WATU: The Book, the Movie, the Game

WATU stands for Western Approaches Tactical Unit. This was an organisation of the Royal Navy tasked with developping and teaching anti-submarine tactics for convoy escorts during the Second World War. A recent book by Simon Parkin, titled A Game of Birds and Wolves, presents the fascinating story of this think tank.

There are several remarkable things about WATU. First of all, under the command of Cmd. Gilbert Roberts, they used war games to analyse, develop and teach tactics. Those games were played on the floor with model ships, with the ships’ commanders being stationed behind curtains so they could only see a small portion of the playing surface. They also couldn’t see the U-boats, whose courses were marked in a colour that was invisible from further away – quite an ingenious means of restricting information.

Another remarkable thing was that Wrens – women belonging to the Women’s Royal Naval Service – played a central role at WATU. They not only plotted the courses of the ships, but many of them also played themselves, taking on the roles of U-boat commanders or escort commanders. They became very proficient in the game and often played against Navy commanders who came to WATU to learn the new tactics.

Parkin’s book tells this story in a lively and dramatic way. Concentrating on the persons, he highlights the essential role of Wrens for the success of British anti-submarine tactics. He also stresses the importance of games as a means of analysis, innovation and communication. Highly recommended!

Coincidentally, when reading the book I also stumbled upon the new Tom Hanks movie Greyhound. K. and I decided to watch it and we were both pleasantly suprised. Nowadays, we watch almost no movies – most of them are too long, too loud and too corny (maybe we are just getting old). This one, however, had a sensible length (only 90 minutes), with the pleasant effect that it told a condensed and straight story, concentrating on the actions of the commander, played by Hanks. The only weak point was the uber-villanious U-boat-commander sending threatening messages to the convoy – a rather stupid contrievance that had no relevance for the plot. Still, all in all it’s a movie I’d recommend if you like naval stuff.

All of this made me consider gaming convoy actions. Fortunately, indefatigable naval wargames rules writer Dave Manley is already working on a solo game where the player controls a convoy escort ship. I’m looking forward to trying my hand at defending a convoy from dastardly U-boats! 

On the Painting Table

Recently, I’ve been painting a couple of 28mm figures for our RPG group and to my surprise, I enjoyed it a lot. So I decided to continue. An additional motivation was my discovery of a new game by Andrea Sfiligoi: Sellswords and Spellslingers. This is a cooperative miniature wargame, something I find very interesting. After reading an inspiring review on the Lead Adventure Forum, I ordered a copy of the rules – I’ll let you know more as soon as I’ve played a game!

This is Inga. She’s from the wonderful dwarf range of Lead Adventure and was a treat to paint. I really like the Lead Adventure dwarves, they are pretty close to my imagination of those guys, which is heavily influenced by Terry Pratchett. I imagine her to be a slightly crazy inventor and tinkerer.

In preparation for Sellswords and Spellslingers, I’ve ordered a couple of fantasy miniatures from Black Tree Design. They come at a very modest price (especially if you take advantage of a sale, as I did) and have a decidedly old school look, which I like very much.

ub

I’ve also finally started painting my dwarven fleet for Man O’War. First up were the submarines. The colour schemes correspond to the Viennese underground lines… who said dwarven jokes have to be funny?

acw

On my workbench, you can see some ACW command figures. I’m slowly building up enough miniatures for regimental level actions. I’ve finished a couple of regiments recently, but at the moment, I feel like I need a short break from the Blue and the Grey.

fant

Fantasy figures to the rescue! On the far left, you can see Cartimandua from Bad Squiddo Games – Annie was kind enough to give me one a long time ago, so I’m happy I’ll finally paint her. The dwarf is again from Lead Adventure and was a present from Virago. The two Orcs are old HeroQuest figures.

What I did during the last weeks…

Life has been busy, but in a good way. I’ve got a new job and still have to settle into the new routines. I haven’t actually neglected playing games and painting (though it’s going slower), but I didn’t find time or leisure to write blog articles.

Here’s a quick update on my gaming-related activities. I hope that in the future, this blog will again resume a more structured appearance.

My painting has been rather eclectic. I really enjoyed painting the mole at the Vienna Nerd Institute painting workshop, so I’ve continued to work on the fantastic anthropomorphic animals from Oathsworn Miniatures. Here’s my collection so far:

animals

Inspire by our recent sci-fi game, I’ve also finished a landing party for an IPU (Interplanetary Union) starship:

IPU

It get’s even more idiosyncratic. I recently met a very old friend again. When we were youngsters, we played a lot of games together, among them Man O’War. Now he wants to rejoin the hobby and bought a whole load of Man O’War stuff. I couldn’t resist and by chance found a couple of second-hand Orc flyers, so I decided to give them a coat of paint:

flyers

I haven’t yet committed to build up a fleet, but I did get some Renaissance galleys from Navwar, which might do double duty as Orc ships if I can convince anybody to play the excellent Galleys & Galleons

And my final product shows that I haven’t completely lost my sense, as it leads back to my perennial obsession. Using the Busch maize field sprues, I built a corn field for the ACW. I’ve made it modular so troops can be placed inside.

 

I’ve also played a couple of games. Most of them Sharp Practice, but we’ve also started T.I.M.E. Stories, an interesting cooperative game about which more in another blog post.

And I had a game of Flashing Steel, still one of my all-time favorites!

Project Showcase: Naval Landing Party

Last time, I looked at the composition of the Naval Landing Party for Sharp Practice. Today, I want to show you what it looks like on my gaming table.

As always, I used 15mm figures. There are some dedicated American Civil War Marines available in 15mm, but they wear dress uniform with shako which was never worn in battle. For my three groups of Marines, I made do with Peter Pig infantry figures. I especially like the reloading poses, as they show how much time and effort it took to load a musket.

MarinesMarineLeaders

The drummer, the NCO and the officer are from QRF/Freikorp15. I painted the officer in the white summer dress to add some variety.

SailorsSailorLeaders

For the three groups of sailors, I used figures by QRF and Minifigs. I like the Minifigs miniatures a bit better as they are nicer sculpts and have a variety of poses. I painted some of them in a darker skin colour, as up to one fifth of US seamen were African-Americans. The leader figures with the whistles are from QRF, while the guy with the cutlass is a converted Peter Pig naval artilleryman.

Gun

I built the Dahlgren boat howitzer completely from scratch, as there is no model available. The gun crew is from Peter Pig. Those are very nice and versatile figures which can easily be converted.

I’ve also used them for a crew of my 90-day-gunboat which will provide the heavy support for the landing party. The officers are from Peter Pig’s naval ship crew, to be found in their Colonial range. Their uniforms are not a perfect match, but they are close enough.

Finally I made two vignettes for deployment points. The main deployment point was inspired by a period photograph and represents a signalling party. The sailors are again from the Peter Pig naval artillery crew with flags added, while the NCO with the field glasses is from the Union gun crew pack.

Signal

The secondary deployment point shows two sailors foraging. Again Peter Pig naval artillerymen were used, one of which got a chicken from Museum Miniatures (I think).

Forage

I had a lot of fun modelling the Naval Landing Party, as it provided a bit of diversion from the usual ACW painting. We’ve already used them in two games (see here and here for AARs) and they worked quite well. However, my main objective is a large scenario featuring the ship – hopefully, I’ll find an opportunity to stage it sometime during summer.