The Hotchkiss H39 was an improvement over the previous H35 model, a light infantry tank created for the French 1933 infantry tank program. However, the H35 was rejected by the infantry and ended up being adopted by the French cavalry. The newer H39 model brought a more powerful engine and, from about the 480th tank produced onward, a newer, more potent 37 mm SA 38 main gun was installed. Used widely by the French army in 1940, and then in a secondary role by the German Wehrmacht, a number of H39s were recaptured by the French upon the liberation of the country in 1944. In comparison to other pre-1940 vehicles, the Hotchkiss light tank would see a more extended post-war service, being used by French occupation forces in Germany, in the earliest phases of the Indochina war and exported to the state of Israel upon its creation in 1948.
The region of the British Mandate for Palestine was a major area of conflict during the decolonization of the Levant and the Middle East. Populated both by Arab Muslims and a Jewish population that was rising in number following the conclusion of the Second World War, the future of the area was violently disputed between these two sides. The United Nations’ partition plan (Resolution 181) was not being accepted by the Palestinian population nor by the neighboring Arab states.
On 14th May 1948, the State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion, head of the internationally recognized Jewish Agency which defended the interest of Jews in Palestine. The next day, the Arab-Israeli war began as troops from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, and Iraq entered the claimed territory of the new Israeli state. Israel relied, at this point, on the Haganah, a paramilitary organization that had been founded in 1921 and was often criticized for being nearly terrorist in its nature; with the independence of Israel, this Haganah morphed into a form of militia that defended the new state. Israel had to scramble and search for military equipment on an international market that was mostly hostile to arm this mostly poorly equipped Haganah. Some Israeli agents had been sent to search for surplus equipment to purchase in France, and by the end of May 1948, had managed to acquire a variety of equipment; mostly field artillery pieces of various caliber, but also ten Hotchkiss H39 light tanks, which were brought back to the nascent State of Israel in early June. This was in spite of a military embargo that had been placed on 29th May along with a truce declared by the United Nations that had no effect. The tanks had reportedly been acquired for a price of US$41,000 (US$450,000 in 2020 values) each, and all ammunition included with them was High-Explosive (HE). Unloading the H39s outside of the eyes of the UN and British forces still present was difficult; the port of Haifa was still partly run by the British, whereas no dock featuring a crane able to pick up the vehicles existed in Tel-Aviv. The cargo ship carrying the tanks, camouflaged as another ship to conceal the fact that it may be laden with weapons, was finally unloaded by another ship that featured a crane, after its captain had been bribed, and told he was to unload agricultural machinery. He had to be bribed a second time to continue unloading the ship upon discovery that the vehicles were in fact not agricultural, but combat tanks. Some sources describe the tanks as H35s instead of H39s, however, all photos of Hotchkiss tanks in Israel show H39s, which can be easily differentiated by their raised engine deck. All appear to have had the SA 38 gun. Interestingly enough, some vehicles featured a German-style commander cupola similar to that found on the Panzer II, indicating some vehicles had been operated by German forces and at some point refitted to suit their needs, before falling back into French hands and then being sold to Israel. It should be noted a source mentions that the H39 came from Yugoslavia, and not France, though the French hypothesis seems more believable.
Into Service with “Brigade 8” and Difficulties
The Hotchkiss H39 light tanks were, upon delivery, given to the newly created “Brigade 8” unit, a part of the Palmah, the elite component of the Haganah militia. Brigade 8 was supposed to be the first Israeli armored unit; composed of two battalions, the 81st which was supposed to be a mechanized infantry unit, operating a variety of motorized vehicles and some armored cars alongside its infantry, and the 82nd, which was to be the armored battalion. The 82nd had four mechanized companies which operated half-tracks and armored cars, and two armored companies; the first, Company Bet, operated two Cromwells and a single M4A3 tank, and the second, Company Vav, operated the ten Hotchkiss H39s. This division was actually formed more because of language than equipment; Company Bet was composed of English-speaking Western European personnel, while company Vav comprised mostly Russian-speaking Slavic personnel who had immigrated into Palestine following the devastation of the Second World War and Holocaust. Its commander, Felix Beoatus, was a veteran of the Soviet Red Army.
The tanks of Brigade 8 used a three-letter designation number found on their turret, a system similar to the one found on German tanks of the Wehrmacht; this was because this system had been chosen by Felix Beatos, a Polish Jew who only knew German tank markings. This meant that, for example, an H39 with the number 611, such as one which is preserved in Latrun today, was the 1st tank of the 1st Platoon of the 6th company (which was company Vav).
The tanks proved to be in a very poor state and hard to maintain. Those tanks had been produced from 1938 to 1940, and had often been used by both French and German armies before ending up in Israel, making them hard to maintain; not only that but parts, including engines, had to be imported from France to be able to maintain the fleet running. While each tank had been ordered with 2,000 37 mm rounds for the main guns and 15,000 7.5 mm rounds for the machine guns, all the shells delivered were high-explosive, and as the Arab armies did use armor, a solution had to be found to allow the H39 to face those potential enemies. This was done by refitting SA 38 shells with armor-piercing (AP) heads taken from stocks of American 37 mm shells. In total, some 400 rounds were converted before the end of Operation Danny (an Israeli attack to capture territory to the East of Tel Aviv, 9th to 19th July 1948). Outside of armament issue, engines too proved to be a problem as well; parts were lacking, and the cooling was vastly insufficient for the Middle-Eastern climate. This problem was so bad that only five of the original ten tanks could be made to be operational at the beginning of Operation Danny, and six in total during the war.
The Hotchkiss Tanks in the Arab-Israeli War
Brigade 8 was engaged in the Arab-Israeli war, taking part in several operations. The first major engagement of the unit was Operation Danny, in which Brigade 8 was involved in the capture of Lod, a city on the road from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem which notably had a considerable airport, where the H39s were photographed. The tanks had only been lightly engaged in this operation, however, all five operational H39s had breakdowns or other malfunctions, with one needing to stay in maintenance for a “long time”.
When they were operational, the performance of the H39’s, in particular, was underwhelming. In a following attack against Egyptian-held positions near the villages of al-Fallujah and Iraq al-Manshiyya, four H39s were damaged by mines or drove into anti-tank ditches, and had to be abandoned in front of Egyptian lines. A source mentions that seven out of twelve tanks available to Brigade 8 by that point were knocked out during this operation. Shortly after the end of this operation, the guns were removed from the H39s and fitted on some armored cars, ending the history of the light tanks as combat vehicles. Ironically, it was about this time that ten replacement engines had finally arrived from France and would have made the vehicles a lot easier to operate.
The SA 38 Gun in Other Vehicles
The SA 38 gun featured in the Hotchkiss light tanks was mounted on some armored cars after they were removed from their original carriers. SA 38 guns have been identified on a Marmon-Herrington armored car of South African origin, as well as armored cars manufactured on the chassis of GMC and White trucks and fitted with an armored body that appears to come from an M3 Scout Car or M3 half-track. Some sources mention five of these White or GMC trucks as having “37 mm guns”, though it is unknown if all of those were SA 38s. These armored cars were quite likely used by the 8th Brigade, as the 81st battalion and the first four companies of the 82nd are known to have made use of these armored cars. The fact that these guns might have remained within the same unit makes sense in the disorganized context of the first Arab-Israeli war. These armored cars, mostly makeshift vehicles, were phased out quite quickly after the end of the Arab-Israeli war.
Brigade 8 also had a “deception company”, of which the function was to confuse the enemy about the number and position of Israeli tanks. This unit placed H39 mockups on Jeeps to operate; those mock-up had some fairly regular markings, such as a number similar to what the H39s would have had in service, but also a skull and bones on the front of the mockup’s hull. Those were used to feint movement of armored vehicles near Egyptian lines.
The “Deception Company’s” jeeps disguised as H39s. Source: https://smolbattle.ru/threads/Деревянные-мaкеты-военной-теxники.55476/
Continued use of the H39s
Despite being disarmed, the H39s were not immediately sent to the scrapyard. By April of 1949, eight were mentioned to be in Brigade 8 workshop, with Company Vav (the Slavic company), having been dissolved. It appears that, at some point, at least some had a sort of dummy gun installed. This device had a long barrel ending with some form of a muzzle brake, and a square-shaped armor plate installed in place of the former mantlet. This has caused some confusion, as rumors of H39s refitted with 2-pounders have also showed up. These, however, are most likely some sort of confusion with Lebanese R35 light tanks, which used the same APX-R turret as the H39 and did receive QF 2-pounder anti-tank guns.
The H39s appear to have been retained for ceremonial and perhaps training use for some time, with a photo of one in static display as well as some being present in military reviews, including aside a much more modern Merkava main battle tank. As of today, an H39 remains in the Israeli tank museum of Latrun. It has been refitted with a 37 mm SA 38 gun, returning it to the original state it fought in during the first weeks of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.
The Hotchkiss H39 light tanks were the first tanks used by the State of Israel in numbers higher than just one or two, as was the case for Cromwells and Shermans in the first weeks of the Arab-Israeli war. These long-obsolete French light tanks, delivered to the nascent state in secrecy and unloaded chaotically, were engaged in some of the first armored battles of Israel during Operation Danny and the battle for Lod and its airport.
The vehicle’s operational service was brief, being retired from combat service after several were knocked out by Egyptian defenses in October 1948. Nonetheless, the guns of some of these H39 light tanks would go on to continue fighting until the end of the war in some armored cars. The tanks themselves were, at least in part, preserved as ceremonial vehicles, and at least one appears to survive to today as part of the tank museum of Latrun.
Chariots of the Desert: Story of the Israeli Armored Corps, David Eshel, 1989, pp 13-18
The Origin of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race, Amitzur Ilan, 1996, pp 187 & 238
bukvoed.livejournal: https://bukvoed.livejournal.com/209631.html https://bukvoed.livejournal.com/157255.html
Israeli Armour in detail (Red Special Museum Line №6), Daniel Petz, pp 2
First Signs of Armor, Amiad Brezner