World War 1 History: First Tank Versus Tank Battle
First Use of Tanks
The very first use of tanks in the First World War was by the British during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. Nine of the 32 tanks managed to get across no man's land to the German trenches-- a fete exceeding many critics' expectations. The French employed tanks for the first time on April 16, 1917 during the Nivelle Offensive. The first tank versus tank battle did not occur until April 24, 1918, near the small town of Villers-Bretonneux (vil-AIR BRIH-toh-na). There were two reasons it took so long for such an event to happen:
The Germans, perhaps uncharacteristically, were far behind in tank technology and didn't deploy tanks in the field until March 21, 1918.
- The Germans only produced 20 tanks during the whole war, compared to the Allies who produced about 7,700 tanks of various designs.
The Bigger Picture
In April of 1918, the massive German Spring Offensive that had started in March was still underway. One of their strategic objectives was the city of Amiens (AM-yeh), an important rail and road center and the junction between the British and French armies. By taking Amiens, the Germans hoped to split the Allies in two or, at the least, seriously disrupt their supply lines. As they fought their way toward Amiens, the German forces, including 15 of their A7V tanks, approached the small town of Villers-Bretonneux. If they could punch through the town, they could then gain the high ground from which they could shell Amiens. Defending this area was the British 8th Division, much depleted from earlier fighting, some French Foreign Legionnaires and a detachment of tanks consisting of three Mark IVs (one male armed with cannon and two female armed only with machine guns) and seven Mark A Whippets (armed only with machine guns). The British tanks and artillery lay hidden under camouflage in the woods behind Villers-Bretonneux.
The British Mark IV tank, with its classic lozenge shape, weighed 28 to 29 tons, was almost 26 1/2 feet long, more than 8 feet high and up to 13 1/2 feet wide. It had a crew of seven or eight and came in two versions: the male, with two 6-pounder (57mm) guns mounted on each side and three .303 machine guns, and the female, with just five .303 machine guns. Its top speed was 4 mph.
The British Medium Mark A Whippet weighed 14 tons, was 20 feet long, almost 9 feet wide and 9 feet high. It had a crew of three, four .303 machine guns and a top speed of slightly more than 8 mph.
The German A7V tank weighed 30 to 33 tons, was more than 24 feet long, 10 feet wide and more than 10 feet high. It had a crew of 18, a single 6-pounder (57 mm) gun mounted at the front and six 7.9 mm machine guns. The Germans called it “The Monster”.
German Assault: The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux
During the night between April 23 and 24, the Germans bombarded the area using 1,200 guns, firing high explosive and mustard gas shells. At 7:00 in the morning, they attacked and Villers-Bretonneux soon fell. The German guns then turned on the woods, where the British tanks had been spotted by low-flying planes. The three Mark IVs were ordered to stop the Germans from gaining the high ground. All of the tank crews were affected by the gas and some were incapacitated and had to be left behind. The rest, with burning eyes and lungs climbed into their vehicles. The lone male Mark IV, commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and short two crew members, and the two females crawled out of the woods toward the enemy. They soon encountered three A7Vs and waves of infantry. The closest German tank, the “Nixe”, commanded by 2nd Leutenant Wilhelm Biltz, was 300 yards away.
Tank Versus Tank
Mitchell had his tank zigzag to confound the enemy artillery and one of his gunners started firing his cannon at Biltz' tank. Because of the torn up ground and vibrations, the lumbering Mark IV could not provide a steady platform for the gunners and none of the shots hit. When the German tank returned fire, it was with armor piercing bullets, which caused sparks and splinters of minute fragments to fly about inside the tank. One of the machine gunners was wounded in both legs. Mitchell maneuvered his tank beyond effective machine gun range, and positioned it so the other 6-pounder gunner could try his luck, but the Mark IV was heaving up and down like a ship in rough seas and no shots found their mark. Mitchell also noticed that the two females were withdrawing, having both been hit by shells, their crews now exposed to rifle fire through rents in their armor. Their sole armament of machine guns were of no use against the monstrous “Nixe”. Mitchell's gunner's shots were landing closer to the enemy tank, so Mitchell stopped the tank-- making them a sitting duck for both enemy tanks and artillery-- but the gunner was then able to hit Biltz' tank with three shells, causing it to heel over to one side. The German crew abandoned her and Mitchell's machine gun crew fired into them.
The 6-pounder gunners then switched to case-shot, which scattered like the charge of a shotgun, and poured round after round into the advancing infantry as the other two German tanks, "Siegfried" and "Schnuck", approached. Sensing sure destruction, Mitchell's gunners desperately fired at one of them. The shots missed, but, to their amazement, it slowly started to back away and its companion also turned and retreated. Momentarily victorious, Mitchell and his crew were still in no man's land facing the German assault and were now the sole target for the German artillery.
Mitchell kept his tank moving, crawling actually, zigzagging through no man's land as shells fell all around them. A German plane appeared a hundred feet above and dropped a bomb which exploded sending the front of the tank bounding up into the air. Fortunately, no real damage was done, but a few minutes later, while still frantically maneuvering, the tank slipped into a large crater and became stuck, its engine stopped and its underbelly exposed. In the distance, they could see the German infantry forming up for a fresh attack. As shells came closer and closer, Mitchell's crew managed to get the tank restarted.
Their hopes soared when, to their right, they saw the seven small Whippet tanks roaring at their top speed of nearly 10 mph toward the enemy infantry. When the two forces converged, the Whippets plunged into the infantry, spraying them with machine gun fire and grinding them under their treads. The Germans fled as the Whippets continued their slaughter. When it was all over, only three returned, their tracks dripping with blood and gore; the other four lay burning in the distance. The fate of the missing tanks' crews was not known, but after such slaughter, any who survived their tank's destruction would not have been taken prisoner.
Mitchell continued advancing and approached Villers-Bretonneux. A fourth German tank appeared 1,000 yards away and the two tanks blazed away at each other while continuing to lurch around the battlefield. An artillery shell finally destroyed one of Mitchell's tank treads and the tank could only turn round and round in circles. At this point, Mitchell decided to abandon the fight. They fired off their last remaining shells and escaped through the hatches, making their way to the nearest friendly trench.
Thus ended the world's first tank against tank encounter. For his actions, Frank Mitchell was awarded the Military Cross. During pauses in the battle, the British managed to retrieve Mitchell's tank. Biltz and the crew of the “Nixe”, noticing that its engine was still running, returned and managed to drive it away for two miles before it broke down for good.
Late that night of April 24, the Australian 13th and 15th brigades were ordered into the attack. Though vastly outnumbered by the German defenders, the Australians succeeded in recapturing Villers-Bretonneux the next morning. Amiens was saved.