Finding The Stars by Robert Rudhall

Having decided on making The Battle of Britain, the Producers needed someone to assemble a massive ‘air force’. They turned to Hamish Mahaddie. Robert Rudhall describes the task that faced him.

With hindsight, the feature film Battle of Britain was made just at the right time, after all, even with today’s increasing warbird population it would prove impossible to gather together 32 ‘Heinkels’; 28 ‘Messerschmitts; six Hurricanes and 27 Spitfires.
The idea to put on film Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ came from film producers Harry Saltzman and Ben Fisz. Both producers were used to dealing with large-scale film projects, Fisz had recently finished the movie Heroes of Telemark, the story of a daring wartime raid on a German heavy water factory and Saltzman was the showman behind the James Bond series of films.

Saltzman and Fisz, with their vast experience in the movie world, realised the problems in assembling the RAF and Luftwaffe of 1940, 28 years later. They contacted a man whom they had both worked with before, T G ‘Hamish’ Mahaddie, a retired RAF Group Captain and founder member of the famous World War Two ‘Pathfinder Force’. Mahaddie had been Technical Adviser on the films, 633 Squadron and the recently-finished Heroes of Telemark, he was also the aviation consultant for Eon Productions (the makers of the 007 movies).

Hamish was also known to have ‘green fingers’ when finding aeroplanes for movies was called for. He was given the monumental task of procuring the ‘vintage air force’ for the Battle of Britain. All this happened late in 1965, it would take Mahaddie approx 2’12 years to assemble the RAF and Luftwaffe from all corners of the globe.

Being mainly concerned with bombers during his flying career, the acquisition of fighters was in eMect a new field for Mahaddie and he started on the assumption that there were only six Spitfires left in the world. After a short time, he had discovered almost 100 that could be made available for the film.

Through his contacts at the Ministry of Defence and with some careful negotiations he persuaded the RAF to have a practical interest in the film. This was an unprecedented coup for Mahaddie and the film-makers, such a level of participation by the RAF in a film had never been set before. At the end of the negotiations Mahaddie has secured the loan of nineteen Spitfires and three Hurricanes along with the groundcrews and technicians to maintain them.

RAF Henlow was the film’s base of operations for the restoration and modification of the Hurricanes and Spitfires and it was here that the various marks of Spitfire were converted to resemble the 1940 variants in use during the Battle of Britain.
For example, the Mk XVI Spitfires which were filled with four bladed propellers, clipped wings, bubble cockpit canopies and cut down rear fuselages were very much out of character with the 1940 version. This was not good enough for Saltzman and Fisz, both of whom had decided to try and make the movie as authentic as possible. The Mk XVls had their wings returned to full elliptical status, cannons were removed from the wings, rounded rudders were fitted where needed, teardrop hoods were removed, rear fuselages were built up to the standard Spitfire shape and the early blown canopy was filled. Finally, a three-bladed propeller was substituted. The result was remarkable, a Mk XVI became a cross between a Mk V and a Mk IX, or as it was known on the film-set, a Mark Addie.

Hurricanes were much less of a problem, the basic shape remaining unaltered throughout the type’s evolution. The main problem with Hurricanes was that there was a lack of them. Although Hurricanes greatly outnumbered Spitfires during the 1940 battle, they were very much harder to find for the film.

Even though Hamish searched the world he was only able to find a total of six, only three of which were able to fly. One of these owned by the RAF, one by Hawker Sid de ley and one by Canadian Bob Diemart, who had recently restored the aircraft to airworthy condition.

At the time the Battle of Britain Flight had three Spitfires and one Hurricane. These were seconded to the film company and their aircraft could be used as and when the filmmakers wanted them, providing that the Flight’s schedule of air display appearances was not unduly interfered with.

Although a sizeable ‘Royal Air Force’ had been gathered for the filming, the numbers of aircraft were not enough to satisfy the movie’s Director, Guy Hamilton. Arrangements were made to construct a fleet of full-size replicas, one of the Spitfires and one of the Hurricanes were sent to the film studios at Pinewood to act as ‘masters’ for the moulding.

In no time at all fighters were rolling off Ken Softly’s ‘production lines’ most of which were purely static ‘set dressing’ replicas, but some were filled with motorcycle engines and these taxying versions would be used in the airfield attack sequences when Fighter Command’s airfields would be subjected to the full fury of the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign. This raised another major problem for Saltzman and Fisz, where could enough German aircraft be found to re-create the might of the 1940

Through his various contacts, Mahaddie had learnt that the answer to this problem may lie with the Spanish Air Force. He had been told that they were still using Heinkel III bombers (albeit licence production versions with Rolls Royce Merlin engines) and that there were a small number of Messerschmitt 109 fighters still in existence in Spain. Upon hearing this Mahaddie made contact with the British Air Attache in Madrid, who after a short period confirmed that there were still Messerschmitts and Heinkels in Spain. Without further delay Hamish flew immediately to Seville, in order to inspect the film’s proposed Luftwaffe.

Upon arrival in Spain, Hamish went straight to Tablada Air Force Base on the outskirts of Seville. There he found the answer to his dreams.

Sure enough, the Spanish Air Force were still using CASA 2111s as bomber trainers and Transport/VlP aircraft, some 32 still being operational.

There were only eight ‘Messerschmitts’ in airworthy condition, but on inspecting several large piles of Hispano-built airframes dumped behind one of the hangars on the airfield Hamish decided that a total of 28 could be put together, eighteen of which could be made flyable.

This was just what Mahaddie had been looking for, the problem now was, could he purchase the entire stock of Buchons and how could he acquire the CASA/Heinkels with them still being in service with the Spaniards?

The Messerschmitts were due to be put up for auction, or as the Spaniards call it, a Sabasta. At one stage Mahaddie thought that he may be outbid at the auction by a consortium of dealers who were trying to force Mahaddie’s price up, but at the last minute their bids were declared invalid and Hamish won the day, the Messerschmitts were acquired by him for the film company.

This still left the Heinkels and to acquire the use of them needed several top-level meetings between the Film Producers, Mahaddie and the Spanish Air Ministry along with the Spanish Ministry of Tourism, the latter being responsible for filming in Spain. Thankfully these negotiations bore fruit when the Spanish announced that the film company could borrow all 32 Heinkels for the duration of the filming in Spain and that there would be no charge for the loan of the aircraft, nor for the services of the Spanish pilots and groundcrews.

The only costs involved for the film company would be the painting of the aircraft in German markings and the re-painting back into Spanish markings at the end of filming. In recognition of this generous offer, Spitfire Productions made a large donation to the Spanish Air Force Benevolent Fund.

With the use of the Spanish Air Force and the aircraft that had been assembled in the UK the film company now had under their control, the ’35th Largest Air Force in the World’.

It was during the negotiations with the Spaniards that Mahaddie learnt that four of the airworthy Messerschmitts were owned by the American-based Confederate Air Force, who had also recently purchased in England an airworthy Spitfire Mk IX. It transpired that the CAF would be more than happy to lease their five aircraft to the film company on the condition that during the filming the fighters would be flown by CAF pilots, the five pilots being; Colonel’s Lefty Gardner; Gerald Martin; Lloyd Nolen; Milt Harradence and Wilson Connie Edwards.

From the outset Battle of Britain was to be a widescreen colour production, which meant that wartime black and white newsreel film could not be used as had been the case in so many earlier aviation movies. To capture on film the many aerial sequences that were to be the central core of the finished film it was obvious that a very special flying camera platform would be needed. The producers therefore contacted Euramericair, a company in the USA that specialised in aerial camera work. They came up with the Psychedelic Monster, heavily-modified North American B25J Mitchell bomber, N6578D.

This Mitchell had at one time flown over the Pacific on missions for the USAAF now had cameras mounted where its machine guns used to be. The whole of the standard B-25J nose had been removed and a huge specially moulded, plexiglass bubble had been attached to enable a Panavision movie camera to shoot through it.

The tail-gunners position has been completely ripped out and a 65mm widescreen movie camera had been mounted aft of the tailplane completely out in the open, the cameraman operating this camera had to be well strapped in. Other cameras had been positioned around the bomber, in the waist gun positions, in the bomb-bay fitted to a telescopic arm was a camera that when lowered could shoot through 360°.

The interior of the Mitchell had been converted into a flying film studio, the cameras were all linked up to a bank of television monitors underneath the Aerial Unit Director’s perspex dome which was situated on top of the fuselage amidships, thereby permitting him to see exactly what each camera was filming, all of the cameras were linked up to a closed-circuit video tape machine, enabling instant playback of any particular scene whilst still in the air.

To add the finishing touches the cameraship was painted in an outstanding colour scheme, the forward fuselage was silver with white leading edges to both wings, the trailing edges of the wings were painted with six chordwise black & white stripes, the starboard rear fuselage and tailplane was dayglo green and the port rear fuselage and tailplane was dayglo red , hence Psychedelic Monster.

Back in the UK, Mahaddie was rounding up privately-owned Spitfires. Rolls-Royce’s Mk XIV was put under contract, providing (on the company’s insistence) a MoD pilot would be converted to fly that aeroplane only. Spitfire Mk IX MH434 was purchased from airline pilot Tim Davies, a pair of Tr IX trainers were leased from Tony Samuelson, Alan Wheeler’s Mk 1a AR213 was brought out of storage and put back into flying trim using parts from other Spitfires, the Shuttleworth Collection’s Mk Vc was restored to airworthiness and joined the film’s fleet.

It was apparent that a band of experienced pilots would be needed to fly these aircraft, so Mahaddie asked the MoD if a select group of pilots could be seconded to the film company, the pilots preferably coming from the Central Flying School. After some deliberation MoD came up with a list of ten flying instructors, all of whom had many hours experience of fighter type aircraft. They were led by Wing Commander George Elliot from RAF HQ Flying Training Command:-SILs M A Vickers, S St John Homer, 0 J Spink, 0 W Mills; FILs M R Merrett, OJ Curry, R O Coles, R B Lloyd, J M Preece. These pilots were to assume the mantle of RAF Fighter Command for the purpose of the filming.

With all the aircraft supplied by the MoD came a few, a very few German aeroplanes, in the early days of planning the film Saltzman and Fisz thought that the RAF may be able to supply all the airframes needed, this as they found out fairly soon, was not to be the case. From the Air Historical Branch came: Junkers Ju 88R-1 360043; Heinkel He 111 H-23 701152; Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2 10639 and Junkers Ju 870-3 494083.

It was proposed by the film company to make the Stuka aircraft airworthy, as it would be needed in the scenes when the Luftwaffe attacked the British radar stations early on the Battle. Initially the MoD refused permission to fly the Stuka, but as time went on and the film company proved they could safely maintain this vintage air force, the MoD relented and gave permission to restore the Ju 87 to flying standard, but by then it would have taken too long and cost too much money, so sadly the
idea was scrapped.

The movie still needed Stukas so Plan B was put into effect. Plan B being to convert three Percival Proctor training aircraft to resemble the dive bombers.

Vivian Bellamy, well known for his expertise with old aeroplanes and the ability to build convincing replicas (he had in the past rebuilt from two airframes Gloster Gladiator G-AMRK which now resides with the Shuttleworth Collection, he also operated the well known Spitfire Tr VIII G-AIDN for a number of years before selling it to John Fairey) was contracted to provide the Stukas.

Three Proctors were acquired by Mahaddie, G-AIAE, G-AIEY and G-ALOK. Bellamy set to work and very soon had a 2/3rds scale Stuka ready for the movie. Much reworking had been done to G-AIEY, the wings had been removed and the centre section gutted and replaced with a Ju 87 -style cranked wing centre section to which the outer wings of the Proctor were bolted back on. The long glasshouse type canopy of the Stuka replaced the standard canopy and the upright style of fin and rudder so typical of the Ju 87 was fitted in place of the usual version.

Bellamy flew the first of the scale Stukas and reported that the aircraft handled fairly well considering all the alterations that had been made. About the only manoeuvre not possible was the near vertical dive so characteristic of Stukas, the film aircraft not being stressed to withstand the amounts of ‘g’ incurred in this aspect of the flight envelope.

This led to a change of heart for the filmmakers and the scale Proctukas were not used, being replaced by large scale radio-controlled flying models which were so realistic that they actually dropped dummy bombs on the mocked-up radar station.

Over in Spain the film’s Aerial Unit were busy shooting the mass German fighter and bomber footage which would be intercut into the scenes shot in England with the Spitfires and Hurricanes. To give some continuity a sole Spitfire Mk IX was ferried out to Tablada and some shots of the Spit’ mixing it with the Messerschmitts and Heinkels were put into the can. This particular Spitfire was MH415/GAVDJ and for this task it was fitted with a long range fuel tank, ferried out from England by Vivian Bellamy and flown during filming by Lt Cdr M T Hynett.

Leading the Spanish Air Force pilots, flying the Bf 109s and Heinkels was Commandante Pedro Santa Cruz, a Spanish pilot of some note, flying in most of the inter-war aerobatic competitions and seeing active service in the Spanish Civil War. Santa Cruz later went on to become the Chief Test Pilot for the Hispano Aircraft Company, so he was well versed in flying the somewhat tricky Hispano Ha 1112 MIL Buchon.

Minor modifications were made to the Buchons to make them resemble the Bf 109E Emil, the variant in use with the Luftwaffe during the 1940 battle. Dummy cannons were fitted to the wings along with fake machine guns that were mounted on the upper nose cowling. Rear fuselage tail plane struts were fitted, these being one of the Emil’s distinguishing features.

Virtually no modifications were needed with the CASA/Heinkels (with the exception of the Merlin engines, of which not a great deal could be done) and like the Buchons a set of German markings complete with fictitious unit badges transformed the Spanish Air Force into the German Luftwaffe of 1940.

Two CASA-built Junkers Ju 52 trimotor transport aircraft were also loaned to the film-makers, these being used for the sequences at Berlin/Staken airport (actually Tablada airfield at night), and the scenes at the start of the movie when Dietrich Frauboes, playing the part of Fieldmarshall Milch arrives to inspect the assembled Luftwaffe in France (again, Tablada airfield).

In England, preparations were being made for the location shooting of the UK sequences, but maintaining a large fleet of vintage aircraft and keeping them all serviceable for the filming schedule was a mammoth task in itself. This was made much easier due to the hard work and expertise of John Simpson and his civilian engineers at Simpsons Aero Services, Elstree.

SAS was one of the first civilian aircraft maintenance companies to specialise in the maintaining and operation of warbird-style aeroplanes, bearing in mind that this was the mid-1960s and the interest in airworthy Second World War aircraft had yet to become commonplace. John Tubby Simpson was an expert on the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and was to be seen during the duration of filming travelling all over the UK in order to get unserviceable parts repaired and back on the film’s fleet of ageing fighters.

It was not unknown for John to remove an unserviceable radiator from one of the Spitfires, drive off to Dellaney-Gallay, the aircraft radiator experts, have the radiator repaired and fitted back on the aircraft the following morning ready for filming to proceed.

Although the B-25 Mitchell was the main camera platform several dogfight scenes were shot from an Alouette helicopter (G-AWAP), cameras were also fitted in the nose and dorsal turret positions of one of the Heinkels. One of the twin-seat Spitfires (TE308/G-AWGB) and the two-seat Hispano Buchon (G-AWHC) also had cameras fitted inside, the camera in the Spitfire being mounted in the front cockpit to give pilots-eye views of the aerial action, with the Buchon’s camera mounted in the rear section looking over the pilot’s shoulder.

For the first time in British movie history a piece of ‘official airspace’ was set aside for the film company’s use. It became obvious that to film the complex aerial dogfights and formations would take up a lot of the sky and the last thing the producers needed was other aircraft straying into the middle of the dogfights whilst they were being filmed. A stray Boeing 707 letting down into Heathrow in the background of a film shot would somewhat spoil the illusion the film-makers were trying to create.

So the Military Air Traffic Control Organisation allocated three specific lanes to the film company, each of which were ten miles wide and fifty miles long and, were situated over East Anglia, roughly pointing towards the East.

It was not until the aeroplanes took to the air that the producers realised what problems they would have to contend with, for never before, or since, have so many real aircraft been airborne together for a feature film. The filming in Spain which took place during March and April 1968 utilised 32 airworthy CASA-built Heinkel 111s along with seventeen airworthy Hispano-built Messerschmitts. Used in the ground scenes were a further ten Messerschmitt’s, six of which were able to taxi around the airfield and the remaining four being used purely as static ‘set dressing’.

With the end of the Spanish location shooting, two Heinkels, the seventeen Bf 109s, the Spitfire and the Mitchell camera-ship flew to England to put-on film the English sequences. Airborne in England for the cameras were twelve Spitfires. Despite today’s warbird preservation boom this still stands as a record number flying together in recent times.

The three Hurricanes also flew regularly for the cameras, particularly for the film’s opening scenes showing the withdrawal from France in May 1940, although some filmatic licence was used here, the actual location being the southwestern end of Duxford airfield suitably disguised as an airfield in Northern France.

Main problem in shooting the British aerial scenes was that the British weather would not let the pilots fly often enough. Each day they would all turn up for an 8am briefing, even when it was pouring with rain outside and there was no hope of flying that day. But the flying sequences had to be completed, the Aerial Unit was running out of time and money, so a brave decision was made to fly the aircraft down to the South of France for a couple of weeks, this move paid-off and the remainder of the air-to-air footage was filmed over the Mediterranean.

Late September 1968 and the flying was almost over for the film, with just a few shots to get in the can the majority of aircraft purchased for the film were put up for sale, the aircraft loaned or leased were returned to their owners and the filming of one of the greatest aviation movies in the history of the cinema came to an end.

The ‘Stars’

Airworthy Spitfires
Mk Ia AR213/G-AIST
Mk IIa P7350/G-AWIJ
Mk Vb AB910
Mk Vc AR501/G-AWII
Mk XIX PM631
Mk XIX PS853

Taxiable Spitfires
Mk Vb BL614
Mk XVIe SM411
Mk XVIe TB382
Mk XVIe TE311
Mk XVIe TE356
Mk XVIe TE384
Mk XVIe TE476

Static Spitfires
Mk Vb BM597
Mk IXc MK356
Mk XVIe RW382
Mk XVIe SL574
Mk XIX PM651
Mk XIX PS915
Mk F.21 LA198

Airworthy Hurricanes
Mk IIc LF363

Taxiable Hurricanes
Mk I P2617
Mk I Z7015

Static Hurricane
Mk IIc LF751

Airworthy Hispano Buchons

Taxiable Hispano Buchons (Spain only)

Static Hispano Buchons (Spain & the UK)

CASA 2111s (used in the UK)

Camera Aircraft
North American B-25J N6758D
Sud SA.318b Alouette 11 G-AWAP

Percival Proctors (Not used In final film)

Spitfires (Not used in filming, used for spare parts)
MK 1a K9942,
Mk XIV NH904,
Mk XIV RM694,
Mk XVIe TB863,
Mk XVIe TE184,
Mk F.24 PK724


Source: Article from Flypast September 1989

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