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 31 January 2020

The Ballard of John MacLea

The War of 1812 between the USA and Britain is often viewed as a footnote to the Napoleonic wars. It isn't well understood even in North America, although the fact Donald Trump thought (wrongly) that Canada burned down the White House, is perhaps not typical! Although an American did once tell me that it was Britain who invaded the USA in 1812.

The causes of the war were complex, but it was the USA that invaded the Canadian colonies. Some Americans thought Canada was properly part of the USA, but many more did not support the war party. Equally, many of those living in Canada had been Americans very recently and had divided loyalties.

These tensions are covered well in A.J. Mackenzie's, War of 1812 series of books. This is historical fiction, but the author keeps pretty close to the historical facts. The first in the series is 'The Ballard of John Maclea'. This covers the opening actions of the war up to the Battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October 1812.

This book tells the story from the Canadian side of the conflict. Our hero, John MacLea, is a Scot who had fought in the British army. He then emigrated to Canada and became a Captain in the militia. In 1812, the main British army was with Wellington in Spain and there were only two battalions of regulars in Canada. This meant that fencible and other militia units had to plug the gap.

The main storyline revolves around espionage in the run up to the first US invasion. I won't spoil the plot, but our hero is tasked with finding the spies who have infiltrated the militia. There are several skirmishes as well as the British capture of Detroit.

The main theatre of war in 1812 was on the Niagara River, either side of the famous waterfalls. The book concludes with the Battle of Queenston Heights when the British and Canadian militia repulsed a US landing. I had the pleasure of touring the battlefields, including Queenston, in 2018. There is an impressive statue of the British commander General Brock on the Heights, which reflects his wider role in preparing the colonies for the war, as he died early in the battle.

There are also statues and a monument to the role First Peoples, as Canadians today correctly describe the Indian allies of the British.

I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Cretan War on the tabletop

The Cretan War of 1645-71 was an epic struggle between Venice and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean trade routes. It started with the Ottoman invasion of Crete but quickly spread across the eastern Mediterranean. Bruno Mugnai's excellent book and its colour plates inspired me to look more closely at the campaign, along with a visit to the island last spring.

As is usual with wargamers, getting that inspiration onto the tabletop is another issue. I have plenty of Ottomans of the period and for the early stages of the campaign, Venetian and mercenary troops looked little different from Thirty Years War or ECW armies. However, this was a period of transition, and by the end of the war, soldiers looked very different.

A feature of Venetian recruitment was the use of mercenaries and volunteers from several parts of Europe. There is an excellent colour plate in the book of a French noble volunteer being assisted by his servant who reloaded the musket and joined him in battle. How civilised!

These recruits came in significant numbers. In September 1667 the Duke de la Feuillade recruited 600 volunteers for Crete from aristocrat families' cadets and Louis XIV's army. I have attempted to replicate these with North Star figures from their French range.

The largest number of troops still came from Italy. As this was largely a war of sieges, most notably Candia, grenadiers were important for both sides. These are Italian infantrymen, again from the North Star range.

On to the tabletop using Pikeman's Lament rules, which work very well for the many small scale actions.

By the way, talking about epic Ottoman sieges, don't miss the new Netflix series 'Rise of Empires: Ottomans'. Cracking docudrama of the siege of Constantinople 1453.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Lagertha and the shield maidens

Those watching the latest season of the TV series 'Vikings' will know that the number one shield maiden, Lagertha, has gone to Valhalla. I won't spoil the plot if you haven't caught up with the latest episode, but it's a good one, even if a bit drawn out at the end.

The story of Lagertha appears in the 12th-century Danish history by Saxo, although the modern view is that she is probably legendary - a composite of shieldmaiden characters. Saxo recounts:
"Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman."
According to the story, she married Ragnar Lodbrok, and that was a key element of the story in the TV series. Lagertha is played by Katheryn Winnick.

There is much academic debate on the subject of shield maidens. There is certainly some historical evidence that women fought in Viking societies, including the Rus. However, it is less clear if this was a regular feature of the society in the way it is portrayed in the sagas.

For the wargamer, who cares. No Viking army should be without a unit of shield maidens and so Lagertha will live on  - on my tabletop at least! 

I picked up these Bad Squiddo Games figures from Annie's stall a while ago. Well, almost a year if I am honest. Pretty sure it was at the York show, and I am off there next weekend. Lagertha comes in a mounted and dismounted version, along with a choice of companions.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Operation Castle

Over the holidays I was watching, for the ‘nth’ time, the film ‘Heroes of Telemark’ – the classic 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. It was based on a real WW2 operation to sabotage Norwegian heavy water production, which the Nazi’s needed for atomic bomb research. It reminded me of another planned raid I came across by accident in the National Archives last year.

This was Operation Castle, a plan to destroy the hydroelectric power station at Blaafjeldit near Jossingfjord in Norway. It powered a nearby Ilmenite mine, the sole German source of the mineral. It is the most important ore of titanium, today an important strategic alloy metal, but in the 1930’s it was widely used as titanium oxide in paint, fabrics etc. The British analysis was, ‘a commodity of some importance though not of great importance to Germany’s war effort.” 

The fiord is better known as the site of the Altmark incident in February 1940 when a British destroyer freed British prisoners captured by the Graf Spee. After this Norwegian patriots became known as Jossings, in opposition to the collaborator Quislings.

Even today, the site is pretty isolated and looks little different from 1941 as this Google Map shows.

There is one road around the fiord and a deep-water wharf, which in 1941 was used by the mine and power station. No coastal defences had been identified in the intelligence summary. The nearest troops were small detachments at Anasira, 4 miles away, and Rasvag, 10 miles away. There were 300 men at Flekkefiord (15miles) and 1200-1500 at Egersund (20 miles). The nearest airfield was Stavanger, about 50 miles away. Intelligence estimated that it would take reinforcements at least an hour to arrive and the roads could be easily blocked.

The plan was to attack on 17/18th January 1941 with 125 troops and a further 50 as a reserve. They would be landed by two destroyers, with a further destroyer covering and one submarine operating as a navigational mark.  Fighter air cover was limited to 150 miles from Scotland for the return journey. At this time of year, there were 17 hours of darkness and the operation was estimated to take three hours on the ground.

On landing, 50 troops (Group B) would go down the fiord to destroy the old power station and block the road. Another 50 plus 25 engineers (Group A) would go up the fiord to block the road and destroy the power station and dam. The 50 troop reserve (Group C) would hold the wharf and cover re-embarkation. This is the hand-drawn map in the War Office file.

The aim was to destroy the wharf, power plant and associated equipment linked to the mine, but not the mine itself. The assessment was that bombing would not achieve accurate results, and the raid could put the mine out of operation for the winter months.

The plan was approved on 2 January 1941 by the Chiefs of Staff. They argued that it would be useful raiding experience, boost Norwegian morale, interrupt road communications and damage the German war effort. It was also a low risk operation given the absence of a garrison, reliable intelligence and good local guides.

However, perhaps surprisingly, Churchill rejected the plan on 7 January. The War Cabinet minute states, “I cannot consent to this. It will only disturb the whole Norwegian coast, for reasons and objects which are trivial.”

So, it didn’t happen, but none the less an interesting scenario for wargamers. It involves small numbers of troops with German reinforcements trying to fight their way down both roads. Replicating the steep terrain might be a challenge. Where is that ModRoc when you need it?

Some 28mm British troops of the period

Thursday 16 January 2020

Royal Armoury and Medieval Museum

This was our last full day in Stockholm. I was working most of the day but escaped mid-afternoon to visit the old town and palace area.

First stop was the Medieval Museum. This aims to show how Stockholm would have looked in the medieval period, including parts of the walls. Not a big museum but a number of interesting exhibits.

You don't see many examples of early handguns.

This diorama covers the Battle of Brunkeberg 1471

A very large longship.

Next stop was the Royal Armoury, which is part of the Royal Palace. A number of unusual and eyecatching pieces of armour and other uniforms from the medieval period to the present day.

Not sure if this helmet would make me scared or fall over laughing!

Gustavus and the Thirty Years War

Finally, I went looking for the old Royal church in Riddarholmen to pay my respects to Gustavus Adolphus. This is the church but sadly closed.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Vasa Museum and more

I had a clear schedule to explore Stockholm museums today. The morning was spent with my wife and daughter in the Abba Museum, which although a bit out of scope for this blog, was very good. It's a man of a certain age thing!

The absolute must-see sight in Stockholm is the Vasa Museum. The museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th-century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. It is truly awesome.

This is a 1:10 model of the ship.
The museum includes around 5000 items that separated from the  ship
A number of museums use skeletal reconstruction. In this case the crew.
This is the shipyard where the ship was built.
 Just around the corner, there is the Viking Museum. As the History Museum Viking section was closed, I was glad I took this in. Interactive museum, but plenty of content as well.

Another skeletal reconstruction. Not the popular image of a Viking!
The museum ride takes you on a Viking journey around Europe.
Finally, I went to the Swedish History Museum. A bit disappointing to be honest. If you are into medieval church art it's fine, otherwise, I would give it a miss. There is a good display of the Battle of  Gotland 1361 and some nice Viking gold.

Armour from the Gotland excavation.

A helmet from around 600AD

Viking arm rings and other gold embellishments. 

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Stockholm Army Museum

I am in Stockholm this week on business but I have built-in time to see some of the historical sights.

The Army Museum is a short walk from my hotel and well worth the effort. For a country that hasn't fought a war for 200 years, they still have plenty of history to tell.

I started on the top floor, which starts in the late medieval period. I understand the earlier periods are in the History Museum, which I also hope to get to.

Early Swedish armies were dominated by mercenaries, mostly from Germany and Scotland. Plenty of Scottish names in Sweden from those who settled there during this period.

Then we get to Gustavus Adolphus, one of the high points in Swedish military history. With a massive diorama. By this time local recruitment was also significant. Often the cause of regular peasant revolts.

Next stop is Charles XII and the Great Northern War. Some great exhibits on this and the originals of some classic paintings.

These are very rare imported uniform models for the period before the GNW.

You don't see much about the Swedish army in the Napoleonic wars, outwith the Leipzig campaign. But Sweden also fought a tough war with Russia during this period.

The second floor starts at 1900. Sweden was not directly involved in either of the world wars, but they still maintained large armed forces on alert against invasion.

The first floor is for temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is the Swedish victory against the Russians at Narva in 1700. I have often wondered about wargamers who use massive flags for this period. However, looking at the captured Russian flags in this exhibition, they might be right - they are massive. How anyone carried them in battle is beyond me. I bought the book that goes with the exhibition. Worth it for the colour plates alone.

Overall, this is an excellent museum. Well worth the effort if you are in Stockholm. They do a very nice cake as well!