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


Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The Portrait of a General - Charles Colville

I am now at the stage when I am digging deep into my 'to read' shelves, reaching tomes that I bought on the basis that they looked interesting but never quite got to the top of the pile. This book by John Colville is a biography of his ancestor who was one of Wellington's less well-known generals.

He came from a Scottish military family and was commissioned at the age of eleven, which even for the period was young. His studies included a spell in France, before the revolution, before joining his regiment at age sixteen. He served in the West Indies and Egypt before heading to Portugal with Picton's 3rd Division.

Picton was not the easiest commander to serve under, but Colville appears to have got on well with him as a brigade commander. He fought in most of the major battles and sieges of that campaign, and a few minor ones such as El Bodon. He acted up in Picton's absence and also commanded the 4th Division during General Cole's absence.

The book is largely based on Colville's letters home to his family. His descriptions of the dreadful sieges at Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo are particularly vivid. He was wounded at Badajoz. Other letters can be a bit tedious but give a flavour of the priorities and concerns of senior officers of the period.

As the campaign rolled across Spain, Colville was mostly with the 3rd Division and played an important part in the decisive Battle of Vitoria. He commanded the 6th Division over the Pyrenees and into France, before returning to command the 3rd Division once again. When Picton yet again returned he was given permanent command of the 5th Division. By the campaign's end, he had commanded most of the army's divisions at some time.

When the army was reassembled for the Waterloo campaign, Colville was in Britain and was appointed to command the 4th Division. he wasn't at the battle, being ordered to secure the army's right flank. He remained a divisional commander during the occupation. On returning home he married and started a family, before being appointed as Commander-in-Chief at Bombay.

Sir Charles Colville probably won't be remembered as one of Wellington's more famous generals. However, he was obviously regarded as a safe pair of hands who fought it just about all the main campaigns of the period. This book isn't a racy read, but it does give the reader an insight into the thinking of a senior soldier of the period through his private letters.

The general in the middle from my 28mm collection looks a bit like him!

Monday, 29 June 2020

Russ Druzhina

I have long had a fancy to collect a Russ army, but never quite got around to it. Then along came the Russian 2018 TV series, The Golden Horde. It is showing with sub-titles on Amazon Video.

This is based in the Thirteenth Century when the Russ states were paying tribute to the Mongol offshoot, the Golden Horde. There are sixteen episodes, so settle down for a long journey. I am a big fan of Russian historical TV. The history may be a touch speculative, but the setting, costumes etc are brilliant.

As wargamers disease had struck, it occurred to me that I could use Russ figures for Lion Rampant or SAGA and as one of the eastern states in my Oathmark campaign. Hence the imaginatively named city of Gorod!

In 28mm, the Russ means Gripping Beast. The first unit off the painting bench is some Druzhina cavalry. These were the household troops of the Russ princes, although they could reach substantial numbers. Alexander Nevsky had 3000 troops in his Druzhina.

The figures needed a bit of a cleanup, and have an irritating level of assembly required for metal figures. The lances I accept, but not scabbards, bows and quivers. Needless to say to shields have poor connections to the arms.

You get a random range of shield types, which is particularly irritating when ordering shield transfers. I have generally had a positive experience with LBM transfers, but these were very difficult to peel off the plastic cover. I just about got six usable ones from a sheet of twelve.

Anyway, here they are. Some infantry next.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Porphyry and Ash

My latest bedtime fiction reading has been Peter Sandham's 'Porphyry and Ash', which is based around the siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The author keeps fairly close to the history of siege, even taking actual historical characters and developing them. His main character is a Scot, John Grant, who arrives in the city as a mercenary, seeking repentance for a shady past. While Scots have a habit of turning up any war, I didn't know of this one. 

The other is Anna Notaras, daughter of the Byzantine Megas Doux, Loukas Notaras. She gets involved in a significant number of sub-plots, which take the reader into the history and factions of the last Roman occupants of the city.

The story of the siege is told from the inside. The Ottomans are largely kept 'over the wall' until of course the Janissaries finally breach them. The tensions between the Genoese and Venetian communities as well as the religious divide are all teased out.

The life of the city has been thoroughly researched. This shows in the detailed descriptions of everyday life - the food and drink, the streets, occupations and business. You can smell the city in the words.

This isn't a Bernard Cornwell style historical fiction. The battle scenes are excellent, but you get a slow build-up with many sub-plots to consider. As others have commented, this is historical storytelling at its best.

I really enjoyed this story and I have already downloaded the next in the series.

28mm Janissaries of the period

Saturday, 27 June 2020

War in the Aegean

There have been many books written about the war in the Aegean, including some recent ones like Julie Peakman’s ‘Hitler’s Island War’, which focuses on the stories of those who lived and fought on the island of Leros. I have recently returned to an older book (2008) by Peter Smith and Edwin Walker on the subject.

 In this book, the authors give the reader a decent narrative of the campaign, but also a careful analysis. The appendices alone are very instructive. 

The key strategic arguments, for and against the campaign, are well-argued. At the highest strategic level, it was another example of Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly’ as against the direct approach favoured by the USA. This campaign also had more grand tactical implications. Hitler was always going to want to defend the islands for fear of allied bombing on his crucial Romanian oil supplies. An economic aspect of Hitler’s strategy that is often understated.

The author’s sum up the USA position well:

“The United States never had the slightest interest in either the Balkans or the Aegean area, and it saw any attempts by Britain to take the war into this area as mere stalling for time from an ally that was reluctant to face the cost in the final reckoning, which it knew must be decided in Europe. “On to Berlin” was the only strategy the Americans were interested in. They were not interested in the Dodecanese, except for a strong inclination to try to keep Britain out.”

The authors don’t hide their own view:

“In examining the final assessments of the value of the Aegean Sea area to the future prosecution of the war, one is struck by the clarity and similarity of foresight expressed by both Churchill for Britain and Hitler for Germany, as well as the almost naive truculence of the American Chiefs of Staff and the shortsightedness of their policy.”

In the context of 1942-3, I think Churchill had a point. However, in the longer term, as Michael Howard and others have pointed out, the ‘soft-underbelly’ isn’t quite so soft when you get nearer to Germany.

When it comes to the Aegean, I’m afraid the description of the Kos and Leros campaigns as ‘Churchill’s folly’ seems pretty accurate. The key was Rhodes, and it wouldn’t have taken huge resources to capture it. General Wilson reckoned it was doable with the 10th Indian Division and an armoured brigade. What was lacking was naval and air support. However, to plough on without it was outright folly.

There is an interesting sub-plot, touched on in this book, that Churchill believed that Turkey would agree to air cover from Turkish bases. We now understand that this was unlikely. In any case, expecting a handful of troops to hold isolated islands without being certain of air support, remains a folly.

As a wargamer, I have played a number of tactical games based on these campaigns. However, I remembered that I had a board game, ‘War in the Aegean’ (Against the Odds 2005) which represents the grand tactical level campaign.

 When you play this game, it becomes immediately apparent how important Rhodes was. Admittedly, in my case not helped when Tilney’s task force was sunk by Stukas before it even got to Leros!

I usually find board games overly complex, but this game gives a very different perspective of the campaign and is well worth the effort. 

Monday, 22 June 2020

Kargil War 1999

This new book by Sanjay Badri-Maharaj covers one of the more obscure and frankly pointless conflicts of the modern era. The Kargil War between India and Pakistan was fought between 3 May and 26 July 1999 in Kashmir. The fighting took place on mountain tops, typically 5,000 metres high.

Skirmishing along the contested Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir is commonplace. However, this was no skirmish. The Pakistan Army inserted a brigade-size group of their Northern Light Infantry and Mujahideen combatants across the LOC in Operation Badr. To eject them, the Indian Army deployed two infantry divisions (52 battalions) and 19 artillery regiments, plus air support.

Indian soldiers had to climb 16,000ft with packs weighing up to 25kgs in temperatures between -5 and -11C. At places, the attack was more akin to mountain climbing with ropes. The defenders were entrenched in sub-groups of 30-40 men and even rolled stones down on the attackers.

The initial assaults were rushed, not least because the infiltration was almost entirely missed by Indian intelligence, and senior commanders on the ground did not appreciate the scale of the incursion. This leads to heavy casualties before proper air and artillery support was organised.  By the end of the conflict, the Indian artillery fired some 250,000 shells, around 5,000 per day.

The book gives an outline of the conflict in Kashmir and the broader wars between India and Pakistan. Then a breakdown of the two armies in 1999, including detailed ORBATs and equipment. As usual in this excellent Helion Books series, it is profusely illustrated including colour plates. The rival air forces are also covered, although only a few Indian Air Force squadrons were deployed in this particular conflict. Both nations have nuclear weapons, and both sides prepared these for deployment and possible use.

The overall war plans of both countries are set out, before looking at the ORBATs for both sides in the Kargil area. This book is largely written from the Indian perspective, so Pakistan force deployments are speculative. The final chapters cover the battles for the mountain tops, again from an Indian perspective. They involved astonishing feats of endurance and bravery.

That bravery came at a cost. The Indian forces lost 1,714 killed, wounded and missing, plus two aircraft and a helicopter. Pakistan's losses have never been declared. The Pakistan Army named 453 soldiers killed in the sector during 1999, but that does not include the Mujahidin. As a former Pakistan Chief of the General Staff put it; "It had no purpose, no planning and nobody knows even today how many soldiers lost their lives". Even today, civilians on both sides remain displaced.

Given the entrenched views of both sides over Kasmir, the documentaries lack objectivity. However, they are worth a look on YouTube just to see the terrain.

It is likely that this won't be the last conflict on the 'top of the world'. Only a few days ago 20 Indian troops died in a clash with Chinese troops in the region. The wider conflicts are covered well, this time from the other side of the line, by Eric Margolis in his book 'War at the Top of the World'.

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Sunday, 21 June 2020

More Oathmark lockdown painting

This week's lockdown painting was in two parts.

Firstly my Dwarf army was in need of some punch. Looking at the options I settled for some heavy-duty guys from the Mantic range. Not sure about the flat heads on the command figures, but otherwise one part castings, with no bits to glue on - or fall off!

I also added the general figure from this range. I'm not expecting much strategic leadership from this guy - looks pretty hands-on with that axe!

The Eastmark realm (sort of Norman) borders onto Malumter, the orc and goblin kingdom. So border raiding is common. This fortified house is just the job. It won't stop a full-blown siege, but it should hold off raiders. The building comes from the Noch range, which comes primed and is made from a hard foam material, so very light. Thanks to Mrs W for the birthday present.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Armies of the Ottoman Empire 1645-1718

I read a lot of books, particularly anything related to the Balkans. However, every so often a really 'wow' book arrives. This study of the Ottoman Empire at war, by Bruno Mugnai, is just such a tome.

The timescale is 1645 to 1718. A period that starts with the long, but successful conflict with Venice that culminated with the capture of Crete in 1669. In the Balkans, the Ottomans campaigned in Transylvania, were held in Austria at Szentgotthard, defeated the Poles, and finally halted at the siege of Vienna in 1683.  After that, the Ottomans were on the defensive, with the Holy League pressing into the Balkans, retaking Hungary and Belgrade. The Venetians captured much of the Peloponnese and the disaster at Zenta resulted in the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699.

The Russians opened a new front in 1711, which demonstrated the Ottomans could kick back, surrounding Peter the Great at the Pruth. They also recaptured the Peloponnese. The period ends with Prince Eugene's victory at Peterwardein and the Peace of Passarowitz in 1718.

This is the Ottoman army some way from its peak, but still able to deliver decisive results on the battlefield. The author takes the reader through the complex structures that held the Empire and its wider 'Commonwealth' together.

The meat of the book is a long chapter on the Ottoman armies covering all the various units, from the well-known Janissaries to the more obscure militias and specialist troops. The Ottoman allies, like the Tartars, are also covered.

Then another long chapter on the Ottoman art of war, which examines the strategy and tactics used during this period. The coverage of logistics is particularly good, given the challenges of getting huge numbers of troops to the battlefields on the edges of the Empire. Finally, a chapter on dress and equipment.

The whole book is profusely illustrated and there are colour plates in Mugnai's crisp style.

When I started to collect Ottoman armies we had a few stapled booklets for reference. Now we have beautiful books like this, which benefit from new research using western and Ottoman sources. If my collections were not so large, I would be seriously tempted to start all over again!

This book is just excellent. Highly recommended.

One of the many types of Serhaddkulu units.