Prior to the start of the Second World War, the Polish state was surrounded by two hostile countries, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Fearing a possible attack at some point, the Poles tried to create a strong armed force supported by armored units. They managed to produce some tank and tankette designs, but the Poles simply lacked the production capabilities to supply all their units. The rapid need for more armor forced them to try to acquire more tanks in France. While the Polish were interested in the more modern Somua S35, the French instead offered the Renault R35 tank. As this offer was better than nothing, the Polish delegation ordered 100 R35 tanks. Due to the outbreak of the war, less than 50 actually arrived in Poland. Those that had arrived just before the war were used to reinforce the 21st Tank Battalion.
The collapse of the Central Powers after their defeats during the First World War and that of the Russian Empire after the Revolutions meant that more and more peoples in Europe finally got their own independent state. Poland was one such nation that had been part of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia for centuries. In the general chaos that arose in Eastern Europe after the collapse of these monarchies, Poland’s existence was almost immediately threatened by foreign forces. In 1919, Poland would be invaded by the Bolsheviks in the Russo-Polish War that lasted up to 1920. During this period, Poland also had a war with the Ukrainian proto-states (November 1918 – July 1919), border clashes with the newly formed Czechoslovakia (January 1919) and Lithuania (1919-1920), involvement in the Latvian War of Independence (1919-1920), and some involvement in the Silesian Uprisings in Polish speaking parts of Germany.
Poland managed to survive this turbulent period in European history and, following the end of these wars, a period of relative peace came. The following years were not easy for Poland, as it did not have good relationships with its neighboring countries. The long years of the war left Poland’s economy in a poor state, with a limited industrial capacity. In addition, during the twenties, Poland also faced political instability, which would eventually lead to a military coup. Fearing the possibility of yet another war with its neighbors, Poland began to invest in developing its army, especially its armored formations.
Despite its undeveloped industry, Paland managed to locally build armored vehicles in some numbers. The most common were the small two-man TK-3 and its improved TKS cousin. As these were only armed with a machine gun (a few TKS were armed with a 2 cm cannon), their combat effectiveness left much to be desired. The Polish Army wanted something with greater tactical flexibility and better firepower. In the mid-1930s, a new vehicle would be introduced to service, namely the 7TP. This was a fairly modern tank by pre-war standards, being armed with a 37 mm gun. The problem was that Poland could never produce them fast enough and in sufficient numbers to arm all its armored units.
Expecting possible war with Germany, the Polish sent a delegation to France in the summer of 1939 in the hope of acquiring more tanks. There were better solutions than this, as it would introduce one or more tank types, requiring additional spare parts and ammunition and cause logistical problems. But, given the impending danger of war with Germany, more weapons were desperately needed. Following the negotiations with France, the Poles showed a desire to buy the more modern Somua S35 tank. France did not want to sell their new tanks, so a deal was made for the acquisition of 100 R35 tanks. In addition, three H35s were also purchased to be used for testing and evaluation.
The R35 Tank
The Renault R35 was a French light tank developed during the early 1930s to replace the aging FT tank. While the French Army tested other heavier designs (Renault D1 and D2), a simpler and cheaper vehicle was deemed more desirable. Work on this tank began in 1933 at the French Army’s request for a new light tank design. Renault was quick to respond and presented its prototype to the French Army which, after a series of modifications (among which was increasing the armor to 40 mm and improving the running gear), placed an order for over 1,600 tanks. While the R35 was well protected with 40 mm-thick cast armor, it was plagued with problems, such as weak firepower (it had the same 37 mm gun as the FT), just two crew members, a lack of radio, and slow speed. During its service life, a number of further modifications and tests were carried out in order to improve its firepower and mobility, all with limited success. It was the most numerous French tank during the German invasion of 1940. After the defeat of France, the Germans captured many R35 tanks and put them in use in various roles, either unchanged or modified for specific purposes, such as ammunition carriers or anti-tank vehicles. The R35 was also exported to Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.
The delivery was scheduled to be done by ships in two convoys. In July 1939, the first group of tanks arrived in Poland. The precise numbers of this first group vary depending on the sources used.
- D. Porter (Western Allied Tanks 1939-1945) mentions a number of 53
- K. Barbarski (Polish Armor 1939-1945) 50
- J. Prenatt (Polish Armor of The Blitzkrieg) 49 (including three H35)
- http://derela.pl website cites 45 tanks.
Regardless of the precise number, these were allocated to the 21st Batalion czołgów lekkich (Eng. Light Tank Battalion). This battalion was divided into three 13-vehicle strong companies. Each company was further divided into four platoons and a command squad. The platoons were provided with three R35 tanks. The company command unit was only equipped with one tank. In addition, there was a maintenance reserve company with 6 tanks. The combat strength of this battalion was 45 tanks and 475 men. It also included various auxiliary support vehicles (some of them French trucks, which possibly arrived with the shipment of tanks) necessary for providing supplies and spare parts, including at least 4 C7P tractors.
The tanks arrived just a month before the German invasion in September 1939. This meant that the crews had only a limited amount of time to familiarize themselves with their new tanks. The unit was far from fully formed, lacking many support vehicles and other materials. The second convoy left France in mid-September 1939 but was too late to reach Poland in time and had to turn back.
During the War
The R35, while generally considered an outdated design given its slow speed and low mobility, was still capable of fighting the German pre-war tank designs which were often poorly protected and armed. At the start of the war, the 21st Battalion was positioned close to the Romanian border. The Germans launched their attack on 1st September 1939. Despite Polish tenacious resistance, the Germans managed to break through the defensive lines, advancing toward the capital, Warsaw, encircling and destroying any opposing force.
The 21st Battalion was mobilized to support the 10th Cavalry Brigade. However, due to a breakdown of communications and transportation, this did not occur. The Soviet attack from the east crushed any Polish hope for holding on until the Allies attacked Germany from the west. Seeing that there was little hope in fighting on, the Poles tried to save their forces by escaping to neutral neighboring countries. The 21st Battalion crossed into Romania. It is not completely clear if these tanks ever saw combat action during the retreat. According to J. Prenatt (Polish Armor of The Blitzkrieg), the Polish left a small rearguard to defend their retreat. This force consisted of three R35 and the three H35s. They managed to repel a German attack and were even reported to have destroyed a Panzer II. The Soviets tried their luck too but were also repelled. Allegedly, one R35 was destroyed after being hit by a Soviet SU-1-12 self-propelled gun. The remaining tanks were eventually lost either destroyed by their crews or due to mechanical breakdowns.
The Derela website, which covers the use of Polish armored vehicles in great detail, mentions that these vehicles were not used in combat. Between 23 to 34 (depending on the source) of these tanks with their crews managed to escape to Romania, where they were interned and then added to the Romanian fleet of R35 tanks. Three more reached Hungary. Those three were initially given to the Hungarian 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and used for crew training. Interestingly, one vehicle survived up to the end of the war and was captured by the Soviets during their conquest of Budapest in 1945. The fate of the remaining tanks is not clear but they were most likely lost during the retreat.
The R35 Once Again in Polish Hands
Following their defeat in the war with the Germans, many from the Polish Army managed to escape to neighboring countries. Slowly, they started moving to the west in the hope of joining the Western Allies. As the war raged on, the Polish embassy and the French government signed a treaty on 9th September 1939. According to it, the Western Allies would provide weapons and equipment needed to form Polish infantry and armored units in France. The 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions were such units created using Polish volunteers and were supplied with R35 and R40 tanks. Unfortunately for the Poles, the equipping and training took time and these units were not yet fully formed by late May 1940. Given the rapid German advance and collapse of the frontlines, these battalions were rushed to the front in the hope of providing some rearguard protection for the retreating Allied forces. The 1st Tank Battalion, equipped with R35 tanks, offered stiff resistance while battling German tanks and infantry and even managed to make some counterattacks. By 18th June 1940, nearly all equipment was lost either in combat or due to breakdowns. After that, the units were split into smaller groups in the hope of reaching ports still controlled by the Allies and escaping to the United Kingdom.
The 2nd Tank Battalion had been initially equipped with R35 tanks, but these were given back to the French. A few days later, these were replaced with improved R40 tanks. Given the general chaos, they saw some action but the rapid collapse of French resistance forced the Poles to abandon their tanks and the crews mostly managed to evacuate to the United Kingdom.
While possessing a weak armament, the R35 was arguably one of the best-armored vehicles in the Polish arsenal. In 1939, it had superior armor to all German tanks, which were at this point only protected by 14.5 mm of armor (excluding the captured Czechoslovak tanks). Its weaker gun was capable of penetrating this armor while being immune to most German tank calibers. The two-man crew and the slow speed meant that they were at a huge disadvantage. The lack of crew training was another factor that would diminish the R35’s combat effectiveness. All in all, given their late arrival, they eventually saw little combat and most would manage to escape Poland to neighboring countries, where the vehicles were interned.
Renault R35 in Polish Service Specifications
|Dimensions||4.02 x 1.87 x 2.13 m|
|Total weight, battle ready||10.6 tonnes|
|Crew||2 (commander/gunner, driver)|
|Propulsion||Renault V-4 gasoline 48 hp, p/w ratio 8.0 hp/t|
|Maximum range||130 km|
|Armament||Main: 37 mm L/21 SA18
Secondary: Châtellerault or Reibel MAC31 7.5 mm (0.29 in) machine gun
|Maximum armor||43 mm|
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