French Tanks of World War 2

French Tanks At the start of the war, France had one of the largest tank forces in the world along with the Soviet, British and German forces.

The French had planned for a defensive war and built tanks accordingly; infantry tanks were designed to be heavily armoured.

Within France and its colonies, roughly 5,800 tanks were available during the time of the German offensive, and some when they came into contact were effective against the German tanks.

The R 35 was intended to replace the FT as standard light infantry tank from the summer of 1936, but even by May 1940 not enough conscripts had been retrained and therefore eight battalions of the older tank had to be kept operational.

On 1 September 1939, at the outbreak of war, 975 vehicles had been delivered out of 1070 produced; 765 were fielded by tank battalions in France.

Of a total order for 2,300 at least 1,601 had been produced until 1 June 1940 serial numbers known to be actually used indicate a production of at least 1670 vehicles.

R35 tank participating in military manoeuvres In the Battle of France, despite an advantage in number and armour against the Germans, the French tanks were not used to good enough effect. Ironically, cooperation with the infantry was poor.

The Cavalry units alone were too few in number. In armour and firepower, French tanks were generally not inferior to their German counterparts.

In one incident, a single Char B1 "Eure" was able to destroy thirteen German tanks within a few minutes in Stonne on 16 May 1940, all of them Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks.

The 37mm and 20mm guns the Germans used were ineffective at penetrating the thick armour of the B1, which was able to return safely despite being hit a large number of times.

Even German General Rommel was surprised at how the French tanks withstood the German tank shells and had to resort to using the German 88 artillery as antitank guns against the French tanks to knock them out.

Setbacks the French military suffered were more related to strategy, tactics and organisation than technology and design.

Almost 80 percent of French tanks did not have radios, since the battle doctrine employed by the French military was more a slow-paced, deliberate conformance to planned maneuvers.

French tank warfare was often restricted with tanks being assigned for infantry support.

Unlike Germany, which had special Panzerwaffe divisions, France did not separate tanks from the Infantry arm, and were unable to respond quickly to the Blitzkrieg tactics employed by the Germans, which involved rapid movement, mission-type orders and combined-arms tactics.

SOMUA S35 French tank The S35 medium tank entered service in January 1936 with the 4e Cuirassiers.

At the end of 1937 the SA 35 gun became available and deliveries of the main production series could begin.

By mid 1938 a hundred had been produced, 270 on 1 September 1939 and 246 delivered.

On this date 191 served with the troops, 51 were in depot and four had been sent back to the factory for overhaul.

After the outbreak of war a fourth order of 200 was made, bringing the ordered total to 700.

Later it was decided that from the 451st vehicle onward the tanks would be of the improved S 40 type.

Production in fact totalled 430 by June 1940, including the prototype and the preseries.

Of these about 288 were in front-line service at the beginning of the Battle of France, with the three armoured divisions of the Cavalry, the Divisions Légères Mécaniques or Mechanised Light Divisions ("light" here meaning "mobile").

Each of these had an organic strength of eight squadrons with ten S35s; each squadron however had a matériel reserve of two tanks and regimental and brigade commanders in practice had personal tanks too, resulting in a total of 88 vehicles per division.

Furthermore, 31 were present in the general matériel reserve, 49 in factory stocks and 26 were being processed for acceptance.]

These vehicles were later issued to several ad hoc units, such as the 4th DCR (commanded by Charles de Gaulle) which received 39, part of 3e Cuirassiers, the 4th DLM (10), and some Corps-francs Motorisés (about 25).

Also the destroyed 1st, 2nd and 3rd DLM were reconstituted with a small number of tanks, the first two divisions received ten S 35s, the third twenty; S 35s further served with the 7e Cuirassiers  and a platoon of three was present in the 3e RAM of the 3e DLC. S 35s captured by Germany in 1940 In May 1940 during the Battle of France the DLMs were tasked with the difficult manoeuvre of carrying out a quick advance into the Low Countries, followed by a holding action to allow the infantry divisions following behind to dig themselves in.

The 2nd and 3rd DLM were concentrated in the Gembloux gap between Louvain and Namur, where there were no natural obstacles to impede a German advance.

They had to spread out somewhat to hold that sector against incursions by the German 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions.

This was necessitated by the local tactical situation and did not reflect some fundamental difference in doctrine between the use of the DLMs and the Panzerdivisionen.

Both types of units were very similar in equipment, training and organisation, as the German armoured divisions too were primarily intended for strategic exploitation, while the breakthrough phase was preferably left to the infantry.

The resulting tank battle from 13 to 15 May, the Battle of Hannut, was with about 1700 AFVs participating the largest until that day and is still one of the largest of all time.

The S 35s gave a good account of themselves, proving to be indeed superior to the German tanks in direct combat, but they were rather hesitantly deployed as the French High Command mistakenly supposed the gap was the German Schwerpunkt and tried to preserve their best tanks to block subsequent attacks by the rest of the Panzerwaffe.

When it transpired the attack was really a feint and the forces in the north were in danger of being cut off by the German advance south of Namur, the 1st DLM that had very quickly moved 200 kilometres to the north to help the Dutch, was hurriedly rushed south again.

The resulting disorder and breakdown of most of its S 35s rendered this unit, the most powerful of all Allied divisions, impotent; it was defeated by the German 5th Panzerdivision on 17 May. The other DLMs fought a delaying battle, participated in the Battle of Arras and then disintegrated.

Committing its only strategically mobile armour reserve early in the battle had made the French Army fatally vulnerable to a German strategic surprise.

After the June 1940 armistice, S 35s were allowed to be sent to West Africa to bolster the hold of the Vichy regime on that region.

They were issued to the 12e régiment de Chasseurs d'Afrique that, after French forces in Belgisch Congo had sided with the Allies, operated them against German and Italian forces during the Tunisia Campaign.

After the liberation of France in 1944 an armoured unit was raised, the 13e Régiment de Dragons, using French matériel, among which were seventeen S 35s.

The S 35 in German service on the Eastern Front in 1941 After the fall of France a number of S 35s (297 were captured according to some sources) were taken into service with the Wehrmacht as the Panzerkampfwagen 35-S 739(f). The Germans modified the cupola by cutting its top off and installing a simple hatch.

The ARL 44 at Mourmelon-le-Grand The 21st and 25. Panzerdivision in 1943 used some S 35s when reforming after having been largely destroyed.

Some of these units fought in Normandy in 1944, and there were still twelve S 35s listed as in German service on 30 December 1944.

After the Fall of France, work on new designs, such as the Char G1, officially halted, although there was some clandestine designing done.

Bir Hakeim One of the first key battles the Free French forces fought after they joined the Allies was at Bir Hakeim where they defended against the attack by the Ariete Division in the first phase of the Gazala battle, and later under attack by a combined force of the Trieste and 90th Light Infantry Division.

The battle at Bir Hakeim was at remote oasis in the Libyan desert, and the former site of a Turkish fort. During the Battle of Gazala, the 1st Free French Division of Général de brigade Marie Pierre Kœnig defended the site from 26 May-11 June 1942 against much larger attacking German and Italian forces directed by Generaloberst Erwin Rommel.

The battle was later greatly used for propaganda purposes by all involved parties. Tobruk was taken 10 days later by Rommel's troops.

Rommel continued to advance against delaying actions by the British until halted at First Battle of El Alamein in July.

Général Bernard Saint-Hillier said in an October 1991 interview:

"A grain of sand had curbed the Axis advance, which reached Al-Alamein only after the arrival of the rested British divisions: this grain of sand was Bir Hakeim."

Rommel's attack: frontal attack on Gazala and bypass towards Bir Hakeim, while the British Army retreats to cover Tobruk.

On the night of 26 May 1942, Rommel started a planned attack with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and the rest of the 90th Motorized Infantry Division, and the Italian Trieste and Ariete Divisions started the large encircling move south of Bir-Hakeim as planned.

The British armoured units were taken by surprise and retreated.

Italian M13/40 tank Rommel then sent the Ariete Armoured Division - to attack Bir Hakeim from the southeast.

This division - formed of the 132nd Armoured Regiment, equipped with M13/40s, of the 8th Reggimento bersaglieri and of the 132nd Artillery Regiment - attacked the French position from the rear in two successive waves.

The Italian tanks and armored vehicles attacked without infantry support and tried to cross the minefield.

Six tanks managed to infiltrate the French lines, avoiding mines and anti-tank fire, but they were eventually destroyed by very close range 75 mm fire, and the crews were captured.

The Ariete Division, reduced to only 33 tanks in 45 minutes, had to retreat. The remaining tanks then tried to outflank the French forces by attacking through the V zone minefield protecting that face.

They eventually regrouped and retreated, leaving behind 32 destroyed tanks.

However north of Bir Hakeim, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade had been annihilated, and two weakened British brigades - the 4th and the motorized 7th Armoured - were forced to retreat to Bir-el-Gubi and to The El-Adem, leaving Bir-Hakeim and the Free French Forces to fight the full brunt of Rommels forces.

Erwin Rommel and Fritz Bayerlein near Bir Hakeim Rommel's success in the north was very costly, and Rommel's wide flanking plan was proving riskier because of the resistance at Bir Hakeim (his right flank and supply route was threatened by this position).

The Afrika Korps had to take Bir Hakeim.

So Rommel sent the Trieste division, the 90th Light Infantry Division, and 3 recon armored regiments from the Pavia division against Bir Hakeim.

The advance of the 21st panzer division The German infantry launched a full attack, supported by the 15th Panzerdivision, with heavy barrages from the artillery.

A breach was made and on 9 June, the evacuation order reached the French camp. and the Free French Forces fought their way back to the British lines, Free French Forces evacuating Bir Hakeim Consequences of the battle of Bir Hakeim Three African soldiers of the French Colonial Artillery who distinguished themselves in the battle at Bir Hackeim.

They are from Senegal, Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar, respectively For the Free French, a victory was badly needed to show the Allies that the army of the Free France was not, as often suggested, a bunch of desperados, but a serious force that could contribute in the battle against the Reich.

The Free French used the battle to show the world that France was not the decadent nation it appeared to be after its catastrophic defeat in 1940.

De Gaulle used it to delegitimize cooperation with the Vichy regime.

To withstand the overpowering Rommel army was an enormous achievement by Koenig and his men.

British General Ian Playfair said: "The lengthened defense of the French garrison played a major role in the re-establishment of the British troops in Egypt.

The free French gravely disrupted, from the beginning, Rommel's offensive, resulting on a disturbed supply line of the Afrika Korps.

The growing Axis troop concentration in the sector, needed to subjugate the fort, saved the British 8th Army from a disaster.

The delays in the offensive caused by the relentless French resistance increased the British chances of success and eased the preparation of the counter-offensive.

On long term, holding back Rommel allowed the British forces to escape from its meticulously planned annihilation. That's why we can say, without exaggerating, that Bir Hakeim greatly contributed to El-Alamein defensive success".

General Claude Auchinleck said on June 12, 1942, about Bir Hakim: "The United Nations need to be filled with admiration and gratitude, in respect of these French troops and their brave General Koenig".

Winston Churchill was more terse: "Holding back for fifteen days Rommel's offensive, the free French of Bir Hakeim had contributed to save Egypt and the Suez Canal's destinies".

Even Adolf Hitler responded to the journalist Lutz Koch, coming back from Bir Hakim: "You hear, Gentlemen? It is a new evidence that I have always been right! The French are, after us, the best soldiers! Even with its current birthrate, France will always be able to mobilize a hundred divisions! After this war, we will have to find allies able to contain a country which is able of military exploits that astonish the world like they are doing right now in Bir-Hakeim!".

Rommel himself declared that "nowhere in Africa was I given a stiffer fight".

On 6 June, Rommel had already received orders from Hitler to kill all enemy soldiers in battle or shoot them when captured.

In Hitler's view the Free French troops were a group of partisans, rather than regular soldiers, that also hosted political refugees from Germany.

Rommel supposedly burnt this order: regardless, he never followed it and took Free French soldiers as regular POWs.

2nd Armored Division (France) General Leclerc talks to his men from the 501° RCC (501st Tank Regiment). The French 2nd Armored Division (French: 2e Division Blindée, 2e DB), was commanded by General Philippe Leclerc, one of the best French tank commanders.

General Leclerc joined the Free French forces after the fall of France and adopted the Resistance pseudonym "Jacques-Philippe Leclerc". Charles de Gaulle upon meeting him promoted him from Captain to Major (commandant) and ordered him to French Equatorial Africa as governor of French Cameroon from 29 August 1940 to 12 November 1940.

He commanded the column which attacked Axis forces from Chad, and, having marched his troops across West Africa, distinguished himself in Tunisia.

M4A2 Sherman tanks of the Île de France of the 12e RCA, 2e DB coming ashore in Normandy The 2nd Armored Division marching on the Champs Élysées on 26 August 1944.

The French 2nd Armored Division was formed around a core of units that had raided Italian Libya since the end of 1940 to entering Tripoli 1943 under Leclerc, but was known for its fight at Kufra in 1941; later renamed the 2nd Light Division, in August 1943, it was organized under the US light armored division organization.

After landing in Normandy on 1 August 1944, his 2nd Armored Division participated in the battle of the Falaise Pocket (12 to 21 August) where they all but destroyed the 9th Panzer Division and went on to liberate Paris.

Allied troops were avoiding Paris, moving around it clockwise towards Germany.

This was to minimize the danger of the destruction of the historic city if the Germans sought to defend it. Leclerc and de Gaulle had to persuade Eisenhower to send Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division and they entered Paris, and the liberation by Leclerc help cement de Gaulle's claim as leader of the French.

On 25 August, the 2nd Armored and the U.S. 4th Division entered Paris and liberated it.

After hard fighting that cost the 2nd Division 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, von Choltitz, the German military governor of Paris, capitulated at the Hôtel Meurice. After the division liberated Paris, it defeated a Panzer brigade during the armored clashes in Lorraine, forced the Saverne Gap, and liberated Strasbourg.

After taking part in the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, the division was moved west and assaulted the German-held Atlantic port of Royan, before recrossing France in April 1945 and participating in the final fighting in southern Germany. After the liberation of France, the next tank to be introduced would be the ARL 44 heavy tank, which came too late to participate in World War II, but was used post-war for a time.

The ARL 44s equipped the 503e Régiment de Chars de Combat stationed in Mourmelon-le-Grand and replaced seventeen Panther tanks used earlier by that unit.