Major General Sir Percy Hobart is a much under-considered, and under-appreciated general in the history of World War Two. Partly because he was a bit of a nutter, and partly because the limited action he did see is hard to assess.
Nonetheless Hobart was one of the most important technical and tactical developers of Allied armour techniques, and was responsible for training the famed 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) for its early Blitzkreigs in North Africa (though he didn’t get to lead it into battel); for training the outstanding 11th Armoured Division – probably the best British armoured division of the D-Day to Germany campaign (though he didn’t get to lead it into battle); and developing and leading the extraordinary 79th armoured division (Hobart’s Funnies) through that vital campaign. Liddell Hart said this 'hat trick' of the 3 best British armoured divisions of the war alone made him incomparable, let alone his influence on armour overall.
In between Hobart’s influence on the development of tank design, tank tactics, tank training schools, and the principles of all arms combined operations, meant that his impact on Allied tank forces during the war was probably greater than just about anyone else's. (Guderian too kept track of his writings throughout the interwar period, hiring someone personally to do the translations.)
Hobart’s background was as an army engineer, who learned his craft in India in the first years of the 20C. But his first significant role was as a combat engineer on the front line in France in 1915, where he expereinced the waste of bad plannig and leadership. This was reinforced immensely when he was transferred to the war against the Turks in what is now Iraq. Here he saw the nadir of bad planning and leadership in action, and here he developed his wilingness to speak boldly about things above his theoreticla pay grade.
His key lesson learned from the trench and desert fighting of WWI was that good planning and surprise were far more importnt than weight of numbers , attrition, or ‘porridge making’ artillery barrages. He also learned to value skill and potential over presumed experience and caution, and became keen on pushing the best candidates to higher ranks faster (rather than waste too much young talent in more exposed leadership roles before it could advance to a role to make a real difference).
Hobart’s war experience became more happy when the War Office finally got sick of the inadequate older generals India command was sending to Iraq, and forcibly imposed the young and energetic Major General Stanley Maude. Maude was one of those rare new officers, who was actually a Staff College graduate (at a time when few were). He was an enthusiastic and well read professional, very hard working, and dedicated to centralised control and training. As Hobart’s biographer Kenneth Macksey put it in Armoured Crusader ‘here was a man Hobart could emulate’.
Students of the later stage of the war against the Turks under Maude, and then under Allenby, will note that incompetence and inertia was replaced with professionalism and mobility. Hobart was at the forefront of this improvement, and his work with improving the effectiveness of cavalry and logistical movement brought him into early contact with the new motorised tracked gun tractors that would inspire him to throw his energy into tanks from that time on.
But his experience with swift advance also led him to emphasise the importance of close contact with the front, and to realise the flaws of that close contact seperating the middle commmanders too far from the rear commanders. On one notable occasion in Palestine, there is supposed to be a time when Hobart blocked a belated change of orders being passed ot the front line when he feared they would do more harm than good. After the attack had gone through successfully in its original plan, he is supposed to have indicated that the risk of distant and untimely intervention would have been very negative. There appears to be no recorded record of this event in British army files, but it was nonetheless a commonly held belief amongst many officers that it really happened. Whether it did or not, it was exactly the sort of thing that everyone believed that Hobart would do if he felt it necessary. After all, it is exactly the sort of behaviour that was to cause him repeated problems with his superiors through the interwar period.
After volunteering to join the Tank Corps in 1923, Hobart spent much of the interwar period vying with Lidell Hart as the prophet of the new armoured forces, but with two differences. First, whereas Liddell-Hart was dedicated to armoured striking power as a deciding factor on its own, Hobart was dedicated to effective combined arms operations as the best deployment of armoured power. Second, whereas Captain Lidell-Hart retired from the army and preached from outside, Lt-Colonel Hobart’s campaigning continued within the army.
After completeing Staff College with the likes of (later Field Marshall’s) Wilson, Wavell and Brooke: he was on the staff at Quetta. Here instructor Hobart put together the true list of elements needed for armour to succeed: light tanks for reconnaissance, medium tanks for general purpose, heavy tanks for breakthroughs, artillery carriers and infantry transporters (both prefferably tracked and armoured if possible), tanks to act as communication centres and command posts, mine layers, minesweepers, gas and smoke producers… these were the things he wanted. Plus integrated air support and logisitics and repair facilities that could keep up. (Those knowledgeable about ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ will note that by 1944 he was actually producing AVRE’s and engineer tanks, as well as bridgelayers and flail and fascine carriers, and flame throwing tanks, and amphibious tanks and anti-aircraft tanks, and everything his heart would have desired for 1939. But it would take four or five years of war to loosen the government’s purse strings and the weaken the inertia of senior officer opposition… in peacetime it was pipedream stuff.)
One interesting point to note is that Hobart’s sister married another Lt-Colonel in the late 1920’s and brought Hobart a brother-in-law called Bernard Montgomery. Monty was enough junior to Hobart, and an infantry specialist to boot, that he later admitted that he was well behind Hobart’s understanding of combined arms… “militarily I had not yet grown up”. But this was to bring into limited conjunction the two outstanding trainers and developers of tactics of the British army for World War Two at a time when Hobart’s ideas were fully developed, but still seemed dangerously radical to the more conservative Montgomery.
One success of the army in the late 1920’s over the politicians who were trying to disarm, and scrap ‘offensive weapons’ like bombers and tanks via fanciful ‘treaties’, was the Experimental Armoured Force. Hobart served as a staff officer in this, and he and Lt-Colonel Pile (later to command AA command in WWII), pushed the formation to impressive results considering its somewhat ramshackle structure. Hobart was offered a permanent position on the staff as a result, but he turned it down believeing he could pressure for even more outside the restrictions of the unit.
Unfortunately Hobart’s crusading spirit (he made Montgomery and even Wingate look very moderate indeed); and tendency to treat professional disagreement as personal emnity (bringing him into sometimes unnecessary dispute with Wilson, Wavell and Brooke amongst many others): led to entirely too many opportuntities for more conservative elements to sideline him, and feel justified when he railed against his enemies undermining his vision. In propaganda terms he was his own worst enemy.
His consistent refusal to allow armour to be downplayed simply meant that he was eventually bypassed in rank, not only by his contemporaries, but also by many juniors (like Montgomery). In some ways he was lucky to be selected and assigned to create and perfect the 7th Armoured division in Egypt in time for it to win the most outstanding – and one of the few – of Britains early wartime victories. But his disfavour amongst his contemporaries saw Wilson request his replacment, and Wavell (whose wife notoriously disliked the scandal Hobart had created a decade earlier by running off with another Indian army officers wife and marrying her) forcibly retire him before it went into action.
In fact Churchill was later to warn Brooke – specifically in regard to the employment of Hobart – that the army could not afford to dismiss every forward thinkier just because he had detractors in the old boys network. Churchill had been looking for an armoured warfare expert, and was shocked to discover that Britain’s leading exponent had been sacked and left to recreate himself as a Corporal in the Home Guard (and later a deputy area organiser).
Churchill insisted Hobart be brought back, at which point Hobart promptly refused Churchills’ suggested role of inspector of armoured formations because he wanted a more significant role of cammander of all armour created. In the end Hobart had to settle for 11th Armoured Division command under Montgomery’s Corps level command.
The inspector of armour role was therefore given to the self confessed ‘inadequate leadership’ of Giffard Le Quesne Martel instead. Martel had been a visionary along with Fuller and Liddell-Hart in the 1920's, and had often worked with Hobart in the 1930's, but he lacked Hobart's drive. His most interesting impact on WWII was to organise the British armoured counterattack at Arras which drove Rommel's Panzer division back 8 miles before running out of steam. he could have been a very good armoured commander, but his overly cautious impact on churchill's 'tank-parliaments' may have contributed to delaying the ‘catch up’ of British armoured units (11th Armoured excepted of course) for a couple of crucial years.
Nonetheless Hobart’s work behind the scenes continued to have impact. 11th Armoured became the benchmark of operational skill, and after the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, 11th armoured ran – according to some – the fastest advances in the history of warfare. Faster than Patton’s army to their south in France (who had a theoretically easier run with less opposition), and faster than Hobart’s original formation – 7th armoured – against the Italians in North Africa.
By the end of the war the standard British armoured division looked suprisingly like the design of integrated arms that Hobart had been promoting in the 1920’s.
Meanwhile Hobart, having been deprived of command of 11th armour before it was sent into action, was only sweet-talked into raising and training 79th Armoured division, and then converting it to specialist use, on condition that he would actually get to lead it into action.
In practice the division never served as a division, but its elements were so widely employed in France that it became by far the biggest armoured division of the war, with over 7000 vehicles, including more than 2200 armoured vehicles. It played a distinguished, and possibly vital, role in Allied victory. The ‘funnies’ that Hobart developed and trained for action became central to the success of various operations that could easily have failed. D-Day for instance.
Much is made of ‘Bloody’ Omaha in many histories, even though surprisingly little is made of the fact that the Canadians took proportionally almost as many casualties in their theoretically harder fight to breakthrough at Juno. The main difference of course being that Bradley had rejected all the specialist armour that Hobart’s funnies offered to the Americans (except for a few amphibious tanks), whereas the Canadians made copious use of them. The Canadians were also to run straight into the only German Armoured divisioin to counter-attack on D-Day (the 21st Panzer, which managed to block the British capture of Caen), and handily defeated its attempt to break back through to the beaches. If the 21st Panzer had attacked the Americans instead, their chances of a successful breakthrough to the beaches would have been greatly improved by the inadequacy of the available armoured support in the area.
For the rest of the war in Europe Hobart’s Funnies were constantly called upon by both British and American commanders to solve otherwise impossible problems. The Churchill flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and AVRE’s were particularly useful against German fortified ports, regularly demonstrating their ability to cross terrain that was impassable to other Allied tanks, and take punishment that other Allied tanks coud not face. Hobart’s units became the go to ‘fire brigade’ for almost everyone.
Biographers of Hobart, while giving thanks for his influence on armoured affairs, are torn on how he would have performed in combat. There can be little doubt that his armoured division would have run rings around any other of the British or Italian or Japanese army, and probably also of the American or Russian army. Whether it would have matched, or surpassed, German armoured divisions is the debate? some have suggested Hobart was Britain's Rommel. Many others have suggested Hobart was actually Britain’s Guderian, and would have made easy conquests of the far less experienced Rommel in North Africa. An intriguing but completely hypothetical concept.
By contrast, many others have commented, with equal justification, that Hobart was a somewhat unstable and emotional visionary, who may have gone off the handle at the wrong time and damaged his own career and campaigns. (Patton being inspirational and still managing to shoot his own career in the foot, being their comparison.)
Both viewpoints are just.
So how do we rate Hobart as a general?
First, he was the paramount Allied proponent and trainer of armoured forces. Of that there is little doubt. He was an excellent divisional commander, and had few equals in the war on this front. So we can certainly say he was an above average 2 star general despite his rancourous relationship with some of his seniors.
Second, his influence on the eventual composition and role of armoured units is hard to ignore, but the idea that he would have been an effective commander of 'all armour' is a bit scary. As an ‘inspector’ he would undoubtedly have been far better than Martel, but he refused such a role in the purity of his idealised search for a freestanding Armoured Army. Such a plan was anathema to Brooke when he was CIC of the home garrison, and even more so when he was CIGS. As some sort of armoured supremo, Hobart would have possibly been a dangerously destabilising influence on the overall army. (Should we mention a godlike self righteousness delusion… MacArthur comparison?) So we can suggest he would have been very problematical as a 4 star general, certainly in 1941, despite his undoubted skills.
The question whether he would have developed into a good corps commander (3 star in 1941-2) and possibly a good army commader (4 star in 1943-4) thereafter, had he taken the slow learning through combat route that Montgomery or Slim went through (from divisional command in 1940) is the real question. Perhaps he would have been better (as a commander), and also worse (as a subordinate), than Montgomery? Or perhaps he would not have made it that far, by destroying his career even more finally than Patton managed?
What can be said with reasonable confidence, is that he would not have made a good Supreme Commander or CIGS. His temperamanet was even less suited to this role than Montgomery or Patton’s.
Frankly, without seeing him in combat, we cannot really rate him as a combat leader.
Still, we can be very grateful that he did the hard thinking in the 1920’s (when few were visionary); the proof of concept in the 1930’s (when few others – even in the German army – were following his lead); developed the first practical expression in the stunningly successful 7th armoured (a unit certainly on a par with the Panzers in France); influenced the ongoing development of all British armour from there (dragging them up to a level suitable to compete with the battle hardened Panzers in time for the invasion of France); and made the breakthroughs in specialist armour that vastly reduced Allied casualties in the final campaigns.
Was he a great general? Yes… and no!