Category Archives: Weapons

Battle scars reveal the life of ‘Mephisto’, a WW1 German tank from a century ago



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Mephisto after its capture in France by the Australian 26th Battalion.
Queensland Museum, Author provided

Michael Westaway, Griffith University

What can we possibly learn from the archaeological study of a World War I battle tank? Quite a lot, it turns out, when the attention is devoted to a rare German-built A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank known as Mephisto.

The tank was originally collected as a war trophy by a Queensland based battalion in July 1918, brought to Brisbane the following year and now held by Queensland Museum. One hundred years to the month since its recovery, it is the last of its kind in the world.




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On close inspection it is clear that this metallic monster is in far from pristine condition and covered in battle damage. Mephisto saw a lot of action during the battle for Villers-Bretonneux in northern France a century ago.

The A7V Sturmpanzerwagen Mephisto in transit at the Ipswich Railway Works Museum.
Michael Westaway, Author provided

Investigation of war relic

The story of the tank is now told in a new publication, Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, that recounts its history and technological development, and places it in the context of the so-called “War to end all wars”.

Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, by Greg Czechura and Jeff Hopkins-Weise.
Queensland Museum

Together with our colleagues, we have attempted to reconstruct something of Mephisto’s role in its final battle.

To make sense of various gunshot and shrapnel impacts, the Queensland Police and Ballistic Bomb Blast Unit and the Defence Science & Technology Group (DSTG) provided their technical skills to help explain the damage to the tank.

It became clear that a large amount of small arms fire was thrown at the vehicle in an attempt to halt its advance. There is evidence of very close-quarter fighting, with several attempts to disable the vehicle.

The QP Ballistics team identified a .303 armour piercing round wedged in the armour next to a machine gun port. It seems that a soldier was attempting to disable one of Mephisto’s eight machine guns by shooting its water jacket.

Queensland Police ballistics measuring the trajectory and angle of an armour piercing round fired at one of Mephisto’s eight maxim machine guns.
Michael Westaway, Author provided

A series of well-aimed, short machine gun bursts were fired at one of the tank’s exhaust ports. Much of the damage occurred on the left side of the tank which from reconnaissance photos taken after the battle show the position of the allied trenches located parallel to the tank.

There is also evidence of a larger-calibre weapon that was brought into use against the tank, perhaps a French 37mm weapon, which simply ricocheted off Mephisto’s thick armour.

Large calibre impact strikes on Mephisto, possibly made by a French 35mm gun.
Queensland Museum, Gary Cranitch, Author provided

Further research is required to clarify the exact meaning of the use of this larger-calibre weapon. Initial work by DSTG has reconstructed the angle the tank rested in when it finally became stuck when it ran into a shell crater.

Close combat with a tank

Very close fighting was associated with the vehicle, and the battle damage reveals something of the terror that the defending English soldiers must have endured on the morning of April 24, 1918.

The destruction of the vehicle was revealed by QP bomb blast experts. Two different explosions were recorded in the twisted armour of the forward compartment of the tank.

Historical evidence has suggested that the German crew set off a charge to disable their vehicle, but the primary impact appears to have burst through the roof, the force bending the heavy steel support beams downward.

This blast created something of a chain reaction, and would have generated a temperature of between 3,000℃ and 4,000℃. It initiated a further explosion by igniting any munitions still within the tank.

The perfect impression of one of Mephisto’s own 57mm shells is blasted through the floor plating next to the main forward gun.

In turn, this projectile hit the ground beneath Mephisto, sending shrapnel back up through the plating on the underside of the tank. This generated several impacts in the metal directed back inside the forward compartment.

The damage to the forward compartment of Mephisto can be seen here, taken during the conservation treatment after the 2011 Brisbane floods.
Michael Westaway, Author provided

The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that a fusillade of small arms fire was hurled at Mephisto as it trundled, at speeds never more than 6–8mph (9-13kmh), towards the Allied positions at Villers-Bretonneux and Monument Wood.

As much of the damage is recorded on the left side of the tank it is probable that most of the impacts occurred during this final assault and not at its previous action at St Quentin. The tank sat for three months in No Man’s Land and continued to receive small arms and shrapnel damage while it was disabled.

A lasting legacy of war

A study such as this by no means rewrites our understanding of the conflict, but as the sole surviving A7V, this battered artefact does provide unique insights into the events that took place on the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago.




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Investigating artefacts in this manner transforms them. They become something more than just a curious object from the past, and indeed can emerge as an important, silent witness to historic events.

A tangible object such as Mephisto, in trying to make sense of the battle damage to the vehicle, transcends the insights revealed in the pages of written history.

It highlights the horror of trench warfare and provides first-hand accounts of how the British infantry tried to stop an enemy tank.

Mephisto is a rare and important example of developing military technology in the early 20th century. As the last surviving German tank from the First World War it will once again be on display at Queensland Museum from November 11, 2018.

Side profile view of Mephisto at the 5th Tank Brigade’s Demonstration Ground at Vaux-en-Amienois.
Queensland Museum, Author provided

The ConversationMephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, written by Greg Czechura and Jeff Hopkins-Weise, published by Queensland Museum. Price A$59.95

Michael Westaway, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How an Australian scientist tried to stop the US plan to monopolise the nuclear arms race



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Mark Oliphant in 1939.
From a collection at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Gift of Ms Vivian Wilson 2004

Darren Holden, University of Notre Dame Australia

Australian scientist Mark Oliphant, who helped push the United States to develop the atomic bombs in World War II, also played a major role during the war in attempting to stop the US dominating the UK in any further development of nuclear weapons.

Details of the Adelaide-born physicist’s efforts are included in new research published today in the CSIRO’s Historical Records of Australian Science, based on documents sourced from the UK Cabinet archives.

These archival documents reveal how Oliphant attempted a British rebellion against scientific collaboration with the US that escalated all the way to the top of Britain’s wartime leadership.




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The rise of the physicist

Oliphant (1901-2000) described himself as a “belligerent pacifist” and his humanitarianism and compassion forms an indelible image of the gentle giant of Australian science.

After studying at the University of Adelaide he moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in the UK. Oliphant joined a freewheeling cabal of atomic physicists led by fellow antipodean Ernest Rutherford. He later took up a position at Birmingham University.

But soon the war was to change everything for him.

In late 1938, nuclear fission of uranium was discovered in Berlin and within months the thunderclap of war clattered over Europe. After convincing the Americans of the potential of an atomic bomb in 1941, Oliphant joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 as a leading member of the collaborative British Mission.

At war with secrecy

Oliphant found that wartime secrecy was totally opposite to the usual culture of open science. The US military police opened his mail, and the FBI interrogated him on his casual attitude to rules.

In September 1944 Oliphant complained of his restrictions to the US Army’s no-nonsense military head of the project, General Leslie Groves. Groves was frustrated with progress and gave Oliphant a lecture on war and security.

In doing so, the cabinet documents on Oliphant’s notes show that the normally circumspect Groves also let slip that the US had no intention of honouring an agreement with the British to share atomic technology after the war. Groves stated that even after the war America needed to prepare for an “inevitable war with Russia”.

Oliphant’s notes added:

In this conversation Groves insisted that he spoke for the armed forces and for every thinking man and woman in U.S.A. He said that any effort U.K. might make must be confined to central Canada. He excluded specifically Australia or any other part of the Empire. Every possible source of supply of raw materials would be monopolised and controlled by U.S.A.-U.K.

How to warn the UK?

Oliphant saw weapons development as merely a vehicle on which to carry the potential of almost limitless energy and he was intent on resuming his open research after the war.

He could not risk his mail being opened again. So he headed from Berkeley, California to the British Embassy in Washington to write a secret report to London detailing his conversation with Groves.

Oliphant had a plan. He proposed that, without delay, the entire British Mission leave the Manhattan Project, return to Britain and restart their own programs. In late 1944 he seemingly had traction and the British project, code-named Tube Alloys, was reinvigorated with new plans tabled to construct uranium isotope plants.

Oliphant’s plan escalated up the chain to Lord Cherwell, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s scientific advisor, and to Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the authority on atomic matters inside the British War Cabinet.

James Chadwick, the scientific head of the British Mission, was furious at Oliphant’s cavalier approach and wrote to the British polity arguing that the British Mission must stay in America to complete the task at hand.

Oliphant’s bombast, confidence and directness is famous. As he approached the door of 11 Downing Street (the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer) on January 9, 1945, he was likely optimistic that his meeting with Sir John would result in a decision to follow his new plan.

But Sir John was in a pessimistic mood. There was still a war on, and the allies were being pushed back by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Sir John put a stop to talk of this scientific rebellion, and ordered Oliphant back to America to complete the job.

The atomic bombs fell on Japan in August 1945. World War II soon ended.

The wrecked framework of the Museum of Science and Industry in Hiroshima, Japan, shortly after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, on August 6, 1945.
Shutterstock/Everett Historical

After the war

In mid-1946 the newly formed United Nations debated control of atomic technology and Oliphant was in New York as an Australian advisor. He and other scientists pushed a plan to abolish weapons and throw the science open.

The alternative, the scientists argued, would be an escalation of an arms race. Only openness in science could reduce suspicion between nations.

The US and the Soviet Union almost agreed to the plan. But the Americans refused a Soviet request to first destroy their atomic arsenal and the Soviets refused to allow UN inspections.




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The US passed their Atomic Energy Act in August 1946 which prevented any collaboration on atomic technology. Oliphant’s prophecy came true. But the scientists had made another prophecy: atomic secrets cannot be contained.

As the critical mass of international scientists that had gathered together for war radiated back out around the world, they carried with them the secrets of the atom.

The British restarted their bomb project in 1947 and tested their first weapon in 1952, and the Soviets tested their first bomb in 1949. The US monopoly on atomic weaponry was a fleeting moment.

The ConversationSo the opportunity was lost in 1946 to abolish weapons, and today more than 14,000 nuclear weapons exist, held by nine countries. Even in a post-Cold War world this sword of annihilation hangs by a thread over the head of all us.

Darren Holden, PhD Candidate, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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The Strange Story of the First People to Die From Nuclear Weapons During Peacetime


TIME

The first wartime deaths from nuclear weaponry were vast in number and world-changing in scope. The first peacetime deaths from that same technology were far quieter incidents, free of violence but still illustrative of the awful power of the bomb.

The physicist Louis Slotin was part of the team that figured out how much nuclear material (plutonium and uranium) would be needed for the bombs used at the end of World War II. And as Richard L. Miller explained in his 1986 book Under the Cloud, Slotin wanted to see his work through to the end by accompanying the pilots who dropped the bomb, but he wasn’t given permission. Frustrated, he decided to go on vacation instead and leave his young assistant, Harry Daghlian, to continue his experiments while he was away.

On Aug. 21, 1945, Daghlian was stacking tungsten carbide bricks as a reflector around a plutonium core…

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The Surplus of War


The link below is to an article (with photos) that takes a look at the war weaponry surplus at the conclusion of WWII.

For more visit:
http://mashable.com/2015/08/15/wwii-surplus-vehicles/


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