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, 28 December 2017

Armies of the Italian Wars of Unification 1848-70 (1)

This is the first volume in an Osprey MAA two part series on the wars of unification by Gabriele Esposito.


The emphasis here is on the armies. Firstly the army of Piedmont in the 1848 and 1859 wars. Then the unified Italian army after 1861. And finally the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between 1848 and 1861. Each chapter deals with the organisation and weapons of the armies. As you would expect from Osprey, there are plenty of illustrations and very nice colour plates by Giuseppe Rava. Lots of character in the poses, some of the best I have seen in an Osprey book, and I own hundreds!

There is a very short chronology, but if you are not familiar with the wars these armies fought in, I would recommend Christopher Hibbert's 'Garibaldi and his Enemies'. A very readable one volume history.

I collected 15mm 'Principles of War' armies for these wars many years ago and this book was an opportunity to dust them down. I used my current favourite 19C rules 'The Men Who Would Be Kings' and they worked well. I used a 1859 Piedmont 24pt force on the right against an Austrian force on the left. 

From memory the figures mainly come from Frei Korps range, some in their early period with the soft metal - hence the absent bayonets and sometimes worse!





I have visited the Austrian quadrilateral fortresses in northern Italy and the battlefield at Solferino is well worth a visit. In addition to the set piece battles, actions involving Garibaldi and his Red Shirts in Sicily and the Alps are very suitable for the TMWWBK rules. The Austrian army of the period is covered in Osprey MAA 323 and MAA 329.


Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Scanderbeg

My pre-Christmas reading has been a new book on the Albanian hero Scanderbeg (or George Castriota) by A.K.Brackob, published by Histria Books.



2018 will be the 550th anniversary of Scanderbeg's death. It was by any standard an extraordinary life, and not well known outside Albania where his standard is the national flag to this day. From 1443 to 1468 he led the resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, at a time when they were the dominant military force in the Balkans. 

To understand his achievements you have to appreciate the geography of Albania and the author spends some time describing the mountains that protect the country's small coastal plain. It may also have been its weakness, as it meant the country was slow to create a more centralised feudal state that might have been able to unite to resist invasion. Internal division and Venetian administration in coastal ports, combined to weaken the defences.

Scanderbeg himself was a hostage in Istanbul from an early age after his father's rebellion against the Ottomans. Albanian's have historically worn their religion lightly and the country had Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic adherents. Scanderbeg's father John Castriota, converted to Islam and regularly switched his religion depending on his current allies. The young George was a hostage in the court of Sultan Murad II and was educated in the palace school. He later converted to Islam and took the name Scanderbeg.

He probably gained military experience on campaigns with the Ottoman army in Anatolia and certainly remained loyal to the Sultan during his father's revolt in the 1430's. His elder brother served with the Venetian's. He was appointed the governor of important Albanian castles and began his preparations for revolt.

The Ottoman defeat at Nis in 1443 was the opportunity to return to Albania and capture, by ruse, the  key castle of Kruje (Croya in the book) in central Albania. Abandoning Islam, he forged a loose alliance of the Albanian lords in central Albania in the League of Alessio, although his authority as general of the army was limited. The north remained under Venetian control and south largely remained loyal to the Ottomans, where the Timar system was in operation.

Commanding a force that rarely exceeded 10,000 men, he fought a guerrilla war against the Ottomans, using the topography effectively. He defeated the Ottomans in battles at Torvioll and Otonete.

The Venetian's became wary of his growing power and this led to war in in 1447. After Scanderbeg defeated them, a peace treaty was signed, although they continued to assist the Ottomans with supplies. Scanderbeg aimed to support John Hunyadi's invasion and was only some 20 miles from joining him at the second Battle of Kosovo.

He survived the epic siege of Kruje in 1450 and received modest support from the Pope and other western states, particularly Naples. Although his power base at home was weakened by internal divisions. He survived these and defeated the Ottomans several times, even finding the time to lead an expedition in Italy in 1460 in support of Naples.


The castle at Kruje today

Mehmed himself led a huge Ottoman army into Albania, but yet again failed to capture Kruje in 1466. He did capture other areas and devastated the country, which suffered serious depopulation. Scanderbeg died of malaria in January in 1468 while trying to put together yet another coalition. While some resistance continued, the Ottomans gradually extended their control over all of Albania. 

Scanderbeg is credited with holding back the Ottoman advance into Italy, which required an Albanian base. One of many admirers was the British General James Wolfe who wrote that he "excels all the officers, ancient and modern, in the conduct of a small defensive army".

The author covers all of these events, with a fast paced narrative. He pulls together the limited sources as few have done since the classic history by Bishop Fan Noli in 1947. Although Harry Hodgkinson's 1999 book is also worth a read.

You can't avoid the great man in any visit to Albania, not least in the main square in Tirana. There is a fine museum in Kruje and the castle is well preserved as well. 



His tomb is in the cathedral ruins at Lezha.



For the wargamer, this is a challenging medieval army to use, even with western allies. It requires the right terrain and tactics to make best use of the Albanian light horse. I have armies in 15mm and 28mm, but haven't won with them very often. Despite my reading, little of the great man's skill has brushed off on me!







Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Varangian

This is the third in the Aelfraed series from historical fiction author Griff Hosker. I haven't read the first two in the series, but was, unsurprisingly, attracted to the book by its Balkan content.


Our hero is one of two housecarls forced to flee England after the Norman contest. They first visit Denmark to seek support from the Danish king. Here they gain some companions and set off on a perilous journey down Russian rivers to Constantinople. They arrive after fighting off several Pecheneg attacks on their boat.

In Constantinople, they are rejected by the Viking dominated Varangian Guard, and join a unit of Saxon mercenaries. They fight against a Norman rebel in Anatolia and are quickly promoted by the Byzantine commander Alexios. After more than a few bouts with the complexity of Byzantine politics, Alexios becomes Emperor with their help. They end up commanding the Varangian Guard.

Their old enemies the Normans are never far away, and they are defeated at Dyrrachion (1081) by Robert Guiscard. However, they recover to push the Normans out of the Balkans in the final battle in which our hero... well I won't spoil the ending.

The author keeps to what we know of the history, largely the memoirs of Anna Comnena, albeit adding in these two redoubtable Saxons. There certainly were Saxons in the Varangian Guard of the period, if not in quite as significant roles!

This is really well written with all you would expect from the genre. Plenty of action, treachery and intrigue. Recommended.

And let's have some eye candy, with 28mm Varangian guardsmen from my Byzantine army of the period.


Monday, 18 December 2017

Armies of the Greek-Italian War 1940-41

An Osprey title on a Balkan theme is a no brainer for me - I wonder if you can do a standing order! Phoebus Athanassiou has tackled the Greek-Italian War of 1940-41, or more accurately, the armies of the conflict.

There is a very brief overview of the war, but this is not a narrative history. For that I would recommend  John Carr's 'The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-41', or for an Italian perspective, Mario Cervi 'The Hollow Legions'. I also wrote a short article on the war for the SOTCW Journal some years ago.

Both armies are covered in some detail, including the organisation, uniform and equipment. As you would expect from Osprey, it is profusely illustrated with period photographs and colour plates by Peter Dennis. The Italian plates show a much greener uniform than I have painted my figures, but there were many shades of the standard uniform colour used, so you can justify some variety.

Air and naval forces are given a quick overview as are allies and auxiliaries. Matthew Gillingham's 'Perilous Commitments' is good on the British and Commonwealth involvement. I have a unit of the Albanian auxiliaries, which were attached to most Italian divisions, even if there contribution is debatable.



Even by the standards of the Italian leadership during WW2, this was a badly led offensive. Six months of bitter fighting in the Albanian and Pindus mountains resulted in some 90,000 Italian casualties. As the author concludes, the average Italian conscript fought bravely under the most gruelling conditions, betrayed by the shortcomings of his command.

The Greek army fought well and not only stopped the Italian forces, but pushed them back into Albania. Despite plenty of obsolete equipment, the Greek's were well placed to defeat the Italian's in the mountains. They still suffered some 60,000 casualties and many more in the subsequent German invasion and occupation.

I have armies for this conflict in 15mm and 28mm, and it is a period I regular return to on the wargame table. I have also walked over the battlefields and can recommend the museum at Kalpaki. Even in the summer you can quickly see how tough it must have been for the soldiers of both armies.

Greek infantry in 28mm - Burns Miniatures


Italian's in 15mm


Greeks in 15mm






Sunday, 10 December 2017

Serbian Army in the Great War

The centenary of the First World War has inspired a large number of books on the campaigns and armies of the conflict. However, very few cover the early campaigns between the Austro-Hungarian and Serbian forces, and fewer still cover the Serbian army in any detail. This is just one reason why Dusan Babac's book is so welcome.


The author starts with a decent overview of the main campaigns. If you are looking just for a narrative history of the campaigns, then Andrej Mitrovic, 'Serbia's Great War, is probably the best option. What Babac gives the reader is a much better understanding of the Serbian army - its preparedness for war, organisation and equipment.

The real strength of this book are the many illustrations, in fact you could almost call it an illustrated history. It is full of contemporary photographs and pictures from museum collections. Uniforms, weapons, equipment, standards and decorations are covered in detail.

If there are any faults, the absence of decent maps makes it difficult for the general reader to follow the ebb and flow of the campaigns. An understanding of Serbian topography helps explain the challenges faced by the Serbian general staff in marshalling their limited resources. The Serbian army performed admirably and the author's patriotism oozes from the pages of this book, even if, on occasions, at the price of objectivity.

However, these are minor quibbles. This is the must read study of the Serbian army of WW1 and I will be dipping into it regularly.

Wargamers of this period will probably be familiar with Babac's Osprey book 'Armies of the Balkans 1914-18'. I have 15mm and 28mm Serbian armies of this period.




Monday, 4 December 2017

Rommel - in the desert

As was obvious from my review, I am pretty enthusiastic about Sam Mustafa's latest rules for WW2.

So much so that I have invested in a new mousemat, from those very helpful guys at Deep Cut Studio. Taking their Steppes finish, which covers a lot of arid terrain, I asked them to overprint 10cm squares. Well to be honest, by mistake I asked for 10mm squares, but fortunately spotted my error when they sent a sample photo for approval. Close call that one!


The lighting in this photo makes the mat look a bit pinkish, which it isn't. This picture from the Deep Cut site is a better representation of the colour.


You can see the discreet lines below, which are even less obvious from a distance.


The game was early war Italian v British, about divisional scale in these rules. The Brits made the first move, making a big sweep to the Italian right flank. Not quite enough ops dice to catch the Italians out, and they responded in kind. That left a slugging match, in which the British Crusaders and Cruisers came out on top.


The models are 10mm, based on 30mm squares, originally for Spearhead.

The mat can of course also be used for 'To The Strongest' games in 15mm.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Battle of Kosovo 1389 - the Albanian view

The battle of Kosovo Polje (Plain of Blackbirds) was fought between the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Murad and an allied army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar on 28 June 1389. My article on BMH gives an overview of the battle with photographs of the battlefield today, courtesy of Peter Verduyn.

Much of what we claim to know about the battle is based on Serbian epics that probably date back to the time of the battle, but were documented much later. They also have propagandistic motives, exacerbated by the use of the battle in more modern politics, most notably by Serbian nationalist politicians like Slobodan Milosevic. All we know for certain is that two large armies met on the battlefield, both suffered significant casualties and both leaders died.

Anna Di Lellio in her book 'The Battle of Kosovo 1389 - An Albanian Epic' introduces us to a different account of the battle. This time based on Albanian epic sources passed down in the oral tradition to this very day.



She also draws on Ottoman and Italian sources that indicate the presence of Albanian lords in the Christian army including Theodor Muzaka, Gjergi Balsha and Dimitri Jonima. This shouldn't be that remarkable as the Albanian lords were Christian and had as much to lose from the Ottoman invasion as did their Slavic neighbours. The subsequent resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, led by George Castriot (Skanderbeg) reinforces the point.

In the Serbian tradition, albeit not really articulated until the 19th century, the figure of Milos Obilic, who is credited with murdering the Sultan on the eve of battle, was a Serbian commander.  In the Albanian tradition, his real name was Millosh Kopiliq an Albanian from the Drenica region of Kosovo, although possibly born near Ohrid.

The author gives us an outline of the battle and the competing narratives. She sets out the political context as well as the historical sources. The bulk of the book consists of a selection of Albanian language songs of the battle, together with English translations.

I'm afraid as is often the case with medieval battles, it is unlikely that any firm evidence will be discovered to support either narrative. However, this book is certainly well researched and well worth a read. The objective reader can then come to their own conclusion.

I do have a weakness for Serbian medieval armies on a wargames table. Those mad impetuous knights are if nothing straightforward to use. Find the right spot, point them in the right direction and hope for the best. Subtle they are not!

15mm Serbian knights about to crash into some Catalans in a recent game at GDWS

Albanian armies of the period require much more tactical handling and effective use of terrain.

28mm Albanian cavalry from the author's collection.


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Modern Russian Army

After reading Dimitar Bechev's book 'Rival Powers', I realised that my knowledge of the modern Russian army was stuck in Soviet days. So, off to Osprey to remedy this and two titles cover the land forces at least.


The first is 'The Modern Russian Army 1992-2016' by Mark Galeotti (Elite 217). The author takes us through the key conflicts from the disastrous First Chechen War in 1994-96 through to the Georgian War of 2008. All of these conflicts highlighted the inadequacy of the army and the need for reform. However, reform was resisted by the higher command elements until the Georgian War gave Putin the opportunity to implement fairly radical change.

The reformed army includes a move to smaller more balanced units, with a shift from divisions to brigades. It remains a large force of 85 brigades, with 4 tank brigades and 35 motor rifle brigades, plus support brigades. Around 40 of these are frontline units. Larger units have reappeared since 2015, but they remain smaller than their Soviet equivalents. The author sets out a fairly detailed order of battle for 2016.

The other major reform is the Russian soldier. The draft remains, but the army relies much more heavily on professional soldiers, the Kontraktniki, who serve for three year terms. This compares to 12 months for conscripts who are really only effective for a few months. By 2016, more than half the military were professionals. Interestingly, this includes around 5% who are foreign born soldiers, who serve for 5 years.

Pay and conditions have also improved as have training and officer education. However, there remains a weakness in creating a corps of NCOs who are educated to the required standard.

Chapters cover specialist forces, including the VDV air assault units, naval infantry and Spetsnaz. Not all of these units can be regarded as elite, but they remain the cutting edge the armed forces.

Finally, the author covers weapons and equipment, much of which remains of Soviet era and style. Dated, but rugged that the basic trained conscript can use. Modern weapons are being introduced, including new small arms to replace the AK47 and new protective equipment. This is known as the Ratnik (warrior) suite of uniform and personal equipment.

The frontline tanks remain the T72, T80 and T90 designs, although the T-14 Armata is supposed to be gradually introduced, even though the design is controversial. These will be supported by the T-15 IFV, which will replace many of the BTR and BMP range of carriers. The Koalitsiya SP 152mm gun will provide fire support. The ageing MLRS and SAM systems are also being updated.

The second title is 'Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991', by the same author.


While these units are primarily for internal use, they have taken part in recent conflicts. They include the MVD, interior troops (VV), the Federal Security Service (FSB) and an array of smaller branches. These forces have a variety of capabilities, from basic police roles to specialist anti-terrorist units. The numbers are huge and many units look and are equipped like the army, shorn of heavy support weapons.

Both books are lavishly illustrated with photos and excellent colour plates by Johnny Shumate. An excellent introduction to the modern Russian army.



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.