Writer and director Carl Hindmarch on his film and the events it documents.
What attracted you to this project? When I was a little boy I was fascinated by the second world war. There seemed to be a lot of it about, a lot of films seemed to be made about it, and until punk came along it was a dominant thing. I used to make model aeroplanes and paint them and hang them from my bedroom ceiling. I remember watching a film called Battle of Britain and thinking it was just amazing; terrifying and beautiful at the same time. There's this amazing scene in the film - which was made I think in 1969 by Guy Hamilton - in which a squadron of Polish pilots on a training flight stray into the middle of a full-on dog fight. The British officer in charge of the Poles orders them back to base and the Poles say 'repeat please' and one by one peel off and leave the British commanding officer to go and shoot down Germans. It's a classic scene, and a bit of light relief in an otherwise pretty bleak 'war is hell' film.
So, when I was approached to tackle the story for Channel 4 I leapt at it. It's a great 'underdog to top dog' story. The Poles travel hundreds of miles to escape the Germans and fight another day, are greeted with indifference and treated with disdain, only to prove themselves more than worthy combatants. Of course, at the start of the project I had no idea of the full significance of the Polish contribution; how vital it was, and how things might have turned out differently had RAF Fighter Command not used the Polish airmen in the Battle of Britain.
A key source for this film was the diary of Miroslaw 'Ox' Feric, who wrote about the exploits of 303 Squadron. Can you tell us
a bit about this?
The Polish Government in Exile thought - rightly - that it would be better to escape and fight another day rather than surrender in Poland. Polish airmen had been arriving in Southampton since end of 1939, and by the end of July 1940 the Polish Airforce had some 8384 men in Britain.
Feric was one of them. He'd left Poland when the Germans invaded and started his diary - he thought it would be interesting to keep a record of events. When 303 Squadron was formed, his personal journal became the unofficial squadron diary. He would pester the other pilots to write in it, to the extent that if they were shot down he would visit them in hospital with what one pilot described as his 'infernal book.' The diary is more like a scrapbook, it's full of newspaper clippings and photographs of things like the King visiting the squadron. He kept the diary throughout the Battle of Britain, and there are entries in English from the Squadron Commander Kellet and the Canadian who flew with 303, Captain John Kent. Most of the diary is in Polish, and much of its is quite heroic stuff - the pilots are incredibly patriotic and describe their actions against German aircraft over the skies of England. When Feric died, the diary was maintained in his memory until the squadron was disbanded in 1946. There are seven volumes of the diary all kept in the Sikorski Institute in London.
There is a lot of great flying footage in the film. Where is this from?
There is some interesting aerial combat archive footage from the second world war, but there's very little that features 303 Squadron specifically and much was shot after the summer of 1940.
The big challenge doing a film about the Battle of Britain is that the audience want and expect to see some decent aerial combat. There's no way our budget would stretch to Bruckheimer style CGI and we could hardly afford to fly one Hurricane let alone stage a dog-fight of any seriousness but luckily our archivist Paul Gardner was able to secure use of the next best thing, outtakes and b-roll from Guy Hamilton's 1969 classic Battle of Britain.
This was made pre-CGI - and something like 100 aircraft were employed, and the producers boasted they had assembled the 35th largest air force in the world. It was a wonderful resource.
What does the use of dramatisation bring to a documentary?
Well hopefully it can bring the past to life. That's the aim. To restore human emotion and personal detail to the broad sweep of history.
How much responsibility do you feel when dramatising the lives of people who are still alive, or whose friends and relatives
There's a huge responsibility. History is prone to generalisations, and the stories of real people a rarely simple. So it's a tightrope, but I think that's also one of the delights. In unravelling the lives of the Polish pilots and dramatising their personal stories - often in their own words - you can challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions. None of the 303 Battle of Britain aces are alive today, but we were fortunate enough to interview surviving Polish veterans and record their eyewitness testimony. Not just the fighter pilots, but bomber crew and ground crew. It was incredibly important and helped greatly to shape the whole film. For many it was a story they had wanted to tell for years.
One of the great by-products of making this particular film is that we were able to introduce the son of Feric to veterans who knew his father. Phillip Methuen is Feric's son, and he was one when his father died. He never knew his father, but through making contact with the various veterans we were able to introduce him to pilots who had known his father.
Do you think it's fair to say that 303 Squadron was the highest-achieving RAF squadron of the entire war?
I'm neither a military historian nor a statistician. However, there is a strong case - one that was made at the time and is explored in the film - that the outcome of the Battle of Britain may have been very different had it not been for the contribution of the Polish pilots and aircrew. Before the Battle of Britain the Nazi war machine was invincible. After the summer of 1940 that wasn't the case and many argue that the Luftwaffe, never recovered from its losses.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've just finished making a drama documentary about the hijacking by four Abu Nidal terrorists of a Pan Am 747 in Karachi. It's an eyewitness account - told from the point of view of a passenger who was on board and the man on the outside who was trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the the crisis.