The first tank battle signaled the beginning of a new era of modern warfare centered on firepower, protection, and mobility.
DENSE FOG SHROUDED THE AREA AROUND THE FRENCH VILLAGES of Villers-Bretonneux and Cachy, made even thicker by dust, smoke, and mustard gas from a thunderous German artillery barrage. It was early in the morning on April 24, 1918, and the German Second Army offensive toward the strategic city of Amiens had stalled just east of the villages. General Erich Ludendorff decided to launch a new offensive in Flanders, but first he wanted to take Villers-Bretonneux to stabilize the front.
At 6 a.m. apparitions suddenly appeared out of the fog in front of the Allied lines, but unlike in most previous attacks, these German infantrymen were accompanied by tanks. The lumbering armored giants advanced slowly over ground surprisingly untouched by months of artillery fire, and soon straddled the British trenches, raking the defending infantry with machine gun fire or crushing them while storm troopers finished off survivors with rifles and bayonets. Hundreds of British troops, shocked by the unexpected tank attack, surrendered. The German troops’ morale soared in the wake of their victory because they had been on the receiving end of ever-increasing Allied armor attacks since the British first introduced tanks at the Somme in September 1916.
During the three-division assault, Lieutenant Wilhelm Blitz, commander of an A7V tank named Nixe from Sturm Panzer – kraftwagen Abteilung 2 (Assault Armored Motor Vehicle Detachment 2), approached a British switch trench near Cachy to support accompanying infantry from the 77th Reserve Division. Blitz destroyed several machine gun positions, and just before 11 a.m. was within 700 meters of the outskirts of Cachy. As the fog lifted, he began firing his 57mm cannon and machine guns into the village to destroy strongpoints. Two other German tanks, which had become temporarily separated from their infantry in the fog, were nearby.
Three British tanks then emerged from the southern tip of the Aquenne Woods, and when Blitz spotted them through the haze at a range of 200 meters, he yelled to alert his crew. Taking advantage of some nearby cover, he immediately ordered his gunners to open fire with their cannon, quickly disabling two British Mark IV “female” tanks, armed only with machine guns.
The third British tank, commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, was a “male” Mark IV armed with two six-pounder (57mm) guns. Mitchell, warned of the presence of German armor by a soldier in a trench, spotted Nixe and shouted instructions to his crew, who were thrilled to at last engage an enemy tank. They moved quickly around the German flank, but Blitz was now on the move, firing his machine guns, and Mitchell’s gunners were having trouble hitting the A7V. As the Mark IV halted briefly, Mitchell’s gunner in the left sponson aimed carefully through his telescopic sight and fired three rounds from the cannon, hitting Nixe and killing three crewmen. One shell struck the turret on top but apparently did not injure Blitz, while the second hit the front of the tank and the third the side, killing the three and splattering their blood inside the compartment. The German tank stalled, and Blitz and his crew, fearing a fire, jumped out. Fired on by Mitchell’s machine guns, they soon climbed back in and were able to return to their lines. Mitchell, sighting two more German A7Vs advancing with infantry, opened fire, but the enemy tanks turned away.
History’s first tank-versus-tank battle was over. At the time, this first duel between armored behemoths was a rather minor event, but certainly not without significance. The brief encounter represented the first link in a chain of events that would change the course of modern warfare.
Fourteen A7V tanks, with support personnel and equipment, had been brought in by rail from Charleroi, Belgium, for the offensive. This was the largest number of German tanks available for a single operation. One A7V developed a cracked cylinder head and was returned to Charleroi for repair. The others moved at night to the village of Wiencourt, where they were hidden and the crews briefed on the operation.
The German tanks were divided into three groups for the attack. Group 1, with three tanks from Detachment 1, assisted soldiers of the 228th Infantry Division in successfully assaulting Villers-Bretonneux, north of the rail line. This battle involved fierce house-to-house fighting with heavy casualties. Group 2, with six tanks from Detachments 1 and 2, assisted the 4th Guard Infantry Division that morning, attacking the southern edge of Villers-Bretonneux and later the Aquenne Woods. During bitter fighting, an A7V named Mephisto fell into a large shell hole and had to be abandoned. (It was later salvaged by Australian troops and, after study by British technical experts, taken to Australia as a war trophy. The only surviving A7V, it has been restored and is now on exhibit in the Queensland Museum.)
Group 3, with four A7Vs from Detachment 2, moved southwest from Marcelcave to support the 77th Reserve Division, initiating the action that resulted in the first tank battle. With the help of their armor, the Germans managed to break through the front near Cachy held by the British 58th Division. During the advance, the A7V Elfriede slid into a shallow quarry and turned over on its side. The crewmen continued to fight as infantry but their tank was lost. (It was eventually recovered by the French and after study was placed on temporary display at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.)
After the battle, the German tank crews returned to Wiencourt, where their commander, one Major Bornschlegel, congratulated them. The A7Vs were then moved by rail to Charleroi for repairs. The after-action report stated that two tanks were lost, Mephisto and Elfriede, with Nixe and one other damaged. One officer and eight enlisted men had been killed, three officers and 50 men wounded, and one man captured. Many of the wounds were minor facial injuries caused by small fragments knocked off the walls inside the tanks by enemy machine gun bullets.
Indeed, conditions inside World War I tanks were miserable for crewmen, and especially hellish during combat. It was dark and oppressively hot, the roar of the engine was deafening, and the thunder of the cannon and machine guns inside the steel hull was nerve-racking. Exhaust fumes fouled the air, and when the guns were fired, acrid powder smoke contributed to the noxious atmosphere. Poison gas, seeping in through the openings, forced the crew to don gas masks. Inside the cramped tank, crewmen had to stoop, sit, or squat for hours at a time under stressful combat conditions.
Nonetheless, the success of the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux was mainly attributed to the use of tanks, including the psychological terror they inflicted on the enemy. One can only imagine the fear experienced by soldiers in the trenches as they faced these armored leviathans roaring inexorably toward them, crunching through the barbed wire, with cannons firing and machine guns hammering, intent on destroying everything in their path.
World War I had begun as a war of movement, but then the German offensive through Belgium and northern France had stalled, with the Germans unable to continue their advance and the French and British unable to throw them back. Soldiers dug in, building trenches and bunkers for protection against the increasing storm of artillery and machine gun fire. Mass infantry attacks were unsuccessful in breaking through lines that soon reached from Switzerland to the North Sea. As casualties mounted, the Germans introduced the flamethrower and poison gas in an attempt to break the stalemate, but to little avail. French commanders demanded more and heavier artillery, but this only increased the casualties and forced the Germans to build even stronger defenses in what became the Hindenburg Line.
In England, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton, and a few other advanced thinkers pursued the idea of armored “landships” to break through the trenches and barbed wire on the western front. A committee was formed that eventually resulted in production of the Mark I tank, which was basically a rhomboid steel box with walls 6 to 12 millimeters thick, caterpillar tracks encircling the body, and either a cannon or machine guns mounted on sponsons on each side.
The Mark I was operated by a crew of eight. Armament consisted of two six-pounder guns and four .303-caliber machine guns in the male variant or six machine guns in the female type. Powered by a 105-horsepower Daimler six-cylinder engine, and weighing 28 tons, it had a speed of only 3.7 miles per hour and a range of 22 miles. Called a “tank” to confuse spies about its intended purpose, the Mark I was employed for the first time at the Somme on September 15, 1916, to demonstrate its potential. Most either broke down or foundered trying to cross the muddy, shell-cratered battlefield.
In April 1917, the improved Mark IV tank entered combat. The Mark V arrived in the summer of 1918, and although similar to the Mark IV, it could be operated by the driver without the need for gear-men to control the tracks. Other new British tanks were under development or entering production during the last year of the war, including the Whippet “cavalry” tank, so named because of its faster speed of 8 to 9 miles per hour. Armed with four machine guns, it was introduced into combat in 1918 to exploit breakthroughs, a job previously assigned to cavalry.
The French independently developed tanks of their own design, two of which mounted a 75mm M1897 field gun in front. Both were basically armored boxes on lengthened Holt caterpillar chassis and performed poorly. In contrast, the Renault FT 17 light tank, which first entered com bat on May 31, 1918, was a success, and its layout formed the basis for future tank design. It featured a rotating turret armed with either a 37mm cannon or a machine gun. The U.S. Army used American-built FT 17s well into the 1930s.
Although the Allied tanks frightened the German infantry, their poor showing in the first attacks did not impress Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, army chief of staff, or members of the German high command, who failed to recognize the tank’s potential for breaking the stalemate on the western front. To defeat them, the Germans moved field guns forward, produced armor-piercing 7.9mm ammunition in quantity and distributed it to troops in the front lines.
Waffenfabrik Mauser produced a portable antitank rifle that reached the front in early 1918. This large, singleshot, bolt-action rifle was called the Tank-Gewehr, often referred to as das Elefanten-Gewehr (the elephant gun) by the troops, who fired it from a bipod located halfway down the barrel. It fired a 13mm armor-piercing cartridge, which after the war the United States developed into the .50-caliber M1 round used in the Browning heavy machine gun.
Following the introduction of tanks by the British, many German field commanders urged the war ministry to develop a tank. Germany had a progressive automotive industry well before the war, and produced a few armored cars, but suggestions for armored tracked vehicles had previously been dismissed. Development of a tank was approved in late 1916, and assigned to Allgemeines Kriegsdepartment 7, Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), abbreviated A7V. For security reasons, this designation was also applied to the proposed tank.
The Germans formed a committee that included representatives from infantry, artillery, and several manufacturing companies. They studied a captured British Mark I tank but decided that reverse-engineering it for production would take too long and would not meet their requirements. The desired chassis would be utilized for both a tank and a cross-country supply vehicle, and a proven caterpillar track system was immediately available from the Holt tractor factory in Austria-Hungary, Germany’s ally.
Josef Vollmer, a senior mechanical engineer with many years’ experience in the automotive industry, took charge of the program. A design was soon approved and construction of a prototype, with wooden armor, commenced. An armored prototype was demonstrated to members of the general staff in May 1917, and 100 chassis were ordered. Only 20 A7V tanks were completed, along with several tracked supply vehicles with folding wooden sides. Because of a shortage of essential materials and some design problems that arose during testing, the first production A7V Kampf wagen was not completed until late October 1917.
Meanwhile, the Germans captured several British Mark IVs, including some of the 378 employed at Cambrai on November 20, 1917. Many were repaired at the central vehicle and tank workshop at Charleroi and pressed into German service. They recruited crews and established an organizational structure.
The Germans initially formed three detachments, each to be equipped with five A7V tanks and manned with five officers and 108 NCOs and men, all experienced volunteers. By mid-1918, six additional detachments had been established, each equipped with five captured Mark IVs. Due to losses, by fall 1918 only one A7V detachment and three with Mark IVs were still operational. Some training was conducted near Berlin but most took place in the field. To fool Belgian spies, A7Vs were disguised as “heavy field kitchens.”
To Allied troops in the trenches, the A7V tank was an impressive machine. It was basically a huge steel box on a chassis with modified Holt tractor caterpillar-track running gear with three suspension bogies. Built at the Daimler factory at Berlin-Marienfelde, it did not resemble the British tanks but was similar in concept to French tanks then in production. Two types were ordered: a male armed with a cannon in front and six machine guns, and a female armed with eight machine guns. Two 100-horsepower Daimler four-cylinder, water-cooled gasoline engines were installed side by side in the midsection, each powering one track. Average speed was 6 miles per hour, with a range of about 25 miles. The commander and driver sat on a platform above the engines, in a turret with folding armored sides 15 millimeters thick. The driver could control the tank by himself, in contrast to the British Mark I to IV tanks, which required four crewmen to execute sharp turns. Weighing in at 30 tons, the A7V had Röchling 20mm armor plate on the sides and 30mm armor on the front and rear. The bottom was not armored and the roof had 7.5mm armor and ventilation louvers made of three layers of slotted steel.
The front compartment accommodated the cannon, ammunition, gunner, loader, and gun captain, an NCO. The limited space presented a problem in selecting the main gun because German field guns were too large and required considerable space for the recoil mechanism. The solution was a 57mm quick-firing gun, with a carriage that did not recoil on firing, originally manufactured in Britain by the Maxim-Nordenfelt company and sold to Belgium in the early 1890s for arming fortresses. The Germans had captured 185 of these guns during the invasion of Belgium in 1914, along with a substantial supply of armor-piercing high explosive shells, ordinary high explosive shells, and case shot for use against personnel.
A temporary trestle-type mount was installed in the first few tanks, eventually to be replaced by a better pedestal mount with an improved recoil mechanism. Machine guns were water-cooled 7.9mm Maxim M1908s on flexible mounts. Other weapons carried included carbines, hand grenades, and a 7.9mm LMG 08/15 machine gun.
The inside of the tank was so noisy that orders had to be shouted or passed along by one of the crew. The commander controlled cannon and machine gun fire using a system of electric light signals: white for “attention,” red for “fire,” and “cease fire” when the lights were turned off. An indicator was also provided so the commander could fire the cannon in a particular direction. The crew used pigeons for communicating with headquarters, and employed flares on the battlefield.
The A7Vs were originally painted field gray but in service were soon repainted in a variety of camouflage designs. They were also usually personalized with names and sometimes insignia, such as the skull and crossbones on the front of tanks in Detachment 1. Tank names, such as Hagen and Wotan, were often from Germanic legends.
The A7V had a crew of at least 18 men, but up to 26 were carried at times, including volunteers from the infantry or artillery. The crew of Elfriede, captured at Villers-Bretonneux, consisted of the following: a second lieutenant, who served as tank commander; vice-sergeant major, second in command; corporal, driver; extra driver; two engine mechanics; a signaler; a gun captain, probably a corporal; two gunners, one serving as loader; and 12 machine gunners.
During 1918, crewmen were issued fire-resistant coveralls impregnated with asbestos, a special padded-leather crash helmet, and a chain-mail facemask to protect against splinters and bullet splash. The coveralls were hot and seldom worn, mainly because crewmen were afraid that if captured they would be recognized as tank men and subjected to retaliation by their captors.
The A7V was superior to British tanks in some respects, but less mobile. Armor covering the A7V’s tracks provided better protection from enemy fire, but also contributed to its most serious fault: its limited ability to cross trenches and shell craters more than 2.5 meters wide. The bottom edge of the side armor was cut back in mid-1918 in an attempt to improve movement over muddy, uneven ground.
Minor modifications were made to each A7V during production and at the tank workshop in Charleroi, including the conversion of female versions to male.
The first A7Vs were deployed in January 1918, when Detachment 1, commanded by a Captain Greiff, arrived at Charleroi. They were inspected by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg on February 27, and later by Crown Prince Wilhelm and General Ludendorff.
The Germans first used tanks to coincide with their great spring offensive of 1918. With Russia knocked out of the war and in the throes of the Bolshevik revolution, they hoped that reinforcements from the eastern front, combined with new tactics, would bring victory before the arrival of U.S. troops proved decisive. At dawn on March 21, Detachment 1, along with a detachment of captured Mark IVs, successfully attacked a section of the British line at St. Quentin.
German tanks continued to be used in both offensive and defensive battles in 1918. For example, 20 captured Mark IVs supported a May 27 assault near Reims, and on May 31, A7Vs of Detachment 2, along with nine captured tanks, attacked near the northwestern suburbs. German tanks were engaged in battles on June 9 and July 15 during the final big German offensive, and on August 31 and October 7 in defensive battles during the German retreat.
The last known use of A7Vs occurred near Cambrai on October 11, when five of them and three Mark IVs counterattacked, rallying the retreating Germans and breaking up the British assault.
Authorities were generally satisfied with the A7V’s performance except for its inability to cross trenches and its shortcomings on rough terrain. The Germans decided to end production of the A7V and produce a new tank with the best features of the A7V and British tanks. Called the A7VU Kampfwagen, it resembled British tanks, weighed 39 tons, and had two 57mm guns in sponsons and four machine guns. One prototype was built and tested in June 1918, and production was ordered, but none were completed before the Armistice on November 11.
The Germans also developed a light tank, the Leichte Kampfwagen I, or LK I, which resembled the British Whippet externally. One prototype was built and demonstrated, but to speed up production a simplified interim design, the LK II, was approved and 580 ordered. Only two were completed before war’s end.
Germans like to think big, as evidenced by one remarkable project, a giant, heavy-breakthrough tank called the Grosskampfwagen or K-Wagen. Two prototypes were under construction when all armament production ceased with the signing of the Armistice.
The Allies, using tanks in numbers during the war’s last year, demonstrated that the proper application of firepower, protection, and mobility could overcome even the strongest defenses. Tanks helped defeat the great German offensive of 1918, and August 8 became the “black day of the German army” when 600 Allied tanks crashed through the enemy lines at Amiens on a 20-mile front, helping break the German will to continue and hastening the end of World War I.
At the end of the war, the eight surviving A7Vs were transferred to Wiesbaden, and at least one was used in Berlin during an uprising. The armored vehicle detachments were disbanded, along with most of the German army and navy, and the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, prohibited Germany from possessing tanks and most other offensive weapons. Five A7Vs were transferred to the new Polish army as part of Allied assistance, and were used in battles with the Russians. They continued in Polish service until scrapped in 1926. Nixe II, captured at Reims, was taken to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and remained on exhibit until sacrificed to a scrap drive.
While most Allied military leaders in the postwar years continued to view tanks mainly as support for infantry, forward-thinking German officers such as Heinz Guderian visualized them playing a much more offensive role. During German rearmament in the 1930s, they organized modern tanks into armored divisions with motorized infantry, in cooperation with close air support, to break through the front. This was the basis of a revolutionary new type of warfare—the blitzkrieg.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue (Vol. 22, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Tanks vs Panzers
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