A Game of Birds & Wolves

Commander Roberts going over the lessons learned from “The Game.” Photo from, “A Game of Birds and Wolves,” by Simon Parkin.

Simon Parkin’s A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II, tells the fascinating story of a wargame created during the height of the U-Boat Atlantic campaign to be used as a testbed for discovering new anti-submarine tactics. In early 1941, when German wolf packs were destroying Allied shipping at a devastating rate, British Naval Commander Gilbert Roberts was taken out of retirement and personally ordered by Winston Churchill to, “Find out what is happening and sink the U-boats.”

Roberts was given the top floor of the Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool and a small group of WRENs (Women’s Royal Naval Service) as assistants to invent tactics that would counter the enemy wolf packs. His project would be called the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU). (The Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool is now a museum and I can’t wait to visit it when this pandemic is over and General Staff is finished.)

The WATU project – known simply as, “The Game,” – is not the first example of a wargame used as a testbed to discover and improve combat maneuvers. Indeed, Scotsman John Clerk, wrote, An Essay on Naval Tactics: Systematical and Historical in 1779 after using, “…a small number of models of ships which, when disposed in proper arrangement, gave most correct representations of battle fleets… and being easily moved and put into any relative position required, and thus permanently seen and well considered, every possible idea of a naval system could be discussed without the possibility of any dispute.” Using these models Clerk proposed the tactic of “cutting the line,” that Nelson employed at Trafalgar1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clerk_of_Eldin . Nelson would quote from Clerk’s essay in his famous Trafalgar Memorandum.

When Roberts reported to Sir Percy Noble, commander of Western Approaches he explained that he intended to, “develop a game that would enable the British to understand why the U-boats were proving so successful in sea battles and facilitate the development of counter-tactics… The game would become the basis for a school, where those fighting at sea could be taught the tactics. With a few adjustments.. [the] wargame could be used for either analysis or training.”2)A Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 143 Not surprisingly, Roberts was met with skepticism and not a little bit of derision. As one who is constantly pitching the importance of wargames to the U. S. military I understand the uphill fight that Roberts was facing. British destroyer commanders definitely did not want to go to Liverpool to, “play a game.” But, since the orders had come directly from Churchill, Noble had little choice but to give Roberts the top floor of the Western Approaches HQ for his ‘game’. Roberts made a tactical mistake by referring to WATU’s ‘product’ (in modern bureaucratic parlance) as a ‘game’. I learned this early on in my career: never say the word ‘game’ if it can be avoided. Call what you’re working on a ‘simulation’. Chess is a game. Risk is a game. But I write simulations; and clearly what Roberts was working on was a simulation, too. (That said, the phrase, “game it out,” has now passed into the common idiom and is synonymous with ‘simulation’.)

WATU simulated Fog of War by requiring the users to view the board through peep holes cut in canvas drapes. Submarine tracks (see above) were drawn in green chalk which, apparently, was not visible from the other side of the canvas sheets. The photo shows British destroyer commanders playing, “The Game,” and learning from the simulation. Photo from, “A Game of Birds and Wolves.”

In order to simulate Fog of War Roberts invented a system in which the destroyer commanders would view the board from behind a canvas sheet; their view of the battle restricted by peep holes cut in the canvas. Furthermore, submarine tracks were drawn with green chalk on the floor (see above photo) which, somehow, became invisible when viewed from the other side of the canvas. Consequently, the destroyer commanders had only a restricted view of the battle around them and were completely in the dark as to the simulated U-boats positions.

When Roberts began his work nobody in the British Admiralty knew U-boat tactics. Indeed, the German U-boat commanders were creating their tactics on the fly often ignoring the Kriegsmarine’s Memorandum for Submarine Commanders to fire torpedoes at no closer than 1,000 meters. U-boat ace, Otto Kretschmer was the first to insist that the most efficient way to attack convoys was to slip inside the destroyer screen, launch torpedoes at a range of about 500 meters, submerge and wait for the convoy to pass over them to make his escape ‘out the back’ of the convoy. Interestingly, this was the same technique that I discovered playing Sierra On Line’s  Aces of the Deep.

One of the first scenarios that Roberts investigated using his new wargame was the battle of Convoy HG 76. This was a multi-day contest involving 32 merchant ships, 24 escorts and 12 U-boats. It was considered a great Allied victory because five U-boats were sank (though the Allies only knew of three at the time) and 30 merchant ships made it home safely. Assisted by WRENs Jean Laidlaw and Janet Okell, they replayed the historical situation hoping to understand Allied commander Captain Frederick John “Johnnie” Walker’s anti-submarine maneuver ‘Buttercup’. The Buttercup maneuver (named after Walker’s pet name for his wife) involved, “on the order Buttercup… all of the escort ships would turn outward from the convoy. They would accelerate to full speed while letting loose star shells. If a U-boat was sighted, Walker would then mount a dogged pursuit, often ordering up to six of the nine ships in his [escort] group to stay with the vessel until it was destroyed.”3)A Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 155

What confused Roberts was that the Allied merchant Annavore was torpedoed while in the center of the convoy. As he and the WRENs replayed the scenario they could not duplicate reality unless the U-boat had, “entered the columns of the convoy from behind. And it must have done so on the surface, where it was able to travel at a faster speed than the ships. By approaching from astern, where the lookouts rarely checked, the U-boat would be able to slip inside the convoy undetected, fire at close range, then submerge in order to get away.”4)The Game off Birds and Wolves. P. 158

Using the scenario of when the escorts actually sank a U-boat using the Buttercup maneuver it was determined that they had succeeded by only accidentally hitting a U-boat that was joining the attack on the convoy and not the actual U-boat who had made the attack that they were pursuing. This makes sense when you realize that the attacking U-boat had submerged immediately after the attack and was waiting for the remaining convoy to pass overhead while the escorts were running far outside the perimeter of the convoy looking for it.

In other words, Walker’s Buttercup maneuver was, in fact, a terrible anti-submarine tactic.

The ‘Raspberry Maneuver’, created from numerous runs of ‘The Game’ was determined to an effective anti-submarine tactic. Here it is drawn by Admiral Usborne. From the book, “A Game of Birds and Wolves.” Click to enlarge.

The first successful anti-submarine tactic to be invented using the Game as a test bed was, “Raspberry,” (so called by Wren Ladlaw as a ‘raspberry‘ to Hitler). As you can see from the above drawing, upon discovery of a U-boat or a torpedo hit, the escorts draw closer to the convoy, not the opposite as in Walker’s Buttercup maneuver. When Roberts and the WRENs ran a scenario for Western Approaches commander Noble and his staff, Noble – who at first was highly skeptical – was so impressed that he immediately sent a message to Churchill, “The first investigations have shown a cardinal error in anti-U-boat tactics. A new, immediate and concerted counter-attack will be signaled to the fleet within twenty-four hours.” 5)The Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 162 By summer of 1942, using these new maneuvers, U-boat losses had quadrupled. Eventually other anti-U-boat maneuvers were also developed by the WATU team and all Atlantic destroyer commanders were ordered to WATU to play, “The Game,” and learn the lessons.

Obviously, there were other improvements in anti-submarine warfare that also contributed to the Allies winning the Battle of the North Atlantic. Nonetheless, it is interesting to read about the proper application of simulations in wartime. I have long been an advocate of simulations to test, “what if” scenarios. Indeed, this has been the main focus of my professional career for thirty plus years. It’s still an uphill battle.

References

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clerk_of_Eldin
2. A Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 143
3. A Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 155
4. The Game off Birds and Wolves. P. 158
5. The Game of Birds and Wolves, p. 162

The State of the Game

Grant’s Overland campaign that began at the Wilderness and ended at Petersburg. It can be argued that Grant did not win one battle but, clearly, achieved a great strategic victory. This was the beginning of the end for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Map by Hal Jespersen (www.posix.com/CW), found on Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

I had just sat down to write this blog when a derecho,1)Ironically, the first person to use the Spanish word “derecho” to describe this type of storm was Gustavus D. Hinrichs, a German immigrant who settled in my hometown of Davenport in 1861. with wind speeds that peaked at 117 mph, flattened much of Iowa and dropped a hundred year old maple tree on my ’98 mustang. We also lost power and internet for a week. I spent much of that time reading old favorites including Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant. Porter, who served on Grant’s staff during 1864-5, provides a first person account of many extraordinary events from the start of the Overland Campaign to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Admittedly, the 19th century prose does get a bit flowery at times, but the he was actually there when it happened aspect of this memoir makes it invaluable.

I was struck by this passage from the beginning of the campaign and how it felt like what I wanted to write about to explain where we are on completing General Staff:

“[Grant] said,… “The only time I ever feel impatient is when I give an order for an important movement of troops in the presence of the enemy, and am waiting for them to reach their destination. Then the minutes seem like hours.” – Campaigning with Grant

At this point Grant was now General in Chief, commander of all U. S. armies including the Army of the Potomac. Orders had been issued and every U. S. army was to be on the march at this very moment and there was nothing more that Grant could do. Grant was confident that his plan would ultimately be successful. If we look at the map of the Overland campaign (above) we see that Grant wanted to fight Lee in the open. If that was not possible he would move by his left and Lee would have to respond. Eventually, Lee would be forced to entrench around Richmond and Petersburg and Grant would trap him. It was like a chess master looking sixteen plies ahead: there was nothing Lee could do, his defeat was inevitable.

There are two programmers coding General StaffAndy O’Neill is working on the actual game from my design documents and me (I’m working on AI).  Andy specializes in Microsoft Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) development of business applications. General Staff is a wargaming system that utilizes multiple interlocking programs (like Microsoft Office) so it is logical to use Microsoft WPF for development. Andy is literally a  Microsoft gold medal developer. Andy also specializes in the Model-View-View Model (MVVM) development technique. This is a method commonly used in Microsoft business applications.  Despite repeated efforts to learn MVVM I confess that I am just an old coder, set in my ways, and I can’t get it. While Andy and I both write in the C# programming language, it’s best if I do not muck about with Andy’s code. What I do is write AI routines in C# and Andy imports them into his code.

In early July or late June Andy, who lives and works in Liverpool, England, fell very ill with an undefined infection. He became very dizzy and nauseous and was unable to write any code for over a month. Andy reports that he is now, “sort of…nearly…better.”

And this is why I felt like Grant on May 2, 1865: there wasn’t anything I can do to move the game forward. I’m working on the AI Engine and researching battles, maps and OOBs but that’s it. And then we lost power and the internet for a week.

My wife says that when I can’t work I get, “very testy.” Grant, however, outwardly was imperturbed. This is how Porter describes him this day:

General Grant Whittling Again – Civil War Reenactor Kenneth Serfass portraying Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant whittling at the site of Grant’s headquarters knoll at the Battle of the Wilderness. 150th Anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864-2014

“… most of the day he sat upon the stump of a tree, or on the ground, with his back leaning against a tree. The thread gloves2)It is assumed that Mrs. Grant gave him the gloves. Grant wore them out whittling and never wore them again. remained on his hands, a lighted cigar was in his mouth almost constantly, and his penknife was kept in active use whittling sticks. He would pick up one small twig after another, and sometimes holding the small end away from him would rapidly shave it down to a point, at other times he would turn the point toward him and work on it as if sharpening a lead-pencil, then he would girdle it, cut it in two, throw it away, and begin on another.” – Campaigning with Grant

So, in summation, almost nothing has been done in the last six weeks to move development of the actual game (what we call the Game Engine application) forward. For this I can only sincerely apologize and repeat what you know: there’s only two of us coding it and when the lead coder falls ill everything stops.

What’s Going on with the Scenario Editor?

There are three stand alone programs that create data files used by the General Staff Game Engine: The Army Editor, the Map Editor and the Scenario Editor. The first two have long been available to early backers. What’s holding up the release of the Scenario Editor?

The Scenario Editor is actually done, and has been completed for some time. I use it to create the scenarios that you’ve seen and that I use to test the AI:

Screen shot of Antietam with battle groups, range of influence and objectives displayed. Click to enlarge.

So, why haven’t we released it? Because as we (that is to say, Andy) works on the Game Engine we discover that we need to make changes in the data files. For example, I left out the time it takes for a unit to change formations. To correct this, we need to add that value to the scenario data files and that, in turn, means a change to the Scenario Editor, itself. And, even worse, it means that previously created scenario files are no longer compatible and have to be redone. Andy, specifically, said he didn’t want to make the Scenario Editor available to early backers for this very reason: you could lose your earlier work.

So, in conclusion, again please allow me to apologize for these delays. There will inevitably be more delays before General Staff is completed. But, like Grant at the beginning of the Overland campaign, I am supremely confident in our inevitable success. Grant famously said at this time, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”  It actually took all summer, fall, winter and next spring before Lee surrendered. But the ultimate success of the campaign was never in doubt.

And, as always, please feel free to email me directly at Ezra [at] RiverviewAI.com.

References

1. Ironically, the first person to use the Spanish word “derecho” to describe this type of storm was Gustavus D. Hinrichs, a German immigrant who settled in my hometown of Davenport in 1861.
2. It is assumed that Mrs. Grant gave him the gloves. Grant wore them out whittling and never wore them again.

Ty Bomba’s Primer on Strategy & Tactics

Legendary wargame designer Ty Bomba.

I can think of no better introduction for Ty Bomba than his Wikipedia entry: “Ty Bomba is a prolific wargame designer from the United States. He is credited as the designer of over 125 board games or game items. At times between 1976 and 1988, Bomba held a security clearance as a certified Arabic and Russian linguist for the US Air Force, US Army, and the National Security Agency. In 1988, he was elected to the Charles Roberts Awards Hall of Fame. He was previously a senior editor at Strategy & Tactics Press. Bomba was co-founder and designer for XTR Corporation, a company that existed between 1989 and 2001. ” In other words, a very impressive career in wargame design and military strategy and tactical thinking.

Ty recently posted his Primer on Strategy & Tactics on Facebook and I asked his permission to repost it here, which he very kindly gave. I have spent much of my professional career trying to create computer algorithms for military tactics and strategy (a subject that I call ‘computational military reasoning’ and have written extensively about here). Ty has very succinctly stated much of what I’ve attempted to accomplish in his Primer below. Ty can be found on Facebook as ‘Ty Bomba’.

Ty Bomba’s Primer on Strategy and Tactics

Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean everything is very easy” – Carl von Clausewitz.

Strategy Defined
A plan or policy intended to achieve a major or overall aim, and having to be
achieved in the face of opposition from others. All strategy is a contextual
interpretation of a problem and a compromised rationalization of a
solution. There are no formulas to end the tensions inescapably imposed by
uncertain intentions, faulty assumptions, unknown capabilities and vaguely
understood risks.

Laws of Strategy

  1. Know your own capabilities.
  2. Know your opponent’s capabilities and objectives.
  3. Pit your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses.
  4. Prevent your opponent from pitting his strengths against your
    weaknesses.
  5. Never pit your strengths against your opponent’s strengths.
  6. Maintain an emergency reserve of five to 25 percent of your strength.
  7. Keep in mind your desired end-state: only do things that move you closer
    to it.
  8. Never repeat an already failed strategy with the expectation of getting a
    better result from it.
  9. The overarching objective of your strategy should be to create a state of
    surprise in your opponent. That uncertainty will delay, and otherwise make
    less efficient, his countermoves. That is a force multiplier for you.

Common Reasons for Strategic Failure

  1. Overconfidence due to previous successes.
  2. Analyzing information only after sifting it through the filter of dogma.
  3. Operating with insufficient reserves.
  4. Mirror imaging – using one’s own rationales to interpret the actions or
    intentions of an opponent – is the most common fault among decision
    makers.
  5. Objectives not well explained to those below the highest level of command.
  6. Objectives not adjusted according to new data coming from the
    operational environment.
  7. Unanticipated outside influences.

Tactics Defined
An action intended to achieve a specific end, undertaken while in contact with the
enemy.

Laws of Tactics

  1. Always seek to control the local high ground or its aerial or outer space
    equivalent.
  2. Move in short bounds from cover to cover so as not to be caught in the
    open by your opponent.
  3. Maneuver so as to engage your opponent on his flank or from behind and
    so as to prevent him from engaging you in that way.
  4. Don’t confuse “concealment” with “cover.” The former only gets you out of
    sight; the latter also offers protection from enemy fire.

Juncture of Tactics & Strategy
Your superior strategy can make up for your poor tactics; however, your superior
tactics will not make up for your poor strategy. As Sun Tzu put it: “Good strategy
combined with poor tactics is the slowest route to victory; good tactics combined
with poor strategy is just so much noise before your final defeat.”

Surprise
Surprise is a state of confusion in your opponent, induced by your introducing the
unexpected. At the strategic level, surprise is often viewed as the tool of the
weaker side, as the stronger side has the option of simply applying greater force.
At the tactical level, surprise is considered a force multiplier for the side causing it
by creating a temporary period of confusion and vulnerability in the surprised
force. Having multiple objectives lies at the heart of creating surprise in an
opponent.

The Most Difficult Thing
The most difficult thing in a dynamic situation is to know when to change
strategies. If you do it too soon or too often, you’re not a strategist; you’re an
opportunist. If you do it too late, or refuse to do it no matter what, again you’re
not a strategist; you’re a fanatic. Opportunists and fanatics are both easily
defeated by good strategists.

Fog of War

Carl von Clausewitz painted by Karl Wilhelm Wach. Credit Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

Carl von Clausewitz in his On War wrote, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” Though Clausewitz never specifically wrote the phrase ‘Fog of War’, the above quote is the source of the term which we abbreviate today as FoW. FoW in the 18th and 19th centuries (the era specifically covered by General Staff: Black Powder) was especially problematic because of the lack of modern day battlefield information gathering techniques such as drones, aircraft and satellites (yes, hot air balloons were used in the Civil War but their actual value during combat was minimal).

General Staff is a wargame that can simulate the FoW experienced by an 18th or 19th century commander and his staff. We use the qualifier ‘can simulate’ because General Staff can run in five different ‘modes’:

  • Game mode / No Fog of War
  • Game mode / Partial Fog of War
  • Simulation mode / No Fog of War
  • Simulation mode / Partial Fog of War
  • Simulation mode / Complete Fog of War

Game mode came from a strong desire to create an introductory wargame, with simplified rules, played on historical accurate battlefield maps that could be used to introduce novices to wargaming.

1st Bull Run, 11:30 AM, Simulation Mode, No Fog of War. Reinforcements shown. Click to enlarge.

Antietam, 0600, Game Mode. Reinforcements shown. Click to enlarge.

In the above two screen shots from General Staff you can clearly see the differences between Simulation and Game mode. In Simulation mode a unit’s exact strength in men, leadership value, morale value, experience value, number of volleys and the time it will take for a courier to travel from it’s commander’s HQ to the unit are displayed and tracked. In Game Mode, unit strength is represented by the number of icons (1 – 4) and leadership, morale, experience, and ammunition are not tracked. Units are moved directly by the player and there are no HQ units. In Simulation Mode, orders are given from the commanding HQ down to the subordinate commander’s HQ and then to the actual unit. The leadership value of each HQ effects how long the orders will be delayed on the way.

Little Bighorn, Simulation Mode, Complete Fog of War (from the commander’s perspective). Screen shot. Click to enlarge.

In the above screen shot, we see ‘Complete Fog of War’; only what the commander can see of the battlefield is displayed. In this case, this is what Colonel George Custer could see at this time.  Just as in real life, in Complete Fog of War the commander receives dispatches from his troops about what they have observed; but this information is often stale and outdated by the time it arrives.

Little Bighorn, Simulation Mode, Partial Fog of War. This displays what all Blue forces can observe. Click to enlarge.

In the above screen shot Partial Fog of War is displayed. This is the sum of what is observable by all units (in this case, the Blue force). This is historically inaccurate for the 19th century and is included as an option because, frankly, users may want it and, programmatically, it was an easy feature to add. Throughout the development of General Staff we have consistently offered the users every conceivable option we can think of. That is also why we have included the option of, “No Fog o War,” with every unit visible on the battlefield. It’s an option and some users may want it.

We have experimented with different ways of displaying ‘stale’ unit information including this method, below:

An example of how units that are not directly visible to HQ are displayed. The longer that a unit remains unobserved, the fainter it becomes. (Click to enlarge.)

We are now experimenting with overlays.

As always, your questions and comments are appreciated. Please feel free to email me directly.

Follow Progress with the Changelog

A typical screen shot posted in the Changelog. Click to enlarge.

One of the many techniques that Andy O’Neill has brought to the General Staff project is the Changelog. A Changelog is, “a log or record of all notable changes made to a project,” and is common in developing business applications. Currently, it is over 23 pages of screen shots, updates and commentary.

The General Staff Changelog is here: http://grogheads.com/forums/index.php?topic=21270.0


You can subscribe to updates in the Changelog and also make comments or report bugs that you have found. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a beta-tester.

I will continue to post updates here at this site. But, if you want more frequent – and often more technical – updates I would suggest subscribing to the Changelog.  You can do this by registering on the GrogHeads forum and clicking on the ‘Notify’ button.