Overlord'S Blog: From the Mud...
Before the war Captain Donald Richardson was a Greengrocer. So when in 1917 he found himself in charge of a section of Tanks its unsurprising one of them sprouted the name Fray Bentos, a type of canned meat sold in the UK. Or at least that is the story.
Either way Captain Richardson was himself inside the tank during the Passchendaele offensive. It was wettest August on record, and by the 23rd the battlefield was a quagmire.
On that day the section of tanks was detailed to destroy a selection of German held farms. Although these had been farms before the war, they were now strong points/ heavily fortified concrete bunkers. Cpt Richardson led his section from Fray Bentos. Despite the tank never having been in combat, and all the crew being green the tank section destroyed the strongpoint at Somme farm. However all the tanks in the section were bogged down or knocked out, leaving Fray Bentos to continue on alone to destroy Gallipoli Farm.
As the approached the strongpoint a burst of HMG fire hit the driver’s vision port, the spalling from this burst caused injury to the face of the driver. As he fell in shock and surprise he caught the control levers, causing the tank to lurch to one side, and bog down.
Immobilised, high and dry with one sponson pointing into the mud the other into the sky, a Crewman called Brady volunteered to go outside and attach the unbogging beam. As he unhooked the beam the same HMG killed him. However at this point the Sponson gunner spotted the HMG nest and found his 6 pounder gun could just depress enough to hit it, which he did destroying the HMG.
The Germans now brought artillery to bear on the beached tank. A massive shell impacted alongside the tank punching a splinter into the chest of one of the sponson Gunners. As the rounds carried on falling the pounding caused the tank to start to sink sideways. When she stopped sinking the right sponson was utterly buried, and the left could not depress enough to do anything. Furthermore the shaking of the shells had caused Brady's body and the unbogging beam to slide off the tank, blocking the right door, as Cpt Richardson found out when he tried to lead a party outside to attach the unbogging beam. Unable to open the door the crew were unable to free the tank.
In the early afternoon the Germans launched a counter attack to re-take Somme farm. Right in their path lay Fray Bentos. Using her Lewis guns she broke up the attack.
Suddenly the tank came under fire from Somme farm as well as the Germans at Gallipoli and the artillery fire. The British forces as Somme farm were trying to destroy the tank to stop it being captured by the Germans. Sgt Missen volunteered to act as a runner and return to Somme farm to let the forces there know of the tanks plight. Crossing no man’s land in broad daylight, Sgt Missen was wounded. However he did get the message through.
So for the first day the Germans had been content to bombard Fray Bentos with everything from mortars to larger artillery pieces. However overnight they tried something else. In the early hours after being up for around 24 hours, Cpt Richardson was startled by the Sponson door being heaved open. Silhouetted against the stars was the shape of a German soldier with a grenade. Luckily Cpt Richardson reacted faster, pulling his service revolver and shooting the German. The door slammed shut as the grenade detonated.
On the MKIV tanks was the sponsons could be retracted into the hull for transport. The blast of the grenade forced the left hand sponson to fall into the transport position smashing one of the sponson gunners across the chest. At this point the Infantry at Somme Farm started firing up flares to illuminate the battlefield. And they kept this up for the remainder of the night. To make use of this light the Left door was used as a hatch, it did involve the crew man tasked with the job to hold the heavy solid armour door up with one hand while aiming and shooting with his pistol. This did enable the Tank crew to engage and rout another sapper party trying to sneak up on them .
At the start of the second day the crew in desperation started to drink the radiator water from the engines.
During the next 24 hours numerous assault parties were broken up by either Lewis gun fire or the use of the crew’s personal weapons. The tank had also provided a bulwark of fire against several German counter attacks against Somme farm. After three days solid in action, there was only one unwounded member of the crew, and they'd run out of food and water.
So Cpt Richardson ordered the crew to abandon the vehicle. They all made it to friendly lines, but to Cpt Richardson’s surprise the crew manning the Lewis guns had, as standing order required, dismounted the guns and brought them out with them. Before collapsing through exhaustion Cpt Richardson turned the Lewis guns over to the infantry's care.
Everyone of the crew later received a gallantry award of some form.
Note: The pictures used in this article are not of Fray Bentos. Another tank bore the same number (F41), and was captured by the Germans. Or are generic stock photographs from the war.
As far as I've been able to tell there are no Photographs of Fray Bentos, apart from one aerial reconnaissance photograph.