After two and half months of constant strain and uncertainty, it seemed that the Aurora's fate was finally sealed . . . [Wireless Operator Lionel Hooke] observed that 'The whole crew are like a pack of schoolgirls, our nerves absolutely shattered. The dropping of a book or the slamming of a door brings us all up with a start.'
Such was the lamentable scene onboard Aurora, during Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (ITAE). Her odyssey in the Ross Sea is vividly brought to life in Stephen Haddelsey's new book, Ice Captain: The Life of J.R. Stenhouse (The History Press Ltd.; ISBN: 0750943483). After she was blown away from Cape Evans by a fierce gale in May 1915, stranding the shore party, Stenhouse's Aurora drifted helplessly for 1,000 miles in the polar pack.
Ice jaws held Aurora through McMurdo Sound and beyond, in a mind-bending test of mental and physical endurance — until she escaped. Nursed back to civilization, the crippled vessel docked in New Zealand on the third day of April 1916. In South, Shackleton beamed with praise that Stenhouse had 'accomplished successfully one of the most difficult voyages on record in an ocean area notoriously stormy and treacherous'. Not a single man was lost during the entire time.
True to form, Stenhouse immediately focused on getting Aurora refitted to return to Antarctica and rescue the castaways. Sadly, because of various political machinations swirling around him, he was replaced as master and gave the ship a melancholy wave off in December 1916 as she sailed south.
After Aurora's return in February 1917, and finding 'all but three of his men safe, Stenhouse could at last think of returning to Europe to join the war effort.' That spring, Stennie embarked on special duty against Germany's lethal U-boats, and Haddelsey smoothly guides readers through the murky world of the Royal Navy's "mystery ships" (or Q-ships). These vessels had every appearance of small innocent merchantmen, but their captains invited submarines to surface and attack them with deck guns, rather than squander torpedoes on humble prey. Once the merchant ship was "beaten", the submarine drew close to examine its victim, and the decoy unmasked hidden guns, blasting the unsuspecting aquatic wolf.
After his first engagement, during which both the hunter and the hunted lived to tell the tale, Stenhouse's commanding officer wrote approvingly of his performance: 'He has energy and is an officer of promise.' There were other fights — and successes — even command of a sailing Q-ship; but as the German commanders became more and more cautious of seemingly harmless merchantmen, fewer victories were on the horizon.
As the First World War dwindled to a close, the irrepressible sea dog was sent to a most unlikely place: Murmansk. Stenhouse, and other British Antarctic veterans, formed part of the Allies' abortative attempt against Bolshevik forces, as Russia tumbled further into civil war.
Afterward, demobilization and the realities of the post-war world were brought into sharp focus. Experience and medal ribbons aside, Stennie needed a job, so he created one. Along with his friend and fellow Antarctic veteran Frank Worsley, plus others, Stenhouse, Worsley & Co. was formed to haul cargo across the waves, but the business fizzled.
Next, as part of the Ocean Salvage Company in 1921, Stenhouse raised the wreck of HMS Ben-my-Chree, sunk by Turkish artillery fire in the Greek islands. She is incorrectly described as 'Britain's first ever aircraft carrier', when in fact Ben-my-Chree was a seaplane carrier, and not the first (that was the experimental Hermes in 1913). He found salvaging the various wrecks left around the Turkish coast from the Gallipoli campaign interesting work, and 'it gave him a grounding in salvage work that would be useful in later life' — during another world conflagration which consumed Stenhouse before burning itself out.
The spring of 1923 found Stennie back in England and doubting what was around the next corner, until he spied an advertisement in the periodical Nature, opening a new chapter in his life: 'A master is required for service on the Colonial Government ship Discovery, whose duties will be mainly research in whaling in the Antarctic.' This was Scott's old ship and she was returning to the Southern Ocean on a very different sort of mission than two decades previous.
The Discovery Committee gathered the required finances and authority to make 'a serious attempt to place the whaling industry on a scientific basis.' Whaling, after all, was the economy of the Falklands Dependencies. Not enough was known about the habits of whales, their distribution and migration, or of their main food — the 4-6 cm.-long shrimp known as krill. This would be Discovery's mission.
Readers pulled by Antarctica's magnetism will likewise be drawn in by Haddelsey's deft portrayal of a man wedded to canvas when the days of sail were numbered. The author crafts the line that separated Discovery's master and the scientific leader, Dr. Stanley Kemp. On this expedition, Stenhouse was all-sailor, and Kemp was all-scientist:
To many of those involved, the National Oceanographic Expedition constituted a great adventure: an opportunity to study nature at her most harsh, among towering seas and on the edges of a mysterious and beautiful land of ice. But the expedition was to be undertaken on rigidly scientific lines, with little or no place for the kind of muscular exploration which Stenhouse loved and which his old leader, Shackleton, had come to epitomise.
However, it took even more than the southern Frozen Zone and war to slake Stenhouse's seemingly unquenchable thirst for action and adventure while completing his missions. Both in fact were available aplenty in other quarters: like a quest for treasure. This occupied Stennie's near future and Haddelsey plunges us into the jungle of that necessarily complex and uncertain world.
The rich texture of Stephen Haddelsey's writing runs throughout the threads of Stenhouse's sojourns. Drawing from a deep well of diaries, letters, notebooks, photographs and memoranda that reside with the Stenhouse family, the author convincingly conjures up a forgotten soul from Antarctic exploration — and beyond.
After journeying with the Ice Captain, I wondered how a man like Stenhouse, who became 'one of the most highly decorated of all Heroic Age explorers', lauded in peace and war, had drifted to the margins of history? Perhaps the answer sprang from Frank Worsley, who 'spoke truly when he stated that 'Duty' had been his friend's watchword'.
Duty is an eloquent summation of Joseph Russell Stenhouse.
Glenn M. Stein, FRGS copyright 2008
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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 05:23
Ice Captain: The Life of J.R. StenhouseWritten by Glenn Stein
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