The worlds sole surviving Imperial German Army Sturmpanzerwagen A7V Mephisto (Vehicle 506) World War One tank is finally back on permanent display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. The new ANZAC Legacy Gallery opened on November 10th, 2018 to coincide with the centenary of Remembrance Day.
Sturmpanzerwagen translates to armoured assault vehicle. Although 100 had been ordered, only 20 of these 33 tonne A7V monsters were produced by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Motors Corporation) as tanks in late 1917. The first production model was 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).
Other completed tank tracked chassis that had been assembled were used as replacements for two damaged tanks, another became a driver training vehicle and around ten were used for testing and related projects. The others (reported as less than 30 examples) were mostly used as unarmoured cargo carriers and a couple were used to build mobile trench diggers,
Germany was late to develop tank technology, especially given the Allies deployed thousands of tanks between 1916 and 1918! 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).
The “Male” A7V was armed with 6 x 7.92 mm MG 08 machine guns with 250 rounds each bristling out of ports located on the side and rear of the hull (other small ports were also fitted to fire small arms out of), and a 57mm Maxim-Nordenfelt cannon with 180 rounds (split as 90 canister, 54 anti-tank and 36 explosive rounds). Many of these Belgian, British 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.
Mephisto was originally a “Female” A7V before being converted to a “Male” variant. The difference with the “Female” tank was that it lacked a cannon and was armed with 8 x 7.92 mm MG 08 machine guns (two at the front, on each side and at the rear of the hull).
The A7V was a lumbering monster. Powered by two 100 hp Daimler water-cooled, four-cylinder petrol engines the tank was capable of 16 km/h on the open road (but 10 km/h was probably more typical) and a maximum of 4 km/h on rough ground (still fine to protect troops and lay down covering fire).
The crew size of 18 men was pretty astounding: an officer commander, driver, mechanic, mechanic/signaller, six machine gunners, six machine-gun loaders, one gunner for the cannon and a cannon loader (apparently sometimes even more men were aboard the tank)! The commander and driver sat atop in the central cupola.
The interior of the A7V was incredibly crowded, hot (upwards of 60C!), dirty and noisy! Generally when on the move and not in combat, most of the crew sat atop the tank, where the climate was more favourable!
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. Apparently when under direct fire it was not uncommon for small pieces of hot metal to go flying about inside the tank!
The armour-plate of British and French tanks had thinner but hardened armour-plate so ultimately all World War One era tanks were vulnerable to higher calibre shells. The British Mark IV had an armour thickness of only 6mm – 12 mm around the tank.
The name Mephisto relates to Mephistopheles, one of the chief demons of German literary tradition (basically the Devil). The A7V has this name adorned on its forward and rear hull and then next to the 57mm cannon a fantastically restored and somewhat mischievous looking smiling red demon running with a British tank under its arm!
Nearly all of the A7V’s were given names by the Germans and others included Gretchen (Vehicle 501), Faust (502/503 – the body of 502 was transferred to the chassis of 503), Schnuck (504/544 – another damaged chassis swap), Cyklop (507), Siegfried (525), Lotti (527), Elfriede (542), Alter Fritz (560), Nixe (561), Herkules (562) and Wotan (563).
Mephisto is a technical and historically important survivor – it was one of the first four German tanks used in battle during the Michael Offensive at St. Quentin in March 1918 with Abteilung 1 (Assault Tank Unit 1) and was then painted with a skull and crossbones painted on the front of the hull. Its second battle (and its final battle), now with Abteilung 3 and now called Mephisto, was during the first tank vs tank battle in April 1918 but by this stage Mephisto was already out of action elsewhere on the battlefield.
Tank vs Tank
The first two tank vs tank battles of World War One took place on the Western Front near Villers-Bretonneux on April 24th, 1918. 13 of 15 available A7V’s were deployed but given they were dispersed across the battlefield, the tank battles themselves only involved limited numbers of German and British tanks (the Brits had 12 Mark IV’s in the area).
The first encounter occurred when A7V Nixe (Vehicle 561) engaged with three British Mark IV tanks (one a cannon armed “Male” and two machine gun armed “Female” variants). Nixe knocked the two “Female” Mark IV’s out of action but the “Male” struck Nixe with cannon fire and killed a number of the crew, initially abandoned, the surviving crew soon released the A7V’s engines were still running and moved it away from the battle, only to soon break down from the damage sustained.
The second tank battle involved A7V Siegfried (Vehicle 525) that had been sent onto the battlefield to support German assault troops. These soldiers came under attack from seven British Medium Mark A Whippet tanks and a Mark IV tank. Siegfried and a German 77mm artillery unit engaged the Brits and the combined firepower knocked out for of the Whippet tanks and a trench mortar disabled the Mark IV.
During the combat around Villers-Bretonneux two other German A7V’s were put out of action due to the tanks lumbering nature. The first was Elfriede (Vehicle 542) that rolled over in a pit and became the first A7V to be captured by the Allies when later recovered by French Troops (the high centre of gravity on the A7V could cause it to overturn on rough and steep ground!). Elfriede was displayed as a war trophy at Place de la Concorde in Paris in late 1918.
The other disabled A7V, just 700 metres away was Mephisto which had become bogged down in a deep shell crater at Monument Wood. Due to the A7V 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.
German troops attempted to blow up Mephisto that night with demolition charges but only damaged the tank – this was apparently a mistake as they were meant to be destroying Elfriede, not Mephisto, which was not actually damaged in battle! The tank then stayed where it sat until July 1918.
Given the tank was in full view of German lines, the capture of Mephisto was a classic tale of derring-do! Supported by two British tanks from the 1st Gun Carrier Company and under the cover of light artillery fire, a sergeant and a dozen men of the 26th Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF), predominately Queenslanders, along with British troops set out onto the battlefield at night on July 22nd, 1918 to lead the recovery of Mephisto at great risk to themselves.
Despite wearing gas masks, they were inflicted with the horrific suffering resulting from German mustard gas shelling whilst out there. Mephisto was dragged out of the shell hole and taken to the training ground of the British 5th Brigade, Tank Corps at Vaux-en-Amiénois and later to the Tank Corps Gunnery School at Merlimont until early October 1918 for Allied assessment. It was then shipped to London via Dunkirk.
It seems the machine guns must have been removed whilst Mephisto was stuck in the shell hole. They would most likely have been put to use elsewhere by the Germans as the MG08 was their standard machine gun at the time. Whilst in Allied hands it was subject to much artwork and graffiti including the “Tank Boys” (possibly men from various Australian Imperial Force and British units) and their names or initials hammered into the rear of the hull!
The added artwork adorned to the side of Mephisto included its capture details and a British lion with an A7V under its paw, to counter the original German demon with the British tank under its arm! The other main art painted earlier on was the patch of the 26th Battalion and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) rising sun badge.
Following a proposal supported by the commander of the 26th Battalion AIF and Queenslander, Lieutenant-Colonel James A. Robinson (he supervised the capture of Mephisto), the Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan and Queensland Governor Sir Hamilton John Goold-Adams to display the captured tank as a grand war trophy in Queensland, Mephisto was loaded aboard S.S. Armagh on April 2nd, 1919 and shipped to Brisbane, Australia. The ship arrived at Norman Wharf on June 2nd, 1919.
Unloaded from S.S. Armagh, Mephisto was towed on its own tracks on August 22nd, 1919 by two Brisbane City Council steam rollers to the old Queensland Museum in Fortitude Valley. There was reportedly some damage to the roads along the way – turning corners was apparently a bit of an issue!
Mephisto was displayed outside the old museum for more than 60 years until being moved inside to a climate controlled space at the new Queensland Museum on South Bank in 1986. Over the years, after sitting outside for so long the tank was the victim of graffiti, some pilfering, exposure to the elements and ageing to its paint scheme. Restorative work was well overdue!
The paint was later restored to as much of her wartime condition as possible, including the removal of the Allied addition of a British lion and other artwork. In 2011 Mephisto was damaged by floodwaters in Brisbane but following almost a year of work, the tank was conserved and restored for future generations. In 2013 the tank was located temporarily at The Workshops Rail Museum in Ispwich.
While the Queensland Museum was being redeveloped, Mephisto was on loan to the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra from June 2015 to May 2017. The A7V became a central part of the museums centenary of World War One (1914-1918) commemorations.
Conservation work was also conducted by the AWM team including specialist metal conservation, corrosion treatment, replacing engine oils and fluids and the installation of replica machine guns. Their team also developed a long-term preservation maintenance plan for the Queensland Museum. At the end of the loan period, it was then back to the rail museum and stored in a protective bubble to prevent any damage from humidity and dust until returned to the Queensland Museum in 2018.
The Fate of the other A7V Tanks
Of the 19 other completed 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.
ANZAC Legacy Gallery
I had previously seen this amazing relic of the Great War whilst it was on loan at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in 2016 but while in Brisbane in November 2018 (less than two weeks after the new gallery opening), I just had to see Mephisto again and I am glad I did! The new ANZAC Legacy Gallery is well lit and you can walk completely around the A7V to get a really good look at it.
There is plenty of information to view on information boards and interactive screens, plus 3D graphic interfaces – the one showing where the crew sat is particularly good (although it only shows 10 crew). Given that Mephisto is on an elevated platform you can partially see underneath (an engine oil drip tray is still needed!), see the tank tracks (directly based on those used on the American Holt tractor with spring suspension – a feature not used on British tanks) and look above at the ceiling mirror which shows the top side of the tank and the damage it suffered on the battlefield (including the big hole atop the tank believed to be from a demolition explosion).
While the A7V was on display at the AWM they had the front side crew door open, which gave a limited view inside where you could see the hole in the roof. Now in the Queensland Museum the rear side crew door is open – this is mainly due to the limited space available down the left side of the tank. Unfortunately this also means they have had to put a Perspex barrier down that side to stop people directly touching the paint of the tank.
Despite this barrier it is still possible to see bullet damage along that side. Most of the visible graffiti etched into the tank by servicemen post capture is visible at the rear of the tank and is not obscured by the Perspex . Battle and demolition damage around and atop the tank is very evident.
After being on loan to the Australian War Memorial and being placed in storage off site, it is great to see this war trophy of a bygone era back on public display in the new gallery. An amazing piece of historic military technology well-preserved is something I think is highly important to see. History lives on at the Queensland Museum!
A7V Mephisto – A Queensland Museum Guide, Gregory Czechura & Jeff Hopkins-Weise (2008)