Hobart’s ‘Funnies’ – 79th Armoured Division in Normandy

I was half-way through writing another Napoleonic post, when it suddenly occurred to me that I really should do a WW2 post to commemorate the D-Day anniversary. So here’s a look at ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

Following the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, identified the need for an armoured, 20th Century equivalent of a mediaeval siege train; capable of carrying ‘siege engines’ right up to the enemy’s fortified walls and breaching them. He tasked Major General Percy Hobart‘s 79th Armoured Division with becoming the new ‘Experimental Armoured Division (Royal Engineers)’.  However, Hobart was initially resistant to the idea and only agreed to it once he was assured that the 79th Armoured Division would be a ‘fighting’ division at the spear-point of the assault on German-occupied Europe.  Monty (who happened to be Hobart’s brother-in-law) managed to convince Eisenhower of the need for specialist armoured engineering vehicles in the coming assault on Europe and Hobart’s place in the assault on ‘Fortress Europe’ was assured.

Hobart was a very interesting character with a somewhat chequered past. In 1934 he had commanded the British Army’s very first Armoured Brigade and upon the start of the war, had gone on to create the embryonic 7th Armoured Division (‘The Desert Rats’) in Egypt. However, petty politics and resistance to his innovative and unorthodox views on armoured warfare saw him being forcibly retired, whereupon he became a Corporal in the Home Guard! Churchill’s personal intervention saw him reinstated and given command of the new 11th Armoured Division, which he trained to become arguably the best armoured formation in the British Army. Politics again saw his removal from command and Churchill once again intervened personally to have him re-instated, this time as GOC of the new 79th Armoured Division.

By the time of Operation OVERLORD, the 79th Armoured Division consisted of three brigades: 1st Army Tank Brigade was equipped with the very strange and top-secret Grant CDL (‘Canal Defence Light’), 30th Armoured Brigade was equipped with Sherman Mk V Crab flail tanks and 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers was equipped with the Churchill AVRE (‘Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers’), as well as Churchill ARKs, armoured bulldozers and other specialist equipment.  The division was also responsible for the development of  the Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank and for training crews in their use, though these were operated by other units in Normandy.  

As the war went on beyond Normandy, some of the division’s sub-units were converted to amphibious vehicles such as the Buffalo Mk II, Buffalo Mk IV, Sherman DD and Terrapin, while additional units were added, such as two Armoured Carrier Regiments (equipped with Ram Kangaroo APCs), the 33rd Armoured Brigade (which had been converted to Buffalo Mk II & IV amphibious vehicles) and the 34th Tank Brigade (which had been converted to Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks).  

It’s probably worth noting at this point that Churchill Crocodiles were NOT a part of the 79th Armoured Division until after Normandy, when the 34th Tank Brigade was absorbed into the division as an all-Crocodile brigade.  As discussed in my recent Churchill Tank article, the sole Crocodile unit in Normandy was 141 RAC, which belonged to 34th Tank Brigade, but in practice served as an independent unit.  They did however, often work with elements of 79th Armoured Division on numerous occasions during the Normandy Campaign.

Churchill Mk IV AVREs

The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers or AVRE was the core of 79th Armoured Division’s combat power.  This vehicle was based on the Churchill Infantry Tank, which was suitable for a number of reasons: 1. Thick armour.  2.  Excellent mobility over rough, steep or soft ground and trenches.  3.  Plenty of internal capacity for engineering stores once the main gun and ammunition had been removed.  4.  Side and floor hatches meant that engineers could easily dismount and conduct engineering tasks outside the vehicle (e.g. dismounting to lay Bangalore  Torpedoes).  The vast majority of AVREs were built from Churchill Mk IV hulls, though a few were built from Mk IIIs (the only difference being the turret-shape). 

Instead of the usual main gun, a highly unusual 290mm Petard Spigot Mortar was fitted.  This weapon shared the same ancestry as the infantry’s PIAT and fired a very large demolition charge or ‘Petard’ (often known as the ‘Flying Dustbin’ or ‘Earthquake Bomb’), with the intention of destroying (or at least suppressing) concrete fortifications.  Somewhat alarmingly, this low-velocity weapon had a range of only around 80 yards and in order to reload, the co-driver had to slide open a hatch above his head and expose his arms to enemy fire as he inserted a fresh round into the breech (which ‘broke’ upward, rather like an upside-down shotgun, as shown below).

In addition to the Spigot Mortar, the AVRE retained the hull MG for self-defence and the crew would also often carry other engineering stores such as demolition charges, wire-cutters and Bangalore Torpedoes.  To use these, the AVRE would drive up to the obstacle and a crewman would crawl out of one of the hatches (usually the floor-hatch) and use the vehicle as cover as he place the charges.  He would then crawl back in and the vehicle would reverse before detonation of the charges.  A variety of demolition charges were also developed that could be mounted on frames at the front of the AVRE, which would drive up and push the charge against the obstacle to be demolished and hold it in place as it was detonated (I presume that the crew were also issued with ear-plugs).

Other kit commonly carried included the Small Box Girder (SBG) Bridge (which was useful for ramping sea-walls or bridging anti-tank ditches), Fascines (which were huge bundles of chestnut palings, used to fill smaller trenches and craters) and Bobbins (which were huge reels of matting that would be laid out onto soft mud, to provide a more solid roadway for following vehicles).

The two AVRE models above, carrying SBG Bridge and Fascine, are by Skytrex, with modifications such as the cables, block & tackle for the SBG bridge by Martin Small.  The other AVREs are by Flames of War.  They’re marked with the triangular bull’s head badge of the 79th Armoured Division and the cobalt blue Arm-of-Service flash of the Royal Engineers, with the ‘1233’ serial of 5th Assault Regiment Royal Engineers (ARRE).  6th ARRE had ‘1234’ and 42nd ARRE had ‘1235’.

Another element of the 1st Assault Brigade RE was the 87th Assault Dozer Squadron RE, equipped with armoured versions of the Caterpillar D7 Dozer.  Their unit serial was ‘819’, again on a cobalt-blue backing.  This is a lovely model by Skytrex.

The Otter Light Recce Car (LRC) actually belongs to someone else, namely the 18th Field Company Royal Canadian Engineers, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, as identified by the ‘French Grey’ (i.e. a pale greyish-blue) square with gold maple-leaf and the ’51’ serial on a cobalt-blue square.  The Otter had been retired from Canadian Recce Regiments in NW Europe, having been replaced by the Humber LRC. However, it was still used for engineer recce duties by both the British and Canadian Armies.  Humber LRCs and Morris LRCs were also commonly used for engineer recce.

Another vehicle used by 1st Assault Brigade RE was the Churchill ARK Mk I (Armoured Ramp Carrier, abbreviated by a dyslexic).  This was a turretless Churchill hull, designed as a quick and easy way to place a ramp against a sea wall.  It had two treadway-decks added on top, plus two matching ramps at the rear.  They would usually carry a fascine at the front, in order to create another ramp at the front of the vehicle.  I’m not sure which unit(s) within the brigade operated these, so I’ve marked it as belonging to the 149th Assault Park Squadron RE, whose serial was ‘1236’.  This lovely model was converted for me from a Flames of War hull by the supremely talented Martin Small.

The ARK Mk II was developed in Italy, which had matching ramps at front and rear.  If trying to bridge particularly deep ditches, ARKs could also be stacked! 🙂

As mentioned above, the 30th Armoured Brigade operated Sherman Mk V Crab flail tanks.  This is a lovely Skytrex model, modified by Martin Small with ‘flails’ made from wire.

Here an AVRE belonging to 5th ARRE follows a 22nd Dragoons Crab.  A dispenser on each side of the hull dropped a trail of white chalk-dust to mark the cleared path for following vehicles.  At night, following vehicles used the array of four small red guide-lights (each mounted in the centre of a white disc) to keep station directly behind the Crab.  

30th Armoured Brigade used the standard markings for an Armoured Brigade belonging to an Armoured Division, so as the senior regiment, 22nd Dragoons had the serial ’51’ on a red square.  The 1st Lothians & Border Horse Yeomanry had ’52’ and the 2nd County of London Yeomanry (Westminster Dragoons) had ’53’.

On D-Day and on innumerable operations afterwards, the units of 79th Armoured Division proved their worth time after time in cracking German defences and aiding the infantry in seizing their objectives. However, they never operated as distinct units and instead were doled out as squadron, half-squadron and troop-sized penny-packets and placed under the command of the infantry. The various disparate elements of the division were then mixed up to complete various tasks and nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the creation of mixed ‘Breaching Teams’ for Operation OVERLORD. Each Breaching Team was given a very specific task and the composition of each team was tailored to the nature of the German defences and terrain at their objective. So where there was a muddy beach, the team would included a Bobbin. Where there was a sea wall, the team would include an SBG bridge and so on. All teams had a mix of AVRE and Crab, plus a Dozer in many cases.

The actions of the Breaching Teams on D-Day are exceptionally well-described in the book ‘Iron Fist’ by Bryan Perret. Here’s an extract:

‘To the east, the breaching teams on Queen Sector of Sword Beach, where the British 8th Infantry Brigade was coming ashore at Lion-sur-Mer, consisted of ‘A’ Squadron 22nd Dragoons and 77 and 79 Assault Squadrons RE (5 ARRE).  On the right No 1 Team beached at a point overlooked by high sand dunes.  In the face of fierce fire, the Crabs flailed up the beach and over the dunes, one commander killing two snipers with a grenade thrown from the turret.  The leading AVRE, commanded by Sergeant Kilvert, was hit as it emerged from the LCT and drowned in the shallows.  Undeterred, Kilvert and his crew grabbed their personal weapons and made their way across the beach to storm a fortified farmhouse and rout an enemy patrol, later handing over their prisoners to the infantry.  The team’s remaining AVREs assisted the Crabs in completing a route inland then set off to assist 48 (also described as 41 in other accounts) RM Commando in the capture of Lion.’

[NB it seems clear that the AVREs here actually landed ahead of the Sherman DDs of 27th Armoured Brigade, who were meant to land five minutes earlier, but who were struggling through heavy seas and were overtaken (in some cases run over) by the LCTs of the Breaching Teams]

‘No 2 Team lay off the beach until the DDs of the 13/18th Hussars had touched down, and in the process drifted west of No 1 Team,  The first Crab to disembark, commanded by Sergeant Smyth, immediately charged and crushed the 75mm gun that had opened fire on No 1 Team.  The Crabs then cleared a lane across the beach until one blew a track on a mine.  It was bypassed and an SBG bridge was dropped across the wrecked gun pit, thus completing the exit.  After this, the team’s AVREs also headed for Lion.’

‘No 3 Team’s Crabs completed one lane, along which a Bobbin AVRE unrolled its carpet; the vehicle then struck a mine and, having also been hit by antitank fire, was drowned by the rising tide.  A second lane was then flailed, at the end of which an SBG bridge was laid to provide an exit from the beach.

‘No 4 Team’s LCT became the target of a heavy calibre gun and was hit repeatedly.  The leading Crab got ashore safely but the second was hit while on the ramp and nothing could get past.  When more hits caused explosions aboard the craft, killing the sector’s senior engineering officer, it was forced to withdraw and sail back to England.  When the team’s solitary Crab had part of its jib shot away by antitank fire, its commander, Lieutenant R. S. Robertson, jettisoned the rest and fought as a gun tank.’

Note that this only describes the actions of the four teams on ‘Queen Red’ (the right-hand or eastern sector of SWORD Beach). There were another four teams on ‘Queen White’ and many more on GOLD and JUNO Beaches. There has been much speculation as to what might have happened, had armoured Breaching Teams (or something similar and American, perhaps using Sherman variants) been landed at the spearhead of OMAHA Beach instead of soft, squishy combat engineers, but that’s a discussion for another day…

Here’s a drink to my father-in-law Harry, who 76 years ago today, was bobbing around off the landing beaches in LCT(E) 413, repairing the landing craft that has just landed those leading waves. Here’s to you, Harry (sorry I don’t have any rum in, so it’s gin. Hope that’s ok?)!

This entry was posted in 15mm Figures, Battlefront: WW2, Painted Units, World War 2, World War 2 - British Commonwealth Armies. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Hobart’s ‘Funnies’ – 79th Armoured Division in Normandy

  1. Douglas Smith says:

    Hi.
    Great post as usual.

    On a different note, I have been reading up on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
    1400 troops, Walker Bulldog tanks against T 34’s, and plenty of aircraft.

    Thought it might make a good game.

    Cheers. Doug

  2. Great stuff, yet to finish mine!

    Cheers
    Matt
    (Bluewillow)

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Cheers Matt! I must confess that I also have a load of very old pre-Flames of War AVREs by Battlefront Miniatures and they’re nowhere near as good (a bit smaller too). Similarly, the rest of my Crabs are nowhere near as good as the one that Martin fitted with flails (I just surrounded the bare drum with a cloud of brown ‘dust’).

  3. Catweaseloz says:

    Nice post with some great detail, thank you. I’d always assumed the mortar was loaded from outside the tank but that seems a much better arrangement.

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Cheers. Yes, it wasn’t ideal, but was better than climbing out! 🙂 If you want to get into detailed modelling, the hatch-arrangement was slightly different, as it was a sliding-panel rather than a hinged hatch, but I’m not aware of anyone going into that sort of detail in 15mm.

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