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Edward Willis

BRIGADIER MICHAEL CALVERT (1913–1998) – Trainer and Long-Term Friend of the Doublereds

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BRIGADIER MICHAEL CALVERT (1913–1998) – Trainer and Long-Term Friend of the Doublereds

 

The iconic image featured in the ‘Debt of honour’ exhibition in a panel titled ‘Raising the Independent Companies: Australia’s first special forces’.  The photo shows Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman with the telescope and his colleague Captain Michael (Mad Mike) Calvert using the radio.  [See attached photo]

Both men were members of a small British military mission that arrived in Australia in November 1940.  Its task was to establish a covert camp to train Australians as special forces for use behind enemy lines.  The rugged and isolated Wilsons Promontory, a narrow-necked peninsula 230kms south east of Melbourne, was chosen.

No. 104 Mission, under Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood, with Captain Mike Calvert in charge of demolitions and Freddy in charge of fieldcraft [see attached photo], and with two warrant officers in support, left Britain on 6th October 1940 in the S.S. Rimutaka, crossing the North Atlantic and heading south for the Panama Canal.  During the voyage Freddy and Mike Calvert established a relationship which they were always able to pick up again at the same point however long they were apart, based on mutual respect and an acceptance of where their lives and characters overlapped .and interlocked and where they didn't.  In fact, they had little in common.  Spencer-Chapman later recalled, ‘Michael Calvert boxed and swam for Cambridge and the Army, has no nose left, and a large red good-natured rubber-like face which he can twist into the most ludicrous expressions.  He is always laughing and cannot see why everybody else is not happy too’.

On completing their Australian training assignment, Calvert was posted to India and Spencer-Chapman to Malaya.  Calvert became famous first as a daring assistant to the legendary Major-General Orde Wingate in Burma, and later during the Malayan emergency, where he became pivotal in developing modern SAS-style forces.  Calvert and Chapman left indelible impressions on the men of early Australian Independent Companies (including the 2nd Independent Company) trained under their direction.  The outstanding military careers of these two men deserves greater contemporary recognition.

CALVERT POST WWII

Post WWII, Calvert, despite all his experience, could not adapt to conventional peacetime soldiering.  A lonely person, he started drinking heavily but the end of a distinguished military career came when serving in Germany he was accused of gross indecency and convicted by court martial.  His appeal was rejected.

Calvert strongly protested his innocence throughout, and subsequent examinations of the records, many years later, suggested that much of the evidence against him was unsafe.  But the damage had been done.

M.R.D. Foot knew Calvert extremely well, having employed him as a military history lecturer at Manchester University during Calvert's 'rehabilitation' years in the 1970s and was in no doubt that he had been, in effect, ‘guilty as charged’.  What deeply upset Calvert and led to many years of drinking, depression and menial labour, was that very few of his British wartime colleagues would have anything to do with him after his conviction.  One well-known individual told him that the best thing he could do was ‘to go and kill himself’.

THE DOUBLEREDS' RESPOND TO CALVERT’S TRAVAILS

Calvert’s travails were widely reported in the Australian press and a drew a sympathetic response from Harry Botterill in the Courier (September 1952: 6-7):

May I add a word of praise for Bern Callernan’s [Callinan's] article on Michael Calvert.  It was timely, wise and expressed sentiments which are shared by us all.  I think we should have a meeting to evolve some means of conveying to our old friend that we are with him in spirit in this hour of need.  His deeds of valour have been lauded from all walks of life, his book ‘Prisoners of Hope’ loudly praised.  A slip that has caused his dismissal should not deter us in our efforts to bring solace to our comrade in arms.  He needs our very help, for one I think we should give some positive action to letting ‘Mike’ know that we still hold him in high regard, his value to us in yester years, and we appreciate even in civvy life the many lessons of courage and sagacity that he instilled into us during the days of Wilsons Promontory.

Our object is to help the indigent and lame over the stile.  Mike needs a hand; we have to give.  What about it, boys?  Let’s back Bern’s article to the full with a show of just what sort of spirit exists in this Association of ours.

There was additional supportive correspondence in the Courier (December 1952: 5):

Major Love has written once again to give us some of his doings and to bring some news of our old friends Mike Calvert and Freddy Chapman.  The good Major had received letters from both Fred and Mike are both were well.  Mike said he had been made a political scapegoat and that he was entirely innocent of the offence with which he was charged.  Freddy Chapman had thoroughly investigated the case and definitely was of the opinion that he was entirely innocent of the offence with which he was charged and at the very worst was guilty of indiscretion.  We who knew both men so well are most glad to hear these tidings and will agree that Freddy Chapman’s judgement is good enough for us.

AUSTRALIAN INTERLUDE

After leaving the army, he went to Australia in 1952 but on arrival the job which had been offered to him in London was withdrawn by local management who had learned the circumstances of his dismissal from the army.  His first port of call was Perth but he soon moved on, as reported by Col Doig in the Courier of June 1953:

Michael Calvert arrived in W.A. and unfortunately his job at Kwinana did not eventuate and he has moved off East where prospects in his line of business are much more sound.  Michael appeared to be a very sick man and goodness knows with all his troubles, worries and everything else that has happened to him since we last saw him he is entitled to be below form.  I was able to see him on three occasions and had some quite interesting talks with him.  Quite a few of the old Foster hands in Joe Burridge, Tom Nisbet, Geo. Boyland, Doug Fullerton, Keith Hayes, Mick Calcutt and Dave Ritchie were able to see him and have a few convivial drinks and chat over old times.  Michael has since arrived in Victoria and is in the excellent hands of Major Love and Bernie Callinan.  In passing, I would like to tell you that he has a high regard for our crowd, and from a man of his wide experience that is high praise indeed.

GOVERNOR-GENERAL SLIM HELPS CALVERT

Leo Cooper, publisher and later drinking companion of Calvert’s, provided this interesting anecdote about his Australian sojourn:

I first met Mike Calvert when I offered to reprint ‘Prisoners of Hope’, in which he tells the story of the first Chindit expedition behind the Japanese lines in Burma.  As such it has become one of the classics of military history and Brigadier Calvert himself one of the enigmas.

'Mad Mike', as he was known to the public, was a man of many parts.  Some of them were dark and uncontrollable.  Others were sheer brilliance, with an ability to earn the respect of his men.  He was a sensible, intelligent and responsible operator.  He and I formed an instant friendship which developed over the years and ended up shortly before his death with our publishing ‘Mad Mike’ which was really all that had been left unsaid after his own book but with a little bit more thrown in.  Many people know the story of Mike's fall from grace and his homosexuality so there is no point in repeating it here, except to say that in his final months he talked to me quite a lot about it and I let him ramble on.  In the end I was left without very much more information than I'd started with.  He did, however, tell me one unforgettable story.
….
He was doing menial work in Australia …  He was apparently labouring on the docks.  Someone got to hear of this and reported it to Bill Slim, Calvert's old Commanding Officer in Burma.  Bill was, of course, by then Governor General of Australia.  Learning what the situation was he immediately sent two equerries down to the docks to locate Mike and they smuggled him into Government House and there he stayed for a fortnight being dried out, washed and clothed and talked to, not lectured, by the great Bill Slim.  Again, someone had rescued him from the brink.

[Reference: Leo Cooper, All my good friends will buy it: a bottlefield tour. – Staplehurst, Kent: Spellmount, 2005: 160-161.]

CALVERT KEEPS IN TOUCH WITH THE DOUBLEREDS

During Calvert’s latter years he wrote to the Courier on several occasions providing updates on his current residential arrangements and activities that reflected his enduring affection for his Australian connection such as this effort from the Courier of September 1967 [see attached photo]:

MICHAEL CALVERT, of The Flat, Beech Hurst, Old Avenue, West Byfleet, Surrey, England writes.  The enclosed photograph might amuse you.

You can get any sort of sign post set up with a direction to your home town.  They have a table of distances to places all over the world and this to the Prom, is via Panama.  Bernie Callinan and I had a couple of meals together during his recent visit here.  He looks very well and decisive ….  I am still a Highways Engineer of a minor sort in the Greater London Council, and obtained my A.M.I.C.E. the other day, partly due to Bernie Callinan being one of my sponsors …

The friendship between Calvert and Callinan had developed in the Wilson’s Promontory days as recalled by Rolf Baldwin in the Courier of October 1995:

It was interesting, too, to watch and listen to Bernie when he was with his Chief Instructor, Michael Calvert.  In that case, he was measuring strength with a first-rate professional soldier of his own age and the interaction was a delight to watch.  At one level were two keen, practical minds at work perhaps on a tactical problem or perhaps on a technical matter of how much explosive to use on a particular task.  Often it would be some such business as the planning of the famous ‘Akbar Stunt’ but, whatever the matter in hand, it was easy to see the versatility of their minds and the quality of imagination in all their discussions.  Yes, and there was a roguish sense of humour too, in which they were both richly endowed.

CONCLUSION

With serious deterioration in his health, he returned to England in 1960, still only 47, but his problems would not go away.  He remained an unsettled personality and found it difficult to maintain continuity in most of his attempted ventures.  Behind it all, he continued to brood over the perceived injustices of his court martial and one project after another seemed to go onto the rocks.

He never had much money and his modest pension and earnings led to a greatly reduced standard of living in his declining years.  He died in The Royal Star and Garter Home in Richmond on 26th November 1998, at the age of 85.

His medals, which include the DSO and Bar, WW2 campaign stars and honours awarded to him by the French, Belgian, American and Norwegian governments, are now held by the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham.

FURTHER READING

The military historian David Rooney has devoted considerable effort to reviving awareness of Calvert’s outstanding military career and rehabilitating his reputation; see:

David Rooney, Mad Mike: a life of Brigadier Michael Calvert. – Barnsley, Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2006.


David Rooney, ‘Calvert, (James) Michael (1913–1998)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com.rp.nla.gov.au/view/article/71246


David Rooney, Guerrilla: insurgents, patriots, and terrorists from Sun Tzu to Bin Laden. - London: Brassey's, 2004, esp. ‘Guerrilla fighters: World War II’, pp.180-199.


Calvert’s books also repay reading:

Michael Calvert, Fighting mad: one man’s guerrilla war. – Barnsley, Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2004.


Michael Calvert, Prisoners of Hope. – Revised ed. - London, L. Cooper, 1996.  [Rated as a classic]


For a useful brief biography of Calvert, see:

‘Brigadier James Michael Calvert (1913-98) and the Chindits’ Royal Engineers Museum http://www.remuseum.org.uk/biography/rem_bio_calvert.htm


These obituaries are also informative:

M.R.D. Foot, ‘Obituary: Brigadier Michael Calvert’ The Independent, Wednesday, 2 December 1998 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-brigadier-michael-calvert-1188603.html


Ann Treneman, ‘The shaming of a hero’ The Independent, Wednesday 5 May 1999 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-shaming-of-a-hero-1091460.html


‘Brigadier Michael Calvert’ Times [London, England] 28 Nov. 1998: 24.  The Times Digital Archive.  Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S-C, ? & Calvert.jpg

Calver & S-C - Wilson's Prom 1.jpg

Michael Calvert letter - Courier September 1967.jpeg

Edited by Edward Willis
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Hi Ed

I've only just read this post. Sorry.

Thanks for writing it. The links are fascinating, too.

He was an amazing fellow. The 2/2 was very fortunate to have the benefit of his expertise and bravery.

The amazing life story of Mad Mike Calvert would easily find its way to the big screen. The hard part would be getting the right balance between paying appropriate tribute to his role in the development of commando warfare, while acknowledging the difficulties he faced after the war.

Thanks again

Rob

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Hi Rob:

Thanks for the reply and comment.  I should have re-read my own post because at the beginning I say the photo of interest was in the 'Debt of Honour' exhibition where it gets the same publisher copyright acknowledgement as given by Cleary.

Yes Calvert was an amazing man; Spencer-Chapman's story is well worth telling as well and I hope to do a Doublereds post on him too.

Ed

 

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