Inspired by a recent visit to northeast France to witness the excavation of a fully– fledged First World War tank from beneath a muddy field, near Cumbrai, Christy Campbell – then defence correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph – began to piece together the little known story of the maverick soldiers who formed the British Tank Corps.
'I had never seen such a bunch of brigands in my life,' commented one general. Very few of them had been professional soldiers; they were motor mechanics and enthusiasts, 'oily men', stuntmen, circus performers, and polar explorers. They had trained in conditions of great secrecy in the grounds of a mock–oriental stately home in East Anglia, far away from prying eyes, and were known as the 'Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps'.
Men in tanks saw the face of battle at its most brutal. Their task was to crush and burn the enemy out of his fortifications, and to carve a path for the infantry so they could finish the job with bayonet and grenade. Captured tank crews were beaten up or sometimes shot out of hand by the Germans. They fought in their stifling armoured boxes packed with petrol and explosive, aware that at any moment a shell–hit might incinerate them all.
This is the first time the story of how the men went to war in tanks has been properly told. The time frame is 1916–18, with a coda on how German blitzkrieg ideas developed from an English root.