The Men of Deborah D51

Crew of Deborah D51 on the 20th of November 1917

What do we know about the eight men on board D51 as she went into action on that morning of November 20th, 1917?

We know a great deal about the Tank Commander, 2/Lt Frank Gustave Heap. He won the Military Cross for leading some of his crew to safety after his tank had reached the final objective where she was destroyed. Deborah D51 was the only tank to have been through the village on that morning.

We have a picture of 2/Lt Heap. He survived the war, and went on to have a successful business career in the north west of England. He wrote books and was a keen mountaineer. His family has preserved his memory, and many of his descendants have visited Flesquieres and seen Deborah.

But what about the men under his command?

For a long time, it was accepted that four of the crew died when the tank received five direct hits from German field guns. The citation for 2/Lt Heap’s MC referred specifically to ‘four of his crew’ dying.

Inside the neat Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Flesquieres Hill, on the outskirts of the village, there are four headstones, side-by-side. The names engraved are those of: Gunner J Cheverton, Gunner W Galway, Gunner F W Tipping and Private W G Robinson. They were all killed on November 20th and were members of the 4th [D] Btn. Tank Corps. Were these men, therefore, the four who died together when Deborah was destroyed and are now buried together?

It seemed like a fair assumption, but there was a complication: a fifth 4th Btn Tank Corp man buried very near the others. Lance Corporal George Charles Foot, DCM, was also killed on November 20th. How can we be sure which of these men died when Deborah was shelled?

In an effort to explain the riddle, we examined the files of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was common for casualties to be buried hastily on the battlefield, and then exhumed for reburial after the war in the new military cemeteries. CWGC records show that Lance Corporal Foot, and Gunners Cheverton, Galway and Tipping, were originally buried together (Map Ref 57C K 18d). Private Robinson was at first interred in another place (Map Ref 57E L 13a).


So we concluded that the four men who died in ‘Mr Heap’s bus’ were Foot, Cheverton, Galway and Tipping; Robinson must have been killed elsewhere in the village, in another tank.

Or so we thought.

We began to gather as much information as possible on all these individuals, and the personal details are gathered together on this website. We assembled family portraits, military medals, obituaries, memorial cards, and best of all, we traced descendants – some of whom had little or no idea of what had happened to their brave ancestors.

And then: a major and unexpected development. A nephew of George Foot showed us a hand-written letter from Frank Heap to George’s father, expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’. It is an extraordinarily poignant document.

In the letter, dated November 26th, Frank Heap said: “I am having a bitter evening now, as four more of my men have also gone, all finer fellows than I shall ever be”. This indicates that despite everything we believed before, and despite Frank Heap’s citation, the death toll in Deborah was five, not four. Only two men must have survived with their commander.

We must therefore add Private W.G.Robinson to the casualty list.

The research has been carried out by Rob Kirk, John Heap, Alan Hawkins, Vincent McGarry, John Taylor, Philippe Gorczynski with the support of David Fletcher - Tank Museum - and staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission



Tank Commander 2/Lt F. G. Heap
1st Driver Lance Corporal G. C. Foot, DCM
Gunner William Galway
Gunner Joseph Cheverton
Gunner F. W. Tipping
Private W. G. Robinson
Lance Corporal David Marsden
?

Survived (MC awarded after the action)
Killed In Action
Killed In Action
Killed In Action
Killed In Action
Killed In Action
Survived this action
Survived this action



Deborah D51 "D" Battalion Commander

Lieutenant-Colonel W.F.R. Kingdon

Deborah D51,12th Company Commander

Major R.O.C. Ward, Killed In Action

Deborah D51, 12th Section Commander

Captain G. Nixon, Wounded and replaced by Captain E. Smith who became also wounded and finally replaced by Lieutenant A. J. Enoch during the assault on Flesquières.

Deborah D51 Tank Commander until the 22nd of August 1917

2/Lt George Ranald MacDonald

The Tank Corps Officer in charge of burying the tank

Major Wenger

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