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The Sea Wolves: WWII adventure in Goa


War has always been the favourite subject of the Hollywood filmmakers, with special fascination for the incidents from the Second World War, which portray the defeat of Nazis. ‘The Sea Wolves’ (1980) is one such film, adapted from the novel ‘Boarding Party’ (1978) by the prolific British author, James Leasor, which itself is based on a real incident that took place during the World War II. The incident involved Operation Creek, the covert March 9, 1943 attack by Calcutta Light Horse – a territorial unit of British expatriates – on a German merchant ship, which had been transmitting strategic information to German U-boats from Mormugão Harbour, located in the neutral territory of Goa ruled by Portugal.

As far as the real Goa mission – Operation Creek – is concerned, the Calcutta Light Horse embarked on the barge named ‘Phoebe’ at Calcutta and sailed around India to Goa. After the German ship, ‘Ehrenfels’ was sunk in March 1943 by the team of British saboteurs, British intelligence dispatched an open message over the air, falsely warning that the British intended to invade Goa. The crews of the other two German merchant ships – ‘Drachenfels’ and ‘Braunfels’ – in the Indian Ocean, received this message and scuttled their ships in Goa’s harbour in the belief that they were protecting their ships from capture by the British.

In ‘The Sea Wolves’, Jack Cartwright played by Trevor Howard arranges for the bordellos of Goa to be open and free of charge for the crews of the German target ships, in order to distract them. This was also the case in the real operation, in which a Special Operations Executive officer, Richard Lippett operating under commercial cover as an employee of the Liverpool shipping enterprise – John Holt & Co – persuaded the wife of a prominent German resident to hold a drunken party for the officers of the German and Italian ships. In the film, a Portuguese official is suborned by British officer Captain Gavin Stewart enacted by Roger Moore and arranges for a glittering reception held under the aegis of the Governor of Goa, for much the same purpose.

The film notes, in its closing credits, that during the first 11 days of March 1943, German U-boats sank 12 Allied ships in the Indian Ocean. However, after the Calcutta Light Horse raid on Goa, only one ship was lost during the remainder of the month.

‘The Sea Wolves’ was originally known as ‘Boarding Party’. In the documentary, ‘The Last of the Gentleman Producers’ (2004), producer Euan Lloyd says that he originally planned to reunite actor Roger Moore with his ‘The Wild Geese’ (1978) co-stars, Richard Burton and Richard Harris as Colonel Lewis Henry Owain Pugh and Colonel W H Grice. He instead went on to sign Gregory Peck and David Niven for these roles.

Andrew V McLaglen, the frequent director of John Wayne films like ‘Hellfighters’ (1968), ‘The Undefeated’ (1969), ‘Chisum’ (1970) and ‘Cahill US Marshall’ (1973) was hired to direct the film.

Interestingly, ‘The Sea Wolves’ has a number of Indian actors playing cameos. They include Marc Zuber, Mohan Agashe and Keith Stevenson among others.

Majority of the film was shot on location in Goa during 1979, when Goa still retained the signs of the erstwhile Portuguese rule in terms of its roads, houses and monuments. A number of elderly Goan people, who had lived in the region during the Second World War, were hired as extras for the film.

The title music for ‘The Sea Wolves’, was adapted by Roy Budd from the famous Warsaw Concerto of composer, Richard Addinsell. Budd had, at the time, already composed or arranged numerous other film scores, notably those of ‘Get Carter’ (1971) and ‘The Wild Geese’ (1978). For ‘The Sea Wolves’, Budd added lyrics by Leslie Bricusse with the resulting song being “The Precious Moments” as sung by the British baritone Matt Monro.

Half of the film’s budget was provided by Lorimar Productions. However, the company fell out with United Artists, the distributor of the film, before the movie was delivered. Lorimar Productions subsequently formed a new relationship with Paramount Pictures, but Lloyd thought that Paramount regarded the film as “the poor cousin” and as a result it “wasn’t sold properly”.

The apathy on the part of Paramount Pictures clearly showed as the film was released without any fanfare, in spite of the fact that the production included Hollywood veterans like Peck, Niven and Howard, besides the then reigning James Bond, Roger Moore. Ten months after its UK release in August 1980, ‘The Sea Wolves’ opened in the US. The film was ignored by both, the critics as well as the audiences, and produced at a budget of $12,000,000, it went on to collect only $220,181 at the Box Office, on the domestic circuit.

‘The Sea Wolves’ was however keenly awaited in Goa, since it was perhaps the first Hollywood film shot in the region. After its premiere in Panaji, the capital of Goa, in aid of the Goa Cancer Society, the film was released to an overwhelming reception from the local audiences.



Gregory Peck and David Niven worked together in the highly successful 1961 film, ‘The Guns of Navarone, but were excluded from appearing in its 1978 sequel ‘Force 10 from Navarone’ since it was felt they were too old to convincingly play the military veterans. ‘The Sea Wolves’ made two years later, disproved this theory.

During the credits, ‘The Sea Wolves’ showed real footage of the actual events it covered.

Vice-Admiral Rustom ‘Rusi’ Ghandhi, the aide-de-camp to the last Viceroy of India, The Earl Mountbatten of Burma, worked as the technical adviser during the making of ‘The Sea Wolves’. At Martin’s Beach Corner bar in Goa, he often sank pink gins with the cast members. When a minor actor fell ill, Ghandhi stepped in to play the part of the Portuguese Governor in the film; thus his name appears twice in the film’s credits.

The Goa unit manager for ‘The Sea Wolves’ was the noted local journalist, Mario Cabral e Sa, while the creative assistant for the film was Goan cartoonist, Mario Miranda.

‘The Sea Wolves’ is dedicated to the memory of the last Honorary Colonel of the Calcutta Light Horse, Admiral of the Fleet, The Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG. Mountbatten was assassinated in 1979, while on a holiday at his summer home, in Mullaghmore, a small seaside village in Ireland, by a bomb set aboard his fishing boat by the members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.



During World War II, German submarines are sinking thousands of tons of British merchant shipping. British intelligence, based in India, believes that information is being passed to these U-Boats by a radio transmitter hidden on board one of the three German merchant ships interned in Goa, then a colony of Portugal. Portugal is neutral country during the Second World War; hence the British are unable to undertake a full military operation in the Portuguese territory to destroy these ships.

The head of the Indian section of Special Operations Executive authorises kidnapping and interrogation of two German agents in Goa. The British intelligence officers, Colonel Lewis Henry Owain Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) discover three German vessels anchored in the Mormugão Harbour, as also the German spy, Trompete (Wolf Kahler) based in the region. They kidnap Trompete to interrogate him but Colonel Pugh accidentally kills the spy after a scuffle in the runaway car. Meanwhile, Captain Stewart has a brief affair with Mrs Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman), a mysterious socially well-connected woman, who turns out to be a German agent and partner of Trompete. She is eventually killed by Captain Stewart when she attempts to kill him.

After the Mission fails, Colonel Pugh and Captain Stewart convince their chief to ask the British World War I veterans from Calcutta Light Horse led by the retired Colonel W H Grice (David Niven) to travel to Goa on an old ship ‘Phoebe’, pretending to be drunken businessmen on holiday. Soon these out of shape but patriotic British officers, including Colonel Grice, Jack Cartwright (Trevor Howard), Major ‘Yogi’ Crossley (Patrick Macnee) and Radcliffe (Michael Medwin) among others, form a volunteer special operations unit, and are trained to revive their military skills. The British Military command, while encouraging the scheme, must however deny any knowledge of this operation if it fails.

When in Goa, the group through blackmail and bribery arranges diversions on the night of the raid on the identified German ship. A party is to be held in the palace of the Governor of Goa (Rusi Ghandhi), just as a brothel will offer free entry to sailors from the German ships and a fiesta will be held. The raiding party sails around the coast in a decrepit and barely seaworthy barge. The British veterans set mines on the hull of the anchored German ship, and then board it, catching the depleted crew off-guard. Despite Colonel Pugh’s order that there be no shooting, several German sailors are killed in the ensuing ambush. The ship is set alight and the party withdraws, watching the ship as it sinks along with the transmitter that indicated the position of the British ships to the German submarines.

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