As on land, so on water

In keeping with its status as one of Britain’s fastest racing circuits, Hampshire’s Thruxton circuit has a sequence of corners named after three great British speed icons: Campbell, Cobb and Segrave.

As every schoolboy knew in days of yore, Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb and Henry Segrave all held the absolute world land speed record. But in an era when danger most definitely had a capital ‘D’, two of them and the son of the other would lose their lives in record attempts…on water. 

Henry Segrave, a former pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and the first Briton to win a Grand Prix, was already the world land speed record holder when he took to the waters of Lake Windermere on Friday, 13th June, 1930 at the helm of ‘Miss England II’. He was accompanied by two equally brave men: Victor Halliwell, the boat’s engineer, and Michael ‘Jack’ Willcocks, her mechanic.

Having performed two timed runs in opposite directions over a measured kilometre, Segrave turned Miss England II round and commenced a third run. He did not complete it. Miss England II was travelling at an estimated 100 miles per hour when she struck a floating branch and capsized, killing Halliwell and fatally injuring Segrave. Willcocks, however, was more fortunate. Thrown clear, he escaped with a broken arm.

Rescuers pulled an unconscious Segrave from the sinking wreckage. When he came to, his first thought was to ask about his crewmates. Moments later, having being told that he’d a set a new world record (of 98.76 mph) on his first two runs, he succumbed to his injuries.

Miss England II was recovered, repaired and, with Kaye Don at the controls, engaged in an eighteen month duel with America’s Gar Wood, during which time Don broke the world water speed record on four occasions. Ultimately, however, it was Wood who emerged victorious, having raised the record to 124.86 mph in September, 1932. 

This record lasted for nearly five years, but in 1937 a new British challenger entered the arena: Malcolm Campbell. Having broken the world land speed record several times throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Campbell now eyed the water speed record.

Like Segrave before him, Campbell was seeking to concurrently hold both the land and water speed records when he hurtled down Lake Maggiore at the helm of his boat, Bluebird K3, on 1st September, 1937. He broke the record that day and again the following day, and would go on to raise it twice more before the advent of the second world war, the last time aboard a new boat, Bluebird K4.

Campbell passed away, aged 63, in 1948 following a series of strokes, but as we shall see the Campbell family was not finished with record breaking.

Malcolm Campbell may have been the world water speed record holder when the world was plunged into the abyss of war, but he was no longer the fastest man on land. Two fellow Britons, George Eyston and John Cobb, had traded the record several times between 1937 and 1939, with Cobb emerging as the final pre-war record holder. Remarkably, Cobb’s 1939 mark of 369.74 miles per hour was faster than the top speed of any production fighter aircraft of the time.

After the war, Cobb continued where he had left off, setting a new world record in September, 1947. It would stand for nearly 17 years.

Having cemented his position as the fastest man on land, Cobb now decided to go after the world water speed record. A boat was designed for him by Reid Railton, the designer of his record-breaking car, and was built by Vosper & Company of Portsmouth. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Ghost engine, the same type that powered early versions of the Comet airliner, Cobb’s boat, Crusader, was launched in 1952.

On 29th September, 1952, Cobb attempted to break the world water speed record on the cold, dark waters of Loch Ness. After making a timed run at average speed in excess of 206 miles per hour, Cobb set out on the reverse run with the world record seemingly at his mercy. As Crusader topped an estimated 240 mph, she struck what appeared to be a wake on the surface of the loch. Her stability disrupted, Crusader dug her bow into the water and somersaulted, killing Cobb.

John Cobb’s body was recovered after the accident, but the wreckage of Crusader sank to the bottom of the loch. It remains there to this day.

Three years after Cobb’s death, a familiar name re-entered the record books: Campbell. This time it was Donald Campbell, only son of Malcolm Campbell, who had taken up the cudgels on behalf of Great Britain. Using a new, gas-turbine powered boat, Bluebird K7, Campbell broke the world water speed record on no fewer than seven occasions between 1955 and 1964.

Like his father before him, Donald Campbell was a record breaker on land too. However, the land speed record did not fall easily to him: his first serious record attempt ended when his car, Bluebird CN7, crashed at an estimated 360 miles per hour. Remarkably, Campbell survived, rebuilt his car and went back after the record, taking it in 1964. But he didn’t stop there. Later the same year, he also broke his own world water speed record. In so doing he became the first – and so far only – man to break both records in the same calendar year.

Shortly after Campbell took the world land speed record, the FIA decided to ratify records set by vehicles which, unlike Bluebird CN7, did not drive their own wheels. Campbell’s response to this was to commission a design for a rocket-powered vehicle that was theoretically capable of breaking the sound barrier. 

First, though, he would attempt to raise the world water speed record, which he still held, to over 300 miles per hour.  Unfortunately, by 1966 Campbell’s zest was no longer shared by potential backers and he was left to finance his latest record attempt out of his own pocket.

The resulting lack of funds was to have serious consequences. Unable to afford a new boat, Campbell instead installed a more powerful Bristol Orpheus gas-turbine engine in his elderly Bluebird K7. The ensuing change in Bluebird’s centre of gravity combined with other technical issues and bad weather in the Lake District to frustrate Campbell’s hopes of breaking the record before the end of 1966. 

Finally, on the morning of 4th January, 1967, conditions were suitable for a record attempt. Campbell seized the opportunity with both hands and quickly took to the water. On his first run, which saw Bluebird reach about 320 mph, he averaged 297.6 mph down the measured kilometre, well above his existing record.

His first run concluded, Campbell elected to start his second run straight away. He went even faster this time,  Bluebird hitting 328 mph as she skimmed the surface of Coniston Water.  But as Bluebird streaked down the measured kilometre her starboard sponson started to bounce violently and her engine flamed out. Deprived of the downforce provided by the engine’s thrust, Bluebird raised her nose, somersaulted and struck the unyielding water with terrific force.

Although rescue boats quickly arrived at the scene of the accident, there was little left on the surface for them to recover, just a few pieces of wreckage, Donald Campbell’s helmet and ‘Mr. Whoppit’, his lucky teddy bear. 

It would be 34 years before the wreckage of Bluebird and the remains of her gallant pilot were finally recovered from the depths of the lake. On 12th September, 2001, Donald Campbell’s body was taken on a last ride down Coniston Water before being laid to rest.

In today’s self-obsessed, narcissistic society it may be hard to comprehend that the deeds of the likes of Segrave, Cobb and Campbell were in no small part motivated by a desire to bring glory and honour to their country. Indeed, their feats showcased British design and engineering and attracted valuable overseas business. 

They deserve to be remembered for what they were: heroes.

And thanks to the generosity of Gina Campbell and the dedication of everyone involved with The Bluebird Project, a fully restored Bluebird K7 will soon run again on Coniston Water and pay due homage to those who risked, and sometimes gave, all in the pursuit of a shared dream.  

Home page image: Sheppane at Wikimedia English