The Cruel Sea

Taking a break from lecture preparations last night I decided to have a look through my collection of DVDs and found a box of old films made by Ealing Studios, among which was The Cruel Sea . The central character in the film is Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (played by Jack Hawkins), officer in command of the corvette HMS Compass Rose as it carries out its duties as a convoy escort vessel during World War II. Made in 1953, this is a war film, of course, but it stands out from many films of that genre because it is not only utterly convincing in its stark depiction of life on the Atlantic (and, later, Arctic) convoys during World War II but also extremely bleak in what it says about the dehumanising effect of the psychological and moral stresses that arise in armed conflict.

The outstanding sequence in the film is the following, in which HMS Compass Rose is attempting to hunt down a suspected U-boat. There’s a strong signal on the ASDIC (sonar) which convinces Sub-lieutenant Lockhart (played by a young Donald Sinden) that they have made contact with a U-boat. Ericson guides his ship towards the target, only to find that there are men in the water – survivors of a merchant vessel previously sunk by a U-boat’s torpedo – precisely where he must drop his depth charges. Does he attack, and kill the men in the water? Or does he spare them, and risk the U-boat killing hundreds more if it escapes? Such are the horrible decisions that have to be made in wartime, and the burden of having to make them must be intolerable.

I think what I admire most about this sequence is that it avoids giving a clear resolution. Was there actually a U-boat? Lockhart was convinced the signal represented a submarine, but ASDIC was known to produce false detections from, e.g. shoals of fish or even interfaces between regions of cold and warmer water.

Early in the war, escort vessels only had depth charges with which to attack submarines. That meant that they had to be directly above the target in order to strike and that, in turn, meant losing the ASDIC contact during the attack. The limited capability of the escorts to actually destroy submarines did not render them useless, as they could keep an individual U-boat submerged and occupied for hours on end. However, when U-boats became more numerous they began to attack in packs, outnumbering the escorts and causing carnage among the merchant vessels. Allied shipping losses reached disastrous levels, especially in 1943 when Britain was close to losing the war by strangulation of supply across the Atlantic.

Later on, the Royal Navy developed a forward throwing weapon (“The Hedgehog”) which allowed ships to attack U-boats while maintaining sonar contact and thus drastically improved their effectiveness during a deliberate attack. This together, with improvements in radar and provision of long range aircraft gradually turned the tide and disaster was averted.

Hunting a U-boat involved a great deal of guesswork and anticipation, hugely helped by knowing something about submarine tactics gained through intelligence work; at one level it was a relentless game of cat-and-mouse – absorbingly depicted in the film – but also of course no kind of “game” at all.

If there was indeed a U-boat in the scene shown above, it might have been destroyed (although one might expect oil and debris to rise to the surface in that case) or it might have escaped. This uncertainty adds another dimension to the moral dilemma of whether or not to attack: if you’re certain it’s a U-boat then you might attack, but what if it’s a probability of 90%? 50%? 10%? What form of calculus can be used in the seconds you have to make your decision?

5 Responses to “The Cruel Sea”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s a fine film. I remember also “In which we serve”.

    • Yes, a film I originally thought to be about tennis.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Noel Coward, who wrote and starred in it, based the captain loosely on Lord Mountbatten, who had had ships sunk under his command; his crews referred to the film (which came out while the war was still on) as “In which we sink.”

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Later on, the Royal Navy developed a forward throwing weapon (“The Hedgehog”) which allowed ships to attack U-boats while maintaining sonar contact and thus drastically improved their effectiveness during a deliberate attack. This together, with improvements in radar and provision of long range aircraft gradually turned the tide and disaster was averted.”

    Improvements in convoy tactics also helped. But the biggest single factor in reducing allied losses in the Battle of the Atlantic was codebreaking at Bletchley Park. It is interesting to contrast war histories written before and after Bletchley’s role was made public; the later ones all give Bletchley huge credit, whereas the earlier ones say that the tide of battle was turned by the other factors mentioned here but have nothing to say about how. Winston Churchill said that the Battle of the Atlantic was the only thing that gave him sleepless nights during the war, and he referred to Bletchley as “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled”.

    On a personal note, I crossed the Atlantic on the QE2 in 1984, fulfilling a major ambition as a liner nut. I afforded it by having the equivalent airfare out of my university, flying back, and putting myself down to share a cheapest-cabin with someone I didn’t know in advance (who turned out to be a friendly just-retired Irishman going to the LA Olympics); I regarded the cabin purely as a place to sleep. Crew described the crossing as better than average, weather-wise, yet the ship, all 963 feet of her, was rolling like the small Isle of Wight ferry that I used to take to Cowes. That gave me some idea of the scale of the waves, and of how unutterably grim and nerve-racking the convoys must have been, knowing you were hunted and never knowing when a torpedo might come and blow your ship from under you without warning. Even the infantry got a few minutes notice of battle at minimum, while aircrews could maintain extreme vigilance for the much shorter time they were in the air. The uncertainty must have been terrible. And those convoys were mild compared to the Arctic ones to Murmansk – for that, read Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses, be grateful for the heroism, and be glad we have not had to do it again. Lest we forget, indeed.

    • I agree of course with what you say about Bletchley Park’s role, but that was primarily about identifying the locations of U-boats so that strategic decisions could be taken, e.g. to re-route convoys. I was trying to talk specifically about about the close-range weapons and tactics deployed once contact had been made with a sub.

      One of my teachers at School was a RNR officer who had served on the Arctic convoys during WW2. I was nuts about naval history at that age so I asked him to tell me about it. He wouldn’t talk about it. Only later did I realise it was probably more that he couldn’t.

      If the QE2 rolled like that, imagine what it must have been like to do the crossing in a Flower Class corvette (dimensions 205 ft long by 33 ft wide). Their hull design meant that they would “roll on wet grass” as one quote has it; they were very “lively” at sea and during the worst storms even the most hardened naval veterans suffered from sea-sickness.

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