BY THE time World War II began, the nation that invented the battle tank had despatched its best armoured commander to the Home Guard instead of the battlefield. The credit for Lt Gen Percy Hobart’s eventual return to the battlefield in 1941 goes to Sir Winston Churchill, then British prime minister.
Hobart was born at Nainital in India, where his father was a civil servant. He served in Mesopotamia during World War I. After the war, he sought transfer to the Royal Tank Corps. Soon he returned to India—at the Command and Staff College at Quetta, now in Pakistan. He was soon made inspector of Royal Tank Corps and then brigadier commanding 1st Army Tank Brigade. “Hobart wanted to see the development of an all-tank force and his tank brigade was a pioneering, even world-leading, initiative which seemed full of promise,” writes British historian Patrick Wright in Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine.
In the mid-1930s, Hobart began advocating tank warfare so aggressively that old-school British generals called him a difficult person to work with. He was packed off to Egypt, where he raised his famous ‘Desert Rats’ division (the 7th Armoured Division), converting a ragtag unit into a phenomenally disciplined killing machine.
When World War II began, Hobart was nowhere in action. He had been forced into retirement. Back home, he enlisted in Home Guards as a lance corporal. On learning about this, Churchill was aghast. He reinstated Hobart, who went on to train the 11th Armoured Division.
But even after his reinstatement, Hobart was denied command of the 11th. “The High Commands of the Army are not a club. It is my duty to make sure that exceptionally able men, even those not popular with their military contemporaries, should not be prevented from giving their services to the Crown,” wrote Churchill in Hobart's defence.
Hobart is best known for his 79th Armoured Division, known as ‘Hobo’s Funnies’. Under him, the 79th became an innovation lab. It developed flamethrower tanks (Crocodiles) and chain-flailing tanks that exploded mines (Crabs), equipped Matilda tanks with searchlights and designed and built DD tanks that could cruise in water. It looked as if the 79th had the solution to every problem that the Allies faced. Interestingly, it never fought as one whole division as Hobart had always advocated. It used its 1,900 armoured vehicles in support of operations launched for other divisions, mostly of the US army.
After World War II, the phrase “served under Hobart” became a distinction in the British army. Hobart died in 1957.