The 1935 production version of the Char B heavy tank was the Char B1, further improved as the Char B-1 bis[as above]. The main battle tank of the French army in 1940, it weighed 32 tons, had a crew of four, and mounted a 75 mm main gun in the hull and a 47 mm gun in the turret. Final production models were powered by 300 hp aircraft engines.
In the 1930s, the French General Staff considered tanks primarily as infantry support. New ideas emerged, however, including the development of mechanized infantry and cavalry. The cavalry concept involved three types of reconnaissance vehicles, one that was wheeled for long-range reconnaissance, a machine-gun-armed light tank for cross-country reconnaissance, and a more heavily armed and armored tank capable of fighting. A four-year rearmament plan in 1936 included the formation of three divisions légéres mécaniques (DLM), equipped with S-35 and H-35 tanks, and two divisions cuirasses de réserve (DCR), with B tanks and R- 35 and FCM-36 light tanks to accompany infantry forces.
France also had an excellent medium tank at the beginning of World War II. SOMUA (the Société d’Outillage de Méchanique et d’Usinage d’Artillerie at St. Oeun, Seine) was responsible for the design and construction of an outstanding tank, probably the best allaround French or Allied tank at the time of the German invasion in May 1940. Well-armed and mobile, the SOMUA S-35 also had armor superior to any other comparable tank of the time. Produced beginning in 1935, the S-35 weighed about 43,000 pounds, had a three-man crew, a 190-hp engine, and top speed of 25 mph. The S- 35 had the same cast turret of the Char B-1 bis (bis meaning “improved”) heavy tank (the SOMUA was the first tank ever with a cast hull and a cast turret).
Armed with a 47mm gun and one machine gun, the S-35 statistically compared most favorably against the PzKpfw III, backbone of the German panzer divisions. The S-35 had 55mm armor protection as compared to only 30mm for the PzKpfw IIID. Their top speeds were about the same, but the French tank had a 47mm gun versus only a 37mm for the German. The S-35 also had electric turret traverse and radio as standard. It did suffer from the problem endemic to French tanks of the period in that the commander was isolated in the turret and forced to fire the main gun as well as direct the vehicle in battle. In contrast, the PzKpfw III crew was grouped together in the turret to form an effective fighting unit-a key factor in battle.
Unfortunately for the French Army, too few S-35s were available. France had produced about 430 by the time of its defeat in 1940, and only about half of those reached front-line units. Negotiations were under way to open a second factory in the United States to manufacture many more (there was talk of building 20,000 S-35s), but nothing had come of this by the time France was defeated. The Germans pressed into service many captured S-35s, gave some to the Italians, and placed others in storage. Some S-35s also served with the Free French in North Africa, and following the 1944 Allied invasion of France any that could be found were added to Free French units. A number of S-35s served in the French Army well after the war.
In 1934 the French began experiments with purely armored formations in creation of their first Division légere mécanique (DLM, Light Mechanized Division). Essentially a cavalry formation, maneuvers involving the DLM revealed the need for heavier armament. This led to the Renault R-35 and the Hotchkiss H-35 tanks, basically downsized D-2s. These two were the most numerous French tanks in World War II. Both had two-man crews, but the R-35 weighed about 22,000 pounds and had an 82-hp engine, speed of 12-13 mph, maximum 40mm armor thickness, and armament of one short-barreled 37mm main gun and one machine gun. The French built about 2,000 R-35s and exported them to Poland, Turkey, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The Germans later captured and modified a number of these for their own use and also converted some to artillery tractors and gave others to Italy.
The Hotchkiss H-35 had identical armament but was heavier, some 23,400 pounds. It had a 75-hp engine, top speed of 17 mph, and maximum 40mm armor protection. An improved model appeared in 1938. The H-38 was basically the H-35 with a more powerful, 120-hp engine and a higher rear deck to accommodate the engine and its cooling system.
These French tanks incorporated cast turrets and hulls. Although more expensive, they were not as resistant to shot as homogenous armor plate. They also incorporated Cletrac steering, which minimized power loss and improved cross-country performance. Instead of braking one track to turn, the system transferred power to the other tread by means of a differential and gear box.
The last French light tank before the war was the Hotchkiss H-39, officially the Char léger Hotchkiss, modele 1939-H. The follow-on to the H-35, it mounted a long-barreled 37mm gun and one machine gun and had a more powerful, 120-hp engine. It weighed some 26,700 pounds, had a two-man crew, and was capable of 22 mph.
The Germans later utilized a number of these captured light tanks in the occupation of France, throughout the Mediterranean Theater, and in the initial invasion of the Soviet Union. They were also used by Vichy French and Free French forces in the Middle East, where some continued in Israeli service until 1956.
The H-35, R-35, H-38, and H-39 were all of high quality compared to the German tanks at that time. The chief drawback in the French tanks was probably their one-man turret. All three symbolized the French embrace of the doctrine of light tanks operating in support of infantry, a concept seriously open to question; French tankers deserved better.
The French heavy tank in World War II was the Char B series. The first of these was produced beginning in 1929. Char B development included three pilot tanks built by Renault and FCM in cooperation. The tank featured a deep hull with all-around tracks and a small turret. It weighed some 56,000 pounds, had a crew of four, a 180-hp engine, a top speed of 12 mph, and 40mm maximum armor protection. The Char B mounted a short 75mm main gun in the hull front, along with four machine guns-two in the hull front and the other in the turret.
The production model, the Char B-1, appeared beginning in 1931. The chief changes from the Char B were that the turret was now a cast unit and it mounted a 47mm gun, along with a coaxial machine gun. The hull still mounted the short 75mm gun, along with one machine gun. The tank tracks still reached the hull top, but the ends were lowered in order to improve driver visibility. It also weighed more than the prototype, some 67,200 pounds. No more than 35 of these were produced by 1935, when production went over to the Char B-1 bis.
The French Army’s main battle tank in 1940, the Char B-1 bis was unchanged in external appearance from the B-1. The principal changes were heavier armor, a more powerful engine, and a new turret with a more powerful gun. The Char B-1 bis offered an excellent mix of cross-country ability, armor protection, and firepower. It weighed some 71,600 pounds and had a crew of four. The Char B-1 bis had a 300-hp engine that gave it a speed of 17 mph. It had unusually thick 60mm maximum armor and was also heavily armed. It had both the hull-mounted, forward-firing short 75mm (2.95-inch) main gun on the right side, the 47mm high-velocity gun in its small one-man turret with a commander/gunner cupola on its top, and two 7.5mm (.29 cal) machine guns. The Char B-1 bis, excellent in some areas, suffered from major flaws. The chief problem was its poor internal design. The commander, alone in the turret, had to direct the tank, search for enemy targets, communicate with the crew and with other tanks, and fire the 47mm turret gun unaided. Also its short 75mm main gun, though it could be elevated and depressed, was fixed laterally and could be traversed only by turning the entire vehicle. A later version, the Char B-1 ter (third version), had a limited traverse hull gun, but very few of these were built. The 60mm armor of the Char B series did present a real problem for German gunners in the 1940 Battle for France. In any case, France had only about 365 of the Char B-1 bis tanks when it was defeated in June 1940. The French Army compounded the error of small numbers of Char B-1 bis tanks by dispersing them into small groups rather than massing them in decisive numbers in large armored formations.