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Thomas Orde-Lees (1877 – 1958) was a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 and a pioneer in the field of parachuting.

Early life

Thomas Hans Orde-Lees was born on 23 May 1877, officially during his parents' holiday in Aachenmarker in what was then Prussia. In fact he was the illegitimate child of Thomas Orde Hastings Lees, a former barrister and the Chief Constable of Northamptonmarker, and Ada Mary Pattenden (1852-1932), a daughter of the Reverend Canon George Edwin Pattenden, headmaster of Boston Grammar School. Ada was sent off to Thomas' brother's house in Aachen for the birth. His family was well off; Thomas and his wife lived in the Chief Constable's house with a number of servants. Thomas' wife, Grace Lees née Bateman, agreed to bring young Thomas up as her own. She was made godmother of Ada's nephew Frederick Geoffrey Lees JOHNSON (1880-1951), an arrangement that provided cover for Grace, Thomas + Ada to meet up regularly. Thomas + his mother, Ada, (who married Arthur John Coleridge Mackarness, a solicitor, in 1890) kept up until her death in 1932. In 1929 Grace, widowed in 1924, was living with Arthur and Ada Mackarness at Petersfield.

Orde-Lees was educated at Marlborough Collegemarker, The Royal Naval Academy (formerly Burney's Academy) at Gosportmarker (whose headmaster was Ada's brother-in-law, Frederick George Johnson) and Sandhurst Military Academymarker. He joined the Royal Marines, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1900 he was posted to Chinamarker and saw action during the Boxer Rebellion.

Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

In 1910 he applied for a place on Scott's Terra Nova expedition, but was turned down. When Shackleton was organizing the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition he decided that he needed a representative from the Royal Navy in order to get political and military support for the expedition. Orde-Lees as a skier and motor expert fitted the bill, and after Shackleton applied to Churchill for permission, Orde-Lees was released from his military duties and allowed to join the expedition as storekeeper.

On board ship he proved unpopular with the rest of the crew — he had a surly, condescending manner and was undisguisedly lazy. Nevertheless he was an efficient storekeeper. He had a keen interest in physical fitness and took his bicycle on the expedition; after the ship became trapped in the ice he frequently took cycling trips on the ice. Shackleton ordered him not to leave the ship unaccompanied after he became lost on one such excursion and had to be rescued by a search party.

When the Endurance was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton took the three lifeboats and led the men over the ice to open water where they used the boats to travel to Elephant Islandmarker. Orde-Lees was assigned to the Dudley Docker under the command of Frank Worsley but failed to pitch in with the other men when a gale threatened to sink the small craft. Despite orders from Worsley, he climbed into his sleeping bag rather than helping with the rowing, although he immediately undertook strenuous and prolonged bailing duty when it looked as if the boat was going to sink.

Once the boats had arrived at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five men set out for South Georgiamarker in the James Caird to fetch help. The remaining men, including Orde-Lees, were to spend months living in the remaining two boats, overturned and reinforced with stones and lit by blubber lamps. They were finally rescued on 30 August 1916. For his part in the expedition Orde-Lees received the Silver Polar Medal.

After the expedition

On his return to England and after serving on the Western Front in the Balloon Corps, Orde-Lees, with the assistance of Shackleton, secured a place in the Royal Flying Corps where he became an enthusiastic advocate for the use of parachutes. He jumped from Tower Bridgemarker into the River Thames to prove their effectiveness and as a result a parachute division was formed with Orde-Lees in command.

After the war, he resigned his commission (reportedly rather than facing a Court Martial after his involvement with a parachuting course for women sponsored by the Daily Mail) and moved to Japan where he taught parachuting techniques to the Japanese Air Force. He worked for a time as the Tokyomarker correspondent for the The Times which led to an appointment at the British Embassy. His first wife having died, he remarried to a local Japanese woman, Hisako Hoya. He spent almost 20 years teaching English and reading the English news on Japanese Radio, but when Japan entered World War II in 1941, he evacuated his family to Wellingtonmarker, New Zealandmarker. There he took a more menial job at the New Zealand Correspondence School, although there were rumours that he was working as a spy for the British Government. After the war he wrote a regular children's travel column in the Southern Cross Newspaper and helped organise the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

He died on 1 December 1958 after being confined to a mental hospital due to his dementia. He is buried in Karori Cemetery, Wellington, close to fellow Endurance crew member, Harry McNish.

References




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