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WATU and the young ladies who sank Hitler’s U-boats

Ned Jilton II • May 22, 2019 at 3:30 PM

The anniversary of D-Day is approaching. But there would have been no invasion of France if the Battle of the Atlantic had not been going in our favor. That was thanks to England’s Capt. Gilbert Roberts and a group of very smart young ladies who made up the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, or WATU.

Armies and navies use war games to plan and develop new tactics for the next war. This was true back in World War II, as the English navy had war-gamed plans against Germany. But there was a problem.

The British war gamers had planned for the German navy to come out like it had in World War I. They hadn’t anticipated the rapid collapse of France and all of its ports falling into the hands of the Nazis. Hitler’s U-boats (submarines) were raising havoc with the convoys in the Atlantic, and something had to be done before England was strangled into submission.

In an effort to correct this oversight, the British reached out to the United States. The response from America was, yes, its military had conducted war games for the North Atlantic — against the British, not against the Germans.

Enter Capt. Roberts.

In January 1942, Roberts, along with a couple of officers from the Tactical School at Portsmouth, established WATU in Liverpool on the top floor of the Exchange Flags Building. The layout for their war games was crude but effective.

The floor of the room was painted with a grid pattern. Scale model wooden ships were used to fight the battles and around the floor were walls with slits cut in them. The slits were covered in gauze that matched the color of the ships and subs. When a convoy commander looked through the slit with the brown gauze, he would see their white ships but not the brown submarines.

In order to run these war games, Roberts would need a larger staff who were intelligent, very quick learners and good in math.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service sent four officers and four ratings to take part in the WATU war games. Roberts was impressed with the officers: Elizabeth Drake, Jane Howes, Jean Laidlaw and Nan Wailes. He would later describe them as “real gems.”

Then Roberts met the youngest member of his staff, 17 year-old Janet Okell.

Okell got lost trying to find WATU during a blackout. When the Royal Marines finally found her and presented her to the captain, she burst into tears.

With the tears dried, the WRENS quickly got to work. In a very short time, they learned submarine and anti-submarine warfare tactics, ship capabilities and helped established the rules for the war games. Then using after-action reports, the captain and the Wrens begin trying to figure out how the German U-boats were eluding the destroyer escorts and sinking convoy ships.

You would think a submarine would attack like we see in the movies, off to the side as the convoy passes. But when a convoy ship was sunk, the destroyers would head in that direction, never finding the U-boat.

Using that as a starting point, WATU begin wargaming. Time and time again, the results did not match the real-world results. That meant the U-boats were attacking from another direction.

The staff war-gamed through the day, into the night and into the next day with Roberts, Laidlaw and Okell still fighting when the solution was found. The U-boats were attacking from the middle of the convoy.

Roberts, Laidlaw and Okell had gamed out that the U-boats were slipping into the convoy under the cover of darkness, attacking, and then diving to reload while the convoy passed overhead and then attacked again.

The three had also gamed out a plan of attack. When a convoy ship was hit, the destroyers would drop to the back and then zig-zag forward with their detection equipment.

When Roberts asked what the plan should be called, Laidlaw made a sound with her tongue and said “to Hitler.”

The sound Laidlaw made was commonly called a “raspberry,” so that’s what the plan was named.

The Admiralty, after seeing Laidlaw’s detailed notes and a demonstration, put the plan into effect. And it worked.

When a convoy ship was hit by torpedo, the convoy commander would say “raspberry” on the radio and the destroyers would swing around and conduct a coordinated sweep, most times finding and destroying the German U-Boat.

The Wrens of WATU continued to war-game in anticipation of changes in German tactics and Raspberry was soon joined by Strawberry, Gooseberry and Pineapple.

However, Admiral Sir Max Horton, commander in chief, Western Approaches, was still not convinced of the value of WATU. When a new offensive tactic against U-boats was developed, the skilled submariner came to Liverpool to see for himself.

The admiral took his position and the war game began. Just before he could launch his attack, he was politely tapped on the shoulder and told he was being “pinged” by ASDIC (British sonar) and was now being depth charged.

The admiral demanded to try again, thinking he had made a mistake. Again he got the polite tap on the shoulder.

After being beaten a third time, the admiral wanted to make sure the person commanding the convoy couldn’t see his sub. Then he tried twice more and twice more got the polite tap on the shoulder informing him he had lost.

The admiral then asked to meet the “officer” who had so easily defeated him five times. Out from behind the wall stepped Okell, who had only recently turned

18. Adding insult to injury for the admiral, the person who had so soundly beaten him was not only a girl, she was not even an officer.

The admiral swallowed his pride and accepted that WATU was a valuable part of the war effort. Okell would become one of England’s top analysts and WATU became a requirement for many officers. In fact, the Wrens became skilled instructors who could guide the officers through battles “without hurting their feelings.”

As for Hitler and his U-boats, the “Happy Time,” as they called it because they sank so many ships, was over in the North Atlantic.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] timesnews.net .

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