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


Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Attack at Dawn - Narvik WW2

I have always been interested in the Norwegian campaign of May 1940, and I suspect it will attract new interest as the 80th-anniversary approaches next year. I have visited some of the battlefields and the fine museum in Oslo. It would also make a great, if challenging, demonstration wargame for a show.

I, therefore, picked up a copy of Ron Cope's book, 'Attack at Dawn: Reliving the First Battle of Narvik in World War Two', with some interest as I know very little about the naval aspects of the campaign. My recent games of Cruel Seas has sparked a bit more interest as well.

This is a very personal book, inspired by the author's father who served as a Torpedoman on the destroyer HMS Hardy. He was the first to fire a salvo of torpedos in Narvik harbour. He has done a huge amount of research, assisted by his own naval service, including interviews with other sailors serving on the ship.

HMS Hardy was commanded by Captain Warburton-Lee, who was also the flotilla commander of five destroyers who attacked German shipping in Narvik during April 1940. Their repeated attacks on the harbour were very successful, sinking German destroyers and merchant ships. However, on the way out of the Fjord after the attack they ran into a much stronger German fleet including cruisers. Hardy was heavily damaged and the decision was made to beach the ship. Many of the crew made it to shore and were picked up during later attacks.

This is a micro-history of the battle, with the narrative painstakingly developed. In wargames, we abtract such a lot that it comes as a bit of a shock when you read the detail of how a destroyer operated in battle.

The detail means this is not an easy read and I did struggle on occasions.  I understand the temptation to include all your research in a publication, but this book would have benefitted from a bit more editing.  It is quite difficult to follow the bigger picture of the battle.  

None the less, if you want to understand how WW2 ships were fought, in pretty difficult circumstances, this is a good book. For a general understanding of the campaign, there are better options, including Maurice Harvey's 'Scandinavian Misadventure'.

Below are a couple of life-sized dioramas from the military museum in Oslo.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Sword of Kings

Sword of Kings is the latest in Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom series. This follows the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg and his early 10th-century engagements around England. This is the twelfth in the series if you don't count the TV series, so our hero is beginning to feel his age.

Bernard Cornwell is, without doubt, the greatest living author of historical fiction and he doesn't let us down with this latest offering. Uhtred is bound by his oath to Aethelstan to support him as King Edward lies dying in 924AD. He sails south from Northumbria to rescue Edward's Queen and children. Aethelstan and Aelfweard will ignore Edward's wish to split the Kingdom between Wessex and Mercia and will fight it out.

Most of the action takes place in London, a key strategic point between Wessex and Mercia, not least for its wealth. I won't spoil the story, but it has all the elements you would expect. Black humour, some new female interest for Uthred, and of course brilliant action. As usual, impossible to put down.

Northumbria remains apart from the new English state. So, there will be another book. Can't wait!

Too busy at present for much gaming, but this book is great inspiration for a bit of Dark Ages wargaming.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Black Seas

For a confirmed landlubber, I do seem to be playing a lot of naval games recently. Cruel Seas started the trend and now a shiny new box has arrived from Warlord Games - Black Seas.

One of my reasons for not playing naval games has been the complexity of the rules. Cruel Seas is a very straightforward system and Black Seas, while a bit more complex, follows that lead.

I bought the starter set, Master and Commander, which gives you all you need to get started. The rule book, dice, markers and measuring aids. There is a paper playing surface, but I use a nice mousemat version from Deep Cut.

You also get three frigates and six brigs. I have been critical about Warlord models. Their plastic AFVs are far too complex and delicate for wargamers, and the better resin models rarely have proper instructions or lugs for assembly. Gun barrels are a particular irritation. However, like the Cruel Seas models, these go together very well and the all-important mast sections went in with a reassuring click. If you want to add extra detail, it gets a lot more fiddly. The sails are not bad with a press-out card that can be bent around a pen and glued on. The acetate ratlines need cutting out and are very fiddly to glue in place on the smallest ships. As for the cotton rigging, one look at the book convinced me that this was not for my large fingers! None the less even without these additions, the 1/700th models look fine.

The rules use similar mechanisms to Cruel Seas. The wake markers and the ship cards will be familiar, although irritatingly they are a different size so don't really fit into my custom MDF holders, which I use as a replacement for the pretty poor paper clips in the game.  Obviously, the main difference is the importance of wind and the mechanisms are a lot more straightforward than other games I have played. This won't stop me crashing into my own ships!

Shooting is also similar with a base hit, a few modifiers and accumulated damage points. As with all rule sets in a series, the author has taken on board feedback from Cruel Seas with some of the mechanisms, including a Break Value. Advanced rules add extra options like ammo types, fire ships and the weather.

There are plenty of scenarios, although I doubt many players will reach Trafalgar! I certainly will have glued all my fingers together by then. There are fleet lists and background info on some nations as well as a helpful section on terminology. Nothing for the Ottomans or the Russians, but I'll take that as a challenge. Finally, there is a chapter on campaigns.

Like Cruel seas, my scenarios of choice will be in the Adriatic, where British and French frigates fought it out. I'll be re-reading Malcolm Scott Hardy's book, 'The British and Vis - War in the Adriatic 1805-15. 

I doubt I will be building fleets (2 frigates and 2 brigs so far), but my initial impressions are positive. This looks like another fun game.

Early tabletop action!

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Scramble for Africa

I had partly read Thomas Pakenham's 'The Scramble for Africa' when I visited South Africa last month. While making a start on my 10mm Boers, I have been revisiting this excellent book to finish the bigger story.

It is indeed a remarkable story. In the 1870s, Africa, with the exception of the coast, was a mystery to most Europeans. By the end of the century, the Scramble for Africa gave Europe virtually the whole continent: including thirty new colonies and protectorates, 10 million square miles of new territory and 110 million dazed new subjects. Africa was sliced up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations – Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain, not to mention King Leopold of the Belgians.

Pakenham takes us through the story, trying to explain why the Scramble took place, an issue that divides historians to this day. From the missionary explorers like Livingstone to the commercial exploiters like Rhodes, they believed they would be saving Africa from itself, and Africa would be the saving of their countries. Europe imposed its will either way at the barrel of the magazine rifle.

Fifty years later, independence was achieved largely at the barrel of similar rifles, but in the meantime, the continent was wracked with a series of wars. Until the outset of the Boer Wars, these were largely one-sided affairs, although that didn't mean the avoidance of defeats, as the British found in the Sudan and Zululand, and the Italians in Abyssinia. This book also covers some of the less well-known conflicts involving German and French troops, as well as the savage conflict in the Congo.

This is a narrative history of the conflicts. If you want to understand how the wars were fought, I would recommend Howard Whitehouse, 'Battle in Africa'. (Field Books 1987), which deals with how armies were raised, commanded and fought, together with the all-important issue of logistics. Africa is a very big place.

Back to the Boers. I have finished the first two units. Again, very nice Pendraken figures that are a pleasure to paint. I am currently being distracted by the arrival of Black Seas, but I will return!

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Croatia - A Nation Forged in War

I thought I had read most, if not all, of the general histories of Balkan countries. However, I missed the third edition of Marcus Tanner's history of Croatia when it was published. I remember his insightful reporting from the region for the Independent in the early 1990s.

The author is a journalist rather than a historian and an eyewitness to the break up of Yugoslavia. I suspect this explains why the focus of the book is on the 20th century rather than earlier periods. In fairness, our sources for the first Croatian state are pretty thin, but it does highlight the fact that Croatia has only been an independent state for a very short time in its long history.

The first Croatian state arguably ended with the death of King Zvonimir and the subsequent Hungarian invasion. The Hungarian King Kalman consolidated Hungarian rule at the Battle of Petrova Gora in 1097 and subsequently reached an agreement with the southern Dalmatian clans in 1102, known as the Pacta Conventa. This was supposed to respect Croatian rights, but the ensuing eight centuries of mostly Hungarian rule whittled away at those rights.

Croatia was for most of this period the border between the Catholic West and the Ottoman Empire. This led to the country being split between the military border region, directly ruled by the Habsburgs, and inner Croatia, which had varying degrees of influence over local matters, under overall Hungarian control. We should not forget that the Dalmatian coast was also largely controlled by Venice, the basis for later Italian intervention.

The 19th century saw the beginnings of a growing effort to break away from Hungary, albeit still under the Habsburg Empire. The statute of  Ban Jelacic in the centre of Zagreb today reflects his role in the events of 1848. I recall impressing our Croatian police 'minder', when visiting the city with my football team, with my explanation of who he was to fellow supporters!

Croatia became a junior partner in the Serbian dominated Yugoslav state that followed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of WW1. The short-lived Fascist puppet state run by the genocidal Ustashe during WW2 ended with the liberation of the country by Tito's partisans in 1944. Tito was half Croat but took little interest in his home country.

Croatia had a degree of devolution during most of the Tito years and became independent following the collapse of Yugoslavia. It was during this vicious conflict that the book's sub-title 'A Nation Forged in War' comes into its own.

Exhibits at the Croatian Homeland War Museum

This is a very readable history and particularly recommended for anyone enjoying a holiday on the Croatian coast next summer. You still hear tourists talking about Yugoslavia!

And finally, for the wargamer, some 17th century Croats in Austrian service. 28mm figures from, I think, Old Glory.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

The Early Slavs

This rather weighty tome by Paul Barford has been sitting on my 'to read' shelf for some time. For those interested in the history of the Balkans, who the Slavs were and how they got to the Balkans can be a controversial issue, muddled by nationalist ideology.

I am pleased to say the author has traversed this difficult territory very well. He sets out the evidence and draws conclusions based on an objective assessment. Where there is doubt, he says so, and the reader can reach their own conclusion.

He starts with the earliest references to a Slav identity, largely based in forest steppes. The started to expand in the 6th century by moving westwards into modern day Poland,  the Czech Republic  and eastern Germany, becoming known as the West Slavs. Those remaining behind in modern day Russia and the Ukraine became the East Slavs.

My particular interest is in the South Slavs who edged their way into the Balkans, around the Carpathian Mountains or along the coast into most of the modern day Balkan states. How far and where they settled is difficult to judge from the archaeological evidence, and we have limited written sources. For example, they certainly reached the Peloponnese, but the extent to which modern Greeks have a Slav identity, is, needless to say, very controversial!

Unlike the horse archers of the Steppes, like the Avars or the Huns, the Slavs almost sneaked into the Balkans over a long period of time. They started by raiding the usual manner, but then occupied lands that were underpopulated due to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire of the period. They assimilated local peoples and grew from disparate tribes to fully fledged states. Serbia and Croatia are the main states today, and Bulgaria was a mix of the Turkic Bulgars and the Slavs.

After explaining what we know about these movements, Barford covers the social structure, daily life, religion and trading arrangements of the early Slavs. There is a chapter on warfare, which is largely based on Byzantine sources, who describe how to fight them. The early Slavs occupied forest areas and were skilled in the use of ambush, using rivers to communicate and concentrate forces. They were lightly armoured, equipped with spear, shield and wooden bows. Barford argues that they did use horses, even if primarily as mounted infantry, with elites as conventional cavalry. They also circled wagons during a battle. Unlike the West and East Slavs, they made little use of strongholds, reflecting the terrain they occupied.

I don't think I have ever seen a Slav army on the wargame table, other than my own small force as part of a 15mm Bulgar army, which I think are Essex figures. Few rules guarantee generating enough terrain to allow them to fight in the way they successfully did. I see Gripping Beast have a small range of foot figures in 28mm and Old Glory have a larger range in 15mm.

My first choice 15mm rule set is L'Art de la Guerre, and their Slav list includes up to six elements of medium cavalry with the option of upgrading half of them to heavy. You can have a fortified camp, which I suppose covers the wagons. I don't think their time period, up to 1218, works for the Balkans, but they do have later Serbo-Croatian and Bulgar lists. FoG takes a similar approach to the balance of forces, and wisely has a specific South Slav list.

While this looks like a serious academic tome, it is very readable. The price (£61) might put off the general reader, but if you can get it second hand or from the library, it is well worth the effort.

My 15mm Slav foot.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Hill of Squandered Valour - Spion Kop 1900

Wargame projects inspired by my travels have a tendency to taper off as the memories of the visit dim. So, I kept a few books back to keep the interest maintained as I tackle the mountain of lead.

Ron Lock's study of the Ladysmith campaign is one such book. While the focus of the book is the famous battle, it is in reality a study of the campaign to break through the Boer lines on the Tugela River and relieve the siege of Ladysmith. While Spion Kop wasn't the largest battle of the campaign, it remains one the best known. Not least for me as a Liverpudlian, in the Kop End of Liverpool Football Club's Anfield home. So named because of the large numbers of men from the city who died on that hill in 1900.

I covered the less than glorious causes of the Boer War (sometimes called the Second Boer War) in my review of Thomas Pakenham's magisterial book on the whole conflict. Ron Lock briefly covers the same ground before outlining the opening battles, which although technically British victories, saw the army forced out of Natal, leaving Ladysmith with its large garrison surrounded. Ladysmith should have been abandoned, and the failure to withdraw forced the newly arrived field army to fight the Boers across an easily defended river line.

This led to the Battle of Colenso, and actions at Potgieter's Drift and then Trichard's Drift. General Buller commanding the Imperial forces was not well served by his subordinates in this campaign, not least Warren at Spion Kop. However, his own judgement was woeful, with opportunities to flank the Boer positions missed at both ends of their line.

The capture of Spion Kop, a hill 1400 feet high, should have split the Boer line. Its capture would allow the Imperial forces to attack, if not easiest route, Buller had already missed that opportunity, at least a practicable one.

The task was given to Major-General Woodgate's Lancashire Brigade. A hazardous night attack brought the Brigade to the top of the hill, but in the darkness they entrenched in the centre of the hill rather than the crest. The ground barely allowed for a two foot scrape, leaving the Brigade exposed to Boer artillery and gun fire for a whole day, with little food or water. Even worse, the position could not be supported by British artillery.

The following night confusion, and the complete absence of leadership by Warren, resulted in the British abandoning the summit. The Boers who had also withdrawn, quickly recovered and occupied the hill. 364 British troops died, 1,056 wounded and further 318 captured or missing. The dead were buried in their inadequate trenches, making this one of the most unusual and poignant battlefield memorials I have visited.

Buller eventually broke the Boer lines at the western end and relieved Ladysmith. The war ground on for another two years, before the Boer republics surrendered and were incorporated within the Union of South Africa.

This book is an excellent narrative history of the campaign with good maps and relevant illustrations.

I have made progress with wargame armies, well at least the British. This is my first excursion into 10mm, outwith WW2 and the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and I am impressed with the detail on the Pendraken models. The only challenge being the assembly of guns and wagons, with more super glue ending up on my fingers than the models!

First up are two units of British line, with a command base and some of the Pendraken buildings.

Two units of Highlanders.

A unit of Lancers.

And finally, for now, some mounted infantry.

With the artillery, that should be enough for a 'Men Who Would Be Kings' battle group. With the option of extending it to a Black Powder army.

Next the Boers!