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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

Monday, 11 June 2018

This Untoward Event

I picked up a copy of C.M Woodhouse's 'The Battle of Navarino' in a second hand bookshop, prior to my recent trip to the Peloponnese.

Published in 1965, it provides a comprehensive account of the naval action that largely secured the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. It was fought on 20 October 1827 between the combined Egyptian and Ottoman fleets, and the allied British, French and Russian fleets commanded by Admiral Codrington. Navarino is a bay and port on the south-west coast of the Peloponnese.


The battle was described in the King's speech to parliament on 29 January 1828 as 'this untoward event', which Prime Minister Wellington explained as meaning 'unexpected or unfortunate', to considerable criticism at the time. This is because Britain was traditionally an ally of the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion. However, the cause of Greek Independence was popular in Britain and many of the Greek commanders were British, as well as significant numbers of volunteers, known as Philhellenes. The King was reported to have 'winked' as he read out the speech.

The combined fleets had instructions to enforce an armistice, at sea at least, which would force the Sultan into peace talks. They had effectively blockaded the Ottoman fleet until it broke out in an attempt to reinforce Patras. After being intercepted by the British fleet, they withdrew again to Navarino.

After this the allies decided that the only way to enforce the armistice was by a show of force. This involved sailing into the bay and anchoring within range of the Ottoman fleet. There is some dispute as to who initiated the fighting, but it is agreed that a Turkish ship fired first. This led to a full engagement in which the Ottoman fleet had a numerical advantage, but their ships were not as experienced or as competently handled as the allies. Their fleet was destroyed as a fighting force.

Turkish and Egyptian losses included three ships of the line, 17 frigates, some 40 other ships and around 4,000 dead. Allied fleets lost 182 dead. As no state of war existed, no prizes were taken.

The book is well illustrated, mostly with the many oil paintings commissioned after the battle. The book is largely based on the Codrington papers in the National Maritime Museum, supplemented by French and Russian secondary sources and Egyptian records. As is often the case, the Ottoman sources are scant. There are few copies still around on the second hand book market.

I have been clearing out some old wargame magazines in an effort to create some space on my shelves. Coincidentally, I came across a very good article on the battle by Jonathan Carruthers, for Wargames Illustrated, I think back in 1988. He suggests a more balanced game by allowing the Ottomans to contest the allied fleet at the entrance to the bay. I suspect the outcome would have been the same, but casualties would have been higher, given the shore batteries and the narrow entrance.

No ships, but here are a few of my 15mm Greek War of Independence figures in 15mm.




Sunday, 3 June 2018

Target Corinth Canal 1940-44

During my recent visit to The Peloponnese I stopped off at the Corinth Canal. I was obviously familiar with the German airborne assault on the canal in 1941, but wanted to know more. The answers are in this excellent book by Platon Alexiades.


The Corinth Canal separates the Peloponnese from the rest of mainland Greece. It is nearly four miles long, seventy feet wide and 260 feet above sea level at its highest point. Even today, it is an obligatory stopping off point for tourists. Even my family thought it was worth seeing, something that couldn't be said for some of the ancient sites they trekked around!

It was completed in 1893 and was a grand statement of modernisation for a country that that had only secured its independence some 60 years earlier. In 1940, some 8,600 ships a year used the canal.



The strategic point of the canal is that it saves around 185 nautical miles, avoiding the sea journey around the Peloponnese, which became dangerous for Italian shipping heading to their bases in the Dodecanese islands. These islands had been gained as a consequence of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12.

The book sets the scene with a brief description of the Italian invasion of Greece and the naval actions around the coast. SOE had a particular interest in Greece and from its base in Cairo organised many operations, even before the German invasion and occupation. The Admiralty wanted the canal blocked, but the RAF could not bomb it in daylight, primarily because it was outside the range of fighter cover.

Even when the British intervention force was retreating over the canal, attempts to block or mine the canal failed. It was the 2nd Fallschirmjager Regiment that dropped both sides on canal in Operation Hannibal, who seized the canal, although the New Zealanders defending it did managed to blow the bridge.

The rest of the book covers the various plans and attempts to block in canal by SOE. Most importantly, Operation Locksmith, led by Mike Cumberlege, which failed primarily because of defective weaponry. He died with the rest of his four man team in a German concentration camp.

Canals of this size are very difficult to block in this sort of operation. Finding a mine large enough for the job, yet small enough to transport, was a major challenge. Ironically, it was the Germans who completed the task as they withdrew, by dumping some 200 railway wagons in the canal, sinking block ships at either end, and filling up large parts of the canal with rubble.

This is a fascinating story, very well told. Recommended.

Allied intervention force in 15mm





Monday, 28 May 2018

Athens War Museum


We had a few hours in Athens on Saturday before our flight back to Edinburgh. A trip to the Parthenon and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to start with, then onto the War Museum.


The exhibits range from ancient times to the modern era, with a mix of reconstruction, artwork and original items laid out in chronological order. Not all the exhibits are translated into English, which is fine for the specialist, but the general visitor would struggle. The lighting is also inexplicably dark, with most floors just gloomy. Overall, while it's a good museum and very much worth a visit, it could do with some modernisation.

I have picked out some of my favourite exhibits below:

Ancient Persian

Frankish
Hanging the Patriarch in Istanbul when independence was declared. The characterisation in this painting is brilliant.
 
Turkish standards
                  

Mountain gun

Model of the Metaxas Line being attacked by German forces in WW2

A huge collection of weaponry from around the world

And finally the external displays. Including a few pieces that I certainly could not have named. I'll leave these without captions, so you can do the same.




Friday, 25 May 2018

Mycenae

HI visited ancient Mycenae today. Situated in the foothills of Mount Zara near Argos, it was the capital of the mighty Mycenaean civilisation - one of the superpowers of the ancient world, along with the Minoans, Hittites and Egyptians.


For wargamers, Greek history tends to start with the Hellenic age and the Persian and Pelopponese wars. However, the heroic age is worth another look. This was the age of Homer, the siege of Troy and the Odyssey. 

The Achaeans, as Homer called the Greeks, arrived in Greece between 2100 and 1900 BC, during the Bronze Age. The fortifications at Mycenae date from around 1350 BC and uses stones so massive that the ancient Greeks believed Cyclops helped the founder, Perseus, to build it. This was the palace of Agamemnon, who led the Greeks at the siege of Troy. He was the mega grumpy one! Mind you, having to sacrifice your daughter for some decent weather, would challenge most folk!

The civilisation was destroyed around 1200 BC. It was thought by the Dorian invasions, but as with the Hittite and Egyptian civilisations, which collapsed at the same time, it is now thought that some other disaster was the cause.

Mycenae is a remarkable site and well worth a visit. The entrance, with its Lion Gate is still largely intact as are the base walls. 


When you climb to the top, and view the Argos plain below, the choice of site becomes clear.



There is a very good museum on the site that explains the history and displays items excavated from the site, including some weaponry.




Also worth a visit, from the same period, is ancient Tiryns. The walls that impressed Homer remain pretty impressive to this day. The site is just outside Nafplio, on the Argos road.


You come across bits and pieces of Mycenean architecture as you drive around the area. This is a bridge near Kazarma Castle that I visited yesterday.


Now, who makes Mycenean figures?












Thursday, 24 May 2018

Epidavros

Today I took the short journey to Epidavros, a sanctuary of Asclepius, the God of medicine.

The star attraction is the theatre, which can seat 14,000 people and has the most amazing acoustics. You can hear conversations on the top rows. Visibility, even the cheap seats would embarrass a few football stadiums I have been to.



The sanctuary itself has extensive ruins of some unusual buildings for the period and covers a vast area.



There is also a small museum exhibiting some of the finds and drawings that reconstruct its original form.


After a morning of culture, I stopped off at the ruins of Kazarma Castle on the way back. The original fort was built in the 5th century BC and was probably the citadel of the ancient town of Lessa. However, it has medieval additions, probably Byzantine given the square towers.



A couple of people have asked me about sources on Greek castles. I use 'Fortresses and Castles of Greece' by Alexander Paradissis. There are three volumes, published in Athens in 1994. Very useful, although some maps would have helped.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The fortresses of Nafplio

The port of Nafplio in the Peloponnese is an absolute must see for the military history buff. It has three castles and a very pretty town to keep the rest of the family entertained.

In ancient times the town was under the control of Argos as its main port, until the the Byzantines used it as a base for their anti-piracy operation. Then the Franks held it for around 180 years before giving way to the Venetians. In 1540 it fell to the Turks after a three year siege, although the Venetians briefly grabbed it back between 1686 and 1715. It was the first capital of independent Greece in 1827.

The main castle is the Palimidi which towers above the town. When you enter the main gate the Venetian lion immediately tells you who built it. It has five substantial bastions and is a huge site, so allocate a bit of time. If you are feeling fit there is a 999 step staircase from the town, but mere mortals like me drove up to the main gate on a surprisingly good road. 


 



The Akronafplia castle defends the eastern approaches to the town. This was the Byzantine and then Frankish castle although improved by the Venetians. You can drive right through the site, or use a lift from the east end of the town.



Finally, we have the small island fort of Bourtzi, which defends the harbour. It was built by the Venetians at the end of the 15th century. A boat trip will take you out to the castle, but it is currently being renovated - very slowly!





Sparta and Mystras

One of my bucket list trips ticked off yesterday, with a visit to Sparta.

Modern Sparta isn't much of a destination, although they have put up a very fine statue of King Leonidas. I wore my '300' t-shirt especially for the occasion!



There are a few remains on the Acropolis, but most are later Roman or Byzantine additions. Including a theatre and a church.



A few miles outside Sparta is the Byzantine hill town and Frankish castle at Mystras. The ever busy William of Villehardouin built the castle in 1249. It's a bit of a climb, even from the higher fortress gate, but worth the effort. The castle is quite small, but you get a great view over the plain of Sparta.



The Byzantine town dates from 1262 and is filled with monasteries, churches, mansions and palaces. Many are in good condition and others are being repaired. In the 14th century, members of the imperial family ruled from here and it became an important cultural centre.