The Model Aircraft of Battle of Britain

The Model Aircraft of Battle of Britain

The Model Aircraft of Battle of Britain

The story of how RC models ended up in the movie

By Jay Smith jays@modelaircraft.org Photos courtesy of Dave Platt

As seen in the July 2023 issue of Model Aviation.

If you were not aware that the Battle of Britain movie used RC airplanes in many of the flying sequences, don’t feel bad. A decision was made to keep it a secret; therefore, the team of model builders and pilots for the film were not identified. If you watch the credits for the movie, you won’t see their names. A look behind the scenes and at promotional photos around the time of the movie’s release—still nothing. You weren’t supposed to know that when you went to see the film, and many didn’t know even after they saw the film, which is a credit to the builders and fliers of the models, as well as the filmmakers.

Mick Charles’ Me 110 on the Duxford runway.

Mick Charles’ Me 110 on the Duxford runway.

 Jack Morton, Mick, Chris Olsen, and Dave Platt.

(L-R): Jack Morton, Mick, Chris Olsen, and Dave Platt.

Dave Platt

Dave Platt was a 5-year-old child living in Essex when war was declared. He remembers being interested in aircraft, and that he and his father would travel near Royal Air Force (RAF) bases to see the airplanes. Dave shared that some residents had air-raid shelters in their backyards, including his own. His father dug up the yard and the materials were provided. This was soon after war was declared.

"Every kid knew what a Spitfire, Messerschmitt, and Heinkel was. Every 5-year-old knew these things," he revealed. Dave began building model aircraft at around 7 years old. He started with "solid" model aircraft kits.

"I saw a kid in the local park flying a glider with a hi-start. This was in 1944. I asked him where he got it. He told me he’d made it and told me where I could get a kit for it. I went to the hobby shop and was enthralled with all I saw there.

"From the age of 10, in 1944, I gobbled up every copy of Aeromodeller as soon as it came out. From its pages, I learned everything about geometry, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry, etc.

"There would be three new designs with plans and an article by the designer explaining the reasoning behind the model, a three-view of some current full-scale airplanes, and a review of a new engine hitting the market, including horsepower and torque curves. Truly, a boy could learn more from a single copy of Aeromodeller than from a year’s worth of schooling.

"I also occasionally got to see a copy of Air Trails. What a treat to see the American side of the hobby."

Some of Dave’s accomplishments include:

  • 1957: Flew Control Line Stunt (Aerobatics) on the English International Team

  • 1966: Won the British National RC Scale event

  • 1972: Formed the original Dave Platt Models, Inc., with a partner and reformed the company by himself in 1975

  • 1975: Flew the world’s first successful ducted-fan RC Scale model of his own design in the US Nats

  • 1996: Inducted into the AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame

  • Served on the AMA Scale Contest Board for more than 20 years

  • Won numerous awards in major contests

The movie was released on October 20, 1969, and it was well received for its level of accuracy and aerial photography. Written by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex, the movie drew much of its inspiration from the book The Narrow Margin, written by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster. It was released in 1961 and it was considered by most at that time to be the best source in book form about the battle. Sadly, James was killed in a car accident and never got to see the completed film.

For those interested in learning more about the making of the movie, there is an excellent book available, Battle of Britain The Movie, by Robert Rudhall. The book is long out of print and commands a hefty price; however, it is soon to be republished as Battle of Britain The Movie: The Men and Machines of One of the Greatest War Films Ever Made. I had hoped to publish a review of the book in this issue’s "Worth a Closer Look" section of the magazine; however, the book has been delayed twice and is now slated for release on June 30, 2023.

Thanks to the help of Robert Tella, I have a copy of the original book that has a chapter on the models titled "Model Work." The book states, "It was obvious that a certain amount of model work would still be needed for the film’s extensive aerial dogfight sequences. Aircraft blowing up or crashing into the sea could not be simulated in any other way, apart from model form. Work with miniatures in previous aviation films had often left something lacking in the credibility department." The book continued, "It was in early 1967 that the decision was taken by the Battle of Britain’s producers to involve model makers in the films shooting."

Mick selects wood for the Me 110.

Mick selects wood for the Me 110.

Model maker John Siddal reached out to then-editor Ron Moulton, of Aeromodeller magazine for help identifying some accomplished builders/fliers of RC aircraft. He was given four names: Dave Platt, Mick Charles, Jack Morton, and Chris Olsen. The four agreed to take part and met on January 16, 1967, at Pinewood Studios in the U.K., to consider what would be accomplished regarding the use of RC models.

"When you see the Stuka attack on Dover, those are models. Sadly, we didn’t want to use models because all the flying sequences are for real, but the Stuka’s were nonexistent, and you just don’t start building airplanes. Films cost enough as it is."

—Bernard Williams, Production Manager Aerial Unit

The filmmakers initially had unrealistic expectations of what could be done on film. Dave Platt shared with me that they thought that "we were going to be able to have squadrons of aircraft flying overhead."

The four spent some time bringing the lofty and unrealistic goals back down to earth. It was decided that they would build a total of three aircraft throughout a six-week period, and then the aircraft would be flown for the cameras, to see if this was going to work for the film.

The modelers decided that 1/6 scale would be the best size for the aircraft, using the available equipment for the project, and that all the aircraft would adhere to that size.

Dave took on the Stuka, Mick handled the Messerschmitt 110, and Jack had the Hurricane. Chris worked with all three to assist on their aircraft. The modelers had to create their own plans and were provided with three-view drawings of the aircraft from Aeromodeller magazine. Dave shared that, at the time, the Stuka was the largest aircraft he had ever designed or flown.

The modelers were provided with a workshop, Kraft proportional radios, servos, Super Tigre 71 engines, and everything else needed to complete the models.

Dave works on the Stuka wing.

Dave works on the Stuka wing.

The Stuka was modeled after the RAF museum’s late-war Ju 87 aircraft that was going to be available for filming on the ground, but wouldn’t be flown. In fact, the filmmakers didn’t have access to any flyable Stukas for use in the movie. The correct model that would have been flown during the Battle of Britain was the B model. Dave matched his model to the fullscale aircraft using only photos. He never saw the actual aircraft.

Dave explained that it took the full six weeks they were given to complete the three models, and that the designers would also be the pilots. Of the Stuka, Dave said it flew perfectly on its maiden flight and handled just like a trainer. Mick and Jack also had successful maiden flights, and then it was time to start flying for the cameras.

"That was a big job because no Stuka existed, so the Stuka’s had to be radio-controlled models and miniatures for the radar towers that were placed at Dover and Deal, and good work was done by the model department." —Guy Hamilton, Director The modelers were taken to RAF Duxford, where the aircraft were flown from an actual runway. A converted Volkswagen bus was used, with one side removed so that the camera person could film from inside the bus. The pilots stood on the roof of the bus while it drove up and down the runway. They had a rail to lean on to help them keep their balance.

They flew the aircraft for the cameras for roughly a week. They would do some flying, watch the footage, called "rushes," in a small theater, and then continue flying as instructed by the filmmakers. At the end of the week, everything went according to plan and it was decided that the RC models were going to work for the film. It was agreed that roughly 100 models would be needed for the aerial sequences. Approximately a week after they began the next phase of construction, Dave made the difficult decision to leave the project to move to the US and take a job with Top Flite Models. Looking back, he told me that it was "the best job I ever had!"

Jack hand-carves a propeller.

Jack hand-carves a propeller.

Dave and Mick comparing balsa weights.

Dave and Mick comparing balsa weights.

Jack works on the Hurricane wing.

Jack works on the Hurricane wing.

Mick works on the Me 110.

Mick works on the Me 110.

Mick in the workshop.

Mick in the workshop.

Because Dave wasn’t involved in the movie beyond the original testing, and Mick, Jack, and Chris are Because Dave wasn’t involved in the movie beyond the original testing, and Mick, Jack, and Chris are were modeled after full-scale airplanes with retractable gear would also have retractable landing gear, but that idea was scrapped because of the complexity and added weight. Instead, a launch trolley system was used. When it came time to use the models for filming, they were shipped from England to Malta. When filming of the models was completed, most of them were burned in a pile to save the cost of shipping them back to England. A photo of the burning heap in the book is painful to look at! Beyond the RC models, some smaller Free Flighttype aircraft were built with electric motors. They were thrown out of the B-25 that was used for filming and crashed into the ocean or were set on fire. One of these "miniatures," a Hawker Hurricane with a 24-inch wingspan, survived and is currently for sale at The Prop Gallery for $29,884.04.

The website gives the following information: "This Hawker Hurricane filming miniature was built for the production for use in special effects shots which were not practical to achieve with genuine aircraft or with remote controlled models.

"The miniature is expertly constructed from fiberglass with a cockpit canopy of heat-formed acrylic and features a detachable engine cowling which reveal an electric motor and the original battery still contained within, this to drive the rotating front propeller and controlled by a switch concealed within the cockpit. The miniature also features several decals, which have been hand painted on paper and applied with the panel line detailing scored into the surface of the model, the remainder of the camouflage finish being expertly hand painted and weathered. There are various screws which could be removed to use as mounting points in addition to small holes to the wingtips used to rig and wire the miniature for filming."

"Every kid knew what a Spitfire, Messerschmitt, and Heinkel was. Every 5-year-old knew these things."

—Dave Platt

Models on the runway at RAF Duxford, where initial flight-testing took place.

Models on the runway at RAF Duxford, where initial flight-testing took place.

 Jack, Chris, John Siddall, and Mick.

(L-R): Jack, Chris, John Siddall, and Mick.

Nonflying, full-scale aircraft replicas were also constructed to be destroyed on the ground. It is also worth mentioning that the number of flyable aircraft that was assembled for the movie allowed the movie to have the 35th largest air force in the world at the time it was filmed.

Dave did see the movie in the theater upon its release and stated that he enjoyed it. He felt that the movie could have been improved with the use of a narrator to describe what was happening with the actual battle.

The Battle of Britain was the first battle in history to be fought completely in the air and took place between July 10 and October 31, 1940, after Britain refused to surrender to Germany.

Winston Churchill’s "The Few" speech sums up the contributions of the fighter and bomber pilots by saying, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

If you haven’t seen the movie Battle of Britain, I would highly recommend watching it digitally or purchasing a copy. One release includes two DVDs, with the second disc having a couple hours’ worth of bonus features.

Also, a big thanks to Dave Platt for sharing the story of the RC models that were used in the film, as well as providing several photos for use in this article.

As I was working on this article, Julian Tyler reached out and shared the following:

"I do have a connection to the film, as I grew up less than 10 miles from Duxford, where a lot of the movie was filmed and where the aircraft were based during the filming.

"My father had a company that supplied men and equipment to the film company and my brother was a driver for the Spanish pilots, picking them up from their hotel and transporting them to the film set each day.

"My father, who had been with the Royal Engineers in the British Army, was involved when they blew up one of the hangars at Duxford. He was also lucky enough to be invited to go to the film’s premiere in London.

"I was fortunate to visit the set one day and was amazed at the French Chateau built on the airfield and discovered that it was simply a façade. I also remember being at school (I was 14 in 1968) and watching the dogfights being filmed above us."

At the close of this article, I’m happy to be able to share details and photos of the people and the aircraft in the film. It is my hope that, after reading this, if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll quickly rectify that situation and if you have seen it, you have the urge to rewatch it!

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2 comments

I didn’t know the use of rc models in the movie was kept a secret as it was no secret to my dad; on the dad mom dropped me off at the theater dad told me to be on the lookout for the rc planes, he had read in a model airplane magazine that some were being used. As soon as I saw the stukas it was pretty obvious they were models.

Excellent summary!

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