The intentions to document this information are long standing in that they go back some two decades to the early/mid 1990’s, just a few years before the subject of this site, James Kitchener Heath passed away.

As is the case in so many families in which a generation experienced war and all its traumas, certain aspects of service are known, but all too often the details are sketchy and disjointed. Add into this mix the passage of time and the result is invariably a collection of stories and fragments of memories accompanied by a handful of fragile and faded documents (if you are lucky) that represent the sum of information relating to the most extraordinary period in a soldier’s life. This was certainly the case in our family..... and it’s not much to go on.

In February 1995, my Father and I struggled to put together a potted service history to be read by the cleric presiding over my Grandfather’s funeral. At this point I decided to take steps to fill in some of the gaps as best I could.... sadly now without the benefit of first hand testimony.

A well known turn of phrase, ‘written on the back of a fag packet’ is defined by the Collins on-Line dictionary as something ‘composed or formed quickly and without detailed analysis or research’. As far as first hand source material for this history is concerned, no better a description could be made. The details gleaned from my Grandfather in brief (and often emotional) discussions in the 1990’s are summarised as a list of place names written in an old man’s shaky handwriting on the back of a standard envelope! (this will feature later). On the upside, a standard envelope is approximately twice the size of a cigarette packet, which immediately doubles the amount of information to work with!

By my own admission, this site is a little self-indulgent, being of primary interest to myself, my mother, my children and a handful of relatives still living in Staffordshire. In addition, it may be that the information presented here will be read by others outside of the family who have a passing interest in military or family history.

I would welcome any comments/suggestions or dare I say it relevant information to contact me.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Hobart's Funnies Of The 79th Armoured Division In Operation Astonia

Major General Sir Percy Hobart, 16 June 1942. In March 1943 he was made responsible for the development of specialised armoured vehicles, known as 'funnies', to spearhead the D-Day assault © IWM (H 20697)

From 1943 onwards, in preparation for D-Day, the need for specialist vehicles adapted in order to achieve specific tasks was recognised. The responsibility for designing such motorised armoured pieces fell to Major General Sir Percy Hobart, an engineer, and Commanding Officer of the 79th Armoured Division. The often peculiar appearance of these modified designs earned these vehicles the name of 'Hobart's Funnies'.

First making an appearance in the Battle for Normandy, it is believed that Operation Astonia saw the biggest concentration of such vehicles in a single action to that point in the war. It is beyond doubt that Hobart's Funnies made a great contribution to the success of the operation and greatly reduced the Allied casualty count at the conclusion of the assault on Le Havre.

Here follows a brief description of the centre stage funnies that supported Astonia.

The Kangeroo

An armoured personnel carrier with the capability of providing rapid and protected transportation of infantry. Such vehicles enabled the delivery of foot soldiers to key positions at the same time as the more mobile armour. The importance of these vehicles increased as the advance eastwards accelerated after August 1944.

The Kangaroo, often adapted from the obsolete Ram tank of the Canadian Army was able to transport eight men once the turret of the tank was removed.

Kangaroos keeping infantry apace with advancing armour

The Crab

This was an adaptation of a Sherman tank upon which a flair (consisting of a roller and a weighted chain) was fitted to the rear of the vehicle. This flail, powered directly from the engine of the tank allowed detonation of mines from a safe distance and as such, in the context of Astonia, Crabs lead formations towards heavily defended objectives creating lanes through mined areas.

A Crab flail tank at rest

The Crocodile

A converted Churchill tank in which the gun was placed with a flamethrower fuelled from a 9-ton armoured trailer. The flamethrower was capable of delivering 100 one second 'shots' over a distance of 100 meters. 

A Crocodile spewing ignited fuel

The Crocodile was a controversial weapon of war (as had flamethrowers been in the Great War). Crews of Crocodiles who fell into enemy hands could expect some rough treatment at the hands of their captors. Summary execution of crocodile crew prisoners was not unknown, for such was the contempt with which this innovation was held. On the other hand, it has been argued in some quarters that the Crocodile actually made a positive contribution to preserving life in the north west European theatre, as such was the fear of this weapon that the very appearance of a Crocodile on the battlefield was sufficient to persuade the enemy to surrender en masse.


The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer (AVRE) was another adapted Churchill tank upon which the gun was replaced with a Petard spigot mortar. This mortar fired a 40 pound bomb, colloquially as the 'flying dustbin', that was capable of destroying concrete defences such as bunkers and pill boxes.

Churchill AVRE with spigot mortar © IWM (KID 898)

Crewed by Royal Engineers, occupants of the tank had the perilous task of reloading the mortar after firing from the outside of the vehicle.

The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right © IWM (H 38001).

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