WAR ON FILM – The Cruel Sea

9 mins read

Taylor Downing reviews a WWII naval epic based closely on Nicholas Monsarrat’s famous novel.

The face of Jack Hawkins looks out from the 1953 poster for The Cruel Sea.
The face of Jack Hawkins looks out from the 1953 poster for The Cruel Sea.

In 1951 Nicholas Monsarrat published his fourth book on the naval war, The Cruel Sea. Monsarrat described it as the story ‘of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men.’ In a gritty, realistic style the book conveys the joys and the tragedies, the cruelty and the horror of the Battle of Atlantic.

It focuses on the relationship between Captain George Ericson and a reserve officer who becomes his Number One, Keith Lockhart. It tells the story of HMS Compass Rose, a corvette, and HMS Saltash, a frigate, and the crews who sailed them from 1939 to 1945. The book captures the rituals of life at sea and goes into the heart of the action. At times the description of sailing through rough seas is strong enough to make the reader almost feel seasick.

The Cruel Sea is a novel but it is based very much on Monsarrat’s own wartime experiences. He had served on corvettes and on a frigate in the Atlantic for four years rising through the ranks. He had sailed with crews whose moving human stories are reflected in the characters in The Cruel Sea. Monsarrat had himself been a journalist before the war and became a Royal Naval Reserve Officer because of his interest in sailing.

Art reflecting reality

The central character, Lockhart, had a similar background and was clearly based on the author. And although the book is a work of fiction, it comes very near to non-fiction in long sequences that explain the challenges and the terrors of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rising above much wartime fiction, the book’s in-your-face realism still makes it today one of the great classics of naval warfare. The book became an instant best seller and over the years has sold more than a million copies.

A year after its release, Sir Michael Balcon, the legendary head of Ealing Studios, acquired the film rights to the book. During the war Balcon had produced some memorable films about the conflict, most notably Went the Day Well? (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, 1943) and San Demterio, London (directed by Charles Frend, 1943). Post-war, Balcon did not produce many war films although he had a great interest in heroes and in close knit male communities. Kenneth Tynan, the critic, later rather cruelly said of Balcon that ‘he has never made a film which paid any real attention to sex. His favourite productions…deal exclusively with men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mainly by post-card. A wry smile, a pat on the head, and off into the unknown.’

Monsarrat’s book clearly attracted Balcon as he wanted to pay tribute to the men who had kept the sea lanes open and ensured Britain’s survival during the war years. There was, however, some pretty explicit sexual content in the book but this did not make it into the film.

Balcon took on Eric Ambler as screenwriter and he adapted Monsarrat’s book but kept close to the original. Charles Frend directed. He had made a run of highly successful wartime films that could loosely be termed as propaganda including The Foreman Went to France (1943) and San Demetrio, London (1943). Balcon put together a stellar cast that would ensure the film attracted big audiences. Jack Hawkins played Captain Ericsson in a superb performance that transformed his career. The young Donald Sinden played Lockhart. And both Denholm Elliott and Virginia McKenna emerged as stars in the film.

Der Grosse Atlantik  Cruel Sea,  Jack Hawkins Ericson (Jack Hawkins), Kommandant des britischen Kriegsschiffes "Compass Rose",
Jack Hawkins as Captain Ericson, a well-respected commander but under whose watch countless merchant vessels and their crews are lost.

The Compass Rose

The film begins with the fitting out of HMS Compass Rose, a small corvette. After sea trials, the ship begins its escort duties in the vast, turbulent seas of the Atlantic. Initially, the U-boats cannot penetrate as far as the central Atlantic and the raging sea is the worst enemy faced by the naval escort. But after the fall of France and the use of the French ports, the U-boats range across the whole ocean and the violent seas then become the friend of the convoys and their escorts as no submarine could attack during the wild storms.

For the first mission, a lazy, abusive, bullying First Lieutenant dominates the officers’ Ward Room, impressively played by Stanley Baker. But he finds the going too rough and drops out apparently with a duodenal ulcer, one of the few ailments the Admiralty would accept as a reason for not sending a man to sea. Lockhart is promoted to Number One and the central relationship in the film begins to play out between Lockhart and Captain Ericson.

Throughout the film, authentic archive footage of ships going down and of men being rescued in various states of terrible distress is intercut with the staged scenes. A genuine Flower-class corvette was found in Malta awaiting the breaker’s yard and this ship, HMS Coreopsis, was used in the scenes filmed at sea. The naval filming was done out of Plymouth and Donald Sinden later recalled that in the first few days of filming the sea was too calm and so they sailed to an area near Portland Bill where several tides met at a single point and the director got the scenes he needed.

Gibraltar Run

A core sequence in the film is the ‘Gibraltar run’ in the summer of 1941. Compass Rose accompanies a convoy to the Mediterranean and over the Bay of Biscay they are spotted by a German reconnaissance aircraft that reports on the progress of the convoy. Before long a pack of U-boats attack the convoy and sink more than half of its ships. Compass Rose picks up as many survivors as it can, filling its decks with wounded and dying sailors. Each rescue puts the corvette itself in great danger as pausing to pick up men from the sea makes it an easy target.

In one central and harrowing scene, Lockhart thinks he has an Asdic contact with a U-boat just near the place where a cargo ship has gone down. Ericson spots desperate survivors waving for help in the sea above the location of the U-boat.

He has to decide whether to go ahead and launch his depth charges which will result in certain death for the survivors. In the book, Monsarrat is precise about the horrible deaths these men will suffer as their bodies are literally split from end to end or blown into dozens of pieces. In the film, the focus is on Jack Hawkins as the Captain who has to decide whether to attack or not. After being assured that this is ‘the firmest contact we have ever had’ he launches his depth charges.

The convoy being escorted by Compass Rose under comes under attack in the Mediterranean.
The convoy being escorted by Compass Rose under comes under attack in the Mediterranean.

All we see is the reaction of the men on Compass Rose as they watch in horror while the bodies of the hopeless survivors are ripped apart by the explosions. The book makes it clear that the Asdic signal was not a U-boat but the cargo ship slowly sinking. The film leaves it unclear except that no U-boat is sunk. One of the sailors on the Compass Rose shouts out ‘Bloody murderer’ at the captain. When they finally get to Gibraltar, Lockhart blames himself for murdering the men. Ericson, with tears in his eyes, replies ‘No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.’

But Ericson then collapses in inconsolable grief and gets terribly drunk. It was clearly an issue for the film-makers as to how much emotion should be displayed in these scenes. Open emotion was not something Ealing specialised in. In his autobiography, Jack Hawkins says that the scene was played in three different ways on successive days to try to get the level of emotion right. The final scene is certainly intense and dramatic, and forcefully conveys the cruel responsibilities of command.

On the way back from Gibraltar escorting another convoy the Compass Rose suffers a technical breakdown. The engineering chief takes about twenty hours to fix the fault as the ship lies motionless on the ocean, a sitting duck for any U-boat in the vicinity. The tension on board is intense. When they finally catch up with the convoy they spot a U-boat waiting to attack. The Compass Rose goes in for the kill and sinks the U-boat. After so much loss, there is at last something to celebrate. In the book, the arrogant young U-boat captain is rescued and brought aboard and Ericson is so outraged by his behaviour he considers shooting him in cold blood there and then. This sequence does not appear in the film.

Love stories

Lockhart falls for a beautiful young WRNS officer (played by Virginia McKenna) who works in the Western Approaches headquarters, providing the film’s principal love story.
Lockhart falls for a beautiful young WRNS officer (played by Virginia McKenna) who works in the Western Approaches headquarters, providing the film’s principal love story.

There are three male-female relationships in the film. A stoker meets the sister of one of his mates, Gladys, on home leave in Liverpool. Gladys is played by the always down-to-earth Megs Jenkins. A relationship quietly builds up between them and we are later told they have become engaged. Then, on arriving back at Liverpool after a tough mission, the men find the street where Gladys lives has been bombed and she has been killed. In typical Ealing style, the men display no grief but carry on with what has to be done. The story is a reminder that it is not just servicemen who are the victims of this war, but that civilians are in the front line too.

In another sequence, we see a young officer, John Morell played by Denholm Elliott, and his wife, a young actress, played by Moira Lister, who is obviously two-timing her husband. At the end of his leave as Morell prepares to return to the rigours of convoy escort duty, his wife announces she cannot see him off as she has a party to attend with a famous producer.

The principal love interest in the film is that between the central character, Lockhart, and a glamorous young WRNS officer who works in the Western Approaches headquarters, Second Officer Julie Hallam, dazzlingly played by Virginia McKenna. Theirs is a complex affair as Lockhart is reluctant to commit to a relationship in such uncertain and troubled times. But after several meetings, their relationship advances and in the book clearly becomes sexual. In the film this is far less evident. The relationship blossoms giving Lockhart a reason for surviving and a dream of post-war happiness. In the book, Hallam is killed on duty. In the film she survives and one assumes she and Lockhart live happily ever after.

One of the most dramatic scenes features the sudden sinking of Compass Rose by a U-boat that strikes out of the blue at night. Within minutes the ship starts to sink. Screams come up the pipe to the bridge from the men trapped below decks. The lifeboats cannot be freed and the survivors gather around two rafts. At dawn the two rafts join up, Ericson on one and Lockhart another. The survivors are picked up by one of the escorts that comes back to look for them.

Ericson is then given command of a new, fast frigate and Lockhart elects to stay with him. They form a formidable team and take part in escorting an Artic convoy to Russia as well as more Atlantic convoys. But Ericson still has to struggle with the responsibilities of leadership. In one intense sequence the Saltash Castle picks up the sonar of a U-boat and goes in to attack. Lockhart is convinced when oil comes to the surface that they have sunk the U-boat. Ericson believes this to be a deception and insists on maintaining the pursuit throughout the day and the following night. The men on the bridge and below decks are utterly exhausted by the ordeal but Ericson’s hunch is right and eventually they succeed in sinking the U-boat.

The Cruel Sea was an enormous success on its release in 1953 and it proved to be the most successful film at the box office that year. It is a powerful tribute to the men who fought the Battle of the Atlantic, one of the most crucial battles of the war. But it is not a simple celebration of a vital victory. There are no mock heroics in the film. Frend concentrates on showing the drama and the tension on men’s faces. Alongside the actors, real sailors were used and their expressive faces provide the backdrop of the whole film.

As well as tragedy, The Cruel Sea explores the futility of the war at sea. The film spans the entire war, from 1939 to 1945. Ericson is a successful commander who is well respected for his triumphs. But the film shows countless merchant vessels and their crews being lost. At the end Ericson for all his success sums it up when he says ‘We only sank two U-boats in five years.’ This was a battle well stacked in favour of the U-boats and their daring commanders. It was a battle that had to be won. The Cruel Sea brilliantly captures the spirit of the men who won it.




  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the article on The Cruel Sea in your recent issue.Taylor Downing has captured succinctly the essence of this,my favourite war film,viz,the spirit of the ordinary man.Is it possible to obtain a collection of your articles on War on Film even though I am not a subscriber?

  2. I read The Cruel Sea 60 years ago in 1961 as a schoolgirl and was riveted and enthralled by it. Monsarrat is a masterful author and the book was a gripping record of his own wartime experiences at sea. I was “first in the queue” to see the marvellous film made of The Cruel Sea and found it to be a brilliantly authentic interpretation of both the book and Monsarrat’s own first-hand wartime naval experiences. I hope the film is available on DVD. I would love to have my own copy to watch frequently and to share with my children and grandchildren. The sacrifices and nobility of character of the brave men and women of WWII should be commemorated with gratitude by we, the generations that have followed. We owe an incalculable debt of gratitude for our lives entirely free from any further world wars, thanks to the sacrifices made by those depicted by Monsarrat in his brilliant fictional portrayals of Lockhart, Captain Ericsson, Wren Julie Hallam, Morrell and all the other heroes of his novels. Gaye Neille, Johannesburg, South Africa. October 2021

  3. I first saw the Cruel Sea with my father in the early ’50s, when I was still very young and I remember how moved my father was watching it. He was a veteran of WWII and while he never served in combat, he clearly felt the emotional grip of this movie.

    I have recently re-viewed the movie, thanks to the availability of classic movies through DVDs and streaming services and I found myself moved by it as well. It has a rare authenticity to it that so few movies about war have: they used a genuine ship, they sailed it into very rough seas and for the only time I have ever seen in any movie, the ammunition they fired and the depth charges they dropped were all the real thing! No blanks or computer-generated graphics in this movie.

    The acting was wonderful and the characters seemed real in their roles as Royal Navy officers and seamen and the director conveyed the humanity, the endurance and the quiet courage very, very well. Best of all, the script left Jule Hallam alive, instead of that cheesy drowning death she has in the book.

    The only war movie like it!

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