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

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

IWM Duxford

 On Tuesday, I had a meeting in Cambridge, so it would be rude not to visit the Imperial War Museum's site at Duxford. I haven't been for many years. This is the IWM's collection of aircraft exhibits and much more. It is still a working airfield, and it has a collection of working preserved aircraft. Almost every day, Spitfires roll down the runway. 

Duxford became an airfield during WW1, and in the interwar years, it trained hundreds of RAF pilots. Then, as WW2 beckoned, it was a sector station of 12 Group, playing a key role in the Battle of Britain. This was the 'Big Wing' base of five squadrons, including 310 Squadron led by Douglas Bader. The Americans arrived in 1943, and the Spitfires were replaced by Mustangs and Thunderbolts escorting the bombers over Europe. After the war, it remained a fighter base for Meteors, Hunters and Lightnings before it closed in 1961. In 1968 it was handed over to the IWM.

The main aircraft displays are in hangers where just about every British warplane can be seen and a fair few civil airliners as well.

The Fairey Swordfish

Lysander

The elegant Vulcan

To the ugly Victor

Also in the Air Space Hanger is the Parachute and Air Assualt Museum. One of several sub-museums on site.


I liked the positioning of the Piat and the Milan to show how the AT technology has changed.

And all the different transport paras used.

Then it was outside to watch a Spitfire take off.


Other flying aircraft can be seen in their own hanger used by private and commercial owners.


There is, of course, a Battle of Britain hanger that also has post-war planes.

A downed Me109. The pilot wasn't too bothered about being a PoW because he thought the invasion was imminent!

A WW2 autogyro.

A Mig 21 donated by the Hungarian Air Force

Then there is the USAF memorial and hanger with an astonishing collection of US aircraft all mixed together. Including a B52 Stratofortress, so large that my camera had no chance.





Finally, the Land Warfare Hall, which includes the Anglian Regiment Museum. Putting the exhibits into context is really well done.





A cracking day out. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Strykers

 This is the third in the modern military fiction series, Smoke over the Bosporus by Maciej Jonasz. The basic premise is that the Turkish Government moves from a soft power neo-Ottoman position to a hard power version. In the first book, they invade Bulgaria only to be repulsed by a new Balkan League. In the second book, Greece uses the confusion to invade Turkish occupied North Cyprus. This book involves an American armoured infantry company on a NATO exercise in Turkey, which gets drawn into a conflict with the Turkish Armed Forces after taking nuclear weapons from the US Air Force at the Incirlik Air Base.


The Stryker is an eight-wheel AFV built in Canada for the US Army. It was conceived as a family of vehicles forming the backbone of a new medium-weight brigade combat team (BCT) to strike a balance between heavy armour and infantry. It was a controversial concept that has had mixed success. Nevertheless, the company has several variants in the book, including the 105mm gun mounted version.


 When the Turkish invasion of Bulgaria started, the joint exercise was cancelled. Then for unclear reasons, the Turkish military decides to attempt to disarm and intern the Stryker company. The logical move would have been simply to let them go home, but I suppose that wouldn't make a decent story. The Americans learn about the plan and resist because a corporal has a gay relationship with the Turkish liaison officer; really! In parallel, the US Air Force personnel at Incirlik are also detained, and the nuclear bombs are taken away by Turkish intelligence. You would have thought starting a war with Bulgaria and Greece was enough for the Turks without taking on the USA as well! 

The plot gets even more absurd when Turkish intelligence brings the nuclear bombs to the same base as the Stryker company. When you have the whole of Anatolia to choose from, why on earth would you bring them to the one place there are well-armed Americans! Anyway, the Strykers decide to liberate the nukes and fight their way to the coast.

I had some issues with the political context of the first two books, although I thought the military aspects were excellent. Sadly, the author has gone off at the deep end in this book, with all sorts of nonsense rants against diversity and political correctness. The US President is so liberal that he falls over himself to accommodate the Turks and undermine the safety of his troops. We have sub-plots about Muslim extremism in the military and immigration, which are straight out of the most rabid white supremacist mythology. I fear the Bulgarian author's grasp of US politics is based on watching too much Fox News!

You will have gathered that I wasn't impressed. In fairness, the battle scenes are good, but the political context and the plot are just downright silly. One to be avoided.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Prince Eugene of Savoy

 This is James Falkner's new book on one of the outstanding commanders of the 18th century. In Falkner's view, he is in the military genius category. Prince Eugene in the Balkans was the GDWS theme for display games at the Scottish wargame shows back in 2006. So I collected the armies for the main battles at Zenta, Peterwardein and Belgrade. Although I have one that claims to be, Eugene left no memoirs, and there hasn't been a biography of him since McKay (1977) and Henderson (1964). 


James Falkner is the leading historian of the Malburian wars, and Eugene's partnership with Marlborough is how most people think of the Prince. However, there is much more to his military career than Blenheim. I am very familiar with his campaigns against the Ottomans in the Balkans, but less so his Italian campaigns that Falkner also covers.

Even by 18th century pre-nationalist standards, Eugene's climb to fame is extraordinary. He was born in Paris and wanted to join the French army. Only when Louis refused did he join the Habsburgs. It always reminds me of football clubs who release a striker who goes on to glory elsewhere! For an outsider, he was remarkably appointed to command the army in the East at the very young age of 33. Then in 1703, he was appointed President of the Imperial War Council, directing the Austrian war effort on several fronts until he died in 1736.

Several themes run through his service with the Habsburgs. The main one was finance. He was frequently asked to perform miracles with armies that were too small for the task and rarely paid on time. Like Marlborough, he also needed diplomatic skills to keep coalitions together, although he appears to have been less skilled at managing court politics.

There are chapters on campaigns that I wasn't familiar with. These include the march to Turin in 1706, moving his army 250 miles in a passage of arms the equivalent of Marlborough's march to the Danube. The victory was achieved with a force almost half that of the French. Even if less successful, he pulled off another remarkable attack on Toulon against his better judgement the following year.

Unlike some western historians, Falkner does not ignore the Balkan campaigns. The first campaign culminated in the Battle of Zenta in 1697. Some 20,000 Ottoman troops, including the Grand Vizier and the Aga of the Janissaries, were slaughtered, and a further 10,000 drowned. Eugene’s army claimed only 300 dead. This victory was decisive and led to the Treaty of Karlowitz 1699, in which the Habsburgs gained all of Hungary and Transylvania except the Banat of Temesvar.

The second campaign included the relief of Peterwardein and the capture of Belgrade, the key jumping-off point for Ottoman offensives into Hungary and Austria. Even with these campaigns, Falkner digs out some details I hadn't read before. For example, Austrian deserters captured at Belgrade were impaled on Eugene's orders. Campaigning in the east was a more savage affair all round.

By the end of Eugene's period in office, the Habsburg lands had significantly expanded, although expensively bought gains in Italy and the Netherlands would be challenging to sustain. Not least because the finances were not in place. While two million gulden could be found for court costs, the army across the empire had to make do with just eight million.

This is a compelling story of an outstanding military leader. The Frenchman who became an unlikely Austrian hero.

Austrian generals

Austrian infantry facing Ottoman skirmishers


Thursday, 12 May 2022

Napoleon's Balkan Troops

 My latest wargame project has been completed, much to the relief of my replenished lead pile. How those lockdown days now seem a long way off! It is timely because I have been playing a lot more Black Powder recently, and more French will be needed for a big game we are planning for the GDWS Napoleonic Open Day on 22 May. The French and Ottomans will be lining up against the British and Ali Pasha. A what-if' before anyone scurries for their history books based on the French-Ottoman rapprochement after 1802.

The French involvement in the Balkans started in 1797 with the brief occupation of the Ionian islands. After Austerlitz in 1805, they acquired former Venetian provinces in Istria, Dalmatia as far as the Bay of Cattaro (Kotor) in modern Montenegro. They also grabbed Ragusa in 1806. Another failed effort against Napoleon by Austria in 1809 resulted in the loss of the rest of Istria and the inland provinces of Carniola, Carinthia and the Croatian military border. In December 1809, these conquests were brought together in the Illyrian Provinces under the command of Marshall Marmont. Small scale warfare continued with the British, Austrians and Ottomans until the French abandoned them in 1814.

As elsewhere in Europe, the French recruited locally raised troops as garrisons. Some of these interesting units form the basis for my latest project. The figures are 28mm and are mostly adapted from the Wargames Foundry range. I prefer the Front rank range, but when I looked for figures, they weren't available due to the transfer to Gripping Beast. I have compromised on the basing between individual basing and my usual three figures on 60mm x 20mm multiple bases. This allows me to use them for Black Powder and Rebels and Patriots, or Sharp Practice. The small war conflicts in this region are more suited to the small battle or skirmish games.

The first unit is chasseurs of the Royal Dalmatian Legion. These troops came from Italy and Dalmatia, some being ex-Austrian soldiers, hence the corsehut, which I particularly like.


The Illyrian Chasseur Regiments were former Grenzer regiments, usually referred to as the Croat regiments. Marmont persuaded Napoleon to recruit these units from the military border and retain their traditional organisation. They rarely operated above battalion level.

The Illyrian Provinces were not exempted from Napoleon's need for extra manpower for the Russian campaign. This led to the expansion of the Illyrian Chasseurs through Croatian Provisional regiments. These figures are Voltigeurs.


Also, in the above picture, we have a small unit of Croatian Hussars. They were still serving in France in 1814.

That will do for now, as I can field a Black Powder brigade of these troops on 22 May. There are some other colourful units I wouldn't mind doing, including Serezaners, which acted as scouts for the Croat units. But, sadly, I can't find a suitable figure. The Albanian Regiment, in the traditional dress, can probably be recruited from Ottoman ranges.

My reference source is the Osprey MAA 410, 'Napoleon's Balkan Troops', by Vladimir Brnardic and illustrated by Darko Pavlovic.


Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Four Princes

 Four Princes is John Julius Norwich's study of Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Sulieman the Magnificent and the obsessions that forged modern Europe. I think this was his last book before he sadly passed away in 2018. In my view, he was one of the greatest historical writers, with the ability to make factual history sound like a novel. Normans in the South is my personal favourite.

The four rulers he chose for this study all lived at roughly the same time in the first half of the 16th century. The book seeks to weave the story of their lives together in the context of the vast changes happening around them. He argues:

"Has there, in all European history, been a half-century like it? Here, packed into the space of just fifty years, are the High Renaissance, Luther and the Reformation, the exploration of the Americas, the panoply and pageantry exemplified by the Field of the Cloth of Gold and, above all, those four magnificent, memorable monarchs – each of whom, individually, left his indelible imprint over the land he ruled and who together transformed the civilised world."

It is a decent argument, although I am not entirely convinced with the attempt to weave their stories together. They were also very different personalities, from Henry VIII and his six wives to Charles V, who broke his heart when his Empress died at the age of only thirty-three. He never remarried and was to dress in black for the rest of his life. Norwich concedes the differences but argues together, they dominated the world stage and moulded the continent of Europe. None were truly great rulers, but they all possessed elements of greatness, and each left an indelible footprint on the lands he ruled. Again possibly valid, although I think Sulieman was pretty close to greatness, but that still doesn't bring them together.

The basic history of each ruler is outlined. However, one of his writing strengths is bringing the story to life with colourful anecdotes. For example, Francis I moved his court around the country, which took no fewer than 18,000 horses. When the King visited Bordeaux in 1526, stabling was ordered for 22,500 horses and mules. Another I should have known is an old Hungarian song that tells of a series of domestic disasters; after each comes the chorus: Több is veszett Mohácsnál – ‘but no matter; more was lost on Mohács field’. In modern Hungarian, the line has become a proverb.

The contradictions of rulers in an age when religion was taken seriously are not ignored. Francis I was busy burning protestant heretics while at the same time allying with Sulieman. The siege and capture of Nice was a joint operation of the Franco–Turkish alliance. The sight of Christians fighting Christians with the help of infidels left many deeply shocked but perhaps not surprised at the realpolitik. Given that Francis was surrounded by the Habsburgs to the east and west and a generally hostile Henry to the north. However, the citizens of Toulon were less than enthused to have Barbarossa spending the winter refitting his fleet in their city. Crusades were much discussed but were never going to happen.

Two of the four princes died in the first three months of 1547. Only Sulieman completed his three score years and ten; none of the other three reached even sixty – Francis dying at fifty-two, Henry at fifty-five, Charles at fifty-eight. However, for the period, these were decent innings. Suleiman the Magnificent (or the Lawgiver as he is commonly described in Turkey) was possibly the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, although I think a good case can be made for this father, Selim. He was a statesman, a legislator and a patron of the arts but primarily a soldier, and he died as all good soldiers wish to die, with his troops on the field of battle. He also had one characteristic that the others didn't, religious tolerance. As the Norwich rightly concludes: 

"an instinctive respect for the beliefs of others and a readiness to allow them their own customs, traditions and forms of worship. In Suleiman’s dominions tolerance was absolute; if only his fellow princes had followed his example, how much happier Europe would have been."

Despite my reservations about the book's premise, this is still a good read. As you would expect from the master's hand.

OK, I am biased when it comes to comparisons. Let's have some Ottomans!








Thursday, 5 May 2022

Glorious Misadventures - Russian America

 This is Owen Matthews's book about Nikolai Rezanov and the dream of a Russian America. It was a bit off my usual radar, but I spotted it in my local library.

I had a vague recollection that the Russians sold Alaska to the USA. I didn't realise that by 1812 the border of the Tsar's dominions was just an hour's drive north of San Francisco. They also had a colony in Hawaii.

The base for this expansion was Siberia. From there, Cossack explorers visited the Aleutian islands in forty-foot boats, chasing very profitable pelts and furs. These expeditions fired the imagination of the Russian leadership. This also came to the attention of the Spanish, who had lightly colonised the coast of California, encouraging them to step up security. This included founding a new mission at San Francisco and sending a naval expedition from their naval base at San Blas in Mexico. Captain James Cook, the English explorer, had also visited Hawaii and further north, exciting some interest in London.

The Russian entrepreneur Grigory Shelikhov came up with the idea of creating a crown monopoly along the lines of Britain's Hudson's Bay Company. The Tsar appointed Nikolai Rezanov as his emissary. To give some idea of the distances involved, it took Rezanov seven months to reach the ramshackle Russian port of Okhotsk on the Siberian coast. His vision was much larger, more akin to the East India Company.

The rest of the book covers Rezanov's travels, including Japan, still in its isolationist period. His dreams of trading with Japan were dashed by this policy, not to mention his lack of diplomatic skills. Later the Company's ships attacked the Japanese coast, a decision to effectively declare war that Rezanov took himself. They did strengthen the Russian outposts in Alaska, albeit at great cost to the indigenous tribes. Like other colonial empires, they brought diseases to which the local communities had few immunities. There were also small and some larger-scale conflicts. The Russian Orthodox Church provided priests, which, together with alcoholism, are the two reminders of Russian rule in Alaska today. A staggering three million rubles' of furs were sent back to Russia. The Company's Russian fleet was limited, and colonies often relied on American ships for supplies. Rezanov reported that the Company's shipping was in the hands of alcoholic officers, some manic depressive and others murderous.

The furthest south Rezanov got was San Francisco. Despite the Spanish Government's no trading policy, he was well received by the Spanish authorities. War in Europe would impact this policy, but the news took months to get to these far-flung outposts. Even Mexico was some distance away, and only two or three Spanish ships visited each year. Rezanov even got engaged to the local commander's daughter, Conchita. However, his travels eventually took their toll on Rezanov's health, and he died in March 1807 on his return to St Petersburg. 

North of San Francisco, Fort Ross remained the most southerly outpost of Russian America until 1842. Somewhat renovated, it is a state museum today. Timing is all; as the Spanish Empire crumbled after the Napoleonic Wars, a larger Russian presence could have exploited this. Just after they sold the colony, the Californian gold rush began. Hawaii was abandoned even earlier after the Russians became embroiled in a local civil war. The Company was wound down after many of its officials were involved in the failed plot to depose the Tsar in 1825. From Rezanov's death onwards, Russia never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity in the New World. They offered Alaska to Britain in 1859, but Palmerston decided he had enough uncharted wilderness to deal with in Canada, so it was bought by the USA in 1867.

For the wargamer, there are a few colonial skirmishes with the Russians represented by Cossack types. Eureka Miniatures do one of the Alaskan tribes, the Tlingits, who regularly fought the Russians in 15mm. Varang Miniatures also do them in 28mm, along with Aleuts and Russian trappers. The March edition of Wargames Illustrated has a good article on these conflicts. The 'what-ifs' are more promising. If Russia had properly exploited their colonial outposts, there could have had a conflict with the Spanish. And later, a Russian California would have had an intriguing border with the USA. The prospects are endless there!


28mm Cossacks from my collection.

Sunday, 1 May 2022

Crusader

 This is the latest in my re-reading of Nigel Tranter's historical novels. It covers the period of Alexander III's minority, as told through the eyes of his supporter, David de Lindsay. It is a common Tranter ploy to tell the story through a close associate, although on this occasion, he chose an actual historical figure, albeit a lesser-known one.


Alexander III was born in 1241 and became king after his father's death in 1249. At the age of seven, he had regents appointed by Parliament. This was a source of a continuous power struggle between the faction led by Walter Comyn, Earl of Menteith, the other by Alan Durward, Earl of Atholl. Relations with England were, as usual, challenging, with Henry III attempting to assert his paramountcy. Alexander was married to Henry's daughter, Margaret, in 1251.

Alexander's father had died while preparing to campaign against Norway to control the Western Isles, an issue that Alexander would resolve much later in his reign. However, his regency period was mostly an issue of internal politics, with the factions vying for control.

David de Lindsay is officially the King's cupbearer but acts as a sort of advisor and tutor in practice. He later became Chamberlain of Scotland. While this is all very worthy, it has to be said that it doesn't make a page-turning read. Most of the action occurs in Lothian and the Borders, Tranter's home turf, so there is plenty of Tranter's descriptive writing of the region and lordly pursuits, but not a lot else.

The book's title, Crusader, is a bit disingenuous. David de Lindsay promises his mother that he will go on crusade,  and he puts this off until Alexander achieves his majority. This was late in the crusading story with King Louis of France's failed Seventh Crusade, following the Battles of Mansura and Fariskur in 1250. With no actual crusade to join, David goes to Acre, where he dies of disease during one of the many sieges of that crusader outpost. That part of the story is simply a short epilogue.

So, an interesting period piece, but not one of Tranter's more gripping stories, and certainly short on action.

Simon de Montfort appears in the story several times. King Henry's brother in law had his own crusading past, as did his father, who led the French forces at the Battle of Muret in 1213. A GDWS display game back in 2013. Simon is the figure with the red flag on the left of this picture.


Friday, 22 April 2022

Syria and Lebanon 1941

 This is a new Osprey Campaign book by David Sutton on a less well-known campaign of WW2, the Allied invasion of Vichy French Syria and Lebanon, Operation Exporter.

The Iraq revolt had highlighted to the British the risks of having a potentially hostile Syria in its rear as it did battle with Rommel in the Western Desert. The Germans had used Vichy French airfields in Syria to send supplies and fighters into Iraq, and Churchill, supported by de Gaulle, argued for an invasion. Wavell pleaded with Churchill not to be forced to open another front, as he was already stretched with commitments in Greece and relieving Tobruk. However, Churchill insisted, and Wavell had to cobble together a force for the invasion.

The lead units came from the 7th Australian Division, less one brigade that was besieged in Tobruk. They were supplemented by horse-mounted and lightly armoured cavalry regiments and the 5th Indian Brigade Group. Tanks and anti-aircraft weapons were fully committed to Operation Battleaxe, the relief of Tobruk. The Free French contributed a light division, some marines and a Circassian cavalry unit that defected from the Vichy forces. Six cruisers and eight destroyers provided the naval force for operations off the coast and a dizzying array of aircraft types that could be spared from Battleaxe.

The Vichy forces were a mix of regular and colonial troops, including Senegalese, Algerian, Morrocan and Tunisian units. There were also four battalions of the French Foreign Legion and two cavalry regiments equipped with 90 R-35 light tanks and an assortment of armoured cars. In addition, there was a small naval squadron of two destroyers and five submarines and a substantial air force of 130 aircraft, double those available to the Empire forces.  There is a complete order of battle and details of the units involved as usual with this series. 

The British plan was to advance in three columns from Palestine. De Gaulle claimed Vichy units would defect. However, not for the first or last time, this didn't happen and the Vichy commander, General Henri Dentz, offered a strong defence. This was primarily to give the Germans no cause to remove what freedoms Vichy France enjoyed. The main chapters cover the campaign in some detail. It certainly was a more challenging fight than the British and Free French expected with Vichy forces defending the river lines and frequently counter-attacking. The absence of tanks was a severe handicap, and Vichy aircraft effectively slowed the advance. Nevertheless, by early July, the Australian and British troops had captured Damascus and were close to taking Beirut. Indian forces had flanked the Vichy defences from Iraq and headed for Aleppo. A ceasefire was agreed on 12 July. 

This campaign was overshadowed at the time by the German invasion of the Soviet Union and has been largely forgotten since. However, with some 2,400 dead, it deserves better recognition. This book certainly achieves that. There are excellent maps and period photos, although I would have liked to see more on the Vichy forces, including some colour plates. There is no chapter on visiting the battlefields today, for obvious reasons!

For the wargamer, British and Empire forces can come from Western Desert armies, although these mainly were infantry battles in very different terrain from the desert. Except for the desert flank, which included a battle around the ancient ruins of Palmyra. So you can dust down some ancient scenery for this one. The French colonial troops are more exotic, including camel troops and spahis. Certainly not in my collection, but I see EWM do a pretty comprehensive range in 20mm. I will try and resist!


My 15mm British and Commonwealth forces in Greece would mostly work for this campaign. The Australians had Vickers tanks.

 


Sunday, 17 April 2022

Hisart and Rahmi Koc Museums

 The last of my Istanbul museum blogs - I promise! These are two private museums that you won't find in the main guidebooks, but they are very much worth a visit.

The first is the Hisart Museum, north of Taksim Square and the Military Museum, near the University. It has an extraordinary collection of uniforms, dioramas, paintings and models covering Turkish history throughout the ages. Five floors look like this, and this is only half a floor.


There are lifesize dioramas like these.




Large scale dioramas like these:



And all sort of militaria.



The other private museum is the Rahmi Koc Museum, out along the Golden Horn. It can best be described as a technical museum focusing on transport.

Planes.




Trains.




And automobiles.





Not forgetting ships, including a Tench Class fleet submarine.