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, 19 March 2018

A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945

If you are a wargamer who thinks German troops should always get a bonus, then this may be the book for you. Trevor Dupuy is the author of 'A Genius for War: The German Army and general Staff, 1807-1945' and he sets out the arguments for the exceptional military excellence of the German military.

He came to the subject by looking at the amazing recovery from defeat the German military managed in WW2. He argues that German units had a 30% combat superiority per man over the British and Americans at the time of the Salerno landing, and this had only dwindled to 20% by mid-1944. As he refined the model it showed that German soldiers inflicted three casualties on the Allies for every two they incurred. He also noticed that board game firms like Avalon Hill had given similar weightings to achieve reasonably faithful outcomes.

When applying this model, in less detail, to WW1 he found a similar 20% combat effectiveness. When he discussed these findings with veterans, they tended to confirm the findings.

This book is essentially about explaining why this combat superiority existed. He argues that it isn't anything inherently superior about Germans. Instead it is the institutionalising of military excellence that accounts for the difference. For example, Germans fighting outwith the military system in the American Civil War did not have a similar combat superiority.

He points out that the international reputation for military excellence didn't start until the mid-Eighteenth-century and not really until the nineteenth century. This means that the answer doesn't lie with the men, but in the structure of the German military establishment. He argues:

"The fundamental explanation of German combat ability and of the quality of German military power as demonstrated in two world wars, lay in the organisation and operation of the Prussian/German General Staff."

The author therefore takes us through the development of the German military system. The focus is on the general staff system, which although it had its failings, did produce many more outstanding generals than its contemporaries. It was the only significant military professional development that was not matched by other countries. This system not only produced good generals, but it also encouraged individual initiative at all levels. This is illustrated by Prince Frederick Charles statement to a blundering Major during the Franco-Prussian War who claimed he was following orders, he said:

"His majesty made you a major because he believed that you would know when NOT to obey his orders."

Of course this system broke down with Hitler, who ignored this dictum, contributing to some of Germany's worst defeats. They were not geniuses because they made no mistakes - they just made fewer than their opponents.

The author makes a convincing and well argued case for his thesis. Recommended reading, particularly for wargamers.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Joseph Brant and his World

My recent Canadian trip was for a conference in the City of Burlington, Ontario. The Main Street was named after a Captain Joseph Brant, which I assumed was a Canadian or British military officer. However, the story is actually much more interesting.

Joseph Brant was a Mohawk (Kanien'kehake) leader who lived in what is now over the border in New York State. So he was what I was brought up to describe as a Red Indian; these days correctly known as First Peoples and First Nations. As a wargamer my collection also includes what most firms describe as Iroquois. This turns out to be a derisive French word that means "the killer people". The proper name for the Six Nations is Haudenosaunee.

A bit more research led me to a local bookshop and a book written by James Paxton, 'Joseph Brant and his World'. He sets out the North America that Joseph Brant was born into in 1743. This was a period of almost continuous warfare, starting with the War of Austrian Succession (1744-48), and the Seven Years War (1754-60) in which the British colonies contested North America with the French. The Six Nations, including the Mohawks, mostly fought with the British, and Brant aged only 15 fought in several campaigns, including the siege of Fort Niagara and the fall of Montreal.

Fort Niagara
Brant received a British education that included a spell in Scotland and developed his connections across the territories, often in the employment of the Indian Department. He fought in Pontiac's War (1763-65) and while that fizzled out, the land disputes continued.

He gradually took on a leadership role, with his wife Molly, and persuaded the Six Nations to support the British in the American Revolution. This ended badly for Brant and his peoples, who were scattered, with many ending up in Canada.  It was during this war that he was given a commission as a Captain and took part in a number of raids and other actions.

His post-war life in Canada is of less interest to the military historian, but involved many disputes over land for the First Nations of Canada. These are still live political issues to this day. Joseph Brant died in 1807. His son fought for the British at Queenstown Heights in 1813 and the role of the Six Nations is recognised on the battlefield site.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Dust Upon the Sea - raiding in the Aegean

'Dust Upon the Sea' is the wartime memoir of W.E. Benyon-Tinker, an army officer seconded to a naval special service flotilla operating in the Aegean during 1943-45. It was published in 1947 and I found it lurking in the corner of a second-hand bookshop in Inverness. There are a few copies knocking around internet suppliers, although at prices significantly higher than I paid, or frankly would have paid.

The Levant Schooner Flotilla consisted primarily of caiques. These are small Greek sailing vessels, aided by a small engine, that rarely managed to get above eight knots. Based in Beirut they were essentially a taxi service for raiding forces provided by LRDG and SBS detachments, used to attack German garrisons on the Aegean Islands.

The author describes a number of his trips as the war developed, before the Germans abandoned the islands as the Russians entered the Balkans and threatened their lines of communication. As a signals and intelligence officer, the author was in the position of neither playing an active role in handling of the boats or the raids themselves. This means the narrative is a bit of a travelogue, not uninteresting, but it does get a bit tedious at times.

There are other books that cover the strategy and combat better, including the memoirs of Michael Woodbine Parish in 'Aegean Adventures'. However, one of the books real strengths are his extensive collection of wartime photographs.

I can't say I would recommend this. As the author candidly admits, he isn't a writer, but it might inspire a game or two based on an island raid. And it just so happens I have some figures that might just do the job!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Canadian Warplane Museum and Niagara Military Museum

These are a couple of museums I visited on my recent trip to Canada. Both are worth a look.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is situated next to Hamilton International Airport. I probably didn't see it at its best because the building was hosting a wood exhibition. Wood carving is clearly a popular hobby in Ontario, at least judging from the stalls and visitors.

I therefore assume the planes are little better spaced out normally. They have a number of classics like the Lancaster bomber, Spitfire and Hurricane, as well as more obscure Canadian produced aircraft. Here are a few photos and the list of planes is on the website.

and a model of a Canadian Air Force base in Burma

finally a memorial to troops killed in Afghanistan

The Niagara Military Museum is housed in the former Niagara Falls Armoury, built in 1911. It's a real gem of a museum covering the military history of the people and the local area. The volunteer guide was very helpful and hugely knowledgable. This added much to the experience. I recognise the falls are the tourist draw, but don't miss this museum.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Niagara 1814 - the battlefields

I recently reviewed the Osprey campaign series book on the last US invasion of Canada - the Niagara campaign of 1814. After a recent work trip to Ontario, I had the weekend to explore the battlefields.

First stop was at the southern end of the river - Fort Erie. It was closed, but I managed to find a back door to at least the courtyard. In August 1814, US troops had occupied the fort and surrounding earthworks. Over the next few months there was a siege and several sorties/assaults before the British abandoned the siege on 21 September. The Americans abandoned the fort in November and returned to their side of the river, modern day Buffalo.

Monument to the fallen

The fort from the river side

From the north edge of the fort

One of the landward bastions

Inside the fort

Next stop was the battlefield of Chippawa. On 5 July 1814 US and British divisions clashed just south of the Niagara Falls. A victory for the US, although the British were able to withdraw in good order. The battlefield is pretty much as it was in 1814, with a monument and information boards.

The same cannot be said for the next stop, Lundy's Lane. It is pretty difficult to visualise this battlefield amongst the very commercial road that is the modern Lundy's Lane. This was the bloodiest battle of the campaign on 25 July 1814, when both sides battered each other with assault and counter assault up the hill near the monument and cemetery that marks the battlefield today. A score draw to the British and the US withdraw.

The best preserved site on the river is undoubtably Fort George, which guards the north end of the river. The fort was captured by US forces in 1813 and held for seven months before being abandoned. The site today is mostly a reconstruction, but includes some very fine exhibits and really enthusiastic living history activities.

I didn't get over to the US Fort Niagara, border delays waste too much time, but here is a shot from Fort George.

Finally, The Battle of Queenstown Heights. This was the earlier 1812 invasion that was badly managed by the US and led to a decisive British victory. The battlefield has an impressive monument to the British commander, Major General Issac Brock, who died during the battle.

Overall, a very interesting couple of days. This is a good campaign for the wargamer as the numbers of troops are quite manageable and easily available in all scales. I stayed in Niagara Falls, which of course is the usual tourist attraction!

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Fort York - Ontario

I am currently on a work trip to Ontario, Canada. So, an opportunity to see some of the military history sites.

First stop is Fort York, somewhat incongruously situated amongst the skyscrapers of modern Toronto.

It was not always like this. The governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, ordered the construction of a garrison on the present site of Fort York in 1793. He wanted to establish a naval base to control Lake Ontario because of a war scare with the United States resulting from Britain's alliance to the native people of the Ohio Country, who were engaged in a brutal conflict with the Americans to preserve their territories.

In 1807, Anglo-American relations began to deteriorate again, so the fort was strengthened in 1811. In 1812, the United States declared war and invaded Canada. On 27 April 1813, the U.S. Army and Navy attacked York with 2700 men on fourteen ships and schooners, armed with eighty-five cannon. The defending force of 750 British, Canadians, Mississaugas, and Ojibways had twelve cannon. The British withdrew but blew up the powder magazine causing heavy American casualties.

The British rebuilt Fort York, and in August 1814, it was strong enough to repel the U.S. squadron when it again tried to enter Toronto Bay. In February 1815, word reached York that the War of 1812 had ended the previous December. It was good news: peace had returned, and the defence of Canada against American invasion had been successful.

The fort is very well preserved despite being squeezed between a motorway and the main railway line. But the real strength is the exhibits inside.

Very much worth a visit.