Major Tony Hibbert: Soldier who served in Italy, Africa and Arnhem and who went on to save Kiel from falling into Soviet hands


Thursday 16 October 2014 23:56

Tony Hibbert left Marlborough School at 16 to become an apprentice in the family wine and spirits merchants, CG Hibbert. As part of his training he was based in Germany during the early 1930s, where he became alarmed by the militarisation he saw around him. Abandoning his apprenticeship, much to the anger of his father, he returned to England in 1935 and applied to the Royal Military Academy. In January 1938 he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, and six days after the start of the Second World War he landed at Cherbourg with the British Expeditionary Force.

Nine months later, having defended the Northern perimeter of Dunkirk during the last four days of the evacuation, his ammunition ran out and he had to destroy his guns. After some desperate days on the beach he eventually scrambled on to a shipalong with his men.

Keen to get back to the Front, and joined No 2 (Parachute) Commando, a richly varied and exciting group of men all determined to get back into action as soon as possible. He served in North Africa and Italy as a Staff Officer, and was posted to the 1st British Airborne Division. Arnhem was the target in order to take the bridges, cross the Rhine and head for Berlin.

He was to recall: "Morale was low; everyone was getting itchy because we'd had seven cancellations since D-Day. On 6 September we were given details of the 15th operation of this series, Operation Comet. I only wish to God that it had gone ahead because at that stage the Germans were still demoralised, still on the run and hadn't had time to regroup and reorganise. But Comet was cancelled. Had it not been, we might have been in Germany by Christmas."

Hibbert's fears for Operation Market Garden were reinforced by reports that two Panzer Divisions were in the area. "The operational plan was gravely flawed," he recalled. "Insufficient planes were allocated and of these, something like 30 were taken to land ... south-east of Nijmegen, where they failed to influence the battle in any way." Told to hold the critical Arnhem Bridge for 48 hours, Lt Col John Frost's men, with fierce opposition, held it for 72, but were forced to surrender.

Hibbert found himself on the back of a lorry with a number of other prisoners. During a stop he jumped off the side of the lorry with another officer. Although he escaped, his comrade was recaptured and an angry guard turned his gun on the other prisoners, killing six. The memory haunted Hibbert for the rest of his life.

Hibbert was hidden by Dutch civilians and worked with the underground to collect Airborne invaders. Unfortunately, he was injured sitting on the bonnet of a jeep which crashed into another vehicle, breaking his leg, and he was in hospital for several months. He was never to forget the kindness of the Dutch people and tried to return to Arnhem every September.

In April 1945 he was discharged from hospital, still on crutches, and posted to "T" force at Bremen with orders to "take the town of Kiel and stop the Russians from reaching Denmark". He had to use his guile and several glasses of whisky to persuade the Duty Officer at Hamburg to allow his unit to progress, as orders were not to allow anyone to cross the front line. With the Russians advancing he realised speed was vital and drove directly to the German Naval Headquarters, where he managed to talk the Senior Officer into letting him speak to Admiral Doenitz, who agreed to an immediate ceasefire in Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark.

Hibbert was invalided out of the army in 1947 having been twice mentioned in Dispatches; he was awarded the Military Cross in 1945 for his actions at Arnhem. In 2010 he was presented with the Great Seal of the City of Kiel.

Hibbert took over the family firm, which had suffered greatly during the war. Using his charisma, acumen and drive he diversified into a wide range of fields including off-licences and soft-drink canning, even introducing the ring-pull can to the UK. He was awarded the Queen's Award for Industry.

He created a children's sailing club on a salt pan lake at his family home in Lymington, Hampshire. The Salterns Sailing Club is run for children by children, introducing youngsters to dinghies; it is still thriving today. A keen sailor himself, he travelled the world to compete in the International Moth Class.

In the early 1970s he sold CG Hibbert and retired to Branscombe in Devon. Before long he became restless and lent his support to a fund-raising campaign to build a new village hall. He next picked up on the perceived threats of the Cold War and started campaigning for local emergency volunteer forces to be trained to deal with natural disasters and threats of invasion. This led to accusations that he was creating a private army, but Devon CC did set up plans for groups trained to supply emergency food and water in the event of disasters.

In 1981, he retired again and headed to the Helford River in Cornwall to "drink gin on the terrace" of his new house overlooking the sea. He discovered he had bought one of the original gardens created by the Foxes, a wealthy Quaker family, and he and his family were soon hard at work clearing and replanting the magnificent valley garden of Trebah. After six years hard work he opened the gardens to the public.

To protect the garden for posterity he donated it to Trebah Garden Trust, which has won many awards. He was proud that by 2000 visitor numbers exceeded 105,000, and that he had secured a £1.94 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Objective One which allowed Trebah to build the Hibbert Centre and to improve the garden.

He was an active member of the Cornwall Branch of the Parachute Regiment and served as its President. In June he would welcome British and US D-Day veterans, some of the 7,500 men of the 29th US Infantry Division who sailed from Trebah beach at the end of his garden. In 2006 he was honoured with the MBE for his contribution to tourism and sailing.

He was happily married for almost 60 years to Eira until her death in 2009. They had four children and also brought up Eira's brother's two children after he was killed in a car crash.


James Anthony Hibbert, soldier and businessman: born Chertsey, Surrey 6 December 1917; MBE, MC; married 1949 Eira Bradshaw (died 2009; three daughters, one son); one daughter from previous marriage; died Trebah, Cornwall 12 October 2014.

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