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 29 April 2018

Arab siege of Constantinople

This year is the 13th centenary of the lifting of the Arab siege of Constantinople in 718. Arguably the high tide of the Arab conquest and an important turning point in the history of the Balkans and Europe. With a base at Constantinople, the Arabs could have pincered Europe from the east and from Spain in the west.

The siege began the previous year when the Caliph Maslama assembled an army of 80,000 men on land and a fleet of 800 ships with over 80,000 fighting troops aboard. The defences were too strong to assault, so he built a ditch and blockaded the city, with two fleets that aimed to block sea access.

A raid on the fleet by the Byzantines, using Greek fire kept the northern Bosphorus end of the straits clear. This meant the city was never fully invested. The winter caused heavy losses to the Arabs from disease, but come the spring, a new Egyptian fleet sailed past the city and closed the Bosphorus. A reserve army arrived with much needed reinforcements.

The Byzantine Emperor Leo sortied out again with his fleet and using a combination of fireships and Greek fire, destroyed the Egyptian fleet. On land, Terval, King of Bulgars attacked the Arabs near Adrianople, winning a major victory. The Arabs abandoned the siege and headed for home. A storm caused further losses and only a handful of ships made it home.

Wargaming the siege would be a major undertaking and pretty boring. However, there would have been plenty of skirmishes and we have the Bulgarian relief attacks. For the refight I used 15mm Bulgarian and Arab figures for a 100pt game of Art de la Guerre.

Sunday 22 April 2018

The Bernicia Chronicles - Warrior of Woden

Warrior of Woden is the fifth and latest book in the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy. If you have read my reviews of the earlier books you will know that I am a huge fan of this series. If you are suffering from Bernard Cornwell withdrawal symptoms, this is the series for you.

The year is AD 642 and the setting is Anglo-Saxon Britain. Our hero, flawed of course, is Beobrand. He is now an established and wealthy warlord, with his own lands and hearth guard. However, the warring kingdoms of Britain are not going to allow him to rest easy.

Penda of Mercia and his allies invade Northumbria and Beobrand is called upon to support King Oswald. There is treachery, a huge battle (Maserfelth) that rolls on for several chapters and plenty of skirmishes. Of course Beobrand survives, but not without personal loss and few scars.

The advantage of this setting for historical fiction is that we know very little about it. A couple of less than reliable primary sources and a growing, but incomplete, archeology. The author has largely used historical figures and followed as much of the historical narrative as he can. Names and places are borrowed from the same period, if not exactly as they where.

Military tactics were pretty straightforward. Some preliminary skirmishing followed by the crunch of the shieldwall. Each Lord had his own war band of warriors, reasonably well equipped with spear, sword, chain mail and shield. For the big battles they would be supplemented by the part-time militia or Fyrd - less well equipped and trained. The numbers on either side would not have been huge.

For the wargamer there are plenty of figures and rules. There is a new edition of SAGA coming out which is ideal, although I usually use Lion Rampant, or Hail Caesar for the big battles.

Welsh v Saxons

This is a great read - highly recommended.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Blood and Sand

Rosemary Sutcliffe is best known for her children's novels, but she has written a number of books of historical fiction. I have read Eagle of the Ninth, which is very good, so an offer to read her book 'Blood and Sand' on the Kindle (published in 1987) at a bargain price was certainly worth a look.

This book is set during the Napoleonic wars and covers the life of Thomas Keith, a Scot who was captured in Egypt at the battle of El Hamed in 1807. Instead of returning to Britain, he took service with the Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammed Ali. Other than his marriage, it follows pretty closely to the historical story.

And a remarkable story it is. A private soldier, Thomas rises through the ranks, training Egyptian cavalry to face a number of conflicts with the Wahabi war host of Saud Ibn Saud, in what we today know as Saudi Arabia. Essentially battling for control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He ended up commanding the Arab, Egyptian and Albanian cavalry in those conflicts, after converting to Islam. He was also the governor of Medina when he died in battle.

The first half of the story is a bit slow, as Thomas adapts to his new environment and develops relationships within Egyptian society. This included the suppression of the Mamelukes. The second half has much more action, including several campaigns in Arabia that give the reader a real understanding of the challenges of campaigning in such an inhospitable climate.

This is not a great work of historical fiction, but worth a read. You might feel like abandoning it after the first few chapters, but it is worth persevering.

And let's have some eye candy for the wargamer. From my 28mm collection of the period.

Monday 16 April 2018

T-90 Standard Tank - The First Tank of the New Russia.

The latest in the Osprey Vanguard series covers the primary Russian Main Battle Tank of the modern era, competently described by the master tankie, Steven Zaloga.

The T90 is a development of the T72. The author outlines the troubled development of the tank, beset by the economic problems facing Russia at the time and disagreements amongst the Russian military on the way forward. As usual with a Vanguard publication there is a detailed technical description, with plenty of photos and colour plates.

The T72 performed badly in the Gulf wars and in Chechnya, which damaged its reputation and the all important export orders. It is at least questionable if this was due to the tank or its poor deployment and crew training.

The T90 is more than a rebranding. It has all the features you would expect in a modern tank. Offensive armament including guided munitions, and defensively including reactive armour. An important export win has been the Indian army and Algeria.

The book ends with a description of its internal rivals and the many variants. This includes all the standard engineer variants, but also the unusual tank support vehicle, known as the 'Terminator', designed for the urban environment's tanks have been deployed in during recent conflicts.

Essential reading for those interested in the modern Russian army.

Saturday 14 April 2018

The Kuban 1943 - The Wehrmacht's last stand in the Caucasus.

The Kuban campaign of 1943 is covered in the latest Osprey Campaign publication by Robert Forczyk.

After the disaster at Stalingrad, Hitler's push into the Caucasus was looking beyond hope. However, true to form, Hitler refused to abandon his objective of exploiting the old fields and ordered his armies to hold the ground they occupied. The German 17th Army did their best, but they were forced back into the Kuban bridgehead.

This book covers the efforts of this army to hold onto the bridgehead and the many offensives by Soviet armies to destroy it. In many ways it is a textbook defence of a bridgehead. The terrain was eminently suitable for the defence, enabling German forces, usually outnumbered 3:1, to hold their positions. Hitler's objective of using the Kuban as the base for a renewed offensive was never realistic and it pulled away troops that would have been better deployed in the Kursk battles. Equally, while it did tie up significant Soviet forces, they were generally not the the best equipped, particularly in terms of armour.

Unusual features of the campaign included the extensive deployment of air support by both sides and the use by the Soviets of naval infantry. They managed to establish an important bridgehead near the city of Novorossiysk, known as the Malaya Zemlya, which is today a national memorial park. In the north of the bridgehead there was extensive combat in marshland.

The German forces also included six Romanian divisions and Gebirgsjager divisions. The Soviet air forces also made use of smoke pots to mask the German artillery, a tactic I had never heard of before.

After the failure of the Kursk offensive, Hitler eventually agreed to the evacuation of the Kuban. The 17th Army conducted a masterful withdrawal and retreated over the Kerch Straits to the Crimea. The Kriegsmarine and Romanian navy played an important role in this part of the campaign.

For the wargamer this campaign offers actions that are far from the typical Russian Front scenarios and this book is all you need to recreate them. Lavishly illustrated with excellent maps.

Saturday 7 April 2018

Battle of Maipo - April 1818

This week is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Maipo, the decisive battle of the liberation of Chile from Spanish colonial rule.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Spanish Empire in South America consisted of three Viceroyalties; New Grenada in the north, Peru that included Chile and La Plata covering mostly modern day Argentina. These were the territories largely conquered by the conquistadores in the sixteenth century. The dislocation caused by the Peninsular War in Europe led to the establishment of local Juntas and then to the independence movements that resulted in the wars of liberation. 

The outstanding Patriot generals of the wars, accorded the title of ‘Liberator’, were Simon Bolivar who liberated the north and Jose de San Martin who led the forces from Argentina into Chile and then Peru where he joined up with Bolivar.

The key to Spanish control of South America was the most Royalist of provinces, Peru. The Patriot stronghold of La Plata sought to capture Peru by the direct route through Upper Peru (modern Bolivia). In three campaigns between 1810 and 1815 the Patriot armies were defeated by the Royalists and only the Gauchos in the Salta region stopped the Royalists from exploiting their victory into La Plata itself.

By 1815 command of the Patriot Northern Army had been handed to Jose de San Martin. He was a career soldier who had fought in the Peninsular War at both Albuera and Bailen. San Martin’s plan was to liberate Chile from Argentina and then move up the coast to Peru. He reorganised the Patriot forces, incorporating Chilean refugees led by Bernado O’Higgins, into a new Army of the Andes based at Mendoza. His plan involved crossing the Andes in January 1817, in four columns using different passes of between 3,500m and 5,100m high.

The columns united across the Andes near Chacabuco on 12 February. The Royalist army had been caught unprepared and was defeated. The Royalists fled to the port of Valparaiso, but the seven month siege went badly. San Martin with reinforcements rallied the Patriot forces at Cancha Rayada. where a desperate night attack (March 19) panicked the Patriots who fell back to Santiago. 

The decisive battle of the campaign took place just outside Santiago at Maipo on 5 April 1818. The battle opened with an ineffective artillery duel followed by an advance from by the Patriot line. The right wing routed the Royalist cavalry and captured a battery. However, the left wing was stopped and only the reserve artillery stopped the Royalist counter attack.

San Martin then ordered his mounted Cazadores to flank the Royalist left. They drove off the Royalist cavalry and crashed into the veteran Burgos Regiment. When this gave way Osorio panicked and ordered a retreat. Colonel Ordonez took over command and rallied a sizable force at Los Espejo farm that repulsed the Patriot assaults until San Martin brought up artillery support and forced the Royalist surrender.  The Royalist army was totally crushed and Chilean independence was secured. Over 1500 Royalists and 1000 Patriots were casualties in the bloodiest battle of the war.

I wrote an article for Wargames Illustrated in August 2007, outlining how I converted 28mm figures for these campaigns. Glasgow and District Wargames Society used them for a series of display games that year, covering the three main battles of the campaign. The figures can all be viewed here.

The best English language history of these wars is ‘Liberators’ by Robert Harvey. This is great narrative history and the real inspiration for starting in this period. However, converting this to the tabletop would not have been possible without  ‘Liberators: Napoleonic Wargaming in South America’ by John Fletcher.  John has a website, a Yahoo group and a range of 15mm figures.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

The Splintered Empires - The Eastern Front 1917-21

My Easter reading has been a newish book by Prit Buttar 'The Splintered Empires'. This is a history of the Eastern Front between 1917 and 1921.

The early war campaigns, particularly Tannenberg, have received a fair degree of attention, but the same cannot be said for the later period. The centenary of the Russian revolution has also been more focused on the political and internal events, rather than the impact on the war itself. This book corrects that with a detailed account of the final campaigns of the war and its aftermath.

The author starts in 1917 and understandably focuses on the Russian army, as it gradually collapsed as a fighting force. The Tsar's unwillingness to reform quickly enough led to revolution and the road to Brest-Litovsk. While that did enable Germany to redeploy divisions to the West, they overstretched themselves with over ambitious plans to expand in the East. This meant troops had to be retained in places like the Ukraine and the Baltic states, which could have made all in difference in the 1918 offensives.

The Russian Empire was not the only one to collapse and in practice lost little of its territory, other than Finland and Poland. The German Empire and the rule of the Hohenzollerns came to an end, although perhaps the biggest collapse was the Habsburg's. This huge multi-ethnic empire split up into many parts, leaving a small Austrian state and a reduced Hungary.

The final chapters are perhaps the most interesting. They cover what Churchill called 'The Pygmy Wars'. These were the wars in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, that established independent states. The complex web of alliances and armies, ranging from nationalists, Bolsheviks, White Russian and Germans, went on until 1921. Even then the boundaries rarely survived future conflicts.

This is a really complex story, very well told. The politics are not ignored, but there is plenty of detail for the military historian. There are also decent maps, something often missing in other studies. Recommended.

I am sorely tempted to expand my 28mm and 15mm armies of the period to the Pygmy Wars. Here are a few Russian and Austro-Hungarian 28mm figures to whet the appetite.

Sunday 1 April 2018

French WW2 finished

It's April and at least one of my 2018 projects is finished - well until another 'must have' unit comes along!

Any Bolt action force needs a decent anti-tank gun and the French had probably the best at the start of WW2 with the 47mm Mle 1937. I used a Lorraine 37L as a tow. In practice, it was usually towed by a Laffly six wheeled truck. Both models are made by Mad Bob Miniatures (not an April fools joke!) and the crew are Warlord. This is the first time I have bought a model from this supplier. They are resin kits, just a few parts that went together well - recommended.

Wargamers always paint the bog standard units last, and I am no exception. A squad of infantry with LMG and VB launcher.

Finally, the whole army together.