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General Umberto Nobile and the Italia Airship Mystery

Exhausted and racked with pain, Finn Malmgren pleaded with his companions to kill him. But they refused. Instead, they left him to die in the arctic waste where their airship had crashed. Malmgren’s death was only one of the bizarre aspects of the ill-fated flight of the Italia airship. How had the Italia refloated, with half the crew still aboard, and where had it vanished to? Why had some of the survivors on the pack ice deserted their commander, the cain and touchy General Umberto Nobile? And was Nobile a coward who had led his men to disaster — or a scapegoat for an expedition which should never have set out?

Italia Airship mystery General Umberto Nobile blimp dirigible

In the 1920s and ’30s many nations believed that the future of aviation lay with the airship. No form of air transport, it was said could be safer — even for the most hazardous of journeys. And, for that reason, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was enthusiastic when, in the early months of 1928, his air ‘ace’, General Umberto Nobile, prepared to fly the dirigible, Italia, to the North Pole.

“You have forseen everything,” Mussolini told his bustling, 43-year-old aviator. “That is the best way to succeed — to provide for everything, 100 percent. That is my system, too!” Two years before the dictator had lauded Nobile when he flew over the pole in the airship Norge, with the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

It had not been a happy flight, however. Amundsen and the excitable Italian argued endlessly. On one occasion, Amundsen shouted at him, “You are a military marionette, a braggart and a boaster!”

An Emotional Arrival

This time Nobile planned to have no awkward ‘foreigners’ aboard; he would land his Italian dirigible on the pack ice and plant the Italian flag there.

Before dawn on May 23, 1928, the Italia airship lifted into the air at King’s Bay, Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Ocean, and shaped course for the North Pole, some nine hundred miles away. Nobile and his crew of 14 were jubilant — “contentment shone from every face,” the general later reported — and, astonishingly, seemed totally unperturbed by the fact that near-gale force winds were building up around the ship. Full of optimism, he declared, “We shall triumph!”

At 20 minutes past midnight on May 24, 20 hours after lift-off, the Italia airship was over the North pole. The crew cheered, toasted each other in egg punch, put an emotional Italian opera on their portable gramophone and shouted “Long live our General Nobile!” Then, suddenly, they became aware of just how fierce were the winds sweeping across the ice pack. There was not the remotest chance of their being able to land the airship.

Frustrated and baffled by this unexpected ill-luck, Umberto Nobile had to content himself with opening a window of the Italia’s command gondola and dropping on to the ice below an Italian flag and a crucifix which the Pope had blessed and presented to him in Rome. But now came the crunch which, in his state of euphoria, Umberto Nobile the commander had incredibly failed to take into account.

Italia’s Swedish meteorologist, Finn Malmgren, repeated a warning that Nobile had earlier brushed aside: Once the airship turned toward base, he said, she would be facing powerful headwinds that showed no sign of abating and against which she would probably be able to make little headway. In addition, and despite the winds, thick fog was gathering and when the airship went about she found herself cocooned in bitter cold murk with the air pressures that formed a barrier before her.

At once, the mercurial emotions of the crew slid from jubilation to depression. Even General Umberto Nobile’s dog, Titina, without whom the general rarely traveled, seemed cowed by the ominous darkness around the airship and the shrilling of the wind. Ice in the air was sliced by the Italia’s three churning propellers and slivers, as sharp as razor edges, were flung against the fabric of the airship’s ‘envelope’. Men hurried back and forth to find the torn areas and repair them before the envelope ripped open.

Pummeled by the winds, weighed down by ice, the airship lost altitude continuously until, at last, she was drifting rapidly broadside only a few hundred feet above the desolate Arctic wasteland. The hope that she would rise again and fight her way back to base had evaporated. Gloomily, as he later recounted, Nobile had to admit that “a crash was now inevitable; the most we could do was to mitigate the circumstances.”

The greatest danger in a crash would be fire and, for that reason, General Nobile ordered the airship’s motors to be cut and he personally took the helm as the powerless Italia was blown out of control over the pack ice. Frantically, he looked for a flat, boulderless area on which he could, hopefully, anchor his ship and keep her intact. But no one now had command over the windblown ship and at just after 10 a.m. on May 25 she hit the ice with a tremendous impact.

Ice Raft

Precise details of the immediately succeeding events remain wrapped in mystery. Gerneral Umberto Nobile afterward claimed that he was hit on the head “and crushed” and that “without any pain I felt some of my limbs snap.” He passed out, he said, and when he came to he found himself lying on the ice. He rolled himself over, looked toward the Italia and, to his horror, saw that she was drifting away, nose-up. Near him on the ice, also apparently having been thrown clear of the ship or having jumped, were eight of the crewmen and his dog, Titina. One of the men was dead. So far as he knew, the rest of the crew were still in the ship which was now being swallowed up by fog.

By Nobile’s side lay a waterproof bag which had also, miraculously it appeared, fallen from the airship and which contained a nine-foot-square red tent, the ship’s shortwave radio and sufficient supplies of food and water to last for around six weeks. Despite his injuries General Nobile retained his powers of command and ordered the tent to be set up and sheltered in it with his survivors.

It appeared to be another blessing of fate that the radio was undamaged and Giuseppe Biagi, the operator, settled down beside it and pumped out an SOS signal at regular two-hour intervals. To whomever might be listening, Biagi radioed: “SOS Italia. Nobile. On the ice near Foyn Island, northeast Spitsbergen, latitude 80° 37′, longitude 26° 50′. Impossible to move, lacking sledges and having two men injured. Dirigible lost in another locality. Reply via meter waveband 32.”

Back from the expedition’s supply boat, the Citta di Milano, moored at Spitsbergen, came the encouraging message, “Italia, keep up your courage. We are coming to your assistance.” Unfortunately, the message kept being repeated like a telephone answering service. Clearly, the supply ship was not receiving any signals from the marooned men and their message was merely a hopeful morale-booster.

General Umberto Nobile feeding his dog Titina
General Umberto Nobile feeding his dog Titina while waiting for rescue

Nobile had good reason to report that his ship had been lost “in another locality” for he and his fellow survivors found that they had landed on an ice floe which was drifting slowly southeast. The general lay in the tent filled with the forbidding notion that the huddled, frozen group might be carried further and further away from hope of rescue.

It was then that a strange thing happened. Three of the crew members, including the first officer, General Umberto Nobile’s second-in-command, decided that they were no longer prepared to remain with their commander to whom, a few days before, they had wished long life. Without ceremony they decided to leave him and set off together in the hope of making a forced march across the adjoining ice floes until they reached the coast where a rescue ship might be sighted. Equally strangely, Nobile seemed to have made no protest at their departure.

On June 6, one of General Nobile’s SOS calls was picked up in the Soviet Union and operators there immediately passed it on to Rome. The very next day Umberto Nobile received a reply from Rome Radio telling him that Swedish aircraft and a Russian icebreaker were on their way to find him. Cold, misery and broken limbs were forgotten for a time. “Laughter filled our tent,” Nobile recorded. “We celebrated the event by distributing to everyone five pieces of sugar, ten malted milk tablets and two ounces of chocolate. We had never treated ourselves so generously.”

Several other countries, including Germany, also joined in the rescue operations but Nobile was angered and baffled by the fact that no promise of direct help had come from his mentor and leader, Benito Mussolini. The Italian dictator seemed to be reacting very oddly to the plight of his aviators.

Official Italian government statements about the accident were strangely fuddled. One claimed “The Italia is no more, but all the crew are safe,” while another said that the dirigible had disappeared with her crew and that General Umberto Nobile and the survivors were ‘doomed’ on their raft of ice.

Rescue

There was nothing for the survivors to do but wait — and the waiting was long. It was not until June 17 that three Norwegian search aircraft flew just below the cloud bank, some two or three miles from the ice floe, and disappeared without acknowledging the Very-pistol light signals sent up by one of the Italia’s crewmen.

Forgetting past differences, Roald Amundsen set off in a Latham hydroplane to search for General Nobile and his comrades… only to disappear without a trace on June 18.

On June 20, a single aircraft flew directly over the ice floe and dropped bundles of food and medical supplies and three days after that a Swedish ski-plane circled and landed.

General Umberto Nobile found himself filled with “irrepressible joy” but it seemed to some people, looking at events afterward, that there was something odd and never satisfactorily explained about the way he then behaved. He went into a huddle with the Swedish pilot and then, broken limbs proving no insuperable problem, accompanied the Swede to the aircraft and climbed aboard. The plane took off, leaving the crewmen on the ice.

Within a few hours, Nobile was in Sweden in safety and being cared for. The rest of the ice floe survivors were later also picked up.

Of the three men who had walked out on Nobile, two were eventually rescued by the Russian ice-breaker, Leonid Krasin. There was no sign of the third, the Swede, Malmgren. “Did you leave him?” asked the Russian interrogator on board the Krasin. Once of the two Italians, Zappi, replied grimly, “Malmgren begged us to dig his grave and finish him off with a hatchet. He couldn’t bear to suffer any longer. But we refused to kill him; we simply left him and he waved at us frantically to go on.”

Hero or Villain?

The Italia had vanished completely, along with those crewmen presumed by Umberto Nobile to have been still on board when the airship drifted away into oblivion.

The losses were bad enough, but they could have been worse, Nobile thought, and he was just beginning to reconcile himself to the disaster when there came a great flood of suspicious mutterings about certain elements of mystery in the Italia’s final and fatal voyage. Italian newspapers, particularly, opened up an orchestrated campaign of vilification against General Umberto Nobile. His vanity, they said, had helped to bring the airship to her miserable end and he had been guilty, in the aftermath, of gross cowardice.

General Umberto Nobile in happier days
General Umberto Nobile in better days.

Since the Italian Press and radio were completely under Mussolini’s control there could be no doubt that he had personally instigated the campaign. And, indeed, Nobile was miserably perplexed when, soon afterward, the dictator bluntly declared: “Nobile had already flown over the Pole once before with Roald Amundsen’s expedition. I warned him against tempting fate for a second time. He has only himself to blame for the plight he found himself in.”

From being a former hero in Italy, General Umberto Nobile suddenly found himself transformed into the role of a ‘non-person.’ Accusatory questions flooded over him. Had he really been as badly injured as he said when he was thrown out of the airship? Wasn’t it the truth that he had broken a leg in his hurry and anxiety to board the Swedish rescue aircraft while leaving his comrades freezing on the ice floe? Was it not strange that he and his dog, and the food supplies, had fallen to safety from the Italia? And why had the airship apparently been allowed to drift away, just like that? Why had three of his men walked out on him?

Poor, unhappy Umberto Nobile tried to answer but his fellow Italians, taking their lead from Mussolini, refused to listen. It was pure accident, he said, that he had been thrown clear of the airship when she crashed — and he had genuinely been injured. He had boarded the Swedish plane, without his comrades, because the pilot had allegedly told him: “I have orders to bring you first. We need your instructions to start looking for the others.”

A Sad Scapegoat

General Nobile was particularly bitter that the Italian authorities made no effort to help in the search for his missing crewmen. The real mystery of the disastrous voyage lay in their attitude and not in anything that he had done, the general said. The Italian government had left the polar ice to conceal “the tragic secret of their fate.”

Only the Pope sprang to Nobile’s defense. He announced that “the flight of the Italia was one of those feats which attain the highest beauty and sublimity that can be encountered in life.”

The general himself drifted, like his airship, into obscurity, spending the rest of his life vainly trying to defend himself against his accusers. He resigned his rank and became a recluse. As time passed the truth of what had really happened in the Arctic became harder to unravel and two questions were left open for answer: Was General Umberto Nobile a coward who had behaved in a miserably unfeeling way to men who trusted him? Or was Mussolini perhaps the real villain of the piece? He saw the Italia’s doomed voyage as a blow to Italian Fascist pride and glory and he could not stomach that kind of failure. For that reason he may have helped to make Nobile one of history’s sadder scapegoats — aided and abetted by the general’s own mysterious behavior.


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