Photo: a Sherman 'Crab' gets to grips with barbed wire beach defences. Picture courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
There are two ways of landing troops on a defended beach. One is to rely on a combination of bombardment and rapid movement to land assault troops as far up the beach as possible, trading probable lower human casualties for higher material loss. This technique was favoured by specialists units, notably the Royal Marines or the US Marine Corps.
The other is to land troops when low tide exposed obstacles and made mine clearance easier, but at the risk of higher casualties among the assault units but fewer material losses among landing craft and other specialised or hard-to-replace equipment.
For D-Day the latter course was chosen as extensive reconnaissance had shown the extent of German defences and the risk they posed to landing craft at high tide. The British response to this decision, as well as the lessons learned at Dieppe, was to develop a number of specialised armoured vehicles that could support the first wave of infantry and breach the German coastal defence line.
Photo: the Churchill AVRE had a turret-mounted Petard Mortar. Picture courtesy: Tank Museum Bovington.
The job of raising this force was given to Major-General Percy Hobart, an officer whose pre-war efforts to create modern armoured corps for the British army had earned him powerful enemies among infantry and cavalry traditionalists. Hobart was forced into retirement in early 1940 on still unexplained grounds, and promptly joined his local Home Guard unit as a corporal.
His rehabilitation began when Churchill came to power, and Hobart was elevated from a junior NCO in the Home Guard to command of an armoured division in North Africa. In 1943 Hobart was asked to raise and command the 79th Armoured Division, a formation that ended the war in 1945 with nearly 2,000 specialised tanks and other armoured vehicles, a number that was four times the size of a normal division.
Photo: 'Arks' provided the instant answer to bridging problems. Photo courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
The 79th Division was unique in that it never fought as a single unit. Rather, its brigades and regiments provided specialist armoured support for other formations. These tanks were quickly dubbed ‘Hobart’s Funnies,’ but few doubt the contribution they made in breaching or surmounting German defence lines.
However, the first specialised tanks that landed on D-Day to provide close fire support for the assault troops on all beaches were US-designed ‘swimming’ or DD (‘duplex drive’) tanks.
Photo: (from l to r) a Sherman DD, DUKW and 'Crab' at the Tank Museum. Picture courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
The DD’s were Sherman tanks enveloped in a waterproofed canvas screen that enabled them to be launched at sea from landing craft and then slowly ‘swim’ to the beach. Once ashore the crews would deflate the screens allowing the tank to operate as a fighting vehicle.
The DD’s were exceptionally dangerous in anything other than the most placid sea, and many had been lost - often with their crews - in training off the south coast of England.
You can read the Tank Museum’s coverage of the commemoration of a wartime training accident at Studland Bay by clicking on this link
Their success depended on a number of variables, but the key was how close their launch point was to the beach. This was a difficult judgement call for the naval officers responsible for the landing craft, as the differing experience of British and American DD’s demonstrated.
Photo: on D-Day the US Army put their faith in the Sherman DD as the main source of armoured suport on the beaches. Picture courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
The decision to launch 32 US Army DD’s some six kilometres off Omaha beach resulted in 27 of the tanks being swamped and sunk. British and Canadian DDs were generally launched much closer inshore and the great majority survived to support the infantry.
Having gained a foothold ashore, the Allied troops were faced with a variety of threats and obstacles. The immediate challenge for the assault wave was dominate the ground beyond the beachhead and then create safe paths through the extensive German minefields for the follow-on forces.
Photo: Bobbins laid down huge carpets of reinforced sacking over soft ground to prevent vehicles bogging down. Photo courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
Hobart’s contribution were a series of specialised tanks operated by the armoured corps and the engineers. A modified Sherman tank, codenamed ‘Crab’, was developed for mine clearance by constructing a spinning drum (‘Flail’) of weighted chains on the front of the vehicle that would slowly churn a secure path across the beach and smash through barbed wire and other light defences.
A few Churchill flame-throwing tanks (‘Crocodiles’) capable of firing a jet of blazing napalm more than 100m were landed, but there is no record of them being used until the fighting moved further inland.
Photo: 'Fascines’ dumped bundles of wooden poles into ditches to form an instant culvert. Photo courtesy: Tank Museum, Bovington.
Other tanks used by Hobart’s division included adapted Churchill AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer) armed with a 290mm ‘Petard’ mortar that could lob a 20 kg charge at bunkers and gun emplacements, ‘Bobbins’ to lay huge carpets of reinforced sacking over soft ground to prevent vehicles bogging down, ‘Fascines’ to dump bundles of wooden poles into ditches to form an instant culvert and ‘Arks’ to provide longer and more permanent bridges.
The 79th Division was also unique in that its units were among the few British formations to be routinely deployed with the US Army, reflecting the Americans decision not to create their own range of ‘funnies.’
Find out more about Hobart's Funnies and the tanks of Normandy 1944 at the Tank Museum, Bovington. As well as holding the finest collection of tanks in the UK and Europe, the Tank Museum has a collection of Funnies - including a Churchill AVRE and Sherman DD. Visit their website by clicking on this link