In Which We Serve (1942)




Directors:     Noel Coward and David Lean.

Starring:      Noel Coward (Capt. Kinross), John Mills (Shorty Blake), Bernard Miles (Walter Hardy), Celia Johnson (Alix Kinross), Kay Walsh (Freda Lewis), Joyce Carey (Kath Hardy), Michael Wilding (Flags), Penelope-Dudley Ward (Maureen Fenwick).

The story of the British destroyer Torrin which survived torpedoing to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation. It sank during a naval battle off Crete after being dive-bombed. Noel Coward wrote the screenplay which was based on the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten.



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

This is a story of a ship, the destroyer H.M.S. Torrin, from its construction, christening and commissioning to its sinking.

Crete, May 23, 1941.  The command on the Torrin is to open fire.  They manage to blow up some German ships.  An enemy destroyer engages the British destroyer.  German dive bombers attack the Torrin.  The first planes miss, but later one of their bombs lands on the destroyer and then a second lands.  The order to abandon ship is given.  The ship sinks very fast, except the last part to sink stays around for awhile. 

Flashback.  Captain Kinross puts a picture of his wife in a wedding gown on his desk.  The captain goes home to see his wife and two children, a boy and a girl.  His wife asks him why there is such a rush job on the Torrin:  "Is there going to be a war?'  "Yes" answers the captain. 

Captain Kinross swims to a float and gets in with other men.  A weakened survivor named Walter is pulled up onto the raft.  He says his wife's name:  "Kath." 

Flashback.  Kath and Walter interact at home.  Captain Kinross speaks to the crew on commissioning day.  Many of the sailors are transfers from other ships.  The captain says they have three days to get the ship in shape, instead of the three weeks they expected.  The Germans and Russians have signed a non-aggression pact and war, no doubt, will be coming soon.  Over the loud speaker comes the message that the Prime Minister will speak to the nation.  He speaks from the cabinet room at number 10 Downing Street.  The Prime Minister tells them:  "This country is at war with Germany."

Back to the loss of the Torrin.   Ship still hasn't sank completely. 

Flashback.  The Captain recites a prayer to his crew.  They all sink a religious hymn.  It's Christmas time and the kids are out caroling.  Shorty, a sailor on the Torrin, argues with a marine over which service is better.  Shorty eventually takes the higher road and makes a toast to the Royal Marines.  The marine responds by toasting to the HMS Torrin.  Walter tells his wife Kath that he was lucky.  There was a problem with the ship boiler and they had to come back two days before Christmas.  He offers a toast to the HMS Torrin.   At dinner with the officers, they make a toast to the King.  They also make a toast to the newly betrothed couple.  The Captain asks his wife to make a toast.  She speaks to the wife-to-be mostly.  She says the life of a sailor's wife is to be pitied.  They always have a rival, the ship itself.  She says she knows that her husband's ship comes first in his life.  So she offers a toast to the HMS Torrin:  "God bless this ship and all who sail her." 

Back to the loss of the Torrin.  The ship is completing its last stage of sinking.  German planes strafe the float and Shorty is wounded.  He has a tattoo of the name "Freda" on his arm. 

Flashback.  Riding on a train, Shorty meets Freda for the first time.  It turns out that her father is a petty officer on the Torrin.  (His name is Walter.)  Shorty takes an almost immediate liking to Freda.  She lays her head on his shoulder and goes to sleep.  The train arrives at the station.  Shorty and Freda eat together and then he makes a date with her.   Shorty goes home to see his mother.  She is ecstatic to see him again. 

Back to the loss of the Torrin.  More strafing of the float by German planes. 

Flashback.  Shorty gets married to Freda.  The newlyweds get on a train to take them to their honeymoon spot.  After the honeymoon Fred will stay with Walter's wife Kath and Kath's mother.  The Captain and his wife are on the same train.  They bump into Shorty and his new wife.  They introduce everyone and then the Captain and his spouse leave. 

The destroyer at sea sees a huge fire in the distance.  The alarm for battle stations is given.  They open fire on a German destroyer.  One young sailor becomes very scared and leaves his battle station.  A torpedo hits the ship causing considerable damage.  The destroyer has to be taken under tow.  They enter the harbor.  The Captain speaks to the crew.  A total of 36 shipmates lost their lives.  Out of the crew only one man did not behave well.  He left his position.  The Captain says he should have made it clearer to everyone that leaving one's post in battle is a very serious infraction.  So he has decided only to give the lad a caution.  (The fellow's name is not revealed.)  On leave the fellow tries to get drunk as fast as possible. 

Back to the loss of the Torrin.  The men on the float pick up the "coward" sailor out of the sea.  The men sing "Roll out the Barrel."

Flashback.  Walter, Shorty and their wives attend a musical theatre performance.  The next day the wives have to say good-bye to their husbands.  The new assignment for the destroyer is escorting a convoy.  In the newspaper dated May 30, 1940 the talk is all about Dunkirk.  The Torrin becomes part of the evacuation of the Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.  The Captain says the soldiers will be their guests on board ship.  The evacuee troops are packed into the destroyer below deck.  As the ship approaches the white cliffs of Dover, the army officers thank Captain Kinross for their rescue.  When the troops head down the gangplank, nurses wait to help the seriously wounded. 

Shorty is reaching the end of his leave.  The news of the day is about Hitler in Paris.  The Captain is on a picnic with his family.  He's on a short leave.  The ship goes out again. 

Freda, Kath and Kath's mother are at home.  They hear the air raid sirens go off, but they do not go to the air raid shelter.  Freda is a bit claustrophobic.  Kath puts the pregnant Freda underneath the main stairwell.  It's a safer spot.  The sounds of German bombs detonating come closer and closer to the house. Then a bomb hits the house.  Freda and Kath are taken out of the remains of the house in stretchers.  Freda is put in the hospital. 

On the destroyer Shorty gets a letter from Freda.  He has a son.  That's the good news.  The bad is that Kath and her mother were killed.  Shorty now has the unwelcome duty of telling Walter what happened.  Walter, writing a letter to his wife, reacts very slowly.  He goes out on deck for a bit.  He throws his letter to his wife into the sea. 

Back to the loss of the Torrin.  The last of the Torrin goes under the surface of the sea.  There is more strafing of the survivors.  More sailors are hit.  A British ship sees the float.  The survivors are brought on board.  The ship picks up 90 of the men.  Captain Kinross goes around to get the addresses of the mostly gravely wounded sailors.  Two men die while he speaks with them. 

Flashback.  The news of the day is : "Crete:  Big Naval Battle Reported."  Shorty's mother gets a telegram from her son.  She is overjoyed when she reads it.  She runs to Freda to tell her the good news.  Freda cries and Mrs. Blake comforts her. 

Back to the loss of the Torrin.    The survivors are taken to Alexandria. 

Back to the present.  Captain Kinross speaks to his crew.  He says he has come to say goodbye.  They lost more than half their crew on the Torrin.  But he is sure that the survivors will all take up the battle with stronger hearts.  Most of them will be replacements for sailors killed on other ships.  The Captain thanks his crew from the bottom of his heart.  He then shakes hands with all the crew members. 

Here ends the story of a ship, but there will always be other ships for Britain is forever linked with the sea. 


This is a pretty good movie.  It was  a little annoying at times to keep shifting back and forth in time in the story, especially when the loss of the Torrin part advanced so slowly.  Otherwise the movie was alright.  It shows the suffering of the families back home, as well as that of the sailors.  Noel Coward gives a fine performance even though his character stereotypically appears a bit too stiff at times.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


The film In Which we Serve is based on the naval battle on May 23, 1941 as part of the Battle of Crete, which was a German victory. 


Battle of Crete

1940  (October 28)  --  Italians invade Greece.  Allied forces occupy Crete.  From Crete British bombers could attack the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania.

1941 (April 25)  --  Hitler signs the order for the invasion of Crete.  It would largely be an air-borne operation. 

Before the actual battle in Crete, the Germans frequently bomb the island.  They were able to establish air superiority, forcing the British to remove their planes to Alexandria. 

1941 (May 20)  --  beginning of the Battle of Crete.  It took place on the Greek island of Crete.  Germany made an airborne invasion of the island.  They were opposed by Greek rebels and Allied forces.  The German air-borne troops suffered heavy casualties.

1941 (May 21)  --   the Germans take advantage of Allied miscommunication and misunderstandings and are able to capture the Maleme in western Crete.  They could now fly in reinforcements.  They were able to overwhelm the Allied forces. 

The Battle of Crete was the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence based on the deciphered German Enigma code.

1941 (May 23)  --   The 5th Destroyer Flotilla (Kelly, Kipling, Kelvin, Jackal and Kashmir, under Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten) from Malta arrives in the area.  They start picking up survivors; are switched to attacking small wooden boats called caiques; and then shell Germans at Maleme.  Mountbatten with Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were to go to Alexandria.  But as they round the western side of Crete, 24 Stuka dive bombers attack.  The Kashmir is hit and sinks in two minutes.  The Kelly also sinks.  The Kipling picks up survivors from the two sunken ships, totaling 279 sailors.

1941  (May 27)  --  London command orders the evacuation of the Allied troops on Crete.

1941 (May 28-31)  --  evacuation of Allied troops to Egypt.

1941 (June 1)  --  the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sphakia surrender.

For the Allies their total of killed, wounded or captured was 17,733.  The Axis figure was only 6,698.



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