By Rob Morgan
January’s edition of the British journal The Literary Review contains an interesting review of a new book by Simon Parkin, “A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game That Won the War” (Sceptre, 309pp at £20). The “birds” are, of course, Wrens, women officers of the Royal Navy, and the “wolves” Donitz’ U-Boat packs. I’ve never, I regret to say, visited the Western Approaches Tactical Unit museum in Liverpool, but it is without doubt one of the crucial sites recording victory at sea in World War II. The Battle of the Atlantic remains the longest campaign of the war. It began on 4 September 1939, with the sinking of the liner Athenia by U-30, and ended on the 8 May 1945 with the last U-Boats surfacing and surrendering.
The article is a brief review note, but valuable. After all, along with Fletcher Pratt, this unit surely must be considered an important part of the base for 20th century naval wargames development. The reviewer, Neil Armstrong, outlines the creation of WATU, under Gilbert Roberts, leading a team of clearly very talented Wrens. He, and they, developed the strategies to defeat the “wolfpacks” by gaming recent convoy actions on a huge linoleum floor; at this time, the beginning of 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic was at its hardest phase.
Replaying convoy actions, with scale models, and gaming potential attack scenarios led the team to be able to deduce Nazi strategy and develop counter-attacking skills. It worked, and Winston took it on. “The Game” (splendid title, eh?) became a compulsory six-day course for all officers in Western Approaches Command. By the end of 1942, the results were showing clearly. Two hundred officers a month, says Parkin, were taking the course. “The Game” achieved recognised, almost fabled, status among the naval high command when Admiral Max Horton, a World War I submarine ace, played, and as a U-Boat commander was sunk repeatedly by a 19-year-old Wren Third Officer. She clearly understood convoy tactics far better!
WATU proved a number of things, that gaming = practice = success (we all knew that), and it also provided an incredible opportunity for women to wargame; the officers attending the course were pitted against the experienced and quick thinking Wrens. In his review, Armstrong describes the book as a “pacey read” and indeed the Atlantic was a “pacey” battle. Roberts’ name is largely forgotten now, and WATU appears only on a single page of Costello and Hughes seminal work “The Battle of the Atlantic” (page 233), but one of the RN Officers attending the course in Liverpool wrote one of the best known books about the convoy battles. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” contains a two-page (brief, eh?) account of the commander of HMS Compass Rose, attending the course and learning from the WRNS officer supporting him (pp 238-9), but is little featured elsewhere, though I may have missed something.
In May 1943, the German catastrophe arrived, 40+ U-Boats were lost, 25% of Donitz’s strength. Donitz withdrew from the Atlantic.
The Wrens had won.
An excellent book, an interesting review, and frankly a subject and a wargaming organisation which should certainly appear more frequently in wargame journals.
It also cements the role of women in wargame development. The immensity of their role is simply indicated by the fact that by the beginning of 1945, there were 37 Escort Groups, some 426 frigates, corvettes and destroyers, operating in the western Approaches, all their commanders had been trained at WATU.