Reconnaissance Vehicle (Light Tank/Tracked Armored Car) – 5 Prototypes and 118 Production Vehicles Built
The AMR 33 was a tracked reconnaissance vehicle designed by Renault in the early 1930s. Though it may seem unimpressive at first glance, it had a complex developmental history, and would be one of the faster armored fighting vehicles of its time. Though not extremely successful on its own, and eventually plagued with a number of issues, it would nonetheless launch a series of moderate successes achieved by Renault in the 1930s.
The French Cavalry after The Great War
World War One saw armored vehicles breakthrough into mainstream military use. Though there were some armored vehicles manufactured during the Belle Epoque (“Beautiful Time”, a name given in France to the pre-WW1 part of the 20th century) in France, these were all armored car that stayed as prototypes or small production runs, such as the Charron 1902, Hotchkiss 1908, and others.
As for the war itself, the Infantry branch got the lion’s share of armored fighting vehicles, with their tanks, particularly the FT, seeing mass-scale production and use. In comparison, the Cavalry was relegated to using wheeled vehicles. There were small production runs of various armored cars, such as the Archer, Renault ED or Jeffery de Fabry, and many prototypes, but these could never be decisive during the course of the war. Towards the end of the conflict, a more modern and standardized type, the White TBC, was settled upon, but while it had higher production than other French armored cars of the era with 230 built, this number still paled in comparison to more than 4,000 of Renault’s FT light infantry tank.
During the 1920s, the Cavalry branch of the French Army proved a lot more willing than the Infantry to innovate in terms of new concepts, and this also extended to armored vehicles. Perhaps the most significant example of this in terms of program would be the two AMC programs, the n°1 launched in April of 1923 and n°2 launched in August of 1924.
Both called for an AMC (Automitrailleuse de Combat – Combat Armored Car), but were largely different. The first program requested a 4 tonnes vehicle able to reach 55 km/h on road and with a gearbox allowing for inverted motion. The second program called for a 7.5 tonnes vehicle, with a crew of 3, and, at that point, a decent 20 mm of armor, high off-road capacity and maximum speed of just 30 km/h, with the configuration of the running gear left to the manufacturer’s discretion.
The second program de facto called for a cavalry tank. Leaving running gears to the manufacturer’s discretion and being willing to experiment with other options than just wheeled vehicles was also a significant aspect of the interwar French cavalry procurement. For example, in 1923, the French Cavalry would adopt the Citroën 10CV P4T armored car, often called just the “M23”. This was a half-track Kégresse armored car which, while it had its own turret, copied the FT’s configuration of being armed with either a 37 mm SA 18 or an 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1914 machine gun. Only 16 of these would end up being purchased however.
Reconnaissance was a major role which armored cars could potentially fulfill, but despite the Cavalry’s ambitions, the 1920s were also a period of particularly dry funding, especially for this branch which was viewed as having had much less of a role in France’s WW1 victory than the artillery or infantry. Reconnaissance groups of French cavalry units had to make do with, at best, civilians cars which had been summarily armored and given a machine gun, and at worst unarmored cars or half-tracks where the crew may have been expected to fire their weapon, often a CRSG 1915 Chauchat machine rifle, from their seats.
The First Purpose-Built Reconnaissance Vehicles
With the lack of cavalry funding preventing a large armored reconnaissance armored car program, there were not many dedicated reconnaissance vehicles manufactured in France in the 1920s. The more significant efforts invested into combat armored cars had resulted in a fair number of prototypes as early as around 1924, eventually resulting in a fairly large-scale adoption of the Schneider P16 half-track. The adoption of the future design was expected as early as 1925, though eventually the production of 4 pre-production vehicles would have to wait until 1928, with 96 production vehicles then being delivered in 1930-1931., With less obvious military interest, designing reconnaissance vehicles would be a much riskier affair for private manufacturers, with greater risk of financial loss.
Nonetheless, in the late 1920s, the Lyon-based manufacturer Berliet would start offering a whole range of wheeled armored vehicles to the French military. In 1928, it showcased two prototypes of the VUR, a four-wheeled light armored liaison vehicle, and the next year, in 1929, a new vehicle branched out of this offering, the VUDB. This was far from a classic, turreted armored car, being instead more of a simple open-topped four-wheeled car with an armored body, with a number of firing ports and two machine rifles for the crew of three to use. This light (4.9 tonnes fully loaded), at this point mobile (55 km/h on road) armored car was already a significant step forward in terms of armored reconnaissance in comparison to a summarily armored civilian car.
The French Cavalry classified the VUDB as a voiture de prise de contact (ENG: contact-taking car) and ordered 50 which were delivered in 1930. These vehicles’ service would overwhelmingly be in the colonies, but they set a significant precedent in being the first considerable effort towards creating a reconnaissance armored car in interwar France.
The 1930 Motorization Program
The year 1930 was key for the armored vehicle fleet of the French Army. Despite the Cavalry’s best efforts, adoptions of new vehicles had remained limited in the 1920s. Besides the half-track Schneider armored car and the VUDB at the tail’s end of the decade, many vehicles, such as the White TBC, still dated as far back as WW1, and roles where a purpose-built vehicle would be preferred had to be fulfilled ad-hoc.
It is a fair assessment to say that the Infantry was not that better off either, though it suffered from doctrinal conservatism in the high-command much more. In the Infantry’s case, the only large-scale adoption prior to 1930 had been the D1 in 1929, and that tank was still in the production process by 1930 (it would have to wait until 1936 to be truly operational in its final configuration). In both the cases of the D1 and P16, the new armored vehicles were neither numerous or polyvalent enough to replace all the fleet of WW1 vehicles. While the FT and White had been sufficient through much of the 1920s, they were truly becoming dated by the turn of the 1930s.
It is therefore not surprising that significant programs were initiated by both the Cavalry and Infantry in 1930. On July 4th, the French Army Minister signed an ambitious program, which comprised, for the Cavalry, transforming an entire cavalry division into what would become a Division Légère Mécanique (DLM, ENG: Light Mechanized Division), as well as motorize a brigade of each other cavalry division within five years.
Alongside this organizational change, requirements for new vehicle types were to be formulated and issued to manufacturers. Two sets of requirements for armored reconnaissance vehicles were issued. Both shared similar requirements of a 50 km/h maximum speed, 3,600 kg empty weight and 600 kg load capacity, but one was to be a 1.80 m tall turretless vehicle carrying six personnel (including the driver) with an openable roof. The other would be a 2 m tall three-men armored car armed with a turreted machine gun, with another machine gun stored as a backup and a firing port in the hull from which a crewmembers could fire a machine rifle.
These two distinct sets of requirements were merged together in January 1931. The resulting vehicle mostly took the characteristics of the turreted armored car, such as a three-man crew, but was to ditch having a complete turret, instead using a shielded machine gun on a rotatable mount. A new classification system had been introduced at this point in time, with different roles being indicated by a letter. The reconnaissance cavalry vehicle would be called Type L.
Two companies, Renault and Berliet, offered vehicles for the Type L. Likely due to the constant shift in requirements as well as overly ambitious expectations on how light the vehicle could be made to be, neither fulfilled the last set of requirements. Renault’s vehicle, the UR type L or URL, was a six-wheeled armored car with a fully rotatable, fully armored turret, weighing upward of 6 tonnes. Berliet’s VUC type L or VUCL was a similarly heavy vehicle weighing in the 5.3 tonnes range empty and up to 5.9 tonnes at maximum load, though it was a 4×4 armed with a shielded machine gun instead of a turreted one (as well as ports doubling as vision and firing ports on the front and sides of the vehicle, for the crew to fire a machine rifle from). Both the URL and VUCL appear to have been present at the 1931 army maneuvers, but do not appear to have made a lasting impression.
A Page from the Infantry’s Book: Interest in the Type N
The Type L program initiated by the Cavalry could not be said to have been a success. With shifting requirements and overly ambitious expectations, the two offerings from private companies did not end up fulfilling the requirements at all, nor did they look promising. As medium-sized wheeled options proved, at this point, disappointing, the French Cavalry would soon take interest in the results of a program initiated by the Infantry, the Type N.
The Type N program was initiated after the French Army’s trial commission at Vincennes got to experiment on two Carden-Loyds of British origins in June-July 1930. These vehicles immediately brought interest in the still infantry-focused French Army. The Carden-Loyd had originally been thought as a way to mechanize the infantry, but when the French Army tried the vehicles, it compared them to unarmored Citroën-Kégresse half-tracked tractors, with the Carden-Loyd allegedly performing admirably against them. It was quickly imagined that a small vehicle of this size could operate as an excellent tractor/supply vehicle, able to tow either an anti-tank gun or light artillery piece, or a trailer loaded with ammunition for infantry companies, or potentially, even both.
As early as October 1930, the French Infantry issued specifications for a véhicule blindé de ravitaillement de l’infanterie (ENG: Infantry Armored Supply Vehicle). This would soon be given the designation of Type N.
The requirements for the Type N requested a tiny vehicle not higher than 1.10 m, able to take a load of 950 kg, crewed by two men, and able to reach a maximum speed of 35 km/h on road, while having good off-road capacities. There was not a strict requirement of a running gear type, so in theory the vehicle could very well have been wheeled, tracked, or half-track. In practice, there were three major competitors for the Type N, none of which was fully wheeled. There was one half-track, the Citroën P28 chenillette, and two fully-tracked vehicles, the Latil N, a mere copy of the Carden-Loyd, and the Renault UE.
Though initiated by the Infantry, it is not, from the requirements, surprising that the Type N would soon garner interest from the Cavalry. Since the late 1920s, British engineers and salesmen had done much work abroad to sell the idea of very light tracked vehicles, which could be used for a variety of purposes, from reconnaissance to a light tank substitute or a tractor. When looking at the requirements of the Type N, the vehicle was far from being as slow as tracked vehicles of previous years often were, at 35 km/h, while its tiny size would surely prove useful for reconnaissance.
The Time of the P28
Prototypes of the Type N vehicles were showcased from the spring to summer 1931, with Renault being the first to present a prototype in April 1931, while Latil and Citroën would present theirs in July 1931. It appears that interest of the Cavalry into the vehicles of the Type N program blossomed starting in the summer, likely after the presentation of the Citroën vehicle.
The Infantry picked Renault’s fully tracked vehicle, the Renault UE, in October 1931. However, at around the same time, the Cavalry showed intense interest in the Citroën vehicle. The P28 chenillette proved 10 km/h faster than the Renault, reaching 39.5 km/h, and while the Cavalry was generally fairly open to vehicles with new types of running gear, it still had a lot more experience with half-tracks in comparison to fully tracked vehicles which traditionally were more of an infantry affair.
The Cavalry was very interested in the P28. The vehicle would require extensive modifications to be turned into a turreted armored car, though the same could be said of an UE. The Cavalry still viewed it as having a lot of potential as an automitrailleuse de contact (ENG: contact armored car) meant for close reconnaissance. In October 1931, months before any prototypes of an armed P28 were ever delivered, 50 vehicles were ordered. It would only be in July 1932 that a prototype of the final configuration would be ready.
This was, at this point, a major success for Citroën, which was one of Renault’s most important rivals within the French automotive industry, both on the civilian and military markets. Citroën managing to achieve such a success was not well viewed by the rival company. Around the same timeframe, likely very shortly before the adoption of the Citroën P28, Renault offered a first design for a tracked reconnaissance vehicle. It would receive the “VM” two-letter code (in the same sequence as the FT, UE, and countless other Renault vehicles).
The Early Design of the Renault VM
The first Renault VM design was created around the same timeframe as the Citroën P28, in autumn 1931. The design would retain the same very short length of 2.8 m as the UE, and perhaps the same or at least a similar width of 1.74 m. However, there were major structural changes to the vehicle. Renault gave this modified design the internal code “Renault VM”.
Instead of retaining the front crew compartment, centrally-placed engine, and rear-mounted stowage area of the original UE, the VM’s crew compartment would instead be placed towards the left and rear of the vehicle, with an engine to the front and right.
The largest difference in the vehicle design was the presence of a turreted armament. The early VM design featured a turret which was mounted on the left of the vehicle, behind the driver’s position, which was positioned in the same way as on an UE. The turret featured on the schematics of the vehicle was a fairly simplistic design. It would be armed with the new machine gun available for fortifications and armored vehicle designs, the 7.5 mm MAC 31. The turret would have housed a single crewmember, the gunner/commander. It appears that a small cupola would have been placed towards the rear of the turret, and would likely have had some sort of vision device, such as a panoramic periscope. From the design, the turret appears to have been very small overall, to the point it would have been quite cramped. It also appears that no reloads for the machine gun would be present in the turret, with all the magazines having to be stowed inside the hull instead.
The other major structural change of the early VM design in comparison to the UE was the engine, with the early VM being designed to have a more powerful engine. Its potential horsepower output is unknown, as Renault used an alternative means of power measurement for it, CV. It would have been a 15 CV engine. In comparison, the original UE’s Renault 75 was a 10 CV engine producing 30 hp, while the AMR 33’s 24 CV engine would produce 84 hp. Unlike the centrally-mounted position on the UE, the engine was shifted to the right on the early VM design. This would have been a fairly uncommon feature at the time. As lateral space was quite limited, the radiator and ventilator would have had to be shifted at 90° and be installed to the rear of the engine, in a fairly distinct manner which would have also been quite rare at the time. The radiator, in particular, would have been installed as far to the back as the turret would have been, and the gunner would have effectively been sandwiched between the radiator on his right and the hull’s wall to the left.
The suspension of the vehicle would have used the same components as the Renault UE, with three leaf springs bogies on which two small road wheels were mounted, a front sprocket and a rear idler. However, unlike on the UE, the sprocket and idler would have been placed higher. Though the return rollers are not seen on the schematics, they would very likely have been present. Armor protection at this point in time would also very likely have been the same as the UE, with 9 mm on vertical surfaces and 6 mm on all other plates.
Renault’s early VM design was submitted to the technical services of the French Cavalry at some point in autumn 1931. The vehicle was formally rejected by the French Cavalry on November 12th 1931.
A first review of the design by the French Cavalry was fairly negative. Several design choices of the vehicle were deemed subpar and proved unpopular, as some of the design features were quite unconventional for the time. Among these was the rear-turreted configuration. Another source of discontent was the engine’s offset mounting to the right. Furthemore, the engine was not thought to be powerful enough to allow for the vehicle to reach a high enough speed. This was further worsened by the use of a suspension almost identical to the UE, with six small road wheels mounted on leaf springs, which would generally favor cross-country mobility but make reaching higher maximum speeds harder. There were also issues with the proposed placement of the radiator all the way to the right, with the position of the commander cramped between the radiator and the left wall of the vehicle.
The Armed UE Interval
Somewhat paradoxically, just days after the early Renault VM design was rejected, interest was expressed into a much more basic armed Renault UE vehicle. On November 21st 1931, the STC (Service Technique de la Cavalerie – Cavalry Technical Service) required Renault to provide two Renault UEs for a presentation to a Dragons Portés (Eng: mechanized dragoons) unit. Crucially, the STC requested one of the two vehicles to be armed. This request was made for a presentation which was to take place only nine days later, and this timeframe was considered too short to reasonably modify a UE to feature an armament.
However, while Renault could not produce a conversion for this specific presentation, the request from the STC made it very clear to Renault that there would be official interest in an armed version of the UE from the French Cavalry. Work quickly began on realizing such a conversion. By late 1931, the 6 Renault UE prototypes were still undergoing trials for the French military, and the first production vehicles would only be delivered in 1932. As such, creating such a vehicle on such a short notice would be accomplished by modifying an existing prototype.
The modified vehicle would be the prototype registered as “n°77 982”. The modifications made to the vehicle were very simple. The roof of the co-driver’s compartment was raised by a small extent, using the same riveted construction as the rest of the vehicle. The dome-shaped cupola was retained. This raised compartment allowed for enough internal space for a machine gun to be added. This was, as on the VM design, a 7.5 mm MAC 31.
The modified prototype was presented to the French Cavalry at an unspecified date in early 1932. The 1st BDP (Bataillon de Dragons Portés) carried out operational testing. These trials generally underlined shortcomings of the vehicle when it came to fulfilling the light armored car role which was desired from the conversion. Besides the machine gun, the modified Renault UE had been kept almost completely untouched. The vehicle retained the Renault 75 four-cylinder gasoline engine mounted in the center of the vehicle, and producing a mere 30 hp. The original suspension was retained as well, meaning the vehicle was not particularly fast, nor did it have a particularly good autonomy at around 100 km.
The Birth of the AMR Concept
By the end of 1931, the French Cavalry and Renault stood in somewhat of an odd position. The French Cavalry had just rejected the VM reconnaissance vehicle design from Renault, but while it had ordered a very simple modified UE that would soon be delivered, there was realistically little potential in such a vehicle. With the P28 still not at the finalized prototype stage and unlikely to offer a good reconnaissance armored car, something had to be done if the Army was to acquire such a vehicle.
This would come on January 16th 1932. At this point in time, the French Cavalry put up detailed specifications of what would be required from a reconnaissance vehicle. It is at this moment that the Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance (AMR; ENG: Reconnaissance Armored Car) designation was born.
The term automitrailleuse deserves a little more attention to be understood in the context in which it was used in interwar France. In common French language, ‘automitrailleuse’ is practically identical to the English ‘armored car’ term. However, in the Interwar era, an ‘automitrailleuse’ referred to any armed vehicle of the Cavalry, sometimes not even armored. Indeed, the French “automitrailleuse” comes from “automobile” and “mitrailleuse” (machine gun), with no part of the word implying the vehicle is armored. In practice, the vast majority of automitrailleuse were armored vehicles, but a few unarmored cars armed with automatic machine rifles used for patrol in the colonies were sometimes called automitrailleuse as well.
The term did not particularly come with an associated running gear when used in the context of the French military either. Vehicles called automitrailleuse could be wheeled, half-tracked, or even fully tracked, as long as they were operated by the Cavalry. This may seem somewhat archaic from a modern point of view, especially as designations such as “cavalry tank” now exist, however, these were not necessarily widespread at that time. The idea that the tank (or “char” in French) was a weapon of the Infantry, not of the Cavalry, was not entirely French, and indeed there are other examples of fully tracked, turreted armored vehicles not been referred to as tanks when serving in the cavalry branch of other armies. Two notable examples are the American M1 “Combat Car” and the Japanese Type 92 “Heavy Armored Car”.
The requirements of the AMR, as formulated in January 1932, indeed did not call for a specific running gear. The idea with the AMR was to create a small, contact-reconnaissance armored car, whereas another larger type (what would become the AMD) would assume longer-ranged missions. Because of this, the vehicle being able to fight independently or even having huge range was secondary in comparison to a good mobility and small size, allowing for an overall discrete vehicle.
The AMR was to be crewed by two men, a commander in a turret and a driver in the hull. The turret was to be armed with a MAC 31 machine gun, with a spare being stored inside the vehicle, and 2,250 rounds of ammunition (nine drums) being available inside the vehicle. A very light weight of 3 tonnes was required, with a load-taking capacity of 500 kg. Mobility-wise, the maximum speed requirement was reasonable at 35 km/h. The vehicle would have to be able to negotiate a 50% slope and remain stable on a 60% one. Height was to be limited to 1.80 m and width even further, to 1.60 m. Range was to be of 200 km.
The VM is Reborn
With these new requirements, life was breathed into the VM program again, with work resuming on the vehicle, still retaining the same two-letter code.
Some major design changes were soon applied to the VM. When Renault offered a presentation mock-up in March 1932, the design had changed very significantly. The most important change was likely to lengthen the vehicle by 80 cm and change the suspension. The new suspension design featured four road wheels, on two bogies, with each road wheel being put on leaf springs and having a fairly large range of independent movement. A new 24CV eight-cylinder engine was adopted instead of the previous 15CV of the early VM. With more space, the new design was also able to ditch the odd choice of putting the radiator and ventilator way to the rear of the engine, instead placing them on the side of it. This would significantly improve the commander’s position, as he was otherwise very close to these elements.
The vehicle adopted a new turret design, which was not a product of Renault, but Schneider. At this point, there was significant collaboration between the two firms, and a similar turret would also be placed on the Renault URL prototype that was still being worked on. The general layout of the vehicle was somewhat similar to the previous VM, but much more spacious, with the commander not being almost on top of the driver, who had a much more distinct compartment. The turret was pushed all the way to the rear of the hull.
This new design of the VM overall appeared a lot more mature than the previous plans, and was judged promising enough for not just one, but five prototypes to be ordered on April 20th 1932, for a sum of 856,250 Francs (roughly equivalent to €55 millions), with deliveries requested no later than September, so the five vehicles could take part in large maneuvers that would be undertaken around this time. One last major change was found between the revised design and the prototypes. The Schneider turret was ditched, with Renault instead using a riveted design of its own.
The VM Reaches the Prototype Stage
After receiving the order for prototypes in April, Renault quickly put itself into gear. Long delays had not been rare in the company’s manufacture in the past, and as not just one, but five prototypes had been ordered, it could have been feared this may have plagued the VM. However, the company ended up able to produce five prototypes before September, with the assembly seemingly being completed as early as July.
Manufacturing was probably eased by the Renault UE being in mass-production by 1932. Though the VM had evolved to be very different from the UE, Renault would still at this point have extensive experience and facilities able to manufacture small tracked armored vehicles of riveted construction. The five vehicles were given registrations from 79756 to 79760. They were protected by 6 and 9 mm armor plates and given a Renault 24CV “Reinastella” engine producing 85 hp.
The five prototypes were at first all identical. In a way, they formed more of a pre-production run than a true proof of concept or prototype. The reason behind five identical prototypes being ordered was likely to make their use in the 1932 maneuvers more relevant, with the opportunities brought by a platoon of vehicles being better showcased with five than one, while a single failure preventing any test was ruled out. This would also allow the vehicles to be later modified for experimental purposes.
There are a number of features of the five prototypes which differ from both the previous VM plans and the future mass-produced vehicles, and therefore deserve to be highlighted in more detail. The first is a Renault turret. Though the plans from early 1932 show the VM with a Schneider turret, for one reason or another (perhaps due to quick manufacture of a Schneider turret not being possible or due to a perceived superiority), the prototypes received a turret designed in-house by Renault. This was a fairly high hexagonal turret of riveted construction, quite similar in general appearance to the turret designed by Citroën for their P28. The turret appears to have featured vision devices on each of the two side plates, the rear plate, and to the front, to the left of the gun (which was the fairly new 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun). The turret was pushed all the way to the rear of the hull, offset to the left, as on previous plans. It is reported that the Renault turret was found quite unsatisfactory during testing. Not only was its fairly unorthodox rear placement not at all liked, but the internal arrangement was found to be lacking, and compared negatively to the turret of Renault’s competitor Citroën.
The other notable feature of the prototypes is their suspension. It was, by this point, fairly basic. The vehicles featured four wheels, mounted on two bogies of which the leaf spring acted as the suspension unit, rather than being the point on which finer springs which acted as the suspension were mounted. As a result of both, an overly large range of motion and the points of movements being concentrated in two areas, this suspension was reported to offer a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. It is very easy to differentiate from future suspension types due to the lack of any vertical springs. The vehicle already featured three return rollers, with a front sprocket and rear idler wheels (which, outside of the sprocket featuring teeth, were very similar). Wheels had an open spoked design in order to reduce weight to a minimum.
A number of stowage points were also unique to these prototypes, most significantly rings on which a canvas cover could be attached on the left sponsons of the vehicles. These would later be moved, as the canvas cover, stowed to the side of the vehicle, would potentially be removed by any lateral obstacle.
The French Army’s First Look at the VMs: A Good Concept, To Be Refined
With five vehicles delivered, the Renault VMs were able to form an experimental platoon which actively took part in the September 1932 maneuvers. These maneuvers were on their own fairly historic, as their goal was to experiment on fairly large scale cavalry mechanized units (“groupements méchaniques” or, in English, “mechanized groups”).
Overall, some aspects of the VMs left a very positive impression. The vehicles did exceed the required weight, going over 4 tonnes, however, this was not particularly a surprise, as all major 1920s and 1930s projects ended up going over the requirement weight, largely due to overly ambitious requirements. However, the vehicles were mobile, reaching over 55 km/h on road, while their tracked configuration offered superior off-road performances in comparison to wheeled or half-tracked armored cars. This alone was enough to show the considerable qualities a tracked AMR may offer for close reconnaissance.
However, these general qualities of the vehicles and their class are to be balanced by a variety of issues which were found on the vehicles. As mentioned previously, the Renault designed turrets were found to be lacking. The suspension was even more of a problem, due to its overly large range of movement making for a very uncomfortable ride with sudden harsh movements of the wheels being a common occurrence. Despite their small sizes, the VMs were also found to be loud, which would be a major drawback for their role. In terms of range, they failed to achieve the 200 km requested of them and were instead closer to merely 100 km. The vehicles were found to be at times poorly balanced, and at last the rear-turreted configuration was very much disliked.
After these drawbacks were noted, the vehicles were returned to Renault in order for improvements to be designed immediately. The manufacturer quickly responded, and by November sent three of the vehicles back to the Vincennes commission for testing.
Towards the Production Standard
The prototypes which were returned to Vincennes were the three last ones in the registration order, 79758 to 79760. The main round of improvements which Renault had worked on focused on the suspension. In order for the commission to determine which potential type they found superior, each of the three vehicles was delivered with a different suspension.
The vehicle registered 79758 featured the same suspension type as all five prototypes had been fitted with at first. The vehicle registered 79759 featured a modified version of this same suspension.) Iit had the same general design but featured friction-operating dampeners fixed to the armored hull of the vehicle and to the road wheels in order to reduce sudden strong movements. Unfortunately, no photos of this vehicle in this configuration have emerged as of today
The last vehicle, registered as 79760, featured a new suspension type. Though it had four road wheels as well, this suspension moved away from two bogies of two wheels. Instead, the front and rear wheels were individually mounted, while the two central wheels were part of a bogie. Both the front and rear wheels were mounted on a horizontally-placed coil spring. The two wheels part of a bogie were placed on small leaf springs linked by the bogie’s body to a large central coil springs/hydraulic shock absorbers on the bottom of the hull side further smoothened the movement of the central road wheels. The number of return rollers was also increased to four.
It is known the vehicle registered as 79759 was tested from November 17th to December 13th 1932, while 79760 was tested from November 30th to December 14th. The conclusion of these new trials was clear. The vehicle fitted with the coil spring suspension turned out to offer a much more comfortable ride than the one with the large leaf springs, and overall turned out to be a much better technical solution. The trials commission published a report on December 22nd which concluded that the Renault VM, despite perhaps not fulfilling every single requirement put forward back in January 1932, was a satisfactory vehicle and would be ready for adoption. Earlier the same month, on December 9th, a small update had been made to the requirements, with the armor thickness required being raised from 9 to 13 mm.
Orders… and Continued Evolutions of the Prototypes
Following this positive evaluation from the trials commission, the first order for serial production of the Renault VM was placed on March 8th 1933. This formal adoption of the vehicle gave it the full designation of AMR Renault Modèle 1933, commonly known as AMR 33.
This first order was for 45 vehicles. The full order would be placed on June 22nd 1933, and would eventually be for 118 examples of the mass-produced vehicle. At first, an extremely ambitious delivery calendar was requested by the French military, with the first AMR 33 being requested to be delivered as early as July 1933. This would not be the case, in large part because, as the contracts were being signed, prototypes were still being experimented on, particularly in terms of suspension.
In April 1933, Renault returned two of its VM prototypes to the trial commission in Vincennes in order for them to be experimented on. The main changes were, again, that each of the two prototypes featured a modified suspension.
The first, the vehicle registered 79757, had received a modified version of the suspension which had been successfully tried on 79760 a few months prior. Though it kept the central bogie with two wheels, as well as one front and one rear independent wheels mounted on coil springs, it ditched all leaf springs left on the central bogie, with the bogie’s wheels instead being linked to the front and rear horizontally-mounted coil spring already used by the front and rear wheel. Oil-operated shock absorbers were also added and the body of the bogie received a number of changes. In order to respond to the unpopularity of the rear-mounted turret, the turret of this vehicle was also brought forward by 30 cm, and the vehicle had received a weight in order to simulate the effect of the up-armoring to 13 mm on performances. This updated suspension type was found to continue to improve on the vehicle’s driving and was formally adopted on June 6th 1933. Overall, this 79757 prototype would be the closest to the production standard.
However, on the same occasion, Renault also sent the vehicle registered 79758. The vehicle did receive the weight to simulate up-armoring, though the placement of its turret was not modified. The vehicle, however, received a new suspension. It shared the similar design of the other suspension type being experimented on, with a central bogie with two wheels, and an independent front and rear wheel. However, it ditched coil springs.
Instead, the wheels were mounted on rubber blocks fitted on sliding mounts. A large central rubber block was used for the central bogie, while both the rear and front wheel had their own rubber blocks, placed at the same location as the coil springs of the other suspension type. The advantage of this suspension was that rubber blocks were found to be more sturdy and resilient than coil springs. In theory, a suspension on rubber blocks would also have the potential to be very smooth. This was not yet the case, as this suspension was new for Renault and some teething issues were still to be fixed, with the suspension at this point being found to cause too sudden movements at times. Because of this, it was not adopted at the start of the production run of the AMR 33. However, after Renault was able to refine it, this suspension would be used on some of the very last AMR 33s, and most significantly, on all of the vehicle’s successor, the Renault ZT/AMR 35.
Even as the mass-produced vehicles were being manufactured, experimentations on the VM prototypes did not stop. The tracked AMR were a new class of vehicles after all, and the French Army would run a number of trials to see if some accessories could be added to the vehicles. With five prototypes in existence, these were now readily available to be experimented on.
It was eventually decided that two of the VM prototypes would be employed in work on the future generation of Renault AMR. These would be n°79759 and 79760, which would be extensively modified to function as Renault ZT prototypes in early 1934. The two first VM prototypes, n°79756 and 79757, would be modified to production standard and delivered to the 7th Chasseurs Regiment operating in Evreux in spring 1935, being the only AMR 33s operated by this unit until they disappeared from it in 1937.
Finally, prototype n°79758 was kept around for experimentation. In 1933, it received a new track tensioning device using a pulley, located on top of the rear right fender. This would be adopted for the mass produced vehicles. It was reported that in 1934, the vehicle received a “five wheels” suspension similar to that of the Renault ZB, a vehicle similar in overall design to an AMR but offered for export, which would imply a second bogie replacing one of the wheels. No photo of this conversion has emerged and pictures of the vehicle in 1935 show it with the same rubber block suspension it sported in 1933. In 1934, it is also reported it received a “suspended tensioning pulley”.
One of the accessories which was tried on a VM prototype was one designed by the British-Hungarian engineer Nicholas Straussler, who would be responsible for, within others, the Duplex Drive amphibious kit for Sherman tanks, the Hungarian 39M Csaba armored car as well as V-3 and V-4 tank prototypes, and eventually even a post-WW2 main battle tank design.
Straussler’s accessory was a trench crossing device, consisting of two two-part extending mechanical “arms”, one which would be placed on the vehicle’s front and another to the rear. When a vehicle would go into a trench, the front “arm” would be used to set into the ground in front of the trench to be crossed, preventing the hull itself from diving front first into the trench. As the vehicle then advanced forward, the rear arm would plant itself into the rear of the trench being crossed and in turn prevent the rear from falling into the trench and getting the vehicle stuck.
Straussler offered the design to the French Army in 1933, and one of these systems was subsequently manufactured by Ateliers et Chantier de la Loire (ACL, ENG: Loire Workshops and Shipyards). Mounted on the prototype registered as 79758, it would be trialed in April 1935, March to May 1936, and March 1938. The system was reportedly able to allow an AMR 33 to cross a 2 m-wide trench with vertical sides. However, it is easy to see how the system may, in exchange, have been overly cumbersome, and it was not retained on any scale beyond these trials.
The AMR 33 into Production
Renault’s factories of Billancourt started working on the AMR 33 production run soon after the first orders were registered. However, the overly ambitious calendar the French Army hoped for, which would see the first AMR 33 delivered in July 1933, could obviously not be met.
The first order for the AMR 33, designated 754 D/P, included two batches. The first, of 45 vehicles, was formally ordered on March 8th 1933, and the second, of an additional 20, was placed on June 22nd 1933. Finally, the contract also included in its clause the modification of three prototypes to production standard, and later the manufacturing of three additional vehicles to replace the prototypes. In the end, the three replacement vehicles as well as two prototypes would be produced/modified to a slightly different standard from the rest of the AMR 33s, and would be the last vehicles produced, coming after the vehicles from the second contract.
The second contract, for 50 vehicles, was signed soon after, under the designation of 996 D/P. The original calendar requested by the military was that the first batch of the first contract would begin to be delivered by July 1st 1933 and the second batch of the first contract by March 1st 1934. By early August, Renault’s calendar was that the first batch would begin to be delivered by August 31st 1933 and the second batch still by the date required by the government.
In practice, however, the first fully complete production AMR 33 would only be delivered in June 1934. Production on such a scale on a short timeframe proved way too hard to achieve for Renault. Still, the vast majority of vehicles, 115, were able to be completed during 1934. Only the last five vehicles would be delivered in 1935, these being two of the VM prototypes having been modified and three new vehicles, all five of them receiving a different suspension.
Technical Characteristics of the AMR 33
The AMR 33 was, overall, a small tracked vehicle. It largely used riveted construction, with large conical rivets being used to hold the armored plates in place. The vehicle had a length of 3.50 m and a width of 1.60 m, while the height, including the turret, was 1.78 m. The ground clearance was 30 cm.
In terms of weight, the VM weighed around 4.5 tonnes when empty of fuel, crew and ammunition. Loaded with these, it would weigh around 5 tonnes. This would place it in the higher weight range of the small, turreted reconnaissance tanks of the 1930s, slightly heavier than vehicles such as the Japanese Type 92 or 94, Czechoslovak AH-IV, and Soviet T-37 or T-38, owing to ever-so-slightly higher dimensions and armor thickness. The most similar vehicles in terms of weight, size and protection would generally be the German Panzer I and British Vickers Light Tanks, though in comparison to these, the AMR 33 doctrinally remained more focused on a reconnaissance role.
Hull & Hull Construction
The hull of the AMR 33 had been forged by intensive evolution originating all the way back to the Renault UE, through a series of designs and later prototypes. In its final form, one would hardly recognize any feature of the small logistical tractor in the AMR 33, with the hull having largely evolved beyond being a mere derivative.
Likely the most unconventional aspect of the AMR 33 at the time was the organization of the hull, with the engine block placed to the right and the driver to the left, instead of a more standard and derivative configuration with an engine at the rear, as the French Army was already largely used to.
The vehicle used a front-mounted transmission. This was reflected in the hull front by a grill for aeration of the transmission’s differential which was found to the right and below the driver’s post. There was also an openable cover, largely for maintenance purposes. The vehicle’s batteries were also located towards the front and featured an openable cover for maintenance or removal.
The driver’s position only slightly projected out from the hull. The front formed an openable hatch, so that drivers could have a more ample field of vision when outside of combat. When closed, it still featured an episcope to improve vision. Considering the small size of the driver’s block sides, they seemingly could not mount vision ports. There was an entry hatch located just below the openable episcope cover, which was typically where the driver would enter and exit the vehicle. A rearview mirror was installed on the left mudguard. Otherwise, the hull in front of the driver’s post had been made to be as low as possible in order not to impede on his vision.
This frontal glacis was largely used as stowage space. A shovel and a pickaxe handle were installed translaterally on the fully flat part of the hull. To the left, in front of them and the driver’s post, was a towing cable. A spare road wheel was sometimes also present there, under the cable or with the cable wrapped around it. Just in front of this cable was the vehicle’s singular headlight, a Restor armored model. Sometimes, later in their service life, AMR 33s were given the new Guicherd armored headlight, recognizable by its cover extending far in front of the headlight itself. This new headlight was, among others, issued to the AMR 35, and would likely be refitted to AMR 33s that had broken headlights for the sake of logistical simplicity. Just below this light was the middle front plate, which featured, on the right, the Renault manufacturer’s plate, while the registration number would be painted on the middle.
Because of the engine’s placement to the right of the hull, there were significant differences in construction between each side. On the crew compartment side, to the left, there was a form of sponson which extended from behind the driver’s post all the way to the rear of the vehicle, in order to accommodate in large part the turret ring. The space on the other side would be taken by the exhaust. Two hatches were present on the right of the vehicle’s roof in order to access the engine.
The turret was mounted about as far forward as possible with this construction, 30 cm forward to how it was on the first VM prototypes. The rear of the hull was gently angled. To the left was a two-part hatch/door which would typically be the commander/gunner’s point of entry or exit from the vehicle, and offered the best emergency exit overall. On the engine side of the vehicle, the radiator was installed to the rear, and as such, the right of the vehicle rear glacis was taken by the grill of the radiator. The canvas cover for the vehicle would typically be stowed over the radiator grille.
In terms of crew position, drivers would be seated on what was in practice pretty much a cushion seat on the floor, bringing their eyes to the level of the episcope and their feet in contact with the pedals. Commanders had a seat that appears to have been somewhat adjustable and would have them at eye level with the episcope or machine gun sight within the turret. For drivers, outside of usual clutch, acceleration, and brake pedals, turning appears to have been achieved by two tillers.
The armor protection of the hull followed a pretty simple scheme. All vertical or near-vertical plates up to 30° (most of the front plates, the sides, and the rear) were 13 mm thick. Plates at an angle higher than 30° but still potentially vulnerable to most enemy fire (parts of the front glacis) were 9 mm thick. The roof was 6 mm and the floor 5 mm. The turret followed the same armor scheme as the hull. This was a fairly thin armor scheme, about as light as one could find in 1930s French vehicles, but it was within the norms for light reconnaissance vehicles.
To an extent, having 13 mm of armor protection on the sides would even be slightly above average in comparison to other light tracked reconnaissance vehicles, which would more often than not have between 6 and 9 mm. The difference may not seem significant, and truthfully it was not against any kind of dedicated armor-piercing weapon, but it may sometimes have been the difference between being truly impervious to rifle-caliber fire or still being vulnerable to it at close ranges.
The armored hull consisted of a rigid body, with some removable plates (the roof as well as upper front and rear plates). There were six articulated openings in the hull, largely described before: the rear doors, openable covers for the batteries and differential grille, openable hatches for access to the engine, driver’s entry hatch, and driver’s episcopes hatch.
The AMR 33 used an eight-cylinder engine of Renault design, nicknamed the “Reinastella”. This was a 75×120 mm 4,241 cm3 engine that was also used in racing cars. At the standard cyclic rate of 2,800 rpm, it would produce 24CV, a French unit of measurement for power, or 85 hp. The engine was fitted with an internal electric starting-up device, and alternatively could manually be started with a crank from the outside. It used a Zénith carburetor which was designed to allow a cold start. The front-mounted transmission had four forward and one reverse gear, with a “Cleveland” differential.
The radiator was mounted to the rear. The fan used to eject hot air included ten blades, 580 mm in diameter.
Overall, the power-to-weight ratio of the vehicle was high for the time. At a full load of 5 tonnes, it reached 17 hp/tonne. This manifested very positively on the vehicle’s performance. On a good road, the vehicle could peak at 60 km/h, which was definitely on the higher end even for tracked vehicles. Even on a lower quality road, an average cruise speed of 45 km/h was typically to be maintained. The vehicle’s fuel tank contained 128 liters of gasoline, which would provide the AMR 33 with a range of 200 km on roads.
Suspension and Tracks
As described previously, the suspension of the AMR 33 went through considerable evolutions at the prototype stage.
The vehicle used a front drive sprocket, with the teeth on the sprocket’s center, and a rear idler. There were four road wheels, with the front and rear wheels being mounted independently, and the two central road wheels being mounted on a bogie. Four return rollers were present. The road wheels as well as the sprocket and idler had a very light construction, designed to optimize their weight as much as possible. They all used an open-spoked design with large holes. Furthermore, while the construction of the wheels themselves was made of steel, the road wheels received a rubber rim instead of a metallic one.
The suspension itself relied on a front and a rear coil spring, directly linked to the front and rear wheels by a suspension arm. The central bogie was also linked to these springs, though the central wheels would typically have somewhat less movement than the front and rear ones. Oil-operated shock absorbers were also present to make the ride smoother.
The vehicle used thin, 20 cm wide tracks with a central guide horn, largely based on the UE design. These were very small, thin and light, once again a requirement in order to maximize the speed of the vehicle.
In terms of crossing performances, the AMR 33 was able to cross a 1.70 m wide trench with vertical sides, ford 60 cm of water, or climb a 50% slope. It would retain lateral stability while moving on sloped terrain at a slope of up to 60%.
It ought to be noted that the last five production AMR 33 to be completed (three new vehicles and the rebuilt 79756 and 79757 prototypes), delivered in 1935, received a new suspension type. This was, in fact, the same rubber-block-based suspension as tested back in 1933, having been refined and now found superior to the coil-spring-based suspension. It had the same wheel placement, but differed by the use of three rubber blocks, including one nested between the two covers of the central bogie. The cover elements linking the rubber blocks to the wheels were also different. This new suspension type would be mounted on the AMR 33’s successor, the Renault ZT or AMR 35.
Its use on the AMR 33 would also be extended somewhat. Between 1938 to 1940, when vehicles were returned to maintenance facilities for large-scale repairs, a number received the new suspension type. These refits were moderate enough to only concern a minority of the fleet, however, and most AMR 33s still kept the original suspension going into the Battle of France.
The AMR 33 used an AVIS (Atelier de Construction de Vincennes – ENG: Vincennes Construction Workshop) n°1 turret. These turrets were designed by a state-owned workshop. Despite their name, they were not technically located within the municipality of Vincennes, just east of the city of Paris’s borders, but inside the Vincennes woods, technically within the territory of the municipality of Paris. Renault’s facilities of Billancourt were located west of Paris, along the Seine and still within the urban area of the French capital. Though the design was carried out at Vincennes, production of the turrets took place in the Renault factory itself.
The small turret had the same riveted construction as the hull, and used a hexagonal design, with a front and rear plate, and three plates on the sides. The turret was higher at its rear. The turret in itself did not feature a seat. The vehicle overall was low enough that a seat located in the hull, even quite low in it, was high enough for commanders to be at eye level with vision devices. The vision devices included in the turret were, to the front, an episcope to the right, a vision slot to the left, and the machine gun sight. There was an additional vision port on each side, and to the rear.
The turret included a large semi-circle shaped hatch opening forward, allowing the commander to reach out from it. There was also an anti-aircraft mount for a MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun present to the right-rear of the turret. Small handles were also present on the front sides to ease climbing into or out of the turret from the hatch, though the preferred mode of entry into the vehicle remained the rear doors.
Armament was provided in the form of a MAC31 Type E machine gun, the shorter, tank version of the MAC 31 which had been designed for fortification use. It used the new standard French cartridge, the 7.5×54 mm. The MAC31 Type E had a weight of 11.18 kg empty and 18.48 kg with a fully loaded 150-round drum magazine, fed to the right of the machine gun. The machine gun was gas-fed, and had a maximum cyclic rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute. It had a muzzle velocity of 775 m/s. It ought to be noted that peacetime photos of AMR 33s often show the vehicles with no machine gun mounted inside the gun mount.
In the AMR 33, the 150-round drums were stowed on the left side of the hull. The position where they were stowed can actually be conveniently identified from the exterior of the vehicle. A line of rivets run along the upper hull sides at the same level as the mount for the drums. A total of 15 drum magazines were stored inside the vehicle, providing for a total of 2,250 rounds of 7.5 mm ammunition.
A feature of the AMR 33, shared by many armored vehicles of the French Cavalry, was the presence of a spare machine gun stowed inside the vehicle, at the rear of the hull. There were two purposes for this. The spare could either be used to replace the machine gun mounted in the turret in case of damage or a major malfunction, or be mounted on the AVIS n°1 turret’s anti-aircraft mount.
Photos of AMR 33s displaying the machine gun actually mounted in its anti-aircraft position are exceedingly rare, though there are a few more showing the mount without an attached machine gun. Several reasons are to be found behind this. The anti-aircraft machine gun was not mounted for parade or peacetime operations, when most photos of the AMR 33s were taken, and in fact, they were typically only mounted in case of evident enemy air threat. If an AMR 33 was abandoned, the spare machine gun, especially if mounted on the anti-aircraft mount, would be one of the first things to be taken if it was functional, either by the crew if the vehicle was not abandoned in a hurry or by enemy troops upon encountering the vehicle.
AMR 33s left their factory with two different camouflage schemes.
The first Renault camouflage scheme used three or four different colors. It was generally brush-painted in irregular rounded shapes. The four colors used were olive green and “Terre de Sienne” (brown) for the darker colors, and “ocre” (in practice yellow) and “vert d’eau” (watery green, imagined to be a lighter green color) for lighter colors. Black and white photos have generally left the lighter colors fairly distinct, but the olive green and “Terre de Sienne” can often be hard to differentiate. This camouflage scheme was almost universal on the AMR 33s. It varied significantly from vehicle to vehicle and was at times chaotic. On some vehicles, the lighter shades appeared dominant, while the dark ones were more pronounced on others.
The exception was a camouflage scheme that was particularly common on the vehicle’s successor, the AMR 35, but, on the AMR 33s, appears to have been limited to the five vehicles completed to a slightly different standard in 1935. This was once again a three or four-tone camouflage with the same base colors as the previous, however, the shapes were generally a lot less chaotic, larger, and more uniform, though still rounded in shape with irregularities. However, there was a blurry edge painted in black between spots of different colors.
At the point at which the AMR 33 was designed, radio was still not a standard feature really considered on most combat vehicles of the French Army. It was not a standard element present on AMR 33s. As a result, communications between vehicles would have to be assured by flags. Vehicles of leaders of platoons or squadrons would have a small special flag to distinguish them from the vehicles they led.
There was a distinct exception to this rule. French Army maintenance services in Reims converted a number of AMR 33s into “TSF” (Transmission Sans Fil – Wireless Transmission) radio vehicles as early as 1934. While the vehicle retained their armament, the conversion was more extensive than merely adding the radio. It appears the radio, of which the model is unknown, at least partly took the space of the ammunition stowage in the hull. As a result, some of this ammunition stowage was moved to the inside of the rear door, which required some modifications. Additional rivets had to be installed to hold the ammunition stowage points, and, as a result, the handles were moved slightly and were no longer at the same height.
Only very few AMR 33s were ever converted in such a fashion, and they were only likely present in the two units operating AMR 33s that were at some point based in Reims, the 4ème GAM and 18ème Dragons.
Doctrinal Use of the AMRs
The AMRs were intended to be issued to cavalry units. Their main role was close reconnaissance. For longer-range, more independent operations, another class of automitrailleuse existed, the AMD (Automitrailleuse de Découverte – ENG: literally “Discovery Armored Car”), which would typically feature higher range and armament in comparison to the AMR to be better suited to operate on their own for longer periods of time.
On their own, the AMRs were meant to search within a selected, limited area, for enemy contact. Their small size was viewed as a benefit in this, and it was specified that they had to use terrain to their advantage to the best of the crew’s abilities. Combat was to be engaged at close range only. The vehicles were to take contact with the enemy, but not stay in combat distance for long, as, with their thin armor, it was clear they would not last under armor-piercing or artillery fire. It was also specified that the vehicles would operate in close cooperation with other types of troops, either motorcycle-mounted reconnaissance, or AMC (Automitrailleuse de Combat – ENG: Combat Armored Car) cavalry tanks and/or cavalry.
The AMRs were to operate in platoons of five. In operations, each platoon would be further divided into two small sections of two vehicles, with the fifth, independent vehicle, being that of the platoon leader. When operating on the AMR 35 successor type, the leader of each section was to use a 13.2 mm-armed vehicle, but this was obviously not possible for units operating on the strictly 7.5 mm-armed AMR 33. Platoons were to be followed by motorcyclists, which would typically be used to communicate with other parts of the unit.
The standard procedure was for a platoon of five vehicles to be tasked to investigate an area 1 to 1.5 km wide. Each section of the platoon was to operate at a distance so they would still be in visual contact with the other. Platoon leaders were not to stay behind, but to follow with the first section, though under some circumstances, they could decide to stay in observation further back. The vehicle of a section leader was to lead, with the second vehicle slightly behind, so that if the first vehicle came under fire, the second could assist with its own armament.
Progression within an area to investigate was to be made in ‘hops’. Vehicles would go from one zone to observe the area from another, with the zones to stop at preferably offering decent cover. The next position would be observed with binoculars before being taken. In case of uncertainty in regards to a position, the second patrol could go to investigate closer while the first would remain in observation with binoculars.
When going from one cover to another, the AMRs were to progress if possible in non-linear ways, and if suspect positions were encountered on the way, they were cleared to fire at them in order either to reveal the position of enemy troops or find it clear of enemy presence. This would typically be done while stopping. It was noted that fire on the move was generally inaccurate and wasteful of ammunition, and it was to be used only in emergencies. The manual specified, for example, that shooting on the move would be used if an automatic weapon or anti-tank gun was suddenly revealed and the vehicle was under threat. The platoon leader was to organize and correct each ‘hop’, which as a rule implied he had to follow vehicles rather swiftly as they did not have radio to communicate with one another.
When encountering a village or wood, each patrol was to go around it on its outer border, observing if anything could be seen inside. Once that was done, one of the patrols would stay at the opposite side of the area to the one they came from and where the platoon leader would still be located. The other would go through the village or wood to the commander, and once they regrouped, progression would start again.
If the wood or urban area was particularly large, another procedure was in place. A patrol would stay with the platoon commander, while the other would quickly go to the opposite exit of the wood or urban area. It would then divide in two, with a vehicle staying to defend the opposite exit while the other would quickly run through the area, reach the other patrol and platoon commander, and the group would then rejoin with the lone armored car on the other side of the area.
When one or a couple of vehicles fell under fire, they were to simultaneously fire back and find cover as quickly as possible, while other vehicles of the platoons were to flank in order to delimitate the area held by the enemy, and if the resistance was limited, try to push the enemy back from this flanking maneuver. If flanking was not a possibility, the vehicles were to cooperate progressively on a point at a time. If pushing the enemy back was not a possibility due to the resistance being too strong, the vehicles were to stop behind the nearest cover and retain binocular observation of the enemy, with one of the vehicles periodically going on a short patrol to confirm enemy positions were still occupied.
When operating alongside troops mounted on motorcycles, they were noted to be a very helpful asset in reconnaissance. They were said to, in practice, prove more reliable than the armored cars at providing vision when no enemy fire was encountered, notably when moving, as the AMR crews were said to have lacked vision when in movement. Once contact with the enemy was taken, they were to observe and note the firing points firing at the armored cars and retain observation even once the armored cars were no longer under fire.
It was generally hoped the armored car would operate in conjunction with a motorcyclist platoon, forming a détachement mixte (ENG: mixed group). It would be led by the most senior officer between the AMR and the motorcyclist platoon. The motorcycles were generally to follow in the armored car’s stead, due to the latter’s greater protection against enemy fire. When under enemy fire, the motorcyclists were to engage in a more skirmish-like action, pushing the enemy flanks and making sure to keep contact with the enemy even if the armored cars no longer had line of sight. Against an enemy line, it was even, quite optimistically, said that the motorcyclists could attempt to infiltrate weaker points of the line, and be rescued by the AMRs if they fell into trouble.
There were also different principles for when the AMRs were operating alongside AMCs (which, de facto, were cavalry tanks). The AMRs would take the lead of progress, with AMCs at a slight distance behind them to be able to observe the reactions triggered by the AMR’s presence and provide supporting fire. The AMRs would also be tasked with reaching the edge of cover to check for enemy presence as well as to cover the flanks if they offered good firing positions for the enemy.
Once resistance was uncovered, the AMRs would put it under fire and stop advancing, letting the AMCs catch up and take the lead for the time needed to reduce the enemy point. If the resistance was sporadic, once an enemy point was reduced, advance would continue as normal. If the group encountered the main enemy line of resistance, the AMRs would switch to a secondary role, operating in the intervals between AMC groups to provide supporting fire as well as screening the flanks for enemy presence.
The AMRs were also given the role of cleaning up minor resistance points which may have escaped the AMCs. In such a role, a platoon would cover areas 1 to 1.2 km wide. These ‘cleanup’ groups were to follow closely behind the AMCs in order to profit from the chaos caused by their heavier firepower, making sure each point was cleared of enemy presence as the cavalry unit progressed.
There was one last offensive role of the AMRs, in what was called the ‘occupation echelon’. This would be the part of the unit which would follow after the ‘offensive echelon’, itself consisting of the AMCs and AMRs previously mentioned. This occupation echelon would lack AMCs and instead include traditional cavalry and motorcyclists, with the AMRs being, typically, their heaviest elements. The AMRs were to screen forward of this group in order to spot remaining enemy elements. The role of the AMRs of the occupation echelon was to relieve those of the cleanup group of the attack echelon. It was generally hoped that by this stage, all significant enemy resistance would be gone. One could generally see these offensive doctrines as a three to four-layered attack: a first offensive layer, the largest, including AMRs and AMCs, itself constituted of the AMRs first closely followed by the AMCs; followed by the ‘cleanup’ platoons operating AMRs, the head of the occupation echelon operating AMRs; itself followed by soft-skinned cavalry and infantry elements. At the rear, there was to be a reserve squadron as part of the occupation echelon, meant to be used during emergencies.
These were, overall, the operating principles in offensive actions. They can be said to be very enthusiastic about the capacities of a group of five lightly armored and armed vehicles.
There were also principles given for defensive use of the AMRs. It was clearly mentioned that the vehicles had to be used for delaying actions, and not in static defense. They would then be placed at the edge of cover, such as a forest or village’s edge, and fire upon enemy forces they spotted at greater ranges. It is then said they would keep this contact all the way to close range, and, if possible, counter attack, and if not possible, swiftly retreat to the next cover in a sort of defensive reversal of the ‘hopping’ method of advance. If enemy forces were noted to be on the smaller and less equipped side, it was suggested to hold fire until closer ranges in order to create ambushes. During these defensive operations, the platoon leader was given responsibility to ensure the flanks were well guarded.
Qualities and Issues of the AMR 33
Considering the number of prerogatives given to the AMR 33, it is important to truly understand the vehicle, to analyze how it fared, and the qualities and drawbacks that one would have to take into account to evaluate its potential.
It first has to be noted that the AMR 33, by the time it came out, did not lag behind designs fulfilling a similar role in the rest of the world, quite the contrary. By the time it reached prototype stage in 1932 or entered service in 1934, the standard of much of the world when it came to light tracked reconnaissance vehicles was still turretless vehicles very similar to or straight up copied from the Carden-Loyd Mark VI. The first turreted types, often smaller and with less powerful engines than the AMR 33, for example, the T-37A or Type 92, were contemporary to the AMR 33.
The AMR 33 could compare positively to many vehicles of its era. Its turreted design already put it in the higher bracket in terms of capacities, and its powerful 85 hp engine, at a time when the slightly lighter reconnaissance vehicles mostly had to contend with engines in a 40 hp range, was significant. Indeed, when looking at its 8-cylinders engine, at a time when many similar vehicles had 6 or 4-cylinders powertrains, the AMR 33 could seem almost like a race car. With its maximum speed of 60 km/h, it outperformed most Carden-Loyd-derived designs, which neared 40 km/h (though Vickers’ light tanks would also exceed 50 km/h).
Even armor-wise, while all the light reconnaissance vehicles of the time had light armor, the AMR 33 was still in the upper bracket and one at least safe from rifle-caliber fire under all or nearly all circumstances, if little more than that.
However, these qualities over vehicles fulfilling a similar role did not necessarily mean the AMR 33 was, outside of this context, a good vehicle. The race car comparison may be fitting in other ways than the powerful engine and high speed too. As mentioned previously, the vehicle’s suspension had been designed to be as light as possible. The wheels were largely covered by holes to reduce the material used, and this thin construction could also be seen in the tracks, which were also thin, narrow, and light. These features helped the AMR 33 be as light and as speedy as possible, but, consequently, they were not the sturdiest, and definitely not when going at high speeds for the time. The drivetrain of the AMR 33 was notoriously unreliable. The vehicles would often suffer from thrown tracks or damaged wheels. They required significantly higher maintenance than many other vehicles of the French Army.
Issues did not stop at the unreliability of the drivetrain, though other problems of the AMR 33 are perhaps less specific. The vehicle, as so many other French interwar designs, retained a small, two-man crew, with the commander in the turret taking up not only his role of spotting and leading the vehicle, rendered even more important by the vehicle’s reconnaissance role, but also that of gunner and loader of the vehicle. Even though this may have been less strenuous with a machine gun with 150 rounds magazines than on a vehicle armed with a cannon or a machine gun with lower capacity rigid clips, such as the Hotchkiss model 1914, it was still less than desirable.
This issue of overtasking was coupled with poor vision from the vehicle. Commanders did have an episcope towards the front, but otherwise, their vision was limited to very thin vision slots on the turret sides and rear, where they would be hard-pressed to see enough to draw any reliable conclusions on their surroundings. Opening the hatch could be an option, but the way it folded parallel to the turret roof granted no cover. Similarly, it appears there were no side driving slots for the driver, only the front episcope. Once again, this issue was not necessarily specific to the AMR 33 and was also shared by many reconnaissance vehicles of the era, but this did not mean it was not a considerable or even crippling issue.
Another major drawback of the AMR 33 in its reconnaissance role was the utter lack of means of communication with the outside world. Besides the few vehicles which were converted to fit radios, a non-standard conversion, the vast majority of AMR 33s, including platoon commander vehicles, did not have radios, or any other means of communications besides small flags. This issue was once again shared by many French 1930s armored vehicles. However, it can be said to be a lot worse on a reconnaissance vehicle, in comparison to, for example, a light infantry tank.
As explained previously, a platoon of AMRs could be expected to do maneuvers a lot more complex than a light infantry tank, potentially involving a lot of movement, moving from cover to cover, and flanking. Without radio to allow communication between the vehicles, the vehicles would have to follow pre-given orders or to stop at a point under cover to be given new orders by a commander, neither of which were ideal in comparison to having the commander communicate orders via radio.
The lack of a radio was equally a liability when it came to reporting the fighting of the vehicles on a reconnaissance mission to the rest of an unit. To do that, an AMR would either have to rely on a motorcyclist to manually travel to a point with a radio or the rest of the unit, or do that itself. It is indeed mentioned in the AMR’s prerogatives that the vehicles could act as ad-hoc liaison vehicles. However, when the vehicles were forced to act in this role to report their very findings, the situation could be said to have been worrying.
However, it is important to note that other similar vehicles of the time also lacked radios, including the T-37A, Type 92, Sd.Kfz.221, and British Vickers Light Tanks.
Last and perhaps least important, even if the armor protection of the AMR 33 was on the upper end of reconnaissance light tanks, it was still essentially only making the vehicle bulletproof, little more. While an AMR 33 was well protected from rifle-caliber ammunition, with a maximum of 13 mm of all-round armor, any kind of armor-piercing weaponry was potent against the AMR 33, as well as direct hits from light artillery pieces, even with High-Explosive shells, or near-enough hits from heavier artillery. A notable example of the AMR 33’s higher vulnerability was illustrated by German anti-tank rifles, the most common being the 7.92×94 mm Panzerbüchse 39 or the captured Polish 7.92×107 mm PzB 35 (p). These could commonly pierce its armor, but would typically struggle against most French tanks.
Derivatives and Variants
The AMR 33 had a fairly short list of variants and derivatives, as its place in time alongside other contemporary designs and size did not really align well with creating a whole family of derivatives.
Firstly, the AMR 33 came soon after, and was, in a way, still a derivative of the Renault UE. The UE was meant as a polyvalent tractor/supply vehicle, and as such, many non-combat roles for which a variant would sometimes be created from an armored vehicle were not based on the AMR 33 due to the very existence of the UE.
Secondly, the configuration of the AMR 33, with a side-mounted engine, was not appreciated by the French Army. While the vehicle was adopted nonetheless, the French Army would soon require Renault to work on an improved design with a rear-mounted engine as the more definitive AMR. It also made sense that auxiliary vehicles would mostly be created from a vehicle with this more standard configuration.
There were still a few vehicles based on the hull of the AMR 33.
The Renault VE was the first AMR 33 variant, a vehicle designed to follow the Type P requirements, which called for, basically, a mobile anti-tank gun. The Renault VE is best described less as a derivative of the VM, and more as a parallel development with the same automotive and suspension elements. Renault also began work on the VE as early as 1931, with construction of the prototype seemingly undertaken in 1932. It would only receive its armament in 1935, however, a variant of the 37 mm APX SA 34 anti-tank gun usually mounted on the Maginot Line. As such, it actually likely received the most powerful armament ever mounted on a vehicle of the AMR series. By 1935, new vehicles on the AMR 33 hull were out of consideration, and the VE was never adopted.
A less combat-suited derivative of the AMR 33 was the Renault YI. Around 1932-1933, Renault offered a series of unarmored tracked tractors, of which the 2 tonnes YI was the lightest. Meant to be used to tow the standard French 75 mm mle 1897 field gun, the YI used the drivetrain of the AMR 33, identical to production vehicles except for the drive sprocket, which was full without holes and with a more rounded shape. Only 2 YI would ever be ordered by the French Army and thus manufactured.
Renault YS and YS 2
Seemingly, the last Renault VM/AMR 33 derivative to be conceived would be the Renault YS. The concept of this vehicle was first mentioned in December 1932. The idea was to create a command vehicle with a larger superstructure that could house more crew members and the equipment needed for them to assume command functions.
Two YS prototypes would eventually be manufactured, the first in 1933, using the Renault VM’s suspension. They had a larger, boxier armored superstructure which could house six crew members, and had no armament, though they featured a firing port/hatch where an FM 24/29 machine rifle could be placed.
An order for 10 production Renault YS was made in January 1934, but these are best described as derivatives of the Renault ZT/AMR 35, as they would be built using this vehicle’s drivetrain rather than the VM/AMR 33’s one.
Nonetheless, the two VM-based prototypes saw continued use. In autumn 1936, one was even experimentally converted into an artillery observation vehicle, which was called the “YS 2”. Despite their small number, the YS, including the two VM-based prototypes, were still in service in some Cavalry units by 1940.
A Successor: the Renault ZT/AMR 35
As mentioned previously, the French Army did not appreciate the overall configuration of the AMR 33, with the engine pushed to the side. While this configuration that Renault used had helped minimize the size of the vehicle, the French Army desired a design that used a more standard configuration, with the engine at the rear of the vehicle. It is because of these reservations that orders for the AMR 33 would remain at a quite moderate 120 vehicles, quite far below the number of AMRs which would be needed to fully equip the French Cavalry branch that was in the process of expanding its mechanized forces in the 1930s.
As early as early 1933, there were drafts and plans for a version of the AMR 33 with the engine pushed back to the rear. Renault would start working on a prototype of the AMR 33’s successor in late 1933. In fact, the first prototype to be presented, in February 1934, was the deeply reworked 79759, the fourth VM prototype. The internal two-letter designation code of this new vehicle was ZT.
There are some interesting details to highlight about the ZT’s development. In the first prototype, the speed was raised all the way to a very impressive 72 km/h thanks to an 8-cylinders 28CV engine, though this would not be retained all the way to the production standard. Eventually, another Renault VM, 79760, would be converted into a ZT prototype in March 1934. These two first makeshift ZT prototypes made from old prototypes of the AMR 33 were somehow satisfying enough to achieve the first order for the ZT on May 15th 1934, before a new prototype, the first purpose-built ZT, would be ready by September.
With the ZT on the way, further development on the AMR 33 stopped, with its successor being standardized as the AMR 35. It was meant to become the true standard AMR, though eventually, due to the High command of the French Army being skeptical of this kind of lightly armored reconnaissance tank, production would be limited to 167 of the standard ZT-1 type. The AMR 35 would nonetheless prove to be a more popular platform for variants. Vehicles accepted into service on the AMR 35 hull include the ZT-2 and ZT-3 tank destroyers, the ZT-4 colonial light tank, and the ADF1 command vehicle.
Interestingly enough, one of the two VM prototypes converted into ZT showed up during the 1940 campaign. This was 79759. Despite having used the AVIS n°1 turret when operating as a ZT prototype in 1934, it was seen refitted with the older and worse Renault turret of its early days, being used during the desperate defense of the city of Orléans, on the Loire river, where it was abandoned. Photos show the vehicle’s turret disarmed, and markings indicate it was at that point used as a driver’s training vehicle in a training facility. It is, in fact, known it was issued to the Saumur Cavalry School, but with this facility being 180 km away from Orléans and its cadets having been heavily engaged in the defense of their own crossings on the Loire river, it remains unclear why the prototype ended up there.
Issuing the AMR 33 to Units
By the time they came out, the AMR 33s were to serve within one particular type of unit.
During the first half of the 1930s, the French Army had five DCs (Divisions de Cavalerie – ENG: Cavalry Divisions). The AMRs were to be delivered within the GAM (Groupements d’Automitrailleuses – ENG: Armored Car Group) within each cavalry division. A GAM was to be issued 15 AMR 33s, allowing for the formation of three platoons. Three platoons were considered to form a squadron. There were also nine cavalry regiments in mainland France, some of which were to be motorized or mechanized, including with some armored cars, and turned into reconnaissance groups.
However, in practice, deliveries of AMR 33s were not that uniform. It was decided before the first AMR 33 was even delivered that the 4th DC would be turned into an experimental unit of a new type, a DLM (Division Légère Mécanique – ENG: Light Mechanized Division). The objective was to create what was basically a light cavalry armored division with motorized infantry, and because of this particular status, the units of the 4th DC would get priority for deliveries when AMR 33 came out of production.
Out of the 65 AMR 33s of the first batch, 40 went to units of the 4th DC. The unit’s GAM (4th GAM) received the standard dotation of 15, but two other components of the 4th DC were issued with AMR 33s; the 18ème Régiment de Dragons (ENG: 18th Dragons Regiment), a cavalry regiment, received 15, and the 4ème Bataillon de Dragons Portés (ENG: 4th ‘Carried’ Dragons Battalion/BDP), a motorized infantry regiment, received the last 10. The 4th GAM and 18th Dragons both operated in Reims, which became somewhat of a center for the 4th DC/1st DLM and for the operation of AMR 33s ( the few TSF conversions were run there). The 4th BPD, in contrast, operated in Verdun.
The remaining AMR 33s were distributed between the GAMs of the other cavalry divisions, which were not envisioned to become DLMs. The 1st (Orléans), 2nd (Strasbourg), and 3rd (Paris) GAM (part of the similarly-numbered cavalry divisions) each received 5 AMR 33s with the first batch and another 10 in the second batch, each receiving their allocated lot of 15. The 5th (Melun) GAM got the short end of the stick, receiving only 2 AMR 33s within the first batch and another 8 in the second batch, and later the three newly completed AMR 33s of the later standard.
Finally, three regiments not part of a larger division received some AMR 33s. The 9th Dragons regiment in Epernay received 8 AMR 33s as part of the first batch, the 11th Chasseurs in Vesoul 12 vehicles of the second batch, and, finally, the 17th Chasseurs operating in Evreux received the 2 prototypes converted to the late production standard in 1935.
Within the GAMs
There are some unique aspects to the service of the AMR 33s within the GAMs.
The 4th GAM and 18th Dragons, both located in Reims and part of the 4th DC/1st DLM, were uniquely quite forward-thinking in the use of their vehicles. At that time, it had been decided that Cavalry units in Reims would operate as a somewhat experimental mechanical brigade, a way to test out the armored tactics on a larger scale than regimental, which was planned to be extended to more of the cavalry in the following years. This is why the Dragons Regiment, despite not being a GAM, received AMR 33s. Schneider P16 AMCs were also issued to units located in Reims. The use of the mechanical brigade was to test the AMC-AMR couple which was identified in French Army doctrine.
As for the 10 AMR 33s issued to the 4th BDP in Verdun, while the mechanical brigade of the 4th DC was located in Reims, the ‘discovery’ regiment was based in Verdun. This part of the unit mostly used AMDs, longer-range wheeled reconnaissance armored cars, but 10 AMR 33s were nonetheless issued there largely to experiment as well.
Besides the AMR 33s issued to sub-units of the 4th DC/1st DLM, the 1st GAM, operating in Orléans, had an interesting aspect in that its AMR 33s operated in tandem with AMCs (once again Schneider P16s) inside a mixed AMC-AMR squadron, though the number of AMRs issued (15) matched a full AMR-only squadron. The 1st GAM also had another squadron operating AMDs.
The 2nd GAM, based in Strasbourg, Alsace, was notable in that it was, alongside other units of the 2nd DC based in Strasbourg, the unit of the French Cavalry located the furthest to the east in mainland France, in a city located on the River Rhine that formed the border with Germany. Before being delivered AMR 33s, it already had two squadrons, an AMC and an AMD squadron. Once the 15 allocated AMR 33s were delivered, it formed a third squadron with these.
The 3rd GAM is likely the unit in which the AMR 33s were the most photographed. Part of the 3rd DC, it was also included within the garrison of Paris, and as such took part in parades on the Champs Elysées for Bastille and Armistice days By 1934, the unit actually had an odd three-squadron composition, with two squadrons of AMD and a single mixed squadron of AMR/AMCs, though the unit received a full complement of 15 AMR 33s. These were further divided. Eleven were part of the unit’s main garrison in Paris’ central military school, while 4 were branched out in Versailles.
The 5th GAM, operating in Melun, at first only received 10 AMR 33s, and had to operate them in a mixed squadron alongside AMCs. In 1935, it also received the last three newly-manufactured AMR 33s that featured the rubber block suspension. This unit was the one in which AMR 33s had the shortest service life, as this GAM was reorganized into the 8th Cuirassiers Regiment in October 1936, as the 5th DC was being, like the 4th DC, converted into a DLM, the 2nd DLM. At this moment, the AMR 33 were delivered back into storage.
The 6th and 7th GAM are the most elusive, created in Compiègne in 1935 and Saint-Omer in 1936 respectively. Despite seemingly not being associated with a cavalry division, they received a small number of AMR 33s taken from other units, likely in large part from the 5th GAM. Unlike other units, when exactly they stopped operating the type is unknown, though at the time when they were converted into GRDI reconnaissance groups in 1939, they did not feature any AMR 33.
Lastly, for the few non-GAM units not part of any division, the reason why they were issued AMR 33s is even more unclear than with the last two GAMs. The 17th Chasseurs, which operated only two AMR 33s, both converted prototypes, stands as the oddest of them all.
Markings of the GAMs
Each GAM had a symbol, which was typically inscribed on the side of the AMR 33s’ turrets.
The 1st GAM’s symbol evolved from the early to the late service of the vehicles within the unit. The early symbol was a front-facing knight with white feathers on his helmet on a red background, surrounded by a green border embellished by yellow squares. The second design had the same green border, but embellished with red squares instead, and given white wings with black borders. Inside the green border, the background was yellow instead of red, and while at the center, the image of a knight with white feathers on the helmet was retained, but he now faced to the side.
The 2nd GAM symbol was a Cross of Lorraine. In its simplest form, it was a yellow cross on a red background, inside a white roundel. In a later more complex form, the circle was diagonally divided between a red half to the bottom left and a green half to the top right, still sporting the same yellow Cross of Lorraine on top, with a storch superimposed in front of the cross. A third symbol also existed from 1936 onward. It had more of a coat of arms form, with a central red shield containing three yellow scorpios. On top, the common figure of a knight with white feathers to the sides and a sort of yellow/golden hat on top. The golden top hat formed, alongside the bottom, an anchor placed behind the shield.
The symbol of the 3rd GAM is in a way even more esoteric, showing a white cog, with a central red circle. Superimposed on top of these was a sort of yellow hippogriff and a blue shield containing a golden anchor.
The symbol of the 4th GAM was a red circle with a white border. In the middle was a knight painted in white. On a yellow legend at the bottom of the circle, “Jeanne d’Arc” (Joan of Arc) was written in black. Reims is the city where, famously, Joan of Arc got French King Charles VII crowned, explaining the reference.
There were also symbols more commonly associated with the whole 4th DC/1st DLM which appeared on vehicles of the 4th GAM, but also sometimes the 18th Dragons and 4th BPD. An early one (1934-1935), found only on vehicles of the 4th GAM, was a red rectangle with a white boar in the middle. Later, the pattern of a black boar on a diagonally divided white and blue background became a common pattern in the 4th DC. Lastly, the 18th Dragons also had its own unique symbol sometimes present, a red hippogriff inside a yellow circle with a blue border. On occasion, a simpler symbol of a white hippogriff with red borders, often superimposed on tactical markings, was also used.
Common Tactical Markings
Common French tactical markings based on card games were seldom found on AMR 33s in comparison to other vehicles, but could sometimes be seen nonetheless. This marking scheme relied on two methods of identification, the color and the shape. The color indicated which squadron a vehicle was part of. Blue was used for the 1st Squadron, Red for the 2nd, and White for the 3rd.
Within squadrons, a single shape would be used for each platoon. Typically, this was an ace of spades for the 1st platoon, an ace of hearts for the 2nd platoon, an ace of diamonds for the 3rd platoon, and some later unit compositions would allow for four platoons, in which case, the 4th platoon used an ace of clubs. Unfortunately, as these markings were not systematically used, and as the color can sometimes be hard to identify in black and white photos, this way of identifying which exact part of a unit a vehicle belonged to is not dependable, but it can sometimes be useful.
Another unit marking that appeared from 1938 onward was the French tricolor cockades. Upon the introduction of this new tactical marking, one was often painted on each side, with a third on the rear of the turret. By 1940, the presence of this very obvious marking had most of the time been reduced to just one on the rear of the turret. Sometimes, one was also painted on the roof in order to ease identification from the air.
Vehicles were sometimes, though again far from systematically, given a one or two digit number on the side or rear of the turret, indicating their number within a squadron.
Restructuring and Reforms of 1936-1937
A couple years into the service of the AMR 33s, the French Cavalry saw considerable organizational reforms which changed the structure of units operating the AMR 33.
Following the successes of experiments on units combining various types of armored cars, it was decided to change the structure of the armored car groups of most DCs. Previously, the standard complement had been one squadron of 15 AMR 33s, as well as one squadron of 15 AMDs and, typically, two squadrons of 15 AMCs.
In 1936, it was concluded that a different configuration should be adopted, notably following experimentation with the mechanical brigade in Reims. It was found that a more AMR-heavy organization was desirable, as the AMRs proved to be the vehicles that cooperated the most closely with the infantry in general, while the AMCs would generally end up being more specialized in an anti-armor role.
As part of this reform, each GAM was to be reformed into a RAM (Régiment d’Automitrailleuse – ENG: Armored Car Regiment). The name change only happened at the mobilization in September 1939, though the actual organizational change was carried out as part of the reforms taken in from 1936 to 1938. The RAM ditched one of the AMC squadrons, leaving it with a single squadron of 15 AMCs, and retained the squadron of 15 AMDs. However, it was increased to have two squadrons of AMRs, and each squadron was to be boosted from 15 to 23 AMRs. In other words, the standard complement of each DC would rise from 15 to 46 AMRs. This was somewhat compensated by the 5th DC following the 4th in transitioning to a DLM, and it was decided the AMR complement of the higher-priority DLMs would all be AMR 35s.
However, with three DCs, there was still a need for 138 AMRs, exceeding the production run of 118 AMR 33s. It was therefore decided that the 1st RAM, operating within the 1st DC, would be outfitted with AMR 35s, leaving the two other DCs, the 2nd and 3rd, operating with AMR 33s, and even leaving a respectable surplus, as AMR 33s were also phased out of non-divisional units operating them to be solely concentrated into the four squadrons of the 2nd and 3rd RAMs. AMR 33s of all other units were sent back to storage, with the 1st RAM abandoning its last AMR 33 in 1938, to be redistributed to the few units using them. The 2nd and 3rd RAM generally kept the traditions and imagery of the 2nd and 3rd GAMs that came before them, and the same symbols can often be spotted on their armored cars even after the reform.
At the outbreak of the war, each of the RAMs had their standard complement of 46 AMR 33s. A total of 18 vehicles were in various maintenance facilities or training schools. At least, quite mysteriously, 10 vehicles were reported as having been sent overseas. There has never been any evidence of an AMR 33 leaving the French mainland, and this is likely some sort of accounting mistake, with 10 AMR 33s perhaps instead undergoing significant general maintenance.
Outbreak of the War: The Mobilization Reforms
As France joined the Second World War after Germany launched an invasion of Poland, reforms were once again carried out within the French Cavalry. In September 1939, there were no major changes outside of the units formally being reclassified from GAMs to RAMs, with the actual changes to their organization having been carried out long ago.
However, larger plans were soon put in place. With the DLMs having proven to be a successful experiment, able to replace the DC as the frontline fighting force of the Cavalry, the DCs were now seen as secondary units, and it was decided to reform them into Divisions Légère (DLC – ENG: Light Divisions), a name received in February 1940 and which would be changed in March to Divisions Légère de Cavalerie (DLC – ENG: Light Cavalry Divisions). The reform itself was theorized in November 1939 and carried out in February 1940
These were smaller divisions, with slightly more of an emphasis on armored vehicles, though typically lighter ones in comparison to the DLMs, where Somua S35 and Hotchkiss H35/H39 tanks were the main armored fighting force, with AMR 35 and Panhard 178 as armored reconnaissance vehicles. In comparison, the smaller DLCs would have more of a focus on various armored cars with no vehicles typically considered as cavalry tanks. The core of each DLC would be a previous cavalry brigade, and as the previous DC each had two brigades, they were typically divided into two. In cases relevant to the AMR 33s, the 2nd DC was divided into the 2nd and 4th DLCs, while the 3rd DC was divided into the 3rd and 5th DLCs.
As part of the organization of the DLCs, the AMRs were removed from the RAMs, which now exclusively operated AMDs, AMCs, and motorcycles. AMRs were instead issued to the Dragons Portés, which became a two-battalion regiment instead of a single battalion inside a DLC. Each battalion of a Dragons Portés regiment was to be supported by two platoons of AMR 33s. In total, each of the four DLCs which was to be issued AMR 33 had a nominal complement of 26 vehicles. In practice, the AMR complement of a DLC was always or almost always sourced from a single squadron keeping the same personnel, meaning the same traditions and symbols were often retained despite the vehicles being assigned to a different unit.
With the total number of required vehicles of active divisions operating AMR 33s rising from 92 to 104 vehicles, the fleet was actually stretched thin to fulfill requirements. Only one unit, the 15th RDP of the 5th DLC, received the full complement of 26 vehicles. The 14th RDP of the 4th DLC appears to have had 23 vehicles, the 2nd RDP of the 3rd DLC had 20 and the 3rd RDP of the 2nd DLC had 22. A total of 19 vehicles were still issued to school or maintenance facilities and 10 were still in the mysterious overseas category, which was likely a classification error for vehicles undergoing some form of general maintenance.
Unfortunately for the AMR 33s, as armies sprung into action following the German attack of May 10th 1940, fate was not kind to the DLCs they were deployed in. The French Dyle-Breda Plan saw the most potent armored divisions of the French Army, the Cavalry’s DLMs and Infantry’s DcRs, rush into Belgium in order to relieve the country, and hopefully even the Dutch Army in the southernmost parts of the Netherlands. As the heavier units rushed into Belgium, the lighter, smaller DLCs were tasked with covering the flank of the French advance, This largely saw them deployed in or near the Ardennes, where the fist of more numerous and better equipped German Panzer-divisions would strike straight into them. In mere days, the vast majority of the AMR 33 fleet would be mauled to the point where this model would be exceedingly rare after the first week of combat.
Details on the operational service of the AMR 33s are unfortunately a lot more scarce than for other French vehicles, such as the B1 Bis or Somua S35, for a number of reasons. The less sensational AMRs have received significantly less attention from historiography in the past 80 years. Their affiliation to the smaller DLCs, which have largely failed to attract the same mythos and reputation as the larger DLM and DCR, also contributed to their unit’s history having received less attention than larger divisions. The marching journals of the RDP operating AMR 33s are also often more confusing and less clear. A clear reason can be found behind this element was the fact that, while meant largely for second-line duty, the DLCs ended up being a first line of defense they were never intended to be, and were mauled or almost disintegrated very quickly. Generally, it is considered that a week into the campaign of France, about ¾ of the AMR 33 fleet had been destroyed, damaged, or abandoned.
Disaster in Luxemburg: The 2nd RDP, of the 3rd DLC
The first unit operating AMR 33s in numerical order, the 2ème Régiment de Dragons Portés, was part of the 3rd DLC. As the other DLCs, it was included in the covering of the flanks of Dyle-Breda. Prior to the campaign breaking out, the division was located just south of the border with Luxembourg. Its given task was to head into the small country should it be invaded, and to set up checkpoints and hold defensible positions. It should be noted that, at the start of the campaign, this unit had the smallest complement of AMR 33s, with only 20 vehicles.
The 3rd DLC headed into Luxemburg as soon as hostilities broke out on May 10th 1940. It soon faced considerable German opposition. At first, this consisted of small airborne groups that had been deposited by Fieseler Fi 156 Storch liaison aircraft, but soon, two whole infantry divisions, the 17th of and 76th, joined in. Despite their lack of armored vehicles, these German formations generally offered much more firepower and ability to conduct set-piece head-to-head combat than the DLC and its meager supporting units, two GRDI reconnaissance groups and parts of a Spahi North African cavalry brigade.
On the second day of the campaign, the DLC had already retreated into France, having recorded its first AMR losses, which were lost trying to cover troops from GRDIs. The small division was further involved in combat against the German 17th Infantry Division in support of the French 58th Infantry Division in the town of Longwy, on an affluent of the River Meuse.
A few days later, the 3rd DLC, having likely lost a considerable portion of its AMR fleet by this point, was a supporting element of the first engagement of De Gaulle’s 4th DcR at Moncornet on May 17th, and was moved west towards the Somme and Amiens around May 23rd, taking part in an attack as part of the Battle of Abbeville on May 26th.
By June 5th, the likely largely depleted division was surprised by German offensive operations being resumed with Operation Fall Rot following the Dunkerque pocket being successfully reduced. The unit continued to fight a desperate fighting retreat, its elements fighting on the Seine on June 9th and 10th 1940, and then on the smaller Eure on the 11th. As French lines completely collapsed, the retreat of the division hastened. When the 2nd RDP stopped to reorganize on June 15th, only four AMR 33s were still present, with a single platoon of three AMRs surviving within the first battalion, and only a single AMR being left within the second battalion. On June 25th, when the armistice came into effect, the unit was all the way between Bordeaux and Perigueux, in southwestern France.
The First French AFV Lost in The Campaign of France: the 3rd RDP of the 2nd DLC
The 3rd RDP, part of the 2nd DLC, had a complement of 22 AMR 33s as it headed into the campaign of France.
The 2nd DLC, as the 3rd DLC, was part of the Dyle-Breda maneuver. It was tasked with heading into the easternmost part of Belgium, into the country’s Luxembourg province, within the Ardennes forest. This coincidentally was the first part of the Low Countries and France German troops started progressing in.
On the morning of May 10th 1940, as the 2nd DLC headed into Belgium, it was immediately engaged by German troops in a number of Belgian localities such as Arlon, Vance, Etalle, Landin, and Poncel. Divided elements of the division were confronted by the 10th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Regiment. As early as 10 am, near the entry of Vance, AMR 83950, part of the 2nd Platoon of the 1st Battalion, had its two crew members killed by German armor-piercing fire. This appears to have been the first recorded armored fighting vehicle lost by the French Army during the campaign of France.
Already mauled on the first two days of combat, the unit retreated further on May 12th, leaving the town of Jamoigne, on the Belgian side of the French border, to the 36th German Infantry Division. The next day, even more German armored forces broke through the French lines and crossed the Meuse river at Sedan. The 2nd DLC was then engaged in the first phases of the Battle of Stonne in order to try and cut the German spearhead around the 16th of May. As French forces in the north ended up encircled, with the Panzer-divisions reaching the sea on May 20th, the 2nd DLC found itself moving towards the west, and was part of the disparate forces accumulated by the French and British during the Battle of Abbeville, taking parts in attempts to break through the German lines to relieve the Dunkerque pocket from May 25th to early June, without success.
As with the 3rd DLC, the 2nd was heavily hit by the new German offensive of Fall Rot, facing the 5th Panzer Division and the 2nd Motorized Infantry Division. These inflicted heavy losses on the French cavalry division and pushed it to retreat. On June 8th, it received orders to retreat towards the Seine, but was outsped by the 5th and 7th German Panzer Divisions, which took Rouen, the main crossing over the Seine in Normandy, and reached the coast at Fecamp respectively, trapping the 2nd DLC alongside a few other units, including the 5th DLC, two French infantry divisions (the 31st and 40th), and a British infantry division (The 51th Highlands). This ensemble, encircled on the 10th, surrendered on the 12th, after the general commanding the 2nd DLC had been killed in action the previous day.
The 15th RDP of the 5th DLC: a Chilling Figure
The history of the 5th and 4th DLCs is somewhat less documented than the 2nd and 3rd. It is nonetheless known that the 15th RDP, part of the 5th DLC, was actually the most well equipped of all, with the full complement of 26 AMR 33s.
The 5th DLC’s rearguard actions appear to have been concentrated on the French side of the Ardennes, rather than in Belgium or Luxembourg. The unit was notably engaged in heavy fighting on the River Semoy on May 12th, in the locality of Vendresse, where at least two vehicles were abandoned. Overall, and likely as the other DLCs, most of the AMR fleet was likely lost within the first days. Two vehicles were notably seen alongside destroyed trucks in a column that appears to have been entirely taken out.
As with several other DLCs, the 5th’s remains were engaged during the Battle of Abbeville. A single figure is known from this engagement. On May 29th, slightly over two weeks into the campaign, the unit only had one AMR 33 left out of 26, an extremely high attrition rate. After the Battle of Abbeville, there were plans to transform the mauled 5th DLC into a new DLM, which would have been the 8th DLM. However, as with the other DLCs, the division was surprised by Operation Fall Rot before any significant efforts could be undertaken to re-organize it. The remnants of the unit were encircled and destroyed in Normandy alongside the 2nd DLC.
The 4th DLC/7th DLM and its 14th BDP/4th RAM
The 4th DLC, as the 5th DLC, is generally less well documented in the early parts of the campaign, but actually appears to have been the DLC deployed the furthest to the north on the flanks of the Dyle-Breda maneuver, fighting at the south-east of the Belgian city of Namur. An example of how the tactics present in the AMR’s doctrine could turn out badly was demonstrated on May 12th 1940, when 2 of the unit’s 23 AMR 33s were lost. A squadron of AMR 33s had been left to defend the village of Crupet in the afternoon, as the horse cavalry retreated. Left to their own, the vehicles proved largely unable to resist. Two patrols of presumably two AMRs each were placed on the entry and exit of the village. Two vehicles of a patrol were then lost meters from each other, having been encircled by German troops, for which the higher number allowed for higher flexibility.
After its first defeats in Belgium, the unit presumably retreated into France and took part in operations near Abbeville. Its fate, in June of 1940, was quite interesting. On June 5th, the unit was officially turned into the 7th DLM, and adopted an ad-hoc organization. The DLM was to feature a Dragons Portés brigade with two reinforced battalions. It was hoped that each would be able to sustain a mixed squadron of AMRs and motorcycles. The 14th RDP was to operate as one of those squadrons, while another would have been the 31st RDP. However, shortages of AMRs meant the 14th RDP was instead equipped with old White-Laffly armored cars, pressed into service under the role of AMD.
The AMRs were instead pressed into service into a new regiment, the 4th RAM, once again taking the shape of an armored car regiment. This regiment was to focus on reconnaissance tasks, and it was hoped it could sustain four mixed squadrons, two with AMDs and motorcycles, and two with AMRs and motorcycles. In practice, the unit received AMRs from wherever some could be found, training schools, maintenance facilities, etc. The two mixed AMR squadrons were extremely reduced, with a three-vehicle platoon and an additional two-vehicle patrol each in theory. A slightly higher compliment of 14 AMRs total, 7 per squadron, was eventually gathered. This total included both AMR 35s and AMR 33s, the majority likely being of the older type taken from inventory and repair depots. As with the other units still in existence, the 7th DLM fought a bloody fighting retreat on the Seine and then further south. Though poorly documented, it is known that all of its AMRs had been knocked out by the end of the campaign.
The AMR 33’s Performances during the Battle of France
Overall, the AMR 33’s service during the campaign of France was particularly unfortunate. The few units which still operated the type basically found themselves right in the path of some of the most potently armed German units, which easily made short work of these vehicles.
The AMR themselves are not to be entirely exonerated of their poor service, of course. The design’s thin armor made it vulnerable to a variety of German weapons which were not always deadly to French tanks, such as anti-tank rifles or 20 mm autocannons found on Panzer II or in anti-aircraft use.
However, even with better vehicles, considering the small quantities found within the DLCs, far too small to operate as frontline divisions, it is unlikely the vehicles could have performed well even had they been the most advanced reconnaissance tank design of their era. They were in large part in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of being used as reconnaissance vehicles, they were also largely used as cavalry infantry support tanks fighting alongside motorized infantry, which was often not well coordinated with them. In this role, there were almost no positives for the AMR 33, its high mobility being negated while its light armament and armor were exacerbated.
German Use after the Campaign of France
Due to very high rates of abandoned vehicles in the losses suffered by the French Army, German troops were able to capture working examples of the vast majority of armored fighting vehicles types in service with the French Army.
The AMR 33 does not technically appear to have been an exception to this, however, German use of the type appears to have been extremely limited. There are several reasons behind this. First, considering both how the AMR 33s were located right on the frontline, in areas that saw intense combat, and were thinly armored, they were probably, proportionally, many fewer vehicles abandoned due to minor breakdowns and more vehicles which were lost after being penetrated in combat, which could make repair impossible or very complicated. In addition to this, the fleet of AMR 33s, even before this destruction, was small, and the type was long out of production. In comparison to more modern types, such as the S35, B1 Bis, or even H39, there was comparatively little the AMR 33 brought that was not present already in German equivalents, while repair and maintenance of the vehicle would be comparatively hard.
Because of this, photos of the AMR 33 in German service are extremely rare, almost unheard of in fact. The vehicle is nonetheless known to have been given a German designation, Panzerspähwagen VM 701 (f), indicating an armored reconnaissance vehicle of French origin. However, the vast majority of photos of AMRs in German service show AMR 35s, due to more favorable circumstances which lead to more of these falling into German hands.
Conclusion – The First Modern Renault AFV
The AMR 33’s German service is very poorly documented and likely largely insignificant, and there are no known reports or anecdotes of vehicles being recovered and used during the liberation of France. By and large, the story of the AMR 33 can be considered to have ended alongside the campaign of France, and overall fairly early during its course too.
To this day, a single AMR 33 has survived, and is unsurprisingly hosted by the Saumur Tank Museum, which has the largest collection of French AFVs in the world. The vehicle’s interior is sadly not in good condition, but from the exterior, it still looks just as the AMR 33 did back in the 1930s.
When looking back at the AMR 33 today, the vehicle can appear somewhat irrelevant and forgotten. After all, it was one of many vehicles which, in the whole world, came out in the wake of the Carden-Loyd, though the British vehicle was more of a distant ancestor rather than a close parent for the AMR 33. Indeed, when looking at armored fighting vehicles fielded by 1940, there is little that makes the AMR 33 remarkable, outside of perhaps its speed.
The vehicle nonetheless holds an important role in the history of French armored fighting vehicles. The AMR 33 was the first of a new generation of vehicles Renault produced during the 1930s. While it is easy to see how the AMR 33 pioneered the AMR 35, the vehicle’s influence did spread beyond. The AMC 34 and later 35 largely followed in its wake, though they were significantly larger. Even the R35 light infantry tank, which may seem almost the opposite of the AMR 33 with its cast construction, thick armor, infantry role, and slow speed, actually took inspiration from the AMR 33 in the sense that its suspension was based on similar principles. This is not necessarily to take as a point of pride for the AMR 33. The suspension was definitely not a strongpoint of the R35, if there ever was one, and none of the riveted cavalry vehicles offered by Renault in the 1930s would turn out to be huge successes, despite some interesting characteristics, with the AMR 35 being the closest to a good and well-appreciated vehicle. Nonetheless, the influence of the AMR 33 on the armored fighting vehicles created by the most famous French automotive company in the 1930s is undeniable, and the vehicle itself, despite its tragic service history, had a fascinating developmental history.
|AMR 33 Specifications|
|Crew||2 (Driver, Commander/gunner)|
|Driver vision’s devices||Front episcopes|
|Commander’s vision devices||Front-right episcope, front-left, sides and rear vision slots|
|Armament||1 MAC31E machine-gun with 2,250 rounds & 1 spare/anti-aircraft machine-gun|
|Hull Armor||13 mm (vertical/slightly angled surfaces)
9 mm (significantly angled surfaces, notably frontal glacis)
6 mm (roof)
5 mm (floor)
|Turret armor||13 mm (sides)
6 mm (roof)
|Radio||None on most vehicles, few fitted with unknown TSF|
|Fuel tanks||128 liters|
|Production numbers||5 prototypes, 118 production|
Les Véhicules Blindés Français 1900-1944, Pierre Touzin, EPA editions
Mitrailleuses de 7,5mm modèle 1951, Guide Technique Sommaire, Ministère de la Défense Nationale (Ministry of National Defence), France, 1953