On Saturday 6th May, the Western Approaches Tactical School was once again operational in Derby House for a celebration of the wargaming Wrens of WATU and the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. Analysts and wargamers from WATU’s direct-descendant organisations—Dstl, the Maritime Warfare Centre, and HMS Eaglet—took up the roles of WATU Wrens, RN Convoy Escort, and dastardly U-Boats, joined by folks from Defence Academy Shrivenham, US Navy, McGill and York University.
Our WATU Wrens and players were a mix of new wargamers and old hands, men and women, professional and hobby wargamers, serving and retired naval officers, and academics.
The challenge on the Tactical Table was the night of 6th/7th May, 1943. A moderate sea, bright moonlight, and intelligence reports of five U-Boats operating in the vicinity of (the entirely fictional) Convoy ONS 506, a slow convoy comprising 12 ships sailing for Halifax. Escort Group B7, consisting of HM Ships D1 (destroyer and Senior Officer Escort), L1 (Black Swan class sloop), and Flower class corvettes P1, P2, P3, and P4, were in Night Escort Six disposition. A substantial wolfpack attack developed at midnight, beginning the game with the torpedoing of the merchant ship in column 3 row 2.
Here’s what the first view-giving looked like, and the same plot from the Wren’s perspective:
The gap in the convoy is our sinking merchant ship. Where could the U-Boat be that fired the torpedo? How many other U-Boats are making an attack? Their tracks are plotted in red pen to hide them from the players. The U-Boat positions are highlighted on the right for clarity, the star is a mischievous shoal of fish.
The first view-giving included the burning wreck of our merchant ship and a surfaced U-Boat sighted at the rear of the convoy. L1 closed for an exchange of gunfire, here is their (and other’s) orders:
Our players had a copy of the relevant parts of the Atlantic Convoy Instructions, including Op: RASPBERRY, which was quickly ordered and developed two asdic contacts at the front of the convoy.
Our Wrens made use of the adjudication tables to decide which of the in-range radar (all of them at this range), asdic and visual contacts to report. Here’s a few turn’s worth of contacts for L1, and a large stack-o-signals:
Oh goodness, there were signals. There were so many signals. WATU had a team of three Wrens and an RN Yeoman handling signals: players handed in signals to be sent, the Wrens copied them to all recipients, and delivered them after some transmission delay. In our game, Lynn O’Donnell handled everything, and our players sent so many signals that we ran out of paper. Here’s a few of them:
While all this was going on, visitors to the museum were grilling Paul and Lt Phil Roberts RNR (Rtd) about the game and the history:
Meanwhile, some familiar faces, and actual submarine warfare officers, were busy plotting the demise of our convoy, upstairs in Admiral Sir Max Horton’s office. While submerged, they didn’t get a look at plot, when surfaced they could peek out the window down onto the plot in the Map Room. Their orders and contacts were sent over the museum’s wifi:
How did our Escort Group do?
It was carnage in the convoy! Six merchant ships lost. But the Escort managed two creditable depth charge attack runs, one of which forced the target to the surface in what was likely to be its death-throes. They also avoided depth charging the shoal of fish (which was mostly down to failing to get an asdic contact rather than good judgement…)
Here is the 1943/2023 edition of the After Action News, hot off the press:
See also Report of Proceedings from MacKay, RNWR, in command of sloop L1, here.
How realistic was the game?
Well, there are a few reasons why the U-Boats had the upper-hand:
Firstly, in the interests of a fun time for all, our U-Boats all started within 2,000 yards of the convoy. In reality, U-Boats tended not to attack simultaneously like this. Particularly not when using pattern-running torpedoes (as we were), because of the risk of friendly-fire incidents.
Second, we only played 12 minutes of game-time, and an engagement is typically 30 minutes plus. Knowing we were unlikely to play out 20 minutes, we started in-media-res with the U-Boats well inside radar contact range and the extended screen. It’s likely at least some of our U-Boats would have been caught further from the convoy, allowing time for interception before they were able to get off any torpedo shots, which would have improved the score sheet for the convoy somewhat.
Third: the score sheet seems to favour the U-Boats, but one U-Boat was probably not going to survive the next 2 minutes, and the other two were not going to cause too much more trouble for a time. If the game had gone on longer I think we would have seen the tide turning in favour of the Escort.
Finally, the losses seem pretty high, but our convoy was extremely small (for convenience, and for interest—a bigger convoy would mean spending most of the game steaming to get near-enough to contacts to do the fun stuff). The whole point of the convoy system was that the losses were similar regardless of the size of convoy; a bigger convoy would have lost proportionately fewer ships.
In terms of the gameplay: it was certainly a lesson in communication between the Escort players, to co-ordinate a response to contacts without the screen descending into magnet-ball. The outcome of actual attacks were pretty realistic: with a lethal range of only 7 yards, depth charge attacks were about 10% effective. U-Boat kills generally came from hunting to exhaustion, which Escort Groups could not afford to do—this is why Support Groups were introduced in March 1943. We didn’t have enough players and Wrens to support more than six in our Escort, so even if we’d played longer, the chances of killing the submerged U-Boats were small.
I want to thank the Western Approaches Museum for hosting our game and giving us free-run of the Map Room, and about thirty Dstl & MWC folks who took part in the playtest/training games as well as the Big Event. It was pretty special to play a Derby House Principles wargame in the actual Derby House. I had an absolute blast. So did Tom’s U-Boat (har dee har) !
From historic board games to modern military simulations, war games are as ancient, varied and complex as war itself.
In this wide-ranging exhibition, learn how war games evolved over time — from early strategy games to massive multiplayer online battles — and how militaries use gaming as a training tool. Hear thought-provoking perspectives from professional gamers, researchers, designers and veterans.
War is not a game. Yet war games offer insights into our relationship with real and virtual armed conflict.
We’re especially pleased to report that among the items included in the exhibit will be a Western Approaches Tactical Unit convoy escort game developed by our very own Kit Barry, as well as AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game.
It’s the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, and back in 1943, the 6th May marked the turning-point where we stopped losing and started making life so difficult for U-Boats that for a time they withdrew from the Atlantic entirely, and when they returned (in September 1943) they never again had the upper-hand.
So what better time to recreate the Western Approaches Tactical Unit wargame at WAHQ again?
Formed in 1942 to solve the U-Boat problem in the Atlantic, WATU was staffed almost entirely by women, and men unfit for duty at sea through illness and injury. The Wrens came from all walks of life and all across (what was then) the Empire, and were responsible for teaching the Allied navies convoy escort tactics: how to find and sink U-Boats.
When WATU demobbed, Cpt Roberts gifted the ships to the Wrens as souvenirs: Leading Wren Helen Coop’s ship has been scanned using photogrammetry, turned into CAD, and lovingly recreated by Ian Greig.
In grey is a test-print with a filament printer, in translucent is a print from a UV-setting resin printer, and one laser-cut from wood, ready for painting:
Actual game chits:
Leading Wren Helen Coop left us a treasure-trove in her scrapbook, including chits from actual WATU wargames played by Cpt Johnny Walker’s support group:
Nothing changes in wargaming: after rolling a 1, Cdr Wemyss would like a new gun crew please :-P
In the 2018 game we used a crude movement template to help with plotting, and mostly ignored turning circles. This was partly a simplification to help the players (WATU had the distinct advantage that their players came knowing how to command their ship and plot it on a chart! Our players were liable to try impossible things), and partly due to a lack of data. Since then I’ve found a lot more photos with details of the plot, and hunted down data on period ships which was not easy to find.
The result is this Rather Excellent [TM] recreation of the plotting protractor, laser-cut by Ian Greig. They work magnificently well and look amazing. Figuring out what they were from a handful of WATU photos might be my favourite bit of wargaming geekery :-)
Actual adjudication tables (probably):
Chris Carlson dug up some post-war ASW tables which are probably a later version of the WATU adjudication tables. One of the big mysteries of the WATU game has been how all that stuff happened, since the pre-war (1921 & 1929) RN War Game rules are not the WATU game (it’s a fundamentally different game that’s been mistaken for the WATU game by some because it mentions “screens”, but it’s very clearly talking about putting down screens on the plot to screen the surface ships from each other when they’re out of visible contact, not viewing the entire plot from behind a screen to obfuscate the U-Boat tracks on the plot), and the contemporary descriptions forget to mention how you adjudicate an attack. Even these tables don’t really explain how they’re used, but they fit broadly with the assumptions we made for the 2018 game, which is pleasing!
Well…all except one thing: we used D100s, and it turns out that because dice were too new-fangled (or D100s were hard to come by in 1942, or the Temperance Movement had words), WATU used a 1 to 100 tombola.
I appear to have bought one large enough for Raspberry to go to sea in… stop by WAHQ during the game and you can draw the fate of a U-Boat, Escort, or merchant ship from the adjudication tombola :-)
Big Heritage, who run the WAHQ museum, acquired a U-Boat during lockdown, and are busy renovating it and creating a Battle of the Atlantic Museum across the Mersey from WAHQ.
The original plan for this game was for the U-Boat players to play from the actual U-Boat, but the new museum is still a building site, so instead we’re bringing some of the U-Boat artefacts over to WAHQ for the day. Our U-Boat players have been practicing with attack discs to get their firing solution. We’ll see if they’re able to sink anything!
Working out of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in Liverpool, this hand-picked group of female mathematicians, forensic accountants and members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) achieved what the top brass at the Admiralty could not – a set of tactics which would outwit the deadly U-Boat wolfpacks and set the Royal Navy and the Allies on the path to victory.
The year is 1943 and Admiral Karl Dönitz – head of the Nazis’ U-Boat fleet – has brought Britain to the brink of starvation by destroying their merchant ships. The Royal Navy turns to retired wargamer Gilbert Roberts who needs to find a team, but the Navy can’t spare any men. Instead, he turns to the Women’s Royal Navy Service (otherwise known as the WRENS) to wargame the U-Boats’ tactics.
In partnership with Jean Laidlaw, one of Britain’s first female chartered accountants, and a small team of resourceful female mathematicians, they decipher Dönitz’s tactics and develop a method by which the Navy’s destroyers infiltrate the wolfpacks and pick off the U-Boats one by one.
The WRENS were some of the greatest wargamers of their generation, but their legacy has largely been overlooked. Now, the story of these forgotten heroes can be properly and fully told.
Episode One: The Mastermind – Tuesday, 21 February
When WWII breaks out, an elite force of German U-Boat commanders, under the direct command of Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz, attempt to starve Britain into submission by sinking hundreds of thousands of tonnes of their merchant shipping in the mid-Atlantic. Vera Laughton Mathews heads the newly reformed WRENS, and recruits bright, astute, and mathematically minded women into the service. Meanwhile retired naval commander Gilbert Roberts, who has been out of the service, is keen to return to his career and use wargaming to sink the U-Boats.
Episode Two: False Dawns – Tuesday, 28 February
After the fall of France in 1940, Dönitz’s trio of Kriegsmarine U-Boat aces embark on a race to send British merchant ships to the bottom of the ocean, converging on merchant convoys in co-ordinated wolfpack attacks. In Britain, an increasingly desperate Admiralty sends for Roberts, at last willing to entertain his newfangled wargaming ideas to try and identify ways of thwarting the deadly U-Boat wolfpacks.
Episode Three: The WRENS – Tuesday, 7 March
When Gilbert Roberts arrives to set up his proposed Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) for U-Boat wargaming, he receives a decidedly frosty reception from Admiral Sir Percy Noble who is convinced the Allies already possess the tactics and expertise to defeat the Kriegsmarine. Nevertheless, Roberts presses on and, enlisting the help of Jean Laidlaw and a small team of WRENS, based in Liverpool, begins the process of round-the-clock wargaming to devise tactics to outmanoeuvre the U-Boat attack formations.
Episode Four: The Game – Tuesday, 14 March
Roberts and Laidlaw have uncovered a fatal flaw in the Royal Navy’s existing anti-U-Boat tactic ‘Buttercup’. By wargaming different scenarios, they develop a countertactic of their own, codenamed ‘Raspberry’, in which a merchant convoy escorted by Royal Navy destroyers can lure in the wolfpack before surrounding and destroying it; in effect, playing the enemy at its own game. But the team now faces an uphill battle to try to convince Noble and his colleagues at the Admiralty that they hold the key to stopping the U-Boats in the Atlantic.
Episode Five: Stalemate – Tuesday, 21 March
Following a promotion to Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, reporting directly to Hitler, Karl Dönitz fills the ocean with as many U-Boats as he can lay his hands on. In 1943, as the battle reaches a crisis point for the Allies, and supplies are spread more thinly than ever around the British Isles, pressure mounts on Roberts and the WRENS to prove their worth. When, in May 1943, convoy ONS 5 catches Dönitz’s attention, the stage is set for the battle that will turn the tide of the Atlantic war.
Episode Six: The End Game – Tuesday, 28 March
WATU’s tactics are tested to the limit in the final conflict for ONS 5, with over 50 Allied ships and their escorts facing off against 30 German U-Boats. In the end, it is the allies who win out and the remnant of the U-Boat fleet is left to try and limp back to its base at La Rochelle. As the Battle of the Atlantic reaches its crucial turning point, however, the work of the WATU is not yet over. Dönitz makes one last, desperate throw of the dice, unleashing an advanced torpedo to try and turn the tide back in favour of his remaining U-Boats. Roberts and Laidlaw must do everything in their power to counteract the new threat and recapture the seas in time for the impending Allied landings in Normandy.
It’s 1942. Britain stands alone in Europe. German U-boats have a strangle-hold on the Atlantic, sinking so much British shipping that if nothing changes we will be starved out of the war in less than three months. The Western Approaches Tactical Unit, staffed by women from across the Empire and men unfit for duty at sea due to illness and injury, is tasked to find out what’s happening in the Atlantic and find ways of sinking the U-boats. This is the story of the game behind some of the most consequential wargaming in history and recent recreations of their work.
Many wargamers will have heard of sand tables, at least as part of the collective lore. The original von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel was played on a sand table before it migrated to other formats. Hobby legends like Jack Scruby, Don Featherstone, and Gary Gygax all had sand tables, and flaunted them as status symbols. But a sand table is also a media platform in the most literal sense, ancient and elemental. As a twentieth century source explains, a sand table is “simply a box mounted on trestles to a convenient height, or a curbed table, partially filled with sand.” Common in military settings, sand tables have also been used to teach the blind, train wilderness firefighters, facilitate therapy for trauma victims, and illustrate stories to children. Today there is a direct line from this seemingly modest technology to augmented reality and other tangible media devices.
Christopher Paul (RAND) and Jim McNeive (MCIOC) will discuss their experiences designing, playtesting, and running the Information Warfighter Exercise (IWX) Wargame for the Marine Corps Information Operations Center (MCIOC).
PAXsims is delighted to present some recent developments in the WATU story. If proof were ever needed that the Derby House Principles were well-named—over and above the queer Wrens, the RN officers unfit for duty at sea through illness and injury, and Wrens standing watch as Midshipmen on a Destroyer in the Med in 1943, whose diversity is what made WATU great—enter stage right, the Bombay Tactical Unit:
Pre-1944 RIN officers took their tactical training at Liverpool.
This is Pritam “Peter” Singh Mahindroo:
He joined the Merchant Navy at 16, and on the outbreak of war he tried to transfer to the Royal Indian Navy but was denied entry because, being Sikh, he refused to cut his hair. By 1940 he was in, with his turban on, and in 1942 he took the WATU course before escorting ships to the Atlantic Ocean as a Lt on INS Godvari.
A Victory parade was held in London on June 8,1946 in which representatives of the three Indian Armed Forces participated. The senior Indian Naval officer was Commander (later Rear Admiral) A. Chakravarti and the Naval Contingent was led by Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) P.S. Mahindroo. In keeping with the inter-service seniority in which the Navy was the senior service, the parade was led by the Naval Contingent.
Rear Admiral Mahindroo, who later commanded our first aircraft carrier Vikrant, reminisces on the occasion, “Needless to say, that as a turbaned officer leading the Naval Contingent, I was most prominent and I must have given hundreds of autographs amongst thousands of spectators who probably slept on the pavement for one or two nights to witness this historic parade.
Fearing imminent Japanese invasion in 1942, the Women’s Auxilliary Corps (India) formed to free every available shore-man for active duty. In January 1944 the WRINS formally stood up as its naval branch, as the focus of the war turned towards Asia.
43% of the officers and 77% of the WRINS were Indian, and among the junior officers 80% were Indian. The rest were Anglo-Indians (born in India of British descent; the white ruling class of Empire) and Brits—a combination of women stranded in the Empire by wartime travel restrictions, and women from Britain who signed up to the WRINS instead of the WRNS (applicants who didn’t quite make the cut for the RN were sometimes offered a more favourable position in the RIN, RCN, or other colonial navy…)
[Of course, Indians and Anglo-Indians were British Citizens; that’s how Empire worked. A fact conveniently forgotten by the hostile environment policy and Windrush scandal.]
The WRINS offered opportunities for “intelligent and well educated women and girls when they pass out of their schools and colleges … [for] cultured Indian girls and women … who have the interest and well-being of their country at heart.”
Chief Officer Cooper’s somewhat idyllic view of Empire certainly reflected attitudes of the time:
[Cooper’s spelling] Here Mohammedans, Hindoos, Parsees, Pathans, Anglo-Indians and British lived side by side in harmony, the only allowance made for difference in tase were the meals, two sets being provided.
For the Indian girls it was the experience of a life-time, broadening their outlook, and helping towards emancipation—so important for their future role in India.
During the three-day Mutiny in February 1946 it was significant that the WRINS in all the ports stood fast, and showed no signs of disaffection.
Cooper, Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service
Given that the chief grievance of the mutineers was poor treatment of Indian ratings by white officers, it suggests a white leadership (and of course, it was all white at the top) somewhat out of touch with the recipients of their colonial benificence.
Roshan Horabin, who was turned away from the WAC(I) because pre-1944 “they did not employ native girls,” talks about the class and race tensions at play:
I was educated at the Cathederal. And in those days there were only 10% Indians and we paid double fees. And although [an Indian] could be a prefect, you couldn’t be a head girl.
Roshan came from the upper-crust of Indian families, and socialised with Baronettes. Even so, she was once challenged by a police officer for using the “European” latrine instead of the “Indian” one.
He said, “These are the rules of the Empire and Indians do not go into British latrines.” People are shocked to hear this, and think Appartheit was only in South Africa. And I say no, in fact it was the whole of the Empire.
In 1942 she joined the Intelligence Division.
We had English people, Germans, French, and Mrs Smith who was a Colonel’s wife, in charge of my section. I think we had four Anglo-Indian ladies but they didn’t talk to Bina [the Honourable Bina Sina] and myself, they just spoke to the European lot. But the English lot talked to Bina and me.
Later when the WRINS began accepting Indian applicants, the Intelligence Division wouldn’t let her go. You can hear the whole of her oral history interview here.
The WRINS were immensley proud of their Tactical Unit contribution. In WRINS and How They Served, a two-page spread is devoted to explaining the purpose and details of the Royal Indian Naval Tactical Unit, while the rest of the book has photographs and only brief captions at-best, glossing over the rest of the WRINS technical duties. (My particular favourite: Cypherettes at work. Because intelligence officers and backing vocalists are so very hard to tell apart…)
The Royal Indian Naval Tactical Unit in Bombay trained officers of the RIN in one of the most thrilling and vital phases of sea warfare—the “Killer Group” tactics that played so large a part in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. Modelled on the lines of the Royal Navy’s famous Western Approaches Tactical Unit, this well-equipped establishment had WRINS assisting in the training of future commanding officers of HMI escort vessels.
WRINS and How They Served
Founding the Bombay Tactical Unit.
This is Cdr Arthur King:
The Tactical Unit was established in Bombay in 1944 and was disbanded shortly after the capitulation of Japan. As I was in charge of this unit it is of some historical interest that my thoughts on it should be recorded.
At the outset I should say that I do not have any clear idea as to why I was given this job. Certainly I never asked for it. But I have, nevertheless, for as long as I can remember, had an interest in naval tactics. This started when at school I read of Nelson’s conduct of his fleet. The positioning of ships to gain maximum advantage over the enemy was only achieved by a clear understanding of what was needed and how to use the elements—sea, wind, sun and moon—to gain the upper hand. A total understanding between the ships’ Captains was essential. Nelson developed this to the full, calling his Captains his “band of brothers”, and fostered this espirit de corps to a fine degree of understanding by calling them all together at every possible moment he could create.
In 1942, standing by HMIS Jumna building on the Clyde, a notice was circulated to COs of all escort vessels that they and their executive officers should attend as convenient at the A/S Tactical School located in Derby House, Liverpool, headquarters of Admiral Sir Max Horton, C-in-C Western Approaches.
There I met Commander Duncan
And this is the true joy of King’s account for me as a woman: to see the karma of the Williams’ biography of Captain Roberts, which mis-spelled the names of every single WATU Wren, repaid in kind by King persistently mis-remembering Roberts’ name as “Duncan”, and confusing him with his then-XO Lt Cdr Walter Higham, ex-submariner and ranking survivor of HMS Audacity:
There I met Commander DuncanRoberts, a dug out submariner who had been invalided out of the service in 1939 and recalled to set up a school to aquaint the Captains of the many escort vessels—sloops, frigates, corvettes—with the ways of the enemy they were going to face when they got out into the Atlantic, and how to deal with him. Technical schools had already instrcuted people in the mechanics of Asdic and final attack procedure, but they did not then have any experience of the tactics the enemy would use to get into the best position to get at the convoy. DuncanRoberts had made a study of such matters and had the added benefit of his Chief’s submariner’s mind.
The week-long course consisted of very few short lectures. Most of the time was spent playing games and analysing them. The “play area” was a gridded linoleum (has anyone ever seen lino of the quality provided to the Navy?) floor, with the pupils behind screens out of sight of the main plot, positioned at desks and fed with data—some relivant, some irrelivant—of contacts, signals, D/F bearings, etc, from which each had to decided his actions—signals to others, course and speed of his own ship, whether to move towards the convoy or to go to help some other ship in trouble, etc etc. All this was then transfered to the plot on the floor and success or failure resulted. Understanding of how best to achieve the objective of getting the convoy safely through was undoubtedly improved as the week went on. One was better informed of what the Germans were about and how they operated their “Wolf Pack” tactics. Confidence in how to counter-attack was gained. It was Nelson’s band of brothers again.
Then, in 1944,
I was somewhat mystified to recieve instructions to set up a Tactical Unit in Bombay on the lines of the Unit in Derby House Liverpool. The intention was that, as the war in Europe was approaching finality, Churchill and the War Cabinet directed that more effort had to be made against the enemy in the East.
And so, in July 1944, in company with Lieutenant Ahsan, DSC, and four WRINS—2nd Officers E. Donoghue, E. Staveley, J. West and E.A. Twynham—we set off in a York to fly to Liverpool. DuncanRoberts was still there—actually he spent the whole of the war in this appointment—and for six weeks we understudied him and his team.
In Bombay we set up shop. Our first location was above Mongini’s Restaurant in Hornby Road. This was all right for operation as it had the space and was properly fitted out, but it was hardly the place to keep confidential books. We were soon found a corner of the dockyard.
VE came and was celebrated. Then some months later Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were attacked by atomic bombs and the war was over.
In the weeks following, we in the Tactical Unit considered what we should do. There was obviously no enthusiasm for VR officers to spend time learning something they would never have to apply in practice. People all around us were just waiting for demoblilisation and getting bored. So we decided to set up demonstrations, using the facility of the large gridded linoleum floor as our stage. We read up on the confidential reports of the major Naval batles of the war and prepared our floor-show. “The Sinking of the Bismarck” and “The Battle of the River Plate” were presented by us in Bombay long before they were made into films! And we had large audiences, weighted from time to time by gold braid. Admirals Godfrey and Rattray both came along to see what we were up to, and made some complimentary remarks at the end of the shows.
Like this, I imagine, only with less YouTube and more pipe-smoking:
Was the Tactical Unit worthwhile? This is difficult to answer. Certinly if the war had developed into a long battle against the Japanese, who up to then had shown every sign of being difficult to move and fanatical in their resolve, then there would have been an enormous increase in military activity in this sphere with all important supplies coming by sea and therefore entirely dependent on Naval supremacy.
The Tactical Unit at Bombay would then have become, as was Liverpool to the Atlantic, the centre for updating intelligence of enemy tactics.
Show me the WRINS!
Oh, dear reader, I can do one better. Please be upstanding for 2nd Officer Staveley (now Puckridge), only the third first-hand account of WATU’s activities by a Wren (WRIN) in existance (Wren June Duncan’s memoire, and Lt Carol Hendry’s oral history being the other two).
Here are the founding WRINS of the Bombay Tactical Unit:
Pinch me. I am actually exchanging e-mails with a WATU Wren:
My father had just completed a 6-year Army posting to India when war broke out and we were unable to return to the UK because of the new travel restrictions. I enlisted in the WAC(I) in Bangalore in South India when the local women’s services commenced recruiting (had to back-date my date of birth by a year to qualify). After a few months in a Recruiting Office, I was asked if I would transfer to the Air Defence Unit, still in Bangalore. Later (sadly I did not keep a diary, so am imprecise about dates) I was asked to move to Cochin to work on Cyphers and from there was sent on an OTC and promoted to 2nd Officer, WR(I)NS. I was then sent to Liverpool Western Approaches Tactical Training Unit and, on completion of the course, was posted to Bombay to help with setting up a Tactical Unit there.
On arrival in Bombay from Liverpool I seem to recall working exclusively with the small group who attended the UK course, ie the four of us in the picture, the officer named King and another IAF officer [Lt Ahsan], and a lovely girl from India whose name I can’t recall.
When this was disbanded after VJ Day, I was posted as Personal Assistant to the Chief Staff Officer to the Flag Officer, Bombay, [Capt Nott] for a short while until I was demobbed in 1945.
2nd Officer Anne Puckridge (nee Staveley)
That lovely girl from India was 2nd Officer Kalyani Sen:
It was decided that four WRIN officers should be sent to the United Kingdom for a two months’ course at the Anti-Submarine Tactical Course at Liverpool. Those officers on completion of their training were appointed to act as “movers” at the Anti-Submarine Tactical School at Bombay. The Deputy Director WRINS, Chief Officer Cooper and two administrative officers also proceeded to the United Kingdom where they were attached to Women’s Royal Naval Service establishments and training centres for a period of two months to undergo a course of instruction in WRNS methods of administration and training.
The first Indian service woman who visited the United Kingdom was second officer Kalyani Sen, of the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service. With Chief Officer Margaret Cooper and second Officer Phyllis Cunningham she went there at the invitation of the Admiralty to make a comparative study of training and administration in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
There you have it. Women and minorities forging operational analysis. And casting gears for submarines, too (from Wrens in Camera by Lee Miller. Really stunning and unexpected photos of Wrens onboard ship and other non-clerical duties):
You can read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.
PAXsims is proud to present the world-premier of A short film about WATU! Lovingly crafted from the historical record, contemporary footage, and the voice-acting skills of the Chelsfield Players and Dstl analysts.
A Filmed In Lockdown production. Written and animated by Sally Davis. Starring: Diana McDonnell-Pascoe, David Bacon, Jo East, Ken Clarke, Jeremy Lowe, James Edmunds, Anna Fothergill, Philippa Rooke, Emily Edmunds, Nick Barnett, Anne Allocca, Gill Bacon, David Childs, Maddy McCubbin, and the Admiralty Collection.
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:
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.
Those of you who follow PAXsims will know of the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, the group of WWII Royal Navy wargamers who made many essential contributions to both the development of allied convoy and anti-submarine tactics, and to the training of those who fought the Battle of the Atlantic. As we’ve argued before, the women and men of WATU may have been the most consequential group of wargamers in history.
Western Approaches HQ was once the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic. Hidden deep beneath the streets of Liverpool, the men and women who worked in this building changed the course of the Second World War.
The site was rescued from dereliction in 2017 and within two years has become one of Liverpool’s most popular heritage attractions. The site is ran entirely as a non-profit entity, with 90% of the income needed to run and maintain the vast site coming from visitor tickets.
Due to Coronavirus, the site has been forced to close, losing much of its income. Despite this, the team have been working hard to help the local community and create a number of educational opportunities for free to ensure children at home can continue to learn.
A small donation would be hugely appreciated to help offset the huge loss of income due to this current crisis.
Despite the crisis, they’ve been doing a terrific job with isolation history lessons and online activities. Consider lending them some support!
Figure out the school layout from stills. Turns out, there are two distinct buildings. This ties up with the contradictory talk of WATU being based in a temporary building on Exchange Square due to bomb damage, and WATU being based in Derby House which is definitely not a temporary building (but it took bomb damage to the roof in early 42). Here’s the first pass at the geography:
And some comparisons to the real thing:
The Tactical School Duty Officer’s desk (centre) I think is actually out the WATU door (bottom right in the plan view). I think it may have a second door off-camera in front of Roberts (seated) that is the door in in the bottom left shot, between the missing wall section and the right-hand curtain/screens (there’s actually a door there, opened and forming part of the screen under the curtain. But it’s wildly difficult to tell from the available photos, so I cheated and put it behind the white wall in that photo instead.
It was looking pretty good till I added people…and then the accidentally vast length of the hall became apparent…and it wasn’t till I had my player walking around that I realised the screen peep holes are about 7ft off the ground. WATU: standing on the shoulders of giants ? (I’ll get my coat).
I’ve got a lovely pack of low-poly WW2 artwork. It’s D-Day-focused, so mostly US Army and French civvies, but it’s perfect for prototyping. I love all the period posters in it. I will be adding my own, and tidying up the gash posterisation of the WATU logo. My next challenge is to get to grips with Blender and start hacking the characters to make WRNS and RN uniforms. Not quite as simple as just re-colouring the texture’s PNG since the ladies are wearing the wrong kind of hat. I’ve posed them by pulling around their mecanim rigs, which works pretty well.
How do we move? I’ve gone for an old-school point-and-click mouse adventure feel. So I set up a nav mesh and let unity worry about route planning. I hooked up the player character animation so she walks while she moves. I’ll hook up some interaction animations later on, so she talks when you’re interacting with people etc.
Blue areas are walkable. You can see a couple of snafus I need to sort out still, like you can walk through Higham. And I need to make a “look at this thing” call for when you click on something interactable. I’m still figuring out how the camera/click-to-move will work. At the moment you can’t turn her round, you have to click near her feet to make her turn to get a view of the direction you want to move her in. But I don’t really want to go first-person-shooter AWSD to move. Once I’ve got cinemachine hooked up I’ll be able to fix some of that and make it less top-down shooter and more discrete ‘scenes’ in the room where the camera pans around as you move more than follows you. That and the cut-to-dialogue shots will help balance out “I need to see where she can go” vs “but now I can’t really see what’s right in front of her.” There are a couple of places you can stand and the camera is on the wrong side of the wall, too
Challenge the Third
Let’s make this interactive. I’m using Ink for this, the interactive story engine behind 80 Days (this is a marvellous game, play it if you haven’t already!), and the Unity Ink Integration package. Ink is a really interesting scripting language meant for writers rather than coders. It’s really simple to get to grips with, and entirely focused on making Choose Your Own Adventure narratives. What’s really exciting is how well they’ve implemented the unity package, so you can write a story in Inky (a nice little app that compiles-as-you-write so you can test out the story)…and then hook it up to anything in your unity scene: the story can control game objects…or you can use game objects to control the story. The vanilla setup is to have the ink story written to a UI canvas, offer you buttons for your choices, and use your button click to tell ink the choice you made (exactly like the vanilla compile-to-html Inky output). But you can do much more awesome things with it. I’m drawing inspiration from three places:
The Intercept: a really pleasing but simple re-skin to suit a story set at Bletchley Park. When I say inspired by, I mean to steal the typewriter skinning (it’s under MIT licence, they encourage such things) for some of my game.
JRPG example: here’s a nice presentation showing off a bunch of off-label uses for ink in unity. The JRPG bit blew my mind (link to the project files at the start). I started with this and I’m slowly replacing the artwork/functionality with my 3D version. I’m going to take it further and tie animation to the choices you make, too, so if something in the room gets mentioned, say, the character doing the mentioning can look towards it (and by doing it in scripting, it’ll work for dynamic locations…so a view-giving from a Wren will point to where things really are on the plot).
Cinemachine‘s state-driven camera system and magical shot-blending-wizardry (I firmly believe inside this package is an homunclus cameraman) means I can use the ink story state to drive cinematic dialogue without having to create cut-scenes. My player can wander up to a character, JRPG-stylee with a follow-camera, and switch to a close-up shot/reverse-shot while they talk. My player can choose to take a view-giving during the tactical game and we’ll switch to a peephole view of the plot.
Here’s my JRPG logic so far: it’s placeholder stuff at the moment, just proving the point that I can make you steer the story by who you physically talk to rather than text-based choices.
At the moment the “game” is that you need to speak to Roberts. If you haven’t spoken to Roberts yet, everyone else you interact with will say go see him. The first time you speak to Roberts he gives you the dit and sends you off to learn about the problem. Now the other characters will speak to you. Eventually you’ll be able to interrogate Higham about his experience on convoy HG76 to win knowledge about what the U-Boats are up to. The second time you speak to Roberts he challenges you to test your theories against the tactical game.
All the -> ENDs are telling ink to yield control to unity again, and unity uses the = interact knots in the story to pick up where things left off. Here’s Higham in unity:
Higham (temporarily a pilot…he was XO of an aircraft carrier, does that count ?) and Tooley- Hawkins are waiting for you to enter the green box Trigger Volume. It’s a trigger collider, and there’s a player controller script listening for OnTriggerEnter and OnTriggerExit events. Update is listening for you to hit space to interact, and will ask ink to resume the story at the knot associated with the trigger volume you’re in. In this example we’ve got a character you can talk to. But you can also interact with the gramophone (it doesn’t cue up story, but you can put on some period music) and the filing cabinet (this is where I’m going to use The Intercept’s typewriter skinning and let you look through the red books).
In this bare-bones version the text doesn’t give you choices yet (because I haven’t implemented buttons in the dialogue box). Once that’s done you’ll be able to have conversations with people and pick what to say. I’m also going to make this context-aware text. Ink allows me to declare variables to keep track of stuff in-game, and then change the options you get and colour the text based on the value. It’s another way ink goes off-label from the book-based CYOA branching narrative; it allows you to keep the narrative fairly linear (the same stuff happens) but change who does it or how they feel about things. This is a great blog explaining the concept. It feels like the right answer for an Explainer game about WATU where you don’t want the story to go off the rails (they have to follow the history) but you want it to still feel like they have agency. Here’s the next- step in my prototyping, where Roberts gets increasingly irritated with you for talking to him but not accepting his challenge. Ink’s a bit messy down in the weeds, so I’m using yED to keep track of my game logic as I go.
Eventually I’ll have something as complex as this crime scene example. My plan is to implement a dictionary of knowledge very much like this, to track what you’ve learnt about convoy HG76. If you have noticed certain things from talking to Higham and other characters, or reading the Confidential Books, you’ll get the option to try that out in the tactical game. If you don’t know these facts you won’t see those branches of the story, and Roberts will get annoyed at you. I want to balance the game nicely so you can’t win by blind-guessing (or knowing the answers already!), and you don’t have to sit through endless chatter to learn the one thing you’re missing, and you come away having uncovered the facts without it seeming to railroad you into a linear narrative.
That sounds super-complicated and weeks-of-coding to pull off, right? But no! With ink all I have to do is come up with the text of that branching narrative. I’ve got my knowledge dictionary planned out (I’ve been red-penning the HG76 narrative, thank you Ed Butcher and the Maritime Warfare Centre for scanning the not-Confidential-any-more Books for me), and I’m deciding who/what to give the nuggets to, and what flags I need to keep track off…one of the things I want to capture about the story is how the Wrens made it work. Roberts was kind of a dick towards some people, so I intend to use that impatience tracker as a marker for how much of a yes-man you currently are. If Higham can see Roberts has been sharp with you, he’ll open up a bit more about HG76 (he was sunk out of Audacity on this convoy, it’s how he ended up at WATU, and probably why he didn’t make a good impression with Roberts).
Try out the barest-bones concept demo!
You can play the super-simple demo here (or click the WATU crest below), at simmer.io …health warning: it takes a while to load, and I’ve found (at least on my Mac) you need to toggle full-screen mode to get it to work (you can toggle out again; for some reason it starts paused and won’t un-pause except by full-screen-ing). The game isn’t really meant for WebGL but it’s a convenient and platform-agnostic way to share a sneek peek.
Click the WATU crest to give it a try.
When there’s dialogue on-screen, left-click to continue the story.
Left-click anywhere on the floor to move (if you click on a wall it will interpret that as the floor on the other side of the way if there is any).
When you’re standing near a person or the gramophone, press space to interact.
Heads up, the gramophone plays music, so put your headphones in if you need to. (Actually, do it anyway, because the sound is spatially-aware and it’s a cool effect!)
Simon Parkin’s new book on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, A Game of Bird and Wolves, was published in the UK last week by Sceptre.
The triumphant story of a group of young women who helped devised a winning strategy to defeat the Nazi U-boats and deliver a decisive victory in the Battle of the Atlantic
By 1941, Winston Churchill had come to believe that the outcome of World War II rested on the battle for the Atlantic. A grand strategy game was devised by Captain Gilbert Roberts and a group of ten Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) assigned to his team in an attempt to reveal the tactics behind the vicious success of the German U-boats. Played on a linoleum floor divided into painted squares, it required model ships to be moved across a make-believe ocean in a manner reminiscent of the childhood game, Battleship. Through play, the designers developed “Operation Raspberry,” a countermaneuver that helped turn the tide of World War II.
Combining vibrant novelistic storytelling with extensive research, interviews, and previously unpublished accounts, Simon Parkin describes for the first time the role that women played in developing the Allied strategy that, in the words of one admiral, “contributed in no small measure to the final defeat of Germany.” Rich with unforgettable cinematic detail and larger-than-life characters, A Game of Birds and Wolves is a heart-wrenching tale of ingenuity, dedication, perseverance, and love, bringing to life the imagination and sacrifice required to defeat the Nazis at se
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.
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.
The plot viewed through the visor. U-boat tracks are not visible.
The screen from above, with the tables for the escort commanders beyond.
Nefarious U-boat commander Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK/PAXsims).
Some of our lovely simulated Wrens.
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.
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 I also fired a spread of my remaining bow torpedos at the 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.
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.
WWII WATU wargame in progress. Wrens point out ships and current situation for officers viewing through screen.
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.
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.
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.
The daughter (right) of WRNS officer Laura Janet Howes poses with a card summarizing her mother’s wartime career.
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 Davis 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.
I would like to personally thank Cmdr Jeffrey McRae (Royal Canadian Navy) for joining with the Royal Navy to mark the occasion, 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.
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.
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.
RN officers demonstrate appropriate protocol for carrying a simulated Wren.
The Western Approaches war museum (Liverpool) has announced it:
We are very excited to announce that on September 8th we will be hosting the first public recreation of the legendary WATU wargames. Entry will be by normal ticket on the day . More on WATU and wargaming can be found here https://t.co/lk3WJyJSVMpic.twitter.com/ZY22Es6Unp
The following report has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
Demonstrating influence dynamics in Hostage Negotiator.
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.
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.
RAF wargaming—teaching about air logistics.
More RAF wargaming. Strike package inbound!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.