The R35 was intended to replace the Renault FT as standard light infantry tank from the summer of 1936, but even by May 1940 not enough conscripts had been retrained and therefore eight battalions of the older tank had to be kept operational. On 1 September 1939, at the outbreak of war, 975 vehicles had been delivered out of 1070 produced; 765 were fielded by tank battalions in France, 49 used for drive training, 33 were in depot and 45 present in the colonies. Of a total order for 2,300 at least 1,601 had been produced until 1 June 1940 — the numbers for that month are lacking — of which 245 had been exported: to Poland (50), Turkey (100; two batches of fifty each in February and March 1940), Romania (41 from an order for 200), and Yugoslavia (54). It is likely that the tanks exported to Yugoslavia (in April 1940) are not included under the 1,601 total and that overall production was 1,685; serial numbers known to be actually used indicate a production of at least 1670 vehicles.
In 1938 the Polish Army bought two R35 tanks for testing. After a series of tests it was found that the design was completely unreliable and the Poles decided to buy the French SOMUA S35 tanks instead, a proposal that was later refused by the French government. However, as the threat of war became apparent and the production rate of the new Polish 7TP tank was insufficient, in April 1939 it was decided to buy a hundred R 35 tanks as an emergency measure. The first fifty (other sources lower the number to 49) arrived in Poland in July 1939, along with three Hotchkiss H35 tanks bought for testing. Most were put into service with the Luck-based 12th Armoured Battalion. During the Invasion of Poland 45 tanks formed the core of the newly created 21st Light Tank Battalion that was part of the general reserve of the Commander in Chief. The unit was to defend the Romanian Bridgehead, but was divided after the Soviet invasion of Poland of 17 September. Thirty-four tanks were withdrawn to Romania, while the remaining tanks were pressed into service with the improvised Dubno Operational Group and took part in the battles of Krasne and Kamionka Strumilowa. Six tanks were also attached to the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade. The second shipment of R35 did not reach Poland prior to the outbreak of World War II and was redirected to Syria in October.
As part of a rearmament program of the late 1930s, Romania sought to obtain a license for the local manufacture of two hundred French Renault R35 infantry tanks. By early 1938, negotiations for establishing a factory for the production of R35 tanks had reached an advanced state. By this time France's own demands for rearmament prohibited further development, however. In August and September 1939, as a stopgap measure, forty-one R35s were supplied to the Royal Romanian Army. These tanks served as the principal tank of the newly formed 2nd Armoured Regiment. At the end of September 1939, an additional thirty-four brandnew R35s passed into Romanian hands when the Polish 21st Light Tank Battalion (Batalion Czolgów Lekkich, or BCL) chose internment over capture following the German conquest of Poland and fled over the Romanian border. With seventy-five tanks on strength, the 2nd Armoured Regiment expanded into two battalions.
During the Second World War, in in 1943 and 1944, thirty-three of the Romanian R35s were rebuilt with a Soviet 45 mm gun to improve their anti-tank capacity.
On 10 May 1940, on the eve of the German invasion, in mainland France the R 35 equipped 21 battalions, each fielding 45 vehicles.
These pure tank units had no organic infantry or artillery component and thus had to cooperate with infantry divisions. However, 135 R35s (2, 24 and the new 44 BCC) were allocated on 15 May to the provisional 4th DCR (Division Cuirassée de Réserve). Two more new battalions, the 40th and 48th Bataillion de Chars de Combat, though still not having completed training, were used to reinforce 2DCR, the first equipped with 15 R35s and 30 R40s, the second with 16 R35s and 29 R40s bringing the total organic strength to 1035. In addition the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalion of the Polish 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, at first training with FT 17's, were equipped with 17 R35s and about 24 R40s in late May; in June the R40s had been given back but replaced by 28 new ones. At the same time 1, 6, 25, 34 and 39 BCC were used to reconstitute 1DCR, 10 BCC reinforced 3DCR and 25 BCC was reconstituted with 21 R35s and 24 (ex-Polish) R40s. As about 300 tanks from the materiel reserve were issued to these units as well, around 800 of the 1440 available R35s ended up in armoured divisions after all.
Two R35 battalions (63 and 68 BCC) with 45 and 50 tanks respectively were in Syria, a French mandate territory, and 30 were in Morocco, 26 serving with 62 BCC and four in depot. The tanks in Syria would fight during the allied invasion of that mandate territory in 1941 and then partly be taken over by the Free French 1e CCC, those in North Africa during Operation Torch in November 1942.
The majority (843) of R35s fell into German hands; 131 were used as such as Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731 (f), issued to panzer units and mainly used for security duties or driver training, or used on armoured trains; most were later rebuilt as artillery tractors and ammunition carriers after removing the turret.
A considerable number, 174 according to some sources, were converted into a 47 mm tank destroyer to replace the Panzerjäger I: the 4,7 cm PaK(t) auf Panzerkampfwagen 35R(f) ohne Turm. The tank destroyer version had the turret replaced with an armoured superstructure mounting a 47mm kanon P.U.V. vz. 36 (Škoda A6) anti-tank gun. The vehicles were converted by Alkett between May to October 1941 to try and make an equivalent vehicle to the Panzerjäger I. The result was not as successful as the Panzerjäger I, mainly due to the slow speed of the R 35 and the overloaded chassis. A few were deployed in Operation Barbarossa, most were deployed in occupied territories, such as the Channel Islands, The Netherlands (with Pz.Jg.Abt.657, part of Pz Kompanie 224) and France. They fought in the battles for Normandy with Schnelle Brigade 30 in 1944 (five attached to the 3rd company, Schnelle Abteilung 517), and around Arnhem with Pz.Jg.Abt. 657. Other possible users include 346 Inf. Div. in Normandy and 59th Inf. Div who fought the 101st Airborne at Arnhem.
Fourteen R 35 tanks, used to train tank drivers, equipped the 100. Panzer-Ersatz-Bataillon (100th Panzer Replacement Battalion) in the German Seventh Army in 1944. On 6 June 1944, they were among the first Armee-Reserve units sent into combat near Sainte-Mère-Église to oppose the American airborne landings in Normandy. Supporting a counterattack by the 1057th Grenadier Regiment, R35s penetrated the command post of the U.S. 1st Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment before being destroyed by bazooka fire.
Other forces during the Second World War
Some of the tanks that Germany captured were given or sold to Germany's allies: Italy (124), which used some of its R35s in defence of Gela on Sicily against US Rangers; and Bulgaria (about forty).
Three Polish vehicles in late 1939 found their way to Hungary.
Switzerland took over twelve R 35s that had fled from France.
After the German victory over Yugoslavia in 1941, the Independent State of Croatia took over some R35s that had not been destroyed when fighting 11. Panzerdivision on 13 and 14 April.
The R 35 saw combat in Syrian hands when five R 35s took part in an unsuccessful Syrian Army attack on the Jewish kibbutz Degania Alef in the Galilee on 20 May 1948. The kibbutz defenders, armed with a 20 mm anti-tank gun and Molotov cocktails, managed to knock out three R 35s, causing the remaining forces to retreat. One of the disabled R 35s remains near the kibbutz today as a memorial of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Some of the Syrian vehicles had been rebuilt with a British 40 mm Ordnance QF 2-pounder gun.
Some R 35s served after the war in the Gendarmerie, as "R 39s" refitted with SA 38 guns. They were phased out from 1951 in favour of the Sherman tank.