MV Norland: The Ferry that went to War

Weighing in at 27,000 tonnes, the Norland was built by AG Weser, and launched in 1974. Registered in Hull, she was a roll on-roll off P&O ferry that spent her time crossing the North Sea between Hull and Continental Europe, carrying lorries and tourists to the Netherlands.

In 1982 she was plucked from the relative safety of the North Sea crossing and pressed into service carrying troops from the UK to the Falkland Islands as part of the Task Force that was being sent to recover the islands following the Argentinian invasion on the 2nd of April.

When requisitioned the Norland’s crew were given the option of remaining in the UK. Remarkably the Captain and crew opted to remain with their vessel. The plan initially was for the Norland to take troops most of the way and then transfer them to other vessels well away from any combat areas. This wasn’t to be the case.

At Ascension Island the crew were given another opportunity to leave the ship, and again they remained. They saw it as their duty to remain with their ship and look after the men who would soon be fighting on a remote island thousands of miles from home. As they approached the Islands the plans changed.

Somebody had noticed that the Norland was equipped for side loading, and had doors on the side that could be used to transfer men to landing craft. The ship would now be entering San Carlos bay, right in the middle of the Combat Zone. This must have been a terrifying prospect for a civilian crew with no combat training, despite this they did their jobs, and as the troops disembarked, the Captain put out an address over the Tannoy thanking the men for travelling with them, and wishing them a safe return.

Surgery under Fire: The Falkland’s Combat Medics

Imagine a hospital and you probably picture a clean and clinical building with wards and surgical theatres, staffed by doctors and nurses in clean scrubs. What you probably wouldn’t picture is a freezing cold, abandoned refrigerated mutton plant in a wet, windswept and desolate bay. That is exactly what the British Field Hospital in Ajax Bay on the Falklands was.

Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly OBE

Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly, the commanding officer of 3 Commando, Royal Marines medical unit, had initially set up a field hospital aboard the Canberra, a cruise liner that was requisitioned as a troop carrier for the Task Force.

The first casualties treated on board the Canberra were Argentinians wounded in the assault on Fanning head at the entrance to San Carlos bay, where the Canberra now lay. This would not be the case for long as Argentinian spotters began to relay British ship positions to Air Bases on the Argentinian mainland.

As the air raids came in, along with reports of casualties, Surgeon Commander Jolly, as lead medic, went up in a helicopter to search for casualties. Two men from HMS Ardent were spotted in the water, and despite the fact he had no life jacket or immersion suit, Dr Jolly volunteered to be winched down into the freezing water to rescue them. Twice he entered the water and brought bothy men to safety.

P&O Liner Canberra

By the time he reached the Canberra the decision was made to withdraw the Canberra to a safe distance because of the risk posed to the unarmed vessel by the Argentinian air attacks. The medical team would be landed in Ajax Bay by landing craft without delay. It is reported that even as the medics were going over the side, the Canberra was taking in its anchors in readiness to move.

On reaching land they were faced with freezing temperatures, boggy ground, and a dusty abandoned mutton plant with few windows for natural light. This freezing, grey, and uninviting looking building was to become the British Field Hospital, including accommodation and surgical facilities. A far cry from the sterile and well lit surgical theatres back home.

Abandoned Meat Packing Plant at Ajax Bay

In no time the medics and their accompanying Royal Marines set to work setting up surgical theatres, accommodation, and digging their own air raid bunkers outside, in which they would spend most of their time when not treating patients. The patients began coming in both British and Argentinian, injured from both sides being treated equally by the medics.

Eventually the inevitable happened, and Ajax bay came under attack from Argentinian Jets. The British had been unable to paint red crosses on the roof as the hospital was in the middle of a logistics dump, which was a legitimate military target, and to do so would have contravened the Geneva Convention. During the attack several bombs hit the ammunition dumps surrounding the hospital, and two landed in the roof space of the hospital itself. Both failed to explode but sat in the roof space above both the surgical areas and accommodation block. Throughout the whole attack, surgery continued.

HMS Ardent

Despite doubts over whether the unexploded bombs had time delay fuses, medical operations continued; there was nowhere else to set up. After 33 hours it was determined that the bombs had simply failed to explode, but this didn’t mean they no longer posed a threat. Despite the air raids, and unexploded ordnance, the medics of the British Field Hospital saved hundreds of lives from both sides; a demonstration of humanity in the midst of the horrors of war.

For his efforts Surgeon Commander Jolly was awarded the OBE by the Queen. He dedicated the award to all those involved in treating the wounded at Ajax Bay labelling it “Other People’s Bloody Efforts!” Ten years later during a visit to Argentina he was awarded their equivalent of the OBE for the excellent treatment of Argentinian airmen and soldiers during the conflict. This made Dr Jolly the first serviceman in any conflict to be honoured by both sides.

Operation Biting: Stealing the German’s top secret radar apparatus

One of the major races of World War Two was the race to develop a reliable radar system to detect enemy aircraft early enough to send up the fighter intercept groups to shoot them down. Of course, both sides were determined to conceal their progress from the other, and the development of these systems was a closely guarded secret. By late 1941 the British had begun to suspect that the Germans had got their noses in front, and aerial photographs seemed to confirm this. There was only one course of action; send a raiding party across the channel and steal it!

RAF Whitley Transport

The plan would involve parachuting into enemy held Northern France, attacking the German radar station, stealing the apparatus and then smuggling it back across the channel in Royal Navy gunboats; on top of all that they would have to create enough of a mess to convince the Germans that they had destroyed the radar and not stolen it.

The man chosen to lead the raid was Major John Frost, the man who would go on to distinguish himself in the assault on Arnhem Bridge during operation Market Garden in 1944.

John Frost

The attack would take place on the night of the 27th of February 1942, when the 2nd Parachute Battalion under Major Frost would parachute in along with a number of engineers and radar specialists who had volunteered to go along on the raid in order to examine and dismantle the apparatus. The Royal Navy would send a number of Motor Gunboats and landing craft across the channel to transport the raiders along with the radar apparatus back to the south coast of England.

The weather on the night of the 27th was perfect with clear skies and good visibility. The parachutists were transported in Whitley transport aircraft from RAF Thruxton, near Andover in Hampshire. The Royal Navy flotilla left the South Coast of England in the Afternoon. Despite coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire as they crossed the French coast the drop was almost a complete success, and all of C Company were inserted right on target. The only mishap was when half of Nelson company were dropped 2 miles short of the drop zone.

2nd Parachute Battalion

The whole process of examining and dismantling the apparatus was carried out under heavy enemy fire, but with Major Frost leading from the front the paratroops fought tirelessly to hold off any German counter attacks. When the order was given to withdraw to the beach it quickly became apparent that the beach had not yet been cleared, and the men had to withdraw back to the Villa, which by now had been retaken by the Germans. Yet again the paratroopers took control. On returning to the beach Frost discovered that the soldiers of Nelson Company who had missed their drop zone had finally arrived and taken out the German machine gun nest that was holding the beach for the Germans.

Motor Gun Boat

Signal flares were put up, and out of the darkness the naval party arrived to evacuate the beach and take the men and radar apparatus out to the motor gun boats and back across the channel. Losses were limited to 2 killed, 6 wounded and 6 captured when they were left behind on the beach as the naval party left. The raid was a huge success, and gave the allies a significant advantage over the Germans when it came to radar countermeasures, which would eventually be used before the D-Day landings as part of a diversionary raid.

The Parachute Regiment displayed the same courage and skill that they would later show at Arnhem in 1944 when faced with overwhelming odds. They continue to be an elite part of the British Army today, and are often at the forefront of British operations all over the world.