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Build report: Airfix’s 1/1200 Bismarck

Tim Reynaga sent in this build report for a classic kit of a very famous ship. The model may be small, but the real thing was mighty big, and caused fits just by it’s very existence.

HISTORY
Perhaps the most famous warship of all time, the German battleship Bismarck is one of those ships whose legend has come to overshadow reality. Displacing more than 50,000 tons and shipping eight massive 15 inch guns as well as an imposing array of secondary artillery, Bismarck was indeed an awesome weapon. According to a 1942 U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence assessment, “Bismarck was probably as formidable as any battleship then in service”. Yet the ship’s major claim to fame, the sinking of the HMS Hood and mauling the battleship Prince of Wales, was a bit of a fluke. The German task force was actually sailing under orders to avoid British warships in order to focus on its real mission, the destruction of merchant shipping. As it happened they were unable to elude the Royal Navy, and the epic pursuit, Battle of the Denmark Strait, and the Bismarck’s dramatic final destruction have earned the ship a kind of mythical status.

Still, despite its immense firepower and the valor of its crew, the Bismarck was, in the final analysis, a dinosaur. Built and deployed at staggering cost, Germany’s most famous battleship failed utterly in its primary mission: Bismarck never sank a single merchant ship. By contrast, the U-Boats, smaller and comparatively cheap to build, were to sink over 5,000 merchant ships and nearly starve Britain out of the war. Had Germany taken to heart the lessons of the First World War and abandoned the useless big gun fleet in favor of the U-Boat arm, the Kriegsmarine could have used its over 8,300 battleship sailors to man an additional 166 U-boats at the outset of the conflict—enough to quadruple the vital submarine force at a time when Britain was most vulnerable. Splendid as they were, the very size, power, and cost of the mighty Bismarck and the other battleships may well have cost Germany the critical Battle of the Atlantic.

THE KIT

Kit:1/1200 scale Bismarck by Airfix
Price:about $1 when new in 1973
Notes:Clip-together kit

This kit was one of Airfix’s first 1/1200 “Naval History Series” clip-together models issued in 1973. I hadn’t even heard of this series until recently; apparently there was also a Prinz Eugen, Hood, Ark Royal, Suffolk, and a Tribal class destroyer (all ships involved in the Bismarck chase). These kits have long been out of production, but you can often find them on e-Bay fairly cheap (I paid less than ten bucks for this one). The 50 gray plastic parts assemble into a basic but good looking little battleship.

The waterlined hull is a single part with a solid bottom and separate single-piece main deck, so there are none of those annoying mid-deck seams so common on larger scale kits. This is fortunate since the raised deck planking is beautifully delicate. In fact, it is some of the best I’ve seen in any scale—they really got it right way back in 1973! I wish more model manufacturers had continued this style of depiction for planked decks, so much more effective than the overdone trench lines so often seen today. Assorted deck hardware is also well done with bitts, hatches, vents, and other details sharply depicted. Unfortunately, the model overall doesn’t quite capture the graceful lines of the original. The length/beam dimensions are right, but the hullform is too pudgy fore and aft. Also, the armor belt is too low and the numerous portholes are missing. Worse, the funnel, superstructures and aft turrets are placed just a little too far back. The problem isn’t too noticeable until you get to the fantail, which is about 20 scale feet too short as a result.

The superstructure is simplified. The distinctive spherical hoods of the 4m type SL-8 antiaircraft directors are molded integrally with the superstructure and represented as rounded tops on the mounts rather than as spherical shapes. Not very good. Also, the aft mounts shouldn’t have the hoods at all (unless you intend to build the model as the Tirpitz). The two-part funnel is hollow with an open grating represented on the top. Main turrets are ok, except that the barrels are about 6 scale feet too long and the rangefinder hoods extend too far down the sides—but they are fixable. The 150mm secondary turrets have simplified shapes and the barrels are also too long. In addition, the ‘midships pair of mounts just forward of the funnel should have rangefinder “ears”. Smaller parts vary in quality from fair to excellent. The tiny Arado Ar-196 floatplane is only so-so with no floats and an overlarge canopy, but the aircraft/boat handling cranes are fairly good. The 10.5m rangefinders atop the superstructures are delicately rendered, as are the masts. The best parts are the ship’s boats, 37mm, and 105mm antiaircraft guns, which rival comparable parts in many larger scale kits—if this kit were more readily available I would be tempted to raid these to outfit a Revell 1/1200 scale Scharnhorst or Gneisenau.

Incidentally, this kit is unrelated to the 1/1200 scale Bismarck/Tirpitz kits currently marketed by Revell Germany as part of their “Miniships” line. Those models seem to be reissues of the old Casadio/ESCI kit, which was mediocre at best. Though harder to find, Airfix’s model is much better.

CONSTRUCTION
This is a clip-together model, so assembly was a piece of cake. The deck, hull, superstructure, and funnel went together in a matter of minutes. The kit parts look decent, but the bulkheads and hull sides are almost completely featureless. The only details in evidence are the numerous “Aztec temple” style inclined ladders on the decks. I’ve never been a fan of these, but in this small scale they actually don’t look too bad, so I left them. To add a bit of further visual interest to the plain bulkheads I added some of the many portholes with which Bismarck was festooned. Using line drawings of the ship reduced to 1/1200 scale on a copier as a guide, I drilled out over 140 of these things using a tiny #77 bit chucked into my X-acto. These little scuttles were a simple (if tedious) way to busy up the highly visible surfaces. It was not a very difficult operation, just requiring a bit of care to keep the holes evenly spaced and in line.

The wood decks were excellent, with delicate molded plank detail and various hatches, breakwaters, and assorted “deck gack” cleanly rendered. One small problem here was on the second deck between forward superstructure and aircraft catapult, which Airfix had depicted as wood. It was actually unplanked steel on the real ship, but a little sanding and it was good to go. The configuration of the ground tackle and forecastle deck was also a little off from my references, so I removed the molded anchor chains and corrected the area as best I could. Airfix did not provide anchors, so I fitted the ship with new photoetch anchors and chains (Tom’s Modelworks 1/700 scale photoetched brass anchor set #724) both here and at the stern.

Next came the weapons. The main 15 inch turrets, molded integrally with the guns, came first.

These weren’t perfectly accurate, but the only changes made were to reduce the thickness of the rangefinder “ears” (the kit parts came down too far) and to hollow out the muzzles using the tip of a new #11 X-acto blade. An additional alteration was to remove the “ears” entirely from turret Anton, the forward turret. Airfix depicted these in place, which was correct for the ship as built. However, during initial trials the Germans found them to be useless in that position due to seas over the bow, and they soon removed them.

The smaller 150mm secondary turrets were similar to the main guns, except I didn’t hollow out the muzzles (a dab of black paint at the ends is enough to fool the eye in 1/1200). The 105mm and 37mm antiaircraft guns were fine out of the box, just needing a minimum amount of mold clean up. The kit omits the 20mm single mounts entirely, but they would have been almost invisible in this very small scale anyway.

Sensors and fire control fittings varied in quality. The 10.5m rangefinders atop the superstructures were nicely depicted, the only improvements here being to add small photoetched screen material to the radar faces. The armored domes for the type 1937 rangefinders, on the other hand, were pretty poor. I didn’t take the trouble to replace them with corrected spherical shapes, but I did remove the domes from the aft mounts. The Airfix mold makers probably used builder’s plans showing these in place, but in fact Bismarck was rushed into service and the planned domes were never fitted to these positions. I removed them and filled the empty mounts with parts adapted from spare 1/700 Japanese destroyer rangefinders. The parts box also yielded searchlights to fill empty positions near the mainmast and on the main tower.

The ship’s boats, cranes, and aircraft were ok from the kit, if lacking in detail. The masts weren’t bad either, except that the mainmast was way too tall. I ended up using only the lower half of it and fabricating the upper part from portions of the kit part, copper wire, and leftover photoetch bits. The other masts and rigging were made up in the same way. Some additional detail for the aircraft catapult and the two small triangular cranes on the after part of the funnel were also 1/700 scale photoetch leftovers pressed into service.

The most fiddly part of the build was the railing. Now 1/1200 scale is very small indeed (1 inch equals 100 feet!), and I’d never tried to rail a ship this small before. Still, it would look very cool if I could pull it off, so I ordered the only set I knew of designed for such a small scale, Tom’s Modelworks’ 1/250 3-bar photoetch brass railing. When the rails arrived, I couldn’t believe it! These things were unbelievably fine, consistent, and in-scale. The shiny brass parts were just beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to try them out. I painted them up, cut out a test section and glued it on and they looked, well… disappointing. What happened? The rails were straight, consistent, and in-scale as expected. The problem was, these things were actually too fine. Yeah, they were correct, but I could barely see those test runs once they were on! I decided to try another approach. I had some 1/600 scale railing on hand (Gold Medal Models Merchant Ship detail set #600-2), so I took a length of 4-bar rails from the set and cut them down lengthwise to create 2-bar rails a little less than 1/16th of an inch high. Though still small, these rails were somewhat less delicate than the brass set—and looked much better. The stainless steel photoetch was not easy to cut (my scissors were junk by the end of this project), but these rails worked great. I liked this tougher material, which was less prone to damage than the softer brass. Methodically trimming each run down was not the most exciting of tasks, but once cut the rails went on without any problems. And I was satisfied with the final effect: busy, delicate, yet still clearly visible, even if you do have to move in close to see it!

PAINT AND MARKINGS
The Bismarck carried a number of paint schemes during its short existence, but its most colorful was the scheme worn between March and May 1941 while working up in the Baltic Sea. The colors consisted of Hellgrau 50 (aka Silbergrau, or silver gray) superstructure and upperworks and Dunkelgrau 51 (aka Fehgrau, or squirrel gray) hull. Dunkelgrau 53 (aka Anthrazitgrau, or anthracite gray) was painted on the hull ends fore and aft in an attempt to shorten the apparent length of the vessel, complete with white false wakes to enhance the illusion. The primary and secondary turrets were Silbergrau with dark gray tops (not maroon as is sometimes depicted). The teak decks were left unpainted wood, and the steel decks were dark gray. Aireal recognition panels, each with a large black swastika inside a white circle on red panel, were painted on the main deck fore and aft. The most distinctive aspects of the scheme were large, angular black and white stripes across the hull and superstucture. I don’t know how these were supposed to work; maybe they were to disrupt directional observation, or perhaps the black and white bands were supposed somehow to blend visually with the background at a distance, or they might have been intended to make identifying the ship more difficult by obscuring the ship’s configuration. In any case, U.S. Naval intelligence assessment of the stripes’ effectiveness as camouflage was scathing, dismissing them as “ineffective”. They still looked kinda cool though!

Finding paints to approximate the various colors was not difficult. Model Master Italian Blue Gray (lightened) was a reasonable match for Silbergrau, while Model Master Neutral Gray worked for Fehgrau and Model Master Gunship Gray stood in for Anthrazitgrau. I used a lightened Model Master Armor Sand for the wood decks, Model Master French Khaki for the floatplane, and the boats were painted with Model Master Military Brown. Out of sheer laziness I brush painted the entire project, but if I were to do it again I would use the airbrush to get a more even finish.

Bridge windows were little squares cut from black decal scraps as were the vision slits in the armored tower. For the Hakenkreuz air recognition markings I used decals from I-94 Enterprises www.I-94enterprises.com (product GR-105, German WWII Battle and Air Recognition Flags for 20mm-1/285 armor). These excellent armor decals weren’t 100% correct for the Bismarck as its swastikas actually covered a slightly larger deck area and didn’t have the quarter turn, but they look good. I had originally intended to use larger, more Bismarck-accurate panels adapted from a 1/48 aircraft decal, but the correct larger size tended to highlight the model’s too-short fantail. The less accurate markings actually worked better!

CONCLUSIONS
Airfix’s little Bismarck is an attractive model, noticeably superior to the more widely available Revell 1/1200 scale “Miniships” Bismarck/Tirpitz. If you want a small scale Bismarck for your fleet (and aren’t bothered by a few inaccuracies), this kit is an inexpensive, fun choice… but you’ll likely have to troll e-Bay to find one!

REFERENCES
http://www.kbismarck.com/ A terrific website with info on all things Bismarck including color profiles of the ship and a great model gallery.

http://www.bismarck-class.dk/ Another excellent website with lots of Bismarck info.

http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq118-2.htm An interesting summary of the Bismarck sortie prepared by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942.

Tim Reynaga’s Bio:
I am married with four kids (three daughters and a son) and I work as a program and legislative analyst for the State of California’s Employment Development Department. My wife is an elementary school teacher and we all attend the Newman Catholic Community Church here in Sacramento.

I’ve been building models since I was five years old (my first model was a lunar module bought for a dime from a magazine ad). I’m mostly interested in ships but will happily put together just about anything: tanks, aircraft, figures… I even built an old Aurora White Tailed Deer a few months back. This hobby has been a lifelong pleasure for me–I never seemed to have grown out of it like all my childhood friends did!