After a hesitant beginning amidst the trench environment of north west France in 1916, the British concept of the “tank” picked up speed during the 1920s. Most modern armies quickly recognised the potential of this new mobile form of armoured cavalry. Much defence expenditure was directed towards improving the speed, reliability, armour and armament of this new weapon of war.
Much ink was spilled on new theories for the employment of the tank. It was Heinz Guderian who noted a crucial principle of armoured warfare as early as 1929:
“…I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance…what was needed were armoured divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.”
Who was Percy Hobart?
New cliques of visionary armoured warfare thinkers sprang up: Basil Liddell Hart and Fuller for the United Kingdom and, as we have just seen, Heinz Guderian, for Germany. And then there was Percy Hobart. He is perhaps less commonly associated with this group of armoured thinkers but his writings on armoured warfare were read avidly by Guderian, who reportedly had Hobart’s works translated into German and shipped over at his own expense.
Hobart’s concepts of armoured warfare were to have a major and direct impact on one of the most important military operations in history: the Allied amphibious landings on the French coast of Normandy on 6th June 1944.
Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart was born in India in 1885. Originally commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1904, he saw active service in France, Mesopotamia and Waziristan.
He underwent various staff and training appointments and discovered the writings of Basil Liddell Hart. Hobart transferred to the fledgling Royal Tank Corps in 1923, when he was 38. His views on tank warfare clearly had an impact. In 1934 he was made a Brigadier General and given command of the first British tank brigade to be established.
Other armoured development and training assignments followed, including, in Egypt, where he created a mobile force that would soon become the famed 7th Armoured Division – the “Desert Rats”. But, in 1940, aged 55, Hobart retired from active service as a Major General.
During the 1930 there was still a significant and conservative cavalry lobby, who resented these upstart new mechanised warfare experts. There are strong suggestions that Hobart’s views were a little too unorthodox for some tastes.
But, obviously, the story does not end there. Hobart quickly re-enlisted – as a corporal in the Home Guard. Hobart had his supporters, including Basil Liddell Hart. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also in the pro-Hobart camp and intervened in Hobart’s favour. In 1941, Hobart re-joined the regular army and was given a proper job, in keeping with his skills. He spent some time training up the new, 11th, Armoured division. In 1943 he was given the task for which he would become famous.
79th Armoured Division
Amphibious operations – getting an armed force onto (and sometimes off) a hostile coastline – have, throughout history, been one of the most difficult of military manoeuvres. But even as early as 1941, British military planners were turning their thinking towards the prospect that, sooner or later, an invasion, almost certainly on Europe’s western coastlines, would be necessary.
Winston Churchill had already presided over the disaster at Gallipoli in the First World War. Most recently, the assault by the Canadians against Dieppe, in August 1942, had starkly demonstrated the vulnerabilities of landing infantry and armour onto a beach strongly defended by a determined opposition. Over half the attack force of 6,000 soldiers were killed, captured or wounded.
Thirty of the new Churchill tanks were launched onto the beach. Half quickly bogged down in the shingle, the other half struggled to penetrate beyond the sea wall and into the town against various anti-tank obstacles. All were knocked out or abandoned.
Development of Hobart’s “Funnies”
In early 1943, the 79th Armoured Division had been established as a regular armoured formation. However, resources – troops, equipment and funding – were lacking and the division’s future was under question. Hobart was given the task of converting this force into a specialised – and even experimental – unit that could provide solutions to the obstacles that faced an amphibious force.
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Hobart was allowed free rein to his considerable powers of innovation and creativity. There were three main challenges – the water, the enemy opposition and obstacles to mobility once land had been reached. Mine clearers, bunker busters, obstacle clearers and even amphibious tanks were brought into the fold. Hobart didn’t design them however, and many of the concepts had been around for a while.
The flail tank, continuously beating heavy chains in front of it to detonate mines, was used in the North African desert and in Sicily. The fascine principle had been used by British tanks in the First War.
But Hobart recognised and harnessed the potential of having flamethrowers, demolition tanks, bridges, ramps, and mine clearance capability immediately to hand, alongside the infantry and engineers, as they landed on the beach. Hobart harnessed them into a robust formation that could undertake complex, combined arms operations in direct support of assault troops.
Most systems were based upon existing armoured chassis – primarily the Sherman and the Churchill. The Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) generally had one specialised skill – such as a box girder bridge attached, a “fascine” bundle of logs for crossing trenches or a heavy duty roll of canvas to lay across soft sand or boggy ground – as a well as a short-barrelled “Petard” mortar for use against bunkers and other defensive positions.
The Americans were generally less convinced by the “Funnies” as they became nicknamed. They had no similar formation to 79th Armoured Division and, for D-Day, chose only to employ the Sherman DD amphibious tanks.
Hobart’s “Funnies” on D-Day
The division never operated as a division. It was parcelled out – often into very small groups – in accordance with the specific support requirement for particular operations. On D-Day itself and the battle for Normandy, broadly speaking, the “Funnies” acquitted themselves very well.
The possible exception were the Sherman DD tanks. Launched miles from some beaches, many foundered and sank in the less than ideal wind and tide conditions. However, many enterprising landing craft commanders made local tactical decisions on the day and chose to bring the DDs in closer to shore – some even driving them straight on to the beach.
This brief quote (originally from Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day), gives a good flavour of the performance of the Funnies on the British Sword beach – including the need for extreme improvisation in the heat of battle:
“A German anti-tank gun took them under fire. The [bridge-carrying Sherman] drove right up to it and dropped its bridge directly onto the emplacement, putting the gun out of action. Flail tanks went to work, clearing paths through the mines. ‘They drove off the beach flailing [said a British major]…straight up to the dunes, then turned right flailing’…Still others of Hobart’s Funnies dropped their bridges over the sea-wall, followed by the bulldozers and then fascine-carrying tanks that dropped their bundles of logs into the anti-tank ditches. When that task was complete, the flail tanks could cross to the main lateral road, about 100 yards inland, and began flailing left and right…”
By some accounts, the “Crocodile” flamethrower tank rarely had to directly attack enemy positions. A quick demonstration of its capabilities from a distance was usually a sufficiently sobering experience to spontaneously trigger the surrender of German bunker occupants.
Operations after D-Day
And it didn’t end there. The Funnies were in service for the rest of the war on the Western Front, most notably during the lesser-known but extensive amphibious operations (particularly the OPERATION INFATUATE battle for Walcheren Island in November 1944) in waterlogged Holland in the autumn and winter of 1944 and then the brutal slugfest into Germany – including crossing the Rhine – early in the following year.
It is entirely fair to say that Percy Hobart’s creative thinking and drive made an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort, saving many lives. The like of 79th Armoured Division (which was disbanded on 20 August 1945), in terms of scale, scope and role, has not been seen since in any army. But the principle of multi-purpose, well protected, armoured engineering vehicles that can operate directly in a combat zone endures.
After the Second World War, the British Army continued to employ new generations of AVRE, based, successively, on the chassis of the Centurion, Chieftain and, bringing it up to date, the Challenger.