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

Thursday 29 April 2021

Greek War of Independence in 28mm

 I wasn't going to get drawn into the Greek War of Independence in 28mm, as I have a decent collection in 15mm. I have a number of Steve Barber's excellent figures painted for the slightly earlier Serbian revolution, which I could use at a push. However, yes, you just knew there would be a 'but', a new firm, Old Man's Creations, went and produced a new range. They keep posting these fine castings on the Wargaming the Greek War of Independence Facebook page as well. Drug dealers they are!

Work is consuming most of my time this month, so a small six-figure project was just what was required. The models are cast, I think, in ultracast or similar. I am not a great fan of this medium, and they are not cheap, but this is a niche. I prefer the heft of metal, and I have found other ranges to be a bit brittle. However, no problem with these. Some assembly is required with the weapons, which I suspect would have been damaged in transit without this approach. They are a bit bigger than my Dixon Ottomans, which are small by modern standards.

The detail on the figures is superb, making them a pleasure to paint. I slightly overdid the second wash, but I hope I have the right balance after a bit of touching up. They are probably a bit grimier than others have painted them, but I find it hard to believe that they would have been able to keep white fustanella's pristine on the campaign. I love the heroic oil paintings, but they are not photo-realistic.

Time being of the essence, a skirmish game was called for. I have plenty of suitable Ottomans, so a quick game using Fistful of Lead rules. We actually played twice, fighting over a bridge.

In the first game, I'm afraid I disgraced the revolution by getting slaughtered. Despite drawing some excellent cards, I managed to miss all six shots. In the second game, matters improved, and the Ottomans were sent packing.

All my heroes survived, although a few were worse for wear. They are a fun set of rules and great for a quick game. I hadn't played with muskets before - reloading is a bit of a challenge when you haven't got a lot of cover.

Friday 23 April 2021

Nigel Tranter - Scotland's Storyteller

 Along with my re-reading of Nigel Tranter's historical fiction, I have been reading Ray Bradfield's biography of the author.

I have always thought of Nigel Tranter as an east coast Scot, but I discover he was, in fact, born in Glasgow. Not far from where I used to live and close to Hampden Park, the home of Scottish Football. The family moved back east fairly early on, and he is rightly associated with East Lothian for most of his life.

We don't hear much in this book about his war service in the Royal Artillery. He was somewhat older than his fellow junior officers, and as a writer, he didn't share their passion for drinking, smoking and sport. However, his quiet war gave him time to write and supplement the family income. 

In the army, he developed his writing technique as he walked, as that was the only way he could get the peace and privacy he needed. After the war, he developed his daily routine of rising at 7am, and after breakfast and prayers, he set off on a walk. He lived for most of this time at Quarry House in Aberlady Bay. His walk would mostly cover the shoreline for ten or twelve miles. In the evening, he would type up his notes on an old typewriter and do some research ready for the next day. At one stage, his typewriter had a faulty 'b' key, so he would type 'o' and then convert by hand. His manuscripts were bound with old shoelaces.

His productivity was astonishing, running to 130 books. Right through the 1950s and 1960s, he was publishing three or four books a year as well as a constant stream of magazine articles. Before he settled down as a historical novelist, he was writing westerns and children's books. It was commonplace for book reviewers to say that Nigel Tranter has taught most Scots all the history they know. If true, it doesn't say much for how history is taught in schools, and Tranter was pretty critical - 'dry as dust', he would say. He would also reflect that "A nation that doesn't know its own history, has lost its memory."

He was also a campaigner, although how he found the time amazes me. After the war, Tranter was heavily involved in the Covenant Association, campaigning for what much later became known as devolution and the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament. He lived to see it happen in 1999. He wasn't a nationalist and eventually found his political home in the Liberal Party, today the Liberal Democrats. It was while I was working at their conference that I met him. We may not have shared the same politics, but we did share a love of history.

He was drawn into the famous stunt of Ian Hamilton's to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, first stolen from Scotland by Edward I. Of course, anyone who has read his books will know that he didn't believe this was the real coronation stone. Still, he recognised the symbolic value, and today it resides in Edinburgh Castle. His many other campaigns made him a regular contributor to The Scotsman. I wonder what he would have done with social media!

Film options were bought on several of his books, and stage plays were done on three. If only Braveheart had used his script, it would at least have a semblance of historical accuracy! The best seller was the Bruce trilogy, but his biographer argues that the Montrose books are the best written, and I agree. He also wrote some important non-fiction history. His The Fortified House in Scotland ran to five volumes and documents no fewer than 663 fortified houses, not castles.

The book finishes with a nice end piece which includes, "And tomorrow, he will be out again, striding along the shoreline, this man who has given us back our past, walking with Wallace and Bruce, his mind far distant from the petty concerns of everyday."

A typical page of notes from his daily writing walk

Monday 19 April 2021


 My re-reading of Nigel Tranter's historical fiction books continues with the second book chronologically, Columba. The story of St Columba and the high heroic days of the early Celtic church.

His proper Irish name was Colum mac Felim, and he is known in his native Ireland as Columcille. He was born in AD521 and is credited with spreading Christianity to what is today Scotland. He was trained in Ireland and got involved in a religious controversy that may have led to the Battle of CĂșl Dreimhne or the Battle of the Book. This conflict forms the opening chapters of Tranter's story. Consequently, Columba decides to lead a mission to the Scots Irish kingdom of Dalriada (Dal Riata) on Scotland's west coast.

This was a nominally Christian state bordering on the Pictish state of Alba, which was pagan. Columba was given the island of Iona as a base from which he expanded his missionary activities to the many islands off Scotland's west coast. Tranter describes the scenery on his many journeys brilliantly. You can almost smell the sea air. I'm biased because this is one of my favourite places on earth. 

This is the later medieval abbey at Iona as seen today.

One of Columba's many achievements was to link the coronation of kings to a Christian service. This led to many kings being buried at Iona. In 1549 an inventory of 48 Scottish, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings was recorded.

He then decides to launch a mission into Alba and persuades the Pictish King in the capital Inverness to allow missionary activity. Helped by the story of him seeing off the water monster. This is at least one of the stories that underpins the legend of the Loch Ness monster, which draws many thousands of tourists to the shores of the Loch today. En route he also helps the family of the chieftain at Urquhart, now a well known medieval castle.

He continued to establish many churches and monasteries across Scotland and acted in a diplomatic role to bring the various kingdoms together in an alliance against the encroching Angles. He died in 593 or 597, the sources differ. He was buried in Iona but his relics are purported to have been carried by Scottish armies in battle. Something he would not have approved of. This includes Bannockburn in 1314.

I haven't any Picts or early Scots, so here are some Islesmen I painted for a Bannockburn display.

The book is classic Tranter. Fleshing out what we know of his life with narrative and evocative descriptions of his journeys. Great read, although if you like your historical fiction with plenty of battlefield action, you might want to skip this one. Sex and violence is in short supply!

Sunday 11 April 2021

Bolt Action Ukraine

 A friend who works as an academic in Eastern Europe was in touch this week about playing a game over Zoom this weekend. He was writing an article on the current stand-off in Ukraine and wanted to play a modern game based on that conflict. He uses micro-armour, which isn't ideal over Zoom, so we decided to use my 20mm figures and the modern adaptation of Bolt Action. You can download these from Jay's Wargaming Madness.

My initial reaction was that it felt a little close to home, at least for my friend. Wargamers occasionally get this feeling, but then remember that we are only moving model soldiers across a tabletop. Having said that, the situation in Ukraine is a bit worrying, and my friend had just interviewed contacts in Russia and Ukraine. Russia has more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since the Donbas war’s “hot phase” in 2014/15 when it annexed Crimea and backed the separatist territory seizures. They are also massing in the Rostov region, which points to a direct attack on Ukraine rather than simply supporting the Donbas' separatists. David Pratt has written a long piece in today's Herald newspaper, which is worth a read. My friend concurred with the Moscow Carnegie Centre analysis“The ostentation with which the troops are being moved confirms that Russia is sabre-rattling rather than contemplating a blitzkrieg,” 

With the US reportedly planning to send ships into the Black Sea to support Ukraine, this could have wider implications. It would only take a spark to start something. As David Pratt concludes, "Only the foolhardiest, however, would claim with any certainty to know what will happen next."

On the tabletop today, there was little comfort for Ukraine. Their troops hold a supply dump that the Russians and their separatist allies are going to attack. 

I sent my best Russian troops and armour down the centre to pin the defenders while working two further squads around the flanks. We kept it simple with no artillery or aircraft. The opening tank exchange went the Russian's way, but a Ukrainian light ATM almost knocked the T80 out. It did succeed in knocking out the BMP on the Russian right.

The Russian left wing squad with its BTR 80 in support made good progress using the woods as cover. But then got shot up badly in a firefight.

The Russian firepower's cumulative impact was beginning to tell as the Russians crashed through the Ukrainian defences. Game over.

The game was all over in five moves, and the rules played well. Let's hope this conflict remains on the tabletop.

Saturday 10 April 2021

The Anglo-Soviet Alliance

 The Anglo-Soviet Alliance: Comrades and Allies during WW2 is a new look at Britain and the Soviet Union during the Second World War by Colin Turbett. I'll declare at the outset that I know the author, although more from his work on rural social work and his trade union activity rather than his historical writing. Coincidently, I was admiring the view of his Arran home on my walk this fine crisp morning.

As the author outlines in his introductory chapters, the alliance was an odd experience for both political leaders. Churchill had a long history of opposing the Soviet state, persevering with interventions in the Russian Civil War, long after losing popular and political support at home. Stalin, based in southern Russia during the civil war, had good cause to remember the British intervention. As Gabriel Gorodestsky argues, before Hitler's invasion, Stalin viewed Britain as a more significant threat than Germany.

It was also a challenging time for communists and Conservatives in the UK. Many in the Communist Party of Great Britain's (CPGB) initial reaction was to support the war in 1939 as an anti-fascist popular front. However, this line was quickly changed when Moscow dictated a new line following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The author has a fine collection of pamphlets and leaflets from the period, and he shows how CPGB leader, Harry Pollit's 'How to Win the War', was quickly replaced with Palme Dutt's 'Why this War?'. The idea that carving up Poland was "an extension of the boundaries of world socialism", was a challenging sell, and the CPGB lost popular support. Churchill managed to sell his new line of supporting the Soviets with classic Churchillian rhetoric, "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."

The book then moves on to the wartime alliance after Operation Barbarossa, although I think he slightly overstates Hitler's war aims, which were actually quite limited. Again Gorodestsky is good on this. Stalin had equally given up on expanding communism, as the Comintern's winding up in 1943 shows. In practice, it hadn't met since 1935. Even the late war strains over Soviet expansion were more about nationalist buffers than any dream of world communism.

The alliance changed views of the Soviet Union on the home front with Soviet newsreels being played in cinemas and the government sponsoring trips to Russia. However, playing The Internationale with other Allied anthems on the BBC was a step too far for Churchill! The CPGB's Daily Worker newspaper remained banned until August 1942. Churchill's wife Clementine was the driving force behind raising funds for Russia, so much so that Churchill told the Soviet ambassador that his wife had become 'totally sovietized'. The CPGB may not have made much progress politically. Still, they were particularly well organised in the trade unions representing industrial workers and achieved important victories for workers on the home front.

While this is primarily a social history, the military aspects of the alliance are well covered. These include supplies to Russia, particularly the Arctic convoys to Murmansk, which had a British base. This resulted in a degree of fraternisation that both the British and the NKVD found challenging. Soviet aircrew were trained at Errol Airfield in Scotland on the Albermarle transport aircraft, and the Soviet female sniper Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko (Lady Death) made a hugely successful tour in 1942. 

The story of the convoys is told in detail. We are reminded that around 27% of all serving British merchant seafarers in WW2 died, a much higher proportion than those serving in the armed forces. The crews came from all over the world and the UK, and their service has only recently been recognised.

This is an excellent study of an aspect of WW2 that hasn't received enough attention from historians, covering both the home front and operations abroad. Well worth a read. 

Nearly one-third of the total production of Matilda tanks were exported to Russia. My 28mm model.

Friday 2 April 2021

Struggle for the Middle Sea

 This is Vincent O'Hara's study of the naval war in the Mediterranean between 1940 and 1945. Having reviewed David Hobb's excellent new book on naval air warfare, I realised there were some gaps in my knowledge of the all-important naval campaigns. This book is just what the Admiral ordered!

The author starts by dispelling some well-worn myths. Not least that the Italian navy was useless, or as one more recent American author put it, "Mussolini's lazy sailors disdained to prepare for serious warfare'. In fact, the Italian navy fought hard and well, keeping Italy's African and Balkan armies supplied for three years and largely controlling the central Mediterranean. Rommel blamed supply shortages for his defeat at El Alamein, claiming only 954 tons of fuel were delivered before his attack. In reality, deliveries amounted to 20,037 tons. In Rome, the Japanese naval attache reported that the Italian navy was sound; their problems were poor collaboration with the air force and outdated night-fighting techniques. Their submarine fleet, although large, were less deadly than their German counterparts due to unrealistic training and flawed doctrine. 

The other point that strikes the reader of this book is the sheer scale of naval action in the Mediterranean. Major Italian warships fought 34 surface actions, and these are all covered in the book, usually with helpful maps and lists of the ships engaged. More surface actions were fought in the Mediterranean by more participants than anywhere else in the war. A total of 55, compared with 49 in the Atlantic and 36 in the Pacific.

Naval warfare has always been crucial to controlling the Mediterranean and to commerce. In 1938, 86% of Italy's imports arrived by sea, and most of that came through British controlled chokepoints at Gibraltar and Suez. Convoy protection played a key role for the Italian and British fleets. In Britain's case, to reinforce Malta and its armies in North Africa and for Italy, the shorter crossing to Tunis and Tripoli.

The German contribution early in the war was primarily through airpower. Later in the war, U-Boats played a growing role with S-Boats and a wide range of small ships ferrying troops and supplies around the Aegean. They also used former Italian warships after the Armistice. 40% of all large warship losses the Germans suffered in the war occurred in the Mediterranean. They accounted for 57% of allied losses. 

The Royal Navy had some important advantages. Not least their better intelligence, having cracked the Italian and German codes, but also the use of radar on ships. This meant they knew roughly when and where convoys were going. The British were also good at night fighting, which meant they could engage without being interdicted from the air. The Royal Navy only lost three major warships, all destroyers, as a result of Italian surface action. 

In summary, the Italian navy fought well; the French were formidable when engaged; the Germans fought a remarkable rearguard action; the Americans came in great strength: and the Royal Navy were workmanlike at worst and brilliant at their best.

I have settled on Victory at Sea for my WW2 fleet rules, using the updated Warlord version, but without their ship models. This book is full of scenarios for large fleet and smaller actions. I decided to play one of the many smaller engagements to get used to the rules with a cruiser and a couple of destroyers per side. I struggle to think of a wargame without terrain, so I dropped a couple of Aegean small islands into the battle.

Italian Zara class cruiser with Soldati and Navagatori class destroyers take on  HMS Ajax escorted by Tribal and N class destroyer 

The Italians

The Brits.

The Zara turned out to be a bit too much to handle with her heavier guns. And I still struggle to learn how to sail a ship. Why won't they just stop!