Article: 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and the Tetrarch by Peter Brown

 
 
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6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment and the Tetrarch by Peter Brown

Flying tanks onto the battlefield is not something which has happened every day though it may well be a part of future operations. But as far as I know, tanks have only gone into action by air, as opposed to being flown to a theatre of operation, on two occasions. Both these actions were carried out by the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, who were the Armoured Reconnaissance element of the British 6th Airborne Division.

All British Infantry Divisions had a Reconnaissance Regiment as part of their organisation from 1941, after the Divisional Cavalry Regiments who were equipped with light tanks were withdrawn to be converted to heavier tanks. The usual equipment of these was a mixture of Armoured Cars, Scout Cars, Carriers and anti-tank guns, but the Airborne Divisions were different as 1st Airborne Division relied on armed Jeeps while the 6th used light tanks, Scout Cars and Carriers.

British use of light tanks after the early WW2 campaigns was minimal, as they were thought to have little to offer on the battlefield. American light tanks, in the form of the M3 and M5 series Stuarts and later M24 Chaffees, were used although they tended to be heavier and better armoured than their British cousins and in the early Desert battles Stuarts were used in the same role as British Cruiser tanks, though by the later war campaigns they were used more for scouting.

In fact, the Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment were one of the few units to use one particular type of tank. This was the Tetrarch, initially known as the A17 and in the later style as Light Tank Mk VII. Designed in the 1930s by Vickers Armstrong, it was a radical departure from their earlier light tank series which culminated in the Mk VI series in service at the beginning of the War. Not only was it better armed, with the same 2pdr gun used on most early-war British tanks, it also had an unusual suspension system with four large roadwheels per side supported on struts. This had a system of track warping for gentle turns, commonly used on British Carriers.

This tank was a victim of circumstances. It was originally intended to be built by Vickers, a contract for 165 was placed as an extension to the initial prototype but none of these seem to have been built as the order was transferred to Metro-Cammel Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd in Birmingham to enable Vickers to concentrate on building Valentines. 120 were ordered on contract T.6423, the order was reduced to 100 with the result that of the allocated census numbers T9266 to T9385 the last twenty were not used. Production was to have begun in early 1940 but this was delayed with the first one not being delivered until well into October 1940. A few were built in 1940 before the Luftwaffe bombed the factory resulting in a five-month break in production which continued at a slow pace before the final vehicle was delivered at the end of March 1942. Price was originally quoted was £8,120 which by the end of production had risen to around £10,440 which compares poorly with around £7,600 for a Crusader or £15,000 for an early Churchill.

By the time they had entered production let alone been built, there was little call for them in mainstream use, though they were seem as having a possible use in special roles with them being described earmarked for “Brake” or airborne purposes as early as September 1941. At one time some served with 10th Royal Hussars in the UK, and when 20 were sent to Russia they went in their original British markings and were photographed in Russian service with them still in place. This would have confused German intelligence officers and maybe later generations as to why the 1st Armoured Division or at least 10th Royal Hussars served in the Caucasus in early 1943! One of these tanks ended up at the collection in Kubinka, though in view of the special role planned for them, no further vehicles were sent. Six vehicles served with “B” Special Service Squadron Royal Armoured Corps along with six Valentines in the attack on the island of Madagascar in May 1942, and one was used to prove the Straussler floatation gear which was used on the Valentine and Sherman DD, but the only chance for the remainder to see action was to be from the skies, not the sea.

Much of the information on them comes from the Regiment’s own War Diary, copies of which are in the Tank Museum Library in Bovington and the National Archives at Kew. 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment went through several names. Initially it was known as ‘”C” Special Service Squadron Royal Armoured Corps, and in October 1941 it had 12 Tetrarches while A and B Squadrons were equipped with the Light Tank Mk VI series. In late June 1942 it became known as the Airborne Light Tank Squadron RAC, taking over 7 Tetraches as well as 12 officers, 84 Other Ranks and an Army Catering Corps Corporal cook. It initially also had four Scout Cars (presumably Daimler Dingos) and three Carrier, Tracked, Personnel or Loyd Carriers which were soon disposed off. More Tetraches arrived, ten being recorded being as taken on strength in three batches during the last week of August. Training with these vehicles continued as well as trials involving loading them and the Rotatrailer armoured supply trailers into the huge Hamilcar gliders which had been designed and built to carry heavy vehicles.

A small number of tanks were re-armed with the 3″ Howitzer which was commonly used to provide supporting fire with high explosive and smoke shells in British tank units. According to a report produced in June 1945, “The Airborne Forces converted a small number of Tetrarch 2-pr vehicles to mount the 3″ Howitzer for the close support role. This conversion was carried out by the Unit with the help of the parent firm and the vehicles are in the service. 3 of these C.S. Tanks were issued to the Airborne Armd Recce Regt” although there seem to have been at least four converted. Some of the CS tanks were around in July 1943 as the War Diary lists 2pdr and 3″ Howitzer HE and Smoke rounds being fired on the 19th and 29th on the Minehead ranges. The surviving Tetrarch the in Tank Museum collection at Bovington has a 3” gun but with ammunition racks for 2pdr shells. It may have been some sort of prototype vehicle or one used at the nearby Gunnery Wing at Lulworth for trials or training.

In late October 1943, 17 American T.9 Locust light tanks arrived. At the end of November a Squadron of Locusts was on the Warcop ranges where they fired 37mm HE with Squadron HQ firing 3″ HE. A report detailing the operational AFVs in the UK at the end of 1943 lists them as having 17 Locust, 16 Tetrarch 2pdr and another four with the 3″ Howitzer. On 14 January 1944 the unit was renamed again to become the Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.

At this time all training efforts were being directed towards the D Day landings. As part of the build-up, the Hamilcar gliders were being prepared. The May 1977 edition of Airfix Magazine, part 20 of Michael J F Bowyer’s series on “Army-air Colours 1937-45” covered “Hamilcars in Action”, and he states that in March 1944 38 Hamilcars were earmarked for use with the Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. These were modified for the specific loads they were to carry –

Class A – 23 (17 plus 6 reserves) for T9 tank and three men

Class B – 6 (4 plus 2 reserves) for three Rotatrailers each

Class C – 3 for Tetrarch 3” Howitzer and three men

Class D – 3 for two Universal Carriers and six men

Class E – 2 for Carrier 3” Mortar, ten motorcycles and ten men

Class F – 1 for Slave Battery Carrier, Car 5cwt (Jeep) and six men

This would suggest that 2pdr-equipped Tetrarch was not at that stage intended to be used in the landings, only Locusts and CS Tetrarches. However in April 1944 the glider conversions were revised to be 15 Class A for Tetrarch, 3 Class B for Tetrarch CS, 4 Class C for three Rotatrailers while Classes D, E and F were the same as before. How and why the glider modifications for 2pdr and 3” armed tanks varied is not described. (Rotatrailers were lightly-armoured trailers designed to carry ammunition and fuel in their hollow wheels. Many British tanks were fitted with towing hooks to use them but apart from a brief period in Tunisia they were not used)

It is annoying that the Regiment’s War Diary does not state how many tanks were used on D Day and published sources of the unit’s equipment strength are confusing. The Bowyer article lists the serial numbers of 34 Horsa gliders used on the day and says that these also carried numbers 221-254. However, he also records that those used were towed by 31 Halifax aircraft drawn from Nos 298 and 644 Squadrons, Royal Air Force. Depending published sources, three or four Hamilcars were part of Operation TONGA which was the initial landing of 6th Airborne Division in the early hours of D Day, the others were to be used in the follow-up Operation MALLARD set for 2120 and the Regiment were landed during this operation. “The History of the Glider Pilot Regiment” by Claude Smith (Leo Cooper, 1992) says 30 Hamilcars took part with one being ditched after being hit by flak but also says 29 were carrying the Armoured Recce. The Bowyer article states that all the MALLARD gliders landed though one crashed into rough ground, was hit by enemy fire but its tank was driven out of the glider. Combined with the figures totalling 28 listed for April, the actual number of gliders seems to be in some doubt but it would be logical to assume 18 Tetrarches, mostly with 2pdrs but three or four CS versions, were landed.

At least the actual operation is described in the War Diary. The Regiment was sent into battle in Hamilcars for the heavy vehicles and the smaller Horsa which could carry troops, lighter equipment or Jeeps. The Diary states that A and RHQ Squadrons of the Regiment assembled around the airfield at Tarrant Ruston in Dorset, not far from Bovington, which agrees with the Bowyer article as the assembly point for the Hamilcars, and the remainder at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire which

presumably handled the smaller Horsa. As to D Day and the first day in action themselves, the Diary states –

“6 June 44 – Regt emplaned from airfields as above for OP OVERLORD. B and HQ Sqns at 1900hrs A and RHQ 1925hrs. One Horsa with 2 i/c forced to cast off and made successful landing in area WINCHESTER. No further episodes in flight. Hamilcars and Horsas arrived over DZ area RANVILLE 1173 2100/2130hrs. All Horsas landed without incident, one Hamilcar crashed into tank unloading from another causing both to become Z casualties. Some mortar fire on DZ during landing, one Hamilcar hit. Regt RV in harbour at 127374.

7 June 1944 – 0700 Move from harbour area via LE MESNIL to new harbour area Rd Junc 137707.

0930 Recce patrol engaged 4 wheel armd car in wood 137706, jeep set on fire by incendiary bullet and blew up, no cas personnel. 0930/2100 Recce patrols operating in area TOUFFREVILLE, SANNERVILLE, BANNERVILLE LE CAMPAGNE. Enemy movements seen in TOUFFREVILLE and SANNERVILLE and area 1168/1169 incl inf, small number tanks and S.P. guns. 192 Pz Gr Rgt identified in this area (dead DR). At last light location harbour changed to X-roads 140708 (Insert – light tank cas on enemy mine 135706 crew missing. Lights hit by S.P. gun at 137708, 1 cas X tank cas)”

As to the technical jargon and abbreviations used, 2 i/c is the unit Second in Command, DZ is Drop Zone which is in fact an odd term, as the unit was glider borne so should properly use an LZ or Landing Zone. RV is a rendezvous, Rd Junc a road junction and X-roads a crossroads. DR is despatch rider, cas are personnel casualties, while for tank cas X denotes minor damage to a vehicle and a Z one is a total loss while any Y ones would have needed workshop repair. Inf are infantry, and the six-digit numbers are map references.

Later entries record action by Tetrarches, one 2pdr tank was lost on 7th July, on the 17th fifteen 3″ and ten 2pdr shells were fired at a pillbox while on the 23rd a Light Tank was hit by a 75mm solid shot, making it a Z casualty. Presumably other vehicles would have broken down, though no record was made. However, a brief remark in one 21st Army Group HQ RAC Liaison Letter stated that only three Tetrarchs were lost, which could be the three listed above. It seems Dingo Scout Cars and Carriers were also employed by the Regiment as well.

Heavier armour was issued later, on 6th August – two months after D Day – eight Cromwell tanks were received, forming two Troops in A Squadron. These served alongside the Tetrarches, on the 16th A Squadron HQ with three Tetrarches were near RHQ at 115658 while there were two troops of Cromwells at 110670 and 108654. On the 24th “Troops of 95mm Centaurs came under command to support ops”, these were 1st Canadian Centaur Battery who took over some of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group vehicles left behind when they were withdrawn in June and the 1st’s War Diary lists them as loaning a Sherman and three Centaurs which were having mechanical trouble (one had to be repaired by the Recce) and these operated with one of the Airborne’s own Cromwell 95mm.

On 27th August the Regiment was withdrawn and shipped back to the UK. Whether any tanks were taken along is not recorded, and the listing of UK AFV Holdings as at 31st December 1944 records the Regiment as having 11 Cromwells with 75mm guns but no other tanks, this may well be an administrative error as they were to use Locusts in action later. But that, as they say, is another story.

Organisation of 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment on D Day

National Archive file WO.171/153 is the Royal Armoured Corps Branch 21 Army Group War Diary for 1944. Among various reports is 21 Army Group RAC Liaison Letter No 1 dated 27 June 1944 which among other matters has a short section on 6AARR. It reads:-

“The organisation of armour in 6 Airborne Division is as follows –

AIRBORNE ARMOURED RECCE REGT

RHQ

2 Light Tanks

HQ Squadron

Squadron HQ

Parachute harbour party

Intercommunication Troop (10 light motorcycles)

Airborne Administration Troop

Landing-lead party (12 Rotatrailers and 1 10cwt trailer)

Administration Troop

Tank Squadron

HQ – 3 Light Tank CS

Five Troops, each 3 Light Tanks

Recce Squadron

HQ

4 Troops, each 1 Car 5cwt 4×4, 1 Carrier Universal, 1 Motorcycle

Support Squadron

HQ

Support Troop – 2 Carriers Universal each with 3” Mortar

Assault Troop – 1 Carrier Universal, 20 Motorcycles

The Airborne Armoured Recce Regt of 6 Airborne Division was landed successfully by glider and in conjunction with the remainder of the Division operated on the left flank of the beachhead. The Regiment was equipped with Tetrarchs.

Initial reports indicate that these tanks were extremely successful and helped in protecting the right flank of the Division. At the same time they provided suitable support for the gunner OPs and proved a suitable vehicle for carrying out reconnaissance.

Information so far to hand indicates that initially only three tanks were lost.”

This would give the unit a total of 20 Tetrarchs, three CS tanks with the 3” howitzer and the remaining ones with the 2pdr gun which differs slighting from with the figures taken from the glider loads.

Its other air-landed armour would have been the various Universal Carriers. For those not familiar with the term, “Car 5cwt 4×4” is the nomenclature used for the Jeep.

Other details from the same file are in Liaison Letter No 2 of 6 September 1944

“12. Tetrarches. The Tetrarch tanks in the Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment did most valuable work both on recce and providing protection for O.P’s. Only three tanks were lost. These tanks are, of course, too thin to be suitable for co-operation with infantry”

From WO.171/435 War Diary, Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment RAC

Appendix A to July 1944 – Report on destroyed Tetrarch Light Tank M.R. 123705 knocked out July 7

Examined the destroyed Tetrarch at MR 123705 and noted the following points –

The tank was alongside the hedge, inside a field, some 15/20 yards south of the X roads and about 6 yards from a wide gateway.

The near side track, next to the hedge, was still underneath what was left of the suspension, while off side track was about 5 yards from the tank. It is possible that it had been moved as troops were sheltering under the lee of the vehicle. The second suspension on the near side had been blown off, the wheel and suspension unit were separate and about 2 feet away; the rubber of 1 and 3 bogies had been burnt. The centre hull plate had been blown inwards approximately 2 inches. The whole appearance suggested that a charge was placed behind the second suspension, possibly in the V caused by the wheel and the hydraulic unit.

The near side of the tank did not appear greatly damaged and presented the general appearance of a burnt out vehicle. On inspecting the inside of the turret the following points were noticed. The wireless set No 19 had been removed completely. It had not been wrenched out but unbolted from its mounting. The aerial bases and boxes had not been removed and were burnt. The 2pdr gun was complete and in working order except for rust and fire damage. The BESA was complete. The deflector plate had been blown away. The 2pdr breech was open and the BESA cocked. The 4in smoke dischargers were no longer on the turret and were found on the ground adjacent to the tank. In the bottom of the turret numerous burnt belts of BESA ammunition were found but only 3 spilt 2pdr cases and {unreadable} case that had been fired and probably came from the spent cartridge cases.

There appeared to have been a charge placed on or near to the clutch housing as it had been split and half blown away; the engine had been wrenched from its mounting but appeared complete. The engine covers were missing, as was the turret cover, these may have been removed by troops. The drivers compartment had been burnt right out. Batteries had disintegrated and the driving wheel was loose from its column. The LITTLEJOHN had not been removed from the 2pdr and the turret was pointing forward.

There was no trace of any personal kit except an Airborne steel helmet (no name) lying on the ground. The helmet was bent almost out of recognition.

<signed> Lieut VV Kenward

6 Airborne Armd Recce Regt RAC

 

More about the author:

“Peter Brown was born in Derbyshire, England in 1956. He has been interested
in armoured vehicles since he was a teenager, at first as a model maker but
increasingly in studying their design, development, production and use. As
his main interest is in British AFVs he found coverage in print was limited
so had to do his own research from original sources in the Tank Museum
Library, Imperial War Museum and the National Archives at Kew. His articles
have appeared in magazines in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, the
Netherlands, Poland and the USA as well as on websites around the world.
After years of research he believes he still has much to find but at least
now knows what questions to ask and where to look!”

KAGERO Publishing House

Thanks to Tomasz Basarabowicz – editor and author of over a hundred articles and several books on Allied and so called “minor powers’ ” AFV’s such as Finland, Hungary, the Balkans etc. Operational in submtting Mr Browns article.

 

 

Peter Brown for TB November 2011