Reviewed By Jeff Schultz
Mike Norman and Michael Jones’ The Falklands War: There and Back Again – The Story of Naval Party 8901 is a gripping memoir of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War told from the perspective of the Royal Marine commander of Naval Party 8901 (NP-8901), the British troops assigned to defend the islands. NP-8901 surprisingly survived the initial Argentine occupation without loss and steadfastly volunteered to participate in the later recovery of the Falklands in this peculiar, late-stage, imperial conflict set against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Mike Norman is a thirty-year veteran of the Royal Marines who served proudly from 1962 to 1992 in locations ranging from Glasgow to Bahrain. Among his many postings, Major Norman commanded NP-8901 through the Falklands War. Michael Jones, a Royal Historical Society fellow and author of a dozen historical books, brings his keen research to this project which greatly helps to round out Norman’s narrow eyewitness account and provide a fuller narrative.
This book is divided into eleven chapters with a timeline, glossary, references, and list of sources. The text is well-supported by thirty-two black and white photos, along with five useful maps. Divided into roughly three parts, the first two chapters cover the backstory of the conflict and the long Royal Marine tradition of intermittently stepping in to defend the windswept Falkland Islands beginning in the 18th century. The next three chapters discuss the events related to the arrival of NP-8901, the subsequent Argentine invasion and the defenders’ repatriation home under a dark cloud of suspicion. The last part of the book, spanning six chapters, explores the return of the maligned British defenders and their subsequent rehabilitation, reassembly and inclusion in the burgeoning Task Force which took part in the recapture of the disputed islands. The unfolding narrative is well-supported by historical documents and references which add credence to Norman’s retelling, giving fuller context to events that were unavailable in 1982 as the situation unfolded.
In the first part, akin to a vibrant travelogue, Norman and Jones provide important background information for the Falkland Islands which will prove interesting to many readers as very few people visit these remote islands. Norman provides a historical sketch for the role of the Royal Marines as traditional defender of the area and their connection to the Falklanders who number nearly 2,000 hardy souls living mostly in scattered sheep-raising farmsteads in a place known for pastoral scenes, difficult weather, and isolation. Their homes fall in a place where Arctic military training can only be considered informative, given the extremes faced by intrepid residents. The boggy ground is resistant to digging and the islands lack conventional roads, presenting unique environmental challenges both for resident and those that would engage in combat there. Owing to a contentious 19th century Argentinian territorial counterclaim, the islands were caught up in a modern war where the ruling Argentinian junta reasoned it could distract their population from the growing economic tension at home by taking remote British territory that London would not fight over. This put NP-8901 in the crosshairs of the junta’s Operation Rosario, Norman’s force having arrived only days before to relieve the outgoing Royal Marine detachment, when the enemy suddenly struck in a coup de main.
The brief, yet spirited NP-8091 defense of the Stanley area in early April 1982 features prominently in the second part of the book, followed by the Royal Marine surrender, which came from Sir Rex Hunt, the Islands governor, and not from the Royal Marines themselves who were ready to keep fighting even against great odds. Incoherent or missing directives from Whitehall’s diplomats and the Ministry of Defense (MOD) worsened the situation for Norman at a critical time. Unfortunately, the widely circulated Argentine media photos of Royal Marines laying down, as if surrendering without a shot fired, quickly lead to recrimination in London. The losses suffered by the Argentines were ignored by the press in the absence of Royal Marine casualties, disgusting Norman. The way NP-8901 were served up as sacrificial lambs in the absence of clear orders and the unwillingness of the British authorities to set things right were particularly galling.
In the last part of the book, Norman recalls his fight for NP-8901’s reputation, demonstrating that they did fight back and eventually winning them a place in Margaret Thatcher’s Operation Corporate, however peripheral. Once they got to Ascension Island, circumstances gradually enabled his all-volunteer group (only a few NP-8901 members declined to return) to find their way into the Royal Navy Task Force’s “Juliet Company” of No. 42 Commando, an improvised formation scratch-built on the P&O ocean liner Canberra (jokingly called “The Great White Whale”). After training feverishly during transit, Norman’s men went ashore at San Carlos and slogged their way into several engagements. They eventually beheld the surrender of the invaders and the raising of the Falkland flag, having bitterly witnessed the raising of the Argentine flag in the initial attack. Along the way they endured many hardships, mostly due to the terrible weather and terrain but also due to enemy action. This should remind the reader that even a seemingly outmatched foe like the Argentine military can put up a surprisingly fierce fight. The sinking of multiple British warships and merchant vessels, such as the vital cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor (which forced the troops to walk much more than intended due to the loss of the embarked helicopters) and landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Fitzroy (which Norman witnessed) are stark reminders of how dangerous it can be to underestimate an adversary.
Mike Norman and Michael Jones’ The Falklands War: There and Back Again – The Story of Naval Party 8901 rewards readers with a highly readable yet harrowing account, rife with defeat, disappointment, tragedy, and eventual triumph set against the stormy waters of the South Atlantic.
Jeff Schultz is an Associate Professor of History at Luzerne County Community College.
The Falklands War: There and Back Again – The Story of Naval Party 8901 (Mike Norman and Michael Jones, Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020)