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Book Reviews

This page has been set up to record published airship books and visitors of this website are encouraged to send in their own reviews of the books they have read. I look forward to receiving your reviews!

Slide Rule Nevil Shute

Why, you may ask, am I doing a book review on a website dedicated to the British Airship industry about an autobiography of one of the most famous authors of the 20th century?

Airship enthusiasts will already know of course that Nevil Shute’s full name is Nevil Shute Norway and he was one of the most influential Engineers in the early years of aviation in this country.

Born in 1899 Nevil Norway takes us through his early years growing up in what was an upper middle class family living for a time between Hendon and Brooklands which is where his lifelong interest in aviation really began. Academically not a great student, mainly because of bullying due to his stammer, he played truant and discovered the Science museum and models of everything that had flown up to that date, the Wright Flyer, Bleriot XI and others.

Following the First World War, in which his brother was killed, he went up to Oxford and described himself as a very humdrum undergraduate. He achieved 3rd class honours in Engineering.

After spending time with de Havilland, initially doing unpaid work and later as an employee, he left to join Vickers as Chief calculator with the Airship Guarantee Company working under the great Barnes Wallace chief designer on the R100. Norway was responsible for a team of calculators tasked with calculating all the forces and stresses in each member of the ship. It’s interesting to read his opinions on the way airships had been designed up to that point and the lack of calculation of aerodynamic forces on the structure mentioning in particular the R38 which suffered structural failure.

Norway was involved throughout with the design of the R100 and rose to the position of Deputy Chief Designer and took the position of Chief designer when Barnes Wallace moved on. His narrative of the design process and the difficulties of a private company in competition with a government funded project (R101) are very illuminating, his opinions of the design of the R101 and the politics involved for instance may not totally agree with others but they were his opinions and he was there at the time and knew a bit about designing airships.

Slide Rule describes the flight trials and problems which had to be resolved before the maiden flight to Canada. Norway takes the reader with him on the Canada flight and a substantial part of the book is taken up with that, the impression being that, barring a few problems, the R100 performed exactly as designed. When the airship industry collapsed following the R101 tragedy Norway started the Airspeed company designing and building many aircraft for military and commercial applications finally being purchased by De Havilland.

Slide Rule is a great read for aviation enthusiasts generally, but especially for those with a passion for the history of the airship industry. Slide Rule is really an autobiography of the aviation years of Nevil Shute Norway and hardly mentions his writing career which he was doing simultaneously and for which he became best known, few of his literary fans realise that the Nevil Shute they know was in reality a great Engineer and pioneer of the British aircraft industry and deserves his place in the annals of aviation history.

-Colin Reader.

Now out of print but luckily available on Kindle.

Flying the Atlantic. E.M.Maitland.


If you were to ask most people about the first aviators to fly the Atlantic you would get the answer “Alcock and Brown” and they would be right as on June 14/15th 1919 Alcock and Brown flew the Atlantic West to East landing in Ireland, an epic flight which has been compared to the Apollo 11 moon landing. What no one remembers is that less than a month later the Airship R34 took off from East Fortune aerodrome with a crew of 26, flew the Atlantic East to West did a tour of the US and then flew back again, truly an epic piece of aviation lost to history.

Flying the Atlantic was originally entitled “The Log of the HMA R 34”. Written during the flight by Edward Maitland who was most senior officer on board.

Maitland gives a day by day account of the trials, challenges and tribulations of what was in reality an experimental flight, he writes in the style of the time of course and so at times seems a little terse and matter of fact but he does encompass many interesting human details such as the discovery of two stowaways, one human and one feline, sleeping and eating arrangements and engineers thoroughly exhausted by the end of the flight, as well as covering the difficulties of navigating a huge airship through high winds, storms and heavy cloud formations using fairly rudimentary navigation methods (RDF was used but was in its infancy and couldn’t be relied upon).

For those interested in the technical aspects of airship flight Maitland also covers the way that the Captain Major G H Scott had to handle the R34 to take advantage of prevailing winds, managing the fuel consumption and hydrogen gas so that super heating or excess cooling were avoided, this account really introduces the reader to the fact that flying an airship was an art rather than dangling from a bag of gas and pointing it in the right direction.

Another interesting and largely unknown fact mentioned is Major Pritchard’s descent by parachute from R34 onto the ground at Mineola making him the first person to arrive on American soil having travelled there by aircraft.

Flying the Atlantic, because it was written from a log kept during the actual journey, puts the reader as close as is possible to being aboard at the time and illustrates, although the point is barely made, that this was a dangerous enterprise. Heading off across the Atlantic with 1,950,000 cu ft. of explosive gas over your head in a fragile airship into unknown weather conditions with fairly rudimentary navigation can never be called safe, the fact that both Maitland and Scott were both killed in airship disasters would illustrate this fact.

The round trip across the Atlantic of the R34 advanced future airship design, methods of meteorology and aerial navigation, radio communication, and many other aspects of aviation which contributed to the establishment of international air travel. Flying the Atlantic is a “must read” for any airship enthusiast.

Hard copies of the book don’t appear to exist any longer but Flying the Atlantic is available as a Kindle edition.

- Colin Reader.

First published in the UK by Whale-back Press in 2009. Copyright G Mather 2009. ISBN: 0-9550039-1-1

RNAS Airship Station Polegate. A Souvenir 1914-1919.


I am bringing this book to everyone’s attention because it is a little treasure and deserves to reach a wider audience. Purchased on e-Bay a few years ago this comprehensive souvenir publication charts the short history of RNAS Polegate from its inception in 1915 through to its closure in 1919.

The book is well worth seeking out for the wealth of information it yields about the organisation of a WW1 airship station. Built on acres of waterlogged land the station near Willingdon, East Sussex provided a base for airships used to patrol the south coast scouting for German submarines. The souvenir first produced around 1919 is packed with 55 pages of nonstop facts, figures and photographs (I counted over 60 original photos here) charting all aspects of life at the station. It tells of the struggles in early 1916 when there was no accommodation on site and only the bare bones of a shed ready to house one small airship.

We are given a fascinating insight into the world of early airships in 1915 when it is noted that “The small airship in those days was a unique piece of mechanism, it would either go or not go, there were no half measures about it.” There are numerous photographs of staff be they RNAS, RAF or WRAF on the site and statistics of flying hours and patrol miles covered and one can only be hugely grateful to the people who made sure these records survived.

What comes across most strongly and as no surprise to those familiar with the pioneering spirit of the early crews is the faith in airships. Airship design and innovations grew as rapidly as the station itself so that by 1917 we find that “Polegates flying was a source of pride, its appearance a thing of beauty. “

After war was declared over in November 1918 the airships were no longer required and all knowledge and progress made was suddenly redundant. Along with the jubilation of the war ending there must have been a feeling of sadness when the station closed down in 1919.

And now after all the praise I must offer a few gripes – the presentation of the souvenir is rather poor, it is simply a bound set of pages which rather cheapens a very interesting historical document. Likewise the photographs appear to be more like photocopies and as such deprive the researcher of the finer details which yield more information. However, all in all and putting the little gripes aside I would heartily recommend this book which will always remain one of my favourites. If only all the airship stations had had the foresight to produce the same! - Jane Harvey.

Airship Pilot No 28 – Captain T.B.Williams A F C. ISBN 07183 0153 6 William Kimber & Co Ltd.

Airship Pilot No 28 – Captain T.B.Williams A F C. ISBN 07183 0153 6 William Kimber & Co Ltd.


I knew I would enjoy this book the minute I saw the dedication at the start it reads “For my wife, who hopes that I have now got it out of my system.” Speaks volumes!!

This book is an account by Captain Thomas Blenheim Williams of his time as a non-rigid airship pilot during the First World War and beyond. The “No 28” in the title refers to his airship pilots licence number. It begins with a brief history of airships and the scramble of the British to catch up with the superior German zeppelins attacking the mainland at the start of the war. Thankfully it doesn’t get bogged down in to too much detail of the history of balloons and airships as most airship books tend to do these days and which does become a little wearisome.

Thomas was born in London on 15th Jan 1892 and as a teenager had a great fascination with the new-fangled airplanes that were taking to the skies. At the weekends he would travel to Hendon from his home in Hampstead to watch men assemble basic planes that somehow managed to fly and made up his mind that he wanted to fly too.

In 1915 he joined the Royal Navy and signed up to become an airship pilot and was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs for training. This is where the book gets interesting as he describes the process. Initial training was conducted on balloons before moving on to small non rigid airships. Bearing in mind that airships at that time were very much in the experimental stage it is fair to say that in some respects pilots were guinea pigs but accepted their role in the scheme of things. Thomas was certainly a willing guinea pig and his love for airships is apparent throughout the book.

The prose is very much down to earth and honest. He was transferred to Kingsnorth for further training and had a reputation as being a bit of a swot but this didn’t bother him at all. Upon graduation he received his first command.

“Imagine my excitement when on the notice board carrying the Orders of the Day appeared my name as the new commander. I was more disliked than ever! I expect that I swaggered a bit. I just didn’t care about such remarks as I sat up with my rather ugly craft at night and dusted her with my handkerchief. She was my pride and joy and I cared not if she was somewhat wayward in the air……. She was my sweetheart for two whole months.”

There follows some lovely anecdotes of the trials and tribulation of being an airship pilot, on one occasion chewing gum was used to stem a leak in one of the engines. Conditions on board were far from comfortable on returning from one flight he recalls “ I think that it was about this time also that after sitting in heavy rain for some hours on end, on landing I had to be lifted out of my seat in the sitting position. It was days before I could be straightened out and I suffered from occasional bouts of sciatica for years.”

Most of his wartime memories were taken from his pilots log book and we learn of his time at other bases such as Anglesey and Pulham. For anyone researching life on a non-rigid airship in the First World War this book is a must. By 1918 this much respected pilot was First Officer of the crew of airship SR1 (semi-rigid) on its flight from Italy to England an epic wartime journey which warrants a book of its own.

The reader can’t fail to sympathise at his wish to continue working on the ships after the war and there follows a few chapters where he was thwarted in his efforts overseas. The book then continues charting the R101 project and later airships and in the final chapter written in the early 70’s he speculates on the future of airships.

To sum up - a well written first hand narrative packed with historic snippets and observations and plenty of photos.- Jane Harvey. December 2020.

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