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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Piece of Cake: Grand Finale

Here’s the height of the Battle of Britain as portrayed in the 1988 dramatisation of Derek Robinson’s fabulous novel, Piece of Cake. Even if you haven’t read my story of the real-life heroes of 610 Squadron, it’s moving stuff. I’d say that the music from 2:20 is absolutely the finest of its kind for shots of Spitfires in flight.

That’s quite enough green and brown aeroplanes for now. The business of racing and record breaking will be resumed shortly…

The Real ‘Piece of Cake’ Part 2

A chance encounter on the Rally of Wales and memories of an old model Spitfire made by my Dad led me to try and find out more of the story of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron – a glamorous pre-war unit for well-to-do young gentlemen that found itself in the thick of the action during the darkest days of World War 2.

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

So what happened? When it comes to the Battle of France… rather a lot.

When the Germans unleashed the Blitzkrieg upon France and Belgium on May 10 1940, 610 Squadron was based at RAF Prestwick in Scotland. It was immediately pulled south to RAF Biggin Hill the same day, joining the incumbent 32 Squadron, whose Hurricanes were already heavily engaged in patrols off the Belgian coast.

It soon became clear was that the part-time volunteers of 610 Squadron were paired up with the old sweats of 32… not the sort of detail that you get from most books. And a wise move, as it transpired.

610 Squadron notched up its first recorded ‘kill’ on May 21, when a flight intercepted what they believed to have been a Junkers Ju88 bomber some five miles north of Boulogne. In fact it was an RAF Bristol Blenheim bomber – one of two lost by 18 Squadron that day. This aircraft, serial number L9185, was lost at sea but her crew – Pilot Officer V. Rees, Sergeant N.V. Pusey and LAC K.E. Murray were rescued from the sea and returned to their unit.

Blenheims suffered heavily throughout the war, including several 'own goals'

Blenheim squadrons suffered several ‘own goals’

As the situation in France worsened, 32 and 610 Squadrons were transferred from Biggin Hill to Gravesend in Kent on May 26 in readiness to defend the troops as they attempted to escape the German advance on the beachhead at Dunkirk. 610 Squadron flew into action the same day, encountering a Heinkel He111 bomber with 40 escorting Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters. The squadron claimed to have shot down three Messerschmitts and the Heinkel but lost two of its Spitfires, these being:

Spitfire L1016 – Flying Officer Albert Rupert John Medcalf missing (age 26)
Spitfire N3284 – Sergeant William Thomas Medway killed (age unknown)

The squadron’s next major encounter came two days later – and it was a disaster. Meeting a strong force of Messerschmitt Bf109s over Dunkirk, four aircraft were lost with their pilots. These were:

Spitfire Unknown – Squadron Leader Alexander Lumsden ‘Bonzo’ Franks, killed (age 32)
Spitfire L1000 – Flying Officer Gerald Malcolm Theodore Kerr, missing (age 30)
Spitfire N3289 – Flying Officer John Kerr Wilson, missing (age 32)
Spitfire L1062 – Sergeant Peter Douglas Jenkins, missing (age 20)

As was pointed out in Derek Robinson’s novel Piece of Cake and its TV adaptation, much of the blame for such losses can be placed on the tactics employed at the time. It was intended that RAF fighter squadrons should fly in close formation and concentrate their combined firepower on the large bombers in the so-called Area Fighting Tactics.

This was fine in theory, but took no account of the battle-hardened and successful German fighter formations which flew in loose groups of four and remained fluid at all times. While a dozen RAF fighters wheeled in an ungainly unit, with each man doing his best not to hit the aircraft next to him, the enemy fighters could dive in and cause havoc. Hawk-eyed aces like ‘Sailor’ Malan saw this very clearly, but many squadrons, 610 among them, were struggling to keep their heads above water and were not going to demand a rewriting of official policy.

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

The last day of May brought 610 Squadron back over Dunkirk, and again they took a mauling at the hands of the Bf109s. Another two aircraft were lost, one pilot killed and the other rescued from the sea by one of the ‘little ships’ as they fought desperately to pull British and French troops off the beaches.

Spitfire N3274 – Flying Officer Graham Tim Lambert Chambers, missing (age unknown)
Spitfire Unknown – Flying Officer G. Keighley, wounded (age unknown)

By the time that the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed, it was clear that 610 Squadron had been changed forever. Almost half of the original squadron members – all of whom had been local men from Cheshire and Lancashire – were killed, missing or wounded by the time the last of the little ships got away in the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’.

Aces over the Solent

A Messerschmitt Bf109 of JG53 is readied for action over the Solent

A Messerschmitt Bf109 of JG53 is readied for action over the Solent

The photo posted this morning is actually the view looking out towards the Isle of Wight when leaving the mainland behind. In the skies overhead, in the summer of 1940, a significant and surprising chapter in the Battle of Britain was written.

Going right back to World War 1, the German air forces had been happy for its fighter pilots and squadrons to become celebrities. In the Luftwaffe commanded by Hermann Göring, the fighter group JG53 was known as a ‘crack’ unit and identified by the ace of spades (Pik As in German) on the nose of its aircraft.

Due west: a JG53 Messerschmitt with 'Pik As' emblem

Due west: a JG53 Messerschmitt in early 1940 with ‘Pik As’ emblem

Like all fighter groups, JG53 was formed of four individual squadrons – I, II, III and Staff. This group was jointly commanded by Oberstleutnant Hans-Jurgen von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of Germany’s elite officer class and an old school soldier, rather than a Nazi party man.

After the Battle of France had been won in 1940, JG53 was based in the Channel Islands, which had been taken without any resistance on July 1-3. While Cramon-Taubadel and his men waited for what, they were sure, would be the inevitable surrender of the British mainland, they flew escort missions to the fearsome Stuka dive bombers as they savaged the enemy’s merchant shipping as it attempted to pass through the Solent.

Meanwhile JG53’s new home in the Channel Islands became part of the Départment de la Manche, (sub-district of German military government area A centred at St.Germain-en-Laye), and the first thing that the new military government set to work on was identifying Jews still resident in the islands and declaring anti-Jewish orders. Thus it was no doubt something of a blow to all and sundry in the government that the wife of the commanding officer of JG53, Cramon-Taubadel, was of Jewish stock in the eyes of the government’s Nuremburg laws.

When Viola von Kaufmann-Asse’s family history was revealed, it was felt that something had to be done, but given the long and illustrious military history of the Cramon-Taubadel family, this was not altogether easy for his political masters to achieve. He was a popular and successful combat leader, which meant that there might be trouble from within JG53 if the politicians were being seen to interfere in his life.

Thus a plan was hatched: JG53 would, with immediate effect, be forced to remove the prized ace of spades badge from its aircraft and replace it with a simple red stripe. While this was officially deemed to be a measure to convince the RAF that a new fighter group had been formed, it was nonetheless recognised by all as a snub to Cramon-Taubadel.

As a result of this, many of the pilots in JG53 decided to obliterate the swastikas that were painted on the tails of their aircraft. Often this was quite crudely done, while other aircraft were done rather nicely and the space used to notch up the pilots’ kill markings rather than putting them on the rudder.

Artist's impression of a JG53 aircraft shorn of its emblem and swastika

Artist’s impression of a JG53 aircraft shorn of its emblem and swastika

In August 1940 it became clear that the British were not going to try and negotiate for peace. The decision was taken to rotate and rest many of the senior pilots and officers who had led the charge through western Europe and among them was Cramon-Taubadel, who was brought back to a desk job in Berlin before being sent off to administrative roles in Norway and Finland where both he and his wife would be of little consequence to the authorities – and he also went down in history as the only fighter group commander not to be awarded the Knight’s Cross medal.

Interestingly, one of his cousins was executed as a member of the group of army officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944. In reprisal against the family another cousin by marriage was taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died soon afterwards. Cramon-Taubadel divorced Viola von Kaufmann-Asse after the war and remarried. He died in 1985 and she lived until 1997.

Bernd and Elly, 1936

They were the most glamorous and celebrated couple in Nazi Germany… each of them winning honours in the technological marvels that were being produced throughout the pre-war days of the Reich.

In this photo we see them just weeks into their marriage. Elly Beinhorn, the celebrated aviatrix, embraces her victorious husband Bernd Rosemeyer after he has won the 1936 German Grand Prix.

She is already a record breaker and hero. He is about to claim the European Championship for Auto Union at only his second attempt against the might of Mercedes-Benz and the experience of Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Together they are the human face of those years of astounding German achievement…

Auto Union star Bernd Rosemeyer with his wife, aircraft pilot Elly Beinhorn