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

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Sailors, Ships and Sea Fights

 This book, edited by Nicholas James Kaizer, contains the proceedings from Helion's 2022 Naval History Conference. There are 14 papers organised into three sections. Naval operations in Europe and North America and naval administration.

There is a lot of specialised content in this book, and inevitably, some I found more valuable than others. The first chapter on Venetian vessels in the Second Morean War describes how the Venetians moved from a galley to a sailing fleet. We tend to think of galleys when considering the Venetian fleet, but the Republic was the first Italian power to develop shipbuilding focused on large warships. By the time of the Second Morean War, the Ottomans were doing likewise, and this chapter discusses how both sides developed their tactics. 

French and Spanish support for the 1745 Jacobite uprising covered the various efforts to get troops and supplies past the Royal Navy and into Scotland. I covered one of these, Kyle of Tongue, in a recent post about a game. I thought the French were not particularly successful, but the author's statistics show a 48% delivery rate. It was not great, but it was better than I thought.

The section on North America is not an interest of mine. However, the War of 1812 is, and the Editor's own chapter analyses ship-to-ship combats, addressing the perceived wisdom that US victories were almost always unequal fights. He examines three actions involving the Royal Navy sloops: Peacock, Boxer and Epervier. These actions highlight that some of the Royal Navy commanders during this conflict were the worst put to sea for the Royal Navy.

I didn't think I would find much interest in the final section on naval administration. However, the chapter on the reforms introduced by Anson (1751-1762) is fascinating. I will incorporate some of the analysis in my current writing project about HMS Ambuscade, as the first ship of that name was captured from the French and the design used to develop Royal Navy frigate design. Few Admirals successfully carried off political and naval careers, but Anson did. He deserves greater attention. 

Other chapters in this section deal with myths about conditions aboard ships and recruitment to the Royal Navy. Despite the desperate need for sailors at the outbreak of war, forced impressment was not as significant as many think. Jim Tildesley has examined how one British Consul recruited for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Again, this will all add colour to my chapter on the period.

I suspect this book will be most interesting to those with a specialist interest in naval history. However, the two sections on operations still provide plenty of sea fights to keep others interested. I am writing a chapter for the next book in this series on amphibious warfare in the Adriatic. That should be published at this time next year.

I must try and play more Black Seas!

Sunday 28 January 2024

Port Arthur 1904-5

 This is the latest in the Osprey Campaign series by Robert Forczyk, covering the Japanese siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. I have a soft spot for this conflict after watching the TV series Reilly Ace of Spies and reading Dennis Warner's study of the campaign, A Tide at Sunrise. A more recent study and probably easier to source is Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear by Richard Connaughton. There is also a valuable Osprey essential histories on the conflict.

This book follows the standard format for this series, with chapters on the background of the campaign, the opposing forces and their commanders, and then the campaign itself. All are profusely illustrated with excellent maps and colour plates. As an avid battlefield visitor, I also like the chapter on the battlefield today in this series, even if, in this case, I am not likely to make the trip. Port Arthur is now known as L├╝shunkou District in the People’s Republic of China. In the century since the Russo-Japanese War, the city’s population has expanded more than twelve-fold and urban sprawl has covered up much of the battlefields of 1904.

As a port siege, the Japanese Navy under Admiral Togo played a vital role in the operations. However, Togo is remembered for what he did right at the Battle of Tsushima, not for what he did wrong at Port Arthur. The main Japanese army commander was General Nogi Maresuke. Nogi was unimaginative and possessed only rudimentary military skills. He was a firm believer in frontal attacks and, therefore, profligate in expending the lives of his troops and unable to grasp modern warfare. The Russian fortress commander was General-leytenant Anatoli M. Stoessel, commander of the III Siberian Army Corps. Stoessel was a nobleman of ethnic German lineage. He had a reasonably distinguished record as an infantry officer but no real experience with independent command, nor had he led any formation larger than a regiment. The bottom line was that commanders on both sides were ill-equipped for what the author describes as the first modern siege.

The campaign began with a Japanese naval attack on the Russian fleet which inflicted significant damage,  but failed to achieve the predicted knock-out blow, and Togo was now forced to shift to a distant blockade. The siege began in ernest in May1904, when Japanese forces launched an assault on Port Arthur. Attacks were often poorly coordinated with the navy and the Russian defenders put up a staunch resistance with both sides suffering heavy casualties. The Japanese employed various strategies, including tunneling and mine warfare, to breach the fortifications. After months of bitter fighting, and the Russian defeat at Liaoyang meant no relief operation by land could be expected until the spring, Port Arthur fell to the Japanese on January 2, 1905. The eight-month-long campaign cost Nogi’s Third Army approximately 59,400 casualties (including 15,400 dead), equivalent to almost 40 per cent of the troops allocated to the operation. The Russians suffered roughly 30,000 casualties including about 16,000 dead.

The capture of Port Arthur was a significant victory for Japan and had a profound impact on the course of the Russo-Japanese War. The war ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905, mediated by the United States, which recognized Japan's influence in Korea and its control over southern Manchuria. The war also contributed to the political collapse of Imperial Russia 12 years later.

Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff map of the siege

I have Russian and Japanese armies in 15mm for this war, and my favoured rules are Bloody Big Battles. Sieges are challenging to replicate on the tabletop, but there are preliminary moves and the defence of the outer lines that could be refought easily. There are naval clashes with manageable numbers of ships and sailors also fought on land as naval infantry and gunners.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Napoleon's Spy

 Ben Kane is better known for writing ancient historical fiction, mainly about the Romans. In this book, he has sortied into the Napoleonic Wars and the 1812 Russian campaign.

The main character is something of an anti-hero. His parents are British and French, living in England. He is a gambling addict, and his father eventually stops paying his debts. This leads him to try his luck at the lucrative, if risky, business of helping French PoWs escape back to France. It doesn't go too well, and he ends up penniless again with a relative in Paris. As you might expect, he again falls into debt after gambling and is blackmailed by the British to spy for them in the Russian campaign. The book's title is misleading as he certainly isn't spying for Napoleon. 

The bulk of the book is focused on the Russian campaign, which he participates in as an Imperial messenger. His spying contribution is minimal, but he is at most of the significant events of that ill-fated campaign. The author has used the many memoirs of the terrible retreat to help him tell the story. This really is a case of history being more horrific than fiction. 

The description of the retreat is relentless and probably not the best choice for my bedtime reading! However, Kane is an excellent writer, and the story is well told. It is a Sunday Times bestseller for good reason.

Some of my 15mm French fighting off Russian Cossacks

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Crown, Covenant and Cromwell

 My library pick this month was Stuart Reid's study of the civil wars in Scotland 1639-51. It fits perfectly into my new wargames project, building the Scottish armies for these conflicts in 15mm. Mainly for the To the Strongest derivative, For King and Parliament, but I will also play Pikeman's Lament and Pike and Shotte. I am looking forward to the TtS! supplement on Montrose, due out later this month.

This is unabashed military history; as Stuart says, 'Historians sometimes seem to regard battles a rather too exciting to be a respectable field of study.' It also covers all of the wars of the period. I have several books on Montrose's campaigns and a few on the others, but this book covers the lot and gives the reader a sense of how the armies developed and adapted to war in England and Scotland. The only omission is the war in Ireland, which included Scottish troops, and that also has a TtS! supplement coming out soon.

Stuart starts with an introduction to Scotland of the period and how Scots armies were raised and armed. The basic structure of an infantry unit was similar to other Civil War units, although they looked different with the distinctive blue bonnet. One detail I had yet to appreciate was the large number of flags a regiment would have, one per company. Wargamers need no encouragement to follow this! The cavalry included lancers, which had gone out of fashion elsewhere, and Highlanders.

Then we get into the little known Bishops' Wars. This involved Charles I attempting to enforce his religious reforms on the Scots. Spoiler alert: it didn't go well. This also covered the development of the Covenant and the Covenanters as a political and religious force. I live in the homeland of the Covenanters in Ayrshire.

The Civil War in England saw a Scottish army move south to support the Parliamentary cause. Most famously at Marston Moor, and he also covers the less well-known Northumberland campaign. Stuart downgrades the size of this army from traditional estimates, something which becomes a theme in the book - closer to 14,000 than 22,000. While the main Scots army was in England, Montrose raised the King's Standard in Scotland and fought his famous campaign. His army fluctuated considerably, with units leaving him at crucial moments, including the very effective Irish under Alasdair MacColla. Montrose was an excellent battlefield commander, but his diplomatic skills needed improvement. Stuart also wrote the Osprey Campaign book on this campaign, focusing on the Battle of Auldearn in 1645. 

The Scots recognised Charles II after the regicide, resulting in a falling out with Parliament. The early stages of the campaign went well until the army moved south. The promised Royalist uprising didn't fully materialise, and that led to the defeat at Preston. Cromwell's invasion of Scotland initially struggled. The Scots held strong positions and cut his supply lines. It all went wrong at Dunbar, but there are other interesting battles. Inverkeithing in particular. It ended badly again with another sortie down south and the Battle of Worcester.

This is an excellent and very readable account of the period. You can pick it up cheaply on Kindle; the maps and illustrations are small enough to work in that format. 

I have finished the first Covenanter cavalry units. These are Essex miniatures. Infantry next.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Frontier Sea Scenario: The Supply Convoy

For today's game we tested a wargaming scenario to go with my book, The Frontier Sea: The Napoleonic Wars in the Adriatic. It is designed to refight a typical small-scale action of the period.

The French Illyrian Provinces ran down the Dalmatian coast in modern-day Croatia and Montenegro. The towns were linked by a coast road, which runs pretty much along the same route as modern tourists travel down every summer. Where practicable, it hugs the coast, constrained by the mountains behind.

Transport between the towns was traditionally undertaken by small boats called Trabaccolos, as the roads were poor and prey to bandits. The French governor, Marshall Marmont, introduced a road building programme to improve them, primarily so supply convoys could move between his coastal forts. The French also moved supplies by sea, although the Royal Navy frequently intercepted these convoys and captured the supplies. 

In response to the French using the land route, the Royal Navy frequently landed raiding parties on the coast using ships boats. They would either land directly when they spotted a convoy or land beforehand and ambush the convoy. The French were forced to strengthen the convoy escort. The Royal Navy became so skilled at this operation that many supply convoys had to be diverted inland, a longer and more expensive process, which was also more susceptible to bandit attacks.

In this scenario, a strong French convoy is making its way down the coast with the intention of stopping for lunch at the next village. It is spotted by the Royal Navy frigate, which dispatches boats with sailors, marines and infantry from the 35th Foot. The British objective is simple: capture the convoy. The French have to fight them off. We used the Osprey rules, Rebels & Patriots, which are ideal for this type of skirmish game. Sharp Practice would work equally well. We used 28mm figures from various ranges. Here is the force list:

We played twice with the British winning the first time and the French the second. The French have the numbers, but the British have better quality troops.

Friday 19 January 2024

The War of 1812

 This is the latest in the Osprey Essential Histories series covering the war between Britain and the USA in 1812. Having been lucky enough to have visited the Niagara battlefields a few years ago, I am always attracted to books on the subject. This isn't a new book as such. It is an updated and enlarged version of the 2002 Osprey book to reflect more recent research. Osprey do a couple of other books on this war, including Niagara 1814, which was very useful for my trip.

The War of 1812, fought between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1815, stemmed from various grievances, including British impressment of American sailors, trade restrictions, and support for Native American resistance. Early military campaigns saw mixed success for the U.S., with failed invasions of Canada offset by naval victories. The conflict escalated with the burning of Washington, D.C., in 1814 (famously blamed by Trump on Canada!). Despite signing the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, news of the peace reached the combatants after the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. The war had a lasting impact on American nationalism, weakening Native American resistance and contributing to westward expansion. The Treaty of Ghent restored pre-war borders but did not address critical issues. The war is often overshadowed by other conflicts but played a vital role in shaping American identity and diplomatic relations.

In this introduction to the conflict, we get an explanation of the causes of the war and the forces available to both sides. The key battleground was Canada, which the U.S. forces invaded in several places. Visitors to Niagara Falls often miss the forts and battlefields that are well preserved. The war was fought on land and sea as the Great Lakes dotted the border. The armies were primarily made up of militia stiffened with units of regulars. The added interest is the inclusion of Native Americans, or the First Nation as they are referred to in Canada, who primarily fought with the British.

The meat of the book is a description of the campaigns. As the British were busy fighting Napoleon, the USA thought the invasion of Canada would be straightforward. There were good reasons for American confidence. British North America’s population was 500,000, compared to 7.7 million in the United States. It didn't turn out that way for various reasons explained in the book. 

As expected, the book is profusely illustrated with period pictures and clear maps. This is an excellent campaign for the wargamer as the armies were not large, and the fleet actions can be replayed with rules like Black Seas. The naval actions on the lakes involve smaller ships. I have replayed the land actions using Blucher, Lasalle2 and Rebels & Patriots, after building modest armies in 15mm.

This is an excellent introduction to an often forgotten conflict that has attracted new interest in recent years.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Price of a Princess

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter project. It's a slim volume, and frankly a slim story, during the period when James III (1460-88) was a child king. The story is told through his sister, the Princess Mary.

James II died when a cannon exploded during a siege, leaving a child king, which is never a good thing in a medieval state, and certainly not in Scotland. The story begins after the death of the Queen Regent when Lord Boyd of Kilmarnock grabbed the King and held him at Edinburgh Castle. He and his supporters had their coup confirmed by Parliament with the young King (he was 14) present. Lord Boyd was declared governor and ruled Scotland.

The Boyds were not one of the ancient families, elevated to the nobility from a merchant family. Their main fortress was Dean Castle in Kilmarnock, just up the road from me and recently renovated.

This was one factor in their rule being resented, although the evidence would suggest they were as competent as any other. Marrying his son off to Princess Mary was also resented by the Earls. Princesses of the period were typically used to cement alliances abroad. Tranter portrays this as a love match, which may be a bit of poetic licence!

The highlight of the period was securing a marriage for James III to Princess Margaret of Denmark. The book devotes several chapters to the embassy that achieved this. The critical factor was that because King Christian couldn't find the dowry, Scotland got Shetland and Orkney instead. 

Despite this, another coup was in the making. Tranter takes a slightly different take on how it all worked out, but I won't spoil the ending.

This is not one of Tranter's most gripping novels. With the Wars of the Roses going on, the English were distracted, so there was less military action.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Hot Skies of the Cold War

This a study by Alexander Mladenov and Evgeni Andonov of the Bulgarian Air Force in the 1950s, in the Helion Books Europe@War series. 

Primarily because it didn't join the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian Air Force didn't get a lot of German aircraft during WW2  That changed somewhat when the Allies started flying over Bulgaria to bomb the Romanian oilfields, but they were still the poor relations  Post-war in the Soviet sphere of influence, Bulgaria was on the Cold War frontline, facing NATO, including Greece and Turkey.

The first Bulgarian jet fighter was the Yak-23, a plane I have to admit never having heard of. 120 were delivered, along with 16 twin-seat trainers  I have visited the Bulgarian Air Museum at Plovdiv, but I don't recall seeing the Bulgarian version of this aircraft there. Bulgarian pilots liked this aircraft finding it efficient and safe.

In 1951 the first Mig-15s arrived. More difficult to master but a much higher combat potential. 160 of these fighters joined the Bulgarian Air For e and was the backbone of the force in the 1950s. It was followed by the Mig-17 which equipped about half the fighter squadrons between 1955 and 1960. 

The operations described in the book are a little thin. The Greek border was particularly sensitive even after the Greek Civil War. For example, in 1949 there were 107 incursions by Greek aircraft. This was followed by CIA intrusions carrying out projects aimed at destablising the Bulgarian and Romanian regimes. Although the Turkish government eventually refused to allow bases on their territory. Later in the period the CIA sent spy balloons which at least provided a target for pilots to shoot down!

Perhaps better known was the downing of El Al flight L-149 in 1955 by a Bulgarian plane with 58 people aboard. The airliner had crossed into Bulgarian airspace, although the length of the incursion was contested. The authors had access to classified papers and attempt to reconstruct the sequence of events. Even today several serious questions remain unanswered. Why did experienced Israeli pilots in predictable weather conditions deviate so far from their route? The young and inexperienced Bulgarian pilots had little understanding of commercial airlines, but the markings on the plane were easily identified.

Writing about military history is challenging when there was little actual fighting, and the operations were limited.  However, I am a growing fan of early jet fighters, drawn in by my book on the Cyprus conflict and the Korean War. This book is primarily aimed at plane enthusiasts, but I can also see some interesting what-ifs gracing my wargames table.

This Blood Red Skies Korean War box could be converted with different decals.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

The Amur River

My library pick last month and Xmas reading was Colin Thubron's travelogue, The Amur River. This is the border between Russia and China, and it has a fascinating history. However, I don't think the Amur River Tourist Board, if there is such a thing, will be ordering many copies. He doesn't exactly sell it as a tourist destination.

The Amur River (called Heilongjiang (Black Dragon) River in China) is one of the longest rivers in the world, flowing through Northeast Asia. It serves as a natural border between Russia and China. The river begins in Mongolia (although this is contested) and flows eastward, forming the boundary between Russia's Far East and northeastern China before emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean. 

Colin starts on horseback in Mongolia near the Mongolian royalty burial grounds. Most tourists would have called it a day as he falls off his pony, breaking his ankle and ribs. However, our intrepid travel writer continues using more modern transport for the rest of the journey. As he enters Russia, this is Siberia, a territory of many conflicts with China. So much so that almost no bridges cross the river boundary. The Russians colonised this region in the 17th century, sending cossacks and other freebooters to the river, massacring the native tribes as they went. The Manchu dynasty eventually lost patience and attacked the cossack forts before both countries signed a peace treaty in 1689.

On the way, Colin visits the remains of old fortresses and the local museums. The curators were understandably surprised to see a foreign visitor. The 19th century saw renewed Russian efforts to develop the region, taking advantage of Chinese weakness. This was the period of one of Britain's most disgraceful colonial conflicts, the Opium War, so the Russians were not alone. Count Muraviev-Amursky, the Russian governor, persuaded the Tsar that the river had strategic value. He assembled a force of cossacks and a mile-long flotilla of armed barges to control the river. The subsequent 1858 Treaty gave Russia control of the lands north of the river, but the cossack settlements seldom flourished. The Soviets also had a go at it, but with no more success. 

Khabarovsk is the largest city, and trade with China is primarily illicit. The Chinese find ways around trade restrictions and ownership rules, primarily by adopting a token Russian partner. There are significant memorials along the river to the dead of the wars—some to the early cossacks, but also to the conflict with Japan in 1945. The Nomonhan Incident in 1939 was on the Khalkha River, which is in the Amur Basin. I collected the armies for this a few years back. The region was also home to several Soviet-era Gulags, and the author visits the mass grave of 12,000 people killed during the years of Stalin's anarchy. Japanese prisoners of war died in much larger numbers after 1945. probably as many as 62,000 in the work camps.

The Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 nearly sparked a nuclear exchange, fought over islands in the river that have no economic or strategic value. There is a detailed study of the conflict in the Helion Asia@War series. It is still home to significant armament factories, including where the SU-27 is built. There is a museum at the Amur Shipbuilding Plant, although the Soviet Pacific Fleet had long moved to Vladivostok.

This book is not a cheery read. Apart from the history, the lives of people in this sparsely populated region are tough by any standard. The scenery is unspectacular, if not dreary. However, it is an intrepid travel story, well told. 

One of my Nomonhan games in 15mm

Monday 1 January 2024

Happy New Year!

 Here is wishing everyone a Happy New Year! A serious celebration here in Scotland, so serious that we get two public holidays to recover. Having made a serious dent in a bottle of 'Old Pulteney' whisky last night (a present for doing an after-dinner speech for a pal), my morning bike ride along the seafront has cleared my head for planning the coming year. 

2023 was productive. I had four books published, although this somewhat exaggerates my productivity as two were written mainly in the preceding years. The Frontier Sea appears to have been a popular Xmas present, not just for my family! It even sold a dozen copies in Japan. 

I am contracted to write or co-write four more books in 2024. There will be two more volumes on the Cyprus conflict and a chapter in a book on amphibious warfare during the Napoleonic Wars. My current focus is on my history of HMS Ambuscade, and I wrote the WW1 chapter over the holiday period. We hope to bring the last ship of that name, a Falklands War veteran Type 21 frigate, back to the Clyde this year. I also kept up this blog with an average of two posts per week. And a few journal and wargame magazine articles.

On the wargame front, I managed to finish the projects I had planned and a few I hadn't. The Almughavars and The Catalan Company in 28mm, more planes for Blood Red Skies, Cyprus in 20mm, Korean War (Turkish Brigade) in 10mm, What a Cowboy in 28mm, 2mm ancients for Strength & Honour and Napoleonic Adriatic in 28mm (mostly Austrians). I ran three participation games at the Carronade, Claymore and Targe shows. Two of these used the Adriatic harbour baseboards I built, featured in Wargames Illustrated and an architect's journal. 

For the coming year, I have been rebasing my 15mm Napoleonic irregulars from the old PoW bases. When I finish the Ottomans, I plan to return to Lasalle2. I have some WW1 ships on the painting table and later Ambuscade models to accompany the book. The Cyprus books will drive more figures for the conflict, including three aircraft kits I got for Xmas. 

There are a few more units planned for Strength & Honour. I plan to stretch my Adriatic project to the Russo-Turkish War with 28mm cossacks and Potemkin Russians. My Tranter re-reading project will spark some Scottish projects with Montrose on the radar, Covenanters in 15mm, and more Border Wars. The Indo-Pakistan conflict was one project I could have made more progress on last year. Recent reading has revived my interest in this. I would also like to start an imaginations campaign, with a book on Ruritania staring at me from the desk. I'm sure my reading and new rules will spark other projects, but that looks like plenty to be going on with.

No overseas trips are planned yet, but they will happen. I must get to the National Archives and Greenwich early in the New Year. I will undoubtedly be at the York show, which ties in nicely with a Fulham away game, and probably Salute. I enjoyed my visits to the Newark shows this year and will make a return to at least one of them.

My reading pile looks ominous, particularly those requiring time-consuming translations like these, which arrived last week. I managed over 50 book reviews last year, with an increasing number in electronic format, which helps with domestic harmony!

My day job is pretty busy early in the New Year. I took over a new role as Director of a Scottish Think Tank last year, and although part-time, it is still likely to eat into hobby time. Such is life. I hope everyone had a good New Year, and I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2024.