1940 The Fall of France:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the secrecy bred by a wartime mentality,
most participants develop what modern American
parlance calls “black
black program is so secret that it doesn't
even appear in budget documents; its costs
are not reported lest enemies use that data
to suss out the program's basics. It’s a
recipe for corruption and self-enrichment,
but fortunately that sort of greed doesn’t occur in modern
That hasn’t always been the case. In 1916,
someone in the French Army launched a “black
program” to develop a very heavy tank.
A secret payment went to Forges et Chantiers
de la Mediterranée (FCM), a Toulon
shipyard. There, the politically-connected
firm pocketed the francs and did nothing
to build a tank. For some time, no one in
the bureaucracy noticed, since the army had
no record of requesting such a tank. After
the British deployed their own heavy tanks,
French generals and politicians began investigating,
and pressure grew for FCM to produce something,
anything, to justify the black payments.
The Char 2C under construction
Renault, then producing its successful FT-17
light tank, offered design and production
assistance, and plans for a huge vehicle
with a 155mm gun began to appear. But French
generals objected, reasoning that the steel
and production facilities tied up to build just
one such big tank would preclude construction
of many more light tanks. The new vehicle
must not be allowed to impede the light tank
program, argued French commander-in-chief
Robert Nivelle. Development proceeded slowly,
with a prototype appearing in December 1917.
After protracted political wrangling, FCM
received a production order for 700 vehicles,
cut to 300 and, once the war ended, to 10.
The new tank, designated Char 2C, was a
monstrous vehicle: long (12 meters) and narrow,
with a single turret set far forward bearing
a long-barreled 75mm gun. A second, smaller
turret covered the tank's rear with a machine
gun. One machine gun was mounted in the bow,
and one more on either side. The tank was
four meters tall and weighing in at 68 tons,
requiring two engines — one 250-horsepower
diesel for each track, with electrical transmission.
The huge tank drank enormous quantities of
fuel, and seven separate tanks provided 1,260
liters but a range of only 150 kilometers
(a stunning 12 liters per kilometers, or
2.1 gallons per mile; even the notoriously
fuel-guzzling M1 Abrams rates 1.6 gallons
per mile) at a top speed of 15 kilometers
Number 91, named "Provence," on
its special rail car.
A crew of 12 occupied two fighting compartments,
separated by the engines, and the three-man
turret. The 40mm armor plating was substantial
in 1918, but much less so by 1940 particularly
when combined with the gigantic target the
tank presented. For its time the 2C represented
a fighting marvel, with numerous features
(thick armor, bow machine gun, three-man
turret, and electric drive) almost two decades
more advanced than other tanks of the Great
The original engines were German-made Mercedes
diesels, later replaced by Maybach models,
all of them part of the war reparations taken
by France following the Great War. Mechanical
reliability remained low: The German manufacturers
were reluctant to provide spare parts, and
may have given the French defective engines.
Patriotic French mechanics disliked working
on German-made equipment, with more than
one man demanding a transfer. As a result,
no more than six of the 10 tanks were ever
fully operational at the same time, while
the enormous fuel consumption made Army accountants
reluctant to authorize their use for training.
The tank had been designed with a comparatively
narrow width to make it transportable by
rail, but loading the 2C aboard a specially-built
flatcar was a difficult and time-consuming
task. That cumbersome rail-transport process
would eventually prove the undoing of the
Tank number 96, named "Anjou," could not be made
to run and was written off in September 1939.
In 1926, three of the tanks received a new
turret with a 155mm gun in the forward position,
with the original turret moved to the rear
position. That made the tank even slower,
and all three were converted back to their
original configuration. Experiments adding
thicker armor also had to be reversed for
the same reason.
All ten tanks were assigned to the 511th
Tank Regiment at Verdun, but rarely left
their storage sheds. In July 1939 they were
brought out of storage to equip the new 51st
Independent Tank Battalion. Six tanks could
be made fully operational, and were organized
into two "companies" of three tanks
each. A seventh tank that showed promise
of repair served as the command tank. Training
took place at several sites around Verdun,
and in October the Mercedes diesels were
replaced by Maybach engines that had been
resting in the Puteaux Arsenal since their
delivery in 1919.
Tank number 93, named "Alsace," appears to have been
in the best condition in 1939.
Orders came to bring the tanks to the front
on 10 June 1940, and six of them rolled to
the railway station at Landres. Their special
flatcars had not arrived, and then when those
had been made ready and the tanks slowly
loaded aboard, no locomotive could be found.
Four days later, all had finally been made
ready, but the battalion commander, Lt. Col.
Fournet, had noted elements of a French mechanized
division streaming past in retreat and reasoned
that the situation had changed in four days.
Officers sent to find Third Army headquarters
and obtain new orders finally returned with
instructions to move to Neufchateau, and
the unit set out in two trains.
Near that city, a 50-meter stretch of destroyed
track stopped their movement, and thanks
to massive congestion the trains crept
forward very slowly once repairs had been
made. Fournet went to Third Army headquarters
himself, receiving orders to move his tanks
to the south by any route he could find,
and to blow them up if he could not break
free. The two trains made their way out of
Neufchateau but about 40 kilometers south
of the city they reached a gigantic traffic
snarl. Five trains in front of them were
stopped, and though some sources claim they
had been bombed Fournet raged that they were
undamaged — their
crews had simply abandoned them in place,
blocking the rail line.
While the colonel attempted to gather enough
engineers to get the stalled trains out the
way, more trains piled up behind his two
tank-laden trains, and their crews in turn
wandered away on foot before he could draft
them to move the others. After consulting
with his officers, Fournet ordered all the
tanks destroyed with demolition charges,
and he and his men set out to the south by
Despite German claims, air attacks had nothing
to do with the loss of the tank battalion.
One tank was taken intact by the Germans
and displayed as a trophy, and may have been
taken by the Red Army after the war. Otherwise,
the Char 2C ended its days without firing
a shot at the enemy or achieving anything
other than fattening FCM's “black” profit
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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.