The Universal Carrier, commonly known as a Bren Gun Carrier, was a British designed tracked armoured utility vehicle of modest size and low cost, used widely by both sides during World War II. Universal Carriers were used as reconnaissance vehicles, ambulances, personnel and stores carriers, light tank destroyers, mobile flak platforms, liaison vehicles, telephone cable layers and gun tractors, but they were intended to transport the infantry’s support weapons, machine guns and mortars. With 115,000 Universal Carrier and Loyd Carrier's, of one sort or another, made around the world it is arguably the most numerous AFV family ever built.
In the years after the First World War, the British Army conducted many experiments with light tracked vehicles to try and ease the lot of the infantryman crossing No-Mans-Land. These tankette’s generally failed to meet the great expectations held for them, but a similar program to help the supply services with a tracked load carrier produced some useful results. The most successful string of designs in both fields came from the team of John (later Sir John) Carden and Vivian Loyd who worked for Vickers. Vickers evolved the Cardan-Loyd designs into a series of Light Tanks and artillery tractors that sold very well around the world in small numbers and were much copied. The Tankettes had proven to the British Army that such very small tanks could not fight effectively, yet light tracked platforms could act as very useful auxiliaries.
This line of development produced another small crop of prototypes that culminated in the VA D50 of 1935. The British Army ordered a vehicle based on this chassis from Vickers with the first being delivered in 1936 as the Carrier, Machine Gun, No.1, Mk.I, with a crew of thee who also acted as the machinegun’s crew. In 1937 the Army started testing two prototypes of a new model intended to serve as a general purpose vehicle, as the Carrier Machine Gun Experimental. This design introduced the projecting ‘bay window' for the commander/gunner as a pulpit around which he could aim a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle on a skate mounting. The next version was to carry a 3" Mortar, this involved fitting special racks and brackets to Machine Gun Carrier No.1 Mk.1, but the mortar was only to be transported by the Carrier (along with its crew and ammunition), the mortar detachment dismounted with their weapon to fire.
Later in 1937 the Carrier, Machine Gun, No.2, Mk.I entered service, initially armed with a Boys rifle and Vickers Machinegun, the Vickers was later replaced by a Bren. The next year (1938) saw the Carrier, Bren No.2 Mk.I & Mk.II enter service with the first major revisions to the general design. The hull had the projecting bay in front of the commander/gunner with a vertical slot for either a Boys or Bren, while mechanically the bow idler wheel was raised to improve the track angle. With the basic pattern set, attention turned to adapting the Carrier for specialist uses. The Carrier, Scout Mk.1 carried a No.11 wireless set for reconnaissance, then the Carrier, Cavalry Mk.1 which could carry six men in the rear with limited protection, and by early 1940 the Carrier, OP Mk.1, which was a Scout Carrier fitted out as mobile observation post for the artillery. The Loyd Carrier also came along in 1940, a greatly simplified version with even less armour but a great deal more internal volume, intended more for transport tasks than fighting.
However the precipitous departure of the British Army from Dunkirk and the urgent need to replace the bulk of the Army’s carrier fleet which had been left behind; forced a rationalisation. The Machine Gun Carrier, Scout Carrier and OP Carrier were merged into a single hull adapted to perform all three roles as the Carrier, Universal No.1 Mk. 1.
The Universal Carrier as an amalgamation of the previous types, departed little from the essential pattern. The open topped hull was of simple shapes cut from flat plate and riveted or welded into pieces, the lower hull, or chassis, and the upper hull, often called the superstructure. The two parts were bolted together along the top run of the tracks, with the superstructure projecting out to the full width of the vehicle. The driver and commander/gunner sat in the front (right hand drive), with a bulkhead immediately behind them. The rest of the hull, between that bulkhead and the tailboard and out over the tracks was given over to the engine and ‘payload’. At floor level (the bottom of the hull) this space was about 5’ wide and divided roughly into thirds down the centreline. The middle section was an armoured box that contained an 85hp Ford V8, with its radiator, battery, fuel tank and gearbox. The two sections to either side of the engine box were the combined foot-wells and cargo space.
Passengers riding in the back could either crouch down next to the engine, or sit on the ledge over the tracks facing inwards. As the hull was only 5’2” tall, anyone who chose to sit found themselves exposed from about the chest up, or covered from the chest down depending on what view they took of the situation. This accommodation was no worse than the Cavalry Carrier had offered, but there was rather less room available. Six thin men might have squeezed into the back of a Universal Carrier, but not if there was anything else in there sharing the space. Four passengers was the maximum practical limit with all personal equipment hung off the sides, and only two passengers for a total on board of five was the usual figure. Of course any number could hitch a ride sitting where they could find space, for loaded infantry that was about ten.
Armoured protection was light, intended to stop only rifle bullets and shrapnel, the bow was covered in 1/2" plate, with 1/4" down the sides and rear, the bottom was only mild steel and mines were always a concern.
The armament remained the same, either two Bren’s or a Bren and a Boys, plus personal arms and often enough a 2” Mortar. When a Vickers or 3” Mortar was carried, the vehicle was usually stripped back to personal arms and a Bren. In additon the bow position, which was usually used for the Boys if one was allocated, there was a second pintle mount for a Bren over the engine box theoretically for AA defence, but a gunner crouching in the back had as much cover as any foxhole would provide and a much wider arc of fire than the bow gun, so it was the preferred position. Any radio was normally mounted on the passenger side of the bulkhead behind the driver, with any additional battery’s stealing space out of the foot wells.
If the hull was simple the drive train was brutishly crude by tracked AFV standards. The engine drove though a normal automotive gearbox to a slightly modified light truck axel at the rear of the hull. For all the hopes and ideas the British Army had for their Carriers, the greatest influence on their design specification was the Treasury. While aiming for the most economical possible design only makes sense, the Carrier was squeezed to the last penny. In effect the price per vehicle was set in 1936 and the engineers were left to do their best at filling the Army’s specifications within it. Using the drive train from a light truck, without the heavy expense of specialist gearbox.
The Carrier family departed from the suspension evolved though the earlier trials and the Vickers 6 ton Tanks, in place of many small road wheel suspended on leaf springs, the Carriers used six large wheels. The front two wheels on each side were carried on a Horstmann type bogie with the rear wheel on a ‘half’ bogie, and with six wheels, six arms, four springs and two pivots it is hard to find a less complicated suspension, but this is where they were forced to pay the price for not using a proper tracked gearbox. The two front two-wheeled bogies were attached to the hull though vertical hinges and connected back to the driver’s steering wheel by a system of rods and cams, so they steered like the wheels of a car over a few degrees to either side. This ‘warped’ the track and led the vehicle around in a wide circle to provide ‘fine’ steering. Once the driver had wound the wheel around in the way he wanted to go to the limit of the bogie’s movement, turning the steering wheel further engaged the break on that side of the truck axel.
While complicated to describe, this system was much cheaper and easier to make than a proper steering gearbox, and it worked quite well. However this economy came at some cost in maintenance, at time the steering could be very heavy, and in Russia the steering system could freeze solid with ice and congealed grease if not properly prepared. Track warping steering also led to the Carrier’s track being less than ideal; to be sufficiently flexible the track was narrow and used many short-pitched links. The use of narrow short pitched track with only three road wheels per side compromised the Universal Carrier ability to handle very soft going like snow and liquid mud. While the short pitch meant a single track needed about 190 links, and this in turn meant a 190 track pins and a statically high change of breaking a track even without the addition stresses of sideway deflection.
In British and Commonwealth service, every Infantry battalion was supposed to have a Carrier Platoon with 10 Carriers and a 15cwt truck. This platoon could be used by the Battalion in any number of ways, at any given point in time. It could carry the Support Platoon with their weapons and ammunition right up to the front line (in theory). Being low (5’2” to the top of the hull), speedy and agile it could provide the Battalion with its own reconnaissance element. Or perform communication and liaison duties, resupply over rough terrain, casualty evacuation, lift a rifle company, act as a lightly armoured shock unit and generally be a maid of all work. Carriers also served as Anti-Tank gun tractors towing the 2pdr ATG and later the 6pdr for both the infantry and the Royal Artillery.
As the war continued and supply came some way towards meeting demand, more and more users came forward to claim Carriers. One was issued to every Regimental Aid Post as a matter of course, the Support Platoon got their own carriers, when the Anti-Tank Platoon handed in their Boys Rifles for 6pdrs they too got Carriers, as did the Signals detachments, pioneers, engineers and Artillerymen. Much depended on circumstance, Cw formations in the Middle East came to favour wheels over tracks for economy over long patrols, while the Canadians in Russia almost had more carriers than men in some units.
It is hard to say who was the second largest user of the universal Carrier after the Cw in WWII, as both the Russians and Germans took every one they could lay their hands on. For the most part Russian forces tended to take Carriers and use them as provided, mostly for reconnaissance and screening patrols when they weren’t hauling rations, ammunition and wounded.
However the Germans did everything short of turning the Carrier back into a tankette. With Dunkirk and the fall of France, the German Army found itself with a large number of British Carriers and even more of the French equivalents, the Lorrain 37L and older Renault UE. Most of these vehicles remained in localities they were captured in, until the winter of 1942 when the German’s found an urgent need for tracked load carriers in the East. With a source of new vehicles and spare parts from Britain the Universal Carrier’s moved into Russia, generally acting in many of the same capacities the British Army had used the for, giving marching infantry a bit of useful support. The Germans had started playing with the Carriers they had captured almost immediately, bolting 3.7cm PAK-37’s to the engine deck and so forth, but eventually a whole series of specialist adoptions appeared, and a UC equivalent was included in the 1945 E-Series rationalisation of German vehicles.
By the end of 1940 the Universal Carrier was in production, or pre-production, in Britain, Canada and Australia. Over time each of these branches grew a veritable forest of distinct adaptations and evolved into four discrete lines.
Between Lord Halifax’s Coupe and the German Takeover in 1942, production in Britain had concentrated on replacing losses from Dunkirk and done so at a decreasing pace as Halifax attempted to re-balance the British economy and position. The German demand for Universal Carriers and Loyd Carriers in ’43 was met (reluctantly) with more of the same given minimal changes to suit their new users. But by 1944 the Germans were after something better suiting their needs.
The Leichte Panzerschlepper Ost (e) or ‘LPSO’ was intended to compliment the unarmoured Raupenschlepper Ost (RSO). The engine was moved forwards to between the Driver and Commander, in order to free up move space aft, the back ‘half’ bogie was replaced with a second two-wheeled unit and the rear wall of load space was hinged as a tailgate over a standard German towing hitch, while the hull aft was built up in hight to 6’. If fitted with racking to carry artillery ammunition, the LPSO became the Leichte Munitionschlepper Ost (e), or Leichte Pionierschlepper Ost when issued to the combat engineers. But the most numerous variant was the Leichte Universalschlepper, or in English ‘Light Universal Carrier.’
As mentioned above, the upper hull, which largely defined the functionality of a carrier type, was a non-structural bolted on addition. The LUS all but eliminated this superstructure, providing a sheet metal and canvas ‘cab’ for the two crew in the bow and placing a flat wooden tray body across the rear and out over the width of the tracks. This tray bed was slightly U shaped to wrap around the back of the engine box and the sides hinged to give access to the space underneath. The middle portion of the decking was reinforced to take any number of pedestal type mounts by just drilling the required boltholes thought the wood and steel substrate. The tray could be replaced by an 850-litre tank or just used as a load carrier, but as often as not it was used as a mobile platform for light flak and later heavy AT and AA rockets.
To help meet demand, reduce interference crossing the English Channel, and get around production issues in Britain, a number of small production lines for the LPSO series were set up in Holland and Belgium, making use of local production capacity and otherwise fed with components to assemble from trouble prone British factories.
While very useful vehicles, the Universal Carrier in German hands on the Ostfront had its fair share of issues. The steering linkage was apt to freeze in winter, and the narrow short pitched tracks were always a weak point and hardly ideal for liquid mud or slush.
For the Canadians, the Universal Carrier was an integral part of their Army’s doctrine, and rather than adapting it to new roles, it fell to them to find the vehicle’s flaws in that context and develop solutions as experience mounded up. Although the Canadian Army had seen little action prior to 1943, four years of intensive training at home plus first hand experience passed on from the British Army in France and British and Cw forces in the Middle East gave military thinkers much to ponder. Of course after 1943 the Canadians quickly caught up in the practical experience stakes and the Russians had their comments too.
The principal issue they identified stemmed directly from the penny-pinching design of the carrier chassis. The limitations of the steering and suspension were a factor but size was main bone of contention, there was no room for growth as roles expanded. As a load carrier it was adequate for running hot meals and bit of ammo up to the line, but inefficient for anything serious. As a personnel transport, well a rifle section could pile themselves and their kit onto a Carrier, but not into it. As a tractor for anti-tank guns or a carrier for mortars, the Universal lacked internal volume for crew, ammunition and stowage, just as it came up short in stability and power when the going got sticky towing a heavy gun.
The Universal Carrier was never meant to be an Armoured Personnel Carrier, but it was supposed to move the infantry’s support weapons. So to provide better stabilisation for gun towing, the Canadians too replaced the rear half bogie with a second two-wheeled one, and they lengthened the chassis by 28”, which added further longitudinal stability and more internal volume to produce the Windsor Carrier Mk.1. The Windsor proved quite capable of handling a 6pdr gun with comfort or a 4.2” mortar, and after 1946 the BAT recoilless AT-gun. While giving Vickers MMG and 3” mortar crews a lot more room than their existing Universals.
The Australian family of LP Carriers (‘LP’ for Local Pattern) differed from British and Canadian Universal Carriers. Simple as the Universal Carrier was, it was also a little too complicated for Australian Industry in 1939. In adapting it to suit local production the Australian DAVP had been forced to exercise more than a little ingenuity. They had to employ even more imagination after the Halifax Coupe, where other nations building Universal Carriers also made tanks, Australia did not, the Carrier, LP (Aust) Mk.I & Mk.II represented the only domestic tracked AFV in production.
Britain had a prototype Carrier mounting a 2pdr AT-Gun in 1938 but took it no further, the idea came to fruition in Australia with the 1941 Carrier, Anti-Tank 2pdr (Aust.) Mk.1, or ‘Two Quid Cat’ as it was called colloquially. This produced a chassis very similar to the Leichte Universalschlepper of 1944, other then the CAT-2 retained the original 6 wheeled suspension. The CAT-2 chassis was then fitted with the standard LP superstructure and special centre pivot mounting produced the Carrier, Mortar 3” (Aust) Mk.I, and then without the mortar mount as the Carrier, Light Horse Mk.I.
The DAVP also expanded the Carrier up into a Light Tank in the Chauvel, and by 1945 had followed the Canadian lead to produce their own version of the Windsor, Carrier, Aust No.2 Mk.1 with its own specialist sub-variants. However unlike the Canadians, the Australian Army was not content with just having a better gun tractor, they wanted a ‘proper’ APC to carry 10 men and a crew of two. In 1947 they got the Carrier, Aust No.3 Mk.1 or the Wallaby as it came to be called, and that was so far removed from the Universal Carrier as to be a whole new species.
Like Canadian produced Carriers, Australian made ones were supplied to Cw nations and allies. India, Egypt and South Africa as well as British Forces in the Middle East, Russia all received Australian made Carriers, as did the Nationalist Chinese. However as a consequence of all the design changes, Australia’s production volume was never as high as it could have been.
While the majority of British, Canadian and Australian built carriers used the 85hp Ford V-8. Those built in the Low Countries and an undetermined percentage of British made examples in German hands were powered by a Steyr air cooled V-8 of similar power or a Deutz 4cyl diesel of 65hp. In the field all three engines or those from other sources like Opel trucks could be substituted for whatever the factory had fitted.