Obituary: General Sir John Hackett

Max Arthur
Wednesday 10 September 1997 23:02 BST

Under the extreme pressure of battle, John Hackett could bring both his powerful intellect and prodigious courage to the fore. In command of the 4th Parachute Brigade at Arnhem he fought alongside his men in hand-to-hand combat, knowing before the battle commenced that they were doomed by inept planning.

Severely injured by a shell splinter, he was taken to an enemy-held hospital where the German surgeon considered that it would be a waste of time to operate. His life was saved by a South African surgeon. Soon after the operation he was told that, unless he could walk out of the hospital, he would soon be taken prisoner. With his head in a blood-stained bandage, he escaped and was hidden by a Dutch family at considerable risk to themselves.

At the end of what he considered a full and exciting war, he was awarded the DSO and Bar as well as an MC.

"Shan" Hackett was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1910. His father, also Sir John Winthrop Hackett, who was of Irish descent, owned two newspapers. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School, after which he studied painting at the Central School of Art in London before attending New College, Oxford, where he read both Greats and Modern History under Richard Crossman.

He had hoped to become a don, but his degree was not good enough, so he joined his great-grandfather's old regiment, the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars. However, he continued his academic studies as a subaltern and his thesis on Saladin and the Third Crusade earned him a BLitt. He also qualified as an interpreter in French and German and later, while serving with the Italian cavalry, added Italian. In 1937, while serving with the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force (TJFF), he became fluent in Arabic.

At the start of the Second World War he was still serving with the TJFF and in 1941 took part in the Syrian campaign, where he was wounded and awarded the MC.

Recovering from his wounds, he met his wife-to-be, an Austrian living in Palestine, while walking by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Although she was classed as an enemy, he was determined to marry her. Advised by many not to do so, he married her in 1942 in St George's Cathedral, Jerusalem. What followed was 55 years of happiness.

He rejoined his old regiment in the Western Desert where he was again wounded and awarded a DSO. While recovering from his wounds, he was on the staff of GHQ in Cairo, where T.E. Lawrence had spent a little time, in the First World War. Here Hackett was at his most creative, re-organising the raiding forces, such as the Long Range Desert Group and David Stirling's SAS as well as raising and naming "Popski's Private Army". These small, highly mobile forces would engage the enemy behind their lines and then disappear back into the desert, only to reappear 500 miles further away, to strike again. Hackett knew from his desert experiences much about the war of the flea - how to sting in awkward places and make life uncomfortable for the enemy. He instinctively recognised the boldness and unorthodoxy of these units and was at one with their intellectual atmosphere. He had earned their respect.

Now at his peak, he was not a man to be behind a desk and, at the age of 33, he was selected to raise, train and command the 4th Parachute Brigade, which he led with considerable success in Italy and North Africa. Although he came into the "airborne world" as a cavalryman, one of his officers recalled: "He had the right sort of flair. He was ahead of his time with his thinking and remained so."

Before Arnhem he briefed his officers about the overall plan, and spoke frankly of his misgivings. Later, seeing his men slaughtered alongside him remained indelibly etched in his memory. Apart from when he was with his family, he was never more at ease, after the war, than with the few survivors of his beloved Parachute Brigade. He recorded his experiences at Arnhem in the moving and revealing I Was a Stranger (1977).

In 1947, he returned to Palestine to command the TJFF, where he had the awkward task of disbanding the armed forces after the end of the British mandate and the creation of Israel. While there, he would spend his leave in Austria and in fact spent a term at Graz University in postgraduate medieval studies.

He returned to Western Europe to become Commander of the 20th Armoured Brigade, and in 1960 was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Northern Ireland. He was then moved to the Ministry of Defence as Deputy Chief of the General Staff, responsible for organisation and weapons development.

His rapier wit and inability to suffer fools, especially senior officers, made him enemies. But he tenaciously kept to his course, in spite of realising that the ultimate crown, the Chief of Defence, would be denied him. He was, however, promoted General, and took command of the Rhine Army and with it the parallel appointment of Commander, Northern Army Group from 1966 to 1968.

On his retirement in 1968, he became Principal of King's College London. He was a natural leader and much at home in the academic world. As with the young officers of former years, he was able to understand the undergraduate mind and it was characteristic of him that he should join the student marches through London in 1974. Bowler-hatted and carrying at umbrella, he was, as always, at the front facing the flak.

After his retirement from King's - to which he returned as a Visiting Professor in Classics from 1977 - he devoted himself to writing and lecturing full-time. He was a superb speaker, clear and forthright, but never pompous. He became known to a wider world through his appearances on television and radio.

It was through this medium that people began to change their opinion of senior members of the British army. He rapidly displaced the image of Colonel Blimp and replaced him with an image of a quicksilver mind, full of compassion and understanding, as well as a master of strategy.

In 1978 he wrote The Third World War, a work of imagination about the possible outcome of a global war in 1985. The book sold over 3 million copies. In 1982 The Third World War: the untold story proved an interesting update predicting the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the strategic importance of oil in the Middle East. The following year, he wrote a well- received television series and book on the British army called The Profession of Arms. He also edited Warfare in the Ancient World (1989).

Max Arthur

John Winthrop Hackett, soldier and scholar: born Perth, Australia 5 November 1910; MBE 1938, CBE 1953; MC 1941; DSO 1942, and bar 1945; CB 1958, KCB 1962, GCB 1967; Commandant, Royal Military College of Science, 1958-61; GOC-in-C Northern Ireland Command 1961-63; Deputy Chief of Imperial General Staff 1963-64; Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Ministry of Defence 1964-66; Commander-in-Chief, BAOR, and Commander, Northern Army Group in Nato 1966-68; ADC (General) to the Queen 1967-68; Principal, King's College London 1968-75; President, UK Classical Association 1971; President, UK English Association 1973; FRSL 1982; married 1942 Margaret Frena (one daughter deceased, two stepdaughters); died 9 September 1997.

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