Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

The Millionth Chance

The Story of the R101
by James Leasor
Published in 1957 by Hamish Hamilton
176 pages.
Review by: Andy Burgess

The title of this book is (like 'To Ride the Storm') taken from a quote of Lord Thomson of Cardington who perished with the airship in 1930. It is given at the front of the book: "She is safe as houses - except for the millionth chance". Like to Ride the Storm the first chapter deals with the preparation for departure of the R101 from Cardington on its trip to India. After that the book runs through the history of the airship up until 1924, provides a description of the R101 itself and then describes the start of the Imperial Airship programme as devised by Dennistoun Burney. The design features of the R101 are reviewed along with costings and a passing reference to the difference of approaches to problems by the Cardington and Howden (R100) teams. A description of the initial flights follows a more detailed description of the design features of the airship.

At the start of Chapter Five Dennistoun Burney's apparent rejection in 1929 of the airship as a long range passenger carrier are given and provides an introduction to a description of the problems encountered with the R101. The various solutions to improve its lift are reviewed and then a description of the fitting of the extra bay. The final flight and the crash are described with numerous eyewitness accounts from France. The accounts of the survivors are covered in some depth. Finally the book describes the aftermath, enquiry and introduces the 'paranormal evidence' of Major Villiers.

The book is the story of the R101 told in a very readable form and benefiting from many personal tales and anecdotes of the people involved, such as how Sir Sefton Brancker came to develop a party trick of eating his glass monocle. Compared with 'To Ride the Storm' the impression is definitely given that there was a fundamental problem with the R101 and that many of the people involved had serious concerns before starting for India. Lord Thomson is not portrayed in such a favourable light as in the other book.

Nevil Shute is only mentioned once and only associated with a quotation from 'Slide Rule', which is listed in the bibliography. If, however, you want the story of the R101 in a readable form without too much technical detail then this book is the one to go for. It is illustrated with various pictures and some nostalgic cutaway drawings from the London Illustrated News, presumably of the time. Leasor does not try to analyse the accident too much and concentrates more on the human stories involved, which is what provides the book's main attraction.

Andy Burgess
June 2002