Hell Boats, released in 1970, was filmed in Malta in the late 1960s and directed by Paul Wendkos.1 The film follows a common formula used in British films at the time: the lead is an American actor (essential to help sell the film in America) who, for a variety of different reasons, finds himself in a British unit leading the fight against Germany. This device had worked, with varying levels of success, in films such as 633 Squadron (1964), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) and, to a lesser extent, Operation Crossbow (1965) and The Red Beret (1953).
In Hell Boats, the plot revolves around Lieutenant Commander Jeffords (played by James Franciscus), an American with an English mother who volunteered to join the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war. After having his MTB sunk beneath him in the English Channel in 1942, he is sent to Malta to undertake a top secret mission to destroy a German installation full of radio controlled glider bombs. Upon arriving in Malta, he finds himself facing multiple problems; a stiff British base commander, a love interest (coincidentally the base commander’s wife), a lack of resources and, of course, the Germans.1
Genuine Coastal Forces Elco and Vosper MTBs at HMS Gregale, Ta’xbiex, Malta. © IWM (A 14545)
The MTBs themselves are featured in the opening two minutes of credits. Sadly, this is perhaps the most prolonged bit of footage in the entire film, as almost all of the subsequent scenes at sea have quite obviously been filmed with models. The excessive model use was most likely done for continuity as, eventually, all of the MTBs in the film are destroyed. This means that the real boats used for filming are relegated to a few bridge shots, some establishing shots and set decoration at base.
The boats are in fact RAF MKII Rescue & Target Towing Launches (RTTL), built by Vosper, Groves & Guttridge (at Cowes) and Saunders Roe (at Beaumaris) in the 1950s.2 RTTLs, as the name implies were dual purpose launches and, by the 1950s, had evolved quite separately from wartime RAF High Speed Launches. In fact the RTTLs bear much more resemblance to the late-war 68 foot British Power Boat Type 3 High Speed Launch, which acquired the nickname “Hants & Dorset” owing to the high forward deckhouse.3
Although highly successful craft, both the Type 3 HSLs and the later RTTLs cannot exactly be described as sleek and it is quite apparent, even to the least knowledgeable eye, that they are not genuine MTBs. The modifications made in order to create the impression that they might be, appear to be little more than the addition of tubes on either side of the deck, a twin Vickers 0.5″ turret, and the deletion of the crafts’ RAF roundel and last identification number on the hull. Only two boats appear to have undergone this transformation; one may very well be RTTL 2768, (made into MTB 276),4 although the identity of the second is less certain. A German S-boat (the only vessel seen to use its torpedo tubes) appears to be a basic launch with tubes fitted on her deck. The boats are mainly seen moored off Fort Manoel in Valetta Harbour, which poses as the Coastal Forces base in the film.
The overuse of models means that the boats themselves never appear to be particularly fast. Instead they plough through the water like maritime dodgems or alien vessels from an early episode of Doctor Who. In one shot, a model has its bow lifted out of the water to create an impression of speed that is sadly not reflected in its actual progress across the screen. Given this reliance on models, it seems a shame that models of Vospers could not have been used instead, along with mock up set dressing for the shore shots instead of genuine boats.
Of course, this would not make for a particularly authentic feel, but Hell Boats lacks that anyway. As a film, let alone a war film, Hell Boats is fairly poor. The plot is faintly absurd and the acting, whilst not quite wooden, is fairly uninspired. The German opposition is so incompetent it verges on comical, the love tryst is rather forced and all the classic war film stereotypes are included: German heavy weapons are clearly Allied Oerlikons, sub-machine guns never seem to run out of ammunition, death scenes are massively overacted and genuine tactics are non-existent. Somehow the Royal Navy is so incompetent that only Jeffords can teach gunners to hit a target immediately alongside their boat, and the climatic mission is one that would not have been undertaken by Coastal Forces alone without substantial support, especially from commandos.
What counts against Hell Boats is that it is, shamefully, post-war cinema’s only foray into the story of Coastal Forces. Were there more movie outings on MTBs and MGBs, Hell Boats might pass by as a normal B-movie, a budget tribute to blockbuster siblings. As it is, as the only colour cinema foray into this element of the war, it comes across as a very poor film. Given the high octane nature of Coastal Forces’ actions in the Second World War, in hindsight it’s something of a surprise to learn that Hollywood did not beat down the Royal Navy’s doors in an effort to make a decent feature film during the war film’s hey-day in the 1960s and 1970s. The one film where they perhaps should have – Attack on the Iron Coast (1968) – a fictional (and weak) depiction of the St Nazaire Raid starring Lloyd Bridges – lamentably does not feature Coastal Forces at all.
In fact, even American film studios scarcely managed to do justice to their own little ships, with just two movies about PT boats – They were Expendable (1945) and PT 109 (1963). With that in mind, it may seem surprising that any of the smaller British studios got around to producing a film about Royal Navy Coastal Forces at all. The result – Hell Boats – may lead you to think it better if they had not. It certainly does nothing to threaten the far more impressive wartime film, The Broad Fourteens.
- Internet Movie Database, 2017. Hell Boats (1970). Accessed July 2017.
- Boats of the Royal Air Force Marine Branch 1918 – 1986, 2017. Rescue & Target Towing Launch MKII. Accessed July 2017.
- Boats of the Royal Air Force Marine Branch 1918 – 1986, 2017. 68ft British Power Boat Company High Speed Launch . Accessed July 2017.
- Boats of the Royal Air Force Marine Branch 1918 – 1986, 2017. RTTL 2768. Accessed July 2017.
© Spitfires of the Sea