The Making of the film:
"Battle of Britain” – The film – The scene was set
During the time that Hamish Mahaddie was travelling the world looking for aeroplanes, Spitfire Productions were searching for suitable airfield locations in the U.K. Obviously modern day airfields with their vast expanses of concrete hard standings would not be suitable to represent the 1940’s grass aerodromes of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command.
Harry Saltzman knew of RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire which at that time was still owned by the Royal Air Force and was under a ‘Care and Maintenance Order’. Upon surveying Duxford Saltzman found it to be the ideal location for filming and the generous hangarage still available meant that Duxford could be used as a base of operations, there being ample living accommodation and engineering workshops just across the road. Negotiations between Spitfire Productions and the Ministry of Defence were entered into and in March 1968 the film company were given permission to use Duxford airfield and all of its facilities at a reported cost of £6000 per month excluding any repair, alteration or decoration work that the airfield needed to bring it up to 1940’s standards. This extra rebuilding work at Duxford is thought to have cost the film company £38,000. Other locations during filming were RAF Debden, RAF Northolt, and ex RAF airfield at Hawkinge. RAF Debden was the home of the films ‘flying unit’, whilst filming flying sequences for the film, the airworthy aircraft would operate out of Debden, leaving Duxford free to assume the mantle of the main airfield location. North Weald was the other main airfield location. During the 1960’s the army were resident here, but for the summer of 1968 it seemed as if Fighter Command had regained control when the airfield was taken over by the film company and. Like Duxford, North Weald was dressed as a 1940’s Fighter Command station.
North Weald today.
Spain: March 1968. Director Guy Hamilton calls ACTION for the cameras to start shooting the first scenes for the Battle of Britain. The first sequences to be filmed were the re-creation of the British withdrawal from Dunkirk, which was actually filmed on a suitably dressed Heilva beach near the Spanish city of Seville. The German airfield scenes were filmed at Tablada and El Corporo airfields, and on March 18th the B-25 Mitchell camera ship arrived from the U.K., fully equipped and ready to start the aerial filming of the mass German bomber and fighter footage.
On board the Mitchell were cameramen ‘Skeets’ Kelly and ‘Johnny’ Jordan two of the best aerial cameramen in the world. Sadly these two masters of their craft died soon after the making of the film. In September 1970, Skeets was in Dublin shooting aerial material for a film called When Eight Bells Tolls, when the Zeppelin production office (I believe then in post-production) asked Skeets if he could be loaned from Eight Bells over a weekend to shoot some air-to-air combat scenes for their picture. Skeets agreed. The sequence was simply of some RFC SE5s (the old Blue Max replicas, then based at Weston Field near Baldonnel air base) making their attack runs on the Zeppelin airship raiding Britain. Using (I assume) the Heli-Union Alouette II, which Gilbert Chomât usually piloted) Skeets and Burch Williams (who was to direct the action) took off and rendezvoused with the SE5s over Dublin Bay. The accident happened when one of the SE5s flew too close to the Alouette and clipped its rotors. Both aircraft plunged some 2,000ft into the water below. All were killed. In the same year, Johnny was airborne, manning the camera in the B25 camera-plane, leading a formation of other B25s over the Gulf of Mexico for the film Catch-22. Johnny, who was directing the action, gave the signal for the squadron to accelerate and closely overfly the camera-plane. However, those on board claimed that the squadron came over very close and the extreme noise created caused the pilot, one Jeff Hawke, to fear that there was going to be a collision. Reacting, he pushed forward on his yoke and camera-plane entered a parabolic dive. This effected the complete weightlessness of all on board, including Johnny, who had not harnessed himself into his position. Consequently – and horrifically – Johnny simply floated out of the camera aperture, falling with the plane, just feet away from his crew – his assistant and a grip – who could do nothing whatever to help him. He fell 4,000ft to his death. Johnny was greatly loved and serious loss to the film industry. From the day of the Mitchell’s arrival it was a time of high activity for the flying unit, for all the Spanish aerial shots had to be ‘in the can’ by the end of April 1968, in order for the film crews etc. to get back to England in time for the filming of the RAF sequences. It must have been quite a sight as formations of 30 plus Heinkels, in company with escorting fighters, were filmed in various numbers and angles for the camera. A solitary Spitfire Mk IX was fitted with long range fuel tanks and flown to Spain in order to film the RAF flying through the mass German formations.
The filming in Spain also utilised a Junkers JU-52 trimotor – actually a CASA 352-L. Modifications to make the Spanish built CASA resemble the German Junkers were easy, recalls Hamish Mahaddie … “I only had to remove the chintz curtains favoured by the Spaniards and repaint the aircraft. It then became the personal transport of Fieldmarshal Milch, Inspector General of the Luftwaffe and as such it appeared on the screen at the start of the film title sequence, as Dietrich Frauboes, playing the part of Milch, inspects the rows of Luftwaffe Heinkels and Messerschmitt’s.’ At the end of the filming in Spain two Heinkels were purchased by Spitfire Productions, the remainder were returned to their previous Spanish Air Force markings and handed back to the Spaniards.
The two Heinkels, along with 17 Buchons, the Spitfire and B-25 camera ship then prepared to transit to the U.K. to take part in the aerial scenes with the Spitfires and Hurricanes that had been gathered there.
During April and May there had been an intensive programme of practice flights with the Spitfires and Hurricanes, in order to bring the formation flying up to standard and to get the pilots used to positioning the aircarft so the cameras could get the best possible shots. On the 11th May the Mitchell, a Heinkel (one Heinkel had gone unserviceable en route, arriving the following day) and the 17 Buchons arrived at RAF Manston in Kent. After clearing customs and undergoing an inspection by the air registration board the aircraft were issued with a restricted permit to fly in the U.K. This was to cover flights being made for the purpose of ‘air to air’ filming, practice flights, and transit flights to other locations in the U.K.
The Messerschmitts and Heinkels were then entered on the British Civil Aircraft Register and on May 14th the gaggle of Luftwaffe aircarft flew from Manston to Duxford. The English sequences could now begin in earnest. For the duration of filming in the U.K. the Luftwaffe aircraft would continue to be flown by Spanish Air Force Pilots, the job of maintaining the aircraft being the responsibility of the Spanish Air Force.
In order to film the complex aerial scenes a segment of official airspace was set aside for film company use. The space allocated to the production covered three areas of the East Midlands and East Anglia, each of which was approximately three miles long and 10 miles wide. NOTAMS (Notice to Airmen) were issued to all flying units, warning pilots to stay clear of the areas. However one Canberra jet is reputed to have broken cloud amidst a Staffel of 109’s his remarks are said to be unprintable!
Canberra/Buchon incident – perhaps!
(PR9 wrong era but hey a bit of artistic licence)
The summer of 1968 was most unlike that of 1940, rain and low cloud bases hampering the flying and the filming day after day. The staff had to be paid despite the bad weather and is thought that at this stage the film was costing £55,000 a day to produce. The original film schedule had allocated 10-12 weeks to film aerial sequences in England. Due to poor weather conditions it actually took twenty weeks and involved some 5,000 flying hours to complete the aerial scenes. This was only possible due to the fact that in August, in sheer desperation to get some air to air filming ‘in the can’ the air unit flew 9 Spitfires, 3 Buchons and the B-25 down to Montpelier in Southern France for three weeks. This drastic measure paid off, for the remainder of the dog fight scenes were captured on film over the Mediterranean.
Back in England meanwhile, Duxford had to have a large contingent of police to control the large crowds of sightseers that trampled the surrounding cornfields in order to get a view of the filming and the aircraft in action. The South-western end of Duxford doubled for France, with a mock-up of a French chateau and that corner was adorned with tents and other artefacts to resemble a B.E.F. airfield at the time of the British withdrawal from France in May 1940. Hurricanes, real and replica, were placed around the ‘French’ airfield and it was here that the spectacular low level strafing of the airfield by Bf109s took place.
By clever positioning of cameras, Duxford played the part of two airfields in the film and it was also the location of one of the films most controversial talking points, the destruction of hangar 3.
The bombing raid on Duxford airfield was to be one of the most exciting parts of the finished film, but the film company had not been given specific permission to destroy the hangar during filming. Nevertheless, in a classic case of ‘blow now and ask questions later’, mid-June saw the hangar disappear in a sheet of flame and smoke when, during the filming of a bombing raid a ton of gelignite surrounded by three tankers of oil, was ignited in a tremendous climax to the airfield attack. The hangar disappeared in a sheet of flame and huge palls of thick black acrid smoke.
In late summer when the scheduled filming of the RAF ’big wing’ scenes took place it quickly became obvious that three airworthy Hurricanes all alone on the big screen would not be credible, so several Hispano Buchons were given a coat of washable paint and assumed RAF colours. These aircraft flew behind the three Hurricanes and with the use of special effects and superimposition etc., a credible ‘big wing’ formation emerged. The same system of superimposing images on top of each other was used with the Spitfire ‘big wing’ when 12 Spitfires became 24 and then 36, all part of the movie magic industry.
Junkers Ju87 (Stuka)
It had been realised at an early stage that dive bombing scenes with Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive bombers would provide atmosphere and the right audience emotion for later on in the film when the Luftwaffe was being shot out of the sky. Only one genuine Stuka existed in the U.K., owned by the Royal Air Force and kept at RAF St Athan in Wales. Hamish Mahaddie’s idea was that this aircraft could be made airworthy and that formation scenes for the attacks on the radar stations etc. could be made up using suitably modified and disguised Percival Proctor aircraft.
Percival Proctor (Stuka?)
Initially the RAF refused permission to restore the genuine Stuka to flying condition for the film. However, as the company demonstrated its expertise in getting other aircraft safely airworthy, the RAF gave permission to fly the Stuka. Inspection of the airframe revealed it would take a lot of time and money (both of which were very precious to Spitfire Productions) to make the Ju87 fly and the plans were quickly dropped. The Proctor plan was then adopted, as Hamish Mahaddie recalls…”I bought three Proctors and were able to mock up a sort of one third scale Stuka. I was able to change the tail, degut the centre section and make a completely new centre section which had the correct gull wing configuration. The outer wing panels were then bolted back on and the cockpit canopy was changed for the long glass house type it is well known for. Sadly, I was unable to get a three bladed propeller and that is probably the main reason why my phoney Stuka was not used in the finished film, but the shots in the film when the Stukas are bombing the radar stations were filmed using large scale radio controlled models, and very effective they were too. You actually see the bombs drop from the aircraft, radio controlled models, no argument’.
For the filming, several of the Spitfires, Buchons and one of the Heinkel bombers were fitted with smoke pots. These were smoke canisters fitted to the cowlings of the aircraft which could be activated by the pilot to simulate for the film, an aircraft being hit and shot down. In fact Texan Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards is reputed to have been shot down some 118 times during the aerial dogfight filming!
One other interesting aspect of the film was the markings chosen for the aircraft. Producers Saltzman and Fisz were adamant that the aircraft that would appear in the film would be painted and marked as authentically as possible. This was left to the films Technical advisors and a special film markings unit, who ensured that the Spitfires and Hurricanes were painted in the correct 1940 style camouflage of dark earth/dark green top surfaces and duck egg blue undersides. The Luftwaffe aircraft wore the correct two tone green splinter camouflage on the upper surfaces with light blue undersides. When it came to the question of squadron markings, the producers and technical advisors agreed it would be impossible to portray every RAF and Luftwaffe unit that took part in hostilities and it was decided to use fictitious code letters for the RAF machines, thereby apportioning no glory or blame to any particular RAF squadron. The markings unit devised a system of using fablon style code letters to be attached and removed from the aircraft at will – these could be, and were, changed after almost every filming sortie. Instead of using the correct colour grey for the codes, artistic licence prevailed and white was used so as to show up better on film, and thereby help the film audience to relate particular aircraft to the actors who were supposed to be flying them. During the filming the Hurricanes wore MI and KV squadron codes, with just the individual aircraft letters being used for the battle of France scenes. The Spitfires wore AI, BO, CD, DO and EI squadron codes, the BO codes being reserved for the replica aircraft that were to be destroyed in the bombing scenes and although some real aircarft wore EI codes, these were not seen in the finished film. The Luftwaffe aircraft wore a similar number of different fablon style code markings. The Heinkels carried A5, VI and 6J squadron codes with the Buchons having red, white or yellow propeller spinners with aircraft numbers to match.
Some of the Bf109’s wore the Staffel leaders’ chevron markings instead of the codes and all the Luftwaffe aircraft carried fictitious unit badges. Like the Royal Air Force the Luftwaffe aircraft carried fictitious unit badges, and also had their markings changed after almost every sortie. Some aircraft even wore different marks on each side of the fuselage, thereby making it very difficult for the historian to pinpoint individual aircraft.
By the end of September 1968 filming of the aerial scenes had come to an end. Aircraft, ground crews and pilots had all been worked hard in order to secure the 40 minutes of aerial scenes. It was now up to the film Editors and special effects people – the backroom boys – to put the whole thing together back at Pinewood Studios. During the production of The Battle of Britain the film company had contracted several ex Battle of Britain pilots, both German and English, to act as technical and tactical advisers to the film, ensuring authenticity where possible. Amongst these were Wing Commander Robert Stanford Tuck, and Squadron Leader ‘Ginger’ Lacey for the RAF and General Adolf Galland with Oberst Hans Brustellin for the Luftwaffe. Spitfire Productions had received tremendous support from many aviation industries including Rolls-Royce, Dowty Rotol, Smiths Industries (Aviation Division), KLG Plugs, Dunlop, Shell, BP, Delany Galley and Lucas to name but a few. To compliment the fine cast of aircraft an international star cast of actors took part in the movie including: Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Kenneth Moore, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Kurt Jurgens, Manfred Reddemann and Hein Reiss.
With the Battle of Britain going on general release, aptly on September 15th (Battle of Britain Day) 1969, Spitfire Productions had sold off many of the aircraft, keeping a small number to participate in film promotion flying. Others were returned to their owners, civil and military.
In total The Battle of Britain cost $13 million to make and it is a lasting tribute to the men and women of Fighter Command in 1940, and to the determination of Producers Ben Fisz and Harry Saltzman. On the whole the film received favourable reviews from the film critics and was an instant hit with aircraft enthusiasts the world over. The warbird movement in England had a tremendous shot in the arm and interest in Warbirds has escalated since. The film’s main location at Duxford was given a new lease of life with the Imperial War Museum and has finally established itself as the warbird capital of the U.K.