Like so many men of my age, Airfix polystyrene plastic kits and polythene figures played a big role in my boyhood. It some cases, like me, it led to a lifelong interest in wargaming. In the 1960s and 1970s it took up much of the space now taken by computer games. I spent hours in seclusion working on my kits or reading up about WW2 aircraft, tanks and ships without needing to do any tiresome social interaction. My wife is amazed at my ability to identify WW2 aircraft from the briefest glimpse on film footage.
But times changed and Airfix, the leading company in the business, fell on hard times. It is now part of the Hornby group, and going through a minor revival. Meanwhile my interest was renewed with the discovery of a number of my old models in the loft, and led to my current 1943 project – reviving something that I had left off in 1979, when I left home at the age of 21.
Funnily enough, I find the old Airfix stuff unsatisfactory these days. The land models are in 1/76 scale when I prefer 1/72. They are a bit fiddly to put together, and I don’t like the polythene tracks used on the tanks. And some of the old models (I’m thinking of the Sherman and the Tiger) are a bit crude. The polythene figures are even more unsatisfactory. Though the material enables a fine level of detailing, it doesn’t take paint very well. and though the figures improved considerably over time, I still don’t like them. The Germans are early war when I want mid to late war. The British don’t look right at all. and they are 1/76 – though this matters less on figures. Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) do a wonderful range of plastic models which are much better suited to my needs. AB’s metal figures are exquisite, even if the weapons are a bit chunky.
So I was a bit surprised when I got a promotional email from Airfix advertising their Vintage Classics releases. They provoked some genuine interest. Airfix’s range these days is rather limited, mainly based on aircraft, and modernised and retooled. Clearly there was demand for some of the old models, which were worth re-releasing without modernising. The promotional material is unashamedly nostalgic, pointing out that they are using the old artwork too, some of which is a bit crude. These releases are mainly vehicles and ships, which don’t feature strongly, or at all, in current ranges. First to come out, though, are WW1 plastic figures. These were probably the best figures that Airfix produced, with sets for British, French, German and Americans, and a British horse artillery set. I bought the lot as a teenager, and I still have them. There some familiar problems. A lot of useless poses. The British and Germans are early war, the French and Americans later. So no Lewis gunner. Still, though I’m very interested in WW1 from a historical perspective, I have ruled it out as a wargaming/modelling project. What interests me are the WW2 vehicles, none of which have been released yet.
These are the Matador and 5.5in gun, 88mm Flak gun and tractor, 25pdr and Quad, Bren carrier and 6pdr, 40mm Bofors and tractor, M3 half track, PAK 40 and truck, Panzer IV, Panther tank, StuG III, Churchill VII, and T34. Of these I already have the M3 half track, Bren/6pdr, Pz IV and Churchill in abundance. I am pressing them into use – but if I was buying new I would go to PSC. The Airfix 25pdr/Quad model was a nice one (I actually have the gun model converted into a 17pdr Partridge, using the Panther barrel) – but PSC do a good one too which include things like a muzzle-brake. The Panther and StuG III are strong on nostalgia (being amongst the first AFV models I owned) but are early models and a little crude (the gun barrels are a little thin, the are 1/76, and have those polythene tracks). There are good alternatives from PSC and others. I already have the Armourfast StuG III. The T34 isn’t in scope for my project; we had a lot of fun with this model, but I’m sure a lot of modern offerings beat it. The Pak 40 and truck are a late model that I never owned – so probably quite good. But I’ve already bought them from PSC, and 1/72 is a more satisfactory scale.
That leaves three models. Firstly the 88 (with SdKfz 7 tractor). This was a lovely model, though the only crew were some stiff passengers for the tractor. It was quite feasible to take the gun from deployed to transported mode. The 88 and SdKfz 7 are not in the PSC range and are harder to find in 1/72. Actually, though an iconic weapon it is rather neglected in wargames – it was really a long range weapon and not so well suited to the skirmish games that comprise games with larger models. Still, I do want one. I’m also less worried about 1/72 for these larger pieces. In fact I had been wondering whether this model was still available.
I never owned the Bofors gun – it was a later model – which means the standard is likely to be quite high. It is another piece that is harder to get. But I would like to bring in aircraft and AA guns at some point, and the Bofors guns played a big role in the rear areas of the Sicily and Salerno beach heads, which in the latter case came into the front line at some points. The Morris 15 cwt tractor is a useful item too – though I’d prefer these smaller trucks to be in 1/72.
And finally the 5.5in/Matador. This where nostalgia really kicks in. I really don’t need these for my wargaming. Medium artillery is off-table stuff. But this was one of my favourites as a child/teenager. It’s hard to say exactly why. The model we had wasn’t even mine – it was my younger brother’s – and painted up by my older brother (easily the most accomplished modeller among us). The gun was a simple but very satisfactory model. The Matador looked just like any other lorry at first, but we soon came to appreciate its size (actually a bit like the SdKfz 7). The Matador was a magnificent bit of British engineering. So I feel that I have to have it. Even two.
One final point is worth making. These models are good value for money. You can get them in metal (SHQ) or, (in some cases) resin (Milicast), but at a lot more cost. The Matador/5.5in combination would cost £20 at SHQ; the Airfix model is, or will be, £5.99. The Zvezda plastic Bofors gun costs £7.99 without a tractor; the Airfix offer is £8.99 with the Morris (though I don’t know what either of these supply for crews – they are easy enough to get in metal). It’s the same story with the 88. They aren’t available yet, but I’m in no hurry. I have a plastic mountain to get through.
Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.
We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.
So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit. And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.
The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.
This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.
In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.
The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.
I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.
Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.
Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.
These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.
Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.
So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.
I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE. And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.
I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.
Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.
A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.
And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat. There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!
There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing. Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.
I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!
In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!
One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.
The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.
The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.
How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine. Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout. It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.
The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.
Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.
A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.
Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.
Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.
A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45 degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.
The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.
The days are getting longer and the afternoon light better. I can get back to painting and modelling, and so resume my 1943 project. When I left off last Autumn I had just started my most ambitious project to date: four tanks for the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. I have already posted at length on my early research last Summer.
It is ambitious because it is the first, and probably only, time I am modelling a specific unit at a specific time, rather than something generic. It involves conversion work on my models, and producing my own decals.
The first challenge was finding models. I am looking at the M4A2 (or Sherman III) in early format (especially the early mantlet – there is more flexibility on the nose ). My preferred supplier is PSC, but they did not have anything. They have the welded hull M4A1 or the long-hulled M4A4. I went as far as buying the Armourfast M4A2 after good reviews, but without understanding what options it had. There were none and it was a later war variety without any sandguards; the mantlet and nose were later war too. A lovely clean model though, that I will use for a reinforcement platoon. Then I found the Italeri kit of earlier war British configured M4A2s with sandguards. Otherwise I would have resorted to one of the more expensive 1/76 models that are on offer from Milicast.
Alas on opening the box it was not all good news. The hatch is moulded closed and in the wrong orientation. The British (and certainly the RSGs) removed the one hatch cover and oriented the other to the rear (rather than having the hatch open to the sides). Besides I want to model my tanks with the hatch open and a commander. Otherwise it is a nice model. It is a snap together wargames kit, not a proper model, but that suits me fine. But that hatch: fixing that is essential to getting the look of the model I want. I am compromising on lots of things – it’s only a wargames model after all – but I can’t on that. The shame is that this is one place that the Armourfast model is unequivocally better: the hatch and the two half-covers are moulded separately. But I can’t even swap turrets as the mantlet looks even harder to fiddle with.
One idea was to use the hatches from my old Airfix Sherman models. I had thought of using these to make up a reserve troop. But although I have some sentimental attachment to them (one of them is one my oldest models), they aren’t very good models, as well as being 1/76 rather than my preferred 1/72. They can’t even be pinned down to one type of Sherman, adopting features from various ones. So I tried prising off the hatches. Alas in only one case was this anything like feasible. The others were too well glued and were badly damaged in my attempt to prise them away. I was able to retrieve four half hatch covers – which are useful. Though it turns out I needed the other four too (more on that later).
So there was nothing for it but to get out the jewellery saw and try to take off the turret hatches. The first one was much easier than I feared, though there was some damage to the turret mouldings. The next one was much the same. But I must have got a bit complacent, because the next two did not go so well, with more damage to the turret top – though nothing that a bit of filler couldn’t sort out to the standard I need. Next came cutting out the hatch lids to leave the hatch ring. This was not easy. The plastic is quite thick and the jewellers saw only does straight lines. I used drill, saw, craft knife and files to hack out the moulded hatch. After that the hatch ring could be clued back to turret top in its new orientation, with the machine gun bracket to the left rather than the rear. In the last two cases, and especially the last one, quite a bit of filler was needed. After that the half-lid (from the Airfix models) was glued in open position to the rear.
The next operation was on the sand guards. In Italy the British generally removed the rear portion (where they had sand guards at all), and this to me was another essential part of the look. Unfortunately in the Italeri kit, the sand guard is moulded to the upper hull, rather than being a separate part as in the PSC models. One option I had considered when looking at the Armourfast model (no sandguards), was taking sand guards from a PSC model (perhaps the cast hull M4A1), which in turn could be used for the reserve troop. Sawing, cutting and filing my way through the Italeri model, in hindsight this may have been a better option. It is very hard to do this without damaging the remaining hull, and once again filler was needed to do an imperfect job of covering up the mess. For all its virtues I’m really not sure I would start with the Italeri model again.
Next came assembly of the model. Mostly I just snapped it together without glue. I did glue on the bottom hull to the top as there is an unsightly join at the front, which required filler – so it was imperative the join was solid. Given the shape, this fillering was a bit awkward, but surplus filler looks a bit like mud, so no major problem.
Next there was the matter of the tank commander. I used resin models from Milicast. These were slightly small (1/76) and some of the arms had to be glued on, which I found very tricky – but they are much cleaner cut that the PSC figures. Given the difficulties with the arms, I’m not sure I’d use these models again, but go for AB metals instead. Another problem is that the figures are wearing berets, when the pictures from Salerno show the tank commanders wearing standard steel helmets (mid war pattern) (for AB the choice would have been berets or later style helmets). I lacked the confidence to do head swaps, or filing off the top of the heads to fit helmets. Instead I put an appropriate helmet cut from plastic Airfix 8th Army figures near the hatch (following one of the later pictures). The figures are full length, so the bottom of the legs had to be cut off, and I had to jerry rig a platform inside the turret to cement them to.
Next came the aerial. I had successfully used plastic broom bristle for my German tanks, so I used this again. The aerial came either in 4ft lengths, apparently, and the crew fixed one or two together depending on circumstances. The Salerno pictures showed something that looks like more than 4ft to me, so I assumed 8ft aerials, though this made them quite tall (I wonder of they used US aerials, which had 3ft lengths, and so total height 6ft). Using a drop of superglue to fit the aerials on my German tanks had been pretty easy – but this time it proved much harder, as there wasn’t such a good point to attach the aerials to; in the end it was a little messy.
Also the pictures showed that pennants were flown on the aerials. This is another striking part of the appearance. It isn’t clear from the pictures what the flags were. The star decals interpretation is two triangular flags, red at the top and yellow bellow. I decided on a swallow tail flag at the top of the aerial for the squadron leader, and a triangular one for the troop leader. And in the lower middle of the aerial for all four tanks a triangular pennant. Colours are pretty speculative but at the moment I’m thinking of red for the upper flags and sky blue for the lower ones. I cut these from foil and glued them on. This turned out to be very fiddly, but they add a lot to the look.
And on to the final details. The missing hatch half-cover was attached to front of the driver position, presumably as a bit of extra protection. I had to manufacture these from plastic card, using the Armourfast ones as a model. I put on various stowage boxes and tarpaulins mainly from a Milicast resin set. These were mainly on the back. Some pictures show heavily laden tanks (including the Salerno ones, which show them mainly just after being unloaded from the landing ships), but in Italy many pictures also show relatively unladen vehicles. I may have overdone it (the turret cannot be completely traversed in most cases), but it add to the in theatre look.
So here they are ready for the next stage: painting:
After a productive summer, holidays and the rest of life intruded, and my build-up of forces for 1943 halted. Apart from buying a few more things to make up later; I now have a mountain of plastic, resin and metal. My next project was a German infantry platoon.
This unit needs to be reasonably generic for Sicily and Italy and perhaps Tunisia, and mainly to serve as panzer grenadiers. The first question was which figures to use? I am in love with at AB range, but their Germans are really meant for further north, in standard uniform. I don’t have many pictures of German infantry in Italy for the period though. I did look at alternative figures from SHQ, and didn’t like them as much as the ABs. I decided that a paint job on the AB figures would do. At a distance the tropical and summer uniforms mainly used by these troops resemble the standard uniform. There should be troops in shirtsleeves, and more caps, perhaps, but less so in Salerno theatre which is the centre of my planning.
My platoon consists of three sections of eight men including an MG34 (or MG42) team, and an HQ section of 5 plus a radio operator, and two teams of tripod machine guns and 81mm mortars for support. No panzerfaust or panzerschrek , as these belong later in the war – though I need to have these as a gaming option later. I had already painted up the mortar teams in the early pathfinder stage of my project. The support weapons, of course, should cover a whole company – but I want to have tabletop options. My thinking is to do a second platoon of paratroops later – as these played a prominent role in the campaigns I am representing. But not until I have made some big inroads into my plastic mountain.
And so how to do the colour scheme? I’m not used to painting WW2 anything, still less German infantry. And I’m making life harder still by mixing my own colours from artists’ pigments. I can’t use the paint-by-numbers guides published by various sources based on commercially sold micro-shades. Add to that the lack of photos as reference sources and the project is quite intimidating. This undoubtedly affected the end result, which no doubt can be pulled apart by an expert. The Germans of this era had long since dropped the early war smart uniformity. They cobbled together their “uniforms” from multiple sources, and personalised where they could. This says something quite important about German military culture, a hugely successful one it must be said, which went against the alternative military idea that compromise on smart uniforms would lead to breakdown of discipline. I am reminded of a quote about Wellington about not caring about the state of his troops’ uniforms as long they kept their weapons clean. There seem to be three main sources for infantry uniforms in this theatre. The most important was the olive tropical uniform (used in north Africa); there was also the standard field grey uniform (a greyish green at the start of the war, becoming muddier as the war progressed); and then there was the reed green summer uniform (a dark greenish grey). The olive and reed green uniforms were cotton, which does not hold dyes well (think jeans), and the uniforms were subject to a lot of sun-bleaching too. So these rapidly faded to something much lighter, almost chino-like in many cases – something modern artists seem reluctant to represent. In addition there was some camouflage cloth in use for helmet covers and smocks. The helmets were often repainted locally, and often seem to be quite light – I suspect the standard equipment dunkelgelb was used, alongside olive and grey. All this is quite confusing, and I have no clear mental picture of what I am aiming at.
I decided on a three colour palette plus white, with silver for some of the metal. The colours were yellow ochre (actually Liquitex yellow oxide), Venetian red and Prussian blue. In my pathfinder batch (the mortars and some anti-tank gun crews in smocks) I used yellow ochre, but experimented with purple, black, green and a dark orange. What I discovered was that using bright organic pigments (the purple and the orange) was quite hard when aiming for the dull colours of WW2 military uniforms and equipment. Best to start with something duller. The Venetian red is an old Windsor and Newton pigment, in a tube with a deteriorating cap (not like my preferred Liquitex, whose tubes last forever) – but I have found it a very useful pigment; burnt sienna would probably be just as good, as no strong red pigments are needed (except for the mortar bombs, which I had already done). I used artists’ colours throughout, rather than trying cheaper student colours, as I did (successfully) for the tanks, on account of the amount of fine work. I mixed quite a decent quantity of a base coat, not dissimilar to dunkelgelb which the all the miniatures got (after priming in white). This was mainly yellow ochre and white, but with red and blue added to dull down. Other colours were reached either by taking some of this mix and tweaking it, or mixing from scratch. This is a fairly decent modus operandi – though it is much easier to mix greys and blacks if you have two complementary colours in the palette – such as blue and orange/brown, or green and red. Purple is a complement to yellow, but my dioxazine purple is very bright and quite hard to use – though it does produce a beautiful dark yellow when mixed with yellow ochre, I just can’t get a properly neutral grey/black. Hence I had to use my red and blue in combination to neutralise it, which can be tricky to balance. I could have brought a brown like raw umber into the palette, which complements the Prussian blue well, but I wanted to see how easy it was to keep the colour palette down to just three. My thinking is that the fewer pigments I play with, the easier it will be to reproduce in later batches (one reason which I am recording so much in this blog!).
After the base coat, the jackets, trousers and helmets were painted in different variations of grey-green, olive and dark yellow – all mixed in with liberal amounts of white. The straps were painted light brown, rather than the black used further north, but ammunition pouches and other bits were dark grey. Other bits of equipment were loosely based on Osprey illustrations, but not with a great deal of confidence. I mixed a bit of silver into grey for the metal bits. I painted camouflage covers for some of the helmets, as I had for my anti-tank gun crews; I used the Italian three-colour scheme (olive green, chestnut and dark yellow). Large amounts of Italian camouflage cloth was appropriated by the Germans, though it probably didn’t come into large scale use until later in the war – it is relatively easy to replicate. I will attempt the rather more complex German patterns for my paratroops. I added a small length of fine fuse wire for the aerial on the radio set in the HQ section (I don’t think infantry platoons usually had radios – but these are meant to be panzer grenadiers, where that was surely more likely).
After the painting, a light dry-brush with a dusty colour. I used the white and raw umber mix I used for the bases for this (in student paint), with a little extra white and the dark yellow base colour. I am getting a bit less heavy-handed with this – but the boots certainly need it, and I think it softens the colour blocks. After that Quickshade soft tone. All this took two weeks elapsed time – though if I had been less interrupted I could have got it done in a week. My Stay-Wet palette worked really well this time, after being not all that satisfactory in the summer. This kept the larger quantities of mixed paint fresh. It’s a bit cooler now – plus also I was careful to make sure that the original water reservoir was well-loaded.
After the Quickshade had hardened I flocked the bases. The bases were mainly “steel” washers (sold as such, but they turned out not to be magnetic) and mount board cut in rectangles for the multiple figure bases (the machine guns). These were covered in a mix of sand, paint (raw umber and white), and impasto gel, applied at the same time the figures were glued on. The flock is from Woodland Scenics – a mix of Earth blended turf and yellow grass fine turf, plus some longer grass on some of the bases, though this is coming out rather matted. I find these materials bond to the bases rather well – the matt varnish seal sprayed on at the end is all that’s needed to seal it. Other products leave a trail of specks when handled, unless you seal them in properly with a soaking of water and PVA glue.
And here we are. The first group are from AB’s prone infantry, though I left one of them out by accident. Next comes the HQ section from various AB sets, alongside one of my Pz IIIs.Next are a section based on the AB advancing skirmishing set:Now the advancing cautiously set:The tripos machine guns:And finally the mortars, painted earlier:
No terribly good pictures I’m afraid – I have more to learn about taking pictures of miniatures; this was my second attempt. It is interesting to note the effect of sunlight on the colours – it was all natural light though.
Verdict? They’ll do fine, but I don’t think I’ve quite hit the spot. The brushwork isn’t that brilliant – but then I didn’t want to take ages over them; I don’t think that’s the worry. They just don’t look very German! I may have overdone the very bleached clothing too. The trouble is that I don’t really have enough idea about what I’m aiming at.
In my post before last I said that the next step this project would be to take my old German tanks and bring them up to standard. This I have now done:
I followed a similar process to my Pz III platoon. First, though, the models needed a little preparation. This included fitting aerials. I used plastic bristles from a broom, but to scale 2m (28mm). These were fitted in a blob of superglue. This works very well – they are robust and have survived quite a bit of accidental battering. I also fitted some stowage from the PSC set. Not as much per tank as the Pz IIIs, and especially not for the Tigers. German tanks of this era don’t seem especially laden – not as much as in the Blitzkrieg era, or Allied tanks. The pictures of Tigers show them as quite clean, except for track bits added to the turrets, which I did for one of the tanks.
I primed the bare plastic additions, and also the polythene tracks, which all these models had, using the white metal primer. I still had some of the adhesion problems on the new plastic that I reported for the Pz IIIs. The primer was slightly diluted, but not as much as before, so that problem remains to be solved. If it isn’t dilution of the primer with water, and not the plastic requiring a wash first, I will change primer – artists gesso looks as if it works well.
And then to the base coat of dunkelgelb. I wasn’t able to reuse the paint I mixed last time – it was too far gone, so I had to mix afresh. I wasn’t able to get an exact match – and that is one of the main issues with my use of artists colours, and why I expect that most hobbyists will find this approach unpersuasive. Still, the mix was arrived at much more quickly (yellow ochre and white, with Prussian blue and terracotta brown added – all from “student” quality paints). The result was slightly greener and slightly whiter than the Pz IIIs, event after the application of the brown Quickshade. Actually I think I prefer it – the Pz IIIs look slight too red. The base coat went on in one sitting, but in several layers. The first was quite liquid, the others much dryer. I lightened the mix a bit as I put more on. It’s hard to say whether the layering had any effect, byond smoothing and imporving the coverage. I don’t think the models looked as flat as my old single coat of Humbrol enamels did, but the layering is not visible to my eye. Incidentally the paint dries very thin, so the layering did not obscure the detail. One of the tanks was victim of several layers of Humbrol, though, and the detail was noticeably less sharp on this one. The quick succession of the various layers may have had the effect of taking off excessive accumulations on the detail rather than accumulating it. Anyway, this looks like a good technique. The first coat takes a bit of time to apply; the others are very quick.
After that came the detailing, including the tracks, wheel tyres and stowage. With no crew to paint this was simpler. Then there was a dry brush of dust colour (the dunkelgelb with white), which was not as heavy handed as last time, though there were still some excess blobs. And so to the Quickshade.
The decals came next. I was more sparing, since these are going to be second-string miniatures. Only two turret numbers. The Pz IVs had no Balkenkreuse on the left (because of stowage) and the Pz IIIs none on the rear. Even so I’m down to my last two of the small (3mm) ones, which will give me issues. I sealed with polyurethane again – but only after the decals had had nearly 24 hours to dry out – they seemed much more robust. Like the Pz IIIs the flash is still visible from some angles though. With the Pz IVs this is made worse because they had to be applied over a slight bump on the turret, which they couldn’t quite do as tightly as I would wish for. I am wondering whether I should revert to a technique I used on my model aircraft 40 years ago – which is to float the decals off the backing paper as normal, wipe off the glue backing them, dry them and then place them using varnish. These modern decals may be too fragile – but this technique worked a treat back in the day. I will have to experiment. Finally I finished with a spray of matt varnish.
Lets look at them in a bit more detail. First the three Pz IVGs:
The lighting conditions were a bit challenging, so these pictures aren’t very good I’m afraid. These are Airfix 1/76 kits. I was very excited when these first came out. Until then the only German tanks readily available were the Tiger, Panther and StuG III. These set up very unequal battles with the Airfix Shermans. And this model was of a higher standard too. One of these models (213, closest to the picture) was my first, which I painted green at first (we knew no better). I then repainted in the fictitious desert orange that Humbrol produced. The layers of paint did the model no favours. The other two models came in later, when I was more serious about wargaming, and had more money. I painted them in the Humbrol dunkelgelb, with (different) camouflage patterns. The models were a bit tricky to assemble, and there are gaps, and some of the wheels are a bit wonky (and one of the top rollers missing). Also my handling of the polythene tracks was very inexpert. This time I did not think it was worth the time to attempt to correct these errors, I painted as was, with a bit of extra stowage. I numbered them as a complete platoon, and these will be useful on the tabletop, until I can produce some smarter 1/72 Pz IVs (which will be Hs with shurzen on the turret).
The aerials, incidentally, are almost certainly in the wrong place for 1943. Like the Pz III, the Pz IV was originally fitted with a solid, tapered “stern” aerial beside the turret, which folded down when the gun got in the way into a wooden tray on the side of the hull. But this tray is not modelled on the Airfix kits, so I fitted whip aerials at the back, according to later pictures of Pz IVs that I have seen. This creates less hassle with rotating turrets.
Next the Pz IIIs: The foreground model is a Matchbox kit at 1/76. This was one of my more recent acquisitions, when at last we had a wider variety of models available. It is a nice clean model, which had fewer of the assembly issues than the other ones. Its only problem (apart from being unable to open the hatch) is that the 1/76 scale makes it look a bit small compared to the 1/72 tanks. For this model I replaced the barrel with the flammpanzer one from the PSC kit, as well as smoke dischargers. This gives me an extra tabletop option – though I can’t deploy a complete platoon, as the Germans did apparently at Salerno, though they proved vulnerable to the Shermans. I did not fit an aerial for this one, for the same reason as the PSC kits. The model clearly shows the stern antenna stowed in its box along the track guard.
The backgound model is a conversion I did from the Airfix StuG III. This lacks the detailing of the proper models, but helps make up the numbers. I replaced the gun and rather crude mantlet with the short 75mm from the PSC kit (slightly overscale, but looks OK), along with the smoke dischargers (I couldn’t fit them to the PSC models because of the turret schurzen). The model is a bit wonky, but it gives a bit of support to the Tigers, with which this sort of tank operated. I fitted an antenna to this one, where the folding stern antenna would have been – though the bristle is a bit too thin at the base. Given the weak detailing on the model I though it would help lift it a bit.
And so to the Tigers:Tigers played a significant role in Tunisia, a minor one in Sicily and were not present at Salerno (though the British kept reporting them there!). I don’t plan for them to be an important part of my games, but I have them, and they will be a handy option. The tank at the front is the oldest German model in my collection – an old 1/76 Airfix kit. This was originally painted dark grey. But when I bought the second kit, I thought it needed a facelift – so I added mudguards to cover the tracks at the front, and a stowage bin at the back of the turret, and then painted it in dunkelgelb. It did the job. There was a bit of an issue with the polythene tracks. In photos these looked heavy and lay on top of the track wheels – something this flexible track wouldn’t do – and it wouldn’t respond to being glued down either. This time I managed to partially glue it down with superglue – though it required to be held down for an hour or more while the glue hardened. The aerial was fitted in the only place that photos show single aerials on Tigers (second or third aerials might appear on the turret or engine deck). It probably should be a stern aerial – but what the hell!
The other model is much more modern, it was from Hasegawa and in 1/72. It’s a much nicer model though I made a bit of a mess with the running wheels, and the polythene track is pretty crude. The track needed the same treatment as the Airfix one, and I also stuck the aerial in the same place. In spite of being different scales the two models can work together for now. the size differential seems to matter less than for the smaller tanks.
These models aren’t to a particularly high standard, but the facelift has improved them a lot, and given the models some unity. Back in the day I tended to make models as individuals. But this exercise shows that I am right to concentrate on more basic wargamer models nowadays, like the PSC ones. The moulded tracks look much better than the flexible ones. The running wheels may be less detailed (you don’t get the double wheels) but they are much less work and don’t end up looking wobbly.
I now have strength and depth in German tanks. While my Sherman project still needs to deal with some complexities (getting crew; making decals; more stowage), I will move on to the infantry. I have ordered a platoon each of Germans and British from AB, and they are now ready to paint!
Part of the enduring appeal of this hobby is the occasional detective work. Scrabbling for clues, and trying to make sense of what little you have – and in the process debunking generally accepted wisdom. This may be about what happened in a historical battle. Or it may about the appearance of a unit you want to add to your collection. My idea to model a troop of Shermans from the Royal Scots Greys as they appeared at Salerno in September 1943 is one such quest. I have followed it a bit obsessively for the last couple of weeks just for sheer hell of it. And that is the tale I will tell today.
A bit of background. The RSGs had fought with the 8th Army in North Africa right up to Tunisia, using Grants and Honeys. While the fight moved on to Sicily they were rested and re-kitted with Sherman III tanks (i.e. the diesel M4A2, and not Sherman IIs, with the cast hulls, or the later M4A3s as sometimes reported). They were then assigned to the British X Corps to take part in the Salerno landings. They were heavily engaged supporting the 56th (London) Infantry Division – with a great deal of distinction. They are about the only British tank unit to get a mention in accounts of the battle, even though it fought alongside 40th RTR in X Corps, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division also landed. It is not wholly clear whether the regiment formed part of the 23rd Armoured Brigade at this point (as the 40th RTR was).
My main source is photos. I have found these online and in a couple of books I have on the battle – the Osprey title and an old book from 1971 from the Pan/Ballantine history of WW2 (a series that I think was earlier called the Purnell’s history, which I dug up out of the attic).
And now to my first picture, from Wikipedia:
This shows the tank “Sheik” advancing towards Naples after the battle in late September (not far from Pompeii by the look of Vesuvius). It is in a very curious colour scheme, and this has drawn a lot of attention. Lots of modellers have been unable to resist representing it, and there is even a die-cast model of the tank on sale. It has a two colour camouflage base pattern, with pale and medium tone components. This is usually interpreted as Light Mud for the pale tone (one of the standard Mediterranean theatre British camouflage colours of the time – a greyish sand colour) and olive drab for the medium, the colour that the tank would have been painted when shipped over from the US under Lend-Lease. There is a darker tone used to give the dapple on the pale tone – probably the Blue Black that was also part of the standard British set. Other points to note are that there is are two aerial pennants, and the red-white-red British identification flash on the side.
The next picture is from the Osprey and Pan/Ballantine books:It shows a tank of the RSGs during the battle (near Battapaglia according to the Pan/Ballantine). Points of interest: there is a two-tone camouflage, but with light-dark tone, not light-medium. This is surely Light Mud and Blue Black, in accordance with standard British practice of the time. There is a tactical mark on the turret – a circle with the number 8. The Osprey says the circle denotes B Squadron; I think C squadron was more likely (B is usually a square). The number is the tank number. The red-white-red flash is visible and there are two or three pennants on the aerial.
The next picture is from just the Osprey I have now found the original from the IWM collection, and substitute here:
This looks as if it was taken at a very similar time. There are railway tracks in both pictures, and smoke. The barrage balloon indicates that it is quite near the beach. The scan above isn’t that clear – but the camouflage pattern looks the same, and the aerial pennants may be too. But it isn’t the same tank – this one has an AA machine gun on the turret. Of particular note on this picture is the unit ID signs on the left mudguard (i.e. left when facing forward – nautical “port”). The censor has scrubbed them out, but we can see that there are two, and they are both on the left – unlike the normal situation of the Arm of Service marker on one side and formation badge on the other. More on that later. There is a red-white-red flash in the front-centre. Incidentally this tank shows a single-piece nose for the Sherman – instead of the more usual three-piece one for this stage of the war – it is presumably quite a new tank.
The next picture is a poor one taken from the battle and only in the Pan/Ballantine:It is just about possible to see that the camouflage pattern is the same as the previous two pictures (and different from Shah). The regiment’s tanks were clearly painted in a standard pattern. Also note the single aerial pennant, and no AA machine gun. And the rear part of the track guard is still there.
The next picture is from Wikipedia and shows one of RSG’s tanks in the follow up towards Naples, and near contemporary with the Shah picture: Not much to add here except to note that the standard camouflage pattern turns up again. The rear of the track guard is missing -as with Shah and the other later picture, suggesting they were deliberately removed soon after the Salerno battle.
The final picture comes from October as the unit was advancing with 23 Armoured brigade; it comes from the Imperial War Museum:
There are a few points of interest here. Once again it has the same camouflage pattern (a shame though that I have no pictures of the right hand side!), though the contrast is much lower than earlier (and similar to the Shah picture). Either that’s the effect of a couple of months weathering, or the Blue Black has been overpainted – or perhaps it just indicates lower ambient light conditions. Note that the stowage turret box doesn’t have the camouflage pattern on it, and in picture two it doesn’t look as if it has been repainted at all – this may have been a late addition. The red-white-red flash is just visible. The tactical mark is a square (as would normally be appropriate for B squadron), but I can’t see a number in it (incidentally don’t confuse it with the outlined panel behind it on the turret).
And now to a secondary source. A Star Decals sheet (these are a valuable resource):
The first two are of interest. the first is an interpretation of Shah. It shows it with a triangular tactical mark, appropriate to A Squadron (on the back of the stowage bin too), but with no number. It is shown in red, as would be used for a senior regiment in a brigade. It also shows an interpretation of the unit ID on the left mudguard – a thistle on on white over black square The text says that this sign was visible on tanks earlier in the campaign, but can’t be confirmed for this tank with its new camouflage scheme. It is clearly specific to the regiment – not the more usual brigade or division (the thistle standing for Scotland). The second picture is of a tank named Roosevelt – but not from any photograph I have seen. There is some doubt as to whether this is the RSG or 44 RTR (part of 4 Armoured brigade and not at Salerno). The name apparently doesn’t conform to the RSG naming system (Royal Navy ships) – but otherwise it looks very like the tank from picture 2 (though the number is 10). The portrayal of the camouflage pattern is different, but not by that much (mainly the turret) – perhaps just interpretation from an obstructed picture.
And so what are my conclusions? Shah looks like a one-off to me. Other regiments seem to have been using tanks without a camouflage pattern or with a low tonal contrast one (including the 40th RTR, according to the only picture I have). Perhaps the RSGs received one of these as a replacement and then improvised the camouflage scheme from there. I will use the Light Mud and Blue Black scheme, guessing the right side elements that I don’t have info on. The red-white-red flashes will also appear. Fortunately the Italeri kits I’m using have these in their decals. I will also do C squadron with red circle tactical marks and three consecutive numbers. I don’t have definite information on the numbering system, but a Flames of War graphic for New Zealand units suggests sequences starting with 3, 6, 9 and 12 for each of the main troops (and 15 for the HQ troop – 1 and 2 don’t appear to be used within the squadrons). I have four models, and I may do a further tank for the squadron leader, to act as a senior officer for larger games. Which tanks got the AA machine guns I don’t know – I speculate that it is the troop leader.
The next point is to have aerial pennants. These were subject to considerable variation – sometimes daily. I will give the troop leader two pennants and the others one. Perhaps they all get a red one, with yellow for the troop leader, as suggested by the Star Decals sheet. These will give the tanks a British look.
Another aspect of making the unit look British are the unit IDs. Here all I have to go on is the censor’s scratchings out on picture 2 and the Star Decals suggestion. The lower mark looks quite wide compared to its height. That would suggest a three digit number for an Arm of Service serial. That would be an Army level serial as often used for independent brigades (the numbers being 171-3 or 161-3 for armoured brigades). The formal organisational status of the RSGs at this point is a bit unclear – and this is emphasised by the use of a regimental formation sign rather than the more usual division or brigade. The formation sign is, presumably, the thistle badge, and located above the presumed unit serial. I am not sure what I am going to do here. I am tempted to leave these off (as I will the registration numbers and tank names) – but, then again, they do make the tank look British.
So most of the pieces of the jigsaw are in place. What is clear is that I will need to print my own decals on this, for the tactical signs and the unit ID, if I use them. A new challenge!
Update 27 August 2017
I continue to scratch the itch on this one. Some more Google searches have taken me to some new bits of data. First there is this online discussion from 2007 in which the RSG Shermans are discussed. Alas all the picture links are deceased, as it includes one or two pictures I haven’t got – including one which shows the unit thistle badge. There are a number of items of detail that I will ignore – I don’t need the model to be 100% accurate on the technical details. However it did draw me to this Pathé film. Amongst other things it includes the river crossing by the RSG tank in the last picture above. Here is a still from it. You can just about see the thistle badge on the front mudguard (take my word for it – though you do need the eye of faith). Also of interest is that the the front door of the commanders’ hatch has been removed – a common British practice apparently. The Italeri kit has the hatch moulded closed (the one point I don’t like about it). I was going to carve out the closed hatch anyway; I won’t have to make the front hatch door!
I have unearthed another couple of interesting pictures. This is from another unit at Salerno (the London Yeomanry, part of the 7th Armoured division): The camouflage scheme is similar but not the same. The dark colour may not be Blue Black though. The markings on the front mudguard are temporary identifiers – no doubt this is what those mysterious scratched out marks are on Picture 3 (apart from the thistle badge).
And then there is this picture of a tank from an unknown unit in Italy: Of interest is the right side camouflage pattern, broadly consistent with the RSG. The RSG pattern appears to be based on a standard recommended pattern issued by the army, though some of the darker stripes are a bit broader, and there is no stripe on the back of the turret. This pattern gives me something to work on for the missing bit. I have not been able to find the original diagram that was used though, amid all the verbiage on camouflage patterns. All I know is that the patterns aren’t the same as those used earlier in the desert.
And after I had written that I searched all the Imperial War Museum’s collection on Salerno and found this one:
It’s the missing link. The thistle insignia is now clearly visible, above the temporary number. And there is also a clear picture of the front camouflage pattern – though I think there is a bit of variation with the other pictures. Two flags on the pennant. This tank has the three part nose, but is missing the rear track guard. Zooming in I can just make out a circular tactical mark, indicating C Squadron, but not the number in it.
My hope was not to spend too long messing around building up the armies for my 1943 project, but to get a small club-ready game as soon as I could – and for that game to look something like the finished product on the table – without the fielding of half-finished elements. I want a bit of a wow factor – in contrast to most of the games I play at the club.
So the logical thing was to build a tank and infantry platoon for each side, plus some command and support elements, and then turn to the scenery, with some thought for player aids (markers for knocked out vehicles. etc). I did the support elements first: mortars, heavy machines guns (German ones still need to be painted) and anti-tank guns. I now have a German tank platoon. But after that I need a bit of a rethink.
The obvious next step is to work on a British tank platoon. My first idea was to paint up my old Airfix Shermans. I’m not happy with that, though. The old Airfix models won’t be up to standard next to my new Pz IIIs, both because of size (they are 1/76 rather than 1/72) and general quality. The final straw was realising that I would not be able to open the hatches and put crew figures in. I think this adds to the appearance – and mostly commanders would only want to pull the hatch down in extremis – visibility is so much better outside. I still want to paint these old tanks up, and to use them to bulk up for larger games, and to provide a few extra options on the table (the Tigers for the Germans, for example). But for my first British tank platoon I’m going to need some new models.
And it is pretty obvious what those models should be: Shermans. In 1943 they dominate British armour. It’s true that in Tunisia you also have an assortment of other tanks: Grants, Honeys, Valentines and Crusaders (as well as Churchills, which continued into Italy). But few, if any of these make it to Sicily, let alone Salerno. And the Sherman type that predominates at this stage is the Sherman III, the US M4A2. This came with a diesel engine and was mainly used for export (to Britain and Russia). The examples I am most drawn to belonged to the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. There are a few pictures, and they were heavily engaged. These have the classic sand-skirts covering a the top part of the running gear (as did the desert tanks) – though not all British/Canadian Shermans had these in Sicily or Salerno. It turns out that the Airfix Shermans aren’t such a good match for these anyway – they don’t have the engine deck for the M4A2, and no track-guards at all. Apparently they aren’t a precise fit for any known version of the tank, but look not that bad for the earlier Sherman I. My first point of call is now Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) – their products seem to have just the right balance of production values and options for me. But they only have the cast-hull M4A1 (Sherman II in British service – used in North Africa, but I haven’t seen pictures of them in use by the British in Italy) or the M4A4 (Sherman V) which had a longer engine deck and more spaced out wheels – though both seem to come with the sandguards as options. Neither is going to work.
After doing a little research I thought I had the answer: the Armourfast M4A2. Armourfast (who now produce models formerly by HAT) produce cheap models with few parts and low cost (£7.50 for a pair – compare PSC £17.50 for thee) for wargamers – but which are crisply moulded and accurately proportioned. I bought a box (alongside another couple of items). It was a bit of a shock. There is one simple sprue per tank (PSC have 2 bigger sprues each), and no options, stowage items, crew, etc. I actually knew this would be the case from reviews, but it was quite stark when I opened the box. But I thought there would be sandguards (from either misreading a review, or a review based on an earlier version). And the mantlet is the later war version, though I think this might be convertible. While pondering this I discovered Italeri made a version of the Sherman that was exactly what I was looking for, so I immediately ordered a couple of boxes (4 vehicles) – but they haven’t arrived yet. I will do something with the Armourfasts, but I haven’t decided what yet.
So how about the infantry? But there’s a problem here too! I fell in love with the AB metal figures, and bought a batch of them for command and support elements. It is these that I have painted up for the mortars, machine guns, and a 6-pdr crew. They are lovely figures. But the more I looked a pictures from 1943, the more I realised they weren’t quite right. The soldiers wore a hybrid between the 1944 north Europe kit most popularly portrayed in miniatures (including these AB ones) and the 1941/42 desert kit, also widely available, including at AB. This is within fudge range for the Germans, and can be covered mostly with a paint job. They mainly wore helmets in Italy (caps dominate in Afrika Korps representations) – and from a distance you can’t tell whether they are wearing shirts or tunics; no doubt some Afrika Korps figures can be mixed in to give more of a tropical look – these are usually made wearing trousers rather than shorts. For the British it’s a bit harder. They mainly wore trousers rather than the shorts they wore in the desert – but the helmet is an earlier version than 1944. They too typically wore shirts rather than the battledress blouse, and they usually had sleeves rolled up. I was going to overlook all of this (so at least my infantry would look OK for later war scenarios in Italy and France), but I saw that SHQ (whom I’m using for harder to get model vehicles) had a Mediterranean series for both British and Germans that might be suitable. Representing human figures is a very personal thing, though, and I don’t know if I will like them. I ordered some examples to take a look. That was last weekend and they haven’t arrived yet (it’s August I guess).
So what I think I will do next is a large batch of upgrades to my existing 1/76 German tanks: 3 Pz IVGs, two Tigers and two Pz IIIs (which I will convert to a Flammpanzer and an N with short 75mm gun). Since the paint I so laboriously mixed up for the Pz IIIs is still on the go, this makes some sense. I also have more idea about how I want them to look than I do with the British. I’m not going to attempt the sames standards of finish as the mainstream elements, but I will take on some new challenges, such as representing the radio antennae. Here they are, with conversion work on the Pz IIIs under way:
My Panzer III platoon is very much a learning exercise, as it is the first time I have put together AFVs for the tabletop (except some microtanks) for 40 years. This has proved to be the case in particular with the finishing.
But first here are some pictures of a real Pz III on show at the recent Bovington Tankfest.
This is an L captured at El Alamein. Bovington have painted it dunkelgelb (dark yellow) which became the standard German base colour in 1942. I don’t know whether this because the original was painted this way, or whether it was in fact painted in one of the desert colour schemes in operation at the time. Regardless, it is this dunkelgelb that I want to reflect on my model. The first thing you get from these pictures is how different the colour looks in different lights! Still it looks nothing like the “authentic” Humbrol desert sand sold in my youth, which can be seen on the Pz IIIL model in my last post. That is a brighter and redder shade; quite where it came from I don’t know. The desert colours used before the dunkelgelb were yellow-browns (alongside greys) – a bitter redder, no doubt, than the dunkelgelb but much more muted than that paint.
This is important because I have decided to use artists acrylics on my models and figures, and not hobby colours. I already do this for my Napoleonics, and I fancied the challenge. I get to skip those endless debates about which precise shade of Vallejo colour I should use, and mix a colour from standard pigments as an artist does. This means I need many fewer paint hues – and no new ones. But for WW2 this approach isn’t for the faint-hearted. Getting theoe muted browns, greens and greys to look right is hard work.
But first I wanted to prime the models. I don’t use aerosol paints, because I have no suitable space to apply them. I do have a patio at the back of the house, but it is palaver to get the gear down there and protect the garden furniture etc. from stray paint – and the weather conditions have to be right. I have tried this for my Napoleonics and given up. I also had a problem to make sure that every part of the miniature was properly covered. The exception for aerosols is the final coat of varnish, which I don’t think is as risky. So I apply primer by brush. I use a special metals primer from Fortress, acquired at a DIY store, in white – the water-based version. I works well enough for my metal figures, where I apply it diluted with water. But it was problematic on hard plastic (polystyrene). The surface was slightly repellant. But with a bit of poking I was able to get complete coverage – though it was hard work, and wrecked the brush I was using: I have ordered some cheap acrylic brushes for future work! Next time I will try the primer undiluted – though it is quite thick. But it dried quite nicely and provided a good surface for subsequent layers of paint. It may also help if the models are washed with detergent in advance.
Next came the base coat. This was going to represent the dunkelgelb. The important point to make here is that painting a model is not like finding an authentic shade for a full-sized replica or museum piece. Authentic shades for the latter will not look right on models. I think this may be the problem with the old Humbrol “authentic” dunkelgelb – which I used a lot on my teenage models (including the Pz IV in the picture on my last blog, with camouflage green). It looks too dark and a bit too green – this may simply be a scale effect – the darkness surely is. What counts is finding what looks right on a model in normal indoor light conditions (daylight for me). German dunkelgelb is not an easy shade to mix (unlike practically all the colours used in Napoleonic uniforms!).
It was obvious that I should start with Yellow Ochre or Yellow Oxide (much the same thing), and that quite a bit of white should be mixed in. But this is too bright – it needs to be dulled down. Using conventional colour theory I at first used a deep purple pigment for this (purple is complementary to yellow, meaning that it will neutralise it rather than change its hue). But the result, on my Pak 38 AT guns was much too red. So my next attempt was to mix in a reddish blue (Ultramarine), but this came out a rather horrid green shade (there is some of it on the Leopard tank in the background of the picture on my last post. My ideal in colour mixing is to use two (complementary or near) colours and white. This wasn’t going to work – I would have to balance three colours and white – something that is a bit tricky. I used Prussian Blue and a red-brown to go with the yellow ochre). For the base coat, incidentally, I was using cheaper “student” paints rather than the higher quality “artist” ones – having noticed that 20mm models soak up paint much faster than 15mm figures. (The better quality pigments are much better for painting details, where you need sharp lines) This took three goes. On each occasion I was convinced that I had the right shade, but as it dried it looked wrong, compared to my pictures taken at Bovington, and other sources. The colours did dry a bit redder than when wet (perhaps because of the lower quality pigments – drying true is one of the marks of better quality pigment) – but a lot of it is simply that it is hard for such muted shades, where is slight shift in the mix makes a big difference. Provided the paint isn’t too thick (and it shrinks quite nicely on curing, so it’s generally OK), this layering isn’t such a bad thing – it can give a bit of texture and “depth” to the model. Still, there are a lot of nooks and crannies on a model tank (especially with the turret schurzen), and so it was hard work and not good for the brushes. Eventually I had something I was pleased with.
Next step was detailing – the tracks, the tyres, the commander figures, the exhausts and the stowage. I had a little trouble with the uniforms of the commanders – where I was trying to get a faded tropical look. Another problem was the tyres on the running gear – as these were a single moulding in order to reduce the assembly time, so you don’t get the double wheels, so they don’t look quite right – I just hope they won’t be very visible. All this took slightly longer than I wanted – a couple of sessions rather than the one I hoped. I finished with a bit of drybrush with a pale dusty mix – this was a bit heavy handed in places – it’s a technique that is going to need more work. Next came a layer of Quickshade. This is to pick out the recessed detail and generally create depth. It also creates a good surface for decals (otherwise the flash will show horribly, as they do on my old models). I was a bit worried that the brown in the Quickshade would distort the base colour by reddening and darkening it -though the end result is OK, and the photos below sho it to be a bit too green if anything. I have three tins of Quickshade (three grades of colour), though one is dying. Once these are done with I will try to create my own with the floor polish the product it is based on – and that will allow me to have more control over the colour of shading – a dull purple would have been better in this case (the French Impressionists would have approved of that!).
And then the decals. This has been a bit of a headache. I want turret numbers for tanks in the same platoon (with the platoon commander in tank 1). Commercial decals have two problems: they tend to focus on individual tanks from different formations, and they supply two numbers (one for each side), rather than the three that was more typical at this stage of the war (one at the back too). And they are pricey. None come with the PSC box kit. I acquired some generic numbers on eBay. But I decided to base my platoon on some tanks of the Hermann Goering division in Sicily, with numbers 531, 532 and 533. My decal sheet not only had only pairs of numbers, but they did not have any starting with 5 or above (this is the company number – the second battalion in a regiment usually had company numbers 5 to 8). This meant I had to assemble the turret numbers in pieces, and individual numbers in some cases. So applying them was a bit trickier than it might have been, and I did well to lose only one number. Balkankreuse were applied at the back of the hull, from a commercial sheet. I did not attempt a divisional insignia. After that I decided to seal them with some polyurethane varnish. That was very nearly a catastrophe. The decals are quite delicate, and unless the varnish was dabbed on softly, they get damaged by the application. One number was quite badly damaged; I applied a bit of paint to represent the damaged bits being obscured by mud (it was a rear number, and is obscured by some jerry-can when the turret is facing front, which helps). It could have been a lot worse. For the British I’m going to have to print my own decals; this will solve some problems – but white or white-outlined numbers can’t be done this way – (nor balkenkreuse for that matter). Fortunately the Germans used quite a lot of straight black numbers, which can be home-printed.
Finally an application of Windsor & Newton aerosol matt varnish. And here’s the result (albeit shot in partially artificial light given a very overcast sky this morning) – and with less than ideal focusing from my iPhone):
I have to say that I’m pretty happy. Each of the models has mistakes, and they aren’t “professional” quality. But they’ll look great on the wargames table.