Based on a true story, this 1955 film tells of a daring mission by British Royal Marines to destroy German ships in the port of Bordeaux. The film follows Major Stringer (Jose Ferrer) as he puts together a team for the mission, trains them, and leads them to carry out the attack. Essentially the film is a genre piece, the impossible mission carried out by stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen, but it is distinguished by strong acting from the cast, and excellent naturalistic direction by its star Ferrer.
Set during World War II, the background to the story is that German battleships based at the port of Bordeaux, about 75 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, are making it difficult for the allied forces to cut off the flow of goods to German-controlled Europe. The Royal Air Force are unwilling to perform large-scale bombing of the French harbour, and major Stringer, a somewhat unconventional recent recruit to the army, has come up with a dangerous plan to paddle up the Gironde river in canoes to Bordeaux, and destroy the German ships with limpet mines.
The centre of the film, before the heroics of the last half-hour, is the conflict between Major Stringer and his junior, admin officer Captain Thompson, played by the ever-dignified and ever-stuffy Trevor Howard. Thompson appears at first a rigid by-the-book figure; unlike Stringer, he is a career officer of 22 years service, who believes in the rigid system of rank and the division between officers and enlisted men. Stringer, an adventurous individualist, wants to form a team of men who can think for themselves and who will do the mission for the challenge; but the more realistic Captain tells him this is folly and the men must obey orders or they will all be killed.
The initial stages are presented in a naturalistic fashion but not without humour, as Major Stringer tests his new recruits in an unlikely way: they are parachuted into the North of England wearing German army uniforms, and must find their way 300 miles back to base. They do this a variety of ways, stealing clothes, vehicles and train-tickets, and the resultant arrests are another source of conflict between Stringer and Thompson. As these two men fight over the treatment of the recruits more of their characters is revealed, and we come to understand what lies behind Captain Thompson's disdain for his superior officer. And the final attack is gripping stuff as the marines try to slip past the numerous German guards and patrol boats to head upriver.
The film is also notable for a number of the talents involved. Producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli went on to work on most of the James Bond movies. It also features an early performance from Anthony Newley, and a brief appearance by the legendary British actor Christopher Lee, and was co-written by actor/writer/director Bryan Forbes. It was released in the US as Operation Cockleshell.
The story of the movie is loosely based on an actual raid, carried out in December 1942 by members of Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment. Known formally as Operation Frankton, it was led by Lieutenant Colonel Hasler. Of the ten men who set out on the raid, only two survived, but those that made it to Bordeaux were able to successfully complete the operation in their Cockle Mk II canoes. Earl Mountbatten of Burma commented:
Of the many brave and dashing raids carried out by the men of Combined Operations Command, none was more courageous or imaginative than 'Operation Frankton'.
The real raid was the brainchild of Hasler, but the Admiralty was initially dismissive of his plans to use canoes in wartime. However, the Italians showed the utility of small vessels in an attack on Alexandria in December 1941. Following this attack and a failed Italian attack on Malta, the British Royal Navy became interested, and Hasler set up his team, based in Southend, Essex.
In September 1942 the specific plan to attack Bordeaux was conceived, as attempts to blockade Germany were failing and the British sought to target German merchant shipping. The plan was to send six canoes, paddling by night and hiding during daylight.
However, the raid was dogged by problems from the moment they left submarine HMS Tuna on December 7, 1942. One canoe was damaged leaving Tuna, and played no part in the raid. Three more canoes were lost or became separated that night due to rough waters around the river mouth. When the remaining two canoes made landfall, they were discovered by French fishermen (as in the film) but they were persuaded not to talk, and the British pressed onwards.
What was left of the force reached Bordeaux on the night of December 11/12. They planted limpet mines on 6 vessels, and escaped unnoticed. Five of the ships were seriously damaged.The marines scuttled their two canoes, and set off for the Spanish border.
Only Hasler and his boatmate Sparks made it home, helped by the French Resistance, and were flown back to Britain from Gibraltar. Six of the marines were captured and executed by the Germans - Hitler had decreed that all captured commandos be shot - and the remaining two were believed drowned. Hasler was awarded the DSO and Sparks the DSM. Laver and Mills, who sailed the other canoe to reach Bordeaux, but were later captured, were mentioned in despatches.
Cast and crew
Jose Ferrer - Major Stringer
Trevor Howard - Captain Thompson
Dora Bryan - Myrtle
John Van Eyssen - Bradley
Sydney Tafler - Policeman
Anthony Newley - Clarke
Victor Maddern - Sergeant Craig
Andrea Malandrinos - French Fisherman
David Lodge - Ruddock
Christopher Lee - Submarine Commander
Jose Ferrer - Director
Albert R Broccoli - Producer
Irving Allen - Producer
John Addison - Music
Richard Maibaum, Bryan Forbes - Screenplay