Monthly Archives: February 2022

Three British planes for 1943

My Spitfire, Hurricane and Kittyhawk

So this is my first post of 2022! I have spent a lot of time refining my Napoleonic big battle rules, but that is a hard thing to blog about while you are doing it. But earlier this month I returned to my modelling project on WW2 aircraft, based around my 1943 theme, featuring the Tunisia, Sicily and Italian campaigns. This is a return to aircraft modelling after a break of 35 years or so. I started with a single American P-47 Thunderbolt, a bit after 1943, but in Med colours. I then did a batch of three German aircraft for Tunisia. My next batch was three British Aircraft: – a spitfire VC, a hurricane IID and a Kittyhawk IA. Alas on a number of counts the results are rather flawed.

The idea is that I complete the models up to wargames standard. They need to look good from a distance, and have undercarriage up and pilots in place. They would not pass muster for keen aero-modellers, who would include much more close-up detailing. For this batch of aircraft I wanted to focus on the model-making and painting, so I decided to use the decals in the box, rather than the palaver of creating something different (which I did for the P-47 and two of the German planes).

Why are the results flawed? The biggest problem is that I got the colours wrong. The planes look as if they are carrying the early north European scheme of Dark Earth and Dark Green; only the blue underside (not very visible from the picture) gives the game away.. This is a sorry saga with a clear moral. Do your research first! I thought I had understood what was required as I mixed the colours for the airbrush. First I mixed the Azure Blue for the underside. I started with Azure Blue Rowney artist’s paint, dulled down with a bit of white and brown. Too much white: while this is consistent with what some artists show, photos show it to be quite dark. And then I thought it also looked too green – that may be as a result of the white, which causes a bit of a clockwise shift on the colour wheel for some reason (blue to turquoise, red to magenta, etc.). By then the Mid Stone had already gone on. I based this on the brown colour in the German tropical scheme, which I based on Raw Sienna. It should have been yellower, and actually lighter than the Azure Blue. Next I put on the Dark Earth, which I though should come out a bit redder than the Mid Stone. I mixed this based on Burnt Umber. I then looked at this colour photo of a plane in theatre:

Spitfire VBs over Tunisia, presumably in 1943

This shows a distinctly greenish hue to the Dark Earth (which intros picture is generally quite weathered – it fades in the sun quite quickly) and not the reddish one I had. I remixed, using adding in some green, and overpainted. Too much green – though I was probably being led astray by the Mid Stone being wrong. When done I actually thought it didn’t look too bad (it is easy to misjudge colours out of context). But I thought I would tweak with some glazes mixed from oil paints and linseed oil – to make the underside darker and bluer, and the topside paler and less red (which means a bit greener). It took a few days to be dry enough for decals. At this point I just pressed ahead. Alas the Mid Stone looks more like Dark Earth, and the dark Earth looks more like Dark Green! And the Azure is still too pale.

I will profile each individual model separately. But here are some notes on the general technique. I first assembled and painted the interiors and pilots. I then assembled the models apart from the cockpit canopies. I filed, fillered and sanded to smooth over the worst cracks while trying avoid damage to the panel detailing. Then I added the canopies and masked them. I did think about leaving this to later, but thought it was better this way. Apart from the Spitifire I did not attempt to leave the canopy struts unmasked – I would paint them later. But I struggled a little with this, and applied a bit too much superglue on the Hurricane and Kittyhawk – this meant that the canopy fuzzed bit on the inside. And by the time I discovered it the canopies were so secure that I didn’t dare to try and remove them.

After this I airbrushed with white primer. The plastic really needs this step. Then the saga with the paint started. This was my first attempt with RAF camouflage. I sprayed the all the upper surfaces Mid Stone. And then I used Blu Tac and magic putty to mask the Stone areas. This took literally hours to form the rather complicated shapes, and even then I made several mistakes. The magic putty is easier to apply and remove, but it flows – so can’t be left for long, and I needed it to last for days. So I couldn’t use it for the edges – just infill. I won’t do this masking again. After the masking came off and I realised my mistake on the colour, I decided to overpaint with a good old paint brush. I did this with many thin layers – not too hard as the acrylic paint dries fast, so I could do it all in one session. That worked fine – so in future I’m going to use the paint brush for the overpainting. After the paint I put on the oil glaze. the idea was to correct a colour imbalance. It did improve things, but it’s much better to take a bit of trouble to get the colour right in the first place. Ideally all the main colours need to be mixed at the same time and tested before application. I have relished the challenge of mixing my own colours – but my experiences shows how difficult this is – and I don’t think I’d recommend it to anybody isn’t an artist (and I’m not!).

I am making slow progress with airbrush technique – the critical thing being to get the paint consistency right. I have also learnt how to clean the brush more quickly, so I can do it more often. It produces a lovely, delicate finish, which looks really good on aircraft. But good conventional brush technique is just as fast and the results are pretty good. Actually I think the airbrush might come into its own on vehicles, where the smooth finish is not as important, but the nooks and crannies take forever to paint with a brush – and aren’t good for brush health either. So far I have not learned how to do fine work with the brush – so I have to mask – which is clearly an issue! This is partly because of the brush – which isn’t designed for fine work, but mainly its because I don’t think I have set the brush up properly. As for masking, Tamiya standard tape is lovely. I also have 2mm tape which is meant to do bends, but it’s no good for RAF camouflage patterns, and it doesn’t stick all that well after a few months.

After the glazing and detailing the canopies, I went on to the decals. I didn’t think the decal softener was working properly as they weren’t melding properly with the surface. But as they dried, it mostly worked very nicely. Unfortunately I managed to dislodge some of the carefully positioned decals on the Kittyhawk, which required some corrective action – which I’ll describe on my piece on that model. The only surface prep on the decals was using decal fluid, which blobbed a bit on the glazed surface. I didn’t seal the decals afterwards either, as I did on my first model.

After the decals were dry I used the oil paint patination technique of putting small blobs of paint on the surface, and brushing them in. This caused a near-death experience with my German aircraft – but I did not make the mistake of doing this on top of a layer of matt varnish this time. My technique is improving and this step was quick. It really helps integrate the decals, which can be a bit saturated and stark, as well s giving the aircraft a bit of a used look. The glaze left quite a glossy surface, so I applied layer of matt varnish after this. I used the LifeColor airbrush varnish for this, but applied it by conventional brush. This is quick on the smooth surfaces of an aircraft – and I did not want to mask the canopies again. I did not want a deep matt finish, so I didn’t think of using the Winsor and Newton aerosol. The varnish blobbed a bit, so it was a bit trickier than I thought it would be – just as well I didn’t try the airbrush, as the standard brush would have been needed anyway!

Finally I finished with a bit of powder scraped from pastels. This was mainly to create the exhaust stains. But I applied small quantities more generally to give a slightly dusty look. You can’t really tell from my picture above – but closer up pictures will be come with my later posts.

So disappointing. The RAF tropical scheme is hard to get right. I have seen many horrible-looking jobs on restored aircraft, models and artwork. There’s usually an error somewhere. The pre-mixed paints often don’t get it right either. Still my first attempt doesn’t measure up. I plan another batch of models in this scheme later – and I promise they will look much more like the picture above. I may also do another Spitfire V and Kittyhawk anyway, as these models aren’t quite right for other reasons – more later!

Big Napoleonic battles

A view of a recent Albuera based game with Prussians standing in for Spanish. Albuera is not a big battle by Napoleonic standards, and not all the forces are in view – but it gives some idea of the visual effect I am heading for.

It is one of the strange aspects of Napoleonic wargaming that historically the main focus is on big battles, with over 50,000 men on each side (and on occasions over 150,000 and once double that), while the games themsleves are generally designed to represent much smaller encounters. The January and February issues of Wargames Illustrated feature articles which explore this paradox, from veteran games designers Sam Mustafa and Bill Gray. But my approach to this conundrum is different again from these.

This strange situation is readily explainable. The fashion in the early days was to design games from the bottom up, based on the known capabilities of men, horses and weapons. This led quickly to the basic unit being the battalion, which in turn tied the games to the myriad of accounts of the wars written by the men who took part. There is a lot of drama at this level, and it makes for a cracking game. From a wider perspective it also made a bit more sense than it might first appear: one of the innovations of the age was the use of the division as a manoeuvre element and semi-independent locus of command – and the division was the higher level of organisation around which battalion-based games naturally focused.

So far, so good. But this sort of game makes fighting the big battles, like Waterloo or Borodino impossible without doing strange things – like the practice of “bath-tubbing” – making each battalion stand in for a brigade or division. And the big battles, incorporating the works of the big celebrity generals, like Napoleon, Wellington or Kutusov, are one of the era’s main sources of interest. You are told that you can step in the footsteps of Napoleon, and then given no more than a dozen battalions to play with! It gets worse. One of the attractions of the era is the variety of troop types, and especially elite troops. It’s hard to bring these into an honest division-level game without losing much of the drama that surrounds their use. And you might be able to work in one unit of Imperial Guard, or one of Cuirassiers. But both? And then there are tactics such as massed cavalry or massed artillery that are also very hard to do at divisional level.

And so was born the brigade-unit game. Sam started this with his Grande Armée rules, and then his current Blucher system. Bill did so with his Age of Eagles, based on the Fire and Fury system for US Civil War games. Many gamers are understandably not interested in these systems, so wrapped up are they in the dramas of battalions. It’s simply not Napoleonic without them they say. But for people like me, drawn to the drama of bigger battles, these rules were manna from heaven. For a long time GA, and especially its fast play variant, were my go-to systems. For a number of reasons I outgrew this system, which had weaknesses that Sam himself recognises, and were the reason that he replaced it with Blucher. Meanwhile I developed my own brigade-based system, which I used for my Vitoria game in 2013. These rules were quite innovative – using playing cards instead of dice for example, and did well representing Vitoria, which we played as a four-player game.

But I had a serious problem with brigade games, acknowledged by Bill in his article. The units are too small – and indeed the time interval for a move is too short too – for properly big battles. There are too many units and too many moves to make them accessible either to two players in a day, or to multiple players in an evening – which are the typical formats for most games. This is actually less of an issue with Blucher than Age of Eagles. Blucher is highly abstracted and slick, and a number of its systems are designed to speed up play. I can say similarly for another highly abstracted brigade system – Horse, Foot, Guns by Phil Barker. I have successfully had two player day games with HFG: Salamanca and a stripped back Waterloo (a version that ignores the Prussians but takes out Lobau’s command and the Young Guard). I have played Blucher about three times in evening games with made-up scenarios very loosely based on the core forces at Ligny. But there is something about both the game mechanisms and the look and feel of these games that I don’t like, but that I can’t really articulate. Visually I don’t think they work well with my 15/18mm figures. More seriously they start to get more difficult when the battles get bigger – Salamanca and Waterloo redux are medium-sized battles.

I decided that I had to bite the bullet and use the division as the base unit. Bill says about this: “You lose so many painted miniatures from your visuals that I’d suggestion might as well simply play a board or video game.” Actually the aim is to have the number of miniatures about the equivalent of a normal battalion-based game – say 250-500 a side for 15mm. But he has a point of course – reducing a division of 5,000 men down to a group of 24 miniatures is a stretch. It is probably more tolerable with 6mm or 10mm figures, but that is a road not taken a long time ago for me.

I have encountered two systems with division-sized units. One was by Sam, and based on his GA system. This has a very long distance scale, and large units, represented on standard 2-inch or 3-inch squares. In my one trial game we did Waterloo incorporating most of the Prussian approach march on the table. This produced an interesting game, but it is too scaled down for me. It also suffers many of the faults of the GA system. Then came Bloody Big Battles by Chris Pringle. This is based on Fire and Fury, but is much more scaled up and stripped down than Bill’s game. The system is aimed mainly at mid-19th Century battles, and especially the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But many have used it for Napoleonic. The scaling was exactly what I was looking for though – with 25/30mm square bases representing 1,000 to 1,500 men each, organised into units of three to six bases, usually. My first trial of the system was a solo game between Prussians and Austrians in the 1866 war, using Napoleonic figures. This gave a cracking game with fortunes swinging back and forth wildly. If I start up in this era – and I’m very tempted to – these are the rules that will use (but I’ll use 10mm or 6mm miniatures). It helps that Chris has produced a whole heap of interesting historical scenarios ready to play.

But, as I’ve said a few times here already, BBB does not transfer well to Napoleonic battles. One reason is that the fighting takes too long to resolve – I think because infantry firing is so restricted without long-range firearms. Second is that the command/activation system is very haphazard, so that things can freeze up too quickly in core parts of the battle. This may represent mid-century wars quite well. Central battle control tended to be weak, while local corps and divisional commanders were more used to taking the initiative than earlier in the century. The randomised activation system models this dispersion well enough, but in Napoleonic times the army command tended to be stronger, but lower levels were weaker. The battle flowed quickly in the areas where the army command focused, but tended to be slower elsewhere. Blucher and HFG model this well (HFG overdoes it in fact) – but not BBB. Finally cavalry was much more important in the earlier era, and its role much more distinct from the infantry.

And so for all these reasons I started the journey of writing my new rules with BBB as the jumping-off point. This has produced a series of false dawns, and I’m still not there yet. Partly inspired by Lasalle 2 I have now finally abandoned the I-go U-go turn system. There are other features that I have copied from these wonderfully designed rules. There will need to be more trials before I have anything fit to release, even as a beta.

But one thing is very clear from my journey so far. You lose a lot of the detail with divisional-sized units, and so rely a lot on random combat factors to give a realistic variety of outcomes. This came home forcefully when I tried a thought experiment of recreating d’Erlon’s attack at Waterloo in terms of my rules. The historical outcomes are all possible within the rules, but the route can be a bit indirect at times. But, of course, if you are going to reduce a big battle into something that two players can play in a day, it follows you have to lose a lot. The high randomisation and abstraction is bound to put many off. But it might draw as many others in.