Thanks For The Visit !
Let’s dust off another oldie from the black and white days, and step back in time to the early years of World War II. Most of you simmers out there will know what the term, “Twelve O’Clock High” means, (an enemy fighter coming straight at you from above), but there may be some of you that have not heard of the movie by the same name. I think that you may find the 1949 B&W classic, “Twelve O’Clock High” starring Gregory Peck both interesting and entertaining. It addressed some very important issues concerning aerial combat and the psychological impact on the men, officers and enlisted alike. If you happen to be in a leadership position yourself, you may pick up some good management tips, as this film has been used as a training aide, in the military as well as on the civilian side of the fence. As a matter of fact, my mother-in-law, Virginia, had to watch the movie for management training…with a mortuary/cemetery company no less! So let me spill a few of the beans about another B&W “oldie” that I think you will enjoy!
“Twelve O’Clock High” was a 20th Century Fox motion picture (I love the term “motion picture”!) based on the novel of the same name, written by the team of Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. It was produced by a familiar name in the movie business at the time, Darryl F. Zanuck, who had a number of films to his credit. The movie was directed by Henry King, an avid aviator himself. King bought the very first Waco SRE Aristocrat Cabin Biplane that rolled off the line on July 2, 1940. The SRE was a very expensive aircraft, selling for $17,800. Only 29 of these aircraft were produced. King used this aircraft extensively in scouting for new locations for filming. He also happens to be one of the founders of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, and reportedly used the Waco in this role as well. Filming locations for the movie included Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and Ozark Army Airfield, Alabama. Overseas filming was conducted at RAF Barford St. John Air Base, Oxfordshire, England.
Only four bomber groups were formed up at the time that the movie takes place, in 1942. Each group consisted of approximately 20 or so B-17’s. A small fraction of what was yet to come! Gary Merrill is Col. Davenport, a top notch pilot and the well respected commander of the 918th Bomber Group. The 918th is known as a “hard luck” outfit, taking some heavy casualties on each of their many missions. With the small number of B-17 forces that were built up at the time, these losses could not be afforded. The movie opens with a former officer of the 918th Bomber Group, Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) coming out of a haberdashery (a hat shop) over in England, a few years after the end of World War II. While admiring the hat he just purchased in a store window, he see’s a “Toby” mug (a mug in the form of a person) sitting in the window of the shop. This
Twelve O'Clock High
A Movie Review
was the same mug that sat on the mantle of the fireplace back at the headquarters of the 918th. When a mission was called up, someone would turn the mug around, to face outward. Not exactly an antique, the shop keeper asks if he wouldn’t be interested in something else, but Stovall knows that there’s much more sentimental value in this mug than monetary.
Hopping on a train, Stovall travels to Archbury, home of the 918th during the war. Abandoned since the war, he finds himself flashing back as he gazes down the grass covered strip. A belly landing of a B-17, coming back to the home field after a mission, opens up the story of the 918th, as Stovall and others watch from the sidelines. Paul Mantz, legendary aviation stuntman, was paid a whopping $4,500 for performing this landing, taking out a canvas tent on the way. Up until the ‘70’s, the amount was the most paid to a stuntman for any single stunt, ever.
An unexpected find
Now you see it...
...now you don't
Everyone is pretty shaken up by this latest crash landing and losses of comrades, including the Group Commander, Col. Davenport, performed buy Gary Merrill, veteran actor. The top brass take notice of the rising casualty rate with the 918th, and General Pritchard, (Millard Mitchell), meets with Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), who is part of the headquarters staff of the Eighth Air Force, England. A visit is called for to the 918th, and it is decided that Col. Davenport needs a well deserved break. One can see that he has become too “chummy” with his troops, letting his personal feelings dictate his actions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be friendly with your troops, but a certain amount of distance needs to be maintained, especially in a wartime situation. This is where the problems with the 918th nest, think the two headquarters generals, and so Brig. Gen. Frank Savage is asked to take the outfit over. This in itself proves to be an interesting situation, since Savage and Davenport are close friends.
Gregory Peck as Brig. Gen. Frank Savage
My own "Belly Landing"!
This kid just couldn’t keep those stripes on!
Transferring to a new unit was and is a difficult affair. You’re new, you probably don’t know anyone, and you have the task of establishing yourself within the unit. This goes for all, enlisted as well as officers. General Savage is not only taking over from the well liked Col. Davenport; he also has the monumental task of turning the morale and performance of the group around. No small task! Savage is not out to make friends though. All crews are pretty ticked off by these events, and just about everyone in the unit puts in for transfer within the first week of Savage taking over. Paper shuffling and feet dragging on the part of Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) give General Savage some time to bring the troops around in both morale and performance. It proves to be an uphill battle for Savage, but a battle that he feels he can win. He does succeed, but ends up having the same personal attachment and over work problems as his predecessor Col. Davenport did. No one is immune to the effects of war.
“Maximum Effort” is a phrase that is used in the movie, and what levels of Maximum Effort could be expected from the pilots and their crews. Basically, they wanted to know at what point they should expect air crews to “burn out”, and how best to handle the situation. For the first time ever, these crews were being asked to fly into the jaws of the enemy defenses, during the daylight hours, (“Daytime Precision Bombing”), without any fighter escort, defend themselves from attack, bomb the target, and leave the area, fighting every inch of the way. If it was not the fighters harassing and attacking, it was the sheets of flak that were put up by the German defenses.
The best defense was a close formation
“Piccadilly Lily” (B17F) and
“Shoo Shoo Baby” (B17G)
“Piccadilly Lily” seen from
“Shoo Shoo Baby”
Getting through the Flak
The “receiving end”!
I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end!
A flight of Me109’s keeping pace
Belly Turret greeting an attacker
Me109 way too close for comfort!
The B17 could sustain major
The real-life crew of the “Piccadilly Lily”
This movie is very entertaining, and gives a peek into the operations of a unit that has been pushed too far, or so they think. You can see examples throughout why this film is used as a training aide. A good mix of plot, action, suspense, and real wartime aerial combat footage make for a great movie. The wartime film footage that is used in the movie is excellent. Some footage you may recognize as “stock” footage, seen in many movies, but there are loads of aerial scenes of both allied and axis aircraft that you will find very intriguing. Suspense in this movie can be found in places other than aerial combat. For example, Gen. Savage hears that one of the pilots, Lt. Col. Ben Gately has been flying the last three missions with a broken back. He collapses upon returning to the airfield, and once in the hospital is put into traction. Savage shows up to visit him, but feels bad because he came down heavy on Gately his first day in command. Checking on the other casualties first, he makes his way over to the bedside of Gately, Savage proceeds to sit down…ON THE BED!!! OUCH! It made me wince! After getting up and apologizing, he continues his visit, but as I watched, I was waiting for him to snap one of the traction lines, or drop a weight on this poor guy! Suspense in unexpected moments!
Gregory Peck was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Leading Actor, and Dean Jagger won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Here’s a list of the rest of the cast...
Hugh Marlowe - Lt. Col. Ben Gately
Robert Arthur - Sgt. McIllhenny
Paul Stewart - Capt. 'Doc' Kaiser
John Kellogg - Major Cobb
Robert Patten - Lt. Bishop
Lee MacGregor - Lt. Zimmerman
Sam Edwards - Birdwell
Roger Anderson - Interrogation Officer
Standing before the “man” …not good!
Keeping an eye on the neighbor
General Savage and Copilot aboard the “Piccadilly Lily”
Waist gunner saying hello!
Enemy sighted…12 o’clock high!
The Bombardier and the famous Norden Site
There are always some interesting trivia facts surrounding the making of most movies, and this one is no exception. While researching this film, I found quite a lot of collateral information.
Tidbits of trivia surrounding the creation of the movie, “Twelve O’Clock High”…
-John Wayne turned down the role of General Frank Savage
-Former bomber crews credit the film with being a fairly accurate depiction of their life during the war as it was one of the first movies of its time to deal with the psychological aspects of war.
-At the Officer’s Club at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, home of the 509th Bomber Wing, a replica of the Robin Hood “Toby” Mug is still in use.
-The name “Piccadilly Lily” is derived from the term “Piccadilly Commando”, which is not a name for a special kind of foot soldier! A “Piccadilly Commando” was a “Lady of the Evening”, whose turf was that of Piccadilly Circus, in London.
There are also a few “bloopers” with the aircraft, such as…
-The markings on the aircraft do not reflect how the B-17’s were painted for that time period. For example, the large white triangles with the letter “A” that can be seen on the vertical stabilizers were not used for identification; just the serial number of the aircraft was painted on the tail fin, at that point in the war.
-At one point in the film, on the last mission General Savage goes on, there is a zoom in on the Piccadilly Lily’s cockpit, and then two other aircraft cockpits are zoomed in on in the same manner. If you look close at the plane in the background of each of the shots, you can see that it is the same aircraft number. Take note of the tell tale dirt stains and such on “each of the planes” in these series of shots. It’s the same aircraft prop, just different nose art.
-There were also some armament issues on some aircraft versus the type model they were.
These so called “bloopers” are minor and just kind of fun to mention and to watch out for. They certainly do not detract form the film in any manner. There are more, but I’m leaving those to you to find! For a little over two hours, I think you will be both entertained and educated, a winning combination! You won’t find the special effects of today’s movies included in these classics, as they rely on a good plot and good acting. The combination of real aerial footage with that of the movie is well done, and adds to the realism. Film footage from both sides in the war can be seen in the movie. There are some real white-knuckle sequences of ME-109’s screaming by the B-17’s. To see a squadron of ME-109’s off in the distance, just out of range and keeping pace with you had to be one frightening sight!
I used the Wings of Power B-17F from the WoP WWII Heavy Bombers and Jets for the screenshots in this article. I did the repaint, if you can really call it that, of the “F” model to reflect the nose art from the actual “Piccadilly Lily” that was lost during the war, but the model bears the serial numbers and such of the movie “Lily”. A great job was done by the original painters of the model for this product. The nose art of “Piccadilly Lily” changed a few times, from authentic, to the movie “Lily”, to the television series “Twelve O’Clock High” “Lily”. I chose the authentic nose art to honor the original crew. I do want to thank the folks at Shockwave for an excellent model of the B-17.
A neat little utility I used for some of the shots was the Recorder Module 1.3, (recorder_1-3.zip), which enables you to literally fly with yourself! It’s pretty neat and easy to use. Basically, you record one of your flights, and then play it back as AI traffic that you can fly alongside of.
Be prepared for medium length flights if you want to recreate some of these routes flown by the B-17 during the war. For example, a flight from Southend, Great Britain, east of London, to Wilhelmshaven, Germany, home of the U-Boat forces, is roughly 3 to 3 ½ hours round trip, depending on weather, etc. Crossing the channel during the early morning light was typical, and this makes for an excellent time to see the sun come up over Europe.
I know you will enjoy this movie. There are loads of new movies out there these days, but I find myself grabbing these classics from the past. I may just have to step into the 21st Century though, and watch a “color” movie or two, just to see what all the fuss is about!
Have a great flight and pass the popcorn please!
Let’s roll em!
Keeping it tight
Home in sight!
Wings of Power B17F, “Piccadilly Lily”
Over Wilhelmshaven, Germany
Over the target and blending in
Waist gunners and their .50 cals.
The movie “Piccadilly Lily”
Bombardier and Navigator
Me109 fine adjustment tool
B17’s returning home
Rolling out to meet the flight
Anxiously awaiting the return