War on Film: Western Approaches

‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.’ So wrote Winston Churchill in his post-war memoir-history.

Britain was (and is) a trading nation that was not self-sufficient and whose survival depended on the import by sea of a continuous supply of foodstuffs, metals, chemicals, and fuel. In addition, the nation needed vast quantities of armaments and military supplies of all kinds to fight the war. With most stockpiles coming from the Unites States, what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic was a struggle that Britain simply could not afford to lose.

The sea lanes across the Atlantic leading to Britain were known as the Western Approaches. In February 1941, a command centre was set up in a bunker below the Derby Building in Liverpool to direct the battle. Admiral Sir Percy Noble was put in charge, and every possible tactic was used to keep the shipping lanes across the Atlantic open.

In the last six months of 1940, nearly two million tons of British shipping had gone to the bottom of the ocean. The situation got even worse the following year, until the capture of the Enigma codebooks enabled Bletchley Park to monitor signals traffic between the U-boats and their headquarters in L’Orient. For a brief period, the situation improved. It looked as though Britain was winning the battle.

But then the U-boat service added a new rotor blade to its Enigma machine and at Bletchley Park the signals traffic went black. In the first six months of 1942, the U-boats sank 300 ships in the Atlantic. Many lives were lost, and yet more tons of crucial military and domestic supplies ended up at the bottom of the sea.

The scale of losses in the Atlantic was strictly censored. But it was known in general terms that a fierce and essential battle was taking place. People living in the towns and cities where most merchant seamen came from would have had some idea of the extent of the losses.

As such, in 1941, the Admiralty agreed to support the making of a propaganda film about the Battle of the Atlantic. Admiral Percy Noble himself approved the project. A naval historian and writer named Owen Rutter produced an outline for a film promoting the convoy system. The Ministry of Information Films Division asked the Crown Film Unit to take over production, and Pat Jackson was appointed director. Over the next year, Jackson rewrote the outline and made the film more about the Merchant Navy than the Royal Navy. In line with other Crown Film Unit productions – such as Fires Were Started, about the fire brigade in the Blitz (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) – the decision was taken not to use professional actors but to feature actual sailors. Jackson went to Liverpool to start casting seamen for the different parts.

The head of the CFU wanted the film to be shot in Technicolor. This would greatly add to the cost and complexity of shooting the film, as the principal Technicolor Three- Strip system required the use of three huge 35mm cameras shooting together, each exposing a different part of the colour spectrum. The negatives were then combined into a single colour print.

However, some of the location scenes at sea were shot on a new and simpler Monopack system. The principal reason for shooting in Technicolor was that it would attract audiences at home and abroad, especially in America.

There were further delays due to arguments about the high cost of the production. The Treasury was reluctant to put public money into a risky film project, and made it clear that if the film failed at the box office then the whole future of the Crown Film Unit would be called into question. The delays meant that filming did not start until March 1943, with Jack Cardiff, probably the finest cinematographer in Britain, as cameraman.

Much of the film was shot in the Irish Sea a few miles offshore. The filming of sequences in a small lifeboat proved immensely challenging for all involved. Constantly soaked and shooting the film in uncontrollable seas, cast and crew were exhausted by the months of arduous work.

By June, production was at last complete, and a small shoot was carried out in a studio water tank. Additional scenes onboard vessels were shot at Pinewood. In July and August, Pat Jackson and another unit went to New York and recorded footage on an actual convoy as it crossed the Atlantic. This was a dangerous mission in itself, with three of the ships in the convoy subsequently sunk by U-boats.

There were further delays in finishing the film when the British Board of Film Censors objected to the use of the word ‘bloody’ in the film. Twelve ‘bloodys’ were removed, but Jackson insisted that three be retained for vital dramatic effect. These were finally approved. The film eventually premiered in Leicester Square in December 1944, and went on general release in January 1945.

Authentic story

The film cuts between a few core locations. It opens in a small lifeboat rising and falling in high seas. The effect, in Technicolor, is almost enough to make the viewer feel seasick. The 22 men in the lifeboat are survivors of a merchant ship, the Jason, apparently sunk by a U-boat. One of them was wounded when the U-boat machine-gunned the survivors. The captain is with them and keeps an avuncular command over the men as they chatter and sing together. These were the scenes that it took months to film in the Irish Sea.

The next segment is at the Western Approaches command centre, where two senior naval officers stare at a large wall map of the Atlantic. No SOS signal was received from the Jason and they speculate as to what could have happened to it. To them, it has disappeared in mid-ocean.

The following scenes, shot in New York, show locomotives, tanks, and aircraft being loaded on to another British merchant ship, the Leander. We meet its senior crew: pipe-smoking, bearded officers who talk about the journey ahead of them. There is then a fascinating sequence of the Masters’ Conference in Manhattan. The captains – or Masters – of all the ships in the convoy are addressed by the Convoy Commodore and the Escort Commander, who will lead the naval escorts. An American officer explains how far the aerial escort will follow them across the ocean. Questions are asked and reassuring answers given. I know of no other film of such a conference, which preceded every convoy.

LEFT The Operations Room at Derby House, Liverpool, September 1944. This was the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic, from which the defence of the Western Approaches was coordinated.
The Operations Room at Derby House, Liverpool, September 1944. This was the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic, from which the defence of the Western Approaches was coordinated.

The ships then head out into the azure blue of the Atlantic – and the real footage deployed here is moving. The seas grow wild and waves crash mightily over the bows as vessels rise and fall. The lumbering merchant ships are surrounded by the naval escorts, continuously searching out threats from below the sea.

Meanwhile, in the lifeboat, the men are growing tired, exhausted by their ordeal. Tiny rations are handed out daily. Their repartee is of home, of wives, of having a pint in the pub. They are heading east, praying to be picked up soon. There is a wireless on board and the operator repeatedly sends out a distress signal, but the battery is slowly fading. Fourteen days and nights pass in this tiny open boat.

In the convoy, one vessel has a problem, and the speed of the entire group is slowed to 4 knots. But the Leander cannot keep station at such a slow speed. The commodore gives it permission to sail ahead and the convoy will catch it up on the following day.

While steaming ahead, the Leander picks up the weak SOS signal from the lifeboat and the captain decides he must divert to attempt to rescue the survivors. But a U-boat has spotted the lifeboat and is using it as a decoy to attract a rescue ship that it will then torpedo. Again, the scenes on the U-boat, with a Dutch crew speaking in German, feel authentic despite having been shot in a studio.

As the Leander approaches, the men in the lifeboat spot the U-boat periscope, realise they are being tracked, and, in an extraordinary act of selflessness, try to warn it off. The U-boat has only two torpedoes left and fires them both. One hits and some of the crew abandon ship. But the captain, first officer and chief gunner stay on board and fire their single artillery piece at the U-boat as it surfaces, hitting and sinking it. The survivors in the lifeboat are then taken on board the Leander, and a typically understated, unemotional British reunion takes place.

The film is striking in that there are no single heroes, with crews on all ships displaying gallantry and heroism. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic is presented as a collective act by hundreds of sailors and commanders all quietly doing their bit. It is a story of modesty and self- effacement, of captains risking their ships to rescue others, and of survivors preferring to remain at sea rather than threaten potential rescuers.

And its appeal certainly comes in part because all the players are actual seamen, acting out roles they have possibly experienced themselves. There are no sham heroics played out by actors.

Using Ordinary People
In the 1930s, a pioneering documentary film movement established itself in Britain. At its core was the GPO Film Unit. The filmmakers of that era struggled with heavy, large 35mm film equipment and found they had to recreate, or stage, much of the action they wanted to depict.

This was the only way that they could capture ‘reality’. So they developed the technique of filming the real people who would normally carry out these actions rather than professional actors. This was evident in films like Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey, 1935), in which ordinary people from Stepney talk about their living conditions in slums; and Night Mail (Harry Watt, 1936), about the postal service between England and Scotland. In the latter film, it is Pat Jackson – he had joined the GPO Film Unit as a runner – who reads the famous W H Auden verse ‘This is the night mail crossing the border…’

When war was declared, the members of the Documentary Movement expected to be immediately called up to mobilise film production for war. But the Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain regarded the documentary filmmakers as dangerous left-wingers and did not want to call on their services. It was not until Jack Beddington was appointed head of the Ministry of Information’s Films Division in 1940 that the GPO Film Unit was effectively requisitioned by the Ministry and renamed the Crown Film Unit

A series of memorable films followed, in which people played themselves in whatever story was being told. Target for Tonight (Harry Watt, 1941) followed each stage of a bombing raid over Germany. It featured actual photo-interpreters from RAF Medmenham and the pilot of the Wellington bomber in the film, Wing Commander Percy Pickard, became something of a star (see MHM October 2014). Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) takes this a stage further and very creatively presents the men and women of a London fire brigade unit as they prepare for a raid by day and by night struggle to put out the massive fires in blazing warehouses (see MHM January 2016)

As such, the technique of using only real sailors and naval officers in Western Approaches has a long pedigree. It has been argued by film critics that this convention laid the foundation for the realist films of the post-war period, particularly well-known and highly praised Neo-Realist films made in Italy like Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) and Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945; see MHM July 2018).

Immense impact

The film had an immense impact on British audiences. Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, told the producer it was ‘the best film he had ever seen’. The press was united in praise. The Times called it both ‘authentic and austere’, while the Daily Mail described is ‘as the most realistic sea picture ever put on screen’.

Had the delays not prevented it from being released at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, it would have been more relevant as a piece of propaganda. But it still proved popular at the box office – the men from the Treasury need not have worried. It more than returned the investment of public funds.

Today, the film still preserves its authenticity but, of course, does not have the same emotional impact. The decision to shoot in Technicolor looks curious now. There is not much colour in the whole film: the ships are grey, the interiors lack colour, and only the Atlantic varies in tone from sunny blue as the convoy leaves New York to a more threatening greeny-black in the mid-Atlantic scenes. Yet Jack Cardiff is inventive in his photography, sometimes using filters to give the Atlantic a hazy, moonlit effect.

All the voices are those of real seamen, and the film is the better for it. A criticism is that it is sometimes difficult to hear, or perhaps to understand, exactly what they are saying. Even audiences in 1945 commented on this but, overall, it does not distract from what is an outstanding film which even today has widespread appeal. It was a great piece of propaganda in its time and is an enduring tribute to the men of the Allied navies and merchant fleets who suffered, endured, but ultimately won one of the fiercest battles ever fought at sea.

The Imperial War Museum, which holds the film’s Technicolor negative, is to be congratulated for carrying out a major digital restoration. This is the version now widely available, and is the best medium for enjoying a true wartime classic.

Western Approaches
Producer: Ian Dalrymple.  
Writer and director: Pat Jackson. 
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff. 
Musical supervisor: Muir Matheson. 
An Imperial War Museum restoration of a Crown Film Unit production.