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Hobart and His Funnies: Gen. Omar Bradley and the D-Day Controversy

Part 2

In March 1943 Britain’s leading armor warfare expert, Maj. Gen. Sir Percy C. S. Hobart, finally got his due. He and his 79th Armored Division were charged with developing specialized armored vehicles and doctrine to breach German defenses as part of Operation Overlord. With an invasion date of May 1, 1944, Hobart hit the ground running.

Hobart had turned the division into a free wheeling “think tank.” One of his first directives to his troops contained the challenge: “The success of the operation depends on the element of surprise caused by new equipment. Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged.” [Italics added.] The ranks responded with creative enthusiasm.

In April, Hobart established his headquarters at Hurts Hall, Axmundham, Suffolk, and a training center code-named Kruschen about five miles away where every type of German beach defenses was replicated. One month later, though many of his “Funnies,” as they came to be called, were still prototypes, Hobart conducted his first demonstrations for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and senior military leaders. They came away impressed.

Churchill AVRE

A Churchill AVRE laying bobbin during 79th Armoured Division equipment trials, April 26, 1944. Imperial War Museum photo

One reason why Hobart could move so quickly was that he was largely utilizing off the shelf technology. A version of the land mine exploding Crab had seen action in the deserts of Egypt. And the most famous of his Funnies, the amphibious DD (“Duplex Drive”) tank, was developed in 1941 by the Hungarian inventor Nicholas Straussler.

Another reason was that Hobart had turned the division into a free wheeling “think tank.” One of his first directives to his troops contained the challenge: “The success of the operation depends on the element of surprise caused by new equipment. Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged.” [Italics added.] The ranks responded with creative enthusiasm.

Uniquely, Hobart organized his division to make it capable of conducting support operations as detached units within the administrative structure of other divisions. The 79th was the only division in World War II to never have fought as a self-contained unit. But, on D-Day only the Sherman DD was utilized by American troops.

At Kruschen and other bases scattered across Britain, the men and their Funnies went through their paces. Flame throwing Crocodiles neutralized bunkers, chain flailing Crabs exploded land mines, searchlight equipped Matilda Canal Defence Lights illuminated targets with blinding light, armored Buffalos bulldozed, DD tanks cruised over waves, and Armored Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVREs) equipped with petard mortars, plows, fascines, bridges, or Brobdingnagian bobbins sporting tarp bundles hurled explosives, crossed trenches, crawled over sea walls, and traversed barbed wire and boggy terrain.

On Jan. 27 and Feb. 11, 1944, Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and First Army commander Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley observed demonstrations by Hobart’s Funnies. Eisenhower was so impressed that he recommended Bradley include 79th Armoured Division teams with the first wave. Uniquely, Hobart organized his division to make it capable of conducting support operations as detached units within the administrative structure of other divisions. The 79th was the only division in World War II to never have fought as a self-contained unit. But, on D-Day only the Sherman DD was utilized by American troops.

Sherman Crab Mk II

A Sherman Crab flail tank, one of Hobart’s Funnies of the 79th Armored Division, during minesweeping tests in the U.K., April 27, 1944. Imperial War Museum photo

As the battle on Omaha Beach proved a near run thing, the lack of Funnies on the American beaches of Utah and especially Omaha became a focus of controversy. Criticisms included doctrinal differences between the British and American armies, Bradley’s indecisiveness regarding how best to overcome beach defenses, and training and logistics concerns. This last is backed up by Bradley’s own comment that “accepting the Churchills would require retraining our tank operators and maintenance men and a complicated separate supply chain for spare parts.” He added, “had the ‘Funnies’ been conceived earlier, in time to adapt their gadgetry to Sherman tanks, we would probably have made use of them.”

With the exception of the Sherman DDs that fought on all the beaches on June 6, 1944, a full complement of Funnies was only available for the British and Canadian beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword.

Though attention has mostly focused on the former comment, it’s the latter comment that is more suggestive. First, the logistics argument is weakened by the fact that many of Hobart’s Funnies were modified Shermans. Even where some Funnies were British, Hobart demonstrated appropriate weapons systems could be adapted to a Sherman frame. Also, there is documentation that shows Bradley approved the recommendation by a First Army board chaired by his staff’s ordnance officer Col. John Medaris that some of the 79th’s tanks be used for D-Day.

Sherman DD Tank

Sherman DD tanks cross the Rhine River, March 24, 1945. The DD tanks would have proved invaluable on Omaha Beach during D-Day. Imperial War Museum photo

During World War II, the British military established Operational Research (OR) branches to better utilize its scientists. OR 2, part of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group that included for Overlord the British Second Army and American First Army, had on its staff Brig. Gen. Otway Herbert. Five days after Bradley’s second observation, a letter dated Feb. 16, 1944, from Herbert to the War Office contains orders requesting a variety of Sherman Funnies for First Army. The letter concludes, “In the event of the U.S. army being equipped with similar equipment from U.S. sources, or suitable substitutes, the equipment will be returned to the British.”

Finally, there’s documentation highlighting Hobart’s own problems with timely delivery of his Funnies. This suggests the real logistics issue was at the source: The manufacturers. It must be remembered that Overlord was pushed back a month because it needed that extra month’s production of landing craft. In Hobart’s case, time simply ran out. With the exception of the Sherman DDs that fought on all the beaches on June 6, 1944, a full complement of Funnies was only available for the British and Canadian beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword.

Remnants of the Kruschen training center still exist.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...