Today marks the 75thanniversary of D-Day, when tens of thousands of Allied troops threw themselves against Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ in an attempt to gain a vital foothold on the European mainland, after which the process of liberating the continent from fascist tyranny could begin. It goes without saying that all at Retropower have immense respect for the young men who so selflessly risked their lives all those decades ago, and as such we thought it only right and proper to mark the occasion with a dedicated ‘Retropower Heroes’ feature.
This being Retropower though, we wanted to take a closer look at something mechanical, which is what prompted us to consider some of the unsung heroes of that momentous morning 75 years ago – the ‘Funnies.’ Developed by Major Sir Percy Hobart in the months preceding D-Day, the Funnies’ were a variety of armoured vehicles with special adaptations intended to make the landings easier and safer for the infantry.
The need for such machines became only too apparent with the allies first assault at the European mainland, the Dieppe raid of 1942. It was an unmitigated, bloody disaster, and underscored just how vulnerable beach-based troops were. Not all the Funnies worked at all well, and some have rightfully gone down as engineering cul-de-sacs (at best), but all were fascinating examples of British engineering at its most plucky and innovative. Here are 5 of the most significant.
The AVRE Petard Mortar
Normally based upon the Churchill tank, this variant of the AVRE mounted a 290mm Petard Mortar, a weapon principally designed for the demolition of reinforced concrete structures like ‘pill boxes’ and machine gun emplacements. AVRE, or ‘Assault Vehicle Royal Engineer,’ tanks were among the most effective of the Funnies and saw plenty of action, both on D-Day and the Allied ‘breakout’ of the Normandy pocket which followed. The spigot mortar replaced the Churchill’s standard 6 pounder gun and was instead able to fire a massive 40lb charge, swiftly nicknamed ‘the flying dustbin.’
Among the most famous of the Funnies and a development soon well known (and detested) by all were on the receiving end of its fury, the Churchill based Crocodile sported a flame projector in place of its machine gun. The tank also retained its standard 75mm gun and so could still perform ‘normal’ tank based tasks, but its principle purpose was to clear bunkers and other tricky to surmount fortifications – something it proved terrifyingly effective at.
The ‘kit’ required to convert a standard Churchill MkVII into a Crocodile comprised a 400 gallon armoured trailer towed behind the tank, cylinders of gas propellant (enough for approximately 80 one second bursts of 120 yards), a pipe connecting trailer and tank, and the aforementioned projector system. The effect of the Crocodile was as much psychological as anything else, and it was by no means uncommon for defenders to give up their bunkers at the mere sight of one
The Sherman ‘Swimmer’ DD
Not all of the Funnier performed anywhere near as well as was hoped and the Sherman based ‘Swimmer,’ or Duplex Driver as it was officially known, was a case in point. Designed to help with the initial clearing of the Normandy beaches (and also to provide limited cover to the advancing infantry), the ‘Swimmer’ boasted a number of adaptions intended to help it function in the coastal waters of the English Channel, the most significant being its duplex drive system. This consisted of twin engine-driven propellers to move the Sherman in water, and also a canvas buoyancy aid to prevent the tank from sinking in its voyage from ship to beach.
Sadly for all concerned, the DD Sherman was an unmitigated disaster. The choppy waters off the Normandy beaches that morning made controlling the cumbersome tanks even trickier than it might otherwise have been, while leaks and other failures resulted in a number of Sherman crews drowning before they were anywhere near the beach-head.
The Royal Engineers found themselves operating a variety of specialised Funnies in addition to the spigot mortar, most intended to make clearing the beaches a simpler, faster undertaking. The Bobbin was one such vehicle and another based upon the trusty Churchill, albeit one shorn of its main gun (though it retained the Petard mortar and Besa machine gun). The Bobbin instead mounted a large drum, around which was wound a 10m hessian mat which could then be unfurled in front of the tank to form a temporary roadway for following vehicles, thereby negating the risk of tanks becoming stuck on the blue clay which made up portions of the landing beaches.
‘Crab’ Flail Tank
By the summer of 1944 the Germans had had a full 4 years to bolster their defences on the Normandy coastline, and one of the principle means they set about this was through the liberal sowing of minefields. Unwilling to follow the method favoured by their Soviet allies, namely sending waves of men from punishment (or penal) battalions to near certain death, the British set out to develop a more effective means of clearing the countless minefields dotting the Normandy beaches, and the Sherman based ‘Crab’ was the happy result.
Earlier mine clearing tanks had been based upon a roller-type system, which, while doubtless effective, tended to miss more deeply buried mines…with horrible results. The ‘Crab’ did away with the roller in favour of drum mounted flails – effectively a series of chains. These were driven by the Sherman’s engines and pounded the sand in front of the tank, detonating mines up to 4-5in deep and therefore able to clear a path of safety across the beach.