Cefalonia lifeboat diorama

Completed in January 2011.
Primarily paper and clay.
1/35th scale.

Our story begins on a hot August day in 1915, on the placid waters of the Adriatic Sea. An old Greek tramp steamer named the Cefalonia has been plodding along alone, carrying a load of grain and general cargo north from the Greek port of Saloniki, through the Strait of Otranto, and into the Adriatic Sea, bound for a seaport in Italy. As our story opens the ship is a few dozen miles off the Albanian port of Durazzo, alone on the seas save for the dolphins and seabirds.

Suddenly the lookout spots a ship approaching, and as it comes closer, the Cefalonia's crew realize that it's a submarine and that they are in trouble. It's 1915, recall, and the globe is in the midst of WWI and slow, hapless merchant ships on the high seas are the frequent prey of Axis submarines. This particular hunter is from the Austro-Hungarian Navy, loyal if somewhat ineffectual allies of the Kaiser's Imperial Germany.

The U-Boat hails the Cefalonia through a megaphone, ordering the steamer to stop and prepare to be sunk. These were different times and different men, and quite often the crews of single ships intercepted at sea were given the chance to save themselves and abandon ship before being sunk. But not always, it was at the submarine captain's discretion, and a man that gave such quarter in wartime gained the respect of both his comrades and his enemies. So the Cefalonia's 12 men dutifully piled into the ship's two lifeboats and rowed swiftly away from their ship.

The U-Boat, once the lifeboats were safely away, lined up on the drifting steamer and fired a single torpedo. The rusty old ship was rocked by the explosion and quickly rolled over and slipped beneath the waves. From their lifeboats the crew, all civilians and all veterans of the sea, watched sadly as their home disappeared forever in a cloud of steam and bubbling water.

The U-Boat then moved in close to the larger of the two lifeboats and called out to the men aboard. The submarine's captain graciously gave compass directions to the Albanian coast and made sure that no one was injured and that they had enough water for the trip. He even offered them cigarettes, a unique gesture of kindness from one sailor to another. Giving begrudging thanks, the freighter's crew set up the sail and began to tack off to the east. The U-Boat, for its part, turned south and began hunting for another target.

That story is true. The Greek merchantmen were rescued the next day, the U-Boat went on to harass shipping in the Adriatic for another year, and the Austrian captain was indeed as honorable and respected as this story illustrates.

This diorama will show that moment when the U-Boat, the SMU-5, was beside the lifeboat, the two sets of adversaries guardedly talking to each other. In composition, it will just be two boats on the water, close together, in a rectangular frame. It will be fun!

Cefalonia Build Day One:

Day one! First up will be the lifeboat. While (unsurprisingly) I can't find any reference to what type of lifeboats the Cefalonia carried, I can assume that they were similar to other early 20th Century civilian merchantman lifeboats. As such, I'm going with your standard 1910s era 30-foot open lifeboat, which was 9-feet wide and 4-feet deep. This is a sturdy, well-tested design with room for over a dozen men in a pinch and sufficient supplies, powered both by long wooden oars and a collapsible sailing mast. The 30-footers were used hundreds if not thousands of times during WWI in all sorts of situations. They are nearly identical, by the way, to the open lifeboats carried by the doomed RMS Titanic. Picture of some 30 foot lifeboats...

Construction materials will be my usual low-tech paper and cardboard and lots of scotch tape and Elmer's glue. In 1/35th scale, the lifeboat model will be just about 10 inches long and a bit over 3 inches wide. That seems small, but remember a 1/35th scale person is just 2 inches tall, so it's actually dead on. I found some nice line drawings on a Titanic website, copied them to paper and traced them on my cardstock. From there I just cut them out and taped the sides and edges together to create the basic shape. I then plated the sides with blocks of paper and swooped up the stern and bow under sections and taped them up tight.

With the basic form of the lifeboat done, I can start on the detail work. First up is the wooden planks that make up the sides of the hull. To replicate these, I cut 3mm strips of cardstock and glued them along the sides. This gives it a 3-D effect, even when painted hopefully, that you just can't get by drawing lines on paper.

While I'm making 3mm strips, I also need to plank the floor of the boat. Continuing with the inside of the boat, I need five thwarts, which are really just benches for passengers to sit upon that double as lateral hull supports. I used cut down craft sticks, left over from the HMS Canopus build (a long time ago...). These took a bit of effort, and some braces, to get at the right height and location, but they ended up looking good. I used a wire skeleton as a size reference. The rudder is a piece of 5mm foam board with a cardstock trim. I've modeled a slight turn to port, just a few degrees. The rudder is held on by card clamps to the sternpost and the tiller handle is a lollipop stick with some paper wrapped around for thickness. I also added a breakwater to the bow and some other cosmetic widgets to the deck benches, just to add some detail.

And with the basic parts of the lifeboat done, I can paint it all. Standard colors for civilian lifeboats of this era were white hulls with brown and black trim and natural brown wood interiors. I'll eventually add the ship's name and port of registry to the bows.

I then built the mast, which was stowed in two parts, lashed to the thwarts until needed. The crossarm was slotted into place and the mast raised by muscle power, and set into a metal clamp near the front bulkhead. The sail was rugged canvas sail cloth, stowed in a bag under the seats. I'm going to model the lifeboat with the mast up, but the sail still unfurled, as you'd expect it to be as they are still being interrogated by the U-Boat crew alongside.

The sail itself I'm going to model artfully draped over the gunwale, as if the crew are just in the process of rigging the lines to raise it up. To do this I flattened a piece of clay out, cut it square, and rolled it up and hung it over the side of a muffin pan for it's 15 minutes in the oven. Some gray paint on the grommets and a coat of linen paint on the sail cloth, weathered with a dry brushing of flat white, and it looks good. The sail was raised and lowered by a simple block and tackle affair, with light ropes for rigging, all of which I can model with some coiled string and some jewelry hooks.

The boat has four long oars, which are also lashed to the seats when not in use. They are just wooden sticks with braces and paddle heads, painted dark brown. I'll also add some other things in the boat as well, including two dipping buckets, a coil of rope, a wooden crate of bully beef, a canvas kit bag of foul weather gear, and a collapsible canvas jug of water, all stuff that the crew would have grabbed in a hurry as the U-Boat‘s countdown-to-sinking was ticking off. All of these items I made with paper and wood and wire bits, the bags out of modeling clay, and I'll not glue them down until I decide where the people will be. While it seems that the boat will be crowded with all these supplies, plus people, you have to expect experience sailors to grab food and water at the very least when abandoning ship on the high seas.

And finally I'll paint the Cefalonia's name and port of call (Saloniki) on the bow. In Greek, thanks to the internet, with a black finetip sharpie marker. Standard protocal was the ship's name on the starboard side and the port of call on the port side.

Now that I have a lifeboat, I need people in it. That will come next...

Cefalonia Build Day Two:

Day two! Well, as frequently happens with my projects, I've decided to drastically downscale my plans for this diorama. Some other work, unrelated to models and such, has come up and I need to devote some time to that for a bit. Therefore, I'm going to just finish this as a simple model of a lifeboat at sea.

I need a person, at least one, for reasons of scale if nothing else, so I whipped up a Greek seaman named Georgios out of Sculpey clay. A blue collared shirt, khaki pants, black leather boots, and a white floppy hat make up his outfit, typical of civilian merchant sailors of the era. I'd like to imagine that Georgios here is enjoying the sunny breeze of an Adriatic summer, content to ride the waves and commune with the seagulls as WWI rages on distant shores.

Once Georgios is set, I can glue down all the assorted bits. I can also string some rigging lines and try and make it look like he's right in the middle of preparing to raise the sail. Not a bad effect, if I do say so myself.

And after some touch-up re-painting and such, this model is done. All in all a pretty quick and pleasant experience.

Total cost for this project is zero dollars, meaning I only used existing stocks of supplies. That's the way to do it!

Finished photos of the Cefalonia's lifeboat...

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