Unbelievable feat of WWI tank crew who survived 72 hours of assaults from both friends and foes

Unbelievable feat of WWI tank crew who survived 72 hours of assaults from both friends and foe

Photo story:  (Clockwise from top left) (1) The Fray Bentos turned on its side and crippled, (2) A Mark IV tank on display in Ashford, Kent, (3) The sketch illustrating Fray Bentos incident says ‘They (Germans) swarmed over the machine’ (4) The crew remained stuck inside the early tanks, this strategy helped crashing through enemy fortifications and turn the tide of WWI

It was July, 1917. Captain Donald Richardson and his crew were already in a dangerous situation, trapped in their Mark IV tank that overturned just meters away from the German trenches. After withstanding enemy attacks from the Germans for three day, they were plunged into graver danger when their allies also started bombarding it so that the Germans could not capture it or get the technology of the heavily armored improved tank. Surprisingly, all but one of the trapped soldiers, who had just pistols and a rifle, escaped from the death trap and survived. Thus they became the most decorated tank crew of World War I, the www.dailymail.co.uk reports.

The tank aboard which the heroes were stuck was nick named as Fray Bentos. Months afterwards their heroics made scattered headlines. However, their story remained untold for decades. Historians at findmypast.co.uk unearthed the records of their heroics. They were able to uncover the following details:

On that fateful day Captain Donald Richardson, Second Lt. George Hill and their crew rushed towards the enemy lines. But on their way their tank got stuck in a bomb crater. The tank then fell on its side in the process. This fall made the on board guns of the tank useless and trapped the injured men inside. The tanks’ metal armor endured nonstop German assaults from machine guns, grenades, sniper rifles, dynamite and heavy artillery. At one point a German soldier even managed to climb on the overturned tank to drop a grenade inside. But a tank crew somehow managed to hurl it back out before explosion.

By sharing their insufficient ration and drinking tank radiator water, the crew survived.  Inside the tank the crew also had to endure extreme temperatures, up to 30 degrees Celsius in the day to below freezing at night.  While under fire in the first night, a flare sent up by fellow British forces showed them that they were surrounded by German army desperately trying to take over the tank.

They realized that they had almost no chance of survival inside the tank. Later they managed to crawl through the mud one after another and made it back to their lines. In January 1918, a report from Nottingham Evening Post described that Captain Richardson, another officer and their crew held the enemy at bay ‘For three days and nights’. The report also said that the crew had been heavily sniped and the Germans got of the tank but could not get inside. The Germans brought up a machine gun and even that could not subdue the defenders. According to the report, one of the tank crew was killed and the rest of them were wounded.

A family historian from findmypast.co.uk, Debra Chatfield said that the tank technology had been new at that point in the WWI. She said that out of the eight tanks led by Captain Richardson and Second Lt. Hill theirs one was the only one that survived the German artillery attack. She also said that it was ‘astonishing’ that the crew survived the initial attack and the 72 hours of assaults defending themselves with the basic weapons they had.

Two Military Crosses, four Military Medals and two Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to the Fray Bentos crew. It was the most awards received by any one tank crew during any operation of the war. For leading the defense of the tank and for bringing back most of their crew safely, Military Crosses were awarded to both Captain Richardson and Second Lt. George Hill.


Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE