Friday, 26 May 2017

Char B in German Service

The mistake of choosing a "battle tank" (Char de bataille) as a main tank became obvious during the campaign in France in May-June of 1940. The French tank industry did not manage to shift its gears for war. As a result, by the time the German invasion began, the availability of Char B1 bis tanks was far from what was planned. In addition, some French tanks were lost to either technical problems or because of poor supplies of fuel and ammunition. Many of them fell into German hands. How did the German army use the Char B1 and vehicles on its chassis?

32 tons of controversy

The question of whether or not Germans started using the Char B1 bis during the French campaign remains unanswered. Most tanks that were not irreparably lost had various damage. Getting the "battle tank" back into working order was no small feat, unlike with the smaller light and cavalry tanks. In German documents, these tanks are named "Renault 32", as in 32 ton Renault tanks. Special teams were created that evacuated damaged or abandoned vehicles and towed them to assembly areas. Tanks that were technically sound were sent to Fontainebleau.

Pz.Kpfw.B2, 1941. As you can see, the original commander's cupola was kept.

The Germans ended up with two factories that built the Char B1 bis: the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt and AMX. However, AMX was not used to repair or produce the Char B1 bis. Contracts to repair Renault R 35 tanks were signed with Renault and AMX. As for the Renault 32, its repairs happened only in Boulogne-Billancourt. French workers periodically staged strikes, refusing to repair captured tanks, but work began to flow smoothly by the end of 1940.

In January of 1941, the Boulogne-Billancourt factory came under the control of Daimler-Benz. Before October of 1941, 150 Renault 32 tanks were repaired. The remainder were awaiting spare parts. The highest number of restored tanks listed in any sources is 180 units. During repairs, the commander's cupola was cut off and replaced with a two-piece hatch. The radio and antenna were also replaced.

Results of bombing the Boulogne-Billancourt factory, March 4th, 1942

French tanks received German names in early 1941. The Char B1 and Char B1 bis were named Panzerkampfwagen B1 Bis 740 (f), but in reality they were most often called Pz.Kpfw. B2.

The Germans had mixed feelings about French tanks. Unlike Czechoslovakian ones, especially the Pz 38(t), which fit into the German tank system perfectly, the French tanks did not fit at all. Even the Somua S 35, the best French tank, was unsuitable for use as a first line tank. The tank fought in the German army, but not in tank divisions, which says a lot.

The Pz.Kpfw. B2 was in an even stranger position. The German had a tank with powerful armour, but no idea what to do with it. Its 75 mm gun was a pointless addition, the one-man turret made the commander's job difficult, and the tank's mobility left much to be desired. It's no wonder that the tanks reached the front in an altered form.

Thick skinned arsonist

The impossibility of using the Pz.Kpfw. B2 as a normal first line tank made the Germans seek other ways of applying it. The simplest and most logical solution was to convert it to a flamethrower tank. This was not the first time the Germans modernized a questionable design in this way. PzII Ausf. D and E tanks were also converted into flamethrower tanks. The issue of conversion was raised by Hitler during a meeting with Daimler-Benz representatives in March of 1941.

The first variant of the Pz.Kpfw. B2 (Flamm), designed by Wegmann.

Another meeting was held on March 11th, with the chief engineer of Daimler-Benz Moenning and the chief of the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate, Colonel Fichtner, in attendance. A discussion was had about converting the Pz.Kpfw. B2 into a flamethrower tank. The first variant included removing the 47 mm SA 35 gun from the turret and replacing it with a flamethrower. The 75 mm SA 35 gun in the hull was replaced with the German 7.5 cm KwK 37 gun with 10 degrees of horizontal traverse to each side. The second variant replaced the hull gun with a flamethrower that could aim 30 degrees to each side. A draft project of the first variant was approved, and the second was built as a model.

On April 3rd, 1941, both variants were shown to Hitler. He chose the variant with the hull flamethrower. Wegmann & Co. was chosen as the contractor, as they already had experience with converting tanks to flamethrower tanks. The company didn't reinvent the wheel and merely adapted the PzII(F) flamethrower mount to the new chassis. The changes were minimal: the 75 mm gun was removed, and replaced with a flamethower that had a very wide range (90 degrees to the left or right). An observation device was installed in the upper front plate. The French radio was replaced with a German one, with a pole antenna added to the upper front plate. A 160 L tank of fuel was installed inside the tank, just like the one on the PzII(F). 

The first flamethrower tank, indexed Pz.Kpfw. B2 (Flamm) was ready in May. It is not known how many were produced at Wegmann. Judging by correspondence, 17 tanks were either converted or in the process of conversion at Kassel, and the total order was for 84 tanks.

Franco-German flamethrower tank on trials.

Difficulties in production and newly discovered design defects led to work on a new flamethrower tank beginning in mid-May of 1941. Daimler-Benz oversaw the design process, and Feuerwehrgerätefabrik Hermann Köbe ended up designing the flamethrower mount. Ironically, the company specialized in firefighting equipment.

The first, simpler, variant replaced the 75 mm gun with a flamethrower. It was not possible to move the flamethrower side to side, and the gunner had no observation device. Two 500 L tanks were installed inside the tank, as well as a 2 hp gasoline motor. This conversion was put into production immediately. 24 tanks with Wegmann and Köbe flamethrowers were ready before the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The second variant of the Pz.Kpfw. B2 flamethrower tank, hurriedly developed at Köbe.

All Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) tanks and 6 Pz.Kpfw. B2 were sent to the 102nd Flamethrower Battalion (Panzer-Abt. (F) 102), composed of two heavy flamethrower companies. It was formed in France on May 31st, 1941. Due to a series of problems, tanks entered service irregularly. The last tanks arrived days before the invasion. Regular tanks were used as command tanks (3 per company), and flamethrower tanks were split up into platoons (4 platoons of 3 tanks each). At least three tanks were Char B1 conversions. Due to the rush, several tanks did not receive radios.

102nd Flamethrower Battalion on the march, Lvov, July of 1941.

The career of the 102nd battalion was a short one. It reached full fighting strength by June 20th, and was assigned to the 17th Army on the 23rd. On the morning of the next day, the battalion was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, which was attacking the Rava-Ruska fortified region near Dakhan (north-west of Werchrat). The battalion quickly knocked out a pillbox, and the surviving defenders retreated.

On the next day, the battalion was reassigned to the 296th Infantry Division, which was attacking Wielki Dział. The situation was different this time. The tanks were plagued with technical problems. In addition, Wielki Dział proved a tough nut to crack. The Germans failed to take it on the 26th, 27th, and 28th. At 7:00 on June 29th, the Germans pulled up 88 mm Flak 18 guns and opened fire at the pillbox embrasures. This partially suppressed the pillboxes, and the flamethrower tanks went into battle. This attack ended poorly. It turned out that the flamethrower liquid could not penetrate into the pillboxes. To make matters worse, the pillboxes returned fire. Looks like the 76 mm L-17 guns came to life. Two tanks were knocked out and burned up, including the former Char B1 #103.

The battalion was returned to the 17th Army command. The tanks moved further east, but did not fight any more. Constant technical problems made themselves known more and more often. It's not surprising that on July 17th, after less than a month, the battalion was disbanded. The tanks were sent back for repairs to Boulogne-Billancourt. Judging by photographs, that's where they stayed.

Improved superstructure to the right of the driver's cabin.

When the order for Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) with simplified Köbe flamethrower mounts was made, it was clear that this was only a temporary solution. On May 20th, a meeting was held between the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate and the Armament Department to discuss an improved flamethrower tank design. Having the flamethrower fuel tank inside the hull also caused little enthusiasm, as did the fact that the flamethrower operator was nearly blind. Köbe's improved design solved those problems. A new flamethrower mount was designed, capable of moving both horizontally and vertically. 

Improved flamethrower mount designed by Köbe.

Unlike the first two designs, the 75 mm SA 35 mount was fully replaced. Another change was a cabin for the flamethrower operator. The driver lost his right observation port, but this was considered acceptable. The new cabin had an observation device similar to the kind installed on the PzIII Ausf. F and later. Finally, the flamethrower fuel tank was moved to a special housing, which was attached to the rear of the hull. It contained enough fuel for 200 bursts at a range of 40-45 meters.

The flamethrower fuel tank was moved out to a special housing, which was attached to the rear of the hull.

Daimler-Benz retained the control over the overall design process, and developed the new cabin and external tank. The improved flamethrower mount was designed at Köbe and Wegmann made the internal equipment. Deutsche Edelstahlwerke AG (DEW) was chosen to produce the cabin and other elements. DEW was scheduled to supply the components in May-June, but production was behind schedule. This triggered the appearance of a simplified tank.

According to the adjusted plans, 20 Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) tanks would be built, 10 in December of 1941 and 10 in January of 1942. In reality, the first 5 tanks were converted in November. In total, 60 tanks were converted in this manner.

223rd Captured Tank Company, Crimea, 1942.

The first unit to receive these tanks was the 223rd Captured Tank Company (Panzer-Beute-Kompanie 223), formed on February 6th, 1942. It contained 5 regular tanks and 12 flamethrower tanks. In May of 1942, the company was sent to Crimea, where it was attached to the 22nd Tank Division. The company took an active part in the assault on Sevastopol. On June 24th, 1942, it was reformed into the 1st Company of the 223rd Tank Battalion. This is where its active participation in combat ended. The story of the 102nd Flamethrower Battalion repeated itself. The crews spent most of their time fighting with their own tanks. These issues were furthered by the mass of the tank growing by 3 tons, which caused additional load for the engine and suspension.

As of March 27th, 1943, the tanks remained in Crimea. Almost every one had some form of technical defect. The company was used only for defense, since the German commanders had no illusions regarding the Pz.Kpfw. B2 or their flamethrower variants. 15 tanks were loaded onto trains and sent to the Blue Line near Feodosia. They didn't last long. In June, the tanks were replaced with PzIVs, and returned to France.

For training and indirect fire

The Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) was not the only conversion of the French "battle tank" that was discussed with Hitler. A self propelled 105 mm leFH 18 howitzer was supposed to accompany the flamethrower tanks. The design of this vehicle came too late. Even though the discussion took place in March, the work was only approved on May 28th, 1941.

Rheinmetall-Borsig was chosen as the contractor, one of the main developers of self propelled artillery at the time. The company already had experience with turning poor chassis into good SPGs. The Rheinmetall-Borsig design bureau worked quickly, and a prototype was ready in July. The 75 mm gun was taken out of the hull, as was the turret and turret platform. Instead, a hexagonal cabin was installed, made as wide as possible. This allowed the number of crew members to increase to 5. The cabin housed a leFH 18M howitzer, which was covered with a large multi-section gun mantlet.

10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2

As a result of the delay, the vehicle never made it to the Eastern Front. It was too late to put it into production in the summer of 1941. Unkind reviews about the performance of the Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) began to arrive in the summer, and by mid-July, there was no one left to support. The SPG was forgotten for some time.

The issue came up again in early January of 1942. It is not known whether this was caused by production of improved Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) or if there were some other reasons. All that is known is that approval was given for the production of 16 SPGs, indexed 10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2 (105 mm self propelled leFH howitzer on the B2 chassis). They were built at the Alkett factory in Spandau, 5 vehicles in January and February, and the remaining 6 in March of 1942.

The same vehicle from the front.

Unlike the initial idea, the 10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2 never served as fire support for flamethrower tanks. The SPGs were sent to equip the 26th Tank Division, formed in September of 1942. The division, formed out of the remains of the 23rd Infantry Division, was created to defend occupied France. It contained the 93rd Tank Artillery Regiment, which included a 3-battery squadron. Each battery had four 10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2. The remaining vehicles were not listed in the regiment, but still belonged to the 26th Tank Division. As of May 31st, 1943, there were 15 of them 14 in working order.

There is no information about how the 10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2 proved themselves in the 26th Tank Division, but it's unlikely that their crews were thrilled. The mass grew by half a ton, which must have had an effect on the vehicle's reliability. The high bore axis negatively influenced the precision of fire. In May of 1943, the 93rd Artillery Regiment was re-equipped with Wespe SPGs. These vehicles had the same gun, but a much better design. As for the 10,5 cm leFH 18/3 (Sf.) auf GW B2, they were "banished" to Sardinia, where the 90th Panzergrenadier Division was formed on July 6th, 1943. Here, they were included into the 190th Artillery Regiment. Their fate after this remains unknown.

An abandoned Fahrschulpanzer B2 (f) in Paris, August of 1944.

The Pz.Kpfw. B2 served as a training tank. Looks like some of the late production B1 bis tanks were used for this role, the ones sent to the front without a turret. The "recipe" was simple: the armament was taken out, and sometimes a bench and rails were installed on top. These tanks were called Fahrschulpanzer B2 (f).

Both sides of the front

The weak debut of the Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) on the Eastern Front proved once again that these tanks were poorly suited for the first line. If the French campaign had lasted longer, the French would have likely had a similar experience as the Germans. The only way to get some use out of these tanks was to equip units formed within France with them.

A diagram of a captured Char B1 ter from the French foreign tank identification guide, 1944.

Information about German use of French tanks began to reach Britain in the summer of 1941. Soviet GABTU intelligence briefings also contain this information. Interestingly enough, the lists of German trophies contain not only the Char B1 bis, but the Char B1 ter. This tank even made it into an identification guide of German tanks composed in 1944. Of course, the Germans didn't have any Char B1 ter.

As for the repairs base in Boulogne-Billancourt, the British didn't let it remain there for long. Between March 3rd and 4th, 235 RAF aircraft performed a bombing raid on Paris, targeting the Renault factory. The factory was turned into ruins, as were the tanks contained in it. 370 civilians were also killed.

Pz.Kpfw. B2 from the 213th Tank Battalion. This unit had the most tanks of this type. Their crews also took the longest to surrender: May 8th, 1945.

The loss of the repair base had an impact on the amount of Pz.Kpfw. B2 and vehicles on its chassis that remained in service. As of March 1st, 1943, Group "West" had 52 regular tanks and 44 flamethrower tanks. They were most numerous in the 1st Tank Division (13 regular and 10 flamethrower), which was being reformed, and the 213th Tank Battalion (26 regular and 10 flamethrower). At the end of May, 10 regular and 24 flamethower tanks were moved to the 100th Tank Brigade. 17 more tanks could be found in the SS Prinz Eugen division. A few flamethrower tanks also ended up there at a later date.

Abandoned Pz.Kpfw. B2 (F) from the German garrison in Paris.

By mid-spring of 1944, the list of units using these tanks changed somewhat. In April of 1944, a flamethrower tank company was formed from the 224th Tank Company, which included 17 tanks. The 213th Tank Battalion, which had the most tanks of this type, was moved to the Channel Islands. The 100th Tank Brigade retained a few  Pz.Kpfw. B2. Several vehicles, including training ones, were kept by the garrison in Paris. This is how the former French tanks met the Normandy landings.

Tanks from two units lasted the longest. The 224th Tank Company fought in the Netherlands in the fall of 1944. On December 30th, it still had 9 Pz.Kpfw. B2 and B2 (F). The last unit to keep these tanks was the 213th Tank Battalion. It only surrendered on May 8th, 1945. The Char B1 bis in the Bovington Tank Museum is actually a Pz.Kpfw. B2 from the 213th Tank Battalion.

A flamethrower tank from the 224th Tank Company, late 1944. These tanks had their commander's cupolas cut off completely.

The history of captured tanks would be incomplete without a mention of their second capture. Elements of the FFL (Forces françaises libres, Free French Forces) managed to recapture several of these tanks from the Germans. On October 7th, 1944, the 14th Dragoon Regiment (13ème Régiment de Dragons) was formed. It included 19 Pz.Kpfw. B2 in its second squadron. These tanks were not uniform: some were in their initial condition, others were converted by the Germans. This unit also had flamethrower tanks.

The creation of their own tank regiment was more of a PR stunt. These tanks became outdated over 4 years of war, plus their technical condition was far from ideal. The regiment remained near its base in Orléans until the beginning of April of 1945. 

Char B1 bis from the second squadron of the 13th Dragoon Regiment. May of 1945.

The regiment moved out to Royan on April 2nd. The tanks participated in an assault on German fortifications in Saint-Georges-de-Didonne. Similar operations in that sector followed. The last operation was the clearing of the La Rochelle port on May 8th, 1945. When the war ended, the regiment was absorbed into the 3rd Tank Division. Its tanks were included in the occupational force quartered in Kurpfalz. The Char B1 bis served in the French army until 1950.

The final variant of a minesweeper designed on the Char B1 bis chassis in 1945.

The last version of this tank was a self propelled minesweeper designed by AMX. Work on it began before the end of the war, in April of 1945. The cause was simple: there were many minefields left after the war, as well as many unexploded shells. The design was finalized in September of 1945. The roller had three sections. Two were built, and one survives to this day. It is on display at the Saumur tank museum.

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