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Terrain in WW2 North Africa

I have just finished reading this short book published by Helion as part of the Wolverhampton Military Studies series. The cover shows the scope. Its main focus is operations of the British Eighth Army from 1941 to 1943. The earlier campaign between British and Italian forces in 1940 is covered in the same level of detail, but conclusions from it are not integrated with the rest of the book. First Army operations in Tunisia are not covered.

The author, Neal Dando, probably had a lot of fun researching this book, going through the (almost entirely British and Commonwealth) primary sources in depth, and a wealth of secondary sources, and appraising the course of the campaigns. However, the book is quite short and focused on the key theme: the impact of terrain on the British approach. His contention is that terrain is not given sufficient attention as one of the factors dictating the course of events, compared to such things as tactics and leadership. It’s a long time since I have read anything much on these campaigns, so I can’t judge this contention for myself. I think there’s something in it – but it is problematic. Firstly, all historians surely comment on the desert terrain, and suggest that it lent a particular character to events, even if they can be a bit vague on details. Second since much of the function of leadership and tactics is about the use of terrain, it is hard to separate it out as factor on its own – and a bit false.

Still I am a big believer in the importance of terrain in warfare – and feel that it is often not given the attention it deserves. This is reflected in many wargames, which tend to over-simipify and abstract away terrain features. Time and again when studying battles in detail (mainly Napoleonic ones) I have found that terrain factors neglected by historians explain much. One example was how a recent historian suggested that the French grand battery at Waterloo should have blasted away the strongpoint at La Haye Sainte. In fact the lay of the land made that pretty much impossible. And I have often read that it is wrong to think of the Western Desert in WW2 as being entirely flat. It featured many minor undulations, which could have a critical impact on events. You could place antitank guns in hollows and wait for the approaching tanks to be silhouetted on the ridgeline as they approached, for example. How well this is reflected in wargames I wouldn’t like to say – I have played very few desert-based WW2 scenarios. The exception have been some quick club games played on a flat table.

I bought this book as I am trying to put together some rules for my 1943 project, featuring British forces in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy. It has always been clear that terrain had a huge impact on these campaigns, so I was looking for ideas on how this should be reflected. I was pretty disappointed. I understand why Mr Dando does not want to give a detailed narrative of the battles – but I was hoping for something rather more systematic on the analysis of terrain impacts. Something like a description of the different impacts, and the part each of these played in each of the battles. There are brief terrain descriptions, but nothing very systematic on the narrative. There are a few maps, but representation of terrain on these was pretty thin. In fact I’m not actually sure he familiarised himself directly with the terrain, rather than simply relaying what the various primary documents, and a few secondary ones, say. He seems to jump straight to his conclusions with a “take my word for it” approach. On top of that, the book is riddled with minor editing errors (of the sort you will doubtless find on this blog, I’m afraid, but shouldn’t on things you pay money for), including one map mislabelling a German division as Italian. This is the rule rather than the exception with modern specialist publishing, however.

So what were the main impacts? Going was variable, affecting the ability to move different types of forces (one area could be traversed by tracked vehicles but not wheeled ones, for example) – including some steep slopes and cliffs. Terrain could offer a degree over cover (e.g. the use of hull-down positions), but was generally notable for the lack of it; in some places it was impossible to dig in because the ground was too rocky. Concealment was important factor using undulations, wadis and depressions – and there is related aspect of the usability of heights as vantage points for use by direct fire, and most especially as observation points for indirect artillery fire. Most of this is standard wargames fare – though wargamers often fail to bother with gentle terrain undulations. But artillery is usually less well thought about in this era. And yet it’s clear from this book that it was critically important – with battles often resolving around the possession of heights for use by FAOs. This was obviously the case with the mountain warfare in Tunisia – where the entire campaign revolved around the issue – as my reading of the account of Longstop Hill showed.

This book, though, gives me very little data to flesh this out. At one point it mentions a tank attack suffering at at 2,000 yards from enemy lines from artillery fire (6in Italian coastal artillery, apparently). I guess it would not be too hard to make out approaching vehicles at that sort of range, with the usual optical equipment. But fall of shot would have been much harder.

So an interesting but ultimately disappointing book.

Limbers. Lots of them

The 19 French artillery limbers

What to do about artillery limbers in Napoleonic wargames? Back in the day (we’re talking the old Airfix plastics in the early 1970s here) I would faithfully make up four horse limbers for every gun (about two per side…). But it was a faff, and took up a lot of space on the table. When I took up 15mm metal miniatures in the 1980s, I moved to two horse limbers, using old Minifigs. Then I started ignoring them altogether, in accordance with the changing fashion. But I decided that I wanted them for my current project, and while I’ve been doing them in parallel with the guns for the Prussians, the French were sadly neglected. Until now. I wanted to finish the French artillery for my 1815 project. That meant four more deployed artillery bases, a caisson model (useful for Lasalle)… and 17 new limber assemblies.

I wasn’t looking to do an A1 job on the limbers – they don’t have a staring role on the table. To keep the space down, the horses were reduced to just two – and I am making no attempt to include the limbered gun. The limber will simply be put together with the deployed base to show limbered status, and then removed to somewhere nearby but out of the way once deployed. Artillery limbers and caissons did take up quite bit of space historically – but they could be spread out and fitted around other units when deployed. They were only a serious nuisance when the guns were in transit, especially on roads – hence why I wanted them on the table.

First I needed to source the models. I already had two limbers painted up – for the French Guard. This was mainly sourced from an AB model, which had six horses. I took one pair away and put it with a Minifigs limber. I considered taking two more horses away to create another limber – but I didn’t need to do this to get the right number, so I left the rather impressive four-horse limber for the Guard 12 pdrs. I had an unpainted AB line caisson, also with six horses. I could take four horses from this – though annoyingly the riders (with saddle, etc) had gone awol in the two decades or so that I owned the metal. So far as the actual limbers were concerned, I had 12 Minifigs ones, including the one I had already used for the Guard. These were four each of new Minifigs French, old Minifigs French and Old Minifigs Austrian. There is a difference between the Austrian and French limbers, but not one that hits you in the face. I’m sure the French took over captured ones… The problem with the Minifigs limbers is that the wheels are too small (though this may be realistic for the Austrian ones) – but this was easily solved as I have lots of spare wheels from my old Minifigs artillery, which I have replaced, including plenty of the right size.

That left me six limbers short. The easiest solution would have been to buy more Minifigs ones – but these struck me as being quite pricey, given that they don’t come with horses. I needed lots more horses, but I only wanted to use the Minifigs ones for horse artillery. In the past I have found that Naismith Miniatures produce limber horses that work well (I used them for my Prussians). But I couldn’t find them at the time – though I have now at Keep Wargaming (but out of stock). I decided to buy six limbers from Essex miniatures – which came with four horses and two drivers each. I was short of horses and drivers, so that worked out fine. I already had a pack of French Guard horse artillery drivers. With a bit of juggling, and using my Minifigs horses, it meant I had enough of everything – and I didn’t need to use my old Minifigs riders, which I didn’t much like.

Artillery crews

Two Guard horse guns in the middle, flanked by two line guns

I found that I was four artillery crews short for my Waterloo French – two each for line foot and Guard horse, though I had a surplus of line horse bases. I bought the Guard crews from AB, and used up some spare line crews left over from earlier projects – in greatcoat, I think from Fantassin. Nothing special to note here. I followed my convention of two crewmen for horse guns, and three for field guns. The AB figures were pretty nice – I have been disappointed in their French artillery in the past, including the Guard foot. Not a very good picture I’m afraid, as I’m still learning how to get the best out of my new camera. probably just as well as the figures a slightly impressionistic and untidy. They pass the 3-foot test though.

The caisson

I’ve had this AB model lying around for a couple of decades, and I have finally got around to painting it up. Lasalle 2 requires a baggage marker for each side – and a caisson is the easiest way to do this. As noted above though, in my time of ownership the riders/saddle arrangement went AWOL – and I couldn’t find them. I expect they will turn up when I least expect it. The rider figures weren’t a problem – as I had spares from Essex. The saddle arrangement had to be reconstructed, which I did with paper and plasticine. It doesn’t stand up to close examination, but it is OK from a distance.

The line foot limbers

I needed eleven of these. Six of the limbers were from Essex, the rest were a mix of French and Austrian from my old Minifigs. I attached an ammunition coffret to each one. I had lots from my previous artillery models, which usually come with one tor two. Two pairs of horses came from my AB caisson, the other nine came from Essex. That leaves me with a couple of spares from Essex – though there was a bit of a muddle with my order, which meant I had a little difficulty getting the right sort. I will most likely recycle these into my Prussians. All the riders are Essex. I painted the coats grey.

The line horse limbers

I needed four horse artillery limbers for line batteries. I used Minifigs for these, from my existing stock. Though I have no real liking for the Minifigs style, I thought their dynamic pose was suitable for horse artillery. Three of the limbers are new Minifigs (actually now a bit dated…), whilst the other was one of my old ones; the same is true of the horses. The older version is on the top left of the picture. All the riders are new Minifigs Guard horse ones – which sport plumes. I painted the costs blue to distinguish them from the foot units. The sources vary on whether artillery drivers wore blue or grey coats – and they probably wore both colours. The blue coats, the plumes, and the Minifigs horses and riders served to distinguish them from the foot artillery.

The Guard limbers

Guard limbers: foot at the front, horse at the back

I have two batteries each of horse and foot for the Guard not counting the “Young Guard” batteries, which were not in fact distinctive from their line colleagues. The foot limbers were, as explained above, taken from the AB models, with the addition of a (new) Minifigs limber model. These were already painted up. The only change I made was to overpaint the deep green on the limbers themselves with the more correct olive green. The uniforms are blue, based on the sources I had at the time – though they are usually shown as grey, at least at Waterloo. The two horse limbers were painted up pretty much as the line horse limbers, except for the red plumes and shako cords. I didn’t have any of the newer Minifigs limbers left, so I used older versions.


The horses were painted using oils, apart from the single pair of greys. I matched each of the pairs as bay, chestnut, black or grey. For the oil painted versions I undercoated with acrylic Raw Sienna or Burnt Sienna, or for a few of the blacks, Payne’s Grey mixed with white. I then overpainted with various mixes of oil paint, and wiped off the highlights when partially dry. The mains, tails and lower legs of the bays (and the very dark bays posing as blacks) were then painted in Payne’s Grey. This is the technique I’ve been using on my last few batches, and the results are generally good. With so many horses to do I hurried through this a bit. Some experiments that I thought I might do (underpainting the bellies of some of them in a paler colour, for example) I never got round to doing. I bodged the greys in acrylics, based on a dark undercoat of Payne’s Grey – I still don’t have a satisfactory method for these.

So far, so normal. I then decided to do the bases next, as I have had difficulties when leaving this to last. I used my normal thick paper, backed by magnetic sheet, with acrylic medium, sand and paint to set the figures in. The use of paper was a mistake, as the bases were larger than my normal infantry and cavalry ones, and had a lower density of models fixed to them – they had a tendency to warp. I usually rely on setting them on a metal box lid and hoping that the magnetic material will keep them true. Alas the paper peeled away as the warping effect was stronger than the gum backing of the magnetic sheet! This took a bit of fixing. I use such a thin material to stop the bases being too clumsy, and blending in better with the table. In future I need to either use something more rigid, like plasticard, or something thicker, like mount board for the artillery and limbers. The finished base was painted an earthy colour (Raw Umber with a bit of white). And then I applied short static grass. I struggle to get the static grass to stand up straight – but looking a bit windswept and trampled is OK. I used a mix of green and beige grass, and I was really pleased with the result. Hitherto my bases have tended to be a bit dark – which doesn’t do justice to the miniatures – but I got it right this time; the secret is mixing in the beige. Alas it leaves me with the problem of what I do about the bases on my current stock. A couple of experiments with putting lighter material on top of the current flock were not very satisfactory. The other issue is the static grass adhering to the figures. I could not avoid this – but it was no worse than when I have applied the flock after the miniatures have been painted.

The next step was to paint limbers, men and the accoutrements with my usual artists’ acrylics. The limbers and caisson were painted using a mix of Yellow Oxide, Mars Black and a small amount of white. These are the same three pigments that I use for German Dark Yellow, US Olive Drab and German tropical uniforms for WW2. The pigments are cheap – so it’s not surprising that their use is so widespread. Yellow Oxide is simply the industrial age version of Yellow Ochre – which is actually what the French used for their artillery equipment, mixed with a bit of black (which distinguishes them form the Austrians, who used straight ochre); the black must have been quite strong to render the result green. The colour is often represented as a much bluer green in illustrations – but there is clear evidence that it was in fact an ochre-based shade. As for the uniforms – these weren’t substantially different from the infantry and cavalry I have discussed many times. I am using Idanthrine Blue instead of Prussian Blue as the base these days – it is a hint redder, and looks a bit smarter – a consideration when painting Guard units.

Finally the men got a wash. I used Peat Brown ink for the faces, and black ink heavily diluted in water for the rest. Using a water-based wash did not work on the oil-painted horses of course – the alternative of alkyl leaves a glossy finish, and I like the natural finish of the oils. They don’t really need a wash anyway, unlike the men, which were significantly lifted. I also used the wash on the caisson, but not the limbers.


And that was it. This was a big project, and took me quite a few weeks – for the usual reason that I had too many distractions, and then lost a bit of motivation. Limbers and artillery are not as exciting to paint as infantry and cavalry. And the result is a bit messier (or impressionistic) that normal. The limbers aren’t the stars of the show, I reasoned, and I wanted to move on. I’m glad it’s done. To have finished my French artillery feels like a big landmark.

Valour & Fortitude – an interesting approach to rule writing

This month’s Wargames illustrated (No 418) features an intriguing set of Napoleonic wargames rules. The rules themselves come in an 8-page supplement; the magazine features three articles based on them: one is an interview with the author, Jervis Johnson, and the other two set out a scenario and show how it played out in a demo game. The rules are a venture of Perry Miniatures and can be downloaded for free here. What is intriguing about them is not how they play (which I haven’t tried, and I’m not sure I will), but how they are written. The brief was that they should be no more than four pages long. In the booklet the four other pages are taken up by the front cover, an introduction by the author, a Q+A and Easily Missed Rules page, and the quick reference sheet.

The pedigree of the rules is unimpeachable. Jervis made his name at Games Workshop, including the writing of the classic Blood Bowl. His helpers and play testers are a Who’s Who of British wargaming – including Alessio Cavatorre and Rick Priestly, as well as the Perry Brothers. This group is responsible for such classics as Bolt Action and Black Powder, amongst the most popular rules systems here. According to Jervis, the initiative came about because he was fed up with leafing through rulebooks to try and find and check particular rules. This means not just engineering the rules tightly, but setting them out and writing them concisely. It’s not a new idea. Phil Barker of Wargames Research Group developed his DBA system for ancient warfare in 1990 on the basis that it would cover one side of A4. And these rule writers like their systems to be comprehensive – not leaving key things unsaid (alas all too common – my frustration with the Iron Cross system, for example). Writers often assume the answers to be obvious – but in fact much time is wasted looking for rules or explanations that aren’t there.

Some of the ways in which this objective has been achieved might be considered trivial. The font is quite tight and the page quite big (slightly under A4) – though there is proper paragraph spacing and use of headings. There are no pretty pictures or examples of play. These might sound trivial – but the extra space taken up by pictures does come with a cost. Examples of play do have a practical value – but they can be kept out of the main text. The approach is the exact opposite to that taken by Sam Mustafa in his Honor system (of which I have Blucher, Lasalle II and Rommel). The page size of these is small, the font large and there is quite a bit white space; there is a scattering of pictures (though not as many or as big as some rules); there is a lot of explanation and there are quite a few play examples. This makes the rules easy to read at the first pass. But it does make it harder to look things up mid-game (though a decent index helps). This makes an intriguing contrast – as Sam’s rules also major on basic simplicity, and nothing being included unless it really adds value.

There is no doubting that V+F is a tough read at first pass, though the language is simple and clear. I am reminded of Phil Barker – whose rules were tight but often had to be read several times over – but they are not nearly as bad. A lot of the Q+A and easily missed rules section boils down to “Yes, the rules really do mean that”. Another device might be seen as a bit of a cheat – quite a bit of the system is moved to “special rules” specific to the units involved. This includes such basics as squares, skirmishers and open order. But the core rules do stand as a coherent whole – and the idea is that (like Black Powder) they can be used to cover a vast period – the 18th and 19th Centuries at least – so the core rules should not contain period specific items. The special rules themselves take up no more than a page – though the focus is really just the 1813-14 campaigns in Central Europe (No British, for example). This is actually good design. I have tried to tackle Phil Barker’s Horse, Foot, Guns rules – which have a similarly large period ambition (though at a higher scale). While these are also very simply engineered at heard, they are so clogged up with period-specific features that they pretty much unusable in the original form. I rewrote them myself for use in Napoleonic games.

Jervis’s approach to rule-writing in V+F has a strong appeal to me. I am something of a rules-lawyer, I’m afraid. I really, deep-down want the game to be played out according to what the rules say, and will argue points if I really find it important (though I hate the use of loopholes). So having a set of rules that is tightly written and simple is something I like. When writing rules I do watch the page count. I knew that my house rules for Iron Cross had failed when they ran to 8 pages! I do aim for more like 12 pages than four – but then my scope is a bit wider. My systems are quite tightly period-specific, and I feel need for a little explanation and the odd example.

What of the rules themselves? They are designed to showcase Perry Miniatures’ gorgeous 28mm figures, and are for classic divisional-level games, with six or so battalions per player. They fit into the Lasalle space. The mechanisms are simple but flexible. For example in movement, figures can be moved in any direction, so long as they retain formation and no single figure exceeds the maximum move distance. The turn is simple I-go-You-go, Fire, Move, Melee. They suggest halving the distances for smaller scales or tables, or substituting cm for inches. In fact almost all critical distances are units of 3in, so a two-thirds scale would be easy to do – which would work well for my 18mm figures on a 6ft by 4ft table.

I have quibbles, of course. For defensive formations against cavalry the Austrians use Battalion Mass and everybody else the Square. The former is just an attack column with all its mobility – the latter requires a formation change and is immobile. In fact in this period the Prussians and Russians also used the Battalion Mass tactic instead of classic squares – and these seemed to have been no less vulnerable to cavalry. But they did require to be closed up, and probably weren’t that mobile when on full defensive. In fact I feel that all armies (including the French) could be given both special rules. That’s easy to fix. A bigger issue is that built-up areas seem to be treated as networks of Rorke’s Drifts, and readily defensible with just a quick occupation. This really misses how BAU combats worked. I prefer the Lasalle system, but I don’t really like even that. Most built-up areas simply couldn’t be readily “garrisoned” in the rules sense, and most fighting took place in the open streets. Well that’s a special hobby horse of mine that I haven’t seen any system at this game level deal with well. The huge over-simplification of movement and formation-changing won’t be to everybody’s taste (with similar simplifications to firing and melee) – but Lasalle makes similar compromises in the cause of speed and simplicity. It does keep the game flowing.

As for the rest, I would have to see how the rules play in practice – but I don’t plan to drop my attachment to Lasalle so this may never happen. Nevertheless the approach to rule-writing certainly has given me pause for thought.

Above the Battle – memoirs of an AOP. Why can’t I find a model Auster?

This book attracted my attention recently – and I’m very glad I bought it. It offers insights into a neglected aspect of WW2 warfare and the use of artillery by the British (and Commonwealth) Army. It’s not a long book, and the core of it, Lyell Munro’s memoir, is padded out with other material supplied by his family, including a general background to the history of the Air Observation Post (AOP) in British forces. Alongside the interesting details of battlefield tactics there is a rather charming personal story, told in the good-humoured style so typical of British accounts of the period. This includes his own commentary on Allied strategy in Northwest Europe (he was not involved in other campaigns). Extracts of letters to his future wife are included, and complete letters of hers to him – they met when she was a nurse, but she moved on to be a Wren. This offers an insight to wartime life and love outside the world of cinematic portrayal.

The AOP role developed alongside the rivalry between the Army and the RAF. At the start of the war the RAF had a complete monopoly of military flight. They had developed an army liaison role, using Lysander aircraft for AOP and other duties, including bombing. The Lysander proved to be an unsuitable aircraft for the AOP role – it was too big and heavy, and too fast (i.e. an airman’s idea of what was needed). Besides, RAF crew did not make good artillery observers. Casualties in these squadrons in France in 1940 were very heavy (118 out of 175 aircraft lost), and the RAF gave up on the idea. The Army, and the artillery, did not. They insisted that if you put an artilleryman in a suitable aircraft, it could be of real value. The aircraft would have to be slow and and agile, with an upper wing so that ground visibility was good (which ruled out the Miles Magister – one candidate). It needed to be able to land in small fields close to the front. The slowness was mainly for the benefit of observation, especially of fall of shot. It also, a bit counterintuitively, reduced vulnerability to enemy fighters. The tactic was to get out of the way and hide in the landscape, even landing if need be. Losses were surprisingly light. Munro’s squadron lost two pilots in the air (at least from June to August 1944 in and around Normandy). One was hit by the fire of the battery he was supporting, the other hit an electricity cable. Munro was acutely aware that his chances of survival were much better than that of an infantry officer. I was surprised that no aircraft were lost to ground fire in his squadron. Flying low and slow they were surely vulnerable. Of course they would try to stay well away from any flak units spotted, especially the feared 20mm quads. Infantry may have feared giving their position away. This is a quote from a Tiger tank commander:

That damned English crow is hanging in the sky again. Doesn’t he know there’s a war on? He’s got a nerve, flying in curves and circles over the front like that! A machine gun could easily bring him down. But nothing stirs in our front line. The infantryman there knows that the slightest sign of life will bring down the shells of the enemy – and they will be bang on target. Throughout the intense heat of the July afternoon our infantry lie motionless in the ground, following with their eyes every movement in the sky above.

Ernst Streng – quoted in “Hill 112” by Major JJ Howe MC

The plane that Streng is referring to may well be Munro’s – the day corresponds to the one when he describes a contest with a lone German Tiger. Incidentally he found that 25 pdrs weren’t enough to deal with it, but it did shift when coming under fire from a 4.5in medium gun he managed to bring in. That forced it to take cover in a village, where it was later abandoned.

The AOP squadrons were flown by pilots from the artillery, like Munro, but maintained by RAF crews, and were technically RAF squadrons. They operated from ad-hoc bases very close to the front line. When not in the AOP role they often ferried around army officers, or flew them over operational areas. Later in the war they also carried out successful photo reconnaissance. The pilot was the principal observer for artillery fire, but they took up an additional crewman (volunteers from the ground staff) to be an extra pair of eyes, especially for enemy aircraft – which remained present through the war – including Me-262 jets later on. Munro describes an encounter with an Fw-190 that had shot down a Typhoon – but didn’t spot him.

The AOP role was considered to be a big success. The Americans also adopted AOPs, using aircraft such as the Stinson L-5 Sentinel (the only purpose-designed AOP – an earlier version of which was the first choice for the British AOP – but the Auster could be produced locally) or Piper L-4 Cub. The Germans may have had a suitable aircraft in the Fieseler Fi-156 Storch, though this was notably bigger and heavier than the Allied aircraft. The write-ups say it was used for artillery observation, but I haven’t seen this mentioned in specific battle accounts. It could be that the Germans suffered from inter-service rivalry too. I suspect the Storch was used mainly as officers’ transport and scouting rather than AOP.

How about AOP in wargames? Many rules do provide for them (e.g. Battlegroup and Rapid Fire!). My sense is that AOPs tended not to be used in the thick of the sort of action we like to war-game – when the battlefield would be quite a dangerous place for a little aircraft – but much more during static situations, or lulls, when artillery was being used to pick off enemy positions. They were also used off-table in a counter battery role. Munro mentions that they were used to try and find mortars – but that German mortars were nearly impossible to spot when firing. They would try to guess where they were and direct a general bombardment in that area, to suppress as much as to destroy.

How about AOP for my 1943 project? The Austers were certainly in use in Tunisia and onwards by the British. This is presumably where tactics were refined before D-Day in Europe. The US Navy attempted to use AOPs launched from ships in the invasion of Sicily – but apparently this was a disaster and losses were very heavy. These would have been big and clumsy floatplanes, fine for observing gunnery in naval battles, but lacking the agility to stay out of trouble over land. There were no Austers at Salerno – but I guess appropriate airfields were lacking and it was too long a flight from Sicily, even if they could find smaller fields to use. Apparently an Auster was used to scout out German positions on Longstop Hill – but I don’t think they were used in the assault.

I have a soft spot for the Auster. My first ever aeroplane flight was in one, in Somerset when I must have been about 10 or 11. This was a treat while we are on holiday. I don’t remember too much about it. I’m sure I was told it was an “Auster 8” – but this does not correspond to any model that I can find. But the shape fits my memory – just about big enough to take my Dad, my brother and me, in addition to the pilot. My Mum wasn’t so keen.

I would like to do a 1/72 model of an Auster in 1943 Med theatre colours. I certainly don’ want to do a Lysander instead, as some wargamers seem to. However there’s a problem about finding a mode. AZ Model produced one as recently as 2016 (in Czech colours but no matter), which is also the right model – a Mark III. But they only seem to do very small production runs and there don’t seem to be any around second-hand. Other than that there is the Airfix Auster Antarctic. This is an early Airfix model, but was produced in large numbers over time, so they do turn up on the second-hand market, although sometimes for crazy prices. This is of a later, post-war mark though (and Airfix did do an AOP version, but one appropriate to Korea not WW2), which is moulded in bright yellow plastic and has optional floats or skis. However the undercarriage, cabin and engine are all different, so it would entail some conversion. The best strategy may be to wait for AZ to reissue.

Towards a WW2 grand tactical game system

My 1943 WW2 collection of 20mm miniatures, vehicles and aircraft has absorbed a lot of my creative energy. It is a project I started in the 1970s while still at university, but abandoned as I moved to a professional career, inhabiting bedsits. When I eventually returned to hobby activities, I took up with 15mm Napoleonics to the exclusion of all else. And then a few years ago I found some of my old models (and plastic figures) in the loft, and decided to revive the project. It was a sort of homage to my teenage self.

My focus is on British and German forces – who were then engaged in the Mediterranean theatre, starting in Tunisia, and moving on to Sicily and Italy proper. I like this rather neglected period because both sides’ armour was quite well matched (apart from the odd Tiger tank), and the panzerfaust and panzerschrek infantry antitank weapons had not come into use (British PIATs did make their appearance in the later part of the period, though, and the Americans had their bazookas). This gives it a different dynamic to the popular 1944 period, with the Allies struggling to cope with Panther and Tiger tanks in their Shermans, with deadly infantry weapons potentially lurking in every bush. I was not drawn to the Western Desert battles either, as these were too dominated by tanks, and I like a bit more terrain.

But I am left with a problem: what rules to use? Back in 1978 I was using WRG rules, which were quite advanced for their time – but the world had moved on. They took no account of troop quality, for example. I still use them as a reference work, though, for things like weapon ranges and spotting distances. These rules used one-to-one scaling, with 1mm to 1m ground scale. The writers recommended the use of 1/300 models, but you could get an interesting game with 20mm ones. The nearest equivalent in scope these days would be the Battlegroup system. I did use these once at the club, but they weren’t very popular with my fellow gamers. I moved on to Iron Cross, which worked for a while, but I soon became dissatisfied.

In fact it was clear that I am looking for more than one system. A one-to-one skirmish system, centred on infantry, with a low ground scale, not far off 1/72. I have two promising candidates for this: Chain of Command, and Disposable Heroes. Then, getting whole companies on the table top, there could be O-Group or Battlefront WW2. These aren’t ideal for 20mm, but can be made to work. My current lack of a club or regular gaming opponents, alas, means that I haven’t tried any of these systems out yet. While I think about how to solve that problem, I have a clear wish to go for something bigger-scale again, that I can use for historical scenarios. Initially I am focusing on a Tunisia battle: Hunt’s Gap (or Ksar Mesouar), fought over three days at the end of February 1943. A decent scenario can be made out of each of these days – or they can be strung together as a campaign. I have been interested in this battle, where a British force held off Germans equipped with Tigers, since the old days, when it featured in an old Bellona booklet by Terence Wise on the Tunisia campaign.

There is an obvious candidate for this level of game: Rapid Fire!. This is an old school system often played with 20mm models, but with each vehicle representing abut half a dozen real ones, and each infantryman about 10 real ones, organised into companies. We tried these out in a game at my club, when I was still in London. They produced an entertaining enough game, but I really didn’t like them. The first problem was that they suffered from the move and fire issue, common in old-school rules. In this it is easy to move your forces forward, fire at the enemy and destroy them before they can fire back, unless those enemy had reserved their fire in the previous move; this creates a sort of forward ambush jeopardy that feels wholly unrealistic (incidentally my old WRG rules avoided this with a Fire then Move mechanic). Still this was not as bad as another popular system, A Fistful of TOWs, and I could probably live with it. The bigger problem is that it is an out-and-out bath-tubbing system. That means that although each vehicle may represent half a dozen, for game-play purposes it is just one. Once hit, it is usually totally destroyed. There are even rules for the crew baling out. You should really expect units of this size to sustain various levels of damage before being destroyed – and baled out crews have no role. These are really skirmish rules but scaled so that you can bring in big bits of kit onto the table that would normally be well to rear (which is exactly what I want to do). It simply does not feel like a clash between brigades of troops.

What I wanted was something with more of a board game feel. The closest system I have found for this is Sam Mustafa’s Rommel. This is played on a square grid, at 1km per square. But this is too high scale for what I want, abstracting away a lot of the items of kit I want on the table – such as antitank guns, headquarters elements, and so on. This is a system that can be scaled up successfully, but not scaled down. In any case it does not adapt well to the sort of terrain that my 1943 battles where fought in, where rough ground and steep slopes played an important role, with high ground being of critical importance for observation, even at the grand tactical level. And things took longer to unfold, with battles often taking days. (It would not be too hard to bring these terrain factors in with a house rules, it should be said – and one day I may well try this).

Still, what I have taken from Rommel is that, like a board game, a grid is a good idea. Apart from simplifying many of the game mechanics, it makes handling artillery and concealment easier, by giving clear definition to locations. That leads to the choice of squares or hexes. Squares are how the human brain organises space – especially if we think of the grids on the maps in use in this era. That is why it makes sense for Rommel to use them. But natural features are easier to fit onto a hex grid. I’ve seen great-looking hex-gridded board games. And since the natural terrain is such a dominant part of the battles I want to recreate, it makes sense to use these.

My next step was to look for board games to use as a basis for my game. I had seen an article in a magazine where somebody had had successfully done this (albeit for 10mm miniatures in a Cold War setting). I asked for pointers from fellow gamers at my old London club on the Facebook forum. They pointed me to several games, of which the most relevant seemed to be the ancient Avalon Hill Panzer Leader, and a rather more recent Nations at War system. But I quickly ran into a serious design problem, relating to the models I want to use. With 20mm models a hex of anything less than 6 inches (150mm) point to point (or 130mm side to side) is going to be too cramped. I need to be able to fit two or three units into a hex comfortably, and four at a pinch, with maybe some terrain items too. On a reasonably sized table each hex needs to represent about 400m across. In these board games it is more like 250m per hex. You can stack counters, so board game hexes can be quite small. I have to have a lot fewer hexes on the table than the typical board game, even with a much bigger playing area. Starting from scratch you would use much smaller models. With 6mm models you could go down to two inches, or three with more breathing space.

These are 6in hexes (corner to corner) with some of my 20mm models. Three tanks a single hex could entail spillover into neighbouring hexes. The hexes can’t be any smaller.

From a gaming perspective, big hexes are perfectly viable – this is what Rommel achieves after all. But this has a profound effect on game mechanics. Still, there is much to be learnt from these board games. But it does look as if I will have to build the system pretty much from scratch.

What then should the design priorities be? The first point of departure from most WW2 systems is that these battles are not primarily encounters between rival tanks. Even Tigers have a tough time when not seriously opposed by other tanks. Success comes from combining armour, artillery and infantry. Allied artillery was often decisive – and yet it is often a bit of an afterthought in games systems. One thing a player has to do is to prioritise artillery targets carefully. And spotting is critical – with vantage points taking on a special significance, with visibility on the level often very limited.

But there is a reason that tank battles dominate wargames: it makes for a dramatic game – “cinematic” is a word people often use. Not all warfare makes a great game. WWI Western Front battles are very absorbing subjects for historical study, but, apart from the early drama of 1914, they are very hard to make into good wargames. “What’s the point of it?” one friend asked me of one friends’ WWI system. There can be a lot of hard slog in the 1943 battles that I am studying (in contrast to those being fought at the same time in Russia in much more open ground). There have to be important tactical choices, and plenty of jeopardy and swinging fortunes. I’m not quite sure how to get this. But 1944 Normandy battles are enduringly popular amongst wargamers – and that faces many of the same challenges. So it should be possible!

I love writing wargames rules. But it’s a slog. It could be a while before I’m ready with this!

Mixing Dunkelgelb for German vehicles

Colour swatches from Real Colors of WWII by AK

I’ve had more trouble with German Dunkelgelb, the standard base colour for vehicles and equipment from 1943, than any other colour. I first attempted to mix it on my batch of Panzer IIIs in 2017, and it took me several goes before I settled on something – and even that does not look quite right to me now! However, on my most recent batch of German vehicles, I have hit on a formula that I think works.

Much has been written on the topic of Dunkelgelb by modellers, as each hobby paint manufacturer has its own version. It’s a real rabbit hole – like US Olive Drab, which I have also struggled with. My main authority now is the book Real Colors of WWII by AK. This is based on quite a bit of research, including examining bits of surviving equipment. They produce for swatches to show the variation, even before various field factors intervened. The photo above shows the four swatches in this book, though it does not do justice to the actual colours. They give some idea of the degree of variation, though. The first, Dunkelgelb Nach Muster, came with the original directive in February 1943 saying that all vehicles should be painted in this colour, with camouflage over painted in olive green and red brown. Some suggest that this shade was never actually used. The second swatch shows the RAL 7028 standard for the colour registered in March 1943 – RAL referring to to the German colour standard system, which is still in use today, though RAL 7028 is now defunct. This is greyer than the earlier version. The RAL system was reworked in 1944 to reflect wartime exigencies – and the third swatch shows the even greyer version in this. And finally, for good measure in the fourth swatch they produce shows another variation from actual samples, to give an idea of the amount of variation there was in the field. This is even yellower than the original sample. What to conclude? There is a lot of scope for producing whatever variation you happen to like – but as the war progresses, the greyer it gets.

The starting point for mixing the colour was always clear: Liquitex’s Yellow Oxide. This pigment is based on Iron III oxide-hydroxide (FeHO2); it is an industrialised version of the ancient yellow ochre, which is usually slightly redder. This is almost certainly the pigment the Germans actually used for the colour – as it cheap and light-fast. But by itself, even with added white, it is much too bright. Back in 2017 I was heavily influenced by artist’s colour theory for mixing pigments – so I sought the colour’s complement to dull it down. This is purple – but the purple pigment I had was very bright and I could not get the results I was looking for. It was my introduction to the fact that colour mixing in practice does not follow the standard theories (there is a good theoretical reason for this, but I digress). Easier, I thought, to use a combination of a dull blue (Prussian Blue) and dull red (Venetian Red). I mixed these straight into the yellow, along with the ubiquitous white. From this I learnt never try to achieve a colour by mixing three different pigments. It was very hard to get the blue/red balance right while minting the right balance with yellow. In fact I should have mixed the blue and red prior to mixing into the yellow.

Years passed before I was next to attempt to mix the colour – for my recent German soft-skin project. I was older and wiser by then. I had got past my idea that you should not use black (or neutral grey – a black and white mix) in colour mixing – to satisfy my inner Monet. So I thought I would try mixing some Neutral Grey into the yellow, before I tried a purple. Immediately this proved to be a direct hit. I could get close to all four of the colour swatches (allowing that they should be a bit lighter when used on a model vehicle) by varying the balance of yellow to grey. The Neutral Grey got pretty close all on its own, but for tweaking I used Mars Black and Titanium White. This was much easier than my earlier efforts – and it got better. By upping the ratio of black to yellow, I got something greener, which looked a lot like the olive used for German tropical uniforms (and in turn more added white could replicate the fading these uniforms showed). Of course it is quite likely the Germans themselves mixed the paint using yellow oxide and black pigments – increasing the black element as the yellow oxide got scarcer.

Interestingly enough, yellow oxide mixed with black and white is also what I have used to replicate US Olive Drab – to say nothing of Napoleonic French gun carriages (which used paint mixed from yellow ochre and black…). In fact the US colour can be a bit greener than this, and they often used a green pigment.

Anyway here is a picture of a selection of German vehicles in my collection, to illustrate the sort the variation.

The Panzer IV is an Airfix model from my original collection from the 1970s, repainted in 2017. The Sdkfz 250 is a PSC model painted not long after, using the same technique. The Opel Maultier truck was in my most recent batch, using the yellow-grey mix. Behind it is a Jagdpanzer IV, which I converted from the Airfix Panzer IV kit in the late 1970s, in its original Humbrol enamel paint, using the “Authentic Colour” range straight out of the pot. The Panzer IV and Sdkfz 250 are not far from the “Dunkelgelb Nach Muster”; the Maultier is close to the RAL 7028, while the Jagdpanzer IV is a fit with the fourth variation swatch from Real Colors.

I am still left with the question of how pale the colour should be. The swatches are dark; contemporary photos look quite a bit paler, as do photos of surviving equipment. Why this should be is a much debated topic – there is the hotly debated “scale effect” suggesting that scale models must be paler to simulate atmospheric effects; colours tended to fade when exposed to the open air and especially sunlight. Part of the problem may even be that the models are usually seen indoors in shade or artificial light, while the photos show vehicles in direct sunlight. My Maultier is maybe a bit on the dark side.

There remains a question of whether Dunkelgelb is the right colour for Tunisia, where my 1943 project begins. The German vehicles used there were all recently manufactured. There were just about no survivors from the old Africa Korps after El Alamein and the retreat, and most of the German troops were reinforcements anyway. These would have been units refitting in Europe after being withdrawn from the Russian front, doubtless leaving any surviving vehicles in theatre there. All the pictures from Tunisia show vehicles in fairly pale colours (i.e. not the old Dunkelgrau), and the Tank Museum has painted its captured vehicles from Tunisia (notably a Tiger and a Panzer IIIN) in what lookes like a yellower version of Dunkelgelb. From this I assumed that Dunkelgelb was the appropriate colour (though without the camouflage green and brown – not visible on phots from this theatre until much later). But the directive to use Dunkelgelb was not issued until February 1943, by which time most of the equipment would have been shipped. In fact it is more likely that the vehicles would have been painted in the previous tropical colours of RAL 8020 Gelbbraun (the primary colour) and RAL 7008 Graugrün for camo patterns taking up to one-third of the vehicle). RAL 8020 Braun and RAL 7027 Grau were authorised substitutes for each of these respectively, given shortages. The Gelbbraun is really not very far from the greyer version of Dunkelgelb, according to the swatches, but has a slightly warmer tinge. The Braun is distinctly redder, and may be the origin of the Humbrol Africa Korps desert colour in issue back in the day, which was quite a bright orange shade. I might try replicating these in a future project for vehicles especially destined for the Tunisia phase of operations – though alas too late for my Tigers and Panzer IIIN.

Anyway, Dunkelgelb is the right colour for Sicily and later, and I’m very glad I have found a way of replicating it without too much trouble.

1943: more German infantry

The main squad

Alongside the vehicles and guns, I also painted 14 German infantry (in 20mm) for my 1943 project in my last batch of work. This was for bog-standard infantry, serving as either panzer grenadiers or ordinary infantry. Most of the German infantry in this theatre in 1943 were either panzer grenadiers or paratroops – with the exception of parts of the Tunisia campaign, where ordinary grenadiers, as well as ad-hoc units, were used extensively. I have not done any paras yet – though these played a big part in all the various campaigns. This smaller batch of infantry was put together so that the Germans have numerical parity with the British in my collection, giving me more gaming options. I painted one pack of AB infantry – the “section advancing cautiously”, which was ten men, including one MG34 and an NCO with an MP40. In addition I painted up one panzerschrek team and two figures with panzerfausts. These antitank weapons were only distributed to the German infantry late in 1943 – and after Salerno – so I hadn’t painted any up yet. But these will be needed to do later scenarios, especially if I push into 1944.

The panzershrek and panzerfaust figures

I did my original batch of German infantry back in October 2017. I wasn’t very happy with the end result, though I wasn’t able to articulate clearly why. The problem is that there are very few photographic sources for German infantry in Sicily or Salerno (and even these are mainly paras!). There is a little more for Tunisia. I think I was heavily influenced by pictures of prisoners in Tunisia, showing a huge variation in uniform colour, with quite a few people wearing very pale uniform items. So I depicted a lot of very pale kit. In fact the very few pictures from Italy show the German uniforms as being a bit darker than this, apart from some of the helmets. So I decided to go a bit darker this for this batch.

The panzer grenadier section

As before I decided to use the German infantry figures from AB depicted in standard uniform, rather than the tropical or summer uniform. The three uniforms were a very similar shape (the main difference was in the clot and dye), so they look pretty similar from a distance. In fact in Tunisia the weather was pretty cold and wet, so there wouldn’t have been call for rolled up sleeves etc. and other signs of a warm climate. I avoided Africa Korps figures because these tend to include figures in caps and shorts – which I didn’t want. In fact the in-combat DAK infantry figures from AB don’t have either – and not even rolled up sleeves. The only problem looks to be that a few of the figures have sand goggles on their helmets. I dare say that these can be cut off and filed down.

The figures were first mounted on steel washers, set in my usual mix of sand, acrylic paste with a bit of paint (white and raw umber). They were primed with gesso (I can’t remember if this was applied with airbrush, or darkened with some paint). For the main uniform for the most part I used a mix of Liquitex Yellow Oxide (aka yellow ochre) with varying amounts of black and white (sometimes using a neutral grey mix to speed things up). This gives a decent representation of the tropical uniform. This is exactly the same combination of pigments I used for the dunkelgelb on the vehicles, about which I post separately. The ratio of black to yellow is higher, giving a more olive finished result. There was not quite as much variation in colour as I had intended – the white seemed to fade on drying! some of the items were painted in field grey, which I mixed using a Viridian green mixed with neutral grey and tweaked a bit (I may have added some burnt siena to calm the green). The helmets were mainly painted in the dunkelgelb used for the vehicles, with one in dark field grey (as they would have left the factory) and one in olive green (as per the tank camouflage colours). As for the accoutrements and webbing, I had almost no guidance from photos, and conflicting advice from other sources. I ended up with a dull brown for the webbing and certain items, and greys mainly for the rest. The boots were brown.

The picture below shows three of the figures next to the same three from my original batch from 2017. They are much darker, but I’m happier with the overall appearance. Next time I might try to lighten the olive mix a tad though.

The panzershrek and panzerfaust figures

These depict figures from later in the campaign, when winter had struck, as well as the fighting moving further north. I therefore decided not to depict them in tropical gear. Three of them are wearing camouflage smocks. I am depicting them in sumpfmuster 43 pattern – though how well I have caught this I’m not sure. It’s probably a bit too chunky. The remaining figure is in field grey. Three of the helmets feature attached vegetation. I painted this quite dark – probably too dark, but I wanted to avoid the garish greens I so often see on miniatures – I may touch these up later. The prone figure features a painted camouflage pattern using panzer camouflage colours.

Luftwaffe uniforms

As a slight digression I will mention the AB 88 crew that I also painted as part of the batch. These are in Luftwaffe uniforms. The tropical colour was paler than the army one, apparently – so I used the same basic mix with more white. And in place of the field grey, the Luftwaffe had blue. This I got from black, white and Prussian Blue, a paler variation of the mix I used for the “panzer grey” gun and tractor. This is guesswork as I have few colour pictures to go on.


After the paint I applied a glaze. As with my most recent Napoleonic figures, I used alkyl medium as the base, mixing in some oil paint – a mix of Payne’s Grey and Burnt Sienna to reach a sort of dull mauve, to complement the olives and yellows that predominate in the uniform. This dried quite glossy – which I can accept in Napoleonic figures (it adds depth to the colourful uniforms), but not for WW2. But I didn’t want to use aerosol varnish, as I didn’t want a uniform matt finish. So I used my old Winsor & Newton varnish in a bottle to apply to the uniforms. This is unreliable, depending on how much of solid gunge at the bottom of the bottle gets into the mix. My first batch, used on the vehicle tilts, was fine. The batch used on the figures, alas, still left a strong sheen, which can been seen on many of the figures. For the weapons, helmets and skin I wanted a slight sheen – and I used another brand of matt varnish, which is more reliable, but not very matt. The next time I mix up some really matt varnish, I will need to touch these figures up.

After that it was the bases. I applied My usual Woodlands Scenics flock mix with some sand using undiluted artists strong glue. I then added patches of sand to give a bit of variation. For some reason the adherence of the flock/sand on the larger weapon bases was much better than on the figures. I needed to seal the latter with diluted PVA glue, but not the former. I think I was more careful to press the flock in on the larger bases, which I did one bit at a time. Must remember to do this on all my bases next time, as the sealing is an extra step and a faff. I did not dry brush the figures; I though of dusting them, after the technique worked so well on the vehicles, but I decided not to. It is no necessary.

Overall I am happy with the result, apart from the sheen on the uniforms, which is easy enough to fix later. I am pleased that my painting technique is settling down – this will speed things up in future.

1943: German soft-skins

The complete set of vehicles, guns and infantry

I’ve been off line here for nearly three months. At first I was pushing on with my Napoloenic rules project. I reached the point where it needed play testing – and then got distracted. I then moved on to my next project, which was to build more 20mm ground forces for the 1943 Mediterranean campaigns. These are 9 vehicles, two artillery pieces and 14 infantry figures, all German. At least twice I lost momentum as the project progressed, and I got distracted by other things. So the whole thing took quite a few weeks. I have been going for bigger projects to get more stuff done more quickly – but you can overdo it. This one was too big and complex, causing the fatal loss in momentum.

Looking back on it there were two main problems. First was combining infantry (AB metal figures) with model vehicles/guns. The processes between the two are too dissimilar, so for almost every session it was either on one or the other. Even though the models featured crew figures, these were much simpler than the infantry – and the artillery crews had different uniforms anyway. The second problem was that many of the models took far longer to assemble than I expected. The main culprit were the three Milicast cars, which are resin models with a number of fiddly parts and no assembly instructions. The Airfix Vintage Classics 88mm gun and tractor was also a nasty model to put together – mainly because the parts were ill-fitting. By contrast the Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) models (three medium trucks, a Raupenschlepper, and a Pak 40) were simple models that were quick to assemble. The S-Model Kubelwagen was somewhere in the middle. It was quite fiddly (more parts than then the Milicast ones), but in polystyrene, with well fitting parts and with clear instructions, so it was much easier to assemble. Painting and finishing a vehicle batch of this size was not a problem, however, even with two different colour schemes.

I will describe the project in three parts: the vehicles (and artillery) in this post, followed by the infantry, and a digression into dunkelgelb, principal vehicle colour.

The four cars

L to R: Horch Kfz 69, Horch Kfz 15, Stoewer Kfz 1, Kubelwagen

These vehicles (Horch Kfz 15 and 69 heavy cars, Stoewer Kfz 1 and VW Kubelwagen field cars) will be used as transport for small command, comms and observer groups. The two Horch cars (especially the large Kfz 69, really a light truck) are also suitable as tows for lighter field weapons, such as the Pak 38. The 69 could transport a small infantry squad too. All except the Kubelwagen are from Milicast. This is one of the two suppliers I am using for slightly more obscure vehicles and equipment; the other is SHQ, who make metal models. Both are in 1/76, so on the small side. I’d prefer 1/72, as these work better with the AB metal figures I like to use, but there is quite limited availability at this scale. The Milicast models are in resin – which can produce very fine detail, but is a bit fragile. I fell in love with the pictures of these vehicles on the website and got a bit carried away. I bought three SHQ metal models at about the same time (back in 2019), but was a bit disappointed. I have assembled a jeep and a Loyd carrier (a Bedford truck is still awaiting assembly), and found them a bit crude. The parts weren’t especially well-fitting. The end result was more than acceptable though.

Another view!

What I discovered this time was just how difficult resin is to work with. It didn’t help that the crew figures were resin too (bought separately from Milicast), and often needed arms to be glued in place. For each of the vehicles, the body came in one piece, but wheels, windscreens, lights, mirrors, steering wheels and various other bits, depending on the model, had to be glued on. I faced four main problems. The parts were fragile; they were often tiny; there were no recesses to secure them; and gluing was a bit tricky. On the final point I used standard cyano superglue. It look longer than expected to harden; the (usually tiny) part often needed to be I held in place for few minutes, and wasn’t properly secure until the next session. By a miracle no parts were lost in assembly, though some did go awol for a bit. At least one of the of the front lamps broke off at later stage, and I did not even attempt to search for it. Trying to clean flash off the windscreens was a nightmare, given the fragility the material – and one of them broke into several fragments that had to be reassembled. The upshot of all this is that these three cars took several two -hour sessions to assemble. I was vowing “never again” at the end. Come back SHQ, all is forgiven! Alas I have two more Milicast models awaiting assembly: a 17pdr antitank gun, and a 2cm Flakvierling (with quad barrels) which looks a complete nightmare, though this time with some assembly instructions.

The fourth car is the classic Kubelwagen. I actually have no less then four models of this vehicle (only one assembled) from old 1970s Airfix reconnaissance sets – but these were so terrible as to be unusable. They are tiny, and you couldn’t fit 1/76 figures in, never mind ABs – they came with some very diminutive crew figures, so it would have been obviously wrong to the designers. Those were the days. Instead I bought an S-Model kit in 1/72 – there are two models in each box, and I am saving he second one for later. To my relief the model proved big enough to take an AB crew of four figures specifically designed for the Kubelwagen – which fitted quite nicely. This wasn’t a particular simple kit, but in plastic, and with well-fitting parts (mostly with recesses to aid fitting), it was much easier than the resin models.

The medium trucks

The PSC trucks

From one extreme to another! These models came from a single box from PSC, designed with wargamers in mind. They are in 1/72, but originally engineered for 15mm scale (i.e. about 1/100), so they are quite chunky. There aren’t many parts, and no fiddly bits (no wing mirrors, and with headlamps crudely folded onto the mudguard, for example). They were very quick to assemble. The only complication was that I had to paint the interior of the cabs before assembly, which meant assembly of this bit was delayed. By the time I got there some of the parts had bent a bit out of shape, so the fit wasn’t as good as it should have been.

A different view in different lighting

As is generally the case with PSC, there were multiple options – leaving a lot of unused parts at the end. There were two choices each for cab (Mercedes or Opel), drive (wheeled or half-track) and bed (higher sided without tilt or lower with tilt). As you can see from the picture, I tried each of these variations out.

You can see the Mercedes truck without tilt here

These aren’t fine models, but work well enough for tabletop gaming, and I’m really pleased with them. On the strength of this I bought a second box (PSC models are often out of stock, so it’s best to buy while you can). I have an idea of converting one of them to take a Flak gun on the back. Otherwise these vehicles are versatile as troop transports (the German troops in this theatre were usually motorised), tows for medium-sized guns, or supply vehicles (although there is limited call for these on the tabletop).

Raupenschlepper and Pak 40

This is also a PSC kit. I needed Pak 40 75mm antitank guns, as these, according to some sources, were used in Tunisia (I’m not sure but Pak 36(r) converted from Russian 76mm guns, which used Pak 40 ammunition, definitely was in Tunisia), and by Salerno they seem to have been the standard antitank weapon in use by the Germans. The model comes with the Raupenschlepper Ost as a tow. I haven’t seen any pictures of this vehicle in use in this theatre, but Wikipedia has a picture of it in Albania in September 1943, so presumably it was around. It was designed for the Russian front, and used as a tow for medium weapons – it is usually pictured with the 10.5cm howitzer.

This isn’t such a good buy as the trucks. There are only two sets of models in the box. The Raupenschlepper has an alternative cab, with flat-panel construction used later in the war. There are also parts for a version used as a self-propelled Pak 40. Very few of these were actually built, so why all that plastic was used in a model designed for wargames use is a puzzle. I’m not especially a fan of the solid windows – though these looked much better in the end result than I feared. The tilt is moulded in two parts, and the join needed filing and puttying so as not to look too obvious. The crew figures for the Pak 40 aren’t very nice. These are standard PSC sprues, which I also had for the Pak 38s, with some figures requiring assembly. Somehow these are much harder to get looking lifelike than the AB cast figures, though these are quite expensive. They are depicted wearing smocks, which I painted up as early pattern German camouflage (though this is perfectly in keeping with the theatre).

Still the models were easy to assemble and the result is perfectly satisfactory. I’ll do the second models later.

From a different angle

88mm Flak gun and Sdkfz 7

The 88 without shield

This was a bit of a disappointment. I bought the model from the Airfix Vintage classics range (see my 2018 post here) – in fact I bought two of them. They looked good value as I remembered them as being decent models back in the 1970s, though the track wheels on the tractor were a bit awkward to assemble. I also bought crew figures from AB. But the parts fitted badly, which made assembly harder than it should have been. Each of the running wheels comes in two parts, and the track is flexible polythene. The tractor was not particularly easy to put together as a result. But the gun was a bigger problem. Back in the day I could get the wheels on and off and the side-riggers up and down so that we could have it in both deployed and in transport mode – but for this model the fit was not tight enough. I did paint the wheels, but in fact none of my artillery is in towed mode, so I decided not to use them. The gun does not fit snuggly into the cradle. But worst of all the fit of the gun into the base was loose. This mattered because I attached a metal seated figure to it, which meant that the assembly tilted over to that side. In the end I had to feed plasticine into the hole in the base to help hold it in the upright position. The model comes with a shield, not shown the in picture here, as this was often not used. I had to cut a hole in it so that the seated crew figure and use his range-finder.

I decided to paint this in pre-1943 colours of “panzer grey”. Photos, even from the later war, often show 88s quite dark. The narrative here is that this is an old weapon brought forward from a rear area for front-line use, which nobody had repainted. The crew is Luftwaffe, who had slightly different ways of doing things. The AB crew figures are excellent, and the scale difference isn’t jarring. I painted them in slightly different colours to the infantry to reflect the Luftwaffe provenance.

I don’t think I will bother the second gun. I do have the crew for a second 88, but I will source this elsewhere – as a later variant of the weapon if I can get it. I will assemble the second tractor at some point, as it looks OK when finished. It can be used with any second 88, or with a towed 15cm howitzer if I get one.

With shield, from rear

Painting and finishing

Step one was primer, which I applied after assembly (except of the cabs of the trucks. I wanted something quite dark, so that it wouldn’t show if the later painting did not reach all the recesses. To get into those recesses I used the airbrush. I used white airbrush primer paint mixed with darker acrylic paint (and some medium to make it more fluid). I used a brown for most of the vehicles, except the 88 and tractor, where I mixed in black. I’m still working on airbrush technique – and I’m being a bit frustrated with the tendency of the nozzle to clog – so the phase took longer than expected. Getting into the recesses was a bit harder than expected too. In future I will try to doing this differently. I have bought some Vallejo primer, with some in German dark yellow (and olive drab) – I will use this directly out of the bottle. I will also prime the parts before assembly, while still on the sprue – though still with the airbrush.

After this I painted the interiors and crews, so that I could finish assembly of the cabs. That done I painted the rest. This was simply one layer of the base colour applied by old-fashioned brush. As usual I mixed the colour using artists’ pigments – I will explain more how in a later post. The tyres, tracks and other detailing was then done. There were no decals. 88 barrels often have rings, presumably signifying claimed kills – but I couldn’t find anything suitable to use. I decided not to bother with number plate – and second line German vehicles such as these did not carry other markings.

After this I used the oil paint patina technique that I have been using on model aircraft. I dabbed small dots of oil paint onto the model – white, yellow ochre, brown, Payne’s Grey, black – and brushed it into a very thin layer. This softens the flat finish, giving it a rather worn appearance. It also gives the models a slight sheen, like new paintwork. I applied matt varnish to the tllts and the clothes of the crew. I am using a very old bottle of Windsor & Newton varnish, which is not reliably matt, but it looked OK. I then applied a glaze of dark mauve-grey that I was using on the infantry figures, to the crews and radiator grills. This left a slightly glossy finish, that will need a bit of touching up with matt varnish.

After this I used a metallic pencil (silver and pewter) to simulate exposed metal. Since the theatre was mostly dry, rust would be less prominent than vehicles elsewhere. The pencil works quite well, but the impact of this was not great, and I don’t think this is really worth bothering with. The exception may be on the tracks, though even this wasn’t very visible in the end.

Finally the vehicles got a dusting in – another technique learnt from model aircraft. Previously I used a specialist textured paint to simulate dust. This is quite thick and easy to overdo. It looked pretty good on the last batch of British vehicles I did; less so on the previous German ones. I tried putting some on a couple of the vehicles – including the dark grey Sdfz 7. I thought it was a bit too strong, especially on the dark grey. This technique works better to simulate mud than dust (though there was a lot of mud in Tunisia – not really in Sicily or Salerno). I then created dust from ground down artist’s pastel – mixing white, pale yellow and grey mainly. I then applied this generously with a paintbrush. It worked pretty well, though the process created clouds of pastel dust. A mask would have been a good idea, but I just held my breath. I am pretty pleased with the result. In fact I think careful application of the paint product on the wheels and lower surfaces complements the effect quite well. But dabs on the upper surface, as per the Sdfz 7, don’t really work. The dusting did away with the need for dry brush highlighting.

After this came the question of whether so seal the models with a layer of matt varnish from an aerosol can – as I have done with my earlier land vehicles. This would serve to hold the dust layer in place and protect the model generally. I decided not to in the end. Aerosol matt varnish gives a very uniform flat finish. The dusting gave a generally matt finish, but with a bit unevenness that makes the models more interesting. Alas these models are unlikely to see much tabletop action, so protection isn’t a priority.

The aim with my modelling and figure painting is to achieve a strong impact from a medium distance (a foot or two), and to do this with as few steps as possible to simplify production. This contrasts with serious modellers, who like to use lots of different techniques together. I am now settling down to a pattern. Dark-ish primer (perhaps before assembly) applied by airbrush; base coat and detailing; decals if any; oil patination; dusting. There is not usually a need for washes, glazes, dry brushing or varnish.

More Prussian landwehr

The two Pomeranian units. The officer o the corner of the font unit is from AB, almost all the rest are Old Glory.

After my WW2 aircraft modelling, I wanted to return to the attack on my lead mountain of Napoleonic 18mm miniatures. This time I experimented with new techniques for a large batch of figures (102) to help make more rapid progress in future. I have painted them up to form four battalions of four bases, painted for two different regiments, from Pomerania and Kurmark (Brandenburg).

For a number of reasons I had far more Old Glory 15s Prussian landwehr infantry in my unpainted pile than I ever really intended. The figures aren’t the finest, and the caps are a bit low. I already had 19 six-figures bases of these done up for Westphalian and Elbe regiments. I have 60 or so of the somewhat nicer AB landwehr miniatures unpainted, which I plan to paint up as Silesians. Still the OG figures are nicely animated and look well enough in bulk – and the Lasalle game system that I have recently acquired is quite expensive in miniatures the way I play it. I could always do a few more more battalions of landwehr. So I thought I would try out some techniques in mass batch painting, on a larger batch than usual. I decided to do four four- base units, from two different regiments, plus one extra base base of Elbe landwehr so that I could top up my current landwehr stock to a full five Lasalle units. Each unit was to have a flag (figure manufacturers are usually over-generous with standard bearers, and I had four spare landwehr flags). Each base was to consist of five ordinary infantrymen, and one “command” figure – standard-bearer, drummer or officer. One of the standard bearers, and two of the officers were AB figures (where I had more than I needed for my Silesians), the rest were OG.

I am not a follower of hobby fashion, and I am ploughing my own furrow on presenting my miniatures. I base them close together on small bases (six infantry on a base 25mm square). The current fashion is for beautifully painted miniatures spaced further apart, sharing bases with rocks, tufts of grass and such. I find photos of the more fashionable 28mm figures based four to a 40mm square base painful to look at (the equivalent of four 18mm figures to one of my 25mm square bases). All contemporary illustrations show infantry in tight-packed masses – tighter than even my basing. Also I often find that the exposed expanse of bases often clash with the terrain board. Of course there is a very good reason that people go for these looser presentations – the painting of the figures is usually of a very high standard, and time-consuming. Looser mounting mean fewer figures to a unit, and the extra space allows the paintwork to be shown off to better advantage. These miniatures always look much better up close and personal than they do en masse and in pictures. I want to achieve the opposite – something that looks better en masse, while requiring less work on each individual figure – something more impressionistic. But I don’t want the miniatures to look terrible up close either, though. My technique had been to paint the figures individually, mounted on strips of card, and then mount them on the bases when they were finished, with the application of flock to the base being the final step. This felt a painfully long process, especially with a batch size of 12 bases (72 miniatures), which I felt to be the minimum to make progress with army building.

This time I decided to mount the figures on the bases much earlier in the process. This wasn’t the first time I have tried this. I did it with my first batch of Prussian line infantry (again 16 bases plus bits), but I didn’t consider it a particular success, as it was hard to paint the figures mounted so close together. I thought it was worth another try. First I primed them by airbrush, using gesso mixed with a bit of black. I then did a quick paint job on the legs below the coat, and some of the feet, and brown on the bases. To get a bit of variation in coat and cap colours I applied an undercoat of dark brown or white on the coats and caps for one figure in six, not including the command figures. This was a bit of a failure on the end result – the variation is hard to see. And then I mounted them on the bases, using the matrix of sand, acrylic medium and paint that I usually use.

And then on to the rest of the painting. The coats were mostly blue (a slightly different mix for each regiment, not that this is very noticeable), with a few brown and grey ones. The caps were black (actually dark grey) for the Kurmark regiment and blue for the Pomeranians. And so on. Predictably the webbing was the hardest – but this is not so prominent on the landwehr, and most of the poses had muskets held close the front of the body, masking the straps. If anything was too hard to reach because of the close packing of the figures, I left it out. I tried to highlight the white cross on the cap front, but not always very successfully; I thought I could rely on the final wash to correct this by highlighting the outline. I could just about reach the collars for the facing colour (red for Kurmark, white for Pomerania), but I did not attempt shoulder straps except for the AB command figures – the straps aren’t moulded properly on the OG figures, and very hard to pick out – their line infantry castings have the same problem. I tried to limit the detailing, but I did paint the gun barrels, as these are very visible. Quite a bit of paint strayed onto neighbouring figures, requiring touching up later. This was basic block painting – nothing clever.

Finally, in order to pick out more detail on the figures I gave them a wash. I’ve tried a number of strategies on this over the years. From acrylic paint and water, to Quickshade, to acrylic ink (sometimes diluted). This time I tried something a bit new again. I had bought some alkyl-based oil painting medium for future use in my aircraft models, to speed up the drying time of the oil paint glazes I have been trying there. I thought I might try this mixed with a bit of oil paint (Payne’s Grey) for the wash. This worked a treat, once the right ratio of paint to medium was found – it needed more than I thought. It dried to a satin finish which was slightly glossier than I normally have, but which helped give the figures depth. And that was the figures finished. No final varnish.

All that remained was to flock the bases. I used the same mix as for my last batch of figures, but it didn’t go especially well. It was impossible not to get flock onto the figures, and not all that easy to brush it off – not helped by the relatively dynamic poses of the figures making them hard to brush. And the flock needed to be sealed with diluted glue once dry, with more risk of flock straying onto the figures. This is a lot of faff for an effect that looks very ordinary. I think I need to try something different. That surely means painting rather than flocking – but I still need to find something textured to cover the bases so that they merge with the basing matrix (without getting onto the legs of the figures!). The base painting would then be directly after this texture is applied and dried, and before the main painting of the figures. Something to think about. With such a density of figures on the base, there is less need to try so hard.

I think the overall result is a success. These aren’t fantastically finished figures, but they are fine on the table. And, though I wouldn’t describe the process of painting them as quick, it felt like a significant improvement on my previous method. The batch of 100 was quite manageable.

The Kurmark units

The Duke of York’s Flanders Campaign – Steve Brown

I have long been curious about Britain’s first campaign in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – in Flanders in 1793-5. I was curious because I had seen so little written about it. For most people British military history in this era starts with the Maida campaign of 1807 or Moore in Spain 1808-09. There is sometimes a reference to the Anglo-Russian Expedition to North Holland in 1799. How much was the vaunted proficiency of the British army evident before these campaigns, I wondered? So when I saw this history published by Frontline Books, I couldn’t resist it. It proved a most interesting read, and shed light on an episode that wargamers should take more notice of.

The book covers the history of the First Coalition (1793 to 1795) more generally, which I found very useful, before looking at the Flanders campaign in detail. Until near the end, Britain’s contribution to this coalition effort, which was led by the Austrians until they withdrew at the end, was led by Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III. It was his first experience of military command, but it was the fashion for armies to be led by “princes of the blood”, and this eased relations with coalition allies (the prince was fluent in German and familiar with the dramatis personae of high society in Austria, Prussia and Hanover). Apart from Austria, these allies were Hanover (part of George III’s realm), the Netherlands, and Hesse – with a theoretical contribution by Prussia that failed to materialise. The campaign was a failure for the Allies, mainly because of poor Austrian leadership. This resulted in Austria losing Belgium (as we now call what was then the Austrian Netherlands) to France, followed rapidly by the rest of the Netherlands.

Why did Austrian leadership fail? I didn’t find the book very satisfactory in explaining this. Two main reasons are offered: divergent strategic interests, and outdated strategic doctrines. While these were both doubtless true, I think that Steve Brown fails to explain them properly. What did Austria want to achieve? In the end what undermined Austrian resolve (and that of the Prussians) was a Russian threat to Poland. Was that their worry all along and did that make them hesitate to commit troops deep into France? This idea is not explored. The Austrians were not the only ones guilty of a lack of clear focus – the British government insisted on a diversion to try and take Dunkirk, and diverted troops to campaigns in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. Coalition warfare always struggles when it comes to clarity of objectives – and historians too often moan about this, rather than properly interpreting the conflicting aims. Warfare is politics by other means, after all, and not a be-all and end-all. On outmoded strategic ideas, Mr Brown makes much of the Austrian attachment to the “cordon system”, which let them to disperse forces. This builds on a narrative that was current at the time (the Duke of York himself refers to it), developed later by such writers as Clausewitz, and has been a staple of historians ever since. But that leaves a question: if it was so obviously wrong, why did the Austrians stick with it? If that was actually what they were doing. My main rule of historical analysis is that if you don’t understand how you yourself could have been tempted to take a particular course of action, then you haven’t actually understood it. Nobody defends the cordon system – which means that nobody is taking the trouble to understand what commanders who used it were trying to do. I was not able to pick up a deep enough appreciation of this campaign to develop a view myself. The maps in the book are generally unsatisfactory, and Mr Brown assumes too much knowledge of the local geography.

Mr Brown is a bit better on the tactical details of the battles. These are extremely interesting. There were no great set-pieces along the lines of the Napoleonic period – but rather a series of much more scattered encounters, often relating to the capture of fortresses and strategic towns. The coalition troops fought very well for the most part, with the general exception of the Dutch (whose people were not bought into the defence of royalty and aristocracy). Often Allied troops won out against vastly superior numbers. The French forces were in a state of flux – with elements of the old royal army combining with various flavours of volunteers and conscripts. The French did start to develop tactics that made best use of their advantages – which were mainly numbers – which has been the main historical interest of these campaigns hitherto. This has been dealt with expertly by the late Paddy Griffiths in particular, and this account of the Flanders campaign bears Griffiths out, though it doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the campaign. Griffiths suggested that the French innovations, far from being a new and superior way of war, were developed as a way of using poor quality troops against superior professional armies – and were largely dropped as the French army regained its professionalism under Napoleon. But until I read this book I didn’t appreciate just how effective the coalition troops generally were. The Austrian army was considered the best of the major powers, and their performance in this campaign bears this out (though Mr Brown reckons the Hessians to be the best troops in this campaign). This should provide a lot of interest to wargamers. The two sides provide an interesting contrast. Coalition armies may be nightmare to command, but the variety of troops they incorporate is a wargamer’s delight. And what’s more the coalition’s cavalry arm was very strong – including a substantial British element, featuring Household cavalry, the Union Brigade, and many other units, who had a good campaign. Britain did not field such a strong force of cavalry until 1813, Mr Brown reckons. Of course, the uniforms are totally different to the Napoleonic phase of the wars, but even so this era deserves more attention form the hobby than it gets. If I was in the mood to take on another army-building project, I would be tempted!

As for British tactics, Mr Brown has not much to say – as the British contribution to the coalition effort was not a major one. Many of the British infantry units were freshly raised and of very poor quality. Officers were often inexperienced surplus sons from aristocratic families, who had acquired commissions through purchase. Having said that, the British units generally seem to have fought well enough, using the conventional three-deep line for infantry. They seem to have been used aggressively in bayonet attacks, rather than attempted much with musketry. The Guards units performed well, as well as the cavalry. The weaknesses of the British units was more a question of a loss of discipline off the battlefield, with a lot of looting in particular.

The campaign ended in ignominy, when the Austrians pulled out, and then the French attacked in the winter. The remaining coalition forces were forced into a calamitous retreat where the logistics and discipline broke down and many men were lost. This was doubtless a searing experience for those that were there. And this was something of a Who’s Who of British and Hanoverian officers who were to feature prominently later on, not least of whom was the future Duke of Wellington, who commanded a regiment of infantry. There is an interesting appendix listing these officers who came to prominence later. There are many familiar names on the French side too, such as MacDonald and Vandamme, but most of the famous French names of later were elsewhere. There was another important participant, whom Mr Brown barely gives a mention: Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who served as a staff officer in the Hanoverian army. His experiences of the new French tactics deeply influenced him, and this in turn was very influential in the rebuilding of the Prussian army after 1807.

The Duke of York’s performance was undistinguished, though Mr Brown suggests that much of the criticism he has received is unfair. However, he does suggest that he lacked the gravitas to stamp his authority on an unruly army. He moved on to command the whole British army, where he is reckoned to have done an excellent job, helping to make it become the effective force of the Peninsular campaign. For him, and for the many other British alumni of the campaign, the Flanders episode was a powerful lesson in how not to manage a military campaign. That can certainly been seen in Wellington’s insistence of stern discipline and focused command.

This is an interesting book on an interesting campaign. I think it falls a bit short on the analysis, where it too often follows conventional wisdom, often quoting other historians’ analysis verbatim, and not leaving me with the clarity on events that I had hoped for. The maps are disappointing. But it throws welcome light on an important episode of British military history.