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Hobart’s Funnies

A Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank in action (Photo: IWM)
A Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank in action (Photo: IWM)

On August 19, 1942 the Allies launched Operation Jubilee, an attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France (Read our earlier article - The Dieppe Raid). The result was a massacre, mainly for the Canadians as the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was selected as the main force of the frontal assault. The attack was a disaster and no major objectives were accomplished. More than 3,600 of the military force of 6,100 were killed, wounded, missing or captured. All the equipment landed on shore was lost. Not surprisingly, the German propaganda presented the raid as evidence of the superiority of the German forces and the weakness of the Allies.

Many lessons were learned from the debacle. One major problem exposed at Dieppe was the inability of armor to provide support for the infantry moving up the beach and engaging German defenses. The Churchill tanks at Dieppe often got bogged down in the soft wet ground and the loose pebbles on the beach, and lacked the firepower to clear out fortified positions. However, no matter how big the Allied force was, if they could not move their heavy equipment up the beaches, the beachhead could not be expanded and the invasion would stall. Thus, one of the main goals was to develop a range of specialized armored vehicles to support future amphibious assaults. These vehicles became known as “Hobart’s Funnies”, named after Major-General Sir Percy C.S. “Hobo” Hobart, the military engineer in charge of their development.

The beach of Dieppe covered in dead bodies and abandoned equipment after the raid (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
The beach of Dieppe covered in dead bodies and abandoned equipment after the raid (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

They found the perfect man for the job in the 58-year-old Major General Percy Hobart, a pioneer British tank expert who was often sidelined by conservative superiors until Churchill embraced his ideas. Hobart was born in India in 1885. He went to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and subsequently joined the Royal Engineers. During World War I, he served in France and Mesopotamia. Until WWII, he worked in different positions, all related to armored warfare. He excelled at training but he was frequently a thorn in the side of his conservative senior officers because of his visionary, forward-looking ideas. This culminated when he became the first commander of the "Mobile Force (Egypt)" in 1938 which became the 7th "Desert Rats" Armoured Division in 1940. The nickname was reportedly given by Hobart after the jerboa, a hopping desert rodent. General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the Middle East, sacked him in 1940 because of his "unconventional" ideas, based on unfavorable evaluation from the War Office and General “Jumbo” Wilson, the commander of British troops in Egypt.

Hobart returned to his British home town of around 2000 inhabitants, Chipping Campden, where he joined the ranks of the Local Defence Volunteers. When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned about Hobart’s situation, he was reinstated and tasked with forming and training the new 11th Armoured Division in 1941. His opponents tried to remove him again due to his poor health. Two months after the catastrophic Dieppe raid, he was given another assignment in October 1942, notably to train the 79th Armoured Division and to experiment with new, specialized armored vehicles. In addition to “Hobart’s Funnies”, the division was sometimes nicknamed “Menagerie” or “Zoo”. The 79th was unique in that rather than fighting as a single division, its vehicles were lent, through delegated liaison officers, to British and American units whenever needed. As soon as they were not needed anymore, they were transferred back to their own division to look for new assignments.

Major General Percy Hobart (Photo: IWM)
Major General Percy Hobart (Photo: IWM)

During the Normandy landings, under the direct command of the 21st Army Group, the Funnies were used in the first waves to break through German defensive lines, to ensure the constant flow of materiel, and to provide a safe passage further inland. During the push towards the heart of the Third Reich, they participated in most of the major operations like the battle for Brest, the battle for the Scheldt estuary, and the crossing of the Rhine and the Elbe rivers. The division was eventually disbanded on August 20, 1945. Shortly before his retirement in 1946, Hobart led the Specialized Armour Development Establishment (SADE), which was created from elements of the 79th, together with the Assault Training and Development Centre. He died in Farnham, Surrey in 1957. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, his brother-in-law due to his marriage with Hobart’s sister, spoke highly of his role in the development of specialized vehicles and the success of D-Day and later operations.

Insignia of the 79th Armoured Division (Photo: Wikipedia)
Insignia of the 79th Armoured Division (Photo: Wikipedia)

The “Zoo” developed amphibious tanks, minesweeping tanks, demolition tanks, flame-thrower tanks, bridge- and carpet-laying tanks, recovery vehicles, armored personnel carriers, etc. Not all of them were used or not as frequently as the other variants. Some of the designs drew on earlier ideas while some were new inventions. One of the major novelties of the 79th Armoured Division was that it centralized and brought together all these ideas. Production was divided between the Commonwealth and the American factories. Let’s have a look at the most famous and unique vehicles. We will mention some similar models also that were not necessarily classified as Funnies. The main tank type of the Funnies was the British Churchill infantry tank due to its thick armor, relatively spacious interior and good cross-country and climbing capabilities. The second most frequently modified tanks were Shermans.
 
During the preparation for the landing in Normandy, the Funnies were offered to the U.S. Army, but they allegedly requested only amphibious “duplex drive” (DD) Shermans. After the landings, General Bradley came under criticism for not using the vehicles, as their presence might have saved many American lives at Omaha Beach. This is not entirely true, since recent research shows that, despite American orders, British tank production could not keep up with the needs, and the Americans conducted their own experiments and tests of specialized vehicles, too. At the same time, when the development projects had begun the exact scale of the later needs was unclear. One also has to consider that issuing brand new equipment is a time-consuming process since the crews and support personnel have to be trained, supply lines have to be secured, etc.
 
A staple Funny was the AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers), a Churchill tank whose main gun was replaced by a 290mm Petard spigot mortar. The Petard fired a 40-pound / 18 kg explosive projectile nicknamed the “Flying Dustbin” at an effective range of 100 yards / 90 meters, destroying bunkers and concrete obstacles. Its major and dangerous disadvantage was that after each shot the mortar could only be reloaded manually through a hatch below the mortar.

A Churchill AVRE at Grey-sur-Mer, see its story at the end of the article (Photo: Author’s own)
A Churchill AVRE at Grey-sur-Mer, see its story at the end of the article (Photo: Author’s own)
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Apart from their main purpose, the AVREs were used in other roles with the help of special equipment. For instance, the AVRE “Bobbin” was a carpet-layer version designed to ensure that the tank itself and other heavy vehicles could pass terrain where they would normally sink or get paralyzed. In addition, it could be laid on barbed-wire obstacles. It had two steel rods holding a bobbin in between with rolled-up canvas matting serving as the carpet. Similarly to WWI-era tanks, some AVREs carried fascines, bundles of sticks, that could be released to fill craters and ditches. AVREs were also able to carry and place the 30 feet / 9 meters long ‘Small Box Girder’ bridge.

A Churchill Bobbin laying a carpet during a trial (Photo: IWM)
A Churchill Bobbin laying a carpet during a trial (Photo: IWM)

Building on an earlier idea used in North Africa, Churchill and Sherman minesweeping flail tanks, designated “Crab”, were equipped with a mine flail, a horizontal drum sticking out in front of the tank with steel chains hanging from it. The drum could be spun up, causing the chains to churn the ground while the tank slowly advanced, hitting and detonating mines. One of its innovations was that the drum was propelled by the tank’s engine. This did not overload the engine since the tanks were moving very slowly while flailing. In order to avoid damaging the gun by the exploding mines, the turret was turned in the opposite direction.
A slightly differently designed Crab carried the “Canadian Indestructible Roller Device” (CIRD) which used springs instead flails to absorb the explosion. Some models had a “Bullshorn Plough” that cleared a path by lifting the mines out of the ground and pushing them to the side of the tank. These were only used on D-Day on Sword Beach. The Crab turned out to be one of the most effective Funnies on D-Day and as well as later during the Allied advance. Close to the end of the war, the German minefields did not pose such a problem anymore and there was a proposal to convert the Crabs back to normal tanks. In light of the protest of the tank crews, this never happened and they were used to clear minefields in liberated areas during the last months of the war.

A Sherman Crab minesweeping tank at a trial (Photo: IWM)
A Sherman Crab minesweeping tank at a trial (Photo: IWM)

Another Churchill variant was the ARK (Armored Ramp Carrier). The turret was removed and ramps were added to the front and back of the tank, with the ARK acting as a mobile bridge allowing other tanks to roll over it or to scale walls and higher obstacles. In case of deeper holes, even two ARKs could be placed on each other.

A Churchill ARK helping another tank scale a wall during an exercise (Photo: IWM)
A Churchill ARK helping another tank scale a wall during an exercise (Photo: IWM)

The most fearsome Funny was the “Crocodile,” a Churchill whose hull machine gun was replaced with a flamethrower or flame projector, to be more precise. This was not the first flamethrower tank though since experiments were conducted on Valentine tanks and Universal Carriers earlier. The Crocodile carried 400 gallons of sticky flammable thickened fuel and nitrogen as propellant for the weapon in an armored trailer and had a range of over 150 yards, allowing it to wipe out bunkers, woods and other defenses with a gout of fire or two. It was also a psychological weapon: since no one likes to be on the receiving end of a flame thrower, a Crocodile showing up and squirting out a warm-up shot was often enough to cause a bunker to surrender. At the same time, flamethrowers were considered unfair and cruel weapons by many and captured Crocodile crew members could not expect much mercy from their captors.

A Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank towing its trailer (Photo: IWM)
A Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank towing its trailer (Photo: IWM)

What is considered one of the great technological achievements of the war, several British, American and Canadian tanks were made airtight and given waterproof folding canvas screens, invented by the Hungarian emigrant engineer, Nicholas Straussler. This allowed them to float and use propellers to move to the beach, lower the screen and attack normally once on dry ground. These duplex drive (DD) tanks, often called Donald Ducks, looked like small landing craft on their way to the shore, only to emerge as fully operational tanks. Tests were carried out with Tetrarch, Valentine and eventually Sherman tanks. A brisk tide at Omaha Beach on June 6 caused many DD Shermans to be released too far from the shores from their landing craft and, as a result, 27 of the 29 DDs sank. Fortunately, most of the crews were rescued, but the lost tanks clearly contributed to the sluggish progress by American infantry in those sectors. On the other landing beaches, they were used with success. Another way of getting tanks onto the shore was the deep-wading equipment. As opposed to swimming, these partially submerged waterproofed tanks moved along the seabed. They were used already in the Dieppe raid and the Italian operations.

An amphibious DD tank on display at Juno Beach in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)
An amphibious DD tank on display at Juno Beach in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)

“Kangaroos” were improvised armored personnel carriers, created simply by removing the turret from a variety of vehicles, like Shermans, Churchills, M7 Priest self-propelled guns and Canadian Ram tanks (modified M3 Grants). Named after the animal that carries its young in a pouch, they could carry 8 to 10 "empouched" infantrymen. One of their disadvantages was that the soldiers could get in and out only through the top.

A Ram Kangaroo armored personnel carrier (Photo: IWM)
A Ram Kangaroo armored personnel carrier (Photo: IWM)

An American invention, the “Buffalo”, Landing Vehicle, Tracked (LVT) and its variants saw service in the American, British and Canadian armies in WWII. They were used for landings, crossing rivers, providing fire support or to transport cargo from ships to the shores in the Pacific and in Europe. The first ones were built by the American Food Machinery Corporation (FMC) in Dunedin, Florida.

An LVT-2 Water Buffalo on display at the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)
An LVT-2 Water Buffalo on display at the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)

The Canal Defense Light (CDL) was the most secretive of the Funnies, given a misleading name to confuse German intelligence. The American designation was “T10 Shop Tractor”, nicknamed “Gizmo” by their crews. Even some senior Allied officers in the field did not know about it. They were tanks (Matilda II, Churchills, Valentines, M3 Grants and Shermans) whose main guns were replaced by searchlights designed to illuminate the battlefield at night with 13 million candlepower while confusing and disorienting enemy soldiers with their glare. The operator had to change the carbons with a help of asbestos gloves. Blue and amber filters could change the apparent distance of the projector and a shutter system could make it flicker, creating even more confusion as the enemy's eyes couldn't get used to the changing light conditions. After testing, the CDL was decided to be too unreliable for use on D-Day. Reportedly, it was used only in a couple of instances, namely at the crossing of the Rhine and Elbe rivers to illuminate the river and the bridges, and in India against the crowds during the riots in Calcutta in 1946.

A Canal Defense Light tank based on a Matilda II (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com, Mark Nash)
A Canal Defense Light tank based on a Matilda II (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com, Mark Nash)

There was a series of Funnies that, instead of fighting the enemy, were meant to help clear the way for the other vehicles, to remove damaged vehicles and to build roads. Beside the armored Caterpillar bulldozers, some normal Sherman tanks were equipped with dozers while the dozer built on a Centaur tank was completely transformed to serve solely as a bulldozer that could keep up with other tanks. Although not classified as Funnies, two other vehicles are also worth mentioning. Firstly, the “Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles” (BARV), based mostly on Sherman tanks, had no turret since it was replaced with a ship-like superstructure to enable them to salvage stranded vehicles from the water and the beaches. Secondly, the “Rhino” was an American improvised innovation used to break through the thick vegetation during the bloody battle of the hedgerows after the D-Day landings. Sergeant Curtis Culin had the idea to equip their tanks with prongs created from salvaged German steel obstacles. It turned out to be a simple and effective solution.

A Sherman Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle towing a lorry from the beach (Photo: panzerserra.blogspot.com)
A Sherman Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle towing a lorry from the beach (Photo: panzerserra.blogspot.com)

Many of these ingenious machines influenced today’s combat engineering vehicles, for instance the armored recovery vehicles or tanks with amphibious capabilities. Some of the original Funnies still exist and, for instance, you can see them at the Tank Museum in Bovington or you can find several of them in Normandy in the vicinity of the beaches on outdoor displays. One of them, a Churchill AVRE, is at Juno Beach and has a special story. On D-Day, a group of Funnies landed on Juno beach at Grey-sur-Mer. They were fighting their way through the beach when they were stopped by a huge crater filled with water (a damaged culvert flooded it). A Churchill AVRE named “1Charlie” came to the rescue to fill the hole with a fascine but eventually it slipped into the crater. The crew had to evacuate the tank but more than half of the six-man crew were killed by German gunfire while the other tankers got injured. The hole got filled with another fascine and a bridge was laid over the crater using the disabled tank as a support. The Churchill tank had remained there for 32 years until 1976 when Royal Engineers recovered and restored it. In 1977, after the restoration, it was placed there as a monument in the presence of its surviving crew members, Bill Dunn and Bill Hawkins and the former commander of their unit, General Younger. In line with Bill Dunn’s last wish, his ashes were scattered around his former tank when he passed away in 2014.

The extraction of the Churchill AVRE on Juno Beach in 1976 (Photos: www.tank-hunter.com)
The extraction of the Churchill AVRE on Juno Beach in 1976 (Photos: www.tank-hunter.com)
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