Peter Mackay

Shackleton’s forgotten heroes – the Ross Sea party

By Peter Mackay on 13.9.22

Peter Mackay  is  a former Scottish Office civil servant, Head of the Scottish  Office Industry Department, who was educated at Glasgow High School and St Andrews University. Described by the president as one of the “big beasts” at the then Scottish Office, Peter had a serious career following his retiral with appointments with the Bank of Scotland in its glory days, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Northern Lighthouse Board and chair of Pacific Horizon Investment Trust and Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust. He is a long standing member of the Scottish Arctic Club and he and his wife have climbed and kayaked on many occasions in Greenland and Alaska and have a lifelong interest in Arctic and Antarctic exploration. This began when his father at the Victoria Infirmary had as a patient the widow of the man who took over as the leader of the expedition after the death of Scott in 1912; she gave him a copy of “Scott`s Last Expedition” which he still treasures.

Sir Ernest Shackleton who was considered by many as great leader of men died in 1922 so a century on, and in the year in which the wreck of his ship the Endurance was discovered, it is fitting to take stock of a little known part of his Endurance expedition. The detailed story suggests that while a leader of men, Shackleton was not a strategist in any sense and allowed himself to be pressured by external events, availability of (not enough) funding and overweaning self-confidence which was not based on his planning or logistics skills. The task of the Ross Sea party of 12 was to follow the Scott expedition route across the Great ice barrier and lay depots for Shackleton and party as they completed the crossing of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea via the South Pole.

Shackleton bought two ships at knockdown prices, the Endurance which was unprepared for the Weddell Sea ice, was crushed and sank and the Aurora for the Ross Sea base, this being a fine and appropriate whaler but ill-prepared after three Arctic voyages and with little in the way of relevant kit. While Shackleton failed to land at Vahsel Bay because of the ice and had to endure a nightmare life on the ice and a crazy rescue trip from South Georgia of men abandoned on Elephant Island so failed utterly in his first leg to the Pol<. His rescue of his men in an open boat was hailed as an incredible performance and won him headlines and heroic status.

Meanwhile the Aurora on the Ross Sea was actually blown away leaving the team of 12 abandoned without accommodation, clothing, boots, sledges or skis. The Aurora eventually drifted 1,600 miles to end up in NZ, from where 2 years later they managed to pick up the surviving  7 of the Ross Sea group with Shackleton relegated to a support role in the relief expedition. Before then, led by MacIntosh (official leader) and Joyce (experienced de facto leader), this party managed to make do with sailcloth for tents and clothing, three primus stoves as their only source of heating and cooking  when on the ice and 26 dogs (of whom 4 survived) and they actually  achieved what they set out to do despite tremendous hardship. This involved an inexperienced group of men, some recruited in Australia and most totally unprepared for the Antarctic which led to conflict and bickering, trekking on foot for 1,530 miles in appalling weather conditions with temperatures as low as -50c, spending 200 days on the ice, risking scurvy as well as the cold, setting up depots to supply Shackleton (had he made it to the South Pole). Three  of the party were virtually destroyed by the circumstances (Spencer Smith,  McIntosh and Hayward) and  the first two were each left at separate times in a tent when the rest of the party was striving to do what “The Boss” had instructed them to do, namely set up six depots from the Beardsmore Glacier back to Hut Point, while they were also aware that their ship and base accommodation had disappeared and they had no means of communication with either Shackleton or New Zealand.

It was a miracle that the Aurora returned to bring them back once the world realised that they had been left  behind, but it was more meaningful that the party refused to leave their comrades to die on their own and, when they could have simply returned to base to wait, they went out yet again in diabolical conditions to find their comrades and bring them back, Spencer Smith already a corpse after a totally uncomplaining death, and McIntosh  and Hayward who disappeared being the sole casualties. That they were expected to perform with lamentable preparations (the direct responsibility of Shackleton) and having “lost” the Aurora so that they had no reason to believe that they would survive speaks volumes for their moral and physical courage.

Peter made the point that Shackleton is today regarded by many historians and business schools as the paradigm of the great leader but in fact he was the principal contributor to the failure of his expedition. And yet the Ross Sea party managed to complete their task,  in vain though was. While not detracting from his great strengths in that he created the atmosphere in his absence which drove these men to exceed any reasonable expectations, the adventure should qualify as a tale of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

As a part of the discussion, some of which speculated that taking Amundsen’s shorter route might have been more sensible, it emerged that there were two descendants in the audience of two of these heroes;  one  Crean  was acknowledged as such while another McNeish the joiner, who probably saved the men of the Endurance through building a covered deck on Caird, the open boat that carried them to Elephant Island, was denied the Polar Medal for insubordination.

Nick Kuenssberg

Peter Mackay