PAXsims

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Daily Archives: 31/05/2020

Know your enemy

The Williams’ biography, Captain Gilbert Roberts, RN, contains a delightful little story about the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit:

In 1945, Roberts was sent to Germany to the headquarters of the German U-boat command at Flensburg. His task was to find out and confirm U-boat tactics, obtain all confidential documents and records and to interrogate any U-boat command officer he could. …

Roberts was pleased to find that there was little new to him. Western Approaches Tactical Unit had got it right, they had correctly assumed the U-boat strength and tactics. … Roberts asked to see the plots of the overall situation on the 2nd June, 1944, just prior to ‘Overlord’. He was pleased to see a situation identical to that presumed by WATU. …

It was noticeable that, whenever Roberts appeared, a sudden silence descended on the Germans and anxiety showed in every face. For Roberts’ was a face they all knew. In the German Operations Room was a blown-up photograph of Roberts taken from an illustrated magazine and underneath, ‘This is your enemy, Captain Roberts, Director of Anti-U-Boat Tactics’. He never bothered to take it down.

Williams, “Captain Gilbert Roberts, RN, and the Anti-U-Boat School”

This was a photo I needed to find.

It took a year to track down the text of Roberts’ Trinity Lecture, teased in later chapters of the Williams’ Biography. (And which turned out to have a lot in common with passages from The Cruel Sea.) It took two-and-a-half to track down the illustrated magazine.

After an exhaustive search, and much thanks to Ed Butcher’s ebay bidding wizardry, I give you, most likely*, Your Enemy, Captain Roberts, Director of Anti-U-Boat Tactics:

Captain Roberts gives an after-action report on the game.

The article is light on the contribution of the Wrens, but does a stellar job of putting the fear of god good operational research into the enemy:

Captain Roberts plays a grim battle of wits with his opposite number in Germany. He spends weeks working out what Doenitz may think of next, and then, translating that next possible manoeuvre into a situation in the game at the Tactical School. …

The more exciting the game becomes, the better pleased is Captain Roberts.

At the end of the game he sums up. Some of the decisions have been brilliant. Some have been faulty.

“But,” says the tactical school director, “make your mistakes here and you won’t make them at sea.”

So thorough is the course, so clever the setting of each game, that many naval officers fighting actual U-boats in the Atlantic suddenly realise that they first saw the same situation present itself when it was only a game on a make-believe ocean. …

Meanwhile, in the main building—Atlantic Battle G.H.Q.—at the other end of those underground passages, Admiral Sir Max K. Horton, C-in-C, Western Approaches, smiles as he peers at the plot of what is actually happening at sea.

For more than a year he has been directing our Atlantic Battle operations and seeing the Allied sea-war effort reaching a stage where, for some time, every Atlantic convoy ship has almost a 100 per cent chance of getting through safely.

It was not always like that. But Admiral Horton knew, like all the experts, that given adequate naval and air escort strength around the convoys, the U-boats could be beaten.

“Maxie,” as the Navy calls him, had the satisfaction of seeing the Atlantic Battle so develop during this winter that with increasingly powerful naval and air strength around the convoys, U-boat packs could often not get within fifteen or twenty miles of the actual convoy ships.

But, well as we have been doing at sea, there has been no relaxation for the Western Approaches C-in-C or for his men. Where Doenitz, Hitler’s naval commander-in-chief, failed in the winter, he may hope to stage a comeback in the spring.

March is the month to watch. March was the only good month for the U-boats in the whole of 1943.

But Max Horton is prepared for a new submarine campaign. He knows the tricks of the trade. He established a world-wide reputation as a submarine man himself.

And he, of all men, knows the value of working out new tactics for yourself and, at the same time, anticipating the tactics of your enemy.

A.J. McWhinnie, “Behind the Atlantic Battle”

* There are several great pictures in the article. This one has such a marvelously intimidating shadow cast on the wall, it feels sinister enough to put fear in the hearts of U-boat command.

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