Char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 39 in Israel
|Place of origin||France|
|In service||1936 - 1952|
|Used by||France, Poland, Nazi Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Yugoslav Partisans, Chetniks, Israel|
|Wars||World War II; Israeli War of Independence|
|Produced||September 1936 - June 1940|
|Variants||Hotchkiss H35 modifié 39|
|Weight||11 metric tonnes|
|Armour||40 mm turret, 34 mm hull|
|37 mm SA 18 gun|
|7.5 mm Reibel machine gun|
|Engine||six cylinder 3480 cc|
|Suspension||horizontal helical springs|
|Fuel capacity||180 litres|
Despite having been designed from 1933 as a rather slow but well-armoured light infantry support tank, the type was initially rejected by the French Infantry because it proved difficult to steer while driving cross-country, instead being adopted in 1936 by the French Cavalry. From 1938 an improved version was produced with a stronger engine, the Char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 39, that from 1940 was also fitted with a longer, more powerful 37 mm gun. It was intended to make this improved variant the standard light tank, to be produced in a number of at least four thousand to equip new armoured divisions of both the Cavalry and the Infantry, but due to the defeat of France in June 1940 total production of both subtypes remained limited to about 1200 vehicles. For the remainder of the war Germany and its allies would use captured Hotchkiss tanks in several modifications.
In 1926 it had been decided to provide armour support to the regular infantry divisions by creating autonomous tank battalions equipped with a light and cheap infantry tank, a char d'accompagnement. For this role at first the Char D1 was developed which type however proved to be neither particularly light nor cheap. In 1933 the Hotchkiss company by its own initiative presented a plan to produce a lighter design made possible by the application of the new technology to produce cast steel sections to construct an entire hull. On 30 June 1933 this proposal was approved by the Conseil Consultatif de l'Armement. On 2 August 1933 the specifications were made known: a weight of six tons and 30 mm armour protection all around. Three prototypes were ordered with Hotchkiss, but also the entire French industry was invited to provide alternative proposals. This allowed the Renault company to beat Hotchkiss in delivering the first prototype, which later was developed into the Renault R35. On 18 January 1935 the first Hotchkiss prototype, not yet made of armour steel, was presented to the Commission d'Expérience du Matériel Automobile (CEMA) at Vincennes; it was a machine gun armed tankette without turret. It was tested until 4 March 1935, when it was replaced by the second identical prototype to be tested until 6 May. Both had to be rejected because new specifications had been made on 21 June 1934 to increase the armour thickness to 40 mm. On 27 June 1935 the commission approved the type, on the provision the necessary changes would be made. On 19 August the third prototype was delivered, equipped with a cast APX turret and featuring a redesigned hull; it was tested until 20 September and accepted. On 6 November a first order was made of 200 vehicles. The first production vehicle was delivered on 12 September 1936, in which year already two additional orders had been made of 92 and 108 vehicles respectively. On 1 January 1937 132 vehicles had been produced.
Rejection by the Infantry and adoption by the Cavalry
The first series vehicle was again extensively and intensively tested until 4 December 1936. This showed that its handling qualities in terrain were unacceptably poor. It was simply impossible to safely steer the vehicle on a somewhat bumpy surface, posing an extreme danger to nearby friendly infantry. The Infantry therefore decided to accept only the first hundred tanks to equip just two battalions with the type: the 13e and 38e Bataillon de Chars de Combat and reject any further procurement. For political reasons however the normal consequence of this decision, stopping production, could not be accepted. The other 300 vehicles of the production run were thus offered to the Cavalry, which Arm was forced to accept them because it would not have been granted a budget for other tanks anyway. As the cavalry units would be making more use of the road network and of mounted infantry, its terrain problems were of less consequence in the cavalry role. Also the H 35 was with 28 km/h somewhat faster than the Renault R35, which attained 20 km/h, although in practice its average speed was lower than that of the R 35 because of its inferior gear box.
The Hotchkiss H35 was a small vehicle, 4.22 metres long, 1.95 m wide and 2.15 m tall. It weighed 11,370 kg. The hull consisted of six cast armour sections, bolted together: the engine deck, the fighting compartment, the front of the hull, the back of the hull and two longitudinal sections left and right forming the bottom. The casting allowed for sloped armour avoiding shot traps, to optimise the chance of deflection. Still, the protection level didn't satisfy the Infantry. Maximum armour thickness was not the specified 40 mm but 34 mm. Also there were persistent quality problems, worsened by the fact that many subcontractors had to be used: at first the armour was made much too soft; when hardness was increased it became brittle and full of bubbles and thus of weak spots.
There was a crew of two. The driver sat at the right front, behind a large cast double hatch. Driving the vehicle was very hard work. The Hotchkiss lacked the Cleveland differential of its Renault competitor and it responded unpredictably to direction adjustments. The brakes weren't of much help to correct this: they were too weak, especially when driving down a slope. No less troublesome was the gearbox: it was difficult to engage the highest fifth gear and so the theoretical top speed of 28 km/h was rarely reached. The inevitable rough handling of the tank by the driver resulted in much wear and tear. Mechanical reliability was poor. The suspension consisted of three bogies per side. The first ten production vehicles, that can be considered as forming a separate preseries, had curved bogie sides; in later vehicles these had straight sides. The bogies superficially resembled the R35 type, but used horizontal helical springs instead of rubber cylinders. The tank was powered by a 78 hp six cylinder 3480 cc engine. The range was 129 kilometres, made possible by a fuel tank of 180 litres.
The commander manned a standard APX-R turret, armoured with 40 mm cast steel and armed with the short 37 mm SA 18 gun, which had a maximum armour penetration of only 23 mm. The tank carried about 100 rounds for the gun and 2400 rounds for the 7.5 mm Reibel machine gun. There was a hatch in the back of the turret. The commander could sit on it for better observation, but this made him very vulnerable and slow to reach the gun. The alternative was to fight buttoned-up, using the hatchless cupola. The Cavalry liked neither this arrangement nor the weak gun. The latter problem was lessened somewhat by boring out the fire chamber so that special rounds with a larger charge could be used. This increased muzzle velocity to about 600 m/s and maximum penetration to about 30 mm. Only a small part of the tanks with the Cavalry alone were thus changed however, because it strongly increased barrel wear. In the Spring of 1940 the original diascopes of the Chrétien type were gradually replaced with episcopes, offering more protection.
The Char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 39
As the Cavalry wanted an even better top speed, it was decided to bring to fruition experiments already conducted from October 1936 to install a stronger engine. A new prototype was made in 1937, with a 120 hp instead of a 78 hp engine. The hull was enlarged to accommodate it and the track and the suspension elements were improved, raising the weight to 12.1 tons. This improved type was faster, with a top speed of 36.5 km/h (22.6 mph), but also was much easier to drive. Therefore it was first presented to the Commission d'Expérimentations de l'Infanterie on 31 January 1939 to see whether the original negative decision could be changed. The commission indeed accepted the type, the Char léger modèle 1935 H modifié 39; and it was decided on 18 February to let it succeed the original version from the 401st vehicle onwards, which was just as well as both in 1937 and 1938 an order had been made of 200 vehicles and production had already started, the total orders of the improved type thereafter being expanded to 900. The factory identifier however was Char léger Hotchkiss modèle 38 série D, its predecessor having been the série B. The designation has caused much confusion; this was still officially the same tank as the "H 35", only in a later variant. However even at the time, many began to refer to it as the 38 H or the 39 H.
The new subtype differed from the original one in having a raised and more angular engine deck (in later production vehicles with crosswise instead of longitudinal ventilation slits on the right side); a range decreased to 120 km; closed idler wheels; tracks two centimetres wider at 27 cm; metal instead of rubber wheel treads; a silencer directed to the back and larger, more reliable and effective, ventilators.
Early 1940 a modernisation programme was initiated. This included besides the fitting of episcopes, tails and some radio sets, the gradual introduction of a longer L/35 37 mm SA38 gun with a much improved anti-tank capacity (30 mm penetration at 1000 m); about 350 vehicles were (re)built with the better gun, among them about fifty "H 35"s. The new gun became standard in the production lines in April. Before that change the available new guns had from January 1940 gradually been fitted to the tanks of platoon, company and battalion commanders; about half of the commander vehicles in Hotchkiss units were so modified. It had been intended to fit the longer gun to all vehicles during the second half of 1940. After the war it was for a time erroneously assumed that "H 38" was the official name of the tank with the new engine, but without the new gun and "H 39" the name of the type that had both major improvements. These mistakes are still common in much secondary literature. The "H 38" was in fact identical to the "H 39" and it is only correct to refer to the latter in an informal sense. Parallel to the development of a R 40 it was for a time considered to create a "H 40" by adopting the improved AMX suspension of the other vehicle; in the end this option was rejected though.
Three Hotchkiss tanks of the "H 39" version had been exported to Poland in July 1939 for testing by the Polish Bureau of Technical Studies of Armoured Weapons (pl. Biuro Badań Technicznych Broni Pancernych). During the Invasion of Poland in 1939 the Hotchkiss tanks together with three Renault R 35 tanks were incorporated into in an ad hoc "half company" unit of lieutenant J.Jakubowicz formed on 14 September 1939 in Kiwerce, Poland. The unit joined the task force "Dubno" and lost all of its tanks during the marches and fighting with German and Soviet armies and Ukrainian insurgents.
Two vehicles were exported to Turkey in February 1940.
In April 1940 the 342e CACC was sent to Norway after the German invasion of that country, having first been intended to form part of an expeditionary force to assist Finland in the Winter War. This autonomous company, equipped with fifteen "H 39"s, all with short guns, fought at Narvik, after having landed on 7 May. After the temporary liberation of that city, the twelve remaining vehicles were withdrawn to Britain on 8 June, where they exceptionally joined the Free French, forming the 1e Compagnie de Chars de Combat de la France Libre. In 1940 and 1941 this 1e CCC fought against Vichy-troops in Gabon and later in Syria.
When World War II started 640 Hotchkiss tanks had been delivered according to the acceptance lists. The inventories deviate slightly: of the 300 "H 35"s allocated to the Cavalry, 232 were fielded by ten cavalry squadrons, 44 were in depot, eight in factory overhaul and sixteen in North Africa. Of the hundred used by the Infantry, ninety were fielded by the two tank battalions equipped with the type, six were in matériel reserve and two used for driving training. Of the "H 39"s, sixteen were used by the Cavalry in North Africa and six in depot; 180 were fielded by four Infantry tank battalions and fourteen were in the Infantry matériel reserve. It was decided to concentrate most Allied production capacity for light tanks into the manufacture of a single type, and the Hotchkiss tank was chosen as it had the necessary mobility to be of use in the many armoured divisions the Entente planned to raise for the expected decisive summer offensive of 1941. To this end British and Portuguese heavy industry had to assist in producing the cast armour sections. It was hoped to increase production to 300 a month in October 1940, and even 500 a month from March 1941, the sections of 75 of which to be provided by Britain in exchange for a monthly delivery of nine Char B1's. This can be compared to the planned production of the R 40: 120 per month, reflecting the little importance now attached to infantry support.
These plans were disrupted by the Battle of France. In May 1940 the type equipped in the Cavalry units two tank regiments (of 47) in each of the three Mechanised Light Divisions and served as AMR in the 9th and 25th Mechanised Infantry Division (sixteen vehicles for each), 3rd DLM (22 "H35"s and 47 "H 39"s) and in the five Cavalry Light Divisions (sixteen vehicles each). In the Infantry it equipped the two autonomous battalions mentioned above and two battalions of 45 in each of the three Divisions Cuirassées, the latter with the "H 39" variant. Most Hotchkiss tanks were thus concentrated in larger motorised units, in the armoured divisions supplementing the core of heavier tanks, though they were mismatched: the slower "H 35"s fought alongside the swifter SOMUA S35s, whereas the faster "H 39"s joined the slow Char B1s. The vast majority of these vehicles still had the short gun. Several ad hoc and reconstituted units were formed with the type after the invasion. These included 4e DCR (forty vehicles) and 7e DLM (47). Most of these later units were equipped with new vehicles built with the long gun. In May deliveries peaked at 122; a picture of a Hotchkiss tank with series number 41200 shows that in June at least 121 were produced for a total of at least 1200 vehicles, not including prototypes.
About 550 were captured and used by the Germans as Panzerkampfwagen 35H 734(f) or Panzerkampfwagen 38H 735(f); most for occupation duty, but the independent 211e Panzerabteilung was deployed in Finland during Operation Barbarossa. Like the French themselves the Germans made no clear distinction between a "H 38" and a "H 39". The Germans fitted many with a cupola with a hatch. Some vehicles were modified to munition carriers or artillery tractors (Artillerieschlepper 38H(f)) or rocket-launchers (Panzerkampfwagen 35H(f) mit 28/32 cm Wurfrahmen). In 1942 24 were converted into a Marder I Panzerjäger or tank destroyer, the 7,5 cm PaK40(Sf) auf Geschützwagen 39H(f) and 48 into mechanised artillery, the 10,5 cm leFH18(Sf) auf Geschützwagen 39H(f), all to be used by units in France. A special artillery observation vehicle was created: the Panzerbeobachtungswagen 38H (f). In June 1943 361 Hotchkiss tanks were still listed in the German Army inventories as 37 mm gun tanks; this number had decreased to sixty in December 1944.
In 1943 the Germans, against objections, delivered nineteen "H 39"s to Bulgaria for training purposes, when it proved to be impossible to find 25 unmodified Panzerkampfwagen Is, the type the Bulgarians really desired. After the war these vehicles were used by police units. The Germans in 1944 delivered fifteen vehicles to Hungary and a small number to Croatia.
In North Africa 27 vehicles (thirteen H 35 and fourteen "H 39") were officially serving in the 1e Régiment de Chasseurs d'Afrique and were allowed to remain there by the armistice conditions; another five were hidden in Morocco. They fought the Allies during the opening stages of Operation Torch near Casablanca in November 1942, destroying four M3 Stuarts. The regiment then joined the allied cause and was re-equipped with M4 Shermans in the summer of 1943.
After the war some Hotchkiss tanks were used by French security forces in the colonies and occupation forces in Germany. Ten "H 39s" were clandestinely sold to Israel and shipped from Marseilles to Haifa in 1948. At least one remained in service with the IDF until 1952.
Eight Hotchkiss H35s have survived, all of the modifié 39 subtype and modified by the Germans. One Hotchkiss tank is on display in the city square in Narvik as a memorial of Battle of Narvik in 1940. A second vehicle in Norway is part of the collection of the Pansarparken at Rena Leir. In England the private Kevin Wheatcroft Collection has bought an exemplar from the Norwegian Arquebus Krigshistoriske Museum at Rogaland. In France itself the Musée des Blindés at Saumur has a vehicle in a running condition; at the base of 501/503e RCC at Mourmelon-le-Grand a Hotchkiss serves as a monument restored with a Renault R35 turret, fitted with a dummy gun. The Bulgarian National Museum of Military History displays one of the vehicles used by the Bulgarian police forces. At Latrun in Israël the Yad la-Shiryon Museum shows one of the tanks used by the IDF. In Russia the tank museum of Kubinka has a Hotchkiss tank in running condition, captured from 211. Panzerabteilung in the summer of 1944.
- Pascal Danjou, 2006, "Les Hotchkiss H35 Réarmés", Histoire de Guerre, Blindés et Matériel N°74, p. 81
- François Vauvillier, 2007, "Notre Cavalerie Mécanique à son Apogée le 10 Mai 1940", Histoire de Guerre, Blindés et Matériel, N° 75, p.49
- Philip Trewhitt, Armored Fighting Vehicles. Brown Packaging Books, 1999.
- Pierre Touzin, Les véhicules blindés français, 1900-1944. EPA, 1979.
- Jean-Gabriel Jeudy, Chars de France, E.T.A.I., 1997.
- Pascal Danjou, Hotchkiss H35 / H39, Editions du Barbotin, Ballainvilliers, 2006
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