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 April 2023

Our Balkan Princess

 My latest bedtime fiction reading has been Our Balkan Princess by K.H. Wenham. This is one of a series of novels about an MI6 agent Drex Ellis. The word Balkan of course, drew me in. 

The essence of the plot is that Drex is sent to Trieste in 1943 to recover scientific notes from a group of Yugoslav royals being held in a country house near Trieste. This is all happening just after the fall of Mussolini, so the Germans are running the show. His somewhat dubious cover is as an Irish photographer for Life Magazine, doing a photoshoot of the Royals. The Germans apparently consent to this for propaganda purposes.

Trieste is an interesting place in WW2. Italy held it, although its hinterland was largely Slovene, and Croatia is also very close. It became a flashpoint at the end of the war between the British and Tito's partisans in what is known as the Race for Trieste. And again in 1953, when Italian and Yugoslav troops squared up.

I won't spoil the story, but our hero has to rescue one of the royals, Princess Aleksandra of Carinthia, in return for her giving him the notes. This involves meeting up with British SOE operatives working with the Slovene resistance. They are also aided by an Italian officer concerned about the Lipizzaner horses at the nearby stud farm. 

There is only the faintest nod to actual history in this story. The Yugoslav royal family did not hang around to be captured by the Italians in WW2. They were Serbian and unlikely to fancy trekking around the Slovenian hills with the local resistance. Even with the modest number of Royalists. The Slovene forces were dominated by home guard units until the Italian collapse. This transformed the communist-led insurgency into a mass popular uprising. The Germans were initially pinned down in the cities like Trieste, and the fighting described in the book around Gorizia did happen. However, the partisans were doing most of this fighting as usual.

Putting historical revisionism to one side, this is a decent story, well-written. I doubt I will pick up the rest in the series, but you won't feel robbed of the few quid this is selling for on Kindle.

Some of my 28mm Partisans around the campfire.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Royal Engineers Museum

While I was in Chatham on Sunday, it was an excellent opportunity to visit the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham. It was initially used as the electrical engineers' school before becoming the museum's home in 1987. It is one of only three military or regimental museums in the country to hold the status of an outstanding collection of national and international significance. With 50,000 exhibits, it is easy to see why.

Outside the museum, there is a significant collection of armoured engineering vehicles.

Inside the museum is arranged chronologically, starting with medieval fortifications and quickly moving on to the first formal engineer regiment. The museum's pride and joy is the Waterloo map that Wellington is supposed to have used. However, a distinguished Napoleonic historian believes it is a forgery. There are also uniform exhibits of the period.

The Victorian era included a couple of famous engineers. John Chard VC gets a display case of exhibits from his defence of Rorke's Drift. He does look a bit like Stanley Baker!

The other is 'Chinese' Gordon or Gordon of Khartoum. He also looks a bit like Charlton Heston!

Moving on, we get to the important part, the Balkans. Gallipoli and Salonika in WW1.

Lots on WW2, which is where armoured and other vehicles appeared. Although the most iconic is mine clearing in the Western Desert.

They even have a V2. Smaller than I imagined.

And I did like the model railway.

That just leaves the modern period, including several Falklands exhibits, including a Harrier.

Overall, an excellent museum. Well worth the effort.

Tuesday 25 April 2023

Chatham Dockyard

I had a spare day on Sunday after Salute and before a work event on Monday. So, I decided to go down to Chatham to visit the historic dockyard.

Chatham was a Royal Navy Dockyard located on the River Medway in Kent. Established in the mid-16th century. It built and repaired ships through the age of sail and then into steam and iron-clad warships. When the biggest battleships were too big for the site, it repurposed building submarines and other smaller ships.

The site is vast, but you start with an overview of the dockyard, including a massive model of HMS Victory.

The next stop was the former covered shipbuilding docks with massive roofs. There is a collection of lifeboats and other exhibits, including a midget submarine.

Then to the main reason for visiting, the ships. Starting with HMS Gannet, built in 1878 for steam and sail, the 64pdr RML gave it some punch for a sloop.

Next door is HMS Ocelot, an O Class submarine launched in 1962. 27 built, 13 for the Royal Navy. After this tour, I am sure I was not made to be a submariner!

And last but certainly not least, HMS Cavalier, an O Class Destroyer launched in 1944. At 6’.2” I would be little better off on this than the submarine. This was a sore head day, and no drink was involved.

There are other exhibits around the yard, including AA guns used to defend the harbour in WW2.

A particularly striking building is the Ropery. They would make enough in one year in Napoleonic times to stretch from here to Istanbul.

They also have a fine collection of ship models, not all built here.

That's a quick overview of a wonderful museum. If you are in London, it's only 40 minutes away on the train. Lots of very knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff and volunteers as well.

Saturday 22 April 2023

Salute 2023

 Salute is the UK's largest wargames show, held at the Excel Centre in London Docklands. Essentially a vast hangar packed with games and traders. I had to come down to London for work, so a trip to the show fitted in well, along with some research in the National Archives and the British Library. The long queue when I arrived was managed well, and we were inside in no time. I also got to stay all day for the first time.

I was restrained in my purchases because I came down by train. Restraint is challenging when just about every wargame company is there, including several you won't see anywhere else. Over 130 in total. However, I picked up the WW1 air warfare game 'Wings of War' that I had been after for some time. Plus, some Korean War scenario booklets for my next project and a few 1/200 aircraft. Oh, and I joined the throng for What a Cowboy, even though I have no figures and am not a big Western fan. But, I can adapt it for the Russo-Ottoman war!

Nice to see my new book on sale at the Helion stall. I even signed a couple.

The extensive trade offerings are not at the expense of games. They came in all sizes, from small-scale taster participation games to big display games. About 90 in all. Here are the ones that caught my eye.

First up was Austerlitz. Not quite as I imagined it, but well done.

An Italian Wars Billhooks game. The ships and castles were excellent. 

Indian mutiny or rebellion, as you prefer.

What a Cowboy! Lots of takers for this.

The 2mm madness that is Strength and Honour. The Punic Wars very nearly tempted me.
London Bridge on Ice was a popular participation game.

This is a fantasy setting called Angaral.

Loved this game. Putin's Z men stopped by the Ukrainian tractors. And the sunken Moskva.

Grand Zulu game. I was definitely stopping this side of the river!

Inchon landings in Korea in 10mm. I'm sold.

The Wolverhampton University War Studies Department did this ACW naval action. Mobile Bay.

A fabulous Mordheim setting, which deservedly won the best scenery.

Finnish War, Battle of Oravais 1808.

Battle of Domstadal 1758 with old school flats.

And last but not least, the Battle of Ipsus used To the Strongest. It won the best 28mm game.

The traders I spoke to were reasonably happy, and the numbers looked as if they were back to pre-pandemic levels. The games were indeed busy. The other events in the same venue were the pre-London Marathon event and a show for property developers. Wargamers look a bit incongruous next to the super fit and super rich! 

Thursday 20 April 2023

Russia's Five Day war

I suspect President Putin hoped this would be the title of books celebrating his invasion of Ukraine last year. Instead, it is Mark Galeotti's new Osprey study of the earlier Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. While given the massive disparity of forces, this was a predictable Russian victory, many of the problems exhibited in Ukraine were on show in this conflict.

Georgia is an ancient kingdom cursed by its strategic position, resulting in its being dominated by its neighbours for much of its history. It regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia regards it as within its sphere of influence. It also has significant ethnic minorities, which the Russians sought to exploit. The Adjarans of the southwest would be quickly subdued in 2004, but the Abkhazians of the northwest and the South Ossetians of the north were another matter. Georgia had orientated itself towards the West and NATO, leading to a decision in Moscow that something had to be done. As a result, military exercises and wargames started in 2006.

The Georgian armed forces had inherited standard Soviet equipment. By 2008 they had invested heavily in upgrading that equipment and buying new kit. For example, 120x T-72 SIM-1 tanks were upgraded by Israel with fire control and other improvements. The USA and Britain helped with small unit training, but more senior commanders were still wedded to Soviet doctrine. Russian troops came from the 58th Army in the North Caucasus Military District. They also had armed militias in the breakaway regions, supplemented by 'peacekeeping' units stationed in those areas.

The Georgian plan was the encirclement of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali to present the Russians with a fait accompli. However, local resistance was more stubborn than expected, and Russian air attacks blunted the advance, even though the Russian army response was slow. With no AA assets, the Georgian units panicked and withdrew. Units deployed to defend the Georgian capital, but the Russians decided to halt well short of that.

The Abkhaz front was guarded by a few Police units due to the concentration of effort in South Ossetia. However, Moscow took the opportunity to break Georgia’s small navy, provide a distraction from the campaign in South Ossetia, and drive the Georgians out of the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge.

In summary, this conflict was a badly-planned Georgian attack, falling into a carefully-orchestrated Russian trap. While, man-for-man, the Georgians were often skilled and determined, the much more numerous Russians were also able to use their advantages in the air and at sea to good effect. Nonetheless, Russian blunders from crashed communications to ‘friendly fire’ incidents and an epidemic of breakdowns – foreshadowed the challenges that would still beset them in their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

This book is an excellent overview of the fighting and an analysis of both sides' challenges. For the wargamer, there are ORBATs and plenty of illustrations and colour plates. I struggle to paint modern camouflage patterns, and there are a wide array of options available here.

Some of my 20mm Russian infantry.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Eagles Over the Sea 1935-42

 This is Lawrence Paterson's history of Luftwaffe maritime operations in the first half of WW2. Having dabbled in WW2 naval games recently, I realised I know little about German naval aviation besides Stukas dive-bombing ships. I also regard the Fw-200 Kondor as one of Germany's most elegant aircraft designs. So, the painting on the cover was a selling point. It's currently on special offer, and if it looks pricy, that's because it's a substantial volume.

I thought I knew a bit about WW2 aircraft, but many flying boats in this book were new to me. Smaller ones, like the He-60, Arado Ar 95 and Dornier Wal, were part of the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Larger types, including the He 115, look ungainly but have lots of glass to improve observation. The Dornier Do26 looked similar to the Sunderland and was used to ferry men and equipment in the Narvik campaign. 

The obsession with dive bombing meant that even unsuitable medium and heavy bombers were designed to incorporate this capability. The Germans also needed help with airborne torpedo design. They used Italian designs, which must have rankled, and the Japanese sent examples of their models. There is a propaganda film, Kampfgeschwader Lutzov, which is worth a look for operations in the English Channel.

The Kriegsmarine under Eric Raeder was indifferent to naval air power other than for reconnaissance. In fairness, he wasn't alone in remaining rooted in the large fleet tradition. Despite this, he fought hard against Goring for a separate naval aviation arm. The story of that internal battle runs through the book, with Goring winning. The U-boat commander Karl Donitz regularly bemoaned the lack of joint training between Luftwaffe pilots and their crews. It took an interview with Hitler to improve matters.

There is a lovely story about a Ju 88 shot down off the coast of Scotland in October 1939. Nearly 10,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh for the funeral procession of the two German pilots. Hard to imagine that happening later in the war. You also don't hear a lot about friendly fire incidents. In February 1940, the German destroyer Leberecht Maass was accidentally sunk by a Heinkel due to chronic miscommunication. The story is detailed, and Hitler intervened personally to resolve the problem.

The Kondor was adapted from a civilian airline, and while it had its problems, it was a successful reconnaissance aircraft. I had yet to appreciate how effective it was as a bomber. In the first six months of 1941, they sank 56 ships. After that, the 'Scourge of the Atlantic' became less effective with better AA cover and escort carriers. 

Apart from the development of naval aviation, the book is a narrative history of the various campaigns from Norway to the Mediterranean and even the Eastern Front in the Black Sea and the Baltic. For some reason, I find operational air warfare narratives repetitive, but this is well told. I see myself dipping back into this volume in future with a different perspective on the early war campaigns.

I don't have any models of the various flying boats. Still, I did include this picture of an Arado 196, one of the most successful designs, as supplied to the Bulgarians, in my Chasing the Soft Underbelly book. I found it in excellent condition at the Bulgarian Air Museum in Plovdiv.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Bloody Meadow

Andy Johnson's latest book is based on the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Towton, fought on 29 March 1461 during the Wars of the Roses. My latest bedtime reading, although given the violence of this battle, it is a miracle I don't suffer from nightmares!

I'm a big fan of Andy's WW2 series, particularly Seelowe Nord, his fictional depiction of a German landing in Yorkshire. Based on this scenario, I have played several games, and it always goes down well. However, the Wars of the Roses is a departure from his usual period, partly driven, because he lives near the battlefield. 

Confusingly, the Lancastrians held York, and the Yorkists were advancing north. Supporters of each faction were not geographically based. There were many Lancastrian nobles in Yorkshire. Towton is just south of Tadcaster, and the Yorkists were advancing on the Old London Road, roughly parallel to the modern A1 road.

According to modern research, the battle was fought for around three hours between at least 50,000 soldiers in a snowstorm, and the Yorkist army achieved a decisive victory over their Lancastrian opponents. The weather, something that isn't often gamed on a wargame table, was crucial to the battlefield tactics of the Yorkists. By advancing in the snowstorm, firing and withdrawing, they drew the Lancastrians from their strong defensive position, forcing them to attack uphill. This must have been a tricky manoeuvre as while both armies had a core of professional soldiers, the numbers were made up of levies.

The Lancastrians tried a flanking attack from some woods on the Yorkist's left. It was probably spotted as the wood wasn't that dense in winter. The Yorkist leader Edward took his own retinue to hold the line. The decisive blow was delivered by the arriving Yorkist reinforcements on the Yorkist right wing, led by the Norfolk. Casualties are difficult to assess. 28,000 was the figure given after the battle, but again modern research suggests it was much lower - less than 4,000. Most of those would have been killed in the rout. Other nobles were executed by Edward after the battle. 

The author captures the ferocity of the battle well. After the initial archery, it was a slogging match with units charging, retiring, resting, and charging again. Even the nobles fought on foot, with horses used to escape or pursue after the battle line broke.

I strengthened my 15mm armies of the period in 2021 after reading Trevor Royles' broad history of the wars.

A unit and command stands from my 15mm army.

Saturday 8 April 2023

Landing craft and Allied strategy

 I have been assembling and painting landing craft this week. This modelling effort reminded me that the shortage of landing craft was a significant constraint on Allied strategy in WW2. It is often said that the immense manufacturing resources of the USA were one of the critical factors in the victory over the Axis. But even those resources had their limits, and landing craft was one of them.

In the British official war history (Vol.4), Sir Michael Howard notes, 'the necessary ground forces for operations in all theatres could be made available, and, more important, there would be enough shipping to carry them.' However, 'The only critical shortage which the Planners foresaw was in landing-craft and assault shipping. Arrangements had been made to provide enough—or so it was hoped—for the ‘Overlord’ operation, largely at the expense of the Mediterranean theatre; but thereafter the full scope of operations both in the Far East and the European Theatres would be restricted unless production could be expanded.'

A quick search of this volume alone brings up 101 mentions of landing craft, mostly identifying a shortage that constrained actual or planned operations. This was also a major constraint on the operations Churchill favoured in the eastern Mediterranean as part of his efforts to get Turkey into the war, as I highlighted in my book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly. For example, the decision to invade Sicily meant there was no landing craft to spare for a Dodecanese operation on the scale projected.

Plan of the Higgins LCVP

A similar search of Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of Staff's diaries, also shows many discussions about the shortage of landing craft. He notes this remained a problem as late as 1945 in the Pacific. On 29 March 1944, he notes, 'A very difficult COS when we discussed the production of landing craft for the Pacific in 1945. Third Sea Lord, Hurcomb [Transportation], and Sinclair all attended. It is one of those awful jigsaw problems when it becomes very difficult to fit in all the right pieces.'

Sadly for the allies building landing craft was more complex than my modelling. I wanted a landing craft for one of my Chasing the Soft Underbelly scenarios that we are playing at the Carronade show in May. Mind you, more than 23,358 LCVPs were built by Higgins Industries and licensees.

What struck me about the two I built was how small they seemed. The one in the foreground is a 28mm model from Butlers. The background model is a 1/72nd scale Airfix model. I have put a 28mm and 20mm figure in each boat to give an idea. All I can say is that they must have been packed in, as they were 36 feet long and 11ft wide, designed to carry 36 troops in a 17' by 7' loading area.

This is a closer look at the 28mm Butlers model with a commando inside. Not cheap at £23.00, but it comes with just a few parts to glue together. This will work fine for the participation game at Carronade, which is loosely based on a British plan to establish a Balkan bridgehead at Durres in Albania. It will also work for commando and partisan raids by units based on the island of Vis.

The 20mm model is an Airfix kit I picked up for a bargain £4 at the Hammerhead show Bring and Buy stall. It went together fairly quickly, although it isn't a waterline model, a point that didn't occur to me at the time. They can sit on the beach, as the plan was to use them for my Cyprus 1974 project, which is in 20mm. Strictly speaking, I don't think the Turks used this type. The main landing craft appears to be the C305 class which is somewhat larger and can carry an MBT or 150 troops.

Either way, I am not planning a fleet of landing craft. Just a representation.