I recently revisited the always impressive Australian War Memorialin Canberra, which is currently exhibiting an interesting and very rare piece of World War One history. Wander into the ground floor of the large ANZAC Hall and you will be confronted by the mighty Mephisto, the only surviving A7V Sturmpanzerwagen (armoured assault vehicle) Imperial German World War One tank (Mephisto was designated Number 506). The size of the tank is the first thing that will strike you.
Despite British and French tanks becoming more common on the battlefield from 1916 to mid 1917, this weapon seemed to be an afterthought to German war planners. The German High Command were doubtful of their usefulness and capability on the battlefield until they saw well-coordinated and successful British advances in 1917 with combined artillery, infantry and tanks. The tank also had a strong psychological effect on soldiers which good for the home side and bad for the enemy (this was probably the biggest instigator in developing a German tank, as it was always “cheaper” to use masses of soldiers in mass attacks to breakthrough enemy lines). Only 20 of these 33 tonne A7V monsters were produced in late 1917 by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Motors Corporation), with the first production model completed in October 1917.
The designation of A7V was derived from the army engineering department that designed and developed the tank under project engineer Joseph Vollmer. This was the Allgemeines Kriegsdepartement, 7. Abteilung, Verkehrswesen (General War Department, 7th Branch, Transportation).
The name Mephisto(Mephistopheles) relates to one of the chief demons of German literary tradition (basically the Devil) and she not only had the name painted on her but also a smiling red demon too, who is running with a British tank under its arm (originally the tank would have had a skull and crossbones painted where the iron cross now sits but this was overpainted when it was named Mephisto)! Nearly all of the A7V’s were given names by the Germans and others included Gretchen, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Elfriede, Siegfried, Alter Fritz, “Cyklop, Herkules, Lotti and Prinz Oskar.
The A7V’s saw operational combat service from March to October 1918 and were the only German designed tanks to be used in combat during the war (they also operated commandeered British tanks). Of the 19 other A7V tanks: 2 were scrapped by the Germans in 1918, 11 were scrapped by the Allies in 1919 with 2 others scrapped in 1922 and surprisingly 1942 (the last was in US Army hands). The others were knocked out of action on the battlefield in 1918.
The A7V was armed with 6 x 7.92 mm MG 08 machine guns (the standard heavy machine gun of the German army in World War One – 250 rounds were allocated for each gun) and a 57mm Maxim-Nordenfelt cannon with 180 rounds (split as 90 canister, 54 anti-tank and 36 explosive rounds. Many of these Belgian designed 57mm guns were captured in Belgium in 1914, so were readily available and ideal for the tank due to their compact size, light weight high firing rate and minimal recoil. The big tank bristling with guns was designed to help win battles and strike fear in the heart of the enemy!
The A7V was crewed by 18 men: an officer commander, driver, mechanic, mechanic/signaller, six machine gunners, six machine-gun loaders and for the cannon a gunner and a loader. The large crew seems astounding today!
The A7V must have been incredibly crowded, hot and dirty inside the tank. The field of view from the tank was said to not be very good due to the huge hull causing a blind spot at the front of the tank (apparently from time to time the tank commander would have to pop his head out to get a better idea of where they were going!) but with machine guns sticking out of 3 sides and the forward cannon they could in theory put down a lethal amount of firepower on troops when required.
The tank commander and driver sat directly above the tank’s engines and had to wear what must have been very uncomfortable asbestos-impregnated suits to protect themselves from the heat. It was also a very rough ride for all inside the tank and when not in combat it seems most of the crew that could, would sit on top or outside the armoured hull to be more comfortable and escape the heat!
A major issue with the A7V was that the “Röchling” steel plate armour of the tank was not hardened armour-plate and although it could stop machine-gun fire, it was not necessarily strong enough to withstand a direct hit by a larger calibre cannon shell (the armour-plate was 30mm thick at each end, 20mm thick on the side and only 10mm on the roof – Mephisto actually has a gaping hole in the roof that appears to have occurred from incoming shell fire). Apparently when under direct fire it was not uncommon for small pieces of hot metal to go flying about inside the tank!
I must note that British and French tanks in comparison to the A7V generally had thinner but hardened armour-plate so this vulnerability to higher calibre shells was common with World War One era tanks. The British Mark IV tank for example had an armour thickness of only 6mm – 12 mm around the tank.
Fitted with 2 x 200 hp Daimler Benz 4-cylinder engines the A7V could reach speeds up to 15km/h (9 mph) on the road and had a range of 30–80 km (20–50 miles). Although quite fast on the road, the A7V was very slow cross-country and only capable of less than 6.5 km/h (4 mph) off-road. This may have been a good thing though, as the high centre of gravity on the A7V could cause it to overturn on rough and steep ground!
Due to the tanks armour layout with that large overhang at the front and rear, it apparently didn’t cross trenches and uneven muddy ground too well either and could easily get stuck. Being new technology they tended to break down quite frequently too. Not great in the middle of a battle on a typically muddy, shell pocked Somme battlefield with trench lines!
German A7V’s were first used in combat on March 21st, 1918 and were involved in the first tank vs tank battle on April 24th, 1918 near Villers-Bretonneuxin France (the Somme). This first tank battle was between 3 A7V’s and 3 British Mark IV tanks (2 were “Female” armed with 5 x 0.303 inch Lewis machine guns and 1 better armed “Male” with 3 x 0.303 inch Lewis machine guns and 2 x 6 pounder cannons). Imagine soldiers from both sides in the trenches of the Somme, seeing these lumbering goliaths in battle against each other for the first time!
The Mark IV “Female” tanks did not fare well as their machine guns were unable to damage the A7V’s and withdrew after being damaged by German shells. The “Male” tank knocked out an A7V and the 2 other German tanks then withdrew from the action. The Mark IV “Male” tank was subsequently damaged by mortar fire and abandoned. I passed through this region in 2012 and a memorial marker sits by the roadside to indicate where the battle took place.
Mephisto first deployed with Abteilung 1 (Assault Tank Unit 1) and was part of the German tank detachment that participated in their first tank attacks at St. Quentin, France on March 21st, 1918. No. 506 was one of 5 German tanks that participated in the battle and was used to overcome strong points, such as the Pontchu Redoubt.
Returned from repairs Mephisto then transferred to Abteilung 3 (Assault Tank Unit 3) and during its second battle, in which the German offensive captured Villers-Bretonneux, the tank was immobilized (bogged in the mud of a fresh shell hole) and abandoned close to Villers-Bretonneux in an area known as Monument Wood. This was on the same day as that first tank battle on April 24th 1918. On that day she was 1 of 14 A7V’s that came out of thick fog to provide infantry support in the attack on British and Commonwealth lines. The sound and noise of these beasts coming out of the fog must have been somewhat terrifying to the troops facing them!
Mephisto was later recovered under the cover of darkness on July 22nd, 1918 by Australian troops (mostly Queenslanders) from the 26th Battalion, A.I.F. and a British Royal Armoured Corps unit during the Allied offensive to successfully retake Villers-Bretonneux. The tank was then moved to the training ground of the British 5th Brigade, Tank Corps at Vaux-en-Amiénois and later to Poulainville (near the city of Amiens) until early October 1918.
Following some Allied assessment, Mephisto was shipped to Brisbane, Australia as a war trophy, arriving at Norman Wharf in June 1919. Normally Mephisto is part of the Queensland Museum collection where it has been since 1919 but currently it is on loan to the Australian War Memorial from June 2015 to April 2017, for their World War One Centennial exhibition.
Mephisto was displayed outside the old Queensland Museum in Bowen Hills for more than 60 years until being moved inside to a climate controlled space at the new Queensland Museum on Southbank in 1986. Over the years the tank was the victim of graffiti, some pilfering, exposure to the elements and ageing to its paint scheme sitting outside all those years. The paint scheme was later restored to as much of her wartime condition as possible (including the removal of the Allied addition of a British lion with an A7V under its paw to counter the original German demon with the British tank under its arm!).
In 2011 Mephisto was damaged by floodwaters but following almost a year of work, the tank was conserved and restored for future generations. You can still see some graffiti engraved into the metal and of course the top of the tank was left as is, with obvious shell damage in the form of a gaping hole in the roof (really only visible when you look through the open side door of the tank – it was thought to possibly have been sabotage by the crew but later considered to have been post battle damage, as it sat on the battlefield for few months before capture). Given its age and circumstance, the tank looks fantastic today!
Unfortunately there seems to be no space in the ANZAC Hall of the Australian War Memorial to display Mephisto alongside their British designed Mark IV “Female” tank Grit (Mephisto is big!). This would have made for an even more impressive display of early tank warfare.
This particular Mark IV tank (serial number 4643) was sent to Australia in June 1918 under the command of Captain N L Brown, to assist in raising War Loans. It was displayed in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Albury and Brisbane). You could go look at it, pay to go inside and in Sydney for ten pounds ten shillings you could even go for a ride on a specially prepared track! Following the visit in South Australia in September 1918, a competition was held and the tank was then named Grit. It was put in storage in 1919 before being presented to the Australian War Memorial in 1921. The tank was last on display at the Australian War Memorial in 2008.
Regardless of the space restrictions, it was fantastic to finally see Mephisto in person (I have been wanting to see it for years). Quite the piece of very rare World War One history!