Friday, October 12, 2012

The Universal Carriers of the British 1st Airborne Division at Operation Market-Garden - 1944

As already  briefly addressed in the page on the 17 Pdr Anti-Tank Guns at Operation ‘Market Garden -1944 and the pages on the Hamilcar glider, the British 1st Airborne Division also used the Hamilcar gliders to deliver a modified version of Universal Carrier to the battlefield at Arnhem and Oosterbeek. It was the Universal Carrier No. 1 Mk III (Airborne Modification).

There is a paucity of accurate information on the subject. In several books considered to be definitive references on the Universal ('Bren') Carrier, the MK III is barely mentioned, and the Airborne Modification totally omitted. Contemporary photographic evidence of Universal Carrier employment during the battle is extremely limited. Philip Reinders, an acknowledged expert on the battle, has authored and published (among others) a well researched book on the subject in 2009, but unfortunately it was a limited edition only produced in small numbers, given its esoteric nature, and has sold out. See;

The primary missions of the carriers were to provide support to the Mortar Platoon and Medium Machine Gun Platoon of each battalion, and a means of rapid recovery of CLE containers and panniers (primarily ammunition) from aerial resupply drops, affording limited protection from small-arms fire and shrapnel in a battlefield environment. During the course of actual combat operations that ensued they were also used on a limited basis to reposition 6 Pdr Anti-Tank guns.  Due to the nature of the mission it was primarily assigned to parachute and/or aiirlanding qualified personnel of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) assigned to each battalion. Each battalion’s 2 Universal Carriers, their crews, and basic combat load were carried in a single General Aircraft GAL-49 Hamilcar glider.

Only 18 Universal Carriers were contained in the TO&E of the 1st Airborne Division; 2 carriers were assigned to each of the battalions organic to the 2 Parachute Brigades (1st and 4th) and the 1st Airlanding Brigade. Of this number 16 carriers were successfully landed and off-loaded on Landing Zone ‘Z’ (Renkum Heath) near Wolfheze. One Hamilcar crash-landed throwing its 2 carriers through the nose door. One was found to be still operable (immediately deployed), however the second could not be immediately employed (was subsequently ‘salvaged’). These 2 carriers were those unfortunately assigned to LtCol John Frost’s 2nd Bn Parachute Regiment.

The majority, with one known exception (see photograph below), of the Universal Carriers were No. 1 Mk III (Airborne Configuration) per the Airborne Forces Development Centre’s (AFDC) specifications. All of the known carriers photographed during the battle were of this configuration. Modifications were primarily intended to reduce weight and overall size envelope, and included the following:

Removal of the lower rear armour plate
Removal of tool rack, camouflage net and locker
Removal of mud shields and mud scraper
Removal of lamps
Removal of spare wheel
Removal of front loop hole cover
Removal of Petrol Cans
Addition of mounting for 3” mortar on rear structure

As of early April 1944 vehicles were accepted in British factory finished SCC15 Khaki Green (Spec.No.15 BS 987C – 1942, now BS 381C 298), and either left solid color or modified with black ‘Mickey Mouse’ pattern camouflage. In the specific case of the carriers present at Arnhem and Oosterbeek none of the identified carriers had any discernible camouflage paint.

The following are nominal examples of tactical markings present on 1st Airborne Division vehicles. Disregard the specific numbers, but note the style and colors. The white numbers on the red square connote a senior Parachute Brigade Battalion. White numbers on brown square an Airlanding Brigade Battalion. The ‘Pegasus’ is the divisional formation badge. For further information on tactical markings see; on this same blog page.

Based upon a combination of established standard British Army vehicle markings, and contemporary British and German combat photography, the following markings can be verified for the Universal Carriers present in Arnhem and Oosterbeek during the battle.

            Left and right side of carrier: A white star and specific War Department production serial number consisting of the capital letter ‘T’ (either on top of or preceding) a six digit number (either stenciled or painted).

            Front left fender of carrier: The light blue ‘Pegasus’ (flying left to right) on a maroon square, denoting the Airborne Forces formation badge. Standard dimensions of the square being 8.5” wide and 9.5” high. See photograph of carrier T248395 below.

            Front right fender of carrier: The specific unit Arm of Service (AoS) tactical marking consisting of a white number (stenciled or painted) on top of a range of single or multi-colored squares. Again the standard dimensions being 8.5” wide and 9.5” high.

For the carriers present, and photographed during the battle, there were no rear markings and there were no yellow bridging ‘discs’.

There are known photographs of only 2 carriers where the ‘T’ number is discernible; T248395 and T248405. The keen eyed observer will note that  T248395 is the identical vehicle previously used as a photographic model by the Airborne Forces Development Centre shown above. A rather remarkable coincidence.

The sum total of confirmed photographic evidence on unit markings from both British (Army Film and Photographic Unit) and German Army combat photographic archives consists of:

• White ‘69’ on green square, carrier belonging to the 11th Parachute Battalion (part of 4th Parachute Brigade); photograph of carrier seen on cover of Philip Reinder's booklet; Note that in this case the unit marking is on the left fender vice its ‘normal’ place on the right fender. Given the presence of the civilian in the photograph, it may have been taken by a Dutch civilian.
• White ‘110’ on brown square, carrier belonging to the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment (Airlanding) on carrier T248395. (Number is barely discernible on damaged right fender). Carefully observe the size, shape and spacing of the number.
• White ‘113’ on brown square, carrier belonging to the 1st Battalion The Border Regiment (Airlanding) according to Philip Reinders. Barely discernible in photograph from German military archives. Have not seen this photograph (B2)

The following photograph was taken by LCpl Reg McFarlane of Divisional Signals in a position just to the rear of the Utrechtseweg/Onderlangs roadfork during the  fighting around the St Elisabeth Hospital. It shows the rear of a Universal Carrier No.1 Mk III (Airborne Modification). The fittings and straps intended for a 3” mortar are being used in an improvised means of stowing spare bogey wheels. This photograph also corroborates the absence of any markings on the rear of the carriers.

Photograph of ‘C’ Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment loading an unmodified Universal Carrier No. 1 Mk III into a Hamilcar glider bound for Arnhem (note minimal horizontal clearance). Usually censorship marks are white and irregular, so it may be that this specific carrier had no front fender tactical markings.

 According to Philip Reinders some crew members were RASC (airborne or airlanding qualified) or at least had RASC T/ or S/army numbers, other drivers were from the units themselves, i.e. Parachute or Airlanding Battalions.

The following series of photographs are of a recently introduced detailed ~1:30 scale model of one of the Universal Carriers No.1 Mk III (Airborne Configuration) depicted above, produced and available in the Operation Market-Garden Series from King & Country Toy Soldiers of Hong Kong. A sharp eye will pick up the fact that in the model the lower rear armoured plate was retained to facilitate providing a pintle which allows towing of a trailer or artillery piece, unlike the actual airborne carrier which used an improvised heavy chain fitting for this function. This was an exercise of artistic license.

Universal Carrier, No.1 MkIII (Airborne Configuration)
"T 248395" as present in the Battle of Arnhem 

Acknowledgement is given to the following sources of information:
Margry, K., OPERATION MARKET-GARDEN Then and Now (Vol 1 and 2), After the Battle, London, 2002, ISBN 1 870067 45 2
Peters, M. & Buist, L., Glider Pilots at Arnhem, Pen & Sword, Barnsley South Yorkshire, 2009 ISBN184415763-6
Middlebrook, M., ARNHEM 1944 The Airborne Battle, Viking, London, 1994 ISBN 0-670-83546-3
Piekalkiewicz, J., Arnhem 1944, Scribner’s, New York, 1976 ISBN 0-684-15479-X
Taylor, R., WARPAINT Volume II: Colours and Markings of British Army Vehicles 1903-2003, MMP Books, Poland ISBN 8389450925
Reinders, P., Universal Carriers during the Battle of Arnhem 17-26 September 1944, TMB Image Center, Netherlands, 2009 ISBN (None), (With additional e-mail correspondence directly with the author)
Bouchery, J., THE BRITISH SOLDIER FROM D-DAY TO VE-DAY (Vol 1 and 2), Histoire & Collections, Paris, 1999 ISBN 2 908 182 742
Hodges,P. and Taylor, M., British Military Markings 1939-1945, Cannon Publications, 1994, ISBN 1-899695-00-1


Anonymous said...

I noticed that the Mortar carriers that were issued to AB forces had the fixed plate frontal armour, very rare. I also noticed that there is one on these for sale on ebay item number 351118214950. very nice

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The Heid said...

Excellent and informative article - thanks

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