On April 18th, 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia fell and the King and his Government fled to London. The country was split between the Axis occupiers; Germany, Italy, and Hungary. Additionally, the Axis powers created pro-Nazi regimes such as the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state controlled by the Germans and Italians.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd in Operation Barbarossa, the Comintern, which was controlled by the Soviet Union, ordered every Communist Party in the occupied countries to start the armed struggle against the Nazi invader. This proclamation was also received in Yugoslavia where the Communist Party of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito started an armed struggle. This first started in Sisak, Croatia where the 1st Partisan Detachment was formed.
At first, the Partisans did not receive any help from the Western Allies because of a strong lobby from the Royal Government which supported the Chetniks. In the beginning, the Chetniks fought against the Germans, but they started collaborating with the Germans against the rising Partisans. The Partisans gained Western support in 1943 after the Tehran Conference when it was decided to support the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian/Montenegrin: Narodnooslobodilačka vojska Jugoslavije/Народноослободилачка војска Југославије) instead of the pro-Royalist Yugoslav Army in the Homeland (Serbian: Југословенска војска у отаџбини), known as the Chetniks. From 1943 to 1945, the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia started receiving help not only from the USSR, but also from the UK, the US, and other Western Allies.
Yugoslav Partisan SOMUAs
The Yugoslav Partisans managed to capture many tanks used by the Germans, most of which were ‘Beutepanzers’, vehicles captured from Germany’s enemies. The captured tanks were mainly French-made, such as the SOMUA S35 or Hotchkiss H39. There were also tanks of Czechoslovak, Italian, and even of Soviet origin.
The captured SOMUAs belonged to the Panzer-Abteilung. 202 and were being used as second-line armor for ‘policing’ and for fighting the Partisan insurgents.
When the French-built tanks fell into Partisan’ hands, only a few were put in service as the majority of the Pzkpfw. 35 S 739(f)’s were either knocked out or they were in critical condition. The tanks that were put were put in service served in the 1st Tank Brigade alongside Light Tank M3A3s and AEC Mk. II armored cars which were given by the British. Their final fate is unknown; they were either lost in combat or scrapped.
The SOMUA S35 was considered to be one of the best tanks of its time when it entered service in 1936. Its armor and gun were significantly better than other comparable vehicles of the period. However, by 1944 it was completely outdated, but the Germans used anything they had in the Balkans; Panzer 38(t)s, Jagdpanzer 38(t)s, Panzer IVs, captured T-34-76s (were sometimes mistaken as Panthers) and others.
The firepower of the SOMUA S35 was no longer sufficient, so it was decided to mount the Ordnance QF 6-pounder gun from a damaged AEC Mk. II armored car instead. That was actually not the only change to the tank. The upper protective plates for the running gear were also removed, revealing the leaf spring suspension.
The modification was done in the workshops of the city of Šibenik (located in Dalmatia, Croatia) which had been liberated in 1944 by the Partisans.
The precise date of the conversion is not known. However, it is known that the gun was mounted during the winter of 1944-1945. After the modification was done, the tank was put into service and served in the 1st Tank Brigade. Some sources also claim that two tanks were modified, not just one, but that is most likely not true.
The turret was extended in order to accommodate the new gun and this new area of the turret also received additional protection. It is unknown if the added protection was composed of armor plates or just whatever steel the workers had on hand. The machine-gun in the turret probably got removed because of the modification. The bottom of the turret also received a modification, but a minor one. A sheet metal strip, which was likely just a rain guard, was added.
The Ordnance QF 6-pounder was the main anti-tank gun of the British Empire. It was mounted on tanks such as the Cromwell and on armored cars such as the AEC Mk. II for example. The gun was not only used by the British, but also by other Allies such as the United States and Canada too. The high muzzle-velocity 57 mm gun was appreciated for its good firepower. The Partisan received the guns from the British, who equipped the Yugoslav troops with AEC armored cars alongside M3A3s.
It is possible that the SA 35 gun got critically damaged so it wasn’t worth it or possible to fix it. When another gun was available, it was mounted in order to get the tank back into the fight – in this case the Ordnance QF 6-pounder from a wrecked armored car.
Another theory is that the Partisans were not satisfied with the tank’s firepower so they just decided to improve this aspect by removing the obsolete gun and mounting a superior British gun.
However, other sources also suggest that the real reason for this conversion could be the lack of ammunition for its original gun, the SA 35.
Pictures that speak little
Unfortunately, except for two photographs showing the modified vehicle in the workshop and fallen on its side in a ditch, nothing is known about the use of this obscure yet interesting vehicle. The turret, even with the front extension, would have probably been extremely cramped. Furthermore, the ammunition capacity for the larger 6-pounder shells would have been limited. However, given the lack of armor in the theater, it could have nonetheless been useful against the third-hand vehicles the Germans deployed.
Illustration of the modified S35 with the 6-Pounder gun. Illustration by Pavel Alexe, based on work by David Bocquelet, funded by our Patreon campaign.
|Dimensions (l-w-h)||5.38 x 2.12 x 2.62 m (17.7 x 6.11, 8.7 in)|
|Total weight, battle ready||19.5 short tons (38,000 lbs)|
|Crew||3 (driver, commander, gunner)|
|Propulsion||Somua V8 petrol, 200 hp|
|Speed (road/off road)||40/32.2 km/h (25/20 mph)|
|Range (road/off road)-fuel||230/130 km (142/80 mi) -510 l|
|Armament||Ordnance Quick Firing 6-Pounder (57mm)|
|Armor||From 20 to 48 mm (0.7-1.8 in)|