Kriegsmarine Konfusion

When modeling very specific times or events, there really is no limit to the amount of research that is appropriate before undertaking the build.  In what condition is the subject being modeled?  What, if any, optional components were or were not present at the time?  Rarely will we encounter a scenario which leaves zero room for speculation, and when this occurs our artistic license must also be kept in check to present a plausible, realistic scene.  That is, of course, if we care about accuracy.  Which I do.

All this brings me to an oft-modeled and oft-debated subject: the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismarck.  I’m not going to go into the history of the subject or its importance during the Second World War – I’ll save that for a later blog post.  Instead, I want to take a look at some of the confusion and controversies that surround what is arguably the ship’s most famous appearance: her Baltic Camouflage paint scheme and the equipage she carried at that time.

Bismarck in May 1941, showing off her Baltic Camouflage scheme while she passes the cruiser Prinz Eugen,

Bismarck in May 1941, showing off her Baltic Camouflage scheme while she passes the cruiser Prinz Eugen.

The Kriegsmarine regulated paint colors and schemes for their vessels based on a variety of factors, including geographic location, type of mission, and the presence (or lack thereof) of air support.  According to Bismarck expert John Asmussen, the organization propagated these  directives through the Allgemeinen Baubestimmungen, or General Building Regulations.  Unfortunately, the majority of these were destroyed during the war or lost thereafter, therefore determining original paint schemes for the vessels of the Kriegsmarine can be difficult at best; when combined with the vagaries of contemporary photography, the modern-day task of determining period paint schemes with absolute certainty becomes an exercise in madness.

That said, the fame accorded Bismarck and the lure of the ship as a modeling subject has resulted in a trove of attempts to identify the colors borne by the ship at various times during her brief lifespan.  There are a limited number of images of the ship from which to gather information, but each of those scenes helps us as modelers create a more perfect representation of the past.  This is never a perfect exercise, but if the information exists, it behooves us to use it as a guide to shape our efforts.

Bismarck was photographed wearing a number of schemes – from an overall grey scheme to the more dazzling black and white Baltic design and then back to overall grey.  These images depict the ship at sea, in port, or at places in between, such as when transiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal.  Even with these images, however, there exist a number of contentious points.

Take, first of all, the color of Bismarck‘s turret tops.  These remain a sticking point for many modelers: multiple sources confirm that Prinz Eugen, at sea with Bismarck and painted in the same scheme, had turret tops painted in bright red (RAL-3010) to assist in aerial identification.  Because of this, it was assumed for years that Bismarck bore the same feature; there have also been competing claims that these turrets were painted yellow (RAL-1003).  More recent examinations of the wreck – as well as the outright denial of this by survivors – have served to mostly debunk these claims, yet their persistence as inquiries among modelers shows how deep the mythos runs.

The now-widely accepted appearance of Bismarck when painted with her Baltic Camouflage scheme

The now-widely accepted appearance of Bismarck when painted with her Baltic Camouflage scheme

But why the focus on the Baltic Camouflage scheme in the first place?  Well, the simplest answer is that this was simply the most visually striking pattern worn by the ship during her service.  The black and white angled stripes served to break up the silhouette of the ship, and the false waves at bow and stern (combined with the use of dark paint in those areas to shorten the ship’s apparent length when viewed at a distance) acted to confuse an observing enemy of the vessel’s speed and direction of travel.  This scheme – which Bismarck wore between March and early May 1941 – also featured prominent black-on-white-on-red swastikas on the fo’c’sle and  quarterdeck for ease of aerial identification.  With the exception of the forward false wave, all of these distinctive features were painted over prior to the ship leaving the protected waters of the Baltic Sea, so any attempt at modeling the ship during her actual combat operations necessarily creates a more significant historical subject but a less striking visual one.

Painting Bismarck's false wave and bow silhouette in 1941.

Painting Bismarck’s false wave and bow silhouette in 1941.

When modeling the Baltic scheme, the colors used are as follows:

RAL 7000 on the hull between the false bow and stern panel colors

RAL 7037 on the hull as the bow and stern false panel colors, as well as on the 38 cm turret tops and sloped sides

RAL 7038 as the superstructure base color

Standard White served as the false wave color as well as the light portion of the stripes; Standard Black made up the other stripes.

Painting the stripes necessarily proves challenging, as they appear perfectly straight when viewed from profile yet curved according to the shape of the superstructure.  If the modeler is going to go this route, they will need to take extra care to ensure that these lines are perfect.  With a scheme this iconic, any errors will show quickly and clearly.

Now that this scheme is identified, what scene should be modeled?  One of my favorite shots of Bismarck was taken when she was transiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal on March 8, 1941:

Bismarck transiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal on March 8, 1941.  Image Courtesy Steve Wiper.  Warship Pictorial 39: German Battleships 1939-1945.  Tucson: Classic Warships Publishing, 21.

Bismarck transiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal on March 8, 1941. Image Courtesy Steve Wiper. Warship Pictorial 39: German Battleships 1939-1945. Tucson: Classic Warships Publishing, 21.

Yet when examining this fascinating and highly detailed scene, the modeler would realize that he or she would need to leave off the forward rangefinder and FuMO-23 Main Battery radar antennas atop the conning tower.  While this is not a great sacrifice, it does posit the challenge of restraint to the modeler wishing to go “all-out”, as it were.  It offers a choice to be made, and presents an opportunity to make one’s mark with either glorious excess or carefully modulated nuance.

“Why have I gone on about Bismarck‘s colors when I don’t even have a Kriegsmarine build on my workbench?” you might ask.  Why should I care about RAL colors and rangefinder equipage?  It’s not like I have an upcoming build that will possibly need this information, is there?

It's time.

There is.

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