Parkin is a journalist who writes regularly about computer games and he brings this background to bear here. His account covers catastrophic shipwrecks at length, as well as the other trials of seamen and civilians on both sides of the conflict. He could have given more space to additional factors that helped win the battle — in particular, advances in radar technology — and at times he loads unnecessary melodrama on to what is already a dramatic slice of history, but overall his treatment is engaging.
The lavish details (and excellent images) owe much to Parkin’s access to Roberts’s archive and the oral history collections that have given veterans of the war years a renewed voice. Inside his narrative is a desire to show how ordinary people did extraordinary things in wartime, and expressed emotions they might otherwise have viewed askance. He quotes one Wren recalling the celebrations to mark the sinking of the Bismarck and the loss of 2,000 lives. “How could we?” she wrote. “What was the war doing to us?” The great virtue of this book is the conjuring of the atmosphere that made wartime mobilisation on a mass scale possible and sustained commitment to the war effort for years.
Parkin is a journalist rather than an academic historian and has a keen eye for drama and colour. This is a pacey read with some wonderfully vivid set pieces. These include a scene in which Roberts’s caustically dismissive superior watches a demonstration of The Game, realises that the team really is on to something and immediately sends a message to Churchill, and another in which the admiral considered to be Britain’s greatest living submariner is dumbfounded to discover that the opponent who has defeated him five times in a row is not merely a woman but has never even been to sea, let alone set foot in a submarine.
The story of the game of birds and wolves has all the elements of a film by Powell and Pressburger: I could just imagine David Niven as the colourful Captain Roberts, playing merry havoc with his team of obliging Wrens. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that the book has recently been optioned by DreamWorks, the same Steven Spielberg company that made Saving Private Ryan. For the film to be a success, though, they will need to enhance the female characters with a large splash of artistic licence.