Thursday 30 October 2014

20mm WWII - Building Airfix German Tanks with Dad!

My Airfix Panther at the time of posting.

Like many figure collectors and gamers, I can't seem to confine myself to one subject area or project for too long (or should that be long enough?). Amidst all my tiny Napoleonic endeavours, my childhood interest in WWII armour, particularly German, has been re-born!

As a kid getting into all this stuff my two main areas of interest were 15 mm Napoleonics, and 1/300th World War II. In 15mm it was mostly Minifigs, whilst in 1/300th it was entirely Heroics & Ros. Another childhood memory is that of my dad and a lodger we had called Tim Seward, when I was very young, making model tanks together. These were exquisitely made and painted, or at least my memory says they were, usually being converted to show battle damage and augmented with 'on campaign' additions, all sourced from photographic reference.

I can remember some of the reference material my father and this fellow Tim used to use. There was a fantastic very slim-line paperback, in landscape format, filled with nothing but loads of black and white photos of the Wehrmacht at war. I think this might have been produced by Tamiya, but I'm far from sure of that! Anyway, it's not something I've been able to locate. Another title which was a constant reference, and has proven far easier to locate, was the first edition of Panzer Colours, published on the Arms & Armour imprint.

As a child I remember poring over Dad's Panzer Colours

I was able to buy Panzer Colours at a wargaming show a few years ago, and have subsequently added volumes two and three from the series, the latter via the web, I think. The internet is something else that wasn't around in my earlier phase in the mini-military hobby zone. And it can be a pretty fantastic resource, as we all know! So, I now have a complete set (see above), something that we never had at home when I was a child! 

As an adult I've decided to return to the theme of World War II warfare, but in a larger scale than I did as a child. In keeping with the title of my blog, I looked at all sorts of different scales, and was very definitely tempted by the more recent advent of World War II in 15mm. However, in the end what clinched it was a decision to embark on a modelmaking project with my father, Simon. 

This idea arose, in part, as a tribute to his efforts with his buddy Tim, all those years ago. But it was also intended to give us a way to spend some quality father and son time, now that we're both well and truly into advanced adulthood!

With this idea in mind, I brought my father a King Tiger model from the Airfix range, in 1/76 scale, along with paints, glue and, erm… well, I think that was it actually! For myself, I bought a Panther, possibly my favourite of the World War II German tanks. Every Monday we get together for a few hours to work on our tanks, have lunch and a cup or three of tea, a bit of a chinwag, and watch an episode of Ken Burns superb ACW documentary. It's all very enjoyable!

In fact I've been enjoying the whole thing so much - and I hope my father has to!? - that I have subsequently bought a number of other kits, with a view to us continuing the project. And (with something of an ulterior motive, perhaps?) I've even fantasised that together we might build a small wargaming force, and maybe even have a game at some future point.

Zvezda' 'snap-fit' 1/72 Panther, and ye olde (much maligned) Airfix 1/76 kit. [1]

In the last session or two I have found myself getting slightly ahead of my father, so I decided at a recent wargaming convention (Derby Wargames World), to invest in another Panther tank. Even though there is a small scale discrepancy, 1/72, as against 1/76, I decided nonetheless to try a Zvezda kit. I started this whole thing with Airfix kits because they were what I first made as a child, and I believe they are also mostly what my dad and his buddy built (although they may have used a number of manufacturers, I can't recall).

But, as I allude to in the blurb for my blog, there is nowadays - and we ought to be grateful - a bewildering array of choice on all fronts in the model-making and wargaming market place. Models by Zvezda (which means 'star'), a Russian company, almost certainly wouldn't have been available to my father or myself as a child, thanks to chilly relations stemming from the post-World War II Cold War. Time and history have moved inexorably on, and we have benefitted (let's gloss over the ageing aspect!) now that we can buy these Russian products easily.

An aerial view of the Airfix Panther. [1]

With reference to Panzer Colours and other (mostly online) sources, my dad and I are adding a few details to our tanks. The Airfix Panther is a very basic model - I think I may have read online that it is actually one of the earliest kits and has never been updated - so I've added stowage and various other bits and bobs, like wires, spare bits of track for armour, and so on, much of which I bought from Sergeant's Mess at the Derby show.

As a kid I collected my 1/300th German forces with the Ostfront in mind, but as I'm doing the Russian campaign in both my 6mm and 10mm Napoleonic projects, I thought perhaps this time I might explore World War II via the Italian theatre. The Italian theatre looks geographically, historically, and strategically, like a very interesting area of World War II (it was also the theatre in which Alan Whicker served!), and one that is often ignored in gaming, at least as far as I've seen. Like many WWII gamers in 20mm, I love the German three-colour ambush paint schemes, and that is what I'm predominantly going to use.

As far as adversaries go, I haven't really given it too much thought; they could be a mixture of American and British, and perhaps I/we might even involve Italian and partisan forces, although presumably the Italians might have mixed allegiances!

Returning to the model kits, I failed pretty comprehensively to document the building of these kits, which was something I had intended. Nevertheless I can at least post a few images, showing my Airfix 1/76 Panther tank, almost completed, both alone and alongside the Zvezda 1/72 Panther, which is visibly larger and also is far less complete, paint-job wise. The Zvezda kit has far more detail, including some things I'll be adding to the Airfix model, and some I probably won't.

The two Panthers side by side.

In terms of ease of assembly, both kits were - or seemed to me as someone returning to modelling after more than two decades in the the wilderness - quite complex, and included quite a lot of detail, especially in the wheel and track areas, much of which will not really be visible once the models are completed. Indeed when I finished the Zvezda kit, I noticed that there were two tiny little wheels which I had completely overlooked. However as they were not visible by the time it was completed, the end result is not disastrous. Any such unused parts go into the spares box.

The Zvezda kit is far superior in terms of detail, and even moulding and build-quality. The Airfix kit - which gets a lot of stick around the interweb - is however, absolutely fine for my purposes, if admittedly rather basic. My dad and I have decided to buy some of the incredible model-making extras that are nowadays available, in this instance (in addition to the aforementioned Sgt's Mess bits, we plan to buy some tiny brass machine guns, because my Airfix Panther's machine gun is rubbish, and my father's Airfix King Tiger model appears to be lacking that particular component, bizarrely!

In the end I glued both kits together using typical model-making cement, such as is sometimes supplied with beginner kit sets, or is at least recommended by the manufacturers; the sort that binds the styrene by melting it slightly, and can be rather messy! The Zvezda kit loudly proclaims that no glue is required, as the kit is 'snap-fit'. Despite the fact that I did ultimately glue it together, to make it more robust, the Zvezda kit held together remarkably well without glue (I would often put the parts together to test fit, before glueing them). I was certainly impressed by both the level of detail in this kit, and also the ease of assembly and the fit of all the parts.

I think I may well buy another Zvezda Panther tank, for the fun of building it, to augment my forces, and because there was one small problem, regarding fit, but I believe that was of my own making. If you look closely at the unpainted tank, you might notice that the turret doesn't fit properly parallel to the body in the same way the Airfix turret does. I believe that when I glued part of the under-turret assembly on the Zvezda model, I didn't push it down sufficiently hard to click into place exactly in its proper alignment. Any fault there lies squarely with me and not the manufacturer.

I wasn't too sure if the discrepancy in scale would really register easily to the eye, but I guess that it does. Despite this I think I will field both Panthers in any forces that I do ultimately assemble.

Poring over Panzer Colours and reference materials on the Internet was enormous fun, as was the detailing of the Airfix kit (a process which is not yet quite finished). One of the photos I will be posting will hopefully show that, where necessary, I use a tiny drill to make a hole in the end of the plastic tank barrels which, in both cases, had no such hole at the end of the barrel. Rather interestingly, my father's King Tiger assembles in such a way that there is a hole at the end of the barrel, which is obviously more realistic and requires no further effort.

I remembered to drill this hole in advance of assembly, with the Aifix kit, but I have yet to do it - after assembly on the Zvezda kit. I forgot! This presents something of a technical challenge! One final thing I will note is that the material used for the Airfix tank tracks is, in my mind, rather horrible. Neither the normal styrene cement nor superglue seemed to help it bond, or at least bond easily. Both my father and I were rather exasperated as our fingers and various other bits of the model became cemented together, only for the tracks to come away as soon as we released our grips.

In the end we had to rig up various contrivances using pliers, tweezers or other such grips, and wait a while in order to keep the glued parts together sufficiently long for them to bond. The Airfix tank tracks are also made of a rather stretchy material, barely long enough to get around the wheels, resulting in this stage being fraught with the danger of potentially damaging them, or even breaking them off. Obviously we were returning to kit modelling as near-as-damn-it modelmaking virgins, and we will no doubt get better with more experience. In fact the results so far for both of us have turned out looking pretty tolerable, and the tight-fitting tracks do you have some advantages regarding flexibility and a snug fit.

Mind you, next to Zvezda tracks they are very poor and unrealistic! I infinitely preferred the wheel and track assembly of the Zvezda kit, which I thought was a masterclass in model kit design. The tracks in this kit are a slightly more flexible material than the main body of the tank, which in itself is not as rigid a styrene as the Airfix model, but they are far more solid (and certainly not at all stretchy) than the Airfix ones. The Zvezda tracks folded around the wheels and clicked into place via small male and female socket parts, and met perfectly at either end, in a very satisfying manner. Also, thanks to the type of plastic used, they glued (although that is not strictly or entirely necessary) in a much quicker and more satisfactory style.

Note the absence of rear stowage bins on the Airfix model.

Before I finish, I'll add a few final thoughts about the level of detail on each model. The Airfix one is donkeys years old, and the moulds have never been re-tooled. The biggest and most glaring omission - to my eyes - is the complete absence of the rear stowage bins.

The Zvezda has these, of course (as all Panthers had them!), but it also has side-skirt armour, turret mounted smoke dischargers, much better and more realistic tracks, including spare track on the body, two towing cables, the gun barrel rest, all kinds of minor details (including internal fans that are almost visible through the upper body grilles!), a decent selection of tools, and a jack. I have a few tools in my spares box, and sets of such stuff can be bought. I'll definitely be adding the rear stowage bins, some tools, and one or two other oddments to the Airfix tank, as the old dear needs jazzing up!

My father's Airfix King Tiger is in a slightly more basic state than my Airfix Panther, but he's added some extra track as armour (looks like it might be facing the wrong way tho'... that may have been my fault!?). I'm hoping that once these are all modded and painted, they'll look good enough to display or game with!

Dad's King Tiger, and my unfinished Wehrmacht light vehicles.

I do have some other WWII stuff: a Kubelwagen, Kettenkrad (both visible in the above pic of the King Tiger), and even a Willys Jeep (which I finished assembling this evening), all three bought as a set some year or two back. I got a yen recently for some Nebelwerfers... who knows why? Because they look kind of cool, perhaps? I now have four of these unusual looking artillery pieces: 2 ex-Esci Italeri plastics (mit crew), and two ex-Skytrex white metal models (mit-out crew!), the latter from The 20mm Zone [link?]. I bought some crew for the metal guns from, I think, Grubby Tanks.

I've also bought a few more Airfix kits to build with dad, this time opting for the same kit for each of us: I've got two Pak-40s with trucks, and two Stug IIIs! Amidst this slight frenzy (can you have a slight frenzy?) of WWII German action, I also succumbed to the temptation to buy some 20mm plastic figures. The first I've bought since owning a load as a nipper! With packs from Airfix, Italieri, and Caesar (this last a new brand to me), I now have a couple of hundred infantry, as well as the tanks and other vehicles.

Still, as fun as all this undoubtedly is, it also makes me a tad worried as to the progress of my reasonably sizeable Napoleonic Russia 1812 projects!


[1] I've read that the latter product is over 50 years old - not mine obviously! - and may even have been the model that launched the scale, tanks wise. Can anyone corroborate this?

[2] Some extra track armour has been added, plus a box and some coiled wire. The MG-34 is not fitted yet. I'll probably add a machined-brass one. I have a set on order from Aber. 

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