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!