It’s time to travel back in time to 1967. The Dirty Dozen was entertaining moviegoers, The Prisoner was baffling TV viewers, the Monkees had a maddeningly catchy hit with I’m a believer and AIrfix were working on expanding their growing range of 1/76 AFVs.
New additions in 1967 included the German 88mm gun and the subject of this kit, the iconic British Mk I tank from World War One. Or at least, that’s what it said on the packaging, but back in 1967 accuracy was an optional extra in model kits. Is this really a Mk I tank, is it a Mk II or is it neither?
I found this kit on Amazon for just €6. That’s really not a lot of cash, in fact, I think this is the least amount of money I have paid for any model kit since I got back into model-making a few years back. But is this fifty-five year old kit, now sold as part of the Vintage Classics series, any good? Can we even figure out what it’s supposed to be? Before we look at this kit, let’s first take a brief look at the AFV that first introduced the word “tank” into the military lexicon…
The need for some form of armed, armoured vehicle capable of crossing trenches and broken ground became apparent almost as soon as World War One descended into bloody stalemate on the Western Front. Britain became one of the first nations to attempt to create such a machine, but perhaps surprisingly, this effort was led not by the British Army but by the Royal Navy.
“Little Willie” was the first British attempt to create a tracked, armoured vehicle.
It was the Admiralty that, under the guidance of the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, first created the Landship Committee in early 1915, a group staffed by naval officers, politicians and engineers. Later, the Army finally became interested, the Landship Committee was reformed as the Tank Supply Committee and its naval members transferred to the Army. However, the tank they finally approved owed as much to naval design as to any contribution from the army.
“Mother” (which is, a little ironically, a Male tank) the first prototype British tank. It was initially going to be called “Big Willie” which might have been much more appropriate… It was constructed from mild steel boilerplate, but it’s otherwise very close in appearance to the production MK I.
A rhomboidal armoured hull allowed the tank, which had tracks running all round its outer surface, to climb obstacles up to 5 feet high and cross trenches up to 5 feet wide as well as crossing ground churned-up by shell fire. The army lacked suitable guns, so these vehicles were armed with naval 6pdr (57mm) guns in sponsons similar to those used to mount secondary armament on warships. The 6pdr gun became the standard British tank weapon during World War One and tanks armed with these became known as “Male.” Tanks that were otherwise identical but provided with redesigned sponsons mounting machine guns were defined as “Female.”
A MK I Male tank at the front in 1916. As you can see, it’s fitted with steering wheels at the rear and a wood and mesh grenade shield on the top of the hull. The rear steering wheels were found to be completely ineffective and were dropped on all subsequent marks.
Over one hundred and fifty examples of the original tank, which would later be identified as the MK I, were produced and used in combat for the first time in the battle of Flers-Courcellette, part of the Somme offensive in September 1916. Performance of the tanks was less impressive than expected, with many suffering mechanical breakdowns that prevented them from even taking part in the attack.
A MK II tank. No steering wheels at the rear and this one has been fitted with “spuds,” track extensions fitted on the outboard side of every sixth track plate.
Subsequent versions included the MK II and MK III, primarily intended as training tanks and only manufactured in relatively small numbers, though examples of the MK II ended up being used in combat in 1917. The most produced version was the MK IV which looked externally similar but featured a number of improvements in armour, engine and transmission. Over 1,200 MK IVs were produced and these tanks took part in a number of major battles including Messines Ridge, Third Ypres and Cambrai.
A ditched MK II tank. No spuds on the tracks but this image gives a good view of the exhausts: there is no silencer, the three exhaust tubes simply vented through holes in the hull top and were covered by angled metal plates to prevent water ingress. You can also see the rectangular hatch in the hull roof used on the MK II – this replaced a smaller circular hatch on the MK I. The raised driver’s compartment is also stepped in horizontally a few inches back from the tracks – on the MK I this compartment extended almost to the inside edges of the tracks.
The term “tank” was used as a code name for these new vehicles at an early stage, apparently because some suppliers were told that they were producing parts to be used in water tanks. Initially these vehicles were to be referred to a Water Carriers, but that was considered to involve potentially embarrassing initials that might lead to ribald humour in the ranks. Early British tank crews seem to have referred to their mounts as “Willies” (after the prototype “Little Wille”) but that term received surprisingly little official backing either. Instead “tank”, originally used informally, became the accepted term used to describe a whole new class of fighting vehicles.
What’s in the Box?
Inside the end-opening box you’ll find just two sprues moulded in rather brittle green plastic, a set of rubber-band style tracks, a tiny decal sheet and a set of instructions.
The biggest surprise for me was that the mouldings here are fairly crisp and surface detail looks sharp.
I have seen it said that the bolt/rivet head detail on this kit is overdone, but to me it looks perfectly acceptable.
Even the vinyl tracks are reasonably detailed on the outside. There is no detail at all on the inside, but given that you won’t be able to see the inside of the tracks on the finished model, this shouldn’t be a problem. In some reviews, I have seen it suggested that these are rather inflexible, with some even noting that you’ll need heat to bend them to shape. In my example, these are typical, bendy vinyl tracks. It may be hard to find a glue that sticks to them, but I certainly don’t anticipate any problems getting them to conform to the shape of the hull.
The tiny decal sheet just includes just the name of the tank shown on the colour scheme, HMS Dragonfly.
The back of the box provides a suitably dramatic suggested colour scheme. Early tanks British tanks used a camouflage scheme designed by a well-known society artist who was also an officer in the Royal Engineers, Solomon J. Solomon. We don’t know a great deal about this scheme other than it probably involved four colours. Tanks were delivered painted in grey and their crews were expected to paint them in the field in something resembling the Solomon scheme. Photographs show tanks finished in a variety of multi-colour schemes, and in some the main colours are separated by wide black lines. Later, British tanks were simply painted brown – all became so quickly covered in mud that there seemed no point in applying colourful schemes.
The instructions seem simple and adequate and include a brief history of this tank.
So, What’s Wrong with This Kit (and why)?
Back in the 1960s, Airfix did most of their research on AFV kits at the Tank Museum in the village of Bovington in Dorset. At some point and for unknown reasons, the Tank Museum received a sort of Frankenstein tank that was a MK II tank mated with the rear steering wheels from a MK I (though the MK II was never fitted with these wheels). This may have been used for a display at Chertsey during World War Two but when it was placed on display in the Tank Museum, it was mistakenly identified as a MK I tank, though it clearly wasn’t (the Tank Museum didn’t obtain a genuine MK I tank until 1969, after this kit was created).
The nice people from Airfix then turned up at the Tank Museum and climbed all over the display tank to create their kit of what they believed was a MK I. The instructions actually note that this kit is based on the tank on display at Bovington (though that Frankenstein tank has long since removed from display).
Stepped-in sides on the driver’s cab. Fine for a MK II, wrong for a MK I.
Airfix created a faithful recreation of the tank in the museum but this led to a number of problems with this kit. Notably, the driver’s/commander’s position on the MK I ran the full width of the gap between the inner running gear plates, where this position in the MK II was made a few inches narrower, stepping-in at the level of the vision ports. This was done to accommodate wider tracks, though these were never fitted. The Airfix kit has the stepped-in driver’s position from the MK II, not the correct full-width position from the MK I.
Rectangular hatch in hull top. OK for a MK II, wrong for a MKI.
The tank used in the display at Bovington had the rectangular upper hull hatch from the MK II, not the smaller circular hatch from the MK I. AIrfix included this rectangular hatch in their kit.
Part 47 in this kit is an exhaust silencer, and the instructions show this being mounted on the hull top. That’s wrong for both a MK I and a MK II.
The tank in the display was fitted with an exhaust silencer on the upper hull. However, this must have been added later because neither the MK I or the MK II had silencers – these were added to later marks but on the MK I and MK II the exhaust tubing simply exited through three holes in the hull top which were covered with angled plates to stop rainwater entering the exhaust system.
So, if you choose to build this kit, you have three options:
- You can have some cheap fun by building this straight out of the box and just ignoring these pesky accuracy issues.
- You can build it as a MK I, using the rear steering wheels, but you’ll have to extend the driver’s position to full width, delete the rectangular hatch on the upper hull, leave off the exhaust and add a smaller circular hatch on the hull top. At least if you do this you can use the supplied decal and the suggested colour scheme.
- You can build it as a MK II. To do this, you just need to leave off the exhaust (and possibly add the plates above the exhaust vents on the hull top), leave out the rear steering wheels and fill the mounting holes. You’ll have to come up with your own colour scheme though. The MK II was used in action in 1917, so you could either paint it in overall brown (which was first used in that year) or something colourful using the Solomon scheme as these tanks first entered service in 1916. The MK II was actually taken to France for “advanced training” before a handful were rushed into combat, so, who knows precisely what colours they were painted in?
And if this all seems like a lot of mucking about to produce a very small scale kit well, as I said at the beginning of this article, back in 1967, accuracy was optional.
Would You Want One?
That depends on whether you are willing to accept the accuracy issues here and/or to attempt some modification to make this more closely resemble either a MK I or MK II tank. If you are, then this actually isn’t bad. Out of the box (and leaving out the rear steering gear) this isn’t a bad representation of a MK II tank and the sharpness, detail and quality of the mouldings is much better than some other Airfix tank kits from the 1960s. Airfix also released a 1/76 “WW1 Female Tank” in 2009, but this is identical to this offering other than for the addition of a new sprue with different sponsons and armament, and it therefore has all the same original accuracy issues.
If you don’t fancy this one, I’m afraid that there are few alternatives in small scale. Several kits of this tank are produced in 1/72 by Emhar, first released in 1996. They produced three versions of this tank, the MK IV Male and Female and the MK IV “Tadpole” with an extended rear hull and rear-mounted mortar. However, all have problems. Armour is missing from all versions, the unditching rail is really from a MK V, the sponsons on the male tank are the wrong shape and the female version is armed with poorly detailed Hotchkiss machine guns rather than the Lewis guns actually fitted. OK, these are less fundamental that the problems afflicting the Airfix kit, but these Emhar kits are not entirely accurate either.
The best currently available small-scale kits of this tank are the offerings from Ukrainian manufacturer MasterBox, first released in 2013. These 1/72 kits cover both Male and Female MK I and MK II versions and all seem accurate and nicely detailed, though they do use rubber-band style tracks. And that’s your lot. It does seem odd that the AFV that first introduced the word “tank” into the English language isn’t more represented in small scale, but at the moment and as far as I know, only these three manufacturers cover this tank in small scale.
Airfix 1/76 WWI Male Tank Mk.I (A01315V) Build Review – coming soon