Wilhelm Filchner


Wilhelm Filchner was born in Bayreuth, Germany on September 13, 1877. At the age of 15 he joined the Prussian Military Academy. His first expedition was a seven-week sojourn through Russia when he was 21 years old. When he was 23 he accomplished a one-man journey on horseback through the Pamir Range of central Asia. An expedition to Tibet was led by Filchner in 1903-05 and upon his return, plans were developed to lead an expedition on the crossing of Antarctica in an attempt to determine if Antarctica was one piece of land. Filchner's original plans were for one ship to enter the Weddell Sea while a second would enter the Ross Sea. Land parties would then embark on an attempt to meet at the middle of the continent. Unfortunately, expenses needed to be trimmed so one vessel, the DEUTSCHLAND, would have to do. By the spring of 1908 Filchner had selected his team of scientists which included two doctors, an oceanographer and an astronomer. None of the men, including Filchner, had experienced any polar exposure so a mini-expedition was led to Spitsbergen. Six members of the team, along with one dog, crossed areas of the island in the Arctic Ocean in order to prepare them for what lay ahead.

Filchner's ship, the DEUTSCHLAND, was a Norwegian ship built specifically for work in polar seas. Originally named the BJORN, she was acquired with the assistance of Ernest Shackleton, Otto Nordenskjöld and Fridtjof Nansen. Under the command of Captain Richard Vahsel, the DEUTSCHLAND left the port of Bremerhaven on May 4, 1911. Her first stop was at Buenos Aires where they loaded additional stores, coal and 14 tons of rock ballast.

They left Buenos Aires on October 4 and arrived on the 18th at South Georgia where they spent the next 48 days at the Norwegian whaling station at Grytviken. While there, they boarded the UNDINE and investigated the coasts, making new charts, and re-opened the observatory at Royal Bay. They also made an exploratory trip to the South Sandwich Islands. The ship and crew departed for the Weddell Sea on December 11, 1911. Filchner wrote, "None of us knew if we would ever come back alive".

The first ice was encountered on December 15 with progress from this point forward changing daily. One day the men would work in shirtsleeves while the next day would follow with fog, snow and freezing temperatures. By early January, 1912, the ship was completely surrounded by icebergs and floes. Filchner wrote, "In three days we spotted almost 200 bergs". On January 27 samples of clay were brought up from 11,250 feet providing evidence of approaching land. Three days later, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, land was sighted to the southeast. An ice cliff, approximately 100 feet high, appeared in the distance with the continent gradually rising behind it to a height of 2000 feet. Filchner wrote, "We had reached the cliff of the ice overlaying the Antarctic landmass, land that nobody before had seen or stepped upon, new territory". This would be the southernmost point reached by the DEUTSCHLAND. Filchner named this region Prince Regent Luitpold Land, now known as the Luitpold Coast. The DEUTSCHLAND steamed alongside the ice shelf for several days. (Filchner named the ice shelf after Kaiser Wilhelm but the emperor later changed it to the Filchner Ice Shelf).

The DEUTSCHLAND eventually reached an ice-rimmed bay at the foot of a huge ice shelf where Filchner and the crew made plans to erect their winter camp, or stationhaus, as Filchner called it. An important feature of the area was a natural landing ramp where "all the material necessary to erect a 'stationhaus' could be easily and quickly unloaded. A precondition for the project was, of course, that the berg for the 'stationhaus' be resting solidly on the sea floor". Construction of the camp began on February 9 with the unloading of materials, dogs and ponies. By February 17 the stationhaus was nearly complete. Unfortunately, disaster struck the next day beginning at 4 am. It started with a few cracking sounds which quickly intensified over the next couple of hours. Filchner wrote, "Then suddenly a racket erupted as if one hundred pieces of heavy artillery were firing in rapid succession". Captain Vahsel sounded the alarm and shouted, "All the ice in the bay is moving and the stationhaus-berg has begun to rotate!" Tons of ice had broken loose from the edge of the ice shelf with new cracks and rifts opening in every direction Filchner looked. Even worse, the nearly completed camp was drifting northwards towards open water. Along with their berg, tremendous masses of ice as big as 18 miles long were moving in unison with them. It was clear at this point that the DEUTSCHLAND was in serious danger of being crushed in the ice as the camp, along with some of the men, slowly drifted out to sea.

Unloading supplies on the ice shelf at Vahsel Bay

Filchner reasoned that the disaster occurred due to a spring tide, coupled with a sharp drop in barometric pressure. It was later determined that the water level surged about ten feet with more than 17.5 billion cubic feet of ice breaking free. The next two days were spent feverishly dismantling their winter camp. The DEUTSCHLAND remained at a safe distance while lifeboats were used to haul the materials and animals back to the ship. Enough of the building material could be saved to construct their new home but one dog was left behind as it refused to be caught. Filchner left a note with the discarded supplies which described the reason for abandonment. The iceberg's original position was 77°45'S, 34°34'W and, as Filchner wrote, "A trail of heavy ice followed it, [so] it was impossible for us to return to Prince Regent Luitpold Land".

The DEUTSCHLAND drifted for the next few days as Filchner waited for improving weather conditions. Finally a landing was made on the continental ice where the men built two large depots some 330 feet above sea level. The depots were covered with ice and marked with black flags and poles as Filchners' plans were now to retreat to South Georgia for the winter. They would return in the spring with additional provisions and try a second time to complete their transcontinental journey. But it was already early March and soon the fog set in, along with sub-zero temperatures, sealing their fate as the sea froze over at a torrid pace. Filchner wrote, "The devil himself has sealed our fate". The DEUTSCHLAND was completely frozen in by March 6. Stuck in the grips of the pack ice, she slowly drifted out into the Weddell Sea.

To break the monotony of the long winter ahead, Filchner promoted activities and duties as tents and small cabins were built on the ice and scientific equipment installed. Additionally, all the rooms in the ship were wired for electric lighting "to cut down the polar night to a minimum". As for entertainment, sporting activities were held regularly on deck and on the ice, along with horseback riding. Filchner himself could not take part in most of the physical activities as earlier he had fallen from a mast and bruised a few ribs. But by mid-June he was feeling well enough to lead a short, but dangerous, journey over the ice in search of Morrell's Land, or New South Greenland. The American sealer Benjamin Morrell thought he had seen land in 1823 only 37 miles east from where the DEUTSCHLAND was trapped. Filchner, together with officers Kling and Konig, left the ship on June 23 aboard two sledges, each drawn by eight dogs, with provisions for three weeks.

 Filchner & Kling scan for New South Greenland

Travelling was far more difficult than they'd ever imagined. Daylight lasted only two to three hours each day as the sun set around 2 pm. On some days they made less than four miles while their best was fifteen. All the men suffered from frostbite as the temperatures plunged to -31°F. Filchner wrote in his diary, "at night we were shivering in competition in our flimsy tent". Simple tasks took hours because of the cold temperatures. The scientific instruments froze over the moment they were removed from their containers. As a result, the instruments had to be thawed out after a short time. As Filchner described it, "To take a sighting we needed two hours rather than the usual ten minutes". When they reached 70°32'S, 43°45'W, they had come 31 miles but none of the land reported by Morrell could be seen. They dropped a lead weight through a hole in the ice and when it had reached 5248 feet, the line broke. It was clear to them that what Morrell had seen was a in fact a mirage. The return journey was even more dangerous than the one encountered on their way out. Large cracks had opened in the ice which meant a number of detours had to be negotiated. Some areas had frozen over with fresh ice so thin that the men were in constant danger of falling through.

Despite frozen instruments, Kling's navigational skills were uncompromised as only eight days after leaving the ship, on June 30, Filchner and his men spotted the masts of the DEUTSCHLAND. While they were away, the ship had drifted 38 miles. The ship had to send out the lifeboats to pick up the men as a wide lead of thin ice had separated them from the ship.

The next two weeks saw the Antarctic winter come to an end. On August 8 Captain Vahsel died from a prior illness. As a result, Kling took over the ship. By the end of September the DEUTSCHLAND was surrounded by huge stretches of open water. The boilers were fired up and the ship prepared for any chance of a breakout. All the animals, huts and scientific equipment were back on board but it would be another three weeks before the DEUTSCHLAND would break free. Filchner recorded in the ship's log that their position was 63°37'S, 36°34'W, having "drifted over 10° in latitude". On December 19, 1912, they reached South Georgia.


The DEUTSCHLAND EXPEDITION failed in its attempt to make a trans-Antarctic crossing, but, as Otto Nordenskjöld later pointed out in a preface to Filchner's book, his discoveries of the Luitpold Coast and the Filchner Ice Shelf were important geographical finds. As well, the existence of Morrell Land was proven to be otherwise.

After her return, the DEUTSCHLAND was subsequently sold to Austria. Filchner himself was invited to take part in another expedition but he felt "for the time being I had had enough of 'Antarctic Doings'. Moreover, many experiences had convinced me that truly great successes in the polar ice are granted only to members of those nations where polar research has tradition, namely the Scandinavians, the Russians, the British and the Canadians. I decided to return to my original field of work: Central and East Asia". After World War I Filchner made a number of trips to Nepal, where he carried out a survey in 1939, and to Tibet. He spent the years surrounding World War II in India where he never made it a secret concerning his anti-Nazi feelings. On May 7, 1957, Wilhelm Filchner died in Zurich. He was 80 years old.



Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

To the Sixth Continent: the Second German South Polar Expedition, by Wilhelm Filchner.

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.