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

Monday 31 December 2018

Salonika: the sideshow that ended the war

My non-fiction Xmas reading has been Nigel Birch's dissertation that looks at the British contribution to the Allied victory in the Balkans, September 1918.

This is not a narrative history of the Salonika campaign, but instead focuses on the British contribution, including naval and air power, in 1918. He argues, rightly in my view, that the Salonika campaign has had insufficent attention in the recent commemorations, despite the pivotal role it played in ending the war. By knocking Bulgaria out of the war and advancing into the soft underbelly of the Central Powers, the campaign persuaded the German military leadership to sue for peace. As Von Hindenburg said:

"As a result of the collapse of the Macedonian front, and of the weakening of our reserves in the West, which this has necessitated..... there appears to be no possibility, to the best of human judgement, of winning peace from our enemies by force of arms."

Churchill, who was to return to the 'soft underbelly' strategy in WW2 said:

"The Salonika policy, for all its burden on our shipping and resources, was nevertheless vindicated by the extremely practical test of results. This Bulgarian surrender pulled out the lynchpin of the German combination."

There was an Allied debate about the effectiveness of the Salonika 'sideshow' throughout the war between the Westerners and the Easterners. While there is a credible argument that the resources could have been better deployed elsewhere, there is little doubt about the impact in September 1918.

The British played no direct part in the Battle of Dobro Pole that broke the Bulgarian line, an almost entirely French and Serbian achievement. However, he sets out a convincing case that the British offensive at Doiran succeded in pinning the Bulgarian reserves. He makes an even stronger case for the critical role the RAF played in turning the Bulgarian retreat into a rout.

Doiran memorial. I visited the battlefield in 2016.

The British role was not limited to the battlefield. The Royal Navy played a key role in protecting merchant ships bringing supplies and troops to Salonika, as well as defending against Turkish incursions. They laso contributed to the logistics of the campaign by building roads and railways, as well as securing water supplies.

Overall, this is a concise and well argued disertation that covers aspects of the campaign that have had little attention previously. Well worth a read.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Bernard Cornwell double header

My Christmas fiction reading has had a bit of a theme - Bernard Cornwell.

I bought 'Stonehenge' when it came out, but unusually for me and Bernard Cornwell books, I have been slow to get to grips with it. For obvious reasons, this novel is entirely fictitious. It is based on the building of Stonehenge in the third millennium BC, a period for which we have no sources and limited archeological evidence. As usual, there is a historical note that discusses the possible purpose of Stonehenge and how it might have been constructed. It seems pretty likely that it was used for a range of spiritual activities based on solar events, given the monument's alignment. After that, there is a lot of guesswork.

He has invented a place and tribe that organised the building of this temple to a fictitious deity. Life in this period is short and violent, based on loose tribal units. Warfare is pretty rudimentary, but Cornwell manages one decent battle scene.

I struggled a bit with this book. Cornwell is a master storyteller, but the subject matter is a bit light. There is only so much you can do with the building of a stone monument, however remarkable for the period.

I had no such problems with 'War of the Wolf', the eleventh in the Last Kingdom series. Uhtred is now Lord of Bebbanburg in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Set in the 920s, he is drawn into the Saxon succession manoeuvring as Edward's health fails. However, the focus of the book is a new Viking leader, Skoll, based in Cumberland. He attacks York and kills the Queen, Uhtred's daughter. Needless to say, vengeance will be had as Uhtred and his son-in-law lead a Northumbrian army to lay siege to his fortress.

This is classic Cornwell. Rooted in the history of the period, great characters, plenty of intrigue and action. I read this over two days and was very tempted to give up a nights sleep to finish it! Just brilliant.

The latest TV adaption of The Last Kingdom is now out on Netflix. This is also very good and I blitzed the whole series over two nights. Alfred is dying and his son Edward is by no means a shoo-in for King. Uhtred is of course involved as are the Vikings, looking to take advantage of a disputed succession. 

BBC History Magazine has an interesting article on the succession in the Christmas edition. Ryan Lavelle outlines the key historical players (no Uhtred!) and Aethelwold's unsuccessful attempt to seize the crown. However, the conflict went on for three years as Athelwold, allied with the Vikings, attacked Wessex. It ended with his death in a battle at a now unidentified place called 'the Holme'.

The January magazine has an article on Anglo-Saxon beasts of death - the wolves, ravens and eagles that scavenged Dark Age battlefields. Very appropriate context for 'War of the Wolf'. If that isn't enough Saxon history for you, there is my review of the British Library exhibition. And a History Extra podcast with Bernard Cornwell that is worth a listen.

Finally, all of this should get onto the tabletop during the holidays. SAGA is the obvious choice, but having played Lion Rampant at the club last Sunday, I remembered how much I like those rules.

Uhtred did of course fight off the Vikings in the Lion Rampant refight

Monday 24 December 2018

Adriatic Cruel Seas

With a bit of time pre-Christmas, I have played a couple more scenarios in Warlord's new game of coastal warfare, Cruel Seas.

In the latest game, I used a version of the convoy scenario. Two German S-Boats are escorting a merchant ship along the Adriatic coast when they are attacked by three British MTBs. This was an opportunity to try out the torpedo rules, which work very well. Sadly, my skills at firing them are as bad as my sailing skills! I missed twice, but at least this time I avoided colliding with my own boats!

As I gushed about these rules in my review, I remain a fan. Several guys at the club have bought them, so my sailing skills should get an opportunity to improve in the new year. I found the Warlord Games video of a convoy game very helpful. I was playing the one-thirds rule wrongly - it's one-third of the maximum speed before turning, not the current speed of the boat.

Somewhat less impressive is the substantial errata sheet that I had to download. In fairness, the errors are not huge, but it is pretty sloppy work from a commercial operation the size of Warlord.

I have also been busy researching coastal warfare in the Adriatic. I found a range of sources in my library and I have put my findings into a feature article on Balkan Military History. The Adriatic is ideal for this game and I have been ordering landing craft and other items from suppliers. I also fancy modeling a typical harbour.

Vis Town
A number of the actions I have described in the article involve raiding islands. So, there is an option to play the landing using Cruel Seas, and then the land battle using Bolt Action. I already have the British Commandos, US Rangers and Partisans for this.

Seasons greetings by the way. I hope Santa brings you some great toys tonight!

Wednesday 19 December 2018

No Friends but the Mountains

The sub-title for this book is "The Tragic History of the Kurds' - very apt as this is indeed a tragic history. I suspect like most people my understanding of the Kurds is limited to recent events and their conflict with Daesh and then Turkey, so I was pleased to pick up this book by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, written in the 1990's, to understand more.

The Kurds are possibly the largest ethnic group not to have their own state. They are divided across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, with a population of between 15 and 25 million. The core territory is in the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges that have formed a natural barrier and very often a refuge from neighbouring states.

The Kurds have their own language, although written Kurdish is underdeveloped. Differences of dialect and religion, combined with tribal rivalries ensured that they remained divided for most of their history.  These rivalries have been exploited by the host countries who have generally kept their Kurdish provinces underdeveloped, often resorting to oppression on a horrendous scale.

There have been identifiable Kurdish people for up to four millennia, with the first historical reference appearing in Xenophon's 'Anabasis'. They are probably descended from the Medes, but as always the racial mix will be more complex. Most, but not all Kurds adopted Islam, albeit slowly. The most famous Kurd is probably Salah al-Din Yusef (Saladin), who became Sultan of the Abbuyid Dynasty.

During the long period of Ottoman rule the Kurds were important border lords against Persia. Some 500,000 men were armed and they manned 776 fortresses. As the Ottoman Empire declined there were revolts against Turkish rule and so began a long series of wars, during which outside powers encouraged and then abandoned the Kurds. A sadly familiar story throughout the 20th Century to the present day.

The struggle against Saddam Hussein is extensively covered and the particularly shocking gas attack at Halabja. It killed at least 3,000 people, mostly women and children, and resulted in yet another exodus. The long standing Turkish oppression of the Kurds is objectively covered, a process that is very much in play today.

While Kurdish history is indeed tragic, lack of unity has all to often been their undoing. There may be some modern optimism on this point and the Kurdish diaspora has helped to promote their cause. I have met a number of members of this community in Scotland and they have generally avoided the Palestinian model of direct action.

If you want to understand the Middle East and the current conflicts in particular - you have to understand the history of the Kurds. This book is an excellent starting point.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Cruel Seas

The starter set for Warlord's latest game, Cruel Seas, arrived last week. Painting is pretty straightforward, grey with some highlights and a wash, and it's off to the tabletop.

The starter set comes with 6 British Vosper MTBs (Type 1 and 2) and 4 S-Boats (38 and 100 class). Plus a U-Boat as an extra for pre-orders. The ships in the box are plastic and go together well, even some basic instructions and a painting guide - pretty rare for Warlord! They are 1/300 scale, which is useful if you want to extend the game to landing parties and of course aircraft.

You also get all the counters and game aids you will need, including the activation and playing dice. There is a glossy paper playmat, but I used my Deep Cut version.

The rulebook is a lovely piece of work. The basic and advanced rules, together with some scenarios, fleet lists and a potted history of small boat warfare in WW2. The starter pack is British and German, but Warlord clearly plans to include all the main combatants.

So how did it play? In short, this is a very good game.

I somewhat ambitiously decided to use all the models. The scenario also used the U-Boat, which has beached by one of the islands and the S-Boat flotilla is tasked with rescuing the crew.

Each ship has a card with the key stats, weapons, speed etc. on which you keep a track of damage points and critical hits. Each ship also has a template that marks the current speed and helps with the angle of turn.

After the first turn, two S-Boats are making for the U-Boat. The blue splash markers are for near misses - they give a fire bonus if you get three of them. Long range fire isn't very effective.

In the next turn, first blood to the Brits with a critical hit on the bridge of this S-Boat. Until I realised that armoured protection on the bridge stops a critical hit for guns below 37mm. This picture also shows the activation dice, which works like Bolt Action.

The British MTBs are smaller and less resilient as well as under gunned. Torpedoes are only effective against larger and slower ships. Firing uses a D10 for hits and one or more D6 for damage. A six is a critical hit, which if you don't roll a save, can have a range of effects on your next turn.

It's starting to get crowded in the main channel and this shows how sailing is very different from a land battle. You can't just stop and start. You can go up and down only one speed and turning is slow and limited.

Something I learned the hard way. A rudder hit meant this MTB couldn't turn and so collided with another MTB and sank. The other one was badly damaged, so that's a third of the force out of action!

The Brits did sink one S-Boat as it was about to rescue the U-Boat crew.

But, the S-Boats in the north came back down the channel and that was curtains for the remaining  MTBs.

Overall, the rule mechanisms are pretty straightforward but require more than a bit of application to master this type of warfare. There are rules to cover air attacks, mines, depth charges, smoke, radar and lots more.

A very good set of rules, I will be playing this again. I have already dusted down my copy of Brooks Richards' 'Secret Flotillas', which covers operations in the Adriatic. An excuse to model my favourite Adriatic island, Vis. The Aegean is another interesting possibility.

 Models of the small boats based at Vis in a local museum.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Imperial War Museum North

I was in Manchester for Fulham's away game at Old Trafford last Saturday. We will pass quickly over the game, but it was an opportunity to revisit the Imperial War Museum North.

This is a very modern style of museum. A striking architectural design in Salford Quays, all concrete and steel. There are plenty of audio-visual experiences with the whole central area of the museum used for regular performances. It's not a museum crammed full of exhibits, in contrast to my visit to the Royal Highland Fusiliers museum earlier in the week. It is probably my age, but I would rather have the exhibits!

None the less there is plenty to see, and here are some of the highlights for me at least.

The Harrier hanging from the ceiling as you enter the main hall is very striking.

Just two AFVs - This Matilda in desert colours - one of my favourite tanks.

And a T55 from the Iraq War.

This 13pdr field gun fired the first British shell of WW1.

The Iraq War most-wanted playing cards.

A Gurkha Kukri with Japanese occupation currency.

Typical British small arms of WW2 - Lee Enfield and a Bren.

I wouldn't make a special effort to visit this museum, but if you have a spare hour it is worth a look, particularly if you have the kids with you. 

Friday 7 December 2018

The Royal Highland Fusiliers

Having visited museums all over the world, I was somewhat embarrassed to remember that I hadn't visited my local regimental museum for many years. They will probably see more of me in the future as my new office is just around the corner!

This is the Royal Highland Fusiliers (RHF) Museum, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. It traces the history of a number of regiments who were amalgamated, in stages, into the RHF. It was created in 1959 by the amalgamation of The Royal Scots Fusiliers (RSF) and The Highland Light Infantry (HLI). At the formation of The Royal Regiment of Scotland (2006), they became The Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 SCOTS).

The Regiment has an impressive history dating back to 1678. It served in all corners of the world: from North America to the West Indies; India to South Africa; Napoleonic; Crimean wars; the British Expeditionary Force, Gallipoli, North Africa and France; Flanders in WWI; the British Expeditionary Force, Dunkirk, the Middle East, Madagascar, Burma and North West Europe in WWII.

The rather strange 'Highland' part of the title comes from the merger of the 71st and 74th Highlanders into the Highland Light Infantry in 1881. 'Strange' because they recruited in Glasgow, well below the Highland Line. Even allowing for a large number of Highlanders who were forced to move to Glasgow for economic reasons. As a Lowland regiment, they changed from the kilt to trews.

The various regimental drums are one of the museum's highlights

Some famous names served in the regiment including Sir David Baird, Churchill, Trenchard and a bit of showbiz with David Niven.

Even as late as the Boer War, more soldiers died of disease and accidents than killed in action.
The museum is not large, just a few rooms, which necessitates some cramming in of artifacts. The lighting is also not great, but museums like this survive on a shoestring budget. So, although entrance is free, please make a donation.

Shooting badges. There were also a number of volunteer units attached to the regiment.

Saturday 1 December 2018

A World on Fire

'A World on Fire' is the latest novel from James Heneage. This is a time shift from his Byzantium books to the Greek War of Independence.

The author lives part of the year in the Peloponnese, where I spent a very pleasant holiday this year - including Napflio, the first capital of the newly independent Greece.

His take on the revolution starts in the Mani, which is the barren tip of the Peloponnese, protected to a degree by mountains. His heroine is Hara, the daughter of a Maniot chieftain, who becomes embroiled in the revolution and the Ottoman counter-attack. This was led by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, who had a modern army trained by French mercenaries. He burned and butchered his way through the Peloponnese with the aim of resettling the land with Egyptians.

His savagery helped the Greeks to build western sympathy for the Greek cause that eventually led to a joint British/French/Russian fleet entering the Bay of Navarino and sinking the Egyptian and Ottoman fleets.

The author stretches the historical facts a little, but the broad canvas of 1824-26 is all there. He tells a good story around the international events that led to the liberation of at least part of Greece from Ottoman rule.

Some figures of the period from my collection in 15mm.