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.