Of Spitfires and Martial Music

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Sometimes, I just hate YouTube.

My video on the Collings Mustang elicited some comments and e-mail on the Spitfire being the iconic fighter of World War II, not the Mustang. Well, whatever. My view is that the Mustang might not have been the best air-to-air fighter, but it earned its stripes with its exceptional range, allowing the allies to carry the offensive fight deep into Germany, something the Spitfire never did in force. Feel free to debate this among yourselves.

Meanwhile, clicking around various links looking for a list of Spitfire variants led me to discover that one of the great World War II flying movies of all time, The Battle of Britain, exists in segments on YouTube. Naturally, I had to watch it, and three hours later, I've got squat to show for it, save for this blog. What I found interesting about the film, which I haven't seen in years, is how effectively it tells the story. Some of the air combat scenes are terrific, some are hokey, given the special effects limitations of the day. (The recently released Red Tails is more spectacular in that regard, but not as effective in framing the story.)

The Battle of Britain film makers had an actual air force to work with, specifically Spain's, which, in 1969, was still flying CASA-built variants of the Bf-109 and the Heinkel 111 medium bomber that played central roles in the actual Battle of Britain. The real strength of the story telling happens in supporting scenes on the ground, with dialog illuminating how closely run the entire battle really was. It also highlights the limited range of early World War II aircraft. Operating from forward bases in France, the Bf-109 had 10 minutes of duration over London and in interviews, famed Luftwaffe ace Adolph Galland, said dozens of fighters were lost to fuel exhaustion over the channel on the trip home.

If you've seen the movie, you probably remember that rousing march in the opening scene, which was composed by Ron Goodwin specifically for the film. It's called Aces High March. Evidently, even though it's supposed to evoke German martial music, it was played popularly in the U.K. after the film appeared and may still be. Lost in the links, I found one other interesting fact about music scores for World War II movies. Another classic, The Dam Busters got its own march by the same name. You'll recognize it if you saw the movies and we all have. Improbable as it seems, the rock group Jethro Tull, one of my favorites, covered the song during the 1970s.

Who knew? Thanks to be my lost afternoon, you do now.

Comments (29)

haha - thanks, Paul. Ron Goodwin's compositions are wonderful - "633 Squadron" is another of his great, stirring pieces. I didn't know about Jethro Tull (a band I've seen live more than once) covering the BoB theme - brilliant. thanks for wasting your afternoon to bring us this! :-)

Posted by: BOB GILCHRIST | February 22, 2012 2:22 AM    Report this comment

The Spitfire gets all the credit for the Battle of Britain Victory, but the most effective Fighter in that particular episode, with the most kills was the Hurricane.

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | February 22, 2012 5:46 AM    Report this comment

I agree about the Hurricane. There is a book, by Richard Hough, a British author, called "The Fight of the Few". It's a piece of fiction, but on the back of the jacket cover it says, "A photograph of the author, next to his Hurricane, on his 21st birthday. On this day, he shot down 2 ME-109's, with an additional probable". The Hurri was limited in endurance, and had to have the right circumstances, but in those circumstances, was deadly against the 109.

Posted by: LARRY BOWDISH | February 22, 2012 7:36 AM    Report this comment

Yes about the Hurricane but there is still nothing that gets the heart beating faster than the sound of a Spitfire roaring down the runway.

Flying out of Filton Bristol we encountered several times the locally maintained Spitfire and Hurricane. Once when landing I hear over the radio the Controller saying "Merlin pull up pull up Merlin". I felt the vibration before I heard it as the Spitfire flew a few feet above me taking off again.
Airbus was at Filton and we could hear and see the Spitfire and Hurricane taking off and landing many time.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 22, 2012 9:30 AM    Report this comment

I understand that the Spitfire (maybe the Hurricane, too) didn't have a pressure carburetor; at reduced or negative "g", the engine would cut out. That would sure limit dogfighting capability. Jim Patton

Posted by: James Patton | February 22, 2012 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Damn you, Bertorelli. There goes 3 of my hours, too.

Posted by: Scott Dyer | February 22, 2012 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Several years ago I was flying into Burlington NC, and suddenly realized the plane in the pattern in front of me was a Hurricane. Wow!

I have watched the BoB movie a couple of times. I just wish it had the subtitles of the German conversations.

Posted by: Richard Montague | February 22, 2012 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Google Miss Shillings orifice.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2012 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Interesting addenda...A lot of the daily rushes from BoB have resurfaced recently. If you think the movie's long, imagine some 10 more hours of air to air shots featuring all your BoB favourites. I'm not sure where to find them though. I saw some at a presentation by gentleman from the Royal Aeronautical Society - and they're awesome.

Posted by: David Foxx | February 22, 2012 4:32 PM    Report this comment

Yeah, I almost got fired today. I forgot what a great movie that was.

Posted by: john rued | February 22, 2012 5:47 PM    Report this comment

I seem to recall the original had subtitles. I think the YouTube letterboxing clips them. The famous scene with Galland asking for a squadron of Spitfires is subtitled.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2012 6:12 PM    Report this comment

I suggest that whatever the relative merits of the Mustang and the Hurricane, it is the Spifire that is the most iconic, in the sense that it is the figher most associated in the public mind with the BOB and WWII in general.

That may just be on this side of the pond, and Paul's point on the Mustang may correctly apply to your side.

Posted by: Paul Treuthardt | February 23, 2012 6:35 AM    Report this comment

Yeah, but God is on our side....:)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 23, 2012 6:58 AM    Report this comment

I was in graduate school in Cambridge when they were shooting the BoB scenes based out of Duxford, 10 miles south. Almost every day that summer we would see squadrons of Spitfires and Bf109s wheeling overhead. The hangar "bombed" in the movie turned out to be a historic building (1919, one of the oldest in Britain), and the remaining Duxford hangars were given protected status. Now, of course, a big aviation museum.

Posted by: JOHN KALLEND | February 23, 2012 8:16 AM    Report this comment

I saw the BofB movie in a theater with a flying buddy when it came out. I recall being surprised by an instinctive stick and rudder movement in one of the scenes shot from the cockpit view. Don't recall what reaction that got from the person seated in front of me.

Posted by: David MacRae | February 23, 2012 9:40 AM    Report this comment

While flying Herc's on a European rotational assignment out of RAF Mildenhall many years ago, I visited Duxford during a few days off the flying schedule. One of my fondest memories was spending an entire afternoon in one of the back hangars talking with an old gentleman who was working to restore a clipped wing Spit optimized for the ground attack role. The Mustang had a similar variant known as the A-36 Apache.

Posted by: Steve Mott | February 23, 2012 10:39 AM    Report this comment

The 1969 version is on YouTube in about 14 parts. Probably bootlegged and just not policed.

Various sources seem to have it. Try cduniverse.com for a start. Post production licensing is something I have never understood. Some films get out there and some don't. The Longest Day, for example, doesn't seem widely licensed nor The High and the Mighty, to name two.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 23, 2012 10:40 AM    Report this comment

I was at Duxford (south of Cambridge) in 2004 and saw the concrete pad where the burned-down hangar used to be. One of the workers there told me that there was a "misunderstanding" between the airfield and the movie producers, and that the hangar was NOT suppossed to be destroyed but the movie people did it anyway much to the dismay of the airfield custodians. Afterwards, he said there was quite a row between the parties, but there was nothing that could be done...

Posted by: A Richie | February 23, 2012 11:14 AM    Report this comment

The weak points of the movie are:
(1) They failed to make the point that the British
were building and repairing the Spitfires and Hurricanes faster than the Germans could shoot them down. This was due mainly to the Morris Automobile
Company and planning ahead before July 1940. Also the Hurricane (70% or the fighter force) was VERY
easy to repair. Thus the shortage was in available, experienced pilots. They got 166 pilots by transferring pilots from the ferry command as they recruited 166 women pilots (33 of them were American). They also got more men from the ferry command by using many men from WWI, crippled (1 arm,
1 eye, 1 leg etc.) Anyone how could fly any one of 7 types (5 were bombers) could join the ATA (jokingly called the "Ancient, tattered airmen")
(2) The Germans were NOT replacing fighters as fast
as they were shot down, shot up, or ditched in the
channel due to running out of gasoline. The RAF
started as "the few" but the Germans soon became
"the few".
(3) the bomber crews forced the German command to require the fighters to stick with the bombers.
That made the fighters less effective.
(4) lack of range of all German planes meant that
the aircraft factories were quite safe from bombing.

Posted by: Arleigh Hughes | February 23, 2012 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Duxford was, of course,the BoB fighter station where Douglas Bader was based. The "Duxford Wing" was a bone of contention between Leigh Mallory and Dowding. When I lived in Cambridge I used to fly R/C models at Duxford. That was before the War Museum moved in.

BTW, Paul Bertorelli, if you're reading this, we have skydived together!

Posted by: JOHN KALLEND | February 23, 2012 1:44 PM    Report this comment

John, I recognize your name. Can't recall the venue. World Team?
Some other big way?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 23, 2012 3:33 PM    Report this comment

Add the following to the list:

"633 Squadron"

"Piece of Cage" -- about an RAF fighter squadron in France during and following the German invasion in 1940. "Piece of Cake" is also one of the best flying films ever made.

"Twelve O'Clock High" -- Another candidate for best flying movie of all time

"The High and the Mighty"

"Strategic Air Command" -- the theme from the old Jimmy Stewart movie

"Bombers B-52"

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | February 24, 2012 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Paul - I can't speak to The Longest Day but "The High and the Mighty" was one of two John Wayne films caught up in a legal "rights" battle for decades and thus not publicly released. I once purchased a 'bootleg' copy for myself and my Dad and it was a copy of a copy of a copy of a --- well suffice it was horrible. It was only a few years ago that this battle was settled with the Wayne family and the movie was released - AMC celebrated by showing it repeatedly over a one week period. (The other Wayne film involved was "McClintock!"

HuluPlus has episodes from a documentary series called Battle Ground and at least two episodes are on the real BoB with some great actual footage, interviews with actual pilot participants and another great piece of martial music "Rule, Britannia."

Posted by: Glen Moyer | February 27, 2012 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Finally found The Battle of Britain movie--Netflix doesn't have the 1969 version, but it's out there. Having seen a later remake recently, I can say the 1969 version is definitely superior and worth looking for if, like me, you don't enjoy watching movies on YouTube.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | February 27, 2012 11:39 AM    Report this comment

By the way, in the works is a new version of the story. Interesting possibilities, but the 1969 effort will be hard to top.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 27, 2012 2:11 PM    Report this comment

Got that right Paul, especially the lovely Susannah York !

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | February 28, 2012 5:36 AM    Report this comment

Rayburn Thompson bought a gate keeper Spitfire that had been in Holland. He drilled out all 11,235 magnesium rivets and replaced them with aluminum. He researched the Spitfire production history and learned that factory workers had gone on strike during the BoB because management had eliminated their tea break. The workers would mull around outside the factory and watch the BOB for real. He further commented that the designers would require a bolt tolerance of 0.01 mm and that this was impossible to achieve. The designers were of a social class that prevented them from actually talking to the workers about specifics. Rayburn also had a Jap Zero.

Posted by: Dudley Fort | February 28, 2012 4:14 PM    Report this comment

The Spitfire's KILL RATIO was higher than the Hurricane. The Hurricanes shot down more Germans because there were more of them there.

Still nothing like 16 Spits rolling off the field together in a Scramble - search YouTube with this phrase:

Battle of Britain 70th Anniversary Duxford graemejwsmith

Pick High Rez and turn the volume up

Posted by: Graeme Smith | May 1, 2012 3:33 PM    Report this comment

Good Film Graeme, love the sound

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | May 2, 2012 5:54 AM    Report this comment

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