RogerBW's Blog

I Was A Stranger, John Hackett 21 June 2014

In September 1944, then-Brigadier John Hackett commanded the 4th Parachute Brigade during Operation Market Garden. He was wounded at Arnhem and captured, and spent several months hiding with members of the Dutch underground.

Although this was published around the same time as Hackett's The Third World War, it was mostly written some thirty years earlier, when the memories of these events were still fresh. It's also, to me, a far more interesting book, and I'm very glad it's been re-printed.

Hackett was wounded in the leg and stomach by mortar fire, so when the Brigade withdrew across the Rhine he and the other wounded were left in the care of the Germans. (Yes, the rules of war did still apply; a truce to evacuate the wounded was entirely usual, and those who were more ambulatory were got out that way, but there was no other Allied force nearby that could take stretcher cases.)

Although the Germans supervising the hospital recommended that he be put out of his misery, a captured doctor (Alexander Lipmann-Kessel) repaired the stomach wound. Of course, Hackett was very weak afterwards. German resources were at this point stretched very thin, and Hackett was smuggled out in the guise of a fresh casualty to the town of Ede, half-way between Arnhem and Utrecht.

And there he stayed, for the next several months, recuperating. There were were some abortive attempts to get him out into the Allied zone, but the occupation made this profoundly difficult: even such minor items as bicycles were hard to obtain, and prone to confiscation, and civilian motor cars were non-existent. Electricity was supplied only to houses in use by the Germans. Men under the age of 45 could be conscripted by the Organisation Todt and sent to work anywhere in the Axis territories, and even those under 60 could be sent elsewhere in the Netherlands. Various papers and permits were necessary at all times, and these were frequently revoked en masse.

Against this, the various Dutch underground and Resistance organisations did the best they could. Many houses had hiding-places; food and other goods were shared, and forgers thrived on the variety of paperwork they were asked to copy. What's more, many of those who collaborated with the occupation would also inform the underground of what was going on, and pass on extra copies of new forms to the forgers; one could regard this as buttering their bread on both sides, but this didn't save their lives when the Germans caught them.

However, this isn't a book on the history of the Dutch underground, fascinating as that would be to read. This also isn't a drama of character; as a work of fiction it would have too many people, each insufficiently developed, and not enough moments of high drama. It's Hackett's personal account, and while he points out how rare it was to be able to get bandages, or fresh food, or books, or a rubber overshoe, he's clearly writing at one remove from the local community. (I could have done with some detailed maps, but the modern geography isn't terribly different, and at the time he wouldn't have had them anyway.)

It's the small details of daily life that are most interesting to me: the way that electricity could sometimes be arranged, but carefully; the way the Organisation Todt and the occupation police stayed around while the German soldiery had largely moved on; the importance of having small comforts like one's own walking-stick or a copy of Paradise Lost (though, alas, only extracts); the increasing lack of material goods of any sort, forcing extremes of inventiveness. (And the contrast at the end, when he gets back to friendly forces: these soldiers give things to the people whose country they're moving into, rather than stripping goods away.)

Highly recommended.

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  1. Posted by Chris Bell at 10:28am on 21 June 2014

    It is only in limited print, not general and not I think in bookshops; anyone who wants it needs to go quite quickly to Slightly Foxed publishers at https://foxedquarterly.com/buy/slightly-foxed-editions/ because it is a limited edition of two thousand and books there do sell out.

  2. Posted by John Dallman at 06:41pm on 21 June 2014

    Ordered.

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