General Percy Hobart found fame at the D-Day landings of June 1944 with his so-called “funnies”. Hobart had served in the Royal Tank Corps and saw the value of armoured vehicles being used for other ‘duties’. Far from being “funnies”, his vehicles saved many Allied soldiers during the Normandy landings.
Major-General Percy Hobart was not even in the army when war was declared in September 1939. In 1940, Hobart was serving as a corporal in the Home Guard when he was summoned to Chequers by Winston Churchill. The officer who had left the army under a cloud was now, in 1940, being summoned by a prime minister who fumed at the “wasted brains” in Britain.
Percy Hobart ranks alongside men such as Liddell Hart, Guderian and de Gaulle as a pioneer of armoured warfare. He had commanded the world’s first permanent tank brigade and remains linked with helping to develop what was to become blitzkrieg. Hobart was a devotee of mobile warfare. Influenced by the writings of Liddell Hart who pushed for the adoption of the concept of armoured mobility, Hobart also wanted to use science to break out of the mentality of trench or defensive warfare – as seen by the French with the Maginot Line. However, he came up against the entrenched views of the military establishment.
|“Why piddle about making porridge with artillery and then send men to drown themselves in it for a hundred yards of No Man’s land? Tanks mean advances of miles at a time, not yards.”Hobart|
Such was the opposition to Hobart’s ideas, and such was the political influence of the senior ranks in the cavalry regiments, that in 1936, the then Secretary of War, Alfred Duff Cooper, apologised in Parliament for mechanising eight of the cavalry’s regiments. Ironically, while the British establishment was turning its back on Hobart, Guderian said in Germany “I put my faith in Hobart, the new man.”
The new Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, was frequently requested to dismiss Hobart. Instead, at the time of the Munich crisis, Hobart was shipped out to North Africa to establish as second modern armoured division in Egypt. Despite many obstacles, Hobart created the 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats. In September 1939, Hobart believed that the 7th Armoured Division was in an excellent position to fight should war spill over into North Africa. In December 1939, Hobart was dismissed from his command and sent into retirement. An appeal for his reinstatement was going to be made to the king – but the War Office never put it forward. From commander of the 7th Armoured Division, Hobart joined the Home Guard on his return to Britain.
By October 1940, Hobart had been re-instated essentially at Churchill’s insistence. Such was his knowledge and drive that he quickly reclaimed his reputation for modern warfare and a modern approach to modern military problems. For D-Day, this was to reap a rich harvest.
Hobart’s brother-in-law was Bernard Montgomery. ‘Monty’ put his weight behind Hobart and after his victory at El Alamein, even those prejudiced against Hobart at the War Office were defeated. Dwight Eisenhower was taken by Hobart’s ideas – especially as he knew about the potential problems that would be faced by those invading Normandy. Eisenhower gave top priority to Hobart’s request for his ‘funnies’.
By D-Day, Hobart had developed a series of tanks that served very specific purposes. Sherman tanks could be launched at sea (the DD’s) because they were made buoyant by a flotation collar fitted around them. At Omaha Beach, they were launched too far out and the sea swell went over the top of the collar and many were sunk. The idea was fine but the execution was not. However, on various beaches on Normandy, Hobart’s ‘funnies’ had a marked impact. Rommel had ordered that four million mines should be placed along the coast of northern France. Sherman tanks converted to clear mine fields with their flailing chains were a common sight on the beaches – and a welcome one. Churchill tanks fitted with small bridges made crossing obstacles more easy. The hedgerows of Normandy were a potential source of real problems for the Allies as they were the perfect place for snipers to hide. The Crocodile tank – a mobile armoured flame thrower – proved to be highly effective in such an environment. All of these were the brainchild of Hobart.
It was one of the ironies of the war that whereas Hobart did not get on with many senior officers in the British Army, he got on well with senior American officers who recognised his abilities.
|“He was the outstanding British officer of high rank that I met during the war. “General W H “Big Bill” Simpson – US 9th Army Commander|
|“The comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except Omaha, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed, and the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armour landed in the leading waves of the assault.”Dwight Eisenhower|
For his work in World War Two, Hobart was knighted by King George VI. The Americans awarded him the Legion of Merit, Degree of Commander. Hobart retired at the end of the war and he died in 1957.
|“He was one of the few soldiers I have known who could be rightly termed a military genius.”Captain Liddell-Hart|