Supporting the Infantry
Most of the sets produced by Airfix were of troops fighting on the front line. As such they are usually armed with the most common weapons such as rifles, sub and light machine guns, and grenades. During World War 2, all armies supported these troops with a smaller number of men equipped with heavier weapons; heavier in the literal sense, and usually operated by a small crew, but capable of putting out a higher firepower.
Toy soldier manufacturers could ignore them to keep things simple, but there’s no denying that heavy machine guns and mortars make for attractive models. If they chose to represent these weapons, then there are two possible approaches. They could include them in their ‘standard’ sets, or create separate products. Of course, the former makes the infantry sets more attractive, but inevitably compromises in accuracy or number of poses have to be made to keep production costs within limits. The latter allows for a fuller treatment of the subject, but is overall more expensive and risks low demand for the support sets.
Airfix ignored heavy weapons until in 1972 they took the plunge and out of the blue created a British WW2 ‘support group’. How successful was it?
During WW2, a British army infantry battalion was subdivided into companies, of which four were rifle-armed with a combined strength on paper of roughly 500 men. The fifth company was a ‘support’ company containing the battalion’s heavy weapons.
By mid-war the main elements within the support company were a platoon of six 3” mortars, a platoon of 6 anti-tank guns, and a platoon mounted in tracked universal carriers equipped with 2” mortars and PIAT anti-tank weapons. In fact, all of the support weapon teams were motorised because the weapons were too heavy for effective manual transportation, especially when the large supply of ammunition was taken into account.
Note that machine guns were held at divisional level (as were artillery and anti-aircraft guns), and assigned to battalions as required. In practice, all of the support weapons were deployed as circumstances required – they could be held together or parcelled out in smaller units. A simple calculation shows that a battalion could field roughly one of each type of mortar or anti-tank gun per 80 riflemen.
The two weapons that we will encounter in our Airfix support group set are the 3” mortar and Vickers medium machine gun.
The 3” mortar was used for firing high-explosives to suppress enemy positions and prevent movement, and smoke projectiles to provide cover for friendly advancing troops. With a range of a mile or more, the mortar would usually be stationed behind the front line, and was served by a crew of three with additional ammunition carriers if necessary.
A heavy base-plate provided stability for the weapon, and the range could be set by adjusting the angle between the firing tube and bipod. Projectiles (called bombs) were dropped down the tube by hand, hitting a striker at the base that ignited a small charge to lob the bomb at its target. A fuse in the nose of the bomb would explode it on landing.
The weapon could be broken down into three man-portable elements (the base plate, the tube and the bipod) and transported manually, but these were heavy so wherever possible the mortars were transported to their firing positions by vehicle, which could also carry the ammunition.
The Vickers machine gun was designed during the Great War, and was essentially a defensive weapon designed for reliability and sustained fire. It used the same .303 calibre bullets as were used in infantry rifles, but would be employed at greater ranges (of a mile or more) to sweep areas with fire, for extended periods if necessary, inflicting casualties and denying the enemy free movement.
A sturdy tripod was used to allow the gun to traverse easily. Since repeated fire would cause the barrel to overheat and eventually jam the gun, it was fitted with a water-cooling system. 4 litres of water were held in a distinctive sleeve surrounding the barrel (the sleeve being connected to a condensing tin to allow water that boiled off to be reused).
The Vickers required a two-man crew to feed in the ammunition, aim and fire the gun plus additional crew to transport ammunition and provide local defence if necessary. As with the mortar, it could be disassembled (gun, tripod, water, ammunition) for human transportation, but was usually transported by vehicle.
The Airfix Support Group
51459-6 British Infantry Support Group
Year first produced:1972
L65xW28xH58 (max), Plastic 4g (av), Scale 1:32, Features: 2
The intended contents of the set are not described on my box, but later versions state that the set consists of 17 figures plus 58 pieces of equipment. All are fashioned from brown polythene plastic, and the figures wear minimal kit, as you might expect for crews tending to their weapons. The absence of respirators precludes the early war period, so we are probably looking at figures for the Northwest European campaign 1944-5.
There are 10 poses, as follows:
- An officer apparently giving the order to fire
- A radio operator
- Two men standing using binoculars
- A man standing holding what appears to be a notepad
- Two standing mortar gunners
- Two standing mortar loaders
- Two walking soldiers carrying mortar ammunition
- Two seated machine gunners
- Two prone ammunition loaders
- Two kneeling figures with bazookas
Aside from the illustration on the box, there is no leaflet or instructions on the box identifying the poses, so my description above is informed guesswork. There are two mysteries here. Firstly, I just don’t know what the mystery notepad figure is meant to be doing!
Secondly, why is the bazooka included in this set? The recoilless rocket-launcher capable of being operated by infantry, that became known as the bazooka, was invented by the Americans during WW2 and copied by the Germans. It replaced the puny anti-tank rifles of the early war years. However, it was not issued to the British, who used instead the rather inferior PIAT, an adapted type of mortar. So, the inclusion of the bazooka is a mystery, and I can only assume that the sheer ‘sexiness’ of the weapon prompted Airfix to include it. It’s a dreadful mistake!
The equipment provided in the set is if of two types. Firstly, there are the heavy weapons themselves. In this set we get two 3” mortars and two Vickers machine guns. Each is well-modelled, and comprises several parts that can be set up together without requiring glue. As we have seen, these are just the sort of weapons that would have been used by British infantry of the Second World War.
The mortar consists of a separate base plate, tube and bipod. The tube rests on the base plate, and the bipod clips onto lugs projecting from the tube, allowing for the angle of fire to be adjusted. In addition, two ammunition cases are provided for positioning somewhere nearby.
Each machine gun is made up of the tripod into which the gun is dropped, a separate condenser and a box of ammunition out of which the belt of bullets extends. This is obviously intended to fit over the outstretched arm of the loader figure, as if that figure is holding it up to the gun. The gun can be turned on the tripod but unsurprisingly, it cannot be elevated.
The rest of the equipment is best described as a set of accessories, consisting of six each of
- Sten sub-machine gun
- Unopened ammunition box for the machine gun
- Individual mortar bomb
- Jerrycan (liquid container)
Now, these are no doubt useful for diorama builders and modellers, but otherwise fairly useless. The relevance of the ammunition is obvious, and the crews would have laid aside the small arms they carried for self-defence while crewing the heavy weapons. Spades and picks would occasionally be necessary to dig positions for the weapons, and there is a multitude of potential uses for a jerrycan (water, fuel, etc). So, the presence of any of these items can be explained, but are they necessary for a set of toy soldiers? Certainly, such small and fiddly parts were bound to get lost!
I have already pointed out some drawbacks to this set – the inappropriate bazookas (and conversely, the absence of PIATs) and the extraneous accessories. In fact, even if the bazooka was a legitimate inclusion, there is no loader for the weapon, so this was a wasted opportunity. It’s also worth noting that the 3” mortar was usually attended by two loaders, but this set has only one per weapon.
I also find the poses a little too ‘static’ and ‘parade ground’ for my liking. A mortar crew in action would often be crouching or kneeling, twisting away from the blast of the weapon, and protecting their ears. Operating the weapons could be heavy work, so at the very least sleeves might be rolled up. But this is perhaps a matter of taste.
But aside from these drawbacks, what of the principle of providing a separate set of heavy weapons?
There’s no doubt that the mortar or machine guns with attendant crew figures make for impressive display pieces once assembled together. The provision of separate poses for the gunners and loaders, and the breaking down of the weapons into multiple pieces, allow a much more realistic and three-dimensional portrayal of these armaments. Compare the two pictures below!
Note how the Timpo figure above is undoubtedly a clever design, but forces an awkward posture and lacks condenser and other crew.
By comparison, the Airfix Vickers looks right – plenty of paraphernalia and a controlled sprawl.
Whether there was ever a commercial case for creating a separate set of support weapons is open to doubt, as such a set is really only useable if you already have the plain old infantry to support, and how many people would have the enthusiasm and pocket-money to go that extra step? Sales were therefore likely to be low.
I’ll leave you with a final thought. I think a better strategy might have been to try and extend the ‘Airfix standard’ 7-pose infantry set with a single multipart machine gun or mortar and 2 or 3-man crew. After all, other sets from Airfix included no fewer than 13 poses (see the German Mountain Troops for one example) so this was obviously possible at the time. Just a (retrospective) idea…
As already noted, when Airfix released the support group, there were no British infantry for them to support! In fact, it wasn’t until 1981 that Airfix (finally and belatedly) released set 51575-7 British Infantry.
Naturally, the 7 infantry poses in this set included a soldier using a Bren light machine gun, as this was a common weapon issued to 10-man infantry sections. Unexpectedly, however, it also contained a man operating a 2” mortar which was a weapon held by a platoon headquarters and so a less common sight.
Here we immediately see the problem of including heavy weapons in infantry sets. Neither the Bren nor the mortar gunner are supported by figures loading the weapon or carrying ammunition; and even more annoying, no suitable poses can be found from the other figures in the set or from amongst the support group. Very frustrating!
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Airfix did not create any other sets of heavy weapons – not even for the German army.