Towards the end of the film, a British Spitfire flyer shoots down a German bomber, which then falls over central London before crashing into a railway station. This actually happened, (although the fighter used in the real incident was a Hurricane, not a Spitfire and the bomber was a Dornier Do17 rather than a Heinkel 111). The RAF pilot didn't shoot the bomber down, though; he had run out of ammo when he spotted the bomber apparently trying to attack Buckingham Palace. In desperation, he rammed the bomber, taking off the tailplane. The fuselage then crashed into Victoria Station. Incredibly, he managed to parachute to safety. His own plane rammed into the ground at 350 miles per hour. It was buried so deep, that the authorities just left it there. In May 2004, the former RAF pilot was on hand, as the remains of his aircraft were unearthed to make way for a new water main. Remarkably, part of the incident was captured on film, the tailplane fluttering down and the fuselage section (minus the wings outboard of the engines, which were torn off by aerodynamic forces) plummeting towards the ground.
27 Spitfires, in various degrees of repair, were found for the film, twelve of which could be made airworthy. Only six Hurricanes where found, three of which were made flyable. The Messerschmitt 109s were all retired from the Spanish Air Force. The production company bought them all, about fifty of them, and put seventeen of them back in flying condition. They are in the movie, flown by Spanish Air Force pilots, and members of the Confederate Air Force. The 32 Heinkels, with crews, were on loan, for free, from the Spanish Air Force, where they still were used for transport and target towing. Two of them were eventually bought by the production company, and flown together with the 17 Messerschmitts to England, for further shooting. The two Junkers 52 were also on loan from the Spanish Air Force.
W.G. Foxley, who plays Squadron Leader Evans, was an RAF navigator, whose face and hands were badly burned, attempting to rescue a fellow crew member after a bomber crash in 1944. Due to his injuries, he lost an eye and several fingers, as well as his other facial injuries.
Over sixty percent of RAF Fighter Command aircraft, during the Battle of Britain, were Hawker Hurricanes. Due to the lack of Hurricanes in flying condition, when the movie was filmed, the bulk of the air-to-air combat scenes use the more famous (and better fighter) Supermarine Spitfire. During the actual battle, whenever possible, squadrons flying the Spitfire, would engage the German fighters, escorting bomber formations, while the lower-performance (but better gun platform) Hurricanes engaged the bombers. Shooting down German bombers was the critical key, since the bombers were attacking RAF airfields in the first phase of the battle, and cities after the Luftwaffe changed target priorities. The film accurately depicts the British need (and desire) to destroy bombers, to protect their air defense infrastructure, and later protect civilian targets. For similar reasons (the lack of working aircraft of the right type), Spitfires and Hurricanes are shown flying together in tactical formations, whereas in reality, RAF squadrons flew one or the other type of fighter exclusively. Due to different performance characteristics, the two aircraft would not fly and fight together.
According to the book written about the making of the movie the production crew used more ammunition (blanks of course) to film the movie - due to the fact that directors re-shoot scenes numerous times - than were actually used in the real battle.
When Air Marshal Göring asks what the two German officers needed to win the battle, the second officer says, "A squadron of Spitfires." That scene was based on Adolf Galland's request to Hermann Göring during the actual event.
It is widely believed there was no chance of an invasion of the UK in 1940, and that Operation Sea Lion was a deliberate bluff to put pressure on the UK government to come to terms with the Axis Powers, after the Fall of France. The UK and France had rejected a German-Soviet peace proposal on September 28, 1939. Adolf Hitler had offered to end the war on October 6, 1939, following the German-Soviet conquest of Poland, and again on July 19, 1940. On August 14, 1940, he told the General Staff that he would not attempt an invasion, if the task seemed too difficult. Hitler's attention had already turned to the Soviet Union, after Joseph Stalin violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, by invading Bukovina on June 28, 1940. The German High Command began planning the invasion of the Soviet Union in early July 1940, under the code name Operation Otto.
When the film was released, it received generally negative reviews. Its poor box-office performance may have been partly due to recent revelations that Britain had bombed Germany first in World War II, and also because public feeling was generally extremely anti-war, due to the Vietnam War.
The scene featuring the Polish pilots first taste of combat is based on a real event: The Polish 303 "Kosciuszko" Squadron was on a training flight with their English commander Ronald Kellett when one of his pilots, Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz, noticed a German Dornier bomber and wanted to attack. Kellett turned him down, but Paszkiewicz attacked anyways and brought the bomber down. Afterwards, he was reprimanded by Kellett in front of the squadron, but in private he was (unofficially) commended by Kellett, who also told him the 303 was now operational. Paszkiewicz was killed in action on September 27, 1940.
This film became regarded as a patriotic tribute to "the few", that many of those involved in the production, actors and technicians, reduced their normal fees to work on this film. Much of the large budget went toward the acquisition, restoration, modification, maintenance, and operation of the vintage aircraft.
The Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, and Heinkels were repainted into authentic 1940 colors, but were so perfectly camouflaged, that they could not be seen against the ground or sky. Most of the aerial scenes were filmed with clouds in the background, so the aircraft could be seen.
Most of the extras in the scenes, filmed in East London and Aldwich underground station, were survivors of the Blitz. Some of the extras pulled out, because the scenes were "too real" and brought back painful memories.
Sir William Walton was first hired to write the score, which would have been his last. Because of his advanced age, he turned to friend Sir Malcolm Arnold for assistance with the orchestrations (which Arnold supplied, as well as writing additional cues). Harry Saltzman rejected the score, stating it wasn't long enough. Ron Goodwin was hired to write a new score, but when told he would be replacing one of Walton's, his first reaction was, "Why?" Goodwin eventually wrote the replacement score, but Laurence Olivier threatened to have his name removed from the credits, if none of Walton's original was used. For this reason, Walton's original music was kept for the "Battle in the Air" sequence towards the end of the film.
In the real Battle of Britain, there were other German airplanes used, mainly Messerschmitt 110 fighters, Dornier 17 bombers, and Junkers 88 bombers. At the time of making the film, there were no flying examples of these aircraft.
The scene of Göring accusing Kesselring of betrayal, as his train departed, was based on a real event. In the actual event, Göring had left in such a hurry, that electrical and telephone wires between the train and the station building, were left connected. These were broken, and left trailing from the carriage when the train departed. Guy Hamilton had wanted to include this in the scene, but thought it would look too comical.
During filming, the closed, but largely intact, RAF Hawkinge was refurbished to a degree, grass was tidied up, brickwork was cleaned and re-painted. Most of the site is now a housing estate, but for a few buildings and gun emplacements, some now housing a museum, are still intact.
The scenes at Fighter Command, were filmed on location at RAF Bentley Priory, the actual headquarters of Fighter Command, during World War II. Air Chief Marshall Dowding's original office, complete with the original furniture, was used.
Majors Foehn and Falke, the two German squadron commanders, are based on Adolf Galland and Werner Molders, two of the most famous German fighter aces of the war. Galland was on the film set as an adviser; he almost walked out at one point because he was angry at how the Germans were being portrayed in a stereotypical manner. Many scenes were re-written and re-shot at his insistence.
The character of Section Officer Maggie Harvey is based on Air Commodore Dame Felicity Peake, who was a young section officer at RAF Biggin Hill in 1940. The scene of Harvey being ordered to put her cigarette out, and Harvey yelling back Warrant Officer Warrick, was based on a real event.
The Heinkel 111 bombers were in fact Spanish built CASA 2111 bombers, Heinkel 111 H constructed under license, but with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and many other modifications. The Rolls engines were more powerful than the original Junkers Jumo and so the planes had more performance. In fact, all the real airplanes used on the film, except the Junkers Ju 52 (also Spanish built CASA 352) had British-built Rolls Royce Merlin engines.
A B-25 Mitchell bomber, owned and piloted by Jeff Hawke and his co-pilot Duane Egli, was converted into a camera plane. Cameras were fitted into the nose, tail, dorsal, and belly turrets, the nose being fitted with an optically perfect dome. The plane was painted in many bright colors, so it would look different from all angles, and would be easily seen by other planes. It was nicknamed the "Psychedelic Monster". Eventually flown back to the U.S., it sat derelict for many years in New Jersey, before being restored back to flying condition in Florida. Flown in air shows for many years as "Chapter XI", referring to the high cost of flying, but later repainted as "Lucky Lady".
Duxford Airfield, near Cambridge, agreed for one of it's hangars to be destroyed for the film. The hangar in question, was considered unsafe for preservation. The other three hangars are still intact, and are used as an air museum.
The Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers used in the film, are model airplanes filmed in Malta, the only ones not real (the Percival Proctor aircraft, which had been modified to represent Junkers 87 aircraft, were found to be too dangerous to use). Their dive-bombing technique is not very real: Stukas will usually dive sixty to ninety percent, and release their bombs while diving (not pulling up).
Many mock-ups of Spitfires and Hurricanes were made in the months prior to filming. Some had lawn mower engines fitted, and could be taxied around the airfield, but if they braked too hard, they would flip up onto their noses. This happened several times in front of the cameras, and some of the footage was eventually used in the film.
The Heinkel 111, as shown in the movie, had only three 7.92 machine guns total, placed to the rear, front, and belly. A common criticism of the HE111, during the actual battle of Britain, was that it was inadequately armed to deal with the enemy fighters. Later models added left and right machine guns.
The number of German losses (killed in action (KIA)) during the Battle of Britain are tabled during this movie's closing credits. Bomber Crews KIA: 1,176; Stuka Crews KIA: 85; Fighter Bomber Crews KIA: 212; Fighter Pilots KIA: 171; Missing Crews, believed to be KIA: 1,445. Therefore, according to this movie, German losses from the Battle of Britain amounted to 3,089.
People in the UK were not told that the RAF began bombing German cities in May 1940. The government wanted people to think that the Germans had bombed Britain first. The truth did not emerge until some time after the war.
Adolf Hitler ordered the Blitz on September 7, 1940, in retaliation for the RAF having already bombed German cities for four months. He had forbidden attacks on Britain on January 25, 1940, but the RAF began bombing Germany in May 1940. By early September, Hitler was under intense pressure from the German High Command, and public opinion, to retaliate, by bombing London, and other cities in the UK.
Under the terms of the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement, the Soviet Union supplied all the fuel the Luftwaffe used in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The Soviets also supplied the fuel the Germans used to invade Norway, Denmark, France and the Low Countries in 1940, thus rendering the Royal Navy's blockade of Germany obsolete. Despite the German defeat in the Battle of Britain, Joseph Stalin still offered to officially join the Axis Powers on 25 November 1940. Stalin hoped that a formal alliance with Germany would enable him to invade the Middle East and British India.
At least two excerpts are used by Pink Floyd in their "The Wall" album: Audio from Stuka diving during the attack to the radio station is used at the end of the first track, "In the Flesh?". The scene in which Simon is shot can be heard at the transition between the songs "Nobody Home" to "Vera". The phrase "Where the hell are you, Simon?", for example, is clearly recognizable at this point.
When Air Vice Marshal Park first visits Squadron Leader Harvey, a double was used in place of Trevor Howard for the shot of him jumping out of the Hurricane, because, as Guy Hamilton said, "You don't have elderly actors jumping out of elderly planes". Howard was only 55 at the time.
This film's closing epilogue is a famous quote from Winston Churchill. It states: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" 'Winston Spencer Churchill'. In some versions of the movie, the quotation differs from the above mentioned and instead reads, "This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning." This quote is also attributed to Churchill, although it actually referred to the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942.
The Jackdaw Inn, located in Denton, near Canterbury, England, features in scenes based around the first on-screen meeting of Colin and Maggie Harvey - Christopher Plummer and Susannah York. It also serves to place the event in historical context of the story, with a muster of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) outside.
In the beginning of the movie, there is a scene with a beach filled with abandoned equipment and weapons. This scene is meant to show the aftermath of the Allied retreat from Dunkirk and the French mainland.
When the Germans are marching into Dunkirk, they are accompanied by several vehicles. These are actually American: M2 Half Track Car fitted with a German MG34 machine gun, and a M37 105mm Howitzer Motor Carriage fitted with a heavy anti-tank gun instead of the regular howitzer.
The recently closed St. Katherine's Dock was used for some of the bombing scenes, the site of the warehouse, now being a hotel. At the time of filming, only that dock had closed in London, and it had been badly damaged during the blitz.
Houses in Peckham Rye, South London, were used as some of the blitz scenes. These houses at the time were being cleared to make way for the North Peckham and Camden Estate housing projects that were completed during the 1970s. Many of the scenes were filmed in houses while they were being demolished.
This movie was made twenty-six years after the Frank Capra 'Why We Fight' documentary, The Battle of Britain (1943), considered to have the same or similar title to this movie. The slight difference in wording of the titles is that the latter picture drops the definite article ("the") in its title.
Both Major Föehn and Major Falke are veterans of the Spanish Civil War judging by their wearing of the "Spanish Cross" badge, an award given to members of the German volunteer "Condor Legion" who fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of Francisco Franco's government.
Several historians have asserted that Adolf Hitler should have focused on North Africa and the Mediterranean after the Fall of France. If the Axis had taken Malta, it is likely Spain would have officially joined the war, and invaded Gibraltar, thus closing the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy.
The Blitz was ordered partly because the Luftwaffe had failed to defeat the RAF in prolonged air battles, and also because the RAF had already bombed Germany since May 1940. Adolf Hitler gave a famous speech outlining his reasons on September 4, 1940. Part of the speech is depicted in the film.
The actual significance of the battle remains disputed. Some historians believe it forced Adolf Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, as he did not have resources like oil and grain for a long war against the British Empire. Other historians believe the battle only ensured that western Europe could be saved from being overrun by the Soviets in 1945.
Winston Churchill's famous speech "Never was so much owed by so many to so few" has led many people to think the RAF was heavily outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. In reality the RAF was almost as large as the Luftwaffe, and the UK was building aeroplanes at a much faster rate than Germany. "The few" referred to the RAF pilots being relatively few compared to the overall population.
In the event of an invasion Winston Churchill intended to release hundreds of deadly chemicals, including anthrax. He had used diphenylaminechloroarsine against villages in northern Russia in August-September 1918 during the Russian Civil War.
It is likely, that Germany never had any chance of winning the Battle of Britain, and switching from bombing RAF fighter bases to cities, made no difference to the outcome. The RAF would have simply deployed north before redeploying south again. In any case, the Kriegsmarine was vastly outnumbered by the Royal Navy.
Although it has often been said that the UK was alone after the Fall of France, this was not actually true. Every country in the British Commonwealth, apart from Ireland, had declared war on Germany in September 1939, while every country in the British Empire was automatically committed by King George VI's declaration of war on September 3, 1939. The UK was not even alone in Europe after the Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940.
In addition to the camera plane, the production also made use of a helicopter. No gimball mounts in those days, just people like camera operator John Jordan who hung under the helicopter in a parachute harness. He died before the film was released, in May 1969.
The unsafe hanger at Duxford, was blown up twice. The special effects crew had underestimated the necessary amount of explosives. After the second time as the dust was settling, director Guy Hamilton called out, "All right everybody, one more time!"
The British began the deliberate area bombing of civilian targets in World War II on May 11, 1940. Both Warsaw and Rotterdam were regarded as legitimate military targets under international law, when they were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Rotterdam was being used as a military port and Warsaw was on the front line during the fighting and heavily defended by the Polish army.
The battle was of little significance in reality, as even with aerial superiority, the Kriegsmarine would have been unable to get past the much larger Royal Navy. In addition it is unlikely Adolf Hitler ever intended to attempt an invasion of the UK, and the German High Command was already planning the invasion of the Soviet Union by July 1940.
The battle was key to Britain staving off an invasion, as although the Royal Navy greatly outnumbered the Kriegsmarine, it was shown throughout the Pacific Theater, later in the war, that a fleet without air cover was supremely vulnerable. (See: the Sinking of the Battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales as an example).
During filming of the 'scramble' scene filmed at North Weald aerodrome in Essex, Robert Shaw was being pulled along in his Spitfire by a group of men using wires. During the pull, the Spitfire with Robert in it nosed over due to Robert applying to much pressure on the brakes and became stuck with it's nose in the ground and it's tail in the air. Robert was unhurt but the Spitfire was slightly damaged.
The documentary "The Battle for The Battle of Britain", released in the same year reveals that the main camera plane had CCTV on all cameras, with video recording for instant playback. Video recorders had only been around for ten years or so, and were very expensive.