Umberto Nobile was an Italian aeronautical engineer and a designer of dirigibles (airships). In 1926 he made a flight across the Arctic Ocean, from Rome to Alaska, in the dirigible Norge along with Roald Amundsen. In 1928 Nobile made a further flight to the North Pole in the dirigible Italia; there were 16 men on board, including two foreign scientists the Swede Malmgren and the Czech Behounek. The flight was used for propaganda purposes by the government of Mussolini; the arrival at the North Pole was timed to occur on 24 May, the anniversary of Italy's entry into World War I. Toasts were drunk at the North Pole and the Italian anthem played on a gramophone. At the request of Pope Pius XI, who had earlier been a climber and was interested in the expedition, Nobile dropped a cross and an Italian flag at the North Pole. On the return voyage the dirigible encountered severe icing conditions, and, due to the additional weight crashed on the sea-ice some 30 km north of Nordaustlandet. The gondola partially disintegrated and 10 men, including Nobile were thrown out onto the ice. Several men were injured, including Nobile, who suffered a broken arm and leg. One man later died. With the reduction in weight the dirigible lifted off again and drifted away before the wind; the six men remaining on board (Alessandrini and five others) were never seen again.

Nobile and his group established a camp on the ice, erecting a tent which was coloured red to make it more conspicuous from the air.

An international search-and-rescue operation was mounted; it involved 23 ships and 20 aircraft from Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the USSR and the USA. A French Latham aircraft, with Roald Amundsen on board, disappeared over the Barents Sea. Swedish pilot Lundborg landed on skis at the "Red Tent". He could take only one passenger, and Nobile took the opportunity to be rescued first. He was later criticized severely for thus abandoning the remainder of his party.

The Soviet government dispatched three ships as part of the search-and-rescue effort, one of them being Krasin. She reached the "Red Tent" and rescued the survivors and Lundborg on 12 July 1928. She also rescued two men, Zappi and Mariano, who, along with Finn Malmgren had left the camp in an attempt to walk to Svalbard. When the two Italians were rescued Zappi was wearing some of Malmgren's clothing and there were serious fears that cannibalism had occurred. Krasin returned to a tumultuous welcome in Leningrad, and the ship was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor