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M22 Locust – The Allied Glider Tank of WW II

Written by Matthew Copes 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Negba_280221_M22_Locust.jpg

These days Lockheed C5 Super Galaxies are capable of transporting two 70-ton (63,500 kg) M1 Abrams tanks nearly anywhere in the world with aerial refueling. 

That said, getting armored vehicles into combat quickly has been a major problem for militaries since tanks began appearing on battlefields during the First World War. 

Needless to say, the aircraft of the day just weren’t up to the task of moving heavy machines. 

Tipping the scales at more than 30 tons (27,200 kg), Britain’s Mark Is and Germany’s A7Vs were generally transported in pieces on railcars and assembled as close to the front as possible.

Back then this lack of mobility wasn’t a huge deal because the Great War was a relatively static conflict, but that wasn’t the case during World War II.  

Neither England nor America had aircraft capable of transporting heavy armored vehicles like Cromwells and Shermans.

As a result, they were generally moved by ship, unloaded at ports, transported by rail as far as the line would take them, then driven to their final destinations. 

The last legs of these time consuming journeys often involved slow treks through rough terrain and hostile territory, where mines, enemy tanks and well camouflaged antitank guns lurked around nearly every corner.  

Though relatively efficient, this logistics system couldn’t deliver the armored firepower airborne forces needed to take and hold strategic bridges, railheads and crossroads, which meant that they were particularly vulnerable when deployed ahead of larger fighting forces. 

What they needed was a small tank that packed a moderately big punch, had decent armor protection and good cross-country mobility, and could be delivered to out-of-the-way hotspots quickly. 

Enter the M22 Locust. 

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Background

By early 1941 England had emerged victorious from the Battle of Britain, but resources were scarce, the Nazi war machine was ravaging Europe, and the island nation’s survival was far from certain. 

With airborne forces playing increasingly critical roles on the continent, the British War Office solicited help from America in designing a light tank that could accompany them into battle, often far behind enemy lines. 

Established by order of Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1940, Britain’s inexperienced airborne force wasn’t particularly suited to the armored warfare of the day. 

Since its inception, most units had been equipped with Vickers-Armstrong Mk VII Tetrarch light tanks, but since they hadn’t been designed to be transported by aircraft, the War Office concluded that new, purpose-built machines would give the airborne forces more of a fighting edge. 

The project was of critical importance, but Britain didn’t possess appropriate aircraft, nor did it have the time, resources or manufacturing capacity to develop and build them on their own, and in light of these limitations gliders seemed like a logical and cost effective alternative.  

Ironically however, due to their thin armor and anemic guns, light tanks had fared poorly in early engagements, and regular Army units had already started phasing them out. 

Nonetheless, airborne units were never meant to slug it out with heavy Panzer divisions, and after brief negotiations between representatives from America and Britain, the US Army Ordnance Corps was tasked with developing an entirely new light tank that could be used by the airborne forces of both countries.  

RFPs were sent to a number of domestic manufacturers, and ultimately Marmon-Herrington’s design beat out those submitted by more well established defense contractors like Chrysler and General Motors. 

Specifications & Development

Official specifications were issued in the spring of 1941 for an ultra-light tank that could be transported by glider as far as 350 miles (560 km).

Since General Aircraft’s Hamilcar was nearing the end of its development at about the same time, they would ultimately carry the new Locust tanks into battle.  

Nearly 70 feet (22 m) long, 110 feet (33.5 m) wide between wingtips and capable of hauling 17,000-pound (7,710 kg) payloads internally, Hamilcars were affordable and easy to produce alternatives to powered transport aircraft. 

Locusts featuring 37 mm cannons as their main armament, and defensive fire came from two .30 caliber machine guns – one coaxially mounted alongside the main gun, the other protruding from the right side of the hull.

Engine type and power output were left largely up to the manufacturer, but specs stated a maximum speed of 40 mph (64 km/h) and an operational radius of 200 miles (320 km). 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M22_Locust_rear-right_2017_Bovington.jpg

The turret and front part of the hull would be protected by between 40 and 50 mm (1.6 and 2 inches) of steel plate armor, but the back and sides were far thinner.

Locusts were to be crewed by three, but only because their small size didn’t leave enough space for a fourth crewmen. 

Unfortunately, this didn’t sit particularly well with armored airborne units, because in combat Tetrarchs had proven that the commander, gunner and driver couldn’t perform all the tasks required of them quickly and efficiently. 

In addition to their own duties, commanders had to load shells into the cannon. 

Though not particularly strenuous or time consuming under normal conditions, during the deafening chaos of combat this often prevented them from seeing what was going on around them and communicating with ground forces and other armored vehicles. 

Despite this serious Achilles heel however, Marmon-Herrington delivered the first prototype in late 1941. 

Coming in at almost exactly 7.2 tons, the new machine was designated Light Tank T9 – Airborne.

Both the main gun and coaxial machine-gun were mounted in a powered turret, the larger of which was stabilized to permit firing while on the move, though under most conditions this was impractical. 

But though Marmon – Herrington stuck to most of the original specifications, they had little choice but to skimp on armor protection to keep weight down. 

In fact, up front where it mattered most, the steel plate was half as thick as it was supposed to be.  

Powered by Lycoming air-cooled six-cylinder engines producing about 160 horsepower, T9s could just manage to achieve the maximum road speed that’d been specified by the War Office. 

It was hoped that improved mobility would compensate for this deficiency and ultimately increase crew survivability, but another glaring deviation was that T9s weren’t primarily designed to be transported by glider, but by Douglas C-54 Skymasters.

Not only were Skymasters expensive and in short supply, but they needed finished airstrips for takeoffs and landings, and even worse, Britain didn’t have any. 

Thankfully however, Marmon-Herrington’s T9s were just the right size to squeeze inside Hamilcar gliders, suggesting that the original specifications hadn’t been ignored altogether. 

After a few minor tweaks to the first unit, two new prototypes were ordered by the Ordnance Corps in January 1942, both of which were delivered the following November. 

The new tanks featured a number of upgrades, but the turret’s power traverse motor and gun stabilizer had been removed to compensate for the weight gains that had resulted from the other improvements. 

Now turrets would need to be manually traversed by already overworked three-man crews. 

Yet despite these and other issues that would surface during testing, the Ordnance Corps pre-ordered 500 T9s.  

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M22_Locust_front-left_2017_Bovington.jpg

Testing & Production

After preliminary evaluation in America, the T9s were shipped to Britain in the summer of 1943, and testing was carried out until the end of the year.  

By tank standards the new machines were light, fast and transportable, but a number of serious flaws emerged as well.  

In addition to unpowered turrets, T9’s thin armor wasn’t capable of stopping even heavy machine gun rounds. 

Worse yet, even when fired from close range the 37 mm cannon’s projectiles lacked the energy necessary to penetrate the armor of most German tanks. 

Likewise, a number of mechanical issues were discovered including weak transmissions and suspension components, both of which made Locusts unreliable. 

Though the War Office was adamant about transporting M22s into combat via glider, trials were carried out with C-54 transports as well. 

However, the loading and unloading processes were tedious, time consuming and involved the use of complex equipment that would only be available at well-supplied air bases. 

An even heavier transport aircraft – the Fairchild C-82 Packet – was developed to carry M22s specifically, but it didn’t enter service until after the war had ended. 

Although not exactly game-changing machines by nearly any measure, the War Office concluded that with the right training and tactics, M22s could perform well with airborne units.

At least that was the official story, but the truth was that M22s were ordered into production because at the time there was no better option.

Due to last minute design changes, full-scale production didn’t begin until late 1943, after which nearly 100 units were produced each month until January of the following year. 

In a critical report released in 1943, US Army officials categorically stated that when it came to reliability, firepower, protection and ease of transport, M22s were wholly inadequate. 

In short, Marmon-Herrington’s little tanks were duds, and as such the Army wouldn’t assign them to its airborne units. 

Instead, they were classified as “limited standard,” a less than flattering term reserved for equipment that failed to meet the minimum criteria required for combat use. 

On the bright side, this unfortunate turn of events didn’t mean that the United States was stuck with a bunch of useless light tanks that it didn’t want. 

On the contrary, thanks to the wonders of the Lend-Lease Act, it gladly unloaded nearly 270 of them on its closest ally – Great Britain. 

Service

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Designated Light Tank Squadrons and attached to Britain’s 1st Airborne Division, the units that were eventually equipped with M22s were tasked with conducting pre-operation reconnaissance, and when necessary capturing and holding strategic objectives until the rest of the division arrived to reinforce them. 

Along with a few Tetrarchs, more than a dozen M22s were scheduled to participate in Britain’s airborne landings at Normandy, codenamed Operation Tonga. 

By then however, Britain’s limited Hamilcar gliders had been retrofitted to carry Tetrarchs only, because though they were older, Mk VIIs had bigger guns, better armor and were far less prone to breakdowns.  

But in the spring of 1945 Locusts did see limited action in Operation Varsity where airborne units supported the 21st Army Group by dropping behind enemy lines and securing several vital bridges over the Rhine River before the Germans could blow them up. 

One by one, on the morning of March 24, eight Handley Page Halifax bombers lumbered down long runways and struggled skyward over RAF Tarrant Rushton. 

Towed behind them tethered by long steel cables were eight Hamilcar gliders, each of which contained an M22 Locust in its cavernous cargo area. 

As the largest airborne operation ever carried out on a single day at one location, the air armada included hundreds of powered aircraft and gliders and more than 15,000 paratroopers destined for Wessel, Germany. 

With light winds and clear skies, the weather couldn’t have been any better, and all eight Hamilcars arrived on-site as scheduled. 

Just as they were about to detach from their tow cables however, a catastrophic airframe failure caused one glider to disintegrate, after which the Locust it’d been carrying plummeted to the ground more than 1,000 feet (304 m) below. 

Under increasing small arms and heavy anti-aircraft fire, three more gliders sustained damage and crashed just as they were about to land. 

All told just four Locusts made it onto the ground fit for action, and of those that did one had a damaged gun, while another had an inoperable radio. 

One tank crew attempted to assist a group of American paratroopers who’d been pinned down by machine gun fire, only to be knocked out by a self-propelled 88 mm Flak gun. 

Ultimately, only two Locusts reached their rendezvous point, where they immediately took the high ground in support of an exposed infantry company. 

But though the sight of armor initially seemed like a blessing to the beleaguered grunts, they soon realized that they may have been better off on their own. 

In fact, the Locusts drew attention from nearby German artillery that may have otherwise concentrated on higher priority targets. 

Since the Locusts offered little protection to the soldiers outside or crewmen inside, and because their guns couldn’t match the German artillery’s range, the British airborne forces were forced to withdraw after taking heavy losses. 

Not surprisingly, Operation Varsity was the last time M22s ever saw action with the British Army. 

The truth was that they were too lightly armored and didn’t pack big enough punches, and the time and expense associated with transporting them into battles in which they had little chance of surviving proved to be a waste of precious resources. 

Immediately after the war, all were labeled “obsolete” and taken out of service. 

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Last Day of the Locust

With the arrival of the Jet Age in the 1950s, new post-war transport aircraft were substantially more powerful than their ‘40s counterparts. 

However, by then the very concept of light tanks was seen as hopelessly outdated. 

All told more than 800 M22s were produced, but after the war many were destined to live out their golden years in forgotten warehouses and dismal tank parks in both America and England. 

Others were sold for scrap. 

However, two gunless Locusts ended up in the hands of a frugal Illinois farmer named Kamiel Dupre who bought them from the Rock Island Armory for $100 each in 1946. 

Figuring he could use one as a tractor and keep the other in reserve for spare parts, the farmer and his repurposed war machines were even featured in a Life Magazine article later that year. 

In summary, Mr. Dupre claimed that his M22s were too light, too difficult to use, too unreliable,  and just not up to the tasks for which he’d bought them, which ironically, were the same conclusions made by both the British and American armies. 

In Britain, some surviving Locusts were relegated to training duties, while others were shipped off to foreign armies like those of Belgium and Egypt, the latter of which were used as scout and reconnaissance vehicles in the Arab–Israeli War of 1948.

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