Morning Departure

Morning Departure

British DVD cover from 2010
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Produced by Jay Lewis
Screenplay by W.E. Fairchild
Based on the stage play Morning Departure
by Kenneth Woollard
Starring John Mills
Richard Attenborough
Bernard Lee
Kenneth More
Nigel Patrick
George Cole
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Edited by Alan Osbiston
Jay Lewis Productions
Distributed by GDF (UK)
British Empire Films (AUS)[1]
Universal-International (US)
Release dates
  • 21 February 1950 (1950-02-21) (UK)
  • 3 November 1950 (1950-11-03) (AUS[1])
  • 13 January 1951 (1951-01-13) (US)
Running time
102 min[2]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £105,000[3]

Morning Departure (released as Operation Disaster in the United States[4]) is a 1950 British naval drama film about life aboard a sunken submarine, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough. It is based on a stage play of the same name by Kenneth Woollard, which had also been shown as a live TV play by the BBC both in 1946[5] and 1948.[6] It was the feature film debut of Michael Caine.


The story is set after the end of the Second World War and concerns a British submarine, HMS Trojan, which is out on a routine exercise to test its new snorkel mast when it encounters a derelict floating magnetic mine left over from the war. The submarine dives, but sets off the mine. The mine blows the bows of the submarine off, and floods the after section through the displaced snorkel mast, killing the 53 crew-members in the bow and stern sections. The submarine settles to the bottom leaving twelve crew members alive amidships, who have been saved by the watertight doors which had been closed by order of the captain when he realised the imminent danger.

When the shore base becomes aware that Trojan is overdue, surface rescue vessels are sent out to investigate. The captain of the submarine, Lieutenant Commander Peter Armstrong (John Mills), sensibly provides an indication of their position to these vessels by expelling a quantity of oil which rises to the surface. Following standard escape procedure, a diver is sent down with an air line while everyone prepares for the rescue. Armstrong selects the first four for release; they escape safely without incident, and are picked up on the surface. The eight remaining crew assume there are plenty of breathing sets for them all to escape successfully. However, the captain discovers that all but four have been destroyed in the blast. This means the final four will have to remain under water until a full salvage operation can be carried out, which may take a week or more.

Armstrong assembles the others to draw lots through a pack of cards he deals out, to decide who goes and who remains. Two, the cook A/B Higgins (James Hayter) and the first lieutenant, Lieutenant Manson (Nigel Patrick), with the lowest cards, select themselves to stay behind along with Armstrong. The top three, to go first, also select themselves with high cards. Of the other two, there is a tie, both knaves, between Stoker Snipe (Richard Attenborough) and E.R.A. Marks (George Cole). On losing a re-deal, young Snipe goes berserk with fear and has to be physically restrained. Armstrong approaches Marks and asks if he will forfeit his place for Snipe, sensing difficulties if Snipe is left behind. Marks agrees.

They begin to prepare for escape, but Snipe now hangs back, falsely claiming he has hurt his arm in the scuffle. He insists that Marks should go. Marks and the other three escape safely through the hatch and are picked up by the salvage vessels. Below, Manson has a fainting fit but Snipe catches him using both arms without difficulty. Cheerfully at first, the four begin the wait for the salvage operation.

Above, all goes well to begin with, in fine weather. Divers manage to secure cables under the submarine, which is slowly winched up, but only fifteen feet per day can be achieved. However, as the days go by, the weather turns, and soon there is a full storm at sea. As a result, the submarine shifts on the cables, and sinks again to the floor of the sea. Manson has remained in ill-health below, nursed with care by Snipe. However, chlorine begins to leak from a site next to his bunk. Manson is overcome by the gas, and dies.

The storm is so bad that the captain of the salvage ship decides his own men are at risk, and abandons the salvage operation altogether. The three left in the submarine sense that there is no hope for them. The film ends with Armstrong reading from a naval prayer book.

From early scenes in the film, and from dialogue throughout, the viewer is given insights into the personal and home lives of the crew, their hopes, and their now thwarted ambitions. For example, Snipe is married to a wayward wife, whom he idolises; whilst Armstrong has been offered a lucrative shore job by his wealthy father-in-law, and had been planning to leave the Navy to take it up as soon as this patrol was over.



The film is based on a stage play by Kenneth Wollard that was very popular at the time the film was made . Besides being presented on stage in several theatres in Britain, it had already been made as a live TV play by the BBC, first on 1 December 1946, with an afternoon rerun two days later,[7] and was shown twice again by the BBC in February 1948[8] with a different cast.[6] Nigel Patrick, who plays 1st Officer Manson in the film, played the captain in the first TV version.[5]

In the play, the captain's name is Stanford, but for the film it was changed to Armstrong. Most other characters retained their names in the film version, although the film also has additional characters, due to the insertion of flashback scenes and scenes from the rescue operation on the surface. The stage play has an all-male fourteen-character cast,[9] while the film has a credited cast of 20 (plus a few uncredited minor roles), which also includes three women.[10]

HMS Tiptoe was used for the external submarine shots.[11][12] The opening titles feature a statement about the decision to release the film in the light of the loss of HMS Truculent. HMS Truculent sank in 1950, after an accidental collision with a freighter which resulted in the loss of 64 lives. The HMS Truculent incident took place after filming of Morning Departure had been completed, but before it went on general release to the public. The producers decided to go ahead with the film release, as a tribute to the bravery of Royal Naval personnel.

In 1959, Dutch broadcaster NCRV also made a TV play from the stage play, titled S.14 vermist ("S.14 missing").[13]


Trade papers called the film a "notable box office attraction" in British cinemas in 1950.[14]

Roy Ward Baker said "I was very proud of that film and still am. It was an immense success in its day and that's how I came to go to Hollywood in 1952, because the Americans had seen that film."[15]


  1. 1 2 John Howard Reid: Success in the Cinema – Money-Making Movies and Critics' Choices (2006), pages 195–196 Retrieved 24 November 2012
  2. BBFC: Morning Departure – running time Retrieved 24 November 2012
  3. "THE STARRY WAY". The Courier-mail (4075). Queensland, Australia. 17 December 1949. p. 2. Retrieved 24 May 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  4. IMDb: Operation Disaster – release dates Retrieved 24 November 2012
  5. 1 2 BFI Database: Morning Departure (1946) Retrieved 24 November 2012
  6. 1 2 BFI Database: Morning Departure (1948) Retrieved 24 November 2012
  7. BFI Database: Morning Departure (1946) – TV transmission Retrieved 24 November 2012
  8. BFI Database: Morning Departure (1948) – TV transmission Retrieved 24 November 2012
  9. BFI Database: Morning Departure (1946) – Cast Retrieved 24 November 2012
  10. IMDb: Morning Departure – Cast Retrieved 24 November 2012
  11. "HMS Tiptoe". Submariner's Association – Barrow-in-Furness Branch.
  12. "Films of the sea". Archives and collections society.
  13. The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision Database: S.14 vermist Retrieved 24 November 2012
  14. Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48 2003 p213
  15. Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, p 49
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