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

Friday, 14 May 2021

The Balkans in World War Two

 This is Christopher Catherwood's examination of the dilemma Britain faced in relations with Turkey and some of the Balkan states from 1939–41. It is largely based on a study of the British archives of the period, although he references recent work on the Soviet archives. Turkish primary sources are sadly scarce, so it is very much a view from the British side of the hill.


The author takes us through the various military plans and diplomatic initiatives that Britain under Chamberlain and then Churchill promoted in the period up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. He also covers the very different views within the British leadership. In simple terms, the Foreign Office was pursuing a range of options that would engage Britain in the Balkans, while the Treasury opposed on cost-benefit terms and the Chief of Staffs regarded them as 'adventures' that Britain didn't have the military resources to indulge in.

He also argues that had Churchill been successful in dragging Turkey into the war, then that country would have suffered the same calamitous defeat as Yugoslavia and Greece. And rightly points to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact's impact on the Balkans, not least because most Balkan states feared the Soviets more than Germany.

I have covered some of the more extraordinary plans in previous blog posts, having studied the same archives. The Weygand plan to invade the Balkans is covered in detail, although I wasn't aware of the games being played within the French high command over this. He also deals with the crazy Allied plan to bomb the Soviet oil fields and Churchill's impractical scheme to send the Royal Navy into the Black Sea. Either of these could have resulted in Britain going to war with Germany and the Soviet Union in 1940. 

Unusually for an academic historian, the author does drift into a little counterfactual history, much beloved by wargamers. In particular, he argues that had the British allowed the Balkan states to remain neutral, then there was a 'real chance' that most of the Balkans wouldn't have ended up behind the Iron Curtain in 1946. My own view is that this is a bit of a stretch given Hitler's need to secure his southern flank and the raw materials of the Balkans, not to mention Stalin's drive for buffer states. However, there are several similar interesting debates in the book. 

This is an academic history with a price tag that may deter the general reader, although Palgrave often has attractive offers. However, that doesn't mean it isn't readable, and Catherwood has written books for the general reader (e.g. Churchill and Tito), which are excellent. 

This book inspired me to get a move on with my 10mm Turkish WW2 project. I have played the 'Rommel' rules using 15mm, but it just didn't look right. I have painted these in the winter uniform using Pendraken figures. British equipment and French infantry as with my 15mm and 28mm Turkish armies.



I chose a 1944 'what if' on the theme of Soviets in the Balkans for the first deployment of these Turkish units in a game of 'Rommel'. On 15 September 1944, the Soviets entered the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Instead of immediately regrouping and moving westwards to cut off the retreating Germans, Stavka ordered a concentration of forces in eastern Bulgaria, supported by additional air and naval units for around 20 days. Like Hitler, the German army group commander (Heeresgruppe F) von Weichs believed they were positioned for an attack on Turkey because there were no German units to attack in that direction. It remains unclear if Stalin was planning an offensive against Turkey, or at least suggesting to the Western Allies and Turkey that he might. The Soviet 37th Army with the Black Sea Fleet and 17th Air Army remained at full combat readiness to attack Turkey up to 13 October.

Onto the tabletop with the Red Army massing and the Turkish army (nearest to the camera) defending.


 I didn't hold out much hope as the Turkish player of holding on. T34/85s against Valentines and Stuart tanks looked like a challenge. However, in particular, the Stuarts did well, and the Soviets lost a lot of units before they reached their objective, the prepared defences. Victory to the Red Army but only just. 





 





Saturday, 8 May 2021

Kenneth

 Chronologically the next book in my Nigel Tranter rereading project was Kenneth. This is the 9th-century story of King Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of Scotland.

At the start of the 9th-century, Scotland was divided between the Picts (Alba) covering the east and north, Strathclyde, Galloway and the Scots Irish kingdom of Dal Riata. These kingdoms and their Irish cousins were under pressure from The Angles to the south and the Vikings on every coast. Kenneth was the son of the King of Dal Riata and succeeded him to the throne, including Galloway. 

The book starts with his early campaigns against the Angles and their Saxon allies. Moving on to many campaigns against the Vikings who established themselves in Ireland and consolidated their bases in the Hebrides and Orkney. His vision of a Celtic alliance was achieved on occasion to fight off Viking incursions. Tranter calls him Kenneth the Norse Slayer.

As Alba falls into internal strife, Kenneth is elected High King of Alba while retaining his other kingship. This is Tranter's take on history, although the limited sources talk about an invasion of Alba in 842 or 843. He died in 858. He certainly created the dynasty that went on to unify Scotland in the centuries to come. 

Unlike the previous book, Columba, this is all action historical fiction. Plenty of battle scenes and plots to keep the reader entertained.

I finished this book just after the new edition of L'Art de la Guerre (ADLG) arrived. With excellent timing, one of the new lists is Later Scots Irish. I have suitable 28mm figures for the Scots and the Vikings.

The Vikings have heavier infantry than the medium Scots, balanced by the extra light troops and a unit of horse, which the Scots used to harass the flanks.

After that, it was a shieldwall slugfest, which the Scots just about got the better of.


However, if the Vikings had survived one more move, they would have captured the sacred camp and broken the Scots. An ADLG lesson is that if you take sacred camps, defend them!





Friday, 7 May 2021

L'Art de la Guerre v4

The new 4th edition of the popular ancient and medieval rules L'Art de la Guerre (ADLG) arrived this week. To the Strongest! is probably my favourite ancient rules, but I play ADLG a fair amount. It is the ruleset of choice for most 15mm players in Glasgow, and there is an active competition scene.

For those unfamiliar with these rules, they are an element based game using standard base sizes (40mm frontage in 15mm). They provide a fairly quick game, typically requiring a smaller number of figures and a smaller tabletop. A 15mm game comfortably fits on the average dining table. Unlike many rules, the book comes with everything you need, including 300 army lists and a laminated quick reference sheet.

I don't play ADLG in competitions, so the subtleties of the v4 changes might be lost on me. For a more comprehensive overview of the changes, you can visit the Madaxeman blog and website, which has lots of resources for the game. There is an interview with the author on the No Dice No Glory blog and in this month's Wargames Illustrated. There is also an official list of changes on the ADLG website.

For those familiar with the game, the changes are not huge. Flank attacks are more deadly due to combat bonuses being added in. Heavy infantry move a bit quicker in the early moves away from the enemy, and you can move and extend in the same movement. There is also some tidying up of the rules on confirming, which I suspect is mostly to address competition issues. 

The army lists have been revised with more options. This does mean some points changes, which I discovered with my Wars of the Roses armies. So, you will need to check your lists before playing. There are 18 new lists with some interesting Scots and Irish armies I will need to look at. Nothing new in the Balkans though!

Troop types are also revised. Longbows become medium swordsmen after 1415, which give them a bit more staying power in combat. Polearms are now distinct from other 2HCW and give a decent defence against cavalry. Light artillery can move and shoot, and war wagons are more manoeuvrable. Cataphracts are improved, and various exotic types are added, including armoured elephants and various incendiary weapons.

The terrain set up rules have also been changed, and some new optional rules, including random events using playing cards.

I have just finished my Wars of Roses project, so this was an opportunity to get them onto the table. The army lists are changed, so I had to redo them. The big changes are the longbowmen and the new polearm classification for the billmen. You save a point for longbowmen, so I could field more retinue types rather than levies.


Tactically, the Medium Swordsmen classification for the retinue longbowmen meant I was more willing to let them get stuck in rather than just shoot away. It means the battle line stays together, which looks more historical. They are still at a disadvantage to armoured billmen, but not by too much, especially if you have disordered them with bow fire. There aren't many mounted units in a WoR army, but the billmen did hold their own in the one combat we had.

Early days, but I agree with others that the changes look about right. More a tidying up than a major rewrite, but enough new content to justify paying for a new edition. Merci, monsieur Caille!



Saturday, 1 May 2021

Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign

 This is a new translation of Johann Nobili's somewhat sanitised study of the Austrian campaign against the rebellious Hungarians during the winter of 1848. Sanitised because the original by Heller was deemed too critical. The book is edited by Chris Pringle, author of the excellent Bloody Big Battles (BBB) rules. He has made the text more readable, added maps, and corrects the author's spin on history through extensive footnotes.


1848 was the year of revolutions across Europe, and the Hungarians took the opportunity to break with the Austrians, although not the Habsburgs. Once the Austrians sorted out their own revolution, they sent an army under the command of Field Marshall Windisch-Gratz into Hungary. This campaign was not initially successful, and the Austrians had to call upon the Russians to help them out. This study covers the period from the invasion until Windisch-Gratz was removed from command. 

Chris has some sympathy for the Field Marshall, who probably had insufficient troops for the task and was short of key troop types, particularly light cavalry. He also had two corps commanders who rarely did as ordered. Ban Jellacic was overly cautious, and Schlick was the opposite, striking out on his own when he was ordered to concentrate. 

There are several interesting campaign details. One of these is the use of rockets. My view of these is probably covered by the episode in Sharpe and Wellington's view of them. However, this campaign showed that they had some advantages. They were much more mobile than artillery and excellent as incendiaries. Another point is the very low casualty rates. Generally, around 2% compared with 20% or more during the Napoleonic Wars, which were fought with similar weapons. The reasons appear to be low troop density rates and a tendency to withdraw once flanked on the relatively level terrain. The campaign also saw the first substantial use of railways to transport troops.

The war of movement involved plenty of skirmishes, which suits my modest 28mm forces for the campaign, using the Steve Barber range. These often involved river defences, and therefore bridges were crucial. There were major battles, including Kapolna and Isazeg, which are still manageable, and the orbats are very useful. Typically 25,000 to 30,000 per side, over quite large areas. BBB rules in 15mm or smaller would work well for this type of game.

It would be fair to say that despite Chris's improvements, this isn't an easy read. The troop movements are not easy to follow, and the language is typical of the period. It is also a one-sided view of the campaign with the Hungarians plans and movement only touched upon. Chris's notes help address the deliberate bias, particularly Austrian claims of being outnumbered. Despite the challenges, it is worth persevering with this book. The Hungarian revolution is a fascinating conflict, and this is an excellent resource given there is very little in English.

Onto the tabletop with a few of my 28mm units. I use the Rebels and Patriots rules for 28mm games of this period. They allow you to field the range of troop types from well-trained professionals to the almost untrained militia. 

Hungarians on the right defending the village and river crossing


Austrian line infantry attack the village

Austrian composite Grenadier unit goes for the Honved unit in the centre.

Austrian Jagers skirmish on the Hungarian left




Thursday, 29 April 2021

Greek War of Independence in 28mm

 I wasn't going to get drawn into the Greek War of Independence in 28mm, as I have a decent collection in 15mm. I have a number of Steve Barber's excellent figures painted for the slightly earlier Serbian revolution, which I could use at a push. However, yes, you just knew there would be a 'but', a new firm, Old Man's Creations, went and produced a new range. They keep posting these fine castings on the Wargaming the Greek War of Independence Facebook page as well. Drug dealers they are!

Work is consuming most of my time this month, so a small six-figure project was just what was required. The models are cast, I think, in ultracast or similar. I am not a great fan of this medium, and they are not cheap, but this is a niche. I prefer the heft of metal, and I have found other ranges to be a bit brittle. However, no problem with these. Some assembly is required with the weapons, which I suspect would have been damaged in transit without this approach. They are a bit bigger than my Dixon Ottomans, which are small by modern standards.

The detail on the figures is superb, making them a pleasure to paint. I slightly overdid the second wash, but I hope I have the right balance after a bit of touching up. They are probably a bit grimier than others have painted them, but I find it hard to believe that they would have been able to keep white fustanella's pristine on the campaign. I love the heroic oil paintings, but they are not photo-realistic.

Time being of the essence, a skirmish game was called for. I have plenty of suitable Ottomans, so a quick game using Fistful of Lead rules. We actually played twice, fighting over a bridge.

In the first game, I'm afraid I disgraced the revolution by getting slaughtered. Despite drawing some excellent cards, I managed to miss all six shots. In the second game, matters improved, and the Ottomans were sent packing.


All my heroes survived, although a few were worse for wear. They are a fun set of rules and great for a quick game. I hadn't played with muskets before - reloading is a bit of a challenge when you haven't got a lot of cover.




Friday, 23 April 2021

Nigel Tranter - Scotland's Storyteller

 Along with my re-reading of Nigel Tranter's historical fiction, I have been reading Ray Bradfield's biography of the author.


I have always thought of Nigel Tranter as an east coast Scot, but I discover he was, in fact, born in Glasgow. Not far from where I used to live and close to Hampden Park, the home of Scottish Football. The family moved back east fairly early on, and he is rightly associated with East Lothian for most of his life.

We don't hear much in this book about his war service in the Royal Artillery. He was somewhat older than his fellow junior officers, and as a writer, he didn't share their passion for drinking, smoking and sport. However, his quiet war gave him time to write and supplement the family income. 

In the army, he developed his writing technique as he walked, as that was the only way he could get the peace and privacy he needed. After the war, he developed his daily routine of rising at 7am, and after breakfast and prayers, he set off on a walk. He lived for most of this time at Quarry House in Aberlady Bay. His walk would mostly cover the shoreline for ten or twelve miles. In the evening, he would type up his notes on an old typewriter and do some research ready for the next day. At one stage, his typewriter had a faulty 'b' key, so he would type 'o' and then convert by hand. His manuscripts were bound with old shoelaces.

His productivity was astonishing, running to 130 books. Right through the 1950s and 1960s, he was publishing three or four books a year as well as a constant stream of magazine articles. Before he settled down as a historical novelist, he was writing westerns and children's books. It was commonplace for book reviewers to say that Nigel Tranter has taught most Scots all the history they know. If true, it doesn't say much for how history is taught in schools, and Tranter was pretty critical - 'dry as dust', he would say. He would also reflect that "A nation that doesn't know its own history, has lost its memory."

He was also a campaigner, although how he found the time amazes me. After the war, Tranter was heavily involved in the Covenant Association, campaigning for what much later became known as devolution and the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament. He lived to see it happen in 1999. He wasn't a nationalist and eventually found his political home in the Liberal Party, today the Liberal Democrats. It was while I was working at their conference that I met him. We may not have shared the same politics, but we did share a love of history.

He was drawn into the famous stunt of Ian Hamilton's to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, first stolen from Scotland by Edward I. Of course, anyone who has read his books will know that he didn't believe this was the real coronation stone. Still, he recognised the symbolic value, and today it resides in Edinburgh Castle. His many other campaigns made him a regular contributor to The Scotsman. I wonder what he would have done with social media!

Film options were bought on several of his books, and stage plays were done on three. If only Braveheart had used his script, it would at least have a semblance of historical accuracy! The best seller was the Bruce trilogy, but his biographer argues that the Montrose books are the best written, and I agree. He also wrote some important non-fiction history. His The Fortified House in Scotland ran to five volumes and documents no fewer than 663 fortified houses, not castles.

The book finishes with a nice end piece which includes, "And tomorrow, he will be out again, striding along the shoreline, this man who has given us back our past, walking with Wallace and Bruce, his mind far distant from the petty concerns of everyday."

A typical page of notes from his daily writing walk



Monday, 19 April 2021

Columba

 My re-reading of Nigel Tranter's historical fiction books continues with the second book chronologically, Columba. The story of St Columba and the high heroic days of the early Celtic church.


His proper Irish name was Colum mac Felim, and he is known in his native Ireland as Columcille. He was born in AD521 and is credited with spreading Christianity to what is today Scotland. He was trained in Ireland and got involved in a religious controversy that may have led to the Battle of CĂșl Dreimhne or the Battle of the Book. This conflict forms the opening chapters of Tranter's story. Consequently, Columba decides to lead a mission to the Scots Irish kingdom of Dalriada (Dal Riata) on Scotland's west coast.

This was a nominally Christian state bordering on the Pictish state of Alba, which was pagan. Columba was given the island of Iona as a base from which he expanded his missionary activities to the many islands off Scotland's west coast. Tranter describes the scenery on his many journeys brilliantly. You can almost smell the sea air. I'm biased because this is one of my favourite places on earth. 

This is the later medieval abbey at Iona as seen today.

One of Columba's many achievements was to link the coronation of kings to a Christian service. This led to many kings being buried at Iona. In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded.

He then decides to launch a mission into Alba and persuades the Pictish King in the capital Inverness to allow missionary activity. Helped by the story of him seeing off the water monster. This is at least one of the stories that underpins the legend of the Loch Ness monster, which draws many thousands of tourists to the shores of the Loch today. En route he also helps the family of the chieftain at Urquhart, now a well known medieval castle.

He continued to establish many churches and monasteries across Scotland and acted in a diplomatic role to bring the various kingdoms together in an alliance against the encroching Angles. He died in 593 or 597, the sources differ. He was buried in Iona but his relics are purported to have been carried by Scottish armies in battle. Something he would not have approved of. This includes Bannockburn in 1314.

I haven't any Picts or early Scots, so here are some Islesmen I painted for a Bannockburn display.

The book is classic Tranter. Fleshing out what we know of his life with narrative and evocative descriptions of his journeys. Great read, although if you like your historical fiction with plenty of battlefield action, you might want to skip this one. Sex and violence is in short supply!