A Case Study of Tankettes in World War II: Universal Carrier vs. L3/35
During the 1920s and 1930s, many nations looked at Tankettes as a cheap solution to creating armored units and experimenting with tank tactics. The Carden-Loyd Mark VI Tankette was developed in England and also sold to many countries where it was used as a prototype to develop their own vehicles. These countries followed different development tracks based on the Mark VI and by the time World War II started many of the “children” of this prototype Tankettes were still in service and had mixed success. While not a straight line of development (and some vehicles changed back and forth), the two general tracks were as light tanks and as armed transports/support vehicles. The main examples included the British Universal Carrier, British Vickers Mark VI, Italian L3/35, Polish TK3, Japanese Type 94 TE KE, French Renault UE, German Panzer I, and the Russian T-27. The British Universal Carrier is an example of a successful development from the Mark VI Tankette while the Italian L3/35 is generally considered a failure. Given their similar starting points, what accounted for the drastically different levels of success on the World War II battlefield?
The British, Japanese, Germans, Italians, and Polish all developed their Carden-Loyd Mark VI Tankettes into light tanks. Although all five nations used the resulting vehicles in frontline combat, they were essentially obsolete at the start of World War II. The German and Japanese versions were able to have some success because of the opposition they faced on the battlefield. The Japanese Type 94 TE KE fought well against light opposition in the early parts of the pacific war but was soon relegated to other duties. The German Panzer I was used from Poland through the invasion of France (it was relegated to non-front line combat roles after that and the chassis was used for other types of vehicles) but its success was more as a result of the overall Blitzkrieg style attack, breaking into the enemy rear with the rest of the Panzers and causing panic and confusion. In fights with other armored vehicles, its 2 machine guns and thin armor were ill-suited. The Polish TK3s was only in service for about a month before Poland capitulated and while the 20mm armed version did destroy some German armor in general they were outclassed during the campaign. The British Vickers Mark VI served in France in 1940 and in North Africa until 1941 but was completely outmatched before the war even started considering its heaviest armament was a 0.5” machine-gun.
France, Russia, and Britain (the Universal Carrier) built Tankettes as tracked transports, support vehicles, and armored tractors and they were successful in those roles. Both the British and Russians had the idea of using their Tankettes as fighting vehicles but the realities of the advancements in technology leading up to (and in the early years of) World War II mostly changed their minds (as mentioned the British persisted with the Vickers Mark VI). One difference was that the British, French and Russian “Tankettes” were open-topped compared to the German, Italian, Japanese, Polish and British (Vickers Mark VI) Tankettes which were close topped. This represented a key factor in how they were expected to be used. An armored but open-topped vehicle can operate near the front lines, delivering weapons, troops, and supplies while generally protecting their crews from light shrapnel and small arms but not heavier weapons. A close topped vehicle was expected to be in the thick of the fighting where the crew would need full protection, including overhead.
The Universal Carrier (also known as the Bren Carrier, Scout Carrier, WASP, and other names depending on the version), was used by British and Commonwealth forces in every theatre in World War II. It was adapted to multiple roles including reconnaissance, artillery observation, infantry support, transport, flamethrower, weapons carrier, and more. The Italian L3/35 (also known as the CV 33, CV 35, L3/33, etc., depending on version and nomenclature), was considered to be a somewhat successful vehicle before World War II (it was used in the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Ethiopia), but by World War II it was out of date. The L3/35 was also adapted to multiple roles including machine-gun carrier, anti-tank, reconnaissance, flamethrower, bridge-layer, etc.
The Universal Carrier started out as a Tankette-a lightly armed, tracked machine gun carrier essentially. Development started in 1934 and early versions carried the Lewis Machine Gun but when the Bren gun was adopted by the British army, the vehicle became a Bren Carrier (while the fighting vehicle development track continued with the Vickers Mark VI). Its mission was mobile infantry support, recon and mostly as a way for the Bren team of 3 men to be moved from point to point on the battlefield and sometimes to fight dismounted. Later the Scout Carrier was developed, a version that included a BOYS anti-Tank rifle and was intended to be used more aggressively. This version was the closest to a true “tank” that there was in the Carrier line. Each Infantry Company included 10 carriers, 1 for the Commander to use as a personal battlefield taxi, and 3 units of 3 each for support of the company.
The Carriers were cheap to build and the ideas for variants were never-ending. This eventually led to the idea of the Universal Carrier, one base version easily modifiable into all the others. As the war went on this included the MMG Carrier for the Machine Gun Companies, a mortar carrier for 3” mortars and their crew, the WASP version with a flamethrower attached for reducing fortified positions, the standard Bren Gun Carrier, the artillery observation vehicle with extra communication equipment and on and on. Enterprising crews added weapons including .50 caliber machine guns and PIAT projectors. The Canadians even had a version with 14 PIAT projectors used as light artillery.
Early in the development of the Carrier, it was designed as a fighting vehicle. As experience was gained and tactics studied, the Carrier changed into an armored, armed, tracked transport and/or a support vehicle. The Scout Carrier was one exception but after reviewing battles in 1940, all Carriers were relegated to the role of transports and support vehicles. In these roles, it performed superbly and over 20,000 of all types were produced leading up to and during World War II. This was similar to the French and Russian vehicles based on the Mark VI. This didn’t always stop the crews from using them as fighting vehicles in combat, however.
The Italian L3/35 (L for light tank) was also developed from the original Carden-Loyd Mark VI Tankettes, which the Italians had bought the license for. Development started in 1931 and early versions had 8mm of armor and 1 machine gun. There were multiple versions but the L3/35 was the final, most used version. The armor and armament were both increased through the various versions, up to 15mm on some parts, and by adding a second machine gun. A key early decision was to make the L3/35 a close topped vehicle since it was expected to be a front line tank and not a transport/support vehicle. To support its use as a tank as World War II began, the Italians kept adding firepower to try to get more use out of them. This included versions with 20mm Solothurn Anti-tank rifles, 45mm Brixia mortars, or flamethrowers. The Italians also used the L33/35s as command vehicles with radios and as bridge-layers (however, the L33/35 was so low and small that its effectiveness was limited). In the early part of World War 2, the Italian armored units were equipped primarily with L3/35s as their main battle tank. The Italian Medium tanks were being developed and produced much more slowly so the only option was the tiny 2 seat Tankettes.
In combat, the L33/35s were not effective in World War II, even when used against troops that didn’t have a lot of anti-tank assets such as the Greeks. The armor was so poorly made that they were even vulnerable to machine-gun fire. By the time the battles of North Africa started, the L33/35s were hopelessly outclassed, being vulnerable to all British anti-tank weapons. However, for most units, especially in 1940, the L3/35s were the bulk of what was available. They fought in many of the early engagements in the desert war and were roughly handled by all opponents, for example in the defense of Nibeiwa Camp during the British counter-attack in Egypt during Operation Compass. Although they had some use as infantry support vehicles, their vulnerability to any and all anti-tank weapons and even small arms made them a liability. Later in the war, the L3/35s found somewhat of a niche as light anti-partisan tanks in occupied territories like Yugoslavia.
Looking at the specifications of the Universal Carrier vs. the L3/35, their same origin is not surprising because they had a lot in common. Both were fully tracked, had similar armor (up to 0.5”), similar speed (26-32 MPH), and were actually armed in many of the same ways (Machine Guns, Anti-Tank Rifles, Flamethrowers, Mortars, etc.). The Universal Carrier was larger since it was designed to carry as many as 5 crew/passengers where the L3/35 only had a crew of 2 and no passengers. The Universal Carrier was 148” long, 83” wide, 63” tall, and weighed around 4.4 tons. The L3/35 was 124” long, 55” wide, 50” tall, and weighed 3.8 tons. The L3/35’s smaller size was an advantage in being harder to hit but a disadvantage for observation since it was harder to see from the lower platform. The engine of the Universal Carrier was more powerful, providing 19.1 HP/Ton power/weight ratio vs. 11.3 HP/Ton for the L3/35, which allowed the Carrier more flexibility because it could carry a heavier load.
The fundamental difference between the very successful Universal Carrier and the unsuccessful Italian L3/35 was in how they were intended to be used. The Universal carrier was generally seen as a tracked transport and as a light support vehicle with a wide variety of uses. Meanwhile, the Italians were trying to use their L3/35s as frontline tanks. Instead of trying to use them like tanks, the Italians could have deployed them only as tracked recon and light infantry support (indeed, this is what they tried to do once they started producing enough medium tanks). In these roles, the vehicle was at least adequate. Instead, they found themselves facing early British cruiser and infantry tanks and were completely outmatched. This can be traced back to the issue of the limited Italian industrial base which could never produce enough of the vehicles the Italians needed. Without sufficient medium tanks, they had to press the light tanks into frontline tank duty instead of being able to adapt them to more appropriate roles. An early decision by the Italians to create a closed topped vehicle instead of an open-topped meant they would be much less adaptable to a transport/support type role. The British made an early decision to make their Carriers open-topped, which led to a different perspective on how to use them in combat. The rest is history.