Liberation, Italy 1944

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#1
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For my ‘back story’ readers are directed to my posting in the Introduce Yourself section. The short version is that this is my first 1/35 project since I downed tools as a 16-year-old in 1984.

Those who followed me from the other site will know that this blog started almost two years ago. I’m going to start with a ‘redux’ of that blog to where it had reached in May 2018 and then carry on where I left off. So, my apologies for those who may have seen some of this before… The image above shows the diorama more or less in its current state.

The diorama is called Liberation, Italy 1944. It depicts a hill town (probably in Tuscany) soon after being over-run by the Allies during the advances which followed the liberation of Rome in June 1944 – so my setting is in the late summer / early autumn.

Just as it was with the public at the time, this has been a largely forgotten WWII subject for the modeller (at least compared with the plethora of Normandy / Eastern Front dioramas). The choice of an Italian setting was driven in part from reading two excellent books.

War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 by Iris Origo is a war diary written by an English-born woman who married an Italian aristocrat in the 1920s and lived on an estate in Tuscany throughout the Second World War. From her unique, local vantage point she witnessed the turmoil that enveloped the nation following the Allied invasion, the surrender of the Italian forces and the German occupation and recorded (in often harrowing detail) the effects on her community as the tide of war swept towards and ultimately engulfed them.

The second book is Italy's Sorrow a Year of War 1944-45 by James Holland. Easily as good as anything by Anthony Beevor, it’s a very even-handed account of the latter half of the Allies’ notoriously slow, hard slog up the peninsula, full of first-hand anecdotes, character sketches and plenty of details to inspire.

It also helped that a couple of years ago we had a family holiday in Tuscany – the first time I have been to this beautiful part of the world. There is nothing quite like being where it happened to understand how to model a subject.

Like the Italian campaign, this has been a long haul, but if I can get it ready to show at Telford 2018 I will be happy. I have decided to aim for a competition less out of any lust for glory (who am I kidding?) and more for the added impetus that a deadline brings to any project. Like many of us, my modelling tends to come in fits and starts between family and work commitments…

Now I will be the first to admit that the bar for dioramas has been raised a country mile since those barmy days of the 1980s when I last modelled in 1/35. These days it is simply not enough to arrange a well-built vehicle on a tasteful base, dry-brushing seems to be frowned upon and woe betide you if your figures are not up to scratch. Above all ‘accuracy’ seems to be the watchword. While not decrying any of that, I still maintain that this hobby is supposed to be fun and it is the end result that matters – not how you achieved it. However, I do believe that the best dioramas should, as Shepard Paine (and many others over the last three decades) have taught us, ‘tell a story’.

The idea

After the initial title ‘Liberation’ came to me it struck me that that word has always meant different things to the various people caught up in conflict: a mixed blessing. For the (unscathed) victor there might be the feeling of satisfaction of ‘job done’, but also grief for dead and wounded comrades and wistful thoughts of a far-away home. For those civilians who had been ‘liberated’ there would be joy, but also grief for those lost and, all too often, horror at the destruction of their homes. For the surviving, but defeated enemy these feelings would be mostly negative, but perhaps also tinged with a relief of sorts…

The atmospheric photo below shows New Zealand infantrymen talking to civilians in Faenza (so nearer to the Adriatic coast) on 16 December 1944.

new_zealand_infantrymen_talking_to_civilians_in_faenza_italy.16_dec_1944._da07954f.jpg
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Initial inspiration came from the Sovereign Miniatures Wolf range: S2KW030 - British soldier smoking. I wasn’t familiar with SM until a year or so ago but they have a wide range of resin figures (and other items) divided almost equally between Allied and German subjects. They are also lovely guys who give hefty discounts at shows…

Sovereign Miniatures S2KW030 - British soldier smoking.jpg

This guy is obviously having a bit of a ‘Hamlet moment’ (although it’s probably a woodbine): relaxing after a moment of combat with a quiet smoke where he seems to be worlds away from his surroundings. From his uniform he could be anywhere in Europe during the latter half of the Second World War – so I decided he was going to be in Italy in the summer of 1944, perhaps a veteran of the previous year’s fighting, possibly even the Western Desert before that. The idea is that he will be at the centre of the diorama (although perhaps not literally), with other little vignettes going on elsewhere.

I say ‘elsewhere’ because I already had an idea that I wanted this to be a fairly large project. Although it might be said to be foolhardy to kick-start my modelling in this scale with such a grand design, a large part of me wants to try out many of the new kits, materials and techniques I have been reading about in books, magazines and on the web.

So as I started to sketch the plan more elements soon came to mind:
  • A church with bell tower and part of a typical Italian street
  • A small ravine crossed by a bridge into the town
  • A knocked out German tank or assault gun in front of the church
  • At least two Allied vehicles entering the town, one a Bren carrier the other to be confirmed
  • A German or Italian car crashed into the ravine, as if taking the bend at excessive speed during the retreat
  • Allied troops (British, Canadian, Polish or Anzacs) in various states of emotion
  • ‘Liberated’ Italians, also displaying mixed emotions
  • Captured, wounded or dead German troops
So not much to accomplish there, I am sure you will agree…
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#2
Composition

At least this hasn’t changed much over the years. You have an idea, you place your vehicles / figures / buildings onto a flat surface and you decide how to arrange everything in a pleasing manner. Once I hit on the idea of the church, the ravine and the bridge I started to work out the size and shape of the base.

This is where a bit of artistry – and basic psychology – comes into play. What is the ideal vantage point from which I want people to view my work? Very few dioramas can be viewed in the round (except by judges!) and since we read from left to right we tend to approach any image – 3-dimensional or otherwise – from the left. So this is how I planned mine.

In the old days I always started with a flat piece of wood and thought only in two dimensions – length and width – and left the important third one – height (or depth) – to last. This meant I had to build everything up from the base with polystyrene sheet, balsa and wood. But these days we have insulation board. This stuff is amazing: it is cheap (or free – most of mine is picked up from the street), it is extremely easy and fast to work by sanding or chipping (a large screwdriver works fine) – and it has revolutionised my approach. The beauty of this material is that you start with a block and burrow down.

So once I arrived at the basic dimensions of my diorama using bits of card, sanding blocks and any vehicles I had handy (the Stug, Daimler and Schimmwagen belong to my then 11-year-old son) I simply glued a block of insulation board to the base board and started chipping and sanding away until I had the basic contours in place: the flat area at the rear right for the buildings and the street, the gentle slope down towards the left front to indicate this is a town on a hill. You may have noticed that I decided to reverse the initial slope - so that it now runs up from left to right - because I realised that this gave a better sight line. I then began to excavate the ravine – whilst leaving the basic shape of the bridge intact.

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The side boards start to give the base its shape.jpg

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Be warned: this is the only part of this build that can be described as ‘fast’!
 
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#3
And these posts are going to come 'thick and fast' until I catch up with the present!

The buildings

Once I had the basic contours in place the next stage was to work out the buildings.

I had a look for Italian church kits but didn’t turn up very much.

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This one is very nice but there’s no tower / steeple – and I wanted one of those! It’s by a little known company called Monroe Purdu Studios.

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I thought my luck was in when I found this one. But then I realised it was 1/72 scale. It’s by my one of favourite companies, the Dutch based Reality in Scale (who are also very friendly at shows). But it inspired me quite a lot as you will see, because in the end I decided that (mostly) scratch building was the only way ahead for the church.

Royal Models Italian Street.jpg

As for the street houses, I found was this lovely set by Royal Model, but it was too large and rather too grand for what I required.

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Here’s another nice one (although I cannot recall where I saw it). Again, too formal.

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Then good old (and now sadly defunct) Verlinden came to the rescue with this very nice set of facades. Finally, his had the ‘rustic’ look I was after and also suggested a slope up to the right. Of course this is just a façade, but that’s fine because once I have worked out how it will sit on the diorama I will be building the structure behind it to suit the angle of the back of the base.

It's called Verlinden Productions 1/35 Italian House Facade / Front Section 2260. As a teenager I remember being in awe of the old Diorama Construction Sets ('DCS') which, for the first time, encouraged model makers to be more ambitious with buildings and structures. For sure, they had their limitations (fragile plaster of paris for one), but it was nice to reacquaint myself with an old friend...
 
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#4
As you will already have seen from one of the photos above, once I tried out the Verlinden buildings on the diorama I realised that I had to drop the right-hand segment otherwise I would have had too little room for my church. There I was thinking that this project was big – but it obviously wasn’t big enough. Then again, these are the types of compromise that modelling is all about – I am still confident that what I have left will be enough to suggest a street.

Because insulation board is soft and springy, I needed to ensure that my buildings sat level on a firm base. So I ‘dug’ foundations for the main walls by cutting a trough into the insulation board and gluing in a length of square hardwood to act as base for the buildings. A small spirit level helps to ensure that everything sits flat and level. The plaster front was then glued in place (I use Deluxe Materials Speedbond PVA) and the internal side walls cut from foam board and also glued in place. This meant that I had the space left for the church.

However, in order to work out roughly where everything should go before I glued it in place I made a rough-cut of the church façade from spare cardboard. I cannot stress how important it is to play around with everything in three dimensions using anything you have to hand before committing yourself to actually putting structures in place. For example, my initial plans had the buildings far more forward then where they eventually ended up. Then I realised that by angling the street more sharply towards the left I would have more space to arrange my vehicles and figures in front.

Building a church

As for the church… well, as I said, I took inspiration from the guys at Reality in Scale and their beautiful 1/72 creation. I also took something else in a literal sense – the elaborate doorway that they sell as part of a vignette base called ‘The Balustrade’.

Here I accept that I may have strayed a little from an accurate Tuscany church because, from what I saw during my time there, most of the architecture is fairly plain (although no less stunning for that). However, I’m going to pretend that some local worthy in this small town decided that he had to save his soul by contributing this wonderful doorway to his church. It also saved me a load of work because the set provides a beautifully carved doorway and exactly the sort of heavy elaborate door which you would expect to find on a church.

The structure of the church itself was determined by the site on the base – it’s like a wedge of cheese in plan view (from above). These sorts of ‘cut-off’ buildings are always hard to pull off convincingly because the eye always wants to see what is missing – that’s why we military modellers always love ruins! However, here I decided that the tower would be my salvation (if you excuse the pun) because it would provide a logical left-hand edge of the structure. On the right-hand side the church roof would run into the side wall of the street buildings anyway and the pitched roof should help the illusion.

‏I then set about drawing the structure of the church onto foam board and cutting it out. This is the first time I have done this and the best tip I can pass on is what I have read elsewhere – always use a new, sharp knife blade and a steel rule.

Obviously, this is not based on a real church, but it’s a composite from what I have seen with my own eyes (the circular windows are popular in Tuscany and elsewhere), on the web - as well as the R in S prototype I have already mentioned. The tower is certainly a recognised style of the ‘four bell’ type – that is, it has a bell in each aperture. Some have flat roofs, some pitched with two sides, some with four - but since the latter is more aesthetically pleasing to my eye (perhaps because it reminds me of Sussex steeples from my childhood) I went with that…

Anyway, here is a shot of the church taking shape:

The church with a the beautifully sculpted doorway added courtesy of Reality in Scale. It also...jpg
 

kcole4001

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#5
Glad to see this project continuing here.
I must admit that your gully really woke me up to thinking more in the third dimension.
2 are so much easier to plan, though! :smiling2:
 
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#8
Thanks guys. I'm very glad to be able to give this blog a second life!

Anyway, on with the recap...

After cutting out the foam board and gluing it all together with PVA I ended up with quite a solid structure. I used a circle template to cut out the the curved upper edge of the bell apertures and, as you can see from the pencil marks, there were some last minute changes to the shape and position of the round window. You can see how my initial template, although very quickly and roughly cut, formed a guide.

After the structure was complete then the tricky task began of covering the outer surface with thinly rolled DAS clay. This is not only time consuming but hard work - but it is worth it because you end up with a skin of plaster that can then be carved and sanded in any way you like.

First you need to roll out the clay out on a flat surface with a rolling pin with plenty of talcum powder and then paint the foam board with PVA before working the clay into place with your fingers, an artist's palette knife and water. It's best to work on a smaller area at one time because the clay starts to dry pretty quickly. However, on the plus side, this means that you can move on to the next section after only a few minutes...

Once I had all surfaces covered and dried then I began to carve in the outline of stone and brickwork. This was best accomplished with a set of inexpensive dental / carving tools that I bought at a model show. This is messy work and best done out of doors, but it is also fun! Remember that what you are trying to achieve is depth and character which will come alive once you paint the building. Depending on the structure, you do not have to be too precise - but it is very important to keep everything horizontal unless you are depicting, for example, a circular or diagonal brick / stone course!

Below are some shots of the church as work in progress. Apart from the Reality in Scale doorway, the window surrounds were made from Magicsculp(t). This is an amazing two-part putty which is a bit like Milliput, but it lasts longer un-mixed. Also like Milliput, it can be very easily sculpted whilst wet. However, once dry it is rock hard and has a smoother texture.

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The bells

Now this caused me a lot of head-scratching - and futile internet searching for "1/35 scale church bells" (nothing). Then I had a brain-wave. Clue: apart from a church where do you normally expect to find a bell? Answer: a ship! Soon I was on ship-modelling sites and I found what I was looking for.

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These bells, which are beautifully cast in brass (complete with clappers), were the largest I could find. Luckily they turned out to be just right for my apertures.

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By the time I had painted them (having first covered them with Mr Metal Primer and Mr Finishing Surfacer) they looked just the part!

Bells installed 4.jpg

The bells installed.jpg

There are some methods of hanging bells which are quite elaborate - and others which are (thankfully) more simple. So I went for the latter... In this case, the bells are attached to a wooden baton, often square in section, which pivots within the aperture. The bells are often tied to these batons with thick cable. I used hollow square section plastic rod which I pared with a craft knife to give it a more irregular appearance, then florists wire to tie the brass bells in place (they come with a handy loop moulded to the top).

Bells unpainted 2.jpg

The floor of the bell tower was made from thin hardwood, scribed to resemble floorboards and then coloured with wood stain (although care has to be taken with this because, as a solvent, it will attack any unplastered foam board). I even added the top of a staircase. The painting of the interior walls, which was done with acrylics, is deliberately unsubtle because I want it to stand out once the roof is in place...

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#11
The stained glass window

For this I found an image of a real stained glass window on the internet and printed it on to a transparent plastic sheet (easily sourced from a stationers, e.g Rymans). Getting it the right size was a matter of trial and error. Luckily I also found a perfect-sized plastic surround from my spares box (part of a Panzer IV cupola) after many failed attempts to cut this from plastic card.

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Church window 1.jpg

The water basin shown above was also from Reality in Scale.

The interior

Because I planned to have the door ajar (with a cross looking priest in front of it) there wasn't much need for an interior to the church itself. To add a hint of something within, however, I printed out a small Madonna and child painting onto photographic paper to insert into an oval frame which I bought from an art supply store (it's meant for jewellery) and lastly added a small section of marble tiled floor - again simply printed out from an image on the internet.

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#14
Tm

Great to see you do a recap on this masterpiece. However where are you at with the build at the moment? You were hoping to show it by the end of the year??

Steve
 
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#15
Hi Steve,

What you see at the top of this post is roughly where I am at the moment.

So building's virtually finished (windows going in, etc), Stug in basic paint, Carrier and Topolino ready to be painted.

Beyond that, of course, there is the rest of the landscaping and, of course, the figures.

Fingers crossed, however, and I will have it ready for Telford in November.

Regards,

Tim
 
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#18
Finishing the exterior texture of the church

Although the basic texturing was done by scribing the exposed brick and stone work into the dried Das clay (see post above), I felt that the church did not look quite ancient enough. I took a tip from railway modelling and added some additional layers to some parts of the facade using a product called No More Cracks by Unibond.

No More Cracks Filler.jpg

When dry this has a different texture to the clay. However, be warned that it dries fast and - almost - rock hard. At first I thought I had ruined all my hard work, because it just looked too clumsy and random. However, after some pretty hefty sanding with course sandpaper and a sanding block I managed to bring it back to what I was after. This was where I realised that keeping my church detached from the base for as long as possible was an advantage, because I was able to manipulate the structure and apply pressure in a way which would have been almost impossible had it been attached to the base.

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Understandably I didn't take many pictures before I 'tamed' the new layer, but in the picture above you should be able to see how the harder plaster started to add another dimension to the original Das covering.

The other advantage of this material only became obvious once I started to apply paint - because No More Cracks is less porous than the Das clay, it means that it absorbs less paint. This is what is called 'a happy accident'! So, if you look at the picture taken after painting in the previous post, much of the variation in the basic tone is actually the result of the different plasters taking the same paint in different ways.

It is this random 'blotching' that lends old Italian buildings much of their character, as you can see from this photo below that I took whilst in Tuscany.

Rustic facade 6.jpg
 
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#19
Moving on to the street buildings

Because the Verlinden street front is only a facade, I needed to construct the actual buildings behind them myself. Despite the fact that I had already pushed the buildings back considerably from my initial placement, there was still a surprising amount of space to fill.

This was all done with foam board, sometimes double-layered for strength. It looks complicated from the images below, but actually it's not that hard to do. If you use A4 sized boards then they come in a useful size from the start - and they have perfectly cut right-angles. Although I had begun with white foam board for the church, I soon realised that black covered board makes more sense because, at the end of the day, I was going to have to paint any visible interiors a dark shade anyway.

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My wife is an architect, so I have to be careful not to make lazy generalisations about building dimensions - but my basic rule is this: if it looks right, it is right!

You will notice that I also included internal walls and floors where appropriate. This was partly to add strength, but also because I planned to include some visible interiors and even some suitably moody lighting effects. In fact, this has all been accomplished as I write: I have a flickering candle effect in the church and the balcony room and even an illuminated street light! The hollow recess at the back is to accommodate the battery. It's a bit of a gimmick, I admit. But fun! More of this later...
 

minitnkr

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#20
I find one of the pleasures of diorama building is the mission creep that inevitably occurs as the vision broadens during execution. Some really top craftsmanship here Tim, and some great ideas too. PaulE
 
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