A Piece of RTR History
Success Comes To The Tanks At Cambrai.
I Drove ‘EARLY BIRD’ Into Battle
A. Bacon:- E Battalion Tank Corps
A. Bacon’s Army service was not confined to tanks, for he enlisted in the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment in August 1914 and served in 1915 at Ploogstreet, Armentieres and in other actions, until wounded during the battle of Loos. He was transferred to the Heavy Branch M.G.C. in 1916. Between dawn and dusk on November 20th, two Brigades of tanks, in conjunction with infantry and artillery, overran the German defences in the neighbourhood of Cambrai and captured 7,900 prisoner, 100 guns, and occupied seven villages. In one place the tanks advanced for over five miles – an achievement which once and for all retrieved the good name the Corps had lost in the swamps at Ypres two months previously..
wo nights before the battle we packed our traps and ran the tanks up on the specially constructed wagons at the railhead and then travelled through the moonlit night over the dreary wastes of the Somme battlefields. Ghosts? Not a bit of it. What I did see though, during one of the train’s inevitable stops, was a little round tin lying near some tipsy wooden crosses. I hopped out, retrieving it and getting busy with my jack-knife, soon had the pleasure of devouring a perfectly succulent crayfish, canned in Japan any number of years ago and probably dropped from the haversack of one of the nearby corpses any number of months ago. It was still dark when we arrived at our destination…….When daylight came we found ourselves ensconced in Havrincourt Wood, the tanks being well hidden under the trees and covered over with green camouflage nets.
The first part of the day was spent in loading up with stores of petrol, oil and ammunition, and the after lunchtime took it fairly easy, tuning up the engines and guns. As we lay amidst the trees I couldn’t help noticing the absolute quietude of the scene and the tranquillity, as compared with the feverous preparations I had witnessed in other battle zones.
Hitherto, the whole forward area had been a hive of activity during the two or three days preceding the kick-off. Guns, troops, rations-wagons, water-carts, ammunition limbers, engineers, pioneers, mules, medical supplies, all moving up every hour of the twenty-four, and above all the relentless bombardment – guns roaring in a devilish tattoo – darkening the skyline with ugly bursts during the day and giving lightning effects on the clouds during the night, but nothing like that was happing now.
It was all quiet except for the drone of the occasional reconnaissance plane and the lazy rolling swish-swish of a 15-inch shell as it ambled its way, miles above our heads, over to the railway station at Cambrai. I likened the countryside with that over which I had tramped many times in the Gateacre district near Liverpool. It was typical ‘hunting country’ and I should hardly have been surprised to see scarlet coated huntsmen emerge in full cry from the spinney in the middle distance.
Remarkable too was the absence of any preliminary bombardment of the enemy territory. Not one tell-tale salvo was fired, all artillery ranges being cleverly worked out from photographs supplied by the Royal Flying Corps. The early hours of November 20th presaged an ideal autumn day. The air was crisp and clear, with not a sign of mist or rain to cause any anxiety. The landscape south-west of Cambrai reposed in eerie peacefulness, with just the occasional flickering Vary Light, or a slow tat-tat-tat from a drowsy machine-gunner to assure the duty officer he was still awake. Every available tank in France and Belgium had been brought along for this show. There were over four hundred of them and as they were rather noisy things to move about in the dead of night we had to drive them at the slowest possible speed, whilst low flying aircraft covered their approach near the line.
At 6.19 a.m. therefore, one minute before zero hour, everything sounded normal on this section of the Western Front. On our side the assault troops were crouching with thumping hearts and fixed bayonets and as close behind as they dare get, lay the tanks with their engines quietly ticking over. (So secret were the preparations that my tank commander did not get his barrage and objectives map until 4.30 a.m).
A bluey-green pallor was creeping into the dawn sky when precisely at 6.20 a.m. the British barrage opened fire all along the six mile front and the massed tanks crept over the front line towards the cascade of white shell-bursts that smothered the German trenches. My bus, the ‘Early Bird’ was operating on the left flank, near the Canal du Nord, with the 62nd (West Riding) Division. There was a steady rise in the ground across No-Man’s Land and as we crawled on in front of our infantry and demolished the knife-edged entanglements, the bus was spattered repeatedly with hysterical left and right sweeps of machine-gun fire. There was no aim being taken. Obviously the poor devils just didn’t know just what to fire at first.
The whole panorama now was just like a set piece of thousands of fountains of fire spurting from the solid earth. There was as yet very little response from the enemy artillery and as we reached the German front line the machine-gun fire ceased too, for a few moments. The first thing I noticed as I raised the nose of my tank to cross over the trench was several grey clad bodies lying right in my path and just as the bus gave it’s downward lurch one of them turned and looked up in a despairing effort to avoid the monster. I’m afraid there were many that day who suffered a similar fate. Gradually there became a substantial increase in the enemy shelling but it was very erratic and owing to the rapid rate of our advance they were dropping stuff in No-Man’s-Land and the front line long after we had left it behind. We bounded merrily away up the hill past Yorkshire Bank and Wigan Copse, running into some pretty stiff cross-fire from machine-gun nests.
In zigzagging to avoid any concentration on our weak spots I noticed that the infantry on our left were now at grips with batches of German soldiery, obviously some had emerged from capacious dug-outs after the tanks had passed overhead. We fired several machine-gun bursts in their direction, but it was unnecessary as they were already throwing down their weapons and surrendering to the Tommies. The enemy was now getting over the first shock of the attack and his resistance was stiffening all round. A barrage of high explosive was being laid down a short way ahead of us and the machine-gun barrage became really hellish. This was not to be wondered at for we were approaching the famous ’Hindenburg Line’ the pride and joy of German engineers and sappers.
This support line was reputed to be impregnable and “untakable”. It comprised of several systems of trenches, the main one being about twelve feet in width and depth and beautifully reinforced with concrete and steel cupolas. This was screened by cunningly arranged machine-gun outposts and by a belt of wire entanglements that varied in places from fifty to one hundred yards in depth. Such a position was undoubtedly the most impregnable that man’s ingenuity had ever devised and without the tanks it would have been the graveyard of the whole of the British infantry. The prestige of the German Army was at stake, for after all the boasting of the past months they surely would not let go this line except over their dead bodies.
A pitch battle now raged between this ‘Hindenberg Line’ of concrete and steel and the mobile steel line of the tanks. My bus had been rattling away with three machine-guns and although there were some high explosive shells dropping about amongst us I did not see any smashed up at this stage. We fought our way up to the belt of wire, and then, after slowing down for a few seconds to allow tanks on the right and left to get up into alignment (according to plan), I opened the throttle to the fullest extent and without a hitch, plunged through the barbed wire. We had to withdraw our guns into the bus because of the broken strands of wire which were twisting and twirling around the sponsons in an alarming manner. Our tracks flattened out a clear pathway through which the infantry followed, the tanks thus doing in a few minutes a job which in previous battles had taken the artillery any number of days and nights and millions of shells to attempt, and still leave the wire only partially cut. No artillery could have cut this lot. It would simply have sprung itself together again.
The gunners were waiting for us as we emerged from the wire and the noise of their bullets on our plating was like fifty hailstorms on one corrugated iron shed. Our guns got busy on a swarm of Jerries scrambling away on our left front and as we approached the trench itself I had to use my revolver in self-defence against a rifleman taking aim at me over the parapet. We had anticipated the colossal depth of this main trench and carried on our roof a fascine six feet in diameter made of compressed brushwood, which we dropped into the depths below and then made our way over it. The garrison had disappeared and we were left in undisputed possession of the ‘Hindenberg Line’, the first troops ever to cross it.
Once over this line the tanks were able to take advantage of the widening front and act more on the individual initiative of their commanders. We therefore ceased to concern ourselves with the activities of tanks to the right and left of us, but just determined to go right ahead and do all the damage we could. By now the German infantry was well on the run, but the light and heavy guns were getting mighty troublesome. We were so much ahead of the battle timetable we were really more in danger from our own artillery. The weather was on our side. A more ideal November day could not be imagined. Through the open driving window I was able to see for miles around and follow the movements of various Companies of Germans. Some were scuttling away for all they were worth, others manoeuvring into better positions for defence whilst others were openly surrendering and pleading for mercy.
One batch of well over a hundred advanced towards us as if in surrender and when they got within fifty yards opened out, revealing mobile machine-guns which started firing on us. Our front gun was on them in a flash, and I ‘trod on the gas’ and charged straight for them. My N.C.O. gunner had received news only the day previously that his younger brother had been killed by the Germans, so the havoc he wrought with that forward gun can best be imagined. We took no prisoners. Just after midday we stopped to cool the engine a bit and took the opportunity to have some ‘hard tack’ and split a bottle of whisky between us. This liquor was the gift of our tank commander Lieutenant G. Cooke and whilst we had a breather behind the bus he went off to have a scout around. He returned in a quarter of an hour with the news that our battalion had ‘copped it in the neck’ over on the right and that the attack was an absolute walkover all along the line. He also brought back a German Officer’s picklhaube (helmet) and a portable electric lighting outfit he had collected from a near-by dug-out. Whilst we had been resting the shrapnel fire had become more intense and there were several nasty punctures in our exhaust pipe on top of the bus. When we moved forward again a fusillade of bullets rattled on the front armour-plating, telling a gun crew waiting for a duel. I quickly closed the window and drove by means of the pinhole apertures. The firing got hotter and there was obviously more than one gun concentrating on us. No matter how I zigzagged the bus they stuck to it and very soon white hot sparks were flying into my face as I peered out. I tried using the circular periscope we had been issued with but it was a ridiculous little thing and had the top mirror shot off in a few seconds.
At this moment one of our sponson gunners gave a yell and fell back from his gun with a bullet rip from his right palm to the elbow. A farm building on our right looked very suspicious and I turned towards it with two of our guns peppering away. By the time we got to one hundred yards of it the firing at us ceased and we caught the Jerries scrambling away through some trees at the back. We bandaged our wounded comrade and I kept a lookout for the Red Cross men, who eventually came up and took him back with them. For some time we had been travelling with one roof door open for ventilation but now that the shell-fire was becoming more concentrated we thought it prudent to close it again. An example of the way we were being watched was evident when one of our gunners reached up to pull the flap down, he had his trigger finger shot away.
By early afternoon the enemy had rushed up reserves and was trying to make a stand against our relentless advance. As the tanks were still keeping ahead of the infantry we took a turn at patrolling along our immediate front, drawing the machine-gun fire and giving the foot-sloggers time to catch up. At times they were half a mile behind us owing to their having to wait for our artillery barrage to lift. Hour after hour we spent chasing and mopping up defiant batches of Germans who gave us some uncomfortable cracks and stood up to our thirty-ton monster in an admirable way.
It was about this time our attention was attracted by an unusual knocking on the left side of the bus. Opening the door we found an infantry sergeant who had come over to ask for our help against some machine-guns that were holding up his Company’s advance. Swinging the bus left I followed his directions and cut across the front towards a line of ramshackle cottages in the middle distance. A storm of bullets greeted us as we approached and at that shortening range I really wondered if the old bus would stand up to such punishment. I straddled the ‘Early Bird’ across a shell-hole in front of the infantry and held the fire whilst they sorted themselves out a little. Our three gunners soon spotted the loopholes low down in the crumbling brick wall and gave as good as they were getting. It was reassuring to hear the guns working in unison, one felt there was a definite aim behind them instead of just spasmodic bracketing.
We then decided to make a charge of it and working the bus into top gear I literally bounced over the ground towards our target. This headlong rush soon had its effect, for without waiting to invite us inside, the German gunners packed up and went to earth, whilst I turned off sharp left to avoid any possible damage to the bus in going through the brick wall. The infantry were soon after their aggressors and gave us a cheer as we went off to resume our own route of advance. I afterwards picked out the nickel casing of an armoured piercing bullet that had embedded itself in the hot plating through which I had been observing. The attack was succeeding beyond our wildest dreams and it is difficult to convey the feeling of almost boyish exhilaration that possessed us as we roamed about unchecked in this verdant country behind enemy lines. I suppose it was a natural reaction after those weeks and weeks of strain and disillusionment we had endured in the Third Battle of Ypres.
Glancing to the right and left I could see other tanks fighting their own personal duels with the staunch enemy gunners and leading the P.B.I. across the open plains and through the various farms and villages. My own bus had lead the advance through Havrincourt and then hours later on through Graincourt, where I cast longing eyes at the deserted estaminets and food shops as we rolled through. When dusk began to fall at 4.20 p.m. we had skirted the important village of Anneux and were well out on the main Bapaume–Cambrai national road.
The ’wonderlust’ had taken possession of us and I really believe we would have gone on through the night had it not been for our dwindling petrol supply. As it was, we continued along this fine poplar-lined roadway until it got really dark at 5.00 p.m. and on consulting our map found we had reached a point just north-west of Bourlon Wood, an advance of over five miles on that day. Not bad you know, considering that a similar penetration at the Third Battle of Ypres took three months to accomplish. After visiting the C.O. of the infantry, who were now ‘digging in’ we call it a day and set off back for our rallying point, which we reached just before 7.30 p.m. Here we camouflaged the tank in the shadow of a brick factory which was now being used as a field-dressing station by the R.A.M.C. One of the orderlies told me that a young doctor there had done seven amputations in the past half hour, on British and German alike. Leaving the rest of the crew on the bus Lieutenant Cooke and I scouted around for some sleeping quarters and a few dozen yards from the Briqueterie cross-roads discovered the entrance to some German dug-outs cut into the side of the sunken road.
These places looked for all the world like the entrances to some better class ‘desirable villas’ as they were fitted with glass panelled doorways and porticoes, complete with knockers and letterboxes. The Jerries must have lugged them there from a good distance as there were no houses in these parts they could have come from. We entered the farther doorway in this row and found it was stacked on both sides with hand grenades and stick bombs. In front of us descended a solidly timbered staircase, so deep that our touches could not penetrate to the bottom. There was a foul and dank earthy smell rising from the depths but what held our attention were some sinister looking electric cables running right down the left side of the stairs. (We remembered the booby traps that Jerry had left behind him when he had retreated up on the Arras front earlier in the year).
Lt. Cooke decided to investigate and severing the cables with his wire cutters, told me to wait at the top whilst he went below, Torch in one hand and revolver ready in the other. Five minutes later he returned and said we were in luck’s way, we could all spend the night down there. The place had obviously been an abode for officers, for the walls were match-boarded and papered, tables and chairs were arranged in the dining section and double berth bunks were cosily made with hair mattresses, pillows and grey blankets. Two of them even had officers’ great coats still thrown across them, evidence of the haste with which their owners had left these quarters on a cold and frosty morning.
One end of this dug-out was build like a wine cellar, and was stacked with thousands and thousands of bottles of – what do you think? – distilled water! With this and the store of coffee and schweinfleisch (or was it horseflesh?) we were able to have a hot meal at Fritz’s expense, cooking it over his ‘feldkochers’ which we found complete with solidified methylated spirit. The dinning table bore evidence of a hurriedly snatched meal, having on two partly cut loaves of brownish bread and three half empty mugs of black coffee.
At 11 p.m. I went out to do my two hours sentry-go on the tank.
Away on the eastern horizon Vary lights were soaring and flickering with their eerie brilliance and a scintillating chain of ceaseless shrapnel-bursts was doing its best to exterminate the P.B.I. ‘digging in’ beneath it. All night long the guns and ammunition, stores, ambulances, pioneers, engineers, troops and even cavalry moved up along this main artery, although the procession was frequently disorganised with men and horses annihilated when some heavy stuff came over from Cambrai way.
Thus ended the most glorious day in the history of the Tank Corps, a day which turned the wave of doubt into a tide of admiration for the new arm.
ABBREVIATION - P.B.I. Poor Bloody Infantry