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 29 August 2017

BEF support weapons

I have added some support weapons for my British Expeditionary Force 1940 project.

First up some anti-tank rifles. These are from the Crusader range.

Then a Vickers HMG, also from the Crusader range. A nice robust one piece casting. All other wargame companies please note!

And finally, some serious firepower in the form of this 25pdr. This is the Warlord version and it's a nice model. However, one of my pet irritations with Warlord artillery is the lack of instructions. Photographs of the completed model on the website is of little use when you are trying to work out where hidden parts go. Got there in the end!

That just leaves a couple of armoured vehicles on the painting bench.

Sunday 27 August 2017

Valentine Baker's heroic stand at Tashkessen 1877

The Battle of Tashkessen, fought in December 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War, is probably the most competent rearguard action of the nineteenth century. Some 3000 Ottoman troops stalled 25,000 Russian soldiers for four days, allowing the main Ottoman army to withdraw.

It's an action that few people will have heard of today. All the more remarkable when the Ottoman force was commanded by a former British Colonel, Valentine Baker, or Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha, as the Ottomans knew him. The Shipka Pass and siege of Plevna are reasonably well known, with at least 18 roads in Britain named after Plevna, but not one named after Tashkessen.

Frank Jastrzembski, in a new book on the battle explains why. Colonel Valentine Baker was the subject of a notorious scandal in Victorian Britain. A well known and highly respected army officer, he was convicted of indecent assault on a 21 year old woman on a train in June 1875. He served a twelve month prison sentence, albeit in more comfort than most of his fellow prisoners, and was then cashiered from the army. Despite support from many in the military establishment, Queen Victoria refused all requests for reinstatement, until just before he died.

Unable to serve in the British army, his friend the Prince of Wales helped him gain an appointment as a Mirliva (Major General) in the Ottoman gendarmerie. Baker was something of an expert on the east having travelled and written extensively about the region. Britain had supported the Ottoman Empire in its disputes with the Russians, most recently in the Crimean War. However, Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria meant that public opinion in Britain had made overt support difficult. Baker reported to his friends at home on the events on 1876 and the outbreak of war with the Russians in 1877.

After initial setbacks for the Ottomans, Baker joined the army of Mehmed Ali Pasha based at Shumla in the Quadrilateral fortresses on the Danube. Squabbling amongst the Ottoman commanders militated against a coordinated counterattack and despite some modest advances by Baker's division, it ground to a halt on the River Lom.

Baker got himself a new command in the Ottoman army based at Sofia, preparing to relieve Plevna. However, the army was simply not up to the task and after the fall of Plevna, on 10 December 1877, the released Russian and Romanian troops spread across Bulgaria. Baker spotted that the Ottoman defences on the Kamarli line were about to be outflanked by some 20,000 Russians, commanded by General Gourko. Baker took a small force of three battalions with some Arab cavalry and artillery to the Tashkessen Pass, in an attempt to buy time for the Ottoman army to withdraw. He received some reinforcements, but his force never exceeded 3,000 men, of varied quality.

The battle was a textbook rearguard action, with the effective use of terrain, reserves and a withdrawal over several positions. Garnet Wolseley described it as, 'One of the most important events in the war' and Colonel Maurice in a lecture to British officers said it was, 'the most wonderful rearguard action our times, if not of all time'. It was without doubt, Bakers's finest hour.

His career after the 1877 war took him back to Britain where he was partly received back into society, but not the army due to Queen Victoria's continued opposition. He was appointed to the Egyptian gendarmerie after the British occupation of that country in 1882. In December 1883, in the Mahdi uprising in the Sudan, his very weak force collapsed at El Teb. Baker barely escaped with his life and ended his career in Egypt, where he died on 17 November 1887. He never knew that Queen Victoria  had acceded to his reappointment to the British army a month or so earlier. He was buried in the English cemetery of Cairo.

I have to confess that I didn't make time to visit this battlefield during my visit to the main battlefields of the Russo-Turkish War. The modern motorway from Plovdiv takes the traveller south of the old Sofia road at Tashkessen, called Saranci today. Having read this book, it was a major oversight.

When my copy of this book arrived, I was ploughing through another somewhat heavy going tome. After dipping into it, the pull was too strong and I read it over a weekend. The author tells the story of Valentine Baker from his early career, through the scandal and onto the Russo-Turkish War. His involvement in the war and the Battle of Tashkessen is the focus of the book, but he carefully outlines the context and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing army. He ends with an interesting chapter on comparable rearguard actions. If there is one small shortcoming in this book, it would have benefited from some diagrams of the battle. Baker's 19th century map is helpful, but inadequate by modern standards.

This is brilliant book, well researched and written, throwing light on a subject that deserves more attention. Not just the the fascinating story of Valentine Baker, but also the role of rearguard actions in warfare. Taskkessen is indeed a model to be studied. Highly recommended.

So, onto the tabletop. I decided to dust down my 15mm armies for the war, not least because of the numbers of Russian's involved. I condensed the battle down to three stages. The initial probing assaults, followed by the attempt to outflank the position, and then the final assaults on the second line positions. I'm afraid my generalship didn't match the brilliance of Baker, but it did give me an insight into the challenges he faced.

Some probing attacks on the village of Tashkessen

This is the right hook column, including guards units (white caps) commanded by Kourloff.

Baker holding the central knoll with the Edirne battalion

Sunday 20 August 2017

BEF 1940 - figure comparison

I made a bit more progress with the lead mountain for the BEF 1940 this week.

Another rifle squad added, using Crusader miniatures that I picked up at Claymore. I hadn't seen this range before, but I like them. A little more chunky than Warlord, but otherwise pretty comparable.

For comparison purposes, here are the Warlord figures that I painted some weeks ago.

I have started some support weapons next and I do like the Crusader approach of one part castings. For example, their Vickers HMG is a good solid one part casting with no flash. In comparison, Warlord are usually fiddly little bits that are no where near as robust.

I picked up this book 'France, Holland and Belgium 1940-41' by Will Fowler while on holiday, at a bargain price of £4. More a photographic guide to the campaign with plenty of inspiration.

Dan Snow's podcast History Hit has a good interview with James Holland, author of War in the West, which is on my reading list. He was getting his take on the new Dunkirk film.

While he generally gave it a very favourable review, he did point out a couple of shortcomings that I hadn't spotted. His main gripe was the references to waiting for the tides. He pointed out that the mole went out further than low tide mark and therefore the tides made little difference. This was an unnecessary piece of nonsense, unlike the lack of smoke and ships.

He also pointed out that Kenneth Branagh would have been court martialled for not wearing a helmet! Apparently the actual Senior Naval Officer, in the absence of stencils, cut out the letters SNO from cigarette packets and stuck them on with fish oil.

Still a great film, but could have been more accurate without losing any of the cinematic experience.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

WW2 combat reconnaissance tactics

I picked up this Osprey Elite 156, written by Gordon Rottman, in a second hand bookshop while on holiday. It was first published in 2007 and is still available on the Osprey site, at a discounted price as well.

It starts with an outline of the purpose of reconnaissance and then the type of missions. Essentially, the job is to collect information, rather than combat with the enemy. The author then describes the various types of recce units and their mobility. This varied between armies and the theatre of operations.

The second half of the book discusses the varied equipment recce troops carried. They obviously travelled light, but also needed intensive firepower to extract themselves. He also discusses the different types of communications - from messages to radios. Finally, the author makes some national comparisons between the US, GB, German, Russian and Japanese recce units.

For the wargamer this is a very useful book. Actions involving recce units are often at a scale that are easily reproduced on the tabletop and they often have a balanced all arms composition that gamers like. This book includes useful diagrams that shows the gamer the different ways recce units moved across the battlefield and how they prepared for a mission.

Some 15mm recce units for the tabletop.

First up some German light armoured cars supported by Fallschirmjager.

Then some British armoured cars and Bren carriers.

And finally, recce units often not only retained cavalry designations, they were actually horse mounted in many armies. Here are some Greeks.

Monday 14 August 2017

Game of Thrones on the tabletop

The latest series of Game of Thrones has inevitably revived my interest in gaming the hit TV series.

I am using Lion Rampant rules, which allow decent size forces and a quick and simple game.

For this game I went for a busy table in terms of terrain, which provides quite a challenge for armies that have limited light units.

The Lannisters are on the left. They were slow off the mark, allowing the Stark and Tully force to establish a good defensive position by the farm in the centre and to skirmish on the left.

The Lannister bows took some time to get through the woods and establish a good fire base by the stream. But when they did, their firepower (4+) to hit began to tell. However, too late for the heavy Lannister foot that was driven off by the Tully horse and foot combination.

With the Stark knights and Tully horse working around the flanks, it was game over for the Lannisters. Tywin's last stand!

I have adapted my figures mainly from the LOTR range, with some generic medievals as mercenaries. Plus the Dark Sword range as character figures. However, specifically designed figures are on the way. 

CMON have a Kickstarter project with figures based on the Song of Ice and Fire books. Presumably cheaper than licensing the TV series. The starter set includes 103 miniatures, together with rules, cards and tokens, for what looks like an interesting game as well as some superb looking sculpts.

It has been massively oversubscribed and a number of stretch goals have been reached, releasing even more figures. It ends on Wednesday, so you just have time to get in at the outset of what should be a long term project. Delivery is scheduled for April 2018 - I can't wait!

Sunday 13 August 2017

BEF reinforcements

I haven't managed much painting during this summer's break. When you get some half decent weather in the west of Scotland, you take advantage and get out. In my case walking and the golf course.

However, I have managed a few reinforcements for the BEF and the defenders of Britain in 1940.

First up is the Armadillo. This was an improvised armoured vehicle used primarily for the defence of airfields. It was a standard lorry with a wooden fort built on top, supplemented by mild steel plates. Later versions like this one mounted a Hotchkiss 3-pdr gun. The Warlord model went together pretty well, not something I have always been able to say about their products.

Then we have a command group for the BEF consisting of a couple of officers, medic and a spotter.

Finally, a 3" mortar for some much needed infantry support.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Transnistrian War 1992

A question in a pub quiz during my summer break caused me to listen more carefully – “Where is Transnistria?” Not one of the teams got it right and when the correct answer was given, ‘Moldova’’, one team didn’t believe such a country even existed. In fairness, it does have a Ruritanian sound to it, but the quizmaster was correct, even if his answer might be contested in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol.

Transnistria has also been in the news in recent weeks. The Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin was barred from EU airspace when he tried to visit Moldova, to meet the pro-Russian President.

Moldova (historically known as Moldavia) is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine on the River Dniester. The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was created in 1940 largely from the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and the lands occupied by Romania. It declared its independence from the USSR in 1991 and became the modern Republic of Moldova with its capital at Chisinau.

Transnistria is situated on the east bank of the Dniester and in the Soviet period was an autonomous part of the Ukrainian SSR. It has majority ethnic Ukrainian and Russian population that opposed Moldavian language laws and closer links to Romania. Moldavian and Romanian languages are very similar.

Separatist forces in Transnistria declared their independence in September 1990 as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMR). Just to confuse everyone further, ‘Prinestrovie’ is the Russian name for Transnistria. It became one the unrecognised republics like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, although some argue that the separation in Transnistria is more political than ethnic.

Moldova had no army other than paramilitary and police units. By the end of the conflict they had recruited some 25,000 men, with equipment from Soviet stores and some support from Romania. The PMR got weapons from the Russian 14th Army and received active support from this force that included 14,000 professional troops. The PMR recruited around 9,000 troops supported by Cossack volunteers.

There were a number of minor military incidents in late 1990 and 1991, but the war properly started in March 1992 when Moldova was admitted as a member of the UN. There were three main areas of conflict.

The first was in the village of Cocieri, on the east side of the Dniester, but held by Moldovans who ejected PMR police and built defence lines around three villages.  Both sides amassed significant numbers of troops who fought intermittently for several weeks. A second bridgehead was created in the Cosnita area and similar fighting took place.

The most serious fighting was in the city of Bendery when Moldovan troops attempted to establish control and arrested a Major from the Russian 14th Army. Three Russian T64 tanks were destroyed, but overwhelming PMR and Russian forces captured the town. The Moldovan air force, using MiG-29’s sought to blow up the bridges across the Dneister, to stop 14th Army units crossing into Moldova.

A ceasefire was agreed in July 1992 and the Joint Control Commission was established with peacekeeping forces from Russia, PMR and Moldova. Although the Russian forces are much smaller, this arrangement remains in place to this day.

For wargaming purposes, 1990’s Russian troops will do for both sides, although the irregular forces and police units had a variety of paramilitary uniforms. I gamed the period in 6mm, so the differences are marginal.

The 1992 conflict is pretty difficult for the Moldovan army, being outnumbered due the intervention of the Russian army. A conflict today would be different because the Russian forces are much smaller and could not be reinforced through Ukraine. The PMR forces number around 5,000, plus 1000 Cossacks, supported by a few tanks, artillery and APCs. The Russian forces have been reduced to some 1500 men in two motor rifle battalions and support units.

The modern Moldovan army is a small professional force consisting of nearly 6,000 men in three motor rifle brigades, one artillery brigade and a Special Forces battalion. It has some 300 AIFV/APCs, 227 artillery pieces, including ATMs, AA guns and missile systems. The air force had 31 MiG-29 aircraft, but these were sold to the USA in 2006. Today, the air force only has transport aircraft and 8 Mi-8 helicopters, supported by SAMs. The Moldovan army is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and has military agreement with Romania.

A recent episode of the excellent US drama ‘Madam Secretary’ included a Russian attempt to take over Bulgaria, countered by a NATO armed response - another interesting ‘what-if’ for modern gamers in the region.

Monday 7 August 2017

Killer of Kings

This is the latest in Matthew Harffy's, Bernica Chronicles. Set in 7th Century Britain, our hero Beobrand is sent south from Northumbria , ostensibly to deliver some holy relics to King Sigeberht of East Anglia.

He gets involved in defending East Anglia against a Mercian invasion and in doing so comes up against his old enemy Wybert. The East Anglian's lose the battle although our hero is rescued and ends up back home after a few diversions, but I won't spoil the story. There is a parallel story of events back at his own lands.

We know very little about this period, but the invasion was real and the decisive battle was possibly fought at what is now known as The Devil's Dyke or St Edmund's Dyke.

If you have read my reviews of the first three books in the series, you will know I am a big fan. I like my hero to be gritty and flawed, and that is certainly the case with Beobrand. There will be more in the series - I look forward to them.

Time to give this period a go on the tabletop. I decided on a Northumbrian v Picts battle using Lion Rampant rules.

The Northumbrian army is a mixture of Saxon and Post-Roman British figures. For the Picts I used early feudal Scots. They looked more like the later Picts of this period than the better known square shielded Picts.

The Northumbrian's took the initiative and established a shield wall in a strong position. The Picts tried to work around the flanks with their cavalry and light troops, without much success. That left no option other than a hard slog against the shield wall and the Northumbrian's defeated several attacks. Beobrand would have been happy!

Beobrand wasn't even phased when a giant cat threatened to intervene on the side of the Picts!

Saturday 5 August 2017

Claymore 2017

Another fine Claymore show in Edinburgh today. Well organised as ever in a good venue, helped by the cooler weather.

Running a participation game doesn't give much time to get around the show, but I added a few more figures to my BEF 1940 project from Crusader Miniatures. Then a total collapse at the Warlord stall, with a pile of French figures for the same period.

Our participation game 'Take the Pass!' Had a steady stream of players, who all enjoyed the game. The Turks held on in one of the four games. Turkish Delight went down well for the winners!

My photos of other games that caught my eye. 

Starting with Ramillies in 6mm from Glasgow Phoenix.

Burma 1944 - big game Bolt Action

Nappies from League of Augsburg

Nordlingen - 30 Years War from the Durham club

Trojan War

Very nice ACW game from The Iron Brigade

More Nappies from Border Reivers

Wings of War, always a popular participation game

Nijmegen Bridge, seen the film, play the game!

Many thanks to the South East Scotland Club for a good day.