Major Tony Hibbert called himself the “Maverick Major” — and with good reason.
He played a spirited role in the botched operation to capture the Arnhem bridge over the Rhine and later led the mission to seize the German port of Kiel ahead of the Russians, effectively barring them from marching into Denmark.
As brigade major of 1st Parachute Brigade, he landed outside the Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944 without challenge, but noticed both a lack of dispatch and the periodic disappearance of the operation’s senior officers by the time he joined Lt-Col John Frost’s 2nd Battalion on the north end of the bridge.
On establishing his headquarters in the attic of an office block, he was unable to make wireless contact with a promised relief force. He felt that a vital opportunity was lost when he pointed out that a road to the bridge was still open and was informed that the 3rd Battalion had been halted for the night.
As the situation deteriorated, Hibbert was kept busy by the faulty communications while sniping and keeping an hourly diary. Finally he saw a large enemy gun arrive, and extracted his party just before it blew the entire building to pieces. After three days pummelling, 100 able-bodied and walking wounded were left with about five rounds of ammunition each. There was no water to extinguish fires, and little food or medicine.
Taking over command when Frost was wounded, Hibbert agreed to a truce for the evacuation of the wounded, then organised a withdrawal in small sections to link up with the still expected XXX Corps. But the sound of his men crunching through the glass-strewn streets alerted the Germans, and he was caught hiding in a coal shed. After being marched to a church hall, he tried to escape up a chimney and then by pulling up floorboards before being put on to a lorry taking captives to Germany.
An SS guard became so infuriated by the way the prisoners made V-signs to any Dutch they passed that he halted it several times, threatening to kill them. On the third stop, Hibbert slipped over the side and zigzagged through some gardens to hide under a pile of logs. The guard panicked and shot dead six others in the back of the lorry; for Hibbert it was a burden he would carry to his grave.
Major Tony Hibbert can be seen, in his ‘last post’ recounting his memoirs of the battle, in our new film ‘Remembering Arnhem’
He was followed by a member of the Dutch Resistance, who whistled It’s A Long Way to Tipperary whenever Germans were nearby, but was so dishevelled that a farmer refused him shelter, unsure whether he was German or British; the next morning he proved his bona fides to another farmer by drawing a Union Flag alongside a German flag with a line through the swastika.
Some 200 survivors of the battle were sheltered in and around the town. Disguised as a Dutchman in flashy green plus-fours and white socks, Hibbert formed a brigade headquarters above a butcher’s shop where, with two senior officers, he arranged for weapons and new uniforms to be dropped while they planned a mass escape.
After five weeks the evaders and escapers were driven in Dutch lorries to the river, on one occasion politely standing aside to let another German patrol on bicycles pass by, ringing their bells.
But after the successful crossing, aided by Easy Company of the American 101st Airborne, Hibbert was sitting on the bonnet of an overcrowded Jeep when it hit another vehicle in the dark. He was sent somersaulting on to the road and broke a leg.
Major Tony Hibbert during the war
Five months later he was discharged from hospital, still in plaster, to take command of a unit of the 650-strong T-Force (Target Force), charged with preventing the Russians from taking Kiel.
Extract from The Telegraph Obituary