Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

A Tank in a Glider. How the hell do you fit a Tank in a Glider, and then fly it hundreds of miles, land it, and then fight from it? It seems ridiculous, but this really did happen during the latter stages of the Second World War.

Although Britain was woefully slow in developing Airborne Forces, one aspect in which she was far in advance of her allies and enemies was that of developing means of transporting tanks into battle by air. Obviously it would have been impossible to carry anything like Sherman or Churchill by air, but it was found that the Tetrarch – a small light tank – could fit inside a General Aircraft Hamilcar Glider. Hamilcars were the largest glider used by British Forces during the war, and flew in action in Normandy, at Arnhem and during the Rhine Crossing. Flying a huge Glider loaded with a light tank was an impressive feat for the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, who upon landing became infantry in their own right.

Flint gives us an impressive overview of the development of both the Tetrarch and Locust, and also of the Hamilcar glider that carried them into battle. Not only are we informed about the machines, but also the men and the units that fought with them. It was indeed a surprise to me to learn that once the ground forces linked up with the airborne recce units the airborne men swapped their light tanks for heavier Churchill tanks, which gave the Airborne Division much more firepower and enabled it to act as a regular infantry Division, such as in the advance to the Seine in the summer of 1944 and from the Rhine Crossing to the Elbe in 1945.

One aspect I am particularly interested in is the lack of any serious Armour in the 1st Airborne Division that landed at Arnhem. As Flint has shown, this was more by accident than by design. It would be reasonable to suggest that while Tetrarchs or Locusts might not have fared too well against Mark IVs, Tigers of Panthers later in the battle, in the early advances to the Bridge tanks might have fared better in the infamous ambush than lightly armed Jeeps. Even better, a troop of tanks in front of each Battalion heading for the Bridge would have been most effective. The 1st Airborne Recce commander, Major Freddie Gough, suggested that some of 6th Airborne’s tanks could have been used at Arnhem, but this suggestion was not taken up. This more than fits in with the impression that the Arnhem operation was badly planned and opportunities were missed.

Keith Flint has made valuable use of some original documents, particularly from the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. This is the kind of history I like – original research, on a new subject, that focuses on both the men and the machines. This is a significant addition to both the armoured and airborne historiographies of the Second World War.

Airborne Armour is published by Helion Press

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4 Comments

Filed under Airborne Warfare, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

4 responses to “Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

  1. Who needs an entire glider? The Soviets strapped wings to a tank (T-26 if memory serves) and flew the tank behind an airplane. It actually worked! Then again, the trials tank was lightened, and the assemblage was dropped onto a snow-covered perfectly flat field. They never did try it in combat. Reminds me of a story a vet once told me, about the idea to para-drop a US M60 tank. They pushed it out the back, the parachutes failed, and the tank free fell from about 2,000 feet. They had to dig down 20 feet just to find the back end – it fell nose first. Oops! ;)

  2. Also, forgot to mention, the Tetrarch was developed further into a tank called the Harry Hopkins, though with the same deployment concepts. And if I remember correctly, both the Tetrarch and Hopkins had the British-standard close-support variant (CS) carrying a short 3″ howitzer instead of the 2-pdr main gun. I can find you more information on all those tanks, James, if you wish, but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Have to haul the dog to the veterinarian – he got into something, and his snout his sprouting swollen pockets. The fun of pet ownership!

    • James Daly

      Hi John thats right about the Harry Hopkins and thr 3inch mortar, that was in the book but I neglected to mention in my review.

      I think its interesting how Britain’s rather pathetic tank development pre-war and early in the war meant that we had a small enough and light enough tank to put in a glider, whereas if we had gone the German route of over-engineering our tanks, we might not have been able to.

      • Actually, James, all the early war tanks were somewhat on the pathetic side. The Panzer 1 and 2 were never meant for combat, yet both fought, the first with only 2 MGs, the second with a measly 20mm cannon. The US had it’s little Stuart with the 37mm. The Russians had a plethora of little tanks with armament varying from MGs to the largest at 45mm. The two best countries, ironically enough, were Czech and French – the first overrun with no chance to fight, the second overwhelmed in a little 0ver 6 weeks. The Czech light tanks made up over 60% of the Panzers attacking France, and were still over 40% of tank strength when Hitler invaded Russia. The French Somua S-35 and Char B1-bis were the best tanks of the early war, let down by tactics rather than quality. The main reason both the US and UK had glider-capable tanks were due to our pre-war doctrines – the UK “cruiser” and the US Stuart for scouting. And thus ends “Early WW2 Tanks for Dummies”. Tune in tomorrow when James pays to have my fingers broke so I quit clogging up his blog! :D

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