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A Game of Birds and Wolves
The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II
By Simon Parkin
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Last Man Standing
23RD MAY 1945
Gilbert Roberts, a retired British naval officer turned game designer, stepped onto the gangway leading up to the ocean liner, then immediately stopped. If he was not mistaken the man making his way down the plank, labouring under the weight of a suitcase, was Karl Doenitz, a German admiral who, twenty-three days earlier, following the suicide of Adolf Hitler, had become Nazi Germany’s new head of state.
The men drew close, then stopped in front of one another, suspended, as they had been for much of the war, in a liminal space, neither fully on land nor fully at sea. For a moment, in the mid-afternoon sunlight, the creak and slop of the dockside was the only sound.
Each man looked at least one size too small for his uniform. It was misfortune, not restraint that had helped them avoid the thickening torsos worn by most who reach a high rank and all its associated comforts. For forty-four-year-old Roberts, a violent battle with illness had left him wheezy. At eight stone and five feet eleven, he was also perilously underweight. Doenitz, meanwhile, had spent the month bearing the pressure of trying to broker the surrender of his beleaguered nation. Then there was the unquenchable pain of having lost not one but two sons to war within a year of each other. Moreover, both the boys had died while serving in the U-boat division, which Doenitz had founded and tenaciously commanded at every step of his rise. He had been twice responsible for their lives: as their father, and as their commander.
Catastrophe and a talent for endurance were not all that the two men shared. For the last three years Roberts and Doenitz had also been adversaries in a vast and deadly game of U-boats and battleships, played out on the Atlantic Ocean, an arena so treacherous and capricious that it was considered, by all those who fought there, to be the third adversary in their war.
Roberts, having been discharged from the navy in the summer of 1938, the day after his tuberculosis was diagnosed, had been brought back into service seven months into the war. ‘Game designer’ was not a job description used by the navy at the time, but this was the nature of the role given to Roberts by Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill. He was to create a game that would enable the British to understand why they were losing so many ships to German U-boat attacks. Teamed with a clutch of bright, astute young naval women known as Wrens, many of whom were barely out of school, Roberts had, in the months that followed, restaged countless ocean battles using his game. Through play he had developed anti-U-boat tactics that, once proven, had been taught to thousands of naval officers before they headed to sea.
Doenitz also knew the curious value of play during wartime. He too had designed games to test and refine tactics that, from his HQ in the bunker beneath an elegant nineteenth-century villa in occupied France, could be issued to his beloved U-boat captains. These would aid the crews in their ultimate aim: to sink Allied merchant ships, thereby preventing food and supplies from reaching British shores, in order to starve the islanders and win the war.
Both men had orchestrated their feints and attacks by shunting wooden tokens around maps of the ocean, known as plots, like pieces on a watery chessboard. The stakes were mortal; many thousands of Britons and Germans had died, including men whom Roberts and Doenitz had each personally known and instructed.
‘Good afternoon, Admiral,’ said Roberts, who was flanked by a young American interrogator and former FBI agent.1
Doenitz, who immediately recognised his rival from a photograph printed in a British magazine article the previous year, nodded respectfully.2 He knew why Roberts had come to the German port of Flensburg: to salvage any evidence that might show whether or not his theories about secret U-boat tactics, deduced via the crucible of his games, were accurate.
In his pocket Roberts, a fluent German-speaker, felt his ‘Ike’s pass’, a document issued and signed by the general of the US Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that bestowed on him authority to interrogate anybody related to his investigation. How Roberts longed to quiz Doenitz about the U-boat tactics–the wolfpacks, the torpedo attacks, the underwater getaways–and, moreover, to discover how much the admiral knew about the countermeasures he and the Wrens had designed. But Doenitz was needed in Luxembourg, where he was to join the other captured Nazi Party and SS leaders, army chiefs and ministers and await trial for war crimes.
‘We will supply you with everything you need to make your visit pleasant and efficient,’ Doenitz said, before continuing down the ramp towards the pier.
As an armed guard led Doenitz past a phalanx of British tanks toward the nearby police station where he was to be searched for hidden phials of poison,3 Roberts and the FBI interrogator boarded the ship. It was called the Patria, the last vestige, as the name implied, of Hitler’s crumbled Fatherland.
Aboard the liner, which could accommodate close to six hundred crew and passengers, Roberts was shown to his quarters. It was a first-class suite comprising a sleeping cabin, private bathroom and sitting room, where he planned to interview surrendered U-boat officers. As he walked through the door, Roberts was greeted by a handsome young German naval officer, with slicked hair and a determined brow. The man introduced himself as Heinz Walkerling. He was, he explained, to be Roberts’ assistant for the duration of the mission.
Walkerling, who had celebrated his thirtieth birthday just four days earlier,4 was one of the U-boat captains who, for the past three years, Roberts had been diligently trying to kill. This German had been one of the lucky ones. After successfully torpedoing and sinking five Allied ships–two British, two American and one Canadian–Walkerling had been transferred to a torpedo school at Mürwik, where he had taught trainee U-boatmen how to shoot straight. As the FBI man set up his tape recorder, which was disguised as a suitcase, under Roberts’ bunk, Walkerling asked whether his new boss had a gun to keep him safe.
‘No,’ said Roberts, who had turned down the offer of a weapon before leaving London.
At five o’clock that afternoon, Roberts conducted his first interrogation, with Doenitz’s chief of staff, the man responsible for the organisation and operation of all U-boats. After two hours’ intensive questioning, Roberts switched off his tape recorder and, accompanied by Walkerling, made his way to the officers’ mess for some food.
The atmosphere in the room was confused. The Germans, a mixture of naval captains and dockyard officers, joshed at tables on the periphery of the room. Roberts perceived in their deep and easy laughs an accent of hysteria, a tell, he reasoned, of the relief that follows the lifting of an immense psychological burden.5 The British officers, by contrast, sat in sombre quiet around a table in the middle of the room, contemplating the gravity of the victor’s clean-up task. The ecstasy of the vanquished; the misery of the vanquisher: the curious paradoxes of war.
In almost silence Roberts and the others ate black bread dipped in thin cabbage soup. Still hungry, Roberts retired to his suite. The next day he would begin the task of interviewing and recording U-boat officers in earnest. He was also desperate to visit the plot from which Doenitz had conducted the Battle of the Atlantic, a chance to compare the German nerve centre with that of the British equivalent, in Liverpool, which had been Roberts’ home for the last three years.
When Roberts reached his bedroom, Walkerling asked whether he might be able to sleep on the settee in Roberts’ cabin.
‘I have nowhere else to go,’ the U-boat captain said, ruefully.
Roberts refused, but secured his unlikely aide a cabin nearby and ordered that a sign be placed on the door that read: ‘German Assistant to Captain Roberts’.
Finally, Roberts lay down in his bunk. He was tired in complicated ways. There were the long-term rigours of the five-year-old war, of course, with its daily rations and, for city-dwellers like Roberts, its nightly bombings. But he had additional reasons to be weary: the long-term strain of a collapsing marriage and the short-term exhaustion of the previous night, which Roberts had spent in a Belgian hotel, cringing while American bombers thundered over Brussels in one of the final raids of the war.
Roberts fell into the impregnable sleep of the spent. He did not hear the latch to his cabin click. Neither did he see the flickering silhouette of a man caught in the light spilled through the crack in the door. Nor did he see, in the figure’s hand, the outline of a Luger pistol.
We have fed our sea for a thousand years,
And she calls us, still unfed
‘The Song of the Dead’, Rudyard Kipling
As You Wave Me Goodbye
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
Lulled by the creak and sway of the cabin, with a comic book splayed open beside him, Colin Ryder Richardson was dozing when he felt a dull thud somewhere deep beneath his bunk.1 The clock beside him read 00:03. At home in London, the eleven-year-old would normally be asleep by now. Here on the ship, however, there were no parents to nag about forbidden lights and early rises. When they met for the first time, four days earlier, Colin’s Hungarian chaperone and cabin mate, a young journalist named Laszlo Raskai, had decided that the boy with blond hair and intelligent eyes didn’t seem to need much adult supervision. Short of toppling overboard, what was the worst that could happen on a transatlantic luxury liner?
Free from adult supervision, Colin had earlier in the week placed a ball bearing he found stuck in the furrow between planks on the ship’s deck into the drawer of the writing desk that separated his and Raskai’s bunks.2 The roll and clack the ball made as it tipped from one end of the drawer to the other was soothing and besides, Raskai was never around to complain. Moments after the muffled thud woke him, the ball suddenly clacked loudly, then not at all, as the ship, imperceptibly at first, then in more pronounced terms, began to list. The first strains of shouting drifted into Colin’s cabin. Then he noticed the distinct smell of nail polish.
In early September Colin’s parents had sat him down after dinner at the family’s farmhouse in Wales–a temporary bolthole away from bomb-shaken London–and asked how he felt about taking a trip to America. Colin pictured Hollywood lettering and cowboys keeling from balconies–an eleven-year-old’s romantic vision of the country. He responded enthusiastically only to be told that he would be staying not in Beverly Hills, but in New York. Not quite what the boy had in mind, perhaps, but with rationing in full effect, British meals had become monotonous and insipid. To Colin, the ‘Big Apple’ bespoke a city of food and plenty.
Although his parents did not let on, preparations for Colin’s journey were already set in motion. He would travel alone, by ship, to Montreal. From there, the boy would journey south to Long Island, where one of the many well-to-do New York couples who had offered refuge to British evacuee children awaited.
The decision to send their son away had been difficult at first, then less so. The Second World War was a year old. That summer, after a brief six-week stand, France had fallen to the Nazis, removing the last bulwark standing between Britain and the German army and rendering Britain’s strategic assumptions obsolete. Like many families, Colin’s parents believed the Germans, who had driven the British back from Dunkirk in June 1940, were poised to cross the English Channel, a mere thirty-mile ribbon of sea at its slenderest, in an invasion that would almost inevitably prove successful. In recent weeks the British Ministry of Information had begun circulating leaflets titled ‘If the Invader Comes: What to Do and How to Do It’.
Most persuasively, for parents like Colin’s, morgues were currently lined with the bodies of children, losers in the grim household lottery of the London Blitz, where, night after night, German planes dropped bombs to topple the city. Families who, a few months earlier, would not have contemplated sending their children off to who-knows-whom for who-knows-how-long, were now desperate to spirit their sons and daughters away from harm, regardless of the emotional toll.
The Ryder Richardsons’ idea to send their child abroad was not unique. In June the British government announced a bold, controversial and, for the parents who applied to it, heartbreaking scheme, to evacuate children from London, Liverpool and other imperilled targets of the Luftwaffe. The response was immense: close to a quarter of a million children applied for just 20,000 places.
The plan was simple, and proven. Since the beginning of the war, merchant ships had been ferrying food, fuel and supplies into Britain, an island nation that, without these imports, would go hungry. Sailors knew from the experience of the First World War that the safest way to cross the Atlantic Ocean was to move in convoys, finding safety in numbers. The Royal Navy sent warships to protect them. The ‘escorts’, as these ships were known, carried nothing but men and weapons. They encircled the convoy as it plodded its heavy-laden course, and, like sheepdogs facing down wolves threatening a herd, fended off any enemy attacks. First introduced in 1917, convoys were initially centred on the English Channel, but as the efficacy of the tactic was proven, the system was used to protect ships as they crossed the deep and wide waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Colin’s evacuee ship was just like any other member of the convoy. Except, instead of wood, coal, oil or pork chops, the SS City of Benares carried a cargo of children.
The trip, designed to evade danger at home, would not be without its risks at sea. All year U-boats–short for ‘Unterseeboot’, the German word for submarine–had been attacking Allied vessels wherever they found them. These attacks had intensified when, a few weeks earlier, in early August, Hitler had declared unrestricted submarine warfare around Britain.
On 29th August 1940, seventy miles off Ireland’s Donegal Coast, a U-boat torpedo struck the SS Volendam, the first convoy ship to leave filled with evacuees.3 The ship was abandoned,* but all 321 children aboard were successfully rescued. While news of the attack made clear the dangers of the scheme, even in disaster, a ship seemed a safer bet than a London bed.
On Thursday 12th September 1940, Colin and his mother took the train to Liverpool. The plan was set: he, along with eighty-nine other children (two of whom had survived the sinking of the Volendam a fortnight earlier), would sail for Canada that day.
With a ten-pound note in his pocket–a parting gift from his father–Colin watched the green of Wales smear past the window of the train. He was raised from his thoughts by a shake to his shoulders, as his mother began to repeat stern lessons he had heard a dozen times already. After counselling her boy on his manners, Mrs Ryder Richardson made her son promise, once again, that he would never, ever remove his scarlet life jacket. She had presented her son with this garment earlier that morning. It was filled with kapok, a buoyant vegetable fibre, and, Colin’s mother believed, would provide greater protection than any ship-issued aid. Colin was to wear it day and night. It was a rule to which he mostly kept, a habit that would later earn him among the other passengers the nickname Will Scarlet, after Robin Hood’s sidekick. While the boy would not sleep in it, he always kept his lifejacket within reach.
When the mother and her son arrived at Liverpool’s docks, with its nodding cranes and furious drills, the reality of separation struck for the first time. Colin presented his gas mask and identity card, his emotions vacillating between the thrill of imminent adventure and the sorrow of imminent separation. Then he spied the liner that would carry him to Montreal in the dock.
The City of Benares was an elegant 11,000-ton luxury cruise liner, with two fatly handsome chimney stacks bookended by a cats-cradle of rigging. The hull was painted a light tan colour, not to camouflage it from U-boats, but to reflect the sun’s heat in the Indian Ocean, where it routinely carried passengers between Liverpool and Bombay.
Colin bade a brisk farewell to his mother, who didn’t want a drawn-out goodbye, and the two parted, leaving the boy standing at the dockside with his single trunk, into which he had packed a clockwork motorboat and his lucky keepsake, a George III penny.
Unlike the other children jabbering on the dockside, most of whom wore name tags threaded on shoelaces around their necks, Colin was not a government-sponsored evacuee but one of ten paying child passengers. The other children were the sons and daughters of policemen, miners and other blue-collar workers, who had been means-tested and selected by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, or CORB, to be sent to North America. CORB had been hastily set up by the government largely to counter indignation in the press about how the sons and daughters of the wealthy were able to sleep soundly in New York skyscrapers while the children of the working class were forced to tremble at night, ‘menaced’, as one editorial writer put it, ‘by the bomber’s drone’.4
Colin’s father was one of those wealthy parents, a barrister who had purchased the ticket in order to guarantee his son’s place. This status would afford Colin certain freedoms denied to the majority of other children aboard, who kept an inflexible timetable of lessons.
Once aboard, Colin was allowed free rein, which presented a vision of luxury far beyond the sparse, electricity-less existence of the Welsh farm. An enormous playroom housed an ornate rocking horse, a basket slung over either side, each of which could hold three children. Boutiques selling fine jewellery and trinkets lined one hallway, while the dining room exhibited the soft-carpeted quality of a Mayfair restaurant. Best of all, the City of Benares was a ration-free zone; no eking out a few ounces of cheese and bacon over the course of the week’s journey.
The majority of the 200-odd crew members were Indians, known as lascar sailors. Some trod barefoot wearing bright turbans and most wore striking blue and white uniforms. Stepping onto the ship was, for Colin, like entering a floating relic of British India; the colours and aromas inspired a fascination that eased the blow of the news that the ship was to be delayed. During a bombing raid the previous night, German planes had dropped mines into the sea, which needed clearing before any vessel could leave port. To the consternation of some of the more superstitious sailors, and with what would later transpire to be the blunt contrivance of a penny dreadful, the City of Benares set sail on the afternoon of Friday 13th.
At six o’clock in the evening, while groups of children sang choruses of ‘Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye’, the ship tugged out of Liverpool harbour. In the North Channel, she met up with the seventeen other vessels that comprised convoy OB.213 to Canada, and its contingent of guardians. One of these three shepherding warships was HMS Winchelsea, recently returned from the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk three months earlier.
As a private traveller, like the other paying adult passengers, Colin was free to keep his own hours. He roamed the decks while the majority of the other children on board, all aged between five and sixteen years old, had to be in bed by eight, up at half-seven and in the nursery for lessons during the day. When the weather was fair, as it often was for the first two days of the voyage, the boy would sit on the deck and watch as the Indian cooks made their food, placing great sacks of rice and lentils on the aft deck, before mixing it all together with shovels.
Colin and some of the other paying children devised a simple game, whereby they would open a deckchair and let the wind carry it from the port side of the ship to the starboard, slipping through a gangway. Michael Rennie, an Oxford student and promising rugby player, taught some of the children how to lasso deckchairs. Ruby Grierson, a thirty-six-year-old Scottish documentary maker, would often be seen, with beret and lolling cigarette, filming the children on the decks. Grierson was a rising talent in cinematography whose most recent film, They Also Serve, had focused on the role of women at home in wartime England. She had been commissioned to record the evacuee programme, and many of the children would trail her around as she framed shots, dawdling in what they perceived to be the director’s star presence.
As the journey progressed the weather worsened. Colin split his time between the ship’s library and the cocktail lounge, where kindly adults would offer him the cherries spooned from their whisky sours. Unlike some of the adults, Colin was pleased with the squalls. He’d heard about the U-boat threat and figured that, the rougher the sea, the less likely the ship would be caught in a swivelling periscope. Safety was implied by the roll and clack of his ball bearing.
On the morning of 17th September, three and a half days after the City of Benares and the other ships in the convoy departed from Liverpool, the three Royal Navy escorts, sheepdogs to the convoy flock, peeled away and began their return journey to British waters, taking their guns with them.
The ship, almost at the mid-point of its nine-day journey, was close to 500 miles north-west of Liverpool and had entered a stretch of mid-ocean water known throughout the war, variously, as ‘the Gap’, the ‘Black Pit’ and, to the Germans, ‘Das Todesloch’, or ‘the Death-Hole’. The British believed this area to be safe, beyond the operational reach of the U-boats. As such the City of Benares and the other merchant vessels were to cross it alone, before being met on the other side by well-armed Canadian escort ships a couple of days later.
In recent weeks, unknown to the Royal Navy, who were working from outdated information, the Germans had moved their U-boat operations to occupied France’s newly captured naval bases. Here, at Lorient, Brest and La Pallice (and, later, Saint-Nazaire and Bordeaux too), U-boats could be repaired and refuelled and sent back out to sea, without having to return to the German ports. And without the need to return to the Baltic Sea to resupply, ten days were added to the amount of time a U-boat could spend prowling the Atlantic. On the surface and while travelling at ten knots the most common U-boat model of the time, the Type VII-C, had a range of nearly 8,000 miles. With six weeks’ worth of fuel, a single U-boat could roam the entire Atlantic span, from the panoramic beaches of France to the crags of the North American coastline. The radius of the war now spanned the ocean. There was no longer a safe spot where the convoy flock would be free from trouble. The gap had been closed.
Already, after just six days at sea, the atmosphere inside the U-boat was damp and foul-smelling. U-48’s thirty-eight crew members had departed Lorient on the evening of 8th September 1940, believing they were fully prepared for life beneath the ocean. As new recruits, the men, some of whom were still teenagers and almost none of whom were married,5 had undergone rigorous physical training regimes, followed by specialised schooling in U-boat seamanship and technology. The men who made it to sea were those who could endure the claustrophobia of life inside a metal canister and suffer the bruising indignity of being chained to a lurching deck rail as the vessel spliced along the surface of the choppy water, like a heavy-laden motorboat. Still, there was no way to fully prepare a person for the gloom of U-boat life, with its sweating tables, perma-damp towels and prickling lice.
It was on the water’s surface that U-boats were, paradoxically, most at ease, able to travel at their top speeds propelled by churning German-made, air-breathing diesel engines. Underwater, by contrast, the U-boat was slow and vulnerable, forced to switch to electric motors that could do little more than waft the craft through the water, and only for a relatively short amount of time before the batteries needed recharging and the boat was forced to surface.
Inside U-48, there was no space for a crew member to call his own. Each man would hot-bunk, feeling the warmth of the last occupant’s body fading in the sheets, a sensation in equal parts comforting and repellent. Light sleepers suffered greatly from the incessant hammering of pistons, the gasps and tuts of inlet valves and the gargling bilge pumps. The slumbering mind had to be trained to distinguish ambient clatter from signs of earnest danger, as signalled by the Achtung! klaxon.
There would be days of boredom, dead time filled with games of chess and letter-writing. One crew carried aboard a pet goldfish they called Fridolin to keep them company beneath the waves. 6 In an instant, however, the leisure-time atmosphere could change. If spotted by an escort ship, the U-boat submerged as deep as its safety gauges permitted. It was a delicate manoeuvre; too far and the water pressure could pull a rivet from its socket with the force of a bullet fired from a revolver; too shallow and the vessel was within the blast range of its attacker’s depth charges, explosive barrels tossed overboard and timed to detonate at variable depths. Submerged, the U-boat would wait till the threat had passed. When the U-boat was being hunted by one of the Royal Navy’s attack-dog corvettes (many of which were named, disharmoniously, after English flowers) or destroyers, the sound was akin to lying between the tracks while a goods train thundered overhead. On these ships, the captain’s orders had to be screamed to be heard over the wind. By contrast, as soon as the engines were cut, the U-boat was a whispering realm.
Although they did not know it yet, it was here, in the immense deep, that most U-boat crew members would die. Of all the various forces and divisions of air, land or sea, on both sides of the conflict, the U-boat posting had the greatest mortality rate of any in the Second World War. British planes dropped leaflets over Germany, warning potential new recruits that for every one of the 2,000 U-boatmen who were currently living as prisoners of war in Britain, five more had already been killed at sea. Life-insurance companies in neutral countries estimated the average life of a U-boat sailor to be fifty days.7 This was not the hyperbole of propaganda. Of the 39,000 men who went to sea in U-boats during the Second World War, seventy per cent were killed in action. By contrast, only six per cent of those who fought in the British Army died in combat.8 In the early 1940s you were more likely to die on a U-boat than on any other mode of transport in existence.
- "[A Game of Birds and Wolves] brings to life one of the most elusive aspects of war...compelling."—New York Times Book Review
- "In this engaging history...Parkin paints a vivid picture of training sessions in which seasoned sailors chafed at being tutored by 'an inexperienced girl,' and captures each maneuver in the ensuing sea battles with zeal."—The New Yorker
- "A thoroughly absorbing book, drawing upon archives and oral histories. It reads like a thriller, with its accounts of nerve-wracking battles, extreme weather, icebergs, and ships sunk in a matter of minutes."—The Wall Street Journal
- "This stirring history...redresses a balance: none in this doughty sisterhood has ever been publicly honoured."—Nature
- "Through assiduous research and well-paced narrative, Simon Parkin has given us an extraordinary, little-known story from World War II. . . . A Game of Birds and Wolves is a work of nonfiction that reads in part like a thriller."—Pittsburgh-Post Gazette
- "Parkin's book is extensively researched, well written, and tells an engrossing story of a little-known topic."—Science
- "History writing at its best."—Booklist, starred review
- "Parkin does a masterful job of evoking the sweep of this vital piece of naval history in both broad strokes and the telling detail. Every war buff will want to read this book. And anyone interested in strategy would be wise to read it as well."—New York Journal of Books
- "Simon Parkin's book rips along at full sail and is full of personality and personalities. Above all, it brings a barely known aspect of the sea war out into the light. Which is
- On Sale
- Jan 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company