Frank Heap, WW1 hero and one of Fylde’s founding fathers

The iconic image of the first Fylde team in 1919 pictured outside the Ansdell Institute is a much prized artefact as the Club is about to celebrate its Centenary. In the late summer of 1919, a group of businessmen and friends met at the Institute and discussed forming a sports club. Some of them wanted to create an association football club, others a rugby club. The way to resolve this? A coin was tossed and, as they say, the rest is history.

A year after the end of the Great War, the players stare at the camera with conviction and seriousness. What had these men suffered in that terrible conflict? It’s impossible to know. That is, except in one case.

Frank Gustave Heap was the son of a former Mayor of Blackpool, where his family ran restaurants. He attended Blackpool High School for Boys and studied history at King’s College, Cambridge. Born in 1892, he served on the Somme as a despatch rider with the Royal Engineers, joined the Heavy Machine Gun Corps and was posted to ‘the tanks’ little more than two months before the Battle of Cambrai.

At dawn on November 20, 1917, an armada of almost 500 British “land ships” emerged from the mists to wage the Battle of Cambrai, in Hauts-de-France, northern France, the first in history where tanks were used en masse with air support.

The battle saw some of First World War’s bloodiest fighting and ended in stalemate and 44,000 Allied and 50,000 German casualties. But the surprise charge famously broke the Germans’ “impenetrable” Hindenburg Line and hastened the demise of trench warfare, prompting church bells to ring across England.

2/Lt Frank Heap was commander of one of the 27-ton tanks, affectionally known as ‘Deborah’, and one of only three who survived a German field gun barrage as Deborah left the village. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for “great gallantry and skill” after safely returning his surviving men through enemy territory.

Buried after the war, Deborah, officially tank D51, was miraculously unearthed in 1998 by a local French hotelier and history buff after a painstaking six-year hunt. Deborah – one of the last surviving Mark IV tanks and among the most important relics of British military history – is the centre piece of Cambrai Tank 1917, a £1.3m “interpretation centre” opened in 2017. John A. Taylor documented the story in a 2016 book published by Pen & Sword Military.

Frank returned to Blackpool to run the family hotel and catering business – and to play an important role in the establishment of Fylde RFC. We’ll never know of his abilities as a rugby player but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he didn’t bring the same bravery, fortitude and leadership to the embryonic club.

Another recently discovered team photo, this time from 1922-23, shows Frank Heap as ‘Hon. Match Secretary’. When he died in 1956, his ashes were scattered on Scafell, one of his beloved Lake District peaks.

One thing is sure. Frank Heap was one of the most distinguished figures in Fylde’s 100 years. We should be eternally grateful to him and his colleagues for helping to make the Club the great institution it is today, let alone give thanks for his incredible military contribution.

The Club will be inviting representatives of Frank’s family to join them in one of the Club’s Centenary events.

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