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

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Niagara 1814

In 1814, the USA launched its last invasion of Canada. The main battleground is over the route many thousands of tourists trek over every year to see the Niagara Falls, most not realising the historical significance of the area.

The War of 1812 is seen as a bit of forgotten offshoot of the Napoleonic wars. They were of course small scale actions compared to the titanic struggles in Europe, but still of interest. The more so for me, as I am visiting nearby Toronto to speak at a work conference in a couple of week's time, so I am planning a visiting the battlefields.

To get a better understanding of the conflict, Osprey comes up with the goods, in Jon Latimer's study of the campaign. He explains the background to the campaign and the chronology. In essence, the Americans saw a small window of opportunity for their modest armed forces, before large numbers of British veterans from the Peninsular War became available for service in Canada.

The total size of the forces on both sides added up to around a division, two infantry brigades with artillery support and a handful of cavalry. Both sides had a mixture of regulars and militia, all of which performed well in some pretty serious fighting. Both sides had a small number of native Indian irregulars.

The campaign took place in the strip of land between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The area was heavily forested with small settlements and agricultural land. Fortifications played an important role, mostly earthworks, with some stone and timber reinforcement.

The main actions of the campaign were at Chippawa, Lundy's Lane and Fort Erie. None were decisive and peace was agreed at the Treaty of Ghent, based on the status quo ante bellum. As a consequence, Canada remains a separate state to this day.

For the wargamer, the campaign doesn't require a huge number of figures. Most Napoleonic players will have suitable British troops and the Americans are widely available in all scales.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Siege of Tsingtau 1914

I am a sucker for an obscure conflict, so the 'Siege of Tsingtau' by Charles Stephenson, just screams at me from the bookshelves.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Germans had acquired the port of Tsingtau on the east coast of China. It was their main naval base in the Far East and it was left to the Japanese to evict them. Partly out of their obligations to the Entente cause, but also in support of their own strategic objectives in the region.

The Germans were late to the colonial scramble, but they had acquired a small number of Pacific islands. The Bismarck Archipelago is a bit of a hint, but names that became famous in WW2 such as the Marianas, Marshall, Caroline and Pelew islands, were all German territory. To which they added Samoa later. The limitations of coal powered ships, created a need for coaling and wireless stations on even the most uneconomic of overseas possessions.

The German East Asiatic Squadron was a powerful force, commanded by none other than Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee. It included two modern armoured cruisers and four light cruisers. British and Australian forces were modest, with the exception of the modern battle cruiser 'Australia' and had a huge area to cover. The main aim of German naval forces would be commerce raiding and the light cruiser 'Emden' caused huge damage before being caught. However, Spee recognised that his coaling stations would be quickly knocked out and Japan's entry into the war, with its large fleet, made his position hopeless. He headed home via victory in the Coronels and defeat in the Falklands.

The author, having set out the context, focuses on the siege. The Germans had fortified Tsingtau, but Governor Alfred Meyer-Waldeck had insufficient troops for a defence in depth. Essentially, he had two naval battalions supplemented by reservists who arrived as best they could from all over the Far East. A total of just over 4,000 men. The Japanese (General Kamio) deployed a division (three brigades) supported by extensive artillery. They were joined by a small British force, including a battalion of the the South Wales Borderers. A total of 40,000 men.

With their recent experience at Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, Kamio had a clear plan for capturing Tsingtau. This involved heavy artillery preparation as cover for sapping, an approach which would have been recognised by Vauban. Only when a breach was achieved would an infantry assault be risked.

There would be a number of firsts in this campaign. Most notably the use of aircraft by both sides, in reconnaissance and also bombing. There was even some limited air to air combat.

The Japanese ground away at the German defences, and once the mains water supply had been captured and the big guns knocked out, they surrendered on 7 November. Outnumbered ten to one, this was inevitable from the outset. The Japanese took over the territory, there was no question of it reverting to China.

This is a really interesting book about an episode in WW1 that is little understood. It also had long term consequences, which the author explores in the final chapter. Consequences that were only resolved, with great bloodshed, in WW2.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

French WW2 armour

Limited time for painting at present, not helped by a bout of the flu. However, my Bolt Action early war French now have some armoured support.

First up is the AMD Panhard 178 armoured car. It was designed as a long-range reconnaissance vehicle for the French cavalry, although it also served in motorised infantry divisions. It looks a fairly modern design, somewhat ahead of its time. In practice it was quite small, under-armoured and gunned (25mm) for the envisaged strategic role.

Early production was slow, but 219 were delivered at the outbreak of war. This rose to 370 by the time the Germans invaded in May 1940. The Germans used around 190 of them in their own units during the invasion of Russia. They also adapted 43 of them as railway protection vehicles, able to drive on tracks.

Next is the Renault R40, light tank. This was a development of the R35 and officially known as the R35/40, even though they look quite different. The R40 had a 37mm gun which was decent enough for the period and was the first French tank to have a radio as standard. However, like most French tanks of the period it was too slow. Around 130 were produced and served in 4th DCR as well as a reformed Polish cavalry brigade.

Both models are Warlord resin kits. Construction is pretty straightforward and, unusually for Warlord, some thought has been given to lugs for assembly. Although the parts needed a fair amount of work to get them to fit together. Why, oh why, they can't provide a decent connection for the guns on their models, I really do not know. Many expletives and superglued hands later, I eventually managed it!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Churchill and Tito

In 1943, Churchill decided to switch British support from the Serbian based Chetniks, to the largely Communist Partisans - in leadership terms from Mihailovic to Tito. This was a controversial decision at the time and one that has been condemned by revisionist histories since the war.

Christopher Catherwood in his book 'Churchill and Tito: SOE, Bletchley Park and Supporting the Yugoslav Communists in World War II', examines the evidence in detail. He recognises those who point to the post-war consequences, but argues that this is history in hindsight. As he says:

"In 1943 Churchill had decisions to make. And he chose as a British Prime Minister acting in the British interests against Britain's deadliest enemy the Third Reich. In that context he was surely right."

He starts with a brief history of the Balkans, focusing on the creation of the state of Yugoslavia and the period before WW2. He reminds us that the attempt to stay neutral in 1939-41 was pretty difficult for any state in the Balkans, sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who at the time had a Pact. Watching how their neighbour, Romania, was carved up, must have been a particularly difficult moment.

The author then takes each of the claimed conspiracy theories that have been offered by those seeking to rehabilitate Mihailovic and condemn Churchill's decision. These include the role of the overtly Communist, James Klugmann based in the Cairo office of SOE. The revisionists grossly overestimate Klugmann's influence in Cairo, but more importantly in London.

It is a key theme in the book that Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff reached their decision on the basis of ENIGMA/ULTRA material, made available thanks to the work of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. It was cold hard evidence that switched British policy, not a bit player in Cairo.

He goes on to explain the role of Bletchley Park and the information they provided from German sources. These included German field reports that showed how much damage the Partisans were doing, and crucially, how many German divisions were being tied down in Yugoslavia, just when the Allies were preparing to invade Italy.

This intelligence also confirmed what British officers on the ground, like Maclean and Deakin, discovered. MacLean was a Conservative MP, not a Communist sympathiser. However, even his reports did not form the basis for Churchill's decision. He like Churchill, took a pragmatic view that war is a dirty and often cynical business.

The intelligence also confirmed that Mihailovic wasn't just unwilling to seriously fight the Germans because of fear of retaliation. Cetniks loyal to Mihailovic actively fought along side the Germans and the collaborationist Nedic regime. His focus was on destroying the Partisans to secure a post-war Serbian Royalist leadership of Yugoslavia, or at the very least Greater Serbia. The evidence of collaboration was indeed stronger against subordinates like Voja Lukacevic, and it is true that the Germans still regarded the Chetniks as an enemy. However, none of that changed the fact that Tito was persuading Serbs and Croats to come together to fight the common enemy, whereas Mihailovic, a Serb nationalist, was doing very little.

Even if Churchill had backed Mihailovic, it would not have made any significant difference in 1945. Churchill presumed that the Partisans would win the civil war anyway, not least because captured Italian weapons meant they were better equipped by 1943, without Allied aid. Crucially, it was the Red Army that liberated Belgrade on 20 October 1944, albeit with partisan help. The idea that Stalin would have put a Serbian nationalist regime into power, is just a fantasy. Ask the neighbouring Romanian royal family.

Of course, Tito massacred thousands of his own people between 1945-48. However, his actions during the war meant that he was not installed as a Stalin puppet. This meant, along with the Churchill/Stalin 'naughty deal' that he was able to make a split with Stalin in 1948, and get away with it. He had kept the Soviet Union out of his country, unlike much of the rest of Eastern Europe. Nice options were not available in 1945.

This means that not only did Churchill make the right short-term decision in 1943, but he also ended up making the right call in the longer term.

This is an excellent book, throughly researched and very readable. It carefully and objectively sets out the evidence and is an must read for anyone interested in understanding the period and the how the key decisions were made.

For wargamers, this isn't a military history, its focus is on high level military strategy. There are other books that do that well. I would also recommend the memoirs of Maclean and Deakin for inspiration and scenarios.

Despite the decisions of Churchill, Tito was very nearly killed on several occasions, most famously in the Drvar raid. A game GDWS played out at the Claymore show in 2013.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

British Museum

A spare hour when in London this week took me to the British Museum. I haven't been around the upstairs exhibition halls for many a years.

The Anglo Saxon section is very good. I may have alighted on these drinking horns as I was on my way to a few beers with pals!

The very small handle on this sword reminded me of how much bigger we are today. Certainly wouldn't have fitted my hands.

The highlight in this section is the Sutton Hoo treasure and this helmet in particular - just stunning.

I haven't read much about the early Italian peoples, before Rome swept all before it. Here are some interesting helmets.

Further afield we have a collection of Sassanid arms and armour.

You would not want to argue with this Molossian Hound! The breed comes from Epirus.

This is a bronze statue of a warrior on horseback, made in Taranto around 550BC

Something closer to home for me - the Lewis chessmen. I have a replica in my study.

Back downstairs, I never tire of looking at these massive Assyrian statues.

And finally, some of Lord Elgin's loot. Sorry, legitimately acquired under the authorisation of an Ottoman Firman. Pick your side in that debate, but at least we can see them today.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Kingdom of Georgia

My latest reading is a bit esoteric. It is a reprint of an 1888 travelogue, written by Oliver Wardrop, covering his trip around the nation of Georgia. Georgia is a small state in the Caucasus region, south of the mountains, resting on the Black Sea. Throughout most of its history it has been squeezed between Russia and Turkey, with Persia playing an important role as well. 

While he was only 23 when he made the journey, he went on to be the British High Commissioner after the 1917 Russian Revolution. 

It is a topical read, as today in 2004, the Georgian parliament approved the distinctive 'Five Cross Flag' as the national flag after a period of some 500 years. 

This reflects the complex history of a state that has only recently regained its independence (1991), and even then has already lost two regions and is under pressure in a third. The conflict with Russia remains a live issue. 

He arrived in the coastal port of Batum (Batumi) and made his way to the present capital and largest city Tiflis. From there he made a number of trips by carriage and horse through some pretty rugged and sometimes bandit ridden territory. These included a trip up a Russian built military road to Vladikavkaz, today the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. He also made a long and quite dangerous trip to Signakh (Signagi) in the Kakheti region of modern day Georgia. From there to Telav, in the same region and then back to Tiflis.

It's important to remember that this is a Nineteenth century Englishman, travelling around with some obviously well connected friends. Georgia was part of the Russian empire at this time and the area was garrisoned following the wars in Caucasus to the north. While his views are redolent of the times, they are not as anachronistic as you might expect.

The book ends with a brief history of Georgia until that date and some notes on language and literature.

This was a surprisingly good read and the author describes his journeys and the people he meets well. He clearly fell in love with the country as his subsequent actions show.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Vlad the Impaler

My cheery New Year reading has been 'Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People' by Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods. I must have missed this when it was published in 2010 and picked up a remaindered copy in Hay on Wye.

The authors start with a conventional outline of the early life and career of Vlad III Tepes who ruled Wallachia (part of modern Romania) from 1456 to 1462, with a short return spell in 1476. The name 'Dracula' comes from his father's membership of the Hungarian chivalric Order of the Dragon (Dracul), hence son of Dracul is Dracula. In Romanian, it also means 'devil'. His preferred method of execution was impalement, hence 'The Impaler'.

Vlad spent part of his early years in the Ottoman court as a hostage with his brother Radu. When he became the Voivode of Wallachia, he eliminated his opponents and then refused to pay tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II. The subsequent Ottoman invasion was successfully resisted including the 'night attack' battle and the infamous forest of stakes - 20,000 impaled Turkish corpses outside the capital, Targoviste. However, his subjects tired of his reign of terror and defected to his brother Radu, who supported the Ottomans. Vlad was also abandoned by his ally King Matthias of Hungary.

Vlad is remembered in Romania today as something of national hero. When I first visited Romania I remember being surprised at this, being brought up on Bram Stoker's Dracula. There is little doubt that Stoker based his fictional character on Vlad, although it remains unclear as to how much historical research he did.

If you are looking for a history of Vlad and his times, this book really isn't it. The authors start most chapters with the history, but then divert off into a range of stories that are only vaguely to the point. For example, we are offered the hypothesis that Radu, unlike Vlad, was the victim of the Stockholm syndrome as a consequence of his time in the Ottoman court. This syndrome is then explained at length, with several examples. This approach is repeated numerous times and is frankly irritating. The book needed an editor who was prepared to take a big red pen to at least a third of the content.

There are two stand out books on Vlad for me. 'Dracula, Prince of Many Faces' by Florescu and McNally, and 'Vlad the Impaler' by M.J.Trow. Either will return your investment in reading time better than this book.

Still, it was an excuse to dust down the Wallachian armies I have in 28mm and 15mm for this period. I used some of the 15mm figures for a quick game of Lion Rampant against the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottomans line up to the south led by a Pasha and Sipahi cavalry supported by Akinjis, Janissaries and Azabs. Vlad in the north with Boyars supported by Voynuks, Curteni archers and some less than enthusiastic peasants.

The peasants hunker down in the village while the archers take up a decent shooting position in a wood.

The Ottoman Sipahi go for Vlad, but are beaten off.

The armoured Voynuks are also too strong for the Ottoman horse.

Vlad is triumphant in this refight! Vlad Dracula, national hero or sadistic villain? Possibly both.