Max Hastings. Andrew Roberts. Antony Beevor. Walk into the history department of any book shop in the Western world and their titles will be sitting pride of place. Whether it’s the First World War, the Second World War or the titans who led their countries to victory, each author gives clarity to any topic that they turn their hand to.
These men have cornered their market and have a preponderance for the major conflicts in British history, particularly WW2. This is not a complaint. They are supreme at what they do and there is an insatiable appetite in the UK for accurate, but not technically overbearing, accounts of the conflicts which shaped our nation.
What is problematic, however, is that there are fewer titles to account for the battles, incidents and people who are stuck in the shadow of a book industry dedicated to producing commercially viable history titles (the Second World War, for example).
Of particular oversight is the Falklands War. No title has become the defining account of the conflict, perhaps because 35 years is too small a period, with too many files still classified, to give a complete historical account. Even still, it is an obvious omission when it seems that every second week there are different accounts of Britain’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Author Ian Gardiner’s The Yompers: With 45 Commando in the Falklands War comes as a happy enlightenment then. By comparison to other available titles, it is a singularly impressive account of not only what it was like to serve during the conflict, but what it was like to lead men. Gardiner tells the story of how the men of 45 Commando, assembled from around the world, sailed 8,000 miles to recover the Falkland Islands. They lacked helicopters, were short on food and ‘yomped’ to where they needed to be through a month of appalling weather (‘Yomp’ is Royal Marines slang for a long distance march carrying full kit). They then fought and won the fierce night battle for Two Sisters, a 1,000-foot high mountain which was the key to the defensive positions around Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.
A noted Royal Marines serviceman who retired as a Brigadier in 2001, Gardiner’s books are impressive but not technically niche. The Yompers is a unique combination of writing about frontline fighting combined with wider reflections on the Falklands War, and war in general, from someone who understands the military and combat, but can write in a way that is not overwhelming in its military minutia.
Perhaps that is the problem with how historical books are written these days. Too few servicemen are still alive to write their memoirs (if they’ve not already published them) and descriptive, rather than personal, academic analyses take over. It’s the humanity of leadership and command which makes Gardiner’s style of narrative so compelling precisely because he never forgets that there were real men and women who paid in blood for our victory.
Like The Yompers, Gardiner’s first book, In the Service of the Sultan: A first-hand account of the Dhofar Insurgency, charts his experience of serving in Oman during the Dhofar Rebellion. The country, which sits at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, is geopolitically of great significance because of the large volume of oil that has to pass through its territorial waters. While history remembers a decade dominated by the U.S involvement in the Vietnam War and Britain’s industrial decline, we forget that British soldiers were fighting in this rebellion between 1965 and 1975.
The book tells the largely unknown story of the small number of British officers who led Muslim soldiers in the anti-insurgency war against the communists and offers an alternate look at how the Cold War could have ended had it not been stopped. It also presents an enlightening confirmation of just how big a part oil has played in shaping Western foreign policy, and the Gulf, for the last half century and more.
Gardiner’s second book, The Flatpack Bombers, charts the remarkable story of the bombing raids in tiny, IKEA-like flatpack planes over Germany in 1914. The missions, orchestrated by The Royal Naval Air Service (which was, together with the Royal Flying Corps, a precursor of the RAF) occurred at the same time Germany had unbridled air supremacy with her zeppelins. It also describes the first British aircraft carrier strike which took place on Christmas Day of the same year.
This, in conjunction with Winston Churchill being First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, makes for a remarkably stark and prescient hint at the warfare to come only twenty-years later. That the story has all but been lost to history makes Gardiner’s eye for context, as well as his gifted prose that indulges the parallels of the first strategic bombing raids in history with the Blitz, all the more riveting.
Gardiner’s success is to link the historical to the personal. His writing, which is a rare gift these days, is to conflate the two into a narrative which is engrossing like a first-person thriller.
While it is unknown what his next title will be, what is clear is that the formula which has driven the success of The Yompers (recently reprinted) is a mix of the personal, the historical and the grand strategy of the conflict he’s writing about. Something to be encouraged and enjoyed.