Back in late 1963, I was a 20 year old 2nd Lieutenant, commanding a Troop in 36 Engineer Regiment based in Maidstone. My Squadron was training in Norfolk, acting as enemy to the Coldstream Guards, when I picked up a bug which put me in hospital for a couple of months. When I was released from hospital, I was on sick leave in my home town of Southampton for a further couple of months.
The film Zulu had just been released and, inspired by this, I decided to create a wargaming set-up of the 1879 Zulu War. Once created, I played several games with these figures against Neville Dickinson (the guy who later founded Minifigs). We had both started wargaming at Don Featherstone’s house a couple of years before that.
I planned to base my British Army on Lord Chelmsford’s Central Column, half of which was destroyed at Isandwana.
There were no 1:72 plastic figures of Zulu War British troops, so I made my infantry from converted Airfix Guards Colour Party figures. I cut the bearskins off and replaced them with pith helmets made from plastic wood. I also changed the angle of their left leg and right arm to give them more animation. I painted these as 1st Battalion 24th Foot.
I organised them as four companies of 12 figures (3 bases of 3 figures each plus 3 figures based individually). Each company has a separate officer, four per battalion. The battalion was commanded by a mounted Commanding Officer (converted from Airfix Guards Colour party upper half on Airfix cowboy legs and horse) accompanied by an officer on foot carrying the Regimental Colour.
With hindsight, this was a not a historically correct organisation, since I now know that they actually had 8 companies per battalion at that time (the 4 company per battalion structure was introduced in 1913, by amalgamating pairs of companies) . However there is a simple alteration, by just considering them as 8 x 6 figure companies. That would give a 1:15 figure ratio, which considering the small numbers of British troops involved in the Zulu War battles is not unreasonable. If I ever wanted to update them, I would integrate the company officers into alternate companies, and use the spare soldiers to add to the 2nd Battalion (I do have enough old Guards Colour Party figures to finish that off, but just never got around to it).
I did begin to paint a 2nd Battalion 24th Foot, but only made one company of them (12 figures plus an officer), which I should now consider as two 6 figure companies. They were the same figures as the 1st Battalion, but converted to change their sloped rifles into ones held at the high port.
I also modelled a British Royal Artillery gun to represent N Battery 5th Brigade RA, which accompanied Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column. The gun, limber and train horses were converted from an Airfix American Civil War gun.
The gun crew were very heavily converted Airfix Guards Bandsmen and were organised on my standard system of one gun per battery and one crew member per real gun in the battery. The Airfix ACW gun has been modified to make it look more like a 7lb RML (Rifled Muzzle Loader). My deployment base is smaller than ones I would use today.
I decided to make the 3rd Battalion of Natal Native Contingent (NNC), which accompanied the Column. I had read somewhere that the overall NNC commander, Colonel Durnford, wanted to put them into red shirts, and that was good enough for me to do so, although I now know that it never actually happened, so these are really inaccurate.
My figures also all have rifles (or muskets), although actually most did not, having only shields and spears. My NNC figures are therefore totally wrong on that count as well. They are Airfix American Civil War figures, and have a mixture of floppy hats, pith helmets and bare heads, all with a red headband, which is the only correct thing about them. They are organised in four companies of 12 figures, each with a European officer, and a mounted Commanding Officer.
I also made some cavalry. This is the Natal Mounted Police, comprising an officer and 6 troopers. They are all converted from Airfix Guards Colour Party upper bodies on Airfix Cowboys legs riding Airfix Cowboys horses.
For volunteer cavalry I made the small units which accompanied Chelmsford’s Centre Column, Natal Carabiniers, Newcastle Mounted Rifles and Buffalo Border Guard (all of 2 figures each). There is also one Mounted Infantryman in the picture. I meant to make a second one but did not get around to it.
They are all converted from Airfix Cowboys or Airfix Guards Colour Party upper bodies on Airfix Cowboys legs and are all on Airfix Cowboys horses.
I also made a detachment of Natal Native Pioneers. These did have uniform, red jackets with pillbox sidehats (a bit like Ghurka ones), so I modelled them like this. They are converted Airfix French Foreign Legion and have entrenching tools (small shovels) on their backs. Their Royal Engineer officer is reading a map.
Finally I made a supply wagon to accompany the column, converted from an Airfix Wagon Train model, with the cover welded back and wire hoops added. The oxen are converted from Airfix Farm set cattle (horns added with plastic coated wire). The driver on the wagon cracking his bull-whip is converted from an Airfix cowbox, and the small native child walking alongside the leading oxen is from the Airfix Wagon Train set.
There were of course, no suitable 1:72 Zulu figures at that time. I therefore converted one Airfix Red Indian figure into a Zulu by trimming his head feathers off, adding a welded on head ring, welding the loincloth into a Zulu kilt, adding leg feathers and a shield. The figure immediately to the left of the mould is that original figure. Don Featherstone kindly made me a rubber mould to cast metal figures from this.
I made some 300 in the end. With hindsight, I made the mistake of using pure lead, which made them too soft, so they have had a few breakages over the years, although only about 10 in total, which is not bad for over 50 years. I do have a few unpainted figures, so could replace most of the damaged ones. All the breakages have been figures snapped off at the ankle, a weak point since the figures are all running on one leg. However the soft lead also meant that they could be bent easily to create officer figures.
My Zulus are organised, quite unhistorically, into companies of 12 (just like the British, 3 bases of 3 figures each plus 3 individual figures), led by a separate (Amviyo) company officer, and with five companies per impi. Each impi has a Induna (commander) and two deputies (wing commanders). I have four complete impis, (iNgobamakhosi, uMbonambi, uVe and uDloko) plus a single company (with a full Impi comand) of uThulwana as Cetshewayo’s bodyguard.
If I wanted to update them, I would reorganise them with varying sizes of impis, to reflect their actual organisation. Here is the complete uDloko Impi (it is the only one to have suffered no breakages over the years).
Here are some detailed pictures of the iNgobamakhosi Induna (commander), one of the uVe Wing Commanders and two Amviyo (company commanders) from the uMbonambi and uDloko Impis.
The Zulus do have one plastic figure, their chief Cetshwayo. He is converted from an Airfix Friar Tuck top half (as is my Napoleon and my Duke of Cumberland in other eras, see my Modelling Tips page for more details of this). He is accompanied by two Amviyo from the uThulwana Impi.
Zulu War Wargaming
I still have all of these figures, although they have not seen any wargaming for decades. However here is a picture of a Zulu War wargame (fictitious event).
A supply wagon, being escorted by a mounted infantryman and two companies of 2nd Battalion 24th Foot is being surprised by the Zulu Army, attacking in its classic formation. The horns, formed by the iNgobamakhosi Impi (left in the foreground) and uDloko Impi (right), encircling the British detachment, whilst the uMbonambi Impi forms the chest and the uVe Impi forms the loins (reserve).
However a British relief force is arriving. In the top centre the Natal Mounted Police are moving forward to stop the horn of the uDloko Impi, whilst the six figures which comprise the Natal Carabiniers, Newcastle Mounted Rifles and Buffalo Border Guard are trying to do the same to stop the horn formed by the iNgobamakhosi Impi. The 1st Battalion 24th Foot are arriving at the top left, accompanied by N Battery 5th Brigade RA.
Here is a view from the rear of the British relief column.
This aerial picture shows the classic Zulu attack formation more clearly.
In the background is a Zulu kraal.
The huts in the kraal are cut down plastic hay ricks, which are over 50 years old. I originally had some rubberised horsehair (normally used for furniture stuffing), which I used to make thorn fences around the kraal, but I seem to have lost it. In the kraal are Cetshwayo and his uThulwana bodyguard.