Obituary: Brigadier Michael Calvert
Wednesday 02 December 1998
He was the youngest son of a senior member of the Indian Civil Service, who rose to be acting governor of the Punjab; his mother was Irish. He was himself born in the Raj, near Delhi; went to school at Bradfield; and followed his brothers to "The Shop", the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Though he cared little for smartness he passed out seventh and was commissioned a second lieutenant Royal Engineers in 1933. He then spent a year at Cambridge reading Mechanical Sciences at St John's and securing a swimming Blue. He was also a boxer, later the Army's middleweight champion.
His first Army posting was to Hong Kong where he raised a force of coolies. He was then moved on to Shanghai in time to witness its conquest by the Japanese in 1937: an early lesson in the horrors of war. He reported in detail on the infantry landing craft, with hinged front panels, which he saw the Japanese using; his report lay forgotten in a pigeon-hole in the War Office.
The outbreak of war saw him adjutant of a London RE battalion, work so dull that he volunteered for the Fifth Battalion, the Scots Guards (though well under the proper height for a guardsman). This battalion consisted of men preparing to fight beside the Finns against the Soviet Union during the winter war of 1939 to 1940. They spent weeks at Chamonix learning to ski, and were then disbanded as the Finns had given in.
Calvert missed the fighting in France next summer but was an early member of the Commando training school at Lochailort in the Highlands, which he left to assist Peter Fleming in preparing the stay-behind parties in Kent who were to try to upset the communications and petrol supplies of the German army that, thank goodness, never invaded.
He was then sent out to Australia to help set up a school similar to Lochailort there. From one of his fellow instructors, Freddie Spencer- Chapman (later author of that marvellous book, The Jungle is Neutral, 1949), he learned a lot about jungle warfare; and he helped to train Australian special forces. He was moved on to set up a bush warfare school at Maymyo in Burma, east of Mandalay - in fact a school to train guerrillas to fight in China.
There he was surprised by the Japanese invasion in the winter of 1941/42. Off his own bat he dressed his staff and pupils in Australian bush hats and mounted a raid by river craft behind the Japanese lines, intended to lead them to think that the Australian army was already present in Burma in force. He got no thanks in the short run - indeed he was reprimanded for damaging the property of the Burmah Oil Company without permission. He discovered in the long run that he had indeed done a little to hold up the Japanese advance. His casualties were light and he had managed some important demolitions.
Moreover he next met Orde Wingate, that formidable pillar of unconventionality; who had read a paper Calvert had scribbled in 1940, about the way raiding parties could be kept supplied by air, far behind any existing fighting line, and was looking forward to implementing that then quite novel idea in the field. Calvert was one of the few regular officers whom Wingate was prepared to treat as an equal. That their ranks at the time were major and brigadier made no difference at all; the two of them got on splendidly.
Before he could rejoin Wingate, Calvert had a couple of months hard fighting in the rearguard of the army retreating from Burma, with such wild men as he could find to undertake tasks that were at first glance hopeless. In his autobiography, Fighting Mad (1964), this is the point at which he lays down a principle. "I have always maintained that the men in a fighting unit must be led from in front by a commander they know is willing and able to do everything he asks them to do and probably more."
Nelson would have approved; this is the way real leaders lead. Once Calvert paused to bathe in a river, and met a Japanese officer who was doing exactly the same. He won a quarter of an hour's wrestling match, drowned his opponent, and had his patrol kill the whole Japanese patrol whom they surprised in the next bend of the river.
He then got back to India, with infinite difficulty through the monsoon, and was at once summoned by Wingate to help train his first Chindit expedition. "God often gives men peculiar instruments with which to pursue His will," Wingate remarked; "David was armed only with a sling."
In August 1942 Calvert joined 77th Brigade which Wingate commanded; in it Calvert commanded a column of some 400 men when it went into Burma six months later. This first attempt at Long Range Penetration - its official name - had little strategic impact but was a colossal propaganda success: home morale in Great Britain was much boosted by the idea that our men were attacking the Japanese in the jungle and the name of Chindit became famous. Casualties were heavy, at about 30 per cent of the force; Calvert, though emaciated after a march of over a thousand miles through jungle, survived.
He was indeed promoted brigadier - thus winning a bet he had made with a schoolfriend when he was 12 - and took 77th Brigade into Burma again by air on 5 March 1944. He established a stronghold and landing ground codenamed Broadway well behind the Japanese lines, and another called White City a little farther south; and held both of them against sustained Japanese attacks. This operation was of far more use than the previous one - it dislocated the Japanese assault on Imphal, that threatened India; but the fire went out of it when Wingate was killed in an air crash, and Calvert found himself under the orders of the American General Stilwell - passionately anti-British - and forced to fight a conventional war for which his men were neither equipped nor trained.
This time Calvert lost over nine-tenths of his Brigade, but his leadership kept the survivors together as a formidable fighting force however weakened, and he pulled through himself. For each of these Chindit sorties he was appointed to the DSO. Absurdly enough he then injured his Achilles tendon in a football match. He returned to the United Kingdom and in March 1945, was picked to succeed Brigadier R.W. McLeod in command of the Special Air Service brigade. Leading again from in front he took two French parachute units of that brigade into eastern Holland and north-west Germany in the closing stages of the war. For those actions he was awarded a French and a Belgian Croix de Guerre.
Thereafter his career went downhill. He had a spell helping to administer Trieste while its ownership was in dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1950 he was posted to command a new SAS unit called the Malayan Scouts in a colony already troubled by Communist subversion. Many men posted to him from elsewhere in the Army were discards from their former units and with this material even he could do nothing useful. He fell ill; returned to England; and was posted - in his substantive rank, still major - to a corner of the control commission in Germany.
He did not get on with his fellow officers and took to drinking by himself in a bar in Soltau (though he spoke no German). Some young men called on him and accused him of trying to seduce them. He was court-martialled for conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman - his biographer David Rooney strongly suspects that he was framed - and dismissed from the service.
He tried business in Australia; it did not succeed. He then took to drink in so big a way that he was reduced to methylated spirits in the slums of Glasgow. His fellow drinkers abused him - what was an educated man like him doing among such down-and- outs as themselves? This shocked him back on to the water wagon; and for a few years he worked as a temporary lecturer in Military Studies at Manchester University. A book he then projected on the theory of guerrilla warfare was never finished; and he retired to the Charterhouse. Alas what the temperance movement used to call the "Demon Drink" reasserted its hold.
Though he never rose above brigadier anyone who served under him knew that Michael Calvert was a tremendous leader of men; quite careless of his own danger and taking care not to put his troops into worse trouble than he could help.
James Michael Calvert, soldier: born Rohtak, India 6 March 1913; DSO 1943, and Bar 1944; died London 26 November 1998.
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