In our fifth and final instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions I’d like to introduce you to Operation Tabarin, a secret wartime Antarctic expedition which marked the start of the UK’s continuous presence in Antarctica, and which was supposedly named after a Parisian nightclub! The Operation has been summed up as ‘bearded men in chequered shirts establishing post offices up and down the Antarctic Peninsula’. Post offices are mightily important!
From the early-nineteenth century, the Antarctic had been considered a resource-rich, empty space ripe for imperial appropriation. While Britain and its commonwealth countries controlled two-thirds of the Antarctic continent and the surrounding seas by the 1930s, the governance was mostly paper-based, with little of the physical presence necessary to assert sovereignty, such as signs and flags, or credible permanent occupation – as evidenced by post offices.
By World War II, Germany had claimed much of the Norwegian territory in Antarctica and posed a significant threat to Allied shipping. Meanwhile, in 1942, Argentina had landed on Deception Island and then travelled further south, stopping along the way to raise the Argentinean flag and leave notes stating possession – and had also established a post office in the South Orkneys.
Britain decided it needed to strengthen its legal title to its Antarctic territories. The original plan was to send a party of soldiers to sit somewhere in the Antarctic, but it soon developed to include the establishment of permanent manned bases – with post offices – which would also provide platforms for scientific work, exploration, surveying and mapping of the local area.
Naval parties 475 and 476 which constituted Operation Tabarin sailed from the UK on 14 November 1943, arriving in the Falkland Islands on 26 January 1944. Three days later they departed for the Antarctic with men, supplies and scientific equipment. Two bases were established in the first season of 1944: Base A at Port Lockroy and Base B at Deception Island. Within days, the Union Jack was raised, radio communication was established with Stanley in the Falkland Islands, and a post office was set up at Base A (what is now the famous ‘Penguin Post Office’).
Towards the end of 1944 it was agreed that two new bases would be established – Base D at Hope Bay and Base E as far south along the Graham Land coast as possible, probably at Stonington Island. However, in early 1945 James Marr, who had been set to take command of Base D, announced that he would be returning to England on the grounds of ill health. The plans to establish Base E had to be revised, and it was decided to forego a base at Stonington Island in the short term to focus on Hope Bay. On 13 February, the Union Jack was unfurled at Base D on a 20-foot pole that had been found near the remains of the hut from Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Antarctic).
While the driving force behind Operation Tabarin was territorial disputes with Argentina, there was only one actual encounter with the Argentineans. In February 1945, after delivering Marr to Stanley, the ship Scoresby travelled to Scotia Bay at Laurie Island to ‘show the flag’ to the Argentinean meteorologists there. The Argentinean residents had not seen anyone for fourteen months and all was friendly until the arrival of the Argentinean relief ship. The captain refused to acknowledge a signal of invitation from the Scoresby’s captain, Marchesi, and both ships subsequently weighed anchor and left.
The expedition returned to the UK in low key circumstances in 1946, but its scientific success cannot be denied. Three meteorological stations with a near-continuous record of recording had been established, alongside local surveys at Bases A and B, zoological and botanical work at Base A and specialised geological and glaciological work at Base B. At Base D, sledging trips in excess of 800 miles had been completed between August and December 1945; a substantial area had been mapped, considerable work was undertaken in the fields of geology, glaciology, botany and marine biology and a quarter ton of specimens had been prepared for shipping back to the UK.
Operation Tabarin was replaced by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), which continued the British presence in Antarctica, creating fourteen more bases over subsequent decades. In 1962, the Falkland Islands Dependencies were redesignated as the British Antarctic Territory, and the FIDS became the British Antarctic Survey.
- Haddelsey, S. with Carroll, A. (2014). Operation Tabarin: Britain’s secret wartime expedition to Antarctica 1944-46. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.
- Dudeney, J. and Walton, D. (2012). From Scotia to Operation Tabarin: developing British policy for Antarctica. Polar Record, 48(247), pp.342-360.
- Squires, H. (1992). S.S. Eagle: The Secret Mission 1944-45. Jesperson Press Ltd.