A Crowded Marketplace
As we have seen in Fighting Toy Stories, the Airfix Military Series of 1:32 plastic figures were both cheap and good quality. They sold well, and not un-naturally, other manufacturers were attracted to the market. How well did the Airfix figures stack up against the opposition?
Let’s attempt to answer this by surveying the offerings available on a famous military formation – the British Eighth Army, most famous for fighting and eventually winning a long campaign against the Axis Powers in North Africa.
The Eighth Army
The Eighth Army comprised the British and Commonwealth units that fought in the deserts of North Africa from September 1941 through to the end of the campaign in May 1943, when the last Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered. Following this, the army then took part in the invasion of Sicily and fought through the arduous Italian campaign, where the tenacious German defence of the mountainous peninsula made for slow progress. Only at the very end of the war, in April 1945, did the Allies break into the north Italian plain.
The war in North Africa was what made the Eighth Army famous, probably because of the rapid advances and retreats that characterised mobile warfare in the desert; and most obviously because the campaign was a definitive success, the first achieved by the Western Allies against Germany. The crowning victory in the campaign was the Second Battle of Alamein in late 1942, where Bernard Montgomery (‘Monty’), the Eighth Army commander, was able to break through the defences of Erwin Rommel, the so-called Desert Fox.
One thing needs to be set straight at this point. The Eighth Army is sometimes referred to (not by Airfix!) as the Desert Rats – but this appellation really belongs only to the 7th Armoured Division, of which the jerboa was the divisional symbol. Most infantry, such as depicted in our set, would have been in other divisions; and since these divisions came from many Commonwealth nations, equipped in similar fashion, they could be of a number of nationalities.
The Airfix British Eighth Army
1805 Eighth Army
Year first produced:1971
L77xW28xH64 (max), Plastic 3g (av), Scale 1:32, Features: 0
The set was one of the early releases in the series, and comprises the ‘standard’ 29 figures in 7 poses. They are made from sand-coloured polythene plastic, and each (except for the prone figure) stands on a flat base.
The 7 poses are distributed as follows in my set:
- One officer running forwards, pistol drawn
- Five infantrymen charging with rifle and bayonet
- Four soldiers standing firing
- Five kneeling firing
- Six standing firing a Thomson SMG
- Five men walking with bayonetted rifle held high
- Three prone Bren LMG gunners, crawling forward
Most of the poses are traditional, firing their weapons or advancing, the charging figures being very like the infantry in various posed publicity photographs taken before the Alamein battle. The LMG gunner is unusual in that he is sculpted crawling forward. This makes for a slightly awkward match with the other figures, who seem to be making little attempt to hide away: it might have been better if the Bren was giving fire support, or the figure was advancing at pace with his colleagues.
The figures are well-animated. Of course, the usual absence of wariness in the poses can be criticised. In action, and especially in the open terrain of the desert, most soldiers would have kept low to the ground, or sheltered in foxholes. Movement would be cautious, and full-blooded charges against a shooting enemy very rare. But then, who wants to buy a set of skulking and crouching figures?
All of the figures have good detail, with visible but not intrusive mould lines and ejector pin circles. They wear minimal kit, and despite their shorts and sleeves, give the standard ‘toy soldier’ impression of uniformity and neatness of dress that would surely be unlikely in the field. They also carry numbers on their shorts, the purpose or meaning of which is obscure to me. They range from 2 to 32, and there are duplicates. If anyone knows what these numbers mean, please contact me or leave a comment!
The box for my set is of the early ‘brown box’ type, with an illustrated action picture dominating the front. The picture shows several soldiers in poses matching the contained figures – an officer running forwards, pistol drawn, and several soldiers running with rifle and bayonet extended. It includes a Bren gunner in a curious stance, either falling to the ground, or stooping very low, but clearly referring to the crawling figure. The figure is shown again on the side of the box, this time more closely matching the moulded figure, but flipped on his side to show more detail. I can’t help thinking that the box illustrator has misunderstood the pose!
The rear of the box carries ‘painting instructions’, which here means simply a front and back colour illustration of an infantryman (not keyed to the colours involved, thus unintelligible to a colour-blind person like me – grrrr!) plus some vestigial text.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that if, unlike me, you can paint the figures to a high standard, they look pretty impressive!
Let’s take the Airfix set as a benchmark of well-made, no-frills figures against which we can assess the opposition. Luckily, the Eighth Army was a popular subject in the UK, and so several competing sets of figures were produced. When Airfix started the Military Series, they were faced with immediate competition from Timpo, and during the 1970s, both Britains with their Deetail range, and Matchbox joined the fray. A late arrival on the scene was Revell, who released sets of figures in the 1990s.
The Timpo set of Eighth Army figures were originally metal figures, remade in plastic and released as part of their Action Packs series round about 1969. They were a theatrical bunch of figures, heavily-equipped and cartoonishly styled, with exaggerated features and some inaccuracies. Included were a Vickers machine gun, a flamethrower, a radioman, a mine detector and no less a figure than Monty himself.
We have already met the Britains Deetail range on this website, so regular readers will be familiar with them. In 1976, they released a set of Eighth Army figures which are, in many ways, similar to those by Airfix. There are 6 figures in familar poses, with a similar style, level of detail and light equipment. The obvious differences are the prominent metal bases, and the fact that the figures are pre-painted.
Where the Deetail range departs quite noticeably from Airfix is that they also made available, as a separate piece, a tripod-mounted machine gun with crew. This model, in eye-catching silver, is a rough representation of the Vickers that was used throughout WW2 by the British Army, and comes mounted on a single base with two crew (gunner and loader) and the condenser used to recycle water from the barrel jacket. Unusually though, it is engineered to fire not bullets, but small spherical balls. This is in keeping with Britains’ tradition of making artillery pieces that can actually fire projectiles, but is perhaps best forgotten by anyone interested in accuracy… See here for how Airfix tackled the same subject.
Matchbox, like Timpo, extended the number of poses available. In addition to more action poses, they (also like Timpo) included a Monty figure, plus a Scottish piper and, unusually, a soldier at the point of being shot. The figures are more animated and appear more complicated, mainly because they carry more kit, but also due to areas of exaggerated detail and texture, and strong facial expressions. As well as the piper who wears a kilt, some of the figures have caps, the officer wears a jerkin, and Monty a pullover.
Well after the heyday of Airfix in the 1970s, in 1996 Revell released a set of Eighth Army figures, specifically identifying them as Scottish troops. As with the Matchbox set, the Scottishness of the soldiers is indicated by the presence of a piper, and the wearing of the Tam o’Shanter.
Unlike the previous 1:32 figures, the Revell soldiers were 1:35 scale and thus noticeably smaller. They were sold in boxes with one of each pose, and although details can be slightly soft are probably the most impressive in terms of animation and a realistic variety of poses and kit. The 10 poses manage to include no less than 5 advancing stances, so you can make a convincing attacking tableau, plus unusual poses such as a Bren-gunner using an extended fire tripod, an officer with pistol and walking stick, and an overcoated figure obviously feeling the cold (it could be freezing in the desert at night).
Let’s summarise the five sets we have looked at:
|Clothing & kit||Uniform & minimal||Inaccuracies||Uniform & minimal||Realistic variation||Realistic variation|
Compared to our Airfix figures, those from Timpo show the age of their metal forebears and are clearly inferior in quality. One can see how Airfix was able to quickly establish a new benchmark for affordable quality. The Deetail set are almost identical in style, despite being visually quite different due to their bases and paintwork. The Matchbox set were also similar, but more varied in appearance and pose, and with enhanced detail. The Revell figures are from a later era, with suitably excellent quality but smaller and perhaps more like display miniatures than toy soldiers.
Of the variation between manufacturers described above, the most significant outliers are the rather crude Timpo figures and the smaller scale Revell set. Neither can sit alongside the Airfix sets without being noticed. The differences between the figures from Airfix, Deetail and Matchbox on the other hand, are probably no greater than the variability between Airfix Military Series sets from different eras. In fact, and this is the really encouraging conclusion from this review, if you were minded to you could probably mix and match figures from Airfix, Deetail and Matchbox, especially once rebased and (re)painted. That makes for a potential 26 poses!
All of the manufacturers reviewed in this story with the exception of Timpo, also produced sets of Afrika Korps troops to oppose their Eighth Army infantry.
Naturally, Airfix produced several other sets of British troops of WW2. You can read elsewhere on Fighting Toy Stories about the most unusual of these, 51459-6 British Infantry Support Group. Other sets created were
- 51575-7 British Infantry
- 1736 British Commandos
- 1712 British Paratroops