Sometimes, you know a kit will be so much work that you just can’t summon the motivation to get started unless something gives you a prod. In my case, that kit was Aoshima’s 1/350 Kongo, and the prod a pair of group builds: the “whole year build” at Rivet Counters, and the “1944” build at Warts and All. These overlapped nicely: one encouraging modellers to get really stuck in and pull out all the stops, and the other being the year the kit relates to.
First of all, a few points about Kongo, because this ship is quite interesting and sits atop several interesting transitions in naval warfare.
Kongo was the last capital ship built for Japan in Britain. From the time of the Meiji Restoration when Japan abandoned its self-enforced isolation and traditionalism, it had purchased its warships abroad while it developed a domestic shipbuilding industry. This was not uncommon at the time, as during the mid-to-late nineteenth century only Britain and France possessed the industry and knowledge to produce fleets of modern battleships for export. This followed a time of rapid change, as the latest designs developed from fixed-battery broadside ships to turrets and recognisable pre-dreadnought designs.
Thus, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 involved some of the latest British and French designs facing each other, with Russia mostly purchasing from France. Although Germany and the United States developed domestic capital ship-building industries during this period, even these industrial powerhouses did not export their products.
By the early 1910s the Dreadnought revolution was well underway, with Britain and Germany locked in a capital ship-building race. It seems fitting that the last design Japan purchased overseas was an icon of that competition: Kongo was an improved Lion-class battlecruiser, the “Splendid Cats”. Kongo’s design was further improved to create Tiger.
In British service, the Lion-class have an undeserved poor reputation for poor gunnery and weak armour due to the loss of Queen Mary at Jutland. This belief stems from propaganda and misinformation at the time, where blaming the loss of Queen Mary and the older Invincible and Indefatigable on poor design provided a scapegoat and excuse to jettison Jackie Fisher as First Sea Lord, which was politically motivated. I thoroughly recommend Penn’s “Infighting Admirals” and Massie’s “Castles of Steel” for more information on this.
It appears that the loss of all three ships was due to poor ammunition handling practices: the British sailors were removing flash-proof doors which were designed to prevent a fire in the turret from spreading to the magazine. This had been noted at Dogger Bank the previous year, and the practice was stopped on Lion which had a turret burn out at Jutland without threatening the magazines. The battle ranges were too short for the deck armour to be relevant (this is also the case with Hood, where a modernisation created a tiny vulnerability which was hit by a very lucky shot). The poor gunnery was true, and this was because the Admiralty had failed to find the battlecruisers a practice gunnery range in three years of asking.
However, in Japanese service, Kongo and the three domestically produced sisters Hiei, Kirishima, and Haruna had longer service lives and showed the strengths of the design. Modernisations in the 1920s and 30s increased their engine power and cruising range, moving from coal to oil power, while adding support for scout floatplanes and making the secondary armament more relevant to the increased aerial threats, rather than the torpedo boats they had originally been designed for.
One thing that really must be explained here is the wretched question of battlecruisers and fast battleships. I’m afraid the answer is both simple and frustrating: they are the same thing, in different navies, and are just political choices. In the Royal Navy, the term “battlecruiser” was used to denote any ship significantly faster than the battle line, regardless of armament or armour. In the US, no “battlecruisers” were completed, and the government spent enough time and effort disparaging the British ships that when they started building their own fast capital ship they needed a different name, and settled on “fast battleship”.
In Japan, it is even more complicated. Kongo was purchased as a battlecruiser, as part of the “eight-eight fleet” plan to have eight battlecruisers and eight battleships. However when it became clear that the first modernisation would slow the ships (albeit to a still-respectable 26 knots), they reclassified them as battleships. By this time the Washington Treaty had put paid to the “eight-eight” concept anyway, so having ten battleships (along with the Nagatos, Ises, and Fusos) presumably sounded good. So when the second modernisation brought the speed back up… well, they were “fast battleships”. Obviously.
The ships saw a fair bit of action in WWII, and certainly acquitted themselves well for a design that was thirty years old by this point. In the end Hiei and Haruna were put out of action by air attack, Kirishima was famously lost in a night time battle with Washington and South Dakota, and Kongo was sunk by submarine attack.
The box sold me on this kit: a dramatic painting on the front of the impressively large, weighty box, with the underside tray being black cardboard which gave a very cool look to it. Inside, the box was packed full of sprues including two very nice hull halves with plating detail. It looked amazing.
As we know, appearances can be deceptive.
There are certain truisms when it comes to ship models. One of those is that you really need photoetch to make it look right. If nothing else, a nice set of railings will give that professional look to your ship, and a few other detail parts won’t go amiss. I bought the Flyhawk etch set, which not only provides railings but entire PE replacements for most of the superstructure, turned brass barrels for the main and secondary armament, and a host of detail pieces like doors and hatches. It even had tiny propellers and struts with wire rigging for the floatplanes.
I had some very fine chain left over from Trumpeter’s Hood: this is one of the smallest size chains in the hobby market, and though it isn’t studded, to me it is more important to get a representative number of links per unit length. Since starting this model I have seen a 3D printed studded chain enter the market, and that looks like it also goes very small indeed. I shall be looking for that in future builds.
Of course, once you start adding detail and fineness to your model, you can’t stop. The brass barrels for the secondary armament, which are six-inch cannon, are thinner than those provided for the 25mm AA guns. That won’t do, so I was off to Infini Model for full photoetch replacements for the single and triple mounts. Each of these guns comprises about a dozen tiny parts, all of which have to be perfectly aligned and glued. Kongo carried a lot of them, too: about 30 each of the single and triple guns.
I also bought some finer deck vents from Model Monkey: these 3D printed parts were very nice indeed.
I’m glad I had a year to build this model. I needed the time to be able to step away from it and refresh when it got too much. It was quite an overwhelming experience so I’m just going to share some key things I did and learned, which will hopefully be useful for your own modelling.
The first thing I had to do was to start fixing the foredeck and quarterdeck details. Using the Kagero book on Kongo I was able to mark off where bits of deck furniture were and where they had to go. The moulded in anchor chains had to be scraped off. This was going reasonably well until I added the flying deck and found that there was a 1mm or so gap between it and the boat deck, just ahead of X Turret. At that point I thought, “there is no way I can fix this”. After stepping away from it I decided to have a go at running a bead of sprue goo into the gap, sanding smooth and rescribing the plank detail. It worked, and while the result wasn’t perfect, it was better than expected.
I decided to paint as I built, as on previous ship kits I had struggled to paint awkward corners once all the construction and railings were done. So one of the first things I did was to try painting the wooden deck. That’s right: in my hubris I decided against using a wood veneer deck. Partly because I’m not that convinced of the look they give, partly because I could see a lot of furniture needed shifting and on a veneer that would leave holes…
My approach to the deck was to do a base coat of Clear Doped Linen, which is a very pale, subdued yellow, and then streak oil dots on top of that. The oils were yellow ochre, burnt umber, white, and grey. The different colours were varied based on the look I was going for in different areas. This was a huge amount of work, but I think it was worth it. The end result does look reasonable, though I would think carefully before committing to it again.
The superstructure involved a lot of photoetch replacements of entire parts, although I was pleased to find it all went together reasonably easily. The pagoda mast assembled happily, but some of the supporting structures for searchlights, gun directors and the walkways around the funnels were a complete pain. As I have remarked before, use of PE replacement parts should really involve a weighing up of how much better the part will look if properly integrated, and one’s own ability to achieve that. For a lot of this build, I was firmly on the “not able to achieve that” side of the line.
The flying deck was a nuisance: everything here is replaced with photoetch, down to the surface of the deck itself. In other words, once you start, you’re committed to that path. It’s also a very strange area because it really seems that something must be out of scale: all the illustrations show the planes, cranes, railings, boats, and so on, yet those things do not fit on the actual model. Some creative placement and disappointing omissions were required.
We have talked before about how one of the biggest challenges with aftermarket stuff is that it often requires destroying detail from the plastic part before application. In other words, once you start trying to use it, there’s no going back. That was a big problem here, as there were a few elements where the extra detail came at the cost of sitting less well on the model.
Looking at the finished model, I feel a great deal of relief that it is complete but also a lot of frustration that I was so far from being able to achieve what I set out to do. I don’t think the result is that good, in parts because I lacked the skill to pull it off and in other parts because I couldn’t summon the patience to deal with the issues as they arose. Too often, I was working on it because I felt I had to rather than because I was enjoying it, and that’s sad.
Looking back on Hood, Mikasa, and the Type 23 Frigate, I enjoyed those builds. That’s not to say they were easy: with Hood I think I learned a new technique for each step of the instructions, but somehow there wasn’t the frustration and sense of hard work that I got from this kit.
I really think that I just overstretched: the challenge of the full year group build encouraged me to take decisions that I would not otherwise have done, because that was the point. But the results revealed that I lacked the skills to succeed at this level. I really think that had I simply tried to build this entirely out of the box, maybe adding railings, I would have had a far more positive experience of it.
Hopefully I’ll be able to take what I’ve learned from this build and apply it to the two ship kits I’ll be attempting next year. I will be aiming to be more judicious in my use of aftermarket, which should help me stay focused on the parts of the build that I enjoy. In theory, that enjoyment should fuel the desire to stretch my skills in other areas, especially rigging and railings.