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The Loss of the R101 page 3

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Only eight escaped that terrible death, and two of them died later from the injuries they received. Forty-eight dead; and a shocked world could only whisper of the tragedy which had burst upon it so suddenly. So complete and merciless was the calamity that at first it was feared that all the victims must be buried unknown, but eventually twenty-six of the forty-eight were identified, and their relatives and friends consented to a common burial.

The coffins arrived in England, borne by destroyer and special trains, and crowds of sorrowing people met them in the early hours of an Autumn morning. Uncounted thousands lined the roads as the tragic cortege passed, and many times those thousands filed past the group of coffins where they rested, draped with Union Jacks, in the Westminster Hall. They lay in state, and the world was silent while they rested.

But as for the cause of the sudden and ghastly tragedy, no one will ever know the truth. A full court of inquiry, at which Sir John Simon presided, lasted many weeks, and every possible witness was examined. There was the evidence of the four surviving engineers, Cook, Savoury, Bell, and Binks, and that of Disley the electrician, and Leech the foreman engineer; but all they could tell was of the ship's sudden dives and disaster. There was nothing else to tell because everything happened so suddenly. The Chief Coxwain, Hunt, who had said so clearly and calmly, "We are down, lads," did not survive the flames. The officers on duty in the control-car, whence came the message which he bore, had perished to a man. There was nothing to go on. Barring the fixing of times - times between telegraph bells, dives, and crash, there was nothing that the witnesses could say. The whole story - or what was believed to be the story - had to be reconstructed from that grim metal skeleton. It was a long task, and its results were far from satisfactory.

Mr. E. F. Spanner wrote, dissatisfied with the verdict of the court, "Undoubtedly the findings of the Court of Inquiry are contrary to the evidence. The R101 broke her back in the air owing to serious structural weakness."

Mr. Spanner, Naval Architect Assessor to the Board of Trade, author of several books on airships and airship design, and in every way a person whose opinion must be reckoned with, has since written two volumes seeking to prove the error of the Court's findings. Long before the R101 set out upon her first and last big journey he stated that a major disaster would overtake either her or her sister ship R100.

Of the Court's findings, however, first and foremost is the decision that, "The accident was not due to structural weakness." And the second point to be agreed upon was that there was "No failure of control gear." Directly contradicting this, however, Mr. Spanner affirms that, not only did the airship break her back in the air, but the structural breakage jammed the elevator control cables. In spite of all the evidence, he points out that even had R101 broken her back 3,000 feet in the air she would not have broken in two. Her construction would have enabled her to double right up, end to end, without such a final rupture taking place.

And, ironically enough, all the evidence, including that of Dr. Eckener, greatest authority of airship flight and construction, can be read to prove either one verdict or the other. There was much talk of gasbag movement and gas leakage, and of heaviness due to rain on the envelope. Dr. Eckener, having this in mind, suggested that the ship made a dip downwards, due to a slight gust. The ship being heavy, and nose-heavy due to gas leakage, rapidly took on a steep diving attitude. The coxwain, after only a few seconds at the control, would have found it very difficult to detect this slight dip at first. In spite of all his efforts with corrective elevator the ship continued to sink.

That full elevator had been applied is beyond any doubt whatsoever. The cable was found fully wound on the drum. The elevators were hard up. In spite of his harrowing experience, Mr. Cook, engineer, confirmed it at the Inquiry. In reply to Sir John Simon, he described his impressions a few seconds after the crash:

"On leaving my engine-car I walked through the wood a few yards and then looked back towards the tail of the ship. The only part of the ship on which I saw any fabric left was the port elevator which was in an upward position...."

Sir John Simon.... "Were you able to see it clearly, or was there smoke which obscured it?"

"It was absolutely clear. There was not any smoke at that time on that side of the ship. The flames lit up the whole of the frame of the ship, and the light was shining on the fabric of the elevator."

Again, however, with his knowledge of airship design, Mr. Spanner points out that the application of elevator, although vitally necessary, could actually have caused the initial breakage which, he maintains, caused the crash. And so the matter rests, and the full truth can never be known. Weather, loss of gas, structural weakness, failure of control gear - any or all of these things may have been the predominant cause. All had undoubtedly some bearing upon the disaster. Had any one of those unfortunate men in the control-car escaped the all-consuming flames, the world might have known - and learned some bitter lesson; but none was spared.

At Cardington, whence the great ship had gone so short a while before, the town was silent as a place deserted. Round a large grave the crowds stood, bareheaded and in prayer. One by one the wreaths were piled, a glorious floral tribute, over the last remains of R101's brave complement and crew. As the sun went down that night a bugle sounded the Last Post, and it was finished. Only six men remained of the fifty-four who had set out, and but for a last minute decision to leave the third watch behind, the death roll might well have been three score.

Speaking at the Imperial Conference, the Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, paid touching tribute to the man who was absent - a man who had been his personal friend, Lord Thomson. But for the disaster he would have been amongst them in that room at 10, Downing Street. It was, as the Premier said, thanking the men from the Dominions for their message of sympathy, a disaster which had involved the death of his most esteemed and distinguished colleagues.

Many in that room were Prime Ministers, and they knew what a solitary post the Premiership was. There were certain times when even the dearest of one's friends could not lift the burden from one's shoulders. Lord Thomson had been the dearest of his colleagues. He had passed in and out of 10, Downing Street as a member of the family. He had been not only a bulwark in political matters, always ready with advice when approached, but his door had always been open, his table had always been spread, his fireside had always been ready with a welcome for him.

There were times, he said, when they did not talk of political things at all, but of the delightful things in the world, of its beauty, of its energy, and of the affections of life. Lord Thomson enabled him to get over many a harsh circumstance and to bear many burdens. Now that he was gone those present would understand his feelings, not only as Prime Minister, but as a human being.

And to-day Lord Thomson sleeps, together with the other forty-seven men, within sight of the spot where their great adventure started. And, alas, in that grave sleeping with them, lie all their hopes and much of what they lived for. Brave men, were any one of them empowered to speak, the world knows what his message would be. Men have died, and died willingly before now, happy in the knowledge that their work would be carried to conclusion. But such was not to be in their case. Many had looked to R101, and her sister ship, R100, as symbols of the future of the airship. And when R101 fell, the future of airship travel in Great Britain went with her. This was not only a matter of policy in her plunge to disaster R101 carried with her the skill, the science, and the secrets of years of toil and labour. Her officers, her passengers, and her crew, they were the men to whom the great ship owed her origin.

R100 was broken up and sold as scrap. Great Britain's bid for airship supremacy was broken with her. One day, perchance, another and mightier ship will take shape and sail forth from Cardington to a happier fate; but that will not be for many years. And now, all that remains to speak of great endeavour, and of hopes that ran so high, is one simple monument: "In Memoriam."

More than five years' planning went towards that one great flight to India. The world's most magnificent airship took shape, from drawing board, machine shop, and shed, through more than that number of years of hard work. As R101 she lived exactly one year and one week; and then, in eight short hours, she was reduced by one unlucky spark from a masterpiece of perfection to a heap of virtually worthless scrap metal.

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