OPERATION TABARIN 1943-1944
Towards the end of the Second World War, the British government was concerned about strengthening British claims to the Territories of the Falkland Island Dependencies which included Antarctica itself, the Graham Land Peninsula, and various territorial islands. There were a number of possible threats that the British had to consider:
- That the Germans could set up a base to supply German raiders and U-boats in the South Atlantic.
- The possibility that the Japanese might seek to occupy the Falkland Islands providing it with a base for operations in the South Atlantic.
- And more pressingly, to counter any attempt by Argentina to claim jurisdiction over the Falkland Islands and Antarctic territories.
The threat of German raiders had considerably diminished by 1943, but the false claim of a German raider being spotted in the area was used to conceal Britain’s intentions to establish bases to counter any Argentinian ambitions.
A decision was made in January 1943 to mount a secret operation to establish several permanently occupied bases in this region. Operation Tabarin was launched in early 1943, and was named after a Paris cabaret popular with German officers called Bal Tabarin. This name effectively disguised the objective of the operation.
Two ships were procured by the British to carry men and materials from the Falkland Islands to The Graham Land Peninsula; the William Scoresby, commanded by Captain Marchesi, and MV Fitzroy, commanded by Captain Keith Pitt, with their destinations being Deception Island and Hope Bay where the first base, Base ‘A’, was intended to be established.
The two ships arrived at Deception Island, an active volcano, on the 3rd February and this became the first base to be established with a base at Hope Bay being settled a few days later on the 7th of February. Deception Island was the site of an abandoned whaling station and one of the buildings was occupied as Base ‘B’. Hope Bay was intended to be Base ‘A’ but it soon became obvious that it was not a suitable site for the main base as the Fitzroy could not proceed into the bay as ice was being blown into the area and could potentially trap the ship. Although a base was established here, the two ships then sailed south down the Graham Peninsula looking for a location to build Base ‘A’ which was found on Wienoke island and became what was to be Port Lockroy. Hope Bay then became Base ‘B’ and Deception Island became Base ‘D’.
Although there were no signs of any Argentine personnel when the ships arrived at Deception Island, there was evidence of past Argentine activity with an Argentine flag having been painted on a large rusty fuel tank, this was quickly replaced by a British flag.
Port Lockroy Base ‘A’
Each base was serviced by a basic postal service and Falkland Islands stamps were issued with various overprints.
Both Hope Bay (Base B) and Port Lockroy (Base A) had rudimentary post offices established where mail was collected and sent to the Falkland Islands. As both bases were on the Graham Land Peninsula, they used Falkland Island stamps with the overprint:
This photograph shows the entrance door to the Post Office at Port Lockroy. The pig was intended to provide fresh meat but became an accepted member of the expedition and whose demise was deeply mourned.
Deception Island Base ‘B’
Stamps were also issued for use at the Deception Island base with the overprint:
Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, was the first base to be established but it was not deemed suitable for the main base.
South Orkney Islands Base ‘C’
A base was established on the South Orkney Islands which lies 600kms N.E. of the Graham Land Peninsula with the overprint:
These stamps were for use at the Louise Island Base on the South Orkneys, which was established in 1945.
South Georgia base
Stamps were issued for use at the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia, which is located 800 miles east-southeast of the Falkland Islands with the over print:
During the war, two four-inch guns were installed to protect the harbour entrance and the luxury liner the Queen of Bermuda, which had been requisitioned as an Armed Merchant Cruiser by the Royal Navy in 1939, was assigned to patrol the South Atlantic and in particular South Georgia’s waters.
The 4″” gun was manned by Norwegian volunteer soldiers. There was a settlement of Norwegians attached to the Grytviken whaling station that had been settled in 1904. A number of them volunteered to join the British army in defending the islands during WWII.
(Note: the Falkland Island stamps are labeled ‘RRS William Scoresby’ (Royal Research Ship). When these stamps were originally issued in 1938, the William Scoresby had not yet been commissioned as a naval vessel when, in 1939, she would become HMS William Scoresby).
Other Support Ships
SS Eagle was a support vessel chartered for Operation Tabarin in early 1945. She was a Newfoundland ice-strengthened sealer built in 1902 and was captained by Robert C. Sheppard. She carried cargo and supplied sled dogs to the expedition. She dragged her anchor during a storm in Hope Bay and was badly damaged by ice blown against her hull.
When the Captain first came aboard Eagle in Newfoundland to take command for the voyage south, he described her as “A villainously dirty wood steamer with a clipper bow and a large barrel in her foretop.”
In early 1945, the 300-ton Newfoundland ship MV Trepassey transported supplies and mail to the Deception Island base and also picked up scientists from the Falkland Islands. She was hired to replace a badly damaged SS Eagle. She returned to St Johns, Newfoundland in 1946.
Although no German raiders or U-boats threatened the Antarctic mainland or the Falkland Islands at this point in the war, these bases provided valuable meteorological record keeping over the entire two-year period. In addition, geological and glaciological work had been undertaken at Deception Island and zoological and botanical investigations were completed at Port Lockroy. At Hope Bay, sledging journeys totalling some 800 miles were made in 1945 adding significantly to the mapping of the area.
At the end of the war, Operation Tabarin was rolled over into the newly established Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) which later was transformed into the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Hope Bay was abandoned in 1948 when a fire burned down most of the buildings with the loss of life of two men. It would not be reoccupied until 1952 when a replacement was built. When the RRS John Briscoe started unloading building materials and stores to build the replacement buildings, a detachment of Argentine soldiers appeared and fired shots over the heads of the British landing party. The crew hastily retreated back to the ship where the captain cabled Port Stanley to request the assistance of a Royal Naval vessel. When told of the imminent arrival of the navy, the Argentinians beat a hasty retreat and this incident remains as the only time an armed confrontation took place on the Antarctic continent.
The occupation of Deception Island came to a sudden end in 1967 when the volcano erupted and with lava and ash spewing into the sky and earthquakes rumbling on the island the base was abandoned.
Port Lockroy was abandoned in 1962 but later renovated in 1997 and today operates as a museum with a souvenir shop and post office, staffed during the Antarctic summer. It has become a popular destination for cruise ships. The staff there typically process 70,00 pieces of mail sent by visitors during the five-month cruise season.
The importance of Operation Tabarin cannot be overstated as it established the first permanently occupied stations on the Antarctic mainland and laid the foundations for ongoing British scientific research in the Antarctic.
Post Marked Covers
Many envelopes were sent to the Falkland Islands from the various post offices in these bases by or for stamp collectors, often having all eight stamps in the series. The following are some examples sent from three of the bases.
This cover would have been sent from Base ‘B’ on Deception Island in the South Shetlands. It is postmarked Dec 1944, South Shetlands Dependency. On the reverse side of the cover is a hand stamp “Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, 15 De 1944.”
This cover was sent from Port Lockroy, Base ‘A’, on the Graham Land peninsula. Port Lockroy was also where mail from the other post offices was collected to be forwarded on to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, and then on the England for distribution. Operation Tabarin was a well-kept secret until a fire at the post office in Port Stanley on 23 April 1944 meant that mail now passed through Montevideo for forwarding on the England and the existence of the three bases became known to the outside world.
Base ‘C’ was established in the South Orkney Islands on Laurie Island. Mail was collected and forwarded on to Port Stanley via the Port Lockroy post office on the Graham Land Peninsula. This cover is postmarked, South Orkneys, Falkland Island Dependency, Feb 1946. The reverse of the cover has a hand stamp “Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, 21 Fe 1946.”
Operation Tabarin continues to be celebrated as an important achievement years later. In 1994, the British Antarctic Territories issued a series of stamps celebrating the 50th anniversary of this important achievement in Antarctic history.
These two stamps are part of a set commemorating that anniversary and show images from 50 years ago of a survey team and sled dogs from that era.