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The papers of Brigadier J M Calvert DSO (“Mad Mike”)

“It is difficult enough to justify your action to higher authority and it is made no easier when you fail to obey orders issued for the comfort of your troops and in addition fail to ack[nowledge] or reply to my messages.”

Major General W D A Lentaigne to Brigadier J M Calvert DSO, 9 July 1944.

Brigadier Mike Calvert (left) gives orders to Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw, while Major James Lumley stands with M1 carbine under his arm,after the capture of Mogaung in Burma during the second
Chindit expedition, June 1944. IWM MH7287.

The large and important collection of papers kept by Brigadier J M Calvert DSO* (1913-1998) during his long career have now been catalogued, making them much more accessible to researchers who are interested in Special Forces, notably the exploits and development of the Chindits (AKA “Wingate’s ‘Ghost Army’” or “Wingate’s Raiders”) [1] and the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) who operated behind enemy lines during and after the Second World War.  Calvert’s own papers and extensive correspondence with many leading military figures provide a unique insight into the British Army. They are particularly of interest in examining the development of its use of special operations, which have been the subject of much debate and research. The idiosyncratic and unorthodox Calvert was a staunch and fierce defender of the reputation of the Chindits and their leader Major-General Orde Wingate, which was to cause much controversy after the war.  In particular, the question of the efficacy and success of Chindit operations in 1943-44 has proved to be highly controversial.  Calvert continued to endorse their methods following what another officer called “a violent, sustained and mostly unsubstantiated attack on the personal and military integrity of Wingate”, who had died when his plane crashed in India on 24 March 1944.

J M Calvert (third left) with General Orde Wingate (centre) at the airfield code-named “Broadway” in Burma awaiting a night supply drop. Left to right: Colonel Frank Merrill, Colonel J R Alison, Brigadier J M Calvert, Captain Borrow Wingate’s ADC. IWM MH 7873.

One of four brothers who were commissioned into the Royal Engineers, Michael Calvert was one of the most remarkable and unconventional leaders who gained prominence during the Second World War.  Serving in Shanghai in 1937-38, he witnessed the Japanese invasion of China, notably the capture and massacre of Nanking.  Calvert was known mainly as “Mad Mike” because of his bravery during battle but also as “Dynamite Mike” because of his expertise in destroying roads and railways in Norway and as an Assistant Instructor in demolitions at the Special Training Centre at Lochailot in the Highlands of Scotland during 1940.  He was heavily involved in special operations from 1940 onwards. Eager for action on the outbreak of war, he volunteered as a private (with no guarantee of reinstatement as an officer) in 1940 to fight with the Finns against the Soviets.  Having discovered his forte in irregular warfare, he was a founder member of the Commandos in 1940-42; served with the Chindits as one of the principal lieutenants of his friend and mentor, Wingate, in the Far East in 1943-44; commanded the Special Air Service Brigade in North West Europe in 1945; and helped to resurrect the SAS in Malaya in 1950-51.

Chindits prepare a railway bridge behind Japanese lines for destruction. IWM SE 7921.

A natural athlete who excelled at swimming and boxing, Calvert gained a formidable reputation as both a leader and a thinker. His homosexuality and human frailties, notably his heavy drinking (“his main fault”) and reputation for being a ‘bolshie’ character, eventually led to his downfall and removal from command of the SAS in Malaya and then from the Army in the early 1950s.  Having left the Army, he succumbed to alcoholism and lived a precarious existence as a labourer in Australia before managing to resurrect his life on his return to the UK in 1960 with the help of his friends in whom he inspired great loyalty.  Although he had written two of the best and most important memoirs recording the exploits of the Chindits, “Prisoners of Hope: The Campaign of the 77th Infantry Brigade in Burma, 1944” (1952) and “Fighting Mad: One Man’s Guerrilla War” (1964), Calvert struggled to make a living as a writer, expert and pundit on counter-insurgency, guerrilla warfare, subversion and terrorism during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  He continually suffered from ill-health and financial difficulties during this period.

Calvert’s papers provide a fascinating insight into not only the man himself but also into the British Army and its attitudes towards irregular warfare.  He was one of the key figures in the development of Special Forces during the second half of the twentieth century.  His newly-catalogued papers will shed further light on his own controversial career and also on the heated debate which has surrounded the employment of Special Forces during and after the Second World War.



[1] “Wingate’s ‘Ghost Army’” or “Wingate’s Raiders” were names used by the press to describe the Chindits who operated behind the Japanese front line.


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1 comment
  1. ian wilkinson says: September 20, 20154:06 pm

    I would like to know how I could get to see the papers of Major Mike Calvert, I am currently doing some research into special forces warfare. Please let me know the correct procedure to follow.

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