The Royal Engineers prepare for D-Day

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.

Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) armed with a 290mm spigot mortar which fired a 40lb (18kg) charge up to 80 yards (72m). Its purpose was to destroy concrete.

The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.

The 29cm Petard spigot mortar on a Churchill AVRE of 79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, under command of 3rd Infantry Division, 29 April 1944. A 40lb bomb can be seen on the right.

Following the disaster at Dieppe in 1942 the British had become very wary of making an opposed amphibious landing.

They were now developing a range of new specialised tanks for use in the invasion of France. Correctly known as AVREs – Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers – they became more popularly recognised as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ in tribute to the man responsible for developing them, General Sir Percy Hobart.

As the name suggests the various tanks were operated by the Royal Engineers, although the drivers were men from the Royal Tank Regiment. Each was designed to deal with a particular problem such bridging a tank ditch, or destroying mines with flails and they included the Duplex Drive – DD – swimming tanks used by both British and American forces on D-Day.

Captain Tony Younger was then a young officer with the Royal Engineers and in the early days of 1944 was ordered to test one of these variants, a tank equipped with a Petard Mortar:

We were told to embark and carry out an assault landing on a narrow beach just below Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The novelty of this occasion was that we were told to fire our main armament, the Petard, against the sea wall there, to see if we could knock it down and then drive our tanks up over the rubble and move inland against an imaginary enemy.

I should explain that the Petard was a short (80 yard) range weapon which carried the formidable amount of 26 lbs of high explosive. A wall of anything greater than 5 feet in height is a complete obstacle to a tank and many such walls existed behind the beaches in France.

So the idea was to explode some Petard shots against the wall to smash some part of it to rubble. Then, hopefully, tanks could mount what had been an obstacle and carry the battle farther inland, instead of being stuck on the beach, as they had been on the Dieppe raid.

We knew all about this in theory and here at last was a chance to try it out in practice. The exercise went well; we were landed at the correct place and we succeeded in making ramps which the tanks climbed up. The Petard was very inaccurate, so we had to fire more rounds that we expected, but by the time we left we felt a new confidence in the weapon.

A curious sequel to this training exercise happened several years later when I was serving in Burma. I received a huge bill, addressed to me personally, for the repair of the damage caused by the unit under my command to the sea wall at Osborne during the war.

Some civil servant must have spent months in tracking me down. Anyway, I replied that I had been told to carry out this exercise and that I was just obeying orders and I heard nothing more about it.

However, a few years after that I had a house on the Isle of Wight and I had a look at the wall, to find that it was just as we had left it, with gaping holes made by our Petards.

Tony Younger went on to become a Major General. See Tony Younger: Blowing Our Bridges: A Memoir from Dunkirk to Korea Via Normandy.

The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on "Blue Beach". Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier's head

The deadly result of enfilade fire during the Dieppe Raid of 1942: dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on “Blue Beach”. Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machineguns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier’s head

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