These unusual vehicles played an important role in the D-Day landings, the Battle of Normandy and the campaign in north-west Europe. The failed Allied raid at Dieppe in August 1942 exposed how difficult it was to land vehicles and men during an amphibious invasion and to break through German coastal defences - specialised armour was needed to get across soft sand and shingle and through beach obstacles.
The Allies made very few efforts to develop this armoured equipment until preparations began for D-Day. In early 1943, the 79th Armoured Division under the command of Major-General Sir Percy Hobart was given responsibility for developing equipment and tactics to perform specialised tasks in support of ground troops on and after D-Day. Not only did Hobart improve on existing designs, he created entirely new technologies. The armoured vehicles of the 79th became widely known as 'Hobart's Funnies'.
The 'swimming' Sherman
The Duplex Drive (DD) 'swimming' Sherman was an amphibious tank used on all five beaches on D-Day. The duplex drive engine powered propellers in water and tracks on land. The canvas flotation screen gave the tank enough buoyancy to support its weight without having to sacrifice armour or firepower. Once ashore, the screes were dropped and the tanks became fully operational. This allowed for a quick build-up of armour and provided almost immediate support for the invading infantry forces.
The 'Crab' Flail
The 'Crab' was a Sherman tank with a flail (roller and weighted chain) attachment used to clear mines. The flail tank was not a new invention – the Matilda 'Scorpion' was used during the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 – but under Hobart's direction, the 'Scorpion' flail was adapted for use on the Sherman. Unlike on the 'Scorpion', the flail was powered by the tank's main engine. The Sherman also retained its 75mm gun, which could be fired as normal when the flail was not in use.
The Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer) was a modified Churchill tank fitted with a Petard spigot mortar, designed primarily to demolish steel and concrete structures, such as bunkers and gun emplacements. Specialised equipment could be added to the AVRE to enable it to perform other tasks.
The Churchill AVRE's main weapon was a 29cm Petard spigot mortar. It fired a 40-pound bomb known as the 'Flying Dustbin'.
The 'Bobbin' carpet layer
The 'Bobbin' carpet layer was a Churchill AVRE adapted to lay reinforced matting on soft beach surfaces that could not otherwise support the weight of armoured vehicles or other heavy equipment. The matting allowed these vehicles to drive across the difficult terrain.
AVREs were used to transport fascines - large bundles of wooden sticks and other materials used to bridge gaps in the ground. The AVRE would release the fascine into these gaps to create a passable surface. Tank-carried fascines were first used during the First World War to fill trenches that were either too wide or too deep for vehicles to cross.
The SBG Bridge Layer
This photograph shows an SBG ('Small Box Girder') bridge layer on Sword beach on D-Day. This type of AVRE could bridge a 30-foot gap and provide a ramp to scale a wall up to 15 feet high. It was often used in conjunction with fascine, which would provide a softer landing surface when a vehicle dropped from a surmounted wall or other elevated position.
The Armoured Ramp Carrier, also known as the ARK, was a modified Churchill tank with a foldable ramp in place of its turret. It was driven into a gap where it opened its ramps, creating a bridge that other vehicles could cross. Although they were used throughout north-west Europe, they were particularly effective in the later phases of the Italian campaign. This photograph shows two stacked ARKs providing a pathway across the River Senio in 1945.
The Buffalo Amphibian
The 'Buffalo' LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) was a lightly armoured amphibious landing vehicle that, although easily damaged, was a relatively quick and effective way to transport troops, small vehicles and supplies. Buffaloes played a significant role during the crossing of the Rhine and Elbe rivers in 1945, when bridges were not immediately available.
The 'Kangaroo' Armoured Personnel Carrier
The 'Kangaroo' Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) was used for the rapid transport of infantry, helping them keep pace with armour during offensive operations. During the Battle of Normandy, they helped to solve a critical tactical problem by providing vulnerable infantry some means of increased mobility and protection. The 'Kangaroo' was an improvisation first used by Canadian troops in Normandy before being adopted by the 79th Armoured Division. Many were adapted from the obsolete Canadian Ram tank, which could carry approximately eight men once the turret was removed.
The CDL (Canal Defence Light) was a Grant tank with a searchlight within the turret. Its main purpose was to provide light during night operations, but it also used to produce a dazzle effect to temporarily blind enemy forces. The CDL had a larger role as night operations became increasingly common in north-west Europe. All of the 'Funnies' were developed in secret, but the CDL was the most closely guarded.