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

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Forgotten 500

My latest reading is Gregory Freeman's 'The Forgotten 500'. This is the story of Operation Halyard the largest rescue of allied aircrew in WW2. Over 500 airmen were airlifted out of the hills of Nazi occupied Yugoslavia in August 1944.

By any standard it is a remarkable story. When the allies captured southern Italy it gave them a number of bases to more effectively target the main Axis oilfields in Romania. Before that it was a long flight from North Africa, infamously undertaken on 1 August 1943 by Liberator bombers. I recommend James Dugan and Carroll Stewart's book 'Ploesti' for the details of that astonishing raid.

Inevitably a large number of bombers didn't make it back to Italy and many crash landed or aircrew bailed out in Yugoslavia. This story deals with those who landed in the hills of Serbia controlled by the Royalist Chetniks, commanded by General Draza Mihailovich. The airmen who landed in this area were supported by Serbian villagers, who generously cared for them as best their own meagre food supplies enabled. The Chetniks gathered most of the airmen together around their headquarters at Pranjane. 

At this stage of the war, allied support was focused on Tito's partisans, so the news of all these airmen filtered through slowly. The book tells the story of a number of airmen and their experiences as well as the plan to to rescue them. The rescue was organised by OSS, who sent in agents and organised the preparation of a makeshift airfield in the hills, which was barely long enough for a C47 transport aircraft to land and take off again. 

Amazingly, this was achieved right under the noses of the nearby German garrisons and air base. In one night alone 272 airmen were rescued, bearing in mind that a C47 could only carry around 12 men on each trip. The mission continued for six months and 512 men were rescued without the loss of a single life.

The story is little known largely because it was kept a secret. Partly because of the fear of German retaliation on the Serbian villages and partly because allied support had been withdrawn from Mihailovich. Although I did notice a small display in the Belgrade Military Museum on my last visit, that I don't recall on previous trips. 

This reflects some rehabilitation for Mihailovich and his role during the war. While it is right that some balance is restored on this issue, in my view the author goes too far the other way. Obviously this rescue should be credited to Mihailovich and the rescued airmen justifiably supported him after the war during his trial and subsequent execution.

However, the author almost entirely focuses on the strongly anti-Communist views of the OSS officers and ignores the very real evidence against Mihailovich. What he describes as 'local accommodations' were in fact deals with the Germans and followed earlier negotiations. As the historian Marko Attila Hoare puts it, "On other occasions, however, Mihailović's Chetniks rescued German airmen and handed them over safely to the German armed forces ... The Americans, with a weaker intelligence presence in the Balkans than the British, were less in touch with the realities of the Yugoslav civil war. They were consequently less than enthusiastic about British abandonment of the anti-communist Mihailović, and more reserved toward the Partisans."

The Allied effort later in the war shifted to Tito because he was actively fighting the Germans. Mihailovich avoided conflict with Germans and focused his efforts on fighting the Partisans. In that context, allied support for Tito was the right policy.

Despite this criticism this is still a good read. If you strip out the politics, this is a great story that deserves to be better known.  

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.