ONE of the rarer acts of peace-time bravery saw the crew of the airship R33 awarded the Air Force Medal.They included George Ernest Long, whose medals and associated ephemera came up for auction at Lockdales of Ipswich on March 27.
Long, who had become a qualified balloon pilot during the First World War and was the first civilian coxswain to HMA R100, steering it on its first flight to Canada, was civilian coxswain of the R33 when it broke away from its mooring mast at Pulham, Norfolk on April 16, 1925.
The accident happened only two weeks after the reconditioned R33 had left the airship shed at Cardington near Bedford - the centre of operations for the airship industry where she had been stored for four years - and flown to Pulham.
According to records held by the Airship Heritage Trust, on the night of April 16 the R33 was anchored to the high mast at Pulham, with only a skeleton "anchor watch" on board. Towards dawn gale force winds tore the ship from the mast and it drifted backwards with ballast tanks and one of its gas bags damaged, as well as a buckled nose, narrowly missing the doors of the airship shed.
The crew started the engines and the ship gained height, with two of the crew assessing the damage by crawling up the ladder to the upper gun position, and then forward as far as they could along the top of the hull. It was essential to prevent the forward damaged girders from puncturing more of the gasbags.
They rigged the deflated gas cell, and the flapping envelope, as a shield before the crew jettisoned as much equipment as possible from the forward section to bring the ship onto an even keel.
Meanwhile HMS Godetia and the local lifeboat were dispatched from Lowestoft as the airship drifted out across the North Sea. As the weather took a turn for the worse, the lifeboat had to turn back, leaving the R33 to hold its position, nose into the wind, but unable to make progress against the storm. Headquarters kept track via radio messages transmitted every 15 minutes to report on the ship's condition and her position.
It took a total of five hours for the crew to bring the airship under control, by which time they had drifted to within a few miles of the Dutch coast.
So close had they come to ditching in the sea at one point that the pilot, Flight Lieutenant R.S. Booth, ordered all surplus equipment - including their parachutes - to be thrown overboard.
The weather improved and the ship hovered above the coast overnight, setting a course for the Suffolk coast early the next morning, where a welcome crowd had gathered to wave her on to Pulham.
At 1.50pm the R33 finally appeared above the airfield where it was eased to the ground by volunteers pulling on ropes, before being towed back to the shed.
The R33, which was originally commissioned in 1916 and not retired until ten years later, was the longest serving airship in the British fleet and was also engaged in experiments that helped to develop the later, more celebrated R101.
Long's AFM was awarded for conspicuous devotion to duty in circumstances of exceptional difficulty and danger and came with a 1914 Star Trio and a cased and named Civil British Empire Medal, along with a boxed 1935 Jubilee Medal and a Defence Medal in a named box, plus original set of miniatures.
It also came with a good deal of original ephemera, including Long's named R100 Pass for Admittance to St Hubert Airport, several press photos of balloon 'CARD 1' from the 1951 Empire Exhibition, for which Long was the pilot, and a photo of Long with actor Michael York, believed to be from the 1971 film Zeppelin, on which Long was a consultant.
Additionally, there is an original R100 souvenir pin badge and silk ribbon for the England to Canada 1930 voyage as well as other linked ephemera.
Estimated as one lot at £2500-3500, it took £15,500 plus 17.25% premium. The sale totalled £288,980.
For more on airships and fascinating footage of many of them, including the R33, visit the Airship Heritage Trust's website at www.aht.ndirect.co.uk
By Ivan Macquisten