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

Saturday 26 February 2022

The Battle of Lissa 1866

 This is a new book by Quintin Barry on the Austro-Hungarian naval victory against the Italians at Lissa (known as Vis today) in 1866. However, the book is really about how the Industrial Revolution changed naval warfare in the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in the Battle of Lissa.

The island of Lissa (Vis) is off the Adriatic Coast, and in 1866 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the Napoleonic Wars, it had been a British base for the frigate squadron of William Hoste. The British had built up the defences of both harbours on the island, and the Austrians had developed these and added a 2,000 man garrison. It is easily my favourite island on that coast, but in this story, it was almost an accident that it became the site of such an important battle in the history of naval warfare.

Most of this book is about the transition from wooden sailing ships of the Napoleonic era to the introduction of three key technologies - the screw, steam engines and ironclads. Barry takes us through the stages of development, which effectively made redundant the large number of warships left over from the Napoleonic wars. This was a particular problem for the Royal Navy, whose naval superiority could have been overtaken as all navies, particularly the French, effectively started from scratch. As with all technology, there was a debate about which to adopt with the more conservative elements reluctant to change. This resulted in a mix of ship types as navies experimented with different designs. 

HMS Warrior, preserved at Portsmouth, was the Royal Navy's first iron-hulled warship, following its French equivalent, the Gloire. However, the Royal Navy continued to build wooden ships as well. By the 1860s navies had a mix of wooden warships, some with armoured plating as well as full ironclads. The American Civil War had highlighted the impact of the ironclad, although these were essentially coastal warships, and the lessons for ocean-going navies were not fully understood. Not only did tactics have to change, but navies needed coaling stations worldwide.

The significance of Lissa is that before 1866 only one European ironclad had gone into action. The British built Danish ironclad Rolf Krake was hit 150 times by Prussian batteries besieging Dybbol in the Second Schleswig-Holstein War but suffered minor damage. 

The Austrian Navy was pretty small as it had been a largely land-locked empire. The Italian Navy was also reasonably new following reunification, although it had a long naval tradition. However, it was also significantly larger and, on the outbreak of war, was ordered to seek out the Austrian fleet or blockade its main base at Trieste if it didn't come out. 

Austrian fort in Vis town today

The Italian Admiral Persano appeared very reluctant to engage the enemy and found a succession of reasons for not sailing to Trieste. He was eventually ordered out and decided to attack Lissa. His fleet bombarded to Austrian defences and finally put marines onshore. The Italian ships did suffer from several technical problems, and his subordinates showed a shocking disregard for his orders when he gave any. The Austrian fleet was commanded by Wilhelm von Tegetthof, who had a clear idea of the tactics he wanted to adopt and ensured his subordinates understood them. 

Fort St George was built by the British and dominates the access to the harbour.

As the Austrian fleet approached Lissa, the Italians gave up the siege and sailed to meet them, or at least the main elements. Persano made several strange decisions, not least shifting his flag at the start of the battle without telling the other commanders. The decisive clash was the ramming and sinking of the Re d'Italia by Ferdinand Max. They also lost Palestro and several other ships were seriously damaged. It was a clear cut victory for Tegetthof, coming after the Italian defeats on land. Only the Prussian victory at Sadowa saved the Italians in the peace treaty. 

The success of the ram caught the popular and professional imagination, but its use was made obsolete by further technological developments. However, that shouldn't detract from the achievements of the Austrian fleet in winning the first major ironclad battle.

Quintin Barry's books on the 19th century are always worth reading, and this is no exception. I doubt if I will be tempted to dabble in what was very much a transitional period, but I will get my earlier Adriatic navies out once more.

Sunday 20 February 2022

John Hunyadi: Defender of Christendom

This is Camil Muresanu's biography of the Hungarian warlord Janos Hunyadi. Very little has been written specifically about Hunyadi (in English at least), which is surprising given his central position in the story of resistance to the Ottomans in the 15th century. Helion has a book on the stocks, but it was scheduled for autumn 2020 and hasn't been published. Even allowing for the mess that publishers schedules are in at present, this doesn't look hopeful!

Hunyadi was born around 1406 into minor nobility. His father was a household knight, although a later rumour implied he was a bastard son of King Sigismund. There is little evidence for this and precious little at all about his early life. He visited Italy with Sigismund in 1431, where he would have seen the latest military developments. He also observed the tactics of the Hussites and adopted some of their doctrine in his later armies.

His early successful actions against the advancing Ottomans in 1441-2 brought him advancement in the form of commands and land. His use of mercenaries, including Hussites, was a significant development, although funding them was a challenge in a divided Hungary. A solid infantry base around wagons and light cavalry distinguished the Hungarian army from its western counterparts. The upper nobility was less concerned about Ottoman expansion, and Hunyadi often relied on the lesser nobility and later the towns and cities to fund his campaigns. He accepted estates from the King to support his campaigns as the Treasury rarely had the resources to put effective armies into the field. 

The book covers all the well-known battles of the period, including Nis, Second Kosovo, Varna and Belgrade. What was new to me were the internal conflicts against the growing power of the Hapsburgs, particularly during his period as governor of Hungary when there was no King. The confrontation with Jiskra of Slovakia in particular. 

This book is a sympathetic, almost fawning, biography of Hunyadi in the nationalist history genre. The 'Great man' theory of history is not in fashion, although I listened to a History Extra podcast this morning with Judith Green about her new book on the Normans. She argues that medieval leaders certainly needed charisma, and Hunyadi must have had that at least. Like Hannibal, commanding a largely mercenary army certainly required leadership skills of the highest order. He was also a skilled political operator and administrator. However, his battlefield record was very mixed, a point the author brushes over. The claim that Hunyadi's actions held back the Ottomans for a century is getting a bit carried away.

There are stylistic aspects of this book that grated a bit with me. For example, the wicked Ottomans and their despotic rule ignore that Hunyadi was not above exploiting the peasants himself, most of whom noticed little difference when they swapped masters. Also, English does not appear to be the author's first language, and the prose is a bit stilted. Having said that, it is not a long book, and it does introduce aspects of the period that haven't been well covered before.

So, onto the tabletop. A standard 130pt game of To the Strongest! this afternoon. 

The Ottomans stormed across the table in their first move, taking out the Hungarian artillery as well. 

Hunyadi is rated a 'Great Leader' under these rules, which gives his unit an extra replacement card. However, he almost came a cropper in the second round when a bunch of grubby Azabs scored a hit, and his unit was finished off by Siphai. The fickle dice (or in this case cards) of history rescued him and he skipped to another unit.

After that, he rallied and destroyed the Ottoman left flank while the Hungarian left was also successful. Game over as they turned inwards to flank the Ottoman centre.

Friday 18 February 2022

Battle of Buffavento Castle - 26/27 July 1974

 I have been painting a few more units for my Cyprus 1974 project, including a much needed Bofors AA gun and 25pdr field gun for the National Guard. The Turks now have an M106 mortar carrier for their mechanised infantry.

The models are 3D prints from Butlers, and the crew are from Britannia.

I have also been reading some Turkish memoirs of the fighting, a challenge for my minimal Turkish and Google translate, which needs to do a bit of work on its Turkish as well! Today's wargame was based on one of those stories.

By 1600hrs on 22 July, when the agreed ceasefire formally came into being, Turkish troops landed from the sea had reached Kyrenia and had mostly secured the pass in order to link up with those landed by air into the main Turkish enclave north of Nicosia. However, while major operations halted, both sides continued low level fighting. The Greeks continued to attack Turkish enclaves and laid mines in an effort to box the Turks in. The Turkish forces continued to expand their lodgement and bring in reinforcements. 

Overlooking the landing area and the port of Kyrenia (Girne) is the Pentedaktylos mountains. They include three medieval castles and an Abbey, which were turned from tourist attractions into a battlefield. One of these was Buffavento Castle, built by the Byzantines in a strong position to watch over the coast, and was captured by Richard the Lionheart in 1191. It is perched over 3,000 feet up in the mountains with a narrow access road.

On 25 July, the Turkish 3rd Airborne battalion attacked Buffavento Castle, which was held by the Greek National Guard's 361st Infantry Battalion. The attack began at 08:00 but had stalled by 14:00. The attack recommenced the following day with two airborne platoons supported by machine gun emplacements in the woods. The defenders were distracted and pinned by machine gun fire while five squads climbed the sea facing edge of the mountain without being spotted. The castle was in Turkish hands by 12:15. Lieutenant Ali Sencer Ali described their relief at capturing the large water store in the castle and a cauldron of cooked pasta, which they made a Greek prisoner eat first in case it was poisoned. Not having a radio, they couldn’t report their success so a soldier climbed up a lightning rod pole with a Turkish flag. The resting commander was woken by a surprise telephone call from the battalion commander to a phone in the castle he hadn’t seen.

So, onto the tabletop. You have to use a bit of imagination when replicating a battle at 3,000 feet, but the essence is here.

The battle started with a Turkish F-100 Super Sabre on a bombing run. My shiny new Bofors gun fired and missed. Why is it that newly painted units always seem to fail! However, the bombs didn't do too much damage.

The Turkish infantry on the approach road opened fire with artillery support and caused heavy casualties to the defending infantry squad and MG position. This drew the second squad from their reserve position. This meant there was only a handful of troops to face the Turks that had scaled the cliffs and appeared in the rear. They quickly overpowered the remaining National Guard units and captured the tower. 

Tea time for them, and me!

A short and furious game, but something a bit different.

Wednesday 16 February 2022

A Business of Some Heat

 This is Brigadier Francis Henn's account of the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) before and during the 1974 conflict. As such, it provides a rare objective view of the conflict, albeit from an observer being shot at by both sides!

UNFICYP came into being in 1964 after the intercommunal violence of Christmas 1963. It started with a force level of 6,400 men from nine countries and varied over the years depending on the threat level. That threat stepped up a gear in 1964 when the EOKA leader, Grivas, returned to the island, adding his faction to the National Guard, supplemented by Greek regulars infiltrated into the island under the guise of 'volunteers'. The blockade and violent attacks on Turkish villages until 1967 left indelible marks which inevitably influenced future Turkish-Cypriot attitudes. Only US pressure stopped a Turkish intervention, other than air attacks, which were a clear warning of events to come.

The withdrawal of Grivas and the 'volunteers' after the 1967 crisis allowed for a period of relative stability and the reduction of UNFICYP to around 3,000 men in 1972. The author then sets out the structure of district commands and the functions of the force, which had its HQ at the Blue Beret Camp at Nicosia Airport. The Force Commander was an Indian infantry officer, Major General D. Prem Chand, no stranger to the challenges of inter-ethnic conflict.

The relative peace was shattered by the Greek-inspired coup in 1974, which resulted in the Turkish Government sending a task force to protect the Turkish Cypriot community. UNFICYP had no mandate to intervene but did its best to protect civilians. When a ceasefire (of sorts) was agreed they tried to maintain it. UNFICYP was reinforced by mainly British and Canadian units that included some light armour. The book also covers the actions of the British Government in reinforcing the British base areas on the island. The UN troops view of the competence and tactics of both the protagonists is interesting and rarely positive. They also highlight the indiscipline of some units and the organisational weaknesses highlighted by Erickson in his study. In particular, the Turkish shortage of radios below battalion level.

The most serious conflict came at Nicosia Airport when the force was instructed to hold the airport. As the British PM, Sir Harold Wilson, said, ‘I think within an hour of war.’ The prospect of British (and other) UN troops coming under Turkish air attack galvanised Whitehall. Orders were issued for immediate deployment to Akrotiri of 12 RAF Phantom aircraft and armoured and anti-tank units dispatched from the base areas. There was an interesting exchange between the Turkish battalion commander approaching the airport and a British officer, "Do not forget we have 12 RAF Phantom jets on call which are better than your Sabres and by themselves could destroy your battalion”. The intervention allowed time for the diplomats to get the Turks to call off the attack.

In the second stage of the conflict, up to the unilateral Turkish ceasefire, UNFICYP again sought to protect civilians and then reorganised as a buffer force. There was some attempt to investigate atrocities, although neither side cooperated. They also helped deliver humanitarian supplies. 

The Cyprus conflict has never been resolved, and the UN remains in position, albeit at very low levels. The UN casualties had been severe in 1974 – a total of 9 men killed and 65 wounded. A small UN Force caught up in an all-out war between two armies had paid a high price. As the UN Secretary-General reported, "A peacekeeping operation, no matter how successful and efficient, cannot provide the solution of a political problem. It is only a means of keeping that problem under control, maintaining reasonably normal conditions of life for the people of the area, and creating a situation in which a lasting settlement can more fruitfully be sought."

This book may have more detail than the general reader might reasonably need. I found it a very useful resource, not least because it offers a different perspective on the conflict. Hard copies are difficult to find and expensive for this 2004 book, but there is a very reasonably priced (under £5) Kindle edition.

Blue berets but no white vehicles in 1974. This could be confusing.

Friday 11 February 2022

Sea of Blood - Partisan Movement in Yugoslavia 1941-45

 I think 'awesome' is generally overused in modern (mainly American) parlance. Still, the research into this new military history of the Partisans by Gaj Trifkovic is genuinely awesome. 'A sea of blood' comes from a Tito speech in 1962 and aptly describes a complex conflict that took over one million lives. It is complex because while it was primarily a war of liberation, it was also an ideological, civil and even religious war. The author has drawn on the surprisingly detailed Partisan paper trail and German, UK, Russian, and US archives. Many books have been written on this conflict, but the military history has been neglected until now.

Most histories of the Partisans focus on the Axis 'Seven Offensives'. Important though they were, this approach obscures the complexity of the conflict. As one Partisan leader put it, 'If the Germans had seven offensives, we had two thousand and seven'. This book covers the full scope of the conflict, including an analysis of the organisation and doctrine of the Partisans and their opponents. 

The Germans were by far the most competent of those opponents right to the bitter end. The Italian and Bulgarian troops were generally not their best units, and the various collaborationist forces were a mixed bag. The puppet Croat state had a few effective units, but the regular army was small and poorly equipped in the main. The Ustasha militia was better prepared, but their war of annihilation against the Serbs only increased guerilla activity. As the smarter German commanders frequently complained. For those persuaded by the recent nationalist revisionist histories of the Chetniks, you will find this book unpalatable. Too many facts demonstrate their unwillingness to confront the Axis and the widespread collaboration in many military operations. Even collaboration with the Croatian state after the spring of 1942. Anti-communism proved stronger than visceral hatred for some Chetnik groups.

So why did the Partisans triumph against so many enemies? Trifkovic argues that they pursued a clearly defined and consistent strategy aimed at liberation and social revolution. This could only be achieved by active campaigning and engaging the whole population. They were the only faction open to all people irrespective of ethnicity. In military terms, they understood that small bands of guerillas would not be enough. That is why they organised a large modern field force, which operated away from their home region with a much higher degree of discipline and motivation. While blowing up trains and blocking roads were part of their strategy, they were equally versed in street fighting because urban areas were crucial sources of commodities and had the tools for state-building. They had to be protected if the population was to be persuaded to send fighting men and women elsewhere but not to the extent that they would be drawn into a hopeless fight for a scrap of land.

All Partisan undertakings had military and political objectives. The 'invasion' of Serbia in September 1944 was undoubtedly aimed at destroying the Chetniks, but those Chetniks were also protecting German supply lines to the extent that they could reduce troop commitments to a few regiments. The Chetniks also stood in the way of the Partisan route to the country's interior and its liberation.

The effectiveness of resistance movements can be measured in several ways; not least of these is the diversion of Axis resources from other fronts. The Yugoslav insurgency was by far the most effective in this respect. Hitler's original plan was to hold Yugoslavia with two to four low-quality divisions. Thanks largely to the Partisans, the commitment was typically five to six divisions in the interior and similar numbers on the Adriatic coast. The often-quoted 15-16 divisions were only achieved on a few occasions. In addition, these contingents had to be supplied with replacements for combat casualties and material losses, which wasn't the case in other occupied countries. They also limited the region's economic exploitation with its important mineral mines.

This book shows clearly that the Partisans were the most important resistance movement in Europe. They transformed a sleepy backwater into a small theatre of war through active campaigning. A small cog in a much larger conflict but one that achieved much more than anyone could have expected. 

Monday 7 February 2022

Vapnartak - York Wargames Show

 The traditional start to the UK wargame show calendar is Vapnartak, held at the York Racecourse on Sunday 6 February. This is a fine venue, accessible and with good parking. Due to the pandemic, it was a lot more spread out this year, with the games situated on the top floors of the stand, the rest being the trade stands. It seemed pretty busy, and there was a long queue to get in when I arrived at 10am.

Being the year's first show, I had a long list for my pals and me. My haul reflects my wargame butterfly status! While I buy online, I wouldn't have bought or even known about a number of the items. So, shows still matter.

There appeared to be fewer games this year, but that is just an impression. The most visually stunning was this Back of Beyond epic. Cavalry, trains, balloons and aircraft - it had the lot.

Mark Backhouses' new Strength and Honour rules for 2mm ancients were on show. I struggle with anything below 15mm these days, but I get the concept. The game was the Scottish clash at Mons Graupius AD83 or 84.

The Rapid Fire guys had a very nice Arnhem game.

Sharpe Practice

The Italian Wars from the Lance and Longbow Society.

Something Samurai.

A grand strategic WW2 game, which looked a lot of fun.

And finally, The War of the Worlds.

It was certainly worth the effort. And thanks to the York club for organising it.


Friday 4 February 2022

Cyprus 1974 - Airpower

 This week's painting has added the airpower dimension to my 20mm games. Cyprus was too far from the Hellenic Air Force bases in Rhodes and Crete, so the Turkish Air Force had total air superiority. The Greek Cypriot National Guard had a few WW2 era AA guns, which had some success, but in the main, the Turks could strike where they wished.

The main Turkish Air Force (TAF) ground support aircraft was the F-100 Super Sabre. Nicknamed Hun by US pilots and Baba (Father) by Turkish pilots, it was designed as an air superiority fighter but was quickly adapted to the ground support role, seeing action in Vietnam. The main variants used by the Turkish Air Force were armed with four 20mm guns and various combinations of external loads, including bombs and rockets with a capacity of 7,040 lb. It had a maximum speed of 924 mph (Mach 1.4) and a maximum range of nearly 2000 miles. By 1972, the USAF had phased the aircraft out of active service, but it continued with the Turkish Air Force until 1987.

This model comes from the Turkish PM Model company, which has the added advantage of Turkish decals. It's a fairly basic kit, which perfectly suits my large fingers and thumbs. The TAF had switched to the new NATO camouflage before the conflict. You really need an airbrush to do this justice, but it will do for a wargame model.

Six squadrons of F100 C/D aircraft were assigned to the Second Tactical Air Force for ground support. 

The plan to bomb Greek defences prior to D-day was dropped to maintain the element of surprise. The Turkish Air Force was ordered to only engage with targets identified by Air Control Teams in the landing zones to avoid civilian casualties. This was relaxed on 21 July when the landing zones were under the greatest pressure from Greek counter-attacks.

While ground support was critical to the Turkish victory, it wasn't always successful. The worst example was the sinking of the Turkish destroyer TCK Kocatepe by F-100s who mistook it for a Greek destroyer of the same class. This was largely down to communication failures.

I have recently been reading some Turkish memoirs of the conflict. While they were generally grateful for the air support, there were some problems. During the fighting in the mountains, F-100s dropping napalm started significant forest fires, making it difficult to identify enemy positions. The paras and commandos doing the fighting didn't have enough air control teams to bring in air support when and where they needed it. Turkish Cypriot civilians frequently mention the morale value of ground support operations. They, of course, knew how effective it could be thanks to previous interventions, including the Kokkina siege of 1964.

Twelve TAF aircraft were lost during the conflict. Some were shot down by flak and others from engine failure and accidents. Major Fehmi Ercan, who died on the first day of the conflict, has the main North Cyprus airport today named after him. His grave is at Kyrenia Karao─članolu Cemetery because he operated as a Forward Air Controller with the landing force.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Tapestry of the Boar

 The latest in my Nigel Tranter novel re-read is Tapestry of the Boar. This is set in roughly the same period as my last read, Lord of the Isles (12thC), but on the mainland, close to Nigel Tranter's own stomping grounds in the Lothians. 

Our hero, based on a real-life character, is Sir Hugh de Swinton. He is the second son of a modest laird who makes a name for himself by killing wild boars. These were dangerous creatures who could terrorise sheep, the primary source of income in the eastern borders, and the local population.  

He came to the attention of King Malcolm and took part in punitive expeditions into Galloway to put down rebellions. He and his friends, including an early member of the Bruce family, acted mainly as scouts. He was rewarded with a small landholding on the coast. Unfortunately, King Malcolm was not one of Scotland's finest, considerably under the sway of King Henry of England, and he died pretty young. He also chose Hugh to escort the bride of a royal marriage to the Netherlands. So, we get the flavour of overseas travel.

He went north to the Mearns to assist a local Thane in another rebellion linked to Somerled's action. There he meets the Thane's daughter, and a long-distance romance begins. I won't go into the detail, but the line established exists to this day. 

It's a decent story, but not quite the page-turner of the classic Tranter stories. No-fault of the bold Sir Hugh who lived in a relatively stable period, but perhaps not the most gripping read.

The troop type he led would be the early border mosstroopers. The light cavalry of the period. They are better known as the Border Reivers of later centuries but were pretty similar during this period.

Some later Border Reivers, acting in a Game of Thrones battle.