Classical Break: Battle of Britain
Intro: RAF March-past, Davies/Dyson
Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme showcases the colourful Ron Goodwin score for the feature-film, Battle of Britain, made in 1969, directed by Guy Hamilton and produced by Harry Salzman.
The historical Battle of Britain represents one of the enduring legends of British involvement in the 2nd World War. Britain - and her Empire - stood alone; the salvation of civilization for the many rested on the actions of the Few. Spitfires and Hurricanes overcame odds of over four-to-one to defeat the armadas of Dornier, Heinkel and Junkers bombers and Messerschmitt fighters, day after day flying sorties in which their only advantages were the superior cause – the chain of radar-stations positioned along the South and South-east coasts of the country,and the tightly-disciplined plotting organization behind flight-controllers who ‘vectored them in on’ the enemy.
The brave defence of these islands by an RAF Fighter Command that faced the world’s mightiest airforce at full stretch throughout the Summer of 1940, was given popular dramatic treatment in this outstanding release.
A large cast of British (also Commonwealth, Polish and French) and German film-stars and fleet of Spitfires, Hurricanes, CASA bombers and Hispano Buchon fighters - Spanish licence-built Heinkel He 111s and Messerschmitt Bf109s – did battle in the air. Action was placed in a strong context of personal stories and a presentation of tactics and strategies on both sides. A well-recreated mise en scene on the ground gave more meaning to dogfights filmed from a converted B25 bomber of wartime vintage. Owing to vicissitudes of time and history, there were no still-flying examples of Dornier 17 – the Flying Pencil – and Junkers 88s, the other main Luftwaffe twin-engined medium bomber; no Messerschmitt 110 Destroyer escort-fighter – a twin-engined aircraft that, although heavily-armed and faster than a Hurricane, was so unmanoeuvrable and fragile that it, itself, came to need escort... The infamous Stuka – Ju 87 – dive-bomber was not available in the alloy, so to speak, and proved impossible to fabricate; however, it was shown attacking radar-stations and being hacked down by British fighters, thanks to the skills of a special-effects team, who were also responsible for fibre-glass models of all aircraft that were shot down or bombed on the ground in the course of this latterday campaign... On the British side, there are no Boulton-Paul Defiants – the Defiant was a vulnerable single-engined fighter with four-gun turret for armament; no Bristol Blenheim bombers either, though the Blenheim raided German general shipping and invasion-barges throughout the Battle, and became the first radar-equipped British nightfighter during the Blitz. No seaplanes or air-sea rescue craft were shown on either side. Even with these omissions, the film has considerable claims to authenticity.
Two stunt-pilots were killed during filming the aerial sequences, which emerged as possibly the most thrilling ever achieved in movie-history, marvels of formation and milling movement, all requiring split-second timing. It seemed as though no holds were barred. More about that anon.
Here’s the official Battle of Britain Theme, which you will hear at many points of the soundtrack, standing for squadrons of the RAF.
Track One: Battle of Britain Theme
Next, the Luftwaffe March, Aces High. This accompanies an inspection of bombers made by a Luftwaffe Airfleet-commander; a French airfield notable for the immense ranks of Heinkel twin-engined bombers drawn up wing-tip to wing-tip and standing on either side of the runway; guards take the salute as the band plays and the staff-car moves by. All the arrogance of spotless Teutonic
discipline, knife-edge creases and technical competence are on show, orders barked, the show dominated by inanimate power given life by one shared mind.
Track Two: Aces High
Right at the outset of the score, then, we have the music of two national sides. Also, we have a marvellous evocation of the air, military aggressiveness and gunfire, manoeuvre in a big, blue white-clouded sky. In the Theme, The RAF are identifiable with the bowmen of Agincourt – though they fly, and their aircraft carry eight Browning machine-guns in the wings. In Aces High, the Germans have a pastiche Bavarian-style march that possesses immense, tuba-grounded confidence and verve. Goodwin was a past-master at blending latino rhythms with timeless, English- sounding melodies, and a dab hand at counterpoint. His writing for the British showcases noble trumpets and horn, the rat-at-tat of snare-drum and high strings imparts a skip or skid of agility as certainly as it represents the bark or crash of machine-guns. The Luftwaffe Aces High March isn’t merely a matter of solid scoring and two Bier-kellerish tunes. You notice the economical piccolo, clarinet and deep brass running accompaniments – very decorative – and appoggiaturas that scrunch; the trio that bellows male fanfares. A pattern of two against three enlivens the rhythm. The blend of woodwind and brass is more than able, the harmonies are strong and the percussion, glockenspiel and side-drum, as splendidly confident: the return after the trio is adroit rather than to the same standard, but the effect remains strong. The third cue represents the sun-drenched day at dispersal on one of the main airfields of Eleven Group – where a flight from one squadron sit reading or chatting in deck-chairs, awaiting an alert.
After anxious string chords, the clear sky of leisurely strings swaying above pedal notes, and flecks of woodwind, is blue, the clouds drift: it is an almost yawning variation on the Theme ; it is as though a bird flies as the flute leaps high and warbles - this glassy effect of crystal fresh air is repeated as part of the aforegoing pattern; a more purposeful quality enters on cellos, a matter of a few stubborn, near-fanfare- like notes, only to subside in a reprise of dreamy leisureliness. The Lull Before The Storm.
Track 3: The Lull Before The Storm
Speed and punch open the next cue: Work and play begins with a brassy staccato - abrupt, savage machine gun fire. A lone British pilot is missing: he has gone up for an instruments or engine-check,
but really to encounter the enemy. A Messerschmitt 109 has accounted for him; it passes over a prone body left floating, still attached to an open parachute, in the channel. The Jagdflieger joins his friends after landing and taking a bath in the substantial surroundings of his comfortable requisitioned billet. The gemutlich tune that accompanies his return and hurry to get ready is a soulful, deeply German song without words; there is a slightly maudlin feel to its caressing, intertwining sounds of woodwind and sliding massed violins, the square-cut phrasing softened nigh unto bonelessness. It has been developed from the trio of the Luftwaffe March, of course. The victorious pilot and a friend are summoned with trumpets and Aces High-peremptoriness from professional discussion in a local bistro to a briefing . To get there, they’ll employ the locally-commandeered car in which they were about to go out on the town.
Track 4: Work and Play
Death and Destruction – the aftermath of a bombing-raid on an RAF Station: a very frequent scene during the Battle. RAF and WAAF personnel on the ground suffered fearfully. It is a little-known fact that the Aircraftmen – maintenance staff - at Manston struck, refusing for 15 days to come out of their shelters, when the Luftwaffe onslaught was at its height. The music here is as is due: no heroics. Jagged violins and violas, ostinato scalic figure of low woodwind and possibly a marimba, interspersed with fanfares –a brassy climax of horror – accompanying a rank of WAAF corpses lying under blankets in the film - and more sustained cello-deep emotion of shock and endurance.
Track 5: Death and Destruction
Briefing the Luftwaffe. Preparations for mounting any air-raid are intense: crews must know the likely weather-conditions, expected wind-speeds at the heights at which they must operate, the areas of most enemy activity on the flight-path, besides the other all-important details of formation, rendez-vous points between bombers and escorts – and target. Having shrugged off the brazen Aces High motto in short order, this cue is no more than a close-harmonied, narrow-themed ostinato, stiff, stalking, remaining until the louder close at mezzo-forte: warning brass, mainly horns and harsh trumpets, punctuate it and end it with a crotchet and triplet. The pit of one’s stomach knots to take that curt blow.
Track 6: Briefing The Luftwaffe
After a brassy but hollow chord dissonant with what follows, The Prelude to Battle juxtaposes the leading motif of the RAF, dropping or rising scalic figures, the dropping figures with harp, a climbing bass urging excitement higher, a sense of the Briefing music now mounting with bursts of trumpeting aggression from the British.
Track 7: The Prelude To Battle
Victory Assured. Based in Norway, which the Allies had lost to the Nazis a few weeks before the collapse of France, the bombers of Luftflotte Links made one confident daylight raid on the North of England. They ran escortless into the delighted arms of Fighter Command in spite of Luftwaffe Intelligence’s joke that “Even a Spitfire can’t be in two places at once.” The bombers were met as they moved in stately formation and high assurance over the North Sea. Slaughter ensued. Deutschland uber alles, one feels, is in Goodwin’s themes of gemutlichkeit and Aces High, march and trio; they move in solemn certainty – to meet an upward scale and sudden rat-tat-tat cadence.
Track 8: Victory Assured
Defeat. Here, like the CD, we conflate two scenes. A lone Heinkel bomber labours home, streaming smoke from an engine, its wounded gunner-bomb-aimer writhing in the fully glazed nose of the plane. Often, it was possible to get home on one engine, so long as one had plenty of height. Luftwaffe medium-bomber crews were all grouped, pilot, navigator and gunners, in the front of their aircraft for the sake of morale. All the armour-plate was concentrated to the rear of the cockpit save for a strip in the undernose gondola from which a gunner, prone, fired the ventral gun (his position was known as the deathbed). Under frontal attack, four men could be killed or wounded in a single burst of accurate fire through Perspex no thicker than household glass. One had a magnificent view of what killed one. In Goodwin’s music, the downward trajectory of the bomber as it crosses the sea is caught with a repeated falling figure and, derived from the Briefing music, checked sequences relentlessly repeated, violins screaming, oboe and clarinet writhing, the onward flight sustained intermittently by the same now menacing phrase of Aces High. At last, the plane crash-lands behind the defences of Fortress Europe. The pilot, a shocked bystander, watches as fire-crew try to cut his wounded friend free of the wrecked cockpit of their aircraft – and finally turns away.
Track 9: Defeat
Hitler’s Headquarters. Berlin. A brief, melodically and colouristically self-explanatory cue.
Track 10: Hitler’s Headquarters
There follows a qualifiedly romping return for the victorious Few – ending in uncertain strings tremolando .
Track 11: Return To Base
Life in Berlin goes on – without blackout: until the first British night-raid – a retaliation for the accidental bombing of London. From now on, cities, especially Great Britain’s capital will be the target, and wiped-out.
Track 12: Threat
Hitler’s revenge in turn was the beginning of the Blitz. Evacuations limited the death-toll among civilians only a little. The film shows that some families stayed unnecessarily, and were killed. Goodwin depicts the human cost and fire and rubble, the efforts of ARP and Fire-Brigade units to save people and buildings in spare, daunted strings-lyricism, baroque string-runs shaking themselves out over darkness and destruction, a discord tutti, malign harp caresses and a detached whimper from twinned flute and oboe that seems to stand for the eternal last exclamation one did not hear from one’s child...
Track 13: Civilian Tragedy
The Blitz was one of the two great blunders that saved Britain – the repeated bombing of radar-stations and airfields (and as not shown in the film, factories) was increasing the disorganization and demoralization of the RAF: now the Germans attacked the civilian population instead. Offensive Build-up is a cue that begins with a brief trumpet-fanfare: at Fighter Command Headquarters: looking out on the glow of London burning, Air Marshal Dowding, Commanding Officer, comments, to warm major- and upward-tending sequences coloured by the strings, that the RAF may now regroup and survive: for the first time, German efforts will be predictable and limited in the main to their assault on London. The whole remaining weight of Fighter Command numbers can be concentrated on intercepting large but localized formations.
This vision is followed by the aerial mixture as before: climbing orchestral measures punctuated by RAF fanfares – and the triumphant statement of the Battle of Britain Theme, percussive edge honed. It ends abruptly.
The other great blunder? The Messerschmitt 109 had swooped down on climbing attackers, hunting freely in advance of their bombers – the Frei-jagd, the German fighter-pilots called it. Now, they were ordered to stick by the bombers – in practice, this meant that their Schwarme – or swarms of four aircraft - kept to a fixed height above their charges until engaged in the battle below them, zigzagging in flight as this was the only means of flying at the bombers’ cruise-speed. Fighter-pilots knew that acceleration, preferably in a dive, was the key to attacking aircraft of similar sprint-performance. The Messerschmitt was fast, but not that fast. The initiative was lost, the vital couple of seconds. At the heights most combats now took place, the 109 had very slight edge in acceleration or no edge at all, and both the Spitfire and Hurricane could out-turn it: to pounce had been its pilots’ best hope of destroying RAF interceptors – knocking down perhaps a section of unwary climbers in a single firing pass before zoom-climbing to gain height and attack again...
Track 14: Offensive Build-up
Track 15: Attack
Fire killed and injured horribly a great many fliers on both sides. The science of the treatment of burns and skin-grafting made huge strides – in the terms of the day. One of the film’s chief characters, a Canadian pilot, is seen to bale-out – allright... But his aircraft was a flamer. In Personal Tragedy, his Wife, a WAAF-officer is told that “they can do miracles these days.” There is ashortened reprise of Civilian Tragedy.
Track 16: Personal Tragedy
We reach possibly the greatest-ever evocation of air-combat in all music. Sir William Walton was the first choice of composer for The Battle of Britain. At the age of 66, he proved unable to create a viable score, even with the assistance of that great composer for concert-hall and films, Sir Malcolm Arnold. Sad, this, given his brilliance in providing the music for Lesley Howard’s film, First of The Few, of 1942. Remember Spitfire Prelude And Fugue? His music for The Battle of Britain was largely rejected. You must take on trust from us, that it is too lacking in breadth or real engagement, stuck in a groove of waspish portrayals of aircraft, Façade-like attempts at popular music (surely anachronistic in 1940), and interminable repetitions of Siegfried’s horn-call from Wagner’s Ring. It is too small-scale, too scherzando-ish. And yet, how to describe his Battle In The Air? This cue was used to accompany combat on the Battle’s climactic day – September The Fifteenth, now Battle of Britain Day. It accompanies a scene that is otherwise almost entirely mute, during which individual fates on both sides are summarily sealed. All the unfortunate score’s mannerisms save ‘20s giddiness are concentrated in it, this nightmare, stabbingly fearsome, unnervingly complex piece, which, possessed of razor-sharp wit, portrays in full the split-second timing and terror of this form of war. It begins in hollow deep woodwind and string tremolandos of irresolution, succeeded by oscillation in cello-harmonics – contrails above one? –into which swoop the measures that prove to be a refrain; an accelerando hastes one into the fight; jerking bursts like gunfire bring on more feverish panic. Flutter-tongued trumpets and horns, rapid Elgarian runs on trombone and stabbing wasplike sounds, strings and brass – and off one goes into the refrain – and so on for four minutes.
Imagery stays in one’s mind – aircraft swooping, rolling, firing, white glycol-vapour or fire streaming from an engine. Two sprog pilots go down, one drenched in sweat and shaking in terror as he tries to slide back his canopy – it sticks fast, the Spitfire, wreathed in flames, explodes - the other wincingly unable to leave his diving aircraft as he has been shot through the thigh, a WAAF voice from the control-room trying to raise him on the radio till the moment that his Spitfire hits the sands below... A German pilot peers as his windscreen fills with black oil thrown back from a damaged engine – his Messerschmitt banks and blows up. Another RAF pilot turns his aircraft upside-down (textbook, this), to bale out – he trails a long, glaring white ribbon of harness and goes on falling... A Heinkel is hit in both engines; goggles down, the crew hastes to leave it – the last man struggles, straining every sinew as the dive deepens, to reach the escape hatch. He fails as all is ending in a terrific rising minor scale, a tutto expressing the awfulness of this death, all death in war – it is a climax that loses none of its force from being the single most famous mannerism of Sir Malcolm Arnold in comedy film-music mode. The Heinkel breaks up on the sea.
Track 17: Battle In The Air, Walton
Garlanded gaps at the dinner-table cause weary silence among Luftwaffe fighter-pilots. The arrangement of Aces High, shorn of trio and played slowly on trombones-dominated brass speaks volumes, becoming something like one of those solemn Aequali for brass-ensemble and cathedral-performance, at which German composers of the 16th and 17th centuries excelled.
Track 18: Absent Friends
The Battle of Britain ends for the film as the Luftwaffe fail to show up one bright morning. There is no rejoicing, only a sense of personal exhaustion.
The Plum, spam and Raspberry Jam march written for the end-credits by Walton is sometimes used before the end-credits in prints of the movie. It sounds like the trio of Orb and Sceptre and is undoubtedly rousing so far as it goes, but curiously detached in context, like a book of remembrance that leaves out the Sergeant-pilots. 1960s Welfare State idealism is brought to bear by Goodwin. After Luftwaffe fanfare and shocked Somewhere-in-England string chords dug in deep, a superb crescendo builds and his reprise of his Battle of Britain theme in full panoply seems near to bursting with due brazen pride and considerable folk-songish heft – the New Elizabethan expression? - the woodwind carolling in old-world, bowmen-and-yeomen exultancy, vying whirlingly with rich, sustained brass, the staccato, latino drive of his Browning machine-gun-music breaking out, and brought to heel before the unstoppable, percussion-based close!
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, based on the soundtrack of the United Artists film, The Battle of Britain, was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again soon. “This is Red Leader, I see ‘em! Tally-ho! -Attacking, now!”
Track 19: Battle of Britain Theme – End Title