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

Monday, 27 September 2021

Lords of the Nile

This is the second book in Jonathan Spencer’s series based on Napoleon’s Egypt campaign. I enjoyed the first one, which covered the assembling of the fleet and army and the capture of Malta.




Our hero is a Sharp type character, Major Hazzard of the marines. Anti-establishment but more middle class. He, somewhat unbelievably, ends up on the French flagship L’Orient, and even more remarkably escapes from it as it moves with the fleet to Egypt. The Ottoman governor ignores the warning that Napoleon is coming, and even Nelson ignores him. Sticking, very unNelsonlike, rigidly to his orders. 

 

Then we get the early stages of the campaign with the Battle of the Pyramids and the capture of Cairo. The Ottoman and Mameluke leadership ignoring his tactical advice on how to tackle the French squares. You will spot the theme! There is an historical link here, as later in the campaign a British colonel did advise the Ottomans, who did take their advice and defeated the French. The story ends with Nelson’s great victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay.

 

There are lots of twists in the story, some love interest, and an ongoing feud with the French secret service chief. Hazzard gets bashed about so much that it’s a wonder he can get out of bed, let alone perform heroics. But hey, this is historical fiction!

 

The story sticks fairly closely to the actual history, just inserting our hero into the action. It does perhaps rather overdo the heroics, but it’s still a good story and I will probably see it through to the concluding book.

 

I have a large collection of 28mm figures for this campaign, painted up for a series of display games I organised for GDWS.



 

 I have also been playing Black Seas, which is the most playable set of Napoleonic naval rules I have seen. With an Ottoman fleet of course! Galleys next.




Sunday, 26 September 2021

Carronade 2021

 It felt terrific to get back to a wargame show yesterday. Organising a game, meeting old friends in the hobby, chatting to traders - all the very best about our hobby. Last year, the Falkirk club made a smart decision that their regular May slot wouldn't happen and plumped for a September date.

More than 500 visitors through the door and many more organising games and a good range of traders made the trip. It's a busy schedule for traders at present, with a mass of shows condensed into the latter part of the year. I relieved them of some 20mm modern armoured vehicles, lots of bases and paints. Interestingly, no figures though. Nothing really caught my eye, and so the lead mountain has not been added to.

There was a wide range of games as usual. While I like the beautifully crafted tables that you get at some shows, one of the things I liked about Carronade this year is that almost every game could have been run at a club. It's important to show newcomers to the hobby that the bar is not set too high. The GDWS game that Andy and I put on had lots of scenery, but we have done smaller versions at the club. The Fallschirmjager managed to capture the bridge and the village, not without casualties. 

We had plenty of help from members, so I did get a chance to get around the show a couple of times. But, sadly, not much time to linger at some very nice games.












Many thanks to the Falkirk club for organising.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

SBS: Silent Warriors

 This is Saul David's authorised wartime history of the Special Boat Service. He took over the project from Paddy Ashdown after he sadly passed away. With full access to the SBS archives, he has written an excellent history of the unit in its various forms during the Second World War.

The title 'Silent Warriors' reflects the operations and recruitment policies of the unit. They operated in very small groups behind enemy lines, armed only with knives and small arms. While they did undertake sabotage raids, they also launched intelligence operations. They rejected the typical loud 'tough guys' attracted to commando units favouring quiet, tough, independent and problem solvers. This approach was started by the acknowledged founder of the SBS, Roger Courtney.

The early operations were typically undertaken in a folbot (collapsable canoe) carried in a submarine. These operations were carried out in the Eastern Mediterranean, hence my interest, including Rhodes in March 1941, which had an Italian and German garrison. A minor point, rarely mentioned in other studies of Allied troops, was the use of amphetamines to keep themselves alert. They did a good job, so by August 1941, the Folbot Section had become the Special Boat Section with 23 officers and 31 other ranks.

Saul does not duck other difficult stories. Such as the decision of Lt Cdr Miers, commanding the submarine HMS Torbay to machine gun enemy soldiers cast adrift in a rubber raft. It was one thing not to help the enemy adrift in the water, quite another to shoot them in a life raft.

One of the more famous early raids was the attempt to kidnap or kill Rommel. The job of the SBS was to get the commandos safely ashore. This was a role they would undertake many times, although later with much larger amphibious operations.

Their success led to the establishment of a Special Boat Section in the UK. Of particular interest to me because it was based just up the road from me at Seafield House in Ardrossan. It was later a special school run by Quarriers when I visited it for my job and had no idea of this part of its history. Sadly, the building was severely damaged by a fire after the school closed.


They even used a beach north of my home town of Troon for reconnaissance training. Sadly, the navy ignored their report of a sandbank because it wasn't on the Admiralty charts. As a result, three tanks were lost in a practice landing there for Operation Torch. Today's paddle boarders could have confirmed that!

This is not a small book (nearly 500 pages), but it must have been a struggle to omit the many stories he found in the archives. However, he doesn't overdo it, and the balance between the narrative history and the personal accounts is just about right. I particularly liked the story of the SBS team who helped bring out General Giraud from Vichy North Africa, before Torch. He shouted to the Catalina crew, 'He doesn't speak a word of English and he's nearly had me over the side about four times!'. To which Giraud said, 'Thank you very much, Lieutenant, that was very pleasant. I'm sorry I've been such a nuisance to you.' 

A good example of intelligence operations was the work of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (Coppists). They provided beach intelligence for planning an assault and then acted as pilots during the actual landings. This required exceptional stealth as discovery could alert the enemy to the likelihood of a landing. There are many examples of these in the book, from North Africa to Sicily, and arguably most crucially in Normandy. Getting back to the submarine was particularly challenging. For example, one of the Sicily reconnaissance trips resulted in the canoeists having to paddle back to Malta, seventy miles away.

Later in the war, midget submarines (X-craft) were used in addition to folbots. The Navy also copied the successful Italian use of chariots subs. X-craft were used as D-Day markers, although the Americans rejected their use because of security concerns, with fatal consequences on Omaha beach. The story of the weather delay before D-Day is well known, but imagine having to spend that day underwater in a midget submarine. Their secret role was crucial to the planning and execution of Operation Overlord.

I was familiar with the SBS operations in the Dodecanese and the ill-fated Leros operation. Later in the war, the SBS sneaked into Portolago Bay, sunk three escort ships, and badly damaged two destroyers. The modern SAS regards Operation Sunbeam as their most successful WW2 mission. In one night, three canoes neutralised German naval strength in the eastern Aegean.  

An added risk of being captured was being executed due to Hitler's infamous 'commando order'. In the far east, the Japanese beheaded ten survivors of Operation Rimau, an attempt to sink Japenese ships in Singapore harbour. The SBS, as part of the Special Operations Group in Burma, took part in 173 operations with modest casualties.

After the war, the SBS underwent various name changes before becoming the Special Boat Service in 1987, part of UK Special Forces. The ethos of stealth and discretion remains, and they acknowledge the work of their forefathers. Sadly, the government didn't always do the same. A sad note in the chapter on what happened to key SBS members after the war includes Bill Sparks. He had to sell his Distinguished Service Medal when his disability allowance was cut. 

I really enjoyed this book, as you can tell from the length of this review. However, there is so much more in the book, which can be picked up at Sainsbury's of all places for a bargain price of £11.

SBS operations are complicated for the wargamer to use on the tabletop. In addition, our helicopter view makes stealth challenging to replicate. However, it reminds me that I should return to playing Cruel Seas.






Wednesday, 22 September 2021

In Search of the Real Dad's Army

 This coming Saturday is the first Scottish wargame show for a very long time; Carronade at Falkirk. Andy McGeary and I are putting on a game for GDWS based on the Home Guard and Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain in 1940. We had planned it for last year's 80th anniversary, but Hitler did plan to return the following spring, so we are not too far off.

My background research included Stephen Cullen's book 'In Search of the Real Dad's Army', which separates fact from fiction. There are also the two Bolt Action supplements for the campaign. 




On 14 May 1940, the Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). They would be given a uniform (initially an armband) and armed (mostly civilian weapons) but not paid. 250,000 men between the ages of 17 and 65 signed up in seven days, and the LDV grew to 1.5 million by July, when it was renamed the Home Guard. Women formed some unofficial units late in 1940 but otherwise were limited to non-combat roles.

Their function was to defend places of tactical importance, man roadblocks, and observe the enemy. However, most thought their role was to hunt down the parachutists and ‘fifth columnists’ of popular media imagination. Equipment improved with the purchase of Enfield rifles from US stocks, with BARs and Lewis Guns. A wide range of improvised vehicles were developed, including the Armadillo armoured truck. Formal military ranks were introduced in November 1940.


On 16 July 1940, Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 16, preparing for a landing in Britain. The code name for the invasion was Seelöwe (Sea Lion). It was subject to four pre-conditions, including the destruction of the RAF and clearing and securing the Channel. The initial plan was for a broad front across the south coast. However, the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine argued for a narrow front that could be defended. The first wave would consist of nine divisions landing on the Kent and Sussex coast, plus a single airborne division.  The defence plan envisaged a ‘crust’ on the coast, supported by several stop lines (with anti-tank obstacles) and a mobile reserve.

Cullen starts with an overview of the formation of the Home Guard during the crisis period in 1940 and 1941. After that, the Home Guard developed into many roles that freed up regular units for combat roles with better equipment and training. Churchill was satisfied soon after the Battle of Britain that an invasion wasn't feasible. So much so that he released an armoured division to the Middle East.

The rest of the book looks at the men and women that served in the Home Guard and how they were equipped in more detail. There were geographical differences between urban and rural units (which included mounted infantry) and between Scotland and England. The Home Guard in Northern Ireland was different again due to the political tradition of citizens' defence and the land border with the Republic. The Home Guard included young men waiting for call up, women and 'enemy aliens', including many Jews who had escaped from Germany. Spanish Civil War veterans trained the Home Guard in 1940, despite the reservations about their politics! The book includes several personal histories.

The Home Guard was disbanded after the war, but the book deals with its legacy and its treatment by historians and popular culture. Most people in the UK know about the Home Guard thanks to the BBC comedy series Dad's Army that ran to eighty episodes from 1968 to 1977. It averaged 12 million viewers a week and is re-run regularly today. It was pretty accurate in terms of uniforms and equipment but reflected the early years of improvisation rather than those later units. It's a comedy series, not a documentary.

I have been dusting down my figures for Saturday's game. Andy has more figures and some great scenery. Hope to see at least the Scottish contingent there.

German column

Ammunition dump

Fifth Columnists!

British regulars in the relief column

Got to have a telephone box!

And Winston! Not sure about Captain Pugwash though.





Saturday, 18 September 2021

I was Hitler's chauffeur

 It is a book title that catches the eye, and that, coupled with the cover picture Hitler and Mussolini, was enough for me to take it off the shelves at my local library. These are the memoirs of Erich Kempka, who was Hitler's chauffeur from 1932 until Hitler died in 1945.

Kempka must have been the highest-ranking chauffeur of all time. He was an Obersturmbannfuhrer in the SS (Lieutenant-Colonel), although his duties included command of the motor pool and helped design vehicles for Hitler's use and his presents to other leaders. He personally drove Hitler throughout this period, which put him in a position to comment on the man himself and those in the inner circle. 

Even though it was written after the war, it is clear that Kempka admired Hitler, unlike Bormann, who he clearly disliked. The problem with the memoirs is that you get very little information about the people and places and the conversations he must have overheard. In fact, most of his memoirs focus on the final days in the bunker. The odd snippet included his design of a bulletproof car for King Boris of Bulgaria shortly before his death. Interestingly, Hitler rejected such a car until wartime because he didn't think anyone in Germany would want to assassinate him! He also argues that Keitel and Jodl had the decisive influence on war policy. 

For the conspiracy theorists who believe Hitler didn't commit suicide, this was the man who provided the petrol that burned Hitler's corpse. In addition, he personally carried Eva Braun's body to the grave.

This is one of a series of books by Hitler's household staff. While they give some insight into the realities of life in the Nazi inner circle, I am not convinced they have much historical interest. Hitler may have been 'a good boss', even pleasant to animals, but that really doesn't help us understand the murderous decisions he made. 

It is thankfully a slim volume, and you can ignore the appendix written as context by an obviously ardent Nazi. Overall, really not worth the effort.

A German staff car in 28mm - not quite Hitler standard!




Friday, 17 September 2021

Sparta at War

 This is Scott Rusch's book on the strategy, tactics and campaigns of the Spartan state from 550 to 362BC. This was the period when Sparta was the dominant military power in Greece. Its armies won ten major battles, defended Greece against the Persians, and defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC). Even when they lost their naval supremacy, they remained the strongest state on land.

The story of Sparta is all the more remarkable when you consider how small the Spartan state was. When I visited the site, the one thing that struck me was the modest size of the public buildings and the city itself. The absence of fortifications is also striking compared to other sites in the Peloponnese; Spartan shields were their fortifications.

While Sparta is situated on a plain, the setting is still impressive.

This is, without doubt, a meticulously researched study of the Spartan campaigns. Perhaps less of a study of strategy and tactics. Although one aspect of their strategy not always picked up is the alliance system. Spartans may have been the cutting edge of alliances, but they often engaged in wars with very few Spartiates being present. Like other states, they made extensive use of mercenaries, and allies made up a significant proportion of the troops in major battles. In addition, Spartan officers were often sent to direct allied forces, called Xenagoi (Leaders of foreigners). 

They also took with them to war large numbers of auxiliaries in the form of Perioecs. These small scattered communities were concentrated on the borders and fought with the Spartans as heavy infantry and cavalry. And the better-known Helots who acted as servants and could fight as light infantry. It has been argued that they took large numbers of Helots with them to mitigate the risk of revolt while they were away. However, revolts were relatively rare, and ancient armies needed many men to keep an army supplied. 

The Spartan hoplite was still a citizen militia, and while it is famed for the training from a young age, other Greek cities had similar systems. The difference was in degree, both physical and mental. They were noted for their careful observance of omens, festivals and prophecies, often to the frustration of allies waiting for them! They also had a stricter camp life and routine than other Greek states.

Sparta's decline was caused by various factors, not least being stretched too far for its oligarchic system and the rise of military skill in other parts of Greece. Thebes developed a combined arms force and the leadership ability to tackle the Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra in 371BC. This battle ended the era of Spartan dominance in Greece as the alliance system collapsed, followed by a social revolution at home. The rise of Macedon ended any hope of a revival. None the less they were the best of the Greeks for two centuries of hoplite battles.

This is a detailed study of the Spartan campaigns supported by good maps. I would have liked to see a little more analysis of strategy and tactics, but it is there in and amongst the narrative.


Here are a couple of 28mm Spartan hoplite units from my collection.






Thursday, 16 September 2021

Slovenian Borderlands

When we think of Balkan borderlands, the Military border between the Habsburgs and Ottomans in modern-day Croatia (Militärgrenze) comes to mind. That was formally established in 1553. However, there was an earlier border area in modern-day Slovenia. Not to be confused with the later (1776) Slavonian Military Frontier, mostly in eastern Croatia and northern Serbia.

 

In the later Middle Ages, Slovenia was sparsely populated, reflecting the mountainous and wooded terrain. The population of the modern capital Ljubljana numbered no more than 5000 by the early sixteenth century. Despite its limited economic value, it was strategically important to the Holy Roman Empire (Habsburg dominated by the end of the 13th century), giving them access to the sea and acting as a buffer against the Kingdom of Hungary to the east and, more importantly, the Ottoman Empire to the south.

 

Militarily this led to the development of several hundred castles, many more than could be justified by the region's economy. Even today, you can see castle ruins and remains on the top of steep hills in the country. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, feudal families, such as the Dukes of Spanheim, the Counts of Gorizia, the Counts of Celje, led the consolidation of lands in the region. Troops from the area also served as mercenaries in Italy, which led to a transition from feudal levies to professional retinues of men-at-arms and mounted crossbowmen. Slovenian troops were present at the Siege of Zadar (1346) and Nicopolis (1396). Ambitious counts like Ulrich II attempted to carve out an independent kingdom but were forced to accept Habsburg suzerainty by 1500. 


Celje Castle (Boris Maric, CC BY-SA 4.0)


The leading opponent of Habsburg rule was the Counts of Celje. The rise of this family from central Slovenia began in the later 14th century, and they became one of the most powerful families in the Balkans. They were related by marriage with rulers of Bosnia as well as Polish and Hungarian kings. In 1396 Count Hermann II of Celje saved the Hungarian king (later Holy Roman Emperor) Sigismund of Luxemburg at the Battle of Nicopolis. A strong bond was strengthened when Sigismund married Hermann's daughter Barbara, and in 1446 they were elevated to Dukes. A dispute with the Habsburg Duke Frederick V led to a prolonged conflict that devastated the region between 1436 and 1443. Frederick captured Celje and gained all their possessions after a deal with the widow of the last Duke.

 

From 1469 the Slovenian lands were subjected to constant raiding by Ottoman forces based in Bosnia, even though they were away from the main Ottoman invasion route. As many as 200,000 local inhabitants had been killed or taken into captivity by the early sixteenth century, not helped by conflicts with Venice and Hungary. The ruling elites essentially held out in the mountain castles while the peasants built stone walls around churches. Maximilian I initiated reforms that included armouries throughout his provinces. Inventory records from the early sixteenth century indicate that Slovenian territory had sufficient crossbows and polearms to equip a force of at least 10,000 men. This was impressively large for the period, given the small population. There were few original military formations with the South German model adopted throughout the Habsburg Eastern Alps, albeit with some Italian influence and lighter armour suited for border warfare. They were also an early adopter of firearms and later Swiss pike formations and Lansknechts.

 

On the other side of the hill, the Ottomans began to consolidate their Empire during this period. After capturing Constantinople, the Ottomans turned their attention to Bosnia, where the locals engaged in civil war. The Serbian vassal state was supported in their claim for Srebrenica, and the Ottomans stepped up their attacks on Bosnia, establishing Vrhbosna (Sarajevo) as their main base. A major invasion in 1463 captured key Bosnian fortresses, and the Bosnian king capitulated with some Bosnian nobles entering Ottoman service.

 

These conquests meant the Ottomans began to take fortifications more seriously, if only as a base for offensive operations. The extraordinary growth of the Empire had been achieved without the large scale use of fortifications. Even the famous ones cutting off the Straits were not followed up. They demolished some Byzantine fortresses in the Balkans but strengthened some on their northern frontier. In particular, on the Danube at Silistria, Nikopol and Vidin. Coastal fortifications were also more likely to be maintained than the more fluid land border. The forts on the Slovenian frontier were typically earth and timber palankas rather than stone castles.

 

Raiding was undertaken mainly by Akinci (raiders), the light cavalry who could be the Muslim gazis of the early Ottoman period or later recruits. As with many borderlands, small scale warfare continued even during periods of official peace. They were less interested in capturing fortresses than booty and slaves. This was a way of life that would continue even when the military frontier became more settled. 

 

For the wargamer, this period offers plenty of opportunities to play skirmish or small battle games. Saga and Lion Rampant rules are particularly suitable. Scenarios with local Slavonian forces defending a village against Ottoman raiders or even counter-attacks on the Ottomans escorting their booty back to the border.

 



There is a more detailed article on this subject at Balkan Military History.


Saturday, 11 September 2021

Margaret the Queen

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter re-read. The title is a bit misleading because while focusing on the remarkable legacy Queen Margaret (later Saint Margaret) left in 11th century Scotland, the book covers all the turbulent events of King Malcolm III's reign.

Later nicknamed Canmore (big head), Malcolm became King of Scots in 1058, probably after killing King Lulach (Macbeth's son). As usual for this period, the sources differ on many aspects of his early life and reign. His first wife was likely Ingibiorg Finnsdottir, the widow of Thorfinn Sigurdsson of Orkney.  Tranter has her dying, possibly poisoned by Malcolm, before he married Margaret. She was a Saxon princess and brother to Edgar the Saxon claimant to the English throne after the Norman invasion. 

She appears to have had a remarkable influence over the warlike Malcolm, making significant inroads for the Roman Catholic church into Columban Scotland. Not that it stopped Malcolm leading at least five invasions of England. These were mostly large scale raids into Northumbria rather than serious attempts at conquest.

The arrival of the Normans in England changed the balance of power significantly. William came North and forced peace on Malcolm, who accepted William's overlordship. This would be a source of contention throughout the medieval period. Not that this stopped further confrontations between both sides.

When William Rufus became king on Williams death, a further peace deal was agreed. However, as Rufus consolidated his rule, he expanded his domain to include Cumbria, nominally Scottish during this period. After another raid into Northumbria, Malcolm was ambushed and killed near Alnwick in 1093. Margaret died soon after.

While most of the conflict was with the Normans, Malcolm also put down a northern rebellion led by Lulach's son, although, in practice, his rule in the far north was always limited. He also lost the Hebrides to Norway late in his reign. 

Tranter tells the story through Maldred, a younger son of the Earl of Atholl. This is a common Tranter style. While church politics is a theme that runs throughout the book, there is plenty of action to keep the reader engaged. 

Norman knights, supported by archers and crossbowmen, usually proved too strong for Scots armies of the period.


Friday, 10 September 2021

The Red Prince: John of Gaunt

 John of Gaunt tends to be forgotten amongst the pantheon of great English leaders of the Hundred Years War period. The Black Prince, Edward III and Henry V probably spring to mind first. However, Helen Carr's new biography of the Duke of Lancaster reminds us that he was a key player, and his legacy was arguably even greater.

His name is a take on his birthplace, Ghent in Flanders. His mother was Queen Phillipa of Hainault, and his father was Edward III, who arrived there two months after his great naval victory at Sluys. Flanders was crucial to the English economy of the period as they took most of its wool exports. As Carr puts it, his early life was lived "in a polarised world of war and chivalry, poverty and plague."

The King had great plans for him, even a scheme to place him on the throne of Scotland. Gaunt developed strong diplomatic ties with Scotland and became the go-to peacemaker. Later in his life, he even sheltered there when he thought his life might be at risk. He learned the skills of being a prince and huge landowner from his older brother, The Black Prince. 

While overshadowed militarily by his older brother, John took part in many military campaigns during the Hundred Years War. He commanded in Calais and Aquitaine when the Black Prince fell ill and subsequently died. He most famously took part in the Castilian Civil War after Pedro I was deposed by his half-brother Enrique Trastámara. He played a key role in the victory at the Battle of Najéra, supporting Pedro. The skirmishing tactics of the Spanish came a cropper to the longbow and dismounted knights combination that the French were learning to avoid in open battle. Castile would become something of an obsession with John of Gaunt. 

Pedro was later murdered, and after the death of his first wife, Gaunt married Pedro's daughter and proclaimed himself King of Castile and Leon. Persuading the King and Parliament to finance an expedition to turn the title into reality was more challenging. Much later, he managed to finance an invasion and landed with an English army allied with the Portuguese. However, the Spanish had learned from their French advisors and deployed a scored earth policy, which added to the summer heat, resulted in disease and rebellion amongst his army. He was forced to cut his losses and agree to drop his claim in return for the marriage of his daughter into the Castillian royal family.

His later years were dominated by the erratic rule of Richard II, which included the Peasant's Revolt. Gaunt was unpopular in London, and his Savoy Palace was burned to the ground in this period. Or, more accurately, the rebels thought they were rolling wine barrels that turned out to be gunpowder, consuming all in the subsequent explosion.

Gaunt's eldest son was Henry Bolingbroke. His desire for adventure led him to a campaign with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. The somewhat thin justification for longbows in the Teutonic Knights army list for some wargame rules. After Gaunt's death, Richard II unwisely disinherited and exiled him. He returned in 1399, recruited an army and deposed Richard II, becoming Henry IV, the start of the Lancastrian royal dynasty. Gaunt's daughter Catherine became Queen Consort and then Regent of Castile. Her great-granddaughter was Catherine of Aragon, the future wife of Henry VIII.  This brought the dynasty full circle.

This is a good story, well told and fills in many gaps in my understanding of the period. Highly recommended.

For the tabletop, the most interesting clash is the Battle of Najéra. I have a decent collection of Spanish armies, mostly for the earlier period; after display games, I organised for GDWS in 2012 and 2013

I tried a new quicker format for playing To the Strongest! Using the 15mm mat, I halved the normal 28mm unit size. It works very well and gets the army on the table quicker.

It looked as if the ruling Castilians were going to walk the game contrary to the historical battle. However, the English wing of Pedro's army led something of a recovery, and it was only a narrow victory for the Castilians in the end. 








Friday, 3 September 2021

Blenheim over the Balkans

 This is the story of 211 Squadron RAF and its service in the Western Desert and Greece during WW2. The author served in the squadron and has researched the operational history and that of its opponents over a 25 year period. This is all brought together in this book.

The Bristol Blenheim was a twin-engined light bomber with a crew of three. In the 1930s, when it first entered service, it was as fast as most fighters. However, the introduction of monoplane fighters meant it was vulnerable to being interdicted. It ended the war as a night fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.

211 Squadron was in the Western Desert when on 23 November 1940, they were sent to support the Hellenic Air Force in operations against the Italian invasion. The crews were delighted to escape the desert and go to Greece's fresh air and green landscape during winter. The Greeks were very welcoming, and the pilots and aircrew were welcomed as they visited Athens when off duty. They were initially based at Tatoi Airport outside Athens. Today it is still an airbase and the home of the Hellenic Air Force Museum.

They had more crews than aircraft initially and so didn't have a dedicated aircraft. The main targets were the Albanian ports of Durazzo and Valona, typically with four 250lb bombs. They were only to attack if there was seven-tenths cloud cover to avoid interception by Italian fighters. The Blenheim relied on a single light machine gun in a turret as defensive armament, which enabled them to fight off the CR42, but not the latest Italian monoplane fighters.

The RAF dropped 500 tons of bombs during the campaign, which was small by later standards, but the Blenheim had a small bombload. The RAF destroyed 259 enemy aircraft with another 99 'probables'. 72 RAF aircraft were lost in combat, and 55 were lost to ground strafing. A further 82 had to be abandoned or destroyed on evacuation.

The author describes a number of the operations and something of the life of the pilots and aircrew living in Greece. Their war ended when the remaining six aircraft of the squadron were shot down by German Bf 109's on Easter Day 1941. The Luftwaffe deployed around 1,000 aircraft in Operation Marita.  The author tracked down the surviving German pilots and includes their stories as well. He has also recovered several logbooks and other documentation and interviewed surviving members of the squadron. 

This is an impressive piece of research, which gives an interesting insight into the RAF deployment in the Greek campaign. One of the Blenheim's were recovered from Lake Mikro Prespa in 1993, and the remains are displayed at the Hellenic Air Force Museum.

This is the only flying Blenheim today, operating at Duxford in 2015.
(Airwolfhound from  Hertfordshire, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0)