Unit History: Tank Corps
Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps (MGC).
In November 1916 the eight companies then in existence were each expanded to form battalions still lettered A through H; another seven battalions, I through O, were formed by January 1918, when they all were converted to numbered units. On 28 July 1917 the Heavy Branch was by Royal Warrant separated from the rest of the MGC and given official status as the Tank Corps, meaning that by the beginning of 1918 the fifteen units were changed from letters to numbers as 1st Battalion to 15th Battalion, Tank Corps. More battalions continued to be formed, and by December 1918, 26 had been created. (At this time there were only 25 tank battalions, however; the 17th had converted to using armoured cars in April 1918). The first commander of the Tank Corps was Hugh Elles.
The Corps saw heavy action through 1917 and 1918, with special note being given to the Battle of Cambrai (1917), which the regiment continues to commemorate annually. During the war, four members of the Corps were awarded the Victoria Cross. However, heavy losses and recurrent mechanical difficulties reduced the effectiveness of the Corps, leading the Bovington Tank School to adopt a doctrine that emphasised caution and high standards of maintenance in equal measure.
In the autumn of 1914, Lieutenant-Colonel E.D. Swinton suggested the idea of an armoured vehicle to the military authorities at home. It was not until January 1915 when Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, interested himself in Col. Swintons suggestion and the idea of a "land battleship" began to take official form.
The first experimental machine was completed in December 1915 and in March 1916 the headquarters of what was to be known as the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps was established at Bisley under the command of Col. Swinton. Later this section was moved to Elveden Camp, where six companies of tanks were raised.
On 13 August 1916 four of these companies began to embark for France, but the Headquarters of the Heavy Section and its commander remained in England. The supply of machines was the responsibility of the "Mechanical Warfare Supply Department" of the Ministry of Munitions, which was controlled by Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Stern.
Tanks were used for the first time in action on the battlefield of the Somme on 15 September 1916. 36 Mark 1 tanks of C and D Companies arrived on the start line for the renewal of the Somme offensive: this action was later designated as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Arguments continue as to whether it would have been better to wait until much larger numbers of tanks were available before they were used in battle. The Heavy Section MGC was redesignated as the Heavy Branch MGC in November 1916.
The Tank Corps was formed from the Heavy Branch MGC on 27 July 1917 and the Battalions adopted numbering rather than letter designations (although tank names followed the same lettering: for example, 7th Battalion tanks were all named with a letter G, like Grouse, Grumble, etc.) Each Tank Battalion had a complement of 32 officers amd 374 men.
The tanks in action
At the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916, the tanks were organised into subsections of two or three tanks, and were sent in action ahead of the infantry. Open lanes were left in the British artillery barrage, through which the tanks could pass. It was realised that the tanks would draw enemy fire and the infantry followed at a cautious distance. Overall, this battle, while notable for the entry of the tanks, with heroic stories of a tank moving through Flers with the infantry "cheering behind", was hardly a great success.
Only 36 of the 49 tanks deployed even made it as far as the start line. 14 of them ditched or broke down. 10 tanks were hit by enemy fire and damaged sufficiently for them to take no further part, and another 7 slightly damaged. The surprise and in some cases effect of the tanks helped the attack, but in overall terms the effect was the same: one could break into an enemy position but not through it. GHQ however saw the potential, and planned on acquiring masses of tanks. There has been much debate over the use of the small numbers of tanks that were available.
60 tanks - mostly Mark 1s - saw action at the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Very wet and cold weather, creating poor ground conditions, proved the undoing of the tanks on this occasion. Many broke down and many more simply could not tackle the ground and became bogged down. The non-appearance of tanks as planned caused a serious disruption to the costly Australian attack at Bullecourt, which created an unfortunate mistrust. The fact that tanks were an obvious target for enemy artillery and bombing did little for infantry confidence.
By summer 1917 tank numbers had increased and the better Mark IVs were available. Sadly, the tanks deployment in the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) proved to be another slog through deep mud. The area became a tank graveyard as machine after machine ditched in deep trenches and shell holes, sank, stuck and shelled. Morale in the Tank Corps was low and confidence of the rest of the army destroyed. Although there was a bright incident when tanks did well at St Julien, the tanks needed to be given a fighting chance.
On 20 November 1917, Byngs Third Army launched a limited and tactically radical attack at Cambrai, where ground conditions were far more favourable than any seen to date. Folliwng a surprise, hurricane artillery bombardment 378 Mark IV tanks smashed through the Hindenburg Line positions, temporarily creating a rupture to the German lines and the chance for a breakthrough. Insufficient mobile reserves could not get through in time to exploit the success, and within days the chance had gone. However, Cambrai proved to be a key learning experience for the British command.
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