On 22 November 1955 I embarked on MV Tottan, a Norwegian sealer of 500 tons, at Southampton Dock. She was chartered by the Royal Society to take an Advance Party to the Antarctic to find a suitable location and to build a base for the British contribution to the International Geophysical year 1957-8 (IGY).18 March 2013
We were a party of ten men, registered as supernumeraries on the Tottan, probably the Norwegian crew were about ten more. I well remember Captain Lief Jacobsen, marvellously imperturbable and highly experienced in Arctic waters, and his First Mate Terja, a gorgeous sight when (later) he donned his all-sealskin outfit: boots, trousers, jacket, and hood. You will naturally assume that the members of the Royal Society party were carefully recruited to be mentally and physically capable for the arduous life ahead and to be knowledgeable and experienced in the different tasks to which each man was assigned.
My PhD work, at Jodrell Bank, had been in the radar detection of meteors entering the Earth's atmosphere. My external examiner for PhD in 1954 was J.A. Ratcliffe who directed a group in ionospheric research in the Cavendish laboratory. Also at Cambridge was Sir James Wordie, who had been one of the party of fourteen men left by Shackleton for four and a half months in 1916 on the shore of Elephant Island, with very little food, whilst Shackleton with four others made the truly perilous journey across the Southern Ocean to raise a relief ship. Wordie was Chairman of the Royal Society IGY Expedition Committee which, given that the prime task of the Advance Party was to build a large Base Hut for the Main Party in the following year, - nevertheless thought it desirable for a meteorologist and some sort of physicist to start scientific work with the Advance Party, if only to get a measure of the conditions. One knew where to find meteorologists but to find a physicist Wordie went to the Cavendish and found Ratcliffe. I deduce from what followed that Ratcliffe did not offer up any of his own team but he mentioned that he had examined me the previous year, and the Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, David Martin, wrote asking me to come for interview. I was by then completing my National Service with the Royal Navy on the Clyde and with breathtaking arrogance replied that I could not come to London as I would be on holiday, at Loch Ailort on the west coast. Very well, said Wordie, I shall be at my son's farm in Aberdeenshire, David Martin by chance will be at Plockton on Loch Carron; we shall all meet at the Station Hotel in Inverness.
The day came; I drove the length of the Great Glen to Inverness to be met by a solitary Lady Wordie: Sir James was unwell and David Martin's train from Kyle had failed in some unspecified way. Lady Wordie gave me lunch and evidently gave me a favourable reference for I was appointed without further formality. I don't remember the stipend but I do remember that the rate of income tax, being that of the Falkland Islands, was 2.5% (6d in the £ in Imperial units). There is no reason to think that the recruitment of any of the other members of the Advance Party was any more rigorous than mine: two of them were brothers, two of them were brothers-in-law, and three had previous Antarctic experience with the (then) Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey - I think that gives the flavour. The leader was David Dalgliesh, Surgeon Commander RN (served 1948-49 as medical officer with FIDS at Marguerite Bay). We all met our colleagues for the first time, over lunch in St Stephen's Tavern (corner of Parliament Square, across Bridge St) - just two weeks before we sailed. Our expedition stores were accumulated the other side of Parliament Square, in the drive-down basement of the Crown Agents on nearby Millbank.
Why was the time available for preparation so short? I believe that the necessity for an Advance Party was a later decision than the prime commitment, accepted at a meeting of the International Committee for the IGY in Rome in 1954, that the 'Vahsel Bay' region of the Weddell Sea was a desirable location for a British observing station. But a more serious time limit applied in my individual case: David Martin had to charm the Admiralty into releasing me from my National Service. The earliest date he was able to negotiate was November 1, and Tottan was to sail on November 22. The suggestions as to what this physicist should do - once the living quarters were built and secure against the Antarctic winter - had been drafted and acted upon much earlier of course. But here I wish to insert an aside on the phrase 'secure against the winter'. At no time did any member of our party, or any official of the Royal Society, ever feel it necessary to say that, after the unloading and departure of the ship from the chosen base site, all members must be equally and fully occupied with safe stowage of our stores and construction of the base hut up to the point where we had accommodation to keep us secure against winter conditions. Only then could specialist occupations and interests be pursued - a stage which was managed with an expert light touch by David Dalgliesh. Everyone knew and accepted this without it being said, and I mention it now only because I read with astonishment, a few years ago, the diaries of Rainer Goldsmith, about the strict 'Division of Labour' amongst the eight members of the Advance Party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition - running parallel with the Royal Society IGY Expedition. 'Rhino' was the TAE medical officer. They had three meteorologists (with few instruments) and one carpenter (who would not accept unskilled help with the hut-building) and were left in truly dire conditions for the first winter, having lost more than half of their stores, which had been unloaded hurriedly from the ship onto the sea ice.
In just three weeks available for my own preparations, I had to familiarise myself with two specialist instruments. James Paton, at Edinburgh University, introduced me to the all-sky camera which he had obtained from the University of Alaska; this would take regular photographs of the aurora (e.g. 10 sec exposures at 1 min intervals) during the hours of darkness. Then off to Oxford, where there was a more demanding training in the use of the Dobson spectrophotometer for measuring the total amount of ozone in the atmosphere. In 1955 Dobson instruments were in operation at a number of observing stations in Europe and scattered over the northern hemisphere, including one in Spitzbergen at 77°N, but only one in the whole southern hemisphere, at Christchurch N.Z.
Receptions at the Royal Society, principally to bring the plans to the attention of the press but perhaps also as a morale boost for the expedition members, were hosted by Lord Adrian as the President of the Society and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Patron of the Expedition. The President, with Sir David Brunt the Society Physical Secretary, and David Martin all came down to Southampton to inspect the ship and wave us off. Tottan carried some deck cargo, principally timber and two Ferguson tractors, and she failed the first Board of Trade test for stability conducted at the dockside, so some timber had to be sacrificed. After last-minute purchases in Southampton we cast off and headed out past the Needles, into the sunset. Capt Lief had to be persuaded that it was useless to put into Falmouth for the dynamite which he had forgotten; village shops in England do not sell dynamite to foreigners. Las Palmas became the first unscheduled stop; in rough weather in the Bay of Biscay one of the carpenters had broken his arm in a fall on the unforgiving steel deck. Cape Verde Islands were the next, the fresh water tanks having been found empty. With occasional engine breakdowns in the doldrums of mid-Atlantic, we berthed in the spectacular bay at Rio de Janeiro in mid December. Amongst other stores, several carcasses of sheep, a pig, and sides of beef were purchased, to be slung in the rigging (until they could be deep frozen) to provide us with fresh meat in the winter. Thankfully there were no engine breakdowns in the much stormier waters of the Southern Ocean and it was Christmas Eve when we reached the harbour at Grytviken, South Georgia, a full month since leaving England, to be greeted by the British resident, magistrate, and postmaster, Mr Bob Spivey. In 1948-49 he had been one of the FIDS party with David Dalgliesh at Marguerite Bay.
Access to my memory of crossing the final leg of the Southern Ocean has evidently been blocked, due to its unpleasant nature, - up to the point where we reach the pack ice. Suddenly, after the storm, all is quiet. James Wordie had advised that we should approach the Weddell Sea from the vicinity of Kap Norvegia, hugging the eastern coastline, the northern part of which had been seen by Bruce in the Scotia in 1904 and named the Caird Coast. It is of course difficult to tell where the ice ends and the land begins, but experience from Shackleton's Endurance expedition of 1915 was that there is a general circulation of the pack ice in a clockwise direction around the Weddell Sea, leaving more fragmented ice and occasional open water leads along the eastern shoreline. Only one ship had passed this way since 1915: the Argentinian ice breaker General San Martin in the summer of 1954-5, just one year ahead of us. Tottan was not an ice breaker but Lief Jacobsen had one man huddled in the crow's nest at 70ft above the waterline, scouting the immediate surroundings for leads through the ice, and reading the sky for darker shades where there may be distant open water. Sometimes we used pick axes ahead of the ship and - what was much more fun - the dynamite, which he had eventually managed to purchase in Rio. After several days in the pack we became beset near 77°S, and with that came the stark realisation that this very point was the furthest south which Shackleton had reached, on this same course, locked in the ice from which he never recovered the ship. It was therefore the moment to turn afresh to our instructions from the Royal Society which read 'to find a site for a fixed observatory in the Vahsel Bay area of the Weddell Sea, south of 75°'. Vahsel Bay, named by Filchner in 1912, may or may not exist, like several other features on the maps; it has not been seen since so, as we were already south of 75°, no time was lost in setting out extra charges of dynamite to gain our release from the ice and to turn back north, searching the coastline for a landing site.
Edging back northwards in the shore lead, all binoculars in operation, David was excited to spot Emperor penguin colonies, in two V-shaped embayments in the cliff, only a few km apart. They were on the fast ice within each bay, covering an area about a km each way, and the really providential feature was that in the inland point of the 'V' there was a slope, up which a tractor could drive, to the top of the shelf. Whether this shelf ice was floating or grounded, one could not be sure, but it seemed likely that the cape between the two bays was grounded, as soundings in the vicinity showed only 110 fathoms (200m). The height of the cliffs was later found to be 28m. David observed that, if the Emperors were there, then the fast ice must be there year after year. (Later reckonings put them at 20,000 in number and events showed that the Emperors knew no more about the permanence of the sea ice than we did.) Nevertheless, unloading was to take place directly onto cargo sledges which were to be towed away immediately up the slope to a base site chosen about 4 km inland from the cliff on a totally featureless plain of ice. The Tottan stayed alongside for about two weeks which was a huge help, both for somewhere to live and for the help which the crew gave us. She left on January 23 before the ice closed in on her.
Plans had to be made of the layout of the stores depots, and accurate records kept of the contents: building materials, food, fuel, clothing, all other equipment, - so that items could be found in the order required for the building and bearing in mind that all would soon be buried by drifting snow. I do not recall which member of the party was responsible for management of these depots but the system never failed us. Most immediately we required five two-man tents erected with sleeping bags, primus stove, and ration box installed. The tents had a single pole (before the introduction of hoops) and wide ground flaps onto which snow blocks could be piled for stability and protection, around the walls. The ground sheet was of rubber, to allow for the gradual compaction of the snow due to the weight and warmth of the bodies. On top of this a very thick fleece of natural sheepskin and then goose down sleeping bags, one inside another. For the next month or two of hard outdoor work we needed 4000 k-calories per day and it came in the form of sledging rations: total sustenance for two men for ten days packed into a plywood case 2ft long × 1ft square(4). The Primus stove had to be balanced on the ration box between the sleeping bags, and melting the first snow on a Primus, without burning the pan, was tricky. Breakfast was made from porridge oats, milk powder, and a half pound of butter melted in to augment the calories. Cocoa to drink, made in the same pan. At intervals throughout the working day, everyone gathered in the shelter of an empty wooden tractor crate measuring 5ft by 9ft for ship's biscuits, raisins, and hot syrupy tea. At the end of the day's work it was back to the two-man tent for supper: pemmican with added pea-flour, both high in protein. A sound night's sleep was necessary to digest that supper.
This could be the point to mention clothing. The general principle was to trap air between separate layers of materials, mainly woollen - except for the coarse string vest - and over all a wind-proof cotton anorak, woven so tightly it was truly air-tight (made by Robt Laurie and known as Wordiecloth). In the first few months of hut building the full complement of clothing was rarely required; there was 24-hour daylight, often warm sunlight and, if not too much wind, then literally shirt-sleeve weather. Cargo boots, cargo gloves (on a harness) and a Balaclava helmet were favoured. Snow goggles must always be worn. Boots and windproofs would be removed for sleeping but there was no possibility of a wash or a change of clothes until, sometime in May when water could be produced for the hut bathroom. In winter, boots might be replaced by mukluks, both the name and the style derived from the Eskimo. The idea is that they need not, indeed should not, be waterproof but be freely breathable to prevent build-up of perspiration, and in the white-man's version they are made of a coarse canvas, laced up the shins, with ample space inside for soft duffle liners.
We lived in tents for five weeks, working 15 hours per day on construction of the Main Hut, 130ft long by 27ft wide. The plan was to erect and enclose the first four bays, to provide a bunkroom and a kitchen (but not yet the bathroom) allowing us to move in from the tents. But the race was still on to enclose the whole of the rest of the structure, to keep out drifting snow and to avoid wind damage which could have come at any moment. The shell was completed by the beginning of April so that, from that time on, most work could continue sheltered indoors. The stores too were brought indoors, except for an emergency dump 1 km away where tents, stoves, food, and fuel were kept against the possibility of there being no relief ship the next year, and as an insurance against the risk of fire in our heavily insulated wooden building.
Heating, cooking, and water were provided by anthracite convector stoves. The kitchen water tank held 160 gallons, the bathroom up to 80 gallons, and three 7.5kVA diesel generators provided electricity, so that a completely new lifestyle and routine could be established, with several duties on a rota. The bath was ready for use in early May, the tub of galvanised iron, filled from the immediately adjacent boiler tank and emptied into a cavern of its own making in the porous firn beneath the floor. Provided you were slim enough for the width, then the tub was long enough for half-length immersion at a time, but fear not, the water and the room could be kept very warm. The turn for a bath came round every ten days; otherwise one did little more than brush the teeth.
The duty of cook, each man in turn for a week at a time, was universally acknowledged as the most exhausting job of all. The cook had no other duties and he had two 'gash hands' who could be called in for an hour before the meal (filling the water tank with snow blocks for example) and for an hour afterwards clearing away and washing up. Feeding ten very hungry men, given a fixed set of rations issued at the beginning of each week, taxed ingenuity as well as stamina. The sinking of the heart on putting a meal on the table to have it greeted in silence, could bring the exhausted cook close to tears. It didn't happen very often, more often the race was on to get 'seconds'. Huge quantities of bread were consumed, such that it had to be baked most days which meant it was always deliciously fresh. Once a week the carcasses in the snow tunnel store provided a roast, but sadly no satisfactory vegetables. Potatoes had to be reconstituted from dried powder and frozen peas had not yet been invented.
Communications with the outside world were by Morse code and a fickle short-wave link with Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. The radio operator was Charles Le Feuvre, a Sergeant in the Parachute Regiment. Amongst the first communications, we learned that the Royal Society had approval for naming the Base site 'Halley Bay' as it was the tercentenary of the birth of Sir Edmund Halley, the Physical Secretary of the Royal Society who proposed the first Cook expedition. In honour of the present Physical Secretary, the shelf on this coastline was named the 'Brunt Ice Shelf'. Personal telegrams cost 5d (=2p) per word, but Press telegrams went for 1d per word; this was not a local concession but an established international agreement to encourage the free flow of news world-wide via short-wave radio. So I sometimes took advantage of this to keep my family abreast of our activities, by writing pieces for the Manchester Guardian. More generally, our communications were with the Royal Society about stores, the ones now in use and ones planned for the following years, but we could also begin to send scraps of news of scientific interest. Our meteorologist, David Limbert from the Meteorological Office, had been able to do rudimentary observations from early on but now a demanding routine of 3-hourly observations began and, most notably, a 12 m meteorological tower was built. The sun set for the last time at the end of April so I began operations with the auroral all-sky camera. The Dobson spectrophotometer was to wait until there was some daylight, in September.
The all-sky camera was of an appealingly simple design. A regular Bolex 16mm ciné camera in a wooden box was focused to look vertically downwards at a convex spherical mirror lying flat on a wooden baseboard and forming a virtual image of the whole sky, down to the horizon. Various azimuth and elevation markers were included in the field of view. The Bolex clockwork drive was wound up, not to run at 16 frames per second but adapted with a simple electromagnetic trigger to release one frame at a time. When we contacted the Bolex company, to ask about cold-weather lubrication they pretended offence, that anyone should question the performance of a Swiss-made mechanism under any climatic conditions. They were right: it never gave any mechanical trouble. Of course there were experiments with the exposure and the repetition rate, and it was necessary to develop the films, 100 ft in length, in total darkness. During my very few days of preparation in Edinburgh, we had found the TODD developing tank wherein the full length of film could be wound in a helix around a cylindrical frame which rotated on a horizontal axis, the lower part dipping into the developing solution. We had no suitable apparatus for quantitative analysis of the resulting photographic records but I could see enough with a photographic enlarger to report to James Paton that we had a continuous record of the night sky throughout the winter darkness, including some quite dramatic pictures.
The Dobson spectrophotometer was mounted on a trolley, rather smaller than a hospital trolley, and I realised that, given a hatch opening in the sloping roof of the hut, the trolley could be wheeled forward on the loft floor level so that the objective lens of the instrument came outside the roofline, with a clear view of the sky. So the carpenters made me a hatch, and observations were started at the beginning of September. Passing over some quite sophisticated optical wizardry employed in this instrument, allow me to describe the recording technology, which permitted the observer's delicate adjustments to be averaged over a period of several minutes. The recording arm carries a stylus which can write on the surface of a slowly revolving steel disc, the disc being prepared by blackening in the flame of a candle, so that the stylus may write in the soot! At the end of August the elevation of the sun was so low that the results, for the total ozone content, from top to bottom through the atmosphere, could not be relied upon. But by the end of September the conditions had improved, my skill had improved, and the ozone values using different techniques were internally consistent. Summarised data were therefore passed back to Dobson by telegram; I expect he thanked me and I expect he questioned me about some of the calibrations but he did not reveal that he was dismayed to see that something must have gone wrong with the calibrations: my ozone values were just too low. They picked up to some extent as the summer advanced but the values were still lower, and the overall seasonal variation was different, from that observed in Spitzbergen at similar latitude in the north. Observations in the following few years at Halley Bay confirmed that, in October in particular, the values are abnormally low. We had to wait until the 1980s before the full global picture appeared, showing the 'ozone hole' expanding from Antarctica, and a similar process beginning in the Arctic.
There wasn't much spare time, but what did we do when there was? A walk down to the penguin colony was popular, a seal hunt for extra meat was very welcome, some photography perhaps, a game of golf was tried once. None of these outdoor activities was feasible in winter darkness. Indoors there were occasional attempts to receive the BBC World Service, not very interesting to us, even with the Suez Crisis, that was on another planet not of our world. There proved to be much more private reading than board games or card games. Bridge in particular, was banned - it was said to lead to too much argument. One towering character, who came near to being the Admirable Crichton, was George Lush, 'Bosun' and Lieutenant RN, respected for his limitless practical knowledge and for his consequent authority in controlling the ranks. This expedition achieved all the objects set out in the RS plans, on time, and without loss or damage to persons or goods; 90% of the credit for this goes to David Dalgliesh and much of the remainder to George Lush.
There were to be two relief ships bringing in the Main Party in January 1957: their stores were on the faithful Tottan with Lief Jacobsen but the personnel were on the MV Magga Dan (on its maiden voyage), along with the main party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition and their stores. We saw it as a race and our loyalties were with the Tottan so we were pleased that she arrived first, but pleased also to have the Danish cuisine on the Magga Dan for the voyage home, arriving at Butler's Wharf in the Pool of London in March 1957.
A shortened version of a memoire published in the Jesus College Cambridge Annual Report 2012.
[24 February 2013]