On Christmas Eve morning 2007, as I listened intently to the steady and pleasing voice of 85-year-old William H. "Tommy" Thomson, I detected only a faint accent — not what one usually encounters with a Scottish native. Sensing a story, I asked Thomson about his accent, and his past began to roll smoothly off his lips.
In the early years of the Second World War, Thomson was at Glasgow University — and bored. Since the nearest recruiting station was a naval one, that's where he ended up. Given his education standard, it was suggested he try for the Fleet Air Arm, and Thomson duly became an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). The obvious necessity for clear radio communications while flying meant only one thing: the suppression of Thomson's Scottish brogue.
By War's end, Lieut. Thomson sported a Distinguished Service Cross ribbon on his uniform, for skill and determination in attacking a surfacing U-boat in 1944. But the fighting was over — now what? A chance meeting at an officer's club led Thomson to join the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS - renamed the British Antarctic Survey in 1962).
Roaming around the club were Dr. James M. Wordie (Geologist in Shackleton's Endurance) and James Marr (a Boy Scout with Shackleton's Quest expedition and Planktonologist on several Antarctic voyages). The pair were on a recruiting run for Antarctica and this piqued Thomson's interest, but when he told Marr that he was a pilot, the reply was mixed: Marr said there were a lot of pilots around — but apply anyhow.
Not having to be asked twice, Thomson applied and was accepted. However, two "small" details remained. He didn't have a pilot's license (no need for it in the Navy), so a temporary license to fly in Britain was acquired, and this served for "activities further afield". Secondly, Willie Thomson married Nan before he went south.
On his arrivial at the bottom of the world in November 1946, there were still strong echoes of Scott and Shackleton from childhood heroes, and tremendous enthusiasm in everything, with each person supporting one another.
Thomson was the pilot of the survey team at Base E, Marguerite Bay, on the Antarctic Peninsula. He flew the affectionately named Auster Ice Cold Katy, having with him Biologist Bernard Stonehouse as co-pilot and Surveyor Reginald L. Freeman as navigator. Their missions were mostly short trips, in support of depot-laying work, to investigate other possible routes to the plateau — and weather was usually difficult or unpredictable.
During the latter part of 1947, a twin-engined American aircraft from the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE, 1946-48), also based at Marguerite Bay, was set to carry out aerial photography with trimetrogon equipment. This is a system of aerial photography in which one vertical and two oblique photographs are simultaneously taken for use in topographic mapping. The results were to be tied in with mapping by sledgers across the plateau. Thomson explained his part in the mission:
It had been decided that I would fly over the plateau with two companions [Stonehouse and Freeman] in the Auster to a point about ninety miles south, land blind on the snow to check conditions for the landing of the heavier American aircraft, which would be carrying stores to the first depot. The problem was that there could be a thick layer of soft, fluffy snow into which the aircraft could sink and the Auster could more easily touch, taste and take off again.
Thomson and his crew reached the designated spot and touched down without incident. However, their consort was delayed taking off due to trouble starting its engines, so it was some time before the sound of another plane rang in their ears. Thomson 'set off the red smoke flare and it sent a thick, blood-red gash across the snow, marvellous and obvious. To our total astonishment, it was not seen and the American aircraft went droning past. Again we waited and waited, but it did not return.'
There was nothing to do now but head back to base:
We climbed up close to seven thousand feet before crossing the plateau and set off for base. The high cloud ceiling began to lower and I noticed that our ground speed was diminishing. I increased the throttle setting until even with full throttle we were making little progress into a tremendous wind. There was little point in maintaining this course so I turned across the plateau to head down to the sea ice on the same side of the peninsula as the base. The light was beginning to fade, but I could just see a glacier away on the left. . . . I followed the glacier down, losing height, the aircraft was bucking about in the turbulence, someone was being sick in the back, it was snowing now, the air intake was becoming choked and the starved engine was coughing and spluttering. The glacier curved round to the left and I had to keep in close visual touch with both the steep wall and the ice underneath; it was becoming quite dark.
By the time we reached the sea ice I could see very little, but I thought that I could do a slow carrier-type landing and all would be well. I could only see straight down. Suddenly, to my horror, I saw the ghostly shape of a large tabular berg slide beneath the Auster. . . . The skis touch and for a couple of seconds I thought we had made it safely. Then one ski caught on a small projecting piece of ice and the aircraft turned slowly onto its back. There was no fire, only a broken aircraft, no-one was hurt. I stuffed the little matelot monkey into my pocket and he has been with us ever since.
NO-ONE KNEW WHERE WE WERE.
As we were supposed to fly in tandem, the American aircraft had most of our emergency gear . . . We had a pup tent, designed for one, one sleeping bag and inner, one petrol primus [stove] and seven pounds of pemmican.
The trio settled down to their first night, while outside “the wind dropped and there was only the soft hush of snow on the tent and the penetrating cold. We dare not go to sleep so we talked about tomorrow.” The next day was decision time: stay with the aircraft and wait for help, or start walking the estimated 60 miles back to base. The plane was already camouflaged with fallen snow, making any search from the air a difficult one, so “I suggested that we remove the petrol tank from the Auster and use it as a sledge to pull along our few pieces of equipment as well as having petrol for the stove.”
And off they went. “When thirsty, we sucked pieces of ice, and walked for ten minutes, followed by five minutes of rest” and despite the soft snow making it tiresome travelling, they covered ten miles the first day.
The following day presented much the same picture as the first for the explorers, low clouds and just a whisper of wind — but then snow began to fall. Much less progress was made that day.
The third day gave us a clear blue sky, but our constant watching of the coastline towards the base brought no results and the fallen snow from the day before made walking very difficult. We floundered along, up to our knees, and made little real progress... The tent had become much heavier with breath turned to ice and the the makeshift sledge had become more difficult to drag through the soft snow... I sang to keep us awake and this was reasonably effective because I only caught the right note by accident. My songs were those learned during squadron days, sentimental, of longing, of loneliness, of love lost and waiting for the emptiness of war-time to go away.
In the middle of the night a tremendous storm raged down from the plateau and we could little but cower in our small tent, which was being gradually drifted over and the sides nudged in on us like unwelcome guests. . . . Thoughts were more sombre. I knew that our position was perilous. Storms usually lasted at least two days. The aircraft would be searching on the other side of the plateau.
The storm lasted for three days, but I had no way of measuring real time. The wind howled and filled our small world with noise that gradually diminished all thought. There was little light to indicate the passage of day and night... a tiny piece of pemmican twice a day gave us little nourishment, our mouths were fissured with sucking ice... There was a feeling of slowly shutting down.
Gradually, it broke through into my fuddled brain that the wind had eased a little and that I must get out of this prison. We pushed away at the snow heaped upon us and I broke out into a night sky with light from a bright moon and rags of thin cloud racing across it. We staggered about trying to get some movement into our limbs, broke out the tent which was little more than a block of ice; it would have been so easy, so simple, to remain in that collapsed tent and drift into a deep, deeper sleep. We set off shakily in the direction of the base.
Good fortune smiled on the men when they spotted a seal snoozing in the sun, only a few feet from its blow hole. Thomson killed it with an ice axe and the trio enjoyed some much needed nourishment. The sunshine and that humble acquatic creature “had buoyed our spirits and we set off once again.”
Not long afterwards we stopped. No-one spoke. There was a suggestion, a mere hint of a sound, it was not the wind, not the hush of our dragging feet, not the rumour of growlers far out to the open sea. It became louder, it was an aircraft, but where was it? Then we saw it. It was about twenty miles away and circling to gain height to cross over the plateau. My two companions wanted to set off our one remaining smoke flare at once, but I took it over and waited until the pilot, in his circling, might just be looking in our direction, before releasing it.
The red gash bled across the white snow. We did not breathe. Would it be seen? We waited, hoping, promising in my head to do all sorts of extravagant things if we were saved, to be always kind to others, never say anything nasty, turn the other cheek, help old women across the street, help anyone across the street. The aircraft made a long lazy turn and lost height towards us. It made a quick circuit to check the ice and landed with a brisk hiss of its skis beside us. It was the Nana. The very American voice of Jim Lassiter hailed us and he had us back at base in a few minutes.
[The Nana was a Noorduyn C-64 Norseman single-engine cargo plane named by Finn Ronne for the North American Newspaper Alliance, for which his wife was a reporter. It was piloted by Capt. James W. Lassiter and Lieut. Charles J. Adams, USAF.]
We had lost some weight — Reg and Bernard twenty-eight pounds, while I lost eighteen. The cold had affected our feet and we had to wear slippers for a day or two, but apart from that we were fine.
Twenty-four hours later, there was another gale and the already weakened sea ice was swept out to sea. We had been so lucky. We could have gone with it.
There was another strange happening at that time. Nan was not informed that I was missing for about seven days and was completely distraught; the lurid headlines in the national press did not make it any easier. Then, just at the moment when we were rescued, she felt at peace and somehow knew that all was well. Although we had known each other for such a short time, it meant that there was something special between us. The official notification to Nan came a few hours later. [The couple are still married and live in the UK.]
When Thomson departed the frozen continent in May 1948, he had no wish to return — “I need to have people around, the world was outside and I had a beautiful wife waiting for me.” Though he never went back, Thomson's name remains permanently fixed in Antarctica. When the west coast of Graham Land was resurveyed during 1948-49, a 780-foot headland on the east side of Bourgeois Fjord was dubbed Thomson Head.
Mr. Phil Mussell
Mr. William H. Thomson, DSC
Mrs. Karen Ronne Tupek
Mrs. Lisa Ubert
Antarctic Auster (courtesy Air Force Museum, Chirstchurch, NZ)
The northeastern mouth of Marguerite Bay (www.dsc-ed.org.uk/thanks.htm)
Three in a Tent, by Dr. Edward Wilson (Edward Wilson of the Antarctic)
Correspondence and conversation with William H. Thomson, DSC.
Poulsom, Lieut. Col N.W. and Rear Adm. J.A.L. Myres. 2000. British Polar Exploration and Reseach: A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999. (London: Savannah Publications).
Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition 1946-48. 2006. www.penguins51.com/ronne_antarctic_research_expedition.htm.
Seaver, G. 1937. Edward Wilson of the Antarctic. (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company Inc.).
Spink Medal Circular. No. 10; September 1998. (London: Spink & Son).
Stewart, J. 1990. Antarctica: An Encyclopedia. (2 Volumes). (London: McFarland & Company, Inc.).
Thomson, W.H. Autobiography. (privately printed).
copyright 2008 Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
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Sunday, 11 May 2008 16:46
Ice Crash Antarctica: FIDS Pilot W.H. Thomson, 1946-48Written by Glenn Stein
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Comment Link Tuesday, 30 November 1999 00:00 posted by Tom Schroeder
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