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Antarctica 1948 (1949)


Antarctica 1948 documents Australia’s first steps towards setting up bases in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands after the Second World War. In the southern summer of 1947–48, two vessels left Australia with different missions. The film documents each voyage separately, ending with the meeting of the two vessels at Macquarie Island. The Australian naval vessel Landing Ship Tank (LST) 3501 went to establish an Australian base on Heard Island partly as a strategic move on behalf of the British Government, which wanted to head off rival claims by other nations, especially the Americans. A few weeks later, HMAS Wyatt Earp set out directly for the Antarctic coast at Commonwealth Bay, where the Australian geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson had established a hut in 1911. The mission was to reconnoitre the coast of George V Land and assess possible sites for an Australian base on Antarctica. This was largely a political aim, designed to shore up Australia’s ambitious claim, made in 1933, to almost 42 per cent of the Antarctic land mass. The lesser aim, at least for the Department of External Affairs, which controlled the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE), was to carry out scientific work.

The film shows the extremely arduous conditions encountered by both teams. At Heard Island, referred to in the narration as ‘the loneliest island in the world’, the landing party has to construct a camp from scratch, after unloading hundreds of tonnes of supplies directly from the mouth of the beached LST. Bad weather hampers the unloading and a storm wrecks the expedition’s aircraft, tethered on the beach. With a basic camp constructed, the leader of the expedition, Group Captain Stuart Campbell (RAAF, retired) holds a formal ceremony claiming the island. He and the ship’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander George Dixon, sign a proclamation of occupation before LST 3501 departs. Meanwhile HMAS Wyatt Earp sails south, one of the last Australian naval ships to use sail, as well as a diesel engine. The trip is a series of mishaps and disappointments. The ship leaks badly after a complete refit in Adelaide, and has to turn back twice for repairs. The weather on the Antarctic coast prevents landing, so the expedition is unable to accomplish much of its agenda. A shore party lands very briefly at the Balleny Islands, claimed by New Zealand. The ship tries again and fails to make land on Antarctica, so it returns to Macquarie Island, where LST 3501 is already waiting. The two ships help to establish the Australian base at Macquarie, which is still operating today.

Curator’s notes

This is the first film of the modern era of Australian exploration and science in Antarctica. It documents the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) in the southern summer of 1947–48. Within its brief span, we can see both the political imperatives at work in Australia’s claims on Antarctica, and the scientific aspirations of the expedition leaders, notably Phillip Law, who would lead the Australian Antarctic Division for most of the next 20 years. Law is a towering presence in AAD history, but this film shows him before he became boss. On this first trip, he is the Senior Scientific Officer, a 35-year-old physicist recruited from Melbourne University, partly because of his keen interest in alpine sports.

The film also bridges the history of Antarctic exploration. This was the first and last postwar Australian voyage to Antarctica using a wooden ship equipped with sails. The ship was itself historic, having made four journeys to Antarctica under the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, in 1933–34, 1934–35, 1935–36, and 1938–39. Ellsworth had named the ship Wyatt Earp after his distant relative, the famous Dodge City marshal. That appears to have been the extent of his affection for the vessel, which was built in Norway in 1919 to fish for herring.

Phillip Law writes in his book The Antarctic Voyage of HMAS Wyatt Earp (1995, Allen and Unwin, ISBN 1 86373 803 7) that Ellsworth became increasingly exasperated by the excessive rolling of the ship. At the end of the 1939 voyage, he gave the ship to Sir Hubert Wilkins, the Australian polar explorer, photographer and aviator, who had served as his pilot and observer. Wilkins sold the boat to the Australian Government for £4400 and she was renamed HMAS Wongala. During the war, she carried stores to Darwin, patrolled in the South Australian gulf and ended up as a training ship for Boy Scouts, moored in the Torrens River. By this time, she was a tired vessel.

In 1946, Sir Douglas Mawson, the distinguished Australian Antarctic explorer, waged a campaign to persuade the Australian Government to set up a permanent base on Antarctica, to protect Australia’s claims against the ambitions of both Norway and the USA. Late in 1946, the External Affairs Minister Dr HV Evatt established a committee to plan for bases at Heard Island and Macquarie Island, and to look at where a base might be established on the Antarctic continent. There was a shortage of suitable vessels to go to Antarctica, but Mawson remembered the old ship, Wyatt Earp. Its hull had been strengthened in the 1930s for ice sailing, but its superstructure was completely unsuitable, so the Australian Government spent £50,000 refitting her, and £100,000 outfitting the expedition. They raised the bridge, extended the crew accommodations and added a scientific workspace. Phillip Law and geomagnetician and electronics expert Ted McCarthy were to carry out measurements on cosmic rays – subatomic particles reaching the Earth from outer space. Phillip Law wrote later that the refit was badly done, with the planking inadequately caulked. When the ship put to sea in a hurry just before Christmas 1947, trying to catch the brief Antarctic summer, she was not ready, nor run in.

The voyage began disastrously. The ship leaked badly between Melbourne and Hobart, where emergency repairs were made. They departed on Christmas morning, whereupon the engines broke down. They departed again on Boxing Day into further bad weather, worse leaks and a temperamental engine room. The Navy ordered them back to Melbourne after two difficult weeks at sea, which was both embarrassing and time-consuming. The film manages to avoid talking about most of this, although it does show the leaks in a brief sequence during which repairs are carried out at sea by men standing on a ‘stage’, slung over the side. The effect of the leaks was that most of the new cabins were wet most of the time – not just damp, but actually sloshing around with 10 to 15 cm of freezing water. These leaks would be replenished when the ship rolled, as it did most of the time, so there was little to be gained from bailing the water.

Lieutenant Commander William F Cook, RAN, had joined the ship during the refit. He wrote later:

Perhaps we were the last of His Majesty’s ships under the White Ensign to use sail. I know I got a great thrill out of piping ‘Hands to sailing stations’ when we set all plain sail as we so often did. We found that with a favourable wind on the quarter we increased her speed up to two knots. But the real advantage was that it slowed down her rate of roll by at least two seconds, which, when she was rolling 30° to 40°, really meant something.

Conditions were similarly difficult on LST 3501. Tim Bowden writes in The Silence Calling: Australians in Antarctica 1947–97 (1997), a history that marks the ANARE jubilee year (Allen and Unwin, ISBN 1 86448 311 3), that the LST encountered horrendous storms once they left Fremantle on 28 November 1947. ‘The flat-bottomed LST not only rolled alarmingly (40° from the upright was not uncommon), but the whole vessel flexed and twisted. Commander Dixon was heard to say that they were the biggest seas he had ever seen…’

During one of the worst storms, a bridging pontoon broke free on the deck and stoved in the bow of a motor boat. All hands had to rush forward to restrain loose drums of aviation fuel rolling about the deck. Cracks appeared in the LST’s deck, fuelling fears that the ship might break apart – which had actually happened to a couple of LSTs during the war. The ungainly LST eventually reached Heard Island on 11 December 1947. The bad weather continued, almost grounding the ship on two occasions. A gale wrecked the Walrus aircraft tied up on the beach, after just one flight.

The ANARE leader, Group Captain Stuart Campbell, had accompanied Douglas Mawson on the two British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE) in 1929–31, as aviation officer. He had flown in Papua New Guinea and commanded a squadron of Catalinas in Darwin during the war. He was an adventurer and hands-on administrator, writes Bowden. He claimed Heard Island for Australia on 26 December, following his orders from the Department of External Affairs. Those did not explain how to make such a proclamation, so he improvised. ‘We put up a flag and buried a capsule with the proclamation’, he told Bowden. We see those scenes in this film (see clip one).

Campbell stayed behind with the 14 other Heard Island winterers when the ship left on 29 December. He was expecting to be picked up by the Wyatt Earp in late February or March, but the delays to her schedule made that impossible. After a brief visit to the French base at nearby Kerguelen Island, the LST 3501 was sent back to get Campbell. He would have been stuck for another year on Heard Island if they had not done so. Campbell returned to Melbourne in time to decide he would join the Wyatt Earp when she finally sailed south.

This would lead to long-standing ill will, spanning decades, between Stuart Campbell and Phillip Law. When Campbell decided to join the Wyatt Earp, she was already overloaded with men. Law and McCarthy had to share their cabin with Campbell, which Law found distasteful, partly because Campbell refused to wash. The ship was short of water, but that was no excuse, according to Law. The fact is that the two men were extremely different in temperament, and the bad blood started even before the ship left Melbourne. Law felt that neither Campbell nor the ship’s captain, Karl Oom RAN OBE, a veteran of Mawson’s second BANZARE voyage in 1930–31, took the scientific side seriously. Campbell had told an officer to offload the nets and jars needed to do plankton hauls, and Oom had suggested leaving the cosmic ray equipment behind for a later voyage. ‘I was appalled’, wrote Law in his book. ‘I told him (Oom) that first, the university team had worked for 12 months to prepare the equipment; and second, the Wyatt Earp program was planned to complement similar work at Heard Island and Macquarie Island in the same year.’

The scientific work was thus protected, although Law felt that it was never quite accepted by the crew – especially when Law argued successfully to the captain that he and McCarthy needed to be exempt from having to keep watch, a duty shared by all the officers. Law had good grounds for this request, given that he and McCarthy had to work long hours maintaining the cosmic ray equipment, but it caused major resentment. Some of the officers were ‘sadistically cruel’ in the way they taunted Dr Fritz Loewe, a distinguished meteorologist, the third member of the scientific team. Loewe was ‘a most learned, tolerant and kindly person, whose personal idiosyncrasies make him an easy butt for schoolboy wit’, Law wrote later.

Indeed, Loewe was probably the most distinguished member of the crew. He trained in meteorology in Germany and came to Australia in 1939 as a Jewish refugee. He established Australia’s first Department of Meteorology at Melbourne University. In 1930–31, he had spent a year in Greenland as part of the expedition that killed Alfred Wegener – the man who postulated the theory of continental drift. Loewe lost several toes because of frostbite during this expedition. They were amputated using a penknife, without anaesthetic, while on the ice, which meant that he hobbled, rather than walked, thereafter. ‘Tall and lean, he was singularly tough’, wrote Phillip Law. ‘I have never met a person so indifferent to physical discomfort.’ Loewe’s impact on Australian Antarctic science is hard to overstate, both in meteorology and in glaciology, a topic then unknown in Australia. He would establish a small group of students around him at Melbourne University to study glaciology. ‘This small cell in his Department of Meteorology was to blossom into a centre for one of the major scientific studies of the ANARE, following the establishment of Mawson Station in 1954’, wrote Law. The scenes of Loewe at work on this first expedition are extremely rare.

It’s clear from the various accounts that the voyage of the Wyatt Earp was full of tensions and personal animosities – a pattern that was repeated in later voyages, partly because of the clash between the aims of a captain intent on safety, and a scientist, usually Phillip Law, intent on discovery and collection of useful data.

Recruitment on this first set of expeditions was piecemeal, based largely on informal networks left over from the war. If a man had some useful skills and seemed ‘sound’, he got the job – without advertising that there even was a job. Phillip Law had long experience in alpine sports and a good degree in physics – enough to appoint him as senior scientific officer. Alan Campbell-Drury was a radio officer with the Australian Navy in Japan when he read about the expedition. He had known Douglas Mawson in South Australia, so he wrote to ask him for a position. He went as a radio operator to Heard Island. He would later become the Antarctic Division’s first photographic officer, responsible for helping to shoot many of the films made during the 1950s. Alan Gilchrist heard about the expedition during a British Medical Association meeting. He became the first medical officer. Laurie Le Guay was a prominent fashion photographer in Sydney, after spending the war overseas as a photographer for the RAAF. He became official photographer on the Wyatt Earp, working for the Department of Information. He shot much of Antarctica 1948, although the scenes from Heard Island are by David Eastman, another Department of Information photographer. Phillip Law also had a small 16mm Eyemo camera on board the Wyatt Earp. Law wrote:

Le Guay was one of Australia’s best known commercial photographers, famous for his portraits of glamorous models in Vogue magazine. He was an inveterate traveller and a stylish travel writer. On board Wyatt Earp we found him to be a witty companion with a zest for life and penchant for provocative argument on almost any issue.

Indeed, Le Guay was one of the most capable and artistic photographers that the Antarctic Division ever used. His still images of this voyage are among the best from any voyage.

In terms of its aims, the voyage of the Wyatt Earp was a failure, at least as far as the scientists were concerned. They were able to map some waters in Antarctica, but the failure to land on the continent itself made it difficult to take the magnetic readings necessary for accurate mapping, or to select a likely site for a base. There were a number of reasons for the failure to land, chiefly the ship itself. Although heavily reinforced in the hull, the ship was not a proper icebreaker, being too small and too light. Icebreakers work in part by running up on top of an ice floe, breaking through with weight, rather than simply brute power. Arriving late in the season, the expedition encountered heavy pack ice far from shore, and much bad weather. Phillip Law:

It became clear that the captain had no intention of pushing into the pack itself and that, unless an open lead could be found to the coast, we would not be able to make a landfall. We were at about 66°30S 146°00E …The captain tried charging one of the smaller floes to test the ship. I had thought we might crack it and go through, but the ship had neither the weight nor the power: it merely bounced off. As an icebreaker, the ship was a gnat!

On this point, Campbell and Law were in rare agreement. Campbell’s diary for 10 March:

The Wyatt Earp is not a very good ice ship; she is too light and has too blunt about a bow to crack anything but the very lightest ice. When we hit even a small old floe, we take a very solid jar and it is doubtful if she could stand much of that sort of work. She does not manoeuvre very well either and is awkward in turning to starboard.

Campbell was also now convinced that the ship was too crowded. ‘It cannot comfortably take more than its own crew, as run at present, with perhaps three passengers.’ In fact, these men had come to the same conclusion as the American Lincoln Ellsworth ten years earlier, that the Wyatt Earp was the wrong ship. Five times, she had made the voyage to Antarctica and never been the right ship, but there were few other choices.

The expedition was more successful in its aim to establish Australian bases on both Heard and Macquarie Islands. Heard Island was closed six years later, but Macquarie Island – known to all those who have been there as Macca – remains an Australian base still, and the site of much valuable scientific work, especially in sub-Antarctic biology and geology.

The Wyatt Earp sailed back into Port Phillip Bay on Wednesday 31 March 1948. Phillip Law returned in August to the physics department at Melbourne University, but he was keen to pursue an Antarctic career. He asked Stuart Campbell to keep him informed of any developments. ‘Although our personalities differed fundamentally and I did not admire Campbell’s style of leadership, I had found it possible to work amicably with him. I was quite prepared to accept a permanent position as senior scientist if one were to be created.’

In 1990, Law’s biographer Kathleen Ralston found correspondence in the Department of External Affairs files that showed just how far Stuart Campbell had gone to prevent Law from being appointed to any position in the newly created Antarctic Division. In August, Law had applied for the position of Assistant Officer-in-charge (scientific), which would effectively make him Campbell’s deputy. Campbell did his best to block Law’s path, even though he had already decided to return to the Department of Civil Aviation. The Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, John Burton, overruled Campbell and made sure that Law got the job. Campbell left the Antarctic Division at the end of 1948. Phillip Law took up his new duties on 1 January 1949, determined to establish a permanent Australian base on the ice and maintain the two sub-Antarctic bases at Macquarie and Heard Islands. The Wyatt Earp was sold off to a Victorian shipping company, then another in Tasmania. She ran aground in January 1959 just north of the Double Island Point lighthouse in Queensland. The crew got off safely but she was wrecked and broke up in couple of weeks.