For young Oscar Hoole, it was an unbeatable history lesson; for the first time, he was able to read about the exploits of his great-great grandfather, a soldier from Blackpool who commanded one of the most celebrated British tanks in an historic First World War battle.
The 10-year-old was guest of honour in London at the launch of a book, which tells the story of a tank – Deborah D51 which took part in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 – the first time the British unleashed tanks in mass formation.
Oscar’s great-great grandad, 2/Lt Frank Heap was commander of Deborah D51. He was 25, the son of a former Mayor of Blackpool, where his family ran restaurants. After Blackpool High School for Boys, Frank studied history at King’s College, Cambridge. He was a gifted athlete.
He served on the Somme as a despatch rider with the Royal Engineers, joined the Heavy Machine Gun Corps and was posted to the tanks little more than two months before the Battle of Cambrai.
A commanding officers described him as: “A highly efficient officer, capable and indefatigable in the performance of his duties. Has done valuable service in action.”
The attack on the heavily-defended Hindenburg Line, near Cambrai, was Frank Heap’s first time in action with a tank, and he was lucky to survive when Deborah was knocked out by a German field-gun in the village of Flesquieres. Five of his crew died. He then faced a hazardous journey back to his own lines through the enemy-held village, at one point coming face-to-face with Germans who he threatened with his revolver. He was awarded the Military Cross.
The crew who died lie buried in a military cemetery in the village. Deborah D51 was also buried on the battlefield and lay undiscovered for 80 years, until it was traced and recovered in a remarkable feat of archaeology by a local historian, Philippe Gorczynski.
Now one of the research team, John A Taylor, has written a book, Deborah and the War of the Tanks, which includes information from interrogation records in German archives. These accounts, never reported before, show that the attack was compromised by soldiers in an Irish Regiment captured by the Germans in a night raid.
Secrecy was vital. Great care was taken to transport the machines at night, in silence, and conceal them beneath trees and camouflage nets in the dense woods near the front of the huge German defensive Hindenburg Line.
The attack was set for November 20, 1917, but two days earlier six men from the 36th (Ulster) Division were captured. When questioned, some of the prisoners betrayed details about the presence of tanks, as well as the stockpiling of weapons and incoming troops.
This meant the Germans had sufficient time to reinforce defensive positions, particularly in key places like Flesquieres, where the Germans held a ridge a few kilometres from Cambrai, which was the ultimate Allied objective.
In places, the British fighting tanks achieved their objectives on Day One, but the attack stuttered to a halt at Flesquieres, where German field gunners played havoc with the advancing tanks – including 2/Lt Heap’s Deborah. Without doubt, the betrayal of information cost lives.
Taylor cannot be sure which of the six captured men gave away the information. The authorities were aware information had been given away, although the details have only just come to light.
Frank returned to Blackpool to run the family hotel and catering business.
He never lost his thirst for adventure, and became a keen rock-climber and mountaineer in the nearby Lake District. When he died in 1956, his ashes were scattered on Scafell, one of his beloved local peaks, and not far from where his grandson Will – Oscar’s grandad – still lives in Cumbria.
The centenary of the Battle of Cambrai is in 2017. By then, Deborah D51 will be moved to a new purpose-built museum in Flesquieres to mark the story of the tank and of the soldiers like Frank Heap.
• Deborah and the War of the Tanks, 1917, is published by Pen & Sword.