Major General Percy Hobart. Photo: Wikipedia
“Hobart’s innovative use of British armor in Overlord was to be almost as revolutionary as the first appearance of British tanks at Cambrai in 1917.”
—David Eisenhower, Eisenhower at War 1943-1945
Among the many items on General Sir Alan Brooke’s agenda upon assuming his duties as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) on Christmas Day 1941 was the status and use of British armor, which he found wanting. With an eye toward anticipated demands on armored forces for the Normandy landings and with the armored debacle at Dieppe as a disastrous example not to be repeated, in March 1943 he appointed General Bernard Montgomery’s brother-in-law, Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, to command the 79th Armoured Division. Hobart’s mission was to use the division “to experiment with any equipment, innovations and tactics that would best support [Overlord].” Brooke’s move would prove to be one of his most inspired in the war.
Possessing great intelligence and an equally great argumentative manner from which not even superior rank was a shield, Hobart, who distinguished himself with both traits during World War I, embarked on the path that ultimately made him one of Britain’s foremost tank experts when he volunteered for the newly formed Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He soon became a instructor at Staff College, Quetta, and it was there that he began formulating tank doctrine. His then-revolutionary use of radio communication in tanks and coordination with tactical air operations in exercises during the early 1930s led to his appointment as Inspector of the Royal Tank Corps, promotion to brigadier general, and commander of the 1st Tank Brigade in 1934. Recognized as the British Army’s leading tank expert he refined armor doctrine, repeatedly clashing with hide-bound and conservative superiors who viewed armor in a subordinate role supporting infantry and not as an independent command utilizing horse cavalry tactics.
Having made himself “difficult,” the Imperial General Staff (IGS) exiled Hobart, by now a major general, to Egypt in 1938 to command the newly formed Mobile Division. Within a year Hobart’s drive and determination transformed a disparate unit possessing obsolete equipment into a first-class fighting unit. Renamed 7th Armoured Division, it would achieve fame in World War II as the “Desert Rats.” But it would do so without Hobart. His immediate superior, Lt. General H. M. “Jumbo” Wilson, while praising Hobart’s knowledge and training skills, condemned Hobart for his quarrelsome nature, accused him of “lacking in stability,” and recommended his relief. Wilson’s boss, Middle East Command General Archibald Wavell, agreed and on November 10, 1939, less than three months into the war, Hobart was sacked and packed off to England. The disgraced Hobart had no choice but to retire, soon joining the Home Guard as a corporal.
Hobart languished in the wilderness until November 1940 when, upon the insistence of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a Hobart admirer) and over the objections of then-CIGS General Sir John Dill (a Hobart detractor), Hobart returned to active duty with the command of 11th Armoured Division. When the division was ordered to Tunisia in 1942, Hobart’s many enemies in high command under the pretext of old age (he was fifty-seven) and medical concerns, conspired to keep him in England.
Churchill famously defended Hobart in a letter that stated, in part, “The High Commands of the Army are not a club. It is my duty . . . to make sure that exceptionably able men, even those not popular with their military contemporaries, should not be prevented from giving their services to the Crown.” Though Churchill was unable prevent Hobart’s relief (the medical concerns proved legitimate), this time Hobart was not put out to pasture. Hobart’s fortunes further improved when General Sir Alan Brooke, a Hobart admirer, succeeded Dill as CIGS.
Hobart was assigned as commander of the 11th Armoured Division in March 1941 with instructions to reorganize armor doctrine and training in response to the German army’s use of armor in its blitzkrieg campaigns. Though he succeeded in accomplishing his mandate, he was denied traveling with the division when it was deployed for reasons of age. On March 11, 1943, Brooke noted in his diary, “In afternoon had long interview with Hobart to explain to him new job I wish him to take on connected with flotation tanks, searchlight tanks, anti-mine tanks and self-propelled guns.” That interview was for the command of the 79th Armoured Division, which after some initial reluctance, Hobart accepted. Not only did Brooke rescue the career of a brilliant, if troublesome, officer, but he also saved a recently formed division that was earmarked for disbandment. Command of 79th Armoured would secure Hobart’s reputation as perhaps the most innovative and original thinker in armored warfare.
With Overlord scheduled for May 1944, time was of the essence. In one of his first directives, Hobart wrote: “The success of [Overlord] depends on the element of surprise caused by new equipment. Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged.” The 79th became a “think tank” that, amazingly, in less than a year developed a formidable menagerie of exotic, yet practical, armored weapon systems designed to breach beach defenses that would receive the catchall nickname “Hobart’s Funnies.”
A British Valentine Dual Drive (DD) tank during a pre-D-day exercise. Note the collapsed skirt around the tank. Photo: Wikipedia
In April 1943, Hobart established his headquarters at Hurts Hall, Axmundham, Suffolk, and a training center code-named Kruschen about five miles away where every type of German beach defenses were replicated. One month later though many of his “Funnies,” as they came to be called, were still prototypes Hobart conducted his first demonstrations for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and senior military leaders. They came away impressed.
One reason why Hobart could move so quickly was that he was largely utilizing off the shelf technology. A version of the land mine exploding Crab had seen action in the deserts of Egypt. And the most famous of his Funnies, the amphibious DD (“Duplex Drive”) tank, was developed in 1941 by the Hungarian inventor Nicholas Straussler.
An M-4 Sherman "Crab" tank equipped with a rotating chain flail designed to explode mines. Note that the flail is in the front of the tank and that the Sherman's turret is turned to the rear. Photo: Wikipedia
Another reason was that Hobart had turned the division into a freewheeling “think tank.” One of his first directives to his troops contained the challenge: “The success of the operation depends on the element of surprise caused by new equipment. Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged.” [Italics added.] The ranks responded with creative enthusiasm.
At Kruschen and other bases scattered across Britain, the men and their Funnies went through their paces. Flame throwing Crocodiles neutralized bunkers, chain flailing Crabs exploded land mines, searchlight equipped Matilda Canal Defence Lights illuminated targets with blinding light, armored Buffalos bulldozed, DD tanks cruised over waves, and Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVREs) equipped with petard mortars, plows, fascines, bridges, or Brobdingnagian bobbins sporting tarp bundles hurled explosives, crossed trenches, crawled over sea walls, and traversed barbed wire and boggy terrain.
An American-built M-3 equipped with a Canal Defense Searchlight in its turret. Note the dummy cannon beside the armored searchlight. Photo: Wikipedia
On January 27, Brooke and Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower went to Hobart’s headquarters for the first of two demonstrations of Hobart’s tanks. In his diary, Brooke later wrote that Hobart “showed us his models, and his proposed assault organization. We then went on to see various exhibits such as the Sherman tank for destroying tank mines, with chains on a drum driven by the engine [the Crab], various methods of climbing walls with tanks, blowing up of mine fields and walls, flame throwing Churchill tanks [Crocodile], wall destroying engineer parties, floating tanks [Duplex Drive], teaching men how to escape from sunken tanks, et., etc. A most interesting day, and one which Eisenhower seemed to enjoy thoroughly. Hobart has been doing wonders in his present job and I am delighted that we put him into it.”
An AVRE "Bobbin" equipped with a bundled tarp.
Eisenhower was so impressed that he recommended General Omar Bradley, commander of the American First Army that would land on the beaches code named Utah and Omaha, include 79th Armoured Division teams with the first wave Uniquely, Hobart organized his division to make it capable of conducting support operations as detached units within the administrative structure of other divisions. The 79th was the only division in World War II to never have fought as a self-contained unit. But, on D-day only the Sherman DD was utilized by American troops.
Sherman DD tanks on Omaha Beach. Photo: Wikipedia
As the battle on Omaha Beach proved a near run thing, the lack of Funnies on the American beaches of Utah and especially Omaha became a focus of controversy. Criticisms included doctrinal differences between the British and American armies, Bradley’s indecisiveness regarding how best to overcome beach defenses, and training and logistics concerns. This last is backed up by Bradley’s own comment that “accepting the Churchills would require retraining our tank operators and maintenance men and a complicated separate supply chain for spare parts.” He added “had the ‘Funnies’ been conceived earlier, in time to adapt their gadgetry to Sherman tanks, we would probably have made use of them.”
Though attention has mostly focused on the former comment, it’s the latter comment that is more suggestive. First, the logistics argument is weakened by the fact that many of Hobart’s Funnies were modified Shermans. Even where some Funnies were British, Hobart demonstrated appropriate weapons systems could be adapted to a Sherman frame. Also, there is documentation that shows Bradley approved the recommendation by a First Army board chaired by his staff’s ordnance officer Colonel Medaris that some of the 79th’s tanks be used for D-day.
During World War II the British military established Operational Research (OR) branches to better utilize its scientists. OR 2, part of General Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group that included for Overlord the British Second Army and American First Army, had on its staff Brigadier General Herbert. Five days after Bradley’s second observation, a letter dated February 16, 1944, from Herbert to the War Office contains orders requesting a variety of Sherman Funnies for First Army. The letter concludes, “In the event of the US army being equipped with similar equipment from US sources, or suitable substitutes, the equipment will be returned to the British.”
Finally, there’s documentation highlighting Hobart’s own problems with timely delivery of his Funnies. This suggests the real logistics issue was at the source: the manufacturers. It must be remembered that Overlord was pushed back a month because it needed that extra month’s production of landing craft. In Hobart’s case, time simply ran out. With the exception of the Sherman DDs that fought on all the beaches on June 6, 1944, a full complement of Funnies was only available for the British and Canadian beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross that he earned in World War I, in 1943 Hobart was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Other honors included the American Legion of Merit, and Companion of the Order of the Bath. He passed away on February 19, 1957, aged seventy-one.