Saturday 18 February 2017

Char B1 bis: General Estienne's Legacy

On March 16th, 1934, after almost 13 years passed since the medium Char B program was launched, the French infantry command ordered the first seven Char B1 tanks. This decision was controversial. Yes, the French army was in need of a new tank. However, not only did its mass reach twice that of the initial requirements, but the tank came out very expensive, and there could be no hope of truly mass production. Paradoxically, the Char B1 bis, an improved version of the Char B1, was one of the causes of French defeat in the summer of 1940.
Road to Modernization

When the decision regarding the purchase of was made, the situation with French tanks were complicated. Out of 40 tank battalions, 37 were armed with obsolete Renault FT tanks, the very same vehicles that "the father of tanks" General Estienne wanted to replace with three-man medium tanks carrying 75 mm short barreled guns.

However, the actions of the father of tanks and infantry command ended up in a dead end. An attempt to "grow" a new tank out of the Renault FT resulted in the Char D1 and Char D2, whose characteristics were far from idea. The Char B, created according to Estinenne's concept, was not a lot better, but a lot more expensive.

Ammunition rack locations in the Char B1 bis.

General Estienne died on April 2nd, 1936, leaving the French tank building school in a difficult position. Germany stopped pretending that they weren't building tanks and took seven league steps in various directions. Of course there was the Maginot Line, but it was obvious that it would not be possible to win a new war just by sitting behind it. A radical modernization of the French tank park was necessary. Infantry command decided to reduce production of Char D2 medium tanks, fill the gap with Renault R35 light tanks, and accelerate the production of the Char B1.

75 mm SA 35 gun used in the hull of the Char B1 bis.

40 mm of armour was no longer reliable protection from anti-tank artillery by the middle of the 1930s. The French themselves designed the 47 mm SA 35 cannon, which could penetrate 40 mm of armour without too many issues. It was stupid to assume that the Germans would not develop similar weapons sooner or later.

For that reason, the modernization of the Char B1 began in 1936. Many improvements were taken from the Char B2 design, a proposal from 1932 that was never built due to the World Disarmament Conference. The long barreled 75 mm gun was not implemented, but the armour was even thicker than on the Char B2.

APX 4 turret. It was installed on the Char B1 bis and the second series of Char D2.

Since serious changes to the Char B1 could negatively impact the already glacial rate of production, the amount of novelties was minimized. The thickness of the front plate was increased to 60 mm, the sides were the same thickness, and the rear was reinforced to 55 mm. This made the tank almost invulnerable to existing anti-tank artillery.

Atelier de Puteaux (APX) designed a modernized turret, indexed APX 4. It was similar to the APX 1, but the thickness of its walls was increased to 55 mm. The more powerful 47 mm SA 35 gun was used. The turret also received improved observation devices and reworked armour for the machinegun and cannon mantlets.

Since the increased armour weighed down the tank to 31.5 tons, the engine had to be modernized as well. Its output was increased to 300 hp, retaining the top speed of 28 kph. Since the mass grew, the also had to be improved. The width of track links increased from 460 to 500 mm, the idler was increased slightly in diameter, and the return rollers were deleted, instead opting for a rail to guide the tracks.

The 47 mm SA 35 gun, the main weapon of French medium tanks in the late 1930s.

The modernized tank was indexed Char B1 bis. It did not look much different from the Char B1. Aside from a new turret, it could be distinguished from the older tank by the roof of the engine compartment, altered mudguards, and other small changes. Thanks to this, the changeover from the Char B1 to the Char B1 bis was very painless. Only armour producing factories had significant extra work.

Wide Assortment of Contractors

The first order for an improved Char B1 was submitted on October 8th, 1936. According to contract #1891 D/P (this contract also covered the last Char B1), 35 tanks numbered 201-235 were built. The number of tanks ordered was no accident: this was the size of one tank regiment. 

Production of the Char B1 bis coincided with important organizational changes. A portion of Renault's tank production in Issy-les-Moulineaux was nationalized. Later, the manufacturing base of the newly formed Ateliers de construction d'Issy-les-Moulineaux (AMX) was moved to Satory. However, the equipment used to build Char B tanks remained at Renault.

APX in Rueil-Malmaison was also nationalized and reorganized into ARL. This organization played a key role in French tank building, since it built turrets for a number of tanks. It also housed the design bureau tasked with working on further modernizations of the Char B.

Assembly of a Char B1 bis.

As with the Char B1, Renault didn't get the full order to itself. Most tanks were built there, but FCM also built two. It could not put out more since it was busy with ramping up production of the FCM 36 light tank. 

The first Char B1 bis with serial number 201 and personal name "France" left the factory in April of 1937. The production of the batch stretched out for almost a year: the last tank ordered by contract #1891 D/P was delivered on March 2nd, 1938. This tank carried the number 235 and personal name "Toulon". All tanks built to this contract ended up in the 510 Tank Regiment, based in Nancy. The tanks were named after French cities, provinces, and colonies.

Tank 264 "Simoin" during the crossing of an obstacle, 1939.

On May 1st, 1937, a second order numbered 61980 D/P followed. As before, it requested 35 tanks, but the list of contractors grew. FAMH and Schneider, the companies that Estienne expected to build his tank, returned to the Char B program. Renault got a contract for 16 tanks, FCM 9, and FAHM and Schneider got small batches of 5 apiece.

The first tank ordered by this contract was built on April 27th, 1938, receiving the number 236 and name "Glorieux". The last tank, numbered 270 and named "Elefant" (later renamed to "Typhoon") left the assembly plant on March 26th, 1939. All tanks of this batch were assigned to the 508th Tank Regiment and given names of ships in the French navy.

Tank 343 Pommard was built in early 1940 at AMX. It fought as a part of the 49th Tank Battalion.

Meanwhile, the escalating political situation in Europe forced the infantry command to speed things up. A third contract was signed on February 1st, 1938. This time it ordered 70 tanks, or two tank regiments. Of course, the signing of a contract and its completion are two different things. Even by the most optimistic projections, the production of enough tanks to equip one tank regiment would take half a year.

Spreading the contract out among four contractors sped up the process, but not much. FCM was also loaded with orders for the FCM 36. Unlike the Char B1 bis, which had a riveted hull, the hull of the FCM 36 was welded. In late spring of 1939, French infantry command was forced to cancel an order for 200 FCM 36 tanks to let the factory concentrate on the Char B1 bis. This was the correct decision. With all its drawbacks, the "battle tank" was a much more useful fighting unit.

Even these measures did not result in meaningfully faster production. The first tank with serial number 271 and name "Alger" was completed on January 9th, 1939, even before contract #61980 D/P was completed. The last tank was delivered on October 10th, a month after the beginning of WWII. Schneider was also forced to give up its share. It built only six tanks instead of ten. Renault and FAMH made up the shortfall with two tanks apiece.

As a result, Renault built 32 B1 bis tanks from the third batch, FAMH built 14, FCM 18, and Schneider 6. Out of these 70 tanks, 45 were delivered by August 21st, 1939, and even fewer were issued. Tanks from the first half of the contract were given to the 512th Tank Regiment, where they were given the names of French colonies.

The French army began reforming its tank regiments in late August of 1939. Char B1 tanks were included in battle tank battalions (Bataillon de Chars de Combat, BCC). The 512th Tank Regiment (RCC) was renamed to 28th BCC, the 508th RCC became the 8th BCC, and the 510th RCC became the 15th BCC.

As for tanks built according to contract #71780 D/P, their fate was different. Tank number 306 "Seine" and those that came after it were included in the 37th BCC, which was formed from the 511th RCC. The worn Char B1 tanks from that unit were sent to be repaired and modernized. New Char B1 bis tanks took their place. Not all tanks from the second half of the contract were sent to the 37th BCC. For example, tank 340 "Somme" was sent to the 41st BCC. Tanks from the second half of the contract received the names of French rivers.

Production of Char B1 bis tanks at the AMX factory, spring of 1940. This factory had to build several types of tanks at the same time.

The list of contractors widened in November of 1939. Factories began working on contract CA 71780 D/P signed on September 28th, 1939, which called for another 35 tanks. Schneider, who was supposed to build 6 tanks of this series, finished only one tank in November, and three tanks for this contract in total. A part of the contract was handed over to Renault, who produced seven tanks instead of four, also in November. FCM delivered four tanks by the end of the year, and FAMH delivered six, completing their obligations. The rest of the tanks were built at AMX, who started producing Char B1 bis tanks in November of 1939. The factory in Satory delivered three tanks in November, five in December, and the remaining seven in January, as well as the first tank under contract 88 184 D/P signed on March 21st, 1939.

Almost all tanks from the fourth batch were sent to form the 41st BCC. Tanks with numbers 341-345 were named after French rivers, the remainder (346-375) were named after French wines.

AMX, the new player, ended up the main producer of the Char B1 bis for the next, fifth contract.The last of the 12 ordered tanks was delivered in early March of 1940. Schneider failed to complete its end of the bargain once more, finishing three tanks instead of six in February of 1940. Renault had to pick up the slack for its competitors, finishing their deliveries in January. That is when FCM and FAMH completed their side of contract 88 184 D/P, delivering five and six tanks respectively by early February. Tanks 376-387 were sent to the 49th BCC, the rest were spread out across other units. All of these tanks were named after battles from WWI.

The next contract, 98105 D/P, was signed on July 10th, 1939. Nine tanks were expected from Renault, three from Schneider, six from FAMH, five from FCM, and 12 from AMX. This contract was finished in March-April. Tanks received numbers 411-445 and names of French commanders.

Tank #443 "Masenna" from the 348th CACC.

Work on contract 98208 D/P, the first signed after the start of WWII, on September 26th, 1939, began only in April of 1940. Renault was given a contract for 18 tanks, Schneider for 6, FAMH and FCM 14, and AMX 18. Starting with this contract, the names were given without a consistent theme, since the tanks were meant to refill existing units instead of forming new ones. Most received the names of French commanders, but there were some that were named after battles or repeated names given earlier. FOr example, the 37th BCC had tanks 449 "Belfort II", 452 "Verdun II", and 453 "Bretagne II".

How to Lose Everything and Learn Nothing

The first wartime tank production program, approved on September 27th, 1939, called for production of 400 Char B1 bis tanks. A second part of the program was planned for the future, with 418 more tanks. Between 400 and 818 Char B1 bis tanks would have been added to the 349 that there were already contracts for.

In reality, the situation was far from the ideal world that the French military envisioned. Work on the program began only in May of 1940, when German presence in the west ramped up. AMX was also loaded with production of a second batch of Char D2 tanks, plus the Renault R40 replaced the Renault R35 on assembly lines.

All of this reflected on production output. The factory in Satory delivered nine Char B1 bis tanks in February of 1940, seven in March and April, five in May, and only two by June 15th. Some of the orders were passed on to Renault, but its abilities were also far from limitless. Here, 16 tanks were finished in March, 11 in April, 18 in May, and another 8 by June 15th. Meanwhile, Schneider delivered a total of 14 tanks, FAMH - 37, and FCM - 19. By June 15th, 1940, 403 Char B1 tanks were produced by French factories, 369 of which were Char B1 bis.

Due to production problems, the last tanks to come off the assembly line had no turrets. The numbering system was also in chaos. Renault and partially FAMH retained the initial numbering system. AMX tanks had numbers from 736 to 749, Schneider had 856-861, and FCM 876-878. Tanks from the last production batch often did not receive a personal name.

Tank 738 Roland from the 352nd CACC. One of the last tanks to come out of the AMX factory.

On one hand, 369 tanks is a decent number. On the other hand, the amount of tanks built is an important factor, but not an all-decisive one. Ideally, there were only enough tanks to equip 10 battalions, one quarter of the number demanded in 1934. In case of completion of the pre-war Char B1 program, 33 battalions could be equipped. However, the factory output could be no more than 45 tanks per month. It's doubtful that this number could be radically increased, since Renault was the only producer of a number of components.

The use of the Char B1 bis in combat deserves a separate article. This tank earned the name of the best French tank in the May-June 1940 campaign. Tankers who fought in it demonstrated miracles of heroism and tenacity. The issue was that the defeat of the French army was predestined since 1934.

When the Char B1 is mentioned, people usually remember de Gaulle and that this tank was allegedly his favourite. This is far from the truth. Yes, he was in charge of the 4th Tank Division (4 DCR) which included two Char B1 bis battalions. However, in 1934, he opposed the production of the Char B1, considering the Char D2 to be better.

A symbol of French desperation: tank 505, sent into battle with no turret.

To fully understand the issue, imagine that the Red Army adopted the KV-1 as its main tank instead of the T-34. This comparison is apt, since further development of the Char B line led to a tank with similar characteristics, especially in mass and armour. In the 1940 campaign, these tanks also carried out similar roles as Soviet heavy tanks.

In the spring of 1940, the French army was in a position where it had less than 100 Char D2 (T-34 in our example) and 350 Char B1. SOMUA S35 cavalry tanks were also designated medium and included in tank divisions, but this was a gesture of last-ditch desperation.

Thick armour, the biggest advantage of the Char B1 bis on the battlefield, worked only partially in practice. The Germans quickly found an effective countermeasure, plus the amount of losses to mechanical failure was very high. The French were not ready for a maneuver war that the Germans forced on them. The most that battalions armed with Char B1 bis tanks could do was stall the Blitzkrieg for a short time.

1 comment:

  1. More like the maneuver war the French brought upon themselves by way of some truly egregious derpage of their senior commanders in regards to the Sedan thrust. The fighting qualities, or lack thereof, of your various arms are rather irrelevant if they're not where actually needed.

    The case of the B1's wasn't particularly helped by the fact that they were organised in specialised assault/breakthrough formations not meant for independent operations (AFAIK the DCRs didn't have organic recon assets for example), not to mention that said formations were very newly formed and there hadn't been time to work out concrete doctrines and operational practices for them. (By way of comparision the Cavalry's DLM's - de facto Panzer division analogs - were older-established formations that *had*, and unsurprisingly performed rather better.)