Britain's Secret Weapon

They were to be the buccaneers of the battlefield, men with a passion for the new pastime of motor biking. Recruited via the pages of Motor Cycle magazine, one would ride whilst the other fired a machine-gun from the sidecar. But in the trenches their machines were next to useless. So in 1916 the bikers were handed Britain’s secret weapon – the tank. Corporal Albert Edward ‘Nick’ Lee was one of them.

Modern motorised warfare began with 32 tanks on 15 September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette on the Somme. Less than a year later the improved Mark IV rolled into action, some manned by the motorcycling enthusiasts of the Tank Corps. Nick Lee was in charge of a five-man crew in his tank, Revenge.

“We were very epicurious, and we’d bought supplies in the towns. This time we had tinned sausages. They were cold, of course, but they were still quite a treat. Most of us had a bit more than our pay, sent by our folks at home, so we always had a few pounds to spend. We had a couple of bottles of whisky as well… we weren't supposed to take whisky in the tank but who was to know! There wasn’t a lot of room, but you could find places for it, even if it meant dropping a few shells out.”

On the first day of Passchendaele the tanks were to advance over marshy ground at Hooge. When officers produced a map showing huge areas were unsuitable, intelligence chief Brig Gen John Charteris replied from HQ: “Pray do not send any more of these ridiculous maps”. As the attack began on 31 July 1917, Revenge made good progress until it left the road and stuck fast in a deep shell-hole. Nick said:

“It was impossible to move. We could see the enemy 100 yards away massing for a counter-attack. We had an Irishman, Pat Brady, who had been a machine-gunner, so I said to him, ‘How would you feel about getting out to get these blighters?’ Pat’s reply was typically Irish. ‘Give me a drink of rum,’ he said, ‘and I’m with you’. We got out and crawled with machine guns to shell-holes in front of the tank. We waited until the Germans were at point-blank range. Then we let them have it.”

Nick tried to free Revenge with the help of sister tank Iron Rations.

“We just couldn’t budge it. Then there was a direct hit on Iron Rations. The next I knew I was lying eight or nine yards away, completely unhurt. Iron Rations was a complete wreck. Everyone within yards was either dead or badly wounded. By some freak I’d been thrown off. It took me a few minutes to realise these were all my own chums lying there.”

As infantry helped get Revenge moving, Nick spotted one of the Germans he’d just shot.

“In a shell-hole was this little bloke. He was a Bavarian sergeant and had a machine-gun bullet in the leg. And I knew where he’d got that from. So I carried him back to the tank and bandaged his wound. We had a good old chat in schoolboy French. He was a nice little bloke. He gave me a photograph of himself and wrote his address on the back. ‘After the war,’ he said, ‘you come and see me.’ It was ridiculous but we almost felt he was one of us. We took him in the tank and dropped him at a dressing-station, shaking hands as if we’d all been to a party.”

Of 134 tanks in the battle, just 40 per cent reached their first objectives. Nick Lee won a Military Medal for his attack on the German infantry.

After the war, he looked up the “little bloke” in Munich and the German, a university professor, was “overwhelmed by delight”. Nick did not reveal that he was the one who shot him.

Nick was given two years to live after he was gassed in 1917. On medical advice he stayed outdoors under a tarpaulin in his parents’ garden for several years and survived into his 80s.

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