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


Sunday, 26 January 2020

Lagertha and the shield maidens

Those watching the latest season of the TV series 'Vikings' will know that the number one shield maiden, Lagertha, has gone to Valhalla. I won't spoil the plot if you haven't caught up with the latest episode, but it's a good one, even if a bit drawn out at the end.

The story of Lagertha appears in the 12th-century Danish history by Saxo, although the modern view is that she is probably legendary - a composite of shieldmaiden characters. Saxo recounts:
"Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman."
According to the story, she married Ragnar Lodbrok, and that was a key element of the story in the TV series. Lagertha is played by Katheryn Winnick.

There is much academic debate on the subject of shield maidens. There is certainly some historical evidence that women fought in Viking societies, including the Rus. However, it is less clear if this was a regular feature of the society in the way it is portrayed in the sagas.

For the wargamer, who cares. No Viking army should be without a unit of shield maidens and so Lagertha will live on  - on my tabletop at least! 

I picked up these Bad Squiddo Games figures from Annie's stall a while ago. Well, almost a year if I am honest. Pretty sure it was at the York show, and I am off there next weekend. Lagertha comes in a mounted and dismounted version, along with a choice of companions.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Operation Castle

Over the holidays I was watching, for the ‘nth’ time, the film ‘Heroes of Telemark’ – the classic 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. It was based on a real WW2 operation to sabotage Norwegian heavy water production, which the Nazi’s needed for atomic bomb research. It reminded me of another planned raid I came across by accident in the National Archives last year.

This was Operation Castle, a plan to destroy the hydroelectric power station at Blaafjeldit near Jossingfjord in Norway. It powered a nearby Ilmenite mine, the sole German source of the mineral. It is the most important ore of titanium, today an important strategic alloy metal, but in the 1930’s it was widely used as titanium oxide in paint, fabrics etc. The British analysis was, ‘a commodity of some importance though not of great importance to Germany’s war effort.” 

The fiord is better known as the site of the Altmark incident in February 1940 when a British destroyer freed British prisoners captured by the Graf Spee. After this Norwegian patriots became known as Jossings, in opposition to the collaborator Quislings.

Even today, the site is pretty isolated and looks little different from 1941 as this Google Map shows.

There is one road around the fiord and a deep-water wharf, which in 1941 was used by the mine and power station. No coastal defences had been identified in the intelligence summary. The nearest troops were small detachments at Anasira, 4 miles away, and Rasvag, 10 miles away. There were 300 men at Flekkefiord (15miles) and 1200-1500 at Egersund (20 miles). The nearest airfield was Stavanger, about 50 miles away. Intelligence estimated that it would take reinforcements at least an hour to arrive and the roads could be easily blocked.

The plan was to attack on 17/18th January 1941 with 125 troops and a further 50 as a reserve. They would be landed by two destroyers, with a further destroyer covering and one submarine operating as a navigational mark.  Fighter air cover was limited to 150 miles from Scotland for the return journey. At this time of year, there were 17 hours of darkness and the operation was estimated to take three hours on the ground.

On landing, 50 troops (Group B) would go down the fiord to destroy the old power station and block the road. Another 50 plus 25 engineers (Group A) would go up the fiord to block the road and destroy the power station and dam. The 50 troop reserve (Group C) would hold the wharf and cover re-embarkation. This is the hand-drawn map in the War Office file.

The aim was to destroy the wharf, power plant and associated equipment linked to the mine, but not the mine itself. The assessment was that bombing would not achieve accurate results, and the raid could put the mine out of operation for the winter months.

The plan was approved on 2 January 1941 by the Chiefs of Staff. They argued that it would be useful raiding experience, boost Norwegian morale, interrupt road communications and damage the German war effort. It was also a low risk operation given the absence of a garrison, reliable intelligence and good local guides.

However, perhaps surprisingly, Churchill rejected the plan on 7 January. The War Cabinet minute states, “I cannot consent to this. It will only disturb the whole Norwegian coast, for reasons and objects which are trivial.”

So, it didn’t happen, but none the less an interesting scenario for wargamers. It involves small numbers of troops with German reinforcements trying to fight their way down both roads. Replicating the steep terrain might be a challenge. Where is that ModRoc when you need it?

Some 28mm British troops of the period

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Royal Armoury and Medieval Museum

This was our last full day in Stockholm. I was working most of the day but escaped mid-afternoon to visit the old town and palace area.

First stop was the Medieval Museum. This aims to show how Stockholm would have looked in the medieval period, including parts of the walls. Not a big museum but a number of interesting exhibits.

You don't see many examples of early handguns.

This diorama covers the Battle of Brunkeberg 1471

A very large longship.

Next stop was the Royal Armoury, which is part of the Royal Palace. A number of unusual and eyecatching pieces of armour and other uniforms from the medieval period to the present day.

Not sure if this helmet would make me scared or fall over laughing!

Gustavus and the Thirty Years War

Finally, I went looking for the old Royal church in Riddarholmen to pay my respects to Gustavus Adolphus. This is the church but sadly closed.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Vasa Museum and more

I had a clear schedule to explore Stockholm museums today. The morning was spent with my wife and daughter in the Abba Museum, which although a bit out of scope for this blog, was very good. It's a man of a certain age thing!

The absolute must-see sight in Stockholm is the Vasa Museum. The museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th-century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. It is truly awesome.

This is a 1:10 model of the ship.
The museum includes around 5000 items that separated from the  ship
A number of museums use skeletal reconstruction. In this case the crew.
This is the shipyard where the ship was built.
 Just around the corner, there is the Viking Museum. As the History Museum Viking section was closed, I was glad I took this in. Interactive museum, but plenty of content as well.

Another skeletal reconstruction. Not the popular image of a Viking!
The museum ride takes you on a Viking journey around Europe.
Finally, I went to the Swedish History Museum. A bit disappointing to be honest. If you are into medieval church art it's fine, otherwise, I would give it a miss. There is a good display of the Battle of  Gotland 1361 and some nice Viking gold.

Armour from the Gotland excavation.

A helmet from around 600AD

Viking arm rings and other gold embellishments. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Stockholm Army Museum

I am in Stockholm this week on business but I have built-in time to see some of the historical sights.

The Army Museum is a short walk from my hotel and well worth the effort. For a country that hasn't fought a war for 200 years, they still have plenty of history to tell.

I started on the top floor, which starts in the late medieval period. I understand the earlier periods are in the History Museum, which I also hope to get to.

Early Swedish armies were dominated by mercenaries, mostly from Germany and Scotland. Plenty of Scottish names in Sweden from those who settled there during this period.

Then we get to Gustavus Adolphus, one of the high points in Swedish military history. With a massive diorama. By this time local recruitment was also significant. Often the cause of regular peasant revolts.

Next stop is Charles XII and the Great Northern War. Some great exhibits on this and the originals of some classic paintings.

These are very rare imported uniform models for the period before the GNW.

You don't see much about the Swedish army in the Napoleonic wars, outwith the Leipzig campaign. But Sweden also fought a tough war with Russia during this period.

The second floor starts at 1900. Sweden was not directly involved in either of the world wars, but they still maintained large armed forces on alert against invasion.

The first floor is for temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is the Swedish victory against the Russians at Narva in 1700. I have often wondered about wargamers who use massive flags for this period. However, looking at the captured Russian flags in this exhibition, they might be right - they are massive. How anyone carried them in battle is beyond me. I bought the book that goes with the exhibition. Worth it for the colour plates alone.

Overall, this is an excellent museum. Well worth the effort if you are in Stockholm. They do a very nice cake as well!

Sunday, 12 January 2020

King in Waiting

This is the second in the prolific historical fiction author Griff Hosker's Lord Edward's Archer series. I thoroughly enjoyed the first in this series and the latest book does not disappoint.

The setting is the second half of the 13th century during the Second Barons War. Our hero, Gerald War Bow, is commanding a small company of archers in the pay of Prince Edward, son of King Henry III and the future Edward I.

Gerald is present at the Battle of Lewes (May 1264), when Simon de Montfort and the rebel lords defeated Henry and captured him and Edward. Gerald escapes the battle and takes employment in Yorkshire guarding a merchant and his convoys.

He keeps in touch with the loyal barons and takes part in the rescue of Edward from captivity. Edward gathers his forces and this culminates in the Battle of Evesham (August 1265), where Simon de Montfort is killed.

The story keeps pretty close to history, other of course than our hero's involvement. As with the first book, this stretches credulity somewhat, but this is fiction. And very well written fiction it is.

The battlefield at Evesham is well worth a visit. It is well preserved with excellent information boards and a walking trail from the town.

The hill Simon de Monfort's knights had to charge up - to their doom!

This book and the Barons War generally is an excellent source of wargaming scenarios for small battle rules like Lion Rampant. These are some of my 28mm figures.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Frontline Ukraine

Any mention of Ukraine at present inevitably focuses on President Trump's impeachment for withholding military aid until Ukraine's President Zelenskiy announced an investigation into the former US vice-president Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter. However, this masks the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the separatist conflict in the east of the country. 

While the recent prisoner exchange may point to some progress in resolving the conflict, I was interested to understand it in greater detail. Richard Sakwa's book 'Frontline Ukraine' has been sitting on my to-read shelf for some time. The reviews indicated that this was a balanced view of the conflict, all be it challenging some of the assumptions we might make based on western media presentations.

Ukraine as a nation-state is a fairly new creation, but the author gives a brief overview of what he fairly describes as borderlands. Winston Churchill once said that the Balkans produces more history than it can absorb, and the author argues the same is true of Ukraine. If you want a proper history then I would recommend 'Ukraine- The Gates of Europe' by Serhii Plokhy. 

This title introduces one of the author's key themes - that Ukraine reflects two Europes. A struggle between Russia in the east and a wider Europe to the west. The West focuses on what it sees as Russian aggression, without recognising that EU enlargement, linked to NATO expansion, has aggravated the conditions that provoked the conflict. The basis for this conflict is the asymmetric Cold War settlement, which has consolidated the EU Wider Europe policy. This would not have been a problem until the EU allowed enlargement to be a harbinger of NATO enlargement, with understandable security concerns for Russia.

There are two primary divisions of approach within Ukraine. The Monists who support a single view of Ukraine with a distinctive history and culture, and the Pluralists who argue that post-Communist Ukraine is home to many disparate peoples. This division has played out in democratic elections and less democratic revolutions. Attempts to find federalist solutions, as other countries have done, foundered on this division.

The borders of Ukraine have changed considerably over the years. The Crimea with its Russian speaking majority was only added in 1954 because of water links. It includes the main base of the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, a crucial security concern for Russia, who could not afford to allow NATO into its backyard. There is some polling evidence that people in the Crimea would have supported a federal approach to remaining within Ukraine, retaining the Russian base lease, but a Monist Ukraine egged on by the USA, blocked that option. 

There is no doubt that Putin annexed Crimea using Russian troops (Little Green Men) rather than the fictional internal revolt. The subsequent referendum clearly did not meet international standards, although there is unlikely to be a majority in favour of returning to Ukraine in the current circumstances. David Owen has suggested a sensible compromise of international status for the Crimea, a long lease for the base (Like Guantanamo in Cuba), followed by a referendum under international supervision after five years.

The subsequent conflict in the Donbas region is often seen as the next stage of Russian expansionism. However, this is a more complex dispute that has grassroots in the region. There has been Russian support, but Putin does not exercise the same degree of local control over the protest and subsequent militarisation. The inability to understand that this was a genuine revolt against a specific form of government has undermined subsequent efforts to resolve the conflict.  

Sakwa's main argument is that the crisis in Ukraine is a manifestation of the failure to establish an adequate structure of international politics since the end of the Cold War, coupled with the failure to address the domestic contradictions in Ukraine that have deep historical foundations. 

As with any book on current affairs, events have moved on since this book was published. However, sadly, the underlying problems have not been addressed, although there are some more recent signs that progress might be possible.

For the wargamer, this book is not a military history, it is a political and diplomatic study. For that, I would recommend Mark Galeotti's 'Armies of Russia's War in Ukraine'. This book is a useful companion and provides a well written and balanced view of the conflict that could have global implications for us all.

There are plenty of figure ranges for this conflict. These are my 20mm generic east European irregulars.