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Recognition Models

Also known as (Identification Models or I.D. Models)

I have been collecting recognition models for over 25 years and they have always been hard to find, nowadays it is very difficult to come across any to increase my collection which now numbers some 140 models in differing scales and materials. Principally, I collect British made models from WWII but more latterly, post war British made models have brought an increased diversity to my collection. I am not an `expert’ on the subject but rather a collecting enthusiast for these `pieces of history’, it is not difficult to imagine what they have been involved with. During the early years of WWII, following confusion and friendly fire incidents such as the ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, it became obvious that an understanding of aircraft recognition was vital to ensure that friendly fire incidents were avoided. Similarly, other countries also started manufacturing models for recognition purposes, specifically, `Cruver’ in America, `Wiking’ in Germany and I understand that Canada and Australia, maybe other countries, did the same. I believe the first Recognition models started to be produced prior to WWII following a national movement to increase the publics’ awareness of the then new aviation technology, this became known as `Air mindedness’. Aviation events such as the Schneider Trophy, Cobhams circus etc. all assisted in this cause. The Daily Mirror even produced a booklet for sale to its readers and cartoonists such as `Cummings’ and `Wren’ produced educational drawings in their cartoonist and caricature style.

The importance of aircraft recognition and use of models was instigated by No. 2 Group of the Observer Corps at Guildford who in December 1939 invited the Technical Editor of `Aeroplane’ magazine, Peter Masefield to attend a meeting to give a lecture on `the recognition of aircraft’. The meeting was a great success and the `Hearkers Club’ was born following which, the Observer Corps started a regular recognition magazine called `The Aeroplane Spotter’ which was edited by Peter Masefield and the subject flourished. Other aviation magazines such as `Flight’ also supported the need. The main users of aircraft recognition models were all branches of the military, Observer Corps, Anti-aircraft gunners, Home Guard etc. and the subject was supported by books, military silhouettes in the Air Ministry publication AP.1480, postcards (with photographs of models made by W.G. Woodason and used on the `Valentine’ postcard series) and posters. Training and testing became the norm to improve competence. On military bases, models were hung from ceilings, held by an instructor in front of students, others hung within a dome with a central gunner in training with a camera gun and others reflected by a light source briefly onto a screen. I understand that a school of aircraft recognition was based at White Waltham during the war years and below is a link, within the text of which, makes reference to this aircraft recognition school:

Models were principally in the scale of 1:72 but some were manufactured in other scales as well such as Whitley (1:170), Do.217 (1:125), Mohawk (1:75), P40 (1:80), Prentice (1:100) and Buckmaster (1:150 all of which are in my collection. Many of the smaller models had a rectangular socket to the underside and were accurately carved suggesting to me that they were placed upon a stand and their crisp image reflected onto a screen. Eventually some 120 aircraft types were made in different materials and scales. Many companies produced kits to supplement the recognition requirements and these incorporated an instruction sheet and outline shaped wooden blocks which the modeller had to carve. These companies were notably `CMA’ of Chingford, `Astral’ of Leeds and `Truescale’ of Bournemouth. Many existing models were used for recognition purposes such as those manufactured by established model makers Lines Brothers with their pre-war `Penguin’ plastic kit range, `Skybirds’ of London who started the `Skybird League’ for model making enthusiasts and the International `Model Aircraft Company’ of Merton, the forerunner of `FROG’.

Most recognition models made in this country were quite naïve, without any cockpit or control surface detail, they were intended after all to represent an aircraft at height and distance when these features would not be apparent. Some American models, such as those by Cruver, did feature this detail. Each model usually had a Stores reference number on a label or tag (e.g. 52/431 for a Ju.88.A6) and sometimes included the initials of the manufacturer, (in the case of FROG, a small image of the `Winged Frog’ emblem of the company) and it also included the aircraft type. Sometimes the label included the scale. To my knowledge, no wartime listing of all the models and their Stores reference numbers exist and collecting friends and I have been involved in compiling one of our own as best we can.

The wartime models were painted Matt Black, representative of how an aircraft would look in the sky but from about 1945/6 onwards, initially for some reason most of the Japanese types of aircraft and later, all recognition models were painted light grey. It is interesting to note that the range of aircraft made by British manufacturers included those that were not operational over this country and would have been manufactured for use in the Mediterranean campaign, such as the SM.79 and 84 and the `Mavis’ and `Emily’ for the Pacific theatre of operations. It is remarkable that they survived and came back to these shores given the dangers of the conflicts. Examples of these are in my collection.

The earliest models seem to be made of Bakelite and some appeared stylised giving an impression that they were faster than perhaps they were. I have a Ju87 in my collection with `trousered’ wheel spats which I understand represents the aircraft used in the Spanish Civil War and maybe gives an idea of when these models were first produced. At present I have over 30 Bakelite models in my collection. Later in the war, particularly after the `Battle of Britain’, the accuracy of the models improved as more knowledge became available, perhaps downed German aircraft helped to obtain detail.

I am uncertain as to when these models ceased to be used but believe it to be in the 60/70’s. The youngest model in my collection is the Vickers Valiant which may give some idea on this.Some models were used for purposes other than the identification of the aircraft and these had small electric light bulbs in the defensive and offensive gun positions, I have a picture of these type of models on stands with a switch to illuminate them. It would appear that they were used to train aircrew on where gun positions were on the aircraft. I have some photographs of 226 squadron Fairy Battle aircrew in France in early 1940 holding some of these models. My collection includes four, all of 1:48 scale, Breda 88, Ju.52, Me.110 and He.111, a He.113 model is at the Solent Sky museum in Southampton, I also have a photograph of a Vickers Wellington with similar features.

The materials used for the manufacture of models depended on the availability of the raw material and I have a number of different examples in my collection. Initially they were moulded with Bakelite, but following this they were carved from a dimensionally stable wood, such as mahogany or fruitwood. When these materials became scarcer, Buchram was used which is a composite material of hessian and plaster of Paris which, with a cruciform wooden internal frame, would be pressed into a mould and would create a reasonable representation of the aircraft. These models are fragile which is probably the reason why they are the most scarce to have survived. FROG manufactured many of these and of note in my collection I have a PBY Catalina, Short Stirling and Avro Manchester along with others that are made of hollow plastic, (Stirling, Fortress), nylon (Beaufighter 1) and metal (P38 Lightning)

Most of the wooden and Buckram models were packaged in a crude, buff, economy cardboard box, some showing the makers name but all with a label showing the Stores reference number, aircraft type and usually scale. Cardboard inserts, shredded paper or cotton wool provided internal packaging.

The `Inter Service Recognition Journal entitled `Aircraft Recognition’ showed an outline representation of the side and plan of an aircraft to 1:72 scale, which when traced onto black cardboard, the components cut out and put together, created a reasonable version of the form and features of the aircraft for recognition purposes. This clever idea was copied by the military services manufacturers in America and packaged in a buff A4 size envelope with identifying label. My collection includes four of these.

Post war, the majority of these models were no longer required for recognition purposes, many were of obsolete aircraft anyway. I understand from a collecting friend that airmen from his local RAF base would hand out models to the local children as toys and he and his friends used to tie fireworks to them and throw them into the night sky to revel in their destruction when it exploded. Another story told was that a timber hut containing models on an RAF base was burnt down destroying the aircraft model content, I have the remains of a Bakelite Do.17 within my collection that has suffered this fate. A model of a P.40 has been very well painted post war to represent a Desert Air Force aircraft and my collection includes this, along with the unpainted matt black original on a plinth as an example of how they were enhanced by some. Some companies tried to sell off their remaining stock and I have an advertisement from `Astral’ trying to sell off 60.000 plastic recognition models of their 50 different types after the war and which they described as “Beautifully detailed jobs”.

As explained these models are rare and now very difficult to find. Contact with aviation museums show that some models are at the ‘Imperial War Museum’ of which I have a listing, the RAF museum has but a few and Duxford told me that they did not have a display of them. I have in the past had a display of 30 of my models at the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton. There appears to be no official documentation remaining of this most important aid to aircraft recognition which must have played a significant role in the saving of lives and the outcome of the war. This brief article represents my understanding so far which I feel sure is but a small part of the subject as a whole, considerable research must still be carried out and the author welcomes feedback which either corrects or enhances the knowledge.

Philip Jewell/June 2020

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