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


Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Salonika 1940 - an alternative early war campaign

No, it's not a typo. I do mean 1940, not 1916. In 1940, before the invasion of France, the Allies were looking for a way of attacking German interests, without turning the Western Front into another WW1 horror. The Balkans were essential to Germany as a source of raw materials, particularly oil and chrome.

The Allies also wanted to support their allies in the region including Yugoslavia and Greece, by forming them into an effective Balkan Entente, which could resist Germany and possibly Italy - although the British hoped to keep Italy neutral. The problem with this plan was the enmity between many Balkan states, notably Bulgaria and Turkey. They all had revisionist claims to each other's territory.

The French were the primary driver of this policy. At the Supreme War Council, the French premier Daladier stressed 'the importance of maintaining an Eastern Front' and said that some tangible evidence of Allied intention to help the Balkans, 'such as the despatch of a force to Salonika or Istanbul', would have a very steadying effect. Chamberlain was much less keen. He argued that only in the case of a German attack in the Balkans, with Italy neutral, should an Allied defensive force be landed in Salonika. And then only if Greece asked for it and Italy agreed. This was not very likely and as events were to prove, the idea that the allies could organise and land a significant force in time was hugely optimistic, even pre-Blitzkrieg.

This did not discourage the French General Weygand who had been engaging with the general staffs of several Balkan states. The British Chiefs of Staff, in a 'Report on the Strategic Situation in South-East Europe and the activities of General Weygand', concluded that Weygand had “gone beyond the policy which had been agreed between H.M.G. and the French government”. At the War Cabinet on 30 November 1939, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax insisted that Weygand should be 'dissuaded' from disturbing 'the present equilibrium' - mainly the Italians.

The Yugoslavs were eager to co-operate with Weygand because Salonika was a vital port for them. Weygand told them in December 1939 that it was necessary to prepare a base at Salonika and that five divisions were needed for the purpose. The Prince Regent Paul was less keen, as the French had only three divisions in Syria, whereas the Germans had some 48 available for operations in the Balkans. After Anschluss, the Germans were now on Yugoslavia's northern border. He also disliked the French trumpeting these discussions in the media.

It also frightened the Bulgarians against the Allies because support for Romania might entail marching across Bulgaria. The British Minister, George Rendel, wrote later: “it is ... no exaggeration to say that during the first six months of the war the Bulgarians genuinely believed that their neutrality was less likely to be violated by Germany than by the Allies.”

The Greeks were more enthusiastic, General Alexander Papagos, in January 1940, gave the British the impression “that he definitely considered himself and Greece as being our allies in all except the word”

The split between the French and British widened when Weygand started signing himself 'Commander in Chief of the East Mediterranean Theatre of Operations'. They hoped that hard military facts would restrain the French. Elizabeth Barker in her book ‘British Policy in South-East Europe’ summarises the military requirements:

“As on 19  January the Chiefs of Staff approved an aide memoire which argued that 'a minimum force of some 20 to 24 Allied divisions' would be needed to cover Salonika and prevent enemy penetration past Salonika. The Greeks had offered to supply 10 Greek divisions, an offer which the British did not accept at its face value and this meant that, since any available British forces would have to be earmarked for defence of Turkey, the French would have to provide 10 to 14 divisions; and the British did not think the French could provide them. In any case the British felt they had a power of veto since, as the Chiefs of Staff pointed out, French ability to land forces depended on the British producing the necessary ships.” 

The French held secret staff talks in Greece and Yugoslavia and had been authorised to inspect Greek aerodromes create Allied supply dumps. The Yugoslav General Staff had handed over information on communications, transport and airfields.

The military disaster in Norway did not quench French enthusiasm for a Salonika front, but it strengthened British opposition. However, the collapse of France resulted in Weygand's recall to France, and so the British position triumphed by default. They were always more interested in safeguarding Mediterranean sea routes that defended Egypt and the Straits. While there was concern over Weygand’s role in what the British felt was their sphere of interest, there was a genuine belief that the plans were unrealistic.

It is interesting to speculate what the British reaction might have been if Churchill was Prime Minister. Later in the war, he championed the Balkans as an alternative route into Europe. Hitler was undoubtedly concerned that the allies would take this route, as he said, 'Salonika had been the beginning of Germany's defeat last time.”

For wargamers looking for another use for those French and British early war armies, this is an interesting ‘what-if' campaign, which is at least based on some actual planning. It is also attractive for my current Royal Yugoslav Army project, and I already have the Greeks. Mind you, if this project is to be completed for our game at the Falkirk Carronade show in May, I will need to do more painting and less research in the National Archives! Another rifle squad and a medium mortar completed, but much more to do.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Royal Netherlands East Indies Army 1936-42

I am a sucker for an obscure army, and Osprey certainly knows how to feed my addiction!

When the Men At Arms series reaches No.521, it is perhaps understandable that we reach more obscure subjects. However, Marc Lohnstein has actually highlighted an army that was a substantial, if fragile, force at the outbreak of WW2 in the Far East.

In this period, today's Indonesia was a Dutch colony known as the Netherland's East Indies (NEI). It covered a vast area with 60 million inhabitants, of whom only 240,000 were European. The main island and seat of government was Java, but the defence forces had to cover less populated islands including, Sumatra, Borneo, Timor and Ambon.

The NEI was a major exporter of strategic materials including rubber, tin, quinine and oil. These were the very resources Japan needed access to and therefore was the main threat to the colony. After the Netherlands was occupied by Germany in 1940, the colony reported to the government in exile based in London.

There was a standing professional army built around a European core, with every field battalion having a Dutch company and most of the officers were also Dutch. The 38,000 strong army was supplemented after 1940 by a volunteer corps that grew to 122,600 men. There was limited motorisation (75 trucks per regiment), with 20 Vickers light tanks,  and some lightly armoured Chevrolet trucks.  Cavalry units were being re-equipped with Alvis-Straussler armoured cars and White Scout Cars. Artillery was limited to only 89 guns, 30 ATGs, as well as coastal guns and some limited AA defences.

The air force had 95 obsolete Glenn Martin bombers and 63 Brewster Buffalos, which would be outclassed by the Japanese Zero.

The uniform was primarily olive green and included the distinctive Dutch helmet as well as slouch hats. As usual with this series, there are many photographs and colour plates by Adam Hook.

An Australian officer in November 1941was unimpressed by the army's readiness for war. While it was reasonably well equipped, it lacked training and officers with practical experience. The equivalent of Home Guards rather than an army capable of undertaking field operations.

The well-coordinated and aggressive Japanese invasion captured the whole territory in just over two months, taking over 66,000 prisoners. This is unlikely to endear this army as a project for many wargamers. However, there were British and Australian troops in the NEI, which means a unit or two of Dutch troops could be added to an existing collection for this campaign. Gothic Line Miniatures do 28mm Dutch infantry in a 10 pack unit with optional heads. Just in case anyone is tempted. Not me of course.........

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Hitler's Strategy 1940-41 - The Balkan Clue

The conventional view is that Hitler regarded the Balkans simply as a distraction from his plans to invade the Soviet Union. In this book, Martin van Creveld suggests a different interpretation. He argues that Hitler was determined on using the Mediterranean as an indirect way of damaging Britain when his invasion plans came to nothing. It was only when he decided to attack the Soviet Union that his focus changed, and even then, the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece did not cause any delay to Operation Barbarossa.

 This is a book about the strategic decision making that underpinned Hitler’s approach to the Balkans in 1940-41. The military campaigns are only briefly covered and much better covered in recent books including Greece 1941, which I reviewed earlier this week. It was published in 1973, but there are copies to be found second-hand.

Part one deals with Hitler's ‘war in the periphery’ strategy against Britain after France was defeated. It also emphasises the importance of raw materials in the Balkans (oil, chrome etc.) to Germany’s war effort. This led to a demarcation line between Hitler and Mussolini, in which Italy held the Mediterranean coast in its sphere of interest, while the mainland Balkans ‘belonged’ to Germany. Although the line between the two was not always clear.

In this context, the author argues that Hitler gave the green light to Mussolini’s invasion of Greece - or at the very least did not impose a veto. In a meeting at the Brenner Pass on 4 October 1940, it seems likely that Hitler accepted that Greece was a matter for Italy while vetoing any invasion of Yugoslavia. The Italian Foreign Minister, Ciano, said as much to Ribbentrop, who checked with Hitler himself, who did not repudiate this. This also makes sense from a German perspective. It continued the ‘war in the periphery’ and kept British bombers away from the Romanian oilfields.

Part two deals with Hitler's problem with the Soviet Union’s territorial expansion in the Balkans and the failure of attempts at reconciliation. Hitler then reached the conclusion that he would have to invade and that required a safe flank in the Balkans. He thought he could deal with Yugoslavia diplomatically and only authorised Operation Marita against Greece when his diplomatic overtures there failed. The Italian failure in Albania added to his problems and the Coup d’├ętat in Belgrade resulted in a further diversion. However, it also solved logistical difficulties in supplying the 12thArmy in Bulgaria and made it easier to manoeuvre the panzer divisions around the Greek positions, by going through southern Yugoslavia.

The Rupel Pass during my visit last year. It was the scene of heavy fighting between German and Greek forces in 1941.

By June 1941, Germany had withdrawn most of its divisions from Greece, and they were back in position for Barbarossa, or in strategic reserves. The author convincingly explains the redeployment of units and concludes that Germany had plenty of spare divisions for Marita and this diversion did not delay Barbarossa. The occupation of Yugoslavia actually made it easier to use the roads and railways in that country. 

Germany had no other strategic objectives in the Mediterranean, and as a consequence, the Balkans became something of a backwater. At least until 1943, but that is another story.

This is a well-argued book, based on primary sources in Italy and Germany. It offers a convincing alternative view of the traditional narrative of these campaigns. 

Greek infantry and MMG in 28mm

Monday, 11 March 2019

Greece 1941 - The Death Throes of Blitzkrieg

The German invasion of Greece in 1941 and the British intervention is often dismissed as a sideshow, or merely a prelude to Operation Barbarossa. The focus is usually on Churchill's decision to weaken the British and Commonwealth forces in the Western Desert by sending a small army to support Greece. 

This new book, ‘Greece 1941: The Death Throes of Blitzkrieg’, by Jeffrey Plowman, covers the strategic decisions and the campaign itself. However, it also argues that the campaign demonstrated the limitations of Blitzkrieg, in the mountains and limited infrastructure of Greece in 1941.

The author sets the scene with a description of the Balkans in 1941. It was an important strategic region for Hitler, who needed the raw materials, particularly Romanian oil, and a safe flank as he embarked on the invasion of the Soviet Union. The disastrous Italian invasion of Greece had stirred up the Balkans, which the Germans could have done without. However, in the vague demarcation between the Axis powers, the Mediterranean was in Italy’s sphere of interest.

The British and Commonwealth support for Greece was called Operation Lustre. The impact of diverting much-needed units from Libya is dealt with as well as the political sensibilities of sending Anzac divisions. The decision to send the battle-hardened 6 Australian Division to Greece, instead of the less experienced 7 Australian Division, undoubtedly resulted in further delays. The Greeks wanted ten divisions, which was just unrealistic. Instead, they got two infantry divisions and an armoured brigade, equipped with A10 Cruiser tanks, most of which broke down.  

They faced the German 12th Army commanded by Wilhelm List. He had three German corps, including 5 infantry, 2 Gebirgs (mountain) and 3 panzer divisions. List planned to invade through Bulgaria, which involved fighting through mountainous terrain and solid Greek defences on the Metaxas Line. The coup in Yugoslavia added new objectives for List, but it also enabled him to manoeuvre his panzer divisions more easily and by-pass the Metaxas Line. 

The Allied campaign is described in detail starting with the breakthrough at Vevi, the battles for the Servia and Olympus passes and the actions at Platamon and the Pineios Gorge. I visited several of these battlefields in 2017, and they all offered strong defensive positions. The Australian and New Zealand troops are, rightly in my view, given credit in this study for the way they handled the withdrawal. The subsequent attempts to defend the Thermopylae Line and the evacuation to Crete and Egypt is also covered. While the Royal Navy did their best, German air superiority meant this was never going to be another Dunkirk. Nearly 14,000 allied troops were taken prisoner, and a further 903 were killed and 1250 wounded.  

Platamon Castle area held by 21st New Zealanders
One point that struck me in the narrative was the grand tactical mobility of the British and Commonwealth infantry. They may not have had much battlefield mobility in the form of armoured vehicles, but once they got back to their trucks, they did have the ability to move fairly quickly, subject of course to the poor roads. This was in marked contrast to the Greek units, which had performed miracles against the Italians, but once out of the mountains were in deep trouble once outflanked by the Germans.   

My first reaction when looking at this book was, ‘another book on the Greek campaign?’ We do of course have the official histories and even the semi-official books like Christopher Buckley’s ‘Greece and Crete 1941’. George Blau’s US Army study in 1953 is more balanced, using German records as well. In recent years we have had Matthew Willingham’s ‘Perilous Commitments; John Carr ‘The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-41’; and David Brewer’s Greece, The Decade of War’. There is a wonderful photographic study in the ‘Images of War' series and a detailed study of the air war by Christopher Shores and others. And those are just the ones that I can see on my bookshelves!

However, I do think this book brings something new to the subject. The campaign narrative looks at the battles from both sides of the hill and includes extensive quotes from memoirs and battle diaries. Arguably the best part of the book is Chapter 11, which looks at Operation Lustre in retrospect. This highlights the strategic failures of the Greek and British governments and the deployment errors in the region.

Pineios Gorge

Taking a quick look at this campaign, you would assume it was another triumph for Blitzkrieg. In practice, it wasn't, with the Germans losing a lot of armour as they struggled to fight their way through the mountain passes of Greece. The British and Commonwealth troops made effective use of anti-tank guns and demolitions to slow progress, and their mobility and flexibility were impressive. This is confirmed by German views of the campaign.

So, I found myself carefully reading every chapter of this book, rather than skipping through what I thought I already knew. It is a worthy addition to our understanding of this campaign.

I have large wargame armies for this campaign in 10mm, 15mm and 28mm. There are many possible scenarios in the book for Bolt Action skirmishes, but the primary battles are probably best recreated in 15mm.

British in 15mm

Greek army in 15mm

German Gebirgs
German light tanks and field cars

Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Khazars

The latest in Osprey's Men at Arms series covers the Judeo-Turkish empire of the Khazars, which ruled much of the Steppes between the 7th and 11th Centuries AD.

Mikhait Zhirohov and David Nicolle outline the emergence of this state on the lower courses of the Volga and Don Rivers. They converted to Judaism in the 8th century, which placed them geographically and culturally between the Christian and Islamic states on their borders. They were probably Turks and were allied to the Bulgars and Alans.

They fought a series of wars against Islamic states to the south in the Caucasus, as well as the Byzantines and finally the Russ in the north. The armies were mostly cavalry, some with heavy armour and others as light horse. The core of the army was organised on a feudal basis, but in the later period included paid troops and mercenaries. Armies could typically be as large as 40,000 men with the ability to call upon as many as 100,000. While mostly nomadic, they controlled settled areas and built some fortresses and could call upon town based militias.

They used a wide range of weaponry including bows, spears, swords, axes and war flails. The archaeological evidence for each weapon is described, supported by pictures, diagrams and colour plates by Christa Hook.

In 965 or 966 the Kievan Russ defeated the Khazars and took over much of their territory, other than a few successor states in the Crimea and Caucasus. By the standards of the Steppes, this empire survived for a very long period. They deserve to be better understood and this book is a good starting point.

I haven't got any Khazars in my wargame collection. I do have some of their allies, the Bulgars and the Slavs, who migrated into the Balkans during this period. I have recently been padding out this 15mm army with some Bulgar noble cavalry figures from the Essex range.

Slav infantry

Bulgar light horse

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Operation Unthinkable

Those who watched the film 'Patton' will remember the scene when he argued at the end of the war that the Allies should 'finish the job' by attacking the Soviet armies in Eastern Europe. From this, you might think that this was an American notion.

In fact, Patton was an isolated voice in the US command. The one person, alone among Western leaders, who was prepared to consider a pre-emptive strike against Soviet forces was Winston Churchill.

The details of this plan are covered in Jonathan Walker's book 'Operation Unthinkable: British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire 1945'. 

Churchill was particularly concerned about Poland as Stalin tightened his grip on that country. He felt Stalin was reneging on the Yalta agreement and he ordered the Chiefs' to prepare a plan that calculated the likelihood of the success of a pre-emptive strike within two months of Germany's surrender.

The Joint Planning Staff produced two plans. The first was 'Quick Success' - a short, sharp attack by the British Empire, US, Poland and Germany that would force the Soviet forces back to Russia and allow the Western allies to dictate the future shape of Eastern Europe. The second plan, 'Total War', assumed that the quick success plan had failed and only a Third World War would bring Stalin to the negotiating table.

The planners were, not surprisingly, pretty sceptical. A surprise would be difficult to achieve, and the only practical invasion route was in Northern Europe as the southern approach was too mountainous. Following an initial breakthrough, they estimated that a huge armoured battle would be fought east of the River Oder. Naval and air superiority was assumed, but that still left ground forces outnumbered by the Red Army by at least 2-1. There was little evidence of any loss of Soviet morale and equipment and organisation had significantly improved. The Total War option involved the frightening prospect of a winter invasion of Russia. 

The details are clearly set out in this book. Some of the assumptions, not least US support and British public opinion, are highly suspect. However, the Chief's concluded that a short war was 'beyond our power to win', leaving a commitment to a protracted war against heavy odds. On 9 June Churchill did an about-turn and accepted the report. He ordered new plans to be drawn up to resist any Soviet advance into Western Europe.

War could have broken out over any of the 1945 flashpoints, but it seems crazy today that anyone would have contemplated finishing one war and starting all over again a few months later. However, after Stalin's threats to Turkey and Iran, a year later it was the US that was preparing war plans. The Cold War had begun.

This is a fascinating study of plans that are not well known. It offers the wargamer some 'What-ifs' for those late war armies. I put together British and Soviet divisions for the sort of armoured clash the planners envisaged using the 'Rommel' rules of Sam Mustapha. Big grand tactical rules are necessary for conflict on this scale. The Russians won!

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Viper's Blood

This is the fourth book in David Gilman's, Master of War series. Set in 1359, our hero Thomas Blackstone is commanding his company in the army of Edward III, which is embarked on another invasion of France.

The French King had been captured at Poitiers in 1356 and had agreed to hand over vast tracts of French lands as part of the ransom. His son the Dauphin was refusing to honour the treaty and so Edward brings a huge army to France. This campaign was less successful and got bogged down in sieges at Rheims and Paris. The country had been ravaged and his supply train was overextended in what became a winter campaign.

Blackstone is of course in the thick of the action. Capturing part of the Royal Mint and a nearby town. Once peace is agreed he is tasked with escorting a French princess who is being married off to the Despot of Milan as a way of financing the deal. Italian politics intervene and he is betrayed. A neat twist at the end leads to the inevitable climactic battle.

This is historical fiction at its very best. I had downloaded this book onto my Kindle some time ago and forgotten about it. Not a mistake I will make again as Book 5 is already out. Great characters, convincing action, intrigue and sex are all present with some really good writing. Highly recommended.

And inspiration for a game of Lion Rampant!