Hobart’s Funnies

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes; and in warfare, necessities can be urgent indeed. As a result, many technological innovations occur during wartime. The First World War brought us huge advances in aircraft design; the Second World War brought us atomic energy. But on a less grandiose scale, technical innovations occurred all the time in response to the immediate needs of the opposing forces..An article by Phil Llewellin in the June issue of Automobile Magazine recently brought some technical innovations that may not always have received their due to my attention: “Hobart’s Funnies.”

Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of D-Day: the greatest amphibious operation in history. General Eisenhower’s plan called for the Allies to put ashore 120,000 troops and 14,000 vehicles by the end of the first day. More than 6,000 vessels supported the assault.

Among the vehicles put ashore by the slab-sided landing craft were some of the strangest machines ever seen on a battlefield–and many of them had their genesis in an earlier raid whose name is all too familiar to Canadians: Dieppe. In August, 1942, the Allies raided Dieppe with 6,000 troops and a force of Churchill tanks. They lost 3,500 men and most of their armor. One result of that disaster was further fortification of the French coast by the Germans, with steel and concrete obstacles designed to cripple landing craft, plus barbed wire, forts, pillboxes and huge, fortified artillery emplacements. But another result was a recognition by the Allies that they would need new, specialized kinds of armored fighting vehicles if they were to successfully invade France.

In March of 1943 Major General Sir Percy Hobart, who had commanded the famous British “Desert Rats” armored division in North Africa, was summoned to London to meet with General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Brooke wanted to raise a new armored division charged with developing, training and using a variety of special-purpose armored fighting vehicles to lead the Allies into France. Hobart was put in charge of Britain’s 79th Armoured Division, devoted to that purpose.

When the Allies hit the beaches on D-Day, many of “Hobart’s Funnies,” as the products of the 79th Armoured Division were known, were also thrown into the fray.

One of the things Dieppe had made clear was that a landing craft big enough to carry nine tanks was also a dangerously inviting target for enemy gunners, offering them the opportunity to eliminate a large chunk of the invading force’s armour with a single well-placed shell. For D-Day, the answer was to build a tank that could “swim” ashore after emerging from the landing craft at a relatively safe distance from the enemy. Tanks had been floated before, but conventional flotation devices wouldn’t fit in the landing craft. The new solution for D-Day was a nine-foot-high canvas screen attached to the vehicles hull with a waterproof seal. Air-filled rubber tubes and a simple metal frame gave it a boat-like shape–and also enabled the tank to float, just as you can make a brick float by putting it inside a floating bucket. The canvas walls took no more space than the tank did on the landing craft, could be raised in about 15 minutes, and too only seconds to lower once the tank hit the beach.

In addition to their treads, the “Duplex Drive” tanks had two propellers, driven by the main engines, which enabled them to glide through calm water at a brisk walking pace. Unfortunately, they were vulnerable to waves. The U.S. Army, for example, launched 64 floating Sherman tanks off Omaha Beach. Thirty-two of those were intended to support the First Infantry Division; all but five of them sank.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division, however, had better luck: 33 of the 40 Churchill tanks they launched almost three miles offshore of Sword Beach reached the shore. The canvas hulls looked so harmless that no case was reported of anti-tank fire being directed at them while they were afloat. The amount of armour successfully landed was thus doubled over what might have been expected with traditional methods.

Many other of “Hobart’s Funnies” were also modified Churchill AVRE tanks (AVRE stands for Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers). One problem faced by armoured vehicles on the beaches of Normandy was areas of blue clay that could swallow vehicles. The solution was a device called the Bobbin: an enormous reel of course hessian cloth, reinforced with steel poles and carried on a frame at the front of the Churchill tank. As the tank advanced, the cloth unrolled beneath its treads, providing a relatively secure footing for itself and following tanks until combat engineers could provide a more permanent solution in the form of perforated steel plates.

Mines were exploded by tanks equipped with hefty chains that ended in fist-sized steel balls. The chains flailed the ground as the tank inched forward. These specially equipped tanks were known as “Crabs.” The military still uses similar devices to explode mines: in the IMAX movie Fires of Kuwait, there’s a scene of a mine being detonated by a remote-controlled device that also flails the ground with chains.

Among the defenses faced by the invaders were ramparts and ditches high and deep enough to stop tanks. But the Allies also had special machinery to overcome them, beginning with an armored bulldozer used to fill in craters and recover bogged-down machinery. Then there was the Fascine, a bundle of wooden poles about eight feet in diameter, lashed together with stout wires, sort of like really heavy-duty snow fencing. It rested on the front of a Churchill tank and could be released to bridge a ditch or form a step at the base of a wall. Unfortunately, it was so bulky it required the tank’s commander to either operate blind or direct operations from the top of the bundle, not the place you wanted to be during a battle.

A more sophisticated solution was the Armored Ramp Carrier, built by, among others, the MG Car company. This was a turretless tank that had ramps attached to the front and rear that could be extended to almost fifty feet. . Other vehicles could roll up one set of ramps, across the flat top of the vehicle, and up the other set of ramps to scale all kinds of awkward obstacles, such as seawalls.

Finally, there was the SBG (Small Box Girder) assault bridge, a huge device transported on the nose of a tank that could be lowered to span gaps as much as 30 feet wide, and which could support loads of up to forty tons.

Not all of Hobart’s Funnies were purely engineering-related. The most spectacular came along just after D-Day. Called the Crocodile, it was a Churchill tank whose machine gun was replaced with a flamethrower with a range of about 200 yards. The Crocodile pulled a trailer containing about 400 gallons of fuel.

The 79th Armoured Division eventually totalled almost 7,000 vehicles. It was disbanded on August 20, 1945, just five months after one of its amphibian vehicles carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Rhine River. Field Marshall Montgomery wrote, “The record of the Division is unique and its contribution to the winning of the Campaign in northwest Europe incalculable.”

Not bad for a bunch of “funnies.”


UPDATE: In 2002 I received the following e-mail from L. C. Smith in Queensland, Australia:

Dear Sir,

While reading your page I see that you say that the Churchill MKV11 flame tank came out just after D-Day. I would just like to let you know that my father served with the 79th Armoured Div. 141st RAC The Buffs 31st Tank Brigade B.SQ. He landed on Juno beach on D-Day and he was a driver of a Churchill MKV11 flame tank. The name on the side of his tank was “Skipper.” I hope you do not think I am being rude sending you this e-mail; I just thought you would like to know this.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1994/06/hobarts-funnies/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal