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 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.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Siege of Sevastopol 1941-42

Not a new book, but I recently picked up a copy of this Concord publication on the German siege of Sevastopol in 1941-42, by Hans Seidler.

In September 1941, General Erich von Manstein was tasked with invading the Crimea and capturing the Soviet naval base at Sevastopol. He had two corps, totally seven divisions, supported by three Romanian divisions. The Soviets defended the city with elements from the Black Sea Fleet and the Coastal Army under Petrov. The city garrison had 19 marine battalions, one brigade and three regiments of infantry, later reinforced from Odessa and Kerch.

Manstein tried a quick storming of the city after his Crimean breakthrough, but this attack failed and both sides settled down for a siege. He brought up heavy artillery and tried several large scale assaults, but the fortifications held. The bombardment by land and air continued into the summer months and the Germans finally breached the outer defences in June, before the fortress collapsed on 9 July. Some 90,000 Soviet troops were captured.

After a short introduction, this book includes dozens of period photos. They cover a wide range of units and equipment, mostly German, but also destroyed and captured Soviet troops and kit. They include a rare glimpse of the super heavy rail guns used during the siege. In addition, there are four colour plates by Dmitry Zgonnik of German troops during the campaign.

Soviet naval riflemen from my collection in 15mm

Sunday 6 October 2019

Mutiny in the Peloponnese

This is a short supplement to my recent reviews of new books on the Dodecanese campaign of 1943.

After the failure of the 1943 campaign, no further efforts were made to capture the islands, other than raids and some resistance activity. Churchill’s indirect strategy of attacking the Balkans was largely relegated to deception and SOE operations.

While researching these operations in the National Archives, I came across a memo from Middle East command in April 1944 regarding a possible German garrison mutiny. Even this late in the war, I haven’t seen accounts of German morale resulting in an approach to the Allied forces to mutiny.

The memo reports that a liaison officer operating in the Amalias area of the north-west Peloponnese was approached by a private from the German 999 Fortress Regiment. He indicated that in the right circumstances, his battalion would be prepared to mutiny.

Fortress regiments were static, lightly equipped units, often with older or less reliable troops. It appears that this private was the leader of a communist element in his battalion and he had been a political prisoner for five years. There was an underground communist organisation in Germany throughout the Nazi era, but it was weak and had a limited infrastructure.

The memo suggests that the successful mutiny of a battalion might encourage others in the Peloponnese and the islands to follow suit. The exception was Crete and Rhodes, which included high quality German troops. The memo was clear that they needed whole units to mutiny, as the Allies had limited means of dealing with individual desertions.

The plan was to support any mutinies in place, or evacuate them to Zante, which could then be held against counter-attacks. There was a concern that German reprisals would limit the spread of mutinies. Apart from the propaganda benefits, it was hoped that such mutinies would draw more good quality troops into the Balkans and away from the second front in Europe that was only months away.

That’s the end of the story in the memo, but I understand it was developed into an SOE Force 133 operation codenamed ’Kitchenmaid’. Perhaps not the most inspiring of names and therefore not surprising that it didn’t succeed. However, Bernard O’Connor in his book ‘Sabotage in Greece’ claims that SOE did encourage a number of desertions. James Crossland looks at the planned operation in a wider context in an article in the journal ‘Intelligence and National Security’.

For wargamers, the defence of Zante, with German and Allied troops fighting together would certainly be a different scenario. Unlike the Leros campaign, the Allies could have supported Zante from the sea and air, from nearby bases in Italy.

Allied wartime map of the Peloponnese from the National Archives.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Hitler's Island War - The Dodecanese

We have two new books on the German conquest of the Dodecanese in 1943. Anthony Rogers has written a straightforward military history in his Osprey Campaign series account, 'Kos and Leros 1943'. While Julie Peakman has added some colour with her extensive use of first hand accounts, in 'Hitler's Island War: The Men Who Fought for Leros'.

The Dodecanese, confusingly consist of not 12, but 14 islands in the south-east Aegean. The population is largely Greek, but in 1939 they were occupied by Italy following the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. By 1943 they were mainly garrisoned by Italian troops, with the addition of German garrisons on the larger islands like Rhodes. There was also a large German garrison on nearby Crete.

As the Axis was forced out of North Africa, followed by the invasion of Italy, Allied planners attention turned to the Aegean. The occupation of these islands might help efforts to get Turkey to join the war and provide air and naval bases for attacks on the Balkans. Churchill, always the champion of attacking Germany from the 'soft underbelly', favoured such an approach. However, the Americans were less than enthusiastic, viewing the strategy as a a distraction from the Italian campaign and the direct invasion of Europe.

In July 1943, Mussolini was ousted and Badoglio's new government surrendered to the Allies. The Germans responded quickly by seizing control of Rhodes, the key island with its airfields. Hitler refused to abandon the Dodecanese because of the strategic importance of the Balkans to the German war effort.

Despite this setback, the British decided to garrison Kos and Leros. Kos had an airfield and Leros a decent port. However, only one infantry Brigade was available and the islands were too far away for adequate air and naval cover. The Germans launched an invasion which overran Kos in only two days. Leros held out for longer,  but it also surrendered with some 3000 British and 5,300 Italian prisoners.

It is hard not to agree with Private Sid Bowden that the Leros campaign was 'One big cock-up, right from beginning to end'. An expedition which could not be effectively reinforced by sea or protected from the air, was probably doomed to failure. The nearest air bases where 450 miles away in Alexandria and Cyprus. Naval ships had to return to base to refuel after two nights in Aegean at the most.

Other failures included, inadequate AA guns, unjustified assumptions of Italian support and poor communications. The fortress commander, Tilney, was an artillery officer with no experience of infantry warfare. His strategy of defending the island perimeter was too ambitious for the limited number of troops at his disposal.

As for the books. The Osprey Campaign book is as usual profusely illustrated with period photos, supplemented by colour plates and battle maps. The campaign maps do miss out key features, which can make following the text on them difficult. It isn't easy to write a narrative of operational warfare, and the text is a little hard going in places.

Julie Peakman gets around this with the extensive use of letters, interviews, diaries and oral accounts. The result is a very readable book. If you read the Osprey book first, Peakman's narrative adds much to the story.

For the wargamer, this campaign offers plenty of options, from small scale actions for the key hills on the island, to small ship action around the coasts. I am currently playing quite a bit of 'Cruel Seas', and this campaign offers a number of scenarios. I have just painted up some German Pi boats, which were used to ferry troops to Leros. A number of these were sunk by British naval forces and long-range air attacks.

Two Pi boats head for the Italian gun battery while the S-Boat fights off the Vosper and Higgins MTBs. Models from Warlord and Heroics & Ross