Sunday, 23 October 2016

Renault R 35 in German Service

The most numerous tank in French service in 1940, the Renault R 35, was naturally the most numerous tank among the Wehrmacht's trophies. Many tanks fell into German hands either completely intact or damaged so superficially that they could quickly be repaired. In total, the Germans captured 800-840 Renault R 35 tanks, an impressive number, but the name change to Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) didn't add anything to the tank's qualities. The tank's career with its new masters was long, but complicated: it served as an SPG, an engineering vehicle, a tractor, and a mobile crane.

Useless mass

The first use of the Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) in combat was still during the summer campaign of 1940. Having quickly mastered their trophies, the Germans sent them into battle against their former masters.

However, there were very few cases like that. The slow and weakly armed Renault R 35 tanks could contribute little to the course of battle. These tanks can be distinguished by characteristic details that were not subsequently seen. In order to avoid being shot by their own comrades, the Germans painted large Balkenkreuze along the perimeter of the tank. The tanks were painted in gray (Schwarzgrau RAL 7021), but there are tanks in photographs that retained their French camouflage. The trophies captured in May-June of 1940 didn't see any significant conversions quite yet, all of that happened later.

A captured Renault R 35 tank, June of 1940. The tank was repainted and crosses were painted on the sides. The tank fought against the French coloured like this.

After the French campaign ended, the Wehrmacht started to sift through their captured tanks. The French tank caused little enthusiasm, but nevertheless, tanks of this type started being issued to units in July of 1940 in preparation for Operation Sealion. The goal of this operation was a landing in Britain, and the Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) was suitable as a training vehicle.

Starting in the fall of 1940, the tanks were converted to German standards. First of all, the commander's cupola was cut off, as it was of very little use. Instead, a two-piece hatch was added, suitable for climbing into the tank. It was often used to sit on during travel. Of course, it was not as comfortable as the rear turret hatch, but it gave the commander better visibility. Some of the tanks were also equipped with German radios.

Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) from the 336th Infantry Division, July 1940. The tank was used to train for Operation Sealion.

The tanks were not widely used. The 800 tank figure included all captured tanks, most of which needed at least some kind of repair. If you only count tanks that could be used immediately, then the most numerous captured tank was the Renault FT. By the end of 1941, the Germans had 500 functional tanks of this type.

To compare, there were only 125 Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) left by then. The R 35 was likely the worst French tank of the 1930s. The Germans didn't even think of sending it to second line units on the Eastern Front.

This tank from the 12th Special Operations Tank Company has the full set of conversions, including the two-piece turret hatch instead of a cupola.

Several R 35s did go to fight against the USSR, but not as tanks. The turret was removed, the ammunition was taken out, and the opening was covered with a tarp. Ta-da, an artillery tractor is ready! 110 of these vehicles, named Umbau von Panzerkampfwagen 35R (f), were issued to batteries equipped with 149 mm sFH 18 howitzers and more powerful 17 cm K18/21 cm Mrs 18. They were used with some success, and by March of 1942 the Wehrmacht had 52 of these tractors left. Considering that the tank wasn't designed to be a tractor and had to tow very heavy guns, this is a decent result.

Umbau von Panzerkampfwagen 35R (f) on the Eastern Front, 1941

Another turretless conversion was the  Bergeschlepper 35 R (f) recovery vehicle. Aside from its objectives, it was identical to the artillery tractor. Some creative crews made additions to their improvised recovery vehicle, such as adding windshields or machinegun turrets. About 90 vehicles of this type were made.

Mobile cranes were also built on the Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) chassis, and several types at that. There was also a photograph of a Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) with a T-26 turret that surfaced on the Internet about 5 years ago, but that is likely just a photo manipulation. The T-26 turret ring is 20 cm wider, and changing a turret ring in the field is not possible. This "modernization" also makes little sense. 

The turrets that were left from French tanks converted into tractors or recovery vehicles were put to use as fortifications in the Atlantic Wall.

Bergeschlepper 35 R (f) at work. The crew added a windshield that made it much more comfortable to drive.

In the West, the situation with tanks was different. The tanks were still used as training vehicles, although the Germans preferred the more mobile Hotchkiss H 39. 30 Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) were given to SS units who later used them in the Balkans. As of March 1st, 1943, 50 captured Renault R 35s were used by the 100th Tank Regiment. By the end of May of 1943, 46 were used by the 100th Tank Brigade, 8 by the 711th Infantry Division, and 2 by the 712th and 708th Infantry Divisions. 22 tanks were used by the 12th Special Operations Tank Company.

Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) from the "Paris" tank company, knocked out during fighting for Paris.

The Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) also fought after the Allies landed in Normandy. The 110th Tank Regiment fought the Americans at Cherbourg, with predictable results. 2 tanks were used by the 206th Tank Battalion HQ, which also fought at Cherbourg. Some amount of captured Renault R 35 and Renault R 40 tanks were used by the "Paris" tank company. These tanks were destroyed during the liberation of Paris, and some even came under fire from Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division. Some tanks were captured by the resistance and used against the Germans.

Removed from the front

Aside from tractors and recovery vehicles, other tanks on the Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) chassis turned up on the Eastern Front. These weren't support vehicles, but fighting machines that could potentially reinforce Army Group Center. The history of this vehicle dates back to the end of 1940. Having no illusions about the qualities of the tank, the 6th Waffenampt decided that it would be much more effective to use the tank as a tank destroyer.

The Germans already had experience with creating a tank destroyer on the chassis of the hopelessly obsolete PzI. The tank destroyer, initially named 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Pz.Kpfw.I (Sd.Kfz.101) ohne Turm, was created by removing the turret from the PzI and installing the Czechoslovakian 47 mm P.U.V. vz. 36 anti-tank gun. The gun was covered with armoured shields from the front and sides. The result was a serviceable tank destroyer, which debuted in France in the spring of 1940s. These small vehicles last fought in the fall and winter of 1942.

4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) on exercises, 1941.

Permission to build the tank destroyer, laconically named 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), was given on December 23rd, 1940. Altmärkische Kettenfabrik (Alkett), a leader in building German SPGs, was chosen as the contractor to design and built it. Their task was not easy. The chassis was even smaller than a PzI Ausf. B. The short and narrow vehicle, designed to carry two non-claustrophobic Frenchmen, now had to fit three crewmen, a 47 mm gun, and ammunition for it.

The first prototype of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) was built from mild steel on February 8th, 1941. The limited internal volume inspired Alkett engineers to experiment. The casemate, built from 20 mm thick armoured plates, had to be shifted as far forward as possible to fit in the gun. The casemate was not permanently attached. Blocks were fitted to the top of the hull, and the casemate plates were attached to it with bolts. A piece was cut out of the roof. As a result, two men could fit into the hull, but not ammunition. The ammunition was placed in a bustle, which made loading the gun easier. The radio was put in the same bustle. Hatches were added to the sides of the casemate, since there was no other way left to enter or exit the vehicle.

 Führungs-Fahrzeuge auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), a commander's version without a gun.

The tank destroyer was shown to Hitler on March 31st, 1941, and he approved of the modernization. Even before that, in February of 1941, work began to produce a batch of 200 vehicles. 174 were built in the base configuration. 26 were built as Führungs-Fahrzeuge auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), which had a machinegun in a ball mount instead of a cannon. The first 30 vehicles were built in March of 1941, and their numbers grew to 93 in May. Another 33 were built in June, 5 in July, 22 in August, 28 in September, and 19 in October.

On February 27th, 1941, it was decided to arm the 559th and 561st anti-tank battalions, then only equipped with 3.7 Pak towed guns, with the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). Later, the 661st anti-tank battalion was re-armed as well. By the start of Operation Barbarossa, the 559th battalion was a part of Army Group North and the 516th and 611th battalions in Army Group Center.

One of a few photographs of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) on the Eastern Front. The vehicles are still functional, but the crew's faces are worried.

It would seem like the anti-tank battalions were improved, since the firepower of the 47 mm gun was superior to that of the 3.7 cm Pak. Film footage shows these Franco-Czech hybrids driving past knocked out Soviet vehicles. However, the reality was different. On July 3rd, only a week and a half into the invasion, the 559th and 611th anti-tank battalions were ordered to switch back to the 3.7 cm Pak. The 561st battalion lasted a day longer, after which it received orders to remain at Grodno in the army reserve, awaiting replacement equipment.

The reason for this return to "door knockers" was simple. The Germans had to fight not only the Soviet army, but their French inheritance. A report from the commander of the 611st battalion reveals that all the tank destroyers were lost during the first few days of the war. The battalion regained some fighting ability by re-arming to German and captured Soviet guns. The same situation could be observed in other units armed with the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). Their debut was a complete failure. 
Artist's impression of the 5 cm Pak 38 (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f).

This was not the last appearance of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) on the Eastern Front. In late November of 1941, 10 tank destroyers and 2 command vehicles ended up in the 318th Tank Company, located near Kremenchug, assigned to the 213th guard division. Even though the company was deep in the rear, this was perhaps the least lucky unit with these vehicles. A report from February of 1942 is similar to a report of combat, except the tankers were fighting with their own vehicles.

The tank destroyers were picky while it was still warm, but that was nothing compared to how the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) behaved in winter conditions. At a temperature of -10 degrees, the engines no longer started, and even working engines could barely pull the vehicle forward on winter roads. The suspension also proved ill adapted to the winter. Driving on ice was especially bad.

However, the 6th Waffenampt retained some hopes about the future of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). On July 30th, 1941, Alkett received a contract to develop an produce an experimental prototype of the 5 cm Pak 38 (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), but the prototype was never built. The problem was not only with the "success" of the 47 mm gun version, but with other factors. The Pak 38 was much larger than the P.U.V. vz. 36, and that meant that the mass of the tank destroyer will grow even higher. Thinking it over, the 6th Waffenampt reconsidered the idea of putting a Pak 38 into a Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), saving many German artillerymen from physical and mental suffering.

4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) in Normandy, 1942.

The tank destroyers never returned to the Eastern Front. This didn't mean that the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f)'s service was over. Conditions in France allowed the questionable vehicle to keep serving. Film footage shows the trips of these tank destroyers along the beaches of Normandy. The conditions here weren't ideal, but they were far removed from a frozen crew hopelessly trying to bring their picky vehicle back to life.

As of June of 1943, forces stationed in France had 96 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f), 85 of which were in working order. The largest amount (24) was in the 319th Infantry Division that was occupying Guernsey and Jersey, the only British soil that the Germans managed to capture. Several of these tank destroyers were scattered among 15 infantry divisions. 3 were in the 100th Tank Regiment, 6 were sent to the 657th anti-tank battalion. By December of 1943, the overall number of 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) was reduced to 92, but the number of functional vehicles was higher: 88.

Vehicles from the same unit. Due to the small internal size, the ammunition rack had to be placed outside, in a bustle.

A significant amount of 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) remained in French Wehrmacht units in June of 1944. Despite the slow speed of these obsolete tank destroyers, they still had some fight left in them. Potentially, they could knock out any Allied tank with the potential exception of the Churchill, but their success was much more humble in reality. They were unable to influence the course of battle in any serious way. Nevertheless, one of the last recorded instances of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) in combat was in the fall of 1944. 2 Tank destroyers from the 712th Infantry Division took part in battle.

Knocked out 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) and Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f). Most likely, these vehicles are from the 100th Tank Regiment that fought for Cherbourg.

Time and friction of war were ruthless towards these tank destroyers. Only one of them survives to this day, in the Thun museum in Switzerland. This vehicle was knocked out in Normandy and traveled to Switzerland from a junkyard of German armoured vehicles. The tank destroyer lost its internal components and rear bustle, but it's better than nothing. Meanwhile, the only remaining working Renault R 35, currently on display in Saumur, also used to be a 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). The turret platform retains mounts for the casemate, and the welding seams around the turret ring hint at the tank's past.

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