In September 1944 General Sir John ‘Shan’ 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. In the following extract from I Was a Stranger
we meet the then Brigadier John Hackett one week after the beginning of the attack when, as his depleted and poorly supplied force was at its last gasp, he was badly wounded in the stomach and leg.
On the morning of 24 September, the day before the evacuation, I left my Brigade HQ consisting now of only a few stout-hearted men in slit trenches, to walk to Division HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel some three hundred yards away. I took with me a Trooper of the Reconnaissance Squadron, who was to lead some Polish parachutist troops to a position on my defence line on the eastern flank of our perimeter at Oosterbeek.
The blow came before the sound of the burst. I dropped on my knees, sick, bewildered and unhappy. It had not been a tree-burst like so many of them, detonating in the branches overhead. This violent thing had happened there on the ground, a few yards in front of me. Was it a mortar bomb or a shell? Had there been a whine before it? Had there been one of them, or two?
Anyway, whatever it had been there were probably more on the way. I crawled on my hands and knees to a shallow slit trench a few feet from me. I had taken refuge in this before and now tumbled into it once again, flattening myself against its side and thrusting a grateful face into cool sandy earth. The ground rang and shook as the rest of the concentration came down, spasmodic bursts in quick untidy groups. Then it was over.
I felt sick and shaken. I told myself not to worry: that would only be shock. What I had to find out was what was really wrong. There seemed to be a good deal of blood about, apparently coming from somewhere above my left knee. I carefully bent the leg: it was not broken. This was almost a disappointment, since I felt so sick and confused. I shouted. There was another cry from the next pit; it was the trooper who had come with me.
‘How is it with you?’ I shouted.
He shouted back, ‘My leg is broken.’
I wriggled my own injured leg about. It worked. Something would now have to be done about his.
There was a dull, singing little pain in my middle, as though someone had punched me hard in the solar plexus. Perhaps the nose-cap of whatever it was that had burst had bounced up and hit me there.
I looked around the safe and friendly little trench, reluctant to leave it for the chill, hostile world outside. Against one corner stood a branch, roughly trimmed as a stick with a forked top. I took it up.
Outside the trench the concentration, which had seemed to be directed especially at our two selves, was over. Division HQ was less than a hundred yards away. There was some sort of a medical aid post, I knew, in the cellars. I took the stick I had found and crawled wearily out of the trench.
‘All right,’ I shouted to the man. ‘I’ll get help.’
It was queer to be walking again under the sad grey sky, over the well-known turf, with the torn limbs of the trees upon it, the wrecked jeeps and occasional blood-stained blankets. Bits of equipment were scattered around and here and there were men, some walking about, some digging, some just lying. This was only a resumption of my journey, interrupted a few minutes back, but there was now a dreamlike quality upon it, as though I had passed out of one world and into another. I felt very odd and was irritated that the feeling was not passing off. Perhaps it would soon. We were all rather tired.
I had come to this hotel many times before, entering by the main steps, but this time I went down the side steps into the cellars, past the huddled shapes of orderlies and clerks, worn out and sleeping in the little time of rest allowed them. The door to the Aid Post was the first out of the concrete passage on the left. Inside there was a young medical officer, harassed but efficient, trying to deal with many more casualties than his resources allowed. There was blood and torn clothing on the floor. Men were strewn about with that air of settled resignation upon them which you see on the wounded once the army medical people have taken them in charge.
Their future is now no longer in their own hands. They know there is no more for them to do – except keep quiet.
Someone offered me a chair, but I told him about the wounded trooper. The medical officer at once set about organizing a stretcher party: I think he took it out himself. The shelling around us had begun again by then.
‘What’s wrong?’ they said to me.
‘Leg,’ said I, ‘but not broken.’
I took off my webbing equipment and sat down on a chair. Scissors ripped off my battledress trousers, now soaked in blood, and I could see a hole where a piece of metal seemed to have gone through the left thigh. It had missed the bone.
They gave me a cup of tea and put on a first field dressing and then, as I still felt sick and queer, sat me down on the floor with an injection of morphia. My stomach ached badly from the blow it had had. Just to put my head back increased the fierce pain there.
I sat between two NCOs or private soldiers, wedged tight. Our legs were stretched out and our backs were leaning against what seemed to be a bedstead. There was nothing any of us could do except to try not to disturb the others when he moved.
I was worried about my command – some thousand soldiers from every unit in the Division, stretched across the eastern flank of what would be called the Oosterbeek perimeter. The Division commander, Roy Urquhart, came in and knelt beside me, his usual kind and confident self. With him was Lieutenant-Colonel Iain Murray, who commanded one of the Glider Pilot Wings. I told them that my leg was hurt, and that the nose-cap or splinter of a shell had hit me in the body. In a cloud of morphia I tried to hand over my charge to Iain Murray but felt that I was making rather a hash of it.
It was early afternoon now: I must have been in the cellar for about four hours. During this time the shelling and mortaring had not stopped. Often the building shook to a direct hit and glass could be heard splintering upstairs while plaster fell upon us in the cellar. Then, from certain whisperings between the Medical Officer and two staff officers, it was clear that something else was afoot, something that concerned us, lying there in the cellar. A glance or two of compassion from the younger of the officers told me all I wanted to know. The wounded were to be handed over to the enemy’s care. It was now clearly impossible to evacuate casualties anywhere but into German hands. Indeed two main dressing stations with hundreds of our wounded were already in their hands.
The Medical Officer told me that a jeep would take a load of us through the enemy lines to St Elizabeth’s Hospital in the town of Arnhem. Some of those to go were badly hurt and stretcher bearers were few: would I mind considering myself walking wounded as far as the jeep? I was a little ashamed that he should feel obliged to ask me this so civilly and agreed at once. They helped me to my feet and I walked up the cellar stairs again, out into the mournful grey of the late September afternoon.
A jeep marked with red crosses stood in the drive only a few yards away from the slit trench in which I had lain that morning. There were stretchers on the jeep but the driver was missing. Shells were bursting around us as the Medical Officer charged off in a blaze of anger to find him. I stood by the jeep and waited, without trousers, shivering with cold. Just then a shell burst with a huge rendering clang in a tree immediately behind and it seemed to me, in the hazy detached state I was in, not at all remarkable when a long black hard-looking thing of indeterminate shape whirred swiftly down over my right shoulder and disappeared into the ground beside the jeep’s front wheel. I was interested to have seen so big a shell splinter in flight so plainly, and thought how fast it must have been going to vanish thus completely into the ground, leaving a clean outline of its shape upon the surface.
At last the driver came. I climbed into the jeep and sat beside him. He did not seem quite to know what to do, while shells went on exploding around us. I helped him start the jeep by pulling out the choke and we drove off, out through the hotel gate and on to the main Arnhem road, passing close to my old Brigade HQ and the two main dressing stations at the crossroads, hung with ragged Red Cross flags, where hundreds of our wounded lay. The confused uproar of the battle grew louder as we drove on into it under our own Red Cross flag. I could now see the German troops in action, behind cover.
Now the jeep was travelling among German soldiers standing in the open, plainly to be seen in their grey-green uniforms. Helmeted heads were peering out of houses here and there; German military vehicles stood around. By the roadside one of those accursed self-propelled guns, our greatest bane, was moving into position. It was like seeing wild animals outside their cages.
We were on cobbles now, moving fast and roughly. Every bump gave me acute discomfort. I was bitterly cold and my teeth chattered. All the same there was some comfort in what I saw, grim though it was. Torn vehicles, German bodies, craters in the road, shattered houses. On we went, jolting painfully. By the roadside I saw half a body, just naked buttocks and the legs joined on and no more of it than that. There was no comfort here. It was like being in a strange and terrible nightmare from which you longed to wake and could not.
Soon we came into the town. German SS troops were moving in and out of the houses looting. I felt a deep and personal hatred for every one of them. We were stopped by a young SS under-officer. I spoke in my halting German: we wanted St Elizabeth’s Hospital. The young man turned to me. He was big and blond, and I found him enormously unpleasant. Everything about him was cocksure and beastly, his nose, his mouth, his tunic, his manner. Was I an officer? I was.
‘Come over here boys and have a look,’ he called out to the others, ‘here’s an officer!’
They ran their thick fingers over my one remaining shoulder strap. The badges of rank on it, the crown and three stars of a brigadier, clearly meant nothing to them. Well, well, an officer. And wounded, eh? Yes, we wanted to get to this hospital.
Slowly the under-officer pushed the British driver out and got in himself. A bigger and even more beastly blond winked at him and jerked his thumb first at the jeep and then back at himself. I could not remember a gesture I had ever found more hateful. The cocksure beast nodded, started the jeep and drove off.
But he did drive us to the hospital, up an incline to a small rounded enclosure which was formed by twin curved ramps rising to the main entrance on the first floor, with a door into the ground floor below it.
There were civilian men and women there, wearing Red Cross armbands, some with whitepainted steel helmets. In the background were hospital nurses and nuns. The men with red crosses lifted off the laden stretchers. They brought another for me, when I stepped out of the jeep, and I lay on it very uncomfortably, with my head back flat and the bruised muscles of my stomach aching, thinking how odd it was to drive up to a hospital, sitting in a jeep, and then lie down on a stretcher to be carried inside.
There were no shells bursting here. There seemed no noise at all, just then, and none of these people had the look on them of being in a battle, like those I had left behind. This was another world.
We were laid in a row – a dozen stretchers, perhaps twenty – in a stone hall. I was miserably cold. Someone gently raised my head and put a haversack beneath it, and a man brought a blanket. They gave me a cup of thin soup. The light was failing now. One by one the stretchers were carried off down a dark passage. Mine was nearly the last but not quite. Soon we were carried in to where there was a light. A pleasant-looking RAMC doctor in a white coat was examining people on a table, filling in cards and passing them on. He looked at me, and I did not much like the thoughtful look in his eye. I told him of my leg, and the blow to the solar plexus which made my abdominal muscles so weak and sore.
He opened my smock and then the battledress jacket and shirt, looking rather intent.
‘There’s a hole here,’ he said, half to me, I thought, half to himself. ‘Is there another one?’
I didn’t think so. He ran his hands over my stomach and found a brilliant star-shaped pain. I may have made a noise.
Then I looked at his face and had a real fright. He was beginning to bustle about and there was a sudden note of urgency in the air. Very soon I was being carted off on a stretcher by two bearers and found myself under a bright flat light with someone standing there, shrouded to the eyes in white, with other dim white figures near him. A mask came down upon my face, with something heavenly dropping on to it. I breathed in deeply and most gratefully. With the best will in the world I slipped under the anaesthetic and into unconsciousness.