Book review: New look at a decades-old mystery
M. Michael Brady
Norwegians feature prominently in the history of Arctic exploration. Yet, as with other histories of human endeavor, there are gaps in the records. Arguably most enigmatic is the unknown fate of Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), one of the greats of the Heroic Age of polar exploration. A new book published this year, Amundsens siste reise (Amundsen’s last journey), goes far in filling that gap. Monica Kristensen, the sleuth of its story, is a hybrid author. A glaciologist by education, she has published five crime novels and five non-fiction books.
The skeleton of the story hews closely to historical record. On its return from the North Pole on May 25, 1928, the airship Italia used by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile and his crew of 15 crashed on the ice about 75 miles northeast of Nordaustlandet, the second-largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago. The gondola was split open, throwing the 10 men in it to the ice, while the gigantic envelope floated away with six crew members trapped inside, not to be seen again.
Nine of the 10 thrown out of the gondola survived the crash, but one died of exposure two weeks later. The eight able survivors salvaged the gear carried by the Italia, including packs, an emergency radio, and a tent. They pitched the tent and dyed it red using dye marker bombs to make it visible for searching aircraft. The radio operator built an antenna and used the emergency radio to send SOS calls at prearranged intervals.
The SOS was first received on June 3 by a Soviet radio amateur near Archangel, who alerted the authorities. News of the crash triggered a search and rescue effort that started on June 5 and involved vessels and aircraft from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Italy, France, and the Soviet Union.
Roald Amundsen was not part of the official Norwegian search, but he took part on his own with a crew of five in a French Navy Latham 47 flying boat. At 4:00 p.m. on June 18, Amundsen, his polar pilot Norwegian Navy captain Leif Dietrichson, and a crew of four French Navy officers took off from Tromsø to fly across the Barents Sea. But then the Latham 47 disappeared. Finds of its detached port float and gasoline tank in the following months showed that it had crashed. On June 20, two days after Amundsen departed, an Italian pilot spotted the red tent and dropped supplies to the Italia survivors.
Search and rescue ended in mid July. By then, nine rescuers and two of the Italia crew had perished, and the fates of the six Italia crewmen trapped in its envelope as well as those of Amundsen and the five others onboard the Latham 47 remained unknown.
A potential clue emerged in the spring of 1936. An expedition of glaciology students from the University of Oxford (UK) came across an abandoned campsite on the east coast of the Platen Peninsula that juts north at 80°N latitude from Nordaustlandet. There they found chocolate wrappers, bits of bread, a scrap of a Norwegian newspaper, a piece of rubberized canvas like that used in parts of the Italia envelope, and several canisters, one of which contained documents in Italian. They made notes on their find that they reported in The Geographic Journal (UK) upon returning in 1937. Then World War II put a stop to further research into the Italia disaster.
In the late 1960s, a film of the story of the eight gondola crash survivors was made, starring Peter Finch as Umbreto Nobile and Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen (Further reading and viewing). So thereafter the legacy of the Italia disaster has been one documented story and three unsolved mysteries.
Drawing on a broad scope of evidence in several languages, author Kristensen sews all known details into a consistent story that ends with a plausible explanation of its mysteries. At the Platen Peninsula campsite, a yellow square of dead vegetation suggested that a tent had stood there for several weeks or more. Rows of small stones along the edges of the square suggested that fabric had been held down against wind, a traditional Norwegian way of securing a tent. The bits of bread as well as the scrap of Norwegian newspaper may well have come from the Norwegian-style packed lunches that Amundsen and Dietrichson had taken onboard the Latham 47. The documents in Italian and the piece of rubberized canvas most likely came from the Italia. Together these clues imply that Amundsen and the Latham 47 might have landed at the wreck of the Italia and then tried in vain to take off again. But other scenarios are possible. Though the Arctic puzzle remains, Monica Kristensen has contributed an engrossing page-turner to the conversation.
• Amundsens siste reise (Amundsen’s last journey) by Monica Kristensen, 2017, ISBN 978-82-328-0024-7 (Norwegian).
Further reading and viewing:
• Into the ice, The History of Norway and the Polar Regions, by E.A. Drivenes and H.D. Jølle (eds.), 2006, ISBN 978-82-05-36185-0.
• The Red Tent, film directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, with Peter Finch as Umbreto Nobile and Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen, released 1969 (USSR) and 1971 (USA).
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.