Sunday, October 25, 2015


            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. 

Friday, October 2, 2015


It was a neurosurgeon whose name is now long-forgotten who was performing some delicate brain surgery during which the patient could not be entirely anesthetized that some fascinating observations were recorded. As probing instruments made physical contact with different areas of cortex the patient would re-experience a complete “replay” of life-events never consciously recalled until that instant. Afterward, that patient would explain that every detail, including smells, tastes, sounds and intense feelings associated with the specific event were revealed. Perhaps it is a similar phenomenon that permits us occasional access to hidden “chords” of memory.
            I had just come racing into Mom’s kitchen from outdoor play when I came to an abrupt standstill because of something I was hearing. Visually, I was looking at a loaf of Silvercup white bread – a local commercial product of the time – where it lay on the large kitchen table around which our family met to eat and talk each day. What stopped me was music playing on the radio. It wasn’t something I was familiar with, but there was something about it that captured my attention. I was not yet “into” classical music, which this was, featuring a piano and orchestra. . Everything about it just made sense, was in such perfect order that I could picture the next note or phrase before it played. Without calling attention to the fact, I decided to hang around. I probably would have sat on a hard wooden kitchen chair. I have tried to widen the picture of that experience in my mind over the years after I realized that it was important. To this day, the playing of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto touches a special place in my heart (and in the cerebral cortex of my brain.) It marks an exact moment when for a small boy, a “love affair” was born.
            Over the years it has been my practice during our annual visits to coastal Maine to greet each dawn from the nearby harbor wharf of the small-town we have frequented for forty years. For several hours each storm-free morning it is a very busy place, as dozens of lobster boats and crew depart for the day, each of them prepared to service a “flotilla” of traps. I never tire of watching an ages-old story unfold before my eyes. I was still in place one gray Maine morning as a lone and very humble lobster boat pulled up to the fueling dock after everyone else was long gone. A boy who was probably not yet out of his teens leaped ashore, tied up without help, and went about dragging a fuel hose aboard. I noted it was not the diesel hose, supporting the assumption that this was the lad’s first boat. After winching down a blue bait barrel, a box of ice and squaring away his lifting gear, he climbed up the ladder, passing near me to pick up a six pack of coke before finally casting off and motoring past the bar and off to sea.
            Two crusty old sea dogs watched from a nearby spot they probably occupied every day, blue smoke curling skyward from their pipes. It was clear that stranded ashore after a lifetime of pulling traps, and fighting gales, these two would never have been anywhere else at this hour. They hadn’t said a word all the time they had been there, but now one pulled his pipe out and said in a down-east accent you could cut with a dull knife- “wall. . he may be late. . . but he allwas goes.” The other thought about it for a minute before replying “Ahiah”, in complete agreement.
            Silent but impressed, I realized I had just witnessed a generational compliment of the most profound kind. I only wish I could have recorded it so that I might replay it for that young “lobsterman” when he returned that evening.
            When considering the value of constancy and commitment to a dream as a human quality to be cherished, I always think of that enlightening sermon delivered on a gray Maine morning amid the call of overhead gulls all those years ago.

     The economy of Maine’s mid-coast and the well-being of its people rest heavily upon a form of   individual entrepreneurship unlike any other.                                          Al Cooper Photo