The following review was written for PAXsims by Tim Borsilli. Tim is a teacher and lecturer based in New York with a keen interest in the use of simulation and gaming as pedagogical tools. His studies focus on the history and intersection of war games, war planning, and war fiction
Review: Simon Parkin, A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019) 320pp.
The release of a new book on historical wargaming, sadly, is a shockingly rare occurrence – rarer still one designed for a general reading public, rather than wargaming’s professional analyst class or its grognard hobbyists. This is one thing that makes A Game of Birds and Wolves, a recent release by Simon Parkin, a contributor for The New Yorker and game critic at The Observer, such a welcome respite. Within, Parkin examines the little-known Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) that operated out of Derby House in Liverpool during World War II and its contribution to the Allied war effort in the Battle of the Atlantic. Specifically, Parkin is interested in looking at how this unit was able to use war games to help develop anti-submarine tactics to counter the German U-boat effort, as well as the unusual role that the women from the Women’s Royal Navy Service (colloquially known as Wrens) played in this process at a time when women were only begrudgingly permitted to perform even secretarial roles in the armed forces.
A few things make this book stand out from others on the “serious games” shelf. The first is that, unlike most of the highly technical, scholarly literature on this topic, Parkin brings an unusual, but welcome, narrative flair to his account. This is a work of creative nonfiction, that somewhat ambiguous genre most closely associated with longform, glossy magazine pieces. A Game of Birds and Wolves largely succeeds in this stylistic approach. It’s evocative prose and source-driven dialogue recreate the tense atmosphere of a wartime Britain in desperate straits. It’s narrative admirably brings Captain Roberts and his staff of young women to life, even if Parkin must reach on occasion where it seems the historical record is a bit thin. This could well be the books greatest strength: introducing wargaming to a wider audience in a way that is both compelling and human.
Despite being targeted at a broader readership, the “serious” gamers shouldn’t sleep on this one. Parkin offers a well-researched, detailed, and personal account that – while not as analytical as some of the academic work on the same topic – sheds light on a period when properly applied gaming contributed to the Allied war effort. Perhaps most importantly, it outlines the contribution of women, a demographic group that has been historically marginalized in both military histories generally, and in the history of wargaming specifically.
From a historical perspective, the WATU games are something of an outlier in the historiography. Except for the United States Navy, which had a robust wargaming culture, the Allies used conflict simulations far less than the Axis powers. The general historical consensus has been that the Allies strayed away from gaming during the war, favoring instead the burgeoning field of operational research. Only a scant few war games were employed during the war itself, and those that were conducted tended to be rudimentary or impromptu affairs. This stands in stark contrast to the Germans and Japanese, both of whom practiced mid-war gaming to plan major operations.
What this book offers, then, is an incredibly detailed, intimate, and personal look at an instance that flies in the face of this long-held assumption. Moreover, while serval factors helped turn the tide in the Atlantic, Parkin makes a compelling case that the tactics that emerged from this unit played an important role in the anti-submarine campaign. Exactly how much is difficult to tell, though Parkin is quite bullish on the impact of the games. At the very least, the widespread dissemination of these tactics through the WATU school serves as an excellent case-study in how gaming and simulation can be a valuable pedagogical tool for exploring new possibilities and actively sharing them.
Even more unusual from a historical perspective was the critical role the Wrens played in the process. Wargaming has been, for most of its history, a male-dominated space. Obviously, as highly patriarchal institutions, professional militaries were incredibly resistant to allow women into the fold until very recently. As Parkin notes, even the British, who might pat themselves on the back for the sheer fact of the existence of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, were reluctant to allow women to perform roles of real responsibility.
This problem, however, is not limited to merely the naturally conservative armed forces. James Dunnigan, perhaps the man best in a position to know, has estimated that among the commercial wargaming community, only somewhere around 1% of active gamers are women. There have long been significant barriers to women entering this space, and despite what some have argued, these barriers are not biological, but rather social and cultural. But the culture is changing.
Today, many women have entered this formerly male-dominated space, particularly in the professional community. Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the craft is shaking off its boy’s club veneer. A Game of Birds and Wolves is an excellent book to signal the changing of this tide, and possibly introduce a wider audience to the community. With the film rights already picked up for a possible adaption by Amblin Partners, Steven Spielberg production company, this effect could be amplified.
A Game of Birds and Wolves is therefore important on a variety of fronts. It succeeds on a surface level as a stirring, well-told account about a long overlooked historical episode. Its narrative tone sets a high bar in a field that can at times be dry and academic. For those interested in serious games and their history, it provides an intriguing counterpoint to traditional notions of how the Allies used gaming, not merely for pre-war planning, but also for active training and tactical troubleshooting. And, most importantly, its centrality on women sheds a much-needed light on a group that his been systematically overlooked.