Friday, January 31, 2020

Fullbore Friday

A nation deep in war. A nation at crisis. A nation on the edge of starvation. A nation drained of its military aged men.

A retired naval officer of middling grade and no significant record, brought out of retirement who liked games.

A bunch of young women with nothing but smarts, an ill-fitting uniform and a desire to serve.

An empty room.

Together, they would save the lives of thousands ... and perhaps their nation's freedom.

On the first day of 1942, Gilbert Roberts, a 41-year-old retired British naval officer turned game designer, arrived at Derby House, in Liverpool, for his inaugural meeting with his new boss, Sir Percy Noble.

The admiral was greying but still youthful, and wore his authority with, as one observer put it, “naturalness.” That day, however, Noble was in a hostile mood.

“I thought the Admiralty were sending me a captain,” he said, woundingly. Noble explained that he had been instructed to give Roberts the entire top floor of Derby House, comprising eight rooms. There, using wargames, Roberts and his team of Wrens, young members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, were to get to work on the problem of the U-boats which had, for the past three years, sunk millions of tons of essential food and fuel making its way from the east coast of America via merchant ships.
His plan was simple. Using the floor as a giant board, the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, or WATU, would design a game that approximated a wolfpack attack on a convoy in the Atlantic. One team would play as the escort commanders, the other as the U-boat captains.
Seeing the battle from a crow’s-nest perspective above the board, a question formed in his mind. If the U-boats were firing from outside the perimeter of the convoy, as was widely believed, how had HMS Annavore, which was in the center of the convoy, been sunk? Might it be possible, he wondered, that the U-boat had attacked the ship from inside the columns of the convoy?

There was, he reasoned, a simple way to prove his theory.

“Hold everything,” Roberts told his staff, as he rushed into his office to make a phone call.

Roberts picked up the receiver and asked the operator to put him through to the Flag Officer Submarines in London, hoping to speak to its chief of staff, an old friend, Captain Ian Macintyre.

To Roberts’ astonishment, the flag officer himself, Admiral Sir Max Horton, picked up.

Roberts explained who he was and asked Horton if he might be permitted to ask a question. During the last war, Roberts asked, would you ever have crept among the ships of a convoy to fire a torpedo?

“Of course,” replied Horton. “It is the only way of pressing home an attack.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Roberts, then hung up.

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It was late, but Roberts asked Jean Laidlaw, a 21-year-old woman responsible for statistical analysis, and one of the younger Wrens, Janet Okell, to stay behind with him to reset the plot and run a new game on the giant board. They hurriedly reset the game.
Read it all.


Hat tip SAP.

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