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by Yulia BELCHICH, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), Senior researcher, Russian State Economics Archives
75 years ago a distress alert swept the globe, and the world was stunned by the news: the expedition of General Umberto Nobile which reached the North Pole on May 23, 1928, on board the airship Italia suffered a disaster. 16 vessels and 22 aircraft of different countries took part in the rescue effort. In the USSR a special commission was set up led by polar region expert Prof. Rudolf Samoilovich, nicknamed by his contemporaries "Director of Arctic". This remarkable man led the rescue party on board the icebreaker Krasin . On July 12,1928, the distressed joyously radioed: "Approached by the Krasin . We are saved."
Back in 1977 the lucky, albeit harsh, life of one of the outstanding researchers of Russian North was narrated by the honorary polar researcher Z. Kanevsky in a book entitled "The Director of Arctic". Today we would like to recall some episodes from the life of Rudolf Lazarevich Samoilovich.
The cold silence of the mysterious and dangerous hyperborean regions has lured people since times immemorial. The development of sea trade in the 18th century, when England, Holland, partially France and Spain had to look for new markets, stimulated the study of the Arctic regions. The search for short cuts to China and India along the northern shores of Europe, Asia and America initiated intense commercial activities there, predominantly off the shores of Spitsbergen and Greenland.
It was not until the early 19th century that the subject of truly scientific description of the Arctic came on the agenda. Truly heroic and self-sacrificious ventures to the North were undertaken by Norwegians Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, American Piri, Englishman Scott and others. And already in mid-1800s people started to contemplate how to penetrate the region bypassing such a hard and sometimes insurmountable barrier as ices. In 1847 Dupont of France proposed to reach the North Pole by air. The first to try and implement his idea was the Swedish engineer S. A. Andre. In 1897 he and his two companions took off on an air balloon from the Spitsbergen archipelago. The crew was lost without a trace. Only in 1930 Norwegian sailors came across their remains on the Island of Bely. They dicovered Andre's diary that confirmed that the courageous aeronauts were 800 kilometers away from their destination.
Arctic air exploration received its follow-up in early 1900s. On May 9,1926, American pilots R. Burd and F. Bennett were first to overfly the North Pole (17 years earlier their compatriots R. Piri and F. Cook reached the summit of the globe on dog sleighs). And two days later the airship Norway under the command of Roald Amundsen magnificently sailed over the pole on the first ever nonstop flight from the Spitsbergen archipelago to Alaska. Two years later the Italian airship designer Umberto Nobile (the architect of the Norway) on board of his creation Italia would conquer the North Pole again, but on the way back he would meet with a disaster...
Professor Samoilovich was among the most ardent advocates of explo-
rations of the North, both by sea and by air, in Russia and he deserved great credit for that.
He was born on September 13, 1881 in the town of Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast. After graduation from a gymnasium he went to Germany where in 1904 he got the diploma of the Mining Academy in Freiberg (Saxony). Having returned to Russia he continued his education at Odessa University where he took an active part in students' revolutionary movement. Then came arrests and exiles, the last one in 1909 to the Pinega area. A year later he was allowed to move to Arkhangelsk under police surveillance.
There Samoilovich started to work at the Society of Russian North Studies. In 1911 he took part in the Spitsbergen expedition of V. Drzhevetsky. Next year Rudolf Samoilovich returned to the shores of the archipelago on board the Hercules vessel with V. Rusanov who had earlier explored the Novaya Zemlya. The expedition amassed vast material related to Spitsbergen geology and mining industry, discovered there new coal fields and claimed several areas to Russia by erecting location monuments. Samoilovich took a transit ship to St. Petersburg carrying materials and samples, while Rusanov proceeded to the Bering Strait with the Hercules and was lost in the Kara Sea. Samoilovich continued the geological exploration of Spitsbergen and coal production there in 1913 - 1915.
A new leaf of Russian Arctic exploration was turned over after the revolution of 1917 when planned research was launched. In 1919 Samoilovich was elected Secretary of the Commission for the Study of Productive Forces of the North, later he became the leader of the Northern Scientific and Production Expedition created with the Scientific and Technical Section of the All-Russian People's Economic Council. Five years later it was transformed into the Institute of North Studies and, finally, in 1930 into the All-Union Arctic Institute (now the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute). Until 1938 Samoilovich remained their organizer and director.
From 1919 to 1938 Rudolf Samoilovich led and personally participated in 21 polar expeditions, among them to the Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya and Novaya Zemlya (1921 - 1927) when the explorers carried out comprehensive geological, general geographic, bioproductive and hydrographic studies. In 1931 he helmed an international aeronautical expedition on board the COUNT ZEPPELIN airship, and in 1932 on the Rusanov icebreaker continued oceanographic research in the Kara Sea discovering a group of unknown islands.
In 1937 the third high-latitude expedition on ships the Sadko, Sedov and Malygin was ice-trapped in the Laptev Sea. The enforced wintering of such enormous number of people was the first and, perhaps, the only one in the history of polar exploration. And a lot of credit for its being successful is, no doubt, taken by its experienced leader Samoilovich * .
* See: Z. Kanevsky, "Never Say Die!", Science in Russia, No. 2, 1993. - Ed .
The scientific works of the remarkable researcher (several books and more than 70 articles) have received a universal acclaim. In 1934 he was conferred the degree of Doctor of Geographic Sciences without defense of a thesis. As a Professor of Leningrad State University Rudolf Samoilovich organized the world's first chair of polar countries' geography. He was a famous public figure too, the Chairman of the Academic Council of the International Society for Arctic Studies with Airborn Vehicles (Aeroarctic), honorary member of geographical societies of many countries.
Despite his enormous personal credits, in 1938 Samoilovich was arrested and, according to unconfirmed data, two years later he perished. The "Director of Arctic" was rehabilitated posthumously. We possess his most valuable archives. Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the man who risked to preserve the invaluable documents of the repressed scientist. Samoilovich's archives, in particular, contains most interesting materials pertaining to the organization and holding of the expedition on board the Krasin icebreaker to save the Nobile team: daily telegrams to the distressed, orders to the expedition and minutes of meetings, diaries and memoirs of the Krasin crew, reports, articles and clips of the international press. There are also genuine logs and the radiolog of the Italia airship presented to Samoilovich by Nobile as a token of gratitude for the rescue of his team. This is how it was.
Apart from the talented Italian aircraft designer and aeronaut Umberto Nobile the Italia was manned by 15 other persons, including Professor
Pontremolli, the famous Swedish scientist F. Malmgren and the journalist Lago. The expedition was charged with a tremendous task: from the base in Spitsbergen to "conduct systematic studies of the circumpolar area with numerous flights".
The blimp reached the pole but its return was tragic: the vehicle got iced up and started to dive. On May 25 it hit the ice. The 10 men who were in the gondola got marooned on an ice floe, the rest were carried away by wind. "Bewildered, we were watching the blimp rapidly rise into the sky with six of our comrades on board", Nobile reminisced. "At that moment we thought that they had a chance of rescue, while we had none. But it all happened the other way round, and our memory for ever preserved the ghost of the Italia vanishing in the fog..."
Despite the fact that the gondola carried 125 kg of food, a tent, a radio and even astronomic instruments, the Italians were in great trouble: the ice floe was drifting south-east into the open sea where the spring sun was sure to melt it. Five days after the disaster three of the crew: Malmgren, Dzappi and Marianne took off to the North Cape in the hope of meeting with Norwegian industrialists.
The first SOS signals transmitted by the expedition were not heard. Only on June 3 the Italia's SOS was caught by the self-made receiver of the Russian radio amateur, a projectionist from the northern village of Voznesenie-Vokhma N. Schmidt. He did not have enough money for a cable to Moscow, and postal clerks sent the message on credit. Four days later the SOS signals were received by an Italian vessel.
People in the Soviet Union not just displayed warm sympathy with the lost crew but took an active part in its rescue. Immediately after Schmidt's message Samoilovich suggested to the Italian Consul General in Leningrad to send as a matter of urgency an icebreaker with an airplane on board to the disaster area. But by the time the response was received, the Committee for the Aid to the Italia Crew had been set up within the USSR Osoviakhim in Moscow under the chairmanship of the Deputy People's Commissar of Navy Joseph Unschlicht. Simultaneously, the Soviet group of the International Society of Arctic Studies with Aerial Vehicles (Aeroarctic) created a special commission headed by Rudolf Samoilovich who was granted "... broadest and sole authority to organize an expedition in Leningrad".
The polar researchers of both cities got down to practical issues: how to break to Nobile through hundreds of miles of pack ice? How to land aircraft on a lolly ice floe? Where to look for the three straying people and the six carried away by the airship?
First the Malygin icebreaker under the command of the USSR Academy Corresponding Member Vladimir Vize left on search from Arkhangelsk heading east. On June 8 (after the first radio contact with Nobile) another powerful vessel was dispatched west. An extraordinary meeting in Leningrad under the chairmanship of Samoilovich resolved: within three days to outfit a polar expedition on board the Krasin icebreaker, to take a powerful airplane and head for Spitsbergen.
It should be pointed out that preparations for expeditions of such scale usually took years. In this case the Krasin, almost 100 m long and with the displacement of 10,800 t, was outfitted within 104 hours. That included: rigging and food for 136 persons to last out 12 months (in case of enforced wintering), 800 t of fresh water and 3,000 t (almost 200 cars) of coal, as boilers burned 130 t of fuel daily. Out of the 118 crew members over 50 were greasers.
In the small hours of June 16, 1928, the icebreaker with the Ju-H-1 airplane on board set sail from Leningrad. On June 24 it arrived in Bergen where it was visited by Norwegian scientists polar pilots Wilkins and Eielson who questioned the success of the venture.
Already on their way on July 25 the Krasin crew found out that a member of the Nobile team had been rescued by the Swedish pilot Lundsborg. However, that did not affect Samoilovich's expedition program, since two more groups of Italians were still on ice.
The Krasin moved along the west shore of Spitsbergen further north and finally entered "the real pack ice up to two meters thick which had to be stormed literally inch by inch, we had to make at least twenty rolls just to move forward by half-hull", Samoilovich recalled. In the evening of July 3 it took the icebreaker 4 hours to clear just 50 m. The situation was aggravated by a propeller blade failure. "Come to a stop. Decided to put out the boilers until a better time", the log says.
"I realized", the director of the expedition remarked in his diary, "that the Krasin too might encounter impenetrable ices, but when I met them face to face, I could not say that elevated my spirits. I called my comrades, and we discussed the plan of further actions with utmost seriousness. Having weighed all circumstances, we came to the conclusion that we could not risk the vessel breaking through heavy hum- mocked ice, we had to screw up all our patience and wait for winds to thin the ice out. So, we went adrift having dropped ice anchors..."
Things were no easier for the other Soviet icebreaker either, as evidenced by newspaper headlines: " Malygin Cannot Move North", " Malygin's in Dire Straits". In those hard days, to continue the rescue effort, the Krasin team decided to use the three-motor Junkers whose outstanding flight crew commanded by Boris Chukhnovsky had long strived to search for "the stranded Italians". At a distance of one mile from the icebreaker mooring the pilots discovered a vast ice field from which they launched the operation: on July 8 they made a trial flight and on the 10th headed east to survey the ice and provide aid to the Vilieri group dropping relief supplies of warm clothes and food. 40 minutes after the start came words that circled the globe with the speed of lightning: "Malmgren group... Carl Island... Open water..." That meant that our pilots had found a part of Italia team that was believed dead.
All of a sudden, communication with the Chukhnovsky crew themselves was lost. The Krasin team spent four long hours in deepest worry about the fate of their comrades. It turned out that because of the thick fog that covered the ice airfield with impenetrable cap the pilots performed an emergency landing in another place. Finally, Chukhnovsky began to talk: he reported the coordinates of the found group, the emergency landing place, and that all crew members were safe and sound and had a two-week food reserve. The radiogram ended with the phrase which made world headlines: "Believe that the Krasin should immediately go to Malmgren's rescue".
"I had no doubt that we were to immediately move to the rescue of the dying people. I summoned Commander Eggi and ordered him to start moving", Samoilovich's diary narrates.
On July 12 the icebreaker proceeded on its way. The day proved to be the culmination: first they raised on board Italians Marianne and Dzappi (Zappi) of the team of the Swedish meteorologist Malmgren who had died a month before, and then the key group: Nobile himself, lieutenant Vilieri, professor Begounek, engineer Troiani, mechanic Cecioni and radio engineer Bialgi. On way back they picked up Chukhnovsky's crew: Alexeev, Straube, Shelagin, Bluvstein and the commander. On July 14,1928 the localities where the unique operation had been carried out displayed only open water.
The Italians were ecstatic over the report about the rescue of their compatriots by Samoilovich's expedition. They were especially impressed by the striking swiftness and confidence of the Krasin crew activities. Thus the Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grandi described the operation as "scientifically organized, methodically prepared and lightning-fast".
Later, answering the questions of numerous journalists, the navigator of the glorious Ju-H-1 Alexeev said: "Flight crew members saw nothing heroic in their actions, simply the natural self-protection gave way to the concern about other people".
On July 19 the Krasin dropped anchor in the port of Kingsbay where at the request of the Italian government it delivered onto the board of the Cittadi-Milano the rescued members of the Nobile expedition.
But that was not the end of the Krasin odyssey. After all vessels, including Italian, had left Arctic, it still prowled the ocean. The vessel needed serious repairs and the command decided to go to the Stavanger dock in Norway. However, off the southern cape of Spitsbergen the crew received a radiogram from the German cruise steamer Monte-Cervantes . It said that the vessel with 1,500 passengers and 318 crew members on board had had a serious accident and could stay afloat only for 16 hours. Ten hours later the Krasin approached the distressed. As became clear from the further events, only our icebreaker could help the Germans, as it had diving equipment and anything necessary to stop the two holes (3x4 m) in the rostrum of the vessel. On August 3 both ships set course for Norway.
Only on October 5, 1928, did the Krasin return to its native port. The participants of the legendary 112-day crusade were met by over 200,000 Lenin- graders. "... It was already getting dark when we approached the quayside of the Vasilyevsky Island and saw an exciting picture. Tens of thousands of people crowded the shore in the light of bright torches. A few dozens of spotlights lit the faces of people, structures, buildings, the St. Isaac Cathedral, the Petropavlovskaya Fortress, and our Krasin looked so small among the city edifices. Going ashore we were literally embraced by this crowd; we were happy to feel that our small deed had met with such response of the people..."
All that remains to be said is that the name of the "Director of Arctic" Rudolf Lazarevich Samoilovich is commemorated in a strait and an ice cupola in the Franz- Joseph Land, a bay of Novaya Zemlya, an island in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago, a mountain and a peninsula in Antarctic.
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