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France's Metal Monster
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2015

In the secrecy bred by a wartime mentality, most participants develop what modern American parlance calls "black programs." A 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 times.

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 at FCM.

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 needed for 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 per hour.


Tank 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 War.

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 2C.


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.


Tank Number 97, named "Normandie," has thrown a track on a training run. 23 or 24 April 1940.

 

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 truck.

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 ledger.

Order 1940: The Fall of France and see if you can bring the Char 2C to battle!

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. Leopold does not like rain.