Probus ’83 February 2021 Zoom – Meeting Report

Dr Colin Summerscales paid us a Zoom visit on Thursday 4th February to tell us about historical German Antarctic activities, particularly the German 1938-9 Antarctic Expedition, its pioneering use of aerial survey and subsequent myths.

There had been previous German expeditions in 1873-4 Dallmann), 1901-3 (von Drygalski) and 1911-12 (Filchner). Scott’s expeditions had started south of Australia but the German 1938-9 expedition went to the other side of the continent, south of South Africa.

Alfred Ritscher was a natural choice to lead the expedition because of his role in the 1912-3 German Arctic Expedition and aviation experience, but despite his age of 59 and his having had a Jewish wife. The expedition purpose was substantially economic, as part of the German 1936-40 Plan for War and drive for national economic self-sufficiency. Saving foreign currency for rearmament was important and whale oil, then a major source of margarine, soap and glycerine,was being imported from Norway. Another objective was to look for a German whaling base, avoiding licence fees paid to the UK for the use of S. Georgia.

The plan was to: (1) Carry out an aerial survey of the relevant area, (2) claim territory, (3) survey the Southern Ocean pelagic (open sea) environment and (4) use echo sounding to map the sea bed close to Antarctica. A converted 8,500 ton coaster was used as a “floating airport”, launching a 10 ton Dornier Wal seaplane by steam catapult, retrieving it by crane after landing on the water.

The expedition left Hamburg in December 1938, reaching the Antarctic on January 19th 1939 which was late in the Antarctic summer. They had only 19 days before the Dornier crew warned them that their return path was about to be closed by gathering pack ice. The ship had strengthening plates but not to icebreaker standards. If trapped by the pack ice it would probably have been crushed. But they just escaped, reaching Cape Town in March 1939 on the way home.

In their 19 days the four man crew of the Dornier achieved a great deal, taking thousands of high quality photographs, mapping a large area, showing great skill and courage. Magnetic compasses misbehave at those latitudes and accurate navigation must have been a formidable challenge. Any significant technical failure would have stranded them with no hope of rescue. Swastika flags and metal darts were carried by the plane, to be dropped in support of territory claimed. The flags were dropped at regular intervals but the darts were jettisoned, to the displeasure of some, because their weight prevented safe clearance over high ground. Before their hurried departure the party captured various penguins, some for the pot, the luckier ones for exhibition in Germany – the first emperor penguins seen in Europe.

Arrival back in Hamburg in April 1939 was met with the news that, thanks to some excellent intelligence work, the Norwegians had worked out the expedition’s objectives and had pre-empted the territorial claim for the area, which is now called Dronning [Queen] Maud Land. And September 1939 changed everything. But the excellent maps published in May/June 1939 were used by others and by multi-national expeditions post-war. They were progressively refined, especially to correct the (inevitable) wind drift errors, latterly using LANDSAT data. Many of the land features retain the names given by the 1938-9 expedition. Other achievements included a new sea bed profile of the South Atlantic and an understanding of the geology of the mountains.

The arrival of two German U-boats in Argentina post VE Day was used to construct a theory that Hitler had escaped to Argentina/Antarctica and that Antarctica was providing a base for a Nazi resurgence using new technologies. An American military exercise “Operation High Jump”, actually using Antarctica as a less provocative proxy for training in techniques needed to counter potential Soviet Arctic threats, was billed as an attack on the Nazi base. Colin effectively dismissed these ideas, not least by pointing out that, in the southern winter, the ice extends 1,000 km from the land with a thickness of 400 m. As the Americans found out during Operation High Jump, Antarctica is no place for submarines.

A final happy note recorded the way that Alfred Ritscher saved his wife from the Nazi genocide. He had taken care to move her to a remote country village away from official notice where the locals protected her, swapping her papers for those of a non-Jewish deceased lady, saving the lives of her and her children.

As a distinguished marine geologist and oceanographer with Antarctic experience Colin was able to give us an expert account of the terrain, climate and general environment and the issues faced by the 1938-9 expedition. One of his pictures showed him with a group of fellow scientists in Queen Maud Land. Colin’s has talked to us on several occasions, each time returning by popular demand. This occasion was no exception, being followed by a lengthy question and answer session.