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 26 July 2019

Game of Thrones - part......

I have been on something of a painting roll since returning from holiday. As always the deadline of a wargame show helps. This time it is Claymore on 3 August in Edinburgh. The GDWS game will be the Battle of Riverrun and you are very welcome to take a command and play along for as long as you want. Lannisters v Stark/Bolton/Tully alliance.

First off the bench were the last of the Lannister guard units. I was getting more than a bit bored painting these.

Then the Bolton Cutthroats. These are some of the better figures in the range and look the part.

These constitute a Stark 'Bidower' unit. I use Lion Rampant rules for this 'period'. I used some leftover figures for this. Some nice irregular movement bases arrived this morning from the very efficient folk at Warbases. I also used the new GW contrast paints with these for the first time. I am not convinced they do much to speed up painting, but I have only used one so far.

And finally, a couple of figures to pad out my Stark horse. The CMON game has four cavalry figures per unit, so I need some extras for Lion Rampant.

Astonishingly, that is it nearly done. Just some odd figures to paint next week and we are there. I would have liked some Lannister crossbowmen, so will be on the lookout at Claymore.

Hope to see folk there - it is a bit cooler up here for those south of the border looking to escape! Come and say hello and roll a few dice with us.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Operation Cicero

We read a lot about successful Allied espionage operations in WW2, but rarely about Axis operations. Operation Cicero was one such operation, which took place in the Turkish capital Ankara in 1943. 

Cicero was the code name for the British Ambassador's valet, who photographed top-secret documents that the Ambassador kept in his personal safe and document boxes. He sold them to the Germans through his handler, L.C.Moyzisch, who was an attache at the German embassy. Moyzisch wrote his account of the affair in a 1950 book, which I recently found a copy of in a second-hand bookshop.

Cicero's motives appear to be largely financial. He was paid some £300,000 for around four hundred photographed documents. Some of these were very important, including partial notes of the Moscow, Tehran and Cairo conferences. He also handed over a document that mentioned Operation Overlord, although not what it meant. However, the Germans did discover that Turkish deception plan for Overlord from another document.

The Germans appear to have made limited use of this intelligence, partly because of turf wars in Berlin. Ribbentrop suspected that the documents were false, even after it was obvious they were genuine. He had a personal antipathy to the German ambassador in Turkey, Franz von Papen, who had been the German Chancellor.

This book is, of course, one person's account. Von Papen suggests in an annexe to the book that there is more to the story, although he confirms the main facts. Cicero was subsequently identified as Elyesa Bazna, and he wrote his own account in 1962. He was never caught by the British, leaving the embassy in April 1944 when the British recognised that the embassy was the source of the leaks. He lived in Turkey after the war and later moved to Munich. He died in Germany in 1970, aged 66. 

They say treachery never pays, and in this case, they may be right. Most the money he was paid was in counterfeit Sterling and he spent a short time in a Turkish prison as a consequence. He tried unsuccessfully to get the West German government to reimburse him in the 1960's!

This is an interesting story that tells us a bit about Turkey in WW2 and the way German intelligence services operated. 

A film based on this book was released in 1952. It was titled 5 Fingers and Bazna, renamed Ulysses Diello, was played by James Mason. I haven't watched it yet,(it's on YouTube) and it was nominated for two Academy Awards.

Monday 22 July 2019

Special Operations Europe

These are the wartime memoirs of Basil Davidson, an SOE officer who operated in Northern Italy and Yugoslavia during WW2. It was published in 1980, but there are plenty of copies in the second hand market.

The strength of this account is the political context, both in the occupied territories and the internal wrangles in SOE. He is particularly critical of the support given to Mihajlovic's chetniks, long after it was clear that the only effective resistance in Yugoslavia was Tito's partisans. As he puts it, in 1942 the plan was to;

"refuse all aid, or give as little as might be consistent with the overall aim of helping resistance, to any movements that were not in favour of kings and governments in exile. Another aspect of this first answer was to boost the importance, or if necessary invent the importance, of any movements that were in favour."

In essence, right wing resistance accepted orders from the British, whereas left wing groups were less likely to. The problem was that the politics of armed resistance becomes the politics of radical democracy and the communists were doing the serious fighting in comparison to the inaction, or active collaboration, of conservative groups.

This radicalism was also present in the British army. In November 1943, the education department established a mock parliament in Cairo. It quickly elected a large majority of Labour 'MPs' and passed 'bills' restricting inheritance and the nationalisation of the banks. It was quickly shut down!

The author describes the operations he was involved in. Interestingly, this included areas that we don't normally associate with SOE operations. These include Liguria in northern Italy and the Vojvodina region of Yugoslavia. This was particularly challenging for the partisans as it is mostly plains.

The author's description of these operations is somewhat confusing. Some introduction, aims and objectives would have been helpful. Several chapters leap into an operational area, and the reader is left trying to pick up the thread of the story.

Overall, this is an interesting and different approach to the subject. A bit more structure would have made it a better read.

Partisan commander

Partisans around the campfire

Saturday 20 July 2019

Lord Edward's Archer

This book is the first in a new series by the prolific historical fiction writer, Griff Hosker. The setting is England in the reign of Henry III, the 13th century, which was dominated by the Barons Wars.

Our hero, Gruffyd, is a young archer serving in a small border castle guarding Chester against Welsh raids. This is strictly speaking the pre-longbow period, but Welsh archers were the basis for the later dominance of medieval English armies. He quickly learns his trade, but after his father is killed by his Lord, he kills him in revenge. Forced to flee, he lives briefly as an outlaw. This includes Sherwood Forest, but thankfully, no Robin Hood. Instead we get a more realistic depiction of the life of an outlaw.

He travels to France and is recruited into the retinue of Lord (Prince) Edward, currently estranged from his father Henry III. This is the future Edward I. He, rather too quickly, becomes Edward's Captain of Archers under the assumed name of Gerald. After small actions in France, they return to England and a short campaign in North Wales. Prince Edward, somewhat too pragmatically for the period, pardons him for the earlier murder.

Edward is now reconciled with his father as the Barons War is reignited. Our hero is raiding the lands of Simon de Montfort's allies in the Midland's that culminates in the capture of Northampton. The next book in the series will cover the Battle of Lewes and Edward's victory at Evesham. A battlefield worth visiting by the way.

This book has everything you would expect from this genre. Strong, if slightly flawed characters, plenty of action and keeps fairly close to history. This is also an interesting period. You do have to suspend a degree of credulity at times, but this is fiction. Well written and I will certainly indulge in the rest of the series.

There are plenty of good scenarios here for wargamers. Lion Rampant is ideal for the small battles depicted in the book and my archers will get an table top outing on the back of this inspiration.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

SPQR Miniatures Game

Warlord's new ancient warband rules have arrived, together with a couple of nice miniatures. In addition to the advertised figure, you get a Kenneth Williams version of Julius Caesar.

This looks like the Warlord response to the popularity of games like Lion Rampant. Hail Caesar is an excellent game, but it does require a large number of miniatures, which can be offputting to new entrants to the period.

It is more a small battle set in the Lion Rampant mode, rather than a skirmish set. Troops are organised into units and the setting is ancients rather than Dark Ages or Medieval. Army lists cover all the main ancient armies from Greece to Rome, with all their enemies.

The book is well laid out, with plenty of eye candy as you would expect and diagrams to explain certain rules. Some worked examples would have helped, but I see there is a video to watch, which might do the job. The basic rules cover very few pages and you are encouraged to play the basic game before moving on to the advanced rules and special weapons and equipment. There is also a campaign system and a number of scenarios.

I decided to play the introductory game, Romans v Gauls. The five-man Romans looked pretty outnumbered by 20 Gaul skirmishers, but they won easily. Their armour and large shield give them a lot of protection against shooting and in melee, they are pretty deadly.

Each model has a line of characteristics covering the obvious factors like movement, shooting, melee, armour, morale etc. Basic troops are called minions, and you can also buy heroes. With weapons and equipment having lots of special rules, you have to keep flicking back and forwards through the book, which slows the game. Not to mention the likelihood of missing something. The QRF at the back is only a partial reference, although I am sure someone will quickly produce a proper one. With this approach to rules, I find it helpful to write out special rules in the army list. Saves a lot of time when playing the game.

The basic rules are pretty straightforward with each unit getting two moves a phase on an IGUG basis. Dicing for who goes first is every move, which opens up some tactical opportunities, or not, as in the case of my Gauls, who could have done with some room to skirmish.

Shooting and melee are done using one or more dice per model, with some basic factors for range and cover, and then other factors for weapons and equipment and then armour saves. Larger units get a bonus and are more resilient as a unit that falls to quarter strength has to take a morale check.

That's about it. My first reaction is that this feels a bit more complicated than Lion Rampant but in fairness, I have only played the introductory game. My 28mm ancients don't get enough use so I will persevere.

The introductory scenario

Once in contact, the Romans make short work of these bowmen.

The Romans lost one model to shooting all game. Four was still enough to see off the second unit of Gauls.
I was also using my new battle mat for 28mm To The Strongest. Very pleased with this mousemat from Deep Cut Studios,. The squares have a very fine line.

Monday 15 July 2019

Armies of Russia's War in Ukraine

The latest in the Osprey Elite series is Mark Galeotti's study of the armed forces engaged in the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region in particular.

The conflict started in March 2014 when the Russians occupied the Crimea. This is a largely ethnic Russian area, controversially transferred to Ukraine in the Soviet period, and they played to significant local discontent with Ukraine.

The takeover was achieved with very little difficulty and this encouraged the Russians to try a similar action in the Donbas region. The aim here was not to incorporate the region into Russia, but rather to destabilise Ukraine and pressure them to stay in the Russian sphere of influence. This has been a singular failure and the Russians have been drawn into an expensive long term conflict that shows no sign of a resolution.

The main chapters cover the main armed groups. The Rebels and Russian regular forces are in the main organised into Battalion Tactical Groups that are heavy on support weapons. Regular Russian artillery has been particularly effective in supporting these units. Drones are used as artillery spotters, but the Russian air force has not deployed in significant numbers. Partly because Ukraine has modern SAM capability as well as allowing Moscow to maintain the fiction that this is simply a local rebellion. Some 42,000 Russian troops were rotated through the region in 2014, a very significant commitment for the volunteer elements of the Russian army. Conscripts can only serve if they volunteer, as no war has been formally declared.

The Ukrainian forces are split between militias and the regular forces. The militias were largely crowdfunded and include some neo-Nazi elements, although most of these have now been incorporated into the National Guard. Regular forces still reflect their Soviet legacy, but have been reorganised and are starting to be re-equipped with western weapons and kit.

The irony is that neither side really wants the Donbas. It is war ravaged and awash with weapons and criminal elements. However, neither side can abandon it for political reasons.

This is a useful book for wargamers with organisational tables and equipment lists as well as colour plates for the primary units. The militias come in a variety of uniforms and generic east European models are available in most scales. My modern Russians in 20mm will work well for this conflict.

Friday 12 July 2019

Deception in WW2

There is a bit of a theme in the books I have taken away with me on my summer holiday. They tell us about a different aspect of the Second World War. The subterfuge that accompanied many operations to mislead the enemy. Charles Cruickshank's 1979 book, 'Deception in World War II', gives an overview of many operations that played no small part in winning the war. They didn't all work, but many like 'Operation Mincemeat' did bring measurable results.

A deceptive operation embodies all the signs of a real assault. It makes the enemy believe that pretended hostile activities are genuine. It induces a false sense of danger in one area, forcing him to strengthen his defences there, and therefore to weaken them somewhere else where the real attack is due. A deceptive plan can involve many thousands of actual troops, dummy soldiers and equipment, false radio traffic, air raids, reconnaissance missions, partisan operations, diplomats and the use of double agents. They require meticulous planning because just one slip can reveal the deception.

The author studied a wide range of operations from the desert war to D-Day in 1944. Some are tactical deceptions, deployed by army commanders. Others are strategic deceptions, which aimed to convince the Axis that an invasion was going to happen somewhere else.

The British were the main adopters of deception. The Germans consistently overestimated the British order of battle throughout the war. The Americans were sceptical until later the war when they had seen the practical results. The Germans made some use of deception in their offensive operations, in Poland, and most successfully in Operation Barbarossa. However, by the end of 1942, they were on the defensive and had less use for the technique. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was a highly successful deception, but again after that, they were on the defensive.

I was of course particularly interested in the deception operations that involved the Balkans. I have already covered the 1943 Operation Barclay plan to simulate an attack on the Balkans rather than Sicily, of which Operation Mincemeat was just one part. In 1944, the Balkans were again used to distract the Germans from the beaches of Normandy.

This was Operation Zeppelin, which involved attacks on the Peloponnese, Crete and Albania. This time involving a beefed up 12th Army, which included five real divisions, three brigades masquerading as divisions and four fictitious divisions. The main base was Tobruk, which had real and dummy landing craft.

Efforts were also made to get Turkey to join the war, or at least convince the Germans and the Bulgarians that this was a possibility. Operation Hardihood, a 1943 plan to provide substantial military aid to Turkey was dusted down, but in the end, existing German apprehensions were enough.

Probably the best known deception plan of the war was Fortitude. This involved General Patton's fictitious army group in Kent, which was intended to convince the Germans that Calais was the main landing on D-Day with Normandy simply a diversion. This was very successful, although even modest German reconnaissance would have undone the deception.

Norway was used on several occasions for deception operations, tying down German divisions. Perhaps less well known was a plan to invade Spain. I wasn't aware that the Chiefs of Staff gave serious consideration to invading Europe via Spain in 1943. The Pyrenees might have been a bit of a problem, but I suppose Wellington managed it!

One reason for British success in deception was the use of around 120 double agents in Britain who fed duff information to the Germans throughout the war. They also had the benefit of Ultra which confirmed, or otherwise, the success on deception operations. It is important to recognise that not all operations were successful. There was also significant resistance to using real assets in support of these operations - not least from Bomber Harris.

Overall, they played an important role, particularly in Operation Overlord. The deceptionists were the second class citizens of the armed forces, making use of limited resources. They deserve some credit, and this book at least highlights their part in winning WW2.

This is the aerial view of Lydda airfield before and after camouflage.

Thursday 11 July 2019

Storm of Steel

My bedtime reading for the last two weeks has been the latest in Matthew Harffy's Bernica Chronicles, 'Storm of Steel'.

This series is set in 7th century Britain. The Romans have gone, the Saxons are raiding and Britain, along with most of Western Europe, is split into small states. This is historical fiction in the Bernard Cornwell style, in which our hero, Beobrand is a minor lord in Northumbria.

In something of a departure, this book takes place largely at sea and far from Northumbria. Beobrand is tasked with escorting the Northumbrian king's new bride from Cantware (modern Kent). He fights off Saxon pirates en-route and meets up with the new Queen and old friends and enemies. He discovers that he has a daughter from a one night stand (I do like flawed heroes!) who has been sold by her 'father' to the very same Saxon pirates - led by Grimr Kamban. Great name, liberated from a Faroe Islands saga.

They are taking her to a Frankish lord in Rodomo (Rouen), who has a taste for young virgins. Sex trafficking is a huge problem today with about two million children exploited every year. However, as the author points out in his historical note, it was likely to be just as great in the Dark Ages, without any legislation and with slavery being a common practice.

Our hero decides to chase after the pirates and rescue his daughter. I won't spoil the story, but there are epic sea journeys and many battles in the finest tradition of this genre.

I have enjoyed all Matthew Harffy's books and this is no exception. This is a good period for historical fiction author's as the historical sources are scarce. However, he has clearly done some serious research to create a credible setting. Most importantly, it is a cracking read!

The pirate captain has a distinctive helmet, which reminded me of my visit to see this much more sophisticated version in the British Museum, part of the Sutton Hoo treasures.

And let's have some Saxon wargames figures, albeit slightly later warriors from my 28mm army.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Operation Mincemeat

My summer holiday reading has been Ben Macintyre's book, 'Operation Mincemeat' - a deception plan to convince the Germans that Sicily was not the real invasion plan in July 1943.

In essence, they took a dead body, created a military persona for him and dropped the body off the Spanish coast with a private letter between two senior British generals for the Germans to find. The basic story is told in the 1956 film 'The Man Who Never Was' The book provides much more detail, not only about the deception itself but also how the letters reached the Germans and how the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, including Hitler, handled the information.

My primary interest in this story is the part it played in the wider Operation Barclay, which aimed to convince the Germans that the allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia as a jumping off ground for an invasion of Europe through the Balkans and Southern France. Churchill was a big fan of attacking Europe through the 'soft underbelly' and Hitler, remembering the Salonika Campaign of WW1, expected such a move. Unlike his generals, he was focused on the consequences of losing most of his oil and other war raw materials, which came from the Balkans.

The plan was to use the fictitious 12th Army commanded by General Henry Wilson to attack Crete and the Peloponnese. The 5th Division would attack Cape Araxos, while the 56th Division would capture the major port city of Kalamata in the western Peloponnese. This would draw units away from Sicily and spread resources across a broad front. It would also help the Russians, who were preparing for the Kursk battle. 

The deception plan was very challenging because the Germans rightly thought Sicily was the most likely target. They also expected a deception operation. As one intelligence historian put it, "It is very unusual and very difficult for deception to create new concepts for an enemy. It is much easier and more effective to reinforce those which already exist."

The 12th Army assembled at Cyrenaica in Libya had an array of dummy landing craft, gliders and tanks as well as actual AA batteries and fighter cover. Greek troops practised amphibious landings in Egypt, along with a call for Greek speakers, leaflets on 'hygiene in the Balkans' and much more. Nearer the time in July, Operation Waterfall, stepped up its operations including landings on the Greek coast and real sabotage operations by the Greek resistance, codenamed 'Animals'. 

The principal German intelligence analyst was Baron Von Roenne. Hitler trusted his judgement without knowing that he was a committed anti-Nazi, later executed for his role in the Stauffenberg plot. We will never know if he deliberately ignored the several inconsistencies in the Operation Mincemeat deception, but it seems likely. Either way, once Hitler accepted the evidence, the rest of the hierarchy went along. Ultra and other intercepts confirmed that the Germans expected landings in the East and West Mediterranean, with a dummy attack on Sicily.

The Germans shifted the 1st Panzer Division from France to the Peloponnese. This was a recently reequipped division with 83 tanks and veteran troops. They were being moved across Europe to counter an illusion. More importantly, they were not in Sicily, which had only two German divisions and limited supplies. At the critical moment of the Kursk battle in July, two more panzer divisions were placed on alert to go to the Balkans. Torpedo boat squadrons were shifted to the Aegean, new shore batteries installed along with minefields. The total number of German divisions in the Balkans was increased from 8 to 18, while in Greece they increased from one to eight.

Very few wartime deception operations have been as successful as Operation Mincemeat. This book has the benefit of access to most of the materials and is not constrained by the secrecy requirements imposed on the earlier authors. It is also a story of how a small group of British intelligence officers battled their hierarchy to get the plan operational and how the Germans bought it.