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A high-stakes game of battleship helped turn the tide in World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic

A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Young Women Who Played to Win WWII

Simon Parkin
Little, Brown and Company
320 pp.
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In A Game of Birds and Wolves, journalist Simon Parkin reports on a long overlooked piece of World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, focusing on a war game that helped the British counter Nazi U-boats threatening Britain’s vital sea lines.

The first part of the book will be familiar to war scholars and history buffs, offering an overview of German Admiral Karl Doenitz’s plan to use a fleet of U-boats to cut off commerce to the United Kingdom, which the island nation needed to stay in the war. Although a similar strategy had been tried unsuccessfully in World War I, Doenitz believed that improved communications would enable groups of U-boats to operate together, like a “wolfpack,” and allow them to coordinate and defeat escorted convoys.

Doenitz’s plan, devised in 1937, was not realized until June 1940, when Germany’s occupation of France gave it Atlantic bases. Nazis called this the “happy time” because their U-boats roamed the seas with impunity, sinking civilian vessels carrying cargo and, notably, the passenger ship SS City of Benares, which was carrying 90 children fleeing the United Kingdom. (Parkin’s vivid description of the Benares’s fate is, at times, a distraction from the larger narrative.) According to Parkin, this success was largely due to bold tactics developed by German Captain Otto Kretschmer, who launched night attacks within the columns of a convoy, firing torpedoes at point-blank range, then submerging until the convoy dispersed.

In January 1942, Winston Churchill enlisted Captain Gilbert Roberts to lead a small organization—the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU)—charged with identifying U-boat tactics, developing effective countermeasures, and teaching British sailors to use new countermaneuvers. Lacking competent men to staff WATU, Roberts turned to the Women’s Royal Naval Service (known as the “Wrens”), which assigned women who had a “keen mind for numbers” to build and run a game modeling a two-sided tactical fight between British escorts and German U-boats.

During this game, the two sides maneuvered their respective vessels, dropped depth charges, and fired torpedoes on a linoleum floor, where each 10-inch square represented one nautical mile. The British team commanded their escorts from behind white sheets designed to limit their line of sight to replicate the view from a ship’s bridge. While British ships were outlined in conspicuous white chalk, the U-boats were marked in green, rendering them invisible. Throughout the game, the Wrens measured and marked the ships’ movements, provided intelligence, guided discussions, and played as the German team. Roberts presided over the game and the postgame discussion.

Parkin nicely highlights how this war game was used for multiple purposes at different times during the war. Roberts and the Wrens first used the game to uncover Kretschmer’s tactical innovation, for example. They then used it to develop and test countermeasures. Additionally, the game was used to teach skeptical audiences the superiority of WATU’s countermeasures when compared with existing tactics. By the war’s end, nearly 5000 sailors had taken WATU’s weeklong course covering four different battle scenarios.

The third and final section of A Game of Birds and Wolves details the apex of the war at sea, when British convoys used WATU-developed tactics and, bolstered by aircraft and naval support groups, fended off the largest wolfpack attacks of WWII. After 41 U-boats were sunk in May 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic turned decisively toward the Allies.

Parkin’s book is extensively researched, well written, and tells an engrossing story of a little-known topic. Still, war gamers and those interested in the role of women in war games are likely to be disappointed. The book’s actual discussion of war games is relegated to a relatively small section in the middle of the book, and Parkin’s protagonists are Doenitz and Roberts. A dearth of firsthand accounts from the Wrens hampered Parkin’s research, and the women are rendered in broad strokes as a supporting cast of characters.

Sadly, the Wrens were an anomaly, reflecting a brief moment when women were war gamers out of necessity, operating in a field that to this day is dominated by men. Yet gender diversity has been shown to yield better and more innovative solutions in such settings, and achieving it should be a priority.

About the author

The reviewer is director of Project AIR FORCE’s Strategy and Doctrine Program and co-director of the Center for Gaming, RAND Corporation, Arlington, VA 22202, USA.