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WW2 French CDM

SARL 42

ww2 French Tanks Vichy France (1940-1942)
Cavalry Tank – Project Only

The French Republic had one of the largest tank industries in Europe and the world during the interwar era, manufacturing a variety of armored vehicles designed for a range of purposes. One of these was the Somua S35 cavalry tank, produced for the French cavalry from 1936 onward. The S35 was a three-man cavalry tank using cast construction with a fairly thick 40 mm of maximum armor and a 47 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun. Despite being one of the more modern and potent French types in service by the campaign of May-June 1940, the S35 was also on its way out from the production lines, with its evolution and successor, the S40, being about to enter production (about 440 Somua S35s were manufactured, with the S40 being scheduled to replace the S35 from the 451st tank onward). This S40 was, in some ways, both a considerable evolution and a very similar vehicle to the S35. It adopted a modified suspension, with a raised front drive sprocket, in order to give the tank better cross-country capacities – the Achilles heel of the S35’s mobility – as well as a slightly lowered front hull. Outside of 80 of the first S40s, which were to keep the APX 1-CE turret, it would also use a new turret, the still single-man welded ARL 2C. At the same time though, much of the vehicle’s core characteristics remained the same – the crew complement, armor layout, armament and powerplant (though, at some point during production, the S40 was to switch from the S35’s 190 hp engine to a more powerful 220 to 230 hp version).

Blueprints of the S40/AC5, fitted with the APX 1-CE turret which would outfit 80 of the first S40s. Source: Tank Archives
The welded ARL 2C turret, which, in comparison to the APC 1-CE, retained the same armor layout and armament but had a larger command cupola and would have been structurally stronger. The future secret tank design project undertaken by Vichy would continue the switch to welding initiated by the S40. Source: war-thunder forums

The German invasion during spring 1940 cut the production of the Somua tanks short, weeks before the first S40 would have left the factories. The installation of the Vichy Regime from late June 1940 onward, as well as the armistice of Compiègne and the drastic limitations installed upon the French military and its industrial complex, would, in appearance, almost entirely stop France’s tank manufacturing efforts. Only some very limited official studies, sponsored by the Axis, would remain in existence – for example, projects of improved S40 tanks with two or three-men turrets destined for Axis export, which were in the works at FCM. As with interwar Germany though, French military men and engineers were not all keen to respect the humiliating armistice. As early as 1940, some partially completed S40 hulls were hidden before the Germans could find them and likely completed by a secret service of Vichy’s military dedicated to armament gathering and construction, the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel/ Equipment Camouflage). At the same time, a project for a vastly remodelled model of Somua’s cavalry tank, taking lessons from the 1940 campaign, was starting to rise. It appears to have had some links to the CDM, which worked alongside this bureau, and was likely in some way part of this broader organization.

AMX, ARL, Somua: A varied shadow design bureau

A variety of engineers formed the rather obscure bureau which worked on what would be the new version of France’s late 1940s cavalry tank. Though the structure of this bureau is still little known to this day, it is known to have included engineers from both the state bureaus of AMX (Atelier de Construction Mécanique d’Issy-Les-Moulineaux) and ARL (Arsenal de Rueil), as well as from Somua, a private firm (subsidiary of the larger Schneider), which was quite obviously involved, as the tank would be a development of its own work. That being said, the core of the bureau and its key engineers appear to have come from the state bureaus rather than from Somua. The most important and well-known engineer involved was ARL’s Lavirotte, leader of the project and previous leading figure of the B1’s evolutions, the B1 Bis and B1 Ter, as well as the short-lived B40 project. At his side was another former engineer of ARL who had worked under Lavirotte, Hubert Clermont, who communicated most known information on the SARL 42 project through correspondence in the 1990s. The engineers working on the project no longer had their status as employees of ARL or AMX, being as civilian as one may be in theory. The project was undertaken without the knowledge of not only the German armistice commission tasked with ensuring the compliance with the terms agreed to at Compiègne, but also from the higher-ups of the Vichy Regime and the military. Indeed, the idea behind this “shadow tank” would be to use it, in one way or another, as a way to resist German invaders in the future – not as a way to bolster the Vichy Regime in its limited operations against the Allies.

How to improve upon the Somua ?

In order to design the new cavalry tanks, lessons were taken from the Battle of France, and the drawbacks faced by French tanks during the campaign. The Somua S35 is generally considered to be one of the French tanks which fared the best, but this is not actually saying much, seeing as much of the fleet consisted of desperately under-armed, undermanned, and slow light infantry tanks, as for example the R35. In the case of the S35, the one-man turret, as on the vast majority of French tanks, proved to overtask the commander way too much, impeding the situational awareness, reaction time, decision-making and gun operating of the vehicle. This was, far and wide, the greatest issue with the vehicle. Outside of this, the 47 mm SA 35, while very much satisfactory by 1940, also likely grew obsolete in the following years, and the S35’s suspension proved too low, reducing the vehicle’s cross-country capacities – an issue already tended to in the incoming S40.

The project for a new cavalry tank took the S40’s hull as the basis. In comparison to the S35, it featured a raised front drive sprocket, which would already improve crossing capacities and all-terrain mobility. The most important change the tank would have to undergo would be a much larger turret, able to accommodate both a 75 mm gun, which could adequately target both armor and infantry, as well as a crew large enough to operate the vehicle in decent conditions.

Two model kits by the company Gaso-line, showing the considerable differences between the original 1930s S35, and what the undercover project would become, the SARL 42. Although the obvious difference is the turret, the hull and suspension went through some considerable changes as well. Source: gaso-line.eu

This improved cavalry tank was given the designation of SARL 42 – SARL stood for Somua Arsenal de Rueil (the Somua & ARL bureau, the most heavily involved company in the project), while 42 refers to 1942, when the project, which appeared to have started in the late summer of 1940, reached maturity, at least in terms of design.

The project was undertaken in secret and, as such, with high constraints. The plans had to be prepared to be hidden very quickly in case of a ‘visit’ by the Armistice commission or Vichy higher-ups, and the engineers had to keep as low of a profile as possible, communicating for example though traveling or secret correspondence, but as little as possible by more official or traceable means. In the beginning, Clermont had to gather plans for the S40 hull by communicating with Somua’s facilities at Saint-Ouen, which would then be used to work on the SARL 42.

Designing the hull

The hull was the element of the SARL 42 which would require the least major changes, though that is partially by virtue of the tank’s turret being entirely new.

Upon the start, it appeared clear that the SARL 42’s hull would be directly based on the S40, however, this does not mean a variety of different configurations were not studied. The most significant subject of debate appears to have been the length of the hull. Five different silhouettes, different only in length, were proposed, the shortest 5 and the longest 5.3 meters long. The length eventually settled on was 5.42 m – the same as on the S40, likely to simplify the production of this new hull. The suspension would therefore have been the same as on the S40, itself very similar to the S35’s but with a raised drive sprocket. Ten road wheels would be used, with the suspension generally being very close to Skoda’s LT vz.35 in design (not a surprising fact considering Schneider, Somua’s mother firm, collaborated closely with Czechoslovak industrial firms, Skoda notably).

Significantly enough though, the SARL 42 was to use a welded hull design instead of the previous casting. This was a significant evolution, a testimony to the modernity of welding. This also changed the silhouette of the vehicle to an extent, highly reducing the number of rounded shapes on the hull. The upper front plate was made purely straight on the SARL 42. To the left of the vehicle, the driver’s post stuck out of this front plate quite considerably and featured a large frontal vision hatch as well as side vision ports.

Blueprints of the SARL 42’s final hull design, which now used welded construction and saw some non-negligible changes in comparison to previous models. Source: Tank Archives

Fairly forward in the hull was the turret ring. This was a larger turret ring than on previous Somua tanks, as wide as 1730 mm, in order to accommodate a much larger turret. With a width of 2.28 m, the vehicle was somewhat widened from the S35 and S40’s 2.12 m in order to accommodate this turret ring. As for the height of the hull, it was 1.71 m.

The engine compartment was 1.88 m long. The engine which was to be fitted in the SARL 42 appears to have been the definitive model of the Somua engine already fitted in the S35. In this form, it would be an 8-cylinders, 13,745 cm3 engine producing up to 230 hp at 2,200 rotations per minute, though, at the standard 2,000, it would produce 220 instead. This engine was already scheduled to be installed in the S40, though not on the first examples.

As for armor layout, it appears the SARL 42 would have retained one very similar to the Somua S35 and S40. The hull front would be 40 mm thick, the sides 20 mm, and the rear 30 mm. The tank would lose some of the rounded shapes of casting, but the better structural resistance of welding in comparison to casting would likely compensate for this, with the armor being likely very close to equivalent in practice. As on the S35 and S40, access on the SARL 42 would be through a side hatch located on the hull’s right side.

Turret design: The challenge of a 3-man 75 mm-armed turret on a narrow hull

The main point which would make the SARL 42 differ from previous Somua tanks, more so than the welded hull, was to be its turret and main armament. From the start, it was decided to arm the projected vehicle with a turreted 75 mm gun, which would be a considerable increase in firepower in comparison to the previous 47 mm SA 35 main gun. It would, however, also make the presence of more crewmen in the turret – preferably 3, in comparison to just one in the APX-1 CE or ARL 2C of the S35 and S40 – a necessity in order to successfully operate the larger gun.

Though it was widened in comparison to the S40, at merely 2.28 m, the SARL 42 remained a fairly narrow vehicle, and, being planned to be fairly light as well, the turret it was designed to mount ought to be relatively limited in size and in weight, despite the will to give it a three-man crew and 75 mm gun. No French tank that was produced or even reached the prototype stage prior to 1940 had had a three-man turret – even the gigantic FCM 2C of the early interwar had merely two men operating the 75 mm – but that does not mean no work had been done on the matter. In the late 1930s, French engineers had worked on three-men, 75 mm-armed turrets for various tanks of the G1 program. ARL, notably, had designed a three-man turret, the ARL 3, which appeared to be a solid candidate to be mounted on the G1R, the G1 which appeared to have been by far the favorite of the program. The G1R and SARL 42 were to be vastly different vehicles – the G1 being heavier and wider – and obviously, the ARL 3 turret was not to be straight up fitted on the new tank. However, the engineers which had worked on its design were pretty much the same team that would design the SARL 42’s turret, and as such had some previous experience working on an at least similar concept.

The result of the design team’s work was a fairly peculiar turret. The SARL 42 indeed had a three-men turret – but it used some original design elements to make it work. The turret was at its highest in the center, and at the rear – this was due to the presence of a telemeter.

An illustration of the SARL 42, created by Julien Ghys for GBM. This illustration gives a good view of both the hull’s front and the turret’s profile, with its commander observation cupola, telemeter, angled roof, and reduced side profile. As one may observe, the turret did not encompass the whole turret ring, as a way to reduce the profile. Source: GBM 90 via wiki-wargaming

Two crewmen sat to the sides of the gun – the loader to the right and the gunner to the left. Due to the turret being lower on the sides – as a way to save weight and space mostly – they were not actually positioned entirely within it, and only their busts would reach out into the turret, while their legs would be in the tank’s hull. The gunner would operate both the gunsight and telemeter, while the loader would also assume the role of radio operator, with a radio set being located in the turret. As for the commander, he sat in a form of bustle at the turret’s rear and had a commander’s cupola. At its highest, on top of this cupola, the tank was 2.84 m high – about 22 cm more than on the S35 and S40. The turret in itself was 1.125 m high. It appears that there were plans to install a machine gun mount for either one or two anti-aircraft machine guns (very likely 7.5 mm MAC 31s) on top of the turret.

The tank’s turret was planned to feature both an electric motor and be able to be hand-cranked, as most turrets of the era.

The most distinctive element of the turret was its large, 1-meter telemeter, destined for use by the gunner. The commander apparently could also operate it, as well as use internal binoculars.

The armor layout retained for the turret was 30 mm on all sides – lighter than the 40 mm of the S35 and S40. The roof would perhaps have the same thickness as the other sides, at least on parts. The inclined roof, being higher at the rear, would make it a lot more vulnerable than most other roofs found on typical armored vehicles.

The main armament of the SARL 42 was a 75 mm gun. As with many elements of the tank, it was at least partially newly designed, but based on previous work. Designing the gun was a task of a bureau of the CDM, led by artillery engineer Lafargue and located in Montauban, near Toulouse. In this case, the 75 mm of the SARL 42 was based on the 75 mm model 1933 fortification gun, itself based on the old 75 mm mle 1897. The gun mounted on the SaU 40 and ARL V39 prototypes was based on the same model 1933. However, it was far from identical to the one featured on the SARL 42. For example, the SARL 42 did not have any form of barrel shroud. In comparison to the old 75 mm mle 1897, the SARL 42’s gun had a shorter barrel. At 2.39m (L/32) long, it was 30 cm shorter. This resulted in a slight reduction of the muzzle velocity, though, at 570 m/s, this was only by a mere 15 m/s. The recoil, however, was quite moderate, which made the use of the gun in the SARL 42 a non-issue. Shells fired included the 1897/1940 obus de rupture armor-piercing capped shell (APC) and the 1915 obus explosif high-explosive (HE) shell. The exact performances of the gun do not appear to be known, they would likely have been fairly similar to, for example, the M4 Sherman’s 75 mm M3 gun. Though the quantity of 75 mm ammunition stowage on the SARL 42 is unknown. We know a small emergency rack was located on the right of the turret, while the vast majority of shells would be carried within the hull. Magazines for the tank’s coaxial MAC 31 machine gun were also located on the right of the turret. The 75 mm’s mount was protected by a rather large curved mantlet. With the 75 mm L/32 gun, but without its basket, the turret was to weigh in at 3,200 kg. The tank would, overall, be around 22 tonnes.

Schematics of the SARL 42, showing the turret’s high but narrow design. The SARL 42 would, overall, have been a fairly high but at the same time narrow tank, both in terms of hull and turret. Source: Tank Archives
A profile of the original SARL 42 with the L/32 gun in a fictional 1944/1945 French camouflage. Created by Eric Schwatz by request of François Vauvillier. Source: GBM 90

A more powerful gun: L/44, but not Rheinmetall

The original gun designed for the SARL 42 was an L/32 75 mm gun. After designing this gun, the CDM team, under the direction of engineer Lafargue, put themselves to work trying to design a more powerful 75 mm gun which would be mounted in the SARL 42 project, and provide better anti-armor firepower.

The resulting gun was inspired by a number of pre-war projects. Its ballistic profile was based on the Schneider 75 mm model 1932 anti-aircraft gun, which was also L/44. However, this gun would have been too large, particularly breech-wise, to mount into the turret of the SARL 42. As a way to solve this problem, inspiration was taken from fortification guns, which were designed with enclosed spaces in mind. The adaptation of the L/44 gun was based on a fortification gun design by Chantiers de la Loire. The breach construction was taken straight from the 75 mm model 1933 fortification gun, on which the L/32 gun had been partially based.

This L/44 gun fired the same ammunition as the L/32, however, it did so at a higher velocity, 715 m/s for the APC and 700 m/s for the HE shell. It is known that, fired from this gun, the 1928/1940 APC shell would penetrate 80 mm at 1,000 m. In general, in comparison to the L/32, which would be in the same ballpark as the Sherman’s M3, the L/44 would be approximately similar to the 75 mm L/43 to L/48 guns found on StuG III/IVs and Panzer IVs of the mid-to-late war.

A profile of an L/44-armed SARL 42 with a fictional 1944/1945 Free French camouflage, created by Eric Schwartz by request of François Vauvillier. Source: GBM 90

And… where to make it?

By 1942, the team which had worked on the SARL 42 had a fairly well-established design. However, it ought to be remembered the SARL 42 was a vehicle that had been designed in secrecy – not only from Germany but also from the higher-ups of the Vichy Regime. As such, it could never be mass-produced within the unoccupied, mainland territories of Vichy, as tanks would never be discreet enough to be hidden from their own country’s government or the German armistice commission. Indeed, all covert Vichy projects which saw technical materialization – namely the Panhard 178 CDM and CDM armored car – were quite less ambitious than the SARL 42.

So, where and in which circumstances would the updated Somua design have been produced?

A number of different options existed. In circumstances such as the ones Vichy found itself in 1942, or which would happen fairly realistically, the SARL 42 would have to be manufactured abroad from mainland France. These scenarios pretty much all entailed German forces attacking the unoccupied part of Vichy France, and the SARL 42 being produced abroad in order to help equip French forces in exile or allied nations to retake the French mainland. Production in North Africa was considered. Though much less risky than in mainland France, it would require some very significant efforts to set up an industrial base sufficient to produce tanks from the ground up, and as such was not really a possible scenario.

The more likely scenario, at least in the eyes of the French engineers, appears to have been production in a friendly and more industrially-free and capable nation than the Vichy regime, constrained to its heavily monitored mainland or industrially poor colonies. In case of a German invasion of the Free Zone, this would very likely have been the United States. Though this may seem odd with today’s lens, back in June of 1940, a lot of French projects (including, within others, the Renault DAC 1 and B1 Ter) had been considered for manufacture in the USA if France was to continue the fight against Germany in exile. This did not end up materializing largely due to the armistice of 1940, though a team of French engineers led by one named “Molinié” was indeed sent to the USA and appears to have at least partially contributed to early war American tank designs. As such, the American option was not the improbable one in the eyes of Lavirotte’s engineers. They pretty obviously did not know much, if anything, on the subject of the M4 Sherman – with such a tank, more capable and with more evolutionary potential than the SARL 42, in American production, the French design likely would not have been produced for long.

Another, more realistic option, which was also considered from the start, was that the SARL 42 would be a tank design kept in order to resume tank production once France would be, in a way or another, liberated – either by Vichy opposing Germany and resisting an invasion, or France being liberated by the Western Allies after the German occupation. In this case, it would have been a ready, ‘off-the-shelf’ design, with which the French tank industry could resume operation without having to design a new vehicle from the start. Though those circumstances ended up happening, the SARL 42 did not end up entering production or even prototype stage, for a number of reasons – among others, technical obsolescence by 1944 but also, perhaps, unknown whereabouts of the plans.

A Sherman of the 2nd Free French armored division (2ème DB) lands in Normandy on the 2nd of August 1944. Interestingly enough, the tank’s front hull bears a “Somua” plate. This Sherman crew had previously served on the S35 as part of an African Chasseurs Regiment (Régiments de Chasseurs d’Afrique/RCA) and, after having to phase out their old but well-liked French tanks, removed the manufacturer’s plates to stick them to their Sherman, a testimony of the prestige the name Somua had gained, which did not, however, prevent the complete superiority of the more modern American design. Source: pinterest

What role for the reborn Somua?

Realistically, even if conditions did align for the production of the SARL 42 to be able to start, the tank could not enter service before 1943 or 1944. By such a point in the war, its performances would have been a mixed bag.

Based on the 1930s S35, a fairly narrow and light cavalry tank design, the SARL 42 could never hope to compete with the heavier and wider Panzer IV, nor the newer T-34 and M4 Sherman, in terms of evolutionary potential. This is easily seen when looking at the vehicle’s armor layout. With 40 mm on the hull front and 30 mm on the turret or hull sides, the SARL 42 would have been very lightly armored, unable to resist any modern anti-tank weapon by mid-war, even less late-war.

The tank’s firepower is more complex though. With the L/32 gun, similar to the M4, the SARL 42 would definitely have been quite a poor design – armed with a gun able pretty much capable only of infantry support and anti-tank duty against light or moderately-armored medium targets, it would be outdated in pretty much all regards. With the L/44 though, the vehicle may have had some limited potential. Though the SARL 42 had a high silhouette, its high observation cupola and telemeter would likely have allowed some good observation capacity while only keeping the cupola and telemeter – about 55 cm high, and fairly narrow – peeking. If a good target was found, the tank could then reach out a little more in order to put the gun on target. With the L/44, though the SARL 42 would be unable to deal with newer German designs such as the Panther, Tiger I, Jagdpanzer 38(t), Jagdpanzer IV or Jagdpanther frontally, it would be able to deal at least decently with most other targets – and most vehicles in this list could at least in some way be engaged from the side. While it could never hope to be a decent, modern frontline medium tank that could compare to a Sherman or Cromwell, the SARL 42 may have found some use in a role more akin to a tank destroyer – albeit a turreted, covered one – than a medium or cavalry tank.

Premature end by the hands of Case Anton

As with pretty much all other undercover armored vehicle design projects undertaken by the CDM in the Vichy Regime, the SARL 42 would come to a swift end due to the German invasion of the unoccupied, ‘free’ zone of Vichy France, on 11th November 1942. The plans of the project were not destroyed but instead hidden inside a mechanical workshop in Dijon, Burgundy. They would survive the war. Despite what one may expect, the SARL 42 did not end up being entirely irrelevant to the French tank industry post-war, far from it.

The SARL 42’s legacy: Off-the-shelf tank gun designs

By the liberation of France in the summer of 1944, the SARL 42 had now become a vastly obsolete design. Even if high efforts were put into restoring the French tank industry, months would be needed before a prototype would leave a factory, let alone a production run. By that time, with the French Army equipped with the superior M4 Sherman in considerable numbers, the need for the SARL 42 was long gone.

However, some considerable work had been done into designing two guns – The L/32 and L/44 – for the SARL 42. Those two would not go to waste but instead be featured on a number of postwar projects.

The L/32 gun was redesignated as SA 45, and featured on a project for a new production run of the Panhard 178 armored car, which would mount this 75 mm gun in a cylindrical turret. In the end, though the cylindrical turret was adopted, no efforts were apparently undertaken to produce the SA 45, and the design ended up going into production with the pre-war 47 mm SA 35 gun – originally found, notably, in the Somua S35. The SA 45 may, or may not, have been manufactured at least once. It was possibly mounted in the Voisin CA 11 colonial amphibious tank prototype, though this is only guesswork, as this prototype’s gun, though known to be a 75 mm short gun, has never been fully identified.

Plans for the mounting of the 75 mm SA 45 in a turret for the Panhard 178B armored car which ended up using the 47 mm SA 35 instead. Though it features some differences in its mounting, this was the same L/32 gun as originally designed for the SARL 42. Source: French military archives

As for the L/44, it would make its way onto the first produced ARL-44, within a cast turret designated as the “ACL-1”. Though it is often claimed this turret mounted the American 76 mm M1, this was not the case. It is indeed the 75 mm initially designed to upgrade the SARL 42’s firepower which would make its way into France’s first new tank design post-WW2, though it would swiftly be replaced by a more modern 90 mm gun. Like the SARL 42’s L/44, this 90 mm SA 45 gun would be based on a prewar anti-aircraft piece.

The 75 mm-armed ARL 44, outfitted not with the 76 mm M1, but with the 75 mm L/44 gun originally designed for the SARL 42. Source: Wikimedia.org

Conclusion – The secret Somua, condemned to obscurity

The SARL 42 is one of several undercover armored vehicle production projects undertaken by the CDM in Vichy France, alongside the CDM armored car and Panhard 178 CDM – all very peculiar and fascinating works studied, and for these latter two produced, in exceptional conditions and very tight secrecy.

The SARL 42 was the project which was the closest to a capable, modern tank – but it would also have been the hardest and most expensive to manufacture in secret, a prospect which could never have been seriously considered. Unlike those other CDM projects, it does not appear to even have been close to prototype manufacturing, remaining on the drawing board for its entire history, though some considerable design work was performed, notably when it comes to the vehicle’s guns.

This work definitely did not go to waste – the SARL 42’s guns would play a non-negligible role in kickstarting the French tank design and industry services back up at the end of the war, and many of the engineers who worked on projects such as the ARL 44, including notably Lavirotte, were veterans from the secret SARL 42. As such, it played a significant role in keeping whatever was left of a French tank industry alive, albeit on life-support, while the country was divided in two and under tight occupation. In a somewhat tragic irony, this was not too different from the covert projects undertaken in Weimar Germany, which were also in violation of the peace treaty or armistice of the time, and in which production was mainly considered outside of the designing country. Those projects also at least kept the industry and designers active and trained.

Illustration of the SARL 42 with the L/32 gun, pictured with camouflage from the Free French 2nd Armored Division during the European campaign in 1944-1945
Illustration of the SARL 42 with the long gun, depicted in a pre-invasion AMX two-tone scheme and named Mollard after CDM leader Emile Mollard. Both illustrations created by Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe and funded by Tank Encyclopedia’s Patreon campaign.

 

SARL 42 specifications

Dimensions (L-H-W) 5.42×2.84×2.28 m
Crew 4 (Driver, Loader/Radio, Gunner, Commander)
Propulsion 8-cylinders, 13,745 cm3 petrol, producing 230 hp at 2,200 rpm/220 hp at 2,000 rpm
Suspension Leaf springs bogies
Weight ~22 tons
Power-to-weight ratio in hp/tonnes ~10.4
Armament 75 mm L/32 (570 m/s) or L/44 (715 m/s) gun
coaxial MAC 31 7.5 mm machine-gun
Optionally 1 or perhaps 2 turret-mounted anti-aircraft machine-guns (likely MAC 31s)
Armor layout 40 mm (front hull)
30 mm (Turret, rear)
20 mm (hull sides)
No. Built 0

Sources

GBM 88, July-August-September 2009, “Le Somua S40”, François Vauvillier, pp 62-69
GBM 89, October-November-December 2009, “Les Somua de l’ombre (I)”, Stéphane Ferrard, pp 44-49
GBM 90, January-February-March 2010, “Les Somua de l’ombre (II)”, Stéphane Ferrard, pp 54-59
Char-français
French military archives at Châtellerault: Note pour la direction du matériel, N°28.750, 8 Juin 1945

Categories
WW2 French CDM

CDM Armored Car

ww2 French Tanks Vichy France (1941-1942)
Armored Car – 1 Prototype + 224 Production Vehicles Ordered But Not Completed

A little known armored car design, the Automitrailleuse CDM, or CDM armored car, is one of the most extensive armored vehicle projects undertaken in secrecy, not only from the general public but also from the higher-ups of the manufacturer’s own military. This was a project undertaken by a rogue element of the Vichy Regime’s military that refused to accept the Armistice and prepared to resist a German invasion of the unoccupied southern half of France. The CDM armored car’s production was in full swing by the point the invasion of the Vichy “Free Zone” in November of 1942 put a definitive halt to the secret armament project.

The CDM’s armored vehicles design bureau and its previous works

France’s swift defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht in May-June 1940 brought down upon the country a harsh armistice, not entirely uncomparable to the one Germany was subjected to at the conclusion of the First World War. The French Army’s size was reduced to a mere 100,000 men, at least in mainland France, with its armored component reduced to 64 Panhard 178 cars vastly weakened by the removal of their 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun, and -further studies of armored vehicles design prohibited.

Many within the reduced army of the new “Vichy Regime”, as it came to be called, were far from pleased with the conditions of this armistice. Overwhelmingly composed of personnel already in service in 1940, the Army did not see with a good eye the occupation of France’s northern half and the vast reduction of its capacities. As early as July of 1940, a French colonel, Emile Mollard, created a secret service within the army of the new regime, the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel – Equipment Camouflage). The CDM was originally intended to stockpile as much armament as possible, often instead of surrendering it to the German armistice commission. Its goal was to be able to raise the French Army from 100,000 to 300,000 men in just a few days, which was hoped to be enough to delay German forces long enough for reinforcements from the Western Allies and the colonies to arrive in France. Through late 1940 and 1941, the service stockpiled tens of thousands of rifles and machine guns, and dozens of field artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. In the spring of 1941, Mollard sought to expand the CDM’s missions, and entered in contact with engineer Joseph Restany, with the goal of producing 45 turrets for turretless Panhard 178 hulls that the CDM was in possession of. This prospect was successful, leading to the Panhard 178 CDM armored car. In early June of 1941, while the production of those turrets was still in its early phases, Mollard made another request for an armored vehicle to Restany and the armored vehicle production service he was setting up.

An armored car on a GMC truck chassis

In early June of 1941, Emile Mollard and Joseph Restany, along with a number of officers involved in the CDM, met in a conference in the town of Saint-Cyprien, in Dordogne, where Restany was setting up a new workshop for the production of the CDM Panhard 178 turrets. Mollard informed Restany that the CDM had, within its reserve, 225 chassis of 4-wheel drive GMC trucks (the exact model of which sadly is not specified or known) and, upon presenting one to Restany, asked if the production of an armored car based on this chassis could be possible. Upon Restany’s affirmation that it could, Mollard placed some additional but still fairly vague requirements, requesting an armament that could be as heavy as possible, a fully rotating turret, and a rear driving post which would improve the vehicle’s mobility. He then requested Restany and his workshops to get to work on this new project as soon as possible.

In July and August of 1941, while the CDM turrets for the Panhard 178 were yet to be assembled (the first would be completed in October), Restany set up a designing bureau as well as a workshop working on the chassis in Saint-Cyprien. At the same time as the overall vehicle’s design was being created, modifications were done to the chassis in order to make them more suitable to base armored cars on. Those were quite extensive: the rear was shortened by 1.10 m, and the front by 20 centimeters; the rear wheels were brought forward by about 1.10 m to reduce the wheelbase; the frontal radiator was lowered, as well as the ventilator; modifications were made on the direction, brake controls, the original carburetor was replaced by a smaller one; and the traction hook was moved, among others.

Design of the CDM armored car

Most of the designing work done by Restany and his team was performed in the summer of 1941. The vehicle they came up with had a mostly rectangular armored body, with a visible radiator and two headlights at the front, typical of armored cars manufactured on truck chassis. The hull had a door on each side and two frontal hatches that could be opened for better vision, or closed in combat. The two front wheels had no cover, while the upper half of the rear wheels was covered. The vehicle had a rear driving post which made it easier for the armored car to leave a position if located by enemy forces, though the speed of the vehicle in reserve or going forward was unknown. Details on the engine are scarce, but it appears to have had 75 hp one. The vehicle had a fully rotating hexagonal turret quite similar in shape to the pre-armistice APX 3 mounted on Panhard 178s. This turret had a top hatch and a rear door, and two viewports on the side. A number of different armaments were to be mounted in this turret, with three different configurations being planned. The production process of such a vehicle, especially in the context of high secrecy, required a number of different workshops which were all overseen by Restany.

Profile plans of the CDM armored car. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation allemande

The modified chassis: the Saint-Geniès workshop

In July of 1941, Restany ordered a workshop set-up in Saint-Geniès, in Dordogne. This workshop was located on the road to Sarlat, a town where he was setting up the most extensive part of his production efforts. The objective of this workshop was to receive the original GMC truck chassis and apply the modifications Restany and his team devised to those. The workshop was set up from the 15th August to the 15th October 1941. It immediately began modifying the chassis it received. By May 1942, all 225 had been transformed. Restany lauded the production rates of the workshop, which produced 1.1 modified chassis a day during most of its operation and up to 1.8 towards the end. However, he found the workshop to be a considerable risk. While some CDM commanders delivered the chassis stripped bare of anything unnecessary, as Restany preferred, some delivered trucks which still had driver’s cabins and bodies. This not only made the production a little more complicated, but, most importantly, created a significant quantity of waste which took a considerable amount of storage space, and which Restany feared could be discovered and compromise the whole operation, especially as the Saint-Geniès workshop was located near a road. As soon as the last chassis was finished, the workshop was dismantled. Two of the three buildings used, which already existed prior to the CDM’s installation, were kept, the third one, which had been constructed for the operation, was entirely dismantled, with the materials all being transported to Sarlat, where they were used to build a garage for the operations there. As for the chassis, they were kept in a number of farms around Sarlat.

Mechanical pieces: the Sarlat factory

Sarlat (officially Sarlat-la-Canéda) was the town that became the center of Restany’s operations. The mayor of Sarlat, which Restany noted was sympathetic to his work, lended to the CDM a former tramway depot at basically nominal fee. In this depot, Restany organized a workshop dedicated to the production of mechanical pieces necessary for the CDM armored car, most notably pieces needed for the turret race. Finding adequate industrial machines was the hardest part of setting up this workshop. While, on the orders of Mollard, local branches of the CDM were to provide machines to Restany’s operations, some did not follow the orders, while others did it very reluctantly. The Roanne workshop, also known as ARL, provided very old machinery which had not been put to use in a long time. Restany reported that within what they provided was a shaper dated from 1867. Not all workshops provided such a lackluster aid though. Restany praised the Manufacture Arme de Tulles (MAT/ Tulle Arms Factory), a major pre-war firearms producer which produced some of the most complicated pieces for Restany’s operation, and also provided some raw materials, allegedly taken from stocks used to produce 25 mm SA 34 anti-tank guns for Romania, an order imposed by Germany to the factory. To complete those very deliveries of machines and pieces, Restany also purchased machinery from private industry. The Sarlat workshop began operations on 15th January 1942. Orders for mechanical pieces that could not be identified as of military use were also placed with civilian manufacturers, which were in no way informed of the actual use of the pieces they were producing. A bureau was also installed in La Canéda, a rural suburb of Sarlat.

Armor: 670 tonnes of improvisation

A key part of Restany’s operation was finding the armor plates necessary for the production of the hulls and turrets. The CDM armored car used plates of four different thicknesses: 5, 10, 15, and 20 mm. Restany wanted this armor to be military-standard steel, made under the same conditions, and with the same quality as the armor of French military vehicles produced before the armistice. Finding enough armor for 225 armored cars while avoiding discovery was a complicated process, in which Restany and the CDM had to acquire steel from a variety of different providers.

Three different steelworks provided steel for the CDM: Saint-Etienne, Saint-Chamond (also known as FAMH, an important artillery and tank manufacturer prior to the armistice), and Ugine. Getting those facilities back to work was a complicated affair, as the production of military-grade steel had been stopped since the armistice. The CDM had to deliver 856 tonnes of coal to the steelworks through the months of March, April, and May of 1942 in order to get them to get steel production back on track. Molded steel was provided from the steelworks of Saut-Du-Tarn. In order to get those back in operation, the CDM had to provide them with particularly hard to find chromium and nickel, an operation that was executed under the management of Mollard.

An additional quantity of steel came from an unexpected source, the French SNCF (Société National des Chemins de Fer – National Railways Company). In possession of an armored train, the company removed its armor plates and delivered those to the CDM.

By June of 1942, 670 tonnes of military-grade steel had been moved to the storage facilities of the CDM, in the steelworks of the large city of Toulouse. More details are available on the composition of those 670 tons. There were 155 tons of 5 mm-thick plates, 297 tons of 10 mm-thick plates, 98 tons of 15 mm-thick plates, and 120 tons of 20 mm-thick plates.

Top view of the CDM armored cars plans
Top view of the CDM armored cars plans. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande

Body assembly, and the armored car’s armor scheme: Vitrac and Sousceyrac workshops

The assembly of the armored car’s body was carried out at the workshop of Vitrac which was installed in a well-camouflaged cave. Another workshop was installed in the town of Sousceyrac, in Lot, where a large, unused industrial building was located. The Sousceyrac workshop was tasked with the final assembly of the armored cars, mating the hulls, chassis, and turrets together. In case this workshop would prove insufficient, another assembly workshop was created in Calviac, Dordogne, but it was to only operate as a depot unless needed. Sousceyrac’s workshop first’s work was producing external elements that were to be placed on the hull of the vehicle: wheel casings, skirts, hatches, etcetera.

The body of the vehicle had an armor scheme using 5, 10, 15, and 20 mm plates. The front of the superstructure, and driving post, used 20 mm plates. The rear used 15 and 20 mm plates. The sides of the vehicle, from the engine to the rear, used 10 mm plates. The front of the engine used 15 mm plates. The bottom of the vehicle and the mudguards used 5 mm plates. The vehicle had a crew of three, with a driver and rear driver/machine gun operator in the hull, and the commander/gunner/loader in the turret. The vehicle had three fuel tanks. While the range it had is unknown, the vehicle could move for 8 hours with the fuel it had. The vehicle’s mobility is pretty much entirely unknown. It had a width of 2.230 meters (with the rear wheels being the widest point), a height of 2.545 meters, and a length of 4.600 meters.

Front view of the plans of the CDM armored car.
Front view of the plans of the CDM armored car. The hatch on the left of the superstructure was advanced by a few centimeters in comparison to the one on the right. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande

Turrets: Saint-Cyprien and Griffoul

Assembly of the turrets was organized in the workshop of Saint-Cyprien, where the production of Panhard 178 CDM turrets began in the autumn of 1941. Griffoul, a quarry that had been modified into a workshop and depot for the production of those Panhard 178 turrets, retained this role for the turrets of the CDM armored car.

The CDM armored car had a turret of hexagonal shape. The front of the turret was given 20 mm of armor, its sides and rear 15 mm, and its roof and turret ring 10 mm. A variety of different armaments were to be mounted on the turrets. 60 vehicles were to be armed with the 25 mm R.F (Région Fortifié), a shortened, fortification model of the 25 mm SA 34 anti-tank gun, and two 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine guns, mounted under the main gun. This configuration was inherited from the original fortification mount of the 25 mm R.F which was coupled with those two machine guns. 150 armored cars were to be armed with a heavy machine gun, which Restany refers to as a “13,6”, but most likely a Hotchkiss 13.2 mm, as well as a coaxial 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. Finally, 15 vehicles were to be armed with a “25 mm gun”, presumably a 25 mm SA 35 or SA 34, as well as a coaxial 7.5 mm machine gun. In all cases, an additional 7.5 mm machine gun would be carried within the hull, which could be fired from the hull either at the front or at the rear. Ammunition for vehicles using the first armament type was of 20 7.5 mm magazines (the MAC 31 used 150 rounds drum magazines, so 3,000 rounds) and 100 25 mm shells. The exact ammunition count of the two other types of armament is not specified in detail, but Restany notes that it is the same weight of ammunition. 7.5 mm magazines were located in axles welded in the turret, while the 25 mm shells were located within “ad hoc ammunition lockers”.

Plans of the turret armed with a 13.2 mm and a 7.5 mm machine gun
Plans of the turret armed with a 13.2 mm and a 7.5 mm machine gun. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande
Plans of the turret armed with a 25 mm R.F and two 7.5 mm machine guns.
Plans of the turret armed with a 25 mm R.F and two 7.5 mm machine guns. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande

Prototype and trials

A first completed vehicle was ready by October of 1942, the assembly having been done in the workshop of Saint-Cyprien (though it was to be conducted at Sousceyrac for future vehicles). This prototype was identical to the serial standard expected with the CDM armored car and had a full weapon complement (it used the 25 mm R.F & double 7.5 mm MAC 31 configuration). The vehicle moved on its own power from Saint-Cyprien to the park of the Marquay Castle, 20 km from the workshop, where the trials were to be conducted. The convoy from the workshop to the park, which included not only the armored car but several other vehicles transporting personnel and prepared to potentially repair or tow the armored car if it broke down, moved in the night of 16th to 17th October. The local gendarmerie based in Sarlat, which collaborated with Restany, assured the path taken by the convoy was barred from other vehicles and safe.

A front view of the CDM armored car
A front view of the CDM armored car during the trials in the park of the Marquay Castle, showing the radiator, headlight, with one of the front hatches open and another closed. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande via char-français.net

Trials were performed in the park on 17th October. Restany reported that the vehicle drove well in mediocre pathways and cross-country, and was “infinitely more flexible and maneuverable than the original GMC truck”. The crew was satisfied with the vehicle’s handling, with the driver having very satisfactory vision, and decent internal comfort and space. While some minor issues that could be fixed were found, Restany was very satisfied with the trials and decided the vehicle was ready to be presented to Mollard. The prototype returned from Marquay to Saint-Cyprien on the night of 17th to 18th October. At an unspecified date later in October, it was presented to Mollard in Marquay. The Colonel had no objection to the design, and the vehicle was then moved again to Saint-Cyprien. It was then supposed to be moved to Sousceyrac, to serve as a model for the assembly of the following 224 vehicles.

A side view of the prototype
A side view of the prototype during the trials at the Marquay Castle, showing the side doors and opened front view hatches. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation allemande via char-français
A rear view of the prototype
A rear view of the prototype during the trials at Marquay Castle, showing the rear view hatch. Source: Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande via char-français

State of Production by the end of October 1942

At the end of October of 1942, with the trials producing satisfactory results, the production of the CDM armored car was about to enter full swing. A considerable number of parts had already been completed. By that point, all the chassis had long been converted to the required length and been subjected to the required modifications. 15 entire armored bodies were ready. Internal structures for 150 armored vehicles, 100 armored shutters for the radiator, 200 turret races, and 250 doors were complete. As for turrets, 65 had been completed and armed. 15 more were assembled and in the process of being armed. Restany’s operation was going smoothly, with the assembly of completed vehicles in the near future starting to be a realistic consideration. Restany, his team and Mollard had successfully set up an extensive, secretive armored vehicle manufacturing structure, away from the eyes of both the collaborative higher authorities of the Vichy Regime and the German armistice commission. Sadly for them, though, their project would not bear its fruit, due to geopolitical events far beyond their reach.

November of 1942: Self-sabotage

A first worrying event came on 29th October, when the German armistice commission from Toulouse made a visit to Sarlat. Thankfully for Restany, he had been informed of this visit about a week prior. All the machinery of the Sarlat workshop was urgently evacuated to two newly created workshops, about 30 km from there. The Saint-Cyprien workshop was displaced from a building to the nearby woods. A warehouse in Sarlat, the bureau in La Canéda and the Vitrac and Griffoul workshops were closed. The local commander of the gendarmerie, Captain Rouchaud, who had organized the escort of the prototype a few days earlier, led the commission into a tobacco warehouse that had been recently constructed, opposite to the CDM workshop. Restany’s operation remained undiscovered by the Germans, but he feared they may have a lead.

In the following days, while the transport of all the equipment and machinery that had been evacuated back into the workshops was taking place, extremely worrying rumors of a German invasion of the Free Zone, the unoccupied part of France Restany’s operation was located in, started spreading. On high alert, Restany prepared for the worst according to the recommendations of the CDM in case of an occupation of the Free Zone. On 8th November, British and American forces landed in French North Africa, arguably the most important French colony, and one which had remained loyal to the Vichy regime. Restany ordered the hulls that had been produced to be placed in wooden crates and prepared to be buried if needed. All the hulls had been placed in the crates by the 10th of November.

By the evening of 10th November, Restany received the confirmation that the worst he was fearing and preparing for was coming, the Wehrmacht would come kicking in in the Free Zone on 11th November. Unwilling to destroy all of his work, and thinking his men would refuse as well, Restany prepared secret instructions which were issued to each workshop, and only to be opened after a telephone call gave the order to do so. By 4 am on 11th November, liaison personnel were delivering the envelopes around the workshops, all located in proximity to Sarlat. Restany’s orders were to preserve as much of the technical documentation and productions as possible, while at the same time keeping his personnel as safe as possible. Administrative archives were to be destroyed, but the plans were to be kept and hidden. Parts that could easily be identified as of military use were to be buried. The turrets and weapons, in particular, were to be potentially recoverable, if a situation in which this could be done appeared. The weapons were placed in creates and buried in fields and the turrets were walled in the quarry turned workshop of Griffoul. The prototype was disassembled. Meanwhile, in the whole of the Free Zone, the French Army remained in its barracks at the orders of Prime Minister Pierre Laval, and the CDM’s caches were unused. In a single day, the entire “Free” Zone of France disappeared, with the exception of the harbor of Toulon where most of Vichy’s fleet was located, and which was only occupied on 27th November, with the regime’s fleet scuttling to avoid capture.

The telephonic signal to open the envelopes was given by Restany between 9.30 am and 10 am on 11th November. At 11 am, he left Sarlat for Castres, where the operations began back in the spring of 1941, and many of the administrative functions remained. There, he got hold of the plans and met with Mollard who congratulated him for the measures he had taken to conserve the weapons.

Restany under the occupation

From Castres, Restany then moved to another town in Dordogne, Saint-Ceré, where he was to continue managing the dissimulation and destruction operations as much as possible while remaining hidden. However, in Sarlat, an extraordinary German commission was put in place, tasked with the investigation of a large armored vehicle manufacturing scheme German forces had stumbled upon when occupying the town. While residing in Saint-Ceré, Restany still regularly went to Sarlat and Castres to oversee the liquidation of the screen-company that had been set in place to hide his operations. Fearing he may easily be found out due to his regular displacements in the small town of Saint-Ceré, he left for the larger Albi in April of 1943. Restany survived until the liberation, unscathed. He kept writing to Mollard until September of 1943 when he and his son were found out and soon sent to a concentration camp.

Three former workers of the Sarlat workshop were shot in 1944, though it is not known if the reason for their execution was their participation in the armored car production scheme or other actions undertaken in the French resistance.

Despite Restany and his men’s efforts, some of the hidden material was found by German forces. On 12th December 1942, most likely following a denunciation, the exact position of the crates containing the weapons for the armored cars were found, and the crates were dug back out of the soil. Restany suspected an Alsatian worker named Beck for this denunciation, as he had allegedly been seen with German troops following the occupation of the Free Zone, despite having allegedly been enrolled in the Wehrmacht. A truck driver reported the location of the Sousceyrac workshop to German forces and was condemned to 10 years in prison at the end of the war. As a result of the denunciations, and to avoid the owners of the terrains being at risk, the locations of the Griffoul quarry where the turrets were stored, as well as the Vitrac workshops, were leaked to the Germans. Still, some elements, notably a number of armor plates, appear to have remained unfound by the Germans. Most importantly, Restany conserved the plans and shared them in his 1948 book.

Conclusion

The large armored car manufacturing scheme undertaken by Emile Mollard’s CDM under Joseph Restany’s lead is a particularly little known and celebrated but particularly interesting part of the French Resistance. In high secrecy, the workers and engineers operating under the lead of Restany managed not only to produce turrets to re-arm 45 Panhard 178 CDMs, but to build an entire armored car from the chassis up, while remaining away from the eyes of Vichy’s higher-ups and the German armistice commission until the occupation of France.

One could definitely argue that the CDM armored car appears to be a primitive basic design It was, without a single doubt, not up to the comparison with any medium or large-sized armored car of the late war such as the German Sd.Kfz 234/2 or a British AEC or even Daimler armored car in terms of capacities. Even some of the more advanced pre-1940 designs, such as the Panhard 178, outclassed it. Nonetheless, the scale of the underground manufacturing scheme undertaken by the CDM remains impressive when taking into account the context of its undertaking. Sadly for the CDM, the whole project had to be urgently dismantled to avoid German capture in November of 1942, and would never bear the fruits of the work, time and materials invested into it. Nowadays, this aspect of the French Resistance remains very lightly touched on and known by the general public and even many enthusiasts. Despite Mollard being sent to concentration camp, he survived, but his son, also involved in the CDM, did not. Mollard remains a little known figure, far overshadowed by military commanders of Free France that earned a reputation in the field, such as Leclerc, Juin or De Lattre.

A view of the CDM armored car,
A view of the CDM armored car, most likely a drawing; source: char-français.net
Illustration of the CDM armored car illustrated by Yuvnashva Sharma and funded by our Patreon campaign.

CDM armored car Specifications

Length 4.6 m long
Width 2.54 m wide
Height 2.23 m high
Armament
(65 turrets)
25 mm R.F gun & two 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun + a MAC 31 in storage
Armament
(150 turrets)
13.2 mm Hotchkiss & a 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun + a MAC 31 in storage
Armor 10 mm on the hull sides and turret top
20 mm at the superstructure and turret front
15 mm at the radiator and turret sides & rear
5 mm on the bottom and mudguards
15-20 mm at the rear.
Total production 1 completed prototype, 15 completed armored bodies, 65 completed and armed & 15 completed but unarmed turrets, parts for various numbers of vehicles.

Sources

Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, Charles-Laveuzelle & Cie editions, 1948
Char-français.net (photos only)

Categories
WW2 French CDM

Panhard 178 CDM

ww2 French Tanks Vichy France (1941-1942)
Armored Car – 45 Turrets Built For Pre-Existing Hulls

With the defeat of France by Germany in the spring of 1940, an armistice was signed between the two countries on 22nd June 1940, going into effect three days later. Some of the most important clauses of the treaty were the occupation of France’s northern half and all of the Atlantic coast by Germany, and the establishment of a “free zone” administered entirely by French authorities in the South. The French army was limited to a mere 100,000 men, with no armor outside of 64 Panhard 178 armored cars which had to have their 25 mm SA 35 main guns replaced with 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine guns.

A Panhard 178 in its original configuration, armed with a 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun and a 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun in an APX 3 turret, in service with the 6th GRDI, a reconnaissance group, during a parade, late 1930s. Source: char-français
Vichy Panhard 178, having had their 25 mm SA 35 gun removed and replaced by a second 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. Source: www.warwheels.net

In June and July of 1940, the Third Republic’s democratic government was replaced through a series of votes in parliament by an authoritarian one led by WW1-hero Philippe Pétain. He and his government enacted collaboration policies in the following months. Despite this, the army of this armistice government, which came to be referred to as the “Vichy Regime”, was far from entirely collaborative. Indeed, the vast majority of the remaining army’s soldiers and particularly officers were veterans of the campaign of France, and many did not accept the occupation of France. While stockpiling of weapons that had been evacuated into Southern France, away from the eyes of the Armistice Commission, started as early as June 1940, it started to take a more elaborate form the next month, as the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel/Camouflage of Equipment) was founded under the direction of colonel Emile Mollard. A secret organization within the army, unknown by a large part of its higher-ups, let alone the German armistice commission, the CDM focused on creating weapons caches for a variety of equipment – mostly firearms and other infantry equipment, but even some armored vehicles. Notably, 45 Panhard 178 hulls which had been evacuated without turrets during the 1940 retreat were secretly kept around by several cavalry regiments. The idea behind the CDM was that, in case of a German invasion of the free territory, enough weapons could be provided to extend Vichy’s army to 300,000 men, which would then delay the German invasion until reinforcements from overseas (both the colonial empire where the CDM also organized caches and the occidental Allies) could arrive and stabilize a front in Southern France.

The CDM’s stockpiling effort quickly took a large scale in 1940 and 1941; French historian and resistance veteran Henri Amouroux reported 65,000 rifles, 9,500 machine guns, 200 mortars, fifty-five 75 mm mle 1897 guns and a variety of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns had been stockpiled during the winter of 1940-1941. American historian and Vichy specialist Robert Paxton estimates the amount of secretly stockpiled equipment to be equivalent to 80% of the weapons officially used by the armistice army. By November of 1942, 1,520 people were involved in the organization.

By the spring of 1941, as most weapons that could be stockpiled had already been found, the CDM began to expand its service beyond the mere stockpiling and hiding of already existing equipment. In April of 1941, Mollard met with engineer Joseph Restany in the headquarters of the 16th division of the CDM, in Montpellier. Restany had been the lead engineer behind Renault’s tank design bureau prior to the collapse of the French Army in 1940. He had notably designed and produced, in record time, a turret for the Panhard 178 armored car that mounted a 47 mm SA 35 gun instead of the 25 mm SA 35. The time between the start of the work on the turret’s design and a produced example being mounted on a hull was less than a week. Mollard requested that Restany take the lead of an industrial project to manufacture 45 turrets to match the 45 turretless Panhard 178 armored car hulls that had been evacuated in 1940. These new turrets could be armed with a variety of armaments, with the CDM having at its disposal some 47 mm SA 35 and 25 mm guns as well as 13.2 and 7.5 mm machine guns. Restany promptly accepted the offer and adopted the pseudonym of J-J Ramon to lead this highly secretive project.

A photo of the Panhard 178 which received a turret designed by Restany and his team, scuttled on the 17th of June 1940. Designed in less than a week, the turret was mounted on a hull which was then sent to the 1st Armored Car Regiment of the 4th DLM (Division Légère Mécanique/Light Mechanized division). It is claimed to have knocked out two German tanks. Source: Collection Pascal Danjou

Designing the CDM Turret

It was decided that the production of the CDM turrets would be concentrated around the town of Castres-sur-Agout, in a fairly rural part of South-Western France. Several reasons motivated this choice: despite being fairly rural, the area comprised a number of mechanical workshops; and the town of Castres itself included an artillery park led by a colonel aligned with Mollard, as well as the presence of the 3rd Dragons regiment, a cavalry unit which possessed some of the un-turreted Panhard 178s, which would considerably ease the testing process for the turrets.

Restany designed the turrets himself in his hotel room of the Grand-Hôtel de Castres. While he originally intended to find an industrial designer to create the turret, it proved impossible to find one in Castres. As for the plans of the Renault turret which Restany had produced in June of 1940, those had been lost, and he reported that even if they had been available, this design required pieces that would have been too difficult to produce for the industrial capacity available around Castres.

The turret which was designed by Restany had a shape very similar to the one produced in 1940, being very clearly inspired by this previous example. The turret had what Restany describes as a “pseudo-pyramidal” shape. The turret’s front, sides, and rear were given 20 mm of armor, while the top and turret ring were 10 mm. The front of the turret was quite considerably changed in comparison to the 1940 vehicle, with the gun going through a more complex superstructure, and ditching the original mantlet that was the same as the S35 and Char B1 Bis. This turret used a turret race that was quite different from the ones manufactured in normal conditions. The internally dented race found on the turrets originally used for the Panhard 178, most notably the APX 3, was far too complex for the remote workshops around Castres, and turning the turret was accomplished in a much more rudimentary fashion. It was rotated by hand, and once the orientation was found, the turret was kept in the desired direction via a rack and pinion piece that was “blocked on the fixed circle”, blocking the turret in place. As for vision, when moving, the top hatch could be opened for the gunner to stick his head out of the turret. When fighting, vision slots could be used for observation. The turrets were painted in the French artillery gray color. In comparison to the 1940 turret which only featured a basic top hatch, the CDM turrets had both a rear-door and a better-designed top hatch. The CDM turret housed two crew members, in addition to the two others located within the vehicle’s hull.

The turret was designed by Restany to accept both the 47 mm SA 35 and a 25 mm gun, though whether those were the shortened 25 mm SA 35 meant for armored vehicles or the original and more common 25 mm SA 34 is unknown. The 47 mm gun was more potent than the 25 mm; it penetrated 40 mm at 30° and 400 m, whereas the 25 mm SA 34 penetrated 30 mm at the same angle but at 500 m. Furthermore, the 47 mm SA 35 did have an explosive shell, which the 25 mm lacked.

A German soldier showing off on a Panhard 178 CDM. This photo also shows one of the best views of the turret’s front on a 47 mm-armed vehicle. Source: armedconflicts
A photo of German personnel standing aside a Panhard 178 CDM of unknown armament, showing the rear of the turret. Source: armedconflicts

Secretive Manufacturing

A manufacturing process which was as discreet and secretive as possible, so as not to be found out by the Armistice commission, was set up to produce the CDM turrets.

Before work began on the production of actual turrets, a wooden mockup was produced towards late May 1941 in a workshop of a Castres industrialist, Henri Delmas, which also took the orders for mechanical pieces that would be needed to manufacture the turrets. It is through Delmas that subcontractors would be hired to manufacture the various elements of the turrets, which would reduce the interaction of Restany with third parties and the risk of the whole scheme being found out.

Delmas lended a workshop in the town of Mazamet, near Castres, which belonged to a society he managed to Restany and the CDM. This workshop was used both as a warehouse for deliveries of armor plates and turret races, and to manufacture some races.

The manufacture of turret races is what appears to have been the hardest hassle to overcome for Restany and his personnel. Those were fairly complicated pieces of engineering, and the workshops around Castres usually only had fairly rudimentary industrial machinery. Therefore, despite the limited number of turret races needed, production took place in a number of different workshops, including the one in Mazamet, and some in Saut-du-Tarn and Saint-Juéry. The ball bearings were manufactured way further east, around the industrial center of Saint-Etienne, and then delivered to the area around Castres. The welding electrodes were brought from Toulouse, to the west of Castres. The armor plates necessary for the turret were sneaked out of the Saint-Chamond steelmaking plant, way to the north-east, despite the heavy surveillance those were under. The cutting of those armored plates took place in the Mazamet workshop, while the production of mechanical, foundry and forge parts was assured by Delmas and his sub-contractors in Castres. The assembly of the turrets was assured at first in a workshop in Saint-Cyprien, on the Mediterannean coast and near the Spanish border. However, it was replaced mid-production by a workshop installed in an abandoned mine in Griffoul. All the transport that was needed for this extensive manufacturing process was assured by the large truck fleet the CDM had set up previously.

The first turret was assembled at Saint-Cyprien on 1st October 1941. It was vastly satisfactory, requiring a single change in the subsequent turrets, the application of a fixed shield to seal the potential gaps between the gun and the turret. Nine turrets were then assembled each month, with the last of the 45 being finished on 28th January 1942.

The turrets in Vichy’s Army

Once the turrets were manufactured, they were delivered to the various units that possessed turretless Panhard 178 hulls. Those deliveries were conducted using a workshop truck similar to those used by the French Army prior to 1940. Some minor problems arose during those deliveries. In an annoyed tone, Restany reported in his account of the production of the CDM turrets that the hulls in Châteauroux had been “tweaked” by “amateurs”, without extending on what this meant outside of noting it caused difficulties to the team that had to mount the turrets. Interestingly, he notes that at Montauban, near Toulouse, the hulls on which the turrets had to be mounted featured a smaller turret ring, which required remaking the top of those hulls to then mount the turret. While Restany did not mention why those turrets had a smaller ring, if he even knew, it has been theorized those may be hulls intended for colonial use: eight Panhard 178 modified to mount a smaller APX 5 turret were ordered in August of 1939, but only four are known to have received the turret and have been sent to Indochina. It is possible the four others may still have lacked their turrets when they were evacuated in the spring of 1940.

In his account, Restany mentions the cities of Auch, Clermont-Ferrand, Châteauroux, Limoges (where he reports the hulls had be hidden so well they were hard to access – following up by saying this was not a criticism at all), Lyon, Marseilles, Montauban and Castres. Castres, despite being the center of the manufacturing scheme, is actually where the delivery ended up being the most risky. Restany reports that a truck that transported two turrets, while stopped, had six cars pull up aside it, those being none other than the German control commission of Toulouse on a tour of the area. He reported that the Germans chatted with the CDM personnel, but did not inspect the innocent-looking truck, much to the relief of the delivery personnel.

The regiments which received the CDM turrets were the 2nd Dragons in Auch, the 3rd Dragons in Castres, the 8th Cuirassiers in Châteauroux, the 8th Dragons (operating in Issoire, but the turretless hulls onto which the turrets were mounted were in Clermont-Ferrand), the 6th Cuirassiers in Limoges, the 11th Cuirassiers in Lyon, the 7th Chasseurs (operating in Nîmes but with the hulls in Marseille) and the 3rd Hussards in Montauban.

The Machine Gun Refit

While the turrets produced under Restany’s management were functional, the only armament they featured was either a 25 mm or a 47 mm gun. While an anti-aircraft mount for two machine-guns was designed, and one was produced and tested on a turret, it did not reach production, being deemed too complicated. However, CDM command made a request to Restany that the turrets should be fitted with a 7.5 mm machine gun, this request being done once the turrets were already mounted. This was not a complicated modification according to Restany, but it required teams to be sent to each location where the armored cars were stored to perform it. The modification consisted in making a small opening in the turrets, left of the main gun. Through this opening, a FM 24/29 light machine-gun was inserted. Restany reported this modification took less than an hour per turret. The FM 24/29 is quite an interesting choice for a coaxial machine gun. It was a weapon quite similar in design and capacities to the British Bren, though it predates it. One may have imagined the standard tank machine gun, the MAC 31, should have been used instead. While firing the same 7.5 mm cartridge as the FM 24/29, the MAC 31 had a higher rate of fire (750 rounds per minute instead of 450) and larger magazines (150 rounds instead of 25). However, it is likely the CDM did not have many, if any MAC 31. The ubiquitous FM 24/29, found in the vast majority of French units in 1940, was in comparison a common sight in the service’s caches. The refit of the turrets to mount machine guns is known to have been completed by early November of 1942, just before the German occupation of the Free Zone beginning on November 11th.

Plans of the mounting of the FM 24.29 light machine gun through on opening in the turret. Source: Une entreprise secrète sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, 1946

Some CDM turrets did not receive the same machinegun opening as the one described by Restany though. While he does not mention it, three photos show turrets (whether this was a single or several different turrets is not known) which had the machine gun in a quite large boxy superstructure to the right of the gun, an element which most likely required far more extensive work. Coincidently, the only known photos of 25 mm-armed turrets are those photos, while all 47mm-armed turrets feature the machine gun going through an opening to the left of the gun, as described by Restany. It has been theorized that the boxy superstructure may in fact have been found on all 25 mm-armed vehicles, though this cannot be proven.

A photo of a Panhard 178 CDM with a 25 mm gun and a FM 24/29 in a boxy structure to the right of the gun. This photo was taken upon the vehicle’s capture by German troops. The turret is still painted in French artillery gray, instead of the German camouflage it later received. The hull was painted as standard in the 1940 French camouflage. Source : Pascal Danjou Collection
Two German soldiers stand in front of a 25 mm-armed Panhard 178, with the machine gun appearing on the right of the main gun. Source: albyminiatures.e-monsite.com

Other Projects of Restany

As the manufacturing of the CDM turrets was finished by January of 1942, Restany continued to use the industrial network he had constructed for other re-armament projects. 64 Panhard 178 retaining the APX 3 turret were officially in service of the Vichy army, but those had been deprived of their original 25 mm SA 35 gun, replaced by a mere MAC 31 machine gun. To prevent those being re-armed with 25 mm guns, the Armistice Commission confiscated the mantlets. The CDM requested the manufacture of new ones from Restany, who got to work on a simplified mantlet which would both look less suspicious to avoid detection and simpler for manufacturing in the modest facilities he operated in. 92 mantlets were to be manufactured. Despite difficulties encountered, about half were manufactured by the end of activities in November of 1942.

A far more ambitious work was the production of 225 armored cars, based on the chassis of G.M.C trucks that were in the possession of the CDM. This very ambitious project began in 1941 and took most of Restany’s attention in 1942, as it involved producing not just turrets, but basically an entirely new armored car. By November of 1942, a prototype had been completed, and parts for the 224 vehicles that would have followed were being produced, with, notably, 65 completed armed turrets and 15 more being armed by November of 1942.

German Occupation

On the 11th of November 1942, following the invasion of French North Africa by Allied forces beginning two days prior, the Germany Army moved in to occupy the free part of France. The military was ordered to stay in its barracks by the collaborationist government led by Pierre Laval. In the following days, as Vichy’s military was dissolved, German troops found a number of the vehicles that had received CDM turrets. How many came into their hands is unknown, as it is rumored some units threw their turrets into ponds before they were found. Even more elusively, some may have remained hidden all the way until the large-scale resistance uprisings of August of 1944, when they would have been found by the Resistance. No photographic evidence backing up any of these claims exist.

A 47 mm-armed Panhard 178 CDM of Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000 in Paris, extract from a German newsreel. Source: GBM 86

In any case, Panhard 178 CDMs are known to have been put to use by German security troops. Several photos show the vehicles used by the Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000, a reconnaissance group of the 189. Reserve Infanterie-Division. A single company, designated as Panzer Späh Kompanie, is known to have used Panhard armored cars. One vehicle has been clearly identified, the “Jaguar”, 3rd vehicle of the 1st platoon of Sicherungs-Regiment 1000’s 14th company (the Panzer Späh Kompagnie), whilst another German Panhard 178 CDM is known to have had the name of “Hagen”. Another vehicle appears to have been modified with radio equipment. The eventual fate of the German Panhard 178 CDM armored cars is unknown.

A German 25 mm-armed Panhard 178 CDM on the side of a road, with both the turret’s top hatch and the hull’s front hatch and side door open. Source: armedconflicts

After the end of the war, a Panhard 178 CDM was found in Tours in 1948. It had taken a major hit to the front, though whether this was from being used on a firing range or from combat is unknown. A turret was reported by French historian Pascal Danjou to be awaiting restoration in the reserves of the Saumur tank museum back in 2009.

Conclusion

The Panhard 178 CDM is a particularly interesting vehicle, as it is one of the most extensive armament projects undertaken under the Vichy regime. This was done away from the eyes not only of the German armistice commission, but also of the military and political higher-ups which, far more collaborative than most of the Army, would not have allowed such a breach of the armistice. While Restany started an even more extensive project, the manufacture of armored cars on GMC truck chassis, only the turret-manufacturing project reached completion by the point all work had to be interrupted because of German occupation.

Looking at the bigger picture, the CDM ended up being an important weapons supplier to the resistance in 1943 and 1944, with the weapon caches that were not found by German troops being used to arm numerous resistance units. This was not without consequences. Most notably, Colonel Emile Mollard and his son, Lieutenant Roger Mollard, were found by the Gestapo and deported to Germany in September of 1943. While Emile survived the war and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur as well as the rank of Brigadier-General, his son Roger did not survive the war. Despite the CDM’s considerable role in arming the resistance as well as the large armament project undertaken by Restany, it remains one of the more obscure and little-known aspects of the French resistance, far from the glory of the Liberation of Paris for example.

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Profile of the German Panhard 178 CDM “Jaguar”, Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000. 3rd vehicle, 1st platoon, 14th company. Illustration produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet

Sources

Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, Charles-Lavauzelle et compagnie editions, 1948
GBM (Histoire de Guerre, Blindés et Matériel) N°86, January-February-March 2009, pp 22-31
char-français.net
armedconflicts.com (only for specified photos)