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

Sunday 31 May 2020

Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41

This book by Sheila Lawlor looks at the political decisions taken by Churchill and the War Cabinet in the early period of the war when Britain was largely fighting alone. It shows that Churchill was not quite the bombastic gambler as sometimes portrayed. In fact, at times he was cautious when others were perhaps hasty in their desire to act.

The first part of the book looks at how Churchill came to power after his 'wilderness years'. In his own history of the war, he views himself as the man of destiny when in reality he played a shrewd political game, balancing his criticism of Chamberlain with avoiding the accusation of disloyalty. His restraint in not deploying scarce resources to France was a consistent feature of his later strategy.

One snippet from the book I hadn't seen before was the analysis by Sir John Dill (CIGS), in July 1940, that he believed Hitler would try the indirect approach, invading Britain via Ireland or Scotland, possibly the Orkneys and Shetland. That is an interesting 'What-if' for wargamers!

The second part of the book moves to the Middle East and the defence of Egypt. The author looks in detail at the difficult decisions that had to be taken in terms of allocating resources there at a time when the invasion of Britain was still a possibility. Eden and Wavell were focused on the desert war, and they were concerned over Churchill's rhetoric towards supporting the Greeks following the Italian invasion. In fact, Churchill was more cautious than his rhetoric appears, a  stance that was not obvious to close colleagues on the ground.

The third part, and the most interesting from my point of view, is Britain's approach to the Balkans from January 1941, and the decision to intervene in Greece. The author has drawn upon official minutes and private papers to show the views of the main players, including the military and political leadership. Churchill alternated between reluctance to intervene in Greece and confidence, partly based on optimistic military appreciations on the ground. Interestingly, almost all the key players favoured giving Turkey priority in terms of troops and equipment. Turkey was regarded as the key to the Middle East, something with the benefit of hindsight we have perhaps forgotten.

This book shows that the decisions were more complex than the broad sweep of the historiography of the period might show. The records show that Churchill was often hesitant in the face of conflicting advice, which is understandable given the scarcity of resources and the consequences of getting it wrong. But it varies from the confident narrative in his own post-war account.

This is perhaps a bit too detailed for the general reader and at times can be a little repetitive. However, by taking the reader through the views of each of the key players, you get a clearer view of the factors that made up these very difficult decisions.

As you can see from my tabs - this is a source I will return to!

Saturday 30 May 2020

Oathmark barbarians

As I start to develop my Oathmark nations, I remembered that I have some unpainted fantasy figures in the Conan game box that I backed on Kickstarter. I had painted some character figures for a participation game at Carronade in 2017, but the bulk of the figures remain untouched.

The barbarian types are pretty good sculpts, if lacking in variety. I added a character figure as a Shaman to lead them.

I have made a start on my Oathmark nations. Years ago I used to use a programme called 'Campaign Cartographer' for this sort of thing. Looking at the examples published on the Oathmark Facebook page, I plumped for Inkarnate, an on-line tool, which does the same thing, only much better.

It really is a very flexible map making system, and reasonably priced as well. I could have used Photoshop, like Henry Hyde, who has published some helpful tutorials, but this platform takes a lot of the hard work away. It's also a lot of fun.

Anyway, here is my first go. A lot more detail to be added, but it is a start.

Oathmark is more a Dark Ages setting than the traditional High Medieval fantasy settings. So I am going to have Normans and Saxons in the middle, Scots to the north, Vikings to the west, Nomadic tribes in the east, with Byzantine, Spain and the Seljuks in the south.

This has also been an excuse to tidy up my eclectic collection of fantasy figures. Some rebasing and improving my painting from many years ago.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

British Genius for Deception 1914-45

The full title of this book by Nicholas Rankin is, 'Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914 - 1945'. While Churchill was undoubtedly a supporter and protagonist for deception operations, he was not quite the guiding light throughout both world wars.

As the scope of this book indicates, British deception operations were developed during WW1 and then expanded and refined in WW2. The first half of the book covers early camouflage efforts, often aided by artists. In fact, the British learnt much from early French efforts, which were on a much larger scale. In addition to camouflage, there were steel trees as a base for snipers and extensive propaganda efforts aimed at enemy civilians and neutral countries, as well as opinion at home.

It was in WW1 that the British adopted the lessons learned in the Boer War, most notably in the Middle East with T.E. Lawrence. Lessons that are still used today. The 2006 US Army field manual on counter-insurgency extensively cites T.E Lawrence's 'Evolution of a Revolt and 'Arab Bulletin'.

Churchill had seen how the Spanish had been outfoxed in Cuba in 1895 and later famously in the Boer War. The creation of the SOE owed much to Lawrence and the Arab Revolt.

Churchill also took a direct interest in camouflage. At the outbreak of WW2, he was at Scapa Flow as First Sea Lord when he was told dummy ships had fooled aerial spotters. He said they needed spectacles because there were no gulls around them, "Feed the gulls and fool the Germans!"

The book covers the WW2 developments in camouflage and propaganda as well as commando raids. Often the very same people picked up where they left off in WW1. Britain's spy networks were effective in WW2, to the extent that the Germans never successfully operated agents in the UK. The work of GARBO, Juan Pujol Garcia, was a very special example.

WW2 also saw the development of large scale deception operations. The best known is Operation Fortitude, which aimed to persuade Hitler that the real D-Day landings would be in the Pas de Calais.  Montgomery credited these deception measures as playing 'a vital part in our success in Normandy'. Whole fictitious armies were created for the purpose. There were similar operations in the Meditteranean and to a lesser extent in the Pacific.

A deception plan persuaded the Germans that Auchinleck was not ready to launch his Crusader offensive because three divisions had to be diverted to the Caucasus to help the Russians. That was one of many devised by Colonel Dudley-Clarke. A better-known plan was Operation Mincemeat, which persuaded the Germans to divert troops to the Balkans before the invasion of Sicily.

This book is an excellent and comprehensive study of deception in wartime. It undoubtedly played an important part in winning both world wars, even if some of the lessons have been misunderstood in more recent years.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Castilian Knight

When I was a young lad, before videos and Netflix (yes I am getting on a bit!), the Christmas holidays meant classic films on the TV. There was one film you could guarantee would be on - El Cid, starring Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren.

Castilian Knight, is the first of Griff Hosker's series on the story. This book covers the early years of the life of El Cid, El Campeador, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar.

There are different approaches to historical fiction. This book uses a third-person narrator, in this case, William Redbeard. He is the adopted son of El Cid's father's Armiger or champion. He is tasked with training Prince Sancho's young nobles to be knights. They take part in campaigns against Moor Taifas - as Islamic Spain had been divided up into these petty kingdoms at the end of the 11th century.

Christian Spain was also divided and the book ends with the siege of Graus and battle between Castile and Aragon. El Cid has become the Prince Sancho's Armiger and defeats the Aragonese champion in individual combat.

There are few better stories to tell than El Cid and this book makes a decent go at it.

Time to dust down the armies for the tabletop. 28mm ADLG in the reduced 100 point format. Feudal Spanish v Andalusian.

Playing the Spanish I was manoeuvring my elite knights for a crushing blow on the lighter Andalusian horse when to my surprise they charged me! The melee went, on and on, until eventually weight prevailed and they were routed.

Matters went somewhat better on the left and I managed to flank the Moorish infantry.

 Game over and another triumph for El Cid! Hopefully, I will get my reward in the arms of Sofia Loren. Now I am writing the fantasy version!

Tuesday 19 May 2020

More Saxons

My latest lockdown painting has been to expand my late Saxon forces. I have a reasonable collection of armoured types, but it was time to assemble the Fyrd.

These are from the Footsore range. They don't come with spears, I had some, but I do find this irritating. If you are selling Saxon spearmen, you should provide the spear. The hands are solid enough to drill through. This is a bit of a faff but has the advantage that they are unlikely to fall off given rough tabletop handling. The shields are separate but come with a small lug. I used LBM shield transfers, which fit well and are easy to use.

The Fyrd does, of course, require a leader. And they don't come bigger than Alfred the Great. Another Footsore model with his standard-bearer.

Finally, Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed. This time the dismounted version. 

For some background reading, I picked up Osprey's Viking Warrior v Anglo-Saxon Warrior. They were very generously giving these away as ebooks at the start of lockdown.

You get a concise overview of how these warriors were recruited, trained and equipped with a couple of very nice colour plates. This is followed by a focus on three major battles during the period - Ashdown, Maldon and Stamford Bridge. As a Fulham fan, the mere mention of that name is shocking!

There is a useful analysis section at the end which concludes that they fought in a similar way, with similar weapons, using similar tactics. I have played a few games with both sides recently and they do tend to be slugfests. Tactical nuance is limited.

However, it is a great period, brought to life by Bernard Cornwell and the Last Kingdom series.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Zooming with Mercians and Vikings

This week's lockdown Zoom game pitched two fearsome women against each other. Largertha and her Viking Warband against Aethelflaed and the Mercians. We decided to use L'Art de la Guerre in the reduced 100 point format. Not only easier to manage over the cameras, but shieldwall battles can be a bit of a dice slog and extra units don't add much.

The Mercians took the initiative and advanced quickly across the table. Or as quickly as heavy spearmen can!

After a bit of skirmishing on the flanks, the shieldwalls clashed.

The Vikings generally got the better of the first round, with their impetuous bonus. The Mercians were looking a bit shaky in the next turn and on the third turn, the Mercian right flank collapsed.

The Mercian Great Fyrd in reserve was moved up to plug the gap. They don't look keen - impetuous v mediocre!

But before they could respond the Mercian left flank collapsed and it was game over. Where is Uhtred when you need him!

 The Vikings celebrated in the traditional manner!

Friday 15 May 2020

World War II Plans - That Never Happened

I am making serious inroads into my 'to read' shelf. Although if it's anything like my lead mountain, there won't be space for long!

This book by Michael Kerrigan has been there for a while, but it deserved promotion. The author clearly shares my passion for time spent at the National Archives looking through the original wartime files. He has pulled together a range of plans, not just from the UK, that never happened. Some I was familiar with, others were new.

My former job included the Highlands of Scotland, and I once extended a work trip to take my mum down the west coast. She was paddling in the sea in a beautiful secluded bay opposite the island of Gruinard. Very happy until I explained that the island was off-limits because it was contaminated with Anthrax, after a wartime experiment! What I didn't know was that the allies planned to drop 5 million spores over German pastureland, killing cows and civilians who eat the meat. It was named, ironically, Operation Vegetarian. Fortunately,  an official pointed out that the countryside affected would be uninhabitable for generations - like Gruinard.

There are several Japanese plans that the High Command eventually decided would be an overstretch. Australia was an obvious one, but another was Operation Madagascar, occupied by Vichy France. This plan caused some friction with the Germans who regarded it as within their sphere of influence. The British pre-empted the plan with Operation Ironclad, securing the long route to the Middle East with a British base.

There are several weapon plans in the book. The German Amerika bomber I had heard of, but not a similar Japanese Project Z. This was a six engined Nakajima bomber with a range of over 5,000 miles. It had a staggering 400 machine guns to ward off fighters.

There are a few plans in my own research field. Operation Handcuff was a plan to capture Rhodes, which didn't get off the ground because the Germans disarmed the Italians quickly and reinforced the island. Eisenhower wasn't prepared to divert resources to support Churchill's eastern Meditteranean adventures either.

On a similar theme, there is a chapter on the competing allied war plans for the invasion of Europe. Plus an interesting German plan to invade Turkey at the end of 1942, called Operation Gertrude.

Overall, this is an interesting look at many of the 'What-Ifs' of WW2. A concise text and profusely illustrated. Well worth a read.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia

Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians is Margaret Jones' study of the daughter of Alfred the Great who became the ruler of Mercia. This is one of those books that I was interested in but probably wouldn't have bought without a very tempting offer from Pen and Sword Books. I have also just binged my way through the latest series of The Last Kingdom, in which Aethelflaed is the central character. Mind you, Jones makes no reference to her liaison with Lord Uhtred!

The real Aethelflaed had a busy and testing childhood, as her father struggled with the Vikings. This included the period as a refugee on Athelney, after the Viking attack on Chippenham in 878AD. Her mother Ealhswith was a Mercian and she would have been brought up to be wedded to domesticity and a largely religious education. The Wessex court would have received diplomats from across Europe and many refugees and other nobles would be trained up in Alfred's care.

At the age of 15, she was married to Aethelred (yes Saxon names can confuse), an ealdorman of Mercia. The marriage strengthened his position in Mercia, something Alfred probably planned. The defeat of new Viking raids carved out a more secure Mercia, under the overlordship of Wessex.

Bernard Cornwell doesn't write a great part for Aethelred in The Last Kingdom, but he was probably better than depicted there. He built defences against Viking incursions and strengthened Mercia. He died a year after the victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall (probably not of his wounds as Cornwell depicts) and Aethelflaed found herself the sole ruler of Mercia.

Aethelflaed undoubtedly did lead the Mercians into battle against the Vikings and the Welsh, but much of her rule was spent fortifying towns and building forts in strategic positions. These are described in some detail in the book along with the Burgh system. By 916 she had constructed a formidable grid of defences, which matched those in Wessex.

She died in 918, probably of natural causes. Her daughter Aelfwynn was named as her heir, but King Edward of Wessex as overlord had other plans and forced his own son Athelstan on the Mercians.

The sources on Aethelflaed are limited, so the book is padded out with a description of what it meant to be a ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. We also get a chapter on her legacy and where you can find her today.

The core of this book still tells a remarkable story of a remarkable Queen. Female rulers were the exception and she truly was Alfred's daughter.

A good story inevitably leads to an outbreak of wargamers disease. I have a small Saxon army, mostly from the earlier period. The Footsore Miniatures bulletin sealed the order and what was my reducing lead mountain, has suddenly got bigger!

Footsore do a very nice Aethelflaed, even if her charging into battle axe in hand is probably stretching it a bit!

In addition, we have some Saxon archers. These come with separate hands and bows which involves fiddly drilling and glueing. I can't see any reason for this other than the manufacturer's convenience, which annoyed me. But they are nice models.

Alfred and some Fyrd are next onto the bench.

Monday 11 May 2020

The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle

This is Roderick Bailey's study of SOE operations in Albania during WW2. Albania was a secondary area of operations compared to Greece and Yugoslavia, but the British sent in 7,000 rifles, 5,000 SMGs and 16 million rounds of ammo, amongst other equipment.

The effort to foster resistance in Europe actually started very early in Albania. Plans were made in 1940 and the first operation was launched against the Italians in April 1941. Exiles were recruited in Istanbul, home for many Albanians who had fled the country or part of the trading community. The SOE officer, Margaret Hasluck, was one of the very few British officers who had detailed knowledge and had travelled in Albania. However, she had fixed ideological views on which Albanians should be supported and her reports were increasingly unreliable.

The book details the various missions sent to Albania by SOE. By 1943, there were three main armed groups in Albania. The nationalist Balli Kombetar was the largest, but had done very little fighting against the occupation forces and increasingly collaborated with the Germans. The monarchists, led by Abas Kupi, supported King Zog but again did very little fighting. As in the rest of the Balkans, it was the partisan LNC who did the most fighting, increasingly dominated by communists, led by Enver Hoxha. They gained support mostly in the south and with the young. The older establishment became increasingly out of touch as they collaborated in an effort to maintain power.

The British sent missions to all three groups, which in itself created tensions. However, the priority was to support those fighting the Germans, and that meant the partisans. Junior SOE officers were concerned about the impact of this after the war. There were right and left-wing SOE officers, which has resulted in a number of conspiracy theories over support for the partisans. However, we now know that the War Cabinet was focused on short-term effectiveness and they knew who was actually fighting through ULTRA intercepts. Sadly, Hoxha turned out to be one of the most paranoid post-war leaders in the Balkans, leading Albania into isolation and economic hardship.

One of the most well known SOE officers was Major Anthony Quayle, who went on to appear in a number of classic war films including, Ice Cold in Alex, The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have read a couple of memoirs of the participants, which while interesting, lacked the objectivity and access to recent sources that form the basis of this book. I would also recommend Bernd Fischer's Albania at War 1939-1945, for a wider look at the conflict.

Reading this book during the 75th-anniversary commemorations of VE Day, you cannot but admire the courage of the SOE officers who fought in some of the most inhospitable terrain in Europe.

Saturday 9 May 2020


I am not a big fantasy player, but when in the mood, Dragon Rampant usually scratches the itch. However, I thought I would give Joseph McCullough's new rules for fantasy battles a try. I have played his skirmish games, Rangers of Shadow Deep and Frostgrave. I generally enjoyed these games, other than the use of D20 dice. Oathmark uses multiple D10s which should deliver a more consistent outcome.

The first thing that attracted me to these rules is the absence of a fixed setting. You can pick your nation from the main fantasy Tolkein races - Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins, and can also have units from different races in the same army. There are army lists built into the rule book, with stats for most of the figures you are likely to have. Strangely, there is torsion artillery but no crossbows. Dwarves without crossbows, what is the fantasy gaming world coming to!

There is a tidy campaign system which allows for recruitment and defends your core city. While North Star do a range of figures, you can use existing ranges.

The rules are pretty straightforward. I have a few queries after my first game, but nothing major. You can download a decent QRS from Osprey.

Units are activated using two D10, needing to roll higher than their activation stat. In my game that was a 5 or 6, so the odds are pretty good that your troops will take two actions per move e.g. move and shoot. Even if you fail, a simple move is allowed.

Shooting and combat generally involve a D10 for each figure in the front line, usually five, with modifiers for ranks and the usual flank, hills etc. You deduct the fight or shoot stat from the targets defence stat, then apply modifiers. While your unit is at full strength, maximum of 20 figures in four ranks, this gives a reasonable odds. But attrition will make it difficult later in the game.

Units taking casualties have to take a morale test with modifiers for casualties. It wasn't clear if that was cumulative or in that turn. I played it as cumulative and that means units don't hang around for too long once casualties mount up.

There are a range of special abilities which reflect the different races - Orcs wild charge, that sort of thing. There are also advanced rules, which add in characterisation, magic and strange events when doubles are rolled on activation.

So, on to the tabletop, having dusted down my old fantasy figures. My first kingdom is Leonis, a play on the Latin for Lion in the North. Essentially an excuse to use early medieval Scots, with a few Dwarfs when I work out a stat for crossbows! The evil opponents (Orcs and Goblins) are Malumter, another play on the Latin. If only my Latin was this good at university Law School!

The Leonis axemen (Varangians) grabbed the hill and fought off the Orcs. However, a couple of trolls crashed into their flank and that was that.

The peasant spearmen did much better holding off the trolls and two units of Goblin spearmen. Up the workers!

This gave the archers, who had disposed of their Goblin counterparts, time to shoot up the Trolls, recapture the hill and rain death on the disorganised enemy. Score two to the workers!

The Goblin wolf riders almost saved the day coming around the flank, but the Leonis horse fought them off.

It was a good game and the rules played well. I can have some fun with imaginations and it may even inspire me to finish painting all those Conan figures.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Roman Conquests: The Danube Frontier

This book is Michael Schmitz's overview of Roman engagements on the Danube frontier from the first landings in Illyria, to the end of the Imperial period. Later events including the Goths at Adrianople are touched on in the final chapter.

The Romans started their engagement in the Balkans by tackling piracy on the Dalmatian coast and modern-day Albania. This led to the creation of Illyricum and then the occupation of Greece after defeating Macedonia.

By the end of the Republic, Rome had started to expand northwards, fighting wars against the Pannonians, Raetia, Noricum, Dalmatians, Daesitiates, Breuci and others. This took the border to the Danube and Rome's biggest challenge - the Dacians and their allies, including the Sarmatians.

Not that the advance was easy given the nature of the terrain. Many tribes held fortresses high in the mountains and there were frequent rebellions. Rome never had enough troops to properly garrison the whole empire, and so tribes often rebelled when they thought Rome's attention was elsewhere. Emperor's were often required to revisit conquests and the Danube frontier always had a high priority, not least because of its closeness to Italy.

The Dacians were a particular challenge because they were able to build a state from the divergent tribes. Rome, like most empires, relied on divide and rule. Even when not unified they were strong enough to challenge the Romans on both sides of the Danube. The Dacian fortresses in the modern Transylvanian Alps were well sited and required the best of Roman siegecraft to overcome. The Dacians are believed to have used Roman deserters to train their troops in the Roman way of war. This is reflected in the strategies adopted by the most capable Dacian kings.

Several Roman emperors led punitive campaigns into Dacia, but it took two campaigns by Trajan to capture the region and turn it into a province. This province was something of salient, open to attack from all sides, and was eventually abandoned in AD 271.

The Danube frontier stretched over 2,800km, the longest natural border in Europe. Many attempts were made by the most famous Imperial Roman commanders to subdue the various threats, with mixed success. Eventually, Rome was unable to maintain the forces required and a defensive strategy resulted in the frontier being breached on a regular basis.

This is a good overview of the many and complex campaigns fought on and around this crucial frontier. There are more detailed accounts of the key campaigns including the wars in Illyricum and the Dacian Wars.  But this is a good starting point.

A couple of pictures from my games of Hail Caesar using Dacian and Roman armies.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Finishing the Soviets

This week's lockdown painting has been focused on 'finishing' the Soviet army for Fortress Budapest. 

First up are the Soviet assault engineers. Up until around October 1942, the Soviets organised engineers and similar units into sapper armies made up of two to four sapper brigades. A sapper brigade controlled 19 sapper battalions, each with a strength of 497 men. These huge organisations, up to 50,000 men, were important in building the defences around Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad. However, after that period they needed greater flexibility and units were increasingly broken up and allocated to fronts as required.

Assault engineers were specialised units tasked with destroying strongpoints and clearing obstacles under fire. Dangerous work and therefore they were often equipped with body armour. These models are from Warlord.

Tidying up my 'to paint' draw, I found another pack of Great Escape Games Romanian riflemen. I have taken out the riflemen in caps for another project. They are the closest models I have yet found for Turkish infantry of WW2. 

So, this is the team photo for the Soviets, less the Romanians, who I might add to in the future. In the meantime onto to new projects!