Saturday, 30 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.8: Suspense.

Developments became swift, unpredictable, and often bitterly disappointing.  The massive rescue operation had been mounted, but it was not well co-ordinated.  A number of the attempts ran into difficulties.  The messages received by Biagi showed clearly how many different plans were afoot, and at what stage each one had come to a temporary halt.  It was exasperating to be tired to the Red Tent, in the middle of a steadily disintegrating ice floe, and be unable to do anything to expedite matters apart from sending out successive sets of co-ordinates by way of guidance.

By June 18, Maddalena in his big Savoia S-55 hydroplane got as far only as King's Bay.  By the same date a second hydroplane, piloted by Penzo, had reached the north of Norway.  There he found two other three-engined planes ready to set off, one of them piloted by a Swede, the other by a Finn.  At Tromso there was yet another hydroplane, a French one this time, piloted by a French air ace named Guilbaud.  The most significant fact about this plane was that it had been organised by the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen who, in 1911, had reached the South Pole.  He was flying with Guilbaud.  All this was truly heartening news.

At seven o'clock on the morning of June 19 Maddalena was spotted by the castaways.  His giant seaplane was very much more than a mere speck in the sky that the earlier planes had been.  But, like those earlier planes, it too flew to within a couple of miles of the tent and then, to the exasperation of the watchers, turned away and disappeared over the horizon.  Apparently it had failed to spot the Red Tent.  This was all the more unaccountable because Nobile had marked out a possible landing ground with makeshift flags.  He had radioed this fact to the base ship, asking the operator to notify any airmen searching for the tent that there was an adequate landing ground close at hand.  True, a seaplane could not touch down on the ice, but there were plenty of sea lanes open on all sides of the ice floe on which the tent was pitched.

Nobile thought of everything.  Among his innumerable suggestions was a highly practical one: pilots of searching aircraft were advised to twist and turn so that they could survey the ices cape below them with the sun at their backs as well as in their eyes.  But these frustrating sightings of roving aircraft continued, and each in turn, as though deliberately, banked away from positions in which it would seem they could not possibly miss the Red Tent.  The Norwegian Riier-Larsen actually appeared three times; but each time, though a smoke signal was duly sent up, he failed to locate the tent.

Then, on June 20, when the marooned men were almost frantic with exasperation, the big S-55 hydroplane, with Major Maddalena at the controls, came into sight once more.  This time Biagi managed to make contact with it through his transmitter.  He sent out a message and received a reply.  Actually they found it would be possible to "talk down" a plane from the sky.  Not, of course, that they could really do this, for the S-55 was a hydroplane and they could not tell exactly where an adequate sea lane might be found.  But they were at least in touch with her, and could exchange information.

Almost unable to control his excitement, Biagi radioed the instructions that Viglieri was giving him.  Maddalena was to turn his plane so many degrees to starboard, so many to port, and to hold that direction.  It was, he radioed, heading directly for them.  The others, including Nobile, who had been dragged out of the tent, watched in intense silence.  For the first time in all these long days, when they had almost given up hope, they were in actual contact with a rescuer.  If they had once secretly sneered at Biagi and his transmitter, now they were more grateful to him than they could say.

Suddenly, as the big hydroplane came towards them, cruising almost overhead, they saw an arm emerge from the open cockpit.  A hand waved.  It was almost as though they had all shaken hands!  Nobile ordered a new signal: "K.K.K."  It was the agreed code signal for dropping provisions.

Packages began to fall on to the ice immediately, drifting in the slipstream so that they became scattered far and wide.  Then, having circled the tent and landing ground, the Savoia soared into the sky and headed badk the way she had come.  This time, however, she did not leave behind her a group of angry and frustrated men.  They knew they had at last been located, and took it for granted that the hydroplane, having been unable to find a sea lane wide and long enough to come down on, was returning to base to tell other rescue parties where the castaways were to be found and what was the best way to approach them.

The four able-bodied men immediately started to scour the ice for the packages the had been thrown down.  Some had fallen into crevasses and sunk out of sight.  But many of them they did recover.  It was a delighted group of men who sat around the various packages that had been assembled for examination.

There were provisions, of course.  There were six pairs of boots, items of equipment of which they were sorely in need.  There were a couple of sleeping bags large enough to take two men apiece.  Up to now, only the two badly injured men had enjoyed this comparative luxury.  There were some smoke signals.  There were two collapsible boats.  There were two rifles, though unfortunately both had been broken on impact with the ice.  Lastly, there were some new batteries.  But Biagi discover, with the deepest disappointment, that these too had smashed when they fell.  As far as transmitting was concerned, he was no better off than before.

They had to be thankful for small mercies. Certainly the boots were very welcome, and the sleeping bags too.  Possibly even the collapsible boats would prove useful.  But this was not likely, they reminded themselves, because when they were rescued it would be by a well equipped party who would have all the necessary gear.  

That evening Nobile gave Biagi an even more detailed message than usual to transmit.  He had realised - perhaps because of the disappointment at receiving batteries that could not be used - that it might be touch and go whether they could maintain contact much longer with their would-be rescuers.  So, this new message must contain as much essential information and instruction as could be crammed into it while the last reserves of the battery remained.

He opened the message diplomatically, with an expression of gratitude to Captain Romagna, Master of the Citta di Milano, who, he assumed, was ultimately responsible for the various rescue parties that were being organised.  "Thank you for the thrill we felt today," it began, "when we saw a plane from our beloved country flying over our camp."

Then he launched into the major part of the message, the vital part:

"Please send us more batteries, urgently.  Pack them well: the last arrived broken and useless.  Send also a stove, with solid fuel.  Medicines.  A pair of oversize boots: Viglieri cannot wear any of those we have so far received.  Snow-glasses:  these are absolutely vital.  More chocolate and malted milk: we have sufficient pemmican, but anyway need a change badly.  Local conditions: important.  Rising temperature is melting the ice.  This will handicap any sledge rescue party: advise them accordingly.  Consult Amundsen: he knows better than anyone else how to meet conditions in polar regions.  I suggest most practicable step is to rescue us by air - if necessary, only one at a time.  Weather is clear at present, but for may result from the higher tenperature.  A plane fitted with skis can certainly land near us, on our landing ground.  But a hydroplane should accompany it, making use of one of the larger leads.  We are still drifting, but more slowly than before.  If a sledge party is on its way already, an aircraft should circle above it to give warning of any sea lanes ahead that may be too wide to cross without a boat.  I repeat:  we must have new batteries, securely packed this time, or we may not be able to send any more information as to our whereabouts.  Please report news of Malmgren's party with the least possible delay.  We are anxious about them."

It was the longest message he had given to Biagi to transmit.  There was unwitting irony in that last sentence.  For the date of the message was just five days after, at Malmgren's insistence, Zappi and Mariano had left him to die alone on the ice, unable to walk another step.

The message had an almost immediate effect.  Within twenty-four hours or so the big hydroplane appeared again.  This time it was accompanied by a second one.  They circled the Red Tent, at a greater height than the first time, and dropped a number of packages each attached to a small parachute.  The happy result was that not one item was broken on impact with the ice.  It took longer to collect them because dangling from parachutes, they had scattered more widely.  Before leaving, Maddalena came as low as he dared and, leaning out of the cockpit, called down to the six men beneath him: "Arrivederci!" The one word, with its hint of "Be seeing you!" rather than merely "Good-bye!", heartened the men on the ice more than any other salute could have done.  Penzo, in the second hydroplane, did the same, before winging away.

The six men sat down to the most varied meal they had had for nearly a month.  To be able to ignore the loathed pemmican and the nauseous bear's meat and, instead, break open a fresh-baked cake seemed bliss to the half-starved men.  They enjoyed their meal, which included preserves and fresh fruit, among other luxuries, and chatted with renewed animation about their prospects for the immediate future.

Not one of them believed that it could be more than hours - a day at most - before rescue came.  Maddalena would report back to base with their exact position; the southeasterly drift had almost entirely ceased; the weather was less bitterly cold; they had food in their larder, and hope in their hearts.  Not the least important commodity that had been dropped to them - and, curiously, one that Nobile had not actually asked for - was cigarettes.  Very soon the Red Tent was thick with tobacco smoke and Titina had to scuttle out into the open air as she was half-stifled by so much smoke in such confined quarters.

By a happy chance - or perhaps by design - the small parachutes to which the packages had been attached were made of bright red silk.  They were all carefully collected as they would serve admirably to mark out the landing ground for the planes which were now expected at any minute.  Viglieri and Behounek made themselves responsible for this task.  They marked out a large strip of relatively smooth ice with no cracks in it.  Then Nobile dictated the following message to Biagi, for transmission:

"All most useful and welcome supplies received in good condition.  Our heartfelt thanks to you.  A new landing ground suitable for ski-equipped planes is laid out 150 yards to the southwest of our tent.  Its length is 325 yards; width is 250 yards.  Ice is relatively flat and smooth, but airmen must beware hummocks.  No leads in that vicinity at present, but we cannot guarantee immunity indefinitely.  Suggest immediate flight to rescue us.  Weather still most good."

Like all his messages, it was informative and helpful.  What Nobile could not know was that for some reason that particular message was never received by the radio operator aboard the base ship.  He suspected that this might be the case as there was nothing in the base ship's replies to suggest that is information had been received.  It was just one of a sequence of mysterious instances of breakdown among the various unco-ordinated attempts at rescue which were then under way at the hands of the Swedes and Norwegians, the French, the Finns and the Italians.

The greatest anxiety that the party had to endure was the realisation that the ice floe was steadily disintegrating below them.  The men on sentry duty redoubled their vigilance, but they were really helpless.  The floe could break asunder below their tent as easily as anywhere else.  It could also break up right across the landing strip that they had so carefully marked out.

Behounek and Nobile discussed the problem endlessly.  At the moment, admittedly, it was a purely hypothetical one; but it could, without warning, become real and immediate.  They decided that the only useful precaution they could take was to store all their food and equipment in the two collapsible boats that had been dropped from the Savoia on her second flight.  In that way, if the ice were to break up so that they had to abandon the site, or possibly even find themselves in the water and have somehow to escape from it, at least their vital provisions and equipment would be safe.  They could then scramble into the boats and make their way along the lead to the nearest promising ice shelf.

Uneasily, the men went to sleep, mulling over their prospects, hoping against hope that the first of the several rescue parties would have reached them before they had to undergo so terrifying an experience.

During that night, Nobile lay awake for a long time, turning over in his mind the question of who should be taken off the ice first, assuming (as he thought most likely) that the rescue was effected by air rather than by a sledge party, since the ice was breaking up so rapidly.  He had no doubt about his own position: as leader of the expedition he must be the last to be taken off the ice; like the master of a sinking ship, he must stay on board until everyone else had been taken off.  Never for one moment did he allow the fact that he was the most badly incapacitated of the occupants of the tent to influence him: well or ill, his duty was to remain to the last.

It was obvious to him that any plane which could land on the ice would be limited in its capacity to pick up passengers.  It would, of course, have a pilot; in the circumstances it would almost certainly have a navigator or observer as well.  Therefore in all probability, since these ski-equipped planes were for the most part only small craft, only one passenger at a time could be carried in addition to the two-man crew.  So, six flights in all would probably be necessary before the airlift was completed.

In the darkness of the tent and the comparative warmth of the sleeping bag he had shared for almost a month with Cecioni, he worked out the order.  Cecioni must certainly be the first to go.  As the only other badly injured member of the party he merited priority treatment.  After Cecioni, Behounek, the Czechoslovakian professor, was the next most deserving: he had suffered a good deal and was less well-equipped physically to stand the strain than some of the others.  For nearly a month he had endured the discomfort of a badly wrenched right arm.  He had mentioned it very rarely, for he was something of a stoic, and his leader had watched him with admiration for his courage and fortitude.

Guiseppe Biagi, of course, must remain to the last, for he was essential, being their radio operator.  But Trojani, who had been suffering for some time past with an internal disorder that none of the medicines received seemed to alleviate, deserved priority too.  So he must be the third to go.  That left Viglieri, who was in very good shape.  He should be next, before Biagi.  And he himself, Umberto Nobile, should be the last to be taken off; that was his firm decision.

Next morning, Nobile announced the order in which the party would be taken off the ice.  No one challenged it, though Behounek mildly said he felt the leader himself, worse injured than any of the others, should have absolute priority.  Nobile met his glance, and Behounek understood what was in his mind, and said no more.  But the very fact that the order of rescue had been established brought a new sense of security to the men; it was almost as though the actual moment of their deliverance had arrived.

It was the evening of June 23, four weeks and a day since Italia had crashed. At five minutes to nine Biagi sent out his customary signal to the base ship.  There had been no reply - as was so often the case, to their disappointment and occasional anger,  They were sitting in the tent, eating their evening meal.  No one spoke much at mealtimes; in any case, every possible subject for discussion had been turned over until it was worn thin and discarded.  There was really only one topic that held any real importance for them: when would the rescue party appear?

Suddenly Titina barked.  Almost immediately they heard a thrumming-throbbing sound, as of a plane.  But they had heard this sound so often, and so often looked up only to see a scouting plane veer away and vanish over the horizon, that only two of them, Biagi and Viglieri, bothered to leave the tent.

What they saw, however, led them to summon the others at the top of their voices.  "Planes approaching!"  they yelled in chorus.  The others came out of the tent, Nobile and Cecioni last, dragging themselves painfully out of their sleeping bag.  Viglieri and Biagi raced across to the landing ground a hundred yards away.  Trojani prepared a smoke signal, and set it off.  Then he reached for a Very light pistol, though it was unlikely that this would be required since light conditions at the time were quite good.

There were two planes.  One, a hydroplane, remained at a considerable height above the ice; but by the circle she was describing in the air it was quite evident that her pilot knew where he was.  The other was a much smaller plane, a Fokker military plane equipped with skis.  It was rapidly losing height, the pilot steering an accurate course of the expanse of ice laid out with marker flags made of the red parachutes.

The six men watched the plane as it came lower and lower, lower and lower.  It was obvious that it was not merely on reconnaissance, but intended to make a landing.  For a moment or two it gave the impression that it was going to rise, but Viglieri and Biagi realised that its pilot was dodging an uneven patch of ice as he made his landing approach.  Almost immediately, he touched down.  The propeller slowed, and stopped spinning.  The small aircraft had made a perfect touchdown on its skis and now rested on the ice, like some gigantic silent mosquito.

A man well wrapped in flying kit and wearing a helmet with goggles, clambered over the side of the cockpit, dropped neatly on the ice, turned, and came forward to greet Viglieri and Biagi with outstretched hand.  "Lieutenant Einar-Paal Lundborg of the Swediish Air Force," he introduced himself formally.  Then, flanked on either hand by the two Italians, he marched briskly across the ice towards the tent to salute General Nobile, who had been hoisted on to his feet by Trojani and Behounek just long enough to welcome the airman erect before being carefully laid down again in the position he had occupied for so many weary weeks.

"I have come, General," said Lundborg, "to take you back to base."  He spoke formally, as Swedes always do.  Indeed, there was almost a note of challenge, certainly of authority, as he said the words.

Nobile took it as a challenge.  Only a few hours before he had been working out a most carefully planned order of rescue; now a rescuer had turned up and without preliminaries told him that he, Nobile himself, was to be the first man to be taken off the ice.  This went against all his strongest feelings, against the tradition which had guided him as he made his advance arrangements.  He could not accept it.

"I am sorry, Lieutenant," he replied, with as much dignity as he could muster from his lowly position on the floor of the tent.  "I have already informed my companions of the order in which they are to be taken off from here if, as seems to be the case, it has to be only one at a time."

'You are quite right in one respect, General," Lundborg said.  "I have my navigator with me, Lieutenant Schyberg.  We can manage only one passenger at a time.  But you must be that passenger.  I have been given my orders.  My instructions are that you are to be the first member of the party to be flown back to base.  Kindly make haste.  The plane must not be kept waiting unduly."

There was the true note of authority in his clipped phrases.  Nobile had the good sense to recognise that, though he was the leader of the expedition, the one man with real authority in the present circumstances was the caption of the military plane which had been sent to their assistance as a result of his distress signals.  In his unhappy dilemma he was considerably helped by Behounek and Viglieri, both of whom urged him to agee to Lundborg's request without further delay.  Nobile, however, made one more attempt.  He drew Lundborg's attention to Cecioni, badly injured, lying beside him.  But the Swedish Lieutenant was adamant.  "Please, General," he insisted curtly, "do not make my task harder than it need be."

With as good grace as he could muster, Nobile gave in.  Already Behounek was gathering together his few belongings.  Biagi and Viglieri were preparing the battered sledge so that he could be carried across the ice for the hundred yards or so between the tent and the Fokker.  Between them, the two men picked up their leader and laid him on the sledge, with Titina in his arms.  Then the four able-bodied men picked up the sledge and carried it, like a stretcher, away from the tent in which he had lain immobile for so many weeks.  Cecioni, alone, remained in the tent.  He had not made any complaint at not being the first, after all, to be taken off the ice.

As they approached the Fokker, whose engine had been started up again, so that the propeller was idling slowly, Lieutenant Schyberg came across to meet them.  With his help, Nobile was lifted carefully over the side of the cockpit and made as comfortable as possible behind the pilot's seat.  Then the two airmen climbed briskly aboard.  Leaning out of the cockpit, Lundborg assured the others grouped about the plane that he would soon be back, to pick them up one by one.  Or better still, now that he had tested the landing ground, perhaps a larger plane could be sent, capable of taking two or three of them at a time.  The ice, he said, was better for landing on than he had anticipated.

Nobile called out to the others to be of good heart.  Viglieri, he told them, was to be regarded as in charge, at his departure.  They must obey Viglieri's orders, if any had to be given, just as they would have obeyed his own had he been able to stay with them to the end.

It was midnight when, at Lundborg's request, the four men turned the Fokker around into the wind.  Then, at his warning, they stood back.  The propeller whirred and the small plane vibrated on its skis.  It whirred faster, and the plane began to move forward, its skis crackling on the rough ice surface.  The wings tilted up and down as the plane rocked, gathering speed fast.  Lundborg's mouth was set in a tight, thin line.  In the few minutes between touching down and taking off he had seen enough of the ice to be anxious to get away from it.  Not until he felt the Fokker lift into the air would he feel at ease.

It lifted, with one final thrust from underfoot, as though something had deliberately kicked it sharply from below.  A moment later it was clear, rising cleanly into the air.  It swung a few points to port, and within a minute or so the little cluster of men on the ice could see nothing but the faint blur in the sky which, during the past days, they had so often seen.  Nobile must have been glad that, from his position in the cockpit, cramped so that his broken leg was paining him worse than it had done for four weeks past, he could not see his companions grouped disconsolately on the ice floe, about to turn and walk slowly back to the Red Tent.  He clasped his small terrier a little more closely, and lay there, speculating as to what the immediate future held for him, and for them.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Great British Rubbish 01: Denny Willis & Quorn Quartet - The Fox Has Left His Lair

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.7: The Red Tent.

The six men in the Red Tent had watched Malmgren and his two companions trudge off southward with mixed feelings.  There was the awareness that the trio might be the means of effecting their rescue from their perilous plight.  There was also the sense of increased desolation.  With their strength divided, they were that much weaker; and the only member of the whole marooned party with any intimate knowledge of survival in Arctic conditions, Finn Malmgren, the Swede, had gone.  Nobile felt his loss the most. Malmgren had been one of his closest companions on the Norge flight one the Pole at Alaska two years before; this was a link that he was sorry to break.  Though basically optimistic, he had a nagging sense that he had said a final good-bye to his friend.

But it was no good just sitting around feeling deserted.  There was work to be done.  The six men knew that it was better to keep busy, even if at times it seemed rather pointless, than to moon about doing nothing but brood over their present circumstances and their all-too-possible fate.

Lieutenant-Commander Alfredo Vigieri, the youngest of the survivors, set about making an exact inventory of the remaining supplies.  It was his idea to link together each container of pemmican, chocolate and other foodstuff by lengths of cord.  In the event of the ice breaking up under the tent, it should then be possible to salvage all the supplies when the crevasse opened to receive them.

Engineer Felice Trojani and Professor Francis Behounek undertook to do such cooking as was feasible with their very limited resources.  Natale Cecioni, Chief Technician by rank, even if largely incapacitated and unable to move about - except very clumsily, dragging his broken leg painfully behind him - could still be of service in various ways.  He was a generally handy man, with a flair for making things, often out of the unlikeliest materials.  The first job he undertook was to make a pair of special boots for Viglieri, whose pervious pair had disintegrated.  He happened to have outsized feet, and to make boots for him called for some ingenuity.  Cecioni solved the problem by utilising the though and resilient material of which a tool kit had been made.

Biagi, of course, had one steady task which no other claim on his time was permitted to interrupt: the radio transmitter and receiving set.  Apart from Nobile, he was the only member of the party who stuck firmly to the belief that he would ultimately establish contact with the outside world.  There had certainly been plenty to quench his faith: in all the time they had been on the ice, there had been no evidence that his messages were being received.  But still his faith, and that of his leader, held fast.

In addition to his assumption of responsibility for organising the castaways' larder, Viglieri made regular and frequent observations as to their position.  Since it had been established that the ice floe on which they were situated was drifting steadily it was of vital importance that their true position be checked from day to day, even from hour to hour, so that it could be communicated to the would-be rescuers when Biagi at last made contact with them.

Nobile had disregarded Malmgren's advice to husband his batteries by cutting down on the frequency of his transmissions.  (Reception, of course, was less of a drain on them, and Malmgren had never suggested that Biagi should let up on his listening-in for messages.)  In fact, he told Biagi to step up the length of his regular transmissions from ten minutes at a time to thirty minutes; a day or two later he doubled even that.  He drafted new messages constantly, in French as well as in Italian, though it still remained basically "S.O.S. Italia!"  But there was no response to the continuous signals.  The four other members of the party found it difficult not to look scornfully at Biagi, crouched there over his emergency radio; they were certain he was wasting his time.  Biagi knew well what his companions were feeling, but deliberately refrained from entering into any argument with them; he was an even-tempered man, fortunately.

For the first few days after the departure of Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano, nothing happened to lighten the misery of the six men in the Red Tent.  It is true that there was now more room inside, but Nobile at least would have been content to lose that extra space and welcome the three men back.

One thing, however, happened to break the grim monotony.  Crouched together, sheltering from a light snowstorm, they heard Titina barking furiously not far away.  As usual, she had been allowed out on her own: they had long realised that she would never venture very far.  Trojani was on sentry duty, alert for further cracks in the ice floe.  Suspecting some danger, he called to the others to join him.  The three men who were mobile came scrambling out of the tent, and were just in time to see a massive polar bear in full retreat with the small terrier yapping madly at its heels as though it was nothing more than a lumbering sheep.  Trojani took a pot shot at it, bit in the poor visibility missed, and the bear vanished in the snow.  Titina gave up the chase and returned, highly pleased with herself, to be welcomed by her master with a precious fragment of biscuit.

By June 6 - one week after the departure of Malmgren and his two companions - the morale of the whole party had deteriorated badly.  Even Biagi had begun to surrender to the prevailing mood of pessimism.  Hour after hour, by day and by night, he had worked at his radio transmitter, so far as he could tell, without any success.  If it had not been for the firm faith expressed by Nobile, he would more than once, in the last day or two, have been tempted to give up in despair.  A factor that contributed to the steady decline in their morale was Viglieri's regular reports that their ice floe was drifting steadily farther and farther southeastward, away from the direction from which rescue, if it came at all, was most likely to come.  As day succeeded dismal day, their hopes became fainter and fainter.

But that very evening the first ray of real hope shot like a brilliant shaft of light across the darkness that filled the mind of every member of the party, even Nobile's.  Biagi, headphones clamped to his ears under the flaps of his fur hat, suddenly jerked as though an electric shock had passed through his frame.  "They've heard us!" he yelled to the occupants of the tent nearby.  "They've…" He broke off.  Viglieri, who was first out of the tent, saw him scribbling hard in the little notebook in which he meticulously recorded all transmissions and messages received, with the exact times of each.  The men waited in agonised silence until Biagi's pencil ceased to move over the paper.

For a minute or so Biagi did not speak.  He was listening intently for the possible repetition of the message he had just recorded.  Then, suddenly, he put pencil to paper once more.  The utter silence of the snowy waste seemed to intensify as he did so.  No one moved.  And after what seemed to the others an eternity, Biagi turned and, still with his headphones clamped to his ears, read out what he had just written down:

"Soviet Embassy… has informed… Italian Government… that Italia's distress-call… intercepted by a Soviet amateur at… Archangel.. night of June 3…"

It was the most terrific news.  At first the five men who heard it could not believe their ears.  That, after two weeks almost to the day, their message had been picked up was almost as impossible to believe as it had been to accept the fact that none of their messages had been received by the base ship.  The men felt stunned.  They looked at each other as "stout Cortex" did when he and all his men "with a wild surmise" gazed at each other as they came for the first time within sight of the Pacific.

Gradually, however, they settled down to debate the implications of the message.  It was only then that the significance of the date of June 3 dawned on them.  This was the evening of June 6; the Russian amateur had picked up their distress call three days earlier.  Its urgency had been recognised; the Italian Government had been informed.  This would mean that already rescue parties would be on their way!

Nobile immediately stepped up the frequency of the messages; he was sure that more and more stations would be listening for them, and "right round the clock".  It was essential that the latest estimated position of the Red Tent should be transmitted as frequently as possible.  Particularly at eight o'clock in the evening, the hour when the very powerful Eiffel Tower transmitter in Paris, operating on the same short-wave length, thirty-two metres, was transmitting; for short-wave operators in many parts of the world listened-in to it; their chance of rescue would be that much more increased.

The regular signal now read: "S.O.S. Italia. Nobile.  On ice floe northeast of Spitsbergen.  Latitude-; longitude-."  (These co-ordinates, as they are called, were revised every time Viglieri was able to supply new ones as a result of making fresh observations.)  "Unable to leave site, lacking sledges and with two of party incapacitated.  Airship lost to the north.  Please reply urgently via IDO 32."  The last item was the code word for the Rome transmitter, San Paolo, the station from which they had been receiving the frustrating messages ever since they had been thrown down on the ice field.  The figure thirty-two was of course the short-wavelength on which they also were receiving and transmitting.

Next day they received a new message.  It was as dramatic as the earlier one, but in a way even more important.  San Paolo transmitted the welcome information that the base ship was at last receiving their signals and had asked to have co-ordinates confirmed or checked - clear evidence, throughout the castaways, that her captain was now heading towards them and simply required guidance.  No explanation was given as to why the base ship had been unable until then to receive the signals; but this, now, was relatively unimportant.

The party threw up their arm in joy.  Titina barked uncontrollably, as though even she knew that their prospects had dramatically changed for the better.  Nobile declared that it was a moment for celebration, and called on Viglieri to open up his supplies.  In addition to the normal basic ration of bear;s meat or pemmican, Nobile ordered five small lumps of sugar, two extra ounces of chocolate and no fewer than ten tablets of malted milk to be distributed.  By normal standards, this was a veritable banquet.  It had the effect of cheering the party until they were all talking, laughing, joking and speculating about the rosiness of their future like schoolboys on the eve of holidays.

To know, after so long, that they were actually in direct communication with the outside world was a tonic in itself.  They felt a new buoyancy; they believed they had a future after all.  It could only be a matter of days - perhaps even hours - before this grim existence in the confines of an inadequate tent, with insufficient and unvarying food would be brought to a happy end.  There was the permanent fear that the ice floe might disintegrate under them, throwing them into the water, to struggle out as best they could - if they could.  All this had been brought to an end, or nearly to an end; there was the expectation of a rescue party, with fresh food, plenty of clothing, companionship, and the guarantee that they would again see their native land and the loved ones in their scatted homes.

On June 8 there began a steady stream of two-way communication between the Red Tent and Citta di Milano.  First thing that morning, Biagi transmitted their revised co-ordinates, as calculated by Viglieri in the light of the southeastward drift which was their main anxiety.  It was important, Nobile told him, to emphasise with each successive transmission that this drift was continuous.  The base ship must be kept informed of the exact position at regular and frequent intervals.

At a quarter to ten that morning Biagi received the message, "Prepare smoke-signals.  Aircraft are being…"  Rather mysteriously, the message broke off short.  But the essential word had been received: aircraft.  It was evident that rescue by air was being planned.

Nobile replied that they would have smoke signals ready, and would also fire Very lights as soon as a plane came in sight.  He added that the batteries were running low and that messages to the base ship might have to be curtailed, and might die out altogether within the next few days.  Nevertheless, Biagi was to emphasise that they would still be able to receive messages with batteries nearly flat even if they could not continue to transmit.  Citta di Milano must, please, continue to transmit messages to them as frequently as possible. 

Later on, Nobile dictated a new and more detailed message.  The party in the Red Tent urgently required the following: medicine; a cooking stove and fuel; more footgear; fresh food to offset the effects of an interminable diet of pemmican and bear's meat.  He added a note on the prevailing weather: usually there was cloud, sometimes amounting to fog.  Below 1,500 feet it was, however, ordinarily clear.  The information was given primarily for the benefit of rescuers planning to come by air.  He also told the base ship that rescue parties should keep a keen look out for three members of the original stranded party who had set out on foot more than a week before in the general direction of Cape North.  They were on drifting ice and probably making very slow progress.  It was, as it happened, only a day later that Malmgren began to show the first signs of distress, which culminated in his collapse four days later, though of course Nobile's party did not know anything about it at the time.

For the next few days, messages continued to be regularly transmitted and received.  The radio operator aboard the base ship reported a good deal of local interference and that he was not always sure that he had picked up messages correctly.  He asked that any messages containing information of importance should be repeated as often as possible.  In one of those messages Nobile stressed that their tent had been dyed red to make it conspicuous on the ice; all air rescue parties, and others, should, he urged, be given this information.  He was leaving nothing to chance.

In fact, as a result of the snow and constant wind, the original dye had worn badly.  It was fortunate that they had plenty more of the glass containers, and Nobile gave instructions that the tent should be dyed again, this time in zigzag stripes which would make it even more eye-catching than before.  Hurriedly, in case the first planes should appear appear and miss it, they got to work on the job.  Nobile had told them to work fast, but not to waste their stock of dye in case it was needed again.  It was just as well that he took this precaution, as things turned out.

Optimism varied among the six occupants of the Red Tent.  Nobile himself, usually an optimist, was not among the most cheerful.  This is probably because he was so conscious of his responsibility as leader of the expedition for having involved his companions in this disaster.  As yet he could not permit himself the luxury of feeling certain that they would all be rescued.  He believed that they would be; but when the others spoke to him about the prospects he was deliberately noncommittal in his replies.  Anyway, there was the problem of the three men who had gone off on their own.  And the even graver one of the loss of the airship with six good men on board.

His immediate anxiety, however, was the batteries.  They were obviously failing.  It was astonishing that they had stood up so long to the demands continuously made on them.  As time went by, he thought of more and more things which it seemed important to communicate to the base ship.  A sense of urgency came over him which he had difficulty in concealing from the others and which was reflected in the messages he dictated to Biagi for transmission.

"As we are drifting so fast, it is advisable to despatch dog-teams as soon as possible, if this has not already been thought of.  They should be led by experienced Norwegian guides.  The sledges should be adequate to take off two badly injured men."  (He never, in these messages, named either himself or Cicioni.)  "The sledge-party should also have kayaks with them to enable them to cross the leads which are now opening up on every hand.  A receiving set would be advisable on the sledge, in case we have to send renewed co-ordinates…."

To one of his messages he added an urgent request for "medical requisites for two fractured legs and a fractured arm, together with clear instructions from a doctor as to how to use these, and what to do for the best."

Nobile's point about the kayaks for crossing the leads was an important one.  At that time of the year, the early part of June, ice floes were breaking up everywhere and some of the channels between them were many yards in width, necessitating the use of a lightweight boat or some kind of raft for crossing.  Nobile suggested that a seaplane might be despatched in advance, first to locate the castaways and then to come down on one of the wider channels, to take off again when it had picked up as many men as possible.  Landing on the actual ice was a hazardous business and impossible except for a light plane equipped with skids in place of wheels.  It was conceivable that the planes referred to in the message Biagi had picked up were merely reconnaissance planes spying out he best way for a sledge party to reach the Red Tent.  They might have to be patient for some time to come.

On June 11 Biagi received a most heartening piece of news.  Three planes flown by Swedish pilots had set off to locate them.  In addition, Captain Riiser-Larsen, aboard the small Scandinavian whaler Hobby, was on his way northward from King's Bay, though at the moment the little vessel was experiencing trouble with pack ice.  Better news still: Russia was ordering an icebreaker to go to their rescue.  In the meantime a well-equipped dog team would be despatched northward in the hope of first making contact with Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano and then coming to the Red Tent.  So, it was a triple, if not quadruple, rescue plan that had at last been set in motion.

More detail was conveyed in a later message:

"The Swedes, with three planes and a base ship, are heading north.  Hobby has now cleared the pack ice and is forging ahead.  On board is the experienced Captain Riiser-Larsen."  (Riiser-Larsen had also been on the Norge expedition, and had been an associate of the great Amundsen.)  "He has two small planes on board for reconnaissance purposes.  If again blocked by pack ice he will continue by air.  There are also two dog teams on board.  Major Umberto Maddalena, of the Italian Air Force, has left Italy with his big Savoia S-55 hydroplane.  Another hydroplane, piloted by Major Penzo, is on the point of leaving Italy.  A Russian icebreaker is shortly setting out from Arcangel.  It has a three-engined plane on board, capable of long-range reconnaissance.  Finally, the Finnish Government has ordered a ski-equipped, three-engined plane to join in the search for you."

This of course was marvellous news.  Surely, they thought, it could now be only a matter of hours - a day or two at most - before one of the rescue parties appeared?  Of the six men, only their leader had the wisdom to recognise that there would almost certain be a reaction to the news: the pendulum of their hopes had swung far in one direction; it was likely to swing just as far in the opposite direction.

He was right.  The day of rejoicing was balanced by a succession of days during which their spirits fell lower and lower.  To begin with they had been looking up every few minutes, quite sure that they had heard the sound of an approaching aircraft.  Trojani even swore he had seen one, but no one else had done so, and finally he had to admit that it was merely wishful thinking on his part.  They had been over-optimistic; they had talked as though their release from this ice captivity was only a matter of hours, whereas it was apparently no nearer than it had been before.

The batteries became weaker and weaker.  At last, Nobile was forced to tell Biagi to ease up on his transmissions so as to keep something in reserve for the time when rescue parties demanded last-minute information.  And something even more serious happened to depress them.  The ice floe on which they had existed for something like three weeks showed signs of disintegration.  Puddles of water are formed on it; cracks were appearing, and widening - clear indications that it was no longer a safe site for the Red Tent.  Nobile gave orders for immediate removal to a safer site - if one could be found.

The removal was a major task.  The better site was found.  Then they had to move all their precious belongings to it.  This task fell on Viglieri, Behounek, Trojani and Biagi, as Nobile and Cecioni were still almost completely immobilised.  Cecioni's make shift sledge was brought into use.  First, Noblie and then Cecioni were dragged laboriously across the broken, hummocky ice to the new site, on which the tent had been set up, and Biagi was already re-erecting his aerial.  Finally they were all installed on a site which they could only hope would remain stable at least until their longed-for rescue was effected.

It was the middle of June.  the weather was steadily improving.  But welcome as was the warmer air, it carried with it the probability of further break up of the ice floe.  Nobile's message to the base ship became more and more urgent as the days passed; still there was no sign of the promised rescue parties, either by air or across the ice.  Biagi gave the new position, a accurately as Viglieri could establish it.  He sent out urgent requests for footgear, food, fuel, a stove, medicines, splints - emphasising the urgency of their needs.  He repeated that the weather was now ideal for rescue by air, and urged the utmost speed while conditions were so encouraging.  Visibility, he said, was better than it had been at any time since the crash three weeks earlier.  Hurry!…Hurry!

To their bitter disappointment, after the first spate of encouraging news, messages began to go dead.  They heard frequently from Citta di Milano, but the messages received were frustrating.  There were complaints of atmospheric interference.  The radio operator was operator was experiencing difficulty in reception.  Nobile and Biagi knew that this might well be due to the decline in efficiency of the hard-worked batteries.  Meanwhile the ice floe was drifting eastward more rapidly than ever, as well as tending to break up.  It was increasingly important that accurate co-ordinates should be transmitted regularly - and received.

Just as their sense of discouragement had reached a new low level, Behounek, who, on the afternoon of June 17, was on sentry duty, yelled out to his companions in the tent: "Planes.  Here are planes!"

They scrambled out of the tent and gazed up into the sky in the direction in which he was excitedly pointing.  Yes, all of them could see the planes.  There were two black specks in the air, unmistakably aircraft.  They shouted back into the tent, from which Cecioni was levering himself out through the doorway: "We're saved!"

Alas, they spoke too soon.  Behounek estimated that the planes were about two miles away to the south.  Trojani went through the drill prepared in advance for this occasion.  He lit the "smudge fires" of rags soaked in a mixture of bear's grease and fuel.  They had found that this produced smoke rather than flame, a signal they had told the base ship they would be using as it was more effective in daylight over ice than pure flame would be.  But the smoke was very slow to rise into the still air.  It seemed to thin out to no more than a wisp by the time it was twenty feet above the ice.  Nobile doubted whether any airman, however vigilant, would spot it at that distance.  So he called for the Very pistol to be fired.  Viglieri let off two signal light into the sky.  Surely, they all thought, even if the smudge fires had not been spotted, the airman could hardly miss these signals?

Motionless in their anxiety, they watched.  The two planes flew on, maddeningly slowly.  Then, almost as though deliberately mocking the marooned party, they turned westward and, seeming to increase their speed, vanished over the horizon.

The men's excited optimism turned to despair, and then to something like fury.  Surely, they said to each other in enraged voices, those pilots ought to have been able to spot them at less than two miles' range?  They couldn't have been really trying!  In an attempt to calm their wrath, though he was feeling bitter himself, Nobile suggested that the light might have been in the airman's eyes, that there had been glare off the surface of the ice which had counteracted the brightness of the Very lights.  He may have believed this;  but it was of little comfort to him or to any of the others.

He dictated a new message for Biagi to transmit without delay.  "We have just seen two planes, less than two miles to the south of our tent.  Their pilots did not see us.  Weather conditions are now ideal.  Please instruct pilots to follow the same course, but to continue along it for two miles, northward.  They will then be over our tent.  We will have smoke signals in readiness.  We have very little inflammable material to spare, so please advise time of next flight."

The message bore fruit.  At least, it gave them renewed hope.  Information came in that the two planes had been flown by pilots Riiser-Larsen and Lutzow-Holm.  They had experienced engine trouble, but would return as soon as repairs had been effected.  The message ended with the encouraged words: "We shall certainly reach you."  So, Nobile's party took heart once more, and settled down with as much patience as they could command to await developments.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.6: The Trek.

The morning of May 30 came.  This was the day when the trek across the ice was to start.  No one had slept well the night before: there was too much speculation in every man's mind, too much anxiety in every heart.  Nevertheless, now that the decision had been made it was not only the trekking party but their six companions who were anxious that the trek should get under way.

They would not after all be taking the sledge so laboriously constructed by Cecioni.  Wisely, Malmgen had said he would test it with a brief trial run before they committed themselves to using it,  perhaps loading it with more than they would otherwise have taken.  It was just as well that he did.  Trojani and Zappi went out with the sledge, lightly loaded, and deliberately hauled it across the roughest ice they could find.  The result was as had been feared by Cecioni while he was constructing it.  The flimsy framework of ill-assorted tubing soon broke up.  The two men returned to the tent with what resembled a cat's-cradle rather than a sledge.

So, the hundred pounds and more of provisions had to be divided up among the three men and humped on their shoulders.  Each man would be carrying nearly forty pounds of food and equipment to keep him alive during what would be at least a two weeks' arduous trek across unknown ice, and quite possibly considerably more than that.  They were to carry a length of rope, clumsily made of control lines and other cord salvaged from the wreckage.  This would be indispensable if one of them were to fall into a crevasse in the ice floe and have to be hauled out be his companions.  They took two containers of fuel, and the wherewithal to make small fires for boiling water for pemmican soup.  The revolver was being left behind in the tent, but they took an axe as well as their knives.  One odd piece of their equipment consisted of a roll of varnished fabric salvaged from the wrecked control cabin.  It might come in handy for lying on, or be used as a screen against the wind when they settled down for a rest.

Each man had a windproof suit, through these had not been designed for conditions such as they were likely to encounter on open ice.  Waterproof boots included three spare pairs, since the rough ice would be hard on them as they slogged across it.  In addition they took a pair each of the Eskimo-type overboots, the finskos.  They wore the thickest socks they could lay their hands on, reindeer-hide gloves, jerseys of Iceland wool and sheepskin waistcoats.  On their heads they wore bonnets of heavy wool with earflaps and visors that could be pulled down over the eyes and nose.  Luckily there had been a supply of these garments in the emergency sack that Arduino had thrown out to them from the drifting airship.

One item of equipment which they lacked, and which no polar expedition or mountaineer would ever omit today, was dark glasses to protect the eyes from the glare of ice and snow.  Strangely enough, in the whole marooned party there was only one pair of these, the property of Cecioni.  Very generously he agreed to Nobile's urgent request that he should give the glasses to Malmgren, who would be leading the party across the ice.  It was absolutely essential that at least one member of the party should be able to protect his eyes, whatever might happen to the others.  So, evening came; and it was time for farewells.  It was no moment for sentimentality.  A firm handshake was exchanged between the men who remained behind and each of the three men about to depart.  For Nobile, an emotional Italian who had some difficulty in controlling his feelings, this was the worst moment since the week before, when he had had to accept the fact that his prized dirigible Italia was doomed.  He had already written down a message to be delivered to his wife and family in the event of Malmgren's party effecting contact with the outside world.  The others had all done the same.  Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano left the tent with a handful of these loving messages; but with no certainty in their minds, or even probability, that they would ever be in a position to deliver them.

Before the actual moment of leave-taking, Malmgren had had a session alone in the tent with Nobile, explaining exactly what he proposed to do.  They would make for Foyn with the best possible speed.  From there, he assured his leader - perhaps with more conviction than he really felt - it would be relatively easy to make their way to Spitsbergen and even to King's Bay.  There, he would get in immediate touch with the Tromso Geophysical Institute and establish exactly what the rate and direction of drift had been, so that the site of what they referred to as the Red Tent would be pinpointed accurately.  There would then be no problem in locating it, by air or by sea, better still, by both.  He added a recommendation: that Nobile should expend a few more of his glass containers of red dye and mark out, with dyed material of some sort or other, a square not less than two hundred yards along each side, with the tent exactly in the middle.  This would form an unmistakable landmark for any air rescue party approaching the otherwise barren wilderness of ice.

He added another recommendation.  But this was one that Nobile could not bring himself to accept.  It was that the radio transmitter should be switched off altogether, since it was obviously ineffective.  It had been transmitting, he pointed out, for almost a week without any response.  Bette, therefore, to conserve the precious batteries for the time when contact was established and it became essential to transmit a steady sequence of instructions to the would-be rescuers for locating the site.  If, when that time came, the batteries were exhausted the occupants of the tent would be in a pretty fix.  Nobile nodded, but made no reply.  This was a decision which he and he alone - not even the loyal Biagi - would have to make.

The moment of actual departure came.  The nine men confronted each other with dry throats.  There was so much to say, and at the same time so little that could mean anything.  Malmgren had the last word.  Holding his leader's hand, he said, "Always remember, General, that most lost expeditions have been saved at the eleventh hour!"  It was a remark that was to comfort Nobile and his five companions and sustain their faith for many long weeks to come.

Four men -Trojani, Behounek, Viglieri and Biagi, who had temporarily deserted his transmitter for the occasion - stood and watched as the small trio, with makeshift haversacks weighing down their shoulders, trudged off southwestward in single file.  Professor Malmgren was in the lead, wearing Cecioni's dark glasses against the glare of the ice.  From the tent opening, Cecioni and Nobile, with little Titina in his arms, watched them too, until they were lost to sight.  Biagi returned to his transmitter.  it was five minutes to seven in the evening, time for yet another attempt to transmit their distress signal: "S.O.S. Italia! S.O.S. Italia!" 

Pehaps if they had known how much farther north the Red Tent was pitched on the ice floe than their calculations had suggested, the three men would never have set out on their desperate journey on foot.  Or, if they had set out, they would have done so with even less hope of success than they had hinted at.  Malmgren had estimated the one-all distance at about a hundred miles.  At an average of six miles a day - the best they could really hope to achieve unless the ice conditions improved considerably as they journeyed southward - this meant two weeks of hard slogging.  In fact, the distance between the Red Tent and the nearest land, one of the small islands lying off the north coast of Northeast Land, was very much greater than he had estimated.  Possibly the instruments they used for calculating their position had been damaged when jettisoned from the airship.

Neither Zappi nor Mariano, of course, knew this, nor did Malmgren.  As promoter of the enterprise and leader he may have deliberately appeared more optimistic than he felt, but he was certainly not a happy man.  The thought constantly nagged at him that it was he who had said so positively that the wind would drop as they got further south from the Pole; it was on his professional advice that Italia's engines had been run at full power for so long in order to clear the bad weather near the Pole.  Rightly or wrongly, his conscience sorely pricked him.

The three men tripped and stumbled over the hummocks and jagged lumps of granite-hard ice, or laboriously worked their way around them, checking their route by compass so as not to add any more distance, even measured in yards, than was unavoidable.  They trudged in complete silence, husbanding their strength.  Malmgren's silence was one of sheer unhappiness.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  His advice about the return route from the Pole had proved to be bad advice.  He had urged on his two companions this trek on foot, and it had been resented by the majority of the party.  He had recommended that the transmitter be abandoned - and felt resentment of Biagi, and the meaningful silence of his old friend Nobile.  As for Mariano and Zappi, they trudged manfully along, lost in their own speculations, concentrating on the hard fact of a gruelling ordeal ahead of them.  Neither of them knew just how gruelling it was to prove.

Malmgren was suffering more than just those pangs of conscience - which he need not have been experiencing anyway, for he had acted in good faith.  He had injured his shoulder and upper arm more seriously than he had been prepared to admit to the other members of the party in the five days they had been licking their wounds after being catapulted from the airship.  It is true that he had no actual broken bones, like Nobile and Cecioni; and for that he was thankful.  It was the realisation that others were more gravely injured than he was that enabled him to make light of his own injuries.

But they had not been marching for more than a few hours before Zappi became conscious that their leader was in trouble.  They were walking, as usual, in single file.  Zappi was immediately behind Malmgren; Mariano brought up the rear.  Both men noticed after a while how clumsily the Swede was moving.  He carried one shoulder lower than the other, walking lopsidedly, and gave the odd impression that he was trying to ease that side of himself by using a nonexistent stick.  An hour or so after Zappi and Mariano noticed this, Malmgren called a halt.  They would, he said, make better progress if they eased up at regular intervals.  These regular intervals were to come closer and closer together throughout the remainder of that first day's march.

It was Zappi, the toughest member of the trio, who after several of these halts brusquely told Malmgren to unload his clumsy haversack so that its contents could be redistributed.  He himself would take an extra twenty pounds on his own back.  Mariano quickly agreed to do the same.  Malmgren protested hotly: he was all right, he assured them; it was only that in his experience better time was made over rough going with regular halts.  Zappi spoke with unaccustomed bluntness: better, he said, to redistribute the load so that all three of them should reach journey's end than that all three should be held up because one member could not carry his allotted load.  With extreme reluctance, Malmgren gave in.

They covered barely six miles in that first day's march.  They covered no more on the second day, even though they were longer on their feet.  It was on the third day that Malmgren, now travelling light, fell heavily, his boot having caught against a spike of rock-hard ice half covered by snow as a result of a blizzard that came on during the night.  Soon afterwards he fell a second time, and was slower to get to his feet.  Zappi and Mariano, trudging sombrely in his wake, became more and more concerned about him; and, because of him, about their own prospects.

On the fourth day, they awoke to heavy snow which, unlike the previous day, did not let up at all, but increased until it was a raging blizzard.  They stumbled blindly into it, their heads bent to protect their eyes, from which long thin icicles began to hang as their breath froze on leaving their nostrils.  Before long, the blizzard was so intense that visibility was reduced to no more than a yard.  Further progress became impossible.  This time Mariano took the lead by halting in his tracks and declaring firmly that it was dangerous folly to try to walk any farther.  If, as was always possible, there happened to be a crevasse lying across their route, they could easily fall into it and that would be the end of the expedition once and for all.

Without a word, Zappi took his axe from his belt and set to work to chip out a hollow in the ice and snow.  He used the larger lumps excavated to erect a makeshift wall along the windward side.  The three men consolidated the lumps as best they could, and laid across them the piece of varnished fabric they had brought with them.  It would at least stop up some gaps and protect them a little from the full fury of the wind borne snow.  Then they crouched down, as close together as possible, their heads tucked between their knees, hugging themselves against the bitter cold.  The blizzard had already lasted for hours; it might last for days.

This was the worst experience they had had to date.  At least the Red Tent afforded shelter, cramped as it was inside.  Here on the open ice, however, with nothing more than a shallow pit reinforced with a crude ice wall, they were truly at the mercy of the elements.  It was impossible to light a fire under their cooking pot - one of the small fuel cans that had been adapted for the purpose - so strong and relentless was the icy wind.  A mouthful or two of soup would have been a godsend, but it was out of the question.  They each chewed a knob or two of the hard, unyielding pemmican and a morsel of chocolate, and settled down to what might prove to be a long and bitter vigil.

For the better part of twenty-four hours, they squatted behind that inadequate wind break, becoming colder and more miserable with every hour that dragged by.  Now and then one of them would remark in despair that they might as well break camp and continue on their way as sit there and freeze to death.  It would be no worse to die on their feet, or drown in a crevasse.  But there were always two others to turn down the suggestion as soon as it was made.  To march on in the face of this blizzard, with visibility zero, was to court certain death.

In time the blizzard showed signs of easing a little.  As soon as visibility improved sufficiently, they rolled up their sheet of canvas, stamped their feet on the snow-covered ice to restore circulation , and set off once more, shoulders hunched, their limbs stiff from the long ordeal.  Before the blizzard began they had told themselves that they could see on the far horizon the shape of land, which must be Foyn - their landmark and objective - even though they could not be positive that it was anything more than a delusion.  But now they could see it no longer - if it had been there at all in the first place.  It was infinitely depressing.

A day or two later, Malmgren collapsed, without warning.  He had seemed to be swaying on his feet and walking more erratically than ever.  Suddenly he tripped, fell, and remained motionless where he lay.  When they closed in around him he cried out that he wanted only to be left where he was.  He could carry on no longer.  They must go on without him.

Mariano took charge again.  Saying nothing, he set down the fuel can, filled it quickly with snow and  got a fuel-soaked rag burning under it.  While it was coming to the boil he extracted some pemmican from his haversack and dropped it into the can.  Soon it was reasonably hot.  Still without a word he handed some of it to Malmgren, lying twisted and shrunken on the snow, supported by Zappi drank some of it.  And finally Mariano swallowed what was left.

It had the required effect.  Tasteless as it was, the hot soup put new heart into all of them.  Malmgren, looking a little shame-faced at his outburst, assured his companions that he felt fine.  It had been, he said, just a momentary flagging of muscle and determination.  Now they must push on, and make up for lost time.  And they did.  For several days more they staggered forward across the limitless expanse of snow-covered ice towards a goal that was never in sight.  They had no means of checking whether the drift was being maintained, though they felt confident that they were moving in the right direction.

But they were moving so slowly.  They walked for twelve hours a day, and sometimes longer, with occasional brief halts to brew up soup and ease their loads, but the actual distance they were covering, each member of the trio knew, was a good deal less than what Malmgren had optimistically predicted to Nobile.  The ice conditions instead of improving seemed to become steadily worse.  When they could walk no farther, they simply dropped down where they were, reached for their food supply and gnawed a lump of pemmican raw, unless one of them - usually Filippo Zappi - sufficient strength and determination to light a small fire and boil it into soup.

At that time of year, early June, there was no clear-cut division between night and day.  Only their watches enabled them to know the time - to within an hour or so; but they were never quite sure whether the hour was that of so-called daylight or so-called dark.  It made no difference anyway.  While they had sufficient strength, they trudged forward across the ice; when they could march no more they dropped down and fell asleep.

Marching became progressively more difficult.  The ice floe was often seamed by open patches of grey-green water where the ice had cracked under the pressure of the restless currents underneath.  Some of these "leads" were narrow enough for the men to jump across, though with their half-frozen limbs and heavy packs this entailed an enormous effort.  On these occasions, Mariano always insisted that they should link themselves together with the rope they had brought for the purpose.  This slowed down progress even more; but it was some sort of guarantee that if one man fell into the water the other two would be able to haul his out.  The thought of actually plunging into water as cold as that must have filled them with foreboding.

Some of the leads were too wide to be spanned by jumping.  The only alternative was to work their way in one direction or the other in the hope of finding a point where the edges of the ice floe were close enough for a jump.  With every one of these enforced detours, not only did the distance to be covered increase but it became more difficult to be sure that they were holding to their true course.  There were no landmarks whatsoever to guide them.

They had now been footslogging for ten days since leaving the Red Tent.  With the passing of each interminable and exhausting day they made less and less progress.  Malmgren was asking the to stop more and more frequently.  He had by this time surrendered the whole of his shoulder-load.  For several days he had not spoken a word, but simply trudged on, chin down, his eyes half-closed behind dark glasses, moving like an automaton.  He fell, and struggled to his feet; fell again, and struggled again to his feet, but a little more slowly and painfully each time.  The only sound that ever came out of him was a half-stifled groan.

On the twelfth day -or perhaps it was the fourteenth: they had almost lost count of time - he fell on the ice again, and this time made not the slightest attempt to get up.  As they had done several times before, Maiano and Zappi bent down, thrust their gloved hands under his armpits, and tried to get him on his feet again.  But this time he positively resisted their attempts to raise him, showing greater strength than they would have expected.  In a choked voice, he begged his companions to leave him there to die.  He was certain, he said, that for him death was very near.  It was better that he should be left to die so that they could push on southward without the handicap of a man almost as incapacitated as Nobile or Cecioni, back in the Red Tent.

Mariano and Zappi argued with him,  but in vain.  It is possible that Malmgren knew the story of Captain Scott's Antarctic tragedy of just sixteen years earlier.  Did not Oates get up one day and walk out of the tent with the casual remark that he "might not be back for some time" - a deliberate gesture to relieve his sturdier companions from the drain on their resources that he had been causing for so long?  In any case, Malmgren now made it plain to his two companions that he positively had no intention of getting on his feet again and continuing the march.  While they hovered uncertainly around him, he quietly removed one of his snow-boots, to show that his foot and ankle were "dead" from frostbite.  The other foot, he told them soberly, was the same.  To walk any farther was out of the question.  The men could surely see that for themselves?

They could.  What Malmgren, their leader, had told them made sense.  He was obviously doomed.  If they waited with him, they were doomed too.  And as they well knew, those in the Red Tent at this very moment depended on them for their chance of rescue and survival.  Silently, they assented to Malmgren's request.

They laid him tenderly on his own piece of blanket, with a small ration of pemmican and chocolate within easy reach.  They had abandoned the cooking gear anyway, as it was too much to carry since three men's loads had to be carried by two.  Then, without words - for what was there that they could say? - the two men left.  They did not turn around as they walked away, for neither of them felt they could bear the sight of their leader lying there desolate on the ice with death hovering above him like an invisible vulture.  They were abandoning him: at his insistence, admittedly; but such an action went sorely against the grain, with their naval tradition behind them.

They found it impossible to leave the spot completely.  With mutual, unspoken agreement, they broke their march a few hundred yards from where they had left Malmgren, but he was screened from view by a long, jagged hummock of ice.  Perhaps, they thought, after a few hours Malmgren will have a new surge of resolution and, despite the agony in his feet, make an effort to continue on this dreadful march.  How terrible for him, if he were to make that supreme effort - and never manage to catch up with them!  So, for twenty hours and more the two men lingered within range, trying to relax in the bitter cold, gnawing on their hunks of pemmican, swallowing mouthfuls of snow to quench the thirst that had accompanied them now for so many days and nights.

But next day there was no sign of what they had hoped for.  They were not surprised.  Possibly they were relieved.  They knew in their hearts that Malmgren was finished.  So, they moved off southward once more.  Snow had ceased to fall, the wind had eased a little; for this they were grateful.  But low cloud now covered the sky.  They trudged on beneath its menacing roof, step by step, painfully, without much hope that things would become better.  By Mariano's reckoning it was the fourteenth, or possibly the fifteenth, of June.  It was two weeks since they had said farewell to their companions in the Red Tent.  It was the date by which Malmgren had confidently expected to reach dry land and be in a position to summon help.  For all they could see, after this enormous expenditure of effort they were little nearer their goal than they had been when they set out on the last day but one of the month of May.

And their troubles were by no means over.  Only a day or two after they had abandoned Malmgren, Mariano was struck by that terror of polar exploration: snow blindness.  In spite of everything he could do, disaster had befallen him.  He was suddenly conscious of a violent, searing pain in both eyes, as though a white-hot razor blade had been swiftly drawn across his eyeballs and had then proceeded to saw backward and forward across them.  It was the most agonising pain he had ever experienced.  Unable, for all his naval training and discipline, to control himself, he screamed in agony.

Swiftly, Zappi tore off a strip of material and wound a bandage tightly about his companion's head.  The pressure on his eyeballs increased, and for a few minutes Mariano believed he could not endure it.  He wanted to tear off the bandage and wrench out of their sockets the eyeballs which were burning in them as though they were molten metal.  Zappi, foreseeing what he intended to do, had to restrain him by pinioning his hands behind his back until he could be made to accept the situation.

Snow blindness attacks more suddenly that it recedes.  For the next three days Mariano had to walk blindfolded;  to have removed the bandage now would almost certainly have meant that he would be blind for the rest of his life - if he survived at all.  But so terrible was the pain he had to endure that there were many times when he felt he would prefer permanent blindness to the agony he was suffering.

Zappi was able to comfort him a little by announcing on the second day after the onset of snow blindness that he thought he could discern once again a land mass that must, he felt sure, be their objective, Foyn Island.  What he had not the heart to add was that, if if was land at all, it was certainly no nearer than the land they had thought they could see soon after leaving the tent.  This suggested that the sideways drift of the ice floe was even greater than they had feared.

They had set out with provisions for two weeks or perhaps a little longer.  Already they had been on the trek nearer three weeks than two, and supplies had dwindled to a dangerously low level.  Zappi, wearing wearing Cecioni's dark glasses, handed over to him by Malmgren, kept a continuous watch for the possibility of a seagull's egg or two, or even a bird, which they could kill and eat uncooked.  But he saw no eggs at all; and the only seagull he spotted was too elusive to capture.

Their progress became slower and slower.  Now that he was having to lead his snow blinded companion laboriously by hand, cautiously guiding his clumsy footsteps among the hummocks of ice to where channels of water intersected the ice and instructing him how far to jump in order to cross them, progress was little more than a crawl.  If they did as much as two miles between the start and the finish of the day, that was all.  When at last they stopped, they were utterly exhausted.

Conditions were deteriorating rapidly.  The leads were becoming more and more frequent, and wider and wider.  As a result, they often footslogged all day long, and finished up little if any farther south than when they had started walking that day.  More than once Mariano slipped into the water and had to be laboriously hauled out by his companion at the end of the rope they had providently brought with them.  As a result, his boots became completely waterlogged, and the day soon came when he told Zappi that he knew he had frostbite in all his toes and in one complete foot.  Neglected frostbite, not medically treated, leads inevitably to gangrene; and gangrene, if not medically treated in time, means certain death.  Mariano knew this.  Zappi knew it too.  There was nothing  he could say to reassure his companion.  They remembered the condition of Malmgren's foot.

One day, possibly the twenty-first or twenty-second of June, when they had been interminable weeks on the march, the first ray of hope dawned for the two men.  Mariano, his hearing sharpened perhaps because of the temporary loss of his eyesight, stopped in his tracks.  He had heard, he said, the unmistakable note of an aircraft.

Zappi halted too; but he heard nothing.  He turned angrily on Mariano, upbraiding him for raising false hopes.  But Mariano was insistent: he was as sure as he could possibly be that the sound he had faintly heard was not just the eternal whining of the wind over the tortured expanse of the pack ice they were struggling to cross, but that of an aircraft's propeller.

And he was proved right.  A minute later, Zappi not only caught the sound but actually spotted the plane: it was a mere speck in the sky, miles and miles away.

Swiftly he dropped his pack on the ice and fumbled with clumsy hands for their small reserve of fuel.  He tore off some strips of rag, snatched at the container of matches they had hoarded for just such an occasion as this, and, almost too excited to control his movements, attempted to set fire to the rags.

Fate was against him.  The rags were wet; the matches broke off short, hardly producing a spark of flame.  When they touched the fuel-soaked rags, instead of there being a flame, the rags simply smouldered like tinder: a small glow-worm of red light being all there was to see.  Enraged and frustrated, Zappi poured on more of the precious fuel, struck matches in twos and threes.  The result was the same: not a hint of a true flame.  He tried again, this time risking the loss of all his precious fuel in one mighty blaze that must attract the attention of the pilot, who had undoubtedly been sent out to search for the castaways.  But still he could not obtain a flame.  He threw down his matches in a fury of frustration and despair.  When he next looked up, the plane had banked away and was heading swiftly eastward, farther and farther away from them, obviously unaware that any castaways were within the pilot's range of vision.

It was a bitter moment for both men.  Never in their lives had they felt so entirely at the mercy of Fate, so utterly helpless.  A plane had been sent out.  By luck or good management it had headed in the right direction.  And it had turned and headed away from them, apparently satisfied that there was no one in need of help in the region it had covered during its search.

They tried to console each other by speculation.  If one plane had been sent out, Mariano said, then there would undoubtedly be others; they would be luckier next time.  Zappi said that since the Red Tent was so much more conspicuous than they were, the plane would probably have spotted it.  Perhaps that was why it had seemed to swing away so positively.  When it made contact with the tent, Nobile would tell his rescuers about the party trekking south; it would only be a matter of time before rescue was at hand.  So they speculated, and tried to draw comfort from their theories.

It was hard to bear the thought that a plane had been so near, and yet turned away without spotting them.  The fact made them feel more isolated than ever.  Mariano's guess that the plane might be the first of several proved to be correct.  During the next day or two they both heard planes in the distance, and Zappi believed he actually saw one; but the planes all circled high overhead and then wheeled away, to vanish over the southern horizon.  It was a bitter irony that some of them should come so near and yet be so remote and impossible to communicate with.

Bitter as the experience was, worse was to come.  Mariano's eyes had begun to improve; he could remove the bandage now for an hour or two at a time.  But the very day that his eyes really seemed to be on the mend he tripped on a jagged spar of ice and fell heavily, with one leg awkwardly twisted underneath his massive frame.  He was unable to restrain a yelp of agony.  He was convinced that he had broken his leg.

Zappi dropped to his side, whipped out his knife and cut a slit down the side of Mariano's trousers.  The flesh, he was horrified to see, was vey much as Malmgren's had been.  It had that sinister dead-looking hue that goes with frostbite.  Tenderly, he felt his way up the leg, from ankle well up to the thigh.  He was immensely relieved to find no sign of a break.  Nor did Mariano particularly wince as his hands touched him: another good sign that the damage was not serious.

With Zappi's help, he tried manfully to stagger on to his feet again.  But the leg would not take his weight.  He was one of the heaviest members of Italia's crew, and even the short rations and hard exercise of the march had not greatly reduced his weight.  The frostbite had taken all the strength out of his leg; it was obvious not only to him but to his companion that he could not walk any farther, even with Zappi's remarkable strength bolstering him like a living crutch.

There was nothing to do but to remain where they were and patiently await rescue or death - whichever might be the first to come.  So far as Mariano was concerned, he was in such pain, had suffered so much, that the thought of imminent death was almost a relief.

It was now June 27.  They had been on the march for exactly four weeks.  Almost two weeks had passed since they had had to abandon Malmgren.  Now it looked as though their own end was at hand.  Zappi, still surprisingly strong, resolute not to abandon his companion, set about looking for the best site for their final stopping place.  It must not be far from where they were, for Mariano was obviously incapable of walking more than a few yards.  For all his strength and toughness, Zappi knew that he was not capable of carrying his companion over the ice.  Just the same, the spot where Mariano had fallen was not a good one: there seemed to be channels of water all around them; to have any real chance of survival they must somehow get on to a more substantial ice floe.  There they would settle down, to await what might come.

He found an ice floe near enough for Mariano, now in extreme pain, to be dragged.  There they sat down, sharing the piece of varnished cloth they had been carrying.  They placed between them their now almost non-existent store of pemmican and chocolate.  Having made Mariano as comfortable as possible, Zappi set off to undertake one more task.  He had collected as many fragments of cloth and other material as could be spared.  These he laid out on the ice in the form of clumsily shaped lettering as large as he could make it.  With luck, it might be spotted from the air next time a roving plane came within reach overhead.  He had sufficient material for just three words:


There was nothing more that he could do.  He returned to his companion and the two of them crouched in the lee of a hummock of ice, to await what the future might bring.  Neither man had any real hope in his heart; but neither of them would admit as much to the other.

They were to sit there, not for a matter of a few hours; not even for a matter of a day or two.  With frostbite crawling up their legs, hunger gnawing incessantly at their vitals, thirst swelling the tongues in their mouths, and sinking deeper and deeper into a mood of utter despair, they were to remain there well into the early part of the mont of July.