The story follows the Royal Navy Corvette Compass Rose under Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins), who moulds an inexperienced crew into an effective and disciplined fighting force, from the dark days before Dunkirk through to final victory.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II the Compass Rose leaves harbour for sea trials and three weeks of training for her inexperienced crew. This proves a baptism of fire, as they are battered by storms. They later encounter their first U-Boat.
As the war rages, the ship and crew succeed, with many losses of life, in helping to defeat the U-Boat threat.
Eight years after the end of WWII, Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios brought Nicholas Monsarrat’s best-selling novel to the screen, launching the careers of Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott and Virginia McKenna and also establishing Jack Hawkins as a star.
The screenplay doesn’t avoid showing the futility of war, and emphasises the emotional and psychological damage inflicted by war: several officers turn to drink, an officer has a breakdown, a rating calls the Captain “a bloody murderer” and Ericson himself cries when his decision to depth-charge a U-Boat results in the death of British sailors.
In fact, this was a rare reaction to the usual ‘stiff upper lip’ heroics of many British war films.
It is also a prime example of a documentary style lending authenticity to the fictional story.