Sixteen years before the fiery, fatal crash of the Hindenburg, the giant dirigible ZR-2 — then the largest airship ever built — broke apart in the skies above Hull, England, as it was undergoing flight testing and crashed in flames into the Humber Estuary.

Cape Girardeau resident Arch Campbell, a yeoman in the U.S. Navy in 1920, had been slated to serve on the crew of the ZR-2 when it sailed for the United States, having been purchased by this country from the British. But fate had other plans for Campbell, and he came home early, avoiding the fate of 44 others who were killed in the tragedy.

Initial newspaper reports of the event had some errors, such as the number of persons killed. Subsequent investigation showed only five — one American and four Brits — of the 49 occupants survived the crash and fire. All five of those were in the tail of the dirigible, which landed relatively gently on a sandbar in the river. Of those who died, 16 were Americans. The rest were British Navy personnel, employees of the company that built the craft and observers.


Published Aug. 24, 1921, in the Southeast Missourian:



Craft purchased by America, was to have crossed Ocean within few days; only two of crew of 50 though saved.

By United Press

HULL, England, Aug. 24. — America’s great dirigible, the ZR-2, carrying more than 50 American and British fliers, exploded and fell into the River Humber at 5:45 p.m. today. So far as known only two men escaped. They floated free of the doomed aircruiser in parachutes. All the rest are believed to have been blown to death. The ZR-2 had just returned from a trial trip, which lasted all day yesterday and last night, during which she cruised over a great part of England.

The British airmen put the dirigible, purchased by the United States from England, through all her paces preliminary to turning her over to the American crew for a flight to Lake Hurst, New Jersey, within a few days.

At 7:30 p.m. it was reported there were six survivors, but two of them were seriously injured.

At 4:30 p.m. today the huge ship appeared over Howden and signaled that before landing she would make a sea trial. The crowd, waiting on the land near the huge hangar at Howden, cheered and waved as the giant airship started northward toward Hull, only a few air minutes away. She swung through the air miles above the city, and above the Humber, and steadily increasing speed.

Watchers below thought all was going well. The doomed men above in her control cabin must have had a moment’s warning of the disaster. Otherwise none would have been able to get clear for the parachute jump.

Just as she came around in a great curve, high over the house tops of Hull near the mouth of the river where it is very wide and deep, there was a flash and a great burst of smoke and flames.

While the watchers gazed up at the tragedy in the sky they heard the rumble of the distant explosion. Then the great steel framework doubled and the back of the great ship broke.

Slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed, she dashed down. Behind her floated a pall of smoke.

She struck the river with a great upheaval of foaming water.

Immediately dozens of small boats put out from the wharves and from the vessels moored nearby, the seamen pulling hard to be the first at the spot where the ZR2 had sunk and to search for possible survivors.

Captain (Louis) Maxfield of the United States Navy was on board. The remainder of the crew was composed of 31 British air services men who were instructing the Americans in handling the gas bag preparatory to starting the flight for the United States. Other American officers on board included five lieutenants and picked mechanics.

Published Aug. 25, 1921, in the Southeast Missourian:




HULL, England, Aug. 25. — Official investigation to fix the blame for the loss of the giant dirigible ZR-2, which exploded and fell flaming into the Humber River yesterday, carrying 16 Americans and 27 British to their death, began today.

British and American naval officers conferred as to the best means of salvaging the debris of the rear portion of the ZR-2, which fell in he mud and this morning was submerged. Divers were ready to explore the wreckage at 5 o’clock this morning when, unless the tide had materially shifted the shattered ship, it would again be visible.

It was hoped to reach the control car from which Commander Wan leaped at the last moment. Several bodies might be found in the car, officers said, after conferring with Wan at the hospital.

American naval officers superintended salvage parties which worked throughout the morning. at 5 o’clock this morning pieces of card-wood from one of the bunks which were built into the interior of the envelope, were found, testifying to the terrific heat of the explosion.

Experts today said they believed the buckling occurred in the rear of No. 10 frame, where the ZR-2 buckled five weeks ago. The buckling of the ship would have caused the bursting of petrol pipes, it was thought.

Petrol, leaking down upon the engine of the control car, would have burst into flames and an instant later the petrol tanks in the car would have exploded. This theory was considered the most plausible by experts especially as the control was known to have been wrecked by the explosion.



HOWDEN, England, Aug. 25 — “The ship’s back is broken. We are afire and falling. We –“

This was the last message sent out by the ZR-2, who se wireless officer, Lt. V.H. Wicks, remained gallantly at his post to the last moment, communicating with the airdome here. Although facing certain death, Lt. Wicks stuck to his post, it was believed here, from the fact that his message was broken in the middle.

Published Aug. 25, 1921, in the Southeast Missourian:



LONDON, England, Aug. 25. — The ZR-12, which exploded over the River Humber yesterday, was the largest dirigible ever built, the dimensions being as follows:

Length 595 feet, diameter 85 feet, capacity 2,700,000 cubic feet, total lifting capacity 83 tons.

The ship was built for the United States Navy and he purchase price was to be $2,000,000. This, it is assumed, was to become effective after the aircraft had completed her trials and was delivered to and accepted by the American authorities. The British air service had been careful, however, to avoid premature delivery as they had wished to be assured that everything connected with the structural arrangement of the dirigible was (in) satisfactory condition. It was chiefly for this reason that the flight which terminated so disastrously was begun.

The monetary loss, under the circumstances, apparently falls on the contractors and those instrumental in building the ship.

The aircraft was operated by six engines. Sh was estimated to have a cruising radius of 60 miles per hour…

The huge aircraft had four gondolas suspended from he framework. These provided sleeping accommodations f0r the officers and crew, and an electrical apparatus for cooking meals.

Published Aug. 25, 1921, in the Southeast Missourian:


Only the fact that he was enlisted for a shorter time, and that he had been sent back to the United States for a serious operation, saved Arch Campbell of this city, former yeoman in the United States Navy, from the probable death that overtook the members of the ill-fated ZR-2 Wednesday afternoon at Hull, England, Campbell declared today.

Campbell was well acquainted with practically every member of the crew of the giant dirigible, he said, and was especially intimate with Cmdr. (Louis) Maxfield, who lost his life n the ship he was to bring to America. He was in the office of Cmdr. Maxfield doing clerical work when the reduction in the force was made and the orders sent out for the embarkation to America of all those naval men except those who would bring the balloon to America. It was then that he was held to return with the dirigible.

Cmdr. Maxfield, Campbell said, had asked him if he wanted to remain in England and be on the outfit that would bring the ship to this country. Campbell said that he consented to staying and would have been on the boat Tuesday, he supposed, if it had not been that his enlistment was to expire within a shorter time than the others and that he was sent back to the “stats” for an operation.

The construction work on the giant balloon had been under way for three years, Campbell said, it being held up to secure a certain kind of skin from animals in India. Had it not been for this holdup in the work, the ship might have been brought back several months previous to he time set.

Campbell was quartered with many of the men who were on the airship, at Bedford, England, as was also William Regenhardt, of this city, who said today that he knew several of the men who Wednesday lost their lives. “They were all a fine bunch of fellows,” said Regenhardt.

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