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, 6 July 2022

Wargaming Campaigns

 Henry Hyde's long-awaited tome on wargame campaigns has, at last, crashed through the letterbox. Well, actually, it was too big for the letterbox, and my wife suspected this was another addition to my lead pile! At 526 pages, you can see below, it dwarfs the classic (75 pages) 1973 'Setting up a Wargames Campaign' by Tony Bath. 

Henry has many virtues, but as listeners to his podcast will know, brevity is not one of them! And I even pay him through Patreon for the privilege. In fairness, much has changed in the hobby since 1973, and this tome covers far more than was even available to Tony in those early days of the hobby. Looking at my copy of Tony's book, I can see my pencil amendments to his costings, which reminded me of all those campaigns I organised using his book, with lovingly drawn maps on hex paper. Today, with tools like Inkarnate, we can have stunning fantasy maps at the click of a mouse. And it is developments like this that are reflected in this new book, hopefully encouraging a new generation, and some old grognards, to extend their tabletop battles to campaigns.

I did worry that this book might veer too far towards nostalgia. There is a fine chapter, 'Standing on the Shoulders of Giants', which had me reaching for my bookshelf. However, in the main, this is bang up to date with chapters on mapmaking and digital campaigns that drip with valuable ideas and resources. I use Inkarnate, but Worldographer looks good, and the Cartographers Guild website is a great resource. There are many good ideas about using spreadsheets and other technology to take a lot of the effort out of the paperwork that used to grind many of my early campaigns to a halt. I think I still have some of the many desk diaries I used to pick up cheaply at the end of every year. Henry is also supporting the book with online resources.

So what do you get for your money? After an introduction to campaigns, there is a chapter on generalship and strategy, followed by how to write your own campaign rules. Most chapters give you the theory, followed by practical examples and his suggested rules to get you started. The book is well illustrated throughout, not just with eye candy but with screen grabs and other practical pictures. Solo campaigns are not ignored, reflecting the impact of the pandemic on most of us. 

The following chapters get into the detail, covering issues like characterisation, roleplaying, weather, as well as campaigns at sea and in the air. The naval chapter will come in very handy for my Adriatic project. Most of us ignore weather in our games, which is surprising given how much we talk about it generally! Henry has created a deck of 52 cards to download that will go with his suggested rules. An excellent example of how this is much more than just a book.

I suspect most wargamers will use this book as a reference resource rather than reading it from cover to cover. Nonetheless, I loved this book, which I will keep within easy reach. It is a mixture of inspiration and technical manual, not an easy mix, but one Henry has done very well.

Monday, 4 July 2022

Fighting Napoleon - John Hildebrand of the 35th Foot

 This book covers the memoirs of Lieutenant John Hildebrand 35th Foot in the Mediterranean and Waterloo Campaigns, edited by Gareth Glover. The 1st Battalion of the 35th Foot was the main British regiment serving in the Adriatic during the Napoleonic Wars. John Hildebrand was present during most of the island and coastal hopping campaigns between 1811 and 1814. Glover has done an excellent job editing these memoirs, which were written sometime after the action. He corrects obvious errors and gives some important context.

He was born in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a long way from the regiment's recruitment area in Sussex. Although his father served in the Sussex Fencibles when based near Glasgow, which may explain some influence in his getting the Ensign position without purchase. The 35th Foot was often divided into detachments for individual actions, which meant that even junior officers had independent commands. Young army officers serving in the Adriatic, being granted more freedom and often working without close supervision, caught the same bug as the 'gung-ho' naval officers. The latter were always looking for an adventure, whether at sea or on land. 

The battalion first arrived in the Adriatic in September 1809 as part of General Oswald's expedition to capture the Ionian Islands from the French, together with foreign regiments including the Royal Corsican Rangers and the Greek Light Infantry. Hildebrand was with another force in Sicily. They captured Zante, Cephalonia and Santa Maura, and he joined the garrison on Zante in May 1811. He wasn't much impressed with the Greek Light Infantry, saying, "1st Battalion of the Greek Light Infantry Corps was raised, a fine-looking body of men but, as it turned out, utterly useless as soldiers and worse; so troublesome and unruly in discipline that, however hard the duties of the different garrisons of Zante, Santa Maura, Cephalonia, &c, no commanding officer could ever be persuaded to have that corps, if he could possibly avoid it."

He was part of a detachment that occupied Lissa (Vis) in May 1812. From there, under the command of Colonel Robertson, they attacked other French-held islands, including Lagosta (Lestovo) and Curzola (Korcula). Hildebrand was given command of the garrison at Lagosta, unusual for such a junior officer of the period. On his own initiative, he joined the siege of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) during 1813-14, being prosecuted by local irregular forces. The siege is covered in detail before the Austrians arrived and took the French surrender. He was given retrospective approval by Robertson, which was just as well given the sensitive politics of the siege.

He was offered a promotion in a new regiment being raised in Italy, but Napoleon's defeat in 1814 cut short that prospect, and he ended up back in the garrison at Corfu. The main enemy there appears to have been the fleas! He was sent home due to ill health but rejoined the regiment before Waterloo. The regiment was on the periphery of that battle.

Napoleonic memoirs can be a bit turgid and often full of detail the reader can do without. However, this is excellent, not least because of Glover's editing. An excellent primary source for my Adriatic project. The actions described are perfect for small battle rules like Sharp Practice or Rebels and Patriots.

I picked up this 1879 map of the Austrian Empire in a second-hand bookshop while on holiday in the Lake District. Very useful for these campaigns.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

The Debatable Land

 This book by Graham Robb is about a stretch of land on the England/Scotland border called the Debatable Land. For several centuries this desolate tract of land, of around 50 square miles, was treated as a sort of no man's land where by parliamentary decree, "all Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock.... without any redress to be made for same."

Like most borderlands, during this period, the border between England and Scotland was a pretty violent place, subject to what was known as reiving, essentially cross-border raids. Flags of War have a Kickstarter that I have signed up for with rules and figures covering the Border Reivers. I have struggled with the main histories of the period, including Steel Bonnets, so I thought I would have another go with this book.

The author moved to the area, so this is a bit of a travelogue and a history. I did find the structure of the book a little hard going, but there are plenty of gems to make the journey worthwhile. For example, the word 'blackmail' comes from the protection money paid to a powerful neighbour who assumed the responsibility for getting back your stolen goods by organising a 'hot trod'. Also, 'bereaved' which initially simply meant robbed. The phrase 'debatable lands' comes from 'batable', which meant pasture lands used by both nations. It was not disputed but recognised as neutral by both governments. 

There were no permanent buildings or fortifications, but the border clans, most notably the Armstrongs and Grahams, had property on either side and frequently contested each other. These were no castles as such but tower houses called Pele Towers. There were few sieges, but the word 'scumfishing' meant surrounding the tower with damp straw and smoking the occupants out. Just outside the Debatable Land is Hermitage Castle, as stark and functional as a castle that I have ever visited. It was most famous when Mary Queen of Scots made a famous marathon journey there on horseback from Jedburgh to see the wounded Earl of Bothwell, only a few weeks after the birth of her son.

The first proper map was drawn by Henry Bullock, and it looks like the sort of fantasy map I might draw using Inkarnate. It was used to divide the land in 1552, marked by parallel ditches, which can be seen today. This marked the end of the independent territory, and each nation took responsibility for its own portion. It effectively ended with the joining of the crowns under King James VI (1st of England). He also decided to end lawlessness more generally within the borders. He hung many using what was known as 'Jeddart justice', the practice of having a trial after the execution! Some of the most troublesome clans found themselves shipped off to Ireland, including many Armstrongs and Grahams.

This isn't a history of the borders like Steel Bonnets, but you can pick up a feel of what it was like to live there during this period. Ideal for small skirmish games, although at times, up to a thousand horsemen would take part in raids. They were also a feature of the Scottish and English armies of the period. I am looking forward to getting the new figures on the table when the Kickstarter arrives.

I used some 28mm borderers in my Game of Thrones project as the TV series used similar costumes.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Kashmir at the Crossroads

I needed a book for a couple of flights and a layover this week. I have been reading many military history books about the Pakistan-India conflicts, and the key theme is Kashmir. So, a deeper dive is required, and who better for an objective study (if anyone on the sub-continent can be!) than Sumantra Bose. I was drawn to this book after listening to a podcast interview of his Kashmir at the Crossroads a while back.

The Kashmir conflict is the most stubborn territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since partition. The territory has been divided into a larger and much more populous part under Indian authority and a smaller part in Pakistan. The dividing line was known as the Ceasefire Line (CFL) from 1949 until 1972 and relabelled as the Line of Control (LoC) by an intergovernmental agreement in July 1972. The Kashmir conflict has been the bane of the subcontinent and the cause of at least three wars between the two countries and many smaller-scale conflicts. Since 1990, at least 60,000 people have been killed in civil unrest.

Sadly, the root cause of the conflict was created by the British decision at partition to allow the princely states to decide which country they went into. Kashmir had a Hindu ruler but a Muslim majority population. There was supposed to be a plebiscite under UN supervision, but that never happened despite Indian commitments. This is why the region remains a contested zone.

In this context, the wars and insurgencies that followed all seem pretty obvious. However, there are nuances that I hadn't appreciated. For most of this period, most of the Muslim population did not support joining Pakistan. Their favoured option was an independent state or at least significant autonomy. It is doubtful how practical the first option was, even though it was a theoretical option at partition. The Indian Government deposed the region's premier in 1953 when he pressed for maximum autonomy, and it's been downhill ever since. Rigged elections and government-appointed stooges removed any local accountability, and insurgency has been the consequence. As Jaya Prakash Narayan, a prominent Indian opposition leader put it: ‘We profess democracy, but rule by force in Kashmir. We profess secularism, but let Hindu nationalism stampede us into establishing it by repression. Kashmir has distorted India’s image in the world as nothing else has done. The problem exists not because Pakistan wants to grab Kashmir, but because there is deep and widespread discontent among the people.’

The current situation has brought China into the equation. China has two border disputes with India. The Aksai Chin/Ladakh area bordering western Tibet in the western Himalayas, and the North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA region in the eastern Himalayas. The irony of China supporting dispossesed Muslims when they persecute the Uighurs, should not be lost on anyone. Pakistan’s leaders, civilian and military, have long referred to China as Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’.

In 2019, legislation promoted by the nationalist BJP government opted for an ultra-centralist approach by revoking the status of the region as a constituent state of the Indian Union and dismembered it into two ‘union territories’. The hammer-and-axe offensive unleashed on 5 August 2019 took repression to a surreal level and turned the Kashmir Valley, in particular, into a real-life approximation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was somewhat akin to what Serbia’s Milosevic regime did in 1989 by unilaterally revoking Kosovo’s autonomy. That didn't end well and the current repression has been a disaster for the people of the region and risks a three-way conflict in the future.

This book is a detailed narrative of the conflict in Kashmir at its various stages. The internal politics are complicated, but the wider implications are serious. There is a significant amount of repetition, and referencing back, which is useful if you dip into the book, but irritating for a straight read. Otherwise, it provides all you need to know. I should emphasise this is a political history, the military aspects are better covered in the Helion Asia@War series. Kashmir is a grim lesson in the ruinous potential of nationalism, or in this case nationalisms competing for supremacy.

Some of my 1/285th forces for the conflict.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Russian Fleet in the Mediterranean 1797-1810

 I have been looking at a little-covered episode in the Napoleonic Wars, the presence of a significant Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, specifically the Adriatic. I have been helped by two books, one old and one new on the subject. 

I picked up a pristine copy of Norman Saul's 1970 book 'Russia and the Mediterranean 1797-1807'. This covers the early period when the fleet was commanded by Vice-Admiral Ushakov. It included six ships of the line, seven frigates and three brigs. The focus of Russian attention was the Ionian Islands, headquartered in the great fortress at Corfu. This book is a concise description of the campaigns against the French in the context of the major conflicts in central Europe and Italy. The Russians had major challenges, not least when relations with the Ottomans were poor, as they often were. During these periods, the Straits would be closed, and the Russians either relied on allies or had to move ships and supplies all the way from St Petersburg.

The second book was written by a Russian naval officer, Vladimir Bogdanovich Bronevskiy, who mainly served on the Frigate Venus as part of Vice-Admiral Senyavin's fleet during the period 1806-1810. Darrin Boland has done an excellent job translating and lightly editing his memoirs in 'Northern Tars in Southern Waters', published by Helion.

Naval warfare in the Adriatic mainly was a small ship war, and the Russians had frigates like the Venus that engaged French supply convoys and intercepted neutrals. In May 1806, The French General Molitor was travelling from Venice to Trieste when his merchant ship was intercepted. He managed to persuade the Russian captain that he was an Austrian merchant. The fact that he carried papers to support this claim indicates that this was not a one-off precaution. Russian commanders, like their Royal Navy counterparts, had to use their own initiative being weeks away from command centres in St Petersburg.

The Russians had far more ships of the line in the Adriatic than other navies, and these were mainly used to support operations on land. Typically the fleet would attack a French garrison and knock out the defender's artillery before Russian and Montenegrin troops would land and capture the island. The Montenegrins and the Bokez (citizens of the Bay of Cattaro) were sympathetic to Russia and provided excellent, if ill disciplined, light infantry. The only significant fleet action was against the Ottomans at the Battle of Athos.

The Russian fleet was generally very effective, but as was often the case events elsewhere intervened. The Treaty of Tilsit resulted in Russia abandoning much of its Adriatic possessions. Tilsit meant Senyavin was stranded in the Mediterranean without a base. He couldn’t go back through the Straits so he sent the troops home via Trieste and Austria, scuttled or sold some ships, and sailed the rest back towards the Baltic. He was blockaded by the British in Lisbon, and only two ships made it home in 1813. A sorry end for one of Russia’s finest fleets that had operated successfully in the Adriatic. 

For the wargamer, the Adriatic offers plenty of opportunities for naval and land operations at a manageable scale. Right on time, Warlord have brought out a supplement for their Black Seas naval rules, Hold Fast. They include chapters on the Russian and Ottoman navies, as well as most of the other minor naval powers. There are lots of new scenarios for smaller games, including the use of galleys and xebecs in the Meditteranean.

This looks excellent and I hope to try a few games this weekend. I have some Russian ships on the painting bench to do battle with my Ottomans and French.

Xebecs from the Hagen range.

Ottoman ship of the line at the Istanbul Naval Museum

Ottoman galleys

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Flygvapenmuseum - Swedish Air Force Museum

The second major museum trip on my visit to Sweden this week was to Flygvapenmuseum, the Swedish Air Force Museum near Linkoping, over two hours drive from Stockholm. The city is home to a Saab plant, and the museum is next to a major air base. Sadly, half the museum, WW2 and earlier, was closed for a refurbishment, but it was still worth the effort. Apologies for the darkness of the pictures. After watching many Swedish crime dramas, I am convinced that there is a national lightbulb shortage in the country!

Sweden has a significant aircraft industry; while it has imported planes, the main post-war designs are designed and built in Sweden. The second jet, introduced in 1951, was the Saab 29, named the Tunnan (Barrel), for obvious reasons. Not the most stylish aircraft to grace the skies.

Next was the Saab 32 Lansen, which came in fighter, attack and recon versions.

Then a personal favourite, the Saab 35 Draken, because I had a kit of this hanging from my bedroom ceiling as a kid. Although I thought it meant dragon, it means kite, emphasising the double delta wing.

Another unusual design was the Saab 37 Viggen. 

And finally, right up to date is the Saab 39 Gripen.

The Swedish Air Force also used aircraft from the UK and elsewhere. 

Hawker Hunter

Spitfire PR

Pembroke C1


Douglas DC3

One of their Douglas DC3 aircraft was shot down by a Soviet MiG-15 in 1952 while on reconnaissance. The basement display has the remains of the plane lifted from the seabed and the whole story. Yes, it's even darker down there!

They have a Mig-15 on display in the main hall.

The earlier display hall is being refurbished, but you can see part of the hall from the activity area.

If you have children with you, this is a great museum for them. Lots of interactive stuff, flight simulators etc. I couldn't get on! Excellent museum, well worth the effort to get there.

Sunday, 19 June 2022

Arsenalen - Swedish Tank Museum

I am in Sweden for a few days on a work trip, so I flew in early for the weekend. I did all the Stockholm museums on my last visit just before the pandemic hit. So, this time I thought I would see a bit of rural Sweden. Two words sum up the countryside here - trees and water. There are a couple of museums that I wanted to see, and the first is the Swedish Tank Museum. It is near a pretty town called Strangnas, about an hour's drive from Stockholm. If you have a car, visit Mariefred at the same time, which is stunning, including a fine castle and a preserved railway.

I was chatting to the curator, who told me they have around 400 AFVs in the collection, with about 100 on display at any one time. They have plenty of German, British, US and Soviet AFVs, but I'll focus on the rarely seen Swedish ones.

This is a Pannsarbil FM/29 armoured car, built-in 1932 for the cavalry regiment. It had a driver at both ends for a quick getaway. Not a success as it was too large and expensive.

This is the Striv FM/31. It had road wheels and tracks, the idea being to save the tracks. However, a better track design meant it never got past the prototype.

Next is the Striv M/37, a Swedish-built version of the Czechoslovak ČKD AH-IV tankette.

The Pansarbil M/31 armoured car was a 4x4 vehicle mainly used for training during WW2.

The Striv M/38 light tank. 216 vehicles of different variants were produced from 1939 through 1944. The vehicle remained in the service of the Swedish army until the 1960s.

The Striv M/42 was a medium tank with a 75mm gun introduced in 1943, although already out of date by wartime standards.

The Pvkv M/43 was a tank destroyer version of the M/42 with a larger calibre 75mm gun. It remained in service until 1970.

The M/42 SKP 'KP-bil' was an armoured truck developed as an APC in 1942. It was called the coffin because of its shape but remained in service until 2004. They saw service with the Swedish element of the UN forces in Cyprus.

The Lvkv FM/43 was an armoured, tracked AA vehicle for use with armoured brigades. It had twin 40mm guns.

The SAV m/43 was a 105mm SPG. Came into service in 1943 and remained until 1973.

The IKV 91 was the replacement tank destroyer for infantry brigades in the 1960s, and it typically carried an infantry section on the rear.

The Pbv 301 was a 1960s APC with a 20mm auto-cannon.

The Strv 74 was a light tank that served from the 1960s until 1984.

The Pbv 302 is an APC. Developed after the Swedish army rejected the M113.

 And finally, the iconic and unique S-tank. 

Upstairs there is also a small regimental museum for the Sodermanlands Regiment. Guns, uniforms, a full-size wargame unit and some very nice flats of a battle against the Russians at Stäket on 13 August 1719.

Overall, an excellent museum, with accommodating and engaging staff. Well worth the effort getting there.