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 29 April 2020

Zooming Bloody Big Balkan Battles

This week's wargame with Zoom was the Battle of Doiran. Not the better known First World War epic, but the earlier clash in the Second Balkan War on 6 July 1913, fought between the Bulgarians and Greeks. The rules are Bloody Big Battles and the scenario comes from the Balkan Wars supplement written by Konstantinos Travlos. The figures are 15mm.

This is the smallest of the scenarios in the book in terms of army size, picked to make it easier to play over Zoom. The Bulgarians hold the Doiran hills on the left, which are rugged steep terrain, and the Greeks have to fight their way over to reach the objectives - towns on the other side. The Bulgarian troops were similar in numbers but the Greeks were better armed and higher quality, including three regiments of Evzones.

The tabletop (picture is West to East with Lake Doiran at the top) uses my Spearhead hills which show the levels well but don't really give an impression of how difficult the terrain was for the Greeks. So, here is a picture of the hills from the British cemetery (Greek direction) taken on my last visit to the battlefield. Today the battlefield is on the Greek/North Macedonian border.

My plan, playing the Greeks, was to attack both flanks, concentrating my artillery there. The first picture is on the right flank heading for Doiran, and the second is the left flank.

The Evzones quickly captured the first spur but then struggled to get moving again after sustaining casualties. More success on the left flank, although again it took too long.

As nightfall came, the Greeks had captured the high ground above Doiran but had been repulsed twice by the dwindling Bulgars in the centre.

Victory for the Bulgars as the Greeks failed to capture any objectives. The Greek spin doctor claims we would have captured Doiran next morning! But time ran out.

This is another set of rules I should play more often. They work well over Zoom as the mechanisms are simple, if frustrating. Dicing for movement is a pig when you are in a position to exploit a good tactical position. This scenario would also work as a solo game with just a few card draw options for the Bulgarian passive side.

The Greeks did better historically than me. They succeeded in capturing the Bulgarian positions opening the way for an invasion of old Bulgaria. συγνώμη σύντροφοι (Sorry comrades!).

As an aside, the author of this supplement also does a good YouTube series on the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-22. Well worth a listen while doing some lockdown painting.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Last of the Hungarians

No, it's not a new movie, but this week's lockdown painting. The last two units of my Hungarian army for WW2. 'Last' is, of course, a variable concept for wargamers, meaning until the next shiny toy comes along!

First up are a unit of Hussars. At the outbreak of war, the Hungarian army had two cavalry brigades, which included two, 2 battalion Hussar regiments. It was reconstituted as the 1 Cavalry Division in 1942 and the 1 Hussar Division in 1944. Hussars fought on most of the fronts Hungarian armed forces served in, primarily against the Soviet Union. They were used as a mobile reserve or pursuit unit - essentially mounted infantry rather than the traditional cavalry charge. The models come from the Great Escape Games range.

I kept the Buzoganyveto (Mace) rocket launcher for last. Any Warlord model that requires assembly is a job to be put off, and this is no exception. You can just about work out how to assemble the parts from the web site photos, but as usual, the lugs for the wheels are just ridiculously inadequate. Several goes later, and superglued fingers, I managed a rickety effort.

Some 600 of these were produced by the Hungarians and mostly used for the defence of Budapest. It could knock out a Stalin 2 tank and was most useful in urban fighting. There was also an anti-personnel version called Zapor (Rainfall). The Bolt Action Fortress Budapest supplement has wargame statistics.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Commando Crusade

'Commando Crusade' is the wartime memoir of Major-General Thomas Churchill. No relation to Winston, although the Germans, who captured his brother, briefly thought he was.  

Born in Surrey, his father was a colonial civil servant. He had a conventional start in life for a British officer - public school, Sandhurst and a commission in the Manchester Regiment. He fought in the Burma Rebellion of 1930 and then specialised in air photography.  He went to France in 1940 with the BEF and after a short illness was posted to the operations and intelligence staffs.

Back in the UK working for Headquarters, Home Forces, he started to assist the early commando formations with air photography, before joining the commandos in 1942. Interestingly for me, he was based in my current home town of Troon and other parts of Ayrshire.

His commando was posted to the Mediterranean, where he took part in the invasion of Sicily and the landings at Salerno. By the time of the Anzio landings, he was commanding a commando brigade.

It was here that he was asked to provide a unit to assist the Yugoslavian partisans in the defence of the Adriatic island of Vis in the autumn of 1943. He sent No.2 Army Commando commanded by his brother Jack Churchill. He later set up his command on the island and the best part of the book relates to the initial defence of the island and then the raids organised from that base.

I spent a very pleasant week on Vis a few years ago and have visited most the sites he mentions. The island, previously known as Lissa, has a fascinating history, including a British occupation during the Napoleonic wars. I have read several memoirs of officers who served on Vis, and there is a high degree of consistency, not to mention admiration for the partisans who fought there. Tito was also based on Vis after the Germans nearly captured him at Drvar.

Me outside Tito's HQ on Vis
As the Germans started their evacuation of the Balkans he led the attack on the Albanian port of Sarande, in conjunction with Albanian partisans. This was the port the Germans used for their evacuation of Corfu. I wasn't familiar with this action when I visited the town on my visit to Albania. It's situated in what is now known as the Albanian Riveria. 

This is an excellent memoir, written in a very unassuming style, illustrated with plenty of the author's wartime photographs. I see some US bookshops are selling this book, published in 1987, for £160! Very happy to have picked up my copy for £5!

28mm British commandos from my collection

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Zooming with Rommel

Lockdown gaming has been an opportunity to dust down those rulesets that you like, but don't play enough of. This week my opponent suggested Sam Mustafa's WW2 rules 'Rommel'. 

For those not familiar with these rules, this is my 2017 review. It uses a square grid, which like To the Strongest! works well over Zoom. It is a grand tactical game typically played as a divisional or corps level game. The mechanisms are pretty straightforward, but the twist is the Operations Sheet, which gives a range of events and tactics that you pay for using dice. These events and tactics reflect the army you are using and you download a sheet for each one. For example, the Germans have tactics which emphasise flexibility and mobility, while the Russians have massed artillery. 

For this game, I developed a scenario from my recent reading of Kaloyan Matev's, 'Red Wind Over the Balkans'. This book covers the Soviet offensive south of the Danube between September and October 1944. 

The second phase of this campaign was the offensive over the Bulgarian border into Yugoslavia towards Belgrade. This was spearheaded by Soviet troops of the Third Ukrainian Front. The terrain in this part of Yugoslavia (modern Serbia) is mountainous, with limited road and rail communication. The Germans used their flexible battle-groups to hold the key positions and these included mountain trained troops, in this scenario a Prinz Eugen Division battlegroup. Soviet rifle divisions are not noted for their flexibility, but Matev shows how they managed to fight effectively in terrain they were certainly not trained to operate in.

Here is the setup, with the Germans defending the towns and mountain edges on the left as well as the bridge over the Danube. The Soviets coming in from the right. This is a historical game, so the Germans are heavily outnumbered.

The Russian steamroller moves forward, but the limited ops dice mean you have to marshall your resources. So I decided on a right hook to capture the bridge while bringing a rifle division and tanks up to the nearby town. By concentrating artillery, the Soviets blew away the German defenders, but it still took two moves.

Infantry attacks on the mountain positions were easily brushed away by the Germans, but a combined tank and infantry assault on the town was successful. Again it took more moves than I would have wished as the Germans were well-positioned, using the terrain effectively to block flanking attacks.

Switching the main effort to the left flank ran into trouble on the hills, but again a combined arms attack on the town was successful.

The German counterattack was beaten off and the Soviets poured down the valley. The Germans still held much of the high ground, but with their supply lines cut, it was time to make a tactical withdrawal.

As for Zoom suitability, the game is easily visualised. Both sides can use their Ops Sheet, although I tend to find that tactics cancel each other out and were not decisive. I have played this game without the Ops sheet, but you lose the subtlety of the different tactics.

It was a good game that gives a decent flavour of the historical campaign. I might try a tactical level game using Blitzkrieg Commander as a variant.

Monday 20 April 2020

War at the Top of the World

For my daytime reading, I thought a break from WW2 was in order. Dusting down some long-standing tomes from my 'to read' shelf I found Eric Margolis's 2001book (it has since been updated) 'War at the Top of the World: The Clash for Mastery of Asia."

This is a modern-day version of  The Great Game, for those who have read Peter Hopkirk's books about the British and Russians in Central Asia. Margolis is a journalist who has visited the main conflict zones and his book is a mixture of travelogue and history of the conflicts.

He starts with Afghanistan, which at the time he visited was after the war with the Soviets and the subsequent breakdown into tribal rivalry and the growth of the Taliban. I did like the story of his friend Fadil the Kurd and his invite, "you must come with us into Afghanistan. We will shoot the Stinger missile together".  It reminded me of medieval English knights and archers taking a winter 'holiday' to fight with the Teutonic Knights in Latvia.

The next stop was Kashmir. Much in the news recently, to remind us that this conflict has been simmering ever since partition. I hadn't appreciated just how many Indian troops had been committed to the largely Muslim province. To put down revolts and maintain the line of control with Pakistan. The paramilitary forces, in particular, are renown for their savagery, using torture, summary execution, arson and rape. This is not just a feature of the fiercely nationalist BJP policy. India's leaders have long worried that the secession of Kashmir or even worse the Sikh Punjab could trigger a process of gradual national dissolution, similar to the Soviet Union.

I have read a book by Neville Maxwell on India's China War in 1962. A more pointless conflict is hard to imagine, 7,000 metres up in the Karakoram mountains. After the Chinese victory, the conflict simmers on. Margolis also covers China's invasion of Tibet and the ongoing military build-up between India and China on that border.

India and Pakistan also skirmish over the Siachen Glacier. Margolis's description of the road journey up to the Pakistan positions is pretty harrowing. The air is so thin that helicopters can only manage a small payload.  Given my interest in Balkan history, I enjoyed the idea of the Pakistan commander studying the campaigns of Skanderbeg - "He was one of history's finest mountain warriors". Indeed he was, but even Skanderbeg would have struggled at these hights. He might also have said to the Turks, 'you can keep it!'.

It may seem a distant series of conflicts that the rest of the world has largely forgotten. But let's not forget that India, Pakistan and China are all nuclear states.

A fascinating book well told in a readable journalistic style.

And no, I am not even going to think about how you would wargame these mountain conflicts!  

Saturday 18 April 2020

Lord of Formosa

My bedtime fiction reading has been Joyce Bergvelt's, Lord of Formosa. It is a novel, although it follows closely the historical narrative, inserting fictional dialogue. It is a period of history I knew nothing about.

The book tells the story of Koxinga and the Dutch colony on the island of Formosa (modern Taiwan). Koxinga was born in Japan in 1624 with a Chinese father and a Japanese mother. His father was the powerful trader and Ming dynasty loyalist Zheng Zhilong. The Ming were on the decline as Manchu armies invaded northern China to form the Qing Dynasty.

Koxinga moved to his fathers home in Fujian, southern China when he was seven. He was educated as a Mandarin and became the heir to his father's vast empire and commander of some of the strongest and most successful Ming armies. After his father's defection to the Qing, he took command of the remaining resistance until his coastal bases were squeezed by the advancing Qing armies.

Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had established a colony on Formosa in 1624. The island had a mix of native tribes and Chinese inhabitants. Their main base was Fort Zeelandia in the southern part of the island. Dutch rule was punctuated by rebellions and the usual colonial exploitation of trade and natural resources.

In 1661, Koxinga decided to relocate most of his forces to Formosa. He quickly captured most of the Dutch territory and besieged Fort Zeelandia. The fort fell after a nine-month siege. Koxinga established the Kingdom of Tungning as a base to attack mainland China. However, he died, probably of malaria, in 1662. Succeeded by his son, the Kingdom only survived until 1683 when a Qing invasion fleet captured the island.

The author has written a well-researched story around the historical narrative, filling in the gaps and bringing the characters alive. A very good read.

A 15m high statue of Koxinga in modern Fujian.

Friday 17 April 2020

Zooming with Game of Thrones

I needed a break from WW2 lockdown painting. Looking at the lead/plastic mountain I had a unit of Lannister crossbowmen, which I had bought to give my Lannister army some much-needed firepower.

The figures are from the CMON range for their Song of Ice & Fire game. They come ready assembled and based, although the detailing is fairly basic. A bit of block painting and a wash gives a decent unit.

While I like the figures, I am not a big fan of the rules. I prefer to use Lion Rampant, although any medieval set would do. As long as you ignore the dragons! Lion Rampant is also ideal for playing over Zoom in the current lockdown.

So, onto the tabletop. Slightly larger armies than the usual 24pts, now that I have a proper table again. Lannisters on the right, Stark and some Bolton allies on the left.

The fierce Umbar foot charge across the table and rout the Lannister swordsmen.

The Lannisters are not keen to move off the baseline and on the left get shot up by Stark bowmen. One really bad courage test and they are off.

The men at arms are difficult to move in Lion Rampant until they get within wild charge range. Eventually, the Starks got a move and the Mountain led the Lannister knights forward. Neither side coming out on top.

Finally, the Stark left knocked over the Halberdiers and swept around the right flank of the Lannister line. Although the Boltons, treacherous as usual, failed three wild charge tests!

The last stand by Tyrion with my newly painted crossbowmen was futile. The North triumphs! 


Wednesday 15 April 2020

Serbia Under the Swastika

This book by Alexander Prusin takes a rare English language look at the WW2 occupation of Serbia. It is also an objective study in what is still a controversial subject given the role of collaborationist groups and the internecine civil war.

The author starts with a succinct look at Yugoslavia before the war and the events that led to the German invasion, supported by Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy - all of which grabbed territory. The Germans had no real territorial ambitions in Serbia and their primary concern during the occupation was to secure lines of communication to Greece and exploit Serbia's mineral reserves, particularly copper and lead. Serbian mines provided 50% of the lead and 98% of the aluminium of Germany's total consumption.

Nazi racial policies played a smaller part in the occupation than in other parts of Eastern Europe. Serbia didn't have a role in Hitler's Lebensraum policy, where mass murder created the living space he desired. The small Jewish population was subject to the Holocaust as were the Roma and communists. The Nazi racial stereotypes regarded the Serbs as traitorous and prone to erratic behaviour - "a born plotter and conspirator, infatuated with underhanded actions". Comical if it wasn't for the deadly consequences.

The main collaborationist leader was Nedic who led the puppet government. He was a conservative, who modelled himself on Petain - collaboration for reasons of state rather than ideology. Serbian fascists like Ljotic and the Zbor movement did serve in the government, and both groups evolved similar ideologies based national and traditional Serbian values. Many thousands of officials and policemen collaborated as well in the special forces. Recognising the consequences of German defeat, they became ruthless participants in the German terror system.

German policy largely reverted to terror, rather than adopting Serbian right-wing groups more widely. There were officials who advocated a more constructive approach, but even small steps were overruled by Hitler. Atrocities were not limited to SS Einsatzgruppen. In Serbia at least, the Wehrmacht became a willing partner in the repressive apparatus.

The concentration camp at Nis taken during my last visit to Serbia
The resistance was based on two main groups - Mihailovic's Chetniks and Tito's partisans. There was an early attempt at cooperation, but Mihailovic decided that the communists were a bigger threat to his ideology than the Germans. This lead to increasing collaboration with the occupying forces, including participation in military action, although it was never absolute and the Germans attacked him as well. The Allies eventually realised that the partisans were the only resistance groups fighting the Germans consistently, and shifted their support.

Most people in Serbia, as with the rest of occupied Europe, adopted a survivalist mentality. Only about 4 per cent were associated with resistance or collaboration. The vast majority understandably tried to seclude themselves and their families from the conflict. One million Yugoslavs died, 6.3 per cent of the pre-war population, compared with German losses of 14,100. Serbia had between 141,000 and 167,000 deaths - double that number were deported or imprisoned. A testament to the scale of German reprisals and the civil war.

This book is a comprehensive and succinct study of the occupation of Serbia in WW2. Pretty harrowing in places, but well worth reading.

Partisan camp. 28mm figures from my collection

Saturday 11 April 2020

Fortress Budapest on the table

Having painted all the exotic Soviet units for Fortress Budapest it was time to buckle down and do the standard ones.

First off a rifle squad. These are from the North Star range with plenty of character - they even give you names for each figure.

Then some support units - MMG and medium mortar from Warlord.

The HQ units including the feared Commissar. Did they really wear medals on the battlefield?

And finally a scout squad. Warlord again and very nice figures they are.

This gives me nearly 1300 points for a Bolt Action game. Time to take on the Hungarians.

I set up the table longways and a pal deployed the Hungarians via Zoom. In the first move, the Soviets made good progress on the right flank, capturing the wood after a close assault with a Hungarian rifle squad. The Hungarians responded by advancing the Turan II over the bridge and bringing the German reinforcements up in their carrier.

The second move was a bit of a disaster for the Soviets. The SU100 shot at the Csaba armoured car and missed. The Turan II got a lucky hit and knocked out the SU100 - that's 300pts down the can.

Both sides came grinding to a halt in the next move when the FOO's brought some devastating off-table artillery fire down on the far too bunched units. For example, a roadblock on the bridge forced the Germans to de-bus.

The Russians did work their way around the right flank but were too weak to cope with the counter-attack.

The left flank attack was shot up, so game over. Budapest is safe for another day!

Zoom works very well for a 28mm game. The figures are big enough to see, even from a helicopter view.

Friday 10 April 2020

The Struggle for the Mediterranean 1939-45

More Second World War strategy reading for me in lockdown. This book was written not long after the war (1951) by Raymond De Belot, a Rear Admiral in the French Navy.

The author reminds us of the role of the Mediterranean in conflicts throughout the centuries before outlining its strategic position in the Second World War. As a British strategist put it; "Who holds the Mediterranean, holds the world". He then outlines the main powers and their position prior to the conflict. As an Admiral, his focus is understandably on naval warfare, but the land campaigns are not ignored.

The campaign narrative offers little that is new, although some snippets were new to me. For example, Mussolini's sudden decision to enter the war left one-third of the Italian merchant marine in foreign ports. 218 much-needed ships that were effectively lost.

The importance of Italy's lack of raw materials is not always well understood. This meant relying on Germany, which itself was struggling. As a consequence the expansion of Italian armed forces during the war was minimal. The lack of oil in particular often meant that the Italian navy could not leave its bases. On 8 March 1943 Mussolini wrote to Hitler; "Our tragedy is that we are forced to fight a people's war with arms left over from 1914-18". Rather late to recognise that he had attempted the role of a first-class power with a third-rate industrial base!

Italy also had no real wartime strategy. The author makes an interesting comparison with Japan, which had similar raw material challenges, but did have a clear strategy. Japan was ready, Italy was not. Japan had a bold plan, well thought out and precise; Italy did not.

The author discusses all the big strategic decisions. Why the Germans didn't finish off the allies in the Middle East before turning on Russia. The British/USA strategic tussle over the 'soft underbelly' approach favoured by Churchill. He implies sympathy for General Marshall's position, arguing that the Balkans are just as defensible as Italy, unlike the plains of North-West Europe. As for a push from Italy into Austria, he quotes Marshall as saying; "In Europe's innumerable wars no vigorously opposed crossing of the Alps had ever been successfully executed."

However, he also reminds us that the Germans were expecting an invasion of the Balkan peninsula. He quotes Doenitz saying after Salerno: "The enemy's next strategic moves will evidently be directed against the Balkans."

The author argues that had the allies invaded the Balkans rather than France, the Russians would have simply moved North well beyond the Elbe. This would have resulted in a similar post-war position.

This is an interesting take on the subject and well worth a read.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Churchill - Military genius or menace?

This is Stephen Napier's study of Churchill at war. It is a strategic look at the actions and decisions taken at various stages in the Second World War. Any study of Churchill is controversial as supporters and critics often fall into the Hero or Villain camps of the recent debate. History is rarely so black and white.

Churchill was of course absolutely right about the threat Hitler posed to the world order as he articulated during his wilderness years. He was on weaker ground when expressing his views on modern warfare. For example, he derided the future of tanks and believed that modern warships had little to fear from aerial attack.

His personal style of leadership certainly streamlined the cumbersome leadership structure both civilian and military. His Private Secretary, John Colville, commented on the great loyalty he engendered from Service Ministers and his drive and initiative but said he also meddled.  Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staffs was blunter, he said; "Winston made matters almost impossible, temperamental like a film star and peevish like a spoilt child."

Later in the war when Churchill's health was suffering, and his drinking getting heavier, Brooke's diary gives an indication of his frustration in relation to strategy in the Far East; "I am honestly getting very doubtful about his balance of mind and it just gives me the cold shivers. I don't know where we are going as regards our strategy and I just cannot get him to face the true facts."

While it is true that Churchill's flood of ideas and diversions frustrated many, he usually gave way when push came to shove with military leaders. It is also the case that he was often one of the few contributors of fresh ideas, even if most were not practical.

The book has plenty on my own area of interest - Britain's Balkan strategy. Churchill was a strong advocate of the indirect approach, the 'soft underbelly' of Europe. A common complaint of Brooke was that Churchill often advocated a diversion of forces. The failed Kos and Leros campaigns are probably the best example of this, but Churchill was also in favour of Operation Jupiter in Norway well into 1944.

The Americans were particularly concerned that his Meditterenean strategy shifted resources from the invasion of France and the Soviets pointed to how few German divisions were diverted from the Eastern Front to Italy. On this Churchill was supported by Brooke, but others argue that the war could have been over a year earlier had Overlord happened in 1943.

I hadn't appreciated the strength of Churchill's reservations about Overlord. So much so that Marshall (US Chief of Staff) threatened that if the British wanted to ditch Overlord in favour of operations in the Balkans, the USA should switch resources to the Pacific.

In the end, I think Brooke had it right when he said; "Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.... Never have I admired and disliked a man simultaneously to the same extent."

Whatever your view of Churchill this is a very good history of the strategic decisions taken during WW2. Well worth a read.

Sunday 5 April 2020

Constantinople AD 717-18

The latest Osprey publication in the Campaign series covers the less well known Arab siege of Constantinople in AD 717-18, written by Si Sheppard. As an aside, I would like to pay credit to Osprey for their weekly free e-books and the Frostgrave promotion, all of which are helping folk get through the current lockdown. Other military publishers have also offered a range of discounted publications. Thanks, and well done!

This book follows the usual Campaign format. A lengthy chapter on the background to the siege including the previous attempt by the Avars to capture the city in AD 626. Constantinople is built in a strong defensive position, and the fortifications reinforce those strengths. 

The Arab Jihad burst into the Middle East in AD 626, defeating the Sasanians and the Byzantines, before capturing the great cities of the region. They advanced along the North African coast and captured Carthage. Initially reluctant to create naval forces, later Arab commanders recognised the necessity and attacked the major islands including Cyprus.

By 651, with the Sasanians dealt with, the Arab commander Muawiya prepared for a major campaign against the Byzantines in Anatolia, supported by a massive fleet. As you would expect in this series, this is graphically explained with excellent maps. However, a major storm wrecked much of the Arab fleet as it approached the Dardanelles, and the Arabs withdrew to Syria.

A Muslim civil war gave the Byzantines another break before major raids started again. The Byzantines responded with attacks of their own but were put under pressure in the Balkans when the Slavs laid siege to Thessaloniki in 676. An alliance with the Mardaites from near Antioch helped push the Arabs into a 30-year truce, to enable the Umayyad dynasty to consolidate its power. Not without another round of internal conflict.

By the turn of the century, the Arabs were back conducting annual raids into Anatolia. Meanwhile, the Byzantines engaged in further internal conflict. They did achieve an end to the conflict with the Bulgars which brought peace to the Balkans and time to strengthen the defences of Constantinople for the siege.

The next chapter covers the opposing commanders. Leo III for the Byzantines, who had had an extraordinary progress to power. In 12 years, he rose from being a Syrian peasant refugee to the purple. For the Arabs, Maslama b. ‘Abd al-Malik was the son of the Umayyad caliph. He was an experienced commander with many successes, although he failed at Constantinople largely due to poor planning. In particular, dealing with the Bulgars and countering the destructive effect of Greek fire. He also appears to have believed that Leo would betray the city.

We then get an outline of the opposing forces and their plans. The achievements of the Arabs have been understated in western history, despite their immense and long-lasting conquests. The Islamic faith had bound together the warring tribes and created professional armies maintained by the state. They understood the importance of logistics, although they would normally avoid sieges, preferring to fight in the open.

The Byzantines of this period haven’t had a much better press than the Arabs. By the siege they had lost many of the richest provinces, weakening the field armies. The Thematic system was designed to shield the borders until the field armies arrived. They also had a system of garrison stations and fortified outposts. In Constantinople, these garrisons consisted of a wide variety of professional and militia units. The naval superweapon was Greek Fire, which like napalm clung to everything it burned and could not be doused by water. Colour plates by Graham Turner illustrate how this worked in some detail. 

The siege began with the Arabs cutting off the city by digging a trench around the walls and counter defences against the Bulgar threat from the rear. The city’s weakness was an attack from the sea, but Arab fleets were defeated by Greek fire. 

The winter weather and poor provisions, much of which was lost to a Byzantine ploy, took their toll on the Arab army. Relief fleets suffered from mass desertion of their largely Christian crews, and the blockade was lifted. This meant the Arabs became the besieged and the Caliph ordered Maslama to abandon the siege. The army was heavily defeated by the Bulgars and the survivors harassed by the Byzantines as they withdrew through Anatolia.

Bulgars attacking Arab units - 15mm figures

The aftermath of the siege brought a Byzantine recovery, but this was squandered by internal revolts and the Arab cause recovered. However, after several defeats, the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty.

As Maslama cast one last glance at the walls of Constantinople on 15 August 718, he may have had a Hadith, ascribed to Muhammad by ‘Abd Allāh b. Muhayrīz, in mind: ‘Persia is [only a matter of] one or two thrusts and no Persia will ever be after that,’ the Prophet foretold. But the heirs of Rome ‘are people of sea and rock; whenever a generation passes, another replaces it. Alas, they are your associates to the end of time.’

The book ends with some interesting what-ifs. It will irritate some historians, but enjoyed by others. Overall, an excellent study of the siege and its context.

Friday 3 April 2020

Rangers of Shadow Deep

As we are in lockdown I thought I would try a game designed for solo play, rather than adapt a standard ruleset. I was listening to Henry Hyde's interview with Joeseph McCullough, which reminded me that his Rangers of Shadow Deep is designed for solo play.

There is a new fancy bound edition of this game just out, but I settled for a downloadable PDF of the original version. This is a skirmish game in a fantasy setting. You play the part of a Ranger who has basic abilities with a set of fairly standard statistics - move, fight, shoot, armour, will and health. You strengthen the basics and then add heroic abilities and skills. These all give exceptional actions or bonuses in combat.

You can then add companions like archers, barbarians and men-at-arms, or something more exotic like a conjurer. These are all recorded on a ranger sheet and you are ready to go.

The game is scenario, or mission, led. There are several in the book to get you started. They outline the tabletop and the creatures you will face. Creatures have their own bestiary and include a range of typical fantasy enemies.

Each activation allows two actions, typically a movement and fight or shoot. The Ranger goes first, although he can take some companions with him/her.

In my test game, the elven ranger had a couple of archers and a barbarian, who looks remarkably like Conan! Their task is to get across a bridge guarded by what they call Gnolls (I used Orcs) and a Shadow Knight.

The solo mechanism sets out a series of automatic reactions for creatures. So, when the Ranger shoots and kills a Gnoll, the others in line of sight spot him and generally attack. There is a simple flow chart of options. These are supplemented by event cards, playing cards and a table that describes actions for each scenario depending on the card drawn. It works very well.

Shooting and combat are pretty straightforward. You add the relevant stat to a D20, both sides roll, and the loser deducts his/her armour from the winning roll to calculate damage. As with this author's other popular ruleset, Frostgrave, this is a problem for me. D20 is a massive variable.

In this game, Conan just about survived his first round of fighting with a Gnoll.

And then killed his opponent in the second round with a huge difference in the roll.

Anyway, the Ranger comfortably beat the Shadow Knight and off our merry band went to the bridge.

There is a campaign system, which links the missions and allows a decent narrative to develop.

The rules could have done with a playsheet, accepting there is probably one on a forum somewhere. With all the add on rules, it required a lot of going back and forth. But regular play would probably reduce that. The solo mechanisms work, but I am not convinced by the combat mechanisms. For this level of game I prefer Open Combat, but I might pinch the solo mechanisms and use the scenarios.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Solo medieval Balkans campaign

Having helped write the new To the Strongest! army lists for the medieval Balkans, I thought lockdown was a good opportunity to play with them. I used 15mm figures and the standard 130pt armies as I only have a temporary narrow table. The mat is custom made 100mm squares from Deep Cut.

I almost made a disastrous error when ordering this mat. I typed 10mm instead of 10cm. Fortunately Deep Cut send you a sample photo before printing, and I noticed a large number of squares!

TtS! is a good game for playing solo. If you use historical setups there are relatively few decisions that have to be made. The cards are still important. I usually physically move to the phasing side to give me the right perspective.

I used the Ottomans in each game because while they were aggressive strategically, on the battlefield they were tactically defensive. Generally trying to draw enemies onto the Janissaries and countering with the cavalry wings. Again, very suitable for solo play.

The first game was against the Serbs. The Serbian army is one of my favourite medieval armies. They suit my aggressive wargame style. I am not much of a sit on the baseline sort of player.

If you are not familiar with TtS here is my review. The D6 by units is ammo supply and the red charge markers designate heroes. They can be used once to redraw a 'to hit' card.

Sadly, the Serbs hurtled across the table but got shot up before they could bring their knights into combat. If you can disorder them by shooting before combat they need and 8+ in melee rather than a 6+.

Next up was the Wallachians, led by Vlad the Impaler.

The Wallachian infantry pinned the Ottoman centre, without breaking through.

Meanwhile, the Wallachian cavalry smashed through both Ottoman wings. Game over.

A grim end for many Ottomans! Vlad earning his name!

Finally, The Albanians had a go at the Ottomans, led by Skanderbeg.

TtS! doesn't have an official cut down game like ADLG with its 100pt version. I was playing this game with a pal on Zoom. Playing with video conferencing is slower than normal so I devised 50pt armies, using the minima and halving everything. You have one command, instead of the normal three or four.

In the first move, Skanderbeg drew a 2 for the group move, which gave plenty of scope for more moves and the Albanians flew across the table. The light horse peppered the Ottoman flanks.

However, this is where the ammo rules come in because they then had to charge the Janissaries, who are tough to beat, even when the Albanians got around the flanks. Victory to the Ottomans.

 The cut-down game took around 40 minutes once we got started, very suitable for a video conferencing game. If anyone fancies a go drop me a line, all you need is a microphone and camera on your device. Zoom works on PC/Mac, laptop and phones.