The real survivors of the Cruel Sea – Retro

No doubt most of you have seen the naval film The Cruel Sea, made in 1952. It starred Jack Hawkins, Denholm Elliott and Donald Sindon in the leads with several other famous actors in smaller scenes.

Friday, 22nd March 2019, 10:35 am
Updated Friday, 22nd March 2019, 10:41 am
Here we see the German survivors from the sunken U boat. Gordon Walwyn is third from the right marked by an X. Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.
Here we see the German survivors from the sunken U boat. Gordon Walwyn is third from the right marked by an X. Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

At the end of the film a German U-boat is attacked and sunk by HMS Saltash Castle and survivors can be seen swimming around below the Saltash’s deck.

These survivors were played by some of the crew, one of whom still survives and lives in Warblington. 

Gordon Walwyn, was then a midshipman and later made captain. He allows me to be informal and call him Gordon throughout this article.

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Gordon Walwyn is helped with other survivors' from the boarding nets onto the Saltash Castle. Picture: Courtesy of STUDIONCANAL Films Ltd.

Gordon also loaned me his midshipman’s journal, a sort of diary that had to be kept by the  midshipman to record voyages and events and other advice for a future naval career.

HMS Portchester Castle, a Castle Class frigate based at Portland, was chosen to play the part of HMS Saltash Castle in the filming of Nicholas Monserrat's book.

The commander was Lieutenant Commander Howard Winnall – a New Zealander. 

The producer of the film was Leslie Norman and the director was Charles Frend – spelt that way.

Midshipman Walwyn the U-boat survivor in 1977 when, as Captain Walwyn, he led organising of the 1977 Fleet Review at Spithead. He had attained the rank of captain.

Charles Frend directed Scott of the Antarctic. Filming was scheduled for a few weeks or so. Although Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliott  were the lead actors, every sailor onboard played extras rushing around the upper deck, firing guns. 

At the end of the film, Saltash Castle sinks a German U-boat.

All the filming took place south of Portland in an area where the Portland Races take place.

This is an area where opposing tidal streams meet and it causes the sea to be rough and very, very turbulent – and that's exactly what Ealing Studios required.

Captain Gordon Walwyn RN Rtd and his wife Wendy in retirement at Warblington.

Scenes were filmed of the U-boat being forced to the surface and the Saltash Castle opening fire, which resulted in the U-boat sinking. It was played by a Royal Navy S-class submarine with the British recovering the survivors.

At that stage the film director approached the captain and explained they needed a scene of rescuing the U-boat survivors.

He could send to London for professional people to play the part at great expense, or perhaps volunteers from Portchester Castle could be the stars. Naturally, Gordon, a lieutenant, and six sailors volunteered.

They then learned what they had to do. Dressed in white U-boat sweaters, covered in genuine fuel oil, they, the survivors, were thrown into the middle of the races. 

F362 HMS Portchester Castle which doubled as HMS Saltash Castle in the film, The Cruel Sea

The ship would steam on about half a mile and the survivors had to swim back to it. Everyone was told to act as though their lungs were filled with fuel.

Gordon says: ‘We were totally exhausted and we really had to act the part. There was not a lot of need as we were dragged on board. We must have all been mad!’

Gordon thinks he was among the last to be pulled on board, and he coughed and spluttered as instructed.

At the order ‘cut!’ the director rushed down to Gordon, very concerned, and said: ‘Are you alright, Mid?’ Gordon replied, ‘Yes, fine.’

The director thought Gordon was so good he wanted him to do the scene again, just him, so he was thrown over the side again.

A petty officer threw a heaving line and as Gordon reached the railings, said: ‘All right mate, we've got yer, we’ve got yer’ and the net result was a few seconds at the end of that super film. 

Gordon told me they did not actually dive off the submarine because as it was ‘sunk’ by then.

Later, the director said that the survivors could be paid £8 each or he would pay for the whole ship to have a run ashore.

The latter was chosen and the ratings had an evening on the beer in Portland while the wardroom had dinner with the full film crew at the Moonfleet Hotel at Moonfleet, west of Weymouth.

I must thank Massimo Moretti for use of screen shots of the film.