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Squadron 992 (1940)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Squadron 992 (1940)
35mm, black and white, 23 mins
Directed byHarry Watt
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
SponsorMinistry of Information
Produced byCavalcanti
CommentaryW.D.H. McCullough
PhotographyJonah Jones
MusicWalter Leigh

The training of recruits in a balloon barrage unit, and the transfer of the unit northwards after the first German raid on the Forth Bridge.

Show full synopsis

The 'phoney war', or 'Sitzkrieg' as it is labelled in Squadron 992, was a waiting game for the GPO Film Unit, as it was for the rest of Britain. The wartime role of the government-backed film department was undecided, and the filmmakers themselves had to get their conscription papers deferred every three months. Whilst films such as The First Days (1939) were the result of their own initiative, Harry Watt credits Squadron 992 as the first film made under direct wartime commission. The enterprising commanding officer of the Balloon Barrage, Air Vice-Marshall Boyd, came to the unit requesting a film to boost morale among the men and women of the balloon squadrons and show the necessity of their role in the nation's defence. Contemporary reports on the production as an 'anti-gossip film' indicate that public opinion generally regarded the service as something of a joke.

Watt, who was in line to direct the film, soon realised that making a heroic portrait of what he described as a 'ghastly job' undertaken in 'dreary' locations was not going to be straightforward, and struggled for ideas. It was the real-life attack on the Forth Bridge by German planes recreated in the film which proved to be the wake- up call not just for the nation, but for the narrative of Watt's script itself. The unsuccessful German raid and the swiftly organised 24-hour deployment of the balloon squadrons across the country gave the film a plot, message and feelgood story all in one.

The Forth Bridge raid was recreated as accurately as possible using eyewitness accounts that had featured in a BBC radio programme. The Air Force was more than happy to recreate its part in the war's first aerial victory and Watt was justifiably proud of the resulting scenes, describing it as 'some of the best aerial combat stuff of the war'. But it was his idea to pair the aerial dogfight with the poachers' whippet chasing a hare that lifts the scene to another level, particularly when all four elements appear together in one remarkable shot.

The film was well received by those who saw it, with one critic describing how it 'removes war from the shadowy world of abstraction and brings it uncomfortably close to our own back- gardens'. Unfortunately, however, after the film's first screenings the war had become 'uncomfortably close' by itself, and Squadron 992 was quickly shelved for being out of date, although a version that Watt described as 'facetious and truncated', entitled Flying Elephants, was released in the United States.

Jez Stewart

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (22:50)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
The GPO Film Unit: 1940