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

Tuesday 31 December 2013

The Pagan Lord

Second on my holiday reading list has been Bernard Cornwell’s latest epic, ‘The Pagan Lord’.

This is the latest in the Warrior Chronicles, telling the story of Uthred, the pagan warlord, who was brought up by the Danes, but fights for the Saxons. This is the seventh instalment in the series and covers the period after Alfred’s death up to the historical battle of Teotanheale in 910. The Danes are still pressing the Saxon kingdoms and Uthred is as usual in trouble with the church he despises. He is banished, tries to capture his birth right fortress at Bebbenburg, and when that fails, comes back to save the Saxon’s yet again.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it does have to be said that the formula is getting a bit worn. A bit like Uthred himself, who is getting on a bit. You might think, time to ride off to Valhalla with sword in hand and you would probably be right.

However, the problem with this critique is that it is still a great yarn. Absolutely compelling reading that you just can’t put down. Cornwell is simply the master storyteller and while the formula is getting a bit repetitive, there is enough of a gap between titles for the reader to recover. Bring on the finale!

Monday 30 December 2013

Chain of Command

I played my first game of Chain of Command at the club yesterday, the WW2 platoon level skirmish game by Two Fat Lardies.

We played a VBCW scenario, with three sections of my Red Clydesiders supported by a T26 and an armoured car, against a similar force of Covenanters.

The spotting phase is innovative, with markers patrolling in 12” moves until they contact an enemy patrol within 12”. That locks them in place and converts into jumping off points for a rifle section. You have four markers that have to keep within 12”, so that constrains your ability to start too far into the table. In most cases it will probably result in a standard deployment, but it doesn’t take long and makes you think about the terrain and how best to exploit it with deployment.

The game places a great emphasis on leadership. The command dice roll at the start of each phase makes all activations and these allow leaders to move, fire or rally troops. Senior leaders are the most important as they have multiple activations for troops within 4”. You also collect command points that can be used to interrupt during your opponent’s phase.

Shooting effectiveness is based on the training of the enemy troops like FoW. The ranges are long as this is a skirmish game.

We had a fun game, but I have a few reservations. Like a lot of TFL games the movement is very random. Troops can sit around doing nothing for a long time and I am just not convinced about this. Units faltering by events like being fired on I can understand, but just sitting around when you have clear orders from the outset, simply doesn’t feel right. It is also possible for one side to have two consecutive phases, which is a very big hit.

A number of the mechanisms are unduly complex, even allowing for our first game learning. There are unnecessary stages and detail that I am not convinced adds anything to the play or the ‘realism’. When you get to armour effects there are many outcomes that you need to write down to remember. I found this irritating, slows the game down and visually unattractive.

In summary, some nice ideas and I don’t have a problem with the leadership focus. However, it’s too random, unnecessarily complex in places with some turgid mechanisms.  I’m afraid it wont tease me away from Bolt Action.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Militargrenze using Muskets and Tomahawk rules

I did promise myself some gaming over the holidays and I got to a project inspired by my first game with the excellent Musket and Tomahawk (M&T) rules.

At the time it occured to me that this would work just as well on the military border between Croatia and Bosnia/Serbia, known in Austrian as the Militargrenze.

I have written a short article on Balkan Military History explaining the military structures on both sides of the border. Then I converted the main troop types into M&T classifications.

I have now fought three short games around a Grenzer village being attacked by Ottoman forces. The rules work really well and provide interesting and quick games.

Here we have a unit of Azebs and another of Gonullu trying to work their way around the back of the village. However, they are repulsed by the sturdy Genzer.

The Janissaries did little better in the frontal attack.

Just as the Grenzer though it was all over with the Ottomans in flight. The mighty Rasputin (our cat) arrived on the scene!

But of course, with name like Rasputin he has to be an Orthodox Christian, so he decided to play with the fleeing Azebs!

Whatever the M&T classification - he wins!

Thursday 26 December 2013

To Conquer or to Die!

My holiday reading starts with, ‘Conquer or Die! Wellington’s Veterans and the Liberation of the New World’ by Ben Hughes.

Simon Bolivar’s campaigns to liberate the northern states of South America are fairly well known. Popularised, for wargamers at least, by John Fletcher’s ‘Liberators!’ booklets and range of figures. He is also the author of a recently published Osprey essential histories book on the wars of liberation.

However, this book focuses on the 6,000 or so British volunteers who served, largely with distinction, in the republican armies of Venezuela and Columbia between 1817 and 1820. In the main, they were Napoleonic wars veterans who volunteered to fight in South America. It tells the story of these wars through their eyes and by any standard it is a remarkable story. One of great courage, much misery and endurance, coupled with incompetence and farce. Nonetheless, they made a significant contribution to the republican victory, one that is only partially recognised, even today.

My wargaming of this period has focussed on the other great Liberator, San Martin, who led the Argentine armies across the Andes to liberate Chile and then Peru, where he joined up with Simon Bolivar. There is more on this at my website and GDWS did a number of display games with the converted figures in 28mm during 2007. Wargames Illustrated published a feature article on these games in August 2007.

I would also recommend reading Robert Harvey’s ‘Liberators’ and John Lynch ‘Simon Bolivar – A Life’. He did another book on San Martin.

Orinoco Miniatures have just brought out a range of figures in 28mm for the period, starting with the British Legion. They look very good together with the first Columbian and Spanish foot. I suspect I will give in when the distinctive Llanero cavalry arrive. Flags of War have also started a range of flags.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Type 95 Ha Go tank

Merry Christmas to everyone. Hope you got all the toys you wanted! Given my huge pile of metal I asked for some restraint from Santa, but it just means more book tokens.

In the words of the song I could say, 'all I want for Christmas is a Ha Go tank', but not quite true as I finished painting it yesterday. Now all my Brits need for xmas is a 2pdr anti-tank gun, otherwise they are in serious trouble!

This is the Warlord 28mm model. Very nice with one complaint. Do the people who design these kits every assemble them? If they did they surely would not expect a long piece of metal (gun barrel) to stay in place with a pathetically small lug hole. Barely pin sized on this model. Much swearing and super glue later I got there, but a bit of thought guys ....

Have a good holiday.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Malayan Campaign Brits

Two more units of Brits for my Bolt Action Malaya project. These are Perry plastics as several units got diverted to Singapore.

And a Type 92 70mm infantry gun for the Japanese.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Japanese reinforcements

Some more 28mm Japanese for the Malaya campaign. Again these are Warlord, based for Bolt Action rules. If I can finish off the Brits by Xmas, I might even get a game over the holidays!

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Japanese in 28mm

First of the Warlord Japanese off the bench.

These are from the Warlord metal box and few extras. Probably a few too many kneeling and crawling figures for my taste in the box. I would expect to see Japanese charging across the board!

Friday 15 November 2013

Jungle soldier

The WW2 Far East project is back on track with some more reading on the Malayan campaign.

This time a compelling story about the 'stay behind' units and one Freddy Spencer Chapman. He spent over three years behind Japanese lines, mostly with Chinese communist guerillas. All the more remarkable given that he was more famous pre-war for his expeditions in the Arctic.

Brian Moynahan has written a gripping narrative of his story, 'Jungle Soldier'. He draws heavily on Chapman's own account in, 'The Jungle is Neutral' (1949). It was only half way through Moynahan's book that I remembered that I had a second hand copy of this tome in my reading pile.

Not a wasted purchase because Chapman wrote his account during the Malayan Emergency and therefore missed out some important details. Also frankly, Moynahan is the better writer and gives a wider perspective. I won't summarise the story because that would ruin what is an excellent read and a credit to a remarkable story of endurance.

One of the more interesting points for me is hinted at in the title of the book. The Japanese were far from being the expert jungle fighters they were portrayed as being at the time. Chapman shows how their jungle craft was limited and had the stay behind parties been better equipped and supported, could have done even more damage.

More progress on the figure front as well. These are the first of the 28mm Malayan project using Bolt Action. Perry 8th Army plastics work well for this project because several units earmarked for the desert were sent to Singapore. The issue of tropical uniforms convinced the troops that the desert was the destination. After arriving only to be captured by the Japanese, most would have wished the original plan had held up!

Tuesday 12 November 2013

China's War with Japan

My Far East project has taken a bit of a detour into the Sino-Japanese conflict, which of course began before WW2. My latest reading is Rana Mitter's 'China's War with Japan', a book I discovered through a History Magazine Extra podcast. I can recommend these if you haven't tried them yet.

China's contribution to the defeat of Japan in WW2 is probably not fully appreciated, at least in the West. China continued fighting for eight years when it could have surrendered. They tied down half a million Japanese troops that could have been deployed elsewhere in the Pacific, most notably in an invasion of India. China paid a heavy price, with some 14 to 20 million dead.

This is a broad narrative history that takes us from the, almost accidental, outbreak of war in 1937 to the unexpected capitulation in 1945. It is a complex tale that focuses on the political history of the period because in practice there were three China's at play. The Nationalists, communists and the collaborationist governments. The outside actors, most notably the Americans and Russians, play an important role as well.

The military historian will be frustrated by the way the author brushes over the detail of major campaigns. However, the political context is important here, more so than many other campaigns, so this is definitely required reading.

Monday 4 November 2013

Handschar in 28mm

The latest additions to my Bolt Action 28mm Balkan WW2 project are the Handschar. Or properly, the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian). 

This was a Waffen SS unit recruited mostly from Bosnian Muslims. They joined up primarily to secure their communities from the depredations of the Croatian Ustashi. By 1943 over 100,000 Bosnian Muslims had been killed and 250,000 had become refugees. Himmler had a somewhat romantic view of Islam and the fighting reputation of Bosnians, based on their record in WW1. The Bosnians had a generally positive view of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which meant they were inclined to welcome the Germans.

They spent most of the war fighting Tito's partisans in a series of operations that had limited success. As the Russians poured through the Balkans they mostly drifted home. Those who stayed to the bitter end either died in action or were executed for war crimes. Not a happy story, but they are an important and distinctive unit in partisan warfare of the period.

The models are Warlord Germans with Handschar heads that be bought separately. There are plenty of pictures of these troops in George Lepre's 1997 book, 'Himmler's Bosnian Division: The Waffen-SS Handschar Division 1943–1945'. Plus the Osprey titles on the period.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Muskets and Tomahawks

I played my first game of Muskets and Tomahawks today at the club. A dry run for the club display game at the Targe show next weekend at Kirriemuir.

For those not familiar with these rules they are for skirmish games in the French Indian Wars or the AWI period. Each side has a number of small 6 to 10 figure units with officers that are useful for morale purposes. Activation is by cards for different types of unit together with event cards that add the unexpected, without dominating the game. Shooting and combat is a simple D6 system and the rules are quickly picked up after a couple of turns.

While I have no intention of returning to this period, I can see an option to use them on the Military Border in Croatia during the 18th Century. The small war skirmishing was very similar with irregulars supported by regular troops based in the main garrisons. It will probably need different cards but otherwise looks like an interesting option.

Here are a few photies of the game today as a taster for those attending Targe. Sadly not me as work intervenes.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Flames of War - Malaya

I eventually got some of the recent painting on the table today with a Malaya game using Flames of War rules.

A Japanese tank platoon of five Type 95's with infantry support on both flanks, storm down the road towards a village held by two British infantry platoons, supported by ATGs and 25pdrs.

The lead tanks were quickly knocked out by the 2 pdr ATGs but an air strike pinned them and artillery finished them off. The British infantry on the left flank held their position. However, on the right, the Japanese outflanked them and a bayonet charge wiped out two sections while the rest fled. Game over for the Brits.

The decisive rule is 'Envelopment' that enables the Japanese infantry and man packed support to move at the double through rough terrain. Deadly in this game.

The jungle pieces I bought at SELWG got their first outing as well.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Shanghai 1937

My reading has drifted a bit from the original Russo-Japanese project to the earlier conflict in China. This includes Peter Harmsen's, 'Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze'.

In 1937, this battle was front page news across the world, largely because it was possible to report on the battle from the relative safety of the international settlement in Shanghai. The Japanese decided to push out of their enclave as part of their strategic goal of expanding in China. The Chinese leadership decided to resist here and moved some of their best divisions into the city and the surrounding area.

Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Chinese troops of the period were uniformly bad, based on later WW2 performance. However, in 1937 the Chinese army included a number of German trained divisions that performed very well against the Japanese. They were well equipped and trained, but badly led. This was the main frustration for the German advisors, several of whom were Jewish and therefore not welcome in the new German army back home.

The Japanese, while out numbered, had several important advantages. Huge firepower, with their fleet providing heavy artillery support and total control of the air. This enabled them to interdict Chinese supply and reinforcement. Chinese artillery was poorly deployed as a consequence and this resulted in huge casualties from frontal assaults. They also had the strategic advantage of being able to land troops at almost any spot on the coast. It was  this that finally enabled them to hit the Chinese flanks, forcing a general withdrawal. 

None the less, it was far from a walkover for the Japanese, who were forced to call up reservists and divert troops from a planned offensive in North China.

This is a well written narrative of the campaign. So much so that I just had to order some of the absolutely fabulous Eureka Miniatures Chinese infantry. Great detail although ridiculously pricey. 

Sunday 13 October 2013

SELWG show

I went to the SELWG show at Crystal Palace today. I am in London for half term and the wargames is a trade for taking Jess to the Harry Potter studios tomorrow! 

It must be 15+ years since I last went to this show and the format hasn't changed much. The venue has its limitations with a main sports hall and a gallery. Not the most accessible venue in London it has to be said, but not too bad.

A good spread of traders, including a few like Peter Pig who rarely travel north. The limitations of returning by plane restrained me to a few books, a nice Russian dice bag for Bolt Action and some good value jungle terrain for the Far East project. 

There were some nice games and these are a few that caught my eye.

War of 1812 in 28mm

Nice ancients game, looked the part.

Hunt Kaiser in WW1

Very impressive town, even if a bit redundant to the actual 18th century game

The terrain for this WW2 game in 15mm was probably my favourite.

Very unusual Russian naval landings in late WW2 against the Japanese.

Hussites using WAB in 28mm.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Kosova Liberation Army

I haven't posted a book review for a while because my latest reading has been heavy going. It is James Pettifer's 'The Kosova Liberation Army: Underground War to Balkan Insurgency, 1948-2001'.

This is a very detailed account of the KLA from its post war origins fighting against Tito, to the recent conflict and the achievement of a separate state, well sort of. The KLA was never the best equipped guerrilla force and struggled for most of its existence against the well equipped Yugoslav and then Serbian army and police units.

The 'revolution' in Albania gave them access to assault rifles in large numbers, but not the high explosive they needed to interdict the main road routes used by their opponents. The NATO intervention gave them an air force, but I hadn't appreciated how ineffective this was in Kosova. It was the attack on Serbian targets that forced an end to the conflict and rectified the Serbian ethnic cleansing.

This is not a book for the general reader, but the book for anyone interested in this conflict.

Plastic Soldier Russians

Next batch of Russians have finally made it off the painting bench.

First some 45mm ATGs

 Then 76mm field guns

 and finally some more rifles

These are all from the Plastic Soldier range. The infantry box gave me some nostalgic moments. It was a bit like old Airfix figures that I first started wargaming with. Lots of figures, but plenty of useless poses. Plastic Soldier isn't quite that bad, but there are a lot of strange poses for rifle platoons. In addition the gluing together of figures in 15mm is very fiddly and unecessary as the poses are largely fixed. Having said that the castings are very nice and good value.

The artillery pieces fitted together very well and even in 15mm not too fiddly. I have the support weapons on the painting bench at present. Again not a bad fit, although some one piece moldings would be welcome. Particularly the HMGs.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Where the Eagle Landed

My latest reading has been Peter Haining's 'Where the Eagle Landed'. This is badged as the mystery of the German invasion of Britain in 1940.

I picked this up in a second hand bookshop in Hay-onWye, thinking it would be useful in my Seelowe Nord project. The author describes the threat to Britain in 1940 from Hitler's Operation Sea Lion and the many forms of defence planned by the British authorities. These varied from conventional defences to all sort of strange and impractical devices considered by special units, established for just that purpose.

The focus of the book is East Anglia. The author describes the defences there and the testimony of witnesses who discovered bodies and papers that might suggest landings by German troops.

Sadly, the book boils down to a likely short landing by an E-boat crew on a beach near Sizewell. Frankly, it hardly seemed worth the effort to write it and I regretted wasting my time reading it. It took a long time to get to the point and the point wasn't worth it. More a vanity project on the basis that I have done all this research, it didn't lead anywhere, but I am going to tell you about it anyway.

If you want to learn a bit about East Anglia in 1940, by all means read this book. If not, avoid it.