So immense and sprawling is the very landscape of World War II History that books on the subject number in the hundreds of thousands. Even dedicated researchers and historians can only touch the surface of a story of such mind-bending dimensions. Questions which have long tantalized, and continue today to invigorate military chroniclers and experts revolve around “how” and “why” the Allies managed to win a “total victory” over a combined Axis enemy which at its pinnacle occupied or controlled most of Europe and Asia while denying the free flow of shipping across the Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas; to say nothing of near-absolute control of the skies over the vast territories they occupied. Britain itself avoided invasion and conquest only because of a handful of courageous flyers, superior fighter aircraft and a supply of high-octane aviation fuel from the “neutral” United States.
Many would-be prognosticators point to the allies’ secret code-breaking capability (Ultra,) others to America’s 4-engine strategic bombers, and the P-51 Mustang long-range fighter; the success of the Normandy operation (“Overlord,”) and the Atomic bomb are of course always nominated as major winning factors. And then there are the names: “giants” of military and civilian leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, McArthur, Patton, Eisenhower, Halsey, Nimitz, Arnold and dozens like them whose contributions to victory guarantee a place in our long national and institutional memory.
Less known and celebrated are a host of lesser “heroes” who never made headlines or were honored with ticker tape parades, but whose contributions saved lives, won battles, resolved the irresolvable, or otherwise hastened eventual victory. For instance, how many of us on the west side of the Atlantic have even heard of Percy Cleghorn Stanley (Hobo) Hobart? How many of us are familiar with “Hobart’s Funnies” or can even guess at the lives they saved?
A graduate of England’s Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and a veteran of the trenches of France in WW I, “Hobo” took an early interest in armored warfare and saw a promising future for the tank. In 1934 he became Brigadier of Britain’s first armored Brigade and began his life-long fight for funding and materiel support for battlefield preparedness for his mechanized field forces, and a recognition of the future role of armor in military planning. In the process he managed to arouse bitter resentment on the part of senior officers who came from the traditional ranks of horse cavalry advocates. Despite this and against the opposition of a particular senior commander, he managed to create a British Mobile Force in Egypt which became the 7th Armored Division – the famous “Desert Rats” of WW II. In 1940, with war on Britain’s doorstep, Major General Percy Hobart was ordered into retirement by those who had been “annoyed” by his unconventional ideas. Hearing of this Winston Churchill sent a salvo over the War Office: “We are now at war, fighting for our lives, and we cannot afford to confine Army appointments to officers who have excited no hostile comments in their career.”
Back in the saddle again, Hobert was given command of the “79th (Experimental) Armored Division Royal Engineers” and was turned loose to apply his inventive talents in developing new applications of armored warfare. Working with the American “Sherman” tank and its British version the “Churchill,” his inventive genius produced a procession of specialized “hybrids” designed to address failures experienced and lessons learned in the disastrous Dieppe raid. The armored “flail” tank was one example: a Sherman/Churchill with a rotating series of chains in front which could be driven onto a beach or sand-hill clearing a path through an area seeded with grenades and explosive devices through which the following units could safely get ashore or proceed. The presence of “flails” made possible successful landings of British and Canadian troops on Normandy’s Juno, Sword and Gold beaches, while the American Omaha and Utah beach landings proved costly and nearly fatal without such wonders.
Known as the Crab this Hobart Sherman “Funny” used chain flails to clear land mines and explosives.
Photo courtesy Borden Military Museum, Ontario, Canada
Other examples of what the troops quickly nick-named “Hobart’s Funnies” were tank chassis which when driven across a dry wash or stream bed became a “bridge” for following mechanized pieces to cross over, while still others had cutters designed to take out whole sections of barbed wire or steel barriers. Further extensions of “Hobo’s” ideas included tanks or dozers fitted with the giant “Rhinoceros” perfected further by U.S. Army Sgt. Curtis Culin, with “teeth” that could penetrate, pick up and move aside huge chunks of the previously formidable hedge rows which had delayed the progress of allied troops long after they were safely ashore in Normandy’s bocage country.
Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart KBE, CB, DSO, MC, (“Wizard Extraordinaire”) died at his home in Farnham, Surrey, U.K. in February 1957 at age 71.