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
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.
Nita and Camilla
The story of Nita, Camilla and their life at Uranienborg will appear here soon.
Roald Amundsen’s life, in brief
Roald Engebreth Gravning Amundsen is born 16 July. A couple of months later, the family moves from “Tomta” in Borge (Østfold/Viken) to Kristiania (Oslo). Roald Amundsen grows up together with his older brothers Leon, Gustav and Tonni in Uranienborgveien 9.
His father, shipowner Jens Amundsen, dies when Roald is 14 years old. At home, the nanny Betty takes over primary care of the boys. A year later, Roald reads the books by polar explorer Sir John Franklin with fervent interest. In 1889, at the age of 17, he joins the crowd in downtown Oslo celebrating the return of Fridtjof Nansen from his Greenland expedition.
“For the first time something in my secret thoughts whispered clearly and tremulously: ‘If you could make the Northwest Passage!’”
In autumn 1890, Roald starts university and eventually begins studying medicine.
In autumn 1893, his mother, Gustava Amundsen, dies and Roald ends his studies. He serves his compulsory military duty in the Kristiania (Oslo) Battalion at Gardermoen.
Around new year 1894, Amundsen sets off on an unsuccessful ski tour on the Hardangervidda plateau with Laurentius Urdahl and Wilhelm Holst.
In spring 1894, Roald finds work on the sealing ship Magdalena. In the spring of 189, Amundsen took the helmsman’s exam, 2nd class, at Kristiania Seamen’s School.
In January 1896, he sets off on another ski tour over Hardangervidda, this time with his brother, Leon. That summer, Amundsen applies for a place on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache. He is taken on as a sailor and skier but during the expedition becomes First Officer.
In winter 1897, Roald is in Antwerp to learn navigation as a part of his preparations for Antarctica. His stay is cut short, however, when he finds his landlady dead, having taken her own life. The two had had a close relationship and Amundsen takes it badly.
The Belgica expedition departs Antwerp on 16 August 1897. In March 1898, they are frozen fast in the ice and must overwinter. The expedition gives Amundsen invaluable experience and he becomes close friends with the American expedition doctor, Frederick Cook.
In March 1899, the Belgica escapes the ice and begins the journey home.
In September 1899, Roald and Leon cycle from Kristiania (Oslo) to Paris. Roald travels from there to the USA, reading Fredrick Jackson’s “A Thousand Days in The Arctic” on the journey and filling two books with his own notes. In autumn 1900, he studies earth magnetism with Georg von Neumayer at the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg, Germany. Once home in Norway, he visits Fridtjof Nansen and explains his plan to sail through the Northwest Passage and explore the magnetic North Pole.
Amundsen acquires the sloop Gjøa in Tromsø in January, 1901, and goes out that summer for sea trials in the Arctic Ocean. In Tromsø, he gets to know Fritz Gottlieb Zapffe, who remains a close friend for the rest of Roald’s life.
The Gjøa sails through the Northwest Passage, with Amundsen as leader. Also on board are Anton Lund, Helmer Hanssen, Peder Ristvedt, Godfred Hansen, Gustav Juel Wiik and Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm. Although they are through the passage by August 1905, they must overwinter at King Point before returning home. From King Point, Amundsen drives a dog team to Eagle City to send telegrams about the expedition. Later that winter, Gustav Juel Wiik dies and is buried there.
In May 1908, Roald purchases a part of the Rødsten property in Svartskog and calls the house Uranienborg. In 1913, Amundsen buys the adjacent land above Uranienborg, including the house that would keep the name Rødsten and become a home for Leon and his family.
In November, Amundsen presents plans for a North Pole expedition to the Norwegian Geographical Society in Kristiania (Oslo).
In September 1909 comes the news in Norwegian newspapers that the North Pole has been reached. First comes a report that American Frederick Cook, Amundsen’s friend from the Belgica, stood at the Pole on April 21, 1908. Days later comes Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole first in April 1909, along with the accusation that Cook is a fraud.
Both expeditions’ claims are still being debated.
Amundsen informs the crew that his North Pole expedition is on hold and travels to Copenhagen to meet Cook. In secret, Amundsen begins planning an expedition to the Antarctic and the South Pole.
In early June 1910, the polar ship Fram is anchored in Bunnefjorden by Uranienborg. Few know at this point that the expedition’s goal is no longer the North Pole, but the South Pole.
On 11 June 1914, Amundsen obtains a pilot’s license in dramatic fashion, emerging unscathed from a plane crash before later completing the exam.
World War I inevitably impacts the planning of Amundsen’s expedition over the Arctic Ocean, but on 7 June 1917, the new polar vessel Maud is launched.
In January 1918, Amundsen travels to the Western Front in France. Later that spring, he holds several lectures in the USA to encourage support there for the Western powers in their war effort.
In summer 1918, the Maud sails from Norway for the Northeast passage.
In 1920, Roald takes the young polar bear cub, Marie, on board. But after only a month, she is killed, and later stuffed and taken to Uranienborg.
Two girls, Camilla and Nita, come on board in 1921 while the Maud is in East Siberia. In May, Amundsen leaves the Maud and travels with the two girls to Nome, Alaska. They spend the rest of the year in Seattle.
Now under the leadership of Oscar Wisting, the crew of the Maud makes another attempt to drift across the Arctic Ocean, without success.
Camilla and Nita travel with Elise Wisting to Norway in January, 1922. Amundsen follows them later.
In June of that year, Amundsen meets Elisabeth “Bess” Magids aboard the S.S. Victoria between Nome and Seattle.
In September 1924, Amundsen files for bankruptcy.
Amundsen sets off for the North Pole with Dornier Wal flying boats N 24 and N 25 from Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, accompanied by Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, Karl Feucht, Leif Dietrichson, Lincoln Ellsworth and Oskar Omdal.
They are forced to land on the ice at 88 degrees north. Only after twenty five days on the ice does they manage to take off with N 25 and return home.
On 12 April, Amundsen speaks on the radio from his home at Svartskog.
Over the same month, a struggle plays out between Roald and Leon about the properties at Svartskog. Its eventual settlement sees the two houses sold to Roald’s friends Hermann Gade and Don Pedro Christophersen.
In May, the airship Norge leaves Ny-Ålesund with 16 men and the fox terrier Titina on board. They fly over the North Pole and land in Teller, Alaska, 72 hours after taking off. Amundsen and Oscar Wisting thus become the first to plant a flag at both geographic poles.
In June, Gade and Don Pedro grant Amundsen right of use of the two properties in Bunnefjorden.
This year sees the appearance of Amundsen’s autobiography, published in English as “My Life as an Explorer”. In a letter, he writes of the biography, “I am now done with my memoirs. Shit – they are ugly.”
In the summer, he makes a lecture tour of Japan.
Just before Christmas 1927, Bess Magids comes to stay with Amundsen at Uranienborg, before returning to Alaska in March 1928 to divorce her husband in order to marry Roald.
On 25 May, Umberto Nobile crashes in the airship Italia on the ice north of Svalbard. Amundsen wants to be part of the rescue operation.
On 16 June, he closes the door to Uranienborg for the last time and takes the night train with Leif Dietrichson to Bergen, where he meets the French naval aircraft Latham 47.02 and its crew.
On 18 June, they take off from Tromsø heading north, never to be seen again. A little debris is all that is found.
A few weeks later, Bess Magids arrives in Oslo on a transatlantic liner. While waiting for Amundsen to return, she lives at Uranienborg for a short time and becomes the house’s last resident.
“Treasure chest” found at Uranienborg
On 22 November 2015, Henrik Smith – then department director at the Follo museum – discovered a chest in one of the outbuildings at Roald Amundsen’s home. On one side of the chest was written, “Leon Amundsen, Kristiania, Norway. From Roald Amundsen, Nome, Alaska.”
The find led to the launch in 2020 of a major digitization project. Read more about the discovery of the chest in Aftenposten, 26.11.2015 📜.
Fourteen hundred photographs, including negatives on both nitrate and glass, paper positives of various sizes, and slides varying in size and quality were contained in the chest. Also inside were notebooks, lectures, rationing diaries, letters, photographic postcards, and much, much more.
Almost at the top of the pile was an envelope on which was written in English, “North West Passage, Photographs not used” – inside were over 350 photographs apparently returned to Amundsen by the publishers of the English edition of his book on the Gjøa expedition.
As well as new images from the Gjøa expedition, several photos from the Fram expedition were found, including a repronegative of the famous photo taken by Olav Bjaaland at the South Pole. This copy from the original may be a step closer to the original than we knew existed.
The photographic material originates mainly from the years 1903 to 1920. Most of the public images are inscribed with date and place, whereas many of the private images lack such information.
A war lecture from 1918 and scientific works by Harald Ulrik Sverdrup from the Maud expedition were also in the chest, as were some more personal items, such as a book containing an alphabetical summary of songs Roald Amundsen liked.
The entire contents of the chest will be digitized and made accessible here📜
1926 Norge expedition
The story of the Norge expedition will appear here soon.
In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.
1925 To 88 degrees north
The story of the expedition to 88 degress north will soon come here.
In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.
To 88 degrees north
1918-1925 Maud expedition
The story of the Maud expedition will appear here soon.
In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.
1903-06 Gjøa expedition
The story of the Gjøa expedition will appear here soon.
In the meantime, you can explore our resources related to this expedition.
The Belgica expedition 1897–99
At the end of the 19th century, much is still unknown about Antarctica. No one has yet wintered there, either in the sea ice or on land. The Belgian naval officer, Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery, plans to change that. The closest he has been to a polar expedition is his rejected application to participate in a Swedish one. Now he wants to lead his own.
Preparations in Antwerp
It is summer 1896 and Roald Amundsen is 24 years old. He has recently hunted seals in the Nordic Seas, earned a mate’s ticket, and completed dramatic winter trips in the Norwegian mountains. Several times he has tried to join expeditions further north and south.In August 1896, he can finally share good news with his brother, Leon:
“From the 1st of June 1897 I have been hired by the Belgian Antarctic Expedition as a sailor and skier. The trip will last for 2 years and will be very interesting as it is the first of its kind.”📜
In Norway, de Gerlache recruits several crew members and buys a suitable expedition ship, the whaler Patria originally built in 1884. He renames it Belgica and has it equipped in Sandefjord. For Amundsen, there is also much to prepare. Before the expedition leaves, he is promoted to first mate, and in early 1897 he goes to Antwerp to take navigation courses and to learn French and Flemish to make himself understood on board. In Antwerp, he rents a room from a small host family. The man of the house is often away travelling, and Amundsen and the hostess get to know each other well.
No one knows for sure how the friendship develops, but on the night of March 24, 1897, something dramatic happens.
“A story has passed here so sadly in the night that I will never forget it. The lady of the house has taken herself away by carbon monoxide poisoning,” writes Roald in a letter home to Leon (Amundsen had found her early in the morning). “2 zinc buckets with coal were on the floor and one was still burning,” he continues 📜 .
Amundsen goes home to Norway at the first opportunity, but he will encounter death again before the Belgica expedition is over.
In Sandefjord, Belgica receives a venerable visitor, the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Having returned in the summer of 1896 from a spectacular voyage across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen has come to wish the expedition good luck. A photograph is taken as several of the crew stand together on deck and Nansen and Roald Amundsen meet for the first time.
The expedition’s departure is postponed several times, and long before they reach the ice personnel problems arise. Even before they leave the Antwerp quay in August 1897, two of the crew leave the expedition. The chef is then replaced, and in Punta Arenas in Chile three others are struck from the crew list. When they finally set course for the Southern Ocean, there are nineteen men on board who speak a total of five different languages. Also on board is the ship’s cat “Nansen”.
On October 6, Belgica reaches the equator, and those of the crew who have not “crossed the line” before must be baptized by King Neptune to be considered fully-fledged seafarers. Amundsen is one of the unbaptized. One by one, they are led to a chair on deck, as Amundsen describes, “to first be shaved by Neptune’s court barber.”📜 The razor blades are made of wood for the occasion, the shaving brushes are paint brushes and the soap a mixture of fat, flour, soot and water. If the unbaptized person unthinkingly tries to answer the captain when asked for his name, he gets a loaded ‘shaving brush’ in his open mouth. He is then ‘soaped’ up before finally getting three buckets of water washed over him. Only then is he worthy enough to attend the banquet in the evening.
As they set course for the notoriously stormy Drake Passage, they are overloaded and understaffed. They are also out late, with the Antarctic summer already in full swing.
There is drama to come.
The sailor who disappeared
On January 22, a strong gale blows up. The waves come foaming over the deck and the snow whips against the crew’s faces. Around them drift icebergs, visibility is poor, and clouds are low. On board they change shifts; it is 12 noon when Amundsen takes command on deck. Together with the Norwegians, Johansen and Wiencke, and the Belgian Dufour, he is responsible for holding a course through the storm.
The wind increases, the waves get higher, and gradually more and more water accumulates on deck. Several of the scuppers (where the water should drain from the deck) are clogged and Amundsen puts Johansen and Wiencke to work cleaning them. He himself is at the helm and does what he can to keep the ship on an even keel. Suddenly he hears Johansen’s voice, in a way he has never heard before: “Wiencke overboard! Wiencke overboard!”
A wave has broken over the deck, and the unsecured sailor has no chance. People come running to help. In the waves they can see Wiencke fighting for his life as he grabs the log line that hangs behind the ship. Johan Koren describes what happens in his diary: “But his hands are all powerless after the strenuous swimming in the icy water, heavily dressed as he was in oilskins and sea boots. His grip is constantly slipping while we are hauling in on the line.” 📜
Wiencke pulls himself to the side of the ship. Johansen lies down and grabs his arm and Amundsen grabs Johansen’s collar. In the heavy sea they make an attempt to pull him on board, but suddenly the ship rolls and Johansen misses. Wiencke disappears into the waves again.
“We all stand still for a long time and look for him. His yellow oilskin shines so mercilessly up from the depths for so long,” Koren writes in his diary. 📜
Ludvig-Hjalmar Johansen, the sailor who held Wiencke as he disappeared, later wrote a five-page report on the incident. 📜
The ice closes up, the mood drops
When the storm subsides and the fog thins, land appears. Unknown land.
Through waters no one has seen before, they drift further south, past islands, mountains and ice. They meet penguins, whales, seals and birds. They hunt, research and discover. Maps are drawn and names immortalized. One of the largest islands is named after the man who disappeared in the waves – Wienckeøya.
In several places they go ashore, but all the while moving further into the ice. Through February, the ice becomes denser and denser. Sometimes they are stuck for several days before getting free, but still they continue.
February 23, Amundsen writes in his diary: “Unfortunately, the scientists are showing great signs of fear. They are reluctant to go further into the ice. Why then have we come here? Is it not to explore the unknown realms? This cannot be done by lying still outside the ice and dozing off.”📜
March 6, 1898, it stops. “We are stuck. The freshly frozen ice is already walkable everywhere, and I doubt that Belgica would handle it even under favourable circumstances. We must no doubt spend the winter here, and that is fine with me,” writes Amundsen in his diary. 📜
But there is also a great deal of uncertainty on board. The official plan has always been that only a select few men would be put ashore and overwinter, while the ship would return to South America. Now there is no going back. Now everyone must spend the winter in the ice, even though they lack equipment, knowledge and provisions.
For many, it will be a battle for survival.
On March 11, Amundsen writes in his diary, “One starts to get familiar with the idea of wintering. The cold has begun sharply. The ice is firm around us and without ridges. This is starting to get interesting.” 📜
Only later does Amundsen hear expedition leader de Gerlache’s actual plan.
“As a Belgian, I could not – with a steamship such as we have – help but penetrate south in these areas […] I am very sorry, that I am thus the cause of our getting stuck in the ice,” he tells Amundsen in confidence. 📜
The time in the ice gives Amundsen the opportunity to make his own plans. On April 1, he notes a spectacular idea in his diary: “Here is my plan. As soon as the sun comes back, two of us push south with a light two-man kayak on a sledge with provisions for 6 months. After a 6-week march south, we turn around and search for the vessel. A certain time and place must be agreed. This is not impossible, but unlikely. Most reasonably, one would not find the vessel again. Well. We then move SW as far as the year allows. Towards winter, we arrange ourselves in the most appropriate way on an iceberg suitable for this purpose. We have nothing to fear here in the winter. Once the site is found, we provide ourselves with supplies for the winter – penguins and seals. Next spring go southwest again until land is hit. If there is no protruding land before Syd-Victoria, when this has been reached we will continue north in the kayak. We seek to reach Australia from the northernmost islands. This would of course take several years, but there is no doubt that it should be possible.” 📜
In addition, Amundsen uses the time to learn. He enjoys being in the ice, in the cold and the wind. He absorbs everything he can benefit from, noting, thinking and drawing. Scientist Emil Racoviță does the same, filling an entire book with caricatures of the crew, which he later gives to Amundsen. 📜
For many of the others it is the opposite – for them the situation is intimidating and life threatening. For the Belgian scientist Émile Danco, it does end in death. During the Antarctic winter, he becomes ill and bedridden. “There is something with the heart,” notes Amundsen in his diary. Frederick Cook, the ship’s doctor, can do little for him, and on June 6, Danco fails to wake. They cover him with the Belgian flag and two days later the icy sea becomes his grave. Danco’s death affects the mood on board. Amidst low morale, doubt, and symptoms of the vitamin deficiency disease scurvy, fear spreads. No one knows whose death will be next.
Amundsen, for his part, is confident in his choice. On June 20, 1898, he notes in his diary, “It is this life that I have craved for so long now. It was not a childish whim that made me come along. It was a mature thought. I do not regret, and hope to have the strength and health to continue my work that has just begun.” 📜
In July, when winter is at its coldest and darkest, many people suffer from scurvy. Some start to write their wills, others lose control of mind and mood. The fact that different languages are spoken does not make the situation better. The French word “quelque” (“some, a few”) is misheard as the Norwegian word for choke, which creates several misunderstandings. The atmosphere is so fraught, it is alleged that death threats are made .
In the autumn, Dr Cook is already writing that “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls.” Even the ship’s cat Nansen is struggling. During the winter, he lies either in one of the crew’s beds or by the stove. Eventually, he becomes both shy and angry and shuns both cosiness and food. The crew tries everything, even catching a live penguin for him as a playmate, but to no avail. Neither Nansen nor the penguin will play. They just stand in their own corners of the room. Nansen simply does not thrive in Antarctica, and in June, in the middle of the dark season, he dies. The loss of the expedition’s mascot makes some of the crew even more anxious for the future.
To get people out of bed, Cook suggests changing their diet. Away with canned food without proper nutrition and forward with fresh meat. Seal and penguin meat are served several times a day, but some refuse to eat from the new menu. At first, there are several who think that they would rather die than eat what is suggested. They cling to the canned food they brought with them. But Cook is just as stubborn, and as the fresh meat is digested most people notice an improvement. For Amundsen, it is all a new experience. He thinks penguin meat is “excellent as beef, and not unlike ox meat”.
One of the penguins they catch is later stuffed and given a home in Amundsen’s study at Uranienborg.
In the diary on April 1, 1898, Amundsen writes, “Penguin beef is absolutely excellent. However, care must be taken to separate all the fat from the meat. Extensive preparation in vinegar is unnecessary. Take the meat as it is and put it in the pan with a little butter, and you have the most delicious steak you could wish for.”📜
Amundsen’s friendship and interaction with Frederick Cook becomes invaluable for him through this period. The American has previously been on several expeditions to Greenland and willingly shares his knowledge.
In his diary for July 22, 1898, Amundsen notes:
“So I asked the doctor today, what he considered the most important foodstuffs for a polar expedition. First milk, he replied, then eggs if they can be kept fresh. So salt meat (pork), ham, etc. Not prepared and chopped food, one gets bored of it so quickly. I value this man’s opinion, based on the knowledge I now have of him.” 📜
Cook will become best known for his claim to be the first man to the North Pole, which is debated even today. For Amundsen he will be a close and lifelong friend.
The first sledge expedition
Gradually, the condition of more people on board improves, until they are ready for sledge travel.
On July 30, 1898, Amundsen can embark on what he describes as “The first sledge expedition on the Antarctic sea ice.” With him are Lecointe and Cook. The goal is to find penguins and, not least, experience something other than life on board. With skis that are over three metres long and with snowshoes, they must pull the sledge of roughly 100 kilos around on the ice.
“At the moment of departure, I was solemnly appointed to the highest rank of the ‘Penguin Order’ and handed this. The other participants were appointed knights general of the same order,” Amundsen writes in the diary that day. 📜
Although the trip lasts only six days, it makes a great impression on Amundsen. In August, during a night shift in full moonlight, he writes in his diary:
“A more glorious spectacle can hardly exist than these moonlit nights on the ice. It is crystal clear. Even the icebergs on the horizon can be seen from their outlines. The summer night & the winter night at home are beautiful, but they do not seem as captivating as this silent cold of the moonlit polar night. It is a marvellous feeling that grabs one. Did God create this whole great area for it to be abandoned & forgotten by humans? No, & again no, certainly not. It is our duty to do what we can to one day recount all the glory & wisdom God has given us.” 📜
But on board it remains turbulent. In November, Amundsen experiences a new side to the expedition’s organization when he learns in a meeting with de Gerlache that it has been agreed in advance that, no matter what happens, the expedition will be under Belgian command. In other words, nationality is above rank. For Amundsen, this means that in practice he has lost his status as first officer, something he cannot accept, nor will be a part of. To de Gerlache he replies that he considers himself “relieved of his position on the expedition.” 📜
“There is no longer any Belgian Antarctic Expedition for me.”
Although he no longer sees himself as part of the expedition, Amundsen has little alternative: “I see in Belgica only an ordinary vessel, trapped in the ice. I have a duty to help the handful of men who are assembled here on board.” 📜
The ice releases its grip
The sun returns on July 21, 1898, and as winter’s hold weakens and positive temperatures return, the crew begin to move more outside the ship. A long-awaited activity can be taken up – penguin hunting.
The catch premium is 50 francs for each dead penguin, and double if you catch a live one. Amundsen specializes in his own unique technique. With a hoarse, light voice, he tries to imitate the penguins’ call so that he can sneak up on them. In January 1899, Amundsen and Cook attempt a new experiment, tying a rope around the legs of one of the captured king penguins and placing it in front of a sledge. The hope is that it will act as a draft animal. It manages a few meters, but no further. Draft penguins will never be a success.
What occupies the crew’s everyday life during the first days of summer is getting out of the ice. A second overwintering would be catastrophic. Again, it is Cook who takes the initiative. He proposes to make a channel in the ice, through which Belgica can push itself forward and out into the open sea. The crew brings out picks, shovels and explosives, and after several weeks of work, the ice opens up. The engine is started, the sails are hoisted, and the ship pushes forward.
Eventually, they are rewarded for their struggle. On March 14, they reach the open sea and set course for Punta Arenas. They arrive on March 28, 1899 and Amundsen’s expedition ends. He keeps his word about withdrawing and takes a passenger boat home to Norway. With him he carries experiences, knowledge and ideas that will lay the foundation for a further life in the ice.
National Library of Norway: Letters and diaries of Roald Amundsen
The National Archives of Norway: The diary of Johan Koren
Model aircraft, white bone
Model aircraft with pilot found in a drawer of Amundsen’s desk in his study at Uranienborg.