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, 23 June 2019

The History Behind Game of Thrones

There are a lot of settings that can make a good claim to being the history behind Game of Thrones. In this book, David Weinczok makes a good case for Scotland.

While Game of Thrones is of course fantasy, it has very few fantasy elements, other than the odd dragon of course! There are no orcs, elves and all the other Tolkienesque features. There is also very little magic. It is essentially a medieval setting, and there are plenty of historical examples to pick from, many of which have similar dramatic elements. 

George Martin himself has said that his main inspiration was the novels of the French writer Maurice Druon, based around the dynastic fight for the French throne in the 14thCentury. I have read one of these and found them hard work, but I can see the connection. The American writer Jamie Adair has a blog which offers many possible historical links, not least the Wars of the Roses. In this context, David Weinczok is possibly making too greater a claim for Scotland. Nonetheless, it’s fantasy, so why not. 

He starts with the geography of Scotland, which certainly has a passing resemblance to Westeros. In particular the Isles, which match the Iron Islands better than any part of France or England. Scotland has plenty of castles, although interestingly George Martin only identifies a small number in his books. Even if it is reasonable to assume that he only mentioned those that had a role in the story. Of course, France, Wales and England have castles as well. The author, who in his Twitter alias as 'TheCastleHunter’ has visited a lot, highlights more than a few matches.

His section on the players makes some good connections. Somerled of the Isles, Douglas, Edward I and the Caledonians resisting the might of Rome. The connection with dragons is a bit tenuous - Mons Meg may have changed siege warfare, but it wasn’t the battlefield winning weapon a dragon can be in Game of Thrones.

He is on stronger ground with the connection to events like the Declaration of Arbroath, the Black Dinner and the Glencoe massacre. Both of which similarly broke the law of hospitality to the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

While the connections may be a bit stretched at times, this is a novel way to tell Scottish history. Personally, I think the Balkans could make a reasonable basis for Game of Thrones but would have to accept it probably wasn't at the forefront of George Martins mind.

I really enjoyed this book. It may irritate some, but if you like Game of Thrones and Scottish history, you will find it hard to put down.

It did at least motivate me to get back to painting my Game of Thrones armies. We are doing a game, the Battle of Riverrun, at the Edinburgh Claymore show in August. If you are going, come along and throw some dice for the Lannisters or the Starks as your preference dictates.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Summer of Blood: The Peasants Revolt 1381

Last weekend was the anniversary of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. When I saw this marked on my radical calendar, I realised that my knowledge of this event didn't go much further than the Mayor of London killing the leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield.

A Kindle offer of Dan Jones's book on the subject, Summer of Blood, for less than a pound, was an opportunity to rectify this gap in my historical knowledge.

While Wat Tyler led the Kentish rebels, the revolt actually started in Essex in reaction to attempts to collect the poll tax. The causes went much deeper and probably started with attempts to restrain wages and work mobility as a consequence of the Black Death. The government needed ever greater amounts of cash to fund the Hundred Years War against France and started to tax groups that previously had been exempt. This built on deeper resentments about the unequal society and the legal system.

I hadn't appreciated how extensive the revolt was, covering much of the home counties, or how extensive the damage was to London. The rebels killed a long list of establishment figures and burnt their properties. The young Richard II was left with a pretty poor set of advisors and limited resources to put down the revolt, as the effective ruler, John of Gaunt, was dealing with the Scots.

The rebels eventually over-reached themselves with their demands and the revolt started to run out of steam. The counter-terror was every bit as vicious with thousands being killed in revenge. The rule of law, always somewhat partial in medieval England, was abandoned as the country was decorated with mutilated bodies.

Eventually, a Great Pardon was issued and the country started to recover. The poll tax was quietly abandoned and further regressive attempts to fund the war ended. The events of 1381 clearly had a significant impact on the young king, who was eventually deposed in 1399 after a pretty disastrous reign.

The revolt was one of many uprisings across Europe in the medieval period. They all had different causes, but they demonstrated that ordinary men and women could articulate and act collectively in their own cause.

Dan Jones has written a very readable account of the revolt, well worth the very modest outlay.

Most wargamers have a few peasants to add to armies or just decorate the battlefield. I can't see many starting a collection for this conflict, but there are no shortage of figures if you want to. Here are some of mine for the period in 28mm.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Great Game: Waterloo Replayed

It's the weekend before the Waterloo anniversary, and what better way to spend it than with a wargame of the battle with some 22,000 figures.

This long-awaited project, the initiative of Professor Tony Pollard, took place this weekend in the Kelvin Gallery at the University of Glasgow. The scale was 28mm and the rules Black Powder. It was played over four long tables, a method used by similar big games, but a little challenging at first sight if you are not used to it. The terrain was a printed battle map of the actual battle with the major buildings very recognisable across the table.

The picture below is of the main action on Sunday morning, taken from the Prussian end of the battlefield. It looked like good progress was being made, thanks to timed moves, essential for a game of this size.

In the gallery overlooking the game, there were a range of games you could participate in, or if like me, have a natter with some old wargaming pals. It certainly attracted a number of folks who had drifted away from the hobby and were considering a return. Just the inspiration we need.

And plenty of re-enactors on hand, including these Prussians who entertained the tourists outside.

All in all, a great advert for the hobby. And for a good cause - Waterloo Uncovered.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Setting the East Ablaze

This is Peter Hopkirk's account of the events in Central Asia after the Russian revolution in 1917. As the revolution failed to spread to western Europe, Lenin turned east towards British India and China. In many ways a continuation of the 'Great Game' that Britain and Russia had played in Central Asia for most of the previous century.

This is a good example of the old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. Our story starts with eccentric British agents on the Silk Road attempting to disrupt the Bolshevik advance as the White armies withdrew. They had some entertaining adventures but appeared to achieve little as the Bolsheviks took over cities like Tashkent and used them as a base to train revolutionaries from India and elsewhere.

Some of the new Soviets caused Lenin a few headaches. Not least at Suizran, which ordered the nationalisation of women! The logic was that the bourgeoisie had taken all the most beautiful women.   Lenin quickly ordered this order withdrawn.

Other colourful characters included the former Turkish General, Enver Pasha. He brought together a number of Muslim bands known as, Basmachi, who had the support of the local population and fanatical courage. Until the numbers and firepower of the Bolsheviks wore them down.

The most bizarre figure was the Russian Baron Ungern-Sternberg, rightly known as the Mad Baron. Starting out as a Cossack commander, he raised a Mongol and White Russian army of some 6,000 men.  He was supplied by Japanese, who had plans of their own in Asia. He hated all Bolsheviks and Jews and committed some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, planning to plant an 'avenue of gallows' from Mongolia to Moscow. After creating chaos he ended up in front of a Bolshevik firing squad.

There were many other characters, but you get the gist.

For the wargamer, this is the territory known as the back of beyond. The Copplestone range of 28mm figures captures the spirit of the period brilliantly.  Partisan Press also publishes rules (Setting the East Ablaze) and scenarios for the period.

It's not a period I have gamed, but I do have some suitable figures including these Cossacks. It would be even better if I could find the rest of them!

And I have some Russian infantry.

Monday, 10 June 2019

The Norman Commanders

This is Paul Hill's look at the men who led the Norman armies between 911 and 1135. While all aspects of Norman warfare are covered, the author believes that what makes the Normans different from their contemporaries was leadership at all levels.

I have more than a soft spot for the Normans. My Sicilian/Norman army for WAB was probably the best army I have used on the tabletop. Solid infantry, plenty of firepower, skirmishers and of course the charging Norman knights. The author believes Bohemond was the greatest leader. My own vote would go to Roger I, closely followed by Guiscard.

In this book, we get a short description of the rise of the Normans from their Viking beginnings. This covers not just Normandy, but the astonishing achievements in Italy.  This story is told in much more detail by John Julius Norwich in his brilliant book, 'The Normans in the South'.

We then get chapters on the main commanders, with commentary on their careers and command skills. They all had different strengths and some weaknesses, which are brought out well.

Part 3 covers battles and campaigns. The author has chosen six battles in the north and five in the south to illustrate the different tactics used by the Normans. This leads to the final part, which includes chapters on organisation, horses, logistics, training, strategy and battlefield tactics.  We don't have reliable sources for all of these subjects, but the author makes some reasonable assertions based on what evidence there is.

The Normans certainly adopted the tactics of those they fought when it suited them, including dismounting. This is part of the reason I like the pragmatic Roger I. They did draw on classical and Roman manuals like Vegitus, but did much more. They engaged in battle when they had to, but were equally adept at achieving their strategic aims by other means.

The author does a persuasive job of ditching the view that their achievements were a matter of technological development. The only novel thing about the Normans was that they were consistently good over a long period. They had outstanding leadership skills, not just the commanders, but down to small units. This did give them flexibility that was uncommon in the period. As the author concludes, "The consistent success of the Normans in warfare is attributable to the qualities of the men who led them."

The Normans fought in the Balkans against the Byzantine Empire and I have written a feature article on these campaigns in Balkan Military History if you want more. The figures below are from my 28mm collection.

You can currently pick up the e-book version at Pen and Sword for a bargain £10.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Dalmatian Bridgehead - Cruel Seas scenario

I have finally got round to painting some more ships for Cruel Seas. The new additions include Warlord's armed trawler, a tanker, two Fairmile MGB/MTBs and some landing craft from the Scotia range.

When researching in the National Archives, I came across a WW2 file (WO201/1582) describing a planned attack on the Dalmatian coast, which would make a good ‘Cruel Seas’ scenario.

The plan, codenamed ‘Knockholt’, is dated December 1943 and refers to a joint British and Partisan operation to not just raid the coast, but to establish a bridgehead on the Dalmatian coast between Split and the River Neretva. Options included the small harbours at Omis, Baska Voda, Makarska and Podgora. These are places that modern tourists to Croatia may be familiar with. Omis has a fine castle, and the Makarska Riviera is packed full of hotels.

Anyone who has visited this coast might wonder why establish a bridgehead there. The coast is dominated by mountains with limited access to the hinterland. In another file, I came across a memo from Middle East Command that refers to a Partisan plan to establish a bridgehead at Dubrovnik. They opposed this because this would primarily access Montenegro, rather than Bosnia. The concern was that the Partisans would focus more on the Chetniks there than the Germans.

The main attack would be carried out by Tito's Partisans, not earlier than 15 February 1944, over 15 days. There would be a diversionary attack by British Commandos against Split, Sibenik or Dubrovnik. Air superiority was regarded as essential, both to neutralise enemy airfields and to provide fighter cover.

All the shipping and equipment would come from the allied base on the island of Vis, via Bari in Italy, possibly with some dumping of supplies on nearby islands. Hvar and Brac would be the obvious choices. Equipment included 12 armoured cars, 96 lorries, US 75mm mountain guns, mortars and other support weapons. Needless to say, this would require a large number of landing craft as well as covering naval forces. The plan assumed one of these small harbours would be captured.

It is not clear to me if Operation Knockholt was actually carried out. Michael McConville, who was on Vis at the time, doesn’t mention it in his memoirs (A Small War in the Balkans). The type of initial raid he describes as happening during this period appeared to be very limited reconnaissance operations. Certainly nothing on the scale described in the planning documents. Fitzroy MacLean in his early liaison trips to the mainland describes Baska Voda as being in Partisan hands, but again no mention of this operation.  Sadly, MacLean's memoirs rarely have any dates. Another liaison officer, Deakin, also doesn't mention it. Neither is there any reference in naval history. 

Christopher Chant’s ‘Codenames’ website describes it as ‘Implemented’. So, it may be that as a mostly Partisan operation, one of many, it just wasn't covered by British writers. Either way, it makes a decent scenario.  

On to the tabletop. I gave the Partisan convoy two Fairmiles and two Vospers as an escort to supplement the Partisan armed trawler. Four E-Boats are lying in ambush.

I haven't quite got the hang of sailing. Most of the game was spent trying to avoid collisions! As you can see it got a bit crowded in the narrows.

The Germans nearly got through to shoot up the landing craft, but the last E-Boat was sunk before he could activate that move.

I really like these rules. Even as an obvious landlubber!

Monday, 3 June 2019

Assyrians completed

Always nice to actually finish a project. The second half of my 15mm Assyrian army includes the cavalry and chariots.

I have never had a chariot army before, other than a couple of small Celtic ones. These are serious four horse heavy chariots, with a general element.

Then the heavy cavalry with bows and another general.

Finally the Arab camelry and Scythian horse archers.

Time to get the full army onto the tabletop. The opposition was Classical Greek, the oldest army I have. I designed the army for ADLG rules, but I will also use them for To the Strongest.

Unusually for a new army, they actually won. The Assyrian shooting ability enables you to weaken a spear army before getting into combat. The right-wing chariots won comfortably as did the centre. The cavalry on the left ran out of space and lost out to spears, but by then the game was done.

This has scratched the Biblical itch, although I really need another Biblical army as wargamers disease strikes again! Now, who do Egyptians......

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Vampire Impaler

This is Book Six in the Immortal Knight Chronicles by Dan Davis. I only picked this up because of the Balkan setting, but the previous books all seem to have a medieval setting. I would hesitate to describe this as historical fiction as it has a significant element of fantasy.

Having said that the author keeps pretty close to the historical timeline. Our 'hero' (Richard) is a vampire who has a small band of adherents or what would be called Strigoi in Wallachia. The theme that appears to tie the series together is a conflict with his vampire brother, who in this book fights for the Ottomans and even becomes Grand Vizier.

The historical timeline starts with the Battle of Varna, the failed Balkan crusade. He then goes on to support Vlad the Impaler, who is himself Strigoi, in both of his periods as the ruler of Wallachia. In between, he appears at the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

His reason for being at these events is as an English mercenary commander. He fights for Hunyadi at the Siege of Belgrade before going back to Wallachia and supporting Vlad in his defence of Wallachia against the Ottoman invasion. This culminates in the Night Attack at Targoviste in 1462. When Radu siezes the Wallachian throne, Richard goes to Moldavia and fights at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475.

Despite mixed success on the battlefield he triumphs over his brother, although this appears a temporary setback as they are scheduled to return to the frau next during the Spanish Armada. Vampires live a long time, so long as they avoid the stake through the heart!

If this all sounds really silly, well you do have to suspend reality - it is after all fantasy. Having said that it is pretty well written and ties in well with actual historical events. I quite enjoyed it, although I doubt I will bother with the rest of the series. You can only take so much blood!

My wargame club, GDWS, did a series of display games based on this period, including Vaslui in 2005. I am still picking the teddy bear stufficg we used for the fog from my trees There was also a great WAB supplement for this period. We had a few tongue in cheek fantasy bits including the Sultan on a flying carpet and the odd Bram Stoker reference. It's hard not to!

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Blitzkrieg Commander 4th edition

I picked up the latest edition of these fast play rules for WW2 at the Carronade show. I have probably played more with the modern version of these rules, Corps Commander, but the few games I have played have been enjoyably fast and furious.

The new edition has had a somewhat difficult gestation, with Pendraken being badly let down with the 3rd edition. That all seems to have been resolved with this new version. The production values are good, and the rules are well supported by the company. It also has almost all the army lists you are likely to need. No expensive supplements required!

This is more fine tuning than a complete rewrite. The key mechanisms look the same to me. After the scheduled phase deploying air attacks and off-table artillery, we move to the initiative phase, which allows movement and fighting when troops are within tactical range. The key phase is the command stage, which involves having to roll equal or below the command value for each group of units. You can continue to roll until you fail, which means several moves or rounds of fighting are possible in each turn. This can be very variable and is one of the controversial aspects of the rules. I see what the authors are trying to achieve, but it can result in some strange outcomes. It works for movement, but I am less convinced when it comes to firing and assault.

Firing is pretty conventional with hits and saves. Each unit has so many hits, and this means players tend to concentrate on one target at a time. This looks a bit odd and allowed for in the absence of a proximity rule.

The game is understandably designed for Pendraken's 10mm figures, although you can use any scale. I have always regarded this as a micro-armour set, but in both test games we used figures from my 15mm collection, which worked fine.

I have tried a wide range of rules for micro-armour and 15mm WW2. Flames of War is fine if you are a regular player, but there are too many add on rules for the casual player, not to mention the strange ground scale. Iron Cross is an interesting game but lacks the all arms elements. Command Decision is too slow and complex.

Rommel is my game of choice at the strategic level. For micro-armour that still leaves Spearhead, which isn't always a quick game and can be overly rigid.

On balance, despite its quirks, I will persevere with Blitzkrieg Commander.  It does provide a fast flowing game that is easily picked up and a few tweaks might address my problems with just two of the mechanisms.

My test games included Arras 1940 to go with my book review. Before that I played the Nomonham Incident of 1939 - Japan v Russia in the Far East. A relatively simple game, in which the Russian steamroller triumphed again.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Arras Counter-Attack 1940

One of the few positive British actions during the fall of France in May 1940 was the counter-attack near the city of Arras. This is the subject of Tim Saunder's latest book, published by Pen and Sword.

The plan was to strike into the flank of Rommel's overextended 7th Panzer Division with two columns each consisting of a tank regiment supported by a motorised infantry battalion. The move to the start line along the Arras-Doullens railway line was beset by communications failures, with both French and British units. Despite this, the attack scored some initial success. The Matilda II infantry tanks were largely impervious to the German 37mm anti-tank guns and the armoured thrust cut through Rommel's infantry. The situation was saved by some fortuitously positioned artillery and Rommel's recovery, bringing his tanks and support weapons back to save the day.

The author sets the scene with an outline of British military thinking on the use of tanks and mobile warfare, which contributed to the ultimate failure of the attack. Deploying tanks piecemeal meant that they were unsupported by infantry and other support weapons when they were most needed. While the Durham Light Infantry were motorised, there had been no training with tanks or artillery. The German command and communication were excellent, enabling them to respond quickly, while British units had to resort to the use of runners. Several tank officers were killed when they had to get out of their tanks. Finally, German air superiority ensured that Stuka's could be deployed quickly as flying artillery over the battlefield.

This is not to say that the counter-attack at Arras achieved nothing. The German High Command was already concerned about their flanks and believed a counter-attack was imminent. Arras put flesh on those bones and contributed towards the Halt Order, which probably saved much of the BEF at Dunkirk.

Writing a history of operational level actions in World War Two is no easy task. The various dimensions and the speed of action can quickly confuse the reader. In this book, the author carefully breaks down the different parts of the battle and makes excellent use of maps. The result is a very readable account of the background and the battle itself. The book is also profusely illustrated with all the early war equipment that most readers will be less familiar with.

It also provided an excellent scenario for a test game of the new edition of Blitzkrieg Commander using 15mm figures. We played this scenario on Sunday at GDWS. Sadly, playing the Germans, my generalship was not up to the Rommel standard. Committing my tanks without infantry support was pretty inexcusable having read this excellent book!

German infantry marching through the village covered by artillery on the hill while the British force assembles on the left. 

British infantry and cruiser tanks surge forward.
Rommel directs his Pkw 38(t) tanks in a flank attack

Monday, 27 May 2019

Wargamers disease - Assyrians

I have to report an outbreak of wargamers disease in the west of Scotland. The symptoms are, read a book, watch a film, or in this case attend an exhibition - and shortly afterwards a pile of metal arrives in the post. Six months later you are staring at said pile wondering why you bought them in the first place!

So it was with my Assyrian project. Last November I attended the wonderful, Ashurbanipal: King of Assyria exhibition at the British Museum. I rationalised the wargame project on the basis that I don't have a biblical period army, it would be in 15mm, and ADLG armies are not that big.

I am pleased to report that the treatment is underway. That's the infantry done. First up some Kushite skirmishers.

Then the mixed foot units with heavy infantry and archers. I do like these.

Finally, the guardsmen with what must have been a very difficult shield to use. It was certainly challenging to get them on the base. Plus a general base.

The cavalry are almost done with chariots next, which I am not looking forward to.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Death on the Don

Death on the Don by Jonathan Trigg chronicles the destruction of Germany's allies on the Eastern Front during WW2.

With the exception of Italy's contribution, this is mostly the story of Hitler's Balkan allies; Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and the puppet Croatian state. The author outlines the reasons these states were drawn into the Axis and while their limited economies were ill-equipped for modern war, they did provide important raw materials to the German war machine. Bulgaria kept out of the invasion, limiting their contribution to security duties in Yugoslavia.

Operation Barbarossa was a massive undertaking for the German army and the Balkan states provided much-needed manpower, even if they lacked modern equipment, particularly tanks. The Czech built Panzer 38(T) was the ubiquitous tank of these armies, supplemented with French R35's - all of which would be outclassed by Russian armour.

After the failure to capture Moscow, Hitler decided to turn south in Case Blue. This involved several Romanian, Hungarian and Italian armies and led to the Don River and Stalingrad. They mostly came under Army Group B, commanded by a General with possibly the longest name I have ever seen - Maximillian Maria Joseph Karl Gabriel Lamoral Reichsfreiherr von Weichs zu Glon!

Other wonderful anachronisms included squadrons of sabre-wielding Italian cavalrymen, from the Savoia Regiment, led by white-gloved officers, charging Soviet infantry, HMGs and artillery - successfully!

As Von Paulus's 6th Army was sucked into Stalingrad it was the allies who protected his flanks. The problem was that the allied divisions were thinly stretched with limited reserves. The main front line was little more than widely dispersed foxholes with few anti-tank guns. Divisions on paper had been reduced to binary two regiment formations and even these were well below establishment. Supplies were also limited, with inadequate winter clothing and food.

Despite these shortcomings, many units fought much better than popular myth would have it. There was stubborn resistance from many units and counter-attacks by the armoured units. However, in the end, the Russian steamroller broke through and surrounded Stalingrad.

The cost in men and material was enormous for the small countries concerned. Few prisoners survived the Soviet POW camps, although the author reminds us that Soviet prisoners fared no better and the treatment of Jews and other minorities in these countries was appalling. What remained of the armed forces disintegrated and had to be withdrawn from the zone of operations. Some did regroup and took part in the defence of their countries from the Soviets before they surrendered.

This book describes military folly and tragedy. It also describes great bravery and personal sacrifice. The story is well told and shows a more complex picture of the allied armies.

For the wargamer, most of the armies are available in the popular scales. Great Escape Games have brought out Italians in winter uniforms. Warlord are currently promoting their new Hungarian range.

I have a small Romanian force in 15mm, which hasn't seen the light of day for a while. The new edition of Blitzkrieg Commander might be a good excuse if I can find them. I don't have any Hungarians, other than this rather nice 15mm armoured car.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Modern Russians

Much as I enjoyed the Royal Yugoslav Army project, it was good to make progress on something else with Carronade out of the way. One of those projects is the modern period in 20mm using the Bolt Action adaptation, published by Jay's Wargaming Madness.

I needed some more Russians for various current day scenarios. My last effort at modern camouflage was too fine, I think this goes too far the other way, although it is at least identifiable. The models come from the Liberation Miniatures range.

First up we have two sniper teams. The bushes I picked up at Carronade. They are from a Portuguese company called Gamers Grass.

Then two rifle squads, a command team and artillery spotter.

Finally, some support teams including a mortar team, HMG and SAM.

On the modern theme, I picked up a copy of Strategy & Tactics March-April 2019 issue at Carronade. The feature game is 'Red Tide South'. A hypothetical 1980's Cold War invasion of Italy by the Soviet Union. The starting point would have been Hungary and most invasion routes would go through neutral Austria and Yugoslavia. Assuming those countries remained neutral, the NATO forces would rely on the Italian Army, supported by US units in the region, mostly marines from the 6th Fleet.

The terrain facing the Soviets would be very challenging if they had to fight their way through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Until they reach the north Italian plain.

I am not a big fan of board wargames, I generally find them too complex. However, the maps are useful for campaigns and this one is particularly good.