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Queen Elizabeth's funeral: An unparalleled police operation

September 19, 2022

London is at standstill for the Queen's funeral as the biggest police operation in UK history unfolds. Sertan Sanderson reports from the British capital.

Queen Eilzabeth II, Staatsbegräbnis
Police officers take positions ahead of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral in central LondonImage: Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo/picture alliance

Outside London's world-famous Savoy Hotel, a parked motorcade of black vehicles attracts glances from passersby. 

The cars with darkened windows have French license plates. Is this where French President Emmanuel Macron is staying while attending Queen Elizabeth II's funeral? Did he bring his own cars?

The hotel's concierge isn't forthcoming with an answer, no matter how nicely you ask. But the presence of more security personnel than hotel guests in the lobby is one example of the unprecedented precautions being taken across London for Queen Elizabeth's funeral today.

Biggest VIP meeting in history

The queen's funeral is the biggest single police operation in the history of the British capital. From US President Joe Biden to Commonwealth leaders to members of other royal families, dozens of heads of state and VIPs are gathered in London in a way they probably never will again.

Membes of Royal Family stand solemnly inside Westminster Hall
Members of the British royal family, seen here, will attend the funderal as well as VIPs from around the globeImage: Dan Kitwood/REUTERS

Stuart Cundy, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said that the event "cannot be compared" to any other in the history of policing in the UK.

But how do you even begin to secure a city of 9 million people against various threats? Above all, when the A-list of the world is a sitting duck target, is it their protection that is at the heart of this operation — or the protection of the public?

Perhaps the crowds are the greatest security asset in making sure that the state funeral goes smoothly. Cundy appealed to the public ahead of the event: "You're our eyes and ears," he said while urging people to be vigilant and to alert the police if anything looks off.

'Most complex' operation

It is reassuring that there are plenty of police officers to keep everything in check — even though the constant sound of helicopters in the background is not exactly the soundtrack you might expect for the queen's funeral.

In some central areas of the capital, there are more police officers than regular people — not to mention that there is no telling how many bobbies might be patrolling the streets dressed in civilian attire.

Sharpshooters have started assuming their positions on top of all major buildings within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius of Westminster. They peer down on the street like gargoyles of our contemporary times, holding watch and vigil over the fragility of those below.

Two men on top of Buckingham Palace look out for any threat
Police are on the lookout from roofs across the British capitalImage: Daniel Leal/REUTERS

But it's not just police officers from London who are on duty on a day that has been made a public holiday for almost everyone else.

The police vans parked around central London read like a map of the UK: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Birmingham — the list of recruits truly covers the entire nation. 

According to some reports, nearly every police horse in the entire country has also been drafted to perform one last service to Queen Elizabeth II. 

While the police have been on high alert since the queen died on September 8, Cundy has described Monday as "the final and most complex phase" of the entire playbook of Operation London Bridge Is Down, the secret plan for how the days after the Queen's death are to unfold.

Managing crowds paying their respects

Bollards have been installed all over London, such as outside Charing Cross train station, to be able to control any critical situation that may arise. 

In some other places, like along The Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace, crowd control barriers were erected within days of the announcement of the queen's death. In fact, according to Sky News, a total of 22 miles of such protective barriers have been installed across London in preparation for the funeral.

Various stations of the London Underground have also been closed down entirely on Monday, while bus routes have been redirected and people generally are being discouraged from flocking to the streets.

District Line train at Westminster station, London
Some tube stations, such as Westminster station seen here, are closed entirely for the funeralImage: Vudi Xhymshiti/AA/picture alliance

Central London itself is a no-fly zone for the day and Heathrow Airport is only accepting a few takeoffs and landings in the afternoon — though this is largely over noise concerns for when the private funeral service takes place later in the day at nearby Windsor Castle, some 22 miles outside London. 

In addition to 20,000 officers in London, another 2,300 are on duty to make sure everything runs smoothly in Windsor. 

No contemporary playbook

Such security operations, however, have indeed become a well-oiled machinery in London: The British capital has had to deal with terrorist threats for most of modern history, dating back to decades of struggles in Northern Ireland. 

In terms of crowd management, the queen's funeral procession will perhaps only be comparable only to that of Diana, Princess of Wales, during which a massive security operation also had to be organized within days.

However, that was a quarter century ago, and the playbook of what to look out for has changed during that period. The previous time the British public witnessed a full state funeral was in 1965 for former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Metropolitan Police's Stuart Cundy said that before the weekend, a total of 34 people had been arrested for a "range of offenses" related to security concerns, however described this number as "relatively few."

Aerial shot of Windsor Castle
In addition to London, security measures are also heightened at Windsor Castle and surrounding areasImage: John Walton/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Quick to react

That a man was arrested on Saturday within seconds of trying to lift the Royal Standard on top of the queen's coffin in Westminster Hall shows that all eventualities seem to have been taken into consideration. 

Cundy reassured the public that "all response will be proportionate and balanced, and [the police] will only take action when it's absolutely necessary."

His statement was in reaction to criticism in recent days over arrests of somewhat unruly anti-monarchy protesters. Cundy also highlighted that none of the more recent arrests had been for protesting.

These quick reactions are perhaps not too difficult to preempt and plan in a city like London that features one of the highest numbers of CCTV cameras globally.

At any given time, someone in an operation center is apparently watching the public and their actions.

Rehearsal of the funeral procession with Big Ben in background
The funeral procession was rehearsed last week, one of many preparations for Monday's funeralImage: Gareth Fuller/empics/picture alliance

A choreography to remember

However, it is also true that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link: On the weekend, one of the royal guards holding vigil next to the queen's coffin fainted on the podium. 

Considering that the soldiers have been trained for years to withstand such arduous situations, you can but hope that the police and the military won't collapse in a similar manner.

The biggest comfort for those on edge about the funeral is perhaps that it has been rehearsed for many years.

It resembles a well-rehearsed choreography rather than a cobbled-together safety plan. Of course, it would be the case. After all, the queen herself had to plan it and sign off on it.

Queen Elizabeth II in a green dress waving
The queen is considered the master architect of her own funeralImage: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/picture alliance

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson