A "glacial" mission for the Regia Marina

(To Marina Militare)

"Città di Milano" was the unit of the Regia Marina, under the command of Giuseppe Manoja, which left the port of La Spezia on 20 March 1928 to support the Arctic expedition of the "Italia" dirigible. The purpose of the mission was to give the necessary support from the logistical and organizational point of view to the enterprise planned and strongly desired by General Umberto Nobile.

A "company" which would have contributed to increasing the prestige of the nation and at the same time contributing to the development of the progress of scientific research. This unit was built in the early XNUMXth century. by the Germans and passed into Italian hands following the victory of the First World War. The ship was then modified in anticipation of the particular and adverse climatic conditions of the North Pole.

It was thus covered with steel plates and equipped with various equipment: a weather station, telegraph material, a basket for the descent on the ice, provisions for the survival of the crew and much more. On board the ship, in addition to the crew, there were a group of Alpine soldiers, scientists and university students. Before reaching its final destination, in the Svalbard Islands, the ship made several stops for the supply mainly of fresh food, including: Gibraltar (March 27), Plymouth (April 3-7), Bergen (April 11-18) , Tromso (April 22) and finally, on May 2, it reached the King's Bay. The "City of Milan", blocked by ice, could not dock at the quay but had to stop a few miles before. The men, animated by a strong spirit, spent several days transporting materials, including those necessary for the construction of the Hangar for the "Italia" airship.

The mission of the airship, commanded by General Nobile, was to reach the North Pole, to acquire its primacy. The "Italia" airship left Milan on April 15, 1928 and arrived in King's Bay (Baia del Re) on May 6 of the same year.

The crew consisted of 16 men, including scientists, mountain guides and military specialists. The airship "Italia" had already begun to explore the area on 11 May, but due to persistent adverse weather conditions it had to return to the base station. It was during the third exploratory trip, on May 25, 1928, that he reached the goal of the mission, flying over the North Pole. 

The mission's program, studied in detail, provided that once we reached the North Pole, a group of the airship's crew would land there and plant our "tricolor" and a cross donated by the Vatican; Unfortunately, the presence of a strong disturbance in the area did not allow what had been planned, so General Nobile, having to make a quick decision on what to do, decided to drop the two symbolic objects on the ground, in order to testify their passage.

After a brief interlude of euphoria and toasts, aboard the airship, the crew was preparing to embark on the return route. In the meantime, the weather conditions were worsening and on the route traced to reach the North Pole, the cold winds were blowing against, so it was decided for an alternative route to that taken for the outward journey.

The expedition, having successfully achieved the mission objective, was heading towards what will turn into a tragedy.

The adverse conditions soon took hold of the airship, creating problems for both navigation and propulsion, generating irreversible damage to the airship's envelope and finally causing it to crash to the ground. In the collision, the "gondola" released and the envelope, with six men inside, free from weight and without the possibility of being governed, moved away from the point of impact without ever knowing what its fate was nor that of the men who had remained "prisoners" in it.

In the "gondola", following the violent impact with the solid ice, there was a victim for internal bleeding. The survivors, reorganized and waiting for any relief, had shelter under the famous "red tent".

In the crash, miraculously, the radio was saved, but the distance between their position and the bad weather did not favor requests for help from the base station, ship "Città di Milano". It was then decided, on a voluntary basis, to send some of them in search of help. There were three survivors who set out in the desperate search to reach the rescue who will find themselves, during their journey, isolated on a piece of detached pack ice and where one of them (a Czech physicist) will perish from frostbite.

In the meantime, worried about the non-return, as previously agreed, the search and rescue procedures were activated on the ship "Città di Milano". Aid that was nourished in the hope of finding them alive when, after a few days, a fragment of a message of help from the survivors was received. Only with the receipt of a second message, this time "clearly" decipherable, was it certain that someone had survived.

News of the tragedy, meanwhile, had spread and many countries offered their competition in the research. Italy sent two planes, including a Savoia 55, piloted by the Italian Umberto Maddalena. Boats and airplanes from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia were activated for the rescue, which also sent the "Krassin", an ice-breaking ship belonging to the Soviet army. Other units played a fundamental role in the recovery of survivors such as the Hobby, Norwegian whaling boat, and the Braganza.

The search operations went on for days, until, sighted by the Italian pilot Umberto Maddalena, Cecioni Natale, Felice Troiani, Giuseppe Biagi, Viglieri Alfredo, Mariano Adalberto, Zappi Filippo and Umberto Nobile himself were recovered and rescued on board the ship "City of Milan".

Having embarked on the long return journey, the "City of Milan" docked in the port of La Spezia on 20 October 1928, thus concluding the expedition.

The enterprise, which in some ways turned out to be a tragedy, was nevertheless a success; since Italy held the primacy of reaching the North Pole and carried out, beyond expectations considering the events, the planned scientific research work and its results were published at the time by the Hydrographic Institute, either directly or in publications and scientific periodicals. The enterprise had confirmed the dominion of the sea of ​​Italy and increased the prestige of the Regia Marina.

(This article is the result of the training course of school-work alternation in favor of young students of the Higher Education Institute "G. De Sanctis" in Rome with the Historical Office of the Navy)