Adolf versus Adolph
The movie The Battle of Britain, 1969, reviewed by Everard Cunion in April 2014
This is my review of the 2004 DVD by MGM.
The film starts in France in the spring of 1940, where a force of RAF Hawker Hurricanes fought the Luftwaffe while the German army pushed an ‘expeditionary force’ of the British army north to Dunkirk on the channel coast.
The minor action from which the accompanying screenshot is taken is bracketed by a scene that, in my opinion, demonstrates the thought that went into the making of this film. An RAF sergeant pilot and an officer stand listening to a French soldier manning a field telephone. The officer, a fellow pilot, says “For the uneducated, I shall translate.” However, the sergeant says quickly, “They can’t believe Sedan’s fallen. I can.” A minute later, their squadron commander, known only as Skipper, tells them they are to take off immediately. The first officer asks where they are going. Skipper tells him to follow him to find out. The sergeant pilot tells him where they are going.
Just because somebody did not go to a private school (which the Brits call public schools) does not mean he (or she) is uneducated, even in 1940.
The opening titles are on top of a sequence depicting high ranking German officers inspecting a Luftwaffe bomber airfield.
From Dunkirk, the British expeditionary force was withdrawn by ships and small boats across the Channel to Britain, although they left most of their equipment behind. (The USA had not at this time entered the war.)
Susannah York plays Section Officer Harvey of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Harvey is newly married to one of the main characters of the movie, a Canadian squadron leader.
The first time that she said anything over the set there was a moment’s stunned silence from the Spitfire wanting a course for base.
‘Christ, a popsy! Or are my ears deceiving me? What the bloody hell’s going on down there? Over.’
She repeated her message primly. ‘Hello Beetle Blue Two. Steer zero-two-zero. Over.’
The pilot’s laughter hooted in her ears. ‘I say, bang on! What’s your name? And what are you doing for dinner tonight? Over.’
— Margaret Mayhew, Bluebirds, 1993
While there is no principal viewpoint character in this film, it follows the fortunes of several characters. (For more of Susannah York, see Paint it black, my overview of the 1976 movie Sky Riders, to which I have placed a link at the bottom of the page.)
The character Skipper is based on the South African ace, and later anti-apartheid campaigner, Adolph Sailor Malan.
The war legitimized turfing out the rich folk from their stately homes in Britain to provide office space for the military brass. (However, they moved right back in after the war.)
Top actors of the time were used in the film. For example, Air Chief Marshall Dowding is played by Laurence Olivier. According to what I have read, he comes across like the real Hugh Dowding.
The makers of this film scoured the world for airworthy aircraft of the era and they assembled a remarkable number of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The air force of Spain still had many airworthy Heinkel 111 twin engine bombers and derivatives of Messerschmitt 109 fighters, all retrofitted with Rolls Royce Merlin engines, which they donated for the duration. (That is, they donated the aircraft, not just the engines…)
A Spanish pilot was killed flying one of the fighters for the film.
There is even a bedroom scene featuring Susannah York in her uniform shirt and tie, but no skirt, so you see her knickers and some bare thigh above stocking tops and suspenders. There is something in this film for everyone…
While Section Officer Harvey is undressing in a London hotel, in the sky above, the navigator of a Heinkel 111 is ‘uncertain of his position’. Believing that they are well clear of London (Adolf Hitler had prohibited his air force from bombing the capital) the aircraft commander orders the jettisoning of their bombs. That is based on historical evidence, as is the case with all the important events in this film.
Although not shown in the film, Italy used its air force to attack Britain in early 1940 (launching from an airfield in German occupied France).
The German air crewmen held responsible for bombing London are summoned to Berlin, where we see the crowds in the brightly lit night time streets of that capital city in the twilight of its heyday. According to Wikipedia, that part was filmed in Donostia-San Sebastian, Basque Country. However, it looks convincing enough to me.
The RAF drops bombs on Berlin in reprisal, and Adolf Hitler addresses the people of Germany…
Hermann Goering was a fighter pilot during the Great War (1914-18) but by 1940, as well as being in charge of the Luftwaffe, he was well overweight and pompous. He wore an ornate sky blue uniform, which made him look even bigger.
The RAF having bombed Berlin, Hitler ordered the bombing of London. As dialog in the film explains, that was possibly the greatest mistake the German command made at that time.
It was burning all down the river. It was a horrid sight. But I looked down and said “Thank god for that!” because I knew that the Nazis had now switched their attack from the fighter stations, thinking they were knocked out.
— Air Vice Marshal Keith Park after overflying London in a Hurricane, quoted by Jon Lake in his book The Battle of Britain, 2000
Meanwhile, the sergeant RAF pilot who flew a Hurricane in France has converted to Spitfires and he visits his wife and small sons in London. However, because of an unexploded bomb in their street, the family has been evacuated to a nearby church hall.
Although I was born after World War 2, I lived in London up to the mid 1960s, and these scenes (filmed in about 1967) seem to me to capture the flavour of old London: Endless dirty streets of drab greyness. Red buses and black taxicabs. Burst water mains and gas leaks.
The family reunion in that public place is interrupted by firemen and air raid wardens asking for volunteers to help free someone trapped in a bombed building. The pilot heads for the door and tells his wife that he will be back shortly…
The film employs creative but subtle camera work to illustrate the technology of aerial warfare in the 1940s, which included radar (known then as radio direction finding).
A small far away voice brought me out of my near hypnotic state. “Rye what’s happening to you? What’s all that noise? Why don’t you answer me?”… I tried to keep calm as in a voice I didn’t recognise I replied, “Your X raid is bombing us Stanmore, and it’s no wonder you can’t hear me, we can’t hear ourselves either!”
— Daphne Carne, The Eyes of the Few, 1960
While the Supermarine Spitfire (together with its principal fighter adversary, the Messerschmitt 109) is perhaps the aircraft most popularly associated with the Battle of Britain, the less advanced but more numerous Hawker Hurricane did the majority of the fighting on the British side. (Having said that, I read somewhere that more RAF bomber crewmen were killed in 1940 than fighter pilots; on missions of dubious value using outdated aircraft.) The British (and Poles, Czechs, Canadians, and so on) might still have won the battle without Spitfires, but they could not have won it without the rugged looking Hurricanes.
The air-to-air filming is excellent (there were no digital effects at this time) particularly in the latter stages of the movie, during which the pace becomes more frantic and the style of the film changes somewhat.
A Polish RAF pilot is shot down and lands in a field. Nearby farm workers rush towards him and they assume he is German. The scene is meant to be humorous, but the reality of enemy pilots falling into the hands of civilians – on either side – was often worse unless the police or army arrived in time. (Education cannot make the dull more intelligent, but it does seem to improve people’s behaviour.)
Adolf Galland, the youngest general in the Luftwaffe, famously asked Goering for a squadron of Spitfires, although he later admitted that he preferred the Messerschmitt. That scene is reproduced in the film, the impertinent character being named Falke. I do not know whether Messerschmitt ace Adolf Galland fought Spitfire ace Adolph Sailor Malan in aerial combat (Adolf versus Adolph) but I assume it is possible.
In his book Gun Button to Fire (1987, 2010 & 2011) Hurricane pilot Tom Neil wrote that the Hurricane “…was almost obsolete by the summer of 1940, and a downright handicap for all those who had the misfortune to fly it…” He enumerates some of its faults: “…the fire risk was enormous, so that at least half the pilots flying Hurricanes, and considerably more than those flying Spitfires, were hideously burned when damaged in combat.” He notes that the Spitfire Mark 1 used in the battle, although superior in most respects to the Hurricane, was outclassed by the Messerschmitt 109. The latter was better armed, it had a more powerful engine, “…and a direct fuel injection system rather than a carburettor, enabling it to put its nose down in a trice and dive away from any of our aircraft, or climb steeply clear if threatened.” Neil’s book is interesting also in its description of Britain at the time, including of the exceptionally cold winter that followed the battle: “The temperature was well below freezing inside the room and I lay pale and rigid between the sheets… I reflected savagely that the Romans had central heating in AD 200, since when domestic heating arrangements in Britain had gone to the dogs.” And, describing travelling home on leave by car:
It was to be ten years at least before British car manufacturers were forced reluctantly to install heaters in their vehicles, they and the makers of the Hurricane clearly believing it to be their professional duty to ensure that the users of their wretched products should never be beguiled by anything so insidiously decadent as warmth and comfort.
— Tom Neil, Gun Button to Fire, 1987
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning also suffered from this problem. See World War 2 plastic models part 2.
As children, many had grown up in the hard times of the 1920s, and some had poor teeth and were under-sized as the result of childhood malnutrition. And with the pressing need for pilots, aircrew medical inspections were not always used as a means of weeding out those whose fitness might not have met peacetime requirements.
— Jon Lake, The Battle of Britain, 2000
Citizens of London sheltered from the bombs by retreating to the stations of the underground railway system.
The aerial battle scenes constitute mini stories.
The stereo sound is effective. You not only see an aircraft crossing in front of you, you hear it crossing in front of you.
In an extended scene, a Spitfire is hit by gunfire from a Heinkel bomber and its engine starts smoking. However, it curves round and attacks the Heinkel while Londoners in the streets below look on. The burning Heinkel eventually plunges into a London city railway station.
Near the start of the film, Simon was a newbie and Skipper went up flying alongside him for extra training. (I initially thought that is Simon in this still, but after watching it again I don’t think it is.) The fellow on the left (whoever he is meant to be) has just been appointed flight leader and is about to provide a similar training ‘sortie’ for two new pilots.
The familiarisation/training flight runs into hordes of German fighters and bombers. The new pilot with the neat hair is shot down, then two Messerschmitt 109s pursue the other one — here streaming engine coolant.
The second new Spitfire pilot bales out, but he suffers an unfortunate fate.
The style of the movie changes at this point. The sound track of the aerial battles consists of orchestra music, occasionally interrupted by radio calls. No propeller or engine or machine gun sounds are heard. It imparts an almost dream-like quality to the action, which becomes furious.
Another campaigner in the film is Bill Foxley. Not anti-apartheid this time, but a campaigner for better treatment of burns victims. Foxley played the part of Squadron Leader Tom Evans who, after having bailed out of a burning Hurricane, is assigned to the radar reporting function. In real life, Foxley was a bomber navigator who was badly burned while attempting to rescue another crewman from their crashed aircraft.
In the movie, WAAF Section Officer Harvey is visibly shocked by Evans’ (Foxley’s) appearance. She subsequently receives news that her Canadian hubby has been shot down and she says, “Is he badly burned?”
Another sunny day in the late summer of the first full year of war. Why is the ready room phone not ringing? At group headquarters, why are there no radar plots of incoming bombers? The day’s attack by the Luftwaffe is late.
Air Chief Marshall Dowding takes a moment to step outside and look out over the countryside and up into another clear sky. (That’s not him in the photo. That’s Skipper.)
I find much film backing music pointless and intrusive, but in The Battle of Britain it seems to enhance to the visuals. At that point (Dowding looking out over the countryside and up into the sky) a rising series of violin notes (a sort of leap-frog stair step effect – I am sure musicians have a term for it) makes you feel the proverbial weight lifting from his shoulders.
Although the German invasion of Britain was stalled, it was clear by then that years of war lay ahead and the outcome was uncertain. Nevertheless, the respite from air attack enabled the production of armaments for the British military to replace the army’s losses of equipment at Dunkirk and the RAF losses during the subsequent summer air battles. Those rising notes merge surprisingly into the Battle of Britain theme tune and the film ends.
Southern England experienced an Indian summer in 1940. Unfortunately, when the movie was made, it experienced a regular British summer; therefore much of the aerial action was filmed in Spain and (according to Wikipedia) in Malta. However, the aerial filming and editing is so well done you would never know it. Nevertheless, I did notice a brief segment that shows Spain, from which the accompanying screenshot is taken.
Some of the aircraft explosions early in the film are not up to modern standards. (They improve greatly in the second half.) In addition, where they used models instead of real Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, they are less than convincing. Nevertheless, seeing a burning Heinkel 111 plunge into a London railway station (a model against a backdrop) looks convincing enough unless you step through it frame by frame. (I know, I really should get a proper hobby.)
Some of the Spitfires have the longer noses and symmetric pair of under-wing air intakes of versions that appeared later in the war, but only aircraft enthusiasts would notice that.
More noticeable are the Buchons – derivatives of the Messerschitt 109 – of Spain’s air force. Unlike 109s, they have Rolls Royce Merlin engines, as did the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and they look significantly different from early Me/Bf 109s.
The paint schemes are well done apart from one flaw: The RAF squadron code letters on the fuselage sides were painted white, whereas in reality they were grey. (I was not born in time for World War 2, but like many of my generation, I was a plastic modeller and an avid student of aircraft colour schemes.)
In mitigation perhaps, the hangar scenes are so well done you can almost smell the hot metal, oil, and drying paint.
A stunning film depicting a major air battle. Every time I watch it, I notice something new.
Paint it black, my review of the 1976 film Sky Riders in which Susannah York stars in a major hang gliding movie
Saving Major Tom, my review of the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice
Saving pilot Durant, my review of Blackhawk Down (2000)