Beneath Hill 60 (2010)  

 

 

 

 

 

Director:     Jeremy Sims.

Starring:     Brendan Cowell (Captain Oliver Woodward),  Harrison Gilbertson (Frank Tiffin),  Steve Le Marquand (Sergeant Bill Fraser),  Gyton Grantley (Norman Morris),  Alex Thompson (Walter Sneddon),  Duncan Young (Tom Dwyer),  Alan Dukes (Jim Sneddon),  Mark Coles Smith (Billy 'Streaky' Bacon),  Warwick Young (Percy Marsden),  Anthony Hayes (Captain William McBride),  Leon Ford (Lieutenant Robert Clayton),  Chris Haywood (Colonel Wilson Rutledge),  Bob Franklin (Potsy),  Anthony Ring (Stoat),  Andy Bramble (Wilf Piggott).

Australian miners are used to dig tunnels under the German lines to plant explosives

 

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

"By 1916 the Great War has reached a stalemate.  The front line stretches all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps.  Millions of lives have been lost.  In a desperate attempt to break the deadlock, civilian miners are brought in to tunnel beneath enemy lines.  It is the start of a secret, silent, underground war.  The following is based on real events."

Armentires, France May 1916.  Thirty feet below the Western Front. 

Lt. Oliver Woodward is the new commanding officer of the Australian mining crews.  He has a hard time following the map underground, so he stops and listens.  He hears noises so he goes to check.  He pulls out his pistol just in case it could be the Germans.  He come across a father and son team, the Sneddons, busy at work.  Woodward tells them that he is their new commanding officer and says he is looking for Sergeant Simpson.  The father tells Woodward that he will need to speak to Corporal Fraser, who is up top.  Now the lieutenant has to admit that he is lost.  Father Sneddon gives him directions. 

Working his way to the top, Woodward hears a:  "Psst!"  He finds Frank Tiffin who tells Woodward that he hears noises behind the walls of a lateral shaft.  Woodward takes out a stethoscope and puts its end against the wall.  He listens.  He finally turns to Tiffin and tells him that what he is hearing is actually the beat of his own heart.  Woodward turns to leave and Tiffin begs him to let him go up top. 

Percy and Ginger are send down to relieve the Sneddons.  The CO and Tiffin arrive at a sitting area, where Woodward finds Corporal Fraser.  Fraser says that Sergeant Simpson is dead.  Woodward calls out for a sapper and Norman Morris stands up.  (A sapper is a military engineer that undermines the foundations of a fortress or other buildings.)  His buddies tell the lieutenant that they like to call Norm, "Pull Through"  The buddies are Tom Dwyer and Billy "Streaky" Bacon.  Woodward sends Morris and Dwyer to replace Tiffin at his listening post at 102 Drive Left. 

Woodward tells Tiffin to take him to the officer's dugout.  Out in the trenches, the soldiers have to watch out for artillery shells landing near them.  Tiffin leads the way.  They have to stand aside at one point to let a column the walking wounded and blind pass them.  As the two continue to walk, behind them an artillery shells lands close to a group of men.  Woodward hears the screaming of men in pain.  He turns around to look.  It's not a pretty sight.   Woodward has to force Tiffin off the front side wall of the trench.  He is definitely scared of the artillery. 

Tiffin and Woodward kind of collapse into the officer's dugout.  An officer objects saying that this is an officer's dugout.  But one of the other officers,  Bill McBride, recognizes Woodard and welcomes him.  McBride explains to the other officer that he and Woodward went to mining school together at Charters Towers.  He then introduces Bob Clayton, Northumberland Fusiliers, to Oliver Woodward, 1st Australian Tunnellers.  The place they are at is Broken Hill.  Lt. Clayton gets tired of hearing Tiffin crying and becomes very cross.  He asks the miners what the hell they're doing here?  They're not even proper soldiers.  Woodward explains to Clayton that the Germans are digging underground, so naturally the Allies have to do the same.  Clayton finally gets to the point and tells Woodward to get Tiffin out of here, and, as far as he is concerned, McBride and Woodward can also go.  Now Clayton storms out of the dugout. 

Flashback.  Queensland, 18 months earlier.  On horseback, Woodward grabs two kids and brings them home to Mrs. Waddell.  The two adults know each other.  Woodward says he was looking for Moffatt, but Mrs. Waddell tells him that he has already joined up with the Light Horse Cavalry.  They invite Woodward to have some dinner with them.  Moffatt's parents brag that their son has already made the rank of major.  Right now they believe Moffatt is in Egypt.  Their pretty daughter, sixteen years old  Marjorie, arrives late and she's absolutely thrilled to see Woodward again.   As a practical joke, Woodward puts salt into Marjorie's tea cup when no one is looking.  After Marjorie puts tea in her cup and starts to drink it, she immediately spits it all out, making her parents perturbed by her bad manners.  In revenge, Marjorie loosens the cinch of Woodward's saddle and when Woodward jumps aboard his horse, Woodward tumbles off on the other side.   Neither Woody or Marjorie tattle-tell on each other. 

Back to the present.  Dwyer tells Morris that things could be worse for them.  They could be sent to Hill 60, Messines Ridge, just across the border, near Ypres, Belgium.  As they talk a German busts through the lateral shaft wall.  Morris is able to shoot the man, but the German keeps coming at them.  Dwyer finishes off the German. As Dwyer moves the body, a big explosion goes off near Dwyer. 

In the officer's dugout, McBride gets a telephone call that 102 Drive has been "crumped".  Morris and Dwyer are missing. 

Woodward, Tiffin and some others go down to see if the two men are alive.  They start moving materials and find a German boot.  Next they find Dwyer dead.  But Morris is still alive and is rescued.

Flashback.   Woodward is back at the Waddell House having dinner.  He says he gets a package or two everyday with feathers (a sign for cowardice) in them.  Marjorie is upset by this and says that Woody is just doing his duty.  While still at dinner, the family receives very bad news.  Moffatt has been killed in action at Gallipoli, Turkey.  Of course, the family is extremely upset.   Later Marjorie tells Woody that this doesn't mean that Woody has to go to the war.  She says:  "I couldn't bear it."

Back to the present.  Some of the miners are grumbling that it was all Woodward's fault that Dwyer died.  Corporal Fraser leads the chorus.  Woodward arrives.  Fraser is rude to the officer.  Woodward is about to leave when a high-ranking officer named Rutledge shows up.  The Germans have a machine gun nest in the Red House giving them the ability to enfilade (i.e., fire down the trenches lengthwise) the Allied trenches.  The officer wants Woodward, a specialist in demolition, to blow up the red building.  Fraser says it will take two to three days, but the officer wants it done by 0400 hours tomorrow.  In other words, they will have to forget the mining and approach it the old fashioned way, by crawling through No Man's Land.  Clayton is given the job of cutting a gap in the wire.  The artillery will give them one hour of shelling.  Morris and Fraser volunteer to go with Woodward. 

The three men go over the top of the trench.  A flare goes up and "Boris" opens up with his machine gun.  The men now crawl instead of just walking hunched over.    They crawl over to a bomb crater that has exposed the wall of the cellar of the Red House.  They have tools that help them remove the bricks of the wall.  They put the explosive into the cellar and then head away from the building pulling the fuse along with them.  The fuse, however, proves to be too short.  So Morris is sent to get and bring back the exploder. 

Fraser and Woodward hear someone moving around, obviously in pain.  They don't know it it's a German or one of the Allies.  Woodward crawls over to the man and tells him to identify himself.  It turns out to be Clayton.  Morris carries him over to the bomb crater where Fraser is.  They check Clayton and find he is hit above the left knee.  They bandage the wound.  Morris shows up with the exploder.  Fraser starts to go up and over, but Clayton first tells him that the bastards have a pattern of firing the machine gun.  Fraser says thanks and goes out and returns with the short fuse.  The fuse is attached to the exploder.  The plunger is forced down and the Red House explodes. 

Fraser now tears open Clayton's shirt and finds that his intestines are exposed.  Woodward holds Clayton's hand, as Clayton dies. 

Flashback.  At her place of work, Woody asks Marjorie how the family is doing and she says they are "coping".  The two go over to a window and Woody tells Marjorie that they are forming a mining battalion and he has joined up.  He will receive a few weeks of training and then be sent out to the front lines.  He now asks Marjorie for permission to write her.  She approves of the idea, but adds:  "But if you're asking me to wait for your return, then you must first ask my father." 

Back to the present.    The miners are playing Rugby against another team.  The 1st Australian Tunnellers win the match.  Woodward gets promoted to captain.  Fraser gets promoted to sergeant. And they get new orders.  They are moving up the line to Hill 60, Belgium.  The men don't like the news.

Messines Ridge, Belgium, November 3rd, 1916.  The men are riding in the back of a truck headed to Hill 60.  The men reach the encampment, but are immediately send out to Hill 60.   Young Sneddon, Tiffin and Bacon are left behind after an artillery shell lands near them.  Father Sneddon yells out for his son. Bacon realizes that their main group is off to the right of them about 25 yards.  Bacon says he will draw the fire of the machine gun while the guys run to the right.  Once the two guys reach their unit, the call goes out for Bacon.  He starts running, but just before he gets to the trench where his unit is, he is hit twice in the back by bullets.  The men pull his body into the trench, but Bacon doesn't survive. 

"Gas masks on now!" is the call.  The men reach a dugout and Captain McBride.  McBride tells Woodward to let his men sleep a couple of hours in the dugout.   

Flashback.  Woodward asks permission of Marjorie's father to write to Marjorie while he is abroad and permission to see her for the three weeks he has before he has to leave.  Dad just asks his wife to go with him to take a walk, leaving the young people together. 

Back to the present.  Woodward is taken on a little tour of the mines that go right under Hill 60.  They have put in place 53,000 pounds of ammonal high explosive and 8,000 pounds of gun cotton.  And then there's the Caterpillar mine that has 70,000 pounds of explosive. And there are 21 other mines.  The Canadian tunneller tells Woodward:  "We've undermined the whole of the Messines Ridge."   He adds that this will be the biggest man-made explosion the world has ever seen.  Woodward is replacing the Canadian, who tells Woody:  "It's up to you now."

Two Germans are listening to the sounds with a stethoscope.  When the Canadian pushes a detonator back in place, the Germans hear the sound.  One of the soldiers, Sgt. Babek, goes to report the noise. 

Woodward tells his men they have to check all 26 listening posts.  He sends his men out to check. 

The German hearing the noise has a sharpshooter shoot into the sand bags used at the Allies' trenches.  At this very time, Woodward is putting up a surveying tool.  The bullet goes through a slot and hits Woodward and he falls down.  When a bullet hits one of the sand bags it reveals the famous blue clay of Belgium.  That means, says Sgt. Babek, that the Allies are tunnelling at least at a depth of 25 meters.  The officer dismisses the idea.  He asks the sergeant:  "Sgt. Babek, do you know how much charge it would take to life 25 meters of mud?"   The officer says it's just not possible.

Woodward recovers.  The bullet hit his helmet and only nicked his skull. 

Woodward goes to headquarters to tell the general that they want to install electric pumps.  That would free up 60 men now doing the pumping manually.  The general approves the idea.  Woodward says it will take three weeks or so to place the electrical pumps into position. 

The guys can't help but make noise and Sgt. Babek records every bit of it in his notebook.   Babek tells his miners to change direction by 30 degrees. 

Water starts being pumped out of the mines. 

In the mines Dad Sneddon comes over to find Woodward.  He says the Germans are digging toward them again.  In fact, the Germans are ready to blow.  Rutledge tells Sneddon to get back to his post.  Woodwad and Sneddon try to explain that the Germans are about to blow the area up, but the officer won't listen.  Sneddon goes back down and the Germans blow up the area.  Woodward gives Rutledge a very dirty look.  He and young Sneddon go in to try to save the older Sneddon. 

A funeral is held in the rain for Jim Sneddon.   Rutledge attends. 

Sgt. Babek finally convinces the German commander that there are deep mines directly under Hill 60.  He tells Babek to start putting a shaft down through the sand and find out what's down there. 

Sgt. Fraser hears the sounds made by the Germans and tells Woodward that the Germans are building some kind of shaft, but Woodward says they can't get through the sand. 

Babek and his men reach the blue clay.  A soldier asks him why can't they just move their front line back a hundred meters or so.  Babek replies that the officers will not give up any ground to the enemy. 

Woodward is informed that the explosives will be detonated in 36 hours all along the Messines Ridge.  There will be 21 explosions in all and they must go off in the order scheduled by the firing orders. 

Tiffin reports that he heard rats mating because the noises were very regular.  This alerts Woodward to the real possibility that the German have gotten through the sand and are now into the blue clay.  (Picking up the clays makes squeaky noises.)  He goes and tells the general and Rutledge.  The general tells Woodward to do what he has to do to stop the Germans.  So Woodward now tells his men:  "We're driving an attack tunnel." 

It's 29 minutes before the big explosion.  The Allies are dropping artillery shells on the German positions.  The Allied soldiers are readying themselves to go over the top to attack the Germans.  Getting nervous Woodward goes down to check out the progress of the attack tunnel.  He learns that German diggers are almost right on top of them.  He tells Fraser to work four feet forward and set the charge. 

Babek goes up out of the tunnel.  Only one man is left in the mine and he is about to be exploded to death. The Australians set the explosives and detonate them.  That ends the German shaft. 

Five minutes to go!  Part of the mine shaft falls on Tiffin.  He is still alive, but there is only four minutes to go before the explosions start going off.  Tiffin yells to the fellows:  "Just go!  No point in all of us dying!"   The men run out of the mines.  One minute to go.  15 seconds to go.  Fraser reaches Woodward and yells:  "Tiffin is still in there!"  But Woodward has to set off the explosions and does so after a bit of hesitation. 

Back in Australia, Woodward puts on his army uniform.  He thinks about Tiffin's being caught in the mine and just waiting to die.  McBride knocks on the door and says that people are waiting for him.  Marjorie is there in a wedding gown.  Woodward says he's fine and will be out shortly.  Marjorie goes to be with her family.

Wedding photos are taken of the wedded couple with a lot of Woodward's men there. 

"The 19 mines that went off on the 7th of June 1917 produced the largest man-made explosion the world had ever known.  The blast was felt as far away as London and Dublin.  Messines Ridge was one of the most successful battles of the Allied campaign.  But in a matter of months the Germans had retaken Hill 60.  It was another year and a half before the Great War was finally over.  More than 16 million lives were lost."

"Oliver Woodward returned to Australia in 1919.  For his services to the First Australian Tunnelling company, he was awarded the Military Cross with Two Bars,one of only four Australians to receive this honor.  Oliver Woodward and Marjorie Waddell were married in 1920.  They had three children and remained together for 46 years until Woodward's death in 1966."

 

Good movie.  Tells the story of the largest and deadliest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history.  The devastation of the German front lines was nearly total.  The film also covers the story of the recipient of the Military Cross with Two Bars medal.  It briefly details the love story between Oliver Woodward and Marjorie Waddell.   Most of the film takes place in a mining atmosphere underground.  At times the film dragged with all the coverage of the mine construction, but that was short in duration.  Brendan Cowell (as Captain Oliver Woodward) was very good.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


 

Historical Background:

 

Battle of Messines (June 7-14, 1917) took place in West Flanders, Belgium, near the town of Messines.  The Allied commander was Gen. Herbert Plumer of the Second British Army. 

The Allies laid 22 mines and used a total of 455 tons of ammonal explosive.

The mines were detonated at 3:10 a.m. on June 7. 

The explosions killed about 10,000 German soldiers; destroyed most of the German fortifications on the ridge; and destroyed the town of Messines itself.

The Allies easily overran the German front lines.  They took 7,000 German prisoners of war. 

The total casualties for the Germans in the Battle of Messines was 25,000.

The total casualties for the Allies in the Battle of Messines was 23,749. 

The attack was a prelude to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele (June 11, 1917).

 

 

 

 

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