When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 many people in that empire saw them as liberators from the Russian occupiers and Stalin’s horrific government. A great many, including many Cossacks, volunteered to fight with Germany, and in time a number of Cossack units were organised, filled partly with POWs from the Red Army and partly from those that had escaped the Soviet Union previously. Their role was seen as mainly to fulfil behind-the-line functions such as logistics protection and anti-partisan campaigns, and in this role they served as far afield as Croatia and France. Ultimately of course they suffered defeat along with the rest of the Axis forces, and many were then sent to Stalin’s Russia, where they were executed.
The various Cossack forces fighting alongside the German Army were given German uniforms, meaning they were indistinguishable from native Germans apart from smaller details like colour and insignia, undetectable at our scale. Therefore in a real sense many sets of Germans could also be used as Cossacks, so Mars have designed these figures to be distinctive and clearly nothing but Cossack. This is mainly done by giving each man a fur cap, the design of which varied between the hosts. To our eye most here are quite short, and so would be the lambswool kubanka, which was not the traditional headgear of the Don Cossack (which was the taller papacha). A couple here could perhaps be large enough to be considered to be a papacha, but in any event on occasion Don Cossacks also wore the kubanka, so these are not wrong, though calling them Terek or Kuban Cossacks might have been better. In each case there is a cross on the top of the cap, and this would be different colours depending on the Host (red for the Don).
The majority of the poses wear what looks like a standard German tunic, which is fine, although early on some deserters from the Red Army would have worn their old uniforms until resupplied by the Germans. However three of the poses (on the left of our images above) wear the traditional Cossack cherkeska coat with cartridge loops close to each shoulder, and under this the equally traditional beshmet shirt. While these were undoubtedly worn during the war, as several photos prove, we must question whether these men wore such a costume when going into battle. This coat was basically for ceremonial, and was probably not ideal battle wear, but we could find no definitive answer to that question, so must accept them as accurate here. Note however that none of these men wear the traditional bashlyk hood often seen with such coats. Every man wears long boots, which is fine, and those with a tunic wear breeches with a wide stripe down each leg, but without the flared thighs often seen on traditional Cossack breeches.
The men’s personal kit is quite varied, as would very likely have been the case, and much of it looks German, as you would expect. Those with a tunic have the ‘Y’ straps of the normal infantry pattern, while those with the coat have just a waist belt and a baldric for their sword. There is not a lot of kit here, with the best-equipped man having only a bread bag, mess tin and water bottle, but some have nothing at all. There also seems to be little in the way of ammunition pouches on any belt, and not always of standard German pattern, which seems reasonable.
Deserters from the Red Army initially used their old weapons, while others were supplied by the Germans, and this set is a good reflection of this often confused situation. Three poses carry rifles. One has the standard German Kar 98k, a second has a Soviet Mosin-Nagant and the third, the kneeling figure, does not show enough detail to allow positive identification. An equal number of poses carry a submachine gun, and again diversity is the watchword. The second figure in the top row is using the classic Soviet PPSh 41, as many did on the Axis side, and the man to his left carries an MP 40. The third man (first figure, second row) carries a Soviet PPS-43, which as the name suggests was a later war weapon, but again could easily have fallen into enemy hands such as this. The penultimate pictured figure is carrying a machine gun, which is the MG15, a former aircraft weapon pressed into service by German infantry to provided much-needed extra firepower. This one has the bipod fitted, as it should, and like the others is an excellent and well-detailed model. Finally the officer is holding, and most of the others are carrying, the traditional Cossack shashqa sword, with no guard on the hilt. Photos show this anachronistic weapon carried in the field by cavalry, but we wonder whether it was widely carried on foot, when it would surely have been more of an encumbrance. However again we cannot prove this either way, and it certainly helps to make these men distinctive.
The poses on offer here are quite lively and a good selection. Perhaps the man standing with bayonet fixed is guarding some prisoner, but all are useful, although the man thrusting forward with a knife seems a bit specialised, and anyway holds his submachine gun in an awkward but easy-to-sculpt way. The machine gunner gave us some reason to pause, because he clearly has his finger on the trigger, which might make you think he is firing it. Whether this particular weapon was light enough to fire from the hip like this, and on the move, we do not know, but in any event there is no ammunition feed so he has nothing to fire. Also the officer has one rather obvious problem – he is using his drawn sword to scratch his back while running (you should not try this at home). This is absurd, especially since it also cuts into his cap, so definitely a compromise too far even in a hobby where poses are often a compromise to make work! The kneeling man pulling back his bolt was probably our favourite, but it is a strong selection nicely designed for the most part.
Brace yourselves. We are going to use some words you will not have seen before in any Mars review on this site. Detail here is great (there’s one!), actually really quite beautiful (and another), very crisp and clear, and particularly good on weaponry, but also showing subtle elements like the badges on the caps. Faces also are first class (and another), with some good expressions such as on the officer, and while the hands seem to be a bit small in some cases, they are well-defined and realistic (and yet another). Folds in clothing are good too, although the various straps are a bit thick (especially the baldric) and basic, as no attempt has been made to show the links between them – they are simply bands of plastic that blend together. However that is a minor point in what is otherwise an excellent (wow) sculpt. The overall proportions are well done too, but there is a line of plastic around all of the seams, and in a few places there is rather more flash than that, so the mould production hasn’t quite done the sculpting justice.
So there are parts of this set which did not impress, including the officer pose and the amount of flash, but generally we were very pleasantly surprised by the improvement in quality of this set compared to all those that have come before from Mars. Not perfect, but very good, and in some respects up there with the best of them. We worried whether showing men fighting while wearing the traditional coat, and carrying the traditional sword, was a bit of a stretch for World War II, but if you want Cossack infantry in German service for the era then there is no mistaking these figures. We discussed the caps, which means these can also serve for other Cossacks apart from the Don, but even if you have no interest in the period you might consider getting these lovely figures because their many positive aspects make them simply an appealing set. And so ends by far our most positive review of any Mars set ever made. Well done Mars!