Tanks on D-Day

Tanks played a key role in the invasion, particularly those peculiar, modified tanks known as Hobart’s Funnies.

Bitter Experience

Amphibious operations are as old as military history, but tanks added a complex new dimension. Plans had been hatched to land tanks on the Belgian coast in 1917, and small exercises held between the wars kept the idea alive, but it was not attempted for real before the Dieppe landing of August 1942, which was a disaster.

Various schemes were considered for landings on the North African shore, but when it happened – Operation Torch in November 1942 – it was largely unopposed. Operation Husky, the landings on Sicily in July 1943, the defenders were caught unaware and unprepared. The landings at Salerno, Italy, in September 1943 were more heavily opposed, while Anzio, in January 1944 involved some hard fighting.

This resulted in a steady build-up of experience, which was also being gained by United States forces in the Pacific, but none of these landings involved defences like those awaiting the Allies on the Normandy beaches.

The Germans had been expecting an invasion since 1942. They knew it was coming, but they could not be sure when or, of course, where. However, since they assumed that the invaders would need harbour facilities, they began there and then gradually linked them up along vulnerable sections of the coastline.

Advance of the 79th Armoured Division.
Advance of the 79th Armoured Division.

The work was undertaken by the organisation Todt, which made extensive use of slave labour, and, at its peak, the project was consuming 200,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete per month. When Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took over responsibility for the defences, the pace of work increased, and by the summer of 1944, there were formidable structures that the Allies would have to deal with all along the occupied coastline.

Enter the Funnies.

Funnies is a collective noun for tanks that had been adapted to do something more than just fight in the regular way. It might be to clear mines, destroy concrete defences, or even swim. It might involve laying carpets across soft ground, dazzling the enemy with a bright light, or terrifying them with a flamethrower.

D8 Bulldozer and Shermans landing on Normandy beach
D8 Bulldozer and Shermans landing on Normandy beach

Once again, this was nothing new. By 1918, the Royal Engineers in Britain had tanks that could do many of these things, but further development was stifled, for financial reasons between the wars. Yet similar schemes soon surfaced in World War II.

Long before plans were laid for D-Day, dozens of experiments were taking place. Mine clearing tanks were operating in the desert, while experimental searchlight tanks were being tested in the Cumberland Hills. Amphibious tanks could be found swimming in many suitable locations, and an organisation called the Anti-Tank Experimental Establishment was working out ways that tanks could demolish obstacles.

In 1943, Hobart was tasked with raising and training the 79th Armoured Division. The division was unusual in that it never actually fought as a division but was a holding formation for specialised vehicles, which were then “lent” to other formations on a mission specific basis.

Hobart was in his element, applying huge energy and an ability to “think outside the box” to solve the massive problems of an opposed beach landing.

The 79th Armoured rapidly became a collection of some of the oddest AFVs ever to see service on a battlefield.

Most were based on either the American M4 Sherman or the British Churchill tank. The Sherman was reliable and available in numbers, and the Churchill was heavily armoured with good cross-country and climbing capability.

The most versatile of the Funnies was the AVRE – Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers.

Based on a Churchill, the AVRE retained the hull, turret, and mechanicals of the tank but was adapted in a number of ways.

Churchills in the aftermath of the Dieppe Raid
Churchills in the aftermath of the Dieppe Raid

Firstly, the Churchill interior was stripped out to allow the stowage of engineer stores. The Churchill’s main gun was then replaced with a weapon called a Petard, a 29mm Spigot Mortar.

The spigot part of the weapon was a hollow tube over which the tail of a drum shaped projectile was fitted. Called the Flying Dustbin, the tail contained a propellant charge, which would send the projectile and its 18kg explosive charge up to 140m.

This was effective against obstacles and fortifications, but it did have a significant disadvantage from the crew perspective in that it had to be reloaded from the outside via a hatch on the foredeck – not the healthiest occupation in combat!

Petard Mortar and Flying Dustbin
The Petard Mortar and Flying Dustbin

The AVRE was also equipped to carry and deploy a range of other pieces of equipment, including the Bobbin, a 3m wide reel of canvas reinforced with steel rods that could be laid as a trackway across soft mud or sand, a Small Box Girder Bridge, capable of spanning a 30ft gap; double onion demolition charges attached to a steel frame or a brushwood; and timber fascine, which could be dropped into something like an anti-tank ditch to enable crossing.

The AVRE had a crew of six; five Royal Engineer specialists and a driver from the Royal Armoured Corps. Apart from the range of equipment the AVRE was equipped with, the onboard stores included demolition charges, which the Sappers could deploy using the Churchill’s convenient sponson doors.

The Landing

Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings, which began on June 6th, 1944, were always going to be a massive and highly dangerous undertaking.

The Atlantic wall, an 88mm gun emplacement on Gold Beach.
The Atlantic wall, an 88mm gun emplacement on Gold Beach.

British, Canadian, and US forces were to land on five beaches; Sword, Juno, and Gold in the east, through to Omaha and Utah in the west, while airborne forces made landings to secure objectives inland.

The scale was vast. On the 6th of June alone, 160k troops would land from a fleet of 5,000 vessels accompanied by an aerial armada of 1,200 aircraft.

The attack on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches – the British and Canadian beaches – was led by DD tanks and LSTs carrying the assault teams of 79th Armoured with Crabs, AVREs, and armoured bulldozers.

Watch this space for more articles on tanks on D-Day!

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