The SOMUA S 35 tank was well regarded not only in the French army, but in the army of its greatest enemy. Unlike the Pz38(t), the tank did not serve in first echelon divisions, but the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) ended up being the only French tank that was not converted into SPGs en masse and was used by the Germans and their allies as a tank. It actively fought as a part of independent tank battalions and in armoured trains. Individual tanks lasted until the end of the war.
297 SOMUA S 35 tanks in varying condition fell into German hands after the French campaign in May-June of 1940. This was more than two thirds of total production. This significant number does not mean that the French did not fight in these tanks. This tank was France's most advanced vehicle and fought until the ceasefire, but not all units had time to enter the fighting before the war was over. The SOMUA S 35 was also easy to repair. The hull was cast in two halves that were bolted together, meaning that it was easy to assemble one working tank from two knocked out ones. The tank itself turned out to be pretty tough. Few German guns could penetrate the armour of this «cavalry armoured car».
Despite all the exceptional characteristics of the French tank, the Germans deemed it ill-suited for the role of a medium tank. Yes, the 47 mm SA 35 gun was superior to German tanks guns. The tank was mobile and well protected. However, the drawbacks negated all of these advantages. Only German light tanks had one man turrets, not medium ones. This configuration overloaded the commander with work. The vision from the French tank was far from ideal.
It was clear that the SOMUA S 35 would not be used in first echelon divisions as early as the summer of 1940. However, the first cases of using these vehicles in combat were recorded in June of 1940, before the ceasefire.
The Germans began to collect captured vehicles on June 10th, before the ceasefire. After the fall of Paris, the Germans began inspections of defense industry factories, including SOMUA. In the summer and fall of 1940, trophies were collected and sent to warehouses, then issued to units.
The Germans planned to form four tank divisions from French tanks of different types, which would be quartered in occupied territories. However, only one brigade with captured tanks (Beute-Panzer-Brigade) was formed by December of 1940. It consisted of the 201st, 202nd, and 203rd Tank Regiments. The regiments were formed in Germany, but they were moved into France by the spring of 1941. Their vehicles did not arrive in a hurry. By March of 1941 all three regiments had ten SOMUA S 35 tanks put together, in addition to other tanks. These tanks were called SOMUA (4.7).
20 cavalry tanks had been repaired by November 5th, 1941. However, this number only includes tanks that had not been significantly modified. The SOMUA S 35 had to be brought up to German standards at least partially, most importantly its radio communication. The 100th and 101st captured tank brigades had 150 S 35s that went through modernization by November 5th. Like the Pz.Kpfw.B2, these tanks had the top of their commander's cupola removed and replaced with a two door hatch. This at least somewhat improved the situation with observation. One could also use this hatch to enter the tank instead of the hatch in the back of the turret.
Modernized tanks received German Fu 5 radios. A whip antenna was added to the right of the turret, more practical than the French antenna. Converted cupolas and new antennas allow one to distinguish between a captured tank and an original. Some tanks did not undergo cupola conversion.
The situation with the index of the tank in the German army needs to be addressed separately. Instruction D50/12 given on March 20th, 1941, calls the SOMUA S 35 Pz.Kpfw.35 S 739 (f). Later, it was called only Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f), and later still the name was shortened to Pz.Kpfw.35 S. There was another index: Pz.Kpfw.35 Som. (fr) used, for instance, in manual D 658/5 issued on November 9th, 1940.
From Brest to Brest
Captured tanks were primarily sent to units located in France, but they made their debut on the Eastern Front in June of 1941. The role was unusual. A decision was made to include the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) into armoured trains. Three tanks apiece were added to trains ##26, 27, and 28, and two tanks apiece to ##29, 30, and 31.
Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) were carried on open platforms, sometimes covered with additional armour sheets from the side. They are easy to distinguish from ordinary captured SOMUA S 35 tanks. A special look was added to the front of the hull that was used to hold the tank on the train. The tanks received large Balkenkreuz insignia, including in the front, so they would not be knocked out by their own forces. All of the tanks had three digit turret numbers. The first two numbers indicated the armoured train, the last one the number of the tank. For instance, Panzerzug 28 had tanks numbered 281-283.
Two of the aforementioned armoured trains, Panzerzug 27 and Panzerzug 28, took part in the assault on Brest fortress. Some sources state that the tanks of Panzerzug 28 were destroyed within the first days of the war, but these tanks fought alongside the 45th Infantry Division until at least June 27th, 1941. By this point, the infantry also obtained a couple of captured T-26es and armorued cars. Photos taken around Brest show the tank with turret number 282, and later photos of Panzerzug 28 show tank #283.
The Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) might not have been assigned to tank divisions, but certainly didn't sit idle in the rear. The French tanks fought for a fairly long time as a part of armoured trains. In this respect, they were no worse than the Pz.Kpfw.38(t), by virtue of their heavier armour and armament.
Pz.Kpfw.S 35 (f) numbered 271 and 273 from Panzersug 27 were captured by the Red Army in 1942. The circumstances of their capture are not known, but they ended up on the GABTU proving grounds, located in Kazan at this point, by the fall of 1942. Unlike most other captured tanks, they were not put through mobility trials. However, they were used in some trials. These tanks were referred to as «Somua French tank» or «SOMUA medium tank».
A brief technical description of the vehicle was composed. Individual components and assemblies were studied. A track link was studied, but caused little enthusiasm. The hull and turret were also studied. The armour was measured as 44-45 mm, it was not possible to determine it exactly, as the armour was cast. The idea of a cast hull assembled with bolts was interesting conceptually, but Soviet industry had little to gain from it. The armour composition was not considered interesting due to a large amount of expensive nickel and molybdenum.
The most interesting was the firing trials. The SOMUA S 35 got a unique chance to get revenge on German tanks for 1940. It turned out that the 50 mm thick front armour of the StuG III Ausf.B could be penetrated without problem from 300 meters. Out of two hits from 400 meters, one resulted in a penetration. It was stated that the round «penetrates the armour but does not go off». Trials showed that the Germans did not fully protect their tanks with 50 mm of armour, especially considering that the gun on the SOMUA S 35 was not the most powerful French 47 mm gun.
The use of these tanks was not just limited to armoured trains. The 211th Tank Battalion based in Norway had 16-17 of these tanks at different times. By October 1st, 1944, only 13 remained. The G.K.N. tank company with three Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) was also based in Norway, as well as the 25th Tank Division, with 15 of these tanks.
Another 15 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks were assigned to the 214th Tank Battalion, which was formed on January 15th, 1942, and located in Finland.
The war for the 211th Tank Battalion began in July of 1941, when it was based in Finland. The battalion claimed 24 Soviet tanks destroyed in July, with 6 of its tanks lost in battle (4 permanently) and 10 lost to mechanical causes. A Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) shown in newsreels dated summer 1942 is likely from this battalion.
In the fall of 1944, Finland signed a peace treaty with the USSR. The Lapland War between Finland and Germany began. The 211th and 214 battalions fought here. 211th battalion tanks received a coating of Zimmerit by this point. The biggest problem for German tanks was the Red Army, not Finland. Captured tanks ran into the 38th Guards Tank Brigade, armed with T-34 tanks. On the evening of September 9th, 1944, a battle broke out near Mikkolahti-Kuolajarvi. Three Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) were destroyed, a portion of the rest was abandoned by the Germans. A tank with turret number 121 and serial number 10672 was among those captured. Before fighting for the Germans, it served in the French 3rd DML (light mechanized division). It was delivered to the NIBT proving grounds and is currently on display at Patriot Park.
The situation in France was calm for a very long time. The occupied territory was located deep in the German rear. The 201st Tank Regiment, which was a part of the 100th Tank Brigade, was used as a training base. The 211th Tank Battalion that was sent to Norway was trained within this unit. Later, the 301st Tank Regiment was included into the 100th Tank Brigade. In the second half of 1941, the 201st Regiment was included into the newly created 23rd Tank Division. The characteristic insignia of the 201st Regiment was preserved, but it was joined by the Eiffel Tower insignia. The 23rd Tank Division was sometimes called the Paris Division. However, these tanks did not go east. When the unit was sent into battle, their tanks were replaced with German ones.
As of August 5th, 1942, the 100th Tank Brigade had 29 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). 21 of them in running order.
French tanks were replaced with German ones in many units before they left for the front. There were, however, some exceptions. The 1st Battalion of the 202nd Tank Regiment was sent to Yugoslavia in September of 1941 with 18 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). These tanks had thick armour and decent armament, and so showed themselves well in fighting against partisans. The battalion was renamed 202nd Tank Battalion in January of 1943. By then it had 16 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks, 8 of them in running order. By the summer of 1944, the battalion still had 6 combat worthy tanks of this type.
A number of Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks were converted into commander's tanks. The general principle was the same as with the Pz.Kpfw.38(t). A large rail antenna was installed over the engine deck, and additional radio equipment was fitted inside the tank. The armament was preserved.
Training tanks were also built on the chassis of the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f). For this, the turret platform was removed and the driver's compartment was altered.
The decent fighting characteristics of the Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) meant that the Germans did not convert them into SPGs. About 60 tanks were turned into heavy artillery tractors. This conversion was similar to those performed in training tanks. Either the turret or the turret platform could be removed. The armoured parts were used to strengthen the defenses along the Atlantic Wall.
There were 67 Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) left in France by May of 1943. 43 more were used in Yugoslavia, 33 in Norway, and two on the Eastern Front. These tanks showed themselves well in 1941-42 anti-partisan campaigns, which guaranteed a lengthy service in Yugoslavia. Here the tanks fought alongside police and SS formations. According to photos, the turret of one of the tanks was used on a Ustaše armoured train.
Yugoslavian partisans gradually equipped themselves with anti-tank guns, and knocked out German tanks stopped being a rarity. At least one Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) was captured in working order. It was converted to carry a 6-pounder gun from an AEC Armoured Car Mk.II, which was supplied by the British. This was the most powerful gun ever installed on a SOMUA S 35 chassis. The front of the turret had to change significantly to allow for this conversion.
A fairly large number of tanks was available in Normandy when the Allies landed there. For instance, the 22nd Tank Regiment (former 100th) in the 21st Tank Division had 34 of these tanks, 23 of which were in running order. Another ten Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) were used by the 205th Tank Battalion. The 206th Tank Battalion, which fought against the Americans near Cherbourg, had the same number of these tanks.
The Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) was clearly obsolete by the summer of 1944. Theoretically, it could still fight enemy medium tanks, and was still definitely a powerful opponent for lighter vehicles. In practice, however, these tanks had few chances to show themselves. By the fall of 1944 there were very few Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) remaining on the Western Front. All of these tanks were either captured by the Allies or destroyed. Individual tanks remained in use into the spring of 1945.
New and old masters
Like other captured tanks, the Germans transferred some Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) to their allies. Two tanks were given to Hungary in 1942, where they received registration numbers H-034 and H-035. These tanks were used in anti-partisan roles in the Ukraine. Six tanks were included into the Bulgarian army in 1943, but ended up with the Germans again a year later.
The Italians raised the question of supplying Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks to them in early 1941. The French tank was very interesting to them, since it was clearly superior to the Italian Carro Armato M 13-40. The Italians hope to receive 50 of these tanks and a number of Renault R 35 to create a tank regiment.
The Germans only handed over 32 SOMUA S 35 in mid-March of 1941. These tanks received the name Carro armato S.O.M.U.A. in the Italian army. An instruction manual was prepared in September. The tanks received registration numbers 4401-4410, 4437-4439, 4549-4566, as well as 4421 and 5145. The Italians received ordinary SOMUA S 35 tanks without German radios and with original commander's cupolas. They were only repaired and painted.
These tanks were included in the 131st Regiment in July of 1941. The tanks were equipped with Italian tools and… it was as if their service froze. Plans to send the mixed tank regiment to North Africa remained plans. The problem was that the Germans only sent Italy the tanks, not spare parts, which they had a shortage of themselves. The Carro armato S.O.M.U.A. was like a briefcase without a handle: too valuable to drop, but too hard to carry. The tanks were there, but they could not be used without spare parts. In late 1941 the tanks were «banished» to Sardinia, where they remained without having ever seen battle. The regiment was disbanded in 1943.
After the conclusion of fighting in June of 1940, a portion of SOMUA S 35 tanks remained in the French army. The Vichy government managed to get permission to quarter the 12th Autonomous African Hunter Group (12e GACA, 12e groupe autonome de chasseurs d’Afrique) in Senegal under the pretense of defense from the Allies. 23 SOMUA S 35 tanks hidden from the Germans were sent there in November of 1941. Later, the 12e GACA was renamed to the 12th African Hunter Regiment (12e RCA, 12e régiment de chasseurs d’Afrique), which sat in silence in Senegal for over a year.
Its time came in early 1943, when France was completely occupied. The tanks were included into the 19th French Armoured Group by February 20th, 1943. It was very heterogeneous: there were Valentine III tanks, Light Tanks M3, and GMC M10. The SOMUA S 35 fought in the brigade until May of 1943. Four of them were lost irreparably over this time. Soon the French got new Medium Tanks M4A2. Some crews affixed SOMUA manufacturer plates to their new tanks. The tanks landed in Normandy with these plates.
Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) tanks gradually returned to their former masters as France was liberated. In addition, a number of these tanks were successfully hidden from the occupants. The French managed to recreate a whole tank unit with these recovered tanks, the 13th Dragoon Regiment. It included 17 SOMUA S 35 tanks. However, the squadron that used these tanks was quartered in Cognac and did not take part in the fighting at first.
The French cavalry tanks went into battle for the La Rochelle port in the spring of 1945. The squadron attacked Royan, in the south of La Rochelle, on April 14th. The squadron fought fiercely until April 20th. Two tanks were lost to mines. An attack by SOMUA S 35 tanks took the city and yielded numerous trophies. The next target was Île d'Oléron, where four tanks landed on scows on April 30th. Their support was effective. The landing force captured 50 guns and 1500 prisoners. This landing was the last combat operation in which the SOMUA S 35 took place. In September of 1945 the squadron was sent to Germany to take part in the occupation force. The unit remained here until April of 1946, when it was disbanded.
The tank's active career led to only four survivors that remain today, all of them the German Pz.Kpfw.35 S (f) type. This can be established by the distinctive antenna port. Only the tank that was at one point on display at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds retained its original cupola, but the antenna port indicates without a doubt that the tank had a career in the German army.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- SOMUA S 35, Pascal Danjou, TRACKSTORY №1, 2003;
- Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell'Esercito Italiano P.2 (1940-45), Nicola Pignato, Filippo Cappellano, SME, 2002, ISBN 88-87940-29-0;
- Panzer Tracts 19-1 – Beute — Panzerkampfwagen Czech, Polish, And French Tanks Captured From 1939 To 1940, Thomas L. Jentz, Werner Regenberg, 2007, ISBN 0-9771643-7-3;
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence;
- Author's photo archive.