Kate Worsley is Commander Ericson from The Cruel Sea

The Cruel Sea

Kate Worsley was born in Preston, Lancashire but now lives by the sea. Her debut novel, She Rises, is set in 1740s Harwich (memorably described by one character as the ‘arse of Essex’), and is all about press gangs, love, sex and the salty, seductive allure of sea faring. Kate Worsley’s filmic alter ego is Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson from The Cruel Sea (1953). Eithne Farry

‘The men are the heroes. The heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel,’ explains Commander Ericson of convoy-escort HMS Compass Rose in the opening voiceover of the classic second world war film The Cruel Sea. Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is the biggest hero of them all: he’s all corrugated, oiled hair and furrowed brow, noble self-control and tortured conscience, his only recourse a large pink gin.

From its very first gut-churning opening shot of Atlantic swell, this 1953 film (based on the Nicholas Monsarrat novel) conveys the horror and heroism of war at sea like no other. It’s a pathetically brave world of duffel coats and roll-neck jumpers, speaking tubes and cocoa served in enamel mugs. Ericson’s mission, to protect Allied supply convoys in the Atlantic from hordes of German submarines, seems doomed from the start, when he is assigned a bunch of laughably inexperienced officers (a second-hand car salesman, a barrister, and a journo).
After only three weeks, though, he has them in hand and they scan the ocean for years, everywhere from Russia to Gibraltar. In the end, he sinks only two subs. But it’s the kind of man Ericson proves himself to be that earns the enduring loyalty of his men, particularly Second Lieutenant Lockhart (the journo), who turns down his own command to serve with him a second time.

When they make their best contact with a sub it is directly beneath a dozen shipwrecked, bobbing men. Ericson gives the order to plow through them and bomb the sub – the consequences of which we see in a series of appalled reaction shots. He then realises that there was no sub there after all. Three previously rescued sea captains come to his cabin that evening, their consolations stilted but immensely kind: ‘There is no blame. But there may be thoughts. And for thoughts, there is gin.’ Make mine a stiff one.

Kate Worsley