Airborne operations were a military innovation in the Second
World War that forever changed the accepted norms of military
science. From daring raids by commandos such as that at Eben
Emael to the massed drops in support of the Normandy amphibious
assault, no "impregnable" defensive position was
safe from “vertical envelopment." Although credit
for the use of airborne troops often goes to the Germans in
popular histories, in fact military theorists such as the
English officer J.F.C. Fuller had plans for inserting troops
onto the battlefield via parachute as early as 1919. Likewise
much pioneering work was done by the Soviets in the 1930’s.
By their very nature airborne units offered a unique solution
to seizing military objectives quickly. This rapid deployment
option brought its own set of military issues, however. Once
the key objective of the airborne drop (be it a key bridge
or whatever) was seized, how long could it be held? Airborne
troops by their very nature were select soldiers, so morale
and bravery were not an issue. Due to the nature of their
insertion, however, they were "light" troops by
any definition. Even using gliders, more powerful equipment
beyond the paratroopers' small arms would always be of small
caliber and limited in numbers. Thus, once an objective was
seized, how long could even elite troops hold out in the middle
of enemy territory before being relieved by ground forces
advancing by more traditional means?
A solution to this problem was found surprisingly early,
using another weapon system that was fairly new to warfare:
the tank. Excepting some of J. Walter Christie’s flights
of fantasy (which he was unable to sell anyone), the first
tank earmarked for such use was the Soviet T-38 light tank,
which entered production in 1936. Weighing only 3.2 tons with
9.5mm maximum armor and carrying only a machine gun in its
turret, this was little more than a light weapons carrier.
Adopted by the Air-Landing Corps, it was also had amphibious
capability. Production would cease in 1939 and its successor
(the T-40) would be too heavy for airborne use, but would
maintain its amphibious capability.
It would be the American and British military industrial
complexes that would develop the idea of the airmobile tank
to its greatest wartime ability. Except for Crete, the early
war German uses of airborne troops were relatively small scale
affairs. Likewise the Soviet drops during their counter-offensive
before the gates of Moscow in 1941 amounted to little more
than inserting raiders behind enemy lines, acting as professional
partisans. The Western Powers saw the need for mass drops
as an integral part of larger, more conventional military
operations, and planned for them accordingly.
The British designed the first tank that was used in airmobile
operations quite by accident. The Mk VII, called the Tetrarch,
was a private venture by Vickers in 1937, which was accepted
by the War Office in 1938. It was a departure from earlier
British light tanks, incorporating heavier armament and a
unique suspension, improving speed and performance. Production
would begin in 1940 but orders were almost immediately scaled
back, as the British army was quick to see that the days of
the light tank were already numbered.
Still, the Tetrarch was a good vehicle and production did
continue as factories were already tooled for its output.
A large number of Tetrarchs were sent to the Soviet Union
in the Spring of 1942, where they more highly regarded than
the slower Valentines and Matildas. The first operational
use of the Tetrarch by its makers was Operation Ironclad,
the invasion of Madagascar in May, 1942.
Though light tanks were being dropped by the British armored
divisions, it was too good of a vehicle to simply write off.
Its potential use as a glider borne tank was recognized and
the Hamilcar glider was specifically designed to carry the
small tank. Thus the little Tetrarch became the first tank
to be inserted via airborne operations, being used in this
role with the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. The tank
would again be used in the airborne drops across the Rhine
in March 1945.
Specifications for the Tetrarch were as follows:
Weight: 7.5 tons
Speed: 40 mph (road)
28 mph (cross country)
Armament: 1 x 2-Pdr (40 mm)*
1 x 7.92 mg
Max Armor: 14 mm
*A limited number of Tetrarchs were fitted with a 3-inch
howitzer instead of the 2-Pdr and were designated the Tetrarch
ICS (Infantry Close Support).
The Americans likewise designed a tank to be easily transportable
by air, the M22. It was an unusual vehicle, and carried four
brackets above the bogie suspension which could attach the
AFV to the underside of a C-54 transport plane, without the
turret attached! In theory the tank would be flown to a captured
airfield and assembled to be combat worthy there. It was probably
a good thing this was never attempted. To save weight, some
typical American innovations such as the gyro-stabilizer for
the gun and power-traverse for the turret were not fitted.
Production of the vehicle began in 1943 but it never saw use
by American forces. Instead some were sent to England as part
of Lend Lease. The British called the M22 the “Locust”
and a company of the tanks were carried by Hamilcar gliders
in the March 1945 airborne operation.
Specifications for the M22/Locust were as follows:
Weight: 8 tons
Speed: 40 mph (road)
30 mph (cross country)
Armament: 1 x 37 mm
1 x 30-cal mg
Max Armor: 25 mm
The Tetrarch appears in Liberation 1944, supporting the British Paras. As you can see, while these vehicles served a useful, though
limited, niche, they cannot be regarded as wholly successful.
Such thin-skinned tanks, when committed in June 1944 and again
in March 1945, were hopelessly outclassed by any enemy AFV
they encountered. While a testament to the bravery of airborne
troops, they could never feel totally secure until relieved
by advancing ground forces. The problem continued through
the Cold War era, in which the M551 Sheridan would be adopted
by the US Army for airmobile operations, even as many military
theorists came to believe that vertical envelopment had become
a dinosaur on the modern battlefield.
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