Welcome to my blog!

News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave


Saturday, 14 September 2019

Anglo-Zulu War 1879

I spent today touring the battlefields of the early part of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

This morning we followed Chelmsford's invasion route over the Buffalo River to his first encampment at Isandlwana. He then split his force and continued the advance towards the Zulu capital at Ulundi, without fortifying the encampment or leaving an adequate garrison. The Zulus by-passed him and attacked the camp killing almost every soldier and civilian left behind.

My first impression of the battlefield was that the mountain of Isandlwana was smaller than I thought. However, the British firing line was even longer and more exposed than I had appreciated.

This is the battlefield from the initial Zulu position. The British camp is the black area to the left of the mountain. Although the firing line went as far out as the buildings you can see closest to the camp.

This is where the Zulu commander directed the battle. Interestingly, our Zulu guide pointed out that the battle was nearly lost after the first Zulu attack faltered.

This is the main memorial with the mountain in the background.

This monument that marks Durnford's last stand.

The battlefield is full of cairns marking the dead, which makes this battlefield very distinctive.

In the afternoon, I went to Rorke's Drift. The Michael Caine film, Zulu, probably brought this battle into modern public consciousness. While it has major inaccuracies, not least the portrayal of Private Hook (he was teetotal), it is still a great piece of cinema.

Below is the rebuilt hospital building to largely similar design, where the famous evacuation took place at the height of the battle.

The rebuilt church is larger than the original but on the same spot.

The stones mark the final, final redoubt. I was shocked to see how small it was.

The British cemetery.

The more modern Zulu memorial. Not an approved one because the Zulu attack on Rorke's Drift was forbidden by the King. It's a Leopard on shields.

And finally, the mass Zulu grave.

Absolutely fascinating, and very unique battlefield. Brought to life by an excellent guide from Fugitives Drift, which I would highly recommend as a place to stay.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Cape Town

I am in Cape Town for a work conference and escaped for an hour or two to visit the military history sights.

The Castle of Good Hope was built by the Dutch to protect their colony and base in Cape Town. It would have been nearer the sea in those days. It's a fairly traditional star fort design.

This is a model of the original.

There is a gallery of pictures including paintings of local troops recruited by the Dutch and their wars.

Inside the castle, there is a military history museum. One of the volunteers was a wargamer painting 20mm WW2 figures. Apparently, there is an active wargaming community in the city.

There is always a Highlander! These are the Cape Town Highlanders, in Gordon tartan.

In the square outside the castle, there is a Boer War memorial.

And finally, down at the waterfront, they have been restoring one of the many gun batteries. With a nice museum to explain it all.

Needless to say, I have more pictures. If you have a particular interest in this period let me know.

Next stop, Zulu Wars!

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Zulu Kings and their Armies

Like most wargamers, my understanding of the Zulu army doesn't extend much before or past the 1879 Zulu War. This book by Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell takes us from the early days of Shaka kaSenzangakhona to the last true Zulu king who died in 1913. Although the Zulu remains a numerous force in modern South Africa with around eight million Zulu speakers.

The book starts with an outline of warfare in southern Africa at the start of the nineteenth century. Shaka turned a tiny tribe into an empire with a new form of warfare that incorporated his defeated enemies into the Zulu way of life. This included new weaponry, including the assegai, a short stabbing spear that largely replaced throwing spears. His battlefield tactics based on the head and the horns of a bull, with reserves in the loins, also relied on rapid movement to outmanoeuvre an enemy.

The regimental system also provided  trained and better disciplined forces than his opponents. At its height, some 40,000 to 50,000 troops could be mustered. They were organised by age rather than tribe, in part-time units required to serve from the age of eighteen.

The arrival of white settlers, Boer and British, brought firearms to warfare in southern Africa, something the Zulus never mastered. The defeat by the Boers at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, led to a civil war and further loss of land.

I have covered the 1879 war in my review of Saul David's book. However, that wasn't the end of the story. The British divided the kingdom up and ended the regimental system, but a restoration of sorts gave the Zulu a continuing role. They fought with the British in the Boer War, and parts of the nation were still rebelling against the poll tax right until the end.

This book is a chronological study of the kings and the events during their respective lifetimes. Each major battle gets more detailed treatment along with clear maps. The Zulu army was a formidable force for more than century, but British and Boer weaponry proved too powerful in the end.

My painting table is currently straining under the weight of 240 Zulu figures. A task I will leave until I return from my trip to South Africa next week!

Monday, 2 September 2019

Battle of Majuba Hill

My latest pre-South Africa trip reading covers John Laband's book on the Transvaal Campaign of 1880-81, often called the First Boer War, which fizzled out after the Battle of Majuba Hill.

 Britain had annexed the Transvaal in 1877, with only modest protest due to the sate of the territory following Boer-Pedi War of 1876-77. However, initial British reverses in the Cape Frontier War, Anglo-Pedi War and then the Anglo-Zulu War did not inspire confidence. Boer agitation grew and colonial officials were alarmed at the solidarity being shown by the Orange Free State and Boers in the Cape Colony. The election of Gladstone and the Liberals in the 1880 election gave the Boers hope because of Liberal opposition to the Tory policy of creating a confederation of South African states - the white governed ones at least.

On 16 December 1880, a large gathering of Boers proclaimed the independence of the Transvaal and besieged small British garrisons spread across the state. A belated attempt to concentrate forces at Pretoria was undermined by the ambushing of Colonel Anstruther's column at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December.

To relieve the garrisons, the Natal Field Force was established by Major-General Colley. This was a cobbled-together force with insufficient cavalry and mounted infantry to take on the mobile Boer commandos. None the less he proceeded to the border where Boer forces had dug in on the pass at Laing's Nek. A disjointed attack was repulsed, forcing the British back to their camp at Mount Prospect.

Colley then tried a flanking move, by capturing Majuba Hill which overlooked the pass. He did this without waiting for the reinforcements being assembled in the Cape by Sir Evelyn Wood. The Boers quickly surrounded his position and the British were forced to retreat. Colley died in the battle.

This was pretty much par for the course in colonial campaigns. Initial incompetence and defeats followed up by bringing overwhelming force to bear. The troops to carry this out were arriving in South Africa, but Gladstone's government favoured a peaceful solution. The compromise was an independent Transvaal under British suzerainty. Needless to say, this didn't resolve the internal issues inside the Transvaal or the imperialists desire to create a confederation. These all kicked off again in the Second Boer War.

John Laband has written a concise and very readable study of the campaign and the forces involved. It is well illustrated with period photos and clear maps. Published by Helion, it is well worth a read. For wargamers, the Boer forces for the later campaign are pretty similar, at least in smaller scales. The British would still be in Zulu War redcoats, although the arriving reinforcements from India had started to adopt Khaki.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Bulgarian Air Force in WW2

Alexander Mladenov and pals have written a history of the Bulgarian Air Force in the Second World War, published by Helion.

The Bulgarian Air Force at the outset of WW2 was a modest force, equipped with largely obsolete aircraft. Bulgaria joined the Axis on 1 March 1941 and declared war on Britain and the USA nine months later. However, it didn't declare war of the Soviet Union. This meant its role was limited to occupation duties in Yugoslavia, and later, air defence against Allied bomber raids in Bulgaria and elsewhere in the Balkans.

There was a small indigenous aircraft industry, which turned out a small number of recce and ground support aircraft. These 1920's designs were still operational by the outset of the war. Slightly more modern designs came from the Caproni factory in Kazenlak. By 1937 Bulgaria had thrown off the post WW1 treaty restrictions on the air force and took delivery of German aircraft including the Heinkel He45b and Arado Ar65F. They also acquired some Polish PZL and German Dornier Do17 bombers.

The German invasion of Czechoslovakia and France enabled the purchase of second hand Letov S328 recce aircraft, Avia B 71 bombers and D.520 fighters. It wasn't until later in the war, when allied bombers could reach the Balkans, that the Germans gave any priority to Bulgaria. By 1943, the Bulgarian 'Dogan' bi-plane fighters were hopelessly outclassed and BF-109's provided the effective air defence of Sofia.  The D.520 was still a decent fighter against bombers. Other German aircraft supplied to Bulgaria included Stukas, AR 196 floatplanes, Fw 189 recce and Ju 52 transports.

When the Soviet steamroller entered Bulgaria the country switched sides, and German aircraft took part in ground attacks against the retreating German army. Soviet types only started to replace these aircraft at the end of the war.

The strength of this book is in the lavish use of photographs and nine pages of colour plates. I confess to finding the description of air warfare hard work, and this book is no different. Air operations are described in some detail for all stages of the conflict.

This is probably the final word on the Bulgarian Air Force during WW2. It has everything you could want to know and more.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Churchill War Rooms

I have tried to see this museum a few times, but the queues have always been ridiculous. However, today I was in good time for a meeting at Westminster and as there was no queue, I took the opportunity for a look around.

In essence, this is the WW2 bunker that Churchill and the war cabinet moved into when the bombs started dropping on London. You see the cabinet room, meeting rooms and the operational rooms.

The map room is particularly good. With statistical reports etc.

Pins and cotton in WW2! In fact, I recall running an early wargame campaign using similar materials pinched from my Mum's sewing box. The atmosphere must have been horrendous as folk were obviously allowed to smoke. Mind you, I suppose no one was going to stop Churchill.

And of course, Churchill's bedroom where he famously dictated letters etc. And smoked!

There is also a Churchill museum, which has some interesting exhibits covering the highs and lows of his controversial career. Not to mention his childhood wargame collection!

I should warn that this is not a cheap admission (£22 for an adult), but some other IWM sites are free so I suppose it balances out. It is worth a look.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

National Army Museum

I was down in London today on business with a couple of hours to spare, so I popped along to the National Army Museum next to Chelsea Barracks. I haven't visited since the refurbishment.

There was a special exhibition of the official wartime poster artist Abram Games. He produced some striking posters that I don't think I have seen before, including earlier ones supporting Spanish relief during the civil war.

Towards the end of the war his posters on the theme 'Your Britain - Fight for It' encouraged the troops to think about the post-war settlement.

Churchill banned some of them and Games's retort was:

The troops of course had the last word in the 1945 election!

While the museum has all the latest interactive stuff, there is still room for proper exhibits and paintings.

I took a particular interest in the South African war exhibits. 

 Compare that Khaki with the Osprey Boer War plates!

Straying into the Sudan for this fine display.

And finally, Siborne's Waterloo is still there. As controversial in his day as Abram Games!