Dawn Patrol (1938)




Director:  Edmund Goulding

Starring:  Errol Flynn (Capt. Courtney), Basil Rathbone (Maj. Brand), David Niven (Lt. 'Scotty' Scott), Donald Crisp (Phipps), Melville Cooper (Sgt. Watkins), Barry Fitzgerald (Bott), Carl Esmond (Von Mueller), Peter Willes (Hollister), Morton Lowry (Donnie Scott), Michael Brooke (Capt. Squires), James Burke (Flaherty, motorcycle driver), Stuart Hall (Bentham), Herbert Evans (Scott's mechanic), Sidney Bracey (Maj. Brand's orderly), Leo Nomis (aeronautic supervisor)

constant loss of pilots in the air war over France


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Royal Flying Corps.  France 1915.  59th Squadron.  The squadron commander is Major Brand.  He is a very nervous fellow.  "A" Flight has not returned from its latest mission.  He talks on the phone with his superior who tells him that he can't depend on him.  This makes Brand very angry and he talks back praising the unit.  The superior threatens him with a transfer to a less important position.  And the situation is bad.  They have lost 16 pilots in a fortnight.  A Flight returns, but only five of the seven planes remain.  They lost two pilots.  One of the pilots, named Hollister, lost his best friend in the recent sortie.  Captain Courtney, the leader of A Flight,  tries to cheer up Hollister.  Later he goes in to speak with Brand.  Brand's right-hand man, Phipps, says that Brand's nerves have run out.  Brand explains to Courtney that four new replacements are arriving soon.  They will go with the unit to patrol behind enemy lines.  They will go-up at dawn.  Poor A Flight needs the pilots because they are down to only five: Courtney, Scott, Seltridge, Woolsey and Hollister. 

The replacements arrive:  Second Lt. Russel, along with Henry Burt, Cleaver and Smythe.  Only two planes are available to the four replacements.  Russell and Cleaver are to go up with the squadron.  Then young pilots are fresh from their training and have had less than 19 hours of flight training and one pilot with as little as 7.5 hours.  Burt and Smyth have to remain behind. 

In the flight Scott is shot down and killed.  This is very upsetting to Courtney because the two were best friends.  Courtney tells Brand the bad news.  They lost three pilots: Scott and the two new guys, Russell and Cleaver.  Things are tense between Brand and Courtney, who accuses Brand of getting the new pilots killed too quickly by not giving them a few more days of training in dog-fighting.  Later Brand has a drink with Courtney and they toast to Scotty.  Courtney explains that Hollister got in a jam and Scotty went to his aid.  A little later they bring in the actual German flyer that shot Scotty down.  His name is Hauptmann Von Mueller.  Courtney takes the high road and welcomes the German prisoner.  They have a toast to the dead on both sides.  Hollister, however, cannot stand Courtney being friendly to the German pilot.  He accuses Courtney of having forgotten Scotty already. 

Scotty is suddenly escorted into the bar.  Courtney, of course, and the other men are happy to see him alive.  He is introduced to the pilot who shot him down.  Scotty, Courtney and "Fritz" get drunk and sing with some of the other pilots.  The three agree to take a motorcycle drive, but it is not permitted to take the German pilot with them.  They go by themselves in the sidecar driven by a sober soldier. 

On the next dawn patrol they meet a squadron under the leadership of Von Richter which outnumbers them by a ratio of 4 to 1.  A Flight loses five planes, including that of pilot Hollister.  Later Von Richter flies over the airdrome and drops some boots as a taunt. A note with the boots says they will need the boots because they are going be stuck in deep trouble facing the German planes.  The pilots all want to go up after Von Richter, but Brand forbids it:  "It's a trick to get you up in the air." 

Later Scotty and Courtney without permission go up with their planes loaded with bombs.  They do a terrific job of bombing the German airdrome.  They even destroy the few planes that try to take-off to fight them.  Making their get away, Courtney's plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire and he is forced to crash land.  Scotty lands beside his plane and Courtney jumps onto the wing of the plane next to the cockpit area and holds on tight.  Scotty takes off again and they both get back to their airdrome. 

Brand is furious with the two pilots.  He gives them a dressing down, but in the midst of his tirade the phone rings.  It's General Barranger.  He is extremely happy at the success of the mission against the German airdrome.  The General reports that that they "blew the whole place up."  Barranger is so pleased that Brand is to be given a more important position and will be transferred to wing.  But before he leaves, he is going to exact a little vengeance on Courtney.  He gives Courtney the job of being squadron leader.  Courtney soon learns the headaches associated with the squadron leader position.  He refers to his position as a "rotten job".         

New replacements come in.  There's a big problem.  One of the new pilots is Scotty's brother Donny.  Donny has only had nine hours of flight time and Scotty just knows his brother will be killed.   And the mission coming up is to patrol the Mantez Woods Sector opposite the German 6th Army.  Scott tells Courtney that Donny is not going up.  He wants Courtney to let him have a few days to instruct his brother before he has to go on patrol.  Courtney says:  "Every man goes up."  Courtney feels bad and speaks with General Barranger on the phone.  The General's response is:  "Do as you're told!" 

Donny prepares to go up.  Courtney tells him to stick close to his brother.  Four new pilots are going up at the same time.  In the air Von Richter and Company spot the British planes and go to the attack.  Von Richter himself shoots Donny down.  Only two planes return: Scotty and Billings, one of the new guys.  Scotty accuses Courtney of killing his brother and says:  "You dirty butcher." 

Brand comes to visit Courtney.  He wants to see how's it going.  Brand can see from Courtney's face that things are tough on him.  But Brand is there not just to check on the situation.  He delivers the next assignment.  There is going to be a big German offensive and the supply depot at the Soulet railhead must be destroyed.  Soulet is 60 km behind enemy lines.  Brand says it will be up to one man going alone.  The pilot will have to do a lot of hedgehopping not to be discovered too early.  Courtney says he will go himself, but Brand tells him to ask for a volunteer. 

Courtney does ask for a volunteer and Scotty is the first to shout out.  Scotty is given his instructions for the raid.  Later Courtney comes to speak with Scotty.  At first Scotty is hostile but Courtney insists he has found a better, safer route to fly.  He should fly into the Luonne Valley and then follow the railway into Soulet.  This way Scotty can get to Soulet before he is spotted.  Thinking about the mission and possible death, Scotty makes up with Courtney. 

The next morning, however, Courtney breaks his promise to Scotty to wake him up and goes in place of Scotty.  As he gets closer to Soulet the Germans spot him and start to fire on him.  Four planes take-off to shoot Courtney down.  Courtney performs extremely well hitting targets with all six of his bombs.  Following his successful raid, he starts for home, but the German airplanes are on him now.  Courtney is shot down and killed.

With the failure of Courtney to return, Scotty becomes squadron leader.  He learns that the 59th Squadron is to get a special mention for their part in stopping the German advance.  That's good news, but Scotty is still hoping for Courtney's return.  A German airplane flies over the airdrome and drops a package.  The men open it up and find Courtney's helmet and goggles.  Scotty says:  "Good-bye, Courtney."   

New replacements get their instructions.  A Flight will be patrolling, while B Flight will escort Allied bombers in the Mantez Woods sector.  Scotty tells the pilots:  "You new men, watch your flight leaders.  Act instantly on their signals.  That will be your only chance of coming through.  That's all."


Pretty good movie.  Not surprisingly Errol Flynn (Capt. Courtney), Basil Rathbone (Maj. Brand) and David Niven (Lt. 'Scotty' Scott) were all excellent.  The film itself is a fairly simple story of the constant loss of pilots in combat and the toll it takes on the pilots and the squadron leader. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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