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Feature: Great War Gallantry

Photo: Allied troops watch as a Medium Mark A Whippet tank goes into action during the Hundred Days Offensive. No fewer than 70 Whippets were deployed at the start of the Battle of Amiens. (NARA)

 

Allied troops watch as a Medium Mark A Whippet tank goes into action during the Hundred Days Offensive. No fewer than 70 Whippets were deployed at the start of the Battle of Amiens. (NARA)

GREAT WAR GALLANTRY – OCTOBER 1918

Throughout the First World War, many announcements of British and Commonwealth gallantry awards appeared in the various issues of The London Gazette. As part of our major monthly series covering the period of the Great War commemorations, we examine some of the actions involved and summarise all the awards announced in October 1918.

In The Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset is a Whippet light tank that was commanded by Lieutenant Cecil H Sewell at Frémicourt in August 1918 – it is a tank that serves as a reminder of one man’s Victoria Cross gallantry.

At around 2pm on 29 August 1918, with the Hundred Days Offensive still underway, No 9 Section, ‘C’ Company of the Tank Corps’ 3rd (Light) Tank Battalion, equipped with the Tank Medium A, or Whippet, reached a quarry behind a stretch of the front near Frémicourt in France that was held by New Zealand troops. No.9 section was commanded by 23-year-old Lt Cecil Harold Sewell of the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), attached to the Tank Corps.

Moving ahead of the infantry, Sewell led his section towards the German positions. Like the men they had been sent to assist, the tanks quickly came under heavy fire from enemy machine guns and artillery. As the tanks advanced, one of the Whippets, that commanded by Lt O L Rees-Williams and named Crusty II, slipped sideways into a shell crater while trying to avoid the German guns. It turned completely upside down and at the same time caught fire.

 

The British Army withdrew its Whippets from service in 1919 – by which time 200 had been built. Of this number, five have survived. This particular example, a remarkable survivor of the Hundred Days Offensive, is on display in The Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset. No.A259, named Caesar II, was the actual tank Lt Sewell used at Frémicourt on 29 August 1918. Caesar II still carries the scars of the fighting that day. For more information on the museum, visit www.tankmuseum.org

Lt Sewell’s Whippet – named Caesar II – was the leading tank. It was some 70 yards ahead when Crusty II burst into flames. When Sewell saw what had happened behind him, he got out of his own tank and ran back through the enemy gunfire to help the crew of the burning Whippet.

He grabbed a shovel and dug through the earth to get to the door of the cab, which was firmly jammed and embedded in the side of the shell hole. During this time, he was in full view of enemy positions, which were just yards away. Despite the bullets flying around him and the German artillery shells raining down around the tanks, Sewell managed to prise open the door of Crusty II. There is little doubt that Rees-Williams and his men would have burnt to death if Cecil Sewell had not rescued them, although they did eventually manage to extinguish the fire.

Having freed the trapped crew, Sewell looked back at his own tank. He saw that his driver, Gunner W Knox, had been wounded. Without hesitation he ran back to his Whippet to help Knox – once more through a hail of bullets. Sewell was hit again and again but he carried on until he reached his tank. Though badly wounded, he attended to his driver and dressed Knox’s wound.

Sewell then looked round for some way to extricate himself and Knox. He stood up but as he rose he was hit by a bullet which went through his stomach and knocked him to the ground. The wound was fatal. The crew of Crusty II remained within the safety of the bottom of the shell hole until night time and they managed to slip back to their own lines under the cover of darkness. The bodies of Sewell and Knox were found lying together.

 

This feature continues in the October issue of Britain at War – in the UK shops NOW!

 

 

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