ItaliaThe Airship Crash Chronicle

In the spring of 1928, a team of explorers led by Umberto Nobile ventured out to the North Pole on board the airship Italia. The objective was achieved, but on the way back the heroic Arctic quest turned into disaster.

Two captains

Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile were as different as night and day. One was an offish, somber Scandinavian type who had already traveled to both poles, had no family and preferred to shun society and personal affections. The other was a gleeful Italian, who had designed the first-ever airship destined to reach the North Pole. A favorite of Italy’s fascist party, he used to keep his pet, a fox terrier called Titina, by his side on the hardest trips and, some say, paid the closest attention to the dog’s mood and behavior before departure. Nevertheless, there was one trait that Amundsen and Nobile had in common — both were great dreamers.

Roald Amundsen
Umberto Nobile

The two met for the first time in Oslo in July 1925. Amundsen had asked the Italian engineer to come to Norway to address him with a proposal for a joint trans-Arctic expedition on board the Airship N-1, which was eventually dubbed the Norge. Amundsen vowed that the Norwegian air club would purchase the airship and bankroll all other expenses. The Italian side was to provide the ship and its captain.

Umberto Nobile

The expedition was almost entirely a Norwegian-conceived-and-accomplished undertaking, but all preparations for it were made in Italy. Umberto Nobile

Nobile was very flattered to get such an invitation from the great polar explorer and a handshake clinched the deal. An ambitious pioneer, Amundsen could not wait for the chance to put an end to the old-time debate over whether or not the Arctic ice cap was hiding a northern continent, so he kept encouraging his Italian partner. The expedition left for the North Pole on April 10, 1926.

At first, Amundsen found the presence of a dog on board outrageous, to say the least. Eventually, he had to put up with his fellow traveler’s whims, but could not resist jotting down a sarcastic note in his diary: “Canine cutlets will taste good.” Amundsen positioned himself not only as the expedition’s chief, but also as a master of the situation in general. Alas, his great expectations fell flat — instead of an enigmatic continent, he saw only vast dark water expanses and ice floes below.

In the meantime, the voyage itself stirred up a sensation. The Norge spent a total of 171 hours in the air, including 72 hours above the Arctic Ocean, to have accomplished the up-till-then first-ever trans-Arctic voyage that finally moored in Alaska. It was a real breakthrough in the history of aeronautics. When the expedition was over, Captain Nobile got all the credit, while Amundsen remained just an eminent passenger.

Disaster

Inspired by the successful trip on board the Norge with the world press and Italy’s authorities (Mussolini even promoted him to general) heaping enormous praise on it, Nobile decided to build on his achievement and started brewing plans for another flight to the North Pole on his newly-built airship, the N-4, which as expected was called the Italia.

Show Info Airship N-4: The Italia Maximum range: 5,300 km Maximum speed: 115 km/h Payload: 9,405 kg Length: 105.4 m Diameter: 19.4 m

The Italia was ready for action by the spring of 1928. Pope Pius XI blessed the undertaking. He handed over a large oak cross to Nobile to be brought to the North Pole. Just like any cross, the Pope forewarned, it would be a heavy burden to carry.

The expedition departed from Milan on April 15, 1928. Nobile, for the very first time, ignored Titina’s premonition. His beloved dog resisted with all her might so the explorer had to pick her up to take her on board.

Italy before leaving Milan
The Italia’s engine gondolas

The Italia’s flight got off on the wrong foot from the very first hours. Damaged in a storm over the Alps, the airship had to make a stopover at then Germany’s Stolp (currently Slupsk, Poland). Due to repairs and the delayed arrival of Citta di Milano — the support ship that was commissioned to keep radio contact — the Italia proceeded with the voyage on May 3. Its mooring in Finland also occurred during bad weather. Fortunately, everything went well.

Over Stockholm, the Italia descended to its lowest altitude possible to let one of the crew’s members, Finn Malmgren, drop a note addressed to his mother.

The Italia over Stockholm

On May 8, the airship arrived at Kings Bay, on Spitsbergen, where the crew immediately got down to business by gearing up for exploration flights.

Show Info
The Italia at Kings Bay (Western Spitsbergen)

The airship had a crew of 13, with seven of them having earlier participated in the Norge’s voyage. Following the insistent requests from the board of Milan’s industrialists, which bankrolled the expedition, two journalists were allowed to participate in the airship’s journeys interchangeably. With three scientists included, the mission consisted of 18 members overall.

Participants in the Norge and the Italia voyages
Participants in the Italia voyage
Show Info

Two years before that, the Norge showed the whole world that airships were already quite reliable in the Arctic. This time, the purpose was not just to reach the North Pole, but to carry out a series of fact-finding studies. At the North Pole, several researchers equipped with instruments were supposed to disembark for a while to measure the Earth’s magnetism, the force of gravity and the ocean’s depth.

Greenland Eurasia The Spitsbergen Archipelago Franz Josef Land Severnaya Zemlya Novaya Zemlya The Arctic Ocean Kings Bay Boundary of Ice Gillis Land The North Pole

May 11

The first voyage was supposed to be to a previously unexplored area northeast of Franz Josef Land. However, bad weather and difficulties with the steering mechanisms made the dirigible turn back. The flight lasted for no more than eight hours.

May 15

The second flight occurred under conditions that were no better, but it turned out to be more successful. The Italia stayed airborne for three straight days, during which time it travelled 4,000 kilometers to have explored an area of about 50,000 square kilometers.

One of the expedition’s results was it shattered all fables about Gillis’ Land, allegedly discovered in 1707 by a Dutch captain, who rose one degree north of Spitsbergen. Nobile and his team thoroughly explored the area where the fabulous archipelago was suspected to be located to find nothing.

Thorough preparations were made for a third, final voyage. The most unfavorable scenarios were anticipated, including a forced landing on an ice floe. The expedition members were planning to look into several blank spots west of Spitzbergen and also to explore an unknown area north of Greenland.

04:28 | May 23

The Italia sets out on its last journey.

17:00

The airship reaches the shores of Greenland. For 30 minutes, it moved along the coastline, while the expedition’s participants conducted research and took photographs.

00:00 | May 24

At midnight, the Italia reached the North Pole assisted by a tailwind. Nobile triumphantly fulfilled his pledge made to the Pope — the cross and the Italian flag were dropped on ice. The expedition’s participants sent several radio messages of greeting and polished off a bottle of cognac to celebrate the occasion. The wind and fog prevented the airship from going down to below 150 meters above the surface, though. Consequently, the idea of disembarking at the North Pole had to be abandoned.

02:20 | May 24

Nobile was well aware that on the way back to Kings Bay the wind would obstruct their progress. At a certain point, he even pondered going to Canada, using the tailwind as an ally again. Nevertheless, Malmgren talked him out of this. Over the ten hours they would be in flight, the wind might change several times, the Swedish explorer pointed out. Besides, mooring at an unprepared site would be very tricky. Nobile agreed and issued orders to return to base.

The expedition left the North Pole to start along the 25th degree East at an altitude of 1,000 meters. However, as a result of the wind gaining strength, the airship began deviating eastward. In just a couple of hours, the airship strayed off course by at least five degrees.

16:00 | May 24

From being jovial and happy just moments ago, the crew turned quiet, concentrated and diligent. Strong cracking sounds were heard from time to time, as ice glaze fragments the airscrews were hurling around hit the envelope. Some caused minor damage to the skin, but all holes were promptly spotted and patched up.

18:00

Wind gales intensified to 50 km/h. Contrary to Malmgren’s forecast the southern wind showed no signs of shifting northward. The airship iced up even more.

21:45

Nobile commands the mechanics to start a third engine. The speed surges to over 100 km/h, but forced to contend with a strong headwind, the Italia is moving against the surface twice as slow. Great fuel consumption and the excessive strain on the airship were among the captain’s chief concerns. At about three past midnight one of the engines is stopped.

04:25 | May 25

The airship develops a list and goes off course. Leaving the area where it was at the moment as fast as possible is a matter of life and death. Having estimated the distance still ahead, Nobile orders to restart the third engine.

09:25 | May 25

The altitude control jams. Felice Trojani, who is on duty at the moment, tries to restore the airship to its horizontal position but fails. The Italia continues to dive rapidly. Nobile shuts down all engines at once. Without asking for permission, one of the officers throws out fuel canisters, which is of little help, though. The accumulation of ice has made the airship too heavy, so the loss of such an insignificant cargo failed to stop its plunge. Yet, at an altitude of 80 meters the airship starts rising again.

10:00

It apparently seemed that the situation has gotten better. The Italia climbs to 900 meters. Mechanic Natale Cecioni overhauls the altitude control mechanism but the cause of the problem remains unclear. Two engines — the central and portside ones — are restarted. The Italia goes up to 1,500 meters again.

10:30

Cecioni says that the airship has grown too heavy. The aft draft increases and the Italia begins to lose altitude. Nobile orders his men to accelerate the two working engines and to start the third one. This merely accelerates the descent. From this moment on there is no way of stopping the fall. At that moment, Nobile realizes, a crash is inevitable.

Jagged ice ridges could be seen coming ever closer, just several meters away from the control room. A terrible bang followed in no time at all. The Italia hit the ice 100 kilometers north of Spitsbergen at 10 hours and 33 minutes GMT on May 25, 1928. Meanwhile, the Kings Bay base was a two-hour-flight away.

Umberto Nobile

…I was thrown outside head down. Instinctively, I closed my eyes and thought with indifference, “It’s all over.” Umberto Nobile

Despair

Nobile came round lying on the ice among the airship’s debris, surrounded by some of his crew. The moment the passenger gondola was crushed, the airship, with much of its original weight gone, took off into the sky again and vanished within seconds. It carried away six crewmembers, who at the moment of the disaster were inside the envelope and the lateral engine gondolas. A considerable amount of equipment, gear and food supplies disappeared, too. Only those who were inside the gondola at the moment of collision, now found themselves amid the debris.

Survived and found themselves on ice
Died
Gone with the envelope
Not on the final flight
Show Info

The crash survivors spent a while examining each other and the surrounding terrain. Nobile thought his end was just a matter of minutes. The Arctic explorer felt as if his intestines were damaged beyond recovery. Well, it may be even better this way, since he would not be destined to see the despair and agony of his comrades, Nobile kept telling himself.

Frantisek Behounek

The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast. Frantisek Behounek

In the meantime, Behounek discovered a sack with a tent and sleeping bags in the snow. A decision was taken to use the remaining paint to color the tent red, thus making it easier to notice. Several crumpled food cans that had fallen out during the crash were found in the snow. There was some pemmican (dry meat concentrate, chocolate, cream bars and a kegful of butter). Another valuable find that dropped out of the airship was a small bag with the most precious item of all — a Colt revolver and a box containing a hundred cartridges. Five days later, Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, thus considerably replenishing the food reserve.

Radio operator Giuseppe Biagi pulled through and his radio transmitter remained intact. This offered some hope, because Italy’s support ship, the Citta di Milano, was on stand-by alert on the high seas during all of the Italia’s three voyages. The ship’s second radio operator, Ettore Pedretti, was destined to be the first to pick up the Italia’s distress call. Pedretti did get part of that message four days after the crash, but for some reason he interpreted it as a signal coming from a radio station in Mogadishu — the capital of then Italian-controlled Somalia in Africa.

Giuseppe Biagi

SOS-Italia-Nobile. Crashed on ice. Our coordinates are 81°14' North and 25° East. Two had their legs hurt. Unable to move without sled. Giuseppe Biagi

Biagi kept radioing for help on and on without any success. Meanwhile, the batteries were on the verge of dying, along with the optimism of those left stranded from the airship wreck. The day when Pedretti picked up and failed to pinpoint the Italia’s SOS call, the disheartened voyagers had an argument. The next day three of them: Malmgren, Mariano and Zappi (at the latter’s initiative) volunteered to set out on foot in search of assistance. In three weeks’ time, they hoped, it might be possible to reach the northern extremity of Spitsbergen, where chances of coming across a large ship were high.

Stayed in the camp
Ventured out for help
Died
Went missing
Not on the final flight
Show Info

The others were very skeptical about the idea of splitting up into two teams. Cecioni vowed that Malmgren, Mariano and Zappi would not endure a single day of trekking on foot across the ice floes and would certainly turn back. “See you tomorrow evening,” he kept saying. At first, Nobile was against the idea of splitting the group, but Malmgren who was an experienced Arctic explorer proposed the plan. Nobile thought the man knew what he was saying and let them go.

Frantisek Behounek

May 31: Three black spots could be seen for the entire day, gradually getting smaller as they slowly moved westwards. Frantisek Behounek

Rescue

On June 3, 1928, a young village tractor driver and movie projector operator in a tiny Russian village, Nikolai Schmidt (a shortwave radio enthusiast in his spare time) was spending the evening seated in front of his makeshift radio, surfing the shortwaves. He knew very well that Nobile was in the Arctic, but the news that the expedition went missing had not yet reached Voznesenye-Vokhma, his village in the dense forests near Kostroma. The daily papers were always one week late there. As soon as he got the SOS message, Schmidt sensed there was something very critical. The next day he borrowed some money from a neighbor to send a cable message to Moscow, to the USSR Friends of the Radio Society. The message was forwarded to the Sovnarkom (the Council of People’s Commissars, the then name of the Soviet Cabinet of Ministers), who in turn notified the Italian government. By that time, the airship’s crew had been missing for four days.

In the meantime, somebody in Norway began to sense apprehension over the lack of news from the Italia for such a long time and even suspected that a calamity had occurred. That somebody was Roald Amundsen. As soon as he got confirmation, Amundsen made up his mind to assemble a search-and-rescue expedition urgently. At the time of the Italia’s expedition, quite a few Italian journalists were in Norway, which is only natural. Amundsen was interviewed by one of them, Davide Guidici from Corriere della Sera, and he shared his thoughts about life and death:

Roald Amundsen

Oh, if only you could know how wonderful it is to be there, in the high latitudes! This is where I would like to die. May death visit me in a gallant way, just when I accomplish some great mission. May it be fast and easy! Roald Amundsen

Everything that had cast a shadow over his relations with General Nobile must be considered water under the bridge, Amundsen added. He was not to be stopped even by the thought that Bess Magids, an American woman to whom he had been engaged, and who had finally agreed to be his bride, was already on the way to Norway for their wedding that was destined to never happen.

Roald Amundsen (center) before departure in search of the Italia’s crew

Why Amundsen, no longer a young man (at that moment he was 56) rush to search for a former rival? Did he feel pangs of remorse for the fate of Robert Scott’s expedition, who had lost the race to the South Pole or for the death of his comrades in his own previous quests? Or was it panic and fear of finally settling down and starting the life of a family man? Or even just the unquenchable thirst for a hero’s acclaim?

Whatever the case, Amundsen was not the only one who had realized that the Italia was in trouble. The governments of Italy, Norway, Sweden and the Soviet Union were preparing their own search and rescue operations.

The Arctic Ocean The Barents Sea The Greenland Sea The Spitsbergen Archipelago The Citta di Milano The Hobby The Braganza The Quest The Malygin The Krasin The Red Tent Main events Kings Bay Show Info Boundary of Ice

May 25–27

No news from the Italia since May 25. On May 27, the Citta di Milano leaves Kings Bay and sets its course towards Spitsbergen’s northern coast, but extremely adverse ice conditions greatly slows the ship’s movement.

On the same day, the Italian government hires two Norwegian whalers — the Braganza and the Hobby — with two air pilots Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen and Finn Lutzow-Holm on board. (Incidentally, Larsen accompanied Nobile and Amundsen on the Norge). Very soon, it turns out that ordinary ships are of little help, if at all. Only a robust icebreaker can do the job.

In the meantime, the ice floe carrying the Red Tent starts drifting south.

May 28 — June 2

Several countries spring into action to assemble their own search missions for the Italia. “The Norwegians, Italians, Swedes and French felt a sort of noble rivalry in their intention to be the first to help those in distress, so each expedition preferred to act independently of the others, each taking risks at its sole discretion,” Nobile would say quite delicately in his recollections of this not very appropriate competition.

The USSR did not hesitate to chip in for this search-and-rescue effort. On May 29, the Soviet government establishes an ad-hoc panel commissioned to assist the search and rescue of the Italia’s crew. The committee relies heavily on the resources and infrastructure for the voluntary society for cooperation with the army, aviation and navy, originally called OSOAVIAKhIM. Based on the advice from the director of the Research Institute for Studies of the North, experienced polar explorer Rudolf Samoilovich, a decision is made to dispatch two icebreakers – the Malygin and the Sedov - with planes on board for a search and rescue mission.

June 3–7

On June 3, a shortwave enthusiast in the village of Voznesenye-Vokhma picks up the Italia’s SOS distress call. This breaking news travels around the globe within days. On June 7, it hits all the newspapers, followed by a huge commotion: DXers around the world go on the air to cause dreadful interferences, which by no means facilitates the search. No unified crisis management center that could coordinate the search was created.

The Soviet Union was pushing full steam ahead with preparations of its own search and rescue operation. When it became clear that the ships would have to go as far as the northwestern shores of Spitsbergen, an area engulfed in heavy ice, The Sedov was substituted by the most powerful Soviet icebreaker of that time — the Krasin. Rudolf Samoilovich volunteered to lead the operation himself.

Meanwhile, the Braganza and the Hobby were trying to explore the area using trial and error: the coordinates received by Schmidt were unavailable to them.

June 8–14

On June 8, the Citta di Milano at last received the airship survivors’ distress call. The Braganza turned back to Kings Bay to get detailed instructions, while the Hobby started moving in the opposite direction in search of the Malmgren-led group — the trio that had left the Red Tent in search for help.

On June 12, the first Soviet group on board the icebreaker, the Malygin, leaves Arkhangelsk. On June 14, it takes on board air pilot Mikhail Babushkin and sets off towards Hopen (Hope Island) — the southeastern most Island of Spitsbergen.

On June 13, the Quest, a whaler hired by the Swedish government departs from Tromsø with aviators on board. One of them, Einar Lundborg, is destined to play a major role in the rescue effort.

June 15–17

On June 15, the icebreaker the Krasin pulls out of Leningrad port: the expedition under Rudolf Samoilovich, Captain Karl Egge and aviator Boris Chukhnovsky circumvents Scandinavia, its eventual destination being Lee-Smith Cape — the northeastern extremity of Spitsbergen. Experienced polar explorers, including the legendary Fridtjof Nansen, unequivocally pin their hopes for success on the Krasin.

On June 17, the Malygin enters the ice zone. In the meantime, Riiser-Larsen and Lutzow-Holm keep hovering over endless ice-fields. Later, it would turn out that Nobile saw them, but they did not notice him. Apparently, the planes remained just a couple of kilometers short of the Red Tent.

The Hobby’s contract with the Italian government is expiring and both Norwegian aviators move over to the Braganza.

June 18–21

Throughout the day of June 18, the Italians and the Swedes conduct unsuccessful attempts to fly to Spitzbergen. The weather got nasty as a low-pressure area set in over the archipelago. This failed to stop Amundsen, though. He boards a France-furnished and French crew-operated flying boat, the Latham 47, to head out to Spitsbergen. The Latham 47 is no good for missions in the Arctic, since it is unable to land either on ice or on the water surface when the sea is rough.

The last radio contact with the aircraft was 2 hours and 45 minutes after departure. By that time, it should have been approximately halfway to Spitsbergen. Three days later, it becomes clear that Amundsen is in trouble, too. Norway asks the Soviet Union to join the search for its national hero.

Other search efforts eventually yield success. On June 20, aviator Umberto Maddalena spots the Red Tent and drops food for the distressed survivors.

June 22–28

The Red Tent has finally been pinpointed, but no flying boat is capable of landing anywhere near it. On June 22–23, Maddalena and his Swedish counterparts airlift more food, medical supplies, weapons, batteries and a boat.

On June 24, Sweden’s Einar Lundborg manages to land on ice. This time he can evacuate only one. Nobile asks him to take away Cecione, who, like Nobile himself, had his leg broken. However, Cecione is too heavy for Lundborg’s plane. The pilot manages to persuade Nobile to be the first to leave the Red Tent: with his leg badly hurt, the expedition’s commander is really burdensome for his comrades. Nobile’s contemporaries would nevertheless excoriate him for consenting. The captain should always be the last to leave, but the ship he commanded is long gone. Nobile’s decision to take Titina with him would foment more anger against him, since it looked like he cared about his favorite pet more than he did about his comrades.

Nobile agreed to leave only on one condition: Lundborg must make a shuttle flight back at once to pick another member of the team. Lundborg kept his promise and flew back. Yet, during the landing, his Fokker gets stuck in the snow. The Swede who has just brought Nobile to safety takes his place to become a Red Tent captive himself.

Meanwhile, the Krasin reaches the Arctic Ocean.

June 29 — July 11

Bad weather and geomagnetic storms disrupting radio communication slow down the rescue operation by more than a week. The Krasin is struggling through thick ice and its own rudder problems. Aviators are conducting air reconnaissance trying to identify the easiest route.

Boris Chukhnovsky takes his plane up in the air on July 10 and spots Malmgren’s group immediately, which left the camp looking for help on the fifth day after the crash and remained unaccounted for since. The group’s coordinates are radioed to the Krasin and the icebreaker starts moving in this direction.

Yet, Malmgren is no longer with his fellows.

7:00 | July 12

The Krasin takes on board Filippo Zappi and Adalberto Mariano, who had left the camp together with Finn Malmgren. The contrast between the two is suspicious. Zappi is in good shape, does not look undernourished and wears several layers of clothes, while Mariano is exhausted and half-dressed: his feet are so badly frost-bitten that they have to be amputated as soon as he is taken on board the ice-breaker.

Their leader, Finn Malmgren, they said, had died a month ago. He allegedly asked them to abandon him, with a broken hand and frost-bitten feet, and to let him die in the ice. He was said to leave his warm clothes to the Italians. His last wish was his fellows make a grave for him in the ice with an axe.

“I will lie down into this pit to die. When the sea wave fills my ice grave with water, I will stay frozen in it until some ship finds me in this transparent coffin,” Malmgren allegedly told them. Zappi tried to some humor to ease their troubles: “You will be lying there like a glazed piece of fruit.” Malmgren did not appreciate the joke and waved his hand with impatience.

12:00 | July 12

The Krasin comes across Gennaro Sora and Dutchman Sjef van Dongen, two men of the many rescue expeditions for Nobile, who had disembarked from the Braganza back on June 18. The third member of their group — Ludvig Varming, a Dane — was lost soon after they set out. He developed snow blindness and was no longer able to drive the dogsled and had to be sent back. They were running out of supplies and the journey was too hard for the dogs to endure: five of the nine died one by one. Dog meat helped Sora and van Dongen stay alive until the moment they were rescued: “Only two dogs were still alive. We were about to finish the meat left of the third. The body of the fourth was kept in store.”

A decision was made to pick up the two men on the way back, after saving the “Viglieri group.” This name began to be used in relation to those remaining in the Red Temp after Nobile’s evacuation. However, Swedish aviators picked up Sora and van Dongen on the same day. The two surviving dogs were abandoned to meet their fate.

22:00 | July 12

In the evening on the same day, The Krasin gets to the five still remaining in the Red Tent — Viglieri, Behounek, Biagi, Trojani and Cecioni. By the moment of the icebreaker’s arrival, the ice floe had begun to melt down and shrink. The Red Tent had to be moved to a dry place several times.

The tent’s location on May 25 The place where the Italia hit the ice The place of the gondola’s wreckage The ice-breaker — the Krasin June 29 July 8 The location of Lundborg’s plane The ice floe’s shape at the moment of the Krasin’s arrival The radio station The tent’s location on July 9 325 m 215 m

Rudolf Samoilovich and another 20 men from the Krasin go down onto the ice to greet the rescued. Radio operator Biagi gets up from his knees and shuts the cover of the field radio station with a theatrical phrase: “Finita la comedia!”

Any attempts by Nobile and the Krasin crew to continue the search for the six crewmembers carried away with the envelope after the crash were banned from Rome, where all had been listed as dead.

Rudolf Samoilovich

I could not stop thinking about the dismal plight of the six others the envelope carried away. Will we manage to bring them back to life? Rudolf Samoilovich

The operation to rescue the Italia’s crew was over. It had lasted for a little less than two months and involved six countries, 18 ships, 21 planes, and 1,500 men.

Survived and were rescued
Died
Went missing
Not on the final flight
Show Info

Upon arrival at Kings Bay, all those rescued were transferred to the Citta di Milano. On July 22, they headed home. The Krasin remained in the Arctic until the autumn searching for Roald Amundsen — dead or alive — but achieved nothing. It returned to Leningrad on October 5 to be welcomed by a quarter of a million city residents.

Memory

Amundsen’s disappearance was a national tragedy for Norway. The Krasin’s crewmembers recalled that as the icebreaker moved along the Norwegian shores local people kept shouting out to them: “Save our Amundsen.” Alas, in the small hours of September 1, a fishing boat called the Brodd picked up a pontoon from the Latham 47. The plane’s fuel tank was found sometime later.

At home, Nobile received a cold welcome. He was rebuked for abandoning his comrades on the ice and for the disaster in general. Mussolini stripped him of his general’s rank. A year later, Nobile received an unexpected invitation from the Soviet authorities to head an experimental airship production plant. He accepted. Nobile came to the Soviet Union in the spring of 1932 together with a group of fellow engineers, one of whom was a member of his crew on the Italia, Felice Trojani.

In the less than five years, Nobile spent in the Soviet Union he arranged for the production of and designed three airships that in some respects were replicas of the Italia. Later he would describe the time spent in the Soviet Union as the best years of his life. He led a wealthy and comfortable lifestyle. He built a small airship for himself to fly to work and back home. As for his favorite pet, Titina, who had scurvy in the Arctic, he took her to a dentist. The dog got gold teeth, and rumor has it, passing schoolboys found this very amusing and funny. There were even some attempts to abduct the gold-toothed canine, some say. All this happened in the Dirizhablestroi (literally meaning Airship Building) neighborhood near Moscow. Today, this area is the town of Dolgoprudny.

In 1936, Nobile returned to Italy, while some of his men remained in the Soviet Union. Over the next two years, some of them fell victim to the Great Purge, the campaign of terror that affected many participants in this saga. One in seven members of the Krasin’s crew was repressed and the chief of the expedition, Rudolf Samoilovich, shot. So was the DXer who picked up the Italia’s distress call, Nikolai Schmidt.

With the Pope’s support, Nobile went to the United States where he embarked on a teaching career. After the downfall of the Mussolini regime, he was exonerated and restored to a position in the Air Force. Nobile finally returned home.

Umberto Nobile (right) and actor Peter Finch who played him in The Red Tent film

He lived long enough to see himself as a character on the silver screen in the 1969 Soviet-Italian production called The Red Tent, based on a same-name novel by Soviet author Yuri Nagibin. The film version of the 1928 drama featured an incredible assembly of world-renowned Soviet and foreign film stars: Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Eduard Martsevich, Nikita Mikhalkov, Donatas Banionis, Yuri Solomin, Boris Khmelnitsky, Yuri Vizbor and even Claudia Cardinale, whose film character did not exist in real life.

After the film hit the silver screen, Nobile would live for nearly another 10 years. He died on July 30, 1978 aged 93, half a century after his return from a voyage that earned him both praise and condemnation.

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