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

Friday 30 March 2018

The Bruces in Ireland - Battle of Faughart 1318

This year is the 700th anniversary of the culmination of the Bruce brothers invasion of Ireland that largely ended with the death of Edward Bruce at the Battle of Faughart (Dundalk) in October 1318.

After Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce opened a second front against the English by invading Ireland, which at this time was largely an English domain. Historians are divided on his motives, but it seems likely that he hoped firstly to stop Ireland being used as a jumping off point for English attacks on the west of Scotland. A grander plan was to take Ireland as part of a grand Gaelic encirclement of England through Wales. It was also a useful way of keeping his excitable Brother Edward busy, by giving him a kingdom of his own.

The invasion in 1315 initially went well. Anglo-Irish forces were defeated and in 1316 Edward was declared High King. In practice, his control of Ireland was largely based in the north with plundering raids in the south. Ireland suffered a terrible famine during these years, which severely limited the ability of armies to campaign.

In 1318, Edward made a typically reckless move south through the Moiry Pass to invade the south, without waiting for reinforcements from Scotland. Our sources for the battle are very limited and some are frankly absurd. However, it appears that Edward's modest force deployed on higher ground with his Scots in the front row and Irish troops, furnished by the de Lacys, behind. It is likely that he would have had a small number of knights and archers.

The Anglo-Irish strength would be based on heavy knights with some support from feudal spearmen and archers, hastily levied from local landowners and towns, as the attack was unexpected. They were led by John de Birmingham. The Anglo-Irish obviously had sufficient knights because they broke through the Scots and killed Edward Bruce. He was killed by John Maupas and chopped to pieces. What was left of him is buried in the graveyard at Faughart.

The economic impact of the invasion meant few mourned Edward's passing in Ireland. As the Irish compiler of the Annals of Loch Ce puts it:

"Edward Bruce, the destroyer of all Erin in general, both English and Gael... no better deed for the men of all Erin was performed since the beginning of the world.... for theft and famine destruction of men occurred throughout Erin at this time."

For further reading, I would recommend Sean Duffy (Editor) 'Robert the Bruce's Irish Wars'. This is a series of essays by different writers and includes a translation of primary sources. For a fictional account, there is Nigel Tranter's 'The Price of the King's Peace' (1971) - excellent as always.

I used L'Art de la Guerre rules for the refight in 15mm. A pretty straightforward game, reflecting the uncomplicated tactics of the period. It was a 100 point a side game and the Scots won. The bowmen didn't soften up the spearmen enough and the knights struggled up the hill to breakthrough. Of course, as in most historical battles, the real armies were not equal!

Wednesday 28 March 2018

Battle of the Medak Pocket 1993

Having the week off before Easter, my usual routine is to walk in the morning accompanied by my iPod and suitable podcasts. This morning's menu included the History Network's 'Battle of the Medak Pocket 1993' written by the Canadian historian David Borys. 

This isn't a Balkan battle I recalled, which isn't surprising because the Canadian Government to this day denies its existence. This is despite a Canadian unit, 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (2PPCLI BG), being awarded the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation for its actions in the Medak Pocket, the first Canadian unit ever presented this unit commendation. In Canadian military circles it is described as the largest engagement involving Canadian troops since in the Korean War.

Medak is a small village, not far from Gospic in the Lika region of Croatia. In 1991 the Bosnian Serbs, with Yugoslav army support, captured the area and then ethnically cleansed the area of Croats. In 1993 the Croatian army was pushing back the Serbs and the line was held near Medak, when a ceasefire was agreed.

The Canadian Battle Group supported by French mechanised units was tasked by UNPROFOR to act as a buffer. However, when they advanced into former Serbian positions they came under artillery fire from the Croatian army. During the night the Croats sought to outflank the position, but were repulsed by the UN Battle Group. Four Canadians were wounded and the Croats suffered around 27 casualties.

The following day, the Canadian commander held a press conference in front of Croat positions, after which the Croatian forces began to withdraw to the agreed positions. In the meantime they engaged in their own ethnic cleansing of the Serb population. Their commanders were later indicted for war crimes.

The causes of the action are disputed, but there is little doubt that relations between the Croatian forces and the Canadians were not cordial. The Croatian forces did not deploy their M-84 tanks, either to avoid escalation, or over concerns about losing them to reasonably well equipped Canadian ATMs.

I have visited the region, which includes the Uskok town of Senj and the former military border town of Otocac. Most people by-pass the area on the fast E71 road to the coast at Zadar.  I didn't get as far south as Medak, although hills and woods are my memory, and apparently the area remains largely depopulated.

For wargamers, it makes a small skirmish game with unusual opponents.

The Canadians were equipped with M-113 armoured personnel carriers and carried a mix of  .50 caliber machine guns, C6 medium machine guns, C7 assault rifles, C9 light machine guns, and 84 mm Carl Gustav RCL's. The attached Heavy Weapons Support Company brought 81 mm mortars and a specially fitted APC armed with anti-tank guided missiles. The French forces had VAB APCs.

The Croatian forces were a mix of units armed with former JNA weapons. They had significant artillery support  and M-84 tanks (Yugoslav version of the T-72), although these were not deployed in the action, but could be for the refight.

Mig 21 and one of the many improvised APCs at the Croatian Homeland War Museum

So, on to the tabletop. I used my 1/300 figures for the skirmish. A larger scale would be better.

Monday 26 March 2018

For King and Parliament

'For King and Parliament' is a new set of rules for the 'English' Civil War period, adapted by Simon Miller and Andrew Bentnall from Simon's 'To the Strongest' ancient and medieval rules.

If you have played 'To the Strongest', you will quickly pick up these rules as they use many of the same mechanisms. The key features are the use of a grid, obviating the need for measurements. They also use playing cards instead of dice.

The main changes are to the shooting and melee rules, which are a bit more complex, to reflect the importance of firepower and the different tactical approaches to melee.

You can use any scale and even within scales there are a range of options which allow players to use existing armies and basing - always a plus. There is a points system and a couple of army lists, with more to come. These could easily be tweaked for other renaissance armies, and no doubt will be once the forum is going strong. You can also play quite small games, up to multi-player games.

Some folk don't like the use of playing cards on aesthetic grounds. I have a couple of small packs that came from posh xmas crackers, but you can use chits if it really bothers you. Some heretics are apparently even using D10s!

The grid is another criticism. I have a lovely Deep Cut mouse mat with 100mm squares, which as you can see from the photos, barely shows. As an alternative you can just put dots on the corners. The real advantage of the grid system is the speed of play and the absence of measurement squabbles. Mine also doubles up as a mat for the Rommel WW2 rules.

My test game used 100 point Royalist and Parliamentary armies of the mid-war period in 15mm. I am not a regular TtheS player, but I quickly picked up the mechanisms again. The one irritating omission is a quick reference sheet. Flicking backwards and forwards on my iPad is not ideal and it meant I kept missing some of the factors, particularly in the activation phase.

Other than that, the game flowed well and felt like an ECW game. I will stick to Pikeman's Lament for skirmish games and Pike & Shotte for the big battles in 28mm. However, this is a good in-between game for my 15mm figures that can easily be finished in an evening.

Some photos from my game, starting with the set up.

First turn with the cards showing.

The dreaded ace, that brings that brigade to a grinding halt.

The Royalists are powering through on the left flank and making good progress on the right as well. The question is, can they be rallied before pursuing away. Nice rule system for this.

Finally, a breakthrough in the centre and so King Charles lives to fight another day. The dice are ammo markers. I am not convinced this level of complexity is required, but it works well for horse melee.

Saturday 24 March 2018

The Black Sea - an historical journey

'Black Sea' by Neal Ascherson is about that large inland sea, which has had a huge influence on the history of Europe and beyond. It was first published in 1995 and it has been sitting on my to read shelf since I picked up a second hand copy a couple of years ago.

The book focuses on the northern coast of the Black Sea which includes the early Greek colonies and their interaction with the nomads of the steppes. These include the Scythians (the subject of a brilliant recent British Museum exhibition), followed by the Sarmatians, Goths, Khazars, Huns, Mongols and Turks. Cities have come and gone, often lost in the numerous conflicts that have passed through the region.

The Balkan coast, most familiar to British tourists, gets little attention and the same applies to the Turkish coast. The Russian and Georgian coasts on the other hand are covered - probably the right balance as the recent conflicts in Abkhazia will be less familiar to western readers.

This is more a history book than a travelogue, although there are elements of both. The author does stray somewhat from his subject, drifting geographically as a particular story takes him off at a tangent. He also doesn't avoid the geology of the Black Sea and the shocking man made pollution, from the great rivers that pour into the sea.

The story of an American jellyfish, the Mnemiopsis, which probably arrived in the water ballast of a freighter, is particularly shocking. Between 1987 and 1988 it consumed almost the entire zooplankton population of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, wrecking the Black Sea ecosystem. Growing to 700 million tons of translucent jelly that has no natural predator.

I would have preferred a bit more structure to the book that does rather lose its way in places. However, it is elegantly written and covers bits of history that deserve greater attention.

Monday 19 March 2018

A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945

If you are a wargamer who thinks German troops should always get a bonus, then this may be the book for you. Trevor Dupuy is the author of 'A Genius for War: The German Army and general Staff, 1807-1945' and he sets out the arguments for the exceptional military excellence of the German military.

He came to the subject by looking at the amazing recovery from defeat the German military managed in WW2. He argues that German units had a 30% combat superiority per man over the British and Americans at the time of the Salerno landing, and this had only dwindled to 20% by mid-1944. As he refined the model it showed that German soldiers inflicted three casualties on the Allies for every two they incurred. He also noticed that board game firms like Avalon Hill had given similar weightings to achieve reasonably faithful outcomes.

When applying this model, in less detail, to WW1 he found a similar 20% combat effectiveness. When he discussed these findings with veterans, they tended to confirm the findings.

This book is essentially about explaining why this combat superiority existed. He argues that it isn't anything inherently superior about Germans. Instead it is the institutionalising of military excellence that accounts for the difference. For example, Germans fighting outwith the military system in the American Civil War did not have a similar combat superiority.

He points out that the international reputation for military excellence didn't start until the mid-Eighteenth-century and not really until the nineteenth century. This means that the answer doesn't lie with the men, but in the structure of the German military establishment. He argues:

"The fundamental explanation of German combat ability and of the quality of German military power as demonstrated in two world wars, lay in the organisation and operation of the Prussian/German General Staff."

The author therefore takes us through the development of the German military system. The focus is on the general staff system, which although it had its failings, did produce many more outstanding generals than its contemporaries. It was the only significant military professional development that was not matched by other countries. This system not only produced good generals, but it also encouraged individual initiative at all levels. This is illustrated by Prince Frederick Charles statement to a blundering Major during the Franco-Prussian War who claimed he was following orders, he said:

"His majesty made you a major because he believed that you would know when NOT to obey his orders."

Of course this system broke down with Hitler, who ignored this dictum, contributing to some of Germany's worst defeats. They were not geniuses because they made no mistakes - they just made fewer than their opponents.

The author makes a convincing and well argued case for his thesis. Recommended reading, particularly for wargamers.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Joseph Brant and his World

My recent Canadian trip was for a conference in the City of Burlington, Ontario. The Main Street was named after a Captain Joseph Brant, which I assumed was a Canadian or British military officer. However, the story is actually much more interesting.

Joseph Brant was a Mohawk (Kanien'kehake) leader who lived in what is now over the border in New York State. So he was what I was brought up to describe as a Red Indian; these days correctly known as First Peoples and First Nations. As a wargamer my collection also includes what most firms describe as Iroquois. This turns out to be a derisive French word that means "the killer people". The proper name for the Six Nations is Haudenosaunee.

A bit more research led me to a local bookshop and a book written by James Paxton, 'Joseph Brant and his World'. He sets out the North America that Joseph Brant was born into in 1743. This was a period of almost continuous warfare, starting with the War of Austrian Succession (1744-48), and the Seven Years War (1754-60) in which the British colonies contested North America with the French. The Six Nations, including the Mohawks, mostly fought with the British, and Brant aged only 15 fought in several campaigns, including the siege of Fort Niagara and the fall of Montreal.

Fort Niagara
Brant received a British education that included a spell in Scotland and developed his connections across the territories, often in the employment of the Indian Department. He fought in Pontiac's War (1763-65) and while that fizzled out, the land disputes continued.

He gradually took on a leadership role, with his wife Molly, and persuaded the Six Nations to support the British in the American Revolution. This ended badly for Brant and his peoples, who were scattered, with many ending up in Canada.  It was during this war that he was given a commission as a Captain and took part in a number of raids and other actions.

His post-war life in Canada is of less interest to the military historian, but involved many disputes over land for the First Nations of Canada. These are still live political issues to this day. Joseph Brant died in 1807. His son fought for the British at Queenstown Heights in 1813 and the role of the Six Nations is recognised on the battlefield site.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Dust Upon the Sea - raiding in the Aegean

'Dust Upon the Sea' is the wartime memoir of W.E. Benyon-Tinker, an army officer seconded to a naval special service flotilla operating in the Aegean during 1943-45. It was published in 1947 and I found it lurking in the corner of a second-hand bookshop in Inverness. There are a few copies knocking around internet suppliers, although at prices significantly higher than I paid, or frankly would have paid.

The Levant Schooner Flotilla consisted primarily of caiques. These are small Greek sailing vessels, aided by a small engine, that rarely managed to get above eight knots. Based in Beirut they were essentially a taxi service for raiding forces provided by LRDG and SBS detachments, used to attack German garrisons on the Aegean Islands.

The author describes a number of his trips as the war developed, before the Germans abandoned the islands as the Russians entered the Balkans and threatened their lines of communication. As a signals and intelligence officer, the author was in the position of neither playing an active role in handling of the boats or the raids themselves. This means the narrative is a bit of a travelogue, not uninteresting, but it does get a bit tedious at times.

There are other books that cover the strategy and combat better, including the memoirs of Michael Woodbine Parish in 'Aegean Adventures'. However, one of the books real strengths are his extensive collection of wartime photographs.

I can't say I would recommend this. As the author candidly admits, he isn't a writer, but it might inspire a game or two based on an island raid. And it just so happens I have some figures that might just do the job!

Sunday 11 March 2018

Canadian Warplane Museum and Niagara Military Museum

These are a couple of museums I visited on my recent trip to Canada. Both are worth a look.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is situated next to Hamilton International Airport. I probably didn't see it at its best because the building was hosting a wood exhibition. Wood carving is clearly a popular hobby in Ontario, at least judging from the stalls and visitors.

I therefore assume the planes are little better spaced out normally. They have a number of classics like the Lancaster bomber, Spitfire and Hurricane, as well as more obscure Canadian produced aircraft. Here are a few photos and the list of planes is on the website.

and a model of a Canadian Air Force base in Burma

finally a memorial to troops killed in Afghanistan

The Niagara Military Museum is housed in the former Niagara Falls Armoury, built in 1911. It's a real gem of a museum covering the military history of the people and the local area. The volunteer guide was very helpful and hugely knowledgable. This added much to the experience. I recognise the falls are the tourist draw, but don't miss this museum.

Monday 5 March 2018

Niagara 1814 - the battlefields

I recently reviewed the Osprey campaign series book on the last US invasion of Canada - the Niagara campaign of 1814. After a recent work trip to Ontario, I had the weekend to explore the battlefields.

First stop was at the southern end of the river - Fort Erie. It was closed, but I managed to find a back door to at least the courtyard. In August 1814, US troops had occupied the fort and surrounding earthworks. Over the next few months there was a siege and several sorties/assaults before the British abandoned the siege on 21 September. The Americans abandoned the fort in November and returned to their side of the river, modern day Buffalo.

Monument to the fallen

The fort from the river side

From the north edge of the fort

One of the landward bastions

Inside the fort

Next stop was the battlefield of Chippawa. On 5 July 1814 US and British divisions clashed just south of the Niagara Falls. A victory for the US, although the British were able to withdraw in good order. The battlefield is pretty much as it was in 1814, with a monument and information boards.

The same cannot be said for the next stop, Lundy's Lane. It is pretty difficult to visualise this battlefield amongst the very commercial road that is the modern Lundy's Lane. This was the bloodiest battle of the campaign on 25 July 1814, when both sides battered each other with assault and counter assault up the hill near the monument and cemetery that marks the battlefield today. A score draw to the British and the US withdraw.

The best preserved site on the river is undoubtably Fort George, which guards the north end of the river. The fort was captured by US forces in 1813 and held for seven months before being abandoned. The site today is mostly a reconstruction, but includes some very fine exhibits and really enthusiastic living history activities.

I didn't get over to the US Fort Niagara, border delays waste too much time, but here is a shot from Fort George.

Finally, The Battle of Queenstown Heights. This was the earlier 1812 invasion that was badly managed by the US and led to a decisive British victory. The battlefield has an impressive monument to the British commander, Major General Issac Brock, who died during the battle.

Overall, a very interesting couple of days. This is a good campaign for the wargamer as the numbers of troops are quite manageable and easily available in all scales. I stayed in Niagara Falls, which of course is the usual tourist attraction!