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France's History

World War I

There were around 4,000 tanks in France's arsenal at the end of World War I, which was more than any other country in the world. This lead to the French not working very hard to develop replacements as it was felt they had more than enough tanks.

1920s

France's Aime Doumenc Aime Doumenc

When the war ended France had more tanks than any other nation. In 1920 the responsibility of the tanks were transferred from the artillery to the infantry.

Visionaries such as Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne advocated mechanized units and General Aime Doumenc proposed armored divisions. However, Marshal Philippe Pétain only thought of tanks as support for infantry.

Tank Development

France's Philippe Pétain Philippe Pétain

By 1921 there was 3,737/3,767 FT-17s in service and an effort was taken to modernize them however it wasn't very successful.

France's Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne Jean Baptiste Estienne
Also in 1921 a study for a heavy breakthrough tank was started which was to be a successor to the FT-17. General Jean Baptiste Estienne, now the Inspecteur des Chars studied the Char de bataille (battle tank). Prototypes were ordered from Renault/Schneider, FCM, FAMH (Saint Chamond), and Delaunay-Belleville. This resulted in the Char B. Three prototypes, called Tracteurs 30 for security, were ordered in 1926 and manufactured from 1929-1930.

The French War Ministry in 1925 or 1926 decided to produce light, medium, heavy, and super heavy tanks. The Program de 1926 defined the need for a light tank, under 13 tons that would support the infantry. A battle tank between 19 and 22 tons to support the light tanks and battle heavier resistance and foreign tanks. A heavy tank, up to 70 tons, for supporting the other tanks and infantry.

Weighing 17 tons, the first light tank was the Renault D. The 25 ton Char B was the first of the battle tanks. The 68 ton Char 2C filled the heavy tank class.

Fixed Folly

Shortly after the Treaty of Versailles was signed the plans for the Maginot Line were started.

1930s

Several designs to replace the FT-17 were rejected. The Char NC 1 built by Renault ended up being sold to Japan and the NC 2 sold to Greece. Renault then produced the D1 in 1930. This was the first French vehicle that had a 47mm gun.

At the Disarmament Conferences the French sacrificed the 90 remaining Mark V (World War I vehicles) at the Geneva Conference. The French General Staff decided to have a policy of only developing infantry support vehicles from then on.

Maneuvers were held in 1933 and the classifications changed to a 6 ton light tank, a battle tank, and heavy tank.

In the 1930s the French started a program to mechanize and build more modern tanks. Many of the new models were considered the best in the world at the time. However, they primarily had one man turrets, which had the commander doing too many jobs.

Early Organization

France's Paul Reynaud Paul Reynaud

In 1931 a Détachement mécanique de combat (mechanized fighting unit) was established for experimentation. Then in 1932 a Détachement d'engins blindés (armored vehicles unit) was formed. Both of these let to the DCR (Division Cuirassée) of 1940.

France's Charles de Gaulle Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle advocated in his book Vers L'Armée de métier (Toward a Professional Army) the formation of independent armored units. He advocated a professional army that was also mechanized with shock troops. Paul Reynaud presented these ideas to the political authorities of the time. They felt that it was anti-republican as it was viewed these forces would be offensive in nature. Pétain struck him off the promotion lists in 1936 for this.

Cavalry

In 1917 each cavalry division was assigned 18 armored cars, and in 1923 this became 36. In 1930 one of the division's 3 mounted brigades were replaced by a regiment of infantry carried by trucks known as the Dragons Portés.

In 1931 and 1932 3 types of vehicles were designated:

  1. Auto-mitrailleuse de découverte (AMD): distant reconnaissance wheeled vehicles
  2. Auto-mitrailleuse de reconnaissance (AMR): cross country reconnaissance, light tank with a machine gun
  3. Auto-mitrailleuse de combat (AMC): tracked vehicle that has better armament and armor capable of fighting

Renault designed the AMR-33, AMR-35, AMC-34, and AMC-35 in response to the program.

A mechanized force called the Détachement mécanique de sûreté (mechanized security unit) was proposed in 1931. This was developed into the Division de cavalerie de type mixte (mixed cavalry division) in 1932 and was experimented with. This contained mechanized, motorized, and horse elements.

In 1932 the armored elements were formed into a regiment with 80 tanks.

In 1934 the 1ère Division Légère Mécanique (DLM) was created from a fully mechanized cavalry division. By May 1940 there were 3 DLMs and a 4th forming. Each of these contained:

  • a reconnaissance regiment with 2 armored car and 2 motorcycle squadrons,
  • a tank brigade of 2 regiments each with 87 tanks, one was equipped with H-35s / H-39s and the other with S35 tanks
  • a motor rifle brigade of 3 battalions, each with:
    • a light tank company of 20 AMRs,
    • a motorcycle company,
    • 2 truck born infantry companies, and
    • a heavy weapons company,
  • a motorized artillery regiment, and
  • an engineer battalion.

The function of the DLM units were to provide a screen for the deployment of the main part of the army, reconnaissance, and exploitation.

World War II

Infantry

The infantry wanted tanks to reinforce assaults. These were called chars de manoeuvre d'ensemble, and would use the most powerful infantry tanks. They would be assigned to corps or division commanders as they were needed.

In September 1939 the 1ère Division Cuirassée de Réserve (DCR) was formed. It contained:

  • 2 armored brigades, each with
  • a battalion of motorized riflemen, and
  • 2 12-gun groups of motorized artillery.

There was no reconnaissance unit, nor anti-aircraft defense. It was intended to go ahead of the infantry and break through the defenses of the enemy.

The first was formed in September 1939, with the second in January 1940, and the third in March 1940. By May 1940 3 DCRs were formed and a 4th was being formed under the command of Charles de Gaulle. The formations weren't used to working together yet by the time of the German invasion.

Rearmament

On September 7, 1936, General Gamelin proposed a 4 year plan for rearmament was accepted. This was to form 3 DLM divisions with S-35 and H-35 tanks, 2 DCR divisions with B tanks, and 50 battalions of R-35 and FCM-36 tanks to support the infantry.

In August 1936 Schneider, Hotchkiss and Renault were nationalized by the French government to help with Gamelin's plan. Even with these measures the French industry wasn't able to meet the demands of the plan.

By the end of 1937 it was decided to form the DCRs with 4 battalions of B tanks instead of 6 to increase the number of DCR divisions to 3. The Supreme War Council intervened in 1938 and the formation of the first 2 DCRs was until October 1939.

September 1939

French Tanks Available September 1940
FT-17 1,600
R-35 and H-35 1,670
FCM-36 100
S-35 261
D1 & D2 213
B1 & B1-bis 172
AMR 384
AMD, AMR, AMC 407

Several hundred of the available tanks to the French Army were located in North Africa, Near East, Indo-China, and Madagascar.

There were 2 DLMs available, a third that was formed in August 1939 (became operational in February 1940), and 4 battalions of B tanks (known as Groupement de chars de Nancy).

On September 2, 1939, General Gamelin ordered the creation of 2 demi-brigades cuirassées (armored 1/2 brigades) that became the basis for the first DCRs. These were formed January 2, 1940, based on 2 battalions of B tanks and 2 battalions of H tanks. A third DCR was formed on March 16, 1940, but was not operational by May 10, 1940.

May 1940

French Tanks Available May 1940
R-35, R-40, H-35, H-39 2,691
FCM-36 100
B1 & B1-bis 384
S-35 416
AMD, AMR, AMC 864
Light (<15 tons) 2,720
Medium (15-25 tons) 400
Heavy (>25 tons) 300

There approximately 3,000 tanks in the French Army. The DCRs had about 500 tanks and the DLMs had 800. The rest were distributed amongst the infantry.

 

Population

39,000,000, 41,600,000, 41,907,056, 42,000,000

Sources:

  1. Tanks of World War II, Duncan Crow, 1979
  2. No Simple Victory - World War II In Europe, 1939-1945, 2006, Norman Davies
  3. World War II Airplanes Volume 1, Enzo Angelucci, Paolo Matricardi, 1976
  4. World War II, DK, 2004
  5. Tank War 1939-1945, Janusz Piekalkiewicz, 1986
  6. Atlas of Tank Warfare From 1916 to the Present Day, Dr. Stephen Hart, 2012
  7. World War II in Numbers, Peter Doyle, 2013
20th Century American Military History Crucial Site