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WATU wargame report

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On September 8, volunteers from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and PAXsims paid homage to what may have been the most consequential wargaming of World War Two: the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit. WATU contributed greatly the development of anti-submarine tactics, and also taught more than five thousand British and allied escort officers during the war. Most of those wargamers were women too.

The event was hosted by the Western Approaches war museum and held in the map room of the wartime headquarters of Western Approaches Command: an underground bunker beneath the Exchange Building (Derby House) in Liverpool. During the war, WATU had operated from an upper floor.

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Setting up the plotting map. The screens on the right prevent the escort commanders from seeing the map, except when permitted to peek through small visors. Red filters in these prevent them from seeing the U-boat tracks.

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The plot viewed through the visor. U-boat tracks are not visible.

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The screen from above, with the tables for the escort commanders beyond.

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Nefarious U-boat commander Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK/PAXsims).

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Some of our lovely simulated Wrens.

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Pre-game briefing.

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The WATU wargame underway. The convoy, escort, and U-boat positions are being plotted on the floor, while escort commanders plan their next moves beyond the screens.

The game started with U-305 (U1 on the plotting floor, commanded by your scribe) having penetrated the escort screen on the surface at night, and attacking from within the convoy. One ship went down, and I ordered my vessel to submerge to periscope depth and to turn slightly to run under the convoy.

Meanwhile, U-501 (U2) approached on the surface from outside the screen, hoping to attack while the escorts were distracted.

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The U-boat commanders smile as they celebrate their first sinking of a merchantman.

Alas—or fortunately, depending on your perspective—it wasn’t to be so. As soon as the first ship was hit HMCS Ottawa (L3) made a high-speed dash into the convoy, and ran straight into the still-submerging U1, which it had not yet spotted. The damage was enough to force U1 to the surface. I ordered my submarine to run close alongside the Canadian destroyer, hoping her guns would not be able to depress sufficiently to engage my much smaller vessel. My own 88mm deck gun fired into the escort at close range, and a spread of my remaining bow torpedos damaged HMS Starling (L1) as she approached to assist. However, soon U1 began to sink. I ordered the Enigma machine and codebooks thrown overboard, and we abandoned ship.

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Image of a WWII WATU wargame in progress. Note the plotting of the convoy, escorts, and submarines on the floor, as well as the screens.

 

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WWII WATU wargame in progress. Wrens point out ships and current situation for officers viewing through screen.

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Meanwhile, U2 fired a spread of torpedos into the convoy, sinking one freighter. Its lookouts failed to notice a Royal Navy destroyer (O1) bearing down her through the dark night until it was almost too late, however. Fregattenkapitän Mouat ordered a crash dive, which was soon followed by the thunderous explosions of depth charges overhead. With a drive shaft damaged, the wily Moaut ordered that oil be vented and rubbish discharged through the torpedo tubes to suggest his vessel had been destroyed. HMS Vanquisher was having none of that, however, and continued to drop depth charges. U2 would eventually be sunk with all hands.

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U1 sunk, U2 under attack.

As this was ongoing, U3 (Brynen) approached from the front of the convoy submerged, while U4 (Mouat) proceeded on the surface well ahead of the convoy to report its location to Kriegsmarine headquarters back in Germany. These transmissions were picked up by HF/DF (High Frequency Direction Finding), and minutes later U4 itself was spotted on radar by HMCS Orillia (P1). Mouat turned slowly, and then proceeded south at top speed, hoping thereby to draw off escorts before eventually submerging and doubling back.

U3 continued to creep forward, until it was within 1500 yards of the convoy. It then fired two pairs of torpedoes from its forward tubes. A short while later hydrophones reported more explosions as two merchantmen were hit. The wolfpack had now sunk four ships in the convoy, and damaged two escorts.

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The plot. U4 (bottom) has just begun its dash south with escorts in pursuit. The white markers indicate the depth charges dropped by O1 on U2, while U3 is nearby, having just fired torpedoes and turned.

…and there we had to finish as the day came to an end.

We all had a terrific time, and the 130 visitors who passed through the museum while the wargame was underway seemed to find it all very interesting too. It was particularly gratifying to meet with the daughter and granddaughter of wartime wargaming WATU Wren officer Laura Janet Howes.

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The daughter (right) of WRNS officer Laura Janet Howes poses with a card summarizing her mother’s wartime career.

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The commander of HMS Vanquisher points to the last resting place of U2.

Enormous thanks are due to the Dstl team that made this all happen, and especially Sally David and Paul Strong. Emma Stringfellow (Big Heritage) and the rest of the Western Approaches museum staff were terrific hosts, happily putting up with twenty or so of us moving things around, talking loudly, and even playing ASDIC noises and dive alarms. The screens produced by Alfred Chow (Maker of Things) were perfect for the task. Steve Cowan recreated the HMS Tactician/WATU crest, which was emblazoned on the shirts of many of the wargaming crew, and on commemorative mugs available in the Western Approaches gift shop.

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I would like to personally thank Cmdr Jeffrey McRae (Royal Canadian Navy) from joining with the Royal Navy in marking the occasion, and taking on the role of an escort commander (HMCS St Croix). Some five hundred Canadian naval officers were among those trained by WATU during WWII, and a similar tactical training unit (modelled on WATU) was established in Halifax in 1943.IMG_0297 copy.jpg

The WATU wargame is an excellent tool for teaching about wargaming, operations, research, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the contribution of women during WWII. Visitor after visitor expressed how interesting it was, and how analysis, gaming, and outthinking an opponent all converged in the kind of work WATU did. I certainly hope this becomes at annual event at the museum, and the Dstl and RN volunteers who made it happen are able to organize similar events elsewhere in the UK.

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The Dstl/RN/RCN/Defence Academy/PAXsims crew, including nefarious U-boat captains Mouat and Brynen.

Finally, if you are in or visiting the Liverpool area, go and see the Western Approaches museum (where, for a limited time, you can get your very own HMS Tactician/WATU mug). They’ve done a terrific job rennovating the facility, and it is well worth a trip.

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RN officers demonstrate appropriate protocol for carrying a simulated Wren.

Getting ready for the WATU wargame

The Western Approaches war museum (Liverpool) has announced it:

The components are being made:

And, if you can’t wait, you can always try out the BBC’s Western Approaches Tactical Unit online browser game (requires Flash) from a few years ago.

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Distilling wargaming wisdom at Dstl

The following report has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424).


 

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The legendary Dstl coin holds off RED forces on the outskirts of a small village.

At the end of June I spent a very pleasant week at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Portsdown West (Portsmouth), discussing various topics with members of the wargaming team there and others. I made similar visits in 2016 and 2017, and—as with the earlier occasions—this trip was very stimulating, productive, and enjoyable.

Monday

Day 1 of my visit started with a presentation on wargaming and forecasting (slides/pdf). Wargamers often intone that “wargamers are not predictions,” largely so that clients and participants will not hold games to an unreasonable standard of predictive accuracy. However, while wargames do not generate detailed findings about the future, they do contain an element of prediction in that they are usually intended to explore plausible futures. Assessing that a future scenario is plausible is, after all, an act of forecasting in itself.

Dstl Forecasting

Given this, the literature on political forecasting offers some guidance as to how games might be better configured to increase foresight. I also suggested that wargames were best used as an adjunct to other forecasting methods (helping us to identify key junctures, challenge assumptions, and encourage discussion) rather than a method in and of themselves.

This was followed by a second presentation on ethical challenges in wargaming (slides/pdf). Here I addressed three major themes:

  • The use of serious games to teach about ethical decision-making, the laws of armed conflict, and similar topics.
  • The use of games to explore the dynamics of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, so that we might develop appropriate policy responses.
  • Finally, I discussed some of the ethical issues that might arise in game design and facilitation.

I was especially pleased with this presentation, since it raised issues that have not been discussed much within the professional community. How should games address sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity? How can a game explore topics like torture, mass atrocity, or sexual and gender-based violence without having adverse effects on participants who may have had personal traumatic experience of such things? What is our ethical obligation to produce high quality games, given the implications of our work for policy or war-fighting? What is our obligation to produce games that have positive moral effects—and what should we do if we believe a game design might be put to unethical purposes? Interestingly, I was not the only one in attendance who had refused work from a client because we were uncomfortable with who might be using a game and what it might be used it for. (This is, of course, a rather more difficult choice if working on wargame design as a government employee.)

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Much of the latter part of the session involved case studies to which members of the audience were invited to respond. How does one deal with player humour that might be seen as insensitive or offensive by some, given the game scenario? How does one incorporate issues of (countering) sexual exploitation and violence in wargames given the possible effects on players who have experienced the same in their personal or professional lives?

Next, came a session devoted to gaming indirect social media and cyber effects (slides/pdf). I started off by warning that not everything is new under the sun, and that communities and combatants alike have always leveraged new information and communication technologies to enhance their influence and effect. Certainly, the digital age had made it easier to do this, and to reach more people faster than ever before. However, the magnitude of this change might sometimes be exaggerated.

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Maj. Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) and I then moved on to discussing a variety of interesting games and game mechanics that might be adapted to explore such issues. These included:

 

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Demonstrating influence dynamics in Hostage Negotiator.

Tuesday

The second day of my visit largely involved me participating in, and commenting on, other people’s wargames, which is always an enjoyable task. In the morning, our focus was matrix gaming. I made a quick presentation on the status of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, then Tom facilitated a session of the High North matrix game. This went very well, with Russia, the US and Canada all using environmental concerns to project their regulatory influence well beyond their established Exclusive Economic Zones. Chinese efforts to meddle in a Greenland independence referendum went badly wrong, while “the spirit of capitalism” pursued a variety of economic opportunities as the polar ice cap slowly receded due to global climate change. The session provided ample opportunities to discuss both matrix game design and game facilitation.

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Gaming the “High North.”

After lunch, we discussed support for RAF wargaming. As part of this, Flt. Lt. Colin Bell (RAF) demonstrated three educational games he has developed for training cadets. I particularly enjoyed his air logistics games (in which players must move personnel and supplies using a variety of air assets to various locations, in response to randomly-drawn mission cards), and a game that explored mission planning and execution for offensive and defensive air operations. Playing a few turns of the latter, we lost a few Typhoons in our fighter sweep ahead of our main force but came out slightly ahead in air-to-air engagement. A heavy concentration of radar targets suggested an impending inbound enemy attack on our air defence command centre, so we ordered two other fighter groups to reposition themselves to respond. Meanwhile, we had two strike packages headed towards our target—an enemy destroyer, docked in port—when the game had to be brought to an early end.

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RAF wargaming—teaching about air logistics.

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More RAF wargaming. Strike package inbound!

Wednesday

Day three of my visit involved a morning spent at Dstl’s annual historical analysis symposium. My own paper explored strategic communications, signaling, and deterrence in the specific context of Syrian use of chemical weapons (slides/pdf). Here I drew upon both the scholarly literature on deterrence and the findings of wargames to suggest how it is that what one side regards as a robust signal of capability and credible commitment might be seen rather differently by the recipient—in part because each side operates in a very different organizational and political context.

Dstl Communications

Wednesday evening was spent at the mess of HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy “stone frigate” (shore establishment) on Whale Island, Portsmouth. After dinner, not surprisingly, we all turned our attention to some less serious gaming. While some of the group plotted to assassinate Hitler in Black Orchestra, the rest of us played Bloc by Bloc. I’m happy to report that fascism had a bad day: Hitler went down in the former game, while in the latter a progressive revolutionary coalition of workers, students, anarcho-neighbours, and prisoners brought down the repressive state system.

Thursday

The fourth day of my trip was wholly devoted to a day-long workshop on wargame adjudication (slides/pdf). In the morning, Tom and I started with a presentation on the topic, drawing upon our own experience. Adjudication runs along a spectrum from rigid (rules-based) to free kriegsspiel, with matrix games and hybrid approaches somewhere in between. Adjudication also varies depending on whether game play is turn-based, continuous, or a mix of these.

I suggested that wargame facilitators and adjudicators stand astride two essential mandates, sometimes complementary, but also sometimes in tension: that of the technician (committed to attaining the technical goals of the game) and the theatre director (responsible for bringing alive the imaginary world of the game narrative).

After lunch, we collectively discussed two recent Dstl games and the adjudication challenges each had presented. We then broke into smaller groups, and discussed how we might address a number of game adjudication vignettes:

  • Dealing with an adjudication error in combat resolution. Do you rewind the game, admit the error but press ahead regardless, or hide the mistake from the players?
  • What sort of adjudication would be most appropriate for a game intended to examine security planning for a forthcoming high-profile diplomatic visit, and why?
  • How should one deal with a (more senior, male) SME who is persistently pestering a (junior, female) player with criticisms of the game system?
  • How might adjudication approaches be configured to better withstand sponsor pressure to reach predetermined conclusions?

Interestingly, almost all of the participants felt that an adjudicator should cover up a minor error during a game if the mistake had no major game-changing effects and if informing players would “break the bubble” of narrative engagement—only disclosing the glitch after the game was over, depending on the participants and client. I concur and have done it myself, but I know others who don’t and wouldn’t. The issue was one that was further debated at the Connections US wargaming conference a few weeks later, during a session on in-stride adjudication.

Friday

The last day of my visit involved a trip to the Maritime Warfare School at HMS Collingwoodfor a playtest of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit naval escort game. PAXsims has extensively covered the work that Paul Strong and Sally David have done on WATU and its impressive contribution to World War Two naval tactics and training, and it was an absolute delight to see how it all worked.

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Playtesting the WATU wargame.

During the playtest, I commanded one of the Type-VII U-boats attacking a convoy headed from Liverpool to Halifax. I did well, using the darkness to maneuver within the convoy formation and torpedoing three merchantmen before ordering a deep dive and hard turn to port to evade the now-alerted escorts. Initial depth charges fell well wide of their mark, but a couple of escorts did manage to ping my boat with ASDIC and had turned course towards us.

Just then, explosions at the far side of the convoy signaled that another German submarine had found its prey—hopefully distracting them while I dived even deeper and headed to the rear of the convoy. My intention was to surface once the action had passed me by, and then use my deck gun to finish off any damaged ships that were straggling behind the main formation.

We had to bring the game to an end at this point, but I must say it went well for an initial playtest. I think all of us who were there were very proud to be recreating a great moment in wargaming history. Sally Davis has also written up a brief account, which I have also posted to PAXsims.

The WATU wargame will be demonstrated at King’s College London in September, during the Connections UK wargaming conference, and shortly after that in a special session at the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool. I am especially looking forward to the latter—an opportunity to conduct a WATU game in the very rooms used to command the North Atlantic convoys during WWII.

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Before I left, Dstl presented me with both one of their rare challenge coins (see picture at top) and a copy of  their STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame. Dstl has developed this manual wargame for the British Army to help it examine how the Strike Brigade would perform on the battlefield—we will be providing more detail on the game in a future PAXsims article. At McGill University I intend to use STRIKE in my conflict simulation course next year to illustrate fundamental elements of basic wargame design (such terrain and capability modelling), so you may see some after action reports here too.

 

Wargaming Wrens redux

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Sally Davis and has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424). All photos are © IWM or © Crown Copyright.


In late June, a small invasion force landed at HMS Collingwood to test-play a recreation of ‘the game‘ used to teach convoy escort tactics at the Western Approaches Tactical Unit during 1942-45.

It was rather good fun! Rex Brynen and Tom Mouat played the dastardly U-Boat captains, sank a handful of convoy ships and were on the verge of a depth-chargey-comeuppance when we ran out of time. Here’s the after-action debrief.

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Left, above: The RCN tactical table at HMCS Stadacona, Halifax (which adopted the WATU game for Canadian naval training).

Right, above: The Dstl tactical table at HMS Warspite, early on in the game.

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Left, above: WATU 2nd Officer Wren Jean Laidlaw tells Lt Cdr Tooley-Hawkins, “You’re here, sir, and Jerry just sank your battleship!”

Right, above: The Dstl peeping experiment: our escort commander player (centre, between the screens) is looking at the map through a red filter, rendering the U-Boat tracks invisible. We don’t think WATU used red filters, but their screens and peep-holes achieved a similar effect.

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Left, above: The convoy has just altered course to port. Rex’s U-Boat is right in the middle of the convoy, the white markers are where our gallant escorts depth-charged him, but he went deep and evaded damage. The red straight-line in from the bottom right is Tom’s U-Boat creeping in on the surface, hoping to take advantage of a poor look-out at the other end of the action!

Right, above: A few more turns and we’d have something similar to the original game.

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The Dstl “Wrens.”

Next stop(s): the Connections UK professional wargaming conference (London) on the 5th September, and the Western Approaches Museum (Liverpool) on the 8th September. A huge shout out to everyone who played, helped with the pre-play-test-testing, or has expressed an interested in the Liverpool event!

Lindybeige on WATU

Nikolas Lloyd—better known as popular military historian Lindybeige on YouTube—has produce a video on the important wargaming of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit during WWII.

Here on PAXsims you can read Paul Strong’s paper on WATU, as well as about the WATU wargame recreation that we will be conducting (with Dstl and the Royal Navy Maritime Warfare Centre) at the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool on September 8.

h/t Peter Perla

WATU wargame at Western Approaches war museum, September 8

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On Saturday,  8 September 2018, volunteers from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Royal Navy Maritime Warfare Centre, and PAXsims will be at the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool to recreate a WWII convoy escort wargame, of the sort conducted by the Western Approaches Tactical Unit.

This will be a unique opportunity to see the gaming techniques that helped turn the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic—and to honour the work of Captain Gilbert Roberts and the women and men of WATU. Hope to see you there!

2018 WATU WAM Poster 2.1

 

WWII convoy escort game: The RAN version

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HMAS Nepal

From the Royal Australian Navy archives comes this September 1943 summary of a “convoy escort” game,” apparently based on the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit in the UK:

The convoy escort game described below has been designed to exercise Commanding Officers of Escort Vessels and their teams in dealing with attacks on convoys. It has been played successfully in England and is recommended as an interesting and valuable means in improving efficiency and team work of convoy escorts.

The game can be played either in a ship or ashore, being organised on a day when several ships are in harbour.

You’ll find a transcription of the brief instructions here (courtesy of Sally Davis, who has also kindly removed the former WWII classification markings so that they won’t cause problems with government firewalls).

What is not not made clear is how adjudication is undertaken—that is, how target spotting or the effects of torpedo attacks or depth charges were determined.So far there is no evidence of dice or other stochastic methods being used in the WATU game, so it all may have been free kriegsspiel dependant on the judgment of expert umpires.

If you come across any information on WATU wargaming, do pass it on!

h/t Sally Davis

Wargaming and wartime tactical training in the Royal Canadian Navy

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Lieutenant Carol Hendry (kneeling at right) and WRCNS colleagues plotting positions during a tactical wargame, 1944. Royal Canadian Navy

We at PAXsims have been enthusiastically following the work that Paul Strong and Sally Davis have been doing at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in uncovering the story of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit—one of the most outstanding examples of wargaming for training and analytical purposes during World War Two.

Now Sally has come up with something else equally interesting: the existence of a similar tactical training unit in the Royal Canadian Navy. The story comes from Carol Duffus (née Hendry), a former officer in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), via The Memory Project:

My name is Carol Duffus, formerly Hendry. I was born in Toronto, September 25th, 1918. I did finally get called up in March of 1943. So, I stayed in until September 1945. Then I served as a WREN. We were called WRENS. The British women in the navy were called WRENS too and we took that name on only we called ourselves WRENs with a C, WRCNS, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. And we were associated with the navy. In Britain, it wasn’t so, they were a separate unit.

And then after a while, a position came free in the training office, a staff officer training was leaving, and so I took over at the staff officer training. And turned into the person who arranged training for the crews of any of the ships that came in, escort ships, when they needed training and tactical work or action stations or signaling or gunnery. I assigned the training in that job to, to anyone who needed it. So that was kind of interesting too. It was a good job.

The tactical table was to teach the tactics to the escort vessels when they were taking a convoy across the Atlantic. And it was six of the WREN officers took over a on a, well the tactical table wasn’t really a table, it was more like a, sort of a gym floor. Only, it had a wall all the way around it, about a little bit above a waist level. And the WRENS, who were taking over, whenever the escorts went out, there were six taking a convoy across. So we had representatives from six escort vessels there on, on the other side of a wall, they couldn’t see us, but we could look over at them. So each of us was assigned a ship. And each ship in this escort group would send their captain and their navigating officer and the signals man up. And they would sit on the other side of the wall, they couldn’t see what we were doing up on the table. And each of us was assigned a ship so they would give us the instructions that that ship would take, in so many periods of time. It was a tactical game that was, given to the escorts, in this case, a game, a tactical game where they were taking a convoy across. There would be one at the head of the convoy and one at the stern. And then there would be one stationed on each quarter of the convoy. And they were to protect the convoy from submarine attacks.

So it was a game played, it was sort of set and they would give them situations and it was all plotted out on the table by, by the WRENS who were doing the plotting on the table. It was all marked off in sections and we would chalk everything down as they’d tell us. Each of us would have one ship. They would instruct us what that ship was to do and we would plot it on the table, which was really the floor. We were down on our hands and knees for that.

And so they would play the game as situations arose, in this imaginary game that would happen. Perhaps it would be announced that there was a submarine sighted somewhere or someone had seen a, a ship blow up, so they knew a submarine had done that. These were all just cases that might happen, that was the game.

So we were, we were given these little chits every two minutes or so from our ship, each one of us had their ship and we would plot it on this tactical table. And this would go on for perhaps an hour, maybe two, as the situation arose and the uh, training commander would be there giving the instructions.

So at the end of the game, all the people who were doing the plotting, the captains and so on, came up on the table and they would see what they had done. And the training commander, who would review the whole situation, would see what had been done over the whole period of time by us plotting their instructions to us, as they would say, I’m going, you know, a certain degree for so, for so long and we would plot that.

So it was all laid down in chalk and when the game was over, everybody would come up on the table and then the whole thing would be criticized by the training commander. He would say to each of them, now, in this case, perhaps it would have been better if you had done this or that and so on. So it was very, it was a good educational tool and tactics, and they learned a lot that way I think.

And you often hear about women looking, being looked down on because they were women, doing a certain job. But I never, never, never felt that, ever. I was treated with tremendous respect and, and knowledge of what I was doing. And so you know, I, I think that was probably why I advanced to the staff officer training because I was respected and that I knew what I was doing and why I was there. So it was, it was fine. I had no problem at all being a woman.

An awful lot of people don’t know what the women did in the services during the war. And I think they should have a little more publicity because if it weren’t for what they did, a lot of things would not have been done. So I felt that I was able to do something useful. That was good and I think there are an awful lot of other women too who did useful things and they would never probably be recognized for what they did. I’d like to have people know that they did serve, they were very important.

You can hear the audio of the interview at the link above. Carol passed away on May 5, 2012

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Lieutenant Carol Hendry (standing) during a tactical game, 1944. Slacks were only worn on the job due to the the amount of time spent on the floor. Royal Canadian Navy

A WATU wargaming vignette

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HMS Wanderer (D74).

As you know, we at PAXsims have been greatly appreciative of the terrific historical research that Paul Strong (Dstl) has been conducting on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit—one of the most important wargaming initiatives of World War Two. It is a story of innovation and tremendous operational impact, in which young women wargamers played a key role. It is also a story that had been largely forgotten, until Paul began his efforts to research and publicize it.

Today he passed on a brief account of the work WATU did, which he came across in his research:

While the dockyard completed the final touches – more often bashes – I was sent off to the Tactical School in Liverpool. Like the school at Londonderry, it was run by Captain Gilbert Roberts with a small staff and some very bright Wren ratings. Lectures apart, we, all Commanding Officers, would be placed in small cubicles able to see only a small portion of the ocean ‘battlefield’ laid out on the floor; and each would have to tell an attendant Wren what we would do in a set of different circumstances as the battle progressed. I remember once handing my written answer to a particularly clued-up girl.

“No, sir, I do not think that you should do that,” she said firmly and politely.

“Good God,” I thought, “what on earth does this girl know about it?”

Such was her confident, tactful tone, however, that, meekly, I said: “Oh why not?” She explained convincingly. This young lady later married Peter Gretton, who covered himself in glory in the Western Approaches.

It was an astonishingly effective set-up… Roberts must have contributed very greatly towards the operational success of HM ships in the Western Approaches.

The account comes from Reginald “Bob” Whinney, The U-Boat Peril: A Fight for Survival (Cassell, 1986). Whinney was one of the Royal Navy’s most successful wartime anti-submarine commanders, with three U-boat kills as captain of HMS Wanderer.


It occurs to us there must be a lot of other wargaming vignettes out there, and that it might be useful to share some of these. If you have been involved in a professional game that had substantial effects (for good or ill) on operations, analysis, perceptions, or investments, and you are able to share it—please send it on. We will publish a selection from time to time. It should only be a few paragraphs in length, but enough to give a sense of how gaming can be a useful tool, when used right—or, for that matter, a terrible tool when used poorly.

 

Wargaming the Atlantic War: Captain Gilbert Roberts and the Wrens of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit

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Western Approaches war museum, Liverpool.

PAXsims is pleased to provide an early Christmas/holiday present to our readers: namely,  the longer version of Paul Strong’s article on one of the most important examples of operational wargaming during World War II: Wargaming the Atlantic War: Captain Gilbert Roberts and the Wrens of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (pdf).

The piece is important both for shedding light on the role of WATU during the critical Battle of the Atlantic, but also in highlighting the key—and heretofore largely unrecognized—role that women wargamers played in the Allied war effort.

I took a special visit to the recently-revamped Western Approaches war museum in Liverpool during my last UK visit. I’m pleased to report that they are planning a major display and activity focused on the role of WATU.

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Western Approaches war museum, Liverpool.

 

 

The wargaming Wrens of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit

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In the latest issue of the Women in War newsletter (Autumn/Winter 2016), Paul Strong outlines the crucial role that members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, better known as Wrens) played as anti-submarine warfare operations analysts and wargamers in the Western Approaches Tactical Unit during Battle of the Atlantic. I’ve excerpted some sections below, but you really should read the whole thing.

Sir Charles summoned Captain Gilbert Roberts, an experienced officer who has been invalidated out of the service due to tuberculosis, to the Admiralty to discuss options for resolving Churchill’s concerns with Admiral Sir Cecil Usborne, the First Sea Lord’s adviser on Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW).

Usborne believed that there was a chronic lack of escorts but that the tactics they used were probably sub-optimal. Roberts was to form a new operational analysis team, to be called the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) to explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course.

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The WATU facility was primitive, with tactical tables, a tactical floor divided into squares, basic ship models and a lecture theatre, but Roberts quickly got to work. A basic set of wargame rules was developed with processes to represent real-time decision cycles, tactical doctrine, and communications issues. Then the room was re-designed so that players representing escort commanders could only see the gameplay through a restrictive screen to represent the limited information that they would have in a real battle. The U-Boat track was invisible to players and shown as a brown chalk line so the umpires could follow its progress.

Roberts was assigned a small staff, Chief Petty Officer Raynor was the first then the Wrens appeared. Four Wren officers, Elizabeth Drake, Jane Howes, Jean Laidlaw and Nan Wailes, described as ‘real gems’ by Roberts, all brimming with enthusiasm and delighted to be doing serious work. In addition, four Wren ratings appeared, two were only seventeen.

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A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Interestingly, out of the 5,000 officers who attended the school, none had the slightest problem with being instructed by young Wrens – particularly as they proved extremely skilled at guiding their students through the more complex manoeuvres without hurting their feelings (there is an amusing but highly technical example in Mark William’s excellent biography Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-Boat School).

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

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When Roberts accepted his award as Commander of the British Empire at the end of 1943, he took a Wren Officer and Rating with him to Buckingham Palace, intentionally sharing the honour with the team of remarkable young women that helped the Western Approaches Tactical Unit win the Battle of the Atlantic.

 h/t Colin Marston

 

UPDATE: A longer version of Paul Strong’s research is can now be found here.

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