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 26 February 2020

Leaders of the Medieval Balkans

My current favourite battle rules for the ancients and medieval period are To the Strongest! authored by Simon Miller. They are played extensively at my wargame club, Glasgow and District Wargames Society, who hosted a competition last year. Simon came up for the competition, and I foolishly pointed out the absence of Balkan medieval armies in his lists. This inevitably led to an invitation to draft some. It eventually reached the top of my to-do list, and he has now published them.

The army lists can be downloaded from the TtS! website and they broadly cover the period between the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the end of the 15th century. The earlier period covers the limited recovery of the Byzantine Empire, the Achaian Franks and the growth of the Serbian Empire – not to mention the Catalan Vengeance. Then, as the Ottomans infiltrated into Europe, the story shifts to their conquest of the Balkans culminating with the capture of Constantinople in 1453. This includes the Hungarian led defence of Europe aided by revolts in Wallachia and Albania. 

The standard text for this fascinating period of history is 'The Late Medieval Balkans' by John V.A. Fine (University of Michigan Press 1994). For wargamers, I would recommend the Warhammer Ancient Battles (WAB) supplement ‘Vlad the Impaler’, which I also assisted with.

For competition gamers, I’m afraid they are unlikely to find any super armies in the list to deploy. However, they are often a bit different from the typical western European armies you see on the tabletop. Generally, a little lighter armoured with more light troops, reflecting the terrain in the Balkans.

However, they do include some great characters. So I have written an outline of what I regard as the greatest leaders of the age in a feature article on Balkan Military History. Feel free to disagree!

My list includes:

Stefan Dusan
Murad I
Murad II
Mehmet the Conqueror
Janos Hunyadi
Vlad the Impaler
Stefan the Great
Tvrtko I

If I had to pick one, it has to be Skanderbeg. He regularly defeated the Ottomans despite being heavily outnumbered and kept together an alliance of notoriously fractious Albanian princes. The mark of a truly great leader.

Monday 24 February 2020

Invasion - The War of 1812

It is not often that I read a historical fiction series one after another, but the War of 1812 series by A.J.Mackenzie is a worthy exception. The third in the series is 'Invasion' and covers the 1813 US invasion of Canada across the Niagara River.

The Americans quickly captured Fort Niagara and the British abandoned Fort Erie at the other end of the river, before retreating to a defensive line on Burlington Heights. Our hero, John MacLea, commands his company during the retreat while yet again battling the US spymaster, Colonel Beauregard, who is now in the field with the army.

Fort Erie - taken during my 2018 visit.
Seeing an opportunity to counter-attack the disorganised Americans, the British win a victory at Stoney Creek on 5 June, which pushes the US army back.

A key element of the conflict was winning over the Indian (First Peoples) tribes to the British side. Our hero and his partner Josephine, of course, play a key role in this, blunting Beauregard's efforts. This leads to the Battle of Beaver Dams, in which the British foiled another American attack. The role of Laura Secord in the book in warning the British is based on a true story. As with the other books, the author keeps pretty close to historical events.

Another great read and I trust the author is busy typing the next one. There is plenty of history in this war to go. He has also been the cause of an outbreak of wargamers disease. These 15mm packs have just arrived from Old Glory!

Saturday 22 February 2020

The Napoleonic Ottoman Army

This is a new book by Chris Flaherty on the uniforms, tactics and organisation of the Napoleonic Ottoman Army, published by Partisan Press.

Books on this subject are rare. William Johnson published 'The Crescent Among the Eagles' in 1994 and a summary booklet, but otherwise, the Ottomans get only a passing reference in general works or mentioned in relation to specific campaigns, such as the Egyptian campaign. Virginia Askan 'Ottoman Wars 1700-1870' is an excellent study of the wars, organisation and tactics.

The strength of this book is the detailed description of the units, and there are a lot, as well as being lavishly illustrated by the author, Bruno Mugnai and the late Bob Marrion. For the wargamer, this is the must-buy book.  I only wish he had written it when I was collecting my armies!

The author takes us through each of the troop types starting with the Janissaries and the commanders. He then covers household cavalry and the Sipahi, before moving on to the many irregulars, including the Bedouin and Tartars. The army had a bewildering number of infantry types based in the provinces and these are all covered as well as attempts to reform the army through the Nizam-I-Cedid.

The weaponry and equipment of each troop type are described along with the tactics they adopted. This includes defensive formations and entrenchments. One somewhat bizarre tactic used by a Janissary orta was to dress a handful of younger soldiers as women, place them in a tent called the harem with a special guard. It served as a regimental talisman to be defended to the death.

The Ottomans used a huge variety of artillery as well as gradually reforming the field artillery under French guidance. These included massive stone (often marble) firing cannon. While these may appear to be a medieval relic, they did substantial damage to a British fleet in 1807.

The author even covers obscure support units such as the water carriers and the religious officers. In 1801, the engineer Selim Efendi trialled balloons for military purposes. That is a unit I must have!

While the navy is not covered in detail, the river flotillas are, as well as navy crews and ranks. Very useful for my current Ottoman navy project.

This is a beautiful book, printed on high-quality paper to show off the many illustrations at their best. Highly recommended.

I have this army in 15mm and 28mm, even a few units in 8mm.



Sekbans, Arnauts and other provincial skirmishers
And cavalry in 15mm

Thursday 20 February 2020

Bataille Empire

This is a new set of rules for the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars period. The author is Herve Caille who wrote the ancient and medieval rules L'Art de la Guerre (ADLG).

I play a bit with ADLG in 15mm and 28mm, so I was interested to see how he would adapt them for Napoleonics. I have extensive 15mm Napoleonic armies from my time as a Principles of War player, and I have never really found a satisfactory replacement, other than Black Powder.

The good news is no rebasing. He has provided a very flexible basing system which will fit just about anyone's system. My PoW armies are based on 30mm elements (3 to a unit) and while at the lower end of the range, they work fine. As with ADLG, he uses the concept of units of distance, which is usually the width of your elements.

The scale is very flexible as well. This is a battle game, not skirmishing or small actions, and you can scale up from battalion to regiment/brigade for big battles. As with ADLG, all the rules are in the book, plus a big collection of army lists, so no extra expense with supplements. They even have specific lists for the Balkans! There is also a good forum for the rules online - in English.

There is the usual range of Napoleonic troop types and some special abilities like lance, good/poor shooters etc. Those unconvinced by the British cavalry being impetuous will moan, but you can always adapt it.

Commanders and command are similar to ADLG, although the CinC's job is primarily to give general orders (attack, engage, hold, reserve etc) to his divisions. The big change from ADLG is the sequence of play. This is pretty complex and requires more markers, making the table more cluttered than ADLG. The sequence is important because it allows a range of firing and charging options, before the normal movement and firing stage, which comes last.

Fire combat uses the usual 45 degrees line of sight and infantry have to get pretty close (2 UDs) to shoot. There are a lot of factors and keeping your units supported is important in fire and melee combats. Cannon fire has a ricochet rule which can still do damage to your supporting units. Skirmishers are treated separately.

For my test game, I decided on something a little different - Swedes v Russians in Finland 1808-09. I was in Stockholm last month and the army museum has a good section on this less well-known conflict.

The game had two Russian divisions with attached cavalry against two Swedish infantry divisions and a small cavalry division.

Both sides had engage orders, which requires at least half the division to make full moves until they get within firing distance. This is the most flexible order, but attack gives combat bonuses in return for less flexibility. CinCs can change orders for one CP, not that difficult in a small battle like this, but it could be more challenging in a big battle.

The Swedish cavalry got stuck in quickly and was pretty effective. The cohesion points markers will be familiar to ADLG players, but these rules also have attrition points, effectively half a cohesion point.

Then a more general infantry engagement, which the Swedes narrowly won. It might have been different if the Russians had attacked more quickly.

Overall, the game played well. It is a bit more complex and slower than I might have wished. There is a lot to remember, but a big plus is a decent index. I may even copy it to go with the playsheet.

ADLG players will have a bit of a start as the mechanisms are similar, but it is a very different game. My initial impression is that it reflects warfare in the period well, if at the cost of some playability. I will persevere.

Sunday 16 February 2020

Ottoman Navy During the Napoleonic Wars

I have been playing Black Seas a bit lately, mostly with French and British frigate squadrons in the Adriatic. The game plays well, without all the detail that all too often slow up traditional Napoleonic naval games. Warlord hasn’t expanded the fleet options to the Ottomans yet, so a bit of improvisation is required. After some research, not much was needed to adapt the existing ship options.

Ottoman 3rd Rate
By the start of the Napoleonic period, the Ottoman navy was in a pitiful state. The great traditions that made it feared during the Renaissance period; the natural harbours, the sailors and natural resources had been neglected. This culminated in the Battle of Cesme in 1770 when the fleet was all but destroyed by the Russians.

The reforming Sultan Selim III inherited a rebuilding programme, which used modern British and French designs to construct a fleet of 22 ships of the line, 15 frigates and many smaller ships. This was both a blue sea navy and gunboats to operate on the great rivers of the empire. He appointed Kucuk Huseyin as Kapitan Pasha and attracted officers and technicians from abroad as well as reintroducing conscription and tackling corruption. By 1800, the fleet had 30 ships of the line and 50 frigates and brigs. 

The war against Russia resulted in funds being diverted to the army, and the navy once again went into decline. Sultan Mahmud came to the throne in 1808 and strengthened the navy so it could once again challenge the Russians in the Black Sea.

Ottoman ships were mostly of French design, although they had more headroom below deck to allow for the turbans of officers! More traditional eastern designs were used for coastal and river warfare, including oar-powered galleys. In 1799 the flagship, the Sultan Selim, mounted 120 forty-two pounders and at least ten more of smaller calibre, with a crew of 1400 men. The reforms included a naval academy and a system of ranks based more on ability than bribery.

Sailors came mostly from the Ottoman Empire’s Greek subjects, who were as good as any in the world. However, the weakness of the officer corps made fleet manoeuvre difficult and so the Ottomans choose to defend inlets, swinging their ships on the anchor chains. Fleets were often supplemented by large numbers of oared gunboats. Marines were provided by the 31st Orta of Janissaries, supplemented by two units of naval riflemen.

The Ottomans could also call upon irregular naval forces, particularly the Barbary Corsairs. The British allied with them for the use of ports and even ship repair facilities. Other western states, including Denmark and the United States, fought wars against them. The Barbary States had conventional frigates, brigs and sloops as well as xebecs and galleys. For example, Algeria had five smaller frigates, three xebecs and seven galleys.

For wargamers who like to name their ships, here are a few examples:

Besaret – Line 84 guns
Heybetendaz – Line 74 guns
Nesim – Frigate 50 guns
Iskendedriye – Frigate 44 guns
Melenkay – Brig 18 guns

Ottoman frigate with a xebec in the background
At different times, the Ottomans fought with and against most of the naval powers. The main protagonists were the Russians. However, on occasion, they were allies against the French, as at Corfu in March 1799 and Ancona in Italy later that year. After being allied with the British in the recovery of Egypt, the Ottomans declared war in 1807. Admiral Sir John Duckworth attacked Istanbul, but after destroying an Ottoman squadron is forced away by shore defences. The USA made several attempts to defeat the Barbary States, finally succeeding in 1815.

My Ottoman fleet so far includes a 3rd Rate, a frigate and two xebecs. That is plenty for an evening game, but today we had an afternoon at the club, so time to deploy bigger fleets. A fun game, if a bit confused, with more collisions and entanglements than sinking. It confirms my view that Black Seas is best played with a small squadron on each side. The models are all from the Warlord range, except for the xebecs, which are from Hagen Miniatures.

You don't want a fire on a sailing ship!

P.S. There is a slightly longer version of this on the Balkan Military History website.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Eastern Europe intervention

My modern 20mm project has been on a bit of a go-slow for many months. The main priority was to get more generic eastern Europe militia types onto the tabletop. The inspiration was Mark Galeotti's Osprey 'Armies of Russia's War in Ukraine, which has plenty of pictures and colour plates by Adam Hook to work on.

The figures are all from the Liberation Miniatures range. The first group are mainly support weapons including a sniper team and SAM team as well as a command stand. The second are riflemen, rocket launchers and MGs.

 For intervention forces, my British troops are in earlier combat dress, so these are an updated squad with support weapons.

For rules, I use a modern version of Bolt Action adapted by Jay's Wargaming Madness, which work very well. I am sure there are better rules but as a wargaming butterfly, I like to use rules with similar mechanisms.

Here my militia are defending a supply depot. The British force is tasked with capturing it.

I don't have many 20mm buildings, but I found a couple of what looked like larger 15mm buildings that have been sitting around awaiting paint for a long time. The 20mm figures turned out to be too large, but at least it's another dent in the painting pile. I picked them up at a show several years ago, but I can't remember the firm.

Tuesday 11 February 2020

The Hunt for the North Star

This is the second book in A.J.Mackenzie's series about the War of 1812. This is historical fiction, but the author follows the historical events of the war between Britain and the USA fairly closely. The book's hero is Captain John MacLea, a Scot who after serving in the British army emigrates to Canada and ends up back in uniform in the Canadian militia.

The first book ended with the British victory at Queenston Heights. MacLea is still looking for the US master spy known as Polaris and this is the focus of the story in this book.

His company is part of the force defending the Niagara River line when the new US General launches another invasion over the river that leads to the Battle of Frenchman's Creek on 28 November 1812. This is developed as an elaborate decoy in the book, but in reality, it was part of a serious invasion attempt that went wrong.

After the battle our hero continues to pursue Polaris, uncovering a number of lesser traitors. Most of the action moves to York on Lake Ontario, the provincial capital (modern-day Toronto). I won't spoil the plot, but most of the story revolves around what we would today call counter-espionage actions.

In terms of the war, the action moves to the British attempt to destroy the US naval HQ on the Great Lakes at Sackett's Harbour.  The naval aspect of the war is an interesting subject in its own right and there is a discussion between Henry Hyde and Jeff Knudson on the subject in Henry's Battlechat podcast. Jeff has written a set of rules for the naval conflict. This was a major naval base and the US brought some 3000 shipwrights to this base to build a fleet of small ships. The book has the British attack in March 1813, when in fact it happened a couple of months later in May. The attack was fought off.

The action then moves back to York and the book ends with the US attack on York, which happened on 27 April 1813.  The town was lightly defended and historically it was captured and largely destroyed. The British blew up the fort's magazine killing the US commander. It was a more complete victory than is portrayed in the book, but it had little strategic significance in the war.

You can visit Fort York today, as I did in 2018. Toronto is of course now a major city, but they have preserved the fort, albeit somewhat incongruously overlooked by a motorway! Nice museum as well.

This book is probably more of a spy novel, but a great read none the less. The next in the series is 'Invasion', which I assume will move onto the main battles of the war. I will not be able to resist getting a US army for the tabletop. Here are a few British regulars for now.

Sunday 9 February 2020

The Bitter Peace: Conflict in China 1928-37

I have just finished reading Philip Jowett’s book ‘The Bitter Peace: Conflict in China 1928-37’. This is a military history of China from the end of the Warlord Era to the full-blown war with Japan.

The Nationalist victory was supposed to usher in a period of peace for China. Instead, most provinces had endemic banditry, with up to a staggering 500,000 men in organised bands. Many of these fought over the opium trade as millions of Chinese were addicted to the drug during this period, forming the main source of warlord income. The other source of income was taxation of almost everything, often many years in advance, adding to the economic depredations of the ordinary Chinese.

Jowett takes us through each of the many conflicts during this period, which isn’t an easy read. They are mostly internal conflicts between the Nationalist government of Chaing Kai-shek and various warlords as well as his long-standing attempt to destroy the communists, subsequently led by Mao. The armies in terms of manpower were huge, but often poorly equipped and trained. Modern weapons including tanks, artillery and aircraft were supplied in a bewildering array of types, a quartermaster’s nightmare. 

In addition, the Japanese were expanding their territory on the mainland, primarily in Manchuria, but also stretching those territories westwards. They also controlled ports, including Shanghai.   

One conflict I was not familiar with was the Sino-Soviet war of 1929. The war started as a dispute over control of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which was seized by Nationalist troops in May 1929 and diplomatic relations were broken off in July. 

The Chinese or Manchurian troops of the North-Eastern Army had around 200,000 men, with some units well equipped but others were armed with swords and spears. They also had locally made mortars up to 120mm calibre, as well as modern artillery and FT-17 tanks. The air force included 11 modern French Potez 25 light bombers. Much of the fighting was done by irregular cavalry and White Russian emigres.

The Soviet Far Eastern Army was rebuilding after the Civil War and had limited resources including 20 tanks and 20 armoured cars. The rifle corps started with around 30,000 men, but soon expanded to 60,000 and eventually to over 100,000 men. They had air superiority with around 70 aircraft and also used armoured trains.

August was spent skirmishing as the Red Army gradually eased its way into China. September and October saw fighting intensify along the strategic rivers including the Amur and Sungari Rivers – with both sides using gunboats and monitors. By October the war was focussed on the fortified town of Lahasausu, which fell to the Soviets after a short siege. The Chinese fell back to Fushin, which was also fortified and garrisoned with three brigades and the local militia. The assault here was tougher for the Soviets as temperatures fell to 11 degrees below and force 8 winds. They had to fight street by street, but they succeeded in sinking the remaining Nationalist ships, which gave the Soviets control of the rivers. 

The final assault into Western Manchuria was undertaken by ten divisions aiming for the city of Chalainor and then swinging down the railway line. It was largely successful, and on 27 November the Red Army occupied Hailar, controlling the railway. On 3 December, Britain, France and the USA brokered a peace, which confirmed Soviet control over the railway.

I have a small Chinese Nationalist army in 15mm and their later Japanese opponents. I also built up Soviet forces in 15mm for the 1939 Nomonhan (Khalkin Gol) Incident. Some of these will be OK, although pictures in the book show Red Army troops who look more like the Russian Civil War, including the distinctive caps. Where is that Peter Pig catalogue!

Chinese army


Tuesday 4 February 2020

The People's Army in the Spanish Civil War

Many excellent books have been written about the Spanish Civil War. From the classics by Hemmingway and Orwell to secondary studies by Preston, Beevor et al. There have been memoirs, and biographies and organisations like the International Brigades Memorial Trust ensure we do not forget the sacrifices that so many people from around the world made in defence of democracy. 

What we don’t have are many military histories of the conflict. Charles Esdaile’s ‘The Spanish Civil War: A Military History’ is a recent contribution as is a new book by Alexander Clifford 'The People's Army in the Spanish Civil War', which focuses on the wider People's Army, not just the International Brigades.

The Spanish Civil War is often described as the precursor to the Second World War. In fact, it was fought more like the First World War – a war of attrition that was won by the side that could amass the most men and material. That side was the rebel armies who not only inherited the majority of the Spanish Army but were generously supplied by the Fascist powers of Italy and Germany. The Soviet Union did supply equipment to the government forces, but it was often antiquated, too varied and supplies dried up in the latter stages of the war as Stalin lost interest.

Despite these disadvantages, the People’s Army did a lot better than many have given them credit for. They put together a force that was able to prolong the conflict and perform at least as well as similar armies thrown together a short notice. The author makes a good comparison with the failings of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918. 

The book starts with the causes of the war, followed by a detailed look at how the People's Army was constituted, and their rebel opponents. It then looks at three of the most significant battles of the war; Brunete, Belchite and Teruel. Examining the strategy and tactics adopted by the People's Army and its opponents.

The final chapter draws some conclusions and effectively challenges some of the common criticisms of the Republican strategy. The idea that the Republic could have adopted a defensive posture over a front longer than the Western Front in WW1 is rightly dismissed as impractical. It would have given Franco the initiative at every stage, and the benefits of defence have been overstated when you look at casualty rates in WW1 and in the SCW.

The creation of the People's Army was in itself controversial, with many at the time and since arguing that they should have retained the revolutionary militias. However, it was probably the only thing that prevented a swift rebel victory. Even quite experienced armies struggled to manage open warfare, like the British in 1918. That sort of warfare relies heavily on junior officers and NCOs, one of the People's Army's biggest weakness. Criticisms of the International Brigades miss the point that they were not a monolithic organisation. As with the wider People's Army, there were good and bad formations.

The People’s Army will not go down in history as a great fighting force, although some units performed extraordinarily well in hugely difficult circumstances. Despite being outgunned and outnumbered, they did give the rebels an extremely tough fight over several years. As the author concludes ‘that was the greatest achievement of this unique, improvised army’.

I had the benefit of a longish rail journey over the weekend to read this book in almost one go. It is well written and offers a different perspective on the Spanish Civil War. A worthy addition to the extensive literature on this conflict.

People's Army regulars in 15mm

The rebels best troops - Morrocan units

International Brigades

Sunday 2 February 2020

Vapnartak 2020

First big northern show of the year is Vapnartak, held at York Racecourse. This is a fine venue, with space, good lighting and decent catering. It’s a bit of a way from the city centre, but accessible by taxi and bus.

It also has the advantage of a short stay in the city of York with its historic sites and museums, including the awesome National Railway Museum.

Like most shows, this is primarily a trade show. Travelling by train I tried to be disciplined, with limited success. Although I would have purchased from the bring and buy stalls if I had the car.

I got a copy of Ottoman Armies of the Napoleonic Wars from Caliver. Also the new Napoleonic version of ADLG, which I hope will encourage some of my 15mm armies onto the tabletop. I gave in to the Hungarian mace thrower from Warlord and units of Hungarians and Romanian WW2 figures from Great Escape games. Plus some nice terrain bits. They also have Testors Dullcote!

There seemed to be less games this year, but several were very good. For Balkan interest we had Fiume 1920, one of the interesting Balkan anniversaries this year.

It’s York so Viking’s are in order. This game was the Viking attack on the city. 

Poland 1939 campaign is rarely seen at shows.

Raid on Entebbe was impressive, with a stack of Hercules transports.

And a few other smaller games.

Not to forget the reenactors.

This show rarely disappoints and it was well worth the trip.