The war in the deserts of North Africa is often seen as a sideshow, and it is hard to argue that it was crucial to the eventual outcome of the wider war - that was always going to happen in Europe. The Italians provoked this campaign by attacking British possessions such as Egypt simply to extend their conquests around the Mediterranean, and the British protected their lands and drove deep into Italian territories both to preserve their position and to secure access to the Persian Gulf and India, both of which were vital for the British war effort. With the intervention of German forces this became a major battleground at a time when the Allies were not strong enough to land back in continental Europe and the Soviets were still struggling to defend their heartland. The men that fought that campaign would become known as the Eighth Army or, more simply, the Desert Rats, and their battles against both the enemy and the inhospitable environment would make them famous. Matchbox, a British company, followed the example of Airfix by making this set of those men, with a particular emphasis on the Scottish troops.
Like all the Matchbox figure sets, this one has a lot of poses, which is great. There are the usual advancing and firing poses, plus a man apparently using the butt of his rifle and another about to throw a grenade. The inclusion of both a mortar and a Vickers medium machine gun means several of the poses are required to serve those weapons, though while the mortar has a couple of men feeding (or at least supplying) it, the machine gun has a gunner but no one feeding ammunition, which is a pity. There are also a couple of officers, the second of which looks enormously like Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, the most famous of the Army's commanders, complete with pair of cap badges. A piper helps to accentuate the Scottish highland feel to the set, which is rounded off with a German prisoner. With 17 poses there is room for the more marginal poses like the piper, prisoner and commander, plus the heavy weapons crews, though this does mean overall there are only an average number of ordinary soldier poses on offer. Still it is a great selection in total.
The figures are actually advertised as 1/76th scale, though they are a bit small even for that scale, and are certainly overawed by other sets at true 1/72nd scale. However the sculpting is very good, with great detail and good proportions, while most of the weapons are also excellent. Although the figures feel a little slim to the touch, not helped by the thin bases, the poses are not generally flat in appearance, so these make good-looking soldiers where even the faces are nicely done. The Vickers machine gun is a decent sculpt, though the tripod is a bit basic, and the mortar is considerably simplified, to the extent that the way the barrel attaches to the bipod is entirely fantasy, done to make assembly easy. Flash on our example was variable but quite noticeable in places, though this probably depends greatly on when the set was made.
Clothing is pretty standard, with everyone wearing khaki drill shirt and shorts. Many wear the steel helmet of course, but some wear the tam-o'-shanter, which makes them stand out as Scottish troops, though in reality this was out-of-the-line wear, and in battle the steel helmet would be worn by all. The piper sports a kilt, but in any case is probably not within easy sight of the enemy so the kilt would be good for moral. The first officer wears a battle jerkin and carries binoculars, though there is no sign of the case in which they would normally live. The Montgomery figure wears classic pullover and beret, typical casual attire for this commander.
Apart from the rather crude mortar the weapons are OK, including Thompsons and Brens, although the bayonets where fixed tend to be too short on many, making them look more like penknives. The only other fault is a very minor one - the pipes on the bagpipes have no material linking them near the top, which would make them impossible to keep in the correct position.
This is a very nice set, and the inclusion of a surrendering German prisoner is a nice touch (the AfrikaKorps set has a corresponding British prisoner to keep things equitable!). The small size counts against them when put up against other sets reviewed on this site, but if you can live with that then these make attractive figures that are only really let down by the liberties sometimes taken with their weapons, plus the inappropriate wearing of the cap on a few.