Boarding Party (filmed as The Sea Wolves)

Operation Creek (also known as “Operation Longshanks”) was a military operation undertaken by the British in World War Two on 9 March 1943. It involved a covert attack by members of the Calcutta Light Horse against a German merchant ship, which had been transmitting information to U-boats from Mormugão Harbour in neutral Portugal’s territory of Goa. The mission remained secret until 1978 due to the fact that the British had infringed Portuguese neutrality, when its story was told in the book, Boarding Party, by James Leasor.  It was dramatised in the film The Sea Wolves (1980) starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven.

The Germans had a secret transmitter on one of their ships, the EHRENFELS, a freighter that had sought refuge with two other German vessels, the BRAUNFELS and the DRACHENFELS, in the neutral harbour of Goa on the outbreak of WW2. Its purpose was to guide the U-boats against Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean. There seemed no way for the British to infringe Goa’s Portuguese neutrality by force. But the transmitter had to be silenced. Special Operations Executive was tasked with dealing with the problem, but how? Then it was remembered that 1,400 miles away in Calcutta was a source of possible help. A group of civilian bankers, merchants and solicitors were the remains of an old territorial unit called The Calcutta Light Horse.  They were either in reserved jobs or considered too old to join up. Because the mission was supposedly unofficial, the 14 members of the assault team received no official recognition of their part in the war effort. They didn’t even receive the most basic war medals.

In the forward to Boarding Party, the Earl Mountbatten of Burma wrote:

“This book tells how fourteen of them, with four colleagues from the Calcutta Scottish, another Auxiliary Force unit, volunteered for a hazardous task which, for reasons the author makes plain, no-one else was able to undertake. This happened shortly before my arrival in India in 1943, as Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, and immediately saw how valuable were the results of this secret operation. I am pleased that at last credit may be given to those who planned and carried it out.”

The effect of the mission is borne out by the facts. During the first 11 days of March 1943 three German U-¬boats, U-160, U-182 and U-506, accounted for 12 British, American, Norwegian and Dutch ships, a total of roughly 80,000 tons. Of these, U-160 alone sank 10. But without the radio messages to give precise details of speed, destination, cargo and other material factors, U-boat commanders now had to rely only on luck or chance for their kill. During the rest of March, the 13 German U-boats operating in the Indian Ocean only sank one ship, the Panamanian Nortun of 3,663 tons. Throughout the following month of April, their total was only three.

‘One of the most decisive actions in World War II was fought by fourteen out-of-conditions middle-aged men sailing in a steam barge…’ Daily Mirror

‘A gem of World War II history.’ New York Times Book Review

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16 Thoughts.

  1. I have just finished reading The Boarding Party, having been inspired by a late night showing of The Sea Wolves. The book was very well written, engaging and detailed. As usual, after reading such a well researched book, I felt that the film left out too much interesting detail, and instead added a great deal of ‘plot’ that was unnecessary. It is an absorbing tale that did not need any embellishing. I will certainly seek out more books by this author.

    • Thanks very much for your positive comment. My father, James Leasor, was rather annoyed that they did mess about with the plot for the film script – he didn’t feel that the changes added anything at all, but then this so often happens when real stories are converted to films.

      Anyway I hope that you find some other of his books as enjoyable.

  2. I believe that the vessel used in the raid on Goa was a steam hopper barge built at Ferguson Brothers shipyard Port Glasgow in the twenties or thirties and was Hopper barge no. 3, nicknamed Phoebe as in a game of poker?

  3. In accurate or not, I enjoyed the film ! now that I know about the short cuts that the film directors/producers took I shall read the true facts, I hope that I can enjoy this also.

  4. This was one of the most thrilling – and also in parts, funny – books that I have ever read: I was very disappointed by the film version which really messed with the facts as they were presented by Mr Leasor in the book: I was also disappointed that the director and producer of The Wild Geese (Andrew McLaglen and Euan Lloyd) did not produce the entertainment that they did in the previous film.

  5. The film was pretty good, although it had a lot of unnecessary made-up nonsense that could not be explained and that didn’t have to be there at all. But the story itself was fantastic and the cast was pretty stellar, too, so, all in all, I enjoyed the movie very much and recommended it to other people. My admiration for these men has no limits – this is what is probably meant when we say “he’s a real mensch”. Thank you and your father for sharing this amazing story with us, which is highly inspiring and uplifting.

  6. I’ve just finished reading Boarding Party. It’s an astonishing tale, brilliantly told. My only sadness is that the men involved didn’t receive the official recognition they deserved. They knew that when they undertook the mission, but perhaps sufficient time has now elapsed for the British government to acknowledge their contribution to the war effort without creating a diplomatic incident!

    • Thank you very much for your comment. What you say is so true. When the book and then the film came out in the 1970s there were some moves to try to give them some recognition – even the basic War Medal, but the bureaucrats said that too much time had passed. I don’t think British bureaucracy has improved in the interim, sadly!

  7. The old barge used in the film to portray the barge Phoebe, was it a real vessel?
    I am assuming that miniatures and/or models were used for the German spy ship which was destroyed?

    what about any U-boats?

  8. I saw a film almost identical to The Sea Wolves but it was not called The Boarding Party. This film was released Before Sea Wolves and had several of the same actors such as Kenneth Griffith (engineer in the film). I thought this other film was a better rather more authentic than Sea Wolves and I am trying to find it.
    I found this film listed on a page of films on the internet but forgot the films title. I am now trying to find that film but no success.

    • The Wild Geese had a lot of the same team of actors (as well as director and producer). But I am not aware of any other film on the Goa raid, although I have recently sold an option for a new one on the subject.

  9. My Grandfather Fred Coster was a member of the Calcutta Light Horse at the time of Operation Creek. He was the only full time army officer in what was otherwise a reserve regiment and consequently I understand he was not able to actually take part in the raid but as the adjutant, would no doubt have been involved in the planning at least. I would love to know if you still have any research or notes made by your father that you would be willing to share, to allow me to fill out our family’s history.

  10. I am looking for a copy of the film Boarding Party at least I think it was called that. The Sea Wolves was a remake of Boarding party but the first film was a better film, more natural/realistic without the “glamour” and choreographed fights.

    • I am not aware of any other film of the operation being made. I agree that the Sea Wolves changed the plot unnecessarily, in ways that did not add anything to it. However you will be pleased to hear that the rights to remake the film have recently been sold and we are hoping for a more realistic version will be forthcoming. Sadly COVID has rather delayed the momentum, but hopefully this will be sorted.

  11. The film was still an absolute ripper and realistic enough for most viewers to get the flavour of the Raj and its involvement in WW 2 at those times.

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