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Monday, October 3, 2011

Introducing the Gurkhas

The Gurkhas were Nepalese soldiers fighting on behalf of the British Empire. In all about a quarter of a million men volunteered to serve and, as was the case in the Indian divisions, they fought under the command of British officers. They did so with distinction in places like Syria, Greece, North Africa, Italy and Burma. Nepal's location next to the Himalayas created the necessary conditions to produce very tough and resilient troops, very well suited for operations in mountanous terrain such as the one encountered in Italy. Fond of engaging in hand to hand combat with a kukri -a very sharp Nepalese curved knife- Gurkhas were also fierce warriors, respected and feared by their foes. An account of a British officer from the 78th division found in Matthew Parker's book 'Monte Cassino' tells the following story which helps explain why: 'I came across some Gurkha soldiers who were laughing uproariously. When I asked what the joke was, one who spoke some English explained that they had been out on patrol when they came across three Germans asleep in a slit trench. They cut off the heads of the two outside men but left the chap in the middle as he would have a terrific shock when he awoke!'

Unfortunately, as far as manufacturers of Gurkha figures go, there is only one option in the market to this day.

Airfix Gurkhas - Part 1
Luckily for us Airfix decided to make twice as many figures as they typically released for their WWII sets. The figures are slightly smaller than their other 54mm figures, although that could perhaps be by design.

Airfix Gurkhas - Part 2
These guys are wearing a tropical outfit, which means that they were likely fighting the Japanese in Burma. Given their jungle setting, you would probably expect them in a greener shade of khaki, but apparently, they wore the same uniform as other Gurkhas in the Middle East. But what I should have done is given them a slightly darker skin tone for greater realism. Note that one of them is handling the kukri knife, ready to take on his enemy in hand to hand combat.

Airfix Gurkhas - Part 3
Here we have three more figures with kukris and a guy handling what looks like an oversized Bren gun. Not featured here, but I recall seeing it at some point many years ago, is one more pose of a Gurkha casualty, lying face up on the ground with one of his arms around his head holding his kukri.

I wonder if these guys would be acceptable to use in a scene about Monte Cassino. The alternative would be to use regular British Infantry, as Gurkhas fighting in Italy wore the British battledress, but then in the pictures you would not be able to tell that they were Gurkhas... a tricky decision. I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there!

Here are some links to other participants in the Cassino campaign. Note that I face similar dilemmas with some of them in terms of the uniform that they are wearing not being the same as the one worn in Italy.

(British might also be used for Polish and Canadian who also fought there)
(Could also be used for Free French Moroccan Infantry)


  1. I had two box sets of these. I also had British 8th X 2, German Infantry X 2, German Paras X 2, US Marines, Austrailians, and Japanese Infantry. The Gurkhas were one of my favorites due to their poses and they being the only ones using a knife in combat. Uniform did not matter to me as it seemed fitting and distinct. Some claim they are wearing a WW1 tunic. Looks to me like a tropical shirt with ammo pouch carriers. Loved all of Airfix line as they were quality.

  2. They are wearing a WW1-era khaki drill tunic, but this is correct since, as colonial troops, they were further down the chain for new uniform. ANZAC troops also sometimes wore this tunic. The only exception is the officer, who is wearing the standard battledress-style khaki drill, probably because he is British and would have been seconded to the Gurkhas.

    These are great figures, but I think people overlook the fact that they would make excellent King's African Rifles figures. You would simply need to paint all of them (except the white officer) with a darker skin tone and they would be very fitting for Burma and East Africa.

    Also these have been re-issued recently and you can get them new in the red boxes, in the new K-Resin material. I think the only 1 32 sets that Hornby have not re-issued are the Italians, the Cold War figures and the off-the-wall sets like space warriors and medieval knights. Also, in June, they are releasing the Multipose British, American and German infantry. That should really help vary poses in large units!

  3. Thanks for clarifying the bit about the tunic and also for the tip about painting them as King's African Rifles. I am always looking out for variations on how to paint figures. It is a simple way of multiplying the variety in your ranks!

  4. Came here looking to see if you had been able to find any other maker of theses iconic soldiers - but as I thought it seems the Airfix ones are unique.

    FWIW I think the officer in the set is an 'Indian Officer' (previously 'Native Officer') ie a Gurkha officer not a British Officer? He is the same slightly smaller stature, which Gurkhas are, of course, and BOs were not more likely to be wearing the peaked cap or steel helmet? as an aside, from my admittedly limited time with them, BOs did not consider themselves 'seconded' to serve in Gurkha regiments - they looked upon it more as an honour and a privilege.

    As to the uniform, I wondered about it and came to a different conclusion. Rather than it being the old WWI issue, might it be meant to be the c1945 light khaki drill bush-shirt as illustrated on p38 of J B R Nicholson & Michael Roffe, The Gurkha Rifles, Reading: Osprey, 1975, especially given the pockets in the skirts?

    Wouldn't take too much to file them and the bottom of the shirt off to enable them to be painted in between-the-wars the grey shirt either?

  5. again forgot the b Notify Me button!

    1. Good insights into the relationships between the Gurkhas and their British Officers. I think it was in one of those books about Monte Cassino in which they had several excerpts from British memoirs and they indeed recalled their experiences with the Nepalese men with a great deal of respect and even some admiration for their courage, loyalty and resilience. Thanks also for the bits about the uniforms!