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4.1 out of 5 stars
31
4.1 out of 5 stars
The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45
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on 2 August 2017
I've read a number of books by this author and (mostly) enjoyed them. However, he tends to have fairly obvious biases and this can be a problem, particularly here, where he tells the story of the Burma Campaign by focusing on four key individuals, Slim, Stilwell, Wingate and Mountbatten.

I lived and worked in different parts of Asia for nearly 15 years, including Burma (or Myanmar, as it is today), so I have personal experience of the complexities of both geography and climate that made it such a difficult area to fight in. Japanese success will not surprise anyone who reads Somerset Maugham's stories of colonial British South-East Asia between the wars or the generally low calibre of British officers assigned there, notably the utterly useless Perceval in Singapore. These factors made it a tough assignment.

The book is best summarized as Slim - genius, Stilwell - difficult, but right, Wingate - looney, Mountbatten - snake oil merchant. I broadly agree but simply rubbishing those who opposed Slim or Stilwell, while doing a similar hatchet job on the supporters of the other two, means he fails to explain the other side and misses the wider strategic context.

Yes, Roosevelt was prone to naivety in his view of Chiang Kai Shek and his KMT regime but that should be seen within the context of 40 years of US economic and political penetration of China; the US's Asia-Pacific strategy specifically aimed at eliminating the European colonial empires in Asia and replacing it with a US/China alliance. The collapse of the KMT post-1945 was a US foreign policy disaster only equalled by the 1979 Iran Revolution or Iraq in 2003; but many others (including the Russians) made the same assumptions about the ultimate victory of the KMT. Above all, for the US, Burma only mattered as a supply line for the KMT which simply by existing, tied down nearly one million Japanese troops in Burma and China. For Churchill, Burma was a British possession needing to be recaptured and he constantly sought to repair the damage done to British prestige by the disasters of 1942; that fundamental disconnect was never acknowledged.

McLynn doesn't really acknowledge this strategic issue but above all, he is far too kind about Stilwell who regardless of his many virtues was the worst possible person for his position. McLynn claims Stilwell despised Chiang because of his feelings for ordinary Chinese and the impact of KMT corruption on them; that may be true but Stilwell wasn't the only person who felt that way and he also despised most non-Americans. The imprudence of first being caught referring to Chiang as 'Peanut,' then to carry on doing so beggars belief but it is also clear he didn't appreciate the strategic issue above. At the very least, the US saw China an American ally and trading partner for American business; Chiang understood that, which is why he viewed US Lend-Lease for China as part of a US policy objective, not some altruistic benefit requiring him to fight as did Stilwell.

I've focused on Stilwell but as I said above, it's a good account of the Burma campaign let down by biased views on the four individuals selected. Nothing wrong with that per se (hard to be too critical of Mountbatten, a charlatan on a scale comparable only with MacArthur) but it fails as a broader overview of the issues and why Burma was seen such a low priority.
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on 2 June 2017
Moving but excellent
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on 21 April 2017
first class and quick delivery.
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on 11 August 2010
Another reviewer has already asked "Do we really need another general account of the war in Burma?" When I purchased this book I tended towards the answer - `no, not really', so this book drifted towards the bottom of my reading list. I changed my mind on reading Robert Lyman's five-star review here on Amazon.

Having read the book I have to say that this is not really a history of the campaign in Burma at all, and that I really hate it.

The first thing to say is that the author, Frank McLynn, is not a military historian at all. A quick look at a list of his previous works shows him to be a biographer. This made me nervous, and my heart sank when he declared his intention to tell the story of the Burma campaign through the lives of four prominent figures; Slim, Stilwell, Wingate and Mountbatten. This approach seems particularly old-fashioned and I have never been a fan of the `deeds of great men' school of history anyway. Such a biographical approach may have had some validity had the author chosen the lives of lesser known figures from the Burma campaign but there is so much written on these four men that it is difficult to see what this author thought he could add. The selection of these four also skews the account in favour of the US-China situation and of the Chindits, at the expense of those who really fought most of the war in Burma. The author cannot seem to differentiate between Burma and China, SEAC and CBI. Worse still he has adopted an unconvincing `heroes and villains' approach which can be summed up as `Slim was a genius and almost everyone else was a fool.' Indeed he quotes such large chunks of `Defeat Into Victory' - the gospel according to Saint Bill - that the reader might prefer to purchase that book instead. Stilwell, as always, provides great fun, thanks to `The Stilwell Papers' which are also quoted at length. The `flakey' bisexual `Lord Mountbottom' fares less well. Worse still for Wingate. I have never been a great fan of Wingate, he was an unpleasant man and his achievements have been consistently overrated; however, after reading a whole chapter of this author pontificating on each and every one of his character flaws I began to feel sympathetic towards him for the first time. I must admit that descriptions of Wingate as a Rastafarian and a Marxist-Leninist gave me a laugh. Less so the comparisons with the author's previous victims, Jung and H.M. Stanley.
Almost everyone else's reputation suffers at this author's hands. While it is true that Wavell's performance against the Japanese was lacklustre, he is considered by many to have been a great soldier and a great man. This author adopts a consistently dismissive and snide tone when discussing Wavell's command. I found this uncomfortable reading. Others such as Percival, Hutton, Smyth, Irwin (`evil genius'), Chennault, and Wedemeyer (`unseen evil genius') suffer the same treatment. The author wastes little time on a detailed analysis of their command decisions. Auchinleck and Marshall do quite well, since they are held to have favoured the author's heroes, but let us not even mention Churchill or Roosevelt.
The fact remains that McLynn seems to have done very little original research on any of these characters, but has relied upon the numerous readily available sources, and, presumably, his biographers `insight', to provide this highly opinionated and rather unpleasant account. I would recommend that the reader seek out these sources for themselves and make their own decisions. This account adds little of value, only gossip, rumour and the author's own psychological `insights'.

The men who really fought the war in Burma appear here only as extras; the British, Indian, African and Burmese soldiers, Indian and Burmese civilians, the Americans and the Chinese. Nor will the reader come away from this book with any greater understanding of the Japanese in Burma.

The author is clearly not a military historian. He seems to have a poor grasp of geography and he has provided some of the most confusing accounts of military operations that I have ever read. There are also a fair number of factual errors, far too many to list. I know that people will say that only Charpoy Chindit cares about these things - names, places, units - but why should I trust the greater judgments of an author who gets so many of these things wrong. After a while I found that I distrusted everything he said, and thereafter spent a lot of time flicking back and forth to the end notes (which are fairly useless) trying to check from where he had acquired his information. Eventually I stopped doing even that and just prayed for the end. A few examples of some of his less than helpful `greater judgments' will suffice;

"With FDR so fanatically wedded to China, the Japanese move into Manchuria in 1931 was bound to mean eventual conflict with the USA."
Surprised to learn that the Japanese even considered the views of the then Governor of New York!

"Thus the Japanese were inveigled into an unnecessary invasion of Burma simply because the hotheads in Tokyo could not leave China well alone."

"By pursuing the northern and southern strategies simultaneously Japan got itself into a situation for which overstretch seems a euphemism."
Which northern strategy does he mean?

"As soon as he [Alexander] arrived he cancelled Hutton's orders for a withdrawal and ordered an advance on Rangoon with all the heavy armour he could muster."

"Undoubtedly the root cause [of the British forces disastrous performance in 1942] was that British commanders in south-east Asia had had no real guidance from London."
Does he really believe that?

"With army co-operation he [Nagumo] could easily have captured both Ceylon and Mauritius... yet the army ... muffed this glittering opportunity." Fantasy!

"He [Slim] was criticised for rushing his reserves from Imphal to Arakan just when Mutaguchi was about to strike in Assam ..."
This shows a complete lack of understanding of the real situation.

"He [Mutaguchi] correctly surmised that, if threatened, Scoones would try to hold both Tiddim and Tamu in strength ..."
Correctly?

"Slim's intention always was that the Japanese should be encouraged to believe that victory was imminent on all fronts. This was why, despite Mountbatten's urgings, he did not reinforce Imphal to the point where it was impregnable, for that might have encouraged the Japanese to withdraw."
I'm speechless!

"Debate has raged over whether Slim initially made a mistake about Kohima, whether his subordinates did, or whether inveigling Mutaguchi into a protracted and impossible campaign in the northern sector was not all part of some Machiavellian masterpiece."
Slim would never have made such a mistake so it must be a) someone else's fault or b) all part of the master plan!

Following the relief of the Kohima Garrison "A good Japanese commander would have pulled out completely at this moment..."
Despite the fact that they kept the Dimapur-Imphal road closed for another two months!

"An airborne invasion in the rear of 20 and 17 divisions... would have cut them off from Imphal." Fantasy!

His irritating style of writing does not improve matters either. I hope never to read about slaughterous, Machiavellian chimeras ever again, and I can't tell you how much his constant reference to `Anglo-Indian' forces annoys me!

The end notes are very badly organized. There is no separate bibliography. The choice of photographs is unimaginative. The maps are of little use.

The most important point to make is that, despite it's title, this is not a history of the Burma campaign. Readers looking for such a volume are recommended to seek out `Burma: The Longest War' by Louis Allen.
If you are interested in the four great men themselves, there are plenty of better, balanced and more accurate books available.

I was going to make this a two-star review, but, on reflection, I can't imagine hating a Burma war book more than I hate this one. One Star.
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on 28 July 2010
McLynn's book is about Mountbatten, Wingate, Slim and Stillwell. It is primarily a political thriller and does not discuss specific actions except to reference them in context with events that were happening with the primary four characters. For example, you will not get a detailed description of the battles for Imphal and Kohima, but you will get an interesting explanation why Stillwell offered Slim the use of a Chinese division to help him against Sato's 31 Division. One cannot help but get the felling that McLynn is not a big fan of Mountbatten. For anyone who has read Slim's Defeat Into Victory this book makes an interesting counter history from someone who was not in India or Burma at the time. Remember that Mountbatten was very much alive and kicking when Slim wrote Defeat Into Victory. The same way the Stopford and Grover were alive when Swinson wrote "Kohima". So McLynn can use correspondence between Stillwell and Marshall and between Marshall and Roosevelt to display Roosevelt's obsession with China and Chiang. McLynn also has the space to speculate how history would have changed had the United States cultivated Mao instead of propping up a fascist, corrupt dictator like Chiang Kai Shek. This book is long with complex and difficult to follow notes, which must be followed if you want to get the most from the book. I would have preferred the footnotes on each page and more maps to outline and display the area the author is dicussing in the story. There are very few photos and even fewer maps so this does detract from the reader's ability to follow the story. Upon reflection I really don't like the way he put the footnotes in the back, then made us chase the citation because they swim across the page, rather then down the page in an orderly fashion. Don't pay retail, its a difficult read. Certainly not a "masterpiece."
I will admit that this book spends a lot of time on the NCAC area south of Ledo and is an excellent source of information on Stilwell's campaign to reopen the Ledo road through Bhamo. It covers the exploits of the British 36th Division better then any other source I've come across.
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on 23 August 2017
I've read many books about the Burma Campaign and this is a very good account
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on 15 June 2010
The only gripe I have about this magnificent book is its boring title: it simply does not do justice to what McLynn has achieved. The title is correct at one level: it certainly is a book about the Burma Campaign, that vast sweep of action ranging from China to India between 1942 and 1945, with Burma sandwiched between the two (and only seeing land warfare for three months in 1942 and eight months in 1945). But the book is actually much, much more than this. Indeed, it is a closely woven, tightly argued and beautifully written account of the clutch of extraordinary (or 'extrawdinary', to use Stilwell's parody of Alexander's refined accent when the two met for the first time in March 1942) men and women (if we include Madame Chiang kai-Shek) who were responsible for the higher direction of the war against the Japanese on land in Asia during this period. The title had led me to expect yet another start-to-finish account of the war. In over twenty years of studying the Burma Campaign I think I have read most of these books, and they range from the superb (Louis Allen and Jon Latimer have provided the best overall accounts to date) to the very bad. To be fair, McLynn does lay out his approach in the first few pages - it is to analyse the war in the Far East through the medium of four of its most extraordinary characters, Slim, Stilwell, Wingate and Mountbatten - but I had to get past the unpalatable outer crust of my own perception, fuelled by the lacklustre title, before I found the juicy delights within.

More importantly, and it is this which holds the book together so well and gives it such satisfying depth, McLynn's marvellous account is the story of the relationships between these four characters, together with an extensive supporting cast of bit-part players. It is a wonder that the Allies managed to prevail at all in 1944 and 1945 when so much of the higher direction of the war was dominated by the absurd excess of strutting ego that this theatre of war seemed to produce in such abundance. McLynn reminds us brilliantly that in war only a proportion of one's battles are against the enemy: the remainder - perhaps the most painful - are with one's friends.

This book delights, page after page. McLynn managed to hold me spellbound with the energy of his account of the rampaging personalities (some of whom were certifiably mad at the same time) that stormed across the battlefields of Asia and made the struggle for the higher command of the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and north-west Europe boring, pathetic even, by comparison. McLynn doesn't shilly-shally over his judgements about people, coming to them quickly and coherently, sharply recording their stories with pace and verve. He is an astute interpreter of the human condition, succeeding brilliantly in finding his way through sometimes competing and tendentious personal accounts to arrive at his own forthright position. I certainly cannot fault any of his judgements about his four principal characters, and indeed with those who played significant but subsidiary roles in the Far Eastern story: Churchill, Alan Brooke, Roosevelt, Chiang kai-Shek, and a raft of supporting British and American battlefield commanders. He follows David Rooney in getting Stilwell right, the frustratingly Anglophobic straight talking American patriot undone in the end by the unprincipled Machiavellianism of both Washington and Chungking, a man whose heart was always in the right place but whose simple prejudices did for him in the end. But he comes to an entirely different conclusion to Rooney with regard to Wingate, and rightly in my view. Wingate was a dangerous madman, whose strategic pretensions did little to advance the Allied cause in the Far East and in fact did much to retard it. It was the hard living, hard fighting Chindits who had to bear the brunt of his unhinged, relentless egomania. McLynn also gets Mountbatten right - 'ABC' (Admiral Cunningham) beautifully described the 'Supremo' at one of the wartime Allied conferences as 'all at sea') - and in his treatment of Bill Slim McLynn is spot on. His description of the Kohima/Imphal battles is good, but it is in his account of Slim's mastery at Mandalay/Meiktila in 1945 that McLynn is at his heart-thumping best. He concludes: 'Montgomery was a military talent; Slim was a military genius.'

This fantastic book is a joy to read and is without doubt the finest book yet published on the higher command of the war in the Far East.
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on 11 November 2016
A truly interesting account of the Burma campaign written around the four main commanders, Mountbatten, Wingate, Stilwell and Slim, who led the allied cause in this theatre of war. It brilliantly describes the political intrigue and machinations that occurred during this period and brings the whole story to light. Ignore the negative comments by Charpoy Chindit et al. He doesn't know what he is talking about, Frank McLynn is an accomplished historian with an excellent academic pedigree. If you want an accurate, interesting, and enjoyable account of this period of history I suggest you read this book.
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on 10 September 2010
I'm afraid I have to tend towards the lower end of the rating spectrum on this one. While McLynn's account of command relationships is interesting, this book is appallingly and infuriatingly produced. Errors, often of a shockingly sloppy nature, abound. These include mentioning '3rd West Indian Brigade' when '3rd West African Brigade' is meant and one case of spelling General Rees' name two different ways on the same page (as Rees and Reese).

I will probably reread this book at some point, and on balance it was interesting and enjoyable, but in rereadng I will have to try and consciously ignore the errors and, and such errors have to make you suspicious of the rest of the book. Also, as mentioned the notes are poorly presented and the maps fairly unhelpful, and some stylistic points (such as describing everything as 'chimerical' or as 'dog-in-the-mangerism') are annoying.
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on 6 January 2012
This is a fascinating account of the war in Burma from the initial defeat and withdrawal of the British forces to Slim's brilliant encirclement of the Japanese army near Mandalay in early 1945. If you are looking for the sort of account which describes the experiences of soldiers in the front line then this is not really for you. Instead it would be better to read the memoirs of those involved such as George Macdonald Fraser's "Quartered Safe Out Here". McLynn concentrates his attention on those in high command, especially the four big characters, Mountbatten (vain and ambitious), "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell (irascible but a fighting general), Wingate (totally mad) and his real hero, Bill Slim. possibly the greatest British general of the twentieth century. The other main character is Chiang Kai-shek, who used every ploy imaginable to avoid committing his army while constantly demanding more Lend-Lease aid from the Americans. The war is portrayed as largely futile. The real defeat of Japan took place in the Pacific and Burma was a sideshow, but Churchill was determined that Britain should reconquer at least one territory lost to the Japanese to show that the British Empire was not completely washed up. However, despite the heroics of Slim and his soldiers, both Burma and India were given independence within a few years. The maps provided are sketchy, and many of the places mentioned in the text are not shown so the narrative can be difficult to follow. There are also a few factual inconsistencies in the text which raises the question of whether there are other, less obvious errors. More careful editing might have helped to eliminate these. Despite these minor quibbles, this is an engrossing read.
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