And now to the last of my recent batch of US aircraft: the A-36 Apache. Unlike the other two aircraft, which were more or less ubiquitous to the US war effort, this one had limited use. But t it was one of the most important aircraft types in US use in 1943 in the Mediterranean theatre, especially in the ground attack role – so bang in scope for my project. There were very limited options for modelling it though – with the Brengun kit being the most obvious. It wasn’t a great kit, but much easier than the RZ P-38.
The A-36 is, of course, an early version of the North American Mustang, which in its P-51 incarnation became one of the most important aircraft types in the war. It was named “Apache” by the makers, but this never caught on. In theatre there was a move to call it “Invader”, but eventually the name of its fighter cousin was the one generally in use. It was powered by an Allison engine, as were the first P-51s. This rendered disappointing performance at higher altitudes, and it wasn’t until it was powered by the Merlin engine that the type really came into its own. Doubtless this led to the development of the ground attack version, where it would operate primarily at lower altitudes. This included the fitting of dive brakes, which allowed it to do near-vertical, Stuka-like, dive-bombing attacks. I’m not sure how often it used this capability, which required experienced pilots, and I think it more typically used shallower dives (like the RAF used for the P-40 Kittyhawk, its equivalent aircraft). Its successor, the P-47, did not have this capability. Some were armed with four 20mm cannon – but this option was not available in the Brengun kit, where the plane has six 0.5in machine-guns, including two in the nose. The aircraft could look after itself if it met fighter opposition, and, apparently, 86 kills were claimed in combat, with one ace. It was used as an escort fighter on occasion, but wasn’t so popular with bomber crews, as it was easy to mistake its profile for the Bf-109 or Fw-109 – as well its lack of performance at higher altitudes. A-36 was highly effective in its fighter-bomber role, apparently, but suffered from high casualty rates. That partly went with the job of tackling well-defended targets at low altitudes – but there were structural vulnerabilities, especially compared to the P-40 and P-47. They were in use until well into 1944, though.
The kit was OK-ish. There was the usual lack of lugs and recesses to hold parts in place, and no undercarriage up option. But the undercarriage doors weren’t too hard to fit. Some parts didn’t fit properly, especially on the underside. That included the air intake, and the vent behind it, which left an ugly gap. The air brakes for the underwing didn’t fit either (thought the ones on the top of the wing were OK). I ended up by bodging the intake a bit, but this is invisible from most angles. The rear cockpit was a bit awkward, as the overhanging bit of the fuselage above of the rear side windows was moulded into the canopy part. This mean it had to be seamlessly integrated into the fuselage, and then painted (which is trickier on acetate). There was no question of adding the canopy after the paint job, as I did with the P-38. But I now understand that this is usually better anyway. Filler helps integrate it with the fuselage. I didn’t do an especially nice job with the aerial, but this was tricky, as it required a hole to be drilled – not easy on acetate.
I decided to model plane 42-84067, which was included in the decal pack, and on the box art. But the decals were for 1944, when it had completed lots of missions. I wanted it as it might have looked in Sicily or Salerno. That meant the only decals from the box I used were the number and the ID stripe on the tail (which probably dated from this time). The over painted battle ID letter “A” was almost certainly later. The national insignia needed the red outline, so I used my trusty sheet from eBay. It has the yellow ID stripes on the wing, which seem to be standard on US single-engined aircraft in the Med. These stripes were painted first and then masked – as overpainting pale colours onto Olive Drab is hard work. Nevertheless the yellow paint was didn’t go on very nicely, and it looks a bit rough. As with the P-38 the red spinner is a bit bright in hindsight.
And that’s it – an interesting aircraft to support my tabletop forces, which ended up looking pretty good.
And so to the P-38 – which proved a nightmare. I wanted one of these iconic aircraft, in the early F variant that would have been in action in 1943. The RS Models kit was the only show in town, and the online review on modelling madness.com didn’t alert me to any major issues. Still the overall result looks fine if you don’t look too closely!
The P-38 at this stage of the war was primarily an escort fighter, assigned to bomber formations. Although it was outperformed in combat by the Bf-109, the primary German interceptor of the time (the Fw-190 being used mainly for ground attack), the P-38 had an impressive range, and so was able to accompany the bombers on deeper missions. Bomber crew gunners liked them because they were instantly recognisable as friendly. Although on occasion they took heavy losses, they did a decent job of keeping the fighters away from the bombers. The interest from my point of view though was that on critical occasions, such as the campaign for Sicily and at Salerno, they were used as fighter-bombers. Their range was a major asset, and they could manage a decent bomb load too.There’s also a bit of nostalgia. One of our favourite models as children was an old Airfix P-38 made up to a very nice standard by my elder brother.
The main problem with the model was that the parts didn’t fit together properly, and, as with a lot of modern models there were no lugs and recesses to hold things in place. Problems began with the undercarriage doors because, as is often the case with modern models, there is no undercarriage up option. Modelling with the undercarriage up means trying to fit badly fitting doors into the wheel well openings. For this model, the fit was more than bad. This wasn’t made easier by the curvature, which was particularly pronounced and complicated on the booms. It took an immense about of time of cutting filing and sanding to get anywhere at all, and in the end I applied liberal amounts of filler too, both the cover gaps and build up. Even after all this effort, the result was pretty clumsy – at least I won’t be looking at the underside that often:
The next challenge came when trying to assemble the central fuselage. There was no room for the interior assembly, and the bottom was too narrow. Cue more frantic cutting and filing, and a bit of bodging too. And when I finally managed to get this assembled, the match between the lower and upper assembly was poor. More filing, sanding and and filler. If you look closely you can see where I’ve tried to build up the surface with filler to get something reasonably smooth. There were similar, though thankfully lesser, problems almost everywhere in the assembly. The result was that the whole thing took much, much longer to put together than any other model I’ve done, with a fairly mediocre result to show for it. But it is acceptable within my “don’t look too close” criteria. The lumps and bumps don’t show up in the photos at least!
The problems didn’t end there. I left the cockpit off before painting, to add on later, saving me having to mask it. But, of course, the fit was terrible (I can’t believe I didn’t check or notice this beforehand). So I needed to cover the gap with filler – which meant more paint and patination to try to blend it in with the rest. This didn’t altogether work, and the finish on the inner-upper wing is a bit rough.
The final problem was all my own fault, though. I applied the decals on the booms in the wrong place – with the insignia on the air intakes, and the ID letters on the rear boom. I was able to remove the insignia decals (which came with the kit) and replace them with one from the sheet I bought from eBay (I had already used these on the wings to get the right size), in the correct place, in front of the intake. But the ID letters should be on the intakes – and I didn’t have anything in stock to do this (the model decals look too big anyway). So I left them! The plane modelled is one of the schemes in the box, except that I was trying to model it earlier in its career – as it would have been at Salerno or Sicily. I left out the kill/mission marks from the nose, but left the nose art on the port nose – actually surely too far forward as it was probably only there to make room for the mission tally marks.
One further thing is worth remarking on. The red on the spinners and under-wing tips is quite bright – you wouldn’t think I did quite a bit of dulling down on the original pigment. Red spinners were a standard Allied ID feature for fighter aircraft. The British used Insignia Red (used on the national insignia) which was quite a dark, dull red, so as to be less conspicuous. I had read that the US equivalent paint was much brighter, until they dulled it down later in the war. So I’ve tried to represent the earlier version. I used the same shade on the other two models assembled in this batch. I should have dulled it down a little more though!
This is an iconic aircraft, and I’m glad I have one for my collection. But if I want to do another one I will start with a different model, perhaps converting a later version.
The first of my latest batch of aircraft models for to describe individually is the B-26. I bought this kit back in the late 1970s, as a gift to my younger brother. But he was losing interest in modelling and left it in my parents’ attic, from whence I rescued it during one the their periodic clear-outs as they moved and downsized. Since then it lurked in my attic. After moving house in 2020 I decided that I was going to assemble this model – indeed it sowed the seed of the idea of my 1943 aircraft project. I have always liked this aircraft.
Along with the B-25 Mitchell, the B-26 Marauder was one of the two principal medium bomber types in US service in WW2. More B-25s were produced, and many more survive today – but, apparently, more of the B-26s were in use in the European theatre. That is certainly true of the Mediterranean in 1943 – three bomber groups were in operation, compared to two for the B-25. The B-25 had a longer range, and so more useful in the Pacific, I read. Still Catch-22, set in the Med, featured the B-25. The B-26 had a bit of a tricky reputation, as it required quite a high landing speed – and there were quite a few accidents in the early days. Tweaks to the design, and better training, overcame the problems, however, and the overall casualty rate was lower than the B-25 in the end. I guess that was because it was faster, and so harder to intercept. Anyway, to my eye it is much better looking, with its cigar-shaped fuselage, compared to the boxy B-25.
I wanted to make an aircraft as it would have appeared in September 1943, when B-26s supported the Salerno battle. That meant a plain olive drab and grey scheme, and no large battle number on the tail – so characteristic of later on (they were introduced a month or so after Salerno). The insignia had the red outline. I wanted to depict an actual aircraft, where I was limited by two main factors. First, the model depicts a later variant, with a distinctly different tail gun position (and may be differences too). That ruled out quite a few planes in operation in 1943. Second I wanted to be able to make up the tail numbers from as few sources as possible, including the original Airfix decals. This pointed me at number 41-34925 “Kismet” from 37th Squadron of 17th Bombardment Group. This plane survived the war, completing many missions. One tricky issue was nose art, which I was really not keen to get into. The illustration I found from Mark Styling showed this plane with quite simple nose art (apart from the many mission markers visible in later line). It has the word “Kismet” with further words “Sine Qua Non” in a curve below – all quite small and in yellow lettering. No cartoon characters, bombs or busty ladies. This would not have been impossible for me to put together and print off, though yellow printer ink would not have come out strongly without a bit of white ink to give it body – but I didn’t fancy doing it. Besides I noticed on pictures of planes in action in 1943 that nose art was often absent (see below) – so the model has nothing.
The first stage of the project was to paint and assemble the interior. The model came with three crew figures: two for the cockpit and one for the gun turret. I had already used on of the cockpit figures for my P-47, and since the remaining one would not have looked right next to one of the PJ figures, I put two from PJ in the cockpit. The turret figure was quite crude, with a huge circulardvice in place of his hands to provide a pivot for the guns. I decided to keep it, and in faction can’t see much through the turret plastic, so this didn’t matter. The online sources did not give any consistent colour for the interior, though it is usually represented as green – a mix with the chrome-yellow primer in use. I decided to follow another source, which said it was a mix of black and treated aluminium. You can barely see it though! The transparencies are quite thick, so visibility is not perhaps what it should be.
Assembly came next. This was much easier than for my P-38 model – the fit was generally OK, and there were lugs and recesses to hold parts in the right relative positions. Still it was not as tight as some more modern kits that I have assembled – though not the other two in this batch. I should have spent a bit more time filing down parts to get the fit a bit tighter, especially the bomb doors and the engine nacelles. Fairly liberal amounts of filler were needed in places, causing some of the panelling detail to be lost. – and I needed to use tape to keep the fuselage together while the cement was setting. One issue worth mentioning was transparencies. Except at the rear and nose I stuck these in before painting. The cockpit canopy because I wanted to use filler to ensure a seamless join with the fuselage; the various portholes, etc. because they had to be stuck in from the inside, and the turret because it looked too tricky to do later. These had to be masked. The main problem was that I used specialist glue for canopies – after problems with superglue causing damage – and these had weaker adhesive properties than I was used to. One of the side windows fell into the body of the fuselage, and could not be recovered. I had to bodge a replacement carved from sprue. I had to do something similar to one of the wing lights which I dropped on the floor and couldn’t find. Incidentally in the kit there are windows for the two openings at the bottom back of the fuselage, just under the tailplanes. In 1943 these openings were ports for a machinegun, so I left the transparencies out – though I did not attempt to show include the weapon.
I have already outlined the strategy for painting and finishing. The decals required were minimal. I got the national insignia with the red outlines from eBay. The tail numbers were a combination from the original model and an ancient Airfix P-47 kit (which were slightly duller – which I tried to correct with a bit of yellow paint). The overall result is a bit darker and greener than often depicted (for example in the box art above) – though I think the artificial light mixed in with the natural light in the picture makes it a bit greener. It is meant to show a relatively new plane, not quite as weathered as normal. Here is a new contemporary picture of planes from 17 BG in flight:
These are planes returning from a raid on Sardinia in November 1943, shortly after the big battle numbers on the tail were added; No. 17 (Uden Uden’s Oil Burner) has a damaged engine from flak and is limping home, escorted by the others (from a different squadron) – it did make it to safety and went on the complete many more missions. Both it and 97 behind it were candidates for my model, but the tail numbers weren’t as easy to source. Incidentally I can’t see any nose art on either the plane – though the front plane at least was photographed later in the war with nose are on both sides. Sometimes it was just on the port side. This picture shows the slightly weather-beaten matt look, with not much contrast between the olive drab and grey. No 17 has a lot of paint damage on the tail, but not much elsewhere.
And here’s the underside:
The weathering is a bit heavy-handed – but I have no photos of what it would have looked like in practice. The underside did get a hammering from the dust airstrips – but I don’t know how that looked!
There’s plenty on the model that could have been done better – but I’m glad its decades in the attic weren’t in vain!
Back to aircraft modelling. The next batch of 1/72 planes in my 1943 project represent the Americans. These are a B-26 Marauder bomber, a P-38 Lightning fighter, and an A-36 Invader/Apache fighter-bomber. Since my main focus is on the British and Germans, these were the only American planes that I initially planned, although I now plan to do a P-40 as well, but not in the olive drab scheme like these, but the RAF one. As usual I will use this post to describe the common aspects of the project, and then publish separate posts for each model.
This project took quite a bit longer than expected – something I have said about each of my most recent projects – it’s probably age! Two things in particular held me up. First the B-26 model is a big one, compared to the single-engine types that I have attempted so far; and the P-38 isn’t a small one either. Bigger models do take more time. Second, none of the models were particularly easy to put together, and the P-38 the worst of all the models to date – worse than my Stuka and Hurricane. And that takes a lot more time, as you attempt to reconcile ill-fitting parts, and then patch up the results with filing , sanding and putty. It doesn’t help that I model with undercarriage up, which only the B-26 kit (a 40-year old Airfix job) catered for, and as with all long projects I then went through a flat patch – especially since the studio where I assemble my models is in the garage block, and not part of the central heating system – so it was pretty cold in the patch of freezing weather we had. One afternoon was just too cold for me to try! Still, they were finished in time for Christmas.
The steps I went through were the painting of the interior and crew, assembly (easily the most time-consuming phase), priming and painting with the airbrush, and then the various finishing steps, including decals. Not a huge amount to say about the first stage. I had to supply my own crew figures apart from two from the B-26: I dipped into my stock of figures from PJ Productions. I will describe the assembly process for each model in my later posts, as each was a very different experience. The painting and finishing processes were pretty similar, so I’ll say something about that now.
In spite of my frustrations, I persisted with the airbrush for these models. I used white primer from Vallejo. I then mixed my own paints for the main event. For the undersides I mixed a neutral grey from the black and white paint pots that came with the airbrush. For the olive drab I mixed the basic colours using Liquitex artists paints, mixed with Liquitex airbrush medium and on occasion with thinners. The airbrushing was hit and miss. Sometimes things went well, and the paint left the brush with a nice flow. I haven’t managed to get a precision spray yet, but I don’t think that is supposed to be the strength of this particular model. On other occasions I couldn’t get the flow right at all – it came out too thin, or wouldn’t come out properly at all. As a result the process took more sessions than it should. The primer tended to clog on the nozzle, and it needed wiping quite frequently. This didn’t happen for main paints so much (and not at all on the olive drab mixes) – but these were prone to clogging further back in the mechanism when they weren’t too thin. One thing I discovered to be a bad idea was mixing in the cup – by adding thinner to a mix that was a bit thick, for example. I had been encouraged to do this by a video tutorial. I think the thicker paint tended to get into to the system and clog it before being mixed properly. If mixed separately to the right consistency, and then put in the cup, things went much more smoothly. I like to think I’m getting the hang of the airbrush, but I’m not sure, to be honest. It produces a lovely finish, but is it worth the trouble?
I used two mixes for the olive drab. For the P-38 and A-36 I used the usual yellow oxide/black/ white combination (though I may have started with neutral grey and yellow and tweaked with black/white). This was the as same as for my P-47 trial model, but a bit lighter. For the B-26 I wanted something a bit greener. I started with Sap Green, and mixed various things into it. The first attempt was too green, but with tweaking I got a satisfactory result, looking close to a lot of artist’s portrayals of the aircraft. This was a bodge as I kept adding different things to the mix, though, and I can’t say precisely how I got there. My general rule is to only use two pigments/premixes and white for mixing – that makes it much easier to replicate. I would need a different method to repeat! The first mix was to represent a more weathered finish – the colour reportedly turned quite brown after exposure to the elements. The second, which is closer to the commercially available mixes, was for a newer aircraft. I am pleased with both results. Incidentally the pictures were taken on a dull day (I gave up waiting for the sun!), so there’s a lot of artificial light in the mix, which tends to make things a bit greener.
I used a combination of tape and Blu Tak to mask. This included the canopies for the A-36 and (mostly) the B-26. I left the canopy off for the painting stage for the P-38 and the B-26 nose and tail to be stuck on later. This was a mistake for the P-38, as it was so ill-fitting it needed filler and more paint later. Blu Tak works better than magic putty, as I needed it to stay in place for days. The magic putty is easier to put on, though, and I did use it for varnish spray.
After the decals came the oil paint patination: small blobs of oil pigment in various colours (white, Payne’s grey, yellow ochre and raw umber) brushed vigorously into a very thin layer with a fore-and-aft or up-and-down motion. The paint did not spread as easily as before – perhaps because of ageing, or perhaps because it was colder than normal – but nothing that a little extra linseed oil couldn’t sort out. I’m getting better at this – I have had a tendency to over-apply; and there was the disaster of trying to apply over matt varnish! The undersides were left looking pretty messy – but with the dust from Mediterranean airfields, I gather that they did get into a bit of a state. This stage left the models with quite an appealing off-matt finish: but photos of US planes in theatre usually show a very matt finish. So I sprayed on Winsor & Newton matt aerosol spray, which leaves a very matt finish. I protected the decals with some gloss varnish first – though I doubt there was a real danger from contact with matt varnish – but I wanted to play safe. The next step was to represent a bit of paint damage using a silver/pewter coloured pencil. I didn’t want to overdo this; I think ground crews were usually quite diligent in repairing damage. But it’s usual to represent quite a bit of damage on a B-26 – they were especially exposed to flak explosions – so I tried a bit harder on this, though still quite subtle. Finally I applied some powdered pastel in various mixes of grey and brown. The biggest job here was applying the exhaust stains on the A-36. I couldn’t see anything comparable on old photos of the P-38 though, and not on the B-26 either. In the end it did a similar job to the oil paint, in producing a rather weather-beaten finish, with the effects of air flow as well. On the B-26 I tried to show a bit of differential weathering on the canvas control surfaces – but not very successfully. With the high-matt finish for these models, I could have skipped the oil paint stage, I think. For my British and German models, where I like the off-matt finish that the oil leaves, it’s a different matter.
As usual, close examination of these models reveals a lot of things I could have done better (or in the case of the P-38 model, defects I couldn’t quite remedy) – but I’m not comparing myself to the master-hobbyists. I want good-looking models from a respectable distance – and that is what I have ended up with!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
88mm Flak gun and Sdkfz 7
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.
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.