The Making of the film:
"Battle of Britain” – The film – How it was done
Extract from article “The Battle of Britain” from Warbirds Worldwide issue 5, 6 and 7.
The idea to re-create Britain’s finest hour was born in the mind of film producer S.Benjamin Fisz. The ex Polish Air Force Spitfire pilot had fond memories of the annual Battle of Britain flypast over London which up until 1959 was always lead by a Hurricane and a Spitfire of the Battle of Britain Flight. After completing the film Heroes of Telemark in 1965, Fisz set about putting the Battle of Britain on the silver screen, immediately entering into negotiations with the Rank Organisation (for whom he had just made the Telemark film). It was during these talks he was joined by Harry Saltzman. Saltzman was a powerful force in the film world and people tended to sit up and take notice when he was interested in making the movie.
Fisz and Saltzman set up a production company – aptly named Spitfire Productions Limited – and appointed a director to make the Battle of Britain. A first draft script was drawn up and a team set to work.
Many previous aviation films had resorted to using newsreel clips to make up for the lack of live action whilst others had attempted to use a small number of aircarft and clever camera angles to give the impression of large numbers. Both Fisz and Saltzman agreed early on that this film would be made properly, utilising a large fleet of aircraft, or it would not be made at all. The problem they faced was a big one. Where, in the 1960’s could enough airworthy World War II aircraft be found to recreate the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe of the 1940’s?
Enter Hamish Mahaddie. Mahaddie, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot and founder member of the famous Royal Air Force Pathfinder Force had gained a reputation for being able to find suitable aircraft for films. In an interview conducted around 1988 he recalled how he became involved with the Battle of Britain. “I was technical adviser on the filming of 633 squadron because the producers of that movie wanted someone associated with Mosquitoes, and immediately after that I became involved with Ben Fisz and Harry Saltzman. We had a meeting and I was asked how many Spitfires were in airworthy condition and could be made available for the film. To the best of my knowledge at that time I knew of only one – the aircraft used to fly up the Mall in London every Battle of Britain day. Anyway they hired me, and within ten days I had an idea that there was over 100 Spitfires that may be available for the movie; they were not all airworthy but had possibilities. This was the start of a 3 year stint for me – it took 18 months to 2 years to gather all the aircraft for the film and then a year of production”.
Hamish Mahaddie set to work with the knowledge that unless he found enough aircarft to make the film credible it would not be made. He entered into talks with the Ministry of Defence in London. It was during this period that the film company had major problems. In September 1966 the Rank Organisation withdrew their support for the film and left Spitfire Productions without a financial backer. This obviously spelt disaster. Undaunted, Saltzman approached Paramount Studios only to find they had no interest in the Battle of Britain. Whilst this was going on Hamish had got the Ministry of Defence interested in the film and had come away with the loan of 19 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes along with facilities at RAF Henlow for preparing the aircraft, including the services of a group of RAF Tradesman and Fitters.
Mark F22, XVIe and IIa differences.
Some of the Spitfires required extensive work – for example the LF XVI Spitfires had to have their cannon removed, clipped wings returned to full elliptical planform, teardrop canopies removed and rear fuselage built up to the standard high back Spitfire shape with the usual canopy in place. Pointed rudders had to be replaced with the earlier rounded version and finally a coat of 1940 style camouflage and markings applied.
Tail difference Mk XIX to Mk IIa
The aircraft loaned from the MoD came in various marks: V, IX, XVI, PR.19 and F.21, all of which were visually out of character with the early marks of the Battle period. However a compromise was made and it was decided to make all of the non-airworthy Spitfires resemble a cross between a Mk. V and Mk. IX. On the film set this mythical type was known as the “Mark Addie” and the result was remarkably uniform. Although Hurricanes outnumbered Spitfires during the actual battle they were much harder to locate for the film. However they were needed for the Battle of France segments of the film, for Spitfires were never sent to France in 1940. The RAF were only able to supply three Hurricanes, one of which was airworthy and with the Battle of Britain Flight. Hawker Siddeley Aviation then owned the last Hurricane built and this was loaned to the movie company. A surprise find came in the shape of Hurricane CF-SMI, which had just been restored by Bob Diemart in Canada. The aircraft was acquired by Mahaddie and air freighted to the U.K. Another Hurricane, albeit a static aircraft, came from the Shuttleworth Trust at Old Warden. During the assembly of the RAF contingent for the film Mahaddie learnt that the Spanish Air Force was in the process of disposing of a number of Hispano HA.1112 M1L Buchon aircraft. These machines were basically BF109 airframes built under licence in Spain and fitted with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Additionally the Spanish were still using CASA 2111s in the Transport and VIP flight role; basically Heinkel 111 bombers, again with Merlin engines. Contact was immediately. Contact was immediately made with the Air Attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid and after some enquiries Mahaddie confirmed the aircraft were at Tablada and Malaga airfields.
Mahaddie flew out to Spain to inspect the aircraft and on arrival found that only eight Buchons were in a flyable condition. However, on surveying a large number of dismantled airframes it was decided that approximately 20 airworthy ‘Bf109’s’ could be constructed from the airframes available. After successfully bidding for the aircarft at auction, a contract was placed with the Spanish Air Force to rebuild the Buchons up to the standard required for the film. Eventually, of the 28 aircraft reconstructed, 18 were made airworthy, 6 were cleared to taxi and the remaining 4 were used for dressing the sets. Modifications had to be made to the fighters to make them resemble Messerschmitt Bf109E’s (the variant used by the Luftwaffe in the 1940’s). Hamish takes up the story “…In order to give a clear definition on screen between the RAF and the Luftwaffe, we had the elliptical wing shape of the Spitfire and the cut off squared look of the Messerschmitt, but the Messerschmitt built by the Spanish had nearly a metre of rounded wing tip. In charge of flying the Messerschmitt’s was Commandante Pedro Santa Cruz and he was not at all happy about the removal of the wing tips. So I said I would personally test the de-tipped Buchon …. Now this is tantamount to an insult to a Spaniard, especially one of his ability, to do something that you are inferring he cannot do. He therefore became very annoyed and temperamental and said “certainly not El Hamish” as he called me “I will do ze testing”. So the wing tips were removed and the end of the wings faired over. True to his word, Santa Cruz did the test flights. Remarkably, he was ecstatic about the performance of the aircraft, asking why the rounded wing tips had been put on the aircraft in the first place!
Having sorted the fighters, Hamish then turned his attention to the bomber fleet. The CASA 2111’s were still being used by the Spanish Air Force and therefore could not be purchased en bloc for the film company. Meetings were set up between Mahaddie, Ben Fisz and the Spanish Minister for Air; a request was made to loan the CASA’s for use as Heinkel bombers in the film. After an official request in writing, the Spanish Government informed the British Air Attaché that they would be happy to loan the entire 32 bomber fleet to Spitfire Productions for the film sequences. All expense incurred during the filming of the aircraft, fuel, maintenance, pilots and groundcrew would be waived, with the exception of painting the aircarft in Luftwaffe colours and the repainting at the end of filming. This saved Spitfire Productions a lot of money, money which they would not have had. For this happened during the period Rank withdrew their support and the organisation had saved on money provided by Saltzman; but this could not last indefinitely.
Whilst Mahaddie had been busy rounding up the ‘RAF’ and ‘Luftwaffe’, Saltzman had been searching for a financial backer. He had persuaded United Artists to finance the making of the film. With sound financial backing the film was now back on the road after a gap of 12 months.
Mahaddie continued to amass the aircraft and was now turning his attention to privately owned aircraft. He had discovered that the Texas based Confederate Air Force had purchased a Spitfire Mk.IX in England and owned four of the Buchons. The CAF agreed to lease all the aircraft to Spitfire Productions on the proviso that they were flown during filming by CAF pilots. This was agreed and the film gained five more fighters. Four more Spitfires were placed under contract to Spitfire Productions. One of these was the Mk.XIV owned by Rolls Royce, the other three being Mk.IX’s, two of which were dual control T.9 trainers. These T.9’s would prove most useful for conversion training for the aircrew and, having full dual controls, camera equipment could be mounted in the front seat to give a superb pilots-eye view of the proceedings. Now the budget would stretch to it, Mahaddie decided to have an additional three hitherto static Spitfires restored to fly, all three being early marks of the type Mahaddie was short of for the flying sequences. These three aircarft are noteworthy. A Mk.Ia, AR213, was reputed to have been purchased by Air Commodore Allen Wheeler in 1947 for the princely sum of £25, and was in store at RAF Abingdon and was transported to Henlow and rebuilt using parts from other Spitfires, Mk.IIa, P7350 which had been sat in the RAF Colerne Museum for many years, until surveyed by Spitfire Productions and found to be fit for flight, only needing a change of oil and a new set of spark plugs to get its engine ticking over, and a Mk.V Spitfire, AR501 which was owned by the Shuttleworth Collection. The latter had been stored in a dismantled condition and was refurbished to flying condition for the film. One thing is certain. There are a large number of Spitfires airworthy today and this may not have been the case had it not been for the film, which not only cleared out many static Spitfires, but rekindled interest in this type of aircraft. Indeed many agree it was this film that inspired much of the activity surrounding Warbirds today.
Recent photo of Spitfire Mk.Ia AR213
By the end of 1967 Hamish Mahaddie had managed to collect 12 airworthy Spitfires, 5 taxiable Spitfires and 9 aircraft suitable for dressing the sets. Additionally 3 airworthy Hurricanes, plus 3 of the same type suitable for dressing sets, 28 Hispano Buchons had been acquired, and the loan of 32 CASA bombers secured.
Despite all the real aircraft that had been gathered together for the filming there were still insufficient airframes for director Guy Hamilton to re-stage the Battle of Britain as he wanted it for his Panavision cameras. A temporary aircraft factory was built at Pinewood Film Studios and full size wood and fibreglass Hurricanes, Spitfires and Bf109’s started to roll of the production line with the same urgency as the real thing did in wartime. These very convincing looking replicas were to be used for static dressing on the airfields and some were powered by motorcycle engines to enable them to taxi. Despite the majority of these replicas being destroyed during filming of the airfield attack sequences, several of each type survives in various aircraft museums in the U.K. The Pinewood aircraft factory excelled itself when it produced a one-off full sized replica of a Heinkel He-111. It weighed six tons and was complete down to the last minute detail. This particular replica was used in the film to simulate a crashed He-111. The production line was housed in three tents each measuring 80 feet by 120 feet.
To secure the spectacular aerial combat scenes for the film a special camera platform was needed. This came in the shape of North American B-25J Mitchell N6578D/44-31508 which was flown by the redoubtable Jeff Hawke. Heavily modified in Florida, by Hill Air and Flying W Products, the Mitchell was fitted with a hemispherical optical bubble which replaced the nose glazing enabling a Panavision camera to shoot through 210o without distortion. Clear vision panels replaced the waist gun positions, the tail turret was removed and a specially built clear vision camera position was installed with slipstream deflecting cowlings above and below the camera position. The only creature comforts afforded the cameraman was a full harness seat belt. In the Mitchell’s bomb bay there was a retractable double jointed arm with a remote controlled camera on the end which was capable of filming through 360o. In the mid-upper turret position was an enlarged astrodome under which the aerial unit director sat during filming, positioned around him was a bank of television monitor screens connected up to the cameras along with a video tape machine to enable instant playback of any particular camera shot. It took Hawke and co-pilot Duane Egli 22 hours to fly the Mitchell from Florida to England. On arrival the aircraft was given a distinctive paint scheme. The forward fuselage was natural metal, leading edges of the wings were white and the trailing edges of the wings were adorned with six black and white stripes. Rear port fuselage was dayglo red and the starboard rear fuselage was green. This garish colour scheme had a practical purpose, being used to position different formations of aircraft on a particular section of the Mitchell camera ship. Upon arrival in Spain one of the film crew, upon seeing the unique paint scheme, remarked, “It’s a damn great psychedelic monster”. That nickname was to remain with the aircraft for the duration of the filming.
By mid March 1968 the team of RAF personnel at RAF Henlow had all but finished work on the Spitfires and Hurricanes. The airworthy aircraft flew out to Duxford, the taxiable and static aircraft following by road transport. Flying the Spitfires and Hurricanes for the film was a select band of Royal Air Force pilots, all qualified flying instructors with many hours on fighter type aircraft. All of the pilots underwent conversion onto type in one of the Spitfire T.9. dual control aircraft. Leading the pilots was Wing Commander George Elliot, who personally tested each pilot on type. Undertaking the enormous task of maintaining the film fleet of Warbirds was Simpson’s Aero Services of Elstree. In charge was John “Tubby” Simpson. Hamish Mahaddie recalls, “John Simpson was a first class aero mechanic and an expert on the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. With RAF airmen undertaking first line maintenance (refuelling and flight line tasks), John and his team of civilian engineers kept the aircraft serviceable during the shooting schedule of the film. If we had an aircarft go unserviceable during shooting with engine problems for example, John would remove the offending part and off he would go to Rolls-Royce at Filton or Derby, or in the case of radiators, up to Dellaney-Gallay, the radiator specialists. The repaired items would be back on the aircraft by the following morning. All this was made possible with the use of film money. Sadly, John Simpson was not a man to delegate work and all the rushing about all over the country probably contributed toward his untimely death shortly after the film was completed. I had maintained that I would lose one aircarft per week due to unserviceability during filming and after twelve weeks we would have no aircraft left to film. Due to the excellent work of Simpsons Aero Services we had no major serviceability problems whatsoever.”