Capturing historical reality on film: Battle of Britain

These are (lightly edited) topic notes I wrote for a unit I'm teaching into in a few weeks, HIST332/HIST432 History as Film. The basic format is that students watch a historical film chosen by an academic to fit a specific theme, who also gives a lecture and leads a seminar discussion on the film. My theme is 'capturing historical reality on film', and the obvious choice (for me!) was Battle of Britain (1969). The lecture will have rather less Barthes and Baudrillard and more bombers and Blitzes!

It may seem obvious that films shouldn't be confused with reality. We watch them precisely because they aren't real - they are escapist fantasies which take us away from our lives for a couple of hours. Wherever films take us, we know that when they are over we'll be right back where we started. But a large part of the reason why films are so brilliantly successful at transporting us in this way is precisely because of the way they are able to produce an illusion of reality -- what Roland Barthes calls a 'reality effect'. They appear real -- or even realer than real, hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase. So the question is perhaps, can we avoid confusing films with reality?

Generally, though, we aren't quite fooled by this apparent reality effect. We may willingly suspend our disbelief when we watch them, but only for a short period, not permanently. It's understood that the stories we watch on screen never happened and the characters within them never existed. Christian Grey is just as unreal as Imperator Furiosa. But there's an important exception to this rule, which is of course the historical film. These do try to depict actual events and actual people. The extent to which they do so in a way which would satisfy historians is, of course, highly variable, to say the least. But not everyone watching historical films is a historian, let alone one specialising in the events being portrayed. Inevitably then, some, perhaps most, people will come away from a historical film thinking that it does more or less represent wie es eigentlich gewesen -- 'how it actually happened' or 'how it essentially was', in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase. In other words the simulation replaces what it is simulating: hyperreality displaces reality.

This week we'll be looking at how one particular historical film, Battle of Britain (1969), works to represent and perhaps replace the history it portrays. As the title suggests, Battle of Britain is an example of a particularly popular subgenre of historical film we've already encountered in this unit: the war film. The historical Battle of Britain was fought over a period of several months in the summer of 1940 when it appeared to many that the fate of western civilisation hung in the balance, when only Britain (and the British Commonwealth) remained standing against Hitler. Having already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, the German army had just crushed France within weeks and ejected the British army from the Continent; Germany now controlled the northern coast of Europe from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape. A key element of this Blitzkrieg or lightning war was the striking power of the German air force, or Luftwaffe, to which Hitler now entrusted the task of battering the Royal Air Force (RAF) into submission and hence Britain itself. Against overwhelming odds, the RAF's fighter pilots repelled the Luftwaffe's bombers, saved Britain from invasion and inflicted the first defeat on Nazi Germany. Or so goes what is sometimes called the 'myth of 1940', which Battle of Britain both draws upon and passes on. A myth, in this sense, is not necessarily false; but its correspondence to wie es eigentlich gewesen is beside the point - it's how we want to believe it really happened. Much like hyperreality, in fact, and we might suggest that this is what makes historical films such compelling vehicles for the propagation of historical myths. (Think Gallipoli (1981) and the Anzac myth for another example.)

While the particular narrative of 1940 presented by Battle of Britain, both what it includes and what it leaves out (what of the Royal Navy? wasn't the Blitz worth more than a few scenes? was Britain really in danger of a military defeat in the summer of 1940?), it's interesting that few war films these days attempt to portray the big picture in the way that Battle of Britain tried to, telling the story of the whole battle from start to finish and from the point of view of the high command as well as the men (and women) at the sharp end. War films now tend to focus on smaller, more personal stories, for example Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Hurt Locker (2008) or American Sniper (2014). Yet individuals also feature prominently in Battle of Britain, as a way of humanising the grand narrative as well as -- not incidentally -- providing roles for a cavalcade of film stars intended to ensure the project's profitability. The commercial aspect of making historical films should never be forgotten; even where the desire to tell things as they really happened is present, the desire to turn a profit is usually paramount. A war film on such a big scale as Battle of Britain was an expensive proposition and its makers (who were partly responsible for the hugely successful James Bond films) made compromises in order to attract a younger audience with little direct experience of or interest in the war. But this did not mean that historical authenticity was neglected altogether; to the contrary, as S. P. McKenzie shows, Battle of Britain's producers went to great lengths to secure airworthy Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Heinkels, even modifying some examples when they differed too much from the types which flew during the Battle. (Supposedly, these aircraft constituted the world's 35th largest air force, albeit an unarmed one.) Whether or not this kind of attention to detail tells us much worth knowing about how it really was can be questioned -- it certainly did not rescue the film's financial fortunes (it only made a profit after more than 30 years, after being released on DVD). But whatever the motivation, and despite (or because of) the lack of CGI, the gorgeous vintage aeroplanes and the spectacular aerial cinematography clearly produce reality and hyperreality effects of the kind Barthes and Baudrillard talk about. Battle of Britain is still very watchable, easy to immerse yourself in and imagine you were there. From a historian's point of view, is that a problem? Or as Barthes himself argued, is this displacement embedded in the process of writing history itself?

These are the readings:

Tony Aldgate, 'The Battle of Britain on film', in Jeremy A. Crang and Paul Addison (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), pp. 191-206.

Mark Connelly, 'The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940', in We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004), pp. 95-127.

Brett Holman, 'Battle of Britain and the Battle of Britain', Airminded, 15 September 2006,, accessed 25 June 2015.

Martin Hunt, 'Their finest hour? The scoring of Battle of Britain', Film History, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2002, pp. 47-56.

S. P. Mackenzie, 'The big picture: Battle of Britain (1969)', in The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 75-97.

Richard Overy, The Battle (London: Penguin, 2000).

Robert J. Rudhall, Battle of Britain: The Movie (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2000).

Malcom Smith, 'Invasion and the Battle of Britain', in Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 52-69.

There aren't many reasonably scholarly secondary sources relating to Battle of Britain. Mackenzie is excellent, and there are one or two others, but I've had to pad out the list with texts relating to the Battle itself and to British memory of it (and even an old Airminded post). I'd be grateful if anyone can think of any others.

Taka taka taka taka taka taka taka...

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14 thoughts on “Capturing historical reality on film: Battle of Britain

  1. Much as I like the relative authenticity of the aircraft (and that they are not today's usual ghastly, misused, CGI) it is probably more important on the 'film as history' to note the following:
    - That the film was based on the most highly regarded and authoritative history at the time, Dempster & Woods' 'The Narrow Margin'. Additionally the film was unusual (for the time) in having a large number of souvenirs produced, not just the usual ephemera, but including branded versions of history books on the topic, including 'Margin' itself, as well as a 'making of' that included a good deal on the real Battle by Leonard Mosley

    - That there were several historical advisors, who had both been involved in the real Battle and had held roles enabling them to advise on strategy as well as personal detail - most notable was Galland, as a leader, and Tuck as a pilot, but there were others, such as the badly burned (bomber, not fighter 'boy') Bill Foxley acting and representing the 'Guinea Pigs', albeit Dr.Who-like 20 years older than he could be. (As Ross Mahoney would point out, some could not be there, such as Leigh-Mallory)

    - The German side was presented with remarkable care and honesty, filmed in German, with German actors and German advisors, even though some, like Bader, would not engage with this

    - Locations; from Dowding's own office and furniture at Bentley Priory being used; Aldgate tube station; East End slums during razing; to the actual Battle of Britain airfields, carefully back-dated (note how Duxford's post-1940 tarmac runway was carefully kept just out of shot in the aerial view of the bombing) and many more elements.

    Interesting too, that the 'thoroughly modern' film-makers of the time are as much a period history piece to us now as the film they see so separately as in the past. The film is in fact more distant to us in 2015 than the Battle was to the people making and seeing it as history in the late sixties. The Michael Caine narrated promotional short film 'The Battle for The Battle of Britain', 1969, starting outside the American Embassy London with a vox-pop of historical vagueness, is particularly notable for that, and can be used to skewer our easily adopted over-comfortable un-reflective 'modern, definitive' take on history, and 'old history films'.

    I'd take the point and say the mix of grand old high narrative and the participant's view say as much about about the changing historiography and culture in the 1960-70s where the former (kings, battles) was moving to the latter (individual private soldiers, home front*) as the film itself. Here, we got both, not one or other. And it was in the middle of a finite run the similar 'big scope' war films telling both the battle story and the story of the 'ordinary' participants - from 'The Longest Day' to 'A Bridge Too Far', using an 'all star' cast. (Profitability was indeed one reason for the stars; distinguishing among a large cast another, but in all cases the stars' cost made profitability much harder.) No 21st Century war film I can think of has attempted to do 'the whole battle', with any honesty** to the real history for budget, scope and political reasons.

    We are children of our eras, so I have little time for the small-personal films like the modern American war movies ducking the hard question of 'why', as much as I don't like the 'kings and generals' films prior to the 1960-70s period.

    And, to advocate for 'my (non academic) field'; credit where due. Academic S.P. Mackenzie used others' work, as he correctly and painstakingly footnotes, for all his information about the '35th largest air force'. The claim was from the film's publicity; the painstaking enumeration of every aircraft used and every scheme of each of them, plus the much reconstructed then (and thus later) filming schedule, plus the uncredited (hidden) model work was a combination effort by Peter Arnold, Gary Robert Brown (and many others, including many from the film crew) but mainly the principal man who worked for years and brought it together, the late Robert Rudhall. I am pleased to call all three friends, and so have a personal stake, but the academic's data was gathered, checked and published by dedicated non-academics. In fact, as for all three it was part-time work, essentially unpaid, so they qualify as 'amateurs'. The researching and writing undoubtedly shortened Robert's life, so for that reason his book, and the follow-up 'Battle of Britain - The Photo Album', (Worcester: Ramrod Publications, 2001) I particularly feel deserve careful credit as the authoritative sources they are.

    I hope that's useful!

    *Here all rolled into Sergeant pilot 'Andy', notably not an officer, and not a public school 'toff' - yet presented as a rounded character, not as previously the norm, a chirpy cockney sparrow to die at the command of the real (officer) person's direction.

    ** Junk like 'Pearl Harbor' are big scope, but small minded.

    My owned reading list:

  2. Chris Williams

    Very interesting stuff, the pair of you. Thanks for that. My main involvement with this topic was when I accidentally created a BBC radio series 'The Things We Forgot To Remember' (my working title was 'Things we ought to forget'). The topic which I wanted to dethrone was the myth of the BoB (in favour of an appreciation of the role of the Royal Navy, 75 years ago this week). The rest all followed from that. I went on to help make another three series of it while the Open University was still funding it, and the thing is still being produced. All because of that one topic. The irony here is that the myth of the Battle is as strong as ever. I suspect that the film has a lot to do with that.

  3. Thanks, Chris! All respect to the RN. But they weren't put to the test, because the RAF gave the Germans their first failed objective. But we're getting onto the real Battle, not the film. The film was a fair take on the history as understood at the time. (No Enigma, for instance.)

    Can we get to the appropriate programme you developed online somehow?

  4. Neil Datson

    May I, using Brett's hospitality, pass on my thanks to Chris for his accidental creation. Things We Forgot to Remember is one of the best series on Radio 4. Which, to do it justice, does have a lot of good history and cultural programmes. I've just checked the archive, and it seems that series 1 is the one and only series that the BBC has forgotten to remember, so presumably the programme on the RN and the Battle of Britain isn't available. Censorship? BBC bias?

    I haven't anything much to add about Battle of Britain. As a matter of fact I haven't even seen the film, which may be a unique distinction among regular followers of Airminded. However, any discussion of the interaction of history and film surely has to bring in Eisenstein's October 1917 / Ten Days that Shook the World. For my part I can't think of another that has so 'made history', in that it created rather than merely reinforced a false narrative which - and this is the crucial bit - subsequently became widely accepted. I'm pretty sure that footage from October 1917 has not only been used to illustrate history documentaries, but even as if it were documentary material.

    Any other ideas?

  5. I think you've got the main books, other than Robert Rudhall's other title and the actual film tie-ins mentioned above. I also have 'When Eagles Dared' by Howard Hughes, (really) I B Taurius, and 'From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun' Michael Paris, Manchester UP. I think they only make mentions, and the other titles will cover the ground more than adequately. But you know where I am for more!

  6. Post author


    I hope that's useful!

    Thanks -- it may well be useful to the students, if they find their way here :) I should have explained the purpose of the topic notes; they're not supposed to give a comprehensive overview of the topic, but to tie it to their required readings (Mackenzie and a book on film and history), to give them something to think and talk about and give them some pointers for the essay question. Which I also might have included: 'How does Battle of Britain work to represent historical reality?' I actually included some of the points you mention in an earlier draft, but deleted them because I felt it was making things too easy the students. Well, at least if they come here and read your comment they will have been doing some research! :)

    I like the top down/bottom up approach too, which is partly why I chose Battle of Britain (A Bridge Too Far was the other choice, but, well, this has more aeroplanes. The Longest Day sends me to sleep, for some reason.) I like other styles of war film, too. (Though I completely agree about Pearl Harbor!) But as you say these epics were the product of a specific moment in time -- something to do with the receding memory of the war and the need to not forget, the rise of a new generation with little direct connection to the war and the perceived need to go out all out to attract their attention.

    Thanks for the references; I owe you for the Rudhall one.


    You can't kill a historical myth -- just ask an Australian historian! All you can do is wait until the story it retails is no longer relevant. It seems likely to me to me that the film has helped to sustain the myth, as you suggest; again, another reason for choosing it. One of my colleagues is using Breaker Morant, which itself seems like it belongs to the past now; but I suspect it still has the power to teach that age-old lesson: never trust the Poms! :)


    Indeed you may use this page for that purpose and I would endorse your comments! I will sometimes use the phrase 'that's something we forget to remember' so I owe that to Chris too. :)

    You may well be right about your uniqueness here in not haveing seen Battle of Britain -- I would say it's worth a watch for the aerial combat sequences alone, but if you've managed to miss it thus far then you probably have good reasons for doing so! October is a good choice for an influential film in this sense. I keep coming back to the Australian films -- particularly Gallipoli but also Anzacs (a miniseries) and The Lighthorsemen, along with the aforementioned Breaker Morant, albeit that was about a different war -- which in the 1980s did so much to promote (not create, so much) a particular view of Australia and Australians in the First World War. And here we are.

  7. Kym

    I hate to introduce an anorak element, but even when I saw this as a kid it bothered me that the Bf-109s were replaced by Merlin engined Buchon from the Spanish air force.

    That killed the reality for me immediately, because the iconic fighter matchups just looked wrong.

    Perhaps I can blame the then ubiquitous war comics, which usually got the shapes right, even when the action was improbable.

  8. Post author

    Nothing wrong with the anorak element, and that actually points up part of what I mean about the film overwriting the history -- for most people watching the film, that is what Me 109s look like, precisely because their knowledge doesn't extend much (or any) further than the film. But for those who do know more (possibly to an obsessive level of detail, as some of us are prone...) that can actually be jarring. So the reality effect is not simply the creation of the filmmakers, it depends on the audience's access to or interest in alternative sources of information about history, too.

  9. The Hispano Buchons standing in for their older cousins the Bf 109E are the obvious anachronism in the film. But they're 'the one everyone knows', and I doubt have really distored the understanding of history as per Brett's suggestion. The CASA 2111s were also Merlin powered, yet their identically anachronistic engine 'look' is rarely noted in the same way. Is that more or less of an issue? The Buchons become a greater problem when footage from the 'Battle of Britain' film is used later in other places, because, I think, they are more unexpected there.

    However there are many more subtle changes from reality in the film that influence our understanding, for instance;

    - Only CASA 2111s as the He 111 bombers, no Ju 88 or Do 17Z bombers, narrowing the diversity of attack

    - The Ju 87 Stuka models are D/G not B type - the story is complex, but there was good reason for modelling later versions rather than the accurate mark

    - The Bf 110 models didn't make the cut, yet the Stukas did. Which ties in with Brett's point about how the film influences our understanding, and was driven by the filmmaker's inability to leave the Stukas out. The dive bombers are in the film, the heavy fighters aren't. A good example where film narrative and props distort historical detail

    - And my favourite. There were only three airworthy Hurricanes. In the 'Repeat Please' Polish Squadron scene, the background 'Hurricanes' are played by Buchons. The film company were very careful to keep this under wraps, and so isn't well known even today, and you really can't tell unless it's pointed out...

    They (Actually ex-Pathfinder Hamish Mahaddie, aircraft collector for the film, the [uncredited] modellers, and the mock up builders) did a remarkable job, considering. The opposite would a film with Spitfires in German markings and Buchons in British... It does exist.

  10. "(No Enigma, for instance.)"
    Actually the Enigma material of Summer 1940 is probably not going to transform our understanding of the larger Battle (IMO). There is plenty there but in the form of details rather than big "high command" stuff, for the most part — Bletchley Park only had limited capacity at the time, they weren't reading the high-level "Geheimsschreiber" traffic etc. I've done a couple of things with this material on my website ( but what it really needs is a sustained effort by someone (not me!) cross-checking thousands of minutiae against the best current knowledge of units, bases, personnel, orders of battle and so on.

    As for CGI in war films, it seems to be a rule that the techies doing it must be entirely ignorant of the aircraft they are depicting. It's CGI damn it, you could get every last detail right at no extra cost, but they don't. Nobody consults a readily available reference on paint schemes or the model of aircraft in service at a given date (cf. that Spielberg mini-series where B-17s in 1943-44 were being attacked by 1940-vintage Bf 109s with struts supporting their tailplanes). "Enemy at the Gates" had reasonable-looking Stukas but under each wing they had an entirely imaginary rack holding three slim and highly-streamlined bombs that had more in common with the kind of thing carried by F-4 Phantoms.

  11. Thanks Nick. I was trying to avoid diving into "it was the RN wot won it" debate, which isn't the topic here, but fair point re- Enigma. Real revision of the big picture remains unconvincing to me as to what happened rather than what would've happened next (but that's not the topiccc...).

    I think there's a couple of problems with the use of CGI, rather than the thing itself (which like any tool can be used well, and you then don't notice it). You've put your finger on one, which is bizarrely careless inaccuracy, for no good reason (especially noticeable where the rest of the stuff, models, actors, etc, are pretty bang on). The other problem comes in two parts of 'hyper-realism'. The first is the temptation to 'moar' it; more bank, more zoom, just because you can, but with the result it's just not physically credible. Notable (despite good advice and good real flying discarded) in the grim 'Flyboys'. The second is the desperate need to show it off. Rather than a quick flash and keep the story going, as Hitch recommends, there's often a temptation to either sloow-mo the thing or have camera angles zoom through windows, or, notoriously follow a bomb. One then has to not-so-much 'suspend disbelief' but trampoline it. A good example is the loving CGI filming of the technically credible XF-11 in 'The Aviator', which was just too much 'look at what we've made ~ now look as we destroy it'.

    Back to the 'Battle of Britain': you can fault the model and special effects work - but not because it's slowed down or lingered on. In a contemporary cinema, you'd be had pressed to spot any of the flaws on a first 'live' viewing which is all you got in 1969. No instant pirate or frame-by-frame advance. And you tell kids that today, and they won't believe you...

  12. ST

    There was some reference to cgi in the comments- pardon me for sounding like an "anorak", but what do people think of using CGI to modify the "Messerschmitt 109E" aircraft used in the movie (actually ex-Spanish AF buchons) so they actually look like the 109Es. From the windscreen forward, the buchon and the actual 109E have totally different profiles (due to the buchon being powered, ironically, by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine!).
    Historical accuracy- for the movie's subject matter, or itself as a medium? Which is more important? Which would you prefer?

  13. Interesting question. The tech bit first: The Hispano was a 109G airframe with the Merlin fitted. The film makers part clipped the wings (so it's neither as clipped as an 'E' nor rounded like the 'G') removed the Spanish wing guns and added fake wing and nose guns, plus 'E' type dummy tail braces; but they have the shallow, larger 'G' radiators underwing - and so on. All that could, indeed, be fixed on CGI. More important would be to show the Defiant, or the Bf 110, Ju 88 and Do 17 types all entirely absent, but where would you stop? Some Royal Navy? Enigma?

    Fiddling with the film CGI or otherwise has no real financial merit, and won't change the narrative - for a lot of effort, you'd be doing equivalent to colourising a black and white classic. The film stands, flaws and all, where it is. A remake would have different versions of the same kind of issues.

  14. Post author


    Coming back to this a long time later (sorry!), but I agree with JDK: the film is a historical artefact in itself now, and should be preserved as such (or at best restored to 'original' condition). Conversely, it's not a historical record of the Battle of Britain, and fiddling with minor parts of it to make them more accurate doesn't change that. Personally I'd find it jarring without the Nazi Merlins now!

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