Saturday Matinee (backdated): Above Us the Waves

This is a true, but simplfied-for-the-screen, tale of one of the greatest special operations campaigns (not just operations) of World War II. It tells the story of pioneering British naval special operations forces and their  efforts to sink the mighty German battleship Tirpitz. The film was directed by Ralph Thomas for the Rank Organisation, and released in 1955. The movie was based on a non-fiction book of the same title.

Thanks to Royal Navy cooperation, the filmmakers were able to use actual WWII Special Operations naval hardware for filming.

The strategic background for the raid began with island Britain’s absolute dependency upon maritime commerce for survival. The German Navy was caught unready by war’s outbreak, unready, that is, to go toe to toe with the larger and more experienced Royal Navy. The Battle of the River Plate showed that even a very powerful ship could be brought to bay by skillful seamanship in more numerous smaller vessels. But Germany’s powerful capital ships, battleships and pocket-battleships or battlecruisers, were a constant threat that tied down vastly more numerous British units.

We have previously mentioned the Ste-Nazaire raid, which was meant to deny the Germans’ largest ship, DKM Tirpitz, a drydock outside of the Skagerrak. (If the ship had to go home to Kiel, it was easier for the RN to bottle her up inside the narrow Skagerrak and Kattegat straits, not to mention the even narrower straits around Sjoelland — happy hunting grounds for HM Submarines). But that would be more useful if Tirpitz and the other ships that had taken refuge in Norwegian fjords were damaged in the first place. So much the better if they could be sunk!

Not shown in the movie is the intensive use of espionage to find and fix the German capital ships (if you’re interested in this, Bjørn Rørholt’s 2-volume Usynlige Soldader is a great reference on the Norwegian networks of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI-6), and mentioned only in passing is the first approach to damaging these ships, aerial bombing. It is the nature of fjords, of course, to have many twists, a great deal of depth, and steep rocky sides; and it is in the nature  of navies to expect and prepare for aerial attack with radars and all kinds of AA guns, and these two things taken together meant that bombing was fruitless. Tirpitz was almost invulnerable here.

The Italian Navy had taught the British a few painful lessons about maritime special operations, and the British had developed a human torpedo called the Chariot. Two men rode on a Chariot in suits of rubber, wearing a primitive Siebe Gordon oxygen rebreather that allowed a maximum safe depth of 33 feet. The Chariot’s weapons were its nose warhead, which could be dropped under a target vessel, or smaller limpet mines that could be attached magnetically by hand. The secret to destroying a massive ship is less the power of the warhead but its careful placement. A battleship like Tirpitz is armored heavily against other ships’s main guns, and moderately against aerial bombs (during the 1920s and 30s, when most WWII battleships were built, most battleship admirals didn’t take aerial bombing all that seriously, Billy Mitchell notwithstanding). She is armored against torpedo strikes, or at least protected with a sheet-metal bulge that predetonates the warhead clear of the hull proper. But she is at her most vulnerable underneath, where a frogman or a submarine can place a charge. That was the idea behind Bushnell’s Turtle, and it was the idea behind Chariot and X-Craft operations.

Frogmen suit up in primitive early suits, in Above Us the Waves.

After showing us the selection of volunteers for the operation, the officers and men of the mission begin to train for their mission. Realistic depictions of training, including submarine escape-trunk practice, segue into mission planning. But an admiral puts a stop to the mission: these men couldn’t possibly infiltrate a well-defended harbor with such awkward weapons. The commander of the operator schedules a visit with the Admiral to make his case.

As the Admiral is congratulating the commander for so reasonably accepting the decision to stand down his raid, a series of loud noises ring out. They were squib limpets, emplaced by charioteers in an unauthorized display of the teams’ proficiency. The Admiral is won over: they can go.

The chariot raid on Tirpitz doesn’t go well. Several things fail enroute, and the dejected survivors find themselves ashore in Nazi-occupied Norway. They make a long trek to neutral Sweden and return to Britain by this circuitous route. This aspect of the history is glossed over very lightly, in part because WWII escape and evasion plans formed the framework for Cold War escape and evasion plans which would be used in the light of a Soviet occupation of Norway, Finland or all Scandinavia. Accordingly, E&E history was a bit touchy. Also, while Sweden was neutral in the war, many individual Swedes leaned strongly one way or the other, and the cooperation of Swedish individuals and some authorities with the British (just as the cooperation of Swedish pharmaceutical and industrial firms with the Germans) was a matter of extreme delicacy in the postwar era.

The actual Chariot attack on Tirpitz, Operation Title,  took place in October-November, 1942, and was much as depicted in the movie, including the reasons for failure. One grim diffeence: of the ten participants, only nine reached Sweden and freedom. The tenth was caught by the Germans and shot as a spy.

Back in Britain, they discover that their Chariots have been supplemented by a new weapon, the X-Craft. The X-Craft was a midget submarine with a crew of three or four. They were used by Britain and later by US forces from WWII through the 1950s. It was a dry sub whose weapons were two large amatol charges, one on each side of the sub, called side-cargoes. These were extremely stable as long as they were dry, but if salt water entered it could start the charges’ chemical timers, at which time you didn’t really want to be in the sub with the charges still attached for much longer. As anyone who has been to sea, particularly in a submersible vessel, will tell you, there’s no such thing as 100% watertight. The X-Craft was a risky, desperate measure, then.

The X-Craft are towed on the surface by conventional submarines until they are close enough to their target (the anchorage Tirpitz was in, in Kåfjord, was sixty miles from open water). To keep the crew fresh, a separate crew manned the midgets during towing, and when it was time for the midget to cut loose, the crews changed over. For simplicity’s sake, the subs on the mission in the movie are numbered X-1 through X-3; in actuality six subs set out on Operation Source in September 1943, numbered X-5 through X-10. X-5 through X-7 were targeted against Tirpitz and the others at other ships, Scharnhorst and Lützow. (The planned strikes on these other ships, which did not come off, are not part of the movie).  

In the movie, two minisubs place their charges under Tirpitz, but are then attacked and the crews taken prisoner; they are on the deck of the ship when their charges disable her. The third sub is unable to place its charges, and the crew choose to die rather than prematurely expose the mission. On the real mission, the lost sub was X-5, the senior officer’s; and no one can know how and why those men died, only that they did. (A side-cargo believed to be from X-5 was found in 2005 and destroyed by the Norwegian armed forces in 2011, for safety’s sake). The 4-man crew of X-6 and two men from X-7 — the commander and first officer, the two nearest the escape hatch — survived and were on the deck of Tirpitz when their charges blew, quite as depicted in the movie.

With no actual German battleships available, it’s not clear what set or vessel was used for these scenes in the movie, but the Germans have a mixed bag of small arms. What appear to be Lanchester submachine guns are a fair imitator of the MP28s that German shipboard lockers often held, but the Sten guns… well, they had real Chariots and X-Craft, so we’ll cut them some slack on the Stens.

The actual raid did not sink Tirpitz, but might have done an even more serious injury to the Kriegsmarine by disabling the ship, which meant that the ship’s company and the anti-aircraft and -submarine resources were still tied up in Kåfjord. After being moved to an island near Tromsø, still not fully operational, she was sent to Davy Jones’s locker for good by British bombers using newly developed bombs in November, 1944.

John Mills is convincing as a bold, enthusiastic officer determined to prove that stealth and daring have a place in naval warfare.

Now, let’s say a few words about the quality of the movie, because all we’ve really discussed so far is its adherence to and departure from history. Like the previously reviewed Sea of Sand, this is one of a set of four Rank Organisation films in a single DVD case. It’s a good buy; all four of the films are well-written, well-directed, extremely well-acted war stories. This one is a fair DVD transfer from a good print, and the actors, notably John Mills and a not-yet-Sir Donald Sinden, are first class. The bit players are first-class also, with James Robertson Justice standing out as old Admiral Ryder, who changes his mind about the utility of frogmen. IF you look quick you may catch Theodore Bikel in a bit part as a German officer.

The story is well-plotted, if complex, and tension builds and builds, even if you know the outcome of the raid (one reason we haven’t made any attempt to hide spoilers. They won’t detract from your enjoyment of the film). Highly recommended.