Among the many items on Gen. Sir Alan Brooke’s agenda upon assuming his duties as Chief of the Imperial General Staff on Christmas Day 1941 was the status and use of British armor, which he found wanting. With an eye toward anticipated demands on armored forces for the Normandy landings and with the armored debacle at Dieppe as a disastrous example not to be repeated, in March 1943 he appointed Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s brother-in-law, Maj. Gen. Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, to command the 79th Armoured Division. Hobart’s mission was to use the division “to experiment with any equipment, innovations and tactics that would best support [Overlord].” Brooke’s move would prove to be one of his most inspired in the war.
“Hobart’s innovative use of British armor in Overlord was to be almost as revolutionary as the first appearance of British tanks at Cambrai in 1917.”
—David Eisenhower, Eisenhower at War 1943-1945
Possessing great intelligence and an equally great argumentative manner from which not even superior rank was a shield, Hobart, who distinguished himself with both traits during World War I, embarked on the path that ultimately made him one of Britain’s foremost tank experts when he volunteered for the newly formed Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He soon became an instructor at Staff College, Quetta, and it was there that he began formulating tank doctrine. His then-revolutionary use of radio communication in tanks and coordination with tactical air operations in exercises during the early 1930s led to his appointment as Inspector of the Royal Tank Corps, promotion to brigadier general, and commander of the 1st Tank Brigade in 1934. Recognized as the British Army’s leading tank expert, he refined armor doctrine, repeatedly clashing with hidebound and conservative superiors who viewed armor in a subordinate role supporting infantry and not as an independent command utilizing horse cavalry tactics.
Having made himself “difficult,” the CIGS exiled Hobart, by now a major general, to Egypt in 1938 to command the newly formed Mobile Division. Within a year Hobart’s drive and determination transformed a disparate unit possessing obsolete equipment into a first-class fighting unit. Renamed the 7th Armored Division, it would achieve fame in World War II as the “Desert Rats.” But it would do so without Hobart. His immediate superior, Lt. Gen. H. M. “Jumbo” Wilson, while praising his knowledge and training skills, condemned Hobart for his quarrelsome nature, accused him of “lacking in stability,” and recommended his relief. Wilson’s boss, Middle East Command Gen. Archibald Wavell, agreed, and on Nov. 10, 1939, less than three months into the war, Hobart was fired and packed off to England. The disgraced Hobart had no choice but to retire, soon joining the Home Guard as a corporal.
Hobart languished in the wilderness until November 1940 when, upon the insistence of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a Hobart admirer) and over the objections of then CIGS Gen. Sir John Dill (a Hobart detractor), Hobart returned to active duty with the command of 11th Armored Division. When the division was ordered to Tunisia in 1942, Hobart’s many enemies in high command, under the pretext of old age (he was 57) and medical concerns, conspired to keep him in England.
The 79th became a “think tank” that amazingly in less than a year developed a formidable menagerie of exotic, yet practical, armored weapon systems designed to breach beach defenses that would receive the catchall nickname “Hobart’s Funnies.”
Churchill famously defended Hobart in a letter that stated, in part, “The High Commands of the Army are not a club. It is my duty . . . to make sure that exceptionably able men, even those not popular with their military contemporaries, should not be prevented from giving their services to the Crown.” Though Churchill was unable to prevent Hobart’s relief (the medical concerns proved legitimate), this time Hobart was not put out to pasture. Hobart’s fortunes changed for the better soon after Dill left for Washington in late December to be the IGS’s representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Dill’s successor, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, was a Hobart admirer. As soon as he could, Brooke gave Hobart the command of the 79th Armored Division. In so doing not only did Brooke rescue the career of a brilliant, if troublesome, officer, but he also saved a recently formed division that was earmarked for disbandment. Command of 79th Armored would secure Hobart’s reputation as perhaps the most innovative and original thinker in armored warfare.
With Overlord scheduled for May 1944, time was of the essence. In one of his first directives, Hobart wrote: “The success of [Overlord] depends on the element of surprise caused by new equipment. Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged.” The 79th became a “think tank” that amazingly in less than a year developed a formidable menagerie of exotic, yet practical, armored weapon systems designed to breach beach defenses that would receive the catchall nickname “Hobart’s Funnies.”
YouTube features a variety of videos of Hobart’s Funnies.
And “The Men Behind D-Day,” an episode in the Heroes of World War II series contains a demonstration of a variety of Hobart Funnies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWka4TR3KUo.