Category Archives: WW2

Hobby 2000 Junkers Ju-87 D1 Stuka in 1/72

And so to the last of my trio of Luftwaffe models for Tunisia. I wanted a Stuka as it was such an iconic aircraft, and it certainly did make its presence felt on the battlefield in early 1943. But by then the plane that symbolised the terror of Blitzkrieg was obsolete. It was vulnerable to enemy fighters, and not that effective against dispersed troops and moving vehicles. Latterly the pilots only look them up when there was a lot of cloud cover, which didn’t help to find their targets. It was withdrawn to be used only well away from Allied air cover. This model proved quite hard work, however. At pretty much every stage it took me more time than the two fighter models put together.

For this project I needed a model for the D, or Dora, which had come into service during 1942. Most models are of the B, which was in service at height of the aircraft’s career. There was not a great deal of choice. If manufacturers prefer the B, their next choice is the G, a similar aircraft which saw extensive service on the Russian front later in 1943 as a tank buster, with two underwing 37mm cannon. This is very similar to the D, which does not have the cannon, but does have dive brakes and bomb pylons. There was a Hobby Boss model of the D, and for once the undercarriage would not have been a problem, but this was really an adapted G without the dive brakes. Instead the best reviewed option was this one from Hobby 2000. This was in fact a reissue of a much older (1990s) Fujimi model. All things equal I would have preferred a later D5 version which had longer wings and 20mm cannon in place of the wing machine guns. But Hobby 2000 had an issue for the D1 specifically covering North Africa, including decals and colour scheme for a rather interesting one with a splinter camouflage scheme with desert sand, featured on the box art. I also bought an Eduard stencil for the cockpit frame; this is complicated and I wanted to give this method a try. In fact one of the improvements that Hobby 2000 have made is to include a stencil of their own, so I have one spare! The model includes all the parts for a G1, the version based on the D1 (and often converted from it). Hobby 2000 also have an issue for the G2, which has the longer wings of the D5. This would need to substitute the (separate) wing sprue from this model to be accurate. The model does not include crew, which I supplied from resin models bought separately (I actually used US crew as stocks of Luftwaffe ones were low).

This model is quite different to the two fighters (or the Hobby Boss P-47) that I had made previously. This is partly because it was never intended as a quick-build, and partly, I suspect, because it is much older. The build was much more complicated. This included drilling holes in the wings to accommodate the dive brakes and bomb pylons – which I didn’t discover until after I had glued the top and bottom together, and had to rapidly pull them apart as this needed to be done from the inside. Mistakes like this didn’t help, but a bigger problem was that I didn’t find the parts to be especially well-fitting. And many of the smaller parts didn’t have clear recesses to fit them into. There was quite a bit of “How is this meant to work?”. A couple of parts I left out altogether. Quite a bit of model putty and filing was needed to cover up the gaps.I suspect that this is an area where model manufacturing standards have progressed. Back in the day (by which I mean the 1970s) I remember using a lot of putty. So assembly took a lot longer than the other models. Of course it is bigger and more complicated anyway.

Unlike the other models I decided to use the scheme and decals in the box. This showed a rather unusual splinter scheme. The box art said that the three colours used should be the three Luftwaffe desert colours of sand, olive green and azure blue. I though that this was rather unlikely. These paints would have been applied in theatre and replicating the complicated factory patterns was not done. Instead the whole upper parts were usually covered in sand, with blotches of olive green on top of that. Instead what I thought had happened was that the ground crew had just used sand to overpaint the black-green of the standard three colour splinter scheme the aircraft would have arrived in (dark green and light blue were the other colours). This was because I noticed from the box art that it was the sand was where the black-green was on the aircraft in the standard scheme. I used the same sand as the two fighters, and mixed the other colours specially. For the blue I started with the bright blue that came with my airbrush order, in the hope that I would create an airbrush friendly paint. Alas this was much too bright. I added a lot of white and brown to cool it down. I didn’t really succeed, I ended up with far too much paint and something too dark and too blue – it was hard to distinguish from the separately mixed azure I made for the Bf-109. The dark green was hard to judge. Studying pictures the contrast with black-green is not that great, so I was quite happy that I had a reasonably authentic colour. But there was a very strong contrast with the sand, when I had been hoping for something much closer to the box art.

I then saw another interpretation of this aircraft (S7+EP) in the Osprey book on Mediterranean Stukas (which arrived too late) in just the standard scheme. I have only just now discovered the source picture (above) and looks as if Osprey has it right. Look how the yellow E stands out and the black S7 doesn’t. I also made a mistake in the positioning of the white fuselage stripe, which I put further forward than it should have been. This was entirely my mistake as the box art had this right – though a lot of Stukas did have it in this more forward position. So that leaves me with an irony; this is the only plane I have made so far which is based on an authentic aircraft rather than a generic one – and I’ve got it wrong! Researching aircraft colour schemes is all part of the fun, but I’m learning it the hard way.

The paint was mainly applied with the airbrush. I had similar difficulties as the other planes with the paint consistency, but apart from spraying a bit of the green on the undersurfaces by accident (I though it would be easier to use the airbrush on the undercarriage than it was) I did not need much correction using the paintbrush. I achieved the splinter by applying the green over the sand, using masking tape. The tape took a long time to put on, but the effect is stunning, however unrealistic. Here is the underside:

Apart from the swastika I used the decals that came with them model. These proved quite hard to move into position, regardless of using generous quantities of fluid – much harder than for the other models or for the 40+ year old ones from stock. The underwing crosses were especially tricky as the air brakes and bomb pylons got in the way. A little cutting was needed. Hobby 2000 supplied the stripes to be applied on top of the air brakes (so that the cross comes out from below); these were a bit fiddly but not quite as hard to put on as I feared, and do look good.

I did the patination after my near-death experience on the fighter models, and I was very hesitant, after all the time I had already lavished on this model. So the upper surfaces look quite fresh, rather than trying to get anywhere near the weathered look you can see on the photo (though in that picture we don’t know how long the plane had been left abandoned for). Still the patination helps to integrate the colours and decals.

Another job that took quite a while on this model was the canopy, as there were many panels on the stencil to first put on and then take off. The result is OK but not better than would be achieved using the old-fashioned paintbrush method – albeit that acrylic paint doesn’t stick that well to the acetate, so you need a primer.

A lot of effort resulted in a nice-looking but unrealistic model, which is only relevant for the first part of my period. But you can’t have a collection of WW2 Luftwaffe aircraft without a Stuka.

Hobby Boss Messerschmitt Bf-109G-2 Trop

And so to the next model in my trio of Luftwaffe Tunisia planes. The 109 was the workhouse German fighter arm throughout the war. They used no other fighter aircraft in the Mediterranean theatre, apart from the brief intervention from the Fw-190s of JG2. I wanted to go for one of the earlier G models. These are very similar to the F, whose introduction give the RAF such problems until the Spitfire V came along. The G had an engine upgrade, giving it superior performance; these early Gustavs appeared in mid-1942. Later ones (like the G-6) had an upgrade to the fuselage machine guns, which necessitated the characteristic blisters each side of the nose in front of the cockpit.

I chose the Hobby Boss kit because it was cheap and simple – just what I wanted when I was still learning how to do model aircraft. I had already bought the Airfix 109G-6, which is suitable for later in 1943. This is probably quite a good kit for my purposes but to represent the G2 would meant removing those blisters – which would be very hard to do cleanly. In fact Zvesda produce what is probably a more suitable model (actually of an F, as well as a later G). I had already experienced Hobby Boss with my P-47, so I knew what to expect. The big problem is that it does not have an undercarriage up option, in spite of the box art (which says it all in my view!). The model is simple and robust apart from that. It actually had more interior cockpit detail than Airfix, though it necessitates the amputation of the lower legs of the pilot. The join between the upper wings and the fuselage wasn’t seamless, and required filing, putty and sanding. The fit of the cockpit canopy wasn’t quite right either (which I failed to rectify). Otherwise my only complaints were that the scoring to denote control surfaces is a bit shallow (like the P-47) and it doesn’t come with a bomb.

I wanted to represent an aircraft in the classic Luftwaffe desert scheme (as per the box art) overpainted with Olive Green splodges, doubtless to fit better with winter in the greener environment of Tunisia. The model came with decals for such a plane – Yellow 13 from JG53. But this was the plane of an ace pilot (with victory marks on the tail), who was lost in Tunisia. I wanted something more generic. The simplest thing to have done would have been to use the same scheme with a different number (as I did with the Fw-190). But doing yellow number with a black outline looked a bit tricky at the time (in fact I managed it for the 190 without difficulty). I wanted to keep the Ace of Spades insignia for JG 53, so I went for different Gruppe and Staffel – black letters with a downward stroke after the fuselage cross and white band. I was inspired by a picture of Black 1 (see above – another ace, as well as staffel leader), with some aircraft in the background. Evidence for the actual schemes is pretty thin. I have seen Yellow 13 represented with and without the green splodges, and with different shaped ones. Black 1 is usually shown in a very mucky version of the sand and azure scheme without the olive green (a fair interpretation of the picture). It’s actually quite hard to tell on the planes in the background in the picture, especially if the olive green has a similar tonal value to the sand (as was the case for my 190 – but not pictures from earlier in the war), though it should still show up against he blue. I wanted the splodges (“dappling” is the correct term, I think), to help me develop technique for my next batch of German aircraft in the standard grey scheme, which have dappling on the fuselage. Some modellers show splodges on the fuselage and stripes on the wing. I went for splurges on the wing too, following one of the interpretations of Yellow 13.

As with the 190, I had to make decisions about the yellow and white markings. The JG53 109s clearly often had yellow rudders and under the nose. Black 1 had what looks like a yellow rudder – but it looked to me that this was to show off the pilot’s awards and kill marks; it wasn’t clear if the other planes in the background had it. I decided to leave out the yellow rudder, but, like the 190, to have yellow under the nose. I also had white wingtips underneath, following quite a few portrayals of 109s in the theatre. Desert 109s often had white wingtips; I think they were often left off the upper surface to make them less conspicuous on the ground, especially later on. Finally I decided to represent the plane in fighter-bomber mode. Unlike the 190s used by JG2, the 109s do seem to have been able to carry bombs. British soldiers often wrote of being attacked on the ground by “Messerschmitts”, and they were certainly used in this capacity in Sicily. The ID skills of British soldiers isn’t to be relied on though. I suspect a tendency to identify all single engined fighters as 109s, and there were fighter-bomber 190s in theatre (funnily enough aircrew often identified 109s as 190s, such was the reputation of the 190, rather as their army colleagues kept identifying Panzer IVs as Tigers). Anyway as my 190 was a pure fighter, I wanted the 109 as a fighter-bomber. More straightforwardly I put on underwing cannon too, though I don’t know if this staffel had them (though it does look like it from the picture). The early 109 is a bit under-armed, and I am speculating that the extra engine power of the Gustav gave pilots the confidence to take the performance hit of the extra armament.

And so to the build. The biggest problem by far was having the undercarriage in the up position. The wheel wells as modelled were very shallow, and the wheels needed a lot of filing down to fit in. The doors were a poor fit too. I actually found that the doors from the Airfix 109 (those for the down position – they had a different moulding for up) were closer and used them instead. It still took quite a bit of work. As I eventually did with the P-47, I set the doors in plasticine to ensure they were flush. I needed to provide a pilot – I used a resin one from PJ Productions. PJ seem to have this market to themselves, which I find amazing. They are nothing special, and have arms moulded separately, which are tricky to glue into place. Resin is very brittle for such small things. Considering how easy it would be to provide a pilot with the model (as well as undercarriage up), I find it amazing that so few people do it. Only Airfix and Zvesda in the models I have bought. It is even more surprising that Hobby Boss don’t, given that there is surely more demand for this at this end of the market. The cockpit interior, while modelled (an advance on Airfix, which just has the seat), is too shallow, like the wheel wells, which meant that the lower legs of the pilot had to be removed. I have already referred to issues on wing roots (which meant that some panel details were filed off) and cockpit canopy, which I’m sure I could have done a better job of. Incidentally I fixed the canopies in place before painting the exterior in all my models, as I wanted to putty the joins for the non-moveable bits. For this model I masked the whole canopy, apart from the edges, and painted in the frame later. I added a bomb from the Airfix model, which I indent to represent s a pure fighter. There was no means of anchoring it to the pylon though, and it ended up a bit skew.

For the paint job I used the same sand and olive green mixes as the Fw-190. I mixed an azure blue for the underside. I started with an Azure Blue from Daler Rowney, and added a bit of white and neutral grey (and maybe some brown – I can’t remember). The result was pretty much what I was looking for, but disappointingly similar to the standard Luftwaffe light blue I used for the Stuka – mixed by a totally different route. I had fewer problems with the airbrush on this model than I did with the Fw-190. I think this may be because the mixes made up from artists’ paints are a bit thick, though I used copious amounts of thinner for the brush. Anyway I have more to learn on that front. I applied the blue and sand that way. For the olive green dappling an experienced aero-modeller would have thought nothing about using an air brush too – but my skills are nowhere near that level. My first idea was to use cotton wool buds – but these are quite absorbent, using a fair amount of paint that never gets on the model, which then proceeds to dry. Instead I decided to do what I did back in the 1970s – create a stipple brush by cutting down an old paintbrush. This worked adequately, though on one side of the fuselage I got the paint a bit thick, which proved quite hard to undo and redo. The result is still a bit mucky (it’s the other side from the photo above) – though the for the scheme and theatre that’s not such a big deal.

For the decals I used a similar solution as for the Fw-190. The fuselage and lower wing crosses were from the kit (rather better quality than the Zvesda), but it came with the simplified upper wing crosses. I used old Almark decals for the upper wing crosses, the swastika and the number and stroke (which identifies the Gruppe). All pretty straightforward. The stroke came from a separate sheet from the numbers, and is in fact too thin, looking again at the photo. The kit came with Ace of Spades markings, but without the black outline which pretty much everybody shows they had. I had quite a few spares from the old Airfix 1970s 109 model. These broke up slightly and I lost part of the outline (on both sides). Looking at the photo, the border is in fact very thin and the ones with the kit may have been a better choice.

This model suffered much the same problems with the oil paint patination I have described on the 190, with the additional issue that I think I overdid the white on the upper surfaces. The model still looks slightly milky even after the frantic attempts at correction. Here is the underside:

Apart from the skew bomb (which doubtless I will correct at a later point), I was actually quite happy with the underside, unlike the Fw-190. That may just be because there is more going on, with the vents, cannon and exposed wheels, and the colour is more interesting. I wasn’t sure what colour to paint the bomb. I read that the Luftwaffe often painted them blue to fit in with the underside colour, so I chose this. I used my standard Luftwaffe blue mixed for the Stuka (also used for the Stuka’s main bomb) – you can see how little contrast there is. For the exhaust stain I used powdered artists’ pastel, a mix of dark grey and brown. Looking at the photo I could made it quite a bit bigger.

Overall I’m pretty pleased with this model. Incidentally I didn’t notice the white splodge on the nose when I took the picture. I don’t know what it is, but it came off quite easily. Next I will describe the final member of the trio, the Stuka.

My Zvesda Fw-190 model

And so to the first of my three recent models of German aircraft. The Focke-Wulf Fw-190 A4 is one of the earlier models of this classic fighter aircraft. The 190A is one of my favourite WW2 planes from an aesthetic point of view, up there with the Mosquito and Spitfire Mk VIII/IX.

I wanted to model one of the early variants, which were around in early 1943, in one of the Mediterranean camouflage schemes. These early planes were slightly shorter than the later ones (from the A5 on, and the F series of fighter-bombers), which had the engine pushed slightly forwards to shift the centre of gravity, to ease the carrying of bombs. To meet my aim meant going for one of the pure fighter planes in JG2. Some early fighter-bombers were deployed in Tunisia at this time, but they seem to have used the standard European grey colour scheme. This would have made them look very like the A5 fighter-bomber that I plan to make later on. Given this, the Zvesda kit pretty much chose itself. Most models, like the Airfix one, of the 190A are of the later A8, which belongs to 1944. And I wanted a simpler, cheaper model at this stage in my modelling journey.

The Zvesda kit was an excellent choice. It has an undercarriage-up option, and comes with a pilot. Better than that, the fit of the parts is excellent; it needed very little filler. How unlike the kits of my youth! And also better than the low-cost Hobby Boss models. It sells as a snap fit model, without the need for glue. I did use glue, but it was only actually needed it in one or two places. I have just one significant complaint – the Fw-190’s tail wheel partly retracts in flight – but on the model it is in the fully down position. It was a bit tricky to replicate the retracted version. The decals aren’t great either. The only other point to note is that there are no bomb racks included with this kit to make a fighter-bomber version (which would also require the removal of the outer wing cannon) – though not many of these entered service for the A4. Sometimes kits are supplied with extra parts to make different versions, even ones for which instructions and decals are not supplied – not this one. Based on this kit though, Zvesda are the ideal maker of 1/72 kits for wargames purposes. The shame is that they only have a limited range of models. It looks OK for Russian aircraft (unsurprisingly), but otherwise it’s thin. There is no later, or fighter-bomber, version of the Fw-190 – a bit strange given how big a role this aircraft played on the Russian front. But there are a couple of Bf 109s, and they might be a better source for these than the Airfix or Hobby Boss kits that I have bought.

II Group of JG2 (Staffels 4, 5 and 6) was sent to Tunisia in November 1942 as part of a general rush of German reinforcements to this theatre – the unit had been based on the English Channel (the aircraft in the Imperial War Museum that landed in England in 1942 by accident was from JG2). They stayed until February 1943, and were the only Fw-190 fighters to be deployed in the Mediterranean in the war, as opposed to fighter-bombers. Only 109s took up the fighter role for the rest of the war, in a demonstration of the economic principle of comparative advantage – the Fw-190 was generally thought to be a superior fighter to the 109, but the latter was a much inferior fighter-bomber. What colour scheme? The Luftwaffe Mediterranean schemes were always ad-hoc, and that applies even more to Tunisia; there was no manual. Tunisia itself in winter was quite green for the most part, meaning that many of the aircraft rushed in were not given a new paint job at all, like the Fw-190 fighter-bombers. However there is evidence that at least some of JG2’s were. Unfortunately there are very few photos, and even fewer of them are available on online searches, so I’m relying mainly on secondary interpretations. The kit comes with decals for White 14 from 5 Staffel in Tunisia. This appears to simply have blobs of overpainting on the conventional grey scheme (and with the white on the fuselage Balkenkreuz painted out). This wasn’t very interesting. Two other schemes come up in searches: a group staff plane (with black chevrons) in overall sand upper parts, and Yellow 1 from 6 Staffel, either shown in just sand, or in sand with broad olive green stripes. Yellow 1 (1 denoting staffel leader) was flown by fighter ace Erich Rudorffer. I wanted the sand and green scheme, which would give me practice for the similar British schemes (sand and brown stripes), but I didn’t want a famous ace, but something more generic. I decided to do one from the same staffel but with a different number (seven in the end) – fictional, perhaps, but the sort of generic thing suitable for the tabletop. Details on Yellow 1 vary on the illustrations. Sometimes it is shown with white wing stripes – markings which were apparently used by German planes in Vichy France, but these would not have appeared on planes in Tunisia. Also shown are white underwing tips, yellow under the engine cowling and a yellow rudder (as well as the white fuselage stripe which almost all Axis planes in the theatre had). All of these appear on German fighters in the theatre, but not universally. The yellow markings were also used by JG2 planes in their previous posting on the Channel. My speculation is that the upper parts of the planes were overpainted in sand and olive green, but the underparts were left in the pale blue-grey of the original scheme (rather than azure in the German Mediterranean set). Winter in Tunisia wasn’t particularly sunny (it rained a lot), so there was no good reason to overpaint the underside. Besides a large part of the use of aircraft camouflage schemes in this theatre was to make the planes less conspicuous on the ground, as the airfields were quite basic, and there was little cover. Even the Americans were forced to do this in 1944 when they stopped painting their aircraft at the factories. So, I reasoned, they would have overpainted the yellow rudder but left the yellow under the cowling. I wasn’t sure about the white wingtips, but these aren’t very conspicuous, so I left them out.

Here’s the finished model:

And underneath:

There’s not much to note on the build. It was very straightforward apart from the tail wheel. I used the airbrush to prime, but this time with LifeColor purpose made white primer. This went on more easily than standard paint, but there was still a slight tendency to bubble (even though the parts had been washed). The sand and olive green were mixed for use on this and the other models – the sand on all three models, and the green with the 109. The pale blue grey (“white-blue”) was mixed just for this model. I took the darker light blue I used for the Stuka and mixed some white into it. It should probably have been a bit greyer (on the Stuka too). The sand was Raw Siena with a bit of blue and white – and I am very happy with how that turned out. It’s a bit darker than it is often shown, but close to many representations of this aircraft. The olive green is usually shown as been noticeably darker than the sand (which comes out on may photos) but in this case I thought it would be tonally similar. One the one photo I have of Yellow 1 (showing just the nose) the stripes are nearly invisible. I started with Sap Green, mixed in some Yellow Oxide and white. That works well on this model.

I have already written of my traumas at the painting stage. I painted the whole upper surface in sand, and then over sprayed the green on top, using Science Putty for masking. I used this product as an alternative to the more expensive “Panzer Putty”, and it worked pretty well. However the problem with it is that it moves, so you can’t leave it on the model for long. Blue Tac is probably more appropriate. I had to top up a lot of the airbrushed green with a paintbrush. For the decals I used the Balkankreuz that came with the model for the fuselage and underwing, but they supplied the simplified cross for the overwing, which didn’t seem to be accurate. At this stage, and in this theatre, the Germans seemed to use the standard cross with a thinner white band. This, and ID markings and the swastika were all sourced from my brother’s stock of German markings from the 1970s (or even late 1960s), mainly from Almark. Almark still seem to be going, though Scalemates says they started in 1975, my brother’s main modelling activity in 1/72 was long before this, and I generally only needed the swastikas for my models at this time, so I don’t think I bought these. Zvesda do supply swastikas, but, doubtless for legal reasons, they are cut in pieces and a faff to put on. The old decals took a little while to free themselves from the backing paper, but then were fine to manipulate – actually easier than many of the modern ones. Using decal fluid the flash, a big problem back in the day, disappears – though it didn’t help that we usually applied them to matt enamel painted surfaces. For the ID markings I had to put on the yellow markings first, and then the black outlines over them. I am very pleased with how they turned out.

Overall I am very pleased with the result on the upper surfaces, in spite of the nightmare on the oil paint patination. The LifeColor matt varnish has left a faint sheen (or maybe it’s the oil coming through) which is just what I wanted. While American planes in the Olive drab scheme often appear in a very matt finish, this seems less true of Luftwaffe planes. Doubtless the crews kept the planes clean to extract every ounce of aerodynamic performance. The whole effect is cleaner than the P-47, but consistent with a recently-painted aircraft. The patination nevertheless helps to integrate the whole model, including decals, and give it more of a real-world feel. The underside is much less satisfactory. The main problem is that it is too monotonous. Some of the detail could have done with being brought out. The fit of the undercarriage doors is so good you can hardly see them! The patination effect is also much more visible and makes it look a bit mucky. That’s not unrealistic in itself, remembering that this is the bit that wasn’t overpainted, and the underside would have taken a pounding from dust on take-off and landing, but it still doesn’t look quite right. But after the traumas with the oil, I wanted to draw a line under the project, and had no wish to spend yet more time trying to fix it. The underside is not going to be that visible on the table after all.

My next batch of 1/72 WW2 Aircraft

So at last I have finished my latest project. These are three German planes from Tunisia at the winter of 1942/43: a Messerschmitt Bf-109G2, a Focke-Wulf Fw-190A4 and a Junkers Ju-87D1 Stuka. I want to describe each of these planes individually in separate posts, but before that there are a few things I want to say about the project as a whole.

The project was quite a late idea in my plans for an aircraft collection based on my 1943 theme. The P-47 was an interesting trial run, but I thought it would be a good idea to do some more practice on cheap models, before launching into some of the more sophisticated (and expensive) kits that I had bought. I was also a bit short of German aircraft (three from the original ten). This wasn’t so inappropriate given that the Germans rapidly lost air superiority in this period, but at the start air superiority was fully contested. Also I had planned to do the three German aircraft in the standard European grey scheme. But in the early period, in Tunisia, they used their desert colours as well, adding some more interest. And they also used Stukas, which I wanted to model, though increasing Allied air strength quickly drove them into a very minor role. So I bought cheap models of the early versions of Bf-109G and Fw-190A in use at this time, the former from Hobby Boss (£6.25), and the latter from Zvesda (£8.50). For the Stuka I went to Hobby 2000, which was substantially the 1990s model from Fukashima; this was a bit pricier (£11.80), but not in the same bracket as modern hobby models.

The project took a lot longer than I expected, and I had some more learning to do. This was mainly due to my daily routine, which only allows 2-3 hours in the afternoons for the hobby, and very often it proved not possible on that day. To improve my work rate I will have to do some morning time too – fortunately my other commitments are easing, so that should be doable (though there’s more to be done in the garden…). But there were other issues. I had the same problem with raised undercarriage with the Bf-109 as I did with the Hobby Boss P-47, and only the Zvesda model came with a pilot. The Stuka proved quite tricky to assemble. There were some fiddly parts, some of which I gave up on, but a bigger issue was that the fit of the parts wasn’t that great, especially when compared to the lovely fit of the Zvesda. Manufacturing standards have clearly improved. But the real problems came with painting and finishing.

I am still learning with the airbrush; it feels like one step back for every two forward. Partly this is because I mix my own colours. I quickly found this easiest with artists’ colours, rather than using hobby paints (a few Lifecolor ones came with the airbrush). But that gives quite a thick paint that needs to be thinned. Getting the consistency and pressure right was quite hard, especially as things seemed to change as the job progressed. It took longer than expected, and a lot of the green on the Fw-190 turned out to be too thin, and I had to top it up with an old fashioned brush. I would not advise people to take up an airbrush for aero-modelling unless they are quite happy to learn new skills. For wargames purpose I’m, sure you can get satisfactory results with a paint brush, provided the paint isn’t too thick, which may mean you use more than one coat.

The real problems came when I tried the oil paint patina technique for weathering the model – referred to as “dot filtering” in the blog I picked it up from, which isn’t very informative. This means putting small dots of oil paint on the model (such as white, brown and blue-grey) and then brushing them into a very thin patina, which I did after the decals in order to integrate these better. It softens contrasts, creates subtle changes of tone, and simulates some of the effects of fading and dirt. I found this not to hard on the P-47, especially as I could correct over enthusiasm with a bit of white spirit. On that model I applied the oils to a surface on old Humbrol enamel satin varnish. This time I thought it would be clever to to apply a coat of matt varnish first – using Winsor & Newton in an aerosol can. Bad idea. I tried with the Fw-190 first, and I found that the spreading of the paint on the matt surface was much harder and it was not possible to spread the paint thinly enough, which left heavy streaking. So I put a bit of white spirit on. That didn’t help because it reacted with the matt varnish to created a horrid claggy mess. By this time the disease had spread to the 109, as I tried a more restrained application of paint, but without success. This was getting desperate. The models were cheap but I’d invested quite a bit of time in them! I then tried oil paint medium (mainly linseed oil) to thin the paint, and this at last started to shift the streaks and help lift some of the clag off. On the 109, on the unrated areas I applied a layer of medium first, and put the dots onto this, with reasonable results. With a bit of work I got to a generally acceptable result on the two fighters, though close examination reveals areas of mess, especially on the 190. The big problem with this approach came later. The medium took days to dry, and finished in high gloss, rather than the rather nice faint sheen I got on the P-47, before putting on the matt varnish. I had been aiming for that light sheen rather than the heavy matt of the P-47. I had to apply matt varnish, but I didn’t want to use the W&N aerosol, partly because it meant re-masking the cockpits, and partly because I wasn’t looking for the extreme matt finish that this product gives. Instead I used Lifecolor varnish applied with a paint brush. Some of the medium clearly hadn’t quite dried, though, and the gloss finish kept bursting through. After this I had very little patience for further weathering, though I did apply pastel powder for some exhaust stains.

With this disaster unfolding on the 190 and 109, I realised I needed to do something different on the Stuka. I put a layer of Lifecolor gloss varnish onto the matt surface, and applied the oil paint to this. This worked much better, but in places I was still a little heavy-handed, so I put on a little oil medium to thin out. This worked, but I had the issue with it taking a long time to dry. I didn’t dare use the white spirit as the Lifecolor product wasn’t polyurethane (or that old Humbrol product), and I thought it might react in the same way as the matt varnish. Judging by how effective white spirit was on shifting dried varnish on a brush I forgot to clean, this was probably a good call. The patina effect on the Stuka was much more restrained, on the top surfaces anyway, than on the other models (including the P-47), as by this time my confidence had been badly dented.

Other points to note? The white fuselage stripes, and the yellow under the nose on the fighters, was painted on directly after the primer and then masked. On the P-47 I painted the yellow stripes over the main paint. Yellow and white are tricky to overpaint (it took several coats on the P-47), and I think this approach was better. I tried three different strategies for the cockpits. I bought a tailor made mask for the Stuka; frustratingly the model actually came with a mask so I didn’t have to do this – and I used the mask that came with the model. On the 190 I cut masking tape for each of the transparent panels leaving the frame exposed. On the 109 I masked the whole cockpit except the edges and painted the frames afterwards. Some modellers swear by masks, but I’m not sure – I don’t think the end result was any better than painting on, though on the Stuka it would have been much too hard to mask the panels by cutting tape. This is only practical on a much simpler canopy, such as that for the 190 (and P-47), where I was pleased with the result. The results on the 109 were fine for my purposes, though the acrylic surface doesn’t take paint that easily and needs a bit of priming (and the white primer needs toning down as it is visible from underneath). The canopy on the Bf 110 is going to be a real challenge, but I think I’ll take the same route as I did with the 109.

Overall I’m very pleased with these models, except on the undersides, which won’t be all that visible in use. I got away with the botching of the patination. A key learning is that, unlike a true aero-modeller, I am aiming for a good effect from a distance, and not to impress with close -up detailing. These models would be a bit of a disaster by the latter standards, especially the fighters, but they work very well for my purposes, as I think the photo shows. They do a good job of evoking Luftwaffe aircraft of that time and place. In particular fussing around with minor bits of detail, like bringing out panel lines, or showing scuffed paint, isn’t worth it. More comments when I review each model individually.

Olive drab

Readers familiar with my blogs may have noticed an omission from previous post on the P-47. I didn’t say anything about the paint colours. And I’m usually a bit obsessive about that. A lot of hobbyists are, but I take it in an unusual direction because I mix my own paints from artists’ pigments, separately for each project. I left the topic out because I had too much to say. It needed another post, which readers less obsessed with colours can skip, and this is it.

The predominant colour on this model is, of course, Olive Drab. The underside colour is Neutral Grey, a mix of black and white, the main question around which is how light it should be. I based my colour on an old artists’ Liquitex Neutral Grey I had lying around; if it hadn’t been there I would have mixed Mars Black and Titanium White. The Liquitex colour is probably 50:50 and turned out to be a bit dark, so I added some white to it. From photos I suspect that the USAAF grey is a bit darker than it is portrayed by most artists, as the tonal contrast between it and Olive Drab isn’t that great. But I went quite pale nevertheless; white with everything is my standard practice for miniatures painting after all. Other colours are yellow for the stripes and red for the nose. My main concern with these was to make them bright but not too bright. For the red I recycled some red from my previous project (French Napoleonic cavalry) that was still wet on the palette, though I found myself tweaking it a bit. Yellow is a bit of problem because pigments tend to be bodiless and thin. I like to use Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide (the Liquitex name, but much the same thing), as this is the best behaved, but it is a bit dull, do I used some of my other yellow pigments. First an old yellow (can’t remember the name, but its not on sale any more) that was horrid and thin, and then Cadmium Yellow that was better. A little white was in there of course. But the result was still thin. I painted the stripes (with a brush over masking tape) over the Olive Drab and Neutral Grey, which had been airbrushed on. I started with an undercoat of white, but it still took at least three coats of the yellow mix to get anything satisfactory. Maybe next time (the yellow stripes will probably feature on my A-36 too) I will paint them first and mask before airbrushing the main colours.

But the big interest is the Olive Drab. This was the standard US military colour, developed in WW1 and used on both vehicles and aircraft in WW2. It is a notoriously tricky colour to pin down. The US authorities were very pragmatic on colour standards, and did not care greatly whether the colour precisely matched the standard, and it weathered quite dramatically. The official formulation changed slightly from time to time, and eventually the Army and USAAF went for slightly different definitions. Different companies used different pigment combinations (and doubtless changed these over time), so even the weathering varied a great deal. The colour could vary a great deal across the same aircraft, depending on when that particular part was painted. Probably no two vehicles or planes were the same colour (apparently like modern Israeli tanks), because in wartime this just didn’t matter. This causes hobbyists – wargamers, modellers, collectors or re-enactors – a lot of angst. Modellers like their premixed paints, and often ask which one to use, to which the answer has to be a shrug; “several” is to them the wrong answer. Collectors either paint with something like the as-new shade (doubtless in a modern paint that is much more colour-fast than the old ones) or make up a lighter shade to simulate what they think it might have looked like in the field, but which tends to look too fresh and new.

Meanwhile we have not so much evidence for what planes and vehicles actually looked like. Colour photography wasn’t prevalent, and not especially accurate on colour either; colourised photos, increasingly popular, are just an interpretation. And as with all dull colours in the middle of the colour wheel, small differences to colour sensitivity and lighting can make a big difference to how it looks to the human eye. This website (gmodelart.com) has a number of interesting pictures of aircraft, though (leading with one of a crashed P-47 in very similar scheme to my model), which shows how much variation there might be, even on the same plane.

So what colour is it? “Pig crap” is an early description of the dark, freshly painted version. Olive is just on the green side of yellow on the colour wheel, but the “drab” takes it a long way towards the middle, meaning that it is quite brown. To date I have tried simulating it with a mix of three pigments: Yellow Oxide (i.e. Yellow Ochre), Black and White. I have assumed the standard way of making it was combining yellow ochre with black, as these were two cheap pigments – just as the French did in the Napoleonic wars to make the olive green they used for artillery woodwork. Here is a picture of the sorts of result yI get:

On the left you have just black and yellow; this is as close as I could get in tone to the colour swatch I have, which show the colour as new. In fact the swatches were slightly greener – but more yellow would have made it a bit too light I though. Fresh Olive Drab is a very dark colour, something that caused me consternation when I applied authentic Humbrols too my models back in the day. Next has a bit of white and a bit more yellow (I was assuming that the black would fade faster than the yellow); it turns into something a bit greener. On the right I have mixed the yellow with Neutral Grey to give something lighter and browner. My model is painted in something between the right hand and centre pictures. If nothing else this exercise shows how challenging photography is in representing colour; they all look darker than they “really” are.

As another exercise in demonstrating the perils of photography: the following show the effects of different backgrounds. The red in particular makes the model look browner, while the green makes it look greener. I don’t really understand that!. The lighting conditions were slightly different for this photo than the other three though.

Comparing these photos with the ones on gmodelart.com and my model is in the right zone, but looks a bit dark; it seems closest to the new Liberator bombers. But all the photos were taken in bright sunlight while I took my pictures on an overcast day, with a little artificial light to boost it a bit (and a lot more artificial light for the one against green cloth).

A further thought is that my idea that Olive Drab was often made using yellow ochre and black is probably off the mark. These may have been the appropriate pigments in the pre-industrial age, or even in Europe, where green pigments were in short supply, but 1940s America is another matter. The original formulation of the colour included raw umber, a dark brown. Chrome yellow was a standard primer, used in the interior of aircraft – this is brighter and greener than ochre. The greener hue of the colour swatches suggests it wasn’t ochre-black. It might be worth trying a different formulation, to produce something with a slightly greener hue. On the other hand the black-ochre combination produces a nice, opaque paint that is very easy to apply. A brief attempt to produce something using Raw Umber and Viridian was not nearly as good.

So where next? The issue will return when I do my batch of three US planes. The main issue is not the precise hue, but that fact that the colour is not standard. There should be a bit of variation between the planes and on the same aircraft. It is less of an issue for vehicles, since in 1943 most US vehicles used by the British were repainted. But if I move out into later war or US forces (and I’m thinking of just that in 1/300), the issue will return. This is a problem that will run and run.

My aero modelling journey begins: Hobby Boss P-47 Thunderbolt

My lockdown madness has drawn my into 1/72 model aircraft. This is nominally part of my 1943 wargames project – but mainly a rekindling of my love of warplanes, especially from WW2. Somehow, and only my fellow hobbyists will understand how this has happened, I have acquired no less than 14 kits to make. My plan was to build them in batches of three, or even four, starting with the three US planes (an A-36 Apache, a P-38 Lightning and a B-26 Marauder) because their simpler colour scheme would be a good place to start. I then realised that aircraft modelling involved so many new techniques that it was best to start out n a single low-cost model that I didn’t mind mucking up. So I bought the Hobby Boss P-47 Thunderbolt. I have just finished it (more or less).

This aircraft does not belong in the scope of my 1943 project. The first P-47s were deployed in 1943, but these were of the ridgeback variety. There was only limited availability of cheap kits though – the three makes that seemed to be in scope were Airfix, Zvesda and Hobby Boss. I was looking for a US aircraft. The only available Airfix model was an early P-40, well before my period. Hobby Boss did the P-47, but only the bubble-top variety was available at short notice (they have done a razorback as well). I have a soft spot for the Jug, since a made a model an old Airfix one (a ridgeback as it happens, with moulded raised rivets – yuck) as a boy, which I didn’t even paint. The bubble-tops weren’t operational until well into 1944 – but they are handsome aircraft.

Hobby Boss models are simple and cheap, with only a small number of parts. But there was a big snag. They follow the modern convention of making planes with undercarriage down and no pilot. This is how all upmarket aircraft kits are presented these days – but you would have thought cheaper models would appeal to youngsters and wargamers, who would like to make them up as in flight. The box artwork shows the plane in flight – and it even appears to be a photo of the model. Airfix and Zvesda both give this option. The Hobby Boss had the tail wheel door moulded open. And the P-47 main undercarriage doors were in three parts, with the upper two moving to overlapping position when downed; these are moulded as a single piece in the kit, which had to be separated. All this involved some pretty tricky conversion work to model as retracted. The main doors did not fit into the holes exactly and had to be filed down. And fitting them flush was more than tricky, until (on the last door to be fitted) I discovered the use of plasticine. The tail doors I gave up entirely on. I just filled in the hole and filed it flush, and tried to score some doors in. The results of all this were very far from satisfactory, especially the tail door. I won’t have another set of tail doors to model until the Spitfire VIII, though, which I plan to do last, and which has properly moulded separate doors in the model. But modelling the doors as closed for the main undercarriage is going to be tricky for the one further Hobby Boss model (a Bf-109), and the seven “up-market” models I have now acquired. At least these usually have upper and lower wings in separate parts (Hobby Boss has the wings in a sing piece), making the doors much easier to fit flush.

Apart from this major problem, the Hobby Boss model fitted the brief perfectly. The interior detail of the cockpit is poor; the bombs are crude and inaccurate; not fitting the central fuel tank leaves an unsightly hole in the bottom centre of the fuselage; the panel lines are very shallow; the engine detail is derisory. But none of this really matters for the sort of model I was trying to make. You can’t really see into the cockpit; the bombs aren’t particularly visible; the fuel tank hole is where the flight stand attachment will go; overdoing the panel lines would be a worse error; and you have to look closely to see into the engine. What I got was a simple and robust model, much like my PSC tanks and APCs.

There was a problem with the decals though. By the time the bubble-top came into operation, US aircraft were no longer being painted at the factory, and almost all of them flew in bare metal. Both decal schemes were for such bare-metal aircraft. This is not a problem for the star and stripe insignia, but it is for the lettering, which is black on bare-metal aircraft, and yellow or white on painted ones. In the Mediterranean, however, aircraft were often left out in the open when on the ground, so many aircraft were painted by the service crews to make them less visible, using traditional olive drab and neutral grey. I found an example of such an aircraft in the Eduard “Jugs over Italy” kit (in 1/48), with the schemes and made models readily visible on the Internet. My scheme is based on this but with made-up serial number (the smaller yellow figures on the tail) and battle number (large white ones on the fuselage). I had an audacious plan to solve this, I actually had the unused decals from my old Airfix P-47 kit, getting on for 50 years old, which included a scheme for for a painted plane. Unfortunately these were damaged, and broke up when I tried to use them. My next solution was to try and cut out a 1 and 7 from the white decal printing sheet for the battle numbers. But these proved much too delicate. Apparently for decal paper to work this need to have a hefty layer of varnish on them. For the battle numbers my next plan was to overpaint some of the black numbers that came with the kit, of which the simplest was a “41” (actually converted from “4P”). This was hard going, and it was impossible to get either properly straight edges or an even paint coverage. To my surprise it worked. The imperfections are much less noticeable on the weather-beaten look I was going for. It looked as if the ground crew didn’t have the stencils or spray gun when they had to apply the numbers; I expect such things happened. For the serials wanted to print some numbers on transparent decal paper; I was bit concerned because my last attempt at this turned out to be rather transparent; standard printer ink doesn’t have a great deal of body. In fact my inkjet printer heads were completely messed up and unable to print much colour at all. but I found some old British Railway locomotive decals from a model one of my brothers must have bought, which would have been even older than my P-47. They were the right size and colour, but in Gill Sans script rather than USAAF stencils. Actually from a distance these aren’t too dissimilar, except for the zero, which is a big round “O” in Gill Sans. This featured in the numbers, but I cut the zeros out, and assembled the numbers from three pairs each. Apart from taking quite a while to loosen up from the backing paper, these decals worked fine. They evidently aged much better than my old P-47 ones. Finally on the engine cowl I simply used nose art from the Hobby boss decals, one for the plane “rabbit” and the other presumably for the unit. This was all part of the P-47 look.

There were two really scary things about this project for me. The first was use of the airbrush for the first time, and the second was weathering. The first issue was primer. I had bought some artists’ gesso to use for primer, but I found this didn’t bond well to plastic (though works fine on metal). Instead I used standard white acrylic paint that came with the airbrush. Initially this didn’t bond all that well either (even though I had washed the kit first), but with a bit of help from a paintbrush I got started. That first session with the airbrush was a bit nightmarish. I kept on getting it wrong, with the paint pooling up, which I then had to thin out with a paintbrush. After the white I tried putting on a layer of neutral grey (over the whole model, though only needed for the underside), but I ended the session with the model looking a real mess. Next session, after watching a couple of videos on airbrushing models, it went much better. And each time since my confidence has improved. A number of factors have to be balanced (air pressure, thickness of paint, openness of nozzle and distance from subject), and this clearly takes a while to come together. The big surprise to me is just how thin the paint is when it goes on properly. This is quite unlike an aerosol can. The flip side to this is that the spray is pretty controllable, and paint doesn’t go everywhere, like the aerosol. This thinness is what gives airbrushed paint such a lovely finish, of course. But it does mean the layers shine through each other. Using a white undercoat made a big difference. In one place (the lower rudder) I used a brush to correct an error: it came out much darker. Underpainting in dark colours to bring out individual panels is quite the fashion for serious aircraft modellers. I did try this with black for the undercarriage doors, but not very successfully (the underpainting needed to graded). One aspect of the thinness I hadn’t counted on is that the paint is very easy to damage. I quite often chipped paint off right down the plastic. This may suggest that a proper primer is advisable, and I have bought some from the airbrush company for future projects. But it also explains why modellers seem to be so keen on layers of varnish.

After the basic paint job I applied the decals. As with my vehicle models I applied to a layer of polyurethane gloss varnish (from a very old Humbrol pot), put on with a brush. I forgot to do this on the tail, though, but the decals (and these were the very old ones) went on fine with the help of decal fluid, with no flash showing. The smoothness of the airbrush finish probably means that this step is superfluous – except that it is an excuse to put on a layer of protective varnish. The decal application didn’t go that well, as I managed to spill almost a whole bottle of decal fluid. As a result of being a bit stressed by this, some of the decals were damaged and there was a little (and unforgivable) creasing. After this I wondered whether I could go straight on to the weathering without sealing the decals in varnish, as the finish looked quite good. But by then I was starting to understand that layers of varnish were a good thing. At that point though the only airbushable varnish I has was matt – and that was a bad idea at this stage. Decals are allergic to modern matt varnish; back in the day matt varnish was really satin, and I used it to set the decals (with the glue washed off the back) as a way of eliminating flash – a job the decal fluid now seems to do. I had some old Humbrol satin varnish, and I used this with a paint brush. This produced a very good finish on the top, but it has a slight orange colour to it, which discoloured the underside where it was a bit thicker. It also filled in some of the engraved lines, making them impossible to bring out in a wash. Unlike proper aeromodellers, I’m not that fussed about bringing out the panels – but I do like to show up the moving parts, like the control surfaces and the flaps on the engine cowling (which are completely lost on this model now). I now have airbrushable colourless gloss varnish. My idea is to use this before and after decals, with a wash to bring out the engraving before either or both coats.

Weathering is a multi-stage process for serious modellers (more than a dozen steps on one blog). I was looking for something much simpler. My plan was to use two main techniques: the “dot filter” method, applying oil paint, and pastel dust. I also did a little “chipping”, as well as a largely unsuccessful wash. The dot filter requires quite a bit of courage. You put small dots of oil paint of different colours on the surface, and then keep brushing into a very thin layer with subtle variations that bring out the direction of the brush strokes (generally fore-and aft to simulate the effect of air flow). Oil paint dries slowly, so you have time to brush it down very thin (and you can also clean it off with white spirit and tissue). The paint I used was white, Payne’s Grey, Raw Sienna and a little bit of Van Dyck Brown (being very sparing with the browns on the underside). I had bought these colours to paint horses, so the choice was a bit constrained (Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber would be good choices ordinarily). I did it after decals, rather than before (as advised by the blog I was following), because I wanted to integrate the decals into the overall finish. When I first pulled the brush over the spots, it looked like a disaster (it helps to see a video of this first to prepare you for the shock), but eventually the paint spread so thin that the effect was very pleasing. The red band on the nose was the only real problem; it did not respond well to the white, and so I had to use a bit of white spirit to thin it. The overall effect is to patinate the model and soften the paintwork and decals (the white is especially effective). There should be elements of unevenness too, to reflect where the different coloured spots went. It all helps to bring life to the model.

The use of artists’ pastels was an idea I got from another blog, as a substitute for weathering powders that are popular with modellers. I actually have a decent stock of pastels, which I had bought for use on terrain (not particularly successfully so far). You scrape off some powder with a craft knife and apply with a paint brush. At first I tried it directly after the oil patina had been applied. The oil immediately dissolved the powder, turning it into a liquid smear. This is potentially quite useful, but not the effect I was looking for, so I waited for a day for the oil paint to dry. I can’t say that I have mastered this technique. I tried to use it to provide a bit of contrast on the control surfaces, where the engraving couldn’t be brought out with a wash. In particular the ailerons merged with the flaps (though at least both were delineated from the wing). This wasn’t very successful; in fact it would have been better to try this while the oil was still wet, as the dry powder doesn’t do sharp edges. I was more successful in applying dark smudges to suggest exhaust stains by the engine cowling, and areas of dirt on the wing to suggest mud from ground crew boots, etc.

I also used a little silver paint to suggest places where the paintwork had been chipped back to the metal. Some modellers go to town on this, but I’m not sure how realistic this is. Japanese aircraft were notorious for paintwork being in terrible condition, but not other nations. The artist in the Osprey publication on B-26s in the Med delights in showing these planes with paintwork being in a very poor way, though I don’t think this is clear from the photos. But these bombers were exposed to airburst shells from heavy AA in the way fighter planes weren’t. The popular way for modellers to do this is using silver artist’s pencil, but I was reluctant to splash out. You can see my efforts the wing route in the picture. there are one or two spots elsewhere. I don’t think I have this quite right yet, but I’m not sure what is wrong.

The final step was a layer of matt varnish. I have lots of this in aerosol cans (a long story…), and I wasn’t bothered about it being quite heavy-handed, so I used this rather than airbrush. I wasn’t sure about this step. After the satin varnish, and the oil patina, with contrasting matt pastel I thought the model looked pretty decent as was. Aero modellers insist that a high matt look is authentic for this era, and in the Med, with all its dust and outdoors exposure, this makes more sense than elsewhere. But high matt isn’t great for aerodynamics, so I thought planes were quite often polished to a satin type finish – and this is how I used to present my models, using the satin “matt” varnish. Still this model is a learning experience, so I thought I had better try it. I think it does work, and it does recall contemporary photos of combat planes in this era, especially the US olive drab planes.The propellor was left off the for this phase, though, and I gave it a coat of satin varnish.

This model isn’t quite finished. First is the canopy. I attached it before the airbrushing, as I wanted to cover the joins for the static part in modelling putty. I used masking tape to cover the transparent bits, leaving the frame exposed to the airbrush. The masking tape came off after the matt varnish. The result on the canopy from was OK-ish after a bit of touching up, but the tape left marks on the canopy. Unfortunately the polish I had specially acquired to clean the canopy up has gone walkabout, so I’m waiting for it to re-emerge. Second the plane needs a stand. This has been a been a bit of a problem. Commercial stands are for much smaller models. For larger ones it is popular to make your own, either using an acetate stick or an extendable metal aerial. In the end I bought one made for an extendable aerial from Debris of War – but with a 3in base it is meant for smaller models (15mm scale single-engined aircraft max). I hope to be able to modify it to work for larger models, up to my planned B-26. A magnet is attached o the model to attach it to the stand. It would be a good idea to integrate this with the model building process, rather than it being an afterthought, as it would be useful to have somewhere to leave the model while paint is drying, etc. The stand is in the post.

Overall the model comes up to an acceptable wargames standard, and meets my needs. The underside is a bit of a mess, partly because of the botching of the undercarriage doors, and partly because the varnish was a bit thick and discoloured it. The weathering is a bit heavy-handed too, but that’s less of a issue – it doesn’t look implausible. Actually I’m very pleased with how this model has turned out. There may be a bit of a fine line between a model looking botched (I had lots of those in my youth), and one that looks realistically weathered, but on the topside at least, the model is on the right side of the line.

I have greatly enjoyed my return to aero modelling, even if it is a bit of a distraction from other hobby projects. It has given me a fresh understanding about how close hobby projects are to art, and how much they can be informed by art (I leave to one side whether the hobby actually is art). I am no artist, but I do take a close interest in art. What I have learnt from art is how to understand and deal with the series of subjective choices that any form of representation presents. You need to develop a clear idea of what it is you are trying to do. Serious aero-modellers want to present you with model you feel you can jump into and fly away in. The model needs to be coherent, but they like to overwhelm the viewer with tiny details to give you that feeling that you can are in the presence of a real plane. 1/72 o is a bit small for this (I can see the attraction of 1/48; I did make a couple of 1/32 models in my time, and they’re too big). I think they overdo things sometimes though, especially an obsession with panels. My aim is much more impressionistic. I want to convey an impression of a plane in action with a job to do; viewing is typically meant to be at a greater distance – and I do want to convey the idea of a purposeful and menacing machine. This allows me to adopt a much simpler approach and still produce something with its own impact. The weathering step is particularly interesting here; apart from serving to give the model a used appearance, reminiscent of wartime photographs, it helps unify the model, for example by integrating the decals and ID stripes. It may also help to show up moving parts, conveying that this is a working machine – though no so much on my model.

It was certainly right to get started on a single model. Some key learnings are as follows:

  • The airbrush produces a beautiful finish, and is ideal for this type of model, allowing the fine detail of the mouldings to come out. This is quite different from painting much hunkier metal miniatures. But the paint finish is quite delicate, and it can be a bit too smooth, requiring the weathering phase to bring the model to life.
  • The workflow is very different from painting miniatures with an ordinary, or even the vehicle models that I have done to date. There aremore gaps between steps to wait for things to dry out – leading to a larger number of shorter sessions. For miniatures I could conceivably finish a project in a single, long, session (though maybe without primer). It makes sense to do the models in batches for this reason, though I suspect more than three at a time would give me real problems until I’m more experienced.
  • I need to mount the models on stands pretty much from the assembly stage.
  • No more brush-delivered old Humbrol varnish except for small highlights.
  • A wash to bring out moving parts is a good idea, but needs to be done quite early, depending on how deep the scoring is on the model. Underpainting may also be a good way bringing out moving parts.
  • I can use my artists paints in the airbrush, but it is helpful to have the same paint mix available throughout the model production for the main colours. The Stay-Wet palette helps here, but it may be an idea to mix pots of more liquid paint at the start so that there is a reserve. The colour-by-numbers approach of hobbyists who buy ready-mixed paints makes more sense for airbrush projects than it does on miniatures. But I’m sticking to my guns – I find mixology way more fun.

My next project on aircraft modelling will be three German planes from early 1943, in desert colours. These feature two simple models – an Me Bf-109G from Hobby Boss and an FW-190A from Zvesda, and an old model, a Stuka from Fujima. But before that it’s back to Napoleonic miniatures.

Ian Mitchell: Long Stop Hill, Tunisia 1943

My 1943 project (focused on the British Mediterranean campaign of that year) starts with Tunisia, though most of my recent focus has been on Salerno in Italy. This recently published book by Ian Mitchell (who has served both in the Navy and Army) looked of interest; it’s correct title is The Battle of the Peaks and Long Stop Hill, but Long Stop is the easily the best known of the engagements covered, and was the main objective of the campaign. It is a well-written book, but a bit unsatisfactory from my perspective., though I learned much from it.

Long Stop Hill (as it was named by British troops) was a relatively low but rocky double hill which stood alongside the the principal route to Tunis from the west and blocked approaches to the country’s principal port from this direction. With the the Army’s approach from the south blocked by even tougher terrain it became a critical objective for Allied forces in order to end the war in Africa, so that operations against mainland Europe could start. The Germans had turned it into a formidable fortress. It was assigned to the First Army’s 78th “Battle-Axe” Division. This book is an account of the campaign to take it, including the capture of nearby (and higher) peaks that were considered to be critical preliminary objectives, because they could be used to observe and direct artillery fire on the attacking forces.

The book is very successful in achieving what it aims to do – which is to give an account of the British units that carried out this series of attacks. We learn a lot about the soldiers involved, especially the officers, and individual achievements are highlighted. This coverage extends to supporting units, such as engineers, medical services and so on. This is quite a popular style of book, and is aimed especially at people whose ancestors or relatives took part. You do get a feel for the experience, and people are named where possible. Amongst other things it draws attention to the achievements of the First Army, one of the War’s forgotten formations, whose achievements are often overlooked. I would only fault the book on one thing within this remit: it needs more maps. It especially needs a map of the whole campaign area, explaining how the various objectives fitted together. It has just one map of the wider campaign area, which shows the movements in late 1942 (and the first battle of Long Stop Hill); it could usefully have repeated this map to show the movements of April and May 1943 as well. Poor maps is one of the persistent features of modern military writing, and unfortunately this book suffers somewhat: there are maps of the individual battles, which aren’t brilliant but do help a lot. It is thankfully free of other features of modern military books, such as frequent typos and inconsistencies, which arise from poor editing. Publishers don’t provide this service any more, and doubtless authors feel under pressure to bring their projects to a conclusion and so skip the editing. Mr Mitchell doubtless did the editing himself, assisted by friends and family. A hard, grinding job which has fortunately been done to a high professional standard.

The first problem I had with this book is that the frequent digressions into the past histories of those involved slows the narrative pace down, and it isn’t a riveting read. It is rather easy to put down, and it took me a lot longer to finish reading than it should have. A more fundamental problem is that its treatment of the German side of the story is cursory, and its main source seems to be British intelligence documents. Mr Mitchell does try to give their side, but he was not prepared to to the considerable and messy research required to get a more complete picture, from records that would doubtless have been incomplete anyway – and it is tangential to the book’s main purpose. This does limit the book’s value in trying to get a full understanding of what happened and why. A second problem is that analysis of the tactical problems is a bit weak and incidental, as well being limited by its British perspective. A third problem is that Mr Mitchell gets too drawn into the perspective of the soldiers within 78th Division, at the expense of the wider picture. He complains that the troops were overworked, and attacks conducted with less than adequate preparation. Given that this operation was on the critical path of the entire Allied Mediterranean war effort, I don’t think that these complaints are surprising, and he makes no attempt to show that the end result would have been achieved more quickly if the troops hadn’t been pushed so aggressively. His complaints of troops being wasted in unnecessary operations is more understandable, I prefer a more detached stance at this distance in time, This is war, not a game of cricket (and there are too many cricket analogies, though this arises from the fact that a lot of the officers were cricketers).

The tactical problems were considerable. The ground was rough and unsuitable for most vehicles, off the very limited roads. It could provide cover to troops who stayed still, and very good cover if you could dig into the rock, through natural fissures or with the use of explosives. But you were very exposed and highly visible if you moved through it. And if the enemy possessed the commanding heights they could direct artillery and mortars onto exposed troops with devastating effect, never mind the usual problem with machine-guns. This forced many of the attacks to be conducted at night. These were generally successful on the less heavily defended objectives; the open nature of the terrain reduced the usual chances of troops getting lost and mixed up, no doubt. The German tactics against night operations seemed to been the use of programmed mortar , artillery and machine-gun fire – which caused casualties, but were not enough to stop determined troops. But night attacks failed against the more important targets, notably the mountain of Tanngoucha, the village of Heidous, and Long Stop itself. In daylight the British did have a secret weapon: the Churchill tank, which could operate in terrain other vehicles couldn’t, and wrong-footed the German defences. This proved decisive, but the supporting infantry was still highly exposed.

One question that occurs to me, but the book doesn’t deal with, was whether the divisional strategy was well conceived. This was to work through a succession of peaks leading up to Long Stop, on the basis that each overlooked the next target, and that holding them would give the Germans a decisive advantage. But the British were unable to capture Tanngoucha or Heidous, covering Long Stop’s flank before the launch of their first assault on Long Stop. The nearer of Long Stop’s peaks was captured with these supposedly critical features still in German hands. Their occupation was more important for the second peak, but did this work two ways? The British quickly captured Heidous and Tanngoucha after the first peak of Long Stop fell. Heidous was abandoned and the resistance at Tanngoucha seemed weakened; Long stop seemed critical to the holding of these objectives as much as the other way round. This question is simply not discussed. Provision of a map showing all the peaks might have helped understand this conundrum a bit better.

Another issue is that quite a few of the minor details that wargamers like to know are missing. What armament did the Churchills have? The 6pdr was standard, but it is known that some were armed with 3in howitzers, as the 6pdr HE shell was deficient (this included a few Mark Is with the howitzer in the bow and 2pdr in the turret). Other Churchills were fitted with 75mm guns taken from knocked-out Shermans, but I don’t know if the 25th Tank Brigade (the unit involved) had any of these at this time, though they certainly did later. One source on the web suggests that these did not come into service until the Churchills were deployed in Italy, in 1944. But in my old Tank Battles in Miniature 4, written by wargames legend Donald Featherstone, it says that the conversions were made in January 1943, and they were used in Africa. Since Don served in Churchills in Tunisia (though not in this campaign) you’d expect him to get that sort of detail right! Another issue is that the book (and contemporary accounts) make much mention of German 75mm antitank guns. Were these PAK 40s, or were they the lighter PAK 38-based French 75s, which were less capable? PAK 40s were in use at this stage of the war, and the Germans did send state-of-the-art equipment to Tunisia, but in one episode it describes Churchills coming under fire from the 75s and suffering hits, but without that much damage being done. That doesn’t sound like the PAK 40 (in another episode it describes Churchills being knocked out by the 75mm guns of Panzer IVs, similar to the PAK 40). One issue that the PAK 40 was much heavier than the PAK 38, and o would have ben much more difficult to manoeuvre in terrain unsuitable for vehicles. How good the British officers were at identifying 75s correctly is another matter too; they noxiously over-reported Tiger tanks and 88mm guns. These guns could even have been 50mm PAK 38s.

What are my learnings for wargames simulation? First and foremost it reinforces a point I already knew. Artillery is central to this type of warfare, as it was to most of the warfare engaged in by British forces in the war, with the possible exception of action in the western Desert. Wargames rules are too dismissive of it, and usually little creative energy is put into bringing it into the game realistically. I have read more than once the claim that in the sort of company-level game which is the focus of most rules there would not be on-call access to artillery beyond mortars, so this should be out of scope. What this book (and others) shows is that is nonsense (though perfectly true for air support, I think). A company at the critical point of an attack (and very often a single company operation was critical) did have access to artillery, in both attack and defence. If wargames are going to focus on these important battles, as well as clashes of patrols, then they need to bring the big guns in as a central element.

Beyond this, I gained some new respect for two rule mechanisms that I don’t especially like from a personal game-playing perspective. The first belongs to the Battlegroup rules, and is the central mechanism for measuring each side’s will to keep going. The mechanism is randomised and the other side doesn’t know how close your side is to collapse. This book shows that encounters really do end by one side or other giving up after their will to fight has suddenly collapsed, which is very well simulated by these rules. The other is the Two Fat Lardies emphasis on individual characters, such as the “great men” in I Ain’t Been Shot Mum. This book is full of individual acts which dramatically influenced the course of a battle – and this is often what people who take part in these battles remember. How much the heroic types were known at the start of the battle is another matter, but I suspect they might have been.

How about the grand tactical game of Rommel? In terms of the forces involved (a division plus supporting units on both sides) and geographical area, this campaign looks an ideal subject. The rules’ focus on command resources as a proxy for the importance of planning looks spot on. But these battles took place over days, while Rommel is mainly about a single day of action. Also the rules don’t deal with the importance of vantage points, absolutely central here – though as I wrote in my initial review, this can probably be fixed quite easily. And night time is for recovery in Rommel, not prime time for combat. Still there may be some way of factoring all this in over a two-week time horizon for a game – the terrain clearly slows things down, so each move will cover much longer in elapsed time. This might be one way of testing the British peak-by-peak strategy with one that tried to bypass them with a stronger initial focus on Long Stop Hill itself.

Finally I just need to say that the climax of the events that this book describes, the two-stage battle for Long Stop Hill itself was quite an astonishing feat of arms by the British troops, and one of the outstanding feats of the Army in the war. The first attack was down to the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a unit that had suffered heavy casualties in the campaign to date, assisted by the 1st East Surreys (ditto). They drove through fierce artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire (including from the flank); the HQ company was wiped out, probably by mortars. And yet the survivors pushed on right up the summit, which it captured with barely 60 soldiers left active. The attack on the second peak was no less spectacular in its way. The approach was a long and exposed one (attacking directly from one peak to the other was too difficult), and this second peak was more strongly fortified by the Germans. The Churchills of the Northern Irish Horse led the way, alongside the 5th Buffs, who were very exposed and suffered heavy casualties. The tanks knocked out machine gun posts identified by the infantry, one group of tanks took higher ground that the Germans hadn’t expected them to be able to reach, and was able to deal with the German antitank guns from above. Another group of tanks cut off the German retreat. Artillery was constantly active led by FOOs right up in the thick of it. The British were not supposed to be as good as the Germans at inter-arm cooperation, but this attack was a model.

Th fighting described in this book is very different from that undertaken in North West Europe, or in the Western Desert (or on the Russian front come to that), though it was to be repeated in Sicily and Italy. It presents different challenges to do justice on the tabletop, but intriguing to try.

WW2 aircraft – my next thing

The box top for the Eduard Spitfire Mk VIII, showing a later-war version in Far East colours. The kit is designed to display the model sitting quietly on the ground rather than in action like this…

2020 has been massively frustrating from a hobby point of view. Lockdown stopped gaming, and meanwhile a long drawn out house move meant I couldn’t even catch up on my miniatures or try a bit of solo gaming. And a new house, complete with garden, means lots of jobs need be done. Disappearing off to the wonderful new hobby room (a big win in the long term) would attract some pretty stern looks from the person that cooks over 95% of my meals. On top of that I have had a rather sadder duty – to spend time caring for my father in the last months of his life (he died on Monday, RIP, aged 96). I should point out that I shared this caring with two brothers, both of whom did more than I did, and one a lot more. But another higher priority to hobby time.

But in between jobs I had plenty of time to surf the internet, here and there. Alas this had the result it so often does with people who share my hobby. I’ve started another project. I have been researching WW2 aircraft, and models that are available in 1/72 scale. This, of course, is meant to go alongside my 1943 wargames project, focusing on the Tunisia and Italian campaigns, and the British experience in particular. Unfortunately there has been no compelling need for model aircraft in my 1943 games so far. My games have been at skirmish level, where air involvement was pretty incidental. But as I move up to higher gaming levels then aircraft might start coming into it. Still the main reason I am embarking on this is that I love WW2 warplanes, and I love to make models. It is part nostalgia, and part developing some new techniques for my old hobby. Funnily enough I threw out my last model aircraft saved from my youth in the house move this year (an unfinished Ju-88C night fighter, an FW-190A-8 and a Gloster Meteor). I had earlier thrown out my library of aircraft books, convinced that that chapter in my life had closed – a decision I now regret. The internet is a useful resource, but has its limits.

While the need for the models for wargaming is very limited, I still want to build them so that they can be used on the tabletop – so in flight and with a means of attaching them to a stand. Where appropriate they will be in fighter-bomber mode, with bombs attached. I have started buying. My first two models were a Spitfire Mk VIII, and a Kitty Hawk 1E (I will come to why). I got a bit of a shock when these models arrived (the Spitfire from Eduard, the Kitty Hawk from Special Hobby). These are modellers’ models, not war-game models. I knew that, but simply expected a lot of detail that would be unnecessary. But I found that, unlike the 1970s, models are nowadays displayed as on the ground with crew absent. Retracting the undercarriage could be a bit tricky sometimes, and I will have to source crew. Ouch! It wasn’t like that in the old days of Airfix and Revell. Also a bit puzzling – I think aircraft are made to be observed in flight, with all those sleek lines. But modern modellers get exercised about the seatbelt straps in an empty cockpit!

The first stage in any project, and one of the most fun bits, is compiling the list of things you are going to collect/build. It was logical to start with the British, as my 1943 project is a bit of tribute to my national forebears. The workhorse plane in 1943 was the Spitfire VC. It was outclassed as an air superiority fighter by the FW-190, but it was the best the Allies had until the later Spitfires started to appear. Airfix are about to release a model of this aircraft in its tropical version, and this is the logical model to get (as far as I can see you can build these in flight and a pilot is provided – Airfix is still tied to the old-school values). I also wanted one of the later Spitfires, which started to appear in numbers in 1943, and which were a match, or more, for the more modern Luftwaffe fighters. The most important of these was the Mark IX, which was a re-engined Mark V. But in the Mediterranean theatre there were also significant numbers of Mark VIIIs. This was actually a more advanced design (for example with a retracting tail wheel), and was the base for later marks after the IX, but it could not be produced in the numbers needed to counter the FW-190 quickly enough, hence the Mark IX project. I wanted one of these. Eduard make a well-reviewed model of this, so I thought I had better snap it up while still in stock. I went for the slightly more expensive Profipack version, rather than the cheaper Weekend, because the Weekend model had fewer versions, and not the early Mediterranean version I was looking for. This was a mistake. The extra parts in the Profipack are ones I am unlikely to use (the fiddly bits for proper modellers), and the Weekend version has all the parts needed for all versions, and one or two more on top (for the Mark IX I think). Meanwhile the decals included in the Profipack for the 1943 Med. plane are for a senior officer’s personal plane – not a proper front-line aircraft. I will have to source these separately anyway (though the roundels should be OK to use, and I have quite few bits left over from my old modelling days).

Next up I decided I needed a Kitty Hawk. This plane somehow characterises the Desert Air Force more than any other. It was the best of the US aircraft available at the time, a better fighter than the Hurricane, robust and an excellent fighter-bomber. Various versions were in use right up to the end of the war. The best looking version looked to be the Special Hobby Mark IA (or P-40E), so I plumped for this to save on postage while ordering the Spit. Quite often I have found models were out of stock, so I was tending to buy when I could. I have subsequently learned not to panic, as it isn’t too hard to get models even for some time after production has ceased (eBay being a good source). I then learned that the IA was being phased out in 1943 for versions with more powerful engines (the Mk II and Mk III) – these had a slightly longer body for air stability, so are visually distinct. Special Hobby do a model of that too. So I have been too quick on the draw again. It’s too extreme to buy another model, as in fact they are still pretty similar.

The next plane to think about was the Martin Baltimore. This was a light bomber used extensively by the RAF in this theatre, but not much by anybody else anywhere else. The wargames value of this one is questionable. By 1943 they were being used for targets well behind the lines. Still it seemed right to include it in my collection of distinctive aircraft. (I draw the line at the heavier Wellington bomber, also much used, but mainly at night). Also it is quite hard to source a model, which, of course, only adds to the attraction. There was an old Frog model (the brand was renowned for being a bit dodgy back in the day). There are more modern models from Azur and Special Hobby (possibly the same one for all I know…), both (like the Frog model) hard to get. On eBay I found somebody stocking an Azur Mark V (in Free French colours) and so I ordered that. It has just arrived and it looks fine, with parts for the turret used in earlier marks. I will have to source the decals for a British plane used in 1943.

There is one more plane I am thinking about for my British collection, and that is the Hurricane IID, the tank-buster version with cannon under the wings. Only one squadron was equipped with these, and only for the Tunisia operations. But I have always had a soft spot for the Hurricane, and the IID was used in a tactically interesting way, sweeping through in advance of the ground forces. A kit doesn’t look too hard to get. My plan is to build all the British planes in a single batch to save time (and similarly for the other nationalities).

What of the Germans? The workhorse fighter-bomber was the FW-190, so I need at least one of these. The most widely available model is of the A8/F8, but these were not deployed in numbers until 1944. I have my eye on an Eduard model of the A5, which was current in 1943. This was slightly longer than the early As, to improve its bomb-carrying ability. I think there are models for this very early version about, and it is possible I will get one of these as well. Next comes the Bf-109. By 1943 it is the Gustav that is in service, with the G6 (with its upgraded armament and ammunition blisters on the forward fuselage) coming into service. There is an Airfix model of the G6, which has pretty bad reviews – but the Airfix production values seem to be close to what I want, and the niggles that modern modellers have are unlikely to concern me much. Once again an earlier version is worth considering to have in addition (an early G or perhaps an F).

In Tunisia the Stuka was still in operation; they were around in Italy later, but the Germans did not dare use them in range of allied fighters. At the time the Ju-87D was the main version operation, though there were some Bs still around. The D is much harder to find models for than the B (though the similar G with underwing tank busting guns is more popular, though used only on the Russian front). The main issue is whether to try and find the later D-5 with longer wings and uprated wing armament. I also gave thought to the Ju-88 bomber, one of my favourites, and the main German medium bomber in this theatre. But these were mainly used at sea, and did not seem to have played any role up close on land – as well as being a big model to make. I have not yet committed to any of these purchases of German aircraft, having learned the lesson not to panic.

Finally on the German side I want a Bf-110. I’m not actually sure this type played much of a role in the Tunisian and Italian land battles. But a number were captured on the ground at Montecorvino airfield (along with some FW-190s) in the battle for Salerno, and I’ve always wanted to build a model of one of the 110. It is the fighter-bomber G2 that I am after. This isn’t a very popular model, but Eduard did one, and in the Profipack version they have one of the Montecorvino planes, with a distinctive hornet emblem on its nose. But the model is out of production. I found one on eBay in France, but hesitated to click. When I eventually decided to take the plunge, I couldn’t find it, so I assumed the last one had gone. So I bought a Weekend version from a German stockist, the last Edouard 1/72 kit I could find, but without the Montecorvino decals. I did manage to find a decal set with the hornet emblem on (for a different unit in the same wing that was based in Sicily and transferred to France during 1943), so I bought that, which made the overall cost higher than the Profipack. The French Profipack promptly turned up again in another search. Jumping too quickly again. On reflection I might have been able to convert a kit of the much more widely available G4 night fighter.

On colours, in Italy the German fighters all seem to be in the standard European scheme of three shades of grey, with a white fuselage stripe for the theatre and often splashes of yellow. A lot of these planes were transferred rapidly from other theatres without time for a tropical paint-job – which would have been less relevant in Italy anyway (and a lot of the air action was over the sea). In Tunisia quite a few planes were overpainted with dark yellow and olive in varying degrees. My plan is to use the grey scheme for the Germans, except the Stuka, which I will have in a hybrid scheme. If I go for the early Bf-109 and FW-190, these will have topicalised schemes too. Perhaps I will do them in two batches.

Finally I plan to do some American planes, as these sometimes supported the British forces. Top of the list is the A-36 Apache (or Invader). This is the early Mustang with Allison engine and used as a dive-bomber. It had a very active and successful career in 1943, but then faded away, and is often forgotten about (I have even seen it mis-identified as a P40 in an Images of War book). I don’t know how close these got to the front line, but, like the Baltimore, this is so characteristic of this era that I feel I must have one. There is a kit available from Brengun, though purists quibble that it isn’t quite the right shape. Second is a P-38 Lightning, kitted out as a fighter-bomber. These did not play a big role as fighter-bomber in this theatre (or any other), but a least one German account mentions them at Salerno, and it is an interesting plane. I want an early version, such as the F, which is less available as a model than later ones, but RS Models do one, which still looks obtainable, which apparently can be kitted out with bombs. Finally I want a medium bomber, as these occasionally got close to the front line (occasionally on the wrong side). The workhorse here was the B-25 Mitchell, and there is a nice-looking Airfix model available. But I recovered from my loft an old Airfix B-26 Marauder still in its box from the 1970s. This was a well-regarded model at the time, and I have always liked the B-26. I was going to make up this model in RAF colours, but there was only one squadron of these in operation in 1943, and these mainly operated in the maritime theatre. I will need to locate decals for one of the 1943 Mediterranean-based planes, but that doesn’t look too hard.

And s that’s the plan! It’s a digression, but promises to be a lot of fun.

Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

Battlefront WWII rules

As faithful followers will know, I have been diverted from my original focus on the Napoleonic Wars to WW2, with more modern extensions. This follows my joining a wargames club, and the discovery of some of my old Airfix models in the loft. Since then I have been dragged into the pursuit of a suitable rule system. At the club we have played Fistful of TOWS (FFT), Rapid Fire! and (once) Battlegroup. All have their virtues, but each falls short in important ways. The heart of the issue is that of how movement and firing is organised. Meanwhile I was struck by the idea that the Fire and Fury system, developed for those American Civil War brigade level rules, and used by us in Bloody Big Battles, could work well for WW2. And then I saw that Fire and Fury Games published a set of WW2 rules: Battlefront WW2 (BF). I couldn’t resist. I ordered a copy from Steve Barber Models, which arrived this week. I’m very impressed.

The rules aren’t new: they were published in 2000 (which makes them more recent than Rapid Fire! though). They bear the stamp of that era, and, indeed, of the original Fire and Fury rules, which were groundbreaking at the time. The gaming community has moved on, but not necessarily in a good way. Two things stand out. First is that it uses an Igo-Ugo system, where each side moves all their pieces with distinct phases for firing, moving and close combat, and then hands over to the other side. Modern systems (like Iron Cross and Battlegroup) are based on individual unit mobilisation where movement and firing are combined, and initiative can switch between the sides. This can produce intriguing games, but it slows things down and often makes it hard to relate game play to what it is supposed to be representing – you start playing the rules rather than historical tactics.

The second dated feature for BF is that the rules are heavy. You can read through Iron Cross in an hour or two; Battlegroup doesn’t take much longer. FFT and Rapid Fire! are a bit more detailed, though FFT is much shorter if you ignore helicopters, tactical nuclear weapons and so on. BF is well-written, but hard work: definitely more than Rapid Fire! or FFT. It has taken me several sessions to complete reading it. The reason for that is an interesting one, though. It is not that the rules are over-engineered in the manner of many older rule systems, before Rapid Fire! shook things up. All the tables you need for play are on a two-sided reference sheet; all firing from direct to indirect to airstikes is covered by a single table and not all that many dice modifiers. The armour categories for vehicles aren’t very different from Paid Fire!’s. This is quite a bit cleaner than FFT or Battlegroup. The reason that the rules are so heavy is that they are comprehensive. Two sections are particularly thorough: on spotting and on indirect artillery fire. Other rules writers struggle with these. Iron Cross says hardly anything at all on either. And yet both subjects come to the heart of what war in this era was all about. The rules on indirect fire are particularly good. To be fair both FFT and Rapid Fire! do try to take both of these topics on, but they work that well in practice. To be fair on Rapid Fire!, I haven’t played enough of it to judge properly, in FFT it is just easy for anybody to call down fire on targets that would most likely be invisible. The BF system tries to capture the important differences between the systems of the US, Germany and the Soviet Union. The main rules set concentrates on these nations from 1943 onwards. The British artillery system only gets a brief mention (it was very similar to the German one, apparently) – but it gets more treatment in supplements on North Africa and the late war.

So the heaviness derives from thoroughness, not over-engineering. My feeling is that in fact the rules will play pretty quickly once players have got used to them. I like the thoroughness, even though this is very unfashionable – rule writers nowadays tout how their systems are simple and quick to read. But this comes at a cost. Firstly they leave a lot of things out, leaving the players and games masters with a lot to do to fill in the gaps. Iron Cross (and its derivative Seven Days to the River Rhine) are very bad at this. The other is that they give the players too much freedom and the games start to feel too much like games with toy soldiers without enough reference to history. BF is a welcome break from this. Indeed it could be a useful resource for games masters to help them resolve situations that other systems leave out.

So what about the system itself. On troop representation it is based on company level command, with platoon level missed out. Each model (or “unit”) represents two or three vehicles. Infantry are organised in bases, which represent six to 15 men. A typical infantry company would have a mix of rifle and light machine gun bases. They are mainly designed for 15mm miniatures, with two infantry figures to a base. Distance scale is one inch to 40 yards – essentially the same as Rapid Fire! though that uses 20mm models and a higher figure scale. The rule writers suggest that for 6mm figures you can substitute centimetres for inches, which would put it on a similar ground scale to FFT, though with a lower figure scale.

The play system owes a lot to Fire and Fury, but caters for much more complexity. There is an important difference, though. The Fire and Fury sequence is Manoeuvre, Defensive Fire, Offensive Fire, Close Combat. In BF Offensive fire is brought forward to before Manoeuvre – which is similar to the old Wargames Research Group’s fire then move system. This makes so much more sense than the usual move-then-fire sequence (used, more or less, by all the other systems I have quoted, but most outrageously by FFT) that I struggle to understand why it hasn’t taken over. What it means in BF is that that initiative side starts with its suppression fire, moves in, and then has to deal with defensive fire on those moving units, before resolving close combat. Moving and firing is not allowed in your own turn. At all. The unit can close combat, of course, and a moving unit is free to fire defensively in the other player’s turn. This has a good feel – though the original Fire and Fury system still has something going for it provided suppression fire is brought to the front of the turn, though perhaps more in post-WW2 when moving and firing was more feasible.

I could write a lot more description, as there is a lot to describe. But these rules beg to be tried out. Which is where I bump into a number of problems. My WW2 miniatures are mainly 20mm and the infantry mostly based individually. The rules recommend multiplying the distances by 1.5 for 20mm miniatures – but that is very clumsy. It wouldn’t be hard to modify the quick reference table (only the spotting table needs to be changed) – but unit data comes on cards for each unit type, which would have to be rewritten. Besides there are lot of odd numbers (one inch and five inches especially) which are a bit awkward. The obvious thing to try is 20mm models with the 15mm distances, which actually is probably a similar spacing to using centimetres for 6mm models, but I’m sure the extra space is a good idea.

A bigger problem is that the rules are quite detailed, which will try the patience of my companions on club nights. There are strategies for dealing with this, by keeping the first games simple (no indirect fire, for example). But it could be hard work.

There is another idea. And that is to write my own, rationalised version for our purposes. While the system is not over-engineered I think there are several opportunities to make the rules simpler. I have two possibilities in mind. One is a Rapid Fire! replacement with the same distances but a bigger model scale. Like most systems BF plays as if each model was a single vehicle or gun, even though it represents more. For a larger model scale this doesn’t wash in my view (it is one of my issues with Rapid Fire!), so that there needs to be some provision for damaged units, for example. The second possibility would be an Iron Cross replacement, with one inch to ten yards, and a one-to-one vehicle scale, and with the long-range features written out.

Both types of rewrite would be a lot of work (especially as I would quite like to use d6s, especially 2d6s, instead of d10s). But fun too!