Building the Battle of Kursk

On a hot July day nearly eighty years ago, history's largest tank battle was fought on the Russian steppe. In an effort to stem the tide of Soviet armor, the Germans debuted a special variant of the Stuka armed with twin 37mm anti-tank guns. I wanted to capture of a piece of the aircraft vs armor action of those desperate days in miniature. This proved to be almost as difficult and expensive as the real battle of Kursk.

My original conception was far humbler than what I ultimately ended up building. I had planned to build a single Stuka and a single tank. That eventually evolved into three stukas, three tanks, numerous footsoldiers and a wheat field. It all started with the tank. I chose Academy's 1/35th scale T-34, which offered a lot of accuracy out of the box. It also came with enough spare wheels to open my own miniature tire center. It was a relatively quick and painless build, and after dozens of airplane models, it was refereshing to build someothing that was painted one color and required no decals.

I did very little customization to the tank, other than a detachable aerial (a wire held on by a magnet) and substituting a glass carbochon for the opaque plastic headlight included in the kit. The tank marking was applied by hand with a white charcoal pencil, instead of fussing with a decal.

I went light on the weathering of tank, since the life expectancy of most T-34's in that time period was not very long. It was about this time that I decided it might be fun to feature a bunch of Soviet tank riders being blown to bits by the exploding tank. (I may have been influenced by the war in Ukraine a little.) I had never seen it done, and it seemed like an interesting challenge. Since the tank would be home to numerous soldiers climbing all over it, it made sense that it would have muddy footprints on it. This led to one of my larger wastes of time, which was 3D sculpting and printing a small tool to place accurate Soviet combat boot prints on the tank. While the end result did, indeed, produce a tiny boot with a historically accurate tread pattern, it completely failed to work in practice, leaving nothing but more or less boot-shaped blobs of paint on the tank. Oh, well.

The more I thought about the picture, the more obvious it was to me that fitting both a Stuka and an exploding tank in the same image was going to be a challenge. The Stuka is an absolute beast of a plane by WW2 standards, as you can see with this side by side comparison of the 1/35th scale tank and 1/32 scale Stuka. And however I chose to portray it, there was going to be a need for more tanks in the background, along with their accompanying soldiers. The whole thing was beginning to snowball. The Stuka was aiming to blow up my wallet, as well as my tank.

It was this point that a good friend stepped in and offered a win-win solution. He had recently taken an interest in the Bolt-Action miniature wargame series, and was in the process of building some German and Russian armies. He was looking for help with the consstruction and painting of a couple Stukas. I offered to build and paint them, along with a couple T-34's and some soldiers, in exchange for some supply costs and their use in my photo shoot. He agreed. I completed these before starting on the big Stuka.

It was time to begin work on the big Stuka. Like every other plane, this started with the cockpit. Fortunately for me, Hasegawa actually included some decent pilot figures, which is normally a problem I need to solve on my own when trying to depict an aircraft in flight. (Other related problems include making the prop spin and putting the gear up. Luckily, the gear were also a non-issue for the Ju87) The only customization I made to the cockpit was the addition of seat belts and some 3D printed ammo belts for the rear gun. By leaving the resin uncured, the belts retained enough flexibility to make posing them relatively easy.

The Stuka kit went together reasonably painlessly, the only real gotcha being a number of small holes that needed drilling BEFORE you closed up the plane...which I overlooked, of course. That made positioning some of the external stuff a little trickier. Otherwise, the only real obstacle to construction was the design of the Stuka itself, which is festooned with lots of little antenna, mass balances, and actuators all over it, which makes just picking the thing up without breaking it an adventure. I left as much of that stuff off until I was done painting, but it made photographing it a nightmare.

My kit, which I bought secondhand, came with a few aftermarket add-ons, and I purchased one or two more. These included an extra decal sheet, some Quickboost resin exhaust stacks, Quickboost prop, and some canopy masks. They were a mixed bag. The canopy masks were vital, since the Stuka birdcage is a labyrinthine nightmare. The exhaust stacks were nice, but almost indistinguishable from the kit parts (they are merely open instead of solid). The prop blades were an important upgrade, since the blades in the kit bear little resemblance to the broad paddle blades of the G model Stuka. I was not entirely happy with any of the quickboost stuff. While they are well-formed and look great, they are a PITA to liberate from their 'sprue'. I did not opt to get metal barrels for the big guns, although they would undoubtably look better. It was cheaper to just add the muzzle brake details in post.

Ready to paint at last, I appreciated Hasegawa including camo mask guides in their instructions. I scanned these and created vinyl masks with my Silhouette plotter. I also made masks for many of the nationality markings, since the large decals were a bit problematic. Hasegawa's decals had yellowed with age, and the extra decals were rather brittle, and none of them were happy conforming to all the bumps and protuberances on the Stuka's wing. For some of the lettering, I eschewed waterslide decals altogether in favor of custom made adhesive vinyl decals. The plane itself is painted to resemble one of the prototype G-1's which Rudel flew at Kursk.

This project was my first experience with using Mission Model paints. Prior to this, I have used mostly Tamiya paints, which play nice with the airbrush, dry fast and are reasonably durable. But I have been frustrated with their color selection, and their hand-painting qualities leave much to be desired. So I decided to give the MM paint system a try. Their colors appear to be very well researched (I compared their RLM colors to the physical samples I have here, and they are a dead ringer), and they handle very well both with a brush and with an airbrush. I also use less thinner and stink up the house less. Unfortunately, they seem much more fragile (even with the urethane additive), and I had a few cases of paint lifting from the masking. I quickly learned that they required clear coating before applying decals, otherwise they were vulnerable to water damage from the dercal application. Once I adapted my methods to their idiosyncrasies, though, I was pleased with the results.

Now it was time to blow up the tank. I sculpted a wireframe and festooned it with cotton, painting it the appropriate colors. A couple of LED's powered by some coin cells lit up the interior.

Every battle needs casualties. For one of mine, I painted up one of those ubiquitous kid's toy soldiers, which turn out to be close to 1/32nd scale.

For the unlucky tank riders, I customized some Tamiya soldiers, who were already conveniently in pieces out of the box. I made more body parts than I ended up using. I decided less is more. Unless it's blood. I am still cleaning up blood spatter from my workbench.

The final hurdle, and one of the most challenging for me, since I am accustomed to building airplanes and not model railroads, was the terrain. I explored a lot of lamentably expensive options until deciding upon a wheat field, which was simulated (after spending a lot of money are various ground cover experiments) by a simple doormat. I made an impressive mess with a dremel putting ruts in the field for the tanks, but with the addition of some O scale wheat stalks in the foreground, it looked pretty convincing in camera. Matching the background image (a stock photo...and you really haven't lived until you have spent hours paging through endless photos of wheat fields) to the foreground was crucial, and I eventually learned that the studio lighting made as much of a difference as the colors in the photo itself. With the right light intensity, I could achieve a pretty close match.

The initial photo of the background elements looked good. I shot an extra image of the explosion in low light, so that I could punch up the effect in post. As I feared, I simply could not figure out a way to include the Stuka in the same shot as the tanks, so I considered using the initial photo as a backdrop for the shot of the Stuka itself. (A trick I used on my A-10) But engineering this particular model to either hang or sit on a pole was not looking promising, since merely looking at it made parts fall off, so I opted to shoot it seperately and composite the images together.

And that is precisely what I did. I took great care to place the aircraft at the appropriate angle and in the same light. After a preliminary pass, I decided to add an orange light to simulate light coming off the explosion.

The final composite was assembled in Affinity Photo. I painted some additional clouds into the background in Clip Studio Paint to help balance the image. The actual prop blur in the photo was underwhelming, being nearly invisible in this light and shutter speed, so I added a faux prop blur. Some final tweaking gave me the illustrative look I was chasing.

Much like the Wehrmacht at Kursk, I started this project with some optimism, which soon gave way to doubt, despair and eventually a feeling of impending doom. Unlike the Germans, though, I feel like I can ultimately claim victory. In many ways, this image captures my feelings about the senselessness of war in general, and particularly the war taking place in that same region of the world as I write this: two groups of men pledged to fight for their homelands thrown into a bloody and terrifying duel few of them wanted by the ambitions of a lying sociopath. In the end, their sacrifices will do little more than decide which flag flies above the wheat their blood has fertilized.

If you would like a closer look at this image, prints are available in my gift shop. Happy landings!

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