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

Thursday 23 February 2023

Jester's Fortune

 My bedtime reading remains in the Adriatic of the Napoleonic Wars. The latest is from Dewey Lambdin, an author I had never heard of, whose hero, Alan Lewrie, sails into the Adriatic in this book in what looks like a long-running historical fiction series.

This adventure is set in an earlier Royal Navy excursion into the Adriatic during 1796. Napoleon has taken command of the Army of Italy and is about to storm across northern Italy. Admiral Sir John Jervis did send a squadron of six frigates into the Adriatic in early 1796 under Captain Taylor. However, that squadron is reduced to four ships in this story, including our hero on HMS Jester. 

They are sent to fly the flag and intercept French shipping. They use Trieste as a base, the Austrian naval headquarters, and the author reasonably describes the appalling state of the Austrian navy of the period. They also regularly visit Venice, a sad shadow of its former greatness. The same applies to their bases in the Adriatic, with threadbare garrisons and rusting cannons.

The history is soundly based, although you may want to pass over the author's rather bizarre historical rant about the Balkans generally after this period. The point of which is unclear. In addition, I doubt this book will sell well in Montenegro, as the author believes it 'was almost totally Muslim'. This would have shocked the staunchly Orthodox Montenegrins, ruled by a Prince-Bishop!

Putting these issues to one side, the story is well told. The squadron sails up and down the coastline, taking French prizes and interdicting their supply lines. There is a subplot when they recruit Serbian pirates to unofficially join them, capturing a Brig for their use. This ends poorly but introduces a few colourful characters and plenty of Serbian folklore.

I am not a fan of Napoleonic naval authors who feel the need to describe the fine detail of sailing a warship of the period. It's very tedious when we want to get into the action. Lambdin gets the balance right on this point, although he does somewhat drag out the port visits. The finer points of Austrian cuisine can be left to period cookbooks.

Overall, a good read if you are into this genre. 

Some of my 1/700th ships of the period.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Blood Red Skies

 I wanted to add the air combat dimension to my Turkish WW2 scenarios. My first thought was Wings of Glory, but it is difficult to get hold of a copy and more suited to individual air combat. So, I decided to give Warlord's Blood Red Skies a go. Unfortunately, Warlord is currently only selling Midway as their starter set, but I picked up the earlier Battle of Britain set, nearly new, on eBay.

The starter set has all the rules, tokens and scenery you need to get started, along with a squadron of Me109s and a squadron of Spitfires. Six planes make up a squadron. Unfortunately, the plastic on the aircraft is a bit soft, resulting in some bent wings, a problem they have sorted out with the newer squadron boxes. I also picked up additional squadrons of Fw190 and Yak-1s at Vapnartak.

They are 1/200 scale models and attach to a unique stand with three settings, advantage, neutral and disadvantaged, which are crucial to the rules. They paint well and come with decals, although I needed to buy some for the Turkish Air Force, courtesy of 1-94 Enterprises, sold by Pendraken in the UK. Needless to say, 1/200th decals are not easy to apply.

Turkish Spitfires

German Me109 and Turkish Fw190

German Fw190, including the Hartmann Ace model

This gives me the basics for Operation Gertrud scenarios, the German invasion of Turkey. It was a vital concern of the Turkish Government that entering WW2 would expose Istanbul, with its wooden houses, to German bombers. Belgrade illustrated the risk, so the British offered AA guns and Spitfires. The Germans also sold the Turks 70 Fw-190s. 

In October 1944, the Soviet 17th Air Army arrived in Bulgaria. It was poised to support a Red Army advance across Thrace to seize bases on the Straits. A long-standing Russian objective. This army had several regiments of Yak-1 fighters.

As for the game, well, the rules are pretty simple. I played the first game with four Me109s being intercepted by 5 Turkish Spitfires. The Germans had the more experienced pilots, as the Turks would not have seen combat.

The aim is to manoeuvre your planes into a position of advantage (primarily height) and ideally behind the enemy plane. Not easy to achieve, even with more skilled pilots. The skill level does help to dodge hits and gives a better chance of moving first. A typical move is 7", and the shooting range is 6", so you can play a game on a small mat. I played this game on 3'x3'. 

Victory to the Germans on this occasion, although the Turkish pilot skill level needs more aircraft to balance it up. I'll try with the Fw-190s in the next game. Overall, I enjoyed the game, which will do the job for a relatively modest outlay.

Saturday 18 February 2023


 This month's book from my local library was Amazons by John Man. Sub-titled The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World, he looks at the myths and the evidence for Amazon warriors, widely depicted in ancient art and prose.

In a nutshell, the evidence from archaeology rather than Greek myths points to the existence of female warriors but not to an all-female state. Much to the disappointment of ancient wargamers, no doubt!

The most common myth is that Amazons cut off their right breast so as not to obstruct their bow strings. Not only not true, but as many re-enactors have shown, entirely unnecessary. It may be that leather armour hid the female shape, or some adaption of the name Amazon led to this myth - but it is still a myth.

The archaeological evidence for female warriors is strong. Scythian women were routinely given burials matching men, and in some areas, 37 per cent of these burials were those of armed women. Many of these died violently using these weapons in battle. So it appears Herodotus got something right. Scythian women and their successors were Amazons as the Greeks imagined them, but individually, not as part of some spurious female-only nation, but as ordinary members of Scythian society. A fascinating society in its own right, with fabulous surviving artefacts, such as those displayed in the 2017 British Museum exhibition.

Frankly, that is where I would have left this book. Extending the story to the Sarmatians is OK, as it is an essential part of the myth. However, while Amazon warriors in South America existed, they are stretching the story somewhat. The same applies to 'Black Sparta' women warriors in Dahomey. Then chapters on the portrayal of Amazons in art and modern culture, right up to Wonder Woman. At this stage, I found myself skim-reading. 

So, if you want to add female Scythian warriors to your ancient armies, that's fine. But, if you want a whole army, that's for the fantasy rules. Figures are available for both!

Thursday 16 February 2023

Mongol Warrior v European Knight

 This is the latest in Osprey's 'Combat' series by Stephen Turnbull. I have been sceptical about this and similar series because some of the match-ups are a bit tenuous, and they don't offer much that hasn't been covered in other series by the same publisher. However, this is an interesting match-up, pitting two very different warriors against each other.

Of course, the Mongols were not the first horse archers the European Knight had faced. Nevertheless, most western European knights had little experience with this warfare. The Mongols were also much more than just another Steppe horse archer. They had heavy cavalry, brought their knowledge of siege warfare from China, and the sheer numbers and tactical awareness made them a feared enemy.

Turnbull covers all these issues in his analysis of the status, recruitment, organisation and equipment, supplemented by excellent colour plates. He seeks to put to one side the assumptions about Mongol invincibility and the simplistic contrast between mobile Mongols and clumsy heavy European knights. For example, at the Battle of Muhi, the Mongols were outnumbered by the army they destroyed. In addition, Polish and Hungarian armies had their own light horse, and most of their armies would have been more lightly armed than knights. The armour of the period offered limited protection against the powerful Mongol bow, and textiles underneath provided the most protection, supplemented later by the cuirass.

Mongol tactics were as crucial as their troops in defeating European knights. The use of envelopment, cutting off supply lines and feigned retreat all played on the knight's vulnerabilities. On the battlefield, few actions were won by horse archery alone. Even Mongol light horse were prepared to charge in and engage in hand-to-hand combat. The author illustrates these points through three battles. Liegnitz 1241, against Poland, which topically followed the capture of Kyiv. Then the Battle of Muhi in the same year against the Hungarians. This is an interesting action because it was fought around a river, with crossings and envelopments demonstrating Mongol flexibility. Finally, Esztergom and Székesfehérvár the following year. These are sieges, a vital element of Mongol warfare, which differentiated them from previous Steppe incursions. On this occasion, the quality of the fortresses and the help of western knights saved the day.

The analysis chapter should have been the most original part of the book. The Hungarians learned the lessons of 1241-42, and a new fortification strategy meant that old castles had to be rebuilt and new ones added. Unfortunately, the Hungarian king was forced to encourage the great lords to carry out this work, which would become a problem later. Turnbull does a decent job debunking the myth of Mongol invincibility, but I would have liked to see more in this chapter. It is, after all, the basis for the book.

I added these 28mm heavy Mongol cavalry to my collection in 2021 from the Gripping Beast range.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Xenos Rampant

 This is the latest in Dan Mersey's 'Rampant' series of fast play wargame rules published by Osprey Games. They are aimed at science fiction games, possibly the only wargame period I don't play. Not sure why, but sci-fi has never grabbed me. Although I have been slipping recently, watching the Star Wars 'Andor' series, which is very good.  

I am planning a WW2 participation game for Claymore using my new Adriatic harbour, upgraded to WW2. I have used a cut-down version of Bolt Action for these games, but the narrow terrain would work better with smaller squads. While Xenos Rampaant is aimed at sci-fi, the mechanisms work fine for any 20th-century conflict. It is designed to be very flexible, so you can use any setting, figures etc.

The other advantage is that the basic 'Rampant' mechanisms are quick to learn, and many gamers are familiar with them. There are obviously a lot of changes to bring the rules into this period, but the basics are the same. The troop types can cover WW2 squads and even armoured vehicles, although this is not a tankie game. You activate normally, and each unit has the usual stats for moving, shooting and attacking. The armour save doesn't work for WW2, but I suppose if you think of it as using cover better, it might.

I gave it a go today at home rather than the club, as I am confined to barracks due to my wife contracting COVID. The harbour is defended by two standard squads of Handschar and two large Whermacht squads, plus an armoured car. The attackers are two commando squads and a squad of US Rangers. The objective is to capture the harbour office and the naval gun positions. 

The Rangers storm ashore.

Commandos charge the Handschar barricade. Disturbing the rat's lunch!

It needs more thought on squad capabilities and playtesting, but I think this might work. The rule book has a lot of stuff other than the game rules. These include scenarios and detachment lists ranging from Weird War 1 and 2, urban streets to Star Wars.

I confess that my eye, and wallet, strayed to the bring and buy stall at York last weekend. As a result, half a dozen space orcs just found their way into my bag. This is a perilous rabbit hole!

Saturday 11 February 2023

Soviet Naval Infantry 1917-91

 This is the latest in the Osprey Elite series by David Greentree. Over the century, they probably justified being in the Elite series, although often, naval infantry were simply sailors taken off ships and sent to the front. This book should be popular with wargamers, looking for some variety when painting Soviet armies.

The Russian Civil War illustrates the use of sailors as ad-hoc infantry when some 100,000 were deployed. They were armed with a wide variety of equipment and gained a reputation for carrying as much weaponry and ammunition as possible. You just never know when the next supply truck will arrive! There is an excellent colour plate and photographs to illustrate this. Naval infantry played a vital role in winning the war, particularly in the south against Wrangel.

In the interwar period, the navy was not the first priority, with the focus on smaller ships and coastal defence. The purges didn't help, with a staggering 80% of naval captains executed. It wasn't until WW2 kicked off that the Soviet Union returned to naval infantry with the creation of the 1st Separate Rifle Brigade. 

Most of the book focuses on the naval infantry during The Great Patriotic War. They gained a justified reputation as the tough defenders of ports, even when all was collapsing around them. As the war progressed, they often helped to breach German defences by landing behind Axis positions and holding a bridgehead until relieved, or sometimes not! These make great wargame scenarios, and this book has many examples. They also provided much-needed manpower, with 389,975 sailors operating as infantry from June 1941 to May 1943, with another 100,000 added up to the war's end. Sailors formed 19 brigades, 13 regiments and 70 or so battalions to fight on land.

The organisation of naval infantry varied according to the fleet and the equipment available. A naval infantry brigade typically had 4-6 infantry battalions and support weapons. Tanks depended on what was available locally, but the T-26 light tank was a standard option. Even more than the western Allies, there was always a shortage of specialised landing craft. So, all types of ships, military and civilian, were used. The US Pacific Fleet provided 30 LCI to enable Soviet naval infantry to attack the Japanese Kuril Islands at the war's end.

The book covers all the main operations. Some are familiar, like the Kuban Bridgehead and the Crimea. However, others, like the Artic in 1940-41, are interesting. Naval infantry landed behind the Germans advancing on Murmansk, hindering their offensive, and keeping that vital supply route open. The Baltic operations, including attacks on Finnish islands, offer a different scenario. They also helped storm Budapest from the Danube. 

After the war, only six naval infantry brigades and ten separate battalions remained operational. However, as the Cold War developed, there was an expansion of the naval infantry. This included a strategic role in seizing vital sea lanes through narrows and straits. I feel a modern Turkish scenario coming on! By the mid-1980s, each naval infantry brigade (2,059 all ranks) had three infantry battalions, each with three rifle companies, plus a tank battalion equipped with PT-76s and T-54/55s. Naval infantry became an all-volunteer elite force. The distinctive black uniforms also started to give way to camouflage suits that are a nightmare to paint.

I really enjoyed this book. So well written, with operations I wasn't familiar with. And as usual lovely colour plates and plenty of period photographs.

Some of my WW2 naval infantry in 15mm.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

The Forgotten Front: Macedonian Campaign 1915-18

 This is a new book by Jon Lewis on the Macedonian (often called the Salonica) Campaign of WW1. My bookcases already groan with books on this campaign, although most tend to focus on one aspect of the conflict. Under the Devil’s Eye by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody is the best book on the British contribution, and Balkan Breakthrough by Richard Hall covers the all-important final offensive. This study is a rare comprehensive look at the campaign, albeit from an Entente Powers perspective.

The Forgotten Front is a fair description of this campaign. The High Command on both sides regarded it as a sideshow and begrudged the men and materials to sustain it. Clemenceau famously called the troops 'The Gardeners of Salonica'. It started as a French initiative to assist Serbia, using troops freed from the failed Gallipoli Campaign. Unfortunately, despite a bold advance by French and British forces, it was too late to save Serbia, as their army trekked through Albania to be rebuilt on Corfu. 

The Central Powers decided to dig in along the Greek border in what is today North Macedonia to hold what they had captured rather than moving into Greece to capture the Entente base at Salonica. Greece had a pro-German King and a pro-Entente Prime Minister, and its troops formally entered the conflict later. In the meantime, the Entente line was held by British, French, Italian, Serbian and even Russian troops. The Bulgarians did the heavy lifting for the Central Powers, stiffened by German and Austrian units. The Turks held the Thracian end of the line, but that was the quietest part of the front.

The author takes the reader through the different stages of the campaign, from consolidation in 1916 to some limited offensives and finally to the 1918 offensive. He covers all aspects of the campaign, including the Zeppelin attacks on Salonica, the political tensions between the Allies and Greece, and the different commanders. The Italians in Albania are often ignored, but not here. The front line had elements of the Western Front trench warfare, but mountains were the dominant defensive features. The British banged their heads against formidable Bulgarian defences at Doiran, while the Struma front was more fluid. I have visited both of these battlefields, which have mostly stayed the same since 1916-18. 

The Bularian positions at Doiran.

The post of CinC was always a French general. For most of the campaign, it was Sarrail, but he was replaced by Guillaumat in 1918, who built the foundations for Franchet d'Espèrey, who devised the final offensive. The author rightly gives him credit for the victory while recognising that the Serbs did most of the fighting and dying. The Serbian Army, supported by French and Greek divisions, made the breakthrough at the Battle of Dobropolje. The exploitation of the victory saw the most significant advance on any WW1 front, knocking Bulgaria out of the war and making a massive contribution to the collapse of the Central Powers.

The importance of this campaign has been consistently ignored during and since the war's end. The Western Front commanders got all the plaudits. In Britain, the Salonica Campaign Society does a great job remembering those who fought there. This book rightly puts the campaign in its proper place. An excellent read as well.

I have all the armies in 28mm, adapting Bolt Action for the armies that fought here. A much more interesting tabletop experience than the Western Front.

Bulgarian Infantry

Sunday 5 February 2023

Vapnartak 2023

After my Yorkshire castle tour, and drove down the road to York today for the first big show of the year, Vapnartak. The grandstand at the racecourse is a surprisingly good venue for a show. Plenty of space and natural lighting, with cash machines and decent catering on site. A far cry from the early shows in the historic if cramped Merchant Traders Hall in the city. Not to mention challenging for anyone over 5'-6" tall.

I popped into the National Railway Museum first; the absolute must-see attraction in York. The museum is being reorganised, so one exhibition hall is closed. However, there was still the magnificent Mallard on show.

I thought arriving after the 10am crowds would be wise, having spent a long time queuing last year. However, the queue was still ridiculously long at nearly 11am. In fairness, it eventually moved pretty quickly, but I saw a few locals call it a day when they viewed the length of it. A bit more thought is needed on ticketing.

There were 50 trade stands: all the big names and a lot of the smaller ones. I filled up my rucksack with plenty of goodies. A naval gun bunker for my WW2 harbour project, along with more boats, German sentries and other bits and pieces. I'm adding the air dimension to my Turkey WW2 campaigns and have gone for Blood Red Skies. I would have preferred Wings of Glory, but it's just not available. An Fw 190 squadron and Turkish decals will test my eyesight at this scale. The new Lady Macbeth figure from Annie at Bad Squiddo Games was an essential purchase. And I picked up some Napoleonic Cossacks very reasonably and the bring and buy.

Vapnartak is really a big trade show. Around 15 games are squeezed in. Most I had seen before, but some of the better ones are worth a revisit. Like these:

Setting the East Ablaze


Korean War

The Lardies new game 'What a Cowboy' had its first outing. The mechanisms looked similar to 'What a Tanker' so should be fun.

Lion Rampant is always a good option for a participation game, and this frozen option looked good.

They had to compete with this visually stunning Viking harbour setting.

And finally, this Zeppelin will test the resolve of a couple of our members who have massive Wings of Glory collections.

Other than the queues, I really like this show. It is primarily a buying trip, picking up those bits and pieces you probably wouldn't spot online. Well worth the effort.

Saturday 4 February 2023

Yorkshire castle trail.

 I am en route to York for the Vapnartak wargames show on Sunday. I decided to stop at some Yorkshire castles I hadn't visited for some time. Most castles in Yorkshire were substantial, reflecting the strong agricultural economy in the Middle Ages.

The first stop was Barnard Castle, more famous recently for Boris Johnson's advisor Dominic Cummings' trip there during lockdown, claiming he was testing his eyesight! This was a Balliol castle whose family briefly held the throne of Scotland. It is one of the largest in England, and the most striking view is as you approach the town. The castle towers over the River Tees.

The view from the castle down to the river reinforces this.

The entrance is through the pleasant market town and is pretty level. Inside you can see the remains of a complex castle structure with several levels of defence.

The next stop was Richmond, which also has the Green Howards Regimental Museum. Today it is the home of the Yorkshire Regiment and gives a good overview of the regiment's development with exhibits and interactive displays.

Napoleonic wars

I hadn't appreciated just how big a WW1 Spandau HMG was.

A lovely piece for the Napoleonic buffs. Pinched from Ney at Waterloo.

Crimean War

Then up to another massive castle, this one initially built by Alan Rufus.

It is a lot of steps, but the view is worth it!

Finally, Knaresborough Castle. More minor and less left standing, but another grand view.

A good day out, and I earned my beer and curry this evening. Looking forward to the show tomorrow.

Thursday 2 February 2023

Balkan Glory

 As if the title of this book by Julian Stockwin needed to be more for purchase - it is based on Sir William Hoste's Adriatic campaign during the Napoleonic wars. 

Stockwin's hero is Sir Thomas Kydd, a rags-to-riches story of a sailor at the mast to the commodore of a frigate squadron. Somewhat unlikely, given the class structure of Napoleonic Britain, but this is fiction, and everyone loves a boy-made-good story.

In this tale, Kydd is appointed to command a frigate squadron assembling in the Sicilian capital Palermo, the semi-exiled abode of the hapless King of Naples and his barmy Queen. He avoids subordination to the egotistic Sydney Smith and drops his wife off. I don't know what the Admiralty would have thought of this, but it provides an entertaining subplot.

The squadron enters the Adriatic and, much like his historical counterpart, plays havoc with French supply lines, gaining the personal attention of Napoleon himself. A French squadron is readied to deal with him, which climaxes at the Battle of Lissa.

Much of the story will be familiar if you have read anything about this campaign. The author does introduce a subplot in which Kydd's sister and her ducal husband are on an intelligence mission in Vienna, testing out Metternich. This results in his sister dashing for the coast and Kydd's squadron. This is where the author somewhat overstretched the history. He wheels out the idea that Napoleon wanted to advance the Grand Armee down the Adriatic, through the Ottoman Empire and Persia, to threaten India. This was instead of invading Russia. 

There are some hints in Napoleon's writing that he considered this, but common sense indicates that it was a non-starter, even with naval control of the Meditteranean, which he had little hope of achieving. Disappearing from central Europe down ridiculously long supply lines would have been just as disastrous as the Russian campaign. In his author's note, he says, 'The convergence of all these historical threads into a single contest at sea might seem a step too far but...' I would have stopped before the 'but' and accepted that this is fantasy, but it made a better read.

What I really liked about this story was the focus on the action. Too many Napoleonic naval authors feel the need to bore us with their detailed knowledge of how a ship sailed in the period. Stockwin gives us just about enough of that sort of detail without sending us to sleep. An excellent read.

Timely also because I am building an Adriatic harbour for the GDWS participation game at Carronade. Still, a bit to do, but I'm happy with the progress so far. The bottom photo is appearing in an urban design magazine shortly on small spaces.