Aircrew armours

The initial impetus to the development of body armour for the combat crewmcn of the US Army Air Forces was due to the research and field trials of the British MRC Body Armour. In early October 1942 an analysis of wounds incurred by US 8th Air Force combat personnel revealed that approximately 70 per cent were due to missiles of relatively low velocity—in one survey involving 303 casualties it was found that 38 per cent of wounds were due to 'flak' fragments; 39 per cent to 20mm cannon shell fragments; 15 per cent to machine gun bullets; and 8 per cent to secondary missiles

USAAF bomber crewmen display ihe early experimental flyer's body armour—on the left, the Type B half-vest and Type C tapered apron for pilots and co-pilots, and on the right, the Type A full vest and Type D full apron for gunners, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators. (USAF)

USAAF bomber crewmen display ihe early experimental flyer's body armour—on the left, the Type B half-vest and Type C tapered apron for pilots and co-pilots, and on the right, the Type A full vest and Type D full apron for gunners, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators. (USAF)

Body Armor Flak

(primarily parts of the aircraft breaking up when hit by flak or cannon fire). Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Malcolm C. Grow, then surgeon of the 8th Air Force, had followed the British trials with interest, and realised that some form of armour protecting the chest and abdomen could reduce both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (the total number of wounds) among combat aircrews.

Grow chose manganese steel as the ballistic material, and, in association with the Wilkinson Sword Company Ltd of London, formulated plans for a vest made of overlapping 2in.-square plates of imm-thick Hadfield steel secured in pockets in a canvas cover backed by a cotton fleece material. On 15 October 1942 Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, Commanding General, 8th Air Force, approved an order for ten protective vests for experimental testing; this order was increased shortly afterwards to a number sufficient to equip the crews of 12 B-17 bombers. These suits were fabricated by Wilkinsons, who had been making body armour on a commercial basis since the Great War; they were delivered in March 1943.

The experimental flyer's armour proved highly successful; and Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, who had assumed command of the 8th Air Force, directed that enough body armour—commonly known as 'flak suits'—should be produced in England to equip 60 per cent of all bomber crews located there (this being the normal percentage of aircraft available for operations 011 any given day). While manufacture was begun in England (a total of 600 suits were made), samples were despatched in July 1943 to the United States, where they were produced in quantity on a priority basis. By the end of the war approximately 23 types of flyer's body armour were in production, and almost one million items had been manufactured.

The initial production of the armour in the United States was based solely on the design which had been developed by Col. Grow. Classified as Flyer's Vest, Mi, it was made up of two sections which provided front and back protection, and was closed at the shoulders by quick-release 'dot' fasteners. It was issued to gunners, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators, whose combat duties required them to move around the aircraft where they were exposed to injury from both front and back. It weighed 17lbs 6oz. Between August

1943 and August 1945, 338,780 Mi vests were produced. Their effectiveness can be gauged by this account from 2nd Lt. Harold E. Donley, a bombardier of 553rd Squadron, 386th Bombardment Group:

'While participating on a mission over enemy territory, 3 November 1943, I was struck above the heart by a piece of flak two inches long by one-half inch square. The blow knocked me flat on my back from a kneeling position. The flak suit suffered very little damage but did a good job of stopping the piece of jagged steel. I think the protection offered by the suit greatly outweighs the discomfort it causes the wearer. In my estimation it is one of the most valuable pieces of protective equipment issued to combat crews.'

The Flyer's Vest, M2, was very similar to the M1 but had only an armoured front, since it was used by pilots and co-pilots who sat in armoured seats providing back protection. It weighed 7lbs 150Z;

A mine-clearing party equipped with protective clothing and improvised skis probe for Schumines during the closing weeks of the Second World War. The skis are intended to take the initial shock of an explosion, and the light-steel alloy leg guards and padded clothing to deflect the blast. Note the cut-down respirator protecting the eyes of the leading man. (Soldier Magazine)

Homemade Steel Body Armor

and between August 1943 and July 1945 95,919 vests were produced. Both the Mi and M2 vests were standardised on 5 October 1943. They differed slightly from the English model in that the original linen canvas was unavailable in the United States and a cotton canvas was substituted, later superseded by ballistic nylon.

In addition to the vest, an apron section was suspended from it to provide protection for the abdomen, groin and upper thighs. A number of models were produced to be worn by various crcw members, depending upon their position and function in the aircraft. The Flyer's Apron, Mj, was a triangular piece of armour intended for use in turrets and other confined positions. It weighed 4lbs 140Z, and 142,814 were produced. The Flyer's Apron, M4, was similar to the M3 but square in configuration, for use by waist gunners and others who benefited from a greater area of protection— see Plate Bi. It weighed 7lbs 2oz, and 209,144 were produced. S/Sgt. Earl E. Koehler, a waist gunner of 401st Bombardment Group, recalls:

'On 11 January 1944, after we had made our bomb run, we were in the midst of a mass German attack. A 20mm cannon shell entered the radio room, hit the left side of my flak suit and exploded. I was knocked down and dazed until my oxygen was again hooked to a walk-around bottle. After we landed I was taken to the field dispensary and was found to have a bruised side. In my opinion the flak suit had saved another life.'

For seated personnel, the Groin Armor, M$ was provided, comprising three sections so that the central area could be drawn between the legs and the side sections spread over the upper thighs—see Plate B3. The entire piece could be attached to the M2 vest. It weighed 15lbs 40Z, and 109,901 were produced.

All these items were worn over other flying equipment, including parachutes, so provision for the rapid jettisoning of the armour in an emergency was essential—a safe parachute landing could be jeopardised by the additional weight of armour. The various combinations of vest and apron were attached to one another by quick release dot fasteners which were connected by tapes, so that a single pull on a red tab at the wearer's waist caused the various items of armour to fall away instantly,

Body Armor Doron Korean War
Twins serving with ist Marine Tank Bn. in Korea display the first-pattern Vest, Armored, M-1951, with its exposed zipper and equipment loop around the midriff. The Doron plates are readily discernible under the outer covering. (USMC)

leaving the aircrewman free to jump without impediment.

By the beginning of 1944 approxir.lately 13,500 flak suits were in use with the 8th and 9th Air Forces. They were issued individually to crews going on missions, and surrendered on their return, so that all bomber groups had sufficient to enable every despatched man to wear one. Early in 1944 flyer's armour was introduced into the 12th Air Force, and into the 15th Air Force soon afterwards, so that by May a headquarters memorandum stated that 'reasonably full use is being made of body armor by crews in the theater' (Italy).

Continued research into lighter ballistic materials to reduce the weight of the armour resulted in the Flyer's Vest, A/6'and My. They fulfilled the same function as the M1 and M2 vests which they superseded, but incorporated aluminium plates and ballistic nylon stock. Apron armour was similarly improved, and the Flyer's Apron, MR and Mg, were standardised in July 1945 for use with the M6 and M7 vests. In the Pacific theatre, where backpack parachutes were favoured over the seat parachutes used in Europe, the vests were modified to fit over them, giving rise to the M6A1 and MyAi models. Flyer's armour was not as extensively used in the Pacific, since the flak and fighter threat was considerably less than that encountered in Europe.

At the outset bomber crews were issued with the standard Mi helmet as head protection, but it was rarely worn since it interfered with flying goggles, headphones and oxygen masks. In consequence aircrews suffered a disproportionately high incidence of head wounds, which caused over a third of combat fatalities. After the introduction of the 'Grow helmet' or M4, these were substantially reduced. The Helmet, M4 was of the skullcap type, composed of overlapping Hadficld steel plates in a cover of fabric and leather—see Plate Bi—with openings at the sides to permit the wearing of headphones. The M4A1 was similar but featured armoured earplates to cover the headphones. The M4A2 was a later model which was made slightly longer to accommodate all head sizes. The M4 helmet was primarily for turret and tail gunners, whose 'working space' was at a premium. For those crew members with no such limitations a modified M1 helmet was provided which featured hinged earplates over the cutaway headphone area. The Helmet, Mj was standardised in December 1943, and 213,543 were produced. In January 1945 an improved model of reduced dimensions but greater armour protection was standardised as the Helmet, M5—see Plate B3.

To provide protection to the vulnerable neck area where it was exposed between the helmet and armoured vest, the Armor, Neck, T44 was introduced experimentally in 1945, and 10,969 were produced before development terminated in June. It was well received, but the war ended before standardisation; a later model, T59E2, was standardised as Armor, Neck, M13 in September 1945. From October 1943 to July 1944 numerous designs of face armour were studied concurrently with the development of flyer's helmets. Both metallic and non-metallic materials were tested in models that covered the lower part of the face, the neck and the oxygen mask. 'Fhe project was suspended in 1944 because no specific requirement for this type of armour existed.

As to the effectiveness of flyer's body armour, numerous casualty surveys among heavy bomber crews were conducted at various times. They all concluded that flak suits were highly successful in decreasing the total number of wounds and the number of lethal wounds in the protected areas. Prior to the adoption of body armour the casualty rate was 5.44 men wounded and 6.53 wounds per 1,000 aircrewmen despatched on missions. In the period November 1943 to May 1944, after the introduction of body armour, 684,350 aircrewmcn went on missions and 1,567 men became casualties with a total of 1,766 wounds: this gave a casualty rate of 2.29 wounded and 2.58 wounds per 1,000. Thus, after the adoption of body armour there was a reduction of 58 per cent in persons wounded and a reduction of 60 per cent in the total number of wounds sustained.

Body armour also reduced fatalities significantly. There was a reduction in deaths from thoracic (chest) wounds from 36 to 8 per cent, and from abdominal wounds from 39 to 7 per cent. Overall, body armour prevented approximately 74 per cent of wounds in the body regions covered; a fact that 2nd Lt. Thomas D. Sellers, a co-pilot of 535th Squadron, 381st Bombardment Group, learnt in the hardest school of all in the skies over Germany during a mission on 8 October 1943:

'On previous raids I had found that the flak suit and helmet were major mental comforts, but on this flight 20mm cannon shells exploded inside the cockpit and knocked me down in my seat. The fragmentation ripped up everything. Wiring was torn loose, top glasses and windows were shattered, and the hydraulic system was shot out.

'My whole side not covered by the flak suit was splotched with wounds but even though my suit was torn and dented, nowhere on the trunk of my body was I even scratched. . . To those who may object to the weight I can say truthfully that you'll never notice it in the heat of battle. It gets lighter with each mile you go inside enemy territory until finally you wonder if it is heavy enough to do the job... All in all, it has more than done its job for me.' * * *

Following the widespread use and acceptance of flyer's armour, other branches of the fighting forces became interested in its possibilities. In October 1943 Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Number 25 experimented with flyer's armour. Similarly the Cavalry Board at Fort Riley, Kansas, was also interested in its possible use by mechanised cavalry personnel. In mid-1944 interest in body armour for ground troops was rekindled at the Army Ordnance Department, due largely to the success of flyer's armour and to the work of Lt.Col. I. Ridgeway

M1951 Body Armor
Members of the 27th Inf. Kegt., US 25th Inf. Div., model the Armor, Vest, M12 (left) and the Armor, Vest, Nylon, T-52-1 (right). Note the increased body coverage of the latter, particularly of the thorax. (US Army)

Trimble, then chief of the surgical service at the 118th General Hospital in Sydney, Australia. After a great deal of difficulty, he was able to obtain in February 1943 an example of body armour used by Japanese troops. There were at least three types of Japanese body armour in service, comprising an anterior thoraco-abdominal shield with or without lower limb protection. After further investigation he refined the design, and fabricated a model for possible use by the Allies. An experimental body armour known as Vest,T$4 was based on Trimble's work. It consisted of overlapping o.684in.-thick carbon steel plates in a stitched nylon-web backing. Owing to its excessive weight and the emergence of lighter ballistic materials, the T34 series was discontinued.

Thereafter, numerous other experimental models were developed. Of these, the Vest, T62E1 proved most promising and, after further modification in the T64 series, it was standardised in August 1945 as the Armor, Vest, M12. During the previous month 1,000 T62E1 vests (with T65 apron) and 1,200 T64 vests were shipped to the Pacific theatre for field testing, but this was never accomplished. The M12 vest consisted of two sections, front and back, which were fastened together at the shoulders by quick-

release fasteners in the same manner as flyer's armour. The ballistic materials consisted of o.i25in.-thick 75 ST aluminium plates and a backing ol'8-ply nylon cloth. It weighed i2lbs 30Z, and 53,352 vests were produced between June and September 1945.

The Mi2 marked the culmination of the use of metal as the ballistic material for body armour. More importantly, it represented the final acceptance by the ground forces of the desirability of body armour as a standard item of equipment. Unfortunately this lesson was learned too late in the Second World War to benefit the infantryman, who stood most in need of protection. Statistics from 57 US divisions in the European theatre of operations indicate that foot soldiers, comprising 68.5 per cent of the total Army strength, suffered 94.5 per cent of its casualties. It was further established that shell or mortar fragments caused from 60 to 80 per cent of the wounds—figures almost identical to those of the Great War.

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  • emma
    Do tank crews wear body armour?
    7 years ago
  • anni
    Did tail gunners wear body armor?
    5 years ago
  • ermias
    What was the armored vests that gunners wore in battle while in flight in a B17?
    5 years ago

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