Category Archives: WW2

Using Oxford Diecasts for wargames

Making up and painting models from kits and castings is a faff. What about buying die cast models ready assembled and painted? A bit more expensive, but not that much, and less trouble. For my most recent project I decided to try a couple of models from Oxford Diecast. These were a Bedford OYD 3-ton truck, and a Dorchester Armoured Command Vehicle (ACV). The former was to provide a bit more variety to my transport (dominated by Bedford QL trucks), the latter to act as brigade command vehicle for my British at Medinine and doubtless subsequent scenarios. Here’s what I found.

Firstly these are marketed as collectors’ items and not as wargames models. They come in nice plastic display boxes, screwed to the base. For tabletop use you have to unscrew them – and you then have the display boxes to throw away or repurpose (or leave hanging around while you try and think of how you might repurpose them). Once out, the models are nicely detailed and beautifully finished. They also handle nicely. The Bedford even rolls one its wheels. Unfortunately the Dorchester’s front wheels don’t fit properly and are jammed against the wheel arch. They are quite small – true 1/76 scale I would guess without measuring them. Alas I’m finding that “20mm” models come in a range of scales. If the 20mm is meant to come up to eye level – itself a bit of a scale creep definition (it should really take you to the top of the head) – then the scale should be about 1/80. All 20mm products are bigger than this that I have seen. Plastic Soldier has 20mm in the range description, and 23mm in the instruction leaflet (about 1/70 in my book) – and maybe a bit bigger even than. So these models are at the smaller end of the range, but consistent with Airfix vehicle kits, old and new, for example, and models from the likes of Milicast and SHQ.

Here’s the OYD next to my Airfix QLD to give an idea of size:

One obvious difference is that the die cast models come with windows – though in fact I could have put these into the QLD in this case. Most wargames models either have the windows completely open, or, now more common in the age of 3-D printing, moulded solid. There is no driver model, and adding one would mean disassembly and potential damage. You would also struggle to find space.

The next issue is finish. These models are painted in authentic colours (they match precisely to the colours in my reference book on WW2 colours). That means there is no attempt to lighten them up to replicate the scale effect, which is something I like to do. This is a complicated topic with “that depends” type answers – it basically means that they look best representing originals in in strong light, and this is clearly the standard for display models. On the wargames table they will be a bit dark. There is also a slight off-matt finish – appropriate for a parade ground rather than the battlefield. The tilt on the Bedford is plastic, and the finish a bit plasticky. The decals are lovely and intricate, going down to serial numbers, etc, which I don’t bother with.

So how about incorporating these vehicles into my 1943 tabletop army? Take the truck first. This is modelled on a vehicle in the 15th (Scottish) Division in the UK in 1943 in the artillery. The paint scheme is fine for 1943 First Army in Tunisia. And second-line vehicles might well not be repainted for later campaigns. The divisional marking is not correct – but this can be removed rather than replaced, as these aren’t very 1943 in theatre. Perhaps it should have a roundel on the roof for air identification (the white stars were not used by the British in this theatre, even later in the war). Removing the divisional decal would be quite delicate work, though – but I do have some very fine sandpaper. To integrate with my army at large the model will need to be weathered – though this feels a bit sacrilegious on such a nicely finished model. I think this would take the form of a little white oil paint, brushed very thin, which would help lighten it up, as well as representing slightly uneven discolouration. And then dusting with powdered pastel. I don’t think there is the need for a wash.

The Dorchester is another matter. This represents a vehicle in use by the Polish Armoured Division in Northwest Europe in 1945. In fact the camouflage scheme is similar to the Bedford (brown and blue-black) and OK for 1943. But unlike the trucks, these vehicles were nearer the front line and surely would have adopted one of the standard or ad-hoc camouflage schemes. This might be the Desert Pink (appropriate for Medinine), Light Mud (Sicily and Italy) or plastered with lighter coloured paint ad-hoc (First Army Tunisia). But it does look as if I should repaint this, using the airbrush. That gets round the issue of the decals, which would be overpainted rather than sanded off. At least I don’t have to worry about the windscreen and windows.

So the models will need some work to be table-ready, and I should reserve my final judgement. I don’t see myself buying many more, though.

British vehicles for 1943

The three Bedfords. The QLT on the left; the QLD on the right is the metal SHQ model; the others are Airfix

My third article on my latest batch of 1943 British covers the vehicles: three Bedford medium trucks, three carriers, two Quads with limbers, and a CMP 15cwt light truck. I’m not showing the Quads or the OP carrier in this post – but you can see them in my previous one, along with the artillery.

First the big trucks. These Bedfords were one of the mainstays of the British war effort, and the easiest medium trucks to acquire as models in this scale (20mm, 1/76 or 1/72). I had an Airfix kit of the QLD (general purpose) and QLT (troop transport) trucks, and a metal SHQ model. The Airfix models are proper, detailed kits with lots of parts, that require intricate assembly. The SHQ model is much cruder, though also requiring assembly, but with many fewer parts. Neither came with crew. For the Airfix models I used AB figures, though they weren’t an easy fit. For the SHQ model I took a very crude figure from a vintage Airfix Matador I had in stock. That was actually fine – it’s waste of good quality models to put them in an enclosed cab. The Airfix models are nice – they are modern ones, rather than reissued Vintage classics, which I’m going off a bit. The SHQ model, though, was simpler to put together (though vague assembly instructions didn’t help) and looks very similar at distance. Incidentally, the Airfix models came with clear plastic for the windscreens, etc., but I couldn’t lay my hands on them at the critical moment – and would have made it even harder to fit in the crew. None of my other models have clear plastic windows so I wasn’t going to stress about it – though they did turn up later.

After my initially negative impressions of SHQ, I find they are growing on me – they look much better than you would think when they arrive unassembled, and have a nice weight when handling. Their figures are growing on me too – though I prefer the beefier AB ones. Unfortunately SHQ have ceased business. They have been bought by Grubby Tanks/Britannia. As it happens, a few weeks ago I was helping the owner of Grubby Tanks to unload his stuff at the Cavalier wargames show in Tonbridge (put on by my new club); he says that he’s going to put the SHQ items back on the market later this year. I took the opportunity to buy some items of light artillery from his Britannia range – which look quite similar but are significantly cheaper. None are assembled/painted up yet, but include one of the 2pdrs I will need for Medinine (I also bought a German 20mm flak gun and a 75mm infantry gun).

Here’s another view:

The SHQ model is in the middle

And now for my models in desert colours, the CMP light truck and two carriers:

These are all from Plastic Soldier. The CMP truck was easy enough to put together, but it is hard to get excited about it. It’s a very basic model with no options. I left the tilt loose so that I could play it without should the urge take me. This vehicle has no clear role in my set up, but it is available to shift 2-pdrs or Vickers guns if needed. The carriers are a bit more interesting. The are from the PSC Carrier Variants set. The one on the left is the 3in mortar transport. The mortar couldn’t be fired from the vehicle (unlike the German equivalent with the SdKfz 250), but is stowed away at the back. The crew are the standard crew for the PSC “generic” carrier. The one on the right has a 2in mortar in firing position – this weapon could be fired from the vehicle. Since the light mortar was part of the standard equipment of a carrier platoon, this vehicle will stand in as transport for a carrier platoon in my setup.

Another view

The Carrier crew are those supplied by PSC. I’m not a fan of these – a lot of PSC figures seem to be sculpted in 15mm and scaled up, looking a bit clumsy. AB make carrier crews, which would be easier to fit into these models than the slightly smaller Airfix ones – but they are rather pricey and don’t have the 2in mortar in action. From a distance the PSC crew work OK. The generic crew are appropriate for NW Europe with scrim on the helmets; the driver comes with a beret, though the head is separate and easy to swap. I hadn’t woken up to the idea of sawing off heads from the desert uniform to use on the NW Europe bodies yet, though the desert heads would have to come from other PSC models – so I left the scrim helmets on, which isn’t realistic either for 1943 or this theatre. The supplementary figures on the Variants sprue are OK in this regard, though not especially nice mouldings. I added a few boxes and bits to make the carriers look a bit more used. The models worked well, with one exception – it’s hard to fit the Bren gun in the front slot when there is crew in the front seat. You have to skew it a rather awkward angle fairly early in the assembly process.

On the subject of the Carriers, I made up a third one from the Variants set, as an OP (visible in my previous post). This is extremely useful on the tabletop, and it is modelled with a heavy-duty radio set and lots of cable for the field telephone – and a ladder, presumably for accessing vantage points. I only have two niggles; one is that the officer with binoculars is rather crude; the second is that there is no range finder amongst the equipment stowed in the vehicle – even though this does seem be there in the picture in the assembly instructions. These instructions, incidentally, tell you which parts belong to which variants on the additional sprue (the set consists of seven generic sprues and one variants – it would have been more useful for the balance to be 6-2 or 5-3…), but you have to work out for yourself where they go based on a rather basic pictures of the assembled models; in my case even this instruction sheet was missing, and I had to find it and print it off from the website. There are complete instructions for the standard generic carrier though, which is just as well as this is much more complicated. There are alternative parts for Mark 1 and Mark 2 versions; I used the former, based on pictures of the vehicles in theatre.

Now for some notes on my painting of these vehicles and the artillery discussed in the last post, including the Quads and limbers for the 25-pdrs (good basic models from PSC, about which there is not much more to be said – no whinges here). There are two schemes: the Light Mud scheme used in Italy, from Sicily onwards, with Blue-Black as a contrast colour; and the desert scheme of Desert Pink, with Olive Green contrast, used by the Eighth Army in Tunisia (but not the First Army in Tunisia, which had darker UK colour schemes, overpainted ad hoc in many cases). The first of these is well explored territory here. I mixed Light Mud from Raw Sienna and Titanium White, with some Prussian Blue. These are the same pigments I use for Khaki, but with a bit more white and a bit less blue. The Blue Black can be made from the same pigments, with only a touch of white and a lot more blue. In fact I think I just dived into another mix I was using that was lurking on my palette, adjusted slightly. Incidentally, I use a wet palette, as I have for many years. Not the expensive one marketed by one of the usual suspects in the hobby world, but a Daler Rowney one that has been going for many years. Mixing paints from artists’ acrylics, this is a bit of a no-brainer, as you want to keep your pigments going across a multi-day project. In fact in the winter (my studio is only heated when I’m using it), the paint kept going for weeks. Which was just as well given all the interruptions. For the tilts on the trucks I used the Khaki mix I had been using for the infantry for both schemes.

The desert scheme was new for me – this being the last of the three main scenes used by the British in the desert (Coulter and Light Stone being the earlier ones). For the Desert Pink I simply mixed white into Raw Sienna. This is a touch less red than the usual portrayals of this colour, though I suspect (for no particularly good reason) that the pinkness softened with weathering. The Olive Green was a mix based on Sap Green, into which I threw various mixes used for the uniforms to dull down and lighten up a bit. The result may be a little dark. Greens are the hardest colours to mix. The schemes themselves were based on a variety of sources, including the official guidelines (which generally didn’t cover the vehicles I was painting and which were usually simplified in practice), photos (giving only one angle) and otherwise guesswork.

Apart from the basic scheme I painted the tyres and radiators (a variation on the dark grey-black mix) and tracks (ditto with some added silver). And that was pretty much it (apart from the crews, painted as infantry). I took the view that other detail (the lights for example) weren’t important enough to pick out. After this came the decals. I put roundels on the truck and Quad roofs, filched from old aircraft decals, and a couple from some an Italeri halftrack kit that I had recently acquired. I also put some arm of service markings on where I could use appropriate ones. I used the ones in the Airfix kit for two of the Bedford lorries. The others were from some I had printed myself a few years ago – but these were tricky and I lost a number of them in the process. Some models, like one of the carriers in the picture, had to do without. I did not bother with divisional markings (these often weren’t used in 1943 in this theatre).

After this came the weathering and high/low-lighting. I wanted to simplify this from the multiple stages of earlier versions. First I used small amounts of white oil paint brushed into a very thin and slightly uneven layer. Then, as an experiment, I mixed some ink into some new acrylic matt varnish that I recently acquired to make a wash. Previously I have used dark oil paint mixed with a slightly glossy medium, to get into the crevices as a glaze (which, in my parlance, is thicker and stickier than a wash) – followed by spray-on matt varnish. But the matt varnish is a very harsh matt, and the effect is too uniform to my taste. So I was trying to combine the two steps with the new, very liquid varnish, which dries off-matt. The basic concept was sound enough, but unfortunately I used some very powerful black ink. This enhanced the crevices beautifully, but made the models too dark. I had to light brush over the lighter colours on the original paint work again (which the wet palette has preserved); even then they still look a little on the dark side, especially the desert scheme. Finally I applied some powdered pastel in a sort of light dusty mix, with a brush. This served to matt-ify the off-matt varnish, without the harsh uniformity of the spray, and create a dusty texture. Apart from the matt varnish wash being a bit too dark, I’m pleased with the results. I have nice weathered finish, and the decals look well and truly integrated – and the method is quite simple.

My next project is the Medinine Germans – which I have now started. But before then I will do a quick post on some Oxford Diecast models I have acquired.

British artillery for 1943

This time I continue with my description most recent batch of figures and models for my 1943 project, as I build up enough forces to run a scenario for Medinine, by talking about the artillery. These comprised two 25-pdrs, three 6-pdrs and a 17-pdr Pheasant. The above picture is of four of the six weapons, together with two Morris Quads and limbers and the carrier OP. These are items I painted in the Light Mud and Blue-Black scheme introduced after Tunisia, ready to be used in Italy. Missing are the two 2-pdrs that I will need, because I didn’t have the models when I started the batch, and found that I needed a second crew assemblage anyway.

Let’s start with the 25-pdrs. These were the workhorses of British artillery in WW2. In the desert, and on at least one occasion in the Tunisian hills, they served as direct fire support, taking on a role as antitank gun. I’m not sure how much of my artillery I will actually use on the tabletop – because even at Rapid Fire scale they would mostly be off the table – though I think Rapid Fire players like to stretch things and put them on. Still I’ve been buying the models: I have two more 25-pdrs and two 5.5in guns in stock, and a number of German guns too. In the Medenine scenario the antitank guns looks a little thin (though more than adequate historically), so I thought it appropriate to have at least a pair of 25-pdrs ready to act as a last line of defence.

My 25-pdrs. The one in the foreground has an AB crew; the other has a PSC crew with a head-swap.

I had a box of two 25-pdrs with a Morris Quad in hand (together with another with the CMP Quad, as PSC had run out of the Morris sets). I used this. The first decision was whether to use the parts for the later version, with muzzle-brake. I didn’t have definitive information for when this was introduced. A lot of pictures show the earlier version in North Africa – but there are pictures of the later version in Italy in 1943 (or so the picture captions say) – so I decided to go for this, painted up in the Light Mud and Blue Black scheme. Next was the question of crews. I bought one set of eight figures from AB; I only wanted four on the base, so I hoped to get both crews. But they only had one seated figure, and I thought this was critical – otherwise it would be just a group of people staring at the gun. I decided to use the PSC figures for the second gun. These aren’t nearly as good, but good enough, I think. They supply two versions: Western Desert with men in shorts, and North West Europe with late helmets and scrim. I wanted neither, so I decided to head-swap the African heads onto the later bodies. This wasn’t actually that hard. The AB crew have the later helmets too, but I decided to overlook that (as I have on half of my infantry) – and it wasn’t as blatant as on the PSC figures.

Next come the 6-pdrs:

The two 6-pdrs in Light Mud. The one in the foreground is Valiant; the other is an old Airfix one. Both crews are Valiant.

I needed three more of these to go with my one existing model, one of my old Airfix ones. I had another old Airfix one that just needed a paint job. The cheapest way to source a couple more (with crews) looked to be to get the Valiant models, for which I found a decent review. Alas I think they look wrong, when compared to the photographs in theatre. The Airfix ones look better, though I have no reason to think they are particularly accurate – that wasn’t an Airfix strong point at the time. But it looks low and mean, just like the pictures. A second issue is that I wanted the earlier version of the weapon, with a shorter barrel and no muzzle brake. I followed the advice on the Valiant box, but it just didn’t look right either! I am so dissatisfied that I have bought the PSC box of two 6-pdrs with Loyd carriers, hoping these will look better. The Valiant crew figures were OK, though, and in the right uniform for 1943 – though they are too big. Four were provided, though I only used three. For the third crew I used bought AB desert castings with a crew in shorts, just for variety.

Finally there was the 17-pdr Pheasant. Here it is with the third 6-pdr:

Old 17-pdr Pheasant conversion with SHQ crew, with the second Valiant 6-pdr in the background, with AB crew

As I said in my previous post, the Pheasant was something of an afterthought. I don’t think that this weapon was used in Medinine, but the 7th Armoured did have them at the time, and they would have been an option for the British. Actually they probably weren’t that suitable. Their big virtue was their range – but if they had opened up at long range (and the 17-pdr went off with a very spectacular flash and bang) they would then have been picked off by the German artillery and mortars. Plus they were bigger weapons, harder to conceal in the desert. This model is one I made back in the 1970s from and Airfix 25-pdr and a Panther gun barrel. Very basic, but I adjudged it good enough. I had plenty of SHQ crew, which I brought into play. These are slightly smaller than AB figures, and so more appropriate for this slightly smaller-scaled model. Here’s a different angle, including the three vehicles I painted in desert camouflage:

I will describe how I painted the models in my next post covering the vehicles. The process for figures I have already described – they were painted alongside the infantry.

Rapid Fire! Reloaded for hexes

The later stages the club game

Wargamers are like butterflies, flitting from project to project. Alas I conform to the stereotype. Earlier this year I diverted to my Great Northern War armies. I then moved on to a twin-track: my 1866 project (Austrians and Italians in 10mm) and my 18mm Napoleonics, using Lasalle 2 rules. I put my 20mm World War 2 project on ice, after some rather irksome kit building, and having lost my way on rules. Now I’ve turned back to these with a vengeance.

I have at last been getting regular games at a local (-ish) club: the Tunbridge Wells Wargames Society. At first I played Lasalle, but after a few games I wanted a bit of a change. Then my wargaming partner, Rod, said that he was building up some armies for WW2 using the Rapid Fire! Reloaded system. I had long had it in mind to run my WW2 games using a hex-based system, and even bought a games mat marked in hexes. What if I tried adapting Reloaded to hexes? And so my other projects were put to one side.

Reloaded is the latest in the Rapid Fire! system, which I have used before (I have the 2005 edition), and commented on a few times. They date from the 1990s and were revolutionary in their time, breaking out of the complexity that had dogged WW2 systems before then. They feel very old-school today though – an old-fashioned I-go U-go turn system, and a bang-you’re-dead combat system, without such ideas as suppression. They are designed for 20mm (but workable with 15mm – 28mm) models, and though there is no formal distance scale, they are broadly consistent with 40m to the inch. One model tank represents about 5 real ones, and one two-figure infantry element a normal-sized platoon. The rules are heavily “bath-tubbed” – it is played as though the scale is 1:1, which is something that I struggle with, but makes the rules seem less abstract. This approach is one way of getting a lot of large-scale kit on the table – and arguably more honest that systems like Bolt Action which pretend they are platoon-level.

But for a simplified, fast-play game RF became quite complicated. The basic rules cover 45 pages of A4, admittedly with lots of pictures. The authors (Colin Rumford and Richard Marsh) obviously decided that there was a market for a stripped-down version, and Reloaded is the result. The basic rules (without the sample forces and scenario) cover just 8 pages – though without pictures. They’ve done a pretty decent job. There is no complicated fire table, or observation table, for example. I raised my eyebrows a few times (on the treatment of auto cannon, for example), but then realised that the issue didn’t matter that much. They are bit more abstract – but that is actually a good thing at this scale – as attempts at detail look like bath tubbing. I started to become a bit more surprised at some of the detail left in – for example the extra range given to very high velocity anti-tank guns (e.g. 88s and 17pdrs).

How about converting to hexes? When ordering the mat (from Tiny Wargames – who have a very flexible service), I decided to go for hexes with 3in sides – so 6in from corner to corner, or 5in between the sides. This is pretty big as these things go. They needed to be big for 20mm models, though, especially if they are sharing the space with terrain, such as buildings. My original idea was that more than one tank would be able to occupy a hex. Smaller hexes would certainly have been possible. Larger hexes make the game more abstract – but that speeds things up.

The first thing to tackle was how the game elements occupy the hexes. I decided to have each element facing a hex-side, rather than a corner. This generally how board games for the era work, and it means that elements move forward in a nice straight line. It doesn’t work so well for earlier eras, as you can’t line units up side by side in straight lines. More than one element can occupy a hex, but I soon decided to limit the “stacking” to one large vehicle (models more than 60mm long – most mid-war tanks, Sdfz 251s and medium trucks) or one artillery piece, at least the size of medium anti-tank guns (Pak 38s or 6pdrs). I decided to limit infantry to four bases, with each element assigned to one hex-side, and no more than one per side. A small vehicle (Bren carriers, Sdkfz 250s, jeeps, etc) is the same. I might want to simplify this to suggest a maximum of one element to each hex-side, with large vehicles taking up two opposite sides, and hence preventing other large vehicles from occupation. This complexity results from using larger hexes, of course. With smaller hexes you might have just one or two elements, with vehicles unable to occupy buildings hexes.

For distances, the basic premise is that six inches converts to one hex, or five inches for the longer distances. That only gave me a small number of issues: infantry crawling (3in) which wasn’t too hard to represent (place the figure across the hex-side in the first move). Heavy tanks (9in cross-country) were a bit more of a problem, as I didn’t want to create a rather untidy half-move rule just for them, so I have let them have the normal two hexes cross country for tanks, but reduced road movement by a hex. I dithered about giving them a single-hex move cross-country, but decided that this would slow things down too much. For my 1943 setting there are only two vehicles in scope (given that Valentine tanks were largely out of it by then): Tigers and Churchills, both mainly applicable to Tunisia. I only have Tigers table-ready at the moment, and these should definitely be given the benefit of the doubt. Many rules give them normal tank speed (though they did struggle a bit with the terrain, especially in Sicily). I also needed to decide on firing arc – where I was generous, allowing fixed guns to fire through adjacent hex-sides. This is in keeping with the RF rules, which are generous too. Where the original rules divide direct HE fire in six 8in range bands to decide chances of hitting, I decided to use a D10- instead, with a maximum range of ten hexes (so that you need to throw a 10 to hit at ten hexes, etc.).

By far the biggest conversion issue was close combat, as the use of large hexes makes this much more abstract. I decided to resolve this with an exchange of fire, followed by a dice-off (following the Reloaded rules for this final stage), with the winner being left in possession of the hex and the loser being forced to retreat. This hasn’t been play-tested yet. There is a big difference in the treatment of built-up areas. RF treats each model as if an individual building. In my hex system, a building hex (which may have just one building model so as to leave enough room for a large vehicle too) is treated as an area composed of several actual buildings, without an attempt to resolve occupation in detail. It will be interesting to see how this works out in actual play.

I had a little time to think about terrain. I don’t have much that is directly usable. I experimented with scratch-building an appropriate building using cork floor tiles, of which I have a plentiful supply. You can see the result in the picture. The roof is cardboard overlaid with Noch N-gauge pantile sheet, which I happened to have in stock; I even had some plastic pantile ridge tiles – though I don’t remember where I got these from. There were some learnings, but the result is a nice robust model, which is hollow, so that I can remove the roof and place an infantry element inside. Cork tile also lends itself well to creating ruined buildings. My idea now to build several models using the same technique, in various sizes – but not ruins just yet. I also tried my hand at making some cypress trees – which I didn’t quite finish. There’s a lot more work to do before I start getting the table looking a bit more authentic. Fitting terrain into the hex grid is a further challenge.

Another view of the newly build building model – also cypresses with unfinished bases.

For the rules’ first major outing, last Sunday, I devised a simple scenario, based very loosely on the Salerno beachhead, between two battalion-sized battlegroups. The Germans, attacking, had three Panzer IVs, and Panzer III flamethrower (these were used to devastating effect in the early days of the battle, before they were knocked out by the Allies). The British were supported by a single Sherman, and a 6pdr, and hadn’t had time to dig in. Both sides had a battery of field artillery. In RF terms the Germans had 200 points and the British just over 100 – about half the size of a normal attack-defence game. The game took us about three hours, even allowing for a fairly slow pace for unfamiliar rules. Casualties were heavy. Infantry vanished like snows in summer as soon as they became the focus of attention. The 6-pdr knocked out two Panzer IVs as they approached, while return fire proved ineffective. It was only destroyed by artillery late in the game. The Flammpanzer did for the Sherman in a move-and-fire manoeuvre as it came over a hill. In the end it was a race to see which side’s infantry failed their morale test for 50% casualties. This proved to be the British, though the Germans had passed two tests by this stage.

The rules produced a fast-paced game but are deeply flawed if you are looking for realistic representation of warfare. Most of the flaws are with the original RF system, and not the Reloaded one though. Some things, like move-and-fire are so much part of the core system that I won’t change them until I produce my own rules in the same space. But there are some minor tweaks to deal with things I consider to be anomalies:

  • One change I made on the day was to treat static infantry as being in soft cover, for both observation and firing purposes – as crawling infantry already are. It is normal field craft for infantry to go to ground and use any limited cover.
  • Vehicle machine guns are very effective (three fire dice) when static. This includes both mounted light machine guns used in Bren carriers and the Sdkfz 250/251, and hull machine guns in tanks. When dismounted a carrier platoon or only gets two fire dice. Hull machine guns were defensive weapons where the gunner had limited visibility. Turret machine guns were more effective but had limitations too. I think LMGs mounted on APCs get one die whether moving or static. Hull machine guns likewise get a single dice – and I would limit their range to the adjacent hex. A static turret machine gun gets two dice. Medium machine guns, mounted on sustained fire mounts and fully crewed, still get 4 dice.
  • Not in the Reloaded rules, I would give HMGs and autocannon a limited AP capability – 6 and 5 respectively – limited to small arms range. This is in the main rules, except that heavy autocannon (37mm or 40mm) have more range.
  • Light mortar: I think it is simpler and more realistic to treat these as a direct fire weapon, with a range of 6 hexes, using a D6 to determine hits.
  • I also want to ease the process of indirect fire support, so that any company can call in direct fire support (mortars or infantry guns) and artillery OPs can call in direct resources too. But limit this by making all calls by a separate observer subject to the comms test. That comms test needs to be made a bit more sophisticated, but that’s a job for another day. Each weapon can only be called once, and each observer can only direct one weapon per turn. This is really a down-payment on a more sophisticated system, which I’m basing on Battlefront rules.
  • I also need to cover HE fire on buildings hexes where the occupying troops haven’t been observed. The hex needs to be easy to hit, but which hex-side gets the effect needs to be randomised.

We’ll come back to these rules for another game in January. Alas I won’t have much time to add to my limited available troops on the tabletop, or terrain. But I can focus longer-term painting efforts on building a 400 point army for each side. Meanwhile I am working on ideas for my own rules in this space.

My Brengun 1/72 A-36 Apache

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.

RS Models 1/72 P-38F Lightning

The box artwork

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 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.

My Airfix B-26 Martin Marauder

The box artwork

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 completed model from the front.

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.

From the rear quarter

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 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!

Three US planes for 1943

The new trio overflying the wargames table: left to right: the A-36, the P-38 and the B-26

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.

Another view

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.

The A-36 alongside my P47 model, showing the paler version of olive drab

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!

Terrain in WW2 North Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

So an interesting but ultimately disappointing book.

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.