On the 22nd of August 1917, as part of the 3rd battle of Ypres, a British mark IV from F company set off in support of an attack to gain territory and break out of the Ypres salient. As was common during early tank warfare, the Mark IV came in male and female variants:
The male tanks carried two shortened six-pounder Hotchkiss naval guns mounted in sponsons on either side of the tank. The role of the male tank was to knock out pillboxes and machinegun nests but was also equipped with three Lewis guns for self-defense purposes, two in the sponsons and one upfront.
Female variants were designed to support male tanks from enemy infantry and came equipped with five Lewis guns and no cannon.
F41 was a male Mark IV commanded by Captain Donald Richardson, who had named the tank “Fray Bentos” after the popular tinned meat product available in the UK.
How did Fray Bentos get stuck?
The crew of Fray Bentos was assigned a route south of St Julien with the female F49 “Fairy” in support. Their path was almost a straight line from Ypres to Passchendaele. It would pass two strategic locations, Somme farm and a German pillbox named Gallipoli (these were code names not to be confused with the respective battles).
Their role was to support the 61st Division, and en route, they were able to neutralize a machine gun position at Somme farm. Due to the poor visibility the Mark IV offered, Captain Richardson had been walking alongside the tank to assist Lieutenant George Hill at the controls. As they neared objective Gallipoli, Richardson was wounded in the leg and forced back inside.
With poor visibility and terrible conditions owing to heavy summer rains that year, the tank drove into an area of soft mud around a ditch. Sliding sideways into the ditch, Hill was hit by shrapnel and fell back off his chair, leaving the tank out of control. Richardson attempted to regain control but was too late, and Fray Bentos was stuck.
Unable to drive out and with infantry support pinned down or falling back, Sergeant Robert Missen and Lance Corporal Earnest Braedy volunteered to go outside and deploy the unhitching beams. The beams were lengths of steel-clad wood designed to be attached to the tracks and pulled under to provide traction. But the heavy machinegun and rifle fire cut down Lance Corporal Braedy and forced Sergeant Missen back inside.
Surviving trapped in No Man’s Land
Unable to drive and having pushed so close to enemy lines, Fray Bentos became a focal point for enemy fire. But while the engine was useless, the guns were still active, and F41 became a new fixed position in no man’s land.
The gunners were able to engage the pillbox at objective Gallipoli, successfully silencing the machine guns using the starboard six-pounder, which was the only one of the two six-pounders that could fire directly forward. But by 7 am that morning, British forces had fallen back, and so began the German counterattack.
Desperate to dislodge the still active tank, German soldiers directly assaulted their position by climbing on top of the hull and attempting to throw stick grenades inside. But again and again, the crew of Fray Bentos was able to beat back the attackers using a combination of machinegun and cannon fire. They also utilized the various weapons they had on board, firing through the hatches designed for just such an occasion. According to Sergeant Missen, the Germans were in an old trench just in front of the tank tracks. Too low for the Lewis guns, they resorted to pistol fire to keep the enemy at bay.
Owing to their position so far forward from where the attack had stalled, British observers did not know that the crew of Fray Bentos were still active and fighting for their lives. British troops on the front line then began to fire on the tank to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
With withering fire hitting them from both sides, the crew of Fray Bentos spent three days and two nights in no man’s land, beating back several German attempts to destroy them. During this time, they were forced to drink water from the engine radiator and endured the hot temperatures of their iron box during the noon sun.
Eventually, running low on food, ammunition, and water, Captain Richardson made the decision to abandon the tank under cover of darkness. They had been inside the cramped confines of Fray Bentos since the early morning of the 22nd of August and would come to leave it by 9 pm on the 24th. By this time, almost all of the crew had shrapnel wounds.
Sergeant Missen agreed to go first and crawled back through the dense mud to the British lines to alert the soldiers of the Black watch not to fire on his comrades. Before abandoning F41, the crew removed the firing mechanisms from their six-pounders, retrieved all maps and documents, and took their Lewis guns with them as they left. One by one, the wounded men made their way back to the British front lines and safety.
What happened to the crew of Fray Bentos?
The crew of Fray Bentos was commended for their actions over the three days in no man’s land. For their bravery, Captain Richardson and 2nd Lieutenant Hill were both awarded the Military Cross. Missen and Gunner William Morrey received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and the remaining crew, Gunners Ernest Hayton, Frederick Arthurs, Percy Budd, and James Binley, received the Military Medal. The body of Lance Corporal Braedy was lost to the mud and never found.
The Germans were never able to capture F41. The tank was eventually handed over to the No. 2 field company for salvage purposes, then scrapped after the war ended a little over a year later. Sadly, there are no official photographs of Fray Bentos, aside from an aerial reconnaissance photograph marking its location in no man’s land close to objective Gallipoli after the battle.