On Army Manoeuvres - part 1

03 January 2023
In the first of three features, we take a look at what’s collectable in the military field.
On Army Manoeuvres - part 1 Images

For reasons unknown to me, the military toy side of our all-embracing hobby seems to be something of an ugly sister. For every collector of khaki-clad vehicles there are probably ten times that number amassing model buses and vans and cars. Maybe it’s because colours are a bit more limited (“Would you be wanting that in green, sir?) or maybe because the subject matter doesn’t endear itself to all and sundry – whatever, it’s a smaller marketplace. But that doesn’t mean to say that the sector is lacking in interest, as these articles will hopefully point out. Each article I’m going to showcase a limited number of manufacturers, for I cannot hope to cover the entire military output in the space of three issues. So there will be an element of selection: apologies in advance if your favourite maker isn’t mentioned!

Tinplate treasures

We’ll begin with tinplate, because, historically, this is where it all started. The oldest (commercially produced) military vehicles date from Germany during the First World War, although arguably German output was at its zenith a couple of decades later in terms of quality. For German, read Lineol and Elastolin/Hausser: these two companies simply dominated the marketplace.

Lionel was founded in 1906, and a factory near Berlin was opened by one Wilhelm Wiederholz. Initial military toys comprised toy soldiers of 17cm size as well as 14cm. However, for many years 9cm figures were the company’s best sellers, but by the 1930s the 7.5cm genre had taken over, the same scale popularised by Hausser. Incidentally, Lineol figurines are reckoned to be of a higher quality than those of its rival and often have thus survived better. Elastolin (strictly speaking, this was the brand name) actually predated Lineol, being established in 1904 by Christian Hausser. The company set up shop near Stuttgart and such has been the similarity in products between the two that often collectors talk of both in the same breath.

For each company, in terms of vehicles, early production of horses and limbers and field equipment gave way to more mechanised subject matter as the business of warfare gained in sophistication. Tinplate was the medium employed for trucks, half-tracks and cannon: early on wheels and tyres were also formed of tinplate although rubber was used later for realism. The artillery often worked, as did the searchlight models, and many of the vehicles were copies of, or were based upon, the real thing. Pride of place for both companies must go to the 88mm flak gun, which featured detachable bogies and a fully movable gun, thanks to small operating hand wheels.

Today the tinplate models tend to attract a premium and finding complete, undamaged examples will require perseverance.

Content continues after advertisements

A dog’s life

Our very own Corgi Toys needs no introduction here. I like to view Corgi’s military output in two phases: the classic items (from the 1960s) and the later ranges. After a spell in the 1970s and 1980s when “playability” rather spoiled the look of some of its military offerings, in more recent years Corgi has really mined the Second World War (pun intended), and produced a large range of realistic tanks and soft skins.

The classic Corgi range is split between the US and the UK: whilst you’ll find several vehicles in US livery (the VW Campervan, an Oldsmobile Staff Car, a Mobile Canteen and Tanker, for example), the UK side is well served by the Bloodhound, Thunderbird and Corporal missile sets.  Its Rocket Age production is undoubtedly Corgi’s claim to fame for this particular writer. From the affordable Land Rover and trailer with its metal Thunderbird missile, through the airfield radar van and Bloodhound launch pad to the mighty Corporal missile with attendant carrier and launcher, here was something to excite any child. Although nothing could actually be fired, the imagination most certainly was. The biggest set of the lot was truly something to covet and (extremely) lucky would have been the recipient of such: whilst the Corporal items weren’t included (Corgi would have had to reinforce the box, I reckon), everything else was there, save only figurines. Presumably not commercially viable, Corgi sadly never bothered with the manufacture of a ground crew.

On to the smaller scale: for Husky aficionados, the company’s production was modest by comparison. Repurposing some of its civilian models in khaki drab gave sibling Husky an extended range: look out for the US Fuel Tanker, the Forward Control Jeep and the Citroen Ambulance, all of which are readily available, usually out of their blister packaging.

Let there be light

Combine the firmament and a lighthouse and what have you got? Well, a British company that was quite prolific in terms of rugged, no-nonsense toys that afforded youngsters plenty of play value in those halcyon, pre Elf ‘n Safety days: Astra Pharos.

Astra (as it’s often called) dates from around 1935 and whilst early production focussed on searchlights, the advent of the 1939-45 global conflict gave the company fresh impetus. Searchlights sat well alongside anti-aircraft guns and everything worked: the biggest searchlight could (reputedly) extend for a quarter of a mile whilst guns fired (qv) “harmless projectiles” and relied on amorces (caps) for realistic sound effects.

Pre-empting the 1960s Tri-ang Battlespace series, perhaps, Astra also had the bright idea of kitting out flatbed O gauge rolling stock with guns and lights; rare today, one assumes that not too many found buyers, since you’d have needed the railway layout first.

Some of its lines were truly awesome, like the pom-pom gun (based on the Swedish Oerlikon) that featured reciprocating barrels, just like the real thing: fully loaded, it had prodigious firepower, too. The six barrelled Rocket Gun allowed the user to fire singles or multiples; and the impressive AA gun on a cruciform chassis was fully operational (but at 42s or £2.10p, it certainly wasn’t a cheap plaything for little Johnny). Coastal defence guns, field guns and howitzers were all manufactured too; and, thanks to their build quality, even when neglected and left out in the garden for weeks on end, their longevity is legendary and all can be tracked down today, with a little patience. Later products included working diecast traffic lights – and somewhere along the line, a functional lighthouse also appeared.

Today, prices seem to be creeping up for the best specimens, especially when boxed; and, amazingly, that buff utilitarian packaging is still about, all these decades on.