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 sized unit over rough terrain under some degree of protection from smallarms 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.
Good indication of the size of the Universal Carrier. It was only intended to seat four men, any over that risked exposure to enemy fire
The inspiration for the Universal Carrier came from the World
War One battlefield, which had proven the inability of infantry to advance
across ground swept by enemy machine gun fire.
The Carrier was a direct reaction to this.
Its stated mission was found in its original title of
the Bren Carrier. The British Army
had adopted the superb Bren gun in 1938 as its new foundation of fire and
movement tactics. The Bren would
provide covering fire to enable the riflemen to advance toward the enemy line.
The problem remained though of how the Bren teams could move across
territory held under enemy fire without being themselves mown down.
The initial answer was the Bren Carrier.
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.
As mentioned above, the Carrier Platoon was designed
primarily for offensive action. The
1943 Training Manual lists a bewildering variety of possible deployments in this
role, so this can be no more than a précis of those envisioned.
They can be divided into two categories; mounted or dismounted support.
Wonky scan of the Carrier Section on foot. The vehicles are harboured to the rear, support coming from the three Bren guns firing dismounted
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 two
Rifle Platoons would advance. The
support weapons of the Carrier Section could literally double the firepower of
this Platoon. 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
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
A mounted assault, one vehicle covers the approach of the other two...
The three vehicles of the Section used a variation of the basic ‘one leg on the ground’ principle beloved of British tactics of the era. At least one Carrier would act as the Fire Carrier to cover the movement of the others, which would in turn provide support during its subsequent movement. As mentioned, mobility was an asset so when required to fire halted covered positions would naturally be sought.
...the three machines then engage the enemy before retiring behind smoke. No prizes for guessing who the bad guys were in this particular scenario
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’.
Other likely actions
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 style 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
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 though as the gun slit was still 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.
There can be no denying that the Universal Carrier gave stalwart service to the armies of the Commonwealth nations throughout World War Two. As the conflict progressed however, it became evermore apparent that what was needed was a vehicle to move whole Sections of riflemen under armour. During 1944, the Canadian Army converted their stock of US supplied M7 Priest self propelled guns into infantry carriers. This proved so successful attention was turned to the ill-fated Ram tanks, lying largely idle thanks to the adoption of the Sherman. The Kangaroo (as both versions were known due to the need to hop in and out over the side) filled the requirement perfectly for its day. It could transport a full Rifle Section, and the Ram variant still seated a bow gunner who could offer some fire support if needed.
By comparison to the halftrack and the fully tracked Kangaroo, the Universal Carrier seemed a very one dimensional machine. Its relatively small size meant it could never be adapted to act as platform for a large calibre gun or medium mortar, as the halftracks were. Experience had shown that if riflemen were to be supported by their own armoured personnel carriers, they had to be able to ride in them as a composite Squad, and needed far more from them than just machine gun support fire. After the war, interest turned to more versatile vehicles, which evolved into the evermore sophisticated machines of today.
But for a time, the Universal Carrier provided a valuable tool to the ordinary Rifle Company. I would imagine there were occasions when American, Russian or German infantrymen in the traditional footslogging Battalions, could have benefited from the ability to move even a handful of men across fire-swept ground under its protection. It remains a uniquely British interpretation of providing armoured fire support to the rifleman.
The Weapons Company
The British Infantry Battalion
Small Unit Formations
Infantry Tactics of World War Two