Over the years, military figures have been made in various types of plastic. The two forms most used are polystyrene and polythene. The former can be categorised as ‘hard’ because it is rigid and the latter ‘soft’, because it is flexible. ESCI has used both types, so let’s explore why by taking a look at a typical set that has been modelled in both materials – the Afrika Korps.
The Afrika Korps
The Afrika Korps was the German contingent of the Axis armies in North Africa. It was formed when the Italians were comprehensively defeated and driven from Cyrenaica during the winter of 1940/41, and sent to Africa to prevent a collapse and the total loss of Libya. The main striking force of the Afrika Korps was the tanks of the two assigned panzer divisions. However, infantry also played an important part in their battles, manning the front line when on the defence, or in attack, travelling in motorised units behind the panzers, and disembarking to assault Allied defensive positions.
The commander of the Afrika Korps was Rommel, an aggressive risk-taker, who led two major offensives against the Commonwealth forces of the Eighth Army. Both were initially successful but eventually ground to a halt, hamstrung by extended supply lines and the increasingly superior Allied numbers. After the famous battle of Second Alamein in October 1942, the Afrika Korps was comprehensively defeated and forced to retreat from Egypt to the Tunisian border. When the allies invaded Morocco and Algeria from the sea in November, opening up a second front to the west, all hopes of recovery were doomed. The remnants of the Afrika Korps surrendered in May 1943.
The war in North Africa was dynamic, with dramatic shifts of the front line as one side or the other gained the ascendancy and the other was forced to retreat over long distances. The flexibility and tactical superiority of the German forces under Rommel’s command, who managed to outmanoeuvre and outfight the more rigid Allied formations, lent the Afrika Korps a fearsome reputation. Not surprisingly, they have been a perennial favourite with military figure manufacturers.
The Polystyrene Afrika Korps
As already mentioned, polystyrene plastic is ‘hard’ or rigid at room temperature. However, if heated, it becomes fluid and can be injected into moulds to produce finely detailed items. Once cooled, these items keep their shape (unless subjected to extreme force when they will bend or break). Polystyrene can easily be worked on by a modeller: it can be cut with a sharp knife; filed or sanded; glued to other parts easily with appropriate ‘polystyrene cement’ glue; and painted using acrylics or oil-based paints.
Given the characteristics outlined above, polystyrene is the ideal choice for injection-moulded plastic construction kits, such as those by Airfix, Revell or Matchbox. ESCI used it to produce their range of 1:72 military vehicles, which launched in 1974. To accompany the vehicles, they also produced some sets of infantry, as part of the same range and using the same production methods.
One typical example of these is set 8018 Afrika Korps German Soldiers, released in 1975. The contents of the box are stated on the front: 21 men and 2 mortars, but inside it’s more complex than that. To begin with, the bases for the figures are separate pieces to which the figures must be glued.
There are 9 poses in total. The majority of the figures are single-piece mouldings:
- kneeling firing rifle x 6
- standing firing rifle x 4
- standing firing SMG x 2
- stooping with rifle x 1
In addition, there are 2 prone LMG gunners to which must be attached two ammunition boxes and belts (separate pieces on the sprue), but note that there is no loader figure to assist in the operation.
The remaining 6 figures are multi-part, some being split at the waist, and all having separate arms:
- advancing with rifle x 2
- mortar loaders x 2
- kneeling with SMG
- kneeling with binoculars
Like the LMG, the mortar is crewed by a single figure, which is hardly representative of reality.
In theory the pieces could be interchangeable, which would allow for a variety of poses to be constructed, but in fact departing from the recommended assembly would be problematical. For example, the kneeling SMG gunner is the only figure equipped with ammunition pouches for that weapon, while the binoculars user has a prominent carrying case on the right hip. It may be that the reason for the separate parts is to facilitate some more 3D poses, but I’m guessing that ESCI did this because they were kit makers, and simply had that approach.
Also on the sprue are:
- 2 mortars which must be assembled from separate base, tube and bipod
- 2 boxes for mortar bombs with separate lids, plus 8 rounds
- 3 closed ammunition boxes for the LMG
The poses are well animated and detail on the figures is reasonable, but there are a few moulding issues where the plastic has not reached all parts of the mould: one of the LMGs is truncated and several of the figures have sink holes in their stomachs. There is also a curious similarity to some of the poses used by Airfix in their HO/OO set of Afrika Korps released two years earlier…
Clearly, it is entirely possible to make a set of 1/72 figures from polystyrene, but this set suffers from some quality issues and most importantly the separation of the parts means that you get only a small number of figures from the two sprues.
The Polythene Afrika Korps
206 WW2 Afrika Corps Soldiers
Year first produced:1983
L210xW130xH30 (box), Plastic 67g, Scale 1:72, Features: 0
Inside the box is the usual ESCI two-part sprue, this time in sand-coloured polythene. There are 50 figures spread across the sprue, in 15 poses. The poses are distributed into 3 groups, each of 5 poses. The most numerous group consists of men in fairly standard combat poses, and is repeated five times. Two men fire their rifles, while a third advances holding it in front of him (but has no bayonet fitted, so looks a little awkward). A fourth figure throws a grenade, while the fifth pose is running.
The next group is repeated 3 times, and includes less usual poses, including a prone light machine gunner, two kneeling sub machine gunners (NCOs?), and a prone rifleman throwing a grenade. The fifth pose is a little puzzling: an awkwardly sitting figure seems to be clutching his outstretched leg. Is he wounded? His face betrays no emotion…
The final group is repeated twice, and includes figures that would have been less frequently seen. There are two officers, a figure grasping a mine and entrenching tool, a flamethrower operator, and a combined mortar and loader. The inclusion of a flamethrower is unusual – were they used much in North Africa? I wouldn’t have thought so. As is often the case with ESCI, the mortar is included but not completely represented – it has no tripod, and of course there are no other crew figures to serve it (although the figure with binoculars could be in command).
Overall, the poses are good and as usual, the clothing and weaponry are accurate and well-rendered with plenty of detail. It’s particularly nice to see a variety of clothing depicted. Figures wear varying combinations of shorts or long trousers, short or high boots, and steel helmets or field caps. There is perhaps too high a proportion of sub machine guns in the mix.
Turning to the box, we have a typical ESCI box with the illustration on the front giving a reasonable indication of the contents (which can also be viewed directly through the triangular window). The ESCI badge on the bottom right has the Ertl logo appended, indicating that this box was sold after the 1987 merger with Ertl. Note that ESCI mispelled the title of the set – it should be the “Afrika Korps” (with a K). On the back of the box is the usual painting guide.
As we have seen, the new Afrika Korps set, like the rest of the ESCI range of which it was a part, was made from polythene. This material is widely used for toys, being entirely non-toxic and difficult to break. Compared to polystyrene, which will bend or crack (especially if repeatedly flexed), it is very tough. The sets contained double the number of figures of the previous range, and they were well-detailed.
However, polythene has few of the advantages of polystyrene when it comes to modelling, and initially was considered an awkward material. Although it can be cut easily, and so any mould lines or flash can usually be trimmed away, it can’t be filed or sanded without causing burrs, it isn’t possible to glue with polystyrene glue, and paint would simply flake off due to residual chemical agents from the manufacturing process preventing adhesion, and/or the inherent flexibility of the material.
There were answers to most of these problems, but it took a while for these to become widely known, and for suitable products to become more widely available. Super glues (cyanoacrylates) will bond polythene to itself or other materials. Washing the figures in detergent before painting removes any release agents left over from the manufacturing process, and coating the figures in special flexible undercoats (or even diluted PVA), provides a base to which the paint can adhere. To see some painted sets, take a look at the Plastic Soldier Review website.
As we have seen, the early ESCI polystyrene figure sets took advantage of the more easily workable polystyrene material to produce some multipart figures, as these could be assembled fairly easily using tools available to modellers. However, in retrospect they weren’t very well designed because in practice they offered little flexibility in assembly – there was only way to assemble the parts. When compared to the larger more modern ‘28mm’ (roughly 1/60 scale) multipart wargaming figures which usually have a plethora of choices and exciting 3D poses, you can see that this was a missed opportunity.
Nowadays, there is little reason to shun polythene figures. The joys of assembling multipart figures are dubious for those with more thumbs than fingers; the level of detail that ESCI achieved with their polythene range rivals that of any modern offerings, especially at 1/72; and the tools and techniques to durably paint the figures are available.
If you are a devotee of hard plastic, the early ESCI polystyrene range included various infantry sets that are sometimes to be found for sale on well-known auction sites, for example:
- 8016 US Soldiers Marine Corps
- 8017 Russian Soldiers Guards Units
- 8019 Eighth Army British Soldiers