They Called Him ‘Hobo’
This document is part of a periodical (Journal of Historical Review).
Use this menu to find more documents that are part of this periodical.
Trevor J. Constable, born in New Zealand in 1925, has an international reputation as an aviation historian and author. With Colonel Raymond F. Toliver, he has authored a number of successful works on fighter aviation and ace fighter pilots. He has lived in the United States since 1952. He now makes him home in southern California.
Winston Churchill threw down the Sunday Pictorial on the morning of August 11, 1940, with an angry scowl on his face. “We Have Wasted Brains!” blazed the headline to a slashingly critical article by Britain’s top military analyst, Captain B. H. Liddell Hart. Dominating the page was a photograph of a hawk-faced officer in the black beret of the Royal Tank Corps, former Major-General Percy Hobart. He was Liddell Hart’s classic example of Britain’s “wasted brains.”
Practical pioneer and developer of the now-dreaded Blitzkrieg technique and former commander of the world’s first permanent tank brigade, Hobart’s revolutionary innovations in armored warfare had won him international military fame – and special attention in Germany. Dire peril now threatened Britain, but General Hobart was not commanding British tanks. He wasn’t even in the Army. He had been found serving as a corporal in the Home Guard [overage men and other civilians otherwise unfit for regular military service, meagerly armed, whose “uniform” was an arm band] – the highest responsibility Britain’s military mandarins were willing to give to the progenitor of the Blitzkrieg.
Aroused by Liddell Hart’s exposure of the situation, Churchill was determined to change Hobart’s assignment. In the process, the prime minister was to launch and bring to its climax a drama of personal resurrection unsurpassed in military history. As Churchill pressed buzzers and rumbled memoranda to his secretaries, the country stood on the brink of ruin. The struggle with the Luftwaffe raged overhead. German armies were massing on the French coast for the projected invasion. The British Army had been routed in France with the modern tank methods first demonstrated to the world by Hobart, now a Home Guard corporal. The Germans had learned and applied only too forcefully the techniques pioneered by Hobart’s tank brigade years before.
The prime minister directed that Hobart should be taken back into the Army. The chief of the Imperial General Staff should give him at least one of the new armored divisions to command. Delay was to be avoided. A personal meeting was to be arranged promptly between Corporal Hobart and the prime minister.
In a modest home near Oxford, lean, bushy-browed Percy Hobart was preparing to leave for his Home Guard duties. The one-time general who had commanded hundreds of armored vehicles in maneuvers and raised and trained the 7th Armoured Division in North Africa took a wry look outside his front door at what was now his “transport.” A baby Austin driven by a member of the Women’s Volunteer Services stood waiting. The telephone jangled, Corporal Hobart answered, and found himself talking to one of Churchill’s secretaries. The tank expert was asked to have lunch with the prime minister at Chequers, the official country residence of the British leader. Bigger things were in store for the aggressive 55-year-old ex-general, whose stormy and controversial past held the key to his future.
Percy Hobart, right, in conversation with General William H. "Big Bill" Simpson, US Ninth Army Commander. Units of Hobart's specialized 79th Experimental Armoured Division served with distinction with Simpson's Ninth Army. The two men became personal friends. Simpson called Hobart "the most outstanding high British officer I met during the war."
From the early 1920s, when he had transferred to the Royal Tank Corps as a military engineer, Hobart had turned his thinking to the future. He was among the few pioneers in every major nation to whom the tank appeared as the decisive land weapon of any future war. These tank enthusiasts, British, German, American and French, took their tactical inspiration from two outstanding British theorists, J. F. C. Fuller and Captain B. H. Liddell Hart. Liddell Hart in particular was influential. He was even then winning recognition as Britain’s leading military brain – in or out of uniform – and he wrote forcefully and persuasively in favor of the new doctrine of strategic mobility. This concept is basic to today’s military teachings, but it was heresy in the 1920s. Liddell Hart held that tanks would restore to 20th-century warfare the ancient Mongolian idea of extreme mobility – the Mongols’ main instrument of conquest. Bloody slugging matches in the 1914–18 fashion were doomed. Generalship would again flourish and replace the dull butchery of mass frontal attacks by infantry.
Orthodox military minds of that time could not grasp such concepts, which demanded creative imagination no less than military understanding. Men with imagination, vision and ability to carry these qualities over into practical soldiering were rare in the static-minded, socially-centered British Army. Percy Hobart was one such man. His diversified background and interests ensured that imaginative, mobile thinking would be second nature to him. A student of history and its lessons, he had delved also into such creative non-military fields as painting, literature and church architecture. Vibrant facets of mind to which regular military life gave no scope sparkled brilliantly in Percy Hobart.
Liddell Hart’s “Mongolian” concept of strategic mobility became the focus of Hobart’s considerable intellectual resources. Development of these concepts and their adjustment to the mechanical twentieth century dominated Hobart’s life from the time they were put forward. His creative imagination had been fired by the military revolution he could visualize, but his creativity was combined with a rock-hard realism. “Wars cannot be fought with dream stuff,” he used to say, as he poured his life’s energies into the development of practical machines for armored warfare, and the effective methods of directing these new mobile weapons. His goal was to break military science out of the straitjacket of trench warfare by updating the Mongol methods.
Where the Mongols lived off the country through which they ranged, Hobart planned to carry sustaining rations in the tanks. Refueling would be from lightly-protected dumps in the enemy rear, where the far-ranging armored columns would penetrate and strike. He worked with relentless zeal to cut “the tail” of non-fighting service vehicles which hobbled and almost immobilized conventional army units. Tank forces of the future were to be self-contained for the maximum possible range.
Down-to-earth problems such as these did not prevent Hobart from taking a prescient look up at the sky. He planned for the time when the increasing power and versatility of aircraft would permit mobile armored columns to be completely supplied by airdrop. Standard practice today, this concept was in those times often the subject of mockery. Hobart planned to send his hard-hitting columns ripping into enemy supply lines and nerve centers in the rear, paralyzing command and demoralizing troops in the front lines. Less than twenty years later, America’s General George S. Patton was to carry out these tactics on a vast scale and with historic success.
General Heinz Guderian in his armored command vehicle during operations in France, June 1940. His panzer units played a major role in routing British and French forces in May and June 1940.
Resistance to these radical ideas began to stiffen. The old order found its neurotic and professional security threatened by the progress of strategic mobility. “Hobo,” as he was affectionately called by his intimates, viewed the old order and its resistance to the new ways with direct and unconcealed contempt. “Why piddle about making porridge with artillery,” he said, “and then send men to drown themselves in it for a hundred yards of No Man’s Land? Tanks mean advances of miles at a time, not yards!”
Views like these were shared only by a small military minority. The powerful ruling faction of military conservatives was convinced of the value of the tank only in scattered use to support infantry formations. Horsed cavalry had been literally swept from the battlefield by the machine gun, but cavalrymen and cavalry philosophy nevertheless still ruled the high commands of the British Army. Men like these regarded Hobart’s ideas as anathema. Professionally, they were maintaining the kind of army that could fight the First World War over again. Content with familiar ideas and concepts, and fearful deep inside that Hobart and others might be right, these controlling conservative elements closed the high commands of the British Army to tank advocates.
During this same period in the USA, despite the nation’s massive mechanical heritage, a similar situation prevailed. Development of an independent armored force was stifled on that side of the Atlantic, although General Douglas MacArthur held a vision of the military future similar to that of Percy Hobart. Tank development was largely left to devoted individual officers in both Britain and America.
What Hobart’s faction lacked in authority they made up for with energy and persistence. Aided by the strong independent voice of Liddell Hart, the tank enthusiasts were finally able in 1927 to pressure the British military hierarchy into the formation of an “experimental mechanized force.” Maneuvers demonstrated dramatically that such a force outclassed old-style formations, leaving them bewildered and embarrassed. The theories of Liddell Hart and Fuller and the practical genius of Hobart’s training and organization were vividly vindicated. The writing was on the wall for the old order.
The die-hards reacted with a more energetic campaign against tank advocates and theorists. At all costs tank men were to be kept out of high command. Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, whose writings had been widely acclaimed both in the US and Germany, was the first victim. By a series of subtle maneuvers he was quietly squeezed into retirement and never allowed to hold an important post. Other tank officers were sidetracked and discriminated against professionally.
Hobart was now a rising power in British military circles, and conservative machinations were directed against him. He miraculously survived these early efforts at strangulation of the new ideas, and held a series of commands in the Royal Tank Corps. He worked out a basic modern battle drill for tanks, and used all his considerable powers of persuasion to get radio-telephones for his armored fighting vehicles.
Like most things for which he struggled, radios are indispensable to the military of today. A tank in today’s armies would hardly be considered battle-worthy without radio. But Hobart spent months requesting, cajoling, demanding it. When the precious radios were finally obtained, Hobo was as happy as a child on Christmas morning. “Control is as important as hitting power, armor or mobility,” he said.
Hobart, top left (in beret), commander of Britain's 1st Tank Brigade, atop a modified 16-tonner during 1934 military exercises on southern England's Salisbury Plain.
With the radios came a new dimension in tank tactics. The basic equipment for a modern tank force was now to hand and Hobart began building up the techniques of command and control that were to rock the world. He made a sharp departure from the army concepts of leadership then in vogue. He believed in men knowing what they were seeking to accomplish in a military operation, right down to privates. “I do not want automata serving under me,” he told his subordinates.
He brought everyone serving with him into intimate contact with the higher strategic and tactical principles he was striving to establish in modern war. Although not an orator, Hobo was possessed of a virile and inspiring eloquence that generated tremendous enthusiasm. His gift was to focus this enthusiasm on practical military matters, charging the mundane with a rare magic. Hobart carried this principle over into the civilian circles where equipment was being manufactured for his tanks. When he finally got his radios, he sought out the young woman scientist who ground the crystals for these long-awaited sets. She was set up in the tank turret beside Hobart and he showed her how hundreds of fighting vehicles depended on the accuracy of her work.
After the young woman had gone away visibly impressed by what she had been shown, Hobart turned to his brigade major. “What a damned boring, awful job that girl has, grinding those crystals – but now she knows where we’d be without her.”
The soaring enthusiasm generated by Hobart’s methods reached its zenith in the 1st Tank Brigade, formed in 1934 as the world’s first permanent tank unit on modern lines. By this time a brigadier despite his radical views on warfare, Hobart was given command of this historic unit. He quickly infused the brigade with a booming esprit de corps unrivalled in the British Army.
Under his control at long last was the kind of formation that could conclusively prove the case for strategic mobility. Hobart lost no time. In a series of brilliantly executed war games, he proved the feasibility of driving to the enemy’s rear with fast-moving armored units and completely disrupting enemy organization. He carried the revolution even further.
Hobart proved that armored units could both travel and fight by night. This innovation forced a complete revision of strategic and tactical concepts, for it placed old-style military units more than ever at the mercy of armored fighting vehicles. He firmly established the fundamentals of co-operation between tanks and air power, central to all that is done on the modern battlefield. He drove the 1st Tank Brigade hard. He knew how much could be proved and needed to be proved and that he might not be granted the time by his superiors. Continuing antagonism toward tanks, tank advocates and the new concepts of armored warfare characterized the high command of the army, and Hobart was never sure that his next war game would not be his last.
These unsparing efforts by Percy Hobart gave birth to the basic technique of the Blitzkrieg, the new mode of mobile warfare that was to bring nation after nation tumbling down and force Britain to the brink of defeat. The British high command remained irrationally prejudiced against the military technique that Hobart was unfolding. With a curious kind of intellectual detachment, most British leaders did not believe that the devastating effects of Hobart-style armored units could be carried over into actual warfare. Purblind views such as these aroused Hobart’s fiercest antagonism: “What in hell is the use of having war exercises,” he would fume, “when every lesson they teach us is ignored?”
Medium battalions of Britain's 1st Tank Brigade, under the command of Percy Hobart, in close-order drill during military exercises in 1934.
Skepticism about armor was reinforced by lingering love of the cavalry horse. The logical passage of this beloved beast into military limbo was delayed and obstructed by its devotees. These men became opposed to the tank on emotional, sentimental grounds, and found in Hobart a hostile, aggressive opponent. Horsemen nevertheless carried far more weight than tank men in British military life. Cavalry experts not only ruled the army commands, but had long tentacles into the body politic. Their influence was such that as late as 1936 the then secretary of war, Alfred Duff Cooper, apologized to the cavalry in Parliament for mechanizing eight of its regiments.
Hobart’s achievements were running a poor second to the cavalry horse in Britain, but elsewhere they were undergoing dynamic scrutiny. A strong-jawed German colonel named Heinz Guderian probed with Teutonic thoroughness and an enthusiast’s zeal into the lessons of every Hobart trial and exercise. Every report, observation and paper pertaining to Hobart’s force was meticulously analyzed by Guderian, the Hobart of the new German Army. These studies formed the basis of the new panzer divisions, armored spearheads of Germany’s new army. Hobart’s 1st Tank Brigade was Guderian’s practical guide, and answered many of the German leaders early problems. Guderian had his difficulties with German military conservatives, but he accorded his country’s tank debunkers little attention. When they spoke of “tank limitations,” Guderian would not listen. “That’s the old school,” Guderian would say, “and already it is old history. I put my faith in Hobart, the new man.”
At the conclusion of some prewar maneuvers of Guderian’s panzer division, the German general was reported to have offered a farewell toast in champagne – “To Hobart.” The dynamic British pioneer was considerably less popular in Britain than he was with the modern military men of Germany. Unreasoning conservatism was taking an even sharper stand against tank men than ever before. The irrational nature of the conservative standpoint, combined with the menace to his country and the disasters that he could already foresee had turned Hobart into an explosively fierce advocate of what he knew to be true and proved by actual test.
The slender general’s personal forcefulness and vehement manner of expressing himself in pursuit of his goals had earmarked him for professional extinction. “No man is any good who has no enemies” was one of Hobart’s credos. By the late 1930s he had more bitter foes in Britain’s War Office than any other officer in the British Army. He had become involved in heated arguments with all Britain’s military mandarins. Every leader from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff downwards had felt the whiplash of his tongue and the weight of his eloquent logic. Confrontations with senior officers could not long continue. Hobart’s passion for the armored idea was actually leading him to risk his all.
Efforts to tone him down had little success. A deeply concerned Liddell Hart, in company with General “Tim” Pile – another long-time tank advocate – took Hobo out to dinner one evening. Their purpose was to save not only Hobart himself, but the armored idea, which Hobo’s confrontations with high personages was placing in jeopardy. Relaxing in a pleasant atmosphere, Liddell Hart quietly stressed to Hobo that he was alienating potential War Office converts by his infuriating ways of argument. Like all strong personalities, Hobart could pass from one extreme of behavior to another. Force was balanced in his character by a courtly and irresistible charm. “He apologized disarmingly,” Liddell Hart recalls, “and promised that it would not occur again. But only a week later the Chief of the Imperial General Staff complained to me that Hobo had again been intolerably rude to him. I tackled Hobo about it, but he was completely unaware of having been rude to anyone.”
In this climate of clash and controversy, Britain tardily began the formation of its first modern armored division. The Germans already had four and were building more. Hobart’s fears and predictions were being realized. He was the logical man for the command, and the new secretary of war, energetic, reform-conscious Leslie Hore-Belisha, was determined that Hobart should get the vital assignment. War Office conservatives dug their toes in and treated Hore-Belisha to a bewildering exhibition of bureaucratic and professional resistance. The secretary was unable to put Hobart into the post, and recalled in later years: “In all my experience as a minister of the Crown, I never encountered such obstructionism as attended my wish to give the new armored division to Hobart.”
A cavalryman whose most recent assignment had been the training of riding instructors was proposed by the War Office for command of the new armored division. This proposal fairly characterized the uncomprehending state of British military thought on the eve of the world’s greatest war. In a compromise arrangement with the War Office, Hobart became director of military training. Hore-Belisha hoped by this stratagem that Hobart’s personal drive, enthusiasm and knowledge of armored warfare could permeate all army training.
The tank genius was now deep in “enemy” territory. He was the last tank man of high rank left in an influential post. Like a loathsome infection, he was gradually walled off by the subtle processes of the War Office organism, while pressure mounted to expel him entirely from that august body. Hore-Belisha was continually urged to dismiss Hobart.
The Munich crisis provided the right emotional climate and an excuse to get rid of him completely. He was bundled on a Cairo-bound aircraft, assigned to raise and train Britain’s second modern armored division. With Hobo’s removal to the Nile delta, tank thinking was exterminated in Whitehall [Britain’s Foreign Office], and as Liddell Hart put it, “The British Army was again made safe for military conservatism.” For these decisions on the part of its highest military professionals, Britain was to pay dearly in life and prestige.
Scattered motorized and mechanized troops with obsolescent equipment were all that Hobart found in Egypt as the basis for a modern armored division. A grim enough prospect in itself, the equipment situation was overhung by a demoralizing and obstructive emotional factor. Commanding in Egypt was one of the British Army’s remaining conservative hangovers from the First World War, a soldier for whom Hobart, himself a decorated veteran of the first conflict, had never failed to express his professional contempt. The commanding general was also a socially-minded soldier. He especially detested Hobart at the personal level for his 1928 marriage, for which Hobart’s wife had gone through the divorce court.
Modern minds would regard such a procedure as little more than a fact of life. To the British Army of the period between the wars, it was a transgression sufficient to bring many threats of professional retribution on Hobart, one of them from the general who now commanded in Egypt.
Hobart’s arrival was followed by a brief and brutally unceremonious interview in the quarters of the commanding general. “I don’t know why the hell you’re here, Hobart,” he barked, “but I don’t want you.”
In this poisonous atmosphere, once again virtually isolated, Hobart buckled down to build the kind of armored division of which he had always dreamed. There was virtually no communication with main HQ, no sympathy with what he was doing, no co-operation and no equipment. Hobart proved his superb qualities under these negative, antagonistic conditions by bringing off the miracle of the 7th Armoured Division.
Troops accustomed to the sleepy garrison routine of Egypt found themselves with a stern taskmaster. Rushed into the desert to train by day and by night they soon found themselves permeated by the unconquerable spirit of the tall, hawk-faced Hobart. He infused them with the same magic morale he had given to the 1st Tank Brigade, and month by month he welded the scattered units into a determined, smoothly functioning fighting division.
Taking the jerboa (desert rat) as their emblem they were soon known as the “Desert Rats.” They proved themselves Britain’s finest armored division in the whole North African campaign. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force of 1940, called the 7th Armoured Division “the best trained division I have ever seen.”
J. F. C. Fuller, as a Colonel, about 1919. During World War I, he organized the first British tank corps. Author of nearly 40 books, he is widely acknowledged as one of this century's most brilliant military strategists and historians. (A review of two biographies of Fuller appeared in the May-June 1993 "Journal.")
The grim and frustrating duels of the War Office and the struggle for the armored idea slipped into the background as Hobart fulfilled himself in a man’s job. When war broke out in September 1939, a deadly, hard-hitting and superbly mobile force was under his command. Lean, tanned and hard of body and mind, the 54-year-old Hobo was ready for whatever the war could bring.
Three months later, Hobart was dismissed from his command and sent into retirement.
This shocking blow came at the hands of General Sir Archibald Wavell, who decided to act on an adverse report on Hobart filed by the general who hated him and who had sworn professional retribution. Normally a man impervious to the effects of opposition or professional misfortune, Hobart was shaken to the roots of his being by his abrupt and complete dismissal.
Lady Hobart recalls the 1940 dismissal from the army as the one time in their life together that the general had shown distress over any reverse. “He was a stricken man,” she says today. “To anyone lacking his intense fortitude, the wound would have been mortal. No warning whatever was given that this blow was to fall.”
General Sir Archibald Wavell, who was himself a man with a keen mobile sense, was unable in later years to explain adequately his action in dismissing Hobart. The loss of the tank genius from the desert command was to have incalculable consequences for British arms and fortunes. Liddell Hart tackled Wavell about Hobart’s dismissal personally, and made it clear to him how deplorable and damaging the whole affair had been. “Wavell’s explanation was rather lame,” says Liddell Hart.
Wavell went on to win his own immortal glories by crushing the Italians with the Hobart-trained 7th Armoured Division – the only unit available and able to nullify the overwhelming Italian advantage in manpower and machines. By one of destiny’s strangest twists, Liddell Hart had compiled a list of the most promising officers in the British Army for Hore-Belisha in 1937. Only two men were singled from the multitude of British generals as likely to become great commanders – Wavell and Hobart.
The fortunes of the British Army in North Africa were left after Hobart’s dismissal in the hands of high commanders who were no more than amateurs in the handling of modern armored forces. So tight was the conservative grip on command that it was not until the latter part of 1942 that authentic tank officers even reached divisional commands. This continuing prejudice and incomprehension was reflected by the British Army’s record in the field. With an inferiority of force but with an intuitive gift for handling mobile forces, Rommel proceeded to thrash humiliatingly a succession of British generals sent against him. The troops in the field, as well as the public all over the world, began to wonder if the British had ever heard of the tank before Rommel. British troops in North Africa, repeatedly let down by their armored forces, began to look on their own tank units with considerable suspicion.
When Hobart went back to England, an appeal against his dismissal was made to the king. The appeal was never put forward by the War Office. In Britain’s time of mortal danger, Hobart’s foes had eliminated him completely from military affairs, and had no intention of bringing his case to the attention of the monarch. For his general’s uniform and badges of rank Percy Hobart substituted the white brassard of the Home Guard on the sleeve of his lounge suit.
He joined the Home Guard without communicating anything of his intense disappointment to his wife and family. A deliberate effort had been made to break Hobart’s spirit as well as to end his military career. Self-pity might easily have overwhelmed a lesser man but Hobo was made of sterner stuff. “I cannot do what is ideal, so I must do what I can,” he told his wife. He entered seriously into his Home Guard duties as a corporal. As the months passed, he seemed to develop an inner conviction that his chance would come, and that the wheels of the gods would eventually grind. For Hobo, the wheels of the gods ground along on German tank tracks.
Six months after Hobart’s removal from the army, Guderian’s panzers had run the British Army out of France in one of history’s most humiliating routs. The able and farsighted German leader had used to perfection in war the techniques first tried and proved by Hobart. Never was there a more appropriate time for review of their military affairs and doctrines by the British, for only the miracle of Dunkirk had saved their beaten army from capture or annihilation.
Incredible as it must now seem, the stinging defeat of France and Dunkirk, with its devastating effects on morale and national pride, made little impression on Britain’s military conservatives. Their intellectual detachment from the dynamism of events continued. The smashing of their First World War type formations in France was deemed due to some sort of lucky German punch, even though Hobart’s Tank Brigade exercises in the middle 1930s had portended the armored revolution with undeniable clarity.
Winston Churchill was not satisfied either with these military notions, or the defeats they had brought upon Britain. He was no friend of military die-hardism. One of the early pioneers of the tank in the First World War, Churchill had helped batter down opposition to its introduction into the earlier conflict. Between the wars, the future prime minister had watched tank developments closely. Hobart’s disastrous misemployment incensed Churchill, As prime minister and minister of defense he was the most powerful official in Britain, but getting Britain’s leading tank tactician and general back into the army was to take every ounce of his authority, as well as some of his eloquence.
As late as October 1940, Hobart was still unemployed, his appointment obstructed high in the War Office. Churchill was given a dossier listing the reasons why the progenitor of the Blitzkrieg should not be given an armored division. Churchill replied to the resisting spirits in the War Office with a historic minute:
Heinz Guderian was Germany's most important architect of armored warfare. In the years before Hitler came to power, when tanks were forbidden to Germany under the punitive Versailles Treaty, he learned much about modern armored warfare from a close study of the pioneering work of Britain's military strategists. In his postwar memoir, he specifically acknowledged his great debt to the writings of J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart. Guderian also carefully studied accounts of Percy Hobart's innovative tank operations. After Hitler's advent, these lessons were applied in rapid development of the world's most powerful and effective armored force. In 1934 Hitler sanctioned the new Wehrmacht's first tank battalion, and four years later he named Guderian to command Germany's armored formations.
October 19, 1940
Prime Minister to Chief of Imperial General Staff:
I was very pleased last week when you told me you proposed to give an armored division to General Hobart. I think very highly of this officer, and I am not at all impressed by the prejudices against him in certain quarters. Such prejudices attach frequently to persons of strong personality and original view. In this case, General Hobart’s views have been only too tragically borne out. The neglect by the General Staff even to devise proper patterns of tanks before the war has robbed us of all the fruits of this invention. These fruits have been reaped by the enemy, with terrible consequences. We should, therefore, remember that this was an officer who had the root of the matter in him, and also vision. I have carefully read your note to me, and the summary of the case for and against General Hobart. We are now at war, fighting for our lives, and we cannot afford to confine Army appointments to officers who have excited no hostile comment in their career. The catalogue of General Hobart’s qualities and defects might almost exactly be attributed to any of the great commanders of British history.
… This is a time to try men of force and vision, and not be confined exclusively to those who are judged thoroughly safe by conventional standards.
With this push from Churchill, Hobart’s star went into the ascendant. He raised and trained the 11th Armoured Division, earmarked to fight in North Africa. While he set his indelible personal stamp on the 11th, Hobart chafed at the disasters inflicted on the British in North Africa by Rommel. He felt certain that he could defeat the Desert Fox if given the chance, but on the eve of the 11th Armoured’s departure for Africa, Britain’s military reactionaries took one last ignominious cut at the brilliant tank leader.
Because his military views could no longer be gainsaid, the final effort to oust Hobart was made on medical grounds, and mainly because he was now 56. His opponents were unfortunate in that they made their last effort to ruin and remove Hobart in September of 1942, a black month for the British Army. Only three months earlier, Rommel had sent the powerful British 8th Army reeling back in a rabble from Tobruk. The Desert Fox stood now at El Alamein, readying his final thrust at Alexandria. This reverse had been inflicted by dynamically directed armored forces on the superior British Army and had left Churchill furious. The prime minister had also personally visited and inspected Hobart’s new 11th Armoured Division only a few months previously, and had found Hobo in full vigor. Churchill’s reaction to the final attempt to oust Hobart was this second historic minute on the tank leader, filed on September 4, 1942:
Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War:
I see nothing in these reports [of the Medical Board report on General Hobart] which would justify removing this officer from command of his division on its proceeding on active service.
General Hobart bears a very high reputation, not only in the service, but in wide circles outside. He is a man of quite exceptional mental attainments, with great strength of character, and although he does not work easily with others, it is a great pity we do not have more of his like in the service. I have been shocked at the persecution to which he has been subjected. I am quite sure that if, when I had him transferred from a corporal in the Home Guard to the command of one of the new armored divisions, I had insisted instead on his controlling the whole of the tank developments, with a seat on the Army Council, many of the grievous errors from which we have suffered would not have been committed.
The high commands of the Army are not a club. It is my duty … to make sure that exceptionally able men, even though not popular with their military contemporaries, are not prevented from giving their services to the Crown.
As it happened, the assignment of Hobart’s 11th Armoured Division to North Africa was cancelled at the last minute. Under Major-General G. P. B. “Pip” Roberts, a Hobart-trained tank leader of great skill, the 11th later became Britain’s finest armored division in the whole of the European campaign. Hobart raised and trained the two finest British armored divisions of the war, but a more massive challenge awaited him now, beside which an ordinary divisional command would have been misuse of his unique talents.
The invasion of Europe and the subsequent campaign into Germany required a host of new-type tanks and armored vehicles. Tanks were needed for bridging ditches and rivers, clearing mine fields, throwing flame, destroying pillboxes and emplacements and for swimming ashore from landing craft with the assault waves and crossing rivers. Because these tanks did not exist in usable form, they had to be developed, together with the tactics for their employment. Men would have to be trained in the specialized task of manning these new weapons.
Design and development problems were enormous, and it was not a job for a riding instructor. Britain’s new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, had not been a Hobart enthusiast in prewar days. Nevertheless he was man and soldier enough to recognize that at this juncture there was one man in Britain pre-eminently qualified to develop specialized armor for the invasion and conquest of Europe.
General Alan Brooke called a somewhat bewildered and cautious Hobart to his London office in March 1943 and asked him to train a unit in the handling of specialized armor. This unit was later to become known as the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division. After almost two decades of frustration, disappointment, sidetracking and outright victimization, Hobart suspected some sort of trap. Sir Alan Brooke’s prewar apathy to the armored idea remained fresh in his mind. The ex-Home Guard corporal asked for time to consider the offer of command made to him by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Sir Alan Brooke agreed to this request, and Hobart set out to track down Liddell Hart and get his views on the proposal.
Hobart found Liddell Hart at the house of friends in Stoke Hammond, outside London. All urgency and energy, Hobo took the famed military analyst out in the garden for a private talk. Striding up and down in an icy wind for an hour, arguing about the new armored unit as a vehicle for Hobo’s talents, they looked like anything but friends. Liddell Hart’s wife Kathleen took periodic nervous looks out of the window. The vehemence of their discussion was unmistakable, and she wondered if they were quarrelling.
Liddell Hart finally convinced the gun-shy Hobart that it was an opportunity to be seized, and that such a chance would never come his way again. The 79th was to be the biggest division in the world, and also the first all-armored division. Tempted by the prospects, excited by the challenge, Hobo’s resistance crumbled. He took the job.
Hobart’s drive, knowledge and will-power became decisive in the building of the epic 79th. Time was short. There was virtually no background of previous experience on which to draw, a situation which placed a premium on Hobart’s acumen, experience and military intuition. Challenge and fulfillment came together.
Trials and tests were endless. Hobart’s gift for arousing enthusiasm for a new idea found full scope. The 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division took a bull’s head as its insignia and soon boasted the same kind of soaring élan and confident professionalism that characterized other Hobart-trained formations. Urgency and excitement pervaded Hobart’s environment, and no longer were there blockheads in brass hats to scrutinize and obstruct his requirements. On the contrary, men with wide authority moved heaven and earth to provide him with the necessary resources.
Field Marshal Montgomery, the conqueror of Rommel, was Percy Hobart’s brother-in-law. Although a Hobart admirer for many years, Monty had tended to shy away from the tank idea when it was unpopular at the War Office. The hero of El Alamein now put his prestige behind Hobart’s work and took up the needs of the 79th with General Eisenhower. The Supreme Commander quickly recognized Hobart’s vital role and his unique abilities in developing specialized armor. Eisenhower slashed red tape and gave top priority to the US manufacture of the odd-looking tanks and attachments Hobart required. High-level push of this kind, and Eisenhower’s unstinting support of anything likely to save lives, soon provided the resources to assemble Hobart’s “Menagerie,” as it became known.
Prime Minister Churchill, left, accompanied by General Hobart, right, inspects the 11th Armoured Division in November 1941.
Liddell Hart has called the 79th Armoured Division “the tactical key to victory.” Because it was not a division that fought as a unit, but had its elements farmed out to the Allied armies wherever they were needed, the 79th has far less historical fame than most of the Allied divisions that stormed through Europe. How far many other divisions would have been successful without the “funnies” of the 79th is a question for debate.
By the time the Allies reached the Rhine, Hobart’s 79th Division consisted of eight brigades and a total of 17 regiments, quadrupling the complement of armored and tracked vehicles on the establishment of any normal armored division. This huge metal menagerie was spread out at times over a front of ninety miles, and the direction and allocation of its 1,900 armored vehicles kept Hobo hopping.
As the US Army in the beginning did not have specialized armor of its own, the 79th frequently worked in close support of US troops, and was the only British unit to do so. This situation suited Hobart. He liked Americans and they liked him. He was direct, frank and forceful, knew what he was talking about and understood the American character as few British commanders ever did. He would verbally thrash any officer or man he heard speaking against the Anglo-American alliance, to which he was deeply devoted. At one time, he even had an American aide, New York oilman George Thomson Jr., who served with the British Army. Hobart’s radiant admiration for things American, such as know-how and mechanical skill, was not a superficial or transitory thing. He had an intimate knowledge of American commanders and their views, and an extensive knowledge of US military history. He held America’s top generals in the highest regard.
Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O., M.C., Colonel-Commander of the Royal Tank Regiment, in a formal postwar photograph.
The directness and honesty of most American generals appealed greatly to Hobart. With the US 9th Army commander, General W.H. “Big Bill” Simpson, the feeling was mutual. Simpson was taken aback by Hobo’s quiet boast that he was “the oldest major-general serving in Europe.” Simpson says of the amazing Englishman: “He was the outstanding British officer of high rank that I met during the war, and from his mind and bearing no one could possibly have guessed his age.”
Vigorous and vitally alive, Hobart served with his fantastic steel menagerie until the final gun of the war from which he had almost been excluded. The case for armor had been proved. The basis for future manifold developments of tanks had been laid by the accomplishments of the 79th. Wrote General Eisenhower in his report:
Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except OMAHA, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed, and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armor landed in the leading waves of the assault. It is doubtful if the assault forces could have firmly established themselves without the assistance of these weapons.
Hobart had probably done more than any other single individual to advance both tanks and specialized armor on the practical level. Had Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division, with its fearsome bull’s head insignia, not been such a spectacular success, tank innovations may well have halted as they did after the First World War. Tanks are today an integral part of atomic battlefield planning.
Percy Hobart was knighted by King George VI, and from the US received the Legion of Merit, Degree of Commander, a decoration of which he was extremely proud. When he went into retirement after the Second World War, it was in an honorable and upright way, with his admirers far outnumbering his critics. His death in 1957 saw him deeply honored and widely mourned, and to have “served with Hobo” is a real distinction in the British Army, where his one-time juniors and students are now in the highest commands.
From persecution, victimization, and his incredible misemployment as a Home Guard corporal, Hobart’s resurrection to a decisive command in the Allied armies is one of the more startling personal stories of the Second World War. His story was hardly the kind of thing likely to impress the public with the efficiency of the war effort, or the quality of Britain’s military leadership. Thus he remained almost unknown outside army circles.
The most memorable tribute to Hobart came from Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, whose exposure of the Home Guard episode started the tank pioneer on the road back. All the high British commanders and most of the Americans had passed before the famed analyst in a living parade, as they pursued their careers and often aroused his criticism. Liddell Hart also knew the Germans well – perhaps better than any other military writer and thinker outside Germany. As Britain’s leading military brain, his judgment has many times been vindicated, although his warnings all too often went unheeded.
In Liddell Hart’s opinion, the independence of a top command would probably have proved Hobart to be the best of the British commanders, capable of matching the best of the Germans on equal terms. In summing up, Liddell Hart writes of Hobart: “He was one of the few soldiers I have known who could be rightly termed a military genius.”
|||Personal reminiscence provided by General Sir John Crocker, Hobart’s brigade-major in 1934.|
|||Personal remembrance of General Sir John Crocker.|
|||Personal recollection of Lady Dorothea Hobart.|
|||General Sir Richard O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force, 1940–41. Cited in: B.H. Liddell Hart, The Tanks (Praeger, 1959), vol. I, p. 404.|
|||Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. II, “Their Finest Hour,” 1st ed., pp. 602–603.|
|||Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. IV, “The Hinge of Fate,” 1st ed., p. 791.|
|||Cited in: B. H. Liddell Hart, The Tanks (Praeger, 1959), vol. II, p. 332.|
This article is slightly adapted from a chapter of my book Hidden Heroes, which was published in London in 1971 by Arthur Baker, Ltd. Since then, this unique collection of biographical sketches has received no exposure or publicity.
Consequently, the little-known Second World War tale of Percy Hobart’s victimization and vindication is presented here, for the first time ever, to an American readership.
I remain much obliged, even after more than 30 years, to the late eminent military historian and analyst, Captain Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart. He gave freely of his professional time to assist me with numerous details, insights and clarifications. He patiently corrected my drafts of this story, in which he himself had been intimately involved from first to last.
The late General William H. Simpson, former commander of the US Ninth Army, enthusiastically shared his reminiscences of General Hobart. George Thomson, Jr., of New York, and Major John Borthwick of Britain, military aides to General Hobart after his “resurrection,” provided valuable insights, each from his own perspective, into a many-sided military genius.
The late Generals Sir John Crocker and Sir Harold “Pete” Pyman, similarly contributed to this portrait of Hobart, as former students who lived not only to see their visionary teacher’s predictions come true, but to be developed further in scarcely conceivable ways. Lady Dorothea Hobart, the great man’s widow, rendered indispensable aid by rallying these eminent men to help me, and was throughout the soul of kindness.
Liddell Hart on Hobart
“Much of the credit [for the February 1941 British victory against larger Italian forces at Beda Fomm, Libya] was due to a man who took no part in the campaign – Major-General P.C.S. Hobart, who had been appointed to command the armored division in Egypt when it was originally formed in 1938, and had developed its high pitch of maneuvering ability. But his ideas of how an armored force should be handled, and what it could achieve when operating in strategical independence of orthodox forces, had been contrary to the views of more conservative superiors. His ‘heresy,’ coupled with an uncompromising attitude, had led to his removal from command in the autumn of 1939 – six months before the German panzer forces, applying the same ideas, proved their practicability.”
— B. H. Liddell Hart, in his History of the Second World War (New York: 1971), p. 117.
“Nothing can alter my inner soul: I shall pursue my own straight course and shall do what I believe to be right and honorable. ”
— Frederick the Great
“The good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice, and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: for justice cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil social order is attained, nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws.”
— Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
Additional information about this document
|Author(s):||Trevor J. Constable|
|Title:||They Called Him ‘Hobo’, The Little-Known Story of Percy Hobart|
|Sources:||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 1 (January/February 1999), pp. 2-13; lightly edited reprint of a chapter in Trevor J. Constable's book Hidden Heroes, Arthur Barker, London 1971.|
|First posted on CODOH:||Jan. 31, 2013, 6 p.m.|