R34 Airship Commemorative Service Address

On the 14th of July 2019, there was a special service at St Mary’s Church Diss to commemorate the centenary of the first transatlantic crossing from Scotland to America and back to Pulham, England – a village a few miles away from Diss. The image above is of a blimp which floated above the Church to mark the occasion.

During the course of the service there were dramatic readings from the Ships Log which narrated the journey of the R34 Airship. At its conclusion there was a montage of commentary from various airship disasters which ended with the harrowing recording of commentary from the Hindenburg crash which can be viewed here. What follows is the script for the address which I gave at that service.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord,  our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This weekend marks the centenary of the first transatlantic crossing by air to america and back, the voyage of the R34 airship and its crew. We have this morning been able to enjoy something of an insight into this journey through the readings from the Logs and records which Basil and Gill have so wonderfully presented for us. 

One hundred years ago. It’s a pocket of history which is perhaps marked out from our more natural grasp of things by its apparently fleeting nature. During the first world war the German’s pioneered the Zeppelins and the British Navy in turn reverse engineered their own versions. Work began on the R34 in 1917 but it was not completed until just before Christmas 1918, a month after the conclusion of the war. On the 30th December the Navy, no longer having need for it in active military service, agreed to lend the R34 to the Air Ministry for long-distance trials.

Thus our airship which had been bred for war found herself born into a life of adventure. 

She had a variety of outings to test various aspects of her capabilities prior to the Transatlantic crossing attempt. This included flying from East Fortune in Scotland over Edinburgh and Berwick on one occasion before separately flying near the German Baltic Shores and on her return flying over Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Although the airship could take 30 crew, 32 if you include Ballantyne the stowaway and Whoopsie the cat, this voyage required many many more to make it happen. It’s estimated that some 700 people were required simply to get her out of her ‘shed’. 8 people had to travel to America to train up the 300 or so people who would help the R34 land. More than this, there was a high degree of involvement from the political side of things given that one of the roles of the R34 was to transport some historic mail, letters from both the Prime Minister and His Royal Highness, King George the Fifth to President Woodrow Wilson. 

This voyage in many ways was a realisation of the collective human capacity to achieve new and great things. It’s not the story of a single individual who overcomes all odds to triumph and glory, but rather it’s a moment in history where something really rather special happened, and all who were involved knew it. From Ballantyne stowing away, to General Maitland writing the Log. We have Major Jack Pritchard parachuting down to become the first man to arrive in america by air in the presence of a huge grandstand filled with national and local dignitaries to welcome them, and then there’s that evocative scene of the crew looking down on Times Square at night, seeing thousands of people gathered to catch a glimpse of the R34 in the beam of the searchlights. Even allowing for the unexpected and unexplained diversion to land at Pulham on their return, in East Fortune, where they were expected, many had gathered to welcome the R34 home. 

During the first world war humanity encountered a new set of horrors. New technologies wielded forcefully had led to the death of Millions, sometimes killing thousands in minutes. The R34 voyage was one of the first great peacetime adventures which followed. Rather than bringing death, it opened up the possibility of a new future, a new world where mail might be able to cross the Atlantic in days rather than weeks. A world where airships might enable people to travel to places they hitherto couldn’t easily get to. 

The spirit of the historic R34 Transatlantic Crossing for me is encapsulated in the motto of the RAF East Fortune base from which their journey began: Fortune Favours the Brave.

Aside from being a suitable pun on the name of the base, I think this captures something of the human spirit of adventure; of storytelling our lives into meaning, whether that be through the places we have travelled or by the unfolding drama of our lived experience with and through our work, our families and our friendships. 

The story of the R34 seems to resonate with three brave principles: that of wanderlust, that of exploration and lastly that of the unknown.

Wanderlust attempts to express that deep seated curiosity to know what is ‘out there’, a discontent with remaining stationary or the temptation to remain settled where one is. It’s sometimes unfairly characterised as ‘the grass is greener’ syndrome, but wanderlust doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction with how things currently are, simply that there are other things to do, to be and to experience. With the R34 airship the destination is a known quantity; it’s america. But the wanderlust here is more a wondering of ‘is this possible’? Can we manage a journey that long, longer than anything which has been attempted before? 

It’s here that wanderlust steps into exploration. To have an urge to travel is one thing, but to actually step out your door and be swept off your feet is quite another. It’s also quite different to hear about exploration. Exploration doesn’t just provide us with more detailed maps or descriptions of things. There’s a gulf of distinction between hearing the readings from Maitland’s Log and actually being there to not just imagine but actually experience the ‘Very beautiful rainbow effect on the clouds : one complete rainbow encircles the ship, and another smaller one encircles our shadow on the water; both are very vivid in their colouring; a “rainbow of glory “. 

Such a sight is one which none of us shall ever experience beyond our imagination of the drifting float of an airship, humming with the steady drone of the engines, the creaking of the rigid frame and the faint musical notes of a gramophone nearby while looking out at these circular rainbows. 

Our imaginations are wonderful things which we should feed and nourish through the books we read, the plays and music we enjoy and the television we consume. But each of us here knows that there’s something we do that makes us feel alive and ourselves. This is what it means to explore. It means to be the one who is living their life and aware that it’s happening to none other than ourselves. 

This is why Ballantyne stowed away, he couldn’t miss out! This is why the crowds gathered in Times Square at 1am to catch a glimpse of the R34, because they wanted to be there and to take part in the moment. 

For us that might mean making the trip to see our granddaughter’s end of term play. It might mean you’ll be following the Men’s final at Wimbledon at 2pm this afternoon, some of us have even been there sitting court-side in the last week to experience it for themselves. 

The human sense of adventure, typified by the R34 voyage through storms and dwindling rations, is the innate desire to explore and experience life; to discover the unknown as we encounter it in all its many and varied forms. 

One of the all too prevalent errors we make today is to assume that we know more than we do. Between the internet, television and our satnavs we can easily fall into the trap of overstating the scope and scale of the data we have about the world. Particularly with the rise of satnavs and maps on our phones, there is a tendency to think that the world is a known quantity. That we literally have it all mapped out. We might exclude areas such as the depths of the ocean, with the familiar say that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do the bottom of the ocean, or perhaps there are still secrets out in the Amazonian rain-forest. This is possible, but the unknown is far closer to home. With each new iteration of imaging technology we gain a fresh insight into our archaeological past – some of which has been forgotten not for millennia and for centuries but just for a handful of decades. 

A prime example of that here in Norfolk is the Church of St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-hill, near Swaffham, which fell into disuse in the 1940s after being bombed by a Zeppelin. It was only rediscovered in an overgrown copse of trees  by a rambling group in the late 80s.

If we are to be prepared to explore the unknown, we have to first acknowledge the limitations of what we do in fact know. For the crew of the R34 even with all of the preparations and work of everyone else involved there was still a sense of the unknown.

Stepping into the unknown can be a daunting move. It’s frequently lonely, as General Maitland said: 

“When flying at night, possibly on account of the darkness, there is always a feeling of utter loneliness directly one loses sight of the ground. We feel this loneliness very much to-night; possibly owing to the fact that we are bound for a totally unknown destination across the wide Atlantic. Such a feeling is only momentary, however, and is soon dispelled by the immediate need for action.”

For the Maitland, this loneliness had a physical aspect to it. It was dark and the ground was out of sight. But this is also the case in our own expeditions through life, particularly when it comes to trying to do something new or to try  something which will help you to grow as a person there can often be an almost tangible sense of loneliness. 

I suspect that it’s this sense of loneliness which causes stories such as this to resonate with each of us. We have all, in our time, done things which regardless of the support of others or not we have had to do ourselves. Whether it be undertaking an exam, or giving birth, managing our finances or even embracing your faith – stepping out and claiming that you really do believe that Jesus lived, and died and was resurrected as a sign of God’s love for us – there can come a point where in the midst of what you’re doing you feel the weight of loneliness upon you. Perhaps, as it was for Maitland, it passes quickly. Perhaps, for others, the storms of life seem to persist longer than we know how to cope with. This sense of loneliness is one which I’m quite sure Jesus felt as he approached his death for us upon the Cross. 

The story of the successful voyage of the R34 resonates with that part of us and offers a sense of hope. If they can make it, maybe I can make it too.

During the voyage, Major Scott the Ship’s Captain was concerned about exposing the R34 to too much sunlight. He didn’t want to release any of the gas before it was time and so he kept it within the fog and under the clouds as much as possible.

This imagery makes psalm 121: 5-8 particularly apt:

“The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore”.

These words are worth us carrying with us as we leave this building today and head into the adventures of our own lives, with all the joys and the loneliness which make them so uniquely our own experiences, our own stories of meaning within a world of the unknown. Stories of people, somehow and wonderfully accompanied by a God who treasures our lives.

However, we can’t leave the story incomplete. 

Although we’ve had the pleasure of seeing the blimp floating above the Church this weekend the era of the Airships never quite materialised with the glory that many anticipated they would have. At the end of our dramatised readings we saw a short film of commentary on different airship disasters, which included the fate of the R34 herself, and ended with the infamous inferno of the Hidenberg disaster in 1937.

These events bring all to painfully to the fore the risk of adventure. The unknown is not necessarily a safe place to be. Some might argue that we should therefore stay at home, lest we get swept off our feet on the road. What’s it all for? Was it worth it? We might ask ourselves. Rewards and accolades? There has been an element of contention here given that those who first crossed the Atlantic to Ireland were knighted while members of the R34 crew received only a variety of medals despite the arguably much greater and more significant accomplishment.

It’s a question we ask ourselves. Is it worth it to move closer to family? Or closer to a job we’ll really enjoy. How do we balance up the money and the location and the fulfilment?

If we’re honest, we ask it about the Church and our faith as well. Is it worth it, to step out in faith and to profess Jesus as Lord? Or to start having a conversation with a Christian you trust about whether or not it could be true that God loves you? Perhaps your life feels more like the Hindenburg disaster than a victorious adventure.

Is it worth it?

Does fortune favour the brave?

That’s not a question I can answer for you.

Though I will end with these words from General Maitland:

“We feel in a world of our own up here amidst this dazzling array of snow-white clouds. No words can express the wonder, the grandeur, or the loneliness of it all; one must experience these joys for oneself before one can even begin to realize them.”