After the failure of the 1942 Dieppe raid it was obvious that new equipment was needed to breach beach defences and other fortifications. The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) was designed to fill that need. Under the expertise of armoured warfare expert Percy Hobart, development began in 1943.
“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.”
Having served in the Royal Engineers in World War I, Percy Hobart foresaw the predominance of tank warfare while attending the Staff College, Camberley in 1923 and volunteered for a transfer to the Royal Tank Corps. By 1934, he was brigadier of the first permanent armoured division in Britain. His views were still seen as unconventional, with an army still composed dominantly of cavalry officers and resources were hard to come by.
Despite achieving the rank of major general (1937), his unconventional ideas forced him into retirement in 1940. Not content to idle, Hobart joined the Local Defence Volunteers (precursor to the Home Guard) and quickly earned a reputation – swiftly becoming Deputy Area Organiser. When a newspaper article criticizing Hobart’s forced retirement made it in front of Churchill, Hobart was recalled to the army to train the 11th armoured division.
79th Armoured Division
In March 1943, Hobart’s 79th Armoured was on the verge of being disbanded, but instead was invited by Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, to instead convert the division into a unit of specialized armour. Reluctant at first, Hobart sought assurance that the unit would remain operational in combat. The unit was renamed the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division Royal Engineers, with the badge of the unit a black bull’s head on a yellow triangle – proudly displayed on each vehicle.
The majority of the specialist vehicle designs were modifications of the Churchill or Sherman, as these were available in large numbers. The Churchill was particularly favoured for its cross country performance, heavy armour and roomy interior.