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. I hope you find it helpful and entertaining.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Lakeland war games show

A combination of the Lake District and wargames is pretty irresistible to me, so I have added the Lakelands Wargame Show at the Reghed Centre to my schedule.

The venue is built into the side of a hill, not great for mobile phone reception or credit card machines, but otherwise it has everything you need. A couple of small exhibition halls with at least a few shops and cafes to keep one's significant other occupied for an hour or two.

For a small show the organisers attracted a significant number of traders - nationals like Warlord and an array of local suppliers. I picked up some BEF reinforcements for Operation Sealion from Warlord and a few other bits and pieces. My bring and buy purchases included some very nicely painted Rohan foot and medieval pikemen.

Here are a few of the games that caught my eye. Starting with my favourite, a 1940's airfield for Operation Sealion.



A big Black Powder 18th century game


I know nothing about Gates of Antares, but this looks good


Some interesting terrain pieces in this Western Desert game.


Another big battle, using Hail Caesar this time.




I rarely need an excuse for a long weekend in the Lake District, so I will be back. Thanks to the West Coast Gamers group for organising this event.











Sunday, 18 June 2017

After Dunkirk: Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division

This is the updated edition of Saul David's first book, covering the actions of the 51st Highland Division in the France 1940 campaign.

The 51st Highland Division wasn't with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force when the German's launched their Blitzkrieg attack in May 1940. They were part of the Maginot Line forces and as such had to retreat around Paris towards the coast. This meant they were still part of the defence of France, indeed part of a French army corps, after the Dunkirk evacuation.

The Highland Division fought on the old WW1 battlefield of the Somme and then retreated over the River Bresle. The divisional commander, General Fortune, recognised that his Division was outnumbered and outgunned even with some limited armoured support from the under strength 1st Armoured Division. There was virtually no support from the RAF, as squadrons regrouped after Dunkirk in readiness for the Battle of Britain.
The French army was in complete disarray, and for a while Fortune was the effective corps commander. Many French units simply abandoned the fight and along with refugees, and this added to the division's problems.
The only sensible military option for the Highland Division was evacuation, and there was a brief window of opportunity to use Le Havre. However, Fortune was ordered to continue fighting. Later Dieppe was a possibility, but Fortune was misinformed about the state of the port. In the end, the division was boxed into St Valery, an entirely unsuitable harbour for evacuating 10,000 British troops and similar numbers of French. When Rommel managed to seize the cliffs above the village, the game was up and the division surrendered

Churchill had hoped the presence of the Highland Division would stiffen the military resistance of the French. It is doubtful if that was possible, but it is fair conclusion that the division was sacrificed for this wider strategic objective. 
The book's epilogue describes the fate of most prisoners of war and the exploits of those who tried to escape. It was the reformed 51st Highland Division that liberated St Valery in 1944.
The book covers the strategic story, but the focus is on the division itself. It is a detail description of the many actions, often down to unit level. From a wargamers perspective, it provides a good understanding of how the British army of the period operated, particularly during a fighting retreat. At times the division was holding huge lengths of the line, which meant little more than isolated strongpoints, based on buildings and woods. The division also had a mix of regular and territorial battalions, which adds another factor to the operational decisions. 
For the wargame, I choose a fighting retreat scenario, using Bolt Action rules. The 1940 campaign is understandably little gamed, particularly using Bolt Action. The tournament players are desperate to get ever bigger kit onto the table! Hopefully the new supplement on Operation Sealion, will help increase interest in this period. If you want a lighter read than this book, I would recommend Andy Johnson's fictional account of the campaign, 'Thunder in May'.





Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Italian Wars

I have clearly been watching too many Netflix boxed sets recently. The Borgias and Medici: Masters of Florence cover the period of the Italian Wars. Even if the history is largely a backdrop to the sex, murder and intrigue of these lavish productions. My recent visit to Italy added to my interest in the period, with some very fine castles.

The Italian Wars refer to a period of some 65 years, from 1494 to 1559, that saw eight different conflicts on the Italian peninsular. Italy was a patchwork of states, often warring amongst themselves.

These conflicts went up a notch when the great powers of the period involved themselves. Firstly the French, who marched through Italy to capture Naples, before being forced into a fighting withdrawal. French involvement encouraged the Spanish to support Naples. Later the Holy Roman Emperor became involved in northern Italy. Even the Ottoman Empire dabbled in the conflict and Henry VIII got involved on the fringes.

The armies the period were in transition from the medieval to the renaissance. The fully armoured knight was still dominant, but became less effective as the pike replaced the spear and the arquebus replaced the crossbow. All armies made extensive use artillery, in the field and in siege warfare.

Mercenaries played an important role in most armies. Infamously, the Swiss and the German Landsknechts. The Italian states relied heavily on the Condottieri contractors, who singularly failed to adapt to the new methods of warfare.

For the wargamer, the Italian Wars offer a glorious mix of troop types and colourful armies. I have a limited number of figures in 28mm and 15mm, suitable for the period. As a toe in the water, I have started with my current favourite set of rules, Pikeman's Lament. They are designed for a slightly later period, but easily adapted.

My first action was an Italian state against an Imperial force, 24 points a side. Using 15mm figures.


Some photos of the first game, there will be more.








Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Dacian War (Veteran of Rome Book 6)

My holiday fiction reading included William Kelso's 'The Dacian War'. This is the sixth volume in his Veteran of Rome series. I haven't read any of the others, but was attracted to this one because it covered a Balkan subject, Trajan's invasion of Dacia.


The format is pretty similar to the many historical fiction books on Imperial Rome. In this case, we have two heroes - Marcus the retired veteran of an auxiliary cohort, and his son Fergus, who serves in a legionary cohort as an Optio.

I felt a little cheated after reading the first half of the book. All the action involves Marcus who lives in Brittanica. He has a little local difficulty with a better connected neighbour and makes a somewhat unlikely trip to Rome, in order to save a Christian slave who poisoned the said rival. He then gets involved in some high level Roman political plotting. Again, even for historical fiction, this is stretching matters a little far.

The second half of the book moves on to the invasion of Dacia. Here the book picks up, with Fergus in the thick of the action against the Dacian's and their allies. The description of various battles, are some of the best I have read - you really do get a flavour of the campaign. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of Roman engineers in traversing the difficult terrain and in sieges. Having walked a bit in the Carpathian Mountains, I can imagine the challenges facing the Roman army of the period.

You probably need to read the whole book, but for a second read I would skip the first half.

If you want to read more about the Dacian Wars, I highly recommend the beautifully illustrated book by Radu Oltean, available from Karwansary, the publishers of Ancient Warfare magazine. And by the way, they now do a very good podcast as well.

Some tabletop Dacian War action. 28mm figures from my collection.



Friday, 2 June 2017

Genoa 'La Superba'

My recent visit to Liguria caused me to do a bit of background reading into the history of Genoa, based on Nicolas Walton's book 'Genoa 'La Superba' - The Rise and fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower'.


Visiting the region with its harsh mountainous geography that hugs the coast, you can easily see why the sea would be the natural outlet. The story of medieval Genoa is none the less a remarkable one. They traded across the known world, supported the crusades and led the fight against the Barbary pirates. Less happily, they also introduced the Black Death to Europe.

I was familiar with the conflict with Venice, but not aware of the 200 year war with their west coast maritime rival, Pisa. While I didn't get up to Genoa, I did visit a number of the formidable castles, built by both sides in this war that Genoa won.

They very nearly conquered Venice in the medieval period, but arguably came out second best in the long term. Despite this failure, it was the Genoese Admiral, Andrea Doria, who led the Christian fleet at Lepanto, and achieved much more besides. The author describes him as 'The Steve Jobs of the Mediterranean', reflecting the city's commercial approach to war and trade. Other luminaries included Christopher Columbus, so there is a certain poetic justice that so many Ligurians emigrated to the USA.

Today, we think of Italy as a nation state like any other. However, it wasn't until the mid 19th century that the often warring states and their big power allies were unified. The brains behind the Risorgimento was the Genoese born Giuseppe Mazzini. Metternich said 'But nothing and no one has created greater difficulties for me than a devil of an Italian'. If Mazzini was the brains, the muscle was  fellow Ligurian (although born in Nice), Giuseppe Garibaldi. Together they were the idealistic cutting edge of unification, often several steps ahead of the the pragmatic Piedmont leaders.

The Second World War was not kind to the region. There is model in the naval museum at La Spezia of the naval base in 1945, which clearly shows the damage allied bombing did, and Genoa suffered in similar fashion. After the overthrow of Mussolini, they also had a particularly ruthless SS Commander in Friedrich Engel, known as the Butcher of Genoa. There is therefore a certain irony that many prominent Nazis escaped to South America through Genoa. Even more ironically many Jews escaped to Palestine from La Spezia.

Walton has written a book that is part history, part travelogue. While Venice may be the better known naval superpower of the medieval and early modern period. The fascinating history of Genoa deserves to be better known. This book does just that.


The Pisan castle at Lerici captured by Genoa.



Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Assassins

No, not the Ismaili medieval sect, for that you need James Waterson's book. This is Alan Bardos's fictional account of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo - the spark that started the First World War.


The author sticks pretty closely to the events that led up to the assassination - plumping for the middle ground between the differing theories on Serbian involvement. In short, a group of young Bosnian Serbs are funded and equipped by elements of the Serbian intelligence service, who help them to get into Bosnia and carry out the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne.

He shows very clearly the poor organisation and the equally negligent Hapsburg response. Even the actual shooting was almost accidental.

The one big difference is the insertion of young British diplomatic clerk into the story. Sent off into the Balkans by his boss, who's wife he was carrying on with, to write a report, or more likely get himself killed. The hapless clerk is recruited by a Hapsburg official and infiltrates the assassins group. To say this is somewhat far fetched, is something of an understatement!

However, if you suspend credulity for a few hours, this is an entertaining read.


My photo of the street in modern Sarajevo where the Archduke was shot. And there is a small museum that is worth a look. 






Monday, 29 May 2017

Lake Trasimene 217BC

This month, in 217BC, Hannibal pulled off one of his greatest victories over the Romans at Lake Trasimene in the modern day Umbria region of Italy. A family holiday this week brought me within range of the battlefield.

Hannibal is the ancient general I most admire. Others may have been more victorious, but few had his leadership challenges, commanding a largely mercenary army in a campaign that took his army over the Alps and onto Rome's own territory. It was also my very first wargame army.

The previous year 218BC, Hannibal had consolidated his position amongst the Gauls and defeated a Roman army on the Trebbia. He wintered north of the Appenines and chose a particularly difficult pass south, which meant the two Roman armies waiting for him could not combine. The route took him through the marshy Arnus river basin, where he lost an eye to infection and made the journey on the remaining elephant.

He passed close to the camp of the Roman Consul Caius Flaminius at Arretium (Arrezo), ravaging Roman property to provoke him. However, Flaminius resisted the temptation and followed Hannibal down to Lake Trasimene, hoping to catch him between his and the other Roman army.

A view of the hills surrounding the northern end of the lake.

Hannibal spotted the opportunity the ground north of the lake offered him. He positioned his veteran foot on a hill, the site of the modern village of Turo, tempting Flaminius to attack. As the Roman army began to deploy from march columns, Hannibal signalled the flank attacks using Gaulish foot and the combined Punic cavalry. His light horse sealed the trap.

Some 15,000 Roman troops were killed (including Flaminius) and probably another 15,000 were taken prisoner. Hannibal released Rome's allied troops as part of his strategy to encourage them to break away from Rome. Hannibal lost around 1500 men, mostly Gauls.

There is some contention over the exact site of the battlefield, but the modern consensus favours the Sanguineto basin as the killing ground. There are 12 information boards at various stages of what is called the Hannibalic Path. They are very well done, with descriptions of the troops and key stages of the battle. The signposting could be better, but you can walk or drive around the route.

One of the twelve information boards

This picture is taken from what is thought to be Hannibal's command post, from where he signalled the attack. Yes, my 'world tour' Hannibal T-Shirt got some proper use!


No statue of Hannibal, but there is one of Flaminius. He comes in for a lot of criticism, but it's hard to see what else he could have done but attack. His failings and that of most Roman commanders of the period was poor reconnaissance.



This is an excellent battlefield to visit, as it's fairly easy to visualise and the local authorities have done a good job of presenting it to the visitor. Just south of the battlefield, is the lovely medieval town of Castiglione del Lago. A good place for some lunch and a fine medieval castle to visit as well.