Above Us the Waves (1955)




Director:  Ralph Thomas. 

Starring:  John Mills (Cmdr. Fraser), John Gregson (Lt Alec Duffy), Donald Sinden (Lt Tom Corbett), James Robertson Justice (Adm. Ryder), Michael Medwin (Smart), James Kenney (Abercrombie), O.E. Hasse (Captain of the Tirpitz), Lee Patterson (Cox), William Russell (Ramsey), Theodore Bikel (German Officer), Harry Towb (McCleery), Cyril Chamberlain (CPO Chubb), Anthony Wager (George), Leslie Weston (Winley), Lyndon Brook (Diver Navigator, X2).

a British midget submarine raid damages German battleship Tirpitz, September 1943



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Admiral Ryder tells his officers they have to stop the German navy, but so far they have not succeeded.  And the reason for this is the German battleship Tirpitz, which is 60 miles inland along the Norwegian shore. Because of the Tirpitz, they have to keep half a fleet watching for her and this is a great waste of British ships.  Ryder asks for suggestions.  Commander Fraser says he and his men in human torpedoes will be able to put the Tirpitz out of action.  Ryder is very doubtful about the project, but he lets it proceed for now. 

Fraser meets with his crew.  There is Lt. Alec Duffy of the Australian naval reserve; Lt. Tom Corbett; Abercrombie, who is only 19 years of age; Ramsey, who has a wife and an infant son;  Smart, who previously was a steward; and Hutchins.  He takes the men to a 100 foot tall Submarine Escape Training Tank.  The men in bathing suits and vests enter the tank at the bottom and then rise to the water surface 100 feet above them.  Everything goes perfectly. 

Down by the dock, two men get into what looks like a hollowed out log, but is the Mach One Human Torpedo.  They have oxygen with them so they can submerge the torpedo.  The men practice working with the torpedo.  Fraser is very happy with the progress of his men.  He says morale is at the highest level.  Now they only need more machines. 

Fraser has to read a statement to his men warning them that the human torpedo is an unproven machine and the crew is also unproven.  That being over, Fraser goes on as normal.  He decides to demonstrate to Admiral Ryder how the human torpedo can get through to hit well protected ships by planting mines on the hulls of the ship.  Fraser has a meeting with Ryder, so he plans the attack with mines filled with dummy charges set  to explode at the time of Frazer's visit with Ryder.  Fraser is taken in a boat to the Admiral's ship, while the human torpedoes head off toward the same ship.      

The men in the human torpedoes have cut a protective fence to get through to the Admiral's ship.  They comes to a second netting, but this one they can just go under.  One of the human torpedoes gets through successfully and plants the mines on the hull of the ship.  Meanwhile, Fraser keeps looking at his watch so often that the Admiral scolds him for it.  Ryder says that the human torpedoes are of no tactical use.  Just then the dummy charges go off.  This shocks Ryder who asks what was that?  Fraser says the small explosions were dummy charges in mines attached to Ryder's hull.  He comments that if the charges had been real, the Admiral's ship would have been sunk. 

Fraser goes to congratulate his men, but two of the pilots, Ramsey and Abercrombie, have been hurt trying to get through the netting.   Other problems arise.  Smart tells Fraser that he becomes panicky after awhile under the water and is afraid he might not be able to control his fear.  Fraser says that true courage is being afraid, but  fighting successfully to conquer the fear and complete one's duty.  He then adds that when he was starting out, he was scared too.  This cheers up Smart. 

Lt. Andersen of the Royal Norwegian Naval Reserves comes to speak to the human torpedo crews.  With an injury to his left arm, Abercrombie will have to stay behind.  Fraser tells his crews that they will be carried up Trondhjems Fiord by Lt. Andersen's boat, but will have to make the last push to the Tirpitz using the human torpedoes.  And this journey will be through some of the most heavily defended stretches of water that they know of.  The Norwegian ship the Ingeborg will have forged papers saying they are on a fishing expedition. 

Under water, two human torpedoes are strapped to the sides of the Norwegian boat.  So the Norwegian crew and four British crew members head out up the fiord.  During the voyage the iron strap holding one of the torpedoes works loose and the torpedo now keeps knocking loudly on the hull of the boat.  One of the torpedo crew members has to get dressed in diving equipment and go over the side to reattach the torpedo to the side of the boat.  While this is being done, a German patrol boat arrives to check out the Norwegian boat.  The Norwegian captain tells a crew member to go below and if he hears any banging on the side of the boat, he is to start banging on something below the deck.  Andersen also tells one of his crew to keep the diver from coming up.  The German captain comes aboard and takes some schnapps with the Norwegian captain.  He also checks on the boat's papers.  The German captain gets suspicious when he hears some knocking.  But the chosen crew member starts banging away and Lt. Andersen shows the German captain the man banging away at something below the deck.   The diver tries to come up, but the crew member steps on his hand, forcing him back under the water. The Germans leave.

During the night the waters are rough and now both torpedoes falls off and go down to the bottom  Both torpedoes are gone now and the mission has to be scraped.  The boat is scuttled and the Norwegians and their guests go for a walk over a mountain to get to the Swedish border.  They come to a village along the way that is guarded by German soldiers.  A dog starts barking at the newcomers.  The men start to get away from the dog and run right into three German guards, who take the men into custody.  The plotters make a plan to jump the guards and they carry it out.  One of the prisoners is wounded, but the guards are all killed.  Later the wounded man dies. 

The men are held at the Swedish border.  They are happy to learn that the Swedes are going to fly the men back to Scotland from Sweden. 

By the time the men get back to the naval base, midget submarines have replaced the primitive human torpedoes.  Each submarine can carry four tons of high explosives.  Three of the submarines will be going on the raid.  Fraser will command submarine X1, Duffy will be in charge of X2 and Corbett of X3.  Three submarines will tow the midget submarines over to Norway and the fiord.  Duffy decides to disobey orders and take his small hand accordion with him. 

At 18:00 hours the midget submarine crews are transferred crew by crew to their midget submarines.  The crews take over from the men who guided the midget subs being towed.  The replacement crews get into a dinghy and pull themselves over to their subs by use of the tow rope attacked to the mini-subs.  One crew gets a real scare as a water mine seems almost magnetically attracted to their mini sub.  One of the crews has to lay stomach down on the deck of the midget submarine and keep kicking the mine away from the sub.  After a lot of effort, the mine floats away from the sub. 

All three crews are in their submarines and each midget-sub will set out on its own without communication with the others subs.  Getting closer to the Tirpitz, Duffy discovers that his gyro is not working.  He tells his men that all they can do is wait on the bottom for awhile.  The sub hits the fiord bottom hard.

Fraser surfaces.  He says they are just twelve miles to their target and gives the order to recharge the batteries.  At night a German patrol boat comes by, and the two crew members on top of X1 have to lay absolutely still, spread out over the top of their submarine.   The patrol boat does not spot them. 

Meanwhile, Duffy's crew are trying to make repairs on their sub.  The sub is still not in good condition, but in spite of this, Duffy says:  "We'll attack."  At 15:00 hours Fraser announces:  "We're going in."  Corbett says:  "Well, this is it!  Dive to 30 feet."  X3 reaches the outer netting and one of the crew has to put on his wet-suit and goes out to cut the wires so the midget sub can get through.  The work is a success.  Fraser gets lucky because he rises up just as a German ship is being let through the boom.  The commander just follows closely behind the ship and gets through the wiring. 

Frazer sees the Tirpitz through the periscope.  Duffy also spots the German ship.  But just then a large German ship goes right over X2 and Duffy has to scream:  "Crash dive!"  The encounter leaves Duffy with a periscope out of which he cannot see a thing.  So now they are directionless and blind.  Duffy tells his men that they will just have to sit on the bottom and wait for the explosions created by the other two midget subs.  They have to remain quiet in order not to give the mission away.

Frazer's sub breaks the surface of the water and a German guard spots it.  Depth charges are launched to sink the sub.  The depth charges shake Fraser's sub, but do not damage it.  Fraser looks again through the periscope and shouts:  "Yeah!  We've got her!"  All Duffy and his crew can do is just listen to the depth charges going off. 

Corbett goes under the second netting.  He goes to the surface and the Germans open fire on him with the rifles, machine guns and a big ship's gun.  The X3 dives back under the water. 

Frazer gets his X1 right up next to the Tirpitz.  Both side cargos of high explosives are set to explode in 30 minutes.  Then the side cargoes are released from the sides of the sub.  Frazer then says to his crew:  "Let's get the hell out of here, shall we?"

Corbett's sub is in trouble.  She won't respond to their trying to move her.  The sub is on her side.  Corbett comments:  "We'll go in as we are!"

By this time there is a lot of hectic action taking place on the Tirpitz.  They want to move the battleship, but the engines are not responding right away.  They send a diver down below to see what is going on. 

Corbett gets under the battleship.  The crew sets the side cargoes for 30 minutes and then drop the side cargoes from the sides of their sub.  Corbett now sends a diver out to see what is going on.  When the diver returns he tells the rest of the crew that the sub is stuck right underneath the keel of the battleship.  The tide is going out now and the Tirpitz is settling down right on top of their sub.  The men flood the sub and then scurry to get out.  As the men are surfacing, the battleship settles down the the sub and crushes it.  When the crew rises to the surface of the water, the Germans start shooting at them.  The officers stop the firing and take the four enemy aboard the battleship.  

Frazer is going to surface saying:  "Stand by to surface!"  As the sub rises in the water, Frazer starts breaking all the instruments on the sub.  The sub surfaces and the men start bailing out of the sub.  One of the crew members is shot and wounded.  Again the officers have to tell their men to cease firing.  A German boat picks up the crew.  Meanwhile there are 8 tons of high explosives underneath the battleship. 

On the deck of the Tirpitz the two British captains confer.  There has been no sign of Duffy.  A German officer comes over to ask the prisoners what kind of charge have they used?  The prisoners are certainly not going to tell the Germans, in spite of the fact that they themselves might be killed in the explosion that is coming up in 8 minutes.  After awhile, the prisoners hear the engines starting up.  It's 5 minutes to the time of explosion.  The Germans make some adjustments and the propellers start turning.  Then there is a terrific explosion followed by another. 

Hearing the explosions, Duffy goes into action.  They take the ship up and start preparing to bail out.  The commander of the battleship now congratulates the men on being brave.  He even salutes the enemy crews.  All of a sudden, there is another terrific explosion.  Duffy's side cargoes have exploded.  The Germans take their prisoner in a boat so they can be transferred to a prison camp.  As the boat passes by the place where Duffy's sub exploded, the men see Duffy's accordion floating on the surface of the water.


At times the film is a little hard to follow because the viewer has to keep track of three different midget-submarines.  Nevertheless, the film keeps the viewer interested to find out if they can successfully damage or even sink the German battleship Tirpitz.  The film shows the training of the crews and the use of the very risky "human torpedoes".  By the time the men get back from their human torpedo attempt, they get more reliable midget-submarines.  And yet the midget-submarines are not very reliable either, so all three of the crews are put in danger just by being in the subs.  The periscopes of these vessels were notoriously unreliable.  John Mills as the captain is very good, but this is more of an ensemble cast.  The film sure gives a good presentation of the problems the raiders faced in trying to take the Tirpitz out of commission.  .

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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