“Above Us the Waves” is a British film about Operations Title and Source. These were the attempts to sink the German battleship Tirpitz at its berth in Norway. The movie was directed by Ralph Thomas and he had the full cooperation of the Admiralty. It was based on a nonfiction book by C.E.T. Warren and James Benson. Commander Donald Cameron acted as technical adviser. He had commanded one of the midget subs and was awarded the Victoria Cross. The movie was a big hit.
It’s 1942 and the threat of the Tirpitz putting to sea like the Bismarck is chaffing Churchill’s arse. Half the British fleet is dedicated to keeping an eye on her. Since the RAF has been unsuccessful in bombing the behemoth, perhaps the Royal Navy can do the job. A Commander Fraser (John Mills) argues that the solution is to use human torpedoes. The “Chariots” are two-manned craft that can approach a target submerged and attach limpet mines. It’s only semi-suicidal. After some training scenes, the Chariots are tested against a British ship in the harbor. They submerge, send out a diver to cut the submarine net, go under the anti-torpedo net, and set the mines. The mission is on. Two of the Chariots will be delivered to Norway via a fishing boat. Complications ensue and a new mission involving midget submarines is initiated. The subs carry four-man crews and are designed to drop explosives called “side cargoes” under the keel of the target. The movie follows the three midgets, one of which is commanded by Fraser. Each has serious problems, but they persevere.
“Above Us the Waves” has a documentary feel to it. It nobly brings to the public the tale of one of the greatest raids of WWII. It includes actual footage in the opening to establish the situation in the Battle of the Atlantic. The movie takes us from motivation through training to completion. It is educational and yet entertaining in a British kind of way. This means it eschews the American-style theatrics. It is not an Alistair MacLean movie. It is significant that the plot includes Operation Title (the chariot attempt) when that mission was a failure.
While dedicated to honoring the six men who gave their lives in Operation Source, the movie did not forgo entertaining its British audience. The humor is the dry British variety. The upper lips are properly stiff. At one point, Fraser and his crew have tea and crumpets while approaching the Tirpitz. Literally. The acting is also comfortably British. The cast is good and anchored by Mills, who was entering his prime. Given the nature of the film, the second half is basically a tale of three ensembles as the movie follows each of the subs. You care about these men, not just the officers. The quartets of actors are shown in deep focus in the very cramped interiors. This might be the most claustrophobic sub movie of all time. (I haven’t gotten a chance to rewatch “The Hunley”.) The interiors deserve special mention as they are accurate to the MK.1 human torpedoes. Check out the cute little periscopes. This is a movie where you admire the lighting. The movie is suspenseful and you can cut the tension with a knife. The score is good at ginning up the suspense. The effects are above average with nice underwater shots. A highlight is the explosions that wreck the Tirpitz and the ensuing chaos on board the ship.
How accurate is it? Not at all according to the film. The credits incredibly have the typical disclaimer that “all characters and events in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. What the hell? Although it does take some liberties with the story, it clearly and undeniably is about Operations Title and Source. The section on Operation Title adds a couple of cinematic flourishes. The mission was essentially as depicted, but I found no evidence that the fishing boat was stopped by a German patrol boat. That scene was an obligatory war movie trope. The coverage of Operation Source has a lot more dramatic license. There were actually ten X-craft sent on the mission. Three (X-5, X-6, and X-7) were assigned the Tirpitz. The midgets were towed to Norway by regular subs with passage crews on board. (There was an incident where a mine got caught in the tow rope and had to be pushed away by a seaman with his feet.) One X-craft was lost on the way. X-6 (Lt. Cameron – John Mills as Lt. Fraser; X-1 in the movie) went through a gap in the submarine net similar to in the movie. It ran aground and broached, but was assumed to be a porpoise by the battleship. However, when it came up again the Germans were alerted. It submerged and got caught in the anti-torpedo net. (The subs had a lot more trouble with the nets than the movie shows.) When it got loose, it surfaced alongside of the ship and was taking small arms fire and grenades when it dropped its explosives. Mission accomplished, Cameron and his crew scuttled the boat and were picked up by a German picket boat and brought on the deck of the battleship. X-7 (Lt. Place – X-3 with Donald Sinden as Lt. Corbett) got caught in the sub net and it took an hour to break free. It went under the anti-torpedo net, but got entangled. When it eventually freed itself, it blindly bumped into the side of the target and dropped one side cargo. Moving, it dropped the other explosive. (The movie version which has it being trapped under the Tirpitz was silly.) Escaping, it got entangled again, went to the bottom to access damages and determining that it was hopeless, surfaced. Place came out and waved his shirt to surrender. (The movie has the whole crew being taken captive after escaping the sunken boat.) He was taken by a boat, but the sub went back down with the other three men. Three hours later, Sub.-Lt. Aiken emerged and was picked up. The other two went down with the ship. There is some mystery as to the fate of the X-5 (Lt. Henty-Creer – John Gregson as Lt. Duffy). It seems clear that it was not as depicted in the film. About a half hour after the first explosions, a sub was sighted 650 yards off the starboard bow of the Tirpitz. The battleship opened fire with anti-aircraft guns and scored some hits. A German destroyer then dropped some depth charges that most likely finished off the sub. So six men were captured and six men died. The explosions did substantial damage to the Tirpitz and it was put out of action for six months.
“Above Us the Waves” is one of the better sub movies. It is also the rare one that is based on an actual historical event. And that event deserved a good movie. You have here the story of twelve men who risked their lives for the good of their nation. They weren’t superheroes. They had no special powers. They just were willing to submerge themselves in giant garbage cans with propellers, infiltrate an enemy harbor, literally tangle with nets, and then drop explosives under a battleship with very little prospect of escaping. And Wonder Woman won the war on the Western Front with a shield, a magic lasso, and a sword. I don’t remember seeing “all characters and events in this film are fictitious…” before that film.