Monday, 4 June 2012

"Die Rattenkeller" – a Jubilee Weekend project


I don’t often go green with envy, but the moment I saw it, I knew I wanted one.  And in the year since it first appeared, I’ve kept thinking about how I would make it, how it might be different, how he did it, and how I could try and do something which was worthy of comparison.

What on earth am I talking about? Here’s an idea …





The object of desire in this case is a piece of wargaming terrain.  It was built by one of my favourite bloggers, Phil Robinson of the News from the Front blog, who very kindly gave me his permission to some of use his photos in this blog post.





From the minute I saw Phil’s superb double story bunker, which he called “Die Rattenkeller”, I loved the idea.  It was a really striking piece of terrain, something to really stand out on a Great War battlefield. 

Phil had taken his inspiration from a 1970s television series, Anzacs.  At first I was pretty skeptical that any double story pillboxes were used on the Western Front – it seemed like artistic license.  However, when I looked further I found that, while far from being common, they were certainly some double-story bunkers employed on the German Siegfried Stellung, particularly in Flanders.  These tended to be the focus of fierce fighting owing to their dominance of the local terrain.  The "Alberta" and "Cockroft" pillboxes in the Ypres Salient were two good examples, the latter being taken by a skillful tank attack by G Battalion of the Tank Corps in a dawn raid in July 1917.

Finding some historical examples was not as easy as finding historical images, however.  I’d found one of the Alberta pillbox after its capture, but it appeared to be in a fairly damaged state when photographed.  But with a bit of rationalization, and educated guesswork I’d worked out the broad aim of what I wanted to try and do to emulate Phil’s fantastic piece of work.

I was hampered a bit by wanting to build my own “Rattenkeller” into my trench terrain boards layout.  Whereas Phil built his free standing, building mine into a trench layout proved a bit difficult to try and fit the bunker in at the right point of the line.  My reasoning was to build the bunker as if part of the main battle zone, or Grosskampfzone, of the Siegfried Stellung, something which would be a battalion or company command position and would be the focus of a British tank and infantry attack. That idea seemed to fit reasonably well with the bunker I wanted to construct – something which would be a centerpiece for one of our participation games at a wargames show or a full days gaming.

To add to the fun, I also wanted to build a destroyed version, for reasons which may become a little clearer in a later post.  Here’s how I went about building the Rattenkeller this Royal Jubilee weekend.

Starting out

I built a couple of terrain boards, one for the Rattenkeller board, one for a different terrain project. I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t bore you with the details!  Suffice to say that I took my time, as building a great base helps set the tone for the terrain, despite wanting to rush ahead.



Then, I mapped out what I wanted to do in a notepad, working out where the connecting trenches would run, and the area to be taken by the Rattenkeller and other features on the board.



I then removed a large central section of the Styrofoam base, so I could lift the bunker in and out, replacing it when I needed to in a game for the destroyed version.




I tried to make the Styrofoam “walls” of the central area as smooth as possible to allow easy access for the bunker section.



I then glued the bunker Styrofoam to a hardboard base with contact adhesive, weighting it down for most of yesterday.



I added shell craters …



… and started mapping out the ruined version of the bunker.




I added an area on the terrain board for some special features, in this case some removable, integral barbed wire sections which again could be in different versions – intact and destroyed. I made sure to scrape out any excess glue and contact adhesive from the area in which the wire bases were to be placed.





I then cut out the Rattenkeller’s walls, trying to work out the height from photos of the Alberta double story pillbox in Peter Barton’s book on Passchendaele panoramas.  While it looks tall, you have to remember that the trenches are recessed on my trench boards, so the height above the Styrofoam base is what will mainly be seen on the table.




I then glued a central core in place to give stability, adding some steps from the upper storey to the ground floor …




… then a final dry-test-run …




… before adding some screws for stability in addition to the contact adhesive.  And, after the end of the second day (this evening), this is where I’ve got to.  This is only a very brief blog post, as I’m hoping to blog as I go along over the next couple of days.  Hope you can join me for the rest!

22 comments:

  1. Woooooo! I like the look of this! I shall be following with great interest!

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    1. Thanks Ray, I only hope I don't cock it up!

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  2. That is quite something and it's been a while since I've heard Anzacs mentioned, Paul Hogan was in it I remember!

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    1. Paul Hogan - now that's a name from the past. I should buy some Castlemaine XXXX to get into the mood.

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  3. Excellent work, Sidney. I look forward to seeing this progress.
    -Curt

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    1. Thanks Curt - I'm watching your stuff closely as well. Forgive me, I'm behind on commenting on other blogs!

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  4. Fantastic work here Sidney! I too am looking forward to more.

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    1. Thanks Rodger ... certainly more to come!

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  5. Another great project being meticulously executed Sidney; can't wait for the next installment.
    The ANZACs series you mention as Phil's inspiration was filmed in 1984 and aired in late 1985. The Regiment I was in at the time provided extras on many occasions and I managed to get 'in the action' several times; once as an Aussie and twice as a German. Even got to lug around an MG15/08 for a day; being gunned down numerous times during the filming of the Nieppe forest battle. Also met and chatted with Patsy Adam-Smith that day, author of the book 'The ANZACs' from which the series was inspired. A lovely lady indeed.
    Great blog Sidney; inspirational stuff!

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    1. Graeme - that a fantastic piece of information! It's amazing you took part in that series, and on both sides!! Did you get a good look inside the double-storey bunker? You can tell me mine's all wrong - too small, too large , etc, etc!!!

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    2. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the double pillbox, though you may be interested to know that most of the deep trenches were formed above ground from fabricated panels, and of course some clever camera angles. I imagine the pillbox would have had a very spartan interior in spite of the well detailed exterior due to the relatively small budget of the series (about $1m; small even in 1984)
      As for the size, I think you've got it spot on Sidney. Large enough to be an imposing presence on the board and on a dominating elevation. Inside seems large enough for the garrison of MG crews and artillery observation staff. Perfect!

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    3. Thanks so much Graeme for sharing your experiences of live action Stellungskrieg!! I have agonized about the size of the bunker on the board. As you'll see shortly, it can encompass quite a few figures. "The Cockroft", close to Sint Julien in the Ypres Salient, yielded over 40 soldiers when they surrendered in the dawn attack I mentioned on 19 August 1917. In the "Through the Mud and the Blood" scenario, "Pinpricks of Success", I wrote for the 2010 TFL Christmas Special based on the action at "The Cockroft", I suggested using up to 18 figures including a Big Man within the bunker. So, to be true to my own scenario, I was working with the base sizes (25mm circular) for the figures and arrived at the bunker size you see in the photos. It does look large (well, at least in its intact form), but large was not always ideal by the later stages of the Great War! Thanks again for the comment, Graeme.

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  6. Another fantastic project Sidney, already taking shape but really looking forward to the next stage.

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    1. Thanks Michael - not sure about fantastic...I'll be delighted in not screwing it up totally by making the bunker the wrong shape!

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  7. Sidney, can't wait to see the finished product. I too had turned a little green (with envy) when I saw Phil's fine rendition. I'm not sure how common two-storey pillboxes were, but there is certainly historical evidence for their existence. Bean's history of the Anzac's, vol. IV, pp. 771-772 contains a grim story of an assault on one such position. You can read it at: http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/category/exhibitions/to-flanders-fields-1917/
    Digger.

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    1. Digger - that's a great link, thank you so much. The ANZAC House featured in your link was exactly the sort of thing I was looking to do, albeit that's a bit more battered around than I want my "intact" version. I'm with you in thinking that double-storey bunkers were uncommon, at least in the main defence line, but there's even bigger ones than mine and Phil's featured in Peter Oldham's (very good, if a bit dry) "Pillboxes on the Western Front" - albeit divisional observation positions in the rear lines. Thanks again for commenting and good luck with your own first-class terrain!

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  8. Thats looking rather grand already, can't wait to see the finished piece, it will look very striking I think.

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    1. Phil, if it's half as good as yours, I'll be delighted. Thanks so much again for letting me use your photos of the original.

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  9. This is looking very interesting! I wish I had your patience for building scenery!

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