The development of planes and airships signaled a new era of polar exploration—along with new opportunities for disaster.
I don’t think I will ever forget to wake up to discover that my first book N-4 DOWN had been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal in print, in a very prominent position in the paper, online.
Then a couple of days later The Wall Street Journal Books newsletter recommended it as well.
On May 24, 1928, Gen. Umberto Nobile and his crew aboard the airship Italia—code-named N-4—dropped Italian flags and a small wooden cross given them by Pope Pius XI onto the North Pole from 450 feet in the sky. Airships were a technological marvel of the early 20th century, and the Italia’s goal was to land men at the North Pole, something that had never been done before. But bad weather thwarted the mission; returning to its base on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, the Italia crashed into the ice, triggering one of the greatest polar rescue efforts ever mounted, a saga that journalist Mark Piesing retells in “N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia.”
Until the so-called machine age, attempts to penetrate the Arctic’s nearly 6 million square miles of frozen seas had depended on surface vessels. As Mr. Piesing notes, planes and airships changed everything, a fact not lost on Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the victor of the 1911 race to the South Pole. In 1915, Amundsen obtained Norway’s first civilian pilot’s licence. Ten years later, after numerous failed attempts to reach the North Pole via plane, he approached Umberto Nobile, an Italian air-force officer who had designed a prototype airship and had ambitions of his own to fly to the North Pole.
Italy’s dictator Mussolini agreed to sell the N-1, as Nobile’s airship was called, to Norway. Though the ship was renamed the Norge, for “Norway,” Nobile would pilot the craft, and six of the 16 crewmen would be Italian. From the outset, personal rivalries between Amundsen and Nobile tainted the venture, which was nonetheless a success. In May 1926, the Norge flew from Svalbard over the North Pole and landed in Alaska. Nobile enjoyed and exploited his new celebrity. An aggrieved Amundsen convinced that Nobile was seizing all the glory for himself, announced his retirement from exploration.
Nobile, Mr. Piesing relates, almost immediately began planning another Arctic expedition, undaunted by Mussolini’s lack of enthusiasm or the jealousy of Italo Balbo, the head of the Italian air force, who viewed Nobile as a rival yet allowed him to use the N-4, another airship that Nobile had designed. Among the Arctic flights that Nobile planned, again from Svalbard, was one to the North Pole, where this time he hoped to land men.
The Italia left Svalbard on May 23, 1928, and early the following day reached the North Pole. The jubilant crew members celebrated by toasting one another with eggnog and playing the Italian Fascist Party anthem on a gramophone. High winds prevented a landing, so Nobile set course back to Svalbard. The wind slowed the Italia on its return, and at one point the helm controls jammed. Freezing fog, meanwhile, prevented Nobile from calculating his position accurately. Even more seriously, the airship began icing up. The crew lost its battle to stay airborne, and the Italia plunged onto the ice, tail first.
The control cabin detached on impact, flinging out 10 men, including Nobile, who broke an arm and a leg. One man was killed instantly. Now much lighter, what was left of the airship simply floated away. The six crewmen still aboard the Italia were never seen again, but one had sufficient presence of mind to throw out food and equipment, including a tent, a pistol and a portable radio, to his colleagues below.
The survivors painted their single tent red to make it more visible from the air and radioed desperate SOS messages that they feared no one was receiving. But rescue plans were in fact under way. Among the searchers, despite his hostility to Nobile, was Amundsen, whose plane disappeared on the quest and whose body was never found. After four miserable weeks, help finally reached Nobile when a Swedish pilot landed his small plane judderingly on the ice. Nobile had not intended to leave his men, but the pilot insisted that his orders were to evacuate him first to help coordinate the rescue of the others, and so he agreed. The Soviet ice-breaker Krassin eventually rescued the remaining survivors from the camp, along with two crewmen who had set out across the ice.
Back in Italy, Nobile found himself out of favor with Mussolini, who, encouraged by Balbo, regarded the Italia’s loss as a national embarrassment. Nobile was accused of abandoning his men, even though he believed he had been obeying orders, and an official inquiry condemned his actions.
Mr. Piesing writes with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. His depictions of airship flight are gripping, whether he’s discussing the Norge’s 1926 journey over an icy wasteland traversed by Arctic foxes and polar bears or the doomed Italia’s final hours. But the author’s foreshadowing of events and extraneous digressions sometimes diminish the drama and slow the pace of the narrative. Details of how Norway’s Oscarsborg Fortress delayed the Nazi invasion in 1940, and of the building of the Viking Ship Museum, distract from the central story of the Italia, which does not begin until nearly halfway through the book.
There are also omissions. Mr. Piesing refers to Fridtjof Nansen as Amundsen’s “great nemesis” without explaining Nansen’s huge influence on Arctic exploration or the complex relationship between the two men. (Nansen advised Amundsen and lent him his ship Fram.) Neither does he develop the characters of Amundsen and Nobile as fully as he might. A comparison of Nobile’s management of stranded men with that of Ernest Shackleton’s 13 years earlier on the Endurance expedition in Antarctica, in even greater isolation, would have been illuminating and relevant.
Nevertheless, this is a book with much to enjoy and a good illustration of what human curiosity, determination and courage—and sometimes a healthy dollop of vanity—can achieve.
Ms. Preston is a historian who has written on the race for the South Pole. Her latest book is “Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World.”
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Appeared in the August 18, 2021, print edition as ‘Above The Ice.’