Friday, 29 June 2012

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.