Introduction: The First Production “Super Heavy” Tank
The debut of the tank, followed by a series of failures, but eventual success, occured during World War 1. As the tank proved its worth on the battlefield, the French military called for the start of a series of projects to build massive tanks that could conquer the treacherous terrain that previous designs had struggled with. The FCM Char 2C was the result of these requirements. It is, to date, the dimensionally largest tank ever put into production (albeit limited), with a length of 10.27 meters, a width of 3 meters, and a height of 4.10 meters. For a time, it was also the heaviest, at 69 tonnes. The 2C’s role was to be that of a massive breakthrough tank for France. It was envisioned the 2C would plow through no-man’s land and cross the massive trenches of the Western Front, penetrating deep into German territory. The Char 2C arguably inspired many design choices featured on other heavy and super heavy tank designs of the interwar period, having multiple turrets and machine gun mounts, albeit fielding comparatively mediocre armor by World War 2 standards. No production tank would approach the 2C’s weight record until the production of the German Tiger II in 1944 (and, debatably, the Maus).
The Inception of the “Char de Rupture”
The French, witnessing the impact of the British “rhomboid” tanks in 1916, envisioned an ultimate breakthrough tank for a final Entente offensive that had been planned for March 1919, sometimes referred to as the “Hindenburg Line assault”. This “char de rupture” was pioneered by two generals in the French Army: General Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne, proponent of the Schneider CA1 and later the small and relatively nimble FT tank, and General Léon Augustin Jean Marie Mourret, backer of the heavily armed but cumbersome Saint-Chamond. Although they had been at odds with their competing tank projects, they would eventually come together to work on the FCM 1A prototype. Previous French tanks, such as the aforementioned Schneider CA1 and the Saint-Chamond, struggled in rough terrain, especially when it came to crossing trenches. Both the CA1 and Saint-Chamond had long hulls, which significantly protruded past their tracks. Unlike the British ‘rhomboid’ tanks, the tracks did not run around the entirety of the hull either. These design choices translated into a tank that could not adequately traverse a battlefield. The negative aspects of these design choices can be seen at the Battle of Flanders in 1918, where only eight out of thirty Saint-Chamond tanks were able to make it to battle over a span of five days, with a number of tanks experiencing mechanical failures or being unable to traverse the terrain.
Estienne envisioned a heavier tank that was not as limited as the CA1 or Saint-Chamond. In February 1917, he proposed that one heavy tank should complement three to four light tanks in every unit. It was also necessary to design a tank that could successfully navigate the terrain in which previous designs had failed, as the failures of the Saint-Chamond and CA1 had caused some in the French leadership to dismiss the tank concept. The result of this request was the Forges de Chantier de Méditerranée (FCM) 1A. At the time, FCM was known primarily for its shipbuilding capabilities. The 1A project was commissioned in October 1916, but would see quite a few delays, mostly attributed to Renault, which was tasked with providing the drivetrain. The 1A was put on trial in December 1917, months later than originally planned. During trials, the 1A proved that its design allowed it to conquer difficult terrain. The trials were filmed, showing the 1A climbing steep slopes, conquering deep ditches, and crossing wide trenches. Despite the success of the prototype in trials, the 1A never went into production, partly due to the experience FCM had learned from creating and testing the 1A led it to propose a multitude of more modern and battle-ready designs. The largest of these designs would be accepted for production, the 2C, which would be ready for production by February 1918.
Design – A Would-Be Battlefield Behemoth
The armor protection on the 2C would have been some of the best if not the best on any tank of World War 1. With most of the British ‘rhomboid’ tanks’ armor being 12 mm thick, barely enough to stop machine-gun fire, the Char 2C’s protection far outclassed them. The 2C had 45 mm of frontal armor, 22 mm of side armor, 35 mm of frontal turret armor, 22 mm of rear turret armor, 13 mm of roof armor, and 10 mm of belly armor. With such an armor layout, the 2C would have been impenetrable to almost all sources of small arms and heavy machine gun fire. Armor was riveted, as was common for the era. The relatively thick frontal armor especially would have been a match for the anti-tank rifles of World War 1, such as the Mauser T-Gewehr.
The Char 2C had a massive crew of up to thirteen, although some sources state a crew of twelve was the standard. A driver, four machine gunners, a loader, a main gunner, a mechanic, an electrician and an electrician’s/mechanic’s assistant were located throughout the tank. The placement of the crewmen was quite revolutionary for the time. The main turret of the Char 2C was the first three man turret in history. The separation of roles in the turret allowed for smoother and faster operations. The loader, gunner and commander were positioned in the main turret. The mechanic, electrician, and their assistant were present in the tank to service the drivetrain and electrical systems should any problems arise while in action, which would prove a common occurrence. The crew could enter and exit the tank via multiple rectangular access hatches located on the sides of the vehicle. Initially, the crew likely relayed information by old-fashioned visual and verbal communication as well as physical contact, but later they could contact each other via wireless sets, which were provided in the mid-1920s. Contacting other tanks and infantry was likely done through non-wireless means, as was infamously standard practice for the French military at the time. It should be noted that variations of the 2C may have had a different crew complement and layout. For example, the 2C bis lacked the three frontal machine gun mounts. It seems as though every 2C had a few differences in their manufacture, as some tanks are pictured without having side mount machine guns, some lack their road wheel covers, and the upper hull and exhaust system differs from tank to tank.
Interior and Exterior Features
One of the original propositions General Estienne had for the 2C was that it should be able to cross a trench of at least 4 meters in width. To really ensure the 2C could cross the widest of trenches, it could also be fitted with a long trench-crossing tail, making its overall length even longer. The longest recorded trench crossing by the 2C was 4.5 meters. Unique “stroboscopic” cupolas were located atop the turrets, which provided good visibility while also offering adequate protection against small arms fire. The cupolas had many vertical slits cut into an exterior section, rectangular ports were housed in the interior section. The exterior section would rotate at 300 rpm, giving the viewer adequate visibility and protection through the use of this optical trick. The cupolas could also be opened if needed. Unlike other World War 1 era tanks, the 2C was compartmentalized but connected, that is to say, different sections of the tank were self-contained and the crew had a degree of freedom to move throughout the vehicle if needed. The 2C was divided into two fighting compartments, roughly divided by the front and rear turrets. They were connected by what could be described as a hallway that ran through the engine room. This was a massive improvement over the earlier tank designs of the war, which lacked any separation between the crew, the engine, and other major components.
The 2C was initially powered by two Mercedes diesel engines taken from the Germans as war reparations. The Mercedes engines reportedly were rated for 180 to 200 horsepower, depending on the source. These were later upgraded to 250 horsepower Maybach units, also taken as reparations. These engines were water-cooled V12 diesels. The engines were originally built for use in German zeppelins and other aircraft. The engines were located in the middle of the tank, with power being delivered to the drive sprocket via an electric motor at the rear. Each engine worked independently, with one diesel-electric drive for each of the tracks. The engine powered an electric generator which in turn sent power to the electric drive motor. As time went on, the engines were found to be unreliable, with breakdowns occurring on multiple occasions, and the electric system prone to failure. Some of the tanks, such as Champagne and Touraine, were eventually given French-built Sautter-Harlé inline 6 cylinder units. The top speed was reported to be 12 km/h. The engines, among other large components, could be removed through the side access hatches of the tank. The engines themselves were both placed in the vehicle’s midship section and were somewhat accessible to the onboard mechanic.
Suspension and Tracks
The Char 2C’s suspension consisted of 24 double roller wheels spread across six bogies. The bogies were held up by a leaf spring-style suspension. Like the 1A, the tracks ran across the entire length of the hull, protruding from the front and back, so as to aid in trench crossing. This was to ensure the elimination of the glaring issues in crossing trenches that previous French tank designs had. The tracks were also quite wide at 60 cm, so as to disperse the massive weight of the tank. This resulted in a ground pressure of 0.6 kg/cm2. The track assembly consisted of 67 links per side.
The standard 2Cs were armed with a 75 mm main gun, the Canon de 75 modèle 1897, also referred to as the APX 1897 (APX stands for Atelier de Construction de Puteaux or “Puteaux Construction Workshops”) . This was an effective and prolific gun that was used as a field cannon during both World War 1 and World War 2 and would be used in other vehicles, built under license, such as the M3 GMC half-track, where it proved effective against enemy armor. The APX 1897 was innovative for its time due to its quick-firing nature – it utilized a hydropneumatic reloading mechanism in tandem with a Nordfelt eccentric screw breech. This setup allowed for a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The 75 mm gun was housed in the main turret. The tank had a stowage of 124 shells. For its application in the 2C, the 75 mm cannon required modifications. Most notably, it was shortened. The modification was done by the Puteaux workshop. Gun depression and elevation were -20 degrees to +20 degrees, respectively. The gun was equipped with a 2.5x magnification scope, with a graduation of up to 2,000 meters. The APX 1897 had access to High Explosive (HE), High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT), Armor Piercing High Explosive (APHE), and Shrapnel shells. The HEAT rounds were developed for the cannon during the interwar period, as France studied the anti-tank effectiveness of the APX 1897.
The 2C also had four 8 mm Hotchkiss Mle 1914 machine guns. Three machine guns were located in ball mounts towards the front of the tank, one in the front of the hull, and one on either side of the tank in a recessed area. The front and side machine gun emplacements had approximately 60 and 90 degrees of travel, respectively. The last machine gun was located in a turret at the rear of the tank. Neither turret could rotate a full 360 degrees. The main turret was limited to 320 degrees of rotation due to the raised nature of the hull, and the rear machine gun turret was limited further to 260 degrees of rotation. The 2C could hold up to 124 75 mm shells, and 9,504 8x50R Lebel rounds were provided for the machine guns.
A Fantastic Tank for a Bygone Era
The Char 2C would have likely been extremely effective on the hellscape that was no-man’s land. As proven with the 1A, the 2C would have traversed shell holes, mud, and trenches with ease due to its length. With its adapted 75 mm field gun, it would have been able to deal with enemy infantry, fortifications, and if necessary, enemy armor. The plethora of machine guns, while seemingly excessive, would have made sure no adversaries got close enough to the tank to deal serious damage. Even the fact that the tank had any form of suspension was an improvement compared to the unsprung British ‘rhomboid’ and Whippet tanks. The aforementioned compartmentalization, crew layout, and terrain conquering capabilities of the 2C culminated into what would have been a nigh-unstoppable World War 1 behemoth. The 2C had all the right traits to excel on a World War 1 battlefield, but there was one problem, World War 1 was over.
Makings of a White Elephant
The tanks would not be delivered until 1921, years late for their intended role as a breakthrough tank. The initial order for 300 by March 1919 had since been lowered to 100, and then again to only 10 units. The 10 built were named after ancient regions of France. Their designations were: No. 1 Provence, No. 2 Picardie, No. 3 Alsace, No. 4 Bretagne, No. 5 Touraine, No. 6 Anjou, No. 7 Normandie, No. 8 Berry, No. 9 Champagne, and No. 10 Poitou. They would be re-numbered 90 to 99 in 1939. French leadership realized that the effectiveness of the 2C would likely be very situational in future conflicts, as well as the fact that tank (and anti-tank) technology had already been developing and would rapidly expand over the next decade alone. The tank’s handling characteristics were also an issue. While the immense length of the tank made for effective trench crossing, the drawback was that the vehicle was hard to turn and had a wide turning radius, a trait carried over from the 1A. Furthermore, transporting the massive vehicle proved to be a timely and tedious operation. Special two-piece railcars were developed for transportation of the 2C. Loading a 2C onto one of these railcars could allegedly take up to four hours. The process also involved the use of no less than four 35-tonne hydraulic jacks and robust dunnage. One positive of this system was that the tanks did not need to be disassembled in any capacity to be transported. The 2C’s were gradually moved on to a propaganda role, with films of them destroying old structures, knocking down trees, and crossing bodies of water being created to instill in the public a sense that the 2C was an “indestructible super tank” of sorts.
Despite the story these awe-inspiring propaganda films attempted to sell, the 2C’s aforementioned issues did not disappear. In fact, new reliability issues began to manifest. The Maybach engines used to power a majority of the tanks proved to be unreliable. A number of tanks experienced catastrophic engine failures during operations and testing. On top of this, the intricate and extensive wiring that was required to power the diesel-electric drive, stroboscopic cupolas, and turret traverse systems began to fail with age. The deteriorating drivetrain and electrical components would lead to constant breakdowns and lengthy repair sessions, some of which would prove to be at critically important moments.
Upgrades, People. Upgrades.
The 2C may have been rapidly becoming obsolete, but the French military still used them not only as tools of propaganda but as test beds for different armor types and armaments. The first of these was a modification to Champagne in 1923, in which the three-ball mounted machine gun positions were removed, and the main turret was replaced with a cast unit, containing a new 155 mm short-barreled howitzer, likely a modified variant of the 155 c Mle1917 Schneider howitzer. This new howitzer certainly was designed to shoot high explosive shells, and massive shells at that, weighing 43.61 kg or 100 lbs. Additionally, during World War 1, the 155 mm gun had access to poison gas and smoke rounds. Two Sautter-Harlé engines replaced the old units. They were 6-cylinder engines that produced 250 horsepower each. The commander was also given his own enclosed position behind the turret complete with its own stroboscopic cupola. This variant was designated the Char 2C bis. Champagne would be returned to its original state in 1939, and its unique turret was sent to the Bir Soltane area of southern Tunisia, to be placed in the ground as a fortification within the Mareth Line, along with the standard turrets of Bretagne and Anjou.
From their entry into service in 1921 until 1927, all 2Cs received a series of small refits, including refinements to the suspension as well as the addition of inter-crew communication equipment, such as wireless sets. Further minimal changes would be instituted on the tanks until 1932 when newer tank projects diverted resources and the attention of the military.
Another upgrade attempt was done to Lorraine in 1939. Lorraine was up-armored, with the front armor being increased to 90 mm and the side armor to 65 mm. Other modifications included adding a “double-roof” to the superstructure for extra aerial protection, and an exhaust grille for ventilation fans. The double-roof also allegedly added an additional 50 mm of armor to the roof. This up-armoring arguably made it a much more effective tank by World War 2 standards. The up-armoring of Lorraine would remain permanent. With this upgrade, the Lorraine would be renamed Normandie, and designated as the command tank of its battalion. It is estimated that the additional armor brought the weight of Normandie up to 75 tonnes. The up-armoring process was done by the factory of Homecourt, and following the upgrades done to Normandie, the director of Homecourt informed the French military that the factory could create the armor needed to similarly upgrade six more tanks. The armor and associated installation kit would have been sent to the 51e BCL to be installed by the battalion. The estimated maximum credit needed to perform the upgrades was quoted at 1 million francs. The suggested proposal did not occur, as the Normandie was to be the only 2C to receive this update.
(Don’t) Send in the 2Cs! The Battle of France
With the declaration of war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, the Char 2Cs would finally have a reason to be mobilized for their intended use, 18 years after their completion. Plans had involved using the 2Cs as intended, breaking through the German lines in the event that the Polish managed to hold off the German invasion. Poland, however, did not hold out against the onslaught of Germany and the USSR, and thus, the French offensive never occurred. This resulted in no 2C ever seeing active combat during World War 2. At this point, only eight of the 2Cs were still in operational order. All 2Cs had also been organized into their own unit in July 1939, the 51e BCL (Bataillon de Chars Lourds), or the 51st Heavy Tank Battalion in English. When the German invasion of France occurred in June 1940, the French high command kept the 2Cs away from the front lines for a number of reasons. Firstly, their role was to be an assault tank, not a defensive tank. Although the 75 mm main armament would be effective, the armor on all 2Cs except Normandie was comparatively subpar to most other tanks of the period. Had the 2Cs been thrust into battle, they would have been large, lumbering targets for anti-tank weapons and outmaneuvered by Germany’s Panzer II, III and IV tanks. Secondly, the 2Cs at this point were deemed much more valuable as propaganda tools and as morale boosters. As the Germans rapidly gained ground, six of the 2C’s were loaded onto their railcars and sent south with the hopes of reaching Dijon. Two more of the 2Cs were in a state of disrepair and were scuttled to prevent German capture.
For a majority of the landslips, the June 1940 ride south was to be their final voyage. When their train had to stop near the Meuse-sur-Meuse station due to a German attack causing a blockage up ahead with a burning fuel train, the crews of the six 2Cs realized they would not have time to continue on with the tanks. On June 15th, 1940 the crews rigged explosives to the tanks to prevent German capture and left. One tank, No. 99 Champagne, failed to have its charge detonate, and two additional 2Cs were not catastrophically damaged. These three tanks would be captured and taken back to Germany as war trophies. Photos of No. 99 Champagne show the statement “Erbeutet Pz.Rg. 10” meaning “captured panzer regiment 10” painted on its side. Some sources report that Champagne was taken from Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945 by the Red Army, but its final fate today is unknown. There is speculation as to whether Champagne is still in Russian possession, with some theorizing that the French government would demand the return of the historic vehicle if it was discovered to still exist. Some sources claim there are photos of the tank in East Germany as late as 1948, however, it is also entirely possible that the tank was scrapped.
Old Habits Die Hard
The massive dimensions and multi-turreted layout of the Char 2C would become a staple of early interwar tank development. It could be argued that the 2C was a trend setter for tanks like the A1E1 Independent, which in turn influenced other designs, such as the T-35A and the Neubaufahrzeug. With hindsight, it is apparent that a majority of the massive multi-turreted tank designs were either ineffective, inefficient, or dead-end designs. It is no coincidence that the other multi-turreted “land battleships” of the interwar period were also relegated for propaganda purposes. While the records it set for its sheer size and weight are awe inspiring even today, unfortunately, the fighting effectiveness of the 2C by World War 2 was far from adequate. In almost every way, the 2C was an outdated behemoth by 1940. The Char 2C would have been a formidable tank for World War 1, and even for the early interwar period, it was an impressive feat of engineering. It must be noted that for the time it was designed, it featured many innovative concepts that became trends in future tank design. However, World War 2 would prove to be a much more mobile conflict, and with it came a need for smaller and more maneuverable tanks. While the French Army fielded the newer Char B1 and B1 bis, which were far more successful, it clearly did not let go of the idea behind super heavy tanks. Several images and blueprints exist of mock-ups for planned super heavy tracked vehicles, such as the ARL Tracteur C and the FCM F1. These projects would not even be near completion of the prototype stage before the fall of France. Had they been completed, they would likely have been a drain of resources and manpower, much like the multitude of incomplete German super-heavy designs of late World War 2.
The Char 3C; Not What You Would Think
The designation “Char 3C” has been the subject of much debate, misinformation, and rumination (relatively). However, most sources and historians agree that the term “3C” is partly a label, partly a misidentification given to the 2C bis. The Germans reportedly misidentified and also created “on paper” some vehicles that the French never had – for instance, the German report on “Heavy Tank D”; a monstrous tank that allegedly crewed 15 men and had four cannons. This vehicle simply did not exist. Similarities between the exaggerated report of “Heavy Tank D”, and the “3C” are clear. Major-General Heinz Guderian reported that the 3C was similar to the 2C except that the rear turret housed a 155 mm cannon. There are no French reports of such a tank existing, and no photos of said vehicle seem to have surfaced. There are even German wartime documents clearly showcasing the 2C, labeled as the 3C. It is fair to assume that the 3C was either a misidentification of the 2C bis with its 155 mm howitzer, or simply a product of misinformation and anxiety from the Germans.
The fate of the Char 2Cs
Char FCM 2C specifications
|10.27 x 3 x 4.10 m (33.69 x 9.84 x 13.45 ft)
Char 2C Lorraine/Normandie: 75 tonnes
|Two Maybach Diesel 12-cyl, 250 hp (186.5 kW)
Char 2C bis: Two Sautter-Harlé Diesel 6-cyl 250 hp (186.5 kW)
|12 km/h (7.5 mph)
|Horizontal leaf springs
|Range – fuel
|150 km (95 mi) – 1260 l
|75 mm gun (2.95 in)
Char 2C bis: 155 mm howitzer (6.10 in)
|4 x Hotchkiss 8x50mmR Lebel machine guns
|6 – 45 mm (0.24-1.8 in) max, side 22 mm (0.87in)
Char 2C Lorraine/Normandie: front 90 mm (3.54 in), side 65 mm (2.56 in)
SAMA. “Char 2C : un char de rupture pour 1919.” La Société des Amis du Musée de l’Armée, 2020, https://www.amismuseearmee.fr/en-marge-de/965-2020-char-2c-un-char-de-rupture-pour-1919#:~:text=Le%20char%20FCM%202C%20%3A%20son,prototypes%20plus%20ou%20moins%20prometteurs. Accessed 28 January 2021.
Global Security. “Char 3C / FCM 3C / “Heavy Tank D.”” Global Security, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/history/fcm-3c.htm#:~:text=This%20appeared%20in%20reference%20books,tanks%20heavier%20than%2092%20tons. Accessed 1 February 2021.
Mayet, Jean, and Musee des Blindes. le CHAR 2 C. Musee des Blindes.
Vauvillier, Francois. “Char FCM 2C, Le Conquerant Inutile.” Guerre, Blindes & Materiel, no. 130, 2019
Bingham, James. French Infantry Tanks: Part I (Chars 2C D and B.). AFV Weapons Profiles, 1973.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “75mm French Artillery Shell.” The Price of Freedom, The Smithsonian, https://amhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=37&back=1. Accessed 4 April 2021.
Special thanks to
Marcos Serra – permission to use images of 2C and 2C bis from his website.
Professor Bobby Wintermute of Queens College
Dr. Paula Smith
Ms. Andréa Grebinger
The extremely helpful TE staff who provided me with a plethora of sources and constructive comments.