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RECRUITING FOR THE HEAVY SECTION – PART 3

October 14, 2016
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Part 3 goes into more detail regarding exactly how Swinton, first commander of the Heavy Section, managed to swell the numbers up to 184 officers and 1610 men of other ranks.

Swinton pays tribute to Mr Geoffrey Smith, editor of The Motor Cycle magazine of Coventry who, since 1914, had been encouraging and recruiting men from the motor-engineering trades to enlist and now focused his attention on the Heavy Section. He continued to do this until June 1916, by which time the vacant ranks had been filled.

Visiting R.N.A.S.

That Swinton was not always successful in his efforts is typified when, on the advice of some of his officers he visited the depot of the Royal Naval Air Service. As usual he was unable to explain what exactly it was the Heavy Branch did but, having explained the conditions of service, the pay and the expectation of their soon being in the thick of things, he thought he had painted its attractions in glowing terms. He called the parade to attention and rasped out “Ratings wishing to transfer to the Heavy Section, Machine-Gun Corps, one pace forward – march!” Not a man moved, indeed the front rank seemed to lean back to avoid giving any such impression. Swinton learned afterwards that as R.N.A.S. ratings the men were being paid about three times as much as they would get in the Army.

Ernest Swinton, first commander of the Heavy Section.

Ernest Swinton, first commander of the Heavy Section.

Tank Workshop

Swinton also wanted a workshops to accompany the tanks and, as a first step, acquired an officer from France, Major Hugh Knothe of the Mechanical Transport Branch of the Army Service Corps who had commanded a Holt Caterpillar tractor company. Knothe was instructed to learn, intimately the details of a tank in order to work out the organisation and manning of a workshop.

This he did and men came from the ASC tractor companies in France, from the ASC Depot at Avonmouth docks where Holts were unloaded from the United States and prepared for service in France, and from the ASC Depot at Grove Park in London.

Some of them, on seeing a tank for the first time claimed total ignorance of the internal combustion engine so Knothe sent them back where they’d come from. Although it was remarked afterwards that none ever revealed what they had seen, Knothe was criticised at the time for sending them back. It was said that the men could have been trained to accept the tanks. Army Service Corps men also served as drivers in the first tanks and remained as ASC men for the duration.

Henriques and Macpherson

Also in April 1916 Swinton toured around from Chelsea Barracks, through Oxford and Cambridge, visiting officer cadet training units to find young men with a mechanical background who might make good tank commanders and from all of which he was able to select about 150 men, but not everybody arrived in this way.

A case in point concerns two men of the East Kent Regiment, Second Lieutenants Basil Henriques and George Macpherson, who now feature in The Tank Museum’s Tank Men exhibition. They were told by their commanding officer at Canterbury to go up to London and see Colonel Ernest Swinton.

One is obliged to ask why they were selected. It cannot have been because they were two of the best men available.

Both men were close friends and Henriques wife said that he was the most unsuitable material for an Army officer, maybe this applied to both of them but Henriques had a brother serving in the regiment so it had nothing to do with his being Jewish. Swinton, on interviewing them found that they had no mechanical knowledge worth speaking of but both were accepted and became tank commanders in C Company.

Commanding the Heavy Section

Swinton was anxious to find an officer suitable to command the Heavy Section in France. He selected Colonel John Brough C. M. G. of the Royal Marine Artillery, but Brough was a Staff College graduate and Swinton had some difficulty getting him. For some reason Brough was not acceptable to General Headquarters in France and was duly replaced. Later on John Brough shot himself while serving in France, although it’s not entirely clear why.

When complete the total establishment of the Heavy Section amounted to 184 officers and 1,610 other ranks.

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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