Shan Hackett was an exceptional individual, blessed with a wide range of qualities and abilities, who had a successful 35 year career in the Army culminating in command of the Northern Army Group in NATO, from 1966 to 1968. Although he spent only two years with Airborne Forces they were so dramatic that they left a lasting effect on him and on those who served with him. In addition to his achievements as a soldier he was also a well regarded scholar, linguist, author, television personality and public speaker.
A hugely respected fighting soldier, he was wounded three times in the Second World War, awarded an MC and two DSOs, and mentioned in despatches six times.
His Army career started as a subaltern with 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1933 and four years later he was seconded to the Transjordanian Frontier Force. His intellect and imaginative approach to soldiering led to his appointment as GSO1 Raiding Forces, Middle East Land Force in 1942. In this post he gave help and encouragement to the newly formed SAS and the other ‘irregular forces’.
Hackett then went on to raise and command the 4th Parachute Brigade; initially formed in the Canal Zone and Palestine, it performed a reserve role in Sicily and provided some of the lead elements for the Italian landings in September 1943.
He went on to command the brigade at Arnhem, whose role was to jump on the second day and secure a defensive perimeter on the high ground to the North of Arnhem. In the afternoon of 18th September the brigade dropped on Ginkel Heide, 8 miles from Arnhem; 6 aircraft were shot down on the fly-in, and there was a sharp action on the DZ against an enemy battalion: some 200 men were lost before the battle had even started. The 11th Battalion was taken from his command off the DZ, to march to Arnhem and reinforce the 1st Parachute Brigade. During the next day the other two battalions (156 and 10th) tried to force their way through the strong blocking line of the 9th SS Panzer Division north of Oosterbeek, and suffered heavy casualties.
Changing direction they withdrew, but through the chaotic landing of the Polish gliders, which the Germans were hotly contesting. The Brigade, its strength now much reduced, then fought through the Wolfheze woods towards Oosterbeek, against increasing numbers of SS infantry, SP guns and armoured cars. In the thick of the fighting was Brigadier Hackett, rifle and bayonet in hand. He organised a charge to clear the enemy from a hollow in the Wolfheze woods; there he gathered 150 men, all that were with him at that time. The Germans closed in again and kept them under constant rifle and machine gun fire which took a steady toll. The Brigadier himself led several rushes to keep the enemy at bay; until as dusk approached and with all ammunition gone they faced annihilation or capture. He gathered the survivors together, and in a bunch he led them out in a wild charge through the surprised Germans, running on into the defensive positions of the Border Regiment 400 yards away. Within the Oosterbeek perimeter Hackett was able to count the cost of the attacks and withdrawal: finding only around 250 men left out of the 3,000 who originally went in under his command.
With the remnants of his 4th and the 1st Parachute Brigade, and survivors of other units of the Division, he took command of the eastern flank of what became known as the Oosterbeek Perimeter. His HQ was in slit trenches only 200 yards from the forward positions near the MDS crossroads (see photo). For the next four days the thin 'line' held firm under constant mortar, artillery, tank, MG and sniper fire. Ignoring the shot and shell he moved around the houses, gardens and woods encouraging the small groups of airborne defenders.
Towards the end of the battle Hackett was seriously wounded by shell splinters from mortar bombs. He was transported to St Elizabeth Hospital, which was under German control, where a life saving operation was performed by Captain Lipmann Kessel, a South African surgeon from 16 PFA. As he was recovering he was smuggled out of the hospital by the Dutch resistance and lovingly cared for over four months with a Dutch family until he was well enough to escape to Allied lines.
After the war Hackett continued his successful career, retiring from the Army in 1968 to serve as Principal at King’s College London and then as visiting Professor of Classics. After his retirement from the Principal’s post in 1975 he redevoted his energies to writing which resulted in a string of published works in the late 70’s and early 80’s including: I Was a Stranger; The Profession of Arms,The Third World War and The Third World War: The Untold Story. These publications only served to enhance his reputation and increased the demands placed on him. During the Falklands War Hackett frequently appeared on television as an expert commentator and throughout the 80’s was a regular speaker at large international conferences.
Shan Hackett born 5 November 1910; died 9 September 1997.
- Fullick, Roy, Shan Hackett: The Pursuit of Exactitude (2009 : Pen & Sword Books) - An excellent biography by Roy Fullick.
- Hackett, J. W., I Was A Stranger (1990: Berkeley Books) - Shan Hackett’s own moving account of his experiences in the Arnhem battle and his convalescence with the Dutch family that looked after him. Originally published in hardback by Chatto and Windus 1977. Paperback editions printed by Sphere and the Hogarth Press. -
http://www.pegasusarchive.org/arnhem/john_hackett.htm - Detailed article on Hackett’s time at Arnhem on Mark Hickman’s website.Compiled by Harvey Grenville with assistance from John Waddy.