The Char 2C, also known as FCM 2C, is a French super-heavy tank developed, although never deployed during World War I. It was in physical dimensions, the largest operational tank ever made.
The Char 2C, also known as FCM 2C, is a French super-heavy tank developed, although never deployed during World War I. It was in physical dimensions, the largest operational tank ever made.
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The origins of the Char 2C have always been shrouded in a certain mystery. In the summer of 1916, probably in July, General Léon Augustin Jean Marie Mourret, the Subsecretary of Artillery, verbally granted Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM), a shipyard in the south of France near Toulon, the contract for the development of a heavy tank, a char d'assaut de grand modèle. At the time, French industry was very active in lobbying for defence orders, using their connections with high-placed officials and officers to obtain commissions; development contracts could be very profitable even when not resulting in actual production, as they were fully paid for by the state. The French Army had no stated requirement for a heavy tank, and there was no official policy to procure one so the decision seems to have been taken solely on his personal authority. The reason he later gave was that the British tanks then in development by a naval committee seemed to be better devised as regarded lay-out, ventilation and fire protection, so a shipyard might improve on existing French designs. Exact specifications, if they ever existed, have been lost. FCM then largely neglected the project, apart from reaping the financial benefits. At that time all tank projects were highly secret, and thereby shielded from public scrutiny.
On 15 September 1916 the British deployed tanks in battle for the first time in the form of the Mark I, and a veritable tank euphoria followed. When the public mood in Britain had been growing ever darker as the truth of the failure of the Somme Offensive could no longer be suppressed, tanks offered a new hope of final victory. The French people now became curious as to the state of their own national tank projects. French politicians, not having been over-involved in them and leaving the matter to the military, were no less inquisitive. This sudden attention greatly alarmed Mourret, who promptly investigated the progress that had been made at FCM and was shocked to find there was none. On 30 September he personally took control of the project. On 12 October, knowing that the Renault company had some months earlier made several proposals to build a heavy tracked mortar which had been rejected, he begged Louis Renault to assist FCM in the development of a suitable heavy vehicle; this request Renault obliged. Even before knowing what the exact nature of the project would be, on 20 October Mourret ordered one prototype to be built by FCM.
This development coincided with a political demand by Minister of Armament Albert Thomas to produce a tank superior to the British types. On 7 October he had requested Lloyd George to deliver some Mark Is to France but had received no answer. Correctly concluding that no such deliveries would materialise, on 23 January 1917 he ordered that French tanks should be developed that were faster, and more powerfully armed and armoured than any British vehicle. He specified a weight of forty tonnes, an immunity against light artillery rounds and a trench-crossing capacity of 3.5 metres.
Meanwhile, Renault had consulted his own team, led by Rodolphe Ernst-Metzmaier, which had been, since May 1916, in the process of designing the revolutionary Renault FT light tank. This work had not, however, stopped them from considering other tank types. Renault, always expecting his employees to provide new ideas instantly, had by this attitude encouraged the team to take a proactive stance — setting a pattern that would last until 1940 — and to have various kinds of contingency studies ready for the occasion, including a feasibility study for a heavy tank. This fortunate circumstance allowed a full-size wooden mock-up to be constructed in a remarkably quick time. It was visited by the Subsecretary of State of Inventions Jules-Louis Breton on 13 January 1917, who was much impressed and developed a keen interest in the project. The design was presented to the Consultative Committee of the Assault Artillery on 16 and 17 January 1917, after the basic concept had been approved on 30 December. This proposed tank was the most advanced design of its time; it was received very favourably, also because of the enthusiastic report by Breton, and a consensus began to form that the project was most promising and a potential "war-winner". It featured a 105 mm gun in a turret, had a proposed weight of 38 tons and 35 mm armour. The committee decided to have two prototypes developed, one with an electrical transmission, the other with a hydraulic transmission. In this period both the French and the British military had become aware of severe mobility and steering problems with heavy tracked vehicles; the French designs paralleled extensive British experiments with all kinds of improved tank transmissions to solve them.
Resistance to the project
In January 1917, the Ministry of Armament proposed to build three weight classes of tanks: light, medium and heavy tanks, the latter class corresponding to the new project. However, the FCM tank had already made a powerful and influential enemy. Brigadier Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, commander of the new tank force, the Assault Artillery, closely cooperated with Renault in the development of the Renault FT, and through this connection was kept well informed of the other tank project. Estienne began to fear that the production of the heavy vehicle would use up all available production facilities, making the procurement of the much more practical Renault FT light tank impossible. He was not averse to the production of heavy tanks as such but only in a limited number and on the condition it did not impede the manufacture of light tanks. That his fears were not unfounded became apparent when in November Mourret tried to obstruct further development of the Renault FT, arguing that all available resources should be concentrated into heavy tank production. Alarmed, Estienne now wrote a letter to the Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, dated 27 November 1916 and defending the light tank concept. In it he admitted that "colossal landships" might in certain circumstances have their uses, but pointed out that while it was as yet unproven that any workable heavy type could actually be developed, let alone produced in sufficient numbers by the French industry, it would be folly not to give priority to light tanks that could be constructed without delay. He insisted that Joffre use all his influence to bring about the cancellation of the heavy tank project.
Joffre answered that Estienne was no doubt correct in his tactical and organisational analysis, but that he could not oblige him because political backing of the heavy tank was simply too strong. The Minister of Armament, Albert Thomas, had committed himself too openly to Mourret's cause and did not dare to retract support now. Joffre advised Estienne not to worry too much; he would make sure at least that the Renault FT would not be cancelled, and precisely because heavy tank development would take such a long time, for the immediate future it would not get in the way of light tank production. There would surely be no harm in allowing some prototypes to be built.
The Consultative Committee of the Assault Artillery (Comité Consultatif de l'Artillerie d'Assaut or CCAS) had been created on 13 December 1916 and for the first time met on 17 December. During this first session it was reported that Renault and FCM were cooperating in a heavy tank project of thirty tonnes. Estienne on this occasion stressed that production should be "orientated towards small types and very large types". During the next meeting on 30 December, Estienne was surprised to discover that for no clear reasons a 105 mm gun was planned. He himself preferred a 75 mm gun. Estienne was absent on the crucial meeting of 17 January, but by letter informed the committee that he found the project well-presented and satisfactory and agreed with the quick construction of two prototypes; he stated his preference for a 75 mm over a 105 mm gun.
In December Joffre was replaced as supreme commander by Robert Nivelle. In late January Nivelle learned of the heavy tank project from Estienne. He was much more alarmed than Joffre had been. On 29 January he wrote a letter to Minister Thomas, making clear that under no circumstances could the project be allowed to impede production of the Schneider CA. Thomas answered on 5 February that there was no danger of this; anyway he had just happened to affirm on 1 February the policy of General Mourret, who had already ordered the simultaneous development of three prototypes: the lightened "A" version, weighing thirty tons, having a length of 6.92 metres, with a suspension featuring twenty-nine double road wheels, four main bogies and five top rollers, powered by two Renault 200 hp engines and to be equipped with a 75 mm gun, to fulfil the original order of 20 October; the "B" version of forty-five tons with a hull lengthened to 7.39 metres, armed with a 75 mm gun and two machine guns, with a suspension featuring thirty road wheels, five main bogies and six top rollers, using a new 380 hp engine and a petro-hydraulic transmission and the "C" version of 62 tons with a 75 mm gun, a length of 9.31 meters, a suspension featuring forty-five road wheels, six main bogies and nine top rollers, and four engines of 110 hp combined with a petro-electrical transmission. Nivelle's misgivings were reinforced by inquiries from a parliamentary financial commission led by Pierre Renaudel. A plan by Breton to immediately order fifty vehicles more or less identical to the mock-up was therefore rejected. The 1 February order of two additional prototypes was confirmed by the CCAS on 7 February. Eventually the "FCM 1A" would be developed with a 105 mm gun and the "FCM 1B" would use a petrol-mechanical transmission.
At first, progress with the FCM 1A prototype was satisfactory. FCM director Moritz was assured by Renault in January 1917 that the desired 200 HP engines were reliable and would pose no danger to the project. Moritz then predicted that the first prototype would be ready by 1 May 1917. On 10 April 1917 he still assumed that the first trials could have begun within five weeks. On 16 April the Nivelle Offensive failed completely, and the first use of French tanks was likewise a failure; in reaction Thomas ordered all tank production and projects to be ended. This led to an emergency alliance between Estienne and Mourret to bring about a reversal of this decision. When Thomas happened to visit Russia, Mourret surreptitiously ordered a restart of the tank projects. On his return an enraged Thomas caused Mourret to be fired, thus removing Estienne's greatest rival. Meanwhile, there were unexplained delays in the delivery of the engines and the gearbox by Renault. On 5 June, FCM could only take note that the promised pieces had not arrived yet. On 24 June the ministry of armament complained about the situation. On 13 August Breton personally inquired with Renault and was informed it would take at least another three weeks. A possible explanation of the delays might be a deliberate decision by Renault to give priority to other projects. During a meeting of the CCAS on 18 October, Moritz could at last announce that trials could begin on 20 November. In that meeting Estienne was critical of heavy tanks: "the infantry has as much need of large tanks, as it needs 400 mm cannon; it has need of small tanks, as much as it needs 37 mm and machine-guns".
The FCM 1A
On 17 November, director Moritz, introducing to the CCAS the forthcoming presentation of the FCM 1A prototype, explained it was a test bed that did not exactly correspond to the original "A version" specifications. In fact the company, in its efforts to get an actual running vehicle ready as soon as possible, had built a prototype that was largely based on the original mock-up and thus was much closer to the "B"-concept, albeit with a 105 mm gun and a petrol-mechanical transmission; the hydraulic transmission had been abandoned by the CCAS on 10 May. A detailed army report on the plans of January 1917 survives that can give a good impression of the qualities of the eventual prototype.
The vehicle was the largest tank built until that date. It had a length of 8.35 m (27.4 ft), a width of 2.842 m (9.32 ft), a hull height of 1.98 m (6.5 ft), a turret roof height of 2.785 m (9.14 ft) and a total height, cupola included, of 3 m (9.84 ft). It was also the first tank vehicle that offered a real protection against artillery HE rounds: the front hull was covered by 35 mm (1.38 in) armour plate; the same was the all-around thickness of the turret. The sides and rear were protected by 21 mm (0.83 in) plate, the top and roof by 15 mm (0.6 in). The total weight of the tank was 41.4 tonnes. Its empty hulk weight was 22.1 tonnes, 17.5 tonnes accounted for by the hull, of which 5.5 tonnes of armour, and 4.6 tonnes by the turret, including 1.3 tonnes of armour.
The hull of the FCM 1A was very elongated, in order to cross wide trenches. It was more or less compartmentalised into four sections, that however were not separated by bulkheads: a relatively short driver compartment at the front, a fighting compartment with a turret at its top, a larger munitions room and finally a large engine compartment at the rear. The last was enlarged at both sides over the tracks, to create room for long rectangular fuel tanks. The front of the hull followed the profile of the tall climbing faces of the tracks and therefore gradually curved upwards, ending in a high, vertical, nose plate. The glacis plate behind it was oriented almost horizontally and connected at its rear to the vertical top front plate of the driver compartment. As the turret ring was larger than the width of the hull, it partly rested on rounded lateral extensions. The turret was a truncated cone with a roof sloping down to the front, so that in side view its profile was wedge-shaped.
Originally a crew of seven had been planned, but in December 1917 this had been reduced to six: a commander in the left of the turret who also had the responsibility of aiming the gun; a second man in the right of the turret who combined the functions of gunner, machine-gunner and loader; a standing assistant-loader handing new rounds to the loader — at first two of these had been seen as necessary; a driver; a front machine-gunner; and a mechanic who doubled as a rear machine-gunner.
The main armament was a 105 mm gun, a Canon de 105 Court Schneider, shortened to reduce its recoil so that it could fit into a turret. If fired a HE shell with four kilogrammes of explosives and a muzzle velocity of 240 m/s. The large hull allowed for a large ammunition stock of 122 rounds: eighteen, stacked in three vertical rows of six in front of him, were directly accessible to the gunner/loader; two batches of eight were stowed below the fighting compartment floor and forty-four, stacked in four vertical rows of eleven, lined each wall of the ammunition room. The commander pointed the gun by observing the target through a vane sight, fitted on the turret roof, from his rectangular "cupola". There were two Hotchkiss 8 mm machine-guns in fixed ball-mount positions; reserve machine-guns or pistols could be fired through five vertical slits that could be plugged: one at the rear of the turret, two at the turret sides and two at the hull sides below the turret rear.
In the prototype a single Renault 220 HP twelve cylinder engine was installed, allowing a maximum speed of 10 km/h (6.2 mph) at 1200 rpm. The minimum speed was 2 km/h (1.24 mph). The transmission was mechanical, using a disc clutch. The sprocket was at the rear, the idler at the front. The suspension consisted of bogies, sprung by leaf springs, of four wheels each with alternating external and internal flanges. The tracks were 600 mm (23.6) wide, resulting in a ground pressure of 0.6 kg/cm². Ground clearance was 400 mm (15.7 in). The centre of gravity was in the middle of the vehicle, at a level of one metre above the ground. The design prided itself on not having any overhanging sections at the front or the rear, as had greatly hampered the mobility of the earlier French Schneider CA1 and Saint Chamond tanks. The tank could overcome a 1 m (3.3 ft) high vertical obstacle and cross a trench 3.5 m (11.5 ft) wide.
Much attention had been given to ergonomics, Mourret's stated motive in having the tank designed by a shipyard. The vehicle was less cramped than earlier designs, the crew being able to more or less walk through the hull, with only a slight crouch. The mechanic could access the engine at both sides. The commander could communicate with the driver, the front machine-gunner and the mechanic via speaking tubes. External communications were the responsibility of the mechanic who could lift a little hatchet just behind the turret to give signals by fanions, pyrotechnic devices or electrical lights. The tank could be entered through the cupola, but each member had oval or round escape hatches above and below him.
The Char 2C is ordered
On 20 December 1917 the first prototype was ready to be shown to an investigating commission of the CCAS, with actual trials being held at La Seyne-sur-Mer on 21 and 22 December. Mourret had been replaced as head of the commission by Estienne; British and American observers were present. The FCM 1A, with its futuristic appearance, made an excellent impression on those present. Moritz demonstrated that the vehicle was effortlessly capable of crossing 3.5 metres wide trenches, climb ninety centimetres high walls and descend into, and climb out of again, six metres wide and four metres deep craters. In woods, it could break a 28 centimetres thick pine tree and run over a 35 centimetres thick one. A speed of 6 km/h was attained. The main problem was that it proved difficult to steer the tank due to its extreme track length and insufficient chain link profile. The track would easily slip when braked, though it was on no occasion thrown. The aircraft engine tended to overheat and its basic lack of power resulted in a maximum 65% climbing slope. Though the first shortened 105 mm Schneider cannon had been received in October, the first live firing tests were only held on 5 and 7 February 1918, with satisfactory results.
Discussing the results of the trials, on 4 January 1918 the technical department of the Artillerie Spéciale concluded that the FCM 1A seemed a powerful combat vehicle capable of having an important negative effect on enemy morale. Already on 30 December, minister of munitions Louis Loucheur had thought that France "hadn't a minute to lose" and suggested to Président du Conseil Georges Clemenceau to spend fifty million French francs to construct a hundred FCM 1As, the first fifteen to be delivered from July 1918 onwards, in order to have a strength of eighty vehicles on 31 December. However, Clemenceau would leave the decision to Estienne.
General Philippe Pétain, the new High Commander of the French Army, asked Estienne to use his position to end the project. Estienne told Pétain that this was ill-advised while the public was questioning why these heavy tanks had not been produced. Besides, the allies (specifically the British and the US) would only consent to give France 700 of the new Mark VIII Liberty design if France had made at least a token effort to produce its own heavy tanks. Thus the French authorities had to delay the project while outwardly endorsing it. Estienne had already set this course by choosing the heaviest version, the "C", for production, requiring a completely new prototype, causing a considerable delay. Then Pétain demanded unreasonably high production numbers, thus delaying planning and initiating a political row.
Pétain asked for 300 heavy tanks to be ready by March 1919, causing a quarrel to erupt between Clemenceau, who was both Prime-Minister and Minister of War, and Loucheur, the Minister of Armament, who felt it was impossible to provide the labour and steel required. Meanwhile, Estienne and Pétain complicated the issue with further demands. Pétain asked for special pontoons, and Estienne demanded battering rams and electronic mine detectors to be fixed. When the war ended, not a single tank had been built.
At first, the production order for the Char 2C was cancelled. Despite the end of hostilities, however, strong political pressure to adopt new heavy tank projects remained, as there was now a considerable surplus capacity in the heavy industry. To stop this, the Direction de l’Artillerie d’Assaut on instigation of Estienne decided in April 1919 to procure ten Char 2Cs after all, and use this as an argument to reject any other projects. This was not completely successful; as late as 1920 it was proposed to the Section Technique des Appareils de Combat to build a 600-tonne tank with 250 mm armour. At FCM Jammy and Savatier finished the Char 2C prototype, the other nine tanks being built almost simultaneously; all ten were delivered in 1921 and modified by the factory until 1923. They would be the last French tanks to be produced for the home market till the Char D1 pre-series of 1931.
The ten tanks were part of several consecutive units, their organic strength at one time reduced to three. Their military value slowly decreased as more advanced tanks were developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1930s they were largely obsolete, because their slow speed and high profile made them vulnerable to advances in anti-tank guns.
Nevertheless, during the French mobilisation of 1939, all ten were activated and put into their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. For propaganda, each tank had been named after one of the ancient regions of France, numbers 90-99 being named Poitou; Provence; Picardie; Alsace; Bretagne; Touraine; Anjou; Normandie; Berry; Champagne respectively. In 1939, the Normandie was renamed Lorraine. As their main value was in propaganda, the giants were kept carefully out of harm's way and did not participate in the September 1939 attack on the Siegfried Line. They were used instead for numerous morale-boosting movies, in which they were often shown climbing and crushing old French forts. To the public, they obtained the reputation of invincible super tanks, the imagined dimensions of which far surpassed the actual particulars.
Of course, the French commanders knew perfectly well that this reputation was undeserved. When the German Panzerdivisionen, in the execution of Operation Fall Rot, ripped apart the French lines after 10 June 1940, the decision was made to prevent the capture of the famous equipment. All were to be sent to the south by rail transport. On 15 June the railway was blocked by a burning fuel train, so it became incumbent to destroy the tanks by detonating charges. Later Goebbels and Göring claimed the tanks were hit by German dive bombers. This propaganda lie was to be repeated by many sources. One tank, the Champagne, was nevertheless captured more or less intact and brought to Berlin to be exhibited as a war trophy until disappearing in 1948.