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Bristol Beaufort and Cromwell tank updates

Bristol Beaufort and Cromwell tank updates

Welcome to this latest edition of Workbench and all the news, updates and exclusive announcements from the fascinating world of Airfix modelling.

With the clocks going back last weekend and the winter now almost upon us, it’s time to accept the fact that we are all going to have to settle down to a few months of serious modelling from this point on. To mark this joyous development, we are pleased to be in a position to bring you a fabulous selection of the latest Airfix project updates, including our usual selection of exclusive images, featuring both built model samples and stunning new box artwork.

We begin this edition by looking at the latest developments from our keenly anticipated new Bristol Beaufort Mk.I tooling, bringing this project right up to date with a selection of beautiful built model images and featuring both of the scheme options included with the initial release. We follow this with an update which will be of huge interest to military vehicle modellers, as we bring you a comprehensive update from our new 1/35th scale Cromwell Tank tooling and will be including two stunning new pieces of box artwork, in addition to taking a closer look at the scheme details which will accompany the release of both versions of the kit. We end by featuring two kits which are scale representations of true aviation heavyweights, but with each offering something that little bit different - we have a Spitfire flown by an American Eagle Squadron pilot and an Avro Lancaster which was not powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Tear yourself away from your latest build project for just a short while to indulge in a little Airfix update action and take a look at some of the projects which might be residing on your workstation in the months to come.

Bristol’s rugged maritime strike bomber

Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog

We are pleased to be in a position to now show built sample models finished in both scheme options to be included with the initial release of this fabulous new Beaufort kit

With the announcement of each new Airfix model range at the start of every year, modelling enthusiasts are always interested to see which new model tooling projects our product designers have been working on over the previous few months, in addition to seeing which ‘classics’ will be making a welcome return. The current range included details of our exciting new Bristol Beaufort Mk.I tooling in 1/72nd scale, a subject many modellers have been asking for over recent years and one which came as a pleasant surprise to many Workbench readers. Presenting the modeller with an accurate representation of this important British WWII strike bomber, the Beaufort is a really interesting aeroplane and one which will be a welcome addition to the Airfix range.

Throughout the year, we have brought Workbench readers regular updates from the project, where we looked at the initial research and development phases, first frame shots from the new tooling and the first build from these initial components. We have followed this up with scheme details of the two options which will accompany the first release, in addition to showcasing the magnificent artwork produced in support of this significant model. We are now in a position to bring you details of the next important stage in the development of the Beaufort, an update which proves the kit is advancing nicely towards its release date - images featuring full builds of both scheme options. If modellers were excited at the prospect of taking on this new kit, these exclusive images will only serve to fuel your enthusiasm further.

As Britain was plunged into war at the start of September 1939, the modernisation of the Royal Air Force was already well under way, with aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington, Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire all taking their place as some of the most advanced types in the world at that time. As an island nation, one of the most crucial battles which would have to be won over the coming months would be the protection of Britain’s sea lanes and the maintenance of the merchant convoys which would be crucial to Britain’s survival. At that time, the current land based torpedo bomber the RAF could call upon was the obsolete and rather ungainly Vickers Vildebeest biplane, an aircraft which would not be suitable for the battles to come and one which needed replacing as a matter of urgency.

Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog

Do we need an excuse to show this beautiful Beaufort box artwork in our blog just one more time?

Building on their experience in producing the successful Blenheim light bomber, the Bristol Aeroplane Company thought that they had the answer to the RAF’s torpedo strike predicament and put forward a proposal to build a new aircraft utilising many of the existing jigs and components used in Blenheim production. Initially intended to be an evolutionary development of the Blenheim design, it soon became clear that this could not be achieved when satisfying all the design criteria and the new aircraft would actually look quite different to its predecessor. With a much deeper forward fuselage section required to accommodate the aircraft’s crew of four and the requirement to carry a torpedo in a semi-recessed position under the fuselage, the new torpedo bomber would require a gross weight increase of around 25 percent over that of the Blenheim, ensuring that whilst both aircraft may have been related, they could certainly not be described as identical twins.

Highlighting the importance of their new torpedo bomber, the Beaufort was one of only a handful of new aircraft types to be ordered by the British Air Ministry whilst the project was still ‘on the drawing board’, a move which highlighted the urgency of the situation, whilst at the same time illustrating the level of faith they had in the Bristol Company. As it later transpired, the demanding specifications the Beaufort design had to satisfy, in addition to Bristol’s existing Blenheim manufacturing commitments, dictated that an aircraft which had received signed production contracts in August 1936 would not actually see its RAF squadron introduction until almost three and a half years later, when Britain was already at war. Once in squadron service however, the Beaufort quickly proved to be an extremely rugged and highly manoeuvrable aircraft, one which would be tasked with performing some of the most demanding and hazardous strike attack missions of the war.

With a total production run which exceeded 2,000 aircraft, the Beaufort is undoubtedly one of Britain’s (and Australia’s) most important aircraft types of the Second World War and one which will be a welcome addition to our 1/72nd scale aircraft kit range. This latest exclusive selection of built sample model images show just how attractive the Bristol Beaufort actually is and how the two initial scheme options are so different from each other, making our first build project choice a particularly difficult one.

Scheme A – Bristol Beaufort Mk.I, Aircraft flown by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell VC (pilot), actions against the German battleship Gneisenau, Royal Air Force No.22 Squadron, St Eval, Cornwall, April 6th 1941

Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog

This iconic scheme option presents the Beaufort in which Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell and his crew attacked the German battleship Gneisenau on 6th April 1941, damaging the recently repaired ship, but ultimately succumbing to enemy fire in the immediate aftermath of their attack run. With the rest of the RAF attack force of torpedo strike Beauforts unable to navigate through atrocious weather conditions on the way to the target, the crew of Bristol Beaufort Mk.I N1016 (OA-X) were forced to press home their attack alone, running the gauntlet of one of the most heavily defended areas in Europe. Descending to almost wavetop height, pilot Kenneth Campbell, expertly lined up his Beaufort for the optimum attack angle on Gneisenau, but passing so close to enemy shore batteries that they could hardly fail to hit their target. With the aircraft already taking multiple hits, the pilot only released the single torpedo once he was sure it couldn’t fail to strike the warship, leaving his pull out so late that the Beaufort almost struck the masts of the ship. Pulling away in a violent, banking turn, the Beaufort couldn’t help but expose its entire undersurfaces to the enemy anti-aircraft gunners, who raked it mercilessly with everything they had.

Having sustained heavy damage during its attack run against Gneisenau, Bristol Beaufort N1016 crashed into the harbour almost immediately, tragically claiming the lives of all souls on board. Unbeknown to them, their attack had successful and the torpedo had blown a huge hole under the waterline of Gneisenau, causing it to return to the dry dock from where it had only just emerged, in need of further repairs. It would be out of commission for almost six months following the attack and it is impossible to gauge how many lives were saved and how much vital cargo reached its destination as a result of the heroic actions of this single Beaufort crew. Launching their attack alone, the selfless actions of Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell and his crew would have probably gone unheralded had it not been for the intervention of the French resistance. Sending a report on the condition of the German battleship back to British authorities, they also described the actions of this brave Beaufort crew and how they had paid the ultimate price whilst heroically performing their duty. For displaying valour in the face of extreme peril and without regard for his own safety, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valour in the presence of the enemy, an honour he would surely have gladly shared with the rest of his crew.

Scheme B – Bristol Beaufort Mk.I, Aircraft flown by Sgt. John Bell Rutherford (pilot), actions against the German cruiser Admiral Hipper, Royal Air Force No.217 Squadron, St Eval, Cornwall, February 1st 1941

Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Bristol Beaufort Mk.I torpedo bomber model kit exclusive on the Airfix Workbench blog

Taking off from St. Eval in the mid-afternoon of 1st February 1941, the crew of Beaufort L9866 had a short but treacherous flight over open ocean ahead of them and if they did manage to locate their target, they would be facing withering defensive fire, not just from the German cruiser, but also from the many shore batteries of various calibres which protected the harbour. The Luftwaffe were also fully aware that the French resistance would have reported the movement of Admiral Hipper from the harbour and would have been expecting a powerful RAF force to attack the ship. They had assembled a mighty force of Messerschmitt fighters to provide a hostile reception for the RAF airmen.

Admiral Hipper must have been regarded as something of a lucky ship, as it often evaded detection by enemy forces sent to look for it. The ship slipped out of Brest harbour virtually unopposed, in the main, thanks to the many patrols mounted by Luftwaffe fighter units on the day. It is thought that Beaufort L9866 was intercepted and shot down by the Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 of Uffz Horst Bochmann of II./JG77, with all on board being lost. Crashing into the sea off the northern coast of Brittany at around 17.00 hrs, it is thought that due to the location and timing of the incident, the crew had already launched their attack against the Hipper and were heading back to base when they were attacked by Luftwaffe fighters, although this has never been definitively corroborated.

The Luftwaffe airfield at Dinan in Brittany was the home base of II./JG77 and was one of the airfields designated to provide defensive air cover for the vital harbour facilities at Brest. With the Kriegsmarine’s large warships posing a significant threat to the British, Luftwaffe units in this sector would be kept incredibly busy fighting off numerous raids, but as this was one of the most heavily defended areas in Europe, many RAF aircraft would be lost during these operations – a mission to Brest harbour, or indeed the entire region of Brittany, would have been one fraught with danger.

With two fantastic scheme options in which to consider finishing your new Beaufort Mk.I kit when you get your hands on one, this handsome and rugged aircraft is about to receive some long overdue attention from the modeller in the weeks to come, as we can all look forward to adding this important WWII type to our built model collections. The new Bristol Beaufort Mk.I is currently scheduled to be available very early in the new year.

Cromwell - A tank built for speed and mobility

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

Shown for the first time exclusively for the benefit of Workbench readers, this magnificent artwork will be gracing the box presentation of out newly tooled 1/35th scale Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.IV A1373

With our popular range of 1/35th scale armoured fighting vehicles now boasting an impressive selection of many of the most iconic tanks, tank destroyers and mobile artillery pieces from the Second World War, any new addition to this range is obviously going to receive quite a bit of attention from military modellers. That certainly proved to be the case at the beginning of the year, when the launch of our 2020 model range included details of a newly tooled British Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII A27M Cromwell kit to join the range later in the year. As we are now unveiling of the dramatic box artwork which will grace the release of A1373 Cromwell Mk.IV (featured above), we are pleased to report that these two kit variations on the Cromwell theme are well on the way towards their early 2021 release date.

One of a series of fast and relatively well armed cruiser tanks developed by the British during the Second World War, the Cromwell can trace its history back to late 1940 and the decision to find a replacement for the widely used Crusader tank. Unfortunately, a relatively protracted development has dictated that there is generally some confusion with different variants of these tanks, as similar looking machines could both be named Centaur or various marks of Cromwell. They were all derived from the A24 Cruiser Mark VII Cavalier, the name given to the original intended Crusader replacement programme. The main reason for the different names revolves around three different engine types used to power the different vehicles, different manufacturers and several different hull types.

The A27M Cromwell Mk.IV was the most heavily produced version of the new Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII and matched the Centaur hull with the highly effective Rolls Royce Meteor engine (A27Meteor), a development of the Merlin engine which famously powered the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Battle of Britain to victory. This powerful and extremely reliable engine allowed the tank to travel at impressively high speeds, which is just as well, as in operation, these relatively lightly armed tanks would be required to get rather close to their targets, using stealth and speed to outflank them.

The tank also featured a quick firing 75mm gun, which was a re-bored version of the ubiquitous British 6 pounder gun and allowed the commander to have the option of using American produced armour piercing or high explosive rounds. Further underlining the strategic effectiveness of the tank, its turret could traverse through 360 degrees in just 15 seconds, thanks to the impressive hydraulic system it employed.

A1373 Scheme A - Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.IV, 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Division, British Army, Europe, 1944/45

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

During the final few months of the Second World War, when the Allies were slowly pushing German forces back towards their homeland and their enemy were finding it increasingly difficult to mount strong, sustainable counter offensives, the speed and agility of the British Cromwell tank would come into its own. Deployed in large numbers in the wake of the Normandy landings, the Cromwell was perhaps not as numerous as the ubiquitous Sherman and certainly didn’t possess the hitting power of the new Firefly, but when situations required the speed and initiative of an armoured cavalry thrust, the Cromwell was ideally suited to this dangerous task. As with all armoured units involved in combat throughout the European Theatre, tank crews were allowed a certain amount of discretion when it came to applying camouflage to their machines and were free to utilise foliage and netting to give them as much protection as possible in the combat locations in which they were operating. The addition of field applied paint was a different matter and in most cases, only the use of a water based whitewash during periods of heavy snowfall would be allowed.

Compared to the Sherman tanks which fought along side the Cromwell in Europe, the British tank had a much lower profile, something which may have sometimes been a disadvantage for the commander when attempting to assess the battlefield situation, but something which could prove extremely beneficial when units were being targeted by Wehrmacht guns. It appears as if the crew of this particular Cromwell only elected to whitewash the turret of their tank, presumably deciding not to bother spending time painting the hull due to its extremely low profile. The 7th Armoured Division ‘The Desert Rats’ would be heavy users of the Cromwell and following the Normandy landings, would use the tank during many actions throughout France, then into Belgium and Germany itself.

A1373 Scheme B - Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.IV, Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, British Army, Europe, 1944/45

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

During the savage fighting in the narrow hedgerow lined lanes of the Normandy battlefield, the excellent mobility of the Cromwell was somewhat nullified, even though its low profile would allow it to pass relatively unnoticed by watching German armour. When a situation required a Cromwell commander to move from the protection of the narrow lanes and into the surrounding fields, the initial climb up the steeply banked hedgerows could prove fatal. Exposing the lightly armoured lower hull of the vehicle during the manoeuvre , they were at risk of being destroyed by either an enemy tank of by Wehrmacht infantry equipped with one of the plentiful Panzerfaust hand-held anti-tank weapons. An ingenious and rather simple solution to this problem was to attach a steel ‘hedge cutter’ blade to the front of the tank, which allowed the commander to scythe through the foliage obstacle, keeping his tank level and still able to bring his guns to bear on any potential target. This addition even provided some welcome natural foliage camouflage for the tank as it passed through the hedgerows, just so long as the trees and bushes it collected didn’t obstruct his gun aiming sights - if this did happen, it would require a crew member to leave the safety of his armoured chariot to clear it.

The armoured units of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry would also see heavy action following the Allied landings in Normandy, but as their role was to provide armoured support for infantry units engaged in combat, they would usually be deployed in smaller numbers and spread across several locations at the same time. A gunner from the Northamptonshire Yeomanry was thought to have been responsible for firing the shot which ended the fearsome reign of German Tiger tank commander Michael Wittmann on 8th August 1944, although he was assigned to an up-gunned Sherman Firefly at the time.

The majority of the 11th Armoured Division landed on Juno Beach on 13th June 1944, but would be thrust straight into the action, where they would be involved heavily with most of the British Second Army operations in northern France. They would continue fighting as the push moved to Belgium, Holland and eventually into Germany itself. It is interesting to note that like many other British Army tanks of the period, other than the single Allied star on the rear of its turret, this Cromwell has very little decoration or markings on its hull, other than its relatively inconspicuous unit markings.

A1374 – Tank, Cruiser, Mk.VIII, A27M Cromwell Mk.VI

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

More magnificent new Cromwell box artwork for your viewing pleasure

Even though the new British A27M Cromwell Tank would not make its combat introduction until the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the speed and mobility of this excellent new tank would soon earn it an enviable reputation amongst Allied troops, who came to rely on the support they provided. The majority of Cromwell Tanks were armed with the standard 75mm ROQF gun, however, the less numerous Mk.VI variant would provide specialist infantry close support with its 95mm Howitzer and were consequently never too far away from the action. Firing a high explosive hollow charge shell, the tank was used to overcome fortified positions, such as concrete bunkers and pillboxes which stood in the way of the infantry’s advance and could even lay smoke-screens if required.

With its distinctively short barrel, the Mk.VI also featured a large counterweight on its main armament, which was necessary in helping to balance the gun. Approximately 340 of these specialist tanks were eventually produced, which would prove to be extremely effective as Allied ground units pushed German forces back towards their homeland. Despite their impressive speed, the Cromwells were no match for the firepower of the German heavy tanks and would have to rely on speed and stealth for their battlefield survival.

A1374 Scheme A - Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.VI, 2nd Tank Battalion, 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade Group, British Army, Europe 1944/45

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

An army unit made up of expatriate Czechoslovak troops equipped and under the command of the British Army, the 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade landed in Normandy during August 1944 and would be handed the essential task of containing and weakening the beleaguered German garrison occupying the port town of Dunkirk. Allowing the Allies to concentrate on operations across wider Normandy without fear of a German breakout, the Czech unit would actually be involved in heavy fighting, as both sides repelled enemy advances, before launching their own counter offensives. The brigade were equipped mainly with Sherman and Cromwell tanks, including a number of the specialist Cromwell Mk.VI variants with their 95mm Mk.I Howitzers, tanks which were ideally suited to dislodging particularly stubborn areas of enemy troop resistance. A real asset to troops fighting these aggressive skirmishes, often at close quarters, the support nature of these tanks dictated that they would never be found too far from the action, with their legendary speed allowing them to confuse and outflank the enemy.

Without doubt, the most impressive attributes of the Cromwell were within its hull, all of which endowed the tank with excellent battlefield performance. The powerful Meteor engine combined with the tried and trusted Christie suspension allowed the Cromwell to travel at speeds in excess of 40mph on roads and not much slower than this when operating cross-country. It also had a much lower profile than the Sherman and possessed an impressive turret traverse rate which outclassed most of its opponents on the battlefield – adopting a shoot and scoot approach to armoured engagements, the Cromwell was an effective addition to the Allied inventory, especially when they eventually had Wehrmacht units on the run.

A1374 Scheme B - Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.VI, 2nd Squadron, 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment, 1st Polish Armoured Division, British Army, Europe 1944/45

New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
New Airfix large scale Cromwell Tank model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

As with the Polish airmen who fought during the Battle of Britain, Polish infantry and armoured units during the Second World War proved to be extremely proficient fighters and would earn the respect of their enemies. With troops fighting their way across Europe in the wake of the German invasion of their homeland at the start of the Second World War, it would be four long years before they would return to Europe and help to finally defeat their enemy. The well trained 1st Polish Armoured Division arrived on the Normandy beachheads at the beginning of August 1944, they would be pressed into service during the savage fighting around Falaise, With significant German units trapped by a massive Allied onslaught, the troops of the 1st Polish Armoured Division were asked to close the pocket, containing the concentrated German attempts to break out. In 48 hours of savage fighting, the unit repelled multiple German breakout attempts, inflicting heavy casualties and destroying large numbers of tanks and armoured vehicles in the process. Despite facing incessant assaults and running low on ammunition, the Polish troops held firm and were eventually relieved, but not before earning the admiration of General Montgomery and all their Allied comrades.

Proud fighters, Polish troops would happily describe how they were 'fighting for the freedom of all nations, but would only give their lives for Poland'. Following rest and refitting, the 1st Polish Armoured Division pursued the retreating Germans along the French coast, through Belgium and into Holland, liberating many towns as they went. The fighting moved into Germany during the spring of 1945, with the division famously taking the naval town of Wilhelmshaven, where Polish General Stanislaw Maczek accepted the surrender of this significant prize.

As a Cromwell Mk.VI operated by the 1st Polish Armoured Division, this tank displays the famous winged helmet adopted by the unit, something enemy forces would come to fear, following their combat introduction during the battles of Normandy.

These two new 1/35th scale kit versions of the Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.IV (A1373) and Cruiser Tank Mk.VIII, Cromwell Mk.VI (A1374) are now advancing ominously towards their early 2021 release date and will certainly be popular additions to this growing range of WWII armour kits - we will have fully decorated samples to show you next!

The classic Spitfire ‘stop gap’

Airfix Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb RAF Eagle Squadron model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

A real treat for Airfix fans, the exclusive new artwork reveals just keep on coming in this latest edition of our Workbench blog. This evocative study marks the impending release from our 1/48th scale Spitfire Vb tooling and features the personal aircraft of USAAF ace pilot Don Gentile

Throughout the air battles which raged across the world’s skies during the Second World War, the desire to gain air superiority was something of a preoccupation for military planners and when one side gained an advantage with a new upgraded aircraft variant or introduction of a completely new type, their adversaries would undoubtedly counter the move before too long. Perhaps the most enduring wartime aerial duels were fought between the British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, each a classic fighting aeroplanes in its own right and both relatively evenly matched for the majority of the war. That was especially true throughout the Battle of Britain and during the first tentative fighter sweeps over occupied northern France in the months which followed. The RAF needed a more capable Spitfire to clear the skies of Messerschmitts and they had an idea what it would take.

Their preferred option was to radically redevelop the existing Spitfire airframe, incorporating a new wing design and harnessing the power of the new Rolls Royce Merlin XX powerplant. Known as the Spitfire III, this new aircraft would take some time to develop and manufacture, but they desperately needed better Spitfires now, so whilst the development of the new fighter continued, Rolls Royce were asked to produce a ‘stop-gap Spitfire’, one powered by their new Merlin 45 engine - thank goodness they had this foresight.

The new interim Spitfire was known as the Mk.V and combined the additional power of the Rolls Royce Merlin 45 engine with the original Mk.I/II airframe, whilst at the same time including a number of design improvements already developed for the proposed future Mk.III. This new Spitfire was an excellent performer and proved to be more than a match for the latest Luftwaffe fighters in service. With the much increased production capacity offered by the new Castle Bromwich shadow factory in the Midlands, Spitfire Mk.V fighters would be produced at a spectacular rate, with this interim variant actually going on to be the most produced version of this famous fighter, with almost 6,500 aircraft manufactured. Seeing service in every theatre the Allies contested the war, the Spitfire Mk.V fought in the home defence and offensive fighter sweep roles, above the deserts of North Africa and over the jungles of the Far East. What started as a temporary measure produced the most effective ‘stop-gap’ aircraft the RAF would ever introduce - one aircraft they didn’t go on to introduce was the proposed Mk.III!

The magnificent box artwork featured above is being exclusively revealed to Workbench readers and has been produced in support of the forthcoming release from our 1/48th scale Spitfire Mk.Vb tooling. The kit will be supplied with two appealing scheme options, which we will take a closer look at now.

Scheme A - Supermarine Spitfire Vb, ‘Buckeye Don’ flown by 2nd Lieutenant Don Gentile, 336th Fighter Squadron, United States Army Air Force, RAF Debden, North Essex, England 1942

Airfix Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb RAF Eagle Squadron model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb RAF Eagle Squadron model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

The young Dominic Salvatore Gentile had always been fascinated by flight, but as he did not have the necessary college requirements for entry into the US military, he headed to Canada to undergo his military flying training. On successfully gaining his wings, he was posted to Britain, where he would join No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’, the third and last of the famed US manned squadrons in the Royal Air Force. Flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V out of RAF Biggin Hill, Gentile would score his first aerial victories on 19th August 1942, when he claimed a Ju88 and Focke Wulf Fw190 whilst flying operations covering the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid. It is also interesting to note that Operation Jubilee (the Dieppe Raid) was the only time that all three of the RAF’s Eagle Squadrons saw action on the same operation.

In September 1942, the pilots of the three RAF Eagle Squadrons transferred to the USAAF, with the former RAF No.133 Squadron becoming the 336th Fighter Squadron, part of the 4th Fighter Group based at Debden. Initially retaining their Spitfires, Gentile’s machine was called ‘Buckeye Don’ and featured rather distinctive nose artwork (based on the 4th FG badge), something which clearly illustrated his confident attitude to aerial combat. After only retaining their Spitfires for a few weeks, the pilots of the 4th FG were required to convert to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt, a massive aeroplane in comparison to their diminutive Spitfires. Initially having serious misgivings about a fighter they referred to as the ‘Juggernaut’, the Thunderbolt may have been a bit of a heavyweight when compared to the Spitfire, but certainly possessed many impressive fighting qualities of its own.

Gentile would go on to be a celebrated aviation hero and became the leading USAAF ace in the ETO after scoring a ‘triple victory’ on 8th April 1944. Amongst his fellow pilots, he would also be known as the ‘Ace of Aces’, by virtue of the fact his victory tally had overtaken that of Great War US Ace Eddie Rickenbacker (ground victories were also counted). Ultimately though, his tour of duty would end in inglorious fashion, as he simply could not suppress his urge to show off. Whilst performing a demonstration flight at Debden for a crowd of dignitaries and members of the press, Gentile flew his Mustang ‘Shangri-La’ in a series of ever faster and ever lower passes and it was almost inevitable what was going to happen. Striking the ground, the fighter came to rest in a heap, but thankfully with the pilot miraculously emerging unhurt, other than his bruised ego. Furious, his commanding officer grounded him and sent him back stateside to work the war bond circuit.

Scheme B - Supermarine Spitfire Vb, Aircraft flown by Squadron Leader Eric Hugh Thomas, RAF No.133 (Eagle) Squadron, Biggin Hill, Kent, April 1942

Airfix Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb RAF Eagle Squadron model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog
Airfix Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb RAF Eagle Squadron model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

Initially joining the Royal Air Force in 1936, Eric Hugh Thomas was initially posted to No.19 Squadron Duxford, flying the beautiful Gloster Gauntlet fighter. After a short stint as a flight instructor at Cranwell, he would later to squadron flying with his parent unit, only to be posted away again, this time to No.222 Squadron at Hornchurch during the height of the Battle of Britain. September 1940 would prove to be a productive month for Thomas, as he managed to destroy three Bf 109 fighters and damage or share in the destruction of a further two Luftwaffe aircraft.

On 17th November 1941, he took command of No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’ at Eglinton, where he would help to oversee the ongoing integration of American pilots into Royal Air Force service, following the unit’s establishment just four months earlier. He would personally lead the squadron’s first fighter sweep over France in April 1942 and oversee their conversion to the Spitfire Mk.Vb, before changing base ones more, this time moving to Biggin Hill. Now promoted to Wing Commander, he would take part in air operations in support of Operation Jubilee and the Dieppe raid, a maximum effort which would involve all three of the RAF Eagle Squadrons in providing air cover for the landing forces. He would relinquish his command of No 133 Squadron in September 1942 when all three of the RAF ‘Eagle Squadrons’ transferred to USAAF control, with his former No.133 Squadron becoming the 336th Fighter Squadron, part of the 4th Fighter Group based at Debden.

Supermarine Spitfire Vb BM260 was built at the Castle Bromwich factory and delivered to the Royal Air Force in March 1942. It was allocated to No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’ the following month, becoming the personal aircraft of Squadron Leader Eric Hugh Thomas and later benefitting from some rather distinctive note artwork - at a time when few RAF fighters carried personal markings, Thomas decorated his aircraft with a jousting knight on the port side fuselage, just in front of the cockpit. It is also interesting to note that this Spitfire wears the revised RAF day fighter scheme adopted from mid-August 1941, a scheme which just very different from the aircraft which fought during the Battle of Britain.

Possessing an exemplary service record and having been awarded several decorations for his flying skill, Eric Hugh Thomas eventually left the Royal Air Force in September 1944 due to continuing health problems, with at least five aerial victories to his name and officially an ‘Ace’ pilot.

With the Spitfire continuing to prove such a popular modelling subject, the two fascinating scheme options included with this impending kit release will not only help to tell the story of this heavily produced ‘stop-gap’ variant of Britain’s most famous fighting aeroplane, but also how it was used by two airmen connected with one of America’s celebrated ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Scheduled for release early in the new year, this 1/48th scale kit (A05125A) is something that little bit different for your latest Spitfire build project.

A Lancaster, but not as we know it

Airfix Bristol Hercules powered Avro Lancaster B.II model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

We end this latest edition of our blog by celebrating the re-release of an incredibly popular 1/72nd scale model kit, one which marks a variant of the Avro Lancaster bomber which appears very different from the majority of the 7,377 aircraft produced, the Lancaster Mk.II. In addition to being one of the most important aircraft of the Second World War, the Avro Lancaster helped to underline the effectiveness of both precision and area saturation bombing, but perhaps more importantly, Germany’s complete lack of an effective heavy bomber for the entirety of the war.

The first Lancaster Mk.I aircraft were delivered to RAF No.44 (Rhodesia) Squadron at Waddington at the end of 1941, with the Squadron becoming the first to completely convert to the capable new bomber. The first operational raid for a No.44 Squadron Lancaster came on 3rd March 1942, when a Lancaster conducted a mine laying operation in the Heligoland Bight, off the North German Coast. A week later, three Lancasters took part in a major raid on Essen and marked the operational debut of Britain’s third four engined heavy bomber to enter service, an aircraft which would go on to prove essential to the Allied war effort.

With Germany still capable of mounting effective bombing raids against British industrial targets, the Air Ministry were concerned that the new Lancaster was so vital to their war effort that the possibility of being unable to obtain enough Rolls Royce Merlin engines as a result of such raids posed too great a risk. Their solution was to modify a Lancaster Mk.I to accept four Bristol Hercules radial engines, the same powerplant which was used on the Stirling and later versions of the Halifax bomber, giving the Lancaster something of an unusual appearance. Increasing the frontal area of the aircraft, it was feared that the Hercules engines would adversely affect the performance of the aircraft, however the need to maintain a steady supply of new aircraft far outweighed such considerations. In operation, the engine did actually have some minor advantages over the Merlin in some areas, even though service ceiling and load carrying capabilities were certainly adversely affected.

As it transpired, the feared disruption of Rolls Royce Merlin engine production never materialised and indeed the only powerplant of the two to be affected by German bombing raids would actually be the Hercules. The extra effort fitting the radial engines to Lancaster’s was quickly deemed unnecessary and out of a total production run of well over 7,000 Lancasters, less than 5% would be of this radial engined variant, making it quite the wartime curiosity.

Scheme A - Avro Lancaster B.II, ‘Z-Zombie’, No.408 (Goose) Squadron, 6 Group, Royal Canadian Air Force, Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, July 1944

Airfix Bristol Hercules powered Avro Lancaster B.II model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

Looking at wartime pictures of this particular aircraft, it can be rather confusing to see the unmistakable nose and gaping bomb bay of an Avro Lancaster, only to look across to the engines and see the four strange radial engines which power it. Although something doesn’t seem quite right, there is definitely something rather appealing about this unusual Lancaster and one which is worthy of further investigation. The radial engined Lancaster Mk.II entered RAF service in late 1942, where it was welcomed with open arms by squadrons converting from twin engined Wellingtons. With only 300 aircraft of this type being produced, operational losses would invariably be replaced with standard Merlin engined Lancasters, which meant that by the time of D-Day, only two squadrons were still operating the type, No.514 Squadron and No.408 (Goose) Squadron RCAF.

No.408 (Goose) Squadron RCAF began the war operating Handley Page Hampden bombers from RAF Lindholme, but would later convert to the Halifax and then the Lancaster B.II. Whilst based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, it is unusual to note that whilst they began the summer flying the radial engined variant of the Avro Lancaster, they would go back to flying the Halifax before the summer was out. Making a significant contribution to Bomber Command’s war effort, the squadron would mount 4,610 sorties during WWII, tragically losing 170 aircraft during that time - the squadron’s code letters were EQ.

This particular Lancaster certainly lived up to its nickname and sported some rather spectacular nose artwork to advertise the fact - known as Avro Lancaster B.II LL725 ‘Z for Zombie’, this Lancaster carried a rather imaginative representation of a bomb carrying ghoul on its port side nose, along with a meticulously applied mission scoreboard. Unfortunately, the aircraft would be lost over Hamburg on the night of 28th/29th July 1944, just before No.408 Squadron reverted back to operating Halifax bombers.

Scheme B - Avro Lancaster B.II, ‘Fanny Ferkin II’, No.514 Squadron, 3 Group Royal Air Force, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, November 1944

Airfix Bristol Hercules powered Avro Lancaster B.II model kit on the Airfix Workbench blog

An interesting feature of some of the early Lancaster Mk.I and Mk.II aircraft was the inclusion of a rear facing FN-64 ventral turret, an attempt to provide the aircraft with better defensive armament against attack from behind and below. In operation, the gun proved difficult to use and was largely ineffective, other than providing reassurance for bomber crews and was subsequently removed, however modifications required to install the turret would result in the radial engined B.II variant of the Lancaster featuring no fewer than three different versions of the aircraft’s iconic bomb bay.

Avro Lancaster B.II DS842 ‘Fanny Ferkin II’ was delivered to RAF No.514 Squadron in December 1943 and would spend its entire service career with this unit. Another aircraft which benefitted from rather elaborate nose artwork, this Lancaster is worthy of particular note as it embarked on a lecture tour of USAAF bases in Britain during May 1944, allowing American air and ground crews to take a closer look at Britain’s most famous bomber and to find out what it was like to operate. It would be interesting to find out if any of these American onlookers thought that this particular Lancaster appeared a little strange to their eyes as well and why it was different. The aircraft would eventually be scrapped in March 1945, although this is not known if it was as a result of combat damage sustained, an accident or being cannibalised to keep other aircraft flying.

With the Avro Lancaster B.II occupying such an unusual and fascinating position in the story of Britain’s most famous wartime bomber, every time this particular kit is released, it always disappears almost immediately, as modellers stock up on this rather odd looking variant. As the kit also includes the two appealing nose art schemes detailed above, it makes this an almost irresistible Bomber Command build project for the dark winter months ahead. Importantly, we are pleased to report that this fabulous kit is now available once more.

We are afraid that’s all we have for you in this latest edition of Workbench, however, we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with a further selection of Airfix modelling delights for your enjoyment. If you have any suggestions for subjects you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use this workbench@airfix.com link to contact us.

In between new editions of our blog, the Airfix conversation continues over on our Airfix Forum Worbench thread, with further discussions taking place on both the official Airfix Facebook page and the Airfix Twitter channel please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Workbench.

Whenever you decide to visit, the Airfix website is always the place to be for all the latest model availability information, previous editions of our blog, a selection of modelling tips and much more.

The next edition of Workbench is due to be published on Friday 13th November (oh no!), when we will have more interesting features from the world of modelling.

On behalf of the entire Workbench team, thank you for your continued support our Airfix blog.

The Airfix Workbench Team

 

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