Battle of Britain (film)

Battle of Britain (film)

Infobox Film
name = Battle of Britain

caption = American release poster
director = Guy Hamilton
producer = Harry Saltzman
S. Benjamin Fisz
writer = James Kennaway
Wilfred Greatorex
starring = Laurence Olivier
Hein Riess
Trevor Howard
Robert Shaw
Christopher Plummer
Michael Caine
Edward Fox
Susannah York
Ian McShane
Kenneth More
Ralph Richardson
Patrick Wymark
Michael Redgrave
Curt Jürgens
Nigel Patrick
music = Ron Goodwin
William Walton
cinematography = Freddie Young
distributor = United Artists
released = 15 September 1969 (UK)
runtime = 151 min.
(original UK version)
(133 min.)
country = UK
language = English
budget = $12,000,000
amg_id = 1:4315
imdb_id = 0064072
:"For the 1943 Frank Capra documentary, see The Battle of Britain"."Battle of Britain" is a 1969 film directed by Guy Hamilton, and produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz. The film broadly relates the events of the Battle of Britain. The script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex was based on the book "The Narrow Margin" by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster.

The film endeavoured to be an accurate account of the Battle of Britain, when in the summer and autumn of 1940 the British RAF inflicted a strategic defeat on the Luftwaffe and so ensured the cancellation of Operation Sealion – Hitler's plan to invade Britain. The huge strategic victory of the outnumbered British pilots would be summed up by Winston Churchill in the immortal words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

The film is notable for its spectacular flying sequences, echoing those seen in "Angels One Five" (1952) but on a far grander scale than had been seen on film before. These made the film's production very expensive.


The "Battle of Britain" attempts to recreate the historical events that underline one of the Second World War's greatest struggles. The film starts with the preceding Battle of France in early 1940 where RAF pilots are swept up in the Nazi "Blitzkrieg". In neutral Switzerland, Baron von Richter (Curt Jurgens) officially proposes new peace terms to British ambassador Sir David Kelly (Ralph Richardson), stating that fighting the Nazis is a lost cause. Kelly refuses to accept this and, raising his voice, declares that Britain will fight to the end.

At the same time, RAF Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Laurence Olivier) realizes that an imminent invasion of Great Britain will require every available aircraft and airman and will not allow additional forces to be deployed to continental Europe. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declares the end of the fight in France and the start of the Battle of Britain.

Through a series of vignettes mixing real figures with fictional characters, the movie documents the efforts for the RAF to prepare for and eventually engage in a monumental air campaign to defend Great Britain. Efforts to rapidly train young RAF pilots at first seem to be futile as the British, Commonwealth and Allied pilots do not have the combat experience of their "Luftwaffe" foes, and are decimated in large numbers. As the attackers switch from Channel raids to attacks on the RAF airfields, the Allied forces begin to recover and fight back. Eventually, “Eagle Day”, the climatic "Luftwaffe" operation is launched but through an inadvertent attack on London, an RAF reprisal results in Berlin being bombed. In a rage, Adolf Hitler intercedes in the air campaign and orders London to be razed.

With that fateful decision, the fortunes of the Battle of Britain swing to the RAF as London takes the brunt of the German air armada's attacks. The reprieve from the continual bombing of airfield and aviation installations such as the radar picket stations allows the besieged pilots to build up their strength, even allowing the Polish pilots then in training to join the Battle. As the tide turns against a naval invasion of the British Isles, the film ends with the campaign drawing to a close at the end of the 1940 and Churchill's declaration about the "Few" and their role in saving Britain from invasion.


The film has a large all-star cast. It was notable for its time for the portrayal of the Germans by subtitled German-speaking actors.


*Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF Fighter Command.
*Trevor Howard as New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, Air Officer commanding No. 11 Group RAF.
*Patrick Wymark as Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Officer commanding No. 12 Group RAF.
*Christopher Plummer as Canadian fighter pilot, Squadron Leader Colin Harvey. Since Plummer is Canadian, he asked for his character's RAF uniform to display the "Canada" shoulder flashes.
*Michael Caine as Squadron Leader Canfield
*Ralph Richardson as the British ambassador to Switzerland.
*Robert Shaw as an unnamed Squadron Leader, referred to as "Skipper": RAF slang for a commanding officer.
*Susannah York as Section Officer Maggie Harvey, Colin's wife.
*Ian McShane as Sergeant Pilot Andy
*Kenneth More (who had portrayed Douglas Bader in "Reach for the Sky" 12 years before) as Group Captain Barker, Station Commander at RAF Duxford.
*Edward Fox as Pilot Officer Archie.


*Curt Jürgens as the German ambassador to Switzerland.
*Hein Riess, a larger-than-life musical star, as Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe.
*Manfred Reddemann as the dashing, cigar-chomping Major Falke, a role inspired by wartime Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland. One scene included a brief exchange based on what Galland (who at the age of 30 was to become the youngest man to hold the rank of general in the Luftwaffe) said to Göring: when Göring asks Falke what he needs, Falke answers: "a squadron of Spitfires!"

According to a booklet publicizing the movie, Riess had allegedly once met Göring himself during the war. Galland himself acted as a technical advisor for the movie.


The film required a large number of period aircraft. In September 1965 producers Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz contacted former Bomber Command Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie to source the aircraft and arrange for their use.Hankin 1968, p. 48.] Eventually 100 aircraft were employed, a number whimsically called the "35th largest air force in the world.Hankin 1968, p. 49.] With Mahaddie's help, the producers located 109 Spitfires in the UK, of which 27 were available for filming, although only 12 were in flyable condition. Furthermore Mahaddie negotiated the use of six Hawker Hurricanes, of which three were in flying condition. [Schnepf 1970, p. 25.] The film helped preserve these aircraft, including a rare Spitfire Mk II, which had been a gate guardian at RAF Colerne.Hankin 1968, p. 48.]

During the actual Battle, the majority of RAF Spitfires were of the Mk 1 variety. [Spitfire Mk 1] However, no flyable Mk Is remained, and the producers had to use over nine different marks from different production variants. In order to achieve a measure of commonality, the production made some "standardised" modifications to the Spitfires, including elliptical wingtips, period canopies and various other detail changes. In the classic warbird community, these modified aircraft became known as "Mark Haddies" (in a play on Grp. Capt. Mahaddie's name).Hankin 1968, p. 48.] A pair of two-seat trainer Spitfires were employed as camera platforms in order to achieve realistic aerial footage "inside" the battle scenes. [Schnepf 1970, p. 45.] A rare Hawker Hurricane XII had been restored by Canadian Bob Diemert, who flew the aircraft in the film. Eight non-flying Spitfires and two Hurricanes were available as "set dressing", with one Hurricane able to taxi. [MacCarron 1999, p. 80.]

A North American B-25 Mitchell "44-31508", flown by pilots John "Jeff" Hawke and Duane Egli, was the primary aerial camera platform for the aviation sequences. It was painted in a range of garish colours. The markings were primarily intended for line-up references for aerial filming, and to make it easier for other pilots to determine which way the bomber was manoeuvring. When the brightly-coloured aircraft first arrived, at Tablada airbase in Spain in the early afternoon of 18 March 1968, the spontaneous comment from Derek Cracknell, the assistant director, was "It's a bloody great psychedelic monster!". The aircraft was henceforth dubbed the "Psychedelic Monster". [Mosley 1969, p. 75.]

For the German aircraft, the producers assembled 32 CASA 2.111 twin-engined bombers, which were Spanish-built variations of the German Heinkel He-111H-16. They also found 27 Hispano Aviación HA-1112 M1L "Buchon" single-engined fighters, which were Spanish variations of the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The Buchons were altered to look more like correct period Bf 109Es, by adding mocked-up machine guns and cannons, redundant tailplane struts, and by removing the aircraft's rounded wingtips. [ Crump 2007, p. 73.] The Spanish aircraft were powered by British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and thus all the aircraft used in the film's aerial combat, British and "German" alike, were Merlin-powered. After the film wrapped, one of the HA-1112s was donated to the German Luftwaffenmuseum der Bundeswehr, and converted to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 variant, depicting the insignias of German ace Gustav Rödel.

In order to recreate Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive-bombers, the film company acquired four Percival Proctor training aircraft, and converted two of them into 1/2 scale Stuka replicas, complete with a cranked wing, as "Proctukas". In order to duplicate the steep diving angle of the original Ju 87 attacks, large scale models flown by radio control were used. Radio-controlled Heinkel He 111 models were also built and flown to depict bombers being destroyed over the English Channel. When reviewing the footage of the first crash to be filmed, the producers noticed that a trailing-wire antenna was visible; this was explained away by an added cutaway in which the control wires of a Heinkel are seen to be shot loose.

Two of the "Heinkels" and the 17 flyable "Messerschmitts" (including one dual-controlled HA-1112-M4L two-seater, which was used for conversion training and as a camera ship), were later flown to England to complete the shoot. In the scene where the Polish training squadron breaks off to attack, ("Repeat, please"), the three most distant "Hurricanes" from the camera were actually Buchons marked as Hurricanes, as there were not enough flyable Hurricanes to make up the formation. In addition to the combat aircraft, two Spanish-built Junkers Ju 52 transports were used. Filming in England was carried out at four airfields: Duxford, Debden, North Weald and Hawkinge, all of which were operational during the Battle — indeed, one surviving Second World War hangar at Duxford was actually blown up and demolished for the "Eagle Day" sequence.

Poor weather beset the filming in the UK; in an effort to reflect the cloudless skies over Britain in the summer of 1940, many upward-facing flying shots were filmed in clear skies over Spain, while the downward-facing shots were almost all done below the clouds, over southern England, whose farmland landscape is very distinctive. However the 1940 camouflage was so perfectly recreated it was difficult to see the aircraft against the ground and sky, so a cloud background was used where possible. Only one Spitfire was relocated to Spain to stand in for the RAF defenders.

Another early key scene was the Dunkirk recreation which coincidentally was shot at the beachfront at Huelva, Spain. Only later did the directors find out this was the actual location where the deception known as "The Man Who Never Was" had been carried out. The Nazis were deceived by counterfeit documents purporting that the Allies were planning to invade Sardinia rather than Sicily, planted on the corpse of a drowned man, dressed as a fictitious Royal Marines Officer, Major Martin, who was allowed to wash up on the beach in 1943. [Mosley 1969, p. 56.]
Location filming in London was carried out mainly in the St Katharine Docks area where older houses were being demolished to make way for new housing estates. Partly demolished buildings were used to represent bombed out houses and some disused buildings were set on fire. Ironically, St Katharine Docks was one of the few areas of London's East End to survive The Blitz. Many of the extras were survivors of the Blitz. Aldwych tube station, which was used as a wartime air-raid shelter, was also used as a filming location. Almost all the period equipment from the London Fire Brigade Museum was used in the film.

The scenes at RAF Fighter Command were filmed on location at RAF Bentley Priory, the headquarters of Fighter Command during the Second World War. Air Chief Marshal Dowding's original office, complete with the original furniture, was used.

Historical accuracy

The film is generally faithful to the events although merging some characters for dramatic reasons. It sticks to the orthodox view of the Battle of Britain — that the Germans threw away their tactical advantages by switching bombing away from RAF airfields to terror bombing of London in revenge for RAF raids on Berlin. Later scholarship has cast doubt on this view, either arguing that the German switch was because they thought they had already defeated the RAF or that accelerated British aircraft production meant that defeat was never likely (something which seems doubtful as the key issue was the number of available pilots that could be mustered).Fact|date=February 2008

The film includes a sequence which relates the events of 15 August 1940, on which date the Luftwaffe attempted to overwhelm British fighter defences by launching simultaneous attacks on northern and southern England. The northern attack came over the North Sea from bases in Norway and consisted of a force of Heinkel He-111 bombers escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range escort fighters. [] The attack was subjected to a robust defence from the Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron RAF, and suffered heavy losses, prompting the Luftwaffe to abandon daylight strikes against Britain from Norway. The film's producers did not have access to Bf 110 aircraft, or suitable replicas, and instead the Heinkels are described as being unescorted, with the Luftwaffe reasoning that "even a Spitfire can't be in two places at once."

The Robert Shaw character "Squadron Leader Skipper" is based loosely on Squadron Leader Sailor Malan, a prominent South African fighter ace and No. 74 Squadron commander during the Battle.

The scenes in the operation centre in which the British listen to their fighters' wireless transmissions is for dramatic reasons only. In reality, the operations centre received information on the progress of the air combat by telephone from the sector airfields.

The scenes at the end of the film, where the RAF pilots are seen suddenly idle and left awaiting the return of the Luftwaffe raids is more cinematic license; the Battle of Britain gradually fizzled out through late September, although further daylight raids continued for some weeks after the large 15 September engagement. 31 October is regarded as the official end of the Battle of Britain on the British side.

The confrontational scene between Dowding, Park, and Leigh-Mallory is entirely fictitious. There were tensions between the two sector commanders, but not on this scale. The film doesn't go on to mention that shortly following the end of the Battle, both Dowding and Park were replaced by Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory respectively, despite their having proved that Leigh-Mallory's 'Big Wing' theories were unworkable. [Deighton, Len. "Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain." New York: Ballantine Books, 1979. ISBN 0-06-100802-8.]

Dowding was a Scot; Laurence Olivier was unaware of this, though since Dowding was educated at Winchester College, it is unlikely he retained an accent (Dowding met Olivier on the set of "Battle of Britain", as shown in a documentary present on the UK DVD release; as such, Olivier was familiar with Dowding's actual voice).

One major omission is at the end of the film, when casualties from both sides are listed. The film does not mention losses suffered by Corpo Aereo Italiano, an Italian expeditionary force that took part in the Battle of Britain (albeit from November 1940, after the officially recognised end of the battle). In fact, Corpo Aereo Italiano is not mentioned at all during the film. One entry in the casualty list is a lone pilot from Israel in the British protectorate of Palestine.

There was no attempt to recreate the effect of tracer ammunition.

Göring's train in the film is actually a Spanish one and not a French one and the steam locomotive hauling it is of a class that did not come into service on the Spanish National Railways until 1951.

Memorable quotes

* Boys spotting approaching German raiders::Boy 1:"Messerschmitts!":Boy 2:"'Einkels!":Boy 1:"Messerschmitts!":Boy 2:"No they ain't, they're 'Einkels!"
* The British Ambassador's response to a German ultimatum::"We're not easily frightened. Also we know how hard it is for an army to cross the Channel — the last little corporal to try it came a cropper. So don't threaten or dictate to us until you're marching up Whitehall! ...and even then we won't listen!"
* The Ambassador's coda (to his wife): "It's unforgivable. I lost my temper."

* When troubled English pilot, "Simon," returns to land, he is forced to do a "go-around" because he had failed to put down his landing gear. Two of the more experienced pilots launch into an evidently familiar routine::Pilot Officer Archie: "You can teach...":Sergeant Pilot Andy joins in: "...monkeys to fly better than that!"
* A group of German prisoners have been brought to a bombed airfield::Squadron Leader Skipper: "Where are you taking those vultures?":RAF NCO: "Officers to the mess, NCOs to the guard room, Sir.":Squadron Leader Skipper: "Like hell you are. They're responsible for all that (turning and gesturing to the ruined field), get 'em to clear it up!":NCO: "But, what about the officers, Sir?":Squadron Leader Skipper: "Give them a bloody shovel!"
* Leigh-Mallory and Park, in Dowding's office::Leigh-Mallory: "It's better to shoot down 50 bombers after they hit their targets than ten before.":Park: "Remember that the targets are my airfields, Leigh-Mallory, and you're not getting 50, you're not even getting 10!"
* Sergeant Pilot Andy, having been shot down in combat, appears in the doorway of the hangar.:Squadron Leader Skipper: "Where the 'ell have you been?":Sergeant Pilot Andy: "Learning to swim.":Squadron Leader Skipper: "Did you get him?":Sergeant Pilot Andy: "All I got was a bellyful of English Channel."
*Summoned to Berlin to be disciplined for accidentally bombing London, Major Brandt and his navigator drive through the brightly lit city. (Dialogue is in German, text given is that of the English subtitles.):Navigator: "Haven't they heard of a blackout?":Brandt: "You heard what Göring said — 'If one enemy bomb falls on Berlin, you can call me Meier'". [("Meier" [Meierei= (German) dairy-farm] is a common German Jewish surname and was used by Göring as a term of derision.] :Street lights suddenly go out, air-raid sirens sound and there is panic in the streets. Searchlights sweep the sky as anti-aircraft guns begin firing. Brandt and his navigator get out of their car and look up at the sky.:Navigator: "You may call me Meier..."
*Göring, gazing with pride at a huge fleet of German aircraft heading for England::"If we lose the war now, we deserve to have our arses kicked!"." (Dialogue is in German, text given is that of the English subtitles.)
* After the airfield bombing raid, Warrant Officer Warwick, a typically aggressive senior non-commissioned officer but junior in rank to Section Officer Harvey, shouts an order to her from a distance: :Warwick: "Put that cigarette out! The mains have gone, Can't you smell gas?":Harvey (pausing two beats), screams back: "Don't you yell at me, Mr. Warwick!"

Musical score

The film has two musical scores. The first was written by Sir William Walton, and conducted by Malcolm Arnold. However, the music department at United Artists objected that the score was too short. As a result, a further score was commissioned from Ron Goodwin. Producer S. Benjamin Fisz and actor Sir Laurence Olivier protested this decision, and Olivier threatened to take his name from the credits. In the end, one segment of the Walton score, titled "The Battle in the Air", which framed the climactic air battles of 15 September 1940, was retained in the final cut. The Walton score was played with no sound effects of aircraft motors or gunfire, giving this sequence a transcendent, lyrical quality. Tapes of the Walton score were believed lost forever until being rediscovered in 1990. Since then the score has been restored and released on compact disc. The complete Walton score was included as an added extra on the Region 2 Special Edition DVD of the film, which was released in June 2004.

For the opening credits, Goodwin composed the "Aces High March" in the style of a traditional German march in 2/4 time. The march places heavy emphasis on the "oom-pah" sound of tubas and lower-pitched horns on the first and second beats and has the glockenspiel double the horns in the melody. Because of the great length of the credit sequence, which involves a general's inspection of a newly-occupied airbase in France, the "Aces High" has three separate bridges between choruses of the main theme. American radio personality G. Gordon Liddy has used the march as bumper music on his syndicated radio program.


Both a hardcover and paperback book on the making of the movie were published in 1969.

The use of actual aircraft in flying sequences has led to a number of subsequent productions utilizing stock footage derived from the "Battle of Britain":
* The scene of a damaged Heinkel bomber emitting smoke and losing altitude was used in the "" (1972).
* Short clips from the main "Battle in the air" sequence were used in the "Baa Baa Black Sheep" television series (1976–1978).
* A fragment of the soundtrack of one of the dogfights is used on the album "The Wall" (1979) by Pink Floyd, right at the start of the track "Vera".
* Footage of Bf-109s exploding and crashing into the English Channel was inserted into the opening "Skeet Surfing" music video in the parody film "Top Secret!" (1984).
* Some of the Stuka footage was re-used in the BBC drama series "No Bananas" (1996).
* Footage from the film was incorporated in the Czech film "Dark Blue World" (2001).




* Crump, Bill. "Bandits on Film." "FlyPast" October 2007.
* Hankin, Raymond. "Filming the Battle." "Flying Review International" Vol. 24, no. 2, October 1968.
* MacCarron, Donald. "Mahaddie's Air Force." "FlyPast" September 1999.
* Mosley, Leonard. "Battle of Britain: The Story of a Film". London: Pan Books, 1969. ISBN 0-330-02357-8.
* Schnepf, Ed, ed. "The Few: Making the Battle of Britain." "Air Classics" Vol. 6, No. 4, April 1970.

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