The life stories of those who crewed the first tanks in September 1916

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Ernest Thornton MM - Whippet tank commander

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 19, 2017 at 10:05 AM

Ernest Thornton was not one of the First Tank Crewmen as he did not serve in one of the four tank companies sent to France in the Autumn of 1916. He was already in France serving with No 2 Battery MMGS when the call for volunteers was made to increase C Company to C Battalion in November 1916 and was one of the first to join the new unit. Ernest later won the Military Medal (MM) as a tank commander at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

Ernest, who was born in 1888 and was a loom tackler from Hebden Bridge, joined the MMGS in May 1915. After training at Bisley, he was sent to France in September. As an experienced mechanic and machine gunner, Ernest was just what the new tank battalion needed and he joined C Battalion on 20 November. just two days after its was formed. After the Battle of Arras, Ernest retrained as a driver /machinist at Wailly and appointed lance corporal.  He then would have fought with No 7 Company during the Third Battle of Ypres which was disastrous for Tanks and then at Cambrai where C Battalion successfully achieved its mission on 20 November on the eastern flank of the advance. Unusually, Ernest was not granted UK leave until 28 December which is much later than most of his comrades. It is therefore possible that he attended the first Whippet course which completed just before Christmas 1917. The unit was redesignated 3rd (Light) Battalion in January 1918 as they converted to operate Whippets which had just arrived in France.

Driving a Whippet was much more difficult than the standard Mark V tank as it had two engines, one driving each track. The tank crews were however to prove themselves highly effective in March 1918 as they delayed the German Army as the British were pushed their back across the Somme battlefields. One of the lessons learned during these battles was that Whippet crews became quickly exhausted due to the heat of the engine, so each tank was allocated two crews of three men; the first crew was commanded by an officer and the second by an NCO.  Ernest was promoted to corporal the following month and it was as tank commander that he went into action next,

According to the citation for his MM, on 8 August near Beaucourt, Ernest commanded his tank Cyprus III with great gallantry and skill rendering the greatest assistance to the infantry and accounting for many of the enemy. Later, when his section commander's tank China II was hit by shell fire, Ernest screened the tank whilst the crew evacuated it, regardless of the danger to his own tank from enemy shells, which.were falling all round. 

The citation also records that this was not the first time had demonstrated his bravery; Ernest had previously been recommended on three earlier occasions. As there were never enough medals, the Tank Corps presented certificate of honour to those who did not received medals and a lanyard, or whistle cord, made of brown red and green silk, worn on the left shoulder.

Ernest served with C Battalion as they pushed the Germans back during the 100 day advance.  Ernest was promoted sergeant on 17 October 1918 as they started to convert to operate Mark V tanks in preparation for the Spring Offensive. They ceased training when the Germans Army staff admitted they could not stop their defeat and the German Government sought an Armistice.    

When he was demobilised in early 1919, Ernest went home to Hebden Bridge and, like most crewmen, returned to his previous work  as a loom tackler/overlooker.  One of his friends, Bill Duff, who had joined the Regular Army, tried to persuade Ernest to serve with him but Ernest decided not to. In May 1920, Ernest married Mary Robertshaw who he had been courting since just before the outbreak of war. After a short while, they became landlord and landlady of the Robin Hood public house in Pecket Well where their eldest son Peter was born. Just before the birth of their second son, they moved to nearby Mytholmroyd as Mary did not think a pub was a suitable place in which to bring up a family. Ernest worked at a local mill owned by a company called Shacketons and when the company relocated to Rochdale in 1936, he moved to the new factory.

At the outbreak of WW2,  Ernest who was now 51 years old, seriously contemplated joining up. However his two sons were so upset, crying and pleading with him not to volunteer, that he remained at home. He sadly died in 1963, just a few months after his second grandchild Jennifer was born. Both his sons married and Ernest currently has three grandchildren, five great grandchildren and one great grandchild.


I am grateful to Jennifer Holding, Ernest's grand-daughter, for telling me about Ernest and for his photograph in whic you can see the MM medal ribbon, a lanyard which was awarded for his bravery and the green flash on his shoulder, the colours of C Company which were later worn by men in C Battalion and 3rd (Light) Battalion. Like all of those who fought in the tanks,in the Great War, he is not forgotten.  

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