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Mark IV female Ypres

TRAPPED: THE STORY OF FRAY BENTOS

Tank F41, named Fray Bentos, was a male Mark IV, number 2329. In August 1917 the nine man crew experienced the longest tank action of the First World War.

There are no surviving photographs of Fray Bentos. The image above is a female Mark IV stranded in the mud at Passchendaele.

The Crew

These are their names:

Captain Donald Hickling Richardson
Second Lieutenant George Hill
78690 Sergeant Robert Francis Missen
69575 Gunner William Morrey
69629 Gunner Ernest W. Hayton
69463 Gunner Frederick C. Arthurs
69571 Gunner Percy Edgar Budd
69648 Gunner James H. Binley
69524 Lance Corporal Ernest Hans Braedy

 

When they returned after over 60 hours in action, one man had been killed and seven wounded. Their bravery saw them become the most highly decorated tank crew of the war.

WF Morrey

William Morrey, who fought on despite his injuries and was awarded the DCM.

Richardson and Hill were both awarded the Military Cross, Missen and Morrey the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Hayton, Arthurs, Budd and Binley the Military Medal. Braedy was killed. Binley alone was left ‘untouched, but shocked.’

The story of Fray Bentos

Their saga began at 4:40am on the 22nd August, when they moved off in support of an attack by 61st Division near St Julien. This was part of the Third Battle of Ypres.

As the tank advanced it came under machine gun fire from Somme Farm, which the crew soon silenced with their left hand 6 pounder gun.

Robert Missen

Robert Missen, awarded the DCM for braving German fire to stop the British firing on his tank.

At around 5:45am Fray Bentos was fired on by a German machine gun at objective Gallipoli. Missen remembered that ‘we got into a very deep soft place and went in sideways, and just at that moment Mr Hill fell back off his seat hit.

Captain Richardson got on the seat to relieve him, but he was foul of the controls and before the driver could do anything she was right in and ditched.’

Hill was wounded in the neck, and both Budd and Morrey were hit at the same time.

Tanks carried unditching beams on the roof to use to free themselves if they got stuck. Missen tried to get out of the tank to attach it to the tracks, but ‘I heard bullets hitting the tank and saw some Boche about 30 yards off firing at me. I got in again.’

Missen had got out on the right, and Braedy did the same on the left. He wasn’t so fortunate. As Richardson recounted, he ‘lost his life whilst fitting the unditching gear under terrific MG fire.’

Although Fray Bentos couldn’t move, it could still shoot, and the 6 pounder gunners ‘successfully engaged the MGs at Gallipoli farm.’

 

Caught in the Cross Fire

At around 7 o’clock the British infantry began to fall back, leaving the crew isolated in the tank. The Germans attempted to close in, but they were held off by 6 pounder and Lewis gun fire and by the crew’s personal rifles and pistols.

Missen recalled that ‘the Boche were in an old trench close in under the front of the tank and we could not get the Lewis onto them owing to the angle of the tank, but we shot them easily with a rifle out of the revolver flap in the cab.’

British soldiers had also begun sniping at the tank, and so Missen volunteered to ‘go back and warn the infantry not to shoot us as we should sooner or later have to clear out of the tank… I got out of the right sponson door and crawled back to the infantry.’ By the time Missen left, every surviving member of the crew except Binley had been wounded.

Sketch Fray Bentos Tank

A sketch depicting the action of Fray Bentos

The British sniping was finally stopped by the crew showing a white rag from one of the portholes. The Germans, however, mounted repeated attacks on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th, which the crew were able to fight off.

Escape

At 9pm on the 24th Richardson decided they had to leave and return to the British lines. Despite their wounds the crew followed standing orders and took the 6 pounder locks and all their weapons and maps with them. After reaching the nearest British infantry, from 9th Battalion The Black Watch, Richardson arranged for them to cover the tank to prevent the Germans capturing it, and left the crew’s Lewis guns at the Black Watch’s disposal.

Ernest Braedy’s body was never found, and he is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Percy Budd didn’t survive the war either. He died on the 25th August 1918, aged 22.

Find out more about the planning of Third Ypres, the battle itself, the tanks used at Passchendaele and Operation Hush

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