Vichy France (1941-1942)
Armored Car – 1 Prototype + 224 Production Vehicles Ordered But Not Completed
A little known armored car design, the Automitrailleuse CDM, or CDM armored car, is one of the most extensive armored vehicle projects undertaken in secrecy, not only from the general public but also from the higher-ups of the manufacturer’s own military. This was a project undertaken by a rogue element of the Vichy Regime’s military that refused to accept the Armistice and prepared to resist a German invasion of the unoccupied southern half of France. The CDM armored car’s production was in full swing by the point the invasion of the Vichy “Free Zone” in November of 1942 put a definitive halt to the secret armament project.
The CDM’s armored vehicles design bureau and its previous works
France’s swift defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht in May-June 1940 brought down upon the country a harsh armistice, not entirely uncomparable to the one Germany was subjected to at the conclusion of the First World War. The French Army’s size was reduced to a mere 100,000 men, at least in mainland France, with its armored component reduced to 64 Panhard 178 cars vastly weakened by the removal of their 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun, and -further studies of armored vehicles design prohibited.
Many within the reduced army of the new “Vichy Regime”, as it came to be called, were far from pleased with the conditions of this armistice. Overwhelmingly composed of personnel already in service in 1940, the Army did not see with a good eye the occupation of France’s northern half and the vast reduction of its capacities. As early as July of 1940, a French colonel, Emile Mollard, created a secret service within the army of the new regime, the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel – Equipment Camouflage). The CDM was originally intended to stockpile as much armament as possible, often instead of surrendering it to the German armistice commission. Its goal was to be able to raise the French Army from 100,000 to 300,000 men in just a few days, which was hoped to be enough to delay German forces long enough for reinforcements from the Western Allies and the colonies to arrive in France. Through late 1940 and 1941, the service stockpiled tens of thousands of rifles and machine guns, and dozens of field artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. In the spring of 1941, Mollard sought to expand the CDM’s missions, and entered in contact with engineer Joseph Restany, with the goal of producing 45 turrets for turretless Panhard 178 hulls that the CDM was in possession of. This prospect was successful, leading to the Panhard 178 CDM armored car. In early June of 1941, while the production of those turrets was still in its early phases, Mollard made another request for an armored vehicle to Restany and the armored vehicle production service he was setting up.
An armored car on a GMC truck chassis
In early June of 1941, Emile Mollard and Joseph Restany, along with a number of officers involved in the CDM, met in a conference in the town of Saint-Cyprien, in Dordogne, where Restany was setting up a new workshop for the production of the CDM Panhard 178 turrets. Mollard informed Restany that the CDM had, within its reserve, 225 chassis of 4-wheel drive GMC trucks (the exact model of which sadly is not specified or known) and, upon presenting one to Restany, asked if the production of an armored car based on this chassis could be possible. Upon Restany’s affirmation that it could, Mollard placed some additional but still fairly vague requirements, requesting an armament that could be as heavy as possible, a fully rotating turret, and a rear driving post which would improve the vehicle’s mobility. He then requested Restany and his workshops to get to work on this new project as soon as possible.
In July and August of 1941, while the CDM turrets for the Panhard 178 were yet to be assembled (the first would be completed in October), Restany set up a designing bureau as well as a workshop working on the chassis in Saint-Cyprien. At the same time as the overall vehicle’s design was being created, modifications were done to the chassis in order to make them more suitable to base armored cars on. Those were quite extensive: the rear was shortened by 1.10 m, and the front by 20 centimeters; the rear wheels were brought forward by about 1.10 m to reduce the wheelbase; the frontal radiator was lowered, as well as the ventilator; modifications were made on the direction, brake controls, the original carburetor was replaced by a smaller one; and the traction hook was moved, among others.
Design of the CDM armored car
Most of the designing work done by Restany and his team was performed in the summer of 1941. The vehicle they came up with had a mostly rectangular armored body, with a visible radiator and two headlights at the front, typical of armored cars manufactured on truck chassis. The hull had a door on each side and two frontal hatches that could be opened for better vision, or closed in combat. The two front wheels had no cover, while the upper half of the rear wheels was covered. The vehicle had a rear driving post which made it easier for the armored car to leave a position if located by enemy forces, though the speed of the vehicle in reserve or going forward was unknown. Details on the engine are scarce, but it appears to have had 75 hp one. The vehicle had a fully rotating hexagonal turret quite similar in shape to the pre-armistice APX 3 mounted on Panhard 178s. This turret had a top hatch and a rear door, and two viewports on the side. A number of different armaments were to be mounted in this turret, with three different configurations being planned. The production process of such a vehicle, especially in the context of high secrecy, required a number of different workshops which were all overseen by Restany.
The modified chassis: the Saint-Geniès workshop
In July of 1941, Restany ordered a workshop set-up in Saint-Geniès, in Dordogne. This workshop was located on the road to Sarlat, a town where he was setting up the most extensive part of his production efforts. The objective of this workshop was to receive the original GMC truck chassis and apply the modifications Restany and his team devised to those. The workshop was set up from the 15th August to the 15th October 1941. It immediately began modifying the chassis it received. By May 1942, all 225 had been transformed. Restany lauded the production rates of the workshop, which produced 1.1 modified chassis a day during most of its operation and up to 1.8 towards the end. However, he found the workshop to be a considerable risk. While some CDM commanders delivered the chassis stripped bare of anything unnecessary, as Restany preferred, some delivered trucks which still had driver’s cabins and bodies. This not only made the production a little more complicated, but, most importantly, created a significant quantity of waste which took a considerable amount of storage space, and which Restany feared could be discovered and compromise the whole operation, especially as the Saint-Geniès workshop was located near a road. As soon as the last chassis was finished, the workshop was dismantled. Two of the three buildings used, which already existed prior to the CDM’s installation, were kept, the third one, which had been constructed for the operation, was entirely dismantled, with the materials all being transported to Sarlat, where they were used to build a garage for the operations there. As for the chassis, they were kept in a number of farms around Sarlat.
Mechanical pieces: the Sarlat factory
Sarlat (officially Sarlat-la-Canéda) was the town that became the center of Restany’s operations. The mayor of Sarlat, which Restany noted was sympathetic to his work, lended to the CDM a former tramway depot at basically nominal fee. In this depot, Restany organized a workshop dedicated to the production of mechanical pieces necessary for the CDM armored car, most notably pieces needed for the turret race. Finding adequate industrial machines was the hardest part of setting up this workshop. While, on the orders of Mollard, local branches of the CDM were to provide machines to Restany’s operations, some did not follow the orders, while others did it very reluctantly. The Roanne workshop, also known as ARL, provided very old machinery which had not been put to use in a long time. Restany reported that within what they provided was a shaper dated from 1867. Not all workshops provided such a lackluster aid though. Restany praised the Manufacture Arme de Tulles (MAT/ Tulle Arms Factory), a major pre-war firearms producer which produced some of the most complicated pieces for Restany’s operation, and also provided some raw materials, allegedly taken from stocks used to produce 25 mm SA 34 anti-tank guns for Romania, an order imposed by Germany to the factory. To complete those very deliveries of machines and pieces, Restany also purchased machinery from private industry. The Sarlat workshop began operations on 15th January 1942. Orders for mechanical pieces that could not be identified as of military use were also placed with civilian manufacturers, which were in no way informed of the actual use of the pieces they were producing. A bureau was also installed in La Canéda, a rural suburb of Sarlat.
Armor: 670 tonnes of improvisation
A key part of Restany’s operation was finding the armor plates necessary for the production of the hulls and turrets. The CDM armored car used plates of four different thicknesses: 5, 10, 15, and 20 mm. Restany wanted this armor to be military-standard steel, made under the same conditions, and with the same quality as the armor of French military vehicles produced before the armistice. Finding enough armor for 225 armored cars while avoiding discovery was a complicated process, in which Restany and the CDM had to acquire steel from a variety of different providers.
Three different steelworks provided steel for the CDM: Saint-Etienne, Saint-Chamond (also known as FAMH, an important artillery and tank manufacturer prior to the armistice), and Ugine. Getting those facilities back to work was a complicated affair, as the production of military-grade steel had been stopped since the armistice. The CDM had to deliver 856 tonnes of coal to the steelworks through the months of March, April, and May of 1942 in order to get them to get steel production back on track. Molded steel was provided from the steelworks of Saut-Du-Tarn. In order to get those back in operation, the CDM had to provide them with particularly hard to find chromium and nickel, an operation that was executed under the management of Mollard.
An additional quantity of steel came from an unexpected source, the French SNCF (Société National des Chemins de Fer – National Railways Company). In possession of an armored train, the company removed its armor plates and delivered those to the CDM.
By June of 1942, 670 tonnes of military-grade steel had been moved to the storage facilities of the CDM, in the steelworks of the large city of Toulouse. More details are available on the composition of those 670 tons. There were 155 tons of 5 mm-thick plates, 297 tons of 10 mm-thick plates, 98 tons of 15 mm-thick plates, and 120 tons of 20 mm-thick plates.
Body assembly, and the armored car’s armor scheme: Vitrac and Sousceyrac workshops
The assembly of the armored car’s body was carried out at the workshop of Vitrac which was installed in a well-camouflaged cave. Another workshop was installed in the town of Sousceyrac, in Lot, where a large, unused industrial building was located. The Sousceyrac workshop was tasked with the final assembly of the armored cars, mating the hulls, chassis, and turrets together. In case this workshop would prove insufficient, another assembly workshop was created in Calviac, Dordogne, but it was to only operate as a depot unless needed. Sousceyrac’s workshop first’s work was producing external elements that were to be placed on the hull of the vehicle: wheel casings, skirts, hatches, etcetera.
The body of the vehicle had an armor scheme using 5, 10, 15, and 20 mm plates. The front of the superstructure, and driving post, used 20 mm plates. The rear used 15 and 20 mm plates. The sides of the vehicle, from the engine to the rear, used 10 mm plates. The front of the engine used 15 mm plates. The bottom of the vehicle and the mudguards used 5 mm plates. The vehicle had a crew of three, with a driver and rear driver/machine gun operator in the hull, and the commander/gunner/loader in the turret. The vehicle had three fuel tanks. While the range it had is unknown, the vehicle could move for 8 hours with the fuel it had. The vehicle’s mobility is pretty much entirely unknown. It had a width of 2.230 meters (with the rear wheels being the widest point), a height of 2.545 meters, and a length of 4.600 meters.
Turrets: Saint-Cyprien and Griffoul
Assembly of the turrets was organized in the workshop of Saint-Cyprien, where the production of Panhard 178 CDM turrets began in the autumn of 1941. Griffoul, a quarry that had been modified into a workshop and depot for the production of those Panhard 178 turrets, retained this role for the turrets of the CDM armored car.
The CDM armored car had a turret of hexagonal shape. The front of the turret was given 20 mm of armor, its sides and rear 15 mm, and its roof and turret ring 10 mm. A variety of different armaments were to be mounted on the turrets. 60 vehicles were to be armed with the 25 mm R.F (Région Fortifié), a shortened, fortification model of the 25 mm SA 34 anti-tank gun, and two 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine guns, mounted under the main gun. This configuration was inherited from the original fortification mount of the 25 mm R.F which was coupled with those two machine guns. 150 armored cars were to be armed with a heavy machine gun, which Restany refers to as a “13,6”, but most likely a Hotchkiss 13.2 mm, as well as a coaxial 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. Finally, 15 vehicles were to be armed with a “25 mm gun”, presumably a 25 mm SA 35 or SA 34, as well as a coaxial 7.5 mm machine gun. In all cases, an additional 7.5 mm machine gun would be carried within the hull, which could be fired from the hull either at the front or at the rear. Ammunition for vehicles using the first armament type was of 20 7.5 mm magazines (the MAC 31 used 150 rounds drum magazines, so 3,000 rounds) and 100 25 mm shells. The exact ammunition count of the two other types of armament is not specified in detail, but Restany notes that it is the same weight of ammunition. 7.5 mm magazines were located in axles welded in the turret, while the 25 mm shells were located within “ad hoc ammunition lockers”.
Prototype and trials
A first completed vehicle was ready by October of 1942, the assembly having been done in the workshop of Saint-Cyprien (though it was to be conducted at Sousceyrac for future vehicles). This prototype was identical to the serial standard expected with the CDM armored car and had a full weapon complement (it used the 25 mm R.F & double 7.5 mm MAC 31 configuration). The vehicle moved on its own power from Saint-Cyprien to the park of the Marquay Castle, 20 km from the workshop, where the trials were to be conducted. The convoy from the workshop to the park, which included not only the armored car but several other vehicles transporting personnel and prepared to potentially repair or tow the armored car if it broke down, moved in the night of 16th to 17th October. The local gendarmerie based in Sarlat, which collaborated with Restany, assured the path taken by the convoy was barred from other vehicles and safe.
Trials were performed in the park on 17th October. Restany reported that the vehicle drove well in mediocre pathways and cross-country, and was “infinitely more flexible and maneuverable than the original GMC truck”. The crew was satisfied with the vehicle’s handling, with the driver having very satisfactory vision, and decent internal comfort and space. While some minor issues that could be fixed were found, Restany was very satisfied with the trials and decided the vehicle was ready to be presented to Mollard. The prototype returned from Marquay to Saint-Cyprien on the night of 17th to 18th October. At an unspecified date later in October, it was presented to Mollard in Marquay. The Colonel had no objection to the design, and the vehicle was then moved again to Saint-Cyprien. It was then supposed to be moved to Sousceyrac, to serve as a model for the assembly of the following 224 vehicles.
State of Production by the end of October 1942
At the end of October of 1942, with the trials producing satisfactory results, the production of the CDM armored car was about to enter full swing. A considerable number of parts had already been completed. By that point, all the chassis had long been converted to the required length and been subjected to the required modifications. 15 entire armored bodies were ready. Internal structures for 150 armored vehicles, 100 armored shutters for the radiator, 200 turret races, and 250 doors were complete. As for turrets, 65 had been completed and armed. 15 more were assembled and in the process of being armed. Restany’s operation was going smoothly, with the assembly of completed vehicles in the near future starting to be a realistic consideration. Restany, his team and Mollard had successfully set up an extensive, secretive armored vehicle manufacturing structure, away from the eyes of both the collaborative higher authorities of the Vichy Regime and the German armistice commission. Sadly for them, though, their project would not bear its fruit, due to geopolitical events far beyond their reach.
November of 1942: Self-sabotage
A first worrying event came on 29th October, when the German armistice commission from Toulouse made a visit to Sarlat. Thankfully for Restany, he had been informed of this visit about a week prior. All the machinery of the Sarlat workshop was urgently evacuated to two newly created workshops, about 30 km from there. The Saint-Cyprien workshop was displaced from a building to the nearby woods. A warehouse in Sarlat, the bureau in La Canéda and the Vitrac and Griffoul workshops were closed. The local commander of the gendarmerie, Captain Rouchaud, who had organized the escort of the prototype a few days earlier, led the commission into a tobacco warehouse that had been recently constructed, opposite to the CDM workshop. Restany’s operation remained undiscovered by the Germans, but he feared they may have a lead.
In the following days, while the transport of all the equipment and machinery that had been evacuated back into the workshops was taking place, extremely worrying rumors of a German invasion of the Free Zone, the unoccupied part of France Restany’s operation was located in, started spreading. On high alert, Restany prepared for the worst according to the recommendations of the CDM in case of an occupation of the Free Zone. On 8th November, British and American forces landed in French North Africa, arguably the most important French colony, and one which had remained loyal to the Vichy regime. Restany ordered the hulls that had been produced to be placed in wooden crates and prepared to be buried if needed. All the hulls had been placed in the crates by the 10th of November.
By the evening of 10th November, Restany received the confirmation that the worst he was fearing and preparing for was coming, the Wehrmacht would come kicking in in the Free Zone on 11th November. Unwilling to destroy all of his work, and thinking his men would refuse as well, Restany prepared secret instructions which were issued to each workshop, and only to be opened after a telephone call gave the order to do so. By 4 am on 11th November, liaison personnel were delivering the envelopes around the workshops, all located in proximity to Sarlat. Restany’s orders were to preserve as much of the technical documentation and productions as possible, while at the same time keeping his personnel as safe as possible. Administrative archives were to be destroyed, but the plans were to be kept and hidden. Parts that could easily be identified as of military use were to be buried. The turrets and weapons, in particular, were to be potentially recoverable, if a situation in which this could be done appeared. The weapons were placed in creates and buried in fields and the turrets were walled in the quarry turned workshop of Griffoul. The prototype was disassembled. Meanwhile, in the whole of the Free Zone, the French Army remained in its barracks at the orders of Prime Minister Pierre Laval, and the CDM’s caches were unused. In a single day, the entire “Free” Zone of France disappeared, with the exception of the harbor of Toulon where most of Vichy’s fleet was located, and which was only occupied on 27th November, with the regime’s fleet scuttling to avoid capture.
The telephonic signal to open the envelopes was given by Restany between 9.30 am and 10 am on 11th November. At 11 am, he left Sarlat for Castres, where the operations began back in the spring of 1941, and many of the administrative functions remained. There, he got hold of the plans and met with Mollard who congratulated him for the measures he had taken to conserve the weapons.
Restany under the occupation
From Castres, Restany then moved to another town in Dordogne, Saint-Ceré, where he was to continue managing the dissimulation and destruction operations as much as possible while remaining hidden. However, in Sarlat, an extraordinary German commission was put in place, tasked with the investigation of a large armored vehicle manufacturing scheme German forces had stumbled upon when occupying the town. While residing in Saint-Ceré, Restany still regularly went to Sarlat and Castres to oversee the liquidation of the screen-company that had been set in place to hide his operations. Fearing he may easily be found out due to his regular displacements in the small town of Saint-Ceré, he left for the larger Albi in April of 1943. Restany survived until the liberation, unscathed. He kept writing to Mollard until September of 1943 when he and his son were found out and soon sent to a concentration camp.
Three former workers of the Sarlat workshop were shot in 1944, though it is not known if the reason for their execution was their participation in the armored car production scheme or other actions undertaken in the French resistance.
Despite Restany and his men’s efforts, some of the hidden material was found by German forces. On 12th December 1942, most likely following a denunciation, the exact position of the crates containing the weapons for the armored cars were found, and the crates were dug back out of the soil. Restany suspected an Alsatian worker named Beck for this denunciation, as he had allegedly been seen with German troops following the occupation of the Free Zone, despite having allegedly been enrolled in the Wehrmacht. A truck driver reported the location of the Sousceyrac workshop to German forces and was condemned to 10 years in prison at the end of the war. As a result of the denunciations, and to avoid the owners of the terrains being at risk, the locations of the Griffoul quarry where the turrets were stored, as well as the Vitrac workshops, were leaked to the Germans. Still, some elements, notably a number of armor plates, appear to have remained unfound by the Germans. Most importantly, Restany conserved the plans and shared them in his 1948 book.
The large armored car manufacturing scheme undertaken by Emile Mollard’s CDM under Joseph Restany’s lead is a particularly little known and celebrated but particularly interesting part of the French Resistance. In high secrecy, the workers and engineers operating under the lead of Restany managed not only to produce turrets to re-arm 45 Panhard 178 CDMs, but to build an entire armored car from the chassis up, while remaining away from the eyes of Vichy’s higher-ups and the German armistice commission until the occupation of France.
One could definitely argue that the CDM armored car appears to be a primitive basic design It was, without a single doubt, not up to the comparison with any medium or large-sized armored car of the late war such as the German Sd.Kfz 234/2 or a British AEC or even Daimler armored car in terms of capacities. Even some of the more advanced pre-1940 designs, such as the Panhard 178, outclassed it. Nonetheless, the scale of the underground manufacturing scheme undertaken by the CDM remains impressive when taking into account the context of its undertaking. Sadly for the CDM, the whole project had to be urgently dismantled to avoid German capture in November of 1942, and would never bear the fruits of the work, time and materials invested into it. Nowadays, this aspect of the French Resistance remains very lightly touched on and known by the general public and even many enthusiasts. Despite Mollard being sent to concentration camp, he survived, but his son, also involved in the CDM, did not. Mollard remains a little known figure, far overshadowed by military commanders of Free France that earned a reputation in the field, such as Leclerc, Juin or De Lattre.
CDM armored car Specifications
|Length||4.6 m long|
|Width||2.54 m wide|
|Height||2.23 m high|
|25 mm R.F gun & two 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun + a MAC 31 in storage|
|13.2 mm Hotchkiss & a 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun + a MAC 31 in storage|
|Armor||10 mm on the hull sides and turret top
20 mm at the superstructure and turret front
15 mm at the radiator and turret sides & rear
5 mm on the bottom and mudguards
15-20 mm at the rear.
|Total production||1 completed prototype, 15 completed armored bodies, 65 completed and armed & 15 completed but unarmed turrets, parts for various numbers of vehicles.|
Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, Charles-Laveuzelle & Cie editions, 1948
Char-français.net (photos only)