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From Blackpool to Flesquières The story of a tank commander – Frank Gustave Heap - WW1 - #CentenaryoftheBattleofCambrai 20 Nov - 7 Dec 1917

It is impossible to know what went through the mind of Frank Gustave Heap when Deborah, the British Mark IV tank he was commanding, was hit by a salvo of German shells on 20 November 1917. As the five artillery shells crashed through the tank’s near half inch thick armour, four of Deborah’s eight-man crew were killed immediately and survival became the life or death challenge for the young second lieutenant.

Deborah D51 or Mister Heap's bus

Tim Heap, Frank’s grandson can tell us about his grandfather’s personality “He was an eclectic mix and had a good life. He was a superb athlete who came second in the Olympic trials.” Frank's father was a renowned figure in Blackpool, a restaurateur, an elected mayor who was one of the major figures behind Blackpool Tower’s construction and was partly responsible for much of the development of the seaside resort.

The Blackpool Tower

So why did this man, with his easy-going life, decide to join the army? “He left Cambridge University [where he was a sporting Blue] without completing his degree and in 1914 went into the army as a corporal,” explains Tim Heap

In 1915, he arrived in France and within a year, as part of the Royal Engineers, he was serving as a motorbike dispatch rider in the Somme. Feeling a need to see action, he joined the Heavy Machine Gun Corps, and was posted to the tanks barely two months before the Battle of Cambrai. Popular with his crew, he created a good ambiance in the tank where there were a couple of jokers amongst the gunners and privates.

One of the Mark IV on the battlefields of Cambrai

Tim Heap still has the letter his grandfather wrote to George Foot’s parents, one of the soldiers killed in the tank. In it, he writes “all finer fellows than I shall ever be” – a quote from Rudyard Kipling one of Frank's favourite autors (Tim still has his well read books)– but what Frank Heap means is that they were all better than him. “He seems to have been close to his crew,” says Tim Heap.

Tim Heap during one of his numerous visits to Cambrai

The story of Deborah’s final moments is a fascinating tale that Frank Heap relayed to his own son who in turn told his son [Tim Heap]. “They had stopped the tank because they were lost, he [Frank] was looking for high ground to take some bearings. He went outside with the driver. And at that very moment the tank was hit.”

Tank knocked out on 20th November 1917, Flesquières

After his tank was destroyed, 2/Lt Heap’s priority was his surviving wounded crew. Managing to bluff his way past a platoon of German soldiers, he made his way through the enemy-held village of Flesquières and back to his own lines. A feat recognised by the awarding of the Military Cross, for which the citation reads: ‘2/Lt Heap, Frank Gustave, 'D' Battalion. Awarded M.C. In Cambrai operations near Flesquières on November 20, 1917, he fought his tank with great gallantry and skill, leading infantry on to five objectives. He proceeded through the village and engaged a battery of enemy field guns from which his tank received five direct hits, killing four of his crew. Although behind enemy lines, he collected the remainder of his crew and conducted them in good order back to our own lines in spite of heavy machine gun and snipers’ fire’.

British Hill Cemetery - Flesquières, where four of the crew member rest in peace.

After the Battle of Cambrai, Heap remained in the army, staying with the Royal Tank Corps until the armistice in 1918. After the war, he returned to Blackpool to run the family hotel and catering business.

Tim Heap with his son and grandson, paying homage to Deborah D 51

We will never know what thoughts ran through the mind of Frank Heap as Deborah succumbed to German artillery on that November day nearly 100 years ago. But his story is still significant to his family. To this day, Tim Heap wears his grandfather’s wedding ring; his brother, William, still has the British flag Frank desperately waved at British troops as he fought his way back to their lines. The family regularly travels to the battlefield. And on 25 July 2017, Tim Heap, his son and his grandson were in Flesquières when Deborah was moved to her new home: The Cambrai tank museum due to be inaugurated on 26 November 2017. The new museum will tell the story of the Battle of Cambrai and of the men who fought during the Great War and of the remarkable story of Deborah, the 100-year-old survivor of the world’s first great tank battle.

Cambrai tank museum on July 25th, 2017 just welcomed Deborah D51. It can now be completed around the tank.

Cambrai Tank museum 1917 will be inaugurated on November 26th, 2017 with the Royal Family.

Bibliography - "Deborah and the war of tanks 1917" by John Taylor. Pen and Sword.

‘A great achievement. One of the most remarkable treasures of First World War archaeology receives the treatment it deserves in this hugely detailed yet highly readable new history.’ Dan Snow

Author: Delphine Bartier - Nord tourism. dbartier@cdt-nord.fr

Credits:

Created with images by Vasnic64 - "Char d'assaut Mark IV Anglais (English MarkIV) - (photo VestPocket Kodak Marius Vasse 1891-1987)"

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