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.

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.