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

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Chasing the Soft Underbelly - for wargamers

 I am delighted that my new book, 'Chasing the Soft Underbelly: Turkey and the Second World War', is now on sale, and at a special launch price until 4 April. This launch email has more details.

So, apart from shameless advertising, I wanted to say something about what this offers to wargamers.

I wrote an appendix on wargaming the actual and potential campaigns in the book. However, space precluded its inclusion in the book; in any case, I felt it didn’t do the subject justice. For that reason, I am writing a booklet to supplement the detailed history in the book. However, I have another book to write for Helion by the end of May, so that might have to wait for a while. Meanwhile, the book has a chapter on the Turkish armed forces, and there are 22 stunning colour plates, which wargamers and modellers will love.

Many historians are critical of counterfactual history because one new event inevitably leads to another and, therefore, quickly becomes alternative history. Chasing the Soft Underbelly covers actual events and plans, some of which were developed but not implemented. With Turkey during the Second World War, the temptation to indulge in ‘what if’ questions is almost irresistible. As wargamers, we can give in to that temptation. Historical wargamers often refight alternative history on the tabletop, and this book offers many opportunities to fight battles and campaigns that very nearly did happen.

The Turkish armed forces used equipment that was almost all imported and, therefore, widely available in all wargame scales. From the early war, R35 and T26 light tanks to the Valentine medium tanks, which were the mainstay of the 3rd Armoured Division at the end of the war. The same applies to artillery, aircraft, ships and transport, all of which are widely available.

A Turkish Valentine supported by infantry advance towards Bulgarian troops.

The main challenge is infantry figures. The standard Turkish infantry of the Second World War had a tunic similar to the short French version and a distinctive cap and gaiters over their puttees, which was pretty unusual. The nearest equivalent is the Romanian infantry cap, but most figure ranges have helmeted Romanian infantry. The best options are Crusader Miniatures packs in 28mm and their Dragon Portes are in tunics with minimal kit. Battlefront produces French WW2 Tirailleurs in 15mm, with a short tunic. They also do support weapons. Some filing of the puttees and helmets is required with both. 

There is more material on the 'Turkey WW2' tab on this blog, including some scenarios. You can also play a scenario that will appear in the booklet in the GDWS participation game, Adriatic Bridgehead, I am running at the Falkirk Carronade show on 13 May.  

Go on, you just know you want a new project!

Later armour that equipped a Turkish tank battalion. Valentine, Stuart and a Dingo.

Saturday 25 March 2023

Soviet Tanks in Manchuria 1945

 A bumper crop of new books from Osprey this month is disrupting my reading pile. This one from William Hiestand covers another obscure WW2 campaign, the Soviet attack on the Japanese in Manchuria in 1945. Often regarded as something of a Soviet afterthought, it was actually undertaken at the request of the USA, who provided a lot of lend-lease equipment. 

The campaign is covered in Charles Stephenson's 'Stalin's War on Japan: The Red Army's Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation 1945, which I reviewed last year. The Osprey book has more on the campaign, but nothing that isn't in Charles's book other than focusing on the armoured formations and some excellent maps. This new book is one for the tankies (that's weapon systems, not politics!) among us who will love the variety of tanks deployed in this campaign.

The Soviets had massed a force consisting of three Fronts, 11 combined arms armies, a tank army, three air armies, 80 divisions, and over 5,500 tanks and self-propelled guns. Many of the crews were battle-hardened veterans from the war against Germany who left their tanks behind and picked up new ones en route to the Far East. These included newly produced T-34s from the Ural factories and lend-lease M4A2 Shermans. As a result, the tank brigades in the Far East had a mix of T-34s and 1930s-era BT-5s (101), BT-7s (797), and T-26s (1,272). In addition, the 250 lend-lease M4A2 Sherman medium tanks equipped the 6th Guards Tank Army’s Mechanised Corps. There were 78 Valentines as well.

23 independent tank brigades were deployed, often with additional SPGs and infantry. A unique aspect of Soviet tank tactics was the use of tank riders, with eight to ten submachine-gun armed troops from the motorised rifle battalion assigned to ride each tank. This provided immediate infantry support to the tanks, especially critical to defend them in close terrain, but the riders often took heavy losses.

There was a full range of SPGs. By 1944 the tank corps table of organisation included three SPG regiments trained to operate in direct fire mode. These included 108 massive ISU-152s, which would help bust open the Japanese defences. A further 261 SU-100 and 944 SU-76.

The Japanese Kwantung Army and the garrison in Korea were facing them, with 31 infantry divisions and nine infantry and two tank brigades organised into the 3rd and 1st Area Armies, equivalent to a Western army group. However, many of the infantry were militia, with obsolete equipment and no modern antitank guns. As a result, they resorted to Kamikaze attacks that even included aircraft crashing into tank columns.

The only sector the Japanese could outgun the Red Army was on the islands and coast because the Soviets had limited experience with amphibious armoured operations. When they assaulted Shimushu on the Kurile Islands, they found it vigorously defended by 8,500 troops and the 11th Tank Regiment with 39 Type 97 medium and 25 Type 95 light tanks. The first wave of Soviet landing troops was pinned down, and a Japanese tank counterattack was famously led by the regimental commander waving a sword. Battlefront does a model of this in 15mm. The Soviets beat them off with AT guns, rifles and grenades.

The Red Army achieved operational and tactical surprise, and the First Far Eastern Front's breakthrough of the fortified zone and the sweeping, unopposed advance by the 6th Guards Tank Army tanks fatally compromised the Kwantung Army’s defensive plan in days. The Japanese tanks were hopelessly outclassed in the open.

This is a New Vanguard series book, so you get lots of colour plates and lovely battle artwork and maps. All the statistics and ORBATs you need to refight the campaign on several levels. I collected the armies for the 1939 campaign in 15mm a while back. I have recently added a few late-war AFVs, so I am ready to go.

Japanese tanks attacking Soviet infantry.

Friday 24 March 2023

Naval Battle of Crete 1941

 This is a new book from Osprey in their campaign series by Angus Konstam that looks at the naval actions around the German attack on Crete in 1941. This is an unusual naval battle because there was very little ship v ship action. The heavy lifting was done by the Luftwaffe with some Italian support.

Very timely for me as I am just getting into Sam Mustafa's new WW2 naval game, Nimitz, although I have tackled air attacks yet.

The book follows the usual Campaign series format. A brief introduction and context, followed by the chronology. The Allies had evacuated from Greece, and the Germans planned a quick attack on Crete using Fallschirmjager, supplemented by a risky transport of troops by sea using an eclectic range of ships. The land battle is well covered by another Osprey Campaign book, Crete 1941. The Italian fleet had been defeated at Cape Matapan, so protecting the assault was going to be down to the Luftwaffe.

Then we get the opposing commanders to add some personalities to the story. Admiral Cunningham (or ABC as he was known), and his force commanders who are less well known. For the Axis, we have a famous name, General der Flieger Baron Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the WW1 ace.

Next come the opposing forces and their plans. The Royal Navy had just been reinforced and had four operational battleships, five light cruisers (no heavies) and 30 destroyers. However, they all had poor AA capability, which was not great as land-based and carrier air cover would be minimal. The Luftwaffe moved 716 combat aircraft to the region, including 180 fighters, 268 dive-bombers and 239 level bombers. 

Cunningham formed four task forces to intercept any Italian Navy sortie and German transports. However, the lack of air cover meant those nearest to Crete mostly operated at night. During the day, the Luftwaffe concentrated around 150 Stuka's to attack the fleet. The Italians mostly attacked with level bombers, a tactic that rarely worked unless you were on board the unlucky destroyer, HMS Juno. Angus takes the reader through the different actions, which included successful interceptions of German transports. This added to the heavy casualties the Germans suffered during the invasion. 

However, the Royal Navy also suffered heavy losses, and I was surprised by how often ships ran out of AA ammunition. So, I'll stop complaining about tedious ammo rules in wargames! HMS Gloucester was reduced to firing star shells and flares. The actions include the better-known detachment of Mountbatten and his five destroyers, which resulted in his ship, HMS Kelly, being sunk by a Stuka. The 'We Have Ways' podcast recently did an interesting episode on the Stuka. 

Cunningham didn't bottle the need to cover the evacuation saying, 'it has always been the duty of the Navy to take the army overseas to battle, and if the army fail, to bring them back again. If we now break with that tradition, ever afterwards when soldiers go overseas they will tend to look over their shoulders instead of relying on the Navy. You have said, General [Wavell], that it will take three years to build a new fleet. I will tell you that it will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. If, gentlemen, you now order the army in Crete to surrender, the fleet will still go there to bring off the Marines.'

The Royal Navy lost three cruisers (Calcutta, Gloucester and Fiji) and six destroyers (Greyhound, Hereward, Imperial, Juno, Kandahar and Kelly), together with 1,828 men, while another 183 were wounded. Three battleships, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and seven destroyers had also been damaged, some so severely that it would take several months or more before they were returned to service. They rescued 16,500 troops but wouldn't return to the Aegean in numbers for another three years. The Luftwaffe lost 284 aircraft, and another 125 damaged. 170 were Ju 52 transports. Not bloodless either with 311 air crew missing or killed.

Being an avid visitor of battlefields, I always look forward to 'The Battlefield Today' chapter. Obviously a sea battle doesn't have a site to visit, but there is plenty to see on Crete, which I did recently.  

The Evacuation Memorial

As you would expect, there is a great collection of maps, crucial to understanding naval battles, and some lovely artwork and plenty of pictures. Overall, this is excellent.

Tuesday 21 March 2023


This is Sam Mustafa's new WW2 naval game. It's his attempt to balance gruelling simulations and fantasy-like abstractions. I am generally a fan of his games and play Lasalle2 and Rommel mostly. However, for WW2 naval, I have been playing Victory at Sea without the awful Warlord models, and it's been OK without really grabbing me. 

Shipping from the USA is a nightmare, so I downloaded the PDF version. You can get a printed version from Amazon, but after a few games, the QRF is enough with just the occasional reference to the laptop. So I will print off the main playing rules pages, 30 odd pages. Fleet lists, data cards for each ship class and markers are downloaded from Sam's Honour website. You can use any scale of ships - I use NavWar 1/3000 scale models.

I have only played the basic game so far. That is limited to surface actions without submarines and aircraft. You dice each turn to see who may choose either: Move First and Shoot First - OR - Move Second and Shoot Second. This is a clever mechanism; ideally, you would probably want to move second and shoot first.

Movement is very straightforward. There are three speeds for most ship types, and you can make one turn up to 90 degrees at any stage. Faster and slower speeds have a shooting impact, but there are times when you need to slow down to keep in contact with the enemy. Putting your ships in formation gives certain advantages, and I assume this is to encourage players to use actual naval tactics of the period. For those with smaller tables, there is, in effect, no table edge as you can scroll the table.

Shooting and torpedos have slightly different rules. However, the basic principle is applying difficulty factors (range, speed etc.) and dicing to hit with the weapons on the data cards. Then dicing for damage and the possibility of critical hits. Almost everything is marked on the data cards, so the table is clear. Damage is marked off in boxes until the ship is crippled or sunk.

The rulebook comes with a basic scenario and extra rules for night fighting etc. There is also an open architecture, as in Sam's other rules, so you can add ship classes and tweak them as you want. I used it to tweak the German data cards to accommodate the Turkish Yavuz battlecruiser.

Submarines, aircraft, carriers and a campaign system are in the second part of the rules called Halsey. This is because aircraft add a different range context, which is better reflected in the campaign system. There is much more complexity here, including spotting, transport ships etc. 

For the main playtest, I deployed the Turkish battlecruiser Yavuz with two destroyers against two Italian heavy cruisers and two escorts. This is the Italian naval contribution to Operation Gertrud, the Axis plan to invade Turkey in 1942-43.

Both squadrons are in line ahead formation, although heading in different directions. 

Both Turkish destroyers are sunk, but the Italians suffer damage as well.

The Yavuz sinks one of the cruisers and cripples a destroyer.

As the Italians ran out of torpedos, they were unlikely to sink the Yavuz and disengaged. The Yavuz was holed and slowing but also made it home. Score draw to the Turks.

The basic game plays very well. It provides a quick game with the feel of the period's naval action. The Halsey campaign system looks more complex and will require more time to follow and play. But I will have a go. Overall, another good set of rules from Sam Mustafa.

Monday 20 March 2023

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

 This is Lawrence Durrell's story of his time in Cyprus before and during the early days of the EOKA campaign during 1953-56. A bit of background reading for my next book project.

Durrell's most famous work is The Alexandria Quartet of novels, but for military buffs, he is probably better known for his escape from Corfu, via Crete, after the fall of Greece. He was in Rhodes at Liberation and later served in the British Embassy in Yugoslavia. He was not a big fan of Yugoslavia, which is reflected in his spy thriller, White Eagles Over Serbia. Despite his service with the Foreign Office and being regarded as one of the finest British writers of his generation, he fell foul of British immigration law and was refused citizenship because he was born in India. Very topical!

He arrived in Cyrus, staying in Kyrenia (Girne today in Northern Cyprus) and then the village of Bellapaix. The ruined Abbey that dominates the village was the scene of fierce fighting in 1974. He describes the Abbey, a stunning site in the mountains that dominate that coastline. As well as life in a sleepy, predominantly Greek village. Most of his friends and contacts are Greek, which is unsurprising given how many years he had lived on Greek islands. You could describe this as a travel book as he describes other sites on the coast, including the magnificent St. Hilarion Castle. 

My picture of the castle on a recent visit

He later took a job with the British colonial headquarters as a press officer when Greek support on the island for Enosis with Greece was building, not least because of a virulent propaganda campaign by the Greek government. It hadn't at this stage turned into a terrorist/liberation campaign against the British, but he can see how attitudes are changing, at least in urban areas. Something his colonial colleagues seemed impervious to. The somewhat vague promised constitution was described by an anglophile Greek as 'something for the Zulus'. Attitudes were not far removed from the British 1887 guide that described Cypriots as 'an indolent, careless mimetic people, but without a spark of Turkish fire, without a touch of Grecian taste.'

As the EOKA terror campaign begins, Durrell describes the downward spiral to chaos, not only in attacks against the British but also against Greek 'traitors' and increasingly against the Turkish minority. The two communities may have been largely segregated but rubbed along without violence. Durrel witnessed the various fruitless attempts to reach a negotiated solution during this pre-independence period. 

He eventually decided it was time to leave. 'I was, I realised, very tired after this two years' spell as a servant of the Crown; and I had achieved nothing. It was good to be leaving.'

Probably not a book for military buffs, but if you want an elegant description of Cyprus during this period, this is pretty good.

Saturday 18 March 2023

Anzac Soldier v Ottoman Soldier

 This new book by Si Sheppard in the Osprey Combat series looks at the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns of WW1. 

My immediate reaction to this was not another book on Gallipoli. My bookcase already groans with them, and this is a rare example of the Turkish archives being much more open. I picked up some detailed studies based on them during my last visit to Turkey. I am less familiar with the Palestine campaign, although Rob Johnson's book, The Great War and the Middle East (2016) is very good. So, the first question is what is there that the general reader might find that is new?

Well, the context chapter has an excellent map, something often missed out in other studies, which highlights the ambiguous Ottoman strategic objectives in declaring war. Nationalism and modernisation seem a poor reason for war. However, as the conflict proceeded, the Ottomans had to defend their territorial integrity, face down the Arab Revolt, and opportunistically go for some pan-Turanism expansion on the Russian front.  

There is a substantial chapter on the two sides with some nice colour plates. A reminder that Australia had a volunteer army that included a staggering 416,809 men enlisting out of a population of fewer than five million. There were 98,850 men from New Zealand – 79,302 volunteers and 19,548 conscripts – from a pool of approximately 250,000 men of eligible age in 1914. This may partly explain Australian attitudes to uniforms, equipment and discipline. Five times more Australian troops were behind bars than other Empire troops!

A key problem for the Ottomans that I had not fully appreciated was the logistical challenge. For example, enlisted men were required to bring their own uniforms (or at least appropriate clothes that could serve the function of uniforms) and good shoes. According to a report by the commander of the 17th Division, more than half of the troops were still wearing civilian clothes even as late as mid-1915. By September 1918, rations had declined to 125g of bread and beans in three meals. In contrast, they were trendsetters in organisation, introducing the triangular division before others. However, attempts to copy German small unit tactics often resulted in expensive bayonet charges, not least because they lacked the educated NCOs vital to the German tactics.

The bulk of the book covers three battles; Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli, and Beersheba in Palestine. While these are well-written and nicely illustrated chapters, they don't offer much that is new. Inönü is often criticised, as he was by the Germans, for his handling of Ottoman III Corps in the battle. However, this is a more balanced recognition that he held out until nightfall and extracted a significant proportion of his troops under great pressure. This battle included the famous cavalry charge by the Australian Light Horse, brilliantly portrayed in the film The Light Horsemen.

Overall, if you haven't read much about the Ottomans and ANZACs in WW1, this is a good introduction. For those who have, you will find some interesting snippets and fine illustrations. Osprey books are good value for money, so you may think it is worth it for that.

Some of my 28mm Turkish infantry.

Friday 17 March 2023

Island at the Edge of War

 My latest bedtime reading is a novel by Roger Malone, Island at the Edge of War. The setting is the Adriatic island of Korcula, or Curzola, as it was called by the Venetians who occupied it at the time. It is set in around 1570, just before the Battle of Lepanto. The island is twinned with Rothesay in Scotland, not far from me. Today, Korcula is a popular tourist destination, just off the Croatian coast, not far from Dubrovnik, with Korcula Town being the main attraction.

The story is about a young peasant boy, Damir, who lives near the village of Blato, which is at the island's western end. He and his family farm olives and make olive oil. The village is regularly raided by pirates based on the Dalmatian coast. Damir takes olive oil to Korcula Town when it is attacked by the Ottomans. An assault they successfully fight off with little assistance from the Venetian governor (Rector), who flees when the Ottomans arrived.

When Damir arrives home, he finds a young boy hiding near the coast. He appears to be Ottoman, but how he got there is not clear. I won't spoil the story by saying who he is because that becomes a critical element of the story as Damir and his friends attempt to return him to the Ottomans. Their journey takes them to the mainland and the Ragusan town of Ston and then to Dubrovnik. 

If you like your historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell style, this may be a bit tame. However, it is an exciting and well-told story with some action and plenty of twists. The title 'Adriatic Tales Book 1' implies there will be more. As I am off to this coast in May, it made timely background reading.

The fortifications at Ston were built to protect the valuable salt pans. A bit of a climb, but worth a visit.

Ottoman galleys of the period

Friday 10 March 2023

Sailor of Liberty

 My latest bedtime reading is yet another Napoleonic naval adventure, although not the Adriatic for a change. It's a wonder I don't get seasick in bed! What's different about this book by J.D. Davies is that it's about the French Navy. 

Our hero is Philippe Kermorvant, and the action is set in 1793, at the height of the Terror. Contrary to the publisher's pitch, he was the son of a minor French aristocrat, which would typically be a bit challenging in the France of this period. However, his father was also a philosopher with radical ideas, exiled to North America. His mother was English, albeit estranged from her husband. 

The young Phillippe joined the fledgeling US Navy during the American revolution and then fought in the Russian Navy. He, therefore, had the much-needed experience to offer when he returned to France. Despite this, he nearly ended up under the guillotine twice before taking command of a French frigate operating out of Brest. 

I won't spoil the story, but it has all the elements you would expect from naval fiction in this genre. Politics, some love interest and battles on land and sea. The difference is the challenge of commanding a ship without the strict discipline of the Royal Navy, where leadership has to be earned, and the crew are a long way from the necessary effectiveness. In addition, the French Navy of the period lost most of its experienced officers, and their replacements were either recruited from the ranks or from the merchant marine. 

Davies strikes the right balance between the detail of sailing a ship of the period and keeping the story flowing. He also captures the period well and the unique challenges facing French captains. Overall, an excellent read and as the reader is left in suspense at the end, I suspect there will be more.

A French frigate and brig for Black Seas.

Monday 6 March 2023

Newark Air Museum

The added attraction of a visit to the Hammerhead wargames show is the Newark Air Museum, which is almost next door. They have two main hangers and many more aircraft in outside displays. The collection's focus is post-war aircraft, mostly military but civil as well.

The first display you see is the magnificent Vulcan.

Another helicopter that hung from my ceiling as a kit-building teenager, the Wessex.


My favourite post-war fighter. I have several models in Turkish colours.
 This F-100D Super Sabre was in French service.

Dassault Mystere

Not all British aircraft, either. Two Russian workhorses. The Mig-23 and Mig-27

And Swedish fighters, which I hadn't seen since my last trip to Sweden.

The Chipmunk trainer is a bit of nostalgia for me. The first plane I ever flew in as an Air cadet.

Then some classic British post-war aircraft.






And there is much more to see at this museum, with more aircraft, engines and other displays. Well worth a visit.

Sunday 5 March 2023


 I made my first visit to the Hammerhead wargames show at Newark Showground yesterday. I went a bit further than I would usually travel for a show, but I linked it with visiting some family in Nottingham. There were a few castles on the way and back as well.

The venue is a large well-lit hall with plenty of free parking. I arrived just after kick-off, and the queue went down quickly. Unlike the York show, there was a focus on games. A few big games, but plenty of smaller participation ones, and a DBA competition, which a pal was playing in. You could easily have spent the day playing participation games.

That doesn't mean there was any shortage of traders. Most of the big names and a few smaller ones were there. They also used the table hire system for the bring and buy, and I picked up some 15mm armour, an LCVP, and a very nice 28mm Old Guard unit. As well as some bits and pieces from traders.

There were a few games I had seen before, but a lot of new ones as well.

28mm harbour and siege game. Very nice medieval cogs.

Predator game. Lots of jungle.

Very British Civil War. I must dust down my figures for this.

An imposing Indian fort.

Napoleonic Epic on the Warlord stand. This looks decent at this scale of game.

Lake Peipus. Teutonic knights in 28mm.

If you wondered where all the Wings of Glory models went. Here is the answer!

The new ancient naval rules that came with Wargames Illustrated.

I know nothing about these rules, but it looks like a manageable game size.

Borodino on hexes.

Multiple participation games.

Italian Wars

And finally, Wargames Illustrated ran the painting competition. Some pretty impressive brushwork.

It was a long drive for me, but I enjoyed the show. It also has the excellent Newark Air Museum nearby, which I'll do a separate blog on.