Cloud of Iona
The loss of the flying boat Cloud of Iona on 31 July 1936 remains a mystery to this day. Piloted by Captain William Halmshaw, the aircraft took off from Guernsey shortly after 7 pm, bound for Jersey. All contact was lost and it was not until wreckage of the seaplane was found at the Minquiers 13 days later that everybody's worst fears were confirmed.
The Cloud of Iona had been carrying two crew and eight passengers. Their bodies were eventually recovered from the sea drifting towards France and it was discovered that they had all drowned, suggesting that the aircraft had not crashed, but had landed in the sea and failed to take off again, eventually drifting on to rocks and breaking up.
Passengers on the inbound mailboat on the evening of the crash claimed to have seen the Cloud of Iona in the distance near Corbière, trying to push through heavy seas towards them.
History of the tragedy
It was rough and windy when Bill Halmshaw put the seaplane down off St Peter Port. It was rougher an hour later. At 6 pm he'd brought eight passengers in from Alderney. At 7 pm he was due to take eight passengers on the half-hour trip to Jersey.
An ex-RAF flyer, he was 28 and came from Southport. Married, he'd worked for Jersey Airways just six months and lived in a house – Windhover, St Brelade — named after the first flying boat he'd flown into Jersey.
Partnering him for this journey was a young mechanic, W Sotinel. He'd joined the company only three months before after being discharged from the French Air force.
It was raining heavily and a strong south-westerly wind whipped up the sea.
The Cloud of Iona bobbed around like a cork. A twin-engined flying boat, she'd been leased and then bought by Jersey Airways. She carried no wireless, but did have Verey lights and distress flares. She had enough petrol to last nearly two hours flying time.
Up until that time Jersey Airways had never had an air loss. It was 31 July 31 1936.
During the hour stop in Guernsey, eight passengers embarked on the plane. Altogether there were three from Guernsey, two from Jersey and three holidaymakers over from Jersey for the day.
First on was Miss Alice Judd, a 45-year-old typist on holiday from Rugby. She was staying at the Bay View Hotel in Jersey. The following Tuesday she was due to return to England, where she lived with her 70-year-old widowed mother.
Then there were two engaged couples. C S Willia and his fiancée, Margaret Davies, both came from the Sparkhill district of Birmingham. They were staying at the Rendezvous holiday camp at Bonne Nuit. While in Guernsey they'd posted a letter home. Margaret's parents received it the following day. The letter told them that Charles and Margaret were having 'the best holiday of their lives'. This was their first flight.
The other couple were E Appleby and Elsie Marley, both from Guernsey. Mr Appleby worked for the States Electricity Board. Before leaving to catch the plane they'd had tea at the Marleys’ home in St Sampson. Both of them were looking forward to a weekend in Jersey.
Also travelling together were Charles Viel and his sister, Mrs W J Sampson, who lived at Lower King's Cliff, Queen's Road. The son of a Jersey centenier, Mr Viel was a retired businessman who'd worked for the Bon Marché stores in Paris. He lived at 10 rue de Four, Paris.
The eighth passenger was Miss Maud Bean, of Cocagne, Vale, Guernsey, a 34-year-old schoolteacher, who was journeying to Jersey to visit her brother at 5 St Mark's Road.
The Cloud of Iona left on schedule. Watching from the quayside. PC J Grainger and Pilot George Renouf saw the flying boat make a perfect take-off.
In Jersey the company's traffic manager, R Wieland, waited for the flying boat to arrive. At 7.30 the weather was worsening and there was no sign of the plane. Mr Wieland waited another three quarters of an hour before phoning Guernsey in case the seaplane had turned back. Still nothing was known.
Soon afterwards the Guernsey lifeboat, Queen Victoria , set out on the same route. Meanwhile the French consul in Jersey, M Delalande, alerted all the coastal towns between Cherbourg and Carteret. Then came the first lead. The postmaster in Sark reported that the flying boat had passed overhead at 7.10. It was flying low in the misty rain and passed over the north of the Island heading north-east. Hearing this news, the Guernsey lifeboat changed course and searched the sea to the north.
Visibility was down to 30 yards and rough seas forced the Queen Victoria to shelter off Jethou. At 10.15 the Jersey States tug, Duke of Normandy , steamed out into the storm and at the same time the cargo ship, Roebuck put out from Guernsey to help in the search.
Two ships in the search saw lights flickering in the Channel. The Guernsey lifeboat found they came from a motor vessel off Sark and the Roebuck’s sister ship, the Sambur made a detour at the Casquwts. Then the lights vanished.
At 5.30 am a 16-seater express owned by Express owned by Jersey Airways took off from Southampton and flew the length of the French coast at a height of 50 feet. On the same morning an RAF flying boat made the search.
The day after a notice was put in the local newspapers. It read: “Will any person who may have seen or heard any aircraft over the Island, or over or on the sea in proximity to it, between 7 pm and 9 pm on Friday, 31 July, kindly inform Capt Wilkins, of the Air Ministry, either in writing care of the States Greffe or by telephone care of the police station.
Slowly, haphazardly, information came in. On Monday flares were seen on the Paternosters, but a search the following morning yielded nothing. Another report from Jersey's north-west coast was more helpful. The plane had been heard over Plemont at 7.45.
In Guernsey two passers-by had seen the Cloud of Iona earlier. The flying boat had been over Jethou and losing height, they said. At one point they thought the floats were about to touch the water; then the plane had disappeared into the rain and mist.
Later a resident of Guernsey's west coast reported hearing the plane at 8.20. It was above Lihou and officials estimated only 30 minutes fuel could have been left. Evidently the pilot, completely lost, had left Lihou going east in a last, desperate attempt to reach Jersey.
But where had the 'Cloud of Iona' come down?
Two passengers arriving on the daylight mailsteamer ss St Helier had a dramatic story to tell. F J Newark, from Kingston, and his daughter, Mrs Gasson, claimed they'd seen the seaplane. About two miles off La Corbiere, Mr Newark, standing on the promenade deck, had seen something in the sea four hundred yards away.
- "As I looked I saw it was an aeroplane. It was drifting towards a point somewhere in front of the steamer," he told the press next morning.
This was sensational news. Looking through binoculars he had seen the plane clearly until it disappeared in front of the ship.
- "I ran across to the other rail. I waited some minutes and searched the sea with my glasses, but I never saw the machine again, he went on.
This account was confirmed by Mrs Gasson, who remembered noticing the plane first. If anything, she was even more specific.
- ”I could hear the engine spluttering above the noise of the sea, but the plane seemed to me to be out of control,” she told newspapermen. I could see dark shapes through the cabin window of the plane. At the time I thought they were passengers sitting there quite calmly. There were no signs of anybody waving or any panic.”
And Mrs Gasson rcame to an even more dramatic conclusion. “Possibly, as it drifted in front of the St Helier , the aeroplane was hit by the bows,” she suggested.
The following day Capt Pitman of the St Helier dismissed this story as ‘highly improbable’. But the possibility that the flying boat ha been struck and sunk by the ship remained.
It remained for just 24 hours. On Sunday a French rescue craft signted an aluminium float nine miles south-west of Corbiere. Then came a more important discovery. Wreckage was seen at the Minquiers and an expedition under Capt H G Benest, the Lloyd's Agent, recovered the plane's emergency door three miles from Maitre Ile . They found portions of fabric, plywood and air cushions from the pilot's cabin two miles west of the Pipette rocks.
As soon as the debris was found and brought back, all hope of survivors was abandoned.
In the next week there were more melancholy discoveries. On Tuesday a seaplane float was washed up on the beach at Anneville, near Coutances, and a French yacht picked up a piece of grey aeroplane wing; on Wednesday Mrs Simpson's body was found by fishermen on the coast near Armanville and the skipper of the yacht, Chantecleer , reported seeing aeroplane parts floating in the sea off Cherbourg; on Friday a panel with the name Cloud of Iona was washed up at Conville sur Mer.
The fate of the Iona was known, but its last, catastrophic landing place remained a mystery. The task of piecing together the seaplane's last hours was puzzling enough. Strong tides and high winds had washed up wreckage from the plane so many miles apart.
On Thursday, 13 August, almost a fortnight after the Iona's final flight - two Jersey fishermen, Winter Gallichan and George Marie, came upon the aircraft's engines and its smashed hull wedged between the rocks at Les Pipettes near the Minquiers. The rocks were only visible at low tide, but it was obvious that this was the Cloud of Iona's last resting place. Over the weekend a fleet of boats set out from St. Helier. They brought back the wreckage and anything else they could find while scrambling over the rocks in the hour-and-a half's gap at low tide. The heavy engines were extricated, clothing was picked up scattered for 30 yards around the rocks: there was a wallet full of money, two umbrellas, a ladies compact, a gladstone bag, a silk shirt with a Guernsey outfitter’s tag inside, a camera, a toothbrush, a woman's hat, several Guernsey pennies, and four women's shoes. All the shoes were odd; there wasn’t a pair among them.
And this was all that was left, all that remained to record the last hours of the flying boat Iona .