Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review of A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin (2019, Little, Brown and Co)

In the early part of the war Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic with more tonnage of ships sunk, and all of their precious cargo, than it could replace. The situation became more perilous as the U-boats started to attack in packs, with the allies having no effective strategic or tactical response beyond seeking safety in numbers. That was about to change with the intervention of Captain Gilbert Roberts and a team of wrens who formed the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) and devised a strategic game to determine the hunting tactics of the U-boats and how best to counter them. This game was then used to train hundreds of ship personnel in how to protect the convoys and successfully find and sink their attackers. In the following months the balance of the battle had shifted, with the new tactics, along with new weapons giving the Allies the upper-hand.

Parkin’s book tells the story of the game’s devising and deployment, focusing on the role and lives of Roberts and the wrens in his team. He contextualises this by framing WATU within the wider Battle of the Atlantic from the perspective of the convoys and U-boat mariners, internal politics of the British armed forces, and the history of the wrens. This wider context situates the story, though it is a little patchy and in a jumbled temporal order; but it is also necessary because the material for the primary story is also a little sketchy. My sense is Parkin is working from relatively thin material concerning the game and the personalities involved given all the main actors have passed leaving little in the way of personal testimony and the archival material used seems scant. He does a reasonable job with what material he has, producing a social history around the game and its wider impact.

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