London defended

London defended. A stirring torchlight and searchlight spectacle

This is the programme for an air display called 'London Defended' which was part of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (in Wembley Stadium, in fact, before it became Wembley Stadium). I must admit to having missed this one (and its predecessor in 1924), but it sounds like it was comparable to the longer-lived Hendon pageant. Here's the description from Wikipedia, which is based partly on the above programme (original research much?):

From May 9 to June 1, 1925 No. 32 Squadron RAF flew an air display six nights a week entitled "London Defended" Similar to the display they had done the previous year when the aircraft were painted black it consisted of a night time air display over the Wembley Exhibition flying RAF Sopwith Snipes which were painted red for the display and fitted with white lights on the wings tail and fueselage. The display involved firing blank ammunition into the stadium crowds and dropping pyrotechnics from the aeroplanes to simulate shrapnel from guns on the ground, Explosions on the ground also produced the effect of bombs being dropped into the stadium by the Aeroplanes. One of the Pilots in the display was Flying officer C. W. A. Scott who later became famous for breaking three England Australia solo flight records and winning the MacRobertson Air Race with co-pilot Tom Campbell Black in 1934.

Firing blanks into the crowds -- those were the days!

And the crowds apparently did appreciate the spectacle: the stadium was at capacity on more than one occasion. The Observer's special representative reported on -- gushed about, in fact -- the opening performance (10 May 1925, 13):

[...] "London Defended," which is to be acted from 8.15 to 10 p.m. every week-day evening till May 30, is as whole-hearted a spectacle as could well be imagined. We have seen nothing like it before in the open air and on such a scale it could only shown in the open air. It has all the ingredients of exciting drama, with some stately pageantry -- as the musical ride of the Metropolitan Police -- super-added. Some few of its features were seen last year, notably the very lovely eddying and curvetting of aeroplanes studded from wing-tip to wing-tip with coloured lights, "shifted anew" with every move of the pilot. But the bulk of the drama is new and original and unblushingly full of thrills.

London is attacked by hostile planes, incendiary bombs are dropped, and conveniently set fire to a tall building up which the fire escapes elongate themselves with breathless speed. Anti-aircraft guns punctuate with a glorious din the general cries and explosions, and the rattle of the fire-engines tearing around the track.

This was followed by a re-enactment of the Great Fire of London, whether to emphasise the danger of incendiaries or just to pile on more spectacle I'm not sure. (Though to read that 'The drama ends with the Phœnix-like appearance of Wren's St. Paul's in the place of the fire [...]' is actually a little chilling.) As there was also a mounted display by the Metropolitan Police, I suppose the 'London defended' theme can't be interpreted solely in military terms.

The Manchester Guardian's reporter also enjoyed the opening night's 'air raid spectacle' (11 May 1925, 9), though perhaps not as unrestrainedly as the Observer's had:

The vigour and vividness of the presentation of the spectacle of "London Defended," at the Stadium at night, well merited the applause of the great gathering in the auditorium.

All the thrills of a night air attack were accorded in one of the main spectacles. Warning of an invasion was sounded, and, as searchlights swept the sky, a squadron of aeroplanes, with fairy lights under their wings, soared overhead. Through the fire of anti-aircraft guns the raiders reached their objective, and a building at the west end of the Stadium was set alight by incendiary bombs, and a large tower at the east end also burst into flames. The conquest of the flames by the fire brigade, after a display of rescues by fire escapes, was an equally exciting spectacle.

The emphasis in both press accounts is very much on the entertainment, the spectacle of the show. But there must have been a propaganda element to it as well: employing a squadron in this way six nights out seven for the better part of a month would have been no small matter. And certainly that's what the Hendon pageant was about, impressing the public (and the politicians and the press) with the power and hence the value of the RAF. But the defensive focus at Wembley is interesting. At Hendon, the climactic setpieces (which I've long been meaning to write a post about...) were offensive in nature, showing British bombers blowing up a corner of some foreign field. Wembley, on the other hand, was about Britain being attacked and, apparently -- despite the squadron in question being equipped with fighters -- not being defended in the air, only from the ground. This is more reminiscent of the much more serious (but also well-publicised) annual air defence exercises held in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in which the bomber usually got through. And the Home Office's Committee of Imperial Defence's ARP sub-committee first met in 1924, shortly before the first British Empire Exhibition, so I wonder if it's only a coincidence to see city bombing and civil defence put on such prominent display at this point in time. I'd be very interested to know what the official rationale for 'London Defended' was.

Image source: Wikipedia, though I originally noticed it on the background of the website for the upcoming Shock and Awe conference!

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7 thoughts on “London defended

  1. Burnt, then renewed by fire. And in May, yet. I'm sticking with my crazy theory that apocalypses are a romantic genre. Burning down the old clears the way for the young to cathedrals.

  2. Post author

    It's not so crazy. At least, some writers in the apocalyptic genre clearly prefer the post- world to the pre-. George R. Stewart's Earth Abides is the example that always comes to mind for me, and of course Wells was forever smashing down civilisation so that samurai or airmen or whoever can build a proper world utopia. Not that cathedrals would result in either case, I suppose.

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  4. Thank you for this - I've been trying to track down this event since finding a passing mention of it in a book, and had begun to think that it was a hallucination. I'd be really interested in knowing what the rationale for it was too.

  5. Rob Langham

    Interesting to see a Handley Page O/400 - supposed to be a Gotha? Although still has the roundels on.... then again, one did shoot down a Gotha!

  6. Post author

    I didn't know that! Seems it may have been an RNAS O/100.

    I hadn't considered the possibility that London Defended was a re-enactment of a wartime Gotha raid; I'd assumed it was a hypothetical scenario. Re-reading the accounts above, I still think that's probably the case, and by this time the Hendon pageants had moved from refighting the war to fighting the future. But it's a possibility I'll bear in mind, thanks!

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