Above Us the Waves

Above Us the Waves is a 1955 British war film about human torpedo and midget submarine attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz directed by Ralph Thomas. It is based on two true-life attacks on the Tirpitz by British commando frogmen, first using Chariot manned torpedoes in Operation Title in 1942, and then X-Craft midget submarines in Operation Source in 1943. Some of the original equipment was used in the film.

Above Us the Waves
Original UK poster
Directed byRalph Thomas
Produced byWilliam MacQuitty (executive), Earl St John
Screenplay byRobin Estridge
Based onAbove Us the Waves
by C. E. T. Warren
& James Benson
StarringJohn Mills
John Gregson
Donald Sinden
Music byArthur Benjamin
CinematographyErnest Steward
Edited byGerald Thomas
London Independent Producers
Distributed byGFD (UK)
Republic Pictures (US)
Release date
  • 29 March 1955 (1955-03-29) (UK)

April 1957 (US)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom


The Royal Navy is concerned about constant attacks on convoys by German submarines and having to keep "half the fleet" watching for the German battleship Tirpitz. The Tirpitz is 60 miles from the sea inside a Norwegian fjord and attempts by the Royal Air Force to sink her have failed. Commander Fraser (Mills) is determined to prove that an attack by human torpedoes is practical, despite scepticism from the higher echelons that such an operation would be feasible.

Fraser assembles and trains a force of British commando frogmen officers and ratings to use the Mk I Human Torpedo manned torpedoes (Chariots) at their Scottish base. After receiving a refusal to allow the operation to go ahead from an admiral, the team use dummy mines to attack the admiral's own ship using the Chariots.

An attack is authorised on the Tirpitz with the initial operation using the Chariots. The attack fails and the crew are forced to abandon ship and land in Norway. They walk to neutral Sweden from where they are returned to Scotland.

For the next operation the crews are trained to use three small X-Craft submarines: X1, X2 and X3. They are initially towed by conventional submarines and are then left to penetrate the area where the Tirpitz is anchored.

They manage to approach the ship under their own power to lay their "side-cargoes", each containing 2 tons of amatol, under the ship's hull undetected. Two crews then scuttle the submarines and are picked up by the crew of Tirpitz, to be taken away as prisoners of war. The third (X2) is too badly damaged to re-surface and the crew decide to stay on board to prevent "giving the game away".

The mines explode as planned, badly damaging the Tirpitz. Meanwhile, X2's side cargoes have flooded. The flooding causes them to spontaneously explode, destroying X2 and killing her crew.

Main cast

Production notes

The screenplay was based on the book Above Us the Waves by C. E. T. Warren and James Benson, which had been published in 1953.[1][2]

Director Ralph Thomas says the film was made because producer William MacQuitty "was very involved with the Navy and he loved submarines."[3] MacQuitty had a production company in partnership with Sydney Box called London Independent Producers, which tended to use the same core creative personnel.[4] They purchased film rights in 1952, before the book had been published.[5]

The book became a best seller, selling over 350,000 copies[6] and MacQuitty obtained finance from the Rank Organisation under Earl St. John. The British admiralty provided full co-operation.[7] Thomas was given the job of directing after his tremendous success with Doctor in the House. Several of the cast from that film would appear in Above Us the Waves.[8]

Shooting began on 20 September 1954 in Guernsey. Commander Donald Cameron, who commanded X-6 as a lieutenant and won the Victoria Cross during the operation, was an adviser to the film.[9][10]

MacQuitty was an experienced diver, having spent over 500 hours under water. He personally supervised many of the underwater sequences.[11]

Events in the film had minor differences, for example, the boat Arthur that carried the Chariot human torpedoes was named Ingebord in the film, and the X-class submarines used in Operation Source in 1943 were numbered X-5, X-6 and X-7, and X-5 was the craft that was lost.

The score was by Arthur Benjamin and performed under the direction of Muir Mathieson.

John Gregson played an Australian.[12] "Australians are husky, types", said producer McQuitty. "Gregson has made his part of Alec Duffy, midget submarine commander, good and husky."[13]

"I am proud to be playing the part of an Australian", said Gregson. "During the war, when I was in the Royal Navy, I met many Australian fighting men. They were good fellows."[13]

Donald Sinden's character was based on the true-life exploits of Sub-Lieutenant Robert Aitken, who died a few weeks after Sinden.[14] In his first autobiography, A Touch of the Memoirs, Sinden said "I had to re-enact a deed originally performed by Commander Donald Cameron. While his X Craft was being towed across the North Sea, the cable picked up a floating mine which then moved along the cable and made straight for his midget. Cameron rushed forward and, lowering himself over the prow of his craft, managed gingerly to push the mine clear with his feet. Donald was our advisor on the film and told me modestly, "I couldn't think of anything else to do." He was awarded the VC. I wasn't because we used a dummy. But Donald could swim!"[15]

The cast also included Anthony Wager, who had played a young Pip in Great Expectations (1946). John Mills, who played the older Pip, appeared opposite him.


Box office

Above Us the Waves was the sixth most popular film at the British box office that year, after The Dam Busters, White Christmas, Doctor at Sea, The Colditz Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It helped John Mills to be voted the fifth most popular star in the country.[16]

According to the National Film Finance Corporation, the film made a comfortable profit.[17]


  1. "The News BOOK REVIEWS". The News. 61 (9, 448). Adelaide. 20 November 1953. p. 23. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  2. "MIDGET SUBMARINES and HUMAN TORPEDOES". The Age (30, 787). Victoria, Australia. 2 January 1954. p. 14. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  3. Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema 1997 p 558
  4. Spicer, Andrew (2006). Sydney Box. Manchester University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7190-5999-5.
  5. HOWARD THOMPSON (7 September 1952). "News notes on pictures and people". The New York Times. p. X5.
  6. "LONDON LETTER: 59 FLEET STREET". The Irish Times. Dublin, Ireland. 21 March 1956. p. 7.
  7. "British to make submarine epic". Sunday Mail. Queensland. 21 November 1954. p. 28. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  8. STEPHEN WATTS, LONDON.. (19 December 1954). "NOTED ON THE LONDON SCREEN SCENE: 'Doctor' Proves to Be A Bonanza – Command Film Show Panned". The New York Times. p. X7.
  9. "FILM OF MIDGET SUBMARINES: Attacks on the Tirpitz". The Manchester Guardian. Manchester (UK). 20 September 1954. p. 9.
  10. "BRITAIN LAUNCHES MORE SEA FILMS". The Mail. 44 (2, 209). Adelaide. 9 October 1954. p. 56. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  11. "HE IS NO ARMCHAIR PRODUCER". Times Pictorial. Dublin, Ireland. 1 January 1955. p. 18.
  12. "Had To Learn Our Accent". The Mirror. 35 (1769). Western Australia. 23 April 1955. p. 11. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  13. "F. KEITH MANZIE reviews this week's films TRACY TRIUMPHS IN 'BLACK ROCK'". The Argus. Melbourne. 28 May 1955. p. 43. Retrieved 21 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  14. "Sub-Lieutenant Robert Aitken: Diver and navigator who narrowly escaped". The Independent. 6 November 2014.
  15. A Touch of the Memoirs by Donald Sinden. Hodder & Stoughton Publ. (1982), pp. 209–10
  16. 'Dirk Bogarde favourite film actor', The Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland] 29 December 1955: 9.
  17. "U.S. MONEY BEHIND 30% OF BRITISH FILMS: Problems for the Board of Trade". The Manchester Guardian. Manchester (UK). 4 May 1956. p. 7.
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