Miniature Ordnance Review looks at the world of historical and fantasy miniatures wargaming and model building. From 15mm Flames of War, to Warhammer 40K, to 1/35th scale tanks, with some potential surprises on the horizon - you'll find them here!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pimp My Emcha - Kitbashing the M4A2 Sherman in Soviet Service

The M4A2 was the most common diesel-powered version of the ubiquitous Sherman tank. Powered by the GM 6046 engine, it gave the M4A2 a very strong power to weight ratio, though the engine experienced some initial reliability issues.  Over the course of the war, nearly 11,000 M4A2 variants were produced with roughly 8000 of those being armed with the 75mm gun (April 1942 to May 1944 production), and the remaining 3000 armed with the 76mm gun (May 1944 through May 1945 production).

While the U.S. Army decided to limit overseas deployment to gasoline powered models of the Sherman, the diesel M4A2 was still utilized in large numbers by other operators. The U.S. Marine Corps used the M4A2 during the Pacific campaign, but eventually began to transition to the M4A3 variants. The Soviet Union was ultimately largest combat user of the M4A2. During the course of the war the Soviets received roughly 4100 vehicles (50% 75mm / 50% 76mm) through Lend Lease.

As with the other Sherman models, the M4A2 underwent a variety of changes during its production run. At this point Battlefront only makes two M4A2 variants which don't fully represent the variety fielded by the Soviets during World War II. However, with a little work you can get every variant used in the European war using the two M4A2 miniatures and the new plastic M4A3 (UBX44) box. There were HVSS versions of the M4A2 provided to the Soviet Union, but these were only used in the Manchurian campaign.

The basic M4A2 Sherman (SU071) provided by Battlefront is one of the earlier small hatch variants. Production of this version began in roughly April 1943 when the direct vision slits were eliminated and replaced with periscopes. Ammunition stowage was still dry. The 75mm turret is also one of the earlier types with a pistol port, but no loader's hatch (D50878). While most of these vehicles were produced in early to mid 1943, there is at least one picture of such a vehicle in 1945 in Vienna, Austria. The drive sprocket is the earlier "open" style and comes from the original plastic Sherman track set.

The 76mm M4A2 Sherman (SU073) miniature combines the M4A2 large hatch hull with wet ammunition stowage (i.e. "protected ammo"). The turrent is an "oval hatch" variant of the 76mm Sherman turret, which appears to have been common to most of the M4A2 provided to the USSR. Versions both with and without a muzzle brake were provided to the Soviet Union, but the miniature only provides the sans muzzle brake variant. By 1945 there seemed to have been a large number fielded with the muzzle brake, especially for the final push into Germany itself. I've therefore updated the original Battlefront miniature with the M4A3 plastic gun with muzzle brake.  I've also added the plastic tracks as they have a good steel track pattern on them and the "economy" drive sprocket. These vehicles were all produced in 1944 and deliveries to the Soviets began in the fourth quarter of that year.

There is, however, a large production gap between the early style miniature (SU071) and the 76mm version (SU073). During that time the M4A2 transitioned to a large hatch variant with the 75mm gun. As at least one army I'd like to field some day uses that variant, I had to create it myself. The large hatch M4A2 was first introduced with dry ammunition stowage. To protect the vulnerable stowage bins, applique armor was applied in three locations to the outside of the tank (it's debatable as to whether or not this would count as "protected ammo"). To produce this version, I took one of the 76mm hulls, added the additional armor plates, and began casting copies of it.

I borrowed the 75mm turrets from the M4A3 plastic box as they have the right combination of commander's hatch and loader's hatch to represent this variant of the M4A2. The tracks include the correct "economy" drive sprocket and are available through Battlefront special order as USO183. As the texture of the plastic is very smooth, I used some plastic cement and a stipple brush to provide some cast texture to the sides of the turret.

While I can quibble with some of the details of the plastic M4A3 boxed set - overall I must say that Battlefront has engineered a solid and easy to construct miniature. Another plus is the pieces are generally compatible with the existing inventory of resin and metal miniatures making it easy to swap parts between the two. By way of comparison I've recently picked up a Zvezda 1/100th M4A2 late (with muzzle brake). Zvezda's kit is cheaper per vehicle, and in many ways it is more accurately detailed. However, the construction of the Zvezda kit is much more reminiscent of a larger scale model kit than a miniature with fine details that only experienced modelers will be able to take advantage of in 15mm scale. The way the pieces are broken up will also result in some very odd gaps or seams in the final figure.

In game terms, the large hatch 75mm M4A2 should probably have the Front Armor 7 of the later 76mm version, though with the applique armor, I doubt it would count as "protected ammo" in game terms - that distinction seems to come with the "wet" ammunition stowage which was introduced later. I'm simply going to run them as standard 75mm M4A2 tanks. Personally I'd like to see the option at some point for the Soviet Sherman lists, but that would require a lot more granularity than we've gotten at this point for the Inomarochnikiy Tankovy Batalon (Lend-Lease Tank Battalion).

Overall I'm happy with how I was able to take the existing Battlefront parts and generate any version of the M4A2 I needed with very little casting required.  Now I have to decide whether I'm going with an army like this for an upcoming tournament or something that has fewer moving parts.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Upcoming "1945" Tournament!

In honor of Battlefront releasing "Berlin" - which at least chronologically wraps up the war in Europe, there will be a "1945" tournament at Guardian Games on November 14, 2015. Lists must come from a handbook or online / digital list that includes the year 1945 - so there won't be any Normandy or Market Garden lists included in this particular tournament. The point value is also higher than I've generally done - 1945 points in honor of the year.

The thing is, I'm in a quandary about what to bring for this particular tournament. To be completely honest, I've been extremely busy with writing this summer - along with other non-Flames of War hobbies and responsibilities (yes - I do have some!), and my Polish Black Brigade is still begging to be finished up (it's getting there, but not THERE yet dang it). That means space and time have been at a premium, but I've had a few projects on the back burner that I've slowly been working through.

By and large I've been an Axis player - the more unusual the army the better. One of the forces I've been looking at is 26. Panzerdivision from Fortress Italy. I have some good research data on the unit including some wonderful markings for the unit's Panthers, Panzer IV's, and Stug IV's (yes - IV!) from the Firefly collection book, To the Last Bullet: Germany's War on Three Fronts, Part 2: Italy. The unit has some nice modified Panthers, but for its capability, the Panther is very expensive and fragile in very "Late War" games. Even with a lot of Panzer IV/Stug IV support, it is going to be a tough army to attack with successfully - especially at high point values.  Generally at high point values the Reluctant Trained Panthers seem to do better on sheer volume, though you'll not likely get a lot of 6-1's.

Given I wrote the German section of the Bridge at Remagen book, there are still several armies in that work I'd like to field. The Jagdtigers of 512. Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung have always been a favorite of mine, and at 1945 points, I think both the CV and RT versions would both be viable, though the RT would I think work a little bit better because you'd have more big guns and the option of Carius. 654. Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung would also be interesting, and I've already started working up some of their Jagdpanthers, but unfortunately they have the same issue Panthers have - they're fairly fragile for the points cost. SS-Panzer Brigade ‘Westfalen’ would also be interesting, and is a really decent defensive army with some strong armored support, but I'd have to paint up a bunch of SS figures (and the LW Battlefront minis often have issues) - and just about anything out of Remagen is going to need Volkssturm support - which is a large time sink for figure painting.

Given the large point-value of the games, I've also considered a couple of the Berlin lists (again, as I did a fair bit of research and writing for that book as well). The Berlin Kampfgruppe gives you so many options, you can tailor build a force to your liking. I was thinking of running a fortified company with a mix of Heer, Volkssturm, and Hitlerjugend with Panther Turret bunkers. I've even considered throwing in either Elefants from 614. Schwere Panzerjägerkompanie or the Krupp-Steyr Waffenträger as well. Depending on the mix of missions, fortified companies can do well, or fail miserably at a tournament like this - especially at these point values. However, while I really want to do this army some day for purely historical reasons, it would involve a lot of infantry painting as opposed to vehicle painting, and I'm a much more efficient (and better) vehicle painter than infantry / gun crew painter. I'm looking at least a couple of Volkssturm units, Hiterjugend, at least a platoon or two of Heer, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns (those 3.7cm Flakzwilling are too good to pass up) - and I just don't think I have the time to do the force justice.

Another list I've considered is the Panzerdivision Müncheberg list on Flames of War digital. I helped sort out the force organization for this one, but as with the 26. Panzerdivision list above, the core of the unit is fairly expensive - Panthers and Tigers - and given the proliferation of high AT Allied weapons, they're now fairly fragile. I know I could work up a very historical force, but I think the core of it (4 Panthers and 3 Tigers) could easily be wiped out in a turn facing something like British Comets.

Then there's Allied forces. I've always wanted to do a force representing the all African-American 761st Tank Battalion, but the current lists always seem to fall a little short of representing the unique character of this unit. One of the 1945 confident veteran or confident trained lists would likely work okay, but going trained would lend itself to putting together an "Arty Party" which is unbalanced. It would run well in the tournament, but would lack the feel of the unit in my view.

There's another good Firefly Collection book, Comrade Emcha: Red Army Shermans of WW2, that has a lot of great photographs and color plates, including some good force organizations to build a great Berlin Soviet lend-lease tank unit from Red Bear. I've also recently picked up Dmitriy Loza's autobiography, which is another great source of inspiration for this army. I could theoretically run a mixture of 76mm and 75mm M4A2 Shermans in this list - though I'd need to update a lot of the 75mm M4A2's to the "large hatch" versions as most of the "small hatch" versions had been destroyed at this point (though there is photographic evidence of a few surviving). I know Valentines were being used during the assault on Küstrin, so I could throw them in as well. Throw in Loza and Nevsky and you've got a force with a lot of alpha punch... but on the downside it is a lot of painting to punch it out to 1945 points.

So as I said... I'm in a quandary. There's reasons for and against running each list. Historically they all have something very solid to offer. Each unit tells its own important story about the state of the war and that particular group's role in it. In terms of game mechanics, I think any list where the German tanks remain fairly safe from the front when faced with Allied AT assets is going to have an advantage over those that don't - but my RT King Tiger list from last year was still delicate to play. I think I'm more likely to win games with the Allied lists at this point, but my primary goal has never been to max/min the heck out of a list for a Flames of War tournament.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, feel free to put them in the comments below!