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.