John Hackett, I Was a Stranger
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I Was a Stranger (No. 25)

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  • Thumbnail of I Was a Stranger (No. 25)
  • Pages: 320
  • Format: 170 x 110mm
  • Publication date: March 2014
  • Producer: Smith Settle
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Binding: Cloth hardback
  • Trimmings: Coloured endpapers; silk ribbon, head- & tailband; gold blocking to spine; blind blocking to front
  • NB: Hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000
  • ISBN: 978-1-906562-59-5
  • Number in SFE series: 25
  • Preface by: Anthony Gardner
Made in Britain

I Was a Stranger (No. 25)

John Hackett

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In September 1944 John Hackett, commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade, was severely wounded and taken prisoner during the Battle of Arnhem. I Was a Stranger is his moving account of what happened to him afterwards. It is less a war memoir than a story of friendship – a celebration of the quiet heroism of three Dutch women.

Taken to a hospital in enemy hands and given emergency surgery, John, who was 33, was desperate to escape. Fortunately the Germans dropped their guard, and the Dutch Resistance spirited him away and hid him in a house a stone’s throw from the German Military Police post in the town of Ede.

Number 5 Torenstraat was the home of three middle-aged unmarried sisters – Ann, Cor and Mien de Nooij. There John Hackett spent the following months under the noses of the Germans, while the de Nooij family nursed him back to health. Finally, after a hair-raising journey through the waterways of occupied Holland, he made it back to the British lines.

It’s a cliffhanging story, yet I Was a Stranger has something of the stillness and reflective quality of a Dutch painting. This was a household that survived by paying attention to the smallest details of daily life, and John gradually became part of it, sitting with the sisters during the long evenings, sharing their religious faith and love of English literature. But always there was the knowledge that his presence could be their death sentence, and the need for him to recover his strength became ever more pressing.

The book’s title is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’. It is a tribute by a very unusual soldier to a group of outstandingly brave, unassuming and resourceful people, which stays in the heart long after the book is closed.

From readers

  1. Slightly Foxed says:

    Sir John Hackett’s escape from Holland was first rate, full of memorable moments and a tribute to the bravery of the beleaguered Dutch. Thank you for publishing it.

  2. A. Burton says:

    This book is a tribute to their courage and care and as a consequence of the relationships formed in such stressful circumstances, General Hackett made lifelong friendships with some of his helpers – a truly uplifting read.

  3. The Captive Reader says:

    It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. As I write this, the turkey is roasting, the pies are made, and I am thinking about what it means to be thankful. But I am thinking about that less because of the day than because of the book I just finished reading: I Was a Stranger by General Sir John Hackett, originally published in 1977 and, with their typically unerring excellence of taste, reprinted by Slightly Foxed in 2014.

    Hackett was thirty-three years old and a career soldier serving as commander of a British parachute brigade when, during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, he was severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. In the hands of the enemy and weak following major, life-saving abdominal surgery, Hackett was already focusing on the important things: making an accurate record of the battle and drawing up the list of recommended commendations, and determining how to escape. Thankfully for him, the well-organised Dutch resistance was at hand and, while still very weak, he was spirited out of the hospital (battle notes in hand) and into hiding with the de Nooij family in Ede . . .

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  4. Sylvester says:

    I read this book with more-than-usual interest, as my Grandfather was an “underdiver” in the Netherlands during part of the war. I was astounded at General Hackett’s recall of events until I got to the end where he told how he wrote this account in the year after it happened. Nonetheless, he must have been taking notes – his descriptions are as crisp and clear as if they happened yesterday.

    This is a book full of remarkable people. Hackett himself, the family he was hidden by (uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters – the whole clan contributed in some way to his care and safety), the resistance members who daily risked their lives for all those they helped, and for me the most interesting – the female couriers who escorted the divers from place to place, delivered documents and explosives and whatever else necessary right under the nose of the Germans – in this particular story, 2 couriers, one 40 yrs. old, and the other 19. I really could go on and on. The book brings up so many thoughts and questions. This is not the ugly side of the war – it is harrowing and beautiful, but a story of people doing what they believe to be right at any cost to themselves, with grace and full hearts.

    John Hackett, when preparing at last to escape German occupied territory after recovering from his wounds, makes this remark, “There was the expectation of excitement and change, of freedom and a new life and the delight of setting out to go home. My spirits, borne upon thoughts like this, soared like a kite but at the other end of the string was a heavy little stone of sadness. I was leaving behind me a rare and beautiful thing. It was a structure of kindness and courage, of steadfast devotion and quiet selflessness, which it was a high privilege to have known. I had been witness to an act of faith, simple, unobtrusive and imperishable. I had often seen bravery in battle. I now also knew the unconquerable strength of the gentle.” . . .

    There are so many utterly sickening and horrific stories about war, and these need to be told and learned from. But there are also stories of quiet resistance like this one, and these are important too. Another book I read on a similar topic, (“The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust” by Carol Rittner, Sondra Myers) made a similar impression on me – the kindness of strangers – this is what has saved so many in the end. Small things sometimes, other times incredible sacrifices. The kindness of strangers. May I never forget how much it matters.

    NB This review was first written for my profile on Goodreads.

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