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


Monday, 15 October 2018

Military history tourist in London

Being semi-retired allows a bit more time to enjoy the sights. So, instead of hurtling back from a conference in London, we spent a few days being a tourist.

On Saturday, after my wife insisted we visit the rubbish London Bridge Experience, we went to the Tower of London. While she queued (in the rain) for the Crown Jewels, I visited the Royal Fusiliers Museum.

Passing the 25 pounder...

A 'liberated' bust of the Duce.

And of particular interest to me, caps from peacekeeping duties in Bosnia.

Having been spared the queue, I have to admit the Crown Jewels are impressive. The story of Captain Blood, does get a passing mention!

Then into the White Tower and the Royal Armouries. This is very impressive, especially as I am planning to get to the northern branch in Leeds next weekend.

English Civil War trooper.

A presentation gold plated SMG, which was used in a London murder.

If Ann Boleyn is to be believed, the armourer left a bit too much space for Henry VIII's 'crown jewels' in this suit of armour.

The Goliath and the dwarf

A striking Dragon made from various bits of arms and armour.

James II's royal armour.
 They have a few breastplates!

On Sunday, I went to the football. Please to say, my team, Fulham has a number of Serbian connections, including the manager and Alexsander Mitrovic. We will pass on the score!

On Monday we went to Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum.

It has the largest ship in a bottle I have ever seen.

The Jutland room is very good.

And of course Nelson's navy gallery.

We missed the Cabinet War Rooms, as the queue was ridiculous, but the Household Cavalry Museum was a decent substitute.

And finally on Tuesday morning, The British Library. Including this Ottoman gem.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Back to Bokhara

In one of my frequent trawls through a second hand bookshop, I came across 'Back to Bokhara' by Fitzroy Maclean. I have of course read his memoirs in 'Eastern Approaches', largely for his WW2 activities with Tito in Yugoslavia. 

This book was written in 1959 and covers his return to the Soviet Union, six years after Nikita Khrushchev had taken over from Stalin. Twenty years earlier, Maclean had spent two years in the British Embassy in Moscow during the height of the Stalin purges. A point often forgotten by his critics, who argue that he was duped by Tito. Maclean was a Tory MP, no fan of communism!

This book is something of a travelogue, as he revisits parts of the Soviet Union, including what are now central asian states like Uzbekistan.  He compares the Soviet Union of this period positively compared with the Stalin era. Khrushchev introduced wide ranging reforms and less oppressive government, denouncing the Stalin purges. 

His struggles with the Soviet bureaucracy are mildly entertaining, as he seeks permission to visit places tourists rarely went to. His description of the sites in Samarkand, Tashkent and Bokhara are particularly vivid, as are his black and white photographs. However, like many memoirs by soldiers of his class, he inexplicably feels the need to describe his meals in some detail. It's obviously a public school thing!

This is a slim volume, a period piece that is interesting, but not a page turner. Perhaps not an objective view of the Soviet Union during this period of change, but not a particularly hostile one either.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Armoured Forces of the Bulgarian Army 1936-45

I suspect this book hasn't exactly flown off the Helion bookshelves, although at 1.6kg, it's unlikely to take off fast!

However, it should. 'The Armoured Forces of the Bulgarian Army 1936-45' by Kaloyan Matev, is a beautiful book. A hugely detailed piece of research in the Bulgarian archives, well written, profusely illustrated and colour plates as well.

The author starts with some background on the earliest motorisation of the Bulgarian army in the Balkan Wars and in WW1. In the 1930's, treaty restrictions and the economy limited armoured development. The first AFVs were 14 Italian L3/33 tankettes in 1935, although over 300 trucks, scout cars and artillery tractors were also purchased from different countries. In 1938 they took delivery of 8 Vickers 6-ton tanks.

With the outbreak of war, Germany became the main supplier, initially with captured or new weapons including 25 Skoda LT vz.35 tanks. These were well received and a further 10 were quickly ordered.

In 1941 Bulgaria joined the Axis and acquired 45 Renault R.35 tanks. These captured French tanks suffered from a range of faults  and poor cross country performance. Most Bulgarian units were facing Turkey, who looked as if they might join the Allies. 24 Turkish divisions were concentrated in European Turkey.

Bulgaria did not participate in the invasion of Greece, but did perform occupation roles in Macedonia, Greece and Serbia. Pressure was placed on the Germans to provide modern tanks in 1943, when in looked like the Allies might invade Europe through the Balkans, again with Turkish support.

They wanted STUG III assault guns, Pkw IV tanks, half tracks and armoured cars. These started to arrive in the summer of 1943 and by Feb 1944, 87 Pkw. IVs and 55 STUG III's were in service.

Bulgaria had not declared war on the Soviet Union, but as the Germans retreated from the Balkans in September 1944, the Bulgarians retreated from Yugoslavia and found themselves at war with the Soviets and the Germans at the same time.

As the Soviets entered Bulgaria, there was no resistance, and after a coup, Bulgarian army units were reconstituted as Soviet allies. An armoured brigade fought with the Soviets during the invasion of Yugoslavia, clashing with the retreating Germans, suffering significant casualties and tank losses. These interesting actions are described in some detail, together with colour maps.

In 1945, the Bulgarian army received replacement captured German tanks from the Soviets, including Panther tanks. They fought in northern Yugoslavia and Hungary, ending up in Austria at the end of the war. 105 captured axis AFVs were transferred to Bulgarian service by the end of the war.

While this is probably not a book for the general reader, it covers the subject very well. For the wargamer, it provides some interesting gaming possibilities and has everything you need to reproduce these units on the tabletop.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Western Approaches

I have been in my home city of Liverpool this week at a conference. I took the opportunity to visit the Liverpool War Museum for the first time.

The museum is based in the bunkers that made up the Western Approaches command, the nerve centre of the allied forces in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. It was here that allied ships and aircraft were directed against U-Boats that threatened the vital convoys moving across the Atlantic.

This quote emphasises the huge contribution made by this command:

Bitter Ocean, David Fairbanks White

It is also worth remembering that it was largely staffed by Wrens - young women, mostly under 21 years of age, who had to have a very high standard of maths. They worked long shifts, in very difficult circumstances, under great pressure.

The entry 'ticket' is a bit different - a nice touch.

The high point of the museum is the map room. Left just as it was when the room closed in 1945.

This is the Admiral's office - He didn't get to play a lot of golf during the war!

The original switchboard room and equipment, they also have a cypher room for those vital ULTRA intercepts.

The museum has many useful explanatory panels like this one.

And a room dedicated to some of the many successful U-Boat sinking.

Finally, a typical Liverpool Street, although the city suffered badly from bombing and many of the Wrens leaving after a shift would have found plenty of rubble in the streets around the bunker.

If you are in Liverpool, this is well worth a visit.

Friday, 21 September 2018

King Arthur's Britain

I have recently been dragged back into the murky history of King Arthur. Some years ago at GDWS we ran a WAB campaign based on Steve Jones and John Morris's supplement for those rules. And great fun it was too with its own newspaper and much treachery all round.

I was watching the excellent BBC documentary 'King Arthur's Britain: The Truth Unearthed' last week, when I remembered my reading pile included 'King Arthur: A Military History' by Michael Holmes. I also paid a visit to Tintagel this summer. So what have I learned?

Michael Holmes makes a bold attempt to justify, not only the existence of King Arthur, as a High King of Britain, but a series of military victories that held back the Anglo-Saxon invasion for many years. He has been influenced by the late Dr John Morris who wrote another heavy tome on the subject, 'The Age of Arthur', that also rests on my bookshelves.

That book has come under sustained academic criticism and I fear many of the same traps have been galloped into by Michael Holmes. He takes what few, and they are very few, documentary sources to build an edifice that is difficult to justify. In fairness, he examines the various sources and arguments made for battle sites etc. so the reader can draw their own conclusion. He argues a new factor is the comparison with the conquest of Gaul by the Franks, which happened much more quickly than in Britain. However, there are obvious differences that might explain the different timeline, other than the heroic figure of King Arthur.

Professor Alice Roberts in the BBC documentary, uses the latest archeological evidence to paint a somewhat different picture. Far from the great military invasion, she argues that the Anglo-Saxons infiltrated into the east of England, filling the vacuum left by the departing Romans. The absence of any major battle graves or significant numbers of sword wounds in skeletal remains, reinforces this view. The latest DNA evidence shows that less than 10% of people in the 'Saxon' areas came from Northern Europe. In essence, the Anglo-Saxons arrived and built their own communities, before gradually mixing with the local population. The Britons weren't driven out to the west or Wales - most of them stayed put.

There certainly was an east-west split in England, but this is more likely to reflect trading links. Tintagel was an important centre, looking to its long standing trading links based on tin, which are reflected in the latest finds on the site. Whilst the east of England traded over the North Sea, as it had done for many years.

Tintagel Castle - well worth a visit, even if no evidence that Arthur was there!

While the documentary didn't make this point, I was reminded of the Slav 'invasion' of the Balkans in the same era. They gradually infiltrated into the Balkans during a period of Byzantine weakness, filling another vacuum. No huge armies or massive battles.

All this adds up to a much less exciting or heroic story, but to me at least, a more credible one. I will still manoeuvre my Arthurian war band across the tabletop, while recognising that this is probably more fantasy than historical wargaming.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Other 1918 Campaign

In my latest feature article in Balkan Military History, I look at the often forgotten Macedonian campaign of 1918, which made an important contribution to the end of WW1. An antidote to the Western Front bias of the history media!

In three days, Serbian and French forces effectively knocked Bulgaria out of the war, exposing the weak underbelly of the Central Powers.

I recently dusted down some of my 28mm Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian figures of this campaign at GDWS. My opponent fielded his very nice Greek figures of the period.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Ali Pasha: Lion of Ioannina

Ali Pasha was a interesting character - so fascinating that I have a print of him on my study wall. Yes, I know, very sad. So a newish biography is an essential read.

What a wonderful cover!
Quentin and Eugenia Russell use the sub-title "The Remarkable Life of the Balkan Napoleon". This is not an unfair description of the de facto ruler of Epirus with interests much wider than that in the early 19th Century. The weakness of the Ottoman Empire at the time meant that the western powers dealt with him directly, and he played them off pretty well to expand his territories and wealth.

Western travellers, like Byron, wrote about him, lending a romantic tinge to the story. He could clearly be charming and courageous, as well as being a murderous rogue. His palaces and a harem of six hundred women, no doubt added to the story!

The authors set the scene by putting Ali into the historical context of the Napoleonic wars. They examine the evidence of his early life, which is limited, charting his rise and then his equally dramatic fall to a gruesome death.

That is conventional narrative history, but they go on to discuss his diplomatic engagements, what life was like under Ali's rule and his cultural impact. Finally, the aftermath, including his most significant legacy, the Greek War of Independence.

A new study is overdue, given that William Plomer's 'Ali the Lion' was first published in 1936. This book probably doesn't add greatly to what we already knew about Ali, but it is well told and is much more than a narrative history. It is also beautifully illustrated with contemporary prints and paintings.

I wrote a short piece on Ali and his army following my visit to Ioannina, which was published in 'The Dragoman'. It makes an interesting variant for wargamers who have an Ottoman army of the Napoleonic period. I have fought a variety of 'What if' battles of the period, mostly pitting him against the Russians, with either British or French support.

Albanian infantry like these made up a large element of Ali's army

Monday, 10 September 2018

Pinkie Cleugh 1547

Today is the 471st anniversary of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. It was fought on 10 September 1547 between the Scots and the English, as part of a conflict known as the 'Rough Wooing'. So called because Henry VIII tried to secure an alliance with Scotland by the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to his young son, the future Edward VI.

The Esk River at Musselburgh was a good place to halt an English advance up the coast. However, the English fleet was able to bombard the position and so the Scottish commander, The Earl of Arran, decided to close with the main English army by crossing the river at the Roman Bridge.

This is the bridge today, the start of a battlefield trail that includes four information boards, ending at the battlefield monument.

Next stop is St Michael's Kirk where the English built an artillery mound that they intended to use to bombard the Scottish camp.

This the view of the battlefield up to Pinkie Cleugh that the Scots army would have had as they advanced.

And finally the battlefield from the English position and the monument today.

With the few Scots archers dispersed by cannon fire from the ships, the main body was unable to respond to the English longbow, cannon and mercenary arquebusiers. They fled before coming into contact with the English foot. Some 10,000 Scots were killed, mostly by the English and mercenary cavalry during the rout.

Each year a memorial service is held. This was today's event.


English 15mm Demi-Lancers and Border Horse of the period from my collection.