Battle of Britain: Ian McShane’s RAF Uniforms
Ian McShane as Flight Sergeant Andy Moore, Royal Air Force pilot
England, Summer 1940
Film: Battle of Britain
Release Date: September 15, 1969
Director: Guy Hamilton
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today commemorates the anniversary of a decisive aerial battle in the skies over England that marked one of the first substantial Allied victories in World War II. Luftwaffe attacks on British ports and fleets had launched the Battle of Britain in June 1940, followed by sporadic and deadly raids that culminated with a German attempt to essentially eradicate any British defenses to clear the way for Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s intended invasion of England. On September 15, two waves of German attacks on London were successfully repelled by the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, primarily the No. 11 Group RAF, a decisive defense that prompted then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill to famously declare: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
29 years later to the day, Battle of Britain was released in the grand tradition of star-studded war epics, boasting a talented cast that included Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, and a relative newcomer named Ian McShane.
Born exactly two years and two weeks after the eponymous conflict, McShane distinguished himself on stage and screen before joining the ensemble cast of Battle of Britain in the memorable role of sergeant pilot Andy Moore, a non-commissioned RAF aviator. The practice of non-commissioned officers training and qualified to fly as active military pilots was generally phased out after World War II but was considerably common among all sides during the first world wars as aviation was gaining an increasing foothold in armed conflict.
This level of non-commissioned participation may have inspired the RAF’s then reputation as “a distinctly middle-class organization, carrying with it a whiff of gasoline and engine lubricants,” as Thomas E. Ricks describes in Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. “In fact, some aspects of the class system did manage to persist in the RAF… Class differences also reached into the cockpit — RAF officers generally enjoyed the helpful privilege of flying the same aircraft every day, while sergeant pilots were assigned whatever machine was available.”
Fictional but no doubt representative of the many pilots who balanced families and flight duties during the Battle of Britain, the relatively taciturn Moore is almost invariably seen palling around with his outgoing friend Archie (Edward Fox), a commissioned Pilot Officer with a penchant for natty neckwear. Moore returns to London on leave during the Luftwaffe’s September 1940 bombing campaign, dismayed that his family has returned home from their evacuation in the country but enthusiastic about presenting his children with gifts of model Spitfires. He demands that his wife (Isla Blair) again retreats with their two sons, but the couple’s argument is interrupted when an air warden enlists Moore among the volunteers to quickly assist a family trapped in a nearby bombed house.
“I’ll be back, love,” Moore promises his wife, later returning only to discover that his wife and children had been killed by a round of German bombing that destroyed the church where they took refuge, adding a tragic poignancy to the young pilot taking to the skies for revenge during the climactic battle.
What’d He Wear?
In the Air: Flying Attire
While he and his fellow pilots wait to be called into airborne action, FS Moore differentiates himself from the uniformed commissioned officers in his one-piece flight coveralls. Rather than the contemporary Sidcot, Prestige, or Beadon patterns authorized by the RAF, Moore’s overalls resemble British civilian utility workwear that would be permitted the following year under the CC41 rationing scheme. For an example, see these almost identical Beacon coveralls at Militaria Zone, where their presence suggests that they were indeed purchased and worn by British service members. (A similar style would soon be authorized across the pond as the AN-3-31, issued by the USAAF and U.S. Navy and also featured at Militaria Zone.)
Moore’s overalls are made from a slate-colored cotton drill, a shade grayer than the typical blue of RAF uniforms. The top half zips up from below the waist to the neck, where there’s a plain, soft shirt-style collar. A large box-pleated patch pocket is positioned on each side of the chest, each covered by a slightly pointed flaps that each close through a single button. Any possible back pockets go unseen as Moore spends most of the sequence seated, though folded fabrics at his sides indicate side-entry hand pockets.
The set-in sleeves are elasticized at each cuff, with his flight sergeant (OR-7) insignia sewn on each forearm. The rank is signified by the three chevrons that seem to be the universal designation for sergeants, here pointed downward and embroidered in light blue against a navy ground with a brass King’s Crown positioned just above their vertex, the crown differentiating flight sergeants from more junior-ranking sergeants.
Moore’s base layer is a trim turtleneck sweater in powder-blue wool with a ribbed roll-neck, a more colorful and fitted alternative to the classic white jumpers that had been approved by the Air Ministry for service.
The legs of Moore’s coveralls are tucked into his black leather flying boots, which may be the only piece of his wardrobe in this scene that I can trace back to contemporary RAF gear as the belted straps over the short vents at the top of each shaft echo the style of the shearling-lined 1936 pattern that RAF fliers wore at the time. Moore also wears knee-high white cotton leg-warmer socks with a wide red band around the top, visible as the portion that rises above the boot openings.
Like the rest of his squadron called to action during the Germans’ ultimately failed Adlertag (“Eagle Day”) attack on August 13, 1940, Moore quickly pulls on flight gear, beginning with the rubberized cotton orange life preserver known as the “Mae West” in reference to wearers’ similarities to the famously voluptuous entertainer. As also worn by his senior officer “Skipper”, Moore’s briefly seen Mae West life vest looks like the anachronistic 22c/1350 “Waistcoat, Jacket, Lfie-Saving, Aircrew, Mk 3” that wouldn’t be issued until after World War II. Though non-commissioned airmen typically wore knitted wool gloves, FS Moore bucks habit with his russet brown 1933 pattern gauntlets.
Moore also wears a dark brown leather flying helmet, with the large-domed and zippered ear-pads suggesting the contemporary Type B that had been issued since 1936. Moore’s olive drab Type D oxygen mask was also the type correctly worn during the Battle of Britain, though it snaps to the outside of his flying helmet rather than the inside as expected.
Despite the correct helmet and mask, Moore’s flight goggles resemble the anachronistic Mk VII (22c/827) that was introduced two years later, characterized by the brown leather nose padding and drab webbed strap extending around the back of his head.
On the Ground: Army Battle Dress
During the post-Eagle Day counter-attack against the Germans, Moore survives some hits to the left wing that delay his return to base. Upon seeing that Moore has returned, Squadron Leader “Skipper” (Robert Shaw) barks at him: “Where the hell have you been?!”
Moore: Learning to swim.
Skipper: You get one?
Moore: All I got was a belly-ful of English Channel.
Based on his appearance, it can be inferred that Moore was removed from his wet clothing and given the first dry gear that could be sourced, a brown wool British Army battle dress jacket and chunky turtleneck. He would later wear the same mixed gray-and-black marled wool jumper with his service dress uniform.
Later in 1940, the RAF would introduce their own blue-gray “war service dress” equivalent to the Army’s established battle dress, as prominently featured in movies like The Great Escape.
No. 1 Service Dress
Back in London, FS Moore proudly wears his No. 1 Service Dress uniform, even enduring the taunting of a young boy who disbelieves the airman’s claim of flying Spitfires. “You’re not a fighter pilot!” the boy shouts, then tests him by demanding “unbutton your top button!” in the unofficial but celebrated tradition of RAF pilots. Moore obeys with a smirk, only for the boy to counter “anybody can do that!”
The No. 1 Service Dress uniforms for both officers and non-commissioned “other ranks” have remained virtually unchanged since the early 1920s, comprised of matching blue wool belted tunics and trousers. Though all ranks follow generally the same dress code, non-commissioned service uniforms are traditionally a heavier wool serge than the smooth barathea of commissioned officers’ uniforms. Representative of the typical class disparity between the ranks, officers’ uniforms were more exactingly tailored with straight shoulders and drape, while service uniforms for “other ranks” (ORs) like our heroic flight sergeant were more loosely constructed.
Moore’s service uniform jacket follows the usual design, with short notch lapels rolling to the top of four crested gilt buttons, the lowest positioned along the bottom edge of the full belt that extends around the waist and closes through a tall gold-toned double-prong buckle. Four pockets are covered with flaps, with the box-pleated chest pockets covered with scalloped single-button flaps and the larger patch-style pockets over the hips covered with non-buttoning flaps.
As on his flying overalls, Moore wears his flight sergeant sleeve insignia of three descending chevrons under a brass crown though with the addition of the RAF Eagle badge patched on each shoulder. Designed with a light blue eagle embroidered against a dark blue cotton drill rectangular ground, its eyes and beak turned to the rear.
Per Moore’s status as a pilot, he also wears the silk aircrew brevet badge comprised of the white letters “RAF” embroidered inside a brown laurel wreath, a white King’s crown embroidered above it, and flanked on each side by white embroidered swift’s wings.
Moore wears the standard soft side cap in a blue-gray wool serge to match his uniform, referred to as a “forage cap” in the RAF and distinguished by its longitudinal “fore-and-after” cut and two functional gilt buttons on the front that can be undone to pull down the scalloped side flaps to function as ear-flaps in inclement weather. Introduced in the mid-1930s, the field service forage cap was worn by all RAF ranks through World War II until it was superseded by the newer blue beret around 1950.
Like the uniforms themselves, forage caps differed between officers and ORs, with officers’ caps made from barathea wool to match their respective uniforms while ORs wore caps of rougher blue serge to resemble their own. Cap badges also differed, as officers wore the two-piece crown and wings while ORs like FS Moore wore the larger all-brass badge that featured the letters “RAF” flanked by laurels and topped by a King’s Crown.
Upon its inception in 1918, the RAF differed from the British Army and Royal Navy in that all of its service members wore neckties instead of just officers. We hardly see much of Moore’s light blue end-on-end cotton shirt, but it appears to be the correct pullover tunic-type long-sleeved shirt worn at the time by “ordinary airmen” with a half-placket and neckband for the matching spread collar to be attached and fastened with gold studs. (See Blighty Militaria for an example of a similar shirt from the time.) Moore completes the look with his authorized black cotton tie, knotted in a four-in-hand.
Moore’s buttoned jacket covers the top of his trousers, but we can assume they’re the contemporary flat-front trousers made to match the blue serge tunic with a long rise detailed with six double sets of buttons to connect to suspenders (braces) that would hold them up in lieu of a belt or side-adjusters. World War II-era service dress trousers were traditionally designed with a button-fly, on-seam side pockets only, and plain-hemmed bottoms.
When on leave in London and not at the airfield, Moore wears black leather low derby shoes, with the correct plain toes rather than the toe-caps reserved only for officers. Moore wears light slate-blue socks that continue the look of his uniform into his shoes, though I can’t tell if these were authorized as I’ve typically only seen white or black wool socks specified for RAF airmen of that era.
For those on the lookout, McShane’s screen-worn service uniform from Battle of Britain was included—but not sold—in a Heritage Auctions lot in 2018, with the listing and photo still online.
FS Moore’s Uniform
Don’t steal valor by wearing the uniform or insignia that wasn’t deserved, but you can pay tribute to the bespoke nonchalance of “the few” who took to the skies to protect Britain during that September day more than 80 years ago with unique touches like layering turtlenecks with workwear, wearing crested metal buttons (with the top one undone, of course), or showing some boldly striped hosiery.
- Blue-gray wool serge RAF No. 1 Service Dress 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, patch hip pockets with rectangular flaps, and single vent
- RAF Flight Sergeant sleeve insignia
- RAF eagle patches on shoulders
- RAF aircrew brevet “wings” patch over left breast
- Blue-gray wool serge RAF No. 1 Service Dress uniform flat-front trousers with suspender buttons, on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Light blue end-on-end cotton long-sleeve pullover shirt with detachable spread collar, front half-placket, and button cuffs
- Black cotton tie
- Black RAF 1936 pattern flying boots with plain toe and buckle-tab top strap
- Red-banded white wool knee-high socks
- Blue-gray wool serge RAF “forage cap” with two crested front buttons and scalloped side flaps
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Just a point of interest you might well know.Having been an RAAF Cadet in the early 70’s and thus issued with WW2 era gear I wore my 1944 forage cap for a number of years ( still have it). It was affectionately called a ‘c*#t cap’ by all ranks and was generally considered only useful for ‘chundering’ in.
The ability to turn it into a makeshift balaclava did indeed come in handy on some icey nights.
Was an honour to wear the same uniforms as the WW2 boys.