This brigade was commanded by Brigadier Pratt and consisted of three Battalions: 4RTR, commanded by Lt-Col Fitzmaurice, 7RTR, Lt-Col Heyland and 8RTR which did not join the brigade due to shortage of tanks. The establishment of these battalions was 50 ‘I’ tanks, seven light tanks and eight (Bren gun) carriers. As the establishment assumed fifty 2-pdrs, it must have been assumed that the Matilda I’s would soon be replaced by Matilda II’s.
The first troopships of the BEF left for France on 9th September. The infantry divisions went first, then 4RTR. 7RTR was still awaiting its tanks. 4RTR was up to establishment, but only with Matilda I’s. It spent the winter at Domart, close to the Somme.
When the brigade was first deployed a study drawn up to consider its use concluded that, because the Matilda I’s lacked an AT gun, they could only be used to defend static AT guns against infantry assault. This should be in an anti-tank defence zone behind the front line.
The study’s conclusion was that until the Matilda II’s were issued, the contribution of the Army Tank Brigade was limited. This comment may be taken as something of a criticism of the general who drew up the specification for the Matilda I.
7RTR arrived in early May 1940. On 10th May the German offensive started. 7RTR had 27 Matilda I’s, 23 Matilda II’s, and seven light tanks. Some of the Matilda I’s had been upgunned to mount .5-in MGs.
The two battalions would have had no time to exercise together when, in response to the German attack, Plan ‘D’ was activated and the BEF trundled forward to take up its position on the Dyle. The tanks were sent by rail, admin vehicles by road, and arrived at the railhead at Halle during the night of 14th/15th May. Next night the brigade took up a position in the Forest of Soignies. This move of the BEF fell in with the German plans and they mounted a major attack in the Sedan area and crossed the Meuse on 13th May. Then, with seven panzer divisions, they surged due west towards the Channel.
The result was a long salient, 20 to 30 miles wide. On the map it was very vulnerable to an Allied counter-attack which, even if only partly successful, would have choked off supplies for the German tanks. The Germans were well aware of this and their infantry divisions were hard at work widening the breach. To make this counter-attack the 1st Army Tank Brigade was ordered to Tournai. The tanks should have been entrained at Enghien, but as a result of air attacks there were no trains available, so the tanks had to drive on their tracks, mostly at around 3 mph, the whole way.
British plans evolved at two levels. On the higher level the plan was to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the enemy salient and counter-attacks were proposed, a French one from the south and a British one from the north. However on a local level the plan was for a spoiling attack designed to interrupt German communications and assist the defence of Arras. Initially the plan was for two divisions to be involved, but circumstances whittled this down to one brigade, which could only put two battalions into the assault, and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The French attack was not a success, but even so the limited success of the British attack made a surprising impression on the German command and is a hint of what could have been achieved in slightly more favourable circumstances.
The attacking force was to be commanded by Major-General Martel who commanded the 50th Division which supplied the infantry component of one brigade. The force was organised into two columns, the term ‘battle groups’ was not yet current. Each column was a battalion of infantry and a battalion of tanks with artillery attached. 7RTR with 8DLI were the right, or western, column; 4RTR with 6DLI were the left, or eastern, column. The Tank Brigade having moved on its tracks around 120 miles since leaving the railhead, had lost a considerable number of tanks. It was down to 58 Matilda I’s and 16 Matilda II’s. To equalise firepower seven Madilda II’s, with crews, were lent by 7RTR to 4RTR.
The brigade was ordered to form up behind, north of, the Arras-Doullens road. This road ran roughly south-west from Arras and looked like a good start line on the map, but the Germans were already north of it, having troops on the Arras-Hesdin road, which ran west-north-west from Arras. It is not known why this information was apparently ignored, perhaps British staff procedures were still geared to trench warfare speed. Aerial reconnaissance also let the army down. This may be because the RAF was returning to England while this action was afoot.
The aim was for the two columns, which would be operating about two miles apart, to make a 180 degree sweep round the south of Arras, and finish up by taking up a position on the Scarpe to its east. The orders were passed on to the battalions at 7.30 am. Unfortunately it was not defined which of the two battalion commanders should command each column. This would cause problems not helped by the poor radio communications of the time. A French tank unit of around 60 tanks was to co-operate on the right flank, and the French insisted that the start line was changed to the Arras-Hesdin road. This was to be crossed at 2.0 pm. The tanks had to cover nearly eight miles to reach it. General Martel followed the attacking columns in a staff car but it does not appear that he was able to influence the course of the action. Also totally out of contact with the tanks was Brigadier Pratt. He was visited close to the start line by Brigadier Pope, who was the Adviser on Armoured Fighting Vehicles at HQ, BEF. Pope urged him forward to his brigade, but it is not obvious what he could have done when he got there. There was certainly no shortage of chiefs, but without radios they could achieve little.
Remarkably, one tank commander had not yet sloughed off his peacetime habits and halted at a level crossing barrier. Another tank, with a more resolute commander, rolled past him and smashed through it.
In the event the attack started half-an-hour late, and then not all the troops had closed up. Before crossing the start line the troops had to cover three miles and cross the Scarpe, where there were still bridges standing. Then they were in action.
It was a great misfortune that in the haste to get started there was no time for reconnaissance. Each column should have had a motorcycle platoon provided for short-range reconnaissance but the right hand column did not receive theirs. So they only found out about the enemy when they opened fire. This they did at the village of Duisans which was cleared by the DLI and some French tanks. The 8DLI continued on but were stopped by mortar fire before reaching the Arras-Doulens road. 7RTR marched on without them Soon after crossing the start line a troop of the right hand company (squadron) shot up a German AT unit in half-tracks. This unit must have been a flank guard for an infantry unit of the 7th Panzer Division or the SS Totenkopf division, for, as the rest of the battalion breasted a small rise they could see a large number of lorries full of infantry crossing their front to their right. The MGs on the tanks opened up, causing heavy casualties. The Germans got some 37-mm AT guns into action, but the shot bounced harmlessly off the thick armour of the Matildas of which one of the Mk IIs absorbed 14 hits with equinamity. Some of the German troops showed signs of panic.
German dive bombers were commendably quickly on the scene, and were effective against the infantry, but only destroyed two tanks. In one case bombs bursting close to a Matilda I turned it over, killing the commander, in another a light tank was blown into the air. Brigadier Pratt wrote that it was believed that it was actually blow 15 feet in the air!
4RTR fought its way through to Wancourt, causing havoc, but then it ran into the German field batteries, following their infantry. The result was tragic. The Colonel, who had been commanding from a light tank because of the better radio, was killed and around 20 tanks were knocked out. The adjutant led a charge that destroyed one battery, but there were others and he had to order the battalion to pull back.
Partly as a result of the tanks’ charge the infantry of 6DLI had been left well behind by 4RTR. They were slowed down by mopping up and collecting prisoners, and in terms of practical co-operation, had lost contact with the tanks.
7RTR had not only cast off from its infantry but took a different direction. It should have been making for Warlus, but swung towards Wailly. At this moment communications within the battalion failed. The Colonel dismounted from his light tank to try, by hand signals, to restore order and direction. He was killed by MG fire, as was his adjutant who bravely tried to carry on for him. 7RTR tanks rumbled into Wailly and Mercatel and caused great destruction, but by that time General Rommel, who commanded the 7th Panzer Division, had returned from the division’s spearhead to the west to direct the defence against the two tank battalions.
He set about deploying various artillery pieces, most notably some 88mm guns, to build up what was later termed a ‘pakfront’. If the tanks could not charge artillery and machine gun the crews they were helpless, not being able to fire high explosives, and the infantry could not tackle the German guns having been left far behind. 7RTR was forced to retreat.
This was really the end of the part played by the British tanks in this action. They pulled back over the Scarpe. There were only two Matilda IIs and 26 Matilda Is left. A small number of damaged tanks was salvaged, but the bulk had to be abandoned. Some German tanks joined in the fray, but found that their guns could not defeat the Matildas’ armour, whereas the 2-pdrs were very effective against German armour.
Fortunately the German follow-up was hindered, not only by the chaos of the battlefield but also by British infantry units holding villages, and AT guns that scored many successes against the German tanks. The Germans quickly learned not to charge AT batteries. They also learned that they would need thicker armour on their tanks and soon set about a program of bolting extra plates on the fronts of them.
This action is justly celebrated in the history of the RTR and is often stated as the cause of the halt order that allowed the BEF to escape at Dunkirk. That view might be something of an exaggeration but the action certainly made a significant impression of the German command. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt later commented: ‘A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras. For a short time, it was feared that the Panzer divisions would be cut off.’
It is no exaggeration to say that the 1st Army Tank Brigade was destroyed as a result of this action. After Arras, reorganised as a regiment, it carried out only small and unimportant actions until the last two surviving tanks were disabled by their crews at Dunkirk.