When the radio message from Umberto Nobile and 9 of his crew was finally picked up by a soviet amateur radio operator Nikolai Schmidt on 3 June 1928, they had been stranded on the ice for eight days. Where the rest of the crew of the airship Italia could be, they had no idea.
The Italia set off for the third of five flights around the North Pole on 23 May. The expedition was led by Umberto Nobile and as the name of the airship would suggest, he was Italian.
An aeronautical engineer, Umberto Nobile designed and piloted the first successful airship to fly across the Arctic; the Norge, reaching the pole with Raoul Amundsen (expedition leader) on 12 May 1926. But Umberto’s friendship with Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, deteriorated during the cramped voyage.
Their relationship was not helped by Umberto dropping a much larger Italian flag than Amundsen’s Norwegian one on the North Pole. After the voyage Amundsen arrogantly and loudly took credit for the success of their expedition, to the fury of Nobile, Mussolini and the Italians. This latest expedition was a chance for Italy to show the world they did not need the Norwegians to succeed.
Should they cross the Pole or turn back?
By 25 May a terrible storm rose up and following advice from Finn Malmgren their meteorologist, the decision was made to turn back rather than fly over the pole to Canada, a decision which is still debated today.
As the airship rose up above the cloud layer the hydrogen heated, expanded and a valve was triggered to let out some of the gas. The valve either jammed open, or too much gas was let out or the airship skin had been damaged when ice was removed. Whatever the cause, the airship suddenly lost altitude and hurtled through turbulent clouds towards pack ice.
As the control cabin hit the ice it was broken open. Umberto and nine of his crew fell. Giuseppe Biagi the wireless operator grabbed the portable emergency radio, wrapping his arms around it to protect it as he fell. Lighter, the broken airship began to rise with six crew still on board. With remarkable presence of mind Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw what he could out of the Italia before the airship sailed unsteadily away.
Survivors and …
Vincenzo Pomella the rear engine mechanic died in the fall and Umberto suffered a broken leg, right arm, cracked rib and head wound. Chief technician Natale Cecioni had two badly broken legs, Malmgren had an injured shoulder and possible internal injuries. Navigator Filippo Zappi had severe chest pains from suspected broken ribs. But the nine survivors had a chance, if only they could stay alive long enough.
Crew still on board the Italia; Ettore Arduino, Calisto Ciocca, starboard engine mechanic, Attilio Caratti, port engine mechanic, Renato Alessandrini, foreman rigger, Aldo Pontremoli, physicist and Ugo Lago, journalist, would never be seen again.
In shock, Malmgren was convinced his misreading of the weather caused the crash. He started to walk blindly away across the ice to drown himself, only stopping when Umberto demanded his return. Still suicidal, a little later he was seen with a revolver and had to be disarmed.
The survivors set about collecting everything they could find that had fallen from the airship. What they found included a tent, the colt revolver, ammunition, a flare gun and some food. Their crowded tent was dyed red with dye marker bombs from the airship, to show up against the ice. Enough food (11oz per man per day) was scavenged, enough for 45 days. None of them had proper artic survival clothing.
On 29 May a polar bear approached the site. Malmgren successfully shot it, adding a considerable amount of meat to their food supply. But still there was no response to their radio signals and it was decided on 31 May that Malmgren, Zappi and navigator Adalberto Mariano, would trek out to try and summon help.
Disorganised rescue attempts
It was a good thing the survivors did not know that the base ship the Citta di Milano was so unconcerned by the lack of communication from the Italia, they were not keeping radio watch. Guglielmo Marconi, who monitored the messages from the Citta di Milano later said: “No wonder that on the Citta di Milano the SOS of the survivors could not be picked up by radio operators. They simply were not paying attention to her signals.”
A distress signal from the Italia was finally picked up on 3 June by a soviet radio ham hundreds of miles away in Vokhma. Once the crash was reported, rescue plans were chaotic. The Citta di Milano failed to sail closer to the airship and its captain wasted valuable time telegraphing back to the Italy for advice. Amundsen, with rare polar experience, offered to lead a rescue mission for the Italian’s but Mussolini rebuffed him. Ships tried to get close to where the survivors were thought to be and a brave attempt was made with dogs and sleds, but with no success.
Rescue attempts and a terrible rumour
Norway sent the first plane to attempt a rescue on 5 June. Further seaplane attempts by Sweden, Finland, Russia and Italy all fail. Ships from the USA and Denmark fail to get close. A quick look at the expedition wiki page reveals eight countries made 32 attempts to rescue Umberto and his crew.
Back on the ice, on 15/16 June on the trek to land, Malmgren collapsed from exhaustion and guilt, and asked to be left behind. He died some days later. The soviet icebreaker Krasin would sight the two survivors Zappi and Mariano with Malmgren’s body on 11 July, rescuing the survivors the next day, but there was no sign of Malmgren. Rumours of cannibalism by Zappie and Mariano are unsubstantiated.
As weeks passed, Norway, who had already spent a considerable amount of money on rescue attempts, asked France for help with another rescue mission. France offered to modify for arctic conditions a prototype Atlantic seaplane; The Latham-47, built in Caudebec-en-Caux, Normandy.
The factory at Caoudebec-en-Caux
Jean Latham purchased the seaplane factory in 1917 from Maurice and Robert Coutant, who founded the factory in 1916 to supply the French navy.
The Latham-47 crew would be Lieutenant-Commander René Guilbaud. René was already a hero in France, famous for long range flights across Africa. He would be accompanied by Raoul Amundsen and a largely Italian crew; lieutenant Albert Cavelier de Cuverville, master mechanic Gilbert Brazy and second master radiotelegraphist Emile Valette.
By now the world was enthralled with the rescue drama. In France there was a frenzy of anticipation for the Latham-47 to return with Umberto and his crew, triumphant.
The last voyage
At .4.05pm on 18 June the heavily laden Latham-47 with its crew of six, left Tromsø, Norway to fly across the Barents Sea to Spitsbergen. Sea mists and the midnight sun made navigation difficult but not impossible. At 7 pm they signaled “Do not leave listening…” then, nothing.
A few pieces of the plane would be discovered in August, but the crew were never found.
The world was shocked by the death of polar explorer Raoul Amundsen and France went into mourning for its heroes, cheered only a little by the rescue of Umberto Nobile and his remaining crew a week later.
The lack of rescue co-ordination meant that it took over a month for all the crash survivors (and stranded would-be rescuers) to be saved.
The first rescue plane to land near the crash site was a Swedish airforce Fokker ski plane piloted by Lieutenant Einar Lundborg with Lieutenant Schyberg as observer. Although Nobile had made a detailed rescue plan based on his crew’s wounds (himself number 4) Lundborg refused to take anyone but Nobile and his dog Titina in their tiny pane. After leaving Nobile at the Swedish and Finnish base camp on Ryss Island, Lundborg returned only to crash and be trapped with the crew.
Reputation in ruins
When he reached the Città di Milano, Umberto was horrified by the poor rescue organisation and became so furious the captain placed him under virtual arrest, stopping him from coordinating an international rescue. The Italian fascist newspapers wrongly reported Umberto was a coward who demanded to leave the crash site first. After 48 days on the iceflow the final rescue was made by Soviet icebreaker Krasin. Umberto wanted to stay and try to find the crew blown away with the Italia, but he was ordered back to Rome with the others.
A hero’s welcome
To the surprise of his detractors, two hundred thousand cheering Italians met Nobile and his crew on arrival in Rome on July 31st. The survivors alongside Umberto were; František Běhounek physicist, Alfredo Viglieri navigator/hydrographer, Felice Trojani project engineer, Giuseppe Biagi, Natale Cecioni, Adalberto Mariano, Felippo Zappi and expedition mascot Titina, Umberto’s fox terrier.
Distressed at the vicious reports against him in some press, Umberto complained at length to Benito Mussolini, rather offending the sensitive dictator. The official inquiry blamed Umberto for the accident and, wrongly accused of abandoning his men, he would spend the rest of his life trying to clear his name of cowardice.
The brave rescue attempt by the Latham-47 crew was not forgotten and in 1931 a public subscription raised money for a memorial. Architect Léon Rey and sculptor Robert Delandre were commissioned to create a suitable monument. Their remarkable design, with the Latham-47 appearing to fly out of the Caudebec cliffs, was inaugurated on 21 June 1931 in the presence of Norwegian, Italian and French authorities and local mayor Charles Leroux.
Umberto Nobile was there, quietly in the crowd. He would dedicate his book ‘The Pole, My Life’ to those who attempted his rescue.
Air Minister M. Dùmesnil said in his speech at the inauguration:
“Three years have passed since the marvelous and tragic epic of the heroes of the sea and the sky… The whole world was anxious about the fate of the leader of the Italia; we were impatient with anguish and hope. In order to wrest their Latin brothers from the great peril of the Polar North, four of our men that grey and rainy June morning 16 June 1928, left the Seine aboard the seaplane Latham-47, flying into the unknown, sacrifice and death…
“In the name of the Government of the Republic, I salute one last time with gratitude and admiration these brave men among the brave, and I solemnly give the custody of the town of Caudebec this monument, erected on the banks of the river…. our race can be proud of seeing its best sons so often offer themselves to sacrifice..”
The memorial also carries the names of Pierluigi Penzo, Tullio Crosio and Giuseppe Della Gatta, whose Italian flying boat crashed on 28 September 1928 in France, on their journey back from a search for Amundsen.
The Latham factory was sold in 1929 to Félix Amiot and enjoyed great success until the Second World War. The factory was forced to close in 1947 but was taken over in 1952 by Révima who specialise in servicing and maintenance of landing gear and auxiliary engines for large aircraft. The factory is still in operation and employs nearly 400 people.
Thank you Georgia Ramblers
We were delighted to find our old postcard of the Latham-47 memorial. But without a message one day from fellow bloggers the Georgia Ramblers it could have been overlooked. It was their question to us asking about the memorial’s history that alerted us to this fantastic monument overlooking the Seine by Caudebec-en-Caux.
- BBC report on a recent search for the Latham-47