John Abbottsmith (1918-1989)
Heard Island Expeditioner 1947-1949
by Laurie McLean November 2019
Johnny Abbottsmith circa 1947.
Image from The Australian Women’s Weekly.
1947-1949 Heard Island Expedition
Between 11 December 1947 and 14 February 1949, John Abbottsmith was one of the 14 men on the inaugural Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition at Heard Island. The expedition left Melbourne on 17 November 1947 onboard His Majesty’s Australian Landing Ship-Tank 3501 and returned to Melbourne on the same vessel on 28 February 1949, by then the vessel had been renamed HMAS Labuan.
Heard Island and the nearby McDonald Islands are barren, volcanic sub‑Antarctic islands located in the Southern Ocean over 4 100 kilometres south west of the Australian mainland. These islands are over three quarters of the way from Fremantle to the Australian base at Mawson in Antarctica (which was established in 1954); see location map below.
Volcanic activity has been observed at Heard Island since the mid-1980s with fresh lava flows on the south west flanks of the island. Recent volcanic activity has dramatically altered the McDonald Islands which are located about 40 kilometres to the west of Heard Island’s Laurens Peninsula. Owing to this activity during the 1990s, the main McDonald Island doubled in size and increased in elevation.
Australia’s first post-World War II Antarctic expedition was to Heard Island. To coordinate preparations for this expedition, an Executive Planning Committee was established in May 1947 with Sir Douglas Mawson as an advisor. The Heard Island expedition was led by Group Captain Stuart Alexander Caird Campbell RAAF (1903–1988). Campbell had been appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions in May 1947. The 1947-1949 Heard Island expedition was to establish a weather station, take cosmic ray measurements and undertake geological and topographic surveys. The expedition arrived at Heard Island on 11 December 1947 onboard the Canadian built 2 300 ton His Majesty’s Australian Landing Ship-Tank 3501 under Lt Commander George Manley Dixon DSC RANVR (1899-1978); see image below.
Heard Island location map.
Note the Australian bases on Antarctica were established after the 1947-49 ANARE Heard Island expedition. Map source: Australian Antarctic Data Centre (Map 14237).
The Sydney-born Stuart Campbell attended the Church of England Grammar (Shore) School between 1917 and 1922 and afterwards studied mechanical and electrical engineering as well as surveying at the University of Sydney where he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1926. Campbell joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1926. Between June 1928 and August 1929, he took part in a survey of the Great Barrier Reef using Supermarine Seagull III amphibian flying boats with No 101 Flight RAAF that was then based in Bowen.
Campbell was the senior pilot on the 1929-30 and the 1930-31 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions led by Sir Douglas Mawson. On these expeditions Campbell flew a Gipsy Moth seaplane with second pilot Gilbert Eric Douglas (1902-1970) (Wilson, 2007).
During World War II Campbell commanded No 42 Squadron RAAF and later No 76 Wing. During the War he flew Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engine flying boats on long-range mine‑laying operations in the South-West Pacific Area. Campbell became Director of the Department of Civil Aviation in June 1948. He was awarded the Polar Medal in 1934 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London in 1947 (Wilson, 2007).
At Atlas Cove, Heard Island on 26 December 1947, Group Captain Campbell made a formal declaration to take occupation of Heard Island and the McDonald Islands for His Majesty’s Government of the Commonwealth of Australia. The declaration was counter-signed by Lt Commander Dixon.
Lt Commander George Manley Dixon DSC RANVR circa 1948.
National Library of Australia image, Call Number PIC/14053 LOC Box PIC/14053.
An RAAF Supermarine Walrus 11 HD874 Snow Goose (a 1930s design single engine amphibious biplane) was to be engaged in aerial photography and reconnaissance flights over Heard Island. The aircraft arrived at Heard Island with the expedition on 11 December 1947 onboard HMA LS-T 3501. On 21 December 1947, when tied down at Atlas Cove during a hurricane, the Walrus was blown over and wrecked. It had carried out only one reconnaissance flight of about one and half hour’s duration on 13 December 1947; for more information see McLean (2013).
Group Captain Stuart Campbell talking to LS-T 3501 at Heard Island 1948.
David Eastman photograph, National Library of Australia Bib ID 3765824.
The 14 wintering Heard Island expeditioners 1947-1949.
Back Row, left to right: Robert Dovers, Jim Lambeth, Arthur Scholes, John Jelbart, Fred Jacka and Lem Macey.
Front Row, left to right: Alan Gilchrist, Norm Jones, Alan Campbell-Drury, Albert Carroll, Keith York, Aubrey Gotley, John Abbottsmith, George Compton
Source: Scholes (1949).
The 1947-48 RAAF Antarctic Flight personnel were Squadron Leader RHS Gray, Petty Officer TW Lidell (RAN), Corporal RD Jones, Leading Aircraftman B Meek and Leading Aircraftman CE Short. Also, part of the RAAF Flight was the dedicated Walrus aircrew namely: pilot Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Donald Smith (1921-1948), camera operator Warrant Officer P Swan and wireless operator Warrant Officer George Charles Dunlop. There was also a civilian camera operator, Canadian-born David Eastman, who was the expedition’s official photographer.
These personnel along with other non-wintering expedition people arrived at Heard Island on 11 December 1947 onboard LS‑T 3501 and departed with that vessel on 4 January 1948. They arrived back in Melbourne on 18 January 1948.
Unloading the Walrus at Atlas Cove Heard Island December 1947.
Arthur Scholes slide, State Library New South Wales call number FM5/843-887, IE137139.
Heard Island expeditioners 1947-1949.
• Officer in Charge: Aubrey Victor (Aub) Gotley* (senior meteorologist and forecaster) (1915-1983)
• Medical Officer: Alan Robertson (Doc) Gilchrist* (1921-2008)
• Cook: A N (Norm) Jones*
• Engineer: John (Johnny) Abbottsmith* (1918-1989)
• Radio Supervisor: Louis Edward (Lem) Macey* (1911-1986)
• Radio Operator: Alan (Alan) Campbell-Drury* (and photographer) (1918‑1994)
• Radio Operator: William Arthur (Art) Scholes (circa 1907-2007)
• Surveyor: Robert George (Bob) Dovers* (1922-1981)
• Assistant Surveyor: George Spencer (Swampy) Compton* (and geologist) (1921‑2010)
• Weather Observer: Albert Taylor (Shorty) Carroll* (1921-2007)
• Weather Observer: Keith William (Keith) York* (radio-sonde operator) (1926-2010)
• Physicist: Frederick John (Fred) Jacka (1925-1992)
• Physicist: John Ellis (Jo) Jelbart (1926-1951)
• Geologist: Arthur James (Jim) Lambeth
Source: William Arthur Scholes (1949), Fourteen Men.
* = known to be a former serviceman.
Walrus HD874 and LS-T 3501 at Atlas Cove Heard, Island December 1947.
ANARE image by Alan Campbell-Drury.
The Australian Antarctic Research Expeditions base at Atlas Cove on Heard Island circa 1948. ANARE image from Cordell Expeditions website.
Some of John Abbottsmith’s activities at Heard Island
As well as being the expedition engineer and diesel mechanic John Abbottsmith took part in exploration, mapping, geological and wildlife studies and carried out weather observations. He upgraded an oil-fired blubber stove for the bath house at the Atlas Cove base. This stove was used to melt snow to give a reliable hot water supply for the showers.
John Abbottsmith was also recognised as the expedition’s ski expert. Initially he led parties on glacier crossing journeys as he was then the only expeditioner with experience in this field. Later John conducted a ski school for fellow expeditioners. Around August 1948 John built a 9-foot Nansen type sledge for summer operations (Scholes, 1949).
In getting the Atlas Cove base established John Abbottsmith operated a Caterpillar crawler tractor (bulldozer) to help unload stores and equipment from LS-T 3501 and move these into the required positions. At one stage he operated the tractor for a continuous period of 22 hours. Later he managed to skilfully drive the tractor out of a quicksand patch (Scholes, 1949).
In establishing the Atlas Cove base, John Abbottsmith erected the powerhouse and workshop with the skill of an expert carpenter. Later, with the help of others, he installed two 15 Kilo-Volt-Ampere diesel-electric generators in the power house. Each of the generator units weighed 2 tons (Scholes, 1949).
During their time at Heard Island, the expeditioners operated a 10-foot dinghy with an outboard motor. The yellow-coloured dinghy was named Anare. The outboard motor was often unreliable and John Abbottsmith spent much time keeping it running during numerous boat journeys. Together with Jim Lambert and George Compton, John Abbottsmith made the first dinghy journey from Atlas Cove to Saddle Point about 15 kilometres to the east.
Jim Lambeth and John Abbottsmith became known as expert boat handlers with Anare. Together with Arthur Scholes they undertook soundings in Atlas Cove using a lead-line. For these soundings the dinghy was positioned by a theodolite on Mt Drygalski. Each time the line was dropped one of the dinghy crew would hold an oar aloft, on the end of which was a small red flag (Scholes, 1949).
Towards the end of the expedition John Abbottsmith became the keeper and feeder of 6 king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). Along with other wildlife that other members of the expedition kept, these birds were transported to Australia when the expedition returned (Scholes, 1949).
Abbotsmith Glacier, Heard Island
Abbotsmith (sic) Glacier on the western side of Heard Island runs from the slopes of Big Ben to the sea. This Glacier was named in 1948 for John Abbottsmith, a diesel mechanic with the ANARE Heard Island expedition. Abbotsmith Glacier is located at 53° 06' South Latitude, 73° 25' East Longitude. An image of the glacier is provided below. The image was captured by Alan Campbell Drury (1918-1994) who was a radio operator and photographer with the 1947-1949 Heard Island expedition.
(While the Australian Antarctic Data Centre has noted the correct spelling of John’s surname it is unable to amend the erroneous spelling of Abbotsmith Glacier owing to this being perpetuated since 1948.)
Discussions with Sir Douglas Mawson
Around 1946-1947 John Abbottsmith apparently had several conversations with renowned geologist and Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958). As a consequence of these conversations Abbottsmith sought a place on the first Australian expedition to Heard Island. Apparently Abbottsmith was not happy with the way things had been managed during the Heard Island expedition. Abbottsmith’s concerns were the subject of correspondence to him from Sir Douglas Mawson in 1950 (Ayres, 1999, page 218).
Abbotsmith Glacier, Heard Island February 1949.
ANARE photo by Alan Campbell-Drury.
Map of Heard Island showing Abbotsmith Glacier.
Map source: Australian Antarctic Data Centre (Map 13099).
1st Australian Corps Ski School Lebanon 1941-1942
Between November 1941 and late February 1942, the 1st Australian Corps (which was part of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East) and later the 9th Australian Division Ski Company trained troops at a Ski School in Lebanon. The School was at the Cedars Hotel near the historic Cedars of God; a remnant stand of about 300 ancient cedar trees (Cedrus libani). The Cedars were about 4 kilometres east of the small town of Bsharri (Romanised as Becharré or Bcharré). As depicted in the map below this town was located about 30 kilometres south east of the northern Lebanon port city of Tripoli. The troops attending the Ski School were trained for reconnaissance and fighting patrol work. As well as skiing skills, the training at the 1st Australian Corps Ski School covered camping above the snow-line, tactics in offensive and defensive patrols, signalling and intelligence duties; for further information see McLean (2019).
(Acting) Sergeant John Abbottsmith was an instructor at the 1st Australian Corps Ski School in Lebanon from its inception and worked on manufacturing the necessary ski equipment before the School commenced operating in December 1941. He had joined the Second Australian Imperial Force in July 1940 at 21 years of age.
Location of The Cedars, Lebanon.
Source: Adapted from Cox (1992-93).
Hôtel des Cédres, Lebanon circa 1942.
Australian War Memorial image accession number 022355
An image of some of the initial instructors at the 1st Australian Corps Ski School is provided below. From left to right, the instructors are: (British Army) Major William James Riddell (1909-2000), Sergeant Frank Due (1901-1970), Captain C Parsons, Captain Ronald Rupert Mooney (1916-2009), Sergeant Lindsay Sydney Salmon (1914-1973), and Sergeant John Abbottsmith (1918 1989).
Some initial instructors at 1st Australian Corps Ski School circa December 1941.
James Francis (Frank) Hurley OBE (1885-1962) image.
Australian War Memorial accession number 011403.
Australia decided to remove all its Military Forces from the Middle East as the threat to the Australian mainland from the Empire of Japan increased in late 1941 and early 1942. The last Australian troops returned from the Middle East in March 1942; after the first Japanese bombing raid on Darwin the previous month. Following Australia’s withdrawal from the Ski School in Lebanon, the facility was taken over by the British Army who undertook training there until 1944, for more information see McLean (2019).
Prior to joining the School, John Abbottsmith was a Gunner with the 2nd/4th Field Park Company, Royal Australian Engineers (9th Australian Division). Engineers’ field park companies generally operated at the divisional level away from immediate combat activities to provide specialised workshops and to maintain divisional engineering assets.
John Abbottsmith saw active service during the Siege of Tobruk on the Mediterranean coast in Libya that ran from 10-11 April to 10 December 1941 when the last of the Australian forces were withdrawn. (The actual departure of Abbottsmith from this action is unclear but it was prior to the final Australian withdrawal.)
After the Ski School in Lebanon, John Abbottsmith was seriously wounded in action at El Alamein around October 1942 and was subsequently discharged from the AIF on 5 April 1943 as medically unfit.
With the Rag Tag Fleet
Later in 1943 John Abbottsmith joined the United States Army Service Forces and became an engineer on a Landing Ship-Tank. He joined the Service Forces in the New Guinea war zone and continued with them until his vessel was sunk during a landing in the Philippines.
In February 1942 the United States Army created the Services of Supply Branch that was renamed as the United States Army Service Forces in March 1943. The Service Forces operated in both the European and Pacific theatres and were abolished in April 1945 and absorbed into the United States Army (Millett, 1953).
During its two years of operation the Service Forces undertook numerous supply, administration and support tasks including transportation and supply of food, clothing, and munitions. For these tasks the Supply Forces operated a fleet of some 1 500 ships of various types (Millett, 1953). During this period about 3 000 Australian civilians served on Service Forces vessels in what was called the Rag Tag Fleet. These civilians included men who were too young, too old, or considered medically unfit for general defence service (White, 2017).
John Abbottsmith was born at Tamworth on 16 August 1918. He was the second of the 6 children born to Frank Alexander Abbottsmith (1889-1967) and his first wife Enid Heath Abbottsmith née Teakle. John’s parents married at Kempsey in 1914 and divorced in 1932.
Frank Abbottsmith was appointed as a licensed surveyor in New South Wales on 30 October 1912. He worked as a surveyor with the Lands Board (Department of Lands) at Hay and circa 1917 as a draftsman with the Board at Tamworth. Later he worked as a staff surveyor with the Department of Lands from bases that included Forbes, Moree, Narrabri, Yass and Bega.
While based at Narrabri in the early 1930s Frank Abbottsmith advocated the potential for the nearby Mt Kaputar to become a world class tourist destination. Frank Abbottsmith also worked for the Department in the Snowy Mountains. Abbottsmith contributed articles to local newspapers on geographical and exploration topics.
Prior to enlisting in the AIF, John Abbottsmith worked (when still a teenager) as a geologist’s assistant for a mining company in the Cooma area. Later he worked at the Hotel Kosciusko; initially as a grease monkey in the power house and later as a ski instructor. Between winter snow seasons, Abbottsmith made a few trips across the Pacific with the Niagara Steamship Company and worked with a mining company in Canada’s remote north-east.
(The New South Wales State Government Hotel Kosciusko was located at the base of Mt Sunrise on the west side of Diggers Creek on the Kosciusko Road about 25 kilometres north west of (old) Jindabyne. It opened in 1909 and was destroyed by fire around dawn on 18 April 1951. The staff quarters survived the fire and today remain as Sponars Chalet.)
Return to the Snowy Mountains
After his World War II service John Abbottsmith returned to the Hotel Kosciusko as a ski instructor in 1946. Here he met and married Phyliss (Phyl) Taylor who also worked at the Hotel. The Abbottsmiths’ first home was at Betts Camp (on the Kosciusko Road a few kilometres south west of Hotel Kosciusko). They lived there while John was employed by the Kosciusko State Park to install radios in mountain huts. (This park became the Kosciusko National Park in 1967 and the spelling was changed to Kosciuszko in 1997.)
Further return to the Snowy Mountains
Following his return from Heard Island in 1949, John Abbottsmith worked for the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission of New South Wales measuring stream flows and heights in the Snowy Mountains. Later he established and operated a weather station at Spencers Creek (a few kilometres east of Charlotte Pass) for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority. Here John used a dog team for personal transport during the winter. However, John had been used to handling dog teams prior to undertaking the 1947-1949 Heard Island expedition (Scholes, 1949, page 32).
In the early 1950s John left the Snowy Mountains Authority and with Phyl and their children moved to Smiggins Holes. Here they built a home and started the first Perisher-Smiggins ski lift that commenced operation in August 1952 and continued until 1959. John also continued to use his dog sled but as a public transport service from Smiggins Holes to Perisher until 1953 when the dogs were replaced with a Snowmobile that he operated until 1956.
The Abbottsmith family later left Smiggins Holes and established the Snowline Caravan Park, first at The Creel near the Thredbo River and later at the edge of Lake Jindabyne at the junction of the Kosciusko Road and the Alpine Way. This later site was about 8 kilometres to the south of The Creel and about 3 kilometres west of the present Jindabyne town centre.
(The now submerged Old Jindabyne was on the Snowy River just to the north of the present townsite. Old Jindabyne was closed in 1964 and Lake Jindabyne was created in 1967 as part of the Snowy Scheme.)
John Abbottsmith died at his Jindabyne home on 24 January 1989. He was 70 years of age. John was survived by his wife Phyliss and by three of their children, daughters Fay (Mrs Pendergas) and Diane (Mrs Hampshire) and son Garry. Another son, Ken, predeceased his father. John Abbottsmith’s remains were buried at the new Jindabyne cemetery.
Anonymous (1947), Abbottsmith (Taylor), a birth notice in The Propeller (Hurstville), Thursday 27 November 1947, page 5 Family Notices; accessed from the National Library of Australia’s Trove search service on the National Library of Australia website at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/235345707
Anonymous (2010), Johnnie Abbottsmith: a mountain legend, an article in the Perisher Historical Society Newsletter, Issue 5 Summer 2010-11, pages 4-5; accessed from the Perisher Historical Society website at: http://www.perisherhistoricalsociety.org.au/attachments/033_PHS%20Newsletter%20-%20Issue%205%20-%20Summer%202010-2011.pdf
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Wise, Paul Joseph (2019), Personal communications.