They say that necessity is the mother of invention. They forgot desperation, though, which I’m assuming must be some kind of midwife, since history has shown that a lot of creative and interesting, if not entirely feasible or workable, ideas come about as a result of dire circumstances. In wartime, this is particularly true; the life-or-death crucible of industrialized combat often provides both the impetus and opportunity to advance the state of the art.
It could be argued that nowhere and no-when in the twentieth century was this more true than in the last half of the Second World War in Germany. With the USAAF’s long range bombers darkening their skies on a daily basis, and their cities and population suffering accordingly, the German Luftwaffe was desperate for any weapon that could help tip the balance in the air war. Conventional fighters weren’t the solution since the USAAF also had swarms of escorts guarding the bombers. With the advent of the P-47 and P-51, the bombers were under continuous protection, and the dwindling resources of the Luftwaffe couldn’t hope to compete.
While the jet powered Me-262 and rocket powered Me-163 offered high-speed interception capability, they were still tied to runways and vulnerable to interception during takeoff and landing; never mind that they were also technically quite complicated and expensive in terms of time and materials to produce. The Luftwaffe needed something simple that could be easily deployed and moved around from potential target to potential target. They needed something that didn’t need a runway, but could blast off vertically from the ground and intercept bombers before they or their escorts knew what hit them.
Today, we recognize the answer to this problem as a SAM – Surface-to-Air Missile. The performance of the SA-2 batteries in North Vietnam proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the effectiveness of this kind of weapon. However, guided missiles like SAMs were in their infancy at the end of WWII, and while the Nazis had several projects of this nature under test, they weren’t sure the new missiles would be practical. Thus, it was felt that a piloted craft was required.
The RLM’s answer to this conundrum, quite surprisingly, was the Bachem BP-20 Natter. This was a project for a vertically launched, rocket-powered interceptor that could be transported almost anywhere and launched from a stripped-down tree trunk. It was a strange mix of Buck Rogers and Beverly Hillbillies in terms of concept and technology. It used the same engine as the Komet, but could be made smaller and simpler since neither takeoff nor landing was a major concern. Takeoff was a vertical boost like a V2, and landing was to be a multi-pronged affair. The pilot and engine would descend on separate parachutes, while the nose fell to earth. The Natter was semi-expendable and was to be made from wood. In fact, there were even plans for making them out of thick, pressed cardboard. That means that, had the war gone on, the Natter would have been very similar to those Estes model rockets many of us remember from childhood; a cardboard tube with a motor in one end and a parachute in the other.
Testing with manned gliders and unmanned powered test vehicles (Mustermaschinen) proved that the concept was workable. With the fortunes of war becoming ever more biased against Germany, the pressure was on the get any and all of the “Wunderwaffen”, the wonder weapons, into service as soon as possible. Thus, it was on March 1, 1945, that Lothar Sieber strapped into Natter M23 for the type’s first (and only) manned trial; it would be Herr Sieber’s last flight.
Despite the size of the capital letters with which the entire concept of the Natter program screams: “BAD IDEA!!”, it has always attracted a lot of attention in the modelling world. There have been many kits in different scales, but the newest (at time of writing) are those 1/72 offerings from Czech manufacturer Brengun.
The Natter, like so many Brengun kits, comes in a just-sturdy-enough end-opening box. The box is similar to those used by Revell Germany. Sadly, I hate this kind of box, because end opening boxes are darned-near useless. I’m sure they use less paper, but seriously, they’re a pain, and give you nowhere to put your parts as you work on the kit.
This deficiency aside, I have to give the folks at Brengun their due for making a box that is truly artistic. It’s a CG-rendered affair, and those who know me know that I don’t usually afford much quarter to such artwork as I find it too stagnant, sterile and hyper-realistic. However, while the CG may not be my favourite medium, I cannot fault the Brengun art department for its brilliant use. The composition of the box art is absolute genius!
The art, which covers the entire front face of the box, is presented from a very unusual standpoint; we are on the ground looking up at they sky. The Natter, M23 (Sieber’s machine), is hanging, ready to go, on the launch rails. The Natter fills most of the box, but due to the creative use of shadows, even its red lines and markings, even its mottled camouflage, do not really stand out. Rather it is the impression one gets of craning one’s neck skyward that is the predominant feeling this art gives.
Above the Natter’s nose, the rails run off the box into infinity. The sky is bright, but in a masterful piece of foreboding, there are dark clouds seeming to gather on the right. The high sun wants to wash out the picture, to turn it into a simple interplay of shadows, but the launch tower provides just enough shade that we can still see details. There’s an impression of awe, wonder and dread all conveyed simultaneously in this one small picture. Given the outcome of this particular flight, this particular program and the entire war for Germany, this feeling of “eclipse” is utterly perfect.
On the back of the box is a full colour paint plan for both M22 and M23. They wear the same cammo scheme of mottled green over light blue, with black undersides and red bands. There’s some contention about the black underside, though; some think it’s red. Red, on old photos from the war, often looks black in black and white photos. Interestingly, so does yellow. What’s odd is that the M23 paint scheme shows only one red band, while the photo of the real machine in the top right corner, clearly shows two. Sadly, this kind of self-contradiction is common in a Brengun kit; instructions, paint plans and box art often disagree on placement of aerials, markings and even larger details in some cases. It’s just a quirk of the Brengun line.
The Brengun Natter is a kit that has seen several issues. There’s a Ba-349A operational type, as well as a purely speculative “What If” Natter in Japanese markings as well as almost dangerously revisionist Czech and Israeli schemes! (WTF? That’s pushing it, guys. Seriously, step back…) This version, which is of a REAL aircraft, allows you to build the model as either the unmanned M22 test unit, or Herr Sieber’s M23. There are quite a few differences between these two machines and the earlier-kitted versions, so this kit comes with some extra pieces!
This Natter comes moulded in tan plastic on a single main sprue. However, there is a secondary sprue that contains the different fuselage, tail and nosecones of the M22/M23. That’s right, there are two fuselage types in the box! If you wanted to make an operational Ba-349, you can; the rocket nose and original fuselage are all included. However, the tailfin arrangement of the “A” model was a lot different than that on the “M” testing machines. The earlier Natters had a lower tailfin the same shape as the upper one; a nearly square fin with a rounded tip and only short chord. Rather than retool their earlier kit, Brengun just put a new fin and fuselage into the box; yay spares!
There’s also a clear-ish cockpit canopy and a tiny set of photoetch that has the seatbelts, as well as the ring and bead sights for the combat Natter. These are very fine and look quite delicate; I’m glad I don’t have to use the sights on this machine!
Overall, the kit looks nicely detailed with fine, recessed panel lines and a bit of cockpit detail on the ‘walls’ of the machine. There’s also a rocket exhaust that’s three separate pieces and the kit comes with a pallet upon which the finished Natter can be displayed. However, since the tail of the “M”-types is so much larger than the combat machines, a different, taller pallet is required. To this end, a small sprue with two resin ends for the pallet is also included in this kit. The wood grain and nail hole detail on these parts is exceptional; Brengun really does nice resin.
Instructions and Decals:
The Natter was a simple plane. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the instructions are not particularly complicated. They are clearly printed on a sheet about the same size as the box. The drawings are clear, if not simple and given that this kit has so few parts, there’s little to lead to confusion in the models assembly. The drawings are all in black and white, but the back page does have small drawings of the top views of the two paint schemes, as well as a drawing of the two machines (M22 and M23) sitting beside one another to show the differences in the nose treatments.
Unfortunately, this could result in people thinking they should be able to make two Natters out of this one kit, which, I assure you, is not the case. The decals that come with the kit are quite limited, but include both “22” and “23” wing numbers, as well as some red stripes, the C and T markers for the rocket fuel tanks, and some stencils.
The Natter, despite never being used in combat and killing its only pilot, is something that has always had some traction in the world of styrene models. Heller kitted one ages ago, although it was a combat-type-machine with the short wide lower tail. Dragon has done several variants, and now Brengun is here with its offerings. When it comes to 1/72 Natters the Brengun clearly dominates the old Heller, but since it’s such a small and simple kit the difference is not as great as you might think.
Still, the kit is nice (for what it is) and should pose no significant difficulties to anyone looking to build it, Beginner or expert, the low part count and simplicity of the subject should ensure a largely flawless building experience. However, this is a kit that will benefit from some skills, especially when it comes time to paint.
Sadly, I’m not sure how big the market for a Natter kit like this is. The legion of Luft ’46 builders seems to be growing ever-larger, though, so I’m hoping that this nice little bird will catch the attention of many of them. If you’re a fan of late-war German designs, rocket planes, research craft or just weird and wonderful “what-iffery”, then this little guy is for you.