Obituary: Brigadier Michael Calvert

MICHAEL CALVERT, who survived both the Chindit expeditions into Burma, was one of the outstanding leaders of irregular troops during the Second World War, though born into the old officer class and himself a regular army officer.

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower