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Late WWII British Figures Extra Details

Peter Brown

With the (fairly recent) release of the Tamiya figure set, some notes on this, the comparable Dragon set and other related figures may be of use to those not familiar with British Army uniforms and equipment of the late war period. All remained in use for some time after the war, so figures for this period could be adapted for other armies and periods. 

As with any army, there were many types of clothing issued for different climates and special jobs. Generally though the standard dress for all arms and services of the British Army, the Canadian Army and those Free forces such as the Poles, Belgians and Czechs equipped by Britain, and the Free French before they were largely re-equipped by the USA, for use in temperate areas such as NW Europe 1944-45, the cold periods in the Italian campaign, and also winter in North Africa, was the khaki wool serge battledress. This consisted of waist-length jacket called a 'blouse' with two external chest pockets and trousers with one large pocket on the left thigh and a smaller one on the upper right leg, worn with ankle length boots, short webbing gaiters, a suitable helmet or hat and web equipment.

Two basic styles of battle dress were worn in WW2, the early pattern 1937 style having all its buttons, including those on the pocket flaps, concealed and the later 1940 style - which came into use in 1942 - being simplified with the buttons exposed and the amount of material used reduced, resulting in the pleated jacket and small trouser pockets becoming plain. Canadian BD was of better quality than British suits and was also of a slightly greener shade. A lightweight denim suit of very similar appearance was also issued, designed to be worn as an overall but also used on its own as a summer combat uniform.

Webbing was the 1937 Pattern, with a belt supported by two cross-braces (suspenders) and a variety of items attached to these. By late in the war, most troops had two large pouches carried vertically where the brace and belt joined at the front to carry ammunition, grenades etc, a small pack for personal items, a flat water bottle in either a webbing skeleton carrier or a fabric sleeve, a small two-part entrenching tool in a cover and a short rifle bayonet if appropriate.

Helmets were either the Mk I which was a flat wide-brimmed item not unlike the First World War pattern, while the larger Mk IV was introduced for the campaigns in NW Europe after D Day. In British units, the Mk IV became more common as the war drew to a close, while Canadian troops it seems reverted to the Mk I for some reason!

Weapons were the .303" Lee Enfield No 4 bolt-action rifle, with some troops having a 9mm Sten submachine gun - the American .45" Thompson M1928A1 was by this stage only used by a few specialists like Commandos - backed up by the .303" Bren light machine gun with its distinctive top-mounted curved magazine. Also found as needed were the PIAT antitank projectile launcher, and the 2" mortar to fire smoke and light HE bombs.

Dragon's set 6055 'British Commonwealth Troops (NW Europe 1944)' consists of four figures, in action poses, with one kneeling firing a Mk II Sten with skeleton pattern butt, a Bren gunner firing from the hip, one rifleman advancing with rifle at the ready and another running forward carrying a rifle in one hand and a hand grenade in the other. Poses are realistic and not too 'extreme', and all four are in 1937 BD with open collars and the usual webbing with small pack, apart from the Bren gunner who wears the sleeveless leather jerkin - a trademark of British troops for many years - who also does not have his pack. The riflemen carry extra ammunition in cotton bandoliers which was common practice, leaving the webbing pouches free for grenades or Bren magazines. Some extras, in the form of a shovel and a pickaxe commonly carried to dig in when halted, a webbing holder for spare Bren barrel and tools (part C9), mugs for the all-important 'char' - a drink based on tea with lots of sugar and condensed milk, vital to the smooth functioning of any true Brit - and a small Bren tools wallet (part B8), and a pair of large Utility Pouches (part 6) which were larger versions of the basic pouch used for extra carrying capacity, allow some variety of equipment. Only two entrenching tools (parts 7) are included, these were usually carried even if a larger digging implement had been issued or acquired. Four water bottles with web carriers (parts 2) and two with sleeve carriers (parts 10) also help variety, and the helmets included are one plain Mk I, two Mk I's with net covers and field dressings carried in them, and a single Mk IV (B7). Each head has the chin strap molded in. Main drawback of the set, apart from too few entrenching tools, is the small packs which are too small and thin but these can be modified as per Ron Volstad's superb box illustrations.

Tamiya's latest offering MM223 'British Infantry on Patrol' consists of five figures in more relaxed poses, walking along as if not in contact with the enemy. All are different, and a nice touch is that they are not all the same height. The Squad Leader has a Mk II Sten with the straight butt - either type was fitted - and the Machine Gunner carries his Bren by the barrel changing handle. The three riflemen have their No 4's carried over their shoulder, at high port or relaxed at arms length respectively. No helmet chin straps are moulded on, which means they have to be added to taste but also that they do not need to be removed if not wanted. All bar one have collars open, webbing is standard, and the use of two identical sprues gives us six plain Mk I helmets, four rifles, two Stens, two Brens each with choice of folded and open bipod, plus two shovels and two pickaxes, six each packs and entrenching tools each of three different types, six water bottles with skeleton covers, two small Bren tool wallets, two pistol holsters and four mugs.   Good points are the small packs, one plain, one with a rolled ground sheet on top and another with the same carried under the flap, which are better than the Dragon items. The entrenching tools are odd, in that two of the three types have a large bayonet moulded integral with them. This would be fine if the figures carried the earlier No 1 or SMLE rifle, but are not correct for the No 4 with its short spike bayonet which is not included. The instructions tell us these tools were carried on one hip, an alternative and maybe more usual position is centrally at the back.  The 'Squad Leader' (figure 3) also has a pistol holster which would be untypical his task, while his single pouch is fitted too high and should be positioned with the same amount above the belt as below. By not fitting the Y16 part and using a spare Y11 in its place, that is soon sorted. The 'Ammo Carrier' or Bren Number Two (figure 1) has extra pouches, which are 'spare' basic pouch and not the larger utility pouch. These are best left off or replaced with own build ones or Dragon's parts 6.

As to the weapons, the Dragon ones are just a little better but the Tamiya ones are good enough. The Bren from Tamiya is a Mk II type, while Dragon give the Mk I with its distinctive dial-up rear sight and stainless steel flash hider. Mk I's were common in NW Europe but a Mk II is fine.

Also from Dragon, set 6023 'Red Devils (Arnhem 1944)' is four action figures from the Arnhem period. Airborne troops - paratroopers and glider landed - had a loose camouflaged oversmock and a rounded rimless helmet, and also a larger large pocket on the trouser leg, but otherwise wore battledress and 37 Webbing.  The figures are one with a Sten gun - the later Mk V type with wooden butt and foregrip used first by Airborne units - which is based on a classic photo of a Glider Pilot Regiment soldier at Arnhem. This figure was also reproduced in 1/16th by Dragon. Another is a kneeling Bren gunner firing from the hip, while the other two are a pair with one prone in Para's maroon beret (not a bright red as often depicted) with a PIAT reaching for a bomb for the weapon which is being handed him by a kneeling rifleman.  All the helmets have net covers, which was typical of the period, and all figures have the same basic webbing. Two undersized small packs, four entrenching tools, two each water bottles with skeleton and sleeve carriers, a bayonet in sheath, small Bren tools wallet, a grenade and a three-round carrying case for PIAT bombs are included. The pouches are a letdown, the Sten gunner's being about right but the others are two wide and not deep enough.  This is still a good set, and apart from small problems will make up into good mini dioramas depicting a stand of lightly armed men against heavily armed opponents. While Tiger tanks were not used at Arnhem, a goodly amount of heavy armour was. In response, there were a few 6pdr guns which were knocked out early on and the PIATS. And courage. Late-war Commando units had the Denison smock, usually worn with a green  beret and plain BD trousers. Weapons would be No 4 rifles, Brens and usually Thompson submachine guns.

One final set of late-war figures which deserved mention is the crew from Tamiya's 35175 'British Universal Carrier Mk II European Campaign'. This is the old Carrier with a new trio of new figures and suitable markings for NW Europe added to the original two-man crew in desert shorts and shirtsleeves.  Figure A is depicted standing in a relaxed pose in BD with open collar and basic webbing with no pouches. He wears the 'Cap GS', a sort of beret which was not a popular item but which was issued to and worn by most personnel apart from armoured units who had a true beret on black or a Regimental shade. Figure B is designed to kneel in the driver's area of the carrier and is attired as A but with his sleeves partly rolled up. Figure C sits in the back of the Carrier, clad either in 1940 BD or a denim blouse, bare-headed and holding a water bottle.  This trio could be used as infantry relaxing, with equipment from the original Carrier kit which includes one small pack and a pair of pouches, water bottles, No 4 rifles, plain Mk I helmets and three Bren guns which seem to be Mk II style with Mk I butts, which is a not impossible combination. The new sprue also includes a Mk II Sten with straight butt and a PIAT which is not as good as the Dragon Red Devil item.

With these figures and some work, anyone wanting late WW2 figures clad in British uniforms and equipment has a good starting point. The three figure sets have their good and bad points, but are well worth having. The Dragon sets are in more active poses, while Tamiya's are more relaxed. Either can be suitable in a particular setting, and there is good scope for mixing and matching items.

Anyone wanting tank crew in battledress could use any set, webbing belt and braces with or without pistol holsters were worn but some crews preferred no webbing or just a belt. Carving off the straps and replacing the detail is not an easy task, but until - hopefully - sets of suitable figures are produced, it is out with the tools. Headwear would be berets or the tank pattern helmet, which used the same metal shell as the airborne helmet which could be taken from the Red Devil set, with the net carefully sanded off. Many British AFVs carried Brens as anti-aircraft and local defence weapons, and Stens were part of vehicle equipment. For early war period figures, apart from the Arnhem set and the Mk IV helmet, all items in these sets would be usable but the earlier Mk 1 Bren would have to be used as the Mk 2 would not be around before 1942, and also the No 1 or SMLE rifle and its long bayonet which can be found in one of the weapon and accessories sets as the No 4 was only issued in late 1942. The rifles also need to be replaced on the reissued Tamiya 35032 'British 8th Army Infantry' which were not great when first released and have not stood the test of time well, and the same goes for any desert era Tamiya Carriers. Thompsons are included in several US figure and accessory sets, note that Britain mainly used the earlier 1928 series not the more common M1 or M1A1 type. The large gas mask case, worn on the chest or carried slung on a strap, may also be wanted but could easily be made from filler putty. For reference, the standard work is 'British Army Uniforms & Insignia of World War Two' by Brian L Davis (Arms & Armour Press, 1983). Several Osprey Men at Arms titles are useful, no 112 'British Battledress 1937-61' by Brian Jewell covers the uniforms while no 108 'British Infantry Equipments 1908-80' by Mike Chappell details the webbing, with Mike Chappell's colour plates showing both being worn in both titles. No 187 'British Battle Insignia (2): 1939-45' by Mike Chappell also shows the uniforms and webbing as worn, while giving good coverage on insignia as well. Check for availability though as these were publishes some time ago.

Best recent book is 'World War II Tommy - British Army Uniforms, European Theatre 1939-45' in Colour Photographs by Martin Brayley & Richard Ingram (The Crowood Press Ltd, 1999). The title aptly describes the content, it is all full-colour photos of real uniforms posed live models. First class reference.

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