THE FIRST TANK CREWS

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


In early 1917, the most popular film was "The Advance of the Tanks". Filmed by Geoffrey Malins, this hour long documentary showed the British Army's preparations for the Battle of the Ancre. It was the first moving picture which featured tanks and it was a blockbuster. 

The stars of the film were , of course, the British soldiers who either went into action or supported the attack. But there was one particular group of solderis who stood out - the crew of the male tank called Daphne.   Her crew includes a black kitten known as Percy.

   

Percy was probably adopted by the crew of Daphne whilst they were at the tank training ground at Yvrench in early September before they deploy to the Somme. According to members of the Drader family, Percy went into action with Harry during the Autumn.  Harry was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Martinpuich on 15 September and was Mentioned in Despatches for capturing a German defensive position and its garrison of 400 men near Hamel on 14 November. The unit war diary records the action as follows
    8.00 pm.  Orders received to send to two tanks to attack isolated strong-points situated Q17B7.4.  Lt Drader and Robinson were detailed with Lt Bell in reserve.  On journey to starting point, Lt Robinson’s tank was hit by shell fire and placed out of action.  Infantry guide was picked up and travelled in leading tank. At zero (6.00 am) tanks advanced to the attack and at 50 yards range, Lt Drader opened fire with a 6lb guns. The tanks still advanced and crossed the first line of the strong point, doing good enfilading work. Simultaneously the enemy hoisted the white flag. The tanks at this moment became ditched and an awkward occasion arose, which was handled splendidly by both officers.  A machine gunner was ordered to watch for any sings of treachery on the part of the enemy & the officers and crews then left the tanks and entered the German trenches with loaded revolvers, then coaxed the enemy out of their dug-outs and after about an hour, the prisoners who numbered about 400 were despatched to the rear with an infantry escort. When the adverse conditions of the ground are reckoned with, this must be considered a very fine performance and all ranks engaged with the operation are to be congratulated”

Percy was not mentioned in any official record but he was mentioned in a letter written by Harry to Willie Foster, one of Daphne's crew, who had been injured at Martinpuich.  Harry told him 
 “The crew had another joy ride the day before yesterday at Dawn, and as before behaved splendidly., even better results than the 15th [September];  The black kitten, which is nearly cat size now, seems to being us more and more luck, I don’t think the crew would part with it for anything.

Percy returned to England, after the war, and lived with the Drader at their home in Colney Hatch.  His appearance in the film attracted great media attention and Daphne's crew became known as the Black Cat Crew.  

On the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Harry and his crew can be seen again at the British Film Institute in London.