Ending Hendon — V: 1932-1934

Flight, 1 July 1932, 599

The week before the 1932 RAF Display, Flight's editor commented on the rationale behind the theme chosen for the finale:

Sometimes the story composed for the set piece has been framed with some object, such as to obviate the criticisms of pacifists. Thus at one Display the enemy were called Pirates, so that nobody could object to their flaming end. This year we are to have a battle piece, pure and simple, which is the best thing of all. The R.A.F. exists to defend us, so we may as well get some idea (so far as sham fighting can give it) of what our aircraft would do to those who may attack us.1

But on the day (Saturday, 25 June 1932), the set piece seemed to disappoint Flight's correspondent. The set-up (above) was described as follows:

The scene this year represented a main aerodrome of the Enemy, situated alongside a disused fort in which large quantities of bombs were stored [...] The Enemy squadrons having been somewhat worrying, it was decided to carry out a heavy air attack to destroy this base.2

A squadron of 'our Single-Seater Fighters' strafes the aerodrome, drawing off 'the Enemy Fighter Squadron' in pursuit.3 Reconnaissance aircraft (Hawker Audaxes) report the scene to be clear, and so the bombers (Hawker Horsleys and Fairey IIIFs) are sent in.

Flight, 1 July 1932, 599

After shooting up the enemy kite balloon,

out Bombers came on the scene, accompanied by bursting shells from the anti-aircraft guns. The Bombers made several journeys across the Enemy 'drome, dropping a salvo each time, and now and again one of our machines would fall out of the formation "in flames."4

Why the disappointment? For one thing, the spectacle was not spectacular enough:

For all this, however, the amount of destruction appeared to be comparatively small -- the hangars, it was true, were burnt out, but the flags remained fluttering in the breeze, and that store of bombs remained as silent dawn breaking [sic].5

But the lack-lustre scenario also was deemed to blame:

Although the "plot" laid for the Set Piece this year was very much more war-like than the semi-peaceful ones of the last few Displays, somehow or other we were not particularly thrilled by this event. Personally we were much more excited when our aircraft swooped down upon hordes of many-coloured "Wot Knotts," scattering them in all directions, and then blowing everything up with terrific bangs.

Clearly the writer hailed from the G. A. Henty school of airpower.

The next Display, held on Saturday, 24 June 1933, was even more disappointing, though this time that was due to the continuous rain and poor visibility. The show still went on, though I think the set piece itself was cancelled. Flight's online archives appear to be missing the first half of 1933, but The Times's aeronautical correspondent, E. Colston Shepherd, wrote a preview of the set piece, so at least we know what was intended. It sounds similar to 1932's scenario, except the aerodrome is now a submarine base:

Redland is the villain of this piece. She has ignored her covenants and opened war on Blueland. To Blueland sea communications are vital. Her food must come in by sea, and the lives of her people depend on the merchant fleet. This fleet is threatened with extinction by the submarines of Redland. On the principle that submarines, like aircraft, are best dealt with before they set out on their offensive voyages, Blueland organizes an air attack on the submarine base.6

Despite the base's defences (fighters, anti-aircraft, observation balloon) it is caught by surprise when three Blueland bomber squadron arrive at high altitude; the Redland fighters go up to intercept but miss them in the cloud. (Shepherd noted that the set-piece 'admits the argument that no place can be made secure with absolute certainty against bombing raids'.)7 Blueland fighters shoot up the aerodrome (and the balloon, of course) from low level and the bombers start to do their work.

There is a stiff fight eventually over the submarine base, and there are casualties on both sides, but the defending aircraft are outnumbered and the object of the raid is fully achieved.8

This was the first RAF Display after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany; but although Shepherd's analysis certainly harks back to the German U-boat offensive against Britain in the First World War, there's no evidence that I can see that he interpreted this set piece in light of a renewed threat from Germany. Rather he talks about the number of submarines currently in commission (110 for France, 80 for Japan, 75 for Italy and 69 for the United States), making the point that whoever the next war is fought against, Blueland will need the 'controversial bomber' to meet Redland's 'submarine threat'.9

Unlike the fourteenth, the fifteenth RAF Display (held on Saturday, 30 June 1934) was blessed with brilliant sunshine and half a million people turned up to watch it. But despite this success Flight seems to have gotten a bit weary of it all by now, devoting fewer pages to its Hendon review than usual -- well, it's not quite as good as it was in the 1920s, you know. The set piece this time was an attack on a weapons manufacturing and storage facility (the Pathe Gazette newsreel above has some good footage):

Unknown to Geneva [...] an imposing building on the far side of the aerodrome was a busy hive of industry -- producing and storing high explosives. It was, in fact, a magazine (not the good kind you read, like FLIGHT, but that in which gunpowder, shells, and stalacite and such like high explosives are kept).10

The bit about Geneva (i.e. the League of Nations) being unaware of the weapons being made and stored in the magazine seems to me to be a clear reference to the secret German rearmament which was widely assumed to be taking place. Whether that was intended by the Display's planners or is just the interpretation of Flight's writer isn't so clear, though. Probably the latter.

Flight, 5 July 1934, 673

The magazine goes into high alert -- the above Bristol Bulldogs taking off in defence -- as enemy bombers arrive: light bombers (Fairey Gordons, Westland Wallaces) 'dived on to their objective, a salvo of bombs causing some damage' and heavy ones (Handley Page Heyfords) inflicting 'slightly severer punishment'.11 After casualties on both sides,

Again the bombers came over, this time causing considerable damage, the heavy bombers finally blowing up the complete volume of the magazine.12

Flight, 5 July 1934, 674

Oh, and they blew up a balloon too, this time described as part of a 'balloon apron' rather than an observation balloon.13 It's a wonder Britain had any left by the time the real war started!

  1. Flight, 24 June 1932, 542

  2. Ibid., 1 July 1932, 598. The illustrations are from ibid., 599

  3. Ibid., 598. 

  4. Ibid., 599. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid., The Times, 23 June 1933, 15. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Flight, 5 July 1934, 674. The illustrations are from ibid., 673 and 674. 

  11. Ibid, 674. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Ibid. 

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