Norfolk hero who nearly turned the tide of war

Pioneers: Major Philip Hamond, right, with fellow officers, including a young Dwight Eisenhower, lef

Pioneers: Major Philip Hamond, right, with fellow officers, including a young Dwight Eisenhower, left, during his spell in the United States as part of a British army tank training team spreading the gospel of armoured warfare. Picture: courtesy the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum Collection via the Hamond Family archive. - Credit: Archant

One hundred years ago, the battle of Cambrai signalled the dawn of a new era for a weapon forged on the training grounds of East Anglia. Steve Snelling tells the remarkable story of a Norfolk tank pioneer's leading role in a struggle that helped change the course of modern warfare.

The scars of war were everywhere as Philip Hamond motored south, buffeted by a bitter wind sweeping across the high rolling downs of France's killing fields.

From Arras to Cambrai, he and his companions continued their battlefield pilgrimage through a tortured landscape to a ridge near to the old front line.

There, they parked and walked, Hamond leading the way along sunken lanes and past sheltering hills, pausing to identify remembered landmarks and to pocket fragments of wartime detritus as he retraced his steps from another autumn day.

The wind-blown trek took them cross country towards a canal bank skirting the southern edge of a village where three years earlier the Norfolk infantryman turned tank pioneer from Morston Hall had been a leading player in one of the most dramatic of all incidents on a day full of high drama…

Philip Hamond's road to Cambrai and the titanic, topsy-turvy struggle that followed the first massed armoured assault in history was pocked with hazard and way-marked with harrowing incident.

Long before the tanks had begun their slow, rattling advance a century ago, this most forthright and formidably brave of warriors had acquired an enviable reputation for survival against the odds.

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As a teenage subaltern in the Norfolk Regiment he had been seriously wounded performing an act of near-suicidal gallantry fighting the Boers in South Africa.

His remarkable escape from death, which led to him becoming one of the British army's youngest holders of the coveted Distinguished Service Order, was followed by many more narrow scrapes as civilian life gave way to total war in the summer of 1914.

To those around him, his survival through the arduous struggles in France and Flanders, first as a newly-recalled infantry officer, then as the leader of a motor machine-gun battery and finally as the commander of a company of tanks, was nothing short of miraculous.

A powerfully-built man of bluff good humour, described by one who knew him as 'a complete Viking to look at - huge, with brilliant eyes, a milk-white skin, a drooping blond moustache and yellow hair', he was blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view, with a rare candour and an unusually rich vocabulary which he was apt to employ without fear or favour.

In short, there was about Major Philip Hamond a certain aura: of resolute and persistent courage and pragmatic leadership that was matched by an air of imperturbability and indestructibility.

Not that he viewed himself in quite the same way. What he called the 'bloody butcher's bill' of Third Ypres in the summer and early autumn of 1917, during which his tanks had endured being 'soaked with gas day and night' and the 'insane shelling' that had reduced the battlefield to 'one quaking bog', had brought him close to despair.

Condemning the 'sheer idiocy' of those directing operations, he wrote to a friend: 'When is this bloody show going to end? I am sick of it and the damned folly and useless murder of Ypres simply makes me boil. I have long since given up the idea that 'It is all for some wise purpose'.'

Shaken by his nightmarish experiences and with his eyes 'burned by mustard gas', he frankly admitted: 'I am very jumpy and when I sleep have bad dreams and wake up sweating with funk…'

Contrary to his 'charmed' reputation, he was under no illusions about his likely fate. To the same friend, he observed fatalistically: 'Someone told me you were going to Palestine. I wouldn't mind betting I get to the New Jerusalem before you get to the old one.'

By November 1917, when final preparations were being made for the great, tank-led attack on the enemy's vaunted Hindenburg Line defences near Cambrai, Philip Hamond was perilously close to exhaustion and operating at the outer limits of even his own prodigious endurance.

But it is a measure of the man and his extraordinary strength of character that he refused to give in or seek an escape from the burdens of frontline command rendered yet heavier by a railway accident en route to the assembly area shortly before the battle.

The crash, which resulted in the loss of 14 of his 'most valued men', forced him to rapidly reorganise his command, with 'scratch crews' formed at this most 'critical' of moments before moving cross country to Gouzeaucourt where he hid his tanks by driving them into the semi-demolished ruins of houses and letting what remained of the roofs tumble down onto them.

Hamond's company, part of F Battalion, was just one small component of a mighty armoured force, numbering 376 tanks which, following a short and intense bombardment of the German lines in the early morning of November 20, was to spearhead an attack by thousands of infantry.

Clearing paths through forests of barbed wire and demolishing concrete machine-gun emplacements, their objective was to break through two lines of enemy defences and seize vital crossings over the Canal de l'Escaut at Masnieres and Marcoing to allow further exploitation by cavalry before the enemy could establish a new defensive system.

Never before had such an attack been tried. Ambitious and audacious in equal measure, it seemed to mark the dawn of a new era and, in the aftermath of the misery of Ypres, the prospect of an advance over 'clean, rolling grass downs' gave Hamond renewed hope.

Describing the operation as 'a gift', he told his wife that he had made up his mind, contrary to orders, to go 'bald-headed' for the bridge at Masnieres which he regarded as the 'real' objective.

From the outset, he was a man possessed, shouting out to the infantry on the 'start line', 'Come on, blokes, [you] can't expect to live for ever!'

As his tanks rolled forward he found himself laughing uncontrollably. 'For some reason (rum probably)… I laughed and laughed till I couldn't bear it,' he recalled. 'It lasted for hours, this desire to laugh till you cried, and then I had hours of hiccoughs.

'It was just like driving partridges. I went on, with my tanks coming like a good line of beaters…'

Advancing through one captured village, he lingered long enough only to light a celebratory cigar before pushing on towards Masnieres without waiting for further instructions.

He led off on foot, accompanied by a single 'stout-hearted' volunteer. His progress slowed by a gas-induced cough, he reached the village in time to see the Germans fleeing but too late to prevent charges on the bridge being detonated in a cloud of 'dirty white dust'.

Undaunted by enemy fire, a mob of exultant French villagers and a couple of stampeding cows, Hamond approached the canal to find the bridge only partially collapsed.

Anxious to take advantage of the enemy's disarray, he tried in vain to persuade some Canadian cavalry to follow him across the buckled spans before hatching a more outlandish plan.

Reasoning that there was 'only one thing to do wrong and that was to do nothing', he decided to risk trying to 'get a tank over' in the knowledge that if it failed and became wedged 'in the hole' it would provide a useful foundation on which to rest a makeshift bridge.

The tank selected was called Flying Fox II and belonged to a section of another company which had arrived ahead of his own. With two more tanks providing covering fire, Hamond watched from the canal towpath as 'the old tank crept on and on' towards the canal edge.

For a few moments it seemed as though, against all odds, the tank and her skeleton crew might succeed until suddenly the weakened structure gave way.

'You should have heard the splash and seen the steam,' wrote Hamond in his vivid account of the action. 'The Bosch[e] stopped shooting at me, which was quite a change… Well, that was done and it had failed, but it was a good effort on the Tank crew's part and they all crept out like drowned rats and got safely back…'

It was a case of so near and yet so far that might have served as a metaphor for the battle as a whole. After the early success and great gains which prompted the ringing of church bells across Britain the advance gradually petered out before a stunning German counter-stroke recaptured most of the ground lost to the first armoured onslaught.

The rest of Philip Hamond's part in the battle was a story of diminishing returns though no less gallantry. Supporting one ill-conceived attack he saw one of his tanks nearly blown in half and was fortunate to extricate the rest from what he called 'a hopeless show'.

By the end, he was left to fight a desperate rearguard action with 'worn-out' men, trying to save as many tanks as possible from ground so newly won and soon to be lost again.

Once again, his luck held and the convoy of decrepit tanks crammed with abandoned stores clanked their way through hostile fire to safety, leaving Hamond to wonder how a battle which started so well had been so badly 'messed away'.

To his wife, he was scathing. 'It is extraordinary how these… veterans in the higher command can manage always to muddle a good show till it becomes a bad show,' he wrote.

'Half the value of the Tanks was pitched away by using them in penny numbers on unsuitable ground at Ypres and on the Somme. When at last they did use Tanks as they were meant to be used at Cambrai, they never backed up the effort. I suppose if it lasts another 10 years, someone will learn something by experience.'

His own frontline war was drawing to a close. With a richly-deserved Bar to his DSO to add to a Military Cross awarded earlier in the war, he was withdrawn to work as an instructor, first in Britain and then the United States, where his pupils included a young Dwight Eisenhower.

Against his own expectations, Philip Hamond would survive the war and live on to ripe old age in his native Norfolk, gaining unlikely celebrity as a folk singer and national notoriety for his role in the downfall of Harold Davidson, the so-called 'Prostitutes' Padre' and rector of Stiffkey.

But that, as they say, is another story about a period far removed from the death-defying carnage of a century-old battle in which he helped blaze a trail for a revolutionary new weapon destined to change the course of history.

My thanks to the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum and the Hamond family for their help with this article.

'It is extraordinary how these… veterans in the higher command can manage always to muddle a good show till it becomes a bad show,' he wrote.