THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI - THE GERMAN COUNTER ATTACK
By J. C. Allnatt
From The Tank April 1956, pages 274-7
We had begun our attack for Cambrai on 20th November, 1917. It went on with considerable success for three days. and then died away, as such attacks, which do not receive adequate support, always do. The German resistance stiffened and brought us to a stand-still. The tanks retired, and the crews took a well-earned sleep. Later they roused themselves sufficiently to look over the souvenirs they had got during the battle. I got a large bundle of soft pink woollen body-belts – must have been two hundred. Anybody who wanted two or three could have them, but most of them, I fear, were used for engine cleaning. I also got a nice German groundsheet, and a fur coat!
On the morning of November 29th, we were ordered to clean ourselves up, and to parade with the remainder of the Battalion. We formed three sides of the square, with our much depleted ranks. Presently along came several Senior Officers, one of whom clambered up upon a tank which had been placed in our midst and told us how the Tanks had come into their own – how we had given the Germans a thorough hiding from which it would take them a long time to recover. As he spoke a German plane came over and machine gunned the line of our captive observation balloons bringing everyone of them down in flames. It did not seem to occur to anybody that the Germans did this to blind us because they intended to do something which they did not want us to see, and sure enough that is precisely what they did do – But more of that later.
Whilst we were being dismissed from the parade my name was called amongst others to be interviewed by the General. This was a result of our applications for commissions and he spoke a few words to each of us in turn.
When we returned to our Camp in the Avincourt [sic – this should be Havrincourt] Wood I was met by a runner who gave me a note. It was from my brother-in-law, who was an Officer in a Labour Company.1 It read “Are you alright? I am at Newville [sic – this should be Neuville], where are you?” Whilst I was still reading it and wondering what I could do, the Company Second in Command2 passed and I took the opportunity of asking him if he could help me. He gave me a pass and said I could stay away the night if I wished to.
I asked him where Newville was and he pointed to a village not far away. When I got there I saw the Town Major and asked him where 468 Labour Company was.1 “They went away yesterday to Equancourt," he said, and suggested I should get a ride there on the light railway. I was put down where I supposed my brother-in-law’s Labour Camp would be but upon inquiry was told that they had gone away that morning to Avincourt Wood, the very wood in which we were encamped! I hopped on to a fully loaded ammunition train and soon reached my destination.
I soon found my brother-in-law and after a chat suggested that he should introduce me to his Commanding Officer who asked me if I would like to stay to dinner. Although I had never heard of an O.R. [i.e. ‘other rank’] feeding with Officers I readily agreed, especially as it was about 6.30 in the evening. There were only about seven or eight Officers present and I was given the place of honour next to the C.O.
He told me that his Unit always had a big proportion of sick men and that the Chief [sic] complaint was senile decay as a great proportion of his men were over sixty, which showed the acute shortage of man-power at that time.
I did not avail myself of the opportunity of staying the night and returned to my own Camp which proved to be about half a mile away. We had a good night’s rest broken in the morning by a few shells dropping in the vicinity. I at once began to wonder why they were dropping in our Camp as we had driven the Germans back some nine miles.
After breakfast my Section Officer3 ordered me to take the Section to a place called Metz to get them a bath. I paraded my forty men and set off, but it was not long before I realised that something was seriously wrong as the road was being shelled. I took the men off the road and putting them into three Groups made across country for Metz.
Metz was being heavily shelled and it seemed funny how people pretend to be unaffected by shelling. I got the Men [sic] to the baths and told them to get on with it. How they loved it; the first for months. I never undressed as I had a feeling that something was going to happen. I was standing by the door when a runner from the 3rd Bn. Grenadier Guards rushed in. He asked me if any of the Guards were there and said that the Germans were in the next village about a mile away and attacking this way. We marched back across country to our Camp and as we did so the Guards put in an attack and drove the Germans back.
I was much relieved to get into the open country, and as soon as I got back an order was waiting to report to Section Headquarters. The Section Commander, his face about a yard long, ordered me in the most funereal tones, to get the Section into battle order at once (we never got out of it for ten days) and to stand by.
I took the opportunity of watching the traffic at the nearby cross-roads which was chaos and confusion. Traffic of all kinds was moving backwards and forwards. Batteries were coming up and going back. Nobody knew the true situation.
Orders came to take the Section to the tank park, where to my astonishment I found twelve new tanks ranged alongside our discarded ones. My crew went to “Gravedigger,” took out some of our personal belongings and said goodbye before taking over an un-named “male” tank (six pounder).4 I feared I should never get another tank the equal of “Gravedigger,” and I was right.
The male tank was about fifteen hundredweight to a ton heavier than the female and was therefore not so fast or manoeuvrable.
Everything seemed to be in its place and in working order, even to rations for eight. My Gunners had luckily been trained in the Lewis gun and the six pounder and it was not long before they were testing the elevations and traverse, swinging the guns about and checking the spare parts, whilst I was chiefly concerned with the engine.
It was then about four o’clock in the afternoon, and we received orders to take our tanks across to the right hand side of the salient to Dessart Wood in order to stiffen the defence on that side which appeared to be giving way.
I started up the engine and put it through all the usual tests and was dismayed to find that when put under pressure the engine began to splutter and to stop. I checked the fuel supply and carburretors [sic] and stripped and tested the magneto with the same result.
I then knew it could only be one of two things: Water in the petrol tank, heaven forbid, or the autovac which was situated just above the engine. Any fault with the autovac was said to be a job for an expert and a tank driver was not supposed to attempt to repair it. The time was getting on and must have been seven or eight o’clock in the evening as it was dark. The other tanks had all left and I knew that my job was to get this tank running, and join the others. I felt that once reaching Dessart Wood there was a probability of immediate action, and a crippled tank in action is no use. I stripped the autovac and found one of the chambers with quite a quantity of filings. I re-assembled it and for a time all was well, and then the spluttering started again – more stripping and more filings. I had to do this three times, but eventually got the engine running to my satisfaction.
Dawn was now approaching and the remainder of the crew were asleep on the floor. I got into gear and followed the tracks made by the eleven tanks. After an hour we approached the small wood and the Commanding Officer came out to meet us.5 I drove into the wood and drew up in a space between two trees. We then had breakfast and the hot bacon went down wonderfully well. How hungry we were; I remember that my rasher of bacon fell into the dirt but I picked it up gave it a good shake and devoured it, grit and all!
We then got busy erecting a bivouac made from one of the sheets which were carried on every tank. Crews took it in turn day and night to start and move each tank every hour as there was a very real danger of the tracks becoming frozen to the ground. The engines were kept in a warm condition as it was thought that the enemy might continue his counter-attack at any moment. We were dressed in battle clothes and no man was allowed to take anything off, not even his putties or boots, until further orders. These orders did not come for nine more days.
We received orders that if the Germans continued their advance we were to emerge through the wood, spread out and go straight into and through them. We were rather looking forward to this but unfortunately it never happened.
Each night crews were detailed to take their tanks up the line to rescue some of the heavy guns, which owing to the altered position were now stranded in no-man’s land. This was no picnic as invariably the Germans heard our approach and machine-gunned and shelled us. We tried to creep up to the guns almost without noise, turn gently round, back up to the gun and hook up the sixty ton hauzer [sic] on to the gun trail. It was in hauling out the guns with our engine under pressure that attracted attention from the enemy.
Having retrieved all the guns there was little to do. One crew decided to improve it’s [sic] bivouac. There was a quantity of full cases of six pounder ammunition nearby and they arranged them so as to form a wall all round them and drew the sheet over the top – pleasant, dry, comfortable and warm. Rather too warm though, when a German shell went clean through the cases from one side to the other without exploding a shell or hurting a man. They did not however abandon their bivouac as they said you never got two shells in exactly the same place.
The days went slowly by and with each the chance of the German counter attack became less likely. On 10th December we received orders to stand down. What a joy it was to take off our equipment after this long period, and above all to remove our boots.
Three days later we were ordered to entrain our tanks and moved to a place called Fins, which we all thought was a good name for the end of the battle.
1. Joseph had six brothers and sisters, and this brother-in-law (and his unit) have not so far been identified.
2. The History of 7th Tank Battalion in War Diary in National Archives (ref. WO 95/100) shows the second-in-command of No. 19 Company was Captain Jesse William Winters.
3. The G Battalion Battlegraph for November 20, 1917 (in National Archives ref. WO 158/430) shows No. 3 Section was commanded by Captain Moore. Medal records show at least four officers with that name and rank, but the History of 7th Tank Battalion (in the War Diary in the National Archives, ref. WO 95/100) mentions a Captain R. N. Moore” who was mentioned in dispatches. The second initial may be an error, as the closest name to this is Captain Robert Henry Moore. He had previously been in the Royal Artillery, and his medal card shows he returned there after serving in the Tank Corps.
4. This tank has not been identified.
5. The History of 7th Tank Battalion shows this was Major Francis Hood Fernie.