Gen Sir John Hackett: Soldier Scholar and an Airborne Leader - A biographical article by John Waddy

'Shan' Hackett had been educated at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, and at New College, Oxford, intending at first to follow an academic career, but instead he decided to join his grandfather's regiment, the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars in 1931. In 1936 in Palestine he took part in the operations against the Arab Revolt; and in 1937 was seconded to the Transjordan Frontier Force, a British officered force of Bedouin and Circassians mounted on horse and camel, on similar duties; and during this time was twice mentioned in despatches and awarded the MBE. He took part in the campaign against the Vichy French in Syria in 1941, was wounded and won the MC. In 1942 he was fighting with his Regiment in the Western Desert, where he was again wounded and won a DSO. On recovery, it was his intellect and his imaginative approach to soldiering that led him to be appointed to a new post at GHQ Middle East - GSO 1 Raiding Forces, where his task was to coordinate the activities of the many 'private armies' then carrying on their often independent and piratical wars against the Italian and German forces in the Mediterranean - the elite Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), the Special Air Service (SAS) for which he was instrumental in increasing its size to regimental strength, the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Popskis Private Army (PPA), The Commandos, Force 136 and other smaller clandestine groups.

During the autumn of 1942 it had been decided to form a parachute brigade in the Middle East for operations, initially, in the eastern Mediterranean; and at General Montgomery's suggestion Temp/Lt Col John Hackett, then aged 31, was selected to raise and train the 4th Parachute Brigade Group. He did his parachute jumps in October at the Middle East parachute School at Kabrit on the Suez Canal, then training the SAS/SBS and other 'funnies'. In late October the fully formed 151st (British) Parachute Bn, now renumbered 156 Parachute Bn, arrived from India to be the first unit of the brigade. From the 8th Army after Alamein there came a Royal Engineer Squadron, a RAMC Field ambulance, and then the HQ and a strong cadre of 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment as the nucleus of the 10th Parachute Bn, to be formed from volunteers in the ME theatre.

Early in 1943 the Brigade, less the embryo 11th Parachute Bn to be formed from volunteers of PAIFORCE, moved to Palestine where there were better facilities for intensive airborne training in terrain more likely to be met in southern Europe. Brigade HQ was in the Austrian Hospice in Nazareth. The ME Parachute School also moved to Ramat David, and soon there arrived a complete USAAF squadron, from Texas, of C47 (Dakota) aircraft.

Hard training took place in the rocky hills of Northern Palestine, and with the support of the Texan airmen, an enterprising series of parachute exercises were conducted in Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sinai and in Palestine. The Brigadier was everywhere visiting his new units, supervising the training and watching the exercises, and during some of these he was able to bring out further lessons from battles fought in biblical days on the same ground. It took him no time before his dynamic, but encouraging character spread throughout his brigade which was soon bound together by loyalty to him: it became his brigade, almost his family, indeed, he often referred to it as 'the firm' and to officers and soldiers as 'members'. He set a high standard and expected all to meet it, and he wasted no time in correcting those who fell below, but it was always done in a courteous manner, which nevertheless left no room for argument.

It was inevitable therefore that the 4th Brigade soon took on much of his own character, especially in its independence of thought and deed; and it must be said, in its carefree approach to dress regulations, (but not 156 Parachute Bn under its Grenadier CO and RSM), an attitude which seemed to worry the hierarchy at HQ 1st Airborne Division recently arrived in Tunisia from the UK.

Although a relative newcomer to the airborne world (it was only 3 years old anyway!) it was his operational experience, combined with a free ranging intellect that gave him a wider concept of the potential employment of airborne troops, and the tactics that they should use. The Staff College at Haifa asked to see a parachute demonstration, and the students were invited to witness a night company parachute exercise just south of the Sea of Galilee. The staff complained that they had not seen anything, to which Shan replied "then you have seen what a parachute operation should be".

In Tunisia in the summer of '43 after the Sicily campaign, the 4th Parachute Brigade was tasked to carry out the first airborne operation in Italy which was to be at Salerno, until this was taken on by the Americans, (but with little success). Instead, the brigade was told to plan for several operations across the Straits of Messina, which Shan dismissed as 'mere puddle hopping operations'. He then submitted a carefully planned proposal to drop his brigade, in several groups, into the area across Italy north of Florence to block or delay the inevitable movement of German reinforcements into southern Italy to meet the forthcoming Allied invasion. He argued that this use of the strategic mobility of airborne forces would pay better dividends than their employment in the short range tactical field. The task was later given to the 2nd SAS who were allowed only two aircraft 'sticks', but even with these small numbers they achieved notable success.

The 4th Brigade eventually landed by sea from RN and USN cruisers at Taranto in the van of 1st Airborne Division. In the advance up to Bari and Foggia against the retreating 1st German Parachute Division Shan was in his element, directing not only his own two parachute battalions but other diverse elements such as Popski's Private Army, a squadron, mainly Free French, of 2nd SAS under Major Roy Farran, and a horsed artillery battery of the now co-belligerent Italian Army - they 'added tone', he said, but were a logistic nuisance to his staff.

He had trained his unit commanders to operate on their own initiative, but under his general direction, and when specific orders were needed they were brief and personal; for instance he told one of his staff " .... motor up to your battalion, give Colonel Dickie my compliments, and invite him to take Mottola" - a village perched high on a hilltop some 2 miles ahead. Shortly afterwards, he went forward to his other battalion, which was attacking Castellaneta, where Maj. Gen Hopkinson, commander 1st Airborne Division, joined him. "Keep your head down", Shan warned him , "there are snipers around", but the general in his red beret put his head over the wall. He was shot and died there.

The Brigade, with the rest of the 1st Airborne Division, returned to UK in December '43 to prepare for the invasion of Europe, and were billetted in the towns and villages of Rutland and Leicestershire. The Division, to its chagrin, was in reserve for D Day in an immediate back-up role in the event of emergency in the bridgehead. For the next three frustrating months no less than fifteen operations were planned by the Division or by the newly formed Allied Airborne Army, but all were cancelled, some only a short time before take-off. This planning and preparations with many visits to senior HQs took much of his time, but whenever possible he was out with his units on training. He was determined that he would be as fit as his soldiers, and often at night he trudged the lanes and fields of Rutland in full battle order with weighted pack.

He was as frustrated as his men, and he also became increasingly critical of some of the proposed operations. The new Allied Airborne Army had outstripped in size the capability of its senior Army and Air Force commanders to appreciate properly its effective employment. In early September orders were given for Operation Comet, an operation to carry out the same objectives as the subsequent Market Garden, but using the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Brigade only. He commented later on the plans “…we (meaning Sosabowski, the Polish brigade commander, and himself) had both fought Germans before, and knew all about that. Apparently the airborne planners did not. Their plans to put down an airborne division were impeccable. What would happen after that was beyond them. They were to me like cooks who prepare a superb dish, and then add salt and pepper to taste. They prepared a superb deployment, and then added a few Germans. I shall always recall the deep disbelief in Sosabowski's voice; 'but the Germans, General, the Germans…..’. Happily this ghastly plan was, like the earlier ones, cancelled at the last moment".

For Roy Urquhart, he had the highest regard, and after the battle wrote of him ".... he was a splendid battlefield commander - the best fighting general I have ever served under, a great, imperturbable fighting Scot."

Unfortunately, for Operation Market Garden carried out seven days later, the senior airborne planners not only disregarded the inevitable swift German reaction, but also failed to deploy the British and American airborne divisions, so that they stood a reasonable chance of achieving their objectives rapidly.

So, as he foretold, his 4th Parachute Brigade, which he had raised, trained and led for nearly two years was cut to pieces in less than two days. There were so few survivors after the battle that the brigade was never rebuilt, but was amalgamated with a similar number of survivors of the 1st Parachute Brigade. As he himself said "I had raised this formation in the Middle East, taken it into battle in Italy, lived with it and in great part for it during nearly two years of war, and was now to see it destroyed. I had been its midwife and was now to be its sexton".

After the war the family spirit that he had instilled into his brigade has lived on among the members that remain to this day. The old comrades of most of the units have thriving Associations and meet regularly. His officers have dined together each year since the war, and Brigadier Shan has been absent only for the last two years due to his ill health. On these and on other occasions, such as on the annual Arnhem 'pilgrimages', he is never happier than when he is with members of his beloved 4th Parachute Brigade.

After his brief but dramatic time in command of 4th Parachute Brigade he did not return to an active command in Airborne Forces in peacetime. It would be interesting to speculate that, if he had been appointed to command the 16th Parachute Brigade Group in 1954, rather than the 20th Armoured Brigade, that he might have been able to set our post-war Airborne Forces on to a more enlightened course, in keeping with their true potential, as opposed to the regular infantry lines which they have been forced to follow. He was, however, Honorary Colonel of the 10th Bn The Parachute Regt (TA) from '65 - '73, of which he was very proud, and as before he took a close personal interest in all its members and their well being. He was DCGS in the Ministry of Defence at the time when the Government made drastic cuts in the Territorial Army. Under the original plan, which had already been drafted into a White Paper, the 44th Parachute Brigade (TA) was to be disbanded, with only one parachute battalion remaining. He fought not only the military 'establishment' but also the politicians, and forced them to reconsider the decision; the brigade was saved (but only for another 10 years) but lost one of its four battalions and some supporting units. From these cuts he was able to increase the strength of the two TA SAS regiments.

He has also been as much loved by the Dutch people of the Oosterbeek area, not only by the family who cared for him behind enemy lines, but also by the many people that he has met and made his friends since those days. He has valued their friendship above most others. Whilst the events in 1944/45 were tragic for him, and for the Dutch people, nevertheless they forged a deep bond of friendship between the airborne veterans and the Dutch of all ages. These words of his sum up this feeling:

"This was a battle but its significance as an event in human experience transcends the military. The tactical, technical and logistic problems it raised are often of high and absorbing interest. More and more, however, those of us who fought through this battle have become aware that what remains with us can best be described as a spiritual experience. To see Dutch children who were not born when all this happened; most of whose parents were not born either, laying their flowers year after year on the quiet graves in the Airborne cemetery at Oosterbeek teaches a lesson not easily forgotten".

See also John Waddy’s article on Shan Hackett at Arnhem.

Read More

Related People


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