Austin K2/Y Heavy Ambulance in France, 1940 (commons.wikimedia)
For every combat vehicle that captures the so-called “glory” of war there are countless other supporting vehicles that rarely get the recognition they deserve yet perform just as important a role in keeping an army fighting. For centuries a wounded soldier would find himself more in the hands of God rather than a medically-trained comrade but as combat medicine advanced, particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the chances of his survival began to increase. This was important for an army since many wounds could now be treated, healed and the soldier return to the battlefield thus keeping the number of experienced fighting men on the frontlines as high as possible.
Before that however, he needed to be moved to a field hospital and that required ambulances. As had long been the tradition of the British Army the answer was initially horse-drawn carriages but by the outbreak of the Great War motorised ambulances were becoming more and more prevalent. Known as Field Ambulances, the vehicles provided the link between regimental aid stations near the frontlines and the field hospital located (ideally) out of range of enemy artillery. The ambulances of the Great War were crude and often agonizing to ride in for a wounded soldier but was often the difference between dying in a trench or having a fighting chance of survival.
During the interwar years a number of vehicles fulfilled the military ambulance role and more often than not these were simply military adaptions of civilian trucks. As the 1930s drew to a close and war seemed inevitable once more the British military underwent a massive rearmament and modernisation program. In 1939 a requirement was drafted for a new military ambulance capable of carrying up to four stretchers and Austin Motor Company Ltd offered a modified version of their civilian K30 1.5ton truck.
Based at Longbridge in Birmingham, Austin had only just begrudgingly returned to the truck manufacturing business in January 1939 following instructions from the government who no doubt sensed the oncoming storm and was gearing British industry up for war. In the 1930s the company enjoyed more success than most other motor car manufacturers in Britain even signing a deal with the Japanese company Datsun (now Nissan) who built Austins under license for the Far East. Among the new trucks produced by Austin were 2-ton and 3-ton capacity vehicles known as the K2 and K3 respectively. The K30 was added to the range when a requirement for an intermediary vehicle (1.5 ton) was drawn up shortly after production began.
To ease the manufacturing process all three vehicles shared many of the same technical qualities. The vehicles were powered by an Austin-designed 3.5litre, six-cylinder petrol engine linked to a 4-speed manual transmission. The engine was capable of producing 60bhp which was enough to pull the truck along at 50mph when empty on a flat stretch of road. The vehicle rode along on coiled suspension while hydraulically operated brakes to bring the truck to a stop. One noticeable quirk of the truck was that the gears were quite widely spaced and required some getting used to on the part of the driver.
Nurses loading K2/Ys (commons.wikimedia)
To meet the requirement for a military ambulance, a rear compartment was developed for the truck by Mann Eagerton Ltd based in Norwich and designed in conjunction with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The compartment provided a workspace 2.6m x 2.0m x 1.7m for the patients and attendants which translated in to four stretchers or ten sitting casualties (casualties with minor wounds or were able to walk). The four stretchers could be loaded on to bases that wound up and down the sides of the vehicle so that the top patient could be more easily loaded onboard. In terms of equipment the vehicle only featured the most basic medical tools since the vehicle was primarily for transport purposes rather than providing medical treatment. Patients could be loaded in to the ambulance compartment via two large doors at the rear. Another, smaller door at the front of the compartment allowed access to and from the driver’s cab.
In general configuration the driver’s cab differed little from its civilian K30 forebear except that the classically smooth curving roof was replaced with a more angular one thanks to the overhang of the ambulance compartment. The most noticeable difference however was the lack of proper doors which were replaced by canvas coverings which could be pulled over to protect the driver from the rain and wind. In a European winter these hardly made driving a comfortable experience but in the deserts of North Africa they helped significantly with ventilating the vehicle. Finally, a spare wheel was included in the cab behind the driver which was positioned in such a way so as to keep the door to the rear compartment clear that it protruded out from the side of the vehicle. To protect the wheel as it stuck out of the side of the cab, a distinctive metal covering was placed over it and this would catch-out more than a few unfortunate drivers who failed to leave enough space for an oncoming vehicle to pass.
In 1939, Austin received their first orders for the new military ambulance which was given the designation K2/Y. This designation gave rise to the affectionate name “Katy” by those who operated them. When the war broke out, Longbridge virtually ceased all car production and instead began churning out munitions however the manufacturing of trucks for the armed forces continued and this included the K2/Y military ambulance. With the tooling at the plant already configured for the K30, production rates were high and it was not long before the vehicle began to be fielded by Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).
The so-called “Phoney War” – a period of relative inaction between Germany and the western powers of Britain and France between September 1939 and May 1940 – allowed British ambulance units of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to establish the vehicle in service. When the Germans finally struck west in May 1940, British and French forces found themselves totally unprepared for the Blitzkrieg style of war the Germans employed expecting instead to fight another static war as had been the case in World War I. The BEF and their French allies found themselves in full retreat until the BEF had to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk where like so many other British vehicles the K2/Ys were burned by their former owners to prevent them from falling in to German hands. Nevertheless, the Germans did acquire a handful of examples during their French campaign although they saw little use with them.
Austin K2/Y in North Africa (commons.wikimedia)
Longbridge weathered the Battle of Britain churning out more and more ammunition and vehicles and were able to quickly replace the K2/Ys lost by the BEF. The K2/Y was soon being fielded by all branches of the British armed forces and also the armed forces of the British Commonwealth with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all receiving large numbers of examples. The Austin K2/Ys would end up serving in almost every theatre of war including North Africa, the Far East and mainland Europe. During one notable incident in North Africa, an RAMC driver managed to get a staggering 27 casualties on to his vehicle by getting them to clamber over every available space in and out of the ambulance.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 saw Britain sending large numbers of military equipment to the Soviets and this included the K2/Y. The arrival of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in the UK in 1942 saw the K2/Y gain yet another operator. In order to ease the burden on the supply chain across the Atlantic the USAAF employed a number of British vehicles such as the K2/Y to support airfield operations and evacuate wounded airmen to hospital. Perhaps the most famous user of the K2/Y was the future Queen Elizabeth II who trained to drive them as part of her duties with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
As well as military units, the K2/Y saw service with Civil Defence groups who used them to evacuate injured civilians caught up in the German “Blitz”. They were also utilised by the American Ambulance, Great Britain (AAGB); an organization established in 1940 by Americans living in London with the intention of providing British cities with additional ambulances crewed by American and British volunteers. This incredible organization was funded by donations from the United States and would eventually swell to include over 300 ambulances many of which were Austin K2/Ys.
The basic K2/Y changed very little during the course of the war although some improvements did make it in to production vehicles. A number of wooden components were replaced by much stronger metal ones as the availability of strategic metals improved. From 1944 the headlights were repositioned to the bumper while the exhaust pipe was extended up to the roof to limit the ingestion of fumes in to the cab. The spare wheel was also repositioned further in to the cab thus reducing the size of its distinctive protruding cover.
The end of the war saw production of the K2/Y suspended by which time the Longbridge plant had produced 13,102 examples. This was far from the end of the ambulance’s useful life however. While British forces retained the vehicle in the immediate post war years, vast numbers of surplus K2/Ys were released for other users to take on charge. The armies of Denmark, Finland, France and Norway all received various K2/Ys for use in the post-war years to quickly shore up their own medical units. British examples would see action again as the decolonisation process was beginning and even saw war service in Korea. The final examples were retained by second-line units until the mid-1960s when they were finally sold-off or scrapped but some served on with civilian organizations for much longer. One K2/Y ambulance built in 1943 was acquired by the States of Guernsey Police in 1969 and used as an incident command post as late as 1975!
- Engine: Austin 3462cc 6-cylinder petrol engine
- Horsepower: 60hp at 3000rpm
- Torque: 153 lb/ft at 1200rpm
- Wheel Configuration: 2×4
- Weight: 3 tons
- Length: 18ft (5.49 m)
- Width: 7ft 5in (2.26 m)
- Height: 9ft 2in (2.79 m)
- Payload: 4x stretchers / 10x walking wounded