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

Thursday 31 July 2014

Battle of Harlaw 1411

More holiday reading, this time John Sadler’s ‘Clan Donald’s Greatest Defeat: The Battle of Harlaw 1411’.

The battle, sometimes called 'Red' Harlaw due to the casualties, took place on 24 July 1411 north of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. It was fought between Donald, Lord of the Isles with a force of some 10,000 islesmen and highlanders, against Alexander, Earl of Mar with a Lowland force several thousand strong. 

Donald was enforcing his claim to the Earldom of Ross and was threatening Aberdeen when Mar assembled a force to oppose him. It is likely that the arrival of the Lowland army surprised Donald camped near Harlaw. Mar’s advanced guard consisted of the men of Angus and they were attacked by the Islesmen, being pushed back until Mar arrived with the main battle to support them. The main action was a battle of attrition with the islesmen and highlanders charging the spear armed lowland schiltrons. The rearguard, led by Forbes, joined the battle on the right wing and helped to push back the last assaults by Donald’s army. By nightfall, the Lowland army had lost around 600 men and the islesmen over 900. Mar held the field and Donald withdrew overnight. Probably a score draw to to Mar, but importantly, Aberdeen was saved. 
Sadler gives an extensive background to the conflict and the armies involved. As with most battles of this period, sources are scarce and the battle is described in a single chapter. The book is really a history of Scotland’s relationship with the Lordship of the Isles, rather than simply the battle itself.

Having read the book, it was time to refight the battle using Hail Caesar rules and 28mm figures.

The battle starts with the Lowland Angus vanguard being attacked by the Macintoshes. The left wing is routed and the right forced back.

Mar arrives with the main battle to form a new line as the main force of Islesmen advance.

The highland charge routs the remaining men of Angus and the right wing of Mar's force, but Mar himself fights off the Islesmen.

Finally Forbes arrives with the Lowland rearguard, but so do the Macleans and the whole line is engaged. So far pretty much as we believe the actual battle went.

However, history is now overturned, with Forbes being routed and the isolated Mar pushed back as the Lowland army breaks.

The gates of Aberdeen beckon for the highland host! 

Hail Caesar worked really well for this battle. The command system provided the staggered arrivals and there were credible lulls in the fighting while commanders rallied their men for the next stage.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Ottoman Cycle - 2 & 3

Holiday travel enabled me to read the next two books in S.J.A.Turney’s, Ottoman Cycle.

The first was the ‘Priest’s Tale’, where our ‘hero’ Skioros leaves Crete (Candia) on his journey of revenge against the Sultan’s brother Cem, who is an exile in the Vatican. He blames him for the death of his brother. His ship is captured by Ottoman pirates and he and his comrades are taken to Tunis to be sold as slaves. They escape and make the long land journey with Tuareg traders across North Africa and then across the straits to Spain. The story ends with him being separated from his companions by accident and ends up with Columbus sailing for the New World.

In the second book, ‘The Assassin’s Tale’, he has returned from the Americas and rejoins his companions who agree to help him in his quest. They join a Condottieri lance commanded by one of their group and fight their way across Italy, before being engaged by Cesare Borgia in the Vatican. This gives them access to Cem, albeit with the complication that the French King has his own plans for him.

It’s difficult to badge this series as its not a conventional swashbuckling historical fiction in the Cornwell mode. The characters are very well developed and the historical research is evident. The second book brilliantly covers the complex machinations of 15th Century Italian politics. Perhaps more importantly, its a great read with lots of twists in the tale and certainly no shortage of action. I particularly like the way the main character develops across the three books. Recommended.

Monday 28 July 2014

Opening of the First World War

Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening declaration of what would become the First World War.

Matthew Seligmann explains the process from regional squabble to World War in his article in today's 'The Conversation'; "With the exquisite turn of phrase for which she was so highly regarded, Barbara Tuchman once likened the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia of 28 July 1914 to an example of “the bellicose frivolity of senile empires”."

The early battles of the war have not received much attention in the English language with the focus on the western front and the great battles in France. The centenary publications have at least begun to change that and I have outlined the early actions and a reading list in a recent feature article in Balkan Military History.

My post on return from holiday, includes a free Flames of War supplement for WW1 in this month’s Wargames Illustrated. It looks good and I might give it a go later this week.
Here are my 28mm early war Austrian Hussars as a taster.

And some Serbian infantry in 15mm

Sunday 27 July 2014

Tour around Vis

This month's Balkan Military History features a tour around the Croatian Island of Vis.

I outline the history of this island that has such an interesting story because of its strategic position in the Adriatic. Greeks, Romans, Venetian, French, British and Austrian's have all used its natural harbours as a base for their fleets.

They have all left their mark and because the island was a restricted military zone, much of it hasn't been lost to commercial tourism. This is the entrance to Vis Bay, defended by Fort George on the left and Hoste Island in the centre. You get a real feel for the natural bay from this angle.

My tour takes a chronological look at the military history sights.

Plenty for the rest of the family to do as well, with secluded beaches, natural attractions and fine food and wine. The local Pag cheese is particularly good - my suitcase groaned with the amount I brought home!

It's also very good value as a holiday destination.

In wargaming terms, I am adding some British commandos to my 25mm Partisans. Bolt Action will be ideal for the small scale island raids the British forces engaged in. Similar scenarios will work for the Napoleonic period as well.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Yugoslav navy and Vis

The Croatian island of Vis is a good place to see installations of the former Yugoslav National Army (Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija) or JNA, because this was a closed military zone until the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The JNA (technically it's forerunner) was formed in 1941 from partisan units and became the national army after the war. It was organised into four military regions of which Vis came under the Split Naval Region. Of the JNA's 680,000 soldiers, more than 180,000 were conscripts. In 1990, the army overhauled its basic force structure, replacing the divisional infantry organisation with the brigade as the largest operational unit. Twelve infantry divisions converted into twenty-nine tank, mechanised and mountain infantry brigades with integral artillery, air defence and anti-tank regiments.

The Yugoslav Navy included nearly eighty frigates, corvettes, submarines, minesweepers, and missile, torpedo, and patrol boats in the Adriatic Fleet with an establishment of around 10,000 sailors and marines. They developed a submarine-building capability during the 1960s. In 1990, the main combat were three Heroj class submarines armed with 533 mm torpedoes. Two smaller Sava class submarines entered service in the late 1970s, but two Sutjeska-class submarines had been relegated mainly to training missions by 1990. They also had midget submarines.

On Vis, you can visit a submarine pen in a cove near Vis town. We did it as part of a military tour organised through the Paiz Travel Agency. This is the best way to see installations as you need an off road vehicle and a local guide to find everything. Our guide Robert, was very knowledgeable.

The two ports in the island, Viz and Komiza, would have been full of ships during this period, instead of today's private yachts! The navy had ten Osa class missile boats and six KonĨar class missile boats. Four Vukov Klanac-class coastal minesweepers built on a French design, four British Ham class minesweepers, and six 117-class inshore minesweepers built in domestic shipyards. This was a coastal protection navy, so larger ships were limited to four Soviet Koni class frigates.


Almost every cove on the island has some form of gun battery like this.

There are also more extensive gun positions that you can visit on the tour, like these.

You can also visit the former rocket base and the nuclear command bunker. This is a big complex in the centre of the island that could house up to 600 troops in the event of nuclear war. It was so secret that even the locals didn't know what it was. Apparently this was one place the guards would shoot on sight if you got too close!

The fleet left Croatia in May 1992, when the navy sailed off Vis island to Montenegro and the JNA was formally dissolved.



Wednesday 23 July 2014

Napoleonic Lissa (Vis)

I am holidaying on the Croatian island of Vis (formerly Lissa). Furthest out of the Adriatic Islands, only 60 miles from Italy, it has been a strategic position throughout history. Originally occupied by the Illyrians, the Greeks founded a colony, then the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Austrians and finally Yugoslavia and Croatia.

The British used it as a naval base for their Adriatic fleet in the Napoleonic wars. Vis town is a natural harbour and easily defended with four forts on the surrounding heights and one in the harbour that the Austrians improved when the island was handed back to them.

Three of the forts are simple Martello towers, here is one of them.

The main fort that protects the harbour and a possible landing from a cove along the coast, is Fort St George. It was also improved by the Austrians, but the entrance has the original British markings. A group of locals have formed a trust are repairing the fort at present, taking out the 1950's JNA concrete emplacements. There is a small room with some WW2 items, but I'll cover that in a WW2 blog.

I outlined the history of British involvement in an earlier blog post. The key naval action was the Battle of Lissa 1811, when a small British frigate squadron, defeated a much larger French and Italian force that included 500 troops for an invasion. The battle is covered well here.

The British commander was Sir William Hoste and the small island at the entrance to Vis Bay is named after him. He is also credited with bringing cricket to Vis, a tradition that is maintained to this day.


Tuesday 22 July 2014

Hannibal: Fields of Blood

This is the second of Ben Kane's Hannibal series. He tells the story of the Second Punic War through the lives of a Roman and a Carthaginian family, who become, somewhat unlikely, entwined.

This book takes us through Hannibal's greatest victories in Italy - Lake Trasimene and Cannae. The Carthaginians are commanders of veteran Libyian spearmen who re-eqiuip themselves with Roman gear to great effect. The main Roman character leaves the cavalry and ends up as a Hastati legionary.

Ben Kane is a great story teller and this book is very difficult to put down. I am writing this some 60 miles from the Italian mainland where these battles took place, finishing it in a thunderstorm, not unlike some of those described in the book!


Saturday 19 July 2014

More Game of Thrones

Next off the painting bench in my SAGA Game of Thrones project are the Lannister Knights. These are 'hearthguard' in SAGA terms and represent the household troops of the House of Lannister.

I also managed some games during the first week of my holiday. This included a return to Andy Johnson's book Seelowe Nord, as inspiration for a Flames of War game situated in Yorkshire.

A Gebirgsjager Company with tank support attacks a village held by a British rifle company and a Home Guard unit. A sneaky Fallschirmjager landing in the rear of the village finished off the Brits on this occasion.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Game of Thrones and SAGA

Dusted down my SAGA folder for a couple of games at the club on Sunday. My playing opponent Iain had sort of assumed this was about Vikings and the like, but of course it was Balkan SAGA - Byzantines v Pagan Russ!

A couple of games later just confirmed my view that these are a very clever set of rules that provide a good quick game. Ideal for that army you have always wanted to do, but couldn't quite justify the time and effort to paint up 100+ figures.

Which takes us to Game of Thrones. I love this programme and the fantasy world the author has created. That means I want to game it, but can't really justify Hail Caesar size armies. I was also inspired by the efforts of others, particularly the battle boards created by The Hobbyist's Blog and this great figure painting.

I am starting with the Lannisters and have just finished the first foot figures. The initial plan is a 4 point SAGA army with three 8 man warrior units, bow, spear and sword; plus one hearthguard of knights. All led by Tywin Lannister.

The only purpose made figures I can find are Dark Sword Miniatures. These are a bit large and very expensive, so I intend using them for command figures - Tywin Lannister is 34mm high, foot to eyes. For the rank and file the nearest I can find are GW Lord of the Rings, Warriors of Minas Tirith. I just sanded down the embossed shields. Two boxes of warriors and one of knights is enough.

I have just block painted them quickly using Citadel Khorne Red for the main tunic colour and Balthasar Gold for the bronze armour. Both are a bit bright, but I think look fine once a coat of Army Painter is applied. The transfers are from Veni Vidi Vici (Sheet MM13).

Monday 14 July 2014

Bolt Action: Malaya 1942

Got some of my latest additions for the Malaya 1942 project onto the tabletop today using Bolt Action rules.

I think these are a great set of rules, but I often forget key points because they are in different chapters. So I have produced a full turn sequence, quick reference sheet to help me. I have put a copy on my Balkan Military History web site, in case it's of any use to others.

Back to the action with a classic Malaya scenario. A delaying action on the main road down the peninsular. Two sections of British infantry supported by a 2pdr, HMG and mortar hold a position in a village. The Japanese move down the road with a tank and then try and outflank the position through the jungle. My new 2pdr got off to a good start with a direct hit on the tank with its first shot and it blew up. The British right flank held up but the left didn't and so the Brits tramped off back down the road to Singapore.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Fire Over the Rock

The great siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783 was the British army's longest ever siege. It's an action that had passed me by, until I picked up a copy of James Faulkner's book, 'Fire Over the Rock'.

Britain had captured Gibraltar in 1704, during the War of the Austrian Succession and Spain understandably wanted it back. A Britain distracted by the American War of Independence was an opportunity not to be missed and a Spanish and French army started a formal siege. A frontal assault on Gibraltar from the Spanish mainland is a very difficult undertaking. Forts and siege lines were constructed, but no assault was tried during the whole four year siege.

Starving the garrison, led by the resourceful General Sir George Elliot, depended on the Spanish Navy. However, the currents in the channel around Gibraltar meant that enterprising blockade runners managed to avoid them throughout the siege. These supplemented three major relief convoys that fought their way in. The British and Hanoverian garrison of some 6,000 men held out against over 30,000 besiegers.

Interestingly, many in the British military establishment didn't regard Gibraltar as an important asset.They would have preferred to hold onto Minorca. In an age of smoothbore cannon, it was easy enough to get into the Med avoiding interference from the Rock. In the end, it was public opinion that made it difficult for the King and his advisors to negotiate a way out.

Sieges are rarely as interesting a story as battles, but Faulkner does a good job with this epic.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Marius' Mules II: The Belgae

After reading S.Turney's 'The Thief's Tale' I decided to give his Marius' Mules series another go.

This is historical fiction set in the time of Julius Caesar and in particular the conquest of Gaul. The second in the series deals with the Belgic tribes who Caesar noted were the fiercest of the Gaulish people.

Unlike other historical fiction of this period, Turney tells the story through high command figures, primarily Marcus Falerius Fronto commander of the Tenth Legion. This gives a more strategic feel to the story, albeit with plenty of individual action. Roman commanders led from the front. Or at least they do in fiction!

I found the first in the series a bit slow, but I warmed to this one. The battle action is particularly vivid and I like the way the author deals with the Roman engineering skills. He also gives full credit to the Belgae , not simply writing them off as barbarians. They often showed considerable strategic and tactical skill.

On the subject of historical fiction, the BBC are doing a new drama series based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon 'Last Kingdom' series. It is inevitably being compared to Game of Thrones. Uhtred will make a great character. I can't wait to see this, but it looks as if I will have to wait until next year!

I start my summer holiday today, so hoping to catch up on some reading, some gaming and a special Balkan holiday trip....