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WW2 French Armored Cars

AMR 33 / Renault VM

ww2 French Tanks France (1931-1940)
Reconnaissance Vehicle (Light Tank/Tracked Armored Car) – 123 Built (5 Prototypes + 118 Production Vehicles)

The AMR 33 was a tracked reconnaissance vehicle designed by Renault in the early 1930s. Though it may seem unimpressive at first glance, it had a complex developmental history, and would be one of the faster armored fighting vehicles of its time. Though not extremely successful on its own, and eventually plagued with a number of issues, it would nonetheless launch a series of moderate successes achieved by Renault in the 1930s.

The French Cavalry after The Great War

World War One saw armored vehicles breakthrough into mainstream military use. Though there were some armored vehicles manufactured during the Belle Epoque (“Beautiful Time”, a name given in France to the pre-WW1 part of the 20th century) in France, these were all armored car that stayed as prototypes or small production runs, such as the Charron 1902, Hotchkiss 1908, and others.

As for the war itself, the Infantry branch got the lion’s share of armored fighting vehicles, with their tanks, particularly the FT, seeing mass-scale production and use. In comparison, the Cavalry was relegated to using wheeled vehicles. There were small production runs of various armored cars, such as the Archer, Renault ED or Jeffery de Fabry, and many prototypes, but these could never be decisive during the course of the war. Towards the end of the conflict, a more modern and standardized type, the White TBC, was settled upon, but while it had higher production than other French armored cars of the era with 230 built, this number still paled in comparison to more than 4,000 of Renault’s FT light infantry tank.

In order to see all of its armament, the White TBC is best viewed from the side. The White TBC was based on an American truck chassis, and out of the entire 230 vehicles production run, only 55 used newly-made chassis as opposed to already used ones. Though it was already somewhat of a more durable option than previous ad-hoc or small-scale production armored cars, few would have imagined, when it first reached the frontlines in October 1918, that the White TBC would remain in service of the French military for two decades, owing to the lack of funding for replacements in the Interwar. Source: char-français

During the 1920s, the Cavalry branch of the French Army proved a lot more willing than the Infantry to innovate in terms of new concepts, and this also extended to armored vehicles. Perhaps the most significant example of this in terms of program would be the two AMC programs, the n°1 launched in April of 1923 and n°2 launched in August of 1924.

Both called for an AMC (Automitrailleuse de Combat – Combat Armored Car), but were largely different. The first program requested a 4 tonnes vehicle able to reach 55 km/h on road and with a gearbox allowing for inverted motion. The second program called for a 7.5 tonnes vehicle, with a crew of 3, and, at that point, a decent 20 mm of armor, high off-road capacity and maximum speed of just 30 km/h, with the configuration of the running gear left to the manufacturer’s discretion.

The second program de facto called for a cavalry tank. Leaving running gears to the manufacturer’s discretion and being willing to experiment with other options than just wheeled vehicles was also a significant aspect of the interwar French cavalry procurement. For example, in 1923, the French Cavalry would adopt the Citroën 10CV P4T armored car, often called just the “M23”. This was a half-track Kégresse armored car which, while it had its own turret, copied the FT’s configuration of being armed with either a 37 mm SA 18 or an 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine gun. Only 16 of these would end up being purchased however.

A purchase of 16 Citroën-Kégresse P4T-based armored cars would likely end up being the most significant purchase of armored fighting vehicles by the French Cavalry in the early 1920s. Note that these are incredibly easy to confuse with the Polish wz.28, built on the same chassis, using the same turret configuration of either a 37 mm gun or a 8 mm machine gun, and with perhaps some inspiration from the Citroën design, though they were by all means locally-designed. Source: char-français

Reconnaissance was a major role which armored cars could potentially fulfill, but despite the Cavalry’s ambitions, the 1920s were also a period of particularly dry funding, especially for this branch which was viewed as having had much less of a role in France’s WW1 victory than the artillery or infantry. Reconnaissance groups of French cavalry units had to make do with, at best, civilians cars which had been summarily armored and given a machine gun, and at worst unarmored cars or half-tracks where the crew may have been expected to fire their weapon, often a CRSG 1915 Chauchat machine rifle, from their seats.

A Citroën P1T Kégresse half-track armed with a CRSG 1915 Chauchat 8 mm machine rifle, forced to serve as an ad-hoc reconnaissance vehicle within an armored car squadron of the French Army of the Rhine, during the 1925 maneuvers. Source: François Vauvillier’s collection from Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault

The First Purpose-Built Reconnaissance Vehicles

With the lack of cavalry funding preventing a large armored reconnaissance armored car program, there were not many dedicated reconnaissance vehicles manufactured in France in the 1920s. The more significant efforts invested into combat armored cars had resulted in a fair number of prototypes as early as around 1924, eventually resulting in a fairly large-scale adoption of the Schneider P16 half-track. The adoption of the future design was expected as early as 1925, though eventually the production of 4 pre-production vehicles would have to wait until 1928, with 96 production vehicles then being delivered in 1930-1931., With less obvious military interest, designing reconnaissance vehicles would be a much riskier affair for private manufacturers, with greater risk of financial loss.

To someone with modern sensibilities looking at it, there is no doubt the Schneider P16 is archaic, but at its time it brought some considerable innovations, being notably one of the first vehicles to combine a 37 mm gun and a coaxial machine gun in the French Army, as opposed to having just one of these armament options. It was also perhaps the first new French AFV to mount the 7.5 mm MAC 31 from the start of production. Source: War Thunder forums

Nonetheless, in the late 1920s, the Lyon-based manufacturer Berliet would start offering a whole range of wheeled armored vehicles to the French military. In 1928, it showcased two prototypes of the VUR, a four-wheeled light armored liaison vehicle, and the next year, in 1929, a new vehicle branched out of this offering, the VUDB. This was far from a classic, turreted armored car, being instead more of a simple open-topped four-wheeled car with an armored body, with a number of firing ports and two machine rifles for the crew of three to use. This light (4.9 tonnes fully loaded), at this point mobile (55 km/h on road) armored car was already a significant step forward in terms of armored reconnaissance in comparison to a summarily armored civilian car.

The French Cavalry classified the VUDB as a voiture de prise de contact (ENG: contact-taking car) and ordered 50 which were delivered in 1930. These vehicles’ service would overwhelmingly be in the colonies, but they set a significant precedent in being the first considerable effort towards creating a reconnaissance armored car in interwar France.

More of a car or small truck with an armored body and firing ports than a true, traditional combat armored car, the VUDB was nonetheless an important stepping stone in the production of armored reconnaissance vehicles at any scale by the French military, and would be a staple of the French Army in southern Morocco all the way to WW2. Source: www.wargaming3d.com

The 1930 Motorization Program

The year 1930 was key for the armored vehicle fleet of the French Army. Despite the Cavalry’s best efforts, adoptions of new vehicles had remained limited in the 1920s. Besides the half-track Schneider armored car and the VUDB at the tail’s end of the decade, many vehicles, such as the White TBC, still dated as far back as WW1, and roles where a purpose-built vehicle would be preferred had to be fulfilled ad-hoc.

It is a fair assessment to say that the Infantry was not that better off either, though it suffered from doctrinal conservatism in the high-command much more. In the Infantry’s case, the only large-scale adoption prior to 1930 had been the D1 in 1929, and that tank was still in the production process by 1930 (it would have to wait until 1936 to be truly operational in its final configuration). In both the cases of the D1 and P16, the new armored vehicles were neither numerous or polyvalent enough to replace all the fleet of WW1 vehicles. While the FT and White had been sufficient through much of the 1920s, they were truly becoming dated by the turn of the 1930s.

It is therefore not surprising that significant programs were initiated by both the Cavalry and Infantry in 1930. On July 4th, the French Army Minister signed an ambitious program, which comprised, for the Cavalry, transforming an entire cavalry division into what would become a Division Légère Mécanique (DLM, ENG: Light Mechanized Division), as well as motorize a brigade of each other cavalry division within five years.

Alongside this organizational change, requirements for new vehicle types were to be formulated and issued to manufacturers. Two sets of requirements for armored reconnaissance vehicles were issued. Both shared similar requirements of a 50 km/h maximum speed, 3,600 kg empty weight and 600 kg load capacity, but one was to be a 1.80 m tall turretless vehicle carrying six personnel (including the driver) with an openable roof. The other would be a 2 m tall three-men armored car armed with a turreted machine gun, with another machine gun stored as a backup and a firing port in the hull from which a crewmembers could fire a machine rifle.

Though firing a machine rifle through firing ports is hardly anywhere as good as a turreted machine gun, at least by the 1930s, the crew could be expected to use a 7.5 mm FM 24/29, a much better weapon than the previous 8 mm FM 1915 Chauchat. Source: armesfrancaises.free.fr

These two distinct sets of requirements were merged together in January 1931. The resulting vehicle mostly took the characteristics of the turreted armored car, such as a three-man crew, but was to ditch having a complete turret, instead using a shielded machine gun on a rotatable mount. A new classification system had been introduced at this point in time, with different roles being indicated by a letter. The reconnaissance cavalry vehicle would be called Type L.

Two companies, Renault and Berliet, offered vehicles for the Type L. Likely due to the constant shift in requirements as well as overly ambitious expectations on how light the vehicle could be made to be, neither fulfilled the last set of requirements. Renault’s vehicle, the UR type L or URL, was a six-wheeled armored car with a fully rotatable, fully armored turret, weighing upward of 6 tonnes. Berliet’s VUC type L or VUCL was a similarly heavy vehicle weighing in the 5.3 tonnes range empty and up to 5.9 tonnes at maximum load, though it was a 4×4 armed with a shielded machine gun instead of a turreted one (as well as ports doubling as vision and firing ports on the front and sides of the vehicle, for the crew to fire a machine rifle from). Both the URL and VUCL appear to have been present at the 1931 army maneuvers, but do not appear to have made a lasting impression.

The Renault URL prototype as showcased in August 1931. This was a turreted vehicle, and Renault envisioned potentially putting the two rear wheels on tracks in order to improve cross-country capacities. This would not materialize, not even when a revised prototype was offered in 1933, at a point where there was barely any interest in it left. Source: Renault collection from Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault
The first VUCL prototype at the trials commission in Vincennes, December 1931. Two VUCL prototypes were manufactured. They had a somewhat unique fate in that, despite not being adopted, they were reportedly sent to Morocco and pressed into service alongside the more numerous Berliet VUDBs. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Page from the Infantry’s Book: Interest in the Type N

The Type L program initiated by the Cavalry could not be said to have been a success. With shifting requirements and overly ambitious expectations, the two offerings from private companies did not end up fulfilling the requirements at all, nor did they look promising. As medium-sized wheeled options proved, at this point, disappointing, the French Cavalry would soon take interest in the results of a program initiated by the Infantry, the Type N.

The Type N program was initiated after the French Army’s trial commission at Vincennes got to experiment on two Carden-Loyds of British origins in June-July 1930. These vehicles immediately brought interest in the still infantry-focused French Army. The Carden-Loyd had originally been thought as a way to mechanize the infantry, but when the French Army tried the vehicles, it compared them to unarmored Citroën-Kégresse half-tracked tractors, with the Carden-Loyd allegedly performing admirably against them. It was quickly imagined that a small vehicle of this size could operate as an excellent tractor/supply vehicle, able to tow either an anti-tank gun or light artillery piece, or a trailer loaded with ammunition for infantry companies, or potentially, even both.

As early as October 1930, the French Infantry issued specifications for a véhicule blindé de ravitaillement de l’infanterie (ENG: Infantry Armored Supply Vehicle). This would soon be given the designation of Type N.

The requirements for the Type N requested a tiny vehicle not higher than 1.10 m, able to take a load of 950 kg, crewed by two men, and able to reach a maximum speed of 35 km/h on road, while having good off-road capacities. There was not a strict requirement of a running gear type, so in theory the vehicle could very well have been wheeled, tracked, or half-track. In practice, there were three major competitors for the Type N, none of which was fully wheeled. There was one half-track, the Citroën P28 chenillette, and two fully-tracked vehicles, the Latil N, a mere copy of the Carden-Loyd, and the Renault UE.

Schematics of the Renault UE, showing the general design of the vehicle and the placement of its powertrain. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The driver’s hood on the first of the two Citroën P28 chenillette prototypes. Source: char-français

Though initiated by the Infantry, it is not, from the requirements, surprising that the Type N would soon garner interest from the Cavalry. Since the late 1920s, British engineers and salesmen had done much work abroad to sell the idea of very light tracked vehicles, which could be used for a variety of purposes, from reconnaissance to a light tank substitute or a tractor. When looking at the requirements of the Type N, the vehicle was far from being as slow as tracked vehicles of previous years often were, at 35 km/h, while its tiny size would surely prove useful for reconnaissance.

The Time of the P28

Prototypes of the Type N vehicles were showcased from the spring to summer 1931, with Renault being the first to present a prototype in April 1931, while Latil and Citroën would present theirs in July 1931. It appears that interest of the Cavalry into the vehicles of the Type N program blossomed starting in the summer, likely after the presentation of the Citroën vehicle.

The Infantry picked Renault’s fully tracked vehicle, the Renault UE, in October 1931. However, at around the same time, the Cavalry showed intense interest in the Citroën vehicle. The P28 chenillette proved 10 km/h faster than the Renault, reaching 39.5 km/h, and while the Cavalry was generally fairly open to vehicles with new types of running gear, it still had a lot more experience with half-tracks in comparison to fully tracked vehicles which traditionally were more of an infantry affair.

The Cavalry was very interested in the P28. The vehicle would require extensive modifications to be turned into a turreted armored car, though the same could be said of an UE. The Cavalry still viewed it as having a lot of potential as an automitrailleuse de contact (ENG: contact armored car) meant for close reconnaissance. In October 1931, months before any prototypes of an armed P28 were ever delivered, 50 vehicles were ordered. It would only be in July 1932 that a prototype of the final configuration would be ready.

A Citroën P28 in the final configuration of the vehicle. Ironically enough, the prototype of this configuration would not be ready until July 1932, at which point the Renault vehicle which would de facto replace it was also undergoing trials. Source: char-français

This was, at this point, a major success for Citroën, which was one of Renault’s most important rivals within the French automotive industry, both on the civilian and military markets. Citroën managing to achieve such a success was not well viewed by the rival company. Around the same timeframe, likely very shortly before the adoption of the Citroën P28, Renault offered a first design for a tracked reconnaissance vehicle. It would receive the “VM” two-letter code (in the same sequence as the FT, UE, and countless other Renault vehicles).

The Early Design of the Renault VM

The first Renault VM design was created around the same timeframe as the Citroën P28, in autumn 1931. The design would retain the same very short length of 2.8 m as the UE, and perhaps the same or at least a similar width of 1.74 m. However, there were major structural changes to the vehicle. Renault gave this modified design the internal code “Renault VM”.

Instead of retaining the front crew compartment, centrally-placed engine, and rear-mounted stowage area of the original UE, the VM’s crew compartment would instead be placed towards the left and rear of the vehicle, with an engine to the front and right.

A side schematic view of the early Renault VM, showing the similar drivetrain in comparison to the UE, as well as the turret and crew positions. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The largest difference in the vehicle design was the presence of a turreted armament. The early VM design featured a turret which was mounted on the left of the vehicle, behind the driver’s position, which was positioned in the same way as on an UE. The turret featured on the schematics of the vehicle was a fairly simplistic design. It would be armed with the new machine gun available for fortifications and armored vehicle designs, the 7.5 mm MAC 31. The turret would have housed a single crewmember, the gunner/commander. It appears that a small cupola would have been placed towards the rear of the turret, and would likely have had some sort of vision device, such as a panoramic periscope. From the design, the turret appears to have been very small overall, to the point it would have been quite cramped. It also appears that no reloads for the machine gun would be present in the turret, with all the magazines having to be stowed inside the hull instead.

The other major structural change of the early VM design in comparison to the UE was the engine, with the early VM being designed to have a more powerful engine. Its potential horsepower output is unknown, as Renault used an alternative means of power measurement for it, CV. It would have been a 15 CV engine. In comparison, the original UE’s Renault 75 was a 10 CV engine producing 30 hp, while the AMR 33’s 24 CV engine would produce 84 hp. Unlike the centrally-mounted position on the UE, the engine was shifted to the right on the early VM design. This would have been a fairly uncommon feature at the time. As lateral space was quite limited, the radiator and ventilator would have had to be shifted at 90° and be installed to the rear of the engine, in a fairly distinct manner which would have also been quite rare at the time. The radiator, in particular, would have been installed as far to the back as the turret would have been, and the gunner would have effectively been sandwiched between the radiator on his right and the hull’s wall to the left.

A top view of the early VM design’s structural arrangement, showing the position of the crew as well as the engine block, which extended over the whole short 2.7 m length of the vehicle. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The suspension of the vehicle would have used the same components as the Renault UE, with three leaf springs bogies on which two small road wheels were mounted, a front sprocket and a rear idler. However, unlike on the UE, the sprocket and idler would have been placed higher. Though the return rollers are not seen on the schematics, they would very likely have been present. Armor protection at this point in time would also very likely have been the same as the UE, with 9 mm on vertical surfaces and 6 mm on all other plates.

Renault’s early VM design was submitted to the technical services of the French Cavalry at some point in autumn 1931. The vehicle was formally rejected by the French Cavalry on November 12th 1931.

A first review of the design by the French Cavalry was fairly negative. Several design choices of the vehicle were deemed subpar and proved unpopular, as some of the design features were quite unconventional for the time. Among these was the rear-turreted configuration. Another source of discontent was the engine’s offset mounting to the right. Furthemore, the engine was not thought to be powerful enough to allow for the vehicle to reach a high enough speed. This was further worsened by the use of a suspension almost identical to the UE, with six small road wheels mounted on leaf springs, which would generally favor cross-country mobility but make reaching higher maximum speeds harder. There were also issues with the proposed placement of the radiator all the way to the right, with the position of the commander cramped between the radiator and the left wall of the vehicle.

The Armed UE Interval

Somewhat paradoxically, just days after the early Renault VM design was rejected, interest was expressed into a much more basic armed Renault UE vehicle. On November 21st 1931, the STC (Service Technique de la Cavalerie – Cavalry Technical Service) required Renault to provide two Renault UEs for a presentation to a Dragons Portés (Eng: mechanized dragoons) unit. Crucially, the STC requested one of the two vehicles to be armed. This request was made for a presentation which was to take place only nine days later, and this timeframe was considered too short to reasonably modify a UE to feature an armament.

However, while Renault could not produce a conversion for this specific presentation, the request from the STC made it very clear to Renault that there would be official interest in an armed version of the UE from the French Cavalry. Work quickly began on realizing such a conversion. By late 1931, the 6 Renault UE prototypes were still undergoing trials for the French military, and the first production vehicles would only be delivered in 1932. As such, creating such a vehicle on such a short notice would be accomplished by modifying an existing prototype.

The modified vehicle would be the prototype registered as “n°77 982”. The modifications made to the vehicle were very simple. The roof of the co-driver’s compartment was raised by a small extent, using the same riveted construction as the rest of the vehicle. The dome-shaped cupola was retained. This raised compartment allowed for enough internal space for a machine gun to be added. This was, as on the VM design, a 7.5 mm MAC 31.

A front view of the modified Renault UE. The simplistic nature of the conversion can be seen. Source: char-français
The vehicle is seen during its trials, towing the Renault UK trailer. Source: loutan.net

The modified prototype was presented to the French Cavalry at an unspecified date in early 1932. The 1st BDP (Bataillon de Dragons Portés) carried out operational testing. These trials generally underlined shortcomings of the vehicle when it came to fulfilling the light armored car role which was desired from the conversion. Besides the machine gun, the modified Renault UE had been kept almost completely untouched. The vehicle retained the Renault 75 four-cylinder gasoline engine mounted in the center of the vehicle, and producing a mere 30 hp. The original suspension was retained as well, meaning the vehicle was not particularly fast, nor did it have a particularly good autonomy at around 100 km.

The Birth of the AMR Concept

By the end of 1931, the French Cavalry and Renault stood in somewhat of an odd position. The French Cavalry had just rejected the VM reconnaissance vehicle design from Renault, but while it had ordered a very simple modified UE that would soon be delivered, there was realistically little potential in such a vehicle. With the P28 still not at the finalized prototype stage and unlikely to offer a good reconnaissance armored car, something had to be done if the Army was to acquire such a vehicle.

This would come on January 16th 1932. At this point in time, the French Cavalry put up detailed specifications of what would be required from a reconnaissance vehicle. It is at this moment that the Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance (AMR; ENG: Reconnaissance Armored Car) designation was born.

The term automitrailleuse deserves a little more attention to be understood in the context in which it was used in interwar France. In common French language, ‘automitrailleuse’ is practically identical to the English ‘armored car’ term. However, in the Interwar era, an ‘automitrailleuse’ referred to any armed vehicle of the Cavalry, sometimes not even armored. Indeed, the French “automitrailleuse” comes from “automobile” and “mitrailleuse” (machine gun), with no part of the word implying the vehicle is armored. In practice, the vast majority of automitrailleuse were armored vehicles, but a few unarmored cars armed with automatic machine rifles used for patrol in the colonies were sometimes called automitrailleuse as well.

The term did not particularly come with an associated running gear when used in the context of the French military either. Vehicles called automitrailleuse could be wheeled, half-tracked, or even fully tracked, as long as they were operated by the Cavalry. This may seem somewhat archaic from a modern point of view, especially as designations such as “cavalry tank” now exist, however, these were not necessarily widespread at that time. The idea that the tank (or “char” in French) was a weapon of the Infantry, not of the Cavalry, was not entirely French, and indeed there are other examples of fully tracked, turreted armored vehicles not been referred to as tanks when serving in the cavalry branch of other armies. Two notable examples are the American M1 “Combat Car” and the Japanese Type 92 “Heavy Armored Car”.

The Japanese Type 92 Heavy Armored Car (left) and American M1 Combat Car (right) are two other notable examples of fully tracked vehicles which were formally referred to as a form of “car” due to their cavalry use. Source: FireArmsCentralWiki (Type 92), Wikimedia Commons (M1)

The requirements of the AMR, as formulated in January 1932, indeed did not call for a specific running gear. The idea with the AMR was to create a small, contact-reconnaissance armored car, whereas another larger type (what would become the AMD) would assume longer-ranged missions. Because of this, the vehicle being able to fight independently or even having huge range was secondary in comparison to a good mobility and small size, allowing for an overall discrete vehicle.

The AMR was to be crewed by two men, a commander in a turret and a driver in the hull. The turret was to be armed with a MAC 31 machine gun, with a spare being stored inside the vehicle, and 2,250 rounds of ammunition (nine drums) being available inside the vehicle. A very light weight of 3 tonnes was required, with a load-taking capacity of 500 kg. Mobility-wise, the maximum speed requirement was reasonable at 35 km/h. The vehicle would have to be able to negotiate a 50% slope and remain stable on a 60% one. Height was to be limited to 1.80 m and width even further, to 1.60 m. Range was to be of 200 km.

The VM is Reborn

With these new requirements, life was breathed into the VM program again, with work resuming on the vehicle, still retaining the same two-letter code.

Some major design changes were soon applied to the VM. When Renault offered a presentation mock-up in March 1932, the design had changed very significantly. The most important change was likely to lengthen the vehicle by 80 cm and change the suspension. The new suspension design featured four road wheels, on two bogies, with each road wheel being put on leaf springs and having a fairly large range of independent movement. A new 24CV eight-cylinder engine was adopted instead of the previous 15CV of the early VM. With more space, the new design was also able to ditch the odd choice of putting the radiator and ventilator way to the rear of the engine, instead placing them on the side of it. This would significantly improve the commander’s position, as he was otherwise very close to these elements.

The revised VM design. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
A cutaway view of the same vehicle. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
A top view of the internal arrangement of the revised VM, which was at this point a lot more efficient. Behind the commander, on the left side of the rear hull, a two-part door would allow the commander to exit or enter the vehicle, while the other side would be taken by the radiator grille. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The vehicle adopted a new turret design, which was not a product of Renault, but Schneider. At this point, there was significant collaboration between the two firms, and a similar turret would also be placed on the Renault URL prototype that was still being worked on. The general layout of the vehicle was somewhat similar to the previous VM, but much more spacious, with the commander not being almost on top of the driver, who had a much more distinct compartment. The turret was pushed all the way to the rear of the hull.

The Renault URL with a Schneider riveted hexagonal turret, as seen in Vincennes in August 1933. A similar turret design was featured on the plans of the revised VM, but never made it ‘in the flesh’. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

This new design of the VM overall appeared a lot more mature than the previous plans, and was judged promising enough for not just one, but five prototypes to be ordered on April 20th 1932, for a sum of 856,250 Francs (roughly equivalent to €55 millions), with deliveries requested no later than September, so the five vehicles could take part in large maneuvers that would be undertaken around this time. One last major change was found between the revised design and the prototypes. The Schneider turret was ditched, with Renault instead using a riveted design of its own.

The VM Reaches the Prototype Stage

After receiving the order for prototypes in April, Renault quickly put itself into gear. Long delays had not been rare in the company’s manufacture in the past, and as not just one, but five prototypes had been ordered, it could have been feared this may have plagued the VM. However, the company ended up able to produce five prototypes before September, with the assembly seemingly being completed as early as July.

Manufacturing was probably eased by the Renault UE being in mass-production by 1932. Though the VM had evolved to be very different from the UE, Renault would still at this point have extensive experience and facilities able to manufacture small tracked armored vehicles of riveted construction. The five vehicles were given registrations from 79756 to 79760. They were protected by 6 and 9 mm armor plates and given a Renault 24CV “Reinastella” engine producing 85 hp.

The five prototypes were at first all identical. In a way, they formed more of a pre-production run than a true proof of concept or prototype. The reason behind five identical prototypes being ordered was likely to make their use in the 1932 maneuvers more relevant, with the opportunities brought by a platoon of vehicles being better showcased with five than one, while a single failure preventing any test was ruled out. This would also allow the vehicles to be later modified for experimental purposes.

A photo of prototype n°79756, the first in the registration order, in the configuration of the 1932 maneuvers. Interesting aspects of this configuration are the suspension as well as the stowage mounting point on the hull sponson, both of which would eventually be modified or disappear. Source: armedconflicts.com
A photo of the rear of prototype n°79756 during the September 1932 maneuvers. This angle gives a very good view as to how far the turret was pushed to the rear. Source: war-book.ru
Front and rear views of n°79756 in the 1932 configuration. Note the Renault seal to the right of the registration number on the front view. Source: Renault documentation via Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

There are a number of features of the five prototypes which differ from both the previous VM plans and the future mass-produced vehicles, and therefore deserve to be highlighted in more detail. The first is a Renault turret. Though the plans from early 1932 show the VM with a Schneider turret, for one reason or another (perhaps due to quick manufacture of a Schneider turret not being possible or due to a perceived superiority), the prototypes received a turret designed in-house by Renault. This was a fairly high hexagonal turret of riveted construction, quite similar in general appearance to the turret designed by Citroën for their P28. The turret appears to have featured vision devices on each of the two side plates, the rear plate, and to the front, to the left of the gun (which was the fairly new 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun). The turret was pushed all the way to the rear of the hull, offset to the left, as on previous plans. It is reported that the Renault turret was found quite unsatisfactory during testing. Not only was its fairly unorthodox rear placement not at all liked, but the internal arrangement was found to be lacking, and compared negatively to the turret of Renault’s competitor Citroën.

The other notable feature of the prototypes is their suspension. It was, by this point, fairly basic. The vehicles featured four wheels, mounted on two bogies of which the leaf spring acted as the suspension unit, rather than being the point on which finer springs which acted as the suspension were mounted. As a result of both, an overly large range of motion and the points of movements being concentrated in two areas, this suspension was reported to offer a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. It is very easy to differentiate from future suspension types due to the lack of any vertical springs. The vehicle already featured three return rollers, with a front sprocket and rear idler wheels (which, outside of the sprocket featuring teeth, were very similar). Wheels had an open spoked design in order to reduce weight to a minimum.

A number of stowage points were also unique to these prototypes, most significantly rings on which a canvas cover could be attached on the left sponsons of the vehicles. These would later be moved, as the canvas cover, stowed to the side of the vehicle, would potentially be removed by any lateral obstacle.

The French Army’s First Look at the VMs: A Good Concept, To Be Refined

With five vehicles delivered, the Renault VMs were able to form an experimental platoon which actively took part in the September 1932 maneuvers. These maneuvers were on their own fairly historic, as their goal was to experiment on fairly large scale cavalry mechanized units (“groupements méchaniques” or, in English, “mechanized groups”).

Overall, some aspects of the VMs left a very positive impression. The vehicles did exceed the required weight, going over 4 tonnes, however, this was not particularly a surprise, as all major 1920s and 1930s projects ended up going over the requirement weight, largely due to overly ambitious requirements. However, the vehicles were mobile, reaching over 55 km/h on road, while their tracked configuration offered superior off-road performances in comparison to wheeled or half-tracked armored cars. This alone was enough to show the considerable qualities a tracked AMR may offer for close reconnaissance.

N°79756 is seen during the September 1932 maneuvers, with the side mounting of the canvas cover being apparent here. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

However, these general qualities of the vehicles and their class are to be balanced by a variety of issues which were found on the vehicles. As mentioned previously, the Renault designed turrets were found to be lacking. The suspension was even more of a problem, due to its overly large range of movement making for a very uncomfortable ride with sudden harsh movements of the wheels being a common occurrence. Despite their small sizes, the VMs were also found to be loud, which would be a major drawback for their role. In terms of range, they failed to achieve the 200 km requested of them and were instead closer to merely 100 km. The vehicles were found to be at times poorly balanced, and at last the rear-turreted configuration was very much disliked.

After these drawbacks were noted, the vehicles were returned to Renault in order for improvements to be designed immediately. The manufacturer quickly responded, and by November sent three of the vehicles back to the Vincennes commission for testing.

Towards the Production Standard

The prototypes which were returned to Vincennes were the three last ones in the registration order, 79758 to 79760. The main round of improvements which Renault had worked on focused on the suspension. In order for the commission to determine which potential type they found superior, each of the three vehicles was delivered with a different suspension.

The vehicle registered 79758 featured the same suspension type as all five prototypes had been fitted with at first. The vehicle registered 79759 featured a modified version of this same suspension.) Iit had the same general design but featured friction-operating dampeners fixed to the armored hull of the vehicle and to the road wheels in order to reduce sudden strong movements. Unfortunately, no photos of this vehicle in this configuration have emerged as of today

The last vehicle, registered as 79760, featured a new suspension type. Though it had four road wheels as well, this suspension moved away from two bogies of two wheels. Instead, the front and rear wheels were individually mounted, while the two central wheels were part of a bogie. Both the front and rear wheels were mounted on a horizontally-placed coil spring. The two wheels part of a bogie were placed on small leaf springs linked by the bogie’s body to a large central coil springs/hydraulic shock absorbers on the bottom of the hull side further smoothened the movement of the central road wheels. The number of return rollers was also increased to four.

The 79760 Renault VM prototype in the configuration it was showcased in late 1932. Source: Renault archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
A side view of the same prototype. Outside of the changes to the suspension, this side view also shows the absence of the stowage points on the sponson. Source: Renault archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

It is known the vehicle registered as 79759 was tested from November 17th to December 13th 1932, while 79760 was tested from November 30th to December 14th. The conclusion of these new trials was clear. The vehicle fitted with the coil spring suspension turned out to offer a much more comfortable ride than the one with the large leaf springs, and overall turned out to be a much better technical solution. The trials commission published a report on December 22nd which concluded that the Renault VM, despite perhaps not fulfilling every single requirement put forward back in January 1932, was a satisfactory vehicle and would be ready for adoption. Earlier the same month, on December 9th, a small update had been made to the requirements, with the armor thickness required being raised from 9 to 13 mm.

Orders… and Continued Evolutions of the Prototypes

Following this positive evaluation from the trials commission, the first order for serial production of the Renault VM was placed on March 8th 1933. This formal adoption of the vehicle gave it the full designation of AMR Renault Modèle 1933, commonly known as AMR 33.

This first order was for 45 vehicles. The full order would be placed on June 22nd 1933, and would eventually be for 118 examples of the mass-produced vehicle. At first, an extremely ambitious delivery calendar was requested by the French military, with the first AMR 33 being requested to be delivered as early as July 1933. This would not be the case, in large part because, as the contracts were being signed, prototypes were still being experimented on, particularly in terms of suspension.

In April 1933, Renault returned two of its VM prototypes to the trial commission in Vincennes in order for them to be experimented on. The main changes were, again, that each of the two prototypes featured a modified suspension.

The first, the vehicle registered 79757, had received a modified version of the suspension which had been successfully tried on 79760 a few months prior. Though it kept the central bogie with two wheels, as well as one front and one rear independent wheels mounted on coil springs, it ditched all leaf springs left on the central bogie, with the bogie’s wheels instead being linked to the front and rear horizontally-mounted coil spring already used by the front and rear wheel. Oil-operated shock absorbers were also added and the body of the bogie received a number of changes. In order to respond to the unpopularity of the rear-mounted turret, the turret of this vehicle was also brought forward by 30 cm, and the vehicle had received a weight in order to simulate the effect of the up-armoring to 13 mm on performances. This updated suspension type was found to continue to improve on the vehicle’s driving and was formally adopted on June 6th 1933. Overall, this 79757 prototype would be the closest to the production standard.

Prototype 79757 with the final suspension type. Between this evolution and the turret brought further forward, this is as close as the prototypes got to the production standard before some were retrofitted to that standard in 1935. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The same prototype, photographed at the Vincennes trials commission on the exhaust side. Also note the stowed canvas cover at the rear of the hull. Source: Vincennes archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The same prototype drives up a slope during trials. Source: Renault documentation via Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

However, on the same occasion, Renault also sent the vehicle registered 79758. The vehicle did receive the weight to simulate up-armoring, though the placement of its turret was not modified. The vehicle, however, received a new suspension. It shared the similar design of the other suspension type being experimented on, with a central bogie with two wheels, and an independent front and rear wheel. However, it ditched coil springs.

Instead, the wheels were mounted on rubber blocks fitted on sliding mounts. A large central rubber block was used for the central bogie, while both the rear and front wheel had their own rubber blocks, placed at the same location as the coil springs of the other suspension type. The advantage of this suspension was that rubber blocks were found to be more sturdy and resilient than coil springs. In theory, a suspension on rubber blocks would also have the potential to be very smooth. This was not yet the case, as this suspension was new for Renault and some teething issues were still to be fixed, with the suspension at this point being found to cause too sudden movements at times. Because of this, it was not adopted at the start of the production run of the AMR 33. However, after Renault was able to refine it, this suspension would be used on some of the very last AMR 33s, and most significantly, on all of the vehicle’s successor, the Renault ZT/AMR 35.

Prototype 79758 showcases the flexibility of its new suspension during cross-country driving. Source: Renault documentation via Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The same prototype and suspension, seen from the rear, with notable signs of compression on the central rubber block. Source: Renault documentation via Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
Another view of prototype 79758 in a less taxing situation. Source: Renault documentation via Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Even as the mass-produced vehicles were being manufactured, experimentations on the VM prototypes did not stop. The tracked AMR were a new class of vehicles after all, and the French Army would run a number of trials to see if some accessories could be added to the vehicles. With five prototypes in existence, these were now readily available to be experimented on.

It was eventually decided that two of the VM prototypes would be employed in work on the future generation of Renault AMR. These would be n°79759 and 79760, which would be extensively modified to function as Renault ZT prototypes in early 1934. The two first VM prototypes, n°79756 and 79757, would be modified to production standard and delivered to the 7th Chasseurs Regiment operating in Evreux in spring 1935, being the only AMR 33s operated by this unit until they disappeared from it in 1937.

Finally, prototype n°79758 was kept around for experimentation. In 1933, it received a new track tensioning device using a pulley, located on top of the rear right fender. This would be adopted for the mass produced vehicles. It was reported that in 1934, the vehicle received a “five wheels” suspension similar to that of the Renault ZB, a vehicle similar in overall design to an AMR but offered for export, which would imply a second bogie replacing one of the wheels. No photo of this conversion has emerged and pictures of the vehicle in 1935 show it with the same rubber block suspension it sported in 1933. In 1934, it is also reported it received a “suspended tensioning pulley”.

Experimental Accessories

One of the accessories which was tried on a VM prototype was one designed by the British-Hungarian engineer Nicholas Straussler, who would be responsible for, within others, the Duplex Drive amphibious kit for Sherman tanks, the Hungarian 39M Csaba armored car as well as V-3 and V-4 tank prototypes, and eventually even a post-WW2 main battle tank design.

Straussler’s accessory was a trench crossing device, consisting of two two-part extending mechanical “arms”, one which would be placed on the vehicle’s front and another to the rear. When a vehicle would go into a trench, the front “arm” would be used to set into the ground in front of the trench to be crossed, preventing the hull itself from diving front first into the trench. As the vehicle then advanced forward, the rear arm would plant itself into the rear of the trench being crossed and in turn prevent the rear from falling into the trench and getting the vehicle stuck.

Straussler offered the design to the French Army in 1933, and one of these systems was subsequently manufactured by Ateliers et Chantier de la Loire (ACL, ENG: Loire Workshops and Shipyards). Mounted on the prototype registered as 79758, it would be trialed in April 1935, March to May 1936, and March 1938. The system was reportedly able to allow an AMR 33 to cross a 2 m-wide trench with vertical sides. However, it is easy to see how the system may, in exchange, have been overly cumbersome, and it was not retained on any scale beyond these trials.

A 1930s French schematic of how the “Straussler device” would work to help a vehicle to cross a trench. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The rear part of the Straussler trench crossing device. The track tensioning system can also be seen, as well as the rubber blocks of the vehicle’s suspension. Source: Vincennes archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The front of the Straussler trench crossing device. Source: Vincennes archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The AMR 33 into Production

Renault’s factories of Billancourt started working on the AMR 33 production run soon after the first orders were registered. However, the overly ambitious calendar the French Army hoped for, which would see the first AMR 33 delivered in July 1933, could obviously not be met.

The first order for the AMR 33, designated 754 D/P, included two batches. The first, of 45 vehicles, was formally ordered on March 8th 1933, and the second, of an additional 20, was placed on June 22nd 1933. Finally, the contract also included in its clause the modification of three prototypes to production standard, and later the manufacturing of three additional vehicles to replace the prototypes. In the end, the three replacement vehicles as well as two prototypes would be produced/modified to a slightly different standard from the rest of the AMR 33s, and would be the last vehicles produced, coming after the vehicles from the second contract.

The second contract, for 50 vehicles, was signed soon after, under the designation of 996 D/P. The original calendar requested by the military was that the first batch of the first contract would begin to be delivered by July 1st 1933 and the second batch of the first contract by March 1st 1934. By early August, Renault’s calendar was that the first batch would begin to be delivered by August 31st 1933 and the second batch still by the date required by the government.

In practice, however, the first fully complete production AMR 33 would only be delivered in June 1934. Production on such a scale on a short timeframe proved way too hard to achieve for Renault. Still, the vast majority of vehicles, 115, were able to be completed during 1934. Only the last five vehicles would be delivered in 1935, these being two of the VM prototypes having been modified and three new vehicles, all five of them receiving a different suspension.

Technical Characteristics of the AMR 33

The AMR 33 was, overall, a small tracked vehicle. It largely used riveted construction, with large conical rivets being used to hold the armored plates in place. The vehicle had a length of 3.50 m and a width of 1.60 m, while the height, including the turret, was 1.78 m. The ground clearance was 30 cm.

In terms of weight, the VM weighed around 4.5 tonnes when empty of fuel, crew and ammunition. Loaded with these, it would weigh around 5 tonnes. This would place it in the higher weight range of the small, turreted reconnaissance tanks of the 1930s, slightly heavier than vehicles such as the Japanese Type 92 or 94, Czechoslovak AH-IV, and Soviet T-37 or T-38, owing to ever-so-slightly higher dimensions and armor thickness. The most similar vehicles in terms of weight, size and protection would generally be the German Panzer I and British Vickers Light Tanks, though in comparison to these, the AMR 33 doctrinally remained more focused on a reconnaissance role.

Hull & Hull Construction

Manufacturer’s view of the AMR 33 hull: on the left, with the rear roof but without the front glacis or tracks. On the right, without the roof at all, with tracks. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The hull of the AMR 33 had been forged by intensive evolution originating all the way back to the Renault UE, through a series of designs and later prototypes. In its final form, one would hardly recognize any feature of the small logistical tractor in the AMR 33, with the hull having largely evolved beyond being a mere derivative.

Likely the most unconventional aspect of the AMR 33 at the time was the organization of the hull, with the engine block placed to the right and the driver to the left, instead of a more standard and derivative configuration with an engine at the rear, as the French Army was already largely used to.

The vehicle used a front-mounted transmission. This was reflected in the hull front by a grill for aeration of the transmission’s differential which was found to the right and below the driver’s post. There was also an openable cover, largely for maintenance purposes. The vehicle’s batteries were also located towards the front and featured an openable cover for maintenance or removal.

The driver’s position only slightly projected out from the hull. The front formed an openable hatch, so that drivers could have a more ample field of vision when outside of combat. When closed, it still featured an episcope to improve vision. Considering the small size of the driver’s block sides, they seemingly could not mount vision ports. There was an entry hatch located just below the openable episcope cover, which was typically where the driver would enter and exit the vehicle. A rearview mirror was installed on the left mudguard. Otherwise, the hull in front of the driver’s post had been made to be as low as possible in order not to impede on his vision.

This frontal glacis was largely used as stowage space. A shovel and a pickaxe handle were installed translaterally on the fully flat part of the hull. To the left, in front of them and the driver’s post, was a towing cable. A spare road wheel was sometimes also present there, under the cable or with the cable wrapped around it. Just in front of this cable was the vehicle’s singular headlight, a Restor armored model. Sometimes, later in their service life, AMR 33s were given the new Guicherd armored headlight, recognizable by its cover extending far in front of the headlight itself. This new headlight was, among others, issued to the AMR 35, and would likely be refitted to AMR 33s that had broken headlights for the sake of logistical simplicity. Just below this light was the middle front plate, which featured, on the right, the Renault manufacturer’s plate, while the registration number would be painted on the middle.

This 1940 picture of a destroyed AMR 33 shows all the hatches and covers of the front hull opened, most notably the cover of the batteries, rarely seen in such a way. Source: char-français
Note the headlight at the front of the hull of the AMR 33, and compare it with the ones found on most other pictures in this article. This AMR 33 was operated by the 1st GAM in 1938, at a point where it had started receiving new AMR 35s but had yet to phase out the older AMR 33. It received a Guicherd headlight. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The AMR 33’s peculiar engine configuration is best seen from the front or the right side. This photo of a vehicle in operation is also interesting, as it showcases the driver’s entry/exit hatch opened, which is not extremely common. Also note there is about no stowage on the front of the vehicle. AMR 33s are often seen without all the theoretical stowage they could carry. Source: char-français
This photo of an AMR 33 of the 18ème Dragons in 1934-1935 shows both the driver’s hatch and episcope cover opened, the greatest extent through which the driver could enter or exit the vehicle. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Because of the engine’s placement to the right of the hull, there were significant differences in construction between each side. On the crew compartment side, to the left, there was a form of sponson which extended from behind the driver’s post all the way to the rear of the vehicle, in order to accommodate in large part the turret ring. The space on the other side would be taken by the exhaust. Two hatches were present on the right of the vehicle’s roof in order to access the engine.

The turret was mounted about as far forward as possible with this construction, 30 cm forward to how it was on the first VM prototypes. The rear of the hull was gently angled. To the left was a two-part hatch/door which would typically be the commander/gunner’s point of entry or exit from the vehicle, and offered the best emergency exit overall. On the engine side of the vehicle, the radiator was installed to the rear, and as such, the right of the vehicle rear glacis was taken by the grill of the radiator. The canvas cover for the vehicle would typically be stowed over the radiator grille.

In terms of crew position, drivers would be seated on what was in practice pretty much a cushion seat on the floor, bringing their eyes to the level of the episcope and their feet in contact with the pedals. Commanders had a seat that appears to have been somewhat adjustable and would have them at eye level with the episcope or machine gun sight within the turret. For drivers, outside of usual clutch, acceleration, and brake pedals, turning appears to have been achieved by two tillers.

This photo of an AMR 33 being towed by an FCM 36, in addition to its originality, also shows the vehicle’s rear well. On the left, the door, where the registration number is indicated. On the right, the radiator’s grill, with on top the empty stowage hardpoints for the canvas cover. Source: char-français

Armor Protection

The armor protection of the hull followed a pretty simple scheme. All vertical or near-vertical plates up to 30° (most of the front plates, the sides, and the rear) were 13 mm thick. Plates at an angle higher than 30° but still potentially vulnerable to most enemy fire (parts of the front glacis) were 9 mm thick. The roof was 6 mm and the floor 5 mm. The turret followed the same armor scheme as the hull. This was a fairly thin armor scheme, about as light as one could find in 1930s French vehicles, but it was within the norms for light reconnaissance vehicles.

To an extent, having 13 mm of armor protection on the sides would even be slightly above average in comparison to other light tracked reconnaissance vehicles, which would more often than not have between 6 and 9 mm. The difference may not seem significant, and truthfully it was not against any kind of dedicated armor-piercing weapon, but it may sometimes have been the difference between being truly impervious to rifle-caliber fire or still being vulnerable to it at close ranges.

The armored hull consisted of a rigid body, with some removable plates (the roof as well as upper front and rear plates). There were six articulated openings in the hull, largely described before: the rear doors, openable covers for the batteries and differential grille, openable hatches for access to the engine, driver’s entry hatch, and driver’s episcopes hatch.

Engine Block

The AMR 33 used an eight-cylinder engine of Renault design, nicknamed the “Reinastella”. This was a 75×120 mm 4,241 cm3 engine that was also used in racing cars. At the standard cyclic rate of 2,800 rpm, it would produce 24CV, a French unit of measurement for power, or 85 hp. The engine was fitted with an internal electric starting-up device, and alternatively could manually be started with a crank from the outside. It used a Zénith carburetor which was designed to allow a cold start. The front-mounted transmission had four forward and one reverse gear, with a “Cleveland” differential.

The radiator was mounted to the rear. The fan used to eject hot air included ten blades, 580 mm in diameter.

Overall, the power-to-weight ratio of the vehicle was high for the time. At a full load of 5 tonnes, it reached 17 hp/tonne. This manifested very positively on the vehicle’s performance. On a good road, the vehicle could peak at 60 km/h, which was definitely on the higher end even for tracked vehicles. Even on a lower quality road, an average cruise speed of 45 km/h was typically to be maintained. The vehicle’s fuel tank contained 128 liters of gasoline, which would provide the AMR 33 with a range of 200 km on roads.

An AMR 33 of the 18ème Dragons in movement. The speed of the vehicle was, for the time, admirable. The vehicles feature a black boar on a white and blue rectangle, a symbol of the 4th DC. Photo colorized and provided by Smargd123

Suspension and Tracks

As described previously, the suspension of the AMR 33 went through considerable evolutions at the prototype stage.

The vehicle used a front drive sprocket, with the teeth on the sprocket’s center, and a rear idler. There were four road wheels, with the front and rear wheels being mounted independently, and the two central road wheels being mounted on a bogie. Four return rollers were present. The road wheels as well as the sprocket and idler had a very light construction, designed to optimize their weight as much as possible. They all used an open-spoked design with large holes. Furthermore, while the construction of the wheels themselves was made of steel, the road wheels received a rubber rim instead of a metallic one.

This manufacturer’s photo of a production AMR 33 gives a good view of the suspension of an AMR 33. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The suspension itself relied on a front and a rear coil spring, directly linked to the front and rear wheels by a suspension arm. The central bogie was also linked to these springs, though the central wheels would typically have somewhat less movement than the front and rear ones. Oil-operated shock absorbers were also present to make the ride smoother.

The vehicle used thin, 20 cm wide tracks with a central guide horn, largely based on the UE design. These were very small, thin and light, once again a requirement in order to maximize the speed of the vehicle.

In terms of crossing performances, the AMR 33 was able to cross a 1.70 m wide trench with vertical sides, ford 60 cm of water, or climb a 50% slope. It would retain lateral stability while moving on sloped terrain at a slope of up to 60%.

It ought to be noted that the last five production AMR 33 to be completed (three new vehicles and the rebuilt 79756 and 79757 prototypes), delivered in 1935, received a new suspension type. This was, in fact, the same rubber-block-based suspension as tested back in 1933, having been refined and now found superior to the coil-spring-based suspension. It had the same wheel placement, but differed by the use of three rubber blocks, including one nested between the two covers of the central bogie. The cover elements linking the rubber blocks to the wheels were also different. This new suspension type would be mounted on the AMR 33’s successor, the Renault ZT or AMR 35.

Its use on the AMR 33 would also be extended somewhat. Between 1938 to 1940, when vehicles were returned to maintenance facilities for large-scale repairs, a number received the new suspension type. These refits were moderate enough to only concern a minority of the fleet, however, and most AMR 33s still kept the original suspension going into the Battle of France.

This photo of AMR 88936, one of the three last newly-built AMRs which received the new suspension type, shows the new rubber block suspension. It was taken in a park of vehicles captured by German forces in 1940. Source: Bundesarchiv via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
This photo shows perhaps the best view known to be in existence of the rubber suspension on an AMR 33. Source: warspot.ru
A photo of another one of the uncommon rubber-suspension AMR 33s abandoned in a town, being examined by a German soldier. Source: char-français

Turret

The AMR 33 used an AVIS (Atelier de Construction de Vincennes – ENG: Vincennes Construction Workshop) n°1 turret. These turrets were designed by a state-owned workshop. Despite their name, they were not technically located within the municipality of Vincennes, just east of the city of Paris’s borders, but inside the Vincennes woods, technically within the territory of the municipality of Paris. Renault’s facilities of Billancourt were located west of Paris, along the Seine and still within the urban area of the French capital. Though the design was carried out at Vincennes, production of the turrets took place in the Renault factory itself.

The small turret had the same riveted construction as the hull, and used a hexagonal design, with a front and rear plate, and three plates on the sides. The turret was higher at its rear. The turret in itself did not feature a seat. The vehicle overall was low enough that a seat located in the hull, even quite low in it, was high enough for commanders to be at eye level with vision devices. The vision devices included in the turret were, to the front, an episcope to the right, a vision slot to the left, and the machine gun sight. There was an additional vision port on each side, and to the rear.

This photo of one of the rubber-block suspension vehicles also gives good angles on the side and rear vision ports of the Avis n°1 turret. Source: char-français
The same vehicle seen from another angle. Source: char-français

The turret included a large semi-circle shaped hatch opening forward, allowing the commander to reach out from it. There was also an anti-aircraft mount for a MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun present to the right-rear of the turret. Small handles were also present on the front sides to ease climbing into or out of the turret from the hatch, though the preferred mode of entry into the vehicle remained the rear doors.

This photo of an AMR 33 in 1940 had a good enough quality to discern the inside handles of the open hatch as well as the handles of the turret sides well. Source: char-français
A destroyed AMR 33 where the sides and rear panel of the AVIS turret have been blown away, but the front and front roof have survived. Source: char-français
The same vehicle seen from the front. Source: char-français

Armament

Armament was provided in the form of a 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, fed to the right of the machine gun. 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. It ought to be noted that peacetime photos of AMR 33s often show the vehicles with no machine gun mounted inside the gun mount.

In the AMR 33, the 150-round drums were stowed on the left side of the hull. The position where they were stowed can actually be conveniently identified from the exterior of the vehicle. A line of rivets run along the upper hull sides at the same level as the mount for the drums. A total of 15 drum magazines were stored inside the vehicle, providing for a total of 2,250 rounds of 7.5 mm ammunition.

The stowage rack for MAC 31 drum magazines can be seen inside this AMR 33, abandoned in 1940. Source: char-français
Two 7.5 mm drum magazines are placed just behind the turret on this abandoned AMR 33, 1940. Source: char-français

A feature of the AMR 33, shared by many armored vehicles of the French Cavalry, was the presence of a spare machine gun stowed inside the vehicle, at the rear of the hull. There were two purposes for this. The spare could either be used to replace the machine gun mounted in the turret in case of damage or a major malfunction, or be mounted on the AVIS n°1 turret’s anti-aircraft mount.

Photos of AMR 33s displaying the machine gun actually mounted in its anti-aircraft position are exceedingly rare, though there are a few more showing the mount without an attached machine gun. Several reasons are to be found behind this. The anti-aircraft machine gun was not mounted for parade or peacetime operations, when most photos of the AMR 33s were taken, and in fact, they were typically only mounted in case of evident enemy air threat. If an AMR 33 was abandoned, the spare machine gun, especially if mounted on the anti-aircraft mount, would be one of the first things to be taken if it was functional, either by the crew if the vehicle was not abandoned in a hurry or by enemy troops upon encountering the vehicle.

This burnt-out AMR 33, part of a larger photo of a destroyed column in 1940, is interesting in that it shows the vehicle with the spare machine gun mounted in the anti-aircraft mount, an exceedingly rare sight on AMR 33s. Source: Jean-Yves Mary collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
This abandoned AMR 33 being examined by a German soldier gives a good view of the anti-aircraft mount without a machine gun. Also notable is the hefty canvas cover stowed on this vehicle. Source: char-français
The MAC31E, the standard model of the MAC31 in armored fighting vehicles. Though there were some infantry/pintle mount versions and prototypes of the MAC31 which could accept some box magazines, the MAC31E could only use the drums. A distinctive element of the MAC31E was its short, 48 cm barrel. There was another tank machine gun version of the MAC31, the MAC31C, with the standard 60 cm long barrel. Source: Mitrailleuses de 7,5mm modèle 1951, Guide Technique Sommaire, Ministère de la Défense Nationale (Ministry of National Defence), France, 1953
Views of the MAC 31’s 150 rounds drum magazine, disassembled on top and complete at the bottom. Drum magazines were complex, but had the advantage of being way more compact than a belt. Source: Mitrailleuses de 7,5mm modèle 1951, Guide Technique Sommaire, Ministère de la Défense Nationale (Ministry of National Defense), France, 1953
A fully loaded 150 rounds drum magazine with the cover removed. Source: Mitrailleuses de 7,5mm modèle 1951, Guide Technique Sommaire, Ministère de la Défense Nationale (Ministry of National Defense), France, 1953
A MAC31E machine gun with the drum magazine attached. Source: tircollection.com

Camouflage Schemes

AMR 33s left their factory with two different camouflage schemes.

The first Renault camouflage scheme used three or four different colors. It was generally brush-painted in irregular rounded shapes. The four colors used were olive green and “Terre de Sienne” (brown) for the darker colors, and “ocre” (in practice yellow) and “vert d’eau” (watery green, imagined to be a lighter green color) for lighter colors. Black and white photos have generally left the lighter colors fairly distinct, but the olive green and “Terre de Sienne” can often be hard to differentiate. This camouflage scheme was almost universal on the AMR 33s. It varied significantly from vehicle to vehicle and was at times chaotic. On some vehicles, the lighter shades appeared dominant, while the dark ones were more pronounced on others.

This photo of an AMR 33 of the 3ème GAM parading on Paris’s Champs-Elysées on November 11th 1936 is interesting in a number of ways. It shows a commander reaching out from the turret, the narrowness of the tracks, and a vehicle where the lighter shades are somewhat dominant. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
Paint is not the only way to camouflage a vehicle. In this photo taken on September 4th 1935, a crew from the 18th Dragons takes a rest. Their camouflaged vehicle bears the unit number 15. Its registration number is 83918. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
Another AMR 33 hidden under foliage, unit unknown. Source: char-français
These three AMR 33s of the 3ème GAM, on parade in Paris on July 14th 1938, are very interesting in showcasing the differences that could exist between the camouflages of AMR 33s. With chaotic patterns and varying levels of dominance between colors, two AMR 33 could appear very different in terms of paint. Source: R.Potié collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The exception was a camouflage scheme that was particularly common on the vehicle’s successor, the AMR 35, but, on the AMR 33s, appears to have been limited to the five vehicles completed to a slightly different standard in 1935. This was once again a three or four-tone camouflage with the same base colors as the previous, however, the shapes were generally a lot less chaotic, larger, and more uniform, though still rounded in shape with irregularities. However, there was a blurry edge painted in black between spots of different colors.

This close-up on the turret of n°79756, the first prototype, after it was refitted to production standard, shows the new type camouflage with a blurry black border. Source: P. Taghon collection, via R.Potié, via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Communications

At the point at which the AMR 33 was designed, radio was still not a standard feature really considered on most combat vehicles of the French Army. It was not a standard element present on AMR 33s. As a result, communications between vehicles would have to be assured by flags. Vehicles of leaders of platoons or squadrons would have a small special flag to distinguish them from the vehicles they led.

AMR 33s of the 2nd GAM in 1937. The front vehicle, 83959, has a small flag indicating it is a platoon leader vehicle. Source: Photo taken by Chaillan, Soyer Collection, via R.Potié, via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

There was a distinct exception to this rule. French Army maintenance services in Reims converted a number of AMR 33s into “TSF” (Transmission Sans Fil – Wireless Transmission) radio vehicles as early as 1934. While the vehicle retained their armament, the conversion was more extensive than merely adding the radio. It appears the radio, of which the model is unknown, at least partly took the space of the ammunition stowage in the hull. As a result, some of this ammunition stowage was moved to the inside of the rear door, which required some modifications. Additional rivets had to be installed to hold the ammunition stowage points, and, as a result, the handles were moved slightly and were no longer at the same height.

Only very few AMR 33s were ever converted in such a fashion, and they were only likely present in the two units operating AMR 33s that were at some point based in Reims, the 4ème GAM and 18ème Dragons.

An AMR 33 converted into a TSF vehicle at Reims in September 1934. The massive radio antenna was distinctive in this very rare conversion. Though hard to see, there is a symbol inside the heart that identifies this vehicle to the 18th Dragons, a white hippogriff. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Doctrinal Use of the AMRs

The AMRs were intended to be issued to cavalry units. Their main role was close reconnaissance. For longer-range, more independent operations, another class of automitrailleuse existed, the AMD (Automitrailleuse de Découverte – ENG: literally “Discovery Armored Car”), which would typically feature higher range and armament in comparison to the AMR to be better suited to operate on their own for longer periods of time.

On their own, the AMRs were meant to search within a selected, limited area, for enemy contact. Their small size was viewed as a benefit in this, and it was specified that they had to use terrain to their advantage to the best of the crew’s abilities. Combat was to be engaged at close range only. The vehicles were to take contact with the enemy, but not stay in combat distance for long, as, with their thin armor, it was clear they would not last under armor-piercing or artillery fire. It was also specified that the vehicles would operate in close cooperation with other types of troops, either motorcycle-mounted reconnaissance, or AMC (Automitrailleuse de Combat – ENG: Combat Armored Car) cavalry tanks and/or cavalry.

The AMRs were to operate in platoons of five. In operations, each platoon would be further divided into two small sections of two vehicles, with the fifth, independent vehicle, being that of the platoon leader. When operating on the AMR 35 successor type, the leader of each section was to use a 13.2 mm-armed vehicle, but this was obviously not possible for units operating on the strictly 7.5 mm-armed AMR 33. Platoons were to be followed by motorcyclists, which would typically be used to communicate with other parts of the unit.

The standard procedure was for a platoon of five vehicles to be tasked to investigate an area 1 to 1.5 km wide. Each section of the platoon was to operate at a distance so they would still be in visual contact with the other. Platoon leaders were not to stay behind, but to follow with the first section, though under some circumstances, they could decide to stay in observation further back. The vehicle of a section leader was to lead, with the second vehicle slightly behind, so that if the first vehicle came under fire, the second could assist with its own armament.

Progression within an area to investigate was to be made in ‘hops’. Vehicles would go from one zone to observe the area from another, with the zones to stop at preferably offering decent cover. The next position would be observed with binoculars before being taken. In case of uncertainty in regards to a position, the second patrol could go to investigate closer while the first would remain in observation with binoculars.

When going from one cover to another, the AMRs were to progress if possible in non-linear ways, and if suspect positions were encountered on the way, they were cleared to fire at them in order either to reveal the position of enemy troops or find it clear of enemy presence. This would typically be done while stopping. It was noted that fire on the move was generally inaccurate and wasteful of ammunition, and it was to be used only in emergencies. The manual specified, for example, that shooting on the move would be used if an automatic weapon or anti-tank gun was suddenly revealed and the vehicle was under threat. The platoon leader was to organize and correct each ‘hop’, which as a rule implied he had to follow vehicles rather swiftly as they did not have radio to communicate with one another.

When encountering a village or wood, each patrol was to go around it on its outer border, observing if anything could be seen inside. Once that was done, one of the patrols would stay at the opposite side of the area to the one they came from and where the platoon leader would still be located. The other would go through the village or wood to the commander, and once they regrouped, progression would start again.

If the wood or urban area was particularly large, another procedure was in place. A patrol would stay with the platoon commander, while the other would quickly go to the opposite exit of the wood or urban area. It would then divide in two, with a vehicle staying to defend the opposite exit while the other would quickly run through the area, reach the other patrol and platoon commander, and the group would then rejoin with the lone armored car on the other side of the area.

When one or a couple of vehicles fell under fire, they were to simultaneously fire back and find cover as quickly as possible, while other vehicles of the platoons were to flank in order to delimitate the area held by the enemy, and if the resistance was limited, try to push the enemy back from this flanking maneuver. If flanking was not a possibility, the vehicles were to cooperate progressively on a point at a time. If pushing the enemy back was not a possibility due to the resistance being too strong, the vehicles were to stop behind the nearest cover and retain binocular observation of the enemy, with one of the vehicles periodically going on a short patrol to confirm enemy positions were still occupied.

When operating alongside troops mounted on motorcycles, they were noted to be a very helpful asset in reconnaissance. They were said to, in practice, prove more reliable than the armored cars at providing vision when no enemy fire was encountered, notably when moving, as the AMR crews were said to have lacked vision when in movement. Once contact with the enemy was taken, they were to observe and note the firing points firing at the armored cars and retain observation even once the armored cars were no longer under fire.

It was generally hoped the armored car would operate in conjunction with a motorcyclist platoon, forming a détachement mixte (ENG: mixed group). It would be led by the most senior officer between the AMR and the motorcyclist platoon. The motorcycles were generally to follow in the armored car’s stead, due to the latter’s greater protection against enemy fire. When under enemy fire, the motorcyclists were to engage in a more skirmish-like action, pushing the enemy flanks and making sure to keep contact with the enemy even if the armored cars no longer had line of sight. Against an enemy line, it was even, quite optimistically, said that the motorcyclists could attempt to infiltrate weaker points of the line, and be rescued by the AMRs if they fell into trouble.

There were also different principles for when the AMRs were operating alongside AMCs (which, de facto, were cavalry tanks). The AMRs would take the lead of progress, with AMCs at a slight distance behind them to be able to observe the reactions triggered by the AMR’s presence and provide supporting fire. The AMRs would also be tasked with reaching the edge of cover to check for enemy presence as well as to cover the flanks if they offered good firing positions for the enemy.

AMR 33s of the 3ème GAM operating alongside Schneider P16 in 1935. The Schneider P16 was classified as an AMC in the early-to-mid 1930s. When the AMRs were delivered inside the GAMs of cavalry divisions, they were to form the AMR part of the AMR-AMC couple alongside P16s. In 1937, P16s were judged too dated to operate as AMCs and declassified as AMRs. Source: Collection Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
AMR 33s of the 4th GAM during the Champagne maneuvers of September 1935. In the background, on the crest, a 1st DLM Schneider P16. The photo also shows a rudimentary field telephone line and cavalrymen. The front vehicle is actually one of the rare AMR 33 TSF radio-fitted field conversions. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Once resistance was uncovered, the AMRs would put it under fire and stop advancing, letting the AMCs catch up and take the lead for the time needed to reduce the enemy point. If the resistance was sporadic, once an enemy point was reduced, advance would continue as normal. If the group encountered the main enemy line of resistance, the AMRs would switch to a secondary role, operating in the intervals between AMC groups to provide supporting fire as well as screening the flanks for enemy presence.

The AMRs were also given the role of cleaning up minor resistance points which may have escaped the AMCs. In such a role, a platoon would cover areas 1 to 1.2 km wide. These ‘cleanup’ groups were to follow closely behind the AMCs in order to profit from the chaos caused by their heavier firepower, making sure each point was cleared of enemy presence as the cavalry unit progressed.

There was one last offensive role of the AMRs, in what was called the ‘occupation echelon’. This would be the part of the unit which would follow after the ‘offensive echelon’, itself consisting of the AMCs and AMRs previously mentioned. This occupation echelon would lack AMCs and instead include traditional cavalry and motorcyclists, with the AMRs being, typically, their heaviest elements. The AMRs were to screen forward of this group in order to spot remaining enemy elements. The role of the AMRs of the occupation echelon was to relieve those of the cleanup group of the attack echelon. It was generally hoped that by this stage, all significant enemy resistance would be gone. One could generally see these offensive doctrines as a three to four-layered attack: a first offensive layer, the largest, including AMRs and AMCs, itself constituted of the AMRs first closely followed by the AMCs; followed by the ‘cleanup’ platoons operating AMRs, the head of the occupation echelon operating AMRs; itself followed by soft-skinned cavalry and infantry elements. At the rear, there was to be a reserve squadron as part of the occupation echelon, meant to be used during emergencies.

A sample of the armored fleet of the 1st GAM, including AMR 33s, P16s, and motorcycles. In theory, it was hoped that the AMR could be used in conjunction with both for optimal effect. In practice, this was easier said than done. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

These were, overall, the operating principles in offensive actions. They can be said to be very enthusiastic about the capacities of a group of five lightly armored and armed vehicles.

There were also principles given for defensive use of the AMRs. It was clearly mentioned that the vehicles had to be used for delaying actions, and not in static defense. They would then be placed at the edge of cover, such as a forest or village’s edge, and fire upon enemy forces they spotted at greater ranges. It is then said they would keep this contact all the way to close range, and, if possible, counter attack, and if not possible, swiftly retreat to the next cover in a sort of defensive reversal of the ‘hopping’ method of advance. If enemy forces were noted to be on the smaller and less equipped side, it was suggested to hold fire until closer ranges in order to create ambushes. During these defensive operations, the platoon leader was given responsibility to ensure the flanks were well guarded.

Qualities and Issues of the AMR 33

Considering the number of prerogatives given to the AMR 33, it is important to truly understand the vehicle, to analyze how it fared, and the qualities and drawbacks that one would have to take into account to evaluate its potential.

It first has to be noted that the AMR 33, by the time it came out, did not lag behind designs fulfilling a similar role in the rest of the world, quite the contrary. By the time it reached prototype stage in 1932 or entered service in 1934, the standard of much of the world when it came to light tracked reconnaissance vehicles was still turretless vehicles very similar to or straight up copied from the Carden-Loyd Mark VI. The first turreted types, often smaller and with less powerful engines than the AMR 33, for example, the T-37A or Type 92, were contemporary to the AMR 33.

The AMR 33 could compare positively to many vehicles of its era. Its turreted design already put it in the higher bracket in terms of capacities, and its powerful 85 hp engine, at a time when the slightly lighter reconnaissance vehicles mostly had to contend with engines in a 40 hp range, was significant. Indeed, when looking at its 8-cylinders engine, at a time when many similar vehicles had 6 or 4-cylinders powertrains, the AMR 33 could seem almost like a race car. With its maximum speed of 60 km/h, it outperformed most Carden-Loyd-derived designs, which neared 40 km/h (though Vickers’ light tanks would also exceed 50 km/h).

Even armor-wise, while all the light reconnaissance vehicles of the time had light armor, the AMR 33 was still in the upper bracket and one at least safe from rifle-caliber fire under all or nearly all circumstances, if little more than that.

However, these qualities over vehicles fulfilling a similar role did not necessarily mean the AMR 33 was, outside of this context, a good vehicle. The race car comparison may be fitting in other ways than the powerful engine and high speed too. As mentioned previously, the vehicle’s suspension had been designed to be as light as possible. The wheels were largely covered by holes to reduce the material used, and this thin construction could also be seen in the tracks, which were also thin, narrow, and light. These features helped the AMR 33 be as light and as speedy as possible, but, consequently, they were not the sturdiest, and definitely not when going at high speeds for the time. The drivetrain of the AMR 33 was notoriously unreliable. The vehicles would often suffer from thrown tracks or damaged wheels. They required significantly higher maintenance than many other vehicles of the French Army.

A detracked AMR 33 of the 2nd GAM during exercises in 1935-1936. Outside of the thrown track, this photo also showcases a vehicle with a spare road wheel, which could be quite uncommon. This vehicle features one of the symbols which the 2nd GAM used during its history, a Cross of Lorraine with a superimposed storch on a red and green background. Source: Photo by Chaillan, Soyer collection, via R.Potié, via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The rubber block suspension, like the one on this destroyed vehicle, would typically be somewhat more durable than the coil springs, but issues like the frail road wheels and tracks being fragile at high speeds could not be resolved by it. Source: char-français

Issues did not stop at the unreliability of the drivetrain, though other problems of the AMR 33 are perhaps less specific. The vehicle, as so many other French interwar designs, retained a small, two-man crew, with the commander in the turret taking up not only his role of spotting and leading the vehicle, rendered even more important by the vehicle’s reconnaissance role, but also that of gunner and loader of the vehicle. Even though this may have been less strenuous with a machine gun with 150 rounds magazines than on a vehicle armed with a cannon or a machine gun with lower capacity rigid clips, such as the Hotchkiss model 1914, it was still less than desirable.

This issue of overtasking was coupled with poor vision from the vehicle. Commanders did have an episcope towards the front, but otherwise, their vision was limited to very thin vision slots on the turret sides and rear, where they would be hard-pressed to see enough to draw any reliable conclusions on their surroundings. Opening the hatch could be an option, but the way it folded parallel to the turret roof granted no cover. Similarly, it appears there were no side driving slots for the driver, only the front episcope. Once again, this issue was not necessarily specific to the AMR 33 and was also shared by many reconnaissance vehicles of the era, but this did not mean it was not a considerable or even crippling issue.

Another major drawback of the AMR 33 in its reconnaissance role was the utter lack of means of communication with the outside world. Besides the few vehicles which were converted to fit radios, a non-standard conversion, the vast majority of AMR 33s, including platoon commander vehicles, did not have radios, or any other means of communications besides small flags. This issue was once again shared by many French 1930s armored vehicles. However, it can be said to be a lot worse on a reconnaissance vehicle, in comparison to, for example, a light infantry tank.

As explained previously, a platoon of AMRs could be expected to do maneuvers a lot more complex than a light infantry tank, potentially involving a lot of movement, moving from cover to cover, and flanking. Without radio to allow communication between the vehicles, the vehicles would have to follow pre-given orders or to stop at a point under cover to be given new orders by a commander, neither of which were ideal in comparison to having the commander communicate orders via radio.

The lack of a radio was equally a liability when it came to reporting the fighting of the vehicles on a reconnaissance mission to the rest of an unit. To do that, an AMR would either have to rely on a motorcyclist to manually travel to a point with a radio or the rest of the unit, or do that itself. It is indeed mentioned in the AMR’s prerogatives that the vehicles could act as ad-hoc liaison vehicles. However, when the vehicles were forced to act in this role to report their very findings, the situation could be said to have been worrying.

However, it is important to note that other similar vehicles of the time also lacked radios, including the T-37A, Type 92, Sd.Kfz.221, and British Vickers Light Tanks.

Last and perhaps least important, even if the armor protection of the AMR 33 was on the upper end of reconnaissance light tanks, it was still essentially only making the vehicle bulletproof, little more. While an AMR 33 was well protected from rifle-caliber ammunition, with a maximum of 13 mm of all-round armor, any kind of armor-piercing weaponry was potent against the AMR 33, as well as direct hits from light artillery pieces, even with High-Explosive shells, or near-enough hits from heavier artillery. A notable example of the AMR 33’s higher vulnerability was illustrated by German anti-tank rifles, the most common being the 7.92×94 mm Panzerbüchse 39 or the captured Polish 7.92×107 mm PzB 35 (p). These could commonly pierce its armor, but would typically struggle against most French tanks.

Derivatives and Variants

The AMR 33 had a fairly short list of variants and derivatives, as its place in time alongside other contemporary designs and size did not really align well with creating a whole family of derivatives.

Firstly, the AMR 33 came soon after, and was, in a way, still a derivative of the Renault UE. The UE was meant as a polyvalent tractor/supply vehicle, and as such, many non-combat roles for which a variant would sometimes be created from an armored vehicle were not based on the AMR 33 due to the very existence of the UE.

Secondly, the configuration of the AMR 33, with a side-mounted engine, was not appreciated by the French Army. While the vehicle was adopted nonetheless, the French Army would soon require Renault to work on an improved design with a rear-mounted engine as the more definitive AMR. It also made sense that auxiliary vehicles would mostly be created from a vehicle with this more standard configuration.

There were still a few vehicles based on the hull of the AMR 33.

Renault VE

The Renault VE was the first AMR 33 variant, a vehicle designed to follow the Type P requirements, which called for, basically, a mobile anti-tank gun. The Renault VE is best described less as a derivative of the VM, and more as a parallel development with the same automotive and suspension elements. Renault also began work on the VE as early as 1931, with construction of the prototype seemingly undertaken in 1932. It would only receive its armament in 1935, however, a variant of the 37 mm APX SA 34 anti-tank gun usually mounted on the Maginot Line. As such, it actually likely received the most powerful armament ever mounted on a vehicle of the AMR series. By 1935, new vehicles on the AMR 33 hull were out of consideration, and the VE was never adopted.

The Renault VE would be developed on the same hull and drivetrain as the Renault VM, largely in parallel. Its 37 mm high-velocity anti-tank gun was powerful for the time, but other aspects of the vehicle, notably its casemate, were a lot more archaic or basic. Source: armedconflicts.com

Renault YI

A less combat-suited derivative of the AMR 33 was the Renault YI. Around 1932-1933, Renault offered a series of unarmored tracked tractors, of which the 2 tonnes YI was the lightest. Meant to be used to tow the standard French 75 mm mle 1897 field gun, the YI used the drivetrain of the AMR 33, identical to production vehicles except for the drive sprocket, which was full without holes and with a more rounded shape. Only 2 YI would ever be ordered by the French Army and thus manufactured.

The Renault YI 2-tonnes tractor. Outside of the drive sprocket, its suspension was identical to the AMR 33. Source: armedconflicts.com

Renault YS and YS 2

Seemingly, the last Renault VM/AMR 33 derivative to be conceived would be the Renault YS. The concept of this vehicle was first mentioned in December 1932. The idea was to create a command vehicle with a larger superstructure that could house more crew members and the equipment needed for them to assume command functions.

Two YS prototypes would eventually be manufactured, the first in 1933, using the Renault VM’s suspension. They had a larger, boxier armored superstructure which could house six crew members, and had no armament, though they featured a firing port/hatch where an FM 24/29 machine rifle could be placed.

An order for 10 production Renault YS was made in January 1934, but these are best described as derivatives of the Renault ZT/AMR 35, as they would be built using this vehicle’s drivetrain rather than the VM/AMR 33’s one.

Nonetheless, the two VM-based prototypes saw continued use. In autumn 1936, one was even experimentally converted into an artillery observation vehicle, which was called the “YS 2”. Despite their small number, the YS, including the two VM-based prototypes, were still in service in some Cavalry units by 1940.

The initial Renault YS prototype. Though it used the VM suspension, it had a slightly weaker engine in comparison to the AMR 33, pushed all the way to the front, not to the side of the vehicle, to make space for a more spacious crew compartment. Source: armedconflicts.com
The YS2 artillery observation conversion of one of the two YS prototypes. It should be noted that it sports the rubber block type suspension, but is nonetheless mentioned to have been built as a VM-based vehicle. It may simply have been refitted with the suspension at some point, perhaps as part of the conversion process into an artillery observation vehicle. Source: armedconflicts.com

A Successor: the Renault ZT/AMR 35

As mentioned previously, the French Army did not appreciate the overall configuration of the AMR 33, with the engine pushed to the side. While this configuration that Renault used had helped minimize the size of the vehicle, the French Army desired a design that used a more standard configuration, with the engine at the rear of the vehicle. It is because of these reservations that orders for the AMR 33 would remain at a quite moderate 120 vehicles, quite far below the number of AMRs which would be needed to fully equip the French Cavalry branch that was in the process of expanding its mechanized forces in the 1930s.

As early as early 1933, there were drafts and plans for a version of the AMR 33 with the engine pushed back to the rear. Renault would start working on a prototype of the AMR 33’s successor in late 1933. In fact, the first prototype to be presented, in February 1934, was the deeply reworked 79759, the fourth VM prototype. The internal two-letter designation code of this new vehicle was ZT.

There are some interesting details to highlight about the ZT’s development. In the first prototype, the speed was raised all the way to a very impressive 72 km/h thanks to an 8-cylinders 28CV engine, though this would not be retained all the way to the production standard. Eventually, another Renault VM, 79760, would be converted into a ZT prototype in March 1934. These two first makeshift ZT prototypes made from old prototypes of the AMR 33 were somehow satisfying enough to achieve the first order for the ZT on May 15th 1934, before a new prototype, the first purpose-built ZT, would be ready by September.

The first prototype of the ZT… was born a VM. Source: Renault documentation via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 2: L’AMR 35 Renault, François Vauvillier

With the ZT on the way, further development on the AMR 33 stopped, with its successor being standardized as the AMR 35. It was meant to become the true standard AMR, though eventually, due to the High command of the French Army being skeptical of this kind of lightly armored reconnaissance tank, production would be limited to 167 of the standard ZT-1 type. The AMR 35 would nonetheless prove to be a more popular platform for variants. Vehicles accepted into service on the AMR 35 hull include the ZT-2 and ZT-3 tank destroyers, the ZT-4 colonial light tank, and the ADF1 command vehicle.

Interestingly enough, one of the two VM prototypes converted into ZT showed up during the 1940 campaign. This was 79759. Despite having used the AVIS n°1 turret when operating as a ZT prototype in 1934, it was seen refitted with the older and worse Renault turret of its early days, being used during the desperate defense of the city of Orléans, on the Loire river, where it was abandoned. Photos show the vehicle’s turret disarmed, and markings indicate it was at that point used as a driver’s training vehicle in a training facility. It is, in fact, known it was issued to the Saumur Cavalry School, but with this facility being 180 km away from Orléans and its cadets having been heavily engaged in the defense of their own crossings on the Loire river, it remains unclear why the prototype ended up there.

Prototype 79759, the first ZT, and likely one of the last AMRs to be knocked out. The vehicle’s configuration is an odd mish-mash. Its hull is closer to the AMR 35 in construction by this point, though by virtue of being a hastily-converted first prototype, it is still quite different to the final successor of the AMR 33. In the meantime, it was, for some reason, refitted with the old Renault turret, which had been ditched for any kind of mass-production. Source: Marc Couillet collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 2: L’AMR 35 Renault, François Vauvillier
Another photo of the same vehicle in the ruins of Orléans, a sad fate for what had been the fastest tracked French vehicle up to this point, going up to 72 km/h in its ZT prototype configuration. Source: Bundesarchiv via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Issuing the AMR 33 to Units

By the time they came out, the AMR 33s were to serve within one particular type of unit.

During the first half of the 1930s, the French Army had five DCs (Divisions de Cavalerie – ENG: Cavalry Divisions). The AMRs were to be delivered within the GAM (Groupements d’Automitrailleuses – ENG: Armored Car Group) within each cavalry division. A GAM was to be issued 15 AMR 33s, allowing for the formation of three platoons. Three platoons were considered to form a squadron. There were also nine cavalry regiments in mainland France, some of which were to be motorized or mechanized, including with some armored cars, and turned into reconnaissance groups.

However, in practice, deliveries of AMR 33s were not that uniform. It was decided before the first AMR 33 was even delivered that the 4th DC would be turned into an experimental unit of a new type, a DLM (Division Légère Mécanique – ENG: Light Mechanized Division). The objective was to create what was basically a light cavalry armored division with motorized infantry, and because of this particular status, the units of the 4th DC would get priority for deliveries when AMR 33 came out of production.

Out of the 65 AMR 33s of the first batch, 40 went to units of the 4th DC. The unit’s GAM (4th GAM) received the standard dotation of 15, but two other components of the 4th DC were issued with AMR 33s; the 18ème Régiment de Dragons (ENG: 18th Dragons Regiment), a cavalry regiment, received 15, and the 4ème Bataillon de Dragons Portés (ENG: 4th ‘Carried’ Dragons Battalion/BDP), a motorized infantry regiment, received the last 10. The 4th GAM and 18th Dragons both operated in Reims, which became somewhat of a center for the 4th DC/1st DLM and for the operation of AMR 33s ( the few TSF conversions were run there). The 4th BPD, in contrast, operated in Verdun.

This photo from the 2nd GAM, dated from 1937, shows the equipment French cavalry armored car units could be expected to have when the AMR 33s entered service. The Renault vehicle took the role of AMR, the Schneider P16 half-track the role of AMC, and the very much antiquated White-Laffly still served as AMDs. These vehicles would all later be replaced in first-rate units by more modern vehicles that followed the AMR 33. Source: Photo by Chaillan, Soyer Collection, via R.Potié, via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The remaining AMR 33s were distributed between the GAMs of the other cavalry divisions, which were not envisioned to become DLMs. The 1st (Orléans), 2nd (Strasbourg), and 3rd (Paris) GAM (part of the similarly-numbered cavalry divisions) each received 5 AMR 33s with the first batch and another 10 in the second batch, each receiving their allocated lot of 15. The 5th (Melun) GAM got the short end of the stick, receiving only 2 AMR 33s within the first batch and another 8 in the second batch, and later the three newly completed AMR 33s of the later standard.

Finally, three regiments not part of a larger division received some AMR 33s. The 9th Dragons regiment in Epernay received 8 AMR 33s as part of the first batch, the 11th Chasseurs in Vesoul 12 vehicles of the second batch, and, finally, the 17th Chasseurs operating in Evreux received the 2 prototypes converted to the late production standard in 1935.

Prototype 79756, the first VM to be manufactured, converted to production standard and in service with the 17th Chasseurs. Source: char-français

Within the GAMs

There are some unique aspects to the service of the AMR 33s within the GAMs.

The 4th GAM and 18th Dragons, both located in Reims and part of the 4th DC/1st DLM, were uniquely quite forward-thinking in the use of their vehicles. At that time, it had been decided that Cavalry units in Reims would operate as a somewhat experimental mechanical brigade, a way to test out the armored tactics on a larger scale than regimental, which was planned to be extended to more of the cavalry in the following years. This is why the Dragons Regiment, despite not being a GAM, received AMR 33s. Schneider P16 AMCs were also issued to units located in Reims. The use of the mechanical brigade was to test the AMC-AMR couple which was identified in French Army doctrine.

As for the 10 AMR 33s issued to the 4th BDP in Verdun, while the mechanical brigade of the 4th DC was located in Reims, the ‘discovery’ regiment was based in Verdun. This part of the unit mostly used AMDs, longer-range wheeled reconnaissance armored cars, but 10 AMR 33s were nonetheless issued there largely to experiment as well.

Besides the AMR 33s issued to sub-units of the 4th DC/1st DLM, the 1st GAM, operating in Orléans, had an interesting aspect in that its AMR 33s operated in tandem with AMCs (once again Schneider P16s) inside a mixed AMC-AMR squadron, though the number of AMRs issued (15) matched a full AMR-only squadron. The 1st GAM also had another squadron operating AMDs.

The 2nd GAM, based in Strasbourg, Alsace, was notable in that it was, alongside other units of the 2nd DC based in Strasbourg, the unit of the French Cavalry located the furthest to the east in mainland France, in a city located on the River Rhine that formed the border with Germany. Before being delivered AMR 33s, it already had two squadrons, an AMC and an AMD squadron. Once the 15 allocated AMR 33s were delivered, it formed a third squadron with these.

The 3rd GAM is likely the unit in which the AMR 33s were the most photographed. Part of the 3rd DC, it was also included within the garrison of Paris, and as such took part in parades on the Champs Elysées for Bastille and Armistice days By 1934, the unit actually had an odd three-squadron composition, with two squadrons of AMD and a single mixed squadron of AMR/AMCs, though the unit received a full complement of 15 AMR 33s. These were further divided. Eleven were part of the unit’s main garrison in Paris’ central military school, while 4 were branched out in Versailles.

A colored photo of AMR 33s of the 3rd GAM parading near the Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées, November 11th 1934. Photo colorized and provided by Smargd123

The 5th GAM, operating in Melun, at first only received 10 AMR 33s, and had to operate them in a mixed squadron alongside AMCs. In 1935, it also received the last three newly-manufactured AMR 33s that featured the rubber block suspension. This unit was the one in which AMR 33s had the shortest service life, as this GAM was reorganized into the 8th Cuirassiers Regiment in October 1936, as the 5th DC was being, like the 4th DC, converted into a DLM, the 2nd DLM. At this moment, the AMR 33 were delivered back into storage.

An AMR 33 of the Melun-based 5th GAM. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The 6th and 7th GAM are the most elusive, created in Compiègne in 1935 and Saint-Omer in 1936 respectively. Despite seemingly not being associated with a cavalry division, they received a small number of AMR 33s taken from other units, likely in large part from the 5th GAM. Unlike other units, when exactly they stopped operating the type is unknown, though at the time when they were converted into GRDI reconnaissance groups in 1939, they did not feature any AMR 33.

Lastly, for the few non-GAM units not part of any division, the reason why they were issued AMR 33s is even more unclear than with the last two GAMs. The 17th Chasseurs, which operated only two AMR 33s, both converted prototypes, stands as the oddest of them all.

A serviceman poses in front of one of the 11th Chasseurs’ AMR 33s, 1934-1937 era. Source: char-français.
A flipped over AMR 33 from the 11th Chasseurs. Source: Pierre Touzin via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Markings of the GAMs

Each GAM had a symbol, which was typically inscribed on the side of the AMR 33s’ turrets.

The 1st GAM’s symbol evolved from the early to the late service of the vehicles within the unit. The early symbol was a front-facing knight with white feathers on his helmet on a red background, surrounded by a green border embellished by yellow squares. The second design had the same green border, but embellished with red squares instead, and given white wings with black borders. Inside the green border, the background was yellow instead of red, and while at the center, the image of a knight with white feathers on the helmet was retained, but he now faced to the side.

While their unit’s insignias are not visible, these AMR 33s of the 1st GAM are nonetheless likely at their greatest splendor, parading on Orléans’ Joan of Arc plaza, with their suspension elements painted white, in 1936. Curiously, both rear AMRs are given the number “13”. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The 2nd GAM symbol was a Cross of Lorraine. In its simplest form, it was a yellow cross on a red background, inside a white roundel. In a later more complex form, the circle was diagonally divided between a red half to the bottom left and a green half to the top right, still sporting the same yellow Cross of Lorraine on top, with a storch superimposed in front of the cross. A third symbol also existed from 1936 onward. It had more of a coat of arms form, with a central red shield containing three yellow scorpios. On top, the common figure of a knight with white feathers to the sides and a sort of yellow/golden hat on top. The golden top hat formed, alongside the bottom, an anchor placed behind the shield.

This AMR 33 from the 2nd GAM, despite being quite newly delivered, already sports the unit’s insignia with the iconic Cross of Lorraine, which did not yet have its association with the Free French, Summer 1934. Source: char-français
This AMR 33 from the 2nd GAM’s 2nd Squadron 1st Platoon shows the newer unit insignia inside the vehicle’s ace of spade tactical marking. Photo colorized and provided by Smargd123

The symbol of the 3rd GAM is in a way even more esoteric, showing a white cog, with a central red circle. Superimposed on top of these was a sort of yellow hippogriff and a blue shield containing a golden anchor.

Taken in the winter of 1939-1940, after the 3rd GAM was reformed into another unit, this photo still shows a vehicle sporting the unit’s insignia on the side. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The symbol of the 4th GAM was a red circle with a white border. In the middle was a knight painted in white. On a yellow legend at the bottom of the circle, “Jeanne d’Arc” (Joan of Arc) was written in black. Reims is the city where, famously, Joan of Arc got French King Charles VII crowned, explaining the reference.

There were also symbols more commonly associated with the whole 4th DC/1st DLM which appeared on vehicles of the 4th GAM, but also sometimes the 18th Dragons and 4th BPD. An early one (1934-1935), found only on vehicles of the 4th GAM, was a red rectangle with a white boar in the middle. Later, the pattern of a black boar on a diagonally divided white and blue background became a common pattern in the 4th DC. Lastly, the 18th Dragons also had its own unique symbol sometimes present, a red hippogriff inside a yellow circle with a blue border. On occasion, a simpler symbol of a white hippogriff with red borders, often superimposed on tactical markings, was also used.

An early 4th DC insignia is featured on this AMR 33, which had the armament and mount removed. Source: 4th Cavalry Regiment collection via R.Potié via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
An 18th Dragons AMR 33 with the unit’s insignia, mid-1930s. Source: French Army Photographic Service via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Common Tactical Markings

Common French tactical markings based on card games were seldom found on AMR 33s in comparison to other vehicles, but could sometimes be seen nonetheless. This marking scheme relied on two methods of identification, the color and the shape. The color indicated which squadron a vehicle was part of. Blue was used for the 1st Squadron, Red for the 2nd, and White for the 3rd.

Within squadrons, a single shape would be used for each platoon. Typically, this was an ace of spades for the 1st platoon, an ace of hearts for the 2nd platoon, an ace of diamonds for the 3rd platoon, and some later unit compositions would allow for four platoons, in which case, the 4th platoon used an ace of clubs. Unfortunately, as these markings were not systematically used, and as the color can sometimes be hard to identify in black and white photos, this way of identifying which exact part of a unit a vehicle belonged to is not dependable, but it can sometimes be useful.

AMR 33s of the 2nd Platoon of the 2nd GAM’s 2nd Squadron parading in Strasbourg, Summer 1938. These vehicles’ markings consist of an ace of hearts painted in red. The unit’s insignia is painted within the ace itself. Source: Strasbourg municipal archives via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Another unit marking that appeared from 1938 onward was the French tricolor cockades. Upon the introduction of this new tactical marking, one was often painted on each side, with a third on the rear of the turret. By 1940, the presence of this very obvious marking had most of the time been reduced to just one on the rear of the turret. Sometimes, one was also painted on the roof in order to ease identification from the air.

These 3rd GAM vehicles, parading down Rivoli street in Paris on May 8th 1938, at the time, Joan of Arc day, show the large cockades which were added in 1938. Most vehicles would see the turret side markings removed before the breakout of the war. Source: Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
This abandoned AMR 33, around which German soldiers are passing by, showcases both the rear turret cockade and the anti-aircraft mount. Source: char-français
An unarmed AMR 33 with a roof-painted cockade as well as partially erased cockade on parts of the turret, likely an abandoned vehicle. Source: char-français

Vehicles were sometimes, though again far from systematically, given a one or two digit number on the side or rear of the turret, indicating their number within a squadron.

Restructuring and Reforms of 1936-1937

A couple years into the service of the AMR 33s, the French Cavalry saw considerable organizational reforms which changed the structure of units operating the AMR 33.

Following the successes of experiments on units combining various types of armored cars, it was decided to change the structure of the armored car groups of most DCs. Previously, the standard complement had been one squadron of 15 AMR 33s, as well as one squadron of 15 AMDs and, typically, two squadrons of 15 AMCs.

In 1936, it was concluded that a different configuration should be adopted, notably following experimentation with the mechanical brigade in Reims. It was found that a more AMR-heavy organization was desirable, as the AMRs proved to be the vehicles that cooperated the most closely with the infantry in general, while the AMCs would generally end up being more specialized in an anti-armor role.

As part of this reform, each GAM was to be reformed into a RAM (Régiment d’Automitrailleuse – ENG: Armored Car Regiment). The name change only happened at the mobilization in September 1939, though the actual organizational change was carried out as part of the reforms taken in from 1936 to 1938. The RAM ditched one of the AMC squadrons, leaving it with a single squadron of 15 AMCs, and retained the squadron of 15 AMDs. However, it was increased to have two squadrons of AMRs, and each squadron was to be boosted from 15 to 23 AMRs. In other words, the standard complement of each DC would rise from 15 to 46 AMRs. This was somewhat compensated by the 5th DC following the 4th in transitioning to a DLM, and it was decided the AMR complement of the higher-priority DLMs would all be AMR 35s.

However, with three DCs, there was still a need for 138 AMRs, exceeding the production run of 118 AMR 33s. It was therefore decided that the 1st RAM, operating within the 1st DC, would be outfitted with AMR 35s, leaving the two other DCs, the 2nd and 3rd, operating with AMR 33s, and even leaving a respectable surplus, as AMR 33s were also phased out of non-divisional units operating them to be solely concentrated into the four squadrons of the 2nd and 3rd RAMs. AMR 33s of all other units were sent back to storage, with the 1st RAM abandoning its last AMR 33 in 1938, to be redistributed to the few units using them. The 2nd and 3rd RAM generally kept the traditions and imagery of the 2nd and 3rd GAMs that came before them, and the same symbols can often be spotted on their armored cars even after the reform.

At the outbreak of the war, each of the RAMs had their standard complement of 46 AMR 33s. A total of 18 vehicles were in various maintenance facilities or training schools. At least, quite mysteriously, 10 vehicles were reported as having been sent overseas. There has never been any evidence of an AMR 33 leaving the French mainland, and this is likely some sort of accounting mistake, with 10 AMR 33s perhaps instead undergoing significant general maintenance.

Outbreak of the War: The Mobilization Reforms

As France joined the Second World War after Germany launched an invasion of Poland, reforms were once again carried out within the French Cavalry. In September 1939, there were no major changes outside of the units formally being reclassified from GAMs to RAMs, with the actual changes to their organization having been carried out long ago.

However, larger plans were soon put in place. With the DLMs having proven to be a successful experiment, able to replace the DC as the frontline fighting force of the Cavalry, the DCs were now seen as secondary units, and it was decided to reform them into Divisions Légère (DLC – ENG: Light Divisions), a name received in February 1940 and which would be changed in March to Divisions Légère de Cavalerie (DLC – ENG: Light Cavalry Divisions). The reform itself was theorized in November 1939 and carried out in February 1940

These were smaller divisions, with slightly more of an emphasis on armored vehicles, though typically lighter ones in comparison to the DLMs, where Somua S35 and Hotchkiss H35/H39 tanks were the main armored fighting force, with AMR 35 and Panhard 178 as armored reconnaissance vehicles. In comparison, the smaller DLCs would have more of a focus on various armored cars with no vehicles typically considered as cavalry tanks. The core of each DLC would be a previous cavalry brigade, and as the previous DC each had two brigades, they were typically divided into two. In cases relevant to the AMR 33s, the 2nd DC was divided into the 2nd and 4th DLCs, while the 3rd DC was divided into the 3rd and 5th DLCs.

As part of the organization of the DLCs, the AMRs were removed from the RAMs, which now exclusively operated AMDs, AMCs, and motorcycles. AMRs were instead issued to the Dragons Portés, which became a two-battalion regiment instead of a single battalion inside a DLC. Each battalion of a Dragons Portés regiment was to be supported by two platoons of AMR 33s. In total, each of the four DLCs which was to be issued AMR 33 had a nominal complement of 26 vehicles. In practice, the AMR complement of a DLC was always or almost always sourced from a single squadron keeping the same personnel, meaning the same traditions and symbols were often retained despite the vehicles being assigned to a different unit.

With the total number of required vehicles of active divisions operating AMR 33s rising from 92 to 104 vehicles, the fleet was actually stretched thin to fulfill requirements. Only one unit, the 15th RDP of the 5th DLC, received the full complement of 26 vehicles. The 14th RDP of the 4th DLC appears to have had 23 vehicles, the 2nd RDP of the 3rd DLC had 20 and the 3rd RDP of the 2nd DLC had 22. A total of 19 vehicles were still issued to school or maintenance facilities and 10 were still in the mysterious overseas category, which was likely a classification error for vehicles undergoing some form of general maintenance.

Unfortunately for the AMR 33s, as armies sprung into action following the German attack of May 10th 1940, fate was not kind to the DLCs they were deployed in. The French Dyle-Breda Plan saw the most potent armored divisions of the French Army, the Cavalry’s DLMs and Infantry’s DcRs, rush into Belgium in order to relieve the country, and hopefully even the Dutch Army in the southernmost parts of the Netherlands. As the heavier units rushed into Belgium, the lighter, smaller DLCs were tasked with covering the flank of the French advance, This largely saw them deployed in or near the Ardennes, where the fist of more numerous and better equipped German Panzer-divisions would strike straight into them. In mere days, the vast majority of the AMR 33 fleet would be mauled to the point where this model would be exceedingly rare after the first week of combat.

Details on the operational service of the AMR 33s are unfortunately a lot more scarce than for other French vehicles, such as the B1 Bis or Somua S35, for a number of reasons. The less sensational AMRs have received significantly less attention from historiography in the past 80 years. Their affiliation to the smaller DLCs, which have largely failed to attract the same mythos and reputation as the larger DLM and DCR, also contributed to their unit’s history having received less attention than larger divisions. The marching journals of the RDP operating AMR 33s are also often more confusing and less clear. A clear reason can be found behind this element was the fact that, while meant largely for second-line duty, the DLCs ended up being a first line of defense they were never intended to be, and were mauled or almost disintegrated very quickly. Generally, it is considered that a week into the campaign of France, about ¾ of the AMR 33 fleet had been destroyed, damaged, or abandoned.

Disaster in Luxemburg: The 2nd RDP, of the 3rd DLC

The first unit operating AMR 33s in numerical order, the 2ème Régiment de Dragons Portés, was part of the 3rd DLC. As the other DLCs, it was included in the covering of the flanks of Dyle-Breda. Prior to the campaign breaking out, the division was located just south of the border with Luxembourg. Its given task was to head into the small country should it be invaded, and to set up checkpoints and hold defensible positions. It should be noted that, at the start of the campaign, this unit had the smallest complement of AMR 33s, with only 20 vehicles.

The 3rd DLC headed into Luxemburg as soon as hostilities broke out on May 10th 1940. It soon faced considerable German opposition. At first, this consisted of small airborne groups that had been deposited by Fieseler Fi 156 Storch liaison aircraft, but soon, two whole infantry divisions, the 17th of and 76th, joined in. Despite their lack of armored vehicles, these German formations generally offered much more firepower and ability to conduct set-piece head-to-head combat than the DLC and its meager supporting units, two GRDI reconnaissance groups and parts of a Spahi North African cavalry brigade.

On the second day of the campaign, the DLC had already retreated into France, having recorded its first AMR losses, which were lost trying to cover troops from GRDIs. The small division was further involved in combat against the German 17th Infantry Division in support of the French 58th Infantry Division in the town of Longwy, on an affluent of the River Meuse.

An AMR 33 abandoned on the side of the road in Tetange, Luxemburg, lost during an attempt to support soldiers from the 31st GRDI on May 10th 1940. Source: R.Potié collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

A few days later, the 3rd DLC, having likely lost a considerable portion of its AMR fleet by this point, was a supporting element of the first engagement of De Gaulle’s 4th DcR at Moncornet on May 17th, and was moved west towards the Somme and Amiens around May 23rd, taking part in an attack as part of the Battle of Abbeville on May 26th.

The AMR 33 83932, lost by the 2nd RDP in May 1940. Source: R.Potié collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
The same vehicle some time later, its markings having started to degrade. Source: Jean-François Antoina via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

By June 5th, the likely largely depleted division was surprised by German offensive operations being resumed with Operation Fall Rot following the Dunkerque pocket being successfully reduced. The unit continued to fight a desperate fighting retreat, its elements fighting on the Seine on June 9th and 10th 1940, and then on the smaller Eure on the 11th. As French lines completely collapsed, the retreat of the division hastened. When the 2nd RDP stopped to reorganize on June 15th, only four AMR 33s were still present, with a single platoon of three AMRs surviving within the first battalion, and only a single AMR being left within the second battalion. On June 25th, when the armistice came into effect, the unit was all the way between Bordeaux and Perigueux, in southwestern France.

The First French AFV Lost in The Campaign of France: the 3rd RDP of the 2nd DLC

The 3rd RDP, part of the 2nd DLC, had a complement of 22 AMR 33s as it headed into the campaign of France.

The 2nd DLC, as the 3rd DLC, was part of the Dyle-Breda maneuver. It was tasked with heading into the easternmost part of Belgium, into the country’s Luxembourg province, within the Ardennes forest. This coincidentally was the first part of the Low Countries and France German troops started progressing in.

On the morning of May 10th 1940, as the 2nd DLC headed into Belgium, it was immediately engaged by German troops in a number of Belgian localities such as Arlon, Vance, Etalle, Landin, and Poncel. Divided elements of the division were confronted by the 10th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Regiment. As early as 10 am, near the entry of Vance, AMR 83950, part of the 2nd Platoon of the 1st Battalion, had its two crew members killed by German armor-piercing fire. This appears to have been the first recorded armored fighting vehicle lost by the French Army during the campaign of France.

German soldiers examine AMR 33 83950, which may have been the first French AFV to be lost during the Battle of France. Source: Bundesarchiv via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

Already mauled on the first two days of combat, the unit retreated further on May 12th, leaving the town of Jamoigne, on the Belgian side of the French border, to the 36th German Infantry Division. The next day, even more German armored forces broke through the French lines and crossed the Meuse river at Sedan. The 2nd DLC was then engaged in the first phases of the Battle of Stonne in order to try and cut the German spearhead around the 16th of May. As French forces in the north ended up encircled, with the Panzer-divisions reaching the sea on May 20th, the 2nd DLC found itself moving towards the west, and was part of the disparate forces accumulated by the French and British during the Battle of Abbeville, taking parts in attempts to break through the German lines to relieve the Dunkerque pocket from May 25th to early June, without success.

As with the 3rd DLC, the 2nd was heavily hit by the new German offensive of Fall Rot, facing the 5th Panzer Division and the 2nd Motorized Infantry Division. These inflicted heavy losses on the French cavalry division and pushed it to retreat. On June 8th, it received orders to retreat towards the Seine, but was outsped by the 5th and 7th German Panzer Divisions, which took Rouen, the main crossing over the Seine in Normandy, and reached the coast at Fecamp respectively, trapping the 2nd DLC alongside a few other units, including the 5th DLC, two French infantry divisions (the 31st and 40th), and a British infantry division (The 51th Highlands). This ensemble, encircled on the 10th, surrendered on the 12th, after the general commanding the 2nd DLC had been killed in action the previous day.

The 15th RDP of the 5th DLC: a Chilling Figure

The history of the 5th and 4th DLCs is somewhat less documented than the 2nd and 3rd. It is nonetheless known that the 15th RDP, part of the 5th DLC, was actually the most well equipped of all, with the full complement of 26 AMR 33s.

The 5th DLC’s rearguard actions appear to have been concentrated on the French side of the Ardennes, rather than in Belgium or Luxembourg. The unit was notably engaged in heavy fighting on the River Semoy on May 12th, in the locality of Vendresse, where at least two vehicles were abandoned. Overall, and likely as the other DLCs, most of the AMR fleet was likely lost within the first days. Two vehicles were notably seen alongside destroyed trucks in a column that appears to have been entirely taken out.

Two destroyed AMR 33s of the 15th RDP photographed in Vendresse on May 14th, but likely destroyed two days prior. Notice the rear vehicle actually sports the rubber block suspension. Source: R.Potié collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
A German soldier poses on an abandoned AMR 33 part of a destroyed convoy, with another one burnt out and featuring the mounted anti-aircraft machine gun further back. Source: Jean-Yves Mary collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

As with several other DLCs, the 5th’s remains were engaged during the Battle of Abbeville. A single figure is known from this engagement. On May 29th, slightly over two weeks into the campaign, the unit only had one AMR 33 left out of 26, an extremely high attrition rate. After the Battle of Abbeville, there were plans to transform the mauled 5th DLC into a new DLM, which would have been the 8th DLM. However, as with the other DLCs, the division was surprised by Operation Fall Rot before any significant efforts could be undertaken to re-organize it. The remnants of the unit were encircled and destroyed in Normandy alongside the 2nd DLC.

The 4th DLC/7th DLM and its 14th BDP/4th RAM

The 4th DLC, as the 5th DLC, is generally less well documented in the early parts of the campaign, but actually appears to have been the DLC deployed the furthest to the north on the flanks of the Dyle-Breda maneuver, fighting at the south-east of the Belgian city of Namur. An example of how the tactics present in the AMR’s doctrine could turn out badly was demonstrated on May 12th 1940, when 2 of the unit’s 23 AMR 33s were lost. A squadron of AMR 33s had been left to defend the village of Crupet in the afternoon, as the horse cavalry retreated. Left to their own, the vehicles proved largely unable to resist. Two patrols of presumably two AMRs each were placed on the entry and exit of the village. Two vehicles of a patrol were then lost meters from each other, having been encircled by German troops, for which the higher number allowed for higher flexibility.

The two AMR 33s of a patrol that was encircled and lost in Crupet, Belgium, on May 12th 1940. Source: Bundesarchiv via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier
This photo appears to show the same scene from another angle. Source: historine.blogspot.com

After its first defeats in Belgium, the unit presumably retreated into France and took part in operations near Abbeville. Its fate, in June of 1940, was quite interesting. On June 5th, the unit was officially turned into the 7th DLM, and adopted an ad-hoc organization. The DLM was to feature a Dragons Portés brigade with two reinforced battalions. It was hoped that each would be able to sustain a mixed squadron of AMRs and motorcycles. The 14th RDP was to operate as one of those squadrons, while another would have been the 31st RDP. However, shortages of AMRs meant the 14th RDP was instead equipped with old White-Laffly armored cars, pressed into service under the role of AMD.

The AMRs were instead pressed into service into a new regiment, the 4th RAM, once again taking the shape of an armored car regiment. This regiment was to focus on reconnaissance tasks, and it was hoped it could sustain four mixed squadrons, two with AMDs and motorcycles, and two with AMRs and motorcycles. In practice, the unit received AMRs from wherever some could be found, training schools, maintenance facilities, etc. The two mixed AMR squadrons were extremely reduced, with a three-vehicle platoon and an additional two-vehicle patrol each in theory. A slightly higher compliment of 14 AMRs total, 7 per squadron, was eventually gathered. This total included both AMR 35s and AMR 33s, the majority likely being of the older type taken from inventory and repair depots. As with the other units still in existence, the 7th DLM fought a bloody fighting retreat on the Seine and then further south. Though poorly documented, it is known that all of its AMRs had been knocked out by the end of the campaign.

The AMR 33’s Performances during the Battle of France

Overall, the AMR 33’s service during the campaign of France was particularly unfortunate. The few units which still operated the type basically found themselves right in the path of some of the most potently armed German units, which easily made short work of these vehicles.

The AMR themselves are not to be entirely exonerated of their poor service, of course. The design’s thin armor made it vulnerable to a variety of German weapons which were not always deadly to French tanks, such as anti-tank rifles or 20 mm autocannons found on Panzer II or in anti-aircraft use.

However, even with better vehicles, considering the small quantities found within the DLCs, far too small to operate as frontline divisions, it is unlikely the vehicles could have performed well even had they been the most advanced reconnaissance tank design of their era. They were in large part in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of being used as reconnaissance vehicles, they were also largely used as cavalry infantry support tanks fighting alongside motorized infantry, which was often not well coordinated with them. In this role, there were almost no positives for the AMR 33, its high mobility being negated while its light armament and armor were exacerbated.

German Use after the Campaign of France

Due to very high rates of abandoned vehicles in the losses suffered by the French Army, German troops were able to capture working examples of the vast majority of armored fighting vehicles types in service with the French Army.

A German soldier stands from the hatch of a captured AMR 33 81686, taken in seemingly operable conditions during the campaign of France. Source: S.Bonnard collection via Les Automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: L’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier

The AMR 33 does not technically appear to have been an exception to this, however, German use of the type appears to have been extremely limited. There are several reasons behind this. First, considering both how the AMR 33s were located right on the frontline, in areas that saw intense combat, and were thinly armored, they were probably, proportionally, many fewer vehicles abandoned due to minor breakdowns and more vehicles which were lost after being penetrated in combat, which could make repair impossible or very complicated. In addition to this, the fleet of AMR 33s, even before this destruction, was small, and the type was long out of production. In comparison to more modern types, such as the S35, B1 Bis, or even H39, there was comparatively little the AMR 33 brought that was not present already in German equivalents, while repair and maintenance of the vehicle would be comparatively hard.

Because of this, photos of the AMR 33 in German service are extremely rare, almost unheard of in fact. The vehicle is nonetheless known to have been given a German designation, Panzerspähwagen VM 701 (f), indicating an armored reconnaissance vehicle of French origin. However, the vast majority of photos of AMRs in German service show AMR 35s, due to more favorable circumstances which lead to more of these falling into German hands.

Conclusion – The First Modern Renault AFV

The AMR 33’s German service is very poorly documented and likely largely insignificant, and there are no known reports or anecdotes of vehicles being recovered and used during the liberation of France. By and large, the story of the AMR 33 can be considered to have ended alongside the campaign of France, and overall fairly early during its course too.

To this day, a single AMR 33 has survived, and is unsurprisingly hosted by the Saumur Tank Museum, which has the largest collection of French AFVs in the world. The vehicle’s interior is sadly not in good condition, but from the exterior, it still looks just as the AMR 33 did back in the 1930s.

The Saumur Tank Museum’s AMR 33, which is the last of its kind. Source: Ian Tong on flickr

When looking back at the AMR 33 today, the vehicle can appear somewhat irrelevant and forgotten. After all, it was one of many vehicles which, in the whole world, came out in the wake of the Carden-Loyd, though the British vehicle was more of a distant ancestor rather than a close parent for the AMR 33. Indeed, when looking at armored fighting vehicles fielded by 1940, there is little that makes the AMR 33 remarkable, outside of perhaps its speed.

The vehicle nonetheless holds an important role in the history of French armored fighting vehicles. The AMR 33 was the first of a new generation of vehicles Renault produced during the 1930s. While it is easy to see how the AMR 33 pioneered the AMR 35, the vehicle’s influence did spread beyond. The AMC 34 and later 35 largely followed in its wake, though they were significantly larger. Even the R35 light infantry tank, which may seem almost the opposite of the AMR 33 with its cast construction, thick armor, infantry role, and slow speed, actually took inspiration from the AMR 33 in the sense that its suspension was based on similar principles. This is not necessarily to take as a point of pride for the AMR 33. The suspension was definitely not a strongpoint of the R35, if there ever was one, and none of the riveted cavalry vehicles offered by Renault in the 1930s would turn out to be huge successes, despite some interesting characteristics, with the AMR 35 being the closest to a good and well-appreciated vehicle. Nonetheless, the influence of the AMR 33 on the armored fighting vehicles created by the most famous French automotive company in the 1930s is undeniable, and the vehicle itself, despite its tragic service history, had a fascinating developmental history.

Early Renault VM configuration in which the prototypes were first completed
Prototype n°79760 with the early version of the coil spring suspension
Prototype n°79758 with the first experimental version of the rubber blocks suspension
A Production AMR 33 with the spare machine gun mounted on the anti-aircraft mount
One of the rare AMR 33s that were fitted with radios
One of the five production AMR 33s with rubber block suspension. Illustrations by David Bocquelet and Godzilla
AMR 33 Specifications
Crew 2 (Driver, Commander/gunner)
Driver vision’s devices Front episcopes
Commander’s vision devices Front-right episcope, front-left, sides and rear vision slots
Armament 1 MAC31E machine-gun with 2,250 rounds & 1 spare/anti-aircraft machine-gun
Hull Armor 13 mm (vertical/slightly angled surfaces)
9 mm (significantly angled surfaces, notably frontal glacis)
6 mm (roof)
5 mm (floor)
Turret armor 13 mm (sides)
6 mm (roof)
Radio None on most vehicles, few fitted with unknown TSF
Fuel tanks 128 liters
Range 200 km
Production numbers 5 prototypes, 118 production

 

Sources

Les automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 1: l’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions

Les automitrailleuses de Reconnaissance, Tome 2: l’AMR 35 Renault, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions

Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions

Les Véhicules Blindés Français 1900-1944, Pierre Touzin, EPA editions

Trackstory No 12 – Les Automitrailleuses Citroen Kegresse, Pascal Danjou, Editions du Barbotin

Chars de France, Jean-Gabriel Jeudy, ETAI editions

Mitrailleuses de 7,5mm modèle 1951, Guide Technique Sommaire, Ministère de la Défense Nationale (Ministry of National Defence), France, 1953

Char-français:
AMR 33
VE Type P
Berliet AFVs
P28
AMR 35

Forgotten Weapons, Swiss Reibel M31 Tank & Fortress Machine Gun

Armesfrançaises (MAC 31)

3945km.com:
2nd DLC
3rd DLC
4th DLC
5th DLC

France 1940 radios

Categories
WW2 French Armored Cars

Citroën P28

ww2 French Tanks France (1930-1940)
Armored Car – 1-2 Prototypes + 50 Production Vehicles

The last Kégresses

Through the 1920s, the French company Citroën experimented heavily with military vehicles that used Kégresse suspension. This suspension was initially created by engineer Adolphe Kégresse, who was French but had worked in Imperial Russia prior to and during World War One. Kégresse returned to France in 1919 and was hired by Citroën to produce vehicles using his suspension. The Kégresse suspension consisted of a soft rubber track that had a unitary belt-type structure instead of several metallic interlocked parts. It was often used in a half-tracked configuration, including for artillery tractors but also armored cars such as the Schneider P16, which was developed during the 1920s.

The Citroën P28 was originally designed as a one-man turretless tractor, intended to carry mortars and ammunition, under the ‘Type N program’ of the French infantry, formulated in October 1930. It used an original half-track configuration, with two steering wheels at the front and a suspension using Kégresse tracks at the rear, while the two other vehicles offered for the Type N specifications were both fully tracked tankettes clearly inspired by the Carden-Loyd. While three P28 tractor prototypes were produced and tested in the summer of 1931, they did not provide satisfactory results and were not accepted by the French infantry.

Photo of prototype P28 tractor 4016-W1, showing the P28’s notable headlights. Source: char-français

Cavalry interest

The rejection of the P28 as an infantry tractor did not stop development on the vehicle though. While a program initiated and conducted by the infantry, the Type N vehicles quickly attracted interest from the French cavalry, as they were very light and quite mobile. The cavalry developed the concept of Automitrailleuse légère de contact (Light Contact Armored Car). In essence, this was a very light and only minimally armored and armed vehicle that was tasked with reconnaissance missions.

While the frame in which this was accomplished is uncertain, two variants of the P28 were modified with armament by Citroën in late 1931. It is known that no new vehicles were produced. However, whether a single vehicle was transformed twice or two prototypes were modified is unknown. These modifications, done very hastily and more for demonstration purposes than to serve as a durable, definitive vehicle. These saw the replacement of the rear storage area of the infantry tractor with a fully rotatable turret, adding an additional crew member. Two different turrets were experimented with. One was cylindrical in shape, and seemingly featured a 37 mm SA 18 main gun, similar to the gun-armed Renault FT tanks and a number of other French armored vehicles of the era. This turret was manufactured by the firm Schneider. The other prototype featured a much more rectangular-shaped turret armed with a single machine-gun of unknown model. The prototypes also had some differences in their hull design, with the driver’s hatch being extended further back than on the original tractor prototypes. Being conversions of original P28 tractors, those prototypes kept some of their elements, notably an engine to the front-right of the vehicle, in front of the turret. This prototype also retained the same engine, the Citroën C4 4-cylinders 72×100 1628 cm3 engine, with an output of 30 hp.

The prototype fitted with a rectangular machine-gun armed turret and a seemingly unmodified driver’s hatch. Source: char-français
The prototype fitted with a cylindrical 37 mm SA 18-armed turret and modified upper hull design. Source: char-français

On 15th October 1931, a date which may have predated even the first P28 prototype being transformed, the French cavalry placed an order for 50 armored cars, though those featured a vastly modified design. They were delivered in 1932 and 1933.

The definitive P28

A front view of a P28 during some kind of mobility trial. The notable headlights are placed at the front of the vehicle Source: char-français
Side view of the same vehicle during trials, showing the diminutive size of the 4.5-tonne half-track armored car. Source: char-français
The same P28 preparing to go through a puddle of muddy water, with a man in the back giving a good idea of the vehicle’s limited size. Source: char-français
The same P28 going through seemingly the same puddle, showing a good view of the open vision ports on the turret. Source: char-français
The same vehicle with the turret’s top two-part hatch opened. Source: char-français

The P28 design which entered cavalry service in 1932 appears to have skipped the prototype stage entirely. The two first production vehicles were tested in July of 1932; one was given the C6 6-cylinders 72×100 2 442cm3 engine with an output of 55hp, and the other the K6 6-cylinders 80×100 3020 cm3 engine with an output of 67hp. This later engine was finally chosen as the definitive one for the production P28s, though issues in its development would lead to some technical issues in the first months of the P28’s service life; the vehicle finally entered regular service within the French cavalry in April of 1933.

In comparison to the prototypes, it featured a turret-mounted not on the rear of the vehicle, but instead in its center. This turret had a simple design and theoretically featured the new 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine-gun as its main armament. However, this appears to have been rarely mounted in practice, with the vehicle mostly being used for driver training. The turret had three hatches that could be opened for vision: one on the rear, and one on each side. A vision slot was also present on the front right of the turret. It had a two-part top hatch from which the commander entered the armored car.

The vehicle had a quite significantly revised hull design as a consequence of the addition of this new turret. The previously horizontal mudguards were now angled backward, somewhat similar to the tracks, though at a lower angle. The whole central armored superstructure had been redesigned to accommodate the turret, with a new two-part front hatch being designed to enable the driver to access the vehicle. The commander, who also fulfilled the role of gunner, entered through the turret hatch. Three smaller vision hatches were featured just under the turret, one frontally, one on the front left, and one on the front right. A frontal drum, similar in concept to those found on Schneider P16 armored cars, was fitted at the front of the vehicle, in order to improve crossing capacities. The P28 also had two notable, large front headlights; those were sometimes placed very far forward, very close to the drum, or further back, just in front of the turret.

The vehicle’s Kégresse suspension had a large front sprocket and a single bogie holding two road wheels as well as a large rear trailing wheel. The two front wheels were used for steering. In comparison to the P28 prototypes, the production model featured a more powerful engine that had been pushed from the right side to the back. It was a Citroën K 6-cylinders 3,020 cm3 petrol engine producing 67 hp The vehicle could, with its modest weight of 4,540 kg, reach a maximum speed of 53 km/h on a good road. It retained very modest dimensions, with a length of 4 meters, a width of 1.63 m, a height of 1.96 m, and a ground clearance of 23 centimeters. The transmission featured four forward and one reverse speed.

A side view of a P28, most likely an industrial photo, with the side turret hatch opened. Source: char-français
A front view of the vehicle from the same photoshoot, showing the new two-part driver’s hatch which was used to enter the vehicle; a smaller but still large vision port, also opened on this photo, was featured just under the turret. Source: char-français
A rear view of the P28 from Citroën’s collections, showing the vehicle’s vastly redesigned rear as a result of the engine being pushed there to make place for a centrally-mounted turret. Source: char-français

The vehicle’s armor had been raised to a maximum of 9 mm, however, quite shockingly for a production run of an armored vehicle, it was not manufactured using military quality steel, but instead mild steel; with a thickness of 9mm, this meant the P28 had basically no protection at all, being vulnerable to even rifle-caliber bullets. Indeed, it appears the cavalry’s P28 order was meant to be, from the start, for training purposes only while specifications for a more advanced reconnaissance armored car were being worked on (the AMR specifications being published in January of 1932).

The production P28 armored cars were delivered to French cavalry units from 1932 onward. As they served a training role, it appears they were not delivered in large batches, but instead to a variety of units in small numbers; the 1st BDP (Bataillon de Dragons Portés – Motorized Dragoon Battalion) is known to have made use of some towards 1934, for example. The vehicles appear to have been designated as AMR (Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance – Reconnaissance Armored Car) despite their training function, with the actual role of operational AMRs being taken by the tracked AMR 33/Renault VM and AMR 35/Renault ZT.

Moderate but notable export

Despite being generally considered a mediocre vehicle, the P28 was the subject of one foreign order. In either 1933 or 1934, the Guardia Metropolitana Uruguayana, a military unit of the police of Montevideo, received three P28s which appear to have been part of the batch of fifty ordered by the French cavalry, and not built specifically for this order. Why or how the Guardia Metropolitana picked the P28 is unknown; it has been theorized the vehicles may actually have been intended to be delivered to Paraguay to reinforce its troops fighting in the Chaco war against Bolivia but may have ended up in the hands of the Uruguayan force instead of reaching their intended destination.

Photo of the three Uruguayan P28s. Source: http://www.aacvm.com.ar/foro/viewtopic.php?f=35&t=1500&start=0

In any case, the P28 vehicles were put to use by the Guardia Metropolitana, and appear to have been the first armored vehicles used by the South American nation. It appears they were painted in a very light gray color. Little is known about their service life and few photos of the vehicle in Uruguayan service remain.

A lackluster French Service

In the French Army, the P28 remained confined to its training role. Despite the breakout of hostilities with Germany in September of 1939, they were typically kept as far from the frontline as possible. While it is sometimes claimed the vehicles had been retired by 1940, photographic evidence tends to show this was not actually the case; while not frontline vehicles in any way, the P28s were kept as training armored cars for the French Cavalry. A surprisingly high number of good quality photographs of these vehicles remain, which tends to be a rarity with pre-WWII French armored vehicles. Considering their less than strategically important use, it is likely the P28 armored cars were far more easily accessible to photographs and journalists than more useful vehicles.

A P28 beside a motorcycle in a French cavalry unit; this photo is notable as it shows a vehicle fitted with the machine-gun, which is far from common. Source: char-français
A Citroën P28 in front of cavalry horses, with the commander sticking out of the turret. This photo also shows the headlights in the other place in which they were sometimes placed, further back Source: char-français
A photo of a P28 with all hatches but the main driver’s entry hatch opened and the commander sticking out of the turret, binoculars in hand. Source: char-français
French cavalrymen posing in front of a P28. Source: char-français
A French serviceman posing in front of four obviously unarmed P28. Source: char-français
Two crew members sitting in front of their P28. They are outfitted with the mle. 1935 tanker helmets, which otherwise rarely present in pictures of the P28 where the standard Adrian helmet is often worn by the crew. Source: char-français
A vehicle with the driver’s hatch opened, showing the steering wheel used to drive. Source: char-français

While not meant to see combat at all, it appears that, following the disastrous German encirclement of a large part of the French army along with the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian army in northern France, the P28 armored cars were pulled out of their training role to be used in a last-ditch effort to defend France. Desperate times need desperate measures and these wholly inadequate vehicles, just like a variety of other armored vehicles pressed into service, such as the D1 tanks urgently shipped back from North Africa, or B1 Bis heavy tanks sent into combat without their turrets. Little to no detail is known of the P28’s actions in the closing days of the 1940 campaign, but considering the vehicle’s abysmal combat capacities, it is unlikely to have performed well. Some photos do show German servicemen posing around P28s, including some which appear to have taken some damage. It is known that some were captured intact, however, unlike the vast majority of French armored vehicles, they were not pressed into German service or even given captured denominations, being entirely disregarded by the Wehrmacht; the surviving French vehicles were most likely scrapped during the war.

An abandoned P28 beside a destroyed truck that appears to have been fitted with a quadruple Vickers AA mount, 1940. Source: char-français
A P28 in front of much more effective AMR 35 tracked reconnaissance light tanks, most likely in some sort of French cavalry depot. Source: char-français
A German soldier posing in the turret of an abandoned P28, 1940. Source: char-français
Several German servicemen pose on an abandoned P28, 1940. Source: char-français
Two German servicemen smiling at the camera from an abandoned P28, 1940. Source: char-français
A German soldier poses in front of an abandoned P28 in a field, 1940. Source: char-français
A German soldier poses inside a seemingly damaged or partially dismantled P28, with several others around it, 1940. Source: char-français

The Uruguayan survivor

While all French vehicles appear to have met an undignified end during the Second World War, this was not the case for the Uruguayan vehicles, which were untouched by the war. Between 1958 and 1963, the last surviving Uruguayan P28, now vastly unnecessary as the country had acquired far more potent vehicles, such as 40 M3A1 Stuarts, was put on static display at the Plaza de Armas del Instituto Militar CIGOR, a military school in Montevideo. At this point, it lost its light gray camouflage for a more military-looking green one. At an unknown date, the vehicle was then moved to serve once again as a static display in the quarters of the 4th Cavalry Regiment. The vehicle is now located at the Plaza de Armas de la Guardia de Granaderos en Montevideo. It was at some point painted entirely in an orange color with the exception of the suspension painted in light blue, but now appears to bear a more modest dark gray paint job with “GM”, for Guardia Metropolitana, painted in yellow on the turret’s front.

A photo of the Uruguayan P28 in the very flashy orange and blue colours it was once in. Source: Blindados Argentinos de Uruguay y de Paraguay, Ricardo Sigal Fogliani, Ayer y hoy editions.
A more recent frontal photo of the surviving Uruguayan P28, in a more historical camouflage. Source: char-français
A photo taken at the same time of the Uruguayan P28 from the side. Source: char-français

Conclusion

The Citroën P28 is one of the most often ignored armored vehicles fielded by the French military in 1940. It was an obscure half-track armored car that only offered mediocre performances and was theoretically limited to a training and perhaps propaganda role at first. However, the vehicle did end up seeing very limited combat because of the general collapse of the French military, though most vehicles appear to have fallen into German hands unharmed. They were ignored by their new owners, who appear to have promptly sent them to be scrapped.

Nonetheless, the vehicle has some interesting elements. It serves as the first armored vehicle of Uruguay, which would then go on to become a regular customer of American light tanks, acquiring M3A1s and then M24 Chaffees. The P28 is also one of the last combat vehicles using the Kégresse track system, an innovation originating from a French engineer in Imperial Russia, and which was experimented on heavily by the French in the 1920s, but somewhat fell aside, at least for armored vehicles, in the following decades, mostly because of the typical fragility of Kégresse tracks.

Illustration of an armed Citroën P28 by David Bocquelet.

Sources

Tout les blindés de l’armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections éditions,
Blindados Argentinos de Uruguay y de Paraguay, Ricardo Sigal Fogliani, Ayer y hoy editions
char-français.net (https://www.chars-francais.net/2015/index.php/7-archives/de-1930-1940/1491-1931-citron-chenillette ) (https://www.chars-francais.net/2015/index.php/engins-blindes/automitrailleuses?task=view&id=793 )
Les matériels de l’armée Française: Les automitrailleuses de reconnaissance, Tome 1, l’AMR 33 Renault, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections, 2005

Specifications

Dimensions 4.00 x 1.63 x 1.96 m
Weight 4,540 kg
Crew Two (Driver, Commander/gunner)
Propulsion Citroën K 6-cylinder petrol, 80 x 100 mm, 3,020 cm3, 67 hp at 3,250 rpm
Maximum speed 53 km/h
Transmission 4 forward, 1 reverse
Armament One 7.5mm MAC 31 machine-gun (often removed)
Categories
WW2 French Armored Cars

Saurer CAT and White Saurer

ww2 French Tanks France (1929-1936)
Armored Cars – At least 9 Saurer-CAT and 5 White-Saurer Built

French Morocco and the CAT

On 15th March 1912, following a Franco-German diplomatic standoff and the Treaty of Fez between the French Republic and the Kingdom of Morocco, part of Morocco became a French protectorate, effectively becoming a part of France’s large colonial empire. In the following years, French troops under Gouverneur-général Lyautey occupied Morocco but had to face rather significant local opposition.
Around 1914 or 1915, as Moroccan resistance, emboldened by the Great War, peaked, a French businessman, Jean Mazères, was hired by the French colonial administration to start doing delivery and supply work in Morocco. Mazères had established himself in Rabat shortly before the war to supply his family’s industry with wool. He owned two trucks which were originally meant to be used for his business, but were very much needed by a French army in need of means to supply its troops across the North African protectorate. Throughout the following years, Mazères received more transport missions from the French Army, which convinced him to progressively acquire more vehicles and expand his services to the French Army. By March of 1919, he had become crucial for the French Army in Morocco, to the point where he was given a monopoly on automobile transport in the Protectorate of Morocco.
Mazères finally turned his supplying service for the French Army into a company in 1922, forming the CAT (Compagnie Africaine de Transport – African Transport Company), associating himself with the truck manufacturer Saurer, which would provide the entirety of the CAT’s truck fleet in the following years. Mazères passed away in 1925, but his company remained in business, and as crucial for the French military. In June 1919, two operators of one of Mazères’ trucks were killed by Moroccan nationalists while on a supply mission for the French Army. Throughout the 1920s, attacks on the CAT’s supply convoys intensified, as Morocco underwent a particularly violent era of the Rif War, which, while mostly concentrated in Spanish Morocco, spilled over into the French protectorate too. With nine drivers killed and four others wounded during the decade, the job was particularly dangerous, and the CAT’s convoys were in dire need of military escort.

Saurer 5AD truck (registered as 1124 MA3/N°341 in the company’s fleet) of the CAT in Morocco, circa 1933

The birth of the “Saurer-CAT”

The CAT’s vehicles were, at first, escorted by the Cavalry Armored Car Squadron of Morocco and the 5th squadron of the 1st REC (Régiment Etranger de Cavalry – Foreign Cavalry Regiment). As the company’s lines continued to expand further into the Sahara and further away from the centers of French activity in Morocco, the needs for escorts rose to the point where the French Army actually gave the CAT responsibility over the escort of its truck convoys. As a consequence of this new mission, the “Saurer-CAT”, an armored car based on the CAT’s Saurer trucks, was born.

Saurer-CAT N°11 and a Renault KZ car of the French Army, ~1930. Pascal Danjou collection.
The earliest photography we have of the Saurer-CAT dates from 1929, which is the commonly assumed date of its entry in service. The vehicle itself uses a Saurer chassis, which actually appears not to have been taken from the company’s 3 AD or 5 AD truck, but to have been purposely-built. Indeed, the GBM magazine (N°119, January of 2017) reports that the vehicle had a 3.70 m wheelbase, which does not match with any known Saurer truck of the era – these had a wheelbase of at least 4 meters. That chassis was fitted with an armored body of unknown thickness, with mostly un-angled, riveted armored plates. On top of that hull, the vehicle was fitted with an octagonal turret that was armed with an 8 mm Hotchkiss mle 1914 machine-gun. It was seemingly powered by a Saurer four-cylinders 6842 cm3 55 hp engine, as found on Saurer 3 AD and 5 AD trucks.

Postcard showing the Saurer-CAT n°3. Pascal Danjou collection
The Saurer-CAT armored car had a rather odd legal status as well as crew composition. While the vehicles themselves were the property of the CAT, the machine-gun was the property of the state. The vehicle’s driver was an employee of the company, but the rest of the crew was composed of French Army soldiers: a commanding non-commissioned officer, a machine-gunner and a spotter. Each vehicle was given a number that was painted on either the turret, the hull, or both. As of today, photos of numbers 3 to 12 have been found, suggesting the existence of at least nine vehicles. There are no known photos of number 1 and 2, and whether or not they were operational vehicles remains unanswered.

Saurer-CATs 3 and 12, with two White-Saurers in the background, Southern French Morocco, 1933. Pascal Danjou collection

Design

While not based on a pre-existing Saurer chassis, the Saurer-CAT very much looked like a truck having been given an armored body, of which the exact thickness was unknown, though it could not withstand more than an 8 mm bullet. The 55 hp Saurer engine and its radiator, typical of 1920s trucks, was visible at the front. Two headlights were present on the vehicle’s front, attached to its lower body.

Saurer-CAT N°9 at a halt with the armor protecting the read wheel not mounted. Pascal Danjou collection
Further back, in the driver’s post, there were two large vision hatches which the driver could open or close depending on whether or not the vehicle was in combat. While most photos show them opened, at least one exists in which these are closed, the vision of the driver being limited to small vision slots on the vehicle’s sides in such a situation.

Saurer-CAT n°12, notable for having a circular base for its turret which the other vehicles do not feature, at a halt with the front hatches open, ~1930, Pascal Danjou collection
The small octagonal turret was located in the center of the hull and, despite its seemingly makeshift construction, some of the vehicles did feature a mantlet that surrounded the Hotchkiss 8 mm mle 1914 machine gun, while a number of others simply had the machine gun go through a hole in the turret. The vehicle’s hull featured two side doors around the driver’s position, towards the front of the Saurer-CAT. These did not cover the entirety of the vehicle’s height, only the lower half of the hull. The gunner took position in the turret, and the commander may have sat next to the driver. The spotter took place in the rear, where another hatch could be opened, allowing him to check to the vehicle’s rear. The two rear wheels featured quite large arches, on which a toolbox was mounted. The tires and wheels used appear to have been the same as in the standard truck of the CAT, the Saurer 5AD. At least one photo shows a vehicle with a spare wheel attached to the side of the hull.

Renault KZs of the French military escorted by two Saurer-Cat in the Middle Atlas. The vehicle leading the convoy, N°5, features a spare wheel on the rear side of the hull. Alain Alvarez collection

CAT armored car
The Saurer-CAT armored car with number 7, in service in North Africa. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

The White-Saurer: recycling the French Army’s armored car bodies

From 1932 onward, a new model of armored car appeared in the CAT’s inventory, the “White-Saurer”. These vehicles were made using the armored body of White armored cars, which, by the early 1930s were beginning to be very worn out, and, if not upgraded to the White-Laffly 50AM or 80AM standard, were often retired. These armored car bodies were fitted on the chassis of the 5AD Saurer truck, as demonstrated by the similar wheelbase of 4.50 m. The original White armored cars were fitted with a turret that mounted a 37 mm SA 18 gun at the front, and a Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine gun at the rear. On the CAT vehicles, the 37 mm gun was traded for a second Hotchkiss. Five of these “White-Saurer” conversions were made for the CAT in 1932. They operated similarly to the “Saurer-CAT”, with a civilian driver and a three-man military crew. They were also numbered using the same systems, taking numbers 13 to 17.

Two White-Saurer, N°13 and 16, and Saurer-CAT N°3, Southern Morocco, 1934. Pascal Danjou collection

Saurer-CAT and White-Saurer n°13. This vehicle does not feature the armor that usually protects the rear wheel. Jean-Pierre Decourtil collection

The CAT’s armored car in operation, and their final fate


Saurer-CAT n°7 and two Saurer 5AD trucks during a halt. CBED collection, via Pascal Danjou
The CAT’s armored cars ended up being successful in their intended mission of protecting the CAT’s transport and supply vehicles and crews from attacks. There were no casualties reported in the company’s personnel after the first vehicle entered service in 1929. The two models of armored cars were the property of the CAT and protected its routes until 1934. In February of that year, France officially announced the successful end of its pacification operations in Morocco. Some vehicles at least appear to have then been given to the French army, with at least a “Saurer group” being reported in the 5th squadron of the 1st REC in 1934-1935, and the last known photos of the vehicles in 1935 only showing them with military personnel.

White-Saurer N°16 surrounded by military personnel, 1935. As no civilian personnel or vehicles can be seen, this photo is presumed to be one from the vehicle’s services in the French Army after the end of the pacification of Morocco. Pierre-F Aujas collection.

A Saurer-CAT (in the background), and two unknown vehicles that were supposedly used by the CAT alongside the White-Saurer and Saurer-CATs: In the middle, a vehicle of unknown chassis using the armored body of a WW1-era AMAC Renault-GPAR mle 1914 armored car; in the foreground, a vehicle that uses the armored body of a White armored car, but with a much bigger engine and rear than on the known White-Saurer. The photo being from 1930, it may be a prototype or early model of the White-Saurer. Pascal Danjou collection

Sources

-GBM n°119 (January of 2017): “Les voitures blindées de la CAT” pp. 33-38
-Tout les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940 (François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections editions) p. 97
-https://mfd.agadir.free.fr/agadirfrontdemer/CAT/CAT.html (Only regarding the CAT itself, not the armored vehicles)