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 29 June 2024

A Flame for the Fire

 The latest in my re-read of Nigel Tranter novels covers the same period, James IV, as the last book, Chain of Destiny. However, instead of telling the story through James' eyes, he returns to a typical Tranter method of telling the story through a figure close to the action. In this case, David, Master of Kennedy and later Earl of Cassillis. 

The timeline and even the basic story varies a bit from Chain of Destiny, although as they were written more than 30 years apart that is probably unsurprising. Flaming Janet Kennedy, is the sister of our hero, and gets more sympathetic treatment in this book as the King's mistress. James did clock up a few!

I have a close interest in the focus of this story as the Kennedy lands are just south of me in Ayrshire. The story starts in their main seat at Dunure Castle. You can visit the ruin today, appropriately situated in Kennedy Park. It is a ruin, fenced off for safety, but the cliff edge site gives you a flavour of what it would have looked like in its heyday. The little village and harbour is very pleasant with a pub and cafe and you can walk along the coastal path.

Our hero was based at Cassillis Castle, which he updated in the book and it became the main seat of the earldom, when James promoted him. The castle is more a country house today, having been modernised, although you can just about picture the medieval castle. Topically, it has just come on the property market. If you have a spare £3.95 million, it could be yours.

This isn't an all action adventure story. For most of the period Scotland was at peace, with the exception of internal revolts and some fights in the Highlands and Islands. What the book does give you is a picture of what a large landowner did in a period when new technologies, industry and farming techniques were being introduced. However, it does all come to a violent end, when David dies at Flodden with his king. 

Thursday 27 June 2024


 This is Anthony Bruce's new biography of Lord Anson, Admiral and Sea Lord in the mid-eighteenth century. This was a birthday present from my daughter. Yes, I have given up on subtle hints; URLs work better!

Anson was born on 23 April 1697 into a wealthy and influential family. He joined the Royal Navy at a young age, becoming a lieutenant by 1716. His most famous achievement was circumnavigating the globe from 1740 to 1744. This expedition was fraught with difficulties, including severe weather, scurvy, and conflicts with Spanish forces. Anson's fleet captured a Spanish treasure galleon near the Philippines in 1743, bringing a vast fortune back to England and significantly boosting British morale and naval prestige.

Anson's success led to his appointment to the Admiralty Board, where he played a crucial role in naval administration and strategy. He was instrumental in reforming the Royal Navy and improving training, discipline, and ship design. His efforts helped lay the groundwork for Britain's naval dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries. He served multiple terms as First Lord of the Admiralty as the political winds blew him in and out of office.

Bruce takes us through Anson's life and career chronologically. It wasn't a rapid rise to fame, as he spent 22 years since being appointed as a lieutenant in less than glamourous peacetime roles. He had influential patrons because most officers were on half-pay without ships. While he didn't invent the Western Squadron concept that pinned the French fleet into its Atlantic ports, he did develop and command it himself.

While we tend to remember those admirals who won significant battles, Anson's real skill was in administration, and his reforms were as crucial as any naval triumph. I came across this when researching my latest book on HMS Ambuscade and felt he deserved to be better known. Cooper sheathing and lightning rods were innovations led by Anson.

His career was not without fault. The failure at Minorca that led to the execution of Admiral Byng was at least partly his fault for not allocating sufficient ships to the operation. He could have intervened with the King as other officers did but chose not to, so the political consequences largely avoided him. 

The final chapters cover the fruits of his administrative reforms, not least the campaign in North America during the Seven Years' War. The raids on the French coast supporting the continental campaigns are particularly interesting, and Anson leads on the design of a new flat-bottomed landing boat. The Battle of Quiberon Bay secured Britain's naval dominance.

Bruce reasonably concludes that although Anson was not a conventional naval hero in the mould of Nelson, his tenure as First Lord had a lasting impact on the development of the Royal Navy. He should, therefore, be recognised as one of Britain's most influential naval leaders.

Monday 24 June 2024

Germany's French Allies 1941-45

 Having reviewed the story of Free French volunteer pilots in the Soviet Union, this new Osprey on the other side of the ideological divide caught my eye. Massimiliano Afiero looks at the various Vichy and collaborationist units that supported the German war effort during WW2.

Vichy France retained some control of its colonial forces and was allowed a 100,000-strong 'Armistice Army' in the unoccupied zone of France. However, this book looks at the units created to fight alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front in 1941. The Légion des Volontaires Français (LVF) was given the Wehrmacht designation Verstaerktes Französische Infanterie-Regiment 638 (638th French Reinforced Infantry Regiment) and reached the Moscow front in time for the 1941/42 winter campaign. It was rebuilt after suffering crippling losses and then employed on security operations. Very strangely, for the master race, they included 200 black soldiers from North Africa. The Germans were complimentary about the volunteers but scathing about the officers, calling them 'moronic'.

In August 1943, a Waffen SS unit was created, Französisches SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Regiment, for French volunteers. This was expanded into a brigade in 1944 and largely destroyed in fighting against the Soviets in Galicia. In 1944, all volunteer units were combined into the Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS ‘Charlemagne', this time destroyed on the Pomerian Front. A small number ended up defending Berlin, with 60-120 being captured by the Soviets. Being a French fascist was no picnic! However, they did get proper equipment, with good numbers of Panzerfausts, new Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifles and MG42s.

Other units included the very brief la Phalange Africaine (‘the African Phalanx’), primarily recruited in Tunisia after Operation Torch. The survivors were either captured or released by the Allies, although 14 were convicted of treason and shot.

The author gives a detailed account of the fighting these units were involved in. There are plenty of illustrations, and the recruitment posters are fascinating. The usual colour plates complete the book for the wargamer. The uniforms were almost all German, so just a shoulder flash is required in the largest scales to differentiate them. If, like me, you enjoy reading about obscure WW2 units, this is the book for you.

The 'Charlemagne' shoulder flash

Sunday 23 June 2024

Phalanx 2024

 As I was in Lancashire on Friday evening, it would have been rude not to go to the Phalanx show in St Helens on Saturday. I haven't been since 2009 when we went down with a GDWS display game loosely based on Calcutta 1757. The show is held in a local leisure centre with a large sports hall and a smaller one, used for the bring and buy. The car park is tight but there is a railway station over the road. A burger van is brought in for catering.

The bring and buy was big and popular. St Helens is a rugby town, and they could have taken scrum lessons from the bring and buy. 

I picked up a sci-fi vehicle for Xenos Rampant, and most of the items also seemed to sell at realistic prices. There were about 25 traders, many of the usual names but also a few I hadn't seen before, which was good. Tiger Miniatures are not often at the big shows, and although I resisted adding to my 28mm Balkan Wars armies, I love their figures. Great character, particularly faces. I did buy several scenery items, as well as brushes, paint and bases. 

There was a good variety of games, most of which I hadn't seen before. Here is a selection that caught my eye.

54mm Napoleonics always look stunning, although fewer figures might make for a more interesting game.

Xenos Rampant from the host club.

Dak Attack is a set of rules I am not familiar with, but the SAS raid looked fun.

Rapid Fire is making a comeback with a revised set of rules. I used to play this a lot, so I must take another look.

Talavera in 6mm using Blucher. This is an excellent example of how good these rules are at doing big battles.

Another Sam Mustafa rule set, Nimitz. Liverpool (I think) has adapted them for WW1 with this Battle of Scarborough game. Fictional, but the Huns did bombard the Yorkshire resort.

A very impressive Omaha Beach participation game, which must have taken some managing.

The World Transformed is a WW1 fantasy game. 

In this large 28mm battle, the Russians looked Crimean, even though their British opponent looked Napoleonic.

Several games could have done with a handout or at least some display. I was confused with some, so I am unsure what a newby punter would have made of them. There was a good turnout in the morning, although it had quietened down when I was leaving at lunchtime. It was not a huge show; three hours was probably enough for most folks. Thanks to St Helens Spartans for organising it. It finished off a pleasant trip very well.

Friday 21 June 2024

King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster)

I am in Lancashire today to do a book talk about the Napoleonic Wars in the Adriatic. The King's Own Royal Regiment Museum in Lancaster has been closed when I have been in the city, but today it was open. It is housed in the local history museum.

The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) was a line infantry regiment existing under various titles. It fought in almost all the major conflicts from 1680 to 1959, when it was amalgamated with the Border Regiment to form the King's Own Royal Border Regiment.

It fought at Sedgemoor and the Boyne, but it was in the front line at Culloden during the '45. They are featured in the famous Morier painting of the battle, and there is a vignette and a uniform in the museum. The regiment also spent three years in North America during the revolution.

They served in most of the main theatres of the Napoleonic Wars although there aren't many exhibits. Service included Portugal and all the big Peninsular battles as well as in North America again during the War of 1812. Don't tell Donald Trump, but they helped burn down the White House!

Then the Crimean War and most of the colonial conflicts up to the Boer War. The 1868 Abyssinian War was one that had passed me by, but the regiment was there doing its bit for gunboat diplomacy.

My interest stepped up a gear when I got to WW1, because two battalions fought in the Salonika Campaign, and there are several interesting exhibits. Two of a staggering 14 battalions raised from the region during the war.

In WW2 they were unfortunate to have been dumped on Leros (mostly ending up captured) and also served in Iraq and Syria. The 2nd Battalion took part in the Chindit raids.

It is only a small museum and will only take a hour of your time if you are in the city. We should support our regimental museums, they are a national treasure.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

French Eagles, Soviet Heroes

 This book by John Clarke caught my eye in an Oxfam bookshop. It covers the Free French 'Normandie-Niemen squadrons (escadrilles) on the Eastern Front in WW2.

The French Air Force Groupe was formed on 1 September 1942, using volunteers who had escaped from occupied France or served in North Africa. They arrived in Russia on 28 November and were offered Allied planes, but they chose to fly the new Soviet Yak-1. They started training with these on 19 January 1943, with an initial group of 58 men, primarily pilots and some ground crew supplemented with Soviet Air Force ground crew.

Their initial missions were escorting Pe-2 bombers. The first aerial victories happened in April 1943 when they shot down two Fw-190s. By July, five officers had been awarded Soviet decorations. They fought above the great battle at Kursk when they witnessed the Soviet tactic of ramming enemy aircraft by slicing the tail off with a propellor. This tactic was used 47 times in the Kursk battles alone. 

The book covers the many campaigns they took part in. Personally, I find operation air war history a bit repetitive and not a great read. However, it is all here if you want it. The squadrons were upgraded with the latest Yak variants as the war progressed - the Yak-9 had a 37mm cannon, which took some flying skill. In October 1943, the Groupe was awarded the Cross of the Order of the Liberation from General de Gaulle.

By May 1944, the group had grown to four squadrons, flying a mix of Yak-7 and Yak-9 aircraft. The Hitler 'commando order' had been extended to pilots of this Groupe, a testament to their success, but fatal if they crashed behind enemy lines. Only four captured pilots survived. Those who had families back in Vichy, France, were also at risk of being deported to a concentration camp.

The last campaign they fought in was in East Prussia around Koenigsberg. They returned home to a heroes welcome in June 1945 with their planes, which Stalin donated to the new French Air Force.

The Groupe destroyed 273 enemy aircraft, with 37 probable and 45 more damaged. They flew 5,240 combat missions, including 868 aerial combats. Their ground attacks destroyed trains, E-boats, trucks and much else. 42 pilots were killed. There is a plaque to them on the former French Mission building in Moscow, and over 150 Soviet schools were named after them. A single remaining Yak-3 is at the Le Bourget museum. 

It is a fascinating story that also covers how the pilots lived and got on with the Soviet pilots. There were easier postings than the Eastern Front, so they deserve to be remembered.

My Yak fighters for Blood Red Skies

Saturday 15 June 2024

Chain of Destiny

 This is the latest in my Nigel Tranter project. This novel covers the life of James IV, who was a rare thing, a competent Stewart monarch. 

James IV ascended the throne after his father's death at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. He was the nominal figurehead of the revolt and naively thought his father wouldn't be killed. He decided to do penance for his sin, wearing an iron belt around his waist, next to the skin - this being the chain of destiny in the book's title.

James IV's rule is considered a golden age for Renaissance Scotland. He embraced new ideas and fostered cultural growth, establishing Scotland's first printing press in 1507 and supporting the foundation of the University of Aberdeen in 1495. He significantly strengthened the Scottish navy, including the construction of the ship Michael, one of the largest in Europe at the time. His legal and administrative reforms centralised royal authority and improved the administration of justice. 

Unusually, this was a reasonably peaceful period in Scottish history. There were expeditions to pacify the Western Highland and the Isles and the odd rebellion. Tranter makes a lot of his efforts to tie the Highlands closer to his rule. He was a big fan of artillery and under the master gunner, Robert Borthwick created the earliest significant foundry for producing large bronze guns in Britain. In September 1496, James IV invaded England alongside Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. However, he retreated when resources were expended, and the hoped-for support for Warbeck in Northumberland failed to materialise. He was granted the title Protector and Defender of the Christian Faith by the Pope in 1507 for his support of a renewed crusade, but he was talked out of the project. 

The book covers the various lovers and mistresses, of which there were many. He eventually married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, in 1503. This significant political move led to the Union of the Crowns a century later. 

It all came to a sticky end during the War of the League of Cambrai, in which Scotland had allied with France. While Henry VIII of England was engaged in military campaigns on the continent, James decided to divert English attention by invading northern England. The Battle of Flodden Field was fought on 9 September 1513. Tranter portrays James as a somewhat naive King failing to take advantage of his larger if less experienced army. He died fighting from the front along with many Scottish nobles. Estimates of Scottish casualties ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. The battlefield and Etal Castle are well worth a visit if you are in Northumberland. 

One of our wargame club members collected the armies in 10mm, which we used for a display game in 2016. It's a battle you rarely see on the tabletop because the armies have few uses outside this short conflict.

Sunday 9 June 2024

The Army of Transylvania 1613-1690

 This is a new look at an interesting army by Florin Ardelean in the Helion Century of the Soldier series. In this period, Transylvania was a frontier state, squeezed between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. While a vassal of the Sultan, the ruling princes enjoyed a high degree of autonomy.

The book starts with a history of Transylvania and its rulers. Gabriel Bethlen and the Rakoczis are best known because of their intervention in the Thirty Years' War. The period ended with the death of Michael Apafi in 1690 when the principality had come firmly under Habsburg control. 

The meat of the book is the chapter on the army's organisation. The nobility remained the most influential of the estates, if not the most numerous. They were not as heavily armoured as their Western equivalents but were not always the light cavalry types you often see in wargame figure ranges. They should have been able to muster up to 10,000 men, but 2000 to 3000 men were more common in foreign campaigns. The Szekely had migrated to Transylvania from Hungary and were a distinct estate with political rights and military obligations. They typically fielded around 6,000 men, light infantry foot and mostly light horse. The third estate was the Saxons, descendants of German settlers based in south-eastern Transylvania. While mainly mobilised for self-defence, they could field up to 2,000 infantry.

In addition to the three estates, other units comprised a large part of the army without political rights in the state. The Hajdus had a protected status in the borderlands, primarily as infantry and light cavalry. They functioned in a similar way to the grenzer in the Habsburg lands. They could field up to 20,000 men, but smaller detachments up to 10,000 were more common. German mercenaries became more common as the period developed, paid for by taxation and by the nobles in lieu of military service. Their units included one led by a Scot, Andrew Gawdy, 3000 strong, who was also entrusted to defend key forts.

There are colour plates of all the main troop types as the essential painting guide for wargamers. 

A ring of fortifications protected the state. They varied from older medieval castles to modern stone bastions and wooden palanka forts. These are described in detail, along with their garrisons and artillery defences.  

The next major chapter covers the military campaigns. These include several interventions in the Thirty Years' War. Bethlen mobilised 40,000 men for his intervention and could still leave the state defended by Transylvanian troops as the bulk of his early came from Hungarian counties and mercenaries. There was also the ill-fated Polish campaign of 1657 when George Rakoczi II made a bid for the Polish Crown. He later fell out with the Ottomans and was wounded and defeated at the Battle of Floesti in May 1660.

Transylvania was a distinct state for around 150 years, mainly as a threat to the Habsburgs. The army was diverse, shifting from those owing military service to paid troops over the period. It was primarily a cavalry field army, with horse making up between 50-78%. The infantry mainly held the extensive fortifications that protected the borders. Ironically, the Ottomans' punishment campaign weakened the state, allowing the Habsburgs to sweep in after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683.

This is an excellent study of an interesting and colourful army. I have a handful of units, usually fielded in my Ottoman armies, but this book will encourage another look.

Sunday 2 June 2024

Turkey and D-Day

 Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean may seem a long way from the beaches of Normandy. Still, Allied operations involving Turkey were vital in keeping German troops away from northern France on D-Day.

By the end of 1943, the Germans, particularly Ribbentrop, were convinced that Turkey was not a genuine neutral. When Churchill flew to visit the Turkish President, the Adana conference strongly indicated this shift to Ribbentrop and subsequent spy reports of British troops on training and construction duties in Turkey. Britain built 38 airfields, including 15 all-weather fields near the Straits, using engineers and construction workers sent from the UK. Operation Hardihood was the British code name for support to Turkey in the form of British formations, military equipment and broader economic assistance. The equipment included 180 (50 more to follow) Valentine tanks, 222 Stuart light tanks, 25 Sherman medium tanks, 150 Dingo scout cars, 59 Bren carriers and 48 Bishop self-propelled guns. This allowed the Turkish Army to reorganise their armoured forces into three armoured brigades equipped with Allied armour facing the Balkans.

A 28mm Turkish Valentine from my collection

Turkey also began to shift its diplomatic policy. Turkey agreed they would initially reduce shipments of Chromite (the main Turkish export to Germany) and then cancel them altogether. Turkey also agreed to half the export of other strategic commodities. Foreign Minister Menemencioğlu’s explanation to the Grand National Assembly for the policy shift was interesting. He said that Turkey’s alliance with Britain was the ‘nucleus and basis of our foreign policy’; therefore, Turkey was not neutral. They also stepped up inspections of German merchant ships using the Straits, confiscating war materials.

Churchill would have been happier if there had been an invasion of the Balkans instead of Normandy. However, largely thanks to the Americans, he had to settle for deception operations. Credible threats needed to be maintained to avoid German troops being withdrawn from the Balkans to reinforce the beaches of northern France. These threats were incorporated into the cover plan for Overlord called Operation Bodyguard. 

The primary deception plan in the eastern Mediterranean was Operation Zeppelin. This involved developing invasion threats through Greece, Albania, Croatia, Turkey and Bulgaria. The sub-plan for an attack on Greece and Bulgaria was called Operation Turpitude. 

Operation Royal Flush also supported Zeppelin by putting political pressure on Turkey to allow Allied forces to land in Thrace to attack Greece and Bulgaria. In a memorandum, the Air Ministry Director of Plans said, ‘The principle we have adopted is that if we can get a mission into the country with lots of brass hats and gold braid, the Turks and the Germans will feel that there really is something in the wind.’ 

The selection of objectives in the detailed plan for Operation Zeppelin is as thorough as many actual operations with an order of battle that included real and bogus units. This involved the notional British 12th Army based in the Middle East, supported by a breakout from Italy and Soviet advances into the Balkans. It included all the elements of a deception operation, including dummy units, radio traffic and intelligence agents. Operations were undertaken on a large scale, with thousands of troops involved in the latter stages, including 1000 signals personnel. It also included actual land and air raids, glider concentrations, reconnaissance flights and naval activity. Information leaflets and maps about Thrace were printed in English by selected printing presses in the Middle East, and a call went out to US forces for Turkish speakers.

An extract from the Operation Zeppelin deception plans (TNA)

These deception operations led the Germans to overestimate the strength of the Allied troops in the region. They identified up to 71 divisions in early 1944 when, in reality, there were only 30 divisions. The German high command was not convinced the Allies would launch a major offensive in the Balkans, but they did believe there would be minor incursions. This meant they retained their units in the Balkans, including 430 aircraft and reinforced naval forces rather than shifting units to France, thus achieving the main goals of Operation Zeppelin.

You can read more about the deception plans in 1944 in my book 'Chasing the Soft Underbelly', published by Helion Books.

Saturday 1 June 2024

Iran at War

 This is Maziar Behrooz's book on Qajar Iran and its conflicts with Imperial Russia in the early 19th century. If, like me, the use of Iran confuses, it's because that is how the nation referred to itself, even though the country's formal name didn't change until the 20th century. 

The author starts with some background to Iran during this period and how the Qajar dynasty came to power. Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar was a eunuch monarch from 1789, being castrated as a six-year-old upon his capture by Adel Shah Afshar, and hence was childless. While eunuchs have achieved powerful positions, he is possibly unique in terms of royal power. The Ottomans infamously killed off princes who might contend for the throne. The Iranians blinded or cut off ears, noses and other parts to eliminate them from royal contention. For most of this period, Fath Ali Shah ruled Iran. He had a harem of 158 wives and concubines who delivered 48 sons and 49 daughters. Clearly, making up for lost time!

The early years focused on consolidating power, but the first clashes with the expanding Russian Empire came in 1781. The Russians under Potemkin had already reached the Caucasus, and Suverov led a full invasion in 1779. 

At the start of the conflicts with Russia, the Qajar military was a traditional tribal force, at least 60,000 strong, mostly cavalry. From 1805, European-modelled infantry were trained, significantly contributing to the army, although there was a shortage of good-quality muskets. For more information on the Iranian military, David Brown's excellent booklet is available on Wargames Vault

The meat of the book is a detailed look at the Russo-Iranian Wars. The first was fought between 1801 and 1813, and while on the fringes of the Napoleonic Wars, all the leading players engaged with the Iranians. The problem for Iran was that alliances with the French and then the British always played second fiddle to European alliances. Behrooz challenges many of the traditional explanations for the conflicts, clearly placing the responsibility on Russian imperialism. This isn't a military history as such; greater emphasis is given to the diplomatic events. However, the main actions are all covered with an analysis of the reasons for the outcome. The Iranians typically started the war well, but the Russians were able to reinforce their armies, and their greater resources triumphed. The Iranian troops generally fought well, but generalship was poor.

War broke out again in 1826, provoked by the Russian governor in 1825. Again, the Iranians started well, but the Russians fought back, aided by some bizarre command decisions. For example, the Iranian commander Abbas Mirza appointed three of his young sons to command segments of the army and then withdrew them when threatened.  

In the final chapter, the author seeks to put the record straight on the common distortions of Qajar history, using seven points of analysis. There is also a detailed chronology and biographies of the leading players. This is a very readable account of the period and valuable for my current wargame project. I now have the core of the infantry and artillery thanks to purchasing and rebasing some of Mark Bevis' collection. The cavalry and camel guns are coming from Irregular Miniatures. In the meantime, I got them onto the table by using some similar Ottoman types. The Russians narrowly pulled off a victory in the first game using Blucher rules.