Of all the stories of the D-Day invasion, the most heroic—and tragic—involve the waves of Allied soldiers who waded ashore to face the enemy on the beach. Thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops, many simple riflemen, were hurled against beach defences occupying German troops had spent years perfecting. One of the unsung weapons that helped keep Allied casualties down were the “Funnies,” tanks modified to help sweep aside Axis defences.
In 1942 British and Canadian troops staged a major amphibious raid on occupied France. Code-named “Jubilee,” the raid would land and then withdraw more than 6,000 British and Canadian troops at the French town of Dieppe. The raid was a disaster, with casualties among the landing troops exceeding sixty per cent. A major problem was the presence of breach fortifications and obstacles, which the landing force was wholly unprepared for.
Even with the Dieppe Raid’s failure, British commanders were preparing for an eventual all-out Allied invasion of France. This operation would eventually be known as Operation Overlord and set to take place in early June 1944. Stung by Jubilee’s high cost and near failure, the British concluded that it wasn’t enough to land tanks with guns on the beaches and that more specialised equipment was needed. They were determined to give their landing force, which would land at the beaches code-named Gold and Sword, the tools necessary to reduce enemy defences and move off the beach.
General Percy “Hobo” Hobart, a British Army general assigned to the Royal Tank Corps, was focused on the problem of first getting armour ashore, then using it to assist the infantry in overcoming German defences. Hobart was convinced the key to getting off the beach was investing in specially modified tanks and other armoured vehicles. Instead of ordinary tanks armed with cannon and machine guns, Hobart wanted tanks fitted with specialised engineering equipment to help breach obstacles and clear the way forward.
Hobart’s 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division became the proving ground for the “Funnies”—tanks and other fighting vehicles made funny-looking by the addition of extra equipment. Hobart’s Funnies replaced sleek tank guns with squat, fat mortar barrels, added dozer blades, plows, rotating chains, and giant wheels to the front of tanks, and burdened others with bundles of sticks and large, cumbersome-looking canvas screens. At its height, the 79th Division had nearly two thousand vehicles.
The Funnies were British Churchill or U.S.-made Sherman tanks which were then extensively modified. The Churchill, a low-slung heavy infantry tank, was fitted with a hull-mounted flamethrower with a range of 100 meters (328 feet), and towed a wheeled trailer with enough fuel for eighty one-second bursts. The “Crocodile,” as the new vehicle was called, could set wooden defences on fire or, chillingly, burn out machine gun bunkers.
Other Churchills were modified for other roles. The “Ark” was a Churchill with the turret removed and ramps on both ends. The Ark would act as a mobile ramp, driving up to a seawall or other vertical obstacle so that other vehicles could drive up and over it. The AVRE, or Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, replaced the Churchill’s main gun with a mortar that flung a forty pound explosive charge, known as a “flying dustbin,” at barbed wire, machine gun nests, or other obstacles. AVREs could also carry large spools of cloth, laying it down as they moved forward to prevent vehicles from bogging down in the soft sand. Other AVREs carried mobile bridges, ditch-filling materials, or a plough designed to unearth land mines.
Sherman tanks were also extensively modified. One example, the “Crab,” mounted a huge metal cylinder in front of the tank hull turning at more than 140 rotations per minute. As the Crab moved across the battlefield, lengths of chain mounted to the rotating cylinder methodically beat the ground in front, ideally detonating any hidden land mines.
Other Shermans, nicknamed “Duplex Drive” Shermans, were fitted with propellers and a canvas shroud to provide propulsion and increase buoyancy. DD tanks would swim from landing craft to the shore, drop their shrouds, then blast away at beach defences with their guns.
UK forces, eager to see the entire invasion succeed, offered their American counterparts a third of the “Funnies.” U.S. commanders had already placed a large order Crocodile tanks and were also developing their own version of the Crab. Unfortunately, neither the Crocodiles nor American Crab tanks were ready in time for the invasion. The Americans did take delivery of nearly one hundred DD tanks.
June 6th, the day of the invasion, found the 79th Armoured Division’s Funnies sprinkled throughout the British contingent. The bizarre armoured vehicles played a major role in the landings, rolling up German defences. Over on the American beachheads, code-named Utah and Omaha, the U.S. Army launched 96 DD tanks from tank landing craft. Approximately half were lost to rough seas and enemy fire. At Omaha Beach 27 out of 29 DD tanks never made it to shore. The lack of other Funnies, particularly obstacle breaching vehicles, was sorely felt.
The Funnies of D-Day not only helped the allies gain a toehold on Europe but also forced armies to recognise the essential nature of combat engineering vehicles. Today, the British Army operates the Trojan armoured vehicle. Based on the Challenger II chassis, the Trojan mounts a mine plow and excavator arm to reduce obstacles.
The U.S. Army learned its lesson on the beaches Normandy, and today the Army and Marines both operate the similar, Abrams-based M1150 Assault Breacher Vehicle. More than a blip on the continuum of history, Funny tanks went mainstream and changed land warfare forever.