Unique 1945 Hamburg book: the 79th and “Hobart’s Funnies”

Posted by RDN under Military Covenant / Mind & body / On art on 17 October 2014

I have been given a unique, beautiful book, The Story of 79th Armoured Division: October 1942 – June 1945, published  by the unit’s officers and men in July 1945 in the ruins of Hamburg, which they had just helped liberate. I long to know more about the circumstances of this astonishing piece of work….

 

The spine of the 1945 "The Story of the 79th Armoured Division"

The spine of the book

The 79th was an imaginative tank division under the leadership of Sir Percy Hobart, a general simultaneously admired as the grand old man of mobile warfare innovation and rather over-looked. A pioneer in WW1, and side-lined at the beginning of WW2, Churchill championed his return to influence and (after several other pioneering creations) Hobart produced the 79th and its “Hobart’s Funnies”. The latter were highly imaginative tank adaptations (most pre-dating the 79th’s formation), which saw them floating, bridge-laying, flame-throwing and much else, but also saw the development of all sorts of less armoured amphibian vehicles.

The 79th did not fight as a single entity, but lent its officers, men and equipment “under command” to other units, as they saw action from D Day, through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

The book was written by John (later Sir John) Borthwick, an old-Etonian who had been Sir Percy’s ADC and later one of his senior staff oficers. (Hobo was very fond of Borthwick, and thought the book well-written, considering it was by a man who had been “uneducated at Eton”.) Some other very talented people must have been at work on The Story of the 79th. As the pictures I post here show, its layout, font, photographs, (fold-out) full colour maps and illustrations all seem to be strikingly modernist.

Gallery of images of the book:

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The book contains astonishing material: its text, maps, and data were assembled in very difficult circumstances but are as cool and comprehensive as though worked-on at leisure in a military college – or some university.

If you don’t want to pay up for a hardback first edition or a reprint (whose reproduction qualities I have no idea about), then – amazingly – it is to be had in a beautiful PDF version on DVD from Merriam Press in the US (I have one) and others.

Further research….

On the book’s typefaces: I was very struck by the typography in The Story of the 79th. It reminded me of high class American books from the WW2 period (I am thinking of Hendrik Van Loon’s books for Simon & Schuster, New York). A glance at Lewis F Day’s Alphabets Old and New (Batsford, c1910) made me think it might have been set in something which might have been designed by Franz Stuck (1863-1928). Looking at myfont.com nudged me toward the idea that it looked like Thannhaeuser Neue, designed recently by Ralf M Unger in tribute to Herbert Thannhaeuser (1898-1963). Luc Devroye – whose informative website I had only known for about five minutes – replied to my emailed request for information to say that the Story’s title-work at least was set in Thannhaeuser Schrift, 1929. There are elements of the Gothic and Modernism, and more, in this tale of a type.

On the book’s maps: I was very struck by the loveliness of the Story‘s maps, many of them fold-out. I asked Percy Hobart’s most recent biographer, Richard Doherty, about the creativity involved, and he replied:

Officers who had passed through ‘The Shop’ at Woolwich before the war were trained in drawing and were able to produce fine panoramas. This was considered especially important for artillery officers but also for sappers, both of whom were trained at Woolwich. Some, but not all, Royal Tanks officers were also Shop-trained and would have been able to draw panoramic sketches. Needless to say, all three were present in the division [the 79th] and on its staff. The maps etc. in the history show the hallmarks of such training.

On the book’s production: There is abundant evidence in Macksey’s biography that Percy Hobart loved books and writers. He commissioned or helped in the production of several histories of outfits he was interested in, both in the war and immediately after it. Amongst these were books on the Royal Tank Regiment, with illustrations by Hobart’s friend Eric Kennington, and a history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, of which Hobart became Lieutenant Governor (1953-48).

It was, therefore, typical of Hobart that he might have organised much of the writing and publication of The Story of 79th Armoured Division. Here is Richard Doherty’s comment on its publication:

The production of The Story of 79th Armoured Division in Hamburg was not unique. There seemed to be a small industry in such productions at the time and I’ve long suspected that the booty of war included a print works in good condition. I have a copy of the history of 1 Asslt Bde RE, part of 79 Armd Div, which was also produced at the end of the war (and, I believe, in Hamburg). In addition, the staff officers of 79 Armd Div produced an official report on the division’s service, which is held in the National Archives and which has been reproduced in facsimile form by MLRS; I suspect that the history owed much to the team who produced the official report.

That’s it, so far. I hope shortly to know more about the printing, production and publishing possibilities the staff of the 79th found in Hamburg in the early summer of 1945.

How I came across this book…

My finding this book was part of a literary, historical and sentimental journey which began, really, in Solva, West Wales. In a holiday cottage I came across The Wartime Adventures of B Squadron “Corpse”, by Maurice Wilson, the late owner. It’s a wonderful piece of work, both modest and quite spikey, from a man who could write and draw. Near this book on his shelves was a copy of the book I am now so anxious to research: The Story of 79th Armoured Division. Maurice notes in his memoir that he has never understood how any book could have been produced at all in a city as ruined as Hamburg was at that time.

I treasure the copy Maurice’s niece has let me have and all the more so because it has his strong Biro ticks against various parts of the narrative of which he strongly approves (graded nicely from one to four ticks). I am hoping that someone, somewhere, will read this and connect me with more information….

This image was used as a stick-on for the cover of “The Story of the 79th Armoured Division”, 1945

24 comments

  • Written by Robert Smith on 19/07/14 at 9:14 am:

    I too have a copy of this book. My father was a soldier in the 1st Lothians which formed part of the 79th Armoured Division. I think he brought the book back home when he returned from Germany. He never spoke to me about what happened in the war and I never asked.
    I have only recently started looking at the book and I am amazed at the detail in it. To think it was put together in such a hurry makes it even more remarkable.

  • Written by Robert Poynton on 24/02/15 at 3:20 pm:

    I have a copy of this book although it is in a poor condition. My late father served in the First Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, part of the 79 th Armoured Division, and was, I think, given the book when they disbanded.
    Five years ago I heard Dr Robert Liddiard on Radio 4’s ” Making History ” describing the D-Day preparations mentioning ” Hedgehog ” obstuctions on the beaches. It rang a bell and I uneathed the book, exchanged emails with him and photocopied the first chapter.
    He said he was aware of the book but it was very rare and he had not seen a copy.
    I have asked a specialist book restorer to advise on its restoration. She, like you, is amazed that such a professional and quality document could have been produced in Hamburg in July 1945, in a devastated city only weeks after the war’s end.
    Do you know how many copies were printed ?

  • Written by RDN on 24/02/15 at 4:48 pm:

    Robert,
    Thanks for that.
    The book is indeed a wonderful production.
    I am afriad I don’t have a clue as to how many copies were produced. I am currently keen to research the possibility that one or two Hamburg arts, or publishing, or industrial museums or historical bodies may be able to fill in the picture a bit…. but I fear I haven’t got round to busying myself on those lines.
    R

  • Written by Robert Poynton on 30/03/15 at 8:43 pm:

    Richard,
    Thanks for your reply. I have since traced and bought another original edition which is in much better condition than mine, so there are at least four surviving copies. I will keep my father’s old one dismembered for ease of photocopying. I did follow up your idea of contacting the Hamburg Museum of Industry. Although they had no information they did suggest a couple of possible leads. It looks as though an American publisher printed a paperback version in 2013.
    This is an exciting story with fascinating sub plots and would make a great TV programme. You are a broadcaster and, I imagine, have already thought of this !
    Robert

  • Written by jai leal on 05/04/15 at 7:09 pm:

    My grandfather served and this book along with one other “1st Assault Brigade RE are in my possession.
    Had the story of the 79th restored by a specialist and its now back to its former glory.

  • Written by George Cla on 14/05/15 at 5:56 pm:

    I was a driver/wireless operator attached to 79th Armoured Division and landed on Sword beach after being held ready to go when needed. I had a 15cwt Guy wireless van and we communicated with other units of the division via 19 radio set; crew of 4. Hostilities ended and 79th was disbanded. I was posted to two other tank units before being demobilised from Nienburg, Germany. I have the original hardback copy of The Story of the 79th, presented for my part in the 79th, which I treasure. I am now 94 and beginning to creek a little or to be honest A LOT. Regards to you, George Clarke

  • Written by PAM DOUSE on 15/05/15 at 6:31 pm:

    I also have an original edition of this book. My father was a soldier, 1st Lothians, then 79th Armoured Division. Flail tank…. He didn’t like to speak about the war and that went on until about 6 or 7 months ago. Sadly he passed away in January 2015. I have tried to get information about the 79th but there’s not a lot about. I wonder if anyone reading this knew my dad – Leonard Walker? Pam Douse.

  • Written by Kay on 28/05/15 at 9:57 pm:

    Hi, I also have a copy of the original book passed to me through our family. It is in very good condition!
    Best regards
    Kay

  • Written by Ruth on 18/06/15 at 5:17 pm:

    I also have a copy of this, in excellent condition, given to my father, Bryan Nicholls, for his part in the 79th. He inscribed the front page with his name, then “BAOR, 1945” He died in1994, and I cannot remember which regiments he served in. My mother is now 93, and although her memory is good, I don’t think they spoke much about his experiences, as was normal, then. I wish I had asked him more when he was still alive. I know he was dropped into Normandy a few days before the D-Day landings to operate wireless comms. He sat in a hole in a field near Bernieres -sur- Mer (?)with a couple of guys, some Dexedrine pills and a cow for company! I have no idea how they got there or what unit it might have been, so I would welcome any clues. I also know that prior to this, he did some commando-style training up in Scotland where he learned Nordic ski-ing and how to kill an enemy with bare hands, a skill he refused to pass on, despite much pleading on my part!

  • Written by dieseltaylor on 31/07/15 at 7:08 am:

    I work in a second hand bookshop and acquired my copy last week. The owner tells me he bought two copies in a collection last year. It is is indeed a magnificetly produced.

    My guess is that there would be in the region of 20,000 produced to take into account serving members of the Division and assorted high ups. This can be only a guess as would it include all those who had served or just those on the rations at the time of printing. Or was it just NCO’s and above?

    If we can establish ranks and unit we may be able to draw a picture of the print-run.

  • Written by michael gardner on 04/09/15 at 4:26 pm:

    My grandad was in this division also – I have his shoulder patches and also two copies of this book – just wondering does your copy have the long poster included as I could not see it in the gallery? It isnt binded into the book but is loose and illustrates the divisions journey from D Day onwards, I will have a look to see if it has any additional printers information on it if you like, kind regards Michael

  • Written by Joanne Abbey-Saunders on 16/04/16 at 11:59 am:

    My grandad was also in this division. However i was about 5 years old when he passed away, so know very little about what he did. I have been searching on the internet for many months now, looking for an original copy of the book, which is proving difficult to find as most of them are badly damaged. I do know that there is a photograph of my grandad in the book, which was taken whilst they were at the beach.
    If anyone could help me find a copy which is in decent condition i would be truly greatful.

    Thanks

    Jo

  • Written by Peter on 29/06/16 at 8:36 pm:

    I also have an original copy, from my father, who died in 1988. He never spoke of his wartime experiences but after his death I did some research. He was awarded the MC in February 1945 for action in the Reichswald Forest. I have a copy of the original recommendation signed by Field Marshal Montgomery.

    I also have his original copy of a book entitled “The Story of 34 Armoured Brigade” which gives a month by month history, tank casualties, together with details of decorations, honours and awards made. http://books.national-army-museum.ac.uk/story-of-34-armoured-brigade-1941-45-pr-34871.html shows some detail of this book.

    Peter

  • Written by Miles on 16/08/16 at 3:07 pm:

    My great-uncle gave me a copy of this book when I was very young. I still have it, along with cap and shoulder badges from the 79th. I had never seen another copy until I stumbled upon the reprint on Ebay and decided to investigate further. My great uncle was called Fed Crowther. I have no idea what he did during the war and, like many others, never spoke of his time in the army. The book is a great record of the Regiment’s wartime exploits and a good read also. Many of the photographs are only to be found in this book.

  • Written by James on 21/08/16 at 12:47 pm:

    Hello all,

    I am clearing through some of my granddad’s things with my dad and we came across a set of old books, one of which was the story of the 79th armoured division.We also have a copy of a book called 50 amazing stories of the great war, published in 1936.

    I am just wondering if they are worth anything as I saw on some websites that the armoured division is selling for up to £225 depending on edition and condition.

    Would someone be able to shed some light?

    Thanks
    James

  • Written by Alan Ford on 30/08/16 at 5:09 pm:

    Hello,
    My father was 2nd i/c of 77th Armoured RE (Hobart’s Funnies). He took over command after the C/O Col. Cox was killed before they got ashore at Lion-sur-Mer, Normandy. Their landing craft took a direct hit in the bows and had to turn back. Hang onto your book if it is a original.

    My father was a Captain at the time – F T Ford – although in one section of the book, crossing the Rhine, they put a ‘e’ on the end of his name! He rowed across to recce the other side and hid in rushes – it’s in the book. My father retired as a Major in the late 60’s.

    Best Wishes Alan Ford (son).

  • Written by Peter Goodman on 15/09/16 at 10:51 am:

    I was web browsing recently and came across a picture by chance of Churchill and Montgomery being taken across the Rhine in a “Buffalo”. The radio operator looked very much like my late father, so I did a bit of research at the Tank Museum, Bovington where in a copy of your book there is the same photo, and the crew are mentioned by name.

    I was able to positively identify my father, who never mentioned this event to me.

    Can you help me in tracking down a decent copy of the book,

    Many thanks

    Peter Goodman

  • Written by Richard Hazeldine on 18/09/16 at 9:53 pm:

    I am fortunate enough to have an original copy of this fantastic historical reference. My Grandfather was in the Royal Engineers – I believe he arrived on the beaches on D-Day +2. He was threatened with a court marshal after going to the rescue of a landing craft in difficulty (contrary to their orders). He threatened to have his commanding officer court martialled for “…being a coward.” My grandfather only ever mentioned his exploits after a drink and unfortunately I was only just of drinking age when he passed away. Otherwise he’d say nothing of the war. He was in Churchill’s and I believe he helped bridge the Rhine. I know he ended up in Cologne. My father knows much more than me but amongst his things I have from him are some German cap badges, a German mine field marker, other badges, a commando knife and Hitler Youth knife taken from a German youth who had threatened him with it when he was in demilitarised Cologne. My Grandfather being my Grandfather pulled out a pistol in the altercation and took the knife. I bought another original copy as a Christmas present for my father which is signed by Hobart himself. Quite a find.

  • Written by RDN on 15/10/16 at 5:38 pm:

    Dear Peter,
    What a wonderful story.
    r

  • Written by RDN on 15/10/16 at 5:43 pm:

    Dear Richard,
    Isn’t it amazing the things that warrior generation didn’t feel like telling us?

    Merriam Press publish a very cheap PDF version of The Story of 79th Armoured Division. I am pretty sure this is very version I downloaded a few years ago and it was an impeccable facsimile of the book. As to hard copies: a quick look at Abebooks and Amazon shows they are available. You need to make sure from the vendor that you are buying the original 1945 book (if you want that particularly, but expensive) or a reprint (a deal cheaper). The original has lovely fold-out maps and so on, and you might want to be sure the reprints do too.

    Hope that helps.

  • Written by Peter Holloway on 04/11/16 at 11:51 pm:

    I have my father’s copy of this book although the sleeve is a little worn now. My dad, James ‘Jim’ Holloway died in 1972 and was an engineer in the 79th Armoured division. He met my late mum in Berlin (her home town) and she travelled to England with my step sister in 1947 to marry him. He never really talked about his time in the war which is a shame, though he often said that he had some great pals during that time.

    The book is a fascinating and detailed account of that period. The photos and illustrations are fabulous. I would never part with it as it is family history. Just wish I knew more about my Dad’s involvement.

  • Written by Terry Sullivan on 22/11/16 at 7:38 pm:

    My stepfather, Lou Palazon who is now 93 years of age, was with the 6th Assault Regiment, 284 Squadron, “A” Troop. He still has his copy of the original 1945 book which is still in good condition, complete with pull out maps. He thinks everyone in his regiment received a copy after the war ended but does not think that was the same across the other regiments. I send this email with his knowledge, perhaps in the hope of making contact with other ex members of the 79th.

    Regards
    Terry Sullivan

  • Written by Chris Bickley on 30/01/17 at 12:37 am:

    I have a copy of this book in readable condition although the cover is a bit tatty. I was given it many years ago by a friend who is the son of a member of the force. I would be happy to give it to anyone with a genuine connection to the 79th Armoured Division, all I ask is postage and packing. Email me at ccbickley@gmail.com if you are interested.

  • Written by Lieutenant Joe Rodrigues on 01/02/17 at 10:27 pm:

    In October 1943 I was posted to 1st Assault Brigade, Royal Engineers Signals Squadron, 79th Armoured Division. I was 22.
    My responsibility was to provide communications systems required by two of the six Squadrons of Assault Engineers in the Brigade.
    These Squadrons were tasked with devising methods of breaching the defences of the German Atlantic Wall to enable troops landing on the beaches to advance rapidly into France.
    On D Day 6th June, 1944 the Assault Engineers were able to successfully breach the defences.
    By the end of the day 150,000 troops were ashore and a strong bridgehead established.
    I was presented with both The Story of 79th Armoured Division and The Story of the 1st
    Assault Brigade Royal Engineers in Hamburg in 1945
    I am 96 now and feel very privileged to have served with such wonderful comrades.

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