The Historic Smiths a.404 that survived British North East Greenland Expedition 1960.
In 1960, Sir John Hunt of Everest fame, took a party that totalled 38 over to the relatively unknown and unforgiving conditions of Greenland.
On their Wrists was a Smiths A.404 issued to them directly from Smiths themselves as they had done for Sir Edmund Hilary and co just 7 years prior for their famous trip to conquer Everest.
It is common knowledge that Smiths were getting involved with all manner of expeditions around that time and had provided Watches to: British Mount Everest Expedition (obviously), Australian Antarctic Expedition, Oxford Uni West Nepal Expedition, Kangchenjunga Reconnaissance, Cambridge Himalayan Expedition, Lyngen Winter Survey, British South Georgia Expedition, New Zealand Karakorum Expedition, The British North East Greenland Expedition and most probably a few others that we don't yet know about.
The Watch is engraved to the Caseback "Greenland Expedition 1960" (see below), this is how the Watches were presented to the Expedition members when they were directly issued by Smiths. Interestingly above the issued engraving lies "A.A Noble" in a different font, obviously added a bit later. We looked and looked to link Noble to the Expedition but to no avail, until one Saturday night after we had posted the Watch out to the World via the Web, we were contacted by a very nice Gentleman called Graeme Watson. Graeme is a Smiths collector and was looking into the Expedition when he stumbled across a Birmingham Daily Post Newspaper article dating to Monday 5th September 1960 which really blew our minds!
See for yourself:
It's absolutely crazy that this Watch is sat next to me right now, in a warm office after literally going where no man had ever been before 62 years ago.
During my Initial research into the trip I discovered that one of the support party was still alive and was now living in Melbourne, Australia. Alistair Brooks, has helped me massively with all details of the trip and has penned us a letter so we can understand better what sort of perils the Watches went through etc. Of course, he can explain so much better than I as he actually went through it with one of the 38 issued Smiths on his Wrist. That is in the next section, you can also read how the trip unfolded through the eyes of a experienced mountaineer called John Jackson: here
The Issued Smiths a.404 in action.
27 of the team pose for a photo with some of the Smiths on show. Alistair Brooks, crouching 3rd from left, Sir John Hunt far left, Big George Lowe towering over all in the middle.
Sir John Hunt (later lord), pensive after his brush with Death. His Issued Smiths Wristwatch proudly on the Wrist. This photo was taken by Alistair Brooks himself and features in his book "Fined Four Pounds".
A tale about the Smiths a.404 watch by Alistair Brooks
The world may be fairly easily divided between those who are always on the lookout for the testing adventures life has to offer and the rest. I mean those who are understandably content, for the most part at least, with the reasonably certain, mainly uneventful nature of their lives, which, as often as not, includes going for a peaceful walk with the dog on a Sunday.
Although my wife and I delight in walking our dog on all days, in all weathers, beautifully still or storm-filled, I am of the former, incurably adventurous kind, and have always been so. Even now in my 81st year I am still this way inclined, and there are good reasons for this, which I have portrayed in the books I have written thus far about my life and what I’ve got up to in it.
One reason in particular though, stands out as an early, significant, and fortuitous stimulus to me becoming infected with that not infrequently near fatal addiction known as “The Explorer’s Itch”. While I have narrowly escaped becoming a fatality on several occasions, my time in the high Arctic as a teenager, provided me with my very first really “close shave”!
I, along with twenty other lads, had been selected to be the Support Party to the 1960 British North-East Greenland Expedition, which was led by Sir John Hunt, as he was then. As those who have lived long enough to remember, it was Sir John, who, just seven years before had led the first successful Everest expedition, news of which reached England on Coronation Day!
Us twenty-one lads were all winners of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award. Indeed, we were twenty-one of the first one hundred ever to journey to Buckingham Palace to receive this, the highest prize offered in Prince Philip’s Award Scheme for boys. For, it was only for boys in those days, and had entailed us also winning the Bronze and Silver level Awards too.
Among the senior members of the expedition were notable scientists and several famous mountaineers, including New Zealander George Lowe who had been with Hunt on Everest. Like his great climbing mate Ed Hillary, who, with Norgay Tensing, reached the world’s highest summit (29,031ft) on 29 May 1953, George had proudly sported on his wrist a Smiths Wristwatch.
Also like Hillary, Lowe was a tall, gangly Kiwi tied together with steel and blessed with that classically dry South Island humour, as well as a mountain of presence. Hunt put him in charge of promoting the Greenland trip to would-be corporate sponsors, one of whom was Smiths Watches, who embraced the expedition’s purposes with alacrity, just as it done with Everest.
One day, not long before we left on our Arctic adventure, all members, senior and junior, were presented with a Smiths waterproof a.404 watch. Smiths had specially engraved on the back of each watch the name of the expedition. It was the most splendid and handsome gift imaginable for us boys, and the senior members were thrilled too, by Smiths’ kind generosity.
What is more, our watches proved their worth on numerous occasions during our two months in the almost completely unexplored Staunings Alps, which lie at latitude 72 degrees, high on Greenland’s mountainous north-east coast, only 18 degrees off the North Pole itself! Had we not all had our remarkably accurate Smiths a.404s, I think we would have been far the poorer.
For me, personally, my a.404 displayed its uncompromising robustness and watertight qualities during what was later described in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 September 1960 as “A Rugged Journey”. The article was one of three written by Dr Malcolm Slesser, a brilliant Scottish mountaineer, chemical engineer, and Second-in-Charge to Hunt in Greenland.
We had all but run out of food at our main exploration/scientific camp in remote Alpefjord, and the situation was becoming desperate. Unbeknown to us at the time, our small supplies vessel bringing us more food from our main base far out on the coast, had become jammed in sea ice and was, like Shackleton’s “Endurance”, in grave danger of being crushed and sunk.
Luckily it survived but, as our food was becoming more scarce by the day, Malcolm and I, and another of the lads, John Duncan, agreed to leave and, on just third rations, attempt to walk the hundred miles out to our base camp. The members who stayed on, continued their work in the hope the boat would turn up. It did, but by then they were very hungry indeed.
As it turned out, to describe our journey as “rugged’ was slightly understating the case. For, although we believed such a formidable undertaking around the mostly unexplored, utterly forbidding fjord coastline might be possible, the reality proved daunting in the extreme, with vertical cliffs, steeply angled scree slopes, and vast glaciers all plunging down into frigid water.
The most memorable part of the journey though, was our cheating a chill and aqueous death by the merest whisker. We found a narrow rock ledge running just below the fjord’s surface about thigh deep at the base of an enormous overhanging cliff. It was our only way forward at this point. The problem was the icy water was rising quickly with the incoming tide.
Our heavy rucksacks proved increasingly cumbersome as we embarked upon that desperately slow balancing act. The water soon reached our waists, then above them, as we made our fearsome, unbelievably cold and absorbing traverse to freedom. We each knew a submerged foot out of place, or a dubious handhold, and we would fall backwards and sink like stones.
Yet somehow all three of us made it. We cheated the fathomless, dark, freezing depths of Alpefjord, the eerie haunt of Orcas, or Killer Whales, and their prey, the grey seal. And, while it was so very nearly a disaster, it was a test too, not only of ourselves and our resolve to survive, but of our Smiths a.404 watches. Submerged many times, they too survived!
Melbourne, Australia 4 March 2022
More information about Alistair’s books can be found at www.alistairbrooks.com
This incredibly rare Timepiece can be found for sale: here