Halley 50 Year Celebration - 2006

Saturday 14th - Sunday 15th October 2006
Park Inn, Northampton


A unique event to mark 50 years of Halley, Antarctica.

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Halley Bay - Base Z - The background and why it is where it is

A talk by George Hemmen

The seed was sown as early as April 1950. James Van Allen - a name that will be especially familiar to atmospheric scientists - had invited a few American scientists to his home near Washington to meet visiting British geophysicist Sydney Chapman. During their talks Lloyd Berkner from California put forward a suggestion that there might be a third International Polar Year in 1957/1958, at the time of expected maximum solar activity. The idea was warmly welcomed so later that year Berkner and Chapman took it to the international ionospheric commission
1 which, the following year, made a formal proposal to the parent body, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Further discussions led to the broadening of the scope of the programme to cover the whole globe and at its General Assembly in the Autumn of 1952, ICSU appointed a Special Committee to organise what had now become known as the International Geophysical Year - the IGY.

By the autumn of 1954 many countries had submitted their plans for participating in the IGY. The UK plans, prepared by the Royal Society, being the UK National Member of ICSU, included FIDS. However, one important gap in the overall coverage of Antarctic stations that had been identified by the international planning committee was the southern extremity of the Weddell Sea, the Vahsel Bay area. The Royal Society's British National Committee was strongly of the view that, as this lay within the Falkland Islands Dependencies, the British programme should if at all possible be expanded to incorporate a new station there. The Colonial Office, the Foreign Office and FIDS were in favour of the idea so in early 1955 a small group was set up to prepare cost estimates. These were the days before NERC so, in March a first, informal, approach was made to the Treasury by the Physical Secretary of the Royal Society followed by further negotiations over the following few months and the development of provisional plans because time was short if an advance party was to sail later that year.

The basis of an agreement that had been reached between the RS, FIDS, the Governor of the F.I., the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office was that immediately authorisation for expenditure was received, detailed planning would proceed with the RS looking after the scientific aspects of the venture - programmes personnel and instrumentation - but that FIDS, acting on behalf of the RS would recruit all the support personnel and attend to all the details of actually organising the expedition, utilising the services of the Crown Agents as their commercial and financial agents in the UK.

Treasury approval was given in a letter to the RS dated 3 August 1955. Frank Elliott who was Secretary of FIDS at the time promptly sent off two telegrams: one to David Dalgliesh and one to me. I am not quite sure exactly what he said to David - whether it was to ask if he might be interested in the venture or whether it was a more positive invitation to become leader of an advance party - but all he said to me was 'next time you are in London would you call at the office as I have a matter of some importance I wish to discuss'.

What would anyone do - I had no idea what this was all about so I quickly packed an overnight bag and took a train to London. Frank told me about the project and explained that, as the London office staff consisted only of one secretary who was fully committed, they needed an ex-FID to take on the task of co-ordinating all the organisational aspects for an expedition to sail in just three months time and would I do it. Of course I accepted and thus found myself employed by the Falkland Islands government with an office and a secretary in Westminster but working solely on behalf of the Royal Society whose offices were in Piccadilly..

How it all came together in time for some 200 tons of supplies to be loaded on to Tottan that November was thanks to very many people - especially the expertise of the numerous purchasing departments, drawing office, electrical engineering department, shipping department and packing store of the Crown Agents2, the experience gained by TAE in planning their own venture which was willingly made available and, of course, the FIDS standard inventory lists - with which you will be familiar - provided a good foundation on which to build.

There are many stories I could tell of hiccups along the way but, in the end, we were able to sail as planned on 22 November 1955. We reached South Georgia on Christmas morning and headed off south a few days later. Through some bad seas and a belt of fairly thick ice and then into that magic world of the 'silent 70s', which most of you know, of flat calm blue sea in that wide shore lead many hundred miles long with 90ft white cliffs to port and pack ice way off to starboard. Three days of effortless sailing then into really heavy pack ice at about 76½° South. Three times we were held fast and everyone was over the side with pick axes and poles - do you still do it that way - and once the Captain had to use dynamite to break us out. It was clear that at that stage we were not going to be able to penetrate that last 90 miles to Vahsel Bay so we turned back North to try to find a landing place.

As you are well aware, possible ways up to the top of the ice shelf are few and far between but twice we found likely spots. The three of us in the party with previous Antarctic experience (ex-FIDS) - David Dalgliesh, the leader, Ken Powell and myself - set off up the slopes but both times when we got to the top there was just a jumble of broken ice ahead which would have been impossible for tractors to traverse. What to do - the instructions were to establish a station south of 75° so there was no point in going north of that. David and the Captain agreed to have another try at getting though to Vahsel Bay. This time, much as before. Again, at about 76½°, just a few miles further than our first attempt, impenetrable ice. So we had no option but to again turn north. At about 75½ degrees South we came to another break in the ice cliff with a slope leading up to the top so, for the third time, the three of us set off. This time we were met with a very different picture - nothing but flat, flat, flat as far as one could see. We went inland about a mile and a half then around and around prodding and prodding. We found no cracks or holes - the decision was made - this was to be the spot. The date was 6 January 1956. The name of the station was given later by the Royal Society to mark the centenary of the birth of Edmond Halley. See photo.

So, the answer to the question 'why there' is, quite simply, because Tottan could not get much further south at that time. As it happened, the location proved to be very good from the point of view of the scientific observation programme and I believe there have been very few occasions over the past 50 years when relief ships have been unable to get in to Halley Bay. So, in some important ways, our misfortune in not being able to get quite as far south as we had hoped turned out for the best.

  1. The inter-Union Joint Commission on the Ionosphere
  2. at this point I acknowledged Derek Gipps who, at that time, worked for Crown Agents and, with his colleague Roy Harrison, was my first point of contact with that organisation. They kept track of all our orders and whenever a query arose headed me to the appropriate expert. Derek later joined FIDS/BAS headquarters staff.

Talk given by George Hemmen October 2006
at the Halley Bay 50th Anniversary Reunion, Northampton

24 October 2006
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