The Story of the Airship R101
Sir Peter G. Masefield and William Kimber
This book is 560 pages long although the main narrative occupies some 437 pages with the rest taken up by detailed appendices. The title is taken from a quotation of Lord Thomson in a letter to the love of his life, Princess Marthe Bibesco: "R100 gave me pleasure. R101 will, I hope, give me joy. To ride the storm has always been my ambition and who knows but that we may realise it on the way to India - but not, I hope, with undue risk to human life." (20th August 1930)
The book could have been subtitled 'The Story of Lord Thomson and the R101', because a large part of the book deals with Thomson and his relationship with Princess Marthe Bibesco. Although some of the quotations from the letters between the two have relevance to the R101 story, I felt that the continual diversions into the private life of Thomson and the details of his exploits did not assist with the alleged purpose of the book. I believe however it does point to the sympathies of Masefield, which are clearly with Thomson and the builders of the R101.
The book starts by explaining that Masefield developed an interest in the airship programme while developing post-war aviation plans in 1943. This included a review of the airship programme of 1924 to 1930 and helping him were Lieutenant Commander Nevil Shute Norway and Wing Commander Tom Cave-Brown-Cave (who had been involved with the R101, but had not travelled on the fateful flight to India). Cave-Brown-Cave had related the story of Thomson's Persian carpet, which had been loaded onto R101 at the last moment along with a large quantity of other unexpected baggage. He speculated that the carpet might have been the metaphorical 'last straw', which led to the R101's demise. Norway apparently repeated his continuing belief that the R100 was the better airship; Cave-Brown-Cave responded that R101 was potentially much better than Norway gave it credit for. But he hinted that apart from troubles with the gasbags and outer cover there were 'other problems' which he was not prepared to discuss. Masefield remembered the story of the carpet and wondered what was behind the mysteries surrounding the R101's last flight. In the forward by Dr Noble Frankland (then Director of the Imperial War Museum in London) it is claimed that Masefield has researched the subject over 40 years and has produced the (my italics) solution to why the R101 crashed.
After a brief introduction to airships in general we are presented with a potted biography of Christopher Birdwood Thomson, which then drifts into a description of the start of the 1924 airship programme, which Thomson promoted as Minister for Air in the first Labour government. We then skip through intervening years while Labour were out of office and the introduction concludes with Thomson returning to the Air Ministry in 1929.
Confusingly there is then a prologue covering the departure of the R101 on 4th October 1930. The main narrative starts with Thomson's return to the Air Ministry and then runs largely chronologically through the events of 1929 and 1930.
The book provides many details of the R101 and its construction as part of the narrative. The final months of the construction are recounted with frequent diversions to follow the various activities of Thomson including the 1929 Schneider Trophy race. The difficulties that were encountered with weight, lack of buoyancy and problems with the engines are recounted as the airship went through its initial proving flights. In general the impression is given of a successful programme that is having some detailed technical difficulties. It is also emphasised that R101 is the more advanced ship and that R100 is more of a copy of the Zeppelin design.
It is not until Chapter 9 that any real details of R100 are given and there is virtually no information about its history or construction. Masefield comments on the rivalry between Howden and Cardington and lays the blame firmly at Barnes Wallis' door. Throughout the book the treatment of the Cardington people is generally sympathetic and portrays a group of competent people struggling with difficult problems. He goes to some lengths to emphasise that R100 also had problems and states that he regards R100 as having been lucky not to suffer a similar fate to R101.
The story progresses steadily with great detail about the various weights and performances of the R101 in her various flights, all interspersed with descriptions of Thomson's activities and relationship with Marthe Bibesco. Finally in Chapter 22 we arrive at the flight to India and Masefield analyses and justifies the decision to allow the airship to go. He then gives a very detailed description of the flight over England based largely on eyewitness accounts, which he solicited while researching the book. He also includes much detail of what went on onboard that can only be speculation. The final minutes before the 'crash' are described and the aftermath. The main part of the book ends with a description of the funeral of the victims.
An Epilogue provides Masefield's analysis of the accident and his theory of what happened. This does not differ much from previous explanations, however he does provide a more comprehensive version and the substantive factor, that the outer cover split leading to damage to the forward gasbag or bags seems quite plausible. In fact this was essentially what the original enquiry concluded.
The references to Nevil Shute Norway in the book are very few and somewhat uncomplimentary. The main interest lies in a footnote where he claims that Norway did not like some repairs that were done to R100 and that this and the refusal to give him a job at Cardington led to his hostility to the R101 and the Cardington team. He then goes on to accuse Norway of writing in Slide Rule: "distorted and inaccurate accounts of the airship programme" and "unsupported suggestions of incompetence and prejudice at Cardington and the Air Ministry" and that this book had become "the source of a great many erroneous impressions and statements about the 1924-30 airship era". He then says that "Norway eventually regretted this himself and said so to the author in Australia in 1953".
This confused me as Slide Rule was only published in 1953. Referring to Slide Rule I believe that Masefield has misrepresented Norway's attitude. From the beginning of Chapter 7 of Slide Rule I believe it is clear that Shute had altered his opinion of the Cardington team, but still laid the responsibility for the accident at the high officials in the Air Ministry. The prime one of these must be assumed to be Thomson himself.
Masefield's book portrays Thomson as almost a hero and there is little criticism of him. Other accounts however have described him as arrogant and it is difficult to see how someone in this position can be as faultless as Masefield implies. Herein lies the reason why I was dissatisfied with the book. With some knowledge of other descriptions of the people and the period this book seems like a 'whitewash', almost in the style of a government enquiry. His main object seems to have been to demonstrate that the Cardington team did a good job, that there was no pressure put on them to go ahead with the India flight and that the airship was apparently airworthy when she left the mast. He puts the accident down to a sequence of events that combined to make the accident almost inevitable and that any other airship (particularly R100 of course) would have suffered the same fate in the same circumstances.
He makes no mention of the fact that neither Barnes Wallis nor any other of the Howden team were invited to give evidence at the enquiry, or that neither Wallis nor Norway were invited to the funeral. Neither does he explain that following the disaster Dowding, then in charge of the airship programme, claimed that Britain no longer had any airship experts left! The book does in passing give some evidence of the attitudes however, by the concentration of Thomson and the other Air Ministry officials on the R101 programme and the details of Thomson's engagements do show up the little time he spent on the R100. Masefield also claims that R100 was 'old technology', but also quotes Grey from 'The Aeroplane' at the time who described both airships as having original features.
Masefield is a well-respected and experienced person in the field of aviation and I am puzzled as to the reason why he wrote the book in the way he did. This suggests to me an almost bigger mystery than the accident to R101 itself. If Masefield had restricted himself to a factual account of the events and his theory of the accident, this should have satisfied the book's alleged purpose. The justification of Thomson and his colleagues for their actions should have been balanced with more details of the criticisms and an explanation of why they were not correct.
Unfortunately the book also contains apparently conflicting information in several places, however these are clearly editorial errors.
I would not recommend the book to those solely interested in Nevil Shute as it has little material of interest. If the airship programme is of interest then it is a reasonably well-written account from one perspective and does include large amounts of technical detail. I feel however that to get a true picture a lot more research would be necessary.