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Some forgotten achievements of the Nineteen Thirties

Posted in Aviation, Communications, Engineering, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about the Thirties originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

The Mersey Mole, picture, image, illustration

The Mersey Tunnel builders used a giant ‘mole’ to burrow beneath the river and construct the largest underwater tunnel in the world, by Wilf Hardy

However low his state has become, man never loses sight of his pride. He can be poor, hungry, cold and down-and-out but always, somewhere deep within him, there still lurks a streak of pride.

It is the same with nations, which, after all, are only human. In the nineteen-thirties the nations of Europe were poor and down-and-out, but somehow they still had to show their pride. And the principal stage upon which they exhibited it was the North Atlantic Ocean.

Here, for the thrilling, unbelievable five day trip to all the wonders of the New World, sailed the incredible luxury liners of the great European nations vying with each other to demonstrate greater and greater luxury, more and more comfort, undreamed-of splendour, all of which was in curious contrast to the lives of most of the people who lived under their flags.

In October 1932, Normandie slid down the slipway to make France the owner of the greatest liner in the world. She was about 1,000 ft. long and had a gross tonnage of 80,000 tons. She had the first theatre ever to be built into a liner and a 100 seat chapel. There were 350′ square yards of gardens laid out on her decks and a garage for 100 cars. She had dog kennels with “dog promenades” and special enclosures for birds and butterflies. She cost £20 million to build and even before she was launched, it was officially admitted in France that under no circumstances could the Normandie be expected to pay her way.

There was nothing in the world afloat as brilliant as the Normandie – until Britain launched the Queen Mary in 1934 and sent her on her maiden voyage in 1936.

What ships like Normandie and Queen Mary coveted was the Blue Riband – the honour of holding the record for the transatlantic crossing. Normandie won the Blue Riband on her maiden voyage; then, in the year of her maiden voyage, Queen Mary captured it. Normandie won it back and Queen Mary regained it – 3 days, 21 hours and 45 minutes completed in 1938, a record which stood until after the war.

Determined to rule the waves, Britain launched Queen Elizabeth in 1938 but she was almost immediately turned into a troopship. Indeed, the careers of all three super-liners were cut short by the war. Normandie, for example, made only 70 voyages before catching fire and sinking in New York harbour in 1942. What was amazing about all three of them was the size and splendour of the projects when contrasted with the grim era in which they were built.

More work was found in the Thirties for 1,700 men who could construct a tunnel. They were the builders of the Mersey Tunnel, which is still the vital link between Liverpool and Birkenhead – connecting the important manufacturing areas of Lancashire, Cheshire, the Midlands and the North. When King George V went to open this gigantic engineering achievement in July 1934, he was setting the seal on ten years’ work. The Mersey Tunnel was the largest underwater tunnel in the world – 2.62 miles long and built at a cost of £7 million.

Europeans were not the only builders in the Thirties. The year 1932 saw the opening of one of the modern wonders of the world – the magnificent two-and-three quarter miles long bridge over Sydney Harbour.

In November 1936, people living 50 miles away from London saw a great scarlet glow in the night sky and learned from their wireless receivers that the Crystal Palace was ablaze from end to end. The Palace had originally been built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and afterwards dismantled and rebuilt on a site on the top of Sydenham Hill in South London.

The Palace was a huge glass and iron structure, like a giant’s greenhouse with a skeleton of ribs. Ablaze, it glowed red hot, mocking the fire engines that were so numerous they blocked the streets for miles around. Not a trace remained of that incredible Victorian building – remembered today only in the name on street direction signs and the local Football League club.

A year earlier, a disaster of far greater proportions struck at Quetta in Pakistan. Here, where Britain had a staff college that made it the “Camberley” of the Indian Army, a colossal earthquake buried 42,000 people in the ruins of their homes.

For the vast majority, the ten-minute cinema newsreel was the only animate link with the outside world. Television did exist in the Thirties. The B.B.C opened its T.V. service from Alexandra Palace, London, on November 2, 1936. But when war broke out three years later, only 50,000 people had T.V. sets, and most people in Britain had never even seen one.

While the British were going under the water, the Dutch were getting rid of it. In the nineteen-thirties they at last succeeded in enclosing the Zuider Zee, thereby retaining tens of thousands of acres from the sea.

If the Thirties are remembered for achievements, for records and “firsts”, then they happened most of all not across oceans but in the air. The aeroplane was still novel and exciting – most of the population had never been close to one and when an aircraft appeared in the sky, it was certain to turn all heads.

Every year of the decade brought some fresh happening, some milestone achieved, in the air. The year 1934, for instance, saw the opening of the Commonwealth air route from Britain to Australia, making it possible for a letter written in the U.K. to be read in Australia within a week. The year 1933 recorded the first ever aeroplane flight over Mount Everest – although the three British attempts to conquer the mountain in the nineteen-thirties were all unsuccessful.

The decade opened with the first solo flight by a woman from England to Australia. She was Britain’s number one air girl between the wars – the legendary Amy Johnson. Flying a Puss Moth, she took 19 days to make the flight. An American, Wiley Post, took 7 days, 18 hours and 49 and a half minutes to make the first solo flight around the world in July, 1933, piloting a Lockheed monoplane. And in 1931 Bert Hinkler, in another Puss Moth, became the first man to fly across the South Atlantic.

Aeroplane technology made huge strides in the Thirties. Hitherto, nearly all aircraft were biplanes, not much different from those of 1918. The principal difference, in fact, was that they were simply bigger, had more comfortable fuselages, stronger wings and more powerful engines. Wood still had a large place in airliners, while the fuselages of smaller aeroplanes were often wooden frames covered with canvas.

Suddenly, aircraft designers began to study aerodynamics, or streamlining as it is sometimes called. This meant that the body and wings had to have as few parts as possible standing out from the fuselage so that air resistance was reduced in flight. Monoplanes offer much less resistance to the air than do biplanes, and it was quickly discovered that an aeroplane with a single wing was actually more safe and steady in the air than a biplane.

Designers next turned their attention to the undercarriage, which offered tremendous resistance; and finally they abolished that drag on speed by making the wheels fold into the wings during flight. By 1939 monoplane airliners were carrying passengers from Britain to India, South Africa, Australia and across the South Atlantic.

Early in the decade many air travel enthusiasts were still backing lighter-than-air machines, rather than heavier-than-air machines, as those most likely to be developed in the quest for regular international travel.

The lighter-than-air argument had, however, already been given up by Britain when her R. 101 airship was lost over France on her maiden flight to India in 1930. Germany and America stayed in the airship business, but both countries had enough bad luck with their great cigar shaped monsters in the Thirties to withdraw licking their wounds. The Germans lost their Hindenburg in a terrible fire which killed 36 passengers in 1937, while the Americans lost the Akron and the Macon in 1933 and 1935, both with many lives lost.

All these methods of transport had to be tested and found to be wanting before they were discarded and in global travel, for which men in the Thirties eagerly stretched out their creative arms, the great proving ground was the Atlantic Ocean. To those who pioneered the luxury liners, the monoplanes, the balloons and the airships we all owe a vote of thanks for the fact that in our time the other side of the world is just a few short, safe comfortable hours away from home.

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