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
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Monday 12 February 2024

Czechoslovak Armies 1939–45

I am a sucker for an obscure WW2 army, and this Osprey MAA by Nigel Thomas certainly meets that criteria. 

The author starts with the pre-war Czechoslovak Army, fatally undermined by the 1938 Munich agreement, stripping them of the Sudeten fortifications. They benefited from an advanced armaments industry, equipping the army with modern artillery, armoured cars and tanks. It was never tested other than a limited resistance to Hungary's invasion of Ruthenia. However, the Germans made extensive use of their equipment throughout the war. All the uniform details are here if you want to give this army a go for what-if scenarios.

After the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, elements of the armed forces fought in Poland, and others emigrated to France. In France, they joined the Foreign Legion or the French Army. There was an 11,405-strong 1st Czechoslovak Inf Division, commanded by Brig-Gen Jan Kratochvíl. After the fall of France, some 3,500 troops evacuated to Britain. 

These forces and others served with the British Army in the Middle East, the Far East and NW Europe, mainly in British kit with a Czech flag on the helmet and shoulder flashes. There are the usual excellent colour plates. Aircrew served in the RAF, forming three fighter squadrons, a bomber, and a night fighter squadron.

Troops interned in the Soviet Union formed a battalion in the Red Army, growing to a corps of 16,000 men by 1944. They attempted to support the Slovak uprising in August 1944 but suffered heavy casualties at the Dukla Pass.

On the home front, various internal security units were created, although the Germans didn't trust them and were limited to guard duties. Resistance units started almost immediately and were supported by SOE. This included the famous Heydrich assassination and the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležák. The Russians and Americans converged on Prague, which was liberated by the Soviets in May 1945, supported by an uprising.

It wouldn't take much to add Czech units to your Allied or Soviet armies. I suspect the internal security and other exotic units might be a project too far for most.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Dudley Clarke - Seven Assignments

 Brigadier Dudley Clarke was one of the lesser-known but fascinating characters of WW2. I wrote about him in my book Chasing the Soft Underbelly because he was the head of 'A Force' in Cairo and was responsible for a wide range of deception operations and intelligence work in Turkey. He is less well-known mainly because he wasn't authorised to write about his work after WW2. The War Office believed that his operations were so successful that they might need to use them against the Soviets.

His work is touched on in other histories, and I read quite a bit in the National Archives. However, no memoir exists. Or so I thought. I was rummaging around in an old-school second-hand bookshop in Glasgow and came across a 1947 book by Clarke, Seven Assignments. I missed it in my research because it covers the early war period just before he arrived in Cairo on Wavell's staff. Coincidentally, catching up on We Have Ways podcasts coming back from York, James Holland discussed Clarke in an interview, and his guest mentioned this book.

The dust cover of my copy is a bit battered, but I got it at a very reasonable price when you look at what they are going for on Abe Books. A pristine copy is on sale for £650!

In his introduction to the book, Wavell hints at his later work when he says, 'I have always believed in doing everything possible in war to mystify and mislead one's opponent, and that I was right in judging that this was work for which Dudley Clarke's originality, ingenuity and somewhat impish sense of humour qualified him admirably.'

His first assignment was a traditional staff officer job in the Middle East, scouting an overland route from Mombasa to Cairo in case the Mediterranean route was blocked. This was a travelogue, so we will skip to his first trip to Norway. I have read about the ill-fated Norwegian campaign but haven't encountered Clarke's not-insignificant role. Somewhat typically, he stretched his liaison role to actually going to Norway with the initial landing force. He got involved with the retreat and worked with the Norwegian Army, meeting General Ruge. His descriptions of journeying around Norway in various vehicles are hair-raising. He was sent back later to help with the evacuation and was one of the last to get away.

The next stop was the France 1940 campaign, with a detour into an unnamed neutral country to meet sympathetic local officials. This was still obviously sensitive in 1947, and I assume it was Ireland. As troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, he came up with an idea of how to strike back with small-scale raids. He floated the idea with Sir John Dill, who gave him carte blanche to organise them. It was Clarke who came up with the name Commandos. He was born in South Africa and was well acquainted with the Boer War. The name was not well received in the War Office, but Churchill loved it. He went on the very first raid and was nearly killed, only being saved because the bullet deflected off his silver tobacco box. 

When Keyes took over special operations, he favoured large-scale raids like Zebrugge in WW1. Clarke disagreed and so was probably pleased when Wavell asked for him. This service led him to be responsible for naming the SAS as well. 

This is a fascinating tale about an interesting character. The Wiki page has more about his life and times, and if you can get a copy of this book from the library, I highly recommend it.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Vapnartak 2024

 The first major wargames show of the year in the UK is Vapnartak. It is held in the York racecourse stand, a surprisingly good venue. Spacious, plenty of natural light, decent catering and ample car parking, if a bit muddy in the rain. I made a weekend of it as my team played at Burnley on Saturday. 

The event is primarily a trade show with a limited array of games. I picked up some 28mm Napoleonic French line infantry (you can never have too many!), British Dragoon Guards, Wild West buildings, and books from the Bring and Buy. A few more books from Dave Lanchester's stall and a couple of packs of Black Scorpion Miniatures cowboys, which look fantastic. Along with paints, bases and other bits and bobs. 

As for games, there was one outstanding offer, Garibaldi and The Battle of Mentana 1867. For those following the Yarkshire Gamer's painting project on Twitter, this was the culmination of his efforts. 

There was a nice-looking Napoleonic naval game using the Lardie's Kiss Me Hardy rules.

I'm not into Pulp games, but these Venetian buildings from Sally 4th were excellent.

And that was about it. The rest were average or seen before.

A giant board game with some interesting what-if scenarios.

The clouds make Wings of War a bit more challenging.

This Star Wars game was at Partisan. That is an impressive bit of modelling.

Old School Warhammer, I think.

So, it was a good day out for buying stuff, but the games were mostly average. I like York though, and I always take advantage of every opportunity to visit the National Railway Museum before heading home.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Sailors, Ships and Sea Fights

 This book, edited by Nicholas James Kaizer, contains the proceedings from Helion's 2022 Naval History Conference. There are 14 papers organised into three sections. Naval operations in Europe and North America and naval administration.

There is a lot of specialised content in this book, and inevitably, some I found more valuable than others. The first chapter on Venetian vessels in the Second Morean War describes how the Venetians moved from a galley to a sailing fleet. We tend to think of galleys when considering the Venetian fleet, but the Republic was the first Italian power to develop shipbuilding focused on large warships. By the time of the Second Morean War, the Ottomans were doing likewise, and this chapter discusses how both sides developed their tactics. 

French and Spanish support for the 1745 Jacobite uprising covered the various efforts to get troops and supplies past the Royal Navy and into Scotland. I covered one of these, Kyle of Tongue, in a recent post about a game. I thought the French were not particularly successful, but the author's statistics show a 48% delivery rate. It was not great, but it was better than I thought.

The section on North America is not an interest of mine. However, the War of 1812 is, and the Editor's own chapter analyses ship-to-ship combats, addressing the perceived wisdom that US victories were almost always unequal fights. He examines three actions involving the Royal Navy sloops: Peacock, Boxer and Epervier. These actions highlight that some of the Royal Navy commanders during this conflict were the worst put to sea for the Royal Navy.

I didn't think I would find much interest in the final section on naval administration. However, the chapter on the reforms introduced by Anson (1751-1762) is fascinating. I will incorporate some of the analysis in my current writing project about HMS Ambuscade, as the first ship of that name was captured from the French and the design used to develop Royal Navy frigate design. Few Admirals successfully carried off political and naval careers, but Anson did. He deserves greater attention. 

Other chapters in this section deal with myths about conditions aboard ships and recruitment to the Royal Navy. Despite the desperate need for sailors at the outbreak of war, forced impressment was not as significant as many think. Jim Tildesley has examined how one British Consul recruited for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Again, this will all add colour to my chapter on the period.

I suspect this book will be most interesting to those with a specialist interest in naval history. However, the two sections on operations still provide plenty of sea fights to keep others interested. I am writing a chapter for the next book in this series on amphibious warfare in the Adriatic. That should be published at this time next year.

I must try and play more Black Seas!

Sunday 28 January 2024

Port Arthur 1904-5

 This is the latest in the Osprey Campaign series by Robert Forczyk, covering the Japanese siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. I have a soft spot for this conflict after watching the TV series Reilly Ace of Spies and reading Dennis Warner's study of the campaign, A Tide at Sunrise. A more recent study and probably easier to source is Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear by Richard Connaughton. There is also a valuable Osprey essential histories on the conflict.

This book follows the standard format for this series, with chapters on the background of the campaign, the opposing forces and their commanders, and then the campaign itself. All are profusely illustrated with excellent maps and colour plates. As an avid battlefield visitor, I also like the chapter on the battlefield today in this series, even if, in this case, I am not likely to make the trip. Port Arthur is now known as Lüshunkou District in the People’s Republic of China. In the century since the Russo-Japanese War, the city’s population has expanded more than twelve-fold and urban sprawl has covered up much of the battlefields of 1904.

As a port siege, the Japanese Navy under Admiral Togo played a vital role in the operations. However, Togo is remembered for what he did right at the Battle of Tsushima, not for what he did wrong at Port Arthur. The main Japanese army commander was General Nogi Maresuke. Nogi was unimaginative and possessed only rudimentary military skills. He was a firm believer in frontal attacks and, therefore, profligate in expending the lives of his troops and unable to grasp modern warfare. The Russian fortress commander was General-leytenant Anatoli M. Stoessel, commander of the III Siberian Army Corps. Stoessel was a nobleman of ethnic German lineage. He had a reasonably distinguished record as an infantry officer but no real experience with independent command, nor had he led any formation larger than a regiment. The bottom line was that commanders on both sides were ill-equipped for what the author describes as the first modern siege.

The campaign began with a Japanese naval attack on the Russian fleet which inflicted significant damage,  but failed to achieve the predicted knock-out blow, and Togo was now forced to shift to a distant blockade. The siege began in ernest in May1904, when Japanese forces launched an assault on Port Arthur. Attacks were often poorly coordinated with the navy and the Russian defenders put up a staunch resistance with both sides suffering heavy casualties. The Japanese employed various strategies, including tunneling and mine warfare, to breach the fortifications. After months of bitter fighting, and the Russian defeat at Liaoyang meant no relief operation by land could be expected until the spring, Port Arthur fell to the Japanese on January 2, 1905. The eight-month-long campaign cost Nogi’s Third Army approximately 59,400 casualties (including 15,400 dead), equivalent to almost 40 per cent of the troops allocated to the operation. The Russians suffered roughly 30,000 casualties including about 16,000 dead.

The capture of Port Arthur was a significant victory for Japan and had a profound impact on the course of the Russo-Japanese War. The war ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905, mediated by the United States, which recognized Japan's influence in Korea and its control over southern Manchuria. The war also contributed to the political collapse of Imperial Russia 12 years later.

Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff map of the siege

I have Russian and Japanese armies in 15mm for this war, and my favoured rules are Bloody Big Battles. Sieges are challenging to replicate on the tabletop, but there are preliminary moves and the defence of the outer lines that could be refought easily. There are naval clashes with manageable numbers of ships and sailors also fought on land as naval infantry and gunners.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Napoleon's Spy

 Ben Kane is better known for writing ancient historical fiction, mainly about the Romans. In this book, he has sortied into the Napoleonic Wars and the 1812 Russian campaign.

The main character is something of an anti-hero. His parents are British and French, living in England. He is a gambling addict, and his father eventually stops paying his debts. This leads him to try his luck at the lucrative, if risky, business of helping French PoWs escape back to France. It doesn't go too well, and he ends up penniless again with a relative in Paris. As you might expect, he again falls into debt after gambling and is blackmailed by the British to spy for them in the Russian campaign. The book's title is misleading as he certainly isn't spying for Napoleon. 

The bulk of the book is focused on the Russian campaign, which he participates in as an Imperial messenger. His spying contribution is minimal, but he is at most of the significant events of that ill-fated campaign. The author has used the many memoirs of the terrible retreat to help him tell the story. This really is a case of history being more horrific than fiction. 

The description of the retreat is relentless and probably not the best choice for my bedtime reading! However, Kane is an excellent writer, and the story is well told. It is a Sunday Times bestseller for good reason.

Some of my 15mm French fighting off Russian Cossacks

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Crown, Covenant and Cromwell

 My library pick this month was Stuart Reid's study of the civil wars in Scotland 1639-51. It fits perfectly into my new wargames project, building the Scottish armies for these conflicts in 15mm. Mainly for the To the Strongest derivative, For King and Parliament, but I will also play Pikeman's Lament and Pike and Shotte. I am looking forward to the TtS! supplement on Montrose, due out later this month.

This is unabashed military history; as Stuart says, 'Historians sometimes seem to regard battles a rather too exciting to be a respectable field of study.' It also covers all of the wars of the period. I have several books on Montrose's campaigns and a few on the others, but this book covers the lot and gives the reader a sense of how the armies developed and adapted to war in England and Scotland. The only omission is the war in Ireland, which included Scottish troops, and that also has a TtS! supplement coming out soon.

Stuart starts with an introduction to Scotland of the period and how Scots armies were raised and armed. The basic structure of an infantry unit was similar to other Civil War units, although they looked different with the distinctive blue bonnet. One detail I had yet to appreciate was the large number of flags a regiment would have, one per company. Wargamers need no encouragement to follow this! The cavalry included lancers, which had gone out of fashion elsewhere, and Highlanders.

Then we get into the little known Bishops' Wars. This involved Charles I attempting to enforce his religious reforms on the Scots. Spoiler alert: it didn't go well. This also covered the development of the Covenant and the Covenanters as a political and religious force. I live in the homeland of the Covenanters in Ayrshire.

The Civil War in England saw a Scottish army move south to support the Parliamentary cause. Most famously at Marston Moor, and he also covers the less well-known Northumberland campaign. Stuart downgrades the size of this army from traditional estimates, something which becomes a theme in the book - closer to 14,000 than 22,000. While the main Scots army was in England, Montrose raised the King's Standard in Scotland and fought his famous campaign. His army fluctuated considerably, with units leaving him at crucial moments, including the very effective Irish under Alasdair MacColla. Montrose was an excellent battlefield commander, but his diplomatic skills needed improvement. Stuart also wrote the Osprey Campaign book on this campaign, focusing on the Battle of Auldearn in 1645. 

The Scots recognised Charles II after the regicide, resulting in a falling out with Parliament. The early stages of the campaign went well until the army moved south. The promised Royalist uprising didn't fully materialise, and that led to the defeat at Preston. Cromwell's invasion of Scotland initially struggled. The Scots held strong positions and cut his supply lines. It all went wrong at Dunbar, but there are other interesting battles. Inverkeithing in particular. It ended badly again with another sortie down south and the Battle of Worcester.

This is an excellent and very readable account of the period. You can pick it up cheaply on Kindle; the maps and illustrations are small enough to work in that format. 

I have finished the first Covenanter cavalry units. These are Essex miniatures. Infantry next.