The Story Behind CITADEL OF ICE

Robie Macauley’s last novel, CITADEL OF ICE, is based on the true story of Leo Handl, an Austrian engineer who constructed an actual glacier fortress under the Marmolada Glacier, about 100 miles east of the Ortler.

In April of 1916 the Italians attacked during a snowstorm and captured the crest of the Adamello glacier. Lieutenant Leo Handl, commander of the 9th company of the 2nd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger Regiment, had been attempting to reach an outpost with a group of men and came under enemy machine-gun fire. Spotting a crevasse in the snow, the quick-witted officer anchored a rope and led his men down into the silent underworld of the glacier. By luck, they landed on a sturdy ice bridge and made their way beneath the surface beyond the Italian position to a spot where they could tunnel up through the firn and reach their destination. Handl was elated, and having been trained as an engineer he immediately began developing plans for exploiting the glacier. He discovered what glaciologists already knew—that the great berg was not solid but, in the lower depths, where immense pressures cause melting and motion, there were channels and caves in the ice.

The construction of the Marmolada Ice Fortress took two years and resulted in an installation over five miles long, housing over 1,500 men. In 1918, following the battle for the Marmolada, Handl was transferred to the Ortler where he began to design a new “city of ice”. However, Germany’s surrender in November cancelled the project.

At the end of the war he continued to study glaciers and their structure. During World War II he was sent to Norway, but due to his anti-Nazi convictions he was dismissed. Following the war he spent almost a year living inside a Norwegian glacier, studying its movements.

He died at Innsbruck on May 13, 1966.Leo Handl


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