On 16 July 1969, the day that Neil Armstrong and his crew took off for the moon in Apollo 11, a group of Southampton graduates drove their Land Rover onto an Argosy freighter at RAF Benson, and took off for Iceland. They would spend the next two months in camp in the middle of the island, studying very low frequency radio emissions from the ionosphere, and photographing the aurora borealis.
Led by physicist Kit Reeve, the team also included three other physics graduates – Dominic Case, John Leach, and Gerald Price – as well as geologist Bill Salter and chemist Martin Whale. Physics lecturer Dr Michael Rycroft supervised the planned research, and was instrumental in obtaining research funding from NATO and the Royal Society. He also spent part of the time in Iceland.
After a slow 150-mile drive into the deserted and sometimes moonlike interior, the group set up camp near the Tungnafellsjökull glacier. They took turns maintaining equipment and making scheduled recordings, while others explored the island. While Britain enjoyed its best summer in years, Iceland suffered a series of severe storms. With few roads in the interior, there were several incidents as the Land Rover or the group’s second vehicle – a two-ton, four-wheel-drive ex-RAF ambulance – became lost, bogged, and once overturned. After two months of studying the radio emissions, the group packed up camp as the first snow of winter fell. They flew back to the UK on 16 September, leaving the ambulance behind as a donation to the Icelandic Rescue Association.
The scientific data gathered formed the basis of Kit Reeve’s PhD research at Southampton, while Dominic Case made a short film of the expedition entitled Iceland 69:
Two years of planning the expedition, followed by months camping together in extreme conditions, resulted in strong bonds between all members of the group, with regular milestone reunions over the ensuing years. On 19 August 2019, after 50 years, the group and their wives assembled for two days at the Two Bridges Hotel, near Princetown on Dartmoor, to celebrate the anniversary. The more energetic members of the group did some gentle hiking on the moor; others visited nearby Buckland Abbey, the home of Sir Francis Drake, but most time was spent eating and drinking, while reminiscing about their memories of the expedition.
Standing, left to right: Martin Whale, Gerald Price, Michael Rycroft, Kit Reeve, John Leach, Bill Salter, Dominic Case
Seated, left to right: Mary Rycroft, Pauline Whale, Kathryn Price, Christine Leach, Jan Salter, Anne Reeve, Olga Case
Although we can’t hold campus reunions at the moment, we’re encouraging you to get together with your fellow alumni online. Check out our virtual reunions article for some ideas.