In June 1936 France still had only 194 modern tanks. These were 160 D1, 17 D2 and 17 B1 tanks. During the same year, the French army approved a new infantry tank, the diesel powered FCM-36. Meanwhile, General Gamelin laid down and got accepted a four-year rearmament plan on 7 September I936. This plan foresaw the formation of three 'divisions legeres mecaniques' (DLM) with S-35 and H-35 tanks, of two 'divisions cuirassees de reserve' (DCR) with B tanks (12 battalions) and fifty battalions of R-35 and FCM-36 light tanks to accompany infantry. The next four years were spent in establishing this force. In August 1936 the French government partially nationalised the larger industrial concerns including Schneider, Hotchkiss and Renault, in order to achieve its programme. A part of Renault became the AMX (Atelier de Construction d'lssy-les-Moulineaux) which soon expanded into another works at Satory. This state-run factory was principally engaged in the production of B tanks, R-35 tanks and R-31 tankettes. It also carried out design studies for the AMX-38, AMX-R-40 and for self-propelled guns. In spite of these measures, the inadequacies of French industry together with social troubles delayed the achievement and completion of the armament programme, with the result that the first 500 R-35 tanks, ordered in 1935 and 1936, were not completed until April 1938, while the 400 H-35 tanks ordered at the same time were not all delivered until October 1938.
At the end of 1937, it was decided to form the DCRs with four battalions of B tanks instead of six, so that there would be three divisions instead of two. However a decision of the Supreme War Council intervened next year and delayed the formation of the first two DCRs until October 1939.
When Poland was invaded by Germany on 1 September 1939, the French army had 1,670 light tanks R-35 and H-35, 100 light tanks FCM-36, 261 fast medium tanks S-35, 213 medium tanks D1 and D2, I72 heavy tanks B1 and B1-bis and 407 cavalry 'auto-mitrailleuses'. The French army still had some old vehicles, notably about 1,600 light tanks (Renault) FT and 6 heavy tanks (FCM) 2C.
In 1934 the French began experiments with purely armored formations in creation of their first Division légère mécanique (DLM, Light Mechanized Division). Essentially a cavalry formation, maneuvers involving the DLM revealed the need for heavier armament. This led to the Renault R-35 and the Hotchkiss H-35 tanks, basically downsized D-2s. These two were the most numerous French tanks in World War II. Both had two-man crews, but the R-35 weighed about 22,000 pounds and had an 82-hp engine, speed of 12–13 mph, maximum 40mm armor thickness, and armament of one short-barreled 37mm main gun and one machine gun. The French built about 2,000 R-35s and exported them to Poland, Turkey, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The Germans later captured and modified a number of these for their own use and also converted some to artillery tractors and gave others to Italy.
The Hotchkiss H-35 had identical armament but was heavier, some 23,400 pounds. It had a 75-hp engine, top speed of 17 mph, and maximum 40mm armor protection. An improved model appeared in 1938. The H-38 was basically the H-35 with a more powerful, 120-hp engine and a higher rear deck to accommodate the engine and its cooling system.
These French tanks incorporated cast turrets and hulls. Although more expensive, they were not as resistant to shot as homogenous armor plate. They also incorporated Cletrac steering, which minimized power loss and improved cross-country performance. Instead of braking one track to turn, the system transferred power to the other tread by means of a differential and gear box.
The last French light tank before the war was the Hotchkiss H-39, officially the Char léger Hotchkiss, modèle 1939-H. The follow-on to the H-35, it mounted a long-barreled 37mm gun and one machine gun and had a more powerful, 120-hp engine. It weighed some 26,700 pounds, had a two-man crew, and was capable of 22 mph.
The Germans later utilized a number of these captured light tanks in the occupation of France, throughout the Mediterranean Theater, and in the initial invasion of the Soviet Union. They were also used by Vichy French and Free French forces in the Middle East, where some continued in Israeli service until 1956.
The H-35, R-35, H-38, and H-39 were all of high quality compared to the German tanks at that time. The chief drawback in the French tanks was probably their one-man turret. All three symbolized the French embrace of the doctrine of light tanks operating in support of infantry, a concept seriously open to question; French tankers deserved better.
HOTCHKISS H-39 LIGHT
Summary: Introduced just before the war, the H-39 was an outgrowth of the H-35, with a new gun and improved engine. It gave effective service in the Battle for France, although it was outgunned by heavier German tanks. The Germans used it in occupation duties. It was also employed by the Vichy French and Free French forces during fighting in the Middle East, where a number were taken over by the Israelis after the war and remained in service with them until 1956.
Production dates: 1939–1940
Number produced: Approx. 1,000
Armament: 1 x 37mm (1.46-inch) main gun; l x 7.5mm (.295-caliber) machine gun
Weight: 26,620 lbs.
Armor: maximum 40mm
Power plant: Hotchkiss six-cylinder 120-hp gasoline engine
Maximum speed: 22 mph
Range: 93 miles
Fording depth: 2’10”
Vertical obstacle: 1’8”
Trench crossing: 5’11”