Working out of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in Liverpool, this hand-picked group of female mathematicians, forensic accountants and members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) achieved what the top brass at the Admiralty could not – a set of tactics which would outwit the deadly U-Boat wolfpacks and set the Royal Navy and the Allies on the path to victory.
Sky HISTORY caught up with two of the main actors from U-Boat Wargamers, Andrew Havill (Gilbert Roberts) and Molly Vevers (Jean Laidlaw), to find out more about the show and the unbelievable true story it is based on.
What is U-Boat Wargamers about?
Andrew Havill: It’s about a country that was being starved of provisions, both fuel and food. An island nation that was just cut off by the fact Germany had these amazing U-Boat packs, that were picking off the convoys coming over from America with provisions. They had battleships and escorts that were supposed to protect them, but they weren’t protecting them.
It was just causing devastation and the country was being starved. We didn’t have any answers as a country in terms of how to protect ourselves against these attacks. This had been going on since 1939 and in the end, in 1942, they turned to Gilbert Roberts who had been out of the Navy for some time but had had some tactical training earlier in his career.
He was told to go up to Liverpool, to some horrible, disused office and he couldn’t have any men working for him, but he needed to come up with some answers as quickly as possible.
It’s the story of how he succeeded, with the help of these women that he was forced to work with, but who actually turned out to be the best people he could have had. They were able to see the problems in a different way and spot the connections that a lot of men, especially those in the services who were used to following orders and seeing things in straight lines, couldn’t.
Can you tell us about Jean Laidlaw and how she got involved in the mission?
Molly Vevers: She was in training to become a chartered accountant. She was actually an insurance clerk to start with and she became involved with the Sea Rangers when she was 20. It’s implied that she had a bit of a knack for it and learnt basic sea-based knowledge doing that. There’s a scene in the show where she’s very adept at tying a knot in a rope.
Once she qualified as an accountant at 21, she was involved in the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and enlisted by Gilbert Roberts to join this team of young women to try and come up with new tactics to defeat these U-Boats. She kind of became Gilbert’s right-hand woman, they had a great rapport and seemed to really understand each other.
Jean was ultimately the person who comes up with the first of their many new tactics to sink the U-Boats. She’s very intelligent, very mathematically-minded and a problem-solver at heart.
Did you have a favourite part of the story or the show?
MV: Because the script was obviously based around these tactics it was quite wordy, technical and hard to learn. But equally, on the flip-side, it was enjoyable doing these scenes where Jean’s holding court and doing a lecture about a new tactic to the male naval officers. She’s getting a bit of attitude from them because she’s a young woman, but ultimately she’s the best person for the job and those scenes were quite satisfying to perform.
What was Gilbert Roberts’ background and what role did he play in the operation?
AH: His family was military but for some reason, he went straight to the Navy at the age of twelve and then was a Naval man until he was deemed medically unfit with tuberculosis at the age of 37. He was written off and probably wrote himself off, so there’s a message there to never think that you’re at the end. He didn’t know that the greatest thing in his life was still to come and that’s what is quite touching about the story. He was quite vulnerable in a way, despite being so good at his job.
He was reduced to training the Home Guard down in Portsmouth, in case there was an invasion and they could bump off a few visiting Nazis. There’s a scene in episode one where he’s training these guys on how to do unarmed combat and all the time he’s coughing his lungs out with the exertion of teaching them how to garrot someone.
How does Gilbert Roberts compare to some of the other historical figures you’ve played in the past?
AH: It was wonderful because there was so much to get your teeth into which is great. I’ve played a lot of real people and I think I’ve played all the ones I want to play now.
Did you have an interest in history before doing this show and did you have to do a lot of research to prepare?
MV: I did history at school up until Higher and I got an ‘A’, but I don’t think I retained anything. Obviously, I knew the kind of basic stuff that everybody knows about World War II but I didn’t know anything about this story.
When I auditioned and then when I got the part I did as much research as I could about the Battle of the Atlantic and just tried to understand the timeline.
There wasn’t too much research I could do about Jean herself because there’s not much out there about her. I got the basic facts and then sort of had to make the rest up a bit. It gives you freedom, but it also makes you think there should be more out there about there because she was such an important figure.
Why do you think it’s a story that is perhaps not more well known?
MV: Part of it was that they had to sign the Official Secrets Act at the time so they couldn’t talk about it. In the later years, maybe there was a kind of pride in knowing that they were involved, at such an important level, but nobody knows.
On the other hand, maybe they were desperate for their story to be out there, but it was a different time and women had a different role in society. I think that now is the time that we can, and we should, celebrate what they achieved.
Andrew, what was your research process like?
AH: There is more on Gilbert Roberts, so that was really helpful. Things like costume play a massive part, so wearing the Naval uniform really helped to pull me up in a certain way.
There’s a great story about him when he was having his interview for the Navy at the age of twelve. There were two interviews, one was written and one was oral. The written one was largely in Latin, which he wasn’t very good at because he’s mainly done German.
So there was a big emphasis on the oral one in front of the admirals, who were massively intimidating figures. They looked down on him and he had this huge black eye. They asked him if he knew where Dingle is on a map. He said ‘Yeah, I know where it is, it’s here’, but they told him that he’d got it wrong. Instead of admitting that he was wrong he stood up to them and asked for another map and sure enough there was another place in the UK called Dingle exactly where he was pointing. It’s amazing that he was twelve and just stood up to these admirals.
One of them asked how he got his black eye and he said ‘I’m a wicketkeeper and I was trying to stump this batsman and he whacked me in the eye with his bat while trying to get back in his crease. The worst of it is I didn’t manage to stump him out.’
It was those two things that made the admirals think he had what it takes. I think that’s a great character story.
While filming the show and plotting out the positions of the boats on the floor, did you get a sense of how big of an operation this was?
MV: Yes and no. When we first got on the set of the gaming room, the first scene was us setting out the game board and at that point, I was thinking if that was really it or if they’d made it out of chalk and string because it was a television show. But no, that was really all they had.
It was a big operation and it was really crucial at that point, but how basic the materials were that they had to work with made it feel not like an epic mission. It was just four of us in this basement room mapping things out with chalk and bits of string.
It’s kind of mind-blowing that that was how they came up with the tactics to sink German U-Boats, writing with a pencil and a bit of paper and just folding it up.
AH: Even now it’s pretty hard to comprehend. They would have had lots of data coming in and reports, but it was still all very analogue.
They eventually got so good that if something new happened or if they were under attack in a new way, they would send a report to Liverpool and they managed to get a solution back within about four hours. I just can’t get my head around that. It saved lives even while they were under attack.
U-Boat Wargamers airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY..