John Cobb

From Moriston Matters, Issues 11 & 12, February and April 1979.

This issue we leave our own "HISTORICAL GLEN" to print, in two parts, the career on Loch Ness and tragic death of John Cobb. The article, written by Mr Alex. Menzies of Temple Pier, was first printed in the Glenurquhart community Bulletin and is now reprinted here by courtesy of that magazine. The photographs were kindly made available by Mr. Menzies.

Twenty-six years ago on 29th September, 1952, John Cobb lost his life attempting to break the World Water Speed Record on Loch Ness, and as I had been closely associated with the project it was suggested that a short account of the activities might be of interest to the people who have come to live in the Glen since that time.

C C Wakefield & Co. Ltd., of Castrol Oils, as sponsors, approached me with a proposal for the use of Temple Pier as headquarters for the coming event. As this seemed such a wonderful venture to bring to our locality, I was most anxious to bring this, so, as a preliminary step, arrangements were made for Mr Cobb, Mr Railton and Capt. George Eyston to call early in May to inspect the place.

In due course they arrived: Mr John Cobb, tall, of massive build, quiet spoken and unassuming, more like a country doctor than a speed ace who held the World Land Speed Record of 394.3 m.p.h; Mr Reid Railton , slight in comparison, designer of the famous 'Railton Mobile Special' with which John Cobb broke the world record; Capt .George Eyston, tall and energetic, a friend and one-time rival of John Cobb,and holder of the Speed record at 357 m.p.h. with his car "Thunderbolt”, and chosen to become manager of the CRUSADER team of experts.

Satisfied that the site was suitable they arranged for certain repairs to be made to t he old pier, and large doors 18ft. wide by 12ft. high fitted to the shed where CRUSADER would be housed. For lightness in handling, the doors were covered with polished aluminium sheets over wood frames. Work was to be completed by mid-August. Electricity and telephone were laid on in the shed, and meantime the measured mile was being surveyed and marker posts erected on both sides of the loch.

The great day arrived when CRUSADER, after her long haul from Southampton,turned in at Temple Pier. John Cobb with his team were there to greet her. Mounted on her trailer she looked huge under her dust cover on which her maker's name, "Vospers Ltd." was printed in bold 1etters. Photographed from all angles by the 'Press', she was then stowed away for the night.

A Coles 'ten ton' diesel-electric crane (itself weighing 24 tons) arrived from Sunderland, for lifting CRUSADER on and off the loch. A farm tractor for towing her; on her trailer to and from the pier, a headquarters caravan, a radio van , a small fishing vessel, the 'Astrid' from Fortrose, to act as mother ship, and various launches and speed motor boats completed the set up.

Radio engineers arrived to fit each craft including CRUSADER with H.F. radio intercom and linked them with the shore-based radio-van. Many barrels of fuel, drums of lubricating oil, batteries for starting the jet engine, for the radio sets and tor the signalling lamps, together with spares of all kinds filled another shed.

CRUSADER herself measured 31 ft. over the sponsons and weighed 3 tons. Three years of research and model testing produced the unusual shape of her hull, designed to eliminate as far as possible the adverse effects of the large forces exerted on it by the surrounding air while travel1ing at high speed. When planing at speed she rose up till supported on three points - the step and the ends of the two sponsons. The planing surfaces were of sheet aluminium.

To obtain maximum strength with minimum weight she was constructed with a mixture of birch ply and high strength aluminium alloy. Mr Reid Railton was responsible for the unusual layout, while the design and construction were directed by Commander Peter Du Cain of Vospers Ltd. The De Havilland Engine Company supplied a Ghost 48 MKI engine (A similar engine in a de Havilland Vampire held the world's height record, at that time, of 59,000 ft.) CRUSADER was the first water-borne craft in the world to be specially designed and built for jet propulsion.

A week or so of feverish activity followed, while behind closed doors, CRUSADER'S team fitted the sponsons, checked and re-checked everything. Spectators lined the roadside from dawn to dusk every day, hopefully waiting for a glimpse of CRUSADER and, at last, she was ready to make her debut. One writer described it thus: "Such a scene would be marked by the hushed whispers of the expectant watchers on one hand and the roar of the diesel-electric crane on the other. It almost seemed akin to the 'first night' performance of some great masterpiece. The shining doors would open like the parting of a curtain, then slowly but surely CRUSADER would be drawn out from the dark confines into the front of the (stage) , presenting a magnificent spectacle of silver and crimson. The (scene) was set, the (rehearsals) commenced whilst the many other (actors) each played (their parts)."

During the five weeks, visitors from many lands came to Temple Pier, visitors from the humble crofts of the Highlands and visitors of royal blood, including Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother .

All day and every day, except the Sabbath, work proceeded on CRUSADER. John Cobb respected the religious feelings of the local people, but there were many other sides to his character which endeared him to the people of the G1en.

Out in the centre of the Loch, trials went on, revealing various small defects. A larger rudder had to be fitted and slight alterations made to the hull to overcome a tendency to 'stick' on flat calm water instead of rising up on the planing surfaces at the critical speed. On September 15th CRUSADER made her first attempt, reaching l85.567 m.p.h. And 160.24 m.p.h. on the return run, a mean of 173.14 m.p.h.

Then came the dawn of Monday; September, 29th. Conditions were perfect. The team made ready, attendant craft took up position and at 7.30 a.m., all was set. The mirror calm held for a few minutes longer, then ripples broke it up. Patiently everybody waited. By 9.30 a.m. conditions were no better, so John Cobb called; "hands to breakfast".

In less than an hour the breeze had gone, and the team came hurrying back to take up their positions on the loch. At about 11.30 I went along to see what was happening and John Cobb stepped out of the caravan saying, "Where have they taken CRUSADER, Mr Menzies?" She was nowhere in sight until we reached the very end of the pier and there, close inshore, round the headland which had been obscuring the view, we saw her with the "Astrid" standing by. At that moment a messenger from the radio van came to say all was clear and ready. John Cobb walked back to the caravan to say he was going and Mrs Cobb and their friends prepared to drive round to the loch side at Lenie.

A fast launch took him out to CRUSADER and I, with several others watched from the end of the pier. The engine started and in a few moments CRUSADER was on her way. Skimming the water like a bird she moved beautifully, John Cobb giving her full throttle as she passed close by Urquhart Castle. In what seemed but a few seconds we heard the engine cut out.

Believing CRUSADER had completed her outward run, we waited. Suddenly one of the radio team came running over, shouting, "There has been an accident, get a doctor, get an ambulance". Momentarily, I thought he meant a road accident. I knew there was a doctor in attendance on the loch, but it took half an hour to get a clear line to the ambulance service.
Capt.George Eyston was first back to the pier and with tears in his eyes said. "For the one and only time we did not have our usual full conference before going out and this is what happens". Could this be the reason for the whole chain of unfortunate circumstances which led up to the tragedy? Why did CRUSADER not start, as usual, from the centre of the loch? It was evident John Cobb was unaware of this change. Did the crew of the attendant craft which moved out from and returned to her position inshore assume that CRUSADER would be out on her usual course? Had she done so, she would not have hit those waves which wrecked her.

John Cobb was catapulted out and killed instantly. A speed boat pulled his body on board and artificial respiration was applied, but it was too late. Transferred to the yacht, "Maureen", his body was brought to Temple Pier where the ambulance waited. It is beyond me to describe the emotional aftermath as the rest of the craft returned to base, some bringing all that, remained of CRUSADER in the form of wreckage. That team of loyal men who had worked so hard and so hopefully together, were heartbroken. Their hero was dead. They were unable to hold back their tears. The stark tragedy of it all sent a shock of deep sorrow and distress everywhere, particularly in the Glen.

On Wednesday, all the personnel involved at Temple Pier and close friends of Mr. and Mrs. Cobb assembled in the tiny chapel of the Royal Northern Infirmary where the impressive funeral service was held. Crowds stood in silence, many of them moved to tears, as the cortege with his remains passed through the streets. Flags in the town were at half-mast. In a final salute, the Provost, magistrates and council stood bareheaded on both sides of the High Street outside the Town Hall. Continuing along Eastgate, a brief halt was made at the outskirts, where we stood in final farewell to that gallant man, one of nature's very own gentleman. Then the hearse moved off on its long journey to Surrey. He is buried in the town of Esher, the place of his birth.

On a small plot of land close to the roadside above the site of the tragedy the people of Glenurquhart and many friends outside the Glen contributed towards the erection of a memorial to John Cobb. It takes the form of a traditional Highland Cairn. A bronze plaque designed by the late George Bain, an authority on Celtic Art, bears this inscription :

On the waters of Loch Ness John Cobb having travelled at 206 miles per hour
in an attempt to gain the World Water Speed Record lost his life on this day 29th Sept.1952.
Urram do'n, Treun Agus do'n Iriosal.

which translated means,"Honour to the brave and to the humble". The border design in Celtic Knotwork symbolises eternity.

Alex.Menzies, Temple Pier.