How would you respond if you were to be asked about aeroplanes in the Second World War? Probably by imagining Spitfires flying over the green fields of Southern England or a bomber raid undertaken by hordes of massed Lancaster bombers. These images are engrained in Britain's cultural memory of Second World War aviation and dominate all forms of their remembrance. Today, many of us have not experienced these events, yet films have helped give us an image to remember.

How films impact memory is important as the more time passes, and the war generations fade away, the aeroplanes themselves serve as a link to that time through associated memories and myths. In this case, myths do not mean something is untrue. Instead, they provide an abstract understanding of what took place. This style of remembering can help a group of people, such as a nation, understand itself and its place in the wider world.

Essential in British cultural memory is the underdog myth, where a weaker individual or group stands up to one more powerful than itself. It can be seen repeatedly through famous moments in British history, such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, where an outnumbered English fleet defeated a much larger Spanish force.

Second World War poster. British pilots with text that reads "Never was so much owed by so many to so few"
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 14972)
Poster from 1940, celebrating pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain.

Richard North wrote that the Battle of Britain's myths were created by the British Government and repeated at the time and after to form the idea of an elite and outnumbered group of Royal Air Force (RAF) and allied fighter pilot officers saving the whole of Britain. It was chosen as the focus, as the RAF's bombing campaign and the Royal Navy's (RN) anti-invasion procedures were seen as lacking in glamour. This view helps explain why the Battle of Britain is a favourite topic for film depictions.

War films also impact how individuals are remembered meaning different depictions can influence their remembrance. Associating people with aeroplanes can create a link between the two in cultural memory. British war films share the nation's love for individual skilled engineers, what Jeffrey A Engle (2007) termed designer-heroes. In line with the key British myth of the underdog, these characters have been revered and mythologised.

A key example is Spitfire designer R.J Mitchell. In 1942, Leslie Howard directed, produced and starred in the First of the Few. The film, which shows the design and birth of the Spitfire, aligns the plane with the underdog tale of its heroic designer. Mitchell must battle against critical British authority figures and his own health issues to create the aeroplane to save Britain from the Nazi menace.

Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIA, P7895 'RN-N', of No 72 Squadron, based at Acklington, Northumberland, in flight over the coast, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R Deacon Elliot, April 1941.
© IWM TR 139
Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIA, P7895 'RN-N', of No 72 Squadron, based at Acklington, Northumberland, in flight over the coast, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R Deacon Elliot, April 1941.

More recently, Christopher Nolan's 2017 blockbuster Dunkirk helped reaffirm the Spitfire's role in the public conscious. The film depicts the British Expeditionary Force's evacuation at Dunkirk, and the role played by the Royal Navy and civilian boats. A crucial part of the story follows a trio of Spitfires and their pilots. After dogfights with German Messerschmitt Bf109s and a Heinkel He111 bomber, only one Spitfire flown by Farrier (Tom Hardy) remains.

Farrier reaches the Dunkirk beaches, stops a German Junkers Ju87 dive bomber and saves the lives of the troops below. However, his Spitfire runs out of fuel, leaving him to glide over the beach to the cheers of British soldiers. A lone spitfire saving Dunkirk embodies Britain's underdog myth in WW2. The evacuation symbolises British determination, while the film shows it would not have been possible without the Spitfire.

Engineer Barnes Wallis is another key designer-hero. His moment of fame was the 16-17 May 1943 raid by RAF Bomber Command's 617 Squadron on the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe dams in Germany's Ruhr valley. Wallis's invention of a bouncing bomb was key, and its fame led to a film in 1955.

The Dam Busters came amongst a shift in attitude towards the mass area bombing carried out by Bomber Command during the war. It represented a precision attack without the perceived moral ambiguity. Avro Lancaster bombers carry out the raid, and the film has played a significant role in creating their place in the cultural memory of Britain.

Avro Lancaster bombers nearing completion at the A V Roe & Co Ltd factory, Woodford, Cheshire.
© IWM TR 1386
Avro Lancaster bombers nearing completion at the A V Roe & Co Ltd factory, Woodford, Cheshire.

A vital aspect of The Dam Busters' marketing and success was accuracy. To achieve this, the film uses historical footage throughout the film, most notably real footage of the bouncing bomb tests with the bomb shape covered for secrecy. The film emphasised the perils and dangers facing 617 Squadron. Each loss of a Lancaster is shown to the audience and felt emotionally through Barnes Wallis' reactions. Showing the raid in this manner creates a more potent underdog myth as 617 Squadron must display courage and bravery to complete their mission against incredible odds.

Both the Spitfire and the Lancaster remain within touching distance for the whole of Britain. Through displays and airshows including IWM Duxford and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the image of these two underdog aeroplanes are brought to new eyes at national events. Recently they have marked occasions ranging from Trooping the Colour to the 150th anniversary of the town of Clacton. Through these associations, grown from film, the aeroplanes will only continue to solidify themselves as a manifestation of Britain's underdog myth.