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Mortars featured inside Generic Infantry Sets

Extremely basic but very lethal when handled by well-trained army-men, the mortar represented the deadliest weapon in WWII, statistics indicating it as inflicting the largest number of victims. An indirect fire piece, the mortar could successfully engage infantry, buildings, trenches, strongholds, regular vehicles and sometimes light armour.

Due to the great potential of the weapon, since the outset of war the WWII German High Command accorded enhanced attention to mortar and included in infantry platoons a Granatwerfer 34 (GrW34) operated by three soldiers. Likewise, there were established inside different types of companies a special mortar group/squad usually endowed with two GrW34. Each weapon was accompanied by a varying number of soldiers based on what kind of unit was about. Generally, the 8.1 cm mortar received a crew of seven or eight, but the weapon was handled by three army-men (gunner and two assistants, all with pistols as side arm), the rest being riflemen, commander, and driver or horse(s) leader(s). Its fearful results turned the mortar into a foremost important asset and along with MGs constituted the main support weapons for a standard infantry company. Granatwerfer36 (50 mm - light mortar), Granatwerfer34 (81.4 mm - medium mortar), and Granatwerfer42 (120 mm - heavy mortar) came out as the common models employed by Germans during WWII. Following long instruction sessions and extensive practice on the battlefield, the German mortar crews succeeded to utilise the weapon at its maximum capacity and were famous and feared by all opponents.

Bearing in mind the key importance of the mortar, after 2000several 1/72 mass-production manufacturers have finally issued dedicated kits on the topic, exclusively targeting WWII German mortars and their crews, namely Armourfast in “German Mortar Team”, Pegasus Hobbies in “German Mortar Teams”, Preiser in “8 cm Granatwerfer 34 in combat” and “Infantry riflemen with mortar, lined up”, and Zvezda in “German 81mm Mortar and Crew”. Each of the just mentioned kits benefits by an extensive review on this website, the present article proposing a trip to mortars put forward by various mass-production 1/72 figure sets referred to WWII German army.

Along the history of 1/72 WWII Germans, few companies incorporated within their generic infantry, Afrika Korps and Paratrooper sets a mortar, an excellent approach considering the role played by mortars and MGs as principal support weapons for those units. In addition, in the period when some of those sets appeared, any specialised kit aiming at mortars was not available on the market, so they practically constitute the only and most valuable resource of mortars for wargamers, collectors, and static modellers.

Nevertheless, the early representations of 1/72 WWII German Granatwerfers were poor, even ridiculous, but later on, when the overall quality of sets was increased following technical developments, target groups wished better and more accurate sets, consequently, the shape of mortars was improved, too. Ordered based on date of apparition, figure sets comprising at least a mortar, mainly an 8.1 cm GrWr34, are ESCI’s “Afrika Korps Geman Soldiers”, “German Soldiers”, and “Afrika Corps Soldiers”, Italeri’s “German Elite Troops”, “DAK Infantry”, and “German Paratroops (Tropical Uniform)” and Plastic Soldiers’ “Late War German Infantry Heavy Weapons”, this last set featuring both an 8.1 cm and an 12 cm Granatwerfer42.

However, perhaps the first Braille Scale mass production mortar was forwarded by Matchbox inside “German Infantry” but the set is in 1/76 scale, another of the same size ensuring Fujimi within “German Soldiers”. Bearing in mind those are produced in the 1/76 scale and the object of the present review restricts only to 1/72 products, those will be let aside.

Though the year of first issue is unknown, it emerges ESCI’s GrW34 from “Afrika Korps Geman Soldiers” was the road opener for 1/72 mortars. Due to proper distribution network, good quality, and numerous reissues, including the nowadays Italeri and Revell ones, ESCI’s soft plastic figure sets are extremely popular in the hobby. Inside the catalogue of this manufacturer existed several not so notorious toy-soldier sets, made of hard plastic and that preceded the soft plastic production. Some of them are on the list of ESCI "lost moulds", a theory saying that several old ESCI moulds were forever gone in a fire, on the sea or due to other calamities. One of them is “Afrika Korps Geman Soldiers”, a multi-part figure set delivering 21 toy-soldiers in 9 poses and that obviously, costs incredible sums on eBay. Except the figs, there are available a GrW34, few ammunition cases, and spare rounds. The mortar is acceptable, quite in scale, and formed by tube, bipod, and base plate, supplied as separate parts. Incredible for those times, the base plate is detailed on the side facing the ground but misses the handle for carrying it. Likewise, the sight, traverse system, and hand wheels are simplified, the tube requiring drilling as well. Taking into account we deal with a hard plastic item, putting together is uncomplicated and the final result is reasonable for that age. On the other hand, its accessories are very big and ugly shaped, especially the projectiles with extremely long tails, rather like Nebelwerfers than mortar shells and certainly not fitting in the tube.

The set clearly supplies a standing crewman, necessitating assembly as well, both arms being separate parts. He holds a projectile in the right hand as preparing to drop it inside the tube but the pose is not fantastic and the figure is really tall, with a big head and even funny, the helmet covering too much of his head, almost all his eyes. Despite having Kar98K ammo pouches he has got no rifle and the rest of gear is composed by shovel, mess tin with strap, and canteen. The soldier put on the standard DAK combat uniform, with long trousers, tunic, and ankle boots. Taking profit he wears long trousers and due to the close appearance of tropical uniform to the continental one, this soldier can be deployed not only in Africa, but also on all Late War summer fronts considering his rolled up sleeves and ankle boots. As the spare rounds, the projectile he picked is poorly sculptured, so definitely its replacement might be considered as well as his head and eventually the gear. In particular because of the figure, the assemble shows its venerable age, more toy than model kit, being recommended only for the most avid collectors. The crewman matches only tall soldiers such as those produced by Atlantic, Italeri or Waterloo 1815. Likewise, the kit incorporates a crouched figure with no weapon but binoculars in the left hand, perhaps the NCO of the entire unit. However, this soldier wears shorts so he can fight just in Africa and in some extent, in few Mediterranean countries. Not at all revealed by assembly guide or artwork, the figure in case might straightforwardly embody a second crewman for the mortar and the shape of his right palm suits to receive a spare round, giving emphasise to the mortar man role.

After passing to soft plastic figures, ESCI kept the good trend of supplying mortars and crewmen and even the soldiers looked much finer, their weapons arrived truly weird due to casting possibilities and the intention of offering miniatures without assembly. Those mortars miss bipods, the initial such interpretation being encountered in “German Soldiers” and also applied within “Afrika Corps Soldiers”. Because of that, the tubes stay in odd and unrealistic positions, fixed only in base plates. For solving the issue, hobbyists have at hand two choices, either adding bipods from other sources or simply removing the figures, using them in conjunction with mortars supplied by Pegasus Hobbies' "German Mortar Teams", Armourfast's "German Mortar Team", Preiser's "WWII German Mortar and Crew", and Zvezda’s “German 81mm Mortar and Crew”. Moreover, they can be successfully deployed as second crewmen for mortars incorporated by Italeri in regular figure sets but maybe the best option for the two soldiers would be the oldest ESCI hard plastic mortar above described.

On account its length, the mortar from Esci’s “German Soldiers” seems to be the 8.1 cm Kurzer Granatwerfer 42, a shorter version of Granatwerfer 34 delivered to troopers since 1942, originally designed for paratroopers but intensively utilised by all units. Intended to replace the standard version, as almost all new weapons developed during the war, the desire was never achieved and both types of 8.1 mcm mortars remained in service till the end of the conflict. Nevertheless, it is more than pleasant ESCI’s incentive and even nowadays the 8.1 cm Kurzer Granatwerfer 42 remains a scarce presence in the scale, being brought in only by Plastic Soldier in 2012.

ESCI’s infantryman operating the mortar holds his left foot on the base plate and prepares to drop the projectile in the tube. Wearing M36 uniform, marching/jack boots, steel helmet, he misses weapon but has Kar98K ammunition pouches, shovel, canteen, and gas mask container. Diverging from the first version, the manufacturer much improved the shape of the projectile which emerges both accurate and in scale. Furthermore, it is quite simple to detach the figure from the mortar even without affecting the shell while that just touches the border of the tube. 

In the same manner continued ESCI’s “Afrika Corps Soldiers” forwarding a satisfactory crewman but a bizarre mortar without bipod. Obviously, the trooper is dressed in DAK uniform, ankle boots, and peaked cap, so easily to be reverted into a Late War continental one, with M43 cap. A slight difference with the previous trooper is recorded in terms of gear, the gas mask container being replaced by a mess-tin. Although doing the same thing like his comrade from “German Soldiers”, his pose is clearly distinct. The figure is a little bit harder to be separated from his weapon without damaging the shell because the whole end part of the projectile is already inside the tube.  

Almost two decades had to go by until the next mass production figure set featuring a mortar arrived on hobby shop shelves and was made available by another Italian company, Italeri, also known for reissuing ESCI kits at present. In addition, the manufacturer followed their predecessor approach, giving mortars and crewmen inside various figure sets. However, Italeri’s interpretations over mortars clearly show that so many years have passed and lessons were learnt, the weapons being provided with bipods as separate parts and having to be glued with super glue gel, the products being cast in Italeri’s SSM (Superspecial material - Let's Glue It), one of the hardest soft plastic ever invented but not properly gluing with the standard modelling polly-cement.

The first Italeri set incorporating a Granatwerfer 34 is “German Elite Troops”, released in 2006 and depicting an excellent crewman operating the weapon in the same manner like the old ESCI soldiers. As just highlighted, the weapon is much better, featuring a quite thin bipod, hand wheels, traverse system, and a simplified sight and base plate. This time the crewmen addresses to a cold period during Late War, putting on parka, trousers, ankle boots with gaiters,  steel helmet with camouflage cloth, toque, and camouflage gloves. As gear he was endowed with gas mask container, canteen, shovel, and in front with a pouch that looks like the MG tool one, quite out of the place on a mortar man. No ammunition pouches or weapon are featured, and certainly it was more indicated the front pouch to be replaced by a pistol holster, as the side arm of the mortar gunner. The projectile held in the right hand is really good but once again, it is impossible to detach the figure without losing the end part of the shell.

Another Italeri figure set proposing a GrW34 pursuing the same line is “DAK Infantry”, but it comes with a soldier in a crouched pose, preparing to let in the projectile from the left hand, in the right holding a Kar98K. This is an unconventional and exciting stance, totally dissimilar than the crewmen prior delivered by figure sets, and also the first one finally receiving a side arm even if that is a rifle and not a pistol as enforced by KStN.  Furthermore, in the box there are a couple of army-men appropriate to complete the crew and might be utilised in other roles as well, sculptor’s intention related to the main purpose of those minis being unclear. One of them takes a peek through binoculars and the other points to something with the left hand.  Both armed with Kar98K, the one with binoculars is suitable for the NCO role, commanding the crew while his comrade can be displayed on the left side of the mortar, the pointing palm also properly reaching the hand wheel of GrW34. All the three men wear DAK uniform with long trousers and ankle boots, so again excellent to participate at a continental confrontation after 1943. A difference rests in head covers, the soldier handling the projectile having peaked cap and the others steel helmets. In addition to rifles and related ammo pouches, they have got bread bags, canteens, gas mask containers, and bayonets, the soldier with binoculars keeping a grenade under belt, too.

Becoming aware the mortars, even those supplied inside common figure sets, require more than a single man to operate them, with “German Paratroops (Tropical Uniform)” Italeri offered a second soldier closer linked to mortars even if he has no item for clearly identifying him with that weapon. It is about a regular GrW34 involving bipod assembly and while in reference was a Paratrooper ser, perhaps more recommended would have been the weapon to be the shorter 8.1 cm GrW42 and not the regular type. Nonetheless, this is not an accuracy problem, Fallschirmjagers using the GrW34 long after 8.1 cm GrW42 entered in service. It should be also be taken into account the set might portray troopers prior 1942 when the shorter version was not ready. The crewman is crouched and prepares to drop the shell in an extremely persuasive manner, holding the projectile with both hands while looking to the tube. Ideally armed with pistol in holster, a little surprising is the presence of Kar98K bandoleer, but fortunately the rifle was skipped. However, maybe it is just a matter of luck to get a mortar crew correctly endowed with pistol bearing in mind that by regulations, almost all paratroopers received pistols as side weapons. His mate, which definitely can personalise the commander of the entire group not only of a mortar, has just the pistol on him. Looking through binoculars, he waves the right hand in the air and by joining the two figures it is achieved a very credible scene and the single mortar with crewmen accurately armed with pistols from all the sets targeted by the present article.

Perhaps the most complete figure set in terms of mortars is Plastic Soldier’s “Late War German Infantry Heavy Weapons”, a hard plastic tender launched in 2012. Based on the title and year of release, it is quite normal to be like that, in the box, next to 8.1 cm and 12 cm mortars, customers finding a MG34 in heavy role and some soldiers equipped with Panzerschrecks and Panzerfausts.

As it has just been pointed out, this set represents the solely offer not entirely dedicated to mortars that incorporates a 12 cm GrW42 while judging the length of the 8.1 cm mortar, it might be apprised it portrays the shorter version. Practically, both mortars abbreviations were the same, in order not to raise confusions, those were also used by highlighting the calibre of the referred weapon. Plastic Soldier not only provides two kinds of mortars, but also supplies more crewmen for operating those, three for the 8.1 cm mortar and four for the bigger one.

The 12 cm Granatwerfer 42 was inspired by the Russian heavy mortar 12 cm PM38, the German version being almost a straight copy of the Russian one. The weapon saw action since April 1942 and because of its heavy weight, a two wheels trailer was designed to transport it, with Raupenschlepper Ost (RSO) the nominated tractor. Nevertheless, the trailer could be towed by various lorries, armoured halftracks or horses, as tones of filmed and photographed references attest. The 12 cm GrW42 was issued to all German infantry battalions, the heavy companies featuring a special 12 cm mortar platoon. It was very common for the WWII German Army, not to have the enforced number of 12 cm GrW 42 inside the platoon, the completions being done with 8.1 cm mortars. Each of the four squads composing the 12 cm platoon was formed by one mortar operated by squad leader armed with MP40, gunner, four riflemen and driver having Kar98K as personal weapons.

In the 1/72 scale such weapons are encountered inside the remarkable and top detailed Pegasus Hobbies’ “German Mortar Teams”  together with an 8.1 cm GrW34 and more crewmen. Plastic Soldier’s approach to both mortars is simplified, closer to wargamers than static modellers. 

According to the artwork of the box, Plastic Soldier’s 12 cm GrW42 received four crewmen, and in spite a multi-part approach, they appear pretty flat and odd, the champ in the field being the one dragging an ammunition box, looking like a traveller in a terminal rushing to catch his plane. After offering a desperate passenger, the sculptor oriented to sports and provided a bodybuilder, the mortar loader confounding the two heavy GrW42 projectiles with weights from the gym. However, both stances might be saved through conversions but in the purpose of the article, the two figures are presented exactly like manufacturer’s proposal. Slightly better is the squad leader in a common pose with the left hand up in the air, preparing to order the crew to open fire, looking also at his wrist watch (worn on the right hand but there are people putting it there). Until now, in mass-production 1/72 WWII German Army sets, a similar stance is hard to spot and probably the figure and action was inspired by Airfix’s British Paratrooper commander. Definitely the best pose embodies the last crewman, covering his ears with the palms in order to diminish the noise.

The 8.1 cm GrW42 is operated by three soldiers, enough considering that mortars from some infantry platoons were manned by a three member crew. Two of them have projectiles in hands while the third does nothing in that moment, watching how his colleagues perform their jobs. The arms of the troopers with shells must be arranged by the modeller and there could be achieved good stances, the one of the crewman with a single projectile being unique in the scale and depicting a soldier setting the round. However, the shells seem under-scaled and with an unspectacular shape.

Both the medium and heavy mortar crews put on Late War stuff as M43 uniforms, ankle boots, gaiters, M43 caps, steel helmets covered by camouflage cloths, the items of garment allowing painting either in feldgrau or in various camouflage patterns. A mistake records the tunic tails, looking like smocks in that part but absolutely these figs abound in small detail, several a little over-scaled such as the “Y” straps buckles. As equipment, each received canteen, bread bag, mess-tin, gas mask container, Zeltbahn, and Kar98K ammunition pouches. Likewise, few adjusted bayonets and all the 8.1 cm crewmen as well as the one with ammo box have got extra bags, maybe with tools for their weapons. None has side arm and the squad leader should put MP40 ammunition pouches and not Kar98K ones. Furthermore, as regards equipment setting, some items like canteens and bayonets are worn in wrong places, most of the canteens being kept on the left in stead on the right, as normal. With reference to anatomy, these figs are very tall, with pretty big heads and almost inexistent necks. Although recording some drawbacks, Plastic Soldier’s effort on mortars should be appreciated, offering the most comprehensive interpretation encountered in mixed infantry figure sets.

Fully acknowledging the superiority of dedicated mortar sets concerning weapons details and accuracy, number of crewmen, and accessories, the generic infantry figure sets, particularly Italeri ones, provide some nice weapons operated by soldiers wearing clothes dissimilar to those dressed by the crews forwarded by the specialised kits. In addition, in the early stage of the hobby, the mortars supplied by figure sets represented the only resource, so those might have a sentimental value as well. Furthermore, even gathering in the same place all 1/72 WWII German mortars, the amount can be assessed as insufficient in comparison with the great numbers the weapon served in reality. In this light, new mortars, enclosed either in figure or dedicated sets, are anxiously waited in the scale, many gaps still having to be covered in terms of crewmen poses and weapons. Particularly the 5 cm light mortar GrW36 comes out as a segment of foremost importance, until now no mass production manufacturer bringing it in the scale.