Monday, September 5, 2011

A Boer War blockhouse

A while back I came across this photo on a website dealing with South African fortifications. The website seems to have 404'd recently, but I can relate some of the info here.

A corrugated metal and stone walled blockhouse of the last Boer War (1899-1902). This surviving example is in a national park. 

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The last Boer War broke out in 1899, and lasted four years. Rugged and independent, the Boers proved effective guerrillas. Their swift, mobile method of warfare flummoxed the British army for a while, until the top brass worked out the need to seize and control lines of communications, thus constraining the Boers' freedom of movement.
 
The chief engineering officer originated the idea of prefabricating blockhouses from corrugated iron and transporting them in sections to where they were required. They were sited within mutual supporting distance, and made a great contribution to the final British victory.
 
To begin with, the blockhouses were octagonal in plan, with complicated pitched roofs. Later versions were cylindrical, following the engineer's visit to a factory making corrugated iron water towers. The company's metal-bending machinery demonstrated that circular structures would be much easier and cheaper to make, and much simpler for men in the field to assemble. Subsequent experience showed they were also cooler inside than the earlier versions - no mean feature considering the extreme temperatures sometimes experienced in that part of the world.  
 
They measured up to twelve feet or so across. Each typically housed a detachment of up to eight men, and were protected by dry ditches, barbed wire and fixed rifle batteries. Where the ground proved too hard to dig a defensive ditch around the structure, drystone walls of field stone were constructed instead. Eight to ten firing ports dotted at regular intervals around the circumference gave effective command of the vicinity.
 
Access to the interior was through a crawl-way. Post-war, full size doorways were installed. Surviving blockhouses were often taken over for civilian use and many became farm outbuildings. Others were left to decay and rot. Often, the only indication that a blockhouse once stood on a site is the circle of collapsed stone walling. 
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So, I thought this little outpost of Empire just begged to be made as a model. It proved simple enough to build. A section of thick carpet-roll cardboard tube became the main body of the blockhouse. An added advantage is it proved almost perfectly to scale, width-wise. I glued it to a base of thick card a little wider in diameter to create an interior floor. For the corrugated-iron wall effect, I glued thin string to the roll in parallel lines, and gave the strands a thin coat of spackle to smooth them out. Firing loops cut from thin card dot the wall at intervals along this level.
 
The iron effect covered the top half of the wall. The lower half I made as a drystone wall, using a thicker coat of spackle. A gap was left for the crawl-way door. I inscribed the stonework into the surface with a toothpick when the spackle was semi-dry. Once the spackle dried completely, any excess bits were brushed off.
 
I made the roof from thick card and corrugated cardboard taken from a box. Small corrugations are best. Since the corrugated card is fairly thin and flexible, I cut matching eaves and a ceiling from thick card and glued it to the back of the corrugated card. Once the glue was dry I glued the whole together into a peaked roof, adding another sheet of corrugated card each side for the central panels. The central ridge is of thick paper. To keep the roof in place, I drilled two holes each side of the tube and inserted short dowel pegs, which go into matching holes in the ceiling. This allows the roof to lift off for figures to be placed inside the blockhouse.    

Pvt. 23601 Hudson, Percival, takes aim at someone off camera. His mates are inside the blockhouse, having a brew-up.
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Before painting, I gave the whole roof a coat of Future floor polish to prepare the surface. The polish serves to stiffen the card and prevents it from soaking up moisture from the paint, which causes it to warp. I used cheap Craft Smart acrylic paints for most of the structure, picking out some individual stones in the wall with Vallejo paints to match the appearance of the original in the photo. The roofing corrugations were dry brushed white, then the whole given a wash of black India ink and sepia ink.

There we have it, a useful little building for the gaming table. Although strictly speaking it's a Boer War structure, there's no reason not to use it for earlier Colonial periods, or VSF. Since I try to make my hobby self-financing, this particular model has been sold to a gamer in New Zealand, but I'll make another for Daftest Africa soon. 
  

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another cracking model AJ, great background and "how to" notes too. I can see a scenario with it beseiged by natives, the garrison hoping that help comes before the ammo/food/water runs out.
I'll have to have a go at making one for my own collection.

all the best

Ian

A J said...

Thanks, Ian. The roof was the only mildly complicated part.

As for the scenario idea, great minds think alike. ;) I have the same idea in mind. The blockhouse would replace the zariba as a defensive position when an area becomes 'pacified' - the term pacified being subject to debate by the garrison if the local populace begins to turn nasty.

Anonymous said...

are you perhaps able to say in which park the blockhouse is please? i am interested in the anglo-boer war.
many thanks,
john

A J said...

Anonymous, I believe it's the one at the Museum of the Boer Republics - http://www.anglo-boer.co.za/

(Sorry, I didn't see your comment until today)

 

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