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 24 February 2024

Maverick Spy

 My library pick this month was a spy story with a difference. It is Hamish MacGibbon's take on his father James' spying activities in WW2. He was a British intelligence officer who confessed on his deathbed that he leaked details of Allied intelligence to the Soviets.

James MacGibbon was born in Glasgow, the youngest son of Rev James MacGibbon, minister of Glasgow Cathedral. He was educated at Fettes College, a traditional English public school, even if based in Edinburgh. He doesn't appear to have been politically active in his youth, and his middle-class background was not typical of Glasgow communists of the period. However, like many of his era, he was horrified by the Spanish Civil War and his contact with Nazi Germany working in the publishing industry.

He joined the Communist Party with his wife, Jean, in 1937. At the outbreak of war, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was posted to the Intelligence Corps due to his fluency in German. In the spring of 1941, he was posted to the War Office in MO3 (Military Operations, Section 3). In June 1944, he was posted to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington. In these roles, he had access to many Allied plans and intelligence of German plans. The Allies did not always share the details of their knowledge with the Soviets, partly because liaison officers were politically hostile to the Soviets and partly because they wanted to protect the existence of ULTRA. 

James was particularly outraged at not sharing the German order of battle, which would be of critical value to the Soviets when they were incurring massive losses. He, therefore, made contact with the Soviet Embassy and began sharing this intelligence. His codename was 'Dolly' and later 'Milord', and he was run by the GRU, while another British spy, John Caincross (Cambridge Five), was handled by the NVKD. It is clear from Soviet intelligence archives that his reports were seen by Stalin and his close circle and were highly valued. His leaking of the Overlord plans had the positive effect of convincing Stalin that the Allies were serious at the Tehran conference. Bizarrely, the closest these plans came to being leaked to the Germans was due to the lax security in the British embassy in Ankara (Cicero). 

James MacGibbon rejoined the Communist Party after the war when he returned to publishing. His house was bugged, and he was interrogated by MI5. However, he didn't spy for the Soviets despite approaches and wouldn't have had anything worthwhile to send anyway. He kept the secret until his deathbed.

While technically treasonous, James believed his espionage was the act of a British patriot. A view his son shares. I may have done the same (perhaps not Overlord plans but probably the ORBATS), but others will disagree. The book has a lot about his personal life and the whole back story, which pads the story from what could be told in an article. However, you can skip through that to get to the meat of the story.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Zeebrugge 1918: The Greatest Raid of All

 I came across the Zeebrugge raid in my research for the Ambuscade book and the role of the Dover Patrol in WW1. While HMS Ambuscade didn't participate, I made a mental note to look further. At the York show, I picked up this book by Christopher Sandford on the subject from Dave Lanchester.

When we think of raids on occupied Europe, we gravitate to WW2 and the commandos. However, the Zeebrugge raid of April 1918 had many elements we would see in the later conflict and some of the same personalities.

The raid was a British-led naval operation aimed at blocking the German-held port of Bruges-Zeebrugge in Belgium. The port was a significant base for German U-boats that were wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, sinking two Allied ships a day on average. The raid involved a daring attempt to sink old ships at the harbour's entrance, blocking access to German submarines. The plan involved three old cruisers, HMS Thetis, HMS Intrepid, and HMS Iphigenia, packed with explosives and scuttled into the harbour entrance. Simultaneously, a diversionary attack was launched on the nearby port of Ostend to draw German forces away from Zeebrugge.

Sandford starts with the strategic background in the last year of the war. Zeebrugge was home to a force of 36 U-boats, which were causing heavy casualties to allied merchant shipping, despite the best efforts of the Dover Patrol to contain them, sinking six U-boats a month in the early months of 1918. Bombing the port wasn't an option because aircraft couldn't carry a heavy enough payload, and attempts to advance on land up the coast had failed. 

The defences of Zeebrugge were considerable. 232 guns protected the harbour, plus 128 machine gun nests, searchlights, and a garrison of around 700 men. Sea access was heavily mined, and heavy silt created natural defences. Sandford takes us through the options that the commander, Roger Keyes, considered and eventually got approval for. Back in the government, Churchill was also an enthusiastic supporter of the raid. He would recall Keyes to be the first Director of Combined Operations in June 1940.

Most of the book focuses on the raid itself in graphic detail, with many descriptions of outstanding bravery. Six VCs were awarded, some by unit ballot. This wasn't a clean commando raid, silent and violent. The cruiser, HMS Vindictive, carried most of the landing force of seamen and marines onto the mole. They suffered staggering casualties, yet amazingly, the ship managed to sail away. The mole itself probably saved the ship from a critical lower hit, but the superstructure was wrecked. 

Despite heavy casualties and the partial failure of some elements of the operation, the raid was ultimately considered a strategic success by the Royal Navy. While the harbour wasn't permanently sealed, it was sufficiently obstructed to disrupt U-boat operations temporarily and force the Germans to deploy additional resources to clear the blockage. Others regarded the achievements as modest for such casualties. Admiral Fisher was one critic, quoted as saying, 'No such folly was ever devised by fools as that at Zeebrugge.' If it was a failure, it was a classic British 'honourable' failure, which certainly raised morale at an important period in the war.

Although I am not beyond a bit of harbour building on the wargame table, Zeebrugge is beyond me. However, I have started a modest WW1 naval force and plan to refight some Dover Patrol actions. 

Next week, I am off to London for naval archival research at Greenwich and Kew. That may provide some further inspiration!

Monday 12 February 2024

Czechoslovak Armies 1939–45

I am a sucker for an obscure WW2 army, and this Osprey MAA by Nigel Thomas certainly meets that criteria. 

The author starts with the pre-war Czechoslovak Army, fatally undermined by the 1938 Munich agreement, stripping them of the Sudeten fortifications. They benefited from an advanced armaments industry, equipping the army with modern artillery, armoured cars and tanks. It was never tested other than a limited resistance to Hungary's invasion of Ruthenia. However, the Germans made extensive use of their equipment throughout the war. All the uniform details are here if you want to give this army a go for what-if scenarios.

After the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39, elements of the armed forces fought in Poland, and others emigrated to France. In France, they joined the Foreign Legion or the French Army. There was an 11,405-strong 1st Czechoslovak Inf Division, commanded by Brig-Gen Jan Kratochvíl. After the fall of France, some 3,500 troops evacuated to Britain. 

These forces and others served with the British Army in the Middle East, the Far East and NW Europe, mainly in British kit with a Czech flag on the helmet and shoulder flashes. There are the usual excellent colour plates. Aircrew served in the RAF, forming three fighter squadrons, a bomber, and a night fighter squadron.

Troops interned in the Soviet Union formed a battalion in the Red Army, growing to a corps of 16,000 men by 1944. They attempted to support the Slovak uprising in August 1944 but suffered heavy casualties at the Dukla Pass.

On the home front, various internal security units were created, although the Germans didn't trust them and were limited to guard duties. Resistance units started almost immediately and were supported by SOE. This included the famous Heydrich assassination and the destruction of the villages of Lidice and Ležák. The Russians and Americans converged on Prague, which was liberated by the Soviets in May 1945, supported by an uprising.

It wouldn't take much to add Czech units to your Allied or Soviet armies. I suspect the internal security and other exotic units might be a project too far for most.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Dudley Clarke - Seven Assignments

 Brigadier Dudley Clarke was one of the lesser-known but fascinating characters of WW2. I wrote about him in my book Chasing the Soft Underbelly because he was the head of 'A Force' in Cairo and was responsible for a wide range of deception operations and intelligence work in Turkey. He is less well-known mainly because he wasn't authorised to write about his work after WW2. The War Office believed that his operations were so successful that they might need to use them against the Soviets.

His work is touched on in other histories, and I read quite a bit in the National Archives. However, no memoir exists. Or so I thought. I was rummaging around in an old-school second-hand bookshop in Glasgow and came across a 1947 book by Clarke, Seven Assignments. I missed it in my research because it covers the early war period just before he arrived in Cairo on Wavell's staff. Coincidentally, catching up on We Have Ways podcasts coming back from York, James Holland discussed Clarke in an interview, and his guest mentioned this book.

The dust cover of my copy is a bit battered, but I got it at a very reasonable price when you look at what they are going for on Abe Books. A pristine copy is on sale for £650!

In his introduction to the book, Wavell hints at his later work when he says, 'I have always believed in doing everything possible in war to mystify and mislead one's opponent, and that I was right in judging that this was work for which Dudley Clarke's originality, ingenuity and somewhat impish sense of humour qualified him admirably.'

His first assignment was a traditional staff officer job in the Middle East, scouting an overland route from Mombasa to Cairo in case the Mediterranean route was blocked. This was a travelogue, so we will skip to his first trip to Norway. I have read about the ill-fated Norwegian campaign but haven't encountered Clarke's not-insignificant role. Somewhat typically, he stretched his liaison role to actually going to Norway with the initial landing force. He got involved with the retreat and worked with the Norwegian Army, meeting General Ruge. His descriptions of journeying around Norway in various vehicles are hair-raising. He was sent back later to help with the evacuation and was one of the last to get away.

The next stop was the France 1940 campaign, with a detour into an unnamed neutral country to meet sympathetic local officials. This was still obviously sensitive in 1947, and I assume it was Ireland. As troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, he came up with an idea of how to strike back with small-scale raids. He floated the idea with Sir John Dill, who gave him carte blanche to organise them. It was Clarke who came up with the name Commandos. He was born in South Africa and was well acquainted with the Boer War. The name was not well received in the War Office, but Churchill loved it. He went on the very first raid and was nearly killed, only being saved because the bullet deflected off his silver tobacco box. 

When Keyes took over special operations, he favoured large-scale raids like Zebrugge in WW1. Clarke disagreed and so was probably pleased when Wavell asked for him. This service led him to be responsible for naming the SAS as well. 

This is a fascinating tale about an interesting character. The Wiki page has more about his life and times, and if you can get a copy of this book from the library, I highly recommend it.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Vapnartak 2024

 The first major wargames show of the year in the UK is Vapnartak. It is held in the York racecourse stand, a surprisingly good venue. Spacious, plenty of natural light, decent catering and ample car parking, if a bit muddy in the rain. I made a weekend of it as my team played at Burnley on Saturday. 

The event is primarily a trade show with a limited array of games. I picked up some 28mm Napoleonic French line infantry (you can never have too many!), British Dragoon Guards, Wild West buildings, and books from the Bring and Buy. A few more books from Dave Lanchester's stall and a couple of packs of Black Scorpion Miniatures cowboys, which look fantastic. Along with paints, bases and other bits and bobs. 

As for games, there was one outstanding offer, Garibaldi and The Battle of Mentana 1867. For those following the Yarkshire Gamer's painting project on Twitter, this was the culmination of his efforts. 

There was a nice-looking Napoleonic naval game using the Lardie's Kiss Me Hardy rules.

I'm not into Pulp games, but these Venetian buildings from Sally 4th were excellent.

And that was about it. The rest were average or seen before.

A giant board game with some interesting what-if scenarios.

The clouds make Wings of War a bit more challenging.

This Star Wars game was at Partisan. That is an impressive bit of modelling.

Old School Warhammer, I think.

So, it was a good day out for buying stuff, but the games were mostly average. I like York though, and I always take advantage of every opportunity to visit the National Railway Museum before heading home.