Star Wars in camo II. A forward observation post on the front line

I began recreating science fiction models about two years ago for a couple of reasons. One I wanted a creative outlet that was somewhat separate from my career as a photographer, journalist and writer. That’s so I could relax and have fun. Second, as a kid in the 1960s inspired by Star Trek, the Original Series, I had built the kits and scratch built my own models and now that I’m retired I wanted to start again.

I began following various modellers and toy photographers on Instagram and came across the amazing work by Matthew Callaghan, a U.S. Marine photographer who also has a hobby of recreating scenes he is familiar with using the larger size Star Wars figures in photographs that simulated the reality of combat in Iraq.

Callaghan’s work immediately struck a chord, and not just because I am working on my own Star Wars model projects. From September 2003 until I retired in March 2010, I was the photo editor for CBC News, based in Toronto. That meant as soon as I got into work and for the rest of each day, I would see the photo feeds coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan from the Canadian Press, the Associated Press, Reuters, Getty/AFP and Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

I worked closely with CBC reporters, producers and technicians based in Kandahar, many of whom would be filing their photos back to me in Toronto. Finbarr O’Reilly who was embedded with both the Canadian and US Forces, including the Marines, was once one of my students at Ryerson University School of Journalism. He is co-author of Chasing Ghosts  along with former Marine Thomas Brennan.

At CBC, as editor, I worked on an Afghanistan project with photographer Louie Palu who was also embedded with both the Canadians and Americans in Afghanistan and is known for his portraits of Marines and is author of the new book Front Toward The Enemy.

I had just started working on my Star Wars camouflage project and was looking for an idea for doing some kind of similar combat simulation , inspired by Callaghan’s gritty and realistic photos of the Storm Troopers

I work with Star Wars Command figures which are much smaller than the larger figures most photographers work with. I noticed one of the rebel fighters from Hoth with a pair of galactic binoculars and that gave me the idea of recreating, in Star Wars terms, one story of my father in the Second World War, when he was a British artillery officer in Malaya, fighting the Japanese.

The battle was at Kampar . My father’s 88th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery was defending the outer British perimeter.

As Wikipedia says:

Major General Archie Paris (temporary commander of the 11th Indian Division) had to defend a line from the coast through Telok Anson (now Telok Intan) up to the defensive positions at Kampar. The defensive perimeter at Kampar was an all round position, straddling Kampar Hill (Gunong Brijang Malaka) to the east of Kampar town, overlooking the Japanese advance and well concealed by thick jungle. Paris placed artillery spotters on the forward slopes protected by the 15th/6th Brigade on the western side of the position, and the 28th Gurkha Brigade covered the right flank on the eastern side.[2] The two brigades were supported by the 88th Field Artillery Regiment, which was equipped with 25 pounders, and the 4.5 inch howitzers of the 155th Field Artillery Regiment. Once the 12th Brigade had passed through Kampar Paris sent them to cover the coast and his line of retreat at Telok Anson.

My father, Lt. Frederic Rowland, was one of those artillery spotters. For his actions that day he was awarded the Military Cross.

What the citation doesn’t say was that my father was in a spotter dugout along with two “other ranks” connected to the artillery headquarters with a field telephone. At one point a mortar round landed right in the dugout. The two men with my father were killed instantly but in the random nature of the universe, my father had barely a scratch, although he would tell me that most of his uniform was blown off. He had to crawl out of the dug out to re-splice the severed telephone wire and then crawled back into the dug out to call in the artillery on the advancing Japanese tanks.

Later as a prisoner of war in Changi Jail, Singapore, he commissioned the war artist Leo Rawlings, who later became famous of his drawings and paintings of POWs  to recreate the action at Kampar. Here is a detail of that painting. The two spotter positions, black box, are suggested with just a couple of strokes of a water colour brush.


Star Wars in camo I. If you were a Storm Trooper wouldn’t you want some camouflage?

The first step was to paint the Hoth rebel figures not in winter white but in the Second World War British uniform colour (somewhat) from Vallejo paints, with a couple of appropriate adjustments.

Here’s a close up of the spotter officer, the forward observation post commander, as he might appear in a WWII photo, using the Kodak Tri-X filter from Perfect Effects.


A contemporary digital image of the  spotter officer and his two men with an R2 unit in the background.

Of course, I added  an R2 unit, which I call R2C1 (C for camouflage model) plus one other soldier, a reinforcement.

So I started, as with some other projects, with a clear blister pack provided an idea for a futuristic popup but portable armoured forward observation post, complete with all kinds of high tech communications gear.

Then I added a coat of grey auto primer on both sides.

Then some dark brown camouflage super flat spray paint.

Then I found the right position for the figures.

I created the com panel using the web and reduced the images using Photoshop, then reduced the entire image even further to fit on to a square on the inside of the original blister pack.

You can see that AT-STs are approaching just like Japanese tanks were attacking my father’s FOP.  Given the tech of the galaxy far, far away they are in communication with rebel headquarters and have multiple sensors, rather than binoculars and a field telephone connected by a wire. And yes the multi coloured buttons on the panel are from the Star Trek Original Series bridge <grin>.


The R2 access panel was created the same way.



Combat is never found in a clean environment. So I wanted to dirty up the scene. The fallen trees are from hothouse tomatoes, painted black as if they’d been scorched. I laid down a layer of standard ground cover, including some grass. Then it was all covered up with a mixture of about one third ashes from my barbecue, one third talcum powder, and one third a mixture of fine model railway ballast and fine rubble.





As well as the standard photographs, I wanted to duplicate a Second World War look with black and white and some old style photographs plus two water colours, one where I tried to duplicate the limited colours available to Leo Rawlings as well as the kind of quick watercolour painter that was common in that era.

To duplicate the Rawlings watercolour from the image, I first used the charcoal and chalk filter in Photoshop, then added a sepia photo filter. Next I duplicated that layer and used the Jixipix watercolour filter. It was a bit bright, so I used the lighten tool under the Photoshop saturation adjustment, then adjusted opacity to bring out more of the chalk and charcoal layer.

This follows the style of the “quick sketch’ watercolour used by some war artists from the Napoleonic era to the Second World War and probably even today. Created using the Jixipix water colour filter.

The front of the forward observation post as it might have been captured on old Kodak film, using a VSOC Lightroom plugin.

Another view that duplicates a faded colour photo from the era, no filters, desaturation in Photoshop.

And a couple of gritty black and white images.

A prototype bible



While I was doing
research for The Sonkrai Tribunal, I came across a couple of references to the fact that the Japanese engineers used the Merriman Wiggin method of building railways. (Many sources misspelled it as
Merriam like the American dictionary, which is why I initially had trouble tracking it down).

During the research for the book, it was just a passing reference. Now that I am building my own model railway and working on the bridges I wanted to find out more about that manual. A Google check came up with little (especially when I used Merriam instead of Merriman). But a handful of copies of the book showed up on Abebooksas the American Civil Engineers Handbook
by Thaddeus Merriman and Thos. H. Wiggin. First published in 1911, it was issued by John Wiley up until (as far as I can tell from the editions on Abebooks, the middle 1950s).

The average price for the book was $15 and one of the dealers was in Canada, so I placed the order.

When the handbook arrived, it was immediately clear why it was the key document for the Imperial Japanese Army engineers. It is the hardcover equivalent of a trade paperback, thick, with 2,263 pages, but shaped so that it could fit into a large pocket (such as a military fatigue pocket), pouch or small shoulder bag.

It was obviously written not only for an civil engineer working in North America but anywhere in the world (it has conversion tables for local currencies and local measuring methods, for example, in Japan and China).

For the model railroader, the book is often far too detailed, but on the other hand it goes beyond the railway reference books. The main reason I bought it is because the Japanese engineers used it as the manual for building trestle bridges. And I found that it gives some hints that are not found in many of the trestle books aimed at modelers. One example that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

n high railway trestles on curves over the centrifugal
forces of the moving train should be further guarded against by
additional braces on the convex side of the trestle.

There are several railroad related chapters. How about water tanks? We buy them, build kits or
scratch build and usually pluck them beside the tracks. It goes into great detail about the problems in those water tanks, like hard water and even mud and the damage that could do a steam locomotive. It says, for example, in 1873, the use of hard or muddy water cost $750 per locomotive per year.â€

And this, again from the late nineteenth century, made me change my layout plans by moving
my water tanks closer to the river bank.


The El Paso and Southern
Railway found that even after chemical treatment of hard water supply
on a division 128 miles long, the engine tonnage was reduced 25% and
the cost of the locomotive was maintenance was increased $1000 per
year per engine over the normal amount. To avoid this, a waterworks
system from a supply of pure mountain water 130 miles distant was
constructed at a cost of $1,300,000. Even this expenditure was proven
to be amply justified.”

to know the wind resistance of a locomotive and total train resistance and the problem of oscillation? It’s there. So is the cost of building a rail line in the 1920s.

There are plans for dams, aqueducts, canals, shafts, tunnels, harbour and river works (including docks, wharves and retaining walls). Steel bridges and concrete bridges each merit their own chapter along with trestles. And if you want a breakwater on your layout, you’ll find it there as well. The book has a lot a rivet counter would love, but if you can get a cheap copy, any modeler would find it useful.