Monday, 26 December 2022

British Carrier as a Soviet Tractor

There is a common misconception that tankettes disappeared by the mid-1930s. On the contrary, some nations (for example Japan) continued to produce these vehicles even during WW2. There is also a question of classification. Tankettes were multipurpose vehicles. Their initial purpose was a machine gun carrier. The first Carden-Loyd tankettes didn't even have a roof for the gunner and driver. This classic British tankette evolved into a vehicle that some call an APC. In reality, this was a machine gun carrier that had a few seats in the back (like the T-27 tankette, for example). This means the most produced armoured vehicle in history is, in fact, a tankette. This would of course be the Universal Carrier. 113,000 units were built during its time in production, which is about as many as all Medium Tanks M4 and T-34s put together.

The Universal Carrier carried 2 crewmen plus 4 riders in the back. In practice, as many as 6 could fit in the back.

The Universal Carrier (initially Bren Carrier) was developed as a multipurpose vehicle. In addition to a 3-man machine gun carrier (Bren Carrier No.2 Mk.I) it was used as a reconnaissance vehicle (Scout Carrier) or an APC. It fit the role of an APC the least. It was possible to fit 4 men or even more in the rear compartments, but the vehicle was very small. Other uses depended on the needs of the unit. Recall strange modifications like a tank destroyer with a 2-pounder gun. There were also cases where the vehicle was used in roles that it wasn't designed for at all. It's no wonder that nations where the British sent these vehicles also came up with non-standard uses for the Universal Carrier.

The characteristics of the Universal Carrier were comparable with those of the Komsomolets tractor. Because of this, it seemed reasonable to test its towing ability.

The Moscow Conference between representatives of the USSR, USA, and UK ended on October 1st, 1941. The conference marked the end of the process to arrange delivery of armoured vehicles to the USSR, including the Universal Carrier. On October 11th, 1941, convoy PQ-1 arrived in the USSR carrying the first batch of British armoured vehicles. 2003 vehicles of this class including Canadian-built Universal Carriers and  American T16 carriers arrived in the USSR between 1941 and 1945. These vehicles were referred to as "MK-I APC" or "Bren APC" in Soviet documents. These vehicles were usually used for reconnaissance, with British armament slowly phased out in favour of Soviet guns. There was also a lesser known chapter in the history of this vehicle in the Red ARmy. It was tested as a tractor for divisional and anti-tank guns.

Howitzers were not tested, just divisional and anti-tank guns.

The idea was logical. The characteristics of the Universal Carrier were similar to those of the Komsomolets tractor, production of which ceased on August 1st, 1941. Meanwhile, 200 British Carriers arrived by November 28th. 10 vehicles each were issued to the 145th, 146th, and 148th Tank Brigades. 50 more arrived in December of 1941. 920 vehicles, almost half of all Universal Carriers to arrive in the USSR, cam between October 1941 and April 1942. By then it was called "universal carrier" in documents. The arrival of 193 vehicles in November alone did not go unnoticed by the GABTU. A program to test the carrier's ability to tow artillery was signed on November 25th, 1941. It would be used to tow 45 mm and 76 mm guns. The GABTU was hoping to make up for the cancellation of GAZ-61-416 utility trucks in this way. The GAZ factory was repurposed to build T-60 tanks. There are proponents of building gun tractors at the GAZ instead, but clearly the GKO had different priorities.

The second prototype with a tow bar from the GAZ-61-416 but without spurs.

The Universal Carrier Mk.I had the potential to be a good gun tractor. The power to weight ratio was almost twice as high as that of the Komsomolets, the gun crew could fit inside the vehicle, and there was already a tow hook. The British tow hitch was not compatible with Soviet guns, so it was replaced with the one used on the GAZ-61-416 truck. This work was conducted at the Molotov GAZ factory under the direction of designer Sokolov. The two Carriers were also modified for trials at this factory and trials were carried out around factory grounds.

Tow hitch from the GAZ-61-416.

The first trial run took place on November 27th, 1941. Since there were some doubts about how well the tracks would engage with icy surfaces, spurs were welded onto every tenth track link. This decision turned out to be correct, as the ambient temperature hit -10 degrees at the time of trials. The Carrier towed a 76 mm F-22 USV divisional gun, reaching a speed of 15-20 kph on the icy road. Trials showed that it was suitable for towing the gun on a paved road, but the GAZ-AA could tow even heavier loads on roads already. The Carrier was needed for off-road work.

Unlike the carrier, the tow hitch performed well.

The Universal Carrier's real abilities were demonstrated in the next series of trials. Two vehicles set out on November 28th, 1941. The same vehicle as before towing a USV gun plus a second Universal Carrier without spurs pulling a 57 mm ZIS-2 anti-tank gun drove from the GAZ factory to Gavrilovka village, some 30 km away. This time the terrain was variable with frozen dirt roads and slopes up to 10 degrees. It turned out that the Universal Carrier failed as a gun tractor in these conditions. Their average movement speed was just 6-8 kph. While the Carrier with spurs could more or less drive reliably, the one without spurs slipped constantly. Another issue was that the rear axle was too low. Despite 25 cm of clearance, the vehicle rocked back and forth when moving. There was a serious danger of smashing the rear axle on the ground.

Universal Carrier with spurs. It moved better, but not much better.

The third and final stage of trials took place on November 29th. A crew of 7 men with dummy ammunition were placed into the Carrier and a USV gun hooked up. The vehicle ran for 30 kilometers in this condition. It could reach 15-20 kph on a highway, but the driver felt that the vehicle was overloaded. This time the Carrier didn't even go off-road. A letter describing the results of the trials was sent to Stalin on December 10th, 1941. It summarized that using the Universal Carrier as a gun tractor was pointless. Instead, the GABTU recommended using them as reconnaissance vehicles in mechanized units, just like the British.

Tow hitch in action.

In conclusion, let us mention that the British also used the Universal Carrier as a gun tractor for 6-pounders with the same issues. The poor placement of the rear axle and just one road wheel in the rear meant that the vehicle couldn't realize the potential of its engine. This was why the 4-wheel T16 and Loyd Carrier were developed. These vehicles were successfully used as light artillery tractors, just like the Komsomolets, while the Universal Carrier did well as a reconnaissance vehicle.

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