Thursday, 5 July 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.12: Postscript.

So ends the story of the ill-fated Italia Polar Expedition.  During the months of August and September searches were made for the dirigible.  The first was undertaken by the icebreaker Krassin, at Nobile's urgent request.  But the search had to be broken off when she was diverted to the assistance of a passenger liner reported to be in trouble in northern waters.  Boris Chuckhnovsky made a series of flights in the direction of the North Pole, but returned each time with the report that he had found nothing.  Several small vessels, such as Braganza and Hobby, and a French boat sent out to look for traces of the Latham-47 hydroplane that had vanished with the explorer Amundsen on board, scoured the open water and as many of the leads as their captains could risk; but they saw nothing either.  No trace has ever since been seen of the wrecked dirigible, though planes continually fly "over the roof of the world" between Russia and Northern Canada and other parts in that bleak, inhospitable region of eternal ice and snow.

Among those who survived and were eventually rescued, Nobile's little terrier, Titina, escaped unscathed.  Thanks to the loving care of her master, and the generosity of the rest of the tent party in sacrificing a small portion of their scanty rations daily, she throve in spite of everything.  Perhaps her gaiety and courage did something to help maintain the spirits of the rest of the party against the continuous menace of despair that loomed so closely over them, threatening to take from them the very will to survive.

Of those who did survive, the youngest, Alfredo Viglieri, who took over command at the tent  when Nobile left, will be almost seventy, it he is still alive.  Natale Cecioni, nearest in age to Nobile himself, would be over eighty.  Nobile, who was born in 1885, is now well into his eighties.  And it is in connection with him that this great storey of courage and resolution has to end on a near-unhappy note.

Nobile had agreed to be taken from the Red Tent first only with the greatest reluctance.  He had been forced to do so by the authority of Lieutenant Lundborg.  It was his strong conviction that the master should always be the last to leave his sinking ship.  Although it was not a sinking ship, but a small tent manned by a group of men adrift on an ice floe, his place he felt was to be with them to the end.  But this was not to be.  Lundborg had his orders, and these had to be obeyed.

Unfortunately gossip was started - and no one can say by whom - that Nobile had deliberately asked to be given priority, had been insistent on being taken back to safety before anyone else in his party.  Once the gossip was set in motion it snowballed; nothing could stop it.  Lundborg might have been able to help, but the circumstances of his own crash landing at the Red Tent were not happy ones; in any case, he was killed in an air crash not long afterwards.

The story circulated not only in Italy but in Norway, where people were angered by the loss of their own Roald Amundsen on Nobile's account.  Other things began to be said about the leader of the Italia expedition.  He had, it was said, made wrong decisions, had risked good men's lives, had shown that he was undeserving of responsibility.  If it were not for him, so the feeling grew, the eight men who had died - six in the vanished dirigible, one on impact with the ice, one more during the terrible trek southward across the ice in search of help - would be alive and well to this day.

Poor, unhappy Umberto Nobile found himself shunned by his fellow men.  Articles appeared in various periodicals condemning him as a coward, a worthless individual; even, by implication - a murderer.

All that was way back in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  It hit General Nobile hard, wounded his pride, brought him nearer to despair than he had been even in the worst days when he had to endure, with a broken leg and arm, the discomfort of an ice-cold tent on a drifting ice floe, unable, apparently, to make contact with the outside world.  Back in that world, he was condemned - without, as he believed, the slightest justification.  As a result he became a recluse, shunning his fellow men.  He remained so for many years.

Happily, the time at last came when people's attitude towards him changed.  They recognised him for the great man he was.  And is:  for he is respected throughout the world of aeronautics and exploration for his great achievements in twice flying a dirigible over the North Pole.