It’s easy to think of the ship range created by Wiking in the 1930s as being old-fashioned, since post-war developments have enabled more complex, more detailed models to become the norm. However, at the time the models set new standards of accuracy and robustness, which were achieved by the application of novel production methods and materials. To appreciate the range properly, you have to understand how innovative they were in the context of the 1930s. To help us on our journey, let’s use as an example an unusual warship which was one of the earliest produced by Wiking.
The Aviso Grille
In 1934, a new German naval ship was launched, the Aviso Grille. Grille is the German word for cricket (the insect, not the sport), and was a traditional name in the German navy; it can also suggest a whimsy or caprice, and hence is a name suitable for a yacht or other prestigious vessel.
The term Aviso is unusual and somewhat confusing. In the 1930s, to the French and Italians it denoted a fairly small, lightly-armed yet long-range warship suitable for colonial policing duties. However, Germany had lost her colonies in the Great War, and the Grille was more of a general-purpose naval auxiliary, but with the sleek looks, comfortable accommodation and turn of speed necessary to act as a state yacht should circumstances require.
The Grille was, in fact, quite a large vessel similar in size to a contemporary destroyer, and carried a not insignificant main armament of three 5” guns, as well as being equipped to lay mines. Her top speed was a respectable 26 knots, and she carried 250 crew.
During her career, the Grille served on occasion as a prestige vessel for the German state, but spent most of her time on more mundane activities. During World War 2 she initially carried out various duties including navigational and gunnery training and mine-laying. She was initially stationed in the Baltic, but in 1942 moved to Norway where she acted as headquarters ship for the Kriegsmarine there. Having survived a relatively uneventful war, she was taken by the Allies and eventually broken up in 1951.
The Grille Model
Wiking H072 Grille
Year first produced:1936
L93xW13xH17, Metal 51g, Scale 1:1250, Features: 0
Our model is a single alloy casting. Wire has been used to fashion the masts, gun barrels and a stern flagpost.
The usual Wiking marks are to be found underneath:
“D.R.G.M.”, “GRILLE”, “WIKING-MODELL” and “1,50”.
The last referred to the price of the model, i.e. one and a half Reichsmarks. I’d love to know why Wiking included pieces on their castings – it seems like an unwise hostage to fortune!
The model has been carefully and rather beautifully painted. Like many early Wiking ships, it has a rather pleasing hand-painted artisanal look, with a good amount of detail. The hull is overall white (which has yellowed – or is it mellowed – with age), the main deck has been overpainted brown, and the funnel is yellow. Details have been added in grey and black (including the name of the ship hand-painted on the sides of the stern), and a spot of colour representing the green and red navigation lights has been added to the wingtips of the bridge.
Most of the main features of the Grille are clearly modelled: the low superstructure, the two masts, the two stern guns and one forward, the single funnel with raked top, and the ship’s boats abreast the funnel and further aft. The stern of the ship is undercut as it should be, but the bow…? Well, the bowsprit and the projection supporting it are missing! That’s odd.
After a little research, it becomes obvious that the bowsprit was modelled by Wiking, as evidenced by other examples of the model. What must have happened is that a previous owner removed it from my example, reshaping the bow to the simpler form it now has. To confirm this, the signs of repainting can be seen at the bow. Well, every model has a history!
However, this prompts a further investigation. The Grille was a fairly long and elegant vessel, but the model looks more than a little dumpy, regardless of the missing bowsprit. We have already seen how Wiking established the continental standard of 1:1250 scale for model ships, so we know how long the model should be. The Grille measured 135 metres overall (the longest distance from the bow to the stern, excluding non-structural appendages like the bowsprit). At 1:1250 this equates to a length of 108mm. Checking my model, however, gives a length of only 92mm! Even allowing for the loss of a millimetre or so of the bow, due to the removal of the bowsprit, Wiking clearly got something badly wrong here.
The width and height of the model are correct for a model intended to be to 1:1250 scale, so for some reason the model was foreshortened. I think the error probably came from a simple mix-up. The length of the ship at the waterline was 115 metres, which – you’ve guessed it – scales out to 92mm. So, a reasonable guess is that the master was made mistakenly taking the waterline length as the overall length, and everything else was scaled to fit with that.
Whatever the reason for the error, it is one that is obvious to the eye, and must have been mightily embarrassing for Wiking! It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in 1938 a replacement model was introduced, this time to the correct length.
So, how was the model made? In the very early days, Wiking produced some finely shaped wooden models akin to those produced by Bassett-Lowke and other contemporary manufacturers. Although these models could be very high quality, they were slow and expensive to produce and fragile. To allow for higher production quantities and robust models, Wiking focussed on developing methods of metal casting. Early attempts were fairly crude affairs cast from carved slate moulds, but soon this gave way to the relative sophistication of spin-casting.
Spin-casting moulds were made from flexible, thick rubber discs, that were sliced in two. A master model, typically handmade from hard heat-resistant metal such as brass, would be pressed into the surface of each half, and the mould halves clamped together. The assembled mould was then vulcanised (compressed and heated) to harden the rubber, after which the master was removed. The indentations made by the master were now permanent.
To ready the mould for use, channels were dug into the rubber from the centre to allow the metal to flow into the mould cavity, and outwards beyond the cavity to allow trapped air and excess metal to exit.
In use, the mould was mounted in a machine and spun at high speeds, while a molten metal alloy consisting of lead and zinc was injected into the centre of it. The metal was forced outwards by the centrifugal force of the spin, filling the mould cavity. After spinning, the metal quickly solidified and the model could be removed. It was a relatively quick and efficient process, and Wiking was a pioneer in using it.
A common issue with moulded items, including those spin-cast, is a slight residue of metal down the centre of the model where the two halves of the mould meet. On our model of the Grille, this is almost completely absent, which is another indication of the care with which early Wiking models were produced.
Spin-casting is a relatively cheap and reliable process, and is used to this day for making small metal items in moderate volumes. In comparison, die-casting, as used for example by Dinky to make their military vehicles (see this story), was better suited to true mass production but required far more up-front investment in the creation of the mould, or die.
As we have already noted, with few exceptions (e.g. gun turrets for larger warships), Wiking made their models in one piece. This was of course, the simplest and cheapest approach compared to assembling a model from parts, but it did impose one significant limitation: undercuts (areas in the model where outboard items were wider than those inboard of them) were impossible to achieve. Complicated free-standing components therefore tended to become merged into the rest of the model.
It was also impossible to cast very thin structures. As a result, masts, cranes and gun barrels were fashioned from wire. The wire was inserted into the mould cavity prior to casting, and became embedded in the cast model. Once the model was removed, the wire was cut to size and bent as necessary.
Following this, the model was painted. After dipping the model in a base colour, the rest of the painting was carried out by hand, as noted in the description of the Grille above. Naturally, this was expensive, and as labour costs rose after WW2 the paint schemes applied to the models were greatly simplified. Wiking were also an early user of transfers for the finer details, for example the ship’s name.
So, there we have it. Our little model of the Grille harbours some secrets, but most importantly it is a fantastic example of high-quality and innovative production from the 1930s.
During World War 2, supplies of metal were diverted to war manufacturing. This spurred Wiking into using plastic instead, and its surprising to learn that a variety of Wiking models were made in this material during the war years. The quality of the models was similar to the metal versions, but they were unpainted. The Grille is a good example of this, with a grey plastic version (matching the wartime livery of the ship) appearing between 1942 and 1944.
Other German WW2 auxiliary ships modelled by Wiking include the H049 Armed Trawler, the gunnery training ship H054 Bremse and the E-boat tender H065 Tsingtau.