633 Squadron – Novel and Movie Review
633 Squadron, written by Frederick E. Smith and published in 1956, was the source novel for the classic 1963 war movie of the same name. Although it’s not a spy novel, it does feature RAF special operations and the Norwegian Resistance.
633 Squadron: Title
The title uses the protagonist archetype, ‘633 Squadron’ being the fictional Royal Air Force unit who carry out the mission the novel depicts.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
633 Squadron: Logline
When the Norwegian resistance discovers a threat to the D-Day landings hidden in an impregnable fjord, an elite Royal Air Force squadron undertakes a suicidal mission to destroy it.
(For how to write a logline, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
633 Squadron: Plot Summary
Warning: my reviews contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the 1950s in Yorkshire, England. In a pub near an old RAF airbase, the publican talks to a couple of American and English pilots who’re interested in the wartime exploits of the legendary 633 Squadron. In particular, they want to hear about the “Svartfjord Operation”. Also in the bar and listening in is a stranger. The publican, who has been writing a book about the squadron, tells the pilots the story…
Now it’s 1943. 633 Squadron flies their Douglas A-20 Boston light bombers in to the airbase for the first time. Wing Commander Roy Grenville, a decorated war hero, leads the squadron.
A Norwegian resistance leader, Erik Bergman, arrives at the squadron to help it with a special mission, bringing his sister, Hilde, with him. Bergman insists on going on a shipping strike off the coast of Norway, flying with Grenville. The mission is a success, although the Germans shoot two aircraft down.
Gilibrand, an extrovert Canadian pilot, starts an affair with the local barmaid. Grenville meets Hilde and finds himself attracted to her. Adams, the intelligence officer, realises he is growing apart from his wife, who’s also staying in the pub.
A few days later, Granville and Bergman fly a reconnaissance mission over the Svartfjord, a fjord in Norway. German fighters ambush them, injuring Bergman.
Back home, the squadron converts from its Bostons to the brand new and far superior de Havilland Mosquito.
The Wing Commander reveals the squadron is to attack a target at the end of the Svartfjord. Because of the mountains, the only way to attack the target is to fly along the fjord. However, there are a lot of anti-aircraft guns along the fjord, making that approach suicidal. The Norwegian resistance will have to destroy them just before the attack. Bergman flies back to Norway to organise the attack on the guns.
The squadron trains in Scotland, flying up a glen that’s similar to the fjord and dropping their bombs on a target that requires precise flying to reach.
Gillibrand is angered when the barmaid he’s having an affair with takes pity on his young navigator while Gillibrand is away seeing one of his other girlfriends. He deliberately attacks a flak-ship to scare the navigator who is hit by shrapnel and dies. Gillibrand is mortified.
The Germans capture Bergman and take him to Gestapo headquarters. Since Bergman knows too much, the Wing Commander orders the squadron to bomb the Gestapo building. However German fighters ambush the squadron and they can’t complete the mission. The Wing Commander orders them to attack again, but Grenville refuses. Eventually, Grenville agrees to attack the building alone after learning the reason for the attack. He succeeds in destroying it, but is convinced that Hilde will hate him when she finds out he killed her brother and so he tries to avoid her.
The Germans send a squadron of their own fighter-bombers to attack 633 Squadron’s airfield. Gillibrand sacrifices himself to prevent the attack destroying the squadron. Worried that the attack means the Germans have discovered the plan to attack Svartfjord, the Wing Commander brings the attack forward.
The Wing Commander briefs the pilots. After flying along the fjord, the crews will have to drop their bombs under an overhanging rock outcrop, in the hope of blasting it loose, so it falls, burying the target.
On the eve of the attack, sick with guilt about killing Bergman, Granville breaks off his affair with Hilde by pretending he has a fiancé in London.
The Norwegian resistance fighters’ attack doesn’t happen as they’re all arrested the night before the attack. This leaves the anti-aircraft guns operational, and so the Wing Commander orders the squadron to return as the mission will be a deathtrap…
However, [blackout]Granville and the rest of the squadron volunteer to attack despite the risk. The waiting anti-aircraft guns and Luftwaffe fighters shoot most of the squadron’s mosquitoes down, but several aircraft manage to get their bombs on target, and eventually the outcrop collapses, destroying the target.[/blackout]
Injured, [blackout]Granville crashes his mosquito, but he survives and becomes a prisoner of war. The mission is a success, though at high cost.[/blackout]
Back in the pub [blackout]it turns out the publican is Adams, and Hilde, who has not seen Granville since he survived the mission, regularly visits and is currently staying with him. Finally, Adams realises that the stranger who has been listening to his story is Granville, who has returned in the hope of reuniting with Hilde.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
633 Squadron: Analysis
633 Squadron has a straightforward Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots). The squadron receives the mission of destroying whatever’s lurking at the end of the Norwegian fjord and gets on with the job.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The target in 633 Squadron is a good example of a thing-that-must-be-destroyed MacGuffin (see What is a MacGuffin for more explanation of MacGuffins). The target is such a MacGuffin that the squadron’s aircrew are not even told what it is, just that it’s a “vital target”.
This is actually realistic, as aircrew in WW2 were often not told what the target really was. For example, according to veterans of the Peenemünde raid, even their commanding officer didn’t know what the target was, only that it was extremely important and if they didn’t destroy it, they’d have to keep trying until they did. The crews didn’t find out until after the war that Peenemünde was the test site and factory for the V1 and V2 rockets.
The writing in 633 Squadron is competent, no-frills, journalistic, stuff. Which is fine, as it isn’t a literary novel, it’s a straightforward plot-led military thriller, and a quick, easy read. The only surprise is that the climactic attack only takes up two chapters. I would have expected Smith to have made more of it.
The characters in 633 Squadron are standard war-thriller stock characters. The officers are all either charismatic ‘born leaders’ or ‘by the book’ martinets. The pilots are all devil-may-care or morose. The Norwegians burn with hatred for their Nazi occupiers. All the ground crew are either grizzled veterans or ‘green’ youngsters.
However, there are hints of a realistic portrayal of men under wartime stress. Granville is not quite the cold-hearted, ruthless fighter he appears to be, but a man who hates his job. Gilibrand is openly having affairs with several women, and he’s hiding his navigator’s near-collapse from combat stress.
In the author’s defence, he had been in the wartime RAF and so, presumably, these stereotypical characters are not so far from reality. Still, books like Fair Stood the Wind for France have much better developed characters.
The Frame Story
633 Squadron has a frame story set in the mid-1950s, which didn’t seem to add a lot to the story. This made me think about frame stories as a concept and what the point of them is.
The purpose of a frame story is to lead the reader into the main story, to provide a second point of view, to summarise background information, or explain parts of the story. Frederick Smith used it as a lead in and a summary. He uses the opening frame story with its modern (for the time) characters to lead the reader into the story. And the closing chapter enables him to quickly summarise the fates of the surviving characters after the war and throw in a mild twist. The revelations in the final chapter are not exactly earth-shattering, they just give the story a happier ending.
Reality: RAF Precision Attacks
During WW2, the RAF carried out many extremely low level, highly accurate raids using de Havilland Mosquitoes, such as the attacks on the Dutch, Norwegian and French Gestapo headquarters and Operation Jericho, an attack on Amiens prison. Perhaps though, 617 Squadron’s attack on the German dams and on the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord also inspired the novel.
What’s all this about Star Wars being based on 633 Squadron?
The whole Star Wars movie isn’t influenced by 633 Squadron, just the ‘trench run’ sequence at the end. The climatic attack in Star Wars: A New Hope is very, very similar to the one in 633 Squadron:
- A squadron of fighter-bombers.
- Flying through a deep fjord/trench.
- Fired on by anti-aircraft guns.
- Attacked by enemy fighters.
- Suffering heavy casualties.
- Delivering a precise strike that completely destroys the target.
So, yes, it’s true, the Star Wars movie was influenced by 633 Squadron, but only up to a point.
633 Squadron: My Verdict
Straightforward flying adventure. Old-fashioned, but fun.
633 Squadron: The Movie
Walter Grauman directed a movie of 633 Squadron in 1963, with Cliff Robertson starring.
The movie is broadly true to the novel, but it’s hugely truncated, and drops the frame story and all of the subplots except the romance with Hilde. The most unlikely change is that Squadron Leader Granville becomes an American named Grant. Also, without the frame story, there’s no happy ending.
The back projection of the pilots in the cockpits and the sequences using model aircraft are both dated. The air-to-air photography, using five airworthy de Havilland Mosquitoes and a couple of French-built Messerschmitt trainers disguised as fighters is terrific though. Scarcely believably, the film-makers deliberately destroyed a Mosquito during the making of the movie in a simulated crash sequence, a tragic loss given that there are now only four airworthy Mosquitoes left.
The movie also features an iconic musical score by Ron Goodwin who also wrote the music for Where Eagles Dare and The Battle of Britain.
633 Squadron: The Sequels
Having found success with 663 Squadron, Frederick Smith stuck to the knitting, writing nine sequels over the next forty years. They are all called 633 Squadron: Operation [Something] and are all very similar in premise to the original: the Resistance reports that something needs blowing up and 633 Squadron get the job of blowing it up. The targets include secret weapons, bridges and trains full of prisoners.
The 663 Squadron movie also had a spiritual successor: the low-budget ‘homage’ Mosquito Squadron, which reused a lot of 633 Squadron’s flying sequences in a very similar story.
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