‘Send a gunboat’ to colonial New Zealand

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When we think of gunboats for colonial wargaming,  we normally picture a chunky  paddle-steamer chugging up the Nile, or a little steam launch chuffing down the Congo. However, few people know that gunboats were also used in New Zealand during the colonial period.

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I’ve been working on a project to model one of New Zealand’s earliest steam warships, the ‘Avon’. I’ve previously posted about how I converted her from a cheap Chinese toy tugboat. She is now finally finished, complete with Foundry crew figures.

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‘Avon’ was a 58-foot iron paddle steamer, launched in Glasgow in 1859, and shipped to New Zealand to work as a pleasure boat on the River Avon in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was purchased by the government in 1862 and converted into a gunboat.

James Cowan, in his book The New Zealand Wars, describes the ‘Avon’:

The work of making the hull bullet-proof was carried out by the engineer, Mr. George Ellis (now of Auckland), who states that the ‘Avon’ was converted into an armoured steamer by having iron plates bolted inside her bulwarks. These plates were ¼ inch thick and measured 6 feet by 3 feet. The wheel was enclosed by an iron house of similar-sized plates, with loop-holes. …

… The paddle-wheeler ‘Avon’ was the first steam-vessel to float on the waters of the Waikato. She was towed to Waikato Heads on the 25th July, 1863, by HMS. ‘Eclipse’” and Captain Mayne, the commander of that ship, took her inside the Heads and anchored that night eight miles below Tuakau. Next day, watched with intense excitement by the Maoris, friendlies, and hostiles alike, she reached the Bluff, otherwise known as Havelock—Te Ia-roa of the Maoris—just below the junction of the Manga-tawhiri with the Waikato. She was not fired upon, contrary to the expectations of her crew, who expected a volley from the southern bank of the river at the narrower parts. Mr. Strand, of Kohanga, assisted to pilot the ‘Avon’ up the river.

On the 7th August Captain Sullivan (HMS ‘Harrier’), senior naval officer in New Zealand, took the vessel on a reconnaissance up the river, and near Meremere she became a target for Maori bullets for the first time. A volley from some Maoris under cover on the river-bank was replied to with the 12-pounder Armstrong. On several occasions later in the campaign the ‘Avon’ was under fire. This little pioneer of steam traffic on the Waikato proved an exceedingly useful vessel. When the army reached the Waipa Plains she carried stores up as far as Te Rore, on the Waipu; it was near there that Lieutenant Mitchell, RN, of HMS ‘Esk’, was killed on board her (February, 1864) by a volley from the east bank of the river. …

… Mr. George Ellis, of Auckland, who was engineer of the ‘Avon’, says: “Lieutenant Mitchell’s death occurred in this way: We carried out rather dangerous work in the later stages of the war when running up and down the Waipa River. Sometimes we took shots at anything that offered on the banks, and even landed to go pig-hunting. One very warm summer day, when steaming up the Waipa near Whatawhata, Mr. Mitchell remarked that it was too hot to remain in the iron wheel-house and that he would go outside; he declared that he would not be shot that day. He walked out on to the open part of the bridge-deck, and Lieutenant Easther (in command) and Midshipman Foljambe (father of the present Lord Liverpool) followed him. They had not been long there before a sudden volley was fired from the scrub-covered bank of the river—the east or proper right bank. The three officers were close together, with Mr. Mitchell in the middle, and, curiously, it was only the man in the middle who was hit. The volley was fired at an oblique angle. Mr. Mitchell was shot right through the breast, and died next day. We never saw a Maori, so thick was the cover on the bank.”

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‘Avon’ displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations. Besides the metal plate armour, a wooden shed-like structure with loop-holes was later built on the aft deck to provide cover for troops.

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She even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

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I’m not how, or if I’ll ever use her in a wargame. But it has been an interesting little project to bring to life a little-known piece of New Zealand maritime and military  history.

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‘Blood and Plunder’ French faction

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I’ve finally finished painting my French faction for the pirate game Blood and Plunder.  Despite the undoubted beauty of these sculpts, this project has been a long one by even my usual slow painting standards. My initial enthusiasm wore off mid-project for some reason, so getting the mojo to finish painting them has taken quite some doing.

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I’ve divided the Milice des Caraibes and the Flibustiers figures into two similar units of eight men each (on the right in the above picture). I painted the Milice in off-white coats, which was the most common French uniform colour at that time. The Flibustiers are in blue and red.

Trying out Army Painter Quickshade for the first time helped quicken my pace towards the end. Whilst the Milice and Flibustiers were painted in my normal three-shade style, the Marins and Boucanniers (on the left in the above pic) were simply block-painted and then shaded with brushed-on Quickshade to give depth. I was quite pleased with the final result of this short-cut method.

Another thing that helped rebuild my enthusiasm for painting these figures over the last couple of weeks is a very hush-hush related project I’ve been helping with. Sorry, I wish I could show you, but I can’t for now! So keep watching this space …

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28mm paddle gun-boat for colonial New Zealand Wars

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My project to make a model of Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship ‘Avon’, one of New Zealand’s earliest steam-powered warships, is well under way.

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As mentioned in my previous posting, the basis for this model is a Chinese plastic toy, which has given me the hull, paddle wheels and parts of the superstucture.

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I cut the hull along the waterline, and constructed a new bridge with an armoured steering position between the paddle-boxes. I also added the iron panels along the forward deck that the real ‘Avon’ carried during the 1860s campaign along the Waikato and Waipa Rivers.

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Still to come is a Armstrong gun and the steering wheel, both being 3D-printed for me by Printable Scenery. I also plan to build the large loop-holed wooden deckhouse for the aft deck, as depicted by the late Harry Duncan in Middlemiss’s book The Waikato River Gunboats.

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That leaves one remaining problem – what figures to use to crew ‘Avon’? It would be good to have a sailor at the wheel, an officer on the bridge, and maybe a sailor or two on the deck. Anyone know of some good 25-28mm Victorian-era ship’s crew models?

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Converting a toy paddle-steamer into a colonial gunboat

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The maritime element of colonial wargaming normally brings to mind armed steamers on the Nile. But people often forget that gunboats were also used in many other theatres during the 19th century.

My own interest is the colonial New Zealand Wars, which included the use of  a flotilla of converted and purpose-built ironclad gunboats to support the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. A couple of years ago I posted a review of a book about this riverine aspect of the New Zealand Wars. However, until recently, I had never tried adding a river steamer to my army.

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A few weeks ago I stumbled across a plastic kitset of a paddle-driven steam tug on Ali Express. Whilst 1/150 scale is too small for 28mm wargaming, I thought this toy could possibly be converted into a smaller paddle-steamer in a larger scale.

And at only US$22 – which even included free shipping to New Zealand! – it wouldn’t be a big loss if my project didn’t work out.

I’ve now received the model, and think it will indeed work to be converted into the armed paddle steamer HMCS Avon, as depicted in the foreground of Andrew Burdan’s painting on the cover of Grant Middlemiss’s The Waikato River Gunboats.

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According the the New Zealand Navy Museum, the Avon was arguably the first naval vessel purchased by the New Zealand Government. Originally constructed in Glasgow as the Clyde, she was subsequently shipped to New Zealand in pieces and re-assembled at Port Lyttelton.

She was purchased by the Colonial Government in November 1862, and in early 1863 was modified for service at Onehunga. The modifications involved the installation of iron plates, each six feet long by three feet wide and ¼ inch thick, along the bulwarks and down to the water line.

She displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations.

Avon even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

In 1864 she was re-deployed on the Waipa River with reduced iron armour, as depicted in the drawing below by the late Harry Duncan for Grant Middlemiss’s book..

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To convert the toy into Avon, I plan to ignore the window stickers, so the current wheelhouse and cabin will look more like the top of the boiler housing.

I’ll add a bridge to link the two paddle-boxes, and scratch-build the double sentry-box armoured wheelhouse. The funnel will need to be taller, too – not a hard job to find something that’ll suit.

I’ll then add armoured plates along the bulwarks (and if I choose to make the later version of Avon, will build a wooden deck-house at the stern).

The hardest job will be to turn it into a waterline model – I’ll have to use a jigsaw to carefully cut round the hull, and then also trim the bottom of the paddle-wheels and rudder.

I’ll also need to find a model of an Armstrong gun of the period, mounted on a two-wheel naval truck. Any suggestions?

I’ll keep you posted on how this project goes.

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A really tough job getting my basing material

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This New Year it was time to replenish my stock of sand for my figure basing. I use a very specific type of sand that comes from a particular beach in New Zealand. So I drove the 600 kilometres to Cathedral Cove on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, where I grabbed a couple of handfuls of sand to take home.

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Well, to tell the truth it was actually our family holiday. But, hey, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story!

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Why Cathedral Cove sand? Well, it has a unique blend of grainy sand, crushed pink and white shells, and contains minuscule remnants of scarlet pohutukawa blossoms. This combination makes a perfect ground texture and colour that doesn’t need any painting or dry-brushing.

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Just apply it with PVA glue, then once dry, add some patches of static grass, tufts or miniature plants. Simple!

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The hardest part is making sure I always have sufficient stock of this very special sand – it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

Happy New Year everybody!

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A wargamer’s pedantic view of the Battle of Ruapekapeka (1845/46)

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As with most wargamers, I am a bit pedantic about the minutiae of military history. So I get peeved when the media or films get some minor detail wrong, even if these are too small and unimportant to affect the overall history.

Just something as trivial as a novel set in the mid-18th century talking about the ‘gleaming helmets of the cavalry’ can put me off the whole story (most cavalry wore felt tricornes or caps – shining metal helmets didn’t appear until the 19th century, with the dragoons and cuirassiers of the Napoleonic Wars).

A week or so ago, our national news site Stuff reported that the remains of twelve British soldiers from the New Zealand Wars had been uncovered at a significant battle site in Northland.

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Ruapekapeka Pā was the site of a siege and battle between Māori and British forces that took place in 1845-6. In the above painting by John Williams (Alexander Turnbull Library / nzhistory.net.nz), you can see the fortified pā on the slopes of the hill behind the British camp.

Anyway, when I saw that this media story was proclaiming that the bodies of twelve ‘soldiers’ had been located, I went into full pedantic mode. Colonel Despard’s despatch after the battle shows in fact soldiers were the smallest proportion of the twelve British men known to be killed – most were sailors. An important distinction in my view – certainly any sailor would bridle at being described as a soldier!

Of the remaining five, even two of those were ship-based marines rather than soldiers as such.

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Since first seeing the Stuff article, and making a comment about the correct occupations of these men (see the comment from Arteis_01), I note the article has been changed to describe them as soldiers and sailors. I don’t know if it was my comment that spurred this correction, but I like to think so!

Notwithstanding the confusion between soldiers, sailors and marines, it is sad that these men have become no more than numbers. It was apparently unimportant in those days to list the actual names of those killed or wounded.

I thought I would try to correct this omission. I soon found that one of the marines at least is known by name. William Minifie was a Royal Marine from HMS Calliope. His name is on in a memorial stone in Bolton Cemetery, Wellington.

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The ship’s log for HMS Castor is said to list the names of the seven seamen killed, as well as ten of the seamen and two of the marines who were wounded. So far I have not been able to see this document, as it is kept in the Public Records Office in the UK (ADM 53/2218), and hasn’t been digitised. Apparently some of the Admiralty documents are on microfilm at National Archives here in Wellington, so I must take a look there one day.

Whilst most of the British casualty names are proving hard to obtain, Lindsay Buick’s New Zealand’s First War published in 1926 lists the names of twelve Māori ‘chiefs’ killed at Ruapekapeka. He gives no source, however.

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The Stuff article also stated that the graves had last been seen in 1851. However, the Parliamentary Debates of 8 November 1884 showed that the location of the burial ground was still known at that time.

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Further, an article in the New Zealand Herald one year later on 14 December 1885 indicated that  the location of the graves was ‘said to be’ known, albeit they were now covered in crops.

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As I said, all unimportant details in the greater scheme of things (apart from, of course, for the men themselves and their families and friends). But nevertheless it is good to set the record straight.

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As wrote Alexander Whisker of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot a few weeks after the battle:

It was on the 10th of January to fight we next did go
We had large guns and mortars and Rocket tubes also
they being in there strongest Pah and well secured all Round
We fired on all sides of them in hopes to Break it Down
We made 3 Breaches in the Pah and scattered it about
We kept the fire up all night but could not get them out

When early the next morning to Breakfast they did go
Into the huts outside the Pah not thinking we would know
When 50 men from each stockade they strove with might and main
they kept them all outside the Pah to more assistance came
We fought from 8 that morning to it was nearly 3
When with many killed and Wounded they were forced to run away

Upon our side but 12 were killed and wounded very few
On the next day we burned the Pah before that we withdrew
We Buried our comrades upon that very day
And we planted willows on there greaves before we came away
So now the war is over and we have saved our lives
So let us join in Drinking to our sweethearts and our Wives

I recently posted about a Radio New Zealand video about this battle, which is well worth a look if you want a brief overview of what happened, with some excellent animations and reenactments.

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PS: Remaining in pedantic mode, I must point our that the picture of my 3D-printed model pā by Printable Scenery at the top of this page isn’t purporting to be Ruapekapeka Pā , which in fact looked more like the Radio NZ computer graphic above.

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The slowest pirates in the world

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This has got to be one of the longest paint-jobs I’ve ever done.  A measly eighteen French flibustiers and militia from the Blood and Plunder range by Firelock Games have taken me months and months to paint.

There’s nothing wrong with the figures. In fact, as you can see, they are absolutely exquisite sculpts. But for some reason my heart wasn’t into painting them. Maybe because it is that I have already painted pirates before? Or maybe it is just my whole painting mojo needs a refresh? I’m not sure.

But, anyway, here they are at last. I still have eight boucaniers and seamen to paint (and, again, seem to be continually putting off starting them). And I have a Dutch faction ordered from their Kickstarter – I hope my mojo comes back before they’re due to arrive next  year.

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Above: My French captain orders his men into the fight.

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Above: The flibustiers in their snazzy blue coats and red breeches.

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Above: French ‘special character, Francois L’Olonnais.

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Above: The Milice de Caraibes (militia), which I painted in Bourbon pearl-grey uniforms.

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