Monday 13 August 2018

Nice One Cyril

My title could  perhaps be deemed somewhat frivolous, given the nature and content of this "guest" post, but I couldn't resist it. 

Nice One, Cyril was a popular catch phrase in the early 70s used in a bread advert and this hit single, a tribute to Tottenham Hotspur and their classy left back Cyril Knowles. My late grandfather Cyril Cyphus, already by then an old man, was mildly amused to see his anachronistic name briefly the subject of a minor cult in popular culture. 

I have already posted some of my grandfather's writings from the time of the First World War in this blog post back in 2016, and I was reminded last week by commemorations of the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, the beginning of the end of that dreadful war, that he played a key part in those final days of the Great War. 

He was invalided out of the trenches in 1916 as told in that previous post, but enlisted in the newly-formed Tank Corps and was among those specially trained to drive this new weapon. As is widely recognised by military historians, it was the invention and deployment of tanks which hastened the end of the futile stalemate of trench warfare, and so it is a source of pride to me and my family that our grandfather played his part in this piece of history.

Cyril Cyphus in the uniform of the Tank Corps

All the more remarkable - almost ridiculous come to think of it - is that after the War, Cyril never learned to drive nor ever owned a car. This gentle, cultured and mild-mannered man drove a tank through enemy lines in the searing heat of August 2018, but never had the pleasure of motoring!

Here is the key extract from his (unpublished) memoirs "From the Hot Air Balloon to the Man on the Moon" in which he tells the story of his life through the turbulent twenieth century. It tells of what happened in Northern France exactly one hundred years ago at the time of my writing this blog post:

"Twenty battalions of tanks were being trained for a big offensive with the object of bringing the war to a conclusion.

The tanks were of two types (1) heavy tanks (30 to 40 tons when loaded with guns and ammunition) and (2) light whippets, much smaller.

The heavy tanks, which carried six pound guns and/or Hotchkiss machine guns could only travel 3 or 4 miles an hour in favourable conditions while the whippets, carrying machine guns only, could travel up to 12 an hour. The early models of heavy tanks on which we had trained needed four men to crank up the engine whereas the later models, although they still needed the same number of men to start the engine, could, owing to the invention of the epicyclical gear, now be driven by one man without the need for two secondary gears men.  The crew of the heavy tanks consisted of one officer, one NCO and six men and half that number with whippets, but always an officer with each tank and usually an NCO as well (corporal or sergeant).

We had now been in France about four months, giving us time for experience in tank maintenance in comparative comfort and, having moved up nearer the front, on the night of 7th August, 1918, we had been partaking of dinner in the officers’ mess (a bivouac) consisting of several courses made by the cook very cleverly from next to nothing, when our company commander, Major Drader, said, in his customary way; “Gentlemen, you may smoke.”  There was something in the atmosphere that put us in an expectant mood.  It was then that he outlined a plan of campaign that was to take place within a few hours.  Sitting in the bivouac after dinner not far from the front, we had many forebodings, but we knew our strength and were optimistic.  What we did not anticipate was the great resistance that was to be put up by the Germans in the first weeks of the offensive we were about to undertake.

The plan was to creep forward on half-throttle at 4am zero (all watches having been synchronised) while low flying ‘planes would drown the noise of the engines and allow us to reach the starting point for twenty battalions of tanks stretched along the line followed where possible by infantry.  Major Drader said that it was to be the beginning of the end of the war.

There was the preliminary barrage from long range guns passing over our heads and as we moved forward, the low-flying planes moved away. I had to go into action without my corporal, a most reliable NCO.  He had been hit in the arm by a stray bullet on the way up and had to be left behind to the ambulance men following us.  It was pitch dark and very misty and I had to lead the drivers into action by the light of a lighted cigarette walking in front of the tank, a risky thing to do in case of obstacles in the way.  It was so hot inside the tank by the heat of the engine that I left most of my clothes behind at the base and went into action wearing a cotton shirt, cotton shorts and carrying revolver, ammunition and gas mask (a stupid thing to do).  My route had been marked out on the map I was carrying by the reconnaissance officer.  I was to proceed on a route parallel to the Bray-Corbie road but about 500 yards to the left.  I still possessed the map until recently when I destroyed many papers etc for want of space.

The battle raged throughout the night and we suffered some casualties.  I returned the following morning to our company headquarters with my crew intact but exhausted.  I brought back an anti-tank rifle that was soon abandoned because it gave a kick when fired.

In the calm of daylight I went forward with the driver in a lorry to retrieve some of the valuable tools that had been left in the derelict tanks after they had been burnt out.  Before reaching each tank I knew by the large white letters and figures which officer’s body together with those of his men would be found in a charred heap inside the tank.  These were some of the worst moments I have ever experienced.  We also spent the day refuelling our tanks and making preparations for the next offensive.  Because of the casualties we had sustained there was a switch round of tanks and men.  Two of my best men were taken away and in their place at the last moment, two men, who had been cooks and had little or no knowledge of tank training and how to fire a Hotchkiss machine gun.  I had to give them hasty instructions on safety procedures etc and how to act if the feed of the gun became jammed which it often did.  These instructions were not carried out, much to our cost later.  Also because of this I had no time for a final inspection of the tank, and after starting out it was found that a couple of nuts in the gun turret were missing, causing a big gap every time the tank lurched in a certain direction, necessitating the strength of two men to hold it ins position when they should have been holding the guns.

We returned to the company headquarters which was moving forward all the time, for a few hours rest and to satisfy our hunger before setting off again in still beautiful August weather.  Another officer, Davies, a Welsh man, joined me with his tank as we set off ready to fan out later on and wait at the foot of a steep bank for zero hour 5pm (17 hours).  We were then to advance in front of the infantry and at the same time there would be a barrage of artillery fire from behind us.

When we arrived at our starting point we found a battalion of infantry awaiting our arrival.  The colonel in charge sent a man to invite me to speak to him.  What were my orders?  He asked.  I told him that we were to proceed up the hill at 1700 hours precisely.  He said, “If you do, you’ll be blown to pieces, but don’t take your orders from me.”  There was a field gun just over the brow of the hill that would have its sights trained on us, he told me.  I conferred with Lt Davies and we decided to delay our starting for a few minutes by which time we should know whether the colonel was right when he said that zero hour was 1730 and not 1700 hours, if the artillery still remained silent at 1700 hours.  The colonel was right and our orders wrong!  To follow our orders would have sent us to certain death.  At 1730 hours there was a deafening noise as the artillery belched out their shells and, at the same time we moved forward.  The field gun was there as the colonel had said, but it had been forsaken and the gunmen were in full retreat.  By now the infantry relied on tanks to draw the fire and did not like going into action without them, although rifle fire could not penetrate the tanks.  There was a certain amount of lead splash from rifle fire and we were issued with chain masks to counteract it, but they were unpopular and soon discarded as an encumbrance.  We had at last flattened the barbed wire known as the Hindenburg Line, after the famous general of that name, and the advance continued."

A First World War tank of the type driven by Cyril

As always, when I read accounts of what our forefathers went through in the recent past, I am humbled. So yes, at the risk of trivialising true heroism, "Nice One, Cyril"

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