The first use of tanks in battle was by C and D Companies Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps (the forerunner of 3 and 4 RTR) in the village of Flers on 15 September 1916. This painting is of D 17 Male no 795 “Dinnaken” (Lt. Hastie). As he led the approach to the village Hastie crushed the wired German defensive position , placed his tank across the associated trench and enfiladed the German infantry with his machine guns. He then drove through the village destroying German positions with his main armament . An RFC observer flying above this action famously reported “A tank is walking down the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind". ”Flers fell that day ; previous attempts to capture it had cost thousands of lives.
Lt Hastie was awarded a Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in action.; the citation , characteristically understated reads “Lt Hastie fought his Tank with great gallantry, reaching the third objective. Later, he rendered valuable service in salving a tank lying out under very heavy fire. In that first tank engagement 47 tanks were committed of which 25 were from D Battalion; C Battalion were the other battalion. By the end of the 1914-18 War the D Battalion personnel involved in this battle had between them been awarded a DSO, 18 MCs, 5 DCMs, 17MMs and 4 MiDs – 45 bravery awards in total.”
The crews were volunteers, mostly from the Army Service Corps and the Royal Navy. D Company was commanded by Major Summers DSC from the Royal Naval Air Service. There had been little time for technical training and none for tactics or even map reading. Final preparations of the vehicles had taken most of the night of 14 September and many of the crews had not slept for twenty four hours. Thirty two tanks reached the start line and nine of these preceded the infantry. It is almost certain that the tanks came as a complete surprise to the German garrison which was quickly overwhelmed.
A sketch of the action that day by Sam Crowder shows D6 (Legge) and details of the twenty five other D Company crews involved.
|The tanks were as welcomed by our infantry as they were...||... unwelcome to the German infantry during the Somme offensive.|
| The scene after the battle to take Flers Courcelette
22 September 1916.”
|Crews (eight per tank) working on their tanks, near St Pol.||Communications were at first rudimentary!|
On 19 November 1916 D Company became D Battalion. In January 1917 D and C Battalions formed 1 Tank Brigade under command of Col (later Brigadier General) Baker-Carr.
D Battalion as such was first into action at Arras on 9 April 1917 under command 51st (Highland) Division. The trench alongside the Arras-Fampoux Road proved too deep for this D Battalion Mk 1.
Initially Tank Corps officers continued to wear the cap badge of their parent unit, the NCOs and men wearing the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps badge.
But from 28 July 1917 the HBMGC became the Tank Corps with a distinctive new badge.
What did not change was the tank badge worn by all ranks on the right arm; it has so remained to this day. Seen here is R.E.L. Wain (later Capt VC).
Recruiting mechanically-minded soldiers was a problem. Advertisements were placed in motor cycle magazines and candidates were tested initially at Siberia Camp, Bisley before being accepted as crewmen.
Meantime G Battalion, (later 7 RTR) had formed and been brought out to the theatre. On 19 August 1917 the Battalion (Lt Col Hankey) was quickly into action on the Gheluvelt Plateau near Ypres. Throughout the previous three weeks an enemy strongpoint had frustrated attacks by two infantry divisions operating without tanks; the staff forecast casualties of 600 to 1000 in renewed attacks. But in a baptism of fire G Battalion cleared the strongpoint very quickly, and with the loss of only two killed.
Officers of D Battalion in September 1917 enjoying a break in their final preparations and training for the battle of Cambrai. I am obliged to Colonel Ben Edwards for the following extracts from pre-Cambrai training notes and orders issued on 7 November 1918 to his grandfather Lt Gerald Edwards (arrowed).
Mud was the worst enemy.
The Tank crews longed for an opportunity to be employed correctly, and over ground that had not been churned up by prior bombardment. This opportunity was to come at Cambrai. 474 tanks were assembled, 376 were allocated to the two corps, 54 supply tanks, 34 for clearing cavalry tracks and 9 wireless tanks.
The Mk 2s and Mk 3s introduced a Wilson epicyclic gearbox which thus released the second gearsman. Few were made and were used mostly for training at Lulworth and in France.
The Mk IV was introduced in time for Cambrai It was up-armoured with a shorter 6 pounder gun. Fuel was stowed externally between rear track horns to protect crew.
(note that the gun sponsons have been removed for rail travel)
The fascines weighed two tons. They were made of saplings bound by cables tightened by a pair of tanks pulling in opposite directions and then welded into place.
Tanks were to break through the Hindenberg Line SW of Cambrai. It comprised exceptionally thick barbed wire and extraordinarily wide trenches. The leading tanks were to drop their fascines into the trenches, cross them and then force the infantry into the open.
The start time and date was set for 0500 on 20th November 1917.
“I propose leading the attack of the centre division”
Commander Tank Corps
(still under 40 at this time)
Nine Tank Battalions were to take part (each of thirty six tanks plus six in reserve); D and G Bns were to be together in 1st Tank Brigade.
In the first phase of the battle D Battalion was heavily engaged by artillery from Flesquieres Ridge, and both tanks and accompanying Scottish infantry suffered heavy casualties. It is important to note that these exceptional losses were caused principally by a misguided order from the GOC of 51 Highland Div that the infantry should follow the tanks in extended order 400 yards behind rather than “closely and in file” as ordered by the Corps Commander.
Meanwhile G Battalion led the advance of 62 Div into Flesquieres and on to Anneux. Then D and G fought closely together (for the first of many times) eventually to help to clear Bourlon Wood. Great success was achieved by the tanks on Day One. From a frontage of thirteen kilometres penetration was up to ten kilometres at a cost of 6,000 casualties in III and IV Corps, of which some six hundred were Tank crews.
The extent of the gain exceeded all expectations. Similar penetration had hitherto only been achieved with the loss of 250,000 casualties. By 1600 hrs the tank battle was over; the crews were exhausted. Sadly, because of the absence of cavalry exploitation, lack of a reserve (against the express advice of the Tank Corps staff), and a woeful lack of drive and imagination, break-in was not turned into break-out.
Much of the ground was subsequently lost to German counter-attacks. By December the salient was stabilised once again. In five weeks of fighting the Tank Corps had lost 1068 officers and men killed, wounded or missing. It was time to lick wounds, repair the tanks and rebuild the crews for the next round.
Despite the subsequent loss of ground “Cambrai had changed the tactical climate of the war - and of warfare.” Liddell Hart
By March 1918 the nine battalions that had taken part in the battle were expanded to fourteen. D and G Bns were re-titled 4th and the 7th Bn. The Mark V and the Whippet
(right) were also introduced at this time.
The collapse of the Russian army enabled Germany to reinforce its Western front. Consequently the Allies had to abandon offensive action in favour of defence. Tanks were deployed in five tank brigades some ten miles back from the line. 4th Bn was in 4 Tk Bde near Peronne while 7th was in 1 Tk Bde near Lens, North of Arras.
The German offensive was launched on 21 March. By 24 March the Brigade (under the command of Hankey ex CO of G Bn) was down to a handful of tanks. On 28 March the enemy mounted a major attack against Arras. This was repelled but 4 Tk Bde, in the thick of the fighting, lost all its tanks. The 4th and 7th fought together West of Arras using dismounted Lewis guns to great effect to repel the enemy.
The German casualties inflicted by our tanks were heavy. Pictured here is the Mk V introduced in the Spring of 1918.
In 1918 a Mr Eu Yew Tong Sen OBE, the Chinese member of the Council of Malaya, made a personal gift to the British Government of sufficient money to purchase a MK V tank. His only stipulation was that it should have eyes. “No got eyes, how can see?” Superstitious claims that the eye could ward off evil may also have prompted his suggestion. The tank “purchased” by Mr Eu, issued to D Bn Tank Corps, duly had eyes painted on it. The tradition was born, and thereafter all 4 RTR AFVs, and those of the amalgamated 1 RTR, are adorned with Chinese eyes.
The Tank Corps units were re-equipped in time for the next major Allied offensive, the August 1918 Battle of Amiens. For the newly established Corps it was to be even bigger and, in the event, more decisive than Cambrai. Nine heavy battalions (324 tanks) were to lead the attack together with two light battalions (96 Whippets). 42 tanks were in mechanical reserve; a further 66 were to work with infantry and 22 were gun carriers, a total of 604 tanks. The two initial thrusts were to be South of the River Somme, 4 Tk Bde including the Fourth being on the left.
Zero hour was 0420 hrs on 8 August 1918. The Fourth, leading 1st Canadian Div, were soon deep into enemy territory, making their first objective by 0800 and the second by 1100, six and a half miles from the start line. All but eleven of the Battalion’s tanks were knocked out before the lead passed. Penetration would eventually be to a depth of fifteen miles.
What a day it had been.
The 8th of August was said by German General Ludendorff to be ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of war’. He said he had not been defeated by General Haig but by “General Tank”.
Interestingly there is a Road in Bovington Camp, the home of the Tank Corps, named 8th of August Road.
The Seventh was deployed North of the Somme in 1 Tk Bde. They went into action on 21 August 1918. Once again they faced the Hindenburg line and were one of the lead battalions. Bitter fighting caused heavy tank losses. 4 Tk Bde which included the Fourth moved up in support. On 27 September the Seventh succeeded in crossing the Canal du Nord and led the Canadian Corps attack which captured Bourlon Village and the wood.
Both the Fourth and the Seventh were constantly in action; the Seventh West of Cambrai and the Fourth against the Gillemont – Quennemont Ridge and supporting the American 30th Div in the capture of Nauroy. The Seventh had by this stage won, six DSOs, twenty MCs, four DCMs and twenty seven MMs. They had lost eight officers, four sergeants and twenty other ranks KIA.
Both Battalions were by now severely depleted and were pulled into GHQ Reserve to refit. The German Fleet mutinied, the German Army was in despair.The Armistice terms were signed on 11 November 1918. By then twenty four battalions of the Tank Corps had been in action.
The Tank had changed the nature of warfare. Even the most reluctant minds had accepted its genesis. But, unlike the Germans, few allied military leaders were ready to exploit its potential, a myopia that would have very serious consequences in 1940.
Since its baptism of fire tank crews had for two years performed with conspicuous gallantry.
The Tank Corps as a whole had won 4 VCs, 73 DSOs, 9 Bars to DSO, 448 MCs, 42 Bars to MC, 144 DCMs, 1 Bar to DCM, 604 MMs, and 23 Bars to MM.
Some 85 years later D-51 Deborah was excavated by battlefield historian Philippe Gorczynski and recovered, with barbed wire still tangled around its tracks.
Despite being barely out of their teens, the eight crewmen of D-51 had already become veterans. At least three had fought in the battle of the Somme, one had been gassed, another won a gallantry medal and another had been wounded at Flers in 1916.
In the next chapter we experience the peace before the storm.