Wing Commander T. F. Neil, DFC & Bar, AFC, AE

The name of Tom Neil crops up in several posts dedicated to the air war in 1939-45 on this blog. Since first encountering him, his stories and his writing, the S&G has been squarely in his debt for his passion to ensure that what the airmen of Fighter Command actually saw and did might be preserved without sentiment.

A print hangs on the S&G’s wall of three Hawker Hurricanes tipping over to dive upon a formation of Italian bombers high over Malta and the brilliant blue Mediterranean beyond. It’s a masterpiece by Michael Turner, an artist with whom it was a privilege to work on the 60th anniversary of the Formula 1 World Championship some years back, and the Hurricane depicted in the foreground is that of Tom Neil.

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The S&G’s treasured print

The future Wing Commander T.F. Neil was born in Bootle in 1920. His passion for flying was inspired at the age of 12, almost immediately announcing his intention to go to Cranwell and become a career officer in the RAF. This idea did not greatly please his mother and, decades later, Neil remembered that: ‘In the First World War, she said, she’d mixed with a lot of RAF officers and RFC officers and they were all drunks. And she had no intention of allowing her only son to go down that particular path!

Undeterred, Neil was still at school when he applied to join 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force – his local unit.

‘…the bald-headed squadron leader – positively senile – who interviewed me initially, pointed out that as i was still at school, did not own a car and lived some 30 miles away, I might not be much use to them. I disagreed, of course, but my protestations cut no ice. Why didn’t I join the Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, which would be forming a year or two hence? Or the local RAFVR (Volunteer Reserve) even? After five years of waiting and longing, I was appalled – crushed – and demolished. It had never occurred to me that I might not be welcomed with open arms. Furthermore I had never heard of a Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, nor did I want to know of one. And the RAFVR? What utter nonsense!’

Neil’s remaining school days saw him take a trip to Germany, where he had heard reports of state-sanctioned violence towards the Jewish population and the ranting behaviour of its ‘Führer’ but witnessed no such barbarity on the streets of Koblenz, where the school party was to stay. Instead he was impressed by the courtesy of his hosts, albeit whilst awe-struck by the vast number of military camps and aircraft overhead and by the ‘toughness and sense of dedication’ that had been instilled in the population as a whole. An ominous interlude.

Through his father’s connections, Neil left school and went to work in a bank, whilst also swallowing his rather bruised pride and joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Thus he was already a trained pilot when war broke out and was commissioned in April 1940, joining 249 Squadron. So began more than two years with 249 spent in the cockpit of Hawker Hurricanes, during which time he scored 13 victories during what Neil himself described as the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

This relationship with the Hurricane was somewhat love-hate. It was robust and a stable gun platform, but Neil found design issues like the location of the fuel tanks, which caused many pilots to be killed or maimed by fire, largely unforgivable. By the time that he and the rest of his detachment from 249 was transferred to Malta in mid-1941, he believed that the Hurricane was dangerously obsolete and that the RAF was simply using up old stock at the expense of the men who should have been in Spitfires if they were to stand a chance.

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A 249 Squadron Hurricane at Takali airfield, Malta 1941

Fortunately, the period in which Tom Neil was stationed on the besieged Island was May to December 1941 – in between the two most catastrophic periods when the Luftwaffe held absolute air superiority. The closest encounter that they had with the Germans turned out to be the morning after they had landed, when the all-conquering Joachim Müncheberg and his Messerschmitts from 7/JG26 destroyed several of 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes in a final strafing mission before they, and the rest of the Luftwaffe in Sicily, were recalled to join Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of Russia.

As a result, Neil and his colleagues were left to face up to the forces of the Italian Regia Aeronautica – a group of pilots steeped with skill and equipped with highly effective fighters, but whose bombers were second rate and generally did not press home their attack with anything like the same vigour as the Germans.

Most of the conflict and losses amongst RAF fighters on Malta at this time was internally-driven. The commanding officer on the Island, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, had no interest in defensive units: his only concern was to destroy Axis shipping in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile the fighter pilots were living and dying in worn-out aeroplanes, facing the perils of baling out over the sea or, worse, crash landing on Malta’s unforgiving warren of dry stone walls.

Tom Neil repeatedly badgered Lloyd about replacing the Hurricanes with Spitfires or even the Curtiss Tomahawks that were coming into RAF service from America, only to be told that the problem was ‘not the aeroplane: it was the man.’ In later years, former bomber crews would often drink a toast to ‘Hugh Pughe’ when they gathered, but to Neil he was remembered as ‘a bullshitter of the first order.’

Neil survived his tour and later wrote the remarkable book Onward to Malta based upon more than 600 letters that he wrote at the time. It remains the S&G’s favourite airman’s memoir, distinct even from Neil’s other works on the Battle of Britain (Gun Button to Fire) and his later life (The Silver Spitfire), because it is so clearly written in the voice of a witty and irascible young warrior.

After Malta, Neil was given desk jobs until becoming commanding officer of 41 Squadron, primarily escorting US Army Air Force operations over occupied France, and then became a liaison officer with the Americans for much of the duration. He remained with the RAF in peacetime, reaching the rank of Wing Commander and retiring in 1964 for a long career in commerce.

In recent years, Tom Neil became one of the most called-upon and popular veterans of both the Battle of Britain and Malta campaigns. There was never any wistfulness or whimsy about him, exemplified when he gave the keynote address at the RAF’s 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Britain in 2010 – opening with:

‘Well I’m almost 90 now, a couple of weeks, and I’m one of about 20 remaining veterans – I hate the word ‘veteran’ – still reasonably active. There are of course another 60 of us still alive but less able to get about and take part in such splendid occasions as this. Our average age during the Battle of Britain was 21. The age of us now remaining is 93 and we are dying off at the rate of 30 a year. Those of you with Oxford educations will realise that in three years’ time it’s more than likely that the rest of us will be up there with the fairies!’

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Prince Harry surrendered his seat in a Spitfire to Tom Neil for the 2015 Battle of Britain commemorations

Well, perhaps predictably, Tom Neil did better than that. He died late on 11 July 2018, three days short of his 98th birthday. In between times he was a regular face on TV, taking centre stage at Goodwood for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when he almost single-handedly saved Channel 4’s coverage of the commemorations from becoming a parody of itself.

Once again, it is remarkable to think how a life of all-but 98 years was defined by barely five of them. We are all fortunate indeed that the deeply personal way in which he spoke of those days has been so well documented; never once wavering or differing in details that will continue to amaze and inspire for generations to come.

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Dunkirk and the fog of war

If there is one question that has been aimed at the S&G’s hearth more than any other in the past few months, it is whether or not Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a lot of Tommy-rot. There are two ways to answer this – either ‘yes it is and it’s a damned disgrace’ or ‘yes it is and it’s a fine old film’.

Let’s stick with the latter interpretation – with apologies to Daily Mail readers in the congregation.

It’s a fine old film because it hits its marks like ducks in a barrel. It draws tears of elation. It draws squirms of mortal terror. It inspires both woe and breathless admiration. Moreover, it deploys Elgar’s Nimrod with the sort of quiet gravitas that has long-since escaped our national culture. It reeks of the right sort of Britishness.

But in a historical sense it’s a bit of shambles, yes.

The first and most glaring omission is tobacco. Not one pipe or cigarette is seen in the course of 106 minutes. According to a dear old mucker who works in the business they call show, it is now a policy at Fox to completely exclude such evils from all and any of its products, lest the studio be exposed to law suits for encouraging people to take up the cancerous weed.

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Dunkirk survivors in 1940

Yes, you read that right.

Looking at images of the real events (above), one could be forgiven for thinking that the only excuse open to the Luftwaffe for not wiping out the British Expeditionary Force was the impenetrable fog of Capstan Full Strength that hung above them. Whether it was the soldiers on the beaches, the captains of little ships, the shipwrecked soldiers hooked out of the oggin or even the wounded on their stretchers – everyone was drawing comfort from the muzzy tang of tobacco to settle their nerves and steel their resolve.

So while cinematic sinews were stretched to get the costumes and equipment right, they might as well have dressed everyone in onesies and given them Kalashnikovs thanks to that omission.

Then there’s the question of Spitfires – or more accurately the gliding Spitfire, which is the area in which most S&G regulars have shown most interest.

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Spitfires at 500 feet… give or take

Its progress isn’t easy to follow – and not helped unduly by the fact that the Spitfire scenes are chopped up and replayed from the vantage point of each different narrative within the film. By the end, the gliding Spit seems to zoom silently from one side of the screen to the other like the ball in a rally between Murray and Nadal. But here’s the gist:

Having buzzed around over the Channel at a claimed 500-1,000 feet (albeit with lovely aerobatic shots stitched in from several thousand feet higher), one Spitfire runs out of fuel. It glides the full length of the beach, then turns and glides back even faster than before to make an interception. It then appears to turn again before taking a long and lingering descent to the shore.

Right there you have an answer. A ton of Rolls-Royce Merlin is very hard to keep aloft for its own sake – and all the more so when the weight of fuel and ammunition is no longer there to help trim the aeroplane out.

Let’s not forget, also, that the Spitfire’s beautiful wing was never the most stable gun platform. One pilot memorably described it as ‘shaking like a wet dog’ when the eight Brownings were fired. Which is really not the behaviour that one needs from an aeroplane when gliding at 400mph at rooftop height. And after gliding around for half an hour or so with no fuel, what exactly is it that causes the aeroplane to burn so fiercely on the ground?

Oh, that’s right: a smouldering look from Tom Hardy. It certainly did the trick for most of the ladies in the audience, but it’s Hollywood hokum of a sort to make Errol Flynn proud.

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Spitfire pilots have a smoke and ponder their optimum glide ratio

But at least the Spitfires are there. And they did run out of fuel. And many of their pilots did drown while trying to escape their cockpits. And, yes, many irate soldiers and sailors did claim that the RAF had hung them out to dry.

In fact Dunkirk was disastrous for many Fighter Command units – not least the Spitfires of 610 Squadron, where losses among the bright young boys of Cheshire were proportionally as great as those of a Pal’s battalion on the Somme. Not many engagements were at 500-1000 feet, though. Certainly not for an entire patrol. Their job was to get up high, get behind the bombers, shoot them down before they reached the beach and scoot off home to refuel and rearm before doing it all again… three or four sorties per day.

While we’re at it, let’s address the thorny issue of the Indian soldiers serving in France in 1940. In total there were three companies of the Royal Indian Service Corps in France, who were employed in domestic roles far behind the lines. It has caused outrage in some quarters that the stories of the drivers, batmen, cooks and runners do not dominate Dunkirk as a movie. Yet the only story to be told of their war is that of their ethnicity – which is indicative of the sort of tokenism with which historical study has been besieged. It is insanity.

All that aside, and despite the lack of destruction apparently suffered by the streets of Dunkirk (it was a flaming, broken and bombed-out mess), all the women on ships large and small (they weren’t), and the soldier emotively reading out Churchill’s ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ speech from the paper (a day before he had even delivered it!), Dunkirk is a really good movie.

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Brilliant acting, ahoy!

Separate what is essential from what is not – or in other words: if Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance or Cillian Murphy are in shot, pin your ears back and savour the moment. Don’t forget to whoop and cheer for Sir Michael Caine’s cameo. And be bloody impressed not only by the inspired move by Harry Styles’ handlers to place their teen warbler amid this chaos, but by as strong an acting debut as can be remembered… from within an entirely credible and brutally-told sub-plot. Apparently this boy’s got it all.

And don’t forget Nimrod. Ever.

Hats off to Darkest Hour

If Gary Oldman should carry off an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it will be well deserved and long overdue. As an ensemble piece, the movie is virtually flawless – a vehicle in which Oldman kills off any lingering doubts that he is Britain’s greatest living thespian with zeal, all the more so for being almost completely obscured by jowly prosthetics. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott-Thomas does a fine job of sparring with him in the role of Churchill’s rock, anchor and keeper, Clemmie.

For most of the film, the enemy that Churchill must confront is arguably the most watchable actor in Britain, Stephen Dillane, as the somewhat reedy, appeasing voice of the British Establishment in the form of Lord Halifax. The final addition to this leading foursome is the oft-overlooked Ronald Pickup, playing the part of the equally oft-overlooked Neville Chamberlain with both compassion and despair.

It is shot and acted beautifully, scripted reasonably well… indeed, even when watching it, one imagines that it will become a standard text on the period. Generations of children will be sat down to diligently watch this movie in school history lessons – and therein lies the problem. While the acting and the filming are all superb, the history is not.

We can overlook the fact that Churchill is depicted flying out to France in a C-47 (which didn’t exist then), instead of his D.H.95 Flamingo. Given the amount of CGI and special effects already in place, it wouldn’t have been too big an ask… but we can gloss over that. One CGI shot that was rather superfluous, however, was Churchill pontificating on a rooftop at night, watching a flight of four Hurricanes pass low overhead. Wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

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A de Havilland Flamingo – Churchill’s aircraft were not C-47s

This is but a prelude to the scene in which Churchill, alone and in the dark, begs President Roosevelt for destroyers and P-40 fighters. Yet the Royal Navy had ample resources at the time to see off the threat of the German Kriegsmarine. It is suggested that the Germans will come to Britain in high speed boats carrying 100 troops in each vessel – although these never existed. Churchill’s main concern was trying desperately to convince the French to send their navy across the Channel, lest it fall into German hands. In the end Churchill ordered the sinking of four French battleships, five destroyers and a seaplane tender when at port in Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria – and captured or sank those French vessels lying in British waters.

As for fighters, Churchill was fully focused upon stimulating the output of Britain’s own aircraft factories – starting with the vast white elephant at Castle Bromwich. Despite severe losses, the Hurricanes of the British Expeditionary Force had taken a mighty toll on the Luftwaffe as the Germans devoured Belgium and France, while belatedly the Spitfire was starting to appear in significant numbers. Quality was not in doubt but quantity was and, in Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill had an ardent quartermaster who ensured that the Battle of Britain ended with more fighters in front-line squadrons than it had begun with.

Not until Britain’s fight for immediate survival was long over did America grudgingly enter into the Lend-Lease programme… but try making a film about World War 2 these days that does not rely upon America’s righteous, guiding hand and see how far it gets through pre-production.

But all of these quibbles pale into insignificance next to the greatest red herring in the film: Churchill riding the District Line. This is the moment at which Oldman’s characterisation is powerless to stop Churchill being propelled into a new role: as a prototype for Tony Blair or David Cameron. You half-expect him to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and insist that the everyday Londoners call him Winston as he seeks their counsel.

The Darkest Hour

This segment of the film is an uncomfortable collection of anachronisms – a measure of what a modern British premier looks like to audiences around the world. Presenting this as historical fact – or as director Joe Wright prefers to call it ’emotional truth’ – is potentially disastrous not just for the film but also for its future viewers. In early 1940 more British people had died as a result of travelling in the blackout than from enemy action, and memories of the horrendous casualties of the Great War were still fresh. They supported appeasement. Appeasement at all costs. Appeasement however long and hard the road may be. When, later, Churchill visited the cities stricken by the Blitz he was booed.

Darkest Hour is a phenomenal piece of work by the cast – Oldman chief among them – and by the artists who created and lit every scene. For the most part it is exquisite. But mistaking its ’emotional truth’ for historical fact would be a grievous error. Enjoy it for what it is – a brilliant piece of movie making.

Green light for Battle of Britain

There are many reasons why the 1969 epic movie The Battle of Britain has endured for as long as it has in the affections of millions. Fundamental to all of those reasons is the fact that it conjures the vision of Britain as it saw itself during the battle, for which it has lauded itself – and been universally lauded – ever since.

It is Churchill’s description of the battle – so ripe and so successful in keeping hope alive during the summer of 1940 and beyond – that was captured lavishly in a movie production helmed by none other than James Bond franchise creators Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli and directed by their star man, Guy ‘Goldfinger’ Hamilton. The icing on the cake comes in the form of a mouth-watering cast of characters, both human and metallic, populated by some of the greatest acting talent of the Sixties.

Word has now come that Ridley Scott has all-but closed the deal on a remake that he has been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s. What a treat! This is the man behind The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and The Martian. Not to mention the vastly under-rated kids’ fantasy Legend. Now he is getting to make the project that he always wanted to get stuck into, even while making these classics.

The grapevine states that Fox has bought the movie and that Scott has recruited screenwriter Matthew Orton to produce the script, based largely on his work with Operation Finale, currently filming, which tells the story of Mossad agents tracking down Adolf Eichmann in Argentina during the 1960s.

There has been quite a lot of movement in the undergrowth in recent months, not least with several of the original Hispano Buchon aircraft (licence-built, Merlin-engined Messerschmitt 109s), coming out of mothballs and being delivered to aeroplane restoration experts like Richard Grace at Air Leasing. They are even in their original film paint, as this pic shows from the S&G’s recent visitation.

 

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Look over on the far wall and you will see Major Foehn’s ‘Messerschmitt’ in all its cobwebby glory!

The most important question at this stage is what the script be like. A faithful retelling of Churchill’s mythical ‘few’ or a more realistic attempt to describe the events of 1940?

Let us not forget that Hitler never stood a hope of getting across the Channel without an open invitation and that his victories of 1939-40 had been as much due to a gambler’s good fortune as they were to good planning. The conquest of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland had cost his armed forces dearly in terms of men and materiel and he needed to consolidate. He had lost:

  • 235 aircraft shot down in Poland, with 279 withdrawn for significant repair
  • 1,389 aircraft shot down in Belgium, France and Holland
  • Total losses in all campaigns from September 1939 – June 1940 of 2,000 aircraft

From the vantage point of a man busily humiliating the French at Compiègne and touring Paris, it was the Führer’s belief that Britain would simply agree to become a junior partner in an alliance with the Reich. He was assured that the British would be content to keep their empire intact in return for sending a large proportion of its resources towards combatting the existential threat posed by Russia.

This is what his diplomats had been told throughout the 1930s by the British establishment, from whom Churchill was ostracised and by whom the British public’s opinion was seldom consulted.

Throughout the years preceding the war, praise had been heaped upon Germany’s revival by men such as Edward VIII, the Duke of Hamilton, Sir Oswald Mosley, Albert Ball Sr. and Michael Burn. By society women like the Mitfords. By establishments such as the British Legion and of course by most of the motor racing and aviation communities, where men like Whitney Straight were few and far between.

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The Stuttgart Police boxing team visits the Albert Ball memorial while visiting Nottingham

Instead, when it came to the crunch, the British chose not to be part of Hitler’s vision of Europe. They rediscovered their backbone, appointed Churchill as the pugnacious face of defiance against the Reich and retreated from Dunkirk to blow raspberries across the Channel. Meanwhile, the air defences that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had fought tooth-and-nail to build up against political resistance (where all eyes were on building up an offensive bomber fleet), came into their own.

When Hitler’s patience finally snapped and he realised that Britain really was intent on staying independent, he sent his bombers over. He had no other option, no means of doing anything else meaningful, primarily because he could muster only eight destroyers in his navy, confronting more than ten times that number of British destroyers and a number of capital ships at anchor in the Home Fleet.

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Licence-built Heinkel He-111s from Spain approach the white cliffs in 1968

Into this one-sided sea battle the invasion forces – 90,000 men and 4,500 horses in the first wave, 160,000 men and 50,000 horses in the second – would have to be towed across the treacherous Channel waters in unsuitable flat-bottomed river barges. Much of this vast, floating target could be overturned by the wake of a single British naval vessel. Meanwhile RAF Bomber Command pilots like Guy Gibson were busily bombing the barges at harbour.

Britain was paranoid about German paratroops landing and establishing a beachhead. Such fears were unfounded. The Germans had only 262 Ju52 transports intact, having lost 44% of their fleet, leaving a capacity to carry just over 3,000 paratroops, of whom at least a third could confidently expect to be killed during the jump or soon afterwards, based on previous losses. The 2,000 survivors would have to fight harder than Leonides’ Spartans at Thermopylae simply to see the sun set.

Hitler’s naval chief, Karl Dönitz, had told him very plainly that Germany could not compete with the Royal Navy until 1945 at the earliest; even then only provided that a suitable shipbuilding programme could be sustained. Meanwhile, Göring told him that the Luftwaffe could win the war in weeks and that invasion would be all-but redundant. Hitler felt that his run of good luck would continue, and duly sent the Luftwaffe in to bat.

The intention was that the Luftwaffe should first smash the RAF on the ground and mop up anything in the sky – but in truth the Luftwaffe’s losses were devastating while the RAF ended the battle with more fighters than it started with. After a tactically shaky start, Fighter Command squadrons got to grips with the job – and let us not forget the Poles, Czechs and other experienced airmen who soon entered the fray. Meanwhile, British aircraft production rocketed throughout the Battle of Britain, producing twice as many fighters as Germany throughout the summer of 1940.

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This is as far as the 1969 movie The Battle of Britain takes us – with only teasing glimpses of British pre-war bonhomie with Nazism and no mention of the fact that the ‘few’ who fought in the skies over south-east England were in fact growing more numerous every day. It is the neat and tidy tale of heroism that we love today like any good adventure story – Rourke’s Drift with aeroplanes – but it does not end there.

Having failed to demolish the RAF, Hitler then turned his attentions towards the cities and to breaking public support for the war – the ‘Blitz’ upon London, Coventry, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere that ran through from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1941. In this, he very nearly succeeded. When Churchill toured the streets he was jeered and heckled as often as he was cheered. But no surrender came.

Churchill’s speeches moved mountains in terms of belief – his vision of ‘the Few’ seeing off the mighty forces of Nazism acted as a beacon to the free world. But as RAF ‘ace’ Tom Neil put it, his view wasn’t necessarily shared by the men awaiting the next scramble – referring to the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe” Neil surmised. “A tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940. As though for us the war had started in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

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Tom Neil (highlighted) and the pilots of 249 Squadron during the battle

Wars are untidy things with many loose ends and misadventures, as Tom Neil and many of the other veterans have always been at pains to point out. The Luftwaffe may have been beaten back in the summer of 1940, and it would count the cost of squandering its best and most experienced airmen upon Göring’s hubris for the rest of the war. But the Battle of Britain was one of the messiest escapades in military history and it ended only with uncertainty.

The British people remembered only too well the cost of the Great War of 1914-18 and had no great desire to be bombed. With Mussolini’s armies also trying to fracture Britain’s grasp on its Empire by seizing control of the Mediterranean and Africa, things looked bleak long after the Battle of Britain was announced as a victory. Churchill was doing his best to woo America, but President Roosevelt faced a majority, including Joe Kennedy, intent upon doing a deal with Hitler to prevent war.

Whether any of this makes its way into Ridley Scott’s epic remains to be seen. However, in these troubled times, there are any parallels to be found.

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A restored Hispano ‘Messerschmitt’ has been flying in its film colours in recent years

One thing that we can be assured of is that the owners and operators of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts of all colours are going to be gleeful. Doubtless many will be recruited for filming and air shows will take on a very Battle of Britain-orientated theme over the next couple of years. Equally, there may well be many more Stukas, Dorniers, Bf110s, Ju88s, Gladiators, Defiants and Blenheims appearing in the new film, made available through the wonders of CGI that did not exist in 1968.

In the meantime, we can entertain ourselves with casting the movie on his behalf. Here is the original cast list, with the S&G’s recommendations to fill the roles today alongside them in brackets:

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Sir Laurence Olivier – Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Gary Oldman)
Trevor Howard – Air Vice Marshal Keith Park (Rhys Ifans)
Robert Shaw – Squadron Leader Skipper (Charlie Hunnam)
Christopher Plummer – Squadron Leader Harvey (James McAvoy)
Sir Ralph Richardson – British Ambassador (Rufus Sewell)
Baron von Richter – Curd Jürgens (Heino Ferch)
Harry Andrews – Senior Civil Servant (Edward Fox)
Sir Michael Redgrave – Air Vice Marshal Evill (Daniel Craig)
Kenneth More – Group Captain Baker (James Purefoy)
Susannah York – Section Officer Harvey (Emma Watson)
Michael Bates – Warrant Officer Warwick (Sean Pertwee)
Patrick Wymark – Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory (Hugh Jackman)
Barry Foster – Squadron Leader Edwards (David Tennant)
Michael Caine – Sqadron Leader Canfield (Laurence Fox)
Edward Fox – Pilot Officer Archie (Freddie Fox)
James Cosmo – Pilot Officer Jamie (Ben Wishaw)
Ian McShane – Sgt. Andy (Harry Styles)
Isla Blair – Mrs. Andy (Eve Hewson)
Rolf Steifel – Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz)
Hein Riess – Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Herbert Grönemeyer)
Wilfried von Aacken – General Osterkamp (Benno Führmann)
Peter Hager – Field Marshal Kesselring (Sebastian Koch)
Wolf Harnisch – General Fink (Jürgen Prochnow)
Reinhard Horras – Bruno (Daniel Wiemer)
Paul Neuhaus – Foehn (Stipe Erceg)
Alexander Allerson – Brandt (Daniel Brühl)

 

And on that absurdly handsome note, let’s remind ourselves why this movie is potentially so very special:

Hollywood on the march again

It appears that moves are afoot in Tinseltown to remake another flying epic – in this case The Battle of Britain.

The original 1969 movie was directed by the godlike genius of Guy Hamilton (responsible for the British spy movie masterpieces Goldfinger and Funeral in Berlin).  Hamilton was employed by James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to depict the summer of 1940 with an all-star cast including Sir Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Trevor Howard as Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park and luminaries such as Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Edward Fox among the pilots.

It is a movie brim-full of bravado and armed with no shortage of quotable moments that have probably done more for sales of Airfix kits than any other venture of the past 50 years. Here’s an old favourite to set the tone:

The production famously featured enough aircraft to count as the 35th largest air force in the world. Wartime bomber pilot, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, brought together 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes, while the Spanish Air Force was still flying licence-built Heinkel He-111s, Junkers Ju52s and Messerschmitt 109s and provided no fewer than 61 aircraft in total.

Admittedly not all of the aircraft flew (it’s always fun to spot the ‘Messerschmitts’ in formation with the three airworthy Hurricanes, for example), but the resulting film was for the most part flown for real. Better still, it was filmed under the direction of genuine Battle of Britain aces on both sides of the conflict led by Group Captains Tom Gleave and Peter Townsend on the British side and General Adolf Galland representing the Luftwaffe with characteristic verve.

The film cost $12 million – an incredible fortune in 1968 – and by the end of production money was tight, meaning that scale model Stuka dive bombers were used rather than the planned restoration of the RAF Museum’s full size example. Although generally receiving favourable reviews, the renowned critic Roger Ebert picked up on the cost cutting in his review, saying:

“The airplanes are another sore point. Sure, Harry Saltzman spent millions to assemble and repair Spitfires and Hurricanes, and there was even a TV special about the authenticity of the movie. But you’ve got to USE airplanes; it isn’t enough to own them. Some of the aerial photography is very good. We see dogfights actually filmed in the air and fought by real planes (instead of by models and visual effects). But the aerial scenes are allowed to run forever and repeat themselves shamelessly, until we’re sure we saw that same Heinkel dive into the sea (sorry — the ‘drink’) three times already.”

Despite Ebert’s reservations, much of the aerial photography and the actors’  performances were astounding, leaving us with scenes to treasure such as this one, when Robert Shaw’s Captain Skipper leads his men in to intercept another Heinkel raid:

Fast forward 48 years and the Oscar-winning producer, Graham King (The Departed), has hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) to write a new script. Towne and King have previously worked together in the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible series.

King recently told Entertainment Weekly that the film is personal project, saying: “My father lived in London and watched this spectacular dog fight over the city, so bringing this story of endurance and triumph to the big screen means a great deal to me…”

It has now been reported that nine of the Hispano ‘Buchon’ fighters – licence-built Messerschmitt 109s – used in the film have been unearthed still wearing their fictional warpaint from 1968. At least four of them are being recommissioned for the remake. It would seem that money was so tight that by the end of filming they were presented to the flying co-ordinator in lieu of currency!

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Four Hispano ‘Messerschmitts’ are receiving some TLC

In total there are three genuine Messerschmitts of the correct vintage and seven Hispano Buchons airworthy in the world, with a further 29 Messerschmitts and 14 Hispanos under restoration to static or flying condition.

Elsewhere in the world there are nearly 240 Spitfires known to exist worldwide, of which 54 are currently airworthy and 113 are in various states of restoration. Thanks to the population explosion in restored airframes there are many more period-correct Spitfires available today than Guy Hamilton had in his ‘air force’ – in the 1969 movie many of the Spitfires were given cosmetic makeovers to appear closer to 1940 specification, being nicknamed ‘Mk. Haddies’ in deference to the Group Captain.

Hurricanes are less plentiful but nine are airworthy and six more are potentially ‘runners’, with 14 on static display in Europe and North America. Two genuine Heinkel He-111s are on static display, 11 of the CASA 2.111s used in the film still exist – but for the Junkers Ju88s, Dornier Do17s and Messerschmitt 110s there is little hope.

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Spitfires are multiplying at a rate unseen since the Forties

There are now two airworthy Gloster Gladiators in the UK, plus a Bristol Blenheim and a static Boulton Paul Defiant. Their use all depends, of course, on how authentic – and how well-funded – the remake is intended to be. And, of course, there is the question of how much of the final film is shot for real and how great a role digital special effects will play.

The S&G is therefore watching developments with a measure of trepidation. Hollywood’s idea of the Battle of Britain will be based upon what is sellable, as was last seen in the odious tosh that was Pearl Harbor – a movie that will live in infamy.

Will the presence of the Royal Navy at anchor and the almost complete absence of a workable German invasion plan warrant a mention? Will the remake toe the line and depict the mythical ‘Few’ of Churchill’s invention? Will Tom Cruise single-handedly win the Battle as an American volunteer who is ostracised for wearing crepe soled brothel creepers in the officers’  mess?

Locations shouldn’t be too great a problem – doubtless Goodwood/Westhampnett will be in the mix and Duxford is a given. Sadly for all concerned, the closest airfield to the white cliffs in wartime and star of many scenes in the original movie, Hawkinge, has long since been buried under the urban sprawl.

One thing is for sure: very little could ever replace the sight of Susannah York preparing for a night of passion. One can rebuild a Spitfire pretty easily, but other things are unrepeatable.

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London’s flying past

One seldom thinks of central London as a focal point for aviation. There’s London City Airport, plus the interminable political blathering about where the next major runway should be built to service the city and, for schoolchildren, an occasional visit to the Royal Air Force Museum, Science Museum or Imperial War Museum.

Yet in fact a brisk stroll takes one through what was, a century or so ago, the white hot crucible in which British military aviation was organised – and from the Armistice onwards the peacetime air network would be established that so preoccupies our airport planners of today.

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The Palace of Westminster is a fairly good landmark to get started

For the sake of argument, let’s start at the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, let’s start under Big Ben – if you can fight your way through the seemingly endless turf war between Japanese tourists with their selfie sticks and East European pickpockets – then you’ll soon arrive at the statue of the pioneering politician of air power, Winston Churchill. In his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill showed uncommon vision for the potential of early aviation as a tool of reconnaissance and offensive bombing – resulting in the Royal Naval Air Service being significantly stronger and lighter on its feet than the army’s Royal Flying Corps.

Now head up Parliament Street to the Cenotaph and the beautiful facades of Whitehall abound. Keep going past Downing Street to Horse Guards Parade and there the magnificent War Office building stands opposite, from where the Royal Flying Corps was ultimately managed.

Built in neo-Baroque style to the tune of £1.2 million, the building was completed in 1906 and featured 1,000 rooms on seven floors connected by two-and-a-half miles of corridors. It was from here that wars were fought and won, occasionally fought and lost – and much of the Empire was policed until 1968. The building was sold on 1 March 2016 for more than £350M, on a long 250 year lease, to the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for conversion to a luxury hotel and residential apartments.

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The War Office – about to enter conversion to a hotel and residential development

Keep going just a little further and Admiralty Arch appears, with it Admiralty House and all the pomp of the Senior Service that is laid out like a challenge before anyone wishing to travel up the Mall. From here Churchill set about ensuring that the ground was made fertile for developing the first verdant shoots of a modern air force – while the dullards at the War Office retained their faith in horses in the face of mechanised slaughter.

Just like the War Office, Admiralty Arch has already been sold off for transformation into an hotel. The questions raised in parliament about how security for the many state and sporting occasions that run through Whitehall each year, let alone that of the Royal Family down the road, is to be maintained by hoteliers in the face of increased insurgency has never really been answered. But then Whitehall has suffered from more than its fair share of fatheads over the years – as we shall see…

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The buildings around Admiralty Arch were a hive of air-minded activity when Churchill was First Sea Lord. Today it is a Spanish-owned hotel.

From the Admiralty, head up The Strand and there is a large run of shops lying in wait before reaching the Savoy Hotel. The shops stand at street level beneath an imposing facade that was once the frontage of the Hotel Cecil – one of the more remarkable buildings in London.

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The Hotel Cecil was designed in the late 1880s by architects Perry & Reed in a sympathetic ‘Wrennaissance’ style for what was a fantastical barn of a building that would, in its day, be the largest hotel in Europe.

This 900-room leviathan was the pet project of notorious politician, financier, property developer and fraudster, Jabez Balfour. Balfour decreed that the Cecil should be “an abiding memorial of my enterprise” – although a rather more permanent memorial was the penury of the people who had invested in his schemes. The extent of Balfour’s embezzlement – a cool £8.4 million in 1895! – was uncovered during the Cecil’s six-year build.

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

In a colourful turn of events, Balfour went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, where he was pursued and apprehended by Scotland Yard, brought back to London and sentenced to 14 years of penal servitude. The Cecil was sold for a relatively paltry £1.5 million and the proceeds were redistributed among Balfour’s impoverished investors. The hotel’s construction carried on – although not all of the materials were as grand as had been hoped – but Balfour’s abiding memorial appeared set to remain a white elephant.

Despite recruiting such luminaries of the era as ‘Smiler’ the renowned Indian curry chef or M. Coste, one of the greatest chefs of the late Victorian era, the gargantuan hotel was a commercial black hole. It was therefore fortunate for the owners that war broke out in 1914 and suddenly a pressing need was found to quarter staff and administer the conflict.

In 1916, the increasing importance of the war in the air, combined with the profligacy and wanton disruption that the rivalry between the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service was causing meant that an Air Board should be formed to manage the quarrelling air services in a contained space. In January 1917 it was decided that the space in question should be the Hotel Cecil.

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To the rear, the Hotel Cecil (and the Savoy Hotel next door) fronted the Victoria Embankment

The deep-rooted and bloody-minded rivalry between the two air arms carried on unabated, leading to claims that the occupants of the Hotel Cecil were ‘actively interfering’ with the running of the war. This in turn led to a nickname for their palatial residence: Bolo House, named after the celebrated French traitor, Bolo Pasha.

To digress – Bolo’s conviction was for a remarkable plot in which he was alleged to have travelled to America in order to receive laundered German funds with which he purchased Le Journal newspaper and began printing German propaganda. The evidence, such as it was, could only be described as circumstantial. Bolo’s firing squad was, however, utterly unequivocal.

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

Back to London, then, and one significant ‘plus’ for men of the air divisions was that if they were required to work in the Cecil they would be quartered next door in the sumptuous Savoy Hotel. Many celebrated airmen of all allied nations, including Eddie Rickenbacker, found themselves enjoying the hospitality of the Savoy, although the Silvertown explosion on 19 January 1917 caused many of the windows to be blown in upon the hapless occupants.

It took the bombing of London in broad daylight by long-range German aircraft to force change upon the Bolo House, brought about by the wave of public outrage against Britain’s inefficient defences against attack. While the administrative work went on that would create a united and independent Royal Air Force, the first ever plotting room was created in the bowels of the hotel in order to marshal defending fighters against incoming arial raiders in a precursor to the famous system employed during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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The plaque is almost correct – it was the first night raid by German aeroplanes

The German bombing campaign was also nearly the end of the Hotel Cecil, as on the night of 4/5 September the bombers came back for their first nocturnal sortie and managed to plant a 50 kg bomb virtually on the doorstep. The bomb itself landed beside Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, onto which the rear entrance of both the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy faced.

The blast did kill and maim – a passing tram was caught in the blast, killing the driver and two passengers while blowing the conductor out onto the street.  Today the site is clearly seen by the shrapnel damage that remains upon Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx.

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As for the Hotel Cecil, it served out the war as the birthplace of the Royal Air Force and remained on governmental duties until 1921, when it was used to house the Palestine Arab delegation which arrived to protest the British mandate on the region. The site was then demolished in 1930 – save for the grand facade on The Strand – in order to make way for the beautiful art deco Shell-Mex House which presides over the Victoria Embankment to this day – Shell having provided every drop of aviation fuel used by the allies from 1914 to the end of 1917.

In 1961, after the official separation of Shell and BP, Shell moved its head office to the 27-storey leviathan on the South Bank of the river where it remains to this day. Shell-Mex House was disposed of in the 1990s and today it is known as 80 Strand, home of businesses as diverse as Penguin Books, the Nectar loyalty card and PricewaterhouseCoopers. A small green plaque was erected on the back gate in 2008 commemorating its status as the location where the Royal Air Force was founded.

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The art deco frontage of Shell-Mex House (left) replaced the Hotel Cecil in 1930 to become a major landmark on the Thames, viewed from the bomb-damaged Sphinx

Walking back along the Victoria Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, a golden eagle soon rises up overhead. This is the memorial erected immediately after the Great War in honour of the fallen airmen whose fate, in almost every instance, was in part decided within the buildings along the route of this stroll around the city.

The golden eagle sits atop an orb, around which a sash is wrapped carrying all the signs of the zodiac. Upon the pedestal, the inscription reads:

In memory of all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and those air forces from every part of the British Empire who gave their lives in winning victory for their King and country, 1914 – 1918.

There is also a quotation from Exodus 19: I bear you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself. 

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A further inscription was added in remembrance of those men and women of the air forces of every part of the British Commonwealth and Empire who gave their lives in World War 2, although this rather beautiful tribute has long since been overtaken by bigger-budget productions elsewhere, such as the magnificent Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

Just before reaching the end of this little walk around the crucible of British aviation, another of those modern memorials stands – that dedicated to the Battle of Britain in 1940. Just a few hundred metres from Westminster station, this low, flat block has the most ornate brass relief that makes an ideal spot to stop and tick off the places seen.

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

Westminster and Whitehall are so very ‘pomp and circumstance’ that it is hard to credit the emergence of modern air warfare to buildings more closely associated with Trafalgar and the creation of of the British Empire. Yet it is perhaps an even greater leap to now think of these majestic buildings being turned into foreign-owned hotels for those guests who may be tired of life at the Savoy – or may indeed have something other than tourism in mind for their visit.

Meanwhile, this little patch of London is ripe with myriad stories. Far too many to write in a blog post, a book or even a trilogy. Tripping over them is the ideal way to spend an hour or so messing about by the river…

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Shell-Mex House (centre) and The Savoy standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind Cleopatra’s Needle

Commemorating the Battle of Britain

The history of the world is written by its victors.  So it was that, this summer, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been commemorated: a 14-week period that was defined by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that ended on 31 October 1940 and resulted in Germany’s first defeat of the war.

That is not the way everyone saw it at the time, of course. Churchill was a politician who needed to inspire his country towards a prolonged and outwardly hopeless war that most people dreaded, thus he declared Fighter Command’s survival of the Luftwaffe’s summer onslaught to be a victory of epic proportions. Even as he spoke, however, German bombs were raining down on British cities at night as the Luftwaffe operated almost with impunity.

It is important to remember that, even in 1940, the pilots of RAF Fighter Command considered that their leader had somewhat over-egged the pudding.  Tom Neil, a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot and ‘ace’ in 1940 described the ‘so-called’ Battle of Britain thus:

“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe, a tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940.  As though the war had started for us in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

The 'Battle of Britain' saw Churchill in the role of commentator, umpire and team captain

The ‘Battle of Britain’ saw Churchill combine the roles of commentator, referee and team captain

The Battle of Britain is therefore open to considerable interpretation and the 75th anniversary of these events should have been handled with care with those few remaining voices who fought and lived through it being given fullest attention.  But this is 2015 so there was no chance of such subtlety.

The role of host broadcaster for the commemorations was handed, fairly inexplicably, to Channel 4. This is the broadcaster of bean curd, socialism and dubious sexual practices; sort of an advertiser-funded Student Union.

The presenter of Channel 4’s broadcasts was to be Dermot O’Leary, a man who has fairly rocketed up the greasy pole of media celebrity from local radio to hosting The X-Factor, aided by his anodyne matiness and a bottom that makes grown women weep.  Alarm bells immediately clattered into life at the S&G.

Then came the title of the first of Channel 4’s commemorative programmes, which caused the alarm bells to shatter and the wall upon which they were hanging to be blown down flat. Battle of Britain: The Day The War Was Won

As the opening credits rolled, Dermot’s voice rang out with no little sense of occasion.  “Tonight we will be winding the clock back 75 years to that crucial day when the Nazis attempted to annihilate the RAF and pave the way for a full-on land invasion.”

Not just any kind of invasion, you understand, but a ‘full-on land invasion’.  I bet that’s what Hitler called it as well – about ten seconds before he realised that, in 1940, any kind of sea invasion of the British Isles was utterly impossible to achieve.

The thrust of the programme, however, was that Churchill did not go far enough in distilling an 11-month campaign into a 14-week victory. Now it all boiled down to one day, 15 September 1940, upon which the fate of everything in the world, if not the known universe, would depend.

Presumably even the producers realised that they were catastrophically wide of the mark and thus to save their bacon a tame historian was required to endorse the scriptwriter’s dismal handiwork.  Enter the ubiquitous James Holland.

Dermot O'Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

James was not his usual ruddy-faced self.  He had the haunted look of a man who had been handed the choice between making a convincing case for the script or making a convincing case for his reputation.  In the end, he managed neither. As a fall-back position, he adopted a slightly weird Estuary twang and said:

“The idea is to kind of, sort of bomb London into submission, demoralise the people, you know, hit the factories, but it’s also to, you know, kill people as well.  That’s the point of it.  But what the Luftwaffe have got to do is destroy the Air Force because you cannot do a cross-Channel invasion unless you have command, or control at least, of the skies in that invasion.”

There was that word again: invasion.  Not a ‘full-on land invasion’ but still, scary stuff.  Yet although the ‘i-word’ was repeatedly proffered it was never explored. This was a shame, because I’d like to have heard what thoughts James had to offer on that subject.

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Instead we were offered Arthur Williams, whose PR describes him as ‘a young, ambitious and exciting new broadcaster identified by Channel 4 as a star of the future, and he was ready for his big moment.  Pointing out towards France, Arthur said: “Waves of Hitler’s planes set off to attack us…”

Terminology is everything. First we had Dermot telling us that the Nazis were attempting to annihilate the RAF. Now we had Arthur describing ‘Hitler’s planes’ mustering over France. There is an obvious omission here: the ‘g-word’. This was not a small, crazed sect of ‘Nazis’ with ‘Nazi plans’ and armed with ‘Hitler’s bombers’ – it was the entire nation of Germany galvanised to arms and cheering itself hoarse with delight at having conquered mainland Europe.

The political map of Europe in October 1940

The political map of Europe in October 1940

After Arthur’s contribution came Dermot’s recap: “Hitler’s Luftwaffe had set out to smash the RAF and pave the way to invasion…”  The S&G’s television narrowly escaped from being chucked through a window.

So thank God, then, that for the last couple of minutes the endless parade of statements died down and, in the quiet, those last few faltering voices of the men and women who were there spoke their own epitaph.  This was brilliant, electrifying TV of a kind that Channel 4 couldn’t possibly have bargained for or understood, otherwise it would have shown nothing else.

First there was Tom Neil, still clear-eyed and forthright at 95, who concluded: “I’ve done my bit.  My generation’s done its bit.  But I’m now not afraid of dying.”

Then there was Geoff Wellum, still full of dapper good cheer, who added: “It’s not about medals.  It’s not about thank-yous.  But it’s nice to be remembered because being remembered covers everybody who served through and fought in the Battle of Britain. And being remembered is all that we want.”

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

‘Battle of Britain Day’ is commemorated on 15 September each year, and for the 75th anniversary this meant a live broadcast on Channel 4. Up to 40 aircraft, representing types flown by the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prepared to fly off from Goodwood to tour the south of England as the main act of the day.  To make sure that as many people took notice as possible, this programme was entitled The Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland were back in their Laurel and Hardy roles. The programme was called Return of the Spitfires, thus Dermot was walking among Spitfires (after flying in a two-seat Spitfire) when he asked James which particular aircraft of all those standing around them stood out: ‘that Hurricane over there’, James replied, pricelessly.

When, finally, the flying got underway the focus did at least fall in the right direction: back on that brilliant man Tom Neil, who was back in a two-seat Spitfire after half a century and in pride of place in the formation as it toured the skies where the battle was fought.

Wing Commander Neil had refused a full helmet or radio link.  Instead we were treated to the view of his 95-year-old features wordlessly absorbing the environment that, within just five years on active service, had come to define the rest of his life. It is also an environment to which he is unlikely to ever return, making it all the more remarkable to share his experience as best we could.  When this silent, stoic salute to a generation was over, Dermot could be relied upon to ask the Wing Commander for his thoughts.

“Quite an emotional business,” came the reply.

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations - as was Tom Neil

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations – as was Tom Neil

Right from the very first planning meeting, through two deeply underwhelming TV programmes, nobody else had stood a chance of saying anything more profound than its veterans. If only they could have had the courage not to even try.