Friday 11 November 2022

A Soviet Look at French Cavalry

It just so happened that Soviet tank building grew out of the French school. Renault FT light tanks captured in the spring of 1919 happened to be the most appropriate type for production in Soviet Russia. That resulted in the Russian Renault, the first Soviet tank produced in series. The MS-1 tank followed. This was a whole new tank from a technical point of view, but performed a similar role to the Russian Renault. There is nothing strange about this, as French tank building was still the object of imitation in many countries. The Red Army continued to watch what was happening in France even in the late 1920s. Khalepskiy’s commission unsuccessfully tried to buy a French Renault NC tank, and traces of this tank can be seen in the design of the T-19 tank, the unsuccessful replacement for the MS-1. This is where the concept of a 3-man tank with a 1-man turret comes from. Priorities changed after that.

Three Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks were captured more or less intact in the end of January of 1942 with the Panzerzug 27.
Khalepskiy’s commission discovered that Vickers and Carden-Loyd designs were optimal. Further Soviet development followed the British school with a few mix-ins rom Christie. Interestingly enough, the Soviets succeeded in developing directions that the British either failed at (Vickers 16-tonner and the T-28) or rejected (Vickers Mk.E and the T-26, Vickers amphibious tanks and the T-37A/T-38). The French fell out of favour, at the very least their vehicles no longer served as inspiration. The Soviet military “met” the French once again in the fall of 1939 when Renault R 35 tanks ended up among the trophies recovered from Tomaszow-Lubelski. The Soviet evaluation of the French tanks was not high. It did not differ much from the German evaluation, who quickly became disenchanted with their trophies. The Germans did eventually allow the Soviet military to get a good look at other French tanks.

Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) with turret number 271 at the NIBT Proving Grounds, 1942.

The French campaign ended with not only a defeat of the French, Belgian, Dutch, and partially British armies, but also a wealth of trophies for the Germans. Not all French tanks were valuable even as training tanks, but there were some that were worthy of front line service. The best of the French tanks was the SOMUA S 35, a medium cavalry tank that was officially classified as an armoured car. The SOMUA S 35 was not without drawbacks, but it was used on the Soviet-German Front since the first days of the Great Patriotic War. These tanks were used during the siege of the Brest Fortress and in Karelia. It’s not surprising that one of the tanks that the Germans called Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) was captured by the Red Army. This is the tank that we will speak about today.

Like other tanks of this type used on the armoured train, tank #271 had an intact commander’s cupola.

The Red Army discovered the SOMUA S 35 before the start of WW2. Tanks from the 2nd DLM were seen at the Bastille Day parade held on July 14th, 1938. Soviet sources referred to it as a “new type of medium tank”. The mass was overestimated at 20 tons. The vehicle was considered a step forward. It was known that the tank was built at SOMUA by the summer of 1941, but the information about it was off the mark. For instance, the armour thickness was estimated to be 20-30 mm, the tank allegedly had 2 machine guns, and a crew of 6(!) men. There were no sources of better information. These tanks fought in the 211th Tank Battalion in Karelia, but the Germans were left in control of the battlefield. 3 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks each were used as a part of Panzerzug 26, 27, and 28 armoured trains. 2 tanks each were carried by Panzerzug 29, 20, and 31. Trains #26 and #27 fought at Brest.

A port for the German whip antenna was added on the right side, but this tank didn’t have an antenna.

The first Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) fell into Soviet hands in early 1942. During a German retreat, Panzerzug 27 was abandoned near Sukhinichi in Kaluga oblast. It was captured in the end of January with all three tanks. The Germans claim that it was repaired, but that claim is not entirely correct. The designation Panzerzug 27 was assigned to a brand new train collected from captured train cars. This train was blown up by partisans in May of 1942, but appears again in documents like a phoenix. But let us return to the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). Three tanks fell to the Red Army: 271, 272, and 273. The turret number indicated the train (27) and its sequential number. The same system was used on all other armoured trains. These tanks had special hooks on the front of the hull that was used to attach them to their platforms.

A later armour diagram composed at the NIBT Proving Grounds. Like the one from NII-48, it had some mistakes.

Even after capturing live tanks (referred to in documents as “Somua tank”), there was still plenty of misinformation on them. For instance, the crew was reported as 4 men (it’s not clear where the fourth was supposed to go). This number remained in the albums of the NIBT Proving Grounds. There were also mistakes in the evaluation of the armour. The front of the hull and turret was recorded as 45 mm and the sides as 20 mm. This data was never rechecked.

One vehicle was disassembled and a technical description was composed. One tank was also repaired at BTRZ #82.

One of the three captured tanks went through repairs at BTRZ #82. It was dropped off there in May of 1942 and returned a month later. It’s possible that this was tank #271. The NIBT Proving Grounds also tested another tank, #272. None of the vehicles were complete when captured, which is reflected in the report. Nevertheless, the proving grounds had enough to get a general idea. Full trials were not conducted, only a description was composed.

Tank #272 during penetration trials against PTRS and Blum 15-P anti-tank rifles.

The fate of tank #272 was decided on May 8th, 1942. Penetration trials of the PTRS and M.N. Blum’s (OKB-16) 15-P anti-tank rifle were conducted on that day. A Pz.Kpfw.38(t) Ausf.S tank was also used in addition to the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). The French tank’s hull and turret side were shot at from 100 meters. One complete penetration was scored out of 5 shots in the first and second group.

The French armour proved itself no better than Czech armour. Even the PTRS could penetrate it one out of five times from 100 meters.

In the case of the 15-P, the bullets either ricocheted or tumbled in flight, hitting the target sideways. A third group of PTRS rounds was fired off at the turret. 4 ended with ricochets, one with a “40 mm deep penetration”. It is interesting to compare the tank with the Pz.Kpfw.38(t). Here the PTRS could only penetrate the 25 mm thick armour. The thicker plates were not penetrated. Heavier weapons were not used in these trials, but some conclusions can still be drawn. There is serious evidence to believe that the 40 mm thick armour of the SOMUA S 35 had the same quality as the Renault R 35, meaning that the cast armour was much worse than rolled. Even the very brittle Czech armour was at the very least not any worse in this case.

Penetration of a StuG III Ausf.B front from 400 meters.

The Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) ended up on the other side of the gun sight in September of 1942. Tank #271 took part in penetration trials held at the NIBT Proving Grounds in Kazan. The tank took its revenge for the Battle of France, as it was tested against a German StuG III Ausf.B. The 47 mm SA 35 gun could penetrate the 50 mm thick front hull from 250 meters. One shell penetrated 45 mm of armour with spalling on the rear side from this range. The armour was penetrated at a range of up to 400 meters, although the report said that the shell didn’t burst after penetration so damage to the crew and internal components was limited.

Tank #273. Its antenna port is in place.

Specialists from NII-48 studied the French tanks on their own around this time. Their measurements of the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) armour was closer to reality, except where there were issues with measuring the thickness of cast parts. Neither the design of the armour nor its composition impressed the Soviet scientists; The report states that the abundance of expensive alloying elements such as nickel made it uninteresting for Soviet industry.

The commander’s cupola was lost somewhere.

The further fate of tank #271 is known only partially. According to the NIBT Proving Grounds report dated August 1943, they had one SOMUA tank in non-running order. It stayed there until 1945. The fate of tank #273 is better tracked. It lost its commander’s cupola, but ended up on display in Gorky Park.

The tank was displayed in Gorky Park until 1948 when it was scrapped.

Kubinka gained one SOMUA S 35 in 1944. As mentioned above, the 211st Tank Battalion fought in Karelia in the summer of 1941. It remained there until September of 1944, when it ended up having to fight the Finns in addition to the Red Army. Its darkest hour came on September 9th-10th when it met with T-34 tanks of the 38th Guards Tank Brigade. There was no trace of the luck the battalion had in the summer of 1941. It lost 12 tanks in two days of fighting, 4 of which were Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). One of them (turret number 121) was abandoned completely intact, as were six Pz.Kpfw.38 H (f) tanks.

Tank #121 when it was captured.

The 38th Guards Tank Brigade composed a report with brief characteristics of both tanks. This time the armour was overestimated at 60 mm instead of 40, but the crew was counted correctly. Tank #121 was very interesting. It was given a registration number 10672 when it was built in 1939 to satisfy contract #80 353 D/P. Tanks built according to this contract went to the 3rd DLM. This tank fought here in 1940 and ended up in the German army. Here it received a German radio and lots its commander’s cupola. At the moment of its capture, it had a Zimmerit coating applied.

The tank today.

The tank was sent to the Kubinka Proving Grounds, where the testers had a different opinion about its condition. As of December 1st, 1945, both tanks of this type are listed as needing major repairs. Only one tank of the two survived, #121, although it did not get to keep its Zimmerit. Today it can be seen in Patriot Park. It is painted like it would have been in the summer of 1941.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

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