Airborne Armor
William Sariego

January 2014


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:

Crew: 3
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:

Crew: 3
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

Game Usage

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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