Category Archives: WW2

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.

Finishing

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.

My Special Hobby P-40 Kittyhawk 1A

Next a look at my Kittyhawk. The P-40, later models of which became the RAF Kittyhawk (earlier ones were called Tomahawk by the RAF), played an important role in the RAF efforts in the Mediterranean. At first they were used to supplement the Hurricanes as air-superiority fighters – as the former were outclassed by the arrival of the Messerschmitt Bf 109F – plus it was easier to ship them direct from the US to Egypt than supply from the UK. Then as the Spitfires took on that role, they were used primarily as fighter-bombers. By 1943 they had become the RAF’s principal fighter-bomber, increasingly supplemented by Spitfires Vs, as the Luftwaffe retreated and the Spitfire VIIIs and IXs came into play.

The P-40 isn’t the most elegant of aircraft (US designers rarely did elegant, unlike their British and, less often, German counterparts). But it was robust and highly functional (which the US designers were unbeatable at, except maybe by the Russians), and especially suitable for this theatre and the fighter-bomber role. It was let down by its Allison engine, which performed well at low altitude, but not at the higher altitudes needed for escort and other mainline fighter roles. By 1943 the P-40F and L (RAF Kittyhawk IIs) were powered by Merlin engines – which did much better at altitude. Americans using these models as fighter escorts against Bf-109Gs got perfectly respectable results, especially as by this time the US pilots were better trained and rested than their opponents. But the Merlins were needed elsewhere – notably for Mustangs, a far better air-superiority machine – and the later Allison engines were fine for fighter-bombers, so later P-40s (the K, M and N) went back to these.

At the start of my project, in autumn 2020, I went on a buying spree for my models, anxious to beat full Brexit, which kicked in in January 2021. I chose this model from Special Hobby of the Kittyhawk IA to be my Kittyhawk. Alas for my research. The Kittyhawk 1A was the P-40E, which was obsolete by 1943, being replaced by the Kittyhawk II (the P-40F or L) or, mainly, III (the K or M – and apparently some of the Ls, though presumably re-engined). The later versions were chiefly distinguished by a lengthened fuselage, which set the tail back a bit from the tailplanes. I discovered my mistake quickly enough, but decided to press ahead. I decided to do the plane on the box art from 112 Squadron, with its distinctive shark’s teeth. This is a bit hackneyed and overexposed in artwork – other squadrons did not have these markings. But they really do work well on the P-40, so I thought I’d do it anyway. The plane is marked GA-Y, is from 1942, and was lost in May of that year. For some reason it has been by far the most popular to be portrayed on model aircraft. Here is a picture of it:

The Special Hobby kit proved to be a lovely one, in spite of being on the usual undercarriage down mode. The undercarriage doors fitted neatly into the recesses – the only problem is that one of them was very small, and I managed to lose it. This is the mark of a good quality, professionally-made model. The PJ pilot got in without too much trouble but it is a roomy cockpit compared to the Hurricane or Spitfire – or the Bf 109 or Fw-190 come to that. The only awkward bit was fitting the fuselage assembly onto the wing assembly. For some reason this often seems to be a problem (it was the case on both the other models too). I needed to be a bit more patient, and the fit isn’t quite right. Anyway, here is the result:

I used the US bomb from the kit – the RAF did use these (and the US used British bombs). It’s a bit skew though. Also the bomb dips a bit, probably because I didn’t get the pylons right. I have seen pictures of centrally mounted bombs dipping on Spitfires – but that doesn’t show on the picture above. I might try to correct this. I have already commented the errors on paint colours. Also the cockpit canopy suffered from some excess glue. The biggest problem was with the decals. Unfortunately the GAOY on the port side got displaced, as did the starboard serial number – and this escaped my final checks an so dried out of place. I decided that I could correct the worst of this by replacing the roundel (even though it wouldn’t then match the position on the other side). As I was searching stock for a new roundel, I found the decals for my original Airfix Kittyhawk kit from the 1970s. They were for the same aircraft. The big letters were a bit heavier than the Special Hobby ones (which are more realistic anyway), so I decided only to replace the roundel – though I needed to overpaint the yellow to hide a pale outer circle. The GA remains slightly skew. I was also able to replace the serial number, though the Airfix ones were also a bit heavy. The port serial in the kit has a dark background (which looks like an unsuccessful intervention from the censors!) – which is there in the original photo. I didn’t like this so I was happy to replace the serial on this side too.

And so there it is! Another 1942 model in dodgy colours. This can do service on the table, but I’m minded to do a Kittyhawk III as well. I’m also looking at a P-40L in US service, as flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, which would also have RAF camouflage colours.

My AZ Model Hurricane IID

AZ Model’s Box artwork for Hurricane IID

The obvious choices for my first RAF models for the 1943 project were a Spitfire V and a Kittyhawk. But I have always loved the Hurricane, and so I wanted one of those too – even though the type was on the way out in Tunisia, and does not seem to have played a significant role in the Sicily and Salerno battles. Hurricanes continued to be used until the end of the war in the Mediterranean, but apparently not in the major land campaigns.

I wanted to do the IID model, which featured two 40mm anti-tank guns underwing, and reduced machine-gun armament (down to two, firing tracer). One squadron of these was in operation in Tunisia (6 Squadron). This squadron played a significant role in supporting the advance of the Eighth Army into Tunisia, providing direct battlefield support by attacking tanks in particular, sweeping through in advance of the ground forces. This makes it particularly interesting from a tactical point of view – since mostly fighter-bombers were used for interdiction behind the lines. The IID was reported to be very effective in this role, and apparently referred to as the “can-opener”. There is actually quite a lot of controversy about how effective aircraft were at tank-busting in WW2 – extravagant claims by the crews are almost never corroborated by hard evidence (notably Typhoons in Normandy, using rockets rather than guns). There is no corroboration for the Hurricane pilots’ claims – though the psychological effect of air attack from tank crews should not be underestimated. The 40mm guns were awkward things, and hindered the aircraft’s manoeuvrability. The calibre (the same as 2 pdrs) was by then obsolete for ground use, but planes had the benefit of extra velocity coming from the aircraft, and the ability to attack from the side or top of the tank. They would have been useful enough against the Panzer IIIs that were the Germans’ main tank at the time. But after Tunisia the RAF used rockets for tank-busting. With battles in Sicily and Italy providing more cover for tanks, tank-busting went out of RAF repertoire. 6 Squadron swapped the guns for rockets, and used their Hurricanes against shipping – upgrading to Hurricane IVs in due course. The high-ups were always sceptical of using aircraft in close support, in spite of army pressure. Interestingly the Germans also used underwing guns of similar calibre, mounted on Stukas, in Russia. Extravagant claims of success were made for them too.

There seemed to be only one choice for for a 1/72 IID, from AZ Model, though a number of others manufacturers do other versions of the Hurricane II. Alas, I found that it was an poor model, especially compared to the Spitfire and Kittyhawk. It is now withdrawn. Starting again I would go for one of the other IIs, and try to model the underwing guns somehow – it is possible that one of the other kits has them, but doesn’t advertise it (there are often parts for other versions included). I have some guns from the Stuka, but I don’t know similar they are. The model often didn’t have proper pins or recesses for the parts to fit together in right place (the two halves of the fuselage had to be glued together free-form – a bit alarming); detailing was weak though perfectly adequate for my purposes. The fit of parts wasn’t great. It came undercarriage down, and without a pilot. The undercarriage doors needed a bit of work to fit into the recesses to model the up position – and I couldn’t make the side struts to the door work at all, so just plugged the gap with plasticine (I’m not stressing on the detail for these models). There were few resin parts, including the pilot’s seat and the radiator. It was very hard to get these off the sprue without damaging them. In fact I lost the seat in the attempt, and had to replace it with a spare from the Kittyhawk. The cockpit was too small for the PJ Productions model pilot I had (I have a stock of these) – so I used the Airfix one form the Spitfire, with a bit of filing, as this was a bit smaller, though not especially nice. The whole interior was quite hard to do. That didn’t matter too much because the cockpit canopy is quite small, and you can’t see much from the outside. I also managed to blur up some of the canopy interior with excess glue. Anyway, I pressed on, and here is the result:

It Is OK considering, apart from the colouring. The underside has been heavily weathered partly because I wasn’t very happy with the underlying paint colour – at once too chromatic and too light. In any case the undersides of the aircraft got pretty hammered from the dust airstrips – though I don’t have a good picture of what they actually looked like.

Here is a picture of the actual aircraft (apparently over El Alamein in 1942):

Could be worse! The decals weren’t that great – with lots of flash on the lettering and numbers. The tail flashes seemed too big compared to the box illustration – but seem to fit the photo OK. The exhaust stain should be much bigger. And if this aircraft survived all the way to Tunisia (doubtful), it would have looked even more weathered. In fact two of my supposed 1943 planes turn out to belong to 1942. This is in fact evident from the roundels and fin flashes, which were changed in July 1942. The above photo shows the newer version on the second nearest plane, which gives authenticity to the Alamein date (July to November 1942).

Unfortunately, the more I look at colours on this batch of models, the less I like them! This model will be fine to use on the wargames table, but less for display. But while I will consider doing another spitfire V and Kittyhawk, the hurricane is too minor a player for me to consider doing another one. Still, the model does look like a Hurricane – not particularly beautiful, but iconic.

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!

David Rowland’s The Stress of Battle – quantifying the human factor

This is an astonishing book, first published back in 2005, with a second edition in 2019, which recently came into the Caliver bookshop. Despite the subtitle the book is not aimed at hobby wargames – more the sort of thing armed forces would run. But there is a lot of interest for us hobbyists. Like a lot of highly insightful works, what it says is bloomin’ obvious once you have read it, but somehow it changes the way you think about things profoundly – in this case the behaviour of men in battle conditions.

The book describes a journey in what is called “Operational Research” in the context of analysing military combat. It started with trying to understand why the combat performance of weapons was so far below what went on in the firing rage, and to quantify this “degradation” and the various factors that affected it. It describes a journey of analysing progressively more complex situations, to get a better understanding of the components of weapon and human effectiveness.

The main journey started in the 1970s with trials using real (British Army) troops in staged battles using laser pulse devices mounted on guns and sensors on the vehicles and people to simulate fire without risk of injury. The first set were tank battles, and then there were a series of infantry battles with armoured support. The tank exercises revealed a number of interesting insights n how battles evolved, and quickly descended into mini-battles with just a few tanks on either side (or one to one) – this was staged in Germany in classic rolling terrain. The infantry exercises showed huge amounts of degradation – reduced weapon effectiveness compared with the effective maximum on shown on firing ranges. Rifle effectiveness was just 5%, and machine-guns 21%.

The next step was to look at historical data, using the trial data as the basis for estimating some of the variables (such as the relative effectiveness of rifles over machine-guns). They looked at the effectiveness of defence fire against an attack, starting with the simplest situation of attacks in the open. They used data going back to the US Civil War, on the basis that the dynamics of small arms fire have not changed much since the rifle replaced the musket. Still, later wars tended to provide more usable data, so WW2 tended to dominate. They progressively added complexities – preparatory bombardments, suppression fire from tanks, prepared defences and so on. They moved on to consider fighting in built-up areas, including the effects of rubble, and woods. Overall they found a further degradation compared to laser-simulation trials of 90%. In other words rifle fire was at just 0.5% of theoretical effectiveness (depending on various conditions), and machine-guns 2%.

The researchers were clear that this degradation had a lot to do with how individuals responded to danger. Two observers from WW2 were particularly on their minds. The first British Lt-Col Lionel Wigram, who went to Sicily in July 1943 to observe infantry behaviour:

His principal finding was that in every platoon there were “six gutful men who will go anywhere”, with “twelve ‘sheep’ who will follow that short distance behind if they are well led”. But there were also ‘”four to six who will run away”. It made uncomfortable reading and apparently General Montgomery suppressed it on the grounds that it would be bad for morale. In addition, Wigram himself lost his temporary rank and was posted to a battalion in Italy as a Major, only to be killed.

David Rowland’s Stress of Battle p61-62

Also quoted was Lt-Col SLA Marshall of the US Army who was commissioned study to infantry behaviour immediately after the war. He observed that only on average only 15% of men took an active part in battle with their weapons, and rarely more than 25% even under intense local pressure. The average was higher for heavy weapons. This was based on battles in NW Europe and the Pacific; he claimed the rate of participation was much higher in Korea. This analysis was pretty subjective but it clearly pointed to an important truth.

All this became clearer in the next phase of the research, when the team looked at battles involving armour. This started with looking at the effectiveness of anti-tank guns against tank attacks, as these data were easiest to make sense of. Their data came initially from encounters by British guns in the Western Desert and Tunisia. Unlike infantry battles, they were examining relatively small numbers of weapons, and the individual performance of weapons was more apparent. They saw that the results were heavily influenced by what they called “heroic behaviour”, which usually resulted in a gallantry award. This covered 20-30% of guns. To cut a long story short, they found support for a model closely approximating to Wigram’s observations for infantry. There were three groups of men: “heroes”, those with degraded performance, and those who took no part at all. The ratios were consistent with Wigram’s observation (18:55:27). Incidentally Wigram’s ratio of ‘gutful” is quite high; anti-tank crew performance tended to be led by the best performer in the group, who was usually at least sergeant rank – Marshall’s ratio of 15% would be typical of infantrymen. I think Wigram was following the British 78th Battleaxe division, who were veterans. There was some variation of performance within each group, but these were minor compared to the variation between the groups; there was no continuum of individual performance. The heroic group operated at a similar level to the soldiers in the non-lethal trials, the “followers” (my terminology) operated at about 30% of this level, and the “shirkers” did not participate in the battle at all. They picked out examples from the battles that they studied, of some guns killing over a dozen tanks, while other guns from the same unit were abandoned without firing a shot. Looking more closely at the heroes, they found that this correlated strongly with rank. A much higher proportion of NCOs than other ranks, and higher proportion of officers to NCOs. Doubtless the causality of this worked both ways.

The studies went on to look at progressively more complex situations in armour combats, and then to look at the effects of surprise and shock, but the three classes of behaviour was the critical finding. There were a number of other findings that will be of interest to wargamers. Two were very striking:

  • Defenders of urban areas proved to be at a substantial disadvantage to the attackers, usually suffering very heavy casualties. The most effective strategy for defence was to hold back forces in reserve and launch a counter-attack. This runs contrary to the expectations of those who aren’t infantrymen, but I think that experienced soldiers knew this. The Germans at Salerno seem to have understood this, for example, in their defence of Battapaglia. This does not apply if the built-up area has been reduced to rubble, which turns it into a more normal battlefield – though not if the bombardment is just before the attack, when the shock can have a major effect. Wargamers rarely understand this dynamic over built-up areas, suffering something of a Hougoumont complex – treating all built-up areas like the heroically defended farm complex at Waterloo (and its neighbour La Haye Sainte). It doesn’t help that in larger scale games a village is often represent by a single building model. While this result was derived mainly from WW2 data, I think it is timeless.
  • Anti-tank guns proved two to three times more effective than tanks at destroying tanks, in spite their lack of mobility and protection. Mobile anti-tank guns (portees and self-propelled guns) had similar performance to towed guns, and even the open-turreted M10 (generally highly disadvantaged in wargames) was more similar to its towed equivalent than tanks. The authors explanation is equally unexpected: it is because they had a higher proportion of “heroes” manning them, specifically they were more likely to have an officer or senior NCO in command, or an officer could easily move from gun to gun and exert influence (or actually take over the firing himself). They had no need to look for alternative explanations, though they were able to dream up a few.

For me the dog that didn’t bark was differences in troop quality. Of course the data was seldom good enough to produce different estimates for different types of troops. It was drawn overwhelmingly from battles between British, American and German troops. These men came from similar societal backgrounds, were trained in roughly similar ways, and they were mainly conscripts. So, although modern writers like to talk up the superior quality of German troops, it shouldn’t be so surprising that when you get down to platoon and company level the troops behaved similarly. On two occasions did the researchers try to distinguish elite units. When looking at troops defending rubble they noted that the defenders on several occasions were German paratroops (Monte Cassino loomed large, but there were other battles covering 40% of the data). Allowing for their greater allocation of machine-guns, the researchers found a slightly better performance for the paratroopers, but not a significant one. The also looked at the performance of Gurkha troops, and found a slightly higher proportion of gallantry awards, indicating a higher proportion ‘heroes”, and so better combat performance. The effects were not decisive.

The three types of behaviour in combat, and their rough proportions and linkage to seniority is timeless, I think – and much of the art of warfare is based on managing this fact, from the invention of the Greek phalanx onwards. I have often said that the relatively lacklustre performance of Austrian troops in Napoleonic times came down to a lower ratio of cadres in their large companies. When a period of campaigning had increased the cadre ratio (attrition affects the cadres less), they performed better, such as in 1800, when they nearly ended Napoleon’s career at Marengo. Elite units are created to increase the proportion of “heroes” and eliminate the shirkers – though possibly at a substantial cost to the rest of the army.

And for wargamers? In most games we use large figure scales and we can average out the effects. Even in WW2 games, where the figure ratios are often 1 to 1, we like to group people together in teams, so that the individual behaviour is averaged, and let the dice do the rest. But this works less well for armoured warfare, where we tend to assume all vehicles are crewed by heroes. This produces a better game, given that tank numbers tend be quite low, and so an only one in four chance of the tank being fully functional can easily take the fun away. Still the examples given of a single 6-pounder destroying multiple German tanks (mainly Panzer IIIs I think) could not happen if those tanks had been manned by fully functioning crews.

This book has been around for a bit, and it must have influenced some rules writing. I can see its influence on the Too Fat Lardies offerings, especially I Ain’t been Shot Mum and its Big Men. But generally our games work more like those non-lethal trials with laser-pulse weapons.

This book isn’t a particularly easy read. It uses a lot of technical language and even for someone like me that knows a bit about statistical analysis, it is quite to follow at times – the blurb suggests that its many charts help make things clear, but they didn’t for me. But you can skip through those bits – and I don’t hesitate to recommend this book for anybody who wants to understand land warfare better, especially WW2.

Two books on Sicily 1943

My 1943 project focuses on British troops in the Mediterranean that year. I started it as a teenager in the late 1970s, but suspended it, like so much else, when I left home in 1979. I have so far focused my research on two campaigns: Tunisia in January to May (and especially the First Army) and Salerno in September. Between these two comes the battle for Sicily in July to August, which I have neglected. I bought these two books to start to fill the gap.

The first is James Holland’s Sicily ’43. Mr Holland seems to be one of the most popular British historians of WW2 at the moment, but this is the first of his books that I have read. I am impressed. This is how history should be written for general consumption. Wargamers will find that it lacks detail, but it should offer inspiration for further research – or may put them off trying to recreate the combats on the tabletop altogether – more of that later.

The 38 day battle for Sicily (starting from the date of the invasion itself rather than the pre-campaign, as the cover of the other book does) has been somewhat neglected by historians – along with the rest of the subjects of my 1943 project. In between the battles of the Western Desert 1940 to 1942, and Normandy and north west Europe 1944 to 1945, and the Russian Front 1941 to 1945, Tunisia, Sicily ad Italy don’t get much of a look-in. Inasmuch as historians have dealt with it, they have tended to be very critical of the Allied command. They have suggested they were too cautious, and should not have let so many Germans and their equipment get out at the end. Mr Holland seeks to set the record straight.

In this he is mainly convincing. Only on one issue do I think he needed to say more – could the Allies have succeeded with a smaller invasion launched earlier? The Axis defence was in disarray at the start of the attack, and things would have been even worse if the attack had been conducted earlier. The key is the Etna area in the north east. This was very easy to defend, and the Germans managed to do so successfully with reinforcements sent in shortly after the invasion started – and most of all with airborne troops. The Allies would have had to get there very quickly to head this off, across terrain that made movement difficult. It probably was too risky, at a time when the Allies did not want defeats – but it would have been worth exploring this a bit more by looking at the resources available to both sides. Incidentally one of the interesting aspects of Sicily was the use of airborne forces. Theses were an innovation for both Allied powers, who learnt the hard way the difficulties of inserting them directly into enemy territory. There were disasters, especially for the British glider troops, and the shooting down of many American transports by friendly fire by the navy. The Germans showed that they had learned the lesson by using airborne forces for a rapid insertion behind their own lines, mostly landing the troops in airfields. It turned a rout into a hard-fought battle which bought time and cost the Allies many casualties.

Mr Holland’s style is to range from the top command to the front line, not neglecting the experience of civilians caught in the middle. He looks at all participants sympathetically – this is the best way to draw out telling insights. Too many histories just look at one participant (based on the sources most readily accessible to the author); this can be good for drama, but not so much for understanding what was happening and why. Another mistake is historians being too eager to criticise the decisions of participants. My rule of thumb when doing historical analysis (which I developed as a history student) is that unless you understand how you yourself could have taken a decision, especially a bad one, you have not understood why it was taken. That requires a sympathetic approach. It also makes more enjoyable reading – though that may just be down to my personal taste. Mr Holland scores well on both counts. It is fluently written too, another plus in an era when history writing is often badly edited. I found some clichés, such as the frequent use of “to say the least”, a bit annoying, but that’s small stuff.

The second book, which is shorter, and which I read first, is not so well-written: Eagles over Husky by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. It concentrates on the air campaign, and plays to my increasing interest in the use of air power in support of military campaigns. It too seeks to set the record straight – as a number of authors criticised the Allied air effort in the campaign. The air forces were accused of fighting a private war and not supporting the armies well enough, and then letting the Germans get away at Messina. Mr Fitzgerald-Black has little difficulty in putting the counter-arguments. For my taste he overdoes it; Mr Holland comes to the same conclusions, but with much less argument. Mr Hamilton-Black feels it is necessary to take apart the criticism line by line, showing how it is not based on facts. This is a bit tiring for readers like me, as it just seems to give air time to nonsense.

That’s my only real criticism of this work though. It draws heavily from sources on all sides to give a convincing picture. Like Mr Holland he combines a strong strategic narrative with many vignettes of the action. He makes an interesting case that the Allies forced the Germans to make a similar commitment of resources to this theatre as the eastern front (while Kursk was going on) and the north (where the Allied strategic bombing had got going), but suffered vastly more losses than in either other theatre. The campaign was an important step in the breaking of the Luftwaffe across the whole continent. Perhaps that argument can be challenged – but I’m not the person to do it!

So what is in the Sicilian campaign for wargamers? There is quite a bit of interest at a strategic level – but his can only really be tackled in a board game (which I think has been done). A Rommel-style grand-tactical game may be feasible, most easily for the Axis counterattack against the Americans at Gela, where you even get to use a unit of Tigers. (Incidentally Tigers proved hard to use in the difficult terrain and primitive roads – they mostly broke down through being over-worked). The early battles are pretty unsatisfactory from a gaming point of view though, one or two episodes excepted. The defence was very disorganised; the Italians have little stomach for a fight, and the Germans lacked decent leadership; the main challenge for the Allies (and it was considerable) was logistics. Later the fighting got much tougher; a Rommel game would encounter the sorts of problems with mountain warfare that I described for Longstop Hill in Tunisia.

Tactical gaming is more promising, but a bit limited in a different way. There are a lot of important clashes at company and even platoon level, as it was hard to deploy larger formations in the terrain. The problem for the Allies was crossing open (but rough) terrain which exposed their troops to concealed weapons and indirect fire, while canalising them onto mined roads. Their trump card was plentiful artillery and air power. I don’t think this makes for a great tabletop game. There is much less of the Normandy-style fighting in close terrain. Still you can create a game with orchards, olive groves, farms and villages. It should really involve hills and rocks too. A battle for a hilltop village could be visually very attractive, if much harder to recreate than a bit of bocage country. You get to use German paratroops too.

As for air power the key is finding a game where the player chooses between air superiority, interdiction and close support – out of scope for a tactical game, but a possibility in an expanded Rommel-style game perhaps. Air superiority was settled very quickly though.

I have not settled on rules for my 1943 project. I have just bought a second-hand copy of Chain of Command, and this looks very promising. There are other good systems for one-to-one games (Battlegroup and I ain’t been shot Mum) which I’m a bit less convinced about. Rommel also looks quite exciting – but hard to use out of the box in this theatre. I would like something in between – Rapid Fire! and Fistful of TOWs nominally fill that space, but I’m not that happy with either. The long journey continues.