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

Saturday 25 November 2023

Witness to War

 This is Colin Turbett's new book on Arran and the Firth of Clyde in the Second World War. A local history of the coast I live on. 

For those unfamiliar with the area, the waterway leads to the River Clyde and the city of Glasgow. The region was pivotal in WW2, providing a seaport safer from the Luftwaffe than those further south. 500 million tons of shipping moved into and out of Glasgow, bringing cargo and troops from the USA. The Clyde shipyards also built 1,903 naval and merchant ships and converted a further 637 for wartime uses. 

Dominating the Firth of Clyde is the Island of Arran, often described as Scotland in miniature. It was a crisp winter day when I took this picture on my bike ride this morning.

Colin describes the many naval and air bases established along the coasts to protect the Clyde during wartime. These included a boom defence at the entrance to the Clyde near Gourock, consisting of a steel net defended by Boom Defence Vessels and shore batteries. If you travel to Arran today, it will be by ferry from Ardrossan. In WW2, this was a base for minesweeping and anti-submarine patrols called HMS Fortitude. There were subsidiary facilities in my town of Troon. Also near me is Prestwick Airport, a vital air bridge with 38,000 aircraft coming in from the USA. It was supported by an airfield at Dundonald, which, although closed, still has a few buildings standing.

The Firth of Clyde taken by me from a friend's plane based at Prestwick Airport.

Arran was a training base for Commandos until they moved up to the Highlands in 1942. Specifically, 9 and 11 Commando were based on the island. Colin tells the stories of the island during wartime and the service men and women who made it their home. He also lists the substantial loss of life from aircraft crashes and sinkings. Of the 15 ships lost, only one was caused directly by enemy action, although enemy mine laying was a problem. It is often forgotten how high the accident rate was on training flights when the safety standards were much lower than today's. He also tells the story of the sinking of U-33 by HMS Gleaner. Divers recovered parts of an Enigma coding machine that contributed to cracking the German coding system. 

This is a fine history of one community during wartime. I would also draw attention to a short booklet by Colin's son, Liam, Island Brigaders. This tells the story of local men Robert Milton and William Bamborough, who volunteered to fight in Spain, defending democracy as part of the broader struggle against fascism. Milton was a machine gunner in the International Brigades. Bamborough was a pilot who flew in the Republican Air Force. Well worth a read.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Napoleon - yes that film!

 After a year long hype and countless analysis of trailers, I have now seen the film at the first showing at my local cinema.

I expected to love the cinema experience even if I was irritated by the historical inaccuracies. However, I felt underwhelmed by the experience and even more irritated by the inaccuracies. In fairness, I thought Joaquin Phoenix did a good job of playing Napoleon, given that playing a character over twenty years is challenging. I also believe Vanessa Kirby gave a good performance. However, given the age gap and the importance of Josephine's experience to the young Napoleon, an older actress might have been a better choice.

Like many folks, when this project was announced, I assumed that this would either be Napoleon's early years or a multi-part film. When you try and fit so much into one movie, even one that lasts two and a half hours, it is inevitable that critical events are glossed over and risks the charge of superficiality. Telling the military history through just four campaigns misses a lot. 

As far as historical accuracy is concerned, it falls down in many ways. I could have lived with that if Ridley Scott said this was artistic licence for dramatic effect. But he didn't. He went on the attack, claiming because we weren't there, we don't know. I may need 'to get a life' in his words, but as someone who has undertaken a lot of historical research, primary and secondary, for my books, this response is just silly. Of course, there is room for debate over the interpretation of the evidence, but we know quite a lot. And it is certainly not to be found in the first two books. Some argue that because Ridley Scott comes from an advertising background, this is his way of creating controversy to sell the film. I'm sure that's a factor, but I remain unconvinced it is the whole story. Mind you, I did enjoy his retort to the British ambassador: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

Given the time constraints, I can understand picking a scene from a battle to convey the action. However, why not choose something that did happen rather than invent something? If you want to portray Napoleon's ruthlessness in Egypt, the siege of Acre would have been a better example than inventing him shooting at the pyramids. I am more sympathetic to the ice lake scene at Austerlitz, which has a germ of truth in it because it is a difficult battle to encapsulate in a few scenes. I am baffled by his depiction of Waterloo. He captured the rain and the cuirassiers charging the squares well, but where was Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte? And what on earth were the trenches about? Not to mention Napoleon charging into the combat!

I am relatively neutral about Napoleon, and I don't think this film feeds either of the entrenched camps. I believe historical myths matter, as we can do without them in a dangerous world. However, I didn't get upset about his portrayal as a leader. 

Overall, I left the cinema feeling that this was an opportunity missed. The hype may have raised my expectations too much, but it just wasn't the spectacle I was expecting. 

My 28mm Napoleon in Egypt.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

A Folly of Princes

 This is the second in the Stewart trilogy of novels by Nigel Tranter. Part of my chronological re-read of his historical fiction books.

This book covers the reign of Robert III, King of Scots, from 19 April 1390 to 4 April 1406. I'm afraid the King, like his father Robert II, does not come out of this telling of his story well. Modern historians are a little kinder to him, but only a bit. In Independence and Nationhood (1984), Alexander Grant found Robert III to be "probably Scotland's least impressive king". And there was plenty of competition! 

For much of his reign, he was so incapable that a Governor, his brother Robert Duke of Albany, ruled the country. He is the archetypical baddie throughout this trilogy, not without justification. His son, David, also ruled for a period. However, I won't spoil the story if you are unaware of this gruesome episode of Scottish history.

The story is told again through the eyes of Sir James Douglas of Aberdour, who, in the best traditions of Tranter books, finds a way of being close to the significant events of the period. These include the great clan fight at Perth, Henry IV's siege of Edinburgh Castle and the victory against the invading Islesmen at Glen Arkaig. Raiding northern England was a regular event, with mixed success. Henry IV of England was occupied with conflicts with his barons, and the Welsh helpfully distracted him. 

However, the book ends with the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Homildon Hill on 14 September 1402. Sadly, the Earl of Douglas ignored the sage advice of our hero and chose to fight within range of English archers, who decimated the Schiltrons and two counterattacks—a lesson the Scots had still not learned. 

This is perhaps not one of Tranter's best books, but still a good read highlighting the internal conflicts that weakened Scotland during the period, not helped by a weak king and military incompetence. 

Some of my English longbowmen of the period. The Scots had very few archers to counter these.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

James VII: Duke and King of Scots, 1633-1701

 My library pick this month was Alastair Mann's study of James VII (James II of England). A King who generally gets almost as bad a press as King John. While this is justified to a degree, we have to recognise the political and religious propaganda that went with the 'Glorious Revolution' that deposed him. 

This is a chronological study of James focusing on his Scottish roles, which have been overlooked in past studies. James was King of England and Ireland as James II and King of Scots as James VII from the death of his elder brother, Charles II, on 6 February 1685. He was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Although born in London, he spent much of his life in exile. Firstly, after the Civil War and the execution of his father, Charles I. Then briefly during the Restoration when his conversion to Catholicism caused significant political difficulties for this brother. Finally, after William and Mary deposed him.

The Civil War may have ended as a formal conflict, but there were several rebellions in Scotland, supported to a greater or lesser degree by the court in exile. They almost always depended on the French or the Spanish, so support depended on a war between England and France.

The most interesting part of the book for me was James as a soldier, something I was unaware of. James served with the French army in the Fronde Civil War and other conflicts, learning his trade under Turenne, one of the great generals of the period. James became the most experienced military prince, since Henry VIII in England and James IV in Scotland. Scottish service in the French army went back to medieval times, and more than 10,000 Scots served in the French military between 1624 and 1642. There were two Scottish regiments during James' service. At the Battle of the Dunes, James was in Spanish service under Conde after the French had allied with Cromwell. He commanded five regiments of English, Scots and Irish troops. He was personally brave as well as a competent commander.

James was less skilled when it came to politics, and from an early age, his lack of flexibility was noted by observers. This was also the case with religion. A successful rule in England or Scotland would never be achieved if he persisted with a return to Catholicism. Ireland was a different matter, and even after the revolution, he had enough support to fight, albeit unsuccessfully, at the Battle of the Boyne. Religious disputes in Scotland were complicated by the suppression of the Covenanters, a fascinating story in its own right, mainly as it was mostly fought out near where I live. He also fell into the trap of his father by relying on Royal Absolution dismissing parliaments in Scotland and England.

James was buried in Paris, although various body parts were cut out and sent to religious institutions. Many survive to this day. Even his brain was presented in a lead casket to the Scots College in Paris.

This book undoubtedly educated me, but I found it hard going in places. There are very long chapters and a level of detail that sometimes distracts from the bigger story. If you want to understand the whole story of James VII, this is undoubtedly the book for you. But I suspect the general reader will struggle.

Some of my early Jacobite Rebellion 28mm figures.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Lords of Misrule

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter re-reading project. Lords of Misrule is the aptly named first book in a trilogy about the early Stewart kings of Scotland. When most people think of the Stewarts, they tend to recognise JamesVI (I of England) or maybe the later Jacobite rebellions. However, the Stewarts came to the throne in Scotland during the 14th Century.

Robert II was King of Scots from 1371 to his death in 1390. The son of Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, and Marjorie, daughter of King Robert the Bruce, he was the first monarch of the House of Stewart. Tranter portrays him as a mere shadow of his illustrious namesake, The Bruce, admittedly in his later period. This is the traditional view of his reign, although modern historians show a kingdom that had become wealthier and more stable, particularly during the first decade of his rule.

Tranter uses one of his common ploys to tell the story. He picks a small-part player as the narrator; in this case, it is Sir James Douglas, the illegitimate eldest son of the Lord of Dalkeith, an important Douglas lord. The Douglas family were Scotland's most potent military force during this period.

After some preliminaries, the story starts with the Battle of Otterburn (5 August 1388), a reasonably rare Scots victory in this period over the English led by Henry Percy (Hotspur). Percy outnumbered the Scots three to one, but he rashly engaged before all his forces arrived and was captured himself. The Earl of Douglas, commanding the Scots army, was killed in the battle, treacherously stabbed in Tranter's telling. Leading Sir James on a mission to find the power behind the culprit.

Robert, Earl of Fife, the King's second living son, plays a significant role as governor for the ailing King Robert. Again, modern historians would disagree with Tranter's take, but he makes a good villain for this story. We should never forget this is historical fiction. 

The other fascinating character is Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, called the Wolf of Badenoch. He was the third living son of the King and ruled most of northern Scotland semi-independently. He is probably most famous for burning Elgin in a dispute with the Bishop. Of course, monks wrote the chronicles, so he doesn't fare well in the history books! The story features his Highland castles when Sir James goes up north. They remain today well worth a visit. Lochindorb was his main stronghold, although my personal favourite is Loch an Eilein Castle in Rothiemurchus. Not far from Aviemore, there is a fine walk around the loch to view the castle on its island.

The "Wolf's Lair": Lochindorb Castle in Badenoch.

Putting aside the historical take, the book is a typical Tranter read. There is less military action than many, with more focus on internal politics and a bit of medieval detective work. Still, a good read.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Skirmish of Tongue 1746

As part of my research for the book I am writing about HMS Ambuscade, I came across this small action with much more significant consequences during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/46. 

The first HMS Ambuscade (40) was a frigate built at Le Havre in 1745 for the French Navy as L'Embuscade. It was captured by HMS Defiance, a 58-gun fourth-rate ship of the line in the English Channel and taken to Plymouth. It was renamed HMS Ambuscade on 28 May 1746 after being refitted and up-gunned. She had a crew of 250 commanded by Captain Lucius O’Brien. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1737 and served in the Russian Navy in 1739, which was not an uncommon career path then. He returned to serve in the Royal Navy in March 1744, commanding HMS Portsmouth (24) with the rank of Commander. 

In December 1745, O'Brien was promoted to Captain of HMS Sheerness (24). His ship played a role in defeating the Jacobite Uprising by capturing the sloop Le Prince Charles (14) (the renamed Le Hasard) off the north coast of Scotland near the Kyle of Tongue on 25 March 1746. The French ship carried £13,000 in gold, weapons and supplies for the Jacobites. The money was subsequently taken by government troops on land from Lord Loudon’s Regiment and loyalist clansmen led by Lord Reay in an action known as the Skirmish of Tongue. 

This was severe blow to the Jacobite cause because Prince Charles was out of cash and had no means of paying his troops. Morale dived and desertions accelerated. It also meant that Prince Charles could not advance on Aberdeen as planned forcing him behind the Spey and eventual defeat at Culloden. It also illustrates the divided loyalties, not just in the Lowlands but the Highlands as well. When I last visited the Culloden battlefield, I was standing next to a father explaining to his son that they were standing where the English shot the Scots. I had to politely explain that he was standing on the line held by a Scots regiment fighting for the Government forces. 

The report in the London Gazette said: 

‘Captain O'Brian of Sheerness man of war, now off this place giving an account that after chasing the Le Prince Charles above 56 leagues he drove her ashore and obliged the French and Spaniards who were in her to quit her and to land, which they did with five chests of money to the value of £12,000 and upwards.’

I thought the action on land might make an interesting midweek game using the Rebels and Patriots rules. The Gazette takes up the story on land: 

"Lord Reay (Mackay) in whose country they were landed and whose house Captain Mackay, Sir Henry Munro, Lord [?Captain] Charles Gordon, and Captain MacLeod with some others of Lord Loudon's regiment were, with about 80 men of said regiment, who had been driven thither by the rebels, marched out and attacked them, and after killing three or four, and dangerously wounding eight, took the remaining 156, officers, soldiers, and sailors prisoners, who were immediately embarked on board the Sheerness, and the prize with the Highland officers and men who made the capture are now here.....The money that was landed out of the Hazard sloop, was taken by Lord Reay's men."

The principal commanders did well out of the action, receiving £700 each of the captured booty. The sergeants each received £50, and the privates each got £7 or £8, equivalent to eight or nine months' pay.

My Jacobite rebellion 28mm figures are mainly focused on the 1715 Rebellion, but I have some Seven Years War figures, and the Highlanders would look pretty similar. The Government army has two units of line, a unit of Mackay Highlanders and some mounted clansmen. The Jacobites have a French unit described as the 'cream of Berwick's Regiment', two units of Highlanders, a light cannon and a small command unit. All guarding the gold!

I have pasted a new photographic backdrop today, which although I bought it for Balkan settings, works well for the Highlands. I am very pleased with this and I have another to do. They are produced as model railway backdrops by a firm called Scaleology.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Targe 2023

 For many years, the Kirriemuir Wargames Club ran the Targe show in a school venue. It's no mean feat for a club based in a small town just north of Dundee. They haven't been able to run the full show since the pandemic, but they do run an annual games day, which is supported by several Scottish clubs and is open to the public. This year's event was held yesterday (4 November), and I took a GDWS participation game. It is an early start for me as it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive, but few hold-ups on a Saturday morning.

The venue is small but crammed with some excellent games. There isn't enough room for the usual trade stands, but Ian was there with his Flags of War stall, and Dave Imre had his excellent Claymore Castings medieval figures. They also had a large bring-and-buy, at which I picked up another 28mm ship for my harbour scenarios.

The games were all participation, and I took the Siege of Ragusa 1814, a scenario from my book, The Frontier Sea. Thanks to those who bought a copy. I'll do a more detailed write-up for the website, but you can read the handout on the GDWS site. In essence, the French had to get a supply convoy into the city while the Austrians, British and Ragusan rebels tried to stop them. We played the game three times, and they all went to the wire. The French succeeded each time, essentially, I suspect, because the Allies focused too much on shooting rather than getting stuck in with the bayonet.

All the games were limited to standard 6x4 tables, but that didn't stop some fine games from being organised.

Cowboy shoot-out using Dead Man's Hand.

Sherrifmuir 1715 was a Jacobite battle that deserves to be played more.

The Gothenburgers game won the best in the show.

I Tweeted that this was Border Wars, as it was next to Ian's stall, but I got that wrong. Still, very well done. 

Just to show that an amphibious landing can be done on a small table.

The Claymore Castings Lion Rampant game. The mat is very realistic.

Glasgow Phoenix brought a sci-fi game using Xenos Rampant.

It was a long day out, but I am glad I made the effort. Lots of good chats with gamers and the public interested in the history behind the game as well as the modelling and figures. Many people have been to Dubrovnik, so it's a good talking point to explain a bit more about the history. Even the local paper turned up. Many thanks to the Kirriemuir club for putting this on.