Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.11: The Icebreaker.

The Russian icebreaker, Krassin, displaced 10,000 tons and, with her 10,500 horse-power engines, was the most powerful icebreaker in Europe.  Though by no means a new vessel, she was well-equipped for the duty for which she had been designed and built.  Her bows and forepart were massively constructed, and sheathed with metal plating that would not have been out of place on a battleship.  Her most striking feature was the unusual height of her two funnels, which soared above her superstructure like truncated masts.  They were the only obvious indication of he age: vessels being built, even in Russia, in the twenties had the newer type of squat, thickset funnel.  But there was no doubt whatsoever about her power and efficiency.

On the day Biagi finally succeeded in getting a distress signal intercepted - the one that was picked up by the radio amateur in Archangel - Krassin was in port at Leningrad.  She was given orders to sail for northern Norway immediately to take part in the search for Italia's survivors.  This involved steaming westward down the Gulf of Finland, then southward down the Baltic and out into the North Sea.  She headed first for Bergen, where she took coal on board.  On June 24, the day after General Nobile had been taken from the Red Tent by the Swedish pilot Lundborg, the very day that Warning had to be abandoned by Sora and Van Dongen, Krassin steamed north from Bergen up the island-dotted west coastline of Norway, heading for Tromso and points north.

She carried a crew of 138 men in all, under her master, Captain Eggi.  But there were others than crew members on board.  The leader of the relief expedition was a Russian Professor of Arctic Studies named Samoilovitch, a man who had done a great deal of fieldwork in northern waters and was incidentally an old friend of Nobile.  A very important member of the relief party was the Russian airman, Boris Chuckhnovsky.  He and his crew of three, including his co-pilot Straube, were in a different category from the icebreaker's crew in general: after all, the ice-breaker was essentially the means of putting the three-engined Junkers within relatively easy reach of the castaways.  They had instructions to look out not only for the scattered groups of Italia's crew and for Sora's party, but for Amundsen and his party too.  Nothing had been heard from Amundsen for over a week, and anxiety on their account was increasing.

For all her 10,500 horse-power, Krassin was not designed for speed.  It took three days for her to cross the Arctic Circle, plunging through heavy seas and into weather that became progressively colder and colder.  On June 29, the day of Biagi's most urgent appeals from the Red Tent, when their ice floe was breaking up dangerously, and the day, too, when Captain Sora's small relief party ran into trouble with the break up of the ice over which their dogs were hauling their sledge, the icebreaker was off Spitsbergen, on the southern fringe of the ice.  She dropped her modest eleven knots to half that speed, and charged straight ahead.  It was for conditions such as these that she had been designed and built.

Life aboard an icebreaker can be, even for veteran crew members, a grim experience.  The steel sheathing in the forward part of the vessel, reaching aft almost to amidships, makes her virtually a steel chest; the steel is a sound conductor so efficient that speech becomes almost impossible between crew members as the din of crunching ice, the screech of ice blocks being torn apart and scraping down the vessel's side, mounts to a higher and ever higher pitch.  Members of icebreakers' crews have been known to collapse with nervous breakdowns as a result of the continued assault on their eardrums of the fiendish noise produced by the slow, relentless passage of the vessels as they carve their way through ever-thickening ice.

On June 30 the radio operator picked up a message giving the co-ordinates of the Red Tent.  These, and other data, were all carefully noted in the ship's log and plotted on the charts spread out across the wide chart table in the navigating room.  But the ship was in an area where the ice was thick enough to reduce her forward speed of a bare six knots to less than half that figure.  And later she was brought to a complete stop by solid ice well to the west of the position where the marooned party was estimated to be.  Not only was the ice sheet solid, without any apparent leads, but its thickness was increased by the piling of blocks of ice one upon another, where they had melted and broken off, been lifted by strong currents and frozen solid again.

Reluctantly, Captian Eggi altered course.  For some hours Krassin steamed along the edge of the ice field, her lookout men in the crow's-nest watching intently for any promising lead in the apparently unbroken field of solid ice.  At intervals one would appear, and the icebreaker be steered into it.  But after an hour or so of steady steaming she would be brought to a standstill again.  Her captain, highly experienced in ice breaking, would put her into reverse, and after use had eased herself a hundred yards or so clear, put her engines to full steam ahead.  Her steel-clad bows would crash again into the ice, to break a way a little farther, a little farther each time.  But this was a most uneconomical way of using the icebreaker; coal was being consumed at an alarming rate, yet she was making practically no headway.  Her master had to bear in mind the fact that, out in the Arctic ice fields, he would find no coaling stations; he must keep sufficient stocks in reserve for the voyage back to the nearest source of supply.  Calclations made at regular intervals indicated that, under these conditions, Krassin was using twenty tons of precious coal to advance less than a mile; and this process could take anything up to five hours.

Quite apart from the resistance of the ice, the vessel ran into other trouble.  On July 3, a week after crossing the Arctic Circle and only four days after encountering the first ice, her master had to accept the fact that she had not got the power that she should have.  Since the Chief Engineer reported that her three engines were in good shape, there was only one other possible explanation:  something must be wrong with her propellers.  So, a diver was dropped overboard into the ice-cold water to inspect.  He came up, almost frozen to death, and reported that one complete propeller blade had broken off and that the rudder also had suffered extensive damage from contact with the ice.

With a damaged propeller and rudder, and amid ice that seemed impossible to penetrate, Krassin was about as helpless as the various parties of castaways she had set out to rescue.  Professor Samoilovitch and Captian Eggi debated the various courses open to them: to return to base, defeated; to try to press onward with a partly disabled vessel; to try to make repairs on the spot.  Those were the only alternatives that presented themselves.  And while they were considering them the report came through that the coal reserves were down to barely half of what they had been at the last refuelling.  The greater part of the remaining coal, said the Chief Engineer, must be kept for the return voyage.

That decided it.  Krassin would stay where she was until repairs had been made to the best of the mechanic's ability.  Meanwhile, Chuckhnovsky's plane should be made ready for setting down on the ice to make its first reconnaissance flight.  During that time there was always the chance that a new lead might appear in the ice, and Krassin would be able to make better progress at a smaller expenditure of coal. So, appropriate orders were given, and work began at once.

While the airman and his crew were making their preliminary flight and the subsequent flight that so nearly ended in complete disaster, the icebreaker's crew worked like trojans to repair the rudder and propeller damage.  The ice had not broken up as much as Samoilovitch had hoped, but there did now seem to be a slight easing of its resistance.  On July 11, with her engines set at full speed ahead, her propellers and rudder in good order, the icebreaker was set to mastering the ice floe again.

Progress was still terribly slow.  Her captain estimated that they were not punching ahead at more than half a mile per hour.  The ice was never less than six feet thick.  Often the tumbled boulders of ice on the main sheet brought it up almost to the level of the deck rails.  Members of the crew not actually on duty leaned over the rails, watching the steel-clad bows cleaving the massive ice sheet spread out ahead of them as though challenging them to do their worst.  Even on deck the noise was shattering.  Any man wishing to communicate with another had to do so in sign language.

All that day the icebreaker stumbled ahead.  Her progress was a painful one of charging forward, being slowed inexorably to a standstill, reversing for her own length or more, and then charging forward again, to win another few yards.  Sometimes she would succeed in covering little more than her own length in half an hour's solid battering at the rampart of ice that interminably confronted her.  Dark smoke poured in clouds from her two tall funnels - visible proof of the tremendous drain on her fuel reserves that were being shovelled down below into her furnaces by the sweating stokers.

While Captain Eggi worried incessantly about the depletion of his coal bunkers, Professor Samoilovitch became more and more confident that success could not be far away.  The radio operator was in touch with the Italian base ship, and she in turn was receiving messages from the Red Tent, though the information was subordinate to the appeals for the stepping-up of all rescue operations.  The leads, Biagi reported, were opening up all around the ice floe on which they were marooned.  This was grim for the men in the tent, but hearing news for the captain of the icebreaker.  The farther north he penetrated, the easier conditions ought to become.

One afternoon Samoilovitch offered a prize of one hundred Russian roubles to the first member of the icebreaker's crew who should sight any of the castaways, whether the occupants of the Red Tent, or Zappi and Mariano, or Sora and Van Dongen.  Chuckhnovsky and his party were a different story.  They had radioed that all was well with them.  Since their position was well to the south of the icebreaker anyway, they could be picked up at leisure when she turned back after effected the main rescues.

At twenty minutes past five on the afternoon of July 11 a crew member excitedly yelled down from the crow's-nest that he had spotted a human figure far away across the ice.  His eyesight must have been exceptionally good, as no one was able to confirm his discovery for nearly half an hour.  But the man was positive.  He swore that it was no illusion.  There was a dark shape - it might even be two dark shapes, he thought - silhouetted against a hummock of ice.  He pointed steadily in one direction.  And after a while first one and then another of his companions believed that they too had seen the dark figure against the ice.  Then they were absolutely positive.

The order was given for Krassin's engines to be stopped.  Almost before the big icebreaker came to a stop, her bows jammed hard up against a wall of ice, a couple of rope-and-slat ladders had been lowered over her side.  A rescue party, which included the ship's doctor, scrambled swiftly down the ladders, and set off as fast as they could manage, tripping and slipping on the uneven, glassy surface, heading in the direction in which the dark shapes had been seen, three or four hundred yards from where the vessel now lay.

As they closed in, stumbling clumsily in their feverish haste to reach their objective, the figure of a man became clearer and clearer.  He was standing unsteadily on the ice, a gaunt, emaciated individual, with matted hair sticking out around his tattered headgear and a thick beard frozen to his clothing.  He made no attempt to move, but swayed there as the rescuers raced across the broken ice towards him.  Close beside him, at his feet, a second figure could be seen, lying outstretched and motionless, apparently lifeless.

"I am Zappi," said the gaunt, tragic-looking figure.  "From Italia.  This," and he pointed to the man lying at his feet, "is Mariano.  Malmgren -"  But he broke off on that name, and collapsed into the arms of one of the Russians.

Already the ship's doctor had dropped down on his knees beside the figure on the ice.  The man's eyes were half opened and there was a wild, haunted look in them.  At least that showed that  he was still alive.  The doctor signalled for a stretcher.  The crumpled figure of Mariano was tenderly laid on it and then picked up by strong and willing arms.  Four sailors went off with him at once towards the ship.  The doctor, who was in charge of the party, turned an inquiring eye on Zappi, who was standing, supported on each side by one of the crew.  "Malmgren?"  he asked.

Zappi shook his head slowly.  "Dead," he answered.  He pointed vaguely northward in the direction from which they had been coming when they were forced to stop.  "Back there."

Once on board the icebreaker, Mariano was the first to receive attention.  He was in very much worse shape than his companion.  Both of his legs were frostbitten.  One of them was in such a state of gangrene that the doctor knew immediately that the leg would have to be amputated as soon as it was possible to get him on to an operating table.  The other leg, and his two hands, might  with luck be saved.  The doctor had no operating facilities aboard Krassin; it was imperative to return to base with the least possible delay if the man's life was to be saved.

During the rescue a new message about the Red Tent's position had been picked up.  There was more information about the leads, too.  As a result, Captain Eggi gave orders for the icebreaker to be backed out of the lead she had so laboriously carved for herself and to be set on a new course altogether.

While on this new course, on the following day the lookout in the crow's-nest spotted two men on the ice, and signalled to the officer of the watch.  Binoculars were brought to bear,  co-ordinates checked, and the decision reached that the two men must be Sora and Van Dongen.  The captain's first impulse was to go to their rescue.  But in the interim he had received instruction to allow nothing to interrupt the prime object of their mission, the rescue of Viglieri and his four companions adrift on the ice floe.  Their condition, the latest message had emphasised, was quite desperate.

It was one of those decisions that the master of a ship is often called upon to make.  He has to weigh one factor against another, and decide, rightly or wrongly, what acton to take.  Eggi decided that two men he could see through his binoculars were in good condition, and safe.  He knew where they were, and could come back for them, as he would for Chuckhnovsky and his crew.  Moreover, Sora and Van Dongen obviously knew that they had been located.  This would give them the necessary encouragement to stick things out for a few more days, if need be.  His chief concern was the rescue of the occupants of the Red Tent.

So, Krassin moved on.  As many members of the crew as could be spared from their duties assembled on deck.  Every vantage point on the superstructure, including the funnels and the crow's-nest, was manned.  At a guarder to seven on the evening of July 12 a smoke signal was seen by all, rising like a dark shaft into the cold air.  A roar of cheering went up from a hundred men on Krassin's deck and crowed vantage points.  it was estimated that the column of smoke could not be more than four miles across the ice.  Captain Eggi had the icebreaker pointed in the direction of the smoke, and ordered full speed ahead.

Krassin vibrated throughout her length like a live thing as her powerful engines increased her speed through the loose ice from three knots to four, to five, to six, even to seven knots.  Her steel-sheathed bows clashed and clanged their easy through the rafts of floating ice that tilted and reared up alongside as though striving to climb onto her decks and attack her crew, sweeping all before them.  Ahead of the icebreaker the men could see the tent, with its zigzag stripes of red, a scatter of figures dotted about it,  and the strange sight of an up-ended plane close by.

At nine o'clock that evening, three hours after they had rescued Zappi and Mariano, Krassin came to a stop within a few hundred yards of the tent.  Instantly the ship's gangplank was lowered over the side.  Hardly had it been lashed into position before the first of the marooned party, Viglieri, with Trojani and Behounek close at his heels and Biagi only a few yards behind them, had reached it.

Samoilovitch raced down the gangplank and was the first to greet them.  They embraced each other in turn, hugging one another like bears, rubbing their shaggy faces together in their emotion, wringing each other's hands, speaking incoherently to each other, the words tumbling out through swollen lips.  They were still shaking hands and embracing each other when the figure of Cecioni, on a pair of crutches he had ingeniously constructed for himself out of the lengths of tubing originally used for the runners of the sledge, was seen hobbling manfully across the ice towards them.

The rescue at long last having been effected, there seemed less urgency than might have been expected about actually going on board the icebreaker.  Crew members wanted to be shown the tent in which the party had lived for seven interminable weeks since the crash on May 25.  Biagi was happy to show off the makeshift aerial he had constructed, the aerial without which in all probability not one of them would have been alive that day, and certainly the rescue would not have been possible.  Incidentally, the wrecking of Lundborg's plane had been a godsend to them, angry as they had been at the time.  It had been stripped and one of its wings had been converted into flooring for the tent, so that the occupants had been able to remain in it, high and dry, above the slowly melting ice.

Eventually, when everything had been inspected and the few belongings had been gathered up, they streamed on board the icebreaker.  There was a touching meeting between them and Zappi and Mariano, whom they had never expected to see again.  Viglieri was shocked at the condition of his naval colleague, Mariano.  He was only thirty years old, two years older than Viglieri himself, but looked twice that age, drawn and haggard with exposure and the protracted agony of frostbite in both legs. 

The suggestion was put to Captain Eggi that the icebreaker should continue on her way in the hope of locating the dirigible and the six men aboard who had vanished northward.  But neither Eggi nor Samoilovitch believed that there was a chance in a million that the crew could have survived.  Also, there was not enough coal in the ship's bunkers for further voyaging away from base.  And lastly, as the doctor said time and again, Mariano had to be taken to an operating table with the least possible delay if he was to have a chance of pulling through.

There remained the question of picking up Sora's party.  But fortunately, that same evening the radio operator received a message to the effect that the two planes flown by a Swede and a Finn had located them, made a successful landing on the ice, picked them up and flown them back to base.  Captain Eggi, therefore, had the satisfaction of knowing that his decision to leave them until he had effected the rescue of the occupants of the Red Tent had been justified.

There was also the question of Boris Chuckhnovsky and his crew on the ice with their Junkers plane.  The airman had radioed that they had provisions to last them at least two weeks and that they were in no danger whatsoever.  Still, their rescue was the captain's responsibility, and he turned next to that problem.

For two days the icebreaker ploughed her way back the way she had come, making slow progress because in many parts the ice she had broken up had re-formed and become as impenetrable a barrier as it had been on the outward run.  Worse, a snowstorm developed, and strengthened until it could be called a true blizzard.  Eggi and Samoilovitch became more and more concerned for the crew of the Junkers.  It was one thing to expect them to survive in the sort of conditions that prevailed on the day of they crash-landed, when fog was the only real hazard; it was another for them to endure blizzard conditions.

Krassin's foghorn was kept in continuos operation, the idea being that the marooned airmen would hear it and be encouraged in their ordeal.  On July 15, three days after the rescue of the occupants of the Red Tent, the blizzard showed the first signs of decline.  the snow became thinner, the wind dropped, the sky gradually cleared.  In the afternoon the lookout shouted down from the crow's-nest that he had spotted the Junkers.  He estimated it as being three miles distant across the ice.  There was no sign, he said, of any human beings but of course they were probably sheltering inside its roomy fuselage.

Once again Krassin altered course, ramming her battered bows into a new area of ice, but this time with a positive objective ahead.  After a mile or two of slow and noisy slogging into the ice, thicker here than it had been farther back, Captain Eggi rang down to the engine room to shut off the engines.  They were near enough, he considered, for a rescue party to make the final approach on foot.  He called for two volunteers and his call was answered by half the ship's company. Two men climbed down the lowered gangplank and set off on skis.  Almost as they did so, the snow began to fall again, blown by a wind that steadily increased in force.

Samoilovitch toyed with the idea of recalling them.  But he decided against it when Eggi ordered the foghorn to be sounded at frequent and regular intervals so that the rescue party as well as the men about to be rescued would be able to keep their sense of direction.

It was a long wait.  But, after what seemed an unreasonably long time to the icebreaker's crew, a party of men was observed, with Chuckhnovsky in the lead, heading briskly for the ship, the rest of his crew and the two other men on skis bringing up the rear.  So, all was well.  Now the last of the scattered groups of rescued and rescuers alike had been picked up off the ice and were safe.

There was one more problem for Captain Eggi to face.  If he steamed away immediately, in order to convey Mariano as quickly as possible to base, he would have to abandon the Junkers.  Chuckhnovsky was emphatic that it would not take long to get the plane on board.  Captain Eggi gave in.  Willing hands went to work.  Within a matter of two hours the plane was dismantled and hoisted on the deck, where it was lashed down until it could be stowed in the crate in which it had been packed for the voyage.  This could be done at leisure, while Krassin steamed southward.  

Four weeks after she had set out from Bergen on the first stage of her mission, the icebreaker steamed slowly into King's Bay.  It was July 19.  Her bows showed how she had had to battle with the ice.  There were deep scores in the steel sheathing; her stem was battered and dented.  And she had only a hundred or so tons of coal left in her bunkers.  The operation from the point of view of fuel had been touch and go.

Her crew lined the deck.  Aboard the base ship, Citta di Milano, at anchor in the bay, the Italian crew lined the rails, cheering wildly.  This was a tremendous moment.  They were looking at a Russian icebreaker that had on board their compatriots whom they had thought they would never see again.

Among those waiting to greet the returning party, no one was more excited than General Umberto Nobile.  He had badly wanted to join one of the rescue parties that had set out after Lundborg had brought him back to base from the Red Tent.  He had tried hard to obtain permission to go aboard the icebreaker, and had used his friendship with Professor Samoilovitch to bring pressure to bear on the captain.  But he was still a sick man, with a broken leg and arm still unhealed after having been neglected for so long, and permission had very naturally been refused.

It can be imagined with what excitement and emotion the rescued men were greeted when they were brought aboard the base ship from their temporary home aboard Krassin.  If only Mariano had been in better health their joy would have been unclouded.  As it was, while they exchanged news of what had happened during the four weeks since Nobile had been taken off the ice, and bathed and ate and drank like civilised men for the first time in nearly eight weeks, poor Mariano was taken below decks to the base ship's hospital.

There, almost immediately, his right leg was amputated.  Though the surgeon was skilled, the hospital was not equipped for a major operation.  Mariano had to undergo the amputation, not with a general anaesthetic, which would have put him out for several hours, but with a local anaesthetic.  This meant that he was fully conscious throughout the whole of the operation.  He bore the ordeal with immense courage, true to naval tradition.  He took the first opportunity of talking with his old companions, determined not to cloud the happiness they were feeling at their escape by dwelling on his own misfortunes.

His courageous gesture was in tune with the fortitude that had been shown by even member of the expedition from start to finish.  Italia, it is true, had vanished, never to be seen again.  Her six-man crew had gone with her to their death.  But others had survived: Nobile, with a broken leg and arm; Cecioni with a broken leg; Viglieri, Behounek, Trojani, Zappi and Biagi; Mariano, saved from death in the nick of time by an amputation.  They were living proof of the power of determined men to survive against almost overwhelming odds.


saradwyn3 said...