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Fri Nov 27, 2020, 10:09 PM

Interesting Book: A Game of Birds and Wolves

Most of us are familiar with the tragedy of Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science, whose work in breaking the German Enigma code went a long way to help Great Britain survive, and then, with Russian and American help, win the war against Nazi Germany. Turing, being persecuted for being gay, committed suicide in the early 1950's, a massive tragedy for science.

Here's a part of related history about which I didn't know anything:

A Game of Birds and Wolves

Subtitle: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II.


I came across it while reading book reviews in back issues of Science, while looking for Christmas ideas for my sons.

Game over (Stacie L. Pettyjohn Science 31 Jan 2020: Vol. 367, Issue 6477, pp. 516)

Excerpt from the review:

In A Game of Birds and Wolves, journalist Simon Parkin reports on a long overlooked piece of World War II's Battle of the Atlantic, focusing on a war game that helped the British counter Nazi U-boats threatening Britain's vital sea lines.

The first part of the book will be familiar to war scholars and history buffs, offering an overview of German Admiral Karl Doenitz's plan to use a fleet of U-boats to cut off commerce to the United Kingdom, which the island nation needed to stay in the war. Although a similar strategy had been tried unsuccessfully in World War I, Doenitz believed that improved communications would enable groups of U-boats to operate together, like a wolf pack, and allow them to coordinate and defeat escorted convoys.

Doenitz's plan, devised in 1937, was not realized until June 1940, when Germany's occupation of France gave it Atlantic bases. Nazis called this the “happy time” because their U-boats roamed the seas with impunity, sinking civilian vessels carrying cargo and, notably, the passenger ship SS City of Benares, which was carrying 90 children fleeing the United Kingdom...

...In January 1942, Winston Churchill enlisted Captain Gilbert Roberts to lead a small organization—the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU)—charged with identifying U-boat tactics, developing effective counter-measures, and teaching British sailors to use new countermaneuvers. Lacking competent men to staff WATU, Roberts turned to the Women's Royal Naval Service (known as the “Wrens”), which assigned women who had a “keen mind for numbers” to build and run a game modeling a two-sided tactical fight between British escorts and German U-boats.

During this game, the two sides maneuvered their respective vessels, dropped depth charges, and fired torpedoes on a linoleum floor, where each 10-inch square represented one nautical mile. The British team commanded their escorts from behind white sheets designed to limit their line of sight to replicate the view from a ship's bridge. While British ships were outlined in conspicuous white chalk, the U-boats were marked in green, rendering them invisible. Throughout the game, the Wrens measured and marked the ships' movements, provided intelligence, guided discussions, and played as the German team. Roberts presided over the game and the postgame discussion...

...Sadly, the Wrens were an anomaly, reflecting a brief moment when women were war gamers out of necessity, operating in a field that to this day is dominated by men. Yet gender diversity has been shown to yield better and more innovative solutions in such settings, and achieving it should be a priority.

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