Arctic Airships Part 3: Amundsen vs Nobile


06/08/2013 by noonobservation

The final part of my epic trilogy of Arctic Airship posts has taken a little longer than I hoped due to the heavy weight of Morris dancing, barbeques, drinking and sitting around in the sun I am forced to endure this time of year. Reading about icy peril in the frozen North really puts my suffering into perspective.

Amundsen started it


In 1925, Norwegian superhero, Roald Amundsen was checking his to-do list. Most people would have been happy to retire at 53 having beaten Scott to the South Pole, discovered the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage and become the mightiest explorer ever. But Amundsen felt there was still something missing…

Amundsen's famous death stare: just one of his super powers.

Amundsen’s famous death stare: just one of his super powers.

There were no extra points available for sledging to the North Pole, as that had (allegedly) been done, so Amundsen turned to aircraft as a means of increasing his chances of death sufficiently to make the thing worthwhile. His first attempt using Dornier flying boats in 1925 ended in dramatic near-death failure, and 30 days spent stranded on an ice-floe scraping out a makeshift airstrip with pocketknives. Pleased with this heroic result, Amundsen decided to try again the following year.

The Norge

Umberto Nobile and his dog, Titina were at the cutting edge of dirigible design.

Umberto Nobile and his dog, Titina were at the cutting edge of 1920s dirigible design.

Before his finskos were even dry, Amundsen was on the telegraph to Italian airship designer Colonel Umberto Nobile with an interesting proposal. The Aeroclub of Norway, backed by the American millionaire-adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, wished to purchase the Italians’ N1 airship for an expedition to the Pole. Since the Norwegians knew diddly-squat about dirigibles, they also requested the services of Nobile and a crew of Italian airshipmen.

Eventually Mussolini agreed, and on the 29th March 1926, the N1 was handed over to the Norwegians, who imaginatively rechristened it Norge.

Flight to the Pole

Norge at King's Bay

Norge at King’s Bay

The expedition was titled The Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight – a name which elegantly expressed the awkward egotistical bickering on board. The sombre, undemonstrative Norwegians found the Italians distastefully emotional and unpleasantly huggy. The Italians thought the Norwegians cold, depressive and blind to the simple joys of coffee and shouting. Although Nobile was in charge of the airship, Amundsen installed himself in the control car as expedition leader and official backseat driver. The language of the expedition was English, which no one except Ellsworth spoke well.

Nobile in the keel of the Norge.

Nobile in the keel.

In the spring of 1926, Nobile flew the Norge from Rome to Spitzbergen (via Norfolk and Leningrad), and the expedition started for the Pole on May 11th. About 14 hours later, it reached its objective.

The Norwegian, American and Italian flags were ceremonially chucked out of the window. Though the Italian flag was dropped last, Amundsen was outraged to see that it was twice as big as the other two.

The Norge then flew on to Alaska, reaching the tiny Eskimo village of Teller on May 14th, where the indigenous people thought it a giant flying seal. 


Norge mapThe expedition was the first verified conquest of the North Pole. Once the worldwide celebrations had died down however, bitter international muck-slinging commenced.

Amundsen presented the expedition as a great triumph for Norway and claimed that Nobile had been merely a hired pilot, prone to crying like a girl at the first hint of danger. Nobile claimed a great triumph for Italian engineering and portrayed Amundsen as a useless passenger who spent most of the trip asleep under a pile of dirty clothes in the control car. Ellsworth claimed a great triumph for American money.

The Italia

Italia in the Arctic

The Italia: Like the Norge, only jollier and more stylish.

Most people believed Amundsen’s view of things due to him being the mightiest explorer ever. Desperate to claim some credit, Nobile went back to Italy and angrily built a new airship, predictably called the Italia, with private backing. He planned a series of “proper” scientific Arctic flights, to obtain valuable atmospheric data, explore the undiscovered regions north of Russia, and prove that he could get to the Pole without Amundsen.

Pius XI was quite into science and shit. He met the crew of the Italia before their departure to give them an ineffective papal blessing.

Pius XI was into science and shit. He met the crew of the Italia before their departure to give them his (ineffective) papal blessing.

After several successful long-range flights, the Italia set off from Spitzbergen for the Pole on 23rd May 1928, reaching it 19 hours later. Though it was too windy to lower people to the surface with the special winch Nobile had designed, he did succeed in deploying the huge wooden crucifix given to the expedition by the Pope.


On the way back to Spitzbergen, the Italia was buffeted by strong headwinds. Rising above the cloud layer to take bearings, the expanding hydrogen escaped through the valves, so that when the ship descended again through the freezing clouds, it no longer had sufficient lift. The Italia dropped rapidly.

Lurid dramatisation of italia crash.

Lurid dramatisation of Italia crash.

The control car smashed into the ice and broke off, depositing Nobile, his dog, and 8 other crewmen on an ice-floe 120 km northeast of Svalbard.

Now lighter, the Italia shot upwards with the other 6 men still aboard.

Stranded in the frozen wastes with a broken arm and leg, and lacking the emotional repression characteristic of Northern European explorers, Nobile shouted out “Viva l’Italia!” and waited for death to take him.

Luckily for the survivors, some useful supplies had been dumped on the ice with them – most importantly, the reserve wireless. Wireless operator Biagi started sending out SOS messages, while Nobile pulled himself together and the others tried to work out how to fit nine people (two of which were badly injured) into a four-man tent.

The worst rescue in history

A huge international rescue mission was soon organised by the Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Russians using icebreakers and seaplanes. Meanwhile, the Italian government spent their time suppressing stories about the plight of the Italia and spreading rumours of Nobile’s cowardice and incompetence. Nobile had made enemies in the fascist regime by being too popular with the Italian public and insufficiently interested in totalitarian militarism. Air Minister Italo Balbo’s reported reaction on hearing of the airship’s crash was, “Serve him right.”

The last photo of Amundsen as he boards the Latham 47 seaplane.

The last photo of Amundsen as he boarded the Latham 47 seaplane.

When Amundsen heard of Nobile’s disappearance, he immediately buried the hatchet, fastened on his bearskin explorer cape and came flying to the rescue. Unfortunately, the French seaplane he was flying in went down in the Barents Sea and was never found.

This had two unfortunate consequences for Nobile: firstly that all the Norwegian rescue teams went off to look for Amundsen, and secondly that Nobile had to be nice about Amundsen for the rest of his life, despite the fact that they hadn’t got on at all.

Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’

Back at the tent, the stranded men had received no replies to their SOS, and quite natural started to worry that they were all going to die. With their ice-floe drifting steadily southeast, away from the rescue parties, Nobile eventually (after some unmanly crying) consented to let three of the uninjured men strike out for the nearby Foyn Island on foot. The remaining 6 men and one dog were left to count their pemmican and hope someone would rescue them before it ran out.

The wireless was able to pick up the news - which mainly told the survivors that the rescue parties were no where near them.

The wireless was able to pick up the news – which mainly told the survivors that the rescue parties were no where near them.

Although, part of the SOS message was picked up on June 3rd by an amateur Russian radio operator in Archangel, no one believed him, and it wasn’t until the 7th June that the Italian support ship, the Citta di Milano finally heard the SOS. As it turned out, they hadn’t bothered to monitor the prearranged emergency frequency, on the inexplicable assumption that the Italia‘s wireless operator had been decapitated.

Though dyed red, the expedition tent unhelpfully faded back to white, making it extra hard to spot.

Though dyed red, the expedition tent unhelpfully faded back to white.

Even with radio instructions, the search planes didn’t locate the survivors for a further two weeks. Though they could drop supplies, retrieving the men was still no easy task.

In late June, a Swedish plane fitted with skis made a successful landing near the tent. The pilot Lundberg, could fit one man in the plane – he insisted it was one of the two injured men, and not Cecioni, who was too damn fat. That left Nobile himself, who was eventually coaxed into the plane against his will, promising his comrades that the Swedes would return soon for the rest of them.

Nobile and Titina after being rescued by Swedes.

Nobile and Titina after being rescued by Swedes. Titina had made herself useful on the ice by chasing away polar bears.

Unfortunately, when Lundberg returned to take the next survivor off, his plane overturned on landing, restoring the number of stranded men to six.

When Nobile reached the Citta di Milano, he immediately faced accusations of cowardice at abandoning his men. His efforts to galvanise the rescue efforts were obstructed and when he tried to join a Finnish rescue attempt, he was threatened with being put under guard. Frustrated and poorly, he was forced to wait for one of the rescues to come good.

krassinIn fact, it was not until July 12th, 48 days after the crash that the survivors were eventually rescued by the Russian ice-breaker, Krassin. They also picked up two of the three men who had set off on foot. They claimed that the third man, the Swedish meteorologist Dr Malgrem, had died a month earlier, though the more sensationalist elements of the international press insisted that they had eaten him.


The Red Tent: a story about love, apparently.

The Red Tent: a story about… love, apparently.

Despite dying, Amundsen managed to come out on top in his rivalry with Nobile – there is no better way to secure the moral high-ground in an argument than dying trying to rescue your adversary from mortal peril. Amundsen also went on to be portrayed by Sean Connery in the (extremely unfaithful) 1969 film of Nobile’s book, The Red Tent, whereas Nobile only got Peter Finch.

It was not all gloom for Nobile though. Despite the efforts of the fascist government to blacken is name, 200,000 Italians turned up at Rome train station to welcome the survivors of the Italia disaster. Even so, Nobile left Italy and spent the next years helping the Soviets with their dirigibles and teaching Americans about aeronautics. After the war, he was finally cleared of all charges relating to the Italia disaster and given his army backpay since 1928. He later ran as a Communist Party candidate for the Constituent Assembly. He died in 1978 shortly after the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

Nobile found Titina as a stray puppy in Rome. She was named after the song a nearby urchin was humming.

Nobile found Titina as a stray puppy in Rome. She was named after the song a nearby urchin was humming.

Titina, who had always been terrified of flying, finally got to remain on solid ground with her beloved general. As well as being a famous polar explorer, she also gained renown for peeing on President Coolidge’s carpet.

4 thoughts on “Arctic Airships Part 3: Amundsen vs Nobile

  1. Arke says:

    Worth the wait. I didn’t know that a Pope helped Nobile’s adventure. The blessing together with a bunch of Liras (I think) and the cross of course helped. Pio XI should have asked for a different name on the dirigible. After all, money is blessing.

    • A different name would certainly have been good – the “Italia” is a bit unimaginative coming after the “America” and the “Norge”. The city of Milan put up a lot of money for the expedition, but only got the support ship named after it. Not sure you are allowed to name an airship after a pope though…

  2. russiansnows says:

    Another well done post!!!

  3. Taissa says:

    A semi-culinary postscript from the Edible Geography blog:

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