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, 2 December 2022

Tannenberg 1914

 This is the latest Osprey Campaign book covering the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg in 1914 by Michael McNally. The naming of the battle as Tannenberg was a political decision, resonating with the defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410. But, that was simply a small village on a vast battlefield. 

Tannenberg was one of the opening battles of the war in the east, as the Germans attempted to defend East Prussia. The Russians had split their forces into two, the First and Second armies against the Germans in the north, and the Third, Fourth and Fifth armies against the Austro-Hungarians in the south.

As is usual with this series, you get some background to the campaign, followed by an outline of the opposing commanders. The Russian generals, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, had fallen out during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, which did not bode well for cooperation in this campaign. The Germans later included von Hindenburg, the classic Prussian Junker, and his right-hand man Ludendorff. 

The Russian Second Army under Samsonov included five corps and two cavalry divisions. The First Army under Rennenkampf had four corps and four cavalry divisions. Each corps had two infantry divisions of two brigades, with two four-battalion regiments. The First Army would consist of some 176,000 infantry, 23,000 cavalry, 408 machine guns and 696 pieces of artillery. Samsonov’s Second Army consisted of 178,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry, 384 machine guns and 636 artillery guns. All in all, the Russians would field a force of just under 400,000 men. A German corps was similar to its Russian counterpart. After transfers to the west, they had four corps in East Prussia. The book includes a detailed ORBAT.

The Russians operated from occupied Poland and Lithuania, which required troops to defend lines of communication. In contrast, the Germans were fighting on home soil. However, the German plan relied on knocking out the French, allowing troops to be redeployed to the east. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the west meant they would have to fight a two-front war.

The book gives a detailed account of the Russian invasion and how the Germans countered it. Understanding is helped through excellent maps in the Osprey style. The big picture is of Russian failure, but they fought well in several battles that constituted the overall campaign. It was the projected abandonment of East Prussia that led to Hindenburg and Ludendorff's appointment to command the German forces. For both sides, the initial clashes of the campaign in East Prussia would prove to be a sharp lesson in the realities of modern warfare. 

The outcome was an overwhelming German victory. From an initial strength of a little under 200,000 men, the Russian Second Army had lost an estimated 50,000 killed, 30,000 wounded and up to 90,000 prisoners, together with up to 500 pieces of artillery. Against this, the German records show 1,891 killed, 6,579 wounded and 4,588 missing from an initial strength of almost 155,000 effectives. 

After the campaign, the Germans recognised the need to reinforce the eastern front with two corps. This may have contributed to the German defeat on the Marne, but they helped the Germans defeat Rennenkamf at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes on 7-14 September. 

This book has all the details the wargamer needs to refight the battles on the tabletop. While there are some decent colour plates, you need the relevant Men-at-Arms titles to paint the units. Given the scale of the actions, Bloody Big Battles is a good rules option.

Some of my Russian 15mm figures of the period.

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Battleground show 2022

 I made my first visit to the Battleground show in Stockton-on-Tees yesterday. It will not be the last. The venue is Durham University's Queen's Campus, part of a regeneration site in the old canal basin. It is near a train station, has plenty of car parking outside, and the hall is large and bright. The catering was fine, supplemented by a cupcake stall, which was superb.

What really impressed me was the balance of activities. 24 games, half of which were participation together with 30 traders, the well-known as some new ones to me. I bought more stuff than I have at a show for a long time. They also had five reenactment societies, from the East India Company to the Spanish Civil War. I also met the historical novelist Griff Hosker at one of them. There were a couple of presentations from a local historian of the Spanish Civil War. I only made one, but he had done a tremendous job researching the local guys who went to Spain in 1937. 

The games were a good mix of big display games and interesting participation ones.


Bautzen 1813

Vietnam in 28mm

Monty's attack. A different way of tackling the desert war.

Wellington in India - 28mm.

Pilgrim's Progress. Lion Rampant medievals.

Pavia 1525 in 28mm

Barnard Castle. No eyesight checks are required!

It was a four-hour drive for me but definitely worth the effort. I stopped off at the Sunderland Aircraft Museum on the way down, which broke up the journey, and I stayed overnight nearby. In addition, there is a Royal Navy Museum at Hartlepool, which I will do next time. Many thanks to Pendraken for organising this show.

Friday, 25 November 2022

North East Land Sea & Air Museum

 On my way to the Battlefront Show tomorrow, I visited the North East Land Sea & Air Museum (NELSAM). It sits on the former RAF Usworth and Sunderland airport site, next to the massive Sunderland Nissan factory, and comprises the former Aircraft Museum (NEAM) military vehicles collection. The North East Electric Traction Trust (NEETT) is also based on the site.

RAF Usworth was a fighter and training base from 1916 until it was taken over as Sunderland Airport in 1962. In WW2, it defended industrial Teeside against Luftwaffe raids.

There are two small and one large hanger, plus outside displays. The first hanger has a Tornado and a 1916 Morane-Saulnier Type N, which is quite a contrast!

In the main hanger, there is a range of modern-era aircraft, including


Sabre (latterly in Greek service)

EE Lightning

Hawker Hunter

The outside displays include the magnificent Vulcan bomber.

A Spitfire

And one of my favourite jets, the Super Sabre. Apparently, this was in French service and somehow ended up in Scunthorpe, where the museum acquired it. It needs a lot of work.

If you are in the area, it is certainly worth a look.

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Berezina 1812

 I am on something of a roll with Russian Napoleonics at present. Having finished Alexander Mikaberidze's new biography of Kutuzov, this is the same author's look at Napoleon's crossing of the River Berezina in 1812, a key battle in the retreat from Moscow.

This book is in the standard Osprey Campaign format. So, you get some context, a look at the opposing commanders, their forces and plans, before tackling the three days of the battle, or series of battles, itself. As someone who likes to walk battlefields, I always enjoy the battlefield today chapter. However, this is one battlefield I am unlikely to visit anytime soon due to current events! As always with this series, it is profusely illustrated with excellent maps and colour plates by Adam Hook.

Kutuzov's strategy during the retreat from Moscow was one of harassment rather than seeking a battle. He was happy to attrit the French while shepherding them off Russian territory, ensuring they didn't move south into fertile Russian provinces. Annihilation was possible but not on Kutuzov's agenda. He, of course, appears in the list of Russian commanders along with the leaders of the other columns converging on the river crossing. These include Admiral Chichagov and Peter Wittgenstein, and neither covered themselves with glory in this battle. For the French, we get pen portraits of some less well-known generals, given that half of the marshals Napoleon created fought in the 1812 campaign. These include the 12th Division under Louis Partouneaux and the Polish Josef Zajicek, who took command of V Corps.

The Grande Armée was reduced to about 40,000 men, with few guns and a handful of cavalry by this stage of the retreat. It is often forgotten that the conditions also affected the Russians. Being Russian didn't make you impervious to the snow and ice! Clausewitz, a staff officer in Russian pay, commented that Kutuzov saw his army ‘melting in his grasp’. He carefully nurtured his army, which meant only Wittgenstein’s corps and Chichagov’s Third Western Army would confront Napoleon on the shores of the Berezina. The book provides a full ORBAT for both armies.

The Battle of Borisov pushed the Russians over the river and forced them to destroy the bridge. Napoleon decided to cross eight miles north of Borisov on pontoon bridges. Oudinout made a diversionary attack to persuade the Russians that Borisov was still the favoured crossing point. Russian communications were poor, and they overestimated the size of the French army. The author details the various letters and orders to explain why the Russians failed to contest the crossing seriously. Chichagov became the convenient scapegoat. Napoleon escaped, although thousands of stragglers didn't, but not without heavy casualties. The Grande Armée lost between 25,000 and 40,000 men, the vast majority of them stragglers and non-combatants.

For the wargamer, this campaign offers a range of smaller battles (corps and divisions) that are very playable on the tabletop. There is no shortage of figures for the 1812 campaign, and painting troops in greatcoats is much quicker than the typical summer uniforms. This book provides all you will need.

I dusted down my 15mm Russians for a game at the club last Sunday. My opponent had a British army, historically resulting in a somewhat dubious battle. Although post-Tilsit, both countries were technically at war. The Royal Navy effectively destroyed the Russian Mediterranean Fleet, trying to get home the long way. We used Black Powder for the game, and both my Russian brigades managed to charge across the table quickly, limiting the impact of British firepower. Alexander Suvorov's famous dictum, 'The bullet is a fool, the bayonet is a god', proved correct as my columns ploughed through the thin red line.

Friday, 18 November 2022

Military History of Late Rome 395-425

 This appears to be the third volume in Ilkka Syvänne's epic military history of late Rome. Eight volumes so far. This volume covers 395-425AD, which may only be 30 years, but it was a turbulent period. It starts with the permanent division of the Empire into eastern and western parts and ends with the demise of John the Usurper. A somewhat unfair name, as there was no shortage of usurpers in late Rome!

Rome started this period with a military weakened by corruption, undermining its relationship with the civilian population. As the author puts it, 'The officers in general can be considered to have been greedy criminals.' Don't hold back! This didn't stop the Romans from supplying quite large armies. We are generally taught to regard most ancient authors' claims for army size with some scepticism. However, the Romans had a farming surplus, which the author argues could support armies of similar size to the Napoleonic era.

In 397-8, Stilicho launched a major campaign in Scotland. This could have included naval expeditions as far north as the Orkneys. The author argues that the Stracathro-type forts can be dated to this period. He defeated the Saxon, Pict and Irish invaders in a late attempt to defend Roman Britain. We know very little about this period, so getting a new take on these campaigns is interesting. It didn't last long, and he argues that the locals started to organise themselves politically during this period. 

Back in Italy, Stilicho faced the Goths, whose main weakness was an inability to besiege towns. Blockades would work if they had time, but it meant the Romans could defend towns with low-grade levies. Stilicho was not just a capable military commander but a skilled diplomat who managed a delicate balancing act when dealing with the various barbarian forces. When he died, the Goths, led by Alaric, brought about the fall of the Western Empire. The decision of Honorius not to pay for their services and to kill barbarian cavalry commanders fatally weakened the field armies. Rome fell in 410, with the Goths gaining entrance by treachery.

The Eastern Empire took a pragmatic line and even managed to largely keep the peace with the Persians. This was the period when the Theodosian Walls were finally completed, making Constantinople almost unassailable. The weak point was the sea walls because the Romans didn't expect a naval attack. I revisited the walls on my visit earlier this year, and I understand the local authority has been doing a cleanup recently. Türkiye has done some excellent work on Ottoman sites, but they are not always as diligent when it comes to the earlier periods. 

While the west was crumbling, the East Romans had a large army and a strong navy, which delivered military success. Built on the stone walls of Constantinople and the wooden walls of the navy. 

This is a heavyweight military history with a relatively relentless series of campaign narratives. The general reader might find this hard work, but if you are interested in the period, there are many new insights. However, there are plenty of colour plates and organisational detail for the wargamer. Late Roman armies are popular on the tabletop, so this is a likely audience for this book. It's a weighty tome, but the ebook options are good value for money.

Late Roman Barbarian cavalry from my 28mm army.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Blue Water War

This is Brian Walter's study of the maritime war in the Mediterranean 1940-45. While the land campaigns and the broader naval struggle are there for context, the focus is a detailed look at all the naval actions in the Mediterranean during WW2.

The early naval battles, such as Cape Matapan and Taranto, are well-known and extensively written about. However, what attracted me to this book was the coverage of the more minor actions, particularly those in the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic and the end of WW2.

We should not forget that the Italians seriously outnumbered the Royal Navy after France surrendered. Italian warships were at least equivalent to their British counterparts in terms of basic design and construction. However, the British had the technological edge with radar, Asdic (sonar) and range-finding. They also suffered fuel shortages and a weak industrial base throughout the war. I am not entirely convinced about the author's argument over the lack of a seafaring tradition. States like Genoa and Venice dominated the Mediterranean long before the Royal Navy existed. The Royal Navy has much to be proud of in WW2, but this author does, on occasion, rather overdo it. O'Hara is more balanced.

The sizeable Italian submarine fleet certainly underperformed during the war. Some were diverted to the Atlantic War, and others had to be adapted as cargo vessels due to the shortage of merchant ships and Allied interdiction. 

The Mediterranean is not well suited for submarine warfare, and even the U-Boats performed less well. It was the Luftwaffe, particularly dive-bombers, that most threatened Allied navies. 80 Allied and neutral merchant ships worth 397,710 tons were sunk in the last seven months of 1943. Of these, aircraft accounted for the majority, with 41 ships worth 225,448 tons sunk by this means.

A running theme throughout the book was the Allied dispute over the Mediterranean strategy. This has been well-covered by Howard and others, but the Mediterranean remained a vital route to the Middle east and the far east for naval planners. The British estimated this route would free up some 2,000,000 tons of cargo space or the equivalent of about 225 merchant ships. 

Allied navies didn't just escort convoys and sink their Axis counterparts. They also provided fire support to landings, expending 23,000 shells of 4" or greater. This was particularly important in the later campaigns after the collapse of Italy. The Germans used many smaller ships but were rarely able to challenge landings from the sea. Instead, the book details many small-scale actions in which the Allies interdicted german convoys supplying bases in the Aegean and Adriatic. Plenty here for wargames playing Warlord's Cruel Seas

The final campaigns, including Operation Outing, gradually encouraged the Germans to abandon Greece, allowing the British to land quickly and install their own choice of government. The author omits that this was aided by the percentages agreement with Stalin. Of the 52 German merchant ships assembled to conduct evacuation operations in the Aegean, 29 were sunk outright (worth 19,434 tons). The Germans also lost seven torpedo boats, three U-boats, three minelayers, a large hospital ship and scores of auxiliaries and minor vessels. The Germans also abandoned 22,400 army and 4,095 naval personnel on Crete, Rhodes and some other Aegean islands, and 12,000 Fascist Italians were also left behind.

The author has four conclusions. 'First, the Allies were victorious in this endeavour. Second, the fighting was both materially and strategically consequential in advancing the overall Allied cause. Third, this was predominantly a British-run theatre in which the British Commonwealth was the ascendant power within the overall Allied effort in terms of leadership, forces employed and results attained. And fourth, sea power, and particularly British sea power, played an essential role in facilitating this victory.'

The Mediterranean strategy certainly played an essential role in defeating the Axis, even later in the war when it became a secondary theatre. However, that's not the same as saying Churchill was right in favouring it over NW Europe. There is a level of detail in this book which naval warfare buffs will enjoy, although the general reader might feel it is overdone. Nevertheless, I found it very useful and will keep it handy for reference purposes.

Convoy action using Cruel Seas rules

Saturday, 12 November 2022

Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace

 This is Alexander Mikaberidze's new biography of the Russian commander. I have a copy of Roger Parkinson's somewhat outdated and apparently inaccurate, The Fox of the North. Kutuzov also appears in Mikaberidze's editing of official Russian histories, which I have found very useful in researching the Russo-Ottoman Wars. So, I was looking forward to this comprehensive treatment of Kutuzov, if not slightly daunted, when the massive volume arrived in the post! He is also a regular contributor to the entertaining Napoleonic Quarterly Podcast

My main takeaway from this book is the sheer breadth of Kutuzov's career. He was a military thinker, a diplomat, an administrator, as well as an outstanding soldier. While the relationship has been embellished, he indeed served under and learned from the great Suvorov, who did much to modernise the Russian army of the day. His early campaigns were against the Ottomans, who, while far from their best, were not the 'sick man' they would become in the next century. This was the period of Russian expansion under Catherine the Great to the Black Sea and then into the Balkans. Here, Kutuzov learned the art of warfare, contributing to new Russian tactics, including independent divisional squares and Jager battalions. Kutuzov also gained a reputation as a brave commander, leading his troops from the front and sustaining wounds that could easily have been fatal. One penetrated his left cheek and exited his neck, miraculously missing any vital organs.

Most references to Kutuzov, and indeed the Russian army of the period, almost exclusively focus on the 1812 campaign. However, this account covers the Russo-Ottoman wars in detail, with clear maps and battles many will not have heard of. As a side note, this is also true of wargame companies, whose ranges almost exclusively focus on later campaigns. By the time Kutuzov played a crucial role in winning the Battle of Macin in 1791, he had been fighting the Turks for 20 years.

After that war in 1792, he was appointed as the Russian ambassador to Istanbul. This appointment required a whole range of new skills. Mind you, he wasn't short of help. His diplomatic train included 600 staff, including 49 musicians and 24 singers! On his return, he was appointed to command the prestigious Land Noble Cadet Corps, the premier military school. There he instituted significant reforms, which helped train a new generation of officers.

Kutuzov's career suffered and benefited from the patronage of the Tsars that ruled during his lifetime. He survived the purges under Tsar Paul, who sacked more than 330 generals. Interestingly, possibly due to recent TV series, we tend to think of Paul as the 'Mad Tsar'. Mikaberidze argues that it is somewhat unfair, and many of his reforms were far-reaching. He appears not to have been involved in the coup that murdered Paul and put his son, Alexander, on the throne. However, Alexander may not have been entirely convinced when he later dismissed him, although Mikaberidze argues it is more complicated than that. Kutuzov was the author of his own downfall as well. 

When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, Kutuzov was recalled to the colours, proving that Alexander could be pragmatic enough to overcome his personal feelings. Kutuzov rescued the Russian army from its exposed position after the Austrian army was destroyed at Ulm. However, Alexander famously ignored his advice at Austerlitz, complaining that Kutuzov should have persisted because 'I was young and inexperienced.' This led to another sidelining of Kutuzov to Ukraine. However, by 1809 he was back on the Danube fighting the Ottomans as Prince Prozorovskii's second in command, effectively driving the campaign. Not that he was thanked for his efforts and was sent to Lithuania. Yet again, he was sent back in 1811 to tidy up the campaign as Napoleon gathered his forces on the Russian border. The Slobozia-Ruse operation during this campaign showed Kutuzov at his operational best, proving he was far from the defensive general his detractors claimed. 

Despite his success against the Ottomans, Alexander sidelined him again at the start of the 1812 campaign, recalling him in time to adopt the well-known Fabian tactics and the Battle of Borodino. By abandoning Moscow, he almost got relieved again, but his strategy proved correct as Napoleon was forced to begin the long and terrible retreat. Kutuzov was at least partly to blame for Napoleon's escape over the Berezina River and was less enthusiastic about pursuing him into Germany. However, his active life finally caught up with him on 28 April 1813, when he died at his HQ in the town of Bunzlau (now Bolesławiec in western Poland). There is a fine memorial to him today, although he was buried in Kazan Cathedral.

As is often the case, Kutuzov's reputation was enhanced after his death. Tolstoy turned him into a hero in War and Peace. His reputation survived even into the Soviet period. This study paints a picture of a complex character, often flawed but with many remarkable achievements. His campaigns against the Ottomans were probably more successful than the better-known strategic victory in the 1812 campaign. It is hard not to admire the man after reading this book. It's not a quick read nor a dry academic work. Worth every minute, and I anticipate returning to it regularly. Highly recommended. 

I have just finished the Kolyvan Musketeer Regiment in 28mm for my 1806 project.