Wednesday 24 November 2010

Finished Tank Crews: "B" Battalion, Tank Corps, 1917

I’ve posted below the finished crew figures from one of the sections of “B” Battalion of the Tank Corps from 1917, based on the descriptions of these soldiers in Ian Verrinder’s outstanding book “Tank Action in the Great War”.

Each of the Mark IV tanks (irrespective of being Male or Female) had eight crewmen, with an additional section commander (usually a First Lieutenant or Captain) joining one of the three or four tanks which comprised a section in the Tank Corps in 1917.

I painted up 18 figures to accompany my section of four tanks. Of course, if all the four tanks “ditch” and the crews get out, I’m in trouble in umpiring a game! Probably not in as much trouble as the British player will be in by that point, but trouble nonetheless....

However, painting 33 tank crewmen to cope with this remote possibility does seem a little excessive. So, there’s 18 finished figures, plus two casualty figures to simulate “shock” in the “Through the Mud and the Blood” rules which we use for our Great War games. The motorcyclist belongs with “B” Battalion but not the tank crews, and slipped into the rear of the photo owing to my over-enthusiasm.

A number of the tank crew figures are converted. The officer with the ash-plant walking stick is based on Major Mark Dillon of “B” Battalion who served as one of the battalion’s reconnaissance officers at Dessart Wood in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Shortly before an attack, tanks would be guided to their starting positions by reconnaissance officers following white cloth tapes laid out over the battle field. Following these tapes in the dark, over a battle-scarred terrain was far from straightforward. The tapes could rip under strain, or be cut by shells or by tanks passing over them. Major Dillon’s vivid recollection is featured in Ian Verrinder’s book: “there is always a dirty trick awaiting one where least expected. All went well until the Company reached the point where I had left the beginning of the tape. It had gone. …..A search right and left and found our tape again. I had suffered an agonising hour, and the relief of finding the tape was enormous” (Tank Action in the Great War, page 103). I also swapped the officer's Webley for a flare pistol, reasoning that a reconnaissance officer would be far more likely to carry a flare pistol on a filthy, pitch black night than a .455 Webley revolver. The 'tape' was made using the foil from an old wine bottle.

I added a spare Vickers machine gun to one of the prone crewmen to replicate him having dragged a machine gun from his tank after it had "ditched". Afficionados will immediately realise that the Mark IV tank didn’t actually have Vickers machine guns fitted – however, at the time I did the conversion, I didn't realise that I could get 1/56th scale Lewis guns from a supplier on the internet. The strips of Vickers ammunition are just thin brass wire cut to fit and glued along a strip of the foil from the same wine bottle.

The small black cat on the single base is a historical mascot. Oddly enough, this isn't made up - there are a couple of references to cats serving as mascots of British and Americal tank commanders in the variouos books about Great War tanks. The cat is courtesy of Irregular Miniatures (does anyone else make 1/56th scale cats?). I sense a “Through the Mud and the Blood” card, ‘Lucky Charm’ or ‘Sooty’, approaching!

I also wanted a figure to look as if he’s loading up a tank with the not inconsiderable stores which would need to be carried into a battle. According to John Glanfield in “The Devil’s Chariots”, “The tanks’ already narrow gangways became choked with more drums of engine oil and grease, a spare machine gun and four barrels, 33,000 rounds of Small Arms Ammunition in the female types, thirty tins of food, sixteen loaves, and, for some, a basket of carrier pigeons” (page 154). He’d also do for a supply tank for when I get round to that. I love the cigarette hanging from his bottom lip as he carries two tins of petrol to his tank.

Finally, here’s a picture of the figures deployed on the wargames table. I’m planning a game later this month, ‘Jackdaw Wood’, which will also feature in the TooFatLardies "Christmas Special" along with an article on wargaming with First World War tanks. The game will be featuring these figures and the finished tanks from ‘B’ Battalion (see earlier blog posts), and I’ll post an AAR here when we’ve played through the scenario.

In the next blog post, I'll feature the finished and weathered tanks. Look forward to seeing you then.

Monday 15 November 2010

Beer and Lard Day 13 November 2010: “A Greenhouse in a Hailstorm”

I drove up to Burton-on-Trent this Saturday for a full day of gaming with Richard Clarke, Rob Avery and other TwoFatLardies enthusiasts. I was running a game of “Through the Mud and the Blood”, with Richard joining me for the journey to run through a few games of “Terrible Sharpe Sword”, the American Civil War follow up to “Sharpe Practice”. Simon Gaudin from Burton had organised the games in the local Salvation Army Hall (which fortunately had heating on a cold morning!) and had invited about twenty or so of his friends drawn from across the Midlands and North of England.

What followed was a really excellent day of gaming. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to umpire a game of “Mud and Blood” with new players and had the chance for a quick trip around Burton and a visit to a great hobby games shop, Spirit Games on Station Street in Burton (, as well as taking part and looking in on the other games being played on the day.

“A Greenhouse in a Hailstorm”

I brought up 6 of my terrain boards to run a scenario loosely based on some actions in first couple of days of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. I’d called the scenario “A Greenhouse in a Hailstorm”, the quotation taken from the letter of a tank crewman who was attacking Bourlon village with one of the British tank battalions. It does not take much to imagine how he arrived at that description, with his tank being peppered by armour-piercing ammunition on the slow trundle up to the enemy held buildings in Bourlon village.

I wanted to try an recreate some of the fighting which was seen in villages like Fontaine, Bourlon and Flesquieres in the early stages of the battle and which is vividly described in Bryn Hammond’s excellent book “Cambrai 1917”. Rather than pushing the tanks into the village without the support of infantry forces (which ended fairly disastrously on 23 November at Fontaine for the forces of “B” battalion of the Tank Corps), I allowed the attacking British forces a couple of standard British platoons in close support of a section of Mark IV tanks, two of which were Male and one Female.

The British players, Craig and Mike, were given a couple of rounds of opening bombardment to try and catch the defending German forces and dislocate the defences before the assault began in earnest.

The defending German player, Simon, was given a platoon of stellungsbattalion troops, with a reinforcing platoon of stosstruppen following close behind. His stellungsbattalion platoon was equipped with a maxim MG08 heavy machine gun with armour piercing ammunition, an anti-tank rifle, a sniper and two grenade throwing granatenwerfer 16s. His reinforcements were more potently equipped with two MG08/15 light machine gun teams, a couple of two-man flammwerfers and a tank attacking gruppe of 7 men led by a Feldwebel and equipped with concentration charges for use against the British tanks in close quarter fighting. All in all, an even match, I felt. I had thought about adding a 77mm field gun on the German side, but was worried that this might have unbalanced the scenario owing to the effect of such a field gun’s firing on British tanks under the “Mud and Blood” rules generally being fairly terminal once a hit is achieved.

The initial British bombardment damaged or destroyed much of the defensive wire and saturated the front line trench.

However, the Germans had already (as historically) evacuated the forward trench in anticipation of the barrage, preferring to make their stand in the cellars and shell-shattered remnants of the village. The German stellungsbattalion platoon held the British up for about 45 minutes of game time, doggedly defending the entrance to the village, fighting through damaged buildings and wrecked concrete bunkers.

The Germans were assisted by one of the British tanks, 'Century', bogging down on crossing the front line trench, but not before until all three tanks had unleashed a hurricane of 6 pdr case shot on the same game turn against the foremost defended building, literally blasting the stellungsbattalion troops out of their fortified position.

The same punishing treatment was handed out by the remaining British tanks to each strongpoint or building which they encountered, although the German defenders were extracting a heavy toll of the attacking British infantry.

By this time, German reinforcements had started seeping into the support trench, threatening to advance into the village and turn the British crawl into a stalemate.

Seeing this, the British players concentrated all their efforts on outflanking the village and pressing urgently down a communications trench to break the flow of enemy reinforcements. A vicious fire-fight ensued in the trenches outside the village, in which the greater British firepower triumphed, driving the first arriving of the stosstruppen gruppe back by sheer weight of fire.

Although more Germans were steadily pushing into the village, including the tank hunting gruppe and the flammwerfers, the British tanks continued to put down a withering close quarter fire on the German defensive positions, the Lewis guns of the Female tank being particularly (and perhaps surprisingly) effective. An additional British bombardment boxed off the support line trench running to the rear of the village from more of the advancing German stosstruppen and further threatened to dislocate the defenders’ communications.

With the British threatening to outflank the entire German position, the German commander withdrew his forces swiftly using the communication tunnels which had been prepared through the village. Bloodied, but not broken, the British forces were left in possession of the village.

The game was certainly close and exciting, being played in a great spirit by all three players. Simon, the German player, certainly had the worse of the draw of the “Mud & Blood” cards, with a number of German reinforcements being delayed when their presence may have contributed to turning the game. The British advance was relentless, however, making me wonder if the composition of forces had perhaps slightly favoured the British forces from the outset.

For those who are interested, I’ll try and get the scenario posted here a little later this week.

Justice T Lovetrain saves the day

Meanwhile, on the “Terrible Sharpe Sword” table, Richard was in speed-freak-umpire mode, managing about three games in the time it was taking me to umpire just one. The scenario varied slightly with each game, but saw Confederates defending a Southern mansion against rampaging Yankees. The terrain looked great, the rules seemed to be working very smoothly and there was a good stream of cheers and groans from that table throughout the day.

It’s Anzio, no its Malaya, no its Calais..

Also in top-notch form was Rob Avery with a series of smoothly umpired World War Two games in 15mm, ranging from Calais 1940, to Malaya 1942 and on to Anzio in 1943. The sheer globe-trotting dash of three different scenarios in three locations was pretty awesome, and again the punters looked well pleased with the action.

So, all in all an excellent day’s gaming. Sadly, it was my son’s 4th birthday party yesterday, so I could not stay over, but there’s already talk of a return visit next year. Consider me signed up!

Thursday 11 November 2010

Remembering the Fallen

For about fifteen years I’ve walked past them on my way to work. Up Cowcross Street, across Smithfield Market, through West Smithfield to London Wall, the same route. For a long time, I never really saw them, the memorials to the Fallen of the Great War in London. But the last few years, I’ve remembered to look up, or down, at them as I walk past twice a day.

I always try and read a name or two. It’s a humbling feeling, remembering so many lives cut short. Sadness. Loss. But there’s also a pride – the communal spirit of the men and women lost in the War, and other Wars, bound together by their ties of work, religion, or just the city in which they lived, and where I work and which I love.

Remembrance, and trying never to just walk by.

Smithfields Market: "For He Shall Give His Angels Charge over Thee"

The Churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: "Hallowed in Christ"

Friday 5 November 2010

Tank Building - Great War Style

I’ve added some photos below of constructing the four Mark IV tanks for my 1917 Tank Corps project. What took me so long? Well, that’s a very fair question. I started this project in September to be timed with a game that me and Richard Clarke are putting on in Burton on 13th November.

I can claim to have been busy in my non-hobby life. But hey, so is everyone reading this blog, right? So my work and personal life has, being truthful, only been part of the problem with the delay. The other major difficulty I had in October was in keeping myself motivated to build four of the tanks. One was fun, two fine, but the third and fourth were a really painful exercise. So, mea culpa, and I’ve learnt a salutary lesson when it comes to building sections of tanks in 28mm – go for the smaller section of three tanks not four!

That being said, here’s the snaps from the Roundwood Workbench.

Ok, first stage, give the resin a good clean. I figured that as the Great War Miniatures tanks have smelt very resin-y since arriving at Roundwood Towers, they were probably coated with some invisible release agent. Thinking I’d best take no chances, I did the metalled parts as well. Oh, and don’t forget to wash the sponsons...

As they arrived, fresh out of Northstar Nick’s parcel, I thought the Great War Miniatures Mark IVs were a nice kit. Certainly the surface detail was very finely sculpted, with numerous rivets, pistol loopholes and access hatches. There were some pretty pronounced mould lines on the models, however, especially at the rear of the tank. The same mould line appeared on each of the rear tank tread, but is pretty easily removed with a scalpel. I’m sure I can strategically place some mud on the part of the track which was affected, anyway. There was one tank with a mould line across the rear .. ‘fender’ (?).... of the tank, so some green stuff smoothed that down.

I had a little less fun with the large roll-bars which were such a prominent feature of the Mark IV. These were fitted to allow a “ditching beam”, which was basically a reinforced iron railway sleeper which could be chained around the tank tracks and rolled over the top of the tank (on the cast iron roll-bars) if, or more likely when, the tank “ditched” in the mud of the battlefield. The iron roll-bars seemed to be present in almost all of the photos of Mark IVs I’ve seen, and are a really nice feature to add. However, the Great War Miniatures Mark IV kit’s roll-bars are a bit fiddly to fit, to say the least. I ended up gently bending them and cutting down the locating lugs.

The reason for this is that models in my games are used at my local club as well as at home. I therefore wanted to make sure that the roll-bars were are as securely fixed as possible to the tank. To do this I glued the front roll-bar to the cabin of the tank, rather than (as would have been more historically accurate) leaving the bar elevated slightly above the cabin. OK, so I’m not a purist, and I admit the models as made by me are not strictly accurate. It’s a compromise, but if it means I never need to repair a broken roll-bar, I’m happy!

The roll-bars also needed a fair bit of filing before fitting. I wanted a smooth cast steel look for the top of the roll bars but the casting of the roll-bars wasn’t perfect. As you can see, filing the bars was a pretty tedious task when you have 16 to do (4 for each chance). Time for some music or a podcast, I think ...

Hopefully you can see in this picture the filed smooth right roll-bar being fitted to the top of the tank’s cabin. Without removing the front locating lugs the bar would have been elevated above the cabin’s roof. Hopefully, with the roll-bar being glued to the cabin roof instead, it will be more robust on the gaming table. Fingers crossed...

Now for a more pleasant task, the sponsons. These fitted well on the Male Mark IVs, but there’s quite a bit of trimming to do on the Female Mark IVs as without this the entrance/escape doors under the Female sponsons won’t fit flush with the side of the model.

One this is done, however, the sponsons look very impressive, and are nicely cast on both Male and Female models. The 6-pdrs guns on the Male tanks fitted fine. My main decision here was whether to go with the Hotchkiss machine guns which Great War Miniatures supply all the Mark IV models with. My reading of the Mark IVs in action in 1917 at Passchendaele and Cambrai was that they were still equipped with the Lewis gun with an ammunition drum. Ian Verrinder in his excellent “Tank Action in the Great War” mentions that at Fontaine on 22 November 1917 the Lewis guns performed particularly badly, with many Lewis Guns being rendered unworkable in the action, not least through the guns being vulnerable to armour-piercing bullets and splinters (“Tank Action in the Great War”, page 156-157).

After reading this, I was keen to give my clubmates who are aspiring Great War ‘tankies’ some realistic problems with “B” Battalion’s Lewis guns. I wanted to swop the supplied Hotchkiss for some Lewis guns to fit into tank sponsons. No-one yet makes these, but from most of the photos of Mark IVs from Ypres and Cambrai all that really can be seen is the Lewis gun’s metal tubing. I therefore used some brass rod cut to the same length and drilled out the sponson holes accordingly. Not a perfect solution, I admit, but I liked the slightly different look it gave.

One final message about sponsons. The Female sponsons should be glued in place with the vision slits at the top, and pistol loophole at the bottom of the sponson. Any photo should show this fine. You could, of course, be like me and find out the hard way that you’d glued a sponson upside down......and have to prise the sponson off and fix it later!

The long exhaust was easy to fit without much work. I added a slightly greater bend to a couple of the exhausts supplied. Apart form that, perfect.

Then to fitting the roll-bars. You don’t want to do this too early, as once they’re fitted the model becomes a lot more delicate. It was a juggling act trying to glue these chaps in place and took a number of goes to get the first one right. The others were quicker, but by the end of the fourth, I was thoroughly hacked off with the project !! The problem was in getting the bars to hold in place while the glue set. I mainly use araldite because an epoxy, at least in my eyes, is less brittle than super glue, especially when you’re using the models a lot in gaming. But in situations like this, super glue, in retrospect (and especially with an accelerant), would have been better. In the end, even after the roll-bars were glued I added some thin solution super-glue (the sort you use for naval rigging) to the more exposed joins for greater strength.

At least once you’ve got the roll-bars in place, you’re almost there. Next step was the ditching beam. Great War Miniatures’ early castings of Mark IVs didn’t seem to have these, which is a real shame as the ones now supplied are very nice indeed. They are well cast and a fine chunk piece of metal which adds a lot to the finished model. I glued them in place on the roll-bars, holding them in place with blu-tac as they dried.

I was in a bit of a quandary about how these beams were actually attached in action. I searched the books I had looking for photos without success, and looked on the Landships website ( for more information without finding anything. There were several accounts, particularly at Passchendaele, of the ditching beam being shot away by enemy shelling, so I did wonder whether they were lashed on with ropes. However, as the ditching beams were clearly chained on when the “unditching” process was happening (the Osprey Mark IV has a great illustration of this), I settled for the fact that the ditching beams were probably chained on. I got some 14 link-per-25mm chains from 4D Models in east London and glued these in place near to where the roll-bars joined. I made sure that the chain ends were equal lengths to ensure that it looked as if the beam was double chained to the roll-bars. If anyone has any information as to how the ditching beams were actually secured, I’d be very interested, although please note I am not changing the models now !

All that was left was a quick spray with Halford’s car primer and they’re ready for painting and weathering. I carved an offcut of Styrofoam the size to fit into the underside of the model to hold each tank as it’s painted. Finally, to provide a bit of inspiration, I put the tanks on the gaming table, trundling through a shell-pocked wood to try and get me motivated to finish!

How did I rate the Great War Miniatures Mark IV as a model to build? Probably about 7 out of 10 for the Female and 8 out of 10 for the Male (owing to the Female's entrance/escape doors not fitting well). It's a very nicely cast kit, but the roll-bars are a real pain to fit. Probably add an extra "1" if you're just doing one model instead of four!

I’m hoping to get at least a couple of the tanks, and the final tank crew, painted this weekend. Wish me luck!
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