S.O.S. Italia!…S.O.S. Italia!…Save Our Souls!
No more dramatic or desperate appeal has ever been sent out across the icy wastes of the the Arctic Ocean than this. And when at long last the message was picked up it sparked off the greatest polar rescue operation ever mounted, either in the Arctic or in Antarctica. Compared with the ordeals endured by rescued and rescuers alike, the Fuche-Hillary Trans-Antarctic Expedition, with its Weasels and Sno-cats, its reliable two-way radio transmitters, its lavish air cover, and above all its certainty of a warm welcome at the the long-established American Air Base at the South Pole itself, was little more than a summer afternoon's family picnic.
The story of the Italia's flight to the North Pole is one of the most dramatic and tragic stories that have ever emerged, or are ever likely to emerge, from the long and splendid saga of north and south polar exploration.
The year was 1908. The date was April 15. The time was a quarter past one in the morning. At that historic moment, General Umberto Nobile gave orders for his new airship, the dirigible Italia, to be released from her moorings on the airfield outside Milan and to head eastward and then northward on the first leg of her flight of more than 3,000 miles from Northern Italy to Spitsbergen, in the icy Barents Sea, well into the Arctic Circle. And this long flight was just the preliminary to the main objective of the expedition: to fly Italia to the North Pole and back to base.
It was not General Nobile's first polar flight. Two years before, he had successfully flown an earlier dirigible, Norge, from Spitsbergen over the actual Pole to Point Barrow, on the bleak north coast of Alaska. But this new expedition was planned on a much more ambitious scale. It had a scientific purpose, as well as pioneering. Nobile, though he bore the courtesy title of "General", bestowed on him in recognition of his past achievements, was a Doctor of Science, and attached more importance to this than to the military title he did not really like, since he regarded himself as a professional man.
Italia was a sister ship to the earlier Norge, but with modifications and improvements made largely as a result of lessons learned on the earlier flight. Compared, for example, with the Zeppelins of the First World War, or with the ill-fated British dirigibles R.100 and R.101, she was small. Her keel was no more than 325 feet long; it linked a bow and stern framework between which were installed the gasbags that contained in all some half-million cubic feet of hydrogen.
Slung from the envelope were three engines. Each developed 250 h.p., and when all three were running at maximum revs. they could propel her forward, in still air, at about 75 m.p.h. The two forward engines occupied small nacelles, of gondolas, to port and starboard; the rear engine nacelle was suspended just aft of the control cabin. All three nacelles were just large enough for a mechanic to crawl into them, after making a hazardous trip along sloping gangplanks from the keel exposed to the full blast of air made turbulent by the three propellers and the forward motion of the airship. A mechanic aboard Italia had to posses nerves of steel, complete self-confidence, a good head for heights and the prehensile grip of a monkey; all this in addition to outstanding engineering expertise.
The V-shaped keel of steel tubing, with its catwalk running the full length from stem to stern, was used not only to give rigidity to the envelope above it, but t provide storage for provisions and sleeping quarters for crew members, some of whom had to sleep uneasily in hammocks slung across its draughty width, as though form the lower branches of a tree swaying in the strong, incessant wind. Their ceiling was the lower curve of the vast envelope enclosing the individual gasbags that provided the lift. They could be controlled by an elaborate system of valves to compensate for changes in air pressure as the airship passed over land or over water, over ice or snow; in the warmth of the sun above cloud level, or in the chill when hidden from the sun, enveloped in fog; or subject to the extreme cold of the Arctic above which they would be cruising once the Norwegian base of Vadso had been left behind.
Umberto Nobile had chosen his crew with the utmost care. Each was to be a specialist, whether as mechanic, navigator, meteorologist, observer, radio operator or in some other capacity. Since this was to be a close-knit community, in which every member was eventually to establish himself in his own right and play a larger or smaller part in the drama that was to be enacted over the polar seas and ice, it is worth taking a close look at them.
Together with the leader of the expedition they numbered eighteen in all, averaging thirty-three years of age. Most of them were in their early thirties; two of them still in their twenties. Nobile himself was forty-three. But all of them were young enough to be ripe for great adventure, though each one was mature enough to be able to stand up to the dangers and hardships which they knew must await them in the frozen North.
Almost all of them, naturally, were Italians, for this was an Italian enterprise. There was Chief Motor Engineer Ettore Arduino. There was Chief Technician Natale Cecioni, the only man who came close to the leader in age. There was Foreman Motor Mechanic Vincenzo Pomella, with his two immediate subordinates, Motor Mechanics Attillo Caratti and Calisto Ciocca. There was Engineer Felice Trojani. There was Foreman Rigger Renato Alessandrini. Four of these men had served under Nobile on the Norge expedition; he was delighted when they responded to his invitation to join that of the Italia.
No less important than the engineers and motormen were the navigating experts. Nobile applied to the Italian Navy and obtained the services of two professionals, Commander Filippo Zappi and Commander Adalberto Mariano. Junior to them in age and rank was Lieutenant Alfredo Viglieri. Since navigation was to be checked by regular radio contact, Nobile enlisted two experts: Guiseppe Biagi and Ettore Pedretti; both were Petty Officers with long experience and training in radio operating.
Because this was basically a scientific expedition, Nobile was no less careful in selecting scientists who could carry out observation and research in various fields. One of these was an Italian Professor of Physics named Aldo Pontremoli; another was a Swedish Professor of Meteorology named Finn Malmgren. He had already flown one the Pole with Nobile and was a well-tried, well-loved companion. His main task was to be in the field of oceanography. The third scientist was a Czechoslovak named Francis Behounek, a Professor from Prague University and Director of the Prague Wireless Institute.
This accounts for fifteen out of the seventeen who signed on. The remaining two were professional journalists Francesco Tomaselli and Ugo Lago. But there was one more passenger, a passenger who had already flown with Nobile across the Pole in 1926 and was his dearest friend and companion: the short-haired terrier Titina. It is quite possible that but for her companionship her master might not have survived the terrible ordeal which, at the moment of departure, they were all unknowingly heading for.
A good leader of any expedition, whether a jungle safari, a desert trip or polar exploration, makes himself responsible for every detail of the preparation. He may delegate certain duties to other men, but he knows that it is he himself who must be held responsible for what takes place during the expedition; he cannot afford to overlook anything that might make the difference between success and failure. Umberto Nobile was a man who accepted this responsibility and worked unceasingly to make sure that every possible factor had been taken into consideration, every possible contingency foreseen. On the material side, as in the matter of selecting his crew, he attended to every smallest detail.
This new trip was to differ from that of Norge in that it was planned to put down the scientists as near as possible to the Pole so that they could carry out extensive observations and research, possibly over a long period. They would have with them elaborate equipment in the form of instruments, as well as provisions and equipment for survival in Arctic conditions. Nobile was not too proud to ask advice from acknowledged experts; Fridtjof Nansen, for instance, the great polar explorer.
Sledges were designed and constructed according to their instructions. Rubber dinghies, snowshoes, skis, sleeping bags, windproof apparel, special boots, gloves and helmets were obtained, all of design and material that had been tried out in Arctic conditions. A special tent was designed and put together, based on the experience gained after Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It was waterproof, of course, and also windproof. It consisted of two "skins" of silk with an air space between them for insulation purposes. It was nine feet along each of its four walls and was supported by a central tent pole seven feet in height. It could be entered only by a "sleeve" forming a double doorway, the outer one of which could be tightly closed before the inner one was opened, so that the worst of the outside air was not brought inside. This device is in common use today whenever tents have to be set up in icy conditions, whether on ice or on mountain sides above the snow line.
Individual equipment was just as carefully prepared. Every man was provided with a parka of reindeer skin and with a suit made with the lambswool on the inside while the outer surface was reinforced with windproof and waterproof material. Compared with our modern lightweight survival suits these were very cumbersome; they were in fact three-piece suits of trousers, jacket and fur-lined hoods, weighing alms eight pounds apiece. They had the great advantage that once donned they could be completely sealed around the wearer. Every man had special footgear, made to measure. In addition to leather and rubber boots, on the advice of Nansen, Nobile obtained footgear known in the Arctic as finsko and komager: oversize boots that could be stuffed with a type of grass know as carex grass, found in the extreme north and offering a remarkable degree of insulation against extreme cold.
One of the largest items of equipment that had somehow to be stowed aboard Italia, larger even than the spare twin-bladed propellers carried as reserves, was an inflatable raft. It was in tended to lower this from the airship when the site had been reached where oceanographical and other observations were to be carried out. This would be over open water, either a wide rift among the ice floes or elsewhere in the Arctic Ocean, where the movement, speed and direction of sub-ice currents and the actual depth of the water were a prime object of study. The raft had something of the appearance of a giant tortoise, with a bulky square body and a circular inflated "paw" at each corner.
Crew members, whether mechanics or scientists, were individually equipped with such essential items as strong penknives, portable magnetic compasses, well-tested pocket watches and dark glasses for compulsory wear as protection from the dreaded snow blindness. In addition there were firearms and ammunition, ice axes and tools and implements for various specialised uses. Nobile even provided gauze masks for use if the party should happen to find itself in a region infested by mosquitoes.
It had long been established among polar explorers that the most reliable standby food was pemmican. This is a highly concentrated food consisting of close-grained meat with a high fat content fortified with dried vegetables or even currants. Highly compressed, it can be turned into a heavy soup or eaten virtually raw. A good supply of this was laid in, divided into small packages that could be distributed among the crew it they had to scatter and resort to "iron rations". In addition, there were the other traditional standby foods: malted-milk tablets, chocolate, raisins and sultanas. But these were to be held in reserve. For the initial stages of the flight from Milan to Spitsbergen, Nobile provisioned the airship with the sort of foodstuffs his party were accustomed to, including plenty of macaroni, spaghetti and Chianti wine.
So, at 1:15 in the dark morning of April 15, Italia cast off. She rose slowly into the night air, for she was heavily loaded. In addition to the crew she carried well over four tons of fuel and oil and almost two tons of ballast; her scientific and other equipment alone weighed a ton and a half. This was a very considerable load for an airship with her modest lifting power; it left her with very little margin for manoeuvring in really bad weather which Nobile knew she was almost certain to encounter in the many hundreds of miles across the European land mass, up the Baltic and across the Barents sea to Spitsbergen before ever she came to grips with true polar weather.
In order to avoid having to fly one the Swiss Alps, Italia was first headed almost due east, over the low-lying hinterland of Venice, home town of Sopron, which they passed over, now northward bound, just twelve hours after leaving Milan. They might have made better time had their progress not been checked by powerful gusts of wind as they skirted the high mountains to the west.
At four o'clock that afternoon, having for the time being cleared the area of rough weather, they passed over Brno, in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps Dr. Behounek looked somewhat wistfully westward in the direction of Prague, his home town, and silently wondered whether he would ever again see the University and the Wireless Institute.
It was to the north of Brno that Italia ran into the first really bad weather of her long voyage. Prague Meteorological Office radioed that a storm front was then crossing her route over Poland, travelling east-north-east at forty miles an hour. The information proved disturbingly accurate. Italia ran into torrential rain which quickly turned to hail. The noise of the big hailstones lashing down on the hugh envelope containing the fragile gasbags right over the crew's heads was magnified until it sounded like small-arms fire. it was hard to believe that the envelope would not be perforated, and the precious gasbags inside punctured so that the hydrogen would escape and the airship immediately sink to the ground.
The hailstorm was accompanied by a violent thunderstorm. Italia was surrounded by flashes of lightning that looked like giant scimitars intent on ripping the frail envelope and exploding the gas it contained. In an attempt to dodge the lightning, Nobile ordered Chief Technician Cecioni, whose prime responsibility was the handling of the all-important elevator fins, to bring the airship down to within 450 feet of ground level. Cautiously, the great craft nosed her way down through the storm, and her crew were relieved to find that y so doing they had left the worst of the lightning well above their heads.
But then it was necessary to redouble the watch, for below them was hilly country. Cruising at less than 500 feet could mean that they might come perilously close to a hillside or peak whose height was difficult to estimate in this poor visibility and the generally adverse weather conditions. It was an immense relief to everyone when the hills levelled out to the north and they saw, spreading out before them the low-lying country of northern Poland.
Exactly twenty-four hours after leaving the Milan airfield, they were clear of Wroclau, which in those days, forty years ago, was known as Breslau. Now the conditions were reversed. Low-lying cloud forced them to rise to nearly 8,000 feet, at which height they cruised comfortably northward to the first port of call at which they had arranged to touch down for refuelling and an overall check of controls. This was the Jesseritz airfield, close to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, near a town known today as Slupsk, though to Nobile it was known as Stolp. In a straight line, the route from Milan would have been hardly more than 750 miles; because of the intervening mountain ranges and the need to steer clear of them, Italia had been forced to cover no less than 1,250 miles. It had taken her almost exactly thirty hours, at an average speed of about forty miles and hour.
It was just as well that Nobile had made arrangement to break his northward flight at this point. Careful examination after they had moored revealed that not only had one of the tail-fins been badly damaged, and the main elevator-fin too, but the blades of all three propellers had been chipped by the impact of the hailstones as they turned. All these had of course to be repaired.
There were other unpleasant surprises, too. Nobile had started off with nearly four tons of fuel on board. Because of the violence of the wind, which had been a cross wind during most of the flight, but more against than with them, the engines had used up two-thirds of the fuel. This was considerably more than Nobile had estimated. Ballast, too, had had to be jettisoned in order to enable the airship to lift above the storm clouds in the later stages of the flight. She had started off with nearly two tons, and, apart from the curious gadget known as the ballast-chain, every pound of it had had to be thrown overboard. It would have to be replaced before Italia could set off on the second leg of her voyage north. Nobile, not unnaturally, was a worried man: he knew that the weather conditions already experienced had been mild compared with those they must anticipate over the Arctic Ocean and the pack ice of the far North.
Repairs to the dirigible took ten days to complete. General Nobile became more and more impatient to be off. He knew from the past experience, as well as from what he had learned from other polar explorers, that period he had selected for his expedition was the best one for his purpose: there was adequate light over the Arctic, but weather had not warmed sufficiently for the ice to thaw and break up and so become treacherous for parties trying to work on it. With every day that passed, the approach of poorer weather conditions became more of a menace.
Fate was not kind to him while he was at Slupsk. The very day the mechanics finished their exacting task the weather took a turn for the worse. Tromso Geophysical Institute, in the far north of Norway, gave warning that though at the moment wind conditions over the Barents Sea were fairly good there was every indication that they would soon deteriorate. The wind, too, was from the north. So, when she did at last set off, Italia would inevitably have to battle with head winds, possibly for the whole 1,200 miles or so between Slupsk and Vadso, on the extreme northern coast of Norway, and then for the 800 or 900 remaining miles from Vadso to Spitsbergen. It was a disturbing prospect, especially in view of the alarming rate at which Italia's three engines consumed fuel when the airship was faced by head winds.