Hackett obituary – ‘The Times’

The Times | WED 10 SEP 1997 | Page 21

General Sir John Hackett, GCB, CBE, DSO and Bar, MC, Commander-in-Chief, British Army of the Rhine, 1966-68, and Principal of King’s College, London, 1968-75, died yesterday aged 86. He was born on November 5, 1910. Generally – if sometimes grudgingly – acknowledged as the cleverest soldier of his generation, John Hackett combined intellectual attainments of a very high order with a fine record of leadership and gallantry in action stretching back to campaigns conducted before the Second World War. He had fought in Palestine, Syria, the Western Desert, Italy and the North-West Europe campaign, being wounded at Arnhem, where he was captured and then escaped.

In his postwar career he rose to become one of the most charismatic and respected senior Nato commanders, held in esteem by the top generals of the West German, French and American armies. Small in stature though he was, he towered over most of his contemporaries in terms of his grasp of contemporary geopolitics. A man of pronounced opinions, he was never afraid to air them. This did not recommend him to Whitehall and the top job in the Armed Forces was denied to him.

He retired from the Army into academic life, which he proceeded thoroughly to enjoy. In retirement for the second time, from the principalship of King’s College, London, he continued to be one of the most influential geopolitical thinkers in the Western world. His book The Third World War (1978), written in collaboration with others, was an astute – and hugely enjoyable – speculation on the probable causes and courses of a third 20th-century global military cataclysm, and became a runaway best-seller. Hackett liked being a talking head on military matters and would explain his thinking to the public in publications ranging from the soberest of broadsheets to the most strident tabloids. During the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 he was, additionally, much in demand as a television analyst of military events.

Opinionated though Hackett was, in purely intellectual terms, he was nevertheless far from being intolerant in a blimpish sense, even to those whose standpoint he could not conceivably be asked to share. There was far too much of the scholar in him for that. He had a keen sense of history, and, at that, not merely the military history of the modern era. Thus, he could gently recommend to the leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that they read Thucydides before jumping to simplistic conclusions about the avoidance of a state of war between nations in economic and political competition with each other – while at the same time acknowledging them as being civilised and well-meaning individuals.

John Winthrop Hackett was the son of Sir John Hackett, an eminent Australian judge. Educated at Geelong Grammar School and New College, Oxford, which was later to make him an honorary fellow, he joined the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1931, his great-grandfather having served in the same regiment. Very early in his career he displayed a formidable energy and versatility. Already an interpreter in French and German, he added Italian while serving on attachment with the Italian cavalry. After being seconded to the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force (TJFF) in 1937 he added Arabic. At the same time, while on active service at the height of the Arab rebellion there, he found time to write a thesis on the campaigns of Saladin during the the Third Crusade for his BLit. The research and writing of this took him up and down the valley of the Orontes on a mule and he spent a good deal of time living among the Arabs of the region.

When the Second World War came, in 1941 he took part in the Syrian campaign with the TJFF, during which he was wounded and awarded the MC. It was while recovering from his wounds during this period that he met his Austrian wife Margaret on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. She was classed as an enemy alien at the time, but he married her in St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. Rejoining his regiment in the Western Desert, he was again wounded and awarded the DSO. While “recuperating” on the staff at GHQ in Cairo, Hackett employed his time reorganising the activities of the light raiding forces. As such he played a prominent part in the organisation of the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS, as well as in raising and in naming “Popski’s Private Army”. But he was not a man to enjoy life behind a desk and he was selected at the age of only 33 to raise and command the 4th Parachute Brigade which he led in Italy and at Arnhem. He was seriously wounded at Arnhem and taken prisoner, but subsequently escaped. He was harboured for a while by a courageous Dutch family, to whom he was later to pay tribute in a moving account of his adventures, I Was a Stranger (1977), and helped to liberty via the Dutch Resistance. He was awarded a Bar to his DSO for his services at Arnhem.

Returning to Palestine in 1947 to command the TJFF, Hackett had the delicate task of disbanding the Force prior to the British withdrawal. This he accomplished with great skill and then spent his leave in Austria attending a semester in postgraduate medieval studies at Graz University. After attending the Imperial Defence College in 1951 he commanded 20 Armoured Brigade in the British Army of the Rhine before promotion to major-general in 1956 to command the 7th Armoured Division. A fluent German speaker, with a wide circle of German friends, Hackett was active in promoting Anglo-German friendship and the study of German by those serving in BAOR. He left Germany in 1958 to be Commandant of the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham. Hackett was promoted lieutenant-general in 1961 and appointed GOC-in-C in Northern Ireland. In that year he delivered the Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge, justifiably acclaimed for their erudition, clarity and wit. They particularly impressed American military men who heard them and increased his reputation as a strategist.

In 1963 Hackett was moved to the Ministry of Defence as Deputy Chief of the General Staff, responsible for organisation and weapon development. A master of his brief, he could be formidable in committee, sparing neither high nor low if he felt the occasion warranted it. He suffered wide unpopularity as the leading figure in the reorganisation of the Territorial Army but he was undeterred by popular clamour if he considered his course to be right. Nevertheless, many who disagreed with him then, disagree with him still.

Hackett was, therefore, a highly controversial figure when he left Whitehall in 1966, on promotion to general, to command the Rhine Army. It can be said, however, that he was a very successful Commander-in-Chief, particularly in the parallel appointment of Commander Northern Army Group. His ability to speak several languages, notably German, made him a truly international figure, as did his close friendship with such outstanding foreign soldiers as Graf Kielmansegg of the Bundeswehr. When, in 1968, Hackett wrote a highly controversial letter to The Times , critical of the British Government’s apparent lack of concern over the strength of Nato forces in Europe, it was characteristic of him that he signed it wearing his Nato rather than his British hat; the furore it caused in Whitehall appealed to his puckish sense of humour.

By then, of course, he had realised the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff would be denied him. He was too clever for the politicians, and perhaps also for the Army, which was always wary of his brilliance. He could also be abrasive on occasions and was not well endowed with the diplomatic qualities of the average Whitehall warrior.

He retired from the Army in 1968 and became Principal of King’s College, London. Hackett, who had described the profession of arms as “an essential social institution offering an orderly way of life, set a little apart, not without elegance”, took instinctively to academic life. No man could have made the transition from khaki to gown more elegantly, or with greater enjoyment. He was good with youth; even at his most formidable as a general, subalterns had always found him approachable. He was equally good with undergraduates, although less tolerant of their teachers. It was typical of him that he should have joined the student march through London in 1973, bowler-hatted and carrying an umbrella, in protest against the erosion of student grants. Although this led to some criticism among senior academics, Hackett always believed in standing up to be counted if the cause was a good one. He never lacked courage, nor for that matter a keen awareness of the importance of public relations.

After his retirement from King’s College, Hackett devoted himself to writing and lecturing; he was also much in demand as an after-dinner speaker. In 1981 he followed The Third World War with The Third World War: The Untold Story , a reassessment of the global scenario of the first volume.

A brilliant conversationalist, although not invariably a good listener, he had an international circle of friends, and he became known to an even wider audience as a result of his regular appearances on television and radio. Probably no man did as much as he has done to dispel the widely-held British belief that most generals are fools, and ignorant fools at that.

Among his many honours, perhaps the ones that pleased him most were his presidency of the Classical Association in 1971 and his colonelcy of the Royal Irish Hussars, 1969-75.

The only daughter of his marriage predeceased him. He is survived by his wife Margaret, and by two adopted step-daughters.