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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

Monday 25 June 2018

1204 - The Unholy Crusade

The Fourth Crusade never actually reached the Holy Land. The Venetians managed to divert the crusading army, first to the Adriatic town of Zara and then to Constantinople. While it is often described as a criminal venture; John Godfrey in, '1204 - The Unholy Crusade', argues that it didn't look that way at the time.

The author takes us from the calling of the Crusade and the response, largely from France and Germany, which gradually assembled in Venice. The plan was to sail to the Holy Land, initially Palestine, but latterly Egypt, rather than travel overland through the Balkans. However, the leaders overestimated the numbers of crusaders and entered into a contract with the Venetians for a fleet they had little hope of paying for.

The Venetian Doge, the extraordinary Dandolo (85 years old and blind), saw an opportunity to advance Venetian interests by persuading the crusaders to capture Zara from the Hungarians. This resulted in the excommunication of the Venetians because the Hungarians were a Christian state. He then persuaded them to sail for Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

The author devotes a couple of chapters to the role of Byzantium and their relations with Islam. It is an important part of the story and one of the reasons the capture of the city did not appear unreasonable to western eyes in 1204. Italian traders had been arrested and massacred in recent history, creating an enmity that went beyond anything that might have motivated the Dodge himself.

The siege itself took place in two stages and the walls were breached from the sea, using Venetian ships. The city was sacked and its wealth found its way across Western Europe, particularly Venice. You can see some of the statues and other sculptures in Venice today. One of the Latin leaders described the booty the like of which 'had never been obtained in any city since the world began'.

The new Empire held not only Constantinople, but also formed kingdoms in modern day Greece. Diplomatic blunders, particularly relations with the Bulgarians, enabled the Byzantines to recover and they eventually recaptured the city in 1261. However, they never recovered their wealth and strength, leading to the rise of the Ottomans. It is therefore possible to trace the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, and very nearly, Central Europe, to the destruction caused by the Fourth Crusade.

The Latin states survived much longer and I recommend 'The Franks in the Aegean' by Peter Lock for this fascinating story. I visited some of their magnificent castles in the Peloponnese, earlier this year. Larissa below was my favourite.

Larissa Castle near Argos
This book was published in 1980, but copies can be found on the second hand market. I picked my copy up for a very reasonable £7.50. Written for general reader it tells a fascinating story, very well.

Monday 11 June 2018

This Untoward Event

I picked up a copy of C.M Woodhouse's 'The Battle of Navarino' in a second hand bookshop, prior to my recent trip to the Peloponnese.

Published in 1965, it provides a comprehensive account of the naval action that largely secured the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. It was fought on 20 October 1827 between the combined Egyptian and Ottoman fleets, and the allied British, French and Russian fleets commanded by Admiral Codrington. Navarino is a bay and port on the south-west coast of the Peloponnese.

The battle was described in the King's speech to parliament on 29 January 1828 as 'this untoward event', which Prime Minister Wellington explained as meaning 'unexpected or unfortunate', to considerable criticism at the time. This is because Britain was traditionally an ally of the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion. However, the cause of Greek Independence was popular in Britain and many of the Greek commanders were British, as well as significant numbers of volunteers, known as Philhellenes. The King was reported to have 'winked' as he read out the speech.

The combined fleets had instructions to enforce an armistice, at sea at least, which would force the Sultan into peace talks. They had effectively blockaded the Ottoman fleet until it broke out in an attempt to reinforce Patras. After being intercepted by the British fleet, they withdrew again to Navarino.

After this the allies decided that the only way to enforce the armistice was by a show of force. This involved sailing into the bay and anchoring within range of the Ottoman fleet. There is some dispute as to who initiated the fighting, but it is agreed that a Turkish ship fired first. This led to a full engagement in which the Ottoman fleet had a numerical advantage, but their ships were not as experienced or as competently handled as the allies. Their fleet was destroyed as a fighting force.

Turkish and Egyptian losses included three ships of the line, 17 frigates, some 40 other ships and around 4,000 dead. Allied fleets lost 182 dead. As no state of war existed, no prizes were taken.

The book is well illustrated, mostly with the many oil paintings commissioned after the battle. The book is largely based on the Codrington papers in the National Maritime Museum, supplemented by French and Russian secondary sources and Egyptian records. As is often the case, the Ottoman sources are scant. There are few copies still around on the second hand book market.

I have been clearing out some old wargame magazines in an effort to create some space on my shelves. Coincidentally, I came across a very good article on the battle by Jonathan Carruthers, for Wargames Illustrated, I think back in 1988. He suggests a more balanced game by allowing the Ottomans to contest the allied fleet at the entrance to the bay. I suspect the outcome would have been the same, but casualties would have been higher, given the shore batteries and the narrow entrance.

No ships, but here are a few of my 15mm Greek War of Independence figures in 15mm.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Target Corinth Canal 1940-44

During my recent visit to The Peloponnese I stopped off at the Corinth Canal. I was obviously familiar with the German airborne assault on the canal in 1941, but wanted to know more. The answers are in this excellent book by Platon Alexiades.

The Corinth Canal separates the Peloponnese from the rest of mainland Greece. It is nearly four miles long, seventy feet wide and 260 feet above sea level at its highest point. Even today, it is an obligatory stopping off point for tourists. Even my family thought it was worth seeing, something that couldn't be said for some of the ancient sites they trekked around!

It was completed in 1893 and was a grand statement of modernisation for a country that that had only secured its independence some 60 years earlier. In 1940, some 8,600 ships a year used the canal.

The strategic point of the canal is that it saves around 185 nautical miles, avoiding the sea journey around the Peloponnese, which became dangerous for Italian shipping heading to their bases in the Dodecanese islands. These islands had been gained as a consequence of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12.

The book sets the scene with a brief description of the Italian invasion of Greece and the naval actions around the coast. SOE had a particular interest in Greece and from its base in Cairo organised many operations, even before the German invasion and occupation. The Admiralty wanted the canal blocked, but the RAF could not bomb it in daylight, primarily because it was outside the range of fighter cover.

Even when the British intervention force was retreating over the canal, attempts to block or mine the canal failed. It was the 2nd Fallschirmjager Regiment that dropped both sides on canal in Operation Hannibal, who seized the canal, although the New Zealanders defending it did managed to blow the bridge.

The rest of the book covers the various plans and attempts to block in canal by SOE. Most importantly, Operation Locksmith, led by Mike Cumberlege, which failed primarily because of defective weaponry. He died with the rest of his four man team in a German concentration camp.

Canals of this size are very difficult to block in this sort of operation. Finding a mine large enough for the job, yet small enough to transport, was a major challenge. Ironically, it was the Germans who completed the task as they withdrew, by dumping some 200 railway wagons in the canal, sinking block ships at either end, and filling up large parts of the canal with rubble.

This is a fascinating story, very well told. Recommended.

Allied intervention force in 15mm