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The Red Tent: Nobile's Odyssey

The Red Tent 1969

Frame from the movie The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa (1969).

Over the years in which Charles August Lindbergh preparing his flight across the Atlantic, in Italy a prominent aeronautical technician, General Umberto Nobile, concentrated his efforts on another aspect of aerial navigation: the airship; A year before Lindbergh's flight, he had already achieved great success flying over the North Pole, at the head of the airship Norge, accompanied by Amundsen.

Umberto Nobile was born in 1885 in Avelino; after obtaining a doctorate in engineering, he had held the position of director of the Aeronautical Construction factory in Rome during the First World War, and had later joined the military corps of aeronautical engineers. With the rank of general, his projects and expeditions had focused on him the attention of the country that, after overcoming the most important damage caused by the military conflict of the first European war, and in the brief period of expansion that preceded the economic crisis of 1929, had devoted itself, like the other countries of Europe, to technical development and industrialization.

It is in this environment where the plans for a second polar expedition must be placed, to be carried out by the airship Italia in 1928. The flight of the Norge had constituted, as a whole, a great success: prepared with great care and regularly conducted, it proceeded without major incident, which seemed to confirm the skill of its commander and, apparently, the possibilities of the means employed. A man of science and experience, as well as an audacious pilot, Nobile published in those years various writings aimed at extracting the lessons from the experiences carried out until then: Alcuni primi risultati di collaudo dell'aeronave n. 1; Prove di ormeggio funicolare per direcbili; Il volo transpolare; “Nobile” system for grounding and mechanical anchoring of aircraft.

The Norge Airship
The Norge Airship in flight after leaving its hangar in 1926. [Photo: Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Undoubtedly, Nobile's extraordinary personality did much to divert public attention from more objective considerations of the airship's future. Judging coldly, especially taking into account the results of the following years, it is easy to think that in 1927 the airship-airplane controversy had already been resolved in favor of the latter. And let us not forget, on the other hand, that a country like Germany, which has never opposed technical and scientific progress, continued to build airships for civilian use until 1939. It cannot be denied, therefore, that Nobile had excellent supporters.

The new expedition to the North Pole, projected as an entirely Italian venture, encompassed a particularly ambitious programme. Departing from Milan, the Italy had to cover, in a first stage, the route to the King's Bay, in the Spitzberg Islands (Spitsbergen, Svalbard); from there it was to sail to the desolate islands of Zembla (North Land), north of the Taimyr peninsula; it would then make one or two flights over the pole in order to explore the part of the Arctic ice cap that extends to the north of Greenland and that was practically still unexplored. It was undoubtedly a very complete exploration plan. Unlike other previous flights, the Italian airship would flee from quick and superficial observations and would develop a real study program in order to make the most of the air environment for systematic and prolonged explorations. Seen from this perspective and regardless of the results achieved, the polar journey of Nobile and his companions reveals, without a doubt, a daring and innovative character.

Having departed on April 15, 1928, the aircraft completed the established program in three weeks until reaching the Bay of the King. Thanks to its speed of 100 km per hour, the first explorations, carried out on May 11 and 14, were positively successful. Due to the bad weather, the airship Italy had brilliantly managed to overcome the difficulties. But on its third attempt, on May 25, it was victim of a serious mishap: hit by a violent hurricane, the airship began to list; perhaps because it was flying low, it was dragged by the wind and precipitated until it hit the the pack ice.

Italia Airship The Red Tent
Landing of the Airship Italia in 1928 in Pomerania, a former region between Germany and Poland. [Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-05738 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons
As a result of the violent crash, the cabin was destroyed and nine members of the crew, including Nobile, found themselves unexpectedly on the immense expanse of the pack, more or less battered, with few provisions, a transmitter of miraculously working radio, and a tent. This had been dyed with red aniline dissolved in water, so that it was visible at a great distance, and hence the name The Red Tent with which Nobile and his companions' odyssey is known. The great fame acquired by Nobile in his previous undertakings is the reason why the disaster of the Italia (which, lightened by the loss of the gondola, had risen again with the rest of the crew, and had disappeared to be lost forever) found a profound echo in world public opinion. The tragic adventures of the survivors to try to save themselves and also the large number of rescue efforts made everyone passionate about this dramatic vicissitude.

The telegraph operator Biagi began to launch desperate calls for help, but until the beginning of June these were not picked up by a Soviet radio amateur; a few more days passed before the support ship City of Milan did not pick them up and began to organize the rescue operations. Meanwhile, and calculating that the castaways were not very far from some inhabited region, three members of the expedition (Mariano, Zappi and the Swedish scientist Malmgren) decided to venture on foot to try to reach the mainland. They started the march after the death of another of the crew members, named Pamella, and after verifying that Nobile and his assistant Cecioni, seriously injured, were totally unable to move.

Amundsen Fatal Accident during Rescue

Only Mariano and Zappi, and still in an extremely exhausted state, were lucky enough to find the Soviet icebreaker Krassin, which had begun the tasks of rescuing the survivors; As for the Swedish Malmgren, who had left in terrible physical condition, could not resist fatigue and died during the painful march. Amundsen also came to Nobile's aid on board a plane, but he perished on June 18, victim of an accident.

A new rescue attempt, with better results, was carried out by the Swedish pilot Einar Lundborg, who on June 23 was able to land in the vicinity of The Red Tent and take off shortly after, carrying on board to Nobile. But later, when he tried to repeat his feat to rescue the castaways one by one, he had an accident on landing and he was also castaway along with those he was trying to save. Fortunately, they had been able to be supplied with food and other essential items, and thus were able to await the arrival of the Soviet icebreakers Krassin and Malygin, which completed the rescue tasks. As a whole, the expedition showed a balance of 14 victims, including members of the crew and relief expeditions.

Umberto Nobile
Umberto Nobile, observing from the front control vehicle the departure of the Norge at the Spitsbergen base (Norway). [Photo: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Because of the official character that the venture had assumed, the Italian government appointed a commission of inquiry. At the end of its investigations, it issued an unfavorable judgment on Nobile's way of proceeding; he was forced to resign from his position and abandon his activities.

The echoes of this controversy are not yet completely extinguished. Regardless of the mistakes that Nobile could have made, it is necessary to recognize that he was the most suitable for such an undertaking: there were few who surpassed him in the task of guiding an airship and who better understood the characteristics of these aircraft. It was perhaps the only means of transport that, due to its size and low speed, offered adequate resistance to the impetuous winds of the arctic regions.

It is also fair to remember that Nobile's trial involved factors unrelated to the venture itself, such as rivalries and political intrigues, since Nobile, during his expeditions to the Arctic, would have established good relations with members of the Government and with Soviet scientists; such contacts, considering the character of the government then in Italy, were perhaps one of the unconfessed reasons for attacking him in a way that was not always fair.

Footage from the movie The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa (1969), with soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

[Source: Vv.Aa. (1978). The Red Tent. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 65-67). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]