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

Monday, 18 October 2021

Renaissance War Galley 1470-1590

 The Warlord range of naval wargame rules has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for naval games, even if it hasn't improved my sailing skills. So I thought I would give galley warfare a go, as at least with oars, there is less chance of me sailing off the table edge, colliding with islands or even my own ships!

For reference works, I have several histories of the period but little about how galleys looked and fought. As always, a good starting point is the Osprey Vanguard series, and anything by Angus Konstam is worth reading. 


Angus starts with an overview of galley warfare and the renaissance developments, which focused on the introduction of ordnance. I hadn't appreciated just how large some of the cannons put of galleys were. The idea of the equivalent of Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle on a slim wooden galley takes some imagination. The use of ordnance did vary amongst the maritime powers in the Mediterranean. I am primarily interested in Venice and the Ottoman Empire and Venice went for more firepower than the Ottomans.

Then we get a chapter on galley types, which in the main were pretty similar, although the Venetians used larger command galleys and converted merchant ships and then purpose-built Galleasses. There were lots of smaller galleys that were used for scouting and amphibious assaults. Fleet actions like Lepanto were rare, and the most common use of fleets was for amphibious assault and sieges or supporting them. As always in an Osprey, the book has plenty of illustrations and colour plates of the different types.

The chapter on logistics and organisation is interesting. They had a limited range, and so ports were vital for both sides. These supplied the fleets and provided a base for maintenance and shipbuilding. Finally, there is a chapter on tactics, which had moved away from manoeuvre and ramming towards firepower and boarding in this period. 

This is an excellent introduction to galley warfare, just what I needed. I also dusted down my copy of the Osprey Campaign book, Lepanto 1571, although I plan to fight the later battles of the Cretan War.

For the tabletop, I like Black Sea rules, and Warlord does a couple of galley models. 1/700th looks about right for the small scale actions in the Adriatic, as I won't be refighting Lepanto. I have started with a couple of what Warlord call a large galley, which looks like the Spanish Lanterna in the Osprey, but it will do for the galleasses and similar. The models are in resin with metal masts. As with the Napoleonic Black Seas models, they go together well, and thankfully less sail. Although even the minimal rigging is too much for my large fingers.

I have painted these as Venetians. They are finished other than the all-important flags and banners coming from Spain (at the slow post-Brexit speed). I have six standard galleys primed to do next, and several smaller ships are on the way from Hagen Miniatures in Germany. 



Wednesday, 13 October 2021

For Lord and Land

 This is the eighth book in Matthew Harffy's historical fiction series The Bernicia Chronicles, set in 7th century Britain. More specifically, in Northumbria and what is today southern Scotland, which at the time of this book was split between Bernicia in the north and Deira in the south.


Our hero is Beobrand, Lord of Ubbanford and his Warband the Black Shields. He is oath sworn to Oswiu of Bernicia, who is pursuing a campaign again Oswine of Deira. There are, in effect, two stories in this book. One of Beobrand's men (Cynan) goes off to Reghed to assist a character from a previous book whose family is being dispossessed of a lead mine by the local lord. The other is various campaigns into Deira which Beobrand himself plays a key role. Not to mention an excursion to Kent, which leads to a clash with the Mercians.

While we don't know a great deal about the actual history of the period, the author sticks pretty broadly to the historical record, simply inserting characters and stretching events to fit the narrative. For example, the final clash at Wilfaresdun was probably near Catterick, ironically now a major army base. I won't spoil the story, but it doesn't end there.

I have really enjoyed this series. It is very reminiscent of the Berard Cornwall style of historical fiction, and for those who enjoyed The Last Kingdom, the Bernicia capital is the fortress of Bebbenburg. There is plenty of shieldwall action and skirmishing, coupled with political sub-plots and romantic interest as well.

I did think the series was perhaps running out of steam, as there is only so much you can extract from this period. However, it looks like the next book will involve a trip to Rome, which should generate a fresh storyline. This style of historical fiction is my choice of bedtime reading, and I suspect I will pick up the next volume. I should have nightmares given the level of violence!

There are lots of scenarios for the wargamer. Armies were relatively small, usually made up of the warbands of the kingdom, supplemented by the Fyrd. It works particularly well for skirmish and small battle games like Saga. My 28mm Saxon figures work fine for both sides.



Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Balkans 1940-41 (2)

 When I saw this new Osprey campaign volume, my first reaction was, do I really need another book on the Yugoslavia and Greece campaigns. However, since when did need become a requirement for buying books or wargame figures!


The format is the standard one for this series. Some background and a chronology followed by chapters on the opposing commanders, forces and plans. The meat of the book is a campaign narrative, which has plenty of photographs, some of which I haven't seen before. The real strength of this series is the excellent and plentiful operational maps. 

The campaign is well understood, but the author has given more coverage than usual to two understated elements. Firstly, the brief Yugoslav invasion of Albania in conjunction with Greek forces on either side of Lake Ohrid. Events elsewhere undermined these efforts, but the Yugoslavs did make serious advances that panicked the Italians. As the first volume demonstrated, the Greek campaign was one of the sorriest Italian efforts during the war. Secondly, the German attacks on the Metaxas Line, which initially ground to a halt. This book describes the attacks on the individual forts, which thwarted the German plan to break through the Rupel defences. 

The Commonwealth intervention was mainly an Australian and New Zealand venture, at least as far as the front line fighting units were concerned. This aspect of the campaign has been covered extensively, and there is little new here, other than plenty of photos from New Zealand based Turnbull Library. I have walked the Platamon and Pinios Gorge battlefields, and the contoured map highlights the challenges faced by Panzer-Regiment 3 and the 6th Gebirgs-Division. 

Platamon Castle

Pinios Gorge

The final chapter briefly covers the battlefields today, which is very useful for visitors. I agree the two museums in Athens and Thessaloniki are well worth visiting. The Rupel Fort site is described as 'partly open'. It has some odd opening hours, which I found particularly irritating having made an effort to get up there. You can't even view the monument because it is inside a modern Greek military base.

I have all the armies for these campaigns in 28mm and 15mm. This book is full of interesting scenarios suitable for the tabletop, and is a good starting point for those embarking on such a project.

 
Royal Yugoslav Army in 28mm.

Greek Army in 15mm

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Great Cauldron

The benefits of browsing in a real bookshop are evident in this book purchase, as my standard notifications missed this book. Very appropriate for Bookshop Day!

This book is a history of Southeastern Europe (Balkans) by Marie-Janine Calic, translated from the original German by Elizabeth Janik. This is a big (600 words plus notes etc.) history of the Balkans that takes a different approach to the traditional narrative history. Calic argues that the development of nation-states is less important than the relationships of exchange between people and ideas from across those boundaries and indeed further afield.

If you are looking for a military history of the Balkans, this is not the book for you. The great conflicts that afflicted the region are largely glossed over, favouring social, political and economic influences. If you are a nationalist, you are also not likely to enjoy this book. Calic constructs the global relationships that influenced the Balkans in each period. For example, how the rebels of the 19th century were affected by the global age of revolutions or how mercantile capitalism was important in fighting the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries. She also points to the economic factors that held back the development of the Balkans, what is sometimes called the 'great divergence'. Not least the exploitation of natural resources by outside players.

Calic covers a broad period, unlike many Balkan histories, starting with a significant chapter on Southeastern Europe before 1500. This chapter is critical of later attempts to create national identities based on ancient roots. She rightly argues that present-day identities developed over centuries. The Balkans were also the intersection of ideas with people embracing different cultures, even religions. The Ottoman millet system also ensured religious toleration that didn't exist in western Europe of the period. In later periods, she identifies differences between the cities and rural areas. I liked the quote from Milan Lazarevic, a member of the Serbian National Assembly, "Whoever comes to Serbia in order to see her culture, will not find it in Belgrade... for Belgrade readily adopts the foreign culture."

She also makes some interesting comparisons between the Ottomans and western Europe in the age of exploration. The Ottomans didn't go across the Atlantic but did bump into the Portuguese in the Far East. The book makes good use of maps to illustrate these ideas. This reflects the wonderful Ottoman maps from admirals like Piri Reis that we can still see today. The contrast is most marked by the Ottomans not developing the western capitalist system due to internal and external factors. Shifting international trade was a factor in the decline of the Ottoman empire. 

The ethnic cleansing that accompanied the development of nation-states is covered in detail. The Greek-Turkish exchanges in the 1920s are well known, but 400,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes due to the earlier Balkan Wars. This continues in the modern period, with millions of people emigrating from the Balkans since 1989, about one-quarter of the entire population. Often the youngest and brightest, creating a brain drain that further weakens the region's economy.

Calic concludes that international influences played a far more significant role in the Balkans than is often depicted in national histories. An impressive cultural diversity reflects the strategically important crossroads that the Balkans formed throughout history. The great empires didn't worry much about national identity, but they exploited the region economically as colonies. 

This is a big and important book, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the broader influences on the development of the Balkans. 




Thursday, 7 October 2021

Russian threat to India in WW2

 The Second World War is one of the most popular periods for wargamers and those interested in history, not least because of the breadth of the conflict. It touched almost all parts of the world, and many have family members engaged in living memory. However, new areas of interest come to light despite the veritable mountain of books and other resources on the subject.

I was researching in the National Archives for my latest project when I came across a memorandum from the Secretary of State for India to the Cabinet headed, 'Question of Russian Threat to India', dated 21 September 1939. Until I read the date, I assumed this was a 19th century 'Great Game' period note misfiled!

While today we remember the Soviet Union as a crucial, if not a war-winning ally in WW2, this was not viewed that way in 1939. I highlighted one of Churchill's wilder plans to send a Royal Navy fleet into the Black Sea in a blog post last June. Churchill put a proposal to the War Cabinet in October 1939 (CAB 65 W.M. 76 (40) 27.3-40.) to insert submarines into the Black Sea to interrupt Russian oil supplies to Germany. This was in addition to the better-known plans to bomb Russian oilfields in Baku, known as the Massigli Affair. In effect, this would have been a declaration of war against the Soviet Union and fighting Germany. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact had also been signed just over a month before this memorandum. 

The purpose of this memorandum was to advise the Cabinet of the Afghan Government's increasing apprehension of Russian aggression in the region. The Secretary of State's concern was over the inadequacy of British defences should the Russian's make a move through Afghanistan. The Indian War Plan only envisaged an incursion from the Afghan's similar to the 1919 Third Afghan War; they were not equipped to take on a first-class military power. 

The Afghan army of the period was not insignificant. It had 103,000 men and had received a significant loan from the Germans to train and possibly equip a full division. The Afghan Air Force had British trained pilots flying 20 Hawker Harts and 8 Hawker Hinds. There were also a few Italian RO-37s. The Afghans had turned to the Germans because they received insufficient British security guarantees in the face of a perceived Soviet invasion threat. The Afghan royal family were pro-British, but they felt the British offer of economic help was insufficient. 

King Zahir (1933-1973)
(Haji Amin Qodrat, Kabul, Public domain)

The memorandum sets out the British forces available for frontier defence. These included 11 infantry brigades and 5 artillery regiments, backed up with an immediate reserve of one cavalry brigade, 4 infantry brigades and 4 artillery regiments. Other units could be made available from internal security forces in India and the general reserve. The RAF was particularly weak, with only two bomber and four army cooperation squadrons available. The memorandum was particularly concerned about Russian air raids, given the absence of fighter squadrons and only a single AA battery. 

As WW2 had opened in Poland when this memorandum was written, the Secretary of State was obviously aware that he was unlikely to receive reinforcements. He, therefore, argued for sabotage operations on Russian communications in Turkistan, by recruiting Afghans or disaffected refugees. Poor lines of communication into Afghanistan were seen as the biggest Soviet weakness in the region. The Russian Central Asia Military District (incorporated the former Turkistan MD) was home to 12 divisions during this period. Although many more could be shifted there if war broke out.

The British did little other than strengthen their intelligence operations in the region, and fortunately, nothing came of the threat, real or perceived. However, if you are looking for a new enemy for your early war Russians, try Afghanistan and British India.

28mm Soviet infantry


Sunday, 3 October 2021

Cyprus at War

 This is Jan Asmussen's study of the 1974 'invasion' or 'peace operation' depending on your point of view. This is primarily a diplomatic history based on British and US archival sources. 

Cyprus had many different rulers over the centuries,, but only the Greeks settled in large numbers. In the 16th century, when the Ottomans captured the island, it settled Muslim farmers, eventually making up about 20% of the population. Under the Ottoman system, both communities primarily administered themselves. However, the growth of nationalism in the 19th century emphasised identities and a growing call from the Greek Cypriots for unification with Greece (Enosis). With only 20% of the population, a similar link to Turkey wasn't a practical option for the Turkish Cypriots. Even the call for a division of the island (Taksim) created problems as Turkish Cypriot communities were spread across the island. 

Ethnic breakdown of Cyprus in 1973. Blue are the Turkish areas. Red are the British bases. 

In the 1950s, a violent struggle for Enosis began against the by then British rule, led by EOKA. This had turned into an inter-communal struggle by 1958, which was not resolved by independence in 1960. This led to a civil war in 1963/4 and the insertion of UN forces to protect Turkish Cypriot communities. Both sides developed their own armed militias. Turkey considered armed intervention twice in the 1960s when the Greek Cypriot government under Archbishop Makarios ignored the constitutional protections enjoyed by the Turkish Cypriot community. The USA headed off this intervention by threatening the withdrawal of US-supplied weapons.

The 1974 crisis was caused by a military coup inspired by the Greek Junta, which replaced Makarios with a former EOKA leader Sampson. This was not acceptable to the Turkish Cypriots or Turkey, who feared new attacks on their communities and so began preparations for an intervention. 

The bulk of this study covers the various diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful outcome. Britain was a key player as it was a guarantor of the constitution and had two bases on the island. The USA was distracted by the Watergate crisis. Its primary focus was stopping the two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, going to war, as well as keeping the Soviets out of the eastern Mediterranean. Greece was in some turmoil as the Junta was overthrown, and the first steps were taken towards a return to democracy. The diplomatic efforts were led by Jim Callaghan as Foreign Secretary, with Henry Kissinger intervening somewhat erratically. 

The diplomatic history is complex and involves many meetings and two conferences in Geneva. Numerous solutions were proposed, but none were acceptable to either side. As a new outbreak of inter-communal violence was at least alleged, the Turks mobilised their 6 Army Corps at the port of Mersin for an invasion that began on 20 July. The military aspects of this are better covered by Ed Erickson and Mesut Uyar's book 'Phase Line Attila', which I reviewed here. It included an initial landing at Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus, which secured a beachhead. Further diplomatic attempts failed, and the Turks advanced again to occupy 37% of the island. Substantial population exchanges followed to create the two separate republics that exist to this day. The war displaced nearly 250,000 refugees.

Before the British archives were opened, there were many conspiracy theories, called the 'big and little lies' by the British Ambassador to Athens. Asmussen deals with these very well. I have read the same files in the National Archives, and I agree with his conclusions. Neither the UK nor the USA had prior knowledge of the coup, and they didn't collude with the Turkish invasion. In fact, the British Joint Intelligence Service reports make it clear that they thought the Turks would land at Famagusta. Many of these conspiracy theories persist, as a quick Google search demonstrates. Sadly, they also serve to prevent a serious discussion of local responsibilities for the crisis.

The war itself was a somewhat one-sided affair. The ill-equipped Cypriot National Guard fought well, but modern tanks and total air superiority made the outcome inevitable. 250 Turkish and 700 Greek soldiers were killed. Civilians killed and missing remain controversial, but it is likely to number over 2000. Both sides made extensive claims of war crimes and atrocities, which undoubtedly occurred. 

For the wargamer, the actual conflict is not without interest, and I had the first go at it here, using Corps Commander in 10mm. I decided to do it properly in 6mm as I already have the Turkish and Greek armies of the period. I have painted the Turkish Marines and will start on the Cypriot National Guard next. 

The figures are from the GHQ Vietnam range. A little large but they are the best.

I am also planning to build Modern Bolt Action forces in 20mm. I have started to collect some vehicles, and infantry are on order. The Turks were pretty straightforward as they were equipped as the US army of the period. The Cypriot National Guard is more complex.

In addition to the actual conflict, there are lots of interesting what-ifs suggested by this book. The British were asked by the Turks to take part in a joint intervention after the coup under the terms of the treaty. They also considered intervening to stop the second Turkish advance, with the UN forces on the island. A wider Greece-Turkey conflict was considered likely and both forces mobilised in Thrace. Greece also mobilised a division in Crete to send to the island and asked the British and USA for air and naval cover. Then there is the possibility of a Soviet intervention, to add to their arms supplies to the Greek Cypriots. Plenty there for land, naval and air games. 


Friday, 1 October 2021

Highland Light Infantry in the Adriatic

One of my local British army regiments is the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), which recruited mainly from Glasgow and the surrounding area. It was formed in 1881 and was amalgamated in 1959 to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers. Today, it is the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. In WW2, the 2nd battalion served in East Africa and the Mediterranean, including Keren, the Western Desert and Sicily. They have a small museum in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.


HLI in the Western Desert 1942

In May 1944, the battalion was sent to the Adriatic island of Vis as part of the 2nd Special Service Brigade, a Commando formation tasked with defending the island and supporting partisan operations against the German-held islands and the Dalmatian coast. The HLI were trained specialists in mountain warfare and had mountaineering equipment, including cross-country ski boots. Private soldiers were called ‘mountaineers’ rather than fusiliers.

 

Most of the duties involved garrisoning the island, which also served as a naval base for MTBs and MGBs. It also had an airstrip on the only flat area of the island, used by bombers in trouble returning from raids in the Balkans and Spitfires in the ground support role. 


The former airstrip is still visible today

The regimental historian, Lt.-Col. L.B. Oatts was clearly not a fan of his regiment fighting with Communist partisans, ‘Somewhat strange comrades in arms for British troops, and speaking no civilised language’, who he described (wrongly) as being led by ‘Commissars’. He somewhat surprisingly failed to mention that they included women soldiers, good grief, whatever next!


An 'uncivilised' partisan commander, speaking Serbo-Croat!

In addition to garrison duties, they took part in raids on the islands to support partisan operations. These would typically include elements of several units based on Viz. For example, 40 Commando war diary for 22 May 1944 (National Archives, DEFE 2/48) describes Operation Foothound, an attack on Mljet which included C Company of the 2/HLI. Mortar and MG platoons were dropped off into covering fire positions while the HLI seized the high ground, directed by partisan guides who unusually had limited knowledge of the terrain. The commandos worked around the enemy positions, garrisoned by 250 men in four strong points, and attacked after Spitfires had softened up the defenders. The outcome wasn’t very clear from the report, but McConville (Small War in the Balkans, 1986) says the raid commander, Brigadier Tom Churchill regarded it as a failure. Two strong points were destroyed, but the rock formations were hard work for the troops, and wireless conditions were poor. The operation was called off at 4:30pm.

 

In June, ‘B’ Company (five officers and 73 other ranks led by Major Brotherhood) attacked a German position at Nidova Gora on the island of Brac. This involved a four-mile approach march over limestone ridges carrying heavy loads. The partisan guides advised that the garrison numbered 40 men with two MGs and an 81mm mortar. The attack ran into fierce resistance, and the HLI suffered three dead, one missing and 14 wounded, which had to be evacuated after a seven-mile march across country. 

 

Later, in what must be a pretty unique role for an infantry unit, they were tasked with boarding a German destroyer to capture or destroy it. Perhaps, fortunately, it was found to have run aground and abandoned. I suspect it was actually a smaller ship than a destroyer.

 

In July, they took part in a more extensive operation against the port of Split. They attacked German positions in the hills above the town, supported by naval gunfire. What the partisans, never mind the Germans, thought of the bagpipers is anyone’s guess. Although apparently came in useful to help the partisans and the Germans distinguish the HLI from other units and civilians. The HLI lost eight dead and 12 wounded in the operation, which achieved its objectives. 

 

Most operations were more minor patrols on the nearby islands, including Solta, Brac and Korcula, popular holiday destinations today. But in 1944, this was a desperate and vicious war against well-entrenched defenders. As the Commando war diaries make clear, it wasn't unusual for patrols to decide that positions were too strong to attack.


A British wartime map of part of the island of Brac


These operations are small enough to wargame on the tabletop with Bolt Action sized forces. The Germans typically fortified the high points on the islands. Attacks landed at night and typically began the assault at first light.


British commandos