This article is in three parts. Firstly there is a brief account of the history of the Bren/Universal carrier and similar vehicles. Second is a discussion of a proposed modern vehicle of similar form. Third is a proposal of a tracked trailer based on this vehicle.
After the First World War many military minds considered the problem of avoiding another trench stalemate. One proposed solution was for every infantryman to have his own bullet-proof personal cross country vehicle. In 1925 Major (later Lt.Gen) Le Q Martel built such a machine at his own expense and offered it to the War Deparment. The War Dept was sufficiently interested to commision Morris Motors to build four more such vehicles, one of them a two-seater. Interest in the Morris-Martel tankettes also drew attention to a similar one man vehicle built by Carden-Loyd Tractors. Trials soon established that the one man designs were not particularly practical, since most crewmen could not effectively shoot and drive at the same time. Eight two-man prototypes of both makes of tankette were attached to the Experimental Mechanised Force, with the intention of testing them as Scout vehicles. The Two-man Carden-Loyd Mk VI was adopted for service in 1928. Intended tactical role had once again changed, and the vehicle was now intended to be a machine gun carrier.
The Carden-Loyd Tankette was one of the great success stories of the interwar years. It weighed less than 2 tons and was reasonably relieable. More importantly, it was very cheap to produce, an important consideration in the lean financial climate of the 20s and 30s. Many other nations brought Carden-Loyd tankettes, and some were used as the basis for various light tank designs. In British service it was mainly intended to carry machine guns or mortars, and it was soon realised that the combat capability of these tiny vehicles was rather modest. As a result most vehicles were used more and more in a utility role. The increasing mechanization of the British army and diversification of vehicle applications meant that a more versatile and more capable vehicle than the tankette was needed. Vickers-Armstrong Ltd had absorbed Carden-Loyd prior to the adoption of the Mk VI so offered the VA D50 as a replacement in 1934. This vehicle was intended to act as an anti-tank or field gun tractor or a machine gun carrier. Fold down seating in the rear allowed a gun crew or dismount machine gun team to be carried in addition to the two man vehicle crew. The VA D50 underwent various modifications and name changes, including the adoption of the new Bren Gun in place of the Vickers MMG. In 1938 it was adopted for service in three variants, a fourth being added in 1939.
Carrier, Bren, No 2 Mk I or II. This was the "true" Bren gun carrier, and was intended for use in Infantry Battalions (not mechanized formations). Initially, ten were issued to each battalion. The Bren carrier was a three man vehicle, the third man riding in the rear on the left side. He was usually armed with a bren gun on a tall pintle mount for AA capability. Vehicle weight was around 3.75 tons. A similar vehicle was built in Austrailia before production shifted to Universals.
Carrier, Scout, No 1. This was a reconnaissance vehicle for use with infantry scout elements and reconnaissance troops in divisional mechanized cavalry regiments. Main difference was that the Scout carrier carried a No.11 wireless set as standard and the "midships" gunner was stationed on the right of the vehicle, not the left. Scout carriers commonly mounted the Boys Anti-tank rifle in the bow position. Carrier, Cavalry, No 1. This carrier was intended to transport the dismounted personnel of cavalry light tank regiments. In addition to its two crew it could carry six men in the rear. A framework of hoops to support a canvas hood was fitted to protect the passengers from the weather. Only 50 were built. Carrier, Armoured, OP, No 1 Mk 1. This resembled the Scout carrier but had the bow machine gun replaced by a shutter that allowed the use of binoculars. As the name suggests, this model was mainly used by Artillery observers and was developed in 1939 soon after the start of the war.
All of these models were in use from 1938-40, and many were lost when the BEF was driven from France. Many captured vehicles entered German service and many were modified, possibly one of the most notable being the "Panzerjaeger, Bren", a Universal loaded with Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck and used to transport fast moving infantry tank hunting teams. Some such vehicles mounted a battery of multiple Panzerschreck.
Around 1940 it was realised that the various carrier roles could be met by a single general purpose design, and so was born the Universal Carrier.
Universal Carrier Data
Length 12 ft
Width 6 ft 10"
Engine Ford V-8 85 bhp
Height 5 ft 2"
Weight 4 to 4½ tons
Armament Officially this was either a .303 Bren gun or a .55 Boys ATR. A Vickers MMG was sometimes carried instead and this weapon is often seen on Austrailian vehicles. Some vehicles were fitted with a 4" Smoke discharger or 2.5" Multi-barrelled Smoke dischargers. In 1943 a mounting to allow the 2" mortar to be fired from the bow-gunner's compartment became a standard fitting on Mk II Universals. In practice the Universal was often upgunned with anything the crew could get hold of. There is photographic evidence that some Universals mounted .30 Browning MGs, .50 Browning HMGs, Besa MGs, Vickers K (VGO) MGs, PIATs and German MG42s and 20mm Solothurm cannon. Specialist versions carried 25-40mm anti-tank guns, mortars, multiple PIAT batteries or Flame-throwers. One of the most potent armaments I've heard of was a Canadian vehicle mounting three .50 Brownings.
Vehicle weights are probably in British "Long" or "Gross" tons of 2,240lb rather than the American "Short" ton of 2,000lbs or the 2,200lb/ 1000kg Metric ton.
The Universal had the merit of a simple yet versatile and adaptable configuration. On either side of the engine is a rectangular armoured compartment that could carry either men or materials. The Universal can be distinguished from the earlier models by these compartments, which give the vehicle a square tail. Vehicles such as the Bren and Scout tapered towards the stern. Strictly speaking, the Universal was not a "Bren carrier" and the name only applies to the Carrier, Bren No2. In practice soldiers on both sides tended to call the Universal and any similar looking vehicle a Bren, but it is ironic that most of the vehicles you'll hear described as Brens are in fact nearly always Universals.
The Universal and its close relations was probably the most numerous AFV of World War 2, some estimates being that over 200,000 were built. All allied combatants, with the exception of the USA used the Universal. (Russia had 200). The Germans, Italians and Japanese also made use of any captured examples.
Most of the variations of Universal were all based on the standard hull. There were also some specially modified versions:- the artillery OP carrier, 3" Mortar carrier, MMG carrier and Flamethrower carriers. The various OP carriers were similar to the earlier Carrier, Armoured, OP, No 1 Mk 1 but based on the Universal. The MMG carrier had a strengthened engine cover that mounted a Vickers MMG on a pedestal mount. The Carrier, 3in Mortar had brackets at the rear for carrying the mortar and racks in the rear compartments for ammo. Flamethrower carriers were plumbed with fuel lines and mounted flamethrower tanks either in the rear compartments or rear of the vehicle.
With the exception of the flamethrower variants, the Universal and its ilk were not intended as assault vehicles or "mini-tanks". There were obviously sometimes attempts to use them in this role, but the thin armour and lack of overhead protection often made this impractical.
"An example of its limitations are best summed-up in the following account: On 23rd November 1942, General Clowes at Milne Bay, New Guinea ordered a small number of Bren Gun Carriers to Cape Endaiadere as direct support to American troops operating in this area. It was made clear to the Americans that the Carriers were too lightly armoured and the crews too exposed for them to be used as tanks. In addition, they lacked any overhead protection from sniper fire, shell splinters and were extremely vulnerable to flank attacks. Thus they were forced to work with infantry support. The aftermath of an attack at Cape Endaiadere on 5th December, resulted in vehicle crews being roughly handled and resulted in the abandonment of five vehicles. The supporting American infantry found they could not advance any further and the attack was called off. Sadly, it proved yet again, the futility of attempting to use inappropriate vehicles as tanks'.
The carrier was also not a APC, at least not in the sense of vehicles like the Loyd, M113 or armoured Halftrack. Carriers were effective reconnaissance vehicles- they were small, only 5ft high and could traverse most types of terrain at up to 30mph. I've seen photos of Universals on mountain tracks that would probably be impossible for a jeep or larger tank Main role of the carriers, however, was in fact transport of weapons or materials. This page sheds some interesting light on how some the Universals were used in the latter part of the war. The battalion's mortar, machine gun and Anti-tank platoons probably made use of Universals but in addition to these the Battalion had a Carrier platoon of 13 Carriers and 7 motorbikes. Obviously the Carrier platoon could be used as a fast moving reserve, mobile weapons platoon and battalion or company level reconnaissance unit. There were four sections, each section of three carriers and a motorbike. Each section was formidably armed with a 2" mortar, a PIAT and at least three Bren guns.
Why was the Universal such a useful vehicle? I believe this is a product of two major factors. The first is that it was a simple yet very adaptable and versatile design. There were scores of different models or modifications that were used, some of them invented or created in the field. The second factor is the vehicle's small size. Essentially the Carrier can be thought of as a tracked jeep. It's armour makes it less vulnerable, its tracks make it more mobile and it could perform roles that a jeep could not, such as snowplough or mine clearer. There were a few attempts to improve on the Universal, since for some applications it was either underpowered or overloaded. The T-16 was an American built carrier for British use, and added a fourth roadwheel. There were some problems with mechanical reliability, and the vehicle had a smaller cargo capacity than the Universal.
Although it looked like a Universal, the Canadian Windsor carrier had 90% of its components in common with the Loyd carrier, which it was intended to replace. It was mainly used as a 6 pdr tractor with the 21 Army Group. Like the T16 the Windsor had four roadwheels. The two types can be distinguised by the hull construction. The Windsor used rivets while the T16 was welded.
An Italian-made copy of the Universal also saw the need for four roadwheels. The Cingoletta Fiat 2800 ("Breda carrier"?) was not adopted.
Running mate of the Universal was the Loyd carrier. This was mainly constructed from Ford commercial vehicle parts and had many components in common with the Universal. The Loyd can be identified by its four roadwheels, lack of bow machine gun housing and rear mounted engine. There was sufficient room to either side of the engine for personnel to board from the rear.
A nice article on the Chenillette is located here. Many thanks to Erik Manders for finding this.
It is usually assumed that the Bren has been replaced by vehicles such as the APC and IFV, but it is worth remembering that Bren carriers were not originally intended for Mechanised units -they were intended as gun tractors and weapon crew carriers in normal infantry battalions. Such a role still exists, and can be filled by a modern Universal carrier far more effectively than the various 4x4 vehicles usually used. The modern Light Infantry Battalion has a large number of HMMWVs of questionable utility. If operating in terrain that allows the use of HMMWV-sized vehicles the Infantry Battalion can be "Patched" to provide it with more useful M113s. If terrain does not allow the operation of such vehicles the Battalion will be far better served by vehicles that are smaller and more mobile than a HMMWV such as a modern version of a Universal Carrier. For want of a better name we'll call this the "Millenibren". One of the main roles for the Millenibren will be to move the stores and heavy weapons of non-mechanized forces. For this reason we will call this class of vehicle BSMV-T or Battalion Support Mobility Vehicle-Tracked. The Supacat would be classed as a BSMV-W. The British Army terms the Supacat an All Terrain Mobility Platform
A Millenibren would have components in common with the M113, or possibly the Wiesel or BV206. Like the Bren it will probably be open topped and have a mid-mounted engine. Unlike the original the engine will probably be mounted transversally so as to create a more useful rear area. Some variants of Bren had the engine repositioned to be beside the driver in place of the bow-gunner, and the layout used in the Loyd is also worth considering. Proven car or van diesel engines might provide the power source. If designing a modern Universal carrier I'd also slant the frontal armour, use band tracks and pay particular attention to making the vehicle amphibious. Given the low height of such a vehicle the latter capability may require the provision of a flotation screen but this is acceptable for the sort of operations the vehicle will be used for. Such a screen could also act as a windbreak for the crew when the vehicle is static. Properly designed the vehicle should be stackable for transport in a C-130 or 747 allowing a useful number of vehicles to be transported in a single air-lift. It would be narrow enough to be internally transportable in a CH-47, unlike a HMMWV. It would also be light enough to be air-liftable by a UH-60.
The modern Bren will mainly be used as a weapons carrier in airborne, infantry and light infantry battalions and be used to carry heavy machine guns, mortars, automatic grenade launchers, OCSWs, recoilless rifles, ATGWs and MANPAD SAMs. If you give a weapon crew a vehicle, it is only natural that they should experiment with firing the weapon from the vehicle. This has the advantage that the weapon can be brought into action in less time. The drawback is that the crew often lacks the protection of entrenchments or terrain features, so the vehicle needs some level of armour, at least on the frontal aspect.
Another useful task for the BSMV-T is that it can serve as a "Rucksac Carrier", allowing troops in difficult terrain to move more lightly encumbered, either on foot or by bicycle.
It would make considerable sense for modern Light Infantry Battalions to include a multi-function BSMV-T platoon along the lines of the wartime carrier platoon. Possibly the Company Support Platoon I suggest here could use a few carriers when not using larger vehicles.
Vehicles such as the Millenibren will prove to be particularly useful for Heli-mobile forces since these units are often used in a counter-insurgency role. Insurgents often deliberately locate their strongholds and training camps in areas where the operation of conventional military ground vehicles is difficult. Moving troops by helicopter is an option but Insurgent air defences may prevent units being landed close to the objective. Such a force is reduced to foot mobility and is limited in the weapons and equipment that it can carry. The addition of light helicopter-transportable high mobility ground vehicles that can move across the same terrain as infantrymen will greatly increase a unit's combat capability by allowing the movement of heavier weapons and greater ammunition loads.
FEEDBACK Ralph Zumbro, author of "Tank Sergeant" and several other books on armoured warfare, comments:-
"It occurs to me that ref the Bren carrier, you could simply put drive sprockets on the front wheels of a Hummvee, cut away the necessary body metal, and install the roadwheels and rear idler. You'd have about 80% parts commonality with the existing hummer, which would make for a nice light-mech TO."
Basing a future "Bren" on the HMMWV does make alot of sense- although a body that is narrower and amphibious would obviously be an advantage. Using the engine and other components should be possible. This does returns to the question, should the engine be in the centre, as I've proposed or would it be simpler to position it at the front or rear?
To my mind, a modern vehicle would be closer in layout to the Loyd. A rear mounted engine for a lower frontal thermal signature and one large area for troops or cargo. The vehicle would be open topped for situational awareness but with provision for fitting a canopy. A mesh and bar "APC roof" might be incorporated into the frame for the latter. The modern Universal will not have the same degree of overhead protection as a modern APC, but it is not likely to be used in situations where it comes under large scale artillery bombardment. Such a small lightly armoured vehicle is also vulnerable to RPG and mine attack which suggests that its main roles will be in low threat operations (disaster relief, OOTW), rear area transport and operations behind enemy lines. The latter suggests one of the most useful roles for the vehicle –to provide transport for non-mechanized Airborne or Air-mobile forces. It is more of a transport than a combat vehicle. Ralph Zumbro has pointed out that Soldiers riding in such a vehicle could make use of hard shell body armour as described on this page.
A HMMWV is 15 feet long and 7ft 1" wide, slightly bigger than a Loyd carrier. The HMMWV uses a V8, 6.2 litre diesel engine rated at 150 hp, considerably more powerful than the engines of the original carriers. A modern Loyd carrier mounting a HMMWV engine should be quite a useful vehicle. Another option is to fit the Hybrid Electric Diesel powerplants that have been fitted to prototype HMMWVs. In combination with the band-tracks and rear positioning of the engine this will probably be a very quiet and stealthy vehicle. Being tracked, such a vehicle can carry a greater weight than a HMMWV over a greater range of terrain. Being smaller than a APC such a tracked carrier can be operated in very densely wooded forest or jungle or narrow mountain trails. Such a vehicle can also be transported by relatively light helicopters, so will give air-landed infantry greatly increased mobility, allowing them to reach an objective faster and carry more supplies and heavier weapons.
Useful characteristics of the BSMV-T include.
Small size and stackability allow large numbers to be carried by a single lift aircraft.
Capable of being lifted by small or mediun helicopters. Internally transportable in larger helicopters.