Exploring how the Royal Tank Regiment's history of bravery and innovation stemming from its role in WWI trench warfare continues to inspire today's recruits.
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The British Army. To an outsider,
it looks like one single fighting force.
In reality, it's divided into more than 40 independent regiments,
each with its own culture and traditions.
And if you want to understand the British Army,
these regiments are the best place to start.
In this programme,
we go back nearly 100 years to meet a special unit of mechanics,
plumbers and electricians,
brought together to break the stalemate of World War I.
This was a new kind of fighting force
that would revolutionise warfare
for the modern age.
-To the regiment!
This regiment isn't one for pomp and ceremony.
It's not about bright colours.
Its roots are in battle, in the mud and the blood
and the grease inside a tank. That is what this regiment's all about.
Black beret, black belt. Black Mafia, as we call ourselves, all sat together.
You do get that certain pride.
It's a special bond that you don't find in other regiments.
The first tank crews were a new type of soldier for a new secret weapon.
To be in an environment like this,
I genuinely do not see how you can...survive,
let alone complete an objective.
This would just be dreadful.
These courageous pioneers would lay the foundations of a regiment
that has adapted to the changing threats of the modern world
and remains at the forefront of armoured warfare to this day.
No-one wants to mess around with a fully loaded 80-ton,
fully armoured, ready to rock and roll tank.
This is the armoured fist of the British Army -
The Royal Tank Regiment.
Right, left, right, left.
20th November 2010. 6.20am.
The Royal Tank Regiment
is celebrating the most important anniversary in its calendar,
the First World War battle of Cambrai.
At this time on this day in 1917, fighting began.
Here, at the regiment's barracks in Suffolk,
the day begins with the officers
and senior NCOs waking their soldiers
and serving them tea laced with rum.
Known as gunfire tea,
it's a tradition dating back to World War I,
when officers gave their men some Dutch courage before battle.
The men of the Royal Tank Regiment
celebrate Cambrai Day wherever they are and whatever they're doing.
These Tankies are training on Salisbury Plain.
It's quite fitting that my squadron's out on exercise.
For the regiment hierarchy to bring us all our bacon butties
and cups of tea is a fairly rare occurrence.
-Happy Cambrai, Staffie.
-Thank you, sir.
Every year, we celebrate it.
I've celebrated it now for 21 years.
Gunfire in the morning, the rum in the tea.
It wouldn't feel the same when it comes round to November 20th
if we didn't celebrate it.
This year, Cambrai Day is also being celebrated in Afghanistan.
He's still in bed, this one.
Wherever we are, you know, we do it.
The Royal Tank Regiment is a combination of two regiments
known as 1RTR and 2RTR, with nearly 1,000 soldiers
and 40 officers between them.
The celebration of Cambrai Day
is a powerful way to bind them together
as a regimental family,
united by bonds formed nearly 100 years ago.
In the first months of the Great War,
cavalry charges and mass infantry assaults had failed
in the face of trenches, machine guns and barbed wire.
Europe was deadlocked in a war of attrition.
First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill,
was looking for a way to break through the German trenches.
"We must crush them in," he said.
"It is the only way. I'm certain it can be done."
In response to his demands, work began
on a new kind of secret weapon - the landship.
In early 1916,
adverts appeared in The Motor Cycle magazine,
inviting men to volunteer
for something called the "hush, hush" army section.
The army also identified potential candidates among serving officers.
Victor Huffam, a second lieutenant with the Norfolk Regiment,
had previously worked for a car manufacturer.
"I had been called to the adjutant's office and shown the following."
"War Office - strictly secret and confidential.
"Volunteers are required for an exceedingly dangerous
"and hazardous duty of a secret nature.
"Officers with an engineering background
"should have their names submitted."
Basil Henriques of the East Kent Regiment was another recruit.
"We learnt that a secret unit of the Machine-Gun Corps was being formed,
"but were given no hint as to its purpose."
The new recruits to the "hush-hush" army section
were soon building the foundations of the Royal Tank Regiment.
Lieutenant Rory McCulloch has been in the regiment for one year.
He commands a Challenger 2,
one of the most sophisticated weapons in the British Army.
I'm in the commander's seat.
I've got my primary sights and various commander's tools around me.
These aids, I'm sorry to say, are mainly classified,
so I can't show you those.
Sat in front of me, right by my knees, is my gunner.
In front of him, he has his gunner control handles,
effectively like a PlayStation.
In the front is the driver.
It's pretty cramped in there as well for him.
The other side is the operator side, with our ammunition stacked up.
Here's the number two in the tank,
and his job is to load rounds manually, ready to be fired.
He's also in charge of the most important bit of the tank.
That is the kettle.
It takes six months
for new crews to learn how to operate a Challenger 2.
Stop loading. Load HESH.
Lieutenant Pete Eadon has been in the regiment for two years.
The gunners here, they train and train and train
to the point where they can hit a target
at 2,000 metres first time, every time.
Corporal Gaz Harley joined the regiment six years ago.
We like our recruits to be slightly smarter, more intelligent.
The technical knowledge required on a tank is substantial.
So we look for a certain calibre of soldier
to be able to operate the vehicle.
In June 1916,
the first 225 volunteers for the "hush-hush" army section
began training in Norfolk.
They were called "The Heavy Section of the Machine-Gun Corps."
Among the mechanics and engineers,
there was also a former mayor of Hythe,
an explorer who'd just come back from the South Pole
and a circus trapeze artist.
They were a ragtag bunch, drawn in on the idea
that technology could break stalemate
and bring manoeuvre back to the battlefield.
The Tankies' regimental march
is a World War One song called My Boy Willie.
It was chosen in honour for the early tanks.
The first tank was known as Little Willy.
Based on the design of a tractor,
it had a top speed of four miles per hour.
Little Willy was soon replaced by a much larger tank,
equipped with naval guns.
It was called Big Willy.
King George V was an enthusiastic fan of the tank.
He attended three early trials of the invincible new British weapon.
But this trial also revealed some worrying design flaws.
Despite the King's concern,
nobody told him that every member of the crew inside the tank
was knocked unconscious.
At the regiment's museum in Dorset,
the curator is introducing some modern Tankies
to one of the first British tanks.
This is the tank the British Army made most of in the First World War.
It's there to crush down the barbed wire
and let our soldiers follow on behind,
get into the German trenches without being held up.
And as it's sitting on the trench,
it's got guns on the sponsons on the side.
They can fire up and down the trench line
and keep those German soldiers' heads down or take them out
so that the vehicles and infantry
coming behind can get to the German trench
-without getting held up.
-My first impression of this tank
is that the armour is so thin,
to the extent that there would be so many bullets flying around
that the chance of being wounded by a splash inside the vehicle is huge.
You're right. The guys inside are still very vulnerable.
On a shell-strewn battlefield, there's a lot of shrapnel
flying around that can penetrate this vehicle.
But it's only inside that modern Tankies can fully appreciate
the conditions faced by their predecessors.
Being the driver, if you want to move through, down to the front
along the left-hand side.
Looking at the different crew positions, you can work out
where everybody should be.
You're sitting in the commander's position. The driver would sit here.
At the moment, the hatch is open so you can see where you're going.
When you come under fire, those hatches are closed down
and you'd look through glass periscopes
that would be just above them.
You can see it's fairly cosy,
but these exhausts going through the roof would glow red hot.
So inside here, you would be starting to cook.
As you can see, the other six crew members have to perch themselves
around in the vehicle, either hanging on
or bashing yourself against the metalwork inside.
But if you fall against this engine, you'll burn yourself.
It's a million miles away from where we are now.
Like, now we've got radios. The whole crew can communicate with each other,
and that's half the battle.
I've got a lot of respect
for the guys that fought and died in these things.
To hit a target must have been quite an achievement,
considering the modern science systems we've got in the vehicle,
being able to magnify targets, look at thermal imaging.
The commander has a separate sight to the gunner.
Here, you're on your own with a small slit.
It's comparatively mediaeval, this machine.
It's thrilling to be inside and to think that our forebears
broke siege warfare in these vehicles in the First World War.
But it is just aeons ago in technology.
In July 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme,
the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties,
the bloodiest day in British military history.
After 24 days of fighting,
the casualties had more than doubled to 136,000.
The generals were desperate for a breakthrough.
They decided to unleash their secret weapon ahead of schedule.
The tank crews of the heavy section
had been in training for just three months.
But on 15th September 1916,
49 tanks crawled towards the frontline near Flers
in north-west France.
The Battle of Flers began at dawn.
"I suppose it was the first tank in history to have fired on the enemy.
"I must own that my heart was rather in my mouth.
"God help us, boys," I shouted as we moved on.
"As we approached, the Germans let fire at us.
"At first, no damage was done and we retaliated, killing about 20."
The surprise appearance of the tanks on the battlefield
led a German newspaper to declare "the devil is coming."
And the "hush-hush" brigade were front-page news at home
when the Battle of Flers was reported a couple of days later.
The Heavy Section was a huge propaganda victory.
But the reality was different.
In their early battles, the tank looked like a catastrophic failure.
Perennial breakdowns left the Heavy Section stranded.
The tanks could barely manoeuvre in the mud,
and they struggled to roll across the German trenches.
Even the tank's steel armour failed to give the crews
enough protection against German artillery fire.
Many had to abandon their tanks.
"We were now getting too much attention from Jerry.
"There was an explosion, then fire,
"and I came round to find myself lying on top of my corporal.
"Now we were in no-man's land. I knew I had to get him back.
"I fastened my belt to his and as I crawled from hole to hole, he came with me."
By November 1917, 270 tank crew had lost their lives.
Churchill was bitterly disappointed by the failure
to break through at Flers.
"My poor land battleships,"
he said, "have been let off prematurely on a petty scale."
But he didn't lose faith in the Heavy Section.
20th November 1917, northern France.
The Heavy Section had been supplied with powerful new tanks
and given a new name - the Tank Corps.
A year on from the Battle of Flers,
it was about to take part in a surprise attack near Cambrai,
commanded by a charismatic new general.
His arrival was noted in Major Gerald Huntbach's diary.
"A lithe figure strode past the infantry and the rear rank tanks,
"pipe aglow and with an ash stick with a mysterious cloth wrapping
"tucked under his arm.
"Unheralded, unexpected and unattended,
"Brigadier General Elles had arrived."
Brigadier General Hugh Elles was about to deploy a new tactic,
the mass tank attack.
He mobilised every tank available,
nearly ten times the number used at Flers.
Before fighting began,
General Elles issued his battle orders to the tank commanders.
One of them, special order number six,
has become enshrined in the regiment's folklore.
It's read out every year on Cambrai Day
wherever the regiment are, including Afghanistan.
"Special order number six. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance
"for which they have been waiting for many months."
"To operate on good going in the van of the battle."
Special order number six signalled Elles's intention to lead his men from the front
into what he called the vanguard of battle -
almost unheard of for a World War I general.
"I propose leading the attack of the centre division."
General Hugh Elles, 1917.
'Some of the words that we remember at Cambrai
'are particularly poignant, as we're out here on operations'
and very much "in the van of the battle,"
as General Elles said so many years ago.
At 6.20am, 378 tanks lined up along a six-mile front
and rolled forward into battle.
"At last I could distinguish their hulking forms labouring up the ridges,
"all in line, indomitable and invincible monsters."
The sense of foreboding for those men
93 years ago must have been hugely intense.
They didn't know for sure whether or not they were backing a winner.
Every Cambrai Day, the officers perform a play
to explain the significance of the battle.
Absolute secrecy and complete surprise are key to the plan.
Massed use gives us the best chance of smashing the German line.
The brown, red and green flag
hoisted above General Elles's tank, Hilda,
had been hastily stitched together before the battle.
'The three colours that are represented throughout our regiment,'
the brown, red and green, come from the First World War,
come from the only colours the commanding officer at the time could find,
and he made them into our regimental colours.
The mud, the blood and the green fields beyond is what it was supposed to represent.
Deployed en masse for the first time,
the tanks broke through the barbed wire,
crushed German resistance
and rolled across the trenches.
The Tank Corps was now a British Army legend.
In one day of battle, The Tank Corps advanced seven miles.
To gain this ground without tanks
would have taken months of hard fighting and slaughter.
They took battles
where feet and inches were won at the cost of thousands of men
to miles and kilometres for hundreds.
That technology was what the Tank Regiment brought to World War I.
It alleviated slaughter and brought manoeuvre back to the battlefield.
-To the regiment.
Cambrai Day is also an opportunity
for the regiment to celebrate the success
of the first mass tank attack.
I think it's important to celebrate, especially for people who don't read a lot of history
who turn up at the regiment and won't know much about the regimental history.
That was the first real time
that the deadlock on World War I was broken.
It was a turning point in armoured warfare, the start of tank warfare,
the birth of our regiment showing what we could do, what tanks were able to do.
After the First World War,
the regiment adopted the motto "Fear Naught."
On Cambrai Day, the same attitude is adopted in the fiercely competitive inter-squadron football tournament.
And in the fun and games that follow in the evening.
Celebrating the Battle of Cambrai, yeah,
you can get away with stuff you wouldn't usually get away with.
Although there is a rank structure
and a way things are done, we can let our hair down
and everyone can have a laugh, irrespective of who they are.
In 1918, King George V became The Tank Corps's Colonel in Chief.
They were renamed The Royal Tank Corps in 1923.
A year later, he crowned them with the black beret.
Here we've got
some of the uniforms they would have been wearing in the First World War tanks.
Early on, the idea of the black uniforms comes in
because with many of these brown uniforms,
what you're really doing inside a tank is soaking up grease and oil so much.
So the black was suggested as a way of hiding grease stains all the time.
So in the 1920s, they start putting together this black uniform that you're wearing now.
And it becomes a really iconic and distinctive part of the regiment.
It speaks volumes about this regiment.
This regiment isn't one for pomp and ceremony,
it's not about bright colours and parades.
It's about practicality. It knows exactly what its roots are.
Its roots are in battle, in the mud, in the blood and in the grease
inside a tank. That is what this regiment's all about.
On the eve of the Second World War, after an army restructure,
the Royal Tank Corps finally became the Royal Tank Regiment.
From Dunkirk to D-Day,
the regiment fought in all major battles of the conflict.
They spearheaded the invasion of Iraq.
And in Afghanistan, it has deployed new armoured vehicles.
We're still bringing manoeuvre to quite a static battlefield.
The platform looks a little bit different today,
but we're still on tracks, still armoured
and we're providing mounted close-combat to Taskforce Helmand.
As the nature of warfare evolves, so too does the Royal Tank Regiment.
They've spent the last decade
dealing with the greatest security threat the world faces in the 21st century.
Copehill Down in Wiltshire
is a purpose-built British Army training ground for urban warfare.
Today, soldiers from the Tank Regiment are taking part
in Operation Fingal Finder, an exercise designed to train them
for one of the regiment's latest roles -
nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.
Adaptability and innovation is central to our ethos.
The Royal Tank Regiment was founded from the First World War
from an innovative new technology, the tank.
And we've adapted to the role, because that is within our DNA.
Hello, is anybody in?
This exercise simulates a chemical weapons search.
And it's not just house to house.
They also have to check out nearly two miles of sewage pipes.
OK, I've got a couple of detonators
strapped to a couple of glass vials with powder in them.
After six hours of dirty work,
there's also a breakthrough below ground.
The pioneering band of mechanics, plumbers and electricians
who took a new secret weapon to war nearly 100 years ago
has become one of the British Army's most adaptable modern regiments.
Every year on the Sunday closest to Cambrai Day,
the Royal Tank Regiment marches to the Cenotaph on Whitehall.
They are one of only two British regiments
to observe their own Remembrance Sunday.
The remembrance parades are so important to us. Getting together, being a shared unit,
remembering both our past battles and our past glories.
Royal Tank Regiment will remove headdress.
You get all the old soldiers, the old veterans back in, all wearing
-that same cap badge.
It's nice to see that pride between us all, the shared experiences.
It's one of the most important things, I think.
BIG BEN TOLLS
We lay this wreath in memory of our fallen comrades
in the Heavy Branch Machine-Gun Corps, Tank Corps,
Royal Tank Corps
and Royal Tank Regiment.
We are but a few guys on the end of a huge line of illustrious characters
who've been in the regiment. We're just a small part of that,
but hopefully we can build on that and carry the regiment forward.
It's incredibly important to remember.
The main reason for that is so that when you're at that moment
the night before your action,
your battle, when you're leaned against your armoured vehicle
in northern France, in north Africa, in Burma or now in Afghanistan,
you can remember that you're not the first in the regiment to have done that,
and you're not alone in adversity. You have your tight-knit group
which we've always striven to have at the forefront of our way of working.
And you'll overcome, as has been proven by the regiment
throughout history, you'll overcome your adversity and you'll win.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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The Royal Tank Regiment began as a top secret band of plumbers, electricians and mechanics brought together to break the stalemate of trench warfare in WWI. They revolutionised warfare and the regimental history of bravery and innovation inspires members of the regiment to this day.