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 30 September 2018

Armoured Forces of the Bulgarian Army 1936-45

I suspect this book hasn't exactly flown off the Helion bookshelves, although at 1.6kg, it's unlikely to take off fast!

However, it should. 'The Armoured Forces of the Bulgarian Army 1936-45' by Kaloyan Matev, is a beautiful book. A hugely detailed piece of research in the Bulgarian archives, well written, profusely illustrated and colour plates as well.

The author starts with some background on the earliest motorisation of the Bulgarian army in the Balkan Wars and in WW1. In the 1930's, treaty restrictions and the economy limited armoured development. The first AFVs were 14 Italian L3/33 tankettes in 1935, although over 300 trucks, scout cars and artillery tractors were also purchased from different countries. In 1938 they took delivery of 8 Vickers 6-ton tanks.

With the outbreak of war, Germany became the main supplier, initially with captured or new weapons including 25 Skoda LT vz.35 tanks. These were well received and a further 10 were quickly ordered.

In 1941 Bulgaria joined the Axis and acquired 45 Renault R.35 tanks. These captured French tanks suffered from a range of faults  and poor cross country performance. Most Bulgarian units were facing Turkey, who looked as if they might join the Allies. 24 Turkish divisions were concentrated in European Turkey.

Bulgaria did not participate in the invasion of Greece, but did perform occupation roles in Macedonia, Greece and Serbia. Pressure was placed on the Germans to provide modern tanks in 1943, when in looked like the Allies might invade Europe through the Balkans, again with Turkish support.

They wanted STUG III assault guns, Pkw IV tanks, half tracks and armoured cars. These started to arrive in the summer of 1943 and by Feb 1944, 87 Pkw. IVs and 55 STUG III's were in service.

Bulgaria had not declared war on the Soviet Union, but as the Germans retreated from the Balkans in September 1944, the Bulgarians retreated from Yugoslavia and found themselves at war with the Soviets and the Germans at the same time.

As the Soviets entered Bulgaria, there was no resistance, and after a coup, Bulgarian army units were reconstituted as Soviet allies. An armoured brigade fought with the Soviets during the invasion of Yugoslavia, clashing with the retreating Germans, suffering significant casualties and tank losses. These interesting actions are described in some detail, together with colour maps.

In 1945, the Bulgarian army received replacement captured German tanks from the Soviets, including Panther tanks. They fought in northern Yugoslavia and Hungary, ending up in Austria at the end of the war. 105 captured axis AFVs were transferred to Bulgarian service by the end of the war.

While this is probably not a book for the general reader, it covers the subject very well. For the wargamer, it provides some interesting gaming possibilities and has everything you need to reproduce these units on the tabletop.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Western Approaches

I have been in my home city of Liverpool this week at a conference. I took the opportunity to visit the Liverpool War Museum for the first time.

The museum is based in the bunkers that made up the Western Approaches command, the nerve centre of the allied forces in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. It was here that allied ships and aircraft were directed against U-Boats that threatened the vital convoys moving across the Atlantic.

This quote emphasises the huge contribution made by this command:

Bitter Ocean, David Fairbanks White

It is also worth remembering that it was largely staffed by Wrens - young women, mostly under 21 years of age, who had to have a very high standard of maths. They worked long shifts, in very difficult circumstances, under great pressure.

The entry 'ticket' is a bit different - a nice touch.

The high point of the museum is the map room. Left just as it was when the room closed in 1945.

This is the Admiral's office - He didn't get to play a lot of golf during the war!

The original switchboard room and equipment, they also have a cypher room for those vital ULTRA intercepts.

The museum has many useful explanatory panels like this one.

And a room dedicated to some of the many successful U-Boat sinking.

Finally, a typical Liverpool Street, although the city suffered badly from bombing and many of the Wrens leaving after a shift would have found plenty of rubble in the streets around the bunker.

If you are in Liverpool, this is well worth a visit.

Friday 21 September 2018

King Arthur's Britain

I have recently been dragged back into the murky history of King Arthur. Some years ago at GDWS we ran a WAB campaign based on Steve Jones and John Morris's supplement for those rules. And great fun it was too with its own newspaper and much treachery all round.

I was watching the excellent BBC documentary 'King Arthur's Britain: The Truth Unearthed' last week, when I remembered my reading pile included 'King Arthur: A Military History' by Michael Holmes. I also paid a visit to Tintagel this summer. So what have I learned?

Michael Holmes makes a bold attempt to justify, not only the existence of King Arthur, as a High King of Britain, but a series of military victories that held back the Anglo-Saxon invasion for many years. He has been influenced by the late Dr John Morris who wrote another heavy tome on the subject, 'The Age of Arthur', that also rests on my bookshelves.

That book has come under sustained academic criticism and I fear many of the same traps have been galloped into by Michael Holmes. He takes what few, and they are very few, documentary sources to build an edifice that is difficult to justify. In fairness, he examines the various sources and arguments made for battle sites etc. so the reader can draw their own conclusion. He argues a new factor is the comparison with the conquest of Gaul by the Franks, which happened much more quickly than in Britain. However, there are obvious differences that might explain the different timeline, other than the heroic figure of King Arthur.

Professor Alice Roberts in the BBC documentary, uses the latest archeological evidence to paint a somewhat different picture. Far from the great military invasion, she argues that the Anglo-Saxons infiltrated into the east of England, filling the vacuum left by the departing Romans. The absence of any major battle graves or significant numbers of sword wounds in skeletal remains, reinforces this view. The latest DNA evidence shows that less than 10% of people in the 'Saxon' areas came from Northern Europe. In essence, the Anglo-Saxons arrived and built their own communities, before gradually mixing with the local population. The Britons weren't driven out to the west or Wales - most of them stayed put.

There certainly was an east-west split in England, but this is more likely to reflect trading links. Tintagel was an important centre, looking to its long standing trading links based on tin, which are reflected in the latest finds on the site. Whilst the east of England traded over the North Sea, as it had done for many years.

Tintagel Castle - well worth a visit, even if no evidence that Arthur was there!

While the documentary didn't make this point, I was reminded of the Slav 'invasion' of the Balkans in the same era. They gradually infiltrated into the Balkans during a period of Byzantine weakness, filling another vacuum. No huge armies or massive battles.

All this adds up to a much less exciting or heroic story, but to me at least, a more credible one. I will still manoeuvre my Arthurian war band across the tabletop, while recognising that this is probably more fantasy than historical wargaming.

Thursday 20 September 2018

The Other 1918 Campaign

In my latest feature article in Balkan Military History, I look at the often forgotten Macedonian campaign of 1918, which made an important contribution to the end of WW1. An antidote to the Western Front bias of the history media!

In three days, Serbian and French forces effectively knocked Bulgaria out of the war, exposing the weak underbelly of the Central Powers.

I recently dusted down some of my 28mm Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian figures of this campaign at GDWS. My opponent fielded his very nice Greek figures of the period.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Ali Pasha: Lion of Ioannina

Ali Pasha was a interesting character - so fascinating that I have a print of him on my study wall. Yes, I know, very sad. So a newish biography is an essential read.

What a wonderful cover!
Quentin and Eugenia Russell use the sub-title "The Remarkable Life of the Balkan Napoleon". This is not an unfair description of the de facto ruler of Epirus with interests much wider than that in the early 19th Century. The weakness of the Ottoman Empire at the time meant that the western powers dealt with him directly, and he played them off pretty well to expand his territories and wealth.

Western travellers, like Byron, wrote about him, lending a romantic tinge to the story. He could clearly be charming and courageous, as well as being a murderous rogue. His palaces and a harem of six hundred women, no doubt added to the story!

The authors set the scene by putting Ali into the historical context of the Napoleonic wars. They examine the evidence of his early life, which is limited, charting his rise and then his equally dramatic fall to a gruesome death.

That is conventional narrative history, but they go on to discuss his diplomatic engagements, what life was like under Ali's rule and his cultural impact. Finally, the aftermath, including his most significant legacy, the Greek War of Independence.

A new study is overdue, given that William Plomer's 'Ali the Lion' was first published in 1936. This book probably doesn't add greatly to what we already knew about Ali, but it is well told and is much more than a narrative history. It is also beautifully illustrated with contemporary prints and paintings.

I wrote a short piece on Ali and his army following my visit to Ioannina, which was published in 'The Dragoman'. It makes an interesting variant for wargamers who have an Ottoman army of the Napoleonic period. I have fought a variety of 'What if' battles of the period, mostly pitting him against the Russians, with either British or French support.

Albanian infantry like these made up a large element of Ali's army

Monday 10 September 2018

Pinkie Cleugh 1547

Today is the 471st anniversary of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. It was fought on 10 September 1547 between the Scots and the English, as part of a conflict known as the 'Rough Wooing'. So called because Henry VIII tried to secure an alliance with Scotland by the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to his young son, the future Edward VI.

The Esk River at Musselburgh was a good place to halt an English advance up the coast. However, the English fleet was able to bombard the position and so the Scottish commander, The Earl of Arran, decided to close with the main English army by crossing the river at the Roman Bridge.

This is the bridge today, the start of a battlefield trail that includes four information boards, ending at the battlefield monument.

Next stop is St Michael's Kirk where the English built an artillery mound that they intended to use to bombard the Scottish camp.

This the view of the battlefield up to Pinkie Cleugh that the Scots army would have had as they advanced.

And finally the battlefield from the English position and the monument today.

With the few Scots archers dispersed by cannon fire from the ships, the main body was unable to respond to the English longbow, cannon and mercenary arquebusiers. They fled before coming into contact with the English foot. Some 10,000 Scots were killed, mostly by the English and mercenary cavalry during the rout.

Each year a memorial service is held. This was today's event.


English 15mm Demi-Lancers and Border Horse of the period from my collection.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Muscovy's Soldiers

I am enjoying Helion's 'Century of the Soldier' series, with my latest read being 'Muscovy's Soldiers: The Emergence of the Russian Army 1462-1689', by Michael Fredholm Von Essen.

The format of the series has a nodding resemblance to the Osprey format, with extensive illustrations and colour plates. The difference is the more detailed text.

In this book, the author starts with a background to the army of Muscovite Russia and the reforms of Ivan IV (The Terrible). This army has elements of the late medieval, with feudal forces of heavy and light cavalry, together with the emergence of paid troops. These include the Streltsy matchlock men and Ivan's personal army, the black coated Oprichniki. As well as tribal forces, this was the period when foreign mercenaries began to make an appearance.

The book largely skips over the 'Time of troubles' and moves on to the army of the Romanovs. This included the new formation regiments, which were the beginning of the modern army on western lines. The Muscovy economy placed some restrictions on the full adoption of western structures, but infantry, Dragoons Hussars and Reiters all took their place in the army. This was also the time peasant conscription was used to supplement hereditary service.

The final chapters cover the expansion of the state into something closer to what we would recognise as Russia today. To the south into the Caucasus and east into Siberia. This required different types of troops to western Russia and many tribal allies.

The author concludes with the army just prior to Tsar Peter's reforms. He argues that these reforms rested on the legacy of previous reforms.

Each chapter outlines the campaigns of the period to analyse how effective each stage of reform was.

This is an army I have never collected, although the foreign regiments are little different from their western versions and I have Cossacks. So a few Streltsy and cavalry should make a decent game of Pikeman's Lament.

Sunday 2 September 2018

Scottish International Air Show

This weekend was the Scottish International Air Show, held in the skies above Ayr, with most aircraft based at nearby Prestwick Airport. The weather wasn't the best this weekend for an air show, with some cancellations.

The weather didn't stop the stars of the show, The Red Arrows, always worth making the effort to see, even if limited to their low level programme. I was particularly chuffed that the BBC used my photo of the event. My recent photography lessons were not wasted!

And a few more.

The Swiss Air Force F18 Hornet was the other highlight for me. The noise was pretty impressive.

The splash landing and take off from the Cessna 172 sea plane was impressive

The Chipmunk trainer is not that great visually, but nostalgic for me, as it's the only time I have had the controls of an aircraft. Very briefly as an air cadet, many moons ago!

Apparently these venerable aircraft used by the display team are still the best for the job.

Finally, this 1930s executive aviation combination The Dragon Fly flies with the Spartan.

There were also several ground based exhibits of interest.