1928 Latham expedition
25 May 1928
It is around 10.30 a.m.
Some 110 kilometres north of Svalbard, Umberto Nobile‘s airship Italia hovers uncontrollably above the icy Arctic Ocean. On board are sixteen men and a fox terrier on their way home from the North Pole, but strong winds and icing are causing havoc.
They have been struggling for control for several hours, but now the airship is heading straight for the ice. The gondola containing the crew thunders into the frozen surface, and ten men are thrown across it.
The six men still on board when the airship rises will never be seen again.
The same day, Roald Amundsen is at the Ski Museum at Frognerseteren in Oslo, standing in front of the exhibition displaying the equipment he used on the South Pole expedition seventeen years earlier. Next to him is the American pilot Carl Ben Eielson, who is in Norway with the Australian George Hubert Wilkins after making the first successful flight from Alaska to Svalbard. Amundsen is one of several to ensure they receive their deserved tribute in Norway.
Later in the evening, Amundsen is on stage in the large hall of the Colosseum cinema. In front of an audience two thousand strong, Amundsen introduces the lecture from Eielson and Wilkins. National anthems are played and cheers resound from the hall.
The contrast is huge between the festivities in Oslo and the struggle unfolding in the Arctic Ocean.
26 May 1928
It’s been more than a day since anyone heard from the airship Italia. The newspapers carry rumours about possible rescue missions. The world does not yet know what happened.
In Oslo, the party continues. A procession with flag-adorned cars is on its way out to Bygdøy, outside the city centre. They stop at the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Ship Museum, before driving down to the “Dronningen” restaurant by the sea. The newspaper Aftenposten is hosting a celebratory lunch in honour of Wilkins and Eielson.
It is a glorious summer day and several of the country’s polar personalities have been invited.
But over the course of lunch, Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Frøis Frøisland, is disturbed twice. First comes a telegram from the journalist Odd Arnesen, who announces that the Italian ship Città di Milano is now getting ready to head north to search for the airship Italia.
Talk begins to go around the table, and among experienced men the opinions are many.
Soon after, a new message is delivered to Frøisland. This time it is the Norwegian Minister of Defence, Torgeir Anderssen-Rysst, who wonders if Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup can meet in his office to discuss a possible Norwegian rescue mission.
“Right away,” answers Amundsen in English, before continuing in Norwegian, “answer that I am ready immediately.” Sverdrup, who is sitting above, nods his head calmly in agreement.
But eventually everyone realizes that the situation is complicated. Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, does not want to send out a Norwegian rescue expedition, and, according to some sources, especially not if Roald Amundsen is involved. Amundsen has made himself a controversial figure in Italy after the expedition with the airship Norge in 1926.
After the meeting with the Minister of Defence, Amundsen goes down to Victoria Hotel, where his good friend Herman Gade arranges a private party in honour of Wilkins and Eielson. When asked about the meeting with the minister, Amundsen answers,
“We agreed to give it a few days. If something significant happens during Pentecost, I will be notified immediately. For practical reasons, I am staying here at the hotel.”
On the Monday, Amundsen goes home to Svartskog.
In the first days of June, radio signals from Nobile and his men are picked up and optimism rises. At the same time, Amundsen receives a message from his American good friend Lincoln Ellsworth, who says he can provide money if Amundsen manages to organize his own rescue expedition. Amundsen is excited. So, too, are the public, as applications pour in to Uranienborg from people who want to join.
It is during these days that Amundsen is visited by the Italian journalist Davide Giudici at home at Uranienborg. They sit down in the green chairs in the living room.
“What is indispensable, is the utmost speed and energy.” says Amundsen when Guidici asks him about the chances of survival of Nobile and his men. And about the relationship with Nobile, the man he has previously criticized publicly, Amundsen describes a common bond of solidarity, shared by all polar explorers, that is stronger than personal resentments in such situations as now. “Today I see one thing only,” he says, “General Nobile and his companions are in danger, and it is necessary to do everything that is humanly possible to save them.”
About his own plan, he can say that he is currently in the process of selecting the best pilots, mechanics and radio operators: “The question is not who will arrive first or who will do the most, but that the situation is growing worse from day to day.”
Several times during the interview, Amundsen gets up and goes to the radio to hear if there is anything new about the Italians. But each time he returns to his chair disappointed. From the ceiling above them hangs a model of the Dornier Wal aircraft Amundsen used on his North Pole attempt in 1925. Amundsen looks up at it, drifts away for a moment and says,
“Ah! If you only knew how splendid it is up there! That’s where I want to die; and I wish only that death will come to me chivalrously, will overtake me in the fulfilment of a high mission, quickly, without suffering. And this I hope for, because for over thirty years, from the time of the Belgian expedition in 1897, I have learned to defend myself well against the scurvy, the only danger I need seriously fear in those regions.”📜
14 June 1928
On 14 June, Norwegian newspapers print the news that Roald Amundsen will stay at home📜. Ellsworth’s funds will not stretch. But there is something the newspapers don’t know. Around midday, the phone rings at home at Uranienborg. It will be the turning point for Amundsen. When he lifts the receiver, Amundsen hears the voice of the influential Norwegian merchant in Paris, Fredrik Peterson. Peterson wants to assist Amundsen and has already been in talks with people in France who can raise an aircraft. Amundsen emphasizes that he cannot use an ordinary plane, that he needs an flying boat. Peterson will see what he can do.
Before hanging up, Amundsen is said to have said: “Yes, this was such a pleasure. Thank you very much.“
It’s evening when Peterson calls again. A flying boat is now available, Latham 47.02.
With a French crew of four, the plane will be able to take off in two days and meet Amundsen in Bergen.
At Latham’s factories in Caudebec-en-Caux and at Amundsen’s home in Svartskog, intense preparations begin.
At 10 o’clock on the evening of 16 June, the French flying boat lands in the city fjord in Bergen and is towed to Marineholmen. That same evening, a crowd flocks around the carriages of the Bergen train at Østbanen in Oslo. In the middle of the crowd are Roald Amundsen and the pilot Leif Dietrichson. Three years earlier, Dietrichson had shown his qualities during the expedition to 88 degrees north, and Amundsen thought him “too good a man not to be used now.” 📜 So room would be made for both of them on board the Latham.
Together with Roald’s nephew Gustav “Goggen” Amundsen and the ever-loyal Oscar Wisting, who will accompany them to Bergen and then continue to Svalbard by boat, they prepare to board the night train that will take them over the mountains.
The small entourage enters a second class compartment, but before the train steams out of the station, a young woman suddenly steps in hesitantly. She asks if she can give Amundsen one last handshake:
“I must apologize for my boldness, but I’m just doing what thousands in this moment feel the urge to. Be careful now! Norway cannot afford to lose a son like you.”📜
At the last station before the train rolls into Bergen, a journalist enters the polar explorers’ compartment. “What’s the most important piece of equipment you are taking on your rescue mission with the Latham?” he asks Amundsen. “It is firstly skis and sledges, collapsible boats, and otherwise other polar equipment from my previous travels, provisions, biscuits and chocolate, etc.” Amundsen replies, also mentioning that it was now, at this time of year, “very foggy in the polar regions. It will also make the search more difficult.”📜
It is 11 o’clock on the morning of June 17 when they emerge onto the platform at Bergen railway station. Here, too, the public have turned out. Among them are the French consul and several of the French flight crew from Latham 47.02.
“While the cameras snapped and the cameramen cranked, Amundsen and his companions finally got out of the station and into the Hotel Terminus,” reports Bergens Arbeiderblad📜.
Amundsen has reserved room 503 to give them the opportunity to discuss the onward journey. In the fireplace room at Hotel Terminus, the Press are waiting. Here Amundsen repeats the message that it is now a matter of saving lives: “The potatoes that should have been tended at home at Svartskog will have to wait a while, while a new chapter is being prepared for ‘My life as an explorer’.”📜
Journalists also have questions about the Latham. “What will happen if the machine comes into contact with ice in one of the leads?” they ask the captain René Guilbaud. “The machine does not bear much of that kind of stress. But it is probably impossible to start on the ice with this machine in the same way as with N 25. However, we can hope for the best,” replies Guilbaud📜. During the stay in Bergen, the Latham has been refilled with petrol, oil and water. Also, a hole discovered on the underside of the port wing float has been patched with a copper plate.
The time is 18:25 when Amundsen and Dietrichson are taken out to the Latham. As the small rowing boat sets off, cheers resound from thousands of people on shore and in boats on the fjord. Wisting, who has gone along to wave goodbye, is standing watching with Goggen: “The last thing we saw of Roald Amundsen was his characteristic figure sitting aft on the flying boat. Suddenly we see him get up and wave – the distance was quite large, several thousand metres. We turned to each other as if on command after answering the salutation along with ten thousand others: ‘You saw that. It was to us.’ The feeling was so strangely intense, and we both reacted at the same time; it was as if we instinctively felt that the gesture applied only to us and no one else.”📜
The Latham is towed out for a while, before starting up and heading north.
18 June 1928
It is around 6 in the morning when they land in Tromsø. The water is quiet and the sun is shining. Several of Tromsø’s residents have stayed awake through the night to greet them. Amundsen takes Dietrichson up to his good friend in town, the pharmacist Fritz Gottlieb Zapffe. Here they get breakfast, a well-packed morning pipe, a bath and rest. The French crew checks into the Grand Hotell.
For breakfast this day chez Zapffe, smoked salmon is served, something both Amundsen and Dietrichson really appreciate. In fact, it is so good that they would like to have it as a packed lunch on the way to Svalbard, so a small box is filled with several sandwiches. At 11 o’clock, Dietrichson goes down to the harbour to make sure the refuelling is going as planned. Zapffe and Amundsen are left to talk. Zapffe is sceptical, about both the flying boat itself and the temporary float repair made in Bergen.
Half an hour later, Zapffe calls the director of the Geophysical Institute, Ole Andreas Krogness, who is responsible for the area’s weather forecast. Krogness has already informed Dietrichson about the weather situation and warns Amundsen of a depression around Svalbard. It is not ideal and concerns Amundsen, who decides to wait until the next weather forecast arrives at 14.00. In the hours that follow, it clears up and preparations for departure begin 📜.
Before he leaves Zapffe, Amundsen prepares for a smoke. But as he is about to light the pipe, he is unable to make the lighter work. He borrows Zapffe’s and gives his broken one to Zappfe: “You keep it, as a reminder of this last journey,” he adds 📜.
Zapffe would later recall that there was something unusual about Amundsen this day. It was “something strangely distant and resigned about him. It seemed like it did not concern him at all, and yet maybe it was just him. Without saying anything he just sat quite still and looked at me. I felt bad inside, but did not understand why, but there must have been something that entered my subconscious.”📜
In 1953, Zapffe spoke to NRK radio about this last meeting with Amundsen in an interview that can be heard at the National Library of Norway🔊.
Through the day, several planes have tried to take off but been thwarted by the weather. Now it’s the Latham’s turn to try. Eventually, the entire crew is gathered down by Tromsøsundet where Latham 47.02 is ready.
“Yes, so we fly then,” said Amundsen.
Equipment and provisions
At around four in the afternoon, the roar of the Latham’s engines is heard across the city. The aircraft will later be said to have appeared overloaded and to have needed several attempts get airborne. But it takes off and disappears north.
At 17:40, Ingøy radio station at Måsøy on the Finnmark coast receives a message from the Latham:
“Captain Amundsen aboard Latham 47, asks to have ice reports if any.”
A quarter of an hour later, the telegraph operator on Ingøy hears the Latham crew trying to call the radio station in Longyearbyen, but no one there hears them.
An hour later, at 18:45, the telegraph operator at the Geophysical Institute in Tromsø overhears a message from the Latham. This is the last reliable report of a message from Amundsen and the crew.
What happened next, we simply don’t know.
The newspapers suggest that the Latham may have headed straight out over the ice towards Nobile and his men, instead of stopping in Kings Bay as arranged.
For many, an accident is unthinkable. In the days after the Latham’s departure from Tromsø, several other planes took off without any problems. The weather was good, and Latham 47.02 was described as one of the best aircraft available.
“There is still an eerie silence about the fate of Amundsen and his comrades. It has now been so many days that one begins to feel anxious that an accident has happened,” wrote Arbeiderbladet on June 22 📜.
The rumours and the finds
As the days pass, the rumours begin to circulate. Some have heard Latham, others have seen Amundsen on ice floes, some have found messages in bottles. Two fishermen report that they have seen on Bjørnøya “tracks from two wheels about six feet apart over a length of 80 feet. The track led to the edge of a precipice, with a large drop to the sea. Near the edge of this abyss the fishermen found a leather hat, part of a fur coat and some pieces of wood.”📜
There are also rumours that Amundsen has been seen at home in Svartskog.
Eventually, fundraisers begin to set up search operations. Rewards are promised for those who can provide information. Several ships, planes and dog teams help to search. Norwegian newspapers arrange lottery sales to raise money, offering as first prize a new Chevrolet Touring donated by General Motors.
But it helps little, and in August comes the first sign that something fatal must have happened.
On 31 August, the fishing boat Brodd is on its way home from the season’s halibut fishing at Bjørnøya. Near Torsvåg Lighthouse in Karsløy, they spot something they think is an empty oil barrel. Suddenly, a cry is heard from one of the crew:
“It looks like it belongs to an airplane.”
It falls quiet on board. Nobody says anything.
They take hold of the object and hoist it on board, and realize it’s a float, from a plane.
But it is not intact. At the front on its left side is a square hole, about 20 cm long and wide, and one of the struts has been repaired with a piece of wood. Elsewhere are clear signs of a previous repair, one that turns out to have been made in Bergen before departure.
The float is from Latham 47.02.
Even the most optimistic now lose hope.
On October 13, it happens again when new wreckage from Latham 47.02 is discovered.
At Haltenbanken, off Trøndelag, the crew of the fishing boat Leif catch sight of a grey-blue petrol tank in the sea. It has also clearly been worked on, with a wooden plug fitted to a small copper pipe belonging to the filling nozzle. In other words, the tank has been modified so that it would float. Why? Maybe to act as a float.
Weeks and months then pass before any more debris appears, but on 11 January 1929 another petrol tank is found. It is completely empty of fuel.
These discoveries give rise to several theories, but even today it is far from clear what really happened to Latham 47.02 and those on board.
Finds and theories
In the period following the disappearance, several observations, finds of wreckage and various theories were reported.
On 14 December 1928, the whole of Norway stands still for two minutes, the Norwegian government having issued several calls in advance. Church bells should ring for two minutes from 12 o’clock, at the same time as a general work stoppage is encouraged. Flags will be lowered to half-mast between 12.00 and 14.00. All school students will, instead of regular teaching, listen to their teacher talk about Roald Amundsen.
The call is respected in several countries, with speeches, ceremonies, newspaper articles and radio clips.
One of those to speak is Fridtjof Nansen.