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September, 2016

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The Battle of Cambrai, a British Offensive and German Counter Offensive took place during November 1917 in the Nord Department of France (Nord-Pas-de-Calais).

Cambrai, a vital supply point for the Germans and the Hindenburg Line was heavily guarded. The British officer commanding, Major General Henry Tudor decided to try out new artillery and infantry techniques along with the use of nearly 500 tanks, this being agreed by General Julian Byng commander of the British Third Army. On day one of the battle the allies advanced and all went well for the allied troops but on the second day the tanks began to suffer from mechanical failure, tracks broke, carburettors failed, some caught fire as shells penetrated their fuel tanks thus the German Infantry were able to expose the weaknesses of the Mark V1 Tank. One such tank disabled by the Germans was D-51 a female tank known as Deborah and commanded by 2/Lt. Frank Heap. Deborah entered the village guns firing but on leaving was attacked by artillery shells disabling the tank and killing 5 of the 8-man crew. Lt. Heap and the two remaining crew members made their way back to the British lines. Lt. Heap was later awarded the Military Cross for his actions.

Many years later a story started to circulate of a tank ‘pushed into a hole’ near to the village. This story intrigued one Philippe Gorcynski a hotelkeeper in Cambrai who had a passion for the regions history. He believed that Deborah was out there buried near to the village where she had been abandoned, which, later proved incorrect. Finally, on November 5th 1998 after much searching Gorcynski reaped his reward, Deborah was found buried on the Cambrai battlefield under 8 feet of earth. Digging began and by the 23rd November all soil was cleared and the tank was moved to a local farmyard. The tank was later identified by the English Tank Museum as D51-Deborah which has now become a memorial to Cambrai and located near to where 5 of her crew are buried.

From items found in the tank relatives were traced, their stories elicited and recorded, artifacts and memorabilia were further examined thus allowing more relatives to be traced, building the bigger picture of the battle and the part Deborah played culminating with pages of facts and records being made. John Taylor, the historian and author became involved and finally used the story for a book.

On the 12th September 2016 at the historic barracks of the Honorable Artillery Company incorporated in 1537, one of the oldest military units in the world, surrounded by relatives of the tank crew, the youngest just 10 years of age, Oscar, the great, great, grandson of 2nd Lt. Frank Gustave Heap, officers from the Royal Tank Regiment, journalists and writers applauded John Taylor as he launched his book “Deborah and The War of the Tanks”. Published by Sword and Pen Military this is 304 pages of true life, the like of which few of us could imagine.


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