The Battle of Britain is one of the most important events in the history of Britain. But understanding those who were there, who fought, suffered and endured, allows us not only to understand those events, but connect us directly to those ‘few’ who gave so much not only to the many, but to all future generations.
Oral traditions and storytelling have been a vitally important human act for thousands of years. The passing down of stories from one person to another enriches our lives, and allows us to connect with and to learn from those who have gone before us. When those memories are recounted by those who have directly experienced events that have shaped our history, they become not only important historical records, but also provide a direct and unique insight into what it was actually like to be there.
From my own personal experience, audiences connect with content that they can relate directly to. When people discuss their feelings and emotions to events, it can make the viewer stop and think about how they themselves would react if they were placed in the same situation. It can also change abstract historical events into real life situations, with those who were there turning a cold historical analysis into a truly human experience.
The audio archive held by the Imperial War Museum is one of the institutions greatest assets. It allows anyone, from academic researcher to the casual listener to listen to the voices of those that have experienced conflict across the globe. My own introduction to the archive occurred whilst I was searching for content related to the British Army’s experience in Shanghai in 1937. From this I began listening to the memories of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, who served with the Royal Ulster Rifles during the Battle of Shanghai. His memories were both fascinating from a historical point of view, but also provided a powerful personal insight into his own thoughts and feelings. Many of the characters I was researching hadn’t left a written account of what they had experienced in Shanghai, however through hearing Otway’s stories I immediately felt more connected to them.
Lieutenant Colonel Otway is more famous however for leading the assault on the Merville Gun Battery on D-Day. These stories were also contained within the archive, and as I listened I was fascinated in him describing, as a commander, the background to critical decisions he made that day that impacted the battle to take the gun battery. This led me to listen to other veterans’ stories, and what hit me was not only the subjects they were describing, but also the emotions conveyed in their voices. One of the most powerful was John Clegg, a Royal Marine landing on Gold Beach. As he described the emotions of landing on the beach, he states “you know that, whoever is on the other side of that beach, is going to try to kill you.” This is an incredibly powerful statement in itself, but as you listen to John speak it’s clear he is thinking back to that precise moment, when the reality of being in that situation, of being required to fight for your life alongside your comrades.
I was determined to make use of this incredible resource, using animation to illustrate and illuminate the testimony of the veterans. To this end I was aided by my brother Matthew Davidson, a talented artist and illustrator who works under the pen name FRWLx. From the audio we created 3 short animated films that could be easily consumed across social media. The films were released on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and were very well received.
Through our filmmaking exploits we were delighted to be invited to talk about our use of the archive at a series of meetings organised by Imperial War Museum’s Subject Specialist Network. This was a unique opportunity to speak to likeminded people about how to utilise and reimagine archive. From this we were commissioned by the SSN to produce a series of four short films utilising the voices of veterans to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
The beauty of the audio archive is that its interview subjects cover a vast variety of roles and specialisms. Although to many the image of the Battle of Britain is the brave British fighter pilot, the truth is that they are only one part of the story. Our research led us to four subjects, whose experiences covered a number of key aspects of the battle. The first was pilot officer Ronald Beamont, who described vividly what it was like to fly in combat fighting alongside your friends, but also exactly why he was risking his life on a daily basis, to help save Britain from invasion.
Our second film focused on Radio Direction Finder Plotter Edith Kup, who carried out vital work plotting the movements of German aircraft which allowed RAF squadrons to intercept enemy formations. The third film focused on the story of Polish fighter pilot Eugeniusz Szaposznikow, who had an incredible escape from Poland and joined the ranks of pilots from across the world risking their lives to protect Britain. Our fourth and final film focused on the memories of the Blitz from Eileen O’Sullivan, which was recorded and shared by SSN member RAF Museum as part of their RAF Stories project.
We were also privileged to be granted access to the Imperial War Museum’s extensive photographic and film archives. Many of our recognised iconic images of the Battle of Britain come from the photos and film preserved within this archive. We therefore focused on finding images and footage that would support and illustrate the narrative, whether this was showing plotters tracking German aircraft movements on a map, or aerial combat between fighter aircraft. We then mixed in these images with our animations, again created by my brother Matthew Davidson. Through this animation we were able to recreate visually some of the descriptions taken from the audio, from British fighter aircraft desperately attempting to take off during a bombing raid, or of a city glowing orange from fires caused by bombs dropped during the Blitz.
What also became clear was the incredibly powerful emotion contained within the accounts. I believe it’s important to allow the veterans to convey their true feelings of what it was really like to be part of these remarkable events. Edith described the trauma of hearing the voices of the pilots through her headphones in the ops room as they fought for their lives in the skies above. Eugeniusz was matter of fact when talking about the importance of going to the pub after a long day in the skies “because next day you never know you not come back!” Eileen told the very human story of her grandmother, always having all her insurance papers ready in her bag should she hear the nightly air raid siren and need to rush to a shelter.
All these descriptions provide the human side of the story. Allowing us to glimpse even for a second into what it was truly like to be a pilot, radar plotter or a civilian during that remarkable summer 80 years ago. It is easy to see these remarkable people as heroes, saving the nation in its darkest hour and turning the tide of Nazism. But they were also people, for whom these events had a profound personal impact. I’m proud of the films and the positive way they have been received. It’s a privilege to be able to tell the stories of those that gave so much and fought through tumultuous times. What also comes through clearly is their courage, resilience and humour, which during our present crisis should help to empower us with the knowledge that no matter what the crisis we can endure.
Jason Davidson is a filmmaker, writer and director of the production company Squeaky Pedal. Their film This Little Chicken and the Victoria Cross won the award for Best Use of Archive at the 2018 Imperial War Museum film festival.