Hackett obituary – ‘The Guardian’

The Guardian (Manchester) | Sep 10, 1997 | DENNIS BARKER | Page 15

GENERAL Sir John Hackett, who has died aged 86, was one of the last of the British intellectual gentleman soldiers. His military career culminated with him as both commander of the northern army group of Nato and commander-in-chief of the British Army of the Rhine; he was also principal of King’s College, London.

A formidable writer on military subjects, ancient and modern, he will perhaps be most remembered for his co-authorship of the novel The Third World War (1978). This postulated a 1985 conflict as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and the Russians tried to hold together their empire by expansionism. The book caught the ideological mood which accompanied the last Reagan-Thatcher era of the cold war in the 1980s.

Hackett had an unpretentious but piercing eye for a military situation. He believed that a crumbling, fragmented Soviet Union would lead to a more dangerous situation than the nuclear stalemate between the superpowers. The USSR may have vanished, but his diagnosis has yet to be disproved.

Hackett was an Australian by birth, born in Perth, the son of a beautiful mother and Sir John Winthrop Hackett, the owner of the Western Australian and the Western Mail newspapers. They had married when his father was 60 and his mother 17. His father’s family was originally from Tipperary. The young Hackett was educated at Geelong Grammar School – where Prince Charles briefly went – and New College, Oxford, where he read both greats and modern history under Richard Crossman, almost exhausting him with his relentless flow of questions. By the time he left, he had established himself as a formidable scholar who was later awarded a B Lit for his thesis on Saladin’s campaign in the Third Crusade. He also qualified as an interpreter in French, German and Italian. These skills were crucial after he was commissioned in 1931 as an officer in the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars.

In Palestine, in 1936, he was mentioned in despatches and was then seconded to the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force from 1937-41, where he was mentioned in despatches twice. In 1941 he was wounded in Syria and again in the Western Desert, after he had formed and commanded the 4th Parachute Brigade. He was wounded yet again in Italy, in 1943, and once more in 1944, when he took part in the disastrous parachute landing on Arnhem in Holland, where the Germans were waiting. This formative experience was responsible for one of his most human books, I Was A Stranger (1977).

On the day before the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division were pulled out of Arnhem, Hackett was severely injured internally by a shell splinter. He was taken to a German military hospital and operated on by a captured Allied surgeon, but was regarded as a hopeless case and marked down for kindly hypodermic euthanasia.

On the first day he sat up to eat, a member of the Resistance told him that unless he could walk out in the next 15 minutes, he might not be able to get out at all. He escaped with his head in blood-soaked bandages to suggest a civilian air-raid casualty, and was hidden by a Dutch family at risk to their lives.

Later, he escaped by bicycle to freedom, his skill at languages enabling him to pass challenges from guards en route. His typical cool detachment was indicated by one sentence in his book about his debt to the Dutch family: “I do not find it particularly important that any part of this happened to me.”

After the war, he became commander of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force from 1947 to 1948, but with the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the birth of Israel, he returned to western Europe, becoming commander of the 20th Armoured Brigade in 1954. Between 1960 and 1963 he was general officer commanding-in-chief of Northern Ireland; then deputy chief of the Imperial General Staff and of General Staff at the Ministry of Defence. Finally, between 1966 and 1968 he was commander-in-chief of the British Army of the Rhine and commander of the Northern Army Group in Nato.

Both in the Army and after his 1968 retirement, he fulfilled many instructional roles, including commandant of the Royal Military College of Science. Out of the Army, he received press attention as principal of King’s College, London. It was a post he took on in 1968, the high tide of student revolt, and he remained until 1975. On one radio discussion programme he was to be found, slightly exasperated, asking Germaine Greer exactly where the cultural “underground” of which she spoke was physically located.

He wrote many articles and reviews, edited The Profession of Arms (1983), penned Warfare in the Ancient World (1989) and even provided a contribution to one of Cyril Ray’s Compleat Imbiber annuals. “You never retire,” he once said. “You simply withdraw to a flank and re-group.”

In 1942, he married Margaret Frena, an Austrian. They had met in Palestine, courted by Lake Galilee and after the wedding, he went off to fight in the Western Desert. They had one daughter, who died, and two adopted step-daughters.

General Sir John Hackett, soldier, born November 5, 1910; died September 9, 1997.