During my war gaming career Nafziger was always on the outskirts of my awareness. I never read his books but his name constantly popped up when reading gaming magazines and he could always be found as a reference or in the footnotes. As my involvement in the hobby deepened into scenario design I began to seek out his work. When digging around for an obscure campaign I serendipitously found a repository of OOBs compiled by Nafziger over the course of his career in publishing military history.
The discovery of what has to be thousands of OOB files was worth a WW post in its own right but I was fortunate enough to make contact with George Nafziger and he was gracious enough to submit to an interview.
Both Nafziger’s career and the sheer amount of his published content is amazing. Visit his web based bookstore to gain an idea of the diversity of his work. I own two of his organizational booklets and can favorably compare them with Osprey House offerings. Osprey is your go to for illustrations, maps and historical narrative but the organizational booklets are the go to resources for OOBs, especially, for example, if you are looking for the Bulgarian Order of Battle during WW2. Other works include translations of French military histories and a multitude of other topics but I’ll keep the intro short as we’ll cover a lot in the interview on the next page.
If the interview isn’t enough and you have a question to ask George in person make sure you attend one of the following 2019 events:
Fall In, Lancaster, PA, 9-11 November 2018;
Cincy Con, Cincinnati, OH, March 2019;
Cold Wars, Lancaster, PA, date TBD;
Little Wars, Chicago, IL, 25-28 April;
Historicon, Lancaster, PA, in July;
Nashcon, Nashville, 24-25 August.
Scott: You have served in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, worked as an internal auditor (both finance and production), a property manager and a quality control engineer, amongst other jobs. Did any of that influence or lead you into your parallel career as an author and publisher of military history?
My interest in military history dates back to early childhood when my family moved to France for 2 years. That was a huge step toward my “career” as an author/publisher. Among other things, I learned to speak French. Anyway, while in Europe I visited numerous battlefields, castles, and other historical sites. For that matter, prior to that trip my father had taken us, while on vacation, to many Civil War battlefields, so perhaps my interest arose from his and his father’s interest in military history.
You need to realize that I was a child right after WWII and almost every adult male I met was a veteran of WWII or Korea. There were a lot of memoirs and other books being published at that time, there was little literature for young people, and TV was limited to 3 channels. So I read those military works.
That said, in 1974 I met Ray Johnson, and started playing “Frappe!” a set of Napoleonic miniatures rules, bought my own army, then armies, and started reading about Napoleon. I found the English literature very unsatisfactory, so I took a vacation to Europe and spent it visiting bookstores buying books on the Napoleonic Wars. By the time I also spoke German and Spanish to varying degrees.
The one-sided nature of English literature on those wars provoked me directly into writing my 1812 campaign study, and the rest is history.
S: David Hamilton-Williams’ Waterloo New Perspectives argues that one of the main influences for the modern understanding of the Battle of Waterloo is Captain William Siborne and his research conducted while building a topographical model of the battle field, all heavily influenced by interviews with British veterans while neglecting the role of minor Allies and, of course, the Prussians.
When you get around to interviewing David remind him he owes me for the orders of battle he never paid for plus there are a few others I know still waiting for a check. Must have slipped his mind……as for his work on Waterloo, I never read it for several reasons, but beyond my personal issues with him, I believe there were also issues with his references in that book and, most importantly, I suffer from Waterloo ennui – utter boredom when it comes to that battle. You’ll notice that I stopped my writing of Napoleon’s campaigns with 1814.
One thing about published authors – Just because you find it in print doesn’t mean it’s correct. I found a book on Leipzig where the author gave an OB for Leipzig that had the 1st & 2nd Westphalian Hussars present at Leipzig, but both had deserted the French army in late August or early September 1813. This author simply assumed. He also listed Vandamme’s I Corps as still existing, but it was destroyed after the battle of Dresden at Teblitze
When I said that I found English literature on the Napoleonic wars unsatisfying, it was because English speakers are notoriously monoglots – reading only English and only repeat the mantra of “The English won the Napoleonic Wars because they were wonderful.” Let me ask you a rhetorical question: “How many English works go into any detail on Austrian, Russian, or Prussian actions on the battlefield?” I knew of very few.
Anyway, I’ve digressed. English reading authors cite only English sources and you get the same stuff over and over again. When I buy a book on the Napoleonic era I look at the bibliography. If 50% or more is English, I figure the non-English citations are purely filler to flesh out the bibliography and it is purely a rehash of the same old Anglo-myopic stuff.
As for Siborne, he was an Englishman whose natural pro-English biases were accentuated by his desire to get subscriptions for his model, so he amplified the actions of those rich nobles he was soliciting for money. That said, he provides valuable information concerning the British (which must be evaluated for overstatement) and scanty details on the French. As for the Allies, they weren’t making donations to his model project, so they got left out.
S: Do you have examples of common misconceptions amongst the English reading public?
Yes, the idea that Wellington invented the two rank line. In fact, in the Dundas infantry regulation you will find it mandated WHEN the battalion did not have sufficient men to fill out the three rank formation. I did an analysis, which can be found in Imperial Bayonets, where the British Army in the peninsula was so under strength that it had no choice, but to be in two ranks as prescribed by the Dundas regulation.
S: Going back to your miniature gaming days, what was your favorite army to collect and paint?
Oh my, I’ve painted most of the armies of the Napoleonic period, ancient Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Persians, civil war ironclads, a thousand plus WWII tanks, vehicles, and artillery pieces, plus twice that in WWII infantry, all of which have been sold as I downsize or lost interest. I guess I liked WWII tanks and detailing them best.
S: Since you are a miniature enthusiast here’s a link I discovered from someone that has inherited Donald Featherstone’s (Peace Be Upon Him) miniature collection: https://www.borrisfeatherstone.com
I met Donald Featherstone a couple of times at HMGS East conventions. He was a wonderful guy. Apparently he was a tanker in the 8th Army, but I don’t remember much of a discussion about his wartime activities.
S: I have your Bulgarian and Romanian Order of Battle World War II booklets so I have a couple of questions on your OOBs. The Bulgarian and Romanian armies must have been difficult to research, especially for when searching for English language references. Roughly how long did it take to research then draft your OOB booklets?
The US Archives has microfilm of the German documents captured at the end of WWII. One of them was intelligence on foreign armies. I bought that microfilm and set about translating. It really didn’t take very long, a few weeks at most after the microfilm arrived. I think I had a book or two on the Romanians.
You need to understand that I collected data that was interesting to me and when I got a critical mass I set to work on writing something up. It was very serendipitous finding things, so setting out to write a book and then starting to gather the information can prove a hopeless task without end. I broadly gathered data until I found I had enough on a subject and set to work. Now, however, with the internet and on-line libraries, I suppose one can simply decide to look for whatever is on-line and get that critical mass much more quickly.
S: I came across a stash of your OOB files at Alternatewars (I’ve given up trying to access them on the Army’s web page) and downloaded all the zip files. I can’t figure out your filing system. Take, for example, one of your 17th century OOB files: 625NXAA which is the file for The Royal Navy in the Reign of Charles I.
625 stands for the year 1625, easy enough.
Guessing N is for navy though X has me stumped and AA, unless one of the A’s stand for Anglo I can’t figure out.
Do you have a reference file for your filing system of OOBs?
The three numbers were the year; the letters – “N” meant navy, “X” meant no date. If there were three letters and the first was A-L, A was January, L December, etc. The last two were simply random letters to allow different codes.
So, 625 – year; N – Navy; X – no date; fist digit A-L – January through December, and the last two digits are to establish a distinct filing number.
S: You were a professional wargamer playing OPFOR at the Battle Command Training Center in Fort Leavenworth. Could you describe the similarities and the differences between the war games employed in the Battle Command Training Program (BTCP) and any commercial wargames you have played?
Dissimilarity – the Army actually knew something about war, where I have often found that wargamers frequently have no practical or personal experience in it. Though I was never in the Army, 25 years commissioned service in the Navy counts for something. In addition, I have experience in naval gunfire support off the coast of Vietnam. I also wear the combat action ribbon, for having been in combat, i.e. exchanging fire with the enemy.
Similarities – The Generals frequently have ideas and facts can be an annoyance to those fixed ideas. By this I do not intend to sound like I’m a know it all and some of what I know is classified so I cannot discuss it, but let me relate one story. After the invasion of Iraq, I was writing scenarios for brigade level exercises. I wrote one where I had the terrorists seize a water works and release the chlorine gas. The “generals” threw my scenario out saying that the terrorists would never do that. Within a year the terrorists were putting cylinders of chlorine with their IEDs. I rest my case.
There is one major difference between the BCTP games and any type of hobbyist wargame, and that is that the BCTP game had no “eye candy.” Visually it was very sterile. Commercial games have a necessity to make their games visually appealing.
S: For those unfamiliar with naval gunfire support (NGFS) please describe your two tours off of Vietnam.
We did purely NGFS as we had 3 5″/54s and 2 3″/50s. We were sent over in 1972 shortly after the NVA overran the DMZ. A month transit on both sides of the tour, and 5 months in the Far East. Mostly on I Corps just south of the DMZ. We fired 20,000 5″ rounds that tour. Also did operations in Freedom Train and Linebacker were we went north of the DMZ and operated off N. Vietnamese harbors doing more shore bombardment. NVA had no sense of humor and shot back. We also watched a mined-in CHICOM freighter off the mouth of the Red River for a few weeks. They would send small boats out the river mouth to the freighter and we would shoot ’em up as they ran loaded back to the river. The second tour, in 1973, was mostly steaming around and we didn’t see any action, as the war was winding down in peace negotiations. I never set foot ashore in Vietnam.
S: I know that many Marines and Army combat vets will scoff but life at sea was probably not a piece of cake, especially in wartime conditions. I remember during the march on Baghdad there was picture going around with grunts half buried in sand trying to catch some sleep in a foxhole while juxtaposed with it was a photoshop of Navy pilots relaxing with drinks in an inflatable pool on a carrier’s flight deck.
Of course, life was significantly more comfortable and safer at sea than somewhere in the jungle.
I could write a book just on this subject but on station, we had a significant lack of sleep due to our regular watch rotation (3 watch sections, starting with the Midwatch at 0000. The messenger would wake you up about 2300 so you could get dressed and maybe eat some midrats (midnight rations). The watch lasted four hours, except for the 1600-1800 and the 1800-2000 watch sections, which broke the watch to allow you to eat dinner and to rotate the watches.
In a relaxed combat situation there were port and starboard watches, i.e. 2 sections, not 3. You were six on and six off, and still put in your 8 hour work day, so sleep was scarce and a long time on this cycle was very fatiguing. General Quarters had no watch sections, everyone was at their battle station as long as necessary, time and work be damned.
We had a series of radio nets and one of them was allocated to naval gunfire support (NGFS). A forward observer (FO), either on ground or in the air, would call a target in to us. As the JOOD my first task was to immediately begin determining our position using visual means. The CIC used its radar to do the same thing. (WE did not always agree where we were by a few hundred yards.) CIC and the JOOD then sent their estimation of our position to the Main Battery Plot, who punched the data into the fire control computer and the location of the target, as specified by the FO. Then they fired the guns when the OOD said it was OK.
Sometimes they’d give us a square mile and tell us to squeeze off 5-10 rounds of Harassment and Interdiction fire. We could get reports of secondary explosions, etc., but usually it was “Excellent area coverage” meaning we’d blown up some trees.
The mission done, we’d return to boring holes in the water as we steamed in circles to maintain ourselves on station. Combat is definitely hours of boredom, followed by seconds of frenetic activity.
Life was pretty much the same when we went north of the DMZ on Linebacker and Freedom Train operations, but we only went into action at night. Three or four ships would steam at our target area in line abreast, then wheel right or left to form a line. We’d start firing the assigned number of rounds at the designated target areas, during the usual plotting and exchange of data with Main Battery Plot. However, we tended to not steam a straight line once we started shooting, because to do so would make us an easy target for the shore batteries. Yes, the NVA had no sense of humor and shot back. We were never hit, but the XO once said he saw a round fly about a foot over our gunfire director. There were frequently rounds crashing in our wake.
Well, one more story. Back on the gunline off I Corps (south of the DMZ), we frequently saw Arclight strikes coming in and blowing the crap out of the countryside. Three B-52s would fly in a wedge at 20,000 feet and drop 90,000 lbs of bombs. I timed it once. The bombs exploded for 60 seconds and a square mile was obliterated. Oh, and we would be 5 miles out to sea and the overpressure from the bombs would pop open the door between the bridge and CIC (not a water tight hatch, but a standard door).
Well, unlike the troops on shore, we slept in air conditioned quarters, had 3 hot meals a day, and a shower every day. I chose the Navy for my service because I figured this was better than crawling in the mud, swatting mosquitoes, and seeing the guy who was trying to kill me. I wasn’t disappointed.
Oh, and after 2-3 weeks on the gun line we’d steam off to some exotic port, Subic Bay, Philippines; Sasebo, Japan; Hong Kong, etc.
S: Your list of original publications and translated works is quite extensive. I note you have participated in training programs supporting many African armies. A two-part question: much of your work, especially your translated work covers campaigns and armies of the 19th Century and earlier. Has the knowledge you gained for studying past military history affected the way you provided training and for both your time in Africa and at the BTCP and are there lessons we are always doomed to relearn, over and over again?
The answer here is short – No. In Africa I taught basic logistics and on occasion, intelligence. Oh, all of this was in French, which is why I got the gig teaching Army stuff to Africans. Anyway, the logistics was, in the words of my boss, “What is obvious to you is marvelous to them.” I once had a 40-year old Gabonese intelligence officer on the floor with me crawling over a map explaining to him that the blue lines were rivers. The level of education in Africa is overall, pathetic, but there were a few bright spots.
As for BCTP, I was stunned how often the US team would repeat the same action over and over again. In one exercise the Striker Brigade made it first appearance. It came down a river road twice where my tank battalion stopped it. It broke away and then came back, but the third time it came I was ready for it. My tank battalion hadn’t moved, but I’d moved up another tank battalion, an anti-tank company and a mech infantry bn. When the strikers appeared and engaged my stationary tank battalion, I pulled the second tank battalion and the AT company out of cover and engaged them, while the mech infantry bn swept on the far side of a ridge and struck them in the rear. Needless to say the Striker Brigade was destroyed. Two or 3 weeks later I called my employer and was talking about something else with a friend when she mentioned that the Army was furious that the Striker Brigade had been wiped out. I asked if they knew it was a Navy Reserve Captain that did it to them. She said, “Oh God no, don’t tell them that!” :-))))) I have many stories about how poorly the USA did in these games.
S: Any good stories from your time in Africa?
Stories in Africa….. I suppose, but I’ll go political here. 80% of Africans live on $2 or less a day. Anyone who thinks the US is a crappy place to live should live in Africa, outside of the major cities, then reconsider what is so bad about the US.
I was in Senegal, Mali, Burkino Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Gabon, and Benin. The people were good and decent. Only encountered one problem in Ethiopia, where a guy tried to pick my pocket. He failed. That said, when I asked for a shoe shine in Ethiopia from a street shoe shine boy he said $1. Two people suddenly said, “No, it’s only $0.25.” I still gave him a buck.
Well, ok, now that I think about it, another story. In Mali a friend had a US magazine and was talking with a Malian officer about life in the US. He showed the officer a photo in the magazine of a poor fat woman sitting in front of her house. The Malian officer said, “No, poor people aren’t fat.” In Mali a fat wife is a status symbol, because you are rich and can afford to overeat. In most of Africa poor people starve. I have the photos to prove it. Indeed, I have photos of dead bodies lying in the streets with people stepping over them.
Speaking of Mali, I was teaching the intelligence module there. One officer just sat there and did nothing. I always tried to get everyone involved, so I asked the Intel Officer why he wasn’t involved. He said this guy was a Tuareg and didn’t speak any French. Mali had had a revolt in the north, where the Tuaregs (Muslims) were trying to break away from Christian southern Mali at the instigation of Libya’s Ghadaffi. There had been a political reconciliation and the rebels were integrated into the Malian Army. Many, however, only spoke Arabic, while the Army worked in French. The Brigade CO was a Tuareg who spoke some French, but so poorly that we actually bought him a French-Arabic dictionary so he could speak with his troops.
S: For a Naval officer your interest in military history seems focused on the land campaigns. Is that a symptom of not wanting to think about work on your free time?
It probably comes from my interest in WWII panzer warfare, but surely comes from the eye candy of a fully painted miniature army of Napoleonic lead soldiers. I joined the Navy because when I graduated from college the Vietnam war was still going on and the Navy was a better option than the Army. That said, the only lottery I ever won was the draft lottery. I was going no matter what – #108. Oh, and I took 2nd prize – two all-expenses paid luxury cruises off of Vietnam!
S: I decided to order Islam at War: A History and hopefully there will be some good data in it for war gaming. I went by the Amazon listing and a couple of commentators seemed displeased that you and Mark Walton didn’t write a warning against jihad.
Islam at War. There is a video by an Englishman, I think, on U-Tube, where he praises it. I’ve not seen snide remarks anywhere and as I told you, both pro- and anti-Muslim groups have pirated it and posted the PDF on-line. It is a broad, general history, and since most of it is about wars pre-dating Gutenberg, details are scarce, so it is not very useful for wargamers. It’s more a broad brush of how they acted when they fought than how they fought. Nothing about weapons or tactics. It was not aimed at the wargaming market, but the general public who, when Bush invaded Iraq, might want to understand something of their military history.
S: Is it fair to say that your published works concentrate on obscure facets of military history?
Obscure stuff?? OMG, I’ve often called my business “Obscure R Us!” Oh, I hit all the big stuff, Seven Years War, 30 Years War, War of the Austrian and Spanish Successions, Korea, WWI and WWII, but I’ve several books on obscure Balkan wars; stuff on the Middle East — it gets hard to get more obscure than the war between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1831 or the Egyptian invasion of Dongola and Sennaar (basically Sudan) in 1820 — then there is the English invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1866, the French conquest of Dahomey (Benin); the English conquest of Java in 1811; the Russo-Swedish War of 1808; or the ever popular Prussian Conquest of Holland in 1787 (when I found this book I actually thought it was a joke, because I’d never heard of it and it is such a (relatively speaking) recent war. That is only the “modern” stuff. If you go back into the 17th century it gets more obscure. I could go on for another 10 minutes listing obscure wars and battles. You really need to see my catalog or go to my website and explore. So, it is really hard to pick the most obscure war, but the Cossack war with Poland in 1648 would probably be the winner, followed closely by my translation of two Venetian wars against the Turks in 1645 and 1686.
S: What are you working on now?
I am working on expanding the scope of the works that I publish and sell shamelessly on-line. I have found on-line libraries wonderful sources of material that is out of copyright, particularly the French Bibliotheque nationale’s website. I download PDFs of out of copyright works and translate them. So far I have translated works on subjects from the 945 AD Moorish invasion of Spain to the 1940 German invasion of Belgium.
Right now I’m working on the apparently “official” French account of their participation in the Boxer Rebellion. It’s a 500+ page book and will take about a month to translate. Others are short and the language is simple and I can knock them off in a short hurry. It also depends on how much of life interferes.
The most interesting and most difficult translation was the Histoire de la guerre des Cosaques contre la Pologne, which I retitled to The Cossack War Against Poland 1648-1651. This work was something special as it was published in 1667, quite before spelling, grammar, and meanings of French words were standardized. The translation was anything but easy. It is also probably one of the oldest published works on the history of the Ukraine, and, as a result, provoked considerable excitement in the Ukrainian diaspora in the US. It was a bit of their history that was unknown to them. If you’ve seen the movie Taras Bulba, with Yule Brenner, it’s basically that war.
Otherwise, I’m busily translating whatever looks interesting at the moment. This year I’ve done something between 15 and 20 translations.
S: When translating older French documents do you have to contend with different French dialects? Peter Turchin’s War & Peace & War mentions the Breton’s resisted assimilation by the French, so much so that the 19th Century French government mandated severe punishment for students speaking Breton in schools.
To answer this begs a linguistic essay, so I’ll be very brief. Anything published after about 1700 is not a particular problem. Oh, there are authors who try to impress with their literary skill and prowess, or odd grammatical issues where to emphasize something they say the opposite of what they mean, but those are trivial.
The problem comes with pre-1700 when spellings frequently vary and you have to sound out the word and listen to it with a “French” ear to understand it. I have encountered spellings that were so unusual that I never figured out exactly what they meant, but I understood the rest of the paragraph, so I could work around that little problem. And then there are occasional provincial idiomatic expressions that take some figuring out. I’ll spare you that discussion.
S: A game and scenario designer I know asks: “Will he revisit some of his older work (20th century) for revisions as more information has been released since his older works?
In general, I do not revisit works, but some revisions and more data were added to my work on the German panzer arm. I added details on the Tiger tank battalions. Otherwise, the various army studies were as complete as I could make them with the data at hand and 20th century works are hard to expand when the sources I used were original documents and I am no longer buying or bought all the microfilms that the US Archives had on the subject, nor am I going to travel to archives any more.
S: With all that work do you have time for other interests?
Yes, goose hunting in the fall and shooting in the summer when the outdoor range I belong to is warm enough to shoot.
S: It was great talking with you. I hope you don’t mind at one point we do this again.
Well, your interest in me and my work was most flattering, so I was happy to (figuratively) sit down with you.