On 23 May 1928, the Italian airship Italia departed Svalbard en route to the North Pole. The Italia was commanded by Umberto Nobile and had a crew of 19 men, some of whom were scientists sent to study meteorology and other phenomena of the region.
Staying behind in Svalbard was the Citta di Milano – support ship for the Italia. Radio operators on Italia and Citta di Milano were to maintain contact with each other throughout the journey. Radio contact was maintained and Italia reached the North Pole 19 hours after leaving Svalbard.
Things then took a drastic turn for the worse.
Headwinds on the return journey prevented much forward progress and worsening weather conditions caused ice to form on the propellers which would then shoot off into the airship, puncturing one of the gas cells. The airship was soon descending despite having a 21-degree up-angle with the engines running at full power.
Seconds later, Italia’s cabin hit the ice, smashing it open. Now relieved of this weight, Italia began ascending, having deposited 10 crewmembers onto a drifting ice floe. The rest of the crew remained in the airship’s cabin and were never seen again.
Of the 10 now on the ice, one died almost immediately from injuries suffered in the crash. Most of the supplies went aloft with the airship leaving the survivors with a tent, a small-caliber revolver (with which they would kill a polar bear and add 400 pounds of meat to their dwindling rations), chocolate, pemmican and a flare gun. Some of these items were thrown down to the men by Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino in an act of selfless heroism as he and the others drifted away in the airship.
One of the items deposited onto the ice during the crash was the Italia’s back-up radio and batteries. The other essential item was Giuseppe Biagi, the airship’s one and only radioman. With either of these two commodities missing, the rescue of the surviving crew would probably not have occurred.
The radio was designed by Dr. Giulio Salom who held the ham callsign I1MT. It was housed in a wooden box and produced a 5-watt output from 5.4-10 MHz.
Using remnants of aluminum tubing and torn wiring from the crash, Biagi assembled a ¼-wave vertical antenna and ground radials. Once this and the tent were erected he began sending distress messages on the 33m band every 55 minutes fully expecting a response from the Citta di Milano 200km away.
That response never came and it was later learned that radio operators onboard Citta di Milano weren’t even listening. Months later, Guglielmo Marconi himself would publically chastise the ship’s captain for his lack of professionalism for failing to maintain a radio watch.
Fortunately for Biagi and company, his SOS was copied on June 3rd by Russian radio amateur Nikolai Schmidt in Vokhma. Schmidt was 22 years old at the time and had been experimenting with “telegraphy without wires” for eight years, having built his first spark gap transmitter at the age of 14.
Schmidt and fellow Russian ham Mikhail Smirnov heard subsequent SOS calls from Biagi and sent a telegram reporting this news to officials in Moscow. Moscow in turn notified Rome who got word to Citta di Milano to listen on the correct frequencies. Smirnov, later, “Nikolai and I again received “SOS” signals. They were heard well. We decided to send a telegram to Moscow, to the Society of Radio Friends”.
Schmidt and Smirnov were not able to reply to Biagi’s distress calls but Biagi learned of their reception and follow-up efforts as they were reported on the 31m shortwave band by Italian SW station IDO.
On June 8th, Citta di Milano was finally able to make contact with Biagi but Captain Romagna of the Citta di Milano was reluctant to take his ship into the pack ice to attempt a rescue. Eight other countries did step up to the plate – among them were Roald Amundsen of Norway, who was lost and never heard from again.
On 12 July the Russian icebreaker Krasin accomplished what others could not – rescuing the men after 49 days on drifting ice.
A dramatized movie of these events was made in 1969. It can be seen here: