original plans for the R38 were laid down as part of an order
by the Government for a series of ships at the latter part of
the First World War. In November 1916, the Cabinet authorised
plans for two ships, based on the crashed L33. These were to become
the R33 and R34. In January of 1917, more spending was agreed
and three more ships were ordered, designated the R35, R36 and
R37. In June of that year, the L48 was brought down in Suffolk
and analysed in detail. It was agreed that plans for the three
ships be altered to follow the latest German designs. The discovery
that L48 was a new "height climber" meant that the three
new ships would be altered as follows:
35 to have an extra cell installed and required to have a height
ceiling of 16,500 ft
R 36 to have an extra cell, to be lightened and to have a height
ceiling of 17,000 ft
R 37 to have the same modifications as the R36.
June of 1918 the Admiralty made requirements for a ship to be
built which would "be required to patrol the North Sea for
six days without support, as far as 300 miles from a home base."
It was to have a combat ceiling of 22,000ft, and was required
to carry enough fuel for 65 hours at full speed of 70.6 mph. It
was agreed that a further ship be ordered and the new ship, classed
as "Admiralty A Class", was designated the R38. The
ship was also to be armed for the defence of ships on escort duty
and for attacking other aggressors:
4x 520 lb of bombs
8x 230lb of bombs
1x 1pdr gun on gun platform on the top of the ship
12 pairs of machine guns spread along the top of the ship, the
lower gun pit, and throught the gondolas.
The order was given to Shorts Brothers at Cardington, and in February
1919 work started on the ship which would become the largest airship
in the world. With work commencing on the ship, the order was
given for sister ships of R39, R40 and R41 to be constructed,
and design/structural work was begun. With the end of the war
in November 1918 and a sudden down-turn in the economy, Treasury
expenditure was revised. Under Treasury restrictions it was decided
that: R29 and R2 would be broken up, R34 would be retained for
air service, and R33 would probably be turned over to a commercial
company which would also take the R80. The ships R35, R39, R40
and R41 were cancelled. These changes on policy hampered the construction
and life of the R38 and the airship works at Cardington.
R 38 Control Car under construction
R 38 at Howden shed
R 38 Engines under construction
in 1919, it was proposed that the R38 order should also be cancelled,
as Cardington had been "Nationalised" under the Defence
of the Realm Act. Shorts Brothers were paid £40,000 in compensation
for the cancellation and the loss of the Cardington premises,
which became known as the Royal Airship Works. The future looked
bleak for the British airships as it seemed likely The future
looked bleak for the British airships as it seemed likely that
the ships would be given away to a commercial company so that
the Air Ministry would no longer have to be responsible for them.
pictures of the R38 under construction - photo's copywrite
John Ryan reporduced with his kind permission from his personal
of the R38 being salvaged from the Humber.
However, following the Armistice and the division of the remaining
German Zeppelins amongst the European allies in the Treaty of
Versailles, the Americans still wanted a large rigid airship and
so to gain experience in this field, the R38 contract was offered
to them in October 1919. For the sum of $2,500,000 the British
agreed to provide the Americans with a brand new and unique airship
and also offer training for her officers and crews. The contract
was agreed, and it was also agreed that each country would equally
bear any possible loss. In this price was included the use of
the R32 and R80 for training the crews. America also had to prepare
for the delivery of the worlds largest airship, and advised that
they could not expect to receive the ship for at least one year
in order that they could make arrangements for housing it in the
The whole process of building was restarted. Designed as a match
to the "Zeppelin Height-Climbers", the R38 was to be
a high altitude, high speed airship. When the contract was originally
agreed with the United States, a delivery date of "late 1920"
was agreed upon, but progress was slow. The staff at Cardington
were concerned when work on R37, which was being built in the
bay beside R38 was halted. The workmen on R37 were then laid off
when it was decided not to progress with the ship. Of course this
worried the construction staff working on R38 as there were no
further work orders coming through the airship factory. The ship
was finally completed on 7th June 1921. The pressure to get the
ship "flying" was noted as there was not time to change
the registration of the ship from R38 to the designated the ZRII
for the Americans. It was agreed that the ship would fly with
US insignia markings on the outer cover but also with her "British"
Registration R38 on her first flight and have the conversion completed
to the ZRII when she reached her Howden base.
23rd June 1921 she was launched from Cardington and delivered
to Howden in Yorkshire. Minor girder damage had been caused in
flight by various stresses and the suggestion was made that strength
had been sacrificed to achieve lightness. Later test flights were
not conclusive about the strength of the ship.
23rd August 1921, the R38/ZRII was now ready for her fourth trial
flight. Now resplendent in her American livery, the ship was to
fly from Howden to Pulham in Norfolk and carry out height and
speed tests over the North Sea. Following completion of the trials
she was to fly over the coast to land at Pulham. The original
plans were to have at least 150 hours of intensive flight trials
for all crews on the new ship, but it was decided that once airworthiness
was agreed then the ship would be handed over to the Americans
with their agreement. This meant that the planned 150 hours were
not required and the ship was to fly to Pulham, moor on the mast
and be loaded up ready for her transatlantic delivery to Lakehurst,
New Jersey. When the ship flew in low over Norfolk, the airship
station was obscured by fog and so it was agreed that the ship
would fly out over the North Sea and spend the night over water.
When she returned in the morning to the airship station, the airfield
was still obscured by thick fog. It was agreed that the ship should
return to Howden and carry out more trials en route that day.
At approximately 17.00 on the 24th August disaster struck on a
test flight during a tight turn over the Humber near Hull.
reports confirmed that the ship seemed to crumple along mid section
and then the front section broke. It detonated in two explosions
killing 44 crew. The tail section tilted and fell towards the
Humber estuary. Five members of the crew in the tail section were
saved from the tail wreckage which had not caught fire.
official report attributes structural weakness as the cause of
the crash, but the board of enquiry did not offer any technical
opinions on the disaster. The ship had been built far stronger
than the comparable L-71, but the L-71 was not capable of being
maneuvered as sharply, and was thus protected from the higher
stresses exerted on the R38/ZRII.
In March 1922 the Air Ministry, following Commander Scott's investigations,
suggested that the R36 be given to the United States as part compensation
for the loss. The United States would have to bear the $30,000
expense of repairs and inflation of the ship and upkeep of Pulham
after 31st March, and the risks of the transoceanic flight. The
Air Ministry would not approve the R36 being flown across the
Atlantic by an American Crew and so Scott was to be the Commander.
The US department of Aeronautics declined the offer. The final
interest the US had in the R38 was the settlement of the accounts.
quarters of the $2,000,000 of the contract price had been paid
with the final $500,000 being due on acceptance of the ship. It
was agreed by both Governments that the ship was lost before delivery
and hence both were equally liable for the loss. The total monetary
loss of the R38/ZRII was calculated at $1,964,334.
is some evidence of the United States' plans for the ZRII had
she not been destroyed. It was hoped that by 1923 both the ZRII
and the completed ZRI would be in operation. The ZRII was to be
based at Lakehurst and the ZRI on the west coast of America. Although
primarily to be used in its original role of scout and escort
ships, there would be some cruises over continental United States
in order that the cost of airship operation for commercial concerns
could be evaluated, and of course to stimulate public interest.
Potable mooring masts would be built and it was hoped that "municipalities"
would erect masts at their own expense.
people of Hull still recall the loss of the R38 and even now there
are many eye witnesses coming forward with their own accounts
of the loss.