by: Matthew Lenton [ ]
Airfix trailed this Female companion to their ancient WWI Mark I Male Tank for some considerable time, and it has now rumbled into view. This kit has been the subject of much speculation in certain circles, with debate over whether it would be “all new” or if it would simply be the Male kit with the addition of an extra sprue for the Female sponson. Originally scheduled to appear towards the end of 2009, Airfix delayed its release by several months, which of course only added to the sense of anticipation, and a certain amount of excitement (for some!)
Before all is revealed below, a brief history for those who don’t know the ins and outs of the Males and Females of this most significant of all tanks. While unarmoured tracked vehicles had already been used as artillery tractors, the rapid descent of the Western Front into virtually static warfare in a landscape of trenches, craters, and barbed wire, provided the spur to develop machines that could offer an advantage in this most hostile environment.
Fosters of Lincoln built their first effort based on a US tractor in late 1915, followed immediately by an armoured box on custom built tracks. To improve trench crossing, the third model had greatly enlarged tracks, and this is what became the Mark I, destined within a year to be the first ever tank used in combat. Originally conceived as having a roof-mounted turret, this larger machine would obviously have been top heavy had it been thus equipped, so battleship style sponsons were designed to mount 6pdr naval guns, backed up by several machine guns fired through loopholes. On realizing that the loop mounted machine guns could not provide an all-round arc of fire, and as the 6pdr’s could not fire accurately while on the move, it was decided to arm some machines with two machine guns permanently mounted in each sponson. To differentiate them, the 6pdr version was dubbed Male, the machine gun version, Female. An impression of the fearsome amount of fire that the Female could give out is given by the fact that they carried 24,320 rounds of .303 ammunition.
Airfix’s kits are packed these days in nice top opening boxes with double sided printing, the plastic parts being in a heat sealed bag. As can be seen in one of the photos, one steering wheel had come off the sprue, and straight away this revealed that I was looking at an old, 1960’s moulding, where it was common for parts to be attached to the sprue at one point only.
It quickly became apparent that two of the three sprues are from the Male kit; in fact, they are the entire Male kit . . . with nothing omitted. The Female parts are on the third sprue, and as you would expect from a newly tooled model, the sprue protects all the parts on all sides with two attachment points on each, so nothing loose there.
The tracks are again identical to the Male kit, but can be regarded as new in the sense that they are now a soft and very flexible rubber instead of the tracks supplied with the original 1960’s release Male kit, which had a reputation for chemical degradation.
The small decal sheet, which unfortunately I couldn’t get a good photograph of, as the markings are tiny and white on a pale blue backing, provides one set of markings, to represent A11 “We’re All In It” which operated on the Somme in November 1916.
The instructions are, as usual for recent Airfix releases, a big fold-out black and white sheet with very clear diagrams, a great improvement over Airfix instructions of decades past. The colour scheme for example is an entire A4 sheet giving a full five angle view. The suggested camouflage scheme is quite colourful, the likely source for which is a painting in Osprey’s New Vanguard “British Mark I Tank 1916”, using Humbrol 72 Khaki Drill, 66 Olive Drab, 83 Ochre. The usual potted history and helpful modeling tips are in twelve languages.
Oddly, the box says this kit is 1/76, the instructions say 1/72. I suspect it is actually 1/76.
Well, I cannot deny that I was disappointed at the approach taken to this kit, as of course I was hoping for all-new tooling. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with the way the old Male kit builds, and as has been noted over the years, this was a remarkably good kit for its time, and is still admirably flash free, crisply detailed, and fits together with few real problems. There is an unfortunate sink hole at the rear of each hull side, where the plastic is thick underneath due to a locating pin, and it is quite hard to fill as it sits close behind the bolt for the drive sprocket.
The big problem with the kit is its well-known inaccuracies. Due to what was in effect the poor source material available to Airfix in the 1960’s, building the model straight from the box produces a strange hybrid of the original prototype “Mother” (ironically a Male of course) with its too-many too-closely spaced boiler makers’ rivets, with a Mark I steering trailer, a Mark II cab, narrower than that of the Mark I, and Mark II wedge shape roof hatch. As for the exhaust silencer, I’ve slightly lost where that came from, possible a later modification to some existing Mark II’s and III’s.
This means that to produce an accurate model, you first have to choose which type of tank you want to make, then carry out various modifications in order to achieve it. Some, like modifying the hatch or exhausts, are straightforward, others, like the shape of the track adjuster or the rivets are not so easy. This Female version, then, hasn’t addressed any of that, although it has enabled the easy production of a Female version with the same set of issues, as it were.
Some observations on the part of the kit that is new: I assembled one of the sponsons with just one of the machine guns to see how it went together (see photo). You do have to be careful removing some of the parts from the sprue as they are quite delicate. The sponson body is like a sandwich with the halves joined by two narrow bars onto which the guns will locate, so care is needed so that the bars aren’t bent or broken. Detailing is quite fine, and an attempt has been made to include the lifting hooks at the top of the front and back plates of the sponson – be aware that these are very small and thin and could easily be crushed when cutting the part off the sprue. The small rear access doors are moulded separately, and the instructions suggest the option of having them open or closed. Although no detailing exists on the inner surface, I suspect that surface is more or less invisible as it is hinged on the outer side of the sponson and when open would face the hull from only be a few millimeters away.
Comparing the rivets with photos of the real thing, they look to me to be more or less correctly sized and spaced, although as with the Male kit, there is no rivet detail on the roof or floor of the sponson. The machine guns are made to swivel and the method of achieving this is an improvement over the Male; the circular armoured mounting, if constructed carefully, would provide a more or less seamless and endless shield which should fill the aperture in the sponson, no matter which way the guns are directed, hence there will be no unsightly empty gap when a gun is traversed to its limit. The only possible nitpick in this area might be the shape of the top of the aperture in this shield, through which the armoured machine gun is mounted, which is rendered square, while some photos show it as being arched.
I kind of sense some discomfort on the part of the designers of this kit, for they surely are aware of the problems I describe above, and as a result there seem to be some strange inconsistencies in the images provided. The box art shows a tank in action, with three little tufts of smoke emanating from the roof, suggesting the three vertical pipe exhaust, unlike the silencer provided in the kit. However the triangular exhaust cowls are not shown, although they might well have been visible from such an angle; this lack of any exhaust detail at all, again I think harks back to “Mother”, with just the open pipes. This lack of exhaust is repeated in the painting guide and again in the colour box-side image. One might think this is just because the painting guide is simplified, but actually there are more oddities here: the drawing includes headlamps, which the kit doesn’t have; it shows the authentic double plate towing eye, again not in the kit, and perhaps most strange of all, the drawing of the roof doesn’t show either the Mark I round hatch, nor the Mark II wedge hatch, but . . . something else, and I’m not quite sure what.
The new bits are good, the old bits are, well, the same old bits. It does seem odd in a way, that you can now buy the Female kit, and from it produce either the Female, or equally, the Male. They could indeed have rolled them into the same kit with optional instructions and decals, although Airfix list the Male as £1 cheaper at 4.99.
In some ways of course, Airfix heavily target a younger audience, and have a good marketing and distribution operation, at least in the UK. They have a very special place in the hearts of most UK modellers, as 9 out of 10 of us will have started off with Airfix kits, so it is to be hoped that many new modellers will be inducted into the hobby through making a kit such as this.
Airfix must also be congratulated, perhaps with some qualification, for not just rereleasing exactly the same kits as before - they have also for example enhanced the Matilda and Churchill kits with some new components - but it is also to be hoped that some all-new small scale armour kits are in the offing. It's just a shame that this wasn't quite one of them.