Comparing Hendon

The RAF Displays held at Hendon between 1920 and 1937 were unique, in that no other air force attempted to project a vision of itself, its capabilities and its responsibilities in so public a way, on such a large scale and over such a long period. Of course, that's largely because there weren't many air forces around. Or rather, they did exist, but not independently of their nation's army and navy. Putting on such a big show was important for the RAF precisely because it was newborn: it needed to convince everyone (parliamentarians, journalists, the public, the other services, other nations) that it was necessary and/or that it was successful. Hendon seemed to have fulfilled this very well, judging by press attention and attendance numbers.

But viewed another way, the RAF Displays weren't unprecedented at all. Both the British Army and the Royal Navy had their own forms of public display. The Army had long performed in public, in fact, such ceremonies as trooping the colours, and the 19th century witnessed a huge growth in the popularity of military reviews, according to Scott Hughes Myerly 'the most popular and elaborate public manifestation of the military spectacle':

The action on the field consisted of evolutions of drill, musket volleys with blanks, and cannon salutes. Often a sham battle or mock, siege would be staged between two opposing units, or a bayonet or cavalry charge would be a part of the show.1

I'm not sure of the actual content of these mock battles, though the fact they they were performed during the Napoleonic Wars suggests an obvious ideological function. For its part, the Navy also developed fleet reviews into what Jan Rüger has termed 'a new form of public theatre'.2 This happened much later in the century, however, dramatically increasing in frequency after the review held for Victoria in 1887 on the occasion of her golden jubilee. By their nature, naval reviews afforded fewer opportunities for presenting narratives of actual combat. There were some, though, for example a 'mock-attack carried out by torpedo boats and submarines' at the 1909 Spithead review.3 Like the RAF later, and doubtless the Army before it, the Navy rather dubiously insisted that these were not mere spectacles but training for war.

Although Hendon itself was a pre-war site of aerial spectacle, that was a private enterprise and had nothing to do with the RFC (which probably would have been hard pressed to compete in qualitative terms anyway). So it was only after 1918 that it got into the game. The Navy held its first review in ten years in July 1924, shortly after the fifth Hendon, but as before the opportunities for creativity were limited. The Army began holding its own annual pageant in 1920, the Aldershot Command Searchlight Tattoo, a revival of an smaller event dating to the 1890s which now continued right up until the eve of war in 1939. There are many similarities with Hendon, which began the same year; the RAF seems to have even participated in Aldershot to some degree by providing aeroplanes as required. Like Hendon, Aldershot became very popular, growing from 22,000 spectators in 1922 to 300,000 by 1929 and gaining in social cachet.4 Again like Hendon, they were carefully choreographed and stage-managed, perhaps even more so -- there were systems of flashing lights backstage to give soldiers their cues and photographs were taken in rehearsal at 1 second intervals to see if anyone was out of step! But while there were some attempts in the early years to depict modern warfare, from 1925 the focus moved to historical re-enactments of the Army's past triumphs, especially Waterloo. So even as the Army was mechanising and experimenting in armoured warfare, to the public it chose to project an outdated style of warfare, dressing its men in redcoats rather than khaki. This is very different to the RAF's instincts when it came to public display, and it would be interesting to know what the reasons were. In any case, by dwelling on the past there was less chance of offending someone (apart from the French).

Another way to compare Hendon is internationally. Was there anything comparable to Hendon overseas? Yes, and Hendon seems to have been the direct inspiration. David Omissi notes that Italo Balbo, the senior Italian fascist, aviator and no mean impresario of aerial propaganda himself, attended Hendon in 1927 and 1932, declared that 'the RAF Display was the finest thing in aviation'.5 After he became Air Minister in 1929, he laid on two Giornata dell'ala, 'days of the wing', in 1930 and 1932, which sound very like Italian Hendons -- right down to mock air raids on Arab villages. But otherwise I don't know of anything quite like it. According to Peter Fritzsche, Germany had 'Carefully choreographed Nazi airshows' which attracted big crowds, but what messages they attempted to propagate beyond the obvious (i.e. airpower makes Germany powerful) is unclear.6 Maybe the Soviets? Scott Palmer has described in some detail Soviet airminded propaganda activities, but for the most part these revolved around big flights and agit-flights (that is, long distance record or proving flights and flying visits to remote villages). The exceptions, such as a 1927 'aerial parade in which more than three-dozen aircraft, flying in formation, spelled out the names of [Communist] Party luminaries' -- 'the largest aviation spectacle organized to date in the Soviet Union' -- don't seem to have involved anything like a Hendon set-piece.7 It's interesting that I'm reaching for comparisons with dictatorships here; they would seem to be the natural home for Hendon-like military aviation spectacles, and indeed the other democracies don't seem to have gone in for them. So what does that say about Britain and aviation between the wars?

It must say something, for Hendon wasn't the only form of official airminded propaganda in Britain -- far from it. The RAF was involved in a whole panoply of flying displays and other spectacles. It participated in flying displays put on by private flying clubs, such as the Birmingham Air Pageant in 1927 which had a hundred thousand visitors over two days.8 This included the bombing and destruction of a fake castle. A jubilee air review put on for George V in 1935 heralded more mass flypasts in the years of rearmament, helping to emphasise the RAF's strength of numbers.9 More significantly, in 1934 the first Empire Air Day was held at the suggestion of the Air League of the British Empire. This was the RAF's 'at home' day, where the public could visit their local military aerodrome and see what the flying life was like. Recruitment was surely a motivation, as perhaps was the desire to avoid a less-overtly warlike form of display (like Aldershot, Hendon was under increasing pressure from pacifists and the left for promoting militarism, especially to schoolchildren who were given free admission to the dress rehearsal). The latter concern may have curtailed the spread of displays resembling the Hendon set-pieces in the 1930s. As I discussed here recently, in 1924 and 1925 the RAF staged a mock aerial bombardment of London for the enjoyment of paying customers. The annual Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) exercises held between 1927 and 1931, which were public partly by virtue of being held around London and partly by being reported by accompanying journalists, were from 1932 held in more remote locations because they were too visible and open to misinterpretation, according to Tami Biddle.10 But it's possible that these types of practical propaganda simply transmuted into civil defence drills once ARP preparations began in 1935. The 1935 ADGB exercises, for example, involved practice blackouts in port cities like Chatham and Portsmouth, as Marc Wiggam explains, for the purpose of seeing how easy it was to hide a town in darkness rather than educating the public on how to prepare for air raids.11 This would necessarily involved aircraft flying overhead, playing the role of enemy bombers. But did RAF aircraft also take part in later, more civilian ARP exercises to increase their realism to the participants on the ground? That seems to have happened overseas, in Italy and Germany, but I'm not sure if it did in Britain.

There's lots to be done.


  1. Scott Hughes Myerly, '"The eye must entrap the mind": army spectacle and paradigm in nineteenth-century Britain', Journal of Social History 26 (1992), 105-31, at 106. 

  2. Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 24. 

  3. Ibid., 26. 

  4. Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 219. These were spread over several days, however, unlike Hendon's single day. 

  5. Quoted in David Omissi, 'The Hendon Air Pageant, 1920-1937', in John M. MacKenzie, ed., Popular Imperialism and the Military: 1850-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 211. 

  6. Peter Fritzsche, A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 203. 

  7. Scott W. Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 175. 

  8. Jack Williams, 'The upper class and aeroplane sport between the wars', Sport in History 28 (2008), 450-71, at 457. 

  9. Omissi, 'Hendon Air Pageant', 215. 

  10. Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Strategic Air Warfare: The Evolution and Reality of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 107. 

  11. Marc Patrick Wiggam, 'The Blackout in Britain and Germany during the Second World War', PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2011), 77. 

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7 thoughts on “Comparing Hendon

  1. Neil Datson

    In any case, by dwelling on the past there was less chance of offending someone (apart from the French).

    So different from the re-enactment of Trafalgar in 2005, for which the opposing fleets were named 'Red' and 'Blue'.

    A few thoughts about public military displays being centred on pageantry, the re-enactment of battle or some future war.

    For dictatorships, whether traditional authoritarian, fascist or communist, the military and its doings is far more overtly political than it is in democracies. So (and somewhat counter-intuitively) the military under such regimes is more likely to stick to pageantry. Most striking in this respect were the Soviet May Day military parades, whose main purpose was highly political - to emphasise the country's might and ability to defend itself. Whatever the reality, Soviet propaganda always emphasised that its leaders loved peace and freedom, and that the USSR had no aggressive ambitons towards its neighbours. That claim would have been undermined by any depiction of future war by the Soviet military, which would surely have had to have been directed against a named (or at least comprehended) enemy power?

  2. Post author

    Whatever the reality, Soviet propaganda always emphasised that its leaders loved peace and freedom, and that the USSR had no aggressive ambitons towards its neighbours. That claim would have been undermined by any depiction of future war by the Soviet military, which would surely have had to have been directed against a named (or at least comprehended) enemy power?

    You may be on to something about why dictatorships might prefer pageantry due to the overt political nature of their military displays. Democracies are also keen to emphasise that they are peace-loving and harbour no aggressive ideas towards their neighbours, though (the RAF Display never used 'real' enemies, for example), and the dictatorships were hardly averse to overtly depicting other countries as dangerous enemies: Germany did so to Poland and Czechoslovakia at various times, and then there was Italian propaganda in preparation for its invasion of Abyssinia. (Perhaps if Balbo had remained as Air Minister, a 1934 day of the wing might have featured Italian bombers vs Ethiopian levies? Presumably without the poison gas though.) Maybe one difference is the relative freedom of state organisations (such as the RAF) and non-state actors to make such propaganda impinging on foreign policy?

    Regarding your last point, Palmer suggests that the 1927 big flights and displays (including the one mentioned in the post) were designed to reassure the Soviet people after the war scare that year, in which officials very publicly claimed that the West was preparing to attack the USSR. So again the dictatorships were not coy about naming perceived enemies and yet they didn't seem to like public wargames.

  3. Last week I was in a second-hand bookshop, and picked up a programme for the 1951 '50 years of Flying' exhibition, held at Hendon. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Royal Aero Club (and sponsored by the Daily Express), this seems to have been one of the last events at Hendon with a flight display (or so the internet would suggest.) Sadly, the display seems to have been a Farnborough-like flypast rather than the full-on theatrical production typical of pre-war events. I'll see if I can scan and post some of the brochure; in the meanwhile, someone's posted a whole bunch of photos taken at the event's static display here.

  4. Post author

    I suppose it would be difficult to stage a Hendon outside the biplane era. The faster aircraft get, the less time they are visible at low altitude where spectators can get a good look at what's going on and follow the story. Certainly that was part of the reason why Hendon was ended: it was getting harder and harder to maintain the fiction that training for the flying displays was of operational benefit, i.e. realistic.

    On the comparison front, in 1934 the RAAF held a pageant at Laverton, as part of the celebrations for Melbourne's centenary. It was very obviously inspired by Hendon: crazy flying, aerial skittles, tank-bombing and... what sounds like a set-piece! From the Melbourne Argus, 12 November 1934, 11:

    The Royal party stayed to watch the bombing of a transport flying the Jolly Roger and the fly past of all machines. As the Duke's motor car left, a squadron of Wapiti's dived steeply in salute and straightened up again with a terrifying roar of engines. The pageant was over.

    Though the Duke's party would have been wise to leave early, as the crowds and traffic jam was also very Hendon-like.

    Also of note from the 1934 celebrations is a combined-services tattoo held just a few days later, which was less of a copy of Hendon, but actually had more in the way of fictionalised battle narratives. From the Argus, 15 November 1934, 6:

    The shrill whistle of the wind in the rigging of roaring aeroplanes as they swooped earthward in an attack on a field wireless station mingled with the reverberations of exploding "bombs" and the chatter of anti-aircraft machine guns, combined with darting searchlights stabbing the sky to detect the raiders, added a touch of realism to the Services' Centenary tattoo at the Showground at Flemington last night. This display of a night bombing attack was one of many spectacular events which were watched by a large attendance.

    Precision was the keynote of a field artillery display by a horse-drawn six gun field battery. After performing intricate manoeuvres, which called for special skill because of the limited space on the arena, the battery "engaged" an armoured car, which was driven across the arena with its machine-guns spitting fire from the turret.

    An infantry attack on a defended post was also very realistic. Lights round the arena were switched off for this display, and the movements of the attacking troops were seen as coloured Verey lights were fired from the post.

    A naval pageant held earlier did feature some battle scenes, but only historical ones like the Sydney's sinking of the Emden. Given that, like the tattoo, it was held at the very-much-inland Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, I'm guessing it didn't involve any actual RAN vessels...

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