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 28 March 2021

Nigel Tranter - Druid Sacrifice

As is obvious from this blog, I am an avid reader of historical fiction. Most nights, my bedtime reading is a historical novel. These days mostly on the Kindle, and I donated most of my extensive collection of paperbacks to Oxfam to free up some shelf space for reference books. However, I kept my extensive collection of Scottish historical novels by Nigel Tranter with the intention of re-reading them in retirement.

Nigel Tranter was perhaps best known for his deeply researched novels on Scottish history. He also wrote non-fiction books, including a fine short history of Scotland and a five-volume study of Scottish castles, 663 fortified buildings in total. Less well known were are his westerns, written under the name Nye Tredgold and 12 children's books.

Nigel Tranter was born in 1909 and trained as an accountant. He served in the Royal Artillery during WW2. After the war, he was involved in the original Scottish Convention, which campaigned for Scottish Devolution. He died in January 2000, aged 90, less than a year after the devolved Scottish Parliament was reconstituted. I met him once when I was working at a political party conference. I didn't recognise him, and when introduced, I was the gushing fanboy! He told me he wrote his books by hand often while walking near his home in East Lothian. We shared the view that to really understand history, you have to walk the places where the action happened.

His 57 novels covered many aspects of Scottish history, from the 6th to the 18th century. He told me his favourite period was the 16th century, and that is reflected in his output. Some academics were a bit sniffy about his work, but I would argue they opened up the subject for many people. He always emphasised that they are works of fiction, although based on historical research. This is more obvious in his later books as his study of Scottish history advanced. 

So, I have sorted my collection of his novels into roughly chronological order on the shelf. I think I have most of them and intend to reread them all. I will share my thoughts and the wargames they inspire on the blog and link them from a new page. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

The first book chronologically is Druid Sacrifice. It is set in the first half of the 6th century and tells the story of Thanea, the daughter of King Loth of Gododdin, although referred to as Lothian in the book. This kingdom probably covered most of south-east Scotland, modern Lothian and the Borders. The capital was on Traprain Law, later moving to Edinburgh. They were Britons, descended from the Votadini tribe, and King Loth is also called Lot or Leudonus, in the sources.

When she objects to her pagan father's druidical human sacrifice and refuses to marry a prince of Reghed he chooses for her, she survives an 'execution' and is cast adrift on the River Forth in a Coracle. She lands and seeks sanctuary with the monks of Saint Serf in Fife, where she brings up her infant son. He was to become St Mungo, Glasgow's patron saint, where he spent much of his life evangelising, which is covered in the story. He was driven out of the Clyde area by the King of Strathclyde and spent time in Wales, where he is known as Kentigern. He later returned and died in Glasgow, where the cathedral, and much else, is dedicated to him. 

While the sources for this period of British history are scarce, this book's basic story is referenced in a couple of annals.  Tranter goes one stage further and introduces Arthur as the High King. Many, many books have been written about the historical figure that might have been Arthur. In short, there is little concrete evidence that he existed, and even less that he was the High King. Some sort of warlord seems more likely, but everyone has a view.

I started collecting Arthurian armies when the WAB supplement The Age of Arthur was published. We ran a fun campaign at my club. 

Got to have a Druid sacrifice. 

Arthurian or late Roman infantry

And cavalry

Saturday 27 March 2021

To the Strongest! - Wars of the Roses

 Inspired by my reading of Trevor Royle's book, I have been expanding my 15mm figures for the Wars of the Roses. My wife, who is from Yorkshire, is convinced this is just a wind-up! I thought I would just need a few elements as I already have plenty of medieval figures.

A small order to Peter Pig, and off we go. A typical retinue with Billmen and archers in equal numbers.

Then onto the tabletop for a game of To the Strongest! This highlighted that, in fact, I don't have enough figures. Another big downside of the pandemic is that you can't just paint one army and roll up to play a game at the club. Particularly for the Wars of the Roses when you need two similar armies for a game over Zoom. So, you may notice a few unlikely units being deployed to pad out the numbers in this game.

I know. There were no Teutonic Knights in the WofR.

So, back to the painting table. Another unusual feature of the Wars of the Roses is dismounted knights, including command elements. Peter Pig do some lovely character figures, including the knight holding a decapitated opponent. An illusion of Richard III's fate, but these wars were pretty savage compared with some of the preceding conflicts.

Then some dismounted knights and more archers. The knight supporting his wounded comrade is a nice touch.

I have another unit of billmen and archers to do, and that will do for now. There is a new version of L'Art de la Guerre coming out next month, so I should be able to field two armies for the playtest by then.

Sunday 21 March 2021

The White Generals

 I picked up this book in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago, and for some reason, it never made it to the top of the pile. A mistake because this is an excellent study of the White movement in the Russian Civil War. I have the 1987 edition, but there appears to be a reprint available.

The first thing that strikes the reader of any aspect of Russian history is the country's sheer scale. The Imperial Russian Army, by the end of 1914, had mobilised 6,553,000 men. Even these numbers couldn't cover the entire front line, and in any case, there were only 650,000 rifles. The Russian soldier was brave but lethargic, and there was a shortage of trained NCOs. Despite the Tsar banning vodka at the start of the war, by 1916 drunkenness was as bad as ever. However, we should remember that the armies of the Allies were at breaking point in 1918, yet many Russian soldiers went on fighting until 1920.

This book looks at the different White armies and their commanders. The Whites' fundamental problem was the lack of a coherent command structure or even common grounds for fighting. There were Denikin and Wrangel in the South, the Ukrainians and cossacks fighting for independence, Admiral Kolchak and the Czechs (50,000 former PoWs) in Siberia, and the Finns in the North. 

The Allies intervened and provided supplies and equipment without any clear strategy. Churchill sat in London with a big map on the wall without any real grasp of the distances involved. He argued for assailing the Bolsheviks on as many fronts as possible, completely ignoring that the Red Army had interior lines of communications. Nowhere was Allied intervention more pointless than the troops sent to Murmansk. There was little support for intervention at home, and often second rate troops were sent to 'enjoy' the Russian winter.

This was a conflict very different from the trench warfare of the Western Front. Cavalry came back into its own with huge cavalry armies, supported by the armoured train. The limited railway system became the focus of advances and retreats. Tanks and aircraft made an impact, mostly supplied and manned by the British.

In the end, it was Trotsky who forged an effective fighting force that was able to push back the disorganised White armies. His HQ train was the stuff of legend, dashing around from front to front. The Netflix series on Trotsky may not have been good history, but the civil war scenes give you a flavour of this. In contrast, the command trains of at least some of the White generals resembled an upmarket brothel.

The Allies tired of the intervention's effort and cost, which cost the British alone some £24million. Nobody knows how many died, but 25 million is a credible estimate. Many Russians were displaced worldwide, and the conflict influenced Soviet foreign policy for years to come. 

I haven't got a specific Russian Civil war army, but I do have WW1 and Russo-Japanese War Russian figures. You could also use Germans, Austrian and even Japanese. They look a bit too smart and uniformed but will do. In 15mm, my rules of choice for this period are Bloody Big Battles. I dusted them down for a divisional level action. Peter Pig do a nice range if I was minded to expand......

Saturday 20 March 2021

Greek War of Independence

 This coming week is the 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence. The revolution was declared on 25 March 1821 by Metropolitan Germanos of Patras in the Peloponnese. While this date is questioned by some, it is clear that the revolution broke out in various places during the latter end of March 1821, and the 25th is celebrated today as a national holiday in Greece.

There are lots of books on the revolution, and there are bound to be more this year. I have several older studies, but my favourite one in print is David Brewer's 'The Flame of Freedom', although I see he has written another book on the subject since. He covers the background to the conflict and the war itself, which lasted until 1833 when French troops finally left. 

I have enjoyed the Hellenic Heritage Foundation's The Idea of Greece series of podcasts, which are a really good introduction to the subject. They are pleasantly balanced, which is not always the case on a subject prone to nationalist rhetoric.  I would also recommend the Facebook group, Wargaming the Greek War of Independence.

For the wargamer, Miniature Wargames did a two-part series in 1999, written by Spiros Koumoussis. It included some nice colour plates as well as a short history. Sadly, Spiros passed away at an early age. He also produced a range of figures for the war and a simple set of rules based on DBA.

My collection in 15mm largely comes from his range. They were based for the Principles of War rules. I have some of the excellent Steve Barber range in 28mm, although painted for the slightly earlier Serbian uprising. I would use Dan Mersey's Rebels and Patriots for the skirmish level actions, which were a feature of this conflict. There is a new range of 28mm figures from Old Man’s Creations, which look very nice. 

Ottomans and Egyptians are readily available from several ranges, and the irregulars can often be used for either side. Ottoman forces were busy putting down other revolts and facing up to the Russians during this period. Initially, they relied heavily on Albanian troops and later the Egyptians, who had a modern army. It is worth remembering that the Auspicious Incident happened in June 1826, which resulted in the death and disbanding of the Janissary corps. So no Jannisaries after that date, and not many beforehand. 

The Greeks had a history of seafaring in the Ottoman Empire, and the war at sea was an important feature of the war on the islands. It was the Great Power naval intervention at the Battle of Navarino that effectively secured the revolution for the Greeks. Black Seas works fine for these battles, and you can use your Napoleonic fleets. I have made a start on an Ottoman fleet.

So, onto the tabletop, using Lasalle, my current favourite tactical rules for the Napoleonic period. This game was a steep learning curve in this ruleset. The army list is below and included two brigades on each side. The troop types are fairly similar as I rated the Greeks as similar to their Ottoman opponents who are listed in the army lists. The predominant militia types have the weak fire and rabble traits, bolstered by a few battalions of regulars.

Ottomans on the left. The Greek plan was to hold the Ottoman left by creating a firing line  on the edge of the woods, while pivoting the second brigade to crush the Ottoman right and roll up the line.

Ground level view from the Ottoman side

The Greeks got marginally the better of the firefight because of the cover, but the weak fire trait limited the fire effect

Lasalle combat rules can be brutal with the Greek cavalry on both wings destroying their opponents.

However, it works both ways. The Greek regulars are destroyed attacking the Egyptians on the hill. The Greek attack falters and another firefight ensues.

Another hard lesson. Don't let your militia get caught in the open by cavalry because rabble can't form square. Goodbye Albanians. Thankfully my reserve came good and with some artillery support shot the cavalry up, stopping them rolling up the left flank.

With combat halted, the battle developed into a firefight along the line, which the Greeks marginally got the better of. The Ottomans withdrew to fight another day. I haven't got these armies out for some time, and with many anniversaries of this war to come, it won't be the last time!

Saturday 13 March 2021

Shake Loose the Border

 This is the third book in Bob Low's trilogy set in the Scottish borders in the 16th century. The 'Rough Wooing' conflict with England is coming to an end with Henry VIII's death, but that rarely stops conflict amongst the border reivers. 

Our hero, the wonderfully named Batty Coalhouse, accepts a commission to recover an old friend captured by English raiders. This should be a simple matter of paying the ransom. However, he has been sold on to a rogue warlord, Nebless Clem, on account of his nose being sliced off. Neb being old English for a nose or snout.

Batty is captured by Clem, who doesn't want to ransom his friend, and goes further by whipping Batty. Needless to say, this sparks a campaign of vengeance while capturing his friend from Clem's band. There are more than a few twists and turns, but I won't spoil the story.

As with the other two books in the trilogy, this story captures the feel of border warfare. Small bands of light cavalry skirmishing on both sides of the border. There are a few mercenaries still around from the English army that made extensive use of such units. In this book, they include a group of Albanian Stradioti. Not sure if such a unit made it to Scotland, but it gives me some further options for games.

Stradiots in 15mm and 28mm from my collection.

Sunday 7 March 2021

The Wars of the Roses

 This book by Trevor Royle has been sitting on my to-read shelf for a few years. I have never really got into the Wars of the Roses since my very early teenage wargaming years playing a club campaign based on the board game Kingmaker. I was born in Lancashire, and my wife is from Yorkshire, so we have used the red rose - white rose theme over the years. However, the battles of the period itself always felt a bit of a slogging match.

The first thing to say about this book is that it's really a history of the 15th century. We reach the opening Battle of St Albans in Chapter 11, around halfway through the book. That's more than introductory context, although still interesting.

The wars were by no means continuous. Royle describes them as "little more than a series of violent outbursts which interrupted periods of uneasy peace."  The armies were not large and often quite professional. They were made up from the retinues of the nobility, supplemented by mercenaries. The mass of the peasantry was rarely called up to participate in the fighting, although they could face the sharp end of pillaging. The other interesting fact is that the Lancastrian cause was not focused on Lancashire any more than the Yorkists were based in Yorkshire. 

The Scots also got involved more often than I had appreciated. Taking advantage of the chaos to raid while supporting mostly the Lancastrian cause. They also maintained the Auld Alliance with France through most of the period.

This isn't a military history of the conflict, although the main battles are covered, and there is some discussion of the problems raising armies and maintaining them in the field. The focus is on politics, which are pretty complex at times. It's all very Game of Thrones with alliances shifting and some huge characters. Not just those who made it to the crown like Edward IV and Richard III, but also the players, including Warwick the Kingmaker. 

It all came to an end at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 with the death of Richard III and Henry Tudor's accession to the throne. I have also been reading the new Osprey campaign series book on the battle by Christopher Gravett, which covers the military aspects of the wars much better. 

Here we get the commanders and their armies, together with their plans and the battle itself. As usual, there are some lovely colour plates and maps. I have visited the battlefield many years ago. Or, to be precise, what was thought to be the battlefield at the time. The latest archaeology puts the actual site a couple of miles away. Nonetheless, there is an excellent visitors centre.

Most of my medieval armies cover the earlier periods. I could probably field at least one army, but not both. So, I have decided to supplement the 15mm figures with some reinforcements from Peter Pig. They are true 15mm, so a little smaller than the oversize versions of recent years, but they look very nice.


Saturday 6 March 2021

Victory at Sea - WW2 in the Eastern Mediterranean

 I am not a big player of naval wargames, although Warlord's Cruel Seas and Black Seas has got me interested. Having done land and air for my Turkish WW2 project, it was time to look at the naval aspects. David Hobb's new book on naval air warfare in the Mediterranean helped spark my interest.

The Turkish Navy suffered most of all from the financial restrictions placed on the new republic. A British naval attaché reported in 1937 that: “Judged by the standards of modern navies, however small, the condition of the fleet is far from satisfactory”. He suggested that they had not been updated since the First World War (which wasn't quite correct) and “were defenceless against air attack”. The main naval base was Gölcük in the Sea of Marmara.

The modest budget focused on the Dardanelles' defence, backed up by a mobile force led by the First World War battlecruiser Yavuz (ex Goeben) and four destroyers. The story of the Goeben escaping the British Fleet is well told by Dan Van der Vat in his book, 'The Ship that Changed the World’. His essential thesis is that by embroiling Turkey into World War 1, the war lasted for two years longer than it might otherwise have done. 

The fleet did have some modern destroyers and submarines built in Italy. This may appear surprising, but in 1928 there was a peace treaty with the Italians that included financial guarantees for ships built in Italian yards. Turkish officers were also trained in Italy during this period. There was a ten-year plan to modernise the navy, and ships were ordered from Britain and Germany, although not delivered because of the outbreak of war. The British did deliver two destroyers and ten MTBs during the war.

So, how to model and game this. Having enjoyed the simplicity of Warlord's recent naval games, my first stop was their new offering, Victory at Sea. The free set of basic rules in Wargames Illustrated looked very playable. However, I just don't like the ship models on their clunky resin bases. Turning to my rules shelf, I found a set of rules called Victory at Sea. It turns out these were the original rules by the same author, published in 2007 by Mongoose. They have been tweaked a bit for the Warlord offering but are essentially the same mechanisms. I assume Warlord bought the rights as it isn't on the Mongoose website any more.

Freed from the constraints of Warlord models, I decided to go for Navwar's 1/3000 ships. Old school ordering system, but they arrived quickly.

I did the Turkish fleet first with the Yavuz, two destroyers and two submarines. The Atilay class were German U-Boats.

 Then some Allies in the form of elements of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet.

And finally, the enemy, the Italian fleet.

That will do for now. The original rules are in hardback, but the paper quality is poor, and the binding isn't likely to last long. There are also limited ship types, although it's not difficult to work them out using the trusty Ian Allan ships of WW2 series. So, I might play the new rules without the models and make my own cards.

The original rules played pretty well in a quick test game. Sadly, the Yavuz didn't last long. The Italian Littorio battleship's 15" guns ranged in pretty quickly, and it was crippled before even denting the Littorio. British cruisers sailed to the rescue, and with the help of much smoke, covered a retreat. I think we will need the Warspite or Illustrious to tackle the Littorio.

Littorio in the background, escorted by a Zara Class heavy cruiser and two destroyers

The Yavuz with two Kocatepe Class destroyers, ironically built in Italy.


Monday 1 March 2021

Hitler and the Habsburgs

 This is James Longo's study of Hitler's vendetta against the Austrian royals. It is sometimes forgotten that Hitler was an Austrian and brought up the Habsburg Empire's dying years. Although it did remind me of the classic line uttered by von Rundstedt in the film The Longest Day, "The Austrian Corporal'...".

The author takes us back to the end of the nineteenth century and describes both Hitler and Archduke Franz Ferdinand's lives. To portray them in parallel is a bit contrived, but they did bump into each other while Hitler was clearing the snow outside the Imperial Hotel in Vienna as they arrived for a ball. Later, when he returned to Vienna after the Anschluss, he stayed at that hotel and said:

"I resolved that night that someday I would come back to the Imperial Hotel and walk over the red carpet in that glittering interior where the Habsburgs danced. I didn’t know how or when, but I waited for this day and tonight I am here."

That night, the first two Austrians Hitler ordered arrested were Maximilian and Ernst Hohenberg, the sons of Franz Ferdinand. He knew how to hold a grudge! I also didn't realise that British Prime Minister Chamberlain ordered Ernst and his family should not be awarded an exit visa and that he should be expelled from the British Embassy. They both ended up in Dachau, the first Austrians to be sent there. Ernst was released five years later, a shadow of his former self.

It is somewhat ironic that Franz Ferdinand was himself something of an outcast from the Habsburg family. His marriage to Sophie Chotek was only allowed as a morganatic marriage, which meant she could never be the Empress. Her children were excluded from the succession, taking the surname Hohenberg. The formal oath of renunciation was undertaken in the Hofburg Palace in the presence of the family, "Among the blue-blooded Archdukes were murderers, pederasts, philanderers, wife beaters, sexual predators, and the Emperor’s recently exiled, infamous cross-dressing youngest brother." Ouch!

Hitler's grudge against the Habsburgs was their failure to recognise the importance of being German. The Habsburg Empire encompassed many ethnic groups, and managing these conflicts was a constant theme during the Empire's existence. Worst of all, Hitler viewed Franz Ferdinand's support for a federal solution as the ultimate betrayal. Hitler envisioned a German Reich that was racially pure and homogenous, the exact opposite of the tolerant, inclusive, multinational Habsburg Empire he loathed.

I hadn't fully appreciated the story of Hitler's early years in Vienna and the depths of poverty he had sunk to. Ironically relying on Jewish charities rather than seeking paid employment. His own work ethic was the opposite of many of Vienna's industrious immigrants, but in their success and his failure, he blamed Jews. He also dodged conscription, once being arrested in Munich and returned to Vienna on a police warrant. He was spared a spell in the Austro-Hungarian Army because the physical examination declared Hitler “unfit for combatant and auxiliary duties, too weak, and unable to bear arms.”

The end of the war did not end the misery for the Hohenbergs. Apart from losing a son on the Eastern Front, they were expelled from Czechoslovakia on racial grounds. Along with three million Germans, including Oskar Schindler, who rescued 1200 jews from the Holocaust. The family rebuilt a life in post-war Austria, with Max making a case for a constitutional monarchy. Eighteen miles of mourners lined the roads leading to his funeral. Aristocrats stood with Socialists. Atheist and agnostics walked alongside Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops. Dachau’s Jews, Roma, and Jehovah’s Witnesses offered prayers for his soul. Over one thousand people unable to be seated in the church quietly stood outside in the rain until the funeral Mass ended.

This is a fascinating story, much of it new to me. Primarily a sympathetic history of the later Habsburg family, with the malign influence of Hitler thrown in.