Thursday 31 October 2019

Book Review: Montgomery's Rhine River Crossing, Operation Plunder, Jon Diamond (Images of War)

Over five chapters - Strategic Prelude; Terrain, Fortification and Weapons; Commanders and Combatants; Clearing the Rhineland; Rhine River Crossings and Airborne Assault - supported by a number of maps and lots of excellent photographs, author Jon Diamond gives a solid and comprehensive account of Montgomery's Rhine river crossings.


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.

Saturday 19 October 2019

Kit Build/Review: Matchbox 1/76 Churchill AVRE Bridge-Layer, Pt. III

Making tubular bits of sprue for my scratch-built hinges.

This 1/76 Churchill AVRE is bound to take a bit longer than a normal build, on account of the bridge. Particularly so as I'm trying to make it deployable. To do this I decided to build two little hinges on the underside of the bridge. This has been both challenging and fun. I probably should've tried to rig some sort of reliably accurate vertically aligned drill-press. But I felt that'd be too time-consuming, so I just pressed on - boom, boom! - with freehand attempts. 

Parts prepped, ready for assembly. Note angled notches in bridge-ends

After a lot of fiddly freehand drilling, and many failed off-centre bits of sprue, I finally got six pieces I felt were good enough to use. Gluing these to the bridge required shaving off some bits of the structure where the hinges would sit. Then I had to glue them in place accurately positioned enough that the 0.6mm central hole would align through all the segments. This wasn't easy! Especially as the holes weren't perfectly central on any of the parts to start with.

Hinge elements being glued in place.

Another view.

I then made two pins, approx' 0.5mm in diameter, and roughly 6mm long. These go through the little tubular sprue sections, forming the hinges. Getting these in was tricky, as the central holes weren't perfectly aligned. But with a little gentle persuasion I managed it. This first attempt resulted in one fully functional hinge, and one which failed. 

Sliding the pins into the hinges.

The hinge that failed is on the right in the above picture (and is the upper hinge in the photo below). What happened was the central tubular piece got glued to the outer two pieces, resulting in one big block, which then sheared off from the bridge when I attempted to test the moving parts.

I decided to try and keep the successful hinge, and remove the central part of the failed one, and work on it - reducing the width a fraction and widening the central hole by 0.1mm - before re-assembling it. I also reinforced the central tubular parts on both sides of the bridge, as these are the weakest, and most likely to fail.

The hinges, glued, ready for testing.

Below is the dis-assembled hinging mechanism. The two hinges have been very slightly worked on, in particular the upper of the two, i.e. the one that failed. I'll give that a good few hours to cement. And then I'll re-insert the metal pins, and hope that the hinges won't break! I'm thinking I may add end-caps to either one or most likely both sides of the hinges as well, to prevent the pins from working their way out.

Dis-assembled, working on fixing the failed upper hinge.

Patience is paramount! I must give the repaired hinge time to really set. It's not easy to leave it alone! If I'm successful, the next thing is either mounting the whole bridge to the tank, or painting both tank and bridge before attempting to do so. Hmm!? I reckon the latter is probably the more sensible option... but... 

Friday 18 October 2019

Kit Build/Review: Matchbox 1/76 Churchill AVRE Bridge-Layer, Pt. II

Prepping bridge parts.

The instructions for this venerable aulde Matchbox model start with assembling the bridge. I saved this part for after I'd made the tank. It's a rather lovely thing! You need to pay attention at this stage, as the components are quite siecifjc in how they go together. 

Oops! I forgot to add a weight to the inner rear of the tank.

Having assembled the bridge, whilst casting my eye over the instructions I spotted an important step in the construction of the tank that I'd omitted; adding a counterweight, so the attached bridge won't topple the model forwards! 

I used a hacksaw to remove the head of a latte heavy hex-headed bolt. I then had to bar God the resulting nut bybreming about 1mm from opposite sides, so it'd fit in the very narrow Churchill tank body. As ur forgotten to do thus at the construction stage, it meant I had to perform fairly drastic surgery to the rear underside of the rank body to get the weight in.

The instructions called for 20g of weight. Miraculously that's exactly what the nut weighed initially. It lost a gram in the process of dancing the two sides, winding up weighing 19 grams. I superglued it into the base of the tank, and 'stitched' the patient back up with surgical glue!

The nut part of a large bolt, sawn off by hand.

It also required a small amount of narrowing to fit...

... on two opposite facets.

Bridge and winch assembled.

By end of play last night I had all the kit assembled, bar actually attaching the bridge. Oh, and the mudguards (are these what Americans call the fenders?). The winch assembly is a fun thing to assemble. Fiddly but satisfying! 

I may be mad. And/or it may prove impossible. But I have a yen to build the bridge in such a way that it actually folds, so it can be shown both stowed and deployed. Hence saving this part of this build to the end. I'll need to fabricate some mini-moving joints!

Winch assembly in place.

So, that's it for part two of this very enjoyable build. Today is friday, the tubal teaching day of this half-term. Once the work's out of the way, I can return to the conundrum of building the bridge. I also need to source some crew figures, to populate my now open-hatched vehicle. What fun!