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WW2 French Cavalry Tanks

SOMUA S35

ww2 French TanksFrance (1936-40) Medium tank – about 430 built

A new tank for the Cuirassiers

The famous Napoleonic Cuirassiers are still paraded as republican horse guards during official events and on the 14th of July parade. During World War One, they had their traditions shattered, when it became obvious that the cavalry was obsolete in the new kind of stalemate which prevailed on the western front. When the first tanks appeared in 1917, new tactics in conjunction with tanks proved there were still possible uses for cavalry in particular phases of an engagement.


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Since then, the French, as well as the British and Soviets, always made the distinction between three kinds of tanks, the infantry and cavalry ones, as well as the heavy breakthrough tank, “char de rupture”, like the FMC 2C. Plans for a new cavalry tank came as soon as 1931, revised on 26 June 1934. They requested a new, heavier model, capable of resisting any antitank gun of the time. The task was given to the St. Ouen Societe d’Outillage Mecanique et d’Usinage d’Artillerie (SOMUA).
At that time, the old rule banning cavalry from using tanks was removed. Cavalry tanks were until then called “Automitrailleuses” (armored cars) in French service, like the AMR 33/35. The SOMUA was in a completely different league in many aspects. It was the first cavalry vehicle properly called a tank. It was classed as a fast medium, not aimed only at reconnaissance, but also contact and engagement with advanced enemy units.

Design of the S35

The hull was cast in four parts -a world first- and the turret was cast as well. The hull and turret maximum thickness were around 47 and 40 mm (1.85/1.5 in) respectively. The turret was derived from that of the B1 heavy tank, but with an enlarged turret ring.
The medium-barrel SA35 47 mm (1.85 in) was efficient against most German and Soviet tanks of the time, using a provision of 90 AP and 28 HE shots. There was also a coaxial 7.5 mm (0.295 in) Reibel machine gun with 2250 rounds. All S35 units were scheduled to be equipped with radio, but as ER28 production never reached the required level, only one tank in five was equipped, despite the fact that many of them included an antenna. Engineer Eugene Brillé worked on the suspension, inspired by the one used on the Škoda LT vz. 35, with eight road wheels on four bogies with leaf springs and another independent roadwheel and a large torsion wheel.
The initial tracks were 75 mm (2.95 in) wide, with 144 links, later 103 with enlarged pieces. The rear engine was side by side with two self-feeding fuel tanks. The crew was protected by a thick firewall bulkhead. The V8 SOMUA engine, designed by engineer Javier-Sabin, developed about 200 bhp and used a double filling tank system which sometimes caused some problems with inexperienced crews. Overall, the S35 was regarded as the most potent medium tank of its day. It is said that the US Ordnance studied the S35 for construction aspects which later helped to design the Sherman.

Production

The preliminary design was ready in September, and the definitive plans in October, just as the construction began. The first prototype was ready in April 1935, undergoing successful trials until August. The model was named after its year of production. But the official denomination was AMC (Automitrailleuse de Combat). A preseries model AC4 was to be tested until January 1936 with the new APX1 turret, and then production was scheduled to start in March.
However, the S35 had several flaws, the first of which was a common issue among French tanks. The commander was still overloaded and the turret still lacked hatches, mostly due to budgetary reasons, which caused the same commander to sit completely outside of the turret in order to get a good view of the area. The other flaws were maintenance-related. The cast modules didn’t facilitate any access to the suspension, which was uneasy and time-consuming.
The cost per unit was high and only limited numbers of this excellent medium tank were produced. By the 1st of September, 1939, 246 had been delivered, and only 288 were in service in May 1940, but 430 were built in all by June 1940. Production was halted for the more advanced SOMUA S40. Due to French needs, a Polish order was declined.

The SOMUA S35 in action

In May 1940, the bulk of the S35 force was allocated to the 1st Amy deployed in Belgium, in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd DLM (Division Légère Mécanique). Because of the lack of support and a weak constitution compared to the German Panzerdivisions, these units performed as they could, with high losses, but with some successes, most of them being attributed to the S35’s armor and firepower.
The battle of Hannut (May 12-14), the largest tank battle of 1940, occurred between six armored divisions, a clash of nearly 1700 tanks and armored vehicles. Despite tactical victories along strongpoints, it was a strategical failure, the Germans systematically outmaneuvering the French, gaining local superior firepower, with excellent communication and support. At the same time, French “by the book” tactics proved hopelessly obsolete.
On another occasion, on May, 17, Colonel De Gaulle’s 4th DCR, comprising many S35s as well as Hotchkiss, B1 and Renault tanks, tried to stop the German advance at Laon and Montcornet. Although they gained momentum and local successes, even taking hundreds of German prisoners, the Luftwaffe and quickly deployed German Flak 88 mm (3.46 in) used as antitank batteries and crushed any further progresses. Many S35s of the remaining forces fought to prevent three German Panzerdivisions from approaching Dunkirk.
They were destroyed or ultimately abandoned, deprived of ammunition and fuel. Later in June, other S35s fought in Weygand’s so-called “strongpoints”, which were outmaneuvered once again, hammered by artillery and the Luftwaffe, and eventually forced to surrender one by one.
Captured French Army SOMUA S35 tanks used for policing duties in occupied countries
Captured French Army SOMUA S35 tanks used for ‘policing’ duties in occupied countries

After the fall of France

Perhaps a hundred remaining S35s escaped to Vichy France, and were allocated to the Vichy regime for police duties. Most were transferred to North Africa (12e régiment de Chasseurs d’Afrique). When the Allies landed in November 1942, the Free French Forces were allocated these S35 in average condition, fighting Axis forces in Tunisia.
They were ultimately replaced by M4 Shermans. Most of the S35s remaining in France were captured by the Germans, some sources mentioning about 250 to 290. They were renamed Panzerkampfwagen 35-S 739(f), and usually a new German Panzer III or IV commander cupola was fitted to the existing turrets.
In February 1941, most of these fought with the Panzerbrigade 100. Eventually, this unit was renamed 211 Panzerabteilung and sent to Finland, fighting on the Eastern Front. They were outclassed by Soviet KV-1s and T-34s. Others formed suppletive units for re-organized Panzerdivisions, for training and transport (turretless or with an open superstructure), and for police duties.
Some fought the resistance on many occasions, and some were hastily sent to Normandy in June 1944 (Panzer Ersatz Abteilung 100 and Panzer Abteilung 206). Others were sent to Yugoslavia, fighting the partisans. Many dismounted turrets were also allocated to German armored trains, which served in all European theaters. Italy was also given 32 tanks. They fought in Italy itself, acting as a reserve. In December 1944, a single German unit was still equipped with an handful of S35s. But they were hopelessly outclassed.

Sources

Trackstory n°1 from Editions du Barbotin
GBM, Histoire & Collection, about WW2 French tanks
Main article on Wikipedia
On Military Factory

SOMUA S35 specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 5.38 x 2.12 x 2.62 m (17.7 x 6.11, 8.7 in)
Total weight, battle ready 19.5 short tons (38,000 lbs)
Crew 3 (driver, commander, radio operator)
Propulsion Somua V8 petrol, 200 hp
Speed (road/off road) 40/32.2 km/h (25/20 mph)
Range (road/off road)-fuel 230/130 km (142/80 mi) -510 l
Armament 47 mm (1.85 in) SA35 gun
2x Reibel MAC31 7.5 mm (0.295 in) machine-guns
Armor From 20 to 48 mm (0.7-1.8 in)
Total production 430

Somua S35
Second Cavalry Battalion, Gen. Billotte’s First Army, Battle of Hannut, 13-15 May 1940.

Somua S35
A regular S35 during the 1937 maneuvers, with the 4th Cuirassiers, the first cavalry unit to receive SOMUAs.

S35
SOMUA of the 4th DCR (part of the 3rd Cuirassiers), during the Montcornet counterattack on 17 May 1940. It also fought at Crecy sur Seine and Laon.

S35
SOMUA of the 2nd DLM, which fought at Craonne, 14th May 1940.

S35
Panzerkampfwagen 35-S 739(f), 202nd Panzer Abteilung, Balkans, March 1944.

Gallery

s35 at saumur
s35 at us army ordnance
S35 at Bovington tanks museum
Color photo at Saumur Carousel - Credits Wikimedia commons

By David.B

Tank Encyclopedia's Creator, webmaster and illustrator since 2010.

10 replies on “SOMUA S35”

They were made of steel, not “iron.” The 88 was used as an anti-tank weapon in Poland and reclassified as a dual-purpose weapon before the invasion of France. Every side illustration in your article shows nine (9) road wheels, not eight. The “gun operator” was the commander, although the radio operator might help with loading.

Hello Tom,
Got rid of the iron.
Indeed, we were wrong about the 88 being used for the first time in the war (had been used like this since the Spanish Civil War 🙁 )
Illustrations were right, text was wrong.
Yeah, that bit about the gun operator was plain wrong.
Thank you for all your corrections. This article is really old and is now marked for rewriting.

Hello, I think the S35 was only equipped with a ER29 radio (which was badly located in the hull, and suffered from the ejection of the shell cases in the first trials). the ER28 was at the design stage and never equipped before the capitulation. Furthermore, the lacking of hatches at the roof of the APX1 SE turrets (as we can see on german panzer at the time) did not come from budgetary matters. It is a deliberate choice in french tank design ( the same choice was made for all tanks from the FT17 to the B1), because it was believed that the commander could be protected by the turret armor will sitting behind it (this information must be confirmed, but the turret rear hatch was complex and a roof one would have probably been less expensive).
Two other major flaw can be added concerning this tank, the off-road mobility of the tank was considered poor due to very low crossing capacity and excessively thin tracks, and the machine gun fire gaz evacuation was not efficient, the hatches were to be open after a hundred shot not to asphyxiate the crew…

I have just seen a photo of a Somua S35 captured from the Germans in Yugoslavia by partisans and rearmed with a british 6pdr apparently at least 2 were so done. Can you include this in your encyclopedia with an illustration thanks

Hey, what would happen if the french had the chance to mass produce these in numbers in the 1930’s?

The flippant answer would be that the Germans would have captured more and operated more of them post Fall of France, but flippant is not why we are here.
A different, but technically correct, flippant answer would be that in the context of the times, the French DID mass produce this tank in numbers. Remember this isn’t the perfect world where the Industrial Military Complex can do what they want, but the complex mid war French political system that was in a constant state of flux, often with ‘peace’ factions (for want of a better word on short notice) controlling the budget. France took heavy losses to their population in the Great War and hence spent most of the 20s fortifying their common border with Germany in what was regarded at the time as an incredibly pragmatic act.
Also expensive.
Also defensive.
Building ‘aggressive’ armoured vehicles in larger than historical numbers would have required a much different political situation and that is even before we get to the matter of the scale of the French armament industry.
Anyway, let us skip past the ‘could they’ part of the question and look at what was likely in the ‘they did’ universe.
First up the Division Légère Mécanique divisions would probably not have had Hotchkiss tanks. The H-35 wasn’t well regarded by the French and the Cavalry certainly didn’t want them. They wanted S-35 vehicles.
So if there were S-35 vehicles to go around I think we can assume the two Régiment de Combat would only been equipped with the S-35 rather than the roughly 50/50 split with Hotchkiss tanks they had historically.
So we go from 48 S-35, 47 H-35 per regiment historically to 96 or so, and with two regiments per Brigade our new DLM division has 192 or so S-35 vehicles as well as 48 armoured cars and 69 of the AMR light tanks.
Now, let us look at the natural enemy of the DLM, the German Panzer Division.
The DLMs fought in Belgium with Hannut being the big tank v tank encounter. Here the Germans had 3.Pz and 4.Pz against the French 2nd and 3rd DLM.
So what did the Germans bring to the table?
3.Pz – 117 Pz.I, 129 Pz.II, 42 Pz.III, 26 Pz.IV and 27 command tanks (Pz.I types to my understanding)
4.Pz – 135 Pz.I, 105 Pz.II, 40 Pz.III, 24 Pz.IV and 10 command tanks.
Also armoured cars but we shall ignore them just for simplicity.
Now let us assume that the S-35, Pz.III and Pz.IV can be ROUGHLY grouped together as ‘modern tanks’. We shall call them ‘good’. Then we could say that H-35 are not as good due to their weak gun, but still to be respected due to their reasonable armour. These we shall call ‘okay’. Then come Pz.II (’poor’). Then the Pz.I and AMR with their machine guns and thin armour.
So let us ignore the machine gun tanks on both sides because both nations knew they were useless in tank v tank combat. That means our historical French had in our 2 DLM v 2 Panzer Division line up we have the French using 384 or so ‘good and okay’ tanks against 132 ‘good’ and 234 ‘poor’ German tanks.
And the French lost.
So if we change to our high production universe we get 384 or so ‘good’ French tanks.
So… hard to say. I want to say the French would still lose at their problems were not something numbers were going to fix, but probably safe to say the Germans would have taken a non trivial amount of extra losses.
However the big point is that the German advance into Belgium was effectively the ‘bait’ and the Germans wanted the Anglo-French et al advancing deep into Belgium. So even if the French had won at Hannut they may not have been able to extract themselves in any meaningful way to affect the big German sweep towards the Channel coast.
In My Opinion… 😀

I think a more interesting question is what would have happened if the S-40 development was actually the S-39 and these newer and better vehicles had started to be produced 12 months earlier.

The text does actually say “8 road wheels only”, it says “eight road wheels on four bogies with leaf springs AND another independent road wheel…”. It is hard to see if this is the case due to the side skirts. A photograph of the underside of one of these museum pieces could put the matter to rest.

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