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

Saturday 15 June 2024

Chain of Destiny

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter project. This novel covers the life of James IV, who was a rare thing, a competent Stewart monarch. 

James IV ascended the throne after his father's death at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. He was the nominal figurehead of the revolt and naively thought his father wouldn't be killed. He decided to do penance for his sin, wearing an iron belt around his waist, next to the skin - this being the chain of destiny in the book's title.

James IV's rule is considered a golden age for Renaissance Scotland. He embraced new ideas and fostered cultural growth, establishing Scotland's first printing press in 1507 and supporting the foundation of the University of Aberdeen in 1495. He significantly strengthened the Scottish navy, including the construction of the ship Michael, one of the largest in Europe at the time. His legal and administrative reforms centralised royal authority and improved the administration of justice. 

Unusually, this was a reasonably peaceful period in Scottish history. There were expeditions to pacify the Western Highland and the Isles and the odd rebellion. Tranter makes a lot of his efforts to tie the Highlands closer to his rule. He was a big fan of artillery and under the master gunner, Robert Borthwick created the earliest significant foundry for producing large bronze guns in Britain. In September 1496, James IV invaded England alongside Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. However, he retreated when resources were expended, and the hoped-for support for Warbeck in Northumberland failed to materialise. He was granted the title Protector and Defender of the Christian Faith by the Pope in 1507 for his support of a renewed crusade, but he was talked out of the project. 

The book covers the various lovers and mistresses, of which there were many. He eventually married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, in 1503. This significant political move led to the Union of the Crowns a century later. 

It all came to a sticky end during the War of the League of Cambrai, in which Scotland had allied with France. While Henry VIII of England was engaged in military campaigns on the continent, James decided to divert English attention by invading northern England. The Battle of Flodden Field was fought on 9 September 1513. Tranter portrays James as a somewhat naive King failing to take advantage of his larger if less experienced army. He died fighting from the front along with many Scottish nobles. Estimates of Scottish casualties ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. The battlefield and Etal Castle are well worth a visit if you are in Northumberland. 

One of our wargame club members collected the armies in 10mm, which we used for a display game in 2016. It's a battle you rarely see on the tabletop because the armies have few uses outside this short conflict.

Sunday 9 June 2024

The Army of Transylvania 1613-1690

 This is a new look at an interesting army by Florin Ardelean in the Helion Century of the Soldier series. In this period, Transylvania was a frontier state, squeezed between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. While a vassal of the Sultan, the ruling princes enjoyed a high degree of autonomy.

The book starts with a history of Transylvania and its rulers. Gabriel Bethlen and the Rakoczis are best known because of their intervention in the Thirty Years' War. The period ended with the death of Michael Apafi in 1690 when the principality had come firmly under Habsburg control. 

The meat of the book is the chapter on the army's organisation. The nobility remained the most influential of the estates, if not the most numerous. They were not as heavily armoured as their Western equivalents but were not always the light cavalry types you often see in wargame figure ranges. They should have been able to muster up to 10,000 men, but 2000 to 3000 men were more common in foreign campaigns. The Szekely had migrated to Transylvania from Hungary and were a distinct estate with political rights and military obligations. They typically fielded around 6,000 men, light infantry foot and mostly light horse. The third estate was the Saxons, descendants of German settlers based in south-eastern Transylvania. While mainly mobilised for self-defence, they could field up to 2,000 infantry.

In addition to the three estates, other units comprised a large part of the army without political rights in the state. The Hajdus had a protected status in the borderlands, primarily as infantry and light cavalry. They functioned in a similar way to the grenzer in the Habsburg lands. They could field up to 20,000 men, but smaller detachments up to 10,000 were more common. German mercenaries became more common as the period developed, paid for by taxation and by the nobles in lieu of military service. Their units included one led by a Scot, Andrew Gawdy, 3000 strong, who was also entrusted to defend key forts.

There are colour plates of all the main troop types as the essential painting guide for wargamers. 

A ring of fortifications protected the state. They varied from older medieval castles to modern stone bastions and wooden palanka forts. These are described in detail, along with their garrisons and artillery defences.  

The next major chapter covers the military campaigns. These include several interventions in the Thirty Years' War. Bethlen mobilised 40,000 men for his intervention and could still leave the state defended by Transylvanian troops as the bulk of his early came from Hungarian counties and mercenaries. There was also the ill-fated Polish campaign of 1657 when George Rakoczi II made a bid for the Polish Crown. He later fell out with the Ottomans and was wounded and defeated at the Battle of Floesti in May 1660.

Transylvania was a distinct state for around 150 years, mainly as a threat to the Habsburgs. The army was diverse, shifting from those owing military service to paid troops over the period. It was primarily a cavalry field army, with horse making up between 50-78%. The infantry mainly held the extensive fortifications that protected the borders. Ironically, the Ottomans' punishment campaign weakened the state, allowing the Habsburgs to sweep in after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683.

This is an excellent study of an interesting and colourful army. I have a handful of units, usually fielded in my Ottoman armies, but this book will encourage another look.

Sunday 2 June 2024

Turkey and D-Day

 Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean may seem a long way from the beaches of Normandy. Still, Allied operations involving Turkey were vital in keeping German troops away from northern France on D-Day.

By the end of 1943, the Germans, particularly Ribbentrop, were convinced that Turkey was not a genuine neutral. When Churchill flew to visit the Turkish President, the Adana conference strongly indicated this shift to Ribbentrop and subsequent spy reports of British troops on training and construction duties in Turkey. Britain built 38 airfields, including 15 all-weather fields near the Straits, using engineers and construction workers sent from the UK. Operation Hardihood was the British code name for support to Turkey in the form of British formations, military equipment and broader economic assistance. The equipment included 180 (50 more to follow) Valentine tanks, 222 Stuart light tanks, 25 Sherman medium tanks, 150 Dingo scout cars, 59 Bren carriers and 48 Bishop self-propelled guns. This allowed the Turkish Army to reorganise their armoured forces into three armoured brigades equipped with Allied armour facing the Balkans.

A 28mm Turkish Valentine from my collection

Turkey also began to shift its diplomatic policy. Turkey agreed they would initially reduce shipments of Chromite (the main Turkish export to Germany) and then cancel them altogether. Turkey also agreed to half the export of other strategic commodities. Foreign Minister Menemencio─člu’s explanation to the Grand National Assembly for the policy shift was interesting. He said that Turkey’s alliance with Britain was the ‘nucleus and basis of our foreign policy’; therefore, Turkey was not neutral. They also stepped up inspections of German merchant ships using the Straits, confiscating war materials.

Churchill would have been happier if there had been an invasion of the Balkans instead of Normandy. However, largely thanks to the Americans, he had to settle for deception operations. Credible threats needed to be maintained to avoid German troops being withdrawn from the Balkans to reinforce the beaches of northern France. These threats were incorporated into the cover plan for Overlord called Operation Bodyguard. 

The primary deception plan in the eastern Mediterranean was Operation Zeppelin. This involved developing invasion threats through Greece, Albania, Croatia, Turkey and Bulgaria. The sub-plan for an attack on Greece and Bulgaria was called Operation Turpitude. 

Operation Royal Flush also supported Zeppelin by putting political pressure on Turkey to allow Allied forces to land in Thrace to attack Greece and Bulgaria. In a memorandum, the Air Ministry Director of Plans said, ‘The principle we have adopted is that if we can get a mission into the country with lots of brass hats and gold braid, the Turks and the Germans will feel that there really is something in the wind.’ 

The selection of objectives in the detailed plan for Operation Zeppelin is as thorough as many actual operations with an order of battle that included real and bogus units. This involved the notional British 12th Army based in the Middle East, supported by a breakout from Italy and Soviet advances into the Balkans. It included all the elements of a deception operation, including dummy units, radio traffic and intelligence agents. Operations were undertaken on a large scale, with thousands of troops involved in the latter stages, including 1000 signals personnel. It also included actual land and air raids, glider concentrations, reconnaissance flights and naval activity. Information leaflets and maps about Thrace were printed in English by selected printing presses in the Middle East, and a call went out to US forces for Turkish speakers.

An extract from the Operation Zeppelin deception plans (TNA)

These deception operations led the Germans to overestimate the strength of the Allied troops in the region. They identified up to 71 divisions in early 1944 when, in reality, there were only 30 divisions. The German high command was not convinced the Allies would launch a major offensive in the Balkans, but they did believe there would be minor incursions. This meant they retained their units in the Balkans, including 430 aircraft and reinforced naval forces rather than shifting units to France, thus achieving the main goals of Operation Zeppelin.

You can read more about the deception plans in 1944 in my book 'Chasing the Soft Underbelly', published by Helion Books.

Saturday 1 June 2024

Iran at War

 This is Maziar Behrooz's book on Qajar Iran and its conflicts with Imperial Russia in the early 19th century. If, like me, the use of Iran confuses, it's because that is how the nation referred to itself, even though the country's formal name didn't change until the 20th century. 

The author starts with some background to Iran during this period and how the Qajar dynasty came to power. Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar was a eunuch monarch from 1789, being castrated as a six-year-old upon his capture by Adel Shah Afshar, and hence was childless. While eunuchs have achieved powerful positions, he is possibly unique in terms of royal power. The Ottomans infamously killed off princes who might contend for the throne. The Iranians blinded or cut off ears, noses and other parts to eliminate them from royal contention. For most of this period, Fath Ali Shah ruled Iran. He had a harem of 158 wives and concubines who delivered 48 sons and 49 daughters. Clearly, making up for lost time!

The early years focused on consolidating power, but the first clashes with the expanding Russian Empire came in 1781. The Russians under Potemkin had already reached the Caucasus, and Suverov led a full invasion in 1779. 

At the start of the conflicts with Russia, the Qajar military was a traditional tribal force, at least 60,000 strong, mostly cavalry. From 1805, European-modelled infantry were trained, significantly contributing to the army, although there was a shortage of good-quality muskets. For more information on the Iranian military, David Brown's excellent booklet is available on Wargames Vault

The meat of the book is a detailed look at the Russo-Iranian Wars. The first was fought between 1801 and 1813, and while on the fringes of the Napoleonic Wars, all the leading players engaged with the Iranians. The problem for Iran was that alliances with the French and then the British always played second fiddle to European alliances. Behrooz challenges many of the traditional explanations for the conflicts, clearly placing the responsibility on Russian imperialism. This isn't a military history as such; greater emphasis is given to the diplomatic events. However, the main actions are all covered with an analysis of the reasons for the outcome. The Iranians typically started the war well, but the Russians were able to reinforce their armies, and their greater resources triumphed. The Iranian troops generally fought well, but generalship was poor.

War broke out again in 1826, provoked by the Russian governor in 1825. Again, the Iranians started well, but the Russians fought back, aided by some bizarre command decisions. For example, the Iranian commander Abbas Mirza appointed three of his young sons to command segments of the army and then withdrew them when threatened.  

In the final chapter, the author seeks to put the record straight on the common distortions of Qajar history, using seven points of analysis. There is also a detailed chronology and biographies of the leading players. This is a very readable account of the period and valuable for my current wargame project. I now have the core of the infantry and artillery thanks to purchasing and rebasing some of Mark Bevis' collection. The cavalry and camel guns are coming from Irregular Miniatures. In the meantime, I got them onto the table by using some similar Ottoman types. The Russians narrowly pulled off a victory in the first game using Blucher rules.

Monday 27 May 2024

Lord in Waiting

The latest in my Nigel Tranter re-read returns chronologically to the 15th century after my Montrose excursion. The story is told through the younger brother of the Earl of Douglas, who is close enough to the action to be a suitable narrator.

The book is set during the rule of James III of Scotland. He was born on May 10, 1451, and was King of Scotland from 1460 until he died in 1488. His reign was marked by internal strife, conflicts with influential nobles, and political instability. Yes, another feeble Stewart King.

He came to the throne on August 3, 1460, following the death of his father, James II, who died in a cannon accident during the siege of Roxburgh Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, James III wasn't much of a soldier, a significant weakness in a medieval King. His mother, Mary of Guelders, and several noble regents governed during his minority. He married Margaret of Denmark in 1469, which brought the Orkney and Shetland Islands as part of her dowry - probably the most significant achievement of his rule.

He was known for being more interested in the arts and astrology than in governance and warfare, which alienated many of his nobles. His reliance on low-born favourites and attempts to centralise power led to frequent rebellions. Notably, he faced significant opposition from his brothers, Alexander, Duke of Albany, and John, Earl of Mar; the latter was probably murdered by him or his favourites. There was the inevitable fighting against the English, although they were otherwise occupied with the Wars of the Roses. The Lord of the Isles was also brought into submission after a campaign in the West Highlands. None of this fighting involved James in person.

Our hero, John Lord of Douglasdale, becomes the lover of James' sister, Princess Mary, who plays a significant part in the story. He does take part in all the conflicts and plots. His older brother became the somewhat more famous Archibald Bell-the-Cat. 

The story reaches a conclusion at the Battle of Suchieburn on June 11, 1488. This was a substantial clash, little known even in Scotland. The battle took place near Stirling, close to Bannockburn, between the loyalists who remained faithful to the king and the rebels led by influential nobles who rallied around Prince James, who, albeit reluctantly, was placed at the forefront of the rebellion against his father. The battle concluded with a decisive victory for the rebel forces. King James was killed some distance from the battlefield. There are several theories, but Tranter goes for him, fleeing the battle, falling off his horse, and being murdered by Lord Grey.

This is one of Tranter's better stories despite the limited material with which to work. There are plenty of plot twists, and as it's a less well-known period of history, not one, you can always guess the outcome.

Some of my 15mm Wars of the Rose figures of the period.

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Caucasus

 This is Thomas De Waal's introduction to the Caucasus region, specifically the South Caucasus, or what the Russians called the Transcaucasus. I picked this up in an Oxfam bookshop during my football travels, thinking I ought to know more about the background of current events in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These three modern countries cover the region south of the mountains.

The author starts by describing the region, dominated by the Greater Caucasus mountain chain and the highest in Europe. There is an iconic WW2 photo of a Gebirgsjager on the highest point, Mount Elbrus. The region also has the greatest density of distinct languages anywhere on Earth. Significantly for me, it is the home of wine, reflecting that not all the area is mountainous.

While this book focuses on 20th-century history, the earlier periods are not ignored. This includes the various religions that influenced the region following invasions. The Ottoman and Persian Empires dominated the area until the Russians arrived, although the nations all had periods of independence. Peter the Great started the imperialist Russian period. Still, Catherine the Great, with her arch-imperialist Potemkin, expanded the Empire to the shores of the Black Sea and the Georgian capital of Tiflis (Tbilisi today). 

In my last post, I covered the later Russian conflicts with Persia (or, as they would have said, Iran). This has kicked off a new wargame project and further reading, of which more will be discussed in later posts. This was the equivalent of the Wild West for Russian officers who called it South Siberia.

The Soviet period was one of many contradictions, from utopian class liberation to Stalinist authoritarianism. The author points to the ways the Soviets behaved that were different from those of the Tsarist period. Stalin was, of course, a Georgian, although he only took a slight interest in the region.

The background of modern conflicts is explained in detail. The breakaway parts of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and the wars fought between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. There are plenty of maps and some illustrations. Overall, this book is an excellent introduction and a warm-up for more detailed reading on the Napoleonic period in particular.

While not specifically for these conflicts, I have been building some Potemkin period units in 28mm, with their distinctive headgear. This is from the North Star range. I have 36 infantry, enough for two Black Powder or three Rebels & Patriots units. Just as well as, they now appear to be out of stock. I can use my irregular Cossacks for the early period, but I picked up a couple of packs of Foundry Don Cossacks for the Napoleonic Wars.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran

 I have hankered after doing the Russo-Persian Wars for a while. There were many, but the early 19th century ones offered a new opponent for my Napoleonic Russians and the Ottomans were involved as well. I was in a second-hand bookshop in York when I spotted this book by Lawrence Kelly, which didn't seem like much of a punt at £3.99. It covers the life of the writer and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov, who played a crucial role in relations with Russia in this period. He was murdered by a mob in Tehran in 1829.

The background was the  Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813, fought over territorial disputes in the South Caucasus region. The Russian Empire, expanding southwards, sought to consolidate its control over the territories in the Caucasus, including Georgia, which had been formally annexed by Russia in 1801. This move antagonised Persia, which had historical claims over the region. The war concluded with the Treaty of Gulistan, signed on October 24, 1813. The terms of the treaty heavily favoured Russia, which gained control over vast territories in the South Caucasus, including modern-day Dagestan, eastern Georgia, most of Azerbaijan, and parts of Armenia. The modern links are obvious!

Griboyedov's linguistic skills and deep understanding of Eastern cultures made him a valuable asset to the Russian Empire's diplomatic efforts in the area. He was on the staff of the Russian governor, General Yermolov, who was the main driver of Russian imperialism in the region. The Persians had a regiment of Russian deserters, and one of Griboyedov's first missions to Tehran was to negotiate their return. He also encouraged the Persians in their conflict with the Ottomans, which ended in 1823.

Griboyedov's career nearly came to a sticky end when he dabbled on the fringes of the Decembrist Revolt that aimed to overthrow the new Tsar Alexander. Several of his friends were executed, and others were exiled to Siberia. Griboyedov's most significant literary work is 'Woe from Wit', a play that satirises the Russian aristocracy and bureaucratic society. It was banned, but copies were widely circulated.

War broke out again in 1826, and Griboyedov played an active role in the conflict as an aide to the new Russian commander, General Paskievich. Initial Persian success was countered by the Russians, who captured Tabriz, forcing the Persians to sue for peace. Griboyedov negotiated the Treaty of Turkmenchay on February 21, 1828, on terms highly favourable to Russia and returned to Moscow as a hero. Russia acquired additional territories, including the Erivan (Yerevan) and Nakhchivan Khanates, solidifying its control over the South Caucasus.

Persia struggled to pay the financial indemnities under the treaty, and Griboyedov and his embassy in Tehran were slaughtered by an angry mob. As the Russians were fighting another war against the Ottomans, it was in everyone's interest to play down the incident.

The book covers all the events of the period and Griboyedov's involvement. It is very light on the military aspects of the conflicts, so further reading will be required.

So, how do we tackle this on the wargame table? Mark Conrad translated a Russian work on the Persian army of the Qajar dynasty, which was helpful. Irregular Miniatures has a decent range in 15mm. Khurasan Miniatures in the US also have a range, as do Black Hussar (they look stunning) in 28mm. It would need to be a big project to justify US postage charges to the UK, so I will settle for 15mm. As it happens, Mark Bevis is selling off his 15mm armies on eBay, so I have bought a few infantry units and ordered some cavalry from Irregular. We will see where we go from there. Famous last words from a wargamer!