On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland. France had already guaranteed Poland's security, and as a result declared war on Germany two days later. Yet despite having what some contemporaries considered the finest army in the World, France's strategy was defensive and no help reached Poland. When Germany invaded in 1940 the French Army, previously only involved in some minor actions, was tested to the full and was unable to avoid occupation of their country - an occupation that was to last over four cruel years.
We found it very difficult to decide on the exact period for these figures. The French infantryman of 1939 looked much like his predecessor had done in 1918. He wore a greatcoat and a steel helmet very similar to the Adrian type. The figures in this set do not conform to that look as they wear a very short tunic with open collar and no pockets. Tunics were more common in the Vichy army, though still not in this pattern, and late war French forces were clothed and equipped from American stores (a fact that Atlantic used by issuing their US marines set as French troops by simply using a blue plastic). If this were American uniform then we would expect a longer tunic and long leggings, but we find a very short tunic and simple anklets over the boots (three even have the very old-fashioned puttees). Also most of these men wear the old Adrian-style helmet, which did happen during the Liberation, but the American M1 helmet was more common (it does help to make these men look more obviously French though). In short this is something of a mystery, although it is true that Vichy French and Free-French forces found it difficult to standardise uniforms and equipment, which is perhaps just as well for this set.
One individual wears a beret, but is otherwise dressed the same as the rest. Several specialised units wore the beret, as did fortress troops such as those on the Maginot Line, but this was worn down over the left ear French style - only officers wore it over the right. However the Free French forces late in the war, such as the commandos, did sometimes wear the beret over the right ear. The stretcher-bearers both wear greatcoats, and the stretcher they bear carries a casualty which is cast separately, so can also serve as a soldier fallen on the ground. The men wear a variety of webbing, none of it American, and much of it looking like early war French models, which adds to be confused appearance. Their packs are certainly French, but more reminiscent of the Great War than World War II, and are inappropriate for after 1940. Some items of kit appear French but others look American such as the water bottles carried by five of the poses.
Most of the men carry rifles, with a couple having Thompson sub machine guns. Two men are using what seems to be an American Bazooka, a device not used by the French until late in the war. The model here is 25mm in length, which scales up to 1.8 metres, so if this is meant to be a Bazooka it is much too long as the real thing was only between 1.37 and 1.55 metres in length, depending on model. The number two holds a rocket for this weapon which measures 10mm in length and has a fairly rounded nose, so would be the later M6A3 type, which was 493mm long, much shorter than the scale 720mm of the item held by this figure. The prone gunner fires what appears to be a British Bren gun, which were indeed used by Free French Forces in 1944 and 45.
The poses are not particularly good. Much space is taken up with the stretcher party and the anti tank team, but the rest excite little interest. One man is kneeling with bayonet pointed up as if to receive Napoleonic cavalry, and the only man running is looking sideways rather than where he is going. In common with many Esci sets, the mortar is moulded with the operator, who has no base. On this occasion an attempt at a support has been made, but the result is a very unrealistic mess.
Though it is not easy to tell, it would appear that this set is meant to represent French forces after the landings in Normandy. Though these men wore mainly American uniforms, they tried to retain some French items, particularly the distinctive helmet. This would explain the British and American equipment, and to some extent the uniform, but the set is still a confused disappointment. The sculpting is good as always for Esci, but the quite poor poses and clumsy design of the mortar let it down badly.