Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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8 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War Two

8 responses to “Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

  1. John Erickson

    The US loved the mass-production concept.What did we have – the Stuart, the Sherman, the Grant/lee, and the late-war Chaffees and Pershings? You guys had Matildas, Cromwells, Churchills, Crusaders, Comets, Cupids … er … Valentines, and you STILL took on our models! :D
    The US armoured did actually play with a lot of ideas, they just never were approved. We did have the “Jumbo”, basically massive applique armour for the basic Sherman; the “Aunt Jemima” anti-mine roller (which the assault teams loved – the roller was solid steel, and even an 88mm couldn’t put a hole in it!); a variety of mine plows; and various flamethrower modifications. The primary variant was the bulldozer blade add-on, which also added to the Sherman’s thin front armour and was rather beloved by assaulting tanks. The flails and DDs, of course, we owe to the 79th.
    This book just topped my “if I can have one this year, this is IT!” list. Now to run it past the Chief Acquisitions Officer – she should be home from work shortly! ;)

    • James Daly

      actually I have a couple of books in British WW2 armoured vehicles awaiting review, they make a pretty good read when it comes to the difference between British and American armoured development. Put simply, we had so many different designs on the go, and virtually none of them were up to the job. Either that or they were simply undergunned, obsolete and outclassed.

      I have heard it said that the poor state of British tanks in WW2 galvanised (ahem, pun not intended) the establishment to ensure that the British Army never again had to fight with such inferior vehicles. Hence the Centurion, Chieftan and Challenger.

      • John Erickson

        I can understand the layout of pre-WW2 British tanks, but the one thing that has always confused me is, why no HE shell on the 2-pounder? I could understand it if the 2-pounder was only used in the anti-tank role, but the “pom-pom” AA piece was a development of the gun and (by force) had to use HE. Any special reason, or just the same military inertia that saw the Sherman mount a (barely modified) version of the 1897 French 75mm field gun?
        And why, why, WHY did they never produce the Skink? A Canadian built Sherman with quad 20mm cannon – who couldn’t love THAT meat-grinder? (The best the US got was the quad-50 in the back of a bloody half-track! :D )

        • James Daly

          One aspect of our tank design that was pretty miserable was the armament. At every stage of the war, our guns were vastly inferior to the German equivalent. I guess its as a result of having to play catch up after appeasement.

          There were some pretty good Canadian armoured inventions during WW2 -pretty much inventing the modern APC, for one.

          • John Erickson

            Yeah, the pre-war guns weren’t great (a 15mm machine gun as main armament? REALLY?), but the 6-pounder was pretty good (good enough for us to copy and build it), the 75mm in the Churchill and Valentines (Cromwells? Don’t have my references handy) were better than our stubby 75 in the Sherman, and the 17-pounder/77mm “HV” (just a shortened 17-lbr) were great. Even the 94/95mm “smoke gun” CS tanks are fun to play with. Once y’all got past the idea of “cruiser” cavalry tanks (“Armour? We don’t need no stinkin’ armour!”), you made some decent stuff! ;)
            Though I still love the handful of Churchill Mk1 CS tanks made. The limited swing 75mm howitzer in the bow AND in the (fully rotating) turret. Between those and the Crocodiles, I can see why the Germans really HATED the site of Churchills! :D

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