It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. However, sometimes, desperation has a hand in things as well. That was the case very often in Nazi Germany, especially as the Second World War dragged on and Germany found herself needing something, ANYTHING, which would help them counter the Allies inexorable advance to Berlin. History is rife with radical ideas for stemming the Allied tide; some were great ideas that worked (like the Panzerfaust), some were good ideas that didn’t get the bugs worked out (like surface-to-air missiles) and some were just kinda… yeah.
Examples of the latter include desperation weapons like the Fi-103 Richenberg, Natter and even the He-162. All of these were attempts to create something that would be “Cheap and Dirty”, but give the Germans a good return on investment. There were a number of other, similar weapons that were just as desperate but that just don’t seem to get the same attention. One such weapon is the Biber (Beaver) midget submarine.
On the surface, the Biber seems like a good idea. Using a small, one-man submarine to sneak into enemy ports or invasion fleets and launch torpedoes has certain plausibility to it. I mean, normally, you need many crew to man a sub (like the Type XXIII) and even then you only get 2 shots. So, doing it with a one-man sub seems brilliant, right? The problem is that the Biber was neither well-designed nor well-made. They had a tendency to kill their pilots with carbon monoxide poisoning, and were not fast enough to escape enemy attacks. They also weren’t all that seaworthy and many were found sunken with their crew dead at the controls. Given that they only ever sank one major ship, the Alan A. Dale yet suffered almost 100% casualties, it’s little wonder that the Biber isn’t more well known.
It’s easy to see how such a relatively pathetic footnote in naval history wouldn’t be the first machine for a company to kit. That’s likely why, until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of Biber love. However, Italeri changed all that in 2010, when they released their 1/35 Biber! This newly-tooled kit in a traditionally armour-centric scale was something of a surprise at the time. Let’s take a look and see how a midget sub measures up, shall we?
The Biber’s box is very nice. It has an interesting illustration of a Biber on a wharf, sitting on some kind of support rack. With it are two Kriegsmarine personnel. These personnel add two things; one is a sense of scale, the other is a sense of comedy. The scale is important, because most people do not expect to see 1/35 as a submarine scale, and I’m sure that, without this illustration to show just how small a Biber is, many people would assume there was a mistake.
The comedy writes itself. One can have literally minutes of fun musing about what the two sailors are saying to one another. I can’t help but assume it is all expressions of doubt and misgivings, but with a darkly (and ironically) British-style twist. Given the misty background of the box art, this sense of oppressive foreboding and sailing into the unknown is very well represented. You gotta feel for the poor sap who’s going to have to pilot that sub; the chances of him getting back in one piece are slim.
On the side of the box is a little write up as well as a picture of the fret of photoetch that comes with the kit. The box itself is a nice, top-opening affair, and it is quite large given the Biber’s small size. The box is at least as big as the old Italeri B-57G! The box also shows two different paint schemes; one in all grey and the other in a grey-blackish-brownish scheme.
Looking into the box reveals 3 sprues of light grey plastic, the instructions, and a fret of photoetch. The Decals are in there, too, as are the windows for the sub. Yes, you read that right: windows. The Biber is very unusual for a sub in that the “conning tower” actually has windows for the pilot. These are clear plastic and are packed behind the photoetch, separated by a piece of cardboard. The windows are pre-cut into a sheet of clear styrene but are not loose. I would guess that if you mess one up, you can always cut another from the rest of the sheet.
The Biber itself is contained on only one rack. This is not a big boat, so a single large rack has everything you need; almost. The torpedo mount rails are actually with the torpedoes, on the other two racks. The Biber rack also has the two bemusedly apprehensive-looking Kriegsmarine figures represented on the box! This is a cool bonus, and they look pretty nicely detailed. There are two identical racks that hold the torpedoes, and each torpedo has an option for its propulsion section. I don’t admit to knowing why you get two different back ends, but it is a nice bonus. The torpedoes are moulded in halves from nose to propulsion section, and the drive section is also in halves. Right away, I was struck by how large the torpedoes were when compared to the Biber; they’re almost as big! I also didn’t realize how big a naval torpedo is to a human, but the figures helped with that.
The moulding on everything looks nice, and while there’s no flash, the mould seams are very pronounced. There’s going to be a lot of clean up on this one. On the bigger parts, it’s not going to be a huge problem, but the torpedo fins and other fine components could cause some difficulties. One detail that does look nice is the weld beads on the outside of the hull. They look very realistic, and they should highlight well with a wash or pastels. There will be a problem, though, if the seams on the hull halves are poor; there’s a real risk that some of the main welds will be sanded off. Time will tell, I guess! The photoetch on the kit looks nice. The bulk of the photoetch is for the braces on the torpedo rails, but there are a few other pieces, including the shelf on the front of the conning tower, the dashboard, a wire cutter on the front of the hull and a few round panels along the hull’s spine.
The plastic feels quite soft. The parts on the rack seem to want to bend, rather than snap. On one hand, this means that gluing and sanding should be easy. It should also make scraping the mould lines off a fairly non-problematic undertaking. However, it also means that handling the parts could prove difficult. If the plastic proves to be as soft as it seems, I foresee some hardships in cutting parts off of the racks without breaking them.
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are not that impressive. They’re relatively clear, insofar as they show where everything goes. However, they use shaded CAD drawings and I find that they are not as easy to read as traditional line art. There are two kinds of torpedoes that come with the Biber; well, at least two kinds of torpedo propulsion sections. The problem is that the instructions don’t tell you why they’re different, or if they go with one or the other paint versions, or what. Someone who is hardcore into naval history may know the differences, but as I have very little naval knowledge, it’s rather confusing. I realise that there is the internet that could help me, but I really don’t know where to begin looking, and I really don’t care enough either. It’s a shame that Italeri couldn’t have spelled out things a bit better. There are also two paint schemes shown in the instructions, but again they are shaded and a bit difficult to use for details. One is for an all-grey machine, the other is for a cammoed one. Both have mouths on them, given as decals.
The instructions are notable for one thing, though; that’s the write up on the Biber. Normally, one expects the little histories given on instruction sheets to be fairly innocuous. This isn’t always the case, and it’s true that the Chinese manufacturers have put out some gems in the past, but from a long-established company like Italeri I expect something at least readable! Sadly, I was to be disappointed. I don’t know who did their translation, but something clearly got lost. It makes me wonder about the quality of the kit when I see that something simple like a write up has been so badly butchered. Hopefully, the mould makers were better than the copy editors!
The decals are minimal, but look nice. There are multiple ship numbers, as well as two different sharkmouth motifs. There aren’t many stencils on a real Biber, so the decal sheet is similarly devoid of such markings. There is a decal for the instrument panel. They don’t make it clear if this goes over or under the photoetch part, so I’ll have to see when I go to build it. The one decal I don’t like is the decal for the stand. The Biber comes with a stand that looks something like a shipping pallet, and there are two places for a decal (one on each side). The decal calls out that this is indeed a “U-Boot Biber” and it has the Italeri symbol on one end, and he Kriegsmarine submarine emblem on the other. I don’t like the Italeri symbol; I like to make my model displays like a museum, and while some ID is nice, having the maker of the kit on the stand or decal is something I hate. I also hate that the Swastika (Hakenkreuz, more correctly) is not present in the Submarine emblem; it has been replaced with a diamond, like you’d see on a Revell Germany kit. I know that this is so the kit is legal to sell in Germany, but it’s annoying. I won’t get into a rant about rewriting history, but you can tell what I’m thinking, I hope.
Overall, the Biber is a nice-looking kit. Assembly looks straightforward; other than the small photoetch supports for the torpedo rails, everything looks pretty standard. I do have some concern about the windows; the conning tower is curved, but the windows are straight; I hope that they bend without breaking!
Like most subs, the Biber is low in part count and it seems a bit pricey for what you get in the box. The figures are nice to have, but the heavy mould lines on all the parts do raise some red flags. Despite its apparent simplicity, the Biber may not be the best kit with which to introduce a new builder to the world of submarines. It has more small, fragile-looking parts in it than most subs because of its large scale. I think that a moderately experienced modeller will have fun with this kit, though.
The Biber is not a vehicle a lot of people know about, and I’m surprised that Italeri even bothered to make this model. It looks good and should build up into an interesting model! If you like desperation weapons, unusual naval craft or the embodiment of bad ideas, then this one could be for you!