Vichy France (1941-1942)
Armored Car – 45 Turrets Built For Pre-Existing Hulls
With the defeat of France by Germany in the spring of 1940, an armistice was signed between the two countries on 22nd June 1940, going into effect three days later. Some of the most important clauses of the treaty were the occupation of France’s northern half and all of the Atlantic coast by Germany, and the establishment of a “free zone” administered entirely by French authorities in the South. The French army was limited to a mere 100,000 men, with no armor outside of 64 Panhard 178 armored cars which had to have their 25 mm SA 35 main guns replaced with 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine guns.
In June and July of 1940, the Third Republic’s democratic government was replaced through a series of votes in parliament by an authoritarian one led by WW1-hero Philippe Pétain. He and his government enacted collaboration policies in the following months. Despite this, the army of this armistice government, which came to be referred to as the “Vichy Regime”, was far from entirely collaborative. Indeed, the vast majority of the remaining army’s soldiers and particularly officers were veterans of the campaign of France, and many did not accept the occupation of France. While stockpiling of weapons that had been evacuated into Southern France, away from the eyes of the Armistice Commission, started as early as June 1940, it started to take a more elaborate form the next month, as the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel/Camouflage of Equipment) was founded under the direction of colonel Emile Mollard. A secret organization within the army, unknown by a large part of its higher-ups, let alone the German armistice commission, the CDM focused on creating weapons caches for a variety of equipment – mostly firearms and other infantry equipment, but even some armored vehicles. Notably, 45 Panhard 178 hulls which had been evacuated without turrets during the 1940 retreat were secretly kept around by several cavalry regiments. The idea behind the CDM was that, in case of a German invasion of the free territory, enough weapons could be provided to extend Vichy’s army to 300,000 men, which would then delay the German invasion until reinforcements from overseas (both the colonial empire where the CDM also organized caches and the occidental Allies) could arrive and stabilize a front in Southern France.
The CDM’s stockpiling effort quickly took a large scale in 1940 and 1941; French historian and resistance veteran Henri Amouroux reported 65,000 rifles, 9,500 machine guns, 200 mortars, fifty-five 75 mm mle 1897 guns and a variety of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns had been stockpiled during the winter of 1940-1941. American historian and Vichy specialist Robert Paxton estimates the amount of secretly stockpiled equipment to be equivalent to 80% of the weapons officially used by the armistice army. By November of 1942, 1,520 people were involved in the organization.
By the spring of 1941, as most weapons that could be stockpiled had already been found, the CDM began to expand its service beyond the mere stockpiling and hiding of already existing equipment. In April of 1941, Mollard met with engineer Joseph Restany in the headquarters of the 16th division of the CDM, in Montpellier. Restany had been the lead engineer behind Renault’s tank design bureau prior to the collapse of the French Army in 1940. He had notably designed and produced, in record time, a turret for the Panhard 178 armored car that mounted a 47 mm SA 35 gun instead of the 25 mm SA 35. The time between the start of the work on the turret’s design and a produced example being mounted on a hull was less than a week. Mollard requested that Restany take the lead of an industrial project to manufacture 45 turrets to match the 45 turretless Panhard 178 armored car hulls that had been evacuated in 1940. These new turrets could be armed with a variety of armaments, with the CDM having at its disposal some 47 mm SA 35 and 25 mm guns as well as 13.2 and 7.5 mm machine guns. Restany promptly accepted the offer and adopted the pseudonym of J-J Ramon to lead this highly secretive project.
Designing the CDM Turret
It was decided that the production of the CDM turrets would be concentrated around the town of Castres-sur-Agout, in a fairly rural part of South-Western France. Several reasons motivated this choice: despite being fairly rural, the area comprised a number of mechanical workshops; and the town of Castres itself included an artillery park led by a colonel aligned with Mollard, as well as the presence of the 3rd Dragons regiment, a cavalry unit which possessed some of the un-turreted Panhard 178s, which would considerably ease the testing process for the turrets.
Restany designed the turrets himself in his hotel room of the Grand-Hôtel de Castres. While he originally intended to find an industrial designer to create the turret, it proved impossible to find one in Castres. As for the plans of the Renault turret which Restany had produced in June of 1940, those had been lost, and he reported that even if they had been available, this design required pieces that would have been too difficult to produce for the industrial capacity available around Castres.
The turret which was designed by Restany had a shape very similar to the one produced in 1940, being very clearly inspired by this previous example. The turret had what Restany describes as a “pseudo-pyramidal” shape. The turret’s front, sides, and rear were given 20 mm of armor, while the top and turret ring were 10 mm. The front of the turret was quite considerably changed in comparison to the 1940 vehicle, with the gun going through a more complex superstructure, and ditching the original mantlet that was the same as the S35 and Char B1 Bis. This turret used a turret race that was quite different from the ones manufactured in normal conditions. The internally dented race found on the turrets originally used for the Panhard 178, most notably the APX 3, was far too complex for the remote workshops around Castres, and turning the turret was accomplished in a much more rudimentary fashion. It was rotated by hand, and once the orientation was found, the turret was kept in the desired direction via a rack and pinion piece that was “blocked on the fixed circle”, blocking the turret in place. As for vision, when moving, the top hatch could be opened for the gunner to stick his head out of the turret. When fighting, vision slots could be used for observation. The turrets were painted in the French artillery gray color. In comparison to the 1940 turret which only featured a basic top hatch, the CDM turrets had both a rear-door and a better-designed top hatch. The CDM turret housed two crew members, in addition to the two others located within the vehicle’s hull.
The turret was designed by Restany to accept both the 47 mm SA 35 and a 25 mm gun, though whether those were the shortened 25 mm SA 35 meant for armored vehicles or the original and more common 25 mm SA 34 is unknown. The 47 mm gun was more potent than the 25 mm; it penetrated 40 mm at 30° and 400 m, whereas the 25 mm SA 34 penetrated 30 mm at the same angle but at 500 m. Furthermore, the 47 mm SA 35 did have an explosive shell, which the 25 mm lacked.
A manufacturing process which was as discreet and secretive as possible, so as not to be found out by the Armistice commission, was set up to produce the CDM turrets.
Before work began on the production of actual turrets, a wooden mockup was produced towards late May 1941 in a workshop of a Castres industrialist, Henri Delmas, which also took the orders for mechanical pieces that would be needed to manufacture the turrets. It is through Delmas that subcontractors would be hired to manufacture the various elements of the turrets, which would reduce the interaction of Restany with third parties and the risk of the whole scheme being found out.
Delmas lended a workshop in the town of Mazamet, near Castres, which belonged to a society he managed to Restany and the CDM. This workshop was used both as a warehouse for deliveries of armor plates and turret races, and to manufacture some races.
The manufacture of turret races is what appears to have been the hardest hassle to overcome for Restany and his personnel. Those were fairly complicated pieces of engineering, and the workshops around Castres usually only had fairly rudimentary industrial machinery. Therefore, despite the limited number of turret races needed, production took place in a number of different workshops, including the one in Mazamet, and some in Saut-du-Tarn and Saint-Juéry. The ball bearings were manufactured way further east, around the industrial center of Saint-Etienne, and then delivered to the area around Castres. The welding electrodes were brought from Toulouse, to the west of Castres. The armor plates necessary for the turret were sneaked out of the Saint-Chamond steelmaking plant, way to the north-east, despite the heavy surveillance those were under. The cutting of those armored plates took place in the Mazamet workshop, while the production of mechanical, foundry and forge parts was assured by Delmas and his sub-contractors in Castres. The assembly of the turrets was assured at first in a workshop in Saint-Cyprien, on the Mediterannean coast and near the Spanish border. However, it was replaced mid-production by a workshop installed in an abandoned mine in Griffoul. All the transport that was needed for this extensive manufacturing process was assured by the large truck fleet the CDM had set up previously.
The first turret was assembled at Saint-Cyprien on 1st October 1941. It was vastly satisfactory, requiring a single change in the subsequent turrets, the application of a fixed shield to seal the potential gaps between the gun and the turret. Nine turrets were then assembled each month, with the last of the 45 being finished on 28th January 1942.
The turrets in Vichy’s Army
Once the turrets were manufactured, they were delivered to the various units that possessed turretless Panhard 178 hulls. Those deliveries were conducted using a workshop truck similar to those used by the French Army prior to 1940. Some minor problems arose during those deliveries. In an annoyed tone, Restany reported in his account of the production of the CDM turrets that the hulls in Châteauroux had been “tweaked” by “amateurs”, without extending on what this meant outside of noting it caused difficulties to the team that had to mount the turrets. Interestingly, he notes that at Montauban, near Toulouse, the hulls on which the turrets had to be mounted featured a smaller turret ring, which required remaking the top of those hulls to then mount the turret. While Restany did not mention why those turrets had a smaller ring, if he even knew, it has been theorized those may be hulls intended for colonial use: eight Panhard 178 modified to mount a smaller APX 5 turret were ordered in August of 1939, but only four are known to have received the turret and have been sent to Indochina. It is possible the four others may still have lacked their turrets when they were evacuated in the spring of 1940.
In his account, Restany mentions the cities of Auch, Clermont-Ferrand, Châteauroux, Limoges (where he reports the hulls had be hidden so well they were hard to access – following up by saying this was not a criticism at all), Lyon, Marseilles, Montauban and Castres. Castres, despite being the center of the manufacturing scheme, is actually where the delivery ended up being the most risky. Restany reports that a truck that transported two turrets, while stopped, had six cars pull up aside it, those being none other than the German control commission of Toulouse on a tour of the area. He reported that the Germans chatted with the CDM personnel, but did not inspect the innocent-looking truck, much to the relief of the delivery personnel.
The regiments which received the CDM turrets were the 2nd Dragons in Auch, the 3rd Dragons in Castres, the 8th Cuirassiers in Châteauroux, the 8th Dragons (operating in Issoire, but the turretless hulls onto which the turrets were mounted were in Clermont-Ferrand), the 6th Cuirassiers in Limoges, the 11th Cuirassiers in Lyon, the 7th Chasseurs (operating in Nîmes but with the hulls in Marseille) and the 3rd Hussards in Montauban.
The Machine Gun Refit
While the turrets produced under Restany’s management were functional, the only armament they featured was either a 25 mm or a 47 mm gun. While an anti-aircraft mount for two machine-guns was designed, and one was produced and tested on a turret, it did not reach production, being deemed too complicated. However, CDM command made a request to Restany that the turrets should be fitted with a 7.5 mm machine gun, this request being done once the turrets were already mounted. This was not a complicated modification according to Restany, but it required teams to be sent to each location where the armored cars were stored to perform it. The modification consisted in making a small opening in the turrets, left of the main gun. Through this opening, a FM 24/29 light machine-gun was inserted. Restany reported this modification took less than an hour per turret. The FM 24/29 is quite an interesting choice for a coaxial machine gun. It was a weapon quite similar in design and capacities to the British Bren, though it predates it. One may have imagined the standard tank machine gun, the MAC 31, should have been used instead. While firing the same 7.5 mm cartridge as the FM 24/29, the MAC 31 had a higher rate of fire (750 rounds per minute instead of 450) and larger magazines (150 rounds instead of 25). However, it is likely the CDM did not have many, if any MAC 31. The ubiquitous FM 24/29, found in the vast majority of French units in 1940, was in comparison a common sight in the service’s caches. The refit of the turrets to mount machine guns is known to have been completed by early November of 1942, just before the German occupation of the Free Zone beginning on November 11th.
Some CDM turrets did not receive the same machinegun opening as the one described by Restany though. While he does not mention it, three photos show turrets (whether this was a single or several different turrets is not known) which had the machine gun in a quite large boxy superstructure to the right of the gun, an element which most likely required far more extensive work. Coincidently, the only known photos of 25 mm-armed turrets are those photos, while all 47mm-armed turrets feature the machine gun going through an opening to the left of the gun, as described by Restany. It has been theorized that the boxy superstructure may in fact have been found on all 25 mm-armed vehicles, though this cannot be proven.
Other Projects of Restany
As the manufacturing of the CDM turrets was finished by January of 1942, Restany continued to use the industrial network he had constructed for other re-armament projects. 64 Panhard 178 retaining the APX 3 turret were officially in service of the Vichy army, but those had been deprived of their original 25 mm SA 35 gun, replaced by a mere MAC 31 machine gun. To prevent those being re-armed with 25 mm guns, the Armistice Commission confiscated the mantlets. The CDM requested the manufacture of new ones from Restany, who got to work on a simplified mantlet which would both look less suspicious to avoid detection and simpler for manufacturing in the modest facilities he operated in. 92 mantlets were to be manufactured. Despite difficulties encountered, about half were manufactured by the end of activities in November of 1942.
A far more ambitious work was the production of 225 armored cars, based on the chassis of G.M.C trucks that were in the possession of the CDM. This very ambitious project began in 1941 and took most of Restany’s attention in 1942, as it involved producing not just turrets, but basically an entirely new armored car. By November of 1942, a prototype had been completed, and parts for the 224 vehicles that would have followed were being produced, with, notably, 65 completed armed turrets and 15 more being armed by November of 1942.
On the 11th of November 1942, following the invasion of French North Africa by Allied forces beginning two days prior, the Germany Army moved in to occupy the free part of France. The military was ordered to stay in its barracks by the collaborationist government led by Pierre Laval. In the following days, as Vichy’s military was dissolved, German troops found a number of the vehicles that had received CDM turrets. How many came into their hands is unknown, as it is rumored some units threw their turrets into ponds before they were found. Even more elusively, some may have remained hidden all the way until the large-scale resistance uprisings of August of 1944, when they would have been found by the Resistance. No photographic evidence backing up any of these claims exist.
In any case, Panhard 178 CDMs are known to have been put to use by German security troops. Several photos show the vehicles used by the Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000, a reconnaissance group of the 189. Reserve Infanterie-Division. A single company, designated as Panzer Späh Kompanie, is known to have used Panhard armored cars. One vehicle has been clearly identified, the “Jaguar”, 3rd vehicle of the 1st platoon of Sicherungs-Regiment 1000’s 14th company (the Panzer Späh Kompagnie), whilst another German Panhard 178 CDM is known to have had the name of “Hagen”. Another vehicle appears to have been modified with radio equipment. The eventual fate of the German Panhard 178 CDM armored cars is unknown.
After the end of the war, a Panhard 178 CDM was found in Tours in 1948. It had taken a major hit to the front, though whether this was from being used on a firing range or from combat is unknown. A turret was reported by French historian Pascal Danjou to be awaiting restoration in the reserves of the Saumur tank museum back in 2009.
The Panhard 178 CDM is a particularly interesting vehicle, as it is one of the most extensive armament projects undertaken under the Vichy regime. This was done away from the eyes not only of the German armistice commission, but also of the military and political higher-ups which, far more collaborative than most of the Army, would not have allowed such a breach of the armistice. While Restany started an even more extensive project, the manufacture of armored cars on GMC truck chassis, only the turret-manufacturing project reached completion by the point all work had to be interrupted because of German occupation.
Looking at the bigger picture, the CDM ended up being an important weapons supplier to the resistance in 1943 and 1944, with the weapon caches that were not found by German troops being used to arm numerous resistance units. This was not without consequences. Most notably, Colonel Emile Mollard and his son, Lieutenant Roger Mollard, were found by the Gestapo and deported to Germany in September of 1943. While Emile survived the war and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur as well as the rank of Brigadier-General, his son Roger did not survive the war. Despite the CDM’s considerable role in arming the resistance as well as the large armament project undertaken by Restany, it remains one of the more obscure and little-known aspects of the French resistance, far from the glory of the Liberation of Paris for example.
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Profile of the German Panhard 178 CDM “Jaguar”, Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000. 3rd vehicle, 1st platoon, 14th company. Illustration produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet
Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, Charles-Lavauzelle et compagnie editions, 1948
GBM (Histoire de Guerre, Blindés et Matériel) N°86, January-February-March 2009, pp 22-31
armedconflicts.com (only for specified photos)