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

Friday, 30 September 2022

Churchill's folly - Kos 1943

 We hired a car yesterday and did a grand tour of Kos. Well, not so grand as the island isn't that big at 45km long. However, for the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) sent to defend it in 1943, it must have seemed enormous.

This was part of the Dodecanese campaign, which has been described as 'Churchill's folly'. When the Italians signed the armistice, Churchill argued for capturing the Dodecanese Islands as a stepping stone towards the 'soft underbelly' of Europe through the Balkans. He also hoped it would bring Turkey into the war. Instead, the Americans viewed it as a distraction from the Italian campaign and Overlord.

The Germans quickly reacted to the armistice and reinforced their garrison on Rhodes, the key to the Aegean. That should have been the end to the matter, but Churchill pushed the CinC Middle East to land British troops on Kos and Leros, employing the utmost 'ingenuity and resource'. Unfortunately, without adequate naval and air support, this was outright folly. 

Kos was vital because it had an airfield (the modern airport) and a couple of improvised landing strips. The 1st Battalion DLI, a light AA detachment and a squadron of the RAF Regiment, was sent to the island. That was just about enough to guard the airfield and Kos town. The Italian 10th Infantry Regiment and artillery units were also on the island, but these were not front-line troops, and their reliability was questionable. South African Air Force Spitfires flew in, but many were shot up on the ground by the overwhelming German air superiority. The JU87 Stuka had a return to favour in this campaign.

When you visit Marmari and Tingaki, the main German landing beaches, you can see the remains of what I assume are Italian defences. There are concrete pillboxes and gun positions.

This is a typical example.

You don't shift concrete pillboxes quickly. So, here they just diverted the new road around it!

Most pillboxes are HMG positions, but this is a rare gun one.

After landing, the German Kampgruffe von Saldern (two panzergrenadier battalions and support units) advanced to cut the main road. They also captured a couple of Spitfires on the salt flats.

Salt flats.

Two Brandenburg para units landed on the island's western tip near Kefalos. They advanced and captured the airfield.

There is a small castle at Kefalos. Not much remains, but it provides a great view.


The modern airport bears little resemblance to the WW2 Antimachia airfield. However, nearby there is the Hospitaller Castle of Antimachia. This massive 14thC castle was rebuilt at the end of the 15thC after an earthquake. The walls are mostly intact, and the views are pretty special. A modern Hellenic Army base is nearby, home to what looks like a mechanised battalion.




The Durhams retreated back to Kos Town. Obviously, it was much smaller than the urban sprawl of the modern city. It is difficult to spot where the main attack came from the north. However, the attack from the east was resisted by elements of the Italian garrison at the village of Platani. Home today to some of the island's small Turkish population. One history describes a fight in olive groves, which might be here.


The Greek/Roman ancient site of Asklepion is nearby. Certainly worth a visit, if only for the view over the city with Türkiye in the background.



Another panzergrenadier battalion landed on the southern shore, which is pretty mountainous. It's not that far from our hotel, which has suitable landing beaches. The Italians obviously thought so as they built a fort next door, and the coast is dotted with pillboxes. 




This looks like it is still used by the Hellenic Army. Literally, just a stone's throw from the Turkish coast.

Leros has more WW2 sights, but the ferry times from Kos didn't allow a decent day trip. The outcome of the campaign on that island was the same. In total, 3,000 British and 5,350 Italian prisoners were marched off into captivity. Many of the Italian officers were shot. The price of Churchill's folly.

Thursday, 29 September 2022

Chinese Civil War 1946-49

 This is a new title in the Osprey Essential Histories series by Michael Lynch. It covers a less well-known conflict and is the correct length for those who just want an introduction to a new subject.

The Chinese Civil War of 1946–49, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, took the lives of over five million soldiers and civilians. The conflict was fought between the Guomindang (GMD or Nationalists) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP or Reds). It had been going on for two decades when both parties united in destroying the warlords. The Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek hated Communism and turned against his former ally, trying to destroy it. That didn't end well!

A complicating factor was the presence in China of occupying Japanese forces. Beginning in 1931 with its invasion of Manchuria, Japan launched a full-scale occupation of China in 1937. The communists and nationalists intermittently joined forces to fight them, but like many WW2 resistance stories, they both had an eye on the post-war settlement. The Soviets in Manchuria should have been natural allies for the communists. However, as late as 1949, Stalin was urging Mao to accept a compromise peace with the Nationalists. He preferred a split China, rather than an international rival. The Americans were not as hostile to Mao Zedong and the communists as you might expect. They rightly saw them as an effective fighting force against the Japanese, at a time when Chaing did not always commit his forces to the common fight.

The Nationalists, were intially successful when they attempted to drive the Communists from their northern bases, but were unable to achieve a major victory. By 1949 their grip on northern, central and southern China had been broken in a series of victorious People’s Liberation Army (PLA) campaigns. In October 1949, in Beijing (Peking), Mao Zedong claimed that a new nation had been created, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang, knowing that the position was irrecoverable abandoned the mainland. and fled with his forces to the island of Taiwan.

In this book you get an analyis of both armies, although this is a history rather than an Osprey Men at Arms series army booklet. There are plenty of illustrations, and I particulary like the wartime propaganda posters. Leland Ness and Bin Shih's study of Chinese ground forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War 1937-45, offers more detail if you want it.

Then a chapter on strategy and tactics. This is a complex war, fought over vast distances with large disparate forces. So, the excellent maps are essential. This was a brutal conflict, with attrocities on both sides, as the photos show all too graphically. The campaigns also highlight the sub-commanders on both sides, who played a key role in the conflict, but are almost unknown outside China. Mao was quick to promote succesful commanders, while the Nationalists often squandered their opportunities. Mao ordered that POWs be treated as potential recruits by offering them the chance of survival if they changed sides. In contrast, the Nationalists exercised no such calculated mercy.

The final chapters looks at the main protaganists and world around the conflict. Mao and Chiang were ruthless, but no leader in 20th-century China could have afforded to be anything else. The lack of any mechanism in Chinese politics for the peaceable transference of power meant that violent struggle was the norm.

In a sense the Chinese Civil War has not ended because no formal peace treaty or agreement has ever been made. Even today China retains its claim over Tiawan and regularly conducts military exercises around the coast. This book helps explain current events and shines a light on a little-known war.

My 15mm WW2 Chinese Nationalist Army


Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Castle of Saint Peter, Bodrum

We left Kos yesterday on the ferry for Bodrum on the Turkish coast. For me, the highlight was the Castle of St. Peter built by the Knights of St John or Hospitallers in the 15thC. Bodrum was known in ancient times as Halicarnassus. The city was once home to the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, also known as the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The museum inside the castle includes the old city's remains and the award-winning underwater archaeology museum.


Like Kos, the castle is built on a natural spit of land that creates the harbour and is the site of a Greek fortification and a small Seljuk castle in the 11thC. The construction of the castle began in 1404. They used squared green volcanic stone, marble columns and reliefs from the nearby Mausoleum of Halicarnassus to fortify the castle. Medieval vandalism at its worst! In fairness, they did a pretty good job of it.


As with similar castles on Kos and Rhodes, each langue of the Order had its own tower, each in its own style with its own coats of arms above the gate. Each was responsible for maintaining and defending a specific portion of the fortress and manning it with sufficient numbers of knights and soldiers. There were seven gates leading to the inner part of the fortress. The German knight architect Heinrich Schlegelholt designed it with many twists and turns to make life difficult for attackers.


Henry IV of England's Coat of Arms above the English Tower.


The land fortifications were strengthened to cope with the advent of gunpowder. You can see the more rounded towers from this angle.


However, with the fall of Rhodes, the castle was too isolated to hold, and it surrendered to Süleyman the Magnificent in 1523. The Ottomans didn't need to do much with it other than the obligatory minaret. There is also a small display of cannons inside the castle.



The underwater archaeology exhibition features a replica of one of the boats they recovered and its contents. Typical trading commodities and a collection of weapons.




As we left on the ferry, the sun caught the castle, picking it out brilliantly. The Türkiye museums authorities have done a great job with this site. This is no ruin. The castle is restored and acts as a museum in its own right. Highly recommended.


Monday, 26 September 2022

Kos

We are staying on the Greek island of Kos this week. One of the Dodecanese Islands is a stone's throw from Turkey, or these days potentially something more lethal! It is more than a bit warmer than Scotland, but pleasant breezes here on the beach. Or, more accurately, my wife is on the beach while I retreated to the bar!

Yesterday, I walked around Kos Town. This is an ancient Greek island. In Homer's Iliad, a contingent of Koans fought for the Greeks in the Trojan War, and the 'Father of Medicine,' Hippocrates, was born here. 

One of the best collections of Mycenean weapons I have seen  in the Archeological Museum

The Persians occupied the island for a while, and Kos was held by the Ptolemies, who used it as a naval outpost to oversee the Aegean. Then the Romans arrived, and there are plenty of their (and Greek) remains in the town and the Museum.


The number one attraction is the Nerantzia Castle. It occupies the spit of land that forms the natural harbour. There would have been Greek and Roman forts to guard the harbour, but the castle was built at the end of the 14thC by the Knights of St John, who leased the island from the Genoese. From the outside, it doesn't look that impressive. The walls look pretty low, although the modern port berths are probably higher.


However, when you go inside, the real strength becomes evident with the second line of walls. These look more Byzantine to me in parts.



If you look carefully, you can see coasts of arms carved into the walls and several are displayed inside.


 In 1566, the Ottomans captured the town and held it until 1911. Orlov turned up with the Russian fleet in 1773 but failed to capture the castle. There is still a small Turkish population on the island and a few signs of the Ottoman period.


There was a massive earthquake in 1933, which destroyed much of the town. The Italians had captured the island during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911, and there are several surviving examples of Italian 1930s architecture in the town. 


The Italians held the island until 1943, when the Germans captured the island after a very brief British landing. This is the 'Churchill's folly' Dodecannese campaign. I will hire a car later this week and visit the battlefields. I hoped to get to Leros, which held out a little longer, but the ferry times would only give me a few hours there. Another time. We will be going to Bodrum on the Turkish coast tomorrow, where there is another fine knights castle.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Cairnryan Military Railway

 I popped into the annual exhibition of my local model railway club last weekend. I am always impressed by the standard of modelling and grateful that wargaming doesn't require me to understand electronics! I picked up a book from one of the stalls on the Cairnryan Military Railway by Bill Gill.

Cairnryan Port is just down the coast from me, and I had no idea it was built as a military port in WW2. Today, it is the terminal for the disgraced company P&O Ferries, so I drive past but don't use it.

After the fall of France, many ports came within the Luftwaffe bomber range, so another deepwater port was needed in case the Clyde in Glasgow or the Mersey in Liverpool became unusable. Various sites were considered before settling on Loch Ryan. What became known as Number 2 Military Port was built on its northern shore at Cairnryan between 1941 and 1943. There were three piers and a total of 1.5 miles of quayside, with a railway network which connected to the main line at Stranraer. It was never extensively used as the Clyde and Liverpool stayed open during the war. However, it was used to move men and materials to Northern Ireland, and American troop ships docked there.

It was built by military labour from the Royal Engineers and the Pioneer Corps. The scale of the operation was huge, with five groups of sidings to accommodate two thousand wagons. This required a large engine shed and coaling stage, not to mention several army camps to accommodate the men who built and operated it. The site was a bit short of amenities. When the 600-strong crew of HMS Phoebe came ashore looking for the local pub, they were told there wasn't one. And as an afterthought, a crane operator said the last train for Stranraer had just left!

This port was used to dump unused ammunition in the Beaufort Dyke after the war. An issue that came up recently when Boris Johnson came up with the notion that a tunnel should be built between Scotland and Northern Ireland. This involved hundreds of ammunition wagons, including gas shells and particularly nasty German nerve gas. Shells were supposed to be defused, but eight Royal Engineers were killed when a case was mishandled. One consignment of gas shells broke loose on a stormy night when passing through Girvan, a small town north of the port. This might have been the rail disaster of the century had a sharp-eyed signaller not switched the points just in time. 

There isn't much to see today, and what there is overgrown and sometimes dangerous. However, the author guides the visitor to what remains and the site features on the Solway Military Trail. One of the 'Austerity' Class locomotives that worked the line has been refurbished and operates at the Bressingham Steam Museum in Norfolk.

I suspect this book won't be on many people's to-buy list. However, it has local interest and further afield if you are interested in military railways.

The pier at the port (IWM)


Friday, 23 September 2022

The Murder of Admiral Darlan

 I found this book in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, which intrigued me because I knew very little about the French side of Operation Torch - the Allied landings in French North Africa in November 1942. While the book's title refers to one aspect of that story, the book covers much more. The author, Peter Tompkins, served with the Allied Psychological Warfare Branch in North Africa and witnessed many of the events he describes.

The background to the story was the efforts to ensure that the Allied landings commanded by Eisenhower did not face military resistance from the Vichy French forces. These forces were significant if poorly equipped. However, fighting would undermine the liberation message and delay the advance into Tunisia, cutting off Rommel's retreat from the Western Desert after El Alamein. 

So, the Allies looked to find French military leaders who would play ball. Weygand was an early option, although he was never very keen. The Germans distrusted him and even sent General Huntziger to North Africa to collect a dossier on him. Admiral Darlan had his plane sabotaged on the return trip! The Americans, specifically their diplomat on site, Robert Murphy, worked hard to build a network of sympathetic French officials. They settled on Giraud, who had escaped from a German prison camp. But, you may ask, why not de Gaulle? After the shelling of Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar, the French African Army disliked the British and viewed de Gaulle as a British puppet. 

The problem for Murphy and his team is that they could not reveal the date or details of the landings for security reasons. The landings were delayed, so even the last-minute efforts were less than adequate. The conspirators did manage a partial coup in Algiers, but there was significant fighting elsewhere, particularly in Morocco. French troops received contradictory orders, and commanders kept referring decisions back to Petain in Vichy. 

Admiral Darlan, as commander of the French Navy, had no formal role in North Africa, but he had arrived there just before the landings. He ended up heading the French administration while Giraud commanded the army, being equipped for fighting in Tunisia. The rest of the book contains the plots and counter-plots between the various French factions. These included the claimant to the French throne, pushed forward by the royalist faction. Eisenhower could have done without this as the Tunisian campaign faltered. 

Admiral Darlan was assassinated by a young army officer, Fernand Bonnier, who clearly had help, and assumed that the new administration would free him. However, he was quickly tried and executed. Even his deathbed confession was hushed up. Giraud reluctantly took up the political role and was reconciled with de Gaulle after the Casablanca conference. 

An interesting side story about that big Allied conference was that Spanish agents radioed Berlin with the venue, suggesting the Luftwaffe bombed it. However, 'Casablanca' was literally translated into 'White House', a little out of the range for German bombers. On such minor details are wars won and lost!

The final chapter outlines an astonishing conspiracy going back to the 1920s and 30s. A key player in the story was Lemaigre-Dubreuil, who was part of Murphy's early network. He was part of an extreme right-wing network in France that was behind the unsuccessful Cagoule coup in 1937. They also connived with German industrialists to undermine the French military effort in 1940 as part of a plan to create a fascist bloc across Europe. So, if you thought de Gaulle was bad, it could have been worse! 

My edition was published in 1965, so you will need to badger the library or get a second-hand copy. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read.

28mm French Senalagese Infantry



Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Lions of the Desert

 This book is Samuel Marquis's take on the Western Desert campaign in WW2. Technically it is historical fiction, although I would describe it as 'faction'. He tries to stick to the historical story while inserting dialogue.

The backdrop is the Western Desert campaign from the arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Korps, to the Tunisian finale. However, there is a focus on the creation of the SAS by David Stirling, including their daring raids in the rear of Axis lines and Operation Condor. This was the German spy mission to Cairo, which has been the subject of many books and films. The best known is probably Ken Follett's, The Key to Rebecca, (made into a 1989 TV movie) and Len Deighton's, The City of Gold. There have also been memoirs published by the key players, including Major A.W. Sansom, the head of British Field Security in Cairo (I Spied Spies, 1965), and Johannes Eppler, the German spy in the Operation Condor affair translated as Operation Condor: Rommel’s Spy.

All of these accounts are significantly inaccurate. In some cases the authors embellish their role, and in others they relied on those accounts. Other interesting participants include Anwar el Sadat, the Egyptian Army officer, nationalist, and later President of Egypt. As the author says, the Condor story needs no embellishment. The real-life protagonists, while admittedly more prosaic than their highly fictionalised doppelgängers, are still fascinating in their own right. The author also has the benefit of the declassified files, which were released in 2006.

He tells the story through the eyes of six of the main historical figures. Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder of the SAS. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the legendary Afrika Korps, who nearly succeeded in driving the British out of Egypt. Then the more exotic figure of Egyptian Hekmat Fahmy, the renowned belly dancer, regarded as a Mata-Hari-like German agent in previous accounts but a more intriguing and ambiguous character in real life. Then the on-the-ground protagonists, Major A.W. “Sammy” Sansom and Johannes Eppler, aka Hussein Gaafar, the notorious, if incompetent, German spy of Operation Condor. Finally, Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, who was privy to critical Allied secrets in the North African theatre and inadvertently played an important role in intelligence-gathering activities for both sides in the campaign.

The historical afterword is somewhat longer than most works of historical fiction. He presents the true historical legacy and ultimate fate of the seven primary historical figures in the book. Cairo was the proverbial 'nest of spies' in WW2, and I have read some of these files in the National Archives for my own research. As is often the case, the historical facts can be as fascinating as fiction. This book bridges the gap very well.

The Matilda tank in 15mm.


Friday, 16 September 2022

Roman army Units in the Eastern Provinces (2)

 This is a new Osprey by Raffaele D'Amato on the Roman army in the east during the 3rd century AD. This is the period after the 50 years of anarchy with the accession of Diocletian, the first of the Illyrian emperors. The focus here is on the Balkans, so it's a no-brainer for me.

 


You get everything you would expect from the Men-at-Arms series for your modest outlay. An introduction to the period and a chronology. Then how the military was organised. There were still recognisable legions in this period, with similar names, although numbers and unit types were changing. 

The legions were distributed according to the threats, with the Dacian border having perhaps 10% of the total strength. At least until it was largely abandoned in the 270s. The Balkan defences were then strengthened along the Danube. A helpful table sets out where each legion was based and similar charts for the Auxilia and Numeri.

The arms, equipment and clothing get detailed treatment, supported by the usual colour plates. This is the meat of the book. The latest archaeology is discussed by region, including several Balkan finds. All are well illustrated. There are some interesting variations on the standard legionary that I hadn't seen before, as well as the auxiliaries. A Syrian infantryman with a long spear and javelins caught my eye. There are also some of the more exotic Roman units of the period, including dromedarius.

There is an extensive bibliography if you want to read more. Overall, more than just an introduction. All you really need to build a wargames army of the period with plenty of options. There isn't a lot on tactics, but that is available elsewhere.

On the subject of the Romans, I would highly recommend listening to James Lacey being interviewed about his new book, Rome: Strategy of Empire, on the New Books in Military History podcast. Not just a military strategy but also a focus on what made the empire tick. Not least the economics that sustained the legions and the devastating impact of the civil wars.

28mm cataphracts from my collection


Tuesday, 13 September 2022

The Ottoman Army of the Napoleonic Wars, 1784-1815

 Books on the Ottomans during the Napoleonic wars are a bit like buses. First, nothing for ages, then two come along at once! Well, not quite at once, but Chris Flaherty's book on the uniforms, tactics and organisation of the Napoleonic Ottoman Army came out in 2020. This new book by Bruno Mugnai complements Chris's book, as it is stronger on the written sources, while Chris concentrates more on the uniforms. 


There are four main parts to the book.

The first section focuses on the Ottoman Empire, the 'Sick Man of Europe' as it was known, although that phrase tended to be more widespread later in the century. There is an interesting discussion about the decentralisation of the empire and the power of the ayans (local notables), like Pazvantoglu Osman and Ali Pasha. Mugnai argues that this period demonstrates the interdependence between local power-holders and the Porte. He also points to the large distances from the centre to the borders, which made centralised control on the western model challenging. Losses of between 25% or even 50% were not uncommon during the campaign. Finally, there is a complete discussion on attempts at reform and the power struggles that negated almost every effort.

The following section discusses the armies of the Sultan. This covers both the regular units of the standing army, most famously the janissaries and the myriad local troops. He also discusses the introduction of western technology and tactics, primarily with French assistance. This includes the New Order Army and how it had to be developed in secret. Finally, the chapter on auxiliary troops is excellent, as this is probably the least well-covered part of the army.

The third section covers the wars the Ottomans fought during this period. These were extensive in both Europe and the Middle East. It always annoys me when wargame army lists ignore the Ottomans. When I pointed out this omission to one author, he replied that the Ottomans didn't fight during the Napoleonic wars! He was a bit shocked when I sent him a long list! They are all covered here, including some that I had missed. The author uses this section to discuss how Ottoman tactics developed and adapted to different conflicts. In particular, how Ottoman cavalry tactics were no longer able to withstand confrontation with the west and the failure to coordinate cavalry, infantry and artillery. 

Finally, a section on Ottoman dress, equipment and ensigns. Chris Flaherty's book covers this in more detail, but it rounds off the book. 

As you would expect from a book in this series by Helion, it is lavishly illustrated, including a batch of colour plates. I fear my 28mm janissaries look too parade ground based on these plates, although my 15mm figures are better balanced. The plates and discussion about the Nizam-i Cedid uniforms make me think it's time for a rethink.

Overall, this is excellent. It isn't a light or a quick read, but one I will return to frequently.

Some of my 28mm Ottoman auxiliaries. Mainly from the Dixon range.

I am currently painting Albanian and Montenegrin figures for this period. Here are the first Albanians who served in the Ionian Islands with both the French and the Russians. A lot more to do, but these at least look as if they have been on campaign.