The Tank Museum | Airborne in Normandy

Airborne in Normandy

David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents another in a series of exclusive articles inspired by the historic documents and photographs held in the Archive.

5th June 2014

Today we can take it for granted that aircraft are available, the Americans and Russians have them, that can load a 58 tonne main battle tank, lift it into the air and fly it more or less as far as you like. And yet it was just seventy years ago, within the lifetimes of some of us, when airborne tanks were used in action for the first time, on D-Day of course, 6th June 1944. The tanks they used then were Tetrarchs; A17 Light Tank Mk VII that weighed 7.5 tons, carried in General Aircraft G. A. L. 29 Hamilcar Gliders which had to be towed into the air and then towed as far as they needed to go and cast loose close to their landing zone, the towing aircraft preferably a Handley-Page Halifax. Many of them left from Tarrant Rushton airfield, not far from here, on the early evening of D-Day to reinforce those who had landed earlier.

bovtm_normandy_practice (ID 52587)Left: A Handley-Page Halifax towing a Hamilcar at an official demonstration. The glider still has its undercarriage in place.

The Hamilcar was not an attractive aircraft but apparently it flew very well. It was fitted with a large hinged door in the nose, for loading and unloading, while the undercarriage consisted of two large wheels attached to the sides of the fuselage with long oleo-pneumatic shock absorbers which could be deflated to bring the fuselage down to as near ground level as possible. Failing that, if the undercarriage was damaged, ash strips beneath the fuselage acting as skids held the plane steady as it skidded to a halt.

bovtm_normandy_tetrarch (ID 52588)Right: The Tank Museum’s own Tetrarch, a close support version mounting the three inch howitzer. If you look closely it is just possible to see how the tank steers, by bending its tracks.

The Tetrarch was a pre-war design, offered by Vickers-Armstrongs as a new generation light tank, but considered by the Army as a light cruiser on account of its two-pounder gun. In the end it became an airborne tank by default, due to its size, not its fighting powers which were negligible by 1944. The three-man crew of the tank; commander, gunner and driver were supposed to stay in their places inside the tank while it was airborn but we know that some climbed out to look at the armada of shipping below, peering through a hole in the floor, although they were back inside, in time for the landing. During the landing the driver fired the tank up so that it would be ready to drive out at soon as the glider stopped. As the tank moved forwards it pushed against a strap which in turn caused the nose door to open and as soon as it started to emerge the entire fuselage tilted forwards but this didn’t matter anymore, the Hamilcar wasn’t going anywhere.

In all eight tanks, belonging to 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps were landed, all apparently manned by Royal Tank Regiment crews, other Hamilcars carried different vehicles, for example Universal Carriers which soldiers at the time insisted on calling Bren Gun Carriers. According to the manual each Hamilcar was able to carry two Carriers but, as far as we can tell on the day, only one was on board each plane, otherwise they could carry up to 7983 kg of general cargo.

bovtm_normandy_hamilcar (ID 52589)Left: A Universal Carrier having just reversed onto a Hamilcar, up the special ramps at the front. From this angle you get an excellent interior view of the nose door.

Once outside the glider the tanks were on their own. Most of them ran over discarded parachute lines that became tangled around the suspension and took most of the night to remove but the few that avoided this fate went out on patrol and at least two of these ran into German self-propelled 88mm guns, against which they had no chance at all. Come to that there were very few things in the 1944 German armoury that they could cope with so one is entitled to ask whether there was any point in sending them at all, except for the fact that it could be done.
Even so the operation had at least one unlooked for beneficial effect. The number of gliders and tugs in the air was astounding and is remarked on by many pilots. The sight, as they swept in to land was even more impressive and as much as it lifted the spirits of British troops already on the ground it dismayed the German defenders. Particularly the men of 21st Panzer Division aiming for the coast near Lion-sur-Mer, before Sword and Juno beaches linked up. Observing the great mass of aircraft landing in their rear they had visions of being cut off and decided to withdraw instead.