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Tag Archives: WATU

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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