Author Archives: Gareth Davies

August 1917 – A Summary

19 August 1917

On 19 August 1917 a composite company of tanks from G Bn went in to action near St Julien, east of Ypres.  The action became known as the Cockcroft Action.  The orders were for the tanks to cross the Steenbeke at St. Julien and, due to the boggy and crumped nature of the ground, proceed in single file along the Poelcapelle Road, crossing the original front lines and then proceeding across the front of the 48th Division from right to left and consecutively engaging the rear of strongpoint’s at: Gun Pit, Hillock Farm, The Triangle, Mon Du Hibou and Cockcroft. Upon reaching the far end of the Triangle junction they were to turn left towards Langemarck, cross the original front of the 11th Division, engage Cockcroft and re-enter the original British Front Line.  The attack was a success and the casualties in the supporting infantry were considerably lower than they would have been had they not had the support from G Bn’s tanks.  One soldier, Pte George Mungall, died of his wounds.

22 August 1917 

34 tanks were in action on 22 August 1917. They were from (from north to south) D Bn (12 tks), F Bn (8 tks), C Bn (10 tks), and B Bn (4 tks). For their actions on 22 Aug (and in some cases for their actions on days either side) there were 6 MCs, 12 MMs and 4 DCMs awarded to officers and men of the Corps. One of those DCMs was awarded to LCpl Ernest Jagger of D Bn. He had been awarded an MM at Bullecourt on 3 May 17.  Nineteen tankies died on 22 August.

The most ‘famous’ action of 22 Aug was that of F41 Fray Bentos commanded by 2Lt George Hill. The tank engaged an MG in Somme Farm, then Gallipoli, and then ditched at 7.20 am. The tank remained ditched in no mans land and under fire until abandoned on the night of the 24 Aug 17. Remarkably only one crew member, Pte Ernest Braedy, was killed.  2Lt Hill’s report of the event ends with: “At 9.00pm on the evening of the 24th, the crew having manned their posts for 62hrs and having been 72hrs in the tank decided to evacuate.”

23 August 1917 

4 tanks from B Bn were in action on 23 Aug 17 in the vicinity of Clapham Junction, approx 5kms east of Ypres.  3 tanks were hit an knocked out.  2Lt Colley, commander of B5 Bystander, was killed, as was Pte Carlson.  Neither has a known grave; they are remembered on the Tyne Cot memorial.

27 August 1917

7 tanks from 1 Coy A Bn were due to advance via the Hooge Gap to Clapham common in support of 41st Bde’s attack on Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood. Each tank was to support half an infantry company. 5 tanks set off (2 broke down) but due to the state of the ground and appalling weather conditions the tanks took 9 1/2 hrs to move the 1 1/4 miles to their starting point – at times the mind was up to their sponsons. The tanks were hit by a German barrage. Capt Vardy, the Sect Comd, was killed and 13 men were injured.

Further north 4 tanks from 11 Coy D Bn were in support of 1/7th and 1/8th Worcesters. The tanks were to move up the Poelcapelle Road to Triangle Farm and to wait until called upon by the infantry. One tank slipped off the road and became stuck between 2 trees. The other 3 reached Triangle Farm and assisted the infantry attack on the German strongpoints. One tank fired forty rounds into each of the many blockhouses near Vancouver Farm. The enemy retired and at least fifty of them were killed with the tank’s Lewis guns. The Germans counter attacked and the tank ditched and was abandoned. The second tank slipped off the road and became ditched twice but was successfully unditched. It then ditched for a third time with water above the engine and so the tank was abandoned. The third tank also engaged a number of blockhouses killing about 30. At 4.45pm the tank moved forward to assist an attack by the infantry but after 75m the road was blocked by a blown up derelict tank [identity unknown]. At 6.15 pm the infantry withdrew as they were in danger of being outflanked, the tank was trying to bring its Lewis guns to bear when the petrol tank was pierced and was immobilised. The tank was surrounded by the enemy and was abandoned. Pte Twigg was killed.

3rd Ypres

On 31 July 1917 the newly formed Tank Corps fielded its biggest fleet of tanks yet deployed in to action. Of the 9 Tank Bns in existence, 5 were committed to the opening assault with 2 more being kept as Army Reserve. These 5 Bns were A, B, C, F, and G and each Bn planned to use 2 of its 3 companies in the opening assault. Thus on 31 July 1917 120 tanks went in to action.

The allocation of tanks to Corps and Divisions was as follows:

1st Tank Brigade (G Bn: supporting XVIII Corps (39, 51, 11, 48 Divs)
2nd Tank Brigade (A & B Bns) supporting II Corps (24, 30, 18, 8, 25 Divs)
3rd Tank Brigade (C & F Bns) supporting XIX Corp (15,55,16,36 Divs)

Of the 120 tanks sent in this day, just over half ditched or broke down although some of these rallied later. 28 tanks were knocked out. In general terms the tanks were able to make it to the line of the 2nd objectives.

42 tankies were killed on 31 July. 15 MCs and 39 MMs were awarded for actions that day.

It started raining on the afternoon of 31 July.

Oosthoek Wood

A British soldier directs a Mark IV tank as it crosses an old trench in Oosthoek Wood, near Elverdinghe.

In preparation for their forthcoming operations at the 3rd battle of Ypres (which would start on 31 July 1917), between 30 June and 2 July 1917 C Bn moved to Oosthoek Wood which is just north of the road from Poperinge and Vlamertinge.  The wood gave the Bn good cover and space to operate but because the unloading ramp was outside the wood the Bn’s arrival at their Tankodrome was seen by German spotters in observation balloons.

On 4 July 1917 the Germans heavily shelled the wood for several hours.  The Bn Orderly Room was hit, injuring the Adjutant and the Bde Supply Officer, who died the following day. Also hit were the workshops, the transport area, and the company lines.  Five soldiers and 5 horses were killed and 3 tanks were hit.

The casualties were buried in the nearby newly constructed Gwalia Cemetery.

As a result of the shelling the Bn moved to a new camp.

 

Prints and canvasses of the image used here can be purchased from the Imperial War Museum here 

Messines 7 June 1917

Messines Objective

The Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917 was the first action for the 2nd Tank Brigade which consisted of A and B Battalions of the Heavy Branch, each equipped with thirty-six of the new Mark IV Tanks.  They would operate across the Second Army on a frontage of some 13 kms.  The Second Army’s objectives were the Messines-Wytschaete ridge and the Oosttaverne line which lay beyond the ridge.  2nd Army achieved this, and the capture of 7,300 prisoners,  “with comparative ease” to quote a contemporary report.  The artillery preparation was so heavy and complete that ditching in shell holes in the early stages of the attack was almost a greater danger to the Tanks than anything the enemy did to them.

In A Bn’s area, owing to the extraordinary sticky nature of the ground, several of the Tanks got ditched but rapidly overcame their difficulty and followed up the attack at full speed.  When the Tanks reached the top of the ridge they saw the enemy in full retreat and followed them up as fast as possible.  Orders were received by No. 1 Company which was standing in support at 8 a.m. to move forward to a line on the other side of the village of Wyteschaete.  All the Tanks reached the Hospice and stopped to refill at noon.  They then received orders to proceed to a line on the East side of the village of Oosttaverne. Six Tanks reached the line East of Oosttaverne and four of these were ditched but remained in the forward position.  The following morning the enemy counter attacked but the Tanks that had remained repelled this attack, until the arrival of supports.  The mainstay of this resistance were Lieuts. Liles, Duncan and Keogh.  The outcome of the battle was one of the most successful that was ever fought the captures amounting to 7,000 prisoners and 80 guns.

B Bn report on the battle is as follows.  No. 4 Company’s tanks, which were working with the New Zealand Division, moved forward at dawn to attack Messines. The ground East of the Messines-Wytschaete road is practically flat but on the West side of it, from which the attack was made, it descends sharply into the valley made by the Steenbeek stream.  The continuous shell fire had destroyed the river bed in places and had forced the stream to spread until it was at some points an impassable morass.  No. 6 Company was split up, one Section working with the 25th Division; one with the 36th Division for the attack on Wytschaete and Black Line North of the 25th Division’s sector; and one in reserve to the 2nd ANZAC Corps.  All Tanks started off with the exception of those in Corps reserve, which moved off one hour later.  Of the first two Sections, one Tank reached the Black Line after dealing with Wytschaete; and of the remaining seven, one became ditched in No Man’s Land and two in the German front system, while four operated between the Red and Blue Lines, which were intermediary objectives. Tanks of No. 5 Company, which were in Army reserve, received orders about 11.40 a.m. to co-operate with the 2nd ANZAC Corps in the attack on the Oosttaverne Line.  One Section went South of Messines and the other two North of it.  All three had to establish touch with their Infantry on the West of the ridge where they would shake out into attacking formation.  The Southern Section arrived well in advance of the Infantry and considerably aided them in capturing their line and covering their consolidation.  It was while thus engaged that Lieut Vans Agnew distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry under hot fire.  His Tank was set on fire by the enemy shelling and some members of his crew (notably Cpl BA Tait MM)  set to work with Pyrenees to extinguish the flames.  This necessitated moving about in the open under heavy and direct machine gun fire and fairly heavy shelling.  Though bullets and splinters were hitting the ground all round and splashing against the side of the Tank, they continued and succeeded in putting out the fire and subsequently rallying the Tank.  Lt Vans Agnew and Cpl Tait received immediate awards of the MC and bar to the MM respectively.

Battle of Messines

By the end of May 1917, A and B Battalions had received their full complement of 42 of the new Mk IV tanks.  The B Bn history records that they “were received, on the whole, very favourably”.

In preparation for the forthcoming battle of Messines, which was planned to start on 7 June 1917, the 2 Battalions moved up to Flanders from Erin at the end of May and deployed to hidden locations in woodland.  In early June the Battalion War Diaries record their preparations which included night time reconnaissance of routes to starting points, pigeon and Stokes bomb lectures (2 separate events), painting the tanks in order to camouflage them, and general improvements to the tanks.

3rd May 1917 – Annoying Armour Piercing Bullets

On the 3rd May, four Tanks operated with 21st Division, assembling at a position between CROISELLES and St LEGER, from which point they moved to the Sunken Road at N.35.d.4.5.10.  One of these four Tanks failed to reach the starting point, the other three went into action and became heavily engaged with the enemy’s trench mortars, rifle grenades and bombers.  Eventually one broke a track and another became ditched, while the third had to return on account of radiator trouble.

On the same day eight Tanks operated against the village of BULLECOURT.  The enemy shell fire and machine gun fire was not heavy, but annoyance was experienced from Armour Piercing Bullets.  There was practically no hostile barrage from 3.45 a.m. until 6 a.m.  The Tanks remained out for some considerable time on their objectives, and then withdrew.

Action on 23rd April 2017

On April 23rd, 11 Tanks were employed, two operating against GAVRELLE, three against ROCUX and the Chemical Works, two against MOUNT PLEASANT WOOD and the RAILWAY ARCH at H.18.d.2.1., three North of MONCHY and one South of that village.

The work of these Tanks afforded the greatest assistance to the infantry.  Many Machine Guns were silenced and destroyed, and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy.  Five of these eleven Tanks sustained serious casualties from Armour Piercing Bullets..  The enemy’s main Anti-Tank tactics consisted in using these bullets and in concentrating artillery fire on the Tanks, which was greatly facilitated on account of the small number of Tanks employed.

11 April 1917

Bullecourt tank routes

Fifth Army 

V Corps

11 Company D Battalion.  11 of the 12 tanks started off at 4.30 a.m. in line at eighty yards interval and about eight hundred yards from the German line.  Four Tanks attacked Bullecourt and 2 attacked the Hindenburg Line to the North West.  Two of the former were knocked out in the village and two returned damaged – both those on the Hindenburg Line were knocked out by shell fire while waiting for the infantry.  Three Tanks advanced on Riencourt and Hendicourt– one of these was knocked out while the other 2, operating with 200 Australian Infantry, cleared Riencourt and then advanced on Hendicourt clearing the village.  Of the 2 tanks operating against the Hindenburg Line to the east, one was knocked out and the other returned safely.

In this operation tanks replaced the barrage covering and opening the way for the Infantry attack – and the tank operations were excellently and most gallantly carried out.  The ground was covered with snow which gave the enemy artillery a great advantage as regards observation of the tanks.

Third Army

The attacks on the Black and Blue Lines succeeded generally along the whole of the Third Army front except on the left of 34th Division and right of 51st Division where the attack was held by Machine Gun fire.  It is to be noted that tanks did not function at these points, being previously ditched.  The powerful positions at the Harp, Telegraph Hill, Tilloy and Neuville Vitasse were carried without much difficulty and all reports state that the Germans showed little fight where the Tanks appeared.

First Army

The First Army also succeeded well but without much help from their tanks which all became ditched in the exceedingly difficult ground.  The advance to the Brown line proceeded steadily though the tanks were not much used for this objective except in one or two places.  The majority of the Tanks at this time were being unditched.  The capture of the Brown Line in 30th Division front was the longest delayed but this was eventually carried.  The Green Line, except about Guemappe, was captured in due course and was certainly assisted by the action of the Tanks at Monchy Le Preux.

10th April 1917 – Arras and the Hindenburg Line

On the 10th April tanks were unditched and generally prepared for further action.  On the 11th April four tanks which were then rallied in Neuville Vitasse were detailed to assist in the capture of the Hindenburg Line about its junction with the Wancourt Line and eventually in the capture of Wancourt.  These tanks proceeded down the wire in front of the Hindenburg Line crushing it and also dealing with the Garrisons of the trenches.  These tanks then moved on to Heninel and Wancourt destroying Machine Guns and firing into the houses.  The Infantry did not follow up the tanks as they were still under Machine Gun fire from the Hindenburg Line which the tanks had apparently not succeeded in reducing before they proceeded on to Wancourt.

That evening 3 tanks returned to Rallying Point where one became ditched in a Sunken Road and was set on fire by a direct hit.  The Infantry advanced that night and captured the Hindenburg Line, Heninel and Wancourt all of which the enemy had apparently evacuated.  Some very useful pigeon messages were sent back from the tanks which had proceeded to Wancourt.  This tank operation was carried out at very short notice and with no previous reconnaissance possible.  The ground was much more favourable for tank operations and continual snow storms screened their movements from enemy artillery.

9th April 1917 – Arras

First Army

12 Company D Battalion.   All 8 tanks started at Zero hour but they were unable to keep up with the Infantry owing to the condition of the ground.  They all ditched on or just before reaching the Black line (German Support Trenches) and took no further part in the operations.  These Tanks were all unditched under considerable fire (one being hit on the sponson) and difficult conditions and finally withdrawn by the 12th April.

Third Army

XVII Corps

7 Company C Battalion.   All 8 tanks started.  One ditched on the German front line, smashing and falling into a concrete MG emplacement and was hit by shell fire later.  Three tanks ditched on or about the Black line, one tank had its track broken by shell fire.  One tank, heavily shelled during its advance, became ditched on our own trenches and was eventually hit on the track.  One tank reached the Railway embankment but became ditched near there.  The Commander, 2Lt William Duncan Tarbet, was shot and killed while reconnoitring the ground in front of his tank.  One tank reached its objective at the Railway embankment in good condition.  One tank reached the Blue line when it became ditched and was hit later on the rear sprocket and track.  Thus 7 tanks in all became ditched at some period while only one tank wholly and 2 tanks partially carried out their role.

VI Corps

9 Company C Bn.  Of the 10 tanks in the Company, only 5 arrived at the start point in time to move off at Zero hour.  Five ditched on the way up but moved up later and went into action.  One tank was held up immediately after starting by engine trouble.  It got going again only to break down later, but did very useful work before breaking down.  This tank was attacked by German bombers during the night 9th/10th April and put out of action.  Two tanks reached the Railway Triangle and the Infantry were materially helped by their action.  There was little definite information about the movements of the remaining tanks of this Company.  Tanks were seen going through Tilloy and the Northern end of the Harp, while two others were reported to be disabled.  Two tanks entered Monchy Le Preux on the 11th April.

8 Company C Bn.   All 10 tanks started.  Two became stuck in No Man’s Land, the remainder got into action on the Harp; of the latter 4 became ditched in the Harp (mostly in String Trench), one had a track broken by a bomb, one was put out of action by a direct hit and one was set on fire by a direct hit by a Trench Mortar bomb.

VII Corps

10 Company D Battalion.   Eleven Tanks started, one remaining ditched near Achietcourt.  The 4 tanks operating with 14th Division left the Black line with the Infantry and gained their objectives.  They were reported on Telegraph Hill at 7.30 a.m. and then worked down the Hindenburg Line towards Neuville Vitasse.  Here one tank sustained a direct hit and 2 tanks fell into old gun pits.  One tank continued to mop up around Neuville Vitasse.  The 4 Tanks operating with 56th Division also left the Black line with the Infantry; 2 became ditched, one worked round Neuville Vitasse and the other attacked a strong point at Neuville Hill, at which the enemy surrendered after a few rounds from a 6 pounder had been fired at them.  One tank crushed uncut wire and made passages through which Infantry passed.  The 3 tanks with 30th Division (there should have been four, but one ditched near Achietcourt on the approach march) gained the Blue line where one Tank received a direct hit, one became ditched and the remaining one advanced towards the Cojeul River.