The mission was top secret and, to add the pressure, in one of the most distant and challenging spots on earth.

In the demanding frozen landscape of the Antarctic, a select group of British men under government orders, hunkered down in their own ‘ice station zebra’, a basic hut from where they could keep watch for possible enemy attack.

It was the height of the Second World War and the top-secret Operation Tabarin led by Scottish marine biologist and polar explorer James Marr was intended to protect the British Antarctic Territory from German raiders or South American nationalists, as tensions grew over the sovereignty and the waters of the South Atlantic Ocean became increasingly dangerous.

Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island became the first British base in Antarctica in 1944, and is now home to the world’s southernmost public Post Office, a museum and a colony of gentoo penguins.

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While Bransfield House, made from pre-fabricated timber supplied from naval stores at the start of Operation Tabarin and Port Lockroy’s only surviving wartime building, has faced a modern threat: increasing rain and rot thought to be a result of climate change.

Now as its 80th anniversary year approaches, preparations are underway for the ultimate ‘DIY SoS’ repair, to be carried out in challenging conditions with limited materials by a West Linton joiner.  

Father of two Graham Gillie will be among a UK Antarctic Heritage Trust team heading to Port Lockroy in December, to conduct urgent conservation repair work at Bransfield House.

While there, he will tackle crucial work to fix the historic property’s roof, damaged by an excessive snow fall and increased rain which has rotted the trusses.

During his five month stay, he will share accommodation with seven others, living in a basic Nissen hut on the football pitch-sized Goudier Island, where there is no running water, no flushing toilets, limited electricity from solar panels and around 1,000 penguins for company.

As well as working on Bransfield House, he’ll travel to neighbouring Detaille Island to spend a month carrying out repairs to a building  used by British scientists during the 1950s as a base for mapping, geology and meteorology testing.

Today it is a protected historic site, rich in artefacts left behind when it was hastily evacuated in 1959. 

While the repairs have taken two years of careful planning, how much is done will hinge heavily on weather conditions, how much materials he has to complete the jobs and staying safe during one of the most remote conservation jobs on earth.

That aside, just being able to get on along with his fellow team members in such close confines will be the ultimate Big Brother style challenge.

“We will be living in fairly close quarters with five of us at a time all sleeping in the same small bunk room – it’s pretty close,” he says. “You do have to just accept that’s the way it is.

“It is a very small island, only slightly bigger than a football pitch, so there’s not really anywhere to go.”

While Graham’s focus is on carrying out maintenance of the historic buildings, others will conduct a penguin count as part of a long-term study of the breeding success of the gentoo penguin colony.

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They will also be responsible for upholding the strict protocols and standards in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty, to ensure the environment is properly cared for.

At Port Lockroy, Graham will have to evaluate weather conditions daily to ensure each task can be completed, minimising exposure to the extreme cold and ensuring strict protocols that protect the penguin colony. 

While at neighbouring Detaille Island, he’ll join a field team to conduct a detailed survey of the site and prepare vital specialist reports.

The team’s visit is the first full conservation season to take place at the historic site since 2012-13. 

It will involve essential repairs to the buildings and assessment of the conditions of the artefacts left behind when the base was evacuated hurriedly in 1959 as sea ice closed in on the scientific team.

The work will not only protect the buildings and their contents from the ongoing challenges of the Antarctic environment but aims to improve understanding of their condition and character in order to inform future conservation work. 

A fifth-generation joiner, Graham, 56, spent the first 20 years of his career in Edinburgh working on conserving and repairing historic buildings and landmarks alongside his father in the family business, Thomas Gillie and Sons.

He is no stranger to what awaits – this is his third time working in the Antarctic, having first spent a winter as a carpenter working with the British Antarctic Survey at Halley Research Station in 2004.

“I was looking for a change of direction at the time,” he says. “And it changed my life.

“It is such a difficult place to describe – it turned out to be nothing like I imagined. It was more special and extraordinary than I thought it would be.”

He went on to spend further seasons at Port Lockroy, working in the small shop which caters for the handful of tourists and constructing  the Nissen hut accommodation.

This time around he will be away from wife Anna, a doctor, and his two sons, Thomas, 14 and James, 12, over Christmas, with only tinned and dried food for supplies.

He adds: “The idea of conservation work is to do as little as possible but to keep the fabric of the building in good condition.

“So, I will be trying to use as much of the original material as possible. Plus, it’s difficult to get materials there.

“One of the jobs at Port Lockroy will be to replace one of the roof trusses that was cracked by the heavy snowfall.

“It’s the kind of job that if you were doing it in the UK, you would replace the whole truss, but out there I’ll only be able to replace the broken bit.

“It’s involved a lot of planning – the materials I need will be sent a month beforehand and I just have to hope I’ve got all the right stuff.”

While the work has already taken two years of preparation and planning, he says he won’t know the exact scale of repair work required until he arrives.

“I’m excited to go back,” he adds. “The experience of living and working in Antarctica is like no other. It’s a privilege.”


A real-life war time ice station

Operation Tabarin was the code name for a secret Second World War British mission to the Antarctic.

Conducted by the Admiralty, its key objective was to establish permanently occupied bases carrying out a range of routine administrative and scientific tasks, while boosting British claims to the Falkland Islands Dependencies.

The move – effectively an audacious bid to claim the continent for Britain - was made against a backdrop of rising tension over sovereignty which had risen in scale since the outbreak of war.

When German warship Pingvin intercepted and captured 11 Norwegian whalers and 23,000 tons of whale oil in 1941 – impacting manufacture of margarine and, in turn, British food supplies - fears grew that Argentina would mount a claim on Antarctica.

The mission began with the establishment of two bases in early 1944: Base B at Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, and the main one, Base A at Port Lockroy, Wiencke Island.

However, the men, a mix of scientists, biologists and other specialists, deployed at the bases endured long, arduous winters in terrible conditions suffering frostbite and at one point having to make way for 10,000 penguins which invaded one of the bases.

While there, they carried out a range of experiments, including a failed attempt to transplant plants and soil from the Falkland Islands and meteorological and sea ice observations.

The mission laid the foundations for the British Antarctic Survey, and science projects and research that has helped inform better understanding of the planet.