Tanks For The Memories: The First Ever Tank Commander, by The Tank Museum

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 commanded tank ‘D1’ on September 15, 1916, at The Somme in World War One.

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 ever to engage an enemy.

His daughter, Dr. Tilly Mortimore, spoke about her father when she visited The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, 100 years after that first action.

The museum contains the only Mark 1 tank in existence. It also possesses the only surviving item from the tank D1 – its compass – and has a new display case about ‘Morty’.

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.

Harold Mortimore in uniform during WWI
Harold Mortimore in uniform during WWI


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 Mark 1 ‘female’ tanks.

Group photo, Morty highlighted.

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 on to 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.

“In his tank D1 – called Daredevil – there was a 17-year-old boy along with men in their late 30s and early 40s; a total of eight crammed inside a dirty, smelly, noisy metal box. 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.

Harold Mortimore and daughter Tilly at the family's holiday home in Backton, Norfolk. in 1956.
Harold Mortimore and daughter Tilly at the family’s holiday home in Bacton, Norfolk. in 1956.

“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 viewfinder 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. All the tanks that have ever been built and used can be traced back to that first engagement 100 years ago.”

Morty was gassed twice and eventually sent home. He became a business person 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.

The visit when Harold Morty Mrtimore met his wife Mary at a hotel in Devon. His daughter Tilly said these were his two favoutie women; his future wife and the Jaguar he went to Devon to buy.
The visit when Harold Morty Mortimore met his wife Mary at a hotel in Devon. His daughter Tilly said these were his two favourite women; his future wife and the Jaguar he went to Devon to buy.

That first tank battle was known as Flers-Courcelette and began at 5.20am when Morty’s tank set off. The tanks had been developed in great secrecy and the original name for them – landships – was replaced with ‘tank’ to aid their cloak and dagger development. The cover story was that they were made as water tanks for the Russian army.

Tilly lives near Wells in Somerset.

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