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Frank McLynn: The Burma Campaign Disaster Into Triumph 1942-45 (The Bodley Head, 20)

Published on 19 Jul 2010 Trevor Royle Four commanders are to the fore in a study of the Second World Wars most horrific campaigns. Sharp-eyed admirers of the work of Frank McLynn will smile knowingly at the sub-title he has given to his latest historical epic. First, it is neat shorthand for what happened to the allied armies in Burma during the Second World War and, secondly, it pays tribute to Field Marshal William Slims own account, Defeat Into Victory, which just happens to be one of the most lucid military histories penned by a serving soldier. That said, McLynn is no slouch either and this is easily one of the best books he has written in a long and distinguished career. Its a marvellous subject, too. The reconquest of Burma is one of the great sagas in the histories of the British and Indian armies, and McLynn has done it full justice. It was the longest sustained campaign of the Second World War; it was fought over a harsh terrain which included deep jungle as well as desert and mountain; it was fought with knives, with opposing soldiers caught in bitter close-quarter combat and those who surrendered were rarely granted much mercy. It began with a painful retreat which almost destroyed the British and Indian armies, and ended with a famous victory which relied as much on the endurance and fortitude of the allied troops as it did on the skill of their commanders. It involved soldiers from Britain, India, Burma, China, Nepal, the United States and West Africa, and because the campaign was so long, it saw the introduction of innovations such as the use of air power in support of ground operations and modern radios to guide the strike and supply aircraft to reach their targets. It also brought four different commanders to the fore, each one of whom played a signal role in paving the way for victory, and their biographies are the foundation on which McLynn has constructed his story. Slim was the pre-eminent member of the quartet. A soldiers soldier, his decency and forthrightness appealed to everyone serving in the Fourteenth Army and, as McLynn points out, he also had the uncanny ability to surround himself with other winners. Crucially he also knew how to play politics and was a good reader of his colleagues. When Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed supreme commander of south-east Asia command, Slim marked him down as a showman, but he knew that he had to work with him. A quick analysis told him that as Mountbatten always agreed with the last person to whom he had spoken, Slim had to make sure that he was always the last to speak to his new boss. In fact, for all that Mountbatten had a gadfly mind, McLynn is fair to him and he gets pretty close when he

sums him up as egocentric, vain, reckless, eccentric and unreliable, with a marked talent for blame-shifting. The other two members of McLynns quartet of commanders were much more left field. MajorGeneral Orde Wingate was a British artillery officer who evolved a new theory of long-range penetration warfare, and with Prime Minister Winston Churchills blessing had put it to the test in 1943. His force was known as Chindits and although the operation suffered huge casualties of the 3,000 men who carried out the operation, only 2,182 came back it had demonstrated that the Japanese could be fought on their own terms in Burma. The Chindits were a huge propaganda success, so much so that a second larger operation was planned for the spring of 1944. The trouble with Wingate was that he revealed himself as a flawed genius, part inspired visionary, part crackpot and wholly a megalomaniac who believed that compromise was the work of the devil. McLynn does a first-rate job in getting under the skin of this troubled and troubling enfant terrible while acknowledging that his death in a plane crash in March 1944 means Wingates ultimate reputation is difficult to assess. He is equally good on Wingates spiritual opposite number in the US army General Joseph Stillwell. Nicknamed Vinegar Joe, he loathed most British officers, disparaging them and doubting their military credentials. However, unlike those on the receiving end who were equally dismissive of the acerbic and short-sighted US general, McLynn insists Stillwell played a vital and unheralded role in keeping the Chinese onside. The war in Burma was eventually settled at the battles of Imphal and Kohima and for all the armies, including the Japanese, it had been a hard and bruising experience. But for what? McLynn argues it was probably very little and hes not far wrong. Within two years India had achieved independence, Pakistan had come into being and Burma had begun the long march to the military dictatorship it is today. Trevor Royles biography of Orde Wingate will be republished by Frontline Books later this summer

This book, in essence a quadruple biography, tells the story of the four larger-than-life Allied commanders whose lives collided in the Burma campaign, one of the most punishing and protracted military adventures of World War II. Ranging from 1942, when the British suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the Empire, through the crucial battles of Imphal and Kohima ("the Stalingrad of the East"), and on to ultimate victory in 1945, this account is vivid, brutal, and enthralling.

Frank McLynn opens a new window on the Burma Campaign, focusing on the interactions and antagonisms of its principal players: William Slim, the brilliant general commanding the British 14th Army; Orde Wingate, the ambitious and idiosyncratic commander of the Chindits, a British force of irregulars; Louis Mountbatten, one of Churchill's favorites, overpromoted to the position of Supreme Commander, S.E. Asia; and Joseph Stilwell ("Vinegar Joe"), a hard-line U.S. general, also a martinet and Anglophobe. McLynn draws careful portraits of each of these men, neglecting neither strengths nor flaws, and shows with new clarity how the plans, designs, and strategies of generals and politicians were translated into a hideous reality for soldiers on the ground. Frank McLynn is a highly regarded historian who specializes in biographies and military history. He is the author of more than thirty books, including critically acclaimed biographies of Napoleon and Richard the Lionheart. He lives in Surrey, UK.

Synopsis
Often described as 'the forgotten war', the Burma Campaign was one of the most punishing and protracted military adventures of World War Two. It has become notorious for the ingenious tactics used by Britain, America and their allies on the one hand and the Japanese and their allies on the other, as well as for the atrocious conditions that had to be endured by both sides. Seasonal monsoon rains - which allowed effective campaigning for little more than half the year - as well as famine, disease, snakes and crocodiles all bore heavily on the troops. Impenetrable jungle, poor transport infrastructure and the Allied preoccupation with the war in Europe made this the longest single campaign fought by the British in the Second World War. It is against this epic backdrop that Frank McLynn constructs the dramatic story of the four larger-than-life commanders directing the Allied effort: Louis Mountbatten, Orde Wingate, Joseph Stilwell and William Slim. Strikingly original in its approach, the book explores the Campaign through the prism of these four men and their often stormy relationship. From 1942 and the greatest defeat for British arms in the history of the Empire, through the crucial simultaneous battles of Imphal and Kohima - 'the Stalingrad of the East' - and on to ultimate victory in 1945, this is a vivid, brutal and enthralling account. By telling it through the interactions and antagonisms of its principal players, we see how the plans, designs and strategies of generals and politicians were translated into a hideous reality for the men on the ground.