Games can be deadly serious—ask any soccer parent—but we generally see them as child’s play. It is therefore surprising that in war, where the stakes are the absolute highest, games play an essential role. War games allow armies to test officers’ strategies and decision-making in a risk-free environment, and lessons learned on the game board are frequently transferred to the battlefield. One man who thoroughly grasped this idea was Captain Gilbert Roberts, who, along with his team of eight officers from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, popularly known as the Wrens), devised a game that arguably changed the course of World War II. In A Game of Birds and Wolves, Simon Parkin tells this remarkable and little-known story.
In 1941, Great Britain was in danger of being starved of food and supplies by U-boat attacks. Roberts realized that, by simulating the conditions of war as closely as possible on an auditorium-sized game board, he could devise countermeasures to the tactics used by U-boat captains. He could also train submarine hunters without the risk of failure. Ultimately, the men who played the game used their knowledge to defeat the U-boat fleet in the decisive Battle of Birds and Wolves. Without the Wrens, who not only ran the games but also helped design new scenarios and countermeasures, none of this would have happened.
Like a well-designed game, A Game of Birds and Wolves is fun, informative and intense. Parkin naturally focuses much of his attention on Roberts, whose story of triumph over adversity and skepticism is a great read. But the book really shines when Parkin reclaims the history of the Wrens. Although women played a vital role in the war, their work was often undervalued, and much of this history was lost or destroyed. The Wrens, working with Roberts, were instrumental to an Allied victory, but few among us know what we owe to them.
Parkin’s respect and affection for these women is apparent on every page, and his extensive research and excellent storytelling go a long way toward paying that debt.