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 27 June 2023

Turkish 'North Star' Brigade in the Korean War

 My latest wargame project is the Turkish force that fought in the Korean War. I would prefer to do this in 28mm using the Warlord figures. However, painting vast numbers of North Korean and Chinese opponents was just too dull to contemplate. So, I have gone for 10mm, primarily using Pendraken figures with armour from Skytrex. This has the advantage of using some of my WW2 figures as well.

Three infantry platoons and a mortar platoon

The Korean War started on 25 June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. They drove South Korean and US troops back into the Pusan perimeter before a US landing at Inchon forced a withdrawal. The US pushed into North Korea, which brought the Chinese into the conflict, pushing them back to the 38th Parallel. This ended the mobile phase of the war, and both sides dug in for a static war of attrition.

Turkey had been refused membership of NATO but was invited to provide troops. The first Turkish contingent arrived on 19 October 1950 and, in varying strengths, remained until the summer of 1954. The First Turkish Brigade (code name 'North Star'), 5,455 strong, was commanded by Brigadier General Tahsin Yazic. He was a veteran of Gallipoli in the First World War and commanded the first Turkish tank battalion in 1937. The Brigade was drawn mainly from the 28th Division and consisted of three infantry battalions from the 241st Infantry regiment, the 2nd Armoured Brigade Artillery Battalion, Light AA Battalion and support units. 

They advanced into North Korea with the 25th US Division. The Turkish Brigade was attacked by superior enemy forces in Wawon, Kaechon, Kunu-ri, and the Sunchon Pass regions. They fought for three days and were encircled several times, each time breaking out successfully. What was left of the Turkish Brigade was moved south to recover and reorganise. They then participated in Operation Thunderbolt in January 1951, attached to IX Corps. This led to another fierce battle around Hill 151. The Second Turkish Brigade (Brigadier General Namik Argue) relieved them in July 1951. In turn, they were relieved by the Third Brigade in July 1952 and then by the Fourth Brigade in September 1953. The replacement brigades saw less action and fewer casualties as the war had moved to the military stalemate phase. 

14,936 Turkish troops served in Korea, suffering 3,506 casualties (23% of troops committed), including 741 killed. They were generally considered the best of the smaller UN contingents, particularly in defence and close combat, when they drew long knives. Max Hastings explains, ‘Among the most prominent contributors, the Turks sent a much-respected infantry brigade, whose men were evidently uninterested in higher tactics or sophisticated military skills, but possessed much rugged courage and willingness to endure.’ Turkey's contribution helped their application to join NATO, which was approved in 1952.

The Turkish Brigade arrived in Korea wearing their British-supplied WW2 battledress and helmets. However, after the early battles, their uniforms, helmets and equipment were entirely American, with their own brigade device (red spearhead with white stars) on the right side of the helmet and a national badge (red circle with a white star and crescent) on the top of the right sleeve. This means you can use US models. The helmet and sleeve flashes could only be seen with a magnifying glass at this scale!

105mm Howitzers

The Turks sent no tanks with the Brigade to Korea. So armour would be attached from US units. Here are two Pershings and two Chafee tanks with a jeep-mounted MG for recon.

I will use Blitzkrieg Commander rules for this conflict. Pendraken has published a supplement for the Korean War, The Forgotten War, with some rule additions to reflect the actions and doctrine unique to this war. The field hospital option (MASH TV style) is going to be a must have! It includes a scenario for the Battle of Wawon (27-29 Nov. 1950) and army lists. I would also recommend The Wargamer's Guide to the Korean War 1950-53 by Tom Nutt, published by Reiver Castings. I bought these from the guys running a lovely game at Salute, which inspired me to get on with this project.

There are two quite old (1980s) Osprey's. The Korean War 1950-53 by Nigel Thomas (I now have a spare if anyone needs it) and Armour of the Korean war 1950-53 by Simon Dunstan. The colour plates are useful, and I experimented with many shades of green/grey to get something close to the faded US combat dress. For further reading on the Turkish brigade I consulted the following:

A.Tetik, North Star: Turkish Brigade in Korea, (Turkish Military History, No.87, 2007)

A.Fanning, Turkish Military in the Korean War, (Texas Tech University, 1993)

M.Hastings, The Korean War: An Epic Conflict 1950-1953 (Pan Macmillan, Kindle edition)

H.Danisman, Situation Negative: Korea 1952. An Account of Service with the Turkish Brigade, (Denizler Kitabevi, Istanbul, 2002)

A large bag of North Korean and Chinese figures is now staring at me! 

Friday 23 June 2023

Blood of Honour

 This book is another in James Holland's fictional WW2 series, featuring Jack Tanner, the Wiltshire NCO serving in the Yorkshire Rangers. This instalment is set in Crete during the German invasion in 1941.

As with others in this series, you get an overview of the campaign by occasionally shifting the focus to General Fryberg's HQ. He faced several challenges in defending the island, not least poor communication due to the shortage of radios. However, Fryberg's fatal error was not counterattacking when the Fallschirmjager landed, particularly at Maleme. The chances of the Germans reinforcing by sea were slim, and the lightly armed and outnumbered Fallschirmjager were allowed to consolidate. 

This is reflected in Jack Tanner's battalion based in Heraklion. The Fallschirmjager attack the town but are repulsed, and then they simply sit behind the walls in defensive positions. There are some entertaining subplots involving a new officer and the Cretan Andartes. Even some love interest for the bold Jack. The running theme is a tussle with a Fallschirmjager officer. Holland sticks closely to the actual history, although there are gaps in our knowledge of the campaign. British war diaries were written up later, and as Holland puts it, 'Paratroopers carried little with them into battle – typewriters, paper and pencils were not a top priority.'

Along with the rest of the Empire forces, the Yorkshire rangers are evacuated by sea, only to have their boat sunk. This means a march across the island to be evacuated on the southern coast, with the Germans doing their best to catch them and the Andartes. I won't spoil the story, but the focus is on small unit actions, which are well-researched and described. 

I really enjoyed this book, and I have already started the next in the series, which is set in the Western Desert.

The German cemetery at Maleme. Most units suffered between 50% and 70% casualties.

German Gebirgsjager in 15mm were flown in to reinforce the Fallschirmjager.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

The Greatest Escape

 This is Neil Churches' book covering his father Ralph's extraordinary WW2 escape from a PoW camp in Slovenia. I don't usually go for WW2 escape stories; there are too many British officer stereotypes. However, this is an escape from an other-ranks camp, and it's in the Balkans. While PoW officers struggled to find ways of amusing themselves, the other-ranks were put to work, often in demanding jobs.

Ralph Churches was an Australian soldier sent to Greece as part of Operation Lustre. He had been attached to Corps HQ, initially correcting maps. When the campaign went wrong, being a clerk, he wasn't flown out, so they tried to escape by boat to Crete with some other men. However, they got captured on the coast. 

I didn't realise that the Geneva Convention required PoW camps to be in the homeland of the army that captured you. They were allowed to use basic transit camps, which involved long marches with little food and water. Eventually, they arrived in a permanent camp at Maribor, which had been annexed into the Reich and therefore met this requirement.

Ralph learned some German and became the camp leader. Conditions improved as Red Cross parcels arrived, along with replacement uniforms. This allowed them to organise trade with the locals as items such as coffee and chocolate fetched a high price. The German camp commander collaborated with this system in return for a cut. Ralph had not fully recovered from the march and was nursed back to health on one assignment to a local farm by a kind local family. Working on a farm was a popular duty, but they also had to work in quarries and cement works. Even worse was burying the bodies of Soviet prisoners in what amounted to an extermination camp.

After the Italian collapse, the book outlines the development of the Partisan movement in Slovenia, supported by SOE. They fought German units and the Slovenian collaborators, the White Guards (Slovensko domobranstvo). Ralph and some of the prisoners made contact with the Partisans when the Allies began considering the possibility of mass escapes.

Eventually, they managed to escape from a work detail and, along with 100 other prisoners, were escorted by the Partisans some 100 miles over occupied mountainous terrain to a temporary airfield, where they boarded Dakotas for a flight to Italy. Ralph played a key leadership role, as not all the prisoners were convinced the escape was feasible. When he arrived in Italy, he was interrogated by a Colonel Blimp type who pointed to a map and said, 'what you have done isn't very remarkable... barely covered 100 miles as the crow flies.' Ralph responded, 'it's because they're not bloody crows!'

He was sent back to Australia to recover, but they all had to sign a secrecy declaration. Many years later, he was able to return to Slovenia and meet some of the surviving Partisans who helped them escape. 6.5% of all Slovenians died during the war, including 30,000 Partisan casualties. They tied down some 80,000 German troops. As the author concludes, 'The Partisans gave my father his freedom. To his dying day, he was grateful.'

This is a very different WW2 PoW escape story, and it's well told. It weaves the broader story about the resistance to German rule and the Partisans' role in that conflict. I was in Croatia last month, and seeing how many monuments have been allowed to fall into disrepair or even removed was disappointing. Historical revisionism should not be allowed to forget those who died liberating their country.

Some of my better uniformed Partisans in 28mm

Thursday 15 June 2023

Byzantine Cavalryman v Vandal Warriors

 I fear the Vandals have got the worst of historical reputations when their name is now widely used to describe anti-social behaviour. After all, the list of ancient armies vandalising their enemies' territory is a pretty long one. I suspect it is another example of history being written by the Romans.

Murray Dahm has written a more balanced book for Osprey that compares the typical mounted Vandal warrior against one of their main opponents, the Byzantine cavalryman. This takes place during the early Byzantine period, so unlike some others in this series, it isn't duplicating other books on either warrior type.

The high point of the Vandals was the invasion of North Africa from Spain in 429, taking Carthage in 439 and establishing an empire. They sacked Rome in 455, plundering it for 14 days (we don't call the Gauls or the Goths vandals!) and repulsed a previous Roman invasion in 468. They were also active at sea, although primarily as pirates, which probably added to the reputation.

Murray gives us a broad outline of the history and the opposing sides, focusing on the Vandalic War (533-36) when Belasarius defeated them. While we don't know the exact composition of the Byzantine armies, it seems likely most were cavalry. A mixture of heavy cavalry, armed as cataphractarii or clibanarii, and light cavalry from the Balkans, including Huns. Vandal armies probably consisted entirely of cavalry. Our primary source, Procopius, never refers to the infantry of the Vandals as he does for the Romans. Unlike the Byzantines, the Vandals operated on a tribal system in which every able-bodied warrior served in the army when necessary. As usual with this series, there are lovely colour plates,  both front and rear, so helpful for the wargamer and modeller who often are left guessing what their models look like from the back. He also outlines the organisation and tactics of both types.

To illustrate how these forces were used in practice, Murray takes the Battles of Ad Decimum near Carthage in 533. I have visited this area, and there is surprisingly still much to see. He then takes the better-known Battle of Tricamarum, later in 533, interestingly for a cavalry battle fought over a stream. This was about 30km from Carthage, possibly in the suburbs of modern Tunis. The Byzantines won, and the Vandals retreated into Algeria and others into the mountains. Finally, the Battle of Bagradas in 536 was essentially a battle against Vandal mutineers that had been incorporated into the Byzantine army.

The final chapter gives us an analysis of both armies, which I often wish was longer in this series. He concludes that 'The most remarkable aspect of the Vandalic War in terms of battle tactics, however, is not the war of rapid manoeuvre that was clearly part of Belisarius’ success, but the fact that all of the military victories were achieved by cavalry charges.' The Vandal warriors were capable troops, and their allies, the Berbers, were effective. However, their commanders made fundamental mistakes.

This book will give you most of the tools if you plan to deploy either of these armies on the tabletop, other than the Byzantine infantry. Concise, well-argued text, well illustrated and comprehensive colour plates.

I have a Belasarius army in 15mm, which is currently in a box at the bottom of a big pile. I fear that reflects how long it is since I used it!

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Putin's Wars

 This is Mark Galeotti's detailed look at the development of the Russian army in the Putin era and the wars they have fought. Mark has written several excellent Osprey's on this subject, which have everything the wargamer could want. However, if you are looking for a deep dive into the topic, this is the book you want.

Part One covers the period before Putin. If you think the Russian army's performance in Ukraine has been poor, this section describes the shambles of the First Chechen War and the post-Soviet military crisis. Just one of many side stories Mark covers in the book highlights this. "In 1994, investigative journalist Dmitry Kholodov wrote, ‘our Russian army is sliding down into a world of organized crime’. Amongst other stories, he was digging into claims that commandos from the elite 16th Spetsnaz Brigade were working as hitmen for the mafia, or even running training programmes for their gunmen."

In the First Chechen War, one officer reminisced, ‘honestly, it was a wonder we could even move, we ended up having to cannibalize about a third of our trucks to get the rest on the road.’ A position eerily similar to more recent problems in Ukraine. As was the experience of the then-new T-80s of the 3rd and 133rd Tank Battalions, prey to the inherent vulnerabilities of tanks in built-up environments, with infantry buttoned up in their APCs.

Part Two covers the arrival of Putin and efforts to reform the armed forces to deliver his nationalist agenda. The aim was a smaller army with a higher proportion of contract soldiers. However, conscription remained largely because it was cheap. The irony is that even though he presided over the rearmament of his country and for all the photo opportunities in the cockpit of a fighter or driving tanks, Vladimir Putin never really served in the military. Defence ministers came and went, but fundamental reform remained challenging. 

In Part Three, we get the latest round of Putin's wars in Crimea, Donbas and Syria. Here the new-look armed forces were tested against modest opponents. Largely successfully, although without a real test, and for all the resources devoted to the military, fundamental problems remained. The efforts at promoting the military have been massive, but demographic and cultural change means conscription remains unpopular. This led to the use of irregular proxy forces and the infamous Wagner Group. They may be relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for, "while they may be individually brave and sometimes effective on the battlefield, much of the time they are thuggish opportunists who are unimpressive in battle and undisciplined off it."

Part four covers in detail the different parts of the new armed forces. How they are organised and equipped. While the budget doesn't look huge, Mark points to how the real costs are hidden in other budgets. The real level is probably three or four times its paper value.

Finally, he looks at the future, including new ways of waging war such as cyber warfare. He finished writing just as the Ukraine invasion began, so this is touched upon as far as demonstrating how Russia overrated its own capabilities and underestimated Ukraine. Again, this chapter is full of stories that illustrate the problems. Like the soldier who, while drunk, thought he would borrow a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle to go and buy cigarettes. He managed to drive it into a ditch, and so he returned to the training ground to liberate another BMP-2 in order to tow it out. However, he had neglected to power the first vehicle down properly, and so in the meantime, it caught fire. He ended up causing more than 1.8 million rubles in damage.

He concludes that the story of Putin’s presidency has been one of two halves. "His first two presidential terms in the 2000s were strikingly successful, but so many of the gains made were wasted or embezzled away in the 2010s and beyond... Its military, of course, but also its economy and its society will long bear the deep, painful scars of Putin’s wars."

Some of my 20mm Russian armour.


On Tuesday 13th June at 7.00 p.m. GMT, I will be talking to @War Series Editors Tom Cooper and Andy Miles about my new book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly, which examines the role of Turkey during the Second World War. The talk will be followed by a moderated Q&A session and all those who attend will get access to an exclusive discount code to get money off the book. This event will be hosted using the web-based Demio platform, for which no special downloads are required. You can register here.

Friday 2 June 2023

Fort Nelson

 On my way out of Portsmouth last week, I called into the Royal Armouries Museum of Artillery at Fort Nelson. The fort is built on a ridge overlooking Portsmouth and was one of a string of forts constructed in the 1860s to protect the naval base from a French invasion. They were called Palmerston Follies because the invasion never came, which is a bit harsh on the then PM given the classic Napoleon III quote, 'It is easy to govern the French, you just have to give them a war every four years or so.' 

It is one of the best-preserved Victorian forts in the country and an excellent setting for an artillery museum. 

The artillery pieces range from the earliest weapons to the present day. My eye immediately landed on the Ottoman bombard, a gift from the Sultan to Queen Victoria. I have seen these in the Istanbul Army Museum, and they are quite a sight. However, I wonder if my wife is entirely convinced by the tea towel I brought back with the ornate design!

They have a collection of strange guns, particularly the early machine guns and WW2 improvised weapons.

Smith Gun an improvised WW2 ATG.

Hotchkiss 37mm, 1879.

My absolute favourite was the 18-inch rail gun. Just massive. Built in 1918, just too late for WW1, although one was based near Dover in WW2.

That is the first exhibit in a shed full of mostly 20th-century artillery from all over the world. Here are just a few.

120mm British RCL.

Soviet 45mm ATG

Soviet 76mm

Soviet 152mm
Spanish 75mm Mountain Gun.

They also have a good collection of Napoleonic and 18th-century guns. With our Waterloo Day event coming up, I paid particular attention to these.

French 6-pounder

1794 Sikh 7-pounder

You can't have an artillery museum without an 88mm.

Finally, a collection of the guns that worked the fort itself.

Excellent museum and free admission. The guidebook is worth a purchase as you are getting in for nothing. It tells the story of the fort and artillery generally.