Saturday, 1 May 2010

Airships over Svalbard

In Britain, every schoolchild used to know who Roald Amundsen was - but only from the very Brit-centric point of view that he was the Norwegian who beat our own plucky (but less well organised*) Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole.

It's rather a shame that the full scope of Amundsen's achievements aren't more widely known in this country. Before reaching the South Pole, he was the first explorer to successfully negotiate the Northwest Passage. This was no minor "first" - mariners had been trying to find a northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific for around four hundred years when Amundsen finally did it.

Scott became "Scott of the Antarctic" after coming second in the race to one pole. Amundsen didn't just lead the first successful expedition to the South Pole but later, aged fifty three, acted as expedition leader and navigator for what was possibly the first successful overflight of the North Pole. On May the 11th, 1926, Amundsen and the crew of the Italian-built airship "Norge" piloted by its designer Unberto Nobile set off for the North Pole from their forward base in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard (currently the world's most northerly settlement).

The expedition was threatened by cold, dangerous accumulations of ice on the airship, noise, cramped conditions and personality clashes on board (Amundsen and Nobile didn't get on and Amundsen described life under airship captain Nobile as 'a circus wagon in the sky'). Nevertheless, the "Norge" flew over the Pole a day after setting off from Ny-Ålesund. On May the 14th, the "Norge", with about seven hours of fuel left in its tanks made landfall at the settlement of Teller, Alaska.

Frederick Cook, Robert Peary and Richard E Byrd all claimed to have reached or overflown the North Pole before Amundsen, but all three claims are questionable on grounds ranging from navigational error to deliberate fraud.

In 1928, Umberto Nobile organised another expedition to the North Pole in the airship "Italia". This time, Amundsen wasn't involved in the expedition and Nobile was both pilot and expedition leader. The "Italia" reached the pole, but then crashed on pack ice off Svalbard. Ships and aircraft from several nations mounted a rescue attempt to pick up the stranded crash survivors.

Amundsen was part of that rescue attempt. He boarded a French seaplane, heading for the rescue headquarters. This was the last anyone ever saw of him - the plane was lost over the sea and no bodies were ever recovered. Nobile and several of his crew were eventually rescued.

In 1969, a movie called "Red Tent" about the "Italia" crash was released. It flopped at the box office and was, apparently, quite historically inaccurate. Nonetheless, it sounds intriguing - Sean Connery played Roald Amundsen, Peter Finch was Umberto Nobile and Ennio Morricone wrote the title music.

I haven't read what he's written on the subject, but I'm guessing that the story of the arctic explorers and airships over Svalbard must also have provided Philip Pullman with some of the imaginative background for the Svalbard chapters of "Northern Lights" (AKA "The Golden Compass"), the first novel in the trilogy "His Dark Materials".

There's a short summary of Amundsen's remarkable career here.

All in all, quite an exciting and interesting life and a pity that all we Brits remember is the sight of that Norwegian flag at the South Pole, crushing Scott's hopes of glory. But history seen from a particular perspective can be rather one-sided.

As an example, it's surprising what English people with a passing interest in history remember about the Hundred Years' War. Mainly, they remember the battles of Crécy, Agincourt and, possibly, Sluys. Three decisive English victories. I think I'd have to go a long way to find an English person who could name me a battle in the Hundred Years' War that the French won.

Yet that the one key fact about the Hundered Years' War is that the French won and the English lost. By the end of the Hundred Years' War, the English possions in France had all been lost, (with the exception of Calais which we hung on to for another century). I plead as guilty to being as ignorant as the average English person (I was vaguely aware of Joan of Arc's role in raising the siege of Orléans, but that was about it). So, let's add two more French victories to the list - the Battle of Patay that turned the tide against the English and the final victory at the Battle of Castillon.

Part of this is down to sheer jingoism, although I guess that William Shakespeare bigging up Agincourt did a lot to create a one-sided myth of national valour. Stories can be powerful things - like the legend of Agincourt, Scott's compelling tale of suffering and sacrifice on the ice has been burned into into the national consciousness, to the exclusion of other narratives, such as Amundsen's.

*for all his undoubted pluck, he could have learned a thing or two about keeping his people alive from Shackleton.