Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Locust Swarm

Operation Plunder started on the 23rd of March 1945. It was the British 2nd Army's attempt at crossing the Rhine around Wessel. Facing them were some 70,000 Germans dug in and ready. One of the strong points was around the Diersfordter Wald, where the Germans were heavily dug in with large numbers of artillery pieces. To tackle this position, it was decided to mount a large-scale air assault similar to Operation Market Garden some seen months before. This new plan was Operation Varsity. At first glance the idea of dropping a mass of infantry directly onto a dug in enemy seems like an even worse plan than that used at Arnhem. However, Arnhem came within a whisker of succeeding (if Gavin had done his job, and grabbed the Bridge it's highly likely it would have worked). One of the main complaints at Arnhem was the need to secure the drop zones, which saddled the incoming paratroopers with a logistical burden. In Op Varsity the plan was to drop everyone in one go. Original plans had called for a third division, which was available to be used, however the Allied forces lacked the air lift capacity to bring that unit along.
Equally they were expected to hold out for an extended time period. However, Operation Varsity was launched after the river crossing had been achieved, meaning the paratroopers would be relieved relatively quickly. Furthermore, the Allies had much larger resources to use than the Germans. Indeed, the relentless drops at Arnhem had proved a morale sapping experience for the Germans, as day after day a new division was dumped on their heads.
Op Varsity in action. C-47's pull out and turn for home after dropping their cargo's, in the Background more C-47's unload.

As well as a manpower advantage the Allies also had an equipment advantage. The German paratrooper jumped with a pistol and collected his weapons and ammunition from supply packages dropped with him. This meant that drops were limited to light weapons only. At Arnhem the Germans thought the paratroopers would be as lightly armed as they would be, only to their horror to find themselves facing a fully equipped infantry division with motor transport and anti-tank guns. Op Varsity would be one step further, as the parachutists would also benefit from Airborne tanks.
Operation Varsity was the one and only combat use of the M22 Locust. Eight of them were prepared from the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. After being dropped in Overlord with Tetrarchs they had re-equipped quickly with Cromwells and been acting as a reconnaissance formation. Men were detached from the regiment on the 9th of March to form crews for eight Locusts. These were loaded into Hamilcar gliders.
Gliders being towed over the Rhine during Op Varsity
The eight gliders were towed off the ground at 0730 from RAF Woodbridge on the morning of the 24th. Over Holland there was a tragedy as one of the gliders suffered structural failure. The Locust, with its crew resting on top, was seen to fall backwards out of the plane through the tail, and was seen to hit the ground bouncing as it disintegrated, the wreck coming to land on the banks of the Rhine. The glider continued to tear itself apart, then the tug released the tow and the wreckage fell away.
Unloading a Locust from a Hamilcar. You can see the ramps needed to enable a smooth decent.
There was also heavy flack, but it failed to shoot down any of the Locust carrying gliders. One may have been damaged by flack, as it was coming in it was shedding parts, one unlucky paratrooper was killed by its falling wheel while another was knocked unconscious from the same object. On landing one Hamilcar slammed into a farm building, catapulting the Locust through the nose of the glider. The tank rolled several times demolishing the farm building. Remarkably the crew of the tank survived. They were strapped into their seats inside the tank, and the harnesses saved their lives. However, both glider pilots were killed.
After the crew of the tank crawled from the wreckage one went looking for his personal weapon, a Sten gun. Due to lack of space it was strapped to the outside of the vehicle and was unsurprisingly a write off.

Another Locust broke down when attempting to tow a jeep free of trouble. Its gun was still working, and it sat as a pillbox in the middle of the landing zone providing fire support to US paratroopers who were attacking the German positions. Its accurate fire is said to have caused significant casualties to the defenders.

Another Locust was commanded by Lieutenant Kenwood and driven by Sergent Colin Peckham. The latter had spent most of the approach flight lying in the nose of the Hamilcar observing through the perspex nose. As release approached, he clambered back into his seat and strapped in. The Hamilcar made a very heavy landing, which jammed the nose. Lt Kenwood simply ordered Sgt Peckham to drive forward and crash his way through the fuselage. In doing so the Locust sustained damage to its rear mudguard, likely when it dropped to the ground while the rear of the tank was still inside the glider.
Lt Kenwood's Locust moments after freeing itself and moving towards the fighting. You can see the damage on the rear mudguard.
Lt Kenwood immediately moved off, heading towards a nearby farm to help some US paratroopers capture the location. Much to his horror they found themselves facing a Panther tank. The Locust opened fire, quickly firing six times but all the shells had no effect. The Panther had swung its gun around and fired once, destroying the Locust. Both Lt Kenwood and Sgt Peckham were able to escape, although injured, and survived the war.
Lt Kenwood's Locust after being hit by the Panther's shell.
The remaining four Locusts were all damaged in the landing, with some malfunction in their machine gun, main weapon or radios. However, all remained in action, helping infantry cross a railway line and to attack a wooded area. Later they acted to provide fire support to dug in infantry on a hill. All were pulled back as their presence was attracting German artillery fire. Soon they were relieved by the forces involved in Operation Plunder, and the Locust's brief combat was over, or so it seems!

There is an audio account in the IWM archives from the commanding officer of the 9th Battalion Parachute Regiment, stating that they found a Locust abandoned in a wood. As some of his men were ex-Royal Tank Corps they took command of the vehicle and kept her running and fighting for some weeks afterwards. Those of you experienced in dealing with eyewitnesses will know how often hardware is misidentified, and the interview was carried out in 1996. In his favour he does correctly state that the crew was just three, and it was only armed with a small cannon.


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Image credits:
www.6thaarr.com, www.paradata.org.uk and www.royal-irish.com