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! 

First Game of What a Tanker!

Last Friday, I could persuade Sigur and Stephan to set up a game of the new Lardies extravangaza, What a Tanker!, at the local club. They had both played the game a couple of days before, but unfortunately I didn’t have time then, so I was very grateful that they indulged me and played again.

We set up a desert table with rather eclectic terrain. It looked like the set for a cheap 60s B-movie, but that fits rather well with the aesthetics of the rulebook. Incidentally, the cover is a work of art. It’s fun and irreverent and pours scorn on the Nazi kitsch that pervades some WW2 games.

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We played with Sigur’s 15mm tanks and as he only had British and Italian, Stephan and I took an Italian tank each and Sigur got two British ones. I can’t remember which – I’m lucky if I can tell a tank apart from a bicycle.

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The game is easy to understand – it’s the simplest Lardies game I’ve ever played – and flows along at a nice pace. The dice activation mechanics is great, there is friction but as long as your vehicle is undamaged you have a lot of dice, so the chances are good you can do stuff. While I fumbled around a bit, Stephan proved to be an old tanker and smashed the British vehicles. In the end, I think I got the hang of it and could contribute to the Italian victory.

I really like the game. Playing it felt strangely relaxing. Perhaps that’s because I’m not really invested in the period or the vehicles (in contrast, after a game of Sharp Practice, I usually feel pretty exhausted). Perhaps it was because we played with early war tanks – I’ve heard that late war fights are faster and much more dangerous. One thing that certain contributed to my mellow mood was playing with two congenial chums. What a Tanker! works really well as a multi-player game, the turns being fast enough to keep downtime short but still long enough to have fun watching the others manoeuvre and shoot.

I don’t see myself buying tanks, but Sigur and Virago and the others have enough anyway, and I’d certainly be happy to play it again. It’s a great little game for a fun evening with mates.

Maria, Abe & Otto

Lately, we have been playing a couple of board games. The first one was Maria, a newish strategy game dealing with the War of the Austrian Succession.

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One of the cool things about this is that it can be played with three players, so Virago, Sigur and me had a session one evening. Virago played the Austrians, me the French and Sigur the Prussians as well as the Pragmatic Army, which is Austria’s ally – an interesting schizophrenic position. For a change, I did really well. I played very aggressively, won almost all the battles and in the end was marching towards Vienna. The game itself is very elegant. Strategic movement is done on a nice map, battles are fought using a clever card mechanic and there is also a political phase were you can get certain advantages by investing cards. A highly recommended game!

My interest in the American Civil War made me think about trying out a strategic game covering the topic. On cue, Virago produced A House Divided.

AHouseDivided

The game seems to have been published in several editions; we played an older one, so I can’t say how the new one plays. We had two games. During the first, Virago fulfilled the Confederacy’s wet dream and captured Washington within the first months of the war. Changing sides, I led the Confederates into a lengthy fight where I slowly but continuously lost ground. Virago concentrated mainly on the Western theatre and advanced along the Mississippi. I managed to conduct some successful raids deep into Northern territory, which annoyed Virago but couldn’t stop him in the long run. We didn’t finish the game, as it was getting late, but it looked very much like this was going to be a Union victory in the end.

In certain ways, the game is similar to Maria, with the manoeuvring on the large map and the necessity to have your troops supplied. Battles are less elegant and there is no politics (however, it seems that the new edition does cover political events). The game felt quite historical in its course and I might try it again some time.

Although the last game I’ll mention is called Bismarck, it has nothing to do with the German chancellor and all with the battleship.

Bismarck

This is an old game; it’s from 1962 and I got it second hand. My interest was roused by promising a naval game with a double-blind system for searching the enemy as well as simple rules for conducting ship-to-ship combat. As you know, I’m really interesting in naval wargaming, but I’m also put off by the ponderousness of most rules – naval wargames seem to become bedazzled by the technicalities of this kind of warfare instead of concentrating on a few essential command decisions. I haven’t played Bismarck yet, but the rules sound simple and fun, so I’m looking forward to having a game.

Susan Travers of the French Foreign Legion

Logo_smallSusan Travers was born into a wealthy English family and spent most of her youth in southern France. After she finished school, she led the life of a socialite, travelling around the world as a semi-professional tennis player.

When World War 2 broke out, she wanted to contribute to the war effort. Being able to drive a car, she ended up as an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force on their way to Finland. After the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, she escaped back to England, where she joined de Gaulle’s Free French. During the Syrian campaign, she worked as a driver for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Légion Étrangère. From there, she accompanied the Foreign Legion to Dahomey and the Congo to finally end up in the Western Desert campaign in North Africa.

Susan Travers in North Africa.
Susan Travers in North Africa.

Having formed friendly relations with officers of the Foreign Legion, she was assigned as the driver of General Pierre Koenig. Over and over again, she proved her skills at the steering wheel, chauffeuring Koenig when he led the so-called ‘Jock Columns’, two- or three-day long reconnaissance missions with a motorized convoy of troop transports, cannons and Bren Carriers. In her autobiography, she describes the dangers of such missions:

“More than once we nearly got caught and I had to drive the general to safety, fleeing from enemy fire at great speed or hiding in a dried-out wadi as the German or Italian tanks rolled by.”

When Koenig was tasked to occupy and hold Bir Hakeim, a desolate former oasis in the middle of nowhere, Travers refused to leave the area with the other women and stayed for what was to become one of the most dramatic actions of the Desert War. The attack was planned by Rommel, who estimated that it would take about 15 minutes to overrun the position of the 1st Free French Brigade. In the end, the defenders held out for almost four weeks against attacks from Italian and German forces. When the situation finally became untenable and ammunition was running out, Koenig decided to make a daring sortie and lead his troops through the German cordon back to the British lines.

Travers standing in front of the staff car, with Koenig looking out at the top.
Travers standing in front of the staff car, with Koenig looking out at the top.

On 10 June, Travers drove Koenig’s staff car, her trusty Ford Utility, with Koenig and Lieutenant Colonel Dimitri Amilakhvari of the Foreign Legion in the passenger seats. She headed through mine fields and German gun emplacements, dodging potholes, mines and bullets.

“Avoiding a car burning fiercely in front of me, I roared on across the minefield, heading straight for the tracer fire, not having time to think or even be afraid. In fact, by this time I was exhilarated. It was an amazing feeling, going as fast as I could in the dark towards what looked like a mass display of beautifully coloured fireworks dancing towards me, bringing what seemed like almost certain death. This was what I had come for – to feel what it was like to be a man, in the very heat of battle. […] The stalled convoy, seeing us get through, followed my lead, jerking their engines into life again. I drove at the tracer fire ahead of us as if the car were the bow of a great ship, parting a sea of bullets.”

When Travers later inspected her car, she found 11 bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage.

Koenig’s manoeuvre succeeded: He managed to get 2.500 of his men out of the German encirclement and into the safety of the British positions. The Battle of Bir Hakeim was hailed as a great coup and signalled the combat readiness of the Free French Forces.

Susan Travers went on to work as a driver for the rest of the war, conducting ambulances, trucks and even a tractor for anti-tank guns.

“The vehicle was much easier to handle, but its cargo meant it was far more dangerous to drive. It was my job to manoeuvre it into position, unhook it, turn round and go back for the next. There was a fair amount of shelling whenever I appeared because the Germans were very keen to knock me out before I got the cannon into position.”

After the war, Travers officially joined the French Foreign Legion and served as an Adjutant-Chef in Vietnam. She was decorated with the Légion d’honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.

How to represent Susan Travers on the wargaming table?

Travers standing beside Koenig’s staff car would make a nice vignette, for example as a Jump Off Point for Chain of Command – which, incidentally, is what I intend to make. Unfortunately, I could not yet find a suitable figure.

A conversion, however, wouldn’t be all that difficult. In 28mm, Perry Miniatures offer a great selection of 8th army figures. Just chose an apt pose and replace the head with one of the female heads with berets offered by Bad Squiddo Games.

The same goes for 15mm. 8th army figures are available from, for example, Peter Pig or Battlefront. Separate heads with berets are available from Peter Pig.

Bibliography

Travers, Susan: Tomorrow to be Brave, New York: Free Press 2000.

Broche, François: Bir Hakeim (mai-juin 1942), Paris: Perrin, 2012.