Replica of Amundsen’s seaplane goes on show

A hand-crafted replica of the plane which took Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen on the first airborne mission to the North Pole will be unveiled in Germany on Wednesday after two years of painstaking work to create it.

Replica of Amundsen's seaplane goes on show

Nicknamed "the whale" for its belly-shaped fuselage, the Dornier Do J, was a sturdy, all-metal seaplane which helped open up new routes for air travel in the 1920s and 30s.

More than 300 were built before the war, but only one original still exists. The one which made it back from Amundsen’s 1925 North Pole mission was a prized specimen, displayed in the Deutsche Museum in Munich, but was destroyed in a fire during World War II.

The one surviving original is in the Luján transport museum, Argentina. Now the Dornier Museum in Friedrichshafen in southern Germany has the next best thing – a faithful replica of Amundsen’s life-saver.

The Norwegian explorer had long crossed off the South Pole from his “to do” list when he started planning the trip to the North Pole. Just as his choice of dogs rather than ponies had sealed the 1911 race to the South Pole against Robert Scott’s team, the success of Amundsen’s mission to the North Pole was dependent on having the right kit.

Check out the plane, in bits and completed, here.

After a couple of failed attempts, he chose Dornier’s “whale planes” and had two shipped, in parts, to Spitsbergen in Norway, where in spite of the the already sub-zero temperatures, the teams screwed the Wal N24 and Wal N25 together.

The team of six men included American Lincoln Ellsworth who had partly financed the trip, and German Dornier engineer Karl Feucht. Despite both planes being over-loaded by 500 kilos each, they lifted into the air on May 21 and headed north.

Eight hours into the journey the engine of Wal N25 cut out and the crew had to make an emergency landing on the ice. Shortly afterwards, Wal N24 also had to land, with such force that it was irreparably damaged.

The men were stuck on the ice, in two planes a kilometre apart – only one of which looked like it would fly again. They were 250 kilometres from the North Pole, and a lot further away from civilisation.

The situation was desperate, and Amundsen immediately cut his men’s rations – from the planned kilo of food a day, to just 300g. They were eating a mixture of dried meat and fat, as well as chocolate and biscuits.

Because Amundsen had concentrated on filling the planes with scientific instruments rather than equipment to deal with snow or ice, the men were left with two wooden shovels, two dagger-type knives and an axe.

They worked in shifts, sleeping in the plane when not sharing the motley collection of tools to clear enough snow to create a rudimentary runway.

By the time Amundsen decided they had enough space to take off, he estimated they had cleared around 500 tonnes of ice and snow.

On June 14, after more than three weeks in the ice, they abandoned most of their equipment so the surviving plane – Wal N25 – could carry all six men, and took off, heading home.

By this time they had been given up for dead, and despite not having made it to the pole, were welcomed back in Norway as heroes.

The adventures of the Wal N25 did not finish there – Wolfgang von Gronau bought it in 1927 and kitted it out with new BMW engines to cross the Atlantic in 1930 – the first time the route had been undertaken from east to west.

This week, two years of research and building, including a trip to see the last original specimen in Argentina, come to fruition, with the unveiling of the Wal N25 replica.

Sadly it will not fly – modern safety rules would prevent it, the Dornier Museum says. But it looks ready to take to the skies.

Karl Bircsak is technical director of the International Aviation Museum Foundation in Hungary. He led the replica building project, which he said largely relied on historical photographs and plans as well as measurements of the surviving original in Argentina.

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How Norwegian trees have revealed the story of Germany’s biggest WWII battleship

Tree rings and forest composition provide unlikely evidence of a WWII battle which sought refuge off Norway's northern coast.

How Norwegian trees have revealed the story of Germany's biggest WWII battleship

Throughout most of World War II, Allied bombers tried repeatedly to sink the Tirpitz, Germany's biggest battleship and a bete noir of Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill, who took to calling it 'the beast'.

On Wednesday, tree experts at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union showed why they failed to do so until late 1944. “The story was in the tree rings,” said Claudia Hartl, a researcher at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

The unlikely evidence of WWII battles was uncovered during the summer of 2016, when Hartl led students on a routine survey of forests around Kafjord, one of dozens of fjords along the northern coast of Norway.

“We got back to the lab and measured the tree rings, and saw that they were very narrow – in some cases nearly absent – for 1945,” she told AFP.

The forests, in other words, had been hit by an environmental cataclysm.

The first suspect was insect infestation, which can come suddenly and have severe impacts, especially in high-latitude boreal forests.

Driven north of their historic range by climate change, mountain pine beetles, for example, have recently devastated large swathes of forests in Canada, sometimes in a single year.

But there were no known insect in northern Scandinavia that could have delivered that kind of environmental shock in the middle of the 20th century.

“It wasn't until we spoke to a local scientist based in Tromso that we made the connection to the Tirpitz,” said Scott St. George, a geographer at The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment who took part in the research.

The Tirpitz and its crew of 2500, it turned out, had retreated into northern Norway's watery labyrinth to escape detection. In the pre-satellite era, even a 250-metre (820-foot) behemoth wasn't that easy to spot.

But Allied aerial scouts finally found it, and the attacks began.

The Germans, however, had a counter-plan: producing vast quantities of artificial fog, enough to hide the ship and surrounding area from aerial view.

And that's where the tree rings come in.

“The smoke drifted into the forests surrounding the fjord and damaged nearby pine and birch trees, leaving behind a distinctive and unusual 'fingerprint',” St. George told AFP.

The study of tree rings – called dendrochronology, literally, “timeline of trees” – is used by climate scientists to trace changes in temperature, rainfall or river flows reaching back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

The concentric circles found in temperate zone tree trunks can also date the age of buildings, shipwrecks, musical instruments, painting frames or anything else made from temperate-zone wood.

Because trees in the tropics grow continually, they generally do not produce rings, which show growth spurts during spring and summer.

To investigate further, Hartl returned last summer to the scene of the battle, to see how far the damage had spread.

She established five test sites ranging in distance from a few hundred meters from the fjord where the Tirpitz was berthed, to about ten kilometres.

Near where the ship once lay, more than 60 percent of the trees showed virtually no growth in 1945. All of them were affected to some degree.

Gaps in the forest where young trees sprouted up in the 1950s suggest the chemical fog caused arboreal fatalities too.

As far as four kilometres away, more than half the tree were severely affected, taking eight years on average to fully recover.

Pine trees – which keep their needles for up to seven years – were hit hardest. “Being stripped bare would have been a more difficult challenge for that species,” St. George explained.

The artificial fog that denuded the trees was likely made from chlorosulphuric acid which, when mixed with water, produces a thick, white vapour.

German ships has special teams equipped with gas masks to generate the smoky shroud.

Despite its firepower, the Tirpitz never saw much action.

In October 1944, the German naval command moved it to Tromso, where it served as a moble artillery platform until a squadron of 32 British Lancaster bombers sent it to the bottom of the harbour the following month.