It was the last great journey left on earth, and Britain's Dr Vivian "Bunny" Fuchs, geologist and expedition leader, was eager to be off.
They had before them 2,000 miles of Antarctica, the world’s most challenging terrain, and this would be the first motorised traverse, coast to coast, of the ice-continent. It was 24 November 1957, two weeks behind schedule, and all depended on the party’s two engineers.
“We were still holding hacksaws and spanners and wishing we’d have just one more day,” Sergeant Major Desmond “Roy” Homard recalled. On his expertise, and that of his colleague, David Pratt, hung the fate of what was left of Empire: Britain’s prestige. The two tracked Weasels, one Muskeg tractor, and above all the four mighty pontoon-tracked Sno-Cat snowmobiles, had to go the distance.
As one of the expedition’s advance party, Homard, a staff sergeant artificer of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, had already endured more than a year on the ice. From January 1956 until the beginning of 1957 he had been the adventure’s only member who, as he put it, “knew anything about vehicles.”
Back in Britain, Prime Minister Eden had announced in the House of Commons that the expedition, supported by Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, would be “an outstanding example of Commonwealth co-operation and joint effort”.
In reality much of that effort would be Homard’s. Time and again his fingers would have to forgo the protection of four and more layers of gloves to perform intricate repairs in temperatures down to -50 C, so that London could be told all was well and that the party was moving forward. It meant using a grease-gun in fierce wind on the 320 grease-nipples on each Sno-Cat, and repeatedly tightening all 148 steel links on each track of the four pontoons, as well as fixing broken tow-bars, inboard rollers and even a fractured chassis. The grease, spattered on gloves and clothes, nullified the insulation they offered, and the wearer risked frostbite.
Tracked pontoons, driven through and over the ice-features called sastrugi – described as like crossing a corrugated roof – would start to disintegrate; stuck in a crevasse, they risked vanishing into bottomless depths. It could take 20 hours to prepare to extricate a Sno-Cat from unexpected cracks in the terrain, though with Homard’s skill and knowledge the actual pulling-out, with steel hawsers attached to the other vehicles, could be over in seconds.
Once, his emergency repairs against all odds proved so successful that the Sno-Cats, recalled as “like cruisers going into battle, flags flying, and puffs of snow-spray”, covered a magnificent 65 miles in 13 hours. The expedition, supported by a Kiwi contingent led by Sir Edmund Hillary travelling from the opposite coast, crossed the continent in 99 days, passing via the South Pole and finishing the journey on 2 March 1958.
Homard, a veteran of the Allied advance from North Africa to Austria, and who had been mentioned in despatches, was, comrades said, a perfectionist. During the harsh Antarctic winter, the advance party huddled in a 28ft by 8ft packing crate because a blizzard had buried the panels for their intended hut, Homard kept up morale. He improvised a bread-oven from an empty oil barrel, performed a delicate repair on the broken cup of a wind-speed anemometer and was a superb cook, even producing minted peas by discreetly using blobs of toothpaste.
Meanwhile the MV Theron, the ship which had landed them on the Filchner ice shelf bordering the Weddell Sea as sea-ice threatened to trap her, was returning to an exuberant welcome in London, and the new icebreaker ship, Magga Dan, that would go south to relieve and re-supply them, was being launched to much publicity by Fuchs’ wife. By the time that ship arrived, in January 1957, with Fuchs on board ready to start the main trek, the eight in the crate would have gone without washing for a year, and though they had laboured on their hut it still had a hole in the roof because one panel could not be found.
Homard knew better than most of the others what dangers might await them: his skills had taken him to similar conditions in the Arctic on the British North Greenland Expedition of 1952-54, led by Commander James Simpson of the Royal Navy, for which his own army commanding officer had recommended him on hearing of his enthusiasm to join it.
At the South Pole, where others were able temporarily to relax, Homard and Pratt got no more than two hours’ sleep a night as they toiled to keep the vehicles working. When Hillary, who had travelled faster over less difficult terrain from his start at McMurdo Sound on the Ross Sea, caused a storm by suggesting Fuchs should end his expedition at the Pole, Homard declared the proposal “a bloody cheek”.
On the explorers’ return to London Fuchs was knighted and the others, including Homard, received the Polar Medal. Homard was commissioned an officer in the REME in the rank of captain in 1960, and after service in British Guiana (now Guyana), Germany and Hong Kong, was promoted to acting major, the rank in which he retired in 1972. He later worked for Marconi Elliott Avionics at Rochester.
Nicknamed “Roy the Romancer” in his teens for his dreams of far-off adventure, he was one of five children of a Dover bicycle shop-owner who had fallen on hard times after losing his sight. The family moved to Sheerness and were helped by church charities. After secondary school, then the Army Technical School in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Homard worked briefly at a greengrocer’s, then with Short Brothers, the aircraft company.
He joined the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939 as a general fitter with the 4Bn Royal Tank Regiment, but was sent home for being too young after his father appealed to the authorities. He then maintained coastal defence guns at Abergavenny, where he met his first wife, Vicky. She died of TB six weeks after joining him in 1946 at his posting in Austria. In 1950, back at home in Sheerness, he met and married Enid Allison, his wife for 60 years.
Homard, in tribute to his home turf, named his Antarctic Sno-Cat “County of Kent”, and he is immortalised in the name of a peak in the Antarctic Shackleton Range: the 3,900ft Mount Homard.
Desmond Edgar Lemuel Homard, soldier and explorer: born Kent 18 January 1921; married 1945 Vicky (died 1946), 1950 Enid Allison (died 2010; two sons); died Kent 20 May 2015.Reuse content