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

Wednesday 25 September 2019

The Trieste Crisis 1953

No, that isn't a typo, it is 1953. Many people will be familiar with the race for Trieste at the end of the Second World War. However, this new book by Bojan Dimitrijevic covers the later crisis, when Yugoslav and Italian troops faced up to each on the border around the disputed city.

The earlier crisis is well covered in Geoffrey Cox's book, 'The Race for Trieste' (Kimber 1977). Cox was there with the 2nd New Zealand Division, which advanced from near Ravenna, past Venice, to reach Trieste before Tito's partisans could occupy all of the city. This led to an uncomfortable stand off and eventually a deal that split the area into occupation zones. It's a bit of a simplification, but in essence, the city was largely Italian and the surrounding area was largely Yugoslav.

Christian Jennings has written a more recent study, 'Flashpoint Trieste' that I reviewed recently.

This new book is very much a military history. The political and diplomatic background is outlined, along with the 1945 crisis and the establishment of the Free Territory of Trieste in 1947. The significant point being that when Tito split with Stalin in 1948, NATO had hopes of bringing Yugoslavia into the Alliance as a bulwark against a Soviet Advance from Hungary into Italy.

This resulted in significant military equipment being supplied to Yugoslavia under the Mutual Assistance Pact. This included 281 Sherman tanks, 97 M47 Patton tanks, and an array of SPGs and armoured cars. The air force was supplied with WW2 Thunderbolt fighters and Mosquito recce aircraft, as well as modern jets in the form of the F-84 Thunderjet.

Of course the Italian armed forces had received similar equipment as a member of NATO. The plan was use them to defend against the Soviets, not against each other!

The crisis started following the election of an unstable Italian government in mid-1953. They argued that Yugoslavia was about to occupy Zone B of the Free Territory, so Italian troops concentrated around the largely Italian Zone A. British and US troops were in the sandwich. There were a number of border incidents, which added to the tensions. Eventually, a diplomatic solution was agreed and the Free Territory was divided up, largely on ethnic grounds, in a settlement that stands to this day.

The author has undertaken a significant piece of research into the units that were mobilised and how effectively they responded. The focus is on the Yugoslav troops, but the Italian side is not ignored. A shooting war would have involved a couple of Corps on each side and these are all listed with detailed ORBATs and equipment schedules. The book is profusely illustrated with period photos and some very fine Tom Cooper colour plates. In particular, it is very strange to see Yugoslav infantry units in German WW2 helmets.

It certainly has everything the wargamer could want to game an interesting, 'what-if', Cold War confrontation in Europe.

Friday 20 September 2019

Prince Lajos Windischgraetz

Prince Lajos Windischgraetz was a Hungarian magnate who witnessed many of the great events in the Habsburg Monarchy before and during the First World War and the early years of the inter-war Hungarian state. His memoirs offer a fascinating first-hand account of his involvement in those events.

He was born in 1882, in the Polish city of Cracow, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was Inspector-General of the army and his grandfather played a key role in the 1848 revolution. Unsurprisingly, the young Prince studied at the Military Academy at Vienna and was commissioned into the artillery. His description of the multi-race and language unit he was assigned to gives a clear impression of the challenges the army faced.

He was attached to the army's official observer at the Russo-Japanese War and en-route met the infamous Chinese Empress Dowager. He managed to get attached to a Russian cavalry corps and was 'captured' by the Japanese after Mukden. He was presented to the Mikado on the way home as well as President Roosevelt in the USA and then Edward VII at Windsor. At this stage I had to check that this was not fiction!

Back home in 1906, he transferred to the 16th Hussars, and by a quirk of the legislation, was also able to be a Deputy in the Hungarian Parliament. He championed army reform and describes the efforts to modernise the army prior to WW1.

My 28mm Austro-Hungarian Hussars
His honeymoon involved a safari in the Sudan where he met Slatin Pasha and Winston Churchill. On his return to duty, as you do, he did a bit of spying in Serbia. Then he was attached to the Bulgarian army in the Balkan Wars, operating in the Maritza Valley.

During WW1 he was a staff officer, serving in the Serbian and Galician campaigns. Later he did a bit more undercover work in Romania, prior to that campaign. He met Mustapha Kemal at Gallipoli and then was off to Dalmatia to liaise with Achmed Bey Zog, who was subsequently to become King of Albania. As the war drew to a conclusion he was the Hungarian Minister of Food and he describes to collapse of the dual monarchy in 1918.

All of that is just Part One of his memoirs, and frankly the best part. In Part 2 he largely covers his involvement in the forgery of French Francs by the new Hungarian state, for which he was imprisoned, albeit a very comfortable prison regime!

The final part jumps to WW2, during which he had some vague role in Hungarian affairs. He was present in Budapest when the Germans arrived to beef up the defences against the advancing Russians.

After the war he worked for the Argentine Government and when that contract collapsed he worked as a labourer in the Buenos Aires docks, aged 66. That was his final adventure before returning to his daughter's home in Geneva. Although he worked as a consultant to the French steel industry in the 1950's and then retired to Vienna when his wife managed to leave Hungary. He completed his memoirs in 1962.

You would have to say he lived an eventful life! The translation into English condenses his three volume memoirs into one, and I suspect they are all the better for that. You do need a bit of knowledge of the historical events to plug the gaps, but it is still a very good read.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

The interpreter - Colonel Eugen Dollmann

SS Colonel Eugen Dollmann was the Rome based interpreter who linked together the German-Italian axis during the Second World War. He was present at most of the key meetings between Hitler and Mussolini as well as many other high-level gatherings. His memoirs should, therefore, give some insight into this unequal relationship.

Sadly, the primary insight you get from these memoirs is into the personality of Dollmann himself. As Michael Salter puts it, Dollmann was a "self serving opportunist who prostituted himself to fascism'. Even more ironic, he was a closet homosexual serving a regime that sent gay men to the gas chambers in their thousands.

I had hoped his memoirs might add to my understanding of key meetings between Hitler and Mussolini, such as the Brenner Pass meeting in March 1940. Instead of the meeting itself, we get the author's observations of the participants and snippets of gossip. Mussolini's reluctance to go to war in March 1940 is summed up in this quote from the meeting. "The Duce, who had found his tongue again, pointed to the heavy snowflakes and declared that he would need snow as far south as Etna if he were ever to turn his Italians into a race of warriors."

Instead of strategic decisions, we are told that Eva Braun loved crocodile.

That's not to say that the stories he tells are not entertaining. For example, Heydrich when visiting Rome acted out his sexual fantasy of throwing gold coins around a room of naked hookers. Dollmann was a pimp as well.

A fair number of his observations are clearly written with the benefit of hindsight. He also puts himself at the centre of events, not just as a translator. In fairness, he clearly did have a wider role, but probably not quite as wide as he claimed. For example, he claimed to have a key role in organising the Italian 'M' Division, a sort of Italian Leibstandarte. Given he had no military experience this can at best have been a liaison role. Although, I hadn't realised this unit included 36 Tiger tanks. One can only imagine what the German instructors thought about this use of key assets in 1943.

There are a few gems in this book, which is at least entertaining. As the historian Dennis Showalter puts it; "His insider's perspective may be embellished, but is never tedious".

Sunday 15 September 2019

Boer War battlefields

Yesterday I moved on twenty years or so historically and visited some of the Boer War battlefields.

Starting with Talana Hill in Dundee. Entertainingly, the museum receptionist explained that it was named after 'a small town in Scotland'. This was an early battle of the war when the Boers, under General Lucas Meyer, occupied the hill just outside Dundee. The British led by Major-General Penn attacked the hill and drove them off, albeit with heavy casualties.

This is the view of the hill from where the British troops started a firefight with the Boers.

This is the cemetery with the hill in the background.

There are a wide variety of exhibits about the area in the various parts of the museum. This was an important coal mining area. This captured Krupp gun sits outside the WW1 section.

 After Dundee, I moved on to Ladysmith. I went past Elandslaagte, an interesting small scale British win, but time was pressing.

The siege of Ladysmith was one of several epic sieges during the Boer War. The town should have been abandoned because its relief forced the main field army to attack the Boers on the Tugela River. This led to huge casualties at Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaalkrans.

The town remembers the siege with signs to all the key areas and a nice walkabout guide. Sadly, largely built over and it is difficult to envisage what it looked like in 1899 under the modern town. However, there is an interesting museum full of stories about the siege and exhibits.

Outside is the famous 'Long Tom' gun the Boers used to shell the town.

And one of the British guns.

Finally, just time for one last battlefield. It had to be Spion Kop. You can drive to the top via another very bad road. Having had one puncture at Rorke's Drift, there was no scope for another!

Buller had failed to break the Boer line on the Tugela River at Colenso, so he moved upriver in an attempt to outflank them. A small British force (1700 men) used a surprise night attack to seize the summit of Spion Kop. They drove off the Boer garrison and entrenched. At daylight, they realised they had picked a poor position and the Boer counterattack, supported by artillery causing heavy casualties. Both sides withdrew, but the Boers reoccupied the hill the following day.

This is the main British monument.

The British dead were buried in their trenches, hence the unusual layout.

This is the Boer memorial.

This is taken from the forward British positions, down to what is today the Spion Kop dam. The Drakensberg mountains are in the haze behind.

And this is the view to the north and Boer held territory.

I spent the night at Pietermaritzburg. This morning I had a look around the town centre which has several monuments to the local colonial troops who died in these wars.

The museum has the most amazing collection of stuffed animals and much else. Its WW1 section has this recruitment poster. Our Advertising Standards Authority might have had something to say about this!

The long journey home now. A very interesting trip and all those figures waiting to be painted!

Saturday 14 September 2019

Anglo-Zulu War 1879

I spent today touring the battlefields of the early part of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

This morning we followed Chelmsford's invasion route over the Buffalo River to his first encampment at Isandlwana. He then split his force and continued the advance towards the Zulu capital at Ulundi, without fortifying the encampment or leaving an adequate garrison. The Zulus by-passed him and attacked the camp killing almost every soldier and civilian left behind.

My first impression of the battlefield was that the mountain of Isandlwana was smaller than I thought. However, the British firing line was even longer and more exposed than I had appreciated.

This is the battlefield from the initial Zulu position. The British camp is the black area to the left of the mountain. Although the firing line went as far out as the buildings you can see closest to the camp.

This is where the Zulu commander directed the battle. Interestingly, our Zulu guide pointed out that the battle was nearly lost after the first Zulu attack faltered.

This is the main memorial with the mountain in the background.

This monument that marks Durnford's last stand.

The battlefield is full of cairns marking the dead, which makes this battlefield very distinctive.

In the afternoon, I went to Rorke's Drift. The Michael Caine film, Zulu, probably brought this battle into modern public consciousness. While it has major inaccuracies, not least the portrayal of Private Hook (he was teetotal), it is still a great piece of cinema.

Below is the rebuilt hospital building to largely similar design, where the famous evacuation took place at the height of the battle.

The rebuilt church is larger than the original but on the same spot.

The stones mark the final, final redoubt. I was shocked to see how small it was.

The British cemetery.

The more modern Zulu memorial. Not an approved one because the Zulu attack on Rorke's Drift was forbidden by the King. It's a Leopard on shields.

And finally, the mass Zulu grave.

Absolutely fascinating, and very unique battlefield. Brought to life by an excellent guide from Fugitives Drift, which I would highly recommend as a place to stay.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Cape Town

I am in Cape Town for a work conference and escaped for an hour or two to visit the military history sights.

The Castle of Good Hope was built by the Dutch to protect their colony and base in Cape Town. It would have been nearer the sea in those days. It's a fairly traditional star fort design.

This is a model of the original.

There is a gallery of pictures including paintings of local troops recruited by the Dutch and their wars.

Inside the castle, there is a military history museum. One of the volunteers was a wargamer painting 20mm WW2 figures. Apparently, there is an active wargaming community in the city.

There is always a Highlander! These are the Cape Town Highlanders, in Gordon tartan.

In the square outside the castle, there is a Boer War memorial.

And finally, down at the waterfront, they have been restoring one of the many gun batteries. With a nice museum to explain it all.

Needless to say, I have more pictures. If you have a particular interest in this period let me know.

Next stop, Zulu Wars!

Sunday 8 September 2019

Zulu Kings and their Armies

Like most wargamers, my understanding of the Zulu army doesn't extend much before or past the 1879 Zulu War. This book by Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell takes us from the early days of Shaka kaSenzangakhona to the last true Zulu king who died in 1913. Although the Zulu remains a numerous force in modern South Africa with around eight million Zulu speakers.

The book starts with an outline of warfare in southern Africa at the start of the nineteenth century. Shaka turned a tiny tribe into an empire with a new form of warfare that incorporated his defeated enemies into the Zulu way of life. This included new weaponry, including the assegai, a short stabbing spear that largely replaced throwing spears. His battlefield tactics based on the head and the horns of a bull, with reserves in the loins, also relied on rapid movement to outmanoeuvre an enemy.

The regimental system also provided  trained and better disciplined forces than his opponents. At its height, some 40,000 to 50,000 troops could be mustered. They were organised by age rather than tribe, in part-time units required to serve from the age of eighteen.

The arrival of white settlers, Boer and British, brought firearms to warfare in southern Africa, something the Zulus never mastered. The defeat by the Boers at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, led to a civil war and further loss of land.

I have covered the 1879 war in my review of Saul David's book. However, that wasn't the end of the story. The British divided the kingdom up and ended the regimental system, but a restoration of sorts gave the Zulu a continuing role. They fought with the British in the Boer War, and parts of the nation were still rebelling against the poll tax right until the end.

This book is a chronological study of the kings and the events during their respective lifetimes. Each major battle gets more detailed treatment along with clear maps. The Zulu army was a formidable force for more than century, but British and Boer weaponry proved too powerful in the end.

My painting table is currently straining under the weight of 240 Zulu figures. A task I will leave until I return from my trip to South Africa next week!

Monday 2 September 2019

Battle of Majuba Hill

My latest pre-South Africa trip reading covers John Laband's book on the Transvaal Campaign of 1880-81, often called the First Boer War, which fizzled out after the Battle of Majuba Hill.

 Britain had annexed the Transvaal in 1877, with only modest protest due to the sate of the territory following Boer-Pedi War of 1876-77. However, initial British reverses in the Cape Frontier War, Anglo-Pedi War and then the Anglo-Zulu War did not inspire confidence. Boer agitation grew and colonial officials were alarmed at the solidarity being shown by the Orange Free State and Boers in the Cape Colony. The election of Gladstone and the Liberals in the 1880 election gave the Boers hope because of Liberal opposition to the Tory policy of creating a confederation of South African states - the white governed ones at least.

On 16 December 1880, a large gathering of Boers proclaimed the independence of the Transvaal and besieged small British garrisons spread across the state. A belated attempt to concentrate forces at Pretoria was undermined by the ambushing of Colonel Anstruther's column at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December.

To relieve the garrisons, the Natal Field Force was established by Major-General Colley. This was a cobbled-together force with insufficient cavalry and mounted infantry to take on the mobile Boer commandos. None the less he proceeded to the border where Boer forces had dug in on the pass at Laing's Nek. A disjointed attack was repulsed, forcing the British back to their camp at Mount Prospect.

Colley then tried a flanking move, by capturing Majuba Hill which overlooked the pass. He did this without waiting for the reinforcements being assembled in the Cape by Sir Evelyn Wood. The Boers quickly surrounded his position and the British were forced to retreat. Colley died in the battle.

This was pretty much par for the course in colonial campaigns. Initial incompetence and defeats followed up by bringing overwhelming force to bear. The troops to carry this out were arriving in South Africa, but Gladstone's government favoured a peaceful solution. The compromise was an independent Transvaal under British suzerainty. Needless to say, this didn't resolve the internal issues inside the Transvaal or the imperialists desire to create a confederation. These all kicked off again in the Second Boer War.

John Laband has written a concise and very readable study of the campaign and the forces involved. It is well illustrated with period photos and clear maps. Published by Helion, it is well worth a read. For wargamers, the Boer forces for the later campaign are pretty similar, at least in smaller scales. The British would still be in Zulu War redcoats, although the arriving reinforcements from India had started to adopt Khaki.