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.

IMG_0912

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.

cba101bd29b28875683365623700697f

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!’

Prince Harry Attends The Battle Of Britain Flypast

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.

Advertisements

Blue skies at the Shuttleworth Collection

When the sun is out, there’s barely a whisp of cloud in the sky and the breeze wouldn’t trouble a house of cards there’s really only one place to be: Old Warden for a flying display.

While the rest of the nation was shedding a tear of joy or two over Prince Harry’s nuptials, a decent sized crowd went to Bedfordshire. They came to savour not only the regular field of aeroplanes from the Shuttleworth Collection’s unique array of vintage and veteran stock, but also the official return to flying duties of its unique Spitfire Mk.Vc after 12 years under restoration.

Given that it was an evening show, the S&G wasn’t able to linger and enjoy the undoubted stars of the show, the WW1 and Edwardian machinery, take to the air on such a still and clear night. Nevertheless, there is never a day when one feels short-changed by seeing even a portion of the schedule at Old Warden, so here are the highlights.

First of all: what was to be found on the ground:

 

And here’s what was seen during the air displays:

 

As the long days of summer hopefully stick with us until the new academic year and beyond, it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on at Old Warden, particularly with a brood to entertain.

MH434 in full flight

Believe it or not, it’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was televised. It brought us a host of talented young actors who went on to become household names like Neil Dudgeon (Midsomer Murders), Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley), and Jeremy Northam (The Crown).

It was also arguably the finest moment of Spitfire Mk.IX MH434’s long career. She’s pictured above during a display that the S&G savoured at Old Warden in 2016. But better than that, better than her low pass down the main straight at Goodwood or her celebrated buzzing of Alain de Cadanet she went under the largest single-span bridge in Britain.

It’s quite a big bridge but in a Spitfire it’s threading the needle. And then some.

Because before CGI there was Ray Hanna.

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.

1274947247_0

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.

nrtk1gpwjrbz

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.

a576975b0cda7c54e9db86c726684a97

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.

methode-times-prod-web-bin-3ad98ab4-6725-11e7-9755-334d14a02d15

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.

The Lost Eagles

Through the first half of 1942, American servicemen began to disembark en masse in Liverpool, paving the way for the build-up of forces that would eventually provide sufficient muscle to liberate North Africa, Italy and Occupied Europe. A significant number of Americans were already in Britain, however, having volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force (just as they had in World War 1), whether it be under their own flag or adopting Canadian citizenship for the purpose.

Initially the call-to-arms had been made by Charles Sweeny, a wealthy businessman living in London, who took it upon himself to recruit American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of WW1. When France collapsed under German invasion in May 1940, a dozen of Sweeny’s volunteers made their way to Britain, where they would be joined by 6,700 applicants from across the USA seeking to join the RCAF or RAF.

As a result of this recruitment drive, there were sufficient American pilots to form the three ‘Eagle’ squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 and July 1941 – these being nos. 71, 121 and 133.  With the arrival of the US Army Air Force in strength, however, these units were due to be transferred back to American control and renamed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group USAAF; their battle-hardened pilots intended to provide a finishing school for the eager recruits flowing across the Atlantic.

A month before the transfer took place, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the new and top-secret Spitfire Mk.IX, featuring a two-stage supercharger to give better performance above 20,000 feet and provide a much-needed answer to the Focke-Wulf 190. Not all of the pilots were thrilled about becoming repatriated – not least the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin, who repeatedly delayed and fudged his transfer until the last possible moment on 25 September. He was replaced by a temporary unit leader, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Bettrell, who found his new command somewhat unhappy about the situation.

As the unit had been declared operational on the Spitfire Mk.IX it was decided that 133 Squadron should give the type its operational debut the following day: 26 September 1942. On paper it looked like a relatively straightforward job of escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses on a raid over the French town of Morlaix.

Spitfire_Mk_IX_EN133_FY-B_611_42-43

A Spitfire Mk.IX

A total of 14 Spitfire Mk.IXs shuttled down to RAF Bolt Head near Salcombe in Devon in readiness, of which only 12 were eventually required for the mission.  One pilot from each flight – Ervin ‘Dusty’ Miller and Don ‘Buckeye’ Gentile – were ordered to remain on the ground.  They were rather put-out by this news, having been keen to see how their new Spitfires would perform against the FW190s, but dutifully watched their squadron take off into low cloud. They were:

A Flight                                                               
F/Lt  E.G. Brettell        ES 313
P/O  L.T. Ryerson       BS 275
P/O W.H. Baker          BS 446
P/O D.D. Smith           BS 137
P/O G.B. Sperry          BR 638
P/O G.G. Wright          BS 138

B Flight
F/Lt  M. E. Jackson    BS 279
P/O R. E. Smith          BS 447
P/O C.A. Cook            BR 640
P/O R.N. Beaty           BS 148
P/O G.H. Middleton    BS 301
P/O G.P. Neville         BS 140

Gentile and Miller waited.  Then they waited some more.  Eventually they heard approaching aircraft but these proved to be Spitfire Mk.Vs of 401 Squadron RCAF, which were also deployed on the mission.  They were almost out of fuel and had seen neither the Fortresses or the Mk.IXs in the impenetrable cloud.  Very clearly, something had gone disastrously wrong.

Word reached Bolt Head that one of the Eagle Squadron Spitfires had crash-landed on the coast just a few miles away.  This turned out to be the only one of the 12 machines ever seen again.

The official squadron diary recorded: The 12 aircraft  took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix.   It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying  for 45 minutes.  The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty)  alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon.  From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

It transpired that this was a rather optimistic view of the outcome.  Following a strenuous board of inquiry, it became clear that 133 Squadron had never broken free of the cloud and was thus unaware of the fact that the north-easterly wind was blowing at 100 knots instead of the predicted 35. The increase in wind speed had been recorded but not communicated effectively to the squadrons. With no reference points to call upon, the flight leader, Flight Lieutenant Brettell, called for directions home and received a heading back to base from Morlaix – rather than from where he actually was.

The Fortresses were equally lost and equally far off course. When they broke free of the cloud they found themselves over the Pyrenees. They turned around and slogged back to Britain being more grateful for the cloud cover than on their outbound leg.

Meanwhile, having followed the prescribed heading for what was deemed the correct amount of time, Brettell closed up the formation and they dropped out of the cloud to see what they all assumed was the British coast.  While looking for landmarks, the squadron passed over a large town – and immediately found themselves in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that destroyed one Spitfire and damaged several others just before the defending FW190s swept in to savage them.

They had in fact made their way to the Germans’ prized port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended areas of the French coast.  German sources reported all 12 of the Spitfires were shot down – although there were only 11 as the sole 133 Squadron Spitfire to get away, that of Pilot Officer Bob Beatty, had turned back early after suffering a misfire.  Beatty made landfall in Devon by luck alone after gliding in to the coast when its fuel ran out, where it crashed near the village of Kingsbridge.

One other airman, Pilot Officer Robert Smith, made it back to Britain on foot after passing through France and into Spain undetected. Six pilots were killed in action and eventually four were taken POW. On 29 March 1944, Gordon Brettell was one of the officers involved in The Great Escape – he was later recaptured and summarily executed.

The element of surprise that was hoped for the Spitfire Mk.IX had been lost, as well as some of the most valuable combat experience available to the fledgling USAAF.  Three days after the Brest raid, 133 Squadron transferred to American command with a compliment of earlier Spitfire Mk.Vbs (pictured top) and, following the board of inquiry, those ground controllers and met. officers who were responsible for the mission found themselves posted to the worst available hellholes in the Far East and North Africa as penance for their sins.

The USAAF continued to operate Spitfires on bomber escort duties for a number of months but R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was by design a short-range interceptor rather than a long-range escort fighter for offensive missions.  On each occasion the Spitfire pilots were forced to watch German fighters circling until their own fuel became critical and they were forced to turn away… at which point the Germans would wade into the bombers without interference. This was a situation that would only change with the arrival of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

One of our Spitfires is missing (but the Kittyhawk isn’t)

A few years ago there was a minor kerfuffle that made its way into the pages of the daily press: the Royal Air Force Museum had handed over a Spitfire Mk.22 to aircraft restorers Kennet Aviation as payment for retrieving a gem from the Sahara. For it was in North Africa that an almost perfectly-preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk had been discovered, 70 years after it force-landed.

kittyhawk_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqcjwi45dx1ptcmbvoy6pvuteywsyl1t0vdp8t5m585vi

The Kittyhawk’s pilot, Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, made a controlled landing in the desert which he survived. However, the Western Desert is a vast and inhospitable place in which Copping died without being rescued. His body has never been found.

Once Copping’s aeroplane revealed itself, however, preserving it became something of a fixation at the RAF Museum. In this quest, the museum believed that it had found the ideal partner in Tim Manna, a former US Navy reservist who moved to England in 1989 and now rebuilds old aeroplanes in Essex under the Kennet Aviation banner.

The RAF Museum agreed to trade a stored Spitfire Mk.22 with Kennet in return for the long-lost Kittyhawk. A Spitfire Mk.22 is not the most desirable of the breed, but a complete airframe with history holds value – somewhere around the £200,000 upwards mark – and with restoration to airworthiness that figure increases by four or five fold.

For the Spitfire in question, PK664, this would prove to be its 15 minutes of fame. It did not see service during World War 2 as it only reached No.39 MU in December 1945. It sat around for two years before being sent back to Vickers for upgrading with a Griffon 85 engine and 6-bladed contra-rotating propeller.

After another two years of standing idle, PK664 was refitted and finally issued to No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron based at Biggin Hill in May 1949. In August 1949 it suffered an accident while in Germany, with the resulting damage being given RAF Category 3 – meaning indefinitely out of service. It was returned to 615 Squadron in early 1950, where it flew on until December of that year.

visit_stafford_spit1

PK664 shown in storage at Wattisham in 2009

Shortly afterwards, PK664 went back into storage at Vickers pending disposal. Nobody wanted secondhand Spitfires in the late 1950s, however, so she was stuck on a plinth outside RAF Waterbeach as a gate guardian for most of the 1960s; being removed for maintenance and the occasional repaint. Later she was partially restored (and presumably given a Hamish Mahaddie makeover) for duty on the Battle of Britain movie. She then went into storage at RAF St. Athan for much of the next 23 years before being transferred to the RAF Museum. In recent years it was on display at the Science Museum, but departed for Kennet Aviation in 2012.

The only problem was that the Kittyhawk and the patch of sand in which it had lain for all those decades were in Egypt. And Egypt likes to have lots of paperwork and red tape around the place, so matters of this kind tend to be processed in a leisurely fashion. Meanwhile, there was something of a revolution going on and the Kittyhawk paperwork was an early casualty in the throes of Egyptian regime change.

Here the story ended, as far as the world was concerned. The RAF Museum was in some disgrace for handing over a Spitfire to Kennet without any apparent guarantees and it got nothing in return but a barrel load of tabloid invective for perceived naïvety and ineptitude.

Two years later, the RAF Museum is being treated to a second helping of opprobrium in the press after the Egyptian-run El Alamein Museum proudly put its newest exhibit on display – Flight Sergeant Copping’s Kittyhawk.

Rather than preserving the lightly-damaged machine, it has been treated to a restoration that looks like the first 1/72 kit ever attempted by the S&G. Aged seven. Missing panels and the absent propeller have been replaced with ungainly fibreglass and wood structures, then the whole lot has been vigorously painted in an approximation of RAF Desert camouflage – which this P-40 never wore. Like many RAF aircraft in the desert, it retained the Temperate Land Scheme of Dark Green and Dark Earth over Sky… like this model of an earlier Tomahawk is sporting… and it never had the shark’s mouth markings, either.

IMG_6463

But the Egyptians prefer the drama of shark’s teeth, Mid-Stone and Azure Blue (or approximations thereof), resulting in this:

nintchdbpict000375786120

So it appears that the Kittyhawk’s fate is sealed. Even if the great gobs of emulsion and filler could be removed from it, the patina and uniqueness of the wreck have been utterly destroyed. Probably the greatest hope left for its long-term survival is that it can be bought by an aircraft restorer and rebuilt to flying condition.

But where is Spitfire PK664? Apparently it is still in a shed in Essex, appreciating in value day-by-day. Which would make Kennet Aviation the winner in this sad little saga.

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.

 

IMG_6789

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.

9397227-large

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.

Battle_of_Britain_He111_2.jpg~original

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.

batbritlc

 

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!”

29E9058300000578-3136779-image-a-51_1435103043276

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.

8504566711_531c3a3532_b

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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: