Wargamer’s Notebook 32

On one of my school English reports it says, “Michael should spend less time reading military history and more reading the classics of English literature”. I considered this rather rich in that I was part of a very small minority that voluntarily read at all. But it was written by my favourite teacher (hello Mr. Shepherd, wherever you are), and he did have a point. In those days there was some Napoleonics and ancients, but lots of WWII. LOTS. I could tell you just about anything and I devoured book after book on the topic. My volume on Kursk, by Geoffrey Jukes from memory, eventually fell apart through overuse. I raised the headmaster’s eyebrows when I requested a German Army uniform book for my O Level prize. When I wasn’t reading about it or gaming it, I was at the library, Imperial War Museum or Bovington, collecting names for all my troops, making up kits or perfecting Wehrmacht camouflage. I was, in truth, a complete nutter and probably a crushing bore to boot. [Distant cries of “Nothing changes!”]

At the time, WWII gaming was at least as favoured as Napoleonics, and much more frequently played. I will save the stories about the boy with a suitcase full of Shermans, and the mysterious moving railway truck, for another day. Time passed, rule complexity and opponents changed, as did the ‘fun’ aspect and moral sensitivities. I am not exactly sure why, but I reached the point when I pretty much ruled off my interest in history at 1905 (apart from a curious and enduring interest in WWI and inter-war ‘planes). This may simply have been my personal manifestation of that oddest of syndromes – the feeling that wargames are morally suspect, unless you go far enough back in time, or into sufficient levels of abstraction, for it not to worry you. I know many people who will happily kill Hittites or Sea Peoples, but regard anything with a trench, machine gun, Exocet or swastika as unacceptably close to home. Bruce Quarrie still sticks in my memory because he played and studied WWII, and even wrote books about it, but was morally offended by flame throwers – so offered no rules for them! Everyone has inconsistencies, and a psychological line where wargames become ‘black’ – to coin a useful WD phrase. The line is not always logically supportable, and not always evident, but firmly there.

Anyway. I digress. So, interest waning, I mothballed my tanks and sold off most of my huge collection of WWII books and forgot all about the period. Which was a bit of a daft move because, in that way life has, this Spring I returned to my first love with a vengeance. WWII was back in! Why? I can only point to modelling as the cause. In the same way that making Tamiya kits first got me into wargaming, a recent resurgence of interest lead me to buy a MMS Stug III which I built into a little diorama. I was taken by the speed of construction, the detail, and the fact that there were more tank kits available than I could have dreamed about in the late seventies. Indeed, with a bit of digging, there are so many that even the most obscure combat vehicle is out there somewhere, not to mention quite a few experimental ones. I was genuinely surprised, but I suppose if you effectively drop out of a hobby for twenty years, things can improve! So there I was, looking around the shows ostensibly for interesting Renaissance artillery, and all the while my eyes were wandering to Hellcats, Autoblindas and Centaurs. I cracked. I bought. I now officially have more than my body weight in lead and plastic for all periods.

And it doesn’t stop there does it? Inspired by Tony Greenland’s masterclass book, and Partizan II, which featured an uncommonly high number of WWII games (albeit often with far too much armour crammed onto the board), and the excellent ITV series World War II in Colour, I started planning: scenarios, researching uniforms, books to re-buy, a Steel Masters subscription, trying to find my Squad Leader miniatures variant, and justifying more and more purchases. Ten tank kits and about fifty figures appeared mysteriously on my workbench and sat there for most of an incredibly busy Summer. This with an already overdue Renaissance game project on the go. When I caught myself thinking about ski troops on the bus, and eyeing up an entire armoured train at EuroMilitaire, I knew it had to stop. So I settled down and cleared the backlog of kits, painted up my paras, and decided to keep matters small and (almost) under control. But I am still very keen, so more purchases will follow. And I really do want that train.

My problem remains that I can’t concentrate on anything for very long before flitting off, usually after seeing something interesting at a show or in a magazine (so yes, it is usually all Duncan’s fault). At the moment I am bouncing around between Napoleonics, Landsknechts, Darkest Africa, Old West, the aforementioned tanks, Ancient Egyptians and Bretonnian Grail Knights. Chances are I will never get any of them ‘finished’, and I will have no chance at all when the Foundry Sassanids appear. Then this morning White Dwarf arrived with some very tasty figures for Mordheim, in what must be their best issue for ages. Must resist, must resist. So I have resigned myself to skirmish size games, or perhaps a token unit, for anything outside my core period – Napoleonics. Does that make me a bad person?

While I can hardly claim to be an expert, and for most of you this will be sucking eggs, I thought I’d put down a few pointers to the companies that have benefited from my WWII fad, mainly through the good offices of my credit card. We start with Raventhorpe who have some superb buildings and a range of curious little half-tracks that just have to be bought. Skytrex have provided me with some of the more obscure vehicles, their range is huge, but their castings are less than perfect and I question the accuracy of my Sturmtiger which seems massive. I like some of the SHQ guns and figures, especially the German cavalry and bicycle troops – many of these have made their way into the painting queue along with their cute little Kettenkrad. MMS have an excellent range of quality white metal vehicles and some very nice crew figures, which form a helpful adjunct to those available from AB which are, to my mind, the best around. I have a mixture of the two ranges manning my tanks but am looking for more – I always did like the pink piping. I have also bought crews and quite a few resin kits from Milicast, who are expensive, and quite fiddly to make up, but are top notch in variety and range of subjects, and also detail – their half-track mounted flakvierling is outstanding. I have picked up a couple of old Matchbox Wespes and Hanomags (hard to believe they are 20 years old) and several Revell items – the new Tiger Is are incredible kits (if you can handle the separate track links) and the Panther D looks good as well – especially with the Eduard etched brass add-ons. A couple of Esci models provide exotica, but are in 1/72 rather than 1/76 which is noticeable (I speak as a man sensitised by 1/87 Roco Minitanks, which I used for years, which neatly expose the ‘OO/HO compatibilty’ lie).

But the bulk of my forces come from John Bruce’s talented fingers at Figures Armour Artillery. I have the entire range of Fallschirmjaeger and am sorely tempted by just about every other figure in the catalogue – the British are particularly appealing. Either way, I am likely to crack on France 1940 soon with the excellent FAA Poilus, Somuas, FT17s and Matchbox’s Char B1 all beckoning. Why FAA? I just like the figures – poses, detail, selection – even if I don’t much care for them painted with black undercoat. But that is me. FAA have spread their wings and are now offering 28mm figures for the Spanish Civil War and some extremely nice vehicles in both 28mm and 20mm – the Polish tankette is a must buy, even if I have no use for it, apart from sitting it next to a JagdTiger for scale effect! They also have some reasonably priced mixed- media tank kits – the T28 is quite superb – and many more are coming. More on these as space, and my tank production line, permit.

It is easy to overdo the paranoia, given the fact there are still some people in the hobby who would like to punch me on the nose, but I have to tell you this story because it is funny. I always go to the very local, small (but perfectly formed) Broadsword show, put on by the Loughton Strike Force. Incognito of course; only my boss ‘D’ knows my true identity (well, and Dave Thomas and Nancy at Hersants). In my pocket is a Walther PPK, under my tongue is a cyanide capsule. Or is that a Smartie? This year, for some reason, I was sent a complimentary Broadsword ticket. I thought nothing of it, beyond being very grateful and wondering why there was an ‘S’ on the corner (or was it a 5?). As the day of the show approached, I started to worry a little. What if the ticket was a trap? “Ah yes Kato, the old ‘ticket lure’ ploy you know.” As soon as I turned up, my cover would be blown. No, surely I thought, no-one would be that sad. But you never know. So I gave my ticket to my mate and sent him in ahead of me – a good scout is a dead scout, I always say. As soon as the ticket was handed over, the flurry of activity started. The ticket office door opened, much whispering among the stewards, and my mate was pointed out, “He’s here!”, with me standing behind them trying not to laugh. What is the world coming to?! The only downside is that my mate now has to employ a minder and carry an ID card. Good try lads, but you have to get up earlier in the morning to catch The Elusive Sig!

I have been keenly waiting on Wargamer: Napoleon 1813 (Empire Interactive, PC only) for a long time. It is finally here, but such is the proximity of the deadline I have only been able to play a couple of scenarios – so more detail next time. Napoleon 1813 is the first in a planned series covering operational level Napoleonics. Designed by a team of designers headed by Benedict Wilkins, a gamer of long standing and repute, it offers a real-time experience (which might be an issue if you are not as quick as your 7 year old godson, he said with feeling). You are supreme commander and must manage diverse troop types and subordinates while planning a campaign to beat the enemy and – yes, issuing orders! The key appeal is that the strategic game ‘zooms in’ to the tactical level, at which point you can fight the battle with animated figure units or have the PC work out the result. The graphics are a little uninspired and strangely dark in tone, but the game is tough and involving and there are plenty of period touches as one would expect from a hobby gamer. Napoleon 1813 is available from all good software outlets or, usually, a little cheaper from mail order retailers.

A couple of columns ago I wrote, effusively, about GMB Design’s range of 25mm flags. These are ready coloured to the highest standards and make up into flags that are hard to tell apart from a professional paint job – which would cost you five times the price or more. Since the minor initial production problems have been sorted out, and the selection has grown at an alarming rate, I am going to mention them again. Recent additions include French standards, tailored to individual regiments, some more British regimental colours (these are superb, the colour rendition is spot on) and rumours indicate that an ACW range is in the works. These really are the best commercial flags I have ever seen and I urge you to support this venture. GMB Designs, 16 Goodwin Rd, Heeley, Sheffield S8 9TJ can supply lists or pick them up from the chameleon-like First Corps at shows.

As you will have gathered, I buy a lot of books. I will not argue that any of them are particularly inexpensive, but many represent incredible value for money – the H&C range spring straight to mind. Some are not quite so good. The reason I am writing is to warn you about Men of Waterloo, the latest book in the ‘Silver’ series. Now when I heard about this one, bearing in mind The Thin Red Line is one of my favourite volumes, I bought it sight unseen. Bad move. £35 lighter, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Some decent black and white images, but only a handful of colour plates, some of which have appeared before in Military Illustrated. Given that H&C put together a full colour book for £20, and the recent opus on Napoleon’s Elite Cavalry, packed full of Rousselot plates, was £40, Men of Waterloo is just taking liberties. The text is good, but it isn’t worth £35. Avoid.

Some of you may remember my medical trials and tribulations from a couple of years back. An allergic reaction had affected my nose, making solvent based products a no-go area, and an over-zealous painting session had neatly damaged my brush-holding thumb. The thumb has been resolved by living with the pain (I suffer for my art!) and restricting painting sessions to a couple of hours. I also use triangular brush handles, or cut ‘sleeves’ for my round brushes out of high density foam – I use the stuff that is intended for pipe lagging (it is helpful to have a brother who is a plumber). The nose issue has eased, despite the doc’s prediction otherwise, and I can just about tolerate Humbrol Enamels again, in small doses. This is useful, as however keen one is on acrylics, I don’t think they are as hard wearing. I also like the new Super Enamels – out of the tin they seem thin, chalky and weedy, but in fact seem to cover far better, dry even harder and shrink nicely onto the model. They are also very good for airbrushing. But sadly, the pong of turps is still powerful enough to drive me from the room. For a while I have been using Winsor & Newton’s Sansodor which still has a slight smell, but is generally okay. I also have their Oil of Spike Lavender (!) which is pleasant smelling, excellent for oil work with or without Liquin, but has the slight drawback of costing nearly £20 for a small bottle. This gets used for flat figures only! So I was very pleased to find two new thinners on the market. The first is called Talens Odourless White Spirit, and it does exactly what it says on the tin! It actually has no discernible smell at all, and is very reasonably priced at £4. Excellent stuff. The only drawback is that it is, presumably, still white spirit at heart and has the same noxious effects without the warning whiff? So keep it well away from small people, or your glass of mineral water. Either way, it is my thinner of choice these days. And finally, £4 also buys you Zest It – a completely ‘green’, non-flammable, non-toxic thinner that I can only describe as smelling like a Jif Lemon. It is made from citrus oils and hydrocarbons and seems to have the problem licked. I have been using this mainly as a brush cleaner, as while it too is excellent stuff, I have noted a little residue in certain colours when using it as a medium. Talens and Winsor & Newton have stockists all over the place, while Zest It is available from one of my favourite shops – L Cornelissen & Son in Great Russell St, 020 7636 1045.

At Colours, I was fortunate to meet up with Mark Wilkin who wrote the excellent painting piece in a recent WI. I met him at 2.30pm, we were still chatting at 4pm. We swapped stories, rules recommendations, painting tips and general hobby chat – finding out we both share a weakness for the Brunswickers of the Napoleonic Wars. Would I like to go and see how his painting competition entry got on? He won two prizes and the Best of Show Guard Chasseur was stunning. I am in awe.

And finally can I make two apologies: firstly for a rather ‘personal’ column this time (it was just the mood I was in) and secondly to Messrs. Patten of Gripping Beast for inadvertently excluding them from my list of top notch painters – it was a slip, not a slight. Indeed, when we pestered said company after Colours, they were more than forthcoming with painting tips. Great people, great figures. Oil, oil. Slurp, slurp.