A Game of Birds and Wolves. A Book Review. In our current difficult times it is easy to think we are hard done by - restricted in where we can go, who we can meet, anxious anything we touch might infect us with ‘Covid.’ But there are blessings. We may not be able to cuddle our grandchildren or go out on the town, but we can sleep in our beds without fearing an air raid. We know tomorrow there’ll be food in the shops and if our loved ones are afar, we can speak to (even see) them due to the wonders of modern technology.
Fittingly for D-Day week, I’ve just read a remarkably interesting book, Simon Parkin’s A Game of Birds and Wolves. Currently Stephen Spielberg holds film options. I missed its review a year ago in The Guardian: ‘an engaging tale of how an unsung group from the Women’s Royal Naval Service helped defeat the U-boats.,’ But while editing a book my brother is writing on my father’s ships in the Merchant Navy in WW2, I discovered that it is full of fascinating facts and stories of women who were undervalued and never rewarded for dedicated long hours of work which contributed greatly to the defeat of the U-Boat menace during the Battle of the Atlantic. One Wren suggested they name their plan: Operation Raspberry.
In 1943 Britain was on its knees, Churchill in despair. Shipping losses far exceeded our capacity to replace them. Britain was down to its last 8 weeks of food. These women aided a colourful character called Gilbert Roberts, an ex-RN Officer previously invalided out for tuberculosis, who in the top floor of ‘Western Approaches Command’ in Derby House in Liverpool devised Wargames on a linoleum floor which succeeded in training RN Commanders how to combat and destroy U-boats. To aid him in motivating these tired, jaded RN combatants, he enlisted the help of comedian Tommy Handley, then famous for his BBC Radio ITMA show. Roberts was a unique individual. Yet though awarded an CBE, a subsequent offer of a Knighthood was rescinded; Parkin speculates because they discovered he was divorced?
Remarkably, Virtual Reality Devices are not new. Almost 80 years ago these Wrens had a mock ship’s bridge where sea officers were tested in scenarios complete with gramophone sound effects of U-boat/ torpedo radar pings, billowing real smoke, and tilting floors when they misjudged their tactics and were hit by ‘torpedoes’ while training alongside a top-secret Liverpool dock. The ‘girls’ (many late teens) were chosen for talents ranging from maths to Bridge skills and worked such punishing shifts that concern at how little daylight they encountered led to the installation of a ‘Sun-ray’ machine! Large numbers of Allied naval personnel were taught in these ’games’ including the future Prince Phillip, novelist Nicholas Montserrat (whose novel The Cruel Sea became a bestseller), and naturalist/artist Peter Scott.
Every page offers some startling information. It is based on Parkin’s own diaries, with additional meticulous research, and is enriched by testimony from surviving Wrens who, as with Bletchley Park code-breakers, never spoke of their work. Although it has an irritating tendency to jump about in chronology and omit helpful dates, I was fascinated, feeling sorrow for the Atlantic sunk City of Benares with its evacuee children and harrowing tale of one survivor, and almost pity for the German Naval Commander, Admiral Doenitz, who lost two sons in U-boats. His aim, however, was to starve Britain into defeat. He nearly did. Hitler thought so highly of him that to lure him back from the South of France to Berlin (and overall Naval Command) he gave him a posh villa, $120,000, a Mercedes, a private plane – and his own train!
Author Parkin is a Gamer, whose interest was piqued by how the war outcome was so influenced by these wargame scenarios. They are still in play today: both NATO and the US employ writers to speculate on possible scenarios to be analyzed in order to plan a strategy for coping with adversaries after major events like the Salisbury Poisonings.
A different, accessible non-fiction book: battles, rank chauvinism, intrigue, humor, and tragedy - something for everyone. Can’t wait for Spielberg’s film. Time the WRENS had their day. Some other birds had theirs: Blackbird was the codename for one U-boat Wolfpack patrol.
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Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.