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Picture Library catalogue: Oxford University Arctic Expedition, 1935-36

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Oxford University Arctic Expedition, 1935-36

The Oxford University Arctic Expedition, 1935-36 was organised by the Oxford University Exploration Club, supported by the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and many of the colleges of both Oxford and Cambridge. The War Office lent equipment and attached two officers to the expedition. The Admiralty, Air Ministry, Meteorological Office and Radio Research Station also provided assistance.
The expedition consisted of ten men, A.R. (Sandy) Glen (leader and glaciologist); N.A. Croft (second in command, photographer and chief dog driver); A.R. Dunlop Mackenzie (organiser and surveyor); Lt. A.B. Whatman, Royal Corps of Signals, (wireless operator in charge of ionosphere research); Richard Hamilton (physicist); Robert Moss (physicist); Lt. A.S.T. Godfrey, Royal Engineers (surveyor); J.W. Wright (surveyor); D.B Keith (biologist); Karl Bengtssen (trapper).
The main aim of the expedition was to make an accurate survey of the north coast of North East Land (Nordaustlandet), and to carry out observations on geology, glaciology and meteorology. Nordaustlandet is the second largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, with an area of 14,443 square kilometres. Mainly covered by ice caps, North East Land lies north east of Spitsbergen, separated by Hinlopen Strait.
The expedition spent fourteen months in North East Land, leaving from Tromsö, Norway on 26 July 1935, on board the sealer ‘Polar’. They reached North East Land seven days later and set up a base hut in Brandy Bay. A small sledging base was then set up at the head of Brandy Bay and on 6 September a team comprising of Croft, Dunlop-Mackenzie, Glen, Godfrey and Moss made a sledge journey on to the ice cap and found a suitable site for the main ice-cap station, near the centre of the west ice. Croft and Godfrey continued transporting supplies by sledge and the other three men set up the station. The station consisted of a dome tent dug in below the level of the ice, joined to an underground tunnel system over 100ft in length. Moss and Keith were the first men to occupy the station, and Glen and Dunlop-Mackenzie operated a second ice-cap station, situated on a high ice dome, overlooking the north coast. The purpose of the ice-cap stations was to carry out glaciological observations and to investigate the nature of the violent winds that sweep off the North East Land ice caps.
In the middle of August, Bengtsen, Keith and Wright started from the base and travelled by a 22-foot half-decked whaleboat, driven by a small Seagull outboard engine, with the intention of mapping the western part of the north coast. Despite bad weather, which made it necessary to use sail, they managed to cover over 100 miles of unmapped coast, and carried out their survey as far as the south side of the entrance to Zorgdragers Bay.
Hamilton and Whatman remained at the base and carried out their research on the ionosphere. The main object of the research was the measurement of the height and conditions of various bands reflecting wireless waves situated between 70 and 600km above the earth. The work was carried out north of the auroral belt for the first time and with the co-operation of the Radio Research Station at Slough and the Norwegian Government Station at Tromsö. The resulting research was of great importance to the development of wireless throughout the world.
In October, the sun disappeared for four months, but they continued to travel throughout the autumn, planning the journeys around the full moon. Croft and Wright made a 300 mile sledge journey to Cape Leigh Smith and back. They were the first party ever to succeed in reaching the Cape by land. Journeys to and from the ice cap stations took place in December and January. In early February, a journey was made to the south-west of North East Land in order to lay a depot, and another in Wahlenberg Bay. At the base, throughout the winter, besides the research into the ionosphere, photographs and observations of the aurora were taken, and the atmospheric ozone measured. Meteorological records were taken at the base three times a day throughout the fourteen months the expedition were there. These were then wirelessed back to Norway and were included in the forecasting systems of various countries.
Moss and Godfrey formed the wintering party at the central ice-cap station, and Glen and Dunlop-Mackenzie at the northern. They experienced severe weather conditions but the design and equipment of the stations proved to be successful enabling them to complete their scientific programmes. In late February, the northern ice-cap station was evacuated, and Croft joined Moss at the central ice-cap station.
During the spring and summer of 1936, several journeys were made. In March, Croft and Hamilton set up the biological station at Murchison Bay, later occupied by Keith, whilst Glen and Godfrey examined the exposure of Hecla Hook rocks in Plancius Bay. In April Dunlop-Mackenzie and Wright set off on the main survey journey. They encountered bad weather most of the time, so it was not until May that the Cape Platen Peninsula was mapped. A large ice-free area between Rijps Bay and Wahlenberg Bay was mapped on their return journey. They had a hazardous journey crossing Rijps Bay and finally reached the base on 10 July. The mapping of the north coast was therefore, not complete and although, travel in August was nearly impossible because of the summer thaw, Hamilton and Wright set off from the base on 19 July for Cape Leigh Smith, where they arrived nine days later. From there they travelled by sledge, westwards, visiting the headlands and bays near their ice-cap camps. After two weeks, they successfully completed the mapping of the north coast, returning to the base just three days before the arrival of the ship to take them back.
Meanwhile Glen and Croft set out in early April to make a journey into the polar basin to study meteorological conditions relative to North East Land, and to take soundings. A combination of factors including immense pressure ridges of the drift-ice, loss of dogs during the winter and an accident sustained by Glen on an earlier depot-laying journey, resulted in an early return back to base. In the middle of May, Glen and Croft started on a sledge journey round North East Land. They reached Cape Leigh Smith four and half days later, and finding a descent through a maze of crevasses they discovered a vast stretch of ice cliffs. Delayed for nine days because of gales, they carried on to map the east and south coasts.
In July, Glen and Bengtsen made a geological journey round the north coast to Rijps Bay. The rock structure of the country was mapped in detail from North Cape to the edge of the east ice. The extreme summer thaw caused them problems with travelling, and they had to cross over large rivers continually. After the break-up of the bay-ice, Glen and Bengtsen carried on in a boat made out of driftwood, lashed together with a canvas cover. This boat was later lost in an offshore storm, so they improvised again and nailed two rubber mattresses round a framework of boards, with an air-cushion inflated at the stern. They managed to travel about 60 miles in this fragile boat from the east side of Rijps Bay to Sabine Bay. Keith and Godfrey occupied a small hut on Russian Island, in Murchison Bay, from April to July where Keith carried out his biological work, mainly ornithological.
At the end of July, Croft, Moss and Whatman left the base in the expedition’s motorboat heading for Murchison Bay, where they picked up Keith and Godfrey. From Russian Island, they crossed Hinlopen Strait to the Valhal Glacier in northeast Spitsbergen. The party returned to base after landing Croft and Whatman, who crossed the New Friesland ice cap to the Stubendorff Mountains, in central Spitsbergen. They climbed several peaks before turning east and climbed Mount Newton, the highest mountain in Spitsbergen and the Eastern Arctic. They finished their journey in Ice Fjord, where the ship picked them up on 23 August. The rest of the expedition were already on board.
On 20 August, the ‘Heimland’ arrived at the base to collect the men, and the whole expedition left the base the following day. Returning to England in September 1936.
Despite adverse weather conditions including the island’s typical misty weather, the expedition successfully completed its entire scientific programme. Mapping of North East Land was complete for the first time. They were able to visit every part of the island, which enabled the achievement of much valuable research, particularly relating to the ionosphere and radio signals.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.