Staging the knock-out blow

When I started my PhD, I hoped to examine fictional representations of aerial bombardment in plays as well as in novels, newspapers and other written sources, but had to abandon this intention because I found very few which discussed the next war in the air in any detail. There are a few where it appears in the background, such as Karel Čapek's Power and Glory (1938), which is much more about poison gas than aerial warfare. The threat of bombing is more important in Wings Over Europe (1928), written by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne, though this is more of a throwback to older narratives of the world being held to ransom by a league of scientists which possesses the ultimatum weapon (in this case the Guild of United Brain Workers has atomic bombs in aeroplanes circling the world's capitals) rather than owing anything to contemporary airpower theory.

But, as I found with cinematic representations, there were some plays about the knock-out blow. One such is Night Sky, which premiered at London's prestigious Savoy Theatre on 6 January 1937 under the direction of Maurice Elvey.1 The producer was Clifford Whitley; the playwright was L. du Garde Peach, better known (at least to some) as the author of Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History (1963).

Flight helpfully reprinted the 'blurb' from Night Sky's programme:

IN presenting the play 'Night Sky,' we have endeavoured to bring to the stage a subject which is uppermost in everybody's mind at the present moment. We do not claim to show what will happen, but we emphatically insist that this is what might happen.

This is not a jingoistic play. It presents all sides of the problem as discussed in a normal English home, but it shows also what may one day happen to that home. Far from being impossible, the dramatic climax of the play is the thing of which no flying man will ever speak but which is always present in his mind as the ultimate sacrifice. Clifford Whitley and L. du Garde Peach served with the R.F.C. and R.A.F. during the last war.

This play is real. We present it in the hope that it will never become reality.2

The setting is a middle class home on New Year's Eve; the characters are mostly members of a middle-class family -- a son is a RAF squadron leader (played by Bernard Lee, later familiar to audiences the world over as 'M' in the James Bond films) and a prospective son-in-law 'an "International Airways" pilot of strongly pacific inclinations'. The plot is summarised by Flight as follows:

Between dinner and midnight an international crisis boils over, and there is the oft-predicted air raid on London by a hostile power which has made no declaration of war. The Prime Minister, unsealing his lips through the All-wave Receiver Kindly Lent by His Master's Voice, tells us that the Royal Air Force has been outnumbered and decimated in the air and on the ground. Forty enemy aircraft are patrolling a beat over London while the Government considers signing away England's bulwarks on land and sea, failing which signature within three hours, apparently, they will start intensive bombing until the country is brought to its knees.3

The Observer notes that the RAF is outnumbered 'by four to one', and that 'the first fourteen minutes, rather than the first forty years, will be the worst part of the next war'.4 And the Manchester Guardian provides some more details on the ultimatum:

England is offered an armistice by which it is concede its entire navy as well. It is also to surrender Dover, Folkestone, and the Port of London. Otherwise London itself is to be obliterated [...]5

So far, so conventional: Britain is outnumbered in the air and taken by surprise. In a matter of hours it will have surrendered or else bombed into submission. The suggestion that the RAF has been destroyed in the opening attack is somewhat unusual, however.

The enemy appears in the form of a downed airman (so the air defences are not completely ineffective) who comes into the house waving a pistol around and arguing with the International Airways pilot about pacifism: 'Everybody has been talking for years about what the next war will be like. But nobody has done anything. Except H. G. Wells, and he wrote a film about what it won't be like'.2

Whereupon the squadron leader and the airline pilot, the latter suddenly developing an intensely aggressive spirit, get busy on the telephone rounding up a Wat Tyler's army of Pilots who, we learn, are to go forth in 'civil 'planes' (presumably Moths, Drones, Heracles, and anything else spared by the attackers) and swoop upon and ram the patrolling enemy formation.3

This is the really interesting part; it's an inversion of the commercial bomber concept, in which an aggressor lacking an air force due to disarmament extemporises one by commandeering civil aircraft and (usually) turning them into bombers. Here the air force hasn't been disarmed but destroyed; the civil aircraft aren't being turned into bombers but fighters (well, rammers); and it's not a foreign government which is doing the converting but the people themselves (well, those among them who can fly).

The two leave; anon fire-engine bells are heard -- a clever and sinister touch, this, probably lost upon a lay audience -- and the curtain descends on the family listening to symbolic New Year peals of victory.3

Everyone lives happily ever after (except for the airmen). It reminds me of an updated An Englishman's Home, a 1909 play by Guy du Maurier which showed the irruption of a German invasion into a middle-class English drawing-room; and in an interview with the Derby Evening Telegraph, his local paper, Peach says as much.6

Flight thought Night Sky 'excellent entertainment', and wagered it would 'make a strong impression upon the layman, who won't worry about such trifling details as that of organising a night rail [sic, presumably raid] to render fifty-odd Service aerodromes hors de combat, apart from dealing with such defending squadrons as have managed to take the air'.2 The Guardian was rather sourer, asking if it was really necessary for 'the enemy to have infinite resources and reinforcements, whereas we can apparently be totally incapacitated in less time than it takes to play a single fox-trot' (NB. it also didn't think much of the dancing scenes).5 The Observer's reviewer, Ivor Brown, contradicted this point, however, saying that Peach 'supposes that this well-prepared enemy has no planes in reserve' (which would seem to be correct, otherwise taking out a few with civil aircraft wouldn't do much).7 But for Brown this didn't undermine what he took to be the message of Night Sky:

Mr. Peach first of all observes that the whole mess began with the peace of 1918, and, if he cared to be more precise, could add that French policy made Hitlerism not only possible but inevitable. If Britain is committed to uphold the work of 1918 and to be the forceful guarantor of a settlement which unsettled quite as much as it settled, then it must arm properly, which means especial concentration on the air arm, the swiftest and most deadly in attack and most difficult to use in defence. Withdraw from Europe if you like and can; adopt the nudism of the Peace Pledge; these courses have their own drastic logic. But to try to play policeman in such a rough house as contemporary Europe without preponderance is simple idiocy. Mr. Peach's play seems to me to be the required reading (or watching) for large numbers of well-intentioned people who want Great Britain to conduct a series of nice moral wars all over the globe, while genially disarming. Again, as to Mr. Peach's assertion that the Air Force must come first, it seems to one with no special knowledge that the plea is strong beyond contradiction.3

The Catholic Herald's theatre critic likewise thought it 'a play that every thoughtful man and woman of the present generation should see' and left the Savoy 'with a real sense of latent alarm at the foolishness of loose talk on disarmament at the present time'.8 This does seem to have been Peach's intention. Although the Derby Evening Telegraph noted his reputation for 'pacifist leanings', he explained that 'If you are in a jungle and liable to the attacks of wild beasts [...] you need a gun', though he offered no solution, 'his aim being to provoke those who make up the ordinary households of England to thought and action'.6 Peach suggested that it was having this effect already on the cast, and recounted that a 'Colonel' who had taken his 18-year-old son to see the play found that afterwards the lad didn't want to go on to a party but said 'Let's go home, father. I want to talk'.3 Despite these positive signs (and despite some audience members being heard to remark 'This will be even more exciting on the screen'), Night Sky seems to have disappeared without further trace.9 Rearmament was then already gathering pace, with the RAF at the forefront, so Peach was pushing at an open door anyway.

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  1. As it happens, a decade earlier Elvey had directed the film version of Noel Pemberton Billing's play, High Treason, which also featured the danger of aerial bombardment -- though as he was apparently the most prolific British film director ever we shouldn't read too much into this. []
  2. Flight, 14 January 1937, 43. [] [] []
  3. Ibid. [] [] [] [] []
  4. Observer (London), 10 January 1937, 15. []
  5. Manchester Guardian, 7 January 1937, 14. [] []
  6. Derby Evening Telegraph, 11 January 1937, 5. [] []
  7. Observer, 10 January 1937, 15. []
  8. Catholic Herald (London), 15 January 1937, 10. []
  9. Derby Daily Telegraph, 8 January 1937, 6. []

2 thoughts on “Staging the knock-out blow

  1. Narmitaj

    From the Observer review: "the air arm, the swiftest and most deadly in attack and most difficult to use in attack". Presumably that last in attack should be "in defence"?

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