Shan Hackett at Arnhem: An article by John Waddy

At Knossington Hall in Rutland on 14th September 1944 Brigadier 'Shan' Hackett gave out his orders to his 4th Parachute Brigade 'Orders Group' for Operation MARKET, and having finished, he asked the unit commanders and senior staff officers to stay, “now you can forget all that", he told them, "your heaviest fighting and worst casualties will not be in defence of the northern sector of Arnhem town, but in trying to get there".

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.

Major Geoffrey Powell, one of his company commanders relates:

"In a clearing in the woods I saw 3 jeeps and on the trailer of one a wounded man lay motionless. Germans were darting through the woods; the squat barrel of a SP gun appeared, it fired and hit one of the jeeps, which burst into flames. A driver ran from it shouting that it was loaded with ammunition. We all waited in horror for the explosion: then out of the trees a short spare figure ran to the burning vehicle – it was the brigadier! Springing into the driver's seat of the jeep with the wounded man he gunned the engine into life, and the jeep and trailer roared across the clearing."

Shortly afterwards the Brigadier told Powell to charge the enemy and clear them out of a nearby hollow in the 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.

With the remnants of his and of the 1st Parachute Brigade, and with the survivors of other units of the Division, he took command of the eastern flank of what came to be called the Oosterbeek Perimeter. His HQ was in slit trenches only 200 yards from the forward positions near the MDS crossroads. 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. He was first wounded slightly on 21st September whilst standing on the lawn of the old Rectory, which was Kate ter Horst's house: and on Sunday 24th whilst returning to his 'HQ' he was hit again by mortar splinters, and this time seriously. The airborne medics by this time had no facilities to treat such casualties, so together with several hundred other wounded men he was evacuated through the German lines to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Arnhem. The German surgeons there said that for stomach wounds euthanasia was the only treatment; nevertheless, an airborne surgeon - Captain Lipmann Kessel, carried out a brilliant operation.

After four days he started to think of escape, and instructed Father McGowan, an airborne padre, to find him maps and escape kit. At the same time he started to write a detailed report on the actions fought by his brigade; and in addition he wrote citations for awards of bravery. When he had been in the hospital for about two weeks a Dutchman - Piet Kruyff, head of the Resistance in Arnhem, led him past German sentries and out of the hospital, his head wrapped in blood soaked bandages, during an RAF raid on Arnhem bridge. He was taken by car to a house in Ede 12 miles away where he met Brigadier Lathbury who had been wounded and captured but escaped from the hospital some days before. He was then moved to another house nearby close to a German military police post, and it was here for nearly 4 months he was devotedly cared for by the brave de Nooij family - four elderly sisters, and Mary and Johan Snoek, the children of one of the sisters, now a widow. With their nursing, and the attention of a Dutch doctor he gradually gained strength. The full story is most movingly told in his book ‘I was a stranger’, the title taken from a passage in St. Mathew's gospel, ‘….. I was a stranger and ye took me in....'.

He finished his battle report and the recommendations for awards, which with a letter to his wife Margaret (then expecting their first child), and to Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, he gave to Brigadier Lathbury, who had set up a 'Brigade HQ' in hiding, and was soon to escape across the Rhine on the successful mass evacuation by 130 airborne men and others.

Acutely aware that his presence was a constant threat of death to his kind Dutch family, he was eager to be away. Various plans for his escape were made by the Resistance, by a patrol of the Belgian SAS, M19; but none came about. It was not until late January that Johan Snoek himself devised and arranged the plan for his escape. (Johan as a pastor of the Dutch Church took part in the Memorial Service to Sir John on 24th November). He escorted him by bicycle via Utrecht to Sliedrecht, where he met other airborne evaders, including by happy chance Lipmann Kessel, who had saved his life, and was now able to carry out a few running repairs on his still unhealed wounds. Resistance men then took them on to cross, by canoe, the wide marshy area at Biesbosch, where the rivers Maas and Waal meet to flow into the sea. Finally on the other side he was greeted by an officer of the 11th Hussars, an old friend of his from the Western Desert days. After a debrief, and a dinner with Field Marshal Montgomery at HQ 21st Army Group he was flown back to Northolt, and then to Cottesmore by friends in the USAAF.

It was not until, seated by his fireside at his house in Oakham, that he passed the instructions to the War Office for the agreed message to be broadcast to The Dutch Resistance - 'the grey goose is gone'. On hearing it the four brave Dutch women back in Ede danced a jig around their clandestine radio.

After a further spell in hospital he followed with interest the war situation in N.W. Europe, until in April on hearing of the news of the Canadian and British advance into northern Holland, he flew over in an RAF aircraft loaded with food and presents for 'his family' and for all the brave people who had helped him. Since then, he has kept a close friendship with them all, and with their children and grandchildren. 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 biographical article on Shan Hackett.


Read More

Related People


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