When it comes to modelling, I love those esoteric subjects from World War II. So when I came across photographs of a number of Savoia Marchetti S.M. 81 Ts of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana and the Thierry Dekker's artwork in Camouflage and Markings of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana 1944-45, I just has to build one by converting the ancient, but still good Supermodel 1/72 kit
The Savoia Marchetti S.M. 81 Pipistrello (Bat) was the bomber version of the S.M.73, an 18 passenger airliner dating from 1934. The aircraft was a tri-motor with fixed undercarriage, and made of wood (wings) and welded steel tubing with canvas covers. Introduced into service in 1935, the Pipistrello was used by the Regia Aeronautica during the invasion of Ethiopia, and later in support of the Nationalists forces in the Spanish civil war. At the start of World War II the aircraft was actually outdated, but it continued to soldier on in service, particularly in North-Africa.
Because of its rugged reliability the remaining Pipistrellos were converted into transport planes with the designation S.M. 81 T (T = Trasporti) from 1942 onwards. For this purpose the bomb bay gave way to a flat floor, the two gun turrets with double machine guns were replaced with a single Lanciani ‘Delta’ turret with a 12.7 mm machine gun, while the engines were exchanged for new Alfa 126 RC 34s. In addition the spats were removed from the undercarriage, with the exception of the lower plate with functioned as a mud guard.
After the Italian surrender in September 1943, the Luftwaffe managed to seize a large number of S.M. 81s on the Balkans and in the axis controlled part of Italy, although several managed to escape to the south, to be incorporated in the Co-Belligerent air force.
In the mean time, Mussolini had been freed from his mountain top prison at Gran Sasso, to become the leader of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, in the part of Italy still occupied by the Germans. This ‘new’ state also had its own air force, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR) that continued to fight on the Axis’ side against the Allied forces.
Apart from units equipped with fighters and torpedo bombers, the ANR also had a single transport unit, the 1º Gruppo Aerotrasporti ‘Terracciano’. In early 1944 this units received a number of refurbished and converted S.M. 81s - that were captured by the Luftwaffe in 1943 - in order to carry out supply and ferrying flights to the Eastern Front from Goslar, Germany.
But in August 1944 the German High Command launched Operation Phönix, an attempt to gain direct control over the ANR. Part of this plan was that all personnel would swear an oath to the Führer and would be brought under German command. As a vast majority of the ANR pilots and ground crews refused to do so, they were repatriated to Italy without their airplanes. What happened next to the remaining S.M. 81s is not known.
Specifications Savoia Marchetti S.M. 81 T:
I had bought the Supermodel 1/72 kit of the S.M. 81 as a souvenir in Italy years ago, and it remained in my stack of inbuilt kits for quite a while. The boxing dates back to the 1970s and although the plastic is fairly thick and it doesn’t have engraved panel lines, it can still be built into a nice model. In the box decals for two bomber versions are included; one from the late 1930s in Cachi Avorio Chiaro (ivory white), with red anti-camouflage stripes over the wings (for emergency landings in the desert), and one from the early stages of World War II in two shades of green (Verde Oliva Scuro and Verde Chiaro), with a light blue-grey (Grigio Azurro Chiaro) underside.
I started with both fuselage sides. The bomber version originally had a side door with a bevelled edge. For a transport plan that is rather unpractical, so the some of the S.M. 81s had this replaced with a square roller-shutter door (neat!). I simulated this by gluing a number of thin plastic strips on a piece of plastic sheet, which I glued in the squared-off door opening. Also the rear fuselage side windows were squared-off, and covered with a piece of clear acetate sheet.
The transport version had most of the round fuselage windows blanked-off. These were glued into the fuselage halves, with the exception of the rear board window, covered with putty and sanded smooth. Further the cut-outs for the lower turret and the bomb aimer position were blanked off, using plastic sheet and putty. The new upper turret required a small rim with a smaller diameter than the original one. For this I used the spare cowling ring of a Hasegawa Raiden. The final adaptation was cutting out four small square windows in each fuselage side, as per the photographs in the ANR book.
After all the preparatory work on the fuselage halves, I now turned to the interior. Straight from the box the interior is rather basic, but inspired by the magnificent S.M.81 model of Scott Battistoni on www.hyperscale.com, I took to work. Using plastic sheet, rod and tube I created a lengthened flat floor, ribbing, radios, various bits and pieces and a new centre console, while also further detailing the kits seats. This was all painted light grey-green (Verde Anticorrosione), for which I mixed Humbrol 23 en 101, with the details highlighted in black, silver and white. The seat belts came from the metal etch set from the Aviation Usk S.M. 84. After allowing the paint to dry, the fuselage halves were joined, trapping the (slightly converted) new turret, and the kit’s cockpit was added after polishing it for clarity.
The undercarriage of the transport version of the Pipistrello had its spats removed in order to save weight. Only the lower plate was retained as a mud guard. Since the spats of the kit are an integral part of the undercarriage, it took me a while to figure out how this was constructed. In the end I created a new pair, using the kits parts, rod, plastic sheet and the wheels from an Italeri B-25 Mitchell.
The S.M.81 had canvas covered vertical and horizontal tails with prominent ribbing. As this is lacking on the kits parts, I recreated this by gluing stretched sprue onto the kits parts, which were faired in with a thin layer of glue. After a light sanding it looks quite convincing.
The Lanciani turret of the S.M.81T was a lot smaller than the original double gun one. I just happed to have sentenced a Supermodel Cant Z. 506 to the spares box and proved to be a perfect fit. After making some small adjustments a German machine gun was added and a counterweight, both also from the spares box.
The Alfa Romeo engines of the S.M. 81 T had prominent sand filters atop the cowlings. I made these from thin plastic sheet, based on photos from the book by Ferdinando D'Amico and Gabriele Valentini. The aircraft I was doing, 8Q+GH only had them on the outer engines, so I just had to make two. Further I made new exhausts for the outside of the cowlings from bent sprue, with the end openings slightly drilled out.
The final additions were a new pitot tube from rod and some bent wire, a new antenna made from rod and tube and small wingtip lights from pieces of rod. I also added three small air intakes from rod on top of the cabin as well as new flap hinges. The teardrop antennae also came from the Cant Z 506. Further all panel lines were sanded off and then rescribed.
The S.M.81Ts of the ANR flew in the standard Italian ‘continental’ scheme of Verde Oliva Scuro (dark olive green) on top and Grigio Azurro Chiaro (light blue-grey) underneath, for which I used Humbrol 134 (unfortunately OOP) and Humbrol 64 grey. Further, as they were used on the Eastern Front, the machines had yellow fuselage bands and lower wingtips (Humbrol 24). The propellers were black with silver hubs and yellow tips. For the exhausts I used a mix of fire bronze and black, which gives a nice rusty metallic colour.
The black crosses and swastikas came from various Luftwaffe bomber sheets from Superscale, the ANR flags (with the yellow trim cut off) from Tauro sheet 72-517. The Q8+GH codes were created on an ALPS printer by fellow IPMS member Rob van Riel.
With the decals applied, the whole model was coated with ModelMaster Dullcote. Soot from the exhausts was added using a thinned mixture of grey and black, while the panel lines were highlighted used a mixture of brown and black water colours. And ‘presto’, a unique version of a kit you hardly ever see built (except on Hyperscale that is). And now that Italeri is reissuing all these fantastic Supermodel kits, maybe I should try one of these garishly painted S.M. 81s from Spanish civil war…
P.S.: This article was published previously (in Dutch) in Modelbouw in Plastic, the quarterly magazine of IPMS Netherlands, but since few people outside the Low Countries can read that, I translated it into English.
Additional images, click to enlarge