Tell them: pike

Tank Museum curator David Willey with Percy Hobart’s ‘Home Guard’ pike

One of the most evocative items from the wartime Home Guard is to go on display at the Tank Museum in Dorset – a pike.

The homemade weapon was issued to eccentric WW1 veteran Percy Hobart, who would go on to have a major impact in the success of D-Day 75 years ago on June 6.

The pike was made from a piece of scaffolding with a 1913 Remington bayonet welded to it.

Percy Hobart’s pike

It was the type of Heath Robinson approach to defending our country that helped inspire the hit TV comedy Dad’s Army.

Hobart, aged 55, had been a Major General in command of the Mobile Division in North Africa in the early stages of World War Two.

But he was sacked by his superior ‘Jumbo’ Wilson for being ‘unconventional’ in his ideas and a prickly character to boot.

He joined the Chipping Camden Local Defence Volunteers – the precursor to the Home Guard – and was promoted to Corporal.

Percy Hobart was in the Home Guard, but unlike his lookalike, Cpt Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, had been a World War One hero and helped the Allies achieve success on D-Day.

Friends such as Basil Liddell Hart wrote in the press arguing that it was a waste of such a talented trainer of men – a message that Winston Churchill was made aware of.

Churchill intervened, asking Hobart to dinner at Chequers after which the bespectacled soldier received an invitation to the War Office.

He asked if he should attend in his Corporal’s uniform, but after a flurry of exchanges the uniform of a Major General was suggested as more appropriate.

Hobart was given command of the 11th Armoured Division and later the 79th Armoured Division.

This unit was instructed to use specialised tanks and train other units ready for D-Day. The tanks were nicknamed ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

They included tanks designed to clear mines and destroy wire on landing beaches, swimming tanks, flame-throwing tanks, mortar tanks that could destroy concrete bunkers, as well as track-laying and bridge-laying tanks.

Hobart’s Funnies’ included The ‘Crocodile’ – a tank with a flame thrower. A modified Churchill tank. Fire terrified the enemy

The ‘Crab’ or ‘Flail’ tank; a modified Sherman tank that would clear paths through minefields and wire

The ‘Crab’ or ‘Flail’ tank on display at the Tank Museum

The ‘Bobbin’ tank, which carried carpet that was laid over soft ground to allow other tanks to advance

A bridge too far. Some tanks were fitted with bridges

The ‘Swimming’ tank, designed by Hungarian Nicholas Straussler who was based in England. The ‘DD’ or ‘Swimming’ tank meant that tanks were spread out when coming ashore and so avoided the chance of a ship sinking and all the tanks it carried being lost.

The ‘Swimming’ tank on display at the Tank Museum

The Churchill AVRE carried a spigot mortar for demolition; a bunker buster

David Willey, curator of the museum in Bovington, said: “This pike is a wonderful example of the desperate state of Britain in 1940.

“Men like Hobart were expected to defend this island if the Germans had invaded with a bayonet welded to a scaffold pole – and I have no doubt they would have tried to use it.

“Just after the outbreak of World War Two Hobart had upset his superiors and was retired.

“He immediately signed up to the Local Defence Volunteers – or Home Guard – as soon as it was formed.

“The pike with which he was issued shows what a desperate state Britain was in during the summer of 1940 is and what sort of lengths we’d go to in order to repel an invasion.

“Luckily for the Allies, Hobart was called out of retirement to train the 11th Armoured Division and was then given the task of leading the 79th Armoured Division.

Percy Hobart

“After the disaster at Dieppe raid in August 1942 there was a realisation that more specialised armour would be needed to assist the D-Day assault.

“The division developed or pioneered all manner of innovative vehicles and tanks – a number of which we have at the museum.

“The pressing need for urgent development meant Hobart raced around the country in a fast car to meet the scientists and engineers tasked with turning his concepts into reality.

“He was also famous for taking advice and opinion from anyone – he would ask his driver or a nearby corporal his opinion of some new proposal.

“By his drive and the force of his personality he created a formidable array of innovative vehicles which were highly successful on D-Day.  He also trained men to use them.

“As we approach the anniversary of the invasion it is worth remembering how close we were to defeat and how mavericks such as Hobart made a huge difference in the course of the war.

“Had Churchill not intervened, we would have wasted one of our greatest talents.”

Percy Hobart, portrait by Eric Kennington

Sir Percy Hobart – also known as Hobo – was born in India in 1885 and joined the Army in 1904.

He was known for his blunt honesty, temper and rudeness and made his fellow officers ‘hop’.

He was a diminutive man famed for wearing black, round spectacles.

After fighting in France and Mesopotamia in WWI he took part in the Waziristan campaign from 1919-1920, before moving to the Tank Corps from the Royal Engineers.

In 1937 he was promoted to Major-General but in 1940, due to his ‘unconventional’ ideas about armoured warfare, was dismissed, before reinstatement.

In 1943, Hobart was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and later received the American Legion of Merit.

He also became a Companion of the Order of the Bath and, for his actions in World War I, received the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross.

During his military career he was Mentioned in Dispatches nine times.

In 1928 Hobart married Dorothea Field.  His sister, Elizabeth, married Bernard Montgomery.

Hobart died in 1957 aged 71. His daughter presented the pike to the Tank Museum in 2014.

Tank Museum curator David Willey with Percy Hobart’s ‘Home Guard’ pike

Dad’s Army with Pike

Hobart’s pike

 

ends