Edited obituary of Gen Sir John Winthrop Hackett

General Sir John Hackett (who died on September 9 1997, aged 86) was a brilliant soldier and an outstanding scholar; he was wounded three times in the Second World War, and awarded an MC and two DSOs.

At 33, he survived the disastrous Battle of Arnhem, an experience which left him deeply sceptical of staff planners. The strategists, he would complain, had set up a kind of ‘airborne picnic”, to which the enemy were added as an afterthought, like salt and pepper. Always a radical thinker, Hackett exercised an important influence in the defence review that led to the abolition of National Service in 1959. He went on to be Commander-in-Chief, British Army of the Rhine, and Commander, Northern Army Group in NATO, from 1966 to 1968.

Slim, dapper, energetic and friendly, “Shan” Hackett could converse fluently in nine languages. After retiring from the Army in 1968 he was for seven years Principal of King’s College, London. He also became a best-selling author and a television personality. Among his hobbies in Who’s who he listed “pursuit of exactitude, called by some pedantry”.

Of Irish ancestry, and the only boy among five children, John Winthrop Hackett was born in Australia on November 5 1910, the son of Sir John Winthrop Hackett, who owned two newspapers in Western Australia, and founded the University of Perth. After education at Geelong Grammar School, Hackett studied painting at the London Central Art School, before going onto New College, Oxford to read Greats. He had hoped to become a don but as his degree was not quite good enough he joined the Army, and was commissioned in the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars.

I never went into the Army,” Hackett would insist, “I joined my great-grandfather’ regiment. There’s no such thing as the British Army – there are only regiments. That’s the great sources of strength in the British endeavour: it’s a family thing.” Hackett kept up his academic studies as a junior officer working principally on the medieval period and producing a thesis on Saladin and the Third Crusade. In 1936 he was posted to Palestine, where he was mentioned in despatches for his part in anti-terrorist operations. Seconded to the Transjordan Frontier Force in 1937, he was twice more mentioned in dispatches.

He was wounded in the Syrian campaign against the Vichy French in 1941, and again in the Western Desert in 1942, when he was GSO1 Raiding Forces, Middle East Land Force. In the latter appointment he gave much help and encouragement to unorthodox units such as the SAS, LRDG and Popski’s Private Army. In 1943 Hackett raised and commanded 4th Parachute Brigade, winning a fourth mention in dispatches whiles serving with them in Italy.

The next year he jumped with the Regiment at Arnhem, carrying with him visiting cards and a walking stick. On his unexpected arrival, six German soldiers tried to surrender to him; Hackett told them somewhat irritably to wait until he had found the stick which he had dropped on landing. Soon afterwards he was badly wounded by shell splinters and taken to a local hospital, where a German surgeon pronounced that it would be a waste of time to operate.

Hackett’s life was saved by a brilliant South African surgeon; and as he was recovering the Dutch underground smuggled him out past the German guards and put him in the home of a family who lived only 40 yards from a German military police billet. Hackett’s protectors nursed him back to health- he passed the time by the reading the New Testament in Greek – until he was able to escape to British lines. His safe arrival was announced to the courageous and devoted family who had looked after him in a coded message: “The grey goose has gone.”

After 1945 Hackett commanded the Transjordan Frontier Force before moving, in 1956, to the British Army of the Rhine, where he commanded 7th Armoured Division, the “Desert Rats”, with whom he had served in the desert. From 1958 to 1961, he was Commandant of the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, before becoming GOC-in-C, Northern Ireland. From 1963 he was Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, then Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Ministry of Defence.

At King’s College London Hackett astonished the students by recognising them and knowing their names very soon after his arrival. He joined them in a National Union of Students march over grants and even suggested that cannabis might be legalised and taxed heavily to fund university research. After retiring as Principal in 1975 he became visiting Professor of Classics at King’s College. He wrote a moving account of his experiences in the Arnhem battle and his convalescence with the Dutch family in I Was a Stranger (1977), a title taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Although the book describes a grim and traumatic period, it is often enlivened by shafts of whimsical humour.

When Hackett arrived back in Britain and went to the bank collect his pay, an official told him that he could not any because he was posted as “wounded and missing”. Until the War Office agreed that he was neither dead nor missing, nothing more than his wife’s married allowance was due. “Then with a friendly goodbye”, his account concludes, “the official turned elsewhere.” Hackett wrote an imaginative work entitled The Third World War (1982) which sold three million copies in 10 languages. Subsequent events showed that he had been prescient, for the novel predicted the disintegration of the Soviet Union and paid special attention to the strategic importance of oil in the Middle East.

During the Falklands War Hackett frequently appeared on television as an expert commentator. In 1983 he wrote a television series on the British Army, The Profession of Arms. He also edited Warfare in the Ancient World (1989). He became an honorary livery man of the Worshipful Company of Dyers in 1975, and a Freeman of the City of London in 1976. He was President of the English Association and the Classical Association; and a member of the Lord Chancellor’s Committee on Reform of the Law of Contempt. In 1972 he was elected an honorary fellow of New College, Oxford.

Hackett was appointed MBE in 1938, CBE in 1953, CB in 1958, KCB in 1962 and GCB in 1967. He was ADC (General)  to HM The Queen in 1967 and 1968, and Deputy Lieutenant, Gloucestershire, in 1982. Other appointments included Colonel Commandant, REME, from 1961 to 1966; Honorary Colonel of 10th Battalion the Parachute Regiment, TA, from 1965 to 1967, and of the 10th Volunteer Battalion, the Parachute Regiment from 1967 to 1973. He was also Honorary Colonel of the Oxford University OTC from 1967 to 1978. In 1985 Hackett won the Chesney Gold Medal awarded by the Royal United Services Institute.

He relished his longevity. “Life begins at 70”, he once remarked. “You have had your lot, and every day after it is one for free, to use and to be enjoyed.” Shan Hackett married in 1942, Margaret Frena, the Austrian widow of a German; they had a daughter and two adopted step-daughters.

Read More

Related People


Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces