Saturday, January 2, 2016

So You Saw These in the Background in the Last Installment...

...And I finished them up in the mean time since, and added a few more things to my workbench over the holidays while I was at it! So without further ado 'bout somethin' somethin', here they be for your consideration...

We begin with a pair of the S-Model 1/72 scale Hotchkiss H-35 kits shown during various stages of production...

I based their paint schemes off of the latest color plate reconstructions found in Francois Vauvillier's superb book The Encyclopedia of French Tanks and Armoured Vehicles 1914-1940, and Erik Barbanson's no less elegantly finished and presented Chars et Blindes de Cavalerie, 1939-1940: La ire DLM au Combat from the same publisher. Both books are full of information and the color plates alone make them well worth the investment:

The Hotchkiss H-35 in particular is a rather important little tank as far as the French Army of May-June 1940 was concerned, as they had been forced upon the cavalry in the run-up to WW2 by General Gamelin as a convenient stop-gap design until the larger, better armed and protected SOMUA S-35 cavalry tank could be produced in sufficient numbers. As it turned out, the underpowered and poorly-armed little H-35s were sent into combat in May 1940 as they still constituted half of the tank strength of two of the three of France's Divisions Legere Mechanique (DLMs). Despite their drawbacks the French tankers put up a spirited fight in their little machines during those fateful six weeks in 1940, and despite the poor anti-armor performance of their short-barreled 37mm 18SA cannons, managed to take out a share of the panzers knocked out during the fighting especially during the first major tank vs. tank actions of WW2 in the Gembloux Gap region of Belgium. 

An effort was made to improve the anti-armor capability of the French light tanks before the war began in earnest by upgunning them with a longer-barreled model of the 37mm 18SA as seen in this photo from Monsieur Vauvillier's informative tome:

The longer gun was supplied initially to platoon and company commander's tanks. The plan was to eventually phase out the obsolescent 18SA weapon entirely, but events on the ground prevented the French Army from fulfilling their plan to try and give the little light tanks more of a fighting chance against the more modern Panzers.

The photo also shows a significant structural characteristic of the H-35 that distinguishes it from the later H-38/39 model, the sloping engine deck. The H-35 had a smaller, less powerful engine than the later improved model. This along with elaborate factory-supplied camouflage schemes distinguished the H-35 from its more automotively powerful sibling:

The H-35 also served in other formations, including the hybrid Divisions Legere de Cavalerie (DLCs), which were half horse cavalry and half mechanized cavalry formations, a transitional force if ever there was one. The DLCs were meant to fulfill the traditional scouting and screening role of horse cavalry divisions from wars past, however interwar budgetary penury and political squabbles coupled with irrational complacency within some quarters of the French Army command and policymaking structure meant that the transition was never completed by the time the German invasion began:

Like most French tanks of the period, the Hotchkiss H-35s and H-38/39s sported a wide variety of factory-supplied and even unit-level modified paint schemes. This variance could even manifest itself within individual tank platoons as older machines were lost through combat or mechanical attrition and new replacement machines hastily finished were rushed to the front. Further changes to the appearance of H-35s was found in the attempts at modernizing the little tanks with better optical equipment such as the turret episcopes. The original episcopes looked like a pair of binoculars, while the later, less vulnerable optics were of the slit variety. The new episcope panels were generally left in monotone Army green (vert armee), causing them to stand out from the more elaborate original paint camouflage scheme colors as seen on the lower H-35:

A further attempt to upgrade the H-35s was the addition of an unditching tail to assist in crossing trenches or large ditches, a throwback to the First World War vintage Renault FT-17 which the H-35 along with the Renault R-35 was a direct lineal descendant, essentially an FT-17 built using 1930s technology and design aesthetics. 

I built these models straight out of the box, with the playing card symbol decals also straight out of the box, and the tactical numbers, marticules (military license plate numbers), and cockades from my spares box....

The most awkward part of the build was the photo-etched brass parts, specifically the two-part towing/lifting eyes and tools. The rearview mirror proved too fragile to remain on the kit, so when I went to build the first of the S-Model H-38/39s, I left the towing/lifting eyes and rearview mirror off entirely to save what was left of my shredded sanity! Here's the first of my S-Model H-38/39s:

I built this as an "H-38" aka "Hotchkiss Model 1935 Light Tanks, as Modified 1939" mounting a short-barrelled 37mm 18SA to use the full and proper moniker. This was a substantial improvement over the poor, little H-35 by virtue of the fact that the H-38/39 was equipped with a 120 horsepower engine rather than the underpowered 75 horsepower putt-putt motor of the original design. The simpler camouflage scheme was used almost exclusively on the later H-38/39 model tanks from the very beginning as nearly as I've been able to determine. Steven Zaloga's classic Blitzkreig volume covering the colors and markings of tanks and AFVs from this period interpreted the various black and white photographic references and then-available written documentation to produce a sprayed-on three color finish of a more yellow ochre, drab brown, and army green, however I am inclined to chalk his interpretations in that volume to the risks inherent in trying to make heads and tails out of old black and white photographs when the written primary source records are far from complete (or even accurate). 

The Hotchkiss H-38/39s equipped the 3e DLM in time for the German invasion, and saw extensive combat during the course of the campaign. They were also thrown into combat in the hastily organized Groupes Franc formations, which were ad hoc raiding forces made up of whatever transportation and armored fighting vehicles could be thrown together and sent into combat to try and stem the tide of the German panzers. The final definitive version was supposed to sport the unditching tail and long barreled 37mm main gun, but in practice this didn't always come to pass, so again there was a degree of variance in appearance from one unit of H-38/39s to the next:

As I mentioned above, the tow/lift eyes are all two part photo-etched parts along with the rearview mirror and in the case of the H-38/39, so is the muffler cover (which has to be bent to conform to the shape of the muffler(!!!). I therefore opted to leave off the tow/lift eyes and rearview mirror to save time and frustration, and did a quick, crude bending job on the muffler cover as I couldn't seem to scare up an appropriately sized and shaped object to use as a more accurate former. The unditching tail also posed problems as the two outermost support struts are VERY fragile, so I wound up replacing those with some lengths of plastic Christmas wreath faux pine needles cut to length:

I pushed the envelope as much as I dared with this H-38 in terms of the markings I used, going for the full ensemble of tactical numbers, cockades, and platoon markings. All of the models were painted mainly with assorted water based acrylic craft paints, but with some Vallejo thrown in along with some neutral tint drawing ink for picking out details and shading. All were sealed with Testor's Dullcote once the decals were dry.

Overall these new S-Model kits are good value for the money and otherwise are fast assembly kits if you don't get hung up on the fiddly photo-etched parts. The suspension and tracks are single pieces, and the biggest caveat of either is the vision blocks for the turret on the H-35. These are moulded on the turret supplied with the H-38/39, but are separate on the H-35 and being so small and awkwardly shaped are exceptionally fiddly to try and handle. I lost one in fact and had to improvise a replacement for the victim of my old age clumsiness, and took the opportunity to represent a transitional vehicle with one episcope replaced and the long-barreled 37mm main gun. 

That said I recommend these kits to anyone who needs to build up their 1940 French wargame army in 1/72 scale. The H-35 in particular is a machine peculiar to the French Army of 1940, as few survived in any combat capacity after the French Campaign was over, yet the type equipped two of the principle French mechanized divisions and did plenty of hard fighting in Belgium and during the retreat to Dunkirk. The H-35 also turned up as I mentioned previously in the ranks of the DLCs and in two infantry tank battalions. Coupled to the colorful camouflage schemes found on these little tanks, the presence of a platoon of H-35s in one's 1940 French wargame army is a must-have, and these new kits from S-Model are well worth the cost, time, and effort to build and paint, as the end results can be a real riot of color on the tabletop.