Veterans – History in the Making …6
Special Order No. 6
A cold biting wind swept across the parade square at Bovington in late November as the Royal Tank Regiment stood to attention on a Regimental Parade. Dressed in their familiar black tank suits and belts their black berets bore the distinctive silver RTR cap badge. A lone trooper, the youngest in the Regiment, broke rank and marched forward before coming to a smart halt ahead of the Parade. He cleared his throat before starting to recite an Order that had been written by Major General Hugh Elles, Commander Royal Tank Corps, nearly 100 years before.
Church bells rang out in Britain on the eve of 20th November 1917. Many who heard them might have assumed that the War was over. It had been said that the bells of churches and chapels up and down the Country would remain silent until the cessation of fighting and they had not rung since the start of hostilities in 1914. But the bells chimed out that day. Not for the end of War, but in celebration of a famous victory for the British forces at a decisive and game changing battle at Cambrai in Northern France. The British had in effect broken through what was known as the Hindenburg Line, a German defensive fortification on the Western Front that ran from Arras to Laffaux, some 90 miles long. And not only that, they had advance over five miles into enemy territory within 24 hours.
In the early hours of the morning just after 6am German troops based at their stronghold around the small French town were awoken as over one thousand British artillery guns opened up in unison bombarding their positions in the outlying desolate fields that were once farmland, with a barrage of thousands of shells causing death and destruction. But within ten minutes the guns fell silent and smoke was set off to cover the whole area as an almost silent advance started with infantry and cavalry. Then the silence was broken by the squeaking, clanking and growling of heavy armour as nearly 220 British Mk IV tanks rolled towards the enemy positions in a terrifying display of might and military power.
The first use of tank technology goes back as far as the 15th Century when it was proposed to apply armour to wagons although the concept of self-propelled weaponry did not come about until 1903 when a French Artillery Captain, Léon Levavasseur proposed his Levavasseur project, a canon autopropulseur or self-propelled cannon. Using a caterpillar track system for movement and fully armoured for protection the vehicle was designed to carry three people along with ammunition and able to be an all-terrain vehicle which could cross trenches and rough ground as well as being almost impregnable to most of the ammunition and weaponry of the day. In the same year famous early science fiction author, H G Wells published a short story, The Land Ironclads in a London magazine about armoured tanks with pedrail wheels breaking through armoured trench systems and fortifications with ease.
The first appearance of tanks on a battlefield came in September 1916 in the form of the British Mk 1 tanks. Just fewer than fifty were deployed at the Battle of Flers-Courselette, part of the Battle of the Somme, but with mixed results. Most broke down and became sitting targets for artillery and mortar fire although a third managed to keep going and broke through enemy lines. But success was limited and so the development of tanks went on.
The Battle of Cambrai was the brainchild of General John Fuller, a staff officer with 7 Corps in France. Fuller and his supporters convinced the hierarchy that an armoured breakthrough was the only real way to break the stalemate that had developed in the War in 1917. And Fuller knew exactly how to do it particularly when the Commander Royal Artillery, Major General Henry Tudor agreed to support the plans. Tudor was keen to test out his newly developed Artillery-Infantry techniques and knew this would be a perfect operation on which to do this. And with the Cavalry on board to support such an act the planning for a surprise attack was set in motion.
In utmost secrecy the previous evening all troops and equipment were in place hidden in woods undetected and ready for the next day. Although the mission was secret, through their intelligence services the Germans knew an attack was imminent but were unaware of the ferocity of what was about to happen.
The first day was a huge success when a number of key factors all seemed to fall into place. Artillery had been practicing predicted fire patterns which increased accuracy with the assistance of air support from the Royal Flying Corps and infantry and cavalry tactics, which had been worked on intensively since 1915 suddenly appeared to work. This was not taking any of the success away from the tanks but all were playing a part. The difference being using this n umber of tanks in battle was an innovation. The Mark VI tanks literally crossed over trenches, with the use of fascines made of bundles of wood, and were driven through the wood and wire fortifications allowing the supporting cavalry horses and infantrymen to take important ground. By nightfall and the cessation of fighting for the day, 5 miles had been covered with the British taking 8000 German prisoners and capturing around 100 German artillery guns.
But after the British successes of what was seen as the first effective use of tanks in any war resulting in excitement back in Britain, the tide was about to turn once again. The British had failed to reach their main objective; the high ground of Bourlon Ridge and the German command were quick to reinforce the area overnight. When the battle resumed on 21st November the pace of the British was greatly reduced. South of Cambrai the commanders ordered the British troops to reinforce rather than continue the march forward while the fighting around the ridge was intense. More tanks and soldiers were poured into the battle and for one of the first times in the war air battles ensued between the RFC and German Luftwaffe when the German high command called on the expert services of Manfred Von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, and considered the greatest of all pilots during WWI.
On the ground only half the tanks that had started, which now numbered nearly 450, were still fully operational and after pushing back and forth around Bourlon eventually on 28th November the ridge was taken by the British who were ordered to go to ground and dig in. The following day over 16,000 German rounds were fired into the woods where the British were encamped. At this stage the British held a line over 6 miles long.
Then on 30th November the German counter-attack started. The initial speed of the German infantry was totally unexpected by the British who were caught off guard. In the South the advance was spread of the German attack was over 8 miles wide and took ground easily from the exhausted British. The fighting around the ridge itself was more intense and whilst the defenses were impressive it allowed the German troops to move in other areas that were less well defended. Only the arrival of more British tanks that evening allowed for some form of line to be held although it had been pushed back. And the German capture of Bonvais Ridge made the British hold on the nearby Bourlon Ridge precarious.
On 3rd December Lord Haig ordered a withdrawal and by 7th December all British gains were abandoned except for a small portion of the Hindenburg Line around Havrincourt. The Germans had in effect exchanged their initial loss of land with a territorial sweep of land to the South.
In Bovington the young Trooper recited Special Order No. 6.
“Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months, to operate on good going in the van of the battle.
All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in way of preparation.
It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
In the light of past experience I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
I propose leading the attack of the centre division”
The Battle of Cambrai was seen as the most successful use of tanks in warfare and would lead to changes in battlefield tactics that would be used to this date in tank warfare.
There were around 45,000 casualties on both sides during the 18 days of the operation with over 11,000 German soldiers being taken prisoner and around 9,000 British also being taken prisoner.
The 20th November is celebrated annually as Cambrai Day by the Royal Tank Regiment with a Regimental Parade where the youngest Trooper in the Regiment recites Special Order no. 6, in remembrance of the bravery and successes of that famous tank battle.
Have you take part in any Cambrai parade or celebration or were your relatives involved in this battle? If so we would like to hear from you.