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

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

Sunday, 20 August 2017

BEF 1940 - figure comparison

I made a bit more progress with the lead mountain for the BEF 1940 this week.

Another rifle squad added, using Crusader miniatures that I picked up at Claymore. I hadn't seen this range before, but I like them. A little more chunky than Warlord, but otherwise pretty comparable.

For comparison purposes, here are the Warlord figures that I painted some weeks ago.

I have started some support weapons next and I do like the Crusader approach of one part castings. For example, their Vickers HMG is a good solid one part casting with no flash. In comparison, Warlord are usually fiddly little bits that are no where near as robust.

I picked up this book 'France, Holland and Belgium 1940-41' by Will Fowler while on holiday, at a bargain price of £4. More a photographic guide to the campaign with plenty of inspiration.

Dan Snow's podcast History Hit has a good interview with James Holland, author of War in the West, which is on my reading list. He was getting his take on the new Dunkirk film.

While he generally gave it a very favourable review, he did point out a couple of shortcomings that I hadn't spotted. His main gripe was the references to waiting for the tides. He pointed out that the mole went out further than low tide mark and therefore the tides made little difference. This was an unnecessary piece of nonsense, unlike the lack of smoke and ships.

He also pointed out that Kenneth Branagh would have been court martialled for not wearing a helmet! Apparently the actual Senior Naval Officer, in the absence of stencils, cut out the letters SNO from cigarette packets and stuck them on with fish oil.

Still a great film, but could have been more accurate without losing any of the cinematic experience.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

WW2 combat reconnaissance tactics

I picked up this Osprey Elite 156, written by Gordon Rottman, in a second hand bookshop while on holiday. It was first published in 2007 and is still available on the Osprey site, at a discounted price as well.

It starts with an outline of the purpose of reconnaissance and then the type of missions. Essentially, the job is to collect information, rather than combat with the enemy. The author then describes the various types of recce units and their mobility. This varied between armies and the theatre of operations.

The second half of the book discusses the varied equipment recce troops carried. They obviously travelled light, but also needed intensive firepower to extract themselves. He also discusses the different types of communications - from messages to radios. Finally, the author makes some national comparisons between the US, GB, German, Russian and Japanese recce units.

For the wargamer this is a very useful book. Actions involving recce units are often at a scale that are easily reproduced on the tabletop and they often have a balanced all arms composition that gamers like. This book includes useful diagrams that shows the gamer the different ways recce units moved across the battlefield and how they prepared for a mission.

Some 15mm recce units for the tabletop.

First up some German light armoured cars supported by Fallschirmjager.

Then some British armoured cars and Bren carriers.

And finally, recce units often not only retained cavalry designations, they were actually horse mounted in many armies. Here are some Greeks.