THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

"Battle of Britain - The Movie", by Robert J. Rudhall, book excerpt #4
All text by the late Robert J. Rudhall, circa 2000

 

 

Lights, Cameras, Action!

In January 1968 an advance film construction crew was sent out to Spain to prepare the locations needed for the filming. One of the first areas to be tackled was Huelva beach, near Seville, which would double for Dunkirk in the French evacuation scenes. It was ironic that the film producers should pick Huelva, as it was here that the body of the real 'man who never was' was washed up in 1943. This was a wartime deception tactic by the Allies to fool the Axis forces with false 'top secret' documents about D-Day. The story was later dramatised in the 1955 film the Man Who Never Was, with Clifton Webb and Robert Flemyng. The latter would play Wing Commander Willoughby, one of the operations room controllers at AVM Keith Park's (Trevor Howard) headquarters in Battle of Britain.

Alterations had to be made at Tablada and El Corpero airfields (see On Location), the two main aircraft locations in Spain, and by early March an 85strong team of accountants, boom operators, camera operators, carpenters, clapper boys, electricians, hairdressers, make-up personnel, painters, riggers, sound mixers, continuity girls and secretaries had been flown out to Spain to start work preparing the main locations for shooting. March 13 saw the first major sequence in the production committed to film. This was the opening title scene, when Dietrich Frauboes, playing the part of Feldmarschall Erhard . Milch, inspects the rows of Heinkel bombers.

Before the rehearsals began for the scene there was a two minute silence observed for Don Federico Eglesias Lanzos, who had been killed on January 20, while flying aerobatics in one of the Messerschmitt I09s. As a mark of respect the film company paid 18,000 to his widow.

Several rehearsals were needed to get the timings and positions just right for this long sequence in the film, and it was not until mid-afternoon that Guy Hamilton was satisfied with the action and the light conditions for filming. Perched atop the director's podium, Hamilton called 'Action' at 3pm and the film was actually underway. This was the first of over 5,000 separate shots, which would eventually go to make up the finished film. After many trials and tribulations, it looked as if the film was finally getting moving and something useful was, at last, going 'into the can'.

"It's been tried and tested, so don't blame the system if you're no good" - Nigel Patrick

While much attention had been paid to getting the requisite numbers ofaircraft on the British and German side of the story, little thought had seemingly been paid to arranging these aircraft in the air for the cameras. With this in mind the film company was very fortunate to secure the services of one John Blake. John, in subsequent years would be known the world over for his airshow commentaries in the UK and abroad, but at that time he was working for the Royal Aero Club. In a 1999 interview with the author, John fondly remembered how he became involved with Battle of Britain.

The film was on for a while and then off, when the money problems came along, but when they got it cracking again they came to some minor crisis point at Pinewood, because they needed somebody to come in for a couple of weeks to help out on the film's storyboards.

(Storyboards are the drawings of the action as the producers envisage it on screen. These are then studied by the film cameraman to see if what is depicted can actually be achieved before any shooting begins)

They wanted someone who knew something about air to air photography, somebody who knew something about flying and someone who knew something about drawing for the storyboards. I had gained experience in all of these fields over the years. Quentin Laurence, who I had known for several years, and who was involved with the/ilm as its Aerial Unit Director, asked me if I wanted to spend a couple of weeks helping them out on the film. I therefore joined the art department at Pinewood, working on the storyboards. After a couple of days I was asked if I could design the fighter and bomber formations for the film. I then produced scale blueprints of the formations so that the producers could get some idea of what they were going to see on screen. After this another problem reared its head, which was one that the film makers never really solved, and that was how to present a credible looking dogfight on film . I designed a 3D model of a dogfight, which was basically a series of narrow strips of card, following the path of each aircraft, divided into coloured time segments so that you could see where each aircraft would be at a given time. This was received, with some awe and consternation, by the film people, and taken away to be studied. I never ever saw it again.

In the end the producers took a look at the old Howard Hughes film, Hells Angels, which is notable for its dogfight scenes. It was arranged for Ben Fisz, Guy Hamilton, plus one or two other people fairly high up in the film's production, to watch this film in order to get some ideas on how to come up with the dogfight scenes for Battle of Britain. Everybody else involved in the film was warned firmly that this was a private showing and they would not be admitted. There was even a notice on the door of the viewing cinema that this was out of bounds to 'all ranks '.

However, when the lights went up after the screening, it transpired that the cinema was packed with people who should not have been there in the first place. We had all crept in while the lights were out to watch Hells Angels. Nothing was actually said about this transgression, but it was discovered that all Howard Hughes did on Hells Angels was to line the aircraft up at different distances from the camera and get them to loop and roll, which looked like a dogfight in the finished film.

I spent about six weeks at Pinewood, working on all manner of things to do with the film. I was called in to one of the meetings involving those people who were going to go out to Spain for the mass bomber sequences. Sitting opposite me was an old friend, John 'Jeff' Hawke, who was flying the camera aircraft for the filming, and, largely at his and Quentin's suggestion, I ended up being asked to go to Spain with the flying unit in order to give the daily briefings. This took up another two months, so what started out as a quick two week job actually took a considerable time.

"More accurate the other way round, I'm trusting in God and praying for Radar" - Sir Laurence Olivier

In order to capture on film scenes of the RAF attacking large formations of Luftwaffe aircraft, the producers decided that one of the company's Spitfires would have to fly out to Spain in order to participate in these scenes. Spitfire IX MH415 (G-AVDJ) was the aircraft chosen, and it was duly fitted with a long range fuel tank so that it had extra 'legs' for the flight. Spitfire Productions contracted the well known aircraft restorer and replica builder Vivian Bellamy to fly the Spitfire out to Spain, as Vivian's experience on large piston-engined fighters was considerable. Bellamy served as a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm during World War Two, and postwar had owned Spitfire (Tr.8 G-AIDN) for a number of years, before selling it on to his brother in law, John Fairey.

At his home in 1997, just a matter of months before he died, Vivian Bellamy recalled his time on the Battle of Britain film during an interview with the author.

Because I had flown this sort of aircraft before, the film company asked me if I could fly the Spitfire out to Spain, and I said yes, no trouble at all. I remember I had a few snags with the drop tank, in that it at first was not 'petrol tight' in the connections between the tank and the aircraft's main fuel system, but we eventually sorted it out. I took off from Eastleigh Airport and flew down, aiming for Biarritz, but it started to rain and the weather slowly got worse. At one time a French Air Force Mystere jet came alongside me to take a look at the old Spitfire. I was doing about 150 knots, and the Mystere had a bit of a job to go as slow as me. He came past with the flaps and undercarriage down at one point. The weather got so bad that Ihad to turn back and land at Bordeaux. As soon as I taxied in, ancient Frenchmen, who had flown Spitfires at one time or another, surrounded the aircraft.

The following day I took off bound for Madrid. In years gone by you could almost see Madrid when you climbed to height, but with all the pollution of the 1960s it was a bit of a job sometimes to actually see where you were going. However, I landed safely at Madrid, after which the aircraft was surrounded again, but this time by Germans, who had aff turned out to see the famous, or in their eyes, infamous, Spit/ire. I decided to show them what a Spitfire could do, so when 1 took off I gave the aircraft 108lbs of boost, and it literally shot into the sky, followed by a low flypast down the runway. As 1 was about to turn on course for Seville, the airfield control tower came on the radio and said 'Would you do that again please'.

When 1 arrived at Tablada the film company was very pleased to see the aircraft, as by then they were getting a little fed up with the Spaniards and the Messerschmitts, so the sight of a Spitfire really boosted their morale. It was at Tablada that 1 met Pedro Santa Cruz jar the first time and I have to say was very impressed with his skiff as a pilot. We let Santa Cruz fly the Spitfire once, and he was very good with it. After he had landed 1 asked him what he thought of the famous Spitfire, and he said 'It is a very good aeroplane, but I prefer the Messerschmitt. But then he would, wouldn't he.

On one occasion, which 1 will never forget, we saw Santa Cruz climb into one of the Heinkel bombers and taxi out from the line-up. He then took off and proceeded to carry out some low flypasts over the airfield. He then climbed to height, feathered both propellers and brought the aircraft down very low, actually flying through the gap he had left in the Heinkel line-up, then pull up and re-start the engines before landing back. I could not actually believe my eyes.

While filming on the ground was relatively easy, it was a different story when the aircraft got airborne. Firstly shooting had to be carried out in reasonably sunny skies, which could be matched with filming back in the UK, secondly all the mass bomber formations had to be carried out over sea, as the landscape of Spain was most unlike that of Kent in 1940, and thirdly time was of the essence, as the Messerschmitts still had the lack of range problem that the Luftwaffe suffered back in 1940.

As John Blake remembered: We used to fly a racetrack pattern with the Heinkels, and the Messerschmitts were in the standard wartime finger four formation, but considerably closed up so that they would fit into the camera frame. We also used to get the filming sequences all lined up ready, and then a fleet of Spanish fishing trawlers would come into shot below us and we would have to go around again. The aircraft were formed up into two separate blocks of fighters and bombers, code-named Sevillia and Betis, which were the names of the two local football teams. The bombers would take off and join up over Tablada and head west over the coast, and then fly a long big racetrack pattern, with about a 15 minute duration each side. The 109s came up separately, and joined in where they were required. Quentin Laurence and I spent hours on the floor of one of the hangars at Tablada with a lot of plastic Airfix models on sticks, placing them into the formations required for the filming.

"This is only the beginning, they won't stop now" -Trevor Howard

Held up for some considerable time due to poor weather conditions, indeed so much rain fell in Spain that Tablada began to resemble a Chinese paddy field on more than one occasion, the filming schedule fell badly behind, and the costs of the production rocketed upwards. The Spanish sequences had to be put 'in the can' quickly before severe money problems started to affect the whole production. Eventually the required flying took place, and the sole Spitfire was gainfully employed diving through the formations of Heinkels numerous times, getting the footage required to match in with the proposed shooting in the UK. Even then things did not always go according to the briefings, as once airborne, radio problems and misunderstandings due to the different languages, often saw a lot of flying time wasted before any useful footage could be obtained.

Mid-way through the Spanish filming the Spanish Air Ministry informed the film company that the entire Heinkel fleet would be needed for a ceremonial flypast during a NATO exercise, which was due to take place in the Atlantic. This would entail removing the German camouflage and markings and replacing them with the Heinkel's original Spanish Air Force colours. With an estimated cost of 1,000 per aircraft, this was the last thing that Spitfire Productions needed at that stage of the production. The time lost in filming and the extra cost involved could prove to be crippling for Spitfire Productions. Director Guy Hamilton protested in no uncertain terms to the Spanish 'powers that be' and after some heated negotiations it was decided to leave the Heinkels in Luftwaffe markings. Needless to say, it must have been a very unusual sight for the NATO generals to see a mass formation of World War Two Luftwaffe painted bombers approaching the saluting area!

When the weather was 'playing ball' in Spain, it was a good day if the film company got two air-to-air filming sorties in one day. Normally, by the time the daily briefings had taken place and the weather had been checked it was only possible to carry out one afternoon flight.

One of the most difficult scenes to film was the sequence when Goering and the Luftwaffe 'top brass' were positioned on the edge of the cliffs to watch the mass formations of bombers and fighters flying across the supposedly English Channel to pulverise London. This was supposed to represent the Pas de Calais in Northern France, but was actually filmed about ten miles from Tablada on the edge of a large olive grove. A replica obelisk, representing the one at Cap Blanc Nez, was built on the cliff, but was only clad from the top to a point halfway down the monument, in order to save money. This meant that the camera could only shoot from the halfway point, otherwise the bare scaffolding would show in the finished film. This in turn restricted the area in which the aircraft had to fly for the cameras, and trying to get the mass of aircraft in the correct position for the camera angle proved to be particularly troublesome.

We set up a special racetrack pattern for this scene, remembers John Blake, over endless and featureless olive groves, and it was very difficult to actually see this obelisk until you were on top of it. It required some very accurate flying by the Spanish pilots as it had to be carried out at reasonably low level. Through the company's interpreter I asked the formation leader, Colonel Lopez Gomez, who commanded the 7th Bomber Wing of the Spanish Air Force, if he could keep an absolutely accurate course over the obelisk. After a burst of Spanish between the interpreter and the pilot, the interpreter said 'The pilot knows the area very well, he owns all of these olives!

The scenes showing Heinkels dropping bombs had to be carried out on one day, due to the fact that all of the film's 'concrete' bombs had to be dropped in 'one lot'. Constructed in Spain by a local company, they cost the film company a lot of money, so much so that it was not possible to have any spares made. It was decided therefore that this could only be a 'one take' option, and there would be no chance for a second bite of the cherry. As the weather continued to disrupt filming, it was mooted that another option would be to ship the bombs to the UK and drop them over the Wash area if a 'shoot' in Spain was not going to be possible. This idea was thwarted when it was discovered that the Spanish customs authorities would not grant an export licence for the concrete bombs and they had to stay in the country of origin.

On the allotted bomb-dropping day we flew south, recalled John Blake, instead of flying our usual westerly direction. The Heinkels set off and actually headed in the direction of Gibraltar. At that time General Franco was having one of his tantrums about the British and Gibraltar, and 1 did actually wonder whether the Spanish pilots were going to drop the concrete bombs on Gibraltar! Thankfully they didn't and the scenes were shot successfully.

After many frustrating hold ups, the Spanish filming sequences came to an end and the film company packed up its belongings and made ready to return to the UK. Spitfire Productions had, in the meantime, purchased two of the Heinkels from the Spanish Air Force, in order to match in film sequences in England with RAF fighters attacking the Luftwaffe. By now it was early May, the Spanish filming having taken a lot longer than had been planned. Things had to move fast if the shooting schedule was to be kept on track. The long flight for the Spitfire, the 17 Messerschmitts, two Heinkels and the B-25 Mitchell was planned and scheduled. It would take at least three days to get the aircraft to Duxford, the film company's main base in the UK. By the time the aircraft arrived in England and were made ready for the cameras it would be mid-May and time was indeed pressing. One chapter of the filming had come to an end, another chapter, with even more frustrations to come, was about to begin.

 

 

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