The German Wehrmacht shocked the world with the stunning speed, precision and steamroller-like effectiveness of the tactic now well-known as “Blitzkrieg”. This “lightning war” style of combined arms combat proved to be a nearly irresistible force in Poland and through the Low Countries and France. Any book on WWII will tell you that, and I won’t waste time reiterating what so many historians and specialists have devoted time and talent to documenting.
However, what is a little bit more of an obscure fact is that despite their successes, the Wehrmacht was not the invincible fighting machine everyone (including Nazi ministers and planners) believed it to be. Even though the Nazi War Machine had smashed most of Western Europe, the Heer (Army) was not the blacksmith’s hammer it was made out to be. Rather, it was more like doctor’s reflex hammer; when properly applied to an appropriate location, the effect could be profound. However, as an instrument of brute force, it was actually largely ineffective.
This can be seen by the tanks used by the German army to crush Poland, the Low Countries and rout the BEF and French Armies. The best German tank was actually not even German; it was a Czech tank appropriated by the Germans; the Panzer 35(t)! The bulk of the German Panzer Brigades that served in the early battles were made up of Panzer II tanks. These were small, light tanks with only around 13mm of armour at the thickest point! Not only that, but the Panzer IIs were armed only with a 20mm cannon, which proved rather useless against larger, heavier Allied tanks encountered in France. Despite this, the maneuvering of the armoured formations and their infantry and air support carried the day, and the Panzer II gained fame as one of the tanks that conquered Europe.
Even though it was supposed to be a “stopgap” tank, the Panzer II stayed in production long enough to be used against Russia during Operation Barbarossa. During fighting in the desert campaigns and against Stalin, however, the weaknesses of the tank became apparent. The Model F was given thicker armour (Up to 35mm on the front. Note that a Tiger has 100mm.) and revised contours, a new cupola and a dummy driver’s vision slot to try and distract enemy gunners who often aimed for the driver’s position.
Given the importance of the Panzer II, it is not a surprise that it is very widely kitted. One of the lesser known kits nowadays is the Matchbox Panzer II Ausf. F in the awkward scale of 1/76. Clearly, this caught my attention, and I wanted to get at it straight away.
For a full rundown of the kit, the box and the instructions, the reader is advised to check out the Out of Box Review for this tank.
Building the Panzer II:
I generally haven’t been a tank builder, or armour modeller, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not that I don’t like tanks and armour; I do. I find them very interesting, although I’m much more into planes and mecha. However, I haven’t built tanks because they seem like such a bother. With individual track links, so much resin and aftermarket photoetch and all the other stuff that seems to be de rigeur for building armour, I just couldn’t be bothered. I was turned off by all the extra stuff that tank kits seemed to demand. With planes, I can take a crappy kit, do some etching and some paint work and get a good result. I’d come to believe that wasn’t the case with tanks.
Thank goodness Matchbox decided to punch me in the spleen and prove me wrong! When I had the chance to pick up a huge load of them for dirt cheap at a local flea market, I took the challenge. Out of all my newly-collected booty, I chose the Matchbox Panzer II Ausf. F as my first foray into the world of armour building. (Yes, I actually built this prior to the M16, although I put it up on the Lagoon first.) This little tank was intended mainly to serve as a training tank, despite being used on the front lines for far longer than it should have been. It seemed appropriate to use a training tank as armour model training.
Looking at the little Panzer II on my workbench I got a feeling of “I can do it!” and “I can build it out of the box!”. These are very important feelings, especially when one is about to embark on a venture never before tried with “real” modelling skills. (My old tanks are atrocious – that’s where there are only three of them. Did I mention they suck?)
Building the hull turned out to be as simple as gluing 4 pieces together! One major bonus was that the hull sides even had the suspension built in! I didn’t have to spend a lifetime cutting individual leaf springs, idler arms or any of that other stuff I didn’t want to do! Finishing the tanks’ body consisted of dropping the body top onto the hull and gluing it there. However, before I did that, I painted the inside of the hull black. You can see through the engine grates, and I didn’t want the brown of the plastic to be seen. As it turns out, putting the body’s top onto the tank can be a problem when it comes time to put the tracks on. Thankfully, the Panzer II doesn’t have any side skirts. On machines like that, I’ll either have to put the skirts on afterwards or attach the entire upper part of the tank’s hull once the tracks are on!
I glued on the storage boxes and some of the other kibble like view ports, etc.) and had a blast (not really) sanding down the road wheels and idler wheels. The road wheels got boring, fast, but the idlers were a challenge. They were so small it was almost impossible to hold them and apply any force with sandpaper. The key was a tiny bit at a time… eventually I got them round(ish). I was going to try and drill out the barrel on the 20mm cannon. However, looking at it realized that his was insanity given styrene form, and decided just to leave it as it was. It’s not like I have a spare cannon hanging around, so I couldn’t afford to wreck it.
On the box, the Panzer II is shown blasting its way through Russia in a typical Wehrmacht dark grey scheme. Yet, the diorama that should have been in the box, and the colour of the plastic, suggests an Afrika Korps paint job would be more applicable. There are decals for both versions, so either way, you’re covered. Well, theoretically. However, since I also didn’t have any decals in the box, and I don’t have an armour “spares box” yet, you’d think that’d be the end of the line, right?
Heck no! I liked the look of the Panzer Schwarzgrau, and decided to do one in that paint. I was able to get a couple of small numbers from my 1/76 Fujimi Hetzer, and even though it’s not perfect, I decided that they would do. My goal in building this kit was to make something interesting out of the box and to learn a bit about armour modelling; if the result wasn’t 100% perfectly accurate, I really wasn’t going to let it rain on my parade. I know this may fly in the face of some of the joyless modellers out there, but most of what I do does, I think. That kind of makes me giggle, when I think about it.
With the hull and turret assembled, I primered everything with Walmart’s excellent “Colorplace” rattlecan grey primer. A few light dustings really showed up the amazing amount of detail on this little kit! Testors Model Master Acrylic (MMA) RLM 66 Schwarzgrau was then airbrushed on all the parts (except the tracks – more on that later). It might not be the official perfect colour for the tank, but it’s awfully close, and looked the part to me!
I panted the road wheels’ tires black, since they’re rubber, and I painted the suspension components in MMA Steel. To these I applied a wash of Citadel Nuln Oil; it’s amazing how much difference the wash made, and it goes to show the amount of detail Matchbox put in on something this small. Remember, this thing’s from 1976 when fine moulding wasn’t as common as it is now! I also painted the exhaust in Steel and gun barrels in Gunmetal. As I said, the gun was too thin to drill out, though, so I applied a black dot with a Sakura Calligraphy Pen in order to simulate a hole. I painted the sleeping bag Olive Drab and did some steel details on the tools strapped to the Panzer.
I coated the entire kit in Future and applied the (two) decals I could scrounge up. Then, I applied a coat of Delta Ceramcoat Indoor/Outdoor Matte Urethane Varnish. This gave the tank a very, very flat finish. Now it was time for me to break new ground, and do some weathering and highlighting. Normally, I build planes, and I use ground up chalk pastels, drybrushed over panel lines, to create a post-shading effect to mimic preshading. However, tanks just don’t look good so perfectly clean. I didn’t want to create a rolling pigsty, but I did want to give the impression that the little guy had seen some action. Also, this way, if I ever find a diorama base for it, or build another Matchbox with a base, I can sit the tank on it and it won’t look out of place.
I started by blending a dark grey/black powder, and then drybrushing it all over the hull and turret. The idea was to create a filtering effect. To evenly spread the powder out, I used Varsol, which won’t attack the urethane varnish. The Varsol flows well, and largely dissolves the pastel powder. This allows it to flow the colour around surface details and even into the “surface”, which is quite absorbent, without being porous (an advantage of matte coats). When the Varsol had dried up (which is quite quickly), I applied another light matte varnish coat to secure everything, and get ready for the next step.
To highlight the details on the hull and turret, I applied more of the grey pastel to the panel lines and around the features, and then used the same “Varsol melt” approach to flow it into and around the lines and details. I did this a few times to build up some shadowing, and insulated each coat with matte varnish. I was very impressed with the overall outcome; once the detailing his picked out like this, it’s apparent that these old Matchbox armour kits really do have a lot to offer.
To get the tank “dirtied up” I ground up a pastel that was the colour of dried mud/dust, a sort of mid-tan colour. I applied this in the same way as I had the dark grey, creating first a layer of dust and then “piling it up” on the contours and in the cracks.
I was impressed with the effect that I was able to achieve using this ‘budget’ method. I’ve never, ever tried anything like this before, but after my local IPMS club (IPMS London, Ontario) did a demo on doing this (they used MiG pigments and thinners) I felt compelled to give it a shot. The Panzer was given one more coat of matte varnish to nail everything down. At this point, it was time to assemble the tracks and then put the top of the hull on the rest of the vehicle. Now, anyone who has ever built an old-school, small scale armour kit is familiar with the dreaded “rubber band” tracks. Since this is my first armour kit, I wasn’t really sure what to do about it, so I tried a couple of different things to see how they worked.
Earlier, I mentioned that one thing I didn’t like about armour kits was the finicky and time-consuming individual track links often seen as a major “plus” on a tank model. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of other methods of making model tracks. One is to do them in pre-moulded plastic “chunks”. That’s what I was used to on my old armour kits from 20 years ago. However, the other way to do tracks is to make them in the “rubber band” fashion. That’s how Matchbox did it.
I know that “rubber band tracks” is a statement often uttered with a mixture of contempt and disappointment by many armour builders I know. However, I was shocked when I saw a guy at our club bring in a new Tamiya Panther, and it had rubber band tracks too! If it’s good enough for a Tamiya, it’s got to be good enough for a Matchbox, right? I was fearful (and rightfully so), however, that painting them would be very difficult.
I worried that normal primer would flake off the tracks if I painted them and then bent them into shape. After all, that IS asking a lot of a paint, to flex so much. So I thought I’d paint one track “straight” and then assemble one and paint it, and see which worked better. I left one track on the sprue and primered it with the same Colorplace rattlecan I used on the tank, while I assembled the other track and did the same.
However, at this point, I found that almost nothing glues these old rubber tracks! I tried every chemical I could get my hands on to try and melt these tracks together, and got nothing. They must be made out of the same ungluable material as the old AMT two-part drag slicks from the ‘70s. Whatever this stuff is, I hope it has been outlawed! Thankfully, Matchbox’s system of interlocking is far superior to their contemporaries’ system of melting the tracks together with a hot knife! The problem is that the system only works under tension, meaning you can only get the tracks to stay in shape after you put them on!
This put me in a quandary. How could I glue the ungluable, while keeping them in position? I used some super-thick Tacky Glue (from scrapbooking stores) and found it would indeed hold the tracks, so long as they didn’t have to deform much. I thus threaded the tracks together, applied the tacky glue, and then used the spreader arms on a pair of clamps to keep the track under tension. Once the glue was dry and the primer was done, I painted both the “open” and “closed” tracks with MMA steel, and then gave them both a wash of Citadel Nuln Oil and Devlan Mud, to simulate rust and dirt. I also applied a wash of the dusty dirt I used on the rest of the tank.
Attaching the tracks took two different approaches. For the “open” track side, I glued on all the road wheels, drive sprocket, return rollers and idler, and then wrapped the track around, as on the instructions. This was troublesome and I lost a few chunks of paint. Not good. I had real trouble getting the interlock on the tracks to fit in under this kind of tension. For the “closed “tracks, I glued on everything but the drive sprocket. Then, I took the tracks off the spreader clamp, and looped them around the idler. I used the drive sprocket to ‘pull’ the track into shape around the rest of the wheels, and held it until the cement was dry enough to make sure nothing pulled off. I only lost a little bit of paint using this method, so overall, I think it was superior.
I touched up the missing paint with MMA Grey Primer and some more steel and washes, and when I was done, I was surprised at how good they looked. Sure, they’re a pain, and I can see why serious armour guys don’t like them, but for someone looking to just have some fun with a simple tank model, they do a more-than-passable job. The only problem was that I, being a new armour modeller, forgot to check direction. Thus, the two tracks on this Panzer II go opposite ways! Thankfully, the tracks are thin and the detail not that aggressive, so I don’t think too many people will notice unless I point it out (like I just did…)
The old Matchbox armor kits are a blast! This Panzer II kit did exactly what I wanted it to; it gave me a fairly painless introduction to armour modelling while letting me try my hand at some new weathering techniques. I got to work outside my comfort zone a bit and gained some confidence in how to construct and paint armour. Not only that, but I had a tonne of fun doing it, and I’m pumped to build my next piece of armour!
The detail of the Panzer II is good for its size, and it allows the builder (even a novice like me!) to get a good replica without breaking the bank on aftermarket or agonizing over paint chips and mud colours. These models are a perfect match of complexity and simplicity, and I would heartily recommend them for modellers of any age and skill level. Except for the return rollers and the guns, there isn’t too much that’s too small on the Panzer II to cause a problem even for children with no modelling experience. The models reward patience and care well, without becoming monotonous, tedious or extravagantly repetitive. They probably are a good cure for anyone experiencing a case of AMS, at that rate!
Sure, the Panzer II and its Matchbox kin may not be the most accurate and detailed kits of these tanks around, and yes, the scale is a bit weird. However, when it comes to just having fun building a tank, I don’t think these old kits can be beaten. I went from zero tank kits in my stash to “Oh my God! I must buy every Matchbox armour kit and repop I can find!” in the space of one tank. Now I have 16 Matchbox moulds and am hopeful to complete my collection sooner rather than later. If that doesn’t speak to the transformative awesomeness of these little guys, nothing does!