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

Sunday 30 October 2022

Fiasco 2022

I was at the Leeds wargame show (Fiasco) in the conference hall of the brilliant Royal Armouries Museum. So you get a wargame show and the museum; definitely worth the trip.

The hall is a reasonable size, but it has a few disadvantages. First, there isn't much room for games, so, like many shows, it is primarily a trade event. The other downside is the lighting. It is awful. I had to put the torch on my phone to see some of the labels on figure packs. I remember the days when the games were spread around the museum, which was a lot better. However, now it's free admission to the museum, I can see why that wouldn't work.

Anyway, I came away with several figure packs to top off a few projects: scenery, paint, bases, etc. Not a single book, which is pretty unusual.

The best of the games was the Yarkshire Gamer and his Italian Wars extravaganza. Nice to see it in the flesh. With all those flags, it is visually impressive.

The other games in the main hall were small-scale but interesting. I haven't seen Tiger Miniatures at a show for a while. I resisted more of their excellent Balkan Wars figures, but the Chinese in this display game are lovely.

Yom Kippur War in 10mm 

I have seen this Korean war game before, but the terrain is terrific.

28mm ships, very tempting.

And they had a SAGA competition. So I must get my battle boards out.

I have been to the Royal Armouries several times before. But there are several displays I will never tire of. Particularly the Ottoman and Mughal armour collections.

The centrepiece of the armour floor.

And the full scale Pavia diorama.

I probably won't go every year, but it was worth the long drive.

Tuesday 25 October 2022

Banzai at Basra – Japanese in Iraq

This is the latest Chasing the Soft Underbelly scenario testing game played at the club on Sunday. Thanks to Graeme for indulging me in this somewhat unusual setting.

The story of the Iraq revolt and the daring British response is relatively well known. Less well-known is the role played by Imperial Japan. The Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan had not clearly defined spheres of influence outside Europe and the Far East. The Japanese believed that Asia extended far enough to include the Middle East to reflect their economic interests in the region, not least the oil supply. They had partly financed the coup and promised military supplies. While the Germans refused to cooperate with Japanese plans, not wanting to upset the Japanese may have been a factor in the limited German and Turkish responses to the coup. The British took this seriously, with the foreign secretary Anthony Eden expecting Japanese landings in Aden, which he was doubtful the British could resist. 

In this scenario, we assume that the Japanese took their support for the Iraqi coup a stage further and provided military forces. Iran was neutral at this time, with strong economic links to Germany. This means that, unlike the Germans, they had naval options for intervening, which didn’t require the capture of RAF bases. A Japanese carrier force could have sailed up the gulf and landed at Basra. Therefore, they likely would have joined the Iraqi Army in resisting the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade, which waved had sent to secure Basra.

For this scenario, we assume the Japanese made a beach landing on the Shatt al-Arab waterway after the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade had secured the docks and airfield. The Japanese priority would have been to capture the port. To stop this advance, the 7th Gurkha Rifles are ordered to intercept them while the 11th Sikhs hold the docks against an attack from the Iraqi Army. Contact is made on the outskirts of Basra between the Gurkhas and the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces. The Japanese would have had carrier-based air support so that they would have had effective control of the skies. The RAF had ancient Vickers Vincent ground support aircraft (244 Sqn) and around ten Wellington bombers at Shabaih.

The Japanese are on the left with the objective of seizing the Basra Road on the Gurkha baseline (right).

The Japanese and allied Iraqi Army squads assemble on the hill, while their armour covers the left flank. Another infantry squad successfully holds the right flank.

The Gurkhas (actually British as we haven't got any Gurkhas) skulk behind the mosque. Wary of the Japanese armour and Iraqi armoured car, although they had no need to worry as neither hit a thing all game!

The Japanese were lacking the banzai spirit for most of the game. The main infantry force sat on the hill, not moving until late in the game when they made some progress. Time ran out with the Gurkhas having lost more units, but the Japanese no where near their objective. 

It needs a few tweaks, but it does offer something a little different.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Killing Patton

 My library pick this month was Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, which is confirmed by reading this thin gruel.

Almost the whole book is an average overview of the last months of WW2. Particularly so after reading Peter Caddick-Adams' excellent book covering the same period. The reader is left wondering, when are we getting to the point of this book? The reason is that there is so little to say. The best the authors can say is that there is a case to be investigated. 

Apparently, O'Reilly suggested in interviews that Patton was poisoned while recovering from the automobile accident he endured on December 8, 1945, on the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, ostensibly to prevent him from warning the United States about the imminent danger of the Soviet Union. Several historians and Patton's family found O'Reilly's theory highly implausible. Carlo D'Este, the author of Patton: A Genius for War, said, 'He was a quadriplegic, he was going to die anyway, he was totally immobilized, he couldn't move What is the point of assassinating him?' Indeed!

In fact, Patton's anti-Soviet rhetoric pissed off his own side more than the Soviets. They complained about him employing ex-SS men, which Bradley agreed with. Marshall had his phones tapped and requested a psychoanalysts report. Patton certainly was losing the plot.

There are other conspiracy theories in the book.

An RAF Spitfire fired on his army cooperation plane, the L5, which, as he concedes, bears a distinct resemblance to the German Fi-156 Storch. But, instead of this being an all too common friendly fire incident, he points to the fact that the Soviets have Spitfires - with RAF roundels?

A couple of Nazi collaborators, desperate to escape deportation back to the USSR, tell the OSS that the NKVD plans to kill Patton. I fear this comes under the heading, let's make ourselves look like a valuable source of information. 

The author says that OSS didn't act because they wanted him dead - 'He must be silenced'. This was to be done by an OSS operative Douglas Bazata, who claimed Wild Bill Donovan personally authorised it. However, he waited until 1975 to say this privately and, in 1979, in public. He claimed that he fired a low-velocity projectile into Patton's neck at the very moment of the crash. Yet no projectile was found, and neither of the other occupants noticed this. Even the author concedes that many believe his story is far-fetched. He was also later employed by the Reagan administration, which is a bit odd if he really did kill a right-wing WW2 icon.

Then we have the truck driver that crashed into Patton's car. It's unclear what the authors are claiming here, another OSS agent? He was some way from his base, but it didn't occur that he might have been dabbling in the Black Market. Such entrepreneurial activity was pretty common at the war's end. The fact that Patton's driver had a penchant for speed on his and Patton's own admission isn't even considered a contributing factor. Vehicle accidents were also common at this time. Yes, some records went missing, but again not all that unusual.

Patton's widow employed several private investors to look into her husband's death. They all drew a blank. But, of course, that might just be because he died in a motor accident, full stop.

Even by the standards of conspiracy theories, the evidence in this book is less than convincing. Not quite QAnon-level nonsense, but no doubt it sold well to that audience. It wouldn't get anywhere near the standard required even to start an investigation these days, and it didn't at the time. I am delighted I didn't waste any money on this. My recommendation is, don't waste your time. 

Thursday 20 October 2022

Allies at War

 This is Simon Berton's book on the WW2 dealings between Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle. My interest in the French and WW2 was stimulated by the book I recently read on Admiral Darlan. This book covers some of the same ground but focuses on de Gaulle and his often stormy relationships with the wartime leadership. Apparently, there was also a TV documentary linked to the book, which I don't recall.

I did appreciate that de Gaulle's relationship with Churchill blew hot and cold. However, I hadn't appreciated how much Roosevelt detested him. Partly down to his chief of staff, Admiral Leahy, formerly the American ambassador to Vichy France and his envoy in North Africa, Robert Murphy. Even after D-Day, Leahy was suggesting that Petain and Vichy were the people to do business with in France. Churchill was more supportive, but his relationship with Roosevelt was his primary concern, so he often went along with the President.

In the dark days of 1940, de Gaulle was not the automatic leadership choice for most of the French population. For example, only 7,000 of the 115,000 servicemen on British soil after Dunkirk joined de Gaulle’s movement. Even Churchill road both horses after Vichy gave assurances that it would never allow its fleet or African Empire to fall into Nazi hands and also would not seek to re-conquer de Gaulle’s territories. In return, Britain would neither physically attack Vichy territories nor verbally attack Pétain. It would also relax its blockade if France were to assist, even passively, in a British victory. 

As the true nature of the Vichy regime became apparent to Churchill, not least its anti-semitic actions, he moved closer to the Free French movement. When de Gaulle irritated him, as he often did, it was Eden who shielded de Gaulle. Churchill once sent a circular to British newspapers, expressing his concern at the apparent bias in favour of de Gaulle. He told them that de Gaulle had left ‘a trail of Anglophobia behind him’ and undoubtedly had ‘Fascist and dictatorial tendencies.’

I was amused by Berton's description of René Massigli (de Gaulle's foreign minister) as 'a calm and experienced French diplomat.' This was the same diplomat who was the French Ambassador to Turkey. His actions, known as the Massigli Affair, nearly started a war between Turkey and the Soviet Union in 1940!

Roosevelt was eventually persuaded to recognise de Gaulle and even invited him to Washington. But, despite the political smoothing, he privately still detested him. An OSS report on de Gaulle probably best sums up the position by saying, 'There is no other choice, and also he will be chosen because, by doing so, the French, in some subtle way which is hard to explain, can fulfil what is almost a psychic impulse – a soul craving – to be able to tell their children that France was never defeated, that it kept fighting on till victory.’ 

It was an extraordinarily accurate prophecy of the legacy de Gaulle would create for his people, a legacy which would prevent them, until quite recent times, from acknowledging the sordid history of collaboration.

My WW2 French force for Bolt Action

Monday 17 October 2022

1805: Tsar Alexander's First War with Napoleon

This is the Russian official history of the 1805 campaign that culminated in the Battle of Austerlitz. As someone who struggles with foreign languages, I am always grateful to those who translate these valuable works. In this case, Peter Phillips. This is a straightforward translation, although there is an introduction by Alexander Mikaberidze. Incidentally, I am eagerly awaiting the delivery of his new biography of Kutuzov.

It was written in 1844 by Alexander Ivanovich Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky. He was present at Borodino, so he was a contemporary of the main characters in the story. Interestingly, he added Mikhailovsky to his name because he was imprisoned after being mistaken for another Danilevsky, who criticised the Tsar. As official histories go, this is a relatively concise description of events. 

The upside of official histories is that the author can access all documentation. The downside is that they can brush over embarrassing details and, in this case, include obsequious brown-nosing of the Emperor. For example, I was interested to see how he treated Tsar Alexander's overruling of Kutuzov at Austerlitz. He goes for a later quote by the Tsar, 'On the Austerlitz Campaign I was young and inexperienced. Kutuzov told me that we needed to operate differently, but he should have been more persistent in his opinions.' This has to be the weakest of excuses from an autocrat!

As for the narrative, we get an introduction to the causes of the war and Alexander's decision to support the Austrians. This became much more difficult after the disaster at Ulm, which forced Kutuzov to engage in a fighting retreat back to Austerlitz. The subsidiary campaigns in Italy, Hanover and the Tyrol all get some coverage. Although the treatment of Lacy's Italian campaign is pretty sparse.

This book will not be for everyone. However, it does add to our understanding of the campaign if read in context, and I have found the translations of other Russian campaign histories very helpful. Particularly those covering the Russo-Turkish wars. 

I have been painting Russian infantry of the 1806 campaign this week, so this was a good choice of reading. 

The first batch of musketeers of the Kolyvan Regiment. From the Brigade Games range in 28mm.

Sunday 16 October 2022

Bother at Batumi

I am delighted that my new book has a cover and an indicative publication date of next month. Chasing the Soft Underbelly: Turkey and the Second World War (Helion 2022) is a history of Allied and Axis efforts to get Turkey to join the Second World War.

I avoid 'what-ifs' in the main text, but in the first draft, I included an appendix on wargaming the actual and potential campaigns in the book. However, space precluded its inclusion, and in any case, I felt it didn't do the subject justice. For that reason, I am writing a booklet as a wargaming supplement to the detailed history in the book. It also allows me to indulge in the many interesting campaigns that Turkey might have been engaged in at different stages of the war. Finally, it will offer the wargamer a new opponent for their already established wargame armies, particularly those with Axis and Soviet forces. 

This project involves playtesting several scenarios related to these campaigns. The first I am calling Bother at Batumi, or how the Massigli Affair went hot. 

The Soviets and Turks both had revisionist claims over their shared border in the Caucasus. This tension stepped up a gear in June 1940 when the Germans leaked a captured telegram from the French Ambassador in Ankara, René Massigli, to General Weygand of the French high command in Syria. This was Massigli's summary of a conversation with the Turkish Foreign Minister about a projected aerial bombardment of the Soviet oil fields at Baku and Batumi by the French air force. The attack aimed to halt vital oil supplies from the Soviets to the Germans. Massigli claimed the Turkish Foreign Minister, Şükrü Saracoğlu, confirmed that Turkey would object, which involved flying through Turkish airspace.

The Soviet Union mobilised troops on the Caucasian border, moving 10,000 troops to Sokhumi and then towards the Batumi border checkpoint. The Turkish ambassador to Moscow was convinced that 'a re-annexation Kars, Ardahan and Artvin was in the offing.' These were the border regions conceded to Turkey in 1921. The Turkish government dispatched reinforcements to the border, and as the Turkish and Soviet armies moved closer, shots were fired across the border on several occasions.

A quick look at Google maps (the border is unchanged) shows that the terrain along the Georgian border is mountainous and forested. Almost all the Soviet divisions here were mountain troops. The only formal border crossing point is on the coast at Sarp (Georgian Sarpi), just south of the city of Batumi. 

The scenario assumes the Soviet commander has sent a battlegroup from the 47th Georgian Mountain Rifle Division to capture the checkpoint and surrounding hills. This would allow an offensive to develop to capture the air base at Borca and the city of Artvin. I used my 15mm figures of the period and Blitzkrieg Commander rules.

The Soviets would have had a significant numerical advantage. The Transcaucasian Military District had at least six Mountain Rifle Divisions against the Turkish IX Corps peacetime establishment of two divisions. The Soviets decided on a frontal attack along the coast road through the checkpoint while infantry tried to capture the high ground.

The Soviet attack through the forested hills made no progress, despite a two-to-one advantage. However, the frontal attack, supported by artillery and tanks, did capture the checkpoint, albeit with heavy casualties. Victory to the Soviets, but at a cost.

By the way, I was recently interviewed by Henry Hyde on his Battlechat podcast (Number 89). As a health warning, our chat went on for over two hours on matters Balkan, including the book. But it might provide a backdrop to a painting session!

Thursday 13 October 2022

Russia's Steppe Frontier

 This is Michael Khodarkovsky's study of Russia's colonial empire in the south between 1500 and 1800. This is a book that the current Russian President ought to read, as it shows how Russia colonised lands, incorporating or displacing the inhabitants, that he now claims are historically Russian. 

The book starts with a couple of academic chapters discussing the sociology and frontier concepts in Muscovy. The narrative history is divided into two chapters covering 1480 to 1600 and then 1600 to 1800. 

Russia's opportunity to expand came about as a result of the decline of the Golden Horde. The various Khanates ruled over vast swathes of what is today southern Russia. To give some idea of the distance, the border at Kulikovo was only 173 miles from Moscow, while Kharkiv in modern-day Ukraine is 531 miles away from Moscow. Crimea is even further. 

During the sixteenth century, the nomadic societies were torn by incessant civil wars. The Muscovite government was becoming increasingly autocratic and began to build fortifications to halt nomadic raiding. They also agreed on treaties and started the Russification of territories, imposing taxation and forcibly converting the Islamic tribes to Christianity. This had mixed success, but gunpowder weapons and mercantilist policies backed up the advance, although progress was very slow. The story is complex, but the similarities to the British in India are obvious. China and Persia had similar stories on the other side of the steppe. The difference between Russia and Great Britain was that the British used commercial trading companies rather than the central government.

A key element on the Russian side was the Cossack communities, ironically mainly populated by people who had escaped Russia. They raided the Khanates and later provided the military force to supplement the limited number of regular regiments based on the border. Serfdom in Russia was formally introduced just as it was disappearing from western Europe to regulate the available labour force.

Treaties had limited effectiveness in nomadic societies where the ruling Khan had only limited control. Fortification lines helped to contain the nomads, cutting off their pasturelands and cutting income from raiding. The nomads became increasingly dependent on access to Russian markets for trade. Russian colonisation was backed by a strong military, a bureaucracy and colonists looking for land. All of this didn't come cheap. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Moscow paid six million roubles in tribute to the Crimean Khanate and still lost up to 200,000 Russians as captives. This cash could have funded some 1200 small towns, a reason why Russia was slower to urbanise than its western neighbours. 

In the period covered by this book, Russian colonisation was initially driven by the need to defend its borders. It was in the nineteenth century, when Russia expanded into central Asia, that it adopted a more traditional colonial model. This period is covered in a new book by Alexander Morrison, The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814–1914. He was interviewed on the New Books Network podcast. Well worth a listen.

When this book was written in 2004, it didn't have the topicality it has today. It isn't the easiest read, but it covers a period that gets little attention in the West.

Some of my 28mm Cossacks from the excellent Foundry range.

Friday 7 October 2022

An Englishman at War

 This new book covers the edited wartime diaries of Stanley Christopherson, DSO MC TD, by James Holland. I hadn't been rushing to read this as I thought it was about the North West Europe campaign, which is not my main WW2 interest. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I tackled this on the flight home from Kos, that he served in the Middle East.

Stanley Christopherson was a relatively typical early WW2 British officer. He came from a comfortable middle-class family, privately educated, although he had seen a bit of the world, having lived in South Africa. He fought with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, whose officers would traditionally be the social home of what would be called 'the county set'. As the author puts it, 'They began as little more than amateurs – horse- and sport-loving country folk with little understanding of what was about to unfold. Six years later, they finished the war as the single unit of the British Army with more battle honours than any other, having fought in the Middle East and North Africa, landed on D-Day, then led the British charge through the Low Countries and into Belgium.' Almost no member of the Rangers got through the war unscathed. Although Christopherson was wounded several times, he was one of the few to survive.

Although his diaries hide it, he wasn't altogether welcome. The colonel was not happy about having new officers assigned to the regiment. He believed it was still up to him to choose the officers for 'his' regiment. 'They worked for a living,' said another of the new officers, 'and didn't keep horses or hunt twice a week'. The British class system was probably at its worst yeomanry regiments!

They also went off to war as horsed cavalry. This sounds absurd, but we should remember that the Russians and Germans had cavalry divisions right up to the end of the war. However, it came as a shock to the Rangers on 2 July 1940 after they had arrived in Palestine. Sadly, they didn't get tanks to replace them. So, like some other yeomanry regiments, they converted to artillery duties. Stanley ended up in the siege of Tobruk. The conditions were pretty grim, and Stanley was the last of his unit to be rotated out. His diaries would have been relatively short if he had stayed much longer.

Diaries give you an insight into what people knew or were told at the time. Unlike the official history written after the event with the benefit of hindsight. Of particular interest to me was his entry that 'Turkey has made a trade agreement with Germany, which is rather distressing news.' This was unsurprising given the well-established trade links between the two countries. A later entry said, 'The colonel also told me that Turkey would probably come in against us as it appears that she is receiving more war matériel from Germany than she is from us.' This wasn't true, and German equipment supplies were modest compared to the British.

I did enjoy his entry that 'News also came through that the German and the Italian columns engaged each other! I am not surprised as we, the Germans and the Italians are all using Italian tanks!' Also, 'We have had a pamphlet sent us by the War Office on the 'extermination of rats'. With it I had a letter from the colonel appointing me RRO (regimental ratting officer), result of which has been a great deal of leg-pulling.' His entry about a 'great many' German dud shells was interesting. I will feel better about hitting nothing with mine on the wargame table in the future!

Back in Palestine, they were still low on the priority list for new tanks and had to train with a handful of them. As the desert war flowed back and forth, replacements went to serving units rather than new ones. Eventually, they got tanks and took part in the Battle of El Alamein. They then fought across Libya and throughout the Tunisian campaign. The diaries show how the British Army learned the hard lessons of the desert war, particularly the importance of combined arms tactics. He fought mainly in a Crusader tank, fast for his recce squadron but very vulnerable to German and even Italian ATGs. Of 22 officers in his regiment, 16 were battle casualties.

After North Africa, the regiment was shipped back to the UK and equipped with Shermans. They landed on D-Day and fought through Normandy. He did briefly get back on a horse to find his supporting infantry. The Rangers fought most of the NW Europe campaign parcelled out in support of infantry units. They were not in an armoured division, so they had to slog it out with few opportunities to storm through the enemy lines. He was promoted to command the regiment on 15 June 1944. Forty tank commanders had been killed or wounded since landing in Normandy. Sticking your head out of a tank was essential but deadly. Replacement officers were increasingly not from the 'county set', reflecting wider social changes in the army by the war's end.

Stanley Christopherson was undoubtedly a brave officer. He was awarded the DSO, the MC and Bar and an American Silver Star. His diaries cover most of WW2 in a level of detail you rarely see. James Holland's editing adds important context and makes the book readable. You can pick it up on Kindle for 99p at the moment. Well worth the time and money.

Reading this book reminded me that I had a 28mm late war Sherman, which I don't thnk has ever reached the table top!

Saturday 1 October 2022

Essex Dogs

 This is Dan Jones' first go at writing historical fiction. He has written some excellent medieval history books and is an engaging TV presenter. Apparently, George R. R. Martin inspired him to have a go. The Essex Dogs are a small unit of ten infantry taking part in Edward III's invasion of France, which led to the Battle of Crecy.

Edward III's army and fleet, numbering around 15,000 men, invaded Normandy in the summer of 1346. For the next six-and-a-half weeks, they marched, burned and fought their way from the Normandy beaches to the edge of a forest beyond the Somme called Crecy. This was one of the first campaigns of the Hundred Years' War. 

Jones keeps pretty close to the historical facts and includes historical characters like the Earls of Warwick and Northampton. The Black Prince doesn't get a good write-up, although, in fairness, this was his first major campaign. I warmed to the blunt-speaking Earl of Northampton, although he should have been grateful that the Black Prince never made it to the throne!

The Essex Dogs are a fictional group of soldiers, typical of the original 'scum of the earth' who made up the English army. Their leader, Loveday FitzTalbot, commands a mixed group of infantry and archers. It was good to see non-archers get a look in, as almost all the focus in HYW fiction is on the longbow when the army still needed other types of infantry. They are often called upon to carry out special operations that Jones has gleaned from his work on the chronicles. The unit includes a somewhat stereotypical Scot. I am sure there must have been the odd Scot in the English army, but most of this character's fellow countrymen were fighting on the other side!

I would describe this as gritty historical fiction and pretty realistic. Most soldiers portray warfare as boring with short bursts of sheer terror. That is certainly reflected in this book. While realistic, it isn't always that gripping. If you like your historical fiction in the Bernard Cornwell style, this isn't it. It lacks pace. That said, I enjoyed it as something of a hybrid between historical fiction and non-fiction.   

A 28mm unit of archers from my collection.