1942, The Defense of France:
France’s Drawing-Board Tanks

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2020

France went to war in the spring of 1940 with a decided technical edge in her armored forces. The Germans had nothing to match the splendid Somua S35 cavalry tank, nor the Char B1bis heavy tank. And while French light tanks like the Renault R35 and Hotchkiss H39 were not up to fighting the German Panzer III in a tank battle, they were adequate in the infantry-support role even if not as capable as the German vehicle that performed the same task, the Sturmgeschütz III assault gun.

Despite this advantage, France’s tank designers continued to work on better vehicles, and her arms makers toiled at producing better weapons for them. Had the German invasion occurred a year or two later, France’s technological superiority would have been even more profound. Would it have been enough to overcome deficiencies in doctrine and organization? That question is the core of our 1942: The Defense of France supplement for Panzer Grenadier.

French armor did have some serious technical problems: a lack of radios in all tanks, and in most designs a small one-man turret forcing the tank commander to also operate the main gun. That led to a number of obvious problems on the battlefield: the tank commander had to load and aim the main gun as well as direct his tank in the fighting, and if he were a platoon or company commander as well, he had to direct other tanks, too.

Like the Germans until the 1939 campaign in Poland, France had two types of armored divisions: one originating from the cavalry branch, and one from the infantry branch. Unlike the Germans, the French produced different tanks for the different branches, introducing inefficiencies into the system. Also unlike the Germans, the French produced infantry-support tanks rather than specially-designed assault guns, which somewhat re-dressed the balance of inefficiency.

It’s the lazy historian who answers questions about unfortunate decisions by people in the past with “well, it’s because they were stupid.” French planners were not stupid, but the conclusions they had drawn from the battles of the Great War did not lead to an effective doctrine or design for modern armor. French troops were expected to operate under pre-arranged plans rather than haphazard initiative: through hard-earned experience, the generals believed it was not reasonable to expect short-term conscripts and reservists to make good decisions on the spot under the fearsome stresses of the modern battlefield. Therefore, commanders of tank platoons and companies would not have the need to transmit complicated orders in the midst of battle. That relieved tank designers of the need to incorporate the bulky radios of the period into their vehicles.

Likewise, the one-man turret was not seen as a disadvantage. A tank commander with two other men in the turret would still have to direct them, losing valuable seconds while he pointed out a target to his gunner rather than firing at it himself. Those seconds might mean the lives of the commander and his sole crewman, the driver. With only one man in the turret, it could be smaller (making for a smaller target) and have thicker armor. And it could be turned much faster than a bigger turret, which might also prove decisive in battle.

Despite these seeming advantages, the French were turning toward the German view in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Revisions to doctrine now allowed for more small-unit flexibility, and tank designers started to sketch vehicles with bigger turrets bearing not only larger weapons but larger crews as well. In part, this seems to be due to the weapon itself no longer being easily handled by one man, but there was also recognition that a larger crew could be more efficient than one man, given sufficient training and familiarity.

Probably the most effective of the new-model tanks would have been an updated version of the Somua S35 cavalry tank. The proposed tank would have had a three-man turret designed by FCM; in French practice, tanks and turrets were designed separately, with tanks produced by one firm commonly mounting turrets originally designed by another. This new turret would carry an SA 37 long-barreled, high-velocity 47mm gun, the tank-mounted version of the powerful APX anti-tank gun. This turret would have been welded rather than cast, for ease of production, and the S35 silhouette would have been lowered. Armor protection would be upgraded, with a more powerful engine to offset the weight increases.

On paper, at least, this S41 would be a formidable opponent on par with the Soviet-made T34/76 and roughly equivalent to the German Panzer IV with a long-barreled 75mm gun. Workmanship – an overlooked factor in any discussion of military equipment – would have been much better than that of the T34, though French factories could not approach Soviet standards of mass production.

The Puteaux Arsenal, which developed the 47mm APX (the abbreviation for Arsenal Puteaux), had a larger version under development in 1940, the 75mm TAZ mle 1939. Engineers worked out sketches of the weapon mounted in the FCM turret in place of the 47mm SA 37, but only two examples of the anti-tank version had been completed when France fell and no working models of a tank-mounted variant. That of course didn’t stop us from including a few S42 tanks in 1942: The Defense of France, an awesome tank capable of shredding anything in the German inventory.

The French infantry fielded its own medium tank, the Char B1bis, sometimes described as a heavy tank. It had the same 47mm SA35 gun as the Somua S35 in a turret, and a short-barreled 75mm howitzer mounted in the hull. That gave it capability against both tanks and “soft” targets, and its thick armor made it nearly invulnerable to German anti-tank guns during the 1940 campaign. French armored divisions included one brigade equipped with the Char B1bis and another with light tanks, usually the Hotchkiss H39.

As with the S35, new versions of the Char B1 were under development when France fell to the Germans in June 1940. The Char B1ter would have thicker armor and a more powerful engine to move the resulting greater weight, and space for a fifth crewmember. But the Char B1’s turret was a variation of the APX 1 turret mounted on the S35; it had a slightly narrower turret ring at its base but was otherwise identical.

The version of the B1ter included in 1942: The Defense of France therefore sports the FCM turret with the long-barreled 47mm gun. That makes for a slow but nearly invulnerable armored beast, shooting up both German tanks and infantry as it waddles across the battlefield.

Where the Germans supported the infantry with specialized assault guns built on the same chassis as their medium tanks, the French deployed light tanks in both brigades that formed their armored divisions and also in independent battalions parceled out to the infantry divisions. Criticized by post-war popularizers as a foolish strategy of deploying tanks in “penny packets,” it was no different in concept than that of the Germans with their assault guns or Americans with their separate tank battalions. The light tanks were intended to be relatively cheap to manufacture precisely so they could be parceled out along the front to aid in the defense of France. The bigger, more capable tanks would equip the armored divisions.

The standard French light tanks for infantry support, the Renault R40 (an upgraded version of the R35) and Hotchkiss H39 (an upgraded version of the H35) were still in production when France collapsed in 1940, but new light tanks were under development. The AMX 38 was intended to meet a requirement for a 20-ton tank to serve in both the light and medium roles. The AMX works produced two prototypes in 1940, with an FCM turret mounting the 47mm SA 35 gun. In production it’s likely this tank would have had the long-barreled SA 37 model, giving the tank considerable fighting power.

The Char D2, the obsolete light/medium tank which the AMX 38 had been intended to replace, was assigned to separate infantry-support battalions in 1940 (though many of these vehicles broke down before they met the enemy). So it’s most likely that the AMX 38 would have filled the same role, even though it was far more suitable to serve alongside the S41 than the tiny Hotchkiss. Perhaps the French Army would have realized this by 1942, but given the reality of military bureaucracies around the world, maybe not.

The 1942: The Defense of France scenarios take place in a setting where Germany has first attacked the Soviet Union, and only invaded France in 1942. The French have had an additional two years to field more modern weapons, and to draw some limited lessons from the massive tank battles taking place far away to the East under a cloak of secrecy. Would these impressive drawing-board tanks have been enough to save France? That’s up to you to decide.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.