This week we commemorate 100 years since the Second Battle of Cambrai, which took place between 8th and 10th October 1918. But it is the battle the year before that is often remembered, for its pioneering use of a huge tank offensive.
The advance started on 20th November 1917 at 0600 hours, which saw over four hundred tanks slowly make their way to the German lines. They had been congregated in heightened security, so that the Germans were caught completely unaware by the huge advance.
The Cambrai offensive saw other new innovations as well, such as more accurate artillery fire, infantry infiltration tactics and sound ranging, a method to determine exactly where an enemy gun was firing from based solely on its sound.
The offensive would lead to the biggest German counter attack since 1914 and would drag the battle of Cambrai out into December 1917.
The Mark IV tank played a decisive role in the eventual Allied success, but it also exposed many of its flaws. Despite the issues of it being slow, mechanically unreliable and under armoured, it held a place in many of the Tommies’ hearts, drawing cheers and smiles whenever they saw one.
One such tank that took part in the advance was Tank D51, commanded by Second Lieutenant Frank Heap.
Tank D51, nicknamed Deborah by her crew, trundled out of the village of Flesquières in Northern France, having been separated by the main force of tanks earlier on in the morning. Lieutenant Heap was unsure about where he was and so, deeming the area to be relatively safe, he got out of the tank, alongside his driver, to study the area and take some bearings of where they might be.
As the two of them moved a little way away from D51, five German shells struck the tank, killing five of his crew (originally thought to have been four).
Second Lieutenant Heap and his driver survived, as did one other crew member, with Heap guiding his men back to British lines, for which he was subsequently awarded the Military Cross. Although Tank D51, Deborah, was knocked out of action, she was not completely destroyed and is today the only surviving tank that was used during the advance on 20th November 1917.
Although she survived relatively intact, she lay forgotten for over eighty years beneath the fields of the nearby village of Flesquières, until she was unearthed by a local historian in 1998. After her discovery, Deborah was displayed in a local barn for seventeen years, before she was moved to a more permanent home.
The Cambrai Museum 1917 was opened to the public earlier this year, with Tank D51, Deborah as its main centrepiece. Fittingly, Deborah is now located in the building not far from the nearby British Cemetery, where five members of her crew are buried; L/Cpl G. Foot, Gunner W. Galway, Gunner J. Cheverton, Gunner F. Tipping and Private W. Robinson.
Originally, it was thought that Lance Corporal G. Foot was killed in a separate action in another tank, but subsequent research has found that he was, in fact, part of Lieutenant Heap’s crew.
My second book All Men are Casualties, features a Mark IV Tank crew lost behind enemy lines. It is available for pre-order at a discounted rate now.