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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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:
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: