Trying to track down tank-driving hero

British troops sort through the belongings of German prisoners in a trench, during the first world war.
British troops sort through the belongings of German prisoners in a trench, during the first world war.
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A Blackpool postman is to feature in the history of the first men to fight in tanks on September 15, 1916.

The website www.firsttankcrews, created by Stephen Pope, aims to honour those who went into action to support an attack to capture German strong points between Courcelette and Combles, in France.

Photo of the same type of tank Harry Yates fought in, in 1916. Pic courtesy of The Tank Museum

Photo of the same type of tank Harry Yates fought in, in 1916. Pic courtesy of The Tank Museum

Several of the tanks broke down en route to their starting points; others were unable to cope with the dreadful ground conditions and became stuck. Many were damaged by enemy artillery fire as they made their way across No Man’s Land – but a few managed to get beyond the German front-line trenches and assist the infantry to take their objectives.

Detailed records of one, D Company, were kept, but there was less information about C Company.

Mr Pope has, with the help of others, identified more than a dozen members of each company, not recorded in published records.

One of the men he is writing about is Harry Yates, who had the middle name Ironfield, who lived in Blackpool from 1908 – he was born in Preston, in 1885. He worked as a postman and married a local postal clerk called Christine Heppenstall at South Shore Parish Church.

In September 1916, Harry was sent to France as a machine gunner in a tank. That winter, he retrained as a tank driver and it was in this role he won two gallantry medals.

Mr Pope said: “The first, the Military Medal, was awarded following the Battle of Amiens. On August 8, 1918, Harry drove his tank continuously with exceptional skill for 15 hours until the final objective was reached. On August 9, he again drove his tank into action and when the tank developed mechanical trouble, in full view of the enemy, he repaired it on two occasions, although subjected to heavy machine gun and rifle fire.

“Six weeks later, on September 27, 1918, Harry drove his tank with such skill and determination that, although all his crew were wounded by armour piercing bullets, his tank got to its objective and was brought back to the rallying point. For this exceptional duty, Harry was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

“Following the Armistice in 1918, Harry was granted Christmas leave in England, but failed to return to his unit in France. This was somewhat common, but what is unusual is that Harry and Christine seemed to disappear completely.

“Lots of families try to find out what their relatives did in the First World War. The most common difficulty is soldiers did not talk about their experiences because the memory was too vivid and there is no obvious place to start.

“And occasionally like Harry, there is another problem – everyone knows what a soldier did during the war, but can’t find what they did afterwards.”

Having tried several routes to attempt to find out what happened to Harry, Mr Pope is appealing to Gazette readers.

Anyone who knows what happened to him or has any photographs of him, can contact Mr Pope through his website www.firsttankcrews.com