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The Strength of the Gentle

Among Britain’s defeats in the Second World War, the Battle of Arnhem comes second only to Dunkirk in the popular imagination. The parachute troops’ hopeless bid for control of the Rhine crossing in September 1944, waiting for reinforcements that never came, has been described as the greatest ‘might have been’ of the war; the phrase ‘a bridge too far’ has passed into everyday speech.

As with Dunkirk, the part played by civilians is essential to the story. Dutch resistance fighters and householders not only gave support and succour to their would-be liberators, but also took them into their hearts. One local woman, interviewed half a century later by the historian Martin Middlebrook, spoke of seeing a soldier shot before her eyes, and hearing him shout the word ‘Goodbye’ three times before he died: ‘Because of that, I now use “Goodbye” very rarely; there is a kind of finality about it for me. Those men are, for me, friends . . . “Grateful” is too small a word.’

The gratitude, however, was felt on both sides – and there could be no greater testament to it than John Hackett’s I Was a Stranger (1977).

As commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade, Hackett was in the vanguard of the attack on Arnhem on 17 September 1944. A week later, when his depleted and poorly supplied force was at its last gasp, he was badly wounded in the stomach and leg. It is this moment, with the battle almost spent and the narrator reduced to helpless dependence on others, which marks the starting point of the book – for I Was a Stranger is not so much a tale of derring-do (though its descriptions of the fighting are vivid) as a story of friendship. The heroism it celebrates is not that of soldiers, but of a household run by three women in a town under German occupation.

Hackett, then 33, was twelve years into an enormously distinguished military career. He had already seen action in the Middle East and North Africa, helped to found the SAS, and twice been severely wounded; he emerged from the war with an MC and two DSOs, and went on to become General Sir John Hackett, commander of the British Army on the Rhine. So it is all the more remarkable that, when he came to write a memoir, he should have focused on the four months of his life that he spent disguised as a civilian invalid.

I am as in thrall to the story of Arnhem as the next man, and was lucky enough to know one of its veterans, Desmond Fitzgerald – a charming, gentle figure commemorated by the poet Thomas McCarthy in his collection The Last Geraldine Officer. (An account of bullets ricocheting off the struts of the bridge sticks in my mind.) If I approached Hackett’s book a little warily, it was because I remembered a large box of wartime memoirs I had once been sent for review: while all had splendid titles, few did justice to the momentous events they dealt with, swiftly becoming bogged down in military jargon and strange nicknames. But the prologue of I Was a Stranger was enough to reassure me: Hackett’s narrative was lucid and elegant, and made generous allowance for readers on civvy street.

His stance throughout the book is self-effacing: he is, he insists, merely a participant in the story and not the protagonist. But what is clear from the start is his sense of duty. Taken to a hospital in enemy hands and given emergency surgery, his immediate concerns are to write an official report of the battle and to find a way of escaping. Fortunately the Germans – failing to realize that they have captured a brigadier – leave him poorly guarded; the Dutch Resistance manage to spirit him away and hide him in a house a stone’s throw from the German Military Police in the town of Ede.

Number 5 Torenstraat is the home of three middle-aged unmarried sisters – Ann, Cor and Mien de Nooij. Living with them for the duration are their niece Mary, who acts as Hackett’s nurse, and her brother John, who is involved in the Resistance. After four and a half years of occupation, they are eager to do whatever they can for a wounded British officer; Hackett feels enveloped by their kindness, and comes to think of them as his own family. But always there is the knowledge that his presence could be their death sentence, and as the Germans tighten their grip in the face of the Allied offensive, the need for him to recover his strength and find his way home becomes ever more pressing. Will he escape before he is discovered?

Despite his natural aptitude for soldiering, Hackett had not originally planned on a military career. Born in Australia, he moved to England as a teenager to study painting at the Central School of Art, and went on to read Greats and Modern History at Oxford; only when his hopes of becoming a don were disappointed did he join the army. It is not surprising, therefore, that I Was a Stranger has a literary and artistic dimension which sets it apart from the majority of wartime memoirs. This account of a dawn walk, taken surreptitiously to build his fitness, could almost be a scene by Bruegel:

Soon dim figures of men could be seen in the growing light plodding to their work, huddled-up shapes like birds in the cold. Others on bicycles were struggling through the snow. A cart would pass with the horse pulling strongly, the wheels squeaking against packed snow, or crunching and clattering on the ice. There would be a glow in the dark where a man stood still for a moment and the sharp surprising tang of tobacco smoke would drift over the morning air. Perhaps the first V1 of the day would pass overhead, streaming fire and leaving a shuddering in the air all around long after it was gone.

At the same time, Hackett offers some fascinating insights into the military mind. The contrast between German soldiers requisitioning blankets and Allied troops handing out their surplus clothes to civilians tells him at once which side will ultimately win. The failure of a mass escape attempt is concisely and rigorously analysed: ‘The difference between this plan and the last was what most distinguished good plans in war from bad ones. The other had a high probability of success if it did not run into really bad luck; this one would need very good luck indeed to have even a sporting chance.’ And in a touching vignette he refuses to let his nurse wash his bloodstained vest and shirt, so that his wife can play her own small, symbolic part in his rehabilitation when they are finally reunited.

Readers of Slightly Foxed will be especially pleased by the importance of books in his convalescence. Ann de Nooij, who had spent time in England, is able to supply him with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Scott and Dickens; the head of the local Resistance is prevailed upon to seek out a copy of Vanity Fair (‘I felt a great longing for a glimpse of that cool, orderly world and the taste of elegant and lucid English prose’). An anthology entitled A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry ignites a passion for Paradise Lost, which Hackett later reads in its entirety ‘like a horse put out to pasture’. On his return to England, in a magnificent misuse of authority, he arranges for a consignment of theology books to be delivered by Mosquito bomber as a thank-you to Dominie Blauw, the de Nooijs’ pastor.

The Bible is another important part of his reading, and a shared Christian faith does much to cement his relationship with his hostesses. (His own book’s title is a reference to St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in.’) A question they wrestle with is how to love your neighbour when that neighbour invades or – as in the case of Holland’s own Fascists – betrays you. The answer suggested by Dominie Blauw is to fight tooth and nail against their oppressors, but to answer a plea for help from an individual German. Curiously, Hackett fails to mention anywhere in the book that his own wife, whom he had met in Palestine three years earlier, was an Austrian – officially an enemy.

 At the heart of I Was a Stranger is a soldier’s extraordinary admiration for civilian courage and what he calls ‘the unconquerable strength of the gentle’. While those of us who have never been in the front line can only wonder at his sang-froid, he insists that

A fighting soldier in war-time takes the dangers and tensions that bear upon himself for granted. It is quite a different thing to contemplate the actions of other people, in observing their bravery, contrivance and self-sacrifice, in protecting and looking after someone thrown by hazard into their care. There is nothing to be taken for granted here.

Life in Torenstraat also gives him an understanding of the privations suffered by the Dutch – the shortage of food, warm clothing, even electricity – and the resourcefulness of the local partisans. His book may not be framed as an adventure story, but Hackett knew how to write an economical, gripping narrative, and the tale of his final, snowbound journey towards the British lines under the guidance of the Resistance is masterfully told. (When, after his retirement, he turned his hand to fiction, his novel The Third World War: August 1985 sold 3 million copies.)

Even at the most anxious moments, though, there is humour. Hackett is always on the look-out for a chance to tease the Germans, whether by complaining about a noisy guard dog or plotting to steal their Christmas goose. And at the end there is enough joy to counterbalance all that has been suffered – the joy of homecoming, of liberation, and of a friendship which was to endure long after the war had ended.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 41 © Anthony Gardner 2014
This article also appears as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: John Hackett, I Was a Stranger

About the contributor

Since Anthony Gardner’s A-level history syllabus ended with the Crimean War, he is grateful for any books that shed light on subsequent events. He edits the Royal Society of Literature Review and has just completed a satirical novel called The Fox on Your Doorstep.

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