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R38 / ZRII The first of the Admiralty A' Class


Status Incomplete: Cancelled during construction
Length 699ft
Diameter 85.5ft
Height 93ft
Speed 72mph

6 x 350hp

Volume 2,740,500cft
Total Lift 82.5 tons
Disposable Lift 45.5 tons
Pressure height / Altitude 22,000 ft
Endurance 65 hours full speed

The 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:

R 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.

In 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

Later 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.

Further pictures of the R38 under construction - photo's copywrite John Ryan reporduced with his kind permission from his personal collection
Weckage 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 United States.

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.

On 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.

Final Flight - 23rd August 1921

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.

Eyewitness 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.

The 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.

Three 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Related ships: R36, R37

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