In 20 November 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, a British tank nicknamed ‘Deborah’ was hit by a shell from a German field gun and came to a grinding halt. Five of her crew were killed and the remainder were forced to bail out under fire and make a hazardous retreat on foot.
Eighty years later, the tank’s rusted remains were rediscovered and excavated. They are now preserved in France as a memorial to the battle and to the men who fought in it.
‘Gallantry and skill’
The tank’s commander, second lieutenant Frank Heap, was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts during the battle and for leading his surviving two crew-members to safety.
His MC citation reads: ‘In Cambrai operations near Flesquieres on November 20th 1917, he fought his tank with great gallantry and skill, leading the infantry on to five objectives. He proceeded through the village and engaged a battery of enemy field guns from which his tank received five direct hits, killing four [as was believed] of his crew. Although then behind the German lines he collected the remainder of his crew and conducted them in good order back to our own lines in spite of heavy machine gun and sniper fire.’
Author John Taylor has explored the human story behind the tank in his recent book Deborah And The War Of The Tanks.
Deborah’s commander, second lieutenant Heap, was a graduate of Cambridge University who would later return to his native Blackpool to run the family hotel and catering business.
Among those of his crew who were killed were the tank’s driver, 20-year-old private George Foot from Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
Second lieutenant Heap wrote to his parents: ‘We all feel his loss very deeply, for his cheery spirits and unfailing good nature had endeared him to all. It is impossible that a soul like George’s should not go on living. I feel convinced I shall meet him again.’
Deborah and the War of the Tanks, 1917 is published by Pen & Sword Books, price £25.
Click here to watch a film about the discovery of Deborah.