THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN FILM

I was privileged to be involved in a very small way, first introduced to the team by way of my father who was a WW2 air gunner, who served on 44 squadron flying from Spilsby in Lincolnshire. He stayed on in the Royal Air Force and continued in his pre-war trade as a coppersmith sheet metal worker while he served at RAF Henlow he repaired radiators for the non flyers in station workshops.

A most memorable time was the press day at RAF Henlow late 1967 where the ‘allied’ air force was unveiled and talking to Squadron Leader Bob Stamford-Tuck who was a guest with other veteran of the battle I still have a press cutting of showing Bob Stamford-Tuck with my late brother David who was a 9 year old standing on the wing of a Hurricane chatting to Stamford-Tuck. 

In June ‘68 I worked as an odd job boy with the stills team while on leave from BAOR. Oh yes I was a boy then just 19 years old skinny with blonde hair. My Leica IIIc generated a lot of interest with the film crew on the Battle of Britain set due to the unique Luftwaffen Eigentum engraving most photos shot on the new Ilford FP4 B/W film.

 

Copies of the photographs taken at Henlow were originally sent to Air Pictorial Magazine September in 1967 and photographs and this copy to Flight International in 1969 but nothing was ever published; I have over the years added and corrected some of the data, the core of the copy remains as first written.

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Duxford in 1960’s was a very different place to the Duxford we now know, grass and weeds covered over the concrete, but the married quarters were still in use, the hangars and other airfield buildings had been emptied and abandoned. The runway and perimeter tracks were used at weekends to race cars and motorcycle’s and the whole place had an air of disuse and abandonment. A vast contrast to 28 years previous when 19 squadron Spitfires under the command of 12 group took to the air to defend this island from the onslaught of the Luftwaffe. All this was all about to change!  

During 1967 producers Harry Salzmann and Benjamin Fisz approached the Ministry of Defence for permission from to use Duxford as one of the locations for the film the Battle of Britain, the others being Kenley, Northolt and North Weald, the main reason Duxford being selected was that the airfield still had much of its war-time infrastructure.  

The then Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healy agreed and in the spring of 1968 United Artists moved in and set about restoration. Nearly £40,000 was spent on tidying up the place, camouflage was reapplied to the hangars and other buildings, and grass was cut roads swept and so on. When the crews finished you would not have known it was 1968 there were slit trenches, revetments for aircraft dispersal and sand bags every where.  

The Battle of Britain was to be a widescreen production, shot on 70mm colour film, so clips of flying from the actual Battle of Britain were unusable, the producers had always wanted to re-create the air battles using the same aircraft and simulating the same clashes which had been fought over the English Channel and Thames 28 years earlier. 

The problem was obtaining the Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitt Bf.109’s and Heinkel He.111’s that were to feature in the film, was contracted an Ex Second World War pathfinder bomber pilot Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie. His task was to track down the aircraft needed. Mahaddie now specialised in buying aircraft for film work. From a total of over 20,000 Spitfires that had been built by the time production ceased in the late 1940s, by the early 1960s just a handful remained that were capable of flying.  

Mahaddie managed to obtain for the film 6 Hurricanes 3 which were flight capable 2 that could taxi and 1 for static use, There were only six complete Hurricanes left in the world and Mahaddie had them all! One of them was bought as scrap by an ex-Canadian Air Force pilot Bob Diemart who rebuilt it and later flew it across the Atlantic to appear in the film, sadly this was later destroyed in hangar fire Hamilton Canada in 1993.  The Spitfire population had faired better since the end of production and Mahaddie obtained 32 varying marks with a dozen able to fly and 7 in taxing condition the rest were used for set dressing and spares usage.  

By the end of 1967 all potential Spitfires and the 5 Hurricanes were readied at RAF Henlow, serviced and cared for by Simpson aero services. Three Percival Proctors were converted to look like Junkers Ju-87, after a brief test flight in the only fully converted aeroplane G-AIEY  Vivian Bellamy decide that the conversion was unstable and large scale radio controlled models made by Pinewood Studio’s model shop were used instead. 

Spitfire BM597 and Hurricane LF751 were firstly shipped to the BoB filming unit at RAF Henlow Bedfordshire later at Pinewood studios they were used as a mould model for replicas being built. Majority destroyed during filming. For the aircraft of the Luftwaffe, Mahaddie turned to the Spanish Air Force who were still using Messerschmitt Bf.109s( Hispano HA.1112-M1L) and Heinkel 111s. (CASA 2-111D). These aircraft had been built under license in Spain and had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines instead of Daimler-Benz engines. Some 30 odd Heinkel’s were loaned to United Artists by the Spanish Air Force later United Artists donated £1000 to the Spanish air force widows fund, Mahaddie bought 28 Messerschmitt’s (17 flyers) that were being de-commissioned. Nearly all the pilots were Spanish, although 4 has been seconded from the Confederate air force in exchange for their participation the pilots insisted that the aircraft they flew in the film were to be part payment for the time on set. On March 13 1968 the cameras rolled and the Battle of Britain began. Tablada airfield in the suburbs of Seville was the location for the opening scenes where General Milch inspects the Luftwaffe. 

It was around 23rd March that General Adolf Galland made a visit to the set as the military advisor for the German side of the story accompanied by Bob Stamford-Tuck. Here he met with Pedro Santa Cruz an old friend from the Spanish civil war, who was currently the chief Spanish pilot for the film. It was reported that Santa Cruz whilst chatting with Galland pointed to a Messerschmitt how long is it since you flew one of those he enquired? Galland paused for a moment 26 six years replied the General, OK lets see what you can do as he ushered him over to a twin seat fighter. The entire crew apparently witnessed a display from the legendary Galland culminating in the famous victory roll. A few weeks after shooting the films opening credit sequence at Tablada, two Heinkel 111s and 17 Messerschmitt’s flew to Duxford England to join up with the Spitfires and Hurricanes for UK filming.  

One amusing incident happened after the formation left Manston on 14 May 1968 en route Duxford the formation was due to land at Duxford, suddenly they disappeared out of the pattern and after a call to Duxford from Coltishall radar were spotted orbiting Cambridge’s historic university, as some one in the tower said “their bloody site seeing” A little later they were all safely on the ground. The following day Hispano G-AWHF was written off having ground looped on landing a common occurrence for narrow tracked aircraft such as the Hispano and Spitfire. 

Filming was carried out at three airfields, Duxford, Kenley and North Weald, all of which were operational RAF stations during the actual Battle of Britain. Filming at Duxford took place on the main airfield itself and in the south-west corner of the airfield the props department built a 1/3 size château where it was used for the French evacuation scenes, this area was chosen because there is grass instead of concrete. Scenes shot in this area of the airfield included the opening shots of the film where the Hurricane squadrons evacuate from Northern France, the Luftwaffe at Pas de Calais and the one scene where a Polish airman is shot down and parachutes into a field to be captured by farm workers.  

The aerial filming for the Battle of Britain was carried out using a B-25 Mitchell, belonging to and piloted by Ex RAF pilot John R Hawke. The B-25 had where cannon and machine-guns had been, camera positions. The front fuselage had been replaced by an optically pure plexiglass moulding big enough to allow a 70mm widescreen colour camera to shoot through. The end of the tail had been taken out completely and a camera rigged up in the rear-gunner's position. There were also places for cameras to shoot through the optically pure side windows; and when the bomb-bay doors were opened a stabilised camera could be lowered capable of shooting over a 360 degree field, controlled by a cameraman sitting just above it. A Sud Alouette G-AWAP two of the fighters one Spitfire and Hispano twin seater had cameras fitted as did CASA G-AWHB. 

Unlike 1940 the weather in 1968 was atrocious and aerial filming was sporadic the decision was made to deploy 9 Spitfires and 3 Hispano HA.1112’s accompanied by the B-25 to Montpellier to take advantage of the clear blue skies to complete the aerial sequences.  The final aerial shots were completed at Duxford in late September 1968. 

In June 1968, I was worked mainly as a ‘gofer’ with the team, whilst on leave from the army. A couple of days before the destruction of the hanger at Duxford on the 22nd I had the opportunity of getting up in the camera equipped CASA G-AWHB for an air test for the bombing run rehearsal for the destruction of the RAF airfield. It took two takes for that scene first to be filmed on the 21st they merely blew out the windows and dislodged the doors, the second take the next day made sure the hanger was truly destroyed. I can be seen running with a group of Erks towards the damaged hanger around 3 seconds don’t blink or you will miss me.

I can say without fear of contradiction that without Ben Fitz’s persistence and the dogged determination of Hamish Mahaddie in tracking down the aircraft the world would have been deprived of these historic items for good. The ‘60’s was and still is remembered as the time of peace and love and it is quite astounding that an epic war film was conceived and produced during those years, a true testament to those involved in the project. 

After the filming was completed in 1968 the aircraft were returned to their respective owners or in the case of the Hispano HA.1112’s simply sold so started the ‘warbird’ movement 8 of the Hispano HA.1112’s and one Spitfire ended up with Wilson “Connie” Edwards at Edwards ranch in Big Spring Texas (allegedly some are still stored there) rest of then being bought by individuals in the US and Europe.

[July 2019]

One of the film pilots Wilson Connell "Connie" Edwards passed away on May 3, 2019, his collection of Six Buchons Hispano HA.1112’s a Spitfire IX sold back to Europe whilst the P-51 Mustang (that didn’t appear in the movie) sold in the US