Widgets Magazine

Autopsy of a German tank killed in World War I combat

Germany only produced one kind of tank in World War I, and only one example of it still survives. Recently, Australian historians worked with Queensland Police and Ballistic Bomb Unit and the Defense Science & Technology Group to analyze what, exactly, soldiers of the British Empire did to the tank to halt its advance and bring it down.


A German A7V tank replica in a German museum.

(Huhu, public domain)

"Mephisto," as the tank is known, is an A7V, Germany's first tank design to make it into production. The vehicle had armor thick enough to make it nearly bulletproof, not a trait common among first-generation tanks. And it was well-armed, boasting six machine guns and one cannon each on the front and back.

This made the tank nearly invulnerable in combat, but also gave the A7V some very serious drawbacks. First of all, it was extremely expensive and resource-heavy to produce. The designer showed his first prototype to Germany's high officers and they agreed to buy two hundred, of which only 20 would be finished and sent to the front in time. Why so few? They didn't have enough steel.

And the ones Germany did produce were great on level ground or on terrain that was bumpy front-to-back, but they were horrible when the terrain was rocky side-to-side. That's because it had a lot of weight, a high center of balance, and thin tracks. If one side hit a big enough bump, the whole thing tipped over.

Until the A7V hit a bump, though, it was imposing. Mephisto fought at Villers-Bretonneux where German attacks in early April had been repulsed, so Germany launched one of its few armored assaults with the A7Vs. British tanks rolled out to counter the threat, leading to the first tank-on-tank clash in history.

But Mephisto wasn't brought down by a British tank. It charged against British and Australian infantrymen who had to fight the tank with small arms that couldn't possibly pierce the hull. And so, they got creative. Australian experts found evidence of armor piercing rounds targeted against the machine guns and their water coolers.

And the Allies did find a fairly suitable anti-tank weapon to bring against Mephisto, a 37mm French gun, about the same as a 1.5-caliber round. That wasn't enough, though, as rounds ricocheted right off.

A German tank, not the Mephisto, left turned over at the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. The tank was lost to history, but the similarly fated Mephisto would be sent to Australia as a war trophy.

(French postcard, public domain)

So, no tanks got the Mephisto, and 1.5-inch rounds were bouncing off, so what ended the Mephisto's rampage? That tendency to flop over. It hit a bump, rolled on its side, and the crew was forced to explode a charge and escape. That charge blew through the roof and also set off internal munitions, sending one through the floor of the tank and against the ground where it went off.

That, in turn, sent more shrapnel against the underside and through the crew compartment. The Mephisto was dead, and it would be captured by British troops soon.

It was taken back to Australia and placed in war museums. But the Germans had learned their lessons.

When they prepared for World War II, they put tanks in the field that were light and mobile enough to make it through the Ardennes Forest. They sent mass numbers of tanks and other equipment that overwhelmed Allied defenses, nearly all of them agile enough to make it across No Man's Land without tripping on their own shoelaces like Mephisto and the A7Vs were prone to do.