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

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

French WW2 support teams

Travel and work have slowed up the painting schedule, but got back to a bit of brushwork last week.

My French WW2 army now has some support teams. These are all from the Warlord range.

First up is the 81mm mortar team

Then the essential HMG

A light mortar for those close up bombardments

And finally a sniper team, behind the obligatory bush.

And them all together.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Forgotten War Against Napoleon

My latest reading has been Gareth Glover's, 'The Forgotten War Against Napoleon'. This covers conflicts in the Mediterranean 1793-1815.

This is an excellent source book for wargamers, as it covers mostly small scale Napoleonic battles. Ideal for the current fashion of small battle rules like Sharp Practice, Chosen Men, or my current favourite, an adaption of Pikeman's Lament for the Napoleonic period by Dave Soutar at our club.

The author covers actions on land and sea, starting with Toulon in 1793 and the Royal Navy's need to secure bases in Corsica and the Balearic Islands. Malta and Egypt features several times. We did both the early campaign led by Napoleon and the later British intervention, as a series of club display games, so I have a big collection of suitable figures. Charles Grant's books are essential reading for this with the inspiring Bob Marrion colour plates.

Then we have Sicily and southern Italy, including one of the less well known British victories at Maida in 1806. Richard Hopton's book on this campaign is also worth a read.

Unsurprisingly, I flicked quickly to the Adriatic campaigns. A very profitable campaign for British frigate captains raiding the coast during the French occupation. A campaign that also first brought cricket to the islands of Corfu and Vis - that's civilisation for you! The latter was called Lissa during this period and has been covered in detail by Matthew Scott Hardy in his book 'The British and Vis - War in the Adriatic 1805-15'.

Me looking somewhat less than Napoleonic at the modern Vis cricket ground

My favourite Napoleonic rogue, Ali Pasha of Jannina, gets a brief mention. I have played lots of 'what if' wargames based on his army and alliances.

While the Peninsular War is not covered, the campaigns on Spain's Mediterranean coastline are. These were important in drawing substantial numbers of French troops away from Wellington.

About half way through this book I had the feeling that I had read it before. Unlikely, as it was only recently published. However, it does cover similar ground to Tom Pocock's, 2004 book 'Stopping Napoleon'. That is also worth a read if this period attracts you.

Overall, this is a well written and eminently readable tome that covers a lot of ground concisely. An excellent introduction to campaigns that deserve more attention.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Serbian Castles

My recent visit to Serbia took in a number of castles and fortresses. No surprise there, not least to my beloved!

Starting with the huge Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade. This is the medieval Zindan gate, but most of the fortress is of the later Vauban style.

Travelling south, there is the fortified monastery of Manasija, nestled in the Resava Valley.

Then the massive Ottoman fortress at Nis. One and half miles of walls.

And finally, possibly the best of them all, Maglic in Western Serbia, towering over the Ibar Valley.

Many more photos and descriptions on the Serbia page at Balkan Military History. As well as the Serbian castles on the Danube covered on an earlier trip.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Belgrade Military Museum

The Military Museum in Belgrade  was founded in 1878, although it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It is located in the Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade and houses around 30,000 museum pieces. 

The fine collection of armoured vehicles and artillery are outside the museum and I was pleased to see some restoration work was underway since my last visit.

The inside displays have also been improved in recent years and it is now arguably the finest military museum in the Balkans. Certainly the highlight of my recent visit to Belgrade.

There is a comprehensive set of photos on my web site, but here are some of my favourites.

Among the artillery pieces was this heavy howitzer. I think it is a Skoda 305mm Howitzer. The mobile versions were used in Slovenia during WW1 against the Italians, so could easily have ended up in Yugoslavian army service. But if anyone knows better, please let me know.

Another artillery piece I am not sure of here. I think it's a 150mm sFH18 German howitzer, but happy to be corrected.

Then a couple of armoured vehicles. First a French FT17 in Yugoslav service before WW2

And a Polish tankette.

Some exhibits from inside the museum. Starting with late medieval Serbian arms and armour.

Serbian Jannisaries that garrisoned Belgrade.

Serbian uniforms of the 1809 insurrection

And a room full of standards, still in use during the Balkan wars.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The War in the West

As my current wargame project is the 1940 campaign in France, I thought it was time to dig into the history a bit more. My source was James Holland's new history 'The War in the West'. Volume one covers the period prior to the outbreak of war until the German invasion of Russia in 1941.

If you are looking for a narrative military history of the early war period, this isn't it. Instead the author takes us behind the scenes looking at the underlying strengths of the combatants. In many ways it is as much an economic history as a military one.

For example, while I was aware of the limited mechanisation of the German army, I hadn't appreciated how limited mechanisation was in Germany. Civilian car ownership was far behind Britain and France and therefore so was the infrastructure in terms of motor manufacturers, petrol stations, mechanics etc. Even if the German army had the vehicles, they would have had to train an army of drivers and support units from scratch.

This was also reflected in shortage of raw materials. There was food rationing in 1939 Germany, and simply not enough raw materials to produce enough aircraft and tanks to match Britain, never mind its empire and allies.

I also hadn't appreciated how early the USA had started rearming and switching its huge manufacturing capacity from civilian to military use. Their ruthless standardisation was in stark contrast to the myriad of vehicle types in use in Germany. Even the massive war booty became a problem for Germany due the problem of spare parts.

James Holland also highlights Hitler's poor strategic decision making, even in the early war period. A good example is the decision to invade Crete, an island with no real strategic significance, compared with Malta.

This is a fascinating new book that gives the reader a very different perspective on WW2. A short war was Hitler's only hope of victory and Britain's determination to fight on meant that wasn't going to happen. It may not have felt that way during the Blitz, but victory for the allies was the only likely outcome.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Scythians

A gap in my work trip to London today enabled a quick visit to the Scythian exhibition at the British Museum. Very glad I did, it is superb!

The Scythians were a related group of nomadic tribes who inhabited the steppes from about the 9th century BC until about the 1st century BC. Scythia was the Greek term for the grasslands north and east of the Black Sea and Herodotus is our primary text. This is supplemented by archeological finds, which form the basis for the exhibition. 

The Scythians were among the earliest peoples to master mounted warfare. They kept herds of horses, cattle, and sheep, lived in tent-covered wagons, and fought with bows on horseback. As the exhibition vividly portrays, they developed a rich culture characterized by opulent tombs, fine metalwork, and a brilliant art style.

At their peak, Scythians came to dominate the entire steppe zone, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to central China in the east. Creating what has been called the first Central Asian nomadic empire, although there was little that could be called an organised state.

The exhibition consists of items lent by the Hermitage Museum in Russia. Peter the Great did much to encourage the archeology and you are treated by a very fine portrait of the Tsar as you enter the exhibition. Thanks to Roman and Greek propaganda we have been taught to regard these tribes as barbarians. When you look at the craftsmanship of the exhibits you can what nonsense this is. The broaches and belt buckles are exquisite and evidence of an advanced culture.

Thanks to the Siberian permafrost, there are even fragments of clothing on display, as well as some weaponry and armour. The British Museum has done a fine job of displaying these artefacts, together with CGI backdrops of the Steppe and sound effects. The exhibition book is a very weighty and pretty expensive tome. I can't help thinking the museum would have done better with a more modest booklet, aimed at the general reader.

The British Museum is of course always worth a visit. I don't think I have been there since my schooldays, certainly an omission on my part. Putting to one side the controversy over the filched Greek and Egyptian exhibits, they alone are worth a visit. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Roman Army Units in the Eastern Provinces

A new Osprey on a Balkan subject is an easy purchase and read, while I work through weightier tomes. This study by Rafaele D'Amato covers Roman units in the Balkans and further east, from 31BC to AD195.

The author starts with a brief chronology of the eastern provinces during this period, highlighting why they were so important to the Empire. He then identifies the distribution of units and their bases. This includes the legions and the more numerous Auxilia cohorts. This is a complex picture, with the Auxilia in particular being used as garrisons on the frontiers and lines of communication. He also lists locally recruited Numeri and Nationes, largely used for paramilitary policing duties.

The largest part of the book covers the arms, equipment and clothing in the different provinces. It is here were you can see the local influences, including units and equipment that you don't normally associate with the Roman army. This part of the book covers the latest archeological finds, which show these local influences. For example, in Macedonia there are strong Hellenic influences with muscled corselets, and in Dacia, the falx and draco standards.

Of course, the colour plates are what attract wargamers in particular to the Men At Arms series. The artist Raffaele Ruggeri doesn't let us down with superb artwork.

I am off to Serbia next week and plan to visit several Roman sites. On my last visit to Belgrade (Roman Singidunum), I remember an early morning visit to the Kalemegdan fortress overlooking the Danube, imagining what a Roman legionary might have been thinking as he gased through the mist into the Barbaricum over the river. I also hope to get to the remains of Felix Romuliana, Galerius's planned retirement palace. No less than 17 Roman emperors were born on what is now Serbian territory.

Here is one of them, in the imperial purple, with some fellow commanders in 28mm.

Monday, 9 October 2017

WW2 Senegalese Tirailleurs

My painting schedule has slipped considerably in recent weeks, but I have at least made a start with the French army for the early WW2 campaigns.

The first unit are Senegalese Tirailleurs. These were colonial infantry, initially recruited from Senegal, French West Africa and then throughout the French colonies in Western, Central and Eastern Africa.

There were five regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs stationed in France at the outbreak of war. The 2e division colonial senegalese was deployed permanently in the south of France.

Senegalese and other African tirailleur units served with distinction at Gien, Bourges and Buzancais during the axis invasion. German troops indoctrinated with Nazi racial doctrines expressed outrage at having to fight against "inferior" opponents and at Montluzin Senegalese prisoners were executed.

Surprisingly for WW2 units, there is some confusion over the exact shade of khaki for French uniforms. I tried the Flames of War guide colours as they helpfully give Vallejo codes, but it was far too light. So after looking at the advice on the forums, I settled for British uniform mixed with some brown. The tirailleurs have the distinctive Coupe-Coupe, a heavy bladed knife.

The figures are 28mm from the Warlord range.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Rommel by Sam Mustafa

Sam Mustafa's new set of wargame rules may divide opinion, but they are certainly innovative.

A new set of rules from Sam Mustafa will always be high on my wish list, but do we really need another set of WW2 rules? The answer is probably yes, because Sam has found a niche in a crowded market for a set of rules that is for the really big games at corps level, or even higher.

The main criticism of the rules is that they are more a boardgame than a tabletop wargame with miniatures. It is the case that some of the mechanics have a board game feel to them, and of course the use of a square grid adds to that impression. However, if you use miniatures this is still a wargame and he is not alone in championing the use of grids to speed up play. Simon Miller's 'To the Strongest' is a case in point and few would argue that is a boardgame.

This isn't a cheap set of rules (I paid £32), even if that is probably due to the rate of exchange. There is also a much cheaper PDF download version. For your money, you get a high quality publication and plenty of free online support from the website. Army lists for the main combatants are in the book.

You can play without miniatures using unit cards, or you can use the template to put miniatures on the cards. Alternatively, as I did, you can put the stats on the roster and play with miniatures like any other wargame. You will need a playing surface divided into squares, which represent a square kilometre. I decided to use my 10mm WW2 collection and used 10cm squares, if you want to use 15mm then a 6" square will be necessary. This means you can get a decent size game on a 4' x 3' mat - mine came from those sold for 'To The Strongest', made by Deep Cut Studios. You will also need some markers and a command post for each army, downloadable for free from the website.

A unit is a reinforced company and each unit has a three stage combat track, plus an armour strength for tank units. Artillery units have a range and barrage value. They also have traits like leg infantry, armoured infantry and so on.

The command post sheet is the key to the game. Each army starts the game with ops dice that can be replenished during the game. These can be spent on road movement, tactical movement or a list of events and tactics. They can only be used once, unless you reset at a start of a bound, but if you do so you get fewer ops dice. This allows you to use your ops dice to focus on a particular attach, but you will never have enough to do everything you want. This really does put you into the role of corps commander.

The games mechanics on the tabletop are straightforward and fast with the use of square grids. Typically infantry move one square and motored units two squares. Road movement is faster, but you need to keep well away from the enemy, or pay the price in combat values.

Combat is resolved by adding the values of the units in contact (there on no ranged attacks due to the game scale), rolling a dice that gives you a column on a table and then applying shifts due to a small number of factors and tactics you pay ops dice for. This does feel like a boardgame mechanic, but it is simple and quick. Having said that, combat can run on for several moves, not least because the stacking rules limit the number of units in a square. If the attacker doesn't destroy all the enemy units in a square, it has to retreat one or more squares.

That is the basic game, but there are advanced rules for engineering , airborne, beach landing etc.

The chapter on army lists explains the points system, so you can create those obscure units we all love to have. The basic building block is the battalion and that is fixed. Then you can pick how many you want for each 'element', typically a regiment, brigade or kampfgruppe. There are limitations on numbers and attachments to create historically realistic forces. The lists are also divided into early, mid or late war periods.

Finally, there are a number of basic scenarios to get you started.

So, onto the tabletop. I used late war German and Soviet armies. A typical game might have between 80 and 110 points, but for this starter game I used 65 a side. This paid for two tank brigades and an infantry division for the Soviets, and a panzer and infantry kampfgruppe for the Germans.

These are the starting positions, Soviets on the right.

Close up of the action in the centre - Panthers v T34s. The grids don't really dominate the look of the tabletop.

The wider action on the right. Terrain is marked by a single model building for a built up area, or a tree for a wood. Remember a square covers a large area, a kilometre.

Action on the left flank with Pkw IVs and panzer grenadiers.

The Soviets breakthrough in the centre and start to roll up the German left.

My overall view is that the rules are well laid out and quick to understand. The subtleties will take a bit more practice, particularly on how to use the ops dice. It certainly gives the feel of a big battle and so is very different from other WW2 rules, like Blitzkrieg Commander or Spearhead that I typically use with these models. Dismissing it as a boardgame, misses the point. It's a different game and one that is a very welcome addition to my rules bookshelf.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe

Is Russia seeking to extend its influence into the Balkans and undermine efforts by the EU and USA to promote stability and democracy in the region? Dimitar Bechev detaches the myths from the facts and weaves a complex picture of hard and soft power influence.

Part 1 gives the reader some historical background, highlighting the close cultural and military links between Russia and the Balkan states. With chapters on each country, he shows how Russian influence operates differently in each country, and equally importantly, how these countries use their links with Russia. The links with former Yugoslavia are obvious, but relations with Turkey have strengthened since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan. 

Part 2 looks at the different levers Russia deploys in the region. These include military technology and cyber warfare, through to energy. Russia would like to develop gas pipelines into Europe through the Balkans, but is struggling to overcome EU rules. However, it has bought significant shares in Balkan energy companies and plays a huge role in local energy markets.

Later chapters explore soft influence, including links to pro-Russian or at least anti-western political parties, as well as cultural links through civil society groups. In Serbia alone there are some 20 pro-Russian associations. This is reflected in Serbian opinion polls, which show that most citizens believe Russia is a leading donor, when in fact they have invested a fraction of the amounts spent by the EU. This helps Russia in foreign policy terms, much needed after the annexation of the Crimea.

The 'contest' between Russia and the West is real, even if Russia emphasises that it is not an either/or choice. Many Balkan states take the same view and have been willing accomplices when enlisting Russian support. However, this is not a return to the Cold War. Russia has no permanent allies or ideology to export - not least because it isn't in a strong enough position economically. It relies more on insertion and disruption, using soft power and the modern permeable borders, facilitated by the world wide web. It isn't trying to establish a new empire.

Neither is Russia responsible for the regions problems. “From Belgrade to Ankara,” the author writes; “dysfunctional democracies, state capture and the backslide to authoritarian politics are, on the whole, homegrown ills, not an outcome of a sinister Muscovite plot.”

The author is also sceptical that Russia is using the Balkans as a way of undermining the EU from within. It doesn't have the resources or the will to bankroll friendly regimes, even those that admire Putin's 'managed democracy'. Bechev concludes that the Balkan states will have to navigate the murky waters of this new contest; "For the most part, the states of the region will jump on the West's bandwagon but hedge their bets and keep their options open."

This is a throughly research book, well referenced with evidence backed assertions. Balanced and objective, its also well written, opening up the subject for the general reader as well as the specialist. Recommended.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

BEF completed

Final touches to my British Expeditionary Force 1940 project, well as final as any project ever is!

First up some heavy support in the form of this Matilda II infantry tank. This is the Warlord model, one of their resin kits. It went together well after some cleaning up and is a really nice model of one of my favourite tanks of WW2.

Then a Universal Carrier. This is also a Warlord kit. This time in plastic, but not one of the over complex Italieri ones. This was not unnecessarily fiddly and the parts went together well. There were even instructions!

This is the whole force at around 1000 points for Bolt Action.

And onto the tabletop at the club today. They did very well. Taking a German force apart in just over three moves, without a single casualty.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

BEF support weapons

I have added some support weapons for my British Expeditionary Force 1940 project.

First up some anti-tank rifles. These are from the Crusader range.

Then a Vickers HMG, also from the Crusader range. A nice robust one piece casting. All other wargame companies please note!

And finally, some serious firepower in the form of this 25pdr. This is the Warlord version and it's a nice model. However, one of my pet irritations with Warlord artillery is the lack of instructions. Photographs of the completed model on the website is of little use when you are trying to work out where hidden parts go. Got there in the end!

That just leaves a couple of armoured vehicles on the painting bench.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Valentine Baker's heroic stand at Tashkessen 1877

The Battle of Tashkessen, fought in December 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War, is probably the most competent rearguard action of the nineteenth century. Some 3000 Ottoman troops stalled 25,000 Russian soldiers for four days, allowing the main Ottoman army to withdraw.

It's an action that few people will have heard of today. All the more remarkable when the Ottoman force was commanded by a former British Colonel, Valentine Baker, or Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha, as the Ottomans knew him. The Shipka Pass and siege of Plevna are reasonably well known, with at least 18 roads in Britain named after Plevna, but not one named after Tashkessen.

Frank Jastrzembski, in a new book on the battle explains why. Colonel Valentine Baker was the subject of a notorious scandal in Victorian Britain. A well known and highly respected army officer, he was convicted of indecent assault on a 21 year old woman on a train in June 1875. He served a twelve month prison sentence, albeit in more comfort than most of his fellow prisoners, and was then cashiered from the army. Despite support from many in the military establishment, Queen Victoria refused all requests for reinstatement, until just before he died.

Unable to serve in the British army, his friend the Prince of Wales helped him gain an appointment as a Mirliva (Major General) in the Ottoman gendarmerie. Baker was something of an expert on the east having travelled and written extensively about the region. Britain had supported the Ottoman Empire in its disputes with the Russians, most recently in the Crimean War. However, Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria meant that public opinion in Britain had made overt support difficult. Baker reported to his friends at home on the events on 1876 and the outbreak of war with the Russians in 1877.

After initial setbacks for the Ottomans, Baker joined the army of Mehmed Ali Pasha based at Shumla in the Quadrilateral fortresses on the Danube. Squabbling amongst the Ottoman commanders militated against a coordinated counterattack and despite some modest advances by Baker's division, it ground to a halt on the River Lom.

Baker got himself a new command in the Ottoman army based at Sofia, preparing to relieve Plevna. However, the army was simply not up to the task and after the fall of Plevna, on 10 December 1877, the released Russian and Romanian troops spread across Bulgaria. Baker spotted that the Ottoman defences on the Kamarli line were about to be outflanked by some 20,000 Russians, commanded by General Gourko. Baker took a small force of three battalions with some Arab cavalry and artillery to the Tashkessen Pass, in an attempt to buy time for the Ottoman army to withdraw. He received some reinforcements, but his force never exceeded 3,000 men, of varied quality.

The battle was a textbook rearguard action, with the effective use of terrain, reserves and a withdrawal over several positions. Garnet Wolseley described it as, 'One of the most important events in the war' and Colonel Maurice in a lecture to British officers said it was, 'the most wonderful rearguard action our times, if not of all time'. It was without doubt, Bakers's finest hour.

His career after the 1877 war took him back to Britain where he was partly received back into society, but not the army due to Queen Victoria's continued opposition. He was appointed to the Egyptian gendarmerie after the British occupation of that country in 1882. In December 1883, in the Mahdi uprising in the Sudan, his very weak force collapsed at El Teb. Baker barely escaped with his life and ended his career in Egypt, where he died on 17 November 1887. He never knew that Queen Victoria  had acceded to his reappointment to the British army a month or so earlier. He was buried in the English cemetery of Cairo.

I have to confess that I didn't make time to visit this battlefield during my visit to the main battlefields of the Russo-Turkish War. The modern motorway from Plovdiv takes the traveller south of the old Sofia road at Tashkessen, called Saranci today. Having read this book, it was a major oversight.

When my copy of this book arrived, I was ploughing through another somewhat heavy going tome. After dipping into it, the pull was too strong and I read it over a weekend. The author tells the story of Valentine Baker from his early career, through the scandal and onto the Russo-Turkish War. His involvement in the war and the Battle of Tashkessen is the focus of the book, but he carefully outlines the context and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing army. He ends with an interesting chapter on comparable rearguard actions. If there is one small shortcoming in this book, it would have benefited from some diagrams of the battle. Baker's 19th century map is helpful, but inadequate by modern standards.

This is brilliant book, well researched and written, throwing light on a subject that deserves more attention. Not just the the fascinating story of Valentine Baker, but also the role of rearguard actions in warfare. Taskkessen is indeed a model to be studied. Highly recommended.

So, onto the tabletop. I decided to dust down my 15mm armies for the war, not least because of the numbers of Russian's involved. I condensed the battle down to three stages. The initial probing assaults, followed by the attempt to outflank the position, and then the final assaults on the second line positions. I'm afraid my generalship didn't match the brilliance of Baker, but it did give me an insight into the challenges he faced.

Some probing attacks on the village of Tashkessen

This is the right hook column, including guards units (white caps) commanded by Kourloff.

Baker holding the central knoll with the Edirne battalion