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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 31 December 2023

Black Douglas

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter rereads. We have reached the mid-15th century when the Scots were squabbling amongst themselves as usual, while the English were even more so during the Wars of the Roses. The monarch was James II (1437-60), the latest in the less-than-effective medieval Stewart kings, at least in Tranter's version. If there is a theme, Tranter was not a big fan of the Stewarts. The evidence is that James II, at least towards the end of his reign, was a competent ruler.

The focus of this story is the House of Douglas, the most powerful house in lowland Scotland of the period, at least in terms of fighting men, an all-important consideration. The new Eighth Earl was Will Douglas, forced centre stage into the nation's political life. James II was still a child, and the Crighton and Livingstone families ruled the country. These are the archetypal baddies in the story. 

Initially, James and the young Douglas got along well, but in Tranter's telling, the wicked advisors turned the King against him. Tranter invents a dysfunctional marriage and rejects the evidence that he took part in a plot with the Lord of the Isles and others. Either way, it doesn't end well for Douglas, although he may have had the last laugh as James II was later killed by an exploding cannon. One bit of history for those who object to this provision in some wargames' rules.

This isn't the most action-packed tale. Not least because conflict with England was lower than usual, not least because they were a bit occupied with their own troubles. The one major incursion led to a less well-known Scottish victory at the Battle of Sark on 23 October 1448. This was fought near modern Gretna, familiar to those entering Scotland today on the M6. There is an interesting excursion to Rome, which, although a little before the Borgia period, is depicted as just as debauched.

It is not one of Tranter's best, but covers an interesting, less well-known period of Scottish history.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Shot, Steel and Stone

 Henry Hyde has published his Shot, Steel and Stone rules as a stand-alone set, an outline was previously published in The Wargaming Compendium. You can download a summary, more than a QRS, and a play-through at his website. It's a reasonably short, almost old-school rules booklet that keeps the price down compared to modern sets.

The rules are designed for the Horse and Musket period, roughly 1685-1850. They are an interesting mix of old-school systems and more modern friction rules. Basing and scale are flexible, so there is no need for rebasing. Typically, a close-order base is six figures in two ranks, which is standard, and measurement is by base width. While you can play small battle games, as I did for the playtest, it is aimed at bigger games with larger units than you might typically see in modern rules. 

The introduction could do with a more precise explanation of the turn sequence. For example, it is unclear if both sides shoot each turn or just the side with the initiative. Movement depends on leadership with a Black Powder style leadership roll. However, the impact is softened by small failures that still allow for some movement. This is a definite improvement on the Black Powder approach, which can leave units stranded for several moves. The rules are old-school when it comes to modifiers, with more than you might see in other rules today. In part, this reflects the broad time period, but the length of some tables can result in players missing one or more factors, as we did!

Shooting and combat uses multiple dice to hit and saving throws. This is popular and works well, with a few good tweaks to the system. We didn't use artillery, but that is a little more complex and old-school than you might typically find today. In our playtest, the approach and outcomes were historical, which is always a good test of rules. Check the inevitable list of typos on the website before playing; we spent ages trying to work out the full impact of a retreat outcome because it got missed out.

The reaction test and modifiers are again a bit more complex that you might find today, although I liked the table format, which made it easier to follow. However, adding a relatively lengthy list of disruptions is unnecessary. 

A chapter on additional rules for colonial conflicts includes elephants and exotic add-ons like naphtha and flaming pigs. Plus, there are some special rules for native troops that look interesting.

Overall, there was a strong element of nostalgia for me playing these rules. My younger opponent found them hard work, but I enjoyed the old-school feel. I say feel because this isn't the Bruce Quarrie level of detail, and Henry has adopted several modern approaches to rule writing. I doubt these will replace my favoured rules for this period, but these will get dusted down when I get around to my planned imaginations campaign.  

Our playtest was a 1745 Jacobite rebellion game in 28mm. The Jacobites are landing supplies on my lovely new beach mat Xmas present. Two units of Highlanders and a cavalry unit cover the landing when three units of redcoat infantry make an unwelcome appearance.

The government troops advanced in line and started to volley fire. The Highlanders responded with the inevitable charge. They broke through in the centre but were beaten back on both flanks. Time to skip away and try to land somewhere else!

Saturday 23 December 2023

1965 A Western Sunrise

 This is Shiv Kunal Verma's detailed study of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. I have reviewed several of Helion's Asia@War series on these conflicts, which are excellent for wargamers. However, if you want more granular details of the battles, this is the book for you. While it is written from the Indian side of the hill, it is reasonably objective and doesn't ignore Pakistani dispositions.

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 took place from April to September 1965. The primary cause of the war was the long-standing Kashmir territorial dispute between the two countries. This was a hangover from partition and Britain's failure to deal with the issue properly. Tensions had been escalating over the years, and in April 1965, fighting broke out between Indian and Pakistani forces along the ceasefire line in the disputed region of Kashmir.

The conflict involved a series of battles on both the northern and southern fronts. The northern front saw intense fighting in the region of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as tank battles on the plains of Punjab. The southern front witnessed skirmishes in the Rann of Kutch area. It started in August 1965 when Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar, hoping to capitalise on India's weakness after the 1962 conflict with China. The operation involved infiltrating forces into Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to support a local uprising against Indian rule, despite considerable scepticism from Pakistan's military. India responded by launching a full-scale military offensive, known as Operation Grand Slam, to push back Pakistani forces. The conflict escalated, leading to significant battles in various sectors.

The northern fronts.

Verma covers these campaigns in enough detail for wargame scenario writers, although more maps in the text would have been helpful. The armoured battles were fought between India's Centurion and Sherman tanks backed up by lighter PT 76, and AMX 13 tanks, and Pakistan's M47/48 Pattons and Shermans. In the air, the Indian Air Force had Hawker Hunter, Gnat, Canberra and Vampires. The Pakistan Air Force had Sabre, Canberra and Starfighters. 

The author is critcal of the Indian military and political leadership. Commanders who had failed badly in the conflict with China were left in place, and the Air Force and Navy were viewed as adjuncts to the army. At the unit level, Indian troops fought well, and the Centurions got the better of the Pattons in armoured clashes. However, the Pakistan Air Force got the better of the air war, and their artillery was outstanding. 

International pressure, particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union, was crucial in bringing about a ceasefire. The Tashkent Agreement, brokered by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, was signed on January 10, 1966, between Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistani President Ayub Khan. The agreement outlined a mutual withdrawal of forces to the pre-war positions and the restoration of diplomatic relations. The war did not result in significant territorial changes, and the Kashmir issue remained unresolved. Casualties are disputed, with India announcing 12,714, of which 2763 were killed. Estimates of Pakistani deaths range from 2,000 to 5,800. 

This is a text-heavy study with a few pictures and insufficient maps. One that I will return to for particular actions on the tabletop in this fascinating conflict.

My Indian armour in 1/285th scale.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Harrier GR 7/9 Units in Combat

This is the latest in the Osprey Combat Aircraft series by a former Tornado pilot, Michael Napier. He chronicles the history of the Harrier GR 7/9 and its combat missions in West Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is the later version of the iconic fighter that played an important role in the Falklands War. 

The development of the Harrier began in the 1950s, and the first operational version, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, entered service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the late 1960s. The Harrier was unique in its design, featuring swivelling nozzles that directed engine thrust downward for vertical takeoff and landing and horizontally for conventional flight. This innovation allowed the Harrier to operate from short and unprepared airstrips and amphibious assault ships. Harriers still practised taking off from ships long after the Falklands War and were deployed on board HMS Invincible during Operation Bolton (Persian Gulf) in 1998.

The Harrier's ability to operate from limited and unconventional airstrips made it a valuable asset for ground attack and air defence roles. However, as technology advanced and new aircraft designs emerged, the Harrier's role became more specialized. The last Harrier squadron in the RAF was disbanded in 2010, marking the end of the Harrier's service with the British military.

The focus of this book is on combat operations. Starting with Northern Iraq, enforcing no-fly zones after the First Gulf War. My main interest was in the next chapter on operations in Bosnia, including Operation Deliberate Force. The Harrier was deployed to enforce a no-fly zone based in Italy. They practised mountain flying in Wales and Scotland, and I can recall seeing a flight of them practising as I was hill walking at the time. You get a description of the operations and the weaponry used, but the strength of this book is the interviews with pilots who fly the missions. These included attacks on Bosnian Serb ammunition stores near Pale, which were used to shell Sarajevo. They often flew in partnership with Jaguar strike aircraft, with the Harriers acting as lookouts in challenging weather.

After Bosnia, they deployed for operations in Kosovo. These included attacks in Serbia and Kosovo, although some operations were called off due to bad weather. There was some media criticism of the failure to hit targets, but these often ignored the strict rules of engagement. After the Serbian Air Force was degraded, the Harriers still faced threats from SAM batteries. They also worked with A10 squadrons to spot and attack ground targets. The Harriet detachment flew 870 sorties during Operation Endgame. 

In 2003, it was back in Iraq, although this time, it was flying out of bases in Kuwait rather than Turkey. They supported the main coalition advance on Baghdad, attacking Iraqi supply routes. The final chapter covers operations in Afghanistan and the British responsibilities during Operation Herrick, based in Kandahar. 

As usual with this series, the book is profusely illustrated, including colour plates of the aircraft with modifications for each theatre of operations. This study will appeal to plane buffs, but the operational narrative will widen its appeal. 

Sunday 17 December 2023

The Bookseller of Inverness

 This book by S. G. MacLean is different from my usual historical fiction fare; Bernard Cornwell is more my typical genre. However, this caught my eye as Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year. A highly deserved award, in my view.

The story occurs six years after the 1745 rebellion and the Jacobites' defeat at Culloden, near Inverness. Most of the Jacobite troops and many innocent civilians were killed, injured, raped or made homeless as Butcher Cumberland and his ill-disciplined troops ravaged the Highlands. The story is focused around Iain MacGillivray, who was left for dead on the battlefield, surviving only by pretending to be dead as the Redcoats patrolled the corpses of his Jacobite comrades. He was captured and transported, eventually working his way back to Inverness.

He runs a small bookshop and binding business in Inverness. The town is divided between those who supported the Jacobites in one or all the rebellions and those who supported the government. I should emphasise the word government for those unfamiliar with the period, not the English. Even the Highlands were divided in their allegiances. Inverness was not the city it is today, but it was still occupied by government troops, many building roads intended to allow the army to move quickly across the region. They were also building Fort George (not finished until 1769), which is still used as a barracks by the British Army.

The story revolves around an old book that is used as a code for a list of traitors to the Jacobite cause. There are murders and plots, with the possibility of another rising of the clans in the background. I won't go further as it would spoil the story. The bookshop is loosely based on an Inverness institution, a large second-hand bookshop, Leakeys. The Highland Council and the district councils were part of my work patch in the 1990s, and I spent many hours and a lot of cash in that wonderful bookshop.

This is an outstanding story, skillfully told. Highly recommended.

Some of my 28mm Highlanders of the period.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

In praise of Napoleonic engineers

 A group of us have been playing a scenario from the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12. Many of the battles in this conflict involved armies crossing the Danube and the other side responding. Alternatively, having to support a garrison on the 'wrong' side of the river. We fought a typical scenario of the Russians crossing to threaten an Ottoman fortress and the Ottomans responding. 

We played it in 15mm using Blucher rules, and a good couple of days of gaming was had by all. However, it got me thinking these actions were only possible because of the engineers on both sides. Not just the fortresses and siege works but also the crossing of the Danube itself. These are units you rarely see in a Napoleonic wargame. 

The Ottomans had the Lagimci Ocagi who undertook field works, fortifications and siege operations. They were traditionally associated with the Mortar Corps but had their own specialist schools. In 1774, Baron de Tott established a military engineering section specialising in pontoon bridges. They were recruited from traditional related trades and geographically, mainly from Albania and Bosnia. The schools taught mathematics and surveying and translated European technical works. There does not appear to have been a standard uniform or even the same headgear. Chris Flaherty has three colour plates in his book, and David Nicolle has one in the Osprey. The Ottoman engineer Selim Efendi trialled balloons for military purposes. These included sending messages into besieged forts. I may dust down my 28mm balloon!

French military missions included engineering experts. De Lafitte, Monnier, and Mehmed a Prussian convert, established the School of Fortification with the intention of training engineer officers expert in siege techniques and fortification. The total number of students was at most fifteen, but courses were open to whoever desired to attend. An Arabic script press was set up in the French Embassy and two major textbooks were printed. Kahraman ┼×akul has written a helpful paper on Ottoman military engineering, which can be downloaded here.

Russian engineers were an offshoot of the foot artillery and wore similar uniforms with white buttons. There is a colour plate in the Osprey of a Pontonier of a pontoon regiment. The first engineering schools were created in 1708 in Moscow and then in March 1719 in St. Petersburg. The term of study at these schools ranged from 5 to 12 years. Each army would have a Chief of Engineers to provide the specialist expertise. A Russian pioneer regiment consisted of two battalions, each of one miner and three pioneer companies. By 1806 this has expanded to two three-battalion regiments and a sapper regiment was organised in 1812.

For the Danube campaigns in particular, we should remember the role played by the river fleets. They defended bridges and transported troops. The Ottomans organised their river fleets (ince donanma) into flotillas of 10 or 12 light galleys and gunboats. They also had river transport ships called schaicks, large enough to transport troops and artillery. Ottoman naval tactics emphasised manpower rather than firepower. Emir Yener's work on the Ottoman Navy is a recommended read (Yener, E., Ottoman Seapower and Naval Technology during Catherine II’s Turkish Wars 1768-1792 (International Naval Journal, 2016, Vol. 9, Issue 1).

There are a few figure ranges that do engineer models. Minfigs used to do a Russian model in 15mm, although I can't find it in the current range. However, foot artillery figures and drivers with wagons would do fine. For the Ottomans artillery crew would again do the job. 

I suspect that other than specific scenarios, most of us treat engineering tasks as pre-battle activities. This is a practical way of dealing with the issue but we shouldn't forget the important role they played in warfare of the period.

Some of my 28mm Ottoman artillery. These are probably a little early for the period in discussion.

Thursday 7 December 2023

The Captive Crown

 This is the final book in Nigel Tranter's trilogy about the early Stewart kings. Robert III is still on the throne, although the actual rule remains in the hands of his brother Robert, Duke of Albany. Our hero, Sir James Douglas, is forced to head north to the Highland fortresses controlled by his friend Alexander Stewart after being falsely blamed for fleeing the battlefield of Homildon Hill. 

The likely murder of his son David in the last book by Albany put a little steel into King Robert. Some action in the form of confirming the Earldom of Mar on Alexander Stewart was probably more of a deliberate reassertion of power than it is portrayed by Tranter. The King also sent his second son, James (future James I), to St Andrew's for protection. He also actively arranged to send him to France, but the English King Henry IV had his ship captured. This left Albany in control of Scotland after Robert III died in 1406.

Both Robert II and III used Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire as their favourite home. This is my local castle, and my favourite local walk is from the castle to the coast down what is today called the smuggler's trail

There is a substantial overlap with Tranter's book, Lion Let Loose, which looks at the story through the lens of James I. However, this book follows events in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. The two stories do touch when our hero is part of an embassy to England to secure James' release and a diplomatic jaunt to France to seek the French King's assistance. However, Charles VI was insane, and the French court was riven with a power struggle.

Back in Scotland, Donald Lord of the Isles is building his strength for at least a land grab in the far north and possibly the crown itself. This forces Albany to come to terms with Alexander Stewart, who allied with Albany's son John as the only force capable of resisting Donald. Henry IV stood ready to invade from the south if Donald made progress.

This leads to the book's conclusion at the Battle of Harlaw 1411, known as Red Harlaw, due to the losses on both sides. Tranter exaggerated the size of Donald's army, which was probably around 9,000 men, still outnumbering the lowland forces led by Alexander Stewart, sagely advised by our hero. The battle itself was a hard-fought draw, although Donald withdrew. It was the last significant attempt by the Highland clans to control Scotland until Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in 1745.

The lowland schiltrons that faced the Islesmen in 28mm.

Typical axe-armed Islesmen with the distinctive Lord of Isles flag.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Lancashire Infantry Museum

On Saturday, I was heading south to Liverpool for the footie at Anfield on Sunday. My original plan was to walk in the Lake District, but the weather changed. Fell walking in snow and sleet is no fun! Looking for an alternative, I realised I had never visited the regimental museum of the Lancashire Regiments, based in Preston. The museum is on an army base (Fulwood Barracks), so you must book in advance, with the usual security checks.

This small museum covers the many regiments that finally merged into the current Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. From the late 17th century, these regiments fought in just about every conflict the British army was involved in. The barracks is a listed building and interesting in its own right. A member of staff/volunteer takes visitors around. Mine was very knowledgeable and helpful in tracking down my questions about the Balkan links. 

Pride of place in the museum goes to the Eagle captured at Salamanca, along with a fine collection of Napoleonic memorabilia. 

 They have a few items from the Seven Years War and a good collection of Crimean War exhibits.

All the Lancashire regiments sent a battalion to Macedonia in WW1. They also landed at Gallipoli, where a beach is named after them. The museum also has a WW1 German HMG and the first German anti-tank rifle. You could get a severe shoulder injury firing this beast.

You can also access the regimental chapel from the museum.

The tour takes about an hour, and the barracks are only a short detour off the M6. Well worth a look. 

Saturday 2 December 2023

US Navy Gun Destroyers 1948-1988

 This is a new Osprey Vanguard book by Mark Stille looking at the post-war gun US destroyers before the missile became the primary weapon system for this class of surface warship. They are the forgotten warships of the Cold War, as most were built in WW2 and at least partially modernised to meet new threats. Even after leaving USN service, the Fletcher, Sumner, and Gearing classes continued serving worldwide in many foreign navies. My particular interest is in the ships that transferred to the Turkish and Hellenic navies.

The Fletcher class was the most successful, with 175 built. They had adequate room to retain a main battery of five 5in guns and ten torpedo tubes and accept an increase in 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Most were deactivated after WW2 but brought back and modernised after Korea. Successor to the Fletcher class was the Sumner–Gearing class. The Sumner class kept the same dimensions as the Fletcher class but possessed a slightly larger beam. This allowed the fitting of a heavier main battery arranged in triple twin gun turrets. 58 of these warships were built as an interim design. The ultimate USN World War II destroyer design was the Gearing class. These were simply Sumner-class units with the addition of a 14ft section, used primarily for fuel bunkerage. 98 Gearings were built, and they operated into the 1980s. The Forrest Sherman class was the last USN all-gun destroyer, and many were converted into missile destroyers during the late 1960s. They were faster with better seakeeping qualities.

By the late 1950s. Many ships had been in constant service since 1945. Cost precluded replacements, so the USN rebuilt many of them, mostly Sumner and Gearing classes, to extend their service lives. This became the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program. FRAM I work focused on the Gearings, improving the ships’ ASW capabilities – two Mk 32 triple torpedo launchers were added along with an ASROC launcher and other electronic ASW equipment. FRAM II focused on the Sumners with similar ASW upgrades but without the ASROC launcher because they didn't have space being shorter ships.

These ships fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Several also took part in the Cuba blockade and the intervention in Lebanon. During the early phases of the Cold War, carrier escort duties were performed predominantly by the gun destroyers built during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There was no real surface fleet threat, so they focused on anti-submarine and anti-aircraft warfare. However, their main fighting role remained shore bombardment.

Five Fletcher Class destroyers transferred to Turkey in the late 1960s and served until the 1980s. Two Sumners transferred in the early 1970s, just before the Cyprus conflict, and these served into the 1990s. Ten Gearings came to Turkey during the 1970s and early 1980s. This included the TCG Kocatepe (D-354), which was sunk by friendly fire in 1974 off Cyprus. The friendly fire incident occurred because the Hellenic Navy also received the same class of ships. These included six Fletchers and eight Gearings. Most of these ships served until the 1990s.

This book covers all the gun destroyers built for the US Navy. It describes each class and their armament and roles. It doesn't cover their service in other navies, which is a shame, but I suspect space constraints are the main reason. As expected in this series, it is profusely illustrated with drawings and colour plates. 

My Turkish fleet in 1/3000 for the Cyprus conflict includes Gearing and Fletcher classes.

And the matching Hellenic fleet for 'what-if' actions.