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Gavin K. Watt
It is rarely appreciated that Canada’s army ended the Second War as one of the most highly mechanized armies in the world. To a great degree, this accomplishment was owed to the many versions of small, lightly-armoured, tracked Carriers that were employed. The Carrier story is complex and, rather than re-invent the wheel, I have chosen to quote from several sources.
The following section is quoted with permission from Gary J. Kennedy’s
The Universal Carrier is perhaps one of the most misunderstood instruments of the World War Two battlefield. It does not neatly fit into any established class of armoured fighting vehicle. It is perhaps most often thought of as an armoured personnel carrier, but this is misleading. It may be more accurately described as an armoured machine gun carrier. The role of an APC, as typified by the halftrack of the period, was to transport a Squad [Section] sized unit over rough terrain under some degree of protection from small arms’ fire and shell bursts. Such machines were employed en masse to mechanise an entire Infantry Battalion, bestowing previously undreamt of mobility.
The unique concept of the Universal Carrier Platoon was to provide every Infantry Battalion with the ability to move a small portion of its establishment under armoured protection. The men of the Rifle Platoons could not pile into the vehicles as they could do with halftracks. Each Carrier had its own Bren gun team and was intended to operate in a fire support role for the walking infantrymen, rather than act as their transportation. In reality, the Carrier served in a host of other less offensive but equally vital roles.
The idea was that the Carrier could transport a Bren team to a position where they could dismount and begin covering fire. The armour of the Carrier was proof against bullets and shell splinters. It was not proof against airbursts or grenades, as the machine had no overhead cover. This was partly to facilitate the dismount and partly to save weight, and it was a weakness shared by both German and American halftrack carriers.
As with more conventional support weapons, the question of whether the Carriers should be deployed as a single force or hived off to the Rifle Companies arose. A compromise generally emerged, in which the one or two Main Effort Companies received a Section apiece, with the resultant balance being retained as a Battalion reserve under the Platoon Commander.
As there was no precedent for the Carrier, there was a certain amount of puzzlement as to its most profitable deployment. In the early days of the war, German and Italian anti-tank weapons were far less common. This encouraged some units to use their Carriers boldly, taking full advantage of the enemy’s lack of resistance to even lightly armoured vehicles. The higher echelons of the Army were most critical of these uses, regarding the Carrier Platoon as a valuable asset that should be preserved. Commanders in the field were constantly admonished not to think of their Carriers as either Scout Cars or light tanks. This undoubtedly left some wondering just what use the machine was. This cautious approach became more understandable as the war progressed. German anti-tank weapons mushroomed from a handful of negligible rifles to scores of grenades and shoulder launched weapons. The Carrier was operating in an increasingly armour hostile environment not envisioned during its pre-war development.
Where a Carrier Section of three machines was placed under the command of a Rifle Company, the Company Commander could utilise it in a number of ways. Firstly, he could take advantage of the addition of three more Bren guns, a PIAT and a 2 inch mortar to ‘thicken the fire of his Fire Platoon’. This unit provided a base of fire under cover of which the remaining Rifle Platoons would advance. The support weapons of the Carrier Section could literally double the firepower…. Mobility was a key element in the survival of the Carrier on the battlefield, so when operating in this manner the crews would fire dismounted, the Carriers being held back out of enemy view. At a push, the Section could take over the role of the Fire Platoon, though this was a risky move as with only 13 men at full strength the Section was vulnerable to infantry assault.
The mobile role took several forms. Chief among these saw the Carriers moving with the Main Effort Platoons, some distance behind them rather than leading the way. At the order of the Company Commander, they would move to a flank position and lay down fire with their Bren guns to cover the advance of a Rifle Platoon. Other more adventurous options saw the Carriers deployed to cut off an enemy retreat by swinging round a flank, or making a feint attack to draw what must have been unwelcome hostile intention.
In the defence, Carriers were more constrained. A stationary vehicle blazing away with a Bren gun offered too tempting a target. The Platoon was normally retained as Battalion reserve of firepower, which could react to any incursion by attacking troops. Where the terrain allowed, good use could be made of reverse slopes, with the Carrier showing just enough of itself to allow permit the gunner to fire over a crest before the driver reversed and moved to a new position. Interesting mention is made of the Carriers being used to establish outposts and support existing ones. This was qualified by the caution ‘they MUST be withdrawn at night’.
The Universal Carrier was so named because of the staggering variety of tasks it could perform, though there was little room for physical modification. A number photographs show Carriers sporting entirely ‘unauthorised’ .50 cal. M2 machine guns in place of the usual Bren. Additional machines were allotted to Battalion and later Company Headquarters to ferry officers around under some form of protection while undertaking reconnaissance.
When the conditions of the battlefield restricted the intended deployment of the Carrier, it was swiftly put to other uses. A British Infantry Battalion had an enviable concentration of motor transport by comparison to other formations. While softskin vehicles could not be used to ferry troops forward or casualties back under fire, Carriers could. This latter role was particularly important and helped save many lives. Fresh supplies of ammunition, food, water and other necessities could also be moved. The Company Commander’s Carrier was even known to transport the heavy PIATs issued to the Rifle Platoons.
One other task of the Carrier is worthy of particular mention. The British were not much taken with the backpack flamethrower, reasoning the operator was extremely vulnerable and had to fire at particularly close range. A vehicle-mounted weapon offered the possibility of much improved range and sustainability. Ideally to survive, it should also be armoured. The Carrier fitted this role perfectly, and after much delay the Wasp appeared. This mounted a flame gun in place of the Bren, and displaced two men to fit the fuel tanks. The Canadian Army had also been pursuing the idea and opted to place the fuel tanks outside the machine at the rear. This cleared sufficient space for a third crewman to return with his Bren, firing from the rear troop compartment, as the gun slit was occupied by the flame projector. This improved Wasp 2 quickly took precedence over the earlier model.
The stated aim was to provide each Battalion with eight units for fitting to existing machines as required, extended to Motor Battalions and Reconnaissance Regiments on the same scale. Actual availability varied enormously, with preference being made for units slated to take part in assaults I would suggest.
The Calgary Highlanders’ (2CID) website provides additional information about an infantry battalion’s employment of the Carrier.
A Carrier Platoon existed in each battalion as part of Support Company. The platoon provided the battalion commander with a relatively mobile force, armed with automatic weapons, and relatively safe from small arms’ fire. The platoon carried out a variety of missions, such as the re-supply of food, ammunition, water and other necessities; casualty evacuation, reconnaissance and even in rare cases assaults on enemy positions.
By 1944, the Carrier Platoon of an infantry battalion numbered 13 carriers and was the No.4 platoon of the battalion.
The Motor Regiment had a unique use for Carriers. Each Motor Company had a Scout Platoon of two officers and forty-one men mounted in Universal Carriers. The Westminster Regiment’s (5CAD) history explains the deployment of its Scout Platoons for the breakout at the Hitler Line:
The move to the Melfa [River], a distance of about six miles, was screened by the carriers of the Westminsters – three platoons of them – which moved ahead of the tanks. The theory of the attack was that the carriers might spot opposition and obstacles and wireless information to the tank men….
Credit must be given here to the carrier crews of the scout platoons whose job it was to nose out ahead of the main body of their respective companies, searching the ground and pinpointing enemy resistance. Their job was not an enviable one, for the carrier, unlike the tank, depended upon speed and mobility, rather than weight of armour, for its protection. In this country (Hitler Line, Italy), steep banks on the road-sides more often than not made manoeuvre virtually impossible, and the carrier crews rode uncomfortably in their open-top vehicles between overhanging, densely-wooded walls from which at any time a grenade might be lobbed or a machine gun might open up. These conditions applied to all other platoons also, of course, but they were most worrisome to the carrier crews, who got there first. Nor was the danger all from above, for there was an equally bad chance that the road below might be mined, and carriers with their broad track surface were notoriously susceptible to mines. Most of the crews packed the floor of their machines with bags of sand as some protection against the mine menace, but experience had left them with no illusions of complete protection.
William A. Gregg, ed., Canada’s Fighting Vehicles, Europe 1943-45, Series Volume 1
(Rockwood, ON: The Canadian Military Historical Society Inc., 1979)
Major J.E. Oldfield, The Westminsters’ War Diary – An unofficial history of The
Westminster Regiment (Motor) in World War II
(New Westminster, BC: the regiment, 1964)
1. An MkI Carrier of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment (1CID) carries a section of infantry at Nissoria, Italy, Jul43. Universal Carriers were never intended to carry such burdens and suffered from this misuse.
2. Bruce Parker’s beautifully restored MkI Universal Carrier badged to the Irish Regiment of Canada, the Perths’ sister regiment in 11CIB.
3. A superbly restored MkI UC, in this case badged to a British regiment.
4. This same Carrier showing the driver’s and gunner’s compartment.
5. An excellent view of a faithfully restored MkI with a Support Coy’s 3” Mortar stored across the back.
6. Internal storage of mortar bombs. The spiral wound cardboard tubes with their pressed metal end plates are attached together by interwoven fabric tape. This allowed three bombs to be carried by each hand. This method of packaging was also used for 2” Mortar and PIAT bombs.
7. This third view of the Mortar Carrier shows the base plate stowed on the bow in front of the Bren gun slit.
8. A restored MkII Carrier, badged to the Queen’s Own Rifles, 3CID.
9. A MkII UC of the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor), 4CAD at Cintheaux, France, 08Aug44. A British smoke projector is beside the gun slit.
10. A diagram showing a possible disposition of a Section of Carriers with the crews dismounted. Note – each section is composed of three Carriers and a Dispatch Rider on a motorcycle. No.1 is the command carrier with the radio; No.2 mounts a 2” mortar and No.3 carries a PIAT (originally, a Boys ATk Rifle).
11. A Calgary Highlander’s (2CID) Carrier mounting a .30 cal. MMG in Doetinchem, Holland, 01Apr45. This kind of armament upgrading became common in the late war.
12. A grossly overloaded Carrier of the ATk Pl, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, 3CID receives some servicing, Ijzendijke, Holland, 21Oct44.
13. A Carrier of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, 3CID, heavily loaded and armed with a .30 MMG, Holten, Holland, 09Apr45.
14. A heavily burdened Carrier of 3ATk Regiment, 3CID pulling a 6 pdr, Gouy, France.
15. One of the more common tasks of the Universal Carrier was transporting the Vickers MMG. A MkI with a three-bar identification sign is shown with a gun of the Saskatoon Light Infantry (MG), 1CID, Italy, 08Mar43. The Vickers is not yet equipped with a flash eliminator.
16. Another SLI Carrier with a Vickers posed in an AA role at Laurenzana, Italy, 19Sep43. Note the crew’s use of the MkII and MkIV helmets. Note the gun’s flash eliminator.
17. A MkII UC of the Toronto Scottish (MG), 2CID in Nieuport, Belgium, 09-Sep44. For whatever reason, the Carrier is not displaying an identifying white star.
18. An American-built, T-16 Carrier with an improved suspension was used by Commonwealth formations as an ATk gun tower and to transport the Support battalions’ 4.2” heavy mortars.
(Canada’s Fighting Vehicles)
19. A Windsor Carrier tows a 6-pdr of 108Bty, 2ATk Regt, 2CID, Schilde, Belgium, 29Sep44.
(Tools of the Trade, LAC, PA191132)
20. A Lake Superior Regiment T-16 Carrier with a .50 cal. HMG, a Bren gun AND a 2" mortar, Arnhem, Jun45.
21. A Canadian designed and built Windsor Carrier with a similar suspen-sion to the T-16, a lengthened body and increased stowage. This final design of Carrier served as a gun tower. Production began in Sep44.
[Canada’s Fighting Vehicles)
22. A MkII Wasp flame carrier of the Queen’s Own Rifles, 3CID at Vaucelles,
France, 29Jul44. The balaclavas, goggles and leather gauntlets attest to the dangers of the crew’s employment.
23. A section of Wasp flame carriers of the QOR at Vaucelles, France, 29Jul44.
24. The Canadian designed and built, Ronson (Wasp 2c) flame carrier with external fuel tanks was preferred by the Canadian Army and saw extensive use.
(Tools of the Trade)