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, 8 December 2019

Carthage’s Other Wars

Outwith the Balkans, I am always drawn to a new book about Carthage. It was my very first wargame army, although, like most wargamers, it was a Second Punic War army led by Hannibal.

Books on Carthaginian campaigns outside the Punic Wars are rare. So, this new book, Carthage’s Other Wars, by Dexter Hoyos (Pen and Sword), is very welcome.

The author starts with the city and state, in the context of the Mediterranean during the ancient period. Carthage was at its core a trading state, and this was reflected in the army and fleets, which relied heavily on mercenaries.

We then get a narrative of the numerous wars Carthage engaged in from the 5th century BC. These campaigns mostly involved Sicily where Carthage established a territory in the west of the island called the epikrateia. This brought Carthage into conflict with the Greek city-states in the east, primarily Syracuse. These campaigns occasionally threatened Carthage itself, although only once did a Greek army set foot in the African homeland. 

By the summer of 264, Carthage and Syracuse became formal allies in the face of the growing power of Rome. Once invited to intervene in Sicily, the Romans never left, ending the Greek wars and opening the first chapter of the Punic Wars. 

The campaigns in Africa and Spain are briefing covered. Carthage expanded into Libya and established new colonies. This brought them into conflict with the native Libyan peoples and the Numidians, although the latter were often allies. The stress of the First Punic War led to the Truceless War in Libya, which involved atrocities that were horrific even by the standards of the period.

After losing Sardinia and most of Sicily, Carthage invaded Spain in 237. They quickly developed a significant empire, which brought in substantial revenues and revitalised the state. It was here that the nine-year-old Hannibal learnt the art of war from his father, Hamilcar.

The challenge in writing a book on these wars is the scarcity of sources. I would have loved to find out more about the early Carthaginian expeditions, which went as far as the west coast of Africa. However, the longest surviving Carthaginian text is just three pages long. Modern archaeological work has uncovered some parts of the early city, despite the destruction and subsequent rebuilding by the Romans. I had the pleasure of visiting the site a few years ago.  

The harbour area today

Mostly later Roman ruins
This means we rely on mostly non-Punic sources, including Greek and Latin records. Even these, like Diodorus of Sicily, were written around the time of Julius Caesar. Self-evidently they are not telling the story from a Carthaginian viewpoint. Some were more objective, including Aristotle who put the Carthaginian system on a par with those of many Greek states.

The other challenge is names. Individual Carthaginian names repeatedly occur over the centuries. Hanno, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Mago pop up frequently. The author does his best to make sense of the story, but it does make the narrative a bit difficult to follow.

Allowing for the historical challenges, Dexter Hoyos does his best with the limited and often contradictory sources. The narrative of the wars in Sicily can get a bit tedious after a couple of chapters, and I enjoyed the early and later chapters covering the other campaigns the most. This book opens up a period that deserves closer attention and for that alone is worth a read.     

Libyan spearmen from my current 28mm Carthaginian army

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Eastern odyssey of the Anglo-Saxons

In this month's BBC History Magazine, Caitlin Green tells an interesting story of a journey made by post-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon exiles.

For Anglo-Saxon nobles, after the conquest, there were two options. Make peace with the Normans or go into exile. The story of how the exiles sailed to Constantinople and became part of the Varangian Guard is fairly well known. They set sail for the Mediterranean raiding and looting, with modern Ceuta, Majorca and Minorca amongst the targets. They arrived in Constantinople around 1075 when the Emperor took them into his personal bodyguard. One of the exiles, Hardigt, is credited with becoming commander of the imperial fleet.

So far so good, but Caitlin Green says that they then asked the Emperor for lands of their own. He offered them former Byzantine territories in the Crimea if they could conquer them. The Jatvaroar Saga says that a force led by Earl Siward did just that and called it England, with the main towns called London and York.

Many historians have dismissed this story as fanciful, but there is evidence that the Byzantines did regain control of the region around 1100. Place names in 14th-16th-century coastal charts refer to a 'Varangolimen' in the Crimea, as well as 'Londina' and 'Susaco'. Franciscan friars who passed through the region in 1246-47 say that Christian 'Saxi' defended themselves against the Tartars.

The Varangian Guard continued until at least 1204, and it has been suggested that these Crimean settlements, 'Nova Anglia', provided replacements. They weren't the only source of manpower as the guard recruited fairly widely after the initial Viking recruits.

There is no firm evidence as to how long the colony survived. However, there are references in the official records as late as the mid-14th century. The De Officiis record states that they wished the Emperor good health at Christmas, in English. That would be 300 years after their ancestors left England.

Possibly not a large enough colony to justify an army list under big battle rules, but a skirmish or two using Lion Rampant might be justified. We have little idea of how they developed over 300 years, but they would have been aware of military developments and probably allied with local tribes. The Greeks had colonies in this area in ancient times, so the concept is not that outrageous. Either way, it's a good story!

Varangian Guardsmen from my collection.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Soviet riflewomen

My work is taking every waking hour of my life at present, and a few of the sleeping ones as well. So, I decided I needed a day’s break from the computer screen to do some painting.

Looking for a quick option from the lead mountain, I choose some Soviet riflewomen that I picked up from Bad Squiddo Games. Having finished the Hungarians, I needed some Soviet opponents and I wanted some different units to break up the monotony of the standard rifle squads.

Some 800,000 women served in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. Like most of the combatant nations, this was mostly in medical and auxiliary units. However, the Soviets did allow a significant number of women to join combat units. 

The snipers are probably the best known, with 2,484 serving, of whom about 500 survived. Lyudmila Pavilchenko was the subject of the 2015 film Battle for Sevastopol. Nicknamed Lady Death, she was credited with 309 confirmed kills. Bad Squiddo do a very nice female sniper team, which I will paint when I have a bit more time to do them justice.

There were also three all women air regiments, one fighter and two bombers. Women also constituted significant numbers to the partisan units. Nearly 200,000 women were decorated and 89 received the highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

This is my first batch off the painting table. The figures are nicely sculpted by Alan Marsh and come in a blister pack of six. Virtually flash free as well.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Fortress - The Great Siege of Przemyśl

The Fortress by Alexander Watson is the story of the fortified city of Przemyśl in the First World War. Today, it lies in the south-eastern corner of Poland, on the modern border with Ukraine. At the start of the twentieth century, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire and was the main garrison defending the province of Galicia.

In September 1914, the Russian army routed the Austro-Hungarian field army in Galicia and the fortress at Przemyśl was all that stopped the Russian advance deep into the Habsburg domains. The 130,000 man garrison was a ragtag collection of reservists from across the empire. 

They were, in the main, the oldest age group, between 37 and 42 years old, commanded by academics, businessmen and middling state officials with reserve commissions; or, as one bluntly described his comrades, ‘well-past-their-prime fatties’. Typically, the officers commanded troops of a different nationality and did not speak the language of their men.

The fortifications were also pretty old and some cases obsolete. The outer defences covered some 48km with 17 main and 18 subsidiary forts. They were latterly joined up with trenches, some hastily built. When war broke out the fortress was unprepared and antiquated. Fortunately for the Habsburg troops, the Russians had no siege artillery, although their experienced artillery still put down accurate bombardments. 

The fortress commander was Hermann Kusmanek, left stranded in a fortress 70km from the field army. The Russian commander Brusilov was initially told just to screen the fortress, but he believed he could storm the fortress, thereby releasing some 90,000 troops for the next stage of the offensive. However, the assault failed and the siege had to be abandoned as the Habsburg field army mounted a counter-attack that relieved the fortress. The ‘fatties’ had held on!

Within a month the field army had again been defeated and the Russians were back. This time there would be no relief as Habsburg armies tried to break out through the Carpathian Mountains in winter. The Russians simply blockaded the fortress and starved the garrison into surrender. 9 Habsburg generals, 2,500 officers and 117,000 other ranks fell into Russian hands. One in five died in captivity.

The author tells the story of the men and the civilians who endured the siege. It is a harrowing tale of atrocities, corruption and deprivation. Particularly for the rank and file troops and the civilians left behind. Well research and written, it tells a story of a key turning point for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WW1 that most will never have heard of.

Austrian infantry - no 'fatties' here!

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Attack at Dawn - Narvik WW2

I have always been interested in the Norwegian campaign of May 1940, and I suspect it will attract new interest as the 80th-anniversary approaches next year. I have visited some of the battlefields and the fine museum in Oslo. It would also make a great, if challenging, demonstration wargame for a show.

I, therefore, picked up a copy of Ron Cope's book, 'Attack at Dawn: Reliving the First Battle of Narvik in World War Two', with some interest as I know very little about the naval aspects of the campaign. My recent games of Cruel Seas has sparked a bit more interest as well.

This is a very personal book, inspired by the author's father who served as a Torpedoman on the destroyer HMS Hardy. He was the first to fire a salvo of torpedos in Narvik harbour. He has done a huge amount of research, assisted by his own naval service, including interviews with other sailors serving on the ship.

HMS Hardy was commanded by Captain Warburton-Lee, who was also the flotilla commander of five destroyers who attacked German shipping in Narvik during April 1940. Their repeated attacks on the harbour were very successful, sinking German destroyers and merchant ships. However, on the way out of the Fjord after the attack they ran into a much stronger German fleet including cruisers. Hardy was heavily damaged and the decision was made to beach the ship. Many of the crew made it to shore and were picked up during later attacks.

This is a micro-history of the battle, with the narrative painstakingly developed. In wargames, we abtract such a lot that it comes as a bit of a shock when you read the detail of how a destroyer operated in battle.

The detail means this is not an easy read and I did struggle on occasions.  I understand the temptation to include all your research in a publication, but this book would have benefitted from a bit more editing.  It is quite difficult to follow the bigger picture of the battle.  

None the less, if you want to understand how WW2 ships were fought, in pretty difficult circumstances, this is a good book. For a general understanding of the campaign, there are better options, including Maurice Harvey's 'Scandinavian Misadventure'.

Below are a couple of life-sized dioramas from the military museum in Oslo.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Sword of Kings

Sword of Kings is the latest in Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom series. This follows the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg and his early 10th-century engagements around England. This is the twelfth in the series if you don't count the TV series, so our hero is beginning to feel his age.

Bernard Cornwell is, without doubt, the greatest living author of historical fiction and he doesn't let us down with this latest offering. Uhtred is bound by his oath to Aethelstan to support him as King Edward lies dying in 924AD. He sails south from Northumbria to rescue Edward's Queen and children. Aethelstan and Aelfweard will ignore Edward's wish to split the Kingdom between Wessex and Mercia and will fight it out.

Most of the action takes place in London, a key strategic point between Wessex and Mercia, not least for its wealth. I won't spoil the story, but it has all the elements you would expect. Black humour, some new female interest for Uthred, and of course brilliant action. As usual, impossible to put down.

Northumbria remains apart from the new English state. So, there will be another book. Can't wait!

Too busy at present for much gaming, but this book is great inspiration for a bit of Dark Ages wargaming.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Black Seas

For a confirmed landlubber, I do seem to be playing a lot of naval games recently. Cruel Seas started the trend and now a shiny new box has arrived from Warlord Games - Black Seas.

One of my reasons for not playing naval games has been the complexity of the rules. Cruel Seas is a very straightforward system and Black Seas, while a bit more complex, follows that lead.

I bought the starter set, Master and Commander, which gives you all you need to get started. The rule book, dice, markers and measuring aids. There is a paper playing surface, but I use a nice mousemat version from Deep Cut.

You also get three frigates and six brigs. I have been critical about Warlord models. Their plastic AFVs are far too complex and delicate for wargamers, and the better resin models rarely have proper instructions or lugs for assembly. Gun barrels are a particular irritation. However, like the Cruel Seas models, these go together very well and the all-important mast sections went in with a reassuring click. If you want to add extra detail, it gets a lot more fiddly. The sails are not bad with a press-out card that can be bent around a pen and glued on. The acetate ratlines need cutting out and are very fiddly to glue in place on the smallest ships. As for the cotton rigging, one look at the book convinced me that this was not for my large fingers! None the less even without these additions, the 1/700th models look fine.

The rules use similar mechanisms to Cruel Seas. The wake markers and the ship cards will be familiar, although irritatingly they are a different size so don't really fit into my custom MDF holders, which I use as a replacement for the pretty poor paper clips in the game.  Obviously, the main difference is the importance of wind and the mechanisms are a lot more straightforward than other games I have played. This won't stop me crashing into my own ships!

Shooting is also similar with a base hit, a few modifiers and accumulated damage points. As with all rule sets in a series, the author has taken on board feedback from Cruel Seas with some of the mechanisms, including a Break Value. Advanced rules add extra options like ammo types, fire ships and the weather.

There are plenty of scenarios, although I doubt many players will reach Trafalgar! I certainly will have glued all my fingers together by then. There are fleet lists and background info on some nations as well as a helpful section on terminology. Nothing for the Ottomans or the Russians, but I'll take that as a challenge. Finally, there is a chapter on campaigns.

Like Cruel seas, my scenarios of choice will be in the Adriatic, where British and French frigates fought it out. I'll be re-reading Malcolm Scott Hardy's book, 'The British and Vis - War in the Adriatic 1805-15. 

I doubt I will be building fleets (2 frigates and 2 brigs so far), but my initial impressions are positive. This looks like another fun game.

Early tabletop action!