The heavy Char B1 tank became the symbol of French pre-war tank building, and General de Gaulle is frequently associated with it. The 36 ton tank might have been the best French tank was indeed the best tank that France had during the fighting of May-June of 1940. The tank's thick armour worked well, even though the concept of the tank was obsolete.
Interestingly enough, mass production of the Char B1 might never have happened, since the French military was considering a different tank for the role of their main tank in the early 1930s, with the same armament, same armour, but more than 1.5 times lighter. This was the Renault D2, the tank that Colonel De Gaulle served in.
The French military realized that the Renault D1 was not completely satisfactory in January of 1930. One of the initiators of the revision of requirements was Captain F. J. Deygas, a known theorist and one of the coordinators of the Infantry Technical Department. One of his complaints was the insufficient armour of the D1. In part, the complaint was correct, since the D1 was in a strange situation where the thickness of the turret armour was 10 mm more than of the hull armour.
Captain Deygas' fears were based on the fact that 30 mm of armour was no problem for the 25 mm gun that was in development in the early 1930s. The French realized that they weren't the only ones who were so clever, and analogous anti-tank weapons will soon appear in other countries.
Renault received requirements for an improved D1 in May of 1930. The requirements described a tank similar to the D1, but with 40 mm of armour. Due to the increased armour, the expected mass grew to 16 tons, but it was expected that the mass will later reach 20 tons. The crew and armament were the same as on the D1.
The future tank, indexed Renault UZ, was unlucky from the very beginning. The first obstacle in its way was the financial crisis that began in 1929. It started in the USA, but reflected on the economies of the whole world. In 1930, the French army's budget dropped radically, which struck a blow to the Renault UZ program. The contract for building experimental prototypes was only signed in December of 1931, more than a year and a half after the specifications wee issued. The first prototype was built in April of 1932, and sent to the trials with no turret. Money was tight…
Let us pause the tale of the Renault D2 for a moment to discuss other tanks that are directly connected to it. Another tank entered trials along with the Renault UZ in late April of 1932. It had the factory code of Renault VA, although it is better known as the Char D3 or «colonial tank». During the financial crisis, Renault decided to dust off an abandoned concept from 1926.
The tank wasn't meant for the French army, which had no interest towards the «colonial tank». Renault's goal was the international market, specifically Japan, the main customer of the Renault NC-27. Encouraged by their success, Renault decided to make a lighter version of the Renault UZ for the Japanese. The armour thickness was reduced to 20 mm, which lowered the mass to 12-13 tons, and the top speed doubled to a very respectable 35 kph. Not a single photograph of the tank remains, but factory blueprints show the tank carrying a Schneider turret, the same one as the Renault NC-1 STCC. The result was a relatively mobile infantry support tank, immune to rifle caliber bullets.
Another light tank was designed in parallel with the Renault VA for the Japanese, with characteristics very close to the Renault NC-27. The design was also based on the Renault UZ, but the tank was made for a crew of two. The mass was 9.9 tons, the thickness of the armour dropped to 16 mm, and the turret was used from the Renault FT. The result was a quick and cheap infantry support tank.
However, the tank, indexed Renault VO, was never built. Trials of the Char D3 disappointed the potential customer. Shortly before that, the Renault NC-27 saw battle, where their suspension proved unsuitable for that specific battlefield. The Japanese did not wish to finance experiments of French engineers, especially since their Type 89 medium tank was clealry better than the Renault NC-27. The history of the Char D3 doesn't end here, as there was a Garnier-Renault SPG built on its chassis and tested in 1935.
The fate of the Renault UZ was much better than that of its colonial brothers. Tank #2001 received a temporary turret from the Renault FT and completed the first stage of trials this way. In May of 1933, the tank was sent to Rueil-Malmaison, where it underwent repairs and received an ST1 turret. Even though the turret was criticized by the army, its installation was a reasonable move, since it allowed a direct comparison between the characteristics of the new tank and its predecessor, the Char D1. This tank, indexed Char D2 No.1 Mle. 1932, was sent to the 503rd Tank Regiment, the same place where the Char D1 was undergoing trials.
As the technical requirements requested, the Renault D2 was very similar to its predecessor. This was most applicable to the suspension, although it was slightly redesigned. The tank became a little wider, and the front of the hull was changed noticeably. The hull machinegun was moved to the right, and now the radio operator fired it.
The mobility characteristics improved in comparison to its predecessor, as evidenced by reviews from the 503rd Tank Regiment. Despite the increased fuel expenditure (350 L for 100 km, presumably off-road), the D2 surpassed its predecessor. The speed increased due to a more powerful engine, and the tank was much easier to control. The reviews regarding the increased volume of the fighting compartment were particularly favourable.
Infantry command ordered two more prototypes, numbered 2002 and 2003, in December of 1932, without waiting for the trials to finish. Overall, they were the same as tank #2001, and even had Renault FT turrets in their original form. However, instead of riveted connections, the French began using blunt bolts, although in limited amounts, especially for the front plate, since it was shot most often. The hull machinegun was moved further to the right, and its mount was redesigned to increase resistance to bullets and shells.
The plan was to equip the tanks with a 120 hp Renault engine, but when the tanks were built in November of 1933, the engines were hurriedly replaced. The French military was interested in diesel engines around this time, since they were more economical than gasoline ones. After comparative trials of Lorraine-Dietrich and Renault, a decision was made to keep the initial gasoline engine in place. Later, a 9.5 L 150 hp engine was built, which was eventually set as the stock engine for the new tank.
The choice of turret resulted in a heated battle. The problem was that the thicker turret armour requirement left both the ST1 and ST2 behind. The new heavier turret could barely be rotated by hand. An electric turning mechanism was needed, but it was impossible to install it with a Renault FT sized turret ring.
As a result, the ST2 turret was left off the D2 and heavy B1. Instead, a turret designed by AMX in December of 1933 was used. It was indexed APX 1. French tankers must have breathed a sign of relief. It was impossible to fully shrug off the «inheritance» left by the Renault FT, since the turret was still one-man, but it was must larger on the inside. The commander's station started looking a lot less like a torture chamber for a claustrophobe. In this state, the Char D2 was almost completely finalized by January of 1934. This was no longer a light tank, but a 20 ton medium tank. On January 19th, without waiting for trials to finish, the French army ordered 50 tanks, but politics got in the way.
While the D2 was being developed, various political processes were underway in Europe. In order to reign in the arms race, British Prime Minister James McDonald organized the London disarmament conference in 1930. Analogous conferences also happened in Geneva. Typically, the navy is mentioned when these conferences are brought up, but tanks were also discussed. One of the proposals was limiting the mass of tanks to 25 tons.
Clouds gathered above the Char B1, which was in development since the 1920s. The problem wasn't just the extended development time, but that the tank had no advantages over the Renault D2. The armour thickness and turret armament (as well as the whole turret) were the same. The mobility was also similar. However, the B1 was almost 1.5 times heavier. The only advantage of the Char B was the presence of the short 75 mm gun in the front of the hull. That gun was not particularly easy to use. French infantry command thought long and hard.
At another conference in Geneva, which began in February of 1932, where James McDonald proposed limiting field artillery to 105 mm in caliber and the mass of tanks to 16 tons. Technically, the Renault D2 could have fit into this limit, but the limit was disputed, and the 1932 conference ended with almost no results.
The next time the conference opened was in February of 1933, several days after the Nazis coming to power in Germany. The Germans were not hiding the fact that they were about to begin processes that were in opposition to disarmament. On October 23rd, 1933, Germany left the commission. In practice, this meant the start of a new arms race. The issue of mass limits disappeared.
As a result, the relatively light D2, which looked promising, ended up in an unenviable position. It wasn't a light or a heavy tank, and the French weren't thinking about medium tanks at the time. The «maneuver tank» class that the D2 ended up in wasn't particularly necessary. In addition, trials of the prototypes showed that it's necessary to redesign the hull and suspension.
The order for 50 tanks was finally approved on December 24th, 1934, and the first tanks were delivered on May 9th, 1936. Mass produced Renault D2 tanks received serial numbers from 2004 to 2053. The last tank was accepted on February 23rd, 1937. These tanks differed from the experimental prototypes. Aside from the APX 1 turret, the tanks received storage boxes and radio antennas on the right side. The front of the hull was radically reworked. The sloped upper front and driver's cabin were discarded. Instead of a two piece hatch for the radio operator, there was now only one large hatch, which opened forward. The driver received an improved Char B1 style observation device. The suspension was also reworked.
The French command made a terrible mistake by assigning priority to heavy tanks. Even with a series of drawbacks (low speed, troublesome suspension), the Renault D2 was the best balanced out of all French infantry tanks. The Renault R 35 was too poorly armed, and its armour was insufficient to resist anti-tank guns at a range of less than 300 meters. The Char B1 had some room left over for modernization, but production was going too slowly. Only 32 tanks were built from December of 1935 to July of 1937, and 130 more were built with the efforts of 4 companies by September of 1939. As for medium tanks, infantry command launched the Char G program to build a 20 ton tank. The ide of a «miniature Char B1» failed spectacularly.
A contract for a second batch of Char D2 tanks was finally signed in the spring of 1938. By that time, Renault's tank assembly plant was nationalized, and the factory was renamed to AMX.
Externally, the tanks from this batch differed from their predecessors. The biggest change was the armament. Instead of the short 47 mm SA 34, the more powerful SA 35 was used, the same gun from the Char B1 bis and Somua S 35. The tank used the same APX 1 turret, but with new observation devices. In parallel with the new tanks that were armed with SA 35 guns, old tanks would be rearmed as well. Even though the first two tanks were sent to be rearmed in September of 1939, some D2s from the first batch kept their old guns.
As for the second contract, the infantry command dragged their feet until the spring of 1940, hoping that something will come out of the Char G. The result was predictable: the first five tanks with serial numbers 2054-2058 were only accepted on March 27th, 1940. Ten tanks were accepted on April 12th, 10 on May 6th, and 12 more on May 25th. By June 6th, 37 out of 50 tanks were accepted, and on June 12th, evacuation of Renault factories from northern Paris began.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the French had very strange ideas about the future of the first batch of D2s. It was proposed that the tanks would be converted to flamethrower tanks. Only one tank was converted to carry a flamethrower.
Usually, the description of the combat career of the Renault D2 is limited to the words «limited use». Sometimes there are stories about how the tanks broke often. The reality of the D2's service life is no less complex than the story of its creation or production.
Tanks from the first batch were sent out in 1937 to the 507th Tank Regiment. They replaced the Renault D1s, which left a pretty bad impression. The new tanks were received with much more enthusiasm. Aside from tanks, let us mention one Lieutenant Colonel that entered the regiment in the summer of 1936. His name was Charles de Gaulle.
On June 7th, 1936, he was appointed as the acting regimental commander. On September 5th, 1937, de Gaulle officially became the commander of the 507th regiment. On December 25th, he was promoted to Colonel. Before that, on July 14th, 1937, the new tanks marched on parade through Paris. As the commander of the 507th Tank Regiment, de Gaulle practiced his theories of how tanks would be used in future wars. The tankers had a good opinion of him: the theorist turned out to be a capable commander.
De Gaulle also disproved the thesis that only short people could be tankers. Standing at a height of 196 cm, the colonel could fit into the not particularly roomy D2. De Gaulle used three tanks throughout his career of which #2025 «Yorktown» was the most famous. All tanks in the 507th regiment had names.
Intensive training under a talented commander did its job. By the start of the war, a significant part of the 507th regiment was in need of repairs. Rearmament of the tanks to more powerful SA 35 guns began at de Gaulle's insistence. On August 27th, 1939, the 507th Tank Regiment was reformed. Its D2s were included into the 19th Tank Battalion and the Renault R 35 tanks in the regiment ended up in the 20th Tank Regiment.
On September 2nd, de Gaulle was appointed as the commander of the 5th Army's tank units, after which he left the 19th Tank Battalion. This was the beginning of a series of misfortunes. On September 13th, the tanks were sent for a 120 km march. 16 tanks broke down during the march, and only 10 functional tanks were left in the unit.
The real problems began in the spring of 1940. On March 11th, the commander of the 19th Tank Battalion gave the order to rearm the tanks to SA 35 guns. The first tank was rearmed by April 8th, but out of 15 tanks, 8 were already in poor technical condition.
On April 26th, a portion of the battalion's personnel arrived in Versailles to crew new D2 tanks, which were to be sent to Norway. As a result, the unit had 30 crews left to man 44 tanks! Tanks from the battalion's first company were left with old guns, no sights, and no crews. The second company had all 15 of its tanks rearmed, but only 5 went through major repairs. The third company was still being rearmed. As a result, the 19th Tank Battalion was unsuitable for battle even before the fighting began.
Tanks from the second batch didn't fare much better. The rapid (by French measures) acceptance of the new tanks led to them breaking down constantly. For example, the 345th Independent Tank Company, where the tankers of the 1st company of the 19th Tank Battalion were sent, lost half of its tanks to technical breakdowns by May 29th. This was called sabotage, but the reality was that it was impossible to accelerate the QA process and keep quality at the same level.
The 346th Independent Tank Regiment had different issues. According to de Gaulle's report, the crews did not know their tanks. This was not surprising, considering the fact that they were trained on Char B1s.
All of these issues combined were present in the 350th Independent Tank Company, the last unit to receive D2s. Out of 15 tanks, 2 broke almost instantly, and another 3 fell behind on the march due to technical issues.
Out of 84 Renault D2 tanks received by the French army, 21 were lost in battle, 26 broke down and were abandoned, 12 broke down and were recovered, and 12 tanks were abandoned during evacuation. The Germans evacuated 12 tanks and took 9 more from the French as a part of the peace settlement. The tanks were indexed Panzerkampfwagen D-2 733(f), but weren't even used as training tanks. One tank was sent to a trophy exhibition, another to the proving grounds at Kummersdorf. In April of 1945, this tank was sent to defend Zossen, but the force of habit likely took over during the march, and the tank broke down.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Centre des archives de l'Armement et du personnel civil (CAAPC)
- Renault D2, Pascal Danjou, TRACKSTORY №9, 2008
- The Encyclopedia of French Tanks and Armoured Fighting Vehicles: 1914–1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections, 2014
- GBM 79, 83
- Author's photo archive