Having made good progress near Flers, on 15 September, orders were issued that the attack resume the next morning in order that the cavalry could push through to Bapaume. On the left the NZ Division was tasked to capture Grove alley, a German communications trench linking Flers Trench and Gird Support. In the centre, 21 Division was to capture Gird trench to the north of Factory Corner whilst 14th Division was to capture Gueudecourt.
Maj Frank Summers ordered all available D Company tanks to support this follow-up attack including:
- D4 (female) Charles Storey – which remained stuck in High Wood
- D7 (male) – Arthur Enoch whose tank engine was knocking badly.
- D9 Dolly (female) – Victor Huffam which had been recovered as had D14 (female) – Gordon Court and
- D19 (male) Stephen Sellick which had water in its petrol .
Summers found that only D9 and D14 were fit to deploy. He moved forward on the morning of 16 September to give orders directly to his skippers who were due to go into action at 0925hrs. On the left, just before the NZ were due to attack, their trenches were attacked by the Germans. The assault was broken up by rifle fire as well as by the Vickers machine guns of Die Hard which was still in position to the north west of Flers.
In the centre 21st Division were tasked to attack north from the Bulls Road but, because of their long approach march which was under taken in the pouring rain, they did not reach their start point before dawn. Taking covering in Flers Trench and other shell holes, they set off 25 minutes before zero across the open ground where Dolphin has been destroyed, and were attacked by German machine gun fire and artillery. They pushed on towards the Gird Trench, supported by Victor Huffam’s and Gordon Court’s tanks but, when these were destroyed, were forced back towards Bulls Road due to the heavy rifle fire from Germans in Gird Trench. In the east the artillery barrage was again weak and well ahead of the attacking infantry. As they crossed the open ground the infantry were destroyed by machine gun fire and no advance was made.
All of the D14 crew were killed when the tank exploded having been hit by an artillery salvo. William Barber (35), Gordon Court (23), Tom Cromack (36), Joseph Crowe (24), Andrew Lawson (21) and George Mann (24) were killed inside the tank whilst the tank NCO, Robert Pebody (20) and the driver Lawrence Upton (24), were killed outside the tank. Two more crewmen, Alfred Andrew (29) and Ronald Chapple (D9), were killed when D9 Dolly was also hit by shellfire. Four more were seriously wounded including the skipper and the driver Harry Saunders.
LCpl Harry Nixon D Coy, was awarded the MM for his actions on 16 Sep.
The tanks and men of C & D Companies of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps went into action on 15 September 1916. They were making history; this was the first ever use of tanks in combat. Their attack, 11 weeks into the battle of the Somme, was part of Fourth Army’s plan to penetrate the German defences between Courcelette and Gueudecourt. The aim was to break through by noon on 15 September 1916 and to then exploit by launching the cavalry towards Bapaume to disrupt the arrival of German reinforcements and to attack German artillery in their depth positions around Le Sars.
Eleven divisions (8 British, 2 Canadian and one from New Zealand) were used in the initial attack which was preceded by a three day artillery bombardment. The infantry were supported by 48 tanks. From north to south the allocation of tanks to Divisions was:
- 2nd Canadian Division – 6 C Coy tanks
- 15th (Scottish), 50th (Northumbrian) and 47th (2nd London) Divisions – 8 D Coy tanks
- New Zealand Division – 4 D Coy tanks
- 41st Division – 10 D Coy tanks
- 14th (Light) Division – 4 D Coy tanks
- Guards Division – 10 C Coy tanks
- 6th and 56th (1st London) Division – 6 C Coy tanks
Most of the divisions broke through the German front line positions on 15 September. Of the 48 tanks available that day only 32 tanks crossed the British front line of which 18 reached German depth positions. Twenty three tanks engaged the enemy. Courcelette, Martinpuich, High Wood and Flers were captured and held although none of the 4th line objectives were reached.
The section from C Company supporting the Canadians at Courcelette, on the left flank of the allied attack, successfully achieved their mission. The remainder of the Coy were on the right flank; these attacks were less successful. D Company’s action on the left of their area helped to capture Martinpuich. In the centre the infantry achieved their objectives around High Wood but the 4 supporting tanks became stuck as they tried to negotiate the wood. The Company greatly assisted in the actions of the Kiwis to the west of Flers, successfully destroying German defensive positions. The Flers action achieved its aim; despite breakdowns and enemy artillery, the tanks assisted the infantry in capturing all three defensive lines and the village.
The action wasn’t without loss. Ten tanks were destroyed, 11 tank crewmen were killed in action and 1 died of wounds later that day:
- Horace Brotherwood (C1) 18 yrs old KIA near Pozieres
- Bertie Giles (C14) 18 yrs old KIA at Bouleaux Woo.
- Gerald Pattinson (C14) 30 yrs old KIA at Bouleaux Wood
- George Macpherson (C20) 20 yrs old DOW at Grove Town CCS
- Edgar Barnsby (D5) 25 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Leslie Gutsell (D5) 20 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Fred Bardsley (D6) 24 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- George Cook (D6) 29 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- John Garner (D6) 25 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- William Debenham (D12) 24 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Cyril Coles (D15) 23 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Charles Hoban (D15) 29 yrs old KIA near Flers
Gunner Thomas Bernard C Coy), Gunner Jacob Glaister (D Coy) , Gunner Albert Smith (D Coy), Pte George Thomas (D Coy), Pte Bertram Young (D Coy), were awarded the MM for his actions on 15 Sep.
During the day the British bombardment became more intense. Initially C Company’s tanks were held up by traffic but eventually the majority of the tanks made it to their harbour areas.
At 8.30 pm the tanks started to make their way to the Start Line.
The tanks left Caterpillar Valley on the evening of 13 September. The tanks did not use their cross-country capability but were ordered to follow roads where their slow speed exacerbated traffic difficulties. C Company tanks moved east to Chimpanzee valley whilst D Company tanks went northeast towards the Green Dump. Several of the tanks broke down en route and three crews were issued with spares from the ten which had arrived straight from England on 10 September.
The preliminary bombardment started on 13 Sep.
On 11 Sep Operation Orders were issued and on 12 Sep conferences were held at Corps HQs and company and section commanders were introduced to the Divisions they would be supporting who issued them with orders direct.
The C Company War Diary records that
‘All details with regard to points of assembly and starting points were agreed. Arrangements for replenishing Tanks and men in petrol and oils were made under Company arrangements; these did not prove satisfactory.’
On the 10th, 11th and 12th September, the Section Commanders reconnoitred the various Sectors allotted to them and selected the sites which were completed by the morning of the 13th September, in preparation for the coming bathe on the 15th September.
Meanwhile the tank crews were preparing their tanks for action, fitting the gun sponsons, loading the tanks with stores and filling the 6 pdr ammunition racks and machine gun belts. Machine guns were also fitted and petrol tanks filled with aviation fuel in place of the petrol used during training. Some tank commanders managed to recce their deployment routes but very few were able to see the ground over which they were to fight, let alone marry up with the infantry.
4th Army held a conference was held on 10 September, just after C Company had undertaken a trial across parts of the old battlefield to determine the average speed for deployment. It was found to be 15 yards per minute – or just less than 1,000 yards an hour. The Conference was attended by the Corps commanders who explained their attack plan. This was also attended by Lt Col R W Bradley who had commanded the MMGS Depot at Bisley and was now responsible for the coordination of the two tank companies but he was unable to make any contribution. Also there was Maj Hugh Elles, from the General HQ representing the CinC Gen Douglas Haig. Elles was the only one to object when the III Commander, Lt Gen Poultney, directed that the four tanks supporting 47 Divisions should drive through High wood. His objections were over-ruled.
Many of the tanks of C and D Companies, now in France preparing for their first action, had been named by their crews. C Company clearly enjoyed a cocktail.
C1 – Champagne
C2 – Cognac
C3 – Chartreuse
C4 – Chablis
C5 – Crème de Menthe
C6 – Cordon Rouge
C14 – Corunna
C17 – Campania
C18 – Casa
C19 – Clan Leslie
C23 – Clan Ruthven
C24 – Clan Cameron
D1 – Daredevil
D2 – Daredevil II
D5 – Dolphin
D9 – Dolly
D11 – Die Hard
D13 – Delilah (commanded by 2Lt Sampson!)
D16 – Dracula
D17 – Dinnaken
D20 – Daphne
D21 – Delphine
From the 8 – 13 Sep the Tanks remained at the Railhead and one or two Tanks were detailed each day to manoeuvre for the benefit of the various Divisional and Brigade Staff. A frequent visitor during the sojourn at the Railhead was H.R.H. Prince of Wales who took a keen interest in the preparations taking place and one afternoon stayed for tea with the Officers of the Company.
It was during the day spent at the Railhead that the first known Tank fire took place, resulting in the injury of Sgt Hillhouse, and Gunner Callaghan. Sgt Hillhouse showed splendid initiative in gallantly rescuing one of the crew who had been overcome by the fumes. Heedless of his personal safety, he entered the blazing Tank and brought the man out.
On the 7th September the tanks of C Company were entrained at Conteville and on the 8th September they were detrained at the Loop Railhead on the Somme.
D Company tanks would join them in 2 days time.