The thread about the brief life of the Dalmuir aero industry; when Clyde shipbuilders constructed the largest aircraft in the world

This is Clydebank. Specifically, this is Dalmuir. And this is a thread; specifically, a thread about Dalmuir’s fleeting involvement in the production of giant, improbable aircraft.

Dalmuir. CC BY-SA - Stephen Sweeney
Dalmuir. CC BY-SA – Stephen Sweeney

This is Beardmore Street in Dalmuir. That’s an abandoned sofa and at the end of the road there is the old Glasgow Corporation sewage works on the Clyde. Say the street name again. Beardmore Street. Beardmore. Beardmore, you see, will be central to this story.

Beardmore Street, Dalmuir
Beardmore Street, Dalmuir

This is the street’s namesake, William Beardmore – later 1st Baron Invernairn. Beardmore was London born but spent most of his life in Glasgow, moving with his family aged 5 from Deptford to Parkhead. His father, also William, was a founder of the Parkhead Forge steel mill, which supplied the booming ship and locomotive building industries of the Clyde. William junior inherited the successful company in 1879 and set about a massive expansion scheme.

Sir William Beardmore in 1921
Sir William Beardmore in 1921

Beardmore bought, or invested in, a number of ship and engine builders. In 1900 he decided to get in on the shipbuilding act and at Dalmuir was laid out one of the largest and most modern yards, not just on the Clyde but in the world.

Beardmore's Dalmuir yard. OS 25 inch map, 1918. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Beardmore’s Dalmuir Naval Yard. OS 25 inch map, 1918. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Here they started churning out military and civilian ships. Their largest was the 27,800 ton battleship HMS Ramillies of 1913. In 1918 they completed the world’s first full flightdeck aircraft carrier, on the hull of an Italian liner they had been building.

HMS Ramillies in 1917. IWM SP 1718
HMS Ramillies in 1917. IWM SP 1718

The aircraft carrier was christened HMS Argus and would go on to serve in WW2, usually in training and supporting roles but occasionally on the front line when needs must, e.g. here recovering Supermarine Seafire fighter aircraft when covering Operation Torch in 1942.

HMS Argus in front line service in WW2 covering Operation Torch. IWM A12882
HMS Argus in front line service in WW2 covering Operation Torch. IWM A12882

During WW1, the somewhat restless, expansive energy of Beardmore saw the company move into production of aircraft and aircraft engines under contract. Inevitably, they began to tinker with the designs themselves to improve them, e.g. the Beardmore WBIII, a navalised Sopwith Pup .

Breardmore WBIII

When the war ended there was inevitably a huge downturn in military orders – both aircraft and ships – and Beardmores started diversifying further. They expanded into production of railway locomotives, cars, taxis, motorbikes, steam lorries and airships. But they still wanted in on a piece of the aviation pie, and continued to tinker with more confidence – but not much more success – in their own designs of aircraft and aero engines.

The Beardmore WB.XXIV WeeBee of 1924 was not a sign of the desired direction of travel. No; they had their sights on something bigger. Much bigger. So big in fact, they had their sights set on producing the largest (by wing span) aircraft (then) in the world.

Beardmore WeeBee1 in 1926

Enter stage right Dr. Ing. Adolf Rohrbach, a German aero engineer and industrialist, who also had designs on giant aircraft, but was frustrated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which would not allow him to build them in Germany. Rohrbach was a pioneer of all-metal, “stressed-skin” monoplane aircraft, in a world of wood and wire biplanes covered in canvas. Here his workforce demonstrates how strong his wing designs were:

The Rohrbach Ro.X flying boat

Stressed skin construction was the new, must-have idea. In this, the skin of the aircraft takes some of the stresses on the airframe which previously were carried by heavy internal struts and bracing wires. It promised stronger and lighter aircraft with bigger internal volumes. The British Air Ministry was of course keen to get in on this sort of technological advance, but British industry was behind this particular curve. So they awarded a specification to industry newbie Beardmore to help Dr. Rohrbach out and build one of his giant, stressed-skin monoplanes for the RAF. To this end, in 1924, Beardmores agreed a manufacturing licence with Rohrbach Metallflugzeugbau GmbH in Berlin.

Buying in a German aircraft design (even to get hold of German technology) with a German name was of course rather awkward in post-WW1 1920s Britain. But Beardmore did just enough redesign work, gave it Rolls Royce engines, fitted British components and of course built it in Britain. Specifically, they built it in Dalmuir. And they would rename the Rohrbach Ro.VI to something suitably and heroically British. Thus, the BEARDMORE INFLEXIBLE was born! The Press bought it as all new and the News Reels branded it “All British“.

The World’s Largest Monoplane

That’s not to downplay Beardmore’s part in it, and the skill and contribution of their own workforce. With a Duralumin alloy frame covered in Duralumin skin, these were cutting edge aircraft construction materials and techniques, being built by a Clydebank Shipbuilder with almost no prior experience.

Well that’s the back story out the way. Now let’s get onto what this monster actually looked like and how big it was. I hope you are ready. Behold!
The Colossus of the Clouds”

The Colossus of the Clouds in flight. Flight magazine archive
The Colossus of the Clouds in flight. Flight magazine archive

But Andy!” I hear you say, “You promised us a monster aircraft!”
And you’re right, I did indeed. You see it is a monster. It’s all just a matter of scale. So here’s some scale for you.

The Inflexible, with people for scale. Flight magazine archive

Here’s someone at the tail end for scale. Note the name “Flettner” there. Anton Flettner was another German aero engineer who would go on to pioneer helicopter design.

The back end of the Inflexible, as attractive as its front end. Flight magazine archive.
The back end of the Inflexible, as attractive as its front end. Flight magazine archive.

The Inflexible wasn’t that long, even by 1928 standards. It was at the heavy end, 13-15 tons. But where it stood out was its ridiculous wing span – 157.5 feet or 48 metres. More than twice its fuselage length. This extra long, narrow and angular wing was a trademark of Rohrbach’s designs, making full use of the strength of his construction techniques.

The Inflexible looked like a child's cartoon of an aeroplane, but was as advanced as the radical Westland-Hill Pterodactyl shown in the images on the left. Flight magazine archive.
The Inflexible looked like a child’s cartoon of an aeroplane, but was as advanced as the radical Westland-Hill Pterodactyl shown in the images on the left. Flight magazine archive.

For scale, an Avro Lancaster bomber has a wing span of 31 metres. A B-29 Superfortress was 43m. This was 1928, and the British aircraft industry would – I think – only ever produce 2 aircraft that had bigger spans. The Saro Princess and the Bristol Brabazon. INFLEXIBLE was a great name for it. Not only did it confer the core concept of its new construction techniques, it would be a name familiar to the British public as a Royal Navy battlecruiser (coincidentally built next-door in John Brown’s shipyard)

The battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, New York, 1909. Similarly revolutionary in her day.
The battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, New York, 1909. Similarly revolutionary in her day.

Despite its size the Infexible had only 3 relatively piddling Rolls Royce Condor engines, each putting out 6550hp on a good day. But its clean aerodynamics and huge, high lift, glider-like wing meant it had no trouble getting itself into the air – somewhat to the surprise of Flight’s journalists

Quarter and Three-Quarter views of the Inflexible give a true impression of the scale of its immense wings

But before it could demonstrate its flight abilities, there was a slight problem. You see, shipyards don’t have runways and if you built an aircraft in a shipyard, you need to find a way to get it to a runway. Taking the longest-span wing in the world by road or railways was an obvious no-no, so after almost 4 years of design and construction, the completed Infexible was promptly disassembled into sections small enough to be put on a ship and sailed down the Clyde to England.

On arrival of the bits of the aeroplane in Ipswich, there was another slight problem; there were no lorry trailers with steerable axles capable of getting the parts down the country lanes to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Martlesham Heath air base. So it hung around in bits and pieces while some were built. And then finally it was off to the A&AEE!

On arrival of the bits of Inflexible in Martlesham Heath, there was yet another slight problem; there was no hangar big enough to re-assemble a 48 metre wide aircraft. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the ingenious decision as taken to rebuild it sideways, as already mentioned it was less than half as wide as it was long. But you can’t just move an airplane sideways, so it had to be slid in and out on special trolleys.

The Inflexible showing the trolleys used to slide it into the hangar

This aircraft might look rather crude to our eyes, almost as if a child drew it, but it was cutting edge stuff. Its giant 7.5 feet diameter Dunlop tyres were an engineering triumph, as were the aluminium disc hubs (lighter, stronger and stiffer than the spoked equivalent) and the 3 foot diameter brake drums with Lockheed hydraulic brakes. Brakes on an aircraft were still something of a novelty, those deployed by the Inflexible could cut its landing distance in half.

Suppliers were keen to associate themselves with the Inflexible
Suppliers were keen to associate themselves with the Inflexible

Those brakes were designed by another up-and-coming German aero-engineer, one Kurt Tank. Tank’s later designs for the Focke-Wulf company would play no small part in making the WW2 air war that bit harder for the Allies to win.

The Focke-Wulf 190, designed by Kurt Tank and one of Germany's most capable fighter aircraft of mid-late WW2. GFDL, Kogo
The Focke-Wulf 190, designed by Kurt Tank and one of Germany’s most capable fighter aircraft of mid-late WW2. GFDL, Kogo

Testing at Martlesham Heath started on the ground in January 1928, with a rather low-key announcement made in the Scotsman.

And on March 5th 1928, the Inflexible finally took to the sky, crewed by test pilot Jack Noakes and a mechanic from Beardmores. Surprisingly, this big, ugly, ungainly and rather underpowered bird – built by Clyde shipbuilders – performed relatively well.

In June, the lucky British public got to see the latest thing in action at the Hendon air display, wowing an audience that included the King and Queen themselves.

The press commented “in many ways one of the most remarkable aeroplanes of modern times“. “One of the largest machines actually flying“. “A very interesting experiment, and the results of exhaustive tests should be of very considerable value to the future development“. Further testing took place and public displays were made again in May and June 1929, but by this time the post-war slump and looming depression saw Beardmores facing bankruptcy and the aircraft department had been shut down in February.

And so with little ceremony, the pioneering giant that had been nicknamed the “Impossible” and the “Incredible” was disassembled in early 1930. The parts left out in the rain on a Suffolk airfield to investigate corrosion on a stressed skin, Duralumin structure After just 47 hours and 55 minutes in the sky, it was a sad end. Some parts were stored, others saw an undignified end as rain shelters for the airbase guards. All that survives now is one of those honking great, 7 foot 6 inch wheels.

The sole remaining part of the Inflexible. Source: rlkitterman, Deviantart
The sole remaining part of the Inflexible. Source: rlkitterman, Deviantart

William Beardmore would lose much of his wealth and control of companies in the following years as one-by-one they failed. Rohrbach’s company too was struggling, and by 1934 it had been bought over by a competitor. And that’s almost the end of the Beardmore-Rohrbach story… The Clydebank aero-industry had one other little German flying surprise up its sleeve. The Beardmore-Rohrbach Inverness flying boat. Started a little after the Inflexible, this actually got into the sky well before as it was much quicker to build.

The Beardmore Inverness or Rohrbach Ro.IV, from L'Air Magazine
The Beardmore Inverness or Rohrbach Ro.IV in 1928, from L’Air Magazine

Like the Inflexible, the Inverness was a stressed-skin monoplane. It was ordered because the Air Ministry wanted to test a metal flying boat. You can see its wing and tail designs were typically Rohrbach, looking like scaled-down versions of the Inflexible. The first Inverness was built by Rohrbach in their treaty-evading subsidiary factory in Copenhagen, the second was built on the Clyde from parts shipped in from Berlin. It was a miserable failure however, with poor handling on the water and in the air.

The first prototype failed stress testing and was destroyed. The Clyde-built one was scrapped around the same time as the Inflexible when that programme was cancelled. The Inverness would be a forgettable footnote in aviation history, if they hadn’t gone and put a sailing rig on it! That’s not an April fool folks. The Inverness carried its own, collapsible pair of sails and masts.

The Inverness. Newington War Museum
The Inverness. Newington War Museum

I suppose that’s inevitably what happens when you let Clyde shipbuilders build an aeroplane… (Just a joke, it was the Germans who designed the thing!)

The Dalmuir shipyard was failing too in the Depression. Industrial giant Vickers pulled its funding and in 1930 it was bought by the National Shipbuilders Securities Ltd., a government-backed organisation to reduce shipbuilding overcapacity by buying up and shutting down yards.

1923 advert for Beardmore's shipyard at Dalmuir
1923 advert for Beardmore’s shipyard at Dalmuir

So next time you happen to be passing the Clydebank Industrial Estate, you can recall its brief time at the cutting edge of the German aeronautical industry and as the home of the world’s largest aircraft.

The Beardmore Roundabout
The Beardmore Roundabout

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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