Friday, 9 October 2020

Book Review: TankCraft Series Latest Releases - Tiger I and Tiger II, Jagdpanzer IV, Panzer III and Panther

 It has been a long time since I assembled a historical plastic model kit. However, the urge does occasionally take me, and then I have to try to decide what I am going to build. The last kit I worked on was to help my son assemble a Soviet WW2 Aerosan (Trumpeter 1:35 RF8). Which was probably 10 years ago and although fully assembled is still waiting for final touches to the paint job and a scenic base...

Anyway, it has always been at the back of my mind that I would like to tackle a German WW2 tank kit. I am not sure which one, but I suppose there is a good chance it would either be a Tiger 1 or a Pather. With that in mind, I have just picked up and read the four latest offerings from Pen and Sword's TankCraft series of books.

Now, due to the nature of these books, I don't see the point in reviewing them individually, they all share the same features, and are laid out exactly the same. So I will post plenty of photos from the different books and just give you a general impression of them all.

The first section of each book is given over to a reasonably detailed history of the units using these armoured vehicles over the periods defined in the subtitles of the books. For example, the Tiger 1 and Tiger 2 book looks exclusively at the Normandy Campaign of 1944, with no information about their use either before or after this period, or in other theatres (this information is to be found in other volumes of the TankCraft series of books).

As a modeller guide, this information is in great depth and should allow a modeller to thoroughly research which unit he wants to depict on his model, as well as going into considerable depth about manoeuvers and engagements that these tanks were involved in.

The second section is a very in-depth look at all of the developments and modifications that were carried out on these vehicles during the period covered in each book. Again an invaluable resource for modellers looking to accurately represent a specific tank or unit that interests them. One thing that I did notice that annoyed a little was the author did seem to assume that the reader would have a fairly good prior knowledge of these vehicles. For example, in the Panther book, it is mentioned that at a certain point in the war, most Panthers had had their Muzzle Brakes removed, or came without them. However, there was no explanation as to why this was. To be honest, I am still none the wiser about this...

The books are all illustrated with plenty of photos of the actual vehicles, and each photo is accompanied by as much information as possible relating to where and when it was taken, which unit the tank was with and details about the particular vehicle where possible. 

As well as the black and white photos the centre of the books feature several pages of side on illustrations of the various tanks showing, as close as possible, colour representations of the paint schemes and camouflage markings. This I found better than the colour descriptions within the text, as the author insists on using the Official German names for the paints (this is also reflected in other parts of the books where german terms are used without translation). I understand that the proper name should be featured and recorded, however, as this is a guide for model makers, it would be preferable if an English translation of the paint names was also included.

After the colour illustrations, there is a section showing examples of the models, as built and painted by some master model builders. These offer some good insight into what can be achieved.

This is followed by a look at the different kits available that can be used to build models of the vehicles featured in each book. It generally covers 1/72, 1/48 and 1/35, although does occasionally mention other scales where appropriate.

So that, more or less, sums up the contents of these books. As far as personal impressions go, I would say that these are books of two halves. The first half, being the history of the vehicle, is very detailed and a good resource for military historians and the second half is an excellent guide to modelling the vehicles. 

How much of the history part of these books will really appeal to the model makers will depend on the interests of the individuals, however, for someone who has both an interest in the history and the model making, they will be an invaluable addition to their bookshelves.

I must admit, I was not fully aware of the roles that some of these tanks played in the war, for some reason I was under the impression that the Panther was a replacement for the Tiger I. Still, I now understand the relative roles of these four vehicles. 

I am still leaning toward putting together a Tiger I. Now the search begins for a suitable 1/48 scale kit...

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Book Review: Cameras at War by John Wade

 Finding a book that combines two of your, very different, interests sometimes seems too good to be true. So when I spotted that Pen and Sword Books were releasing a book titled Cameras at War I was somewhat intrigued. I have had an interest in military history for many years (as I would hope would be evident by the nature of this blog), and also as a keen photographer it seemed like a perfect match. However, I have seen books like this that can turn out to be very dry and lets face it, boring, if they simply document the subject, without any real feeling for the content.

My hopes were raised when I realised the author was John Wade, as its not long since I thoroughly enjoyed reading his The Golden Age of Science Fiction, also from Pen and Sword.

There are many books on conflict photography, usually concentrating on particular photographers, or war zones. However, this is the first book that I have seen that is squarely focused on the equipment used to capture the photographs. Starting with the earliest daguerreotype plate cameras and mobile, horse drawn, darkrooms it runs right through to the development of more modern 35mm film cameras and even spy cameras, such as the eponymous Minox range. The book also covers the development of movie cameras and various film sizes (many of which were used for both still photographs and movies).

A well as the standard photographers cameras the book looks at some of the more unusual cameras that have been produced, such as those designed specifically to be used in aerial reconnaissance. These cameras were generally too big to be hand held (at least for very long) and were often mounted in the planes and operated by remote control by the pilot. 

Also featured is the bizarre Hythe Mark III machine gun camera. This was developed as a way to teach air crew how to use a machine gun in dog fights, without actually risking other pilots lives. The machine gun camera was built to resemble a Lewis gun and was designed in such an ingenious way that the magazine became the film holder (which the pilot could swap out to change the film). Cocking the gun advanced the film in the camera, and pulling the trigger took the photo. When the pilot returned to the ground, the film was processed and the photos could be accessed to see if the range was correct and if the target was centred accurately.

There is a good examination of the range of more normal cameras that were used by both professional photographers and also carried and used by normal soldiers (obviously size and portability were important for both types, but possibly more important for the non-professionals).

As well as the major conflicts covered in this book, there is an interesting look at the cameras that were used and developed during the Cold War. These ranged from the miniature cameras that a spy could hide about their person, to cameras that were converted to fit into briefcases and handbags to allow covert photos to be taken in public places.

I can't say that I had more than a passing knowledge of the history of photography (we must have covered some of it when I was at art school, but that was 30 years ago). However, this book has covered a lot of the important historical points as it moved through the development of camera equipment used during war time.

A fascinating read that I got through in no time at all. If you are at all interested in some of the ore obscure aspects of military history, or the history of photography, I would highly recommend this book.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Book Review: The Art and Making of Fantasy Miniatures by Jamie Kendall

As a wargames miniatures sculptor, it is always interesting to see how other sculptors and companies work, what their motivation is and how they design their miniatures. So this book was bound to end up in my collection.

When the book arrived, the first impression was that it was clearly a "coffee table" book. Large, hardcovered and full of lavish colour photographs and illustrations. On the initial flick through the book, I was a little surprised at the minimal amount of text included.

The book is split into eleven main chapters, each focusing on a different figure manufacturer. 

Now, it soon becomes apparent that the different companies included have each written their own content, and unfortunately some of them have really only given the bare minimum. This leaves their chapters as little more than glorified ads, just showing off lots of photos of their miniatures and giving the briefest introduction to their ranges. However, the better chapters go into quite a lot more detail on the design ethos that the various companies used, with comments from both the owners and the production team/artists involved. Some of the insights are very interesting and really help to understand how individual figures and indeed ranges of figures have been designed.

The same mix of quality is reflected in the artwork on display. Some pages seem like nothing more than images lifted from the companies own catalogues whereas other show artwork taking a figure from a rough sketch right through to the finished 3-dimensional model. 

The choice of different manufacturers is quite interesting, with a mix from the smallest resin and white metal cast operations up to larger-scale companies that work with plastic injection moulding. I will say that most of the companies are working with quite a characterful style which will certainly not be to everyone's taste. Many of the figures featured seem to have been designed using the exaggerated manga/comic-book styling which personally does not appear to me in the least. Obviously, the author must have approached these companies and asked if they wished to be featured in the book, and I assume that he may well have spoken to other companies too. Some kind of explanation for his choice would have been very interesting, especially as he seems to specifically have avoided most of the bigger names in the industry.

So, overall I was a little disappointed with this book. There is no doubt that it has some luscious artwork and makes a beautiful coffee table book, however, the actual content is thin on the ground and in some sections, extremely disappointing. If any of the companies involved are favourites then it may be worth picking up purely for the figure planning insights that they give, but don't expect a beginning to end guide, explaining sculpting, mould-making and manufacture, as those aspects are not covered at all. In the introduction, the author does mention that he plans/hopes to write a second volume to accompany it. Let's hope that it has a bit more substance than this one...

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Sci-Fi Terrain Review

For the past couple of years my group of gamers have been almost exclusively playing Star Wars Destiny, and card/dice game. It is an interesting game with plenty of replayability and endless possibilities for rebuilding your decks, but for some time we have been feeling that we really wanted to get back to some wargaming. So we played our final game of Star Wars Destiny the week before Christmas. January and February have been set aside for playing a few board games while we prepare for some proper wargaming.

The general plan is to start with Frostgrave and then depending on how long we play that for we will move on to Gaslands, Kill Team or possibly even 40k. On the back burner, we also have Lion/Dragon Rampant, more Blood Eagle, more In Her Majesty's Name and possibly The Men Who Would Be Kings, but they are more long term plans.

I have plenty of scenery ready for Frostgrave, so my thoughts moved on to what I have ready for sci-fi games and in particular Kill Team/40k. I have been picking up the odd copies of Warhammer 40k Conquest when I have seen it in the newsagents so I have amassed a fair bit of recent GW 40k scenery. I have also been laser cutting some gantries and buildings (designed by Bilbostomper of Thingyverse) to fill out my table. So the other night I decided it was about time I set it up to see what I had and if I needed any more.

Looking down on it from this perspective it looks spaced out, but as you get down amongst the pieces you soon realise that there is only a limited line of sight.

Even at this angle it still looks fairly open.

I took the following photos so that I could assess the line of sight possibilities

I think once you get down into the terrain, you start to see the limited field of view.

Some angles offer a more open table, but still with plenty of cover to move between.

I must also add that I have also built the GW40k crane since I took these so space is going to be even more restricted.

These photos only include my recent additions, I still need to go through all of my older pieces of terrain, such as the original 40k ruins and various other resin bits and pieces. I also have several pieces that I have scratch built as well as four Urban Mammoth terrain kits (I believe these were made by Tehnolog and repackaged by Urban Mammoth) that I still need to put together.

So, I think I can safely say that I have enough terrain to run Kill Team (if not Necromunda). Now, I just need to get some paint on to it, which should be a relatively quick process...

Hopefully, this is the start of some more regular post on this blog as I immerse myself back into the wargaming world.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Book Review: Painting Wargaming Figures - Early Imperial Romans by Andy Singleton

I have always had a hankering to put together an Early Imperial Roman army, let's face it when someone says Romans these guys are what most people think of, and I still have fond memories of playing with my old Airfix 1/72 plastic Romans and Ancient Britons back in the 1970s.

So when Pen and Sword Books offered me a review copy of Painting Wargaming Figures - Early Imperial Romans by Andy Singleton I could hardly refuse, could I...

The book is an excellent primer for anyone wishing to start an Early Imperial Roman collection, although probably better suited to for the beginner than the more experienced painter.

With chapters covering basic preparation and painting techniques and then moving on to separate guides on painting weapons and armour, shields, clothing, skin tones, horses and then basing, it does cover all the essentials. However, an experienced painter will probably find that they end up skipping large sections as there is quite a lot of repetition. The guidance on colours to use is fine, although, personally I would have prefered to have seen some illustrations such as those found in the Osprey Publishing Men at Arms and Elites series.

Personally, I think most readers following a painting guide get more from the photos and illustrations than they do from the actual text. This is where this book is somewhat of a letdown. There certainly are plenty of photos throughout the book, however, the photos are quite small and most feature the clamp holding the figure taking up even more page space than the actual figure (see above). This means that on many of the pages it is almost impossible to tell what has changed between one photo and the next, especially when it comes to some of the subtler painting techniques.

I feel that the photos could have been improved a lot by "zooming in" on the actual part of the figure being painted. To illustrate this I have mocked up a couple of pages from the book below. On the left, we have the actual page and on the right, we have my mock-up with better-scaled photos. As I simply took smartphone photos of the pages the improvement is not really visible, but I think you should get the point. Larger photos (or more "zoomed-in" photos) would show more detail and illustrate the painting process far better than the photos in this book.

As you can see from these two photos just removing the clamp from the photos is enough to increase the size of the figure to allow a better view.
However, personally, I think that it would be even clearer if the photo was focused on the part of the figure that was actually being painted, as in this mockup.

This should not detract from the book too much, there is a wealth of information in there for the novice painter and some nice inspiration for the more experienced as well. I have just made these observations in the hope that Pen and Sword will up there game a little in forthcoming volumes...

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Book Review: MI6 British Secret Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West

Pen and Sword Books very kindly sent me a copy of MI6 British Secret Intelligence Service Operations 1909 - 1945. I have been interested in the history of espionage for many years and, although that interest has mainly focused on the Cold War, I was intrigued to see how things had evolved before that.

This is a very thorough book and goes into great detail about the personnel that were a part of SIS (MI6) in it's earlier days, an amazing achievement considering much of the information has never been officially released. It has all been gleaned from interviews with former officers and employees and once the book was finished it was cleared by the current security services before it was released.

Covering much of the day to day running of the service, as well as going into some detail of the more interesting operations, the book can be a little dry in places, but this only shows the depth of detail that Nigel West has gone into. The book will certainly be an important source for anyone interested in specific details about the early years of MI6.

In the days before and during the Second World War, there were several different security services that, to some extent crossed over in their remit, and in many instances, MI6 was not the most successful, but it was quite a small service and had limited staff and budgets as compared to organisations such as the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or even MI5 (which covered UK mainland and other British Empire counter-espionage and counter-sabotage).
In fact, MI6 suffered some major catastrophes that, in the early part of the Second World War, actually jeopardised it's existence, however, it's saving grace and it's most successful section was the Government Code and Cypher School (which eventually evolved into GCHQ).

Obviously, with several different organisations (SIS, MI5, NID and SOE - Special Operations Executive, which co-ordinated and planned sabotage and rescue missions in occupied Europe)  having similar operational areas there were lots of opportunities for co-operation between them and also rivalries.

As well as the day to day running of the Secret Intelligence Service, examples of some of the more interesting operations and networks are covered at some length. Such characters as the White Russian Sidney Reilly who was something of a super-spy, but turned out to be less than reliable. There are also many examples of both successful and unsuccessful operations throughout the Second World War.

The book does have a photo section, but obviously, with the nature of the subject matter, there are, I am sure, a limited and often poor selection of photos, so, to be honest, this could quite easily have been skipped. The photos that are included are interesting enough, but I don't think that they add that much to the book, overall.

To try to get things a little more on topic for this blog, looking at the wargaming possibilities, frankly, there are not that many. Some of the wartime operations could be used as a basis for scenarios in games like Osprey Publishing's Black Ops or possibly Crooked Dice's 7TV Pulp rules. It might also be possible to organise a game that has a small team infiltrating a base to acquire information or rescue an asset, but these would be more in tune with the SOE rather than SIS, which tended to use subtler methods.

In conclusion, a very interesting book that gives an excellent background to the British Secret Intelligence Service's early years. I will certainly be on the lookout for some of Nigel Wests other books on the other intelligence services.

Pick up a copy HERE.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Book Review: The Golden Age of Science Fiction by John Wade

As a wargamer, I have always been attracted to the idea of putting on a retro sci-fi game. Whenever I see retro sci-fi figures or rules I am compelled to pick them up. I assume that this is in a wide part down to nostalgia. Growing up in the 1970s in the UK we got our first expose to Star Trek and also I fondly remember watching classic sci-fi movies on BBC2 in the early evenings on Wednesdays. Films that were invariably made in the 1950s, mainly black and white (that might just have been because we still had a black and white TV at that point), and I suppose even by then, fairly dated. "Them", "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "This Island Earth", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and two of my favourite films, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "Forbidden Planet".

So when I saw the book The Golden Age of Science Fiction - A journey into Space with 1950s Radio, TV, Films, Comics and Books by John Wade I knew I had to read it.

Although never promising to be a complete look at science fiction in the 1950s (this is a personal memoir to the author's discovery and love of the genre during the 50s), the book does however look at so much more than just movies, covering radio (a far bigger thing back then than it is now), TV, films, books, comics and magazines, all in great depth.

Each different form of media is covered in a separate chapter, starting with radio. Now, I should also point out that the book is very much written from a British point of view, therefore it may well miss the odd American and international productions, although where foreign media made it to the UK they do also feature.

The section on television reviews several TV plays as well as going into some depth on the three Quatermass series. I have had an abiding love of the Quatermass quartet for many years, although missed the original three series, seeing the films and the later series only. I have, however, read the three script books that were released with the original TV scripts. The depth of information in this book is excellent and if nothing else it has inspired me to track down and watch the original TV shows if I can find them.

The section on movies is obviously mainly focused on the amazing US output of Sci-Fi movies in the 1950s. With such classics as those already mentioned at the beginning of this review. First, we have a general overview of the ci-fi movie genre in the 1950s with descriptions of the most common plot elements, then a brief review of the lurid nature of a lot of 50s movie posters, that didn't always reflect the content of the actual films. Then we get an in-depth review of the authors select choice of movies followed by some brief resumes of his choice of "also-rans". Finally, there is a reasonably exhaustive list of all of the sci-fi movies released in the 1950s. I found the movie section to be an invaluable resource for anybody who is interested in classic (and not so classic) sci-fi movies. As someone who has loved sci-fi for as long as I can remember, I will generally watch anything that has a hint of sci-fi about it. Many just to be able to tick them off as having seen them. So this list gives me a lot to work with.

The next chapter of the book proved to be just as interesting as it moved on to books. I devoured a lot of science fiction books in my teens working my way through many of the most well-known authors, to see which ones I enjoyed and which I was not so interested in. On reflection, I feel that I missed a lot that I really should have read, for example, I read several of Issac Asimov's Robot books but none of his Foundation series. I can say the same for many of the other top authors.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction by John Wade mainly concentrates on four authors John Wyndham, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury. going into some depth on their careers, both pre- and post- 1950s, but with the main focus on that decade. Now if the golden age of Sci-Fi was the 1950s, the 1970s was the golden age of mass-market paperbacks, and many of those books that I picked up were first in print in the 1950s, which was something of a revelation for me.

As a teen back then I picked up most of my reading material either browsing the local newsagents or more likely local second-hand book shops. So there was no real system and no investigation into the correct chronologies or bibliographies of particular authors. The Golden Age of Science Fiction has very much filled that gap and now I have decided to track down several books that I feel that I really should have read. For example, I have not read any of John Wyndham's work, although I am very familiar with the various adaptions of his Day of the Triffids. Now I am planning to read both The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids.

Towards the end of the Books chapter, Wade does go through a brief rundown of some other authors (that some might consider more important) that published works in the 50s. So don't be disappointed if your favourite author didn't get a mention.

The final section of the book covers magazines and comics. The 1950s was effectively the last real shout out for the survival of the pulp magazines and a lot of the magazines featured in this book can be seen to have moved to the digest size and away from the traditional pulp-style magazine. Once again the focus is on the magazines and comics that were available in the UK, whether they are British produced or just UK editions of US magazines.

The chapter finishes with a list of magazines that were around during the 1950s. Which once again will prove a useful resource for anyone interested in the history of Science Fiction. Now really, before I got on to the magazines I should have discussed the comics. My introduction to sci-fi in comics came with the Uk Starlord and then 2000AD titles. So it was interesting to see what had been available before that. Obviously, I was aware of Dan Dare, although I hadn't really spent much time looking into those stories from the Eagle comic. The book looks at Dan Dare in-depth, from its initial inception right through to its demise (and its brief resurrection in the 1980s).

Other comics that are mentioned certainly pale into insignificant compared to Dan Dare, but it is good to know the history of British Sci-fi in comics, along with the huge market of US superhero titles that tend to flood the market now.

The book is lavishly illustrated throughout and I found no spelling errors or grammar problems.

As I am sure you can already guess, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be referring back to it often in future. I received the book from Pen and Sword Publishing as a review copy, but I would gladly have bought it. It would actually be very nice if they followed it up with further volumes looking at the science fiction that came out of other decades and the impact that had.

The book can be purchased directly from Pen and Sword HERE.

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