There will be many a fine word spoken about Brigadier Michael Calvert tomorrow at his memorial service at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. He was a hero of the Chindits, SAS commander, holder of the Distinguished Service Order and Bar. So there will be strong words too, words like "hero", "bravery" and "warrior", and they will roll round the room with the authority that legend favours on such occasions. Generals who have come to pay tribute will say prayers. There will be affection and possibly tears. This is as it should be, for "Mad Mike" had a war record that would make anyone weep.
But there is something else that made Michael Calvert weep. He was courtmartialled in 1952 for "gross indecency with male persons" and dismissed from the service. He died last autumn, a soldier who was forced to live as a civilian. He maintained his innocence for more than 40 years and was hopeful to the end of a reprieve, especially when his biographer found new evidence that cast doubt on the verdict. This was 18 months ago, but the Ministry of Defence is not interested in reviewing this case. It seems that everyone loves a hero but only up to a point.
Of course, no one will speak of this at the memorial service. "I think it would be very wrong to bring that up," said one old soldier. The generals do not want to talk about the whole story: the warrior who was thought to be gay, the hard-drinking hero who could not adjust to peace, the military establishment that saw a brave man courtmartialled for something he may not have done. Michael Calvert would understand such reticence. He might not approve of this article in that it must deal with things like his homosexuality; he never talked about it with his biographer, David Rooney, for instance. His friend Tony Harris says that Calvert was haunted by the idea that people would think the court-martial verdict must be true if they knew he was gay. And there is evidence that the military helped fabricate a case against Michael Calvert in 1952 which, 47 years later, it is still covering up.
What the congregation at the memorial service will hear about tomorrow is the soldier, the Cambridge graduate in engineering who had a love of blowing things up and a passion for early guerrilla warfare. By the age of 30 he was a brigadier and a Chindit commander. Calvert lead a brigade behind the enemy lines in Burma from early March to August 1944. He never asked his men to take a risk that he wouldn't take himself.
His great victory was to recapture Mogaung from the Japanese in 1944, though he might have disagreed with the word "great". The road to triumph was littered with the dead and he was haunted by the idea that he had asked too much of his men. Over one third of 77 Brigade had been killed or wounded during the four-week battle. That means 250 dead, 500 wounded. Calvert saw it as a mini-Passchendaele. He later would talk of Wellington's remark that "the next great misfortune to losing a battle is to gain such a victory as this".
But the fact is that, however many men died, many more were ready to follow him. "I knew he had that spark of genius in military affairs that a soldier is lucky to see at close quarters once in his career," said Colonel John Woodhouse. Calvert believed in making men think for themselves, a rare thing in the military. But men who are geniuses in war can be troublesome off the battlefield. As the military historian John Keegan has noted, Calvert was a great warrior who was also opinionated, dangerously outspoken and, at times, verging on the insubordinate. His men loved him; the military establishment did not.
For the last six months of the war he commanded the SAS in Europe and then went on to create the Malayan Scouts (SAS). But here his peacetime failings started to work against him, and the Scouts were notoriously ill disciplined. In addition, Calvert was drinking heavily; it is said that if you asked in the mess for a regular breakfast, you got a double brandy and no eggs. This did not go unnoticed and the establishment backlash was stinging. Calvert came back to England and, in October 1951, he was sent to a backwater called Soltau in northern Germany where he was placed in charge of housing. The posting was a blatant insult for a war hero.
Within nine months he was standing before a court martial. This period posed a major problem for David Rooney. Here was the turning point in Calvert's life but there were simply no records to consult. Calvert had none and the official records are sealed for 75 years, until the year 2028. But he discovered that there was a three-page summary of the court martial that he could apply to see.
The case revolved around the word of four young men aged between 17 and 20 who had met Calvert had a local pub called the Green Hunter. They testified that, on two occasions, he had invited them back to his flat. On one occasion "acts of gross indecency occurred". On another, Calvert is accused of touching one of the young men in an "improper manner" and trying to kiss him. Calvert denied any improper sexual activity and his lawyer said innocent acts of bonhomie were being misinterpreted.
Calvert was found guilty. He appealed, and then came a post-trial investigation which cast events in a different light. An intelligence officer described the Green Hunter pub as being "the centre of a gang of criminals". A German investigator visited three of the main prosecution witnesses, who signed a statement admitting the evidence they had given at the court martial was false. A fourth witness signed a statement saying his evidence had been misinterpreted. At this point, it came out that Calvert's erstwhile accusers had also served 14 days in a German prison for robbing his flat. The judge refused to accept the confessions on the grounds they had not been given to a police officer. The appeal was rejected.
This was a disaster for Calvert from which he never recovered. "The court martial wrecked his life. Absolutely. It ruined him," said his friend Tony Harris. In the decade after the verdict he lived as a down and out in Australia. At one point, he was drinking 15 pints of beer and a bottle of whisky a day. He took many a job, most of them manual, and lost them just as quickly. He later sobered up (with lapses) and returned to England. But he was never to taste real success again. In 1997 he sold his medals at Spinks. He was hopeless with money and, as a civilian, was always on the brink of penury.
The court martial that had haunted Calvert was now also haunting his biographer. "I felt that to do him justice I must try and get to the bottom of it. It was no more than that. I went not expecting to get very much but thought that out of decency to him, I ought to try." In Soltau he found that the Green Hunter was still there (with a much improved reputation) and that two of Calvert's accusers would be interviewed.
These included Jurgen Jacob. As a 17-year-old he had testified that Calvert had committed acts of gross indecency. Now he was a man in his sixties and a respected member of the community. David Rooney gave him a German translation of the court-martial summary of evidence to read. "He was horrified," said Mr Rooney. Herr Jacob talked at length to Mr Rooney and signed an affidavit saying that nothing of a homosexual nature had occurred at Calvert's flat. In fact, he said, they had gone there to rob the place. The boys had subsequently served 14 days in prison for this and had been visited repeatedly in jail by the military police, who questioned them time and time again about Calvert's supposed homosexuality.
In September 1997 David Rooney wrote to the Armed Forces Minister, John Reid, and asked him to review the court martial in light of this new evidence. Mr Reid wrote back and said that only Calvert or his lawyers could make such a request. Mr Rooney turned to Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who was sympathetic but declined to help. Mad Mike was always his own worst enemy anyway, he said.
General Sir Michael Rose told me that the question of whether to reopen this case is a purely legal one. If that is the case, then action cannot be far behind. The historian Michael Howard tells me that perhaps the MoD does not want to open this "can of worms". But the can is already open. The worms ate up Michael Calvert, though no one likes to say so. "People like to remember Michael Calvert for the soldier he was," said an old soldier. "If his life was destroyed - well, sadly, it was one of those things. We don't really know what happened, do we?"
David Rooney still thinks that someone should say something about how Calvert's life was ruined at the memorial service. "I see it as an absolute catastrophe for one of the bravest men of the war. That's the way to see it in realistic terms."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies