John Coll, Ambrose Morgan, Miles Mosley and life on base.
The work of the Trust is very important and personal to me as every time I visited Antarctica there were fatalities of people I knew. I shared a cabin on Bransfield with John Coll, on his way South for a short while and helped Ambrose Morgan repair the Base transmitters in the year they were lost on sea ice at Argentine Islands, whilst on my way to Rothera.
In 1980 I was on board the aircraft that killed Miles Mosley at Halley which was a very traumatic experience and difficult time for us all.
Those 100 words a month and other matters
It had to happen didn’t it. After my parents passed on and I found myself, after 12 years with BAS, de-camping from Cambridge back to South Gloucestershire to restart life in the family home, that I had to clear the loft. Partly because the roof was caving in after 3oo years of neglect and partly to go through all the junk I had accumulated as a child and dumped up there to help the bedroom ceilings sag. Amongst all the junk was a box that my parents had stored containing all the air letters I had sent back from Base F in 1974 – 78.
After consulting my publisher, and being shown the door, I had to edit them myself as they served as the best and only diary I have of the events at base F, some of which were quite significant, during that period. I seem to remember that it was terribly unjust that my family could send 200 words to me whereas I was only allowed to send 100 back. Why weren’t they restricted to 100 as well so I could hear less about the old girlfriend getting hitched and the mate killing himself on a motorbike? And more about daily trivia of UK life as opposed to the daily trivia of base life. I remember struggling to find 100 words to send home each month. They usually went something like:
‘DEAR MUM AND DAD. DURING THE LAST MONTH, EVERY DAY I GOT UP, SERVICED THE BEASTIE, FIXED THE RADAR THAT THE MET MEN HAD SCREWED UP, HAD SMOKO, DID SOME F-PLOTS AND A BIT OF DATA, WENT SKIING, DIDN’T BREAK ANYTHING THIS TIME, HAD SCRADGE, PLAYED WITH FRED THE SKUA, PREPARED AN AIR LETTER TO SEND HOME, LISTENED TO SOME MUSIC, GOT PISSED AND WENT BACK TO MY PIT. HOW’S THE DOG. LOVE JIM. PS ITS SNOWING.’
That’s only 77 words or so and I would agonise over what to write to pad it out, not because I had any more to say, but because I was determined to get full value out of the WOMs (Wireless Operator and Mechanic) time. Of course if you really hated your WOM you’d use words like dolichosaurus and cumulonimbus as often as possible, even though neither was ever seen at base F.
For the more recent members, a short history lesson is required here and I stand to be corrected on the dates and details, but during the sixties and seventies communications between the bases and ‘London, latterly Cambridge, HQ’ was limited to messages sent by teleprinter to the bases over an HF radio link from a relay station in Stanley operated by Cable and Wireless. This was rather slow and cumbersome, and due to the vagaries of the ionosphere not 100% reliable. A bit like connecting a wireless modem to an electric typewriter but without the speed and luxury of error correction. All the messages had to be typed in and sent ‘live’ by the operators hence the restriction on words as there were no data storage devices and Radio Ops had weak wrists – but that’s another story.
On a more serious note, the air letters in question reminded me of the tragic events of 1976 now 30+ years ago and is now due for some account in these pages.
Graham Whitfield, Mike Walker and Geoff Hargreaves
On the 6th September 1976 we lost three of our base members, Graham Whitfield (Physicist), Mike Walker (Cook) and Geoff Hargreaves (Met/Physicist) in a tragic climbing accident on Mount Peary. I don’t propose to go into too much detail about this, but suffice to say they were all well experienced for the task in hand, set off in ideal conditions, and were well provisioned and equipped for the trip which had been meticulously planned and approved. They achieved their goal, reaching the summit, after which we had no further radio communications with them. This was not unusual with the radios we had at the time which were not known for their reliability so was no cause for immediate alarm. However once they had missed several radio scheds a search party was dispatched as soon as possible, in deteriorating sea ice conditions. This was Ian Bartlett, Justin Hyams and Brian Goodale. Dick Johnson took over from Brian as acting Base commander and co- ordinated the search. At the same time an Argentine Twin Otter (T85) was dispatched from Marambio to search the area. They reported seeing severe avalanche conditions around the slopes of Peary and flew on to Rothera to pick up some experienced FID GA’s with a view to landing them in the area for a search.
In the event the weather conditions made this impossible and they flew back to Marambio. Events took a further bad turn when another Argentine aircraft was reported missing on the peninsula and so, understandably, T85s priorities were altered. Our search party found that an emergency depot had not been re-visited by any of the climbing party, and on proceeding were met with evidence of severe avalanching and collapsing seracs on the approach to Peary. They were forced to return to the emergency depot by the hazardous conditions in the mountains and the deteriorating sea ice which threatened their retreat. Everything that could be done was done and we could only draw the worst conclusions.
When a base goes down from 11 to 8 in the middle of winter, it is a significant difference especially under those circumstances. Tensions obviously ran high for a while, but there is no doubt all our lives were altered for ever and very strong friendships developed. We were all in a state of shock for some considerably time. For my part it really only hit home when Al Smith arrived on the Bransfield with a cross for us to erect at Rasmussen – Thanks Alan it meant a lot to all of us.
I don’t know whether I’m typical but looking back over the air letters I was amazed at how positive we were after those events. I suppose a good psychologist could make something of it but I think it’s just that FIDS get very resilient. As an illustration I’ll now share with you a facsimile of my first 100 words home after the events of September 1976 and make no apologies for the contents.
NR F37 ROTINE 111810Z OCT 76
FM ARGENTINE IS
TO CAMBRIDGE HQ
TO E.T.A. TURTON EASTFIELDS. LITTLETON ON SEVERN. BRISTOL. BS12 1NS
DEAR FOLKS. THANKS FOR AIRLETTER. JUST RECEIVED AIRDROP OF YOUR MAIL FROM MARAMBIO. MANY THANKS FOR THEM. ALSO GOT ALECS HERE BY MISTAKE UNFORTUNATELY. GLAD ALL OK WITH YOU. EVERYTHING SETTLED DOWN AGAIN HERE AFTER TRAGIC AND DISASTEROUS MONTH. NOSES TO GRINDWHEEL. SPRING JUST BEGINNING SNOWDROPS 10 FOOT DEEP. SEED PROPOGATER HASNT YET. SEA ICE BREAKING UP. SKIIS GETTING EXERCISED. CAMERA STILL ACTIVE. GLAD TO HEAR ABOUT HOLS WITH MRS. HURLEY, AND ROD AND JEANS SUCCESS. LOOK FORWARD TO HONEY POT. MARY SEEMS HAPPY. BEST OF LUCK WITH GRANNY PARTIES. REGARDS TO VILLAGE AND MOB. GLAD DOG OK. LOVE JIM.