Battle of Britain: Robert Shaw as Squadron Leader Skipper
Robert Shaw as “Skipper”, RAF Squadron Leader
England, Summer to Fall 1940
Film: Battle of Britain
Release Date: September 15, 1969
Director: Guy Hamilton
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
Although the battle was waged for more than three months in 1940 over British airspace, September 15 has been established as Battle of Britain Day in recognition of the No. 11 Group RAF repelling two waves of German attacks on London. The Germans had instigated their air and sea blockade earlier that summer, followed by Luftwaffe air raids that started with ports and shipping centers, eventually moving further inland to airfields, factories, and ultimately civilian areas. Hitler had intended to gain air superiority over England prior to an invasion dubbed Operation Sea Lion, but a strong national defense from the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy successfully routed the Luftwaffe and prevented this full-scale invasion of the United Kingdom.
This British victory was considered an early turning point in favor of the Allies during World War II that inspired Winston Churchill to famously declare: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
On the 29th anniversary of this famous British defense against Germany in the skies over London, the United Artists war epic Battle of Britain with a star-studded cast including Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, and Robert Shaw. The latter portrays a talented and brash Squadron Leader, said to be inspired by South African fighter ace Sailor Malan, commander of No. 74 Squadron RAF during the actual Battle of Britain.
What’d He Wear?
We meet Robert Shaw’s “Skipper” as he climbs out of his Spitfire after landing among his cohorts in France, including RCAF Squadron Leader Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer). It’s May 1940, a dangerous time for a British officer in France, and he’s given the order to retreat. “Where to, sir?” asks Pilot Officer Archie (Edward Fox), to which Skipper responds: “Why don’t you follow me and find out? Come on, idiots!”
Throughout his duration on screen, Skipper almost exclusively wears the ivory ribbed wool “submarine sweater”, considerably pilled due to his implied hundreds of hours in the air. Ribbed through the body, this turtleneck jumper has wider ribs on the full roll-neck, the rolled-back cuffs, and the waist hem. Shaw’s sweater is somewhat oversized, as evident by the seams of the set-in sleeves a few inches down his biceps from the shoulders.
Per its name, the submariner’s sweater was first authorized for Royal Navy crewmen but became popular across the sea and air arms of the British military, encouraging the RAF to issue its own “22G/63 Frock, White, Aircrew” jumper, though this had a wide, 2″-tall standing collar and an oversized fit to be worn over a service uniform as opposed to than these classic Royal Navy rollneck worn under tunics of cinematic RAF pilots like Shaw in Battle of Britain and James Garner in The Great Escape. Modern shoppers interested in their own off-white submarine sweaters can check out the offerings from Outdoor Knitwear, which has reportedly manufactured the Royal Navy’s wool submariners’ sweaters “for many years”. Given its popularity, many other versions are also available from Amazon, Silvermans, and What Price Glory.
Skipper wears his RAF service uniform trousers tucked into the tops of his black leather flying boots. These ¾-length boots appear to be the fleece-lined 1936 pattern authorized by the RAF, which have a shallow front vent cut into the top of each shaft with a short leather belted strap to close and adjust the fit over the wearer’s calves.
Skipper wears the Royal Air Force’s No. 1 Service Dress uniform, a blue-gray jacket and trousers meant for wear “in temperate regions”, though Skipper foregoes the uniform’s designated shirt and tie in favor of wearing his submariner’s sweater at all times.
The service dress jacket or tunic is single-breasted with four gold crested shank buttons and a self-belt with a tall, gold-toned double-prong buckle, though Skipper never fastens the buttons and lets the belt hang freely rather than closing his jacket with it. The four main external pockets all have flaps that close through a single button, with the box-pleated breast pockets each covered by a gently scalloped flap while the larger bellows pockets on the hips have plain rectangular flaps to close.
Positioned on the upper chest above the left breast pocket flap are the badges and awards befitting Skipper’s service as a decorated RAF pilot, including the exalted silk aircrew brevet badge consisting the letters “RAF” embroidered in white inside a brown wreath with a white King’s crown embroidered atop it, all flanked by white embroidered swift’s wings on each side. Below his wings badge is a single row of Skipper’s awards. From left to right:
- Distinguished Flying Cross (white and purple wide-scaled “downhill” stripes): The DFC has been continuously awarded by the Commonwealth since June 1918 for “exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air.” Not present for most of Battle of Britain, Skipper appears to have earned his DFC by the end… or, more likely, he had lost it from his uniform and finally had it replaced.
- General Service Medal (purple, green, and purple): The GSM was established in January 1923 to recognize Army and RAF participation in minor campaigns after World War I. Based on Skipper’s age and the most recent conflict, he likely earned his “for service in the British Mandate of Palestine between 19 April 1936 and 3 September 1939, during the Arab Revolt.” The GSM would be retooled in 1962 with the colors inverted and the center section (now green) expanded.
- King George VI Coronation Medal (blue center with white, red, and white striped sides): More than 90,000 coronation medals were awarded to the Royal Family and selected officials and service members as a personal souvenir from the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth on May 12, 1937.
On each jacket cuff, Skipper wears the sleeve insignia for his rank of Squadron Leader, a NATO OF-3 rank equivalent to a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy or a Major in the British Army or Royal Marines. The sleeve insignia consists of two narrow sky blue rings against a black band with a thinner blue band between them.
Skipper wears the standard forward-pleated trousers of the No. 1 service dress uniform, though his untucked jumper covers the waist so we can’t tell if he’s wearing belt, braces, or neither.
When outdoors and not flying, Skipper wears the regulation RAF headgear for No. 1 Service Dress, a peaked officer’s cap with blue-gray barathea wool cloth cover and brim, bedecked on the front with the RAF officers’ badge with gilt crown, eagle, and oak leaf embroidery.
Early on the climactic morning of September 15, 1940, Skipper leaves his home in his No. 1 Service Dress and jumper, supplemented with his Irvin flying jacket draped over his shoulders. These dashing jackets were developed by American aviation pioneer Leslie Irvin, who began producing them in 1931 to respond to a growing need for pilot warmth in sub-zero temperatures of poorly insulated cockpits.
“Made from heavyweight sheepskin, its thick natural wool provided incredible insulation,” describes the official Irvin flying jackets site. “And, while the sheepskin was considered heavyweight the jacket itself was comparatively light and remarkably comfortable. Irvin insisted on the most supple sheepskin: in a cramped cockpit movement was already restricted and no pilot or crew would want to be constrained further still. The Irvin jacket was a masterpiece of design, maximum warmth and comfort combined with maximum mobility.” Irvin flying jackets are available today from Aviation Leathercraft as well as Aero Leather and What Price Glory.
The zip-up jackets also have long zippers on the ends of each sleeve and a single-prong self-belt that fastens around the waist. There are no pockets, as the coat was originally meant solely to be worn in-flight over an aviator’s uniform when there would be no need to access one’s personal effects. Given the context of Battle of Britain, it’s no surprise that plenty of Irvin flying jackets are featured, most notably worn by Christopher Plummer’s character.
Up in the Air
On the day of the Germans’ ultimately failed Adlertag (“Eagle Day”) attack on August 13, 1940, Skipper jumps into action when alerted to the squadron scramble, dressing for flight over his usual unbuttoned uniform tunic and rollneck, first by donning the orange life preserver vest famously dubbed the “Mae West” for its effect of transforming wearers’ silhouettes to resemble the famously voluptuous actress.
Rather than the correct 1932 pattern or even the improved 1941 pattern issued the year after the battle, Skipper’s Mae West appears to be an anachronistic postwar 22c/1350 life preserver, designated “Waistcoat, Jacket, Life-Saving, Aircrew, Mk 3” as seen here and worn by many of Shaw’s fellow high-flying cast-mates in Battle of Britain.
During World War II, pilots were known to color their older pattern life preservers in a bright yellow or orange to aid being seen and saved from the sea, but the 22c/1350 was already made in an eye-catching orange rubberized cotton, fitted with white canvas ties, drab khaki waist straps, and a short three-button front tab. The “horse collar” vest is filled with three buoyancy bladders, one in the collar behind the neck and a larger one over each breast… hence the reference to Miss West.
While flying his Spitfire, Skipper wears the requisite RAF-issued flight helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask. His dark brown leather helmet appears to be an early example of the chamois-lined Type B, fastened by a buckled strap under the chin and detailed with zipped earpieces.
Skipper’s flight goggles appear to be the simplified Mk VII (22c/827), detailed with brown leather padding over the nose and a drab webbed strap around the back of the head. The Mk VII was introduced in July 1942, nearly two years after the Battle of Britain and thus another anachronism. (You can see an example of the Mk VII from HistoricFlyingClothing.com and read more about early 20th century military flight goggles and more from MilitarySunHelmets.com.)
Skipper’s olive drab cloth oxygen mask resembles the typical Type D mask used during the Battle of Britain, though it has short tabs on the sides for one of three snaps to close against the outside of the helmet rather than the Type D’s double-snap sides that connect to the inside of the flying helmet. The front is fitted to take a black-painted 10A/ integrated microphone authorized by the Air Ministry.
Skipper’s russet brown leather gauntlets are seen while flying, almost certainly worn over the double layer of chamois gloves and silk inners. These appear to be the correct 1933 pattern rather than the 1941 pattern with the slanted zip openings that would be implemented and issued following the Battle of Britain.
More great examples of Allied flying gear from this period can be found from this page promoting the “Hell’s Angels” 303rd Bomb Group, a provisional American unit that was activated in England during World War II, flying more than 300 combat missions, more than any other B-17 group in the European Theater.
While you wouldn’t want to steal RAF valor by strutting about in a secondhand service uniform, you can take some style notes from how Robert Shaw rakishly wears his Squadron Leader’s garb, layering for the transitional season ahead with a leather flight jacket (an Irvin, perhaps?) over an off-white turtleneck with rugged slate-toned trousers and well-traveled boots.
- Blue-gray wool serge RAF service uniform jacket with notch lapels, self-belt with double-prong tall gold buckle, four-button single-breasted front, box-pleated chest pockets with scalloped button-down flaps, bellows hip pockets with rectangular button-down flaps, and single vent
- RAF Squadron Leader sleeve insignia
- Royal Air Force (RAF) padded “wings” patch
- Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) ribbon
- General Service Medal ribbon
- King George VI Coronation Medal ribbon
- Ivory ribbed-knit wool turtleneck Royal Navy submariner’s sweater with long set-in sleeves
- Blue-gray wool serge RAF uniform trousers with fitted waistband, double forward pleats, straight/on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black RAF 1936 pattern flying boots with plain toe and buckle-tab top strap
- White ribbed-knit wool knee-high socks
- RAF peaked officer’s cap with blue-gray barathea wool cover and peak with gold-embroidered badge and black patent leather strap
- Dark brown heavyweight sheepskin Irvin flying jacket with fleeced wool lining, zip front, sleeve zippers, and self-belt with single-prong buckle
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
First we knew the bastards had overrun us is when we were trying to land!
Great post, as always. The British submariner sweater is a true classic, generally work over size. Maybe next discuss the Ike jacket and it’s ww2 and Korean War versions.
I used to have a “what price, glory” submariner sweater, but it was scratchy, baggy, and not great quality, so I sold it. I went to the Knitwear site this morning and really liked what they had and thought it a good price at 64 British pounds. I looked again and the site was down for a few hours. When it came back up, the price of the sweater went up $13. Someone must have mentioned this article to them. Go figure. Cheers!!
Thanks for your interesting review of “skippers” gear. Just one note. His flying helmet is a Fleet Air Air Arm Type C, that is post BoB and I believe the oxygen mask was made for the occasion.