Battle of Britain – Movie Review

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Battle of Britain

Movie Review

Product summary Title Battle of Britain Directed by Guy Hamilton Format 151 min, available on DVD and Blueray Availability and pricing Available to buy ...

Product summary

Title Battle of Britain
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Format 151 min, available on DVD and Blueray
Availability and pricing Available to buy from

Since I shamefully forgot about Battle of Britain Day last year, I made sure not to repeat the same mistake again. I’m marking the occasion by re-watching the classic 1969 film Battle of Britain, directed by Guy Hamilton.

I must confess that I love this film. It’s not just because of the the fantastic aerial action sequences, featuring several dozen real Spitfires, Hurricanes, Me 109s and He 111s.1 Well, it’s mainly because of that (and the music, oh yes, the music — Ron Goodwin’s stirring and bombastic theme as well as the William Walton piece in the dreamlike “duel in the sky” sequence [edit: actually called “Battle in the air”]) but it’s also because it manages to encapsulate just about every theme, anecdote, stereotype and myth about the Battle going. ‘Call me Meyer’? Check. The Big Wing debate? Check. ‘Yellow-nosed bastards’? Check. WAAFs and their plotting tables? Check. Home Guards armed with pitch-forks? Check. Galland asking Goering for a squadron of Spitfires? Check. Over-enthusiastic and unintelligible Poles engaging the enemy against orders? Check. Civilians huddled in Tube stations? Check. ‘Achtung! Spitfire!’ Check. Fresh-faced young pilots rushed into action and to their deaths after only a few hours’ training? Check. I could go on and on, and in fact I will! The invasion barges assembling in France? Check. The close escort order? Check. The importance of radar? Check. The turn on London? Check. RAF fighter pilots unbuttoning their top button? Check. The attention to various details in the film is commendable.

OK, I’ll stop now! But my point is that Battle of Britain is your one-stop shop for reaffirming the myth of 1940, and is, to me, all the more enjoyable for it. For the others, it is probably partly responsible for the long-lasting debate if it really was only the RAF which ’saved’ Britain in 1940, or if it was due to other circumstances. The revisionist historians like to claim that the actual Battle was not that important. That the Germans lost the battle, rather than the RAF won it. That the Germans already had eyes on Russia and really wanted to ignore Britain as a sideline. Or that the Germans couldn’t have crossed the Channel anyway because of the Royal Navy.

I don’t see why it has to be an either situation. The RAF was the first line of defence, the Navy was the second (and the Army, the third). Massively inferior as they were at sea, the Germans had absolutely no chance whatsoever, unless they had air superiority. Even then, of course, it would have been decidedly dicey and perhaps impossible. However, it never came to that, because the RAF did their job (and not just Fighter Command, but Bomber Command and Coastal Command too, in attacking the invasion ports and airfields, at great cost). But the Navy’s strength was essential to Britain’s victory. It was why Germany was forced to fight Britain in the air in the first place — without the Navy, maybe Germany could have chanced an invasion against the battered Army.

Rather than the inter-service rivalry question, I think that the persistence of the myth of ‘The Few’, which the movie serves so well, is more interesting, and more telling. In Battle of Britain, Dowding (brilliantly played by  Laurence Olivier) says something to the effect that his men needed a 4:1 kill ratio just to keep even, meaning shooting down four German aircraft for every British one lost (actually, he elides aircraft and aircrew, but it’s clear the former was meant.). But as Stephen Bungay argues in The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain , once production, reserves, and training are taken into account, it was the other way around. The Luftwaffe had sustained heavy losses in the spring of 1940, which was very bad seeing as it had been built to maximise front-line strength, to the neglect of reserves. And despite having an apparently huge superiority in numbers, the key comparison was in numbers of fighters, and single-seat fighters at that, where the Luftwaffe only had a slight edge. Every German aircraft shot down over Britain meant a permanent loss of aircrew, whereas British pilots who were shot down were often soon back at their squadrons.

Battle of Britain critics have (rightfully) claimed from the beginning that as a straight historical account this film fails rather badly. Most of the characters are artificial, created for the involved stars. Completely disparate stories of three Squadron Leaders remind of disaster movies of the 1960s. Keith Park, historically absolutely crucial, makes only the shortest possible appearance. The Germans characters, such as Goering or Major Falke (a character loosely based on Galland) are cartoonised. Finally, one has to wonder if Susannah York’s character had time-traveled to 1940 from 1969, judging by her hairstyle …

But few would argue that despite its age, this movie features the greatest aerial combat sequences filmed so far, mostly because all the aircraft (appearing in numbers!) and flying is genuine, which even by 1969 standards cost such a fortune that it probably will never be repeated. The flying sequences didn’t initially suffice make the movie a blockbuster as it was hoped to be. But decades later, they still secure Battle of Britain’s long-term popularity among the airminded. And through all the detail mentioned above, the convincing reproduction of the era makes the film grow on you.

I searched for some links about the film. There are disappointingly few. The usual: Wikipedia and IMDB. A couple of pages about the filming, here and here (that one shows “Proctuka”, a Percival Proctor trainer that had been heavily modified in order to make it look like a German Stuka dive bomber, but despite all effort, did not finally appear in the film – incredible). But first and foremost, watch the movie – again.

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