In 1961 The Guns of Navarone was one of the big movie success stories, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and Bonanaza, one of the first television shows to be broadcast in colour, topped the ratings in the US. However, for model kit makers the big news was that Airfix were planning to launch a new series of tank kits. The first three, Churchill, Panther and Sherman were all released that year.
All were released in HO/00 scale. Today, that seems a little odd – it equates to around 1/76 and Airfix already produced several popular aircraft kits in 1/72, so, why didn’t they do the same with these tanks? No-one is entirely certain, but it seems most likely that this was related to the fact that in the late 1950s, a large proportion of Airfix kits were accessories for HO/00 model railways. The very first small figures the company released, Civilians, were intended for use on model railways and produced in the same scale. When Airfix started releasing sets of military figures in 1961, they kept to the same scale. So, it probably seemed to make sense to also make their tanks to the same scale which equates to around 1/76.
Nowadays, that makes Airfix tank kits oddballs amongst the majority of 1/72 AFVs. However, I am keen to see if one of the very first Airfix tanks, released almost sixty years ago is any good. This is the Vintage Classics edition released in 2019 and featuring artwork from 1963.
The M4 was one of the most important and widely produced of all tanks of World War Two; only the Russian T-34 was produced in greater numbers. A large proportion of early M4 production was sent to Britain where this tank was given the name Sherman. The name was later formally adopted by the US Army and led to the practice of naming US tanks after American Generals.
The success of the German Blitzkrieg in 1940 shocked the US military into accepting that the tanks they currently had were less than ideal for modern mechanized warfare. Although America was not at that time involved in the war, work immediately began on the design of a new tank. The outcome was the M3 (with variants known as Lee and Grant), a tall, cumbersome design with a one-man turret mounting a small calibre gun and the main armament, a 75mm cannon, mounted in a sponson in the hull. Suspension was derived from the previous M2 light tank, the VVSS (Vertical Volute Spring Suspension) type with three sets of bogies on each side, each with two rubber-tyred roadwheels. The M3 was a stopgap design and work immediately began on a tank using the same lower hull, engine, transmission, suspension and running gear but with a main gun mounted in a revolving turret.
An US M4A1 Sherman in Tunisia
The outcome was the M4, first produced in February 1942. The initial version was the M4A1, with a distinctive cast hull looking a little like an upturned bath-tub and a three-man turret mounting a 75mm main gun. Later versions were upgraded to the new M1 76mm main gun. The 400 hp petrol engine gave good performance but its fuel tanks provided a notable fire hazard.
This was followed by the M4A2, with a hull constructed from flat plates of welded steel and a GM diesel engine. The M4A3 was similar but equipped with a new liquid-cooled Ford V8 500 hp petrol engine. The M4A4 (which is what I think this kit portrays) was introduced in July 1942 and was equipped with the original 75mm main gun and the astonishing Chrysler A57 Multibank engine, essentially five Chrysler inline six-cylinder petrol car engines arranged round a central shaft. This massive and complex engine meant that the rear hull on this variant was slightly longer.
M4A4 Shermans being produced at the Chrysler Plant in 1942. The tank on the right is an M3.
Over 7,000 examples of the M4A4 were manufactured between July 1942 and November 1943 by the Chrysler Corporation. This version was supplied in large numbers to both Britain and Russia and smaller numbers were also used by the US Army. In addition to being used by Russian forces on the Eastern front, this type of Sherman saw action in Sicily and Italy as well as during the invasion of Normandy.
There are a bewildering number of Sherman variants and even within tanks of the same type there are significant differences in things like mantlets, hatches, the transmission cover at the front of the hull and the rear deck. This shouldn’t be surprising given that Sherman production was carried out at eleven separate plants in the United States and the rush to production meant that whatever components were to hand were used.
In many ways, the Sherman was a great tank – it was mechanically reliable, powerful engines gave it good performance, it was roomy inside and its relatively low weight (just over thirty tons) and narrow width made it easy to transport. It was also provided with a gyroscopically stabilised main gun, an innovation in World War Two that theoretically made firing on the move more accurate, though the system proved to be less than 100% reliable.
A British Sherman Mark V in operation in Sicily, 1943
The main problem was that, while this was a good design in 1941, it was no match for German tanks and tank destroyers that began to appear from late 1942. Its 75mm cannon was not capable of penetrating the frontal armour on tanks such as the Panther and Tiger while its own frontal armour was vulnerable to penetration by a range of late-war German tank and anti-tank weapons. As the war progressed, the Sherman was provided with more powerful main guns, improved armour and diesel engines until, by 1945 it had evolved into a formidable fighting vehicle.
What’s in the Box
Inside the box there are four sprues of fairly brittle, green plastic, a set of decals and a set of rubber-band type tracks.
Detail and sharpness of the mouldings isn’t too terrible given the age of this kit, but they are not up to modern standards. The tools moulded on the upper rear hull, for example, are not particularly sharply defined, which will make painting difficult. At least the turret and hull hatches are separate mouldings though there is no internal detail.
There are some obvious issues. Most notably the main gun looks much too thin and too tapered – the 75mm main gun was a chunky piece of kit and helps define the appearance of early Shermans and the part provided with the kit looks completely wrong. The turret is a little too narrow and lacks detail, particularly on the rear. It also lacks the rear stowage box seen on many Shermans and no front mudguards are provided. Details on the hull are simplified and the moulding of the roadwheels is variable – some aren’t bad while others are very poor indeed and on many, the mounting hole obviously isn’t quite in the centre of the wheel.
The suspension, sprockets and idlers are all greatly simplified though this still just about looks like Sherman suspension. The suspension and running gear on the Airfix 1/76 Lee/Grant tank kit released in 1969, which should be identical to the Sherman, is actually better in all respects.
The tracks are the same type provided with other1/76 Airfix AFV kits, being moulded out of flexible, dark grey plastic that seems impervious to most glues. Detail on the outside of the tracks is a reasonable attempt to replicate the T-41 simple rubber-block type tracks fitted to some Shermans.
One thing that is notable is how much moulding techniques have improved in the last sixty years. There is a lot of flash (even on the tracks), some visible sink-marks (on the hull sides for example) and for some bizarre reason, both hull sides have their part numbers moulded on the outside, between suspension bogies where they will show if not sanded off.
The sprues also show their age – the attachment points to parts is very large in some cases and the way that, for example, the sprockets are attached to the sprues certainly wouldn’t be acceptable now. I generally remove items from sprue with a small craft-knife but some of these look better tackled with a chainsaw.
Decals are provided for two Shermans; one for a British Army tank from 4th Armoured Brigade in June 1944 and one for an unidentified unit of the US Army. The colour scheme for the British tank is shown in the instructions (which are clear and fairly straightforward) and the US scheme is provided on the back of the box.
One problem here isn’t with the parts themselves, but rather with what they build into.
From around 2013 until the release of the Vintage Classics edition in 2019, the packaging described this kit as a “Sherman M4A2” (and the colour scheme in the instructions for this kit still says the same) but it doesn’t especially look like one of those. The original packaging and current Vintage Cassics box are correct – this is an M4 Sherman Mark I.
However, compared to modern kits that precisely model a specific variant of a particular model, it’s a bit vague in terms of accuracy. Many details are simplified and indifferent moulding quality may be due to the age of the mould, but it certainly isn’t impressive. The too-small main gun (the size and proportion of the main gun are correctly shown on the views on the back of the box, above) and lack of things like mudguards and turret stowage are also disappointing.
Overall, this a kit that is really showing its age, way more than, for example, the Airfix StuG III which I built recently and which dates to just two years later. I’m sorry to say it but, after nearly sixty years of production, this feels like a kit that is probably due for honourable retirement.
There aren’t, as far as I know, any other 1/76 Sherman kits still around. There used to be a 1/76 Matchbox Sherman Firefly, but that went out of production some time ago. Airfix have announced a new Sherman Firefly for release in 2020, but this is claimed to be 1/72 and not 1/76 scale. If you are happy with 1/72, there are several alternatives, but perhaps not as many as you might expect and nothing to compare with, for example, the number of different T-34 kits available, especially if you want to model an early version of the Sherman with the 75/76mm main gun.
Trumpeter do a fairly nice 1/72 US M4 Sherman Tank. This has well detailed suspension and tracks and can be built as an early Sherman though it does have issues with the front hull – it’s too steeply angled. Here it is on the Trumpeter website.
Probably the best 1/72 early Sherman comes from Dragon who do an exceptionally nice Sherman Mark III (M4A2) with decals and paint schemes for British use in the western desert. It is extremely well detailed and accurate and includes PE parts. It can be seen on the Dragon web site.