After the failure of the raid on Dieppe in 1942, plans to invade continental Europe were completely revised. The invasion of Europe required a host of new-type tanks and armored vehicles. Tanks were needed for bridging ditches and rivers, clearing mine fields, throwing flame, destroying pillboxes and emplacements and for swimming ashore from landing craft with the assault waves and crossing rivers. Because these tanks did not exist in usable form, they had to be developed, together with the tactics for their employment. Men would have to be trained in the specialized task of manning these new weapons.

Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank with waterproof float screens. When in the water the float screen was raised and the rear propellers came into operation [© IWM (MH 3660)]

Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade move inland from Queen Red beach, Sword area, 6 June 1944. A Churchill AVRE, equipped with a small box girder bridge, can be seen in the background [© IWM (B 5071)]

In March 1943,  Major-General Sir Percy Hobart was call by General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff to train a unit in the handling of specialized armor created for this purpose. This unit was later to become known as the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division. The 79th was to be the biggest division in the world, and also the first all-armored division. General Hobart was the unique person in Britain pre-eminently qualified to develop specialized armor for the invasion and conquest of Europe. General Hobart had a very high reputation, not only in the service, but in wide circles outside. He was a man of quite exceptional mental attainments, with great strength of character, and although he did not work easily with others.

Sherman Crab Mk II flail tank, one of General Hobart's 'funnies' of 79th Armoured Division, during minesweeping tests in the UK, 27 April 1944 [© IWM (H 38079)]

The 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division took a bull's head as its insignia and soon boasted the same kind of soaring élan and confident professionalism that characterized other Hobart-trained formations (like the 11th Armoured Division, which fought in North Africa Campaign). The division operated armoured vehicles modified for specialist roles, intended to assist with the landings on the beaches. Hobart gave firm direction and the strange-looking tanks it developed and operated were known as Hobart's Funnies. All of the 'Funnies' were developed in secret, among them: the 'swimming' Sherman, the 'Crab' Flail, the 'Crocodile' flamethrower, The AVRE, the 'Bobbin' carpet layer, the Fascine carrier, the SBG Bridge Layer, the ARK, the Buffalo Amphibian, the 'Kangaroo' Armoured Personnel Carrier, and the CDL.

Churchill AVRE with Spigot mortar in Kleve, Germany, 12 February 1945 [© IWM (B 14518)]

Hobart's Funnies were the largest and most elaborate collection of engineering vehicles available. They were modified tanks for a variety of specialist engineering tasks. By early 1944, Hobart could demonstrate to Eisenhower and Montgomery a brigade each of swimming DD tanks, Crab mine clearers, and AVRE (Engineer) tanks along with a regiment of Crocodile flamethrowing tanks. The majority of the designs were modified forms of the Churchill tank or the Sherman tank. Both were available in large numbers. The Churchill had good (though slow) cross-country performance, heavy armour, and a roomy interior. The Sherman's mechanical reliability was valued.  

A Churchill tank fitted with a Crocodile flamethrower in action. This flamethrower could produce a jet of flame exceeding 150 yards in length [© IWM TR 2313]

These were used in the Normandy landings and were credited with helping the Allies get ashore. The 79th's vehicles were offered to all of the forces taking part in the landings of Operation Overlord, but the Americans declined all except the amphibious Sherman DD tank. None of the other designs were used, because it was thought that they required specialised training and an additional support organisation. Also, the Americans were reluctant to make use of funnies based on the Churchill tank as they did not want the logistical complexity of adding another tank model to their inventory. After D-Day, American forces did make limited use of the Sherman Crab mine-clearing tank.

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) Type C Mark II carpetlayer for laying tracks across soft beaches [© IWM (H 37859)]

Kangaroos carrying men of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders in Moergestel, 26 October 1944 [© IWM (B 11368)]

 The division remained in action during the North-west European Campaign, providing specialised support during assaults to the 21st Army Group and, occasionally, to American units. The vehicles of the 79th did not deploy as units together but were attached to other units. The 79th frequently worked in close support of US troops, and was the only British unit to do so. Units of Hobart's specialized 79th Experimental Armoured Division served with distinction with Simpson's Ninth Army (General William H. "Big Bill" Simpson was the US Ninth Army Commander). The two men became personal friends. Simpson called Hobart "the most outstanding high British officer I met during the war.

Churchill AVRE of 163rd Brigade, 54th Division, with fascine during ditch crossing exercises near Dunwich, 14 April 1943 [© IWM (H 29043)] 

This is one of a collection of pictures that show the landing from Buffaloes of the 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment, who landed on the afternoon of 24th March 1945, in support of No.1 S.S Commando Brigade at Wesel. The bridge seen in background is the smashed railway bridge at Wesel [© IWM (BU 2335)]

By the end of the war the 79th had almost seven thousand vehicles. The 79th Armoured Division was disbanded on 20 August 1945. The 79th Armoured Division was called "the tactical key to victory." Because it was not a division that fought as a unit, but had its elements farmed out to the Allied armies wherever they were needed, the 79th has far less historical fame than most of the Allied divisions that stormed through Europe.

A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945 [© IWM (NA 23920)]

Grant CDL (Canal Defence Light) with searchlight and dummy gun mounted in turret [© IWM (H 41966)]


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