- Taylor, Megan, Midshipman, RAN
- Biographies and personal histories, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The trek occupied the men, but was ultimately futile. Said Captain Worsley, ‘Perhaps it was unrealistic to plan such travel, but for the psychological well-being of the party, Shackleton thought it the right thing to do.’ The trek lasted a week covering seven miles. Aptly named Patience Camp, it became home for the next three months. Their goal was again modified and ‘Shackleton’s dream of a transpolar crossing was not to be fulfilled on this expedition. In place of that goal survival became the objective.’
Changes in the floe’s drift and further cracks appearing meant Paulet Island was no longer an option, and Elephant Island, some 100 miles north became their target. It came into view on 7 April 1916. The floe split the following day but the well trained crew quickly transferred stores onto the larger section, taking to sea two days later in lifeboats retrieved from Endurance. On reaching Elephant Island, Shackleton deliberately selected his crew of five to sail for South Georgia, leaving 22 men under Frank Wild’s command.
On 24 April 1916 they sailed in the James Caird, arriving on the wrong side of South Georgia, with the boat badly damaged after covering 800 miles in 16 days. Again, Shackleton was decisive and took 2 others on a 3 day hike over the inhospitable, and previously unnavigated island to Stromness.
Beset by numerous obstacles, Shackleton’s thoughts centered on his men’s safety and their trust in his return. When faced with a treacherous descent, Shackleton again demonstrated courage and decisiveness by saying ‘We must go on no matter what is below. To do it in this way is hopeless. We can’t cut steps down thousands of feet. It’s a devil of a risk, but we’ve got to take it. We’ll slide.’ Shackleton made a decision based on the information available, rather than delaying. He was correct and reduced days of climbing, to exhilarating minutes.
Reaching Grytviken, Worsley immediately sailed to recover the men on the island’s far side. It took four attempts to finally retrieve those on Elephant Island on 30 August 1916. As Shackleton recounted, ‘I saw a little figure on a surf-beaten rock and recognised Wild. As I came nearer I called out ‘Are you all well?’ and Wild answered, ‘We are all well Boss’, and then I heard three cheers.’ All 28 men who stepped from Endurance survived their 634 day ordeal.
Shackleton’s flexible leadership applied emphases that situations demanded. He was autocratic where orders directly affected survival, or democratic, sharing information with his crew as appropriate. Throughout, Shackleton honestly reported the severity of their situation to the team, whilst providing a new task to move towards their ultimate goal. Irrespective of their success, these tasks supplied a short term goal providing not only hope but a sense of progression and achievement.
Mindful of the psychological effects of abandonment, desolation and despair, Shackleton consistently emphasised his commitment to the men, such that they became interdependent. Frank Hurley, photographer, recounted ‘The leader, noticing my endeavours to restore circulation took off his warm gloves and handed them to me. ‘Take these until your hands are right’, he said. As he was suffering himself I refused. But he was determined that I should have them. ‘All right’, he replied ‘if you don’t take them I’ll throw them into the sea.’
Shackleton’s strength of conviction and commitment to his men contributed greatly to their ability to overcome their desperate situation with resolve, thereby improving their psychological wellbeing and subsequent chance of survival. Conversely the team led by Vilhjalmur Steffanson in the Karluk (3 August 1913) attempted to cross the North Pole. His emphasis was for his safety alone and when the ship became icebound, he abandoned his crew. Left directionless and unoccupied, they separated to find food and a passage out. Within months all were dead.
Shackleton knew each man, their background, strengths and vulnerabilities, and offset this against others in the crew. Seaman Tim McCarthy was initially chosen for his positive attitude, and then as one of the six to crew the James Caird to South Georgia. However, not all the crew were handpicked. Blackborow, the stowaway, earned his position amongst the men. He was also honoured as the first man on Elephant Island, exemplifying Shackleton’s respect for his men in recognition of their contribution to the expedition. For his main financial sponsors, the three lifeboats were named James Caird, Dudley Docker and Stancomb Wills.