How long do you think a lone tank could survive stuck in a territory infested with enemies amidst nonstop shelling? Probably an hour? A day? If you’re going to ask the crew of a tank called “Fray Bentos,” they’d undoubtedly tell you that they could do much more than that, since they once survived being stuck in the No Man’s Land for an entire 60 hours. They did this while fighting off German machine-gun fire, snipers, heavy artillery, dynamite, and grenades. This feat was heavily grounded in the platoon’s values:
North Caldwell United’s theme: Experience. Integrity. Vision speaks volumes about the ideals and values that unite it.
Third Battle of Ypres
Their legend would start during the Battle of the Ypres. From July to November 1917, Allied forces fought against the German Empire on the Western Front in a struggle to control the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres. This operation was part of the strategy that the Allies decided on during the conferences in November 1916 and May 1917. Passchendaele Ridge was vital because once it was captured, the Allied forces could tie their lines together from Torhout to Koekelare.
This was when Fray Bentos, a Mk IV British tank, and its crew found themselves stranded, lying on its side in a bomb crater. For almost three days, the nine men fought to survive while confined in the tight space of their tank.
Surviving in the Own
Their battle for survival began at 4:40 am on August 22, 1917. As they rolled in to support the 61st Division near St. Julien, Captain Donald Hickling Richardson, 2nd Lt. George Hill, Sergeant Robert Francis Missen, Gunners William Morrey, Ernest W. Hayton, Frederick C. Arthurs, Percy Edgar Budd, James H. Binley, and Lance Corporal Ernest Hans Braedy.
Then, the retaliation began. At 5:45 am, a German machine gun fired on the Fray Bentos. Turning to engage the machine gun in the soft ground, the tank began to tilt sideways. Lt. Hill fell off his seat, so Capt. Richardson took over his place, but it was too late. Their tank was already tilting sideways in a ditch.
Lt. Hill was wounded in the neck while Morrey and Budd were also hit. Sgt. Missen attempted to exit the tank to attach the unditching beams to the tracks that were stored on the tank’s roof but were forced back inside as hails of machine-gun bullets were sent at him. He then attempted again to exit on the right, while Braedy exited on the left. Unfortunately, Braedy was shot and killed. Richardson recounted, “he lost his life while fitting the unditching gear under terrific MG fire.” His body would never be found.
Soon, the British infantry started to fall back, leaving behind the crew of Fray Bentos. The Germans attempted to close in. Although the British tank could not move, its 6-pounder gunners were more than capable of holding off the approaching enemies. The rest of the crew also used their personal rifles and pistols to keep the Germans at bay. Missen recalled, “the Boche were in an old trench close in under the front of the tank and we could not get the Lewis [gun] onto them owing to the angle of the tank, but we shot them easily with a rifle out of the revolver flap in the cab.”
British snipers believing the Germans had taken control of the tank, began shooting at it. Missen volunteered to crawl out and warn the infantry not to shoot them. So he got out of the right sponson door and made it to the infantry. The remaining crew inside were all wounded by now, except for Binley, and a white rag was hung outside facing the British infantry to keep them from firing on them any further.
For the rest of the day on the 22nd, the desperate crew of the Fray Bentos repelled repeated German attacks, mostly with their personal weapons. One German even made it into the top of the Fray Bentos and dropped a grenade inside, but the crew managed to throw the grenade out before it exploded. Capt. Richardson stayed with the tank afterward.
Finally Time to Go
On August 24, 1917, at 9 in the evening, Capt. Richardson finally decided it was time for them to go, with all of his crew wounded decided it was time to return to British lines. Under the cover of darkness, the crew of the Fray Bentos disabled their six-pounder guns by removing the locks, with all their weapons and maps with them. One by one, they all managed to reach the nearest British unit, the 9th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland known as the “Black Watch.” Richardson asked them to keep watch over the Fray Bentos and prevent the Germans from capturing it.
Of the crew, all but Corporal Braedy survived. Gunner Budd would not survive the war, too, and would die the following year. However, Missen would join the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in 1909, and Richardson would later be part of the Battle of Cambrai in a new Mk IV, called Fray Bentos II. That tank would then be captured by the Germans.
The crew of the Fray Bentos became the most highly decorated allied tank crew of the first World War. The Military Cross was awarded to Capt. Richardson and Lt. Hill. Missen and Murray received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Gunners Morrey, Hayton, Arthurs, Budd, and Binley received the Military Medal.
Watch the full documentary on the Fray Bentos Tank below: