The Western Approaches Tactical Unit, Liverpool. The wardroom crest appears to have been taken from the WWI-era S-class destroyer HMS Tactician. During WWII, a T-class submarine sailed under that name, using a different crest (depicting a chess Knight) but the same motto (“checkmate”).
PAXsims has been closely following the research being done by Paul Strong and Sally Davis on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, the pioneering group of (predominately female) RN/WRNS wargamers led by Captain Gilbert Roberts who played such a major role in developing anti-submarine tactics and training naval officers during World War Two.
The latest account comes from Commanding Canadians: The Second World War Diaries of A.F.C. Layard, edited by Michael Whitby and published by the University of British Columbia Press in 2005 (footnotes have been removed below for clarity). Commander A.F.C. Layard was a Royal Navy officer who was assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy for much of the war. He first attended the tactical school in September 1943:
Monday, 6 September 1943 – Liverpool
Arrived at Lime Street at about 0700. No taxis but eventually got a lift from a Wren in a small navy van to H.M.S. Mersey where after some difficulty I got a cabin and some breakfast. Apparently I ought to have asked for accommodation.
At about 0730 I went to Derby House and saw Gardner, who has been put ashore on account of deafness, and fixed up that I should take passage out to Canada in an escort leader that gives me a few days leave after this course. I then walked to the cathedral and found there was a special 4th war anniversary service at 1100, which I attended. A great many people there. F.O.I.C. [flag officer in command] read some prayers, an Air Marshal read the lesson, and the Bishop of Wilkesley preached a good sermon. Among the hymns we sang was “John Brown’s Body,” which was somewhat unusual. Back to the Mersey for lunch. This is really a T124 training depot with a certain amount of spare officers’ accommodation. In the p.m. I read and slept in my cabin. Put a call through to J. at 1900, which eventually I got through at 2000. The accommodation here is pretty seedy, but I suppose good enough. Nice sunny day.
Monday, 6 September 1943 – Liverpool
After breakfast I checked in at Derby House at 0900 for the Tactical Course. There are some 25 of us ranging from myself, the only Commander, down to Mids. R.N.V.R. Scott Thomas18 is one of us. The Director is Capt. Roberts, 33 who is a v. good lecturer but v. theatrical and, of course, would like you to know that he was 75% responsible for the recent defeat of the U-boat in the N. Atlantic. He’s probably right and is certainly thought very highly of here. The Deputy, Jerry Cousins, shouts while he lectures so that you are quite stunned. We had a certain number of lectures, and we began the first game where I am S.O. of the escort. I immediately began to feel woolly and helpless, but much as I dislike displaying my ineptitude I’m sure this course is going to be first class value. We lunched at the Derby House canteen and who should Scott and I meet there but Air Commodore Ragg who we knew in the Vivacious days at Kyrenia in Cyprus as a Flight Lt. After packing up at 1700 I went to Liver Building about pay and travelling expenses, and then Scott and I had early supper at the Mersey and then went out to a cinema and saw some mediocre sort of film.
Tuesday, 7 September 1943 – Liverpool
A lecture and then two hours of the game, which came to an end at lunch time. With a good deal of help from the staff I managed alright as S.O. G.N. Brewer was in the bar at Derby House having just had the Egret sunk under him by the new German gliding homing bomb. Sounds most unpleasant. Raymond Blagg was also there, and he took me across to a sandwich bar close by for lunch. In the p.m. more lectures and a summing up of the game. Went to the Derby House canteen for tea and then returned to the Western Approaches Tactical Unit and spent about ¾ hour reading A.C.I.s [Atlantic Convoy Instructions] and thinking about the night attack game we play tomorrow when I am S.O. again of the syndicate.
Back to Derby House and called on Commodore Russell who is Chief of Staff. He greeted me with “What have you done to be sent out there?” which seems to imply it is a God awful job. Collected Gardner from his office and brought him back to the Mersey for drinks and dinner. He, Scott, and Marjoribanks sat talking afterwards.
Wednesday, 8 September 1943 – Liverpool
After a bit of preliminary discussion we started in on a night encounter exercise. I was S.O. of our syndicate and had Eardley Wilmott for Staff Officer. Lunch at the canteen and then on with the game until about 1500 when it was summed up. My side didn’t do too badly. We then had a short lecture followed by a demonstration on the board of the sort of search operation that support groups are carrying out in the Bay of Biscay, and finally Roberts gave us a few remarks on the new German weapon, the glider bomb. Scott and I went back to the Mersey and shifted and at 1800 it was announced that Italy had surrendered unconditionally. Grand news. Scott and I then went to Derby House and met Ragg and his wife in the Senior Officer’s Lounge where we had drinks. There were all the big shots. The A.O.C. [air officer commanding] (Slatter), another Air Commodore, F.O.I.C. (Ritchie), and the Chief of Staff, Russell. Finally the Raggs took Scott and me off to the Bear’s Paw for dinner. He is an extremely nice chap, but she is developing into the typical senior officer’s wife. They have no children, which is probably her trouble. We walked back to the Mersey where we said goodbyes, and Scott told me the tale of his disappointment at being passed over after all the high ups had more or less told him he was a cinch for it.
Thursday, 9 September 1943 – Liverpool
I think one way or another I had a bit too much booze last night and my brain is feeling a bit woolly. On arrival at the Tactical School we were first shown the layout of the big and final game, which covers a period from an hour before sunset to sometime at night. There are 2 convoys, a carrier, and a support group. I am S.O. escort of our convoy. We then withdrew and decided on our policy, what the support group should do, and what the aircraft should do, etc., and then at about 1000 we started the game. I didn’t have very much to do, but there was a flood of signals and a lot of plotting to do. Chavasse and I were bidden to lunch by the C. in C., Admiral Sir Max Horton, at Derby House. Some Captain who was also there told Chavasse he had just been awarded the D.S.O. for some convoy fight which he had conducted successfully some months ago. The conversation at lunch consisted of the C. in C. pumping Chavasse about his new B.D.E. rather late. We stopped at about 1630, by which time in the game it was practically dark. Scott and I had tea at the Canteen, and then I returned to the Mersey and shifted and listened to the 1800 news. We have made another large scale landing near Naples. In spite of the Armistice we are still meeting fierce opposition from the Germans who are now estimated to have 18-20 divisions in the country. Walked to the Adelphi where I met Raymond and Venetia, and they gave me dinner. They have found a house up here and so will be leaving Little Orchard for good very shortly. Sad.
Friday, 10 September 1943 – Liverpool
A beastly hot day when Liverpool looks its very worst. At the Tactical School we carried on with our game, which today became a night encounter. I didn’t have a great deal to do as S.O. of my convoy owing to the brilliant way in which Chavasse’s support group rode off the U-boats. We finished at about 1600, and then we were taken down to the Plotting Room at Derby House and shown around. Scott and I then had tea in the Canteen and then I walked back to the Mersey and shifted and then went back to Derby House, called for Gardner, and we both caught a train to Crosby. Hector Radford who came out for a short trip with us in the Broke had asked us to drinks and supper. It turned out to be quite a big party because in addition to ourselves and Radford’s three sisters, there was an R.N.V.R. 2 striper, the old “pilot” on D’s staff and his wife, a naval padre, and three small children. We had a terrific supper. The table before we started looked rather like the food advertisements in American magazines. Quite a good party. Gardner and I caught the 11:16 back to Liverpool. The news from Italy seems confused, but the Germans seem to be fighting us and the Italians and they claim to have sunk an Italian battleship which was trying to escape from Spezia.
Saturday, 11 September 1943 – Liverpool/Prinsted
I got up early and did my packing before breakfast. It was pouring with rain when I walked to the Tactical School. The whole forenoon was spent summing up the big game, which was most interesting, and at 1200 we broke up. A first class course for which Roberts deserves full marks. Went to Derby House and had several at the bar before having lunch. I then went to the Exchange Station and after waiting some time managed to get a taxi, which I shared with 3 other people who agreed to go to the Mersey and pick up my gear and then go to the Lime Street Station. I caught the 1400 train to London and was lucky to get a seat as the train was crammed before it left. Got to Euston just before 1900 and so went to the station restaurant and had dinner and then got a taxi to Waterloo and caught the 8:45 to Havant. Joan met me there with the car, thank God, at 2215 and we drove home. A hot muggy day.
Layard attended a second WATU course in December 2013:
Monday, 13 December 1943 – In the air/Liverpool
We touched down at Prestwick [Scotland] at about 0830 after a 9½ hours’ trip. I couldn’t have been more comfortable. After checking up papers, customs, etc., I had a shave and a wash and then some breakfast. Didn’t feel a bit hungry. I tried to fly on to Liverpool but as there was nothing going I was taken to Kilmarnock station in a car and I caught a 1030 train to Liverpool. There was a heavy frost all over the country and I had a long cold wait at Carlisle. Eventually got to Liverpool (Exchange Station) at about 1700 and took a room at the Exchange Hotel. Feeling rather sorry for myself. Perhaps the height and the oxygen is something to do with it. I rang up J. soon after 1800, but as I didn’t know my plans we couldn’t decide whether or not she should come up. Turned in early.
Tuesday, 14 December 1943 – Liverpool
Feeling very much better I’m glad to say. I went along to the Tactical School and reported to Roberts just before 0900. At 1200 after a lecture the rest of the course went to finish off the first makee train game, and so as I had missed the start yesterday I went over to Derby House and saw the Chief of Staff – MacIntyre. I thought perhaps I could do a bit of the course and also do a bit of discussion with other support group S.O.s, but there don’t seem to be any support groups in just now. Lunched at the Derby House officers’ canteen and saw Gardner and his wife – now a 3rd officer Ciphering Wren. In the p.m. we had more lectures and a short plotting exercise, after which I went to Liver Building and made some enquiries about ration cards and warrants. Back to the Exchange and rang up J. again, who said she was coming up tomorrow – whoopee!!! At lunch time I met Smitty in the Bar. He has left Whaley and is now Fleet Gunnery Officer up here with an acting brass hat. He came to dinner with me at the Exchange and we had a long chat. He told me Peter Knight had been killed in Sicily a few months ago. I am sorry. Poor Bob Knight!!
Wednesday, 15 December 1943 – Liverpool
Clocked in at the school at 0900 and after our lecture we started a night battle game. I was bidden to lunch with the C. in C. with a 2½ striper, a 2 striper R.N.R., and a French naval officer who are all doing the course. C. in C. was very affable. Went on with the game in the p.m., summing up, and had one more lecture. I went back to the hotel and shifted and then went along to Lime Street Station to meet J’s train due at 6:30. It was ½ hour late and when it came in no J. Met Ragg at the station also waiting to meet his wife on the London train due 7:10, which I now imagine J. is catching. This train is known to be hours late and so we adjourned to the new British Officers Club at the Adelphi and had some drinks. It is a very nice place. As the transportation office was keeping Ragg in touch and there was plenty of time I went back to the Hotel for dinner. Then I got a telephone call from the station, and eventually I found J. waiting for me there at about 2115 having arrived by some unknown train. Anyway we eventually got back to the Hotel and I got J. some sandwiches and drinks in our room. We had a tremendous chat and it was lovely to see her again.
Thursday, 16 December 1943 – Liverpool
I went to school at 0900 and for about 1½ hours we had preliminary discussions and preparations for the big day and night game and then we started to play it. I am in command of one of the support groups, which is about the most interesting command, and have a chief of staff to help me in the plotting. At lunch time met J. at the State Restaurant, but we had to wait such a long time for a table that I had to dash back to my battle before I’d really finished. There was a great deal of activity on the board in the p.m. Went back to the Hotel and met J. for a late tea and at 1830 the Gardners came and had drinks with us. They are a nice couple. Sat about in the lounge before going to bed. This is infinitely more pleasant to stay at than the Adelphi.
Friday, 17 December 1943 – Liverpool
J. caught the 10:00 train to London as she had promised to be home for Gillian’s breaking up play. My battle raged all day on the table and finally came to an end at about 1600. Very good value and I think I didn’t disgrace myself. I had some tea at Derby House and then rang up S.C.N.O. London from Gardner’s office and had a talk with the Signal Officer about one or two W/T points. I went back to the hotel and shifted then after almost ½ hour’s wait I caught a tram out to the other side of the town and went to dinner with Speak and his wife. He was with me in Firedrake as a Sub R.N.V.R. He is now a Lieut. His wife is American and very pleasant. They gave me a lot of whisky and got me talking much too much, with the result that I missed the last tram and it took me the best part of an hour to walk back to the Hotel.
Saturday, 18 December 1943 – Liverpool/London
Roberts took the whole of the forenoon summing up our game. He is extremely good and it was most interesting. I had an early lunch at the Derby House canteen and then went back to the hotel and tried to get a taxi. After waiting as long as I dared I finally walked with my suit case to Lime Street station and caught the 2:00 train to London. Six of us from the course had reserved a carriage. It was terribly slow and we were 2½ hours late at Euston arriving at 2045. That meant I missed the 10:45 to Havant, so I went to the Euston Hotel and rang up J. to say I couldn’t get down and then rang up Lillian to ask if she could give me a bed. Had some sandwiches at the hotel and then tubed to Earl’s Court and walked to the Robinsons’ House where I was given a camp bed in the drawing room.
For more PAXsims coverage of WATU, see the blog posts here. The WATU pictures here are from the photo archives of the Imperial War Museum.
Plans are underway to recreate a WATU wargame at the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool in early September. Stay tuned for for further details!