THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
"Battle of Britain - The Movie", by Robert J.
Rudhall, book excerpt #8
All text by the late Robert J. Rudhall, circa 2000
Whereas Saltzman and Fisz struck lucky with the numbers of aircraft that could be gathered for the filming, when it came to sourcing authentic looking airfield locations there were very few that would readily fit the bill. Most surviving airfield locations of the 1940 period were either now housing estates or, if still in use as airfields, had been developed so much that they would prove to be unsuitable for the period look that the producers needed. It was originally estimated that five separate airfields would be needed to convey the RAF side of the Battle. This was later trimmed down to three main locations, Duxford, Hawkinge and North Weald. Debden Airfield would also be used as an operations base by the flying unit when Duxford was required for ground filming.
Negotiations to get permission to use these locations took a long time to come to fruition (seeFilm Logistics), but eventually a deal was secured which meant that the film makers could proceed with the ground-bound sequences in Britain. Of the trio of airfields, Duxford proved to be the most useful, as it actually portrayed three different locations in the finished film, the French airfield which was constructed on the south-west comer of Duxford, the main airfield and its hangars portrayed the station commanded by Kenneth More, and the 'South Downs Flying Club' (where Michael Caine and his squadron are evacuated to after 'Hawkinge' is put out of action) was located at the north western end of the airfield.
One of the main stations in the real Battle, Duxford had lain unused since the RAF moved out in August 1961. Since then the airfield had been under Care and Maintenance, but basically remained unchanged from its wartime vista, save for the hard runway, which was built in 1951 to accommodate jet fighters. After the film company moved out there were several suggestions put forward for the future use of Duxford, one of them being that the site should be converted into an open prison! Thankfully the latter never came to pass. During the mid 1970s the London-based Imperial War Museum (IWM) used the airfield as a storage facility for some of its larger aircraft exhibits. This idea gained momentum and the airfield eventually became a fully-fledged arm of the IWM, which along with support from the Duxford Aviation Society, opened the complex to the public. Over the years the museum has gone from strength to strength and today ranks as the leading centre for historic aircraft preservation in Europe (some say the world!). Apart from the IWM's impressive collection of static aircraft, Duxford is home to an ever-increasing number of airworthy warbirds, operated by a host of private owners. One aircraft which 'starred' in Battle of Britain is resident with the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC).
Spitfire IX MH434 (G-ASJV) was acquired by the OFMC in the mid 1980s, and has been flying on a regular basis ever since. The OFMC also operated another film star, in the shape of Hispano HA 1112 MILBuchon C4 K -107 (G-BOML). This Merlin-engined Messerschmitt was restored to flying condition by Nick Grace in the late 1980s, and was acquired by OFMC in 1989. After ten years of operations with the company, the fighter crashed at Sabadell Airfield in Spain on September 25, 1999, its pilot, Mark Hanna, dying from his injuries some 24 hours later. This Buchon was one of the Spanish 'taxiers' used at Tablada. OFMC also has in its fleet Spanish CASA 2111, B.21-103, which at the time of writing was in store, pending a decision on its future.
Other regular 'film' visitors to Duxford are the Shuttleworth Collection's Sea Hurricane Ib Z7015 (G-BKTH) and Spitfire Vc AR501 (G-WWII), which participated as a 'taxier' and flyer ' respectively. Over the years Duxford has grown into one ofBritain's major aviation attractions, and although some may say that the airfield has lostits authentic wartime feel with the modem-looking 'Superhanger' and American Air Museum, it remains a magnet to anyone who has an interest in historic aviation. The house occupied by Sqn Ldr Skipper (Robert Shaw) in the film is located in Sawston Village north of Duxford, proving that filmatic licence came into play yet again, as Skipper was supposedly based at North Weald!
North Weald Airfield in Essex, like Duxford, had a genuineBattle of Britain history and apart from a jet extension to the main runway still retained that 'wartime look' so needed by the film producers. 'Weald was transferred to the Army in 1966 and was also being used as a gliding centre, but for filming purposes little had to be done to turn it back to a wartime Fighter Command airfield. The modem control tower was covered with camouflage netting and one of the T2 hangars was given a wartime hue. Dispersal huts and various other airfield buildings were hastily constructed on the northern side of the airfield, in front of the remaining wartime revetments and row of Poplar trees, the latter still giving North Weald its unmistakable 'signature' today.
In recent years North Weald has become home to an increasing number of historic aircraft. Indeed, one of the two Spanish Heinkel bombers (G-AWHB) which came over to the UK for the filming, is in the process of being restored to static display condition by Aces High Ltd. It was previously on display for many years at the Historic Aircraft Museum, Southend, where it suffered somewhat after being exposed to the elements while on external display. The fully restored and 'operational' wartime-style buildings at 'The Squadron' present the airfield's wartime image and in effect keep the 1939-45 spirit of the airfield alive, while visitors who wish to learn more of this famous site can do no better than to make a visit to the North Weald Airfield Museum, housed in the former station office at the original entrance to the airfield.
Hawkinge, the third of the film's major external locations, was at the time of filming still an all-grass airfield, and in that respect was the most authentic of all the venues used. Officially closed down in December 1961, by the time the film makers got around to using the airfield it was bereft of any buildings whatsoever, so dispersal huts, and dummy hangars had to be constructed by Spitfire Productions in order to achieve the correct image for the film. While the dispersal areas could boast proper three-dimensional facilities, the hangars on the far side of the airfield were in effect 'flat' lookalikes, held up by a copious amount of scaffolding. Viewed close-up the effect was not very convincing, but seen in long shot in the final film it is difficult to tell that the hangars are not real.
Today, Hawkinge holds perhaps the largest number of Battle of Britain film reminders, for the Kent Battle of Britain Museum contains a number of the replica Hurricanes, Spitfires and Messerschmitts built for the movie. All have been restored and are kept in fine condition. Testament indeed to the high standard of their original construction back in 1968.
As to the film's non-airfield locations in the UK, there were the extensive London Blitz scenes, which would be needed to be represented if the complete story of the Battle was to be depicted. In this area the film company struck gold, for in 1967 and 1968 the Greater London Council (GLC) was in the process of carrying out a slum clearance plan. The old 1930s and 1940s terraced houses of London's east end were being tom down to make way for the planned high rise flats. Spitfire Productions must have seemed like manner from heaven to the GLC, for they wanted to 'borrow' a couple of streets, plus some warehouses in the St Katherine's Dock area of the city and blow them up for the cameras. In effect the film company wanted to do the council 's job for them and pay them for the privilege!
Dragon Road, just off the Camberwell Road, in London's SE.15, was chosen and in early May the film's special effects experts, Cliff Richardson and Glen Robinson, moved in and rigged the street with a series of high explosive charges. By this time the vast majority of occupants had moved out and been found new accommodation by the GLC, but there were still a couple of families in residence, who, having lived through the original Blitz and survived were determined not to be moved by a film company wanting to re-create the night raids on London for the cinema. Spitfire Productions therefore had to compensate them for the inconvenience and ensure that their houses were properly safeguarded with piles of sandbags!
On the night of May 9, 1968, Dragon Road was demolished for the Panavision cameras. Lorry loads of car windscreens were smashed up and piles of bricks and rubble were littered around the 'set' to create the devastation needed for the correct effect. By 4.30am the following morning the shooting was finished and the whole mess created for the cameras had to be cleared up so that the GLC could carry on with the development of the area. The following night the effects team set their sights on St Katherine's Dock, where an old tea warehouse 'bit the dust' for the cameras.
Even London's famous Underground train system did not escape the attention of the film company. One night, after the trains had stopped running, Aldwych Station, which is situated on a spur off the Piccadilly Line, was 'dressed' for jts part in Battle of Britain. Posters advertising the latest films and shows in London were covered over with wartime designs, Careless Talk Costs Lives, Churchill's Let Us Go Forward Together etc. Many Londoners who, as children, had lived through the real blitz were employed as 'extras' for the scenes in the 'Tube Station'.
One other location lingers in the memory of those who are keen Battle of Britain film enthusiasts, that being the Jackdaw Inn, where Sqn Ldr Colin Harvey, played by Christopher Plummer, ordered a 'large scotch' for the princely sum of' one and six'. This public house still exists and for many years the exterior was little changed from its persona on screen. However, a recent re-vamp has sadly seen it lose its film 'look'. The 'Jackdaw' is located on the A260 road at Denton, near Canterbury, in Kent.
One ground location, which played itself in the film, was Bentley Priory, near Stanmore in Middlesex. Home to Air Chief Marshall Dowding's Fighter Command Headquarters, it was obvious that this significant building would have to be portrayed at some stage in the production. While all the internal scenes, Dowding's office and the Operations Room, were re-created at Pinewood Film Studios, the external sequences were shot in the grounds of the Priory itself, including the final scene where Laurence Olivier (as Dowding) walks out onto the balcony while the end titles roll up the screen.
When RAF Fighter Command was formed in 1936, its headquarters was moved into Bentley Priory and extensive work was started in early 1939 to prepare the building for the onslaught of war. The excavation needed to construct the underground operations centre required the removal of some 58,000 tons of earth before the 17,000 tons of reinforced concrete could be poured in to create the whole complex.
Declared operational in March 1940 (just in time for the Battle), it was from here that Dowding took the vitally important decisions as to the disposition of his squadrons in the thick of the fighting. Still in RAF control, Bentley Priory must rank as one of the air force's most historic buildings as the tactics decided upon within its walls undoubtedly saved this country from invasion in 1940. The first sequence in the film, that of a lone Hurricane performing a victory roll over the heads of the retreating British Army in France, was actually filmed in the country roads adjacent to Pinewood Film Studios, while the film's Ventnor Radar Station (supposedly on the Isle of Wight) and the Observer Corps post were located on ground known as 'The Mound', near Dover.
Over in Spain the film company made use of a number of different locations. The town of San Sebastian, in northern Spain, was found to include a number of streets, which with the right 'dressing' could be made to resemble Berlin in 1940. Along the Avendia de Espana false shop fronts were moved into position, German underground signs, a Police obelisk, newspaper kiosk (complete with 1940 German newspapers), cylindrical advertising drums with period posters in place and the obligatory Nazi flags completed the transformation, and for several nights wartime Berlin was recreated for the RAF attacks on the German capital scenes.
Tablada Airfield was the main operating base for the flying unit, and it was here that the famous opening credits sequence was filmed, using the rows of Heinkel bombers and arriving Junkers Ju 52. Tablada was also disguised to resemble Staken Airport, for the scene in the film when the Heinkel bomber pilots are told to report to Berlin. Sadly Tablada Airfield is no more, and to add insult to injury a main road now runs through what used to be the middle of the airfield.
El Corpero Airfield, which adjoined Tablada was the main Messerschmitt 109 base in the film and a comer of this location was used for the scene in which Major Falke (Manfred Reddeman) returns from shooting down Pilot Officer Charlie Lambert. Obviously, both Tablada and El Corpero were supposed to be Luftwaffe forward operating airfields in northern France, so certain measures had to be taken to disguise their Spanish looks.
Hangars were camouflaged, modern buildings were disguised, sentry boxes were built, period vehicles were strategically positioned in front of modem airfield fittings, and, getting right down to the 'nitty gritty', it was also stipulated that a quantity of foliage had to be positioned to cover cactus plants. One doesn't find cactus plants in northern France! The attention to detail in the film's well known title sequence at Tablada is indicative of the efforts that went in to make this movie as authentic as was possible, 'dressing' requirements for this portion alone were, to say the least, immense!
Two black 'official' cars would be needed for the actors playing the inspecting officers (Milch etc) and one Luftwaffe staff car. All three vehicles would be suitably marked up with registration letters and officers pennants. The Junkers Ju 52, coded 4Z+ JH, would taxi into shot, Milch would disembark and the camera would pan back to show 18 Heinkel bombers lined up in two rows (wearing unit codes on one side only), with attendant crews stationed in front (or inspection as Milch was driven past. In the background of the shot several vehicles and pieces of airfield equipment would be positioned to complete the required effect.Thankfully we did not have to make many alterations to the Junkers 52for this scene, remembered Hamish Mahaddie. All we had to do was to camouflage it and remove the chintz curtains from the windows. I don't think that Milch would have liked the chintz curtains.
Four Kubelwagons and eight lorries of suitable vintage had to be found, hired and utilised in this portion of the opening title sequence alone. 20 bomb trolleys, 70 50kg bombs, 30 250kg bombs, two 88mm guns along with their revetments, three light anti-aircraft guns and revetments, plus a wind sock all had to be sourced or specially made.
For the second portion of the title credits the inspecting officers were driven to the adjoining airfield (actually another corner of Tablada Airfield) and, as the procession exits one airfield, four Heinkel III s had to be moved from the large line-up re-coded and positioned 'in shot'. Two sentry boxes, an exit barrier along with appropriate signboards were made for the 'shot'.
Ithas to be said that this level of 'attention to detail', for what amounted to a three minute sequence in the film, sums up the painstaking determination of the film makers to 'get it right'. Sadly this level of dedication was lost on the average cinema audience and was only really appreciated by the aircraft enthusiasts who saw the film. That said, Battle of Britain would have been a much poorer production if the producers and director had not insisted that the only way to make this film was to do it properly! It is this, which has given the movie its lasting appeal with aviation aficionados.
Back to Book Excerpts index page
Click here if navigation bar is not visible on the left