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WW2 French Light Tanks

FCM 36

ww2 French Tanks France (1936-1940)
Light Infantry Tank – 100 Built

Although relatively unknown, the FCM 36 was one of the French Army’s light tanks used during the battles of May and June 1940. Technically very advanced compared to other French vehicles of the type, it proved its effectiveness during a victorious counter-attack at Voncq in early June 1940. However, the excellent qualities of the vehicle were overshadowed by the outdated doctrine behind its usage, and its very limited presence on the frontlines.

Genesis of the August 2nd 1933 Program

The FT Tank

Development of the FT: Why Did it Appear ?

An understanding of the French tanks of the Great War is necessary to comprehend the fleet of light tanks subsequently fielded in 1940. After the Schneider CA-1 and St Chamond entered service in 1916, a smaller machine was conceived: the Renault FT. Some have argued that this small, innovative vehicle was, in many ways, the ancestor of modern tanks. Its widespread presence on the front and effectiveness granted it the nickname of ‘Char de la Victoire’ (Eng: Victory Tank).

Even if some in the higher echelons of the French military had at first doubted the effectiveness of this type of vehicle, they had to begrudgingly admit that tanks were becoming essential in modern conflicts. The FT would serve as the starting point for the majority of France’s armored vehicles up to 1940.

A Renault FT during a demonstration in March 1928 at Issy les Moulinaux (Photo: Gallica.bnf.fr)

Technical and Doctrinal Description

An important characteristic of the Renault FT was its one-man fully rotating turret. It allowed for a weapon to engage targets in all directions. There were several versions of the turret, some cast or riveted, which could be fitted with different armaments. There were FTs armed with a 8 mm model 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun, but also some armed with a 37 mm SA 18 cannon. Later, in the early 1930s, many FTs were re-armed with a more modern machine gun, the 7.5 mm Reibel MAC31.

The second major particularity of the FT was that it only had two crew members: a driver in the front of the vehicle, and a commander/gunner in the turret. This heavily contrasted with what could be found on other contemporary vehicles, which could have as many as twenty crew members.

The major advantage of the small size of the vehicle was that it led to a much simpler manufacturing process, which enabled far greater quantities of FTs to be manufactured compared to heavier vehicle types. Therefore, the vehicle could be engaged on the frontline on a massive scale. Between 1917 and 1919, 4 516 Renault FT (all variants included) were delivered. In comparison, about 1,220 Mark IV tanks were produced.

In terms of the vehicle’s arrangement, the engine block was found to the rear, encompassing both the engine and transmission. This left more space for the crew compartment to the front, where the two crew members were found. To this day, this remains the most widespread design and component distribution in tanks.

Doctrinally, the Renault FT was an infantry support tank, like all World War One tanks. It was meant to support advancing infantry across no man’s land, particularly by neutralizing the main threat which was found in enemy trenches: machine gun nests.

As the enemy was not equipped with tanks on a large scale by this point, the FT was not conceived to have anti-tank capacities. The vehicle was not designed to resist enemy cannons either. The vehicle was only designed to protect the crew from rifle-caliber projectiles and artillery splinters.

The FT in the French Army after 1918

The Renault FT was a success. Tanks were a major element in the Entente’s victory. By the end of the fighting in November 1918, France had an impressive fleet of FTs, with several thousands of vehicles in frontline service.

Without an immediate replacement, the FTs were retained within tank regiments for years. They formed the backbone of the 1920s and early 1930s French Army. By this point, there were around 3,000 Renault FTs in service. However, the old vehicles were, by this point, worn out and technologically outdated. Their main issue was insufficient armor to protect the crew from purpose-built anti-tank weapons that began to appear.

Despite this, attempts were made to improve the FTs by replacing the 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine gun with a 7.5 mm Reibel MAC 31, introducing special tracks intended for use in the snow, and the development of engineering variants. Nonetheless, a replacement was urgently needed.

It ought to be noted that, despite some replacements having been introduced, the FT was still in service by 1940. Many were deployed against German forces, even against tanks, without the means to properly engage them and with little real protection.

Photo of a Renault FT which appears to have been immobilized during the campaign of France, 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Photo of a Renault FT which appears to have been immobilized during the campaign of France, 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Characteristics of the New Tanks

The FT’s Successor

Further development of the Renault FT was studied after the end of the Great War. The first attempt was to fit a new suspension, which improved mobility. This led to the Renault NC-1 (often called NC-27), which was mainly used operationally in Japan as the Otsu Gata-Sensha.

An FT with a Kégresse suspension, which used rubber tracks, was also developed. However, it was never produced in large numbers.

Renault NC-2 during a demonstration in March 1928 at Issy les Moulinaux (Photo: Gallica.bnf.fr)

It was not until 1929, with the D1, directly derived from the NC-1, that a mass-produced vehicle that could effectively serve as a replacement for the FT first appeared. Even then, its production run of only 160 vehicles was too limited to replace the entire FT fleet.

Predicting an armaments program aiming at replacing the old FTs, Hotchkiss self-funded a study of a modern light tank. Three prototypes of this design were ordered by the Conseil Consultatif de l’Armement (Eng: Armament Consultative Council) on June 30th, 1933. Hotchkiss’ studies allowed for the definition of the characteristics for the new armament program, specified on August 2nd, 1933. This program set out the requirements for the future successor to the Renault FT.

Armament

The August 2nd, 1933 program requested a light infantry support tank. It required either a dual mount for two machine guns or a 37 mm cannon with a coaxial machine gun. Even if the program contemplated a dual machine gun configuration, the preferred option was the cannon and coaxial machine gun, as it was more versatile and powerful. The determining factor would be that it had to use already available armament with significant stocks of ammunition: the 37 mm SA 18. In fact, eventually, many cannons were directly taken from Renault FTs and fitted into the new machines.

Mobility

Being an infantry support tank, the vehicle planned by the August 2nd 1933 program was to be quite slow. It was to follow infantry troops and provide support from behind, without overtaking them.
Therefore, the vehicle was envisioned to reach a maximum speed of 15-20 km/h. Its average speed during a battle was to remain equivalent to the infantry troops it was following, 8 to 10 km/h. This restricted speed would limit the tactical mobility of these vehicles to go from one area of the battle to the other. Speed was one of the points which differentiated infantry and cavalry tanks in French service.

General Structure

According to the August 2nd, 1933 program, the new vehicle would be a highly improved copy of the Renault FT. Two crew members, one stationed in the turret, were to maneuver the vehicle. The one-man turret was quickly criticized because its intended user, which was to serve both as commander and gunner/loader of the vehicle, was vastly overtasked. In addition to operating both weapons, the commander/gunner/loader would have had to give orders to the driver, observe the outside of the tank, and sometimes even command movement to other tanks.

Although the one-man turret was highly criticized and it was apparent it severely limited a tank’s full capacities, there was a reasoning behind it. Small two-man tanks, as demonstrated by the FT, were a lot easier and cheaper to build. The smaller a tank was, the fewer the resources necessary for its construction. France was not truly self-sufficient in its steel production, which was a major issue if it wanted to field a significant fleet of tanks. Furthermore, French armament industries did not have the capacity to cast large turrets. Additionally, there was a lack of personnel. Many soldiers had perished during the Great War, and there were few men of fighting age during the interwar. To field a considerable number of tanks, keeping a two-man crew was deemed essential.

May 22nd, 1934 Modifications

The Development of Armor-Piercing Armament in the Interwar Years

Following on from the success of the tank in the later phases of the First World War, weapons designed specifically to combat them were developed. Particular attention was placed on the evolution of anti-tank armament which could easily be used by enemy infantry to stop advancing tanks, leaving enemy infantry without their support. Armor, therefore, became an essential component of French vehicles. Several senior officers, such as the French General Flavigny, had already predicted an anti-tank arms race in the early 1930s, which led to the development of the B1 Bis, an up-armored version of the B1.

In France, light 25 mm guns were introduced and offered impressive penetration. A tank’s armor no longer had to protect solely from small bullets and artillery shells splinters.

Modifications to the Armor

The August 2nd, 1933 program stipulated a maximum armor of 30 mm for the light infantry support tanks. However, the introduction of new anti-tank weapons meant that this would not offer enough protection.

On May 22nd, 1934, the program was modified to raise the maximum armor to 40 mm. This would result in an increase of the weight of the vehicle from 6 to 9 tonnes in the requirements.

The Competition and Participants

The Different Competitors

Fourteen firms took part in the competition related to the August 2nd 1933 program: Batignolles-Chatillons, APX (Ateliers de Puteaux, English: Puteaux workshops), Citroën, Delaunay-Belleville, FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerrané, English: Mediterranean Forges and Sites), Hotchkiss, Laffly, Lorraine-Dietrich, Renault, St-Nazaire-Penhoët, SERAM, SOMUA (Société d’Outillage Mécanique et d’Usinage d’Artillerie, English: Society of Mechanical Equipment and Artillery Machining), and Willème.
However, only six firms were selected to build prototypes. An order for three Hotchkiss prototypes was passed by the Consultative Armament Council in June 1933, before the program was even launched. APX, which was a workshop owned by the French state, was also considered. A prototype, the APX 6-tonnes, was completed in October 1935 and had some interesting design features, such as its diesel engine or its turret which would be improved and re-used by some other tanks of the program.

The Renault R35

With 1,540 vehicles manufactured, the Renault R35 was the most produced tank created within this program. Some were even exported. The first official evaluations on prototypes began in January 1935 and led to the final adoption of the vehicle on June 25th, 1936. Like all other vehicles of the program, some attempts to improve the R35’s mobility were studied, modifying its suspension. These included trials in 1938 with a longer suspension, trials in 1939 with a new Renault suspension, and finally the Renault R40, with its AMX suspension. The introduction of the longer 37 mm SA 38, which would be fitted to late production vehicles, improved firepower. Some specialized vehicles based on the R35 were considered, including fascine-carrying (branches coddled together to fill trenches and anti-tank ditches so the vehicle could cross over them, or to spread over soft terrain) or for mine clearing, with several hundred kits ordered but not received in time to participate in any battle.

One of the last Renault R-35 in working condition, exhibited at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum), with its new camo. (Photo: Musée des Blindés de Saumur)

The Hotchkiss H35

The Hotchkiss H35 was the second most numerous tank from the program. Its first two prototypes were not turreted, and instead used a casemate. The third prototype was fitted with the APX-R turret, also used on the Renault R35. The performances of the vehicle, notably mobility-wise, were judged insufficient, especially by the cavalry, which saw this tank forced onto them despite it not fulfilling their requirements in any way.

An improved version was developed in 1937 and adopted in late 1938 as the “char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 1939” (Eng: Model 1935 H light tank, Modified 1939), more commonly known as the Hotchkiss H39. It used a new engine, and some received the new 37 mm SA 38 gun, which allowed for sufficient anti-armor capabilities. A total of 1,100 H35 and H39 tanks were manufactured.

From Development to Adoption into Service – the FCM 36 from 1934 to 1936

First Prototypes and Tests

In March 1934, Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (Eng: Forges and Shipyards of the Mediterranean) offered a wooden mock-up of their new vehicle. The commissioners were pleased with the futuristic shapes of the mock-up. A first prototype was ordered and was received by the experimentation commission on April 2nd, 1935.

Wooden mock-up presented by FCM in March 1934. (Photo: FCM 36, Trackstory n°7, Éditions du Barbotin)

However, trials on the prototype were unsatisfactory. The vehicle had to be modified during the trials, which led to several incidents. The commission agreed to have the vehicle sent back to its factory to be modified, so the trials would go smoothly next time. The second prototype was tested from September 10th to October 23rd, 1935. It was accepted under the condition that modifications concerning the suspension and clutch were carried out.

After a second return to its factory, the prototype was presented again to the commission in December 1935. It undertook a series of tests during which it drove 1,372 km. It was then tested at the Chalon camp by the Infantry Commission. In an official document from July 9th, 1936, the evaluating commission described the FCM 36 as “equal, if not superior, to other light tanks already experimented with”. The vehicle was finally introduced into service in the French Army, and a first order for 100 vehicles took place on May 26th, 1936.

FCM offered another option in 1936, of which only photos of the wooden mock-up remain today. Compared to the FCM 36, the dimensions and firepower were greatly increased, with the addition of the 47 mm SA 35 gun. However, this project was abandoned in February 1938.

Photo of an FCM 36 prototype. Note the different turret, with Chrétien diascopes and tracks similar to those of a B1. (Photo: tankarchives.ca)

Technical Characteristics

The Berliet Ricardo Diesel Engine

The FCM 36’s diesel engine was one of the main innovations of the vehicle, even if diesel engines had already been trialed on the D2. Nonetheless, the FCM 36 was the first serially-produced French tank with a diesel engine. The first engine on the FCM 36 was a 95 hp Berliet ACRO, though, due to several breakdowns on the prototypes, it was replaced on serial production vehicles by the Berliet Ricardo, which produced 105 hp and was judged to be very reliable.

The Berliet Ricardo engine from the FCM 36 during its restoration. (Source: https://youtu.be/dqMJWTFTGM4)

There were several advantages to diesel propulsion. The most significant was higher range in comparison to gasoline. The FCM 36 had two times the range of its competitors, the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35. The FCM vehicle was the sole tank of the program able to travel 100 km and then immediately engage in combat without having to resupply. This was a certain advantage that allowed for quick repositioning without any stops to refuel. At its maximum capacity, the FCM 36 would have a range of 16 hours or 225 km.

The second advantage of a diesel engine was that it was less dangerous than a gasoline one, as it is way harder to ignite diesel. This explains why many vehicles were seized by the Germans after France’s defeat. Even if a vehicle had been pierced by shells, few were set alight. Internal fires were further limited by the use of a Tecalemit-type automatic fire extinguisher.

The Suspension

The suspension of the FCM 36 was an important part in the vehicle’s efficiency, despite some criticisms in this field. It differed from many other suspensions of vehicles of the program. Firstly, the suspension was protected by armor plates, the value of which was often doubted. Secondly, the position of the drive sprocket was to the rear.

The suspension was made of a beam with four triangular bogies with two road wheels each. In total, there were eight road wheels per side, plus an additional one not directly making contact with the ground, but placed at the front to ease the crossing of obstacles. The number of road wheels was advantageous for the tank, as it spreaded the weight, resulting in a better ground pressure distribution.

The main drawback of this suspension was the tunnel for the track return at the top. Mud had a tendency to accumulate in this tunnel despite multiple openings made to avoid this. As a result, some modifications were tested. In March 1939, FCM 36 ‘30057’, which also received improved armament, had a modified suspension with a new tunnel and gearbox. In April, another vehicle, FCM 36 ‘30080’, was modified with D1 track links, and was tested in September 1939 at Versailles with some other improvements regarding its motorization. The tests and modifications were discarded on July 6th, 1939, and both vehicles were restored to their original state and fielded for combat.

FCM 36 ‘30080’, with D1 track links. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The Hull, Turret, and Internal Arrangement

Of the tanks from the August 2nd, 1933 program, the FCM 36 probably had the most suitable internal arrangement, with crews appreciating the internal space. The lack of a front-drive sprocket, which was placed in the rear of the vehicle, alongside the rest of the drive mechanisms, resulted in the driver having far more space than in other vehicles of the program. As recorded in the testimonies of many FCM 36 drivers and mechanics, the added space helped to endure longer trips.

The FCM 36’s turret was judged superior to the APX-R turret which equipped the Renault and Hotchkiss tanks from the same program. It was more ergonomic, even if the commander had to sit on a leather strap, and offered the commander better observation capabilities, with numerous PPL RX 160 episcopes. Episcopes allow for outside view without having to have a direct opening to the exterior of the vehicle, protecting the crew from enemy fire on observation slits. Indeed, during the First World War, German gunners often concentrated their fire on these slits, which could gravely wound the crew. The PPL RX 160 was a clear improvement for the observation of terrain around the tank.

However, FCM 36 photos often show the episcopes absent, especially around the driver’s hatch. This is not surprising, as many other French armored vehicles went into combat without some equipment and accessories that were manufactured separately from the vehicle.

Furthermore, the FCM 36’s turret did not feature a rotating cupola, as on the APX-R. On the APX-R, commanders had to lock their helmets into the cupola to rotate it, which proved a very questionable design choice. The FCM 36’s commander had, in theory, episcopes on all sides of the turret, allowing for all-round visibility.

Details of the PPL RX 160 episcopes from a user’s manual. (Photo by author)

Significantly, the FCM 36 lacked a radio. Unlike other French tanks, such as the D1 or B1 Bis, the tanks from the August 2nd 1933 program did not have radios. Because the vehicles had to be very small, only two crew members could fit inside, leaving no space for a third crew member to operate a radio. In order to communicate with other tanks and infantry around the vehicle, the commander flew ‘fanions’ (a small flag used by the French military, similar to an America guidon or British company color) through a purposely built hatch located on the turret’s roof, fired flares, or directly talked to someone outside.

On top of the turret, the little hatch for the small flag used to communicate (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Alternatively, there was also a very surprising way to communicate by firing messages placed inside a shell planned for this purpose (Obus porte-message type B.L.M – Eng: B.L.M. type message-carrying shell) out of the cannon.

It is possible that some FCM 36s, those of the reconnaissance company or section leaders, may have been fitted with an ER 28 radio. It would have been placed level with one of the ammunition racks in the middle of the hull, on one of the sides. This placement would render one of the racks useless, diminishing the ammunition stowage capabilities. The medic from the 7ème BCC (Bataillon de Char de Combat – Eng: Combat Tank Battalion), Lieutenant Henry Fleury, attested the presence of an antenna on the turret of vehicles of the Battalion’s 3rd Company, similar to the placement on some APX-R turrets. No photos have emerged to confirm his statement. Also, according to Lieut. Fleury, these antennas would immediately have been removed, as there was no radio post to go alongside them. A photo does suggest an antenna was present on the hull of some vehicles. It does not resemble any radio antenna in any French tanks of the era. In any case, as stated in a note from 1937, the FCM 36 would have received a radio from 1938 onward.

This photo shows some sort of antenna being used to fly a flag on the right mudguard. This could be a radio antenna. Such a device can be observed on at least two tanks, ‘30056’ and ‘30032’. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Performance

Mobility

As stipulated by the August 2nd, 1933 program, the mobility of the vehicle was very limited. In combat, it was set to match the walking speed of an infantry soldier. As the FCM 36 was an infantry support vehicle, it had to advance by the side of soldiers. The maximum speed of 25 km/h on road was a major limiting factor to any quick repositioning from one area of the front to another. The speed of the vehicle cross-country would be limited to around 10 km/h.

The FCM 36 had the best ground pressure of all the vehicles of the program. It performed better on soft terrain in comparison to the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35 tanks.

Protection

The protection of the vehicle was one of the most important aspects of the FCM 36. Its special construction, made of laminated steel plates welded to one another, differed from the cast or bolted armor usually used on French tanks. It was sloped and offered protection from combat gasses, which were seen as a potential major threat, as they had been during the previous war.

The armor was resistant, but often not enough against the 37 mm anti-tank guns carried on the Panzer III or towed in the form of the Pak 36. There are photos of FCM 36 tanks where the front of the hull or turret were pierced by 37 mm shells. However, such penetrations often occurred on the less sloped plates.

The FCM 36 was still quite vulnerable against mines, such as the German Tellermine, despite a 20 mm thick armored floor, thicker than the Hotchkiss H35 (15 mm) or Renault R35 (12 mm). During the French offensive in the Sarre, some Renault R35s were knocked out by mines. Furthermore, the Pétard Maurice (Eng: Maurice Pétard, an anti-tank grenade prototype) eviscerated a FCM 36 tank in tests. However, the FCM 36 never met such weapon types on the battlefield. They were mostly faced with more classic anti-tank weapons, notably towed guns and tank guns, but also German ground attack aviation.

Test of a Pétard Maurice anti-tank grenade on a FCM 36. The hull was disemboweled by the explosion. The grenade was placed after the explosion for the photo. (Photo: Stéphane Ferrard, France 1940, l’armement terrestre, ETAI, page 92)

Against German 37 mm guns, the most common anti-tank weapon during the campaign of France, the FCM 36 held up relatively well. Despite numerous penetrations, numerous other hits bounced off the better-sloped parts of the vehicles. Some vehicles would have several tens of impact without a single penetration. However, enemy cannon fire did not necessarily have to destroy the tank, it could also immobilize it, notably by breaking a track.

Armament

The 37 mm SA 18 gun used by most of the French infantry tanks in 1940. This particular example is at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum). (Photo by author)

The armament of the FCM 36 consisted of a 37 mm SA 18 cannon and a 7.5 mm MAC 31 Reibel machine gun. This was the standard armament of all tanks from the August 2nd, 1933 program. The SA 18 was designed for infantry support. It already equipped part of the First World War FT tanks, and there was an impressive quantity of ammunition stockpiled. For economic and industrial reasons, it was easier to re-use this weapon, especially as it was perfectly suited for a small tank with a one-man turret. The size occupied by such a weapon was minimal, and it was the smallest caliber that could be used for infantry support, taking into account the 1899 La Haye Convention banning the use of explosive ammunition for guns below 37 mm. The muzzle velocity of the gun, around 367 m/s (this differed depending on the shell type used), allowed for a relatively curved trajectory, which was ideal for infantry support. However, its low muzzle velocity, small caliber, and curved trajectory were major drawbacks for anti-tank duties.

Two 37 mm shells from the SA 18 gun. On the left is the Obus de rupture model 1892-24 AP round and on the right is the high explosive round. (Photo by author)

The only round able to defeat enemy tanks was the obus de rupture modèle 1935 (Eng: Model 1935 armor piercing shell), but it arrived too late and in too small numbers to equip tank units. There was also the classic model 1892-1924 AP shell, which could penetrate 15 mm of armor at 400 m at a 30° angle. This was insufficient, and only 12 out of 102 stowed shells would be AP shells. Furthermore, it should be noted that the shell dated from way before the creation of tanks. In fact, the rupture shell was not made to penetrate the armor of a tank, but to go through enemy bunkers.

The inside of the turret, with, from right to left, the Reibel machine gun, the 37 mm SA 18 cannon, the sight (here absent), and the turret rotation wheel. (Photo: chars-français.net)

In 1938, an FCM 36 was modified to receive the new 37 mm SA 38 gun, which offered real anti-tank capabilities. Only the mantlet was modified to receive this new gun. However, tests conducted on this vehicle were a failure. The turret suffered from structural frailty at the welds due to the gun’s recoil. A new, sturdier turret was needed. Preference was given to APX-R turrets for this new armament, which equipped the other tanks of the August 2nd 1933 program in 1939 and 1940. Several prototypes of a new welded turret were manufactured, but this time with a 47 mm SA 35 gun. This turret, which closely resembled the FCM 36’s, was meant to equip the future AMX 38.

FCM 36 ‘30057’ with its new longer 37 mm gun. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The secondary armament was a MAC 31 Reibel, named after its inventor Jean Frédéric Jules Reibel. This weapon was requested by General Estienne as early as 1926 in order to replace the old Hotchkiss model 1914 on French tanks. A little under 20,000 examples were manufactured between 1933 and 1954, which explains why the weapon was also found after the war, for example on the EBRs. On the FCM 36, it was placed to the right of the gun. A total of 3,000 rounds were stowed in the tank in the form of 20 150-rounds drum magazines.

MAC 31 Reibel machine gun. A version with a drum magazine to the right of the weapon was mounted on the FCM 36, in order to leave space for the cannon. (Photo: Wikipédia)

A second MAC 31 could be used for anti-aircraft fire. As on most French tanks, an anti-aircraft mount was installed on some tanks. Obviously, this was yet another task for the commander. A movable anti-aircraft mount could be placed on the turret roof, allowing the use of the machine gun from the cover of the vehicle’s armor. However, the firing angles were very narrow, and the mount limited the anti-air protection of the tank when opening the rear turret hatch.

This photo, taken during the November 11th, 1939 parade in front of American officers at the Romagne-sous-Montfaucon cemetery, shows how the anti-aircraft machine gun was placed. (Source: Rare FCM 36 WW2 Footage. – YouTube)

Production

The FCM Company and Production of the FCM 36

The FCM 36 was the last vehicle of the August 2nd, 1933 program to be accepted to serve within the French Army, receiving authorization on June 25th, 1936.

FCM, based in Marseille, southern France, was specialized in naval constructions. However, FCM also turned towards the designing and manufacturing of tanks. They made several monstrous French tanks during the interwar, notably the FCM 2C, but they were also tasked with production of the B1 Bis until the armistice with Germany in 1940, as well as at several other production sites in the north of France. This was a typical advantage of FCM, which was very far from the traditional frontline located in north-eastern France. Even during war, it could manufacture tanks without respite. The Italian presence was likely not seen as a real threat at this point. It is thanks to its shipbuilding experience that FCM could innovate with the FCM 36 in terms of welding technology. It had the equipment and experience necessary for this complex task, which was not yet developed enough in other French armament factories.

However, the FCM 36 turret should have been more successful, as the plan was to eventually equip all light tanks with it. The first 1,350 light tanks were to be equipped with the APX-R turret, with production then changing to the FCM 36’s. This was, however, never done, as the appearance and testing of the 37 mm SA 38 gun showed it was not possible to use the new gun in the FCM 36 turret in its current state. Further studies led to the conception of a somewhat similar turret, which would equip the successor of the light tanks of August 2nd 1933: the AMX 38. An improved turret with a 47 mm SA 35 was designed for the AMX 39, but this vehicle was never built.

The AMX 38 was an improved mix between a Renault R40 and an FCM 36. It was never built in large numbers, only prototypes were ever made. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Production Cost and Orders

If the FCM 36 remains somewhat little known, it is because of its very limited production. Only 100 vehicles were delivered between May 2nd, 1938, and March 13th, 1939, only equipping two battalions de chars de combat (BCC – Eng: combat tank battalions). The main reason behind this limited production was the slow production rate (about 9 FCM 36 per month compared to about 30 Renault R-35 per month), two to three times lower than that of the Hotchkiss (400 H35 and 710 H39) and Renault (1540 R35) tanks.

FCM was the only company that could weld armor plates on a large scale. This was a complex method that proved more expensive than the casting or bolting/riveting of armor plates. With an initial cost of 450,000 Francs per piece, the price doubled to 900,000 Francs when the French Army asked for two new orders, for a total of 200 new vehicles, in 1939. The two orders were therefore canceled, especially as the speed of production was judged too slow for the 200 vehicles to be delivered in a reasonable timeline.

The FCM 36s in Regiments and in Combat

Within the 4th and 7th BCL

Mobilization and Day-to-Day Life

Based on the 1st Battalion of the 502nd RCC (Régiment de Char de Combat – Combat Tank Regiment), based in Angouleme, the 4th BCC was led by 47 year old Commandant de Laparre de Saint Sernin. Considered as capable of mobilization on April 15th, 1939, the battalion occupied the Couronne mobilization barrack in Angoulême. There were delays almost immediately, as there was a lack of personnel, as well as the requisition of trucks for administrative purposes.

Insignia of the 4th BCC in 1940. It was created by Lieutenant Lafleur, commander of the 2nd Company, and was used from February 2nd, 1940 onward. (Illustration : Hadrien Barthélemy)

By September 1st, 1939, the battalion still lacked personnel, and could only depart on September 7th. Tremendous logistical issues were felt, particularly in terms of spare parts, both for seized civilian vehicles as well as the FCM 36s themselves. There were also issues linked to the transport of the battalion to its area of stay. Unloading from trains was hard due to lack of equipment and training. The battalion was based in Moselle, at Lostroff, between Metz and Strasbourg, (2nd and 3rd Companies), Loudrefring (logistical elements and headquarters), and in the neighboring woods (1st Company). For all of September, the battalion fought in local small-scale operations which forged the trust of the crews towards their vehicles. On October 2nd, the battalion moved again to a new place of stay near Beaufort-en-Argonnes, between Reims and Metz, until November 27th, when it moved again towards Stennay, in the two warehouses of the former artillery barracks of the Bevaux Saint Maurice district.

Based on the 1st battalion of the 503rd RCC of Versailles, the 7th BCC was constituted on August 25th, 1939. It was led by Commander Giordani, a very well-liked officer whose leadership capacities were noticed on several occasions. The mobilization of the battalion was concluded by August 30th, and as early as September 2nd, it moved to Loges-en-Josas, around fifteen kilometers from Versailles. This new location made space at the Versailles barracks, which were awaiting a significant number of reservists. At this base, the occasion was taken to showcase the minutia with which the battalion paraded and performed ceremonies.

The insignia of the 7th BCC used the symbols of the town of Loges-en-Josas, the caravel, and the three Lys flowers of the city of Versailles. The ram represents the power of light tanks. (Illustrations Hadrien Barthélemy)

On September 7th, the battalion moved towards the operational area all the way to Murvaux (combat companies) and Milly (logistical company and headquarters), between Verdun and Sedan. The tanks and heavy vehicles were transported by train while lighter elements moved by their own power on roads. The different elements reached Murvaux by September 10th. The battalion was then part of general Huntziger’s 2nd Army.

At Murvaux, the battalion trained as it could, putting in place firing ranges in the south of the village. Economic cooperatives were created for the soldiers, in order to support those who needed it the most. On November 11th, at the American cemetery of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the 7th BCC paraded in front of General Huntziger and several American officers who had visited specifically for the commemorations of World War One’s armistice.

The next day, the battalion departed for Verdun, in the Villars district of the Bevaux barracks. It set up there on November 19th. This new location had the advantage of being in a larger city, which included all necessities for the battalion, including a firing range at Douaumont, and a manoeuvers terrain at Chaume, as well as winter shelters for the vehicles. The battalion stayed there until April 1st, 1940.

Training

On March 28th, 1940, the 7th BCC received the order to go to the camp of Mourmelon to undertake training missions. This unit had to lead several missions to train infantry divisions, which would rotate one after another each week at the camp all the way up to May 10th, 1940. The FCM 36s first had to train the infantry unit for supporting combat alongside tanks. Some exercises were particularly successful, as with the 3rd Moroccan Tirailleurs Regiment on April 18th. The 7th BCC then had to create lessons for the officers of some infantry units. For example, only a few officers of the 22nd RIC (Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale – Eng: Colonial Infantry Regiment) could go through training at Mourmelon with the 7th BCC in April. Lastly, the FCM 36s took part in manoeuvers alongside the division cuirassées (Eng – armored divisions, attached to the French infantry)

This intensive training put the unit’s mechanics on high alert. The FCM 36s were mechanically exhausted by their daily use, with the number of spare parts becoming rare. Maintenance crews did their best to keep a maximum number of vehicles running for training, even if this necessitated working at night.

This training at Mourmelon also increased cohesion among the tankers of the 7th BCC. They were also more at ease with their vehicles and using the doctrine. Liaison between the infantry and tanks was widely used, often with success. The experience gained between the end of the month of March and May 10th, 1940 at Mourmelon was an incredible chance for the 7th BCC to have important combat experience. This made this unit a much better trained BCC in comparison to other units of the type.

One of the very rare photos of an FCM 36 of the 7th BCC during exercises at Mourmelon, in April or early May 1940. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Unit Organization and Equipment

The FCM 36 tanks were spread between two units, the 4th and 7th BCCs, also named BCLs (Bataillon de Chars Légers – Eng: Light Tanks Battalion) or even BCLM (Bataillon de Chars Légers Modernes – Eng: Modern Light Tank Battalion). However, they were generally called BCC, like all other French tank battalions. The two other designations were reserved to these two units, which only used FCM 36s. These two battalions were reattached to different RCCs. The 4th BCC was part of the 502nd RCC, based in Angoulême, while the 7th BCC was part of the 503rd RCC based in Versailles.

Each battalion was constituted of three combat companies, each divided into four sections. There was also a logistical company, which took care of all logistical aspects of the battalion (resupply, recovery, etc.). A headquarters led the battalion and included a command tank for the unit’s leader. It was constituted of personnel essential for liaison, communication, administration, etc.
The combat company was composed of 13 tanks. One of these vehicles was attributed to the company commander, often a captain, and the 12 others were distributed between the four sections, with three tanks per section, often led by a lieutenant or sub-lieutenant. A logistical section was also present in each company to take care of small-scale logistical issues, with larger operations being attributed to the battalion’s logistical company.

FCM 36 with its crew. It is followed by a Renault AGK 1 truck used for logistics. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

Besides the tanks, the theoretical composition of a combat tanks battalion, like the 4th BCC or 7th BCC, was as follows:

  • 11 liaison cars
  • 5 all-terrain cars
  • 33 lorries (including some for communications)
  • 45 trucks
  • 3 (liquid) tankers
  • 3 tank carriers
  • 3 tracked tractors
  • 12 logistical tankettes with trailers
  • 4 trailers (La Buire tank carriers, and kitchen)
  • 51 motorcycles

All of this was operated by a total of 30 officers, 84 non-commissioned officers, and 532 corporals and chasseurs. However, a large part of this material was never received, such as the radio lorry or four anti-air defense vehicles for the 4th BCC.

To fill these gaps, a large part of the vehicles used by the two battalions were requisitioned from civilians. For example, within the 7th BCC was a lorry that had more than 110,000 km on the meter and had been used to ferry fish to the market. A Citroën P17D or P19B half-track was also seized. It was used in the Vel d’Hiv ice rink, and Guy Steinbach, veteran of the 7th BCC, claimed it took part in the Croisière Jaune (Eng: Yellow Cruise), a long demonstrational trip using mostly Kégresse vehicles organized by Citroën in the late 1920s. Within the same battalion, there was also a surprising vehicle: an American tank-carrying truck, used by the Spanish Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War and captured by the French at Col du Perthus in February 1939 after it crossed the border. Within the 4th BCC, there was a vehicle even less suited for war, a truck used to transport ammunition that had been seized from a circus. This caravan was not designed for this type of use and even had a small rear balcony.

The Citroën P19B is one of the vehicles used by the 7th BCC. (Photo: Wikipédia)

Another portion of equipment came from the military’s stocks, particularly for specialized equipment. Among these were Somua MCL 5 half-track tractors, which were used to recover immobilized tanks. For the transport of the FCM 36, tank-carrying trucks, such as the Renault ACDK and La Buire type trailers, originally used for the transport of the Renault FT, were used. Renault ACD1 TRC 36s were used as supply vehicles, which for a time played the same role as the Renault UE, but for tanks (UEs being used for infantry units).

While it had no anti-aircraft vehicles at all nor vehicles able to tow anti-aircraft guns, the battalion had some 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine guns used in the anti-aircraft role. They were modified for this role with the anti-aircraft model 1928 mount, but they required a static position. Only the armament of the tanks themselves really protected them from air attacks.

The logistical company of each battalion had at least one Le Buire type tank-carrying trailer, dating all the way back to World War One. (Photo: chars-français.net)

Camouflage and Unit Insignias

The FCM 36 were without a doubt some of the most beautiful tanks of the campaign of France thanks to the colorful but also complex camouflages and insignias sported by some vehicles.
Camouflages were of three types. The first two were composed of very complex shapes with a varied number of tones and colors. The third type was composed of several colors in the shape of waves along the length of the vehicle. However, for nearly all camouflages, a very clear color band present only on the superior part of the turret was common. Each camouflage scheme had its own lines, only the tones and global scheme was respected from the instructions being circulated at the time.

FCM number ‘30 004’ from the 2nd section of the 2nd company of the 7th BCC. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

A good way to identify the unit a FCM 36 belonged to was the ace painted on the rear part of the turret, which showed from which company and section a tank was from. As there were three companies of four sections in each BCC, there were four aces (clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades) of three different colors (red, white, and blue). The ace of spades represented the 1st section, the ace of hearts the 2nd section, the ace of diamonds the 3rd section, and the ace of clubs the 4th section. A blue ace represented the 1st company, a white ace the 2nd company, and a red ace the 3rd company. This principle was applied to all modern light infantry support tanks of the French Army from November 1939 onward, except for replacement tanks held by logistical companies.

Anti-tank gun crews were not appropriately trained before the campaign of France, and, in most cases, had never even received identification charts for allied vehicles. This resulted in some instances of friendly fire, including some in which B1 Bis tanks were lost. To avoid further unnecessary losses, tricolor flags were painted on the turret of French tanks, including the FCM 36. A bulletin distributed to commanders dated May 22nd already stated crews should wave a tricolor flag when getting close to friendly positions to avoid any misunderstandings. In addition, the tank crews applied tricolor vertical stripes to the rear of their turrets on the night of June 5th to 6th, following notice n°1520/S from General Bourguignon. Slight differences in the angle of the lines can be found between vehicles of the 7th BCC, where it was typically painted on top of the mantlet, while for vehicles of the 4th BCC, it was often painted on the mantlet itself.

Though not very common in FCM 36 units, there was numeration in some instances. This identification system was hastily put in place, with some numbers being painted directly over the unit insignia. Obviously, with restructuring undertaken due to losses, these numbers were no longer up to date, and sometimes covered with paint. In addition to this number, the vehicles also featured the mandatory ace.

A red spade identifies this FCM 36 as one from the 1st section of the 3rd company. Note the French tricolor flag at the rear top of the turret and the numeration on the sides. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

FCM 36s used a variety of insignias. The most commonly used was a variant of the 503rd RCC’s insignia, showcasing a machine gunner and a dented wheel of which the colors varied depending on the company the tank belonged to. This was notably found on tanks of the 7th BCC. Other insignias could also be seen on some tanks, following the crews’ imagination, such as the representation of a duck worthy of a children’s cartoon (FCM 36 30057), a bison (FCM 36 30082), or an animal climbing the side of a mountain (FCM 36 30051).

The machine gunner insignia of the 503rd RCC on a FCM 36 from the 7th BCC (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

A small number of FCM 36 were given nicknames by their crews, as on many other French tanks. However, it appears this was an initiative taken by crews. In other units, this was done directly by order of the commander, such as Colonel De Gaulle, who gave his D2s the name of French military victories. With the FCM 36s, more atypical names, not following any consistent logic, could be found. FCM 36 “Liminami” was nicknamed by amalgamating the names of the fiancées of the two crew members (Lina and Mimi). Some other curious nicknames include “Comme tout le monde” (Eng: Like Everybody, FCM 36 30040) or “Le p’tit Quinquin” (Eng: The small Quiquin, FCM 36 30063). The nickname of each tank could be inscribed on the sides of the turret or on the mantlet, just above the gun. In the first situation, the writing was generally stylized.

FCM 36 nicknamed “Le p’tit Quinquin”, during winter 1939-1940. (Photo: chars-français.net)
Turret front of “Fantôme” (Eng: Ghost) from the 4th Section of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC. Notice the tricolor flag, placed this way on tanks of the 7th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy)
Turret rear of the tank with registration 30 022 of the 2nd Section of the 1st Company of the 7th BCC. Unlike tanks of the 4th BCC, the lines of the rear flag follow the shape of the turret and are not perfectly vertical. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy)

The Fighting of May-June 1940

The 4th BCC’s FCM 36s Against Tanks

Engaged in the Chémery sector, a few kilometers south of Sedan, in the Ardennes, the FCM 36s of the 7th BCC were more often than not without supporting infantry. From as early as 6:20 AM on May 14th, the different companies started fighting.

Map from 1950 with the place of the fights in the sector of Chémery, less than 10 km south of Sedan. (source: géoportail.gouv.fr)

At first, the different companies performed relatively well, with little enemy resistance. Only the 3rd Company faced some significant resistance from several anti-tank guns which immobilized the unit for a while before the pieces were destroyed by the fire from the tanks. The 1st Company had met a few machine guns which were swiftly neutralized as the only resistance.
At a later, more crucial point in the battle, the FCM 36s were faced with much more significant resistance. The 3rd Company reached the outskirts of Connage without any enemy resistance. However, the infantry did not follow and the company was forced to go back to reach its supporting infantry. During a move on a road, six FCM 36s were stopped by two German tanks, followed by several more behind them. The FCMs fired continuously with their rupture shells. Soon running out, as there were only 12 per tank, the fight continued with explosive shells, which could only slow down blinded tanks. A German tank was in flames. The shells fired by German vehicles struggled to penetrate the FCMs, until a tank armed with a 75 mm gun, described as a StuG III, fired and knocked out several vehicles by “disemboweling them”. The retreat of some vehicles was only possible by the accumulation of knocked-out FCM 36s which blocked the fire of the Panzers. From this fight, only 3 of the 13 tanks of the 3rd Company would reach back to friendly lines.

The 1st Company also had very significant losses. The 1st Section was engaged by anti-tank guns and the 2nd Section by tanks. Losses were significant. However, when the company had to retreat towards Artaise-le-Vivier on the order of the battalion commander, it met heavy opposition while crossing the village of Maisoncelle. Of 13 engaged tanks, only 4 reached friendly lines.
The 2nd Company also suffered tremendous losses. After fighting in Bulson and in the neighboring hills, a fight broke out between 9 FCM 36s and 5 German tanks identified as Panzer IIIs, with the absence of radio on their tanks this time being to the advantage of the French. The FCM crews, hidden behind a crestline, noticed the Panzers thanks to their antennas. They were then able to follow their movement and engage them more easily. At 10:30AM, the company received the order to retreat towards Artaise-le-Vivier. The company was also engaged by German forces and suffered tremendous losses. At Maisoncelle, German tanks were waiting for the FCMs, which therefore retreated towards the Mont Dieu woods. The 2nd Company arrived at this rally point with only 3 of 13 tanks.

The survivors of the 7th BCC gathered in the Mont Dieu woods and, at 1PM, gathered to form a single marching company to oppose German progress. Thankfully, there were no further attacks. By 9PM, the marching company received the order to move towards Olizy, south of Voncq. Despite major losses, an infantry that did not follow tanks, and a large number of enemy tanks, the 7th BCC showed obstination and held firm.

Context: Voncq (May 29th – June 10th 1940)

As German forces had broken through the French front around Sedan, their advance was lightning fast. In order to secure the southern flank of the offensive, three German infantry divisions rushed towards Voncq, a small village placed on the crossroads between the Ardennes canal and the Aisne. Voncq had already seen fighting in 1792, 1814, 1815, 1870, and during World War One. The goal of the Germans was to control this strategic village while the main force moved westward.

General Aublet’s 36th French Infantry Division was divided in three infantry regiments, the 14th, 18th, and most importantly, 57th had to cover a 20 km-wide front. This force of around 18,000 personnel was supported by a powerful artillery complement which did not cease firing during the battle. On the German side, around 54,000 personnel were deployed, part of three infantry divisions: the 10th, 26th, and the SS Polizei, which arrived on the night of June 9-10th. No tanks were deployed by any side at this point.

Fighting started on the night of May 29th. Small-scale but strongly artillery-supported French attacks routed some German units. After German aerial reconnaissance over Voncq, it was urgently decided to prepare the terrain, putting in place trenches, machine gun positions, etc.

The German offensive was launched on the night of June 8-9th against Voncq. The 39th and 78th Infantry Regiments crossed the canal under the cover of artificial clouds. Elements of the French 57th Infantry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sinais, were quickly overwhelmed by German forces after intense combat. The Germans progressed well and took the Voncq sector.

Map from 1950 with the place of the fights of the Battle of Voncq on June 9 – 10th. (source: géoportail.gouv.fr)

The FCM 36s in the Battle of Voncq (June 9 – 10th)

The 4th BCC was deployed with its FCM 36s at Voncq as early as the morning of June 8th. By the evening, its companies were spread out in the sector. Captain Maurice Dayras’ 1st Company was attached to the 36th Infantry Division and was placed in the Jason woods, around 20 km south-east of Voncq. Lieutenant Joseph Lucca’s 2nd Company was attached to the 35th Infantry Division, not far from there, at Briquennay. This company was not engaged in the operations at Voncq on June 9-10th. Finally, Lieutenant Ledrappier’s 3rd Company was still in reserve at Toges with the battalion headquarters.

Fighting first broke out on the morning of June 9th between the 1st Company of the 4th BCC and Captain Parat’s 57th Infantry Regiment against elements of the 1st Battalion of the German 78th Infantry Regiment. The Germans were forced to retreat.

Three sections, with a total of nine FCM 36s, continued their progress towards Voncq. Three tanks were immobilized by 37 mm anti-tank guns, including the tracked tank of Second Lieutenant Bonnabaud, commander of the 1st section. His vehicle (30061) allegedly received 42 hits, of which none penetrated. The offensive was a success and brought many prisoners.

Example of the FCM 36 named “Jeanne” from the 4th BCC, which received multiple hits from German machine gun fire. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

The sight of FCM 36s made German soldiers flee, as they often lacked any weapon able to neutralize them. They often hid in the houses of villages the tanks were crossing through.

On its side, the 3rd Company had to clean the village of Terron-sur-Aisne alongside the Corps Franc [Eng French Free Corps] of the 14th Infantry Regiment, in the early afternoon of June 9th. The tanks crossed the village and searched through the streets. Soldiers were tasked with cleaning up buildings. A similar operation was later led in the orchards around Terron-sur-Aisne, which led to the capture of around sixty German soldiers.

Two sections of the 3rd Company went towards Vandy alongside the 2nd Moroccan Spahi Regiment in order to support taking the village. Once that was achieved, they moved towards Voncq to attack the following morning.

During this last large offensive on Voncq, two tanks of the 1st Company engaged in battle without accompanying infantry. Among them, the commander of vehicle 30096, Sergeant de la Myre Mory, a parliamentarian for Lot-et-Garonne department, was killed. At Voncq, only a single tank of the 1st Company was still in operational condition, 30099. However, the commander was wounded, meaning the driver had to alternate between driving and the armament.

Eight tanks of the 3rd Company had to defend a barricade in the north of Voncq alongside the Corps Franc (Captain Le More) of the 57th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers were forced to take respite in houses, leaving the tanks alone from 0:20 PM to 8 PM. Lieutenant Ledrappier, commander of the 2nd Section of the 1st Company, then abandoned his position to make contact with the infantry. However, the other tanks followed him, as the move had been poorly understood. They then retreated due to a lack of communication.

Finally, the order to abandon Voncq was given by nightfall. The FCM 36s were tasked with covering the retreat of the infantry units, which they did without an issue.

Following the engagement in Voncq, very little is known about the fate of the FCM 36s of the 4th and 7th BCCs. It is possible that the units were disbanded and the surviving FCM 36 and their crews fought in smaller ad hoc units, though their is no supporting evidence uncovered as of yet.

Crew Experiences on the FCM 36

The period between September 1939 and May 10th, 1940 was divided into multiple movements, parades, and training in which the FCM 36s and their respective battalions distinguished themselves by their efficiency and seriousness. Testimonies of tank crews, as well as historical records of the battalions, show some interesting points to note, as they give very interesting anecdotes on the machines.

The first interesting point to note was an annoying consequence of the modernity of the FCM 36. The crews would often get chest pains due to the high internal pressure inside the vehicles, which was a quality ahead of its time, allowing the vehicle to be gas-proof.
Another generality was the presence of reports on the exceptional reliability of the vehicles. Captain Belbeoc’h, commander of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC (and later of the logistical company from January 1940 onward), explained that “when operated by alert mechanics, the FCM tank revealed itself to be a splendid war machine, which gained the trust of all crews”.

Battalion records also show the complications linked to the movement of vehicles from one point to another. On one day, a column took five hours to cross 5 km due to refugees and deserters coming from the front. Similar problems were found during movement on trains. However, this was the problem of the railway. It should be noted that it only took around twenty minutes on average to unload all tanks from a train. A train could, however, only carry the vehicles of two tank companies, or an entire fighting company alongside the heavy equipment of the logistical company. Problems often came from air attacks on tracks or trains, which required changing routes which made the battalion lose time.

Two FCM 36 from the 7th BCC during winter 1939-40 at Verdun. The gun is not mounted. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

The 1939-1940 winter was very harsh. The vehicle’s diesel fuel had a tendency to freeze within the engines, preventing them from starting. A crew member would then have to light a torch at the level of the engine, and tow the vehicle with another. By running with a torch at the level of the ventilation system, the fuel could liquefy and the engine started up.

An anecdote reveals that it could be more dangerous than planned to use the anti-aircraft machine gun. On May 16th, 1940, while FCM 36 30076 was towing FCM 36 30069, a German bomber arrived and a bomb exploded a few meters away from the two vehicles. The rear turret door had been opened to coordinate the towing action, and the blast knocked both turrets off. This event was proof of the danger of using the anti-aircraft machine gun.

Two FCM 36s were victims of a German bomb. The opened turret hatches allowed the blast to tear the turrets off. (Photo: chars-français.net)

The logistical aspect of resupplying affected a part of French vehicles in May and June 1940, but also some German vehicles after 1940. The FCM 36 was a machine that used diesel fuel, in an army full of gasoline-powered vehicles. This was directly seen within the two BCCs, in which the trucks, motorcycles, and cars all worked using gasoline. Therefore, there had to be two fuel types in the supply chain. The same problem was found with the spare parts of many seized civilian vehicles of the 4th and 7th BCC. Many broke down and could not be repaired.

The FCM 36 on the German Side

The FCM 36s Captured During the Campaign of France of 1940

The French Army lost the 1940 campaign, but it brought many German vehicles down with it. French anti-tank guns, such as the 25 mm Hotchkiss SA 34 and the 47 mm SA 37, were of excellent quality, and some of the tanks were powerful enough to knock out German vehicles, even at long ranges. This led to many German losses. To compensate for these losses, many French vehicles were captured and some were used all the way to the war’s end. This was a common practice in the German forces, which had a large part of its armored vehicles fleet composed of tanks of Czech origin during the invasion of France. These Beutepanzers (captured tanks) constituted a minor but still important part of the German armored vehicle fleet during the entire duration of the war.

Already during the campaign for France, abandoned vehicles were re-used when their condition was good enough. This was the case of several FCM 36s, on which several Balkenkreuzen were painted quickly on top of the former French markings to aid identification and avoid friendly fire. In practice, thanks to their diesel engine, even if pierced by many shells, the vehicles rarely caught fire. The vehicles were therefore easily repairable by replacing worn pieces.

No document truly attests their use in combat immediately against French forces. The Germans, in any case, did not have the ammunition stock, and even less so the diesel to make the vehicles run. The Wiesbaden Armistice Commission claims 37 FCM 36s had been captured by October 15th, 1940. It appears that in total around fifty FCM 36s were pressed back into service with the Germans.

Second Lieutenant Bonnabaud’s FCM 36 registered as 30 061, which was immobilized during the fighting at Voncq and later re-used by the Germans. (Photo: char-français.net, colorized by Johannes Dorn)

German Modifications

At first, the FCM 36s were kept in their original state as tanks and were thus named Panzerkampfwagen FCM 737(f). However, for logistical reasons, and particularly because of their diesel engines, it seems that they saw very little use in France in 1940.

As early as late 1942, a part of the FCM 737(f) vehicles were modified, like many other French tanks, by Baukommando Bekker, transforming them into assault howitzers or tank destroyers. The first, the 10.5 cm leFH 16 (Sf.) auf Geschützwagen FCM 36(f) , were armed with obsolete 105 mm leFH 16 guns in an open-topped configuration. Sources vary on how many were built, with numbers ranging from 8 to 48, though the number was probably 12. Very little is known about them and they do not seem to have seen frontline service.

The second were given a Pak 40 anti-tank cannon, which was able to neutralize most vehicles which it would face at standard fighting ranges. They were known as 7.5 cm Pak 40 auf Geschutzwagen FCM(f). This modification is sometimes considered to be part of the Marder I series. Around 10 were modified in Paris in 1943 and saw service until the Allied invasion of France in 1944.

One of the FCM 36 converted into a tank destroyer with a Pak 40 anti-tank gun. (Photo: Wikipédia)

The main issues of these vehicles were their diesel fuel, which caused supply problems. Their high silhouettes were also problematic, particularly for the tank destroyer. However, they had the advantage of giving mobility to fairly heavy artillery pieces and to provide an acceptable level of protection to their crews.

Conclusion

The FCM 36 was the best light infantry tank that the French Army had in 1940, as stated by the evaluating commission in July 1936. However, it was plagued by many issues. The main ones were linked to their complicated production process, which was the reason behind the vehicle not receiving additional orders, and obviously, the outdated doctrine which led to its conception, which was entirely obsolete. However, the units which were equipped with the tanks remarked themselves by their actions, particularly the 7th BCC, thanks to the experience they had gained during intensive training in close cooperation with infantry units. The engines shone in the mission for which they were designed: infantry support.

The last surviving FCM 36, which had belonged to the 1st Section of the 3rd Company of the 4th BCC. It is stored at the Musée des Blindés de Saumur (Saumur Tank Museum) (photo by author)
Unidentified FCM 36 belonging to the 3rd Company of the 7th BCC, likely part of the 2nd Section. The illustration is based on a photo taken in August 1939. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 “Jacote”, belonging to the 2nd Section of the 3rd Company of the 4th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30015, part of the 3rd Section of the 1st Company of the 7th BCC. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30034 “Fantôme” (Eng Ghost), part of the 4st Section of the 2nd Company of the 4th BCC. The number “33” on the turret was removed from the previous vehicle, named “Jeanne”. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
FCM 36 30057, during the pre-war trials with a long 37 mm gun. (Illustration: Hadrien Barthélemy and Pavel “Carpaticus” Alexe)
The 10.5cm leFH 16 (Sf.) auf Geschützwagen FCM 36(f), one of the German modifications of the FCM 36.

FCM 36 Specifications

Crew 2 (Commander/gunner/loader, driver/mechanic)
Loaded weight 12.35 tonnes
Engine Berliet Ricardo, Diesel, 105 horsepower (at full power), 4 cylinder bore/stroke 130 x 160 mm
Gearbox 4 + reverse
Fuel capacity 217 l
Armor 40 mm maximum
Armament 37 mm SA 18 gun
7.5 mm MAC 31 Reibel machine gun
Length 4.46 m
Width 2.14 m
Height 2.20 m
Maximum range 225 km
Maximum speed 24 km/h
Climbing ability 80%
Trench crossing ability with vertical sides 2.00 m

Sources

Secondary sources

Trackstory N°7 le FCM 36, édition du Barbotin, Pascal d’Anjou
The encyclopedia of french tanks and armored vehicles 1914-1918, Histoire et Collection, François Vauvillier
Le concept blindé français des années 1930, de la doctrine à l’emploi, Colonel Gérard Saint Martin, thèse soutenue en 1994
L’arme blindée française, Tome 1, mai-juin 1940, les blindés français dans la tourmente, Economica, Colonel Gérard de Saint-Martin
Les chars français 1939-1940, Capitaine Jean Baptiste Pétrequin, conservateur du Musée des Blindés de Saumur
Renault FT, le char de la victoire, Capitaine Jean Baptiste Pétrequin, conservateur du Musée des Blindés de Saumur
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°21 (2007) ; “Seigneur-suis“, mai-juin 1940, le 7ème BCL au combat
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n° 81 (février-mars 2008) ; FCM 36 : le 7ème BCC en campagne, Histoire et Collection
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°105 (juillet-août-septembre 2013) : le 4ème BCC au combat
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°106 (octobre-novembre-décembre 2013) : Le 4ème BCC au combat (II)
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°111 (janvier-février-mars 2015) : Le 4ème BCC sur les routes de la retraite
Guerre Blindés et Matériel n°238 (octobre-novembre-décembre 2021) : 7ème BCC Le dernier combat

Primary Sources

Règlement des unités de chars de combat, tome 2, Combat ; 1939
Règlement des unités de chars de combat, tome 2, Combat ; juin 1934
Instruction provisoire sur l’emploi des chars de combat comme engins d’infanterie ; 1920
Instruction sur les armes et le tir dans les unités de chars légers ; 1935

Websites

Liste des chars FCM 36 : FCM 36 (chars-francais.net)

Thanks :

I thank l’Association des Amis du Musée des Blindés (Eng: the Association of Friends of the Tank Museum) which allowed me to use their library, from which the majority of previously mentioned books are sourced from.

4 replies on “FCM 36”

Truly the unspoken secret weapon of France, If only they had 100 more and the Germans would have been defeated.

If you make a video on this you better make Cone of arc Read it since its literally his mascot if you don’t I will be very disappointed

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