“For those who chose to think about it, life aboard R101 was like being crammed into a large, windowless building with fabric-thin walls while millions of cubic feet of hydrogen in membrane-thin, intestine-lined sacs billowed and surged about you.”His Majesty’s Airship by S.C. Gwynne
The tragic fate of the British airship R101—which went down in a spectacular fireball in 1930, killing more people than died in the Hindenburg disaster seven years later—has been largely forgotten. In His Majesty’s Airship , S.C. Gwynne resurrects it in vivid detail, telling the epic story of great ambition gone terribly wrong.
Airships, those airborne leviathans that occupied center stage in the world in the first half of the 20th century, were a symbol of the future. R101 was not just the largest aircraft ever to have flown and the product of the world’s most advanced engineering—she was also the lynchpin of an imperial British scheme to link by air the far-flung areas of its empire, from Australia to India, South Africa, Canada, Egypt, and Singapore. No one had ever conceived of anything like this, and R101 captivated the world. There was just one beyond the hype and technological wonders, these big, steel-framed, hydrogen-filled airships were a dangerously bad idea.
Gwynne’s chronicle features a cast of remarkable—and tragically flawed—characters, including Lord Christopher Thomson, the man who dreamed up the Imperial Airship Scheme and then relentlessly pushed R101 to her destruction; Princess Marthe Bibesco, the celebrated writer and glamorous socialite with whom he had a long affair; and George Herbert Scott, a national hero who was the first person to cross the Atlantic twice in any aircraft, in 1919—eight years before Lindbergh’s famous flight—but who devolved into drink and ruin. These historical figures—and the ship they built, flew, and crashed—come together in a grand tale about the rocky road to commercial aviation, written by one of the best popular historians of today.
Aviation, Airships, History, British History, R101, Zeppelins, War, Warships, 1900s
Why This Rating?
Full Discloser: I received an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for a voluntary honest review.
I started reading this knowing hardly anything a ton about airships and zeppelins, other than looking at them now, they looked like a horrible idea. Also, they went up in flames often. But hindsight is 20/20 and the tech we have now makes it easy to declare that idea. The one zeppelin I did hear about in lessons was the Hindenburg and it’s disastrous end. I didn’t know there were entire branches of armies dedicated to airships! Or the impact these gas filled balloons had on air travel and war tactics. Did you?? This book opened my eyes to an entire expanse of history that I must have skipped during class. Don’t get too excited about a happy ending for the airship we are focusing on unfortunately. The title kind gives away the fact that this, R101, also met a tragic ending that most of its kind did. Despite knowing this, Gwynne makes the entire thing a lot of fun to read and fills the pages with many stories and historical events to enjoy.
Sometimes history books can come across as being a bit dense and could potentially be boring to read. I blame the way it was written. There are so many ways you can write history to make it seem interesting and still get the facts across. Gwynne’s writing made reading this history filled book enjoyable. I felt like he was both a storyteller and historian. We get moments in the novel where we are on the airship with the crew and guests and the narrator is setting the scene for us. I love being taken through what could have been happening on the ship those last few days it was airborne. Then as we are walked around the dinner parties and what the ship-hands were tending to, Gwynne flips into historian mode and takes us into the history of zeppelins or discussions of the prominent figureheads who were on the R101. We get to explore the influence these airships had on WWI. The author’s writing choices allowed the audience to go in and out of history effortlessly. His writing and descriptions were a lot of fun and times had me laughing.
One complaint I had was the drawn out feeling that R101’s story felt as the reading continued. It was a very minor feeling considering the amount of depth the author was able to cover within his book. But when I picked up the book I was definitely under the impression this was going to revolve around a single airship. Instead, you are reading if not all then nearly the entire history of zeppelins and the aviation influence these airships had on everything. Which is a lot to capture in 300 pages! I really enjoyed learning about this history. It was truly fascinating to discover something that was entirely foreign to me. But if you put the entire R101’s story written across this book together, you’re looking about more like 100ish pages. Pages of which are a really good story and one that is well-written! If that gives you an idea about what I mean it was a little drawn out. Writing this story in this style worked really well to incorporate all the important parts needed. It just wasn’t a style that is for me.
There are pictures in the book! I know that is kind of a silly thing to get excited about. Gwynne included photographs of the airships and the men with blurbs explaining what each picture was about. I love this for history novels. There are some I’ve read were we either have to create a picture of it in our heads or we have to look them up because we aren’t given anything to look at. Not in this one! We a number of photos and towards the back of the book we get not only an Index but a Bibliography too. Yes, that is probably standard in most history books. My inner research nerd just gets a little giddy when authors do these though.
This is absolutely a book for aviation fans or history buffs. If you aren’t one of those and aren’t reader with a wide taste, not sure if you would like this one. It is a true history book which means even with great writing it can be a bit dense. I know that I am a quick reader usually and this one took me a while to read because of the depth some of the chapters talk about. I am a fantasy, romance reader first however, I do branch off into nearly all genres, so I wasn’t afraid of not finishing it. It just took me a LOT longer to read it than I thought it would. I’m glad I got to read it, but it isn’t what I would call a re-read or a page turner.
Time to get lost in the next story!