HE may have been, as one US newspaper described him, a taciturn 200-pound London fur broker, but John Cobb knew all there was to know about breaking speed records.

Wealthy, and thus able to indulge his love of speed, Cobb, who had been educated at Eton and Cambridge, had become the first man to travel at more than 400mph, a feat he had achieved on one of his runs on the salt-flats of Utah in 1947. To the press he became known as “the fastest man alive”.

He was also an expert pilot, having served with the RAF for two years during the war before transferring to Air Transport Auxiliary, where he spent two more years, ferrying aircraft from factory to squadron.

Cobb had long been a well-known figure on Brooklands Motor Course, a few miles from his home in Esher, Surrey. He set lap records there with a succession of powerful, innovative cars, before turning his attention to high-speed boats.

The then-current world water speed record was held by an American, Stanley Sayres, with a speed of 178.4 mph. In late August 1952, Cobb, aged 52, came to Loch Ness to try to reclaim the record for Britain. As the Glasgow Herald noted, “he had made record-breaking his hobby and spent a considerable sum of money on it … The upholding of British prestige was behind his record-breaking achievements”.

Cobb’s chosen craft was the Crusader, a silver-and-scarlet, jet-propelled speed boat, powered by the de Havilland Ghost jet engine, as deployed in the Comet airline.

It had arrived in Drumnadrochit after a 580-mile road journey from New Malden, Surrey. Constructed of plywood and high-quality aluminium made in Falkirk, Stirlingshire, by British Aluminium Ltd, the Crusader was flanked by sponsons, or floats, and had been built by Vospers Ltd in seven months.

“Provided the wind keeps down”, Cobb said at the launch, “Loch Ness should be perfect for a speed attempt. I shall go as fast as I can, compatible with safety”. He added that it might take some weeks before he was ready for the assault on the record; trials would need to be carried out on the loch for both the behaviour of the boat and for speed. Because of bad weather, he had been restricted to floatation tests at Portsmouth.

On August 26, accompanied by his wife Margaret, his manager, Captain George Eyston, and other officials, Cobb ventured out on a fishing boat from Temple Pier to survey Loch Ness, but returned after just 15 minutes because of the roughness of the weather. Conditions were little better the following day.

HeraldScotland: John Cobb's funeral procession in InvernessJohn Cobb's funeral procession in Inverness

A caravan supplied by a Falkirk company arrived at Drumnadrochit, for the Cobbs to use as their day-time loch-side headquarters. As technicians worked on the Crusader at the pier they were watched by intrigued locals and holidaymakers.

In early September, Cobb did test runs of 100mph and 140mph, but he needed the weather to improve considerably. “It is quite bumpy in an ordinary speedboat on the part of the loch where I have been carrying out my trials at present”, he said on the ninth. Two days later he said that Crusader would need modifications to enable it to get onto its sponsons.

The latest trial had seen the loch being too smooth for the boat. On one run Cobb could only get going with difficulty – and even then, the Evening Times reported, “only after an artificial ripple had been created in front of Crusader by a speed-boat”.

Watched by thousands of sightseers,Cobb made his first official attempt on Friday the 19th but strong crosswinds foiled him, even if he did reach an average speed on his two runs of 173 mph – 5 mph shy of the record. “No, I don’t think I did it”, he said, forestalling press questions as to whether he broke the record. His press officer said a further run would be made when conditions allowed.

The days came and went until finally, on Monday, September 29, Cobb made his second official attempt. Before leaving Temple Pier he observed that conditions were “well-nigh perfect”. As before, his attempt would be watched by thousands of people on the shore.

No-one could know what lay ahead.

Cobb’s final moments are captured in a British Pathe newsreel. The Crusader ploughs through the waters of Loch Ness. But then, two minutes and five seconds into the footage, the boat suddenly disintegrates in a flurry of foam and wreckage.

“Just before reaching the second timekeeper’s hut at the end of the measured mile, “ the Glasgow Herald recorded, “the boat developed an alarming bounce, which became rapidly more pronounced.

“In a flash it seemed to somersault and in a cloud of smoke and spray it disappeared below the surface of the loch, which at that point is almost 700ft deep. All that remained on the surface were small pieces of debris”.

Cobb’s wife, the Evening Times added, “was rushed from her spot on the measured mile to the pier and the news of her husband’s death was broken to her by a friend. She broke down and was driven back to the Drumnadrochit Hotel”. She was ushered by staff into a sitting-room.

HeraldScotland: John Cobb's memorial on the side of Loch NessJohn Cobb's memorial on the side of Loch Ness

A small boat lowered from the yacht Maureen, on which the official observer had been standing, set off to retrieve Cobb’s body. Other boats also joined in. As his body came to the surface his Mae West lifesaving equipment was quickly detected. Mrs Cobb was taken back to Inverness and in the afternoon, accompanied by friends, left by car for London.

It seemed certain that had Cobb been able to make the two runs he would have regained the water speed record for Britain. The official observer, Lt-Commander Arthur Bray, of the International Marine Timekeepers’ Association, and vice-president of the Marine Motoring Association, said the Crusader’s speed over the measured mile had been 206.8mph – more than 28mph in excess of the record.

“We have lost”, Bray added, “a very gallant Briton who has proved that as a nation we can go out and do things. What he did was to be the first man to travel on water at over 200 miles per hour”.

Peter Du Cane, managing director of Vospers Ltd, was standing beside Mrs Cobb when the tragedy happened. “He was a very great sportsman,” a shaken du Cane told reporters. “He must have been travelling at 240mph to average 206.8 mph on the measured mile”.

Rescue boats retrieved some of the wreckage, but members of Cobb’s staff refrained from advancing any theory about the accident. Rogue waves were blamed by others; Du Cane was quoted as saying: “He hit three big waves – that was his trouble”.

The hotel manager, Mr G. Nicholson, said: “We don’t know what happened. One minute the Crusader was there, the next minute it was not. There were just a few pieces floating about. I don’t remember hearing anything when it all happened. There was just the spray and then a lot of pieces”. Another eyewitness, a woman from the nearby village of Lewiston, said: “It was all over in a matter of seconds”.

Gar Wood, the US speedboat expert, said that he had experimented with a jet-powered speedboat but had abandoned the idea because of the risks. “With a propeller-engined boat, if you leave the water, everything stops”, he said. “When we tried with an aircraft jet engine, the power was so great that if the boat left the water it kept right on up”.

A post-mortem on the Tuesday determined that death had been instantaneous. Cdr Bray told the Glasgow Herald that any suggestion that waves might have caused the accident could be discounted.

“I followed the Crusader down the measured mile through binoculars and saw it start to porpoise”, he said. “There were no waves, though there was a ripple …. Whatever cost Mr Cobb his life had nothing to do with Loch Ness”.

Cdr Bray said that he and other experts would watch newsreel footage of Cobb’s final moments in slow-motion to try to discover what had happened.

Slow-motion footage had been shown the previous night on the BBC’s TV Newsreel programme. “Contrary to most reports of the accident”, noted a Herald writer, who watched the programme, “the Crusader did not appear to porpoise before breaking up or to disintegrate without cause.

“It seemed that the nose of the craft dipped, for some reason not apparent from the film. The surface of Loch Ness appeared on the film to be smooth, and there was no sign of the three waves that were reported to have been responsible, but the speed of the boat, the movement of the camera and the lighting made it difficult to determine the cause of disaster”.

On the Wednesday, a brief funeral service was held in the chapel of the Royal Northern Infirmary in Inverness. Among those present were Reid Railton, the designer of the Crusader, and John MacLeod, MP for Ross and Cromarty. The minister who conducted the service praised Cobb’s “skill, daring and valour, his courtesy and humbleness of heart”.

A cortege made its way through the town’s main streets, followed by members of Cobb’s staff, headed by Captain Eyston. Many of those who lined the streets wept. A spray of carnations, sent anonymously, bore a simple inscription: “To a gallant crusader”. Cobb’s body was then borne down to his home in Esher, Surrey.

On October 7, a meeting of the Glenurquhart Rural Community Association decided to honour Cobb’s memory by erecting a cairn that would overlook the measured mile.

It was unveiled a year after his death by Cobb’s sister, Mrs Eileen Holloway. His brother, Gerrard, was also present, as was Peter Du Cane, but Mrs Cobb was not there. Wreaths were placed on the cairn by three local men who had assisted Cobb. The service was attended by some 200 people.

On March 27, 1953 Cobb was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct – “For services”, the citation read, in attempting to break the world’s water speed record, and in research into high speed on water, in the course of which he lost his life”.

Similar commendations were awarded to two Glasgow plumbers, for their services when two men were overcome by fumes in the bottom of a tank in H.M.S. Mull of Galloway, and to a Glasgow Corporation machine-man, for his services when an armed man was arrested.

SEVENTY years have passed since Cobb’s death, but he is still recalled with affection in the area around Loch Ness. In 2002, on the 50th anniversary of Cobb’s death, the secretary of the Glenurquhart Heritage Group, said: “John Cobb is well remembered here. He had time for everyone.

“There was a great deal of interest in what he was trying to do. It was a different time then. It was only seven years after the war and people had a different attitude to heroism. It was also still a time of austerity. There wasn’t much excitement around and people knew of John Cobb because of his car racing”.

That July, pieces of aluminium were painstakingly detected by investigators from the Loch Ness Project, led by Adrian Shine. Seventeen years later, the Crusader’s largely intact aft section was found by a team from the National Geographic TV series, Drain the Oceans, in collaboration with Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime and the Loch Ness Project – Shine acted as a consultant. One of the world’s most sophisticated Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, the Munin, was used in the search, its multi-beam sonar yielding a high-resolution 3D image.

“There was a time limit on Cobb’s effort [in 1952], and that’s always a dreadful thing”, Shine said this week. “The thing about a speed record attempt or many endeavours in life that are technical achievements, is that you have to work up to them slowly. There were two factors that really mitigated against this. The first was the choice of Loch Ness as a venue for speed records. It had promise because it was so long and straight, but the trouble is, it’s long and straight directly in line with our prevailing south-westerly winds.

“And when we’re not having a south-westerly wind we generally get a north-easterly wind. And so calms are rare. It’s in calms, by the way, that the monster-hunters call ‘Nessie weather’, and that’s because things like boat-wakes are very prominent in those conditions.

“This has a fatal connection to John Cobb’s death, because it’s generally agreed that the Crusader hit a succession of waves created by one of his own craft. So Loch Ness was a trap, in many ways, because the calms which were necessary for working up testing, and getting faster and faster, were very few and far between”.

The other time pressure was that Cobb was due to become the director of the Falklands Company.

“As the autumn was wearing on”, Shine adds, “things were not getting any better in terms of prospects.

“In fact, even on the day itself [September 29], the loch calmed. Everybody got into position but were stood down when a ripple developed. It calmed again and everybody was rushed back into position, and that was the problem. The Maureen, the official observer’s vessel, should not, it is believed, have come back towards Urquhart Bay at the stand-down time. It is most probable that it’s the Maureen’s wake which actually caused the disaster”.

The unexpected persistence of boat wakes was what caused the problem. Cobb’s team came up with the theory that a reflected boat-wake – a wake that hit the shore and was reflected back into the water– was to blame, but experiments by the Loch Ness Project have ruled this out.

“So, irrespective of which of John Cobb’s vessels caused the wake, it was a wake that was responsible for the disaster”, says Shine.

It was a bittersweet moment, he added, when the Crusader’s wreckage was found. “Because we were using an autonomous vehicle, Munin, we were able to get sufficient resolution on sonar to find Crusader. It was a melancholy moment but it was also a technical challenge that had been met and it is inevitable that we were excited and pleased to find the wreck, which Munin had made distinguishable from the side-walls of the loch.

“It was much more intact than we had imagined, the rear part”, he added.

“But it has subsequently emerged that there was a weak part in the construction at the central portion. What we found confirms what Steve Holter [author of Crusader, a recent book on Cobb] has said, because the vessel broke in half, and the rear half is almost intact”.

Up around Loch Ness, Cobb is remembered for his humble, courteous demeanour and for his refusal to stage his trials on Loch Ness on Sundays, because of the noise and disturbance they would cause, disrupting the Sabbath.

“I met a chap, a farmer, just a few years ago, who had run out of petrol at the roadside”, Adrian Shine says.

“John Cobb passed him, stopped, and had his chauffeur go and get petrol that allowed the farmer to get going again”.