Birds and Wolves: The Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) wargame
WATU, a newly created wargaming unit of the British Royal Navy, is tasked with developing and disseminating new tactics that would counter the successful attacks of German U-boats on trans-Atlantic merchant shipping convoys seeking to bring essential supplies to Britain.
Naval escorts were provided by the British and US navies, but still, they could not reduce the effectiveness of the Germans. The Germans had developed new tactics in which they daringly approached convoy ships by passing through the escort barrier and attacking convoy ships before evading the escorts by immediately deep diving after their attack. From receiving 68 million tons of imports, Britain was reduced to surviving on the 26 million that managed to get through. As Britain was not self-sufficient, reserves of food were in danger of running out.
The Royal Navy are aware the Germans were attacking in packs but aren’t able to establish the specifics of their tactics. Commander Gilbert Roberts is assigned to establish and lead WATU at the Western Approaches Command in Liverpool. He recruits most of his staff from the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS).
Travelling by train on my first-ever visit to Liverpool, I began reading Simon Parkin’s book A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game that Revolutionised the War. I am drawn into the story of Colin Ryder Richardson, an eleven-year-old boy, sent alone to New York by his parents to escape the risk of being killed in the bombing of London. I learn of the U-Boats pursuing the convoy in which Colin’s ship is included. The tactics used by one bold submarine commander in the pursuit changed the German’s tactics from that time on. By the time I arrive in Liverpool, I know the German’s new tactics and have learned of the torpedo attack that killed 21 WRENS heading for service in Gibraltar on the Merchant Ship Aguila because WRENS were not allowed to sail on a naval ship – a policy that changed immediately.
However, I have only reached Part 2 where Commander Robert’s story begins when we reach Liverpool on Friday evening.
The next morning we head off to join members of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at the Western Approaches Headquarters (WAHQ) Museum housed in the original building of the WAHQ. The museum includes the WRENS Museum and the Arctic Convoys exhibition.
I head through the subterranean rooms of the WRENS Museum to the Operations Centre feeling like I have wound my way back through history. There are the maps, the ladders WRENS climbed to mark and move the positions of Allied ships, record wind and weather and mark reportings of enemy sightings.
I am allocated command of a Flower-class corvette which I name Iris. I meet with the Commander and the other commanders of the escort ships for a convoy of ships heading west (270o). I collect my equipment and take my position.
The day circles through hectic periods of peering at the map to find the location of my ship through red-tinted peepholes, receiving reports of visual contacts and radar contacts, reporting these to the commander and other escorts and engaging with the enemy where appropriate followed by lengthy periods of quiet as the controls managed the movements and engagements on the map.
In quiet periods I would take the chance to visit the exhibitions close by before scurrying back for the next round. At the end of the day, most of the escorts and U-Boats had survived.
All the convoy ships had been destroyed.
I think I had better read part 2 of Simon Parkin’s book.
Steven Spielberg’s film company Dreamworks has bought the movie rights for Birds and Wolves.
For more information
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) (2021). The Story of the Aguila Wrens.
Kit, B. (2019). Ambling Picks up True-Life Naval Story ‘A Game of Birds and Wolves’ (Exclusive). The Hollywood Reporter, 19 February.
Oldfield, E. (2020). Steven Spielberg set to make film of Devon hero who used board game to beat submarine threat. Devon Live News, 17 January.
Overy, R. (2019). A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin review – the ‘secret game that won the war’. The Guardian, Sat 14 Dec.
Parkin, S. (2019). A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game that Revolutionised the War. Sceptre: London, UK.
Western Approaches Headquarters Home Page.
Many thanks for this, Deborah. My mother worked at Western Approaches for a time and I have always wanted to go. Will get myself organised, re-read your article and the Parkin book. I did read another one which you do not cite but I suspect Parkin is much better. Has Jim ever steeled himself to tell you about the Western Approaches Megagame c1987? Almost in the same lexicon as Crete….
Thank you Deborah. I love Western Approaches HQ and the story of WATU. I feel that you should probably recognise the contribution of the Canadians. I can’t readily find numbers for 1942, but by the end of the war they had 270 escorts operating. They were often looked down on by the RN, but they ramped up effort very quickly and had real problems in training up so many men so fast. They lost 14 ships to enemy action and were involved in the sinking of 31 U-boats. I’ve been meaning to look up if they had the equivalent of WATU, or if WATU did some of their training.
An excellent post Deborah which has ignited my interest in visiting Liverpool for the first time ever. I caught the tail end of, I think, a Discovery History re-enactment of WATU which I am now struggling to locate on iPlayer. Does anybody have the reference? Thanks also for the link to the Parkin book which I have ordered. There is also a good Wikipedia entry on WATU which cites an academic paper by Geoffrey Sloan which is also worth reading. I wonder if there is sufficient in the Battle of the Atlantic for a Megagame?
Hmm i visited the Imperial war museum few years ago, They had a few letters displayed from kids who got sent overseas. I was shocked at the tone of the letters upbeat , alls well missing talk about stiff upper lip. They stopped sending kids after a ship got sunk with kids. Then later i start reading Eastern front horror, history books full of horrific stories that are true and real i wonder and am bit dazed and not sure what to think your article reminded of those kids letters.
Great write up! I loved seeing the pictures you guys put out during the day.
I’ve passed this article on to a friend who will be visiting Liverpool in June