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WW2 French Prototypes

Panhard 178 with Renault 47 mm Gun-Armed Turret

France – 1940
Armored Car – 1 Prototype Built

In 1931, the French Cavalry formulated a request for an AMD (Automitrailleuse de Découverte / ‘Discovery’ armored car), an armored vehicle meant to perform reconnaissance while having enough combat capacities to be able to engage enemy units. This was in opposition to the AMR (Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance / Reconnaissance Armored Car), smaller vehicles with more limited combat capacities. Panhard, the leading French armored car producer at the time, designed the Voiture Spéciale 178, more often simply known as Panhard 178, to answer this request. The vehicle was adopted by the French cavalry as the AMD 35 in 1934. Formal orders were placed in January of 1935, production beginning in 1936, and the first operational vehicles delivered in February of 1937.

A Panhard 178 in service with the 6th GRDI, a reconnaissance group, during a parade, late 1930s; this may have been either in Compiègne (where the unit was formed), or in either Vitry-le-François or Bar-le-Duc, in the Ardennes, where the unit was deployed in 1939. Source: char-français

The Panhard 178 was an 8-tonne armored car powered by a 4-cylinder 105 hp engine and able to reach a maximum speed of 72 km/h. One of its most interesting features, which separated it from the vast majority of other French armored vehicles, was its two-crew APX 3 turret, which allowed the commander to concentrate on his tactical and spotting missions, leaving the operation of the gun to the gunner/loader. This was a major improvement in comparison to the one-crew turrets which featured on the vast majority of French tanks, where the commander also had to reload and operate the vehicle’s armament.

This APX 3 turret featured a 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun as well as a coaxial MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun, with 150 25 mm and 3,750 7.5 mm rounds. This armament was fairly capable for an armored car, being, for example, generally sufficient to deal with early Panzer III and IV models fielded in the campaign for France, as well as the earlier Panzer I and II, with a penetration of 40 mm of vertical armor at 500 m, and 30 mm at 30° at the same distance. This gun was significantly better than the 37 mm SA 18 found on many tanks and armored cars, but the 47 mm SA 35 gun found on Somua S35 and B1 Bis tanks offered better armor-piercing capacities, as well as explosive shells which the 25 mm lacked.

The Panhard and the SA 35

Outfitting the Panhard 178 with the 47 mm SA 35 gun was considered before the campaign for France actually began. In a letter from January 1939, the French Army General Staff and the Direction of the Cavalry stated that mounting the 47 mm SA 35 gun on the Panhard armored car was a possibility, at the very least for the vehicles destined for service in North Africa. However, the same letter reported that Panhard 178 armored cars would only be outfitted with the 47 mm SA 35 gun if the production of the latter was sufficient to equip tanks being produced with the gun (the S35 and B1 Bis) and to refit the older B1 and D2 that were temporarily armed with the short-barrel 47 mm SA 34. The letter ends with the General Staff requesting the acceleration of the production of 47 mm SA 35 guns “as much as possible” from the Direction of Armament Manufacturing.

Despite the General Staff urging for more 47 mm guns to be produced in order to outfit the Panhard 178 with them as early as January of 1939, there had been little to no advance in this field by May of 1940. It is known that arming the already used APX 3 turret with the 47 mm gun was considered instead of designing a new turret. However, it was still uncertain whether the APX 3 turret could practically be modified to mount a 47 mm SA 35.

The invasion of the Low Countries and France, beginning on the 10th of May 1940, led to the Panhard 178 being fielded in large numbers against German armored vehicles, where some issues with the 25 mm SA 35 arose. While sufficient against most German-made tanks, the gun notably struggled at range, particularly against what accounts from French tankers refer to as “Škoda tanks”, most likely describing both the Škoda Panzer 35(t) and CKD Panzer 38(t). Furthermore, the gun lacked any high-explosive shell and was not automatic, making it of very little use against infantry.

At the same time, a significant problem arose in the production of the Panhard 178, hulls were being manufactured at a significantly faster rate than APX 3 turrets. While not particularly a problem during the Phoney War, as hulls could be stored while waiting for a turret, in a context where the survival of the French state was now in question, finding military use for these unarmed hulls became a priority. It is in this context that a French officer, Squadron Chief d’Astorg, who commanded the 1st RAM (Régiment d’automitrailleuses / Armored Car Regiment) of the 1st DLC (Division Légère de Cavalerie – Light Cavalry Division), unable to receive APX 3 turrets for the Panhard 178 hulls he received, requested the Renault tank design office to come up with a way to arm Panhard 178 hulls with a 47 mm SA 35 gun behind a mere gun shield instead of a fully rotating turret. This request was most likely made on 31st May 1940.

Design of the Renault Turret

Renault’s design bureau, led by engineer Joseph Restany, managed to design an entire turret within three days. The production of a prototype of this turret began immediately, with a turret being mounted on a hull on the 5th of June 1940, and went on firing trials that proved successful the next day.

Unsurprisingly enough for a turret that had been designed and then manufactured in less than a week, the design Restany and his team came up with was fairly rudimentary, particularly in comparison with the original APX 3 turret. The Renault turret was entirely welded, with a simple shape. The frontal plate, one of the distinctive elements of the design, was sloped quite considerably. It was made from two different plates, the first was 13 mm thick followed by a 25 mm one, giving a thickness of 38 mm not accounting for the slope, something which was quite respectable even for medium tanks by 1940 standards. The sides and rear of the turret were 25 mm thick. The main armament was an SA 35 47 mm gun. This gun fired 47×193 mm rimmed shells. Its standard anti-tank shell was an armor-piercing capped (APC) shell, the Obus de rupture modèle 1935, fired at a velocity of 660 m/s. According to German tests, it could penetrate 40 mm of armor at an angle of 30° and a range of 400 m. Additionally, the gun could also fire a high-explosive (HE) shell with a muzzle velocity of 590 m/s and 142 grams of explosives.

Like the APX 3 turret, the Renault one could accommodate two crew members. However, as expected because of its short design circle, it was fairly primitive. The top hatch through which the crew accessed the vehicle was reported to be “more of a lid”, and despite the rear of the turret being quite spacious, there was no rear door. Vision on the sides was provided by simple, fairly large round holes which could be closed by a rotating cover. The turret did not feature electrical traverse and therefore had to be rotated by hand.

The first prototype was not kept for experimental purposes, as is usually the case, but instead delivered to the d’Astorg’s 1st RAM as early as 6th June 1940. Accomodations for production of more examples with a slightly revised turret to offer better conditions for the crew as well as mounting a FM 24/29 machine gun in the hull began. Renault stated it could produce four turrets a day on 11th June 1940. However, the next day, the French industrial giant’s main factories of Billancourt, west of Paris, were evacuated to secondary facilities further south. This put any potential production into disarray. By the time an official order for forty turrets came on 13th June 1940, Renault was not able to fulfill it, and the single produced turret remained unique.

A photo of the 47 mm-armed Panhard 178 where it was scuttled. The top hatch of the turret is opened, and the round view port is closed. Source: Collection Pascal Danjou
Another view of the 47 mm-armed Panhard, with the turret pointed at a different angle and the side view port opened. This photo was most likely taken at a later point than the first, as suggested by the tires being removed. Source: Collection J. Beauval

Service in the 1st RAM

The hull outfitted with the Renault turret was delivered to the 1st RAM. This regiment was part of the 1st DLC, which had been engaged in the battle of the Meuse. Its men were evacuated from the vast encirclement performed by the Wehrmacht in Northern France and the Low Countries, while their heavy equipment had to be abandoned. The unit was reformed into a DLM (Division Légère Mécanique – Light Mechanized Division, in practice quite similar to a German Light Division). It was as a part of this new 4th DLM that the 1st RAM continued to fight in the campaign of France. Thanks to d’Astorg, we know about one particular skirmish in which the 47 mm-armed Panhard played a pivotal role, on 15th June 1940. Near a bridge on the river Yonne at Etigny, about 100 km south-east of Paris, a patrol led by this vehicle engaged a German motorized column including 15 vehicles escorted by two “heavy tanks” (a term which, in French testimonies from the campaign of France, generally designates a Panzer IV and occasionally a Panzer 38(t)). The Panhard 178 was able to knock out the two tanks with three 47 mm shells, allowing the patrol led by Sous-Lieutenant (sub-lieutenant) Bouhier to then knock out the rest of the German column. D’Astorg also reported that the armored car’s turret resisted multiple hits, though he does not specify whether those were hits from anti-tank weapons or merely firearms.

The 47 mm-armed Panhard met an unfortunate end shortly after this skirmish. On the morning of 17th June, the 1st RAM was attempting to cross the largest French river, the Loire, in order to defend its southern banks, where the French High Command hoped a defensive line could be formed. By the point the regiment arrived in the town of Châtillon-sur-Loire, where it was supposed to cross, the bridge had already been blown up to prevent German crossings, with all bridges south from there being unusable. Left with no other option, the unit scuttled the vast majority of its equipment in order to prevent its capture, including the 47 mm-armed Panhard. All photos we have of the vehicle show it scuttled near the railway bridge of Châtillon-sur-Loire, including some in which German soldiers pose in front of the vehicle. The fate of the vehicle beyond this point is unknown, though it is very likely it ended up scrapped.

German soldiers examining the 47 mm-armed Panhard. This photo is particularly interesting, as it shows the Panhard with its tires, in a different location, and with its inside seemingly ripped out from the door. Source: char-français

Another photo of the vehicle’s inspection by German troops. A seat is visible in the foreground, as well as the ammunition storage inside the vehicle. Source: char-français.

The Future of 47 mm Gun-Armed Panhard Armored Cars

While only a single example of this particular 47 mm-armed Panhard turret was produced, the Panhard and the 47 mm SA 35 would be mated two different times in the future. During the German occupation of France, Joseph Restany, the engineer who had designed this first 47 mm turret, was recruited by a secret organisation within the army of the Vichy regime, the CDM (Camouflage du Matériel – Material Camouflage). His job was to lead the design and production of turrets accepting both 47 mm and 25 mm guns in order to outfit them on turretless hulls which had been evacuated to Southern France and remained stored away from the eyes of the Armistice Commission. The design of those turrets would be directly based on the first model designed by Restany in 1940, though being both more advanced thanks to a longer development time, and in some others more rudimentary due to the lack of materials and the high secrecy of the project. 45 of those CDM turrets were manufactured in 1942 and installed on a variety of Panhard 178 hulls, some which would be captured by German troops during the occupation of Southern France in November of 1942 and then issued to security units operating within France.

Panhard 178 CDM in service with the German Sicherungs-Aufklärung-Abteilung 1000, a reconnaissance group of the 189. Reserve Infanterie-Division, France, 1944. All vehicles in the photo are armed with 47 mm SA 35, but it should be noted that around half of the Panhard 178 CDM received 25 mm SA 34 guns instead. Source: Christophe Grégoire collection

After the end of the occupation of France, production of yet another 47 mm SA 35 Panhard began in 1945. This new model was designated Panhard 178B, and featured the gun in a quite large, cylindrical turret, the FL1. Unlike the Renault and CDM models, which were just mounted on pre-existing hulls, new, upgraded hulls were produced alongside those new turrets. 414 of these armored cars would be produced and would be in service during the late 1940s and the 1950s. They were used for securing the French colonial empire in its last decade. In this way, despite being a single prototype rushed in June of 1940, the 47 mm-armed Panhard would have a quite significant legacy.

A Panhard 178B, the vastly modernized, 47 mm-armed model of the Panhard 178 manufactured in the late 40s for colonial service. Source: char-français

Conclusion

The 47 mm-armed Panhard 178 designed by Renault’s design office and operated by the 1st RAM is a quite peculiar vehicle when it comes to France’s armored production. One of the various improvised vehicles which appeared during the collapse of France in the spring of 1940, it is notable because, despite being a prototype, it was used operationally, and in the only instance where it is known to have fought, performed brilliantly.

The combination of the 47 mm SA 35 gun and the Panhard 178 hull is indeed one which appears full of potential. The 47 mm weapon was quite effective against tanks by 1940 and the two-crew turret featured on the Panhard 178 meant it could be operated more effectively than in one-crew turret tanks such as the S35 and B1 Bis. While the armor of the vehicle, outside perhaps of the turret’s front, left much to be desired, as on most armored cars, it retained a great mobility. While the turret manufactured by Renault in 1940 was very much experimental, the concept of a 47 mm SA 35-armed Panhard was indeed full of potential, and had even been theorized earlier. But the fall of France would prevent it from reaching its full potential and being mass-produced in a mature form, though the CDM turrets manufactured in secrecy and based on the Renault turret were one of the most extensive armament projects undertaken in Vichy France.



Illustration for the Panhard 178 outfitted with the 47 mm gun-armed Renault turret produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Sources

Une entreprise clandestine sous l’occupation Allemande, Joseph Restany, Charles-Lavauzelle & Cie editions, 1948
GBM (Histoire de Guerre, Blindés et Matériel) N°86, January-February-March 2009, pp 22-31
char-français.net (1) (2)


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