The legacy of ‘Hobo’, the wizard of tank warfare

Remembering Percy Hobart on the 60th anniversary of his death.

Major General Sir Percy Hobart, commander of 79th Armoured Division. Credit: IWM

In the dark days of late summer 1940, the recently elected Prime Minister, Winston Churchill directed the Army to reinstate one of its most effective, innovative and outspoken former senior officers. This man had led the British development of armoured tactics in the 1930s, but in 1939 he was sacked and found himself employed as a Corporal in the Chipping Campden Home Guard (armed with a piece of drainpipe with a bayonet welded to its end!). But in October, Churchill summoned this 55-year-old corporal for lunch…and reinstated him as a General. He would go on to raise and train the largest Division to fight in Europe. He was Major General Sir Percy Hobart; possibly the most overlooked British General of the Second World War, whose legacy in military thought, innovation and leadership remains alive and well in today’s British Army.

General Hobart, known affectionately as ‘Hobo’, is still regarded as one of greatest armoured strategists and trainers of his time. He was famous in his day for providing the Allies with the weird and wonderful variants of military vehicles that would prove vital for those forces landing in occupied France on D-Day. But it nearly didn’t happen. Hobart had enjoyed a long military career and was a veteran of the First World War; but the greatest fight of his career was with his military seniors who had differing opinions on the true potential of tank warfare. It was a fight he looked to have lost when Hobart found himself ‘retired’ and forced to watch in dismay as the Nazi’s Armoured Panzer divisions routed British and French forces in May and June 1940. But the German success in executing new tactics of tank warfare did not surprise Hobart.

When Hobart first joined the British Army in 1902 the tank was still a weapon of the future. It wouldn’t see combat until 1916. After the First World War Hobart transferred from the Royal Engineers to the Royal Tank Corps. It was in this role that he began to realise the devastating potential the tank could have in future land battles. After proving his ability in establishing new manoeuvres and putting theory into practice, in 1934 he took command of the first permanent Tank Brigade in the British Army.

However, Hobart would have to fight for resources for his Brigade, and to ensure his voice was heard above those orthodox military minds who had reservations over his concepts. Hobart would get frustrated with this resistance and by those he feared would use the same attritional tactics used in the First World War in a future conflict. He is quoted as saying:

“Why piddle about making porridge with artillery, and then send men to drown themselves in it for a hundred yards of No Man’s Land? Tanks mean advances of miles at a time, not yards!”

Despite the continued scepticism in other parts of the military Hobart carried on developing the concepts and capabilities of armoured vehicles in fighting at night, exploiting the introduction of radio and co-operating with air power.

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) Type C Mark II carpetlayer for laying tracks across soft beaches.

By the late 1930s Hobart, who never suffered fools gladly, found himself isolated and after a series of disagreements with fellow officers he was sacked by his commander in the Middle East and forced to leave the Army in 1939. Following the Germans success in 1940, Hobart was subject of an article entitled “We Have Wasted Brains!”. The piece penned by the renowned military expert, Basil Liddell-Hart, was critical of Britain’s military high command for not making the most of Hobart, a man who had predicted the devastating effects of the German’s armoured warfare tactics known as Blitzkrieg and had long sought to pioneer them in the British Army.

Churchill, alarmed by the article, was determined Hobart should be taken back into the Army immediately and given command of one of the new armoured divisions who would protect Britain from the German forces gathering on the French coast.

“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.” — Prime Minister Winston Churchill writing to Chief of Imperial General Staff: October 19, 1940

With Hobart back in the Army and the war slowly turning in the Allies favour, high command began to plan for the invasion of occupied Europe; a gigantic undertaking that would require innovative military minds more than ever. In early 1943 Hobart was asked to train a specialised armoured unit that would become the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division, and at its height Hobart would have nearly 2000 vehicles under his command.

Sherman Crab Mark II minesweeping flail tank, one of Hobart’s ‘funnies’.

The Nazis had heavily reinforced Europe’s coastline and a variety of new tanks and armoured vehicles were needed to negotiate obstacles and clear defences. Pillboxes, mine fields, embankments, rivers and ditches would need to be overcome and Hobart was tasked to develop the equipment and tactics to perform these tasks. To do so he improved on existing designs and created entirely new vehicles. He was happy to take advice from anyone who could help, from a Corporal to the best scientific brains in the country. The odd look of many of the resulting vehicles used by the 79th Armoured Division led them to be known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’. These peculiar looking vehicles proved their worth in supporting ground troops in heavily defended territory and helped the invasion become a resounding success.

Insignia of the 79th Armoured Division

By the end of the Second World War Hobart had gained the respect he was due, was knighted and awarded the Legion of Merit. He died in 1957, aged 71 with his legacy intact. Today tanks and their supporting variants remain an integral part of the modern battlefield. Sixty years on from Hobart’s death Salisbury Plain, the area where his experimental 1st Tank Brigade once exercised, often plays host to the Army’s foremost tactical innovators. Lieutenant Colonel Simon Ridgeway, the current Commander of the Royal Tank Regiment commented:

“In The Royal Tank Regiment, we take great pride in the innovation and adaptability shown by our forebears, in particular General Hobart, and their work in pioneering armoured tactics and developing innovative solutions to the threats they faced.
“Today the requirement for an enquiring mind and innovative approach is as relevant as it was seventy years ago, and we continue to foster this attitude in our tank crews — ensuring the spirit of General Hobart continues in a new generation of “Tankies””

Today the distinctive black berets of the Royal Tank Regiment would be a familiar sight to Hobart but the 79th Armoured Division, with its fearsome bull’s head insignia no longer exists, but when a British Battlegroup takes to the field, you can still see Hobart’s legacy in its modern incarnation.

To read more about today’s British Army armoured vehicles click here

A selection of current British Army armoured vehicles