Greyhound, and The Battle of the Atlantic.

Greyhound (10 July 2020, Sony Pictures, Stage 6 Films, AppleTV+)

No film could or should try to cover all aspects of a complex subject such as the Battle of the Atlantic.

That being said, I’ve been waiting for a film that tells the story of the “Battle of the Atlantic” during WW2 from the surface perspective for a long time. Many films of the subject are from the perspective of the German Kriegsmarine U-bootwaffe and there are many very good films on the surface battle, but they are mostly from the ’40s and ’50s (Convoy 1940, Action in the North Atlantic 1943, San Demetrio London 1943, Western Approaches 1944, The Cruel Sea 1953, The Enemy Below 1957, and others). But few recent films take on the conflict from the side of the Americas, British, Canadians (and later the Soviet) and other allies that endured this unforgiving conflict.

Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) looking through shattered porthole

The Allied combatants’ on convoy duty were mostly reservists, “wartime duration” officers and sailors or recalled retired naval personnel, private citizens (Merchant Marines), auxiliaries, and the Coast Guard. Many had to learn on the job often with older outdated ships. These brave souls had to endure the longest battle/campaign of WW2 — The Battle of the Atlantic. A battle that lasted 5 years, 8 months, and 5 days (some 68 months). It was a relentless and monotonous struggle that played a major part in the survival of England and the USSR and contributed to the final Allied victory in Europe over Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Tom Hanks’s Greyhound does not attempt to cover the Battle of the Atlantic. That would be almost impossible and it best left to documentaries.

Greyhound explores some of the unique angles and the stress to WW2 naval surface and anti-submarine combat. The tremendous stress on the Captian and Crew of a “Tim Can”. Destroyers, even one of the Flecher-class were extremely vulnerable. Armor being sacrificed for speed and firepower (like most things you can have any two of the following — Speed, Firepower, or Armor — Pick!). The world’s navies in WW2 were trying to get the “right” balance of these attributes. The Fletcher-class destroyer was the USN’s answer and the most prevalent destroyer from mid-1942 on.

Back to the film, Greyhound takes this on with a nonstop high tension that reflects fighting in the mid-Atlantic in 1942. A time when German Wolfpack tactics were taking a terrible toll on the allied convoys. Focusing on the USS Keeling (code-name“Greyhound”), a Fletcher-class destroyer*, and her Caption, Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), as they shepherd the convoy (loosely based on convoy HX 25) they are tasked to protect.

U-boat surfacing from the movie Greyhound

The main action involves the period of time when the convoy leaves North America’s land-based air cover (U-boats were very vulnerable to aircraft that could see them near the surface, report their position and attack them). To the point were land-based aircraft could reach them from Europe. For 5 days, the convoy was on its own in an area of the mid-Atlantic called “The Black Pit” — a fact not lost on Grand Admiral Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine U-bootwaffe — using the gap to concentrate his Wolfpack’s looking for and attacking allied convoys, often with great success, especially at night when a surfaced U-Boat (being small and low in the water) is very difficult to see and locate.

The film like the C.S. Forester novel “The Good Shepherd” on which it’s based, focuses mainly on Commander Ernest Krause and his relentless struggle to second guess the Wolfpack commander (*** Possible Spoiler ***) A presents we never see but on occasionally hear over the Ship-to-Ship radio telephone — A storytelling device to give the U-boat a “human voice” (*** End Possible Spoiler ***) that inevitably converges on his convoy.

Tom Hanks and the cast are spot-on. The growing fatigue and the effects of the stress of 5 days of non-stop vigilance and combat show on the faces of the entire crew, Hanks appears to age before our eyes.

*** Possible Spoiler ***
We witness Commander Krause and his crew’s stress and tension intensify as the hour’s tick down to safety. The USS Keeling encounters one crisis to another. Commander Krause seems to issue a constant stream of commands to attempt to stay one step ahead of the wolfpack — not always with success. This is what it’s like to command at sea when seconds can mean life or death. Often with the 1942 fledgling technology failing (early radar sets glitching, hydrophones being fooled, etc) leaving Commander Krause to rely on his instincts to glean the “next move” — When the technology in naval combat fails your back to a game of chess.

Burial at sea from the movie Greyhound

This is NOT a film for everyone. And the “experts” will point out flaws. Being the mid-Atlantic the colors are muted and give the feeling of bleakness that typifies not just the environment but the whole outlook of the convoy. Punctuated with ships burning and exploding in bright flames. We don’t see the sun until the convoy reaches European air cover.
*** End Possible Spoiler ***

Tom Hanks (who also wrote the screenplay) is superb as usual embracing the role with passion and completely becoming the USS Destroyer Keeling’s Captain and the rest of the cast take his lead.

On a personal note

This film has a personal connection for me as my paternal uncle was a Chief Petty Officer (Radioman) in the USN and spent 9 months in the North Atlantic.

A “lifer” since before the war, he was mainly on the Murmansk/Archangel run usually assigned to the post of Radioman, one of two USN Sailors onboard one of the convoys merchant ships. He would relay to the ship’s Captain course changes and commands from the convoy’s Commodore.

On the Murmansk/Archangel run, once up north, there was almost no possibility of survival in the freezing water — usually, no one even tried to get to survivors in the water.

Bombed from Nazi aircraft by day and attacked by U-boats at night, the experience impacted him profoundly, years later he would still go somewhere alone when an aircraft flew overhead. He never fully recovered from it.

Chief Petty Officer Phil Hubbell USN (Pre-war photo)

I wish to dedicate this post to Chief Petty Officer Phil Hubbell USN, now resting in Arlington. Thank you for your service.

  • Correction
    In C.S. Foresters book “The Good Shepherd” the USS Keeling (Greyhound) is a Mahan-class Destroyer. Commissioned in 1936 and 1937, the 18 ships of this class were considerable smaller and older then the 175 ships of the Fletcher-class (first commissioned in 1942 after the events of this film). Manhans displacing 1,524 tons (standard) and the Fletchers displacing 2,050 tons (standard). Since there are no preserved Mahan-class Destroyers around. The film used the the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge LA and the HMCS Montréal. All this leads one to think of the USS Keeling as Fletcher-class destroyer.
    (You think getting WWII armour is tough, try getting a WWII warship!)

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