Sunday 20 March 2016

The Last of the Char B

There is a misconception that the French worked only for their new masters during the occupation of 1940-1944. Indeed, most French tank manufacturing facilities ended up in the German occupation zone. Nevertheless, the resistance that so many speak of was active, and even on occupied territories, work continued. It became the foundation for French tank building that began immediately after the country was freed from occupants.

Results of Quiet Work

It just so happened that the main secret developers of French tanks were involved in the creation of the best French wartime tank, the Char B. Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) ended up outside of the occupation zone, but Ateliers de construction de Rueil (ARL) ended up inside of it. Until 1936, this organization was the tank building branch of the APX arms manufacturer.

Aside from the Char B, both companies worked on modernization of the breakthrough tank. Here the B1 ter prototypes were developed and produced, and work on the improved B40 tank began. In addition, both companies were competing for the contract of making a superheavy tank for the Maginot Line. Prototypes were ordered and full scale models built.

During the occupation, work at FCM and ARL slowed down, but didn't stop. Outside the occupation zone, work to modernize the Somua S35 cavalry tank continued. FCM engineers developed two and three man turrets with a more powerful 47 mm gun. As for ARL, they went even further. In 1942, the design bureau performed a deep modernization of the Somua S35, indexed SARL 42 (Somua-ARL 42).

The design of the hull was changed: the front was sloped more, the radio operator's position was removed, the hull was simplified. Another change was a new turret ring: 1500 mm wide opening, 1580 mm wide base. A new three man turret was designed from scratch, to be equipped with a 75 mm L/53.3 gun. The work was split up: the SARL 42 hull was developed in Rueil-Malmaison, supervised by the chief engineer of ARL Maurice Lavirotte. The turret was designed by engineer Devenne's grop in Caussade, outside of the occupation zone. Also in Caussade, Lafargue's group was working on the gun, based on a 75 mm Schneider AA gun.

After the Germans occupied the rest of France in the fall of 1942, work on SARL 42 stopped. ARL engineers were also working on a 30 ton tank that continued the Char B lineage, but this work was stopped in November of 1942. However, this was not in vain: the engineers received priceless experience that will come in handy two years later.

In August of 1944, Paris was liberated, and by fall, most of France was free of occupants. Almost immediately after liberation, companies resumed work on new tanks. Vast trophies supplemented their own experience. Even though most vehicles in France were hopelessly outdated, the Allies did run into a few hundred Panthers and a few heavy Tiger battalions. In addition, France saw the combat debut of the Tiger B, and the majority of these new tanks from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion remained in the fields of Normandy. The aforementioned vehicles, especially the Tiger B, played an important role in restoring French post-war tank production.

Growth of Appetites

On October 9th, 1944, Lieutenant General Leier, the Chief of Staff of the French Army, signed an order for the development and production of new vehicles. The first section listed 150 Panhard 178 armoured cars armed with 47 mm guns, later expanding to Panhard 178B.

The second section is what interests us most. It describes a 35 ton tank armed with a 75 mm gun and a 500 hp Talbot engine with the armour of an American M4 Sherman. On November 29th, an new document was written. The Chief of Staff approved the characteristics of the new tank, and, most interestingly, the tank must be ready ASAP. It would enter production straight from the drawing board, without even a prototype! The production volumes were very ambition for a country just freed from occupation. Leier wanted no less than 500 tanks! The first vehicles were to be ready in May of 1945, with a monthly production run of 50-70 tanks.

There was a reason for such tight deadlines. The new vehicle was nothing more than an evolution of the Char B concept. The second gun was removed and the front plate was sloped at a high angle. The suspension was very similar to that of the Char B. The gun, indexed 75 mm SA Mle.1944 was effectively the same gun that Lafargue's engineers designed in Caussade in 1942. The AA gun whose ballistics it inherited penetrated 80 mm of armour from a kilometer away. This was enough to combat medium tanks, but was not enough for Tigers and Panthers. ARL understood this perfectly.

Blueprints of a Schneider designed turret armed with a 90 mm SA 45 gun.

In December of 1944, a proposal for a 90 mm tank gun based on the CA Mle 39 S was made.This gun, capable of penetrating 90 mm of armour from a kilometer away, was considered the most appropriate armament for superheavy tanks. Schneider started on the development of this new gun. On December 28th, 1944, it was decided that 300 of the 500 tanks would be armed with a 90 mm gun. However, mass production was delayed. The first 50 tanks were now expected on June 23rd, 1945.

Full scale ARL 44 model, built in the summer of 1945 at Renault.

The name for this new tank was first mentioned in a letter dated January 28th, 1945. It discussed the distribution of tasks in the production of the ARL 44. The 35 ton vehicle with up to 60 mm of armour was spread between two factories: Renault and FAMH (Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt, better known as Saint-Chamond). By then, an alternative to the Talbot engine was proposed by Panhard. Production of 150 units was planned.

Production of components for the ARL 44 was planned to begin in February of 1945, and assembly would start in September. Renault would build 200 tanks, and FAMH would build 300. By now, the production schedule looked a lot more reasonable: REnault would produce 5 tanks in September, 10 in October, 15 in November, 20 tanks per month starting in December, and then 25 tanks per month starting in March of 1946. FAMH would make 7 tanks in September, 15 in October, 25 in November, and 30 tanks a month starting in December. The last 8 tanks of this type would be built in August of 1946.

ARL 44 as seen from above, July 6th, 1945

By then, Schneider, tasked with the development of a weapon for the new tank, was working on a more powerful weapon than the 90 mm gun. The gun, later indexed 90 mm SA Mle.1945S or 90 mm SA 45 S, was definitely inspired by the German 88 mm KwK 43 L/71. The length of the gun was 65 calibers, which increased the muzzle velocity to 1000 m/s and drastically increased penetration.

With this new gun, the ARL 44 became a dangerous enemy of any German tank. It was decided to use this gun instead of the tank version of the CA Mle 39 S. At the same time, the 75 mm version of the tank remained. This gun, installed in an ACL 1 turret developed by Ateliers de Chantiers de la Loire, was to be installed in initial production tanks.

The first ARL 44 prototype. The tank received the ACL 1 turret with the 75 mm SA 44 gun.

Due to rapidly changing requirements and a series of other reasons, production of the ARL 44 drew further and further away. Meanwhile, over the night of May 8th to May 9th, 1945, Marshal Keitel signed the act of surrender of Germany, and the war in Europe ended. France no longer had an urgent need for new tanks. At the same time, the French army's appetites grew once more. Rightfully assuming that 60 mm of armour wasn't enough for a modern tank, the thickness was doubled in February of 1945. The 35 ton vehicle gained weight, reaching way past 40 tons.

ARL 44 hull blueprints, February 1945. On the insistence of the military, the front armour was thickened from 60 to 120 mm.

The 90 mm SA 45 gun needed a new turret, which was designed by Schneider. Here, experience with superheavy tanks helped. The tank needed to be redesigned, since the perspective engines could no longer provide the tank with the necessary agility. Disappointed with these delays, the French military decreased the volume of their order to 150 tanks on May 23rd, 1945.

ARL 44 in production at the Renault factory, 1947-48.

On June 20th, 1945, Renault finally finished a full scale model of the ARL 44. The armour was indicated as only 60 mm, even though it was well known that the 120 mm variant was going into production by this point. The turret on this model was the Schneider type, equipped with a 90 mm SA 45 gun.

The mass of the tank was 48 tons, so it was decided that the German Maybach 230 TRM engine should be used. After Germany's surrender, France received a large amount of these 600 hp engines. A direct cooperation with Maybach also began. In addition, a Simca automobile engine was used to traverse the turret.

The gun could be turned backwards during travel to reduce overall length.

By the time the final ARL 44 version was approved, French defense companies joined into the DEFA consortium (Direction des Études et Fabrications d'Armement, later GIAT, since 1989, Nexter). This merger allowed centralization of work on the new vehicle. However, by August of 1945, a bid for tender was announced for the ARL 44's replacement. The military had few illusions about this tank. Work on the AMX 45 began in parallel with the ARL 44, which later became the AMX M4

A Post-War First

The first ARL 44 was ready by March 1st, 1946. As proposed, the tank received the ACL 1 turret and a 75 mm SA 44 gun. However, the idea of a batch of tanks with this gun disappeared by spring of 1946. First of all, work on a 75 mm gun based on the German 7.5 cm KwK 42 L/70 began. This gun was significantly more powerful than the French design. Second, it was obvious that a 75 mm gun on a tank of this size was silly. Emphasis shifted towards the 90 mm gun in the Schneider turret.

ARL 44 on trials.

Preparations for mass production began in April of 1946. As proposed, production was split between
Renault and FAMH. The first mass production ARL 44 was ready in June of 1946, two years after the initial production plan. By then, the order volume was cut even further: 60 vehicles. 20 would be built by Renault and 40 by FAMH. Documents reveal that the final split was different: 24 Renault tanks and 36 FAMH.

Mass production vehicle with a full equipment loadout. This included an AA machinegun on the commander's cupola.

The new vehicle was a costly one for French manufacturing. The ARL 44 only reached the army several years after the first tank was built. The first unit to receive these tanks was the 303rd Tank Regiment, which paraded through the streets of Paris on July 14th, 1951 with their new vehicles. By then, the ARL 44 was classified as a tank destroyer. Usage of the ARL 44 was accompanied by numerous breakdowns. A year later, the tanks were temporarily removed from service.

There is nothing more permanent that the temporary. In spring of 1952, AMX 50 tanks, an evolution of the AMX M4, entered trial service. It seemed that the new tank could replace the ill-fated pioneer. In addition, Pershing tanks started entering the French army in 1952, perhaps not as well armed, but a lot more reliable. The ARL 44 was already obsolete despite barely having served.

Debut of the ARL 44 at a parade on the anniversary of the Taking of the Bastille, July 14th, 1951. It just so happened that its debut was also its swan song.

Today, five tanks of this type remain, in various states. One of them can be found in the Saumur tank museum. Another tank is at the Mourmelon-le-Grand garrison. One vehicle, sans gun, is located at the Fontevraud garrison. Finally, two ARL 44s, which spent a long time as shooting range targets, were recently purchased by French collector Eric Kauffmann. His ASPHM association plans to restore both tanks. It will not be a simple challenge.

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