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The Extraordinary Story of … the R.38 airship

100 years ago today, thousands of people witnessed the R.38 airship explode in the air, fall from the sky and plummet in the Humber estuary

The scene of the airship disaster. The mass of tangled wreckage of the R38 (also known as ZRII) to be seen at low tide in the Humber Estuary. 27 Britons and 16 Americans were killed when the airship exploded during a trial flight over Hull on 24th August 1921. Credit: PA Images

During the later stages of the First World War, a number of airships were commissioned by the government. The Short Brothers took on the order for the R.38 in February 1919, and work promptly began on what promised to be the largest airship in the world.

But, the end of the First World War was met with a slump in the economy, and the Treasury had to re-evaluate where money was being spent. Soon, the airships were hit with problems in construction, including the R.38. Some airship projects were cancelled while existing ones were broken up and sold off. And so, the R.38 commission became short-lived and the Short Brothers were compensated for their loss.

As laid out in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war, German ships were divided up among the allies. The Americans declared they wanted a large rigid airship, and so the R.38 contract was then offered to them in October 1919. For 2.5 million, the British were tasked with building the ship, training the crew and its officers.

A delivery date of late 1920 was agreed upon, but progress was slow. After a long-anticipated wait, she was completed on 7 June 1921.

Due to this delay, there was little chance of having time to change her registration from R.38 to the American ZR2. On her first flight, she carried US insignia markings on her outer cover as well as her British registration, with a plan hatched to rectify this once she had successfully reached Howden.

After her fourth trial flight, it was decided that she was ready to fly to Pulham, Norfolk. However, upon arrival in Pulham, she was unable to land as the airfield was covered with a thick fog. When it was still had not cleared by the following morning, a decision was made that they should return to Howden and complete further tests en route.

But then, on 24 August, disaster struck. Mid-air, when flying over the Humber, the ship seemed to break into two and crumble in the middle. Then, two explosions in the front section killed 44 crew members, while five who had taken refuge in the tail section survived.

Reports suggested that structural weaknesses had caused the ship’s demise. The Board of Inquiry offered no further technical opinions of the crash.

As compensation, the Americans were quickly offered the R.36 contract, but by this stage, they had already lost two million dollars as a result of the catastrophe.

Onboard was Richard Withington, who fled the doomed ship via parachute only to drown in the Humber, according to family documents shared with the R.38 project team from Historic England by Ian Simpson.

Edwin Piercy shared that John Piercy was playing football safely on the ground when he saw the airship divide in two. He ran to the city’s Victoria Pier where he saw two survivors make their way to shore.

Cpl Walter Potter, one of the survivors who walked away from the accident, faced years of pleas from his family to leave the forces after his lucky escape, his granddaughter Sonia Potter told the Historic England team. Instead, he went on to crew the R101, and met his fate nine years later when the airship crashed in France in 1930.