soldier in the infantry best
described as long periods of boring weariness and interrupted by moments of abject terror. The
narrative of this history is in turns moving, and funny, but always authentic. A masterful read,
the book depicts the lives of the author and his mates. He tells the stories of their preparation for
combat, and their shared experiences of combat, the days of intense boredom, too often
interrupted by intense moments of terror. Sometimes his small unit operations engaged in
successful bouts of combat, sometimes, a few were lots and mourned, until the next firefight.
Fraser himself departs the battlefield before operations end when he is selected for attendance at
Officer Cadet Training School. Told to grab his kit, he departs the scene but well understands
the story is not over. An epilogue, written fifty years after the first Victory over Japan Day
provides his own ending for himself, the veterans he marched with on that anniversary, and his
own mates left behind in Burma. A talented writer of histories, novels and screenplays, Fraser
wrote the Harry Flashman series of novels inserting his cad and scoundrel of an action hero into
almost every significant military engagement of the British Empire post-Waterloo until pre-
World War I. Based loosely upon historical fact, Fraser has been read during deployments by
military members around the world since their initial publication in the 1970s.
In this new but still familiar world of near parity of military forces among competitive
world powers, with all sides possessing effective anti-access area denial weapons, perhaps one
day the serious and meaningful works of Fraser, Masters, and Slim and the role and lives of the
soldiers deployed and fighting a long way from home will enjoy their own popularity and respect
once again.