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A7V tank at Roye on March 21, 1918.

The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux came during the period of the battle of Lys, 24-27 April 1918, but was launched against the British lines in front of Amiens.

The Germans developed a small number of tanks, and used them in this offensive. 13 of their A7V tanks supported the advance, making it one of the biggest uses of German tanks in World War I (the Germans only built 20 tanks in total during the war).

The German attack was preceded by artillery, using both mustard gas and high explosive rounds. The Germans broke through the 8th Division, making a three mile wide gap in the British lines. Villers-Bretonneux fell to the Germans, and the main strategic centre of Amiens was under threat.

General Henry Rawlinson responded by launching an immediate counterattack by two Australian units– the 15th Brigade under General Thomas William Glasgow and the 13th under General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, both previously kept in reserve, though the 13th had suffered in heavy fighting at nearby Dernancourt.

Rawlinson's plan was to use a pincer manouvre, the 15th Brigade attacking north of the town, the 13th south. British troops would support and would also follow through in the gap between the Australians. Artillery support was available, but to achieve surprise, there was no preparatory barrage to soften up the German positions.

The attack took place on the night of 24-25 April 1918. The original time for the operation to start had been 8 pm, but General Thomas William Glasgow argued that it would still be light at this time, with terrible consequences for his men. Glasgow stubbornly insisted for the operation to start at 10.30 pm, eventually settling on 10 pm. The operation began, with German machinegun nests taking some toll on the Australians. A number of charges against machine gun posts helped the Australian advance; in particular, Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier was awarded the Victoria Cross after attacking with grenades. The two brigades swept around Villers Brettoneux, and the Germans retreated, for a while escaping the pocket through a railway cutting. The Australians eventually successfully captured the German positions and pushed the German line back, leaving the German troops in Villers-Bretonneux surrounded and cut off. By the end of the 25 of April, the town had been recaptured and handed back to the villagers.

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The first tank battle

After the Germans took Villers-Bretonneux, the first ever engagement between enemy tanks took place. Three British Mark IV tanks had been dispatched to the Cachy switch line and were to hold it against the Germans. One was a "male" (armed with two 6-pounder (2.24 in, 57 mm) guns and machine guns), under the command of Lieutenant Frank Mitchell. It was only crewed by four of the normal crew of seven as the others had been affected by gas. The other tanks were "females" (armed only with 0.303 in {7.7 mm} machine guns). All were advancing when they encountered a German A7V, commanded by 2nd Lt Wilhelm Biltz.

Biltz's tank fired on the two "female"s, damaging them to the extent that left holes in the hull leaving the crew exposed. Both retreated; in any event, their machine guns were unable to do any damage to the German tank.

Mitchell's "male" Mark IV continued to fire at the A7V while on the move to avoid German artillery fire and the cannon of the German tank. The movement meant Mitchell's gunner had difficulty in aiming the Mark IV's six-pounders. The tanks continued to fire at each other on the move until the Mark IV stopped to allow the gunner a clear shot. He scored three hits, which disabled the German vehicle. The surviving German crew, including Biltz, alighted from the vehicle. Mitchell continued to fire at them as they fled on foot.

The British tank was next faced by two more A7Vs, supported by infantry; fortunately for Mitchell, the two tanks retreated. Mitchell's tank continued to attack the German infantry present, firing case-shot rounds at them. Following this, a group of seven of the new British Whippet tanks arrived. The Whippets attacked the German troops, doing much damage both with their machine guns and by running them down. Mitchell later remarked that when they returned their tracks were covered with blood. Only four of the seven Whippets returned, the rest were destroyed by artillery.

Being the sole tank on the field, and slow moving, the Mark IV now became an obvious target for German artillery. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell's tank retreated, maneouvering to try to avoid the shells. A mortar round eventually disabled the tank's tracks. The crew left the disabled tank, escaping to a British-held trench, much to the surprise of the troops in it.

The German tank was captured by Australian troops. Today, it is the only surviving German World War I tank and it is preserved at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia.

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References and external links

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