WW2 French Heavy Tanks

Char B1 Bis

France (1935-1940), Heavy infantry tank, ~369 built

The B1 Bis is arguably the most famous and popular French tank of the 1940 campaign. A very notable design, featuring thick armor and a combination of anti-tank and anti-infantry firepower with the turreted 47 mm and hull-mounted 75 mm guns, the vehicle has a considerable reputation as the most potent vehicle of the French Army of 1940 and a major headache for the Germans. However, as often with the French military of 1940, the reality is more complex and less glamorous, with the B1 Bis proving to be a troublesome beast to operate, maintain and produce.

B1 Bis “Chambertin” of the 3ème DcR, France, May 1940. Source: EPCA D

Early 1930s: toying with a heavier Char B

A major program of French armor through both the 1920 and 1930s was the Char de Bataille. From four prototypes presented in 1924 – the Char de Bataille FAMH, FCM, SRA and SRB, the Char de Bataille program evolved towards the B1, of which the first prototype, mild steel n°101, was completed by Renault in 1929.

At the time, the B1 was a 25.5 tonnes vehicle with a hull-mounted 75 mm and two turret-mounted machine-guns, and envisioned to have 40 mm of maximum armor Though this was already considerable for the time (and during the development of the B1, the Geneva Conference, which discussed banning tanks over 20 tons, was a major hustle to overcome), a program calling for an even heavier tank was formulated in October of 1930. Three different designs were presented at paper or mock-up stage: the B2 (35 tonnes, 40 mm of armor), B3 (45 tonnes, 50 mm of armor) and BB (50 tonnes, 60 mm of armor). Though studies on those concepts were continued until 1935, none would end up being adopted, or even have a prototype be ordered.

A mock-up of the very odd Char BB. Designed by FCM, this design was to feature two hull-mounted 75 mm guns frontally, and two turrets armed with a 7.5 mm MAC 31 on the top of the hull. Source: Tous les blindés de l’armée française 1914-1940 via Rita status report.

While further studies of those vehicles had been abandoned by 1935, the B1 itself had progressed considerably in the meantime. Now reaching 27 tonnes and with a new APX 1 turret armed with both a 47 mm gun and a 7.5 mm machine gun having replaced the twin machine gun Schneider turret, the tank was in the process of entering production. However, its armor protection of 40 mm was now proving to be weaker than expected for a breakthrough tank. French designers typically compared the protection of their tanks to what French anti-tank gun designs of the time could penetrate to evaluate the protection, and the B1 proved very vulnerable to new anti-tank ordnance by 1934. In that year, France had adopted both the Hotchkiss 25 mm SA 34 field anti-tank gun and the APX 47 mm AC mle 1934 fortification anti-tank gun. The APX design would have little trouble penetrating the B1 even at considerable ranges, and even the light 25 mm Hotchkiss could have been able to go through the 40 mm of armor. A solution was needed quite urgently to upgrade the B1’s armor to the standards which would have been required to survive the modern battlefield.

Up-armoring the B1

The B1 N°101 prototype being trialed with a number of additional weights, such as an FCM 36 turret, in order to test the capacities of a heavier B1, 1935. Source: char-français

The solution which emerged would prove to be very straight-forward: it would simply be to thicken the B1’s armor protection. As early as 1935, tests of higher weight loads were performed on B1 n°101, the first mild steel prototype, which had become somewhat of a “mule” to experiment on. After finding out that the B1 was still viable with a higher weight load, thicker plates were added to the design. The front hull went from 40 to 60 mm of thickness, with this upgrade requiring some changes, notably, the upper front plate had to be angled differently, at 45° instead of 57° on the B1. The sides were up-armored to 55 mm, the rear was 50 mm thick, and the engine deck 25 mm.

In order to keep the tank’s mobility decent, a more powerful version of the engine used on the B1 had to be adopted. Though the engine design was the same overall, it was boosted to produce up to 307 hp instead of 272. The first order for 35 B1 bis did still use the older B1 engine though, and was later given a retrofit kit to upgrade their engines.

The turret was another major difference between the B1 and the B1 Bis. While the B1 used the APX 1, the B1 Bis had the APX 4. While largely based on the APX 1, the APX 4 was, notably, up-armored to 56 mm on all sides, from 40 mm on the original design. The cupola was uparmored to 48 mm, and the roof to 30 mm. This turret’s main armament was the new 47mm SA 35, which offered a higher muzzle velocity and far better anti-tank performances in comparison to the B1’s SA 34. The APX 4 also featured different vision slots on the sides of the turret.

A number of other changes were also made from the experience gathered with the B1. The large towing hook mounted to tow the Schneider supply trailers on the B1 was removed from the B1 Bis, which used a much smaller hook design. The idler wheel’s placement was seemingly changed by a few centimeters, being slightly lower and further back. All these changes to the B1 led to the weight rising by about 4 tonnes, reaching 31.5 tonnes on the B1 Bis.

Orders and beginning of production

The design process of the B1 Bis was straightforward, and a first order of 35 vehicles was placed in October of 1936. This would be enough to equip a battalion with B1 Bis. The B1 Bis was to be manufactured by a large number of different entities. As stipulated by the Estienne Agreements all the way back in the early 1920s, all manufacturers involved in the development of the Char de Bataille, which was supposed to be a common effort not affiliated to a single company, would receive orders to produce the vehicle. This meant that the four companies involved in the Char de Bataille – Renault, Schneider, FCM and FAMH/Saint-Chamond – would all be producing the B1 Bis. In addition to those, the newly formed state-owned armor producer of AMX, formed by the nationalization of Renault’s design bureau, would receive orders for the tank as well, bringing the number of B1 Bis manufacturers to five. The first B1 Bis to be completed, n°201 “France”, would come out of Renault’s facilities in February of 1937 (several months before the last B1 was completed by FCM in July of the same year).



The B1 Bis’ hull was largely retained from the B1 with a few notable changes. It was a quite narrow and elongated design, as a result of being designed with crossing capacities, particularly trenches, in mind. The vehicle had a length of 6.35 m. The tank was 2.58 m wide, 2.79 m high including the turret, and had a ground clearance of 0.48 m. The tank was 8 cm wider than the B1, as a result of thicker side armor and wider tracks. While of similar design, the tracks used on the B1 Bis were 500 mm wide instead of 460 mm.

The B1 Bis’ hull front was composed of 60 mm bolted steel plates. Below the driver’s post and around the center of the gun mount, it was angled at about 42°. The driver’s post itself was angled at around 20°. The plate over the gun mount was angled at around 60° backward. The lower plates were angled at about 48° on the side of the driver’s post and 32° on the side of the gun mount. The most notable feature of the hull front, outside of the 75 mm gun, was the driver’s post. Placed to the vehicle’s left, it was a large armored box which stuck out of the general shape of the hull. This post featured a number of vision devices: two L.710 sights for the 75 mm SA 35 gun, an adjustable slit fitted with a PPL RX 160 episcope at the front, and two vision slits at the sides. The armor plates were 55 mm thick on the sides and 50 mm thick at the rear.

The B1 Bis’ driver post, seen from the right. Source: Ateliers de Construction de Rueil – Services des Etudes – Char B1 Bis – Notice sur la description et l’entretien des matériels

The hull also featured the B1 Bis radio. Able of both receiving and transmitting, it was at first a morse key-only ER 53, but was replaced through production by a far more modern ER 51, able of morse communication at up to 10 km and voice communications at 2-3 km. A crewman was tasked with operating this radio and was also tasked with handing 47 mm shells from the hull racks to the commander.

A view of the B1 Bis’ hull arrangement. Source: char-français

This radio was installed on the crew compartment side of the bulkhead which separated it from the engine compartment. A particularly interesting feature of the B1 and B1 Bis is that a door existed to enter this engine compartment. It led to a small corridor on the right side of the vehicle, which allowed access to the engine, and even the transmission and Naeder steering system, all the way at the back of the hull. The engine used was an upgraded version of the one fitted to the B1, of which the roots go all the way back to the SRA and SRB prototypes of 1924. It produced 307 hp (at 1,900 rpm) and was a 6-cylinder, 140×180 mm, 16,625 cm3, water-cooled petrol engine. The B1’s transmission had 5 forward and 1 reverse speed. The 31,500 kg B1 Bis was slower than the lighter B1, with 25 km/h instead of 28 km/h. The 400 litres fuel tanks arrangement was maintained, which meant that the range was reduced due to the upgraded engine having a higher consumption. Fuel capacity limited the B1 Bis to 6 to 8 hours of autonomy, in comparison to 8 to 10 on the B1. The maximum range of the B1 Bis was of around 160 km, in comparison to 200 km for the B1.

Hull gun: The 75 mm SA 35

The gun mounted on the B1 Bis’ hull was a 75 mm short gun mounted on the right side of the hull, in a mount that allowed an elevation of -15° to +25° degrees, but no lateral traverse. This was unchanged from the B1. The gun was a 75 mm modèle 1929 ABS gun, also sometimes known as the 75 mm SA 35. This gun was designed by the Arsenal de Bourges.

The 75 mm gun was a short design (L/17.1). The shells it fired were 75×241 mm Rimmed, based on the larger 75×350 mm shells fired by the 75 mm mle 1897, the French Army’s standard field gun in WW1 and, to an extent, also WW2.

A reproduction of the B1 Bis’s gun mount on exposition at the MM Park museum, France. Source: Theatrum Belli

Two shells were standard-issue for the 75 mm ABS. The first was the Obus de rupture Mle.1910M (ENG : Rupture Shell model 1910M), which was an armored piercing high-explosive shell. The shell had a weight of 6.4 kg, and contained 90 grams of explosives. It was fired at a muzzle velocity of 220 m/s. It offered an armor penetration of 40 mm at an incidence of 30° and a range of 400 meters. Though this was a respectable performance by the 1930s, it should be noted that this shell was designed to engage fortifications, and not tanks. The traverse-less hull mounting of the 75 mm meant it was generally a poor weapon against armor, except perhaps at close range.

The other shell was the Obus explosif modèle 1915 (ENG: Explosive Shell model 1915), a high-explosive shell. It weighed 5.55 kg, and contained 740 grams of explosive. It was fired at a muzzle velocity of 220 m/s.

Sights provided for the 75 mm gun were two L.710s, which formed prismatic binocular sights. This gave a field of view of 11.5°. Range ladders were provided for up to 1,600 m with HE and 1,560 m for APHE shells.

Two crew members were involved in the operation of the 75 mm gun. To the left of the hull, the driver also assumed the role of gunner, aiming the gun (both laterally by traversing the tank, as he controlled the Naeder traverse system, and vertically) and fire it. Behind the 75 mm gun, seemingly sitting on the floor, as no seat appears to have been provided, was the loader of the gun. The 75 mm shells carried within the hull of the B1 Bis were in slightly lower numbers than on the B1, with 74 shells instead of 80. Typically, 7 rupture/APHE and 67 high-explosive shells would be carried into battle. The theoretical rate of fire of the gun was quite high, at 15 rounds per minute, however, within the constraints of an enclosed armored vehicle with a limited crew (the driver/gunner was quite overtasked, though this was nowhere near as bad as the commander), the rate of fire would be closer to 6 rounds per minute with APHE shells and the first 6 HE shells. After that, as the fuses would have to be inserted into the shells for HE, the rate of fire would decrease to 2 to 4 rounds per minute.

The hull armament also featured a 7.5 mm MAC31E machine gun mounted to the right of the gun, in a fixed mount. The machine gun was invisible from the outside of the tank, and with absolutely no traverse, would have been a weapon of very little use, far more situational and less practical than the coaxial machine gun in the turret.

Diagram of the mount for the hull machine gun on the B1/ B1 Bis. Source: ATF40 forum

The Naeder steering system

The gun mount of the B1 Bis’ 75 mm did not allow for any lateral traverse, meaning aiming the gun horizontally was assured by rotating the hull itself. This required precise traverse to be possible. This was assured by a system called the Naeder, which had been experimented on from the SRB prototype onward.

The Naeder used the engine’s movement to either suck in or out castor oil heated to 80°C, which was used to traverse the hull with great accuracy. The Naeder system consisted of a generator, a receptor which received the movement from the steering wheel, and a distribution system for the castor oil. 23 to 35 litres of castor oil were stored within the radiator of the Naeder, and 12 within the machine itself. The system was operated by an independent steering wheel at the front, handled by the driver, which transmitted the command to the Naeder via a Brampton transmission chain.

Cut-through of the Naeder system. This is taken from the B1 Bis manual, though the machine was identical on the B1. Source: Ateliers de Construction de Rueil – Services des Etudes – Char B1 Bis – Notice sur la description et l’entretien des matériels

The Naeder system had a weight of 400 to 450 kg, depending on the actual model, and was mounted at the rear of the engine compartment.

The Naeder was a quite complex piece of machinery, which was expensive and time-consuming to produce. 1,000 were ordered in 1935, in order to satisfy both the B1 and the B1 Bis, though only 633 would be completed by the time of the fall of France. The Naeder system was not immune to breakdowns, which could often immobilize the whole tank. At the same time, it provided a very accurate traverse for the era, and its bad reputation may have somewhat been overestimated. While, as most complicated pieces of machinery, the system was indeed vulnerable to breakdowns, it appears that the system was purposefully given a bad reputation by the Ministry of War, which wrongly put out the idea that the Naeder was only a temporary solution kept for lack of a better option in order to give the idea that it was inefficient, and not worth copying.

One of, if arguably the worst issue the Naeder had was with crew training and castor oil. The Naeder system indeed used castor oil, however, automotive castor oil was not identical to pharmaceutical castor oil, with the latter being unable to be used properly at 80°C, causing breakdowns. However, this significant difference between automotive and pharmaceutical castor oil was not mentioned at any point in the manuals of the B1 or B1 Bis. While professional crews, which had long-time experience with their machines, had usually been informed of the difference, newly-formed recruit crews were not. This resulted in many emptying drug stores of their castor oil to put into their B1 Bis during the campaign of France, only to cause the system to break down and often bring the whole tank along with it. The Naeder was also criticized for causing excessive fuel consumption, as it required the engine to be turned on in order to operate. This was particularly an issue with newly-formed crews, which were very common in the B1 Bis, as a large quantity of the vehicles produced had been delivered in the months or weeks preceding the campaign of France, and the very complex tank required some extensive training before it could be operated optimally.

Drivetrain, suspension and crossing capabilities

The B1 Bis carried on the hull architecture of the B1, and therefore, its elongated hull design and tracks going around the hull, optimised not for maximum speed, but rather all-terrain and crossing capacities. The suspensions used three large bogies mounted on coil springs, which each contained two smaller bogies with two road wheels. Three independent wheels using leaf springs were featured in front of the bogies, and another one at the rear, the purpose of which was track tensioning. A large frontal pulley also assured the track tensioning.

A view of the B1 Bis’s suspension. Two of the three large bogies are cut so as to allow all elements of the drivetrain to fit on one page. Source: Ateliers de Construction de Rueil – Services des Etudes – Char B1 Bis – Notice sur la description et l’entretien des matériels

This suspension was entirely protected by large side skirts, designed to protect it from mud, firearms and artillery shell splinters. A large central door was featured on the B1 Bis’ right side. It had an enlarged opening radius in comparison to the B1’s, going from 90 to 150 mm. This door would also provide some moderate protection while the crews would evacuate the vehicle, being as thick as the sides of the vehicle at 55 mm, though it would not cover the evacuating personnel’s legs.

The B1 Bis used large, welded track links. There were 63 individual track links per side, with a pitch of 213 mm. These were 500 mm wide, instead of 460 on the B1. Each weighed 18.2 kg. The tank had a ground pressure of 13.9 kg/cm² on solid, horizontal soil, 3.7 kg/cm² on a terrain of medium hardness, and 0.80 kg/cm² on softer soil. The tracks went all around the hull, with large mudguards protecting them at the top of the hull.

The B1 Bis had been designed with crossing capacities in mind, and was identical to the B1 in those regards. It was able to cross a 2.75 m wide trench, or a slope of up to 30°, vertical obstacles up to 0.93 m in height, and ford 1.05 m without preparation.

The APX 4 cast turret

The B1 Bis used an APX 4 cast turret. It was directly based on the APX 1 used on the B1, but incorporated a number of changes.

Schematics of the B1 Bis’ APX 4 turret. Source: Notice du char B1 Bis

A single crewman sat in the turret, the commander. He entered the tank through the side hatch, as did the three other crew members, but the APX 4 turret featured a hatch at the back, meant to allow the removal of the gun. However, it could be opened and then serve as a seat for the commander looking over the turret. This allowed him to observe the battlefield more efficiently, as well as evacuate the tank if needed. In comparison to the APX 1, the APX 4 went up from 40 to 56 mm of armor on all sides, at an angle of 20° on the sides and rear of the turret. The observation cupola was 48 mm thick, while the roof was 30 mm. The turret ring diameter was the same, at 1,022 mm. Under electric rotation, the turret could rotate at 10° per second, and would therefore do a complete rotation in 36 seconds. When rotated by hand, either for fine adjustments or as a backup, a full rotation of the wheel would move the turret by 2.21°; a full 360° rotation would on average be performed in about 60 seconds by a trained and focused commander.

The APX 4’s vision optics can be divided into two: those present within the main turret’s body, and those present in the observation cupola. Within the turret itself were two PPL observation devices, one on each side of the turret, as well as the L.762 sights for the 47 mm gun. The observation cupola was fully rotatable independently from the turret, being rotated by hand, with a full rotation being performed in just 12 seconds on average. It included the most observation devices: a periscopic binocular providing a field of view of 8.91° and a 4x magnification and a PPL RX 160 episcope similar to the one found in the hull giving an horizontal field of view of 68°, and a vertical field of view of +2 and -22°. The last was a vision slit 120 mm wide and 10 mm high, giving a field of view of 114°, and coverable with a 24 mm thick armored shutter when not in use.

Anti-tank firepower: The 47 mm SA 35

The B1 Bis turret’s main armament was the 47 mm SA 35 L/32 main gun. Newly developed by APX, it offered far better performances than the 47 mm SA 34 used on the B1.

The 47 mm SA 35 gun used, in the APX 4 turret, a L.724 sight, with a 4x magnification, a field of view of 11.84°, and range drums of up to 1,600 m for AP shells. The reticle used was first V-shaped, later +-shaped.

A view of the 47 mm SA 35 gun used on the refitted B1 as well as B1 Bis, S35 and second-series D2. Source:

The standard issue shells for the 47 mm SA 35 were the Obus de rupture modèle 1935, and the Obus explosif modèle 1932, both 47×193 mm. At first, 50 would be carried within the tank; from n°306 to 340, the ammunition stowage would accommodate 62 shells, and from n°340 onward, 72 would be carried within the vehicle.

The Obus de Rupture modèle 1935 was an Armor Piercing Capped (APC) shell. It weighed 1.62 kg, and was fired at 660 m/s. German testing of the shell showed an armor penetration of 40 mm at an incidence of 30° and a range of 400 m. This was far superior to the penetration capacities of the SA 34.

The Obus explosif modèle 1932 was a High Explosive (HE) shell. It weighed 1.41 kg, including 142 grams of explosives, and was fired at a muzzle velocity of 590 m/s.

A view of a MAC 31E, the tank version of the MAC 31. This example is fed from the left, with both a right and left-fed existing in the French Army. Source: armesfranç

Secondary armament was provided in the form of a coaxial MAC31 Type E machine gun, the shorter, tank version of the MAC 31 which had been designed for fortification use. It used the new standard French cartridge, the 7.5×54 mm. The MAC31 Type E had a weight of 11.18 kg empty and 18.48 kg with a fully loaded 150-round drum magazine. The machine gun was gas-fed, and had a maximum cyclic rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute. It had a muzzle velocity of 775 m/s. This coaxial machine gun had independent elevation from the main gun. 4,800 7.5 mm rounds were carried within the B1 Bis prior to n°340, and 5,200 from N°340 onward.

How to differentiate a B1 from a B1 Bis

Differentiating the B1 from its later, much more common evolution, the B1 bis, can be somewhat of a hard task. When looking at photos of B1 pre-1940, the difference is particularly easy to make. The B1s feature the SA 34, a shorter gun with a recoil cylinder, while the B1 Bis feature the longer and cylinder-less SA 35. However, as the B1s were refitted with the SA 35 during the Phoney War, identifying them becomes a much harder task. However, some elements can still give it away, but they are typically quite dependent from the angle at which the tank is viewed.

The tracks on the B1 Bis were wider than on the B1, with 500 mm for the Bis and 460 mm for the base model. This, however, is typically quite hard to see. Easier to distinguish is that the mount for the 75 mm gun as well as driver’s post are a lot more distinct from the rest of the front plates in the B1 than in the B1 Bis – mostly as a consequence of the armor being thickened on the Bis model.

A photo of B1 N°111 “Dunkerque” and B1 Bis n°201 “France” (the first B1 Bis completed) at a somewhat similar angle. The gun mount and driver’s post on the B1 stick out from the rest of the hull by a few centimeters, while they are fully integrated for the B1 Bis. Source: char-français

The turrets of the B1 and B1 Bis, while mostly similar, can also be differentiated. The B1 Bis used the APX 4 turret, which mostly was the B1’s APX 1 up-armored to 60 mm, but the vision slots on the side of the turret are quite different. On the APX 1, they stick out from the turret a lot more than on the APX 4, where they appear as little more than small slots.

A view of a B1, N°105 “Strasbourg”, and a B1 Bis, N°396 “Hermitage”. The vision slots are quite different on the APX 1 and APX 4, and provided there is a decent view of the turret side, can give away a B1 from a B1 Bis. Source: char-français

Some other differences also exist, but can typically only be used to differentiate the tank from specific angles. For example, the B1 features a larger rear hook in order to tow the Schneider supply trailer, and it appears the tender wheel is very slightly lower and further back on the B1 Bis, though this is only a question of centimeters.

Slow and complex production

The first B1 Bis was completed by Renault in February 1937. It was numbered as n°201, with the 1XX numbers being taken by the B1s.

The production of the B1 Bis was sluggish, particularly in 1937 and 1938, as production was still setting up. Only 27 B1 Bis were completed in 1937, followed by just 25 in 1938. By September 1939, 84 B1 Bis had been produced in total. Production only really started to rise in 1939, with mobilization efforts seeing more resources pulled into military production. 100 B1 Bis were completed in 1939. Production still proved to be very low in comparison to the mass of tanks ordered At the beginning of the conflict, 350 B1 Bis were already ordered, and 400 more were added in September 1939. In 1940, the number of vehicles produced always remained slightly below the number expected. During one month, 27 were delivered from 41 were expected, for example. March 1940 was the most productive month in the history of B1 Bis production, with 45 examples completed from the 47 expected. Despite France beginning to fall apart in the same month, May was also very productive, with 42 vehicles completed, and overall, the production of the B1 Bis was rising at a respectable pace by the point it was brutally interrupted by German invasion, with the 27 vehicles delivered in June being the last. Overall, around 369 B1 Bis are estimated to have been delivered to the French military. Renault was by far the most productive manufacturer, with 182 B1 Bis, FCM produced 72, FAMH 70, AMX 47 and Schneider a mere 30.

A photomanipulation of Renault’s B1 production chain. Though well known, the fact that this photo is not real, but is instead a photomanipulation made by France’s propaganda services is often ignored. In practice, there was only one assembly chain for B1s in each factory. Source: Tous les blindés de l’armée française 1914-1940

Two photos of the main armor hull during assembly, still lacking most elements such as the hatches and driver post, engine and engine cover, turret, etcetera… Source: char-français

The main reason behind the B1 Bis’ slow production was the high complexity of the tank, and its use of many elements which were typically produced by one manufacturer only but had to be delivered to each of the five assembly chains. The worst offender in that regard was the Naeder steering system, though the APX 4 cast turret was also a major cause of delays.

B1 Bis n°552 on the assembly chains of Renault, June of 1940.It is the latest known B1 Bis, though other tanks bear higher numbers (the highest known being n°859). Source: Char-français

Peacetime service

Due to the sluggish aspect of B1 Bis production prior to the Second World War breaking out, only very few units were outfitted with the B1 Bis at the beginning of hostilities. The first orders for the B1 bis usually comprised 35 vehicles, as each battalion would operate 35 vehicles. The first unit to receive the B1 Bis was the 1st Battalion of 510ème Régiment de Char de Combat (ENG: Combat Tanks Regiment), which was outfitted with its tanks in a period of more than a year, from February of 1937 to March of 1938. Deliveries of the second batch of B1 Bis started in January of 1939, towards the 1st Battalion of the 508ème RCC. Those deliveries were completed in the summer, and deliveries then started towards the 2nd battalion of the 512ème RCC, which was still receiving its tanks by the outbreak of the war, as only 84 B1 Bis were completed by that point. With WW2 starting, the regiments were dissolved, with their battalions being turned into independent units to be integrated into armored divisions in the future: those being the 15ème Bataillon de Char de Combat (ENG: Combat Tank Battalion) for the 1st battalion of the 510th RCC, the 8ème BCC for the 1st battalion of the 508th RCC, and the 28ème BCC for the 2nd battalion of the 512th Regiment.

The B1 Bis’s capacities: An extremely powerful tank…

By the year it was introduced in service in 1937, and even still by 1940, the B1 Bis was a very capable tank when looking simply at its firepower and armor protection.

Armament-wise, the B1 Bis had the most powerful tank gun mounted in any of the serial-produced tanks in French service, the 47 mm SA 35. Besides the B1 Bis itself, there were few vehicles in the world that would prove to be hard targets for it. By 1940, the British were introducing the Matildas, and the Soviets the KV and T-34s, which would have proved mostly invulnerable to the French gun. However, when looking at France’s relevant opponent at the time, Germany, as well as its Italian ally, the 47 mm SA 35 would still prove able to penetrate any vehicle with ease, and was a superior anti-tank gun to what was mounted in tanks such as the Panzer III or 38(t).

The hull-mounted 75 mm gun was also the most powerful infantry support weapon in France’s arsenal save perhaps for the slightly longer 75 mm gun mounted in the very rare FCM 2C super-heavy tanks. Its firepower against fortifications and entrenched positions was considerable.

Looking purely on paper, a B1 Bis combines into one tank and with a crew of four what the German Army would have in two tanks and with a crew of ten, with the combination of the Panzer III and Panzer IV. The B1 Bis’s armor protection was also far superior to those of German tanks of the time. Overall, it was almost invulnerable to German 37 mm guns, and the Panzer IV short 75 mm could occasionally prove a threat, but was neither powerful or accurate enough to be relied upon to knock out the French tank. The major elements of the Wehrmacht which could challenge the B1 Bis were heavier, towed guns – quite famously, the 88 mm Flak guns, notably the 8.8 cm Flak 36, but also 105 mm field guns such as the 10.5 cm leFH 18.

Those theoretical advantages in hard statistics the B1 Bis offered over German tanks of the era, however, paint a far more glamorous reality of the tank than what its operation really was like. Though powerful, the B1 Bis was plagued with a large number of flaws that made it a far from perfect or even great operational vehicle.

… If you’re trained for it

The B1 Bis was a very complex tank for the era, notably due to its combination of different armament system as well as some advanced but complex and not systematically reliable systems, notably the Naeder used for traverse. As a result, it required some extensive crew training to be operated properly. A variety of circumstances resulted in most crews, however, being quite unfamiliar with the vehicle when they had to operate it in combat during the campaign of France.

The first was the inadequacy of French training tank battalions when compared to the complexity of the B1 Bis. By the late 1930s, the standard tank used to initiate conscripts and soldiers to tanks was still the antiquated Renault FT from the First World War. The FT was arguably a decent tank to introduce the crews of two-men light infantry tanks, the likes of the R35/R40, H35/H39 and FCM 36. However, the jump in complexity from the FT to the B1 or B1 Bis was tremendous, with the two machines having little in similarities. Notably, drivers on the FT would be confined to the task of driving, while on the B1 Bis, they would also assume the task of being the gunner of the hull 75 mm gun. The commander on a FT was busier than the driver, but still vastly less so than on the B1 Bis. While FT commanders would spot enemy vehicles and operate the turret armament by themselves, they would also have to command the fire of the 75 mm gun on the B1 Bis. While some training battalions received a very few B1 and B1 Bis tanks during the Phoney War in order to give the crews vehicles much closer to what they would operate, this was done quite late and in small numbers. The 106ème Bataillon d’instruction des chars was created in April 1940 with two B1 and a B1 Bis, and the 108ème the same month with three B1s.

Several Renault FT-31s captured by the German Army in 1940. The type remained widely used by the French military for training, and most tankers which operated the B1 Bis had been initiated to tanks with the old FT. Source: char-français

Another major issue was, simply, that a large quantity of the B1 Bis used in the campaign of France were delivered to their units from a couple months to mere days before they were used during the campaign. In other words, many crews did not even have the time to fully go to the necessarily transitional period that would have been needed to truly get accustomed to the B1 Bis after mainly having been trained on FTs. A US Army attaché to France during the Phoney War had estimated that about six months would be needed to properly train a B1 Bis crew, a time that very few of the operators of the tank had had when they went into combat during the campaign of France.

The results of this poor training were considerable. Notably, poor familiarity with the Naeder steering system had some tragic consequences, with crews not realizing the mechanical castor oil used for the operation of the system did not have the same properties as pharmaceutical castor oil, resulting in the latter sometimes being used in time of need but causing breakdowns that could immobilize the whole vehicle. The very ergonomically discussable configuration of the B1 Bis, with both the commander and driver being utterly overtasked, was an even heavier burden on crews which were not properly trained.

… If you can operate it

Indeed, the commander (typically an officer) assumed in the B1 Bis, though similarly to a large quantity of French tanks, a large quantity of different tasks. The commander was the main spotting force in the vehicle, tasked with identifying enemy targets through the commander’s cupola, as well as making tactical decisions and ordering the crew – a more complicated task than usual due to the presence of an hull-mounted 75 mm gun of which the commander would typically order the firing. At the same time, the commander fully assumed the roles of gunner and loader for the 47 mm SA 35 gun and the machine gun mounted in the turret.

In practice, this meant commanders would regularly have to move position, from looking outside from the cupola to putting themselves behind the gun to load and fire it, while at the same time having to analyze the situation around them and give orders to the hull crew. The difference in comparison to the division of tasks in German Panzer III and IV is more than drastic, and this utter overtasking of the commander had significant consequences on the B1 Bis and its performance. Typically, the awareness of enemy targets and the tactical situation was far worse on French tanks than German one, even if the B1 Bis had the relative privilege of having a radio, something many other French tanks lacked. The operation of the 47 mm SA 35 gun was severely impaired as well. Though in theory, the gun could reach a rate of fire of about fifteen rounds per minute, in practice, it would be much lower – often as little as an abysmal two rounds per minute.

This photo of a destroyed B1 Bis shows the exiguity of the APX 4 turret. The B1 Bis’ poor ergonomics were a major drawback. Source: World War Photos

Though it is almost impossible to equal the overtasking of commanders on the vast majority and French tanks, and particularly the B1 Bis, the driver also assumed a greater variety of tasks than usual in the tank. B1 Bis drivers would not only drive and steer the vehicle, as would usually be expected, but also act as the gunner for the hull-mounted 75 mm SA 35 gun, requiring both more training and giving them a larger range of tasks to accomplish when in combat. The commander would be able to give orders to the driver through both a voice tube, and a set of electric lights codifying simple commands. Though these worked decently, they did not entirely replace the old practice which had been used since the FT: having the commander direct the driver’s steering by foot taps on the shoulders.

The two other hull crew members had somewhat of an easier time, but would typically still require extensive training and be kept busy. Behind the 75 mm gun, the gun’s loader was placed. Officially called a mécanicien aide-pilote (ENG: Mechanic assistant driver), this crew member would also be tasked with trying to repair the engine in case of a potentially repairable breakdown, which would be done through the access corridor without actually leaving the tank. They were also tasked with handing 47 mm shells stored in the hull to the commander. In short, they assumed a variety of roles which would typically be quite occasional but were varied in nature.

The fourth crew member was a radioman, of which the task was limited to operating the B1 Bis’ radio. Though this may seem like a simple task, it should be remembered that the tanks were, at first, fitted with the ER 53 radio, which was only able to communicate through Morse key, typically far more complicated to operate than voice radios, this would require a skilled operator. Only about a hundred B1 Bis were fitted with the ER 53, which was replaced by the more potent ER 51 model 1938, able of voice communications at shorter ranges (two to three kilometers), far more practical for communications between tanks of a platoon or company. Morse key was still retained and could be used for ranges of up to 10 km.

The driver, loader, and radioman were typically all non-commissioned officers. Though the crew of the B1 Bis in operation was four, six to seven crewmen were assigned to the vehicle, with the additional tankers being tasked with helping with maintenance and replacing out-of-action crew members. Some B1 Bis would occasionally carry one of these additional crewmen inside the hull in combat. Though this made the compartment quite cramped, this additional crew member would take on some functions of the loader/assistant driver, typically handing out shells from the hull racks to the commander.

… If you can fuel and maintain it

Not unexpectedly for the heaviest and most complex mass-produced tank of the French Army by 1940, the B1 Bis was quite the high consumer of fuel and required some fairly extensive maintenance work.

The fuel used in the B1 Bis’ engine was 85 octane aviation fuel, reminiscent of the powertrain’s origin as a bisected aircraft engine. It could not run effectively on most other fuels of the French military. Though the availability of the 85 octane fuel was not theoretically a problem in itself, the very poor state of the French logistical services during the 1940 campaign meant that getting fuel to the units often proved hazardous, and a large number of B1 Bis ended up scuttled or left behind in strategic positions after running out of fuel. The B1 Bis had retained the same 400 liters fuel tank as the B1, but with the engine being raised in power to accommodate the additional weight, the consumption raised, with the 400 liters being typically expended in 6 to 8 hours, depending on the conditions of operation. This was quite short, and a solution was to be found in order to allow the B1 Bis to have a better range.

This came in the form of the Lorraine 37L armored supply vehicle. Developed from 1936 onward as part of a call to produce an armored supply tractor for the infantry’s tank, the Lorraine 37L was a fully tracked and armored vehicle that was able to tow a trailer containing 570 liters of fuel, raising the range of the B1 Bis quite considerably. Each company of 10 B1 Bis (with each battalion comprising 3 companies) was to be allocated 6 Lorraine 37L. This was not entirely fulfilled by 1940 though. The 1st and 2nd DcR, the oldest armored divisions of the French infantry, appear to have had a complete or near-complete complement of Lorraine 37Ls, but the newer 3rd and 4th DcR did not.

Two Lorraine 37L with fuel trailers. Sourcel: Panzerserra Bunker

The daily maintenance of the B1 Bis, mostly oiling the various components, such as the transmission, Naeder system, and engine also consumed a number of various oils: 35 liters of castor oil for the engine, 35 liters of that same castor oil for the Naeder system, 60 liters of semi-fluid oil for the gearbox, 2 to 3 liters of thick oil for the radiator, and 15 liters of thick oil for the suspension. Though these oiling operations were performed daily, more complete ones would have to be completed every 150 km. At 300, 600, and 900 kilometers, an extensive emptying and examination of the powertrain would have to be completed. At 1,000 kilometers, the vehicle would have to go through an extensive technical visit. Performing those maintenance operations as planned rarely proved possible in the very fast-paced campaign of France though.

Fists of the DcRs

In operations, the B1 Bis were all to be grouped within the French infantry’s armored divisions – The Division Cuirassée de Réserve or DcR (ENG: Reserve Armored Division, with the reserve being not a description of the units as second-line, but rather of their use as high-value breakthrough divisions to be kept for major offensive or defensive operations). Each DcR would be composed of two battalions of B1 Bis grouped in a half-brigade. Each battalion would feature three companies of 10 tanks, a command tank, and three reserve vehicles. There was an additional command tank for the half-brigade, with the typical complement of B1 Bis in a DcR being 69 or 70 tanks.

Within the DcRs, the half-brigades of B1 Bis would be accompanied by another half-brigade of light tanks – comprising two battalions of H35/H39 light tanks, with 45 tanks and 12 Lorraine 37Ls per battalion. The division would also include a battalion of Chasseurs Portés, which acted as mechanized troops using fairly primitive Lorraine VBCP 38L transports and motorized vehicles. Their artillery would be provided by an artillery regiment part of the division, which included six artillery batteries, comprising a total of 24 105 mm artillery pieces, and an anti-tank battery comprising 8 47 mm SA 37 anti-tank guns, as well as assorted motorized tractors for those batteries. 1 to 2 engineering and transmission companies were also part of the divisions. Overall, the divisions theoretically comprised only about 6,155 men, a far smaller complement than German Panzer-divisions, which had about 13,000. The German divisions also typically had a far larger complement of tanks, with the average being of about 260 and even the less equipped Panzer-Divisions typically had at least 220 tanks at their disposal.

In comparison to the French cavalry’s armored divisions, the DLMs, the DcRs were a fairly new creation, with the French infantry branch having envisioned the use of armored vehicles in large mechanized formations far later than the cavalry, that had been interested in the idea since the late 1920s. The infantry was quite reluctant to stray from the traditional model of the use of tanks in independent battalions reattached to infantry formations for particular operations. As such, the DcRs were all very young units by the time they were thrown into the fray during the campaign of France.

Only the 1st and the 2nd DcRs had their full complement of B1 Bis by 10th May 1940. Both of those divisions had been formed on 16th January 1940. The B1 Bis battalions were the 28th and 37th in the 1st DcR, and the 8th and 15th in the 2nd DcR. As the two fully operational DcRs, they were included in the Dyle-Breda maneuver of the French military aimed at securing Belgium and the Netherlands after those were attacked by the Wehrmacht. This would have been done by entering Belgium towards Charleroi with the 1st DcR going in first and the 2nd DcR second. Ironically, this inclusion of the 1st and 2nd DcR into the Dyle-Breda plan would result in disastrous losses of equipment and personnel.

The 3rd DcR was younger than the 1st and 2nd, having been formed on 20th March 1940. By 10th May, it was still in the last phases of its formation, and its equipment was not complete, with portions of it having been redirected to the 1st and 2nd DcRs in order to get them fully operational faster. Including the H35 and H39s, 138 tanks were in service by 10th May, from an expected total of 160. It appears around 62 B1 Bis were in service in the 3rd DcR’s two battalions equipped with the type, the 41st and 49th, however, many Lorraine 37Ls were yet to be delivered.

The last DcR was the 4th, which vastly differed from the other three in terms of composition. Supposed to begin formation in May of 1940, the division, due to the catastrophic situation of the front, ended up regrouping not only infantry but also cavalry tank battalions as early as its formation began on 15th May 1940. As early as it was created, the division included the B1 Bis-equipped 46th battalion, and the 47th battalion equipped with the type was included in the division on 21st May. Due to availability issues, instead of H35/H39s, the division ended up with three R35-equipped battalions reattached to it – two, the 2nd and 24th battalions, from its inception on 15th May, and a third, the 44th, from 21st May onward. As with the light tank battalions equipped with the H35/H39, each R35 battalion had 45 vehicles. The division also received a company of Renault D2s comprising 14 vehicles and a cuirassiers regiment equipped with 44 Panhard 178 armored cars, as well as a variety of supporting units. This makeshift nature of the 4th DcR, comprising far more tank units and armored vehicle types than the other DcRs, also made it the most numerous in terms of tanks. In theory, it was the only one able to go toe-to-toe with a Panzer-division in terms of the number of personnel and vehicles, though, in practice, not all units would have been fully equipped at the same time as the division was first engaged on 17th May, while several components would only be reattached on the 21st. Under the command of a fairly important proponent of the use of armored vehicles in grouped units, Colonel and later Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, the 4th DcR, even more so than the others, would be used as a “fireman of the front” unit during the campaign.

B1 Bis of the 46ème BCC on maneuvers. The B1 Bis was thought of as the strongest offensive tool of the DcRs. Source: France 3 régions

1ère DcR: Annihilation at Flavion

The 1ère DcR was led by Brigadier General Christian Bruneau, previously commander of the 511ème Régiment de Char de Combat (ENG: 511th Combat Tanks Regiment). This was the first unit to have received the operational B1, all the way in 1935-1936, as well as arguably France’s most prestigious tank unit. Brig. Gen Bruneau was therefore very much suited to command the first of the French infantry’s tank divisions, particularly as the 1ère DcR did include elements from the 511ème RCC, which was dissolved at the outbreak of the war (the 37ème tank battalion and its B1 Bis being a notable example).

The fully outfitted 1ère DcR was, at the outbreak of hostilities, planned to advance into Belgium, towards the city of Charleroi. The quick German breakthrough through the Ardennes led to the unit being redirected, on 14th May, in efforts by the French to try and destroy the bridgehead which had been secured by the Wehrmacht – the 5th and 7th Panzer Division – across the river Meuse at Dinan, in Belgium.

The 1ère DcR, and its two B1 Bis battalions, the 28th and 37th, were engaged, basically alone and with minimal infantry support, against German troops of the two Panzer Divisions on 15th May. The French situation was, from the start, quite abysmal though. Following the general directions which had been issued to the DcR, most of the logistical and notably refueling elements were all the way at the rear of the division and its convoy – which quickly made the situation disastrous, when the high number of refugees fleeing the German advance on the roads made progressing a hard affair. As a result of this, large portions of the division – and of the B1 Bis – found themselves out of fuel, utterly incapable of maneuvering.

German tanks and troops, supported by their aviation, started advancing on the French positions at around 8:30 am. On the front of the 28th Battalion, the most heavily engaged of the division’s two B1 bis battalions, the first German tanks to attack were seen around 8:30. These were vehicles of the 5th Panzer Division, which faced off against the battalion’s 3rd company first. The German vehicles came close to overrunning the battalion in the morning but were eventually forced back after some considerable losses around 11:00 am. Returning at around 12:00 am, forces of the 5th Panzer-Division, supplemented by the 7th, were engaged with the battalion for all afternoon until it retreated around 18:00 pm.

The tanks of the battalion, despite often being immobilized by lack of fuel, fought quite ferociously, and a fair few did claim the destruction of several German vehicles, as well as resisting a large number of hits. B1 Bis n°283 “Sousse” allegedly claimed to have knocked out 3 enemy vehicles with the 47 mm and 4 with the 75 mm before being put out of operation. N°294 “Tamatave” claimed three, while at the same time resisting about a hundred hits, including a 75 mm high explosive shell to the turret. Those respectable individual successes of some tanks, though likely overestimated to an extent, show the battalion fought bravely, but at the same time, it was hopelessly outclassed. During the day of the 15th, it found itself with no support whatsoever from either infantry, artillery, or aviation – while opposing German tanks were supported by all three. German vehicles also vastly outnumbered the French. In one instance, a B1 Bis, n°415 “Quincy”, reported being engaged by about 15 Panzer III and IVs, the crew escaping miraculously despite a broken radiator thanks to a slope which allowed the vehicle to escape for a moment, long enough for the crew to be rescued by another B1 Bis, n°282 “Tunis”.

The destroyed B1 Bis n°294 “Tamatave”. A vehicle destroyed this way is typically the result of it being scuttled by the crew, though it is likely it was already damaged previously. Source: char-français
A beautiful photo of N°415 Quincy. Previously a part of the 49th Battalion as Franchet d’Esperey, it was transferred to the 28th battalion in extremis on 10th May and renamed Quincy. Source: char-français

By the point the 28th Battalion retreated on the evening of the 15th, only 7 of its B1 Bis were still in its hands – the rest having been knocked out or abandoned due to a lack of fuel. Unlike the Germans, which may very well have recovered and repaired knocked out but not irreparably damaged vehicles, there was no hope of ever repairing the lightly damaged tanks that were left back. The 37th battalion did not fare particularly better. Also engaged from about 8:30 am, the battalion was also able to push back German advances with losses in the morning but was forced to retreat in the afternoon – a move in which its three companies found themselves isolated, which turned out disastrous. Under orders of General Bruneau, the 2nd Company tried to launch a counterattack towards the south around 13:30 pm, fearing encirclement. The company faced off against Panzer Regiment 31 of the 5th Panzer Division supported by anti-tank guns, a fight it was vastly outclassed in, and suffered very heavy losses, with the company’s commander, Capitaine Gilbert, killed in action. When orders to retreat came in the afternoon, the battalion’s 3rd company took a wrong path, leading it straight into the front elements of the German 8th Infantry Division. The following fight resulted in all of the company’s surviving tanks being lost, and a large number of personnel, including once again the company’s leader, Capitaine Lehoux. Only the 1st company was able to retreat properly with seven tanks. In a single day, the 37th battalion had lost 23 B1 Bis and was reduced to the same complement as the 28th battalion, 7 tanks. The 1ère DcR’s two H35/H39 battalions did not fare particularly better.

The 28th Battalion’s destroyed n°283 Sousse. The 1ère DcR tanks fought ferociously and were able to inflict non-negligible losses, but the consequences of those were minimal in comparison to the complete destruction of one of France’s most well-equipped armored divisions. Source: char-français

The remaining elements of the division were engaged in the desperate defense of the town of Beaumont on the following day. Both battalions and their remaining 14 B1 Bis – less than half of a battalion at full strength – were basically annihilated in the defense of the town. A few elements (by the 17th, 4 H39s formed all that remained of the former 25th battalion, and were accompanied by a single B1 Bis) continued to fight a fighting retreat on the 17th, but by that point, the 1ère DcR had, basically, ceased to exist as an operational unit. General Bruneau and his headquarters were captured on the 18th.

The 1ère DcR was reformed from the ground up from 31st May onward, with two battalions of R35s and a battalion of B1 Bis, the reformed 28th battalion. This attempt to recreate an armored division to desperately try and fend off the tide of German forces that had now encircled most of the French Army’s best elements and cut them off, never reached the full strength a DcR may normally have. The unit was engaged from 8th to 10th June in delaying fights along the River Oise, to try and allow infantry units on the brink of being overrun to retreat behind French lines and recover. By that point, the unit appears to have had about a dozen B1 Bis, perhaps a little less. Two were lost on 9th June, both due to breakdowns. The rest of the campaign for the makeshift DcR was spent in a fighting retreat all the way to the Loire river and beyond until the armistice put an end to the division’s woes.

B1 Bis n°460 Aumale, a newly manufactured vehicle which was given to the reformed 28th BCC, and ended up abandoned due to a breakdown of the drive sprocket throwing off the right track. Source: char-français

2ème DcR: In the path of the German tide

The 2ème DcR was led by Brigadier General Albert Bruché, who had reached this rank in 1938. The division he commanded was, as the 1ère DcR, fully outfitted by the beginning of hostilities in May 1940. Its B1 Bis battalions were the 8ème and 15ème BCCs.

The division had been kept in reserve at the orders of the French North-Eastern headquarters. After the beginning of operations on 10th May, the division was quickly put into alert and was ordered to move north, towards Belgium, to provide assistance to the troops located in the area. This order was given on 13th May around noon. The division’s movement towards the north would prove to be fatal. In order to move north, the tracked and wheeled elements of the division were separated. The wheeled elements, which included pretty much all reconnaissance and logistical means of the division, would move by road, while the tracked vehicles would move by rail. The consequence of this decision could be summed as dislocating the large division into a myriad of small units which did not have the occasion to reform as a large force due to the very quick advance of German armored elements. The German breakthrough at Sedan on the 13th pushed new orders for the division to reform around the forest of Signy from the 14th onward, but this would not prove successful.

Various elements of the 2ème DcR would be unloaded at a variety of railway stations and put to the disposition of various infantry commanders in order to attempt to stop the German breakthrough and crossing of the Meuse. The 8ème BCC’s elements were first engaged on 15th May. The battalion’s three companies were all unloaded at different stations, which highly complicated the coordination of the unit. The companies all operated in several small towns on the Oise River, such as Vervins, Guise, or La Fère, in order to defend bridges on the river and prevent German crossings. The 1st and 3rd companies were further fragmented, with several tanks being sent on individual missions to defend locations separated from the main force of the company. This isolation led to very high losses for the battalion. In the period between 15th and 18th May, all tanks of the 1st company which had been sent on individual missions, five vehicles, were lost, along with large parts of the 2nd and 3rd battalions as well. The French vehicles would typically face much larger and better-organized numbers of German vehicles belonging to several armored divisions involved in the push towards the French coast.

As for the 15ème BCC, it did not fare particularly better. The 1st and 2nd companies of the battalion were able to operate fairly closely with each other, while the 3rd company was almost entirely separated. On the first day of contact with the enemy, 16th May, the first two companies would lose 6 tanks and be considerably slowed down by poor logistical facilities, resulting in the 2nd company being considerably delayed, as it had to refuel with only a single, hand-operated pump. The two companies continued to operate defensively on bridges on other sectors of the Oise River on the 17th and 18th, constantly being flown over by German aircraft. 12 tanks were operational by the 18th, but the first two companies ended up divided into three elements, which operated with various parts of other units, ending with most of the tanks being lost.

The crew of B1 Bis n°204 “Tunisie”, from the 3rd company of the 15ème BCC, standing in front and on top of their tank, resting. Source: char-français

The 3rd company was first engaged a bit later than other units, appearing to meet German troops for the first time on 17th May. Two of its tanks, “Mistral” and “Tunisie”, were engaged in an operation to clean up the village of Landrecies on the 17th. The vehicles ended up encountering, in the village, a large park of German wheeled vehicles, including Sd.Kfz 221 and 222s, liaison vehicles, and according to some French sources, some Panzer I and Panzer II light tanks. This led to the two French tanks destroying the parked vehicles, of which the numbers vary greatly among the sources – from several dozens to up to two hundred vehicles. This success, one of the various anecdotal but impressive successes achieved by small numbers of B1 Bis during the campaign, does little to change the fact the 15ème BCC disappeared while having little impact: most of its tanks, including Mistral and Tunisie, were lost on 18th and 19th May.

By the morning of 20th May, out of the 62 B1 Bis tanks which had been loaded into railway lines on the 13th, 43 had been destroyed or lost to the enemy, and of the remaining 19, only 10 were in operational conditions. The division’s infantry or Hotchkiss light tanks did not fare better; the division, as a combat force, had been wiped from the map and attempts to restructure it would not be successful. The division’s last elements would be consumed in the harsh fighting retreat that was the rest of the campaign of France.

The wreck of B1 Bis n°265 “Mistral”, burned out after being struck by German anti-tank guns on 19th May 1940, two days after it took part in an attack on a park of German light vehicles. Source: char-français

3ème DcR: Stonne’s butchers and cattle

The 3ème DcR was created in March 1940, whilst the first and second DcRs were created in January. It was not entirely outfitted by May 1940, though it appears its B1 Bis complement was complete.

As the other DcRs, the 3ème started its movement around 13th May, and as the two others, the situation on the front led to the 3ème DcR being dislocated into small groups of tanks tasked with defending individual locations as early as 14th May. It was under the orders of General Flavigny, leading the 21st Army Corps, which had been given command of the 3ème DcR (Flavigny had, interestingly enough, been a major instigator of the creation of armored divisions in France).

The division’s two B1 Bis battalions, the 41ème and 49ème BCC, were engaged in one of the most famous tank battles of the Battle of France, the Battle of Stonne, where French and German troops harshly contested the town of Stonne with one another. Located on the southern flank of the German push towards the English Channel, Stonne was a major location which, if retaken by the French, could allow French troops to threaten the German’s logistical lines and their entire push towards the west.

The most intense phase of the battle was from 15th to 17th May, in which most of the 3ème DcR fought with the 67th Infantry Regiment (though cooperation between the tanks and infantry would more often than not be very lacking) against the German 10th Panzer Division and the 16th and 24th Infantry Divisions. The village’s control would change 17 times during this battle.

It is during the Battle of Stonne that the most well-known feat of the B1 Bis happened. On 16th May, B1 Bis N°337 “Eure”, part of the 1st company of the 41ème BCC, entered the main street of the village, only to find itself facing a column of thirteen German tanks, seemingly German Panzer IVs and Panzer IIIs, at very close range. Using its dual weapons, the French tank targeted the front vehicle of the column with the 47 mm and the rear vehicle with the 75 mm, rendering maneuvers very complicated for the German vehicles. The tank then progressed along the column and knocked out all the German tanks within a few minutes. The frontal armor of the B1 Bis proved invulnerable from the German 75 mm and 37 mm shells. Following this action, “Eure” left the town, knocking out two German anti-tank guns (likely 37 mm PaK 36s) on the way. 140 non-penetrating impacts were found on the tank after the action, underlining the very good armor protection of the B1 Bis for the time. This action gained some considerable fame to the tank’s commander, captain Pierre Billotte, who would later become a politician in the post-war era.

The B1 Bis Eure and its crew prior to the Battle of Stonne. This tank arguably stands as the most famous individual French tank of the campaign. Source: char-français

However, the Battle of Stonne was often nicknamed the “Verdun of 1940”. It saw both the German and French forces suffer some considerable losses, with 24 tanks irreparably destroyed for the Germans, and about thirty for the French, including not only the B1 Bis but also some Hotchkiss tanks as well. However, ultimately, German troops remained in control of Stonne, and the French attempts failed to sever the Wehrmacht’s logistical lines.

The 3ème DcR faced some considerable losses not only during the battle but also during the subsequent retreat, which saw many of its vehicles suffer breakdowns, often leading to them being abandoned. Around 10th June, there were only around 30 B1 Bis left. As the other DcRs, the 3ème fought a long fighting retreat during June, in which it lost a large proportion of its equipment. For example, Bilotte”s B1 Bis “Eure” ended up sabotaged by its own crew on 13th June due to breakdowns in the suspension preventing further movement. As with all DcRs, a non-negligible proportion of the 3ème DcR’s fleet of seemingly fearsome B1 Bis ended up lost in breakdowns.

The “Eure’s” undignified end, sabotaged by its own crew after a breakdown of the drive sprocket immobilized the vehicle. Detonating one’s own tank after a breakdown of a small element immobilized the whole tank ended up as a quite common fate for B1 Bis during the campaign of France. Source: char-français

4ème DcR: De Gaulle’s firemen

The 4ème DcR stands as the most peculiar of the four DcRs France engaged during the 1940 campaign. Unlike the 1ère and 2ème DcR, which were completely outfitted, or the 3ème DcR which at least appeared to have had its entire complement of B1 Bis, the 4ème DcR was only in the process of being formed by the start of the campaign of France. The unit quickly became somewhat of a “fireman of the front”; receiving units that did not at all enter the usual composition of a DcR. As it was first engaged on 17th May, it only had a single B1 Bis battalion, the 46ème BCC, with a second battalion of B1 bis, the 47ème, being added to the division on 21st May.

The division was commanded by Colonel Charles de Gaulle, previously commander of the 507ème RCC before the war, as well as a theorist and proponent of the use of tanks in large, armored formations. His actions as the leader of the 4ème DcR would lead to him being promoted to the rank of General on 25th May, a military title he would bear with pride as the future leader of the Free French Forces after the fall of France.

The 4ème DcR’s first battle was the Battle of Montcornet, on 17th May, in which the division attacked a locality that had been seized by the Germans near the Aisne River. As Stonne for the 3ème DcR, Montcornet was another significant location for the logistics of German tank divisions moving further west, and attacking the town was an attempt to prevent the continuation of the German push to the sea. Though the French forces managed to push quite considerably at Montcornet, they faced some considerable resistance in the form of a large number of anti-tank positions the Germans had set up. In the morning and early afternoon, most of the action was performed by the division’s R35s and D2s, with the B1 Bis being unable to engage deep into the action due to problems finding enough fuel. In the late afternoon and early evening, the tanks were engaged. Two B1 Bis were knocked out by an 88 mm FlaK 36 anti-aircraft gun, and another two by Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. Several suffered breakdowns and could not be recovered. Overall, 24 French tanks were knocked out during the battle (though most were R35s and D2s). Though in terms of human losses, the French suffered less (only 14 killed in action, 9 missing, and 6 wounded in comparison to about 100 German soldiers in total), the material losses were considerable. Despite the 4ème DcR being better organized and cohesive than the other divisions, it lacked aerial and infantry support, which made its vehicles very vulnerable to well-prepared anti-tank defenses.

B1 Bis n°399 “Sampiero Corso” lies, knocked out, on the side of a road, with improvised graves of its crew on the sideway. This tank had become the tank of company commander Bescond after his vehicle, Berry Le Bac, had fallen due to a breakdown. Bescond took the Sampiero Corso as the company command vehicle and had it destroy the Berry Le Bac to avoid capture by German troops. The tank later fell in the early evening of the 17th. A first shot knocked out the drive sprocket and immobilized the tank, before a second shot, 88 or 105 mm in caliber, penetrated in front of the side door, igniting the 75 mm shells and incinerating the crew. Source: char-français

Though the division fought in a number of skirmishes around the Aisne in the following days, the next major battle of the 4ème DcR would be Abbeville. The division was engaged from 28th to 31st May, following a British assault on the previous day. The objective was to manage to link up with the large number of units stuck in the Dunkerque pocket and at least create a safe evacuation route for them.

The B1 Bis’ assault focused first on the village of Huppy on 28th May. The attack, starting in the late afternoon, saw the 47ème BCC’s tanks face off against well-prepared German anti-tank positions. Four tanks were immobilized. French troops managed to seize Huppy, but extending forward, the 47ème BCC encountered two well-placed German 88 mm guns, “Cesar” and “Dora”, which destroyed several B1 Bis.

The offensive continued on the 29th, on the high-place of Mont Caubert, where the two 88 mm guns were located. After a two hours-long exchange of fire in the morning, both guns were knocked out. The B1 Bis continued moving, but were not given any form of infantry support, and their poor quality radios hindered their coordination. Two new German 88 mm guns, “Anton” and “Bertha”, were once again able to stop the French advance. Around noon, several hundreds of German infantrymen charged the heavy tanks, to no avail, as the charge ended in a bloodbath. In the afternoon, the French attacked again with nine B1 Bis, with five ending up being knocked out by the 88 mm guns.

The final B1 Bis offensive, once more consisting of nine vehicles, was performed in the afternoon of the 30th. Though some German anti-aircraft guns were knocked out, the French tanks were once again lacking any effective infantry support and suffered from very poor communications, which made their attacks poorly coordinated. At the end of the day, only four of the nine attacking tanks survived. The division left the front at Abbeville shortly after, leaving its positions to the British 51st Infantry Division. While the division had been able to remain far more organized than the other DcRs, to advance several kilometers into German positions and knock out a number of artillery pieces, it failed to achieve the desired result of a decisive breakthrough against German forces, in no small part due to the inability of French infantry and aviation to properly support their tanks.

The B1 Bis n°423 “Condé”. On 30th May, this vehicle was the only tank still operational within the 47ème BCC. It joined eight tanks of the 46ème in an attack on that day and was knocked out by German 88 mm anti-aircraft guns. Source: char-français

The following weeks saw De Gaulle promoted from the commander of the 4ème DcR to the Undersecretary of War and National Defence in the French Government on 6th June, leaving his functions of commander of the division to Colonel Chaudesolle and General De la Font. After Abbeville, the fate of the 4ème DcR remains similar to the three other divisions. It fought in a long, desperate fighting retreat towards the south, though it managed to remain somewhat more organized and cohesive than the other units.

Autonomous Tank Companies and various other units

Later in the campaign, with the four main tank divisions supposed to operate the B1 Bis either basically nonexistent or in shambles and not necessarily easy to reinforce, a number of typically newly produced B1 Bis were issued to more makeshift and smaller-sized independent units which were engaged in desperate attempts to counter the German tide. These were the 347ème (though it only had 3 B1 Bis, its core being its 10 B1), 348ème and 349ème Compagnie Autonome de Chars de Combat (Eng. Autonomous Combat Tank Companies), formed on 18th May. Another, the 352ème, would be formed on 9th June by separating a company from the 4ème DcR’s 46ème BCC.

The 348ème saw most of its 14 B1 Bis knocked out during the last attempt at Abbeville, in support of British troops, on 4th June. Out of its 14 B1 Bis, only three appear to have survived, the rest being knocked out by German anti-tank guns, mines, or suffering from breakdowns. The 349ème suffered a similar fate, with 5 B1 Bis lost on 4th June, several having already been lost in skirmishes previously. The 352ème, formed much later, suffered a similar fate to the DcRs, fighting in a costly retreat until the end of the campaign.

A number of B1 Bis were, later in the campaign, part of small sections of three, four or five tanks, crewed by whatever crewmen could be gathered, once again fighting in desperate attempts to hold back advancing German forces. On one occasion, one of these units was formed by three turretless tanks, numbers 505, 506 and 507.

German soldiers inspect the abandoned B1 Bis n°505. The vehicle was pressed into service without a turret, nor even a cover for the turret ring which remained wide open. Source: char-français

The B1 Bis in the campaign of France: An analysis

The B1 Bis’ performance during the short campaign of France is a complex subject.

When seeing the vehicle’s combat records, one can hardly claim the B1 Bis was without faults. No tanks in service in the army of one of the belligerents, save perhaps for the British A12 Matilda, could have been able of feats performed by some individual B1 Bis, such as resisting a large number of hits while knocking out a quantity of enemy tanks in a short timespan, as the B1 Bis Eure did at Stonne. The vehicle proved to be, at times, a major headache for German troops, being typically invulnerable to German tank guns. Its firepower was considerable and varied.

At the same time though, a tank as complex, vulnerable to breakdown, and fuel-hungry as the B1 Bis could not reasonably be expected to perform well in an army with poor logistics. The situation of the campaign of France, with French logistical lines being quickly thrown into chaos by a mixture of poor organization and communications, and a very large number of refugees on the roads, meant that more often than not, a mere minor breakdown or fuel shortage would be fatal to the heavy and expensive B1 Bis. And while mighty and powerful, the very poor ergonomics of the tank, combined with the almost systematically lacking coordination with infantry and aviation, meant that B1 Bis were at times very easy targets for the German weapons that could dispose of them, occasionally Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, but much more regularly larger caliber artillery pieces, typically 88 mm anti-aircraft guns but also 105 mm field guns, which could also hope to penetrate or cause high damage to the French heavy tank. Despite its mighty armor and heavy armament, the B1 Bis ended up being no considerable obstacle to Germany’s lightning-fast invasion of France, and while French crews occasionally caused high losses to their adversaries, many of these knocked out vehicles would later be repaired by the Germans – as well as numbers of lightly damaged B1 Bis which would be pressed into service into the Wehrmacht.

It comes as no surprise that the B1 bis suffered very high losses during the campaign of France. An attempt to count the losses places them at 128 B1 Bis lost in combat, and 139 abandoned or scuttled due to breakdowns or fuel shortages. Only 21 vehicles were known to still be operational at the end of the campaign, while 79 had an unknown fate.

In the hands of the occupiers – The B1 Bis in German service

At the end of the campaign, the B1 Bis remaining in the French Army were stored in a variety of facilities, and handed over to the armistice commission and the Wehrmacht. This only comprised a relatively small number of tanks, as the vast majority of the fleet had been lost during the campaign of France. A significant proportion of these lost tanks, sometimes only lightly impaired, would be repaired and put back into operation by the German occupiers, using, notably, Renault’s facilities of Paris-Billancourt. By October 1940, about 161 B1 Bis had been gathered and were operational or in the process of being put back into action. In German nomenclature, the B1 Bis was known as Panzerkampfwagen B2 740(f). They were modified with German FuG radios, and often commander cupolas based on those used on the Panzer III and IV, replacing the original, unopenable commander cupola of the B1 Bis.

The Wehrmacht used the B1 Bis for a variety of roles, for example for the rare 10.5cm leFH 18/3 (Sf) auf Geschützwagen B2(f) self-propelled gun conversion. Most famously, a number of B1 Bis (but also older B1s) were converted into flamethrower tanks, which was done by replacing the hull-mounted 75 mm gun with a flamethrower. Their designation was Flammpanzer B2(f). At least 60 tanks were converted in such a fashion. 12 of those were employed on the Eastern Front, with the others being kept in France and the British Channel Islands. A German unit, Panzer-Abteilung 213, operated only Flammpanzers and standard B1 bis. It comprised 26 unmodified tanks and 10 Flammpanzers. The vehicles were stationed as a garrison on the Channel Islands from May 1942 until the end of the war.

A Flammpanzer B2(f) showcases its flame-throwing capacities. The vehicle retained the 47 mm SA 35 gun, and therefore could typically have more anti-tank capacities than most flamethrower tanks. Seeing as the conversions were performed in 1941-1942 though, the B1 Bis was no longer as powerful as it had been against the tanks fielded by Germany in 1940. Source:

German forces operated B1 Bis on a number of fronts, including, in small numbers, in the Soviet Union. However, the majority of the vehicles remained in France. In total, 125 were still operational in March 1943. During the Liberation of France in 1944, most ended up abandoned or captured by the Free French Forces.

A panel showcasing temporary storage of German Panzer B2(f) seized after the surrender of the Channel Islands in May of 1945. This small archipelago remained a German pocket until the end of the war. The tanks operated by its garrison were very likely the last B1 Bis-type tanks in German hands. Source:

Back in (Free) French hands: capture and salvage of former German B1 Bis tanks

The liberation of France, beginning on 6th June 1944 and intensifying after the breakthrough of Operation Cobra and the fall of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944, saw Germans troops forced to leave most of the country in a hurry to fall back to better defensive positions. At this point, most of the captured B1 Bis were left behind or damaged.

During the uprising which started the Liberation of Paris on 19th August 1944, a B1 Bis was captured by the FFI (Forces Françaises de L’intérieur – ENG: French Forces of the Interior) partisans and put back into action against the German garrison of the city.

The FFI B1 Bis during the liberation of Paris; the vehicle received hand-marked markings of the FFI in order to prevent friendly fire. Source: char-français

On 16th October 1944, in the newly-liberated city of Orleans, a French military regiment was re-created in the form of the 13ème Régiment de Dragons. This regiment was to be composed of three squadrons, each composed of three platoons of five tanks, and all using salvaged pre-1940 tanks. The 1st squadron would use Somua S35s, the 2nd would use the B1 Bis, and the 3rd would use Hotchkiss and Renault light tanks.

The salvaging of the tanks had been organized as early as September of 1944, mere weeks after most of France had been liberated during August. The salvaging was assured by André Gérin of Renault, a veteran of the 28ème BCC who had operated the type. The salvaging teams would search for abandoned vehicles in Normandy. The roads leading to the vehicles would be carefully searched for mines before the abandoned German tanks were towed and placed onto trailers to be driven back to Paris. About forty vehicles were recovered. These were taken to the Somua factories of Saint-Ouen, near Paris, and disassembled in order to find as many components in good condition as possible. 15 operational B1 Bis were refurbished in this fashion and pressed into service with the 13ème Régiment de Dragons, or 13ème RD.

13ème Régiment de Dragons: The B1 Bis’s Swan Song

The B1 Bis of the 13ème Régiment de Dragons were repainted in US Olive Drab paint. The vehicles were typically given hand-painted markings, particularly early ones. These included, most often, allied white stars or Free French crosses of Lorraine.

A B1 Bis of the 13ème RD in front of several vehicles, including a number of S35s and a Loyd Carrier, used by the regiment during the liberation of the German coastal pockets found on the Atlantic. Source: char-français

The 13ème Régiment de Dragons was engaged during operations against remaining German pockets on the French western coast, typically found around U-Boat bases. The unit was notably involved in the liberation of Oleron Island, La Rochelle, and most significantly, the Royan pockets. Though two S35 were knocked out during these operations, no B1 Bis is known to have been damaged in these actions.

The conclusion of the war in Europe in May 1945 did not mean the B1 Bis immediately went out of service. The 13ème RD, with its original equipment, was employed in the occupation of Germany from May 1945 until April 1946, when it was dissolved. In 1946, perhaps for its dissolution, the regiment appears to have returned to its founding city of Orléans. The dissolution of the Regiment on 15th April 1946 saw, coincidently, the removal of the B1 Bis from the French Army’s service.

The 13ème RD’s B1 Bis “Aramis” in 1945, perhaps in Germany. Re-painted in Olive drab and given new markings, in this case, French flags, the B1 Bis were only shortly operated by the French military after the war. In general, pre-1940 armored vehicles were only operated for a few months or a year after the war, though a particular vehicle, the Panhard 178, would see a new model, the Panhard 178B, resume production in 1945. Source: char-français

Surviving Examples

Ten B1 Bis have survived to this day, all being found in either France or Great Britain. It ought to be noted all vehicles surviving have formerly been in German service and incorporate a number of German modifications, even if they are typically showcased in French camouflage.

The British Bovington Tank Museum has one B1 Bis, formerly n°114 of Panzer Abteilung 213 operating in the Channel Islands. The French Saumur tank Museum has three. One, Rhône, is on permanent display within the museum. It has to be noted that ii does not use the typical APX 4 turret, but instead, the Somua S35’s very similar-looking but not identical APX 1-CE. This is likely a modification undertaken by the museum perhaps due to the tank lacking a turret. A second, Rhin, is still in running conditions, and is often showcased at Saumur and also occasionally in Bovington’s Tankfest as well. The third tank was fitted with a demining device and sits in the Museum’s reserves.

The B1 Bis “Rhin” showcasing its running condition at Saumur. The vehicle was fully restored in 2016, in an operation partially funded by gaming company Wargaming, explaining the unhistorical World of Tanks sticker on the vehicle. Source: twitter

Another French museum, the MM Park, possesses three B1 Bis, all in a fairly poor state and awaiting further restoration. Lastly, three B1 Bis are on outdoor display in France: one, Toulal, in Stonne, and two, Héros and Téméraire, at Mourmelon-Le Grand, a major French military base, particularly when it comes to tank regiments.

The B1 Bis on showcase at the French MM Park. The vehicle’s number is unknown. It was formerly used as a target for magnetic mine testing, yet remains in better condition than the two other B1 Bis that sit in this museum’s reserves, awaiting restoration. Source: Theatrum Belli

Conclusion – The most popular French tank?

The B1 Bis has, since the end of the Second World War and the rise in public interest towards tanks, become very likely the most popular French tank of World War Two, and perhaps of all French armor history, marking it one of the other great French tanks, along with the FT or AMX-13. There is indeed a lot to find impressive in the vehicle: its dual gun configuration allowing for optimal anti-armor and anti-infantry firepower condensed into a single armored vehicle was impressive for the time, as was its thick armor able to resist about all German tank guns used in the campaign of France; its unique looks likely factor in as well; and so does the very memorable actions some B1 Bis have been involved in, notably Pierre Billotte’s B1 Bis during the Battle of Stonne.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, peels a lot of the might and quality one may find, at first, in the B1 Bis. Though the vehicle’s firepower was theoretically great, a way overtasked crew made it unable to use it to its full effect, both due to the difficulty of spotting and retaining sight of targets and the slow rate of fire that comes as a consequence of the crew having to perform multiple tasks around the gun. The tank’s armor, though certainly great, was never invincible to 88 or 105 mm rounds, and its reliability made it a very poor vehicle to operate in case of unreliable supply lines. For each B1 Bis that distinguished itself, like the Eure at Stonne or the Mistral and Tunisie at Landrecies, a good dozen laid abandoned at the side of a road due to lack of fuel or a breakdown of a sprocket, radiator, Naeder system, or engine component which could not be replaced. Lastly, the vehicle was a tremendous investment in both time and money, being the conclusion of an about 15-years old program when it entered service in 1937. Being significantly costlier than any other French tank in production by the late 1930s, one could easily argue the B1 Bis was at least somewhat a waste of resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.

The development of the Char de Bataille did not end with the B1 Bis though. In the late 1930s, French engineers continued to work on an improved model, the B1 Ter, which did not go further than the prototype or pre-production stage. All completed or in-completion vehicles disappearing during the war. Even after the war, components of the old B1 Bis, notably around the hull, tracks and suspension, would be used for France’s first new tank produced following the liberation of the country – the ill-fated ARL 44.

An ARL 44 during production. The type stands as the ultimate development of the Char de Bataille program initiated all the way back in 1921, and of which the B1 Bis is the most famous offspring. It would only serve for a few months, plagued by a reliability problem and already being vastly outdated, as a tank designed with close to WW2 principles in a world now entering the Cold War. Source: char-français
Perhaps the most famous B1 Bis, Pierre Billotte’s B1 Bis n°337 “Eure”, 41ème BCC, 3ème DcR, 1940
B1 Bis n°204 “Tunisie”, 15ème BCC, 2ème DcR, 1940.
B1 Bis n°492 “Jean Bart” with an unusual gray camouflage, 28ème BCC, 1ère DcR, 1940
FFI B1 Bis captured from the German garrison and used during the Paris uprising, August 1944
13ème Régiment de Dragons B1 Bis “Crouy”, painted in American Olive Drab with basic allied markings, 1945
B1 Bis n°251 “Fantasque” with an experimental, forest-like camouflage, Versailles Tank School, December 1939
Saumur’s B1 Bis Rhône, currently exposed in France’s largest tank museum
Saumur’s B1 Bis Rhin, used by the museum for technical demonstrations as part of its own carrousel as well as, occasionally, Bovington’s Tankfest.
All illustrations created by David Bocquelet and modified by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe and funded by our Patreon campaign


Char B1 Bis Specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 6.37 x 2.58 x 2.79 m
Ground Clearance 0.48m
Total weight 31,500 kg
Engine Renault 6-cylinders 16,625 cm3, 307 hp at 1,900 rpm petrol
Transmission 5 forward + 1 reverse
Power-to-weight ratio (in hp/ton) 9.5 hp/ton
Ground Pressure 13.9 kg/cm²
Track width 50 cm
Track links 63 per side
Trench crossing 2.75 m
Step 1.18 m
Turning radius 1.20 m
Maximum slope crossing 40.5°
Crew 4 (Commander/gunner/loader, driver/gunner, loader, radio)
Main armament 75 mm SA 35 infantry support gun with 74 shells; 47 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun with 50 shells
Secondary armament 2x MAC 31E 7.5 mm machine gun with 5,250 rounds
Hull Armor 60 mm (front)
55 mm (sides)
50 mm (rear)
Turret armor 56 mm (all sides)
48 mm (cupola)
30 mm (roof)
Radio ER 53
Fuel tanks 400 litres
Range 160 km
Autonomy 6 to 8 hours
Production numbers ~369


Trackstory n°13: Le Char B1, Editions du Barbotin, Pascal Danjou
Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions
GBM N°107 (January-February-March 2014), Histoire & Collections editions, “Les voies difficultueuses du char de bataille”, Stéphane Ferrard
Ateliers de Construction de Rueil – Services des Etudes – Char B1 Bis – Notice sur la description et l’entretien des matériels
Panzer IV vs Char B1 bis: France 1940 (Duel), Steven J. Zaloga, 2011
Panzer Tracts No.19 Beute-Panzerkampfwagen, Thomas L.Jentz & Werner Regenberg, 2007
Journal de Marche de la 1ère Division Cuirassée
Journal de Marche de la 2ème Division Cuirassée
Journal de Marche de la 3ème Division Cuirassée
Journal de Marche de la 4ème Division Cuirassée
Journal de Marche du 28ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 37ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 8ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 15ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 41ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 49ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 46ème BCC
Journal de Marche du 47ème BCC (guns)
Armesfrançaises (MAC 31)

Cold War French Fake Tanks Fake Tanks

Panhard EBR 105 (Fake Tank)

Nation France (1970s)
Fake armored car

The French company of Panhard was and remains perhaps the largest provider of wheeled armored vehicles of the French military ever since the interwar era. The manufacturer of many of France’s most successful armored cars, such as the Panhard 178 or AML, one of the company’s most peculiar armored vehicles for its time was the 8-wheeled Panhard EBR. It was developed as a response to a program initiated as early as March of 1945 by the French Military, looking for a 75 mm armed, high-mobility, long-range wheeled reconnaissance vehicle.

Panhard’s vehicle was adopted in December of 1949 and mass-produced in two major variants all the way up to 1960. Notable for its quite heavy firepower for a wheeled vehicle (particularly the model fitted with the AMX-13’s FL-10 turret, produced from 1954 onward), 8-wheel configuration with two metallic side-wheels being used to improve the vehicle’s cross-terrain capacities (the vehicle using just the 4 front and rear wheels on good terrain), and dual driving post guaranteeing equal speed forward and backward, the EBR served as a mainstay of the French military’s reconnaissance force for most of the Cold War. The vehicle was finally retired in 1985.

In comparison to many other French military vehicles of the era, the EBR was long excluded from most popular video games focusing on armored vehicles, due to those, for a time, almost exclusively including only tracked vehicles. In recent years, though, the progressive diversification of these games, and notably Wargaming’s ‘World of Tanks’ (‘WoT’), has lead to the inclusion of French wheeled vehicles in WoT’s update 1.4, on the 6th of February 2018. As part of that upgrade, six French wheeled vehicles were added to the game; of those, one was Hotchkiss’ EBR prototype, the unlucky competitor to the Panhard EBR in the late 1940s, and two variants of the Panhard EBR: the EBR 90, and the so-called ‘EBR 105’, armed with a 105 mm gun in a turret that has never been seen on the EBR. (The model 1954 EBR, fitted with the FL-10 turret, would also be added a premium at a later date)

A render of Wargaming’s EBR 105. Source: Wargaming

Historical upgrades to the EBR’s firepower

Historically, the Panhard EBR went through two major upgrades to its firepower during its service.

A column of Model 1951 EBRs – the first production model – of France’s 8th Hussars Regiment during military exercises. Source: Char-français

As it first entered service, the EBR was fitted with the 75 mm SA 49 main gun; a medium-velocity 75 mm gun, offering anti-armor performances more along the lines of the 75 mm guns used in vehicles the likes of the Panzer IV during the Second World War – so quite outdated by the 1950s. This gun was fitted in the FL-11, a fairly small oscillating turret, featuring no autoloader but a manual loader instead.

The first concept for improving the EBR’s firepower was straight up giving the vehicle the FL-10 turret used on the AMX-13, which featured the longer 75 mm SA 50 with an autoloader, and was much larger and higher. This concept was first considered in 1951; an EBR prototype first received the FL-10 turret in 1952, and after an order in July of 1953, the first examples would be delivered in the last days of 1954. This model would be known as the EBR model 1954.

An EBR mle 1954 during cross-country exercises. The larger, heavier, and higher FL-10 turret gave the vehicle a much higher silhouette and center of gravity, though the 75 mm SA 50 main gun was vastly more potent than the original 75mm SA 49. Source: char-français

The 75 mm SA 50 offered much more firepower than the SA 49, but the addition of the FL-10 turret made the EBR heavier (from 12.5 to 14.9 tonnes) and higher (from 2.33 to 2.58 m). Therefore, the FL-10 armed model only supplemented the FL-11 armed one, with only about 280 FL-10 equipped EBR manufactured, while about 900 FL-11 equipped ones were produced.

The 1960s saw considerable evolution in anti-tank gun technology, and notably lower-pressure guns firing HEAT projectiles. These new guns could offer performances similar or even superior to older low-velocity guns at a fraction of the weight (albeit typically at a reduced maximum effective range). For the EBR, this resulted in the D.921A gun, the same as on Panhard’s lighter AML being adopted for the FL-11 equipped examples in 1964. With the Panhard EBR being out of production by four years at this point, 650 FL-11 equipped EBR were refitted with the 90 mm gun, and all remaining EBRs equipped with the FL-10 or FL-11 were phased out of service.

A 90 mm-armed Panhard EBR, with the side wheels retracted for road circulation. This model can be quite hard to differentiate with the original model 1951, seeing as the turret is the same and the main guns can be quite similar in length. Source: char-français

No major firepower upgrade appears to have been considered on the EBR following the refitting of the 90 mm D.921A, with the vehicle quickly appearing to be, by most measures, quite obsolete (lacking in NBC protection notably). While a replacement was considered as early as the 1960s in the form of the ERAC, its final development, the AMX-10RC, would only enter service in the late 1970s – leaving the last EBRs soldiering on until 1985 in France.

Wargaming’s EBR 105

In Wargaming’s World of Tanks, the EBR 105 stands as the pinnacle of French wheeled vehicles in the game, as a Tier X; it serves as the conclusion of the branch.

Wargaming’s description of the vehicle is as follows: “A variant of the Panhard EBR armored vehicle with more powerful armament. It featured improved suspension and the two-man GIAT TS 90 turret, upgraded to accommodate a 105 mm gun. The vehicle never saw mass production, nor entered service.

Nothing is mentioned in the way of dates, however, a quick examination of the vehicle would show the vehicle would at least be a late 1970s development, due to its turret being first mounted on an armored vehicle in 1977.

The inaccurately-modeled TS 90 turret

The turret mounted on the EBR 105 is a modified version of the NEXTER TS 90 turret, mounted on the old hull of the EBR.

Introduced by Nexter in 1977, this is a welded two-man turret with a manually loaded 90 mm anti-tank gun in its historical configuration. This fairly light turret (2.5 tonnes with ammunition but without crew) could theoretically be mounted on any vehicle that could accommodate a sufficiently large turret ring as well as weigh at least 7.5 tonnes. In practice, however, it is mounted on the ERC-90 for the French army and export, VBC-90 for the French gendarmerie and Oman, and on the AMX-10 tracked chassis, creating the AMX-10P PAC 90 for export. A variety of other vehicles, such as the Mowag Piranha or even the M113 were modified to mount the turret but never went beyond the prototype stage with it.

A French Army ERC-90, the most common user of the TS 90 turret, in maneuvers near a river. In comparison to Wargaming’s modified model, the smaller dimensions of the actual TS 90 turret are obvious. Source: char-français

However, Wargaming did not straight up take the historical TS 90 turret and mount it on the EBR. This would already be an unhistorical combination; by the time the TS 90 was around, the EBR was on its way out, with its straight-up replacement, the AMX-10RC, beginning to enter service; the sometimes more than 25 years old hulls were worn out by years of intensive use, and there was little will or need to keep using them for long. Wargaming designed its own heavily modified version of it. It is referred to as the ‘Panhard EBR 105’ turret.

In real life, the TS 90 is a two-man turret with a manually loaded 90 mm gun. In this form, it is already quite cramped. Wargaming, however, swapped out the turret’s 90 CN-90 F4 for the older but larger 105 mm D.1504 or CN-105-57 – the 105 mm gun featured, for example, on the Israeli M51 Sherman, the AMX-13-105 or the SK-105 Kürassier. This gun is manually loaded on the EBR 105, however, it ought to be noted that another fake vehicle produced by Wargaming, the Batignolles-Châtillons “Bourrasque” which uses the same modified TS 90 turret, is fed by a two-rounds autoloader.

Wargaming’s 105 mm-armed version of the TS 90 is visibly extended towards the rear, most likely in order to simulate the larger breech. Unlike on the Bourrasque, in which the presence of both an autoloader and the larger breech would likely make the turret extremely cramped, the EBR’s version of the modified TS 90 may be somewhat plausible in terms of internal space; however, this turret having a two-man crew means the commander would also assume the role of loader, for the fairly large 105 mm rounds used by the CN-105-57 – making his task more complex and harder to perform. Historically, there are no known projects aiming to mount a 105 mm gun in the TS 90 turret. Light vehicles contemporary with its development (though they would have to be somewhat heavier to mount such a turret) typically used the TK 105 three-man turret featured in the AMX-10RC. This turret mounts a more modern 105 mm MECA F2 L/48 low-pressure gun, a far more modern gun than the CN-105-57 featured on the fictional EBR 105.

A view inside the TS 90 turret of an ERC-90. Source: World of Tank forums

Weight increase and mysteriously improved engine

Wargaming’s EBR 105 is stated to have a weight of 17 tonnes – whether the vehicle would actually feature such a weight with Wargaming’s fictional version of the TS90 turret is not known. This is, however, a considerable addition of weight onto the EBR, weighing slightly more than 2 tonnes more than the FL-10 equipped model 1954 EBR, and 4.5 tonnes more than the original, FL-11 equipped production model. While Wargaming does mention the vehicle as having a reinforced suspension in its short description, the EBR’s capacity to reasonably operate at such a weight is unknown.

What is almost certainly unimaginable though is that the vehicle received the tremendous upgrade in powerplant Wargaming gave the EBR 105. Historically, all models of the EBR used the Panhard 12H 6000S engine. This 12-cylinder air-cooled engine could produce up to 200 hp at 3,700 rpm, which was sufficient to give the EBR a quite admirable maximum speed for the time. The model 1951 FL-11 equipped model could peak at 105 km/h on a good road, and despite receiving no power plant upgrade, the heavier FL-10 equipped model 1954 was reported to be able to reach this speed as well.

The engine used in Wargaming’s EBR 105 appears to be a development of the original Panhard engine used in the EBR – being referred to as the ‘Panhard 12H 6000 X’, but it has been boosted to an implausible 720 hp. It is unlikely such a powerful engine could be derived from the 12H engine to begin with and combined with the idea that it may be fitted in an EBR hull is stretching the bounds of plausibility to the limit, seeing as this likely would result in a much larger power plant.

Wargaming’s EBR 105 did receive some notable changes to its design. Notably, the rear no longer features any form of driving post, but instead what appears more along the line of an engine compartment, which raises the question of where the vehicle’s fourth crew member, which Wargaming refers to as a ‘radio operator’, would be located. However, the idea that this hull change would be enough to fit such a powerful and likely larger engine is very unlikely (and in any case, nothing suggests the increased size of a largely boosted up version of the EBR’s engine was taken into account when designing the vehicle). This engine gives Wargaming’s vehicle a power-to-weight ratio of 42.35 hp/ton, far higher than the EBR model 1951’s mere 16 hp/ton. However, despite this, Wargaming’s EBR 105 is still appreciably slower than all other EBRs, at ‘merely’ 91 km/h. In general, all that surrounds its automotive capacities and upgrades can be described as quite nonsensical.

A rear view of the early render of the EBR 105; it is substantially different from that of a standard EBR, where the rear is very similar to the front in overall shape. However, it is unlikely this would be enough to accommodate the new 720 hp engine. Source: Ritastatusreport
A view of the general configuration of the EBR (though this is the FL-10 model, this can apply to all): with Wargaming’s vehicle featuring a likely very large engine at the rear, where the fourth crew member would sit is unknown. Source: char-français

Conclusion – Another kitbashed fake tank

The EBR 105 that Wargaming introduced into World of Tanks is obviously a fake vehicle. While it may take inspiration in the fact the EBR was mass-produced with two different turrets and received considerable firepower upgrades during its service life, this does not change the fact that, as it is presented, the vehicle makes little sense. The use of components such as the TS 90 turret would suggest the EBR 105 would have been a late 1970s project, and by that time, the far superior AMX-10RC would have been on its way to replace the EBR – 105 mm-armed or not. This is particularly underlined by the fact a vehicle such as the EBR 105 would have been very close to a complete rebuild; with a new engine, new turret, new hull rear, and reinforced suspension, there would, in the end, be little but the mere shell of the original EBR left, a most likely very costly upgrade.

The EBR 105 is far from the only fake tanks featured in World of Tanks; another French fake vehicle, the ‘Batignolles-Châtillon Bourrasque’, is quite closely linked to it, being a kitbash of the modified TS 90 turret modeled for the EBR 105 and the hull of the BatChat 12t light tank. It can be argued to be somehow even more nonsensical than the EBR 105, combining a modified version of a turret produced from the late 70s onward with a hull on which no developments are known after 1951. In general, WoT, particularly its higher tiers, contains a quantity of fake vehicles: one could, for example, cite most Chinese tank destroyers, or the FV215b, Conqueror Gun Carriage, and Caervanon Action X. As for unhistorical configurations of vehicles that did actually exist, those are legion, though some are more shocking than others; within French vehicles, the famous AMX-40 stands as a notable example.

French army AMX-10RCs preparing for a 14th of July parade in Paris in the late Cold War, with gendarmerie Berliet VXBs may be seen in the background. The existence of the AMX-10RC, which entered service in 1981 and was already at the prototype stage since 1973, makes any kind of significant upgrade of the EBR performed after this date redundant. By this time, the about 30-year old design would still be very much outdated, even with a more powerful engine and a completely new turret. Source: char-français
Wargaming’s mish-mash of EBR parts with an anachronistic, modified TS 90 turret. Illustration by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha, funded by our Patreon campaign.

EBR 105 specifications

Total weight, battle-ready 17 tonnes
Engine 720 hp ‘Panhard 12H 6000 X’
Power-to-weight ratio in hp/tonne 42.35
Top road speed 91 km/h
Turning angle 33°
Main armament 1 x 105 mm D.1504/CN-105-57 main gun (36 rounds)
Rate of fire 5 rounds per minute
Secondary Armament None featured in WoT specifications but possibly the same 7.62 mm AANF1 as on the standard TS90 turret
Turret traverse speed 66 deg/s
Hull Armor 40 mm (front & rear), 16 mm (sides), 20 mm (bottom), 10 mm (roof)
Turret Armor 15 mm (front & mantlet), 10 mm (sides & rear), 8 mm (top)
Total production None


AMX30 Main Battle Tank Enthusiast’s Manual, Haynes editions, M.P Robinson & Thomas Seignon, 2020

Cold War French Fake Tanks Fake Tanks

Batignolles-Châtillon Bourrasque (Fake Tank)

Nation France (1940-70s)
Light tank – None built

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the French company of Batignolles-Châtillon, based in Nantes, on France’s western coast, had several tries at designing tanks for the French army. In the 1930s, the company produced a light infantry tank prototype as well as the DP2 amphibious light tank. After the end of the German occupation of France, the company again produced a light tank for the program which would result in the AMX-13 – this being the Batignolles-Châtillon 12 tons – and, ultimately, created the Batignolles-Châtillon 25 tons, a lightweight medium tank prototype, in the 1950s.

None of Batignolles-Châtillon’s tanks were adopted by any military, with their most notable influence on service French vehicles being experience gained in the 25t project being used for the development of the AMX-30. In recent years, though, Batignolles-Châtillon’s designs (though almost exclusively the post-WW2 ones) have received newfound attention due to the inclusion of first the 25t, and later the 12t, to Wargaming’s popular online game World of Tanks, with the 25t notably being praised for its peculiar gameplay for years.

Wargaming’s care about the historical accuracy of the Batignolles-Châtillon vehicle is, however, very lackluster to say the least, with the recent Bourrasque premium tank being the worst offender – combining real elements of the 12 tons project, of which development ended in September of 1951, with an inaccurately-modeled turret from the 1970s.

World of Tanks fake tank
A view of the Batignolles-Châtillon Bourrasque in the hangar within World of Tanks. Source:

Bourrasque or 12T modèle 1954 ?

In December of 2019, a new premium French light tank was added to Wargaming’s supertest servers. It was then marketed as the “Bat.-Châtillon mle. 54”. After a few minor tweaks, the vehicle, identical in appearance, was added to all servers in May of 2020, under the new name of “Bat.-Châtillon Bourrasque”. This vehicle features a modified version of the GIAT TS90 turret used on vehicles such as the ERC-90 Sagaie, mounted on the hull of a Batignolles-Châtillon competitor to the project which would become the AMX-13.

The 12T modèle 1954 designation which was used at first, while it may seem in accordance with the French army designation system, is absolutely ahistorical. Development did not continue on the Batignolles-Châtillon 12T following the end of its trials in September of 1951, and seeing as AMX’s project ended up being adopted, becoming the AMX-13, continued developments on Batignolles-Châtillon’s hull would have been redundant.

Wargaming’s fake description of the Bourrasque:
“A project of a French tank developed by Batignolles-Châtillon. The vehicle was to receive a two-man turret upgraded to accommodate a 105 mm gun. Existed only in blueprints.”

The Hull: Batignolles-Châtillon 12t

Batignolle-Châtillon 12t hull
The Batignolle-Châtillon 12t hull which was actually manufactured. Though the suspension type it uses is different from Wargaming’s, the 12t hull present in WoT at least exists in blueprints. Source: Char-français

The hull used for Wargaming’s Bourrasque was taken straight from Wargaming’s already existing Bat-Chat 12t. It ought to be noted that, while a prototype of the 12t was manufactured, it does not match the one present in WoT; the 12t prototype used four large road wheels, two return rollers, and a torsion bar suspension.

Wargaming’s hull is instead based on one which existed only on paper, though it was projected both for a light tank and a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. This hull uses seven interleaved road wheels, in a fashion that reveals the considerable German influence on France’s first postwar designs. An idler and drive sprocket are also present, but there are no return rollers; the type of suspension used would most likely be torsion bars.

Bat-Chat 12t in the configuration used in WoT
The Bat-Chat 12t in the configuration used in WoT. This suspension type never left the drawing board. Source: char-français

The TS 90 Turret: Back to the Future

On this hull project, dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wargaming decided to mount an absolutely unrelated turret; the GIAT TS90.

Introduced by GIAT in 1977, this is a welded two-man turret with a manually loaded 90 mm anti-tank gun, in its historical configuration. This fairly light turret (2.5 tons with ammunition but without crew) could theoretically be mounted on any vehicle that could accommodate a sufficiently large turret ring as well as weigh as least 7.5 tons; in practice, it is mounted on the ERC-90 for the French army and export, VBC-90 for the French gendarmerie and Oman, and on the AMX-10, creating the AMX-10P PAC 90 for export. A variety of other vehicles, such as the Mowag Piranha or even the M113, were modified to mount the turret, but never went beyond prototype stage with it.

In itself, the basic characteristics of the TS90 turret would likely make it compatible with a modified Bat-Chat 12t hull, but it is obviously highly anachronistic. The turret, as well as the CN 90F4 anti-tank gun that features as its main armament, were a 1970s development, using technologies that did not exist or were not widely in use at the time when the 12t was developed.

French Army ERC-90s
French Army ERC-90s on maneuvers in the Alps; the ERC-90 remains the most prolific vehicle using the TS90 turret. Source: Char-français

An Inaccurate Turret

However, while the turret Wargaming mounted on their “Bourrasque” is based on the GIAT TS90, it was added to the game in a modified form that obviously favors gameplay over historical accuracy.

In real life, the TS90 is a two-man turret with a manually loaded 90 mm gun. In this form, it is already quite cramped. Wargaming, however, swapped out the turret’s 90 CN-90 F4 for the older but larger 105 mm D.1504 or CN-105-57 – the 105 mm gun featured, for example, on the Israeli M-51 Sherman, the AMX-13-105 or the SK-105 Kürassier. This new gun is fed by a two-round autoloader, the type of which Wargaming did not care to specify. One could note that, while being older in comparison to the TS90 turret, this gun would still have been anachronistic if Wargaming kept the “mle 1954” designation, seeing as it was first introduced in 1957.

Wargaming’s 105 mm-armed version of the TS90 is visibly extended towards the rear, likely to model the 2-round autoloader that features ingame. Though the large turret extension towards the rear would likely be large enough for an autoloader, particularly a small 2-rounds one (though the type of autoloader has never been specified by Wargaming), the larger breech of the 105 mm CN 105-57 in comparison to the 90 mm CN-90 F4 would likely reduce the space available to the crew. Historically, there are no known projects that aimed to mount a 105 mm gun in the TS90 turret. Light vehicles contemporary with its development (though they would have to be somewhat heavier to mount such a turret) typically used the TK 105 three-man turret featured on the AMX-10RC. This turret mounts a more modern 105 mm MECA F2 L/48 low-pressure gun, a far more modern gun than the CN-105-57 featured on the Bourrasque.

view inside the TS90 turret of an ERC-90
A view inside the TS90 turret of an ERC-90. Source: World of Tank forums
Bat-Chat Bourrasque
A side view of the Bat-Chat Bourrasque in WoT; the turret has been extended towards the rear, and the position of the smoke dischargers has been changed accordingly. Source:
French Army ERC-90
French Army ERC-90 Sagaie on parade, Bastille Day 2015. The turret is obviously smaller, with the rear compartment that likely models the autoloader in Wargaming’s turret being absent from the real one. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, Wargaming does not call its turret by TS90 or a variation of this designation, such as TS105; instead, it is called “Panhard EBR S-105”. This likely is linked to the fact that the same fake turret was mounted in another French mish-mash present in WoT, the EBR 105; it misses the fact that Panhard rarely if ever designed turrets, with its vehicles instead using turrets from Fives-Lilles in the early Cold War and GIAT or Nexter after the 1970s.

A Theoretically Identical Weight

Officially, the Bourrasque does not have any specified weight; due to being a premium vehicle, it has a set of components with no need to progress and change some of them, and as such, the weight mechanic present in other WoT vehicles would be useless there. Nonetheless, seeing as we know the specified power of the Bourrasque’s engine as well as its horsepower-to-weight ratio, one can easily deduce the weight of the vehicle.

The Bourrasque has a 310 hp engine (A “Mathis 300-2”; though Mathis is an actual engine producer, no 310 hp model is known to exist, with the closest being either 200 or 500 hp engines), and a power-to-weight ratio of 25.8 hp/ton, giving it a weight of 12.01 tons – almost exactly 12 tons. It ought to be noted that the actual weight of the Batignolles-Châtillon 12t is unknown – even more so for the one using the same hull as Wargaming, seeing as it stayed on paper. However, it is quite likely that, equipped with the FL10 turret, it would have exceeded the requested weight of 12 tons, as did the AMX project that became the AMX-13. Fitted with an enlarged TS90 turret that features a larger 105 mm CN-105-57, it is impossible that the Bourrasque would realistically have a weight of almost perfectly 12 tons. The maximum speed achieved by the Bourrasque in WoT is 62 km/h.

Conclusion: Another Unhistorical Mish-Mash

In short, the Bourrasque featured in World of Tanks can be described as a mish-mash of a late 1940s-early 1950s hull, with a modified late 1970s turret that mounts a late 1950s gun. The historicity of such a combination is non-existent; even the turret and gun are not known to have ever been considered together, and mounting them on the hull of a vehicle that was out of consideration for years by the point they were developed could be described as nonsensical. As for why Wargaming created such a vehicle, while no official answer has been given, one could imagine that a very easy to make vehicle (seeing as both its hull and turret already existed within the game) that uses the name of Bat-Chat, which has quite the reputation in World of Tanks, may have seemed very attractive to Wargaming when they were considering a French high-tier premium tank.

The Bourrasque is far from the first fake vehicle featured in World of Tanks though; many such fabrications are present in the game. One could, for example, cite most Chinese tank destroyers, or the FV215b, Conqueror Gun Carriage and Caervanon Action X. France has not been spared either, with another fake mish-mash in the form of the EBR 105 that uses the same turret as the Bourrasque (though it can be argued as slightly less shocking, seeing as the EBR hull was at least used up to the 1970s and not discarded in 1951) as well as many vehicles been given very much unhistorical components, the famous AMX-40 being a notable example.

The fake marriage of the paper design of the Bat.Chat.12t, the ERC-90’s turret modified with an autoloader and an anachronistic 105 mm gun. Illustration by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha, funded by our Patreon campaign.


Total weight, battle-ready 12.2 tonnes
Crew 3 (Driver, Gunner, Commander)
Propulsion 310 hp “Mathis 300-2”
Top road speed 62 km/h
Power-to-weight ratio in hp/tonne 25.8
Armament 105 mm D.1504/CN-105-57 main gun with a two-round autoloader (36 rounds)
Rate of fire 5 rounds per minute
Secondary Armament None featured in WoT specifications but possibly the same 7.62 mm AANF1 as on the standard TS90 turret
Hull Armor 20 mm (upper front)
40 mm (front)
30 & 20 mm (Iower front)
20 mm (sides & rear)
10 mm (bottom)
Turret Armor 15 mm (front & mantlet)
10 mm (sides & rear)
8 mm (top)
Turret rotation speed 55°/second
Total production None


AMX30 Main Battle Tank Enthusiast’s Manual, Haynes editions, M.P Robinson & Thomas Seignon, 2020

WW2 French Prototypes

Batignolles-Châtillon light infantry tank

Nation Flag IconFrance (1934-1936)
Light tank design – 1 prototype built

The armored force of France’s infantry, typically better funded and larger than the cavalry’s, had, during most of the interwar years, the WW1-era Renault FT, the most produced and arguably most successful tank of the First World War (at least, without a doubt, from the French side). An innovative light tank, the FT was produced in massive numbers and, with the adoption of new tanks being slowed down considerably after the end of the Great War, it proved to be the most suitable vehicle for the French military to settle on. By the 1930s though, the old FT had grown obsolete, and timid attempts to produce some somewhat heavier FT-based vehicles had resulted in the NC and D1, which were not built in numbers sufficient to replace or even substantially supplement the FT.

The 1933 light tank specifications

Anticipating a replacement for the FT would soon be requested by the French military, Hotchkiss offered, in June of 1933, their preliminary design for a light infantry tank – by that point a turretless, machine-gun-armed project. Hotchkiss’s proposal ended up as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the French army to establish requirements for a new light infantry tank to replace the FT.

Renault FT light tanks on a parade
Renault FT light tanks on a parade, likely on the 14th of July, in the interwar years. Source: char-français

Those new requirements were finalized on the 2nd August 1933. Though their formulation was a result of Hotchkiss’s proposal, they would be sent far and wide to French industrialists, with up to 14 different manufacturers working on a design, including some with little to no past experience. Indeed, the role of replacement of the FT, the French Army’s workhorse, would logically lead to massive contracts, as this was no irrelevant vehicle to replace.

The specifications sent to the various manufacturers were quite detailed, with performance requirements in a number of different aspects. The tank was to weigh 6 tonnes, feature a crew of two, and be armed with either one or two 7.5 mm machine-guns, or a 37 mm cannon. The maximum speed should be of 15 to 20 km/h, the armor 30 mm thick, and the vehicle should be able to run for 8 hours and at least 40 km. A large number of mobility requirements were also made, such as being able to climb a 65% slope, be stable laterally on a 60% one, or cross a 1.70 m wide-trench or ford water 1.20 m deep, among others. Generally, the requirements called for a vehicle very similar to the FT in role and capacities – merely updated to take into account some more modern features.

Batignolle-Châtillon enters in the fray

One of the manufacturers which offered a design for the specifications was Batignolles-Châtillon. A subsidiary of the larger Batignolles, Batignolles-Châtillon was installed in Nantes, western France. Formed in 1917 as the Compagnie générale de construction de locomotives Batignolles-Châtillon (Eng: General Locomotive Manufacturing Company Batignolles-Châtillon), the company’s products were mostly linked to locomotive and wagon manufacturing, but already included some military aspects, such as the carriages of railway artillery pieces.

370 mm modèle 1915 artillery piece
A 370 mm modèle 1915 artillery piece on a Batignolles carriage. Source: Railway Artillery: A Report on the Characteristics, Scope of Utility, Etc., of Railway Artillery, Volume II via Wikimedia Commons

The first ‘Bat-Chat’

During the mid 1930s, Batignolles-Châtillon expanded its operation to include armored vehicles manufacturing, which is not particularly surprising from a locomotive manufacturer. Proposing a vehicle for the 1933 program was an important aspect of this foray into armored vehicles manufacturing, though it was not the only attempt. The company also simultaneously designed an amphibious tank design, the DP2.

As with most manufacturers, Batignolles-Châtillon offered a plan in 1934. A prototype was ordered to the company, which is quite notable. Only five manufacturers got to the prototype manufacturing stage, with the other four, APX, Renault, Hotchkiss, and FCM, being involved in military affairs to a greater extent and since an earlier point than Batignolles-Châtillon. Batignolles-Châtillon’s light infantry tank prototype would be completed in the early spring of 1935 and delivered to the trials commission of Vincennes on the 5th of April that year.

The Batignolles-Châtillon design weighed in at 11.76 tonnes at the prototype stage. It was notable for some of its construction principles, as the vehicle combined cast construction for its turret and riveted construction for the hull. It was the only prototype produced as a result of the 1933 program to use riveted construction. Despite this combination of casting and riveting, the Batignolles-Châtillon prototype is overall more reminiscent of the fully welded FCM design rather than the cast APX, Renault, and Hotchkiss vehicles.

A front 3/4 view of the Batignolles-Châtillon
A front 3/4 view of the Batignolles-Châtillon vehicle, from the trials at Vincennes; source: Archives de la Direction Générale de l’Armement of Châtellerault, via char-français

Hull design and construction

The Batignolles-Châtillon’s hull was notable due to its riveted construction. It featured front plates quite considerably angled backward, particularly for the lower hull and front sides. This front lower hull featured two doors from which the driver, sitting in the hull, would enter or leave the vehicle. The upper front hull featured two vision ports, one behind bulletproof glass and another behind a perhaps more solid steel cover. Vision ports under glass were also found on each of the front sides of the hull.

The vehicle’s hull got quite narrower behind the crew compartment, with the engine having a fairly diminutive size. The radiator was located at the rear, with the exhaust on the somewhat angled rear plates. Overall, and unsurprisingly for a riveted design, the hull used very angular shapes, making it comparable to the FCM 36 in this regard, though the Batignolles-Châtillon arguably made use of steeper angles. The precise dimensions of the hull are unknown, and in general little precise data has emerged from Batignolles-Châtillon’s light tank prototype. The armor thickness itself is also not known, though 40 mm (to meet the expected requirements that were updated in 1934) all-around were likely, and realistic considering the vehicle’s weight. The armor of the hull behind the suspension and on top would naturally have been lighter – if compared to other French vehicles of similar role and weight, likely in the 15 – 25 mm range.

A side view of the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank
A side view of the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank, with side skirts mounted. The narrower construction of the hull behind the crew compartment is obvious. Source: Archives de la Direction Générale de l’Armement of Châtellerault, via char-français

Powerplant and suspension

The Batignolles-Châtillon vehicle’s power plant was a 66 hp Unic diesel engine. There are few additional details available, however, this is a quite weak engine for such a heavy vehicle. With a power-to-weight ratio of 5.6 hp/ton, it is quite likely the Batignolles-Châtillon vehicle would have been quite sluggish, with even the quite slow R35 having 8 hp/tonne. Reaching anything higher than the program’s required 20 km/h appears an unlikely feat for the Batignolles-Châtillon tank.

The vehicle’s suspension consisted of seven road wheels, an independent one at the front, and six grouped in three bogies of two each. On top of those bogies were nine triangular mounting points for the side skirts, on which they would be riveted. The drive sprocket was installed at the front and the idler at the rear. In operations, the bogies would be covered by a side skirt, though the road wheels themselves would remain uncovered.

suspension used by Batignolles-Châtillon
A view of the vehicle’s side with the side-skirt removed, showing the suspension used by Batignolles-Châtillon. Some elements are quite original and different from other suspensions used by French vehicles in the 1930s. The large side skirts mounting point are unheard of in other French designs of the time, and the road wheels using riveted construction, or the quite frail bogies, also differ significantly from other French suspensions of the time. Source: Archives de la Direction Générale de l’Armement of Châtellerault, via char-français

An original one-man turret

The Batignolles-Châtillon design featured a one-man turret armed with a 37 mm SA 18 main gun and a coaxial 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. All of the vehicles in the program would eventually match this armament, although the Renault and Hotchkiss vehicles were first offered either without turrets or with a turret design fitted with two MAC 31s instead.

It should be noted that an armament of two MAC 31s instead of just one is often mentioned, but there do not appear to be any mount for a machine-gun outside of the co-axial one. It is possible this may refer to a backup machine-gun being stored in the vehicle either in case of the mounted one being damaged or having a failure or of the crew having to leave the vehicle. This was common in the French cavalry but rarer in the infantry.

As with the front hull, the turret featured a large number of visors. Glass-covered vision ports were featured on the front of the turret’s forehead’, towering quite considerably in the rear three-quarters of the design, as well as on each side. Smaller vision slots were found on the sides and front sides.

At the rear of the turret, a spring-loaded rectangular door could be found. It would allow the commander to stick out of the turret outside of combat situations, or to evacuate the vehicle in urgency. The commander would enter the vehicle from the front hull hatches, and not the turret door.

The size of the turret ring, while not known, was most likely 875 mm, as with the APX turrets featured on the APX, Hotchkiss, and Renault designs, and the FCM’s welded turrets. Turret interchangeability was a requirement for the 1933’s program turrets. In any case, the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank had a one-man turret, in which the crew member would occupy the roles of commander, gunner, and loader. Even with a lot of intelligent technical solutions, making such a turret ergonomically viable – especially with an armament heavier than machine-guns, even with a gun firing small shells such as the 37 mm SA 18 – was pretty much in the realm of fantasy. The commander would very likely have been very much overtasked in operations – though this is also no different from all other vehicles of the 1933 program, due to all following the requirements of a vehicle featuring 2 crewmen.

rear view of the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank
A rear view of the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank – showing the exhaust as well as the spring-loaded rear turret door. Source: Archives de la Direction Générale de l’Armement of Châtellerault, via char-français

Unsuccessful trials in 1935

The Batignolles-Châtillon light infantry tank was trialed in 1935, from the vehicle’s delivery in April of 1935 onward.

The vehicle did feature some interesting aspects. Notable was that the liberal use of glass-covered vision slots by the designers allowed for very good visibility, superior to that of other proposals for the light infantry tank design. The armor was also judged satisfactory, with the exception of the hull armor behind the suspension, though how vulnerable this section of the vehicle’s hull would be in practice is questionable. In terms of performance, the Batignolles-Châtillons did not at all appear to have been inferior to other candidates.

Where the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank failed, though, was in terms of reliability. Mobility trials of the vehicle were quite the failure. On the 24th June 1935, the tank was unable to accomplish a 50 km drive, with a breakdown requiring repairs. The weak engine was likely an important factor in those failures leading to the prototype being returned to its factory, and receiving some considerable modifications to its suspension.

Modifications and new in vain trials

The new suspension trialed on the Batignolles-Châtillons
The new suspension trialed on the Batignolles-Châtillons. It appears to have been pretty much entirely new, from the ground up, but this does not mean it was flawless: the various black arrows in this picture were part of the trial commission’s report and indicated parts of the vehicles where flaws were identified. Source: Pierre Touzin, Les Véhicules Blindés Français, Nancy 1979, via Wikimedia Commons

The Batignolles-Châtillon prototype was returned to its factory following the breakdown in late June, and then received an entirely new suspension, likely due to the old one being lackluster – once again not particularly surprising for a newcomer in armored vehicles design.

It returned to trials with idlers and sprockets that may have been slightly larger. However, those are by far the most moderate changes. Instead of seven, the vehicle now had six, larger road wheels of a newer design, with larger outer rims. Those road wheels were installed, two-by-two, on three bogies of a new, more sturdy design. Those featured horizontal and vertical springs allowing for more extensive movements of the road wheels. The vertical springs were located behind the boggie’s outer structure, on which the side skirt would most likely insert. Four classic rounded return rollers were featured.

This modified prototype was trialed in 1936, from the 20th January to the 1st August. In comparison to its first iteration, the new suspension likely improved the vehicle’s mobility. The gearbox also appears to have been more reliable on this modified prototype. However, the significant issue of poor power-to-weight ratio remained unsolved. Even if the Batignolles-Châtillon prototype had been perfect – as perfect as a two-men infantry tank could be – it is unlikely it would have been adopted at this point, with three of the five prototypes presented in the 1933 program, the Hotchkiss (H35), Renault (R35), and FCM (FCM 36) already having been adopted. Adding yet another very similar vehicle would have been redundant. In general, the quite similar FCM 36 appears to have been superior to the Batignolles-Châtillon in most aspects, although also mounting a diesel engine, the one it used offered a better power-to-weight ratio, and its welded construction would have been sturdier and more durable than the Bat-Chat’s riveted hull and cast turret. The main advantage the Batignolles-Châtillon would have had over the FCM would most likely have been vision, which, while not irrelevant, would still be little in comparison to the advantages offered by FCM’s welded design. Therefore, and while Batignolles-Châtillon appears to have attempted to salvage its design by suggesting outfitting the tank with a more powerful engine – the Batignolles-Châtillon light tank would not be adopted.

Conclusion – An unsuccessful but interesting first foray into armored vehicles design

The Batignolles-Châtillon light tank is quite notable in that it was one of the contenders for the replacement of the Renault FT. Though it would be an unlucky competitor to the R35, H35, and FCM 36, it is still notable that Batignolles-Châtillon, a newcomer in armored vehicle design, managed to have their proposal reach the prototype stage, something only a minority of the 14 manufacturers called upon succeeded in.

This unsuccessful first attempt would not result in Batignolles-Châtillon stopping their foray into armored vehicle design. In the late 1930s, they would continue studying amphibious vehicle design, with the DP2 and later DP3 amphibious tanks. The most famous Batignolles-Châtillon designs are not, however, those from the 1930s, but rather, the firm’s proposed vehicles from the 1950s: the Batignolles-Châtillon 12t, an unlucky competitor to the AMX-13, and, most significantly, the 25t, a lightweight medium tank which gathered some considerable online fame in the last decade. It ought to be noted, however, that no Batignolles-Châtillon armored vehicle would be adopted by the French military, the closest being the Batignolle-Châtillon’s powerplant being an inspiration for that of the AMX-30, which would become France’s standard-issue main battle tank in most of the Cold War.

The suspension of the Batignolles-Chatillon tank is visible here, showing the bogies, springs, and return rollers.
The Batignolles-Chatillon light infantry tank, as it was built. The well-angled front (predating the T-34) is visible, as is the rather anemic gun. Illustration by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign.


Crew 2 (Commander/gunner/loader, Driver)
Armament 1x 37 mm SA 18 main gun, 1x MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun; perhaps an additional, back-up MAC 31
weight 11.76 tonnes
Engine 66 hp Unic Diesel
Power-to-weight ratio in hp/tonne 5.6
Armor Most likely 40 mm all-around, lighter behind suspension & on top and bottom


Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions, p48
Char-franç (
Trackstory N°4: R35/R40, Editions du Barbotin, Pascal Danjou
Les véhicules blindés français, 1900-1944, Pierre Touzin
Chars de France, Jean-Gabriel Jeudy

Cold War French Prototypes

Voisin CA 11 amphibious light tank

France (1949-53)
Light colonial amphibious tank prototype – 1 built

Immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War, France found itself embroiled in a large-scale guerilla war in its colony of Indochina as it attempted to reassert control over the area. Seeking to overthrow their colonial rulers was the Vietnamese Việt Minh, led by Hô Chi Minh, as well as associated Laotian and Cambodian movements.

 French colony of Indochina map
The French colony of Indochina map with its various territorial subdivisions: Cambodia, Laos, Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin. Source:

Indochina was a particular theater that was characterized by a large number of swamplands and jungles, particularly along the Mekong Delta in the south of the country and the Hong River in the north. This type of terrain was particularly hard to operate in for French armored vehicles, particularly wheeled armored cars like the Panhard 178B or the British Coventry Armored Car, but even for tracked vehicles, such as the American M8 Scott or M24 Chaffee. Tracked amphibious vehicles were an obvious answer as to how to bring armored firepower into swamplands and rivers; however, by 1949, France was yet to have any of those vehicles in its inventory. While the USA had a potential answer in the form of the LVT-4 amphibious assault vehicle and its assault version, the LVT-4(A), the acquisition of such vehicles by the French had yet to be negotiated.

A Panhard 178B armored car
A Panhard 178B armored car in Indochina. Though armored cars were quite useful for patrolling roads, the limitations of such vehicles in rice paddies or swamps are obvious. Source: char-français

Setting requirements for an anti-guerrilla amphibious tank

On the 18th of January 1949, as the Indochina War had been raging on for more than three years by that point, the French EMA (Etat Major des Army – ENG: Army Headquarters) requested from DEFA (Direction des études et fabrications d’armement – ENG: Direction of Armament Studies and Manufacturing), the service in charge of directing France’s military research and production a light amphibious tank to be used in Indochina and, generally, in France’s colonies and overseas territories. Those other colonies and territories included Equatorial and Western Africa, and French Guyana – all places which would also benefit from the use of amphibious light tanks. This vehicle was desired to weigh not more than 11 tonnes, offer good off-road performance, particularly in swampy terrain, and mount a 75 mm howitzer in a turret.

Voisin/SNECMA’s proposal

On the 25th of April 1950, the Voisin branch of the state company of SNECMA accepted to design a vehicle for the light amphibious tank requirements, as well as to produce a scale model which would be used for floatation trials.

The Société des Avions Voisins (ENG: Voisin Planes Society) was, despite its name, more of a car-manufacturing company that had been founded by an aviation pioneer than an aircraft-manufacturing company. Founded in 1919, this company took the place of Aéroplanes Voisins (ENG: Voisin Aircrafts), an actual plane-manufacturing company that had manufactured a number of different aircraft for France’s aviation during the First World War. This included aircraft, such as the Voisin III to XI biplanes, which were notable for their pusher configuration.

The Société des Avions Voisins had, after the end of the Second World War, been incorporated first into the engine manufacturer Gnôme-Rhône, which was nationalized in 1945 to form the core of the state manufacturer SNECMA (Société nationale d’études et de construction de moteurs d’aviation – ENG: National aircraft engines study and construction society). Despite the Société des Avions Voisins being out of operations for five years by 1950, its name remained in occasional use for designs which were produced by what remained of its design bureau. This was the case of the CA 11 light amphibious tank; alongside a couple of other colonial amphibious projects from the same era, such as the CA 2 and CA 4 troop-transport tankettes, the CA 11 appears to have been Voisin’s sole foray into armored vehicles manufacturing.

The manufacturing of a scale model apparently went quite well, with an order for a mild steel prototype being made quickly. This prototype was manufactured in 1951-1952 and presented to the French military at Satory on the 20th of March 1953 for trials.

Voisin’s amphibious tank design

Voisin’s amphibious tan
Voisin’s amphibious tank from a ¾ angle. Source: Les véhicules blindés français 1945-1977, Pierre Touzin, éditions EPA, 1978

The vehicle designed by the Voisin design team was a 12.5-tonne tank. Despite this light weight, the vehicle had fairly large dimensions, closer to a WW2-medium tank than a light tank, measuring 5.81 m long, 3.05 m wide, and 2.66 m high, with a ground clearance of 0.40 m. These large dimensions are likely a consequence of the vehicle’s amphibious hull design.

The fairly large hull of the Voisin tank bears some resemblance to the general shape of the LVT-4, likely due to some inspiration being taken from the American design. The boat-like hull shape optimized floatation capacity, with a bow striking out at the front, the drive sprockets being installed at its side, and, further back, a frontal plate angled backward. The suspension of the vehicle was relatively large, covering most of the hull’s side, in a fashion that can be reminiscent of vehicles such as the pre-war B1; such large suspension is typically installed to optimize all-terrain capacity. The suspension featured six fairly large road wheels at the bottom of the hull, as well as what appears to be a tender wheel at the rear. Three large box-shaped elements are located between the drive sprocket and tender wheels; the purpose of these may have been to improve floatation. The tracks were also clearly influenced by the LVT vehicles with a large curved grouser or spud on each link to improve traction is very soft ground as well as drive when negotiating water obstacles.

The engine, likely installed at the rear, was an air-cooled 8-cylinder, 10.857-liter unit producing 300 hp at 3,000 rpm, although it is not known whether it ran on petrol or diesel. This engine gave the CA 11 a very respectable power-to-weight ratio of 24 hp/ton; while the fuel consumption and capacity are unknown, the vehicle is known to have had a respectable range of 300 km. On road, the vehicle could reach a maximum speed of 54 km/h; on water, the maximum speed was 12 km/h. The CA 11 did not feature any hydrojet system; on water, its propulsion was assured by the tracks. These were 0.35 m wide, and appear to have used a flexible, most likely rubber construction. The armor layout of the vehicle is unknown, but the combination of light weight and fairly large dimensions of Voisin’s tank likely meant the armor was very thin, as typically expected of a counter-insurgency vehicle or amphibious tank. The crew configuration of the hull is also unknown; it may have had either merely a driver, or perhaps two crew members.

The SAGEM turret

rear view of the Voisin CA 11
A rear view of the Voisin CA 11, showing the flat rear of the turret’s basket. Source: Les véhicules blindés français 1945-1977, Pierre Touzin, éditions EPA, 1978

The Voisin CA 11’s turret was not designed by Voisin, but instead, by another company, SAGEM (Société d’applications générales d’électricité et de mécanique – ENG: Society of general electricity and mechanic applications). Although there is little detailed information on it, observing the few known photos of the CA 11 show the turret appears to have used a welded construction. To the left, a large commander cupola featuring a number of episcopes (perhaps 8) is located; another observation device can be found on the right-side. Though the crew configuration of the CA 11 is unknown, the turret generally appears to have been geared to house a two-man crew, with the commander to the left and the gunner to the right.

The main armament of the CA 11 was a 75 mm howitzer. Though the exact model is not specified in any source, the gun present on the vehicle shows many similarities with a 75 mm gun that was developed for the Panhard 178B, but never ended up used in the post-war model of the Panhard 178 armored car. This was a 75 mm gun based on the old 75 mm mle. 1897, shortened but firing the same shells with a lower velocity (though only by 15 m/s according to French documents). This gun was designated as the 75 mm SA 45. This gun was never known to have been mounted on a Panhard 178B prototype, and if it was actually the gun present on the CA 11, the Voisin amphibious tank may have been the first known vehicle to mount this obscure armament. It would have had the notable advantage of using the same ammunition as the 75 mm mle. 1897 – a mainstay of the French Army for decades, with large stocks of ammunition still in existence. That being said, while the CA 11’s gun appears visually similar to the SA 45, if it actually used this gun has not been confirmed. The vehicle’s ammunition stowage is unknown as well; it is, however, it is known that it used a 7.5 mm MAC31 as a coaxial machine-gun, likely on the right of the main gun.

75 mm SA 45 in a turret
Plans for the mounting of the 75 mm SA 45 in a turret, for the Panhard 178B armored car which ended up using the 47 mm SA 35 instead. This gun was likely the one used on the CA 11. Source: French military archives

Conclusion – Overtaken by the LVT-4

Voisin’s CA 11, though an interesting design for the challenges faced by France in Indochina, arrived way too late; by 1953, when the prototype was presented to the army, a solution had already been found to the problem of bringing armored firepower to the swamps and rivers of Indochina: The acquisition of American LVT-4s had been negotiated, with the first examples being delivered in 1950 – before the prototype CA-11 was even unveiled. While the CA 11 could arguably have filled a niche for the French if the American deliveries had only included machine-gunning armed examples it was rendered redundant as the American deliveries included 75 mm-armed LVT-4(A). The French themselves would eventually modify a number of the troop transport LVTP-4s to accommodate 75 mm recoilless guns or even turreted 40 mm Bofors autocannons.

With the presence of the LVT-4 in the French army, the procurement and production of the CA 11 would have been a costly and redundant affair. The Indochina War in general was, by that point, a costly and very unpopular affair in which France was embroiled, with no hope of quickly recovering the colony. With little enthusiasm for the idea of remaining involved in the region, France ended up pulling out in 1954, leaving, as far as possible, friendly local governments in place. The end of the Indochina war likely removed all enthusiasm for a colonial amphibious tank for a time although the LVT-4s which had been obtained were conserved. They went on to be used to form an amphibious assault school in Algeria and eventually being used during the Suez Crisis against Egypt in 1956. The Voisin CA 11 project was likely shelved indefinitely, marking an end to Voisin’s short foray into armored vehicles manufacturing. As for the manufactured prototype, its fate is unknown, but it very likely ended up scrapped.

French 40 mm-armed LVT-4s in rice paddies
French 40 mm-armed LVT-4s in rice paddies, Indochina. The use of the LVT-4 by the French army, including this local conversion performed by units in Indochina and retained in the following years, made the CA 11 redundant. As for the LVT-4, it would remain in French service until the 1970s.
Tentative side profile of the Voisin CA-11, as no side drawings or good side pictures exist. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.


Dimensions 5.81 m  x 3.05 m x 2.66 m
Total weight, battle ready 12.5 tonnes
Crew Likely 3 (driver, commander, gunner)
Propulsion 8-cylinder 10.857 litre air-cooled engine producing 300 hp at 3000 rpm
Range 300 km
Ground Clearance 0.40 m
Max. Speed (road) 54 km/h
Max. Speed (water) 12 km/h
Armament 75mm howitzer (perhaps 75mm SA 45)
MAC 31 7.5 mm coaxial machine-gun
Power-to-weight ratio (in hp/ton) 24


Les véhicules blindés français 1945-1977, Pierre Touzin, éditions EPA, 1978
French military archives at Châtellerault: Note pour la direction du matériel, N°28.750, 8 Juin 1945

WW2 French Prototypes

APX 6-tonnes light tank

Nation Flag IconFrance (1934- at least 1938)
Light tank – 1 prototype completed

Throughout most of the interwar years, the workhorse of the French army remained the Renault FT light tank. Developed under the direction of Louis Renault and with the support of General Estienne during the First World War, the small, manoeuvrable, and cheap to produce light tank proved very effective in comparison to the larger and sluggish Saint-Chamond and Schneider tanks. By the 1930s though, the FT’s heydays were gone, and innovations in tank design meant the vehicle was rapidly becoming massively obsolete. Though some efforts had been undertaken to update and produce heavier tanks derived from the FT during the 1920s and early 1930s, resulting in the Renault NC and then D1, those were not adopted in massive numbers, with just 160 D1s built for the French military.

The 1933 light tank specifications

Anticipating a replacement for the FT would soon be requested by the French military, Hotchkiss offered, in June of 1933, their preliminary design – by that point a turretless, machine-gun-armed project. Hotchkiss’s proposal ended up as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the French army to establish requirements for a new light infantry tank to replace the FT.

French Renault FT on manoeuvre during the interwar. The Renault FT was a massive success, and its effectiveness as the French army’s armored workhorse in 1918 was deeply ingrained in the minds of French military thinkers – to the point that, when it came time to search for a replacement to the antiquated light tank in 1933, the requirements that were formulated basically called for a modern remake of it. Source: char-français

Those new requirements were finalized on the 2nd of August 1933. Though their formulation was a result of Hotchkiss’s proposal, they would be sent far and wide across French industrialists, with up to 14 different manufacturers working on a design; indeed, the role of replacement of the FT, the French Army’s workhorse, would logically lead to massive contracts, as this was no irrelevant vehicle to replace.

The specifications sent to the various manufacturers were quite detailed, with performance requirements in a number of different aspects. The tank was to weigh 6 tonnes, feature a crew of two, and be armed with either one or two 7.5 mm machine-guns, or a 37 mm gun. The maximum speed should be of 15 to 20 km/h, the armor 30 mm thick, and the vehicle should be able to run for 8 hours and at least 40 km. A large number of mobility requirements were also made, such as being able to climb a 65% slope, be stable laterally on a 60% side grade, and to cross a 1.70 m wide-trench or ford water 1.20 m deep, among others. Generally, the requirements called for a vehicle very similar to the FT in role and capacities – merely updated to take into account some more modern features.

The state workshop of APX

One of the five manufacturers which went as far as manufacturing a prototype was the Atelier de Construction de Puteaux (ENG: Puteaux Construction Workshop), abbreviated as APX and sometimes known simply as ‘Puteaux’, after the commune they were installed in within Paris’ suburbs. Founded all the way back in 1866, this state-owned workshop mostly worked with artillery and firearms, producing the designs of various engineers and sometimes designing their own. They were not one of the first French manufacturers to get into tank production, though the SA 18 37 mm gun found on the FT was a Puteaux design. During the 1930s, Puteaux would extend their operations into the field of armored vehicles quite considerably; the majority of turrets mounted on French 1930s armored vehicles, from the Panhard 178 to the B1 Bis’, were designed by Puteaux. That being said, their proposal for the 1933 light tank program appears to have been the first tank designed by APX from the ground up.

The APX proposal

APX presented the project for their light infantry tank in February of 1934, and the vehicle’s design is mostly known from the plans that were presented then.

A view of the vehicle from the February of 1934 project. Source: char-français
The same overall view of the vehicle, with the side skirts covering the suspension and a turret armed with a 7.5 mm machine-gun and the 37 mm SA 18 main gun, dated from February of 1934. This larger version of the plans had first been edited and given a fake blueprint look but has here been restored to the original black-and-white. Source: Archives de l’armement de Châtellerault via & Andrew Hills

The tank designed by APX was a vehicle quite diminutive in size, with a length of 4.40 m, a width of 1.58 m, and a height of 1.85 m, turret included. As for the ground clearance, it was quite low, at 0.35 m.

The vehicle used cast construction for both the hull and turret. Though the vehicle was small in size, the hull was, in comparison to the other light tanks submitted by other manufacturers, quite bulky. The driver’s compartment is easy to point out, sticking out from the front, and not being angled in the part featuring the vision port – something quite uncommon for cast French tanks. The angled part below featured a large two-piece hatch from which the driver would enter the driving position, which was noticeably low. The armor of the vehicle was 30 mm-thick all-around.

Powerplant and suspension

A somewhat notable feature of APX’s tank was the use of a diesel engine, a feature it shared with FCM’s proposal, which would become the FCM 36. In the case of the APX tank, the engine used was a two-stroke, 4-cylinder engine producing 65 hp at 2,500 rpm. With the weight of the vehicle being 6.85 tonnes, the horsepower-to-weight ratio was 9.5 hp/ton, a decent performance for an infantry support tank; the speed, with 19.8 km/h, was within the expected performances. The engine consumed 7 liters of fuel hourly on average, giving the vehicle a range of 150 km, or about 10 hours, thanks to its 70 liters fuel tanks.

A cut-away view of the APX light tank, dated from March of 1934.
The same sideway cut of the APX 6 tons light tank, dated from March of 1934, showing the vehicle’s internal arrangement, the suspension, and the general shape of the hull. As for the previous one, this plan was first given a fake blueprint look but has here been given a more authentic black and white. Source: Archives de l’armement de Châtellerault via & Andrew Hills

The transmission was installed at the rear, as was the radiator, installed in the sloped, rear part of the engine compartment. The mounting of the transmission led to the drive sprocket being at the rear of the vehicle, and the idler wheel at the front. The suspension consisted of 5 bogies with two road wheels each, the front bogie facing the front and the four others the rear, as well as an independent wheel between the rearmost bogie and the drive sprocket. There were four return rollers at the top. The suspension would, in operation, be covered by a side skirt, which featured openable covers in order to oil and maintain the road wheels. The rear drive sprocket was not covered by this side skirt.

Turret and armament

The APX light tank’s turret is a quite notable one in the history of French turret developments. By December 1933, APX had launched itself into the design of cast turrets, first for the B1 heavy tank, but soon for its own light tank.

The result was a mostly cylindrical turret design, featuring a rounded observation cupola on top, a door at the rear, and a mantlet sticking out at the front. Two vision ports were present, one on each side. The turret was notable for mounting both a 37 mm SA 18 main gun and a 7.5 mm machine-gun – while the program originally requested a vehicle that would have either, but not both. It should be noted the exact model of the 7.5 mm machine-gun which was to be used is not known. While the 7.5 mm MAC31E, which would become the standard French tank machine-gun of the 1930s, appears as the most likely answer, the FM 24/29 light machine-gun has occasionally been mentioned as the vehicle’s secondary armament. It should also be noted that another version of the APX tank, featuring two 7.5 mm machine-guns instead, may have been considered.

The turret was crewed by the commander, who also assumed the roles of gunner and loader. He sat on a retractable seat that rotated along with the turret, though reaching down quite far in the hull’s fighting compartment below. Ammunition for the 37 mm gun was stored on the sides of this combat compartment; the quantity of shells carried is not known.

An elusive prototype, suffering from anti-state bias

It appears that a prototype of the APX light tank was manufactured, being completed in October of 1935. Very little is known about it, and no photographs have survived to this day; it is known the prototype was still in existence by 1938, with a mention of a new oil pump being in construction for the design in a document dated from the 15th of December 1938.

Despite a prototype being manufactured, the APX light tank does not appear to really have been taken into consideration for adoption. APX was the only state-owned manufacturer to go as far as manufacturing a prototype, and this state-owned status appears to have warranted the prototype an ‘out of competition’ status.

It should be noted that the requirements for light infantry tanks were edited in May of 1934, now requesting a 40 mm-thick armor while raising the maximum required weight from 6 to 8 tonnes. It is not known if this change in requirements was considered when manufacturing the prototype.

The influential APX-R turret

While APX’s light tank design as a whole is obscure, its turret is not. It was, in 1935, adopted on both Renault and Hotchkiss’s light tanks, under a version that appears to have undertaken some minor evolutions, but remained vastly similar. This turret would be known under the designation of APX-R; featured on both the Hotchkiss and the Renault light tanks, which would become the two most produced French tanks of the 1930s, it would by far be the most common turret design in the whole of the French military by 1940, and even be refitted with a longer 37 mm SA 38 gun from 1939 onward. This massive borrowing from the APX light tank remains its main legacy, though one could hardly argue for it to be a particularly great one; the APX-R’s one-man design resulted in the commander being utterly overtasked, and even for a one-man turret, it was quite horrendous and inefficient ergonomically.

A Renault ZM prototype – the vehicle which would become the R35 – refitted with the APX-R turret. The ZM initially featured a cast turret without a cupola and armed with two 7.5 mm MAC 31E machine-guns. It was refitted with the APX-R in the spring of 1935 before the APX light tank prototype was even completed. Source: For the Records blog.

Conclusion – An APX venture of questionable success

The APX light tank is, in itself, a quite obscure vehicle. An unlucky competitor to the R35, H35 and FCM36, despite seemingly reaching the prototype stage, no photos have been known to survive up to this day. The light tank does not appear to have been seriously considered for the role of standard light infantry tank for the French army either.

Nonetheless, the influence of the design via the APX-R turret ought not to be underestimated – thousands of French tank commanders would, in the later interwar and during the campaign of France, serve in a turret design originally designed for the APX 6-tonnes. As for the prototype itself, its eventual fate is unknown. As often with French pre-1940 French prototypes, the most probable fate of the vehicle was scrapping, though the question remains, by whom; The French prior to 1940, the Germans during the occupations of France, or even the French during the post-war reconstruction era? It appears unlikely an answer to this question will arise anytime soon.

Illustration for the APX-6 tonnes infantry tank, created by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe and funded by our Patreon campaign

APX Light infantry tank specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 4.40 x 1.58 x 1.85 m
Ground clearance 0.35m
Weight 6,850 kg
Engine 2-strokes 4-cylinders diesel engine producing 65 hp at 2,500 rpm
Maximum Speed 19.8 km/h
Power-to-weight ratio (in hp/ton) 9.5
Fuel tanks capacity 70 lites
Average hourly fuel consumption 7 litres
Range 150 km/ 10 hours
Crew 2 (Commander/gunner/loader, Driver)
Armament 1 37 mm SA 18 main gun, 1 7.5 mm machine-gun (either MAC31E or FM 24/29)
Armor 30 mm
Total Production 1


Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions, p48
Trackstory N°4: R35/R40, Editions du Barbotin

WW2 French Prototypes

AEM one-man light tank

Nation Flag IconFrance (1930s)
Light tank design – None built

Arguably the most important tank producer during the First World War alongside the United Kingdom, throughout the 1920 and 1930s, France enjoyed a large armor industry which was composed of a considerable number of different manufacturers and designers. These produced various quantities of prototypes as well as designs that never left the drawing board. One of those was the AEM one-man light tank proposal, a project from a lesser-known manufacturer, which never left the drawing board. This was probably a blessing, as the design for the operation of an entire armored vehicle by one crew member was not at all a viable concept.

An obscure design

The one-man light tank is one of two designs which were found in the archives of the DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armament – ENG: General Armament Direction) in Châtellerault, attributed to an obscure manufacturer known as AEM (Atelier d’Études Mécaniques – ENG: Mechanical Studies Workshop). The other sketch corresponds to another quite odd design, a two-man light tank with a particularly low turret and an articulated track design.

The other design submitted by AEM – a curious two-man tank featuring a very low turret armed with what appears to be a 13.2 mm Hotchkiss machine gun, and two articulated sets of tracks. Source: char-français

The exact date of these sketches is not known, though they are estimated to be from the 1930s. The AEM one-man tank is known by two profile sketches: one showing the vehicle as it would have looked like from the side, and an internal cutaway showing the internal arrangements. It ought to be noted that the one-man tank proposal is sometimes referred to as the “FT Bis” on the internet. This designation, however, is not at all historical and, while the arrangement of the AEM may look superficially similar to the FT, nothing suggests the one-man light tank was in any meaningful way based on Renault’s WW1 light tank.

External design

The external appearance of the AEM one-man tank. Source: DGA Châtellerault via char-français

The AEM light tank was a vehicle of very limited dimensions. Two measurements are featured on the plans which have survived up to this day: the length of the hull, 2.85 m from the front of the hull to the rear of the tail (which was similar in shape to a trench-crossing tail, but was an integral part of the hull, housing the transmission), and the height of the hull, 1.5 m. From these, the height of the turret can also be extrapolated and should be around 0.615 m without the periscope, and 0.77 m including it, giving a height of 2.115 m without the periscope and 2.27 m with it. Including the barrel, the total length of the vehicle should have been about 3.15 m.

The AEM’s turret had a conical section shape with a relatively rounded top from which a periscope stuck out. This shape meant it would likely have been quite wide for such a small vehicle, though the width of the AEM one-man tank remains unknown. This turret featured a vision port on the left side, and would most likely have had the same feature on the right.

The suspension was composed of 13 tiny road wheels, quite similar to the suspension on the much earlier and much heavier FCM 1A and FCM 2C. Two larger wheels were present at the front and rear of the suspension. The drive sprocket appeared to have been featured at the rear, alongside the transmission, while the front wheel would most likely have been a tender wheel. This suspension would be entirely covered by an armored side skirt.

The thickness of the armor which would have been protecting the vehicle is not known, though it would obviously have been very thin and would have unlikely provided protection from anything bigger than a rifle-caliber round.

Internal arrangement

The internal layout of the AEM one-man tank. Source: DGA Châtellerault via tous les blindés de l’armée française 1914-1940

The AEM tank was to be crewed by a single person. He would sit on a seemingly quite elaborate seat for a tank design, mounted just below the turret in the hull. From there, his feet would reach the clutch pedal while his head would reach in the turret. The steering was, as on most vehicles of the era, assured by two levers.

Almost certainly, the turret was armed with a machine gun. That being said, the weapon featured in the sketches does not match either the new 7.5 mm MAC 31E or the old 8 mm Hotchkiss mle 1914 machine guns. Although most of the barrel is covered by a shroud, the tip does not match with either of those designs, and neither does the pistol grip. The heavier Hotchkiss 13.2 mm mle 1930, which would have been quite ambitious in such a small vehicle, does not match either. It is quite likely the machine gun featured in the sketches was purely representative. In this case, considering the design appears to have been dated from the 1930s, the 7.5 mm MAC 31E would have been the most probable choice.

The turret did feature a sight for the machine gun, installed to its left, a periscope that stuck out from the turret’s top, and vision ports on the sides.

The engine was installed just behind the crewman’s seat. There does not appear to be any bulkhead separating the crew and engine sections of the vehicle, a quite archaic feature already after the FT had shown how much of a drastic improvement this was for crew conditions. The model, power, or fuel of this engine is not known. The transmission was installed at the rear, in what appeared similar in shape to a trench-crossing tail, but was an integral part of the AEM tank’s hull.

Conclusion – a terrible design that didn’t go anywhere

The AEM light tank is only known from two sketches. It appears to have never been seriously considered for production, as indicated by the plans not even being properly numbered. This was likely for the best. The operation of a tank, no matter how small, by a single crewman is generally doomed to fail. The amount of attention required to drive a vehicle, observe from the limited vision available from inside an armored vehicle, and operate a weapon, even a machine gun, is far too much to be the task of just one man. During the campaign of France, even two-man tanks such as the R35/40 and H35/39 proved to absolutely overwork their crews, particularly the commander. Not only that but the suspension designed of the AEM tank, seemingly inspired from WW1-era heavy tanks, would most likely not have been able to provide the tank with an adequate speed, while the tank’s tiny dimensions meant it would most likely have struggled to cross many obstacles despite the trench-crossing tail-shaped rear hull. In practice, the vehicle would have been little more than a mobile machine gun with very thin armor and mediocre mobility, while having a more than 2-meters high profile.

The AEM design would not, however, be the last one-man tank offered to the French military, despite the obvious drawbacks of such a design. As late as 1940, engineer Joseph Francois Raymon Collomp would design a one-man tank tasked with minelaying and demining operations as well as armed with a machine gun, tasked by a single crewman in an incredibly uncomfortable lying position. Thankfully, this design would not go anywhere either.

Illustration of the AEM one-man light tank, produced by Pavel ‘Carpaticus’ Alexe and funded by our Patreon campaign

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AEM one-man light tank specifications

Lenght 2.85m (without barrel), ~ 3.15m (with barrel, estimated
Height 1.5m (hull), ~2.11m (hull + turret without periscope, estimated), ~2.27m (periscope extended, estimated)
Crew 1
Suspension FCM 2C-inspired, 13 roadwheels, one tender & one sprocket wheel
Armament One machine-gun of unknown model
Optics Periscope, vision ports, machine-gun sight


Tous les blindés de l’armée française 1914-1940 – Francois Vauvillier – Histoire & Collection editions, p.37

WW1 French Prototypes


Nation Flag IconFrance, 1916-1918, Heavy tank prototype – 1 built

1916 was a massively important year in the history of armor development, for both France and the world at large. It was during this year that Britain’s Mark I tanks were first engaged in combat, and that two French tank designs, the Saint-Chamond and the Schneider CA1, were first ordered for mass-production. In the history of France’s armor development in particular, 1916 was also marked by the start of one of the most ambitious tank projects of the war, which would result in a wildly innovative design: the FCM 1A.

1916: Procurement chaos and lessons from the British

The First World War had, during the mere months after it broke out, turned from a mobile war of maneuver to a vastly more static war of position prompted by the considerable evolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century in artillery and small arms technology, which were not matched by advancements in transport and motorization. With both sides finding it impossible to achieve large breakthroughs, and France seeing some of the most industrial parts of its territory occupied by the Kaiser’s troops, there were massive incentives to find a solution to the problem caused by trench warfare; the idea of all-terrain armored vehicles is one which quickly appeared in the minds of engineers in both France and Great-Britain.

The first years of these armor developments, 1915 and 1916, were, in France, marked by a variety of vastly different proposals being put forward. However, this was largely without a formal structure being in place to evaluate them properly. Engineers and representatives would often collaborate to try and push their design to the forefront, as various figures tried to gain a hold on the procurement of armored vehicles by negotiating with the Under-Secretary of Armament Albert Thomas. The most famous of those figures is undoubtedly Colonel Jean Estienne. Col. Estienne had gained some considerable control upon the procurement of France’s armored vehicles, most notably after he was named director of the Artillerie Spéciale (special artillery, France’s tank force in WW1) in September of 1916. Nonetheless, while Estienne would be extremely influential late in the war (particularly for the adoption of the FT), in 1916, his control was still very incomplete.

A good example of this chaotic procurement process in 1916 was the procurement of the Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond tanks. Both were vehicles which shared a number of characteristics, such as a casemate-mounted 75 mm gun (a short Blockhaus-Schneider howitzer on the CA1, while the Saint-Chamond mounted a longer field gun, first of Saint-Chamond design but later the standard french 75mm mle 1897), and a short suspension that left much of the hull’s front forward, which proved detrimental to trench crossing. Both of those vehicles were designed in ignorance of the other, with no coordination over their performance or protection. Nonetheless, 400 of both vehicles were ordered within a short time of each other in 1916. While Estienne had been a major proponent of the CA1, he would only learn of the existence of a Saint-Chamond tank around the time the order for it was finalized.

The major proponent of the Saint-Chamond had been another military figure who played a key role in the birth of France’s tank force, General Léon-Augustin Mourret, who was the leader of the French’s Army automotive service. Gen. Mourret was a rival to Estienne, particularly in 1916, and Mourret was also to be at the origin of FCM’s heavy tank projects.

Early production Saint-Chamond tanks, a vehicle Mourret was the proponent of, on the move. The Saint-Chamond had, in theory, impressive firepower thanks to its 75mm field gun, but this was counterbalanced by an atrocious off road mobility Source: pinterest

Gen. Mourret appeared to have been imagining the concept of a heavy tank for some time in the summer of 1916. In September, he took part in a bilateral meeting between the French and the British, which was held to reach the conclusions of the first operational use of British tanks at the Somme. Among the participants of this meeting was Lt. Colonel Albert Stern, leader of the Tank Supply Committee and previously part of the Landship Committee, and a key figure in Britain’s tank development during the war. Mourret traded views with Stern, and was introduced in more extensive detail to the British Mark I tank design. When comparing it to the French vehicles in development at that time, Mourret found the Mark I to be substantially more advanced. Mouret notably lauded that the naval engineers had had a major role in the vehicle’s development, and judged that they had done a superior job to the French Saint-Chamond and Schneider CA, which were mostly the result of artillery manufacturers. Notably, he found that the naval engineers had thought of vastly superior fire protection, air circulation, and habitability arrangements than Schneider and Saint-Chamond. He also found that the British design’s heavier weight (the Mark I weighed 27-28 tons, whereas the Saint-Chamond weighed 23 tonnes and the CA1 a mere 13.5 tonnes) was necessary to allow a better blend of protection, firepower, and mobility.

The FCM project gets on its tracks

In October of 1916, Gen. Mourret, supported by the Undersecretary of State for Inventions Regarding Defence, Jules-Louis Breton (also deeply involved in the study of armored vehicles), managed to lobby the Undersecretary for Artillery and Military Equipment, Albert Thomas, to order a heavy tank prototype from a naval shipyard. Clearly, the goal was to emulate the British method and to try and develop a vehicle superior to the CA1 and St. Chamond. Thus, on the 20th of October 1916, an order for a prototype vehicle was placed with Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM ).

Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (Eng: Forges and Shipyards of the Mediterranean), was a naval shipyard with its main facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast. The company enjoyed a stellar reputation in the 1900s and 1910s, being a major producer of civilian ships and warships alike. Upon receiving the order, FCM’s administrator, Frédérick Moritz, gave the task of designing and producing the vehicle to the company’s shipyard at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer. The shipyard’s director, Léonce Rimbaud, recruited the engineers Lucien Savatier and E.Jammy to lead the project. They quickly got to work and, by January 1917, had already produced a design of which they had made a large wooden mockup.

The wooden mockup produced at FCM’s facilities in January of 1917. It already shows a good view of the tank’s general shape and features; its elongated hull, large turret, and short-barrelled 105 mm howitzer main gun. By January of 1917, this was by all means a very modern looking machine. Source: char-français

The council shall decide your fate: divisions at the CCAS

In the meantime, at the request of Undersecretary Jules-Louis Breton, Undersecretary Albert Thomas created the CCAS, or Comité Consultatif de l’Artillerie Spéciale (Eng: Advisory Committee of Special Artillery). Officially brought into existence on the 13th of December 1916, this committee grouped representatives of various ministries, the French Army high command, industrialists, and deputies who had been involved in armored vehicle design. This last category included Col. Estienne, and some in the committee who shared his views.

This FCM project, designed by FCM with help from Renault, was the subject of the very first discussions within CCAS on the 17th of December 1916. The second CCAS meeting, held on the 30th of December, had as main topic Renault’s light tank project (which would become the FT). At that second meeting the FCM design was also discussed, which by that point had become a fairly well established concept of a 38-tonne tank armed with a 105 mm howitzer, protected by 30 mm of armor and powered by a 200 hp engine. This set of characteristics was presented by FCM’s administrator Frédérick Moritz. The project’s development was therefore going in a direction quite opposite to what Estienne desired. Col. Estinne, known in France as the ‘father of the tank’, wanted the Artillerie Spéciale to focus on a very light and also a very heavy design. The FCM project was simply not being made large enough to fulfill this second category. He also preferred the idea of a higher-velocity 75 mm gun as the main armament of the heavy tank, opposed to the low velocity 105 mm howitzer planned.

The third meeting of the CCAS, on the 17th of January 1917, was dedicated almost entirely to the FCM project. Undersecretary Jules-Louis Breton had, days prior, on the 13th, visited FCM’s facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer and been presented with the already solid design in the form of the complete, to-scale mockup, which made a massive impression on Breton. While Estienne was not present in this meeting, he too had been presented this project, and found it to be well-presented and satisfactory despite it not being the ‘very heavy design’ he had wanted. Estienne noted his preference for a 75 mm gun over the 105 mm howitzer and was overall satisfied enough that he requested the CCAS to approve the production of two prototypes, one with an electric and one with a mechanical transmission, though in the end the prototypes ordered would not be the same as what Estienne requested. Breton, on the other hand, wanted an order for 50 vehicles to be passed immediately, but he saw this being rejected by CCAS. The majoritarity vote by CCAS was to focus on material already in production and viewed the doctrine of heavy tank use as still being too ill-defined to warrant a production run.

While this meeting was viewed as disappointing by proponents of the FCM design, including Breton, on the 5th of February 1917, the Ministry of Armament ordered two additional prototypes from FCM, in addition to the first ordered in October 1916. While this first prototype would have a mechanical transmission, the two newly ordered vehicles would feature oil-electric and oil-hydraulic transmission designs. These two later prototypes would not actually end up being produced.

1917: Half a year wasted in delays

By early 1917, the first prototype was due to be completed and begin its trials in May. While development and production of the tank itself was done by FCM, the gearbox and engines were a product of Renault.

The whole of 1917 was marked by tremendous delays from Renault which meant that, without its engine or gearbox, the prototype’s trials could not begin. The exact reason for those delays is not quite known, though Renault being overtasked and already vastly engaged in the FT light tank, notably, have been raised as potential explanations. In any case, by June, FCM was still awaiting Renault’s part of the deal. By August, when asking the firm about the whereabouts of those elements, Breton received an answer saying that the engine and gearbox would not be delivered for at least three weeks. Finally, on the 18th of October 1917, Moritz was able to place a date – around the 20th of November – for the FCM 1A’s trials to begin. In practice, they would begin a month later, on the 20th of December 1917, with the presence of the CCAS as well as a number of other officers, including an American and a British representative.

The FCM 1A: The hull and armor design

The hull designed for FCM’s heavy tank was rectangular, narrow, and elongated. The vehicle had an impressive length of 8.35 m, but, at 2.84m wide including the suspension, was only slightly larger than the much lighter Saint-Chamond. The hull was also quite tall, standing at 1.98 m, and had a ground clearance of 40 cm. To its front, it featured a single Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun firing through a ball mount on the lower glacis. Two crewmen, the driver, and a machine-gunner, stood at the hull’s front, each having an openable vision port. Three crewmen stood further back in the hull, with two located behind the turret ring, tasked with handing the 105 mm shells from the hull racks to the turret. The third man was a mechanic tasked with operating and maintaining the engine and transmission. The hull, without the suspension, engine, and radiator, had a weight of 17,500 kg (including 5,500 kg of armor). Those elements (suspension, engine, and radiator) had a weight of 19,300 kg. A total of 122 105 mm rounds were carried within the hull, 18 in front of the turret ring, 8 to each side of it, and 44 on each side of the hull behind the turret.

A front view of the FCM 1A, showing the opened vision ports for the two crew members sitting at the front of the hull. Source: char-français

The suspension of the FCM 1A featured a series of 4-wheel bogies, some placed on the inside and some on the outside of the track. Six small return rollers were present on the top of the suspension and it appears to have had a front drive sprocket and a rear idler. This layout may seem basic by modern standards, but a major innovation for French armored design was that the suspension was as long as the hull itself. On the CA1 and particularly the Saint-Chamond, the hull stuck out in front and behind the suspension, making the vehicle’s movement on irregular terrain – systematic in trench warfare – very hazardous. With its extremely long hull and equally long suspension, the FCM 1A was not at such a risk of becoming embedded in a bank or trench as it crossed this difficult terrain. Also helping the tank over rough and often saturated ground were the 60 cm wide tracks which gave the vehicle ground pressure of just 0.6 kg per cm² (58 KPa).

A rear view of the FCM 1A prototype leaving a ditch, showing the marks left by the tracks on the ground. Source: char-français
Another rear view of the prototype, showing both the large radiator grill, and a vertical obstacle the tank just crossed. Source: char-français

A particularly impressive feature of the FCM 1A was its armor layout. The vehicle offered 35 mm of armor on the front, 21 mm to the side and rear, and 15 mm on the bottom and top, on both the hull and turret. While this may not seem particularly impressive by WW2 standards, it was exceptional by the standards of WW1. For example, the 15 mm of belly or roof armor was heavier than the primary armor on the CA1, which had a maximum of 11.5 mm of armor or the Saint-Chamond with just 17 mm (and only on a small, up-armored area of the vehicle). Even in comparison with the British-American Mark VIII International Liberty heavy tank, this was heavy armor, as that vehicle did not feature more than 16 mm of armor. Only the German A7V could somewhat compete with the FCM 1A’s frontal 35 mm of armor with its 30 mm, but the German design was inadequate cross-country and was totally outclassed by FCM’s heavy tank.

The engine used on the FCM 1A was a 12-cylinder Renault petrol engine producing 220 hp at 1,200 rpm. This engine provided the FCM 1A with a respectable power-to-weight ratio of 5.3 hp/t. This was higher than the CA1 at 4.4 hp/t, Saint-Chamond at 3.9 hp/tn, British Mark IV Male at 3.75 hp/t, and the British Mark V at 5.2 hp/t. Of vehicles which had at least reached prototype stage by 1917, only the British Medium Mark A ‘Whippet’ outdid the FCM’s horsepower per ton at 6.4. The FCM 1A’s engine compartment also had quite considerable additional space available to allow for a larger, more powerful engine in the future and the proposed evolution of the design, the 45-tonne FCM 1B, which was to mount a 380 hp engine. Exhaust for the engine was featured on the top of the hull, behind the turret; the radiator was to the rear of the hull.

The FCM 1A going into a ditch in front of the delegation assembled to examine it during the December 1917 trials. Source: char-français

Turret and firepower: monstrous explosive charge

The FCM 1A featured what appears to be a fully rotating turret. Whilst this vehicle by no means invented the concept, this was still a fairly uncommon feature for WW1 tanks, particularly on vehicles of this size.

The FCM 1A’s turret was mostly rounded in shape, housing two crew members. To the left sat a commander/gunner, and to the right, a loader which would also serve as machine-gunner. The vehicle had a large, initially square command cupola that stuck out on the left side, from which the commander could observe the battlefield.

The main gun featured in this turret was a Schneider 105 mm short howitzer. This gun was purposely designed for the FCM 1A and may have been loosely based on Schneider’s model 1913 105 mm field gun, albeit substantially shortened. The very short barrel of the gun only gave it a muzzle velocity of 240 m/s; however, the shells fired from the FCM 1A’s gun had a massive 4 kg explosive charge, heavier than the entire shells fired by most other tanks of the war, which generally had 57 mm guns, like the British and German tanks. By way of comparison, the explosive shells fired by the French Army’s standard 75 mm field gun, the model 1897, featured on the late model of the Saint-Chamond tank, contained just 0.695 kg of explosives. While the rate of fire of the FCM 1A’s 105 mm gun would have been very low, its destructive potential against trench systems and fortifications was great.

As secondary armament, the tank featured two Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, each in a ball mount; one to the right of the turret, the other on the hull’s lower plate. The standard issue machine-gun of the French Army from 1916-1917 onward, progressively replacing the older, more vulnerable to mud Saint-Etienne model 1907, the Hotchkiss machine-gun fired 8 x 50 mm rimmed Lebel ammunition from either 24 or 30-rounds rigid strips, or 249-rounds metal belts. It had a rate of fire of 400 to 500 rpm on average, and was appreciated for its high reliability and air-cooling, which made it reliable even in the mud of the trenches. There were also 5 openable firing ports from which the crew could fire either the CSRG Chauchat model 1915 machine-rifle firing the same 8 x 50 mm Lebel cartridge as the Hotchkiss from smaller 20-rounds magazine at a rate of fire of 250 rpm, or their side-arms (model 1873 or 1892 revolvers).

The turret had a weight of 4,600 kg, which included 1,300 kg of armor. The armour layout was similar to the hull, except the 35 mm thickness was apparently all around the turret. The complete vehicle had a weight of 41,400 kg, reaching a height of 3 m with the observation cupola, and 2.78 m without it.

Trials at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer: A Char to end all Chars

Trials of the FCM 1A began at FCM’s facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer on the 20th of December 1917, in front of a large delegation. FCM had, by that point, made it clear that the FCM 1A prototype was mostly experimental, and was not intended for military adoption as it was presented.

A view of the FCM 1A prototype during its trials at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer, giving a good view of the odd square command post initially featured on the tank. Source: char-français
The FCM 1A prototype dives into a crater during its trials. Source: char-français

The obstacle course which had been prepared for the FCM 1A included 3.50 m -wide trenches, 0.90 m-high walls, and artillery shell craters 6 meters in diameter and 4 meters in depth. The FCM 1A was easily able to overcome them. The vehicle was tested in some considerable slopes, and was able to climb up to a 65% slope. It also tried going through a forest of pines, going over a 35 cm-wide tree and shattering a 28 cm one. The tank could reach a maximum speed of 10 km/h, and cruised at 6 km/h on good terrain, well within the standards of WW1 tanks. This first series of trials concerned mobility only, and there were not yet any firing trials of the gun. They have however, been quite extensively documented, with an 18-minutes film being available on the internet.

The FCM 1A left a major impression on the delegation. The vehicle offered some impressive cross-country capacities – far superior to the very mediocre ones featured on the previous Saint-Chamond and CA1. Its massive size was thought to potentially have a major morale effect on enemy forces if it was to enter service. The vehicle also featured many innovative design choices. The FCM 1A was not without flaws – notably, due to the length and narrowness of the vehicle, turning while stationary was almost impossible, although the track was not at any point at risk of going off. One of the impressive features of the FCM 1A, which may not appear obvious at first glance, was the considerable internal space allocated to the crew. With 7 crew members (lowered to 6 during the trials, when it was realized that a single crewman was enough to hand the shells from the hull to the turret), the FCM 1A had one of the smallest crews of non-light tanks of WW1. The 23-tonne Saint-Chamond, for example, had a crew of 9, the 29-tonne Mark V a crew of 8, and the 30 to 33 tonne A7V a crew of 20. At the same time as having relatively few crewmen, the large space inside made the FCM 1A quite impressive in terms of internal habitability, allowing the crew to operate in far better conditions than on most other vehicles of the era. The FCM 1A was also reported to be well-designed to counter fires, as a result of having been designed by a naval shipyard, and to have a good number of escape hatches should the crew have to evacuate the tank. There was no bulkhead separating the crew and engine compartments, though no crew member operated near the engine. However, due to the tank’s size, no vehicle in possession of the French Army of the time could realistically tow it. The solution was provided by attaching tow-points and a fairlead on the vehicle, meaning an FCM 1A could be used to tow and recover another one should the need arise, although how effectively it would do so is unknown, as just one prototype of the tank was ever built.

A frontal view of the FCM 1A prototype going through a forested area during its trials, once again showing the particularly short barrel of the main gun. Source: char-français

Soon after the trials began, the FCM 1A’s great performances provoked some considerable interest. The new Minister of Armament, Louis Loucheur, wrote to French Président du Conseil (a role mostly similar to a British Prime Minister in the French Third Republic) Georges Clémenceau, requesting an order for 100 vehicles to be placed. The request was for the first 15 to be delivered in July, and 80 more to be available by the end of the year. However, no order ended up being placed due mainly to follow-ups of the FCM 1A that FCM had, in the meantime, proposed.

Side views of the FCM 1A prototype climbing a slope during its December of 1917 trials, showing us how elongated and large the vehicle genuinely is. Source: char-français

18-minutes film of the FCM 1A’s trials at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer

A project doomed… by its own evolutionary potential

Indeed, around the same time as the FCM 1A began its trials in late 1917, FCM had brought forward three new tank designs, based on the experience collected by designing and manufacturing the 1A. The lightest was the FCM A, a 30-tonne, 6.92 m-long tank armed with a turret-mounted 75 mm howitzer. The middleweight was the FCM 1B which was the most directly derived from the 1A. The FCM 1B was to be 7.39 m long, featuring a long-barrelled 75 mm gun in a turret, be powered by a new 380 hp petrol engine, and with a final weight of 45 tonnes. Lastly, and heaviest of all was the FCM 2C project. By this time, the FCM 2C was a 9.31 m-long, 62-tonne tank project, which immediately got the attention of Estienne to fulfil the role of that ‘very heavy tank’ he wanted as a complement to the FT.

The lightest of the FCM tank proposals, the 30-tonne FCM A. source: char-français

By the end of the December trials, the influential Col. Estienne remarked on the FCM 1A’s success, albeit noting that the trials had been performed on particularly dry ground, and that there was a risk of the tank’s rear end sinking in the mud due to most of the propulsion elements being located there. Estienne and the French Army’s GQG (Grand Quartier Général – ENG: Great Headquarters) ended up opting for the evolved FCM 2C design, which pushed the FCM 1A’s size and gigantism even further, in January 1918. Even being particularly optimistic, this FCM 2C could only enter service in 1919.

Continued trials on the FCM 1A

While it had been decided the French Army would adopt the FCM 1A’s heavier, 75 mm-armed cousin, the FCM 2C, trials and experimentations nonetheless continued on the prototype as it had already been manufactured. Firing trials of the 105 mm gun were performed on the 5th to the 7th of February 1918, which satisfactory results.

The FCM 1A on the beach of La-Seyne-Sur-Mer, the home town of FCM, where it was manufactured. Source: flickr

Later that year, the FCM 1A prototype did receive some considerable modifications, notably to the turret. The 105 mm howitzer was swapped out, replaced by a much longer gun. While a number of photos of the FCM 1A armed with this gun exist, it has yet to be identified, and even its caliber is unknown; both 47 and 75 mm have been suggested. In any case, this appears to be a much higher-velocity gun than the 105 mm – likely not as good in fortification and trench-busting, but more accurate at longer ranges, and perhaps able to pierce some armor. The vehicle’s cupola was also redesigned; from its original, square shape, it adopted a rounded one, featuring a stroboscope system: two round-shaped plates with holes pierced in them, able of quick rotating, allowing the commander to see out of the vehicle while offering some good protection against machine-gun fire.

The FCM 1A later during its trials, with a number of personnel sitting on it, showing the size of the vehicle, as well as the new long gun of unknown caliber. Source: Tumblr, char de france
The re-armed FCM 1A prototype at an unknown facility, with a Renault FT light tank in the background; source: char-français

Fate – A formidable photo background

Unlike many French prototypes of the 1910s and 1920s, the eventual fate of the FCM 1A is quite well-known. The impressive-looking prototype was, in the 1920s and 1930s, placed outside the Versailles tank school, as a ‘flower pot’. It slowly degraded in this state (with the tracks for example being removed at some point), while often being used as a photo background for studying officers due to its impressive look.

The FCM 1A as it finally laid to rest. An abandoned but still majestic vehicle, with part of the side skirts having been removed and giving a better image of the suspension. Here, the tank was popular for young officers to have their photos taken in front of. Source: char-français
French tankers from the Versailles tank school pose in front of the FCM 1A prototype. Source: char-français

The FCM 1A prototype was still at Versailles when France fell to German armies in 1940. Long out of use and completely incapable of even running, the old prototype most likely met an unceremonious end at a scrapyard; the last known photo of it dates from 1940 and shows a German soldier standing on the aged beast.

The by this point very much damaged by the elements FCM 1A serves as a photo background for the last time, this time for a German soldier, 1940. Source: pinterest

Conclusion – An impressive tank, that was not to be.

Out of all the vehicles which reached prototype stage in WW1 France, the FCM 1A was without a doubt one of the most advanced and powerful. For a vehicle designed in 1916 and which had its prototype manufactured in 1917, FCM’s heavy tank indeed presents a variety of modern features; a rotating turret, sensible crew accommodations, and a very powerful main armament in the context of trench warfare, protected under one of the thickest armors of the era.

Despite these very modern features, the FCM 1A was hindered both by the massive delays caused by Renault in 1917, as well as Estienne’s opinion that a heavy tank design ought to be heavier. This contributed to the vehicle not being adopted, though this was not without some forms of regret – in October of 1918, in a letter to Clémenceau, the Minister of Armament once again reminded that the FCM 1A had a crucial advantage over the 2C – it had been built, and, while the 2C was still vastly on paper at that point, the 1A could quite realistically have entered service. Indeed, had it been adopted, it would not have been entirely unthinkable to see the 1A used in combat during the last weeks of WW1.

Nonetheless, even if this impressive WW1 prototype never reached serial production, it remains a fairly important vehicle in the history of French armored development; not only because of its own impressive merits, but also because it launched FCM into armored vehicle design. The shipyard would, in the 20s and 1930s, become a major producer of such, with the FCM 2C in the 1920s, but also the FCM 36 light infantry tank, and participation in the B1 program both with the 1920s FCM Char de Bataille and some considerable other experimentations, notably on the B1 Ter project. FCM would be active all the way up to the postwar years, when it still offered some designs such as the FCM 50T medium tanks, though it could not help being completely superseded by the state-owned AMX. This involvement of FCM in French armored vehicles design goes to show that naval shipyards indeed offered an alternative to artillery manufacturers in the beginning of tank production, with the enclosed, armored nature of tanks arguably making them more similar to warships, albeit much smaller, than to simple mobile artillery pieces.

FCM 2C n°9 Champagne, with its crew standing in front of it. Initially thought of as a 62-tonne, 9.31 m long tank in 1917, the FCM 2C ended up going all the way up to 69 tonnes and 10.37 meters; it remains, to this day, the longest tank to ever see service (about 25 cm longer than the TOG-2).
The original, 105mm-armed configuration of the FCM 1A
The later, long-barreled version of the FCM 1A

Both illustrations created by Pavel ‘Carpaticus’ Alexe and funded by our Patreon campaign

FCM 1A specifications

Dimensions (L x w x h) 8.35 m x 2.84 m x 3 m
Ground Clearance 0.40 m
Weight 41,400kg
Engine 12-cylinder Renault petrol producing 220hp at 1,200rpm
Maximum speed 10 km/h
Power-to-weight ratio (in hp/ton 5.3
Ground pressure 0.6 kg/cm² ( (58 KPa)
track width 60cm
Suspension Leaf springs
Trench crossing 3.5m
Step 1m
Maximum slope climbed 65%
Crew 7 men (driver, hull machine-gunner, commander/gunner, loader/turret machine-gunner, mechanician, two servants), later reduced to 6 by removing a servant
Main armament 1 turret-mounted 105 mm howitzer, later replaced by an higher-velocity gun of unknown caliber
Secondary armament 1 coaxial Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, 1 hull Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, 5 firing ports for CRSG Chauchat mle 1915 8 mm machine-rifle or revolvers
Turret weight 4,600kg
Armor 35 mm on the front of the hull and entire turret, 21 mm on the sides and rear of the hull, 15 mm on the roof and top


GBM n°98 (October/November/December 2011), p 42-52 “Le char lourd FCM 1A ou le rêve immolé”
Tout les Blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections éditions

Cold War North Korean Armor

M1981 Shin’heung

North Korea (late 1970s/early 1980s – today)
Amphibious light tank – unknown number built (500 sometimes mentioned)

North Korea maintains one of the most peculiar large scale military industries of the modern world. Though the most famous of the country’s vehicles are without a doubt the main battle tanks – the Chonma-ho and Songun-Ho – North Korea actually manufactures a very wide range of vehicles, from self-propelled artillery pieces to light armored personnel carriers. An interesting vehicle in North Korea’s arsenal, and one which may have played a pivotal role in the development of North Korea’s military industry, is the M1981 Shin’heung, an amphibious light tank also known as the M1985 (its name given by the US Department of Defence) or the PT-85 (a popular name given due to the vehicle’s often greatly exaggerated link to the PT-76).

The sources of North Korea’s military and tank industry

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), often just known as North Korea, was formed following the capitulation of Japan. The Soviet Union came to control the northern half of Korea. The state was solidified after the 1950-1953 Korean War led to a stalemate, with both pro-American South Korea and pro-Soviet North remaining in place.

The North Koreans quickly began to develop a form of arms industry. As early as 1949, they began the manufacture of the Type 49 submachine gun, a copy of the Soviet PPSh-41. Their production of firearms continued through the 1950s and 1960s, to include the Type 58, an AK copy, as well as some of the first “indigenous” weapons, or at least some of the first to differ from the Soviet arsenal. Introduced in 1964, the Type 64 pistol was a close copy of the old Belgian FN 1900, an odd choice for a new pistol. It was most likely inspired by the pistol’s symbolic role as a common pistol in 1900-1940s Asia, which was employed by Korean partisans against Japanese rule.

Two 323s – on which the M1981’s hull was based on – parading in North Korea, featuring their standard armament of two 14.5 mm machine-guns as well as a battery of anti-aircraft missiles, likely Strelas in this instance. They bear the flags of North Korea, and of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Source: militaryimages

The production of armored vehicles appears to have started in the 1970s. This coincides with North Korea raising military expenses after those had been kept at a moderate level throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as the country being forced to assert its independence from the Soviet Union due to the Sino-Soviet Split complicating North Korea’s relations with the two larger communist powers on its borders.

Up to this point, North Korea had merely used vehicles supplied by the Soviet Union or China, but this option started to appear fairly unreliable as it was questionable whether the Soviets or Chinese would provide modern weaponry, seeing as North Korea was trying to keep balanced relations between the two communist powers that were now bitter rivals.

The Korean People’s Army adopted a locally-produced version of China’s Type 63/YW531 in the early 1970s, the vehicle appearing to be designated as “323” in North Korea (though it is often called VTT-323 by western enthusiasts), and being given the name of M1973 (after the year it was first observed) by the American Department of Defence. It already incorporated some significant differences from the original vehicle, such as an additional road wheel, as well as a turret armed with twin KPV 14.5 mm machine-guns.

It also appears that, at least to an extent, two large orders of tanks from the Soviet Union were produced and assembled in North Korea – an order for 1,000 T-54s, passed in 1966 and delivered from 1967 to 1974, and another order for 1,000 T-55s, passed in 1970 and delivered from 1972 to 1982.

It also appears that a local production run of the PT-76B, or more likely simply the final assembly of vehicles otherwise produced in the Soviet Union, took place in the 1970s. The place of this PT-76 production run was most likely the Ryu Kyong-su Tank Factory, in Sinhung county – the latter name Sinhung or Shin’heung often being associated to the vehicles which would be produced in this factory (typically amphibious vehicles such as the 323 and obviously the M1981).

The Shin’heung appears

The M1981 Shin’heung amphibious tank appears to have been developed in this context, and it took inspiration from a variety of vehicles North Korea had previously acquired or even produced locally – the 323 and PT-76, but also perhaps the T-54/T-55 and the Type 63 amphibious tank.

The M1981 Shin’heung, as the West first learned of it: parading down Kim Il-Sung square, Pyongyang, with not only the standard armament but also a Malyutka anti-tank missile. Source: Eugen system forums

As is typically the case for North Korea, the vehicle’s development is completely unknown in the West, and the vehicle’s existence was known for the first time when lines of Shin’heung paraded down Kim-Il-Sung square in Pyongyang – this being on the parade for the 40th anniversary of the Fatherland Liberation War, in 1985, leading to the vehicle first being designated as M1985 by the American Department of Defence. The vehicle is theorized to have actually originated in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, with the North Korean designation seemingly being “M1981 Shin’heung”.

Observing the vehicle, though, can lead to some amount of guessing as to how the vehicle was developed, or rather, which vehicles it took inspiration from. The Shin’heung is often thought, in popular imagination, to be a mere copy of the Soviet PT-76, merely refitted with an 85 mm gun. This is not helped by the popularity of the “PT-85” name for the vehicle. In practice though, North Korea’s design is quite different from the Soviet one. Its hull is based on the one of the 323, though largely modified, and while the turret clearly takes inspiration from the Soviet tanks, it is clearly not the same design either.

Hull Design: From APC to amphibious tank

The hull of the M1981 Shin’heung is based on the 323, which, from the 1970s onward, has been produced in large numbers by North Korea, appearing to be the country’s standard armored personnel carrier.

A closer view from the last picture, showing the M1981 in its original configuration. The hull bears notable similarities with the 323 but has obviously been considerably modified. Source:

Major modifications had to be undertaken to turn this fairly diminutive armored personnel carrier hull into an amphibious tank. The most notable was the vehicle is considerably lengthened. The original YW531 was 5.48 m long, but while accurate measurements of the M1981 are not known in the West, the vehicle is clearly longer than the 323. Another road wheel was added, bringing the total to 6, and an estimation places the vehicle at a length of about 7.60 m based on the various available photos. The vehicle also appears to have been widened to an extent, notably over the fenders, and incorporates sloped sides – it appears the width went up from 2.98 m on the 323 to around 3.10 m on the M1981.

The hull appears to have been lowered to an extent – a quite logical course of action, seeing as the troop compartment was removed. The rear of the hull was considerably changed to accommodate the change of purpose. The rear doors for the infantry were removed, and a hydrojet, of a design similar to the PT-76’s, was added on each side. The radiator of the engine appears to be installed at the rear as well, with the exhaust on the roof of the rear hull.

A rearview of several M1981s, showing the vehicle’s engine bay as well as its turret hatches and radio antenna. Source: IMCDb, from the movie Haebit Palgara, 2010

The exact engine which is used on the M1981 Shin’heung is unknown. The original Chinese YW531 is known to use an 8-cylinder, 320 hp air-cooled and turbocharged diesel engine, the KHD BF8L 413F, and it is possible this engine may have been retained on the M1981. A 6-cylinder water-cooled diesel producing 240 hp is sometimes mentioned as an alternative. As for the suspension, the vehicle appears to have torsion bars similar to those found on the 323. The M1981 lacks the fenders covering the upper part of the suspension and tracks. The tracks are similar to those found on the 323 and PT-76. The hull appears to be home to one crewman, the driver, seated at the front right of the hull. He has a number of episcopes at his disposal in order to view the outside of the vehicle, as well as an openable hatch.

The vehicle, with the turret included, is estimated to weigh in at around 20 tons, and a maximum speed of around 60 km/h is sometimes mentioned – which would make it similar to China’s Type 63 amphibious tank, and about 15 km/h faster than the PT-76. The speed on water is estimated to be around 10km/h – the same as the PT-76, with which the M1981 likely shares the hydrojet design. A range of about 500 km has also been estimated.

M1981s on the parade at Kim Il Sung square. These vehicles feature some upgrades (IR projector, hull lights), and this side angle gives a decent view of their 6 road wheels. Source:

The armor values of the M1981’s hull are unknown but are likely similar to vehicles such as the PT-76, 323, or Type 63. This would give it armor somewhere between 10 and 20 mm in thickness, likely able to only resist rifle-caliber projectiles and artillery shrapnel, as is typically expected of a light amphibious tank.

A number of tools are stored on the sides of the hull. When first shown in 1985, the M1981 featured four headlights, two on each side, installed towards the front, though new light configurations have appeared since then. Spare track links are often seen on the sides of the vehicle as well.

Turret design and armament: Multiple inspirations

The M1981 features a horseshoe-shaped turret. Though it may seem vaguely similar to the PT-76’s in general shape, it appears to be higher, with the armor plates sloped inward at a lower angle than on the Soviet vehicle. Most details are also quite different. The turret features a notable bulge on the rear-right of the turret to accommodate the commander’s cupola, which includes a number of episcopes. Instead of a large, single hatch, the M1981 features two, one on the rear right (in the commander’s cupola) and one on the rear left. Rounded in shape, those hatches are fairly similar to those found on the T-54, which North Korea may have produced in the late 1960s and 1970s. The turret has a flat section at the front, where the main gun is installed, alongside a coaxial machine-gun to the right and a vision port to the left. Circular hand grips can be found on the sides of the turret. Including the turret, the M1981 appears to be about 2.80 m high.

A view of several M1981s on parade in Pyongyang, at an unknown date (though likely during the 1990s or 2000s judging by the IR projector and hull lights), showing the general shape of the turret. Though it may seem similar to the PT-76 at first, the turret of the M1981 is far from identical to that of the Soviet light tank. Source:

The main armament of the M1981 is an 85 mm gun. It is very likely based on the Chinese Type 62-85TC rifled gun, present on the Type 62 and Type 63 light tanks, which North Korea is known to have used from the 1970s onward. The guns generally look similar, though there are some differences. The bore evacuator is further back on the North Korean model, which may be caused by the gun being longer altogether.

The ammunition used by the Chinese gun, and thus likely North Korea’s version as well, is the 85×629 mmR, the same caliber as the WW2-era Soviet 85 mm used in later models of the T-34 as well as the SU-85. China is known to produce a variety of ammunition for the gun, comprising AP, APHE, HE, Frag-HE, HEAT, APFSDS-T and smoke rounds. It is quite likely North Korea has access to some, if not all of these rounds, and produces some locally, seeing as the same shells can also be fired from the country’s T-34-85 fleet. The quantity of ammunition the vehicle may carry is unknown. The coaxial machine gun used is of an unknown model, though the PKT is a potential candidate.

As for the crew, the M1981 appears to house two crewmen in the turret, a commander and a gunner. It has, however, sometimes been mentioned that the vehicle could house a third turret crewman, a loader. While all photos of the vehicle in parades only show two crewmen standing out of the turret, the seemingly larger size of the M1981’s turret in comparison to the PT-76 may perhaps be able to house an additional loader.

When first shown in 1985, the M1981 featured an additional weapon: a Malyutka missile launcher, either the Soviet 9M14 or the North-Korean produced model, the Susong-Po. This missile was mounted on top of the turret, behind the main gun. It has, however, only been observed on the M1981 once, during the 1985 parade. Since then, no photos of the vehicle show it armed with a Malyutka. Though it is possible the missile may be fitted back onto the vehicle if need be, it has been theorized that giving the M1981 a missile for the 1985 parade was done with the goal of spreading misinformation on the vehicle’s actual capabilities, without the M1981 actually being adapted to fire the Malyutka. It is sometimes claimed the vehicle may be fitted with a 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine-gun on an anti-aircraft mount. Though this would not be an unusual feature on a North Korean vehicle, it has never been observed on the M1981.

Service of the M1981

The M1981 Shin’heung has been operational in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) since the early 1980s. The vehicle is generally understood to have fulfilled an important role in the offensive-minded KPA of the pre-1990s: South Korea is a country comprising a large number of rivers, which considerably complicate operations for heavier, non-amphibious tanks, such as the various models of Chonma-Ho. The M1981 would not be as troubled by these rivers and could operate alongside amphibious armored personnel carriers such as the 323 to provide them with additional firepower that is a lot easier to move around wet areas than heavier vehicles.

The M1981 has also, quite recently, been shown in amphibious landing exercises, in which the vehicles featured a foldable plate (known as a trim vane) used to break waves, which is not typically seen during parades. The role of landing vehicle is another one which can reasonably be expected of a light amphibious tank, the M1981 playing, in general, a role similar to the PT-76 in the Red Army or the Type 63 amphibious tank in the People’s Liberation Army.

An M1981 Shin-heung during amphibious exercises, North Korea, March 2016. Source: Reddit
A closer view of the same vehicle, showing the M1981’s amphibious configuration, as well as logs mounted on the hull side. The main gun appears to be plugged. Source: militarytoday
A third photo – perhaps from the same exercise – showing M1981s and 323s heading inland after landing on a beach. Source: military-today

Upgrades and modifications

Ever since it was first seen in 1985, the M1981 has become a fairly common vehicle in North Korean parades. This allows observers to see several upgrades and modifications which have been applied to the North Korean vehicle since the 1980s.

M1981s parading down Kim Il Sung square while bearing the flags of the party and North Korea. The photo is undated. It may perhaps be the 1992 parade, or another one from the late 80s or 90s. The vehicles do feature some upgrades, notably the IR projector, as well as the new hull lights. Source:

A first upgrade was conducted at an unknown time, but likely in the 1990s or even perhaps late 1980s, seeing as the majority of photos of M1981s we know of, including a number of black-and-white or poor quality photos, show them with elements that were added with this unknown upgrade. This upgrade includes a large infrared projector placed on the right of the main gun and is linked to it by braces for elevation. New lights are also found on the hull, two to three, depending on the vehicle, on the right side of the main front plate, and, not always mounted, an additional one on the smaller front-left side plate. These lights are of various configurations. In some parades, for example, the M1981 appears to feature two infrared lights along with a regular one.

Three photos taken of a couple of M1981s in 2009, giving a better view of the upgrades the vehicle was given. Source:

In a 2015 parade, the M1981 appeared with several new upgrades, in addition to the ones seen in 2010. The vehicles were given six smoke grenade launchers, three on each side of the turret, as well a new secondary weapon: a 9K38 Igla man-portable anti-aircraft missile, likely a model of North Korean manufacture. As with the Malyutka back in 1985, whether or not this weapon is truly intended to be deployed with the M1981 remains to be seen. If so, it would grant the vehicle some self-defense capacities against helicopters and low-flying aircraft. With a crewman likely having to operate the weapon from the vehicle’s exterior, its practicality is quite dubious. This practice is very common in North Korean parades though, with all kinds of military vehicles – from the most modern models of the Chonma-ho tanks, as well as the new Songun-Ho, all the way to lightly armored self-propelled artillery pieces – all having been shown with Iglas.

M1981s on the parade in 2015, featuring infrared lights, smoke launchers and Iglas. Source:


The production numbers of the M1981 – as with any military vehicle from North Korea – are impossible to know in detail, due to the highly secretive nature of the country.

It should be noted that the M1981 appears to, in any case, have continued being regularly used and even developed upon long after its introduction in the early 1980s. Indeed, as late as 2009, a new vehicle based on its hull, the M2009 “Chunma-D” armored personnel carrier, was observed. This would tend to indicate that the vehicle was still in production (though it has also been theorized the Chunma-D may have begun production as a way to repurpose the M1981 production lines after production of the type was ended), as new variants using its hull were being introduced. Therefore, it is quite likely an important number of M1981 Shin’heungs are still present in the Korean People’s Army. An estimate of 500 vehicles in service is often brought up but is pretty much unverifiable.

Nine M1981s on the parade at Kim Il Sung square. The M1981 is likely to be quite a common vehicle in the DPRK’s army, though it is impossible to know to which precise extent. Source:

The M1981 likely played a key role in the development of North Korea’s arms industry. It is by no means the first armored vehicle produced in North Korea, with the 323 and most likely T-54 and T-55, and perhaps even the earliest models of the Chonma preceding it. However, unlike all of those vehicles, the M1981 is not merely an exact copy or slightly modified version of the original model. Though it very obviously takes some inspiration from other vehicles of the era, most notably the 323 and PT-76, but also perhaps the T-54 and Type 63, it is not a mere variant of any of those, and massively differs from any of them individually. As such, the M1981 could be argued to be North Korea’s first truly indigenous armored vehicle, setting a major precedent for a North Korean military industry. The industry would only grow in the following decades, developing, notably, updates of the Chonma-Ho, which, from a mere lightened copy of the T-62, would be vastly upgraded, eventually evolving into the current Songun-Ho. This later tank, while still in the vague filiation of the T-62, has little that remains from the Soviet 1960s main battle tank.

An M2009 Chunma-D on the parade with the flag of the party, 2009. An interesting development of the M1981, the M2009 is an armored personnel carrier developed from an amphibious tank… which itself had its hull developed from an armored personnel carrier. Source:

Conclusion – A small, obsolete light tank for the world, a massive step forward for North Korea

The M1981 Shin’heung is, by today’s standards and even to an extent in the 1980s, an obsolete vehicle. The capacities of its main gun, as well as its fire controls, are certainly obsolete against any kind of modern competition – China, which operated light tanks with similar armament in the form of the Type 62 and Type 63, has long updated them with 105 mm main guns and more up-to-date fire control systems, and has now introduced more modern vehicles which have replaced the first and are on their way to replacing the second. For North Korea though, no replacement appears to exist for the M1981, with even the October 2020 parade not featuring any. The vehicle has received some upgrades in the last few years, but they are vastly insufficient, and while it may very well still be in production, the Shin’heung is long past its prime.

Nonetheless, the vehicles likely played a major role in North Korea’s industrial history, allowing the country to switch from a mere license/local producer of Chinese or Soviet equipment, as several of the Eastern Bloc countries were, to a country which develops, at least to an extent, its own vehicles. This development turned out to be crucial for the country known as the “Hermit Kingdom”: the collapse of the Eastern Bloc left North Korea isolated, with only some moderate links remaining to Russia, and military links seemingly restricted to mostly China, Syria, and Iran. Its ability to develop its own vehicles has likely been crucial in allowing the Korean People’s Army to field vehicles more advanced than mere T-62 copies. However, even the most modern North Korean tanks, such as the Songun-Ho or the new tank revealed in 2020, would not compare favorably at all to modern South Korean tanks such as the K2, K1A2 or K1A1.

A recent view of M1981s on the parade at Kim-Il-sung square, fitted with the most modern features: two infrared front lights on the hull, an Igla missile, and smoke launchers. Despite these timid improvements, the M1981 remains long obsolete. Source: military-today
A Chonma 216, the most advanced of the Chonma series of T-62-derived main battle tanks, in front of an M1981 during the Korean Tank Crews Competition, 2017. A good example of some of the newest and oldest of North Korea’s armored vehicles. Source: KCBC via National Interest
The M1981 as it was first observed in 1985, with a Malyutka missile and no infrared searchlight
An M1981 with the flag of the Worker’s Party of Korea, with the upgrades received in the 1980s or 1990s
M1981 with the North Korean flag as seen in 2009
M1981 in amphibious landing configuration, with trim vane and side logs, as well as the North Korean flag, as seen in landing exercises in 2016
M1981 with camouflage and the North Korean flag as seen in some recent parades
M1981 with the most recent upgrades that have been seen, smoke launchers and an Igla missile, in 2015.
Illustrations by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe based on work by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet

M1981 Shin’heung specifications (estimations)

Dimensions (L-W-H) 7.60×2.10×2.80 m (estimations)
Total Weight, Battle Ready ~20 tonnes
Engine Unknown (Perhaps a 320 hp 8-cylinders air-cooled diesel engine or a 6-cylinders water-cooled 240 hp diesel engine)
Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed (road) ~60 km/h
Maximum speed (water) ~10 km/h
Range ~500 km
Crew 3 (driver, commander, gunner), 4 sometimes claimed
Main gun 85 mm derived from Type 62-85CT
Secondary armament Coaxial 7.62 mm machine-gun
Either 1 Malyutka ATGM, 1 Igla MANPAD, or perhaps 1 KPV 14.5 mm machine-gun (whether any of those would actually be used in operations is unknown)
Armor Most likely 10 to 25 mm
Total Production Unknow, about 500 sometimes mentionned


THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Military today
Small arms review
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles

WW2 French Prototypes

Citroën P28 chenillette

Nation Flag IconFrance (1931)
Infantry tractor – 3 prototypes

The early 1930s were marked by the worldwide popularity of the tankette concept, which produced a variety of vehicles used in sometimes quite radically different manners across most major industrial powers of the world. The Citroën P28 original prototype was one of the more original derivatives of this design. Designed to serve as an infantry tractor, it used a half-track configuration with Kégresse suspension, which makes it a quite interesting and original design. While not adopted as an infantry tractor, with the more traditional fully-tracked Renault UE being picked, it became an interesting half-track cavalry armored car.

In the wake of the Carden-Loyd

In 1928, production of the British Carden-Loyd Mark VI tankette began. The result of several years of experimentation on one and two-man turretless armored vehicles, this British tankette was a 1.5 ton heavy vehicle with a two-men crew. A novelty on the international market, which was relatively stagnant and dominated by the WW1-era French Renault FT, the Carden-Loyd seemed to offer new possibilities as a lighter and cheaper armored vehicle.

The potential was not lost on France and, in June and July 1930, two Carden-Loyds were tested at the Centre des Essais de Véhicules (Vehicles Trials Center) of Vincennes. Those trials had been conducted at the initiative of engineer Edgar Brandt. Brandt was a prolific artillery designer, responsible notably for the Brandt 27/31 81 mm mortar, an evolution of the British Stokes that would, in turn, be adopted, modified, and/or copied by virtually every major and many minor military powers of the 1930s. It is reported two different Carden-Loyds were tested, one of a “light” and one of a “heavy” model. The light one could be outfitted with a machine-gun and used as a small combat vehicle, while the heavier one was tried as an armored tractor with a tracked trailer, with the purpose of carrying the Stokes-Brandt mortar and ammunition.

The Type N program

The trials of the two Carden-Loyd vehicles proved influential in the French Army’s infantry services. On October 7th, 1930, a set of specifications was issued for a new type of vehicle. These would be véhicules blindés de ravitaillement de l’infanterie, or armored infantry supply vehicles. This set of specifications was given the denomination of “Type N” a few weeks later. The Type N specifications requested vehicles with a maximum height of 1.10 m, able to carry a load of 950 kg, typically a mortar or heavy machine gun with ammunition, crewed by two men, able to reach 35 km/h, and with an autonomy of five hours.

Projects from three different companies were ordered to be built as prototypes. The orders covered six prototype vehicles, trailers to be used by these vehicles, as well as larger trailers on which the vehicles could be carried on, towed by a truck. The first company to receive orders was Latil, which produced a design created by Brandt and Vickers-Armstrong, the makers of the Carden-Loyd. The Latil design was very similar to the original British vehicle, and one of the six prototypes was actually imported from Great Britain. The second company was Renault, generally speaking, the giant of the French armored vehicles industry in the era, which produced the UE, a small entirely tracked tankette, obviously inspired by the British Carden-Loyd but still a new design. Finally, Citroën produced the P28, a vehicle far more different from the British tankette that inspired the Type N program

Citroën’s infantry tractor

Citroën’s military vehicles of the 1920s were almost systematically fitted with the Kégresse track system. This system consisted of tracks that, instead of separate metallic interlocked parts, were instead a unitary, flexible belt. It had been created by French engineer Adolphe Kégresse whilst he was based in Imperial Russia, from 1905 onward. In 1919, Kégresse returned to France and was hired by Citroën. From then on, his track systems were featured on a large number of military vehicles, often in a half-track configuration, including artillery tractors and armored cars such as the AMC P16 (designed by Citroën but produced by Schneider) and even some Renault FT light tanks.

The vehicle presented by Citroën to match the Type N specifications was no exception to the rule. It was a small half-track with two wheels at the front used for steering and powered Kégresse tracks at the rear. These had a large front sprocket and a single bogie holding two road wheels as well as a large rear trailing wheel. A notable feature of the Citroën vehicle was that it was crewed by only one man, who sat at the front-left of the vehicle, under an openable 6 mm-thick armored hood with vision hatches on the sides. The engine was to his right; the rear of the vehicle was unarmored and featured a storage bin where weapons or ammunition would typically have been carried. The front of the P28 featured two distinctive round headlights. No armament was fitted, as the vehicle was merely intended to transport arms and ammunition under minimal protection, not to actively fight.

The driver’s hood on prototype 35248. Source: char-français
Photo of prototype 4016-W1, showing the P28’s notable headlights. Source: char-français

The engine used was a Citroën C4 4-cylinder, 72×100 1,628 cm3 engine with an output of 30 hp. This gave it a maximum speed of 39.5 km/h on-road, without a trailer. It should be noted that, when the order for prototypes was placed by the French military, the production of three half-tracked vehicles and three fully tracked ones was requested. The tracked version never left the drawing board and even its design remains unknown as of today.

Unsatisfactory trials

Three prototypes were manufactured by Citroën, registered as 35248, 35249, and 4016-W1. The first prototype began its trials at Vincennes on 24th July 1931 and continued trials there until the 29th. The two other prototypes were delivered to the training grounds along with their trailers on July 31st of the same year. The trailer that had been designed by Citroën was wheeled, unlike the Renault UK trailer of the UE, which was tracked.

Prototype 4016-W1 shown towing the Citroën trailer, and with the side hatch open. Source: char-français
Prototype 35249 with a similar trailer on a platform. Source: char-français

The vehicles generally performed quite poorly during those trials, with complaints being addressed to Citroën. Notably, the vehicle’s cooling left a lot to be desired, with risks of overheating the engine. There was no system for the driver to detach the trailer without leaving the vehicle, which was both impractical and potentially dangerous under fire. The French Conseil Consultatif de l’Armement (Consultative Council of Armament) was pushed to make a choice between the different vehicles in October 1931. While its trials had not been without flaw either, the more conventional Renault UE was adopted by the French military, cutting short the P28’s life as an infantry tractor, though not as a military vehicle in general.

Conclusion – a future in the cavalry

Despite the rejection of the Citroën P28 infantry tractor, it did see further evolution thanks to interest from the cavalry, which considered the vehicle’s potential evolution into a light reconnaissance armored car, leading to at least one of three prototypes being converted to mount a turret instead of the storage bin, and the order of 50 armored car variants of the P28 featuring a centrally-mounted turret in October of 1931.

As for the infantry tractors prototypes, their fate beyond 1931 is unknown. It is quite likely they ended scrapped, if not by the French in the 1930s, then by the German occupiers during the Second World War.

Whilst Citröen’s proposals were not adopted, they remain the most original vehicles offered to the French Army as part of the Type N program. In comparison, the Latil-Brandt vehicle was little more than a copy of the original Carden-Loyd, and the Renault UE took a lot of inspiration from the British vehicle, particularly suspension-wise.

Illustration for the Citroën P28 tractor, created by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin and funded by our Patreon campaign


Tout les blindés de l’armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections éditions,
Les matériels de l’armée Française: Les automitrailleuses de reconnaissance, Tome 1, l’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections, 2005