The big box has just arrived in the mail or you saw it sitting there at your local hobby shop and had to have it. The 1:400 scale French aircraft carrier Béarn from L'Arsenal was released last month. Many modelers have already opened the sturdy colorful box to see a remarkable model kit, one that is truly a unique hybrid. A kit that bridges the world of mass produced plastic styrene kits, produced in their 100,000s and expensive, very low production resin kits, produced in at most, the 100s.
Ordered under the 1914 Naval Program, the Béarn was the fifth Normandie Class super-dreadnought to be ordered. Laid down January 10, 1914, work had only just started on this newest of the battleships for the Marine Nationale, when World War One erupted in August 1914. Work on Béarn was immediately stopped and materials ordered for her were sent to more important projects.
By 1918 Béarn and her sisters had been partially cannibalized and were still sitting at the builders, when plans were proposed for completion of the ships. However it was not until 1922 that it was finally decided to complete the battleship hull as the first French full flight deck aircraft carrier. In August 1923 armed with plans for HMS Eagle, a similar battleship conversion, and with British assistance, construction on Béarn was restarted.
The hull lines generally remained the same but bow and stern were significantly reworked. The armor scheme was greatly reduced from the former battleship scheme. The power plant remained the same from the original battleship design and the actual machinery worked into the Béarn came from sistership Normandie. The ship was equipped with three wide elevators serving the 405 feet long hanger. Béarn had a high freeboard, in which the flight deck was 51 feet above the waterline. The flight deck was 600 feet in length and was supported at fore and aft with an extensive number of trusses. The island was offset on a sponson to starboard. This faired sponson with its rows of square exhaust cooling vents became one of the prominent features of the design. In common with the Kaga and Akagi, Béarn retained an obsolescent casemate battery, which consisted of eight- 155mm (6.1") guns.
As originally built, the Béarn had a level flight deck forward. Shortly after completion however, the front tip of the flight deck was given a downward slant. There was also a noticeable downward slope to the aft end of the flight deck. In 1935 additional changes were made. An additional of cooling vents were added to the island sponson, forward of the original grouping and the underside of the flight deck overhanging the bow received an enclosed level. Additional cooling vents were also added to the top of the stack.
At the start of World War Two, Béarn was given aircraft ferry missions as well as serving as a training carrier. With the fall of France in 1940 she was in the West Indies. In May 1942 her casemate guns were landed at Martinique. Béarn stayed in the French Caribbean until 1943. In 1943-1944 she was refitted as an aircraft transport, appropriately enough, at New Orleans, Louisiana, where the crew must have felt somewhat at home at the Café du Monde on Jackson Square. Béarn was given four 5-Inch/38 DP guns along with six 40mm Bofors Quad mounts and 26 single 20mm Oerlikon mounts. The forward edge of the flight deck was cut back. Work was finished in 1944 and she was given her own dazzle paint scheme, since dazzle was "IN" in 1944. After the war she supported French operations in French Indochina (Vietnam). Her steaming days were over in 1948 when she was made a training ship and then a submarine depot ship. It wasn’t until November 1966 that she was stricken from the Marine Nationale and sold for scrap in 1967. Béarn had a fairly uneventful career but it was remarkable nonetheless. From being designed and laid down as a super-dreadnought at the height of the pre-World War One battleship race, when guns were king; to being completed as one of the first full deck carriers; Béarn survived over a half a century and did not depart the stage until after the advent of the modern nuclear powered super-carrier. (Bulk of the history of the Béarn is from Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Roger Chesneau.)
The Béarn would not have been produced by the major styrene plastic manufactures, even Heller. Those companies need huge sales numbers in order to recoup their investment. Consequently, the only warship subjects produced by them are the most widely known and therefore widely modeled subjects. L’Arsenal saw an opportunity to produce a large model at a moderate price. By producing the hull, flight deck, and some of the other major components in plastic, the price of the kit could be brought down from the levels of expensive resin kits. The Béarn is truly a multimedia kit with plastic, resin and metal parts. For a plastic kit the production numbers for the Béarn are incredibly low. I have heard that ICM produced 5,000 copies of their Konig. The L’Arsenal Béarn has been produced in far fewer numbers than this low figure.
The Béarn comes with four sprues of plastic parts, lettered A through D. Sprue A has the two hull halves. The plastic portion of the kit was produced in the Czech Republic. The plastic utilized is on the soft side and is of moderate thickness. Although the parts are not as detailed as the newest Tamiya releases, the quality of most of the parts is generally comparable to those found in a kit from Heller. The hull halves display a number of unique features. The hull is extremely high, given the very high freeboard of the original. These high sides are festooned with six deck levels of portholes. They are everywhere. Before you do anything else, decide how you are going to treat the portholes, by drilling them out or by inking them in after painting. Because of their number and because the Béarn was painted light gray, they will be very prominent. The huge faired sponson jutting out from the starboard side for the island is another prominent feature. The location for the rectangular exhaust cooling vents is scribed in the plastic of the sponson, reflecting the post 1935 refit with two sets of vents. Since they are rectangular, they will be harder to cut out cleanly, if that is your preference. The easier and safer course would be to ink them in after painting. In dry fitting the hull halves, it appears that there will be some gaps that will need to be filled and sanded. There are no locator holes for the hull halves, so take your time in gluing them together. Consider adding some spacers of plastic rod inside the hull to keep the hull bulkheads parallel with each other.
Sprue B contains the flight deck, foc’sle, horizontal flight deck support bracing and the stand. A number of details are part of the flight deck, including the three prominent elevators. Although individual planks of the deck are not present, discrete lines locating flight deck markings are incised on the deck. The flight deck also displays the noticeable downward slope at the fore and aft end. Sprue C contains various bow and stern deck levels present under the flight deck overhang. Also present are a number of catwalks with support ribbing molded on the underside. Sprue D contains the smaller plastic parts. Included are the boat cradles, light guns & shielding, searchlights, rudders, forward support posts, mast and deck fittings.
One thing that appears to be missing is the bulkhead/enclosed area installed right under the bow flight deck overhang after the 1935 refit. The kit contains the open lattice gridwork that was present before the refit. For a 1934 version only the larger set of cooling vents on the after half of the sponson would be present and not the forward vent set on the sponson or the upper stack vents. For the post 1935 Béarn the cooling vents would be present on the upper stack and two sets on the sponson as are present on the kit but you will have to add the enclosed area with plastic card or some other medium.
The island/stack, aircraft, propellers, shafts, ship’s boats, crane and a great number of smaller parts are done in resin. They are cast crisply and my copies were without defect. The ship’s boats lack detail, which is somewhat surprising given the detail lavished upon the aircraft complement. The kit comes with four Dewoitine D-373 parasol wing fighters, three Levasseur PL-101 biplane bombers and three Levasseur PL-7 biplane torpedo bombers. These aircraft are a delight. The paneling, rudders, engine cowling lines are all delicately incised on the parts. The Dewoitine fighters have six resin parts and five photo-etched parts for each fighter. The PL-101 and PL-7 each have 6 resin and 7 photo-etched parts per aircraft. Other highlight resin parts are the two open elevator doors with their heavily ribbed undersides and the funnel cap.
The Béarn comes with three stainless steel frets made by Eduard. Two frets are ship details and the third contains the photo-etched parts for the aircraft. Bend lines are incised where the parts need to be folded. The Béarn takes a unique approach for the deck levels of the island. The deck levels are part of the photo-etched parts. The benefit of this approach is that very thin decks can be achieved over using resin or plastic. Another major area for the photo-etch is in the flight deck support system. There are a number of finely executed vertical and horizontal deck supports that are present at bow and stern. When put into place on the model, some of the greatest detail will be underneath the bow and stern overhangs. There is a lot going on in these areas and the number of lattice support structures will give great visual impact.
L’Arsenal provides a 284 page instruction booklet. Each of the 26 steps in the construction is clearly and concisely displayed in isometric drawings. All text is in French and English. Also included is a ship’s history, full parts laydown, assembly icon key, painting key, painting plan and profile, deck decal placement diagrams for 1934 and 1939 and aircraft painting and decal diagrams. Production qualities are first rate and I cannot foresee any problem in following the instructions.
Two full decal sheets are provided with the Béarn. One provides flight deck markings for 1934 before the refit and flight deck markings for the 1939 post refit Béarn. The second sheet provides aircraft decals for the ten aircraft provided in the kit. As previously mentioned, decal locations are very well identified in the instructions.
L’Arsenal has taken a major gamble in producing the Béarn. Up to this kit L’Arsenal has been the producer of high detail, expensive resin models, produced in very limited quantities. If the Béarn had been produced in 1:400 scale in resin, the price required for recoupment of investment would have priced it out of the range of most modelers. By using plastic parts for the largest parts and resin and photo-etch for the smaller detailed parts, L’Arsenal has been able to price this kit, as to be affordable to the average modeler. With the L’Arsenal Béarn the modeler gets all of the bells and whistles of highly detailed resin kit at the price of an upper end plastic kit.