D Day & The Funny Allied Tanks That Helped to Save Lives

The success of D-Day came about thanks largely to lessons learned from the hash that was the Dieppe Raid in 1942. On 19th August, close to 5,000 Canadians and 1,000 British troops attempted the first ever amphibious landing on the shores of Europe. It was a fasco, according to ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’, edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab. The crucial element of surprise was lost after an early shootout, and possibly even before that through warnings by French double agents; the intelligence of German defences was faulty, so that the existence of two massive machine guns on either end of the landing beach was overlooked; air and naval support was inadequate, and crucially the British tanks were completely unable to cope with the heavily slanted French beaches. Without their help to break down sea walls and tackle gun points the troops were left stranded on the beach, sitting ducks. Few were rescued, the rest were abandoned or killed. The battle was not only fought on the beach, it was won there. The Allies learned not to underestimate the Germans; the Germans, meanwhile, learned to thoroughly underestimate the Allies and their ability to mount an amphibious invasion. Clearly, the coastal defences already in place were more than adequate.

German soldiers are inspecting a landing beach at Dieppe
German soldiers are inspecting a landing beach at Dieppe

 

Indeed, they were, as long as the Allied attack strategy remained the same. What was needed was a new and radical plan, with new technology to back it up. The invasion that was finally launched on 6th June 1944 was an entirely different animal to the one actioned at Dieppe. It was a surprise, thanks to Operation Fortitude, the intelligence operation to convince the Germans that the landings would occur at Calais rather than Normandy; considerably more planes were in attendance, and had conducted thorough a reconnaissance of the area besides; and, thanks to the ingenious construction of a floating harbour, the navy was able to join in the fight. It was not a frontal assault, being conducted on a number of different beaches, and this time the tanks were well up to the job of punching a hole in the Atlantic Wall. This time, the troops had ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

The Allied leaders now knew what they were up against, and knew that tanks would be needed that could first get ashore from boats close to the beach, then tackle the walls, cement blocks, ditches, pill boxes and minefields that the Germans would have liberally scattered over the landing beaches. The enemy’s faith in these methods meant that the defences were more lavish than deep, so if the tanks could clear a path, then defend themselves until the infantry could push through, it should prove relatively easy to advance beyond the beachhead. Once again, the battle would be lost or won on the beaches, and although some clever new devices such as mine detonating fiails had already been trialled, one innovative tank would not be enough. A fleet of different designs would be needed, equipped to cope with all potential types of obstacle. The job of selecting and championing these weird and wonderful craft, not to mentioning formulating a plan for their use, fell to General Sir Percy Hobart, the brilliant former commander of the 1st British Tank Brigade, the Mobile Division in Egypt and 11th Armoured Division. In March 1943 General Briggs entrusted him with the task of raising a new Specialised Armoured unit, the 79th Armoured Division.

General Sir Percy Hobart
General Sir Percy Hobart

 

Several different prototypes were eventually selected, fine-tuned and thoroughly road-tested, and they are all described in detail in the book ‘War Machine’ in our Historic Documents archive. One of the most widely utilised was the Duplex Drive (or ‘Donald Duck’) tank, devised by Hungarian Nicholas Strausler, a Valentine or Sherman tank adapted with the help of propellers and a canvas floatation screen to be able to ‘swim’ from a landing craft to the shore. Another design for the Sherman was the Crab Flail prototype, developed by the South African engineer Major A.S.J. du Toit, where a rotating drum mounted on a long arm at the front of the tank would slam weighted chains into the ground, setting off mines at a safe distance from the vehicle.

Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) Tank – Wiki Image
Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) Tank – Wiki Image

 

Churchill tanks, meanwhile, were often converted into AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers), designed to combat larger, more solid defensive structures. In our Historic Documents archive one of the troops who rode in these vehicles explains more about them in his diary, ‘WWII Written Accounts by Troop Sgt, Bernard Kaye No. 2073747 Royal Engineers 16th Assault Sqd’: “Our tanks did not carry a large gun, instead we had, in the place where the gun would normally be, a large tray. From here a missile called a ‘The Petard Bomb’ could be fired. It was nicknamed ‘The Flying Dustbin’ by the Sappers. It had much in common with a domestic bucket, in that it was the same size and shape. It was a cylinder, which was packed with explosive. It was concave in front, and this had a devastating effect when it hit an obstacle.” The problem with these bombs was that, although powerful, they were not at all accurate and would only take out a gun post with a direct hit; for this reason, the AVREs needed the DDs to support them, while the DDs needed the AVREs to clear a path. For this reason, both types, though approaching from different distances from the beach, had to try to arrive at the shore simultaneously. 

British AVRE turret-mounted Mortar
British AVRE turret-mounted Mortar
The Petard spigot mortar carried by the Churchill AVRE. AKA the the 'Flying Dustbin'
The Petard spigot mortar carried by the Churchill AVRE. AKA the the 'Flying Dustbin'

 

Apart from the Petard Bomb a host of other devices could also be attached to the Churchill tank. Bernard recalled the addition of ‘The Snake’, a pipe stuffed with gelignite, which was pushed out into minefields and detonated to in turn explode the mines and create a safe path. ‘The Jones Onion’, meanwhile, was a demolition device carried on a frame that could be placed close to a similar obstacle before exploding. Various bridging devices could also be laid to bridge trenches or bomb crater and create ramps up steps.

The Jones Onion, seen here carried by a Churchill tank.
The Jones Onion, seen here carried by a Churchill tank.

 

‘The Crocodile’ was another commonly used ‘Funny’, being an extremely effective psychological weapon. The Petard Bombs, Hobart knew, would struggle to take out the well concealed, deeply dug German bunkers. A more accurate device was needed for an attack on positions such as these. So, a flame projector was mounted onto the front certain Churchill tanks, while a small trailer of fuel was pulled behind. The resulting jet of flame, fired in one second or longer bursts, could extend up to 110m in good conditions, and was devilishly effective at persuading German defenders to shift out of their shelters at speed. Another equally ingenious device, the ‘Grant CDL’ (Canal Defence Light), a powerful searchlight protected by a small turret, designed to illuminate enemy positions, was not in fact used on D-Day, but had its day later in the war. 

The Churchill Crocodile with ?ame projector - Wiki image
The Churchill Crocodile with flame projector - Wiki image

 

All of these devices and many others, according to ‘History of the Second World War, Vol 2’ in our archive, made up the brigades of 79th Armoured Division, and between them aimed to combat every known type of German defence mechanism. This was crucial, as the layout of the planned British and Commonwealth landing beaches in every way favoured the defender, and if the Germans were to be overpowered it must be done quickly. When the different Specialised Armoured vehicles were demonstrated to General Montgomery he was delighted, and immediately insisted that a third of the available vehicles must be shared with the Americans. Unfortunately for the US troops, Major General Eisenhower was less convinced of the need for such devices. He loved the DDs, ordering a battalion of them, but left the choice of other ‘Funnies’ up to General Bradley, whose staff in turn decided no further special tanks would be required. They, of course, had not had the devastating experiences of amphibious landings that the British and Canadians had, and were nervous that the ‘Funnies’ might be hard to operate without extensive special training and the necessary experience of using Churchill tanks.

Certainly, the 79th Armoured Division had received meticulous training. Each brigade was assigned a special device to work with, with 35th Tank Brigade being given the CDLs, 30th Armoured Brigade the ‘Sherman Crabs’, the 1st Assault Brigade the AVREs, the 27th Armoured Brigade the DD tanks and the 31st Tank Brigade the various flame throwers. They learned how to operate their vehicles, practiced landing them and, in the case of the DDs, handling them in water, worked on their gunnery for the initial stage of the landings when they would need to defend themselves, and went over safety drills. They rehearsed operational drill after operational drill, until every process became automatic.

In the summer of 1943, all units of the division took part in a joint training drill at Linney Head in Wales, where according to ‘War Machine’ it became apparent how vital it was that all the different vehicles work together to support each other, which led to the formulation of further drills and individual training programmes. The vital timing of landings was fine-tuned, so that the DD tanks and assault teams would arrive at the beach together, and exercises in Norfolk gave the troops experience at operating on the same clay ground they could expect to encounter at Normandy; this led to the improvisation cloth and steel ‘carpets’ to stop tanks from sinking into the soft sand. Finally, as D-Day drew near and intelligence on the exact defences they would face mounted, the men meticulously worked out which equipment would be needed and how they should best go about achieving their goals.

Chruchill AVRE operates Carpet Layer
Chruchill AVRE operates Carpet Layer

 

Soon the day of the landings, DDay, was upon them. Units from 79th Armoured Division prepared to land on every one of the three beaches that were assigned to the British and Commonwealth forces. Bernard Kaye remembers, “I myself landed on Gold Beach at a town called Aromanches. The worst of the assault was over and I was lucky to have missed it… On D Day (the Petard Bomb) was used to lead the assault to put the concrete emplacements out of action. It had marked success although a great many men were lost. Any soldier who was in a pill box when the Petard Bomb struck was either killed or too shocked to take any further part in the war.” The US troops, meanwhile, had only their DD tanks to try to blast through the tough anti-tank walls. Unfortunately, on Omaha beach, a huge proportion of the available tanks swamped getting to shore, and more were knocked out immediately on landing. Many troops found themselves trapped on the beaches by the anti-tank walls, with nothing but their personal weapons to help them break through. They were also left at the mercy of the mines which either the DD or Avro tanks might have been used to clear.

Bernard continues, “Of course, landing on a hostile beach, which had land mines and also steel tripods with the infamous ‘Teller mines’ secured to the top, was very hazardous. The men who made the initial landings also suffered the effects of having crossed a very rough sea. Many AVREs did not escape destruction with the total loss of crew. However, those AVREs which did survive and get into the action were highly successful and were instrumental in piercing the German defences… As soon as the beaches were secured, the backup troops started to come in. Very soon, the action was about ten miles inland and the battle for Caen was begun.” Sir Percy Hobart had done his job, and done it well. All the preparation and training paid off, as although things went wrong in some instances – on the western beaches the DD tanks couldn’t launch due to rough conditions, so the assault teams in the AVREs and other vehicles of the 79th Armoured division had to provide their own fire support – the landing in general went better than the British generals could ever have hoped.

The Americans, particularly on Omaha beach where most DD tanks had been lost, made no such rapid progress but remained shore-side for much longer; ironically, they met with far less resistance beyond the beachhead, so had they broken through faster they would have suffered relatively few casualties in the landing. As it was over 10% of the 34,250 US troops who landed on Omaha beach lost their lives on the first day of fighting, while on the British landing beaches the average figure was closer to 5% (the US troops on Utah beach had a considerably easier time of it – but then, all their DD tanks made it to the beach). The book ‘Omaha Beachhead’ from the American Forces in Action Series, commissioned by the War Department, explains how vital a role the available DD tanks played, saying: “Their achievement cannot be summed up in statistics; the best testimony in their favour is the casual mention in the records of many units, from all parts of the beach, of emplacements neutralized by the supporting fire of tanks. In an interview shortly after the battle, the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry, who saw some of the worst fighting on the beach at Les Moulins, expressed as his opinion that the tanks ‘saved the day. They shot the hell out of the Germans, and got the hell shot out of them’.”

 

Do you have any D-Day heroes in your family?

There could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered. Delve into the fascinating world of military genealogy to find out more. Search the Forces War Records site and let us help you start, or continue your genealogy quest.

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