William J. Slim was an interesting soldier. He served for forty years in the British and Indian armies, rose to be a field marshal, served as governor general of Australia, and wrote what is considered to be one of the best memoirs to come out of the war, certainly among the best written by a senior officer. All of this, and many who read about World War II have never heard of him.
Slim was born the son of an unsuccessful businessman from Birmingham. His father sold wholesale hardware, and went bankrupt when Slim was in his teens, prompting the young man to look for a job that would afford him a paycheck for little outlay. He joined an army officer training course at Birmingham University (somehow without being a student of that institution, and neat trick) and when World War I started, he was mustered into the army as a lieutenant, and sent off to war.
He served first in Gallipoli, then Mesapotamia (later known as Iraq) and when the war ended, joined the Indian army, serving mostly with Gurkha regiments. By the mid-thirties, he'd seen enough service that when the war started he soon bounced up to corps command, and was instrumental in the retreat of the British army from Burma. The first offensive back into the country (the Arakan offensive) almost got Slim sacked, but someone perceptively relieved his senior instead, and he got the man's job. He fought, and won, the battles of Kohima-Imphal, and later Meiktila, and reconquered Burma. Afterwards, he was again almost sacked, instead promoted Field Marshal, and made Chief of the Imperial General Staff over the objections of his predecessor, Montgomery. From there, with some diversions, he became the Governor General of Australia, which he did almost until his death.
Lewin is a competent writer, but no master of prose or anything, and he concentrates on Slim and his career. There's little information on Slim's family, such as when his parents died, and almost nothing on his silblings. The author does spend a little bit of time on Mrs. Slim, and the children, but not much. There are some amusing anecdotes (especially concerning his time as Governor General of Australia) and a few myths get put to rest. The most prevalent one is the story that Slim enlisted in the army as a private and was eventually promoted all the way to Field Marshal. This is shown to be just not true, unfortunately: he joined the army through an officer's training course, much like the American ROTC.
The middle part of the book covers the war in Burma, and does a good job of it. The principle issue in a book dealing with Burma is whether you come down on the side of Orde Wingate and the Chindits, or against them. Wingate was a strange, fanatical, brilliant, annoying soldier who formed the Chindits, a unit of light infantry that fought in the jungle behind Japanese lines, supplied by air. Slim, and many soldiers in the conventional army, thought Wingate heedless of difficulties, and unscrupulous, to say the least, while his defenders think he won the war in Burma, and despise those who tried to "hold Wingate back." Lewin comes down gently on the side of Slim, as you might expect, but carefully lets you know how deceitful and devious Wingate could be when he wanted something.
Altogether, while this isn't a masterful biography, it is a good book and a worthy tribute to a wonderful soldier.