by: Matthew Lenton [ ]
One lesson drawn from the 1942 Dieppe Raid was a need for armoured vehicles to protect and assist assault engineers in their operations while under enemy fire. The heavy armour and side access hatches of the Churchill contributed to it being selected as the basis for a series of specialised assault vehicles that would be deployed during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. The main armament, coaxial machine gun, co-driver’s seat, ammunition bins and turret basket were all removed, providing 36 cubic feet (1m3) for stowage of engineer tools, demolition gear, etc. The 11 inch (290mm) “Petard” mortar mounted on the modified turret front could project a 44lb (20kg) projectile over 100m for the demolition of fortifications. Known as AVRE (Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers), they were also provided with brackets and mounts on the sides to allow the fitting of devices for clearing mines, laying mats, demolition charges, and so on.
Dragon’s 2011 Mk. IV Churchill kit has been used as the basis for the production of several further Mk. IV and Mk. III variants, and it is April 2016’s Mk. III AVRE that is the subject of this review; at the time of writing, this kit has already been succeeded by the release of the Mk. IV AVRE.
The kit is presented in Dragon’s usual top opening box with an image of an AVRE firing a mortar round at a beach fortification, while inside there is a duotone instruction sheet, and the following components:
Sprue A – road wheels and hull sides, as per previous Dragon Churchill kits (photo 8)
Sprue B – drive and idler wheels and hull details, a generic Churchill kit sprue (photo 8)
Sprue D – turret and details, identical to Churchill Mk III 7396, so including the fuel tank (photo 20)
Sprue G – new for this kit: hull sides, mortar and turret front armour (photo 27)
X, Y, Z – hull top, bottom and tracks respectively, as per previous kits (photos 18, 19, 6)
Decals – provides for two tanks, both of 82nd Assault Squadron, 6th Assault Regiment, 79th Armoured Division, NW Europe, 1944 (photo 5).
Several Armorama reviews of Dragon’s previous releases of 1/72 scale Churchill kits have raised some accuracy issues, so let’s examine what is new in this kit and see if it is an improvement, or otherwise.
The biggest change is that the existing hull side sponsons on sprue B are to be ignored in favour of new items on sprue G. Two large mountings are now attached to each side: a curved vertical bracket attached to a large plate at the front, and, nearer the midway point, a pivot mounted on a plate with a H shaped reinforcement. These fittings are to enable the mounting of mine clearing rollers or a plough device (not included in this kit). There is also the addition of appliqué armour, quite noticeable, as the escape hatch, which was proud of the surface on the previous Churchill’s, is now slightly inset behind these plates. The new plates have somewhat more definition than the components they replace, and include bolt detail on the sprocket covers where previously there was none, and a noticeable texture: see photo 31 which shows the fine bolt detail within the H bracket, with a penny for scale. Now missing however are tow cables, which were moulded in place on the old components, but are now omitted and not provided as separate parts (although they are depicted on the box top artwork). Finally there are subtly modified mounting points for the newly provided V shaped brackets (G4 and 5) which attach the rear track guard end to a point just under the sprocket cover. In order to attach them to the track guard, the modeller is instructed to remove a small strip featuring four bolts from the bottom of the track guard.
Also on the new sprue G are parts for the Petard mortar: the barrel is in two halves which attach to the mortar base and on which mounts a wedge shaped part which I think provides the sprung pivot enabling the mortar to be tipped upwards, away from the back plate, allowing a round to be inserted. This assembly is mounted by attaching to part G8 which is inserted from inside the turret. Finally on sprue G are two plain rectangles which represent the appliqué armoured plates on the turret front, one either side of the mortar.
A fair amount of additional detail is on that small sprue then, but how does it stack up in terms of creating an accurate Mk III AVRE? As alluded to above, the mortar was loaded by tipping the front of the barrel up so that the rear opening is exposed and facing down; the projectile was inserted up into the barrel, which was then rotated back into place, this operation taking place externally. To avoid having to exit the vehicle, the standard front left split hatch was replaced by a smaller sliding hatch set into a plate, through which the round was loaded into the mortar. The hull provided in this kit appears to be the same item as provided with the Dragon Churchill Mk IV kits rather than the Mk III, so it’s the one with the full length track guards. The problem is that it has the pair of slightly offset but otherwise identical split hatches that are on the normal gun tank, and that is a disappointment. Even if a complete new hull top wasn’t within the designer’s budget, it may have been feasible to offer a one or two part loading hatch to be mounted on top of the usual hatch, with the modeller doing a bit of work to remove the handle and obliterate both the four hinges and the central join… maybe. So while all is not lost, as the necessary modification may be fairly straightforward consisting as it does entirely of flat square plates and straight strips, that’s not really the point of course. See photo 32 for my approximation of the position of the loading hatch, then photo 33 which shows roughly how the turret would be rotated to position the mortar directly above the hatch through which a round would be inserted into the downward facing breech. Photo 34 is of a Mk IV AVRE, but the arrangement of the hatch is the same, at A, clearly showing the small sliding loader’s hatch set into the welded over co-driver’s hatch.
Existing photos of AVREs suggest the majority were Mk IV tanks, and I wasn’t able to find any photos of Mk. IIIs with the exact configuration depicted in this kit. Some Mk. III AVREs did not have the appliqué armour, while photos that do appear to be of a Mk. III with it in place also show additional armour plate on the side hatches, not represented on the components on this kit, although it is depicted on the box top illustration and would be an easy enough modification (see photo 35, A).
The instructions call for the sloped covers (A15 and 16) on the air intakes; these are normally used on the Mk IV kits but unused in the Mk III kits, so again, the modeller can decide whether to use them, or just stick with the uncovered stacks, the top surfaces of which feature a quite decently fine grille pattern. The AVRE in photo 35 does not have these covers (C).
The appliqué armour for the turret, although essentially just flat rectangles, have chamfered edges and some texture and should provide an authentic looking representation of the distinctive, dead-flat turret front, split in two by the big aperture for the mortar. Again, these appear not to have been fitted to all Mk III AVREs, but I have read that these may sometimes have been fitted in the field in any case, so it is up to the modeller to choose to fit these or not. The tracks provided are of the later, lighter, type, and while it has been pointed out that this pattern was wrongly provided in Dragon’s “Dieppe” Churchill kit, I believe that they may well be appropriate for this, presumably, later Mk III. Note that our example Mk III in photo 35 does not feature the front most section of the track guards.
While this basic Churchill has been built and reviewed on several occasions on Armorama, I thought I’d see how the new mortar goes together with the turret.
The mortar tube is split lengthways in two and the join is not perfect (photo 36), requiring a little filler to ensure it is fully sealed and round in section. Unfortunately the walls of the tube are over scale thickness, and thinning down is not straightforward if you want to retain the characteristic shape of the internal bore, which has four noticeable ridges.
I dutifully followed the instruction to mount the coaxial machine gun (A14) in its cast turret mount only to soon realise that this is wrong (photo 37) because the machine gun would be obstructed by the mortar. The machine gun should be ignored but the empty mount still used. It is possible to build the entire mortar assembly prior to mounting it on the turret, and the construction is quite delicate: the rear of the mortar attaches to the mantlet on one small pin on the end of the mounting rod – be sure not to cut off that pin when removing it from the sprue (yes, I did). The mortar tube attaches to the rear at two points which, again, are not particularly definite. It is a case of assembling then patiently waiting for cement to set on one part at a time. The mortar itself is a complex shape that is not easy to represent at this scale, and some modellers may wish to add or replace some of the details. One addition I made was a disk fabricated from one of the sprue ejector points to represent a collar on the mortar mounting rod (photo 38, A). Note the not very well cleaned up but now empty machine gun mount (photo 38, B). I also thinned the wedge shaped side plate, but more could probably be done, and note that the spring is moulded as flat surface detail on the inside of this piece – much better would be to remove it and add something that looks more like a spring in its place.
When it comes to mounting the completed mortar into the turret, the instructions include a “do not cement” symbol so that the mortar can be articulated on its mount. Not shown in the instructions is the attachment of the other half of the internal mounting for the mortar to the turret roof, and this part is also not shown on the parts diagram, but is found, unnumbered, on sprue D next to the turret roof (see photo 20). It is a kind of shelf-with-brackets shape and attaches to the turret roof as in photos 39, 40, 41, so that when assembled it traps the mantlet pivot against the lower turret. I found the range of elevation provided to be very small, in reality I believe the mortar was capable of being elevated to a steep angle in order to lob the projectile in a high arc; it may be possible with some modification to these parts to achieve this greater angle.
Photo 42 shows the mortar assembled and in place ready for the hull roof to be attached. In photo 43 the turret superstructure and mortar is assembled, the two turret front appliqué plates (A and B) shown lying ready to be (optionally) added. Note also the two holes for the periscopes (C and D), the upper of which (C) has started to be enlarged: I found the holes were too small to accept the periscopes, and even when fitted they seemed to stand too tall (photo 44); by making the holes bigger it was possible to set the periscopes much lower (photo 45). The profile of the cowling could perhaps also be modified to a sharper angle.
The final assembly I tackled was the two sets of two part turret hatches, and this starts with adding the commander’s hatch ring, something that should be straightforward, but… there is a little pip on top of the ring which should face to the front, and a locating pin underneath that inserts into a corresponding hole on the turret top; the pip was too long for the hole, so needed to be trimmed to allow the ring to sit flush. I had a bit of an accident with liquid cement spreading out from under the join and managed to make a mess of the ring (photo 46) something not too easy to put right, so all I can say is be careful with this apparently simple assembly. As noted in Jan Etal’s review of the Dieppe Churchill kit, a fair amount of flash is around the front half of the commander’s hatch, but I also found other problems. Both sets of hatches are separate and so can be modelled open or closed; there is no internal detailing on either, so if set open, the modeller may want to add the interior cushion padding and any other details that can be gleaned from photos (see photo 34, B, for example). Setting them in the closed position should be easier, but perhaps not much easier: the commander’s hatch is a quite complex shape that needs to be trimmed to fit the opening, and to do this well requires patience and accuracy, with the halves needing to mirror one another exactly, though at least there is a surface for them to sit on. The design of the loader’s hatch on the other hand is wrong in that the lipped edge that stops it from dropping through the opening is on the hatch doors, so that when assembled the closed hatch is noticeably above the turret roof; the lipped edge should be in the roof opening so that the closed hatch is recessed perfectly flush (see photo 34, C). If modelling the hatch open, the lip could be added beneath the opening; if modelling closed, then I’d suggest adding a piece of styrene sheet across the entire opening so that the hatch halves can sit on it without dropping through, because either way, that lipped edge on the hatch doors should be removed so that they fit exactly into the opening. A side effect of fitting the hatch flush to the roof is that the inner hinge edges that locate into the outer hinges on the roof sit too high and they bent when I forced the hatch to sit flush (photo 47, ringed) – probably best to remove them, cement the hatch in place, then add them back in. It’s nice to have the option of hatches being open or closed, but it would be better if separate parts were provided – so two halves should be provided to model it open (with interior details) and a properly fitting single piece to model it closed.
I think it is fair to say that this kit is something of a mixed bag. There are a fair number of new parts over the base kit, and though some are nicely executed, it seems to me that not all of them are completely correct if assembled as directed in the instructions and there are indeed some fundamental flaws, most notably the incorrect hull hatch. I think there is a suggestion that, perhaps like AFV Club with their 1/35th scale rendition, what is actually represented in this kit is a vehicle with post war modifications, rather than as would have been seen in 1944.
The surface details of the Churchill are relatively complex, and one area that has come in for criticism previously is that of the two part rear deck which has been considerably simplified. The moulded on tools on the rear plate are really not nice, and I think that the grille is incorrect in having only three bars instead of four. The exhaust openings are a separate component, but the pipes themselves have been simplified out of existence with just the flat covers standing in for them; I’m also not too sure about there being only two access hatch props instead of four, and the position of the ventilator. The Petard mortar is not a bad attempt (photo 48), and though it is simplified, could be used as the basis for improvement.
As ever, some modellers will be happy to build out of the box and will end up with something that is recognisably a Mk III AVRE, while those with greater interest in accuracy may wish to carry out further research and then make their own modifications. Of course, with the new hull sides, a whole range of possibilities is opened up for enterprising modellers to make use of those mounting points for the various devices deployed by the 79th Armoured Division, and I suppose Dragon have also now created the basis for a series of further releases themselves.
Leszek Moczulski Churchill vol. I (Gunpower 26, AJ Press, 2008)
Peter Chamberlain and Chris Ellis Churchill and Sherman Specials (AFV Weapons 20, Profile Publications, 1970)