A Game of Birds and Wolves
The Secret Game that Won the War
Paperback 320pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Bob Hart, November 2019
As the author states, this is “a work of historical narrative non-fiction.” It is written by a journalist and not a historian. It is written for the general public, who are presumed to have little or no previous knowledge of the topic. Hence the somewhat hyperbolic blurb about “ – a group of unlikely heroes – a retired naval captain and a clutch of brilliant young women…. gather to form a secret training unit.” Or as the cover states “The secret Game that won the war”. Yet by 1944, it was a rather open secret that the RN was running wargames with ship’s captains on how to defeat the U-Boats. Even Montserrat’s The Cruel Sea, published shortly after the war, discusses it.
As a journalist, the author has set out to show the menace the U-Boat threat posed to the UK. He sets the scene with an obvious horror story, the sinking of the City of Benares, a ship carrying evacuated children to Canada that was sunk by U-boats. The full tragedy unfolds. Now we are shocked by the event, he shows us how the Germans evolved their tactics and operational skills. Clay Blair goes into much more detail, but this author tries to compress this within the confines of the book. For he not only has to deal with the German side, he also needs space to describe how his main character evolved as well as deal with a potted history of the WRNS and then go into the personal detail of the members involved. Another shocker as the first ship carrying WRENs overseas is sunk with the death of all the women. Then he needs to discuss how game playing enabled escort commanders to plan and train their ships in counter measures to the German attacks.
This does at times read like a maxi-biography, where every person mentioned has their life story exposed so we can understand what may have been happening to them at the time. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the characters either did not keep diaries or were extremely reluctant to be forthright when compiling them. There is much we cannot discover about Captain Roberts. Nor do we know much about the key players in the Battle of the Atlantic. MacIntyre, Walker, Horton, etc are all mentioned in passing or quoted from their memoirs. Perhaps a bit more depth would have been worthwhile. The various WRENs have their postings and short snippets of naval life. But what it was actually like to be running a wargame is missing. Did they feel an empathy for the officers and ratings out there? How difficult was playing the game?
This is a rather variable book. In parts it leaves you like Oliver Twist, wanting ‘More, please sir. More!’ In other places, it seems to drag as you wait for something to happen.
There are the usual minor nit-picks. One of the naval officers on leave in the USA is supposed to have thought of what he was doing for Queen and Country, when King George VI was still on the throne. He claims KG40 with their FW200 were transferred under command of the U-Boat Command when all that happened was operational tasking was allocated to U-Boat Command. When the first shipment of WRENs is sunk, the author somehow blames the Royal Navy for not putting them on a destroyer or corvette, forgetting perhaps that in 1941 these ships were not gender friendly. There was no capacity for women to sleep in separate quarters or have separate ablutions. Troopships were used for this. However, there is nothing to make the reader put the book down as unreadable.
For someone who knows little about this aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic, it is a good read, enough that if you feel you don’t want to go further, that is fine. And enough that if your interest is sparked, you can look up the bibliography and dive deeper.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.