Robert Lyman

Biography

Dr Robert Lyman is an elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society. The primary focus of his research is the British and Commonwealth armies in the Second World War, where he has published extensively on the Pacific and Far East, North Africa and North West Europe. He was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1982 into the Light Infantry and spent 20 years in the British Army. His PhD was on Field Marshal Bill Slim. In 2010 he helped General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, write his memoirs, Leading from the Front.

In 2011 he won the National Army Museum’s debate for ‘Britain’s Greatest General’ on Bill Slim and in 2013 the debate for ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ on Kohima and Imphal. He lives in Berkshire, England.

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His book Slim, Master of War continues to be listed as a ‘must read’ for officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and The Jail Busters was on the Chief of the Air Staff’s Reading List for 2016.

He is currently writing a new account of the entire Burma campaign for Bloomsbury to be published in 2022, the first full account of the campaign since Jon Latimer (The Forgotten War, 2004) and Louis Allen (The Longest War, 1984). In this book he argues that this campaign was a victory for India and the Indian Army, and served as a key validation for a newly independent India.

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Books

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Articles

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Bill Slim: a Master of both War and Words

Bill Slim: a Master of both War and Words

In 1956 a military biography became a publishing sensation in the United Kingdom with the first edition of 20,000 selling out almost immediately. This was unusual, as only nine years after the war the public appetite for books on the recent war remained limited. It was even more unusual given ...
Remembering a Giant: Uncle Bill

Remembering a Giant: Uncle Bill

Even the most sketchily educated Briton today will nevertheless recognise in the murky depths of their consciousness the name of that great British general of World War Two, Montgomery of Alamein.  To an older generation perhaps another name resonates equally and perhaps more strongly, the name
India’s Victory

India’s Victory

Both in India and Britain, the war in the Far East has for a long time been considered part of a colonial conflict between the competing armies of the Japanese and British Empires. In a new book on the subject, Robert Lyman has made a compelling case that the war was for the defence of India, ...
God Save the King!

God Save the King!

God Save the King!Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had a special place in the hearts of every serviceman and woman of this country. This isn’t mere sentimentality, but a fact hard rooted in our constitution. All servicemen and women owe their loyalty not to a particular group or class, or to ...

Book Reviews

A War of Empires, by Robert Lyman
There have been many accounts of the disasters followed by the triumph of the Burma campaign in the Far East war, but few with the detail and perceptive analysis of A War of Empires. Robert Lyman is of course a noted authority on the history of the region, and his biography of Bill Slim is a model of how such studies should be constructed. Here the reader is taken through the entire campaign from start to finish with a particularly good introduction setting out the political and military background of all the players. As an ex-professional soldier, Lyman is well placed to understand the military aspects of the war but is also fully cognisant of the political imperatives which, at least in a democracy, dictate the limits of military action. The humiliating attempt at the defence of and then the scuttle from an underfunded and ill-equipped Burma is well covered as is the incompetent Arakan caper of 1943. The author is severely critical of Archibald Wavell, Noel Irwin and Wilfrid Lloyd, and the evidence he cites and the conclusions he draws have forced at least this reviewer to re-examine his own perceptions of Wavell.It is refreshing to find some compassion for John ‘Jackie’ Smyth, blamed by many as having been solely responsible for the Sittang bridge disaster. Those of us who consider Wingate to have been a dangerous lunatic would be well advised to read Lyman’s succinct assessment of the man and his methods, which shows that many of Wingate’s ideas were sound, even if their execution was not. The lessons learned from fighting the Japanese and their application to the re-vamped training methods instituted by Claude Auchinleck to prepare the Indian Army for its return to the fray is well covered as is the obstruction caused by the unfortunate attitude of Churchill to consider the Indian army as nothing more than a ‘band of potential mutineers’.  The book is perhaps more sympathetic to the motivation of those prisoners who chose to join ‘Netaji’s’ Indian National Army (that sided with Japan), than were those prisoners who withstood appalling brutality when refusing to join (including one subedar major of a Gurkha battalion who was beheaded), but the circumstances have been assessed in more detail than has been seen elsewhere.The contribution of Auchinleck, unfairly sacked by Churchill and traduced by Montgomery, in rebuilding the army and of Slim in leading it are fully acknowledged, as is the prodigious logistic effort involved.  The sequence of events and the battles in the subsequent victorious return to Burma are masterfully described, and where he finds ‘official histories’ in error Lyman says so and shows how.  One of the major problems, perhaps the greatest problem next to the Japanese, was that the Far East in general and Burma in particular was bottom of the Allied priority for equipment, shipping, aircraft and manpower, much having to be improvised in India or on the battlefield.One of the most helpful aspects of this book is the way in which the author describes the interplay between the various allies, all with the same ultimate aim – to defeat the Japanese – but all with their own differing agenda and coming at the common aim from different directions.  The misconceptions, suspicions, cultural clashes and pure mutual ignorance all made coordination and concentration of effort very difficult and sometimes impossible, a prime example being the description of the relationship between Joseph Stillwell and Generalissimo Chiang.Slim is rightly lauded for his far seeing and perceptive assessments of what was possible and what was not, and for his drive and leadership throughout – he will surely be recognised by future historians as being far and away the best British general of the Second World War.  Each of the important battles is illustrated by a clear and unambiguous map, and the plates are well chosen.A War of Empires is meticulously sourced, a delight to read and will surely be the definitive account of this, the most harrowing campaign of the Second World War.Gordon Corrigan is a historian and writer, and author of The Second World War: A Military History.

Author Interviews

Robert Lyman
Robert Lyman, what first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?I have been a voracious devourer of history since a child, reading everything I could from an early age, before studying history at O and A level and at university. I am not exclusively a military historian, in that my interests range widely. I studied Australian, Chinese and European History at school and the Medieval Church for my first degree. The Reformation and the theological arguments that framed the debate between the medieval church and Protestantism retain an enduring interest for me. My first manuscript (fortunately, never published, because it was, in retrospect, not very good), written whilst I was an undergraduate, was on the English church between c.400 and the death of Elizabeth in 1603. This was undoubtedly influenced by my tutors at York in the 1980s, who included Claire Cross and John Bossy. The positive influences of excellent teachers run deep! I am also intensely interested in international affairs – the subject of my second degree – but also in military technology and war studies (the subjects of my third and fourth degrees).  The military history dimension comes from my twenty-years in uniform in the British Army, and being immersed in this stuff every day. I need to mention the quality of some of the teaching I received in the army, beginning with men like John Keegan, David Chandler, Ian Beckett, Richard Holmes and other such luminaries at Sandhurst, Cranfield and Staff College, which encouraged me to dive deeper into the subject. My PhD – on Field Marshal Bill Slim, began at Staff College in 1996.  Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?I study in concentric circles, beginning with the widest possible reading around my subject area. A feature of my books is the extensive context about the period and subject, to ensure that the events I end up describing and analysing can be understood properly. I then start homing in my subject, refining and questioning as I go. Talking to friends and colleagues and debating issues as the research develops is also a good way of working out what is important and what is not: the challenge is to avoid going down into rabbit warrens and studying aspects of a subject that doesn’t contribute much to the final story.  The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?Yes, it’s true, but we mustn’t forget that the further we get from an event in history the more objective analysts like me (for that is what historians are) can be, unconstrained by the baggage of victory or victimhood. The curse of modern history telling, however, is the prevalence of the preachers among us, who use the platform they have to engage in ahistorical victimhood. These people, and there are far too many of them, are not in my view proper historians, as they use history as a means of presenting a modern political or ideological perspective quite alien to the people of the time about which they write.Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?The book that first got me interested in the modern history of the British Army was General Sir David Fraser’s And We Shall Shock Them, which I read when it was pressed into my hands on first publication in 1983. It tells the story of the transformation of the British Army during the Second World War. That led me to Field Marshal Bill Slim’s stupendous Defeat into Victory, undoubtedly the best general’s book of the Second World War. Another book I read as a young officer was Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, influencing me profoundly as an historian. These three books – which I heartily recommend – have led me to a writing career that straddles fascism in Europe and the war against Japan in the Far East.If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?I would love to have met Oliver Cromwell, a much maligned and misunderstood leader, but of course I’d love to sit down and chat with Bill Slim. One event in history?  There are lots. I’d have loved to have watched the Light Brigade undertake its bloody charge at Balaclava in October 1854. As General Bosquet observed, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie.’ It would have been fabulous to observe the coronation of Elizabeth 1 in 1558, the execution of Charles I and the ramming of the Normandie Gates at St Nazaire by HMS Campbelltown in 1942.If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?I don’t think that any particular time or period of history is necessarily important, although I am a firm believer in understanding our own national history. Human beings are tied to time and place, and our origins are an important component of who we are, and who we consider ourselves to be. I am not an exponent of exceptionalism, but I do believe in the importance of identity. What is important is understanding how to interpret what history tells us about who we are, and where we come from. To do that we need the tools to analyse history, as well as knowing the events of the past. The two are inseparable.If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?The advice to myself would be to always evaluate every side of an argument. I have gone off half cock before, and always regretted it. I’m now very careful to evaluate all aspects of an issue before coming to judgement.Can I extend the question to suggest advice for others? That’s simple. Read more. There is no substitute for reading as extensively as you can manage. Read widely, and don’t stop reading. Don’t read one book on a subject, but several, to get different perspectives and perhaps conflicting analysis. I have read over 100 books a year since I was 10 or 11, and apart from the problem of over-accumulation, its one vice that shouldn’t have too many negative consequences. As a writer, reading also allows me to observe through first hand experience, what good (and bad) writing can look like.  Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?I’m busy with a range of projects at the moment. My ‘big book on Burma’ is being published in November. A War of Empires is a military history of the Burma Campaign that tells the story of the Far East between December 1941 and August 1942. I attempt to weave the strategic, operational and tactical stories together, to try to answer the question as to why the Allied forces involved did so badly in 1942, and yet managed to turn the tide against the Japanese in 1945. Its been a subject that has intrigued me for many years.I’m also writing a short account of Operation Jericho, to tighten some of the arguments I made about MI6 and the RAF about the Mosquito raid on Amiens Jail in 1944 in my 2014 book The Jail Busters.
Patrick Bishop on Operation Jubilee
Patrick Bishop and Robert Lyman discuss Operation Jubilee, the subject of Patrick’s new book, costing over 6,000 men, mostly Canadian. Louis Mountbatten played a key role in planning the operation, and it was claimed that lessons were learned for D-Day nearly two years later. You’ve written a range of detailed accounts of military adventures before, most of which from what I recall weren’t complete disasters. What prompted you to have a look at the Dieppe raid?It was actually Daniel Crewe at Penguin Random House who suggested the subject. I was intrigued as it provided an opportunity to anatomise a notorious disaster. I’ve always been interested in wartime decision making and this was an ideal subject for study. No-one wants a blunder yet they recur with appalling regularity in time of war. The inexorability with which a bad decision is made and then compounded by successive bad decisions, even when it is increasingly clear that catastrophe is looming is one of the big themes of the book. Incidentally Max Hastings remarked to me the other day that he had tended to avoid subjects where there were no redeeming features to the story. I think there were some uplifting aspects to Jubilee, notably the incredible heroism of the troops.Did you find anything new, or requiring a new historical assessment, during your research?I did in the sense that I came across numerous other raid proposals floating around at the time that Dieppe was gestating that carried even greater risks. One was Op Imperator which proposed landing an armoured column in he Pas de Calais which would then proceed to Paris, shoot up various military headquarters then return to the Channel to be shipped home. Completely mad and thank God it was eventually vetoed.One of the standout features of your depiction of the raid, both in its planning and execution, was the array of egos involved. How much did competing and conflicting ambitions contribute to the outcome?Yes, there is a full set of massively self-regarding players in the story, led by Mountbatten. I think it was less a case of competition among them than Mountbatten’s burning desire to boost his reputation and that of Combined Operations, both of which were waning at the time, in order to ensure his future prospects and his place in history.Was there a single overriding reason why Operation Jubilee was such an unmitigated disaster, or was it a cluster of failures that unhappily coalesced? I think the latter – a perfect storm of circumstances, bad decisions, a terrible plan and the driving force of external political considerations – notably the necessity to appease the Americans and the Soviets who were pressing for the opening of a Second Front.Do you think that, despite what appears to have been a shockingly ill-prepared and planned operation, was anything learned from it that influenced Operation Torch a few months later? Was Operation Overlord won on the beaches of Dieppe?

Mountbatten inspecting sailors in February 1942

Not really. The claim that Jubilee was somehow a ‘rehearsal for D-Day’ was loudly trumpeted by Mountbatten and his team as well as others after the raid failed. He claimed until his dying day that it had always been intended as an experiment to test the feasibility of capturing a French port intact as the central element in the eventual invasion of North Western Europe. This, he maintained, justified the whole affair and the lessons learned meant that many lives were say when D-Day finally dawned. I don’t believe this. For one thing there is nothing at all in the voluminous orders which lays out a methodology for observing and reporting what is going on and measuring the success or otherwise of various parts of the operation. This would surely be the case if Jubilee was intended as some kind of military experiment. The claim that the experience of Dieppe contributed greatly to the successful planning for Overlord also fails to stand up to close examination.Most of the ‘lessons learned’ published in the post operational report were statements of the obvious and would have emerged from an afternoon-long junior staff college exercise of the problems of mounting a major amphibious operation. They did not need a bloody debacle to reveal themselves.You pick up on the discovery by the Canadian historian David O’Keefe that the early commando raids included in their objectives the capture of German coding machines and codes. What do you think of his argument that it was the exclusive reason (though secret) for the Dieppe raid? I’m afraid I don’t buy that. ‘Pinch’ operations to grab Enigma machines and code books were routinely bolted on to the plans of all big raids at this period. The acquisition of naval and military intelligence material is clearly stated repeatedly in the orders so there was no great mystery about that aspect of Jubilee – though of course Enigma is not mentioned by name. Ian Fleming’s  special intelligence gathering 30 Assault Unit were present but they did not get ashore. However, it seems to me incredible that such a huge operation for this stage of the British war would be mounted simply as camouflage for this aim. What strikes me as a clinching argument against O’Keefe’s thesis is that if it was true, Mountbatten would surely have employed it in his tireless campaign to justify the raid. The Ultra Secret was known to the general public from 1974 with the publication of F.W.Winterbotham’s book of the same name. If seizing Enigma material had been the sole or even a major driver of the raid, surely Mountbatten – who was very much alive for a further five years afterwards – would have seized on it in his defence.Why was it that Mountbatten, Montgomery and others were allowed to side step responsibility for a poorly conceived plan after the event?This is what happens in wartime. There is little to be gained from too close investigation of a disaster though Churchill made attempts to get to the bottom of who was responsible, without much success due to Mountbatten’s energetic track-covering.  There is often much to be lost by sacking people unless they have proved to be completely useless, which Monty and Mountbatten certainly were not. The war still has to be fought so the great imperative is to press on and leave history to apportion blame.

Canadian dead on Blue beach.

The Canadians suffered terribly in the operation – how much did this affect relations between Canada and Britain?Good question. Much less than you might imagine. The Canadian government and its top commanders in Britain knew all about the operation and had approved it. McNaughton and Crerar had both pressed for Canadian troops to be used, even though they had no hand in the original plan. Later they did contribute but failed to modify it to increase fire support or insist on other measures to lessen the odds against their men. So they shared a degree of responsibility for the disaster and were consequently reluctant to play the blame game afterwards. Instead, they recast the story as one of incredible Canadian heroism, which indeed it was, as well as backing the narrative that it was a painful but necessary preparation for D-Day.What you are planning to write next?I’m working on a book on the liberation of Paris, seen through the eyes of a dozen or so participants on all sides of the story.Patrick Bishop is the author of Fighter Boys: The Pilots Behind the Battle of Britain and 3 PARA: Afghanistan 2006. Operation Jubilee, Dieppe 1942: The Folly & The Sacrifice is his latest book.Robert Lyman is a historian and writer, and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain 1941-45.
Fiction Book of the Month: Andrew Taylor on The Royal Secret
Andrew Taylor, with The Royal Secret you're now at 45 books (at my last count) in 39 years, not including a clutch of novellas! Is there something very special in the water where you live? What’s your secret?The easy answer is that when you write for a living you need to keep the words coming. (I always think of a reply that the far more prolific Anthony Burgess made to a similar question: ‘I wrote much because I was paid little.’)But of course there was more to it than this sordidly practical reason. I realised when I was writing my first novel, Caroline Minuscule, more than 40 years ago, that whether the book found a publisher or not I had found the thing in life I wanted to do: write stories.You clearly like writing in a series, developing characters and stories as you go. You’ve stayed in the 20th Century so far, at least until James Marwood was introduced to us in 2016. What is it about the 17th century that fascinates you?Series allow you to develop the recurring characters over time, and to build - perhaps ‘explore’ is a more accurate description - the world they inhabit.Reading accounts of the Great Fire - especially Pepys’ - inspired The Ashes of London. My original plan was to write a trilogy of three novels with the government clerk James Marwood and the aspiring architect Cat Lovett as their central characters. But the more I learn about Restoration England, its brutal politics and its cultural ferment, the more I want to find out, and the less I want to leave this fascinating world.In developing historical characters, believability is key. What do you do to enable your characters to come to life to a modern reader yet stay true to the historical context?This is one of the challenges of writing of historical fiction, which exists in the no man’s land between historical fact and the novelist’s imagination.I try to endow my characters with beliefs and lives that could plausibly belong to the period. If characters are based on real people, I keep their fictional actions within the bounds of the historical record (or at least that part of the record available to me). If they are fictional, I have much more room for manoeuvre. Sometimes I choose the possible over the probable. For example, James Marwood doesn’t think twice about slavery as a concept, which is historically probable; but he feels queasy about the reality of ‘owning’ another person when a young black boy comes to live in his household, which is a possible response from a man in his historical context.Another tactic is to avoid the temptation to insert all my research into the novel. Readers (I include myself here) want a story with credible, interesting characters, not slabs of undigested historical detail. It surprises me, however, how much of the background research seems to permeate the narrative without any conscious effort on my part. It somehow integrates itself with the story, allowing the readers to join the dots and build their own view of this world. (Fortunately readers are very good at this, and like doing it!)And then there’s dialogue as an aid to authenticity. I read a lot of Restoration literature, but the language of the period is too far removed from us to be easy to use directly in 21st-century fiction. So I base my dialogue on plain, modern English - but I allow the occasional 17th-century word or phrase or speech rhythm to creep in when the context allows it. I try to avoid clanging anachronisms.Likewise, how much do you feel that you are an historian? What do you have to do to ensure that history and geography (especially the highways and byways of 17th century London) are accurate to the historic record?I realised at the age of 15 that I was not cut out to be a historian in the scholarly sense, despite a frankly insatiable interest in the subject. But I am absurdly obsessed with trying to make sure the details are right. I browse contemporary maps, newspapers, diaries, letters and plays. I check the price of hiring a hack from a livery stable for the day or the probable layout of long-vanished buildings.As an illustration: I have just spent the last three days trying to reconcile the use of both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars with the fragmentary documentary evidence available to me, in order to construct what I think is an accurate chronology of a two-week period in a particular place. Most of my readers couldn’t care less and wouldn’t notice if I made a mistake. But I care.I think it was Hilary Mantel who suggested that historical novelists can ‘interrogate’ history in a different way from historians, by trying to inhabit the past imaginatively. That struck a chord with me.Now, to Marwood and Lovett/Hakesby. Where did the idea for this combination come from? Is the development of their relationship just something that happens intuitively, or is there a master plan?There is no master plan for Marwood and Lovett. I’m not very good at planning. At the beginning, I knew the characters would run for at least three novels, and that their relationship would often be stormy, if not downright antagonistic, and not romantic in any predictable sense. I wanted Marwood to be what we’d now call a civil servant, a sort of low-grade Pepys, struggling to survive and prosper in the Whitehall jungle. And I imagined that Cat would have been too damaged by her upbringing to envisage her future in the traditional wifely terms of the period.Since then, their relationship has evolved over the series with very little conscious help from me. They are getting to know each other, and I’m getting to know them, over a period of years. As I write this, I’ve reached the last quarter of the current book, the sixth: I’ve no idea what will happen to Cat and Marwood in the final chapter. I hope they’ll let me know when the time is right.I think you know that I’ve been a fan of your books for many years. I am a complete sucker for historical fiction, but as an historian myself I am always looking out for inadvertent howlers. How do you protect yourself from these?This question is the stuff of nightmares. I try very hard to make sure the factual details are accurate (see above) but I’m sure I make mistakes. Given time and endless resources, I’d be delighted to have a panel of expert fact-checkers at my disposal.The Royal Secret includes the Secret Treaty of Dover in 1670, one of the terms of which was Charles II would convert to Catholicism. How seriously do you think he took this?Charles II was a wily man who played his cards close to his chest. He would have known better than anyone that there would be an enormous political price to pay if he announced his conversion to Catholicism during his reign. But he did keep the promise on his deathbed when it no longer really mattered, in this world at least, and when he and everyone else knew that his heir, his brother James, was already a Catholic.My own theory is that Charles might well have been personally inclined towards Catholicism, which provided a sort of theological backbone to Stuart ideas of hierarchy and the divine right of kings. Moreover, many of those he particularly loved or admired were or had been Catholic.By nature he was a pragmatist, however, not a fanatic. In 1670, I suspect that he crossed his fingers when he agreed to the treaty, and added the proviso to himself that he would announce his conversion only when the time was right for himself and for his kingdom. On his deathbed it was.Charles’ sister, a key participant in the negotiations of the treaty, died soon after, amidst rumours of poisoning by her cruel husband. How seriously should we take these rumours?On balance I think it’s unlikely that Minette was poisoned, either by the husband or by anyone else. She had a long history of ill-health. According to Nancy Goldstone in Daughters of the Winter Queen, Minette’s symptoms can be attributed either to intestinal tuberculosis, which was then widespread in France, or to a peptic ulcer. Either of those could have led to intestinal perforation and peritonitis, which was the probable cause of her violent pains and rapid death.The autopsy, which was witnessed by both French and English observers in an atmosphere of rumour and suspicion, found no evidence of poison.With The Royal Secret we now have the fifth chapter in James and Cat’s adventures. Can you assure your fan club that they have many more scrapes to experience yet?I hope there will be more. It would be nice to reach the Glorious Revolution. And why stop there?Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author of The Royal Secret, his latest novel of the Marwood & Lovett series. Robert Lyman is a historian and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain - 1941-45.Deborah Swift Deborah Swift Deborah Swift