A reminder of the capture of Mephisto, the names of some of soldiers involved in its recovery can still be on the rear of the tank. Mephisto after capture at the 5th Tank Brigade demonstration ground at Vaux-en-Amienois, near Amiens, on 4 August 1918. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial E02876
The vehicle, now known as Mephisto, was assembled by Daimler-Benz as part of the first A7V production run. Completed A7Vs were assigned in groups of five to one of three armoured units (Kampfwagenabteilungen), with another five held in reserve. This unit (Vehicle 506) was assigned to Abteilung 1: the A7Vs of this unit were identifiable by a skull and crossbones painted on the front armour.
By January 1918, all three detachments were transported from Berlin to a base at Charleroi in Belgium. From here, they were taken by rail to assembly points along the Western Front. A7Vs were first deployed during the German Spring Offensive of March 1918. Vehicle 506, three other A7Vs plus five captured English tanks supported shock troop (Stosstruppen) assaults around St Quentin (the so-called Michael Offensive). Shock troops were infantry specially chosen, trained and armed to lead attacks on enemy positions. The tanks played a relatively minor role in the offensive, although 506 and 501 (later named Gretchen) were used to overcome strong points, such as the Pontchu Redoubt, with excellent results.
The tanks returned to Charleroi for repairs, after which 506 was transferred to Abteilung 3. The name Mephisto was bestowed on Vehicle 506 at this time: most A7Vs were named at some point in their service life. Mythical, legendary or heroic names were particularly popular: Wotan, Siegfreid, Herkules, Cyklop. In addition, 506 also acquired a new overall camouflage colour scheme with Abteilung 1's skull and crossbones unit emblem being painted on its front armour replaced by the name and a picture of the devil (Mephistopheles) running off with a British tank under one arm.
The German Spring Offensive was most successful in the south, where German forces were able to advance more than 60km before the Allies stabilised the front along a line east of Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens. The scene was now set for the next A7V engagement when the Germans attempted to capture the village of Villers-Bretonneux and resume their advance on Amiens in late April. Mephisto and 13 other A7Vs were despatched as infantry support. The tanks were divided into three groups, with Mephisto being one of six tanks assigned to Group 2. The tanks crossed the German front lines, from their starting positions near Marcelcave, on the morning of 24 April 1918. Villers-Bretonneux was captured and the retreating Allied forces were pursued into the Bois d'Aquenne.
The Mephisto's group successfully cleared the British front before advancing on a fortified farm in Monument Wood. Despite temporary engine problems, Mephisto participated in the advance until it was driven into a fresh shell crater where it became firmly stuck. The Germans were unable to recover Mephisto, so it remained stranded here until July 1918, although it is said to have found some use as a German strongpoint. Australian troops of the 26th Battalion AIF (composed mainly of Queenslanders) eventually regained the lost ground, pushing the Allied front line past Mephisto's position during mid-July 1918. As a result, the battalion's commander Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) J.A. Robinson was able to order the capture of Mephisto. The operation was carried out on the night of 22 July 1918 when two vehicles from the British 1st Gun Carrier Company moved forward with artillery support and air cover, and successfully recovered Mephisto despite German attempts to prevent its capture.
Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.