Hollywood updates history of Battle of Britain: Tom Cruise won it all on his own

The 'Top Gun' star is making a new film glorifying American Billy Fiske as the hero of this country's 'finest hour'. But veterans say that, though a remarkable man, Fiske died without shooting down a single plane. Cole Moreton talks to those who knew him

Billy Fiske was a racing driver, a pilot, an Olympic gold medallist and an American - but one thing he did not do was win the Battle of Britain single-handed. Veterans and historians fear that will be the impression given, however, when Tom Cruise plays Fiske in a new film called The Few.

"I've heard it is almost like he won the war all on his own," says Ben Clinch, who loaded the guns fired by the real Billy Fiske and his comrades in 601 Squadron during the summer of 1940. "I can't see how they can make a film of Fiske's life. It was quite short. He was unremarkable, in the context of the squadron. He was just another pilot as far as we were concerned."

Hollywood's version of the Second World War has already shown Americans capturing the Enigma code machine in U571 (they didn't) and leading The Great Escape from a German prisoner of war camp (also not true). Pearl Harbor even suggested that the RAF only thwarted the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 because US pilots popped across the Atlantic to help out. Now Mr Cruise looks set to expand on that with his own version of what Churchill called our "finest hour".

Fiske was a remarkable character who did fly in the Battle of Britain, but recorded no confirmed kills. "It is going to be a farce if we have the Yanks shooting down everything in sight," says Bill Bond of the Battle of Britain Historical Society. "The battle was four weeks old when Billy was shot down. He made several sorties but he didn't shoot anything down, and his impact on the battle was negligible. We are concerned."

The Few is being made by Michael Mann, director of Top Gun, the jet-fighter movie that made Tom Cruise's name. Currently in development, it will be based on the life of William Meade Lindsley Fiske III, son of a wealthy Chicago family, who became the youngest Winter Olympics contestant to win a gold medal, in the bobsleigh at the age of 16. Handsome, charming and addicted to speed, he married the former Countess of Warwick and raced at Le Mans. So far, so historical, and filmable. But alarm bells started ringing when Variety, the movie world's magazine of choice, described the film's historical content. "In 1940, expert German fighters had decimated the Royal Air Force to the point that there weren't enough pilots left to fly the Spitfire planes sitting idly in hangars," it said. "Unable to rouse the US into action, a desperate Winston Churchill hatched a covert effort to recruit civilian American pilots to join the RAF. Risking prison sentences in the then-neutral US, a ragtag bunch of pilots answered the call." The magazine also looked forward to "ferocious dogfights between the overmatched American pilots and the German ace fliers".

This account prompted despairing laughter from Bill Bond last week. "It's hilarious," he said. "Totally wrong. The whole bloody lot. They flew Hurricanes for a start." Spitfires have a more romantic image, however. "Recruited by Churchill? Crap. They wouldn't have gone to prison either." And as for the idea of aircraft sitting idly by in hangars while the brave Americans took to the skies: "What a load of bloody rubbish. We did have a pilot shortage, but not to that extent."

Mr Bond has much more confidence in the accuracy of a forthcoming book by the author Alex Kershaw, whose proposal was the inspiration for The Few. The book is due to be published by Michael Joseph next year. Mr Kershaw also wrote The Bedford Boys, the basis for the film Saving Private Ryan.

There was no crack American squad of flyers, but at least nine US citizens did fly and fight during the Battle of Britain, according to the aviation historian Andy Saunders. "It would be an injustice to the memory of Billy Fiske were Hollywood to corrupt his story," said Mr Saunders in a recent edition of Aeroplane magazine. Although a gifted pilot, Fiske was frustrated by his own lack of combat action. His Hurricane caught fire in the air on 16 August 1940, but nobody knows whether this was because of enemy bullets or an accident. Soon after he landed, his airfield, RAF Tangmere, was attacked by Stuka bombers. Fiske died in hospital the next day from his burns.

Two other American pilots had been killed before him, but it was the dashing, well-connected Fiske who caught the public imagination - or was recognised as useful for propaganda purposes. Churchill sent a wreath to his airfield, and in July 1941 a plaque was unveiled by the Minister for Air at St Paul's Cathedral. His gravestone at Boxgrove in Sussex was replaced and rededicated in 2002.

"There is no doubt the Few, as Churchill called them, were wonderful," said Ben Clinch, now chairman of the 601 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force Old Comrades' Association. "They gave their lives without thought. It's a good job they were there."

But his memories of the time are very different to those told in heroic movies: 601 was nicknamed the Millionaire's Squadron because most of its pilots moved in high social circles. "They were very aloof," said Mr Clinch.

When petrol rationing hit hard, one of the wealthy flyers bought a local garage outright, he said. "We used to get visits from theatrical types from the West End. The stars went to see the officers. The chorus line went to the non-commissioned officers. We got nothing."

Mr Clinch saw Billy Fiske's Hurricane land for the last time but took cover as buildings around him exploded. He has a print of a painting on his wall that shows one version of Fiske's last moments, but at 85 he is bemused by the attempts to immortalise this one of many pilots. "This resurrection is commercial, as far as I can see," he said. "But at my age I let sleeping dogs lie."

HOW UNCLE SAM REWROTE THE SCRIPT

Objective, Burma! (1945)

Errol Flynn's paratroopers overcome the Japanese with barely a Brit in sight, although it was really they who won the battle. The press and public, some of whom had fought in Burma, were so outraged that the film had to be withdrawn.

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen played a leading part in a mass escape from a POW camp. In real life, 76 got out of Stalag Luft III, but only three made it alive; 50 were shot and 23 recaptured. No Americans among them.

Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson as a charming William Wallace - not the real man who wore the skin of an opposing general as his belt. Wallace fathers a son by the Princess of Wales who really gave birth seven years after his execution.

Titanic (1998)

First Officer William McMaster Murdoch is remembered as a hero in his Scottish home for saving passengers. He froze to death in the sea. The film shows him shooting passengers in a blind panic.

U-571 (2000)

Harvey Keitel and other plucky American seamen pull an Enigma code machine from a sinking German submarine and change the course of the war. Except that it was the crew of HMS Bulldog.

The Patriot (2000)

Gibson again as a pacifist provoked into joining the American War of Independence when sadistic Brits herd women and children into a church and set fire to it. Nothing like that happened.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine