Launching a new occasional series, TV documentary producer and military historian Taylor Downing explores the story behind the wartime movie classic In Which We Serve.
On 20 May 1941, 16,000 German airborne troops launched the invasion of Crete, Hitler’s final operation to reverse the disaster of Mussolini’s attempt to occupy Greece on behalf of the Axis powers. On the following day, HMS Kelly was ordered from Malta to Crete as leader of a flotilla of three K Class destroyers, to defend the island from the invasion fleet.
Early on the morning on 23 May, the flotilla was attacked by 24 Stuka dive-bombers. The ships in the flotilla took evasive action and the destroyers were sailing at full speed, about 30 knots, when both Kelly and her sister ship, HMS Kashmir, were hit.
HMS Kelly was struck by a large bomb, listed to port and capsized. The third ship in the flotilla, HMS Kipling, managed to pick up survivors despite coming under sustained attack herself. 159 survivors of HMS Kelly were rescued and taken to Alexandria.
The captain of HMS Kelly and the leader of the flotilla was Lord Louis Mountbatten, the king’s cousin. Mountbatten was only in his early 40s but was tall, striking, and had a natural aura of leadership and authority. Despite this, he had not enjoyed a distinguished record as captain of HMS Kelly, the ship having been put out of action by mines and torpedoes three times during the war, and having in one fourteen month period spent only two weeks on active duty. Without doubt, however, Mountbatten was a popular captain much liked by the men who served under him.
Mountbatten returned to London in June 1941, where he met an old showbiz friend for lunch, Noel Coward. Mountbatten had enjoyed an interest in stage and screen throughout his life. On his honeymoon in 1922 he had visited Hollywood and appeared in a short film made by Charlie Chaplin.
Coward was gripped by Mountbatten’s account of his recent experiences on HMS Kelly and was particularly fascinated by the speeches he had made as captain to his crew. Coward was a prolific playwright, song composer, and the leading theatre showman of the day. Most of his plays were satires on the high society within which he moved, like Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930), and Blithe Spirit (1941).
Coward had visited Mountbatten on many occasions in the ‘30s when the latter was serving in the Mediterranean Fleet and had grown to admire both Mountbatten and the Royal Navy. ‘To start with,’ he later said in typical style, ‘they’ve got the best manners in the world and I love the sea and Navy discipline.’
In the early part of the war, Coward had worked in the British propaganda office in Paris, and after the fall of France he had travelled in the United States. Although he continued to work covertly for British intelligence, he was criticised in the press for swanning around abroad while his fellow citizens faced the Blitz and the threat of invasion at home. He was coming under increasing pressure to do more for the war effort when a film company, Two Cities, approached him and said they would back any film he wished to make. So he decided to make a film based on the story of Mountbatten and the HMS Kelly incident. He would write it, produce it, compose the music for it – and star in it as the captain of the ship.
To make a film based on the HMS Kelly story would require the support of the Admiralty. And here was a problem. The Royal Navy was not keen to see the making of a popular film that centred on the sinking of one of its warships. The Ministry of Information further argued that it would be disastrous if the film was ever shown abroad as it would undermine confidence in the Navy.
Mountbatten had a more sophisticated view on the role of film and could see how Coward’s approach would be good propaganda for the Navy and a major morale booster at a bad time in the war. He launched a charm offensive. He introduced Noel Coward to Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, and to Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information. Under pressure from Mountbatten and Coward, the authorities came around.
Coward began production on his new film in early 1942. By this time Churchill had made Mountbatten head of Combined Operations – a considerable promotion. Despite the immense pressure of his workload, Mountbatten somehow found time to be closely involved with the production of Coward’s film.
Coward’s initial scenario had an aristocratic Captain Kinross married to a Lady Kinross, living in a large country house, and being driven around in a Rolls Royce. (Mountbatten, married to Lady Edwina, owned the Broadlands Estate in Hampshire and had a Rolls Royce.) Mountbatten was embarrassed by the similarities and persuaded Coward to tone this down, turning the country house into a more modest villa, the wife into Mrs Kinross and the Rolls into a Ford.
Coward also created several other leading figures so that the film was not just about the captain. These included a Chief Petty Officer, played by Bernard Miles, and an Ordinary Seaman, played by John Mills. The stories of these three men and their wives and families left behind at home were at the heart of the film.
During the early months of 1942, Mountbatten continued to have a close involvement with the production of In Which We Serve. He advised on the casting. He made several visits to Denham Studios, where the film was being shot. He even arranged for the King and Queen to make a rare visit to the studios to see the shooting.
At one point he felt that the extras did not look sufficiently seaman-like in appearance. So he arranged for 200 convalescent seamen from the naval hospital at Haslar to be sent to Denham for a week to appear in the film in order to give a more authentic feel to the scenes of life at sea.
The film begins with the words ‘This is the story of a ship’. There follow documentary-like scenes of a destroyer under construction and going through its sea trials. Then the film flashes forward to 23 May 1941 and actions off Crete.
The ship is hit during an air attack and as it goes down the captain gives the order to ‘Abandon ship’. The main part of the film then features a group of survivors clinging to a Carley Float.
We get the stories of the three central characters in a series of flashbacks. We find out more about their wives and families at home and a picture is painted of a quaint hierarchy of classes, united through a devotion to duty and values of loyalty and dependability. In Coward’s film, the ship’s crew and their families become a microcosm of British society, with all its clearly differentiated classes represented.
There are many elements of In Which We Serve that are historically accurate. Coward had been much taken by Mountbatten’s speech to his crew when HMS Kelly was first commissioned. He reproduced it word for word in the film: ‘In my experience, you cannot have an efficient ship unless you have a happy ship, and you cannot have a happy ship unless you have an efficient ship… and that is the way I intend to go on – with a happy and an efficient ship.’
In some ways, however, In Which We Serve diverged from the facts. The ship had an invented name of HMS Torrin. In one sequence, the ship helps with the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. HMS Kelly did not take part in this evacuation, but for contemporary cinema audiences such scenes would have had considerable resonance.
In one scene in which Kelly attacks a group of German warships and is hit in the return fire, a cowardly stoker leaves his post. This was based on a real incident in December 1939 on HMS Kelly. When the ship had been towed back to port, Mountbatten called the entire crew together and made a speech that Coward delivers almost word for word in the film.
He began ‘Out of 240 men on this ship, 239 behaved as they ought to have and as I expected them to. One did not.’ Mountbatten pointed out that the penalty for desertion was death. He went on ‘You will therefore be surprised to know that I propose to let this man off with a caution, one caution to him and a second one to myself, for having failed to impress my personality and doctrine on each and all of you to prevent such an incident occurring.’
It is a powerful scene depicting excellent skills of man-management. Richard Attenborough, then only 18 years old and appearing in his first ever screen role, played the sailor who left his post. The scene launched a new film career.
In Which We Serve was released in late 1942 and became an instant hit. For several months it was the highest grossing movie at the box office in Britain. But it also did extremely well in the United States. In 1943 Noel Coward was awarded an Honorary Oscar for the film, and the National Board of Review in America gave it their Best Film Award.
Although the film begins with a disclaimer that it is not based on the story of any particular ship, most people knew that it was about Mountbatten. He later said that his fellow officers ribbed him for helping to make a film that was intended to boost him personally. But Mountbatten soon got over this. He saw the film on many occasions, and apparently when it was shown to Mrs Roosevelt in the cinema at Buckingham Palace he kept up a running commentary on the experiences that had served as its basis.
Certainly the film did his career no harm. In 1944 he was appointed Supreme Commander of South-East Asia Command, and in 1947 he became the last Viceroy of India and oversaw the end of the British Raj and the painful birth of India and Pakistan.
The fact that In Which We Serve did so well internationally reveals how wrong the men from the Ministry of Information had been in their initial assessment. The film shows the fighting men of the Navy carrying on regardless of what the enemy throw at them. At the end, the film concludes ‘Here ends the story of a ship. But there will be other ships.’ In the last shot we see Captain Kinross, now commanding a new ship, shouting the order ‘Open Fire’.
The film remains a classic of the British cinema industry and to today’s eyes it captures that quiet-spoken, restrained world in which everyone knew their place and was devoted to the greater good. One of the great successes of In Which We Serve is that it is not just the story of a ship at war: it is the story of Britain as a whole at war.
What’s in a name?
Lord Louis Mountbatten was born in 1900, the grandson of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and the great grandson of Queen Victoria. His father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, spent his working life in the Royal Navy and rose to be a highly successful and progressive First Sea Lord of the Admiralty before the First World War. In October 1914 he resigned in the wave of anti-German hysteria because of his German background. In 1917 the royal family changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, to make the family appear more British. At the same time, Prince Louis changed his family name from Battenberg to Mountbatten. Henceforth, Lord Louis would be a Mountbatten.
In October 1941, Churchill appointed Mountbatten to take over the running of Combined Operations from Sir Roger Keyes, who had not been a success. The job required diplomacy, tact, and vision. Keyes had rubbed everyone up the wrong way, especially the Chiefs of Staff, whom he publicly denounced as being lily-livered.
By contrast, Mountbatten had all the qualities that were needed. In addition he was supremely confident, dynamic, and superbly well-connected. With typical bulldog spirit, Churchill told Mountbatten to transform the south coast of England ‘from a bastion of defence into a springboard for attack’.
Mountbatten brought in a brilliant set of scientific advisers and a new clutch of bright young officers to plan operations. At a bad time in the war for Britain, Mountbatten had the much-needed ability to create heroes. Successful ops during his ‘watch’ included the commando raid at Vaasgö in northern Norway in December 1941, the Bruneval Raid by newly formed parachute troops led by Major John Frost in February 1942, and the St Nazaire Raid in March of that year – an operation of mixed success but one that resulted in five VCs being awarded.
In addition to these small-scale raids that captured the public’s imagination, Combined Operations set about initial planning for Sledgehammer, the operation that would become the invasion of Europe two years later. Churchill was delighted with Mountbatten’s successes and in March 1942 promoted him again. Mountbatten wrote proudly to a friend that he was now ‘the youngest Vice-Admiral since Nelson’. It was a dazzling success for both Mountbatten and Combined Operations.
At the time, the publicity for In Which We Serve claimed that Noel Coward had directed the film, though there is a co-director credit for David Lean. In fact, it is now universally accepted that Coward left Lean to direct most of the scenes while he concentrated on directing the actors and in playing Captain Kinross.
David Lean had started his film career in the late ‘20s as a clapper boy and went on to become a successful film editor. In Which We Serve marks his directorial debut. He would go on to become one of the greatest directors in the history of British cinema.
He collaborated again with Coward in This Happy Breed in 1944 and the film version of Blithe Spirit in 1945. His later films include classics like Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Oliver Twist (1948). He won his first Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, and later made Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984).
But his greatest film was, of course, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), for which he won another Oscar, and which has just been digitally restored. The stunning new version has just been re-released by Sony-Columbia Pictures to mark the film’s 50th anniversary.
In Which We Serve
A Two Cities Film written and produced by Noel Coward, directed by Noel Coward and David Lean, with photography by Ronald Neame. Featuring Noel Coward as Captain Kinross and Celia Johnson as Mrs Kinross; Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy and Joyce Carey as Mrs Hardy; John Mills as Able Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake and Kay Walsh as Freda; and Richard Attenborough as the Young Stoker. The film is available through ITV DVD.
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