Kursk battlefield diorama

Completed in May 2011.
Primarily clay.
1/9th scale.

This will be my most ambitious scratch-built figure project ever (which isn't saying much...), and for the first time it will not have a nautical theme. I found a neat WWII-era Soviet propaganda poster online the other day and I will try and make a diorama out of it.

As you can see, it shows a victorious Soviet soldier standing astride a dead German soldier while hold aloft the flag of Communism, pretty stirring imagery no matter what your ideology. While I don't know what the Russian words say, a note online suggests this was made following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the early autumn of 1943.

The scale will be 1/9th, which will make a 6-foot man into an 8-inch figure. It will be made exclusively out of Sculpey clay, with wire for the skeleton, which is familiar material. The downside is that my source material, the poster, is a pretty small picture. I've not been able to track down a larger version, so I will have to make do with this. That's not really a problem, as I'm used to making do with grainy black-and-white photos of ancient warships, and the fact that his poster is in color is a major win for me.

Ok, step one, I need a dead Nazi. Let's call him Fritz. Looking at the poster I see in the background some stylized T-34 tanks rolling along with guns blazing, so let's just say that poor Fritz was killed by flying shrapnel from a tank round exploding nearby as the Soviets pushed the German army back from the salient at Kursk. Let's say Fritz was 25 years old, from Dusseldorf, married but childless, a Feldwebel (German version of a Sergeant) in the 3th Panzergrenadier Division since 1940, a veteran of the invasion of Belgium and France, as well as Hitler's disastrous second front into the Soviet Union in 1941. After three straight years of combat, Fritz is ready to go home and has got to be pretty annoyed to have just been killed on the cold and dusty steppes of Western Russia.

Let's build Fritz. Off to Lowe's to buy some 12 gauge copper electrical wire (just 38 cents a foot), and spend ten minutes stripping off the insulation with a box knife. This will be the armature for the model. Looking at the poster, I can kinda sorta get a rough idea how Fritz is lying, even if I really can't see his legs that well and his right arm is obscured. After rigging out the wire "skeleton" and fixing the pieces together with duct tape, it looks pretty good. It's 8 inches tall (or long as he's lying down) in this scale. The base for the diorama will be a bit "lumpy" so the body will not be lying flat but have some curves. I'm going to have to build Fritz first, though, and then build up the ground beneath him (don't see any other way of doing it). Since this figure will be lying flat and supported by the base, I'm skimping a bit on the support structures for the armature, which I'll have to do for the standing figure. I can then put on a layer of clay to build up the basic shape of Fritz's body. This layer will later be covered with a thinner layer that will be the "clothes", but I need something the bulk it out first. Once cooked a couple times, I can sand, trim, and shave it down to a nice shape. Minus the head, hands, and feet, of course, I'll do those later as they are the most trouble.

Ok, now to Fritz's uniform pants, which would be wool dyed dark gray. Smoothing a thin layer of clay over his legs, I molded in the "fabric look", trying to give it folds and such in the proper areas. I also cut in a fly flap, and two pocket slashes. After a baking cycle, I added in leg cuffs, buttoned pocket covers, and a belt with loops and a square buckle. Lots and lots more sanding and it looks ok for now. Next up is Fritz's uniform tunic, which will be dark gray wool with muted collar flashes and epaulettes, over a white t-shirt. Made it the same way I did the pants, thin layers of clay pulled over the body with my fingers and tools, smoothed out and folds and creases added. For effect, I have the bottom buttons undone and the tunic pulled up a bit as he flopped over in the dirt (dying ain't easy). Collars, pockets and flaps, cuffs, and shoulder boards all added after baking the basic tunic layer. He's a bit skinny in the tummy, but soldiers on the Eastern Front weren't getting a lot of calories by this time in the war, so that's historically accurate.

It's cold out there so Fritz needs some winter boots. Realized here that I probably made his pants too long, as his boots are going to be more ankle-length than properly calf-length, but I guess he's a tall, long-legged, blonde Aryan now. Made the boots in two baking cycles, one for the basic shape and the second for the soles and lace covers and details. Made the soles and scratched in some treads for effect. Debated having one boot missing, blown off by the concussion of the explosion, but I'm not good enough at bare feet to try that (for a later project). Speaking of things I'm not yet good at, it's time now to do Fritz's hands. Hands, at any scale, have always been a problem for me, but hopefully at 1/9th scale they will be a little easier. After several missteps and do-overs with the fingers, I think I have something resembling hands now. I need some sort of tool that I can "round out" the fingers without messing up the ones on either side.

And all that's left is the head, another challenging aspect of any figure. The head started out as a blob of clay with some notches cut out for the eyes and chin. Then added in ears, nose, lips, eyebrows, cheeks, and the like and baked again. Since he's dead, I went with a half-open mouth and it looks pretty bad (hopefully paint will cover it up). His hair is tousled, matted, and dirty (there's wasn't a lot of hygiene in the trenches in 1943). I didn't use any particular person as a face-model, I just went with a generic male face, I'm not good enough yet to make an identifiable person yet, anyway. He's "freshly dead" so there isn't any sinking in the cheeks or bulging eyes or any of that, he just looks asleep, I guess. Suppose his wife will ever know what became of him on the frozen tundra of Russia? After another round of sanding and trimming and cussing my fat fingers, I think that Fritz is done. All I need to do now is paint him, but I'm going to wait until later for that as I still need to build a base for him to lay on. Here's Fritz as he is now...

Ok, now for the base, which will be a 9.5 inch by 5 inch slice of ground that Fritz's body will be lying on. Not sure yet how I'm going to frame it, if I do so at all, but for now I cut out a 9.5x5 piece of thick foam board to act as a base. Using two handfuls of clay, I worked up a rough, undulating surface. Then I gently nestled poor Fritz down into it, trying not to push down too much so it doesn't look like he burrowed in. It's not an even surface, which allows me to support his various body parts that were not flat to begin with. Note that he's a bit off-center, which will help keep the standing figure centered later. Now, there are a couple areas on Fritz that don't look too hot, so I can use the base material to help conceal them. I pulled up some tufts of steppe grass here and there, worked in some broken up sod in places, and even added a set of tank tracks along one edge (Kursk was a huge battlefield). After marking where I want the standing figure's feet to be, I think I can safely bake it (with the body in there to seal it down). It cracked in a couple of thin areas, but I can fix those with glue and paint, so no worries.

Now, put Fritz aside for now and begin the standing Soviet soldier, who I'll call Ivan. Let's say that Ivan is 33-years old, originally from Kiev, and a Corporal in the 5th Guards Tank Army. After escaping from the rout of his original unit in the initial 1941 invasion, Ivan was assigned to the 5th GTA and was involved in the Soviet counterattacks after Stalingrad. At some point during that bloody day, he found himself with the Division's Red Banner flag and he stopped once by a dead Nazi soldier to strike a pose and hold the flag aloft.

Going to make Ivan pretty much like I made Fritz, with a wire skeleton covered by a base layer of clay for support. Nearly his entire body will be covered by a heavy winter overcoat so I'm not going to worry too much about what the base layer looks like for now. The overcoat is large, bulky and thick wool (and highly sought after by WWII enthusiasts who will pay big money for an original on eBay...). It's pretty unadorned, with just some muted flashes on the collars, and has one row of buttons down the front and cuffed sleeves. It hangs down to about mid-calf. I'll make it like any other piece of clothing, with clays smoothed over the base layer and formed with a variety of tools to look right. After baking, I can add in the details, the buttons, the cuffs, the collar, and a slight hem at the bottom. I can also work in a standard Red Army one-strap leather combat harness and buckled belt with a couple of small ammunition pouches. Another bake cycle and the coat is done. As I had some cracking on his flowing coat, I see now that I'm probably not going to be able to model his "Plash-Palatka" hooded rain cape as shown on the poster. My Sculpey clay is fantastic for swoopy forms in small scale, but at this larger scale, it's too brittle and fragile. So Ivan will just be wearing his overcoat, which is fine in the long run.

Then I can do Ivan's footgear, which will be knee-high leather Sapogi boots with heavy soles. As his coat is open a bit at the bottom, I need to model a bit of pant leg sticking out from under the coat, but just a hint. The boots are bulky, lumpy, fur-lined affairs that were apparently hard to run in. Here is Ivan standing on Fritz, had to make sure his feet were facing the right way and his coat was high enough... Since he's going to have something in each hand, I'm going to skip ahead to Ivan's head now. I will fully admit (again) that I suck at faces, but I'm slowly, oh so slowly, getting better with each one. Eventually, years from now, I should be able to make a face that actually looks like a human face! Ivan is wearing a standard Rooskie-style steel helmet with a chin strap, which was a challenge to mold correctly, but it did mean I didn't have to worry about hair. And yes, he's butt ugly right now, but paint will help.

In his left hand, Ivan is holding a rifle, its butt on Fritz's chest in a show of Communist superiority over the Aryan hoardes. The poster art is pretty accurate here and that's clearly a Tokarev SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle with an attached bayonet. In real life the gun is 48 inches long (minus the blade) so in scale it will be 5 inches long. Since it needs to be strong, I started with a solid piece of heavy wire bent back on itself. I then used clay and spit and polish to make the butt, body, and barrel of the gun, and more clay and even more spit and polish to make the magazine, trigger, and sites. The bayonet I originally made was so thin that it snapped right off during baking, so I deleted it, didn't think anyone would notice anyway.

Ivan is holding the rifle in his left hand, which was easy enough to make but hard to line up properly with how he was standing in relationship to the gun and the body. In Ivan's right hand he was supposed to be holding a big flag, but after my struggles to make the rain cape, I realized the flag was out of the question with the materials I'm using. So I just had him pointing with that hand, off to the west, perhaps, towards lands to be re-conquered from the Nazis. In a small scale, perhaps 1/16th and certainly 1/35th, I could easily make a flag of the right size, but not at 1/9th scale. Lessons learned for next time.

Ok, and you know what? I'm done. All I have left is to mount Ivan in the proper position and paint the entire thing. Since I plan on giving this thing away, I'm not going to glue Ivan down just yet, as I'm assuming it will be easier to wrap up and mail away in two parts.

As for paint, I'm using simple acrylic craft paints from Wal-Mart, cheap as you can get, but with high-quality brushes. Hours later, after numerous layers of paint and dry-brushing and more paint and more dry-brushing and frequent stops to cuss and complain, it's done. I gave Fritz a sickly pallor and added some blood stains to his mouth and stomach (let's say he took a chunk of shrapnel in his back that killed him). Ivan's overall look is dirty and tired, but proud and victorious (and yes, I don't know how to paint "victorious"...). I tried to keep the colors of the earth as muted as possible, with just the hint of churned-up lighter earth in the tank tracks. Overall, not too bad.

Total time to build this was about twenty hours spaced out over just five days (it shows!). Total price was under 20 bucks, most of which was buying a new brick of Sculpey clay for 6 dollars and some wire for 5 bucks. All in all a pretty nice way to spend a week.

And so here are the final photos of the Kursk diorama...

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