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 30 June 2016

Prince Rupert - The Last Cavalier

My latest reading has been Charles Spencer's biography of Prince Rupert.

I had a vague understanding of Prince Rupert's early years, having read Frank Kitson's biography. Although I note that was 18 years ago, so a new version is justified. His father's disasterous involvement in the Thirty Years War and the loss of the family lands, led Rupert into a military career from an early age. While he learned the basics, he also ended up a prisoner of the Emperor for three years.

The outbreak of the English Civil War found Rupert with his uncle King Charles. Although this wasn't a forgone conclusion - his older brother declared for Parliament in recognition of their support for the Palatine cause on the continent. Rupert became the Royalist General of Horse and his tactics, derived mainly from those of Gustavus Adolphus, gave the cavaliers an edge in the early battles. It was the discipline of Cromwell's Ironsides that turned the tide, most notably at Rupert's greatest failure, the Battle of Marston Moor.

The author made a deliberate decision only to use a third of the book on the Civil War period. This means we get an extensive description of the post-war period that I knew nothing about and was ignored by Kitson. Rupert became a admiral and commanded a flotilla, in what were little more than piratical operations to fund the Royalist cause in exile. They took him around Europe and the West Indies.

On the restoration of Charles II, Rupert was again given a naval role and fought in all three of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. He also established the Hudson Bay Company and he was the Constable of Windsor Castle, responsible for several of the halls we can see today. His interest in science and medicine was legendary.

If you are looking for a study of Prince Rupert's role in the Civil War, this isn't it. Instead we have a much more rounded picture of an exceptional character. Really good read.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

More Villistas

Back from my Balkan travels and it's time to get down to some serious painting. When a show is months away, you think, plenty of time to paint up the armies. But then time moves on and before you know it the lead mountain is as high as ever and Claymore is less than two months away.

So, first off Pancho needs his bodyguard, the Dorados or 'Golden Ones'. He had three squadrons of 100 men each in this unit. Famed for their wild cavalry charges, they had a rifle, two pistols and two horses each. These are from the Outpost Miniatures  range.

Then some more foot figures. These are irregulars attached to Villa's, Division del Norte. They are mostly from the Foundry range. A little early for this conflict, but they look a suitably villainous bunch!

Sunday 12 June 2016

A Land Divided

My holiday. fiction read has been K.M.Ashman's 'A Land Divided' the first in the 'Blood of Kings' series about early medieval Wales.

The setting is post-Norman Conquest in 1081. Wales is divided into a number of Kingdoms, frequently at war with each other and the Normans based in the border marches. 

The focus of the book is an attempt by Gruffydd, in alliance with Rhys ap Tewdwr, to recover the throne of Gwynedd held by Trahern. With the aid of largely mercenary forces hired in Ireland he defeats Trahern and two armies allied with him,  Caradog ap Gruffydd of Gwent (South East Wales) and Meilyr ap Rhiwallon of Powys, (Mid Wales) at the battle of Mynydd Carn. The Welsh alliance is funded by the Normans.

There are several sub-plots, with a range of strong characters. Strong battle scenes, treachery etc. All you would expect from good historical fiction. And an unexpected twist at the end that I won't spoil.

This is a period I knew little about and offers an alternative set of scenarios for Norman armies. I will read more in this series.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Greece: The Decade of War

My holiday non-fiction read was appropriately, as I was in the country, 'Greece, The Decade of War' by David Brewer. This is a new book by the author of a very good study of the Greek War of Independence, 'The Flame of Freedom'.

In this volume he covers the period from Mussolini's occupation of Albania in 1939, to the end of civil war in 1949.

The Italian and German invasions are covered briefly, with the focus during the war years on the period of occupation. This is the right balance as there are several good books on the battle for Greece, but less on what happened during the occupation itself. The chapters cover the various resistance movements and support from SOE, as well as the impact of occupation on the people of Greece. These were tough years, accompanied by food shortages and savage reprisals for acts of resistance.

The communist ELAS were the most effective resistance movement, although as elsewhere in the Balkans, they had one eye on the end of the war. The final chapters of the book cover the civil war that started when the Germans withdrew. The attempts to broker a peace agreement that failed, leading to a shooting war. ELAS was always heavily outnumbered and probably made a strategic mistake when they moved from a guerrilla to conventional war plan. Stalin showed no interest in a communist takeover and eventually the loss of safe bases in Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria sealed the defeat of ELAS.

This is a very readable and well written study of the whole period. Recommended.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Ancient Macedonia

No visit to Macedonia would be complete without a visit to the key sites of the Kingdom of Macedonia.

Let's start with the capital Pella. The site is still being excavated, but you can get a real feel for the scale and prosperity of this city. I did wonder why it was so far from the sea, but all is explained when you see how much the coastline has changed over the years - it was actually only 20km from the coast.

The palace was on top of a slight hill and would have dominated the city. The Agora is huge and reflects the trades that worked in the city. The mosaic's are also impressive.The new museum has a wide range of artefacts found during the excavation and is very well laid out. There are only a few military items, other than large case of helmets and swords found in graves. 

Next up is Dion, the temple city that the Macedonian kings visited before setting out on campaign. Alexander came here before his Persian campaign. It is sited close to Mount Olympus.

This is another big site, so allow some time to walk around it. The Romans also developed the site so it has Roman and later Byzantine additions.

Then the important port city of Pydna. Sadly not a lot to see here, other than some later Byzantine additions. The modern harbour may not be based on the original. Some of city is now under the nearby railway and motorway.

Pydna gives its name to 2 battles between Macedon and Rome in 168 BC and 148BC, although the former is the more important as the Roman victory ended the Antigonid line of Macedonian kings and confirmed the Roman conquest of Greece. The later battle was more of an uprising. 

The site of the battle is not really known, but the best guess is somewhere near the village of Nea Ephessos, so here is a photograph of the terrain taken from that village. The Roman army commanded by Paullus had elephants in this battle, which I always think is a very un-Roman weapon. The Romans won by withdrawing, or being forced back, over rough ground that broke up the cohesion of the phalanx. This allowed the legionaries to get inside and use their swords. The mystery is the ineffectiveness of the Macedonian cavalry. It is speculated that as nobles they were disaffected from King Perseus's populist policies.

Finally, even Thessaloniki hasn't forgotten the great man. There is a huge statue of Alexander on the sea front.

Greek army museums

I haven't had a lot of luck on this trip when it comes to museums run by the Greek army.

Firstly, the Lachanas museum was closed when it should have been open, according to the published opening time. Then up to Fort Rupel, but when I arrived at around 1:30 I was told it would reopen at 8pm. Yesterday I turned up at The Balkan Wars museum to be told it was closed because of a presentation ceremony. In contrast, sites and museums operated by the culture ministry have all been open and at sensible times. Frankly, if the army can't staff it's museums, it should hand them over to a department that can.

The one exception was the excellent War Museum in Thessaloniki. It could be better signposted, but once found it is a gem, and it was open! 

The exhibits are well organised in chronological order, with many panels in English. I found the uniform displays particularly useful, colours are always a challenge for the wargamer. There is a huge array of weaponry, some display cases are crammed full. Finally, a few interesting weapons on display outside the building. 

I think this was badged as a Marmon 2, which confused me. Not an expert, but looking at pictures I think it's actually the later Mk4. Anyway, I don't think I have seen one before.

Nice model of a Metaxas Line fort.

Well worth the effort to find it.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Lake Doiran 1916-18

I had the pleasure of visiting another battlefield I have read and written about - Lake Doiran on the Greek-Macedonian border.

In August 1916 the allied advance out of Salonika reached Doiran, a strong defensive position with hills rising from the lake. Three French and one British division attempted unsuccessfully to displace the Bulgarian 2nd Thracian division with heavy casualties.

Both sides dug in and conventional WW1 trench warfare ensued. In April 1917 the British amassed 43,000 men, 160 guns, 110 mortars and 440 machine-guns for an assault on Doiran, now defended by 9th Pleven Division. Successive assaults failed to make significant progress.

The Bulgarian positions

The third battle of Doiran in September 1918 followed a similar pattern, this time the British forces were reinforced by Greek divisions. However, despite a massive artillery bombardment and initial success, very little progress was made. It was the Serbian and French success in the Vardar Valley that forced the Bulgarian army to withdraw from Doiran.

Lake Doiran today is a beautiful sight, with little to remind the visitor of the dreadful events a century ago. The Doiran memorial stands on Colonial Hill in the centre of the British line and lists the casualties that include regiments from every part of the U.K. There is a cemetery further down the hill for the British dead and a sadly unkempt one for the Greeks. The Bulgarian positions are just over the border in Macedonia (FYROM), but their strength is obvious from the memorial.

The Memorial.

British cemetary

Greek cemetary.

Struma Valley

Over the years I have written about and played a number of wargames based on the Struma Valley campaign in Macedonia during WW1. Between 1916 and 1918 two British divisions and some Greek forces fought mostly Bulgarian and Turkish units on this front. 

It's attraction for WW1 gamers is that you can fight very open battles, far away from the trench warfare of the western front, or even a few miles up the road at Doiran. The Struma Valley was infested with malarial mosquitos that caused more casualties than the fighting. So the armies based themselves on the hills either side of the river and the war was one of patrols and skirmishing, with the occasional brigade size action. As I discovered, the mosquitos haven't gone away!

Yesterday, I visited the battlefield. I imagined the valley to be narrower than it actually is. The terrain is wide and flat, although even today very boggy. I visited the villages that were the target for one such action described Wakefield and Moody (Under the Devil’s Eye), then called Yenikoi, Karajakoi Zir and Bala. Between 30 September and 4 Oct 1916, 81 Brigade (27th Division) captured the villages after fierce fighting and fought off Bulgarian counterattacks.

The villages today are larger with mostly modern dwellings, so it is difficult to picture the action. Although this photo gives a flavour of the terrain. The hills in the background were the British positions.

You can also visit the Lachanas and Struma cemeteries where the British dead are buried. A bit off the beaten track, but beautifully maintained by CWGC. The Struma cemetary in particular is an oasis of tranquility. 

Sadly, not all the dead could be identified, but they are not forgotten.

Battle of Kilkis-Lachanas June 1913

Yesterday I visited the site of the Battle of Kilkis-Lachanas, fought between Greek and Bulgarian armies over three days in June 1913. 

This was the 2nd Balkan War, in which former allies, after defeating the Turks, fell out over the spoils. The Bulgarian 2nd Army commanded by General Nicolai Ivanov, had advanced into Macedonia in May and held the line between Kilkis and Lahanas with around 70,000 men. He faced a much stronger Greek army, commanded by King Constantine, totalling around 117,000 men.

Despite being outnumbered, Ivanov was relying on his more experienced troops and advanced towards Thessaloniki on 15 June. The offensive came to a halt by 18 June and the Greeks counterattacked. The Greek 10th division advanced toward the heights of Kallinovo north of lake Artzan, the 3rd, 5th, 4th and 2nd divisions attacked Kilkis, the 6th and 1st attacked Lachanas and the 7th the Karakoli saddle and Nigrita.

I visited the site of Lachanas battle that is marked by a fine memorial and a small museum, sadly closed despite published opening hours!

The Bulgarians prepared the area of Lachanas with defensive works, the low lying hills provide excellent fields of fire. The Greek 6th division attacked on 19 June and captured the line Dichalo-Klepe, losing 500 casualties, while the 1st division captured Vertiskos. On 20 June the two Greek divisions linked up near Lachanas. However, the Bulgarians spotted a detachment moving away to support the Kilkis battle and successfully counterattacked it. 

When Kilkis fell, the troop shift was cancelled allowing the two Greek divisions to successfully attack the Bulgarian position capturing 16 guns and 500 prisoners. The Greeks suffered 2,701 killed and wounded at Lachanas. 

The defeat of the 2nd Army was the most serious military disaster suffered by the Bulgarians in the 2nd Balkan war. The Bulgarian army suffered 6,971 casualties and the Greeks suffered 8,828 casualties. However, they succeeded in withdrawing through the Struma Pass before the outflanking Greek units reached them.


Thursday 2 June 2016

Platamon Castle

This year's Balkan tour is to Macedonia, mostly the Greek part. We are based in a good hotel right under Mount Olympus, home of the gods - I can feel Zeus and the twelve, looking down on us!

Day one includes some more earthly pleasures, with a very fine medieval castle just down the road at Platamon. It commands a strategic position between Macedonia and Thessaly. There was a Roman fort here, probably destroyed by the Galatians. Then Byzantine and Franks before it was held by the Ottomans. It had a mosque and a minaret in those days. 

It is in very good condition considering the New Zealand Division fortified it in 1941 as part of the fighting withdrawal from the Aliakmon Line either side of Mount Olympus. The Germans bombed the castle and the New Zealander's withdrew to the Pinios Gorge, the Vale of Tempe of antiquity. I followed their route through the gorge, which is an excellent defensive position. 

They had to abandon the position after fierce fighting against two German divisions and retreat down onto the Thessaly plains, when the Germans broke through on the other side of the mountain and threatened to cut them off at Larisa. So it was back to the next defensive line at Lamia and then Thermopylae.