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


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Moscow's Game of Poker

This book looks at the Russian military intervention in Syria between 2015 and 2018. It is written and illustrated by Tom Cooper and is part of Helion's Middle East War series.

The author starts with an overview of the conflict and the reasons for Russian intervention - essentially to save the Assad regime and preserve Russian influence in the region. There are interesting sections on the geography and demography of Syria, which has an important role to play in the conflict. For example, I hadn't appreciated how mountainous and forested parts of Syria are - this is not a simple desert war.

Then a detailed chapter on the Russian units and equipment deployed in Syria. The intervention is primarily air power, operating from Hmeimem Air Base in western Syria with fighter-bombers and helicopters. Long range bombers have been deployed, mostly operating from Russia or Iran, as well as naval units. We have become used to pictures of precision bombing in recent conflicts, but for reasons of cost and technical failures, the Russian intervention has relied heavily on unguided munitions, with consequential civilian casualties.

While intervention on the ground has been limited, there were still more than a dozen Russian battalions deployed in Syria as well as specialist units such as electronic warfare brigades and missile defence groups. Three heavy artillery regiments have been deployed as well as forward observers.

The conflict is broken down into stages, which attempt to describe the complexity of the conflict. The huge number of different groups fighting on the ground and their affiliations is frankly mind-boggling. Russian intervention has largely been focused on anti-Assad forces and communities, rather than Daesh. Co-operation with the limited forces that remained loyal to Assad has been patchy, even with the Syrian Air Force. I hadn't appreciated the importance of Iranian units in propping up the regime, but they have been the most effective ground troops.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and pages of colour plates, covering all the aircraft deployed by the Russians and the SyAAF. The author concludes that Russian intervention has been much less effective than the propaganda might imply.

Like so many interventions in this part of the world, it is doomed to fail because it fails to remove the principle reasons for the crisis.

Friday, 4 January 2019

The Cretan War 1645-1671

The latest in the excellent Helion 'Century of the Soldier' series covers the Cretan War, fought between Venice and the Ottoman Empire for some 26 years in the 17th century.

The focus of the conflict was the Ottoman invasion of Crete, which at this time was a Venetian possession. The Ottomans wanted to protect their trade and military sea routes to the Levant, and as with Cyprus and Rhodes, they believed Crete was being used to endanger them. They landed in force in 1645 and quickly captured most of the island and a number of forts. However, the Venetians held the capital, Candia (modern Heraklion), which confusingly was also their name for the island. They continued to resist the Ottoman siege until 1669 when they surrendered.

I was familiar with the outline of this epic siege, but I didn't realise the scope of the conflict. The Venetians had the better of the sea war, winning several major engagements at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The aim was to cut off supplies to the besieging army on Crete. This was partially successful, but eventually, the Ottomans strengthened the coastal defences in the Dardanelles and found other routes, mainly the Peloponnese, to supply their army from.

There was also a smaller conflict along the Dalmatian coast on sea and land. Ottoman troops attacked Venetian towns on the coast from their bases in Bosnia and Albania, and the Venetians reciprocated. Amphibious operations took place all along the coasts of Greece, Turkey and the islands. Galleys were especially useful for this type of raiding, operating like a modern landing craft.

Ottoman armies have the usual mix of Jannisaries, Siphais and foot units from across the empire. The Venetians recruited troops from all over Europe. The bulk were recruited from Italy, but they hired whole German infantry regiments and there was a significant French expeditionary force. Technical expertise, particularly in siege operations, was imported from Europe. There was also chemical and bacteriological warfare and significant use of poisoning.

The author, Bruno Mugnai, starts by describing the troops and equipment of both sides before explaining the political context and efforts to resolve the conflict by negotiation. He then describes the war at sea and on land. This was a war of small-scale actions and sieges, with few large-scale land battles.

For the wargamer this conflict has huge potential - ideal for the popular Pikemans Lament rules. The book is full of small battle scenarios and is extensively illustrated, including colour uniform plates. There is no need to be put off by the thought of collecting exotic units, although these certainly exist. In the early part of the war, Venetian units look pretty much like European armies of the Thirty Years War and ECW. During the conflict European units started to look more like the later units in the Nine Years War and similar. Ottoman armies didn't change much during the period.

I tried this out on the tabletop with a 20 point PL skirmish in 28mm. The scenario requires the Venetian commander to capture an Ottoman convoy, replete with the slave booty of a raid before it can reach the Janissary camp.

Both sides have skirmish troops to protect the flank. Stradiots and Morlachs for the Venetians and Bosnian skirmishers for the Ottomans.

The main action is in the centre, led by the Venetian cuirassiers. The Venetians used heavy armour longer than other countries. They blasted away the Siphais, but the Tufekcis musketeers proved a tougher test.

With the Venetian horse and foot pushed back, the convoy slid into the camp guarded by the Janissary unit. Victory to the Ottomans.

This is an excellent book, which has all you need to understand the conflict and it opens up a range of new gaming possibilities. I have already ordered some French noble musketeers to bolster the Venetian ranks! A trip to Crete may also be in the offing this year!

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone. I hope Santa brought you some nice shiny new toys, or miniatures to sit in the painting pile if you are a wargamer!

Talking of which, 2018 was not a massively productive painting year for me. My Game of Thrones project got a big boost of figures with the Song of Ice and Fire Kickstarter, but many remain to be painted. I have painted some of the Lannisters and all of House Bolton, but a few units and many characters to go. David Muir has painted several units of Stark figures, so that has helped.

My 20mm modern project was aided by using die-cast AFVs, but that still leaves the infantry. Russians, British and some generic eastern European insurgents have been done. Just some very modern Russians and bits and bobs to go.

I finished the WW2 French in 28mm for early war Bolt Action. Although they could use another infantry unit. Which reminds me, I really should keep a note of the colours I use when painting figures!

So, for 2019 some finishing off of these projects. I have some Bulgar Noble cavalry on the painting stick at present to plug a gap in that army. I was expecting to be busy painting Carnevale figures over Xmas, but I was very disappointed with these figures so they will be gathering dust. My big new project for 2019 will be the early war Yugoslavian army in 28mm. Several boxes of Warlord figures are staring at me on the painting table. I will also be expanding my units for Cruel Seas and hopefully improving my sailing skills! Other projects include the Assyrians, inspired by the British Library exhibition.

My blog post productivity was more impressive in 2018, with a record 95 posts. The number of readers has also increased significantly, so that's encouraging. The most popular posts are generally new game reviews and shows. Cruel Seas was the number one post this year. Some book reviews are also more popular than others, for reasons that are not that obvious to me. Battlefield visits are also popular, particularly Scottish ones, with Loudoun Hill, followed closely by Flodden.

On the subject of battlefields, I visited a fair few this year on my travels. The highlight was the Peloponnese with Mycenae, Mystras and the Frankish castles being particularly memorable. A work trip to Canada was also great, with the War of 1812 battlefields. My pre-retirement UK tour took in some old favourites and some new ones. I have still to negotiate the 2019 trips with the domestic authorities, but first stop will be York in February for Varpartnak.

My Balkan Military History website is doing well, with visitor figures up again. I have made a bit of effort this year to get on with the data transfer and updating from the old site. The travel and features are now done, which leaves armies and reviews. This will be the site's 22nd year, so there is a lot of content!

On the subject of anniversaries, this will be the 50th anniversary of the formation of Glasgow and District Wargaming Society. We often think of the hobby as being very new (Prussian staff college aside), so this is a big one. If you are near Glasgow on 20 January, please pop in and say hello at our Open Day.

I often take my wargaming inspiration from anniversaries. I suspect this year will feature the 75th anniversary of D-Day and other 1944 battles including Monte Cassino, Imphal, the Bulge and Market Garden.  I will cover the liberation of Belgrade and the Balkans from Nazi occupation, but it is also the 80th anniversary of the start of the war in 1939. My Yugoslavian project is primarily aimed at an interesting 'What-if', as this is the year Hitler encouraged Mussolini to deliver on his long-term project to invade Yugoslavia. Time permitting I am planning on some detailed research as well as the wargame project.

If you thought WW1 was over, this is true on the Western Front, but not elsewhere. We have the Greek-Turkish War kicking off as well as the Russian Civil War and lots of interesting campaigns in Central Asia. I can't remember much discussion of the Third Anglo-Afghan War, but the Amritsar Massacre will rightly get a lot of attention. Pancho Villa continued to be a nuisance to the USA in 1919 and Zapata dies as the Mexican revolution carried on. An excuse to dust down those figures.

Going further back, the 19's were not particularly memorable. Bolivar won liberation for Columbia in 1819 and the Great Northern War ground on in 1719. That year also featured the Battle of Glen Shiel so my new Highlanders from the Flags of War Kickstarter will have a purpose, even if historically a bit early.

My current reading is on the Cretan War, during which, in 1669, Candia surrendered. In 1519, Cortes landed in Mexico and of course the Thirty Years War ground on in 1619. For medievalists, the Hundred Years War saw the loss of Rouen to Henry V (1419) and an earlier Ottoman v Venice conflict ended in the same year. Mihail I successfully defended Wallachia against the Ottomans that year as well. There is the Livonian Crusade in 1219 and the Battles of Hab and Bremule in 1119.

I haven't managed to make as much of a dent in my reading pile as I had hoped. My retirement turned out to be more a semi-retirement, but there were some great books published in 2018, and no doubt 2019 will add to the pile. I have a number of research projects planned if time allows, but the more ambitious book projects will probably have to be put on hold for now.

So, that's me signing off 2018 and welcoming 2019. Here is wishing everyone a Happy New Year and an enjoyable hobby in the coming year. As other's have commented, hobbies are an important element of our mental good health, so try and find more time in your busy schedule this year.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Salonika: the sideshow that ended the war

My non-fiction Xmas reading has been Nigel Birch's dissertation that looks at the British contribution to the Allied victory in the Balkans, September 1918.

This is not a narrative history of the Salonika campaign, but instead focuses on the British contribution, including naval and air power, in 1918. He argues, rightly in my view, that the Salonika campaign has had insufficent attention in the recent commemorations, despite the pivotal role it played in ending the war. By knocking Bulgaria out of the war and advancing into the soft underbelly of the Central Powers, the campaign persuaded the German military leadership to sue for peace. As Von Hindenburg said:

"As a result of the collapse of the Macedonian front, and of the weakening of our reserves in the West, which this has necessitated..... there appears to be no possibility, to the best of human judgement, of winning peace from our enemies by force of arms."

Churchill, who was to return to the 'soft underbelly' strategy in WW2 said:

"The Salonika policy, for all its burden on our shipping and resources, was nevertheless vindicated by the extremely practical test of results. This Bulgarian surrender pulled out the lynchpin of the German combination."

There was an Allied debate about the effectiveness of the Salonika 'sideshow' throughout the war between the Westerners and the Easterners. While there is a credible argument that the resources could have been better deployed elsewhere, there is little doubt about the impact in September 1918.

The British played no direct part in the Battle of Dobro Pole that broke the Bulgarian line, an almost entirely French and Serbian achievement. However, he sets out a convincing case that the British offensive at Doiran succeded in pinning the Bulgarian reserves. He makes an even stronger case for the critical role the RAF played in turning the Bulgarian retreat into a rout.

Doiran memorial. I visited the battlefield in 2016.

The British role was not limited to the battlefield. The Royal Navy played a key role in protecting merchant ships bringing supplies and troops to Salonika, as well as defending against Turkish incursions. They laso contributed to the logistics of the campaign by building roads and railways, as well as securing water supplies.

Overall, this is a concise and well argued disertation that covers aspects of the campaign that have had little attention previously. Well worth a read.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Bernard Cornwell double header

My Christmas fiction reading has had a bit of a theme - Bernard Cornwell.

I bought 'Stonehenge' when it came out, but unusually for me and Bernard Cornwell books, I have been slow to get to grips with it. For obvious reasons, this novel is entirely fictitious. It is based on the building of Stonehenge in the third millennium BC, a period for which we have no sources and limited archeological evidence. As usual, there is a historical note that discusses the possible purpose of Stonehenge and how it might have been constructed. It seems pretty likely that it was used for a range of spiritual activities based on solar events, given the monument's alignment. After that, there is a lot of guesswork.

He has invented a place and tribe that organised the building of this temple to a fictitious deity. Life in this period is short and violent, based on loose tribal units. Warfare is pretty rudimentary, but Cornwell manages one decent battle scene.

I struggled a bit with this book. Cornwell is a master storyteller, but the subject matter is a bit light. There is only so much you can do with the building of a stone monument, however remarkable for the period.

I had no such problems with 'War of the Wolf', the eleventh in the Last Kingdom series. Uhtred is now Lord of Bebbanburg in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Set in the 920s, he is drawn into the Saxon succession manoeuvring as Edward's health fails. However, the focus of the book is a new Viking leader, Skoll, based in Cumberland. He attacks York and kills the Queen, Uhtred's daughter. Needless to say, vengeance will be had as Uhtred and his son-in-law lead a Northumbrian army to lay siege to his fortress.

This is classic Cornwell. Rooted in the history of the period, great characters, plenty of intrigue and action. I read this over two days and was very tempted to give up a nights sleep to finish it! Just brilliant.

The latest TV adaption of The Last Kingdom is now out on Netflix. This is also very good and I blitzed the whole series over two nights. Alfred is dying and his son Edward is by no means a shoo-in for King. Uhtred is of course involved as are the Vikings, looking to take advantage of a disputed succession. 

BBC History Magazine has an interesting article on the succession in the Christmas edition. Ryan Lavelle outlines the key historical players (no Uhtred!) and Aethelwold's unsuccessful attempt to seize the crown. However, the conflict went on for three years as Athelwold, allied with the Vikings, attacked Wessex. It ended with his death in a battle at a now unidentified place called 'the Holme'.

The January magazine has an article on Anglo-Saxon beasts of death - the wolves, ravens and eagles that scavenged Dark Age battlefields. Very appropriate context for 'War of the Wolf'. If that isn't enough Saxon history for you, there is my review of the British Library exhibition. And a History Extra podcast with Bernard Cornwell that is worth a listen.

Finally, all of this should get onto the tabletop during the holidays. SAGA is the obvious choice, but having played Lion Rampant at the club last Sunday, I remembered how much I like those rules.

Uhtred did of course fight off the Vikings in the Lion Rampant refight

Monday, 24 December 2018

Adriatic Cruel Seas

With a bit of time pre-Christmas, I have played a couple more scenarios in Warlord's new game of coastal warfare, Cruel Seas.

In the latest game, I used a version of the convoy scenario. Two German S-Boats are escorting a merchant ship along the Adriatic coast when they are attacked by three British MTBs. This was an opportunity to try out the torpedo rules, which work very well. Sadly, my skills at firing them are as bad as my sailing skills! I missed twice, but at least this time I avoided colliding with my own boats!

As I gushed about these rules in my review, I remain a fan. Several guys at the club have bought them, so my sailing skills should get an opportunity to improve in the new year. I found the Warlord Games video of a convoy game very helpful. I was playing the one-thirds rule wrongly - it's one-third of the maximum speed before turning, not the current speed of the boat.

Somewhat less impressive is the substantial errata sheet that I had to download. In fairness, the errors are not huge, but it is pretty sloppy work from a commercial operation the size of Warlord.

I have also been busy researching coastal warfare in the Adriatic. I found a range of sources in my library and I have put my findings into a feature article on Balkan Military History. The Adriatic is ideal for this game and I have been ordering landing craft and other items from suppliers. I also fancy modeling a typical harbour.

Vis Town
A number of the actions I have described in the article involve raiding islands. So, there is an option to play the landing using Cruel Seas, and then the land battle using Bolt Action. I already have the British Commandos, US Rangers and Partisans for this.

Seasons greetings by the way. I hope Santa brings you some great toys tonight!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

No Friends but the Mountains

The sub-title for this book is "The Tragic History of the Kurds' - very apt as this is indeed a tragic history. I suspect like most people my understanding of the Kurds is limited to recent events and their conflict with Daesh and then Turkey, so I was pleased to pick up this book by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, written in the 1990's, to understand more.

The Kurds are possibly the largest ethnic group not to have their own state. They are divided across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, with a population of between 15 and 25 million. The core territory is in the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges that have formed a natural barrier and very often a refuge from neighbouring states.

The Kurds have their own language, although written Kurdish is underdeveloped. Differences of dialect and religion, combined with tribal rivalries ensured that they remained divided for most of their history.  These rivalries have been exploited by the host countries who have generally kept their Kurdish provinces underdeveloped, often resorting to oppression on a horrendous scale.

There have been identifiable Kurdish people for up to four millennia, with the first historical reference appearing in Xenophon's 'Anabasis'. They are probably descended from the Medes, but as always the racial mix will be more complex. Most, but not all Kurds adopted Islam, albeit slowly. The most famous Kurd is probably Salah al-Din Yusef (Saladin), who became Sultan of the Abbuyid Dynasty.

During the long period of Ottoman rule the Kurds were important border lords against Persia. Some 500,000 men were armed and they manned 776 fortresses. As the Ottoman Empire declined there were revolts against Turkish rule and so began a long series of wars, during which outside powers encouraged and then abandoned the Kurds. A sadly familiar story throughout the 20th Century to the present day.

The struggle against Saddam Hussein is extensively covered and the particularly shocking gas attack at Halabja. It killed at least 3,000 people, mostly women and children, and resulted in yet another exodus. The long standing Turkish oppression of the Kurds is objectively covered, a process that is very much in play today.

While Kurdish history is indeed tragic, lack of unity has all to often been their undoing. There may be some modern optimism on this point and the Kurdish diaspora has helped to promote their cause. I have met a number of members of this community in Scotland and they have generally avoided the Palestinian model of direct action.

If you want to understand the Middle East and the current conflicts in particular - you have to understand the history of the Kurds. This book is an excellent starting point.