Friday, September 29, 2017

Renault Char D2 (History)

This is the second post about French tanks in WWII.  These posts will cover tanks and units that are not included in the Flames of War Blitzkrieg book and are intended to supplement it. For each tank and unit I will post a history article and finally a modeling article to go along with the new FOW lists.

A Company of Char D2's on the move.

Renault Char D2

Char D2 Development

By the 1930's it became apparent to all of Europe that Germany was no longer following the military restrictions put in place by the Treaty of Versailles, and was rebuilding its powerful military. French tank development following the end of WWI had been very limited and the majority of its tank force was made up of the outdated FT series of tanks. The Renault D1 tank was designed and built from the late 1920's till the early 1930's as a light tank replacement for the FT series, but by the time of its production France was aware that it too, was not suitable for the modern battlefield. France's own 25mm Hotchkiss anti tank gun could penetrate the D1's 30mm of maximum armor, and they knew that Germany had the 3.7mm Pak 36 which could do the same. Also the D1 could not handle a larger turret or a more powerful gun. Even before the D1 was being produced, its successor was in the works, what would become the Renault Char D2.

A Char D2 towing a Char B1 bis, or perhaps the other way around.

The Char D2 had 40mm of armor all around and the more modern APX-1 cast turret, the gun would first be the 47mm SA34 gun, based on a naval gun. While the Char D1 had been planned as a light tank from the get go, the D2 was intended to be a heavier vehicle from the start. Several engines were proposed but in the end a gasoline engine was selected to power the tank. There would be a 3-man crew with the commander in the turret and a driver and radio operator in the hull. The tank had two Reibel 7.5mm machine guns, one in the turret and one in the hull.

A Char D2 from the first batch with the APX-1 gun and SA34 gun.

Another modern feature on the Char D2 was the addition of a radio in every tank. Each tank contained a rather fragile ER52 radio which could transmit and receive in Morse code, in addition the section command tank contained an additional ER51 radio that could transmit and receive voice signals. The command tanks had an additional antenna on the front left side of the tank. These early tank radios were quite fragile and difficult to operate in the field so the communication network did not function as well in reality as had been hoped.

Two Char D2's, the tank to the right is a section command tank with an extra antenna.

Both the Char D2 and the larger Char B1 were approved at the same time, but were intended for different roles. The Char D2 was seen as a replacement for the FT and D1 tanks, but was not really a light tank. The Char B1 would be a battle tank to breach enemy lines. However, one reason that the Char D2 continued to be worked on at the same time as the massive Char B1 was that France thought that there could be armament restrictions that would prevent a 28 ton tank, like the Char B1, from being produced. The French Army realized if they could not make the Char B1 then the D2 would be the closest practical substitute. In the end no plan on restricting the maximum weight of tanks was adopted and the D2 found itself in a strange position of being too large for a light tank but too small for a battle tank.

The tough armor of the D2 can be clearly seen in this photo. This tank has the later APX-4 turret and SA35 gun.

The first batch of 50 Char D2's were delivered from 1935 to 1937 and were the most modern tanks the French army had at the time. These were sent to the 507th RCC commanded by Colonel Charles de Gaulle, and the unit developed a strong esprit de corps. The tanks of the 507th would be used heavily over the next few years, so by 1940 they were badly worn out. It is was also noted in the winter of 1939 that the Char D2 performed very badly in frozen icy conditions, having great difficultly keeping traction on slippery roads.  

In 1938 the 507th would begin to upgrade the older tanks to the APX-4 turret with the 47mm SA35 gun, this was still in process as war broke out. The 47mm SA35 gun had very good anti tank capabilities, able to penetrate the armor of any German tank of the time. Another benefit was the sights on the gun gave x4 magnification which was superior to the German sights on the Panzer III and IV of the time, allowing the French tanks to engage at longer ranges. There would be a second order of 50 Char D2's and a least 37 of them were delivered to units before the Armistice was signed, these tanks would supplement the existing tanks. All of the 2nd batch of tanks would have the better gun and other slight improvements. Three independent tank companies would receive these new tanks with two of those companies being attached to the 19th BCC (formerly the 507th RCC).However, the condition of the original first batch of tanks was very poor in 1940 and there was an overall lack of spare parts for all the tanks, this meant that the actual number of combat ready tanks at any given time was very low. 

I will cover more about the Char D2 in combat in the next post, but in combat they were shown to have good mobility, good armor protection and a good gun (SA35). The Char D2 was entirely immune to the machineguns and 20mm cannons of the Panzer I's and II's that made up the bulk of German tanks in 1940. The 36mm Pak 36 mounted on the Panzer III was of little use except at very close range and then mostly from the sides. The German Panzer IV, a heavy tank for the time, had better luck with its 75mm L24 gun, but it too would need to close to short range to have success. The German tankers realized this very quickly and were often able to close with the French tanks and engage them individually at short range since the French tanks were often in combat with no support from infantry or AT guns.

I am not a historian by any stretch, I just wanted to compile some concise information about French tanks during 1940. If you want to know more I'd recommend some of the books below, especially the "Trackstory" series if you want to learn more about specific tanks.

Zaloga, Steven "French Tanks of WWII (1): Infantry and Battle Tanks" Osprey Publishing
Zaloga, Steven "French Tanks of WWII (2): Cavalry Tanks and AFVs" Osprey Publishing
Danjou. Pascal "Trackstory No.9: Renault D2" Editions du Barbotin 
The Tank Encyclopedia website is a great resource.
The Tank Archives.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

French Tank Development (WWII)

This will be the first of many posts about French tank forces in 1940 during the Battle of France. These posts will cover tanks and units that are not included in the Flames of War Blitzkrieg book and are intended to supplement it. For each tank and unit I will post a history article and finally a modeling article to go along with the new FOW lists.

French Tank Development

Methodical Battle

Following the end of the Great War in 1918, the French Army looked back at their successful battles from the final year of World War I to plan for further conflicts. The French Army developed the "Methodical Battle" plan, envisioning the use of overwhelming firepower with a strong offensive capability to break through any obstacle. The plan called for the infantry to advance a few miles with massive artillery support. Then they would stop, move the artillery forward, and prepare for another short advance. While this plan would work well if the enemy force intended to fight a similar conflict, if the enemy outflanked French positions and forced them to reposition quickly, the French Army would be at a distinct disadvantage. The events that occurred in 1940 would make the greatest strength of this strategy its Achilles heel.

The key to the "Methodical Battle"
  plan was the infantry. The tanks would play a support role to the infantry during these advancesEverything that may happen was planned and prepared in advance, since communication with higher command would be very limited.  That is because the French Army  relied heavily on the local telephone lines and couriers. Even in 1940 there was a hesitance to use radio signals that could be intercepted by the enemy. This rigid use of slower forms of communication would have devastating consequences during the Battle of France because it prevented important information from reaching commanders until it was too late.

It is important to note that not all French Officers believed in this static approach, many saw the need for mobility and mechanization along with a professional army that would fight as a massed force. This more mobile approach was not a popular idea with both the politicians or with the higher levels of the military and gained little traction in France between wars.

The French Infantry was still key to French planning at the time.
French Tank Design

French tank design would be in line with the “Methodical Battle” principles. Small tanks with heavy armor, a turret with a single man, a low velocity main cannon, these were decisions that were decided upon by the French Army. History proved these tanks to be less than ideal for the war they found themselves in, but they were created with a sound logic.

Most tanks would be small, in either size, crew, or both, for several reasons. First, France had suffered horrendous loss of life during the First World War and did not have a massive source of man power. With that in mind the French Army decided on producing more tanks with fewer crew, than making fewer tanks with more crew. Secondly many French tanks would be smaller to keep their weight down but still have good armor protection. For example, the little Hotchkiss H39 tank weighed 12 tons compared to the 19 ton Panzer IV C, which was a much larger vehicle and was considered a heavy tank at the time. The H39 had better armor all around than the Panzer IV C, but the larger panzer had a crew of 5 compared to 2 in the French tank.

The issue of the one-man turret has been endlessly discussed, but it too fit into the French plan. The tanks were intended to move up to where the infantry was engaged and overwhelm the enemy with tough armor and powerful guns. In this ideal situation the one man turret, where the commander was finding targets, loading and firing the main gun, and commanding the tank, was not seen as a major issue. The reasoning is the infantry would have already spotted and engaged the target and the tanks would move forward and destroy the impediment, freeing the infantry to advance once more. The tanks mission would be clear before they engaged so there would not be a need for the section commander to be in close communication with each individual tank. Once again, in practice this feature proved to be catastrophically flawed for the mobile battles the French tankers found themselves fighting in.

The majority of French tanks lacked a good anti-tank gun in 1940, but that was a problem for the German army as well. The most common French tank gun of war was the 37mm SA18 cannon. A gun that was excellent against enemy infantry, machine guns, and artillery, but due to its low muzzle velocity had little use against tanks. This cannon was still in use after its debut in the First World War, because there were many available and it was good at supporting the infantry, which was the tanks purpose in the French plan. Even amongst the higher levels of the French Army it was recognized that tanks would inevitable engage other tanks while fulfilling the support role, so plans were in place to upgrade to a better gun for tanks with the SA18. The easiest solution was upgrading older tanks with the 37mm SA38 cannon which had marginally better anti-tank capabilities and still could support the infantry. For the larger tanks, (Somua S35, Char D2, Char B1 bis) they were later equipped with the 47mm SA35 which was a very effective anti-tank gun for 1940.

When it comes to mobility, most French tank design were quite mobile. With the infantry tanks (R35, FCM 36, Char D1, Char D2 and Char B1) having a slow overall top speed but good cross country performance. The cavalry tanks (Hotchkiss H35/39, Somua S35, AMR and AMC tanks) had much faster top speeds and good cross country performance as well. Where French tanks did really struggle was in reliability, many were abandoned due to breakdowns as opposed to being knocked out, then since the French were often falling back, and those tanks were not able to be recovered.

A Somua S35 tank, a solid all around tank for its time.

Tanks Roles

The cavalry tanks needed to have good mobility, good armor and a good gun. The Somua S35 was the cavalry's tank of choice for their role, but for many reasons they ended up with a lot of Hotchkiss H35 and H39 tanks. The Hotchkiss tanks were not ideal for the cavalry's needs but they were better than nothing, as the Somua tank production proved to be slow and expensive. The cavalry also had a number of AMR and AMC light tanks equipped with machineguns for the infantry support role within the cavalry units.

The infantry would have attached independent tank companies that would support their defense and any offensive moves they made. This would come mainly in dealing with enemy machineguns and strong points, leaving enemy tanks to the anti-tank guns. These would be the old FT tanks, Renault R35, Char D1, Char D2 and the FCM 36 tanks. Since these tanks were there exclusively to support the infantry, they did not need to be fast but needed relatively good armor.

The new armored divisions would move forward once the front was stabilized and deal with breaking the stalemate. The French armored divisions would not make huge thrusts through, and then far beyond, the enemy’s lines, such as was common later in the war. They would instead, be inserted into the line when slow, deliberate firepower was needed to destroy resistance that the infantryman was unable to overcome. Like the infantry support tanks, the armored division’s tanks were slow as well, having no need of great speed. These tanks needed to be well armored and armed as they would be going against the toughest of the enemy opposition. The tank for this role was the Char B1 bis, but the armored divisions would also use Hotchkiss H39 and Renault R35 tanks.

A Renault R35 tank one of the most produced French tanks.
Plan for 1940

Both the French and British believed that any aggressive attack from Germany would come through the Low Countries as it had during the First World War. The Dyle Plan was developed to counter this threat from Germany, and the plan would have several additions to it before the invasion occurred in 1940. In case of German attack the cavalry and mechanized forces (the DLM's, DIM's and DLC's) would engage and screen the forward elements of any German attack, thus slowing their advance. This would allow the infantry divisions (DI's) time to move up and prepare their positions to blunt the enemy advance. Once the infantry were in position the Germans would break themselves on the infantry forces. At that time the powerful tank divisions (DCR's) could be used to support the limited infantry advances that would follow, and engage any enemy concentrations, whether infantry, guns or tanks. In this strategy the infantry were the primary component for victory, followed closely by the mass of artillery supporting them.


This post has gotten way out of control, since I originally meant it to be an intro to the Char D2 tank! If you would like to know more about the 1940 Campaign in France there are lots of great books by people who know what they are talking about, which is not me.

I’ll end this post with my take on things. In the end, France was not lost due to bad tanks, bad tankers, a reliance on fortifications or a lack of courage. In 1940 France was lost due to a system that was designed to be slow and methodical from the top down, suddenly being expected to react at a moment’s notice with little direction from higher up.

Next up will be the history of the Renault Char D2 tank!

I am not a historian by any stretch, I just wanted to compile some concise information about French tanks during 1940. If you want to know more I'd recommend some of the books below, especially the "Trackstory" series if you want to learn more about specific French tanks.

Zaloga, Steven "French Tanks of WWII (1): Infantry and Battle Tanks" Osprey Publishing
Zaloga, Steven "French Tanks of WWII (2): Cavalry Tanks and AFVs" Osprey Publishing
Didly, Doug "Fall Gelb1940 (1): "Panzer Breakthrough in the West"  Osprey Publishing
Didly, Doug "Fall Gelb1940 (2): "Airborne assault on the Low Countries"  Osprey Publishing
Danjou. Pascal "Trackstory No.9: Renault D2" Editions du Barbotin 
Also the Tank Encyclopedia website is a great resource.