Project Number Ten
Cefalonia Lifeboat Diorama (1915)
Completed in January 2011
Our story begins on a hot August day in 1915, on the
placid waters of the Adriatic Sea. An old Greek tramp
steamer named the Cefalonia
has been plodding
along alone, carrying a load of grain and general
cargo north from the Greek port of Saloniki, through
the Strait of Otranto, and into the Adriatic Sea,
bound for a seaport in Italy. As our story opens the
ship is a few dozen miles off the Albanian port of
Durazzo, alone on the seas save for the dolphins and
Suddenly the lookout spots a ship approaching, and as
it comes closer, the Cefalonia's
that it's a submarine and that they are in trouble.
It's 1915, recall, and the globe is in the midst of
WWI and slow, hapless merchant ships on the high seas
are the frequent prey of Axis submarines. This
particular hunter is from the Austro-Hungarian Navy,
loyal if somewhat ineffectual allies of the Kaiser's
The U-Boat hails the Cefalonia
megaphone, ordering the steamer to stop and prepare to
be sunk. These were different times and different men,
and quite often the crews of single ships intercepted
at sea were given the chance to save themselves and
abandon ship before being sunk. But not always, it was
at the submarine captain's discretion, and a man that
gave such quarter in wartime gained the respect of
both his comrades and his enemies. So the
12 men dutifully piled into the
ship's two lifeboats and rowed swiftly away from their
The U-Boat, once the lifeboats were safely away, lined
up on the drifting steamer and fired a single torpedo.
The rusty old ship was rocked by the explosion and
quickly rolled over and slipped beneath the waves.
From their lifeboats the crew, all civilians and all
veterans of the sea, watched sadly as their home
disappeared forever in a cloud of steam and bubbling
The U-Boat then moved in close to the larger of the
two lifeboats and called out to the men aboard. The
submarine's captain graciously gave compass directions
to the Albanian coast and made sure that no one was
injured and that they had enough water for the trip.
He even offered them cigarettes, a unique gesture of
kindness from one sailor to another. Giving begrudging
thanks, the freighter's crew set up the sail and began
to tack off to the east. The U-Boat, for its part,
turned south and began hunting for another target.
That story is true. The Greek merchantmen were rescued
the next day, the U-Boat went on to harass shipping in
the Adriatic for another year, and the Austrian
captain was indeed as honorable and respected as this
This diorama will show that moment when the U-Boat,
, was beside the lifeboat, the two
sets of adversaries guardedly talking to each other.
In composition, it will just be two boats on the
water, close together, in a rectangular frame. It
will be fun!
Cefalonia Build Day One:
Day one! First up will be the lifeboat. While
(unsurprisingly) I can't find any reference to what
type of lifeboats the Cefalonia
carried, I can
assume that they were similar to other early 20th
Century civilian merchantman lifeboats. As such, I'm
going with your standard 1910s era 30-foot open
lifeboat, which was 9-feet wide and 4-feet deep. This
is a sturdy, well-tested design with room for over a
dozen men in a pinch and sufficient supplies, powered
both by long wooden oars and a collapsible sailing
mast. The 30-footers were used hundreds if not
thousands of times during WWI in all sorts of
situations. They are nearly identical, by the way, to
the open lifeboats carried by the doomed RMS
Picture of some 30 foot lifeboats...
Construction materials will be my usual low-tech paper
and cardboard and lots of scotch tape and Elmer's
glue. In 1/35th scale, the lifeboat model will be just
about 10 inches long and a bit over 3 inches wide.
That seems small, but remember a 1/35th scale person
is just 2 inches tall, so it's actually dead on. I
found some nice line drawings on a Titanic
website, copied them to paper and traced them on my
cardstock. From there I just cut them out and taped
the sides and edges together to create the basic
shape. I then plated the sides with blocks of paper
and swooped up the stern and bow under sections and
taped them up tight.
With the basic form of the lifeboat done, I can start
on the detail work. First up is the wooden planks that
make up the sides of the hull. To replicate these, I
cut 3mm strips of cardstock and glued them along the
sides. This gives it a 3-D effect, even when painted
hopefully, that you just can't get by drawing lines on
While I'm making 3mm strips, I also need to plank the
floor of the boat. Continuing with the inside of the
boat, I need five thwarts, which are really just
benches for passengers to sit upon that double as
lateral hull supports. I used cut down craft sticks,
left over from the HMS Canopus
build (a long
time ago...). These took a bit of effort, and some
braces, to get at the right height and location, but
they ended up looking good. I used a wire skeleton as
a size reference.
The rudder is a piece of 5mm foam board with a
cardstock trim. I've modeled a slight turn to port,
just a few degrees. The rudder is held on by card
clamps to the sternpost and the tiller handle is a
lollipop stick with some paper wrapped around for
thickness. I also added a breakwater to the bow and
some other cosmetic widgets to the deck benches, just
to add some detail.
And with the basic parts of the lifeboat done, I can
paint it all. Standard colors for civilian lifeboats
of this era were white hulls with brown and black trim
and natural brown wood interiors. I'll eventually add
the ship's name and port of registry to the bows.
I then built the mast, which was stowed in two parts,
lashed to the thwarts until needed. The crossarm was
slotted into place and the mast raised by muscle
power, and set into a metal clamp near the front
bulkhead. The sail was rugged canvas sail cloth,
stowed in a bag under the seats. I'm going to model
the lifeboat with the mast up, but the sail still
unfurled, as you'd expect it to be as they are still
being interrogated by the U-Boat crew alongside.
The sail itself I'm going to model artfully draped
over the gunwale, as if the crew are just in the
process of rigging the lines to raise it up. To do
this I flattened a piece of clay out, cut it square,
and rolled it up and hung it over the side of a muffin
pan for it's 15 minutes in the oven. Some gray paint
on the grommets and a coat of linen paint on the sail
cloth, weathered with a dry brushing of flat white,
and it looks good. The sail was raised and lowered by
a simple block and tackle affair, with light ropes for
rigging, all of which I can model with some coiled
string and some jewelry hooks.
The boat has four long oars, which are also lashed to
the seats when not in use. They are just wooden sticks
with braces and paddle heads, painted dark brown.
I'll also add some other things in the boat as well,
including two dipping buckets, a coil of rope, a
wooden crate of bully beef, a canvas kit bag of foul
weather gear, and a collapsible canvas jug of water,
all stuff that the crew would have grabbed in a hurry
as the U-Boat‘s countdown-to-sinking was ticking off.
All of these items I made with paper and wood and wire
bits, the bags out of modeling clay, and I'll not glue
them down until I decide where the people will be.
While it seems that the boat will be crowded with all
these supplies, plus people, you have to expect
experience sailors to grab food and water at the very
least when abandoning ship on the high seas.
And finally I'll paint the Cefalonia's
port of call (Saloniki) on the bow. In Greek, thanks
to the internet, with a black finetip sharpie marker.
Standard protocal was the ship's name on the starboard
side and the port of call on the port side.
Now that I have a lifeboat, I need people in it. That
will come next...
Cefalonia Build Day Two:
Day two! Well, as frequently happens with my projects,
I've decided to drastically downscale my plans for
this diorama. Some other work, unrelated to models and
such, has come up and I need to devote some time to
that for a bit. Therefore, I'm going to just finish
this as a simple model of a lifeboat at sea.
I need a person, at least one, for reasons of scale if
nothing else, so I whipped up a Greek seaman named
Georgios out of Sculpey clay. A blue collared shirt,
khaki pants, black leather boots, and a white floppy
hat make up his outfit, typical of civilian merchant
sailors of the era. I'd like to imagine that Georgios
here is enjoying the sunny breeze of an Adriatic
summer, content to ride the waves and commune with the
seagulls as WWI rages on distant shores.
Once Georgios is set, I can glue down all the assorted
bits. I can also string some rigging lines and try and
make it look like he's right in the middle of
preparing to raise the sail. Not a bad effect, if I do
say so myself.
And after some touch-up re-painting and such, this
model is done. All in all a pretty quick and pleasant
Total cost for this project is zero dollars, meaning I
only used existing stocks of supplies. That's the way
to do it!
Finished photos of the Cefalonia's
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