In celebration of British Science Week and this year’s theme ‘connections’, Explore Your Archive reached out to Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives to write about the exciting stories of the British North Greenland Expedition (1952-1954). Connecting both history and science.
Post by Becky Sanderson, a post-graduate student studying her PHD in Glaciology.
Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives is home to over 150 unique and distinctive archives and book collections supporting research and teaching across many subjects. One of these is an archive of material from the 1952 to 1954 British North Greenland Expedition (BNGE). This consists of 972 radio transmission transcripts recorded by team members detailing day-to-day stories and scientific research from the expedition.
The BNGE traversed north Greenland, exploring the landscape from Dronning Louise Land in the east, to Thule in the west. The team undertaking this feat ranged from glaciologists and geophysicists to naval operators and medical officers. Within the team, familiar scientific names included Stan Paterson, Colin Bull, Malcolm Slessor, James Simpson, and Newcastle University’s own Hal Lister (Figure 1).
Hal was an undergraduate student turned academic staff member, a member of many Antarctic missions and one of the first people to overwinter in both Greenland and Antarctica.
Image: Members of the British North Greenland Expedition in 1952 © Major D.E.L. Homard
My interest in the archive is driven through my love of glaciology and my PhD work at Newcastle University. My project primarily focusses on Antarctic research, therefore, my knowledge of the archive was limited until reading the 1957 book ‘High Arctic’ by Mike Banks (one of the expedition members) and the opportunity I’ve had to delve into the archive through a placement with Newcastle’s Special Collections and Archives.
Initially, I thought I would be trawling through pages of scientific reports and findings. However, to my delight, not only does the archive contain scientifically important datasets, methods and logistics, but also heart-warming Christmas messages (Figure 2), birthday messages, requests for alcohol and cheese and many jokes about cold temperatures.
Figure 2. Message reads: SANTA CLAUS PASSED TODAY LOADED WITH PRESENTS THANK MUMMY FOR LETTER BOOKS DID YOU SEE MUMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU BOTH WARMEST LOVE
The research findings and data collected on the expedition (Hamilton, 1958 and references within) have contributed to long term quantification of ice sheet change studies (Paterson and Reeh, 2001) and generated scientific questions still relevant to those researching the ice sheets today.
The way scientific findings were communicated through the transcripts vary from detailed glaciology reports (Figure 3), to the self-proclaimed “trilling instalment” of direct measurements of scientific information (i.e. ice thickness: Figure 4). Throughout the expedition, the team built up strong international collaborations with American, Danish, French, Australian and Icelandic researchers. By doing so, they were able to share information on safe passage, weather reports or general advice.
Figure 3 left. Detailed Glaciology report. ref: BNGE/01-092, BNGE Archive, Newcastle University Library
Figure 4 below. Lists of ice thickness measurements. ref: BNGE/03-088, 03-086, 03-087, 3-075, BNGE Archive, Newcastle University Library
Although the expedition was largely successful, most polar exploration does not go without a few hiccups, for those on the BNGE expedition, there were certainly a few. Expeditions are often dangerous and the challenges that the team faced are highlighted throughout the transcripts. Although no specifics are recorded, the transcripts detail the gratitude of the family of Danish team member Hans Jenson for the support they received after his death on the expedition. Hans was the only fatality, however, there were several other “lucky escapes”. Weasels (snow tractors) broke down on the ice sheet, exploded or fell into crevasses (Figure 5). Other incidents included fires breaking out in the engine room of their bases.
Ice Cap Crash of 1952
One of the most notable disasters was the “Ice Cap Crash” of 1952, that made BBC news in the UK. Video footage of the crash site and drop operation was captured.
Ice Cap Men Home Aka Ice Cap Men Return From Greenland (1952) – YouTube
Transcripts detail the rescue plans and effort of the members on the ice. The rescue took eight days. The three injured members of the aircraft crew made a full recovery in the hospital in Thule.
Figure 5. Details of when Pete Taylor and Mike Banks fell into a 40-foot crevasse in a Weasel. Ref: BNGE/02-086, BNGE Archive, Newcastle University Library
The BNGE is one of few scientific polar expeditions that took place in the mid-20th Century and can be viewed as the inspiration for many internationally important scientific and geophysical investigations that followed. The knowledge and experiences gained has moulded our understanding of the physics of ice sheets. The incredible challenges that the team overcame are often now taken for granted because of technological advances. The archive captures a unique first-hand story of the expedition and it has been a privilege to read through the personal accounts of member’s experiences and the uplifting messages that they sent home.
To see more of this story, or discover more about Newcastle University’s Special Collections and Archives, please visit – https://www.ncl.ac.uk/library/special-collections/.