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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Cambrai 1917, tanks and Blackpool

The centenary this week of the breakthrough on the Western Front after years of deadly trench warfare and over the top sacrifice of tens of thousands of British, Empire and French troops commemorates the first engagement of the 'tank' on the battlefield.

Having joined the Army and the Royal Armoured Corps I found myself arriving on a bleak garrison town at Catterick, North Yorkshire in the early 1960s - entering the gates of Cambrai Barracks, home to the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR in mllitary parlance). Thus began sixteen weeks of training before joining my regiment (17/21L in military parlance) in Sennelager, Westphalia. The badge of the Royal Tank Regiment was (and still is) the side profile of the first tank to enter into warfare - designed and tested before sceptical generals in England, before its first meaningful engagement at Cambrai in France. The battle saw a complete breakthrough over massed barbed wire defences and across German lines penetrating well behind their front line.

John Woodman in his tank driver guise - albeit on a tank park in Sennelager, Germany. This is 1964 and the tank is a Conquerer due to be withdrawn for newer models.

In so doing the tank earned respect particularly from the infantry who kept behind the slow moving goliaths which gave protection from German machine guns and front line troops. One of the tanks in that now famous battle was numbered D51 (D for Deborah). It was commanded by a Blackpool born officer, Lt Frank Heap. Finally hit by a German artillery shell it became stranded near the village of Flesquieres, where it would remain embedded entombed in a farmyard garden for nearly ninety years until it was excavated as the only tank from the Cambrai battle to survive, albeit in a battered condition from its engagement. D51 is now the centrepiece of celebrations this week - and the story of its role and link with Blackpool will become familiar in media coverage.

In fact Blackpool had its own tank of this period - a gift from the War Department placed on display close to the Gynn after the end of the War. Its fate however was sadly unremarkable having been moved onto what are now the gardens ar Gynn Square before being scrapped in the 1920s after failure to raise funds to transfer it to a plinth in Stanley Park.

I had my own experience with tanks in the Army, albeit nowhere approaching the realities of war. Britain's first tanks were assembled and produced in the Midlands at Oldbury in the same factories which much later (1960/61) built ten Blackpool tram trailers, two of which rest at Wyre Dock awaiting their time in the sun in a new role in Fleetwood.

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