In August 1917, the new Tank Corps had to prove their worth. This was done by the taking of Cockcroft – a German pillbox – during Third Ypres.
Third Ypres had begun on the 31st July. The early days had gone badly across the Army, but it had been particularly difficult for the Tank Corps, with many tanks getting bogged in the mud and few able to provide much support to the infantry.
On the 16th August another British attack was begun around Langemarck. It was held up by four German pillboxes or blockhouses north of St Julien. Built into the ruins of farmhouses and protected by networks of machine gun positions, they were formidable obstacles. The largest, called The Cockcroft by the British, had concrete walls up to 8 feet thick and was large enough for 100 soldiers.
It was feared that attempting to take these positions by infantry attack would result in hundreds, if not thousands of casualties. The commander of 1st Tank Brigade, Colonel Christopher Baker-Carr, offered to capture them with his tanks, promising far fewer casualties.
Attacking the Cockcroft
The attack was planned for the 19th. Twelve tanks from G Battalion would be used, with two per blockhouse, two assigned to ‘mop up’ and two more in reserve. The Cockcroft was assigned to G4 and G43, Mon Du Hibou to G29 and G32, The Triangle to G31 and G28 and Hillock Farm to G52 and G1. G47 and G44 were the ‘moppers up.’ Only G4 and G29 were Males.
The ground was still impassable, so the plan required the tanks to advance along what was left of the Poelcapelle Road.
This had been heavily shelled, but there was enough paving left to support the tanks, if they advanced in single file, and if they were driven carefully.
Reflecting this, the plan was for each tank to advance past its assigned blockhouse, firing on it until its defenders had been silenced. The British infantry would then advance and capture the position.
Surprise was considered vital, so there was no preparatory bombardment, and aircraft covered the noise of the advancing vehicles. The attack began at 4:45am with a sudden bombardment of high explosive and smoke.
The tanks crossed the Steenbeek River and began their advance along the road, which took them behind the blockhouses. As each reached their assigned objective they opened fire.
The Male tanks, armed with 6 pounder guns, proved invaluable, as machine guns alone could make little impression on the concrete fortifications. Despite using the road, four of the tanks ended up ditched. Two more broke down, one before it even reached the start line.
Despite these setbacks the attack was extremely successful. Most defenders fled or were killed by the tanks, although British infantry also captured or killed a number as they secured the positions.
The tank crews signalled the infantry to advance by waving a shovel from the hatch on the roof. Hillock Farm was captured at 6am, Triangle Farm and Mon Du Hibou at around 6:30 and the Cockcroft about 15 minutes later.
The overall result was a British advance of up to 400 yards on a one mile front. Casualties were almost unbelievably light. Two Tank Corps soldiers were killed and 13 wounded, along with 15 wounded infantrymen. The two men killed were Privates George Mungall and Joseph Wilson.
This was a stunning success for the British. Tank Corps officers were overjoyed, and many felt this battle had proven the Corps’ worth. There were even suggestions in post-war histories that it had saved the entire force from being disbanded.
This fear may have been exaggerated, but there’s no question that the Cockcroft action increased the confidence of Tank Corps soldiers in their own abilities.
Second Lieutenant Douglas Browne, commander of G47, described it as ‘by far the most complete success achieved by tanks up to that time.’ They had fulfilled their original purpose – to keep the infantry alive.
Three of the commanders were awarded the Military Cross for their bravery. Harry Coutts attacked the Cockcroft in G43 and Albert Baker of G29 and Esmond Morgan, commander of G32, took Mon Du Hibou. Corporal A. Ross, a member of Coutt’s crew, was awarded the Military Medal.
The German View
There are two sides to every battle. For all its effect on the British Tank Corps, for the Germans the Cockroft barely registered. The War Diary of the defending 125th Infantry Regiment mentioned the tank attack, but made no reference to losing the blockhouses or to any kind of defeat or withdrawal. They were coming under pressure and taking heavy casualties throughout this period, but this was mainly due to the heavy British artillery fire, not the tank attack.