The first man ever to command a tank in battle only volunteered for the secret mission because learning to fly aeroplanes was so dangerous, his daughter has revealed.
Captain Harold ‘Morty’ Mortimore was in command of tank ‘D1’ (“Daredevil”) on September 15, 1916. His was the first tank to go into action in history.
His place in history occurred because he had crashed an aeroplane while training with the Royal Naval Air Service and was looking to find a way of keeping his feet on the ground. So when volunteers were asked to join a top secret and dangerous mission he put his hand up immediately with the quip: “Nothing can be as terrifying as this.”
A few months later the moustachioed pioneer was rolling over No Man’s Land towards the German trenches in the first tank to ever engage an enemy. His daughter, Dr Tilly Mortimore, spoke about her father when she visited The Tank Museum 100 years after that first action, where she saw the only surviving item from the tank D1 – its compass – in a new display case about ‘Morty’. See the full interview ‘My Tank Ancestor’ here.
The compass, displayed below, has been stickered and placed in a lead-lined box as the radium paint that made it luminescent emits substantial amounts of radiation.
It was designed by Captain Creagh-Osborne R.N. in 1911 as a universal type for service aircraft, Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service and was issued from 1913 onwards.
A Tank Corps button has been welded to the side which is not part of the original design, and is a bit of a red herring as, at that time, the crew would have worn the MGC badge.
Tilly described how her father saw German soldiers drop their guns and run away when they first clapped their eyes on the new British invention. However, after Morty had cleared the trenches his tank was hit by artillery from his own side and was disabled.
He later told his daughter that he thought the tanks should have been deployed differently – as one huge unit rather than the piecemeal approach that was taken. Tilly – who was born on September 15 1950, when her father was 59 – was christened Matilda after the nickname given to the `female` Mark 1 tanks.
She said: “My father told me that being in the Royal Naval Air Service was the most terrifying thing you could possibly do. He said the planes were made out of string and balsa wood and he even crashed one onto a shed on the training field.
“So when volunteers were requested for a top secret dangerous mission his hand shot up – and that’s how he ended up in the tanks. Dad was selected as a tank commander and he started training in April 1916. By August the tanks were being shipped to France.
“His tank was supposed to go into battle with two others, but they had broken down so my dad went in on his own. He became the very first man to command a tank in battle and although he cleared the trenches, the steering mechanism was hit by a flying barrage from his own artillery. The crew got out and some were injured, but not seriously. D1 was abandoned on the battlefield.
“Dad didn’t speak much about his experiences, but he did tell me that his job on the first day was to clear a trench of German machine-gunners near to a strategically important wood. He said that as he approached the enemy he peered through his view finder and saw the Germans take one look at the tank and run.
“Just imagine what that huge tank must have looked like rearing up at the German soldiers in the early morning. The development of the tank had been kept secret and the effect must have been incredibly powerful. Dad also said that the effect would have been much greater had all the Mark 1 tanks gone at the Germans together.
“I am very proud of my father and of all those men who volunteered. They did so because they thought it was the right thing to do.”
Morty was gassed twice and eventually sent home. He became a businessman and politician in local government in Hertfordshire, met and married Tilly’s mother Mary in the late 1930s, and served in the Home Guard during World War II. He died in 1967 aged 76.
For more on the first tank crews, have a look at our products below.