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 27 December 2019

Review of 2019 Books

2019 was another fruitful year for books, and I am pleased to see that sales of the printed word have increased this year. In particular, I want to thank the specialist military history press, Pen and Sword, Helion and Osprey, for their prolific output. Here is my pick of the year.

The Cretan War 1645-1671, isn't a conflict that many will recognise, but at the time it dominated the eastern Mediterranean. The focus was the siege of Candia (modern Heraklion) and drew in volunteers and mercenaries from across Europe. Bruno Mugnai provides not just a narrative history of the conflict, but also a detailed description of the armies backed up with colour plates. I visited Crete earlier this year, and this book was the essential companion, although the wargame figures are still awaiting a paintbrush.

Carole Divall’s biography of Sir Ralph Abercromby brought a less well-known commander of the French Revolutionary Wars into focus. The book is really a study of British involvement in this conflict, which is often overlooked by the larger scale Napoleonic wars that followed.

In The Great Illyrian War, Jason Abdale introduces the Illyrians and their conflict with Rome to the general reader. I had a few criticisms of the book's style, but it opens up a little-explored period of Balkan history. 

Arras Counter Attack by Tim Saunders is the sort of detailed operational history, which is very difficult to write understandably. The Matilda tank is probably my favourite AFV of WW2 and next year's 80th anniversary of this battle will be an excuse to pick out another scenario from this book.

2019 was the last in the Game of Thrones TV series, which I thoroughly enjoyed and regularly wargame. David Weinczok has made a possibly too higher claim for Scotland being the context in his The History Behind Game of Thrones, but it's fantasy, so why not! 

I often find aviation history hard to read, but Alexander Mladenov and pals have done a good job with their The Bulgarian Air Force in the Second World War. A bit obscure for most, perhaps, but I enjoyed it. 

I had never even heard of the Trieste Crisis 1953 before picking up Bojan Dimitrijevic’s book. This is hardcore military history with comprehensive ORBATs and equipment schedules, as well as being profusely illustrated. This is a conflict I must try and get onto the tabletop.  

Julie Peakman’s Hitler’s Island War, tells the story of the Leros campaign in WW2, mainly through the extensive use of letters, diaries and interviews, which make a very readable account of this botched British invasion. 

Alexander Watson’s The Fortress is not a cheery read. He tells the story of the siege of Przemysl in 1914 where obsolete defences and elderly reservists held back the Russian steamroller on the eastern front, for a while at least. Pretty harrowing stuff, but well worth a read. 

I haven't added significant numbers of Osprey books to my already vast collection this year. Mark Galeotti’s writings on modern warfare are always worth a read, and his Armies of Russia's War in Ukraine is particularly useful. I also enjoyed Kos and Leros 1943 by Anthony Rogers and Nicholas Sekunda’s The Army of Pyrrhus

I should touch on the historical fiction I have enjoyed this year. A special mention goes to Matthew Harffy’s, Bernicia Chronicles, and I also enjoyed Griff Hosker’s Lord Edward’s Archer. Of course, no review of the year would be complete without the latest Bernard Cornwell book, Sword of Kings – magnificent as always.

Roll on 2020!

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Neville Chamberlain's Legacy

To most of us, Neville Chamberlain was a posh Tory Prime Minister who thought he could secure peace through appeasement with Hitler. Well, he was all of those things, but as ever the story is a bit more nuanced.

In a new biography, Nicholas Milton gives us a more rounded picture of Chamberlain. His private letters to family and friends provide an insight into his thinking and reveal much about him as a politician.

Chamberlain entered politics late, particularly given his famous political family. He worked in the family business before getting drawn into local government in the family's Birmingham base. In many ways, he was the archetypal hunting, shooting, fishing toff, although he gained a reputation championing public housing as well as widow's pensions and the first midwifery service.

His love of nature, particularly bird watching, is probably the most striking if a bit repetitive, feature of this book. At all the key historical moments, he was exchanging letters with fellow enthusiasts and wandering through St James Park with his civil servants. This love of nature had institutional consequences through the establishment of The Wildlife Trusts and his support for the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England - although his participation in driven grouse shooting seems a bit bizarre today!  

Foreign affairs dominated his period as Prime Minister. He was determined to secure peace, scarred as many of his generation were after the horrors of the First World War. His cousin Norman was killed in 1917.

He was convinced that Musso, as he called Mussolini, could be detached from Hitler, despite the advice of the Foreign Office and plenty of evidence to the contrary. A policy he pursued even after the outbreak of war. In April 1940 he wrote to his sister saying that “Musso will go as far as he dares to help Hitler without actually getting himself involved in the war.”

It is often forgotten today, but the Munich Agreement was popular at the time. The author dedicates a chapter of the book listing the astonishing array of gifts and other acknowledgements from a grateful world. Sponsoring hospital beds in his name was particularly popular and some 40,000 letters and gifts flooded into Downing Street.

He was eulogised by the right-wing press, including the Daily Mail, whose owner Lord Rothermere was an admirer of Hitler. In the early 1930s, Rothermere was so close to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists that Daily Mail staff began to mimic their dress – wearing black shirts to work.

Even after Hitler broke the agreement and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain persisted with appeasement. Although he did start to rearm, mainly the RAF, after years of cuts. Even after war broke out following the invasion of Poland, he didn't believe Hitler would attack in the west. Chamberlain thought Hitler would seek to wear down the British through 'boredom'.

Once this delusion ended, he remained in the war cabinet after resigning as PM in favour of Churchill. I didn't know he was the creator of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which made an important contribution to victory.

Chamberlain died on 9 November 1940 of cancer. He reflected “I regret nothing that I have done and I can see nothing undone that I ought to have done". History has not agreed with this assessment, understandably so.

I had expected a more sympathetic biography, but the author doesn't spare us Chamberlain's many faults. Instead, he gives us a more rounded picture of the man and the politician in the context of the period.

Next year is the 80th anniversary of the 1940 campaigns that ended Chamberlain's premiership. He could have used our cat to keep the peace!

Saturday 21 December 2019

Soviet Armour - SU-100

The next stage in my Soviet Bolt Action force, to take on the late-war Hungarians, was a choice of AFV. I was tempted to repaint a spare Sherman, as the Soviet Southern Front armies had a lot of Lend-Lease kit. However, the model I picked up appears to be a little on the large size. The ubiquitous T34 was an obvious choice, but I fancied something different and decided on the SU-100.

The SU-100 was the next stage in the development of Soviet tank destroyers after the SU-85 was struggling to match the latest German designs, particularly the Panther. The 100mm D-10S gun could penetrate even the front armour of the Panther at a range of 1500m. It also had thicker armour and a better commander workspace. 

Mass production began in September 1944 and it was used in large numbers in Hungary, another good reason for my choice of AFV. Over 2300 were built by the end of the war and it continued in service for many years in both Soviet and other armies around the world. Most recently one was spotted in the Yemen conflict.

On to the model. I have decided that 3D printing is the way forward for guns and vehicles. This model is from Butlers Printed Models. It comes in one piece, no messing about and hardly any flash. This photo is straight out of the box.

Like most Soviet AFVs, this isn't a complex paint job. A primer spray and some dry brushing produces a decent outcome. I have looked a lot of pictures and some SU-100's have no markings, others just a number and others a red star. I had a spare red star in the transfer box, so that's it. Just a matt varnish spray and it is ready for the tabletop.

I'm assured Santa is bringing the infantry for Xmas!

Thursday 19 December 2019

True Soldier Gentlemen

Since the end of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, I have missed a good series of Napoleonic historical fiction.

It is now 13 years since the last in the series, and although Bernard is still churning out great books, it doesn't look as if Richard Sharpe is going to make a comeback. I still have a vain hope that he might turn up, as many of his riflemen comrades did, with Bolivar in the South American Wars of Liberation.

It is a tough act to follow, but I had missed Adrian Goldsworthy's series, which starts with 'True Soldier Gentlemen'. I associate this author with the Roman army and have several of his non-fiction books on that subject. He has published six in what he said was a planned 12 books, culminating in Waterloo. The first six came out at a very steady pace, but there hasn't been one since 2015.

Unlike the Sharpe books, which are focused on one character, this series has a range of characters serving in the fictional 106th Regiment of Foot. The author explains that he has largely mirrored the actions of the 29th. We also get a bit of context with occasional diversions into the activities of Wellesley and his French opponents.

The story starts in 1808 as the regiment prepares for service abroad. The focus is on a group of junior officers in the regiment and one gentleman volunteer. The first half of the book introduces the reader to regimental life in Britain and the struggles of the typical officers, who were not wealthy enough to purchase a commission. While I accept the necessity to establish the characters and the storyline, this did drag on a bit.

The regiment is included in the expedition to Portugal and the second half of the book covers the battles of Rolica and Vimeiro, which established Wellesley as a commander in the European theatre of operations. The military establishment at the time didn't really count his victories in India.

There are a couple of side stories, which have Sharpe like features to them. However, otherwise, this is the story of a conventional line regiment. And none the worse for that.

Despite the slow start, I enjoyed this book and will read more.

I might even dust down my Peninsular War armies for some tabletop action.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Soviet Artillery

I was in urgent need of some distraction this weekend. For those reading this from outside the UK, the country has justed voted for a buffoon as Prime Minister. It is at times like this that the hobby brings some much-needed therapy.

So, I looked at the lead mountain and Soviet artillery seemed somehow appropriate. With some of Henry Hyde's excellent Patreon podcasts as background, paint was applied.

When we think of Soviet armies in WW2, we tend to focus on T34 tanks and serried rows of infantry. However, it was artillery that the Soviet commanders called 'The God of War'. Unlike other armies, the Soviets used their artillery more in the direct fire mode. Not least because lower educational standards made it difficult to recruit forward observers. For the Bolt Action tabletop game, bigger guns are also not really appropriate. Not that it stops some gamers deploying Nebelwerfers!

I started with the ubiquitous 76mm ZIS-3 Field Gun, the mainstay of divisional artillery in WW2. A staggering 103,000 of these guns were produced. This is a Butlers 3D printed model. I have decided that 3D printing is the way to go for guns and tanks in 28mm. I am fed up with poorly designed kits, inadequate instructions and superglued fingers. These models may lack a bit of detail, but they are robust, and most importantly, come in one piece. There is a bit of flash, but this is just pulled off with plyers. I couldn't find anyone who sold stand-alone gun crew, so I had to adapt some mortar crew.

Then I needed an ATG. These are later war Soviets that will take on my Hungarians, but I wanted a manageable piece for the tabletop. I, therefore, went for the 57mm M1943 ZiS-2. Some 10,000 of these effective ATGs were produced, which could penetrate the armour of late German tanks, including the Panther and Tiger. They were still being used in Africa in the 1990s.

Therapy over for now, but still plenty more Soviets to paint!

Sunday 8 December 2019

Carthage’s Other Wars

Outwith the Balkans, I am always drawn to a new book about Carthage. It was my very first wargame army, although, like most wargamers, it was a Second Punic War army led by Hannibal.

Books on Carthaginian campaigns outside the Punic Wars are rare. So, this new book, Carthage’s Other Wars, by Dexter Hoyos (Pen and Sword), is very welcome.

The author starts with the city and state, in the context of the Mediterranean during the ancient period. Carthage was at its core a trading state, and this was reflected in the army and fleets, which relied heavily on mercenaries.

We then get a narrative of the numerous wars Carthage engaged in from the 5th century BC. These campaigns mostly involved Sicily where Carthage established a territory in the west of the island called the epikrateia. This brought Carthage into conflict with the Greek city-states in the east, primarily Syracuse. These campaigns occasionally threatened Carthage itself, although only once did a Greek army set foot in the African homeland. 

By the summer of 264, Carthage and Syracuse became formal allies in the face of the growing power of Rome. Once invited to intervene in Sicily, the Romans never left, ending the Greek wars and opening the first chapter of the Punic Wars. 

The campaigns in Africa and Spain are briefing covered. Carthage expanded into Libya and established new colonies. This brought them into conflict with the native Libyan peoples and the Numidians, although the latter were often allies. The stress of the First Punic War led to the Truceless War in Libya, which involved atrocities that were horrific even by the standards of the period.

After losing Sardinia and most of Sicily, Carthage invaded Spain in 237. They quickly developed a significant empire, which brought in substantial revenues and revitalised the state. It was here that the nine-year-old Hannibal learnt the art of war from his father, Hamilcar.

The challenge in writing a book on these wars is the scarcity of sources. I would have loved to find out more about the early Carthaginian expeditions, which went as far as the west coast of Africa. However, the longest surviving Carthaginian text is just three pages long. Modern archaeological work has uncovered some parts of the early city, despite the destruction and subsequent rebuilding by the Romans. I had the pleasure of visiting the site a few years ago.  

The harbour area today

Mostly later Roman ruins
This means we rely on mostly non-Punic sources, including Greek and Latin records. Even these, like Diodorus of Sicily, were written around the time of Julius Caesar. Self-evidently they are not telling the story from a Carthaginian viewpoint. Some were more objective, including Aristotle who put the Carthaginian system on a par with those of many Greek states.

The other challenge is names. Individual Carthaginian names repeatedly occur over the centuries. Hanno, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Mago pop up frequently. The author does his best to make sense of the story, but it does make the narrative a bit difficult to follow.

Allowing for the historical challenges, Dexter Hoyos does his best with the limited and often contradictory sources. The narrative of the wars in Sicily can get a bit tedious after a couple of chapters, and I enjoyed the early and later chapters covering the other campaigns the most. This book opens up a period that deserves closer attention and for that alone is worth a read.     

Libyan spearmen from my current 28mm Carthaginian army

Saturday 7 December 2019

Eastern odyssey of the Anglo-Saxons

In this month's BBC History Magazine, Caitlin Green tells an interesting story of a journey made by post-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon exiles.

For Anglo-Saxon nobles, after the conquest, there were two options. Make peace with the Normans or go into exile. The story of how the exiles sailed to Constantinople and became part of the Varangian Guard is fairly well known. They set sail for the Mediterranean raiding and looting, with modern Ceuta, Majorca and Minorca amongst the targets. They arrived in Constantinople around 1075 when the Emperor took them into his personal bodyguard. One of the exiles, Hardigt, is credited with becoming commander of the imperial fleet.

So far so good, but Caitlin Green says that they then asked the Emperor for lands of their own. He offered them former Byzantine territories in the Crimea if they could conquer them. The Jatvaroar Saga says that a force led by Earl Siward did just that and called it England, with the main towns called London and York.

Many historians have dismissed this story as fanciful, but there is evidence that the Byzantines did regain control of the region around 1100. Place names in 14th-16th-century coastal charts refer to a 'Varangolimen' in the Crimea, as well as 'Londina' and 'Susaco'. Franciscan friars who passed through the region in 1246-47 say that Christian 'Saxi' defended themselves against the Tartars.

The Varangian Guard continued until at least 1204, and it has been suggested that these Crimean settlements, 'Nova Anglia', provided replacements. They weren't the only source of manpower as the guard recruited fairly widely after the initial Viking recruits.

There is no firm evidence as to how long the colony survived. However, there are references in the official records as late as the mid-14th century. The De Officiis record states that they wished the Emperor good health at Christmas, in English. That would be 300 years after their ancestors left England.

Possibly not a large enough colony to justify an army list under big battle rules, but a skirmish or two using Lion Rampant might be justified. We have little idea of how they developed over 300 years, but they would have been aware of military developments and probably allied with local tribes. The Greeks had colonies in this area in ancient times, so the concept is not that outrageous. Either way, it's a good story!

Varangian Guardsmen from my collection.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Soviet riflewomen

My work is taking every waking hour of my life at present, and a few of the sleeping ones as well. So, I decided I needed a day’s break from the computer screen to do some painting.

Looking for a quick option from the lead mountain, I choose some Soviet riflewomen that I picked up from Bad Squiddo Games. Having finished the Hungarians, I needed some Soviet opponents and I wanted some different units to break up the monotony of the standard rifle squads.

Some 800,000 women served in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. Like most of the combatant nations, this was mostly in medical and auxiliary units. However, the Soviets did allow a significant number of women to join combat units. 

The snipers are probably the best known, with 2,484 serving, of whom about 500 survived. Lyudmila Pavilchenko was the subject of the 2015 film Battle for Sevastopol. Nicknamed Lady Death, she was credited with 309 confirmed kills. Bad Squiddo do a very nice female sniper team, which I will paint when I have a bit more time to do them justice.

There were also three all women air regiments, one fighter and two bombers. Women also constituted significant numbers to the partisan units. Nearly 200,000 women were decorated and 89 received the highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

This is my first batch off the painting table. The figures are nicely sculpted by Alan Marsh and come in a blister pack of six. Virtually flash free as well.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

The Fortress - The Great Siege of Przemyśl

The Fortress by Alexander Watson is the story of the fortified city of Przemyśl in the First World War. Today, it lies in the south-eastern corner of Poland, on the modern border with Ukraine. At the start of the twentieth century, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire and was the main garrison defending the province of Galicia.

In September 1914, the Russian army routed the Austro-Hungarian field army in Galicia and the fortress at Przemyśl was all that stopped the Russian advance deep into the Habsburg domains. The 130,000 man garrison was a ragtag collection of reservists from across the empire. 

They were, in the main, the oldest age group, between 37 and 42 years old, commanded by academics, businessmen and middling state officials with reserve commissions; or, as one bluntly described his comrades, ‘well-past-their-prime fatties’. Typically, the officers commanded troops of a different nationality and did not speak the language of their men.

The fortifications were also pretty old and some cases obsolete. The outer defences covered some 48km with 17 main and 18 subsidiary forts. They were latterly joined up with trenches, some hastily built. When war broke out the fortress was unprepared and antiquated. Fortunately for the Habsburg troops, the Russians had no siege artillery, although their experienced artillery still put down accurate bombardments. 

The fortress commander was Hermann Kusmanek, left stranded in a fortress 70km from the field army. The Russian commander Brusilov was initially told just to screen the fortress, but he believed he could storm the fortress, thereby releasing some 90,000 troops for the next stage of the offensive. However, the assault failed and the siege had to be abandoned as the Habsburg field army mounted a counter-attack that relieved the fortress. The ‘fatties’ had held on!

Within a month the field army had again been defeated and the Russians were back. This time there would be no relief as Habsburg armies tried to break out through the Carpathian Mountains in winter. The Russians simply blockaded the fortress and starved the garrison into surrender. 9 Habsburg generals, 2,500 officers and 117,000 other ranks fell into Russian hands. One in five died in captivity.

The author tells the story of the men and the civilians who endured the siege. It is a harrowing tale of atrocities, corruption and deprivation. Particularly for the rank and file troops and the civilians left behind. Well research and written, it tells a story of a key turning point for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WW1 that most will never have heard of.

Austrian infantry - no 'fatties' here!

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Attack at Dawn - Narvik WW2

I have always been interested in the Norwegian campaign of May 1940, and I suspect it will attract new interest as the 80th-anniversary approaches next year. I have visited some of the battlefields and the fine museum in Oslo. It would also make a great, if challenging, demonstration wargame for a show.

I, therefore, picked up a copy of Ron Cope's book, 'Attack at Dawn: Reliving the First Battle of Narvik in World War Two', with some interest as I know very little about the naval aspects of the campaign. My recent games of Cruel Seas has sparked a bit more interest as well.

This is a very personal book, inspired by the author's father who served as a Torpedoman on the destroyer HMS Hardy. He was the first to fire a salvo of torpedos in Narvik harbour. He has done a huge amount of research, assisted by his own naval service, including interviews with other sailors serving on the ship.

HMS Hardy was commanded by Captain Warburton-Lee, who was also the flotilla commander of five destroyers who attacked German shipping in Narvik during April 1940. Their repeated attacks on the harbour were very successful, sinking German destroyers and merchant ships. However, on the way out of the Fjord after the attack they ran into a much stronger German fleet including cruisers. Hardy was heavily damaged and the decision was made to beach the ship. Many of the crew made it to shore and were picked up during later attacks.

This is a micro-history of the battle, with the narrative painstakingly developed. In wargames, we abtract such a lot that it comes as a bit of a shock when you read the detail of how a destroyer operated in battle.

The detail means this is not an easy read and I did struggle on occasions.  I understand the temptation to include all your research in a publication, but this book would have benefitted from a bit more editing.  It is quite difficult to follow the bigger picture of the battle.  

None the less, if you want to understand how WW2 ships were fought, in pretty difficult circumstances, this is a good book. For a general understanding of the campaign, there are better options, including Maurice Harvey's 'Scandinavian Misadventure'.

Below are a couple of life-sized dioramas from the military museum in Oslo.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Sword of Kings

Sword of Kings is the latest in Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom series. This follows the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg and his early 10th-century engagements around England. This is the twelfth in the series if you don't count the TV series, so our hero is beginning to feel his age.

Bernard Cornwell is, without doubt, the greatest living author of historical fiction and he doesn't let us down with this latest offering. Uhtred is bound by his oath to Aethelstan to support him as King Edward lies dying in 924AD. He sails south from Northumbria to rescue Edward's Queen and children. Aethelstan and Aelfweard will ignore Edward's wish to split the Kingdom between Wessex and Mercia and will fight it out.

Most of the action takes place in London, a key strategic point between Wessex and Mercia, not least for its wealth. I won't spoil the story, but it has all the elements you would expect. Black humour, some new female interest for Uthred, and of course brilliant action. As usual, impossible to put down.

Northumbria remains apart from the new English state. So, there will be another book. Can't wait!

Too busy at present for much gaming, but this book is great inspiration for a bit of Dark Ages wargaming.


Tuesday 5 November 2019

Black Seas

For a confirmed landlubber, I do seem to be playing a lot of naval games recently. Cruel Seas started the trend and now a shiny new box has arrived from Warlord Games - Black Seas.

One of my reasons for not playing naval games has been the complexity of the rules. Cruel Seas is a very straightforward system and Black Seas, while a bit more complex, follows that lead.

I bought the starter set, Master and Commander, which gives you all you need to get started. The rule book, dice, markers and measuring aids. There is a paper playing surface, but I use a nice mousemat version from Deep Cut.

You also get three frigates and six brigs. I have been critical about Warlord models. Their plastic AFVs are far too complex and delicate for wargamers, and the better resin models rarely have proper instructions or lugs for assembly. Gun barrels are a particular irritation. However, like the Cruel Seas models, these go together very well and the all-important mast sections went in with a reassuring click. If you want to add extra detail, it gets a lot more fiddly. The sails are not bad with a press-out card that can be bent around a pen and glued on. The acetate ratlines need cutting out and are very fiddly to glue in place on the smallest ships. As for the cotton rigging, one look at the book convinced me that this was not for my large fingers! None the less even without these additions, the 1/700th models look fine.

The rules use similar mechanisms to Cruel Seas. The wake markers and the ship cards will be familiar, although irritatingly they are a different size so don't really fit into my custom MDF holders, which I use as a replacement for the pretty poor paper clips in the game.  Obviously, the main difference is the importance of wind and the mechanisms are a lot more straightforward than other games I have played. This won't stop me crashing into my own ships!

Shooting is also similar with a base hit, a few modifiers and accumulated damage points. As with all rule sets in a series, the author has taken on board feedback from Cruel Seas with some of the mechanisms, including a Break Value. Advanced rules add extra options like ammo types, fire ships and the weather.

There are plenty of scenarios, although I doubt many players will reach Trafalgar! I certainly will have glued all my fingers together by then. There are fleet lists and background info on some nations as well as a helpful section on terminology. Nothing for the Ottomans or the Russians, but I'll take that as a challenge. Finally, there is a chapter on campaigns.

Like Cruel seas, my scenarios of choice will be in the Adriatic, where British and French frigates fought it out. I'll be re-reading Malcolm Scott Hardy's book, 'The British and Vis - War in the Adriatic 1805-15. 

I doubt I will be building fleets (2 frigates and 2 brigs so far), but my initial impressions are positive. This looks like another fun game.

Early tabletop action!

Monday 28 October 2019

The Scramble for Africa

I had partly read Thomas Pakenham's 'The Scramble for Africa' when I visited South Africa last month. While making a start on my 10mm Boers, I have been revisiting this excellent book to finish the bigger story.

It is indeed a remarkable story. In the 1870s, Africa, with the exception of the coast, was a mystery to most Europeans. By the end of the century, the Scramble for Africa gave Europe virtually the whole continent: including thirty new colonies and protectorates, 10 million square miles of new territory and 110 million dazed new subjects. Africa was sliced up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations – Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain, not to mention King Leopold of the Belgians.

Pakenham takes us through the story, trying to explain why the Scramble took place, an issue that divides historians to this day. From the missionary explorers like Livingstone to the commercial exploiters like Rhodes, they believed they would be saving Africa from itself, and Africa would be the saving of their countries. Europe imposed its will either way at the barrel of the magazine rifle.

Fifty years later, independence was achieved largely at the barrel of similar rifles, but in the meantime, the continent was wracked with a series of wars. Until the outset of the Boer Wars, these were largely one-sided affairs, although that didn't mean the avoidance of defeats, as the British found in the Sudan and Zululand, and the Italians in Abyssinia. This book also covers some of the less well-known conflicts involving German and French troops, as well as the savage conflict in the Congo.

This is a narrative history of the conflicts. If you want to understand how the wars were fought, I would recommend Howard Whitehouse, 'Battle in Africa'. (Field Books 1987), which deals with how armies were raised, commanded and fought, together with the all-important issue of logistics. Africa is a very big place.

Back to the Boers. I have finished the first two units. Again, very nice Pendraken figures that are a pleasure to paint. I am currently being distracted by the arrival of Black Seas, but I will return!

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Croatia - A Nation Forged in War

I thought I had read most, if not all, of the general histories of Balkan countries. However, I missed the third edition of Marcus Tanner's history of Croatia when it was published. I remember his insightful reporting from the region for the Independent in the early 1990s.

The author is a journalist rather than a historian and an eyewitness to the break up of Yugoslavia. I suspect this explains why the focus of the book is on the 20th century rather than earlier periods. In fairness, our sources for the first Croatian state are pretty thin, but it does highlight the fact that Croatia has only been an independent state for a very short time in its long history.

The first Croatian state arguably ended with the death of King Zvonimir and the subsequent Hungarian invasion. The Hungarian King Kalman consolidated Hungarian rule at the Battle of Petrova Gora in 1097 and subsequently reached an agreement with the southern Dalmatian clans in 1102, known as the Pacta Conventa. This was supposed to respect Croatian rights, but the ensuing eight centuries of mostly Hungarian rule whittled away at those rights.

Croatia was for most of this period the border between the Catholic West and the Ottoman Empire. This led to the country being split between the military border region, directly ruled by the Habsburgs, and inner Croatia, which had varying degrees of influence over local matters, under overall Hungarian control. We should not forget that the Dalmatian coast was also largely controlled by Venice, the basis for later Italian intervention.

The 19th century saw the beginnings of a growing effort to break away from Hungary, albeit still under the Habsburg Empire. The statute of  Ban Jelacic in the centre of Zagreb today reflects his role in the events of 1848. I recall impressing our Croatian police 'minder', when visiting the city with my football team, with my explanation of who he was to fellow supporters!

Croatia became a junior partner in the Serbian dominated Yugoslav state that followed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of WW1. The short-lived Fascist puppet state run by the genocidal Ustashe during WW2 ended with the liberation of the country by Tito's partisans in 1944. Tito was half Croat but took little interest in his home country.

Croatia had a degree of devolution during most of the Tito years and became independent following the collapse of Yugoslavia. It was during this vicious conflict that the book's sub-title 'A Nation Forged in War' comes into its own.

Exhibits at the Croatian Homeland War Museum

This is a very readable history and particularly recommended for anyone enjoying a holiday on the Croatian coast next summer. You still hear tourists talking about Yugoslavia!

And finally, for the wargamer, some 17th century Croats in Austrian service. 28mm figures from, I think, Old Glory.

Sunday 20 October 2019

The Early Slavs

This rather weighty tome by Paul Barford has been sitting on my 'to read' shelf for some time. For those interested in the history of the Balkans, who the Slavs were and how they got to the Balkans can be a controversial issue, muddled by nationalist ideology.

I am pleased to say the author has traversed this difficult territory very well. He sets out the evidence and draws conclusions based on an objective assessment. Where there is doubt, he says so, and the reader can reach their own conclusion.

He starts with the earliest references to a Slav identity, largely based in forest steppes. The started to expand in the 6th century by moving westwards into modern day Poland,  the Czech Republic  and eastern Germany, becoming known as the West Slavs. Those remaining behind in modern day Russia and the Ukraine became the East Slavs.

My particular interest is in the South Slavs who edged their way into the Balkans, around the Carpathian Mountains or along the coast into most of the modern day Balkan states. How far and where they settled is difficult to judge from the archaeological evidence, and we have limited written sources. For example, they certainly reached the Peloponnese, but the extent to which modern Greeks have a Slav identity, is, needless to say, very controversial!

Unlike the horse archers of the Steppes, like the Avars or the Huns, the Slavs almost sneaked into the Balkans over a long period of time. They started by raiding the usual manner, but then occupied lands that were underpopulated due to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire of the period. They assimilated local peoples and grew from disparate tribes to fully fledged states. Serbia and Croatia are the main states today, and Bulgaria was a mix of the Turkic Bulgars and the Slavs.

After explaining what we know about these movements, Barford covers the social structure, daily life, religion and trading arrangements of the early Slavs. There is a chapter on warfare, which is largely based on Byzantine sources, who describe how to fight them. The early Slavs occupied forest areas and were skilled in the use of ambush, using rivers to communicate and concentrate forces. They were lightly armoured, equipped with spear, shield and wooden bows. Barford argues that they did use horses, even if primarily as mounted infantry, with elites as conventional cavalry. They also circled wagons during a battle. Unlike the West and East Slavs, they made little use of strongholds, reflecting the terrain they occupied.

I don't think I have ever seen a Slav army on the wargame table, other than my own small force as part of a 15mm Bulgar army, which I think are Essex figures. Few rules guarantee generating enough terrain to allow them to fight in the way they successfully did. I see Gripping Beast have a small range of foot figures in 28mm and Old Glory have a larger range in 15mm.

My first choice 15mm rule set is L'Art de la Guerre, and their Slav list includes up to six elements of medium cavalry with the option of upgrading half of them to heavy. You can have a fortified camp, which I suppose covers the wagons. I don't think their time period, up to 1218, works for the Balkans, but they do have later Serbo-Croatian and Bulgar lists. FoG takes a similar approach to the balance of forces, and wisely has a specific South Slav list.

While this looks like a serious academic tome, it is very readable. The price (£61) might put off the general reader, but if you can get it second hand or from the library, it is well worth the effort.

My 15mm Slav foot.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Hill of Squandered Valour - Spion Kop 1900

Wargame projects inspired by my travels have a tendency to taper off as the memories of the visit dim. So, I kept a few books back to keep the interest maintained as I tackle the mountain of lead.

Ron Lock's study of the Ladysmith campaign is one such book. While the focus of the book is the famous battle, it is in reality a study of the campaign to break through the Boer lines on the Tugela River and relieve the siege of Ladysmith. While Spion Kop wasn't the largest battle of the campaign, it remains one the best known. Not least for me as a Liverpudlian, in the Kop End of Liverpool Football Club's Anfield home. So named because of the large numbers of men from the city who died on that hill in 1900.

I covered the less than glorious causes of the Boer War (sometimes called the Second Boer War) in my review of Thomas Pakenham's magisterial book on the whole conflict. Ron Lock briefly covers the same ground before outlining the opening battles, which although technically British victories, saw the army forced out of Natal, leaving Ladysmith with its large garrison surrounded. Ladysmith should have been abandoned, and the failure to withdraw forced the newly arrived field army to fight the Boers across an easily defended river line.

This led to the Battle of Colenso, and actions at Potgieter's Drift and then Trichard's Drift. General Buller commanding the Imperial forces was not well served by his subordinates in this campaign, not least Warren at Spion Kop. However, his own judgement was woeful, with opportunities to flank the Boer positions missed at both ends of their line.

The capture of Spion Kop, a hill 1400 feet high, should have split the Boer line. Its capture would allow the Imperial forces to attack, if not easiest route, Buller had already missed that opportunity, at least a practicable one.

The task was given to Major-General Woodgate's Lancashire Brigade. A hazardous night attack brought the Brigade to the top of the hill, but in the darkness they entrenched in the centre of the hill rather than the crest. The ground barely allowed for a two foot scrape, leaving the Brigade exposed to Boer artillery and gun fire for a whole day, with little food or water. Even worse, the position could not be supported by British artillery.

The following night confusion, and the complete absence of leadership by Warren, resulted in the British abandoning the summit. The Boers who had also withdrawn, quickly recovered and occupied the hill. 364 British troops died, 1,056 wounded and further 318 captured or missing. The dead were buried in their inadequate trenches, making this one of the most unusual and poignant battlefield memorials I have visited.

Buller eventually broke the Boer lines at the western end and relieved Ladysmith. The war ground on for another two years, before the Boer republics surrendered and were incorporated within the Union of South Africa.

This book is an excellent narrative history of the campaign with good maps and relevant illustrations.

I have made progress with wargame armies, well at least the British. This is my first excursion into 10mm, outwith WW2 and the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and I am impressed with the detail on the Pendraken models. The only challenge being the assembly of guns and wagons, with more super glue ending up on my fingers than the models!

First up are two units of British line, with a command base and some of the Pendraken buildings.

Two units of Highlanders.

A unit of Lancers.

And finally, for now, some mounted infantry.

With the artillery, that should be enough for a 'Men Who Would Be Kings' battle group. With the option of extending it to a Black Powder army.

Next the Boers!

Sunday 13 October 2019

The Army of Pyrrhus of Epirus

I doubt if most people today who use the saying a 'Pyrrhic victory', have much idea about the 3rd Century King of Epirus whose victories over the Romans formed the basis of the phrase.

Nicholas Sekunda has corrected that with an excellent introduction to one of the greatest generals of the ancient period for the Osprey Men At Arms series.

The ancient Kingdom of Epirus covered much of modern day Albania and part of northern Greece. Pyrrhus engaged his army, not only in Greece, but also in Italy and Sicily, before he died in the streets of Argos fighting the Spartans and their allies. He rarely lost a battle, which is why Hannibal rated him the second best general after Alexander. Modern opinion accepts he was a great tactician, if not a great strategist.

The author gives us an outline of his campaigns, but the focus of this book is on the army. This was a fairly typical successor army with the infantry phalanx and heavy cavalry on the wings. He also famously had elephants, which the Romans hadn't faced before. They devised an anti-elephant wagon which justifies a very fine, if speculative, colour plate in the book. The rest of the army was recruited from allies and mercenaries, often from the region the army was contesting.

As you would expect from an Osprey title, the book is well illustrated and has colour plates by Peter Dennis. This is a good introduction, and I would recommend Jeff Champion's book 'Pyrrhus of Epirus' if this whets your appetite for a more detailed history of this fascinating King.

For the wargamer who already has a Macedonian or Successor army, it is a short step to fielding a Pyrrhic one. I was looking for an army to field at the club today for a game of To the Strongest! So I dusted Pyrrhus down for action.

Sadly, my battlefield generalship is not up the same high standard as Pyrrhus. The veteran Macedonian phalanx crumbled in the first clash against the Seleucids.

The elephant wing crawled towards the enemy.

The cavalry wing didn't do much better, leaving Pyrrhus and his guard cavalry a little exposed.