Archive for January, 2012

General Sir John Hackett, “I Was a Stranger”, and the van Nooij Family of Ede

January 11th, 2012

On 24 September 1944, the 33-year-old Brigadier John Hackett, commanding the 4th Parachute Brigade, was severely wounded by a shell splinter at Arnhem. He was taken to a German-controlled hospital, where a brilliant British Army surgeon performed a life-saving operation. Two weeks later, when his removal to a P.O.W. camp seemed imminent, Hackett was spirited away by members of the Dutch Resistance.

Hackett recuperated for four months in the house of the van Nooij family at nearby Ede. The household consisted of three unmarried sisters and their niece and nephew, an active résistant. A typical, closely-knit Dutch family, ‘unassuming, prosperous and provident’, they had never harboured a British escaper before, but, to Hackett’s surprise, greeted him ‘as though we were all old friends’. As he soon discovered, they were all remarkable in various ways.

The tall, fair John was cool and courageous; Mary, his sister, never spoke a word ‘that was not good tempered and kind’. The eldest of their aunts, Miss Mien, was witty and wise; the imposing Miss Cor was clever and highly-strung; whilst Miss Ann, who spoke perfect English and exuded moral authority, was ‘one of the sweetest-natured and most charitable people I have ever known but at the same time a woman of great determination. Like nearly all others in that family she was a devout Christian.’

Confined to an upstairs bedroom, Hackett – who had read ‘Greats’ at Oxford and written a thesis on Saladin while serving in Palestine – spent his days reading Paradise Lost and St Matthew’s Gospel in Greek. He was told that the Germans were ‘everywhere’, and one day was casually informed, as if it were ‘something of no very great significance’, that a detachment of Feldgendarmerie was billeted not thirty yards away. ‘Cautious habits,’ he wrote, ‘became second nature’.

With food and clothing in desperately short supply, the electricity cut off and temperatures that winter dropping to minus fourteen, Hackett was taken aback by the ‘feeling of goodwill and kindness’ that was ‘always present in that house’. He would usually descend for meals, when grace would be said and a passage read from the Bible, as it would be again before bed. Hackett wrote of his birthday – marked by special renditions of ‘Abide With Me’ and the National Anthem, including all the later verses – that the ‘air was full of kindness, goodwill and hope. When they left me I wept unashamedly. It was no longer possible to regard [them] as any but my own family.’

The task of hiding, protecting and nursing a wounded British officer – and ultimately of arranging his escape – was an exacting one indeed. ‘The penalties for harbouring allied fugitives … could scarcely have been more severe. Carelessness or ill-luck, a simple mishap, might at any time destroy them. This would be their reward for taking in a stranger. Yet they went about their daily lives calmly and cheerfully and never showed to me, the cause of the mortal danger in which they stood, anything but solicitude and kindness. There was no trace of fretfulness. If any of them longed for their guest to be gone, and the threat removed which was embodied in his presence, they gave no hint of it. There was no appearance of anxiety in that household, no sign of fear, no tension. The atmosphere was one of confidence and trust and sometimes there was even gentle mirth. My admiration for these people touched on awe.’

Hackett was astonished by the bravery of the women. When German soldiers hammered on the door, intent on searching the house for clothing and blankets, Aunt Cor, with exquisite timing, feigned an attack of hysterics. Hackett cautiously looked out of the window and saw the Germans ‘almost slinking away from the door. A cloud of defeat brooded over their heads’. On another occasion, Aunt Ann, accompanied by Hackett on an evening walk, pushed her way through a crowd of German soldiers in order to post some incriminating letters. Hackett could scarcely believe his eyes; yet, as they walked away, ‘Ann de Nooij’s demeanour was as untroubled as if she had done no more than a little household shopping’.

The future General Sir John Hackett’s eventual escape to the coast (on an ancient bicycle) is thrillingly described in his remarkable, compelling narrative of these events. First published in 1976, this incredibly moving, unforgettable book is perplexingly out of print, but second-hand copies are easily obtainable. Its title, I Was a Stranger, is taken from Matthew, 25, vv.35-40, one of the most profound and impressive statements of Christian conduct: ‘I was an hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me … Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Hackett was himself a man of deep faith, from a devout family; his recent forebears, pioneering settlers of South Western Australia, had built the church at Busselton – where his parents were married and he himself was baptised – with their own hands.

He parted from his dear friends at Ede with reluctance, a changed man. ‘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.’

A detailed account of ‘Shan’ Hackett’s ancestry – in Jamaica, England and Australia – is included in Chapter IV of my recent book, Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture. He was himself descended from a long line of redoubtable women, among them a grandmother, Grace Bussell, who is famed as the ‘Grace Darling of Western Australia’.

I am grateful for the link to this post on the excellent