The R38 UK Crew
It has been extremely difficult to find photographs of any of the UK crew and officers but it is hoped I will be able to find images of all of the men on board the final flight in the future so they are not forgotten.
When the R38 crashed in the river Humber on August 24th 1921 28 UK officers and crew lost their lives. Here are their names:
Air Commodore Edward Maitland C M C, D S O.
C I R Campbell O.B.E. Supt Royal Airship Works
F Warren Assistant Constructor RAW
J R Pannell National Physics Laboratory
C W Duffield National Physics Laboratory
Flight Lieutenant I C Little A F C
Flight Lieutenant Rupert Samuel Montague D F C
Flight Lieutenant J E M Pritchard O B E, A F C
Flight Lieutenant G M Thomas D F C
Flying Officer Thomas Mathewson AFC
Flying Officer Victor Houghton Wicks
Flight Sergeant William Hunter Greener
Flight Sergeant S J Heath A F M
Flight Sergeant Alfred Thomas Martin
Flight Sergeant John Rye
Flight Sergeant Frank Smith
Flight Sergeant Harold Thompson
Sergeant Frederick Earnest Burton
Sergeant J W Mason
LAC G S Anger
LAC William Oliver
LAC John William Wilson
ACI C W Donald
ACI C John Cecil Drew
ACI Charles William Penson
ACI Eric Edward Steere
AC2 Roy Parker
AC2 R Withington
Flight Sergeant Walter Potter
Henry Bateman National Physics Laboratory
Flight Lieutenant Archibald Wann
LAC Ernest Wynne Davis
Those who lost their lives.
In 1913 Air-Commodore Maitland was placed in charge of No. 1 (Airships) Squadron of the RFC at Farnborough. He is credited with making the first parachute jump from an airship in flight. In 1919 he was part of the R34 return flight to America. More details about him can be found in the Notable People section.
Charles Ivor Rae Campbell had the dual role of constructor of the R38 and Supt of the Royal Airship Works. He had previously worked on the construction of the R34. More details about him can be found in the Notable People section.
The following obituary is taken from Graces Guide. “Mr. F Warren, another victim of the airship disaster, had been an Admiralty official. He entered Devonport Dockyard in 1892, and distinguished himself in the Dockyard Technical School. He joined the Admiralty as a draughtsman on the staff of the Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy in 1903, and was connected with the engine work of airships from the time the Admiralty assumed responsibility for airship design. When the work was transferred to the Air Ministry, Mr. Warren was appointed an assistant airship constructor. He was an authority on all matters connected with high-power internal combustion engines for submarines as well as for airships.”
Thanks must go to Gerald Archambeau who has sent in some details about his step uncle Godfrey Main Thomas.
"Godfrey Main Thomas was born in Jamaica B.W.I on lOth Sep, 1895. He was the youngest of five sons and started his military service at the end of the First World War as a Midshipman on H.M.S. Colossus, in the first Battle Squadron. He was awarded the King's Medal & Dirk. His Squadron was transferred to the Royal Navy's Air Service; until the formation of the R.A.F in 1918. He went on to be a Flight Lieutenant on the British Plaque-Roll of Honour. All five sons were Jamaican Officers and my step-uncles and I am very proud of them."
Godfrey certainly came from a very interesting family as Gerald continues:
“I will also give as much info on my family that was erased and lost for decades. Major research was done by UK Military Genealogist Alan Greveson & Jamaican Genealogist Madeleine E. Mitchell. For you to see the total family Genealogy please go to: “The Digital Library of the Caribbean”, and enter the full name of my grandfather; Inspector Herbert Theodore Thomas. Now you will see at the top of the page my grandfather’s family Genealogy, below that his “last book”, then his first book, and a Pamphlet on his struggle against Voo Doo called “Obeah” in Jamaica. Below that is a write-up on my book, all can be downloaded, except my book. You will see that my grandfather married twice in his life time, first to his Jamaican born Jewish Wife Gertrude Thomas and she gave him 6 children. My grandfather went on to marry my black Jamaican grandmother Leonora Thomas after his first wife died in the UK. Lenora Thomas gave him 4 daughters who all lived long successful lives."
Thank you Mr Archambeau.
With grateful thanks to Rosalind Hodge Parish Archivist at Willingdon and Polegate we now have details of Flt Lt James Edward Maddock Pritchard O.B.E and A.F.C. (shown left).
Born in Leighton Buzzard in 1889 he was commissioned in the Royal Navy Air Service in 1915 and later that same year became an airship pilot serving at East Fortune and Polegate and Howden. By 1917 he was called upon to inspect and research downed German zeppelins in France. He was also part of the triumphant R34 return trip to America in 1919. Like Maitland his death was a severe loss to the UK airship programme.
Again with grateful thanks to Rosalind Hodge we now have details of Edward Steer. Rosalind was able to supply the following information:
"I was very interested to see your site with info on the R38. I am the parish archivist at Willingdon and the Polegate Royal Naval Air Station covering 142 acres was wholly within the parish of Willingdon and was commissioned 6 July 1915. I am therefore doing a display on the RNAS as part of our large annual archives exhibition. I have been researching Eric Edward Steere who is of particular interest as he was a boy mechanic at the base and rescued colleagues in a fatal accident on 20 December 1917 just on the Downs above the village. I was born on land which was part of the base and still live on what was a perimeter track road of the base. Nothing remains of the station but 4 mooring blocks right at the base of the South Downs. My grandma used to tell me all about the airship station and how she and her father climbed up the downs in the snow to see the wreckage of the two airships.
Well, back to Eric Steere. He was born at 37 Gloucester Place Worthing on 22 February1900, baptised at St Andrews church Worthing 29 April 1900. He was the son of James Blann Steere a carpenter and joiner and Emily Alice nee Butcher, one of 7 surviving children. His elder brother Able Seaman Archibald George born 11 August 1894 was killed aged 21 when his vessel HMS 'Lynx' was mined off the Moray Firth 9 August 1915. This made Eric determined to enlist as soon as he could. On 25 January 1916 at the age of supposedly 18 years 13 days he enlisted at Shoreham as a Private G/11973 in the Royal West Kent Regt. He was 5ft 7 ins tall chest 37 1/2 ins, hair fair, eyes grey and complexion fresh. He gave his occupation as a Student at Naval College. However after just 64 days he was discharged on 28 March 1916 under paragraph 392 the reason Soldier under 17 years of age on application. Not put off he enlisted in the Royal Navy Boy Mechanic F31041 on his 17th birthday. His occupation was recorded at TS 'Mercury' a shore based training ship on the Hamble Hampshire.
From then he was stationed on stone frigates as they were termed, RN land bases: On the 19 June 1917 he was on 'President II' for one day moving to 'Daedalus' (Cranwell) 20 June - 30 Sept, Daedalus'; I Oct -31Oct 'Daedalus (Eastchurch); 1 Nov - 17 Nov 'President II' (Yarmouth) moving to 'President II' (Polegate) from 18 Nov - 31 Dec 1917. It was here he was involved in the fatal airship accident. He returned to 'Daedalus' (Polegate)? 1 Jan - 31 Mar 1918 when he was discharged from the RNAS and engaged to the RAF.
If you go to the East Sussex website eastsussexww1.org.uk and look on stories or Google Airship Disaster East Sussex WW1 you will see my story of the airship crash giving some details about Eric's part in this. He was awarded the Albert Medal in gold by the King for his courage and was still only 17 years at the time of the incident.
Following the R38 accident the CWGC list him as named on the memorial at Hull and that his body not recovered from the sea. Strangely the Friends of Worthing and Broadwater cemeteries wrote in their autumn 2010 newsletter that following the accident he was buried in Broadwater Cemetery. However I cannot find him listed in that burial register. I hope this contains information which may be of interest." It certainly is of interest Rosalind - thank you so much.
The article below and photograph of Sgt Frank Smith is show with kind permission of local Halifax historian David Glover.
"THE R38 AIRSHIP DISASTER OF 1921 AND HALIFAX
In Stoney Royd Cemetery stands the gravestone of a little-known Halifax serviceman, killed in a memorable airship disaster, just 100 years ago.
Born in 1893, Frank Smith was the eldest son of James Smith, grocer, and his wife Catherine, nee Murphy; he was raised in the back streets of Haley Hill, and educated at Akroyd Place School. Later the family moved to Alma Street. Having left school, Frank served an apprenticeship with woodworking machinery firm J. Sagar & Co. Ltd. in Water Lane, to qualify as an engineer. At that time he worshipped at St. Thomas’s Church, Claremount, where he helped in the Sunday School.
At Christmas 1914, in the early months of The Great War, Frank joined the Royal Navy as an engineer, being initially stationed at Chatham. Later he would see service on various vessels, including destroyers, rising to become Chief Petty Officer. In due course this talented man transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (later Air Force), experiencing flying in France, and reaching the rank of Flight Sergeant. After the War, he was stationed at RNAS Howden (East Riding), and at RNAS Pulham (Norfolk), where he helped with construction of Airship R34, and took part in its test flights. He went on to assist in the construction of Airship R38, particularly working on the engine-rooms.
On 27 December 1915, at Halifax Parish Church, Frank had married Edith Ellen, daughter of John and Anna Skipper, and they settled at her home, 8 Lock Street, Caddy Field. They had one daughter, Evelyn, born in 1916. One of Frank’s brothers, John, was killed during The Great War, and another had a leg amputated after being wounded.
Still serving with the RAF, on 24th August 1921 Frank was one of the servicemen on board Airship R38. The aircraft was an early, experimental airship; the original design contract was for a high-speed, high-altitude airship for military use. Short Brothers oversaw the contract, and construction took place at Cardington, Bedfordshire. The largest aircraft until then built by the British she was completed in June 1921, then being based at RNAS Howden. On the first flight of R38, certain faults were found, including some buckling of girders; but these problems were seemingly rectified.
It had only been possible to complete the R38 because the Americans wished to purchase her. Because of earlier problems, experts advised that 150 hours of test flying must be undertaken before she was allowed to fly across the Atlantic. The Air Ministry said 50 hours would be enough; but trials were hurried through. American officers came over to Britain take her back, and R38 was renamed ZR-2. On 24th August 1921, with both US and British passengers were on board, manoeuvres simulating sharp turns at speed were being carried out by the airship over Hull and the Humber. The stress proved too much for the structure, and the whole craft broke in half. In the front section the fuel tank burst, causing an explosion that shattered hundreds of windows in the city below. The fuel also ignited, and both parts of the airship fell into the river. Forty-four British and Americans were killed in all, among them, Frank Smith. Those who survived thought it probable he had been trapped in the engine-room when the explosion took place. Frank’s body was recovered from the Humber, and returned to his family at Halifax; large crowds joined them for the funeral at Stoney Royd. I understand his daughter was still alive at a great age about ten years ago.
Another Halifax man was on board the R38 during its final flight: Harry Bateman, aged 24, a physical laboratory assistant, originally from Long Lover Lane, Pellon. He was one of only five survivors, remarkably having suffered only superficial injuries. He died in Bedfordshire in 1969. - David C Glover August 2021.
With grateful thanks to David. - Jane.
Shown left. AC 2nd Class Roy Parker, rigger on the R38 was also part of the R34 crew on the successful crossing to America in July 1919.
Thanks to The National Physics Laboratory this photo shows John Pannell who was on board the R38 conducting trials for the NPL. He is second row fourth right. His colleague C W Duffield also lost his life in the crash. We have yet to find a photograph of Mr Duffield - if anyone has one please send it in and we can show it here and also send to the NPL for their records.
John Drew was born on 28.07.1899. He joined the RNAS on 09.10.1917 and his trade was a Fitter and Turner. From 01.04.1918 to 18.03.1919 he was at Wormwood Scrubs (airship and balloon training base) then moved to Pulham where he stayed until 27.02.1920. He then moved to Howden to take up training on the R38. (Details taken from his service record.)
Unlike most of the crew Flt Sgt Harold Thompson initially served in the army before transferring to the Royal Flying Corp on 27.10.1915. His service record indicates that during the war and up to 29.02.1920 when he arrived at Barrow he had little to do with the airship programme as he was posted to other RFC/RAF stations. He was posted to Howden on 24.02.1921.
Flt Sgt John Rye was born in Liverpool on 28.01.1887 and from 1903 served in the navy first as a boy cadet. On 11.04.1916 he transferred to the RNAS. His RAF service record indicates that from 01.04.1918 to 21.03.1920 he had worked at Pulham, Howden and for longer periods at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington, Bedford. His time at Cardington indicates that he was probably involved in some way with the construction/tests on the R38 as it was being built there.
Aircraftsman 1st Class Charles William Penson was a rigger on the ship. He joined the RNAS on 15.06.1916 and had served at East Fortune, Longside and Howden. Again thanks to Darren Howlett we have a full timeline of his life - for more details go to the Airship Career page.
William Greener joined the RNAS on 21.09.1914 and his trade was a Turner and Fitter. From 01.04.1918 to 22.12.1919 he was at Kingsnorth which suggests he may have worked on the non rigid airships assigned to the coastal patrols in WWI. He then moved to East Fortune and stayed there until 6.02.1920 when he was transferred to Pulham. On 21.03.1920 he was posted to Howden. (Details taken from his service record.)
Richard Withington was born on 01.06.1900 at Newcastle under Lyme. He joined the RNAS on 14.12.1917. From 01.04.1918 to 02.12.1920 he served at East Fortune and Pulham. On 03.12.1920 he transferred to Howden and is listed as a Rigger. Photograph source with grateful thanks: Bryan Johncock.
George Anger was born on 17th January 1890 in Reading, Berkshire. He joined the RNAS on 17th December 1917 and trained at Wormwood Scrubs. On 1st April 1918 he was based at Pulham later moving to Howden in March 1920.
Rigger John William Wilson was born on 29.06.1894. His civilian occupation is listed as farm labourer. He joined the naval service as a boy on 20.04.1910 and the RNAS on 20.12.1916. His RAF records show that from 01.04.1918 to 21.03.1920 he had served at Pulham, East Fortune and the RAW at Bedford. On 23.03.1920 he was posted to Howden.
Willaim Oliver arrived at Howden on 01.03.1921. He began his career in the army and then transferred to the Royal Air Corps in 17.08.1917. Thanks to the research of Darren Howlett who has sent in this photo we now have a comprehensive timeline of Willaim Olivers life. Find more details about him in the Airship Careers page in the Introduction page.
Aircraftsman 1st Class Charles William Penson was a rigger on the ship. He joined the RNAS on 15.06.1916 and had served at East Fortune, Longside and Howden. Again thanks to Darren Howlett we have a full timeline of his life - for more details go to the Airship Career page in the Introduction page.
In the Banffshire Journal of 13th. September, 1921, it was reported that Aircraftsman Charles Watt Donald had been buried in Nellfield Cemetery after a funeral at St. Mary’s, Carden Place, attended by Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard.
The UK survivors of the R38 crash.
Shown left: is an undated photograph of a young Harry Bateman sent in by his great niece Mrs D Colquhoun. Harry Bateman was a member of the National Physical Laboratory team and had taken part in a series of trials on the R38 before its subsequent crash.
Flt Lieutenant Wann started his service career in the Royal Navy and had served at Wormwood Scrubbs, Kingsnorth, Polegate and East Fortune stations. He was badly injured in the R38 crash. Find out more about him in the Notable People page in this website.
Survivor Ass Cox Walter Potter. He was killed in the R101 crash.
If anyone had any details about this man please make contact.
Others associated with the ship but not on the final flight.
Thomas Stanley Davis Collins was a naval architect and was involved with the design of the R38.
Shown above Harold Butler Wyn Evans. In 1916 he was Admiralty Overseer for H.M. Rigid Airships and worked on airship R9. In 1917 he became Chief Admiralty Overseer and was attached to airships R23 and R26. He later worked on airships R29, R33 and R38. From 1924 to 1926 he was Officer in Charge of Design, Research & Construction of H.M. Airships at Cardington. (With grateful thanks to Christine Dalton the grand-daughter of Harold Wyn Evans for providing this information. For more details about Harold see his biography written by Christine on the Notable People page of this website).