Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart KBE, CB, DSO, MC (14 June 1885 – 19 February 1957), also known as “Hobo”, was a British military engineer noted for his command of the 79th Armoured Division during World War II. He was responsible for many of the specialised armoured vehicles (“Hobart’s Funnies”) that took part in the invasion of Normandy and later actions.
Hobart was born in Naini Tal, British India to Robert T. Hobart (of the Indian Civil Service), and Janetta (née Stanley). His mother was born in County Tyrone and lived at Roughan Park, near Newmills, between Cookstown and Dungannon. She married Robert Hobart in Tullaniskin Parish Church, Dungannon, on 7 October 1880.
In his youth, Percy studied history, painting, literature and church architecture. He was educated at Temple Grove School and Clifton College, and in 1904 he graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers. He was first sent to India, but during World War I he served in France and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). He took part in the Waziristan campaign 1919–1920 when British and Indian Army forces put down unrest in local villages.
In 1923, foreseeing the predominance of tank warfare, Hobart volunteered to be transferred to the Royal Tank Corps. While there, he gained the nickname “Hobo”, and was greatly influenced by the writings of B. H. Liddell Hart on armoured warfare. He was appointed an instructor at the Command and Staff College at Quetta in 1923where he served until 1927. In November 1928, Hobart married Dorothea Field, the daughter of Colonel C. Field, Royal Marines. They had one daughter. His sister, Elizabeth, married Bernard Montgomery (who rose to Field Marshal in the Second World War).
In 1934, Hobart became Brigadier of the first permanent armoured brigade in Britain and Inspector Royal Tank Corps. He had to fight for resources for his command because the British Army was still dominated by conservative cavalry officers. German General Heinz Guderian kept abreast of Hobart’s writings using, at his own expense, someone to translate all the articles being published in Britain.
In 1937, Hobart was made Deputy Director of Staff Duties (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) and later Director of Military Training. He was promoted to Major-General. In 1938, Hobart was sent to form and train “Mobile Force (Egypt)” although a local general resisted his efforts. While sometimes referred to as the “Mobile Farce” by critics, Mobile Force (Egypt) survived and later became the 7th Armoured Division, famous as the “Desert Rats”.
Sir Archibald Wavell dismissed Hobart into retirement in 1940, based on hostile War Office information due to his “unconventional” ideas about armoured warfare. Hobart joined the Local Defence Volunteers (precursor to the Home Guard) as a lance corporal and was charged with the defence of his home town, Chipping Campden. “At once, Chipping Campden became a hedgehog of bristling defiance”, and Hobart was promoted to become Deputy Area Organiser. Liddell Hart criticised the decision to retire Hobart and wrote an article in the newspaper Sunday Pictorial. Winston Churchill was notified and he had Hobart re-enlisted into the Army in 1941. Hobart was assigned to train 11th Armoured Division, a task which was recognised as extremely successfully achieved.
His detractors tried again to have him removed, this time on medical grounds but Churchill rebuffed them. He was relatively old (57) for active command and he had been ill. Once again, Hobart was assigned to raise and train a fresh armoured division, this time the 79th Armoured Division.
The Dieppe Raid in August 1942 had demonstrated the inability of regular tanks and infantry to cope with fortified obstacles in an amphibious landing. This showed the need for specialised vehicles to cope with natural and man-made obstructions during and after the Allied invasion of Europe.
In March 1943, Hobart’s 79th Armoured was about to be disbanded, due to lack of resources, but Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, in a “happy brainwave”, invited Hobart to convert his division into a unit of specialised armour. Hobart was reputedly suspicious at first and conferred with Liddell Hart before accepting, with the assurance that it would be an operational unit with a combat role. The unit was renamed the “79th (Experimental) Armoured Division Royal Engineers”. Unit insignia was a black bull’s head with flaring nostrils superimposed over a yellow triangle; this was carried proudly on every vehicle. Hobart’s brother-in-law, General Bernard Montgomery informed the American General Dwight D. Eisenhower of his need to build specialised tanks.
Under Hobart’s leadership, the 79th assembled units of modified tank designs collectively nicknamed “Hobart’s Funnies”. These were used in the Normandy landings and were credited with helping the Allies get ashore. The 79th’s vehicles were offered to all of the forces taking part in the landings of Operation Overlord, but the Americans declined all except the amphibious Sherman DD tank. Liddell Hart said of him: “To have moulded the best two British armoured divisions of the war was an outstanding achievement, but Hobart made it a “hat trick” by his subsequent training of the specialised 79th Armoured Division, the decisive factor on D-Day.”
The vehicles of the 79th did not deploy as units together but were attached to other units. By the end of the war the 79th had almost seven thousand vehicles. The 79th Armoured Division was disbanded on 20 August 1945.
Hobart returned to retirement in 1946 and died in 1957 in Farnham, Surrey.
A barracks in Detmold, Germany was named after him. Hobart Barracks has since been handed back to the German government and no longer functions as a barracks.
In 1943, Hobart was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). After the war, he was awarded the American Legion of Merit. During his career, Hobart also became a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) and, for his actions in World War I, received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Military Cross (MC). During his military career he was also mentioned in despatches 9 times