Thursday, June 19, 2014

French Char 2C, Biggest Tank Ever

The Battleship of Tanks

French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Char 2C.
The Germans are often criticized for the size and weight of their tanks and ordnance. The Tiger Tank comes in for a generous helping of the "they were stupid to build such a big tank" types of remarks. However, there were plenty of other examples by the other Great Powers of weaponry that was as colossally misguided as it was colossally huge.

French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
For comparison, and to show a more reasonable and practical French tank, here is the French “Char B1” heavy tank “EURE.” It destroyed 13 German tanks during the Battle of Stonne. Sustained 140 hits from anti-tank fire. Commanded by Pierre Billotte. A successful French tank that did not weigh 69 tons.
A French monster tank that actually existed and entered service is largely forgotten, but it served in World War II. The French, not known for their tank development, actually had some fairly good tank models that they had developed during the 1930s. Unfortunately, those tanks were in short supply upon the outbreak of World War II and barely made a dent in the Blitzkrieg. One thing the French did accomplish with their tank effort, though, was to secure the dubious honor of making one of the biggest tanks of all time.

French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Char 2C with its crew (including one extra man).
The Char 2C, also known as FCM 2C, was a French super-heavy tank developed, although never deployed, during World War I. It was produced when little was known about the practicalities of tank development. For what it was, it actually was quite far ahead of its time. However, by World War II it was hopelessly obsolete.

The French Subsecretary of Artillery during the Great War, General  Léon Augustin Jean Marie Mourret, asked shipyard Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) near Toulon to come up with a heavy tank. The British had developed a few of their own, which Mourret must have heard about. The British tanks were first used at Cambrai, and this officer evidently feared being left behind. There was what can only be described as a tank euphoria amongst the Allies, as the British subsequently swept aside all opposition at Cambrai with their first tanks and appeared about to completely break the trench-warfare stalemate. Mourret then applied pressure to FCM to finish the job quickly. He probably figured a big French tank would sweep the dirty Boches aside and he would become a national hero.


French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The French were quite proud of their big tanks.
Renault helped design the project, which just kept getting bigger. The French authorities other than Mourret, who was soon replaced, were a lot less enthused about plans for the big tank, but they went ahead anyway. Partly this was due to the other Allies requiring the French to at least try to make their own tank before they would hand over any of theirs. The public also had become excited by the idea of tanks, which unfortunately were now proving somewhat less than war-winning on the battlefield. The project was delayed past the end of the war in November 1918, but the French plowed on ahead anyway during peacetime. Ten Char 2C tanks were built and delivered in 1921.

French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Painting of one of the ten Char 2Cs actually built, the "Alsace."
The monster was 69 tonnes, with 45 mm frontal armor and 22 mm armor at the sides. There were two turrets: the one at the front accommodating three soldiers within it to man a 75 mm main gun, while a turret at the rear had a machine gun. The Char 2C held a crew of 12 in two separate compartments. It was slow and extremely vulnerable to advanced antitank weapons (the frontal armor was later upgraded to a more reasonable 90 mm), but they were fully functional and maintained in readiness throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

French Char 2C worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A French Car 2C on a special rail hauler.
Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the ten Char 2Cs were mobilized in their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. They were used for French propaganda purposes - look at the mighty French tanks! - but they were not committed to battle. The French destroyed them as the Germans closed in during June 1940, though one may have survived in the Russian tank museum at Kubinka by way of Berlin. It is possible that one Char 2C did fire a few shots, perhaps because it was too slow to stay ahead of the advancing Wehrmacht, but that is not proven.

The Char 2C wasn't even the biggest tank dreamed up by the French - at one point, they even contemplated a 600-ton tank (somewhat akin to the later German Maus). As the Germans closed in, the French even ordered yet another humongous twin-turret monster. It was never built, however, as the Germans quickly overcame France.

French Char 2C tank worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A French Char 2C proudly decked out like a battleship, pennants flying high.

Conclusion

The French Char 2C was a classic failure because it represented the age-old case of generals fighting the last war. Well, it's unfair to place the blame on the generals - it was the bureaucrats who pushed through a project that was no longer necessary and a static achievement in a very fluid field of development. It is difficult to answer some questions about the Char 2C tank such as what its intended purpose was supposed to be. That requires getting into the minds of the designer and its supporters within the government. Simply saying that building a massive tank was completely crazy and misguided is not really a satisfying answer because the Germans also seriously considered doing it long after they should have known better in 1943. No, there was a reason, we just have to figure it out.

French Char 2C tank worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A captured French Char 2C apparently being used for testing purposes (note the numerous shell holes) by the Wehrmacht.
Fortunately, it is easy to make some educated guesses. World War I was a war of the trenches and tanks were seen as being useful solely for breaking the trench stalemate. A big tank would be able to cross the biggest trenches - so building the biggest tank possible to cross them made sense... sort of. The Char 2C would blitz through everything, over everything, and through everything, clearing the way for the infantry to occupy the next trench line. The theory was logical to a fault because the Char 2C was certainly capable and well-designed - for limited trench warfare. However, being slow and extraordinarily heavy, the tank wasn't mobile, and few bridges could support its massive weight. It could advance a few hundred yards to the next trench line but forget about wide flanking movements against other tanks. The Wehrmacht quickly proved in Poland and the Ardennes that trench warfare was a thing of the past, and this should have been obvious before the war to anyone paying attention (like all of the other great powers). So, the Char 2C was solely suited for a form of warfare that no longer existed. Thus, it was doomed to failure.

Maginot Line worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Like the Maginot Line (shown), the French Char 2C was designed for fighting the last war, not the next one.
However, in my opinion, the Char 2C reflected a more fundamental miscalculation. French strategy following World War I invariably followed a "set it and forget it" mentality. The country built a magnificent border fortification at an exorbitant cost in the mistaken belief that once it was built, that would take care of that problem. If tanks were the new thing, well, build colossal tanks and that would take care of that issue - forever. No need to update them, that box on the form is checked off. The French basically assumed that their previous investments in defense work had solved their military problems. The Char 2C also reflected a misplaced French belief in military gigantism, also exemplified by the submarine Surcouf and its two 8-inch guns, two 37 m.m. anti-aircraft guns, four machine guns, and ten 21 .7-in. tubes for the discharge of torpedoes, of which 22 were carried. Looking at another area where they should have known better, the French also focused on battleship construction while the British Royal Navy, United States Navy, and Japanese Navy were developing aircraft carriers (the sole French attempt at an aircraft carrier, the Béarn, was half-hearted at best and it never saw action). The French somehow overlooked the changing nature of warfare which made both border fortifications and World War I technology inadequate to 1940s realities.

French Char 2C tank worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A French Char 2C after being destroyed by the retreating French Army. Apparently, they destroyed the tanks by dropping explosives down the hatch, blowing out the sides.


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