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.