Book Review: A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II

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by Simon Parkin

New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2020. Pp. viii, 312+. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.00. ISBN: 0316492094

 Gaming the U-Boat Menace

It’s always dangerous to claim that any particular decision, action, or unit “won” a war, because wars are not won singlehandedly. It is possible, though, to point to a unit or individual as having been in a critical place at a critical time performing a critical function. Arguably the most significant threat to Great Britain during the Second World War was the German U-Boat campaign during the Battle of the Atlantic. Early trans-Atlantic shipping losses were significant and unsustainable, and threatened to starve Great Britain into submission. This was recognized as such at the time, and the British responded with an extensive anti-submarine effort. Part of this effort was the creation of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in January 1942 under Commander (later Captain) Gilbert Roberts, and the program in ASW tactics that unit conducted for naval officers. This review looks at two books — one new, one old — that examine that effort.

The new book is A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II, by Simon Parkin, published in London in 2019 and in New York a year later. The “wolves” of the title refers to the German U-boat wolfpacks that threatened to strangle Britain, while the “birds” refers to the Wrens, members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who made up the bulk of Captain Roberts' officers and ratings. Parkin covers not only the history of WATU, but discusses the Women’s Royal Naval Service from its origins in the First World War up through the Second and highlights some (but by no means all) of their other service during the war. As a result, Parkin’s book is not just military history, but social history as well, and the concluding section on the Wrens’ post-war lives — and the continuing importance to them of their wartime service for the remainder of those lives — is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Indeed, the importance of the role of the Wrens is indicated by a change in the book’s title when publication moved across the pond: the English version is called A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game that Won the War, whereas the American version changes the subtitle to The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II. That title change also highlights the book’s primary weakness — for a book about wargaming anti-submarine warfare, I was left wanting more about both ASW tactics and the wargame itself. The book’s long description of the battle for convoy ONS.5 (called the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic) and the epilogue about modern wargaming partially slaked this desire, and the discussion of how the course influenced Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea offers a suggestion for further reading. Monsarrat, a course graduate, borrowed the title for his 1951 novel from a standard phrase used by Roberts.

The older book is Captain Gilbert Roberts R.N. and the Anti-U-boat School, by Mark Williams * , a biography of Captain Roberts first published in 1979. It’s a noticeably slimmer book than Parkin’s tome, but manages to cover both Roberts' life and the tactics developed by WATU in greater depth. The first half of the book covers Robert’s pre-WATU life, racing through his earlier years (with the exception of a story or two illustrating his character) before detailing his naval career, including some interesting escapades in command of a river gunboat in Europe after the First World War. After he contracts tuberculosis and is medically discharged from the RN, the second half of the book covers WATU and his postwar career, which includes visits to Germany to collect data on wartime U-Boat operations and some time rebooting the Norwegian Navy.

While an essential complement to Parkin’s book for anyone interested in the tactics WATU developed, Williams’s work suffers from an idiosyncratic writing style that would feel at least thirty years out of date in 1979, let alone today. Moreover, Williams is sloppy enough with regard to names that it makes the researcher in me uneasy about what other errors may be lurking. This sloppiness is pointed out by Parkin, who mentions both Roberts’ cooperation in the book’s writing and his subsequent disapproval of the final product. That having been said, what comes through in both books is Robert’s somewhat prickly nature and resentment at having been summarily discarded by the RN over his medical condition, so take Roberts' opinion with a grain of salt.

While an essential complement to Parkin’s book for anyone interested in the tactics WATU developed, Williams’ work suffers from an idiosyncratic writing style that would have felt at least thirty years out of date in 1979, let alone today. Moreover, Williams is sloppy enough with regard to names that it makes the researcher in me uneasy about what other errors may be lurking. (The lack of footnotes or a bibliography
doesn’t help, either.) Parkin points out this sloppiness, mentioning both Roberts’ cooperation in the book’s writing and his subsequent disapproval of the final product. That having been said, what comes through in both books is Roberts’ somewhat prickly nature and resentment at having been summarily discarded by the Royal Navy over his medical condition, so take Roberts’ opinion with a grain of salt.

In summary, both of these books were enjoyable reads which were well worth the effort. They highlight the actions of people largely unknown at the time, let alone today, except to the handful of senior leaders and the multitude of convoy escort officers who attended the school, but whose actions were instrumental in the outcome of the war.

Our Reviewer: Christopher Weuve is a naval analyst and professional wargame designer currently working for the United States Air Force. He previously reviewed Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.

* Captain Gilbert Roberts R.N. and the Anti-U-Boat School, by Mark Williams. London: Cassell, 1979. Pp. 186 pages. Illus., index. Out of print, ISBN: 978-0-3043-0386-1.

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Note: A Game of Birds and Wolves is also available in audio- and e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Christopher Weuve   


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