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

Sunday 28 January 2018

Churchill and Tito

In 1943, Churchill decided to switch British support from the Serbian based Chetniks, to the largely Communist Partisans - in leadership terms from Mihailovic to Tito. This was a controversial decision at the time and one that has been condemned by revisionist histories since the war.

Christopher Catherwood in his book 'Churchill and Tito: SOE, Bletchley Park and Supporting the Yugoslav Communists in World War II', examines the evidence in detail. He recognises those who point to the post-war consequences, but argues that this is history in hindsight. As he says:

"In 1943 Churchill had decisions to make. And he chose as a British Prime Minister acting in the British interests against Britain's deadliest enemy the Third Reich. In that context he was surely right."

He starts with a brief history of the Balkans, focusing on the creation of the state of Yugoslavia and the period before WW2. He reminds us that the attempt to stay neutral in 1939-41 was pretty difficult for any state in the Balkans, sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who at the time had a Pact. Watching how their neighbour, Romania, was carved up, must have been a particularly difficult moment.

The author then takes each of the claimed conspiracy theories that have been offered by those seeking to rehabilitate Mihailovic and condemn Churchill's decision. These include the role of the overtly Communist, James Klugmann based in the Cairo office of SOE. The revisionists grossly overestimate Klugmann's influence in Cairo, but more importantly in London.

It is a key theme in the book that Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff reached their decision on the basis of ENIGMA/ULTRA material, made available thanks to the work of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. It was cold hard evidence that switched British policy, not a bit player in Cairo.

He goes on to explain the role of Bletchley Park and the information they provided from German sources. These included German field reports that showed how much damage the Partisans were doing, and crucially, how many German divisions were being tied down in Yugoslavia, just when the Allies were preparing to invade Italy.

This intelligence also confirmed what British officers on the ground, like Maclean and Deakin, discovered. MacLean was a Conservative MP, not a Communist sympathiser. However, even his reports did not form the basis for Churchill's decision. He like Churchill, took a pragmatic view that war is a dirty and often cynical business.

The intelligence also confirmed that Mihailovic wasn't just unwilling to seriously fight the Germans because of fear of retaliation. Cetniks loyal to Mihailovic actively fought along side the Germans and the collaborationist Nedic regime. His focus was on destroying the Partisans to secure a post-war Serbian Royalist leadership of Yugoslavia, or at the very least Greater Serbia. The evidence of collaboration was indeed stronger against subordinates like Voja Lukacevic, and it is true that the Germans still regarded the Chetniks as an enemy. However, none of that changed the fact that Tito was persuading Serbs and Croats to come together to fight the common enemy, whereas Mihailovic, a Serb nationalist, was doing very little.

Even if Churchill had backed Mihailovic, it would not have made any significant difference in 1945. Churchill presumed that the Partisans would win the civil war anyway, not least because captured Italian weapons meant they were better equipped by 1943, without Allied aid. Crucially, it was the Red Army that liberated Belgrade on 20 October 1944, albeit with partisan help. The idea that Stalin would have put a Serbian nationalist regime into power, is just a fantasy. Ask the neighbouring Romanian royal family.

Of course, Tito massacred thousands of his own people between 1945-48. However, his actions during the war meant that he was not installed as a Stalin puppet. This meant, along with the Churchill/Stalin 'naughty deal' that he was able to make a split with Stalin in 1948, and get away with it. He had kept the Soviet Union out of his country, unlike much of the rest of Eastern Europe. Nice options were not available in 1945.

This means that not only did Churchill make the right short-term decision in 1943, but he also ended up making the right call in the longer term.

This is an excellent book, throughly researched and very readable. It carefully and objectively sets out the evidence and is an must read for anyone interested in understanding the period and the how the key decisions were made.

For wargamers, this isn't a military history, its focus is on high level military strategy. There are other books that do that well. I would also recommend the memoirs of Maclean and Deakin for inspiration and scenarios.

Despite the decisions of Churchill, Tito was very nearly killed on several occasions, most famously in the Drvar raid. A game GDWS played out at the Claymore show in 2013.

Sunday 21 January 2018

British Museum

A spare hour when in London this week took me to the British Museum. I haven't been around the upstairs exhibition halls for many a years.

The Anglo Saxon section is very good. I may have alighted on these drinking horns as I was on my way to a few beers with pals!

The very small handle on this sword reminded me of how much bigger we are today. Certainly wouldn't have fitted my hands.

The highlight in this section is the Sutton Hoo treasure and this helmet in particular - just stunning.

I haven't read much about the early Italian peoples, before Rome swept all before it. Here are some interesting helmets.

Further afield we have a collection of Sassanid arms and armour.

You would not want to argue with this Molossian Hound! The breed comes from Epirus.

This is a bronze statue of a warrior on horseback, made in Taranto around 550BC

Something closer to home for me - the Lewis chessmen. I have a replica in my study.

Back downstairs, I never tire of looking at these massive Assyrian statues.

And finally, some of Lord Elgin's loot. Sorry, legitimately acquired under the authorisation of an Ottoman Firman. Pick your side in that debate, but at least we can see them today.

Sunday 14 January 2018

The Kingdom of Georgia

My latest reading is a bit esoteric. It is a reprint of an 1888 travelogue, written by Oliver Wardrop, covering his trip around the nation of Georgia. Georgia is a small state in the Caucasus region, south of the mountains, resting on the Black Sea. Throughout most of its history it has been squeezed between Russia and Turkey, with Persia playing an important role as well. 

While he was only 23 when he made the journey, he went on to be the British High Commissioner after the 1917 Russian Revolution. 

It is a topical read, as today in 2004, the Georgian parliament approved the distinctive 'Five Cross Flag' as the national flag after a period of some 500 years. 

This reflects the complex history of a state that has only recently regained its independence (1991), and even then has already lost two regions and is under pressure in a third. The conflict with Russia remains a live issue. 

He arrived in the coastal port of Batum (Batumi) and made his way to the present capital and largest city Tiflis. From there he made a number of trips by carriage and horse through some pretty rugged and sometimes bandit ridden territory. These included a trip up a Russian built military road to Vladikavkaz, today the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. He also made a long and quite dangerous trip to Signakh (Signagi) in the Kakheti region of modern day Georgia. From there to Telav, in the same region and then back to Tiflis.

It's important to remember that this is a Nineteenth century Englishman, travelling around with some obviously well connected friends. Georgia was part of the Russian empire at this time and the area was garrisoned following the wars in Caucasus to the north. While his views are redolent of the times, they are not as anachronistic as you might expect.

The book ends with a brief history of Georgia until that date and some notes on language and literature.

This was a surprisingly good read and the author describes his journeys and the people he meets well. He clearly fell in love with the country as his subsequent actions show.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Vlad the Impaler

My cheery New Year reading has been 'Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People' by Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods. I must have missed this when it was published in 2010 and picked up a remaindered copy in Hay on Wye.

The authors start with a conventional outline of the early life and career of Vlad III Tepes who ruled Wallachia (part of modern Romania) from 1456 to 1462, with a short return spell in 1476. The name 'Dracula' comes from his father's membership of the Hungarian chivalric Order of the Dragon (Dracul), hence son of Dracul is Dracula. In Romanian, it also means 'devil'. His preferred method of execution was impalement, hence 'The Impaler'.

Vlad spent part of his early years in the Ottoman court as a hostage with his brother Radu. When he became the Voivode of Wallachia, he eliminated his opponents and then refused to pay tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II. The subsequent Ottoman invasion was successfully resisted including the 'night attack' battle and the infamous forest of stakes - 20,000 impaled Turkish corpses outside the capital, Targoviste. However, his subjects tired of his reign of terror and defected to his brother Radu, who supported the Ottomans. Vlad was also abandoned by his ally King Matthias of Hungary.

Vlad is remembered in Romania today as something of national hero. When I first visited Romania I remember being surprised at this, being brought up on Bram Stoker's Dracula. There is little doubt that Stoker based his fictional character on Vlad, although it remains unclear as to how much historical research he did.

If you are looking for a history of Vlad and his times, this book really isn't it. The authors start most chapters with the history, but then divert off into a range of stories that are only vaguely to the point. For example, we are offered the hypothesis that Radu, unlike Vlad, was the victim of the Stockholm syndrome as a consequence of his time in the Ottoman court. This syndrome is then explained at length, with several examples. This approach is repeated numerous times and is frankly irritating. The book needed an editor who was prepared to take a big red pen to at least a third of the content.

There are two stand out books on Vlad for me. 'Dracula, Prince of Many Faces' by Florescu and McNally, and 'Vlad the Impaler' by M.J.Trow. Either will return your investment in reading time better than this book.

Still, it was an excuse to dust down the Wallachian armies I have in 28mm and 15mm for this period. I used some of the 15mm figures for a quick game of Lion Rampant against the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottomans line up to the south led by a Pasha and Sipahi cavalry supported by Akinjis, Janissaries and Azabs. Vlad in the north with Boyars supported by Voynuks, Curteni archers and some less than enthusiastic peasants.

The peasants hunker down in the village while the archers take up a decent shooting position in a wood.

The Ottoman Sipahi go for Vlad, but are beaten off.

The armoured Voynuks are also too strong for the Ottoman horse.

Vlad is triumphant in this refight! Vlad Dracula, national hero or sadistic villain? Possibly both.

Saturday 6 January 2018

More French WW2

My painting productivity has been very poor over the holidays. Too many great books and games as well as working on the web site. However, I have at least made some progress on the French WW2 project for Bolt Action.

First up a command group and medic.

Then a 75mm field gun.

And finally an Anti-Tank Rifle team.

Next stop is some armour. Anyone know of an Anti-Tank Gun in 28mm?

Friday 5 January 2018

Roxelana - Empress of the East

Roxelana, called Hürrem Sultan, was the concubine and later the legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Her exceptional story is fascinating in its own right, but it also tells us a lot about the Ottoman Empire.

She was probably born in Ruthenia, between present day Poland and Ukraine where she was captured by Tartar slave raiders. Then taken to the Crimea and onto Istanbul, where she was taken into the Harem. 

She quickly became the Sultan's favourite, breaking a number of precedents including having more than one son, she had six children, and moving the harem to the Topkapi palace. She also stayed there instead of moving to the provinces with her sons. She clearly wielded significant influence and corresponded with rulers and their wives across the world. She used her wealth to establish charitable foundations across the empire. She died in 1558 and her mausoleum is situated next to the tomb of Suleiman. One of her sons, Selim, because Sultan in 1556.

History has not been kind to Roxelana, in part due to the limited sources. We rely heavily on the reports of western diplomats who relied on court gossip for their information. She has been portrayed as a schemer and implicated in the execution of Suleiman's first son and others. 

A more sympathetic history has recently been written by Professor Leslie Peirce, 'Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire'. This tells her story, but also puts it in the context of the Empire of the period. 

The author discusses her book and the Ottoman Empire of the period, in a edition of the Ottoman History podcast. This is well worth a listen, even if you don't read the book.

The story of Roxelana has been popularised in the Turkish TV series 'Magnificent Century'. This incredibly popular series in Turkey as well as the Balkans and the Middle East, now runs to 4 seasons and 136 episodes. It has attracted more than 200 million viewers in 50 countries. In the UK you can watch the first 48 episodes on Netflix.

I have watched them all, which might explain my poor painting productivity this year! The production values are very poor and the battle scenes woeful. It is more a soap opera than historical drama, but it does suck you in and, as best we can judge, keeps pretty close to the history. Sadly for my painting schedule, I will be back for more!

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Battle of Aleksinac 1876 - the wargame

The Battle of Aleksinac was fought during September and October 1876. It was the decisive action of the First Serbo-Turkish War 1876-77 and resulted in a hard fought Turkish victory.

I have written a feature article on the battle in Balkan Military History. In October, I visited the battlefield in southern Serbia, which gave me a different perspective on the battle that involved around 70,000 troops on each side.

The border between the two countries in 1876 was just south of the Serbian town of Aleksinac, north of the main Turkish base at Nis. The Serbian army was largely a militia, although many volunteers supported the Serbs, including some 700 Russian officers. A few British officers also travelled to Serbia, along with a number of doctors and nurses who staffed hospitals.

This was the year before the Russo-Turkish War, so the Serbs faced a largely regular Turkish army, which was better trained and equipped. The battlefield covers a large area and consisted of a number of linked defensive actions by the Serbs, punctuated with truces, which explains the length of the battle. The Serbs were eventually pushed back up the Morava valley and had to abandon Aleksinac.

The battle is too vast to game in its entirety, so I decided to refight a typical action. Two Serbian brigades, although one consists of Russian and Bulgarian volunteers, holds a low hill against an attack by two Turkish brigades. The rules were Black Powder and the figures are 15mm, from several ranges. There aren't any Serbian figures for the conflict, the nearest I had was Romanian artillery and later Serbian figures from the Balkan Wars.

The battle opens with both Turkish brigades advancing on the hill and the surrounding woods. A cavalry regiment is trying to work its way around the left flank, where a Cossack regiment awaits them.

A key feature of Black Powder is the command rules. You have to pass a command roll to get your units moving and as this photo shows, the Turkish right flank brigade was very reluctant to advance into contact.

The left flank brigade charged forward and drove the Russian battalions from the hill.

However, because the right flank failed to support the attack effectively, the Serbian forces were able to mount a counter-attack and drive the Turks off the hill.

This was all pretty similar to the historical battle, which had many similar encounters. The article provides a narrative of the battle, an outline of the opposing forces and some further reading.

Monday 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone. I hope you all got a good selection of books, and for the wargamers, new toys to play with!

Just looking back on 2017, I managed to keep up a fairly regular pace with the blog - over 70 posts is pretty good. Looking at the stats, I was surprised to see my review of Osprey modern Russian army titles as the the most read post. Valentine Baker at Tashkessen came second (My book of the year) and my review of Sam Mustapha's new Rommel rules, came a close third. My Game of Thrones project was also well read.

Most readers hail from the USA, which I suppose shouldn't surprise me given the population. The most read post of all time (I started the blog in 2010) is my visit to the French tank museum at Saumur.  My new Twitter account (@Balkan_Dave) is doing well, with over 650 followers in the first year.

My travels outwith Scotland this year, took me to northern Italy in May, with Lake Trasimene being the highlight. I have always had a soft spot for Hannibal's Carthaginian's - my first wargame army. In October, I returned to Serbia and visited the south of the country for the first time.

Maglic Castle in western Serbia
My Balkan Military History website comes of age this year. Hard to believe I started it 21 years ago. Easier to believe when I am plodding through the updates, as I transfer content to the new site address.

Glasgow and District Wargaming Society is doing well and a wide variety of games are played, reflecting my own approach to the hobby. My favourite rules this year have been Dan Mersey's Lion Rampant, Dragon Rampant, Pikemen's Lament and The Men Who Would Be Kings. I have also played a fair amount of L'Art de la Guerre and Bolt Action.

I haven't painted as much as I would have liked this year. The Hungarian 1848 project was the most significant, followed by early war British and now the French for Bolt Action. I also managed some smaller projects including more Game of Thrones units, Russian WW2 naval infantry and Romanians for 1877.

For the coming year I must finish the WW2 French, with more infantry, artillery and armour. I have two Kickstarter projects that are due in the first half of 2018, which include piles of figures. The first is Carnevale, a skirmish game set in Venice and the other is Game of Thrones. This will probably be our participation or display game at one Scottish wargame show this year - giving me a target for painting.

Anniversaries often drive my projects and the WW1 centenaries come to a conclusion this year. Another look at the Vardar offensive will be high on my list. 50 years ago in 1968 the Tet Offensive started in the Vietnam War. A sad non-wargaming fact - this was the year steam trains ended on passenger services in Britain.

150 years ago in 1868, Japan suffered plenty of civil wars, even if none of them actually included Tom Cruise! The British fought wars with the Maoris and the Paraguayan War raged in South America.

In 1818 the British widened its control of India with wars against the Marathas - an opportunity to dust down my Indian armies. I have one wargaming pal who is into Andrew Jackson's Seminole War, so he will be happy. The Chilean War of Independence including the Battle of Maipu, will be an opportunity to get my San Martin forces back on the tabletop.

1718 was the year of Blackbeard, for all those into pirates. The Treaty of Passarowitz meant peace broke out in Balkans - so not a good year for me! Better news for Malburian armies, the War of the Quadruple Alliance kicked off - with just about everyone against Spain.

1618 was the start of the Thirty Years War, so this should keep those renaissance armies busy for - well 30 years. I would recommend the Warlord Pike & Shotte supplement 'The Devils Playground' as a good starting point. The Polish-Musovite War was concluded in 1618. It had been raging since 1605 and resulted in a significant expansion of Polish territory. Poor old Sir Walter Raleigh got his head chopped off and Prussia was created. The Balkans were relatively peaceful with the Ottomans distracted in Persia. 1518 was pretty similar with Selim occupying Egypt and Syria.

The Hundred Years War was going strong in 1418 with Burgundy capturing Paris and the English Rouen and most of Normandy. 1318 includes Edward Bruce's campaign and death in Ireland. In the Balkans, the Catalans invaded Euboea, but later abandoned it and signed a peace treaty with Venice, putting a halt to Walter of Brienne's plans to recover the Duchy of Athens. The Byzantine recovery included occupying Thessaly. The Hungarian's advanced south of the Sava into Serbian lands, eventually regaining Belgrade.

In 1218 the Fifth Crusade lands in Egypt and besieges Damietta. In the Balkans, Theodore of Epirus was busy consolidating his control of Macedonia and invading Thessaly. 1118 was a a busy period in Spain with the Almoravids losing the Ebro Valley, then Zaragoza and Tarragona. Dates in the Balkans are much contested during this period, but there was plenty of warfare in Dukla and Raska.

1018 included the Battle of Cannae - not the famous one, but Lombards v Byzantines. The Battle of Carham is important in Scotland because it means Edinburgh is Scottish - well just about! The Picts defeated one Uhtred of Bamburgh - Bernard Cornwell didn't make him up entirely. In the Balkans it was Byzantium triumphant again, having quashed the last Bulgarian resistance.

In 718 the Arab siege of Constantinople is relieved by the Bulgars. Charles Martel becomes the undisputed Frankish leader after the Battle of Soissons.

Finally, a few ancient anniversaries. In 118BC Roman consul L. Caecilius Metellus, led a successful expedition against the Delmatae, in what we now call Dalmatia after them. Hannibal crosses the Alps in 218BC and defeats Roman armies at Ticinus and Trebia. In 418BC at the Battle of Mantinea, Sparta under King Agis II has a major victory over Argos. 

So, the highlight of that lot is probably the end of WW1, although the Thirty Years War and the Trebia will be popular. 1818 conflicts in India and Chile will be an opportunity to dust down some older
figures, rather than start new projects. Famous last words!

All the best for 2018!