The fighting near Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918 marked the first engagement between two units of tanks. A team of three British Mark IV landship tanks operating near the southern end of the Bois d’Aquenne, midway between Villers-Bretonneux and Cachy, encountered three German tanks. The newcomers were tall and boxy, with weaponry pointing in all directions. They were the A7V tanks, or Sturmpanzerwagen, and they represented three of the thirteen tanks that the Germans employed in their operations near Villers-Bretonneux. Their performance in this engagement was representative of the A7V’s contribution to the war in general: they contributed little to the fighting as a whole, with technical difficulties proving more damaging than enemy fire. The A7V Sturmpanzerwagen was important, however, despite its many defects; it was not merely Germany’s first operational tank, but also, a vehicle whose design history prefigures many aspects of German tank design before and during World War II.
The A7V was a large and heavy vehicle, comparable with the British landship tanks and the French Schneider and St. Chamond tanks that inspired its creation. It was just over 26 feet in length and 10 in width, making it neither the longest nor the widest tank in this group. In height, however, it exceeded all the rest, reaching approximately 11 feet. Indeed, it was somewhat too high for its width, leaving it susceptible to tipping over; this is precisely what happened to one of the tanks at Villers-Bretonneux. If its roof was too high, its base was too low, turning minor obstacles into major barriers.
As a weapons platform, the A7V seemed formidable. It mounted a single 57mm gun in the front, with six machine guns to cover its flanks: two on each side and two in the rear. Numerically, it outgunned the British and French tanks, but the fields of fire did not fully overlap, leaving several blind spots, especially at the front flanks (at roughly the 11:00 and 1:00 position from the A7V’s perspective). The number of weapons also necessitated a large crew of 18 men. The vehicle was large enough to accommodate such a crew, and then some; in certain cases, as many as 24 men occupied these tanks, with the extra crewmen being available to leave the tank in order to deal with obstacles or to communicate with neighboring units. The ability to leave the tank periodically became crucial in extended action, because the interior space of the vehicle became hot and smoky, with temperatures reaching as high as 140 degrees in the summer.
The A7V was well-protected against frontal attacks, with 30mm of armor plating. The flanks and rear carried 15mm of armor, which still compares well with all of the vehicle’s competitors; indeed, the FT-17 had 16mm of armor, and the St. Chamond had 17mm, while all other models had less. This heavy plating came at a great cost in weight, which reached 73,700 lb. when fully outfitted. Moreover, the front of the tank was disproportionately heavy because of its stronger plating, which exacerbated the tank’s stability challenges. The inclusion of two 100 hp engines compensated in part for the vehicle’s weight, permitting speeds of 8 or even 9 mph. Some sources will include this among the drawbacks of the A7V, but this reflects a contemporary bias shaped by comparison with the tanks of World War II and the present day; by comparison with its own competitors, the A7V is revealed as unusually fast, beating not only the British and French heavy tanks but also the light FT-17. Only the British Whippet tank equaled the A7V’s speed, and none exceeded it.
By the traditional measures of tank performance (armament, armor, and speed), the A7V should have been successful. It was more heavily armed and armored than any of its opponents, and it was faster than all save the Whippet, which it clearly outclassed in armament and armor. It had several defects, however, that negated its advantages. The armament was heavy, but inefficient; the single turret-mounted gun of the little FT-17 gave it a 360 degree field of fire, which the A7V lacked. The A7V shared this flaw with all of the other tanks of World War I, however, and the FT-17 did not have enough time to become decisive in itself. Battlefield mobility was a much more serious shortcoming. Low ground clearance and a propensity for tipping over eroded any speed advantage it had on the uneven ground of the World War I battlefield where the A7V served. As a response to trench warfare in particular, the A7V was a failure.
The experience of World War II would also demonstrate that the classic three characteristics of the tank are not sufficient; production and logistics are also major factors. In 1917, when the A7V was finally being produced, Germany labored under full effect of the British blockade, and it was not possible to build these tanks in anything like suitable quantities. Despite an original order of 100, only 20 actually entered service. With such numbers, they could never be a meaningful force on the battlefield; by contrast, at Cambrai alone the Germans managed to seize about a hundred British tanks. Furthermore, the mechanical unreliability of the tank became a logistical nightmare. Both of these factors would remain relevant during World War II, when Germany built relatively sophisticated tanks capable of outperforming their opponents, but it could never build enough of them to suffice, and in many cases, their complexity left them prone to breakdowns.
The characteristics of the A7V, including its defects, can best be understood in the context of its development. The A7V was a direct response to the challenge posed by British and French tanks, and as such, it was designed to occupy a comparable niche on the battlefield. Its development process lacked the clear objectives that defined the British landship tanks: the ability to cross trenches and the ability to engage and destroy enemy machine gun nests. The British landships were the answer to these challenges as Royal Navy developers saw them, giving the series many of its distinctive characteristics in the process. The Germans did not design their tanks to meet the same challenges; rather, British and French tanks were, themselves, the challenge that they were tasked to meet. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the A7V closely resembled the heavy tanks of 1916 and early 1917, and in fact, its pattern favors the French Schneider and St. Chamond tanks more than the landships with their naval characteristics.
Two other factors shaped the design history of the A7V. The first was its wavering character. The German High Command was not particularly impressed by the performance of enemy tanks prior to the Battle of Cambrai, and it was similarly unimpressed by the early designs that its own developers provided. Accordingly, this project was a relatively low priority, and as it dragged on, the expectations changed, lengthening the process and resulting in a product that was fairly remote from the designers’ original ideas. The other was the effect of the blockade, which offered limited resources for new developments. In another characteristic that would remain true through World War II, German designers sought ways to use their products in multiple capacities. The design team was charged with the creation of a vehicle that could be enclosed in armor and used as a tank, but which could be left unarmored and used to deliver supplies and ammunition to soldiers holding positions across difficult terrain. The chassis, treads and engines would be the same in either case, simplifying production. At the end of the war, several of the transportation vehicles were adapted to carry a pair of anti-aircraft guns instead, and so the A7V also became the first Flakpanzer.
Early concepts for tank-like vehicles existed even before the war, including one that mounted a gun on a turret, but for the first two years of the war, the High Command saw nothing that demanded active support. The British use of tanks at the Somme inspired some in the High Command to investigate tank development more seriously, and the program took the name A7V to reflect the 7th Transport Department (Abteilung 7 Verkehrswesen). The end of 1916 was a time of substantial change in the High Command, with former Chief of Staff Falkenhayn being demoted and Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff taking his place. New projects became possible, but they were subject to the close assessment of the new leadership. In November, the A7V project was permitted to proceed, but one of the terms of the project was the construction of a single vehicle that could serve as an armored fighting vehicle (Panzerkampfwagen) and as a tracked transport vehicle, which would be called an overland vehicle (Überlandwagen). Eventually, the former would be known as the A7V Sturmpanzerwagen, and the latter as the A7V Gelandwagen.
If not for this requirement, the design team, led by Josef Vollmer, might well have adopted the over-and-under track system of the British landship tanks. It was better suited to trench crossing, and eventually, the designers adapted the A7V to resemble the British tanks, but that design, the A7V-U, did not reach production before the war ended. In order to accommodate the needs of the transport vehicle, the development team adopted the smaller tractor-tread system that was also used in French tanks, and which became standard on tanks from World War II to the present. The decision make dual-purpose production possible, but it greatly hindered the tank’s ability to navigate trench systems.
The length of the development process carried with it changes that distorted the original plan. The weight of the vehicle grew substantially in early 1917, when requirements called for armor that could protect the vehicle from cannon fire, not just from machine guns. Then, a year after the program started, the Battle of Cambrai raised the priority of German tank production; it also prompted a change to make all A7V tanks uniform, with one 57mm gun and six machine guns, instead of having “male” and “female” versions like the British. This entailed the refitting of some examples that were nearly finished.
The first A7V tanks were complete by the beginning of 1918, and they saw combat in the German offensives that began in March. The vehicle’s unreliability limited its performance more than any other factor. Then, on April 24, came the duel between three British landship tanks (two female, one male) and three A7V tanks. The German tanks damaged and repelled the two females, but fire from the main gun of the male drove the A7V tanks back. One tipped over because it attempted an evasive maneuver on a stretch of ground too steep for it, while the crewmen of a second tank left their vehicle and escaped on foot. Without support, the third withdrew.
In the end, the A7V had minimal impact on the course of World War I. Furthermore, almost none of its design features would be adopted when the Germans began building tanks again in the 1930s. Its significance stems instead from the design process itself, which would be replicated under the Third Reich, and from its production and maintenance shortcomings, which would also hold true for the German experience in World War II. The A7V was the first German tank, and while its design was discarded, it nevertheless set a pattern that would be important in the next war.
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