March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

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RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Weak, unacclimatized ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

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The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

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Robert Falcon Scott

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

They were eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).    A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

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The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

He and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia. Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

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“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck”. —  The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

March 6, 1940 White Death

Dressed in white camouflage, the most deadly sniper in history would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

The Republic of Finland is a sovereign state in the north of Europe.  The 8th largest country on the European continent, with a population roughly equal to that of Minnesota. In 2015, the World Bank ranked the country 44th in GDP, behind Ireland, Chile and Pakistan.

finlandWith Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, the region has been a zone of conflict since the early 12th century, finally gaining independence as the result of the first World War and collapse of the Russian Empire.

In 1938, the Soviet Union demanded Finnish territory in exchange for land elsewhere, ostensibly as a security zone. Leningrad was at that time only 20 miles from the border. Finland refused, on November 30, 1939, 3 months after the outbreak of WWII, the Red Army invaded.

The “Winter War” is a David vs. Goliath story. The Soviets had three times as many troops, thirty times the number of aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army officer corps, however, was dangerously inexperienced, with over 30,000 of its most experienced mid-level and senior officers imprisoned or executed following Josef Stalin’s “Great Purge” of 1937.

Expecting a short conflict, Soviet forces were poorly equipped for an extended winter war. Few if any possessed the white camouflage of the other side. For the Finnish side, morale was high, and Finnish forces inflicted far heavier casualties, than anyone had anticipated.

Simo “Simuna” Häyhä was a farmer and hunter, born in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, near the border with Russia. Häyhä enjoyed shooting competitions in Viipuri Province, and was quite good at it. It was said that his house was full of trophies. He joined the Finnish voluntary militia in 1925 at the age of 20. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army.

He was the “White Death”.  Over the 100 days of his wartime service, Simo Häyhä racked up 505 confirmed kills, more than any sniper in history. Many of his kills went unconfirmed. The true count is probably closer to 800. An average of eight per day, in a place where December daylight hours number no more than six.

simo_hayha_honorary_rifleThe Battle of Kollaa took place in temperatures ranging from −4° to −40°, Fahrenheit. In February, the temperature averages only 18.5°. Dressed in white camouflage, Häyhä would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

At 5’3″, he liked the shorter, White Guard version of the five shot, bolt action Mosin–Nagant, because it fit his small frame. He preferred the open “Pystykorva” or “Spitz” sight, so-called because of its resemblance to a Spitz dog. It made for a smaller target, as a shooter must raise his head ever so slightly higher, when using a telescopic sight.

The Red Army was desperate to kill this man. Russian counter-snipers and entire artillery barrages were sent to take him out. On March 6, 1940, Häyhä was hit on the left side of his jaw, by a high-explosive incendiary/armor-piercing (HEIAP) round, fired by a Russian soldier. The damage was catastrophic. Soldiers who went to pick him up, said “half his face was missing”. He regained consciousness eight days later, the day that peace was declared.

The bullet had crushed his jaw and taken away his left cheek, but he did not die. It wouldsimo_hayha_second_lieutenant_1940 take several years to recover from his wound, but Häyhä went on to become a successful dog breeder and moose hunter, once hunting with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

Häyhä passed away in a war veterans’ nursing home in Hamina in 2002, at the age of 96.  In 1998, someone asked how he became such a good shot. He answered “Practice.”  He must have been a man of few words.

To this day, Simo Häyhä remains the most successful sniper in history, with a confirmed kill rate three times that of Chris Kyle, and five times that of Carlos Hathcock. Asked if he regretted killing so many people, he replied “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”