Men of the Lightship

Men of the Lightship is a short propaganda film produced by the Crown Film Unit for the British Ministry of Information in 1940, the year after the beginning of the Second World War. It dramatises the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship by the Luftwaffe on 29 January 1940 and was designed to portray Germany as a barbaric enemy. An opening narration explains the traditional understanding of lightships (stationary ships used as lighthouses) as neutral vessels during war.

1940 British wartime propaganda film directed by David MacDonald

Men of the Lightship

Men of the lightship was included in a re-release as part of the If War Should Come DVD
Directed by David MacDonald
Written by David Evans
Hugh Gray
Alan Hodge
Produced by Alberto Cavalcanti
Cinematography Frank “Jonah” Jones
Edited by Stewart McAllister
Music by Richard Addinsell
Production
company
Release date
  • 1940 (1940)
Running time
24 min, 4 seconds
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The filmmakers attempted to recreate the original incident as realistically as possible; the crew of the lightship is composed of real lightship men rather than professional actors. The realism of the film was praised in press reviews upon its release, and it was considered one of the best British propaganda films of the period. Men of the Lightship was also distributed in America in 1941, in an edited version produced under the supervision of Alfred Hitchcock.

. . . Men of the Lightship . . .

In 1940, the East Dudgeon lightship’s seven-man crew are waiting for the arrival of another crew to relieve them of their duties so they can return home. While they are waiting, a momentary danger is encountered and dealt with: a drifting mine comes perilously close to the ship and the crew call for a minesweeper to destroy it.

Later, while the crew are gathered on deck, two Luftwaffe aircraft fly overhead. To the men’s surprise, the aircraft begin firing at them with machine guns, wounding the captain in the arm. As the attack intensifies, and the aircraft begin to drop bombs, the entire crew manage to escape the vessel on a lifeboat. The efforts of the German bombers eventually result in the lightship sinking.

The escaped crew row during the night in an attempt to reach the shore. Before they can land the boat, the lifeboat capsizes and overcome by tiredness, the men drown. A new lightship is then stationed in place of the sunken vessel.

Screenshot of the lightship
Screenshot of the attack on the lightship

The filmmakers cast real lightship men rather than professional actors. The only identified actor is Bill Blewitt, a fisherman who appeared, as himself, in four documentary films, notably The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937), as well as appearing as an actor in four other productions between 1942 and 1945.[1]

Not all the crewmen died as shown in the film. John Sanders of Great Yarmouth was the sole survivor.

Men of the Lightship was based on a real incident that happened to the East Dudgeon lightship on 29 January 1940. The Ministry of Information decided to use this event for propaganda purposes, to portray Germany as a barbaric enemy and thus encourage support of the war effort against them. The film ends with the narrator concluding: “The Nazis must be stopped. We must, we can, we will stop them.” Central to this propaganda aim of the film is the idea that the German aircraft are violating the traditional wartime convention that lightships should be protected as neutral, as they are undefended ships that serve all vessels regardless of the nationality of their crew.[2] Another propaganda theme supported by Men of the Lightship is that of sacrifices for the war effort being made by ordinary working class citizens.[2] To support this end, the characters in the film are developed to show their everyday concerns and activities, including the upcoming wedding of one crew member, and the pet tortoise owned by another.[3]

During production, the makers of the film sought to recreate the original event as completely as possible, and the credits note the director David MacDonald “reconstructed” the film (rather than “directed”).[2] As with other documentary films produced by the Crown Film Unit during the war, this desire for realism led to the use of “real people” in place of professional actors. When the film was originally shot, professional actors had been used for the roles of the lightship’s crew, but producer Alberto Cavalcanti contacted David MacDonald during the film’s production, asking him to re-shoot the sections containing professional actors because he thought they were “totally unconvincing”, in contrast with the “splendid” performances of the amateurs.[4] These scenes were then re-filmed with real lightship men.[2]

An alternative ending, not consistent with the course of the original incident, was proposed by RAF officials. The suggestion was that additional propaganda value could be added to the film’s narrative if the German aircraft were shot down by RAF aircraft. This idea was rejected by the filmmakers,[2] although the RAF still assisted with the reconstruction of the attack, lending two Bristol Blenheim bombers.[5]

. . . Men of the Lightship . . .

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. . . Men of the Lightship . . .

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