“One of the highlights of my role back at Trinity School of John Whitgift is catching up with former classmates. In this instance, Mark Piesing. His very successful book, ‘N4 -Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia’, on Umberto Nobile’s ill-fated mission, was just one of our topics of conversation. And then I thought – what would our current History and Politics department think of it? Julian Timm, Trinity history and politics teacher, got out his red pen to mark Mark’s homework. Read on to see if he got an A*…..”
Jason Court, Director of Development
Read Julian’s comments below – or Jason Court’s original LinkedIn article here.
Here are Julian’s comments.
The titans of Trinity’s History Department in the 1980’s when the author was a pupil here – Fairman, Jardine, Cheyne, Peak – knew that History was nothing if it not a great story – and they told a few. But they were also about rigour – checking your sources, backing up your arguments, explaining your evidence. Piesing ticks all those boxes, and those former mentors would approve.
The “Zeppelin” era of airships (other brands were available) continues to hold a great fascination. Although it spanned a period of time from the end of the 19th century, including numerous German bombing raids over Britain during WWI, and into the 1930s, it is most closely associated with the glamour of the 1920s. This was the era of Gatsby, of the excesses of Weimar Germany and, more pertinent to this story, the rise of Mussolini and his Fascist party in Italy. The great burst of post war confidence seen in so many different spheres of human activity, expressed itself also in enormously ambitious new engineering projects, which the airships perhaps best expressed through their massive size (the “Italia” or “N-4” described in this book was 100 metres long, whilst the Graf Zeppelin was over 200 metres) and as yet unparalleled range, with transatlantic crossings becoming increasingly common. The mast on top of the Empire State Building was originally designed as a mooring for airships. One might also say, however, that this was also an era of great hubris, summed up by the Wall Street Crash and a disastrous global depression that followed, and which arguably took the world into war in 1939. And here we touch on another enduring fascination – with human failure and disasters. We’re all familiar with the story of the Titanic, perhaps made more popular because of the contrast between enormous opulence on board the ship reduced ultimately to nothing. Add to this the allure of polar exploration, and the thrill of a race-against-time rescue mission played out in the media, and you have all the ingredients of a thrilling yarn, unbelievable were it not true, and brilliantly captured in Mark Pieling’s book N-4 Down.
This tells the story of the ultimately disastrous voyage of the Italia, officially named N-4, which left Milan in 1928 under the leadership of the appealing Umberto Nobile, heading for the North Pole with a crew of 20. With hindsight the omens from the outset were not good. The initial journey to Germany took 30 hours as it narrowly avoided lightning strikes and endured significant wind damage to one of the tailfins, causing a 10 day delay while spares were sent from Italy, before finally resuming their voyage North.
On the 11th of May, General Nobile began the first of three planned polar flights, setting off from their base at King’s Bay in Svalbard, a collection of islands in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. This first flight had to be abandoned after 8 hours due to the build up of thick ice on the airship. On the 15th of May a second flight set off and successfully completed 2500 miles in 60 hours in perfect conditions, gathering valuable data on meteorology and magnetic forces in the polar region; this was not all a story of failure. However, it was the third and fateful voyage departing on the 23rd of May which forms the focal point of this book. With the advantage of a tailwind the Italia reached the North Pole nineteen hours later and, despite not being able to land crew members on the ice as planned, they were able to take further measurements. They proceeded whilst still above the Pole to celebrate their extraordinary achievements in perhaps what might otherwise be seen as a caricature – dropping a wooden cross that had been personally given to them by the Pope, drinking a toast of eggnog to the leader Nobile, and starting up the gramophone which they had carried on board to play the Italian Fascist anthem “Giovinezza”. Tragically, though with hindsight entirely predictably, the same helpful tailwind that had taken them so swiftly to the Pole now severely hindered their return journey, and after battling vainly against the worsening weather and wind they crash landed on the ice on the 25th of May. This is no spoiler of the book’s story – we are made well aware of this from the outset – but this event forms the pivot on which the book hinges.
Piesing’s account tells the story of Nobile’s early successes, heroically traversing the Arctic in 1926 with American Lincoln Ellsworth and Norwegian Roald Amundsen on the Norge airship, for which he was feted by Italian dictator Mussolini on his return. It delves into the murky political intrigues that saw Mussolini exploiting such successes to extol the virtues of Italian Fascism, whilst he would be sure to distance himself from the subsequent failure of Nobile’s doomed flight in 1928.
But the guts of the story, and what grips the reader, is the subsequent account of attempted rescue and survival of those stranded on the icy wasteland. There are echoes which remind one of Shackleton’s rescue voyage to South Georgia, and of Scott’s doomed trek back from (near) the South Pole – one of the Italia’s survivors, Finn Malmgren, who was only crew member with experience of ice trekking had been badly injured and, similar to the story of Captain Oates, twice had to be forcibly restrained from drowning himself. Roald Amundsen became part of a multi-national rescue mission, which itself was heroic and chaotic in equal measure. The efforts of the eight nations were largely uncoordinated; air drops were made to survivors spotted near the crash site, but many of these smashed on the rocks; rescue planes attempted landings unsuccessfully, adding rescuers to the body of men who required rescuing from the ice; Amundsen himself was aboard a flight which disappeared, his body never to be found. In the end 6 of Italia’s crew were rescued 47 days after the crash, but 17 crew and rescuers died.
The story has prompted many attempts to capture it over the years. As early as 1928 the Soviet documentary film “Heroic Deed Among the Ice”, describes the rescue mission of the Soviet icebreaker Krassin, whilst the story of the Italia disaster was made into a film in 1969, titled “The Red Tent” and starring Sean Connery as Amundsen.
It has similarly spawned many theories as to the causes of the crash. Clearly the poor weather and winds on its final flight were key, but so may have been possible damage caused when clearing the ice from the canopy after the first and second flights. At the time most of the blame was placed squarely on Nobile – the Italian government launched a smear campaign which permanently damaged his reputation, though it should also be acknowledged that he appears to have been awake for over 72 hours at the time of the crash and made what can at best be described as questionable judgements.
Piesing tells all this with a sense of the thrill of adventure, and a clear empathy and admiration for those at the heart the story, especially Nobile. But this is not just a rollicking boys own adventure – though it is very much that too. He takes time to delve into the fascinating and sometimes bizarre characters of the supporting cast. We meet the extraordinary Italo Balbo, heroic Italian aviator and Hollywood idol, beloved and a little feared by Mussolini and who appeared determined not to be outshone by Nobile. Amundsen turns out to be a multi-layered figure – bankrupt and a serial adulterer, who had told all but his immediate circle in 1911 that he was heading for the Arctic, when in fact en route to his successful trek to the South Pole in order to gain what advantage he could over his rivals. And there is time too for side stories – when Nobile was invited to Washington in 1926 to celebrate his crossing of the Arctic, he took his dog Titina with him to the White House where she relieved herself on the carpet.
It is, in the end, an account of human endeavour and human failure in equal measure. The more one reads of any of these extraordinary figures such as Scott or Shackleton one realises that, for all their achievements, they were riddled with flaws, yet possibly without them they would never have attempted what they did. These are not the feats of rationale people.
As Nobile himself later wrote in his memoirs about his successful 1926 flight: ‘Three big heads had to live under the same hat: Amundsen, Ellsworth, Nobile. None of them was easy, none was made for giving in.’
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