Another failed objective during Cambrai was Bourlon Village where ten British tanks were taken out of action.
The Battle of Cambrai went on for far too long, what had been planned as a raid had now become a full blown offensive. The tanks were becoming worn out and their crews increasingly exhausted while the Germans, having now overcome their initial surprise, were actually growing in strength as men were steadily being transferred from the Eastern Front.
Bourlon Village lies to the north of Bourlon Wood and it was latterly regarded as a vital objective. The village had been attacked by tanks since 23rd November but it was never captured. It’s the final attack, on Tuesday, 27th November that concerns us here.
Snow had started falling during the night but of the fifteen tanks sent in only five survived to drive out again, the remainder either broke down or became ditched or were knocked out by a German gun but it is two, both females, F4 FLIRT II and F13 FALCON II which concern us here.
F13 swerved to avoid a wounded soldier lying in its path, and in doing so skidded down a slope and came to rest alongside a brick built reservoir, incapable of moving, with its unditching gear broken but otherwise fundamentally in good condition.
F4 was approaching from behind but now pulled out, stationed itself in front and made ready to pull F13 out. But in doing so stripped its own gearbox and ended up stuck, in front of F13. At this point another female tank, F1 FIRESPITE II appeared on the scene and also attempted to tow F13 clear but having failed it went on its way.
F4 and F13 at Bourlon Village and beyond
Both tanks, stuck where they were, came under increasing enemy fire. And the supporting British infantry withdrew. The crews from both tanks then formed a machine-gun team, but as the German fire intensified they were forced to withdraw, leaving the two tanks behind. F4 was hit, more than once, by German shell fire but F13, which was in quite good condition, was left alone. Once the fighting had died down the battered remains of F4 were towed away.
From Bourlon station it went by train to Charleroi in Belgium where the Germans had established a tank repair facility. We don’t know exactly what happened although F4 was probably too knocked about to be worth restoring but some of its internal components may have been salved and used on other tanks. F13, on the other hand, was captured in full working order and was later filmed for propaganda purposes.
Sometime after the Second World War a Mark IV female tank was placed in front of the Tank Museum, sporting the number F4 on each side at the front and the name Flirt II across the nose. We were told that it was a genuine Cambrai veteran and as such due a modest amount of respect.
But a few of us had our doubts and in the end one enthusiast, Gywn Evans from South Wales, was able to prove that is was in fact the Gloucester presentation tank (no. 2743) which had seen war service in France and may have been at Cambrai but it was not Flirt II. That tank is now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, hopefully rejoicing in its correct identity.
For more information on the Battle of Cambrai, watch The Tank Museum YouTube documentary, Cambrai: The Tank Corps Story.
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