PUBLISHED: 15:37 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
When polar explorer Gino Watkins realised that one member of his team was required to sit out the winter of 1930-31 alone on Greenland's hostile ice cap, Augustine Courtauld volunteered. For the adventuring son of one of the county's most influent...
IN THE golden age between the wars, when commercial air travel was in its infancy, explorer Gino Watkins had the idea to pioneer a transatlantic air route by the shortest possible distance.
However, this took it curving across the uncharted glaciers of Greenland and this forbidding landscape needed to be mapped before it could be flown over by commercial airliners.
Having gathered a team and planned the mission, Watkins turned to the Courtauld family, the famous textile magnates of Essex, for financial support. But as well as the funding he needed to make a success of his expedition, Watkins gained a team member - Augustine Courtauld. Just 26 at the time and a graduate in geography and engineering from Trinity College, Cambridge, Augustine (or August as he was known) was ready to leave his chosen career of stockbroking which had been limited by his 'misunderstanding with zeros', according to his son, Julien.
'I don't think his immediate family gave their unconditional blessing to the idea of August joining Watkins' expedition to Greenland,' says Julien, 'but his cousin, Stephen Courtauld, was more than supportive and acted as expedition financial controller and guru.'
In 1930, Watkins chartered Shackleton's old ship Quest and set out for Greenland with two Gypsy Moth seaplanes, several dog teams and 13 young men, including August Courtauld. They arrived and established a base camp on the east coast of Greenland, near Angmagssalik, before a party was sent into the forbidding interior of the country to erect a weather station 8,500 feet up on the ice cap. 'It was vital to the mission that this equipment be manned throughout the winter,' explains Jeremy Scott, whose father was also a member of Watkins' team and whose book Dancing on Ice gives a fascinating insight into the expedition. 'No-one had any idea of the winter conditions on the ice cap, so this really was pioneering work.'
As soon as the weather station was up and running in the summer of 1930, two men were left to operate it, while the others returned to base camp. After two months, they were relieved by another pair. But then the winter weather took an unexpected turn for the worse.
Raging blizzards held up the progress of the third pair of men, including August Courtauld, and it took them five-and-a-half-weeks to cross the ice cap and reach the weather station. On the long and treacherous journey there they had no choice but to eat through their supplies. 'When they finally arrived, it was clear that there was only food enough to sustain one man for the remainder of the winter,' says Jeremy. 'The expedition would have failed had the pair decided to return to base camp, so August volunteered to stay alone.'
According to Julien, the fact that his father was quick to raise his hand for such a gruelling mission was typical of August's character. 'I have always thought he was as close as you can get to the ideal in Rudyard Kipling's poem IF,' he says. However, August was also a notorious risk-taker. His attitude was based on knowledge of the risk and confidence in his own ability,' Julien explains. 'His life displayed this on so many occasions - he often drove his 1924 Bentley on moonlit nights without lights, for example. He got away with it, because he made the right calculations.'
But as the blizzards swirled about his solitary six-feet-high tent on the Greenland ice cap, August could not have known what he had let himself in for. Neither could he have known when, or even if, his colleagues would return to rescue him. Winter on the ice cap was harsher than anyone had expected and replacement teams could not venture from the base camp. So August remained alone on the ice cap for five months, withstanding temperatures of minus 41C.
When snow buried his tent, he was trapped inside for six weeks. He ran out of food and his Primus stove died at just about the time that, unbeknown to him, a first rescue party failed to find him. Throughout his ordeal, August remained strong. 'But I trust in God absolutely,' he confided to his diary. 'I am sure He doesn't mean me to die alone here.'
Afterwards, in his chapter of the official history of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition - Northern Lights, August wrote of a, 'curious growing feeling of security' that came to him as he waited out the winter on the ice. 'Many doubts presented themselves to me at the start,' he wrote, 'and for a while they grew in number and weight. But as each month passed without relief, I felt more and more certain of its arrival.
'By the time I was snowed in, I had no doubts on the matter, which was a great comfort to my mind. I will not attempt any explanation of this, but leave it as a fact, which was very clear to me during that time, that while powerless to help myself, some outer force was in action on my side, and that I was not fated to leave my bones on the Greenland ice cap.'
August was right, but finding him was no easy job. It was 78 years ago this month, on May 5, 1931, that Gino Watkins led a second rescue party to the ice cap. After days of searching, he spotted the ragged remains of a flag flapping in the polar breeze and four inches of ventilator pipe protruding from the snow. He called down it and August's voice answered. 'August was physically reduced,' explains Jeremy. 'He had been living on half rations for months. He had with him his diary, a letter to his fiancée, Mollie (latterly Lady Butler), in which he wrote that he offered to stay at the weather station alone because he wanted to do "something big".'
But, returning to Essex, August barely spoke of his role in mapping the transatlantic air route now in common use today. 'He was a uniquely modest man,' explains Julien. 'We were all brought up to think that what he did was nothing out of the ordinary. It is only as we have got older that we have realised what he went through.'
Undaunted by his experience on the ice cap, August Courtauld returned to Greenland in 1935 to climb a range of mountains first identified in 1931.
He took a team of experienced Himalayan climbers and, unusually, the wives of the married members of the expedition. His team was the first to climb Gunnsbjornfjeld in the Watkins Mountains - the highest mountain in the Arctic. In the 1950s he planned an expedition to Labrador to prove that the Vikings had discovered America. Although he had lined up a ship and expert personnel and had made a plan of their expedition, sadly August's failing health meant he was unable to complete his project. August died in 1959 - a year before it was proved Vikings had landed and lived Newfoundland in 990.
On Saturday, June 27 the Courtauld's family home, Spencers in Great Yeldham hosts its annual music festival, Midsummer Music @ Spencers. For details, call 01787 238175 or visit www.spencersgarden.net. To book tickets contact the booking line on 01206 573948 or visit www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
Get the book
Dancing on Ice by Jeremy Scott tells the full story of the Gino Watkins expedition and August Courtauld's incredible ordeal.
It is published by Old Street Publishing and costs £17.99