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Early recruiting forays
Brigadier Raymond Bell gives a nostalgic account of collecting toy soldiers before the arrival of the internet and the specialist shows we have today
Today toy soldier collectors have but to go to the Internet to recruit figures for their armies. Hundreds of figures appear daily on E-bay which can be accessed from any place in the world. In the late 1940s and into the 1960s, however, finding toy soldiers required finding stores which sold them or belonging to a society such as the British Model Soldier Society where contacts with members could lead to purchases or trades. Building a toy army was a real challenge, but it was also a great deal of fun.
In the early years after WWII in the United States there was hardly a department store, hobby shop or corner store which did not have toy soldiers on their shelves. Many of these were 'dime store' figures or in the case of the more up-scale shops, Britains soldiers. In the United States there was not too much of a challenge in finding the figures as there was a plethora of stores, large and small, where toy soldiers were to be found.
For me, however, there were challenges galore when I started to travel to Europe with my family in 1948. I made many a recruiting foray to stores in Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and especially England. I even went to North Africa where I found mechanized equipment for my army in Libya in 1962. Forays in later years took me to Japan, Greece, and Canada.
Living in Europe in 1948 was an especially exciting experience because my parents took every opportunity to visit the British Isles and war torn countries on the continent. While not particularly interested in visiting museums or historical sites, I always had the opportunity to look for a likely source of toy soldiers. So every trip we took as a family had the potential for being a recruiting foray for me.
The very first was to Brussels, Belgium when I flew with my father to visit his Belgian Army counterpart. The short flight to Brussels was my first, and I thought would be my last, when the aircraft blew a tyre while landing at the airport. Once safely on the ground we stayed in quarters at a Belgian Army post which was close to the commercial centre of the city. A quick walk around led me to the toy counter of a large department store where I purchased ten hollow cast Belgian infantrymen in battle dress in a scale of 65mm. I never did find out the manufacturer of the figures and never saw them again, so I guess they were made solely for consumption in Belgium. This particular foray ended with a visit to the Ardennes and examination of concrete field fortifications constructed as defensive positions before WWII which made the trip profitable not only for toy soldier recruiting but also from a military history perspective.
The next foray was a trip to Scotland and Ireland in our large American Oldsmobile car which never ceased to draw the attention of people in London and elsewhere when it was driven about. This tour almost did not take place as I was overcome with motion sickness soon after we left the city. But that malady was short lived when we stopped for lunch in a small town which had a dry goods store next to our restaurant. Therein were a few toys to include the Dinky civilian jeeps painted in garish colours. As they were potential army vehicles I purchased four of them to be appropriately repainted.
Crossing to Ireland we drove to Dublin. Here my mother wanted to go to the Abbey Theater for a performance which was fine with me, providing that I could also make a recruiting foray. This one was particularly successful because it netted a box of Britains Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (Set Number 1633). For my entire stay of two years in Great Britain, this was the only set of Britains toy soldiers I was able to purchase outside the United States, so it held a meaningful place in the army.
When I made another trip to the continent with my father on one of his official visits I sought out toy soldiers in Paris. Not far from the Arc de Triumph on one of the avenues leading from the edifice I found a small store which sold figures of Napoleon Bonaparte and his staff. My available funds allowed me to purchase two 54mm versions of Napoleon and one each of Marshals Ney, Murat, and Davout. It was not until many years later that I discovered that these were Vertuni figures which over the years have increased greatly in value.
During one other trip on the continent I made a grand foray to a store in Copenhagen where I purchased bandsmen of the Danish royal guard in blue winter uniforms made by Brigadier. From there it was to Germany where the manufacture of toy soldiers was then prohibited but where families were selling their heirlooms. Three boxes of 28mm German 1890s cavalry flats joined my army through the largess of a family friend who had purchased them from a Germany family. The final foray that year was to Vienna which was then occupied by the Americans, British, French, and Russians. Again the manufacture of toy soldiers was prohibited by the Allies but in one store I found 'civilianized' models of American one and a half ton trucks made of tin. They soon became remilitarized army transport and ideal for carrying metal British Timpo made American infantrymen.
On our trip to Italy a stop in Rome allowed me to explore stores for unique figures of the Italian Army. I was not even sure that there would be any soldiers for sale in the stores, but the restrictions imposed on production in Germany and Austria did not apply there. So it was worth at least making a foray. I was rewarded by finding a field artillery piece that fired a projectile and was compatible with pre-war German Elastolin figures. I also found a 70mm composition pack artillery set of two Alpini soldiers and a mountain artillery piece carried on two mules. They were cast in the same way as Elastolin figures with the name C.C. Milano inscribed on the bottom of their stands. They fit very well into the battalion of Elastolin and Lineol soldiers I inherited from a German friend.
The early recruiting forays extended into Switzerland where Elastolin German Army figures had become Swiss Army soldiers. There was little difference between the figures of the two countries as it was easy to substitute a Swiss Army helmet for that of the German soldier. Some of these figures were recruited in a trip with my wife and two young daughters to Zurich. Unfortunately the time I spent trying to find the recruits was much too long for the rest of the family and I found myself in trouble on my return. Forgiveness, however, was not long in coming.
A less stressful occasion was the 1962 trip to Wheelus Air Force Base outside Tripoli in Libya where I went for an indoctrination visit in air-ground combat operations. There at the airbase post exchange (American NAAFI) I found plastic models of the American Patton tank at a ridiculously low price. I immediately saw the potential for a company of tanks of the same scale as the Britains WWII infantry. Of course, there were no Patton tanks in WWII, but I was looking beyond that conflict and had another new military formation in mind to organize.
The final early recruiting foray in Europe at that time (there were to be others in later years) was in Germany to an American army base's post exchange's toy department. This time the initial intent was to buy Christmas presents for my four little daughters. The eldest was six years old so it was easy to find simple playthings for each of them. But what caught my eye when looking around were boxes of Britains toy soldiers being sold for the unheard of sum of sixty American cents (then worth about three English shillings) each. Not only that but these were sets of Polish Infantry Britains set number 1856. A check with references on Britains figures shows this set was only produced from 1946 to 1949. What the sets were doing in a store on an American army base in 1964 is difficult to understand. But the fact that my recruiting foray yielded two boxes confirms that they were available at that time. Is it possible that they were only available because Britains had excess stock which it wanted to dispose of as quickly as possible? And for the dreamer, is it possible that somewhere in this universe there are still boxes stuck in some warehouse waiting to be discovered? I am not holding my breath, however.
Recruiting forays today do not require the kind of travelling I did in my early collecting years. It is easy to attend a toy soldier show of which there seem to be many especially in the United States and Great Britain or even easier to get on the Internet. But in looking back on my early recruiting forays I do so with a special nostalgia which is hard to recreate in this century. Almost gone is the expectation that when wandering into some obscure store that one might find a recruit willing to join one's army. If by chance one is so lucky, however, is one likely to find the bounty paid for the recruit's enlistment a reasonable one? But as the cliche goes, hope springs eternal!
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