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Monday, 26 July 2021

Another book about a wargame!

To tell you the truth, since I bought my first Kindle (I am currently on my third!), I have bought very few paperback books. However, this does not stop me from browsing the shelves of bookshops 'just in case' ... and last week I found a little gem on sale in a branch of THE WORKS. It was A GAME OF BIRDS AND WOLVES: THE SECRET GAME THAT REVOLUTIONISED THE WAR by Simon Parkin, and it had been discounted from £10.99 to £4.00.

The book tells the story of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit or WATU, which was set up in 1942 in Liverpool to use wargaming techniques to study and defeat the German U-Boat offensive that was doing so much damage to Britain's supply lines across the Atlantic. It was led by Captain Gilbert Roberts, who had retired from the Royal Navy due to ill health in 1938 and recalled to service soon after the outbreak of World War II. His staff consisted almost entirely of WRENS (members of the Women's Royal Naval Service), and together the team put together a training wargame that was used to train nearly 5,000 naval officers in anti-submarine warfare as well as to train personnel who set up similar schools in other parts of the world.

Captain Gilbert Roberts.
Naval officers learning anti-submarine tactics at the WATU. The officer closest to the camera is a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy Reserve and the second is a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
WRENs plotting the movement of ships taking part in a WATU wargame.

There are very few wargames that can truly be said to have influenced the course of a war, although many have been used to test war plans and to prepare officers for the rolls they might play. The WATU did help to defeat the U-Boat 'menace', and it is interesting to note that a photograph of Captain Roberts was on the wall of the U-Boat Operations Room at Flensburg with the caption 'This is your enemy, Captain Roberts , Director of Anti-U-Boat Tactics'.

I look forward to reading this book, especially as an old friend of mine gets a mention due to his current role as 'Her Majesty's commander-in-chief of board games'!


A GAME OF BIRDS AND WOLVES: THE SECRET GAME THAT REVOLUTIONISED THE WAR was written by Simon Parkin and published in 2019 by Sceptre (ISBN 978 1 529 35321 1).

20 comments:

  1. Interesting. I think that this activity gets a mention in Monserrat's The Cruel sea when they train for the Norway convoy. But it is a long time sine I read it.

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    Replies
    1. The Polemarch,

      I understand that it was planned to include a brief scene that included the WATU in the film of THE CRUEL SEA, but it was cut.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. As The Polemarch suggests it did make it into the Cruel Sea book. After the sinking of the Compass Rose, Ericson goes on a course at Liverpool whilst the Saltash is being made ready for service. Ericson actually feels inadequate for the task when he finds himself making errors and being advised by twenty year old WRENs who obviously know more about convoy tactics than him.

      As for A GAME OF BIRDS AND WOLVES, that £4 paperback price is also available on Amazon (where the pricing is weird with the e-book costing £5.99 - set by the publisher - and the "used and new" versions, with one exception, all costing a little or a lot more).

      Delete
    3. Mike Hall,

      I read THE CRUEL SEA many years ago, and did not recall Ericsson attending a course at WATU. I did - however - know that it was originally going to be included in the film.

      I have sold books through Amazon, and I know that publishers set the price for eBooks and printed books. Penguin always sets the price of their eBooks at the same price as the paperback editions, but other publishers (myself included) follow different pricing policies.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  2. Hi Bob,
    It is good to find a good quality book at a bargain price - better still that it is one that holds your interest and that you can learn from it. Often you can pay a large price for a book only to find it to be a disappointment- this is particularly true if you are only going by the Cover of the Book- I've purchased books in the past from e-Bay only to find the book lacking in many respects upon opening the book and reading- the contents just don't match my expectations of what I should find in the book. I guess it is a case of: "You Cannot Judge a Book by it's Cover". I've learnt the hard way wasting many dollars on disappointing books. Best Wishes. KEV.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kev Robertson (Kev),

      These days, I rarely buy books in printed format unless it has been recommended by someone whose judgement I trust, but when I saw this one, I had to have it!

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  3. I think that you’ll enjoy this one abob. It’s a good read and an interesting topic.

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    Replies
    1. Peter Douglas,

      I am sure that I will, especially as I know a bit about WATU’s work already.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  4. 'Her Majesty's commander-in-chief of board games' - Only in England! Bravo!

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    Replies
    1. Dick Bryant,

      He needs some recognition for the work he does as his equivalents in other armies all seem to be one or two-star generals.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  5. Hi Bob,

    Oddly enough, I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and can thoroughly recommend it. It was amazing to discover how the Wrens managed to reveal the Kriegsmarine's U-boat tactics by playing and re-playing different setups using first hand accounts of the convoy battles gleaned from those who were at the sharp end.


    There is also a very entertaining Youtube video on the subject of WATU by a chap called Lindybeige. The link is below:

    https://youtu.be/fVet82IUAqQ

    Regards,
    Andy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Andy Hussey (Andy),

      I’ve seen the YouTube video, which certainly acted as a good introduction to the WATU.

      I knew a bit about the work it did before I heard an excellent talk at one of the early CONNECTIONS UK conference. Since then, I’ve wanted to know more, and this book will hopefully fill a gap in my knowledge.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  6. I remember a documentary about this a few years ago. I think a breakthrough came from one of the WRENS making a challenge to an assumption, coming from the point of view of someone who had no previous knowledge.

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    Replies
    1. Nundanket,

      The fact that they were able to recreate event as they happened in real-time must have made the WRENs very knowledgeable very quickly about the capabilities of both sides ships and the tactics and weapons they used. They were all very bright individuals, just like the females who worked at Bletchley Park.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  7. Not my period or area of interest, but always good to learn about wargaming and it's role during various conflicts.

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    Replies
    1. Steve J.,

      I would recommend that you do read up about the work of the WATU as it justifies wargaming as a practical tool for historians and contemporaries.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  8. I read this last year. Was completely unaware of this prior to finding the book. It held my interest (over the last few years I've developed the ability to "give up" on a book that loses my interest).

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    Replies
    1. StuRat,

      Like the work done at Bletchley Park, the WATU was a ‘secret’ in that its role was not widely known and the impact of what it did has only recently come to light.

      All the best,

      Bob

      PS. Luckily, I rarely come across books that I cannot finish reading, although I came close to giving up about halfway through LES MISERABLES!

      Delete
    2. As a librarian, one tip I give readers is to subtract their age from one hundred and read that many pages. (so I'd read fifty-something pages.) If it doesn't grab them by that point, go ahead and put it down. Ain't no rule that says you have to finish a book.

      For that matter, ain't no rule that says you can't skip to the parts you're most interested in (wargaming magazines come to mind) but I still struggle to do it!

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    3. Jennifer,

      In my case, I would only have to read the first twenty-nine pages before making a decision!

      In fact, I know a literary agent who used to work as a commissioning book editor for a very big publishing company, and he rated books by how far down the first page he got before giving up! Mind you, he had to assess quite a few manuscripts each working day, and after rejecting all the ones written in crayon and in capitals (and there were several of each every day!) he would plough through the remainder as best he could. I once asked him if he had every rejected anyone who later became a famous writer, and he could not recall a single instance.

      I still look at articles in wargame magazines that don't at first look likely to appeal to me, and occasionally I actually do find the odd gem I would otherwise have missed.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete

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