Monday, March 28, 2016

Belgium, March 28th, 2016

On the evening of March 10th, I posted a tongue-in-cheek comment on my Facebook page about ‘writing about a plane crash while at an airport’. I was writing and drinking coffee late at night in the departure hall at Brussels International Airport. Less than two weeks later, the area I was sitting in was obliterated by two suicide bombers. The accident I was writing about is the following one:

The Mystery of the Burning Argosy

On March 28th, 1933 (83 years ago today), an Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Argosy II airliner named “City of Liverpool”, departed Brussels for a flight to London Croydon. This was the second and final leg of a flight originating in Cologne, Germany. Approximately 50 minutes later, 4000ft above the town of Klerken, witnesses on the ground described seeing flames underneath the fuselage, and an object (which turned out to be one of the passengers) was seen falling from the aircraft. Moments later an explosion was observed, followed by separation of the tail of the aircraft. The Argosy crashed nearly vertically into a field behind the Esen Castle just outside Diksmuide (Dixmude), Belgium. At 13:27 all fifteen on board were dead. At the time it was the deadliest accident in British civil aviation history. Its cause was never determined.

I first heard about this accident when I was researching Imperial Airways’s historic fleet for a graphic novel. Since I currently live less than 10 km from the crash site, I did some further investigating. Locally, this event is practically forgotten. This is hardly surprising, and in fact quite forgiveable. Diksmuide was on the front line of action during World War One, and was almost completely destroyed during the hostilities. The war left a most overwhelming imprint in this area, and consequently most historical research  centres around the period 1914-18. The following information is the result of around a year's worth of my own research.

This accident was a huge event at the time. Almost immediately following the crash, media speculation  was rampant, and all sorts of crazy stories did the rounds. The police and fire brigade arrived quickly, followed soon after by members of the press. All possible attempts were made to keep onlookers at a distance, but this did not prevent occasional souvenir hunting. Photography at the scene was forbidden by the police, but clever journalists chartered an aircraft and took aerial photos of the scene.

(Photo: The accident aircraft. G-AACI “City of Liverpool”)

(Photo: The crash site in 1933)

(Photo: The crash site today, taken from roughly the same spot)

Journalists speculated, and their suspicions quickly settled on the passenger who had fallen (or jumped) out of the burning aircraft. His name was Mr. Albert Voss, a dentist from Manchester, who the press suggested had reason to have set the airplane on fire in a spectacular murder-suicide. As a dealer in dental equipment, he would 'surely' have been able to gain access to numerous flammable substances (the substance the press focused on was Hecolite paste). The fact that burns were found on his hands did nothing to help. Mr. Voss was also labelled as a womaniser who had married a woman 25 years younger than him. He was painted as a gambler who lived large and squandered his money, putting him into perpetual debt. Allegedly, Scotland Yard had been on his trail for some time, and that of fellow passenger Louis Dearden, who was said to be his accomplice in a drug smuggling operation. Mr. Voss was himself said to have been a drug addict, having once ended up in the hospital after an overdose of aspirin. Scotland Yard was alarmed enough by these rumours to have his funeral halted in the middle of proceedings. They confiscated his body, and an autopsy was performed as part of a Coroner’s Inquest.

The crash was investigated by what is now the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Air Accident Investigation Branch, or AAIB. The ink of the printed report has faded over the course of eight decades, but the eyes are drawn to this sobering information on the first page:

The aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth ‘Argosy’ series II was constructed in 1929, and put into service in June of that year. Total flight time on the airframe at the time of the accident was 4,419 hours. It had flown 90 hours since its last complete overhaul, after which its Certificate of Airworthiness was renewed. Total Times on the individual engines had been recorded to the nearest half hour. The flight mechanic, Mr. W. R. Brown, had signed off the Daily Certificate of Safety that morning. The aircraft had been maintained and operated to the appropriate standard, and appears to have been in good working order. The pilot, Captain Lionel Leleu was very experienced, and had previously served in the RAF.

Weather conditions at the time of the accident were very good. According to the official report:

                “There was a clear sky, bright sunshine and very little wind. At ground level the wind was from the East and not more than 5 m.p.h.”

The report’s description of the accident mostly corroborates that of eye witness statements in the press. On Approaching Dixmude there was a sudden change in engine noise, followed by a considerable volume of whitish smoke coming from the fuselage.

                “A few moments later, while the aircraft was descending  rapidly but only at a moderately steep glide angle, apparently under control, flames appeared from, or around, the back half of the cabin and it became obvious that the machine was already ablaze”

                “An object, which was subsequently proved to be one of the passengers, was then seen to fall from the machine”

                “While it was still a considerable distance from the ground – possibly as much as 800 feet – the machine swung to the right, and almost at the same moment the rear portion of the fuselage broke off. The structural failure was accompanied by a loud report or what witnesses describe as an “explosion”. Numerous pieces of structure, articles of luggage and freight and also one passenger (a woman) were thrown from the machine when it broke in the air, and were subsequently found on the ground at various distances from the main wreckage”

                “The fire which raged on the ground, fed by petrol from the main tanks, completely gutted the main debris”

The field in which Mr. Voss fell is less than one kilometre away from where the Argosy impacted the ground. I would conservatively estimate, that the time that passed between his jump/fall and the crash was likely on the order of thirty seconds or less. Whatever the nature of these events, they happened fast. His body was examined. Again, from the official report:

                “The man’s clothes (no overcoat found on the body) bore little evidence of fire; his boots showed no signs whatever of heat. His jacket was only slightly singed at one or two places in front, but was smeared, particularly at the sleeves, with cellulose paint which appeared to have come from the walls or ceiling of the cabin. (Suggestive of rubbing contact with burning paintwork of the machine).”

The inquest, for its part, was met by the Jury with an open verdict. The autopsy and analysis of his organs produced zero evidence of him having been a drug addict. No evidence was found of Mr. Voss being mentally deranged, or responsible for the fire. The only chemicals found on him were the traces of cellulite paint from the aircraft. No evidence of Hecolite, or any other flammable substance was found.

The accident investigators did a thorough examination of the site and of the recovered wreckage. Recovery (they had been smashed 2 metres into the ground by the impact) and examination of the three engines was accomplished by technicians from Belgian airline SABENA. Analysis determined that the aircraft was essentially working fine up to the point of the outbreak of fire. There was however one area of possible cause in which no evidence could be recorded. The report states:

                “NOTE: It was not possible to arrive at any conclusion regarding the actual pipe-lines of either the fuel or lubricating systems, as very little of the “Petroflex” tubing had escaped total destruction by fire”

In the end:

                “On the evidence established it is not possible to arrive at any definite conclusion as to the origin and cause of the outbreak of fire in the aircraft.

Many lives were shattered by this accident. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing by the courts, the damage to Albert Voss’ reputation, and that of his family, had been done.

According to his 1912 English Naturalisation Certificate, Albert Voss was born on the 27th of November, 1863 in Zulpich, Prussia to David and Esther Voss. At the time of his naturalisation, he had been married to Minnie Voss (a Belgian National) for 22 years. He lived with her and their three children, Hugo, Alfred, and Hilda, on Bignor Street in Manchester. His 1911 Census record shows that they had a total of seven children together, four of who died. His profession was listed as: ‘Artificial Teeth Maker’. They must have had some means, as they employed a domestic servant.

In January of 1924 Minnie died at age 57. She was buried at the Burial Grounds of the Manchester Hebrew Congregation. In 1930 he married Jessie Cohen , age 35. In newspaper articles pertaining to the Coroner’s Inquest, Jessie’s two daughers Stella, and Winnie Cohen are mentioned. Jessie was severely affected by Albert’s death, and the drama from the press attention and Coroner’s Inquest. Albert had taken out a £500 life insurance policy for the day of the flight (something which in these days was not entirely unusual). It is at present unknown whether this was ever paid out, but if it was, it covered his outstanding debts and obligations only just. After all was paid, Minnie was left with just over £2 to her name. She sank into a deep depression and disappeared. Her body was recovered several months later from a canal. Her cause of death was an open verdict, but the media speculated suicide.

Even though the evidence points rather strongly to Mr. Voss being Jewish, there were press reports of him having made anti-semitic statements while conducting business on the continent. 
According to an article in the Nottingham Evening Post, April 4th, 1933, the manager of a Belgian dental agency in Brussels, with which Mr. Voss had dealings said:

                “Among the matters we talked of was the situation in Germany, and he struck me as being particularly anti-Jewish. I spent the whole of Monday with Mr. Voss and Mr. Dearden, and I accompanied them on Tuesday morning to the taxi which took them to the aerodrome.”

I strongly suspect that he may have made those statements to protect himself, and the future of his business dealings. We must look at Mr. Voss in the context of what was happening in 1933. The newspapers that reported about the air disaster were also full of updates about the Nazis and the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany. For example, some quotes from the Western Gazette of Friday, April 7th, 1933:




                “Jews fleeing from Germany into Belgium during the weekend are said to have been fired at by German Customs officials on the frontier. Many of the refugees, who carried lots of luggage and large amounts of money, tried to avoid customs by walking through woods not far from Verviers. A group of 23 were chased by German Customs officials, who fired many shots at them. The 23 were arrested by Belgian Gendarmerie, but released by order of the Surte Generale. They were allowed to stay in Belgium, as it was feared they would be massacred if ordered back. All trains entering Denmark from Germany were crowded with German Jews. Several hundred arrived in Copenhagen alone.”

Mr. Voss’ expensive business trips by air could easily be seen as extravagant, but I really think that by traveling across borders on a British airline, on a British passport, he effectively protected himself from the increased scrutiny he would have faced with a German accent in German border control zones. He would undoubtedly have had to pass through these, had he chosen the cheaper option of travel by land.

About Mr. Louis Dearden, his alleged accomplice in smuggling drugs, little information could be found. According to his 1911 Census record he was married with two kids, and his profession, like Mr. Voss is listed as ‘Artificial Teeth Maker’. There is another record that shows the dissolution of his business by mutual agreement with his business partner in that same year. It is not presently known whether he subsequently went into business with Mr. Voss. The evidence suggests that he and Louis Dearden were both  in the business of selling dental equipment, and that business trips abroad were hardly an unusual activity.

I think some ‘event’, not of Mr. Voss’ doing caused a fire aboard the Argosy and spread rapidly. He probably saw his life flash before his eyes, realised the situation was not survivable, and – as he was seated at the very back near the door - made the rather depressing decision that jumping out of the aircraft would give him a faster death than being roasted.

(Photo: The field in which Mr. Voss’s body fell)

Among the other passengers several notable stories stand out. Particularly tragic is that of Hugh McIlrath (age 22) and his sister Catherine (age 19) from Sydney, Australia. Catherine had attended Cheltenham Ladies College in Gloucestershire. From Hugh's old school:

                “It is with regret that we record the death of Hugh McIlrath, who, with his sister Catherine, was killed in an aeroplane accident near Dixmude, Belgium, on 28th March last. He had been escorting his sister on various trips to the Continent, and was then returning to London, whence they were both to sail for Australia.

                As Hugh had spent eight years at Shore, he was well known to the younger generation of Old Boys, with whom he was always popular. He was very likable, as he was clean and wholesome, with an instinctive knowledge of the right thing to do at all times. He was appreciated as well by the masters, who were often secretly amused by the bluff he failed to carry off when his work was unprepared, but no one could be angry with him for long, as he was such a good boy and took his defeat in such good part.”

                -From The Torch-Bearer, May 1st, 1933 (Publication of Sydney Church of England Grammar School)

Their father, William McIlrath came from humble beginnings, having been born in Banbridge, Down, Ireland, son of a farmer. He and several brothers emigrated to Australia where they became successful business owners and philanthropists. He and his wife funded a new hospital building that became known as the Hugh and Catherine McIlrath Centre for Pathology in 1935.

The woman who was thrown from the aircraft when the explosion took place was Valerie Forrester Thomson (age 28). Her body bore gruesome evidence of having been engulfed in fire above the waist.

Valerie was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in December of 1903. Her father, George Forrester Thomson worked in the insurance business there. After serving in World War One, Mr. Thomson remained on the Continent to help take care of the war graves. He died in Brussels in 1928, where he lived in a house on Avenue des Saisons in Ixelles with Valerie and her sister Mary. Valerie remained in Brussels until at least 1932 when she moved to Henley-on-Thames. She and her cousin took over the Elizabethan House on Hart street where they ran a successful tea room and boarding house. The building still exists, and now houses a Thai restaurant. 


                “The funeral of Miss Valerie Forrester Thomson, of Hart Street, Henley, took place very quietly at Henley Cemetery on Monday Morning. The service, which was of a very simple character and conducted by the Rector of Henley (Canon A. E. Dams, R. D.), was attended by members of the family and a few local residents. There was a wealth of floral tributes, among which was a wreath from Imperial Airways, Ltd., the company owning the ill-fated craft, “The City of Liverpool.” “

At 16, Lotte Voss was the youngest person aboard the flight. After the accident, the press immediately assumed she was Albert Voss’s niece, adding to the fury of the public that he would be a bad enough person to set fire to an aircraft that was carrying his own young relative. It quickly became apparent that the two were no relation of each other. Lotte was a student at Ivy House School in Wimbledon Commons, and was travelling alone from her home in Barmen near Cologne. The school’s principal, Mrs. Leeson, was waiting for her arrival at Croydon. The Yorkshire Post, April 5th, 1933 reports:

                “Fraulein Lotte Voss, the 19-year-old* Barmen girl, who was killed in the liner disaster, was buried at Barmen yesterday, says a Reuter message from Cologne. A pathetic figure at the gravesite was her father. In a death notice published in a Cologne newspaper Herr Voss described his daughter as “My dearest, my first, and last, my Lotte.”

(*all other sources report her age as 16 years of age)

The question now is, where do I go from here? In researching this accident for the past year, many questions have come up with every new piece of evidence I have found. From the official accident report, it is clear that everything was done to try and pinpoint a cause with the technology that was available to investigators of the 1930s. If this accident had happened this year, there would have been many more tools available for analysis, and I am convinced that a cause could probably be found. Is there still potential evidence in the grounds behind Esen Castle? And would any of it be in good enough state to lend itself to modern analysis techniques? I very recently contacted BAe Systems (the company into which Armstrong Whitworth was absorbed), and inquired about the possibility of acquiring copies of the Argosy’s blueprints and purchasing the Type Certificate.

I personally suspect that a bird strike may have ruptured multiple fuel lines (most of which were destroyed by the post-impact fire, as was noted in the report). For a cabin to turn into a raging inferno in less than a minute takes a highly combustible substance, and fuel mist spraying into the cabin is in my mind the most probable scenario. A build-up of fuel vapour is also a possible explanation for the explosion that blew the tail off the aircraft. Forensic analysis turned up no evidence of a bomb having exploded on board. To determine the plausibility of this, would require building at least a partial Argosy reconstruction and testing it under simulated conditions.

I focused on the five people with whom I felt the strongest connection in writing this article, but have uncovered background stories on most of the others. Their stories all deserve to be told in as much detail as possible. The full story of what happened to the City of Liverpool can only be told in a proper book and that is what I will strive to produce in the future.


-First and foremost I would like to thank the staff of the UK Civil Aviation Authority – Air Accident Investigation Branch, who kindly declassified the original 1933 report and provided me with a high quality electronic copy, as well as a report for another (non-fatal) accident with an Argosy. The report was my primary source, against which all other information and evidence was weighed.
-Chris Vandewalle of the City Archive of Diksmuide, who provided me with copies of eye-witness accounts, and copies of the death certificates of the passengers and crew.
-Kelly Atkinson, for her help with research.
-Fiona Price, for her encouragement.
-Monica Goemaere, of B&B Esen Kasteelhoeve ( Valerie Forrester Thomson’s body fell on what is now her land. The B&B is wonderful and I can highly recommend it. When you visit, be sure to leave a flower or two in ‘the spot’.
-Dr. Pamela Greenwood, of the Wimbledon Museum
-Alexandra Cropper, of the Manchester Jewish Museum
-Anna Vuylsteke, the 100 year old nursing home resident who gave me her personal account.
-Mariette Broker, for her insights.
-Paul O’Shea, of the UK Metropolitan Police
-Peter Verplancke, of the Ijzertoren Museum
-Joost Freys
-Filip Boury, Archivist at Esen Castle
-Mr. A Gysel, local Diksmuide Historian
-Jim Davies & Keith Hayward of the British Airways Museum
-Anyone who I may have forgotten

-UK CAA-AAIB Report of the March 28, 1933 accident with Armstrong Whitworth Argosy-II G-AACI “City of Liverpool” at Dixmude, Belgium
-Stadsarchief Diksmuide - Documentatiedossier 'City of Liverpool'
-Stadsarchief Diksmuide - Gemeent archief Esen, burgerlijke stand, 1933
-Transcripts of local eye witness accounts
-Official death certificates of all 15 passengers and crew
-‘Contact’ article about the crash. Newsletter of the Belgian Aviation History Association. Author: Frans van Humbeek.
-The Evening News, March 29, 1933
-The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday April 5th, 1933
-The Nottingham Evening Post, April 4th, 1933
-The Lancashire Daily Post, April 27th, 1933
-The Aberdeen Press & Journal, March 30th, 1933
-1911 Census records for Albert Voss
-UK Naturalisation record for Albert Voss, 1912
-Burial record for Minnie Voss, 1924
-Albert Voss Marriage Index (2nd marriage to Cohen)
-1911 Census record for Louis Dearden
-Business dissolution notice for Louis Dearden, 1911
-1911 Census record for George Forrester Thomson
-Two local newspaper clippings from Henley on Thames, supplied to me by the Henley Library
-The Sydney Morning Herald, March 30th, 1933
-The Torch-Bearer, May 1st 1933 issue:
-McIlrath, William (1876-1955) Australia Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, 1986
-Certified Extracts of Death, made to the Registrar General for England from the Undersigned British Consulate for the year ended 31st December, 1928 – Death with the district of the British Vice Consulate in Brussels.
-The Courier and Advertiser, April 5th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, April 27th, 1933
-The Citizen, April 4th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, August 23rd, 1933
-The Sunderland Echo, April 5th, 1933
-The Yorkshire Post, April 5th, 1933
-The Evening Telegraph, March 30th, 1933
-The Derby Evening Telegraph, March 30th, 1933
-The Lancashire Daily Post, March 29th, 1933
-The Evening News, March 29th, 1933
-The Western Gazette, April 7th, 1933

-The Western Gazette, March 30th, 1933

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