By Harold Ratzburg and Tony Hayte
The problem of getting the soldier to the battlefield quickly over a long distance in a hurry was solved when the airplane was invented. But of course, it was rare to have an airstrip right next to the battlefield. With the coming of the well known "Dakota", the C-47 Skytrain, not only could the soldier get to the nearest airstrip, but he could take with him the means to travel to the actual battlefield in that well known vehicle called a Jeep.
All this took time, because getting a jeep out of the cargo door was not a simple matter, what with required ramps etc., so a better method was looked for. It came in the shape of a glider which could transport the soldier and his jeep into the thick of the battle. Silent (well, almost), in its approach, the glider proved to be very useful, and as the gliders got bigger and better, more cargo could be carried.
The American and British gliders tended to differ in how they were loaded and unloaded. The "Waco" was a much used American glider which being low on the ground had an entire front nose section that lifted up to "swallow" it's load. This allowed for a very clever idea for unloading, where a cable, pulled through a system of pulleys, lifted open the front of the glider as it skidded to a stop, and so there was no need to get out of the Jeep on landing, just drive the jeep straight out IF the landing took place as planed. It must have been a very merry ride for the troops in the jeep on the way down.
The British gliders had in some cases a tail that could be "blown off" but ramps then had to be put in position to enable the Jeep to be driven out. A large side opening door was also used, but it also required the use of ramps.
The next logical step was to hang a Jeep underneath an airplane and drop it with the aid of a parachute. This is where the British Army differed from the Americans----all British Airborne Forces Jeeps were converted to enable them to be slung under the belly of a bomber or carried more easily in a glider. American airborne Jeeps were pretty much left as they came from the factory.
The first consideration was of course, weight, so all non-essential parts were removed. Who needs rear bumpers, so off they came. The height of the vehicle was most important, with the highest point being the back of the front seats, so the spare tire was removed. When in a glider, the wheel was carried between the front bumper and the grill, where a simple bolt held it in place. As soon as the jeep was well away from the glider, the spare was put back on the rear mount because the wheel stopped the flow of air to the radiator and caused over heating after a short distance. When parachuted down, the spare was carried on the floor of the Jeep.
The windshield would be carried in the folded down position while in the glider, as was the canvas cover and bows. These items were not carried on the parachuted Jeep. Rear seats were never put into a Jeep of the British Airborne Forces as the room was needed for the four parachutes which lowered the jeep, or much needed supplies.
The front bumper was cut down to the width of the chassis for weight reduction. There was never much room inside a glider so off came the jerry can holder. The side and rear grab handles stuck out from the body and could foul a part of the glider so they were also removed.
The steering wheel stuck up above the level of the seats, so a quick release arrangement was fitted so that with a flip of the fingers, off came the steering wheel which was then strapped to the front seat.
The shock of landing, even with four parachutes was quite severe so large pans with reverse springs were fitted to each wheel to absorb the shock. An eye witness told the story of seeing a Jeep come down with the parachutes unopened and noted that it came down in a most "spectacular fashion". I'll bet it was!!
An ever present danger was that after landing, the parachutes would fill up with wind and tip the Jeep over. So, two 'legs' were attached---with bowl shaped feet, and on contact with the ground, hydraulic fluid was forced through tubing along the legs and caused the main parachute connecting ring to open allowing the parachutes to blow away.
But that plan still left the problem on landing with only one Jeep per airplane, until some 'genius' thought, "if we can make a Jeep swim, (GPA), why not make it fly". So was born the flying Jeep, the Rotaplane 10/42, (auto gyro), with it's two bladed rotor of 46 feet, 8 inches in diameter for lift. A pylon to hold the rotor was bolted to the floor, a framework to hold the tailplane and two fins was attached to the back of the jeep, a tail skid, flying instruments plus a pilot was added and away you went. At least, that was the idea. With several towed behind an airplane, they would be cast off when the landing zone was reached and the auto gyro blades would auto-rotate the jeeps slowly to the ground. The rotor, framework, and other gadgets would be quickly unbolted and the Jeep would then be ready for its normal duties. Yeah, RIGHT!!!!!!!! Good luck with that!!!!!!
The only one ever built stood ready and was used for the first trials. A rope was pulled causing the rotor to start turning, and off down the runway roared the Jeep, being pulled by a British Bentley dragging this weird contraption behind it. When the speed got up to 65 mph, the Jeep took to the air.
What an experience that must have been for the soldiers inside the Jeep. I know that the top speed of my Jeep is about 60 MPH and that driving it over 45 MPH makes it seem like it might be coming apart. Considering the fact that even a very slow airplane of WW II flew at perhaps 150 MPH, what a ride it would have been to the GI's in the jeep as it was towed---- maybe even in tandem behind other Jeeps---- in the slipstream of the tow plane, had it ever gotten to that stage of development.
They had a flying Jeep at last, but it certainly needed to have some bugs removed. By the time all the snags had been ironed out, bigger and better gliders had been built and so the flying Jeep idea was abandoned.
There are a few surviving photographs of the flying Jeep that show that this clever piece of engineering actually existed and it is a great pity that the prototype was never kept.
NOTE: I need here to give credit to my co-author Tony Hayter, who was a member of the National Military Vehicle Collector Association in England back in the 1970's when he wrote an article about the Jeeps. I found his article in a back issue of the Motor Pool Messenger and felt that it was worth reprinting again with a few of my very own smart-alec remarks and photos added to it. Thank you Tony.
by Harold Ratzburg P.E.