The excitement surrounding the release of this set was not that it was of WWII British infantry - there are already several of those - but that it was the first brand new figure set from Airfix in almost three decades. Airfix have a patchy record when it comes to figure sets, but some of their later sets, despite their antiquity, still compare very well with sets being produced today. With the mould for their first proper set of British Infantry having been lost, Airfix released the old Esci set as they realised there was a big gap in their range, but work quickly began on a brand new tooling. This is the result, and when it was released expectations were very high, so meeting those expectations was always going to be a challenge.
Pre-release publicity and the box made it clear that these figures are for the campaign in North-West Europe from D-Day to the end of the war, by which time the British Army had transformed itself from the broken instrument that had evacuated Dunkirk four years earlier. Some things however remained the same, and that included the battledress - a modern design that would soon be copied by the Germans. Every man here wears this, and it has been properly done with the short blouse and the trousers with large map pocket on the left thigh and the field dressing pocket on the right. All the men wear boots and anklets, and all have the Mk.II helmet, most being covered with netting and scrim. There is nothing wrong in any of these observations, although Airfix have rather missed a trick here as by 1944 British troops would sometimes be found wearing the popular leather jerkin, and of course increasing numbers wore the Mk.III helmet, both of which are sadly missing here. Still if these figures are not entirely representative of the subject in 1944-45 then neither is any particular figure inaccurate in terms of uniform, although how that has been sculpted we will discuss shortly.
Another constant from 1940 was the webbing, the 1937 pattern, which again all of these men wear. They all have the small pack on the back, as they should for battle order, and the usual pouches at the front, plus entrenching tool, canteen and light anti-gas respirator on the hips. Some also sport rolled gas capes under their pack. So far so good, and a couple of figures even have extra GS spades on them, which were much better than the entrenching tools. One has his tucked under his webbing, as was normal, but the other has it attached to his back by means that are not visible or particularly easy to guess. Many, but not all, of the riflemen have the bayonet socket, but there is one particular figure that stood out for us. The middle figure in the second row wears a small box respirator in the alert position on his chest. By 1944 this had been superseded by the light anti-gas respirator the rest of the men carry, so it seems out of place in this set (but fine for 1940), although we cannot be sure that none were carried in the weeks after D-Day. Four of the poses also have bandoliers, which is particularly nice to see.
So much for uniform and webbing - now we turn to the weapons. There are a good many riflemen here, with what looks like more than one type in use, but to our surprise only one man has a fixed bayonet. Three poses are using the Sten gun, which by this stage was becoming increasingly available to privates as well as NCOs and officers, and two carry a Bren. The only prone figure is holding a PIAT in his right hand and a cardboard case for the rounds in his left, while the officer has only his pistol for armament. The second figure in the last row holds a reel for laying field telephone cable. All of this kit is authentic, but again the sculpting is another matter...
If there is not much wrong with the design, then this set really lets itself down with the sculpting. The first thing to say is also the most obvious: the battledress was meant to be loose and comfortable, but every figure here seems to have clothing that is almost as skin-tight as the previous Airfix set of British Infantry, which just looks ridiculous for the 1940s and is certainly very wrong. Much the same can be said for the weapons, as all the rifles are much too thin and spindly - a look that matches perfectly with the poor figures themselves. The one and only fixed bayonet is so short as to threaten harm to no one. The three Sten guns are all much too long and one has a strange triangular magazine clip, while the Bren in the hands of the kneeling figure is much too short, having lost most of its muzzle. While we are talking about the Bren, the other one has a grossly exaggerated carrying handle, and neither are particularly good models. The radio is no more than a general representation of such a device, since if it is meant to represent the common No.18 model then it lacks the battery as well as the metal and canvas covers that protected it. Finally the PIAT is also rather too thin. Detail is only reasonable and generally quite soft and not nearly as sharp as the old Esci figures that this set replaces. Faces are remarkably minimal in terms of detail, and most hands have little or no finger sculpting at all. Flash however is only to be found in a few places, and any excess plastic between arms and weapons has been kept to a minimum too.
The poses are also less than impressive, with a lot of relatively stiff and straight-backed poses that do not reflect 20th century warfare well. A couple of the advancing figures are at least leaning forward, which is a start, but these days we expect to see more poses of men looking like they are under fire rather than on patrol well behind the front lines. However our most unloved pose of the day is surely the prone man with the PIAT. Now prone figures are a good thing for a set such as this, but take a look at what this man is doing. He holds his PIAT in his right hand, and yes, it is loaded and ready to fire. He seems to be holding it by the trigger - a dangerous thing to do with any loaded weapon - yet he seems to be crawling forward and dragging a case of bombs at the same time. He should be using his left hand to steady his weapon, but he cannot because the PIAT is being held at something like a 45 degree angle, so is not resting on its monopod, and nor is it being aimed. Normally the PIAT would be loaded by the No.2 (which is not in this set) when the No.1 is settled and ready to fire, so whatever is going on here this is not a good pose.
As we have said, the figures are basically historically accurate but the sculpting of clothing and equipment spoils this and has caused us to knock off some accuracy points. Any set could arguably have had other elements, and some will have been disappointed by the lack of mortars or other heavier weapons, but since many of these are available elsewhere we were not disappointed about that. Where we were disappointed - very disappointed - was in the general look of these figures, which are thin and weedy with poorly sculpted weapons. For a better example of how these troops actually appeared Airfix need do no more than look at their own 1/32 sets, and indeed in many ways a scaled-down version of them would have been preferable - can you imagine that? Perhaps expectations were too high - it has after all been a generation since they last sculpted figures, and the economics and realities of manufacturing today are very different from the 1980s, but there are plenty of great sets being made these days, and while like most people we desperately wanted the new Airfix to be up to their best standards they simply are not. Of course they are not the worst set ever made either - far from it - but on balance we prefer the old Esci set, despite all its faults.