This is a curious book. The publisher, though perhaps not the author, claims that it reveals how the second world war was won, but the eponymous “secret game” does not appear until page 143 and then turns out to be a training exercise for convoy escort officers. No doubt this was a useful addition to the armoury of reforms and new equipment that marked the final stages of the battle of the Atlantic, the theme of the book. But a war winner?
Simon Parkin has a declared interest in modern gaming, which may explain why he is attracted to the real gaming that navies did before and during the war to simulate oceanic operations as a means to identify faulty tactics and to recommend different ones. His focus is on the war game devised by a retired naval commander, Gilbert Roberts, for the Western Approaches headquarters in Liverpool at the height of the Atlantic struggle. The game involved “escorts” versus “U-boats” laid out on the top floor of Derby House, where the Western Approaches command had its headquarters. Roberts and a dedicated team of young Wrens used the game to show escort captains how best to be sure of sighting U-boats as they tried to sneak into the convoy stream.
If the claims for the success of the game are laid aside for a moment, Parkin has written an engaging and skilful reconstruction of the background, development and practice of the Tactical Unit at Derby House. He writes with real flair and the human side of his story is brought out with fine vignettes and character sketches. If Roberts is the central figure, the heroines are the Wrens, who not only helped to run his game, but picked up U-boat radio signals to be sent to the code-cracking centre at Bletchley Park, where a further cohort of Wrens deciphered and translated the messages. He notes how hostile the navy was to the idea of employing women. Wrens were not allowed to go to sea on Royal Navy vessels, but only merchant ships, until one disastrous Gibraltar convoy in which the 21 Wrens posted to the colony were all killed when the old steamer Aguila was sunk by torpedo. If the place of women in Britain’s naval war has been played down, Parkin’s vivid story recovers it handsomely. (A Game of Birds and Wolves has been optioned by Steven Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks.)
The lavish details (and excellent images) owe much to Parkin’s access to Roberts’s archive and the oral history collections that have given veterans of the war years a renewed voice. Inside his narrative is a desire to show how ordinary people did extraordinary things in wartime, and expressed emotions they might otherwise have viewed askance. He quotes one Wren recalling the celebrations to mark the sinking of the Bismarck and the loss of 2,000 lives. “How could we?” she wrote. “What was the war doing to us?” The great virtue of this book is the conjuring of the atmosphere that made wartime mobilisation on a mass scale possible and sustained commitment to the war effort for years.
Roberts was an accomplished impresario of his game, but it was only a game. Out on the Atlantic the battle was won by the British, Canadian and American navies learning as they went on, employing ever more advanced technology (above all radar, which hardly gets a look-in here), the Leigh light for illuminating the target at night, better armaments and explosives, the use of escort carriers and eventually the closing of the undefended “Atlantic gap” with the allocation of long-range Liberator bombers as submarine hunters. A critical contribution was made by Rodger Winn, who ran the submarine tracking room in London, and by the exploitation of U-boat radio traffic and “beta” signals sent to indicate that a submarine had spotted a convoy. Great though the damage was, Britain was never as close to disaster as Parkin makes out, and his figures on shipping losses seem wrong. The British merchant fleet did not lose 4m tons a month in autumn 1941 (which would soon have crippled the fleet entirely) but 2.4m tons in the Atlantic for the whole year. In fact in the second half of 1941, the battle swung in the British navy’s favour, with shipping losses down considerably from earlier months. It is this mistaken idea that fuels the claim that Roberts’s game was a critical war winner.
Nevertheless, this is a good read on a corner of the war and the men and women who peopled it – one very much worthy of our attention.
• A Game of Birds and Wolves is published by Sceptre (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.