The Mystery of Airship R31

Naval technology
None noted.
RAN Ships
None noted.
June 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

THERE ARE SEVERAL MYSTERIES about the design, construction and eventual fate of the British Naval airship R31. Completed at Bedford, England, just before the Armistice in 1918, the R31 Class was in a way unique, as (unlike the other British rigid airships and the German Zeppelins) they were built of plywood instead of duraluminium. The design was based on the German Schutte-Lanz principle and was largely derived from information provided by the Swiss informer Muller, who had worked at Schutte-Lanz’s airship works at Mannheim. Muller clearly played a big part in the Admiralty design, which was originally known as Schutte-Lanz-Muller, or SLM.

For sixty years, Muller has been a mystery to air-historians and authors of airship books, but so far nobody has published any reliable information on the elusive Muller. To a large extent, it remains one of the enigmas of World War I.

‘So intrigued was I by constantly finding brief references to this Muller in almost every airship book that I picked up,’ wrote the British air-historian Geoffrey Chamberlain, ‘that I spent four years corresponding with a variety of authorities to see if there were any way in which the story might be confirmed or expanded. The result? – Absolutely zero, in every single direction!’

In due course, Mr. Chamberlain got in touch with the writer, and was delighted to find after his years of searching that some reliable information was at last available on the mysterious Muller. Admittedly it was not very much, but it was first-hand, and had in fact been available for twenty years.

One of the designers of the R31 was my father, Stephen Payne, RCNC, who had met Muller when he came to London. Unfortunately, he was not specific on the date that he met Muller, but we know that R31 and R32 were ordered from Short Brothers, Bedford, in February 1916. It seems likely, then, that the Swiss came to London at least three months earlier, or possibly more.

‘The British Ambassador in Switzerland informed the Admiralty,’ Payne wrote, ‘that a man who had been foreman in the Schutte-Lanz works, a German-Swiss, was ready to sell the secret of the Schutte-Lanz. He was eventually brought to England.’

Muller was under police surveillance and an interpreter was provided by the Admiralty, but I presume that my father spoke to him in German. ‘Muller had an amazing memory, and he was a sound practical man,’ he wrote. ‘We also heard from him something about the German aero engine, the Maybach, and we have learnt that it was remarkable even in the way that it functioned. Ours were always giving trouble with the carburettor or with the exhaust manifold.

‘We got from the Swiss an amazing amount of detail, he had brought out – not only drawings, which we easily checked and found to be reasonably accurate, but he had been in charge of girder construction at Mannheim. In addition to this, he had brought a sample of what was considered to be a wonderful adhesive, because it was not affected by heat or damp.’

It is quite clear that Muller was a sound practical man, an expert on wooden girder construction; and, he had brought a sample of a new glue with the German name of ‘Kaltlein’, i.e. cold glue.

In September 1916 the Schutte-Lanz airship SL11 was shot down at Cuffley, Essex, by Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, who was awarded the VC for the destruction of the first enemy airship over England. It was certainly an odd coincidence that it should have been a Schutte-Lanz, but, as the airship was completely burnt out, the Admiralty obtained very little information; however, it added to the mystery regarding Muller, as some people assumed that the R31 was based on what was found from the wreck, and not from Muller. Actually, R31 had by this time been designed and ordered.

Shortly after the destruction of SL11, the Zeppelin L33 was brought down relatively intact, although she burnt out. It was obvious to the Admiralty designers that L33 was a bigger and better Zeppelin than the previous ones and much ahead of either Vickers or the current Admiralty Zeppelin type designs. It was decided to copy the design, and as R31 and R32 had already been ordered it followed that R33 and R34 were the numbers given to the new improved British airship. Thus by sheer coincidence R33 had the same number as the German L33, from which it was copied.

In November 1916 Stephen Payne was appointed Chief Airship Overseer at Short Brothers, Bedford, for the construction of R31 and R32. Although the great airship shed at Cardington was then months off completion some work on R31 had already been prefabricated.

One of Payne’s particular friends at Bedford was Claude Lipscomb, who was Short’s Chief Draughtsman and Designer. Lipscomb wrote to Chamberlain in 1970 regarding the elusive Muller:

‘When the Government decided to build these airships, Short’s were favoured as the constructors owing to their experience with the construction of wooden aeroplanes, and also of balloons. Initially, Short’s were requested to put forward a design for consideration, which they did after a certain amount of experimentation with a suitable design of frame to be used in the general construction. However, before any extensive work was carried out on this design, the Admiralty decided that the design should follow very closely that used in the Schutte-Lanz type, the main designer of which I believe was Muller.

‘I was appointed Chief Draughtsman, and was transferred from Rochester with a small staff, first to London in May 1916 and then to Bedford in about September, where we set up a suitable office to carry out the work. When the works were finally completed at Cardington, we moved there with a nucleus of Admiralty designers. During the whole of my stay at Bedford, I do not remember any mention of Muller at all, as all our work was directed by Mr. C. I. R. Campbell, RCNC, who was later lost in R38.’

It is believed that the main Admiralty designers were Campbell and Payne, and that Muller provided no more than what would be expected from an intelligent and practical expert on girder construction. Muller may have attempted to influence the design – and probably did; he was a mine of information, and it is only fair that the design should be first known as the SLM. But in the final analysis the R31 design was the responsibility of the Admiralty, a freak perhaps, but in the end the best British airship design to be completed before the end of the War.

The R31 Class were 615 feet in length, with a diameter of 66 feet. The capacity of the hydrogen gasbags was 1,553,000 cubic feet. Maximum speed was approximately 70 mph. The capacity of the R33 Class was very nearly two million cubic feet, but as R33 was not completed until 1919, R31 was the fastest and biggest British airship completed before the end of the war, and remains the largest mobile wooden structure ever built.

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