Monday, 11 November 2019

Film Review: Midway, 2019

Teresa and I went to see this new epic WWII movie whilst attending Scale Model World in Telford. The Odeon where we saw it has fantastically luxurious reclining chairs. Very nice! The small screening theatre we were in was practically empty. Perhaps 20 odd viewers in a room that might take 80-100. A pity, really, as a full house generates its own excitement.

Never mind that, however... I absolutely loved this film. Every time a modern movie on WWII comes out I have high hopes for it. Hopes that I fully expect will be dashed on viewing. Such was the case with Dunkirk, which I loathed with a passion. So much modern cinema is nowt more than dumb spectacle. I was worried this might fall into that trap.

The attack on Pearl Harbour...

... is briefly, brutally and excitingly depicted.

Well, in a way it does. It's a massive dose of schlockbusting CGI action, with an overly reverential approach to its square-jawed hypermasculine heroes. In many ways, whilst it professes earnestly to be a true story, however closely it may sail to the facts of events, it is a Hollywood fantasy of sorts. But, and here's the key thing for me, this is both enormous fun, and highly exciting drama. Emmerich also gets quite a lot in: we start before the war, jump to Pearl Harbour, and get to Midway itself via The Coral Sea, the Doolittle Raids and so on.

Dick Best (Ed Skrein) at left.

Doolittle (Aaron Eckhardt), in peril in Jap occupied China.

Murray (Keean Johnson), Best and fellow personnel.

An ensemble film, with a host of characters, events unfold at numerous levels, including both the domestic and the military (with the accent heavily on the latter!), depicting all involved, from top brass to lowly rankers. The group of characters we follow through these events are sufficiently engaging to keep us interested in the bigger picture as it develops.

All the actors acquit themselves well. Characters like Layton (Patrick Wilson), the intelligence guy, pilots lieutenants McClusky and Best (Ed Skrein and Luke Evans), and man at the top Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) are solid in the chief roles. But, offhand, I might pick out Dennis Quaid as Admiral Halsey and Nick Jonas as Machinist's Mate Bruno as two particularly engaging characters. In that respect this resembles old fashioned WWII epics like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. And it actually trumps these old movies thanks to ever improving CGI.

Japanese attack...

U.S. ships at Pearl Harbour...

Bombs straddle a Carrier.

Epic scenes such as this are the meat and potatoes of this movie.

CGI was once a pet hate of mine, and occasionally still is: when a film looks like a PlayStation promo, or the CGI is simply unconvincing, I detest it. But in this film it makes for some truly epic and yet credible shots/scenes. Whilst we're on the technical side; the sound design of Dunkirk irritated and even appalled me. This, which when seen on the big screen is a veritable assault on the ears as much as the eyes, succeeds. The battle scenes - especially the aerial assaults on the ships - are incredibly intense.

I enjoyed this so much I'm sorely tempted to get back to the cinema in short order, and watch it again.  I don't think it's a truly great film. The characterisations are pretty thin, and it's all a bit chest-thumpingly manly. But I loved it, and enjoyed it enormously. If you think you might enjoy seeing Midway and the events leading up to it depicted in a fun action packed and yet epic but believable manner, I'd recommend Midway wholeheartedly.

This image is a fair representation of the excitement the film achieves.

Emmerich, beside TA-127, a North American Aviation T-6 Texan.

It was also interesting, as a kind of footnote, to find out (after watching the movie) that Emmerich had to finance this very Hollywood style production - the big studios were chary of another lavish WWII epic, many of which over the years have cost a lot and then flopped - outside the normal fiscal channels, including taking a cut in his own fee. I really hope this makes Emmerich and everyone involved a healthy profit!

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Book Review: Bren Gun Carrier, Robert Jackson

Fantastic! I'm a little surprised at how I've grown to love, or perhaps rather become fascinated by the 'umble Universal Carrier. I can't deny that seeing YouTuber Lindybiege choose it as his second favourite tank (!?)* has been an influence. Prior to that I'd always rather cocked a snook at this little vehicle.

2/7th Middlesex Regt, Anzio, 21 February 1944. [1]

In this, the third of the Land Craft series from Pen & Sword, Robert Jackson elucidates the history in brief of this funny little runt of a vehicle. The story starts in WWI, with the fabulously Frenchified sounding British Major Giffard le Quesne Martel. I won't recapitulate what Jackson imparts very well here. But it's an interesting subject, covered in a brief but comprehensive and highly enjoyable way.

As well as black and white photos of old and current surviving examples, there are eight 3-D renderings and eight pages of colour profiles. The latter aren't the best of their type in the Land Craft/Tank Craft series, but they convey the necessary info. Within all this the book covers numerous variants. There are also the usual segments, Model Showcase and Model Products. Three of the four showcased models are 1/35, the fourth (presented first) is 1/72, my own favoured scale.

Timothy Neate's amazing 1/72 RA OP Mk II.

All four showcased builds are stunning examples of the modelmakers arts. I'm particularly in awe of Timothy Neate's splendid 1/72 Mk II Royal Artillery OP (observation post vehicle), a heavily modified IBG models kit. I've included an image of Neate's model above. I'll be getting/building some of these IBG kits as soon as the occasion presents itself. I may also try adapting some of the chunkier PSC kits as well.

There's quite a bit of useful info on model products in various scales as well. But the book as a whole returns to narrative text and images about the service history of these highly useful and adaptable vehicles, ending with a brief look at a selection of Contemporary Light Tracked Vehicles of the 'tankette' type, such as were based on or influenced by the UC, such as the Polish TK-3, the Russian T-37 and the Japanese Type 94.

A great view into the interior spaces of a UC.

For my money this is an example of this often very useful series at its tip-top best. Reading it and perusing the images is inspiring me to build some more of these interesting little vehicles (I recently built the re-issued Airfix 1/76 kit, with 6pdr gun), whilst simultaneously inspiring and informing on the subject. Highly recommended.

* Okay, so it's not a tank and he knows it, nevertheless, the charmingly manic Lindybiege chooses the Universal Carrier as his #2 'tank' in his very entertaining 'Top 5 Tanks' video for The Tank Museum on YouTube. The whole thing is worth watching. But if you want to get to the Bren Gun Carrier segment, it's about 17 minutes in.


[1] Photo by Sgt. Dawson, No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit (source, IWM).

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Book Review: Images of War: Hungarian Armoured Fighting Vehicles in the Second World War, Eduardo Martinez

Spanish WWII history buff Eduardo Martinez shines a light on the AFVs of the Hungarian army, during WWII. Hungary, reacting no doubt to the initially apparently unstoppable territorial expansions of Hitler's Germany, decided to ally itself to the Nazi empire.

Csaba armoured cars.

The most one usually hears about the Hungarian and Romanian allies of Germany is that they were poor and unreliable, more a liability than an asset, in Germany's quest for lebensraum on the Ostfront. So it's refreshing to encounter a book that looks at the subject from the Hungarian perspective.

The Nimrod, capable of both AA and ground target combat.

Martinez seems impressed by the fact that Hungary was able to supply itself with its own materiel, despite the fact that it was never either good enough in itself, or sufficient to the tasks in hand. I.e. it was hopelessly outclassed by the Russian forces it was up against. This pretty inevitably lead to the Hungarian armed forces being re-equipped, to some extent, with German gear.

Turán IIs captured by the Soviets, loaded on flatcars.

Tragically for Hungary, once part of the formerly great Habsburg empire, the combination of their own poor materiel, and the insufficient quantities of better German gear, added up to a hopeless situation. Plus they were now fighting nervously alongside Romania, a long-term enemy who had, like them, thrown in their lot with the Nazis.

40M Turán, 1943.

The text of this book isn't the best, the prose being a little lumpen - perhaps due to translation from Spanish? - and littered, alas, with minor but annoying typos or editorial errors (e.g. fairly frequent use of the term Panzer when I think the author's actually referring to Panthers). But this book does shed light on an interesting and little covered area of an otherwise much covered part of the war. And as befits titles in this series, the pictures do a good job of illustrating the subject, with both the German stuff, but even more so the Hungarian AFVs being very well illustrated.

This Zrínyi II has perforated side-protecting skirts.

I feel I learned a good deal reading this, and became better acquainted with Hungary's own materiel, which is very interesting. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone interested in this aspect of the enormous war on the Eastern Front. 

Film Review: The Sea Shall Not Have Them, 1954

Having recently read Coastal Convoys, 1939-45 (my review of that book here), by Nick Hewitt, I wanted to watch this again, as it's based on exactly the same subject. It does a pretty good of showing the awful conditions that the naval and airborne arms had to endure whilst operating on, above, and sometimes in the cold cruel seas.

To those familiar with this era of movie-making there will be a number of recognisable faces, like Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde [1] and several others (Victor Madeern, Joan Sims, etc.). Some of the faces I didn't recognise, such as the Yank pretending to be a Canadian, Bonar Colleano (what a name!), turn out to have been reasonably big names in their day. But all acquit themselves pretty well, albeit in familiar postwar war-film cliché type moulds.

The plot boils down to four men in a downed plane (a Lockheed Hudson bomber, perhaps?) winding up in a dinghy, drifting through E-boat Alley and minefields towards the occupied European coast. Three are the crew of the plane, the fourth is brass with a vital dossier of info on 'Jerry's' latest wunderwaffen missiles. Coastal Command seeks to recover the men and their prized intelligence, their efforts hampered by poor weather, and simultaneously seeking to calm worried ladies left back home.

It's fascinating to see life/operations aboard an RAF Coastal Command rescue plane (is it a Walrus I, or a Sunderland?) and what I believe is probably at Type II boat, the aerial and seaborne mainstays of naval rescue. It's also interesting to see how a downed Luftwaffe pilot is treated. Whilst this is certainly not the best WWII movie, or even the best 'wet WWII' film, it is a moving and stirring tribute to all concerned, and shines a welcome light on what Hewitt in his aforementioned book justly describes as an overlooked aspect of WWII at sea. 

The book on which the film is based.

[1] An amusing bit of trivia: Noel Coward reputedly said, referring to the film's title in relation to the two main male leads - Redgrave said to be bisexual, and Bogarde homosexual - 'I don't see why not; everybody else has'!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Book Review: Battlecruiser Repulse, John Roberts

This is the second one of these Seaforth 'original plans' books I've got, the first being on the German WWI-era battleship Helgoland. Like that, this is astonishingly detailed. Many stunning diagrams are beautifully reproduced, including several four page spreads. Some of the latter are, I believe, scaled down from original draughts as much as 12 feet in length!

I'm not an expert on matters maritime. Books like this are therefore, for me, both splendid, feeding a growing interest in naval warfare, and somewhat bewildering or overwhelming, in the degree of detail. This book is slightly easier to digest than the Helgoland one simply because the original draught sources are in English, not German.

Repulse, 1916.*

Two sets of draughts detail how Repulse was fitted out at two points in her life, the first in 1916 (with later amendments taking her up to 1921), and the second in 1936. A Renown class vessel, built according to the visions of Admiral Lord Fisher, she was intended to be fast and heavily armed. This was accomplished, however, at cost of overly light armour. Indeed, the draughts are very largely a record of the continual up-armouring of this WWI-vintage ship.

As with the Helgoland book, this is mainly a technical description, both textually and visually, with the emphasis on the latter, via the diagrams. There's plenty about the historical context as well, especially re the naval philosophies that lead to the Repulse being designed and built as she was. But, again as with Helgoland, there's less about her actual service; it'd certainly have been nice to have had a few images of her in action.

Repulse, 1936.*

Whereas Helgoland was scrapped after WWI, Repulse was subjected to the renovations covered herein. She even took part in the famous pursuit that lead to the eventual loss of the Bismarck. But, due to that infamous lack of armour, and despite all the upgrades, she was sunk in '41 by the Japanese. This book shows her in incredible detail, and is a real gem reference wise. Definitely recommended.

* Neither of these images appear in the book; it's all just 'Admiralty draughts', i.e. diagrams.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Book Review: Japan Triumphant, 1941-42, Philip Jowett

I was a little surprised and somewhat disappointed that this was such a broad account, as the title lead me to expect a more Japanese focus.

But having now gone through the entire book that looks as much a virtue as a failing; stuff is included here that's often passed over more or less completely, such as the Dutch involvement in this theatre. Still, the eye-catching title and cover image are rather misleading, in my view. And the subtitle, The Far East Campaign 1941-1942 actually better conveys the content.

The whole Pacific theatre, whether it be the US island-hopping to Japan, or the more mixed Allied fighting in the Asian archipelago, is one I'm less au fait with than the NW European or Ostfront theatres. This is a very solid account by Jowett, amply illustrated, as befits the Images of War series. I felt I learned a lot. A very useful resource.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Film Review: Flat Top, 1952

Reading John Grehan's Battle of Midway got me very interested in USN aircraft carriers. I tried to find a WWII movie on the subject, and discovered Flat Top. Made in 1952, and starring Sterling Hayden, an actor I really dig, whilst in truth not a classic film, it is pretty much exactly what I wanted.

Sterling Hayden, a man's man in a man's world!

Great footage of USN carrier operations.

What I was looking for was a film that would show aspects of the operational and tactical life of such a vessel, and her crew. And Flat Top, whilst a bit thin and, pardon the pun, flat as a drama or character study - the drama is okay, but the characters are rather 2-D and clichéd - clearly takes pleasure in showing the multifarious aspects of life and operations aboard a WWII USN aircraft carrier.

The entire film is one long flashback, as Hayden's Cmdr. Dan Collier character recalls his WWII service aboard the same carrier in which we find him, which starts with his being given command of a new batch of raw recruit pilots. The well-worn cliché of the by-the-book hardass who ultimately comes to be loved by his men is then played out over a series of scenarios. 

Heavy use is made of real WWII stock combat footage, both of fleet activity and even more so aerial combat. The contrast of the gung-ho mirth of the pilots with the anonymous Japs being so easily and merrily dispatched is a bit disconcerting. Indeed, the enemy remains an abstracted nonentity until quite late in the film, when we start to occasionally see the human cost to both sides.

Several sequences, such as this one ...

... show how the arrestor wires work.

I suppose this was a propagandist movie, made  as it was during the Korean War, the opening scene showing jets landing on the carrier. In that respect it is a bit cornball. But what I like about the film is seeing operational stuff, like the maintenance and fuelling/arming of planes, above and below decks. Take offs and landings (the latter showing arrestor wires in use), with 'ground crew' at work, and the inter-deck elevators in action.

There's quite a lot of footage like this...

showing deck crew servicing planes...

... loading various armaments, etc.

We also see how the officers and men live, the former in their own private but box-like quarters, the latter in dorms full of bunks. There are meals in the mess, pilot briefings (in surprisingly large/luxurious looking chairs!), and red-lit acclimatisation for night combat/flying.

Below deck crew follow the action in an ops room type setting.

One of the more timeworn themes is that old chestnut of individual vs. group. This is less grating than the wafer-thin characterisations of the protagonists - a election of Everyman types, from jocks to poets, musicians to lawyers, etc. - and is, in this film as in life, difficult to square/resolve. Hayden's character does so in no uncertain terms. His immediate subordinate has a softer approach (albeit eventually conceding he's 100% wrong!). The overt message here is 'it's the team that wins'. But a certain amount of rugged individualism does sneak in.

So, not a great film, by any means, frankly. But certainly well worth watching if you're fascinated by the maritime and airborne aspects of the war in the Pacific.

One of the few glimpses we get of the Japanese enemy.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Misc: Bugger! Researching, or not...

Atmospheric image of Churchill AVRE deploying its bridge.

Hmmm!? Having been putting quite a bit of effort into building hinges for the SBG (small box girder) bridge on my Matchbox Churchill AVRE kit I decided I'd do a bit of research on the subject. I'm wishing I had done so before embarking on this aspect of the model now.

An odd but interesting image.*

It turns out that I can find no documentary evidence at all of this particular Churchill AVRE variant being a folding or 'scissor' type bridge. Indeed, in the Tank Chat video by David Fletcher for the Bovington tank museum he makes the point that skippers of vessels transporting these mechanical monsters disliked them precisely because the bridge acted like a sail, interfering with their ability to control the boats navigation.

In country road traffic.

And all the photographs or very brief clips of film I've seen (the latter hard to find and usually embedded within longer YouTube videos) show the bridge as one long object. Unfortunately for me I'd assumed, from the construction - two more or less identical mirror image halves - and possibly from vague memories of images of the Valentine tank-based scissor type bridgelayer, that the enormous bridge would, logically and obviously, fold away. Well, it seems not.

What a whopper!

Loaded on a transport, along with a fascine carrying AVRE.

Having said all this, I did find one or two sources of information hinting that either they could/did fold, or that there were some variants that might've done so. Witness the two images below. The first of these is an illustration, however, not a contemporary wartime photo. I don't know what the provenance of this is, or its basis in fact, if any. And then below that there's an example of a model built in that basis. Note that both have extra elelemrnts on the furthest part of the bridge. These look a bit spurious or dubious, as then look like the get in the way of deployment. 

What info is this illustration based on?

Likewise this model/diorama?

I reckon I'll post about this on some other fora, and see if I can get some input on this issue, and hopefully clarify it. As mentioned above, I may have seen image at some point, such as that directly below, of a Valentine 'scissor' type bridgelayer. And perhaps subconscious memories of this prompted my assumption that the Churchill AVRE bridgelayer would deploy in the same manner? 

A Valentine bridgelayer deploying its scissor type folding bridge.

But not so the Churchill.

But without exception the wartime photos of the Churchill AVRE bridgelayer show the bridge as if it doesn't hinge in the centre. I'm surprised, as this makes it very front-heavy, unwieldy, and no doubt tricky to manoeuvre. Imagine trying to negotiate combat damaged towns with that enormous thing on the front! And one suspects that destroyed river crossings would, as often as not, be found in built up areas.

The fascine and bridge-laying Churchill AVREs often operated in tandem.

This photo shows how huge and cumbersome an attachment the bridge was.

For now I reckon I'll have to set aside the build, until such time as I resolve this issue to my own satisfaction. I'm guessing I'll wind up building it in line with the historical evidence. In which case I could proceed right away. But part of me hopes that a folding version might have existed, and I'd certainly love to successfully build such a type, as I've enjoyed trying to scratch-build the bridge with working hinges. 

The frustrating thing with this is that I've been trying to improve on my tendency to leave projects unfinished, and see them through to completion. And this discovery kind of temporarily derails that process. At least in respect of this build. But I guess it also means I can either return to older projects and get them done, or embark on something new.