Italeri 1/35 Biber Midget Sub

 

Those are standard torpedoes on there; that's how small a Biber actually is!

Those are standard torpedoes on there; that’s how small a Biber actually is!

Sometimes, crudeness can be its own form of finesse. They do say “Keep it simple, stupid!”, and in some cases that is exactly what needs to be done. This is especially true in times of war, where the less complicated something is, the more useful it can be. Perfect examples of this are the Russian T-34 and AK-47. No one would ever consider them paragons of precision, but they’re tough, functional and reliable. That having been said, mind you, some forms of crudeness are just that: crude.

One excellent example is the Biber midget submarine deployed by the Kriegsmarine in WW II. The German Navy had seen the success of British and Italian midget subs and decided it wanted in on the game too. The problem was that they rushed it, and copied the idea, but not the little touches that made it work. As a result, the Biber (beaver) was a crudely built, difficult to handle and extremely hazardous weapon to operate. It had very little success, and is only credited for the sinking of one freighter. Sadly, the sailors that strapped into these little pigs were not so lucky; the Biber was very deadly to its pilots; most died on their first mission.

While it wasn’t intended as a suicide weapon, the Biber was conceived in the climate of desperation that gripped Germany in the last years of the war. The level of negligence that abounds in the Biber’s design is exemplified by the fact that many suffocated their pilots. Instead of using a diesel engine, the Biber used a petrol-fuelled motor for power. The exhaust system was insufficiently sealed, and carbon monoxide emissions put many pilots to a silent death.

Despite being one of Germany’s spate of “wonder” and “desperation” weapons, the Biber doesn’t really seem to get a lot of love. It’s not very well known outside of hardcore naval history circles, and unlike the V2 and V1, it never led to anything better. Thus, it’s no surprise that it hasn’t been the subject of a lot of model kits. Given this, most were surprised  when Italeri introduced a brand new tooling of this far-from-iconic sub in 2010, and in the very large “armour” scale of 1/35!

The Kit:

The Biber is a nice enough looking kit, with clean moulding, nice surface detailing and very nicely done torpedoes. This is important, since about 1/3 of the finished kit is actually the Biber, and the rest are torpedoes!  For a more detailed review of the kit, check out the out of box review:

Biber: Out of Box review

Building the Biber:

Unusually for a submarine kit, the Biber has an interior! Just like the real thing, it’s not much of one, but there is a seat, a control panel and a couple of wheels. There is both a photoetch and a decal instrument panel, however, they don’t line up. I was hoping to put the painted photoetch panel over the decals, but I found the photoetch obscured some of the decal’s details. So, I tossed that idea aside and went with just the decal. There is a very delicate two-piece wheel that is in the center of the console. I painted that in Model Master Acrylic (MMA) steel and gave it a light wash of Citadel Baddab Black and Devlan Mud to give it a bit of burnish.

The rest of the interior was painted in MMA Light Grey. The seat was given a medium grey wash. One problem is that there is no bulkheads inside the sub, so you can theoretically look down into the sub from above. I just extended the paint into the sub to counter this, but it was a bit shoddy, on Italeri’s part, I thought.  Worse, though, was the fact that the decal dash doesn’t seem to match pictures of the Biber’s instrument panel as found on the internet. Since those are pics of real subs, I would have thought that it would be easy for Italeri to get it right.

This is the instrument panel, in place in the Biber. It looks okay, but it doesn't seem to be right.

This is the instrument panel, in place in the Biber. It looks okay, but it doesn’t seem to be right.

Before putting the halves of the sub together, it’s necessary to insert the piece that encompases the external tube. I think it’s part of the exhaust system, or maybe the air intake, but whatever it is, working around it for sanding and painting is going to be a pain in the posterior. So, just like I do on Mobile Suit kits, I cheated! I cut the pipe from the plug that goes into the “conning tower”, and then drilled a hole into the plug so I could stick the pipe in afterwards. I trimmed a bit off the plug’s “T” plate at the end, so I could move it back in the conning tower to make up for the lost length of plugging in the pipe. It worked great!

Here's how Italeri says to do it; the "plug" and pipe are all one piece. Lame. Time to get creative!

Here’s how Italeri says to do it; the “plug” and pipe are all one piece. Lame. Time to get creative!

Better. The scribed line to the right of the end of the plug shows the original position. That's a lot of slack to take up!

Better. The scribed line to the right of the end of the plug shows the original position. That’s a lot of slack to take up!

Getting the windows in was a massive issue. The windows are not moulded styrene; they’re thick clear styrene or acetate sheet. This means there’s no curvature! That’s a problem when you are putting them into a HIGHLY CURVED conning tower. The side windows aren’t too bad. The front and back… yeah… nice try. I gently tried to curve them over the handle of a needle file, working them gently, and it worked, kinda… I broke one and the other got white stress marks in the middle! Thankfully, there’s a lot of spare styrene on the sheet, and the windows are rectangular. I cut a replacement for the one that broke and it too got some mild stress marks, but nothing as bad as the first.

I got this "third hand" from my brother at Christmas. Man, was it ever handy! I had to hold the sub, and press the window in place with something non-marking while the glue dried! Bad design...

I got this “third hand” from my brother at Christmas. Man, was it ever handy! I had to hold the sub, and press the window in place with something non-marking while the glue dried! Bad design…

The sub’s halves fit together passably, but not as well as I’d expect for such a new kit. There was a considerable amount of filling I had to do. Even though the plastic on this kit is soft, sanding was not that easy. For one thing, the ProWeld I used seemed to be too “hot” for the styrene, and I had continual seam sinking along the entire sub. I had to re-fill all seams with CA just to get them to stay level. Another thing that was problematic were the welds. Italeri does a nice job moulding them, but they go around the whole sub, meaning they also go across the seams! Iused styrene melted in ProWeld to make a thin styrene paste; I then daubed this back on using a toothpick to ‘rebuild’ the welds. It worked, but the past dries fast, and there wasn’t a lot of time to do the job. Several iterations were required.

The rudder assembly is very fine and delicate as well, and the soft plastic here is again a problem. Cutting out the parts went fine, but getting them to hold together during building was tough. There’s no real strength to the assembly at all, so any bumps or knocks and you’re going to be regluing everything! I modified my sub so I could attach the rudder after I was done sanding the hull; if I hadn’t, I’m sure I would have destroyed the assembly during all the manhandling I had to do to sand down the main hull seams.

This is how I modded the tail end of the Biber, so I could put the actuator link, rudder and elevator on after manhandling the hull.

This is how I modded the tail end of the Biber, so I could put the actuator link, rudder and elevator on after manhandling the hull.

Fish!

The torpedoes in this kit are nice; there are two rear sections with different props, control vanes and surface detail. I’m not a naval historian, and I didn’t look up what the difference between them was. Maybe someone out there knows and can tell me. Regardless, the torpedoes seem to fit a bit better than the Biber itself, and both the long seams and the front / rear seam went fine. Cutting off the extra fins and prop and sanding them was a bit of a challenge, but that’s because they’re soft.

The real challenge, though, were the “spinners” on the front of the torpedoes. These, my friends, SUCK. They are very soft, very fragile, and all need to be cleaned up. They all have seam lines on at least two of four vanes. Not only that, but the vanes are so thin that they break if you look at them funny! I had several crack, but  I was able to reglue them. One, though, was irrecoverable. I had to make a new vane out of a piece of clear styrene I had laying around (not the spares from the windows). This was not an easy job, let me tell you. These vanes are small, so shaping is very tough. I glued a rough-cut of the vane to the hub and shaped it from there. It’s not perfect, but it works well enough.

In the background is an intact spinner, in the foreground is the damaged one. NOte the not-yet-shaped clear styrene fin. Lots of work ahead! Notice the grossly large mould likes on the piece in the background, too.

In the background is an intact spinner, in the foreground is the damaged one. Note the not-yet-shaped clear styrene fin. Lots of work ahead! Notice the grossly large mould lines on the piece in the background, too.

I painted the noses and tails of the torpedoes in MMA Brass and gave them a wash of Devlan Mud to bring out the brown in the brass. This wash was put on a bit thicker than normal, to really bring out the detail. The Torpedo bodies were done using Virsago Black, which is MMA Gunship and Black combined into a near-black. To highlight the detail on these parts, I used a light grey/white chalk pastel.

This back end view of the Biber clearly shows the brown-washed brass on the torpedoes.

This back end view of the Biber clearly shows the brown-washed brass on the torpedoes.

Photoetch:

Or should I say “photo-blech”? I hate PE. It’s finicky, hard to mould, delicate and generally a pain to have around. I avoid using it whenever possible. I don’t have the tools, adhesives or patience to use it, and I admit I don’t intend to get any of those things any time soon. I prefer a plastic kit to be just that: plastic! If you can’t make a polystyrene kit without PE, I think you’ve done it wrong. However, I also know that I’m in the minority (Perhaps even alone?) in this opinion. And, like many subs, the Biber does come with a lot of PE.

However, to my initial delight, the PE on the Biber is very, very tough. It’s much thicker than other PE, much stronger and much harder to bend. It’s used for several details on the hull spine, as well as for the torpedo rail supports. The torpedo rails themselves are almost as long as the Biber, and  being made of such soft plastic, are unlikely to hold up the weight of the torpedoes on their own. In this way, they are likely accurate representations of the real rails! There is a lot of the rail extending past where the sub’s hull tapers to the tail, and leaving this ‘hanging in space’ would not only look dumb, but be mechanically impossible.

Here's the sub with all the PE on. What a pain the patoot that was!

Here’s the sub with all the PE on. What a pain the patoot that was!

There are smaller supports for the torpedo rails that mount along the sub’s “thick” part, where the rail is mounted flush. Bending these little PE parts wasn’t so bad, and fitting them in place went passably well. I actually thought this might be a kit which would turn my feelings on PE around. Then came the rear supports. These are not decoration; they are actually functional! Without these supports (3 per side) the long extensions of the rails will likely snap off and/or sag. These bits of PE need to be bent in 4 places each. The problem is that the PE is thick, and doesn’t like to bend to a tight, square contour. You can’t use the rails as a mould; they’re too soft and will break. So you have to guess, and you’d better be right: this thick photoetch won’t take more than two bends at the same place without breaking! I had many of the supports break in half as I tried to adjust angles and radii. It was annoying at first, but then I found it was actually a godsend, as it made adjustments and fitting easier. All PE was attached using Zap-a-Gap CA without accelerator.

In this view you can clearly see all the torpedo rail supports.

In this view you can clearly see all the torpedo rail supports.

Painting and Finishing:

The Biber on the box is shown either in cammo or straight grey. I chose straight grey because a cammoed sub just looks odd to me. Also, it was the easiest paint scheme and, quite frankly, by the time it came to painting, I was getting pretty tired of this kit.

I used MMA Light Ghost Grey on the whole sub except the prop and the spine pipe. The prop was done in brass with a Devlan Mud wash, and the pipe in MMA Steel with both Devlan Mud and Baddab Black washes. I glossed the sub and sanded it smooth before applying the decals. I chose only to use random number decals, vs. the faces supplied. I don’t know how many had faces, but I didn’t want them on my sub. I just wanted one that could be anybody’s, not a specific sub that was recovered in the war. With the decals on and overcoated with Future, I applied some Delta Ceramcoat Matte Indoor/Outdoor Varnish to give the sub a dead-flat coat.

This is a good shot of the spine pipe and the holes that go all around the hull's periphery.

This is a good shot of the spine pipe and the holes that go all around the hull’s periphery.

Apply chalk pastels on a flat coat is far easier, I have found, than on a gloss coat. I used a custom-made ground up grey chalk pastel powder to highlight the surface detail on the Biber. Once overcoated, these blended in very well, without a lot of contrast. I then coated both the Biber and the torpedoes in the same varnish with Future added to give a semi-gloss finish.

 

The effect of the chalk pastels in highlighting the weld seams can be seen here.

The effect of the chalk pastels in highlighting the weld seams can be seen here.

The Biber comes with a very interesting stand that looks like a shipping pallet made from cast iron. Thus, rather than paint it black, I decided to do it metallic. There were very pronounced mould lines on all components, and these required considerable cleanup. Once the stand’s components were smoothed, I painted the entire thing in Taimiya Metallic Grey.  I then washed this heavily with J&S Models Dark and Rust washes.  These required several coats, but gave the exact effect I wanted.

Looks like cast iron to me! The Biber's stand, with its heavy rivets, looks good in an industrial finish.

Looks like cast iron to me! The Biber’s stand, with its heavy rivets, looks good in an industrial finish.

I altered the stand slightly: I reversed the side beams so that the raised “decal” portion was on the inside. Why? The answer is that I didn’t use the whole decal. I didn’t want the Italeri badge on the nameplate decal; it makes the sub look like a kit, and I like my displays to look like a scale museum when possible. Also, at the other end of the nameplate decal is the Kriegsmarine submariner’s crest, but with the Swastika (accurately, the Hakenkreuz) replaced with a diamond. That’s just not acceptable to me, so I cut it out as well. It would look dumb to have a short decal on a longer raised area, so to make it less obvious that I’d shortened the decal, I just flipped things around. I applied the same varnish to the stand when I was done.

Final assembly was easy; the torpedoes fit well and the Biber fits onto its stand very nicely.

A Personal Connection:

Like the Grunau Baby I built, this sub has a family connection. In fact, I gave this kit to my father as a present, and told him I would build it for him as part of the gift. Why? Well, among other things, my Grandfather who was in the Kriegsmarine was apparently assigned to train on these verdammten things at one point, late in the war, before he was transferred to the Type XXIs. (Those were bombed before he ever got to sea in one, though.) To honour his luck in surviving, or averting, this assignment, and to honour those who were less lucky, I thought this kit would be a neat tribute.

I don’t know what number (or numbers) my Opa drove, and in fact it’s likely he only did ‘ground school’ on the sub. So, I picked a random number on a generic sub to represent any possibility.  It was really neat to build another vehicle with such a close family attachment, I must say, and it was even cooler that it was such an obscure vehicle!

The open hatch was, I'm sure, something any Biber pilot was glad to see, after a mission! Note the steel-coloured locking handles, a suprisingly nice detail!

The open hatch was, I’m sure, something any Biber pilot was glad to see after a mission! Note the steel-coloured locking handles, a surprisingly nice detail!

Conclusions:

To have taken the chance on producing such an off-beat subject in such a large scale, Italeri must be given their due. However, on the whole, I found this kit rather disappointing. The fit was not as good as I would have expected, the mould lines were many and very, very pronounced and the quality of the plastic was not suitable for this kit. I am sure that the mould lines being so egregious as they were is a result of using the soft plastic, and that’s likely to save money on a mould that isn’t expected to fetch a lot of sales. I get that there’s an economics issue here. However, this kit isn’t cheap; like most subs, I found it very expensive for what you get. If you’re going to make a kit with a lot of small parts, it’s best to make them a bit stiffer; they’re easier to handle and clean up and that’s something the parts on the Biber aren’t.

Overall, this model felt like someone thought it was a good idea to make it, but then found they had to cut corners to make it happen. A perfect example of this are the windows in the conning tower; I would have expected aircraft model-like transparencies, properly contoured, not just some clear sheet that will not bend easily to the desired shape.

This kit is surprisingly difficult to build, largely because of the plastic’s softness and because of the other issues I’ve mentioned. Therefore, it’s not something I can recommend to anyone that hasn’t got a goodly amount of modelling experience under their belt. It’s a tough kit that will tax your patience, and it’s necessary to be able to work with broken pieces, restore details and even fabricate new parts when you build this model. These traits make it wholly unsuitable for a beginner or novice, and I’m grateful that most modelling neophytes will likely not be interested in such an oddball subject at such a high price.

If you’re a hardcore naval historian, or have other reasons for building this (like having an ex-Biber pilot in the family tree), then I can wish you luck on building one. If you want a challenge, this is definitely a good kit to pick up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you: it seems that the good folks at Italeri not only reproduced the Biber, they also reproduced its shoddy workmanship and tendency to harm those tasked to employ it.

 

 

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