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Orde-Lees, Thomas Hans

Orde-Lees, Thomas Hans

Alias: None

Dates: 1877-1958

Nationality: British

Awards: Polar Medal (silver)

Thomas Orde-Lees was born in Aachen, Prussia, during a holiday his parents were taking. His father was a barrister and chief constable of Northamptonshire, and Orde-Lees had a privileged upbringing, including being educated at Marlborough College, the Royal Naval School in Gosport and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Orde-Lees was commissioned in the Royal Marines, and in 1900 he was posted to China and saw action during the Boxer Rebellion. A skier and physical fitness expert, he volunteered for Robert Falcon Scott's British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova), but wasn't selected. He thereafter applied for Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and was initially given the official position of motor expert. He took charge of the tractors (including some of his own design), and joined Shackleton and several crewmembers testing the equipment and sledges in Finse, Norway. He also was placed in charge of stores, a task that ultimately became his key responsibility.

Aboard ship, Orde-Lees proved unpopular not only with Shackleton but with the rest of the crew — he was described as having a surly, condescending manner and as being undisguisedly lazy. Long after the expedition, Frank Hurley wrote Orde-Lees, informing him that he had been the first on the list of men to be killed and eaten should Shackleton not succeed in rescuing the starving men marooned on Elephant Island. He was also incredibly eccentric in many ways, as shown by the fact that he brought a bicycle with him aboard Endurance and would ride it on the ice; the sailors in particular found this very strange.

Despite such oddities, Orde-Lees was a very talented man; he was the tallest and possibly fittest member of the expedition and was accomplished in gymnastics, climbing, skiing, and cycling. He was also a man of extremely contradictory actions. When Dudley Docker was en route to Elephant Island – at a time when the party's very survival was uncertain – he refused to take his turn rowing, instead crawling onto the sleeping bags as if the others would forget he was there. And yet his willingness to shoulder the burden of quartermaster on Elephant Island was key to the party's survival. Despite his many negatives, Orde-Lees was later awarded the Polar Medal in silver.

During the First World War, Orde-Lees served in the Balloon Service on the Western Front. He then joined the Royal Flying Corps and became a pioneer at military parachute jumping. In an extraordinary demonstration designed to prove the usefulness of the parachute, he jumped from Tower Bridge into the Thames. As a result, he was placed in charge of the newly formed parachute company. He later did a similar jump from the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

Orde-Lees' interest in parachuting took him to Japan, where as a member of the British Naval Air Mission he taught the techniques to the Japanese Air Force. He also became the Japanese correspondent for The Times. Shortly after this he married a Japanese woman, was appointed as an assistant at the British Embassy in Tokyo, and began to read the English news on Japanese Radio, a function he continued until 1941 when Japan's deteriorating relations with the west forced Orde-Lees and his family to be evacuated to New Zealand.

Settling in Wellington, Orde-Lees held a number of positions through the years, including writing a regular travel column for children. Shortly before his death he was involved in the organisation of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955–58). He died in a Wellington hospital in 1958 at the age of 81. He is buried in the servicemen's section of Karori Cemetery, close to fellow ITAE member Harry McNish.


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