Categories
WW2 French Light Tanks

FCM 36

France (1936-1940)
Light Infantry Tank – 100 Built

Although relatively unknown, the FCM 36 was one of the French Army’s light tanks used during the battles of May and June 1940. Technically very advanced compared to other French vehicles of the type, it proved its effectiveness during a victorious counter-attack at Voncq in early June 1940. However, the excellent qualities of the vehicle were overshadowed by the outdated doctrine behind its usage, and its very limited presence on the frontlines.

Genesis of the August 2nd 1933 Program

The FT Tank

Development of the FT: Why Did it Appear ?

An understanding of the French tanks of the Great War is necessary to comprehend the fleet of light tanks subsequently fielded in 1940. After the Schneider CA-1 and St Chamond entered service in 1916, a smaller machine was conceived: the Renault FT. Some have argued that this small, innovative vehicle was, in many ways, the ancestor of modern tanks. Its widespread presence on the front and effectiveness granted it the nickname of ‘Char de la Victoire’ (Eng: Victory Tank).

Even if some in the higher echelons of the French military had at first doubted the effectiveness of this type of vehicle, they had to begrudgingly admit that tanks were becoming essential in modern conflicts. The FT would serve as the starting point for the majority of France’s armored vehicles up to 1940.

A Renault FT during a demonstration in March 1928 at Issy les Moulinaux (Photo: Gallica.bnf.fr)

Technical and Doctrinal Description

An important characteristic of the Renault FT was its one-man fully rotating turret. It allowed for a weapon to engage targets in all directions. There were several versions of the turret, some cast or riveted, which could be fitted with different armaments. There were FTs armed with a 8 mm model 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun, but also some armed with a 37 mm SA 18 cannon. Later, in the early 1930s, many FTs were re-armed with a more modern machine gun, the 7.5 mm Reibel MAC31.

The second major particularity of the FT was that it only had two crew members: a driver in the front of the vehicle, and a commander/gunner in the turret. This heavily contrasted with what could be found on other contemporary vehicles, which could have as many as twenty crew members.

The major advantage of the small size of the vehicle was that it led to a much simpler manufacturing process, which enabled far greater quantities of FTs to be manufactured compared to heavier vehicle types. Therefore, the vehicle could be engaged on the frontline on a massive scale. Between 1917 and 1919, 4 516 Renault FT (all variants included) were delivered. In comparison, about 1,220 Mark IV tanks were produced.

In terms of the vehicle’s arrangement, the engine block was found to the rear, encompassing both the engine and transmission. This left more space for the crew compartment to the front, where the two crew members were found. To this day, this remains the most widespread design and component distribution in tanks.

Doctrinally, the Renault FT was an infantry support tank, like all World War One tanks. It was meant to support advancing infantry across no man’s land, particularly by neutralizing the main threat which was found in enemy trenches: machine gun nests.

As the enemy was not equipped with tanks on a large scale by this point, the FT was not conceived to have anti-tank capacities. The vehicle was not designed to resist enemy cannons either. The vehicle was only designed to protect the crew from rifle-caliber projectiles and artillery splinters.

The FT in the French Army after 1918

The Renault FT was a success. Tanks were a major element in the Entente’s victory. By the end of the fighting in November 1918, France had an impressive fleet of FTs, with several thousands of vehicles in frontline service.

Without an immediate replacement, the FTs were retained within tank regiments for years. They formed the backbone of the 1920s and early 1930s French Army. By this point, there were around 3,000 Renault FTs in service. However, the old vehicles were, by this point, worn out and technologically outdated. Their main issue was insufficient armor to protect the crew from purpose-built anti-tank weapons that began to appear.

Despite this, attempts were made to improve the FTs by replacing the 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine gun with a 7.5 mm Reibel MAC 31, introducing special tracks intended for use in the snow, and the development of engineering variants. Nonetheless, a replacement was urgently needed.

It ought to be noted that, despite some replacements having been introduced, the FT was still in service by 1940. Many were deployed against German forces, even against tanks, without the means to properly engage them and with little real protection.

Photo of a Renault FT which appears to have been immobilized during the campaign of France, 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Photo of a Renault FT which appears to have been immobilized during the campaign of France, 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Characteristics of the New Tanks

The FT’s Successor

Further development of the Renault FT was studied after the end of the Great War. The first attempt was to fit a new suspension, which improved mobility. This led to the Renault NC-1 (often called NC-27), which was mainly used operationally in Japan as the Otsu Gata-Sensha.

An FT with a Kégresse suspension, which used rubber tracks, was also developed. However, it was never produced in large numbers.

Renault NC-2 during a demonstration in March 1928 at Issy les Moulinaux (Photo: Gallica.bnf.fr)

It was not until 1929, with the D1, directly derived from the NC-1, that a mass-produced vehicle that could effectively serve as a replacement for the FT first appeared. Even then, its production run of only 160 vehicles was too limited to replace the entire FT fleet.

Predicting an armaments program aiming at replacing the old FTs, Hotchkiss self-funded a study of a modern light tank. Three prototypes of this design were ordered by the Conseil Consultatif de l’Armement (Eng: Armament Consultative Council) on June 30th, 1933. Hotchkiss’ studies allowed for the definition of the characteristics for the new armament program, specified on August 2nd, 1933. This program set out the requirements for the future successor to the Renault FT.

Armament

The August 2nd, 1933 program requested a light infantry support tank. It required either a dual mount for two machine guns or a 37 mm cannon with a coaxial machine gun. Even if the program contemplated a dual machine gun configuration, the preferred option was the cannon and coaxial machine gun, as it was more versatile and powerful. The determining factor would be that it had to use already available armament with significant stocks of ammunition: the 37 mm SA 18. In fact, eventually, many cannons were directly taken from Renault FTs and fitted into the new machines.

Mobility

Being an infantry support tank, the vehicle planned by the August 2nd 1933 program was to be quite slow. It was to follow infantry troops and provide support from behind, without overtaking them.
Therefore, the vehicle was envisioned to reach a maximum speed of 15-20 km/h. Its average speed during a battle was to remain equivalent to the infantry troops it was following, 8 to 10 km/h. This restricted speed would limit the tactical mobility of these vehicles to go from one area of the battle to the other. Speed was one of the points which differentiated infantry and cavalry tanks in French service.

General Structure

According to the August 2nd, 1933 program, the new vehicle would be a highly improved copy of the Renault FT. Two crew members, one stationed in the turret, were to maneuver the vehicle. The one-man turret was quickly criticized because its intended user, which was to serve both as commander and gunner/loader of the vehicle, was vastly overtasked. In addition to operating both weapons, the commander/gunner/loader would have had to give orders to the driver, observe the outside of the tank, and sometimes even command movement to other tanks.

Although the one-man turret was highly criticized and it was apparent it severely limited a tank’s full capacities, there was a reasoning behind it. Small two-man tanks, as demonstrated by the FT, were a lot easier and cheaper to build. The smaller a tank was, the fewer the resources necessary for its construction. France was not truly self-sufficient in its steel production, which was a major issue if it wanted to field a significant fleet of tanks. Furthermore, French armament industries did not have the capacity to cast large turrets. Additionally, there was a lack of personnel. Many soldiers had perished during the Great War, and there were few men of fighting age during the interwar. To field a considerable number of tanks, keeping a two-man crew was deemed essential.

May 22nd, 1934 Modifications

The Development of Armor-Piercing Armament in the Interwar Years

Following on from the success of the tank in the later phases of the First World War, weapons designed specifically to combat them were developed. Particular attention was placed on the evolution of anti-tank armament which could easily be used by enemy infantry to stop advancing tanks, leaving enemy infantry without their support. Armor, therefore, became an essential component of French vehicles. Several senior officers, such as the French General Flavigny, had already predicted an anti-tank arms race in the early 1930s, which led to the development of the B1 Bis, an up-armored version of the B1.

In France, light 25 mm guns were introduced and offered impressive penetration. A tank’s armor no longer had to protect solely from small bullets and artillery shells splinters.

Modifications to the Armor

The August 2nd, 1933 program stipulated a maximum armor of 30 mm for the light infantry support tanks. However, the introduction of new anti-tank weapons meant that this would not offer enough protection.

On May 22nd, 1934, the program was modified to raise the maximum armor to 40 mm. This would result in an increase of the weight of the vehicle from 6 to 9 tonnes in the requirements.

The Competition and Participants

The Different Competitors

Fourteen firms took part in the competition related to the August 2nd 1933 program: Batignolles-Chatillons, APX (Ateliers de Puteaux, English: Puteaux workshops), Citroën, Delaunay-Belleville, FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerrané, English: Mediterranean Forges and Sites), Hotchkiss, Laffly, Lorraine-Dietrich, Renault, St-Nazaire-Penhoët, SERAM, SOMUA (Société d’Outillage Mécanique et d’Usinage d’Artillerie, English: Society of Mechanical Equipment and Artillery Machining), and Willème.
However, only six firms were selected to build prototypes. An order for three Hotchkiss prototypes was passed by the Consultative Armament Council in June 1933, before the program was even launched. APX, which was a workshop owned by the French state, was also considered. A prototype, the APX 6-tonnes, was completed in October 1935 and had some interesting design features, such as its diesel engine or its turret which would be improved and re-used by some other tanks of the program.

The Renault R35

With 1,540 vehicles manufactured, the Renault R35 was the most produced tank created within this program. Some were even exported. The first official evaluations on prototypes began in January 1935 and led to the final adoption of the vehicle on June 25th, 1936. Like all other vehicles of the program, some attempts to improve the R35’s mobility were studied, modifying its suspension. These included trials in 1938 with a longer suspension, trials in 1939 with a new Renault suspension, and finally the Renault R40, with its AMX suspension. The introduction of the longer 37 mm SA 38, which would be fitted to late production vehicles, improved firepower. Some specialized vehicles based on the R35 were considered, including fascine-carrying (branches coddled together to fill trenches and anti-tank ditches so the vehicle could cross over them, or to spread over soft terrain) or for mine clearing, with several hundred kits ordered but not received in time to participate in any battle.

One of the last Renault R-35 in working condition, exhibited at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum), with its new camo. (Photo: Musée des Blindés de Saumur)

The Hotchkiss H35

The Hotchkiss H35 was the second most numerous tank from the program. Its first two prototypes were not turreted, and instead used a casemate. The third prototype was fitted with the APX-R turret, also used on the Renault R35. The performances of the vehicle, notably mobility-wise, were judged insufficient, especially by the cavalry, which saw this tank forced onto them despite it not fulfilling their requirements in any way.

An improved version was developed in 1937 and adopted in late 1938 as the “char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 1939” (Eng: Model 1935 H light tank, Modified 1939), more commonly known as the Hotchkiss H39. It used a new engine, and some received the new 37 mm SA 38 gun, which allowed for sufficient anti-armor capabilities. A total of 1,100 H35 and H39 tanks were manufactured.

From Development to Adoption into Service – the FCM 36 from 1934 to 1936

First Prototypes and Tests

In March 1934, Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (Eng: Forges and Shipyards of the Mediterranean) offered a wooden mock-up of their new vehicle. The commissioners were pleased with the futuristic shapes of the mock-up. A first prototype was ordered and was received by the experimentation commission on April 2nd, 1935.

Wooden mock-up presented by FCM in March 1934. (Photo: FCM 36, Trackstory n°7, Éditions du Barbotin)

However, trials on the prototype were unsatisfactory. The vehicle had to be modified during the trials, which led to several incidents. The commission agreed to have the vehicle sent back to its factory to be modified, so the trials would go smoothly next time. The second prototype was tested from September 10th to October 23rd, 1935. It was accepted under the condition that modifications concerning the suspension and clutch were carried out.

After a second return to its factory, the prototype was presented again to the commission in December 1935. It undertook a series of tests during which it drove 1,372 km. It was then tested at the Chalon camp by the Infantry Commission. In an official document from July 9th, 1936, the evaluating commission described the FCM 36 as “equal, if not superior, to other light tanks already experimented with”. The vehicle was finally introduced into service in the French Army, and a first order for 100 vehicles took place on May 26th, 1936.

FCM offered another option in 1936, of which only photos of the wooden mock-up remain today. Compared to the FCM 36, the dimensions and firepower were greatly increased, with the addition of the 47 mm SA 35 gun. However, this project was abandoned in February 1938.

Photo of an FCM 36 prototype. Note the different turret, with Chrétien diascopes and tracks similar to those of a B1. (Photo: tankarchives.ca)

Technical Characteristics

The Berliet Ricardo Diesel Engine

The FCM 36’s diesel engine was one of the main innovations of the vehicle, even if diesel engines had already been trialed on the D2. Nonetheless, the FCM 36 was the first serially-produced French tank with a diesel engine. The first engine on the FCM 36 was a 95 hp Berliet ACRO, though, due to several breakdowns on the prototypes, it was replaced on serial production vehicles by the Berliet Ricardo, which produced 105 hp and was judged to be very reliable.

The Berliet Ricardo engine from the FCM 36 during its restoration. (Source: https://youtu.be/dqMJWTFTGM4)

There were several advantages to diesel propulsion. The most significant was higher range in comparison to gasoline. The FCM 36 had two times the range of its competitors, the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35. The FCM vehicle was the sole tank of the program able to travel 100 km and then immediately engage in combat without having to resupply. This was a certain advantage that allowed for quick repositioning without any stops to refuel. At its maximum capacity, the FCM 36 would have a range of 16 hours or 225 km.

The second advantage of a diesel engine was that it was less dangerous than a gasoline one, as it is way harder to ignite diesel. This explains why many vehicles were seized by the Germans after France’s defeat. Even if a vehicle had been pierced by shells, few were set alight. Internal fires were further limited by the use of a Tecalemit-type automatic fire extinguisher.

The Suspension

The suspension of the FCM 36 was an important part in the vehicle’s efficiency, despite some criticisms in this field. It differed from many other suspensions of vehicles of the program. Firstly, the suspension was protected by armor plates, the value of which was often doubted. Secondly, the position of the drive sprocket was to the rear.

The suspension was made of a beam with four triangular bogies with two road wheels each. In total, there were eight road wheels per side, plus an additional one not directly making contact with the ground, but placed at the front to ease the crossing of obstacles. The number of road wheels was advantageous for the tank, as it spreaded the weight, resulting in a better ground pressure distribution.

The main drawback of this suspension was the tunnel for the track return at the top. Mud had a tendency to accumulate in this tunnel despite multiple openings made to avoid this. As a result, some modifications were tested. In March 1939, FCM 36 ‘30057’, which also received improved armament, had a modified suspension with a new tunnel and gearbox. In April, another vehicle, FCM 36 ‘30080’, was modified with D1 track links, and was tested in September 1939 at Versailles with some other improvements regarding its motorization. The tests and modifications were discarded on July 6th, 1939, and both vehicles were restored to their original state and fielded for combat.

FCM 36 ‘30080’, with D1 track links. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The Hull, Turret, and Internal Arrangement

Of the tanks from the August 2nd, 1933 program, the FCM 36 probably had the most suitable internal arrangement, with crews appreciating the internal space. The lack of a front-drive sprocket, which was placed in the rear of the vehicle, alongside the rest of the drive mechanisms, resulted in the driver having far more space than in other vehicles of the program. As recorded in the testimonies of many FCM 36 drivers and mechanics, the added space helped to endure longer trips.

The FCM 36’s turret was judged superior to the APX-R turret which equipped the Renault and Hotchkiss tanks from the same program. It was more ergonomic, even if the commander had to sit on a leather strap, and offered the commander better observation capabilities, with numerous PPL RX 160 episcopes. Episcopes allow for outside view without having to have a direct opening to the exterior of the vehicle, protecting the crew from enemy fire on observation slits. Indeed, during the First World War, German gunners often concentrated their fire on these slits, which could gravely wound the crew. The PPL RX 160 was a clear improvement for the observation of terrain around the tank.

However, FCM 36 photos often show the episcopes absent, especially around the driver’s hatch. This is not surprising, as many other French armored vehicles went into combat without some equipment and accessories that were manufactured separately from the vehicle.

Furthermore, the FCM 36’s turret did not feature a rotating cupola, as on the APX-R. On the APX-R, commanders had to lock their helmets into the cupola to rotate it, which proved a very questionable design choice. The FCM 36’s commander had, in theory, episcopes on all sides of the turret, allowing for all-round visibility.

Details of the PPL RX 160 episcopes from a user’s manual. (Photo by author)

Significantly, the FCM 36 lacked a radio. Unlike other French tanks, such as the D1 or B1 Bis, the tanks from the August 2nd 1933 program did not have radios. Because the vehicles had to be very small, only two crew members could fit inside, leaving no space for a third crew member to operate a radio. In order to communicate with other tanks and infantry around the vehicle, the commander flew ‘fanions’ (a small flag used by the French military, similar to an America guidon or British company color) through a purposely built hatch located on the turret’s roof, fired flares, or directly talked to someone outside.

On top of the turret, the little hatch for the small flag used to communicate (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Alternatively, there was also a very surprising way to communicate by firing messages placed inside a shell planned for this purpose (Obus porte-message type B.L.M – Eng: B.L.M. type message-carrying shell) out of the cannon.

It is possible that some FCM 36s, those of the reconnaissance company or section leaders, may have been fitted with an ER 28 radio. It would have been placed level with one of the ammunition racks in the middle of the hull, on one of the sides. This placement would render one of the racks useless, diminishing the ammunition stowage capabilities. The medic from the 7ème BCC (Bataillon de Char de Combat – Eng: Combat Tank Battalion), Lieutenant Henry Fleury, attested the presence of an antenna on the turret of vehicles of the Battalion’s 3rd Company, similar to the placement on some APX-R turrets. No photos have emerged to confirm his statement. Also, according to Lieut. Fleury, these antennas would immediately have been removed, as there was no radio post to go alongside them. A photo does suggest an antenna was present on the hull of some vehicles. It does not resemble any radio antenna in any French tanks of the era. In any case, as stated in a note from 1937, the FCM 36 would have received a radio from 1938 onward.

This photo shows some sort of antenna being used to fly a flag on the right mudguard. This could be a radio antenna. Such a device can be observed on at least two tanks, ‘30056’ and ‘30032’. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Performance

Mobility

As stipulated by the August 2nd, 1933 program, the mobility of the vehicle was very limited. In combat, it was set to match the walking speed of an infantry soldier. As the FCM 36 was an infantry support vehicle, it had to advance by the side of soldiers. The maximum speed of 25 km/h on road was a major limiting factor to any quick repositioning from one area of the front to another. The speed of the vehicle cross-country would be limited to around 10 km/h.

The FCM 36 had the best ground pressure of all the vehicles of the program. It performed better on soft terrain in comparison to the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35 tanks.

Protection

The protection of the vehicle was one of the most important aspects of the FCM 36. Its special construction, made of laminated steel plates welded to one another, differed from the cast or bolted armor usually used on French tanks. It was sloped and offered protection from combat gasses, which were seen as a potential major threat, as they had been during the previous war.

The armor was resistant, but often not enough against the 37 mm anti-tank guns carried on the Panzer III or towed in the form of the Pak 36. There are photos of FCM 36 tanks where the front of the hull or turret were pierced by 37 mm shells. However, such penetrations often occurred on the less sloped plates.

The FCM 36 was still quite vulnerable against mines, such as the German Tellermine, despite a 20 mm thick armored floor, thicker than the Hotchkiss H35 (15 mm) or Renault R35 (12 mm). During the French offensive in the Sarre, some Renault R35s were knocked out by mines. Furthermore, the Pétard Maurice (Eng: Maurice Pétard, an anti-tank grenade prototype) eviscerated a FCM 36 tank in tests. However, the FCM 36 never met such weapon types on the battlefield. They were mostly faced with more classic anti-tank weapons, notably towed guns and tank guns, but also German ground attack aviation.

Test of a Pétard Maurice anti-tank grenade on a FCM 36. The hull was disemboweled by the explosion. The grenade was placed after the explosion for the photo. (Photo: Stéphane Ferrard, France 1940, l’armement terrestre, ETAI, page 92)

Against German 37 mm guns, the most common anti-tank weapon during the campaign of France, the FCM 36 held up relatively well. Despite numerous penetrations, numerous other hits bounced off the better-sloped parts of the vehicles. Some vehicles would have several tens of impact without a single penetration. However, enemy cannon fire did not necessarily have to destroy the tank, it could also immobilize it, notably by breaking a track.

Armament

The 37 mm SA 18 gun used by most of the French infantry tanks in 1940. This particular example is at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum). (Photo by author)

The armament of the FCM 36 consisted of a 37 mm SA 18 cannon and a 7.5 mm MAC 31 Reibel machine gun. This was the standard armament of all tanks from the August 2nd, 1933 program. The SA 18 was designed for infantry support. It already equipped part of the First World War FT tanks, and there was an impressive quantity of ammunition stockpiled. For economic and industrial reasons, it was easier to re-use this weapon, especially as it was perfectly suited for a small tank with a one-man turret. The size occupied by such a weapon was minimal, and it was the smallest caliber that could be used for infantry support, taking into account the 1899 La Haye Convention banning the use of explosive ammunition for guns below 37 mm. The muzzle velocity of the gun, around 367 m/s (this differed depending on the shell type used), allowed for a relatively curved trajectory, which was ideal for infantry support. However, its low muzzle velocity, small caliber, and curved trajectory were major drawbacks for anti-tank duties.

Two 37 mm shells from the SA 18 gun. On the left is the Obus de rupture model 1892-24 AP round and on the right is the high explosive round. (Photo by author)

The only round able to defeat enemy tanks was the obus de rupture modèle 1935 (Eng: Model 1935 armor piercing shell), but it arrived too late and in too small numbers to equip tank units. There was also the classic model 1892-1924 AP shell, which could penetrate 15 mm of armor at 400 m at a 30° angle. This was insufficient, and only 12 out of 102 stowed shells would be AP shells. Furthermore, it should be noted that the shell dated from way before the creation of tanks. In fact, the rupture shell was not made to penetrate the armor of a tank, but to go through enemy bunkers.

The inside of the turret, with, from right to left, the Reibel machine gun, the 37 mm SA 18 cannon, the sight (here absent), and the turret rotation wheel. (Photo: chars-français.net)

In 1938, an FCM 36 was modified to receive the new 37 mm SA 38 gun, which offered real anti-tank capabilities. Only the mantlet was modified to receive this new gun. However, tests conducted on this vehicle were a failure. The turret suffered from structural frailty at the welds due to the gun’s recoil. A new, sturdier turret was needed. Preference was given to APX-R turrets for this new armament, which equipped the other tanks of the August 2nd 1933 program in 1939 and 1940. Several prototypes of a new welded turret were manufactured, but this time with a 47 mm SA 35 gun. This turret, which closely resembled the FCM 36’s, was meant to equip the future AMX 38.

FCM 36 ‘30057’ with its new longer 37 mm gun. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The secondary armament was a MAC 31 Reibel, named after its inventor Jean Frédéric Jules Reibel. This weapon was requested by General Estienne as early as 1926 in order to replace the old Hotchkiss model 1914 on French tanks. A little under 20,000 examples were manufactured between 1933 and 1954, which explains why the weapon was also found after the war, for example on the EBRs. On the FCM 36, it was placed to the right of the gun. A total of 3,000 rounds were stowed in the tank in the form of 20 150-rounds drum magazines.

MAC 31 Reibel machine gun. A version with a drum magazine to the right of the weapon was mounted on the FCM 36, in order to leave space for the cannon. (Photo: Wikipédia)

A second MAC 31 could be used for anti-aircraft fire. As on most French tanks, an anti-aircraft mount was installed on some tanks. Obviously, this was yet another task for the commander. A movable anti-aircraft mount could be placed on the turret roof, allowing the use of the machine gun from the cover of the vehicle’s armor. However, the firing angles were very narrow, and the mount limited the anti-air protection of the tank when opening the rear turret hatch.

This photo, taken during the November 11th, 1939 parade in front of American officers at the Romagne-sous-Montfaucon cemetery, shows how the anti-aircraft machine gun was placed. (Source: Rare FCM 36 WW2 Footage. – YouTube)

Production

The FCM Company and Production of the FCM 36

The FCM 36 was the last vehicle of the August 2nd, 1933 program to be accepted to serve within the French Army, receiving authorization on June 25th, 1936.

FCM, based in Marseille, southern France, was specialized in naval constructions. However, FCM also turned towards the designing and manufacturing of tanks. They made several monstrous French tanks during the interwar, notably the FCM 2C, but they were also tasked with production of the B1 Bis until the armistice with Germany in 1940, as well as at several other production sites in the north of France. This was a typical advantage of FCM, which was very far from the traditional frontline located in north-eastern France. Even during war, it could manufacture tanks without respite. The Italian presence was likely not seen as a real threat at this point. It is thanks to its shipbuilding experience that FCM could innovate with the FCM 36 in terms of welding technology. It had the equipment and experience necessary for this complex task, which was not yet developed enough in other French armament factories.

However, the FCM 36 turret should have been more successful, as the plan was to eventually equip all light tanks with it. The first 1,350 light tanks were to be equipped with the APX-R turret, with production then changing to the FCM 36’s. This was, however, never done, as the appearance and testing of the 37 mm SA 38 gun showed it was not possible to use the new gun in the FCM 36 turret in its current state. Further studies led to the conception of a somewhat similar turret, which would equip the successor of the light tanks of August 2nd 1933: the AMX 38. An improved turret with a 47 mm SA 35 was designed for the AMX 39, but this vehicle was never built.

The AMX 38 was an improved mix between a Renault R40 and an FCM 36. It was never built in large numbers, only prototypes were ever made. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Production Cost and Orders

If the FCM 36 remains somewhat little known, it is because of its very limited production. Only 100 vehicles were delivered between May 2nd, 1938, and March 13th, 1939, only equipping two battalions de chars de combat (BCC – Eng: combat tank battalions). The main reason behind this limited production was the slow production rate (about 9 FCM 36 per month compared to about 30 Renault R-35 per month), two to three times lower than that of the Hotchkiss (400 H35 and 710 H39) and Renault (1540 R35) tanks.

FCM was the only company that could weld armor plates on a large scale. This was a complex method that proved more expensive than the casting or bolting/riveting of armor plates. With an initial cost of 450,000 Francs per piece, the price doubled to 900,000 Francs when the French Army asked for two new orders, for a total of 200 new vehicles, in 1939. The two orders were therefore canceled, especially as the speed of production was judged too slow for the 200 vehicles to be delivered in a reasonable timeline.

The FCM 36s in Regiments and in Combat

Within the 4th and 7th BCL

Mobilization and Day-to-Day Life

Based on the 1st Battalion of the 502nd RCC (Régiment de Char de Combat – Combat Tank Regiment), based in Angouleme, the 4th BCC was led by 47 year old Commandant de Laparre de Saint Sernin. Considered as capable of mobilization on April 15th, 1939, the battalion occupied the Couronne mobilization barrack in Angoulême. There were delays almost immediately, as there was a lack of personnel, as well as the requisition of trucks for administrative purposes.

Insignia of the 4th BCC in 1940. It was created by Lieutenant Lafleur, commander of the 2nd Company, and was used from February 2nd, 1940 onward. (Illustration : Hadrien Barthélemy)

By September 1st, 1939, the battalion still lacked personnel, and could only depart on September 7th. Tremendous logistical issues were felt, particularly in terms of spare parts, both for seized civilian vehicles as well as the FCM 36s themselves. There were also issues linked to the transport of the battalion to its area of stay. Unloading from trains was hard due to lack of equipment and training. The battalion was based in Moselle, at Lostroff, between Metz and Strasbourg, (2nd and 3rd Companies), Loudrefring (logistical elements and headquarters), and in the neighboring woods (1st Company). For all of September, the battalion fought in local small-scale operations which forged the trust of the crews towards their vehicles. On October 2nd, the battalion moved again to a new place of stay near Beaufort-en-Argonnes, between Reims and Metz, until November 27th, when it moved again towards Stennay, in the two warehouses of the former artillery barracks of the Bevaux Saint Maurice district.

Based on the 1st battalion of the 503rd RCC of Versailles, the 7th BCC was constituted on August 25th, 1939. It was led by Commander Giordani, a very well-liked officer whose leadership capacities were noticed on several occasions. The mobilization of the battalion was concluded by August 30th, and as early as September 2nd, it moved to Loges-en-Josas, around fifteen kilometers from Versailles. This new location made space at the Versailles barracks, which were awaiting a significant number of reservists. At this base, the occasion was taken to showcase the minutia with which the battalion paraded and performed ceremonies.

The insignia of the 7th BCC used the symbols of the town of Loges-en-Josas, the caravel, and the three Lys flowers of the city of Versailles. The ram represents the power of light tanks. (Illustrations Hadrien Barthélemy)

On September 7th, the battalion moved towards the operational area all the way to Murvaux (combat companies) and Milly (logistical company and headquarters), between Verdun and Sedan. The tanks and heavy vehicles were transported by train while lighter elements moved by their own power on roads. The different elements reached Murvaux by September 10th. The battalion was then part of general Huntziger’s 2nd Army.

At Murvaux, the battalion trained as it could, putting in place firing ranges in the south of the village. Economic cooperatives were created for the soldiers, in order to support those who needed it the most. On November 11th, at the American cemetery of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the 7th BCC paraded in front of General Huntziger and several American officers who had visited specifically for the commemorations of World War One’s armistice.

The next day, the battalion departed for Verdun, in the Villars district of the Bevaux barracks. It set up there on November 19th. This new location had the advantage of being in a larger city, which included all necessities for the battalion, including a firing range at Douaumont, and a manoeuvers terrain at Chaume, as well as winter shelters for the vehicles. The battalion stayed there until April 1st, 1940.

Training

On March 28th, 1940, the 7th BCC received the order to go to the camp of Mourmelon to undertake training missions. This unit had to lead several missions to train infantry divisions, which would rotate one after another each week at the camp all the way up to May 10th, 1940. The FCM 36s first had to train the infantry unit for supporting combat alongside tanks. Some exercises were particularly successful, as with the 3rd Moroccan Tirailleurs Regiment on April 18th. The 7th BCC then had to create lessons for the officers of some infantry units. For example, only a few officers of the 22nd RIC (Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale – Eng: Colonial Infantry Regiment) could go through training at Mourmelon with the 7th BCC in April. Lastly, the FCM 36s took part in manoeuvers alongside the division cuirassées (Eng – armored divisions, attached to the French infantry)

This intensive training put the unit’s mechanics on high alert. The FCM 36s were mechanically exhausted by their daily use, with the number of spare parts becoming rare. Maintenance crews did their best to keep a maximum number of vehicles running for training, even if this necessitated working at night.

This training at Mourmelon also increased cohesion among the tankers of the 7th BCC. They were also more at ease with their vehicles and using the doctrine. Liaison between the infantry and tanks was widely used, often with success. The experience gained between the end of the month of March and May 10th, 1940 at Mourmelon was an incredible chance for the 7th BCC to have important combat experience. This made this unit a much better trained BCC in comparison to other units of the type.

One of the very rare photos of an FCM 36 of the 7th BCC during exercises at Mourmelon, in April or early May 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Unit Organization and Equipment

The FCM 36 tanks were spread between two units, the 4th and 7th BCCs, also named BCLs (Bataillon de Chars Légers – Eng: Light Tanks Battalion) or even BCLM (Bataillon de Chars Légers Modernes – Eng: Modern Light Tank Battalion). However, they were generally called BCC, like all other French tank battalions. The two other designations were reserved to these two units, which only used FCM 36s. These two battalions were reattached to different RCCs. The 4th BCC was part of the 502nd RCC, based in Angoulême, while the 7th BCC was part of the 503rd RCC based in Versailles.

Each battalion was constituted of three combat companies, each divided into four sections. There was also a logistical company, which took care of all logistical aspects of the battalion (resupply, recovery, etc.). A headquarters led the battalion and included a command tank for the unit’s leader. It was constituted of personnel essential for liaison, communication, administration, etc.
The combat company was composed of 13 tanks. One of these vehicles was attributed to the company commander, often a captain, and the 12 others were distributed between the four sections, with three tanks per section, often led by a lieutenant or sub-lieutenant. A logistical section was also present in each company to take care of small-scale logistical issues, with larger operations being attributed to the battalion’s logistical company.

FCM 36 with its crew. It is followed by a Renault AGK 1 truck used for logistics. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Besides the tanks, the theoretical composition of a combat tanks battalion, like the 4th BCC or 7th BCC, was as follows:

  • 11 liaison cars
  • 5 all-terrain cars
  • 33 lorries (including some for communications)
  • 45 trucks
  • 3 (liquid) tankers
  • 3 tank carriers
  • 3 tracked tractors
  • 12 logistical tankettes with trailers
  • 4 trailers (La Buire tank carriers, and kitchen)
  • 51 motorcycles

All of this was operated by a total of 30 officers, 84 non-commissioned officers, and 532 corporals and chasseurs. However, a large part of this material was never received, such as the radio lorry or four anti-air defense vehicles for the 4th BCC.

To fill these gaps, a large part of the vehicles used by the two battalions were requisitioned from civilians. For example, within the 7th BCC was a lorry that had more than 110,000 km on the meter and had been used to ferry fish to the market. A Citroën P17D or P19B half-track was also seized. It was used in the Vel d’Hiv ice rink, and Guy Steinbach, veteran of the 7th BCC, claimed it took part in the Croisière Jaune (Eng: Yellow Cruise), a long demonstrational trip using mostly Kégresse vehicles organized by Citroën in the late 1920s. Within the same battalion, there was also a surprising vehicle: an American tank-carrying truck, used by the Spanish Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War and captured by the French at Col du Perthus in February 1939 after it crossed the border. Within the 4th BCC, there was a vehicle even less suited for war, a truck used to transport ammunition that had been seized from a circus. This caravan was not designed for this type of use and even had a small rear balcony.

The Citroën P19B is one of the vehicles used by the 7th BCC. (Photo: Wikipédia)

Another portion of equipment came from the military’s stocks, particularly for specialized equipment. Among these were Somua MCL 5 half-track tractors, which were used to recover immobilized tanks. For the transport of the FCM 36, tank-carrying trucks, such as the Renault ACDK and La Buire type trailers, originally used for the transport of the Renault FT, were used. Renault ACD1 TRC 36s were used as supply vehicles, which for a time played the same role as the Renault UE, but for tanks (UEs being used for infantry units).

While it had no anti-aircraft vehicles at all nor vehicles able to tow anti-aircraft guns, the battalion had some 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine guns used in the anti-aircraft role. They were modified for this role with the anti-aircraft model 1928 mount, but they required a static position. Only the armament of the tanks themselves really protected them from air attacks.

The logistical company of each battalion had at least one Le Buire type tank-carrying trailer, dating all the way back to World War One. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Camouflage and Unit Insignias

The FCM 36 were without a doubt some of the most beautiful tanks of the campaign of France thanks to the colorful but also complex camouflages and insignias sported by some vehicles.
Camouflages were of three types. The first two were composed of very complex shapes with a varied number of tones and colors. The third type was composed of several colors in the shape of waves along the length of the vehicle. However, for nearly all camouflages, a very clear color band present only on the superior part of the turret was common. Each camouflage scheme had its own lines, only the tones and global scheme was respected from the instructions being circulated at the time.

FCM number ‘30 004’ from the 2nd section of the 2nd company of the 7th BCC. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

A good way to identify the unit a FCM 36 belonged to was the ace painted on the rear part of the turret, which showed from which company and section a tank was from. As there were three companies of four sections in each BCC, there were four aces (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades) of three different colors (red, white, and blue). The ace of spades represented the 1st section, the ace of hearts the 2nd section, the ace of diamonds the 3rd section, and the ace of clubs the 4th section. A blue ace represented the 1st company, a white ace the 2nd company, and a red ace the 3rd company. This principle was applied to all modern light infantry support tanks of the French Army from November 1939 onward, except for replacement tanks held by logistical companies.

Anti-tank gun crews were not appropriately trained before the campaign of France, and, in most cases, had never even received identification charts for allied vehicles. This resulted in some instances of friendly fire, including some in which B1 Bis tanks were lost. To avoid further unnecessary losses, tricolor flags were painted on the turret of French tanks, including the FCM 36. A bulletin distributed to commanders dated May 22nd already stated crews should wave a tricolor flag when getting close to friendly positions to avoid any misunderstandings. In addition, the tank crews applied tricolor vertical stripes to the rear of their turrets on the night of June 5th to 6th, following notice n°1520/S from General Bourguignon. Slight differences in the angle of the lines can be found between vehicles of the 7th BCC, where it was typically painted on top of the mantlet, while for vehicles of the 4th BCC, it was often painted on the mantlet itself.

Though not very common in FCM 36 units, there was numeration in some instances. This identification system was hastily put in place, with some numbers being painted directly over the unit insignia. Obviously, with restructuring undertaken due to losses, these numbers were no longer up to date, and sometimes covered with paint. In addition to this number, the vehicles also featured the mandatory ace.

A red spade identifies this FCM 36 as one from the 1st section of the 3rd company. Note the French tricolor flag at the rear top of the turret and the numeration on the sides. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

FCM 36s used a variety of insignias. The most commonly used was a variant of the 503rd RCC’s insignia, showcasing a machine gunner and a dented wheel of which the colors varied depending on the company the tank belonged to. This was notably found on tanks of the 7th BCC. Other insignias could also be seen on some tanks, following the crews’ imagination, such as the representation of a duck worthy of a children’s cartoon (FCM 36 30057), a bison (FCM 36 30082), or an animal climbing the side of a mountain (FCM 36 30051).

The machine gunner insignia of the 503rd RCC on a FCM 36 from the 7th BCC (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

A small number of FCM 36 were given nicknames by their crews, as on many other French tanks. However, it appears this was an initiative taken by crews. In other units, this was done directly by order of the commander, such as Colonel De Gaulle, who gave his D2s the name of French military victories. With the FCM 36s, more atypical names, not following any consistent logic, could be found. FCM 36 “Liminami” was nicknamed by amalgamating the names of the fiancées of the two crew members (Lina and Mimi). Some other curious nicknames include “Comme tout le monde” (Eng: Like Everybody, FCM 36 30040) or “Le p’tit Quinquin” (Eng: The small Quiquin, FCM 36 30063). The nickname of each tank could be inscribed on the sides of the turret or on the mantlet, just above the gun. In the first situation, the writing was generally stylized.

FCM 36 nicknamed “Le p’tit Quinquin”, during winter 1939-1940. (Photo: chars-français.net)
Turret front of “Fantôme” (Eng: Ghost) from the 4th Section of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC. Notice the tricolor flag, placed this way on tanks of the 7th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy)
Turret rear of the tank with registration 30 022 of the 2nd Section of the 1st Company of the 7th BCC. Unlike tanks of the 4th BCC, the lines of the rear flag follow the shape of the turret and are not perfectly vertical. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy)

The Fighting of May-June 1940

The 4th BCC’s FCM 36s Against Tanks

Engaged in the Chémery sector, a few kilometers south of Sedan, in the Ardennes, the FCM 36s of the 7th BCC were more often than not without supporting infantry. From as early as 6:20 AM on May 14th, the different companies started fighting.

Map from 1950 with the place of the fights in the sector of Chémery, less than 10 km south of Sedan. (source: géoportail.gouv.fr)

At first, the different companies performed relatively well, with little enemy resistance. Only the 3rd Company faced some significant resistance from several anti-tank guns which immobilized the unit for a while before the pieces were destroyed by the fire from the tanks. The 1st Company had met a few machine guns which were swiftly neutralized as the only resistance.
At a later, more crucial point in the battle, the FCM 36s were faced with much more significant resistance. The 3rd Company reached the outskirts of Connage without any enemy resistance. However, the infantry did not follow and the company was forced to go back to reach its supporting infantry. During a move on a road, six FCM 36s were stopped by two German tanks, followed by several more behind them. The FCMs fired continuously with their rupture shells. Soon running out, as there were only 12 per tank, the fight continued with explosive shells, which could only slow down blinded tanks. A German tank was in flames. The shells fired by German vehicles struggled to penetrate the FCMs, until a tank armed with a 75 mm gun, described as a StuG III, fired and knocked out several vehicles by “disemboweling them”. The retreat of some vehicles was only possible by the accumulation of knocked-out FCM 36s which blocked the fire of the Panzers. From this fight, only 3 of the 13 tanks of the 3rd Company would reach back to friendly lines.

The 1st Company also had very significant losses. The 1st Section was engaged by anti-tank guns and the 2nd Section by tanks. Losses were significant. However, when the company had to retreat towards Artaise-le-Vivier on the order of the battalion commander, it met heavy opposition while crossing the village of Maisoncelle. Of 13 engaged tanks, only 4 reached friendly lines.
The 2nd Company also suffered tremendous losses. After fighting in Bulson and in the neighboring hills, a fight broke out between 9 FCM 36s and 5 German tanks identified as Panzer IIIs, with the absence of radio on their tanks this time being to the advantage of the French. The FCM crews, hidden behind a crestline, noticed the Panzers thanks to their antennas. They were then able to follow their movement and engage them more easily. At 10:30AM, the company received the order to retreat towards Artaise-le-Vivier. The company was also engaged by German forces and suffered tremendous losses. At Maisoncelle, German tanks were waiting for the FCMs, which therefore retreated towards the Mont Dieu woods. The 2nd Company arrived at this rally point with only 3 of 13 tanks.

The survivors of the 7th BCC gathered in the Mont Dieu woods and, at 1PM, gathered to form a single marching company to oppose German progress. Thankfully, there were no further attacks. By 9PM, the marching company received the order to move towards Olizy, south of Voncq. Despite major losses, an infantry that did not follow tanks, and a large number of enemy tanks, the 7th BCC showed obstination and held firm.

Context: Voncq (May 29th – June 10th 1940)

As German forces had broken through the French front around Sedan, their advance was lightning fast. In order to secure the southern flank of the offensive, three German infantry divisions rushed towards Voncq, a small village placed on the crossroads between the Ardennes canal and the Aisne. Voncq had already seen fighting in 1792, 1814, 1815, 1870, and during World War One. The goal of the Germans was to control this strategic village while the main force moved westward.

General Aublet’s 36th French Infantry Division was divided in three infantry regiments, the 14th, 18th, and most importantly, 57th had to cover a 20 km-wide front. This force of around 18,000 personnel was supported by a powerful artillery complement which did not cease firing during the battle. On the German side, around 54,000 personnel were deployed, part of three infantry divisions: the 10th, 26th, and the SS Polizei, which arrived on the night of June 9-10th. No tanks were deployed by any side at this point.

Fighting started on the night of May 29th. Small-scale but strongly artillery-supported French attacks routed some German units. After German aerial reconnaissance over Voncq, it was urgently decided to prepare the terrain, putting in place trenches, machine gun positions, etc.

The German offensive was launched on the night of June 8-9th against Voncq. The 39th and 78th Infantry Regiments crossed the canal under the cover of artificial clouds. Elements of the French 57th Infantry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sinais, were quickly overwhelmed by German forces after intense combat. The Germans progressed well and took the Voncq sector.

Map from 1950 with the place of the fights of the Battle of Voncq on June 9 – 10th. (source: géoportail.gouv.fr)

The FCM 36s in the Battle of Voncq (June 9 – 10th)

The 4th BCC was deployed with its FCM 36s at Voncq as early as the morning of June 8th. By the evening, its companies were spread out in the sector. Captain Maurice Dayras’ 1st Company was attached to the 36th Infantry Division and was placed in the Jason woods, around 20 km south-east of Voncq. Lieutenant Joseph Lucca’s 2nd Company was attached to the 35th Infantry Division, not far from there, at Briquennay. This company was not engaged in the operations at Voncq on June 9-10th. Finally, Lieutenant Ledrappier’s 3rd Company was still in reserve at Toges with the battalion headquarters.

Fighting first broke out on the morning of June 9th between the 1st Company of the 4th BCC and Captain Parat’s 57th Infantry Regiment against elements of the 1st Battalion of the German 78th Infantry Regiment. The Germans were forced to retreat.

Three sections, with a total of nine FCM 36s, continued their progress towards Voncq. Three tanks were immobilized by 37 mm anti-tank guns, including the tracked tank of Second Lieutenant Bonnabaud, commander of the 1st section. His vehicle (30061) allegedly received 42 hits, of which none penetrated. The offensive was a success and brought many prisoners.

Example of the FCM 36 named “Jeanne” from the 4th BCC, which received multiple hits from German machine gun fire. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

The sight of FCM 36s made German soldiers flee, as they often lacked any weapon able to neutralize them. They often hid in the houses of villages the tanks were crossing through.

On its side, the 3rd Company had to clean the village of Terron-sur-Aisne alongside the Corps Franc [Eng French Free Corps] of the 14th Infantry Regiment, in the early afternoon of June 9th. The tanks crossed the village and searched through the streets. Soldiers were tasked with cleaning up buildings. A similar operation was later led in the orchards around Terron-sur-Aisne, which led to the capture of around sixty German soldiers.

Two sections of the 3rd Company went towards Vandy alongside the 2nd Moroccan Spahi Regiment in order to support taking the village. Once that was achieved, they moved towards Voncq to attack the following morning.

During this last large offensive on Voncq, two tanks of the 1st Company engaged in battle without accompanying infantry. Among them, the commander of vehicle 30096, Sergeant de la Myre Mory, a parliamentarian for Lot-et-Garonne department, was killed. At Voncq, only a single tank of the 1st Company was still in operational condition, 30099. However, the commander was wounded, meaning the driver had to alternate between driving and the armament.

Eight tanks of the 3rd Company had to defend a barricade in the north of Voncq alongside the Corps Franc (Captain Le More) of the 57th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers were forced to take respite in houses, leaving the tanks alone from 0:20 PM to 8 PM. Lieutenant Ledrappier, commander of the 2nd Section of the 1st Company, then abandoned his position to make contact with the infantry. However, the other tanks followed him, as the move had been poorly understood. They then retreated due to a lack of communication.

Finally, the order to abandon Voncq was given by nightfall. The FCM 36s were tasked with covering the retreat of the infantry units, which they did without an issue.

Following the engagement in Voncq, very little is known about the fate of the FCM 36s of the 4th and 7th BCCs. It is possible that the units were disbanded and the surviving FCM 36 and their crews fought in smaller ad hoc units, though their is no supporting evidence uncovered as of yet.

Crew Experiences on the FCM 36

The period between September 1939 and May 10th, 1940 was divided into multiple movements, parades, and training in which the FCM 36s and their respective battalions distinguished themselves by their efficiency and seriousness. Testimonies of tank crews, as well as historical records of the battalions, show some interesting points to note, as they give very interesting anecdotes on the machines.

The first interesting point to note was an annoying consequence of the modernity of the FCM 36. The crews would often get chest pains due to the high internal pressure inside the vehicles, which was a quality ahead of its time, allowing the vehicle to be gas-proof.
Another generality was the presence of reports on the exceptional reliability of the vehicles. Captain Belbeoc’h, commander of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC (and later of the logistical company from January 1940 onward), explained that “when operated by alert mechanics, the FCM tank revealed itself to be a splendid war machine, which gained the trust of all crews”.

Battalion records also show the complications linked to the movement of vehicles from one point to another. On one day, a column took five hours to cross 5 km due to refugees and deserters coming from the front. Similar problems were found during movement on trains. However, this was the problem of the railway. It should be noted that it only took around twenty minutes on average to unload all tanks from a train. A train could, however, only carry the vehicles of two tank companies, or an entire fighting company alongside the heavy equipment of the logistical company. Problems often came from air attacks on tracks or trains, which required changing routes which made the battalion lose time.

Two FCM 36 from the 7th BCC during winter 1939-40 at Verdun. The gun is not mounted. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

The 1939-1940 winter was very harsh. The vehicle’s diesel fuel had a tendency to freeze within the engines, preventing them from starting. A crew member would then have to light a torch at the level of the engine, and tow the vehicle with another. By running with a torch at the level of the ventilation system, the fuel could liquefy and the engine started up.

An anecdote reveals that it could be more dangerous than planned to use the anti-aircraft machine gun. On May 16th, 1940, while FCM 36 30076 was towing FCM 36 30069, a German bomber arrived and a bomb exploded a few meters away from the two vehicles. The rear turret door had been opened to coordinate the towing action, and the blast knocked both turrets off. This event was proof of the danger of using the anti-aircraft machine gun.

Two FCM 36s were victims of a German bomb. The opened turret hatches allowed the blast to tear the turrets off. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The logistical aspect of resupplying affected a part of French vehicles in May and June 1940, but also some German vehicles after 1940. The FCM 36 was a machine that used diesel fuel, in an army full of gasoline-powered vehicles. This was directly seen within the two BCCs, in which the trucks, motorcycles, and cars all worked using gasoline. Therefore, there had to be two fuel types in the supply chain. The same problem was found with the spare parts of many seized civilian vehicles of the 4th and 7th BCC. Many broke down and could not be repaired.

The FCM 36 on the German Side

The FCM 36s Captured During the Campaign of France of 1940

The French Army lost the 1940 campaign, but it brought many German vehicles down with it. French anti-tank guns, such as the 25 mm Hotchkiss SA 34 and the 47 mm SA 37, were of excellent quality, and some of the tanks were powerful enough to knock out German vehicles, even at long ranges. This led to many German losses. To compensate for these losses, many French vehicles were captured and some were used all the way to the war’s end. This was a common practice in the German forces, which had a large part of its armored vehicles fleet composed of tanks of Czech origin during the invasion of France. These Beutepanzers (captured tanks) constituted a minor but still important part of the German armored vehicle fleet during the entire duration of the war.

Already during the campaign for France, abandoned vehicles were re-used when their condition was good enough. This was the case of several FCM 36s, on which several Balkenkreuzen were painted quickly on top of the former French markings to aid identification and avoid friendly fire. In practice, thanks to their diesel engine, even if pierced by many shells, the vehicles rarely caught fire. The vehicles were therefore easily repairable by replacing worn pieces.

No document truly attests their use in combat immediately against French forces. The Germans, in any case, did not have the ammunition stock, and even less so the diesel to make the vehicles run. The Wiesbaden Armistice Commission claims 37 FCM 36s had been captured by October 15th, 1940. It appears that in total around fifty FCM 36s were pressed back into service with the Germans.

Second Lieutenant Bonnabaud’s FCM 36 registered as 30 061, which was immobilized during the fighting at Voncq and later re-used by the Germans. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

German Modifications

At first, the FCM 36s were kept in their original state as tanks and were thus named Panzerkampfwagen FCM 737(f). However, for logistical reasons, and particularly because of their diesel engines, it seems that they saw very little use in France in 1940.

As early as late 1942, a part of the FCM 737(f) vehicles were modified, like many other French tanks, by Baukommando Bekker, transforming them into assault howitzers or tank destroyers. The first, the 10.5 cm leFH 16 (Sf.) auf Geschützwagen FCM 36(f) , were armed with obsolete 105 mm leFH 16 guns in an open-topped configuration. Sources vary on how many were built, with numbers ranging from 8 to 48, though the number was probably 12. Very little is known about them and they do not seem to have seen frontline service.

The second were given a Pak 40 anti-tank cannon, which was able to neutralize most vehicles which it would face at standard fighting ranges. They were known as 7.5 cm Pak 40 auf Geschutzwagen FCM(f). This modification is sometimes considered to be part of the Marder I series. Around 10 were modified in Paris in 1943 and saw service until the Allied invasion of France in 1944.

One of the FCM 36 converted into a tank destroyer with a Pak 40 anti-tank gun. (Photo: Wikipédia)

The main issues of these vehicles were their diesel fuel, which caused supply problems. Their high silhouettes were also problematic, particularly for the tank destroyer. However, they had the advantage of giving mobility to fairly heavy artillery pieces and to provide an acceptable level of protection to their crews.

Conclusion

The FCM 36 was the best light infantry tank that the French Army had in 1940, as stated by the evaluating commission in July 1936. However, it was plagued by many issues. The main ones were linked to their complicated production process, which was the reason behind the vehicle not receiving additional orders, and obviously, the outdated doctrine which led to its conception, which was entirely obsolete. However, the units which were equipped with the tanks remarked themselves by their actions, particularly the 7th BCC, thanks to the experience they had gained during intensive training in close cooperation with infantry units. The engines shone in the mission for which they were designed: infantry support.

The last surviving FCM 36, which had belonged to the 1st Section of the 3rd Company of the 4th BCC. It is stored at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum) (photo by author)
Unidentified FCM 36 belonging to the 3rd Company of the 7th BCC, likely part of the 2nd Section. The illustration is based on a photo taken in August 1939. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 “Jacote”, belonging to the 2nd Section of the 3rd Company of the 4th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30015, part of the 3rd Section of the 1st Company of the 7th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30034 “Fantôme” (Eng Ghost), part of the 4st Section of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC. The number “33” on the turret was removed from the previous vehicle, named “Jeanne”. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30057, during the pre-war trials with a long 37 mm gun. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
The 10.5cm leFH 16 (Sf.) auf Geschützwagen FCM 36(f), one of the German modifications of the FCM 36.

FCM 36 Specifications

Crew 2 (Commander/gunner/loader, driver/mechanic)
Loaded weight 12.35 tonnes
Engine Berliet Ricardo, Diesel, 105 horsepower (at full power), 4 cylinder bore/stroke 130 x 160 mm
Gearbox 4 + reverse
Fuel capacity 217 l
Armor 40 mm maximum
Armament 37 mm SA 18 gun
7.5 mm MAC 31 Reibel machine gun
Length 4.46 m
Width 2.14 m
Height 2.20 m
Maximum range 225 km
Maximum speed 24 km/h
Climbing ability 80%
Trench crossing ability with vertical sides 2.00 m

Sources

Secondary sources

Trackstory N°7 le FCM 36, édition du Barbotin, Pascal d’Anjou
The encyclopedia of french tanks and armored vehicles 1914-1918, Histoire et Collection, François Vauvillier
Le concept blindé français des années 1930, de la doctrine à l’emploi, Colonel Gérard Saint Martin, thèse soutenue en 1994
L’arme blindée française, Tome 1, mai-juin 1940, les blindés français dans la tourmente, Economica, Colonel Gérard de Saint-Martin
Les chars français 1939-1940, Capitaine Jean Baptiste Pétrequin, conservateur du Musée des Blindés de Saumur
Renault FT, le char de la victoire, Capitaine Jean Baptiste Pétrequin, conservateur du Musée des Blindés de Saumur
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°21 (2007) ; “Seigneur-suis“, mai-juin 1940, le 7ème BCL au combat
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n° 81 (février-mars 2008) ; FCM 36 : le 7ème BCC en campagne, Histoire et Collection
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°105 (juillet-août-septembre 2013) : le 4ème BCC au combat
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°106 (octobre-novembre-décembre 2013) : Le 4ème BCC au combat (II)
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°111 (janvier-février-mars 2015) : Le 4ème BCC sur les routes de la retraite
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°238 (octobre-novembre-décembre 2021) : 7ème BCC Le dernier combat

Primary Sources

Règlement des unités de chars de combat, tome 2, Combat ; 1939
Règlement des unités de chars de combat, tome 2, Combat ; juin 1934
Instruction provisoire sur l’emploi des chars de combat comme engins d’infanterie ; 1920
Instruction sur les armes et le tir dans les unités de chars légers ; 1935

Websites

Liste des chars FCM 36 : FCM 36 (chars-francais.net)

Thanks :

I thank l’Association des Amis du Musée des Blindés (Eng: the Association of Friends of the Tank Museum) which allowed me to use their library, from which the majority of previously mentioned books are sourced from.

Categories
WW2 French Light Tanks

Renault R35/40

France (1936-1940)
Light Tank – Around 1,690 Built

The successor of the famous FT

Until 1935, the little vintage Renault FT was the staple of the French tank force. On the mainland, it had been upgraded as the rearmed FT31 but, throughout the colonies, it was left unchanged since 1918. It was clear by 1932 that the new tested Renault tanks, like the NC27, were not sufficient for the task demanded from them. They were too heavy, complex, costly and, therefore, not suited for mass-production. The original requirements dated back from 1926 and asked for a “char d’accompagnement” (support tank) that could replace the FT and still operate in the same manner. However, with the increase in AT gun caliber and velocity, the emphasis was put on protection. In early 1933, Hotchkiss proposed a solution, with an affordable small tank which turned the table. But instead of purchasing some directly, for political reasons and due to the contract size, other contractors were asked in August 1933 to present their own model. Fourteen responded, ranging from automotive companies to small armories.

Hello dear reader! This article is in need of some care and attention and may contain errors or inaccuracies. If you spot anything out of place, please let us know!

Development history

Renault, badly wanting this contract, rushed a prototype which was ready when a new specification was emitted on June, 21, 1934. It asked for an increase of armor, from 30 to 40 mm (1.18-1.57 in). Renault could not revise the design on time and was the first to present its ZM prototype to the Commission de Vincennes, on 20 December 1934. The model performed well, but was sent back to the factory for add-on armor and mounting the new APX (Atelier de Rueil) cast turret in April 1935. Tests were then resumed when, due to the growing tensions caused by the swift and massive German rearmament, the commission awarded the new tank a contract for 300 machines as the R35, on 29 April 1935. This was before the model could be perfected by Renault for pre-production. By 4 June 1936, the first delivered were promptly tested and modifications performed during production. The hollow hull price was 190,000 FF, and with engine, mechanical parts and the turret, rose to 1,400,000 FF, including all the modifications done (the equivalent of 32.000$ at the time). Contrary to the Hotchkiss H35, it was also produced for export.

Design

The R35 bears a strong resemblance to its rival, the Hotchkiss H35. They shared the same APX turret, the three-module hull construction and placement for the driver and engine. However, their dimensions differed, as well as the placement of the hull casemate, placed further to the rear for the Renault and, most obviously, the drivetrain.
The hull, as stated above, was made of three main prefabricated cast sections bolted together, while on the H35 these were welded. This helped improve production times. Everything else was welded-on. Maximum thickness on the glacis was 43 mm (1.69 in), and 40 to 30 (1.57-1.18 in) on the hull lower sides, rear and engine deck. The turret itself was made of hard cast iron, 30 mm (1.18 in) thick.
The running gear was based on the one used on the cavalry light tank AMR 35, with five double roadwheels encased in two sets of bogies and another single one at the front. All three were suspended by massive horizontal coil springs, with characteristic rubber ringlets. The drive sprocket was at the front and idler at the rear. The tracks reposed on three rubberized return rollers.
Repartition in the hull was for a crew of two. The driver position was offset to the left and the commander/gunner was in the turret behind. The final drive and differentials were in the hull nose. The driver had a Cletrac differential with five gears and steering brakes at his disposal. He had two hatches and one periscope for vision. The Renault V-4 85 hp engine was at the right rear, with a self-sealing 166 liter gasoline tank on its left. On final production tests, practical top speed was measured as 20 km/h (12.4 mph), which could fall to 14 km/h (8.7 mph) on soft or bumpy terrain. Fuel consumption was 212 liters/100 km off-road, but that was not a problem since it was believed 50 km (31 mi) was more than sufficient for a real breakthrough on a static front.
The turret received a dome-like rotatable cupola with vertical vision slits. It was free running on a ball track ring, either traversed by the weight of the commander or cranked more precisely for aiming. The commander normally stood on the tank floor. As customary in French practice, the turret had a rear hatch that could be hinged down, allowing the commander to sit on it, legs inside, for external observation. The early turret model was the APX-R, equipped with a L713 sight, mounting the short barrel 37 mm (1.46 in) Puteaux L/21 SA-18 and a coaxial 7.5 mm (0.29 in) Châtellerault fortress machine-gun. This main gun was effective only against concrete fortifications at relatively short range, as muzzle velocity was only 300 m/s (984 ft/s). At best only 12 mm (0.47 in) of armor could be defeated at less than 500 m (1640 ft). Once again, it was due to tactical limitations. It was never intended to deal with other tanks. Normal provision of ammo was 72 AP and 58 HE rounds plus 2400 cartridges.

Production

The total ordered, due to the degrading international situation, rose to 2300 units in 1939. But due to the frequent delays experienced by APX for the turrets, by 1936 Renault had succeed to deliver 380 hulls, while only 37 turrets were available, so the annual delivery rate fell to just 200. On 1 September 1939, only 975 vehicles had been delivered to the army out of 1070 produced total. They just then replaced most units still equipped with the Renault FT, but crews needed a few weeks to retrain. In consequence, in May 1940, there were still eight battalions of FTs operational due to the lack of trained conscripts. In June 1940, at last, 1601 R35 had been built by Renault, most for the Army. 245 had been exported to Poland (50), Turkey (100), Romania (41) and Yugoslavia (54). Another number presented is 1685 vehicles, indicated by the hull numbering. Production ceased after the capitulation.

The Renault R40

Due to insufficient tests before production, it appeared quite quickly to the units that the R35 suspension was notably unreliable and experienced many failures. So work started in 1939 at AMX (the new name of the Renault tank department after 2 December 1936) to devise a better system, which could be fitted on the production run. This new system counted twelve wheels in six pairs suspended by large vertical coil springs. These were protected by armored side skirts. The engine was upgraded and more powerful, while the hull was lengthened at the rear, and the turret was of the new APX-R1 cast model with a L767 sight, mounting a long barrel 37 mm (1.46 in) L/35 SA38. Last but not least, a radio was systematically fitted. The new gun was capable of defeating 40 mm (1.57 in) of armor at 500 m (1640 ft). For the ordnance it was the Char léger modèle 1935 R modifié 1939 and began to replace the R35 after the 1540th unit. Unfortunately, only few were delivered in time. The reconstituted Polish 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade in France was the first unit to be equipped with the new tank. At the same time, since 1939, some R35s were re-equipped with the new APX-R turret and long-barrel 1939. These were known as the R35 modifié 39, but only a few were converted, given to unit commanders. AMX also produced quantities of steering tails prior to the war to improve their trench crossing capabilities. These were not always fitted.

The R35 in action

France

At the time of the German attack on France, the French army had 900 R35s in service, then the most numerous model available. According to the French military doctrine, it was to be used only for direct infantry support. However, its gun proved to be able to defeat Panzer I and IIs, while the frontal armor could withstand even a direct hit from the standard 37 mm (1.46 in). The R35 equipped the Ist, IInd, IIIrd, IVth, Vth, VIIth, VIIIth, IXth “Armées”, plus the “Armée des Alpes” facing the Italian border, into Groupements de Bataillons de Chars. These were strictly tank units without other organic component, and only committed to infantry support in close coordination with infantry units. However, on 15 May, when it was clear that the doctrine was failing, 135 R35s from the 2, 24 and 44 BCC were allocated to a newly formed 4th DCR (Division Cuirassée de Réserve) while two others (40 & 48 BCC) reinforced the 2nd DCR. Later, 300 tanks from the materiel reserve were also reserved these new units. Many R35s were also found on the Colonies. The 63 and 68 BCC were in Syria (95 tanks) and the 62 BCC in Morocco with 30 tanks. The irony was the first faced Australian troops during Allied invasion of that mandate territory in 1941, while the others faced American troops in November 1942 (operation Torch). Later on, the Free French 1st CCC constituted a unit with available R35s for operations in this sector.

Poland

In 1938, the Polish Army bought two R35s for tests with the Office of Armored Forces Technical Research. The tank did not meet the requirements, neither did the Hotchkiss H35. The Polish Army wanted to buy the SOMUA S35, but the French government did not give its consent. In April 1939, due to the impending conflict with Germany and the lack of opportunities to increase production of the 7TP, 100 R-35s were ordered. The first batch of 50 (including three H35s) was delivered in July 1939, and were given to the 12th Armored Battalion in Lutsk. In September, this unit partly formed the 21st Light Tank Battalion, entrusted with the defense of the border with Romania. Others were incorporated into the composition of the group “Dubno”, which took part in the battles against the Germans at Strumiłową and the Soviets at Krasne. 34 tanks of the 21st Light Tank Battalion crossed the border of Romania on September 18, and were interned. After the Polish capitulation, however, a cavalry unit was raised in France, which fought in May 1940.

Yugoslavia

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia ordered and obtained 45 R35s in April 1940.

With the Axis

Nazi Germany

The German army snapped no less that 843 R35s, according to the Waffenamt, in the aftermath of the French surrender. 131 of these used directly as Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731 (f) for security, mainly in France, close to their spare part base, but also in the Balkans and possibly in the conquered territories of Russia for anti-partisan operations. Others served as driver training vehicle, turretless, while their turrets found an application on various armored trains, yet again, against the French resistance or partisans throughout Europe. Other turrets were used as pillboxes in various strategic positions in France and the Netherlands. Fourteen of these driver training vehicle, still with their turrets, saw action at Sainte Mère l’Eglise with the 1057th Grenadier Regiment on 6, June, 1944.
There was also a considerable number (174 according to most sources) converted into an early tank-hunter, the 4,7 cm PaK(t) auf Panzerkampfwagen 35R(f) ohne Turm, a variant similar to the Panzerjäger I equipped with the Czech Skoda A6 PUV vz.37 47 mm (1.85 in) gun. These conversions were not successful, however as they were too high and slow. Although some saw service in the summer of 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), most were posted in the Channel islands, Netherlands, with Pz.Jg.Abt.657, which fought at Arnhem, and the remainder saw action in Normandy, France in 1944 (Schnelle Brigade 30 and Schnelle Abt.517).

Italy

One hundred and twenty four R35s were given by the Germans to their Italian ally, mostly to compensate for their losses in Africa. These saw action in 1943 at Gela, Sicily, notably against the US Rangers in the early hours of the Allied invasion (Operation Husky).

Romania

Romania’s rearmament plan was in full sweep in the early 1930’s when the last Renault tank was tested. The Romanian government sought about acquiring a licence to produce 200 R35s locally. However, since French rearmament was given priority, as a stopgap measure, forty-five R35s were sold and shipped in Romania in August and September 1939, making up the bulk of the newly formed 2nd Armored Regiment. At the end of September, an unexpected thirty-four Polish R35s from the 21st Light Tank Battalion, which fled the Germans, crossed the northern border. These were interned and bolstered the strength of the 2nd Armored Regiment, then made of two brigades. Although these were used as is by the Romanian army -now part of the Axis- thirty-six were converted by Atelierele Loenida in 1943-44 with a high-velocity Soviet 45 mm (1.77 in) gun and saw action as the Vânătorul de Care R35.

Other countries

Hungary used some R35s, as they interned ex-Polish tanks which were posted on the southern border during the invasion, and crossed it to avoid capture. Bulgaria received some R35s from the Germans and used them in 1943-1944 against partisans. Switzerland too interned a dozen R35s that crossed the French border in June 1940. After the war, ex-French R35s left in Syria were reconditioned and used by the Syrian forces against the Israelis in the 1948 conflict. Five saw action against the kibbutz Degania Alef, but were knocked off by Molotov cocktails and a single 20 mm (0.79 in) AT gun. One is now part today of the Yad-La-Shiron museum collection.
Trackstory n°4, the Renault R35/40
GBM, Histoire & Collection, about WW2 French tanks
Wikipedia about the R35
The R35 on Chars-Français.net

Renault R35 specifications

Dimensions 4.02 x 1.87 x 2.13 m (13.2 x 6.2 x 7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 10.6 metric tons
Crew 2 (commander/gunner, driver)
Propulsion Renault V-4 gasoline 48 hp, p/w ratio 8.0 hp/t
Speed 20 km/h (12 mph)
Suspension Horizontal rubber cylinder springs
Maximum range 130 km (80 mi)
Armament Main: 37 mm (1.46 in) L/21 SA18
Secondary: Châtellerault or Reibel MAC31 7.5 mm (0.29 in) machine-gun
Maximum armor 43 mm (1.69 in)
Total production (R35) 1540

Allied forces

R-35
Early R35 with a complicated six-tone camouflage. This particular livery was unveiled by P.Danjou for Minitracks.
R-35 Jaguar
R35 “Jaguar” from an unknown unit, May 1940.
R-35
R35 from the 20th BCC, France, May 1940.
R-35
R35 from the 23rd BCC in June 1940.
R-35
“Le Buffle” from the 12th BCC, France, June 1940.
R-35
R35, 1st Compagnie Autonome de Chars de Combat, Vichy France, 1941.
R-35
R35 modifié 39, 10th BCC Tank Brigade, France, May 1940.
R-40
Renault R40, Loire sector, France, June 1940.
Polish R-35
Polish R35, September 1939.

Axis Forces

Panzerkampfwagen 731 R(f)
Panzerkampfwagen 731 R(f), France, fall 1940.
Italian R-35
Italian R35, Ariete Division, Sicily, March 1943.
Bulgarian R35
Bulgarian R35.

Romanian R-35

Axis Variants

PanzerJager 35R
The 4.7cm(t) Panzerjäger auf 35R(f), or Panzerjäger 35R, was a conversion of the French Renault 35 chassis with a Czech 47 mm AT gun. Already obsolescent Panzer I chassis were similarly converted into the Panzerjäger I in late 1940 and early 1941. It had a straightforward arrangement, with a three-sided open casemate built around the gun, above the base superstructure. Behind it a large ammo storage bin was built over the engine deck. Although slow and high, 174 of these 1941 little tank hunters had been converted for Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. They were later withdrawn and served with units guarding occupied territories, in France and Holland. Many saw action again in Normandy, but by that time their killing power was not highly valued.
Panzer R35 command vehicle
Panzer 35R(f) open topped command vehicle armed only with a 7.92 mm Machine gun followed by a Panzerjäger 35R(f)

Postwar

To come : Syrian R35, 1956.

Gallery

Latrun Museum - Wikimedia commons
Latrun museum – Credits: Wikimedia Commons.
French Renault R35 WW2 Light Infantry Tank
This French Renault R35 WW2 Light Infantry Tank has been upgunned by the Lebanon Army with a British 40 mm Ordnance QF 2-pounder gun after 1945. It is currently being restored by France 40 Vehicules Association, it will keep its Lebanese modification. (photo – Pierre-Oliver Buan)
Latrun Museum - Wikimedia commonsbulgarian R-35 - Wikimedia commonsAn R-35 at Saumur museum - Wikimedia commonsR35 at Saumur Museum - Wikimedia commonsR35 at Aberdeen Museum - Wikimedia commonsPanzerjäger I based on the R-35 - Wikimedia commonsR-35 in yugoslavia, 1942 - Wikimedia commons/Bundesarchiv

Categories
WW2 French Light Tanks

Hotchkiss H35/39

France (1935-1940)
Light Tank – Around 1,200 Built

A new breed of light infantry tanks

Renault and Schneider had been long time providers in the French tank industry. Hotchkiss (Société Anonyme des Anciens Etablissements Hotchkiss et Cie), founded in 1875 near St Denis (Paris) by Benjamin B. Hotchkiss, an American engineer, was a newcomer in this field, although already well known by the army for its world-famous machine-guns, cars and transmissions (like the Hotchkiss drive).

Hello dear reader! This article is in need of some care and attention and may contain errors or inaccuracies. If you spot anything out of place, please let us know!

At first, the Hotchkiss H35 was a private design answering a 1926 specification for a light, cheap infantry tank, or Char d’accompagnement. A proposal was ready by June 1933 showing some innovations, like entirely cast steel hull sections. It was also theoretically cheaper and lighter than the former Renault D2 and was initially retained by the army’s Conseil Consultatif de l’Armement. The final specification issued on the 2nd of August 1933 asked for a 6-ton tank, uniformly protected by 30 mm (1.18 in) of armor.
French Army Hotchkiss H35 light Tank 4e RC No.29 chassis number 40005
French Army Hotchkiss H35 light Tank 4e RC No.29 chassis number 40005
Hotchkiss was not the only bidder in this field. Renault quickly entered the fray, being the first to deliver its prototype, which would be accepted as the R35. However, the first prototype Hotchkiss showed to col. Keller of the Commission of Vincennes, was a machine-gun armed tankette, tested until March 1935, and followed by another identical vehicle, in May.
Both were rejected because the initial specification was changed in the meantime, now asking for 40 mm (1.57 in) armor. In August 1935, a third and last prototype was delivered, with a brand new cast hull and APX-R (Puteaux) cast turret armed with a 37 mm (1.46 in) short barrel gun. The proposition was accepted in November as the Hotchkiss H35 and followed by an order of 200 machines.
Production started mid-1936 and by September the first series H35s were delivered and heavily tested. However, it appeared that their cross-country capabilities had been overestimated. They had bad balance and quite bumpy ride, which was potentially dangerous in formation, particularly when firing on the move. The power-to-weight ratio performance was also insufficient. Therefore, the Army turned them down. But as the initial order could not be cancelled from fear of a political upheaval, the Cavalry, already interested because of the slow deliveries of the costly SOMUA S35, accepted to take them instead.
Hotchkiss H35 Light Tank No.10 chassis number 40302
Hotchkiss H35 Light Tank No.10 chassis number 40302

Design of the Hotchkiss H35

The initial H35 was a small and narrow machine, in order to fulfill the bid and keep the weight in check, while having one of the thickest armor of any light tank of 1935. The H35 was very similar to the Renault R35, its main competitor.
They shared the same APX-R (Puteaux foundry) single-piece cast turret characterized by sloped sides, rounded bottom and a spherical vision cupola. The cupola comprised a PPL RX 180 P optical visor and targeting sight. Just behind the mantlet there were three Chrétien binocular slide projectors (later horizontal PPL vision slits). The turret, which weighed 1350 kg with full equipment, housed a low-velocity SA 18 gun M37 (87 kg), with a coaxial 7.5 mm (0.295 in) Reibel machine-gun M31, protected by a small additional mantlet.
The main gun received 102 rounds, and the machine-gun 2400 rounds. The SA 18 had a +20 -13° elevation. The hull was rather small, completely built of cast parts welded together, only 4.22 m (13.78 ft) long and narrow, at just 1.95 m (6.4). The total weight, in battle order, was a mere 9.6 tons. The tracks were small too, each link was only 27 cm (10.63 in) wide. The smaller links procured a smoother ride. The commander had a small seat and strap, but was standing for observation and operating his weapons.
The suspension was made of six pincer bogies, each holding two rubberized roadwheels, sprung by helicoidal horizontal springs. There was a front drive sprocket, a rear idler wheel and two return rollers on each side. The driver/mechanic sat on the right side, seeing through a periscope mounted on a hinged flap, supplemented by two oblique vision slits on the sides. A door section of the hood opened forward to allow the driver access.
Rear view of a French Army Hotchkiss H35 tank in a field of wheat
Rear view of a French Army Hotchkiss H35 tank in a field of wheat
The commander/gunner accessed the turret through a rear door, and there was an extra emergency manhole at the hull bottom, just behind the driver. Equipment and tools were situated around the hull, comprising a camouflaged tarp fastened by straps to the back, a shovel, hatchet and cutter, on the left fender, a pickaxe bracket at the left of the hull, a mass, jack and crank on the right fender, a track cleaner on the rear cover, a 10-ton cable at the rear and two towing steel chains attached to the hull rear panel.
The engine hood was plunging forward, protecting a gasoline, air-cooled, Hotchkiss 3.4 liters, 6 cylinder, developing 75 [email protected] rpm, for a 8.8 hp/ton ratio. The gearbox was synchromesh, 5 speed forward and one reverse. Normal consumption was 130 liters/100 km. The normal speed on road and flat terrain was 28 km/h, ground pressure was 0.9 kg/cm2. The H35 was found capable of climbing a 35° slope, a 70 cm high obstacle and ford a 0.85 m deep river. However, trench crossing was limited to 1.80 m.

The H35 in service

The initial order was followed by the first delivery in September 1936. Production was interrupted after 400 had been built, in late 1937. Hotchkiss was summoned to revise the design, which will become the H39. The Hotchkiss H35 initially equipped several cavalry units, the 1st DLM (Division Légère Mécanique), 18th Dragons, 4th Cuirassiers, the 2nd DLM and 3rd DLM; the first light cavalry division (1er Régiment d’Auto-Mitrailleuses & Escadron de Reconnaissance Divisionnaire), 2nd and 3rd D.C.L. Later on, as the R35 deliveries were not sufficient, part of the production of the H35 was diverted to the infantry.
It was given to the 13th and 38th BCC (Bataillons de Chars de Combat) of CMC 515, the 33th B.C.C., 22nd and 24th B.C.C. from C.M.C. 510 based at Nancy and Lunéville, as well as the 342nd and 351st CAC (Compagnie Autonome de Chars – Autonomous Tank Companies) from the 1st “Division Cuirassée” (D.C.R.) of general Bruneau. All took part in the operations of May-June 1940, but performed poorly because of their limited speed, endurance and low-velocity main gun. However, the German infantry, largely equipped with the PaK 36 37 mm (1.46 in) gun, was baffled to see how their rounds simply bounced off the thick armor of these light tanks.
Original WW2 color photograph of a Hotchkiss H9 tank
Original WW2 color photograph of a Hotchkiss H39 tank

The Hotchkiss H39

The H39 was an overhaul of the previous model, with a new Hotchkiss 6-cyl. 5.97 liters engine giving 120 hp at 2800 rpm. With a power-to-weight ratio of 10 hp/ton (the weight rose to 12.1 tons), top speed was now 36.5 km/h (22.6 mph) on road and range increased to 150 km (93 km) thanks to a new gasoline 207 liter tank. The new engine imposed a redesigned hood, the rear being raised and now nearly horizontal.
Apart from these details, the H39 was very similar to the previous H35, with the same SA 18 short barrel gun. But it was also subjected to some criticism and, by the end of 1938, proposals were made to adopt the new SA 38, long barreled 37 mm (1.46 in) gun, which had far superior penetration power and muzzle velocity. The turret was now equipped only with the new PPL horizontal vision slits.
Le Mistral No.11 of 1er RC Hotchkiss H39 tank chassis Number 40754
Le Mistral No.11 of 1er RC Hotchkiss H39 tank chassis Number 40754
The SA 38 was supplied with longer rounds, and thus only 90 could be carried (instead of 100 with the SA 18). The gun was in relatively short supply, and despite the priority given to production of this new weapon, many H39s were put in service with the older gun model. 700 H39s were built in total, starting in October 1938, the last being delivered in feverish conditions, thrown in combat right at the factory door in May 1940 without exhaust or mudguards.
In early 1939, Hotchkiss’ delivery rate was around 60 units each month. Final records are confusing, and based on the chassis numbers and factory monthly deliveries by 1940, the usual figure is 1200 machines in total, for both subtypes.

The Hotchkiss H35/39 in action

The Hotchkiss H39 was also given to cavalry units. The 3rd D.L.M. (Division Légère Motorisée), 4th and 5th DCL, and Army units like the 25th and 26th DCC of Maubeuge, the 2nd DCR and the 3rd DCR. Another unit, the 342nd CACC, had a rich history starting with the expeditionary force in Norway.
Fifteen H39s were shipped to Narvik on the 7th of May. Only 12 were withdrawn in June and finally disembarked in Great Britain, where they would form an embryo of the armored forces of the FFL (Forces Françaises Libres), the Free French led by De Gaulle, as the 1e Compagnie de Chars de Combat de la France Libre. They will see action during the battle of Gabon and in Syria, some being opposed to other loyalist Vichy-manned Hotchkiss H35/39.
Operational formations were unfortunately mismatched. The slow H35s operated with the fast SOMUA S35, and the H39 with the B1 bis. During the May-June campaign, the H35 and H39 found themselves committed in spread out formations and rarely had a clear superiority over the enemy.
Their 37 mm (1.46 in) “long” model 38 gun was, added to their thick armor, a clear advantage in tank-to-tank engagements against German light tanks. They were matched only by the Czech-built Pz.Kpfw.38(t). However, tactically, the lack of radio and communication with HQ, as well as the overburdened tank commander led to disastrous results.
Hotchkiss H39 tanks livery was normally drab compared with the pre WW2 H35 tanks.
Hotchkiss H39 tanks livery was normally drab compared with the pre WW2 H35 tanks.
Many were abandoned due to the lack of gasoline, entire units being later captured in this way. Some participated in a few improvised counter-offensives directed against the German “Ghost Division”, without air support, which had dire consequences. After the capitulation, the Vichy regime was allowed to send some reserve units in its colonial areas, North Africa (27 of the 1st Régiment de Chasseurs d’Afrique, which fought against Allied M3 Stuarts during operation Torch, destroying three of these), and also in Syria.
Many H35/39s saw action under foreign colors. Three H35s were sent in July 1939 (as well as three R35s) to the Polish Bureau of Technical Studies of Armored Weapons for trials. In September, integrated in an ad hoc unit commanded by Lieutenant J. Jakubowicz, they fought hopelessly with the Dubrno task force. Two were also sold to Turkey by February 1940. Many more saw service with the Axis.
Hotchkiss H39 Tank being used for Policing duties in occupied Yugoslavia
Hotchkiss H39 Tank being used for Policing duties in occupied Yugoslavia.

The H35 and H39 in German service

After the capitulation, the Germans seized an impressive lot of French R35/40s and H35/39s in generally good condition. Around 550 H35 and modifié 39 models were taken over by the Waffenamt, and many modified, their original cupola being replaced by a two-hatch model. They were distributed among several independent companies, as the Panzerkampfwagen 35H 734(f) and Pz.Kpfw. 38H 735(f).
Most were kept unchanged, painted in the regular Dunkelgrau livery for police and occupation duties in France. Many others saw service abroad, like the 211e Panzerabteilung in Finland for the upcoming Operation Barbarossa. By 1942, they were joined by three mixed units, Panzerkampfwagenzüge 217, 218 and 219, makeshift tank platoons comprising one SOMUA S35 and four H39 each. They were disbanded later. Three units, also comprising many H35/39s, were sent in Yugoslavia, like the 7.SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division “Prinz Eugen”. They became a familiar sight for the Partisans, and the most current tank used by Chetnik crews.
Notice the French roundel on the rear of the turret of this Captured Hotchkiss H39 tank
Notice the French roundel on the rear of the turret of this Captured Hotchkiss H39 tank
Many of these were also sent to the Axis satellite allies, 19 to the Bulgarians, 15 to Hungary and a handful to Croatia. Those which were found in Normandy in June 1944 faced largely superior US tanks. Such units were the Panzer Abteilung 206, Panzer–Ersatz und Ausb. Abt. 100 and Beute-Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung. By December 1944, only 60 Hotchkiss H39s were still active. Surviving H35/39 also served as a basis for many conversions:
Artillerieschlepper 38H(f): Ammunition carriers, supply tanks and artillery tractors, without turrets.
Panzerkampfwagen 35H(f) mit 28/32 cm Wurfrahmen: Ad hoc conversions as rocket launcher mobile platforms, featuring two large frameworks with two heavy rockets each.
7,5 cm PaK40(Sf) auf Geschützwagen 39H(f): 24 units were converted as Marder I tank destroyers in 1942.
10,5 cm leFH18(Sf) auf Geschützwagen 39H(f): 48 units converted to a self-propelled artillery version. Very similar to the tank destroyer version, sharing the same high armored casemate.
Panzerbeobachtungswagen 38H (f): A 1943 special conversion as an artillery observation vehicle.

Legacy

The last appearance of a Hotchkiss tank on a battlefield occurred when ten H39s were sold to the Israeli clandestinely and shipped from Marseille to Haifa in 1948. They took part in the 1948 War of Independence with more modern guns, and perhaps the Sinaï campaign in 1956 (as it is claimed by some sources). One is still standing at the Yad la-Shiryon Museum (Latrun).
Two are still in existence in Norway, one in Serbia, another in Bulgaria, three in France (notably at Mourmelon-le-Grand ), including one in full running condition at Saumur, one in Britain at the Kevin Wheatcroft Collection and one in Russia, at the Kubinka Museum, captured from the 211th Panzerabteilung in the summer of 1944.

Hotchkiss H39 specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 4.22 x 1.95 x 2.15 m (13.1 x 10.6 x 5.7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 12.1 short tons
Crew 2 (driver commander/gunner)
Propulsion Hotchkiss 8-cyl inline 6l, 120 bhp
Speed (road/off road) 36.5 km/h (22.6 mph)
Range – fuel 130 km (80 mi) – 180l
Armament 37 mm (1.46 in) Puteaux SA 38
Reibel 7.5 mm (0.295 in) machine-gun
Armor 25-40 mm (0.98-1.57 in)
Suspension Horizontal helical springs
Total production 1200

Sources

Editions du barbotin, trackstory N°6 – Hotchkiss H35, a complete monography (fr/en)
GBM, Histoire & Collection, about WW2 French tanks
Hotchkiss H35 on Wikipedia
Hotchkiss H39 on Tank-Hunter.com
On Chars-Francais.net (many photos)


Hotchkiss H35, 4th Cuirassiers of the 1st DLM, “Joan of Arc” regiment, Belgium, May 1940.
H35 18th dragoons, 1st DLM
Hotchkiss H35, 18th Dragoons, 1st DLM (Division Légère Motorisée), Montcornet, May 1940.
Hotchkiss H35 mod 38
Hotchkiss H35 modifié 38, upgunned with the SA 38 long 37 mm (1.46 in).
Mod 38 command
Hotchkiss H35 mod 38 command tank version, with a steering tail, 29th Dragoons, 2nd DLM, France, May 1940.
H39 early type
Hotchkiss H39, early type (SA-18 gun version), 4th DLC, 4th RAM, third squadron, third platoon.
H39 infantry type SA38
Hotchkiss H39, mid-production, (SA-38 gun version), 1st DCR, 26th BCC, Northern France, May 1940. Infantry versions were generally camouflaged in a simpler two-tone pattern of brown patches on factory olive green. This example was fitted with a turret radio.
H39 late production, 25th BCC
Hotchkiss H39, 1st DCR (Division Cuirassée), 25th BCC. This unit was attached to the 26th BCC and photos show mixed types with both SA 18 and 38 guns. Some, from the late production batches (April-May 1940) were not camouflaged, like this one.

Axis


Panzerkampfwagen 35H 734(f) in France, 1942.

Panzerkampfwagen 38H 734(f), France, 1944. These tanks were mostly used for anti-partisan warfare.
Bulgarian H38
Bulgarian Panzerkampfwagen-38H 734(f), 1943.
Panzerkampfwagen 35H(f) mit28/32cm Wurfrahmen
Panzerkampfwagen 35H(f) mitb28/32cm Wurfrahmen, Normandy, summer 1944.
Panzerbeobachtungswagen 38H(f)
Panzerbeobachtungswagen 38H(f).

Panzerjager auf GW39H(f) Marder I tank hunter, Normandy, summer 1944.
10,5cm le FH18(Sf) auf Geschuetzwagen 39H(f)
10,5cm leFH18(Sf) auf Geschützwagen 39H(f), 155th Panzerartillerie-Regiment, 21st Panzerdivision, Normandy, summer 1944.
Sources and influences : Trackstory n°6 www.minitracks.fr, GBM.

Gallery

A troop of French Army Hotchkiss H35 tanks on patrol.
A troop of French Army Hotchkiss H35 tanks on patrol.
Hotchkiss H39 Light Tank chassis number 40813
Hotchkiss H39 Light Tank chassis number 40813
No.2, 1er RC French Army Hotchkiss H39 Tank Chassis number 40649
No.2, 1er RC French Army Hotchkiss H39 Tank Chassis number 40649
Gironde No.32, 1er RC French Army Hotchkiss H39 Tank Chassis number 40632
Gironde No.32, 1er RC French Army Hotchkiss H39 Tank Chassis number 40632
Hotchkiss H39 tank of the TAHURE No.29, 1er RC, chassis number 40557
Hotchkiss H39 tank of the TAHURE No.29, 1er RC, chassis number 40557

Surviving Tanks

Former Israeli H39 at the Latrun museum
Former Israeli Hotchkiss H39 tank at the Latrun Museum, Israel
The Hotchkiss H39 Tank This French Hotchkiss H39 tank can be found at the French Tank Museum in Saumur in the Loire Valley. The Museum is called Musée des Blindés
This French Hotchkiss H39 tank can be found at the French Tank Museum, Musée des Blindés in Saumur, France

Video

British Pathé Archive 1939 footage about the H35

Categories
WW1 French Tanks WW2 French Light Tanks

Renault FT

France (1917)
Light Tank – Around 4,500 Built

It was not called the Renault FT17 during WW1

This tank has had different names at different times. In the factory it was just called ‘FT Char.’ The word ‘Char’ means tank. The letters ‘FT’ were a project production code. They were not an abbreviation. The next project would be called FU then FV etc… Inside the Factory it was not called the ‘Renault FT’ as everyone inside the Renault factory knew it was built by Renault.

Hello dear reader! This article is in need of some care and attention and may contain errors or inaccuracies. If you spot anything out of place, please let us know!

Renault FT char d'assault
When the tank entered service with the French army it was called ‘Renault Char d’assaut 18 chevaux’ (Renault assault tank 18 hp) or just ‘le Char Renault’ (The Renault Tank). It was only when Renault started to develop some different armoured fighting vehicles that there was a need to differentiate it from these different designs in reports and other documents. The factory code was used and this is when it started to be called ‘Le Char Renault FT.’ ‘Renault FT’ is the accepted modern term for this tank.
In an official top secret French Army WW1 document dated 14 July 1918 booklet called ‘Instruction sur l’emploiement des char d’assaut’, the Renault FT tank is just referred to as ‘les Chars Légers’ (Light tanks). The Renault TSF wireless tank is just referred to as the Char T.S.F.
The names ‘Renault FT-17’, ‘Renault FT17’, ‘Renault FT 17/18’, ‘Renault FT M17’ and Char léger Renault FT 17 (light tank Renault FT 17) were applied to the tank after WW1.

The world’s first modern tank

Tank development went on at the same pace in Great Britain and in France in 1915. When “Little Willie” had already passed all its tests, so had the French Schneider CA-1. This machine was first suggested and conceived by Eugene Brillé, chief engineer of Schneider on the Holt tractor chassis and designed by Col. Estienne, the French “father of the tanks”, between May and September 1915.
It had to overcome many problems and was first engaged en masse during General Nivelle’s offensive of April 1917 at Berry au Bac. It performed poorly, lacking speed, good maintenance, protection, trench crossing ability and was also very cramped. This painful experience made Estienne and other tank enthusiasts in France to think differently, both tactically and technically, and this ultimately led to the development of the Renault FT, a pioneering vehicle whose basic features are still found on modern MBTs.

The idea and concept

It began as a concept, and became a personal project of Louis Renault, the famous car maker. He sought the ideal weight-to-ratio proportion for a more agile and faster tank than the Schneider CA-1 and the heavy Saint Chamond, and also a cheaper and easier model to produce.
All started after a meeting between Colonel Estienne and him at the Hotel Claridge in Paris. Until then, Louis Renault declined any involvement into tank production, claiming his lack of experience with tracked vehicles and other commitments. However, as an engineer he was taken up by the challenge, and after the meeting, started a practical study for a light vehicle, easy to manufacture with a reduced, unskilled workforce (factories had been depleted then by mass drafts and enlisting).
The core idea came from Estienne himself. Instead of cumbersome armored boxes, he imagined an immense fleet of cheap “bees”, five or six light tanks for the price of a single St Chamond. Small, fast and narrow, they could, by their sheer number, overwhelm the enemy defense -hence the “swarm of light tank” concept. Knowing the administrative and industrial roadblocks before him, he approached one of the most prominent French industrialists of the time.
He also imagined a tank with a power-to-weight ratio good enough to overcome trenches and shell craters, and a fully rotating turret to take full advantage of a single weapon, either a gun or machine-gun. The fully rotating turret was not new. It was used operationally since 1915 on many French armored-cars, Renault, Peugeot and White, and by countless others around the world. The 1905 Charron armored car already used fully revolving turrets.

Development history

The light tank concept was not one that felt natural to military strategists, despite the fact that it was easier to produce en masse. This was the gamble of Louis Renault, whom, with the unwavering support of Col. Estienne, directly called for the acceptance of his ideas from the commander in chief, Joffre, but he was then rebuffed by the minister of the armaments and production, Albert Thomas.
The latter only agreed for a single prototype. More so, when production got approved in December 1916, confirmed again in February 1917, the order was postponed due to priority being given to artillery tractors instead.
It was officially accepted in May 1917, when Pétain replaced Nivelle, but, still, the reluctant director of Motor Services, general Mourret, was not replaced before September by Louis Loucheur, who finally gave the green light. In the meantime, the prototype delivered in January 1917 performed first trials at Renault’s Billancourt factory, before being sent to the Artillerie spéciale proving grounds at Champlieu for corrections.
Although performing according to plans, it was later met with skepticism by the commission officers present at Marly on 22 April. Some asked for better ventilation, a wider turret and hull, or to raise the ammunition capacity to a staggering 10,000 cartridges! Still, the project had the enthusiastic support of the Consultative Committee of the assault artillery, and General Pétain’s arrival on the scene seemed to unlock the situation.
He was sold on Estienne’s ideas, but for different reasons: He saw these as a morale-booster for simple soldiers. Helater ordered that all the trucks carrying these tanks to the frontline had this mention written in large characters on their back plate: “Le meilleur ami de l’infanterie” (“infantry’s best friend”).

Design

The Renault FT prototype included a rotating turret, a concept already tested with the Little Willie, a rear engine configuration, a front driver, with the turret operator (and commander) right behind. Compared to the short and narrow hull, the modified Holt chassis was big enough to allow sufficient grip on any ground.
To manage large trench crossings a rear tail was mounted, which facilitates balance and hanging. Instead of “mobile fortresses” or “land cruisers”, the Renaut FT seemed lightly armed, but the turret made it versatile and efficient in most circumstances.
Renault’s talented engineer Rodolphe Ernst-Metzmaier designed a narrow riveted box (slightly more than an average shoulders width), with flat sides, pointed noise and sloped rear. All available internal space was used, with almost no room to spare. The engine was located at the rear, and separated from the fighting compartment by a firewall. The driver sat on the front, his feet acting on the brake and release clutch pedals between the large pair of idler wheels.
The commander stood just behind him. At first the standing position was only meant for short-term offensive, but with time, a leather strap was fixed on both sides, as an improvised sitting. However, the commander still had to stand up to use his narrow cupola.
The crew accessed the tank through the front, through a two-doors hatch, and collapsible upper vision armored panel. The commander could exit from the rear turret hatch, a feature which became mainstream on French tanks. The driver had three vision slits, one on the collapsible panel, two on the sides.
The Renault 4-cylinder air-cooled petrol engine was started either by a rear crank or an internal one. It was handily reachable from above, protected by a large hood. The petrol tank was installed after the turret and before the engine, high for gravity and well-protected except from above.
A steel chain was usually suspended on the rear tail in order to be used for towing another vehicle. Large metal boxes were suspended on the flanks, with shovels, picks, spanner and other tools, as well as sometimes additional fuel tanks and spare track links.
There was no means of communication between the turret operator and driver and the interior was almost deafeningly noisy, so a kind of “kicking code” in the back, shoulders or even head of the driver was used to transmit steering orders. These were armed with a Puteaux SA 18 37 mm (1.45 in) short-barreled, low-velocity gun, or a coaxial Hotchkiss 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun.

Production (1917-18)

The prototype was examined by a commission, but almost cancelled in favor of the new Char 2C heavy tank, which never made its appearance before the armistice. After a few mass-production modifications on the prototype, the first wave was ordered in December 1916 for deliveries in February 1917, but amended, then suspended, and was still in jeopardy in May, despite the arrival of Pétain.
It was not until September 12 that the new armament minister Louis Loucheur took Thomas’s office, and the project was definitely approved. Under Charles-Edmond Serre’s supervision, the first 84 machines were delivered prior to the end of 1917, and 2697 more until November 1918. This was, by far, the largest tank production by any country at that time, but caused problems to Renault which was still not ready to fulfill such orders and convinced other firms to share the lot, like Berliet at Lyon, and (Schneider) Somua and Delaunay Belleville.
It was proposed as a licence to foreign countries as well, and the US industry was first in line, the federal government receiving a single tank and complete plans for 1200 more, both to cover the needs of the French and US Army.
Renault produced two variants of the FT, the “female”, or machine-gun model, which was more common, and the “male”, armed with a short-barreled 37 mm (1.45 in) Puteaux SA 18 gun. Those models also differed by their definitive “Omnibus” turret, multi-faceted (standard) or rounded with bent metal plates, also known as the “Girod turret” first introduced by Berliet (hence the “Berliet turret”).
By December 1917 3100 FTs were to be produced with the Omnibus turret, in both types, as well as 700 derived BS versions (fitted with a short 75 mm howitzer) and 200 TSF, radio versions. In January 1918, the order was again shifted for 1000 “female”, 1850 “male”, 970 BS (howitzer versions) and 200 TSF. In October the total order has reached a staggering 7820 machines. In November the armistice came and the order was cancelled, 1850 had been delivered so far by Renault, 800 by Berliet, 600 by Somua, and 280 by Delaunay-Belleville. The largest turret manufacturer was Paul Girod Aciéries at Ugine, which casted, assembled and forged round and octagonal models.
Problems were experienced with the armor plates. Many came at the time from Britain, which caused delays due to local priorities. The supply of the new 37 mm Puteaux gun, specially redesigned from a light artillery gun, was also slow to reach full production. Despite the considerable delays (almost a year) before an effective production started, the first batch was still plagued with defects.
About one third of the initial order had to be shipped back to the manufacturer for corrections. There was also a continuous lack of spare parts, which hampered the units’ operational capabilities and limited maintenance in the field. The poor quality of the fuel filters in particular, and the highly sensitive fan belts caused considerable turmoil and up to ten per cent of active vehicles were unfit for service in 1918 because of this, waiting for replacement parts.
In 1919 a new redesigned version was proposed by Renault, including a more powerful engine, a long-barreled Puteaux gun and additional cases fitted in their tracks. It was successfully exported throughout the world. Some of them were immediately put into action, like the Finnish and Polish versions against the Soviets.

War operations of the FT

The small FT was an undeniable success, despite some flaws of the first series, including the radiator fan belt and cooling system problems. Large number of FTs were provided to most Western front units by mid-1918, and they were involved in all major offensives (4356 engagements and 746 lost in action), successfully crossing no man’s land and “cleaning” trenches as designed, but also forests.
The first operational unit using FTs was the 1st BCL (Batallion de Chars Légers), on 18 February 1918. But only at the end March did this unit receive its full tank complement, although still unarmed. Each battalion counted three companies, with a full strength of 75 vehicles. The majority were MG-armed (41), with 30 gun-armed and up to four TSF, with 3 vehicles in reserve.
Although it was smaller and less impressive than previous tanks, the FT was nevertheless successful, as Estienne had predicted, because so many reached the enemy lines at the same time, overwhelming the German defenses. It was also a tricky target due to its narrow section and small height. It gave confidence to the regular soldiers whom advanced behind it, avoiding most of the punishing machine-gun fire.
First engagement occurred in May, 1918 at Foret de Retz, near Soissons. Tactics also involved a combination of gun-equipped “male” tanks to strike machine gun nests and pillboxes, and “females”, equipped with a 7.92 mm (0.32 in) Hotchkiss machine gun to finish the job. There, the rotating turret made all the difference. As the production rose and the tactics were refined and codified, a swarm of light tanks was intended to be thrown towards the German lines in the greatest Allied offensive planned for January-February 1919. Of course the armistice put an end to this plan, including a grand total of 12,260 tanks to be built in France, USA, Italy and Great Britain.

The American FT

Soon after the US joined the war, it was considered suitable to equip the newly formed units with provisional French FT tanks. Since the French general staff needed a huge production, US manufacturers were approached. Built under licence and with a revised design, this was later called “6 tons tank M1917” for “model 1917”.

A world success

If the United States, which were involved in the war, logically received many FT 17s, other countries also did. The Italians, for example, received 3 which were later copied and modified to produce the FIAT 3000. 24 were also used by the British, for testing. The French alone accepted in active duty during and after the war no less than 3177 machines, which made the French army, by far, the dominant tank force in the world at the time, and remained so nearly twenty years after.
Exports, well served by Renault’s knowledge of the international market, reached Poland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Japan. These tanks remained in first line many years in these countries, to the point that two Afghan FTs were found in relative good condition during “Operation Enduring Freedom”! Actually the US still has many M1917s as museum pieces, but none of the original French FT. The only one, previously owned by the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor, was turned to the French government at a French request.

Variants

In fact the gun armed variant was sometimes incorrectly dubbed FT 18. Among variants were 188 radio carrying vehicles (Renault TSF), about 40 FT 75 BS, armed with a punishing 75 mm (2.95 in) howitzer to deal with concrete pillboxes, the 13 Japanese modified FT-Ko, the 27 FT CWS built in Poland with French spare parts (also one gas firing model) and about 1580 FT 31, upgraded models with the new Reibel 7.5 mm (0.3 in) machine gun.
These were still in use in regional units in September 1939, and many of them were posted outside the metropolis. The “Russkyi Reno” remains unique, but a modified version with a new sprung suspension was built in large numbers during the early twenties. During the interwar period, these Renault FT fought in many events, like the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, the Manchurian War, the Chinese Revolution, the Rif War (in Morocco), the Spanish Civil War and the Estonian war.
Other French variants include anti-tank gun FTs, which would have been armed with a 25 mm (0.98 in) or a 40 mm (1.57 in) gun. Some 2,000 FTs, then in service and in reserve, were planned for conversion. An FT with an experimental short-pitch track was designed in an attempt to increase speed, but the Kegresse system was preferred. Several SPGs were considered, the 75 Chenilles and 105 L Chenilles, which featured the gun aimed at the rear of the vehicle. The STAV Chenilles and STA 75 Chenilles also competed for the SPG requirement. A Renault FT Ammunition Carrier was planned to aid these SPGs.
The FT 75 BS Poseur de Pont was planned to mount a bridge for other FTs to cross, but it was cancelled. A handful of Renault FTs were planned to mount a mast with two floodlights, planned to aid with lighting the trenches and policing duties. FTs were also planned to mount fascines, a snowblower, a bulldozer, and a crane. The Renault FT featured the first ever mine plow, but it was never mass produced.
Some FTs were planned to be converted to agricultural tractors, but several problems cancelled the project. An odd plan was the FT Poseur de Masque, which carried a 2-ton concrete block that was intended to obscure machine-gun slits on the Siegfried Line.

Camouflage

After some successful experiments with field artillery, French tanks were painted in sophisticated patterns comprising between three and seven different colors, sometimes separated by black strips, known as “tiger pattern”. There were not intended to blend the vehicle into the background but to disrupt the shapes for enemy observers. Professional artists, led by Guirand de Scevola, a cubist academic painter, were committed to study visual disruption and apply often complicated patterns, later summarized as the “dazzle”. But with the growing production, these patterns were simplified to be applied by unskilled workers right at the factory.

Interwar & World War Two

FT 17s after the war were in service with more than 20 countries around the world and took an active part in many military conflicts on different continents. It has become one of the most popular interwar model, and purchased by Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Belgium, while Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and Sweden tested it. The biggest buyer outside Europe was Brazil. The FT influence worldwide could not be underestimated: They were the very first US, Soviet and Italians tanks, generating close-copies and printing a profound mark on later developments.
There were still thousands of FTs in various conditions around the globe when the Second World War broke out. The bulk of this WWI vintage fleet was in France, mostly because of a late rearmament. Both the Renault R35 and Hotchkiss H35 were due to completely replace this model (almost 2800 light tanks combined in May 1940).
But still around 1850 FTs were listed as of 1939, renamed “FT-31”. These were rearmed version with the Reibel 7.5 mm (0.295 in) compact machine-gun, a gas-operated model originally designed to serve on the Maginot line. But this upgrade did not improve their limited capabilities in range and speed, although not worrying an ageing general staff still thinking in trench warfare terms. Many were stationed in the Colonies, others served in second line, some were in various depots or assigned to training units when the western campaign began. This fleet was seized by the Germans, and reused for various duties.
Numerous Renault FTs saw action during the three first years of the war. The Polish ones were committed when the Germans launched Fall Weiss, Finnish modified Naaras and Koiraas fought as dug out pillboxes for ambushes during the winter campaign, the Belgian FT-18s were also at the stakes when the Werhmacht crossed the north-eastern border in May 1940. Later on in April 1941, the Yugoslavian FTs and a very few Greek models also saw action against the Panzerdivisions.
In Indo-China, also in 1941, French colonial armored brigades equipped with the FT-17 (in original conditions) opposed a Thai invasion. The very same year, Iran, still operating a small fleet of FTs was found mobilized during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of their country. Perhaps some of these were sold or sent to Afghanistan and found some years ago by G.I.s in a metal dump.

In French service

The FT-31 was a large-scale modernization of all existing FT models, upgraded with a new Reibel 7.5 mm (0.29 in) machine gun and a new mask. About 1560 took part in the battle of France in May-June 1940. Some were parts of regional airbases defence forces. Most were captured and later served with Vichy forces and the Wehrmacht. Other were still listed in the Colonies of North Africa, Indo-China, and Syria and many survived until 1945.

In German service

After the fall of France, the Wehrmacht captured as many as 1700 FTs, which were redesignated, painted in feldgrau with the Balkenkreuz. They were all machine-gun equipped. All captured FT 31 tanks which were not allocated to the Vichy police forces were taken over by the Wehrmacht.

Poland

The Poles contracted the delivery of 23 FTs for the defense of their newly liberated country. But they never saw action until the very end of the 1920 Soviet-Polish War. Most of those involved in the battle of Warsaw and other events were French FTs which French or Polish crews. Later on, many more were acquired, reaching a maximum of 174 machines.
Some were later made by CWS (meaning “Centralne Warsztaty Samochodowe” – Central Car Workshops) which manufactured 26 or 27 tanks from French spare parts between 1925 to 1927, plus some with Polish iron plates and other parts. The local production model used soft iron instead of steel, and were retained for training as the armor was improper to combat usage. Perhaps 30 to 60 Polish FTs were later sold to Uruguay (which in turn sold them to Spain, then in Civil War), others were bought by Yugoslavia and China. Polish engineers devised improvements, like a faster prototype equipped with laterally flexible tracks or designed derivatives like the smoke tank Czolg dymotworczy.

Italy

Italy got three FT-17s in June 1918. But the deliveries were reserved to French units first, so the general staff decided to start their own production. Despite the fact that the program was cancelled in November 1918, the design was drafted for the upcoming FIAT 3000 finally delivered in numbers between 1922-1926.

Spain

12 FTs were bought in August 1921, all machine gun armed, deployed in 1922 in Morocco against Beni Said Tribe (Rif war). These were later found on opposite sides during the Civil War, with the Republicans (the 1st Tank Regiment of Madrid), and on the side of Franco’s nationalists with the 2nd Tank Regiment of Zaragoza. The 1st Regiment took part in the defense of Madrid on September, 1st, 1936. The FT remains influential in the design of the Trubia, the first Spanish tank built in small series between 1926-1931.

Russia

During the Polish-Russian war of 1920 and the Civil war, both the Poles and the White Russians had many FTs enlisted, later captured by the Red Army, notably at the battle of Berezovka. By 1920 the Red Sormovo factory succeeded in copying this model and produce the first Soviet tank (“Freedom Fighter Comrade Lenin”), now preserved, followed by a series of “Russkiy Reno”, which had a long barreled 37 mm gun and a machine-gun in a separate turret mount. Ultimately this experience led to the development of the T-18, largely influenced by the FT design.

Sweden

Sweden also bought a single Renault FT in 1923, armed with the 37 mm gun. It was apparently renamed ‘Putte’ – meaning ‘little’. However, it was not well received by the Swedish army and it ended its life as a radio vehicle.

Finland

There were about 32 tanks given to the Finnish army in 1919 and two more provided in 1920, all equipped with the 1919 model rounded turret and long barrel 37 mm (1.45 in) Puteaux gun. Most of them were still in use during the Winter War of 1939.

Yugoslavia

The Royal Army of Yugoslavia acquired 34 FT-17s in the early twenties (54 according to sources claiming 8 being from French units left in Bulgaria, the others in the 1930s, including some Polish-made CWS), followed by 21 Renault NC2 (M26/27) Kégresse, improved, faster models. The batch was completed later by 54 Renault R35s. All were committed against the German onslaught in April 1941.

Brazil

Total order in 1921 was 12 “carros de assalto”, enough to make a company with 4 machine gun armed, 7 gun-armed, and one TSF, command version. A former WWI observer in French units and father of the Brazilian tank force, Captain José Pessôa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, suggested the purchase. Although they were initially purchased to test tactical theories, these tanks fought against the rebellion of 1924 and the revolution of 1932, and survived WWII, being kept for training purposes.

Belgium

The Belgian army purchased some 75 gun-armed versions, slightly modified and locally called FT-18. The engine was modified, giving an extra kph in top speed, and the armor was slightly reinforced. All were still in service by May 1940.

Lithuania

Twelve Renault FT-17 tanks were bought from France in 1923. The tanks were named “Audra”, Drasutis”, “Galiunas”, “Giltine”, “Grianstinus”, “Karzygis”, “Kerstas”, “Kovas”, “Pagieza”, “Pykoulis”, “Slibinas” and “Smugis”. They were equipped with a Vickers machine-gun and served with the Radviliskis tank regiment from the early twenties to the late thirties.

Greece & Turkey

Greece tested both the FT gun-armed and MG-armed and the more modern NC2, but none was ordered. A single batch was delivered to the Turkish Infantry Shooting School based at Maltepe in 1926.

Romania

Although a handful Berliet-built FTs were sent to Romania for training in 1917, some 72 brand-new ones were purchased and delivered in June 1919, to face-off the ever present Soviet threat. They saw widespread service but were withdrawn from active duty and kept for training from 1939.

China

Some 30 to 45 steel Polish-built CWS tanks were sold to China, according to some sources. But the first were former French FTs left in Vladivostock in 1919 (then into “white” Russian hands) were acquired by the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-Lin. 14 more were acquired in 1924-25 and fought against Wu Peifu.

Japan

Japan bought the Renault FT in 1919, at the same time with a batch of Mark A Whippets. It was designated “Ko Gata” (Model A). The “Type 79” according to the chronological nomenclature, was never officialized. These thirteen tanks were immediately sent to the newly created Army Infantry School and the first unit, 1st IJA tank Company at Kurume, for officer training. Some were transferred to the Army Cavalry School.
In 1929, Japan also acquired the modernized NC-1 (M26/27), Otsu(“B”)-Gata Sensha. The “Ko-Gata” was used during the incident of Harbin, Manchuria in 1932. The unit was commanded by Captain Hyakutake. Both models were still in active service by 1940. Japan acquired spare parts after the occupation of Vichy-controlled Indochina.
Main source:The Renault FT Light Tank“, Steven J. Zaloga, Osprey Vanguard 1988.
Another reference:Minitracks n°10 about the FT“.

Links about the Renault FT

GBM, Histoire & Collection, about ww2 French tanks
The Renault FT on Wikipedia
A French page about the FT17
Wikipedia page about the US 6-ton M1917
Shadocks pdf document about surviving M1917
Operation Priority, a database on the Renault FT and its variants

Video : “Gunny” with the FT

Renault FT specifications

Dimensions 4.95(with tail)/4.20 x 1.74 x 2.14 m (16.24/13.77×5.7×7.02 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 6.7 tons
Crew 2 (commander/gunner, driver)
Propulsion Renault 4 cyl petrol, 39 hp (24 kW)
Speed 7.5 km/h (4.66 mph)
Range/consumption 65 km (40.38 miles)
Armament Female: Hotchkiss 7.9 mm (0.32 in) machine gun
Male: Puteaux SA 18 37 mm (1.45 in) gun
Armor 22 mm (0.87 in)
Total production 3700 (France)

First World War

preserie 1917
First series, training machines, with the provisional cast turret. The factory grey livery was related to artillery units.
FT early Berliet
FT early production version with the Berliet rounded turret, and factory dark olive green. The first cast turrets, complex and costly to manufacture, were later replaced by a new model, the “Omnibus” made of riveted plates, either octagonal or rounded.
FT17
The standard FT of 1917, equipped with a 7.92 mm (0.32 in) Hotchkiss machine gun. About two thirds of all FTs produced during the war were “females” like it.
FT
Unknown unit, with the octagonal variant of the “Omnibus turret” developed by Berliet, which was probably the cheapest to produce.
FT17
Unknown unit, chassis 66562 “Le Tigre”, tiger pattern, 1918.
FT17
Fall 1918 or 1919, five-tone pattern, later named the “Japanese style”.
FT17
Unknown unit, “Le Tigre”, fall 1917. “The Tiger” was the nickname of the popular French president, Georges Clémenceau.
FT17
Unknown unit, early 1918, three tone camouflage, applied on the original factory khaki.
FT La victoire, 1918
FT Char Canon “La Victoire”, unknown unit, 1918.
FT17
The male Renault FT, armed with a short barrel SA 19 Puteaux 37 mm (1.45 in) gun, with about 238 rounds, used against fortified positions. At point-blank range, a 37 mm shot could penetrate any kind of concrete pillboxes.
FT17
“Char canon”, serving with an American unit, Varennes, Argonne Forrest, 1918. The bordering black stripes were often omitted by then.
FT Berliet
Renault FT, Berliet model with the Girod turret, 506E RAS, 1918.


Variants & Prototypes

Renault TSF
Renault TSF, in khaki livery, early 1918. Click to see another variants.
FT 75 BS
FT 75 BS, howitzer armed version. About 40 were built after the end of the war. Here is an example (unknown unit) with a three-tone 1918 factory-applied camouflage (without bordering stripes).


Interwar

FT
FT “Passe-partout” from the 1st Company, 2nd Section, 2nd Battalion, 1st Polish Tank Regiment, Lodz, 1920.
Polish FT17
Polish Renault “Lis” from the 1st Tank Regiment, Puk Czolgow.
Lithuanian FT
Lithuanian FT(mod) “Slibinas”, 3rd Company, Lithuanian Tank Battalion, Radviliskis 1925.
Polish_Russian war
“Freedom Fighter Comrade Lenin” the first Soviet built tank, copied after captured FTs, 1920.
FT-17 112nd tank batallion, Briest 1935
FT-17, 112nd slow-running Tank battalion, Briest 1935
Type 79 Ko-Gata, Mandchuria
Type 79 Ko-Gata, Manchuria 1937.
Carros de Assalto
Carro de Assalto, Brazilian FT, 1935.


World War Two

Renault Ft31
Renault FT modifié 31 (sometimes “FT 31”), modernized version, from the 31st BCC.
FT-31 33BCC
Renault FT 31, 33rd BCC, France, May 1940.
FT-31 63th BCC
FT 31, 63rd BCC, Aleppo, Syria, 1940.
Yugoslavian FT
1st Armored Tank Batallion of the Yugoslavian Royal Army, April 1941.

Gallery

FTs tanks in Argonne, 1918 with American infantryrusski renoFT 17 cutawayFT17FT open panelsFT's on Parade

Captured Renault FT in France, likely circa mid-1940. Note that the barrel seems to have been removed, leaving only the barrel cover in place. Alternatively, it is possible the crew drained the fluid from the recuperator and then fired the gun, destroying it. Source: Bronson, British Collectors of Arms & Militaria Forum.

Renault FT Char d’Instruction. Colorized by Jaycee ‘Amazing Ace’ Davis.

Renault FT Char Mitrailleuse. Colorized by Jaycee ‘Amazing Ace’ Davis.

Centennial WW1 POSTER
WW1 tanks and AFVs

Renault FT World Tour Shirt

Renault FT World Tour Shirt

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Tank Hunter WW1
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