Bri­tish of­fi­cer and ‘Wrens’ out­smart Ger­man U-boats

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Read - BY DIANA NEL­SON JONES

Through as­sid­u­ous re­search and well-paced nar­ra­tive, Si­mon Parkin has given us an ex­tra­or­di­nary, lit­tle-known story from World War II – the turn­ing point in the Bat­tle of the At­lantic.

Its sub­jects are the bril­liant and cre­ative Gil­bert Roberts and a team of young women whose strate­gic war games sim­u­la­tions un­cov­ered why Ger­man U-boats were so adept at tak­ing out Bri­tish ships in the early years of the war – more than 1,200 in 1940 alone, with rel­a­tively few losses of U-boats.

This work of non­fic­tion reads in part like a thriller, but it is the reader’s thrill to learn about Roberts, his lu­mi­nous mind, per­sua­sive nar­ra­tive gifts and the many set­backs he en­dured be­fore be­ing called back to ser­vice in 1940. The Royal Bri­tish Navy, which had re­lieved him of duty when he con­tracted tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, called him back to con­duct train­ing ex­er­cises in 1940, but he was up­graded the next year to a task that would prove his tac­ti­cal prow­ess. He was charged with fig­ur­ing out how the U-boats were suc­ceed­ing, de­vis­ing a strat­egy to stop them and im­part­ing the strat­egy to all Bri­tish Naval ves­sels.

Among hun­dreds of young women who had joined the Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice, Jean Laid­law, Jane Dun­can, Janet Okell, Nancy Wales, Chris­tian Old­ham, Judy DuVivier, El­iz­a­beth Drake, El­iz­a­beth Hack­ney, Jane Howes, Doris Law­ford and Pauline Preston were cho­sen for their math and tac­ti­cal skills to work with Roberts.

The women, some in their late teens, were dubbed Wrens – “my

Wrens” – by Roberts. He and the Wrens cre­ated a Bat­tle­ship-like game that used af­ter-bat­tle re­ports, de­tec­tion sys­tems, board game sim­u­la­tions and help from the Enigma ma­chine, whose en­crypted mes­sages by the Ger­mans were fa­mously cracked by math­e­ma­ti­cian Alan Tur­ing. Only in movies and trite fic­tion do in­ven­tive, cre­ative en­thu­si­asts ef­fec­tively sell a plan to hide-bound, by-the-book men who ini­tially pass it off as fool­ish whimsy. This was real life, though, and that’s what hap­pened.

The game cov­ered a gym­na­sium-sized floor. Wooden mod­els of ships were set onto the map of the ocean, with real-time de­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy. The floor was painted with grid­lines. Each white line was spaced 10 inches apart to rep­re­sent one nau­ti­cal mile. Can­vas-cov­ered en­clo­sures cir­cled the “ocean.” Each can­vas had a peep­hole. The sheets were po­si­tioned so that when a player looked through the peep­hole, she could see the equiv­a­lent of the five-mile view that the model ships would have from the floor.

One team be­hind the can­vas played es­cort ship cap­tains, the other played the U-boats. Each side took turns ma­neu­ver­ing, es­cort ships drop­ping depth charges and U-boats dodg­ing un­der the sur­face. Their progress was marked in colored chalk that the Wrens look­ing through the peep­holes could not de­tect. The es­cort ships’ move­ments were plot­ted with white chalk, which was vis­i­ble through the peep­holes.

At the end of the game, the play­ers sat in a cir­cle and re­hashed what hap­pened. Once they had the game truly sea-wor­thy, play­ing it over and over and over, Roberts and the Wrens demon­strated it to Ad­mi­ral Percy Noble, com­man­derin-chief of West­ern Ap­proaches, who had been con­de­scend­ing and skep­ti­cal of Roberts’ as­sign­ment. As he watched the demon­stra­tion, Parkin writes, “he and his staff seemed to sit for­ward in their chairs.”

So con­vinced of the ac­cu­racy of the game, Noble con­grat­u­lated Roberts and asked a mem­ber of his staff to in­form the prime min­is­ter about “a car­di­nal er­ror in anti-U-boat tac­tics. A new im­me­di­ate and con­certed counter at­tack will be sig­nalled to the fleet within 24 hours.”

The new West­ern Ap­proaches Con­voy In­struc­tions be­came “a bi­ble is­sued to all Bri­tish es­cort of­fi­cers,” as well as Amer­i­can and Cana­dian ves­sels, Parkin writes.

Roberts held his Wrens in high es­teem for their skill and in­tel­lect, and his de­tailed di­aries of the work they did to­gether was “a one-man cam­paign for pos­ter­ity,” Parkin writes. It’s star­tling to imag­ine that, had Roberts not been so con­sci­en­tious, he and the Wrens would have been lost to us.

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

By Si­mon Parkin, Lit­tle Brown, 320 pages, $29

Lit­tle Brown/TNS

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