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TANKS

words Tim Gosling pictures archives

O
n November 20, 1917 General Haig
launched a massive assault across
the German Hindenburg line towards
the French town of Cambrai. This town was
used by the Germans as a supply depot and
its capture would also threaten the rear of the
German line located to the north making it a
very valuable objective.

In The Trenches
Having been a quiet area, the German defenc-
es had been established in depth of up to six
miles in places making a complete break-
through a significant challenge. The British High
Command had developed new tactics to over-
come this. Tanks were to be used in a mass
assault to crush the barbed wire allowing the
infantry to advance unhindered and by dropping
Tim Gosling tells the story of the first massed tank fascines (large bundles of brushwood) into the

attack on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai trenches to allow the tanks to cross them.
Improvements in artillery ranging enabled
far greater accuracy from the 1,003 pieces of
artillery that would join the battle. Improved

Hyacinth has become trapped in a large ditch during


the battle for Cambrai. It has lost the unditching beam
which might have helped it break free
(PHOTO BOVINGTON TANK MUSEUM)

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infantry tactics had been developed whereby sault. The Mk IV tank had been developed
the troops would follow behind the tanks using following lessons learned from the operation
them as protection to reduce casualties. Time of its predecessors. The end result was what
was of great importance, Haig allowed 48 would become the most numerous example of
hours for the town of Cambrai to be encircled British-built tanks during the war with a total
at which time he knew the German reserves of 1,220 examples being
would have arrived making further progress manufactured.
almost impossible. I have a specic
The lynchpin of the assault would be the interest in the
success or failure of the 476 Mk IV tanks which Mk IV
were brought up in great secrecy and deployed
behind the British lines. More than 350 of these
were armed with either 6pdr guns and three
Lewis guns (male version), or just ve
Lewis guns (female version) while
the remainder were unarmed.
These unarmed tanks
were used for carry-
ing supplies to
support the
as-

The battleeld was littered with


destroyed or abandoned tanks

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At Bourlon Wood Grasshopper II was hit by a shell from a Abandoned at Cambrai is this unidentied Mk IV. The German soldiers attempting to recover a Mk IV. One of
motorised anti -aircraft gun. The tank behind it Feu dArtice large rail running over the top would carry the unditching the many recovered from the battleeld which they used
was picked off next beam. The second rail appears to be partially missing to equip their own tank battalions (PHOTO BUNDESARCHIV)

as my relation Lieutenant Alfred King Tripe was be repeated on the second. Possibly because passed by and then opening re on the British
the commander of the tank Eclipse II during the such an advance had not been anticipated infantry which followed behind. The tanks
battle of Cambrai where he would ultimately there were few reserves, the artillery was in would then be picked-off by the German artil-
lose his life. the process of moving forwards and 179 of lery and mobile anti-aircraft guns.
At 6:10am on November 20, a massive the tanks had been destroyed or broken down. The Germans had been experimenting with
artillery barrage commenced which devastated Small assaults took place but the momentum mobile anti-aircraft guns since 1909 when they
the German defences and key positions behind. of the assault had begun to fade and as day mounted a 75mm Krupp gun on a Daimler
This was followed by a creeping barrage which two came to a conclusion the advance stopped chassis when airships were becoming a viable
was then followed by tanks and infantry along for a period of consolidation. threat. By 1917 this idea had been updated
the nearly six-mile front. By the end of the day This delay allowed the Germans time to bring to tting a Krupp (Model L27) 7.7cm gun on
the British had advanced up to four miles in in much-needed reinforcements which would a four-wheel-drive Daimler or Ehrhardt truck
places and had suffered in the region of just turn the battle into such a bitter ght. chassis (both machines being virtually identi-
4,000 casualties, an unprecedented success. On November 22 the British undertook cal).
However, not all the objectives had been some reorganisation ready for assaulting Despite the gun, ammunition and armoured
reached with perhaps the greatest failing oc- Bourlon woods and the villages of Moeuvres bonnet taking the weight up to eight tons, the
curring when the vital bridge which crossed the to the left and Fontaine to the right, all crucial 60-80bhp engine could propel this heavy ma-
St Quentin canal collapsed as the tank Flying objectives on the left flank. The attack, which chine at speeds of up to 30kmph. Without their
Fox attempted to cross it. This prevented the took place the following day, was led by 92 infantry support the tanks became easy targets
2nd Cavalry Division from reaching its objective tanks (including Eclipse II), but this time the for guns while in the open (one German gun
in moving to the east of Cambrai. Another Germans were anticipating them and had was credited with destroying ve tanks in quick
signicant blow was that the strategically im- devised tactics to disrupt them. succession); while among buildings they were
portant Bourlon Wood (just west The aim was to separate the quickly disabled by throwing bags of grenades
of Cambrai) had not been tanks from their supporting beneath their tracks.
captured. infantry. This was achieved It wasnt just enemy action that disabled the
The success of the by the German infantry tanks. They could become stuck while crossing
rst day would not laying low as the tanks enemy trenches or, while travelling through

Carrying fascines
these Mark IV tanks
are travelling on
French 45 ton ETAT
wagons prior to
unloading at the
Plateau staging area
near Cambrai
(PHOTO BOVINGTON
TANK MUSEUM)

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The tank Ceylon became stuck at Bourlon wood on Chaperon was hit while climbing out of a trench Captured by the Germans is this unidentied MK IV.
November 23. While trying to free itself it broke a near Lateau wood on November 20. The Germans The wooden un-ditching beam can be seen laying
track and was abandoned by its crew already appear to have removed its weapons on the ground behind the tank (PHOTO BUNDESARCHIV)

woods, it was very easy to lose a track forcing after the war. Trench on the plain west of Moeuvres. At 11:45
the crew to abandon the tank. One Cambrai survivor which has no doubt am Eclipse II was hit by a shell which passed
To make matters worse for the attackers it about its provenance is the female tank Debo- through the rear of the tank and exploded level
now began to snow and the supply routes were rah which was lost at Flesquieres on Novem- with the front of the engine.
clogged with vehicle movements. The attack ber 20, 1917. After it had been knocked out by Lt Alfred Tripe took the full force of the explo-
slowly wound itself down until it was aban- German artillery it was partially buried and then sion and was killed instantly along with Murray,
doned altogether on November 27. Three days used as a shelter. Completely lost after the war Lewis and Jacques. Privates Innes, Johnson,
later the Germans launched a massive counter the tank was rediscovered in 1998 by Phillipe and Hilling were all wounded and Johnson later
attack forcing the British almost back to where Gorcynski who had been investigating stories died of his wounds. The only member of the
they started. of this buried tank for some years. The tank crew who was unscathed was Dove the driver
The battleeld was littered with destroyed or was displayed in a barn in Flesquires for some who was sitting next to Tripe.
abandoned tanks which the Germans exam- years before being moved to a new museum He tended the wounded, sending two back
ined and then recovered those which could be commemorating the battle of Cambrai in time to a first aid post and transferring the third
turned against their previous owners or which for the centenary of the battle this year. who was badly injured to another tank for
could be dismantled for spares. Casualties transportation. Dove returned to Eclipse II
on both sides were similar with 44,000 British Lt Alfred Tripe to attempt to get it running again. He did
compared to 41,000 German. What had started Lt Alfred Tripe arrived in France on July 1, this for a further two-and-a half-hours
off as potentially a great victory was turned 1917 to join E Battalion of the tank corps
into a stalemate but useful lessons had been having previously been in the Royal Garrison
learned in the use of combined arms which Artillery. After familiarisation training he was
would prove vital in the battles yet to come. put in charge of Eclipse II, a name no doubt
In the Lincolnshire Museum of Rural Life is a chosen by his predecessor, a Lt Maitland whos
Mk IV bearing the name Flirt II, a tank which previous tank Eclipse had been ditched in July.
was lost to the Germans at Cambrai. Recent It is said that Tripe had not yet had time to get
research has shown that this tank is not actu- to know his crew which comprised Corporal
ally Flirt II but was probably Daphne which Murray, L/Corporal Lewis, Privates Jacques,
did not serve at Cambrai but which had been Innes, Johnson, Hilling and Dove before the
repainted as Flirt II after it was presented battle was joined.
to the city of On the morning of the attack on November
Gloucester 20, E Battalion comprised 42 tanks, but three
days later this number had dropped to
just 11 when they were ordered to
assault Round
On the rear of Flirt II is the large unditching beam
which was chained to both tracks and which would
help extract the tank if it became stuck
(PHOTO BOVINGTON TANK MUSEUM)

It now began to snow and the


supply routes were clogged with
vehicle movements

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SPECIFICATIONS
Make Metropolitan Carriage,
Wagon and Finance Co,
William Foster and Co, Arm-
stong-Whitworth, Coventry
Ordnance Works, William
Beardmore & Co, Mirlees
Watson & Co.
Model Mk IV
Nationality British
Year 1917 to 1918
Production Run 1,220 (420
male, 595 female, 205 supply)
Photographed in the town of Armentieres and with
Engine Daimler Knight all weapons having been removed, this captured
Type Sleeve valve Mk IV is to be put back into service against its
Fuel Petrol previous owners
Displacement 16-litre
Power 105bhp
Transmission, Gears
Two forward, one reverse.
Additional two speeds on
secondary gears
Armament Male 2 x 6 pdr
guns and 4 x .303 Lewis
Just west of Moeuvres three damaged tanks have been left for the Germans. In the background can be seen Eclipse II the
machine guns
tank of Lt Tripe
Armament female 5 x .303
Lewis machine guns
Ammunition 332 x 6 pdr,
6,272 x 303
Crew/seats Eight

Dimensions(overall)
Length 26ft 3in
Width 13ft 6in
Weight 27.9 tons
Photographed near Flesquieres two Mk IV tanks
pass by German construction work for the Hinden-
on his own before another tank burg line. It was near here that the Mk IV Deborah
approached under the command was lost (PHOTO BOVINGTON TANK MUSEUM)
of 2nd Lieutenant Fairbanks. BELOW: In 1998 the Mk IV tank Deborah was recov-
Fairbanks ordered Dove to ered from under two metres of soil at Flesquieres.
abandon the tank, but another shell It has now been moved to a purpose-built museum
at Cambrai
then scored a direct hit on
Fairbanks tank which wounded
Dove. Dove would receive the Military Medal for commemorated on the Cambrai memorial in
his actions this day and survived the war. The Louverval and on the war memorial for GWR
remains of Lt Tripe were not found and he is employees at Chester station.

The Germans had been experimenting


with mobile anti-aircraft
guns since 1909
On the fourth day of the battle this disabled Mk
IV has been put to use as an
observation post. The WC on
the back stands
for wire cutter
(PHOTO
BOVINGTON
TANK MUSEUM)

The German 7.7cm anti-aircraft gun on its four-wheel-drive Daimler or Erhardt chassis was used with
devastating affect against the MK IV tanks

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