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 28 September 2023

Lion Let Loose

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter bedtime re-read. It covers the reign of James I of Scotland, not to be confused with James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland. OK, you can be confused!

Not one of Scotland's better-known kings, James I was born in 1394 and was King of Scots from 1406 until his assassination in 1437. 

His father, Robert III, was ailing, and the real power in the country, the Duke of Albany, had James' brother and heir killed. He was hidden on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth for his safety and then sent to France. However, his ship was captured by English pirates, and he was held in captivity in England by Henry IV and then his more famous son, Henry V. His captivity lasted 18 years.

This was the tail end of the Hundred Years War, in which the Scots allied with the French. This was primarily to keep the English monarchs busy in France rather than invading Scotland. Significant Scots forces were sent to France and had an important victory against the Duke of Clarence at the Battle of Baugé in 1421. James accompanied Henry V in some of his later campaigns in France, which put the monarch in a difficult position. He also provided an English wife, Joan Beaufort, a cousin of the future Henry VI.

After Henry's death, James was released for a hefty ransom. Not that he was welcomed back to Scotland by the Albany faction. Tranter, not for the first time, takes a sympathetic view of James I's actions on his return. Tranter portrays his savage destruction of the Albany faction and his Inverness Parliament, which at least partially tamed the Highlands, as a reluctant response. Modern historians are less positive. In fairness, medieval Scotland was a tough country to rule, with internal treachery, the English over the border and the Highlands semi-detached. 

James was assassinated in 1437 by the relatives of the Albany faction. However, they failed to capture and kill his son and were later caught and executed. So, the Stewarts continued on the throne.

Perhaps not one of the most gripping of Tranter's novels. The long period of captivity, more like house arrest, is challenging to turn into good historical fiction. However, it picks up in the latter parts of the book.

Typical Scots infantry sent to France during the Hundred Years War.

Monday 25 September 2023

Air Campaign: Korea 1950-53

 This is a new Osprey book by Michael Napier covering the strategic bombing campaign in the Korean War. Timely, as I am planning to add the air warfare dimension to my Korean War project, using Blood Red Skies and the new Wing Commander supplement. It's on my Partisan show list.

Air power was crucial in shaping the Korean War battlefield and applying strategic pressure to North Korea and China. This book describes the strategic employment of air power by the United Nations Command (UNC). While this book covers strategic bombing, the limited theatre of operations meant that strategic and tactical operations could be blurred. 

Several features of North Korea made bombing challenging. The flying weather is often poor in the summer, so October to March was ideal. The railway system was a key target, but it was designed by the Japanese builders to be more robust. North Korean engineers were also good at quickly repairing damage, as this was the primary method of moving supplies to the front. Bombing bridges is, in any case, a challenging target, made especially difficult with the crosswinds, even in winter. 

The US Far East Air Force led the bombing campaign with their B-29s, operating mainly from Japan. They were initially unopposed other than a handful of Yak-9s. However, introducing Soviet Mig-15s forced the bombers to fly higher and switch to night bombing with less accuracy. The Soviets had experienced pilots dressed in North Korean uniforms, and their regiments were rotated through the theatre. Chinese pilots, in contrast, were inexperienced and quickly withdrawn. US Fighter escorts were added using the F-84 Thunderjets, and when these proved ineffective, the F-86 Sabre. The F-84 was switched to ground attack in formations as large as 60 aircraft.

Tactically, there were similar disagreements to the Normandy campaign of WW2. The air force objected to being used in close support missions, and there were political restrictions on bombing China or the Soviet Union. Both sides were trying to avoid escalating the war. This meant much of the fighting occurred near the North Korean airfields, in an area known as 'Mig Alley'. The air force eventually ran out of industrial targets and switched to military training facilities. There were also attacks on the dams that drove hydro-power stations, deploying naval aircraft from carriers.

Overall, the bombing campaign had mixed results. As North Korea could call on China and the Soviet Union, the destruction of its industry didn't have the same impact as the bombing campaign against Germany in WW2. Thanks to its breadth and complexity, North Korea could also repair its supply networks.

The author highlights five lessons to be learnt from the strategic bombing of North Korea:

1. A World War II-style bombing campaign against a partially industrialised economy is unlikely to prove decisive.

2. Interdiction against a wide and complex resupply system routed through difficult terrain requires massive force numbers to be effective.

3. Neither strategic bombing nor interdiction can be fully effective if much of the enemy industrial base or source of resupply exists in a neighbouring country where it cannot be attacked.

4. It is essential to deny the enemy the opportunity to operate its aircraft freely within its own borders.

5. The ingenuity and ability of the enemy to repair damaged infrastructure must never be underestimated.

It might be argued that all five lessons had to be relearned during the Vietnam War in the subsequent decade.

This book has all the elements you would expect from the Osprey series. Concise text, plenty of period illustrations, good maps and colour plates. It is a really useful addition to the Korean War library.

Saturday 16 September 2023

British Destroyers 1892-1918

 This book is by Jim Crossley in the Osprey New Vanguard series, looks at the development of Royal Navy destroyers in the period up to the First World War. This is a period of naval warfare I know little about and is an introduction to my HMS Ambuscade project.

HMS Ambuscade, in this period, was an Acasta-class destroyer. This appears to be a step up from the previous frigate status, although destroyers were only introduced into the world's navies in the 1880s. However, everything is relative because the HMS Ambuscade we are planning to bring back to the Clyde is a Type 21 frigate and is over 100 feet longer than the WW1 Ambuscade. The size of a modern frigate was brought home to me when I visited Portsmouth in the summer. HMS Iron Duke was in port, and I was astonished to discover this large warship was a frigate.

Destroyers in this period were developed in reaction to the torpedo menace. Here, a bit of Balkan history slips in because the Imperial Russian Navy were one of the first to launch torpedoes at the Ottoman Navy in 1878, sinking a small gunboat. The Royal Navy called their early vessels Torpedo-Boat Destroyers until 1919. The early classes were small ships able to sneak into harbours and launch torpedoes at short range. The development of the 18-inch and then 21-inch torpedoes meant the destroyer could be used with the battlefleets at sea. In theory, attacking at up to 10,000 yards, although in practice, there was little chance of hitting anything at that range.

As the type developed, they got bigger, with the Tribal class at up to 290ft long, setting the standard for future generations of destroyers. Still a lot smaller than modern frigates. The Acasta class was renamed K-Class in 1912 before HMS Ambuscade was launched in January 1913. These ships were 267ft long armed with three 4in guns, one 2pdr gun and two 21in torpedoes. They had a speed of 31 knots. The Royal Navy gave their destroyers a powerful gun armament, which paid off in actions against German destroyers who relied heavily on torpedoes. 

Tactically, the challenge for a destroyer serving with the fleet was to get close enough to the larger enemy ships without being blown out of the water. There were two options. Steer towards the last shell or turn violently when you see the enemy gun flash. German battlecruisers were also well protected against torpedoes, even if you could hit one in battle conditions. The British fired 96 at Jutland and scored six hits. One of those came from HMS Ambuscade. I had thought boarding actions were consigned to the Napoleonic wars, but the author describes a Dover Patrol action when HMS Swift rammed a German ship, and a boarding action commenced.

In conclusion, destroyers made an important contribution to the development of the Royal Navy, but it did not end the era of the big-gun warship as the Germans had hoped. This book has all the technical specifications, lovely colour plates, and plenty of illustrations. All you need for an introduction to the period.

I managed to get this postcard in the Rotary Photo series recently. On the left is George V, and on the right is Admiral Jellicoe.

Friday 15 September 2023

The Flowers of Chivalry

 The Bruce is dead, and a child king is on the throne. It was one of the most dangerous times, internally and externally, for any medieval kingdom. This is the setting for Flowers of Chivalry, the latest in my bedtime Nigel Tranter re-reading project.

In this book, Tranter returns to a favourite technique of telling the story through a lesser-known figure close to the main action, often from his Lothian home. In this case, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsey a local noble who was one of the more effective Scots knights of the period. Having a child king is less dangerous when there is a strong Regent. However, the book starts with the death of Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, one of the last living close comrades of Robert the Bruce.

David II succeeded to the throne at the age of five. After Moray's death, Scotland was ruled by a series of less-than-effective regents. Edward III took advantage of this by invading and putting Edward Baliol on the throne. He put his governor in charge when he failed to counter the inevitable insurgency. Following the English victory at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, David was evacuated to France, where he remained in exile until it was safe for him to return to Scotland in 1341.

The book covers the period up to his return in 1341 when he took back the throne. Although the wars with England continued, they merged with the Hundred Years War. Scotland was allied to France, and at least the fighting on the continent distracted Edward III long enough to give Scotland the occasional breathing space.

This is a lesser-known period of Scottish history, told in the typical Tranter style. Ramsay arguably did the most with Sir William Douglas to save David's throne and keep Scotland independent. There were a few set-piece battles, but again, this was a period of small wars well suited to refighting on the tabletop with rules like Lion Rampant.

Some of my 28mm Scottish infantry of the period

Thursday 14 September 2023

HMS Ambuscade

I will shortly start a new writing project about Royal Navy ships called HMS Ambuscade. I am a member of the Advisory Group for the Clyde Naval Heritage charity, planning to bring the latest vessel of that name, a Type 21 frigate, back to the Clyde where it was built. This HMS Ambuscade served in the Falklands War and was later sold to Pakistan. The Pakistan Navy has kindly agreed to donate the ship; we just have to get it home!

So, I am writing a history of the ship with all profits donated to the charity. The first HMS Ambuscade was a 40-gun fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy. She was formerly the French Embuscade, launched in 1745 at Le Havre and captured by HMS Defiance in April 1746. Sold off in 1762. The next HMS Ambuscade was a 32-gun fifth-rate  (Amazon Class) frigate of the Royal Navy, built at Deptford in 1773. It fought in the American Revolution and captured an American and a French brig and a French privateer. In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, she captured a French privateer, a chasse maree and a merchant ship before being captured herself in 1798. Serving in the French Navy as Embuscade. She was recaptured by HMS Victory in 1803 and served in the Mediterranean. She was broken up in 1810.

There were two captured frigates briefly called Ambuscade during the Napoleonic Wars, and it almost became the name of the Royal Navy's first steam-powered frigate. During the First and Second World Wars, Ambuscade was given to destroyer classes, Acasta and W-Class. One fighting at Jutland and the other serving on Arctic convoys. More on this in later posts.

I have included naval warfare in all my books but wouldn't claim to be a maritime historian. Anyone playing me at Black Seas will know of my irritation with sailing ships, which just won't go where I want them to go! So, any advice is welcome. And I will apologise now if my reading and archival research has a nautical flavour for the next few months.  

Napoleonic frigate warfare was an essential part of the story in my book, The Frontier Sea, but I had yet to read Mark Lardas' Osprey book, British Frigate v French frigate 1793-1814. To command a sailing frigate was a glorious thing. Fast and well-armed, they acted as the eyes of the battle fleet and as commerce raiders. A function that made many frigate captains rich. It was eye-opening when I poured over the Malta court records to see how much cash was involved in prize money. 

French naval architects led the way in ship design, and the British caught up initially by copying them. Frigates got progressively larger as the war progressed, regarding sails and armament. While the British carronade, made in Falkirk, gave the British an advantage at short range, the French copied that with their designs. British frigates were by 1800 some of the finest sailing ships in the world, and coupled with experienced officers and crew, were rarely beaten. The reasons for this advantage are explained in the book, along with excellent graphics. 

Mark finishes with several examples of frigate combat. This helpfully, from my point of view,  includes Ambuscade v Baionnaise in December 1798. Sadly, for my story, this was one of the few French victories achieved by boarding. Baionnaise had extra soldiers on board returning from the West Indies. It was the only ship-to-ship action won by an inferior French warship during the Napoleonic wars. 

Apart from that unfortunate outcome, this is an excellent starting point for understanding frigate warfare during the Napoleonic Wars.

This is a painting of the action. One of many lovely paintings of naval warfare during the conflict.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

The Battle for History

 I was listening to Gary Sheffield's podcast on his former colleague at Sandhurst, John Keegan. Most famous for his book The Face of Battle. The following day I was browsing through our local Oxfam bookshop and spotted a book of his I hadn't read, The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War Two.

This is a slim volume, published in 1995, essentially a historiography of the Second World War. The problem with historiography is that it quickly becomes dated, so he covers the classics. He starts by describing some of the significant controversies, not least the causes of the war. Much of this takes me back to my A-level history course on this subject. Keegan is somewhat more critical of A.J.P. Taylor than my teachers were. 

He is kinder to Churchill than most histories today, particularly over Greece, less over his Mediterranean strategy, but he was part of the wartime generation. There is a schoolboy error referencing the Ionian Islands rather than the Dodecanese, which I hope was addressed in subsequent editions. However, I'm not convinced there is any evidence that Hitler was planning on invading Turkey in 1941. In fact, he went out of his way to negotiate a non-aggression treaty. Keegan concludes that Turkey may be regarded as the most successful neutral of WW2. I'm not sure the population more generally felt they were successful given the economic hardship, but if success is measured solely by casualties, then he has a point. 

He is not uncritical of David Irving, but kinder than most historians would be today because of his holocaust denial. I'm afraid I cannot view him as 'a historian of formidable powers', given how he has perverted those apparent skills.

At least we are spared some recent revisionism regarding the war in Yugoslavia. Milan Djilas' book Wartime gets special praise 'as one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the Second World War.' It is on the Eastern Front that his analysis looks the most dated. He was writing before access to Soviet and other Eastern European archives. He also underplays the role of the Wehrmacht in atrocities in the Eastern Front and the Balkans.

His chapter on the brains and sinews of war is also a bit dated. However, even in the 1990s, the view that Germany outmatched the Allies' equipment 'in quality and arguably in size' is debatable. Most would argue it was strategy and tactics that gave Germany the edge.

It's an interesting wee tome if a bit dated. You can pick it up today for very little, which is probably just as well. As Gary Sheffield pointed out, his later works have been criticised, although that should not diminish the groundbreaking work of The Face of Battle.