D-Day’s Armored Innovations that May Have Turned the Tide

In preparation for the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, engineers and designers were hard at work to create a variety of machines that would serve specific tasks needed to create a successful landing and breakout.

The utility of these vehicles varied from engineering duties, to recovery, to specialized weaponry and even some ad-hoc implements were installed once the troops had secured their beach heads and were ready to breakout into the Norman countryside.

Of course, the military had special designations for many of these specialized armored vehicles, but the troops quickly created their own as well. They were often referred to as “Hobart’s Funnies”, “Crabs”, “Rhinos”, etc.

Each one of these modifications had a specific purpose necessary to the overall success of the D-Day landings and while they may have looked unusual, they were designed for serious business. For the Allies, a successful landing and breakout was imperative.

Here are some of the variants with photos used during and following the Allied invasion of Normandy.

DD tanks

Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank with waterproof float screens. When in the water the float screen was raised and the rear propellers came into operation.
Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank with waterproof float screens. When in the water the float screen was raised and the rear propellers came into operation.

The Sherman Duplex Drive (DD) tank was designed to remain waterproof and use a secondary propulsion system in order to bring it onto the beaches during D-Day. They were skirted in inflatables to provide flotation and could be steered by the commander or the driver. In water they could move at about 4 knots in waves of up to about 1 ft. They were commonly called “Donald Ducks”.

The Sherman DD’s had mixed results in the landing operations on D-Day. On many beaches, they operated without many issues and most of them made it to shore. Unfortunately for the soldiers at Omaha beach, nearly all the DD’s failed to make it to shore. This was one factor in the increased casualty rate at Omaha as the DD’s were supposed to provide fire support.

There are a variety of circumstances that led to the poor performance at Omaha. These center mostly on the conditions of the sea at the time of landing and the distance to shore. The waves were at 6 feet and they were hitting the DD’s in the side as the crews tried to make directly for shore.

The British 2nd Army: Men of No 4 Commando engaged in house to house fighting with the Germans at Riva Bella, near Ouistreham. Sherman DD tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, 13/18th Royal Hussars are providing fire support and cover. After subduing the opposition, No 4 Commando moved inland to link up with 6th Airborne Division.
The British 2nd Army: Men of No 4 Commando engaged in house to house fighting with the Germans at Riva Bella, near Ouistreham. Sherman DD tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, 13/18th Royal Hussars are providing fire support and cover. After subduing the opposition, No 4 Commando moved inland to link up with 6th Airborne Division.

 

Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) with screens raised.
Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) with screens raised.
DD Tanks on Utah Beach
DD Tanks on Utah Beach

 

Valentine DD tank with screen lowered, 79th Armoured Division School, Gosport, 14 January 1944.
Valentine DD tank with screen lowered, 79th Armoured Division School, Gosport, 14 January 1944.

Churchill AVRE with bobbin

The Churchill “carpetlayer” was designed to give allied armor and vehicles a passable road to beach “exit areas”. The sands at Normandy varied slightly from beach to beach, but generally was too soft to support many of the allied vehicles needed to support an advance. These modify Churchills were specifically created to speed up this process.

Troops were assigned the task of creating 8 exit points on the beaches for armor and other vehicles to exit. Once those exits were secure, the engineer groups would quickly prepare them for an allied breakout. This was particularly important for the British troops at Sword beach whose mission was to take the city of Caen 15 km away from their landing zone.

Churchill AVRE carpet-layer with bobbin, 79th Armoured Division, April 1944.
Churchill AVRE carpet-layer with bobbin, 79th Armoured Division, April 1944.

 

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) Type C Mark II carpetlayer for laying tracks across soft beaches.
Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) Type C Mark II carpetlayer for laying tracks across soft beaches.

AVRE

The AVRE stood “officially” for Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers, but it’s development as well as many of the unusual armor designs for the invasion were kept secretively. One aspect about this vehicle that was very clear was it’s large 290mm Petard Mortar.

The mortar had a limited effective range of about 80 yards (a maximum of about 230). However, it could propel both a 26 pound and a 75 pound high explosive charge making it extremely effective against difficult targets especially those where no direct line of sight was available.

The value of such an armored support weapon in the bunkered environment of the Atlantic Wall or the hedgerows of Normandy was significant.

Universal Carriers of 2nd Middlesex Regiment (3rd Division’s MG battalion) pass a Churchill AVRE of 77th Assault Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, in La Brèche d’Hermanville, 6 June 1944.
Universal Carriers of 2nd Middlesex Regiment (3rd Division’s MG battalion) pass a Churchill AVRE of 77th Assault Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, in La Brèche d’Hermanville, 6 June 1944.

 

Churhill AVRE armed with a 290mm Petard spigot mortar. The weapon had a short range, but devastating effect.
Churhill AVRE armed with a 290mm Petard spigot mortar. The weapon had a short range, but devastating effect.

 

Churchill AVRE  with 290mm Petard spigot mortar of 79th Armoured Division moving into Caen, 10 July 1944.
Churchill AVRE  with 290mm Petard spigot mortar of 79th Armoured Division moving into Caen, 10 July 1944.

 

AVRE 290mm Petard Mortar and its ammunition.
AVRE 290mm Petard Mortar and its ammunition.

AVRE Carrying Fascine

The use of fascine by engineers was essential in the quick construction of bridges over the many obstacles and ravines that make up the Norman countryside. The Allies needed not only to create beach heads, but they needed to be able to break out of those positions quickly before German Panzer units could respond with counter-attacks.

Therefore, armored units that could easily traverse difficult terrain and provide protection to the valuable engineers that would oversee the construction of these bridges was imperative.

The Churchill AVRE models were perfect for this important task with their flat bases to support transporting the awkward fascine.

Churchill AVREs carrying fascines and Churchill ARKs passing through Forli, 9 November 1944.
Churchill AVREs carrying fascines and Churchill ARKs passing through Forli, 9 November 1944.

 

Churchill AVRE of 163rd Brigade, 54th Division, with fascine during ditch crossing exercises near Dunwich, 14 April 1943.
Churchill AVRE of 163rd Brigade, 54th Division, with fascine during ditch crossing exercises near Dunwich, 14 April 1943.

 

Armoured Division Churchill AVREs with fascines and Churchill bridgelayer loaded into a landing craft, Saxmundham-Ipswich area, 28 January 1944.
Armoured Division Churchill AVREs with fascines and Churchill bridgelayer loaded into a landing craft, Saxmundham-Ipswich area, 28 January 1944.

Centaur dozer

Armored “Bulldozers” were necessary for many obvious reasons such as clearing debris and leveling areas needed for quick construction projects. However, they were also very useful in removing obstacles on the beaches and shorelines where the invasion took place.

The invasion was initiated at low tide, which exposed many of the mines and other obstacles that could impede allied landings. The engineers landed early in order to clear these obstructions before the tide returned and began to hide these potential threats.

Centaur dozer, c. 1944
Centaur dozer, c. 1944

ARK

The ARK was much more than a bridgelayer at Normandy and elsewhere. It was a helping hand to armor and vehicles stuck in areas that could not be traversed. This unique design provided quick access for vehicles to support troops or escape unfavorable conditions.

A Churchill tank uses a Churchill Ark to scale a sea wall, 79th Armoured Division, Saxmundham area, 11 March 1944.
A Churchill tank uses a Churchill Ark to scale a sea wall, 79th Armoured Division, Saxmundham area, 11 March 1944.

 

Churchill ARK bridgelaying tanks passing through Forli, 9 November 1944.
Churchill ARK bridgelaying tanks passing through Forli, 9 November 1944.

 

A Churchill bridgelayer in foreground and Sherman Flail (mine clearance vehicle) in background. Part of the Royal Armoured Corps contingent in the Victory Parade in London.
A Churchill bridgelayer in foreground and Sherman Flail (mine clearance vehicle) in background. Part of the Royal Armoured Corps contingent in the Victory Parade in London.

Bridgelayer

Bridgelayers are fairly self-explanatory, but having the armored crocodile in this role gave the engineering unit far more mobility as well as security during construction operations.

A Churchill bridgelayer of 51st Royal Tank Regiment in action during a demonstration in the Mezzano area, 30 March 1945.
A Churchill bridgelayer of 51st Royal Tank Regiment in action during a demonstration in the Mezzano area, 30 March 1945.

Crocodile

Many of the British Crocodile tanks were fitted with flamethrowers in the area where a ball turret machine gun would be placed on the hull of the tank. Flamethrowers were especially useful for attacking the many pillboxes and bunkers that made up the Atlantic Wall.

The flamethrowers used on the Crocodiles could emit a stream of flame a full 150 yards.

Close-up of the flame projector of a Churchill Crocodile during trials at Eastwell Park, Ashford, Kent, 1944
Close-up of the flame projector of a Churchill Crocodile during trials at Eastwell Park, Ashford, Kent, 1944

 

A Churchill tank fitted with a Crocodile flamethrower in action. This flamethrower could produce a jet of flame exceeding 150 yards in length
A Churchill tank fitted with a Crocodile flamethrower in action. This flamethrower could produce a jet of flame exceeding 150 yards in length

Crab

The “Crab” or “Flail” Sherman was designed to eradicate the effectiveness of German minefields. The Germans had years to prepare for an eventual allied assault and one way they were able to reduce the amount of manpower needed to defend the entire coastline was to install a plethora of minefields.

In anticipation of this, the allies developed armor units with revolving chains attached to set off these mines in advance of the vehicle and any personnel that would pass through an area. In addition to being effective in minefields, these tanks were also used at time against enemy infantry positions. They could present a very terrifying presence to opposing soldiers.

Sherman crab flail tank under test, 79th Armoured Division.
Sherman crab flail tank under test, 79th Armoured Division.

 

A Sherman Crab flail tank in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945.
A Sherman Crab flail tank in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945.

BARV

The Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle is just as it sounds. It was modified to recover vehicles that had become disabled either by “rollover”, a situation far too common with tanks, or by malfunction.

The tracks helped maintain stability and mobility, while the armor provided protection for those that operated them from enemy sniper or machine gun fire.

Sherman BARV (Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle), 1944
Sherman BARV (Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle), 1944

 

A Sherman BARV tows a disabled Bedford articulated lorry and trailer off the beach, Normandy 1944
A Sherman BARV tows a disabled Bedford articulated lorry and trailer off the beach, Normandy 1944

D-7 Bulldozer

D-7 armoured bulldozer, 3rd Division, 1 May 1944
D-7 armoured bulldozer, 3rd Division, 1 May 1944

ARV

These vehicles known usually as Ram Kangaroos were first developed by the Canadians as a cheap armored personnel carrier, but their utility was quickly noticed by the British who used the Sherman chassis as well, but also converted some Churchill’s for the role.

A Sherman ARV and other specialized armor moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
A Sherman ARV and other specialized armor moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.

SBG

Another armored bridgelaying variant of used during the invasions.

Small Box Girder on Sword Beach, 6 June 1944.
Small Box Girder on Sword Beach, 6 June 1944.

Sherman “Rhino”

These Sherman’s were modified first in Normandy after the landings and fitted with prongs on the front of their hulls to help cut through the thick Norman bocage that lined the roads and farms in the area.

The modifications were made using materials from the obstacles that dotted the landing areas on D-Day, but eventually a designated facility was created in Britain and the modifications were done before shipping new Shermans to the battlefield.

It is debated as to how effective these devices actually were, but they were no doubt intimidating to look at.

Sherman “Rhino” in Normandy 1944.
Sherman “Rhino” in Normandy 1944.

Conclusion

The overall effectiveness of the specialized armored units devised and used in the Allied invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 may be debated. While many of these innovations found significant use, others may have fell short of their intended purpose.

What we can surmise from these inventions is that the Allied commanders, leaders, and citizens were committed to giving their troops every necessary possible advantage for success on the beaches of France. If those troops should fail it would not be for a lack of effort and support on the part of those that were planning and preparing for it.