When Hitler decided to send German troops to the North Africa campaign, that force was always going to include tanks and the crews that manned them. In some ways the deserts of North Africa made excellent tank terrain, with large open spaces largely lacking habitation and other obstructions, allowing freedom of deployment and manoeuvre. However, it was also a very challenging environment, where sitting in a tank all day was often akin to sitting in an oven, and the constant dust and sand made maintenance a continual problem for all vehicles. For the two years that the campaign lasted, until the Spring of 1943 and the final surrender, all the major marks of German tanks served apart from the Panzer V, the Panther, and their impact was enormous, expertly handled by Rommel and his men. The efforts that those men made, and the sacrifices they endured, certain warrant a set such as this, which for the first time depicts such crewmen in Africa.
When the decision to go to Africa was made, panzer crew already had a smart and popular uniform, the M1934, but this was quite impractical for the challenging environment they were about to encounter, so they were issued the same tropical uniform as the rest of the force. The first element of this is also the most important for us – the tropical sun helmet. This helmet, made of compressed cork, was widely issued at the start, but was never popular with the men. To add to this, the wide-brimmed headgear was inappropriate for wear in the confined space of a tank, so the result was that it quite quickly disappeared, or at least was only brought out for formal occasions or other exceptional circumstances. Photos prove that tank crew did wear it when in the field, so it is a perfectly valid item to have here, but it firmly plants these figures as being for the early months of the desert war. After this initial period, the usual form of headgear was the peaked cap (again not ideal inside a tank, but good when outside) and the sidecap. Two of these figures (one an officer) wear the peaked cap, and none wear the sidecap, which significantly limits the utility of these figures in terms of time period.
The rest of the uniform as worn by these figures consists of the tropical shirt with twin breast pockets, shorts and short boots with socks rolled down over them. This is all perfectly typical of men working on their vehicles, and while a broader range of clothing could have been depicted (after all, it was not always very hot), nothing here is wrong. The last two figures show officers, and the first is distinguished by the peaked cap, field blouse, and the long desert high boots he wears, all perfectly reasonable but not unique to officers. The second man presents a much smarter appearance as he wears the standard German officer’s peaked cap (Schirmmütze), his blouse is over a shirt and tie (with a knights cross decoration at the throat), and he has breeches and long riding boots. As an unpainted figure he could just as easily be in the European theatre of operations, but again, while valid, such a smart appearance would have been increasingly unusual in the punishing climate of North Africa. Nevertheless, nothing about any of the uniform in this set is incorrect.
Although all of these men are clearly not in a tank, they largely stick to the rule of no bits of kit or other items that might snag on the interior of vehicles. Some have a pistol holstered on the left side of their belt, but that is it for most. Several have goggles – an essential in the desert – but none have them over the eyes at present. One man has drawn his pistol, but the last man in our top row is holding a machine pistol, and has had the time and opportunity to equip himself with the ammunition pouches appropriate for this weapon. To us these sit rather low, only just reaching the belt, but are otherwise properly done. The weapon itself is 11 mm long, which is 79 cm to scale, making it quite a bit bigger (in all dimensions) than the real thing, and it looks it too, so this was not one of the figures we liked particularly. The only other kit on show is the map case of the first officer, and the binoculars being held by the second (for which no case is visible).
Orion have made several sets of tank crew by this time, and largely follow a trusted and proven formula for the poses. Lots of generic ones of men moving about or relaxing and perhaps leaning on a vehicle are here, and all are good for decorating any tank scene behind the lines. The man pouring a can is a particular favourite of ours, as is the man next to him pouring something from a bottle into a mess tin. The two seated figures are terrific, especially the man drinking, and both officers are good for some discussion group, for example. The man in the top row using his radio is very useful, but the man using his pistol is less so – few tank crew actually used their pistols in anger like this. Equally, the man with the MP38 or MP40 seems to be here to get some ‘in combat’ poses to make the set more exciting, but again, crew actually using their supplied MP40, especially with the pouches attached, would have been pretty rare, so not what we would have chosen. Also, the way in which he holds the weapon, holding the magazine so low down, is not what he would have been taught in training. However, there is nothing terribly wrong with any pose.
Sculpting is very good, and there is the usual high level of detail to be enjoyed on these figures. The smart officer seems to have only part of a strap on which his binoculars are held, but otherwise everything is present and correctly done. The running man and the one with the MP40 are both a bit clumsy to our eye, but otherwise everything looks very natural and not at all flat or artificial. Many of the seams are completely clean, but there is flash in places, occasionally fairly significant, so some cleaning up will be required, but overall this is a very nicely produced set.
For such an important element in the Desert War, it is remarkable that it has taken until 2023 for a set such as this to enter the market. The appeal of modelling German armour is as strong as ever, and doing so in the desert environment makes a refreshing change from the more usual dioramas based in France or Russia. These figures offer a good range of possibly scenarios for such modellers, although their sun helmets limit their usefulness to a considerable extent, but with only a couple of small gripes, plenty will find these figures both useful and attractive.