• A Game of Birds and Wolves

  • The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II
  • By: Simon Parkin
  • Narrated by: Elliot Fitzpatrick
  • Length: 10 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Military
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (598 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

As heard on the New Yorker Radio Hour: The triumphant and "engaging history" (The New Yorker) of the young women who devised a winning strategy that defeated Nazi U-boats and delivered a decisive victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

By 1941, Winston Churchill had come to believe that the outcome of World War II rested on the battle for the Atlantic. A grand strategy game was devised by Captain Gilbert Roberts and a group of 10 Wrens (members of the Women's Royal Naval Service) assigned to his team in an attempt to reveal the tactics behind the vicious success of the German U-boats. Played on a linoleum floor divided into painted squares, it required model ships to be moved across a make-believe ocean in a manner reminiscent of the childhood game Battleship. Through play, the designers developed "Operation Raspberry", a counter-maneuver that helped turn the tide of World War II. 

Combining vibrant novelistic storytelling with extensive research, interviews, and previously unpublished accounts, Simon Parkin describes for the first time the role that women played in developing the Allied strategy that, in the words of one admiral, "contributed in no small measure to the final defeat of Germany". Rich with unforgettable cinematic detail and larger-than-life characters, A Game of Birds and Wolves is a heart-wrenching tale of ingenuity, dedication, perseverance, and love, bringing to life the imagination and sacrifice required to defeat the Nazis at sea. 

©2020 Simon Parkin (P)2020 Little, Brown & Company

Critic Reviews

"With novelistic flair, Parkin transforms material gathered from research, interviews, and unpublished accounts into a highly readable book that celebrates the ingenuity of a British naval 'reject' and the accomplishments of the formerly faceless women never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." (Kirkus Reviews)

"A Game of Birds and Wolves brings to life one of the most elusive aspects of war...compelling." (New York Times Book Review

"History writing at its best." (Booklist, starred review) 

What listeners say about A Game of Birds and Wolves

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A lost story thrillingly revealed

The transformational effect of World War II on women’s lives comes through clearly in this recounting of a secret part of English naval strategy. Women experienced changed expectations, the possibility of real life adventure, and finding themselves equal to grave responsibilities. How they went back to being 1950s wives and mums I don’t know

Of course the story outlined in the book is that of the embittered but brilliant Captain Roberts and his crew of WRENS designing and teaching anti-submarine strategies to those guarding the supplies that kept England alive during the period of the war. Without these supplies the Germans would have been able to starve England into submission—and they came close to succeeding. A thought to conjure with for a long time. I grew up with a strong understanding of Britain’s fear of and preparation for invasion during the war but no idea of the extreme importance of the supply convoys other than as military resources—yet 30,000 sailors died. Clearly everyone at the time understood it as vital.

This is a well-written, carefully structured book that takes you into the lives of the individuals involved as well as the drama and high stakes of the mission. The lives of the women are the story within the story but an equal element.

Highly recommended and the Audible edition is excellent.

59 people found this helpful

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Important History

It was an important story to be told. And as the author says in the book, it is really heart breaking that relatives don't save women's diaries and papers. The men got medals and permission to write their histories but the women were held to the promises of secrecy that they made and minimal recognition. So much history is lost.

54 people found this helpful

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Would have liked to hear more about the women

I thought that there were digressions and other material that took up much of the book. I would have liked to hear more of the core story as reflected in the title.

52 people found this helpful

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Another Lost WW2 history

This a well written, fantastic account of the war work of a forgotten Royal Navy hero and his crew of hand picked WRNS, young whip smart women that spent the war inventing war games that revealed the Nazi U-boat strategies for how to attack the British convoys. Then they developed their own strategies to defeat them and win the war of the North Atlantic. I’ve read many dozens of history accounts about the various theaters of that war. This was a complete surprise to me. Thanks to this author for telling this heroic story of these dedicated women and the man who invented the original war game.

48 people found this helpful

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Not enough about WRENs & Subs

Too much of what I read focused on the evils that people choose or were forced to accept during war and very little about the "game" of submarine hunting. I guess the author was trying to set the scene in which the history is set, but there were far too many details of the horrors that happen during a war. I know evil things happen more easily during times of stress and strife. Some happen because people choose it, some because the humanity is driven out of people and some because only evil choices are available to people. I didn't buy this book to be reminded of that. I bought it to learn about a portion of history I didn't know much about. The rival forces of the German U-boats and the women who helped defeat them.
I tried listening to the book over the period of several weeks and finally realized it wasn't worth the ugly mood I felt everytime I listened to some of the book. I'll do my own research on the time period.

2 people found this helpful

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not what I thought

I was expecting a story about strategy and gaming to defeat U boats. The book is more about actual battles and not about the accomplishments of the women in tracking convoys and subs and how they succeeded

1 person found this helpful

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Outstanding rendition of an important but overlooked legacy

Over 30,000 merchant sailors died in the Second World War Battle of the Atlantic. The unrecognized intelligence work of the thousands of women who raced to save them needs to be honoured. This book is an excellent memorial to their unsung, top secret dedication to duty.

1 person found this helpful

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A non digital simulation of anti submarine warfare that won the battle of the atlantic

I suspect that many contemporary war games are done digitally with computers. Still the human element of risk and uncertainty may be better captured at a slower pace.
The insight into the changing role of women in society is clearly seen.
The insight into the German uboat crews was very interesting.

1 person found this helpful

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Rambling reminiscing

There are so many names and dates it is hard to make out the story. Listened all the way because I was so wowed by the role of women in England during WWII.

1 person found this helpful

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Worthwhile

Reveals a valiant effort by mostly young women (many teens) in winning the WWII Battle of the Atlantic which, because they were female, was unacknowledged and lost to history.

Only flaw in the book was what appeared to be a lost/missing chapter detailing the actual turning point where the tactics employed defeated Nazi U-boats.