Seems it is a good time to dust off and refresh a couple of older posts
There are so many aspects of Operation Neptune (the assault phase of Overlord) that are worthy of telling but the armoured combat engineering during the landings is perhaps one of lesser known aspects of the operation.
As you know, I like to look at the things that are a bit off the beaten track.
The Scale of the Problem
Canadian and British forces had taken heavy losses during the August 1942 raid against Dieppe.
Operation Jubilee taught the allies a series of painful, but invaluable lessons.
It was not enough to concentrate firepower, have the correct weapons or right calibre of troops; intelligence about the geology, tides, bearing strength and types of fortification employed were equally as important.
From a BBC article on Operation Jubilee
The raid used tank landing craft for the first time, but these were another disaster: only 10 of the 24 craft landed any tanks, and every one of the 27 tanks which drove onto the beaches was destroyed.
The best that can be said for the Dieppe raid was that it was an excellent, if expensive, lesson in landing on hostile beaches.
The experience gained was used extensively on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Mountbatten, said, “For every soldier who died at Dieppe, ten were saved on D-Day.”
The arts of the combat engineer had failed although it would be ridiculous to state that this was the only failing, the need for surprise, diversion, communication, air support coordination and intelligence were all seen as ‘lessons to learn’
There were some armoured engineering vehicles at Dieppe, the image below shows and early bobbin Churchill
Combat engineering is as old a military art as any, mobility and counter mobility are essential to success and D-Day was no different to any conflict past, present or indeed future.
As plans for D Day emerged the thirst for hard facts about the geology, tide, underwater obstacles, load bearing and topographic information of the possible beaches was significant. It had to be isolated beaches because Jubilee had shown the futility of attacking into a port town.
In addition the natural hazards were those added in equal measure by the Atlantic Wall defences, this being another key lesson from Dieppe.
In order to satisfy this need for detailed information the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP) were called upon. The COPPs were in existence as early as 1940 with operations in the Greek theatre but D Day arguably saw their finest hour.
By June 1944 there were just over 170 personnel in the COPP force and like many specialist units their ranks were filled by a mixture of the services, primarily Royal Navy, Royal Marine and Royal Engineers. There were 10 COPP’s, 1 to 6 and 10 were between 10 and 12 strong and 7 to 9 were larger with just over 30 personnel each.
In the run up to D Day samples were collected, precise measurements taken, markers placed and observations made, all under the noses of the German defenders. One of the largest beach reconnaissance missions took place, at the insistence of Winston Churchill, on New Years Eve during which it was correctly surmised that those on guard that night might be pre-occupied with the festivities!
During the D Day landings members of COPP’s would also lead the landing forces in, their intimate knowledge of area proving invaluable.
There is a great website called coppheroes.org that is well worth a visit that highlights some of the missions, individuals and equipment of the COPP’s, as well as information of the COPP Memorial.
My favourite image in their gallery is this one, especially item K
Without the skill and bravery of the COPP’s, an early joint organisation, D Day would have looked very different.
There is a definitive book on the COPP’s called Stealthy By Night, still available from Amazon and others.
There is also a great gallery of members of the COPP at the Special FOrces Role of Honour, click here to view
The work of the COPP’s, painstaking intelligence gathering of every sort, photographic reconnaissance and the gathering of all published materials including postcards allowed the planners to build an excellent picture of the challenge ahead.
And nothing was left to chance, Monty was planning it after all.
As the selection of beaches narrowed the detailed challenges that needed to be overcame crystalised.
On Gold beach for example, sand and soil samples obtained by the COPP’s using a slow augering technique had revealed a large patch of soft blue clay that would not support the weight of any armoured vehicles or heavy trucks. A search for a similar beach clay and some was found on the beach at Brancaster near Kings Lynn in Norfolk.
This was the level of preparation for D Day, finding a geologically similar patch of beach to one of the key routes on Gold Beach and testing means of overcoming its poor load bearing.
The defences were formidable, even in the less heavily fortified areas of Normandy.
Concrete obstacles, welded steel tank, barbed wire, concrete walls, pill boxes and gun emplacements stretching well to the rear areas of the beach were all mapped out and reconstructed in order to find out how to counter them.
Tyypically, the German defences used a series of common elements from the low tide mark to well behind the sea wall, each would have to be overcome.
Element C or the Belgian Gate was designed to destroy landing craft as they were submerged at high tide
Stakes like in the image below usually had a Tellermine 42 attached
Log ramps were designed to destroy landing craft
The ubiquitous Czech Hedgehogs and Tetrahedron obstacles were usually higher up the beach
Once past the beach there were the sea walls, anti tank ditches, barbed wire and pillboxes to overcome as well
The initial air and naval bombardment followed by assault engineers were to clear many of these obstacles but once landed and for the push inland, an armoured solution was needed.
Step forth Major General Sir Percy Hobart
The primary objective by the Royal Engineer Assault Regiments was simply to clear obstacles on the beach and allow exit points to be created. Getting off the beach, although perhaps an obvious statement, was vital to maintain momentum. Both these tasks would have to be carried out whatever the weather, under fire and against the changing tide.
The sheer breadth of obstacles, both man made and natural, that were likely to be encountered led to the need for an equally wide range of specialist vehicles. Pioneering the implementation effort was Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, commander of the newly formed 79th Armoured Division.
The resultant vehicles were widely known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ although the task they were to carry out were far from amusing.
Major General Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers, serving with the Bengal Sappers and Miners before transferring to the Royal Tank Corps. He was a forward thinker and in many ways revolutionary (he is often credited with being the originator of the Blitzkrieg concept!)
In the book Armoured Crusader, the biography of Percy Hobart it was said that Guderian offered a toast in honour of him at a pre war exercise;
That is the old school and already old history. I put my faith in Hobart, the new man, to Hobart
This outspoken and aggressive manner led to him being ‘retired’ in 1939 so when the call came to command the 79th Armoured Division he was serving as a Corporal in the Chipping Campden Home Guard. An influential Times article by Liddell Hart called “We Have Wasted Brains” that was seen by Churchill prompted him to create one of his ‘action this day’ memos..
From the Institute for Historical Review we have this;
In a modest home near Oxford, lean, bushy-browed Percy Hobart was preparing to leave for his Home Guard duties. The one-time general who had commanded hundreds of armored vehicles in manoeuvres and raised and trained the 7th Armoured Division in North Africa took a wry look outside his front door at what was now his “transport.” A baby Austin driven by a member of the Women’s Volunteer Services stood waiting. The telephone jangled, Corporal Hobart answered, and found himself talking to one of Churchill’s secretaries. The tank expert was asked to have lunch with the prime minister at Chequers, the official country residence of the British leader. Bigger things were in store for the aggressive 55-year-old ex-general, whose stormy and controversial past held the key to his future.
Despite this initial push from Churchill the establishment still found a hundred and one reasons not to bring back Hobart. In response, Churchill wrote this;
October 19, 1940
Prime Minister to Chief of Imperial General Staff:
I was very pleased last week when you told me you proposed to give an armored division to General Hobart. I think very highly of this officer, and I am not at all impressed by the prejudices against him in certain quarters. Such prejudices attach frequently to persons of strong personality and original view. In this case, General Hobart’s views have been only too tragically borne out. The neglect by the General Staff even to devise proper patterns of tanks before the war has robbed us of all the fruits of this invention. These fruits have been reaped by the enemy, with terrible consequences. We should, therefore, remember that this was an officer who had the root of the matter in him, and also vision. I have carefully read your note to me, and the summary of the case for and against General Hobart. We are now at war, fighting for our lives, and we cannot afford to confine Army appointments to officers who have excited no hostile comment in their career. The catalogue of General Hobart’s qualities and defects might almost exactly be attributed to any of the great commanders of British history.
… This is a time to try men of force and vision, and not be confined exclusively to those who are judged thoroughly safe by conventional standards.
And followed up with this one
Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War:
I see nothing in these reports [of the Medical Board report on General Hobart] which would justify removing this officer from command of his division on its proceeding on active service.
General Hobart bears a very high reputation, not only in the service, but in wide circles outside. He is a man of quite exceptional mental attainments, with great strength of character, and although he does not work easily with others, it is a great pity we do not have more of his like in the service. I have been shocked at the persecution to which he has been subjected. I am quite sure that if, when I had him transferred from a corporal in the Home Guard to the command of one of the new armored divisions, I had insisted instead on his controlling the whole of the tank developments, with a seat on the Army Council, many of the grievous errors from which we have suffered would not have been committed.
The high commands of the Army are not a club. It is my duty … to make sure that exceptionally able men, even though not popular with their military contemporaries, are not prevented from giving their services to the Crown.
That was the end of that, he was back.
It was thought that a normal divisional command would not be the best use of his considerable intellect, the requirement for a specialist force of combat engineering vehicles and specialist armour was exactly the kind of thing that would benefit from his insight.
After some discussion with Liddell Hart, Hobart was eventually tasked with training a specialist unit, later to become the 79th (experimental) Armoured Division.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was Hobart’s brother in law and although they did not always have a harmonious relationship this ensured that Hobart had sufficient resources. Eisenhower quickly appreciated the value of Hobart’s ‘menagerie’ and ensured that red tape was slashed and top priority given to him.
Breaking new ground at almost every turn the resultant vehicles, tactics and training were truly revolutionary. Uniquely, the 79th did not deploy as a single unit but were used by any unit that needed them, including the US and Commonwealth forces. Most of the vehicles were converted Churchill or Sherman tanks and although many of the concepts had been used before and Hobart was not an engineer, he undoubtedly perfected the overall concept. The Churchill was the ideal donor vehicle because it was heavy, with a low centre of gravity, roomy interior and side escape hatches, and was therefore used for the majority of the funnies.
Demolition and Barbed Wire Clearance
Churchill Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) mounted a 290mm Petard spigot mortar which fired a demolition charge to approximately 80 yards, unfortunately the spigot mortar had to be reloaded from outside the vehicle. This was the basic donor vehicle for many of the variations.
Others included the Carrot and Double Onion demolition charge vehicles and the VEB or Vehicle Emplaced Banagalore torpedo for breaching large barbed wire entanglements.
The Bobbin tanks were also used for breaching barbed wire
The Tank Bridge Small Box Girder or SBG Assault Bridge was introduced specifically for D Day and the 79th Armoured Division and was designed to support a Class 40 load over a 30 foot span, or more specifically a 12 foot high sea wall.
The bridge itself consisted of 4 Small Box Girder hornbeam sections connected together to form a twin trackway bridge, connected with crossbeams.
Unlike the earlier Number 1 and Number 2 tank bridges, it was carried by a standard Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE), not a specialised bridgelayer and thus the carrying vehicle was able to be used in other engineering roles once the bridge had been detached.
The sequence of operation on a sea wall is shown below, including using a fascine to cushion the fall!
The bridges were carried on a small bogey trailer towed behind the tank and attached to the front prior to use.
People may be interested in an exercise held in Suffolk during 1943 – Exercise Kruschen. This was one of the first exercises held to look at the problem of assaulting strong points on the Atlantic Wall and Gen Hobart was ordered to base his initial training on the outcomes of this exercise. The photo of the Churchill and fascine is from the final demonstration of Kruschen. At the time of the exercise, only one prototype ‘Crocodile’ tank existed – this was obtained for use in the exercise, showing the importance the exercise was viewed with at the time. It is amazing how much further Hobart took the whole assault technique.
The Armoured Ramp Carrier or ARK was used for crossing small gaps and used in a number of variants. At its simplest, an ARK was a tank with its turret removed and ramps fitted to the top of the superstructure and at either end of the hull.
The vehicle would be driven into the gap, deploy its ramps and other vehicles simply driven over the top of it. The original ARK’s were designed to enable other tanks to climb sea walls on the beach defences on D Day although it is not certain if any were actually used.
ARK Mark I, was used primarily for traversing sea walls, it had a 2 foot wide wooden trackway with short ramps and about 50 were manufactured.
Ditches were filled with bundles or fascines of brushwood or to form a step.
Widely used in WWI the bundle of sticks, called the fascine, was also see extensive service in WWII, this time on the Churchill AVRE.
This video clip shows one in action, including a very good clip of a Churchill AVRE firing its 165mm spigot charge, the flying dustbin.
Mine clearance was carried out by a number of means but the preferred method was to use rotating chain flails to detonate the mines thus clearing a path the width of the tank. The flails were mounted on the front of the tank and were called Sherman Crabs. A number of Churchill based designs using rollers and ploughs were also employed.
The flail tank was invented by a South African Army Major in 1942, Captain Abraham du Toit, although there were patents before that and another South African officer also came up with a similar idea independently. After the customary official disinterest, duplication of effort and ingenious persistence the idea eventually came to fruition as a collaborative effort in the North African desert and resulted in the Matilda Scorpion.
The Scorpion flails were driven by a separate engine enclosed in the box on the right, this also included space for the operator, must have been rather warm.
Writing in a post battle report Lt William Schneck wrote
The mine flail tank idea began in 1941, with Abraham S. J. du Toit, a motor engineer in civilian life and a sergeant in the South African artillery, who developed a novel device that detonated mines by beating the ground with heavy chains or wire ropes driven by a rotating drum. A test rig was built on a truck and demonstrated in Pretoria, South Africa, where a short film was produced. After General Auchinleck saw the film, he thought it was a brilliant idea and sent Sergeant du Toit to England to pursue his invention in secrecy. The general felt that secrecy was vital in order to maintain the device’s tactical surprise and value, but keeping it secret in the Middle East or South Africa was impossible. It was intended to mount it on a tank chassis for combat use. Sergeant du Toit was soon promoted to major and was closely involved in the development in Britain of what became the Matilda Baron. Although the Baron never saw combat, it did provide the knowledge and experience that eventually led to the development and fielding of the highly successful Sherman “Crab” flail tank which General Hobart used during the Normandy landings in 1944.
Before Sergeant du Toit had left for England, he had sketched out his idea for Captain Norman Berry, the South African Chief Mechanical Engineer for the 8th Army. Captain Berry soon became tired of waiting for results from England and, on his own initiative, went ahead with some free-lance experiments while the 8th Army was still entrenched along the Gazala Line in the spring of 1942. There was no precedent for frontline troops to design and build a piece of equipment of such importance and complexity. Later, during the summer, Lieutenant-Colonel Mill Colman, a member of the South African Engineer Corps, developed what he thought was a novel idea for mine clearing. The idea had come to him when he noted a tracked vehicle driving by with a length of wire entangled in its track sprockets. With each revolution of the sprocket, the wire hit the ground with great force. Based on this, he thought that it might be possible to build a thrashing device that could detonate mines. Major L. A. Girling, Commander of the 21st South African Corps Field Park Company, was tasked with constructing the first experimental unit. They called it a “mine destroying device.” Captain Berry, hearing of the latest rebirth of the flail idea, told Major Girling of similar previous developments and described how Major du Toit had been sent to England by General Auchinleck to work on a similar idea in conditions of tight secrecy. So secret, in fact, that the Allied command in the Middle East had forgotten about the matter. Captain Berry gladly unearthed the remains of his earlier experiment and handed the contraption over to Major Girling’s team of engineers, consisting of himself, Captain G.J. Barry, Lieutenant Hofmann and
Lieutenant C.D.B. Cramb. Work on the prototype flail tank commenced within twenty-four hours and by 6 August, the first mock-up was completed. This first flail prototype was christened the Durban Mark I, after Lieutenant-Colonel Colman’s hometown in South Africa. The Durban Mark I incorporated many of Captain Berry’s ideas, including an auxiliary 105-horsepower Ford V8 engine mounted in a sponson (an armored box) on the right hand side of the Matilda Tank’s hull powered roller supports to a level box and then to the drum suspended above the ground. The horizontal flail rotor was held by two lattice girder arms about six feet in front of the tank and three feet above the ground. The rotor covered the entire width of the tank and was rotated in the same direction as the tank’s movement, at a speed of approximately 100 revolutions per minute. The rotor was equipped with 24 flails, or chain assemblies, that hit the ground with a contact length of approximately 20-cm. On later versions, fielded after the Second Battle of El Alamein, the boom that carried the rotor was modified so that it could be elevated and depressed by means of hydraulic cylinders to aid in mobility when not in use.
After the tests, Major Girling’s team continued to refine their design. On 12 September, the Durban Mark I was demonstrated for the 8th Army’s corps commanders and their chief engineers. Generals Alexander, Commander-and-Chief, Middle East, Montgomery, Commander 8th Army, and Morshead, Commander 9th Australian Division, witnessed Scorpion demonstrations and were impressed with its capabilities, considering the short amount of time invested in the project. Major Girling was congratulated for bringing the project to such a successful conclusion so quickly. Brigadier Ray remarked that, in appearance, the prototype resembled a scorpion and the name stuck. General Montgomery, a deeply religious and austere man, felt the name appropriate and quoted from the First Book of Kings (Chapter 12, Verse 14): “My Father has chastised you with whips, but I shall chastise you with scorpions.” Having observed the new, unprecedented invention, General Montgomery said that he wanted twelve for the coming attack. Brigadier Kisch had explained that the production of so large a number would have to be approved by General Headquarters and that it would mean suspending other production work. To this, General Montgomery replied, “Don’t belly-ache, order two dozen.” The next day Brigadier Kisch ordered the fabrication of an additional twenty-four of the new “Scorpion” mine destroyers, combined with the first prototype, this would provide the 8th Army a total of twenty-five Scorpions for Operation Lightfoot.
According to Major Reid of the New Zealand engineers, “This idea had great possibilities, especially from the sappers’ point of view, as if we could get tanks to clear gaps through minefields we could anticipate a much longer life.” Compared to the other available alternatives such as rollers and hand clearance, the flail-type mine clearance system appeared to be far superior.
Used operationally in the 1942 second Battle of El Alamein the crew had to wear respirators due to the massive volume of dust the flails threw into the air. Nonetheless, the concept, if not the implementation, was proven. Improvements were made, concepts refined and different tank chassis tried until all the designs and operational experience culminated in the Sherman Crab.
The Sherman Crab was a marked improvement, the flails were driven from the main engine via a power take off, hydraulic raising/lowering and barbed wire cutters which enabled it to double up as a barbed wire breaching device. One of the most important innovations was a system that allowed the marking of a safe lane, using smoke grenade launchers, an illuminated pole launcher and chalk dispenser.
The Sherman Flail performed a vital service during D Day and beyond and its importance should not be underestimated.
Strong Point Clearance
equipped with flamethrowers were called Crocodiles, these towed and armoured trailer containing the fuel. Crocodiles were used primarily for clearing bunkers, a task in which they excelled and were usually employed in conjunction with the Petard equipped Churchill AVRE.
They arrived after D Day but hugely influential nonetheless
Armoured Caterpillar D8 bulldozers were used to clear obstacles and keep the vehicle lanes open.
Sherman tanks were also converted into amphibious vehicles by the addition of a canvas skirt, propellers and other modifications. These provided vital armoured fire support in the opening phase of the beach assault although a number were lost to the heavy seas when they were launched too far from the beach.
The beach surveys had revealed the existence of large patches of clay that would not bear the weight of heavy vehicles and artillery. To overcome this the ‘bobbin’ tanks were used that laid a continuous reinforced canvas mat over the soft ground, thus spreading the load over a wider area.
The early bobbin mat was made from coir matting reinforced with scaffolding pipe and whilst not particularly durable allowed the initial assault to press home its attack.
This design was refined in time for D Day and used a canvas track and several variations were ultimately employed;
AVRE with Bobbin Mk I and Mk II; a single spindle and 9ft 11in wide canvas mat, the Mk1 had moveable arms and the Mk2 fixed
AVRE with log carpet device; not used as much, consisting of 100 6inch diameter logs bound together with wire, the mat was unfurled by firing an explosive bolt which released the coiled mat
AVRE with Twin Bobbins; experimental only, designed to offer a choice of matting types
TLC Laying Device; the early types used at Dieppe
After the initial assault they were replaced with Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) and Square Mesh Track (SMT)
The bobbin tanks were to prove invaluable on Gold Beach and within an hour of landing, they, and the other Hobart’s ‘funnies’ had created four safe transit lanes which allowed the assault and follow on forces to push on to their objectives.
It seems that the story of Sir Percy Hobart is uniquely British, a flawed and possibly eccentric genius whose vision was not appreciated until it was absolutely needed but when it was, methodical and patient application made a huge difference.
Speaking on the subject General Eisenhower wrote
Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except OMAHA, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed, and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armor landed in the leading waves of the assault. It is doubtful if the assault forces could have firmly established themselves without the assistance of these weapons.
Look at many of the armoured engineer vehicles in service today and you will the origins of their design in Hobart’s Funnies although interestingly the 79th had some capabilities not in service today.
It is also of some interest why, despite Eisenhowers demonstrable enthusiasm and unwavering support for the 79th and Hobart, why General Bradley insisted on using dismounted combat engineers that resulted in a slow advance and very high casualties on ‘Bloody Omaha’
Despite their armour the soldiers of the 79th suffered very heavy losses and were without a doubt extremely brave individuals, much was achieved by them and many lives saved.
The final word should belong to Liddell Hart;
He was one of the few soldiers I have known who could be rightly termed a military genius.