Our military man Bob Morrison explains their love affair with the Lightweight
Today many have a tendency to look nostalgically back at the 1960s as it was the period which encompassed the blossoming of The Beatles and the Flower Power era. In reality, though, the world back then was a very dangerous place with the Cold War at its height and the uncertainties raised by the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the start of the decade National Service was phased out and by mid-1963 the British Army had become an all-volunteer professional service with a decent defence budget. Around the same time the government’s Fighting Vehicle Research & Development Establishment (FVRDE) at Chertsey, in close conjunction with industry, was experimenting with a number of air-portable and amphibious vehicle designs to meet the latest military requirements and Land Rover was quite naturally part of this cooperative process.
In the early 60s the Royal Marines used a small number of stripped-down pick-up variants of the Citroen 2CV Fourgonnette 4x2, which were light enough to be flown ashore from the Commando carriers underslung from the early single-engined Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopter. These little trucks gave the Commandos a degree of mobility once ashore but, although they had good ground clearance and reasonable performance over rough terrain, they were not as robust or as capable off-road as the Series II/IIA Land Rovers then in service.
The Land Rover, unfortunately, was far too heavy for the original Royal Navy Wessex helicopter to lift, but when the later twin-engined utility version entered service in 1964, it had almost enough capability to carry an underslung SIIA. The Royal Marines almost immediately raised a requirement for a new vehicle within the lift capability of their new aircraft and FVRDE sat down with the Solihull engineers to find a way of reducing overall weight of the short wheelbase military specification Land Rover.
By the autumn of 1965 what looked like a workable solution had been found and the first of two prototypes of a new airportable design was built for initial trials, which ran into the following year. To meet the maximum weight requirement, the prototype had a very basic folded aluminium body tray and bonnet, onto which doors, windscreen, upper body panels, bumpers and canopy frame with tilt could be assembled once ashore. The removable components would need to be flown as a second lift as the helicopter only had sufficient load capacity to transport the basic stripped down vehicle.
Once the helicopter had dropped off the new Land Rover, which also had shorter axles because a few inches had to be shaved off the overall width to ensure it fitted the loading envelopes of the smallest landing craft and of RAF transport aircraft then in service, it was still possible for it to be driven in a dismantled state if necessary. Ideally all demountable components would have been fitted before the vehicle left the landing site, and this is usually what happened on peacetime exercises, though as late as the early 1990s I spotted both Paras and Commandos using stripped-down vehicles in the field to make tactical use of the lower silhouette.
Later in 1966 a batch of pre-production vehicles was built for full evaluative trials under the designation Truck, General Service Lightweight (Rover Mk 1, 1/4 Ton 4x4) and the Lightweight was born. The trials were successful and an order was placed for full production, which commenced in 1968, though by now the upgraded Commando Wessex was actually able to lift the fully assembled vehicle.
Fifty years ago when the pre-production batch of Lightweights was manufactured I was still at school and not taking photographs of military Land Rovers, but around a quarter of a century ago when the Lightweight was at the zenith of its career with both 3 Commando and 5 Airborne Brigades I was able to snap it on many occasions. By now the Series IIA Lightweight batch, most of which could be recognised by their lights set inboard next to the inverted T-shaped radiator mesh grille, had been replaced by the Series III successor . These still had demountable doors, body panels and windscreen even though the more powerful Sea King and Chinook transport helicopters had long replaced the Wessex.
The original pre-production SIIA Lightweight had been categorised as a 1/4 ton (c.250kg) payload vehicle, just like the standard short wheelbase Land Rover of the day, but by the time the Ministry of Defence ordered the first production batch in 1967 they had doubled this to 1/2 ton and this would remain its designation until the last Series III batch entered UK service in 1985. One might be wondering why, when the One Ten entered production in 1983 and the Ninety became available the next year, the Lightweight was still entering service in 1985, but that’s because neither of the new vehicles had yet been evaluated for specialist airborne and amphibious requirements.
The majority of the accompanying photographs of in-service Series III Lightweights show the vehicle in Royal Marines service, but the British Army and Royal Air Force also used the type for various roles. Possibly the most interesting of the illustrations this month is the one with the hard top, which I photographed on the ramp at RAF Lyneham in July 1990 when covering 5 Airborne Brigade vehicles being loaded on Medium Stressed Platforms into RAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
The Lightweight, which had a narrower body than its conventional 88in wheelbase sibling, was only ever manufactured in soft top configuration but a conversion kit was produced for utilising a standard hard top quite early in service. As the Lightweight body was roughly four inches narrower than a standard vehicle, it was not simply a case of dropping a standard hard top onto the body sides. However, this conversion not only gave a more secure vehicle but also made it easier to insulate for cold climate deployments.
On the British Army side it was mostly the Airborne units which favoured the Lightweight, not least because they could lob four of them, in pairs on the same MSP, out of a single Hercules transport aircraft, but other units did use them and it was not unusual to spot REME Light Aid Detachments using them as fast response workhorses. The REME vehicle, identifiable by the amber beacon, with the yellow panel on its door was supporting the Royal Yeomanry on exercise in Germany in the autumn of 1991.
The Royal Marines appreciated the Lightweight as not only could one of these Land Rovers with a trailer attached be transported in their smallest amphibious craft, the Landing Craft Vehicle & Personnel, several could be transported in the larger Land Craft Utility. This nimble and capable light utility vehicle could also be underslung from their Commando Sea King helicopters. In due course the Ninety and later Defender 90 models would replace the Lightweight, only to themselves be replaced by the Defender XD or Wolf in due course.
Several foreign armies procured the Series III Lightweight in the 1970s, most notably the Netherlands and Denmark. The Danish vehicles were similar in specification to their British equivalents, but the Dutch ones had diesel engines.