It may be a largely forgotten chapter in the annals of polar exploration, but not because it lacks drama.
In fact, the tale of the airship Italia has it all — adventure, tragedy, and some international intrigue.
General Umberto Nobile led the pioneering expedition under the flag of Fascist Italy, but after successfully reaching the North Pole on May 24, 1928, the Italia never made it home. Neither did famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who died during an attempted recovery mission to rescue Nobile — his bitter enemy.
Yukon-based journalist and author Eva Holland digs into the story in her new Kindle Single e-book, Mussolini's Arctic Airship.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to tell this story?
I was reading a biography of Amundsen called The Last Viking by another Canadian writer [Stephen R. Brown], and I got to the end and found out that Amundsen died in a plane crash trying to rescue, basically, his nemesis, which I hadn't known. I knew about his South Pole stuff, I knew about his Northwest Passage stuff, but I hadn't been aware of how he died, and I just thought that was sort of a crazy twist.
And then I read a bit more into the Italian character, Umberto Nobile, and it just was interesting to me how their lives collided and how these two men who really disliked each other, and how they sort of influenced each other's fates. And I thought that was a story on its own.
The Italian role in polar exploration does not seem as well known or celebrated, compared to that of the Norwegians, Americans or British. Why do you think that is?
I think partly because it was quite focussed and sort of limited. They got into polar exploration basically because they were blimp experts, they were airship experts. And so, their role in Arctic exploration was almost, as far as I know, limited to these airship expeditions.
And then two things: airships fell massively out of favour after the Hindenberg, and then also Nobile was disgraced in Italy after this.
So between airships going completely out of style and Nobile being a complicated figure in Italy, I think that's partly why the story has been sort of forgotten, although I don't think it was forgotten entirely in Italy.
How did you go about sorting fact from legend, or in the case of Fascist Italy, propaganda?
That was one of the real challenges of writing this and I have a note, sort of trying to cover my butt a little bit, at the end of the book. Because it's really difficult to say.
Nobile wrote two separate memoirs that are very similar, but if you go through them line by line, there are a few differences. And one of them was published under Mussolini, and one of them was published after Mussolini.
So how do you say — maybe he was trying to protect himself after Mussolini was gone, by seeming to be less sympathetic to a Fascist dictator than he was in reality, or maybe he was just trying to protect himself under a Fascist dictator by seeming sympathetic. You go in circles with it.
My rule of thumb while writing was to stick to the closest account that I could find, both chronologically and physically in terms of the person being there on the ground. There were times when the Norwegian journalist who was in Svalbard, his account conflicted with The New York Times. And so in most cases, I would have gone with the Norwegian journalist who was physically there.
One of the more dramatic moments in the story is when Amundsen is informed that the Italia has gone missing. Amundsen then immediately offers to launch a rescue. What do you think was behind his decision in that moment?
I think it was partly a sense of honour and duty to go and rescue [Nobile], even though they were enemies. You know, he would have regarded himself as most qualified for the job to rescue the Italians. So for him to stay home would have been compromising, in his view, probably their chances of rescue — although by then he was getting older and was maybe less the only man for the job than he might have thought.
There's some suggestion that he may have felt it was his fault on some level — that Nobile went back to the pole to try to prove that he could do it without Amundsen [Nobile had been part of an earlier polar expedition led by the Norwegian].
But it's hard to say. Because although Amundsen left memoirs about all aspects of his life up to 1927, of course we don't know what he thought about what happened in 1928 because he died in the rescue effort.
I think even if he wasn't personally moved to go to the rescue, I think he would have been poorly regarded by the public if he didn't. So there was also that social pressure.
One of the things that becomes clear in the story is how, at the time, there were many international interests at play in the Arctic — Norway, Italy, Russia, the U.S., Sweden. Was that the end of an era, or are those rivalries still playing out in the Arctic today?
I didn't want to overplay my hand on that in the actual story, but it's definitely one of the things that drew me to it — that now we have these different polar nations that are placing claims on the North Pole and the undersea resources, and there's the Russian submarine that planted that titanium flag at the bottom of the ocean at the pole.
And there's sort of a second rush for the Arctic happening, and that's definitely part of what drew me to the story, although I didn't want to be too over-the-top with referencing that in the story.
Back then, people were predicting that airships were the future of Arctic travel. Some are still predicting that. What do you think?
I don't know. I know that it doesn't seem out of the question.
Amundsen and Nobile had valid reasons for feeling like airships made a lot of sense in the 1920s. There's that quote I use in the story about how they make more sense than airplanes in a land where there are no landing places to be found. And that's still the case — that there's still a logical progression where airships make sense in our treeless, roadless, runway-less world up here.
But I don't know if we'll ever actually get to see a golden age of Arctic airship aviation. It would be interesting if we did, and I know that there are some companies that are trying to make it happen in the next few years. So we'll see if the Arctic airship rides again.
Is there any part of this story, that you'd like to explore further?
It's sort of amazing to me that no trace of the [Italia] was ever found. And that no trace, except for that one pontoon, of Amundsen's plane was ever found.
An airship is not going to just disappear.