This post veers off the topic of ‘Dark Age’ Warfare (on which more soon). One or two of you might know that I am an aficionado of the noble 1/72 plastic figure. Probably rather more of you might know that the last week or so has seen something of a momentous event, in the release of Airfix’s first new set of figures in 29 years: WWII British Infantry (pictures here from the very wonderful – indeed indispensable – Plastic Soldier Review site, from which all of the other links below come). The production of plastic ‘toy soldiers’ went into something of a ‘Dark Age’ after Airfix finished their production … and that’s the tenuous link to the usual subject matter of this blog, I suppose! Since the late 1990s, though, this area of the hobby has been in something of a golden age, with hundreds of sets available from numerous manufacturers (check out this graph).
Nonetheless, until very recently, metal figures aside, one could be forgiven that Britain was not involved at all in the Second World War, outside the desert, from the availability of 1/72 figures. Still nothing in plastic for 1940, Italy or the Far East, but now we have a rush of sets from Valiant, Plastic Soldier, Caesar, HaT (mortars and machine-guns) and now Airfix, all aimed at the North West European theatre from 1944-45. These add to the Revell set (unique in plastic for their Mk III helmets), the long-unavailable Esci set, re-released by Italeri and (briefly) Airfix (that version – confusingly released with the box art associated with the 1970s set of Airfix British infantry – now replaced by the new set) and any old survivors of the original Airfix set. Indeed even the venerable 1/76 Matchbox set has recently been re-released by Revell.
Obviously, then, I had to get a set – even if my interest in WWII is in 1940 rather than D-Day and after. Airfix produced some great sets of figures in their time – in my view the second versions of their Afrika Korps and Eighth Army sets are as good figures as have ever been produced in any scale or medium. So does this new set live up to the expectations doubtless heaped upon it? I had been hoping, I must admit, that Airfix might just pantograph down their 1/32 scale WWII British Infantry and British Infantry Support Group sets, both of which are nice figures (if very inaccurately lightly-equipped). Instead they have released a set of new sculpts. How do they measure up to the competition a generation after the appearance of their ‘modern Russians’?
In terms of anatomy and scale, the figures are good. One of the things I like about traditional ‘plastics’ is their human anatomy – devoid of the over-large heads and squat physiques of most ‘wargames-based’ production, even if this does make them look spindly by comparison, something that can put people off. Most of the poses are good and natural too. Although the running rifleman strays rather close to the ‘goofy pose’ beloved of Esci and indeed the earlier Airfix set (though he does not prance like the latter), he is at least natural. I wasn’t impressed by the PIAT operator, who looks too much like an old Esci sculpt (I never liked the Esci style, but that’s just a matter of taste), but he’ll certainly do. I haven’t looked closely and doubtless there are things to pick up on but the webbing and uniform look fine, on the whole, to me. The ‘BD’ may be a little tight, making some of the legs look a bit scrawny. All troops are wearing Mk II helmets (which is fine by me if I want to convert them to 1940 BEF), with netting and camouflage ‘scrim’ in most cases. This does limit their range to the second half of 1944, though. Denison and other smocks, leather jerkins and Mk III helmets would all be much more in evidence in ’45.
The balance of weapons is OK too. One of the most common faults, historically, with plastic 1/72 figures is the tendency to overload the set with sub-machine-gunners (an inheritance, perhaps, of the origins of this form of model in the straightforward children’s toy soldier market). With 24 riflemen, 9 Sten-gunners, 6 bren-gunners, 3 officers with pistols, 3 radio-operators and 3 PIAT-operators this is not too bad – indeed better than most – though some heavy weapons would have been nice.(1) The set allows 4 8-man sections (6 riflemen, a bren-gun and a sten-armed NCO each) plus a platoon HQ of sorts. Not too much waste.
So far then so good … ish. It’s the sculpting that really lets this set down. It’s not the worst on the market by a long shot. With ill-defined detail on weaponry, and little facial detail, it matches the ‘average’ of HaT’s very variable production, but comes well short of Casear, Revell or the market leaders, Zvezda. More to the point, they aren’t as nice as Airfix’s own best. The acid test, of course, will be how well they paint up. So, overall, it is great to see Airfix back but, if I’m honest, I was hoping for something rather better.
(1): In this regard the worst offenders are/were Esci (20 riflemen to 12 tommy-gunners – so a further negative mark for historical accuracy, there – and 2 sten-guns in vignettes out of 50 figures), followed by Caesar (12 rifles to 12 stens, in ‘action poses’, plus 2 PIATs, 3 Brens, 4 flame-throwers (!), 6 standing or marching riflemen and an officer), Valiant (24 rifles and 4 brens to 4 stens – the right ratio [unless you want PIATS, in which case you lose Bren-gunners] – but then 4 light mortars, 4 heavy mortars, 4 vickers guns, 4 OP teams and 4 groups of officers thus weighting the set massively towards heavy weapons) and the old Airfix set (19 rifles and 12 stens to 8 brens plus assorted stretcher-bearers, radio-ops and an officer – and no PIATs or heavy weapons). The best is probably Plastic Soldier (27 rifles, 6 bren teams [3 moving, 3 firing], 9 stens, plus sundry officers, casualties and snipers but no heavy weapons – presumably to be found in a separate set as has been the way with their range), followed maybe by Revell (20 rifles to 4 stens, 4 moving and 4 firing brens, 4 moving – but no firing! – PIAT teams, 3 light mortars and a couple of officers) or this Airfix set. The HaT WWII British heavy weapon sets (mortars and – less good – MGs) can accompany this set or the Plastic Soldier box.