Category Archives: History

Arras Overview

Mk II Tank

The Battle of Arras was the first time that the 1st Tank Brigade had acted as a fighting unit.   The Brigade was allocated sixty tanks: C Battalion was given 28 tanks and D Battalion were given 32.  The tank commanders and crews were specially selected, any previously formed crews were broken up.  The selected crews began their training about six weeks before the operations took place.

The 60 tanks were a mixture of  Mark Is and Mark IIs although a number of improvements had been effected since the fighting of the previous autumn.  The Machine Gun was changed, and some slight improvements in machinery had been carried out.  Thirty-five of the Tanks were Males and twenty-five Females.  The Male or Six-Pounder Tank was unchanged except that the Hotchkiss Gun was discarded and replaced by the Lewis Gun, of which there were four in each Male Tank.  The Female was armed with six Lewis Guns in place of the old Vickers and Hotchkiss Guns.  The adapting of the old and construction of the necessary new loop-holes for the Lewis Guns was carried out entirely by the Heavy Branch Workshops in France.

On March 28th, in preparation for the operations, Brigade Headquarters moved up to Montenescourt and the two Battalions of the Brigade also moved forward, C Battalion to Arras and D Battalion to Montenescourt.  From then until the start of operations on the 9th April, the final work of preparation was carried out.  On April 2nd Brigadier-General Elles inspected the Battalion Camps and on April 7th he visited Brigade Headquarters. He came back again on 8th April.

A certain amount of preliminary training with Infantry was carried out.  Section and tank commanders and their NCOs attended some of the Infantry rehearsals, using banners marked “Tank” to indicate the position of Tanks.  In some cases a few Infantry Officers and Divisional and Brigade Staff Officers attended schemes carried out by Tank Battalions.  A rehearsal scheme of the Tank Operations was also carried out in the vicinity of Bermicourt

The General Plan of Operations was:

The object of the Third Army was to pierce the German defences between Heninel and the River Scarpe and to advance on Cambrai turning the Hindenburg Line from Heninel to Marcoing.

The First and Fifth Armies were to co-operate in the Third Army attack.  The Fifth Army to operate about Bullecourt and so to protect the Right Flank of the Third Army and also to roll up the Southern Flank of the Queant-Drocourt Line.  The First Army to capture the Vimy Ridge and so form a defensive flank North of the River Scarpe to the Third Army’s attack.  The 1st Cavalry Corps was to take part in the operations of the Third Army.

On the First and Third Army fronts the tank operations were to be subsidiary to the Infantry attack, following up behind the Infantry and reducing strong points and selected lengths of trenches and trench systems – the whole attack working forward under the barrage.  The tanks would not take part in the initial attack on the first objective (Black Line) but in the Third Army, starting generally at Zero would catch up the Infantry at the Black Line and proceed thence with the leading Infantry under the barrage to the capture of the second objective (Blue Line) and thence move forward again in a similar manner.  In the case of the First Army the tanks were to start in time to catch up the Infantry at the Red Line.

On the Fifth Army front the tanks were to take a more leading part, preceding the Infantry and replacing the barrages.

All sixty tanks were employed in the initial stages of the attack and were, in the majority allotted objectives for the capture of the Blue Line. There were not enough tanks available for them to act in waves and there was no reserve of any description.

Subsequent tank operations against the Brown and Green lines depended almost entirely on tanks that could rally at the Blue and Brown line rallying points and were fit for further action with the same crews after having refilled, if necessary, at those rallying points

Zero day was fixed for the 9th April 1917.  There was rain, sleet and snow prior to and during the operations.

 

Arras Preparations

C Bn’s tanks entrained from the siding at Erin.  The tanks and personnel moved on 3 trains. The first train carrying ten Tanks of No. 8 and 9 Companies left on the 24th March and arrived at Montenescourt on the morning of the 25th.  The second train left Erin on the 26th; this train contained No.7 Company with eight Tanks.  They arrived at Mont St. Eloi on the night of the 27th. The third train left on the morning of the 28th and arrived at Montenescourt on the morning of the 29th. This train contained four tanks of No.7 Company, two tanks of No.9 Company and four Tanks belonging to D Battalion.  Advance parties of No.7 Company went to the Bois de Maroeuil, and parties from Nos. 8 and 9 Companies went to the town of Arras, and were billeted at the Beaudemont Barracks.  These parties contained the Company and assistant Reconnaissance Officers, who carried out reconnaissance work in connection with the coming battle.

D Bn received orders to draw tanks from Central Workshops. Nos 10 and 11 Coys each drew 12 tanks, 12 Coy only 8.  These tanks were drawn on 28 March and entrained by Coys on successive days for movement to the forward area.  No 10 Coy detrained at Montenescourt, camouflaged the tanks and commenced preparations for action.  No 11 Coy detrained at Achiet-le-Grand and then trekked to Behagnies where they encamped.  No 12 Coy detrained at Mont-St-Eloi and encamped at the ramp.  On the following night the tanks were moved to the Bois de Moreil.

The First Tank Brigade

On 8 March 1917 the tank Battalions came under control of Tank Brigades. C and D Bns became part of 1st Tank Brigade under Colonel Baker-Carr DSO. His HQ staff were Capt LH Cox (Brigade Major), Capt MJ Tapper (Staff Capt), and Lt C Williams-Ellis (Intelligence Officer).

A Winter of Change

Although we haven’t given you any updates for a couple of months, our predecessors weren’t as inactive 100 years ago; there was a lot of change going on in the winter of 1916/1917.

The first was the (slight) change of name from Heavy Section MGC to Heavy Branch MGC.  This better reflected the fact that, apart from in name and capbadge, the tank corps (as opposed to the Tank Corps that would appear in July 1917) was a very separate organisation and had nothing else in common with the Machine Gun Corps.

The next change was the expansion of the branch.  The original Companies were used as the basis of the new Battalions that were formed in November and December 1916 in France and in the UK.  A Battalion consisted of 3 Companies.  Plans were put in place to expand to 14 Battalions.

The final change was the appointment of Bovington as the home of the Heavy Branch (see our entry of 26 Oct 16 for more details).

Last day of the Somme

The final day of the Somme campaign was 18 November 1916, the 141st day of battles.

The day before, on 17 November 1916, D Company planned to send 6 tanks into action in support of the 32nd and 37th Divisions but 5 of them ditched on the way to the assembly point. One tank, commanded by 2Lt Partington, crossed the German front line at around 7am and was able to silence a number of German MGs.

On 18 November 1916 the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps became the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps. The companies were to be expanded over the coming weeks to form 6 Battalions (A, B, C, D, E, F).

We’re All In It – A Company Join The Fight

On 13 November 1916 tanks were in action again.  In the Beaumont Hamel area 2 tanks from D Company operated in support of 51st Highland Division in the attack on the caves.  Zero hour for the infantry was at 0545 but the tanks did not go in to action until 0950 when they were launched in order to help the Highlanders whose advance had been stopped.  Both tanks ditched.

Further south 3 tanks from A Company were in support of 39th Division.  This was A Company’s first action.  Two of the tanks made it little further than the start line but the third, a tank named ‘We’re All In It’ and commanded by Lt Hitchcock, made it to the German front line but soon after became stuck.  Lt Hitchcock was wounded, ordered the crew to debus. Cpl Taffs took command and managed to get it free but soon after it became stuck again.  Five members of the crew, Cpl Taffs, LCpl Bevan, LCpl Moss, Gnr Ainley and Gnr Tolley, were each awarded the MM for their actions. Their citation reads:

“Brought up under very difficult conditions, theirs was the only tank to start, and penetrated to the second enemy support line.  Here for more than an hour they maintained their position without assistance, their infantry having lost touch owing to the heavy mist.  The officer in charge was killed while endeavouring to establish touch.  Cpl Taffs then took command and LCpl Bevan drove on another 200 yards, when the tank ditched in a German dug-out.  The crew worked under fire for over 2 hours endeavouring to extricate it.  Finding this impossible, they attached themselves to a battalion of the Black Watch and assisted them in mopping up the position.”

Bovington!

On 20 October 1916 Brigadier General Frederick Gore – Anley DSO, was appointed as the Administrative Commander of the Tank Training Centre at Bovington.  He was an interesting choice to take over from Ernest Swinton. Anley had no experience of tanks and, apparently, little faith in them and so his appointment did not go down well with the true believers on the tank staff.  Lieutenant-Colonel J F C Fuller described Anley as

a pleasant little man, the problem was in inverse ratio to his size. He may have been a good infantry Brigadier but he knew nothing about tanks. On one occasion I heard him say, “Little Anley is like a small china pot, floating among a lot of big iron ones; little Anley is not going to get cracked”.

On 27 October the Elveden training centre began its move to Bovington, having outgrown its Suffolk location.  Bovington was one of 2 locations suggested; the other was Corhampton in Hampshire.

In Oct 1916 Bovington had none of the luxuries that those who trained there more recently will remember.

The Best Tank Performance up to Date

tank-26-sep5On 26 Sep 14 tanks went in to action.  Eight were in support of General Gough’s Reserve Army in the area north and west of the Roman road and 6 were supporting Rawlinson’s Fourth Army to the south and east of the Roman road.  In the north the allocation was:

  • 2nd Canadian Division – 2 D Coy tanks
  • 18th (Eastern) Division – 4 C Coy tanks
  • 11th (Northern) Division – 2 C Coy tanks

The original task for the tanks supporting the Canadians was to reach Courcelette and cruise around rendering assistance.  This was later made more specific.  One tank ditched on the way forward; the second advanced to its first position which caused the German infantry to withdraw but it then came under artillery fire and was abandoned.

The tanks operating with 18th Division around Thiepval, one of the objectives for 1 July 1916 had some success.  One tank destroyed a German machine gun post and the helped the infantry capture the Chateau.  The other 3 tanks ditched and one of them was destroyed by German artillery.  The 2 tanks with 11th Division ditched but their crews supported the infantry attack after baling out.

In the south the allocation was:

  • 56th (1st London) Division – 2 Coy tanks
  • 21st Division – 4 D Coy tanks

The 2 tanks with the 56th Division ditched before they reached the objective.  In the east inly 1 tank was available, D4.  It made its way out of Flers and moved to meet up with the 8th Leicesters.  The tank drove along a German tank followed by a bombing party which drove the Germans out (and in to the hands of the Guards Div).  D4 enabled the capture of 1500m of trench and the capture of over 350 prisoners.

Fred Horrocks, a D Coy crewman, was killed at Delville Wood.  He was 34.

2Lt Charles Storey was awarded the DSO for his actions that day.  His citation reads

“For gallantry and initiative in command of tank D14 on September 26 when he was called upon by GOC 110th Bde to clear up certain trenches SE of Guedecourt which were holding up the infantry.  Lt Storey took his car up and down each trench, working until all his petrol was exhausted and only two of the crew were unwounded.  He is reported as having been responsible for the taking of between 200 and 300 prisoners.  I consider this to be the best tank performance up to date.”

25th September 1916

tank-25-sep
C Coy planned to get 12 tanks into action on 26 Sep in support of the Guards, 5th and 56th
Divisions. Due to mechanical problems, none of the company’s tanks went in to action.
D Coy aimed to get 2 tanks into action in support of 23rd Division. One broke down on the
way to the start point and the second was hit by a German barrage as it cleared a crest line.