Welcome to my blog!

News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Friday 31 July 2020

WW2 Turkish army on the tabletop

My latest project is probably, even for me, one of the more obscure armies of WW2. Not least because they declared war against the Axis in February 1945, and didn't get any fighting units into action before VE Day. However, that doesn't quite mean that they didn't fire a shot in anger, and there are many times when they came close to joining the conflict, under pressure from both sides. While most historians, with some justification, sniff at 'what-ifs', the wargamer can indulge quite happily.

That said, there are a few challenges. There are no Osprey books with shiny colour plates, in fact, very little published material at all, even in Turkish. My main source was a handbook written for the British War Office (in the National Archives), probably by a military attache attached to the embassy. I also think he made a few mistakes, which doesn't make matters easier.

There are pictures, although in black and white, and a few items of militaria. We can reasonably assume that the posed public relations photos show the smartest and best equipped troops. There are some pictures of troops on campaign suppressing a rebellion prior to the war, which back up the British handbook's view that rank and file troops were provided with “very shoddy, ill-fitting clothes which in most cases, look extremely shabby, more especially in the east.”

Finding suitable models of Turkish equipment is not that difficult. because there was virtually no indigenous arms industry. They also used a bewildering amount of different weapons, which must have been a supply nightmare. 

Models of infantry figures require some conversion. The best equipped troops had a helmet, which looks almost identical to the French Adrian helmet. The rest had a cap, which the nearest equivalent is the Romanian, Chinese or Japanese version. The other distinguishing feature is that almost all the photos show troops wearing gaiters over their leggings. The summer tunic colour is described as khaki coloured canvass, which appears to come in many shades of sand colour according to manufacturer and wear and tear. I suspect many of the helmets were painted the same colour as the uniform, some look even lighter in B&W, but the only one I have actually seen is dark green. If I can find some hard evidence of other colours, I can always repaint.

I decided to start the project at 15mm, not least because you can get away with more than at 28mm. Although I have held back the cap wearing Romanians from the Great Escape Games range to have a go. The closest fit for the helmet wearing infantry I have found so far are the Battlefront Miniatures WW2 French Tirailleurs. They don't have the greatcoat and the five button tunic is a good match. They have leggings, so a bit of work with a file, gives a suitably creased gaiter. 

The cap wearing models were a bit more tricky. All the Romanians I could find are helmeted. The Chinese have bandoliers, which leaves the Japanese. Peter Pig do some packs without the sun flap, so I plumped for them. Again some work with the file on the leggings.

The intention was to retain colours on the battlefield for morale purposes. I suspect that wouldn't have lasted long had they joined the conflict. However, I have kept one for a command element. Anti-tank guns were limited, but they used the French 25mm and the German 37mm, which were easily sourced.

In March 1940 they had 100 Russian T26 tanks and 50 French R35s. The T26s come from my SCW army along with a BA6 armoured car, which they also had. Helpfully, they appear to have retained the Russian green.

I went for the Peter Pig R35 as I was ordering from them anyway.

The army needs some more rifle units and a 75mm field gun. Later in the war they acquired German Pkw III and IVs, plus British Valentine, Shermans, more Vickers and other stuff I have in abundance. Opponents can be German, Russian, British and Bulgarian, depending on the period. Now, Bulgarians, there's an idea! 


Sunday 26 July 2020

War Plan Red

War Plan Red is the name of a secret US plan to overthrow the British Empire during the interwar years. It is the subject of a book by Graham Simons, which covers the plan and subsequent US intelligence gathering during WW2.

The idea of the USA and the United Kingdom at war seems ridiculous today given both countries fought as allies in two world wars, and more controversially, the 'special relationship' that has supposedly existed ever since. However, the world looked a different place after WW1, when many in the USA railed against British command of seas, which impinged on the US policy of freedom of the seas. The rights of neutral states meant little if belligerents had effective control of the seas, something that the UK regarded as essential to link together its empire and dominions. This was reflected in the various efforts to limit naval expansion after WW1.

The US war planners developed War Plan Red (they colour coded countries and the UK was red) in response to a possible UK attack from Canada and on US maritime interests, specifically sealing off the Panama Canal, using bases in the Caribbean.  The plan set out various options, ranging from sealing off Canada to outright invasion and occupation. The naval options included dominating the sea lanes between the UK and Canada as well as defeating the Royal Navy in the Caribbean. 

The plan documentation is very detailed and most of it is reproduced in the book, which admittedly doesn't make for easy reading. It covers the political as well as military operations. The discussion regarding Canada is particularly interesting, including the possibility that Canada might declare neutrality (Dominions had that option), and that this might be welcomed by the UK, which would avoid having to defend such an isolated ally. Naval planners regarded the seizure of Halifax in Nova Scotia as the key to control of the sea lanes and the plan includes various options for achieving this.

The plan was championed by those within the military establishment who promoted the concept of American imperialism. This tapped into the views of Far-Right groups who were larger and more influential than many realised. The book explores the various white supremacist and anti-semitic groups, their use of the radio as the new media of its day and the networks of political support in Congress. The American Dream was fine, so long as it was controlled by a small group of rich white businessmen like Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie and JP Morgan. If this all sounds familiar today - it should!

The final third of the book takes the story to the UK at the outbreak of WW2. War Plan Red may have been shelved but that didn't mean there wasn't strident opposition to the USA joining the war from Imperialists and Isolationists. The appointment of Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) as ambassador to the UK is covered in detail. Kennedy was strongly opposed to joining the war and, at the very least, was not unsympathetic to the Nazis.

The USA then established a large intelligence-gathering operation in London, with the agreement of the British government. This grew into much more than normal 'spying' and dealt with lend-lease, the occupation of Iceland and much more. The outputs from this work including the important Chaney Report of 1940, seem to be less about spying on the British and more learning the lessons from the war. There is nothing new in this as military observers from neutral countries were attached to armies throughout the 19th century, They provide some of our most useful sources on conflicts like the Russo-Turkish War.

War Plan Red is a fascinating story and deserves telling, including the American political context. The link to later events in the UK is possibly a bit tenuous. While it may have formed the basis for the Cold War activities of the CIA, that doesn't seem to be the focus in 1939-40. 

The extensive reproduction of documents in the main text makes the book hard going in places. It might have been better to put them into appendices and pick out the key points in the text. The text is broken up by the extensive use of period photographs, and while they are interesting, they often don't have much relevance to the story being told. 

War Plan Red is a great story. Importantly, it was approved at the highest level and wasn't just an academic exercise to keep military planners busy. For the wargamer, it offers a number of new scenarios for interwar armies and naval gaming in particular.     

Saturday 25 July 2020

Sea of Spies

Spy thrillers are not my usual bedtime reading, but I made an exception for this one based in the Balkans during WW2 and written by Alex Gerlis.

Our hero is Richard Prince, a British police officer turned spy. This is the second in the series and the book starts after his return from the first mission inside Nazi Germany. There is a sub-plot relating to his missing son and some love interest with a Danish police officer current residing in a German concentration camp.

The focus of this book is the supply of chromite from Turkey to the Germans. In the book, the Turks deny supplying this mineral and Prince is sent out to Istanbul to get the evidence. Istanbul was a lively spot in WW2, with the rival intelligence services operating in the city, and the Turks attempting to maintain their neutrality. The atmosphere is well captured in the early chapters.

Prince is struggling to get any evidence and falls in with local Jewish criminal elements who in return for helping them, find the chrome shipping dock. This help involves a trip to occupied Greece with some close escapes from capture. On his return, he is taken to the dock where he takes photos. Needing more evidence, he is smuggled onto the ship and follows the chromite from Istanbul to Romania and then up the Danube before arriving at the Czech factory complex at Pilsen. He links up with the local resistance who help him to plan a route home.

I won't spoil the detail of the story, which gallops along and rarely leaves the reader bored. 

The basic plot is based on fact. The giant Škoda factory in Pilsen was renamed Reichswerke Hermann Göring during the war and was turned by the Nazis into a major armaments’ manufacturer. Turkish chromite did end up there and was added to steel making it harder and less likely to rust.

It is certainly the case that the British wanted to stop the exports, but I am not sure it was much of a secret, or that the Turks denied the shipments. In October 1941, the Clodius Agreement was signed whereby Turkey agreed to export up 45,000 tons of chromite ore to Germany in 1941-1942, and 90,000 tons of the mineral in each of 1943 and 1944, contingent on Germany's supplies of military equipment to Turkey. The Germans were to provide as many as 117 railway locomotives and 1,250 freight rail cars to transport the ore. This still honoured agreements with Britain, so actually fell short of what the Germans wanted. They swallowed the deal given that Turkey was their major source of the mineral.

However, this is fiction and it makes a good story, very well told.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Tito's Underground Air Base

This is a new book by Bojan Dimitrijevic and Milan Micevski about the Yugoslav airbase at Bihac (Zeljava) between 1964 and 1992.

The Jugoslav Air Force and Air Defence Force (JRV i PVO) is interesting, not least because of Yugoslavia's non-aligned status, but also because of its defence strategy (whole-scale people's defence war), which had more in common with Switzerland and Sweden than other European countries. Initially equipped with US aircraft, the JRV i PVO started to receive MIG 21 aircraft in 1962. It was these aircraft that were based at Bihac.

In the mid-1950s, the JRV i PVO decided it would need to strengthen its airfield defence to include shelters and the ability to survive a nuclear attack. This led to the idea of underground shelters, despite the cost. One country that had some underground facilities was Sweden, which allowed the Yugoslavs to examine them.

Bihac was chosen because it was a central position for air defence and was close to what is today the international boundary between Bosnia and Croatia. I have visited Bihac, a very pleasant town, a couple of times and had no idea this airbase was there. The underground section known as 'The Objekt', was built under Plesevica Mountain, which had lots of natural cracks and caves. A series of galleries were constructed along which the aircraft moved before exiting straight onto one of five runways. These were quite short for takeoff, supplemented by two much longer runways for landing.

The author's take the reader through the concept and construction phases between 1958 and 1968. Then its operation phase between 1968 and 1990, based on archives and interviews with serving officers. This includes details of the many MIG 21 variants that operated from the base, mainly as part of the 117th regiment. Finally, its role in the war of 1991-92 following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which as a consequence meant the airbase was abandoned.

The book is profusely illustrated with period photographs, supplemented by more of Tom Cooper's excellent colour plates of the MIG 21 aircraft. A fascinating study.

Saturday 18 July 2020

Indo-Pakistani War 1965

My painting this week has been to finish off the Indian and Pakistan armies for the 1965 war. Mostly tanks last week, the fun bit, so there was no avoiding the little men this week. Not only my eyes, but my big hands made this somewhat challenging.

Anyway we got there. Here are the Pakistani's, defending the village.

The village is from the Hovels 1/300 range. Looking at rural buildings in Punjab on Google images, they have a Middle East appearance, certainly closer than their Vietnam range. On the right is some anti-tank support with a jeep mounted RCL.

And in the centre, infantry supported by their M113 carriers. The Pakistani forces were more mobile than the Indians in this conflict.

Then the Indians. They had some M3 half-tracks, but mostly lorry borne. They also used jeep mounted RCLs.

Finally, onto the tabletop for a game using Cold War Commander. I see from the forum that a revised edition is being worked on.

Indian infantry supported by AMX 13 and Shermans, with a battery of 25pdrs on the hill.

That's the 1965 armies done. However, 1971 beckons, and I have already ordered the top-up units needed for that conflict. Wargamers disease!

Thursday 16 July 2020

No Stars to Guide

This is Adrian Seligman's account of his WW2 exploits taking a Russian oil tanker from Istanbul to Beirut. Turkey was neutral at this time. However, the journey back to a British base involved sailing past the German and Italian occupied Aegean and Dodecanese islands.

Seligman was a Royal Navy Reserve officer who with two other officers was ordered to Istanbul in December 1941. Istanbul was the proverbial nest of spies, and while there was some informal cooperation from the Turkish authorities, German intelligence was active in attempting to stop the ships leaving. The description of life in Istanbul has some similarities to the descriptions in Midnight at the Pera Palace, and it was certainly a lively spot.

Eventually, they get clearance to leave and Seligman joins his ship called the Olinda, which is crewed by an eclectic mix of White Russians, Arabs, Chinese and Maltese sailors. He has to communicate mostly in French. The previous ship movement had been torpedoed and sunk by the Germans just outside the Dardanelles. The plan for the Olinda was to disguise it as a Turkish cargo ship and sail down the coast in daylight.

The Olinda got through the Dardanelles barrage at the second go and made its way down the coast. The disguise didn't last long. The ship was attacked by German aircraft and Seligman had to revert to the original plan of sailing at night and laying up during the day. This involved some pretty tricky sailing along the rocky coast. The Axis forces frequently ignored Turkish neutrality by crossing into their waters, but of course, so did the British. 

When he thought they were through the worse the ship grounded on sandbanks. The charts were always vague on these. However, they eventually got free and avoided the Axis searching forces again to break into open sea and safety.

While there may be some license with the dialogue, the transcript was written soon after the war. In fact, the author sent a copy to the Director of Navy Accounts who in 1946 queried his expenses for the trip! If you find the Istanbul section a bit tedious, skip on to the second part, which covers the journey. That is a cracking read.

The actions in this book would make the basis of a decent Cruel Seas scenario. The Olinda was chased by E-Boats and Italian MAS boats. The Axis also made use of local Caiques for spotting. A few Turkish launches make an appearance, and you could always add the Royal Navy in for additional interest. 

This could be the Olinda.

An E-Boat and German submarine lurking

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Porphyry and Blood

I so enjoyed the first in Peter Sandham's series that I decided to move straight onto the second. This one is very firmly based in the Balkans, so it wasn't a difficult choice.

At the conclusion of the first book, our heroine, Anna Notaras, was escaping from the fall of Constantinople. Sady, it would appear that the Scottish hero didn't make it. Anna is now in Venice, acting as if she was the Basilissa, wife of the deceased Emperor Constantine. 

She is persuaded by Venice to go on a diplomatic mission to Wallachia, where Vlad the Impaler is about to take on the might of the Ottoman Empire. Needless to say, this is not a straightforward journey across the 15th century Balkans, even without treachery, and more subplots than you can shake an impaled body at!

One of those subplots involves intrigue in the Ottoman court led by the Sultan's father's wife Mara Brancovic, or Valide Mara Hatun, to give her the Ottoman title. The chief physician is her interesting helper as well as the extended family in what remains of Serbia. 

I won't spoil the many plots, but Anna arrives in Wallachia and is present at Vlad's famous Night Attack on the Ottoman camp.

The book sticks to the broad historical story and the characters often existed, even if their roles are extended in the book. It is another great read, faster-paced than the first, with plenty to keep the reader engaged.

A tasteful vignette from my 15mm Wallachian army.

Sunday 12 July 2020

India-Pakistan Wars on the tabletop

I have been reading a fair amount about the various India v Pakistan conflicts recently. As a consequence, wargamers disease has struck. For those not familiar with these conflicts the main wars were:

  • 1947 - Just after partition over Kashmir. The cause of most conflicts ever since as it was partitioned. 
  • 1965 - Pakistan tried to infiltrate Jammu and Kashmir. India counterattacked into West Pakistan resulting in the largest tank battles since WW2. Score draw to India.
  • 1971 - Largely over East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which with Indian help broke away from Pakistan. Battles on the western border also went badly for Pakistan.
  • 1999 - Known as the Kargil War, fought high in the mountains of Kashmir after Pakistan troops and insurgents seized mountain tops in the Indian held region. Indian counter-attack eventually succeded in regaining lost territory.
In addition to these wars, there has been an ongoing low-intensity conflict and many skirmishes along the border. The most dramatic was the Siachen Glacier conflict of 1984. China has also increasingly become involved in the high-level conflicts. 

So, where to start. Perhaps not at the beginning, at least for now. The 1965 War with its big tank battles looks very appealing. Reading the Osprey duel series, 'M48 Patton v Centurion' sealed it. 

There is surprisingly little from Osprey on these conflicts, so this is very welcome. As always the colour plates are very helpful. I also dusted down my Orbis 'War in Peace' volumes, which had some useful articles and a few colour pictures. 

The next decision was the scale. While many of the low-intensity conflicts are probably best done in 20mm, for big tank battles it has to be micro-armour. As I was starting from scratch, this seemed to be a good opportunity to use the GHQ 1/285 range I have long admired. Wallet warning, this is not a cheap option. As I happily clicked away, I was quite shocked how quickly, even a modest-sized force adds up. However, they are lovely little models with a fantastic level of detail. They also come with instructions when an assembly is required - other wargame manufacturers please take note! These are the instructions for the 25pdr.

The first batch of painting is now done. My method is to prime the base colour. Add any extra colours, typically brown and gunmetal. Then apply a brown wash and finally dry brush. I had assumed desert terrain, and there is some of this on the southern front, but the main battles took place in very green and lush fields.

My Indian base force is largely done, with mainly the infantry bases to do.

The cutting edge are the Centurion tanks. One of my favourites.

They are supported by Russian PT 76 light tanks and the French AMX 13.

Finally, 25pdrs and a Bofors AA.

 Then onto the Pakistan forces. More to do with these, but the starter force is done.

While the Indian forces had mostly British equipment, with increasing Russian influences, Pakistan was largely supplied by the USA. The cutting edge is the M48 Patton.

Then Chafee light tanks.

 And finally some big M198 howitzers and the ubiqutious Bofors.

My ruleset of choice at this scale for this period is Cold War Commander. These forces will give me plenty of choice.

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Adventures in My Youth

You will be relieved to hear not mine (that wouldn't be printable) but rather Armin Scheiderbauer, a young German soldier on the eastern front in WW2.

These are the memoirs of a German infantry officer, serving in a number of standard Wehrmacht units on the eastern front. He wasn't famous, although he was decorated for bravery, and in many ways that is the strength of the book. It describes the experiences of an ordinary soldier in quite extraordinary conditions.

He was the eldest son of a Protestant minister, brought up in a religious household. He doesn't duck the challenges of living under the Nazis, but his focus was always on joining the army as soon as he left school in 1941. He describes the training and his first actions before he was sent back to Germany for officer training. 

His first command was in the spring of 1943 when the tide was turning on the eastern front. Much of the narrative describes defensive actions as his units retreated back through Poland and into Germany. It is pretty grim, particularly for officers whom both sides targeted. In early 1944, when he was recovering from a wound, he learned that of the 40 officers in the regiment at the beginning of the offensive the previous year, only three were still with the regiment.

I was particularly interested to note his frequent references to Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and of course the retreat. He was very aware of being in the same place, including when he was crossing the Beresina River. His unit even dug up a Napoleonic eagle when constructing a trench.

There are a number of interesting combat details that might be missed in higher-level accounts. The way Russian artillery ranged in using airburst shells. Also the Russian use of observation balloons, something I thought ended after the First World War.

In early 1945, the 'company' he commanded had 10 men with only 50 in the battalion. He was seriously wounded and captured. Armin was more fortunate than many because he returned from captivity in the autumn of 1947, just over six years after joining the army. So ended the adventure of his youth. He was not yet 24 years old!

It has to be said that this is not an easy read. However, if you want to understand what infantry action on the eastern front was really like, this is the book you need to read.

Monday 6 July 2020

Catherine the Great

My addiction to Russian TV series on Netflix is continuing. In our house it's a battle for the remote between my sub-titles and my wife's DIY programmes.

I watched the 2015 series 'Catherine the Great' a little while back and I have just finished 'Ekaterina' which covers the same historical ground. Both were filmed largely in St Petersburg, albeit with the aid of a fair bit of modern film animation.

The focus is on the palace plots and coup that brought Catherine to power. Not to mention her many romances. However, the history runs parallel with it. The battle scenes are decent if a little on the skirmish side.

Season 3 of Ekaterina has the Russo-Turkish War as a backdrop, which ended in 1774 with Russian gains in the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji. This reminded me that I had figures for the campaign that had been gathering dust for some time. When I look at these 6-8mm Adler figures through my eyesight today, I wonder how they were painted!

I have a decent-sized Russian army, but only modest Ottoman forces. So it was Rebels and Patriots using millimetres rather than inches, 24 points a side.

The Ottoman Arnaut marksmen drew the Russians in to allow the Sipahi cavalry to counter-attack. However, the disciplined Russian volleys got the best of the engagement and it was another victory for Catherine. 

That's it for Russian TV for a while. Back to Ertugrul. Still, 100 or so episodes to go! Where are those Seljuk armies?

Wednesday 1 July 2020

The Portrait of a General - Charles Colville

I am now at the stage when I am digging deep into my 'to read' shelves, reaching tomes that I bought on the basis that they looked interesting but never quite got to the top of the pile. This book by John Colville is a biography of his ancestor who was one of Wellington's less well-known generals.

He came from a Scottish military family and was commissioned at the age of eleven, which even for the period was young. His studies included a spell in France, before the revolution, before joining his regiment at age sixteen. He served in the West Indies and Egypt before heading to Portugal with Picton's 3rd Division.

Picton was not the easiest commander to serve under, but Colville appears to have got on well with him as a brigade commander. He fought in most of the major battles and sieges of that campaign, and a few minor ones such as El Bodon. He acted up in Picton's absence and also commanded the 4th Division during General Cole's absence.

The book is largely based on Colville's letters home to his family. His descriptions of the dreadful sieges at Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo are particularly vivid. He was wounded at Badajoz. Other letters can be a bit tedious but give a flavour of the priorities and concerns of senior officers of the period.

As the campaign rolled across Spain, Colville was mostly with the 3rd Division and played an important part in the decisive Battle of Vitoria. He commanded the 6th Division over the Pyrenees and into France, before returning to command the 3rd Division once again. When Picton yet again returned he was given permanent command of the 5th Division. By the campaign's end, he had commanded most of the army's divisions at some time.

When the army was reassembled for the Waterloo campaign, Colville was in Britain and was appointed to command the 4th Division. he wasn't at the battle, being ordered to secure the army's right flank. He remained a divisional commander during the occupation. On returning home he married and started a family, before being appointed as Commander-in-Chief at Bombay.

Sir Charles Colville probably won't be remembered as one of Wellington's more famous generals. However, he was obviously regarded as a safe pair of hands who fought it just about all the main campaigns of the period. This book isn't a racy read, but it does give the reader an insight into the thinking of a senior soldier of the period through his private letters.

The general in the middle from my 28mm collection looks a bit like him!