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
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!
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
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.
Western Approaches war museum, Liverpool.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE: A longer version of Paul Strong’s research is can now be found here.