Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Airfix Soldiers: Where It all began

Along with the ROCO Minitanks came Airfix figures. these were imported by Associated Hobby Manufacturers, better known as AHM for their dark blue boxes with yellow trim. The importer got its start bringing European-made HO trains to the states. Back then, scale was a looser fit that it is today. Some of AHM/’s trains were pure HO at 1/87 scale. Others were made to British OO standards: a 1/76 scale train made to run on HO track. Airfix handled the middle ground between both by promoting its figures as HO / OO.
The difference is conspicuous today. HO is 3.5mm to the scale foot, and OO is 4mm per scale foot. A 40' boxcar body in HO is about 140mm long as opposed to OO at 160mm. Even in figures a 6 foot man in HO is 21mm tall. In OO, he is 24mm. In 1/72, he is 25.4mm. The differences do show, at least to us who have been acclimated to scale.
I am of the impression that AHM’s motivation for importing Minitanks and Airfix "Minimen" had everything to do with HO model railroading. They probably did not realize that these would become a hobby in themselves. Airfix produced six sets of figures at the time: Guards Band, Guards Colour Party, Civilians, Farm Stock. Infantry Combat Group and German Infantry. The Guards were Coldstream Guard types that would be useful for parades in a model railroad setting. Farm stock were typical farm animals one might find the Britain. There were pigs, horses and cows for England, as well as sheep for the Welsh and Scots. Civilians were typical everyday people of the time. It even had a motor scooter. They might be a bit big for pure HO, but they fit well enough. They were especially welcome at a time when HO scenery was less well supported.
The Infantry Combat Group and the German Infantry were different. These were miniature soldiers in combat poses. The Infantry Combat Group were molded in a medium green drab. Their equipment was along the lines of British troops, along with the late-war Tortoise Shell helmet. At that size, they could pass for other Allied troops. Cast in a blue-grey, the Germans wore the standard helmet and uniform that were issued from 1938 onward to 1944. Both sets had stretcher bearer medic teams. The Germans also had a peculiar antitank gun very loosely based on the PAK 42 "Squeeze gun". I doubt the sculptors checked the TO&E for either army. Conspicuously missing were the light machine guns that were part of every infantry squad during World War II.
There was not much else out there. Authenticast had made some 20mm scale figures of American, German and Soviet infantry. The sets included one or two advancing riflemen, an advancing submachine gunner, prone and kneeling riflemen, and a man with an antitank weapon. In this case, it was a Panzerfaust for the Germans and a bazooka for Americans. Each set also had one-piece castings of a two-man machine gun team and a 37mm antitank gun with two crewmen. However, these were not well known. Few shops carried them. Airfix was the first most of us saw of small-scale soldiers.
The combination of Airfix soldiers and ROCO tanks enthralled budding young hobbyists. The tanks had excellent detail in a small size, and the soldiers looked good. Price also had its due. At 50 cents for a box of Airfix soldiers and a quarter for a Roco Minitank, a lad could have a platoon of infantry and two supporting armored vehicles. Additionally, those early ROCO tanks came with a pair of decals: white stars for US, red stars for commies and panzer crosses for the Germans.
AHM billed the Airfix soldiers as Minimen to accompany the Minitanks. The small boxes of soldiers had cellophane windows though which you could see the figures. On back of each box was a list of all the poses and figures enclosed. Boxes were brightly colored with drawings of their contents.
The original owner painted his to match the box art
And if you look at the picture on the Infantry Combat Troops, you can see that the artist was inspired by Herald’s Khaki Infantry. Two of the men are carrying SLR rifles and charging like the Herald figure, which is not replicated in the Airfix set.
The fun started when the box was opened. Out came sprues of soldiers. Each had to be detached with a little twist and turn. Each new pose was interesting. Soon there was a small pile of diminutive army men just waiting for their first battle.
The German seemed exotic to us. They had those odd grenades and other weird equipment. Most of us had only seen German troops in the movies. Handling toy German soldiers up close brought us into contact with their unique uniforms and equipment.
In no time, our toy soldiers were coupled with the toy tanks. Our tabletop battles began. We could have a complete battle on half of a kitchen table with the tiny figures. And what fun they were. Both sets had the classic posed: grenade guy, kneeling shooter, standing shooter, crawly guy, the charging guy. The Infantry Combat Group had one pose for a bayonet charge. None of the German weapon sported bayonets, so they better not run out of ammo!
We could put soldiers in back of little HO size half tracks and army trucks. Some could hitch a ride on back of a tank.
Of course, it got even better.
Our local hobby shop made a diorama using the tanks and soldiers. They also used a set of small European buildings, known later as "Village in a Bag." There were four cottages and a small church. Using a soldering iron, they had some "battle damage" to the houses. A combination of model railroad scenery and other items made a battle in a small town, complete with a creek running across it and bridges. The diorama maker had painted the faces, belts and weapons of the soldiers. Little boys thought it was amazing. I am sure that diorama, placed in the shop window, sold many a toy tank and box of Airfix soldiers.
In time, Airfix and Roco expanded their lines. ROCO added various tanks and vehicles, both modern (at the time) and World War II vintage. Airfix made more Minimen. Cowboys and Indians came next, cast in a russet color. In the following years they produced Civil War troops, British 8the Army, the Afrika Korps, French Foreign Legion and US Marines. Each new set was a welcome addition. We eventually had Japanese troops, paratroopers, Russians and commandos to supplement our tanks. There were also historic sets such as Romans, knights (Sheriff of Nottingham), ancient Britons and Medieval peasants (Merry Men) For some reason, the Revolutionary War guys were not that popular. Nor were the Napoleonics. The World War I sets went over well, however. I wonder how much Snoopy and the Red Baron had to do with that.
And how many of us busily built and painted Airfix’s 1/72 Sopwith Camel and Fokker Dr 1 Triplane? More than a few!
Four Airfix Second Version US Marines
Later, we started building the Airfix 1/76 military models. There were a handful of them before 1970, after which more vehicles were added to the list. The Airfix kits were nice enough. They seemed to dwarf ROCO and the other brand of pre-built tank, Roskopf. Nonetheless, we loved them all.
Airfix updated several of its older sets. I first saw these after finishing my time in the Army. The company re-sculpted its German Infantry, British Infantry, (Infantry Combat Group), US Marines, 8th Army, Foreign Legion and Afrika Korps. They were a little bigger and the poses were more realistic with better details. The larger size made them less compatible with ROCO. Meanwhile, other companies were competing. Matchbox had a series of World War II soldiers. An Italian company called Atlantic arrived with a variety of ancient warriors, Wild West figures and World War II troops. Fujimi and Hasegawa made hard plastic kits of World War II troops. Later, Esci entered the market. For most of us, Airfix was the standard by which all others were judged.
A Few of the Airfix Second Version British Infantry
Come the 1980s my circumstances and responsibilities changed, and I had to put hobbies aside for a time. My collections got lost later in that decade. When I again had time and space for hobbies, it was the mid 1990s. New makers were adding to the realm of small figures. Today, the variety is overwhelming. Many are from Russia and the Ukraine. The variety of armies and eras and troop types is astounding.
For all the variety and quality, those of us who were there when it began have a fondness for those two original sets of Airfix army men. The Infantry Combat Group and German infantry were our first and the ones that got the ball rolling.
Five Airfix First Version US Marines
Airfix might not have gotten all the details correct in some of their sets, but the animation of poses and assortment of figures made most sets a charm. They made a hard standard to match. In my opinion, Matchbox came close but was not quite as good. Esci ran hot and cold. Some sets were great and others were rather blase. Atlantic had its ups and downs, too. I have seen some of the current sets from various makers in recent years and it is quite amazing. Quality and variety are truly astounding. Even then, a set of Airfix soldiers usually costs a few dollars less than the others.
I think that I would like to use troops closer in scale to ROCO. Most of the 1/72 are too large. Granted, I have lost touch with 1/72 figures because I spend most hobby time making the 1/32 and 1/30 figures I hand cast.
For those interested in games with HO size soldiers and ROCO tanks, here are some rules you might want to try:
My game "Tankplank" was inspired by that diorama in the old hobby shop. It is an armored and infantry battle in a town. You can get Tankplank and Tankplank Advanced Rules here:
Battle by Charles Grant was one of the early sets of World War II games with HO miniatures. You can download a copy of the book when it ran in serial form in Meccanno Magazine from this page here:
We have several small games that derive from Charles Grant’s system. They are World War II game "Hans und Panzer," a version of Hans und Panzer for the war in North Africa, and a Cold War version called "Krunch a Commie." they can also be found on this page:
Phil Barker’s ruels for infantry and infantry armor games can be found here, as well as Ancient, Medieval and other rules.: