Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.5: S.O.S. Italia

Second only in value to the radio transmitter, apart from the tent and provisions, were the scientific instruments.  There were two sextant; there was a mercury artificial-horizon - admittedly of more use to an aircraft than to a party of men whose horizon was an ice field stretching all about them; there was a chronometer, of immense importance since it was an exact timekeeper and calculations could only be accurate if they were based on knowledge of the exact time.  There was also a complete set of calculation tables, a navigator's stock-in-trade.

Malmgren and Zappi together checked their position.  It was essential that this should be accurately broadcast if there was to be any hope of immediate rescue, since there were no landmarks by which a rescue party could steer towards them tin that waste of Arctic Ocean and almost limitless ice.  The position they obtained placed them to the northeast of a group of islands, the most important of which was Charles XII, with Foyn and Broch only slightly less important.  They were located just off the north coast of the big island shown on the atlas as Northeast Land, to the east of Spitsbergen, on the opposite side from King's Bay, where the base ship was anchored.

King's Bay itself is an almost landlocked expanse of water sheltered from the open sea by the long, narrow Prince Charles Island which stretches across it's wide mouth.  It was to the Italian base ship in that landlocked haven that every man's thoughts turned as they crouched or lay in that small tent, amid the limitless expanse of bitter ice: from there, and there alone, help - if it was to come at all - must eventually come.  And the only means of communicating their desperate plight to the radio operator on duty in the ship was Guiseppe Biagi with his small emergency radio transmitter miraculously salvaged from the ill-fated Italia as she drifted away to her death.

Their very first night in the tent produced near-panic.  The wind howled, setting the slender guy ropes thrumming and whining so that at intervals, for all his attempts to reassure her, Nobile's small terrier strained her neck out of the sleeping bag she shared with him and Cecioni and whined in tune with the guy ropes.  A blanket of low cloud hung menacingly over the ice, near enough, it seemed to the men, to touch if they reached their hands towards it.

From time to time one of other of them would drop off into a fitful sleep, only to waken suddenly from a dream-nightmare into the nightmare of reality.  Nobile and Cecioni, one with broken right leg and arm, the other with broken leg and minor injuries, chafed one another however conscientiously they tried to lie still.  They may have been the least chilled individuals in the tent, but they were he most cramped, the least able to change position or relieve their stiffness by sitting up or even moving out of the tent for a minute or two.  Neither of them could sleep a wink.

So, they were less startled than the others were when suddenly an appalling crash and grinding noise filled the air all about them and the ice floor of the tent rocked and pitched under them.  Malmgren was the first out through the sealed doorway, closely followed by all the others who could move.  It was immediately apparent what was causing the noise: the violent friction of two ice floes working against one another.  Somewhere - and it seemed to them that it was very close at hand - the ice floe they were on had broken away from the ice field, torn off from it, no doubt, by the movement of some unusually strong current below the surface.

None of the men, not even Malmgren who, as a Scandinavian, was more accustomed than the Italians to the ways of ice in northern waters, had any desire to try to locate the ice break.  But the same thought struck them all; the ice could break up in the same way actually under their tent.  They stood there in a frightened group, hardly conscious, in their anxiety, that snow had started to fall heavily.  Then the crashing and grinding of the ice ceased as suddenly as it had begun; the only sound to be heard was the howling of the wind, the whining of the guy ropes, and an occasional yelp of distress from Titina.

They returned slowly to the comparative shelter of the tent.  Malmgren reported to Nobile, telling him that it was imperative to move the tent to another spot in the middle of a really big ice floe.  Otherwise… He did not need to complete the sentence; its meaning was all too clear.

They lay down again and tried to snatch an hour or two of sleep.  But before they did so a watch was posted.  From that moment on there was at least one man on watch when the others were trying to sleep, to give the alarm immediately if there was a sign that the ice was going to break up again.

Another precaution they took was to dye the tent red, to make it more easily distinguishable against the ice, from the air or by a rescue party on foot.  Mordern explorers in ice-covered mountains or among glaciers or ice fields generally make use of bright tents, especially of red or yellow, two shades which stand out particularly well.  By great good luck, among the miscellaneous items thrown overboard by Arduino was a container of small glass balls filled with scarlet liquid and hermetically sealed.  Normally these were used for dropping down on any given point on the ice field, where they burst on impact to produce a large and spreading red stain easily discernible from the air, for the purpose of checking altitude.  Fortunately the glass balls had survived the impact with the ice, having been expertly packed.  So, a few of them were cracked open and their contents used for dyeing the tent fabric to make it conspicuous.  The remainder were carefully packed up again for later use - fortunately, as it was to prove.  

Meanwhile, one member of the party was absorbed in his self-appointed task: to make contact with the outside world.  Guiseppe Biagi concentrated on his transmitter-receiver as though it was the focal point of their of their existence - as indeed it was.  He had no difficulty in transmitting: at two-hourly intervals, at the prescribed five minutes to the odd hour, he sent out his simple, basic, self-explanatory distress call,  "S.O.S. Italia!"  But he had no means of knowing whether his signal was being received.  In fact, it became clear in time that it was not, for he received at intervals a message from the base ship that made no reference to the signals he was so conscientiously transmitting.  "We have not heard your radio aboard Italia since ten o'clock this morning.  We suppose you are now near the north coast of Spitsbergen, heading towards us between the 15th and 20th meridians East of Greenwich."

After the first few transmissions the following words were added, "Trust in us.  We will organise assistance."  Strangely, however, there was still no reference to any message received on the ship; nor was any request made for position.  The captain of Citta di Milano seemed to be taking it for granted that his estimate of their present position was correct, whereas, in fact it was very far from being correct.

The messages, regularly repeated, became increasingly frustrating.  They suggested that the radio operator on the base ship was making no attempt to tune in to the wave length agreed upon before the expedition left King's Bay and so pick up the distress call.  This was incomprehensible.  What was the point of making elaborate arrangements for just an emergency as this if they were to be ignored when the emergency arose?

There were, however, other messages picked up by Biagi which soon made it obvious that there was widespread anxiety for the safety of the expedition.  The powerful Rome station, San Paolo, transmitted regularly on a wave length that Biagi could obtain.  From those messages he learned that all Europe had become aware of the silence that had fallen over the Arctic Ocean and that therefore Italia must be in trouble.  This was some consolation; but it would have been a thousand times better if, at least once, a message had been picked up from the base ship indicating that her radio office had actually picked up the S.O.S. and so made direct contact with the marooned party.  It would mean that their exact position could be given and confirmed; and that an immediate rescue party could be sent out, with accurate information as to the whereabouts of the people they were looking for.  

One evening , however, two things happened that gave a ray of hope.  First, Biagi picked up the information, via San Paolo, that the base ship was about to hoist anchor and set off northward.  This meant that with every hour's sailing she would come that much closer to the tent, and stand a better chance of picking up Biagi's distress signals and information about position.  He had come to the reluctant conclusion that his emergency transmitter, though it received well, was for some reason just not powerful enough to reach even as far as King's Bay.

The other thing was a report from Behounek and Malmgren, based on a protracted spell of close observation and calculation.  They were now convinced that the ice sheet on which they were located was drifting southeastward quite rapidly.  Mariano, an expert in navigating, agreed with them that they might well have drifted as much as twenty-eight miles in the past seventy-two hours.  The drift was certainly in the direction of the group of islands lying off the north coast of Northeast Land.  This meant that it might not be so very long before they drifted to within hail of the nearest land.  But the speculation had to assume two things: that the position from which they had been drifting was the one they believed they had established, and that the rate of drift was steadily maintained, and it's direction too.

These two new factors gave the men new heart.  Nobile decreed that they should be permitted a more substantial evening meal.  A fire was lit and pemmican was cooked in water to produce a thickish soup.  True, it was unpleasant to look at, resembling the liquid that would be produced if a dirty dishcloth were wrung out in greasy water.  But it did not taste to bad and was hearteningly warm as well as nourishing.  It produced in every man a sense of well-being that lasted for an hour or two.  The pemmican soup was followed by a sweet course consisting of a bar of chocolate mixed with a crumbled-up biscuit.

So, the party of nine men settled down as best they could to await developments.  There was nothing they could do, beyond keeping themselves as fit as possible and maintaining an unbroken watch on the movement of the ice sheet on which their tent was planted.  There were two reasons for this.  In the first place they did not intend to be caught unawares by a sudden and dramatic break up of the ice, whose actual dimensions they could still only guess at; and they needed to check at regular intervals the direction and rate of drift of the ice so as to be able to report to the rescue party as soon as contact had been established through the radio.

Nobile and Cecioni lay in their shared sleeping bag gritting their teeth against the pain they had to endure.  Nobile was especially bitter at his immobilisation.  As leader of the expedition, and responsible for the well-being of the men serving under him, he wanted above all, to be able to move about and do something.  Actually, there was really nothing that any of them could do.  The only member of the party with a definite function to perform was Biagi.  He seemed to spend all day and all night - as far as these could be distinguished - crouched over his radio, his ears straining for the longed-for message that would confirm that Citta di Milano had at last picked up his distress call.

But the only message they picked up from the base ship was that eternally frustrating non-message: "We have not heard your radio… We suppose… Trust in us…"  What was the use, the nine members of the tent party repeatedly asked each other angrily, of being told to trust in someone who was apparently not making the slightest attempt to ascertain what had happened to them and where the marooned party should be searching for?  They speculated endlessly about this, but no one could find an answer to their questions.

Two or three days after the crash, the low cloud lifted for a while and the castaways believed they could see land to the south of them. By their calculations, if it really was land, it was probably Charles XII Island.  They strained their eyes, hour after hour, seeking to establish that what they hoped for was a fact.  But was it just a mirage, something "seen" because they so badly wanted to see it?

The fact that land might be there, however, introduced a problem which became increasingly acute during the days that immediately followed.  If, as they fondly hoped, it was land close to the northern shore of Spitsbergen, then it was important to reach it as soon as possible.  They believed that the ice field was drifting steadily in that direction.  But even this, if ti was a fact, introduced a new hazard.  They had received the message that the base ship was setting out to search for them.  But it the southeasterly drift continued, as they believed it was doing, it would take them away from the course on which Citta di Milano had set out, and she would get no nearer to them at all.

The problem was formidable.  And it was brought to a head one night when Nobile, attempting to get some sleep in his cramped sleeping bag, overheard a low-pitched conversation between Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano.  Malmgren was making the point that this drift was heading dangerously far to the east: there was, he emphasised, the strong possibility that if they remained on the ice floe they would be carried in the direction of Franz Josef Land, far to the east of Spitsbergen.  He knew that area of land: an icy desolation which had nothing to offer them that they did not have on the ice floe that was already their inhospitable base.

Mariano and Zappi, both naval men, perhaps understood better than the others what these facts really meant.  It no longer seemed likely that the drift would take them, as they had been hoping, towards Charles XII Island; rather, it would bypass that island and bring them eventually to within reach of an even more inhospitable shore.  Meanwhile, the base ship would presumably be searching farther and farther to the west; in all probability she would not succeed in making contact with them at all.  In any case she was not a well-found vessel but an elderly relic of some 5,000 tons, with unreliable engines and certainly not designed or constructed to withstand the impact of the ice she might be expected to encounter after leaving the comparative shelter of King's Bay.  Neither Mariano nor Zappi had much faith in her; Malmgren accepted their opinion of her usefulness as they accepted his expertise in Arctic matters.

The essential point in the discussion overheard by Nobile was a proposal that the marooned party should split up.  Earlier, Mariano had suggested that the whole party should strike camp and set off, with improvised sledges, to footslog southward in the direction of Charles XII Island.  It was Malmgren who had pointed out that two of the party, Nobile and Cecioni, were in no condition to be moved, even if sledges could be constructed, in the view of the state of the ice over which they would have to be transported.  So, if anyone was to set off for Charles XII Island in search of help it would have to be the most able-bodied of the party.

Nobile listened in mounting horror. In union lay strength, he was convinced.  He was aghast at the thought that the able-bodied members of the party - that was the majority - should depart, leaving two virtually helpless members on the ice with at best one or two others who were reasonably fit; they would go off into the unknown, with no certainty or even probability of survival, let alone the expectation of summoning a rescue party to the aid of those left behind.

The partial cause of the proposal now under consideration by Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano was their growing disillusionment over the radio receiver.  Biagi hardly left it; he conscientiously sent out his distress call at five minutes to every odd hour, and would have done so even more frequently had it not been necessary to conserve their limit he battery capacity.  He listened for incoming messages, however, the whole time.  But it seemed to the members of the party that there was some kind of barrier between their transmitter and the base ship.  They could receive these irrelevant and infuriating messages about "trust in us" but were apparently unable to penetrate the barrier with their own more vital messages.  Only Biagi and Nobile retained their conviction that there would, some day, be a breakthrough.  The others by now had given up all hope of establishing contact by means of radio.

Malmgren was the leading spirit in the proposal to send out a party on foot to obtain help before it was too late.  Being a Scandinavian, he was the only member of the party with experience of living on the edge of the Arctic, so this was not surprising.  He spoke with some authority in recommending this dangerous and dramatic step.  He emphasised the point that the drift, once regarded as promising, was now becoming a menace.  It was taking them farther and farther from the point at which rescue was presumably being organised; farther and farther, too, from reliable radio contact.

Commander Adalberto Mariano was fully prepared to throw in his lot with Malmgren.  Filippo Zappi, also a naval man, was equally prompt to join in the enterprise.  But when Nobile very rightly brought out the whole matter into the open for discussion there were strong disagreements.

Cecioni was among those with the strongest feelings against the proposal.  If Malmgren went, he pointed out, the only man with any real experience of Arctic conditions would have been lost to those who had to be left behind.  This could mean real trouble, even disaster, if for example the ice floe were to break up again, or some similar hazard confront them.  He felt strong misgivings at the idea that three or possibly four of the most able-bodied members of the party should go off into the void.  Admittedly Biagi had not yet succeeded in making contact with anyone; but surely before long success would have been achieved?  Anyway, the base ship was presumably drawing nearer and nearer all the time.

Nobile was glad to hear someone other than himself taking a strong line.  But he had a point to make of his own.  Undoubtedly, since there was now anxiety for their welfare, an aerial search would have been mounted, might even have got under way.  There might also be one or more parties setting out on foot with sledges.  The one really conspicuous object on this vast ice field was the red-painted tent; it was for this that any rescue party would most certainly make.  If some members of the tent party were to strike out on their own across the ice they would be almost impossible to spot from the air, and might well be on a completely different route from that taken by a rescue party travelling on foot, so they would be missed and almost certainly lost.

Malmgren, however, was adamant.  He used the authority vested in him, not as leader of the expedition, for that was General Umberto Nobile, but as an experienced Scandinavian, the Swedish Professor of Meteorology, the man most competent to lead a party on foot across the sort of terrain with which he alone was familiar.  As things turned out, this statement was a piece of tragic irony; but no one was to know this for some time to come.

A mood of bitterness lay over the occupants of the tent.  Biagi worked at his transmitter, spending hours on end listening in in the desperate hope of at last picking up a signal that would reveal that their own distress call had been received aboard the base ship.  Nobile still had faith that it would be picked up.  Biagi was the only other member of the party who shared that faith.

The bitterness was aggravated by the fact the men who were planning to launch out into the unknown knew quite well that their proposal was resented by the others.  But this served only to make them more determined than ever to carry out their project, rightly or wrongly.  Meanwhile the cold, the sheer discomfort of sitting or lying on an ice floe with only the thinnest canvas separating them from the ice, the gnawing hunger and the permanent thirst: all these elements combined to lower morale and to make them feel progressively more hopeless.  The scanty ration of pemmican and chocolate affected each man's digestion; they were afflicted by demoralising internal disorders for which, unfortunately, they had no medicines. 

At first it was not absolutely decided who should make up the party that was to set off on foot, and whether it was to consist of three men or four.  Commander Zappi, as a naval man, thought  that the two other naval officers should be in the party as well as Malmgren, the Swede.  Nobile felt very strongly that at least one of the naval men should remain with the tent.  For one thing, the three naval men were among the fittest of the marooned party; and surely, he reasonably argued, there should be at least one fit man with a naval officer's training to rally the support of those who were dependent for their very survival on the strength and ingrained discipline of others?  It was finally agreed that one of them should remain behind; the footslogging party would consist of three men.

A day or two were spent in preparing for the expedition, now that the decision had been made.  Zappi wanted a sledge constructed. On May 29 the incentive for the project was further strengthened by the fact the landmass, which some of them believed to be Charles XII Island, though none of them could be sure, had completely vanished.  It gave extra emphasis to Malmgren's view that the drift eastward of the ice floe was becoming an undue hazard.  The sooner they were off and away the better their chance of success.  Now, he urged, every hour, every minute, counted.

Chief Technician Cecioni, though injured, and though deeply incensed at Malmgren's proposal, brought his skill as a handyman to bear on the problem of constructing a sledge from material salvaged from the wreck.  He dragged himself out of the tent and was propped up so that both of his hands were free to work.  Lengths of steel tubing, bracing wires and other fragments from the wrecked control cabin were assembled all around him.  Largely as a result of his inventive skill, a sledge of sort began to take shape.  It was a makeshift affair of crooked tubing.  Malmgren, who hailed from a land where sledges are works of art, thought it would be unlikely to stand up to as much as an hour's travel over the rough and hummocky ice, but he knew better than to voice his fears in Cecioni's hearing.  Cecioni himself regarded it as a poor thing; but it was the best he could do with the limited resources available to him.

Nobile asked Malmgren how far he thought his party ought to be able to travel in a day.  Aware of the state of the ice field, Malmgren said he doubted whether they would cover more than five of six miles in a day.  That meant, he reminded his leader, that they would be travelling for at least two weeks.  If, by some lucky chance, the condition of the ice were to improve, and the hummocks flatten out, they should be able to make better progress: perhaps as much as twelve or even fifteen miles in a day's march.  But he doubted it.  Especially in view of the fact that the most gruelling part of their journey would be right at the beginning, over this jagged ice, which would tax their strength to its limit.

The others heard his reply with dismay.  Two weeks - perhaps more!  Their hearts sank.  And they realised, too, that even it his forecast were correct there was still the wide-open question of whether his party would succeed in obtaining help.  And even it they did, that help still had to reach those who were to remain behind in the tent.  Meanwhile, the ice floe was drifting, everlastingly drifting eastward, off course, away from the one being followed, they hoped, by the base ship.

Malmgren planned a route as directly as possible for the nearest island, which he now believed would be Foyn.  From there, somehow, he must get his party across to the main island, Northeast Land, from which help would be obtained.  But this assumed that they would not already have been in touch with one or other of the rescue parties which he was sure were even now setting out northward from Spitsbergen and perhaps elsewhere.  He estimated the distance they would have to travel at well over a hundred miles; if the drift continued at the present rate it could be considerably more.  He had no illusions as to their prospects.  But anything, he emphasised (and Mariano and Zappi agreed wholeheartedly with him), was better than lingering in the cramped tent listening to a continuous series of radio messages that meant nothing at all.

Two things happened before they actually set out.  The first was that Viglieri, on the lookout of the risk of break up in the ice floe, spotted what he believed to be a column of smoke rising into the cold air far to the north of the camp site.  It vanished into the low cloud that almost continuously lay over the ice in that region.  He reported what he had seen, in a state of some excitement.  The others, with the exception of Nobile and Cecioni, came scrambling out of the tent to see for themselves.  They speculated endlessly as to what it might be.  The general belief was that the ill-fated Italia had exploded and that what they had seen was the funeral pyre of the airship herself and the six men left on board after the crash.  It was a sobering thought, and one which obsessed them for days, in spite of all their other preoccupations.

The other thing was much closer at hand.  Zappi and Mariano were outside the tent taking observations during a fitful burst of pale sunshine.  Suddenly they became aware of a polar bear on the far side of the tent. It was standing perfectly still, looking at them as though it was the first time - as it probably was - it had seen such two-legged animals in its native territory.

Zappi nipped back swiftly to the tent and whispered the news hoarsely to the others.  Malmgren, who was nearest to the opening, reached for the Colt revolver which always hung, fully loaded, from the tent pole.  With it, he crept out of the tent, following in the direction in which Zappi was pointing.  There it was: a six-foot-high specimen which must, he reckoned, weigh at least four times as much as a man.  It was stationary, about twenty-five yards beyond the tent.  Malmgren whispered to Zappi and Mariano to close in behind him, with their knives bared.  There was always the risk that, excellent shot as he knew himself to be, he might miss.  Or the revolver might misfire and the beast be startled by the sound into aggressive action.  Nobile had grasped his little terrier and drawn it well inside the sleeping bag, masking her muzzle with his hand to stop her from barking.

The three men made their way stealthily towards the bear.  It stood there, looking at them without the slightest sign of aggressiveness.  When he was within a dozen yards, Malmgren raised his revolver and fired a shot, which he immediately followed up with two more.  The bear jerked, spun around and, to the three men's astonishment, fell almost on the spot.

They waited for a while, uncertain as to whether the shots had proved fatal or had merely badly wounded the bear.  While they stood there they were joined by the others, except Nobile.  Even Cecioni, less badly injured, had managed to wriggle out until he could slither across the ice, grunting as he did so, to see what was going on.  Then, satisfied that the bear was dead, Malmgren called for knives.  The bear, he explained, must be carved up while its flesh was still warm or they would never be able to handle it.  He estimated that its carcass should contain at least three hundredweight of good meat.  And the thick hide could be shaped into two more sleeping bags, or a large rug that would cover three or four men at a time when they lay down.

Nobile and his men were enormously relieved.  This was an absolute godsend.  Bear meat would doubtless be tough, and not entirely to the taste of men accustomed to beef.  But it would be a welcome alternative to pemmican and pemmican soup, on which they had now subsisted for several day and might have to subsist for a long while to come.  In this temperature the meat would remain in good condition until the last fragment had been carved from it, boiled or stewed, and swallowed!

The whole party regarded the episode as a good omen.  Those who had to remain in the tent saw themselves with a full larder; those who were on the eve of setting out on their long trek across the ice would be able to take with them a more generous supply of provisions, in the comfortable knowledge that they had left behind them a well-stocked larder.  Cecioni came up with the suggestion that, as there was plenty of food available for all of them, perhaps Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano would change their minds and stay behind.  But Malmgren's mind was made up: tomorrow, May 30, they would set off, as planned, to obtain help for the party marooned in the tent.

So, on that last evening, Nobile set to work to apportion the provisions.  All the bear's meat, he said, should be left with the tent party, for pemmican would be easier and more compact to carry, and they would be allocated substantially more of it than had at first been planned.  They should take 73 pounds of pemmican; 42 pounds of chocolate - for the strain on them would be greater by far than the strain of sitting in the tent; seven pounds of malted milk and two pounds of the precious remaining supply of butter.

The rest of the provisions, together with all the bear's meat, should remain with the six members of the tent party - twice the number of the foot party, even if they were going to be exposed to much less physical effort.  They had to remember that rescue was likely to be much later for them than for those who were now setting off; no one could foretell when - if ever - a rescue party would reach them across the ice.

There was something sadly final about these careful arrangements.  The superstitious among the party felt that by dividing up they were not increasing but reducing the chance that all or any of them would ultimately be saved.  But the decision had been made; and there was no going back on it.