Life-size replica of a Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jet in Shostakivka, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Rockets for Christmas

On model planes and lethal missiles

Last week came the exciting news that after a brief flight, NASA’s new Artemis rocket had reached the Moon. The last human visit to the lunar outcrop was exactly fifty years ago, when Apollo 17’s crew roamed over the surface in their buggy, collecting 100 kg of moon dust and rock. President Obama was not a fan and deflected America’s efforts into the International Space Station. Thus, it has taken NASA several years to develop Artemis and its Orion capsule, capable of taking astronauts some 370,000 kilometres in three days. I fear they have set an impossibly high bar for UK National Rail to follow.

Throughout my 1960s childhood, I was promised robots, space travel, moon bases and aliens. Why do I feel short-changed? It was all Gerry Anderson’s fault. Most of his iconic TV series were set in an inter-galactic future, deploying the lovable Supermarionation puppets (of which Thunderbirds were the best-known), culminating in real actors fighting an alien race (in the UFO series) and the adventures of a lunar colony blown out of orbit around Planet Earth (Space 1999). At the same time, William Shatner (aka Captain James T. Kirk) in Star Trek was piloting the starship Enterprise “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Star Wars was still a decade distant.

With Artemis, NASA’s intention is to land a new generation of astronauts on the Moon, explore more of the lunar surface than ever before, and establish the long-term presence there that we were first promised in the 1960s. Once the various technologies of interplanetary living have been proven, the next step is Mars. Whilst President Eisenhower authorised NASA in April 1958 (it first opened for business on 1 October that year), it was his successor JFK who in 1961 responded to the Soviet Sputnik programme by committing America to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

The Apollo missions were enabled by the superb Saturn V rocket, and it was the ambition of everyone I knew to make one. Blue Peter cardboard tubes, silver foil and sticky-backed plastic was one method, but for those whose parents had deeper pockets, from 1970 we awaited the Airfix plastic model kit, suitably wrapped and navigated down our chimneys by Father Christmas. The finished rocket stood over 30 inches high. Each section separated, just as on the real space vehicle, whilst the fiddly bits comprising the lunar module and space capsule tried our patience for most of the season’s Twelve Days. It did not disappoint.

Last week, several of the UK’s newspapers picked up the welcome news that Airfix, purveyors of fine plastic kits to generations of schoolboys from the 1960s and 70s, had bounced back into the Christmas market. Its latest kit is a huge scale model of a Spitfire — R.J. Mitchell’s iconic fighter which first flew in March 1936 and was a major factor in the trouncing of the Luftwaffe throughout 1939–45. In smaller versions, it has been the company’s most popular offering ever since the autumn of 1955, when a generation of keen kit constructors in their grey-flannel shorts had just celebrated the end of post-war rationing.

Other kits are available, and Airfix is only part of the story, but the name remains a generic term for plastic, injection-moulded model kits — usually of some kind of military machine. There were other brands, including FROG, which started in the 1930s and stood for Flies Right Off the Ground. The Americans and Japanese muscled in with brands like Revell, Tamiya, Aurora, Monogram and Hasegawa. Some companies have merged, but hobby kits have remained popular around the world, including in France and in Germany, where the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts are banned.

Battalions of schoolkids marched down to their local hobby shops

The first commercial Airfix kit was actually a galleon — the Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake in his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. There were models of kings and queens, commercial and military aircraft, tanks and trucks and vintage cars, soldiers, dinosaurs, rolling stock and passenger liners. And, of course, rockets, space stations and starships. Also attracting inexpert fingers wielding brush and glue were many clever TV and film tie-ins, but it was the fighter aircraft, with Spitfires outselling all others, on which millions who grew up in the 1960s and 70s spent their weekly pocket money.

Every Saturday morning, battalions of schoolkids marched down to their local hobby shops, often Woolworth’s in the UK, and made their selection of kits, plus tubes of polystyrene cement and little tins of paint. They were enticed by dramatic artwork on the boxes, replete with explosions and damaged aircraft trailing smoke. These masterpieces were usually the work of Airfix doyen Roy Cross. His colourful dioramas far exceeded the less dramatic wartime photographs seen in books, providing a strong incentive to purchase.

With the kits quickly ferried home, assembled, glued and painted, then came the mock battles across the bedroom floor with camouflaged tanks, planes and infantry, aircraft hung from the ceiling and suspended by cotton thread. Occasionally a Stuka dive-bomber might be set alight and flung out of an upper window, but they never quite exploded as in the films. This was considered a fair riposte for the serene reign of Cindy and Barbie dolls next door. Eventually my generation moved on, and the kits (made and unmade), paints and polystyrene cement were consigned to a box in the attic with the Dinky and Matchbox trucks, Commando war comics and Action Men. Since then, they have been gathering dust — and value.

We may have thought the days of scrubbing away the accidentally painted fingertips were over. Then the long-gone hobby unexpectedly bounced back during the pandemic. Some settled down to watch podcasts, including We Have Ways of Making You Talk, hosted by comedian Al Murray and historian James Holland. Weekly, they have discussed every aspect of the Second World War you can think of, and many you haven’t. It has just launched in the USA. One unexpected spin-off was their online modelling competition. The rules of “Kit-off” require a donation and the construction of a low-priced kit, with the money going to the victims of the war in Ukraine. You can view the finished results on YouTube. So far, the gentle pastime has triggered hundreds of entries and raised thousands of pounds.

For the We Have Way-ers and countless others, few scale models have been more hotly anticipated than the Airfix Spitfire Mark 9 “superkit”, which took to the air in hobby shops last week. James May, who assembled a life-sized model Spitfire for his 2009 Toy Stories TV series (his other episodes featured ambitious building projects using Plasticine, Meccano, Scalextric racing cars, Lego building blocks and Hornby trains), has been raving about it. The new Spitfire’s 433 parts, producing a super-detailed 1:24 scale model with a wingspan of over 18 inches, have prompted an outpouring of nostalgia for the older kits. At a shade under £100, this is no toy, though its price compares favourably with many computer games.

Its advent has unleashed a swathe of online memories of assembling miniature Sopwith Camels and Fokker triplanes, Tiger Tanks, Bismarck battleships and Lancaster bombers. The kits triggered many a career in the military, writing, history, media or design. They got me sufficiently interested in the past and its machinery that I became a military historian. I call my modelling colleagues the “Airfix generation”. Their kits are not toys, but “visual aids”.

This all sounds like a very violent, male-dominated world, on the verge of Anorakdom, but for all that, Airfix-type kits were absorbing and educational as one learnt what each fiddly bit actually did in real life. They taught important skills ranging from reading detailed assembly instructions (useful later in life for flat-pack furniture), painting and craftwork, to patience (also handy for flat-packs). Using the completed kits in subsequent war games and dramas taught youngsters to develop their imagination and understand tolerance and restraint when confronting an opponent, in a way Monopoly and Cluedo never could.

It occurred to me that toy weapons and aggressive games might trigger violent trends later in life. According to the UK’s National Toy Council, there is no evidence linking these to children’s attitudes towards war or violence, however. The council reassuringly observes that it’s normal: in the UK, USA, Germany, Italy and Holland, up to three-quarters of all boys and a third of girls play with “war-related toys” at home. It seems to me that neither Mr Putin, nor many of his generals, were exposed to military toys when growing up, which might have removed latent aggression from their psychology and given them insights into how to correctly use their complicated military hardware.

When parts of a rocket landed on a farm in Poland, killing two, my social media platforms melted down in outrage. There were countless suggestions for aggressive actions from a legion of armchair generals, recently retired from pontificating on covid vaccines, warship construction and gas pipelines.

The policy of the UN, NATO and the EU has been to contain this unprovoked war at all costs and prevent it sliding into a regional crisis, or worse. Leakage of the conflict has already occurred, including an armed Russian drone crashing in a suburb of Zagreb, capital of Croatia, on 10 March, and an unarmed one in Romania three days later. On 31 October, meanwhile, fragments of a Russian rocket destroyed by Ukrainian air defences fell on the territory of Moldova. On 15 November, it seems that pieces of another missile intercepting a Russian rocket caused the deaths at Przewodow, 10 kilometres into Poland from Ukraine.

It is moments like these that cause wars

Most Western news media and Twitter were alive with ideas for innovative and far-reaching retaliatory moves, all of which would have confirmed the Kremlin’s narrative to its domestic audience that NATO was looking for any pretext to attack Russia. In fact, just this kind of event has been anticipated in NATO and EU circles and endlessly wargamed. I have taken part in many such simulated exercises in the past, advising commanders as a POLAD (political advisor) or military media consultant. This was a time for cool heads, for it is moments like these that cause wars. As a result the West stayed its hand and paused to collect forensic evidence to determine what had happened. It was a textbook example of not rushing to conclusions, subsequently to be proved wrong, as were many TV, radio and internet commentators. We breathed a sigh of relief, though the fact remains that it was a volley of Russian missiles which triggered the unfortunate trail of events.

The barrage is continuing as I write, with hundreds of missiles fired every other day — aimed at destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, chiefly power stations and water treatment plants. One pointless projectile hit Zaporizhzhia’s maternity hospital and killed a newborn baby. My Ukrainian friends confirm electricity cuts of at least four hours a day, no hot water and frequent air raid alerts which disrupt sleep patterns. Power in neutral Moldova is similarly interrupted. President Zelensky is reporting a 70 per cent successful interception rate. Most recently, batteries of German-supplied IRIS-T (InfraRed Imaging System — Tail/Thrust Vector-Controlled) medium range homing missiles have chalked up some of these successes.

On 15 November, footage showed the downing of two Russian cruise missiles within seconds by an IRIS-T system. I have argued before that Russian munitions stocks, particularly of its Kalibr precision-guided cruise missiles, must be running low. This is reflected by the fact that many of the current attacks are being made by Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones. The West calculates that more than 400 Shaheds have been launched against Ukraine since mid-September, indicating that Russia has expended most of its own drones, and sanctions are preventing the manufacture of any more, necessitating purchase from a fellow pariah state.

It turns out that Ukrainians are keen military modellers of all this hardware, although with little power or light, their opportunities are limited. Whilst the original two-shilling Airfix kits have become collectors’ items, the “Airfix School of Military History” — as I call the process of learning through model-making — has not faded. In fact, it is frighteningly up to date. Modern 3-D printing and injection moulding techniques mean that much of the equipment used by Coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is available in scale kit form, as is the ill-fated Moskva cruiser, sunk in April, and the S-300 missile launchers and T-72 tanks currently being used by Russia in Ukraine. On the other side, scale US M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Ukrainian T-84 tanks are also available to the contemporary modeller. Most of these kits are manufactured in China or France.

In recent years, one unlikely country has become home to over a dozen companies producing detailed model kits: Ukraine. New for Christmas is a £20 book containing illustrations of Ukrainian-made kits, with all profits going to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal — so far more than £6,500 has been raised. Just as Roy Cross was considered the Leonardo of Airfix commercial artwork, Valeriy Grygorenko was similarly highly regarded as the illustrator of much enticing Ukrainian box art. Sadly, he died recently in the Russian shelling of Irpin, north of Kyiv.

As Master Box, one of Ukraine’s several producers of scale military figures, states on its website, “We are glad to announce that despite the ongoing war, continuous air raid alerts, and other inconveniences, we are now creating a series of kits dedicated to the defence of Ukraine from the Russian Federation’s barbaric invasion.” First up in its range is a 1:24 scale (three-inch tall) Ukrainian soldier, “from the defence of Kyiv, having repulsed a Russian tank attack, March 2022”. Others include the defenders of Kharkiv and Mariupol. Profits, it announces, “will be used to meet the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

In the absence of an Artemis rocket kit, my inner-modeller, dormant for fifty years, has already penned a note to the chap in red with the big white beard, and dusted off his glue and paints.

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