Saturday, 26 March 2016

Flames of War: How to create Jungle bases

Ive had a couple of gamers express an interest on how I did the jungle bases on my Indochina Commando's and as I was intending to do a blog outlining how I did them anyway I thought I may as well do my post whilst Im waiting for 'she who must be obeyed' to finish her work at the desk that we both currently have to share for our creative outlets so I can get back to finishing my LVT's

When I decided to take the plunge and start getting my Indochina stuff done I spent a lot of time looking around at the kinds of bases that people were doing for Asia and such like and there wasn't much that I could find that really inspired me, in fact a lot of the bases that I had seen were either very reminiscent of European terrain or else they weren't available for the 15mm scale so I had to sit back and have a think of what I wanted.

The majority of the fighting in Indochina didn't take place in the deep jungle (with the significant exception of the Route Coloniale 4 disaster, when the Union troops struck out into the jungle away from the roads in an attempt to escape the VM) so the majority of bases that I had seen are very passable so no problem there... but I wanted something a bit different. I wanted something that screamed jungle and rain forest.

Anybody that has spent time in a jungle and/or rainforest (and Ive done both) will immediately be able to say that there is more dead stuff there and than alive and the ground covering is a deep mixture of light brown and deep brown/ black and the foliage can be so green its like a slap in the face... and then of course in the right season there is, in parts, a riot of colour with flowers and blossoms and such like, as well as the trees root structure running rampant across all pathways.

Now, this creates a bit of a dilemma because a base that is done this way will look very dark and at 1/100 scale its really important to have a demonstration of contrasts to highlight and draw attention to the details. Because of this one of the choices I made is that I wouldn't just have dead ground covering and instead mix up some materials with some brighter and lighter choices to create a bit of a lighter contrasting texture.

The next big problem was how on earth would I be able to replicate the foliage of a jungle on each base? Well that turned out to be easier than I thought with the beauty of brass etched foliage for Architectural Models...

and so this is how I did the bases:

1) Mount the painted figures directly to the base that you have chosen to use. For me I always use 2mm MDF Flames of War bases from Tony at East Riding Miniatures ( and for those of you who are interested, Tony also carried the Platoon20 line of Vietnam miniatures for the American War.

2) Mount a collection of Rocks and/ or Tree stumps. The rocks that I use are the kind of small pebbles you get for fish tanks, or small chalk chips that you can cut to shape. For the tree stumps I headed out to the garden (fortunately it being winter here there is a lot of this stuff laying dead all over the place). I got a big handful of twigs and cut and shaped them to the sizes I needed to fit them onto the bases. The selection of rocks and twigs that I had chosen were then glued straight onto the base using PVA glue and left to dry.

3) The next thing to be dealt with was the tree roots that spread across the jungle floor and break through the surface. For these I used Green Stuff, made appropriate lengths of the stuff and then stuck them to the bases with the sculpted details being applied once the roots were positioned securely.

4) To provide some unification of all the details on the base a layer of tile grout needs to be applied. Different people use different things. When I was younger I used to use plaster of paris but tile grout is far better due to the way it deals with water. Plaster would crack, grout doesn't... and grout doesn't shrink at all when it dries so this is what I used. I apply it with a palette knife (a mini one) and cocktail sticks to work them into the awkward areas. The grout is then left to dry completely.

5) Now the tile grout is fine for areas of mud BUT I personally am not a massive fan of the texture and Im never convinced by the way grout/plaster with a coat of paint looks. Its always made my miniatures look a bit crap so now I put a layer of fine grade sand everywhere that will be left exposed using PVA glue painted on with a brush.

6) Once this is done and dry as a bone the entire base (including the rocks but NOT the stumps) is painted using Vallejo German Camo Medium Brown (826) and left to dry

7) The base then has a heavy dry brush of Vallejo Green Ochre (914) is applied and left to dry

8) Im a real fan of the static flock grass clumps that you can buy off of Ebay and I happened to have a load of choices that I had bought for my Polish army which I had decided were not appropriate for the basing I was doing for them so I had a lot left over. I had looked at my bases and noticed that with the brass etched foliage I was going to apply, it wouldn't have made the bases 'busy' enough for my tastes and so I used a couple of these clumps on each base to replicate the thick undergrowth you can see in the Asias.

9) The next thing to make choices on were the actual ground covering itself, the lead litter, biological mulch and detritus that is so characteristic of forests and jungle. I knew, I just KNEW that a layer of static flock would just look crap so I decided to have a look around for some more textured ground layers. I knew that the war-games market probably wouldn't be able to provide this so I headed over to the fine scale modelling corner of the world and soon found a company called Reality in Scale based in the Netherlands ( who trade in a vast range of military diorama materials. They had a great selection of interesting ground materials of which I bought a good selection. When I had them in hand I mixed three of them together (1x Mossy Forest, 1x Fine Dark Forest and 1x General Green Scatter) into a plastic tub and shook it vigorously to produce my own mix. The final result wasn't as dark as I was expecting but nonetheless it was useable... and so this is what I glued (using PVA glue painted on) on all areas of the base that needed ground covering.

10) The next big challenge was the foliage that was raised from the base, and hanging from stumps and rocks. The only viable choice here, I believe, was to use brass etched foliage sheets. After a lot of looking around I settled with  buying a selection of sheets from Scale Link ( choosing SLF 065 - Tropical Tree Creeper , SLF 040 - Bracken Fronds and SNF 032 - Pond and Canal Plants. They have a vast range of foliage options at different scales and whilst not the cheapest options in the world, are definitely worth their expenses in the final analysis.

These sheets were primed and undercoated black and then were cut from their sheets, and applied to the bases into pilot holes previously drilled into the bases and glued across the ground or across tree stumps and boulders wherever necessary and positioned to represent a good covering of the base.

11) The entire foliage mass is then painted with Vallejo German Camo Medium Brown (826) for the branches and woody parts.

12) The foliage is then firstly base coated with Vallejo Extra Dark Green (896) and then highlighted with Extra Dark Green mixed with Vallejo Intermediate Green (891) and the final highlight of Games Workshops Putrid Green to make the green really pop.

An easy way to paint the foliage is to firstly paint a thin line down the centre of the frond and then paint all of the frond lobes on each side together with one stroke leaving a darker green dividing line between the frond core and the lobes.

... and there you have it! Jungle bases done!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Marine Commando Francois - French Indochina "The Dirty War" - part 2

Modelling the Marine Commandos of the Indochina war was problematic to say the least! There is very little written in the English language at all, and certainly nothing that relates to organisational breakdowns from a war that has been, for all intents and purposes, brushed under the carpet by the French. My French is passable but sadly nowhere near competent enough to be able to competently translate military acronyms and such like.

However, this is where Google came to the rescue... and by that I mean Google Translate. I found a photo library dedicated to all of the Marine Commandos and there was so much photographic record in there that I was able to piece together an accurate OrBat for the Commando on the day of the battle.

The complete Commando Francois

Around this I structured a Flames of War based Commando company with the following organisation:

78 Combat Effectives (76 European & 2 Vietnamese Suppletifs) 
Commandant L.V Labbens in overall command

Command Group
1x Group Chief
1x Radio Operator
1x Mechanic/ Engineer
1x Medic

Protection Group
1x Group Chief
3x Riflemen
2x Vietnamese Suppletifs

Mortar Group 
1x Group Chief
6x Riflemen (Ive only found a photo of one Mortar Operator but would 6 Riflemen imply 2x 60mm mortars being used or only 1?)

One of the two 60mm Mortars held in the mortar group

Assault Group
1x Group Chief
6x Riflemen

The company 57mm Recoilless Rifle, held in the Assault Group

1st Section
Groupe A
1x Group Chief
13x Riflemen

Some of the members of Section 1: Group A

Groupe B
1x Group Chief
13x Riflemen

Some of the members of Section 1: Group B

2nd Section
Groupe C
1x Group Chief
11x Riflemen

Some of the members of Section 2: Group C

Group D
1x Group Chief
8x Riflemen

Some of the members of Section 2: Group D

This amounts to a total of 74 with 4 Europeans unaccounted for.

So that was the organisation, now what about uniforms and weapons? There are no miniature manufacturers anywhere in the world that produce Marine Commandos from the Indochina conflict so I had to rig them myself.

After much searching around I decided to settle on using Battlefronts British Commando figures with a serious amount of adjusting.

In my favour was the fact that the smock that was designed for the Marine Commandos was pretty close to the design of the British Commando Smock and they also wore British style berets and trousers... and at this scale the boots, puttees and packs would barely register a difference. 

Alternate headwear such as a naval beret and the French Chapeau needed headswaps... to which I went to Peter Pig and ordered some heads for Scottish Tam O'Shanter berets and Chindit heads.

Weapons were a ball ache with this project. The majority of Marine Commandos were armed with ex-German MP40 Schmeissers, well there just isnt anybody who manufactures these in 15mm. I did however find a company that makes 15mm US M3 Grease Guns which, if the sides were filed down would make pretty good approximations of both the MP40 and/or the Mat49 depending on how the paint scheme was done. The Mortars were perfect and the Brens needed only the slightest modifications to appear to be FM 24/29's

There were a lot of Commandos armed with the Thompson Sub Machine Gun on the Battlefront figures so I decided to get rid of most of them although I did carve away the foregrip on some of them so that they appeared to be Mas 38 Machine pistol... and of course I actually left a few holding the Thompson as well. I figured that there will come a time when I want to use Francois as Jaubert or Montfort so a bit of diversity wouldn't hurt.

A French Union Marine Commando
The French Marine Commando's of this era were one of the first armed forces in Indochina to receive bespoke uniform elements and in their case this took the form of jackets. These required some painting techniques that were a little unorthodox.

A detail guide for the Commando jacket
Because of the painting technique that was used the jackets had all of the base colours painted first.
A Vallejo Khaki (988) base coat was applied followed by Vallejo Luftwaffe Camo Green (823) and Beige Brown (875) was stippled over the khaki using small lumps of sponge.

The trousers were painted a Khaki Drab (Tamiya XF51) and then highlighted with Vallejo Khaki (988) mixed with the Khaki Drab.

The entire figure was then washed with an AK Interactive Filter (AK075) Filter for Nato Camo Vehicles.

The remaining elements were painted as follows:

Element           Basecoat                                  Highlight                 Extra

Jacket              Khaki (V988)                                                           Filter for Nato Camo Veh. (AK075)
                        Luft Cam Green (V823)
                        Beige Brown (V875)

Trousers          Khaki Drab (Tam XF51)        +Khaki (V988)        Filter for Nato Camo Veh. (AK075) 

Puttees            Graveyard Earth (GW)           +Khaki (V988)
Boots              German Camo Black (V822)
Packs&Webb: English Uniform (V921)        Green Grey (V886)
Rifle Body:     German Camo Med Brown    Beige Brown (V875)
Frapeau Hat:   Khaki (V988)                         Dark Sand (V847)     Filter for Nato Camo Veh. (AK075)
Beret:              Black Green (V980)               Medium Olive (V850)
Beret Badge:  White (V951)
Skin:               Snakebite Leather (GW)        Elf Flesh (GW)           + White (V951)
Lips:               Red (V957)  
Metal:             Gunmetal Grey (V863)   

So there you have it! That is how I painted the first of my Indochina troops.

The bases were a complex procedure that took me a while to arrive at and took enough work that they will warrant their own blog post about...

Monday, 21 March 2016

Marine Commando Francois - French Indochina "The Dirty War" - part 1

Every wargamer and modeller out there will have their guilty pleasure. The one period or genre that, for God only knows what reason, really ticks their boxes. For me, that's the French Indochina War which immediately followed world war 2 and the massive famine that killed millions in Vietnam (or Indochina as it was called back then).

Why would I be interested in this I hear you ask? there are no American Hueys thwopping over the jungle, no ARVN busy running away and no M60's swathing down stretches of virgin rainforest... and of course hitting no Victor Charlie at all!

Well, for me, it makes for a far more interesting conflict. France was just in the process of picking itself up and dusting itself off after 6 years of occupation and collaboration with the Nazi regime (Vichy France before anybody jumps on me over the collaboration label) and had to start the Dirty War using handouts from anybody who would give them. Whilst America was at the peak of its cold war power in their war, France was probably at lowest ebb, on top of which, the French public quite explicitly didn't want the war and so the French government couldn't, by law, send any of its Metropolitan forces out to fight. Instead they had to rely on colonial forces and the inestimable Foreign Legion. They had half of the US manpower for their war and fought over 4 times the surface area and were able to claim MUCH bigger victories but just like America... they still lost the war.... although France was able to extricate themselves from Indochina with far higher prestige after the Geneva Peace Accords than the Americans managed with their mad scramble from Saigon's roof tops and the complete loss of the country to Communism. That said however, both western powers were comprehensively defeated, and the victor was in no uncertain terms... Communism.

There is everything in this war, the first use of helicopters in an armed conflict (at the same time as in Korea actually), armoured trains, cavalry, the Foreign Legion, Dinassaut (more on them later) and such a variety of vehicles that it would make your head spin. A lot of the gimmicks from the American War are still there, ambushes, booby traps and tunnel complexes and of course there is the fact that whilst America marginalised the Vietnamese in their own country and resisted including them in their own orders of battle whilst they were fighting, the French had an active policy of recruitment into existing formations in a process called 'Jaunissement' (Yellowing) whereby entire companies of indigenous Vietnamese would be recruited into CEFEO to help the Colonial masters fight off the nasty communists who were running the Viet Minh.

A French F8F Bearcat bombing Viet positions in the Battle of the Day River

France didnt come out of this war with much to write home about suffering a series of crushing blows from an ostensibly peasant army with rifles, the Viet Minh continually surprised the French high command and following the death of de Lattre from cancer there wasn't another commander in chief with the ability, resources or governmental support to take the fight to the Viets any longer.

One area that has success! written all over it is the French formation of Naval Assault Divisions, abbreviated to Dinassaut's. These small fleets of inland water navies would dominate the Mekong and Red, Black and Clear river ways with their manoeuvrability and firepower for the duration of the war. These organisations have been duplicated by every nation that has had inland water warfare since. The operational practises were supreme. The infantry elements of the Dinassauts would be provided by different organisations at different times on an ad hoc basis but one group that were routinely attached to the Dinassaut's were the French Marine Commandos of which there were six. Commando Francois, Ponchardier, Treppel, Montfort, Jaubert and Hubert de Penfentayo all named after marine officers who had been killed in action late in world war 2 or in the Indochina conflict.

Commando Francois would be decimated at the Battle of Ninh Binh in 1951 and would be subsequently disbanded in 1953.

Commando Francois was dispatched to Indochina in 1947 soon after hostilities broke out and Leclerc and Gracey had managed to regain control, but they were diverted to Madagascar on the way to suppress another colonial rebellion. In 5 months of operations they spent over 100 days in the bush covering more than 2500km on foot.

Finally in November of 1947 Commando Francois arrived in Ha Long bay in Tonkin (this was the name for the northern of the 5 subdivisions of French Indochina) which would see their first operational practises in a war zone.

The French naval base of An-Thoi in the bay of Ha Long
An-Thoi's commercial waterfront...

Following a brief stay in Tonkin they were sent south to Cochin China (the southernmost subdivision of French Indochina) fighting around the maritime sectors of Cambodia and up to the coast of Annam (the Eastern central subdivision of French Indochina) until 1949.

Embarked on an LCT of Dinassaut 3 of which C. Francois was the infantry element for a time.

A Post Kilometrique, A small tower spaced every kilometer along the limit of the Tonkin Delta in a defensive line termed the De Lattre line. This one is at the very end near the naval base of An Thoi
Commando Francois assisting an M29 C Crabe platoon

Following the deployment across Annam's coast, Commando Francois again headed south to operate past Cochin China to operate in the Gulf of Siam on Thailands eastern seaboard and once again into Cochin China where they operated intensively in the Mekong Delta.

Commando Bernard Papinaud armed with a German MP-40 Schmeisser

A mixed group of Commandos returning from a patrol

Patrolling the paddy fields along the coast of Cochin China

Finally in 1950 Commando Francois was once again directed back to Tonkin where there operations continued, including an attack on the island of Cat Ba in the bay of Ha Long suspected of holding a Viet Minh body of troops.

Sweep and Search on Cat Ba

Viet Minh prisoners captured on Cat Ba

A Viet Minh arms cache recovered from Cat Ba

On the morning of May 28th 1951, Commando Francois took up positions in an abandoned catholic church on the riverfront of the city of Ninh Binh.

The church of Ninh Binh before the battle.

This unfortunate placement coincided with the launch, that night, of Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap's general assault of the Red River Delta with 3 entire Viet Minh divisions being deployed including the elite 308th Iron Division, which landed smack in the lap of Commando Francois.

This would see some of Frances greatest victories of the war but not before General De Lattres son, Bernard, had been killed at Ninh Binh rock, a craggy military outpost which Bernard layed down his life to defend but also the practical elimination of Commando Francois.

...and this is what happened, at least according to the words of one of the survivors, Pierre Quintal (this is only an approximate translation from the French as my French isnt that good... but it will have to do!).

"The Church of Ninh Binh, which serves as the shelter for Commando Francois, is only smoke and noise. Its roof has collapsed under the well targeted Viet mortars. Shells explode in the nave.

General Giap's Bo-Doi (thats the Viet Minh regular infantry) sweeps limestone across the smoke filled church as the mortars and recoilless rifles increase their rates of fire. Their machine guns start to fire as well, soon accompanied by small arms. Second-Maitre Seveno stops firing and gets his mortar crew under cover in the church.

Large pieces of roofing continue to fall making the position untenable. Commandant L.V. Labbens decides on an assault to attempt a break out in order to reach friendly positions in Ninh Binh. The men begin to leave immediately but are quickly taken under fire by an FM 24/29 (A French equivalent of the Bren Gun, widespread amongst Viet Minh troops) which prevents any further movement. The FM is close to the church, positioned at the foot of the Christ statue. Under a blanket of fire, Second-Maitre Henry and Quartermaster Czarnechi, also armed with an FM, barrel down the stairs and pass through the blasts. Quartermaster 2 Malecot immediately falls on the square whilst Pihan maintains a fierce fire to support Czarnechi who, firing his FM from the hip, neutralises the Viets in the area. The troops leaving the church are not deterred by enemy fire and belt along in an effort to get out of the Viet trap!

The firepower of the Viet Minh is such that the Pasha (Cmd L.V. Labbens) believes it is not practical for the commando to pass the Viet lines and orders the dissolution of the commando into small groups under orders to break and run.

Pihan goes first, followed by Seven, Muller, Briot and Cosso. They head towards one of the Pagodas that is silhouetted against the light of the rising sun.

The Viets think that the Commando's are still in the Church and concentrate all their fire on the building. Pihan's small team head towards a boathouse with a camouflaged dory (a traditional fishing boat) when a volley of mortar rounds and grenades lands amongst them. The Viets are just behind the 3 meter high embankment causing the commando's to dive into the mud. Cosso, laying against Pihan becomes inert as he turns to Seven grinning and then dies. Pihan is shocked as he stands and also sees the dead body of Briot laying in the mud.

A section of the Viet Minh Bo-Doi, perceiving darkness within the Church charge towards it yelling and trampling the body of Briot, crushing his extensively bleeding body into the mud. As they run past, Pihan gathers the last of his strength, gets up and runs towards the boathouse. He stumbles into another body in the process of standing up. Muller! Together they travel the next 20m together. Gunfire! Pihan is injured in his right side, Muller is killed instantly. Pihan swings two bursts of fire at the place the shots came from, when a group of Viets, screaming, rush to the attack. Pihan falls down and plays dead next to Muller and the Viets trample them both in their rush for the Church. He sees Czarnechi and two others led away as prisoners by the swarming Bo-Doi, and from his hideout he also sees that it is German Foreign Legion deserters that are manning the Viet mortars.

A group of Viets stop a short distance from him, chatting and smoking. They throw a grenade at him, again wounding him, this time in his right hip. He waits, covered in leeches. Injured he feels he cannot go on but the idea of getting into one of the Dories and getting away keeps him going. The Viets, enraged at the stout resistance are conducting a search for escaping commandos.

Pihan plunges into the cool water of the Day river and makes it to the Boathouse with some difficulty. He comes out of the water, takes a quick inventory of available equipment and half rising hears a noise in the darkness. Ready to open fire he uncovers three commandos, Mahe, Cazeau and Masseboeuf. With explosions whistling in their ears Pihan tells his comrades to go and to come back with reinforcements. They leave the crater against the wall.

Pihan gets up and tries to run behind his buddies. Shots, a voice is heard. Is that his friend Caroff that orders the cease fire. He has made it. He is home free!

The Viets, enraged by the resistance of this handful of men will shoot, in defiance of the rules of war, seventeen prisoners of war at the scene of the battle. A further nine men will die in captivity. Only twenty four men survived the battle and only a final five will be freed from captivity"

Inside the Church after the battle

Reinforcements approach some of the peripheral buildings of the Church grounds

One of the reinforcements looking across the lake to the Church the day after the battle showing the Christ statue just outside where the Viet Minh FM was situated

At the start of the day, Commando Francois had a full complement of 78 combat effective Europeans and 2 Vietnamese suppletifs, with an average age of 20. By the start of the next day only 24 would be left. Of the total casualties suffered by all Commando's throughout the 8 years of war over half of the casualties were suffered by Commando Francois at this battle. The casualty rate was so high for this small group that in 1953 the decision was made to disband the Commando and reallocate the remaining men to other commandos.

They played an absolutely crucial part in the victories of 1951 however. Thanks to their courage and practically holding up the entire 308th Iron Division for a day, General De Lattre was able to organise a rapid response to this massive surprise attack effectively catching the Viet Minh in the open ground of the delta en masse. Giap had to admit that he did not achieve the surprise that his plans needed and this is almost entirely due to the sacrifice of Commando Francois, when all other posts in their vicinity fell quickly and quietly!

It would be safe to say that these guys definitely carried no white flag!

Il Mort Pour La France!

What the church of Ninh Binh looks like today.

Collecting the bodies of the Commandos the day after the battle
The funeral service for the fallen of Ninh Binh