A contemporary drawing showing HMS Vindictive going alongside the Harbour Mole at Zeebrugge.
In the foreground is a Motor Launch similar to that captained by Percy Dean Thompson
The British suffered 500 casualties in the raid, of whom 200 were killed, but how much worse would the figures have been without the heroism of the Blackburn hero Percy Thompson Dean?
On 14th July 1918 Dean was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest possible honour for bravery and his is only one of four awarded to Blackburn men.
Percy Thompson Dean was also made MP for Blackburn from 1918-22. He then resumed his successful business career as a slate merchant and died in London in 1939.
This article was written by Tom Bamford, from the sixth form College of St. Christopher’s, Accrington.
Last year Michael Parker learnt from his wife’s family that a relative of theirs had been killed in The Great War; however, apart from his name, John Rimmer, and the year he had been killed, 1917, the family could remember nothing. Michael was saddened by this and was determined to find out as much as he could about John and how he had died. What he unearthed was both fascinating and poignant.
Michael’s first step was to search through the Blackburn Times for 1917 in the in the hope that the family had placed an obituary after John’s death. After a long search Michael struck lucky; John Rimmer’s obituary appeared in the newspaper on 22nd December 1917.
Wanting to know more Michael went to Blackburn Museum to ask for advice. There he spoke to Stephen Irwin, the Education Officer, who was able to help him find out more information. Whilst Stephen made enquiries at the Tank Museum Michael went back to the library and looked through the newspaper cuttings for WWI servicemen held in the local studies archive. Michael found a cutting from 1916 referring to John being presented with one of his medals and Stephen received a mass of material from the library at the Tank Museum.
The date of John’s death and the newspaper obituary had already told Michael and Stephen that John had been killed on the third day of the Battle of Cambrai. The most comprehensive book on the battle is the work of two Frenchmen – J. L. Gibot and P. Gorczynski. Their book detailed the fighting in which John had been killed and allowed Michael and Stephen to narrow down the identity of the tank in which he had met his death to one of three, C47 ‘Conquerer II’, C48 Caesar’ or a Wireless tank. Stephen wrote to Mr. Gorczynski asking for his help and when he received a response was astonished by the information it contained.
When Michael obtained a copy of the Tank Corps ‘Roll of Honour’, which gives details of all the actions for which medals were awarded in WWI, Stephen and he were at last able to identify the tank in which he went into action. This, together with the information from the obituary and, remarkably, a German account of the action from Mr. Gorczynski meant that at last Michael and Stephen were able to understand the circumstances of John’s death.
The only difficulty Michael and Stephen encountered was in tracing John Rimmer’s earlier wartime service because the records held regimental museum in Berwick-upon-Tweed are incomplete. However, they were able to download his medal index card from the National Archives web site but, sadly, a search through the ‘burnt records’ at the same place failed to find John’s service records.
Putting it all together they can now piece together some of the details of John’s short life and the circumstances of his death.
John was born in Blackburn in 1895. When he died his family were living at 72 Bower Street, Mill Hill but a search through the town directories held at the Library suggests that the family moved quite frequently between different rented houses.
As a child he went to the Norfolk Street Day School and John regularly attended at St Francis’ Church Sunday school. When he left school John went to work at Gordon Street Mill in Darwen, where he was a weaver.
When the war started, John was quick to enlist and on 3rd September he went to the recruitment office in Darwen and enlisted in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) Regiment. His low service number, 14345, tells us that he was one of those who responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers.
The Medal Index Card gave the date when John was awarded the ‘1915 Star’, 10th July 1915, this was the day he arrived in France. Checking in the regimental history told Stephen that this was the day the 7th Battalion, KOSB arrived in France; therefore, this was John’s unit.
After joining his battalion in Berwick-upon-Tweed, John travelled with his unit to Bordon Camp, in Hampshire, to begin training. In February 1915 the men moved to Winchester and shortly afterwards to Salisbury Plain. After completing their training the men sailed for France, arriving at Boulogne in 10th July 1915.
John fought at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 where his unit, badly affected by British poison gas and hard hit by German machine-guns, captured the village of Loos. This is probably where he won his Military Medal (MM) for bravery on the battlefield or, as the newspaper put it, ‘a plucky act’ and he was presented with his medal by a General on 12th July 1916.
The newspaper obituary states that he was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). This medal is effectively ‘one down’ from the Victoria Cross and would only be awarded for an act of considerable heroism but frustratingly Michael has not been able to track down the citation which would tell him what that deed was.
At some point in 1916 John transferred to the newly formed Tank Corps along with some of his comrades. His new service number was 76645 and he was promoted to Lance-corporal.
As the Tank Corps expanded he found himself in C Battalion, training on the newly introduced Mark IV tanks. As might be expected, all of the tanks in this battalion had names beginning with the letter C. Currently, Michael and Stephen don’t know anything about John’s activities with the Battalion activities prior to the Battle of Cambrai as it is impossible to find out exactly when he transferred to the Tank Corps.
However, they do know that in July 1917 John came home on leave and visited his old school. The Headmaster, Mr Kenyon, made the occasion one of great rejoicing; the newspaper noted that “His modesty was the admiration of all”.
After returning to France John’s unit would have continued training as the British Army prepared itself for its big offensive of 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele.
During that offensive, C Battalion was involved in the Battle for Pilkem Ridge and in the fighting around Fortuin in August. Later on they were again supporting British troops, this time on the Menin Road.
There were some limited successes but the battlefield was reduced to a swamp by heavy rain and was no place to try and use tanks that weighed 28 tons.
Instead the tanks were moved south to a new battleground around the town of Cambrai.
Ninety years ago saw the opening of The Battle of Cambrai which began on the 20th November 1917. The battle was unique for two reasons; it saw the first use of a predicted artillery barrage and it was the first mass attack made by tanks.
It is likely that John saw action on the opening day of the battle when his unit, C Battalion, supported British troops attacking Lateaux Wood.
The first day of the battle was a huge success, as the British troops broke into the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. However, there had been some setbacks and the town of Cambrai remained in German hands. In particular the British had failed to capture Bourlon Wood and on the 22nd November the Germans were able to counter-attack out of Bourlon Wood and re-capture the key village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
On the 23rd November the British renewed their attack. Some ninety tanks were involved in attacking Bourlon Wood and the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.
A composite battalion created from what was left of B, C and H Battalions attacked the village. John Rimmer went into action in C47 (named ‘Conqueror II’), a female tank (armed with machine guns only).
Tanks from B and H Battalions met fierce resistance and were unable to break into the village from the West and East. John’s tank was one of three to attack from the south and John’s tank was able to reach the centre of the village, close to the church, in spite of severe German resistance.
The German troops were equipped with armour piercing bullets. They were relatively ineffective against the British tanks but the intensity of the German fire is evidenced by the fact that, apparently, some of the British tanks had their camouflage paint stripped off them by the rifle and machine bullets hitting them.
However, we know from the officer’s letter quoted in his obituary that the engine of C47 was overheating and as it reached the centre of the village it caught fire. We have an account written by a Leutnant Spremberg from German Reserve Infantry Regiment 52. He and his men were firing on C47; they saw smoke pour out of the tank and mistakenly believed that it was their rifle fire that had caused this to happen.
The men of C47 were now in a desperate position; their tank, loaded with petrol and ammunition was on fire inside and outside, in the houses lining the narrow street, German soldiers were pouring rifle and machine gun fire onto their tank.
Fortunately for the crew of C47, another tank C48 was on hand and, as it drew alongside their stricken tank, John and his comrades’ kicked open the escape hatches, rolled out, and ran to C48. Leutnant Spremberg and his men saw this happen and fired upon the escaping tank crew.
The commander of C47, Lieutenant Moore, fell severely wounded in front of his tank and he was almost run over by his own tank, which had been left in gear as they escaped. He was rescued by Gunner Raffel from C48, who jumped down from his tank and carried him to safety. Gunner Green, also from C48, helped John and the rest of the crew into his own tank.
The centre of the village was no place for a single tank, unsupported by infantry and C48 ‘Caesar’, out of ammunition and now carrying sixteen men, turned around and began to fight its way out of the village.
The Germans opened an intense fire on the escaping tank and bullets started to enter the tank (possibly between the armoured louvres that protected the radiator grill).
The events that followed were described by Lt. Archibald, the commander of C48, in a letter to John’s parents:
“Two of us were cut off in a village and the crew to which your son belonged had to take refuge with me. We were in a very tight corner, and not a single man escaped without a wound. Your son was killed by a bullet, which struck him in the throat, and he died almost at once. Later on we were twice hit by shells and set on fire. However, by that time we had got back behind our own lines.”
Lt. Archibald managed to successfully evacuate the surviving men from C48.
In his letter to John’s parents Lt. Archibald went on to say:
“The next day two other officers and I went up and buried your son close to where we had been hit the last time.”
Lieutenant Archibald’s comment is intriguing because to have three officers burying an ‘other rank’ would have been very unusual.
A comment in another letter from an officer to John’s parents perhaps explains this incident:
“I knew your son well when we were both in the KOSB and I always found him plucky and cheerful and ready to volunteer for any dangerous job that turned up. He was always the same both in the KOSB and in this Corps.
We shall all miss his smiling face and pleasant ways, for he was popular with everybody. I hope that your grief may be lightened a little by the memory that he showed himself a brave man out here and he was not unwilling to die for his country.”
Although we can never know for certain, it is probable that Lieutenant Archibald felt a sense of duty towards John Rimmer and together with the Chaplain and another officer he undertook the grim task of recovering the body from the tank and burying it.
Sadly, also writing letters were the children who a few months earlier had been so excited by John’s visit and were now writing letters of sympathy to his parents.
As he has no known grave, John Rimmer is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval. Touchingly, when Stephen wrote to Mr Gorczynski, Philippe told him that he had a picture of C48, abandoned and with a lone grave alongside it and that he had wondered whose the grave was. Interestingly, Philippe and his colleagues, knowing the location of the picture had already spent many hours searching for the grave to ensure that the English soldier should have a proper burial; they never found it and have concluded that either the grave was lost in subsequent fighting in the area or that it was opened post WWI, when the battlefields were cleared of isolated graves, and the body reburied in a nearby Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery but by then the identity of the man buried in the grave had been lost.
This is a well-remembered incident in Cambrai. An enthusiastic model maker recreated the scenes depicted on the photos.
Gibot, J-L. & P. Gorczynski Following the tanks - Cambrai 20th November - 7 December 1917. Published by P Gorczynski, 1998
Philippe Gorczynski for supplying the photos of the C47 and C48 models
David Fletcher, Tank Museum, Bovington for supplying the World War I tank photos
Lt Col C Hogg Kings Own Scottish Borderers Museum, Berwick upon Tweed