The unsung metal heroes of D-Day

Invention as well as bravery will be celebrated in Normandy this June - but some ex-combatants will stay at home

Sam Handelaar, like many of his regiment, chortled at the thought of sailing a floating tank on to the beaches of Normandy.

Sam Handelaar, like many of his regiment, chortled at the thought of sailing a floating tank on to the beaches of Normandy.

"When someone tells you they are thinking of dumping 30-odd tons of tank in the water and they want it to float, you just don't believe it. We all thought it was a joke at first," recalled the 78-year-old veteran.

Just months later, Mr Handelaar, then 18, was part of a crew of five who negotiated 4,000 yards of choppy waters to take part in the largest amphibious invasion ever mounted, on D-Day.

The seafaring duplex drive (DD) tank, a Sherman adapted with canvas screens and inflatable rubber tubes, was one of an array of the most outlandish contraptions ever to go into battle, with names like the crab and the crocodile.

But the vehicles, adapted to spin chains which would churn up the ground and detonate explosive charges, played a key role in winning the Second World War.

The role and origins of the extraordinary craft are examined in a photographic exhibition, which opens on Friday, prior to the 60th anniversary of the 6 June 1944 landings. The Nazis had placed almost impenetrable defences in mainland Europe from Norway to the Spanish border, and the invasion forces had to work out how to tackle an array of mines, steel tank traps and large stretches of barbed wire.

Inventor Nicholas Straussler dreamt up the DD tank, which converted a standard 35-ton vehicle into a boat by rigging up an airtight skirt around its perimeter, held in place by rigid rubber columns. The idea was to land directly on to the beach and go into combat immediately, rather than having to be unloaded from a landing craft. Its importance was shown by the disastrous landing on Omaha beach, where around 2,000 US troops were slaughtered because they had no tank back-up.

The DDs that should have supported them sank as soon as they hit the water, which was too choppy for them to handle. Many believe they were launched too far from shore.

Mr Handelaar, who served in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary's Own) regiment, found his DD worked perfectly. "We didn't see a drop of water get in," said Mr Handelaar, who lives in Basildon, Essex. "As soon as we hit the beach the skirt came down and we set off. I actually felt quite comfortable. People ask me: 'What were you thinking?' It's a silly thing, but I was thinking, 'there's no music'. When you saw the war films in the cinemas in 1942 and 1943 there was always great music."

Among the most notable D-Day contraptions were the creations of the 79th Armoured Division, which were known as "Hobart's Funnies".

Under the command of General Percy Hobart, the division adapted tanks for a range of tasks. They included the crab, which was a Sherman fitted with a rotating arm with dozens of spinning chains that smashed into the ground in front of the tank to explode any land mines and clear a path. Teeth on the rotating drum could also cut through barbed wire.

Hobart's armoury also included the crocodile, a flamethrower tank which fired burning fuel to take out pill boxes and occupied houses.

The 'D-Day: Men and Machines' exhibition is on HMS 'Belfast' from Friday 28 May to Sunday 6 June; 'D-Day: Men and Machines' can be seen on the National Geographic Channel on 6 June at 9pm

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