From Cold War Warrior to Depicting the Fury of WW2

His experiences as a Cold War submariner must surely have influenced Hollywood movie director David Ayer when it came to writing and directing the gritty WW2 drama ‘Fury’.

David Ayres Brad Pitt

Movie director and former USN submariner David Ayer (left) on the set of ‘Fury’ with Hollywood star Brad Pitt. Photo: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures.

It features a young, virgin soldier plunged into the brutal world of savage tank warfare as the conflict reaches its bloody, desperate end. His surly comrades are tough guys in the tight confines of a Sherman, surrounded by complex machinery. Their lives depend on him not cocking things up.

USS Hado

USS Haddo at sea during the Cold War. Photo: US Navy.

Ayer was plunged into a similar environment as a teenage sailor, serving as a sonar man aboard the US Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Haddo. During a recent interview in the UK’s Guardian newspaper Ayer pondered his fledgling submariner days, comparing them with the baptism of fire he gave to the young soldier at the core of the narrative in ‘Fury’.

“It’s very difficult to show up as a new guy because you don’t have a job, you don’t know the equipment and you’re training for life and death,” Ayer told the Guardian. “You could make a mistake that could kill people, so you won’t be trusted until you are tested.” Ayer revealed that it is an “incredibly intimidating” situation to be in and a lonely place to be where there are no sentimental words of encouragement to take the edge off the harshness.

The needs of the unit, in his case a Permit Class SSN going up against the Soviets in the cold, dark ocean during the mid-1980s, overruled any personal weaknesses he might fear and so he measured up to the mission. After an honourable discharge from the USN, Ayer began writing movie scripts and while one work, entitled ‘Squids’, drawing directly on his time as a submariner, has not yet been produced, his ‘U-571’ was filmed.

To write it Ayer drew not only on his Cold War submarining experiences but also adapted true-life episodes involving the Royal Navy’s legendary WW2 secret captures of German Navy Enigma encryption machines and other materials. The only problem was that with ‘U-571’, Ayer’s script transformed these British exploits into daring deeds by the US Navy. This was something that (bearing in mind he was an American working on a Hollywood movie primarily for US audiences) he felt he had to do.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2006, Ayer confessed that the ‘U-571’ storyline was “a distortion”. Furthermore, he explained, it was “a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience.” However, there were efforts by Ayer and the movie makers to draw on the firsthand experiences of the men who carried out the secret captures, especially those involved in taking U-110 off Iceland in May 1941.

U571 Captain

In the movie U-571 a German U-boat captain (Thomas Kretschmann) ponders where his enemy lurks while a shipmate awaits his verdict. Photo: Universal Pictures.

Ayer told the BBC: “I met with the Royal Navy officer who actually went down into the U-boat and recovered the Enigma machine in 1941.” This veteran, David Balme, who was a junior officer in the destroyer HMS Bulldog, understood that it was necessary for a movie such as ‘U-571’ to Americanise things. “He seemed OK with it,” said Ayer, “he was a great guy, but I understand how important that event is to the UK, and I won’t do it again.”

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened, complaining the movie was an affront to the British war record. Eager to offset the storm over their story, the movie’s makers took Mr Balme to Malta to act as a technical advisor during filming. There he met the stars, including Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel and found them congenial company. Balme felt the end result was a pretty good effort and as a gesture to the British origins of Ayer’s tale the end credits included a tribute to the Royal Navy and its capture of U-110 and the Enigma material.

This year during the promotional tour for ‘Fury’, which stars Brad Pitt as war grizzled tank commander ‘Wardaddy’ and fresh-faced Logan Lerman as novice tanker Norman Ellison, it was clear attention to detail had been important.

Sherman Tank

Combat action in the WW2 tank combat movie ‘Fury’. Photo: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures.

Before filming began in the UK ex-US Navy SEAL Kevin Vance and former British Army tank corps soldier David Rae put the principal cast members through a gruelling boot camp. Rae later explained the rationale behind this: “The cliché is ‘no rank in a tank’ – we all know who the boss is, and we know where the line is and wouldn’t cross it, but we’re very, very close to each other. You know everything about each other. You look after each other. It’s a brotherhood, within a tank.” That all sounds very similar to the working life of submariners, which I delved into for my book ‘Hunter Killers’ of course.

See the forthcoming December 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine for a hard copy version of this article. Out from November 21 and available from branches of W.H. Smiths or direct from HPC Publishing.

Cold War Under the Sea: Where Fact Blends With Fiction

An academic reviewing Hunter Killers remarked that it shows how sometimes ‘Cold War fiction and Cold War fact blend seamlessly at the edges’. And he’s right, for the Cold War often threw up strange episodes that inspired Hollywood and novelists to create a kind of faction.

For example, Alistair MacLean – who served in the Royal Navy on the Arctic convoys during WW2 – based elements of his 1963 novel ‘Ice Station Zebra’ on real-life events. These included the 1959 loss of a film container from an American intelligence-gathering satellite over the Arctic. The Soviets were said to have recovered it along with whatever secrets it contained.

In May 1962 the CIA parachuted operatives onto pack ice near an abandoned Russian ‘research station’. It was really a listening post for detecting US Navy nuclear-powered submarines. The CIA men collected valuable intelligence material and were then plucked off the ice in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted B-17 bomber that reeled them in.

In ‘Ice Station Zebra’ a British rescue station in the Arctic is the scene of espionage skullduggery and is set on fire, with a US Navy nuclear-powered submarine sent under the Polar ice to carry out a rescue mission. In the novel and 1968 movie of the same name the American vessel also goes to try and recover a film canister containing spy satellite imagery.

A UK-made movie called ‘The Bedford Incident’, released in October 1965 and starring Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, depicted the pursuit of a Russian diesel submarine in waters off Greenland.

The Soviet boat is kept down until her air has almost run out and launches a nuclear-tipped torpedo when the destroyer USS Bedford accidentally fires anti-submarine rockets.

Not long after an eerily similar episode occurred in British waters, in my book dubbed ‘The Kosygin Incident’. At 10.30 a.m. on 6 February 1967 – the same day Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin’s airliner touched down on British soil for an official visit – a Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft of the RAF picked up a contact about 100 nautical miles to the north-west of Malin Head. Having already dropped a string of sonar buoys as part of a major Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercise with the Royal Navy, the aircraft was able to classify it as ‘probably a submarine’.

Frigates, diesel submarines and the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Dreadnought were soon ordered by a senior admiral to ‘close the [suspected Soviet] submarine’s position for the purpose of hunting her’.

As news of this inconvenient incident reached government circles alarm bells rang and the hounds were called away from their quarry (identified as a Whisky Class diesel that departed the Baltic on January 22). Fortunately reality had not mirrored the catastrophic conclusion of ‘The Bedford Incident’.

The archetypal example of Cold War submarine faction was Tom Clancy’s ‘Hunt for Red October’. This was partly the fruit of the late novelist’s trawling for nuggets of fact to inform his fiction while visiting American naval officers to sell them insurance (his job before he broke through as a writer).

Sean Connery - Hunt for Red October

Hollywood fiction: Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius in the movie version of Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’. Image: Paramount.

Doug Littlejohns – captain of several British submarines during the Cold War and one of the key players in the ‘Hunter Killers’ narrative – got to know the American blockbuster master.

As related in ‘Hunter Killers’, during a trip to the States in the mid-1980s a fellow British submarine officer gave Littlejohns a copy of ‘Hunt for Red October’ to read. Littlejohns consumed it overnight and decided he had to meet Clancy. When they met Littlejohns told Clancy: ‘You’ve put stuff in your book that if I talked about it would see me locked up in the Tower of London.’

The two men became friends, though Littlejohns had to keep a professional distance while still a serving naval officer. Clancy was inspired enough to pay tribute to Littlejohns by basing a character in ‘Red Storm Rising’ (the follow up to ‘Hunt for Red October’) on the British submarine captain. After Littlejohns retired from the Navy he co-founded Red Storm Entertainment with Clancy, specialising in video games.

Nobody should underestimate the impact of Clancy’s Cold War thrillers, which while not works of high literature, offered excitement and also insight into a previously secret world.

The Hollywood movie based on Clancy’s novel, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, was a major success despite being released after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its powerful imagery and exciting depiction of life beneath the waves still had pulling power. A few years ago I met a young naval officer who responded, when asked what had inspired him to join the Navy and become a submariner: ‘A movie called The Hunt for Red October.’

Hunt for Red October - sonar

Hollywood fiction : A scene from the movie version of Tom Clancy’s ‘Hunt for Red October’. Image: Paramount.

Someone told me recently that they hoped I would not be insulted by the compliment that ‘Hunter Killers’ reads like a thriller. On the contrary, that is the point – to take people inside the Cold War and show them how exciting and dangerous it really was by, where appropriate, using techniques more traditionally employed by the novelist.

Therefore in ‘Hunter Killers’ we have chapters featuring nerve-wracking rides down undersea canyons, dangerous games of chicken and the long distance hunt for the Russian carrier Kiev across the Mediterranean by HMS Sceptre (in the late 1970s the British SSN was commanded by Rob Forsyth, another major player in the book’s narrative).

A chapter on CIA analysts trying to sort out the fact from fiction of a rumoured new Soviet super submarine (a chapter called ‘The Alfa Enigma’) of course rings bells of similarity with some Cold War fiction.

In ‘The Hunt for Red October’ for instance CIA analyst Jack Ryan tries to get to the bottom of the Soviet Navy submarine Red October’s radical new propulsion. In real life it took years for the CIA’s analysts to persuade the Pentagon the Soviets really had built a super fast, deep diving nuclear-powered submarine (with revolutionary liquid metal reactors). It was called the Alfa by NATO and represented a quantum leap in capability that the West did not want to believe the Russians could achieve.

The reality of ‘Hunter Killers’ matches and betters fiction: Soviets depth charging and trying to ram British submarines off Russia; Royal Navy SSNs colliding with Russian submarines and nearly being sunk (incidents which even today, decades later, the MoD insists were bumps with icebergs); Soviet spy ships attempting to run down one of the UK’s Polaris missile submarines and almost sinking a RN diesel submarine just off the British coast.

And there’s much more besides, not least daring up close espionage, with periscopes just inches away from whirling Soviet surface ship propellers and tricky explorations of sun-kissed foreign anchorages in clear visibility waters (with big black submarines dodging nimbly around anchor cables).

In the end ‘Hunter Killers’ is not a tale of big boys and their toys doing daring things for fun, but a deep dive into a nightmarish period of world history.

The warrior-scientists in their submarines waged a covert, silent war with utter dedication. They were handpicked for mental strength and agility, plus their nerves of steel ability to make the right life-or-death decisions when nuclear-powered, and armed, submarines were sliding by within feet of each other.

Some people with the benefit of hindsight perhaps might regard the undersea confrontation of the 1950s – 1990s as an exercise in futility. All that money poured into all that technology, all that intellect applied to creating vessels of war that could snuff out all life on the planet – yet a war without battles that has faded into the deep dark ocean of legend as if it never was.

Submarine in ice

Submarine reality (below): A US Navy attack submarine surfaced through the Arctic ice pack. Photo: US Navy.

But that’s the point. In maintaining the undersea rivalry at such fever pitch, waging it with such dedication and enduring so much hardship to do so, submariners on both sides ensured politicians had to always calculate that it was never worth taking the gamble on waging conventional war in Europe.

In that way the submariners could be said to have saved millions of lives by preventing a re-run of errors committed in WW1 and WW2 when kings and politicians started conflicts that they could not stop without huge blood-letting, social anarchy and wasted treasure.

During the Cold War the leaders of both East and West knew that to begin a hot war would surely end in the deaths of everybody. The submariners had no desire for the shooting to start, or as Doug Littlejohns puts it: ‘ We don’t want to make war – submariners are among the people that least want to make war.’

In Hollywood movies and pulp fiction the protagonists invariably resort to violence as a means to resolve their conflicts. The aim of the Cold War submariner was to threaten the use of force but to never use it, for to do so would represent failure.

The fact that such lethal beasts as submarines were ultimately weapons for peace was surely the greatest plot twist – and the most fascinating paradox – of them all.

HMS TRIUMPH control room under red light.

Submarine reality: The Control Room of a British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine. Photo: Nigel Andrews.

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