Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition

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The vehicles, team and kit laid out.
The expedition vehicles alongside one of the Nairn Transport Marmon-Herrington buses.
One of many challenging mountain passes.
The access pontoon to a ferry across the Brahmaputra river.
The fording of a small river near a village in India.
On a sand dune looking out over the Indian Ocean.

The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition was a 1955-6 journey undertaken by six Oxford & Cambridge university students in two Land Rover Series I Station Wagons from London to Singapore.

The Expedition was inspired by the earlier 1954 Oxford and Cambridge Trans-Africa Expedition, which was developed and planned by Adrian Cowell.[1]

The University expedition was primarily sponsored by Land Rover, who provided the vehicles, but was also sponsored by a total of more than 80 other third parties through both loaned and donated equipment and supplies, ranging from whiskey to collapsible buckets, as well as monetary donations. The expedition was both filmed and documented, and the footage broadcast in the mid-50s on the BBC, which gave it the film in the first place at the behest of David Attenborough.

A book recounting the expedition, entitled First Overland, was written by Tim Slessor two years after the historic journey, and the expedition has been frequently referred to as the First Overland ever since. The expedition, its account, and the accompanying film footage are historically significant, as they not only recount the first such journey of this type by vehicle, but also provide the last recorded vehicular journey along the Ledo Road from India into Burma, as shortly afterwards the border between the two countries was closed.

Team members[edit]

All of the expedition members were drawn from either Oxford University or Cambridge University, and all had just finished their degrees when they set out on the expedition, with the exception of Nigel Newbery, who had one year left, and who, incidentally was the only Oxford student. The expedition members and their roles on the expedition were as follows:

  • Antony "B.B." Barrington Brown - Cameraman
  • Adrian Cowell - Business Manager
  • Patrick Murphy - Navigator and Chef
  • Nigel Newbery - Quartermaster and Mechanic
  • Henry Nott - Chief Engineer
  • Tim Slessor - Scribe and Assistant Cameraman

Vehicles[edit]

The two Land Rover Series I Station Wagons, one painted in Cambridge Blue, the other in the darker shade of Oxford, were given to the expedition by Land Rover, and were straight off the production line. From Land Rover's point of view the expedition was both an extensive road-test and a great publicity opportunity for the vehicle before its 1956 commercial release. The new station wagons were very different from the previous 1949 wooden-framed Tickford model, being built with simple aluminium panels and bolt-together construction instead of the complex wooden structure of the older model.

They were intended to be used both as commercial vehicles as people-carriers for transporting workmen to remote locations and for private use, but they were also advertised to the military of various countries along the route, and notably, in both the book and film, in Afghanistan. Like the Tickford version, they came with basic interior trim and equipment such as roof vents and interior lights. The vehicles taken on the expedition were also fitted with the station wagon "Safari Roof" which consisted of a second roof skin fitted on top of the vehicle. This kept the interior cooler in hot weather and reduced condensation in cold weather.

The expedition vehicles had the 86.0 in (2184 mm) steel wheelbase, produced between 1954 and 1956, and the larger 2.0 litre I4 unit engine, which had replaced the 1.6 litre version in 1952. Slight modifications to the two vehicles taken on the expedition included the addition of a front-mounted jerry can on either side of the grille, a spotlight on each vehicle, an additional 100 gallon petrol tank in the rear of each vehicle, and front mounted engine-driven winches.

Route[edit]

After setting off from Hyde Park in London, on 1 September 1955,[2][1] the expedition crossed the English channel in one of the Bristol Freighter air freighters of Silver City Airways; thereafter its route took it through France, Monaco, Germany, Austria, Jugoslavia (in areas now parts of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia), Greece, Turkey (crossing the Bosphorus by boat), Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Singapore

This was the first time that this route, or one similar to it, had been attempted in its entirety by vehicle. It would be one of the longest of all overland journeys, from the English Channel to Singapore. Several expeditions had already tried, and some had even got as far as the deserts of Iran or the plains of India, but none had managed to traverse the jungle-clad mountains of Assam and cross northern Burma and Thailand to Malaya. Many elements of the route taken had previously been deemed as anything from highly risky in terms of the possibility of vehicles breaking down in isolated locations to being totally impassable up to that point.

One such stretch of the journey was the desert run between Damascus and Baghdad, a gruelling fourteen and a half hour drive across largely virgin desert only for the adventurous or one of a handful of specialised vehicles, such as the Nairn Transport Company's two Marmon-Herrington 6x6 articulated buses. Another such stretch was the narrow mountain route into Nepal, where previously, for sections along the route, vehicles had hitherto been dismantled and carried over obstacles, but which the two Land Rovers drove.

The other obvious example is of course the most famous stretch following the Ledo Road, constructed by General Stilwell of the U.S. Army during World War II, from Ledo in the Assam province in India through to the Mong-Yu junction with the Burma Road in North Burma. This section of road, which had largely fallen into disrepair following the War as an area controlled by head hunters and bandits, spanned 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams, averaging one bridge every 2.8 miles (4.5 km).

Each of these had to be pre-emptively checked and tested by the expedition members before any crossings were attempted, and, frequently, the vehicles had to chance it and ford the rivers. At one point in the journey, crossing the Brahmaputra river in India, it did become necessary for the Cambridge vehicle to pull the Oxford vehicle to safety using the vehicle's front mounted winch. In Northern Thailand there was also a stretch of 100 miles where no proper road had ever been constructed, and the expedition had to cut its way through the jungle.

Arriving on 6 March 1956, the journey to Singapore took six months and six days, during which time the expedition had traversed 18,000 miles. They then enjoyed 3 weeks of rest and relaxation and a little fieldwork, before shipping one car back to Rangoon and one to Calcutta en route back to London. They arrived back in August 1956.

Legacy[edit]

Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to South America (1957-8)[edit]

The next joint expedition was the 1957-8 Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to South America, on which at least two team members from the Singapore journey took part: Adrian Cowell and Nigel Newbery.

Eric Edis expedition (1957-9)[edit]

Between 1957-9, working class Londoner Eric Edis led a sixteen-person team on an overland expedition from London to Singapore and then on to Australia and back to the UK - the first man to make the round trip overland and with no sponsorship. He was also the only man to cross the 'closed' Burmese border twice unaided. See Eric Edis' book "The Impossible Takes A Little Longer".

First Overland (1957)[edit]

Cover of a modern edition of the book.

First Overland: London-Singapore by Land Rover is the 1957 book recounting the expedition by Tim Slessor, originally published by The Companion Book Club under the title First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. The 2005 50th anniversary edition, published by Signal Books Ltd also contains a foreword by Sir David Attenborough, who is listed as co-author. The book is the main source of information about the expedition and its fullest account, as the footage and subsequent programmes made with it only cover a small portion of what the six students did and experienced on their long journey.

one might reasonably claim that both the journey and its telling are now regarded as classics of their kind...

—from the foreword by Sir David Attenborough

50th Anniversary of the Expedition (2006)[edit]

On the 50th Anniversary of the Expedition, the five surviving members (all except Henry Nott) traveled once more to the Far East and recreated the last leg of their journey, covering the 350 km from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on 4 March 2006. The following day, the five men did the one thing they forgot in 1956 - they followed Rudyard Kipling's instruction to "feed at Raffles" and enjoyed brunch at the Bar and Billiard Room and Singapore Slings at the Long Bar.

The 1955 route as a whole is now deemed largely impassable, not least because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also on account of the fact that the Indian border with Burma was closed in 1958 due to an insurgency along that frontier and in the province of Assam against the Government of India. The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition was the last recorded vehicular journey along the Ledo Road route from India into Burma. At present,[when?] the northern border of what is now Myanmar is open to local trade, but to this day it remains totally closed to foreigners, and the whole border is closed to any non-locals in vehicles.

Adaption for screen[edit]

The expedition set out with only a limited quantity of film from the BBC, but with the promise of more from David Attenborough if the initial material sent back was good. In the end there was enough material for 3 short films for the BBC series 'Traveller's Tales' which were shot in colour, but only transmitted in black and white.

In the late 50s there was no home recording technology like VHS, so once broadcast, the films faded from view and have only been seen occasionally since. Recently they have been re-mastered and edited, with a commentary by the cameraman Antony Barrington-Brown and Tim Slessor, and interviews with Nigel Newbery, Pat Murphy, Adrian Cowell and Sir David Attenborough. The DVD also has an 'extra' about the making of the original films and the rescuing of the footage.

References[edit]

  • Slessor, Tim. (1957), First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, The Companion Book Club, London.

External links[edit]