Saturday Snippet: a hero who outraged the military establishment

Michael Calvert is one of the greatest figures in military special operations history in any nation.  He rose from obscurity to Brigadier‘s rank in the British Army during World War II, twice being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (the equivalent of the US Army’s Distinguished Service Cross), as well as the US Silver Star and other medals.  He led his forces from the front with courage and drive, in some of the most vicious fighting of the Burma campaign;  yet he continually outraged the military “establishment” because he rejected, and refused to adhere to, their long-standing customs and prejudices.  They had their revenge after World War II, bringing about his court-martial and dismissal from the service on charges that may well have been trumped-up.  The situation was made worse by his public exposure as a homosexual in an age when that was simply impermissible in both the military, and civil society at large.  Distraught and troubled, he sank into alcoholism and poverty, a tragic fate for such a man.  He died in 1998.

I can offer Brigadier Calvert no higher recognition than to say that I’m seriously considering his life as the pattern for a protagonist in a novel, that may grow into a series of novels.  He was an extraordinary person, with conflicting and contradictory elements of personality that defied convention, but were instrumental in forging him into a warrior in the classic style.  He would have been right at home, one feels, standing with Horatius Cocles on the bridge at Rome, or with Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae.  He was a hero who helped define that term by his life, and his men followed (and almost venerated) him as such.

In his 1962 autobiography “Fighting Mad” (long out of print, but available at reasonable prices as a used book), he described some of the events of his career.

This morning I’d like to concentrate on some of his earlier exploits, showing how they helped forge the warrior and inspirational military leader he became.

Calvert first ran afoul of the “establishment mentality” while serving as a very junior Lieutenant in the British garrison at Hong Kong before World War II, where he was tasked with raising a force of local Chinese to serve with the Royal Engineers.

Our local paymaster was a rather peppery major nearing retirement, the sort of officer that young subalterns normally tried to avoid.  But I had to see him once or twice about general pay matters for the unit and when a special problem arose over one of my men I plucked up courage and asked for another interview.

“Well, what is it?” he barked, after I had saluted as if he were the Governor himself.

“It’s about one of my men, sir.”  I hesitated.  The night before I had rehearsed exactly what to say and how to say it, brisk and to the point, but now I funked it and played for time.  “About… about his marriage allowance, sir.”

“Well, what about it, man?  He gets one, doesn’t he?  If not there’s a perfectly simple form you can fill in for him.  Can’t you write?”

“Yes, sir,” I said hastily.  “The trouble is… I was wondering… I mean, can a man have two marriage allowances?”

“Two marriage allowances?”  The major turned red, then purple and for a moment seemed incapable of further speech.

I carried on quickly, “You see, sir, one of my chaps has two wives and he finds it very difficult to keep them on one allowance, so I wondered if there was some special regulation…”

“Get out.”  The major had found his tongue again but was using it with difficulty, judging from the strangled way he was speaking.  “If you think I have nothing better to do than worry about one of your over-sexed coolies then you must be more stupid than you look, which is difficult to believe.”  He waved his hand in angry dismissal.  “I shall report this to your commanding officer.”

Luckily my C.O. was a different type altogether and in the end I managed to get the man with two wives some sort of extra pay, though it was not recorded as a double marriage allowance!

Pre-war Hong Kong had a fair smattering of awkward Regulars like the old paymaster, but there were plenty of really good officers too, the sort who considered their men’s welfare first and their own last.  They were firm disciplinarians but they were fair and even kindly, when kindness was needed, and the troops would have followed them anywhere.  These were the men I tried to emulate and many of them went out of their way to help me along.

. . .

I was in Colonel Barchard’s office one day when Jones came up on yet another charge.  This time he had laid out three military policemen.

“Now look, Jones, there’s got to be an end to this,” the colonel said severely.

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s no good just saying ‘Yes, sir’.  That’s what you say every time.  I give you twenty-eight days [i.e. in punishment barracks] and as soon as you finish that you’re back here again.  Something has to be done to stop it.”

“Yes, sir.”

The colonel looked at him grimly.  “I should have you court martialled as an incurable troublemaker.  But I’ll give you one more chance.  Are you willing to accept my award?”

Jones, whose big frame had stiffened at the mention of a court martial, managed to look relieved without moving a muscle of his rather battered face as he stood to attention.


“Right,” said Colonel Barchard.  “From now on you’ll be my batman.  I’m always getting into trouble myself and it’ll be your job to keep me out of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

. . .

I learned much about my profession from these colonels and other officers of the same type who were ready to throw the rule book out of the window when their judgment told them it was wrong.  I tried to put into practice the methods they used.  Getting to know men who are naturally suspicious because of the pips on your shoulder is hard work.  As in everything else, there are times when it just doesn’t work out and that can be depressing.  But at the other end of the scale an officer gets a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and pride in knowing that he has the confidence and loyalty of the men serving under him.

Calvert witnessed the Battle of Shanghai and the aftermath of the so-called Rape of Nanking, which made him one of the very few officers in any Western army to understand and appreciate Imperial Japan’s military abilities.  He was to put that early knowledge to good use during the Second World War.

Because I could speak Cantonese I was chosen on occasions to go out with the Chinese forces as an observer.  I did not realize it at the time but, looking back, I consider that was when World War II started for me.  I saw as much fighting in the few months that the Shanghai battle lasted as I saw throughout the rest of my army career.  It was a continuous and bloody struggle between two enemies with a plentiful supply of the main essential for a land battle:  troops.  The number of casualties was fantastic.  The Japs lost about 200,000 men and the Chinese a great deal more than that.  As a baptism of fire the slaughter of Shanghai was all that the hungriest adventure-seeker could want and a lot more besides.

I also learned much about the Japs that stood me in good stead later on in Burma.  Not the least of the lessons was that a well-trained Japanese soldier was a man to be reckoned with – cunning, tenacious and often very brave.  I have made my share of mistakes, and probably more, but after Shanghai I never made the fatal error of underestimating the Japs;  too many men who did are now dead.

. . .

I watched the Japanese invade Hangchow Bay, using a fleet of boats of a type that I had never seen before.  They appeared to be flat-bottomed, because they could get almost out of the water on to the beach.  Their sides were high and presumably armor-plated or protected from bullets in some other way.  But the most interesting point of all was that, when they could get no nearer the shore, their flat bows opened downwards like a drawbridge over a moat and the troops poured out of them on to the beaches.

These were landing craft, and as far as I knew the British Army had nothing like them.  The Japanese took them close inshore in a whaling ship, then dropped them from the stern;  their value was obvious and I could hardly contain myself.  I wanted to leap out from my protective covering … and run all the way back to camp to tell my superiors what I had seen.  As it was I stayed watching these marvellous new craft and made copious notes about how they worked, how many troops they carried and so on.  My report on this outing would make the staff boys sit up!

There was plenty of enthusiastic reaction among my immediate superiors in Shanghai and my report went through to Major-General Telfer-Smollet, the Shanghai area Commander.  I was told that he had sent it on to London and we waited for the reaction;  perhaps there would be a request for more information or for clarification on one or two points.  We heard nothing … In fact that was the last I heard about landing craft until three years later, after the war had started.  We were beginning to build them then, but for another year or two they were in short supply.  We could so easily have been well stocked if a few staff officers had taken more interest in 1937.

During the Norwegian campaign in 1940, Calvert was assigned to blow up installations and facilities to slow down the German advance.  The only explosives available were naval mines and depth-charges.

One day a German fighter patrol came over while we were fusing some of our mines and depth-charges in a culvert on a road about halfway up the Romsdal Gorge … we heard the rapid clatter of machine-guns, and I remember putting my arms around my head in an automatic gesture of protection … In a moment or two the German fighters had zoomed over our heads and the ear-shattering clatter of guns stopped …

I was furious at being the helpless victim of attack, unable to strike back.  As I cursed out loud at the German race in general and these pilots in particular I suddenly had an idea.  It seemed crazy, but it was better than doing nothing.  I grabbed the sergeant by the arm.  “We’ll try and bring one down with a depth charge.” …

Quickly we fused the charge and I sent the sergeant away to shelter below the level of the road.  Then, as I heard the German planes beginning their dive, I lit the fuse and raced for cover myself.  Just as I flung myself down I heard the stutter of machine-guns again and almost at once the depth charge went off with a heavy crrrump.  The machine-guns stopped abruptly and for one wonderful moment I thought we had got one of the fighters.  But then I heard his engine as he throttled up to climb away and I could see as I lifted my head that he was undamaged.  However, the Germans flew off and did not return.

We were pretty pleased with ourselves … I have often wondered since what that particular pilot would have said if he had known what had gone off under his tail that day in Norway.  He probably thought one of his bullets had hit a mine we had laid under the road and set it off.  In fact he was almost certainly the only fighter pilot ever to be attacked from the ground by an anti-submarine depth charge!

During the British retreat from Burma in 1942 after the Japanese invasion, Calvert led a small team in fighting delaying actions against their advance.  One day, while swimming in a river, he had a lethal encounter.

On the beach, as naked as I was, stood a Jap.  A pile of clothes lay near his feet and in my first startled glance I took in the insignia of an officer on his bush shirt … I was baffled.  If I yelled for help the Jap patrol would hear me, as well as my own.  There were twelve of us but there might be twenty or thirty of them;  in that case their superior numbers would give them an advantage if it came to an open fight in the confined cove.

While I was still thinking hard the Jap officer stepped into the river and came towards me. I think his mind must have been working much like mine;  he could see that I was unarmed but if he used his gun it would bring both patrols running and he did not know our strength … he wasn’t taking any chances on an open fight which would needlessly risk his men’s lives.  He preferred to tackle me with his bare hands.

He knew his ju-jitsu and the water on his body made him as slippery as an eel, but I was the bigger and stronger.  We fought in silence except for an occasional grunt, and struggled and slipped and thrashed around until we were at times waist deep in the swirling river …

I had come to admire this game little Jap.  He had all the guts in the world.  He could so easily have called up his men and let them fight it out but he had chosen to protect them by taking me on alone.

Now he was putting up a tremendous show and I was hard put to it to hold him.  I pulled myself together.  Brave or not, I had to kill him.  Or he would kill me …

I managed to grab the Jap’s right wrist and force his arm behind his back.  And I buried my face in his chest to stop him clawing my eyes out.  Then, as he lashed out with his left arm and both feet, I forced him gradually under water.  My boots gave me a firm grip and I shut my eyes and held him under the surface.  His struggles grew weaker and weaker, flared again in frantic despair and then he went limp.  I held on for a few seconds longer before releasing my grip.  Slowly I opened my eyes and for a moment could see nothing except the eddies of water caused by his final efforts to break free.  Then his body emerged on the surface a couple of yards away and floated gently off downstream.

. . .

Some sensational Press reports have said that I killed more Japanese single-handed during the war than any other British or American soldier.  I don’t know if this is true;  but I do know that I felt like a murderer that afternoon over that particular Jap.

Even now, so many years afterwards, the memory of it is too clear and comes back to me too often.

Calvert went on to a stellar war career, only to fall afoul of the military “establishment” during peacetime.  They never accepted him, because he would never conform to their expectations.  He’s hardly alone in that, of course.  Throughout military history, the “fightingest” of fighting men have seldom gotten along with the chair-warmers, bureaucrats and administrators.

All I can say is, to those who served under him, Calvert was always an inspiration and a hero.  You can read more about him in his own words in his autobiography, or in a later biography by David Rooney (still in print) titled “Mad Mike: A Life of Brigadier Michael Calvert“.

Calvert died in 1998.  You’ll find his obituary here, and an article about a memorial service for him here, including more details of his court-martial and dismissal from the British Army – a tragic episode, in the light of our more tolerant times.  He deserved much better from the nation he had served so well.



  1. Interesting. Is there other stuff in that Pen & Sword line that could be obtained? Still in print and whatnot?

  2. Thanks for telling us about Brig. Calvert, Peter. His type are needed as much now as during WWII – and I don't give a damn about his sexual orientation – that he was a warrior is all I need to know.

  3. In FROM SEA TO SEA, Rudyard Kipling made an assessment of the Japanese soldier than the West should have paid more attention to. As early as 1989. Kipling called the Japanese Infantry "bad little men who know too much"

  4. He ran afoul of regulations that would have been ignored if he had been a follower of the 'regular men.'

    And we see the same thing in our military, especially during the previous administration's reign of terror.

    Sad how great men are attacked and treated as pariahs after the hard times that make them great.

  5. Zounds, Peter, your blog is a danger to my budget. When I read this entry earlier, I had to go over to $35 total for Calvert's memoir and the bio. He would be a great source for novels.

  6. And to think, all of the lives, fortunes and effort, for a country whose influenced spanned the globe, has all been for naught. A country upon which the "sun never set" is now more than halfway to EENT, and almost a footnote in its influence.

  7. Thanks for that link. I don't suppose their online store does currency conversions… well, I'll look into that on my own. I see they have a 3-for-2 special on WW2 books which is in effect until May 10, a date which I assume was chosen quite consciously. 🙂

  8. I think if one uses a credit card on a British site, it charges in pounds which your card issues automatically converts.

  9. I just snapped up a copy for $12 and change from Advanced Book Exchange (, actually owned by Amazon onow). They have more, but many of the sellers are in the UK.

  10. I would definitely look forward to seeing how you would create such a main character in your next work. So far your novels are excellent reading and never fail to draw me in deep.
    Please stay safe and healthy during these troubling times, having just recovered myself from COVID-19, and not wishing it on my worse enemy!

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