A New Yorker contributing writer and Observer critic tells the story of how volunteers in the Women’s Royal Naval Service helped the British military win the battle against German U-boats during World War II.
As Parkin (Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline, 2016, etc.) shows, in 1940, the British navy was struggling badly. German U-boats had sunk more than 1,200 vessels and done more damage to British shipping than the German navy and Luftwaffe combined. Civilians were dying, as well, and with every ship lost, Britain had one less way to carry much-needed food and supplies back from the United States. To protect public morale and keep the Germany military in the dark, Winston Churchill imposed a blackout on all information regarding shipping losses from U-boats. Meanwhile, Gilbert Roberts, a former British naval officer forced into early retirement by tuberculosis, came up with an idea that, though initially dismissed by members of the British admiralty, eventually turned the tide of war against the Germans. Using a Battleship-style game to simulate lost sea battles, Roberts reasoned he could help naval officers to understand each situation “from all angles.” His assistants included a team of exceptionally gifted young women from the newly formed “Wrens” unit. Using “string, chalk, great sheets of canvas [and] linoleum,” Roberts and the Wrens devised and tested countermaneuvers, including one dubbed “Raspberry,” which they taught to skeptical British naval officers. By the summer of 1942, Britain began seeing an increase in the number of U-boat sinkings, but the greatest victory came in 1943, when a convoy of British ships survived attacks by “wolfpacks” that included some of Germany’s most decorated U-boat commanders. With novelistic flair, Parkin transforms material gathered from research, interviews, and unpublished accounts into a highly readable book that celebrates the ingenuity of a British naval “reject” and the accomplishments of the formerly faceless women never officially rewarded for their contribution to the Allied defeat of Germany.
A lively, sharp WWII history.