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

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Bloody Big Battles - 1st Inonu

 I took a day off writing this week to play a game of Bloody Big Battles. An elegant ruleset that I should play more often allows battles to be fought on a grand tactical scale with 15mm figures. Having recently read Salvation and Catastrophe, a detailed study of the Greek-Turkish War 1919-23, I was keen to try that conflict on the tabletop. I was moved to action when the author of the Bloody Big Balkan Battles supplement for these rules (Konstantinos Travlos) kindly sent me a draft of a scenario he and his collaborator, Onur Buyuran, have written for the early stages of Battle of 1st Inonu.

The Greek-Turkish War 1919-23 attempted to expand the Greek state to include Greek populations in Anatolia, taking advantage of the Ottoman defeat in WW1. An army landed in the predominately Greek city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) and advanced towards the newly formed Turkish Grand National Assembly forces, led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk). The Turks withdrew, causing the Greeks to extend and protect their lines of communication. 

The scenario for this game deals with a reconnaissance in force by the Greeks to test the Turkish defences along the approaches from Bursa/Prusa towards Eski-Shehir on 28 December 1920 to 10 January 1921. I do like a centenary! The Greek force consisted of elements of two divisions, which were not ordered to occupy Eski-Shehir itself, instead the town of Inonu was the operational objective. The Turkish forces were commanded by Ismet Pasha (later to become the Turkish President and take this battle as his surname). The Turks had similar numbers of men but fewer machine guns and artillery.

This is the tabletop at the start of the game with the Turks entrenched on the east of the stream and the Greeks forming up in the west. The larger building on the nearest edge represents the Greek objective, the town of Inonu.

The Greeks were organised into two regimental sized battlegroups, which aimed to break through the gaps on either side of the high ground. The initial Turkish defence fire was dire, while the Greek artillery immediately caused heavy casualties and disrupted the Turkish units. This set the tone for Turkish dice rolling throughout the game!

This offensive fire allowed the Greeks to capture the villages of Kovalka in the south and Bozoyuk in the north without even having to mount an assault.

The Turks improvised a second line of defence in the north and dug in around the town of Inonu. The heavily outnumbered scratch force in the north held on for a couple of moves, but Inonu's defenders quickly collapsed. 

Objective secured for the Greeks by move 6 of 8. The scenario provides the chance that Turkish reinforcements could arrive in move 7 or 8. Needless to say, the dice said No!

 Complete victory for the Greeks by the end of move 8, who will be celebrating with the captured raki stores in Inonu tonight. 

I hope Konstantinos and Onur are working on the Battle of 2nd Inonu. The President is not likely to want to adopt this battle as his surname without a chance for a comeback!

While it was a walkover for the Greeks, the scenario is actually pretty balanced. With a bit more luck, the Turks could have held their initial positions long enough to allow the Turkish reinforcements to arrive. The authors have made a few tweaks to the rules for this conflict, largely to take account of the terrain, artillery deployment, and the use of machine guns. These look about right to me and it was an enjoyable game.

Saturday 26 December 2020

To the Strongest! El Cid

 With my daughter glued to her Nintendo Switch and my wife tackling a Chrismas jigsaw, I had control of the remote on Xmas Day. So, it was MacArthur, The Longest Day and finally El Cid. In my pre-multi channel TV childhood, this great film had a guaranteed slot on the holiday schedules. I even owned a VHS copy of it at one point.

It guided another decision, which armies to field for a promised Boxing Day game of To the Strongest! with a friend who was stuck at home alone because of the pandemic measures. We decided on a small 80 point game, which works well over Zoom, not least because the cards are very visual and the squares avoid measuring. It also allowed me to go through the newly produced army lists. Simon has brought the large collection of army lists for these rules into two booklets, making it a lot easier to find what you want.

El Cid meant moving away from the lists I wrote in the Medieval Balkans section, to Feudal Spanish and Al Andalus.

The Moorish light infantry damaged the Spanish, but as ever it was the Spanish heavy cavalry that decided the day. Smashing through their lighter opponents, even when I managed to position them on a hill. Charlton will be returning to the arms of Sophia on this occasion!


Thursday 24 December 2020

Syria: A Recent History

 The war in Syria may have been largely missing from our TV screens, but the conflict's misery is very real for Syrians. In this book, John McHugo looks at Syria's history with a focus from the 20th century to the present-day conflict.

Shaam (or Greater Syria, as it used to be called) is divided between modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and includes part of southern Turkey. It literally means 'the land to the left' and points out that modern borders are artificial constructs drawn largely on a map in the 20th century. 

After the Ottomans were defeated in 1918, the main colonial interest came from France who sought to spread their values through its self-appointed mission civilisatrice or 'civilising mission'. They engaged in the typical divide and rule policies of the colonial powers, promoting the varied ethnic and religious groups. Syria has a particularly diverse makeup. In 1914, 20% of the population was Christian, although they fought amongst themselves as much as their neighbours of the Muslim or Jewish faith. Similarly, the Muslim peoples were divided into the great schism between the Shias and Sunnis and the Alawis, Druze and the Kurds. 

The French struggled to find the resources to police Syria and frequently resorted to repression when quashing revolts. The Maydan revolt in 1926 involved what may well have been the most intensive and systematic aerial bombardments against a civilian population that had taken place up to that time anywhere in the world, as their planes returned to bomb villages daily. Large numbers of colonial troops were often brought in from Algeria, Senegal and Madagascar and a significant role was also played by badly disciplined militias.

After WW2, the newly independent state of Syria and its offshoot in Lebanon got drawn into the Cold War. Syria and the West had different views of what constituted a threat to security. For America and Britain, security in the Middle East involved keeping the area free of Communism and Soviet influence. For Arabs, it was primarily about liberating themselves from foreign domination, defending themselves against Israel and restoring the Palestinians' rights.

In time the Ba’thist party elite took the place of the notables and, later still, neglected the poor who had now become dependent on them. They also found themselves forced to rely on quasi-tribal solidarity. That was the story of the Assads and the Alawi community. For most of this period, Syria was ruled by Hafez al-Assad. While the regime was corrupt and repressive, it also modernised Syria with education, piped water and reduced infant mortality. 

He was followed by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who initially appeared to support democratic reforms but quickly resorted to his father's repressive ways. This led to the current civil war, in which Syria is once again the plaything of foreign interests (see Tom Cooper's book on the Russian military role). Regional actors have lined up behind sectarian ideologies, caring little for the suffering on the ground. Solutions often resort to the old Western disease of drawing pretty lines on maps and then expecting Greater Syria's peoples to step neatly into the zones marked with the particular colour chosen for them. Things do not work like that in practice. It was ultimately only possible to establish a predominantly Jewish state in Palestine by widespread population displacement, and the same would be required in Syria.

This book is a good overview of the recent history of Syria and the surrounding region. It isn't a cheerful read, but it helps us understand the context of the current conflict.

It also inspired me to dust down my Arab-Israeli armies in 10mm. Using Cold War Commander for a 1973 scenario. The Syrian army in 1973 performed better than expected, certainly much improved on its dismal 1967 showing. However, in this game, the two Israeli battlegroups managed to blast through the flanks and capture the objective with few casualties.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Fistful of Lead

 My wargaming pals at the club have played a lot of the skirmish game, Fistful of Lead, during the various stages of lockdown that have halted our face to face gaming. So, I thought I would give it a go. 

These are genuine skirmish games, typically played with six to eight models on each side. The core ruleset was developed from the Old West gunfight game, which is still available. The core set covers all periods, but there are supplements for a couple of periods, and there are Horse & Musket and Sci-Fi versions. 

The basic mechanism is a card activated system using playing cards to determine which figure goes first. You can then take two actions, e.g. movement, shooting etc. Shooting and combat use a D10 with a few modifiers, and the outcome can cause shaken or wounded/down markers on the target, or sometimes an outright kill. Shaken and down markers can be recovered as an action. You can increase complexity by adding traits, which can add specialist skills or positive and negative traits.

The rules make no pretence at being a simulation. Instead, they provide a fast and fun game. They can be downloaded as PDF's rather than the cost and tribulations of getting the printed books from the USA.

I also bought the Mexican Revolution supplement, which was an opportunity to dust down my 28mm figures for the period. The first game involved Pancho Villa attacking a village held by the Federales.

In the second game, the Federales had created a gun position outside a church (is nothing sacred!). The Villaistas tried to pin them down before a characteristic mad cavalry charge. One round from the gun, and admittedly some impressive dice rolling and that came to nought.

For the final game, I shifted the period to the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-22. The Greeks held a bridge which had to be taken by the Turks.

I also bought the Horse & Musket set of the rules and will give that a go over the holidays.

My first impression is very favourable. There are plenty of times when I fancy a quick game, particularly using figures that don't get a regular outing. I will probably stick with Open Combat for the pre-gunpowder period, but these work well for the later periods. 

Saturday 19 December 2020

Hereward - The Immortals

 This is the latest in James Wilde's historical fiction series based on Hereward the Wake. We don't have good primary sources on Hereward's life, but he was part of the resistance to William the Conquerer's occupation of England after 1066. He was based in the fenland of the east of England around Ely.

After monks betrayed a route into Ely to the Normans, the revolt was defeated. It is not clear what happened to Hereward. He may have continued the guerilla struggle or made his peace with William. The alternative as proposed in this book is that he left England, like so many Anglo-Saxon lords, and found his way to Constantinople.

Hereward and his warband didn't have the resources to join the Varangian Guard, so they signed up as mercenaries. They get drawn into the plots and counter-plots that bedevilled the Byzantine Empire of the period. The main element of the story revolves around the Norman adventurer, Roussel de Bailleul. He is another of those interesting Normans who left his native land to find fame and fortune in Italy and then the Byzantine Empire. He was a mercenary commander sent to defend the borders, only to establish his own mini-state based on the modern-day Turkish capital of Ankara. He backed a usurper for the throne but the sneaky Byzantines paid the Turks to attack and capture him. 

In this story, Hereward is sent to rescue John Doukas with a Byzantine elite unit called the Athenoi or Immortals. This unit includes one Alexios Comnenus who would go on to become one of the more able Byzantine Emperors, but that is another story. The History of Byzantium podcast is currently covering his life and times and is well worth a listen.

As usual, I won't spoil the plot, but it is a great story well told. I enjoyed the first in this series but found the next a little hard going. However, this is a great page-turner with everything you could want from historical fiction. I do hope he develops this story further.

It also inspired me to get out the Saga battle boards and fight a couple of skirmishes based on the book. I used the Age of Crusades supplement, with the Normans taken from the Crusader list and Hereward inserted into the Byzantine list.  

Hereward and his merry band stand firm against the Normans

And more from the game. It ended badly for the Normans!



Thursday 17 December 2020

Zooming with Rommel in Thrace

 This week's Zoom game used Sam Mustafa's Rommel to play an Operation Gertrud scenario. With German panzer divisions storming into Thrace, the Turkish army sends it armoured brigades forward while strengthening the Catalca lines, the last line of defence before Istanbul. At the bottom of the table, Gebirgsjager push through the hills while Turkish infantry fight a delaying action.

Turkish armour at this stage of the war is almost as good as the Germans. However, training and experience were poor in comparison. This makes the game pretty similar to the France 1940 campaign. 

The result was similar as well, with the Turkish armour largely destroyed in a few moves. Here Pkw IVs attack a Turkish battalion equipped with Valentine and Stuart tanks.

The Turks did better in the hills, even when the Germans supported the attack with Stug IIIs.

Finally, the Germans reached the prepared defensive positions of the Catalca lines. These lines held out in 1912 against the Bulgarians and created a few challenges for the Germans because they cant be outflanked. However, by concentrating on one spot the Germans broke through, at some cost, and it was game over. German troops will be enjoying some Su Böreği washed down with Raki in Istanbul tonight!

Games like Rommel, which use battle boards are not the easiest to use over Zoom. Dice based games are better and you can use the dice apps on your phone or iPad - keep it simple is the golden rule.

My painting mojo is slowly returning. Made a start on the 28mm WW2 Turkish forces for Bolt Action. These are the first infantry. The figures are Romanian infantry from the Great Escape Games range. The cap is very similar to the Turkish one and a bit of file work elsewhere gives a reasonable representation. I have decided to paint the 28mm figures in the winter uniform, as a variation on the 15mm figures above.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Donovan's Devils

 This is Albert Lulushi's history of OSS raids behind enemy lines in WW2 with a focus on the operational Groups Command in the Meditteranean theatre of operations. 

The Office of Strategic Services was established before the USA entered WW2. Not without difficulty given the strength of the isolationist lobby. It was the brainchild of William Donovan, its founder and director and was the precursor of the modern-day CIA. Its job was not just to collect intelligence, it also organised operational groups (OGs), which operated behind enemy lines, typically with resistance groups. The British equivalent was SOE.

In the Mediterranean theatre, the focus was on Italy. Aided by the many Italian speaking Americans that OSS recruited. The book describes a wide range of operations in support of the Italian campaign. After the Italian armistice, they worked with the resistance groups operating behind the German lines. 

My main interest was in the chapters covering operations in the Balkans. While this was primarily a British franchise, OSS again recruited many US immigrants from the region. Company C was created in fall 1943 with OGs destined for the Balkans, and the first for Yugoslavia arrived in October 1943. The island of Vis, off the Dalmatian coast, became their main base of operations. This was a major supply base for the Yugoslav partisans, and over two hundred Yugoslavian OGs became part of the Allied garrison on the island.

Later Yugoslavian operations included rescuing US airmen who bailed out after raids on Romania. Most of these landed in partisan areas and were quickly moved to the Adriatic coast and back to Italy. Operation Halyard rescued over 500 airmen from Chetnik controlled areas, particularly tricky as the Allies had switched support from them to the partisans. Another high profile mission rescued American nurses from Albania.

A Greek OG unit was formed in the summer of 1943, after an OSS recruiting team visited Camp Carson, Colorado, seeking personnel who spoke Greek. So many of the 122nd Infantry Battalion volunteered for duty that its commanding officer offered the entire battalion. A total of 18 officers and 172 enlisted men went through the OG training curriculum, and the first group of twenty-three landed by boat on the western coast of Greece on April 23, 1944. By the time the Greek OGs withdrew in November 1944, their accomplishments had included fourteen trains ambushed, fifteen bridges blown, sixty-one trucks destroyed, six miles of railroad lines blown, 349 confirmed enemy killed, and almost 1,800 estimated killed or wounded.

OSS recruited some interesting operatives. For example, the mission of convincing the Italian garrison in Sardinia to lay down their arms was entrusted to Lieutenant Colonel Serge Obolensky who was a former Russian prince and Czarist officer. The OSS also played an important role in bringing war criminals to justice after the war.

Some of the actual operations described in this book would not be out of place in historical fiction. They are told clearly using official record and other resources. Well worth a read.

The WW2 landing strip on Vis is still visible today. 

The runway apron is now used as a cricket pitch, and I even got a bowl!

Partisan command stand in 28mm.


Friday 11 December 2020

Spies of the Balkans

 Spy fiction is not my usual genre, but needless to say the title pulled me in. The setting is Salonika at the outbreak of WW2, always an interesting city, and like Istanbul was something of a nest of spies during this period.

Our hero is Costa Zannis, a senior police detective, although his unit operates a bit like Special Branch in the UK. In essence, he deals with politically sensitive crimes and keeps a watch on espionage. Greece in 1940 was regularly visited by very fit young Germans, who had an extraordinary photographic interest in infrastructure and military facilities!

This was the period of the Metaxas dictatorship, so freedom of speech is very limited, although that falls to another agency. His personal life can be a bit complex and exotic. Not all the spies are German. His lover is a British spy and others operate in the city. 

He is also an army reservist and spends a bit of time in a communications role after the Italian invasion.

He gets involved in an escape line for Jews from Germany. Salonika had a significant Jewish community in Ottoman times, welcomed there after they were expelled from Spain. He uses his contacts in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to facilitate the escape line. The British prevail on him to use it to get a British airman (who has knowledge of radar) from Paris to Salonika. 

I won't spoil the finale, but it involves some new love interest as the panzers roll south.

This is a really good read and an interesting setting. Sadly, his other books don't appear to follow the story on. Modern day Thessalonika is well worth a visit, not least for its military museum.

My loved ones posing in front of the White Tower on the modern day Thessalonika seafront.

Outside the military museum.

And why not some 1940 Greek infantry in 28mm.

Tuesday 8 December 2020

The Politics of Turkish Democracy and Operation Gertrud for Rommel

OK, this may appear a bit left field for this blog. Still, this book by John VanderLippe does have quite a bit on the Turkish military in WW2 (my main current research interest), and the essential economic and political background to the decisions made. The subtitle is 'Ismet Inönü and the Formation of the Multi-Party System, 1938-1950', which gives an indication of the time period but isn't very helpful otherwise. Not least because few would describe the Turkish state during this period as multi-party in the western democratic sense. It was essentially a one-party state and reforms were at best a modest step along the road. 

President Inönü was the successor to Atatürk who died in 1938. He was also an Ottoman officer who served with Atatürk in WW1 and commanded on the western front during the Greek-Turkish War 1919-22. The two important battles of Inönü were named after him. His election to the presidency was not uncontested, although, in the end, it was overwhelming. The key issues during this period were developing the country, expanding or limiting the role of the military, beneficial relations with the Western Powers, and defining nation and community. He described foreign affairs as his first duty.

In military terms, Turkey's links to Germany continued after WW1. Many officers were trained in the German staffed Ottoman War Academy, and others, including Inönü, served with German officers during the war. Doctrine remained heavily influenced by German thinking and personal friendships developed through study in Germany during the 1930s. Germany was also a major economic partner with over 2000 German advisors living in Turkey before the war broke out in 1939. In 1935, 49% of Turkish exports and 38% of imports were with Germany. In contrast, Britain took only 3% of Turkish exports and supplied 11% of imports. Had it not been for Italy's role in the Axis, it might have been challenging to reorientate Turkish foreign policy during WW2.

There is a useful section in the book on Turkish military preparedness for the war. Turkey lacked modern weaponry, and the soldier's diet appeared to be almost entirely based on bulgur wheat! They also had almost no domestic supply of oil. Army manoeuvres in August 1939 convinced Inönü that Turkey was not ready for war. He responded by developing a war economy through the National Defense Law of 1940, which focused production on defence needs and clamped down on political expression. It became increasingly unpopular, not least because of basic commodity shortages, but remained in place until the 1960s. The percentage of the budget spent on defence increased from 30% in 1938 to 51% in 1944, maintaining a million men in the armed forces.

Despite these preparations, the foreign policy aimed at keeping Turkey out of the war for as long as possible. Turkey only declared war in February 1945, just in time to get a seat at the table and fend off Soviets, which was always their primary concern. Edward Weisband's book covers these developments well.

I have been trying out Sam Mustafa's Rommel rules this week for an Operation Gertrud mid-war game. These rules attempt to create grand tactical WW2 scenarios. This one is a condensed Thrace scenario with Turkish armour attempting to at least slow down the panzers coming from Bulgaria and a Fallschirmjager attack over the River Maritsa. The Turkish infantry wait behind the fortifications of the Catalca lines, which defended Istanbul. I have had a first go at army lists and an OPs board for Rommel, which you can download from Balkan Military History here.


Monday 7 December 2020


 No, I haven't misspelt the wily Russian irregulars, this is the planning team for Operation Overlord, Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), led by Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan. This is a fascinating study by Stephen Kepher of one aspect of military operations we often forget about, the planning staffs. 

Frederick Morgan is not a General most will have heard of, largely because he was the backroom planner for Overlord. He was appointed to head up a joint British and US team when the operation was only agreed in principle, and even then there was considerable debate over the wisdom of launching a cross channel invasion. Churchill and the British favoured tightening the ring around Germany, whereas the Americans favoured the direct approach across the channel. This meant that not only did Morgan not have a Supreme Allied Commander to be Chief of Staff for, but no guarantee the operation would be launched at all.

The operations in the Mediterranean meant that sufficient landing craft and other resources could not be brought together before the spring of 1944. Even then Churchill, in particular, kept pressing alternatives. This caused Morgan difficulties as he commanded an Allied staff while remaining a British officer. On one occasion Americans in Washington, talking over a secure line to compatriots in London, exhorted their colleagues: “Don’t tell the British for God’s sake.” Which provoked laughter from the London end of the line as “every word had been keenly listened to by two British generals and one British admiral.” Building trust among COSSAC’s staff was among Morgan's highest priorities.

Morgan's team was initially a handful of staff in borrowed offices in Norfolk House, London. His deputy was an American, Ray Barker, and they soon developed a close working relationship. In fact, one of Morgan's key strengths was the ability to get on with almost everyone, a key component of coalition warfare. By December 1943 COSSAC had reached a strength of 1,103. When it morphed into SHAEF, it grew even further. On 12 July 1944, Eisenhower’s headquarters had 4,914 people and by 1 April 1945, the headquarters totalled 14,028.

This book takes the reader through the development of COSSAC and the various iterations of Operation Overlord. The military and political battles to get a workable plan that everyone signed up to are covered in some detail. As the author concludes, "Although Morgan was stationed behind a desk and not on a battlefield, he was a most effective leader at a most critical time for the Allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany."

Thursday 3 December 2020

Saga - Age of Hannibal

 This is a newish 'universe' for the Saga rules system, a set of rules that I haven't used for a while. The Carthaginians were my very first wargames army, so I have soft spot for them and Hannibal, who is arguably the best ancient commander. 

This is a hard backed supplement (plus battle boards), so you need the base rules, which are short and good value. The pricey add ons are the dice, although you can substitute D6s. In the book, you get a short historical overview of the period followed by new rules, which include elephants, sarissa, chariots and the dreaded flaming war pigs. Well dreaded by elephants apparently. This supplement introduces the concept of 'ruses', which introduce strategy and subterfuge into the game. I haven't tried them yet but they include generic ruses and unique ones for each faction. 

The main chapters cover the six armies, or factions as they called in Saga, plus mercenaries. The factions are Carthaginians, Rome, Gauls, Greeks, Numidians and Iberians. For each faction, there is an overview, specific rules, army lists and the legendary units based on famous commanders. You also get a guide to using the faction and the special abilities on the battle boards.

Finally, there is a chapter on Saga Epic, which are big battle rules using 12 to 18 points a side. Essentially this is three warbands brought together. I haven't tried this but I view Saga as a skirmish game, so if I want a big battle I will probably stick to Hail Caesar or ADLG.

I do like the basic mechanisms in Saga. The challenge for a wargaming butterfly like me is learning the special abilities on the battle board that make each faction unique. However, in small 4-6 point game, you don't get enough dice to make much use of them anyway.

I have played three games so far. First up my favoured Punic Wars with the Carthaginians and Romans. I am not convinced that the Carthaginians would have taken an elephant on a skirmish but it's fun. 

Who would be a legionnaire? If elephants are not bad enough, a giant cat joined the game.

Then the Romans faced off against the Gauls. Chariots in the mix this time.

And finally, the Galatians decided to visit Greece. I couldn't find my Greek temple in the scenery store, which was irritating as they infamously looted Delphi. 

Three fun and fairly quick games. Before the supplement arrived I had a warm-up game with my Rus armies. Not enough Mongols to provide a historical opponent for the Rus Princes, so it was followed up by another outbreak of wargamers disease. Gripping Beast's gain .....