The Silver Fleet (1943)





Directors:     Vernon Sewell,  Gordon Wellesley.

Starring:       Ralph Richardson (Jaap van Leyden),  Googie Withers (Helène van Leyden),  Esmond Knight (Von Schiffer),  Beresford Egan (Krampf),  Frederick Burtwell (Captain Müller),  Kathleen Byron (Schoolmistress),  Willem Akkerman (Willem van Leyden),  Dorothy Gordon (Janni Peters),  Charles Victor (Bastiaan Peters),  John Longden (Jost Meertens),  Joss Ambler (Cornelis Smith),  Margaret Emden (Bertha),  George Schelderup (Dirk),  Neville Mapp (Joop),  Ivor Barnard (Admiral).

 a Dutchman decides to sabotage two Nazi submarines he is forced to build


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

U-boat, U108, is sitting on the bottom of the ocean.  The submarine crew is very lethargic, just waiting on the bottom. 

A woman reads the journal of Dutchman Jaap van Leyden.  An entry for May 15th, 1940, says:  "Fifth day of the invasion.  Holland is overrun.  Schipsdam occupied this morning.  I was summoned with other townsmen to their headquarters.  I have kept the summons." 

Flashback.  Jaap goes down to the Nazi headquarters.  He meets the head of the Gestapo, Von Schiffer, and the naval officer in charge, Captain Müller.  The Germans already know quite a bit about Jaap.  He is married to a woman known as Helene, and he has a 9 year old son named Willem.  Jaap is the chief engineer at the shipyard.  They also know that Jaap was working on the construction of two submarines.  Captain Müller says that they are anxious to get the shipyard up and working again.  The Germans want to know if Jaap will still remain in charge of the shipyard?  Jaap says he doesn't know.  The Gestapo gives him until 4 o'clock to give them his answer. 

Outside Jaap walks while thinking about his answer.  He walks over to a schoolroom and listens to the school children sing a song:  "Piet Hien, Piet Hein, your name will always shine.  In your little ships so neat, you beat the Silver Fleet, the mighty Silver Fleet from Spain."  The woman school teacher reminds the children that Pieter Pieteerzoon Hein was from Delfshaven.  He lived 300 years ago.  When Holland was at its blackest hour, he beat the great Spanish Armada and captured the Silver Fleet (which was bringing silver to the King of Spain).  The capture of the treasure enabled the Dutch to go on fighting to win their freedom.  Piet died as an Admiral of Holland.   The teacher's eloquent talk to the children inspires Jaap. 

School is let out and Jaap is there to pick up his son. 

The journal entry for May 18 says:  "Two days ago the shipyard was re-opened with myself in charge again."  But the shipyard workers stay away from the shipyard. 

The Gestapo head and the naval officer in charge speak with Jaap about the non-progress at the shipyard.  Jaap says he can't do anything without workers.  Von Schiffer asks Captain Müller if he has heard from Markgraf the protector.  Not yet.  Von Schiffer says they will get the men to work by starving them and their families. 

The journal entry for May 21 says:  "The town starves, the people sullen and bewildered.  Many a work man has gone home to find . . . "

 A shipyard worker named Bastiaan comes home.  His daughter Janni tells him that the family needs food to eat, so he simply must go back to work.  Dad replies:  "Not for the Nazi's, Janni"  Janni tells father that she will take her mother's jewelry and sell it in order to get food for the family of five. 

Eventually, the men start coming back to go back to work.  Bastiaan reports into Jaap.  Jaap tells him he will be working as he was before the German invasion.

Bastiaan goes back to his work as a welder.  He takes his glasses off because, he tells the curious Jaap, that there's something written on the glasses.  They go inside to examine the glasses.  There is an inscription that says: "Do not despair, remember Piet Hein."  Signed Piet Hein. 

A journal entry says:  "'Piet Hein' is getting more and more popular each day.  I and my family are getting more unpopular.  Helene told me today that some of her old friends are beginning to . . . "

Helene goes to the store, but the owner won't let her get any eggs.  Janni tells Helene to take some of her eggs, since she has plenty.  A heavy woman comes over to the two women and she says:  "If you're a wise girl you'll let Quislings shift for themselves."  (The Norwegian named Quisling cooperated with the Germans following the invasion of the country by Germany.)  

When Helene comes home she finds a "Q" painted on her door.  Inside she finds a lot of food brought over by one of the Nazis.  When her son Willem comes home he runs upstairs crying about something that happened at school or after school.  Mom goes upstairs and Willem asks her if it is true that daddy is a Quisling?  Mom is shocked by the question.

At work a crane operator deliberately drops a huge piece of steel where Jaap was standing.  He's lucky he wasn't killed. 

Piet Hein strikes again with the message:  "Why bother about Van Leyden?  There are more  important things to do." 

Another message from Piet Hein is:  "Twelve shipyard men will accompany U-107 on her sea trials. Make sure they are the right ones."

Still another says:  "Look for three guns beneath the cedar tree in the Minervalaan."

"Stand by trials of U-107 are getting near."

Jaap meets with the German admiral.  He tells Jaap that they owe him a great deal because of his collaboration.  He won't regret it.  In fact, Herr Markgraf asked the Admiral to convey his personal appreciation to Jaap. 

Another message:  "Sea trials are tomorrow.  Plant guns."

Foreman Jost says to Bastiaan that the guys with the guns are to dig them up and bring them to the meeting place at 9 o'clock.  Bastiaan and Jost then go over to see the owner of the general store.  The supervisor tells the owner that seven men will bring their guns to him and leave them here.  He adds that they will also need grub for their twelve men.  An S.S. soldier comes into the general store.  He tells the owner he wants his sausage he ordered.  The owner quickly gets the sausage for him and the Nazi leaves.

The owner's nephew runs over to the home of Van Leyden.  He tells him that he has some important information for him about the ship 107 about to go on her sea trials tomorrow.  Van Leyden wants to know where this information comes from.  The nephew says it's from Cornelis Smit, the grocer.  He adds that some of the men are conspiring to steal the 107.  Uncle will smuggle the arms onto the submarine in the food boxes.  The leader of the conspiracy is Jost Meertens, but there is someone above Jost, someone who signs his notes as Piet Hein. 

Jaap tells the young man that they will have a drink on this occasion.  He goes downstairs and with chalk draws a backward Q and then a backward P on his PH on the siding for the stairs.  He then gets some liquor and goes back up to see the nephew.  They have a quick drink and then Jaap sends the fellow straight back to the store, so the conspirators won't be suspicious of him.  Jaap adds that he is going to catch the grocer red handed with the guns in the food boxes.  On the way out Jaap pushes the young man up against the wall saying he must first make sue there is no one out there to see Smit.   The pushing of Smit up against the siding leaves a Q PH on the back of Smit's coat.  He then tells Smit he can leave. 

When Johann Smit returns to the general store, his uncle sees the Quisling sign on the back of his nephew's coat.  When he gives a shocked shout of Johann's name the other conspirators come to look at what's going on.  They also see the Q and the PH on Johann's coat.  The men confront Johann, but Johann breaks away from them and runs for his life. The men run after him.  A German sentry sees a man on a ship (Johann) and shoots him.  Johann's body falls into the water. 

Journal entry, June 30.  "Today is the day of the trials."  The surviving Smit comes down to the dock with the food box.  It is taken away from him by the German guards.  He tells this to the foreman Jost and Bastiaan.  Over the loudspeaker is heard  "Will foremen Jost Meertens, Dirk Van Houten, Joop Sluys report to Mr. van Leyden's office." 

Van Leyden asks Jost who are the men he is choosing to go on the sea trials?  The problem is that Jose doesn't want to name the men.  The Gestapo head comes into van Leyden's office and that just increases the pressure on the foremen.  The foremen finally give the nine names to van Leyden.  Just as Jost is about to get on board, van Leyden winks at him.  When Jost gets aboard he tells the other foremen that van Leyden is Piet Hein. 

The sub U-107 heads out into the ocean.  The Dutchmen aboard the ship ask permission to eat their lunches now.  Permission granted.  The twelve boxes are handed out to the Dutchmen.  Inside seven of the boxes are the pistols.

The Dutchmen cause an accident in the torpedo room that breaks the neck of a German submariner.  Now all over the ship the Dutchmen pull out their pistols and take sailors and officers as their prisoners.  The plan is to take the submarine to England. 

Back in Holland van Leyden hears the announcement that the submarine that was recently owned by the Germans has arrived in England and now is an English submarine.  Some of the men who took over the submarine now talk on the radio.  They mention the name Piet Hein and the Germans start searching for this man.

Journal entry, July 3.  "'Piet Hein' is a spark that has set the town on fire.  But who is he?  They would like to know." 

At the shipyard there have been a lot of sabotage and the Germans are thinking about how to curb this.  The Gestapo takes hostages to be harmed if further acts of sabotage continue.  The head of the Gestapo says that he put the warnings up and it's been nine hours since then without a single act of sabotage.  Just then a huge explosion goes off at the Gas Works.  Schiffer wants to impose a punishment, but Jaap suggests that he not make martyrs of the Dutchmen.   He says such punishments will just make the Germans appear weak and small. 

Journal entry.  ". . . and Schiffer let it go at that.  Never thought such silly talk would do the trick, but they are nervous.  The rest was easy." 

The Schipsdam hostages are released.  The Germans say it is a gesture of conciliation toward the people of the town that the sentence of death imposed upon 30 citizens of Schipsdam were suspended.  Herr Markgraf gave his assent to the suspended sentences. 

Bastiaan is reunited with his family.  He's happy to be home, but he still hates that Quisling van Leyden. 

Van Leyden has a talk with his boy about not fighting with the kids at school, at least not until he finishes his boxing lessons.  Willem says the boys didn't taunt him today because everybody was celebrating the Dutch submarine being stolen from the Germans and given to the English.  Helene tells her husband that perhaps on the next submarine they could place a time bomb to just blow up the sub.  Van Leyden warns her not to say such things or they might be convicted of sabotage which carries a death sentence.  Helene says that her husband in keeping things from her and wants to know why doesn't he trust her enough to confide in her?  Jaap tells her that she is the one that must trust him for now.  He says as long as he keeps his picture of Queen Wilhelmina in his drawer, his heart will always be with the Dutch.  His wife agrees to that. 

Work on the next submarine continues apace.  Jaap goes to look at the progress.  He also goes down to check on certain items. 

Journal entry.  "Solution:  explosion in exhaust valve will flood engine room compartment.  Salvage impossible."

At home Jaap is working on something that will do the job for him as far as the sabotage is concerned. 

Journal entry.  "The charge must be fired by someone on board.  All I need is a stick of dynamite to go into the false valve spindles.  Thought it easy to get my hands on this, but when I reached the yard . . . "

There has been another act of sabotage.  Thieves broke into the magazine and took half a case of TNT.  Van Leyden comes in and is told about this.  One of the men in the magazine was badly hurt by the thieves.  Schiffer asks Jaap to ask the wounded man who did this to him?  So van Leyden hovers over the man.  He lies and says he didn't catch the name of the saboteur. 

Back at home Jaap tells Helene that it was Bastiaan Peters. And he is worried about what damage Bastiaan might do with so much TNT.  He tells Helene that he is going to try and get the dynamite, but he is going to need Helene's help.  She is very willing to help.  He wants her to go to Janni Peters and see if she can learn anything from Bastiaan's daughter. 

Helene speaks with Janni, but she says she doesn't know much about what her father has been doing.  Mrs. van Leyden explains that her husband doesn't care about harming her father, he just wants to get the dynamite back, before they do something dreadful with it.  Janni tells her that it's already too late to stop any sabotage.  Helene begs Janni to tell her all that she knows.

Schiffer asks for a guard to be placed around the man who was hurt in the TNT robbery.  One of the naval fellows, Wernicke, tells Schiffer that he doesn't trust that van Leyden character.  He tells Schiffer that he came across a change of construction details van Leyden ordered for U-108.  "An extra circuit and a cable running from the control room."  Schiffer gets a phone call from van Leyden, who tells him that he is tracking down the
TNT.  Schiffer says they will all met at the gates. 

At the gates, van Leyden jumps on the runner of Schiffer's car and he directs the driver where to go.  When they reach their destination, Wernicke and van Leyden run to find the TNT.   Van Leyden finds the bomb and defuses it quickly. 

Wernicke and von Schiffer congratulate van Leyden on his finding and defusing the missing TNT.  Wernicke now tells van Leyden that he and Schiffer have had some doubts about Jaap.  The naval officer even suggests that Jaap take part in the sea trials of U-108.  Van Leyden says this is a wonderful idea.  He is raring to go.  This satisfies Wernike and Schiffer for now. 

Journal entry.  "What fools they are!  They think life is so important.  --  Helene looked lovely yesterday."

Van Leyden continues his work on his bomb.  He puts the stick of dynamite he grabbed from the time bomb and places it inside his contraption. 

Jaap is giving a dinner party for the elite of the German occupiers.  Helene doesn't like having these German over to her house.  Her husband, however, tells her that tonight is very important because tomorrow morning the 108 sails out on her trials. 

The party goes on.  Jaap invites a key German airfield construction king to come on the sea trials for U-108.  He promises the man a real thrill if he will come on the sub.  The man agrees.  The doorbell rings and Jaap answers the door. It's the admiral and with him is a key man for the Germans.  It's Herr Ludwig Markgraf.  Jaap makes a big fuss over Markgraf and tells his wife publicly that their next guest is the most important man in Holland. 

Schiffer arrives and he tells Jaap that he found out who the man was that stole the TNT.  It was Bastiaan Peters.  Jaap acts surprised. 

Jaap now tells Helene about Schiffer finding out about Bastiaan.  Helene is mad at her husband because he told her that Bastiaan would be okay.  (He should have explained that Schiffer found out about Bastiaan on his own.)  Jaap asks Helene to believe in him a bit longer. 

Schiffer receives a telephone call that Bastiaan has escaped.  Schiffer leaves.  Now Jaap gets to work on convincing Her Markgraf to come on the submarine trials tomorrow.  Jaap is very skillful with his words and his flattery.  He gets Markgraf to agree to come on the trials. 

Now Jaap goes upstairs to get some fine cigars for Markgraf and the other guests.  Bastiaan is there in the room with a pistol and he is determined to kill Jaap.  So, Jaap has to do some real fast and fancy talking.  He has to reveal that he is Piet Hein.  He also reveals to Bastiaan that he himself is after the 108.  Just then the Gestapo show up looking for Bastiaan.  Bastiaan tells Jaap that he always wanted to do something for Piet Hein.  He shoots himself dead. 

Jaap comes down the stairs saying that he just shot Bastiaan.  Schiffer runs up the stairs with other Gestapo members to take a look at Bastiaan's body.  (Helene is now extremely upset with her husband.)

After all the guests leave, Jaap goes up to explain things to his wife.  He tries to get Helene to open the door, but she just doesn't say anything and eventually Jaap has to give up on talking to her.  He goes into his office and pulls out his journal. 

Journal entry.  "3 a.m.  Never thought the last hours would be so difficult."

Jaap goes to speak with his son.  He wants Willem to tell his mother that the picture [of Queen Wilhelmina] is still in its place.  And mother is to look for the picture.  He hugs his son, says goodbye to him and leaves for the sea trials. 

The U-108 submerges. 

Back to the present.  Journal entry.  "Goodbye my darling wife.  Writing down what has happened and what is going to happen makes me stronger.  I see clearly now.!  Life and Death are only an end and a beginning.  What matters is how we live and why we die.  I shall live on in my son and with you because you will always have me in your heart, and whenever you are alone you will hear my voice.  I shall be with you,. darling, in this house because I love you and you love me.  I shall be in the shipyard because my men will remember me.  As long as Dutchmen live in Holland, I shall be here.  Because I was one of the seeds from which freedom grew again.  I shall not die.  Does a seed die when it is buried in the earth?  Has the wind died when it ceases to blow?  Are the waves dead when the sea is calm?  The truth is that a nation will only live as long as it has people ready to die."


Good film.  It has a couple of twists that are clever.  The Dutch dock workers and ship builders in Holland refuse to work at the ship yards while they are under German control in World War II.  So the Germans decide to starve the families of the shipyard workers.  So the men are forced to work in the shipyards.  They are working on completing the construction of two submarines that the Germans are anxious to use against the Allies.  The Germans are very happy about the finishing of U-107.  Disappointment follows, but they now await the finishing of U-108.  And once again the Germans are happy to put the 108 through its sea trials.  But will they be any happier with the completely finished 108 than they were with the 107? 

Ralph Richardson (as Jaap van Leyden) was very good.  Esmond Knight (as Von Schiffer, the Gestapo chief) was good, but he used a high voice that sounded strange to me.  Whenever he was talking I would be thinking of how he created that high voice.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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