Thursday 30 April 2015

World of Tanks History Section: SOMUA S35

After WWI, the French army began the process of mechanization. This process also touched cavalry, a mobile strike force. In the early 1930s, the cavalrymen formulated requirements for a tank designed to work with a mobile mechanized unit. SOMUA, a subsidiary of Schneider, was tasked with the design.

Main Cavalry

The contract for a tank with no less than 40 mm of armour and a speed of no less than 30 kph was signed in October of 1934. SOMUA's engineers needed only 7 months to finish the first prototype. In April, the tank was ready. It was possible to develop the tank in such a short time due to the use of foreign experience. The engineers that developed the suspension and transmission spent some time at the Czech Skoda company. As a result, these components were very similar to the fairly good vz. 35 tank. The engine and gearbox were also Czech-inspired.

The speed and range of the tank satisfied the cavalrymen, but much work had to be done to correct defects. The cavalry was in desperate need of new tanks and made an order without waiting for the improvements. Due to this rush, the S35 had problems with reliability, and poor placement of internal modules created problems for repair crews. It took another two years to polish off the tank. The cavalrymen, satisfied, officially adopted the S35 and made large orders to equip cavalry units.

The tank was mobile, had good armour (up to 36 mm in the front hull and 56 in the turret) and was equipped with a powerful 47 mm gun, making it one of the best vehicles of its time, not just in France, but in the world. However, it had a serious drawback. A one-man turret forced the commander to serve as the gunner and the loader. In theory, after the S35 received a larger turret, the radio operator could assist him, but in battle this was rarely possible.

In Spring of 1939, the French composed some requirements for the modernization of the SOMUA S35. The improved tank would receive a more powerful engine (220 hp instead of 190), and an improved suspension. The biggest improvement would be a new turret. Instead of a cast and riveted design, this one would use welded rolled armour. The new tank, indexed SOMUA S40, was supposed to enter production in October of 1940, but the war in Europe forced the process to speed up. Production began in July of 1940, but not soon enough, as France entered the war in May of 1940.

All is fair in love and war

The first major tank battle of WWII was the battle at the Belgian town of Hannut, which began on May 12th, 1940. The SOMUA S35 tanks that took part caused the Germans a lot of grief.

Near Crehen, West of Hannut, an S35 unit knocked out 4 German tanks and a battery of AT guns. Another unit, among other German vehicles, destroyed the tank in which Colonel Eberbach was riding near Tisnes. The Colonel survived, but the attack was called off. In the evening, the Germans attempted to strike again, but a counterattack of SOMUA tanks forced them to roll back. The S35s returned with 20-40 dents from 20 and 37 mm guns, but without a single penetration. The local success was evident, but poor performance elsewhere on the front lines forced the French to fall back.

SOMUA S35 tanks were used throughout the French campaign. In general, they were successful locally, but failed to compensate for larger scale failures.

After Franch surrendered, some S35s ended up in German hands. The tank was modified with a two-person turret and an improved radio. This modification received the index Pz.Kpfw. S35 739 (f). These tanks fought on several fronts, including the Eastern. Here, a few of them were responsible for the rumours that the Germans actively used tanks against the Brest fortress.

When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22nd, 1941, the Brest fortress was one of the first to come under attack. Most tank forces bypassed the fortress, which was a task for infantry, artillery, and other forces. In order to storm the fortress faster, the Germans demounted three SOMUA S35 tanks from armoured train #28. All three were destroyed by grenades and AA gun fire at the north gates.

The captured French tanks were used in battle in Finland, Norway, and in the Arctic. In 1944, some SOMUA tanks once again fought under a French banner to liberate their homeland. This is where the combat path of one of Frances's best tanks ended. Later, the engineers that built the S35 formed the backbone of the team that revived tank design in France.

Article author: Vladimir Pinyaev

Original article available here.

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