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Near-useless Frenchman in Polish Service

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The Polish army had likely the worst armoured force out of any nation that built its own tanks. Most nations at the time followed the same route: purchases of something like the Renault FT, then attempts to create something original, sometimes accompanied by purchases of the Vickers Mk.E tank or Carden-Loyd tankette. Then by the end of the 1930s these nations were capable of producing original tanks. Interestingly enough, Poland went through all these steps. They had the Renault FT, they built their own tanks, had their own dealings with Vickers and even Christie. The result was quite unusual. The typical vehicles of the Polish army by September of 1939 were the 7TP and TK-S, upgraded Vickers Mk.E and Carden-Loyd Mk.VI respectively. These were good AFVs in their class, but obsolete by the start of the war. The volume of 7TP production also left much to be desired. They were made in tiny batches, the last of which was only delivered in 1939. As a result, the ambitions of Polish brass outgrew the abilities of Polish industry.

Tanks of the 21st BCL on the border with Hungary. Three of these tanks later ended up as a part of the Hungarian army.
The worst thing was that no replacement for the 7TP and TK-S were coming. There was an “improved 7TP” that Is often mistakenly called 9TP, but this tank was never built. This was a modernized tank with armour to resist light anti-tank cannons, but only a hull was completed. The PZInż 140 was a good reconnaissance tank designed to replace the TK-S, but it was never put into production. Trials took too long and the odds of ever making it into mass production were low. The convertible drive 10TP tank never made it past the experimental tank, although there were plans to produce a purely tracked variant with improved armour. The situation with medium tanks was even worse. Designs existed only on paper and no prototypes were expected until at least 1940. In short, there was neither a sufficient amount of tanks nor any concrete plans for a replacement.

One of the tanks that fell to the Romanians.

Polish brass understood their precarious situation quite well and explored the potential of buying tanks abroad. The only nation they could really turn to were the French. A commission led by Commodore Korchinsky arrived in France in early 1937. Here they inspected a new arrival in French tank building: the Renault R 35. The Poles didn’t like the tank since it was too cramped. The next time they met the Renault R 35 was in August of 1938 when a Polish commission tested a Char D2. This vehicle was much better received. It was clear that Poland desperately needed a medium tank. The same desire drove the attempt to buy the SOMUA S 35, but attempts to buy this relatively rare French tank ended in failure. As a result, there was nothing to buy but the Renault R 35. An agreement to deliver 100 tanks was signed in August of 1939. The total order would have been about 300 units but in reality only 50 were delivered. These are the tanks we will discuss.

The tank is marked with a circle, one of the tactical markings of the 21st Light Tank Brigade.

The numbers 50, 100, and 300 are easily explained. Poland wasn’t buying individual tanks, but tank units. The standard unit of the French army that used Renault R 35 tanks was a “new type” tank battalion numbering 45 vehicles. Poland was buying tanks by the battalion. The total purchase would have given then six tank battalions. They even had the same designation: BCL ((Bataillon de Chars Légers in French or, Batalion Czołgów Lekkich in Polish). This was a good deal and 300 tanks with shell-proof armour were nothing to scoff at. However, the French were hardly thrilled by their own tanks. Poland also may have known about this, since attempts were made to buy the Hotchkiss H 35 instead. Only 3 of these light cavalry tanks ended up in Poland.

The Romanians ended up with 34 French tanks.

The tanks were accepted on July 6th, 1939. On July 10th, 50 Renault R 35, 3 Hotchkiss H 35, ammunition, and some number of wheeled vehicles were loaded on a ship. They arrived in Gdansk, from where 46 tanks departed for the 21st BCL formed according to the French TO&E. This created some issues. The battalion studied French documentation, which was not translated very well. Another problem was that just over a month passed between delivery of the vehicles and the start of the war. There was not even enough time to photograph the vehicles, which is why the first photos were already taken during the war. The 21st BCL didn’t have time to distinguish themselves. They were training in the far rear and took off in the direction of the Romanian border once the Red Army began its Polish campaign. 12 tanks fell behind on the way. Some of them broke down, since the Poles hadn’t learned how to operate them very well yet. Three more (registration numbers 50947, 50971, 51004) ended up in Hungary where they were interred. They were later given numbers 1H-390, 1H-939, and 1H-394. The remaining 34 tanks went to Romania where they were interred along with the crews. The tanks remained in Romania, but the Poles made it to France. The second battalion’s tanks arrived in Galaca, Romania. Since there was no one to deliver the tanks to, they were soon moved to Lebanon.

Tank 50994, one of the two that was stolen by the 24th Light Tank Brigade’s raiding party. The tank served as a spare parts donor and was later studied at NII-48.

The only tanks of this type to see battle were the 4 that didn’t go to the 21st BCL. They were assigned to Lieutenant Jacubowicz’s joint tank company that went into battle on September 19th, 1939, near Krasne east of Rzeszow. The company didn’t achieve much and the tanks ended up in German hands. They were dumped at the disabled vehicle yard at Tomaszow-Lubelski. Knocked out and captured tanks of other types were also collected here. On October 6th, 1939, a party from the Soviet 24th Light Tank Brigade raided the yard, stealing at least two Renault R 35 tanks (registration numbers 50994 and 51009).

The second tank with serial number 51009. It was also stolen from Tomaszow-Lubelski.

The tanks had different fates. 50994 was more damaged and therefore used as a parts donor. In September of 1940 it was sent to Mariupol for study by NII-48. The tank was shot up by different weapons with a very strange result. The soft cast armour was found to be worse than Soviet 8S steel and Polish armour steel. The 7TP trialled here showed some of the best results among all foreign tanks. The rolled side armour gave spalling three calibers in size when shot. Many defects were discovered after shooting. The cast armour looked very neat, but in practice performed no better. The resilience of the armour was not consistent. The bolt connections were also criticised. Bolts connecting the right side and turret platform were torn off with one 45 mm shell hit. The 45 mm gun was guaranteed to penetrate the side of the tank from 300 meters, although satisfactory penetrations began even further off, from half a kilometre. Poor performance of the rolled plates allows one to estimate the quality of armour of Polish tanks. The excuse that this was a bad tank made specifically for Poland won’t fly since the tank was initially built in 1938 for the French army.

The tank was restored to running order.

Another tank with registration number 51009 lived a lot longer. It was delivered to the NIBT Proving Grounds alongside the aforementioned Renault R 35. It was already a little bit beat up by the time it was stolen, so it needed repairs. Some tanks were taken from 50994, some were of Soviet make. The tank was put back into running order and made a 25 kilometre long test run. This was enough to get first impressions. Soviet testers were as critical of the French suspension as their French colleagues. This is why Renault R 35 was replaced the the R 40 in production in 1940. Ironically, a portion of the R 40 went to Polish troops, and once again they did not have enough time to study their tanks before battle.

Layout diagram prepared by the NIBT Proving Grounds.

The tank was fully disassembled during repairs. A technical description was composed in parallel. The tank did not impress. The design of the hull assembled with bolts out of large cast components was considered interesting, but testers in Mariupol had their own opinion about this solution. Everything else was just bad, especially the suspension that made it completely impossible to aim while moving. The observation devices were also poor. These were early models, but it’s hard to say that later ones were much better.

The same tank in the summer of 1941.

The result of the trials was predictable. The only thing that was interesting was the casting, but in practice French casting was not very good and Soviet cast components were put together by welding, which was much more reliable. According to a decision made on April 7th, 1941, the tank with registration number 51009 (recorded as 1009) and hull #1232 was allocated to the museum. The tank was in running order, but it was recorded as category 3 (mobile, but in need of repairs). This was the condition of the tank until the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

The tank’s fate after this is unknown.

The tank’s history gets foggy after this. In September of 1941, the vehicle was included in a reference manual of German tanks. Balkenkreuze were painted on the side to make it more believable. The tank was not included by accident, as it was known even before the German invasion that they were using captured French tanks. The German army did operate the Renault R 35 in the USSR, although very few saw front line service. Romanian R 35s eventually also came to the USSR. These included former Polish tanks. As for 51009, its tracks were lost to time here.

The Renault R 35 currently displayed in Patriot Park is a different vehicle.

The Renault R 35 tank displayed in Patriot Park today is a mysterious vehicle. It’s likely a Pz.Kpfw.35R (f) but not exactly. At the very least, its commander’s cupola was never cut off. The tank could also be Romanian, but it’s not clear. At the moment it depicts a German vehicle. The tank is completely empty inside and the upper flap of the driver’s hatch was welded in upside down long before it arrived at Patriot Park. Either way, it’s an exhibit, and the only complete Renault R 35 in Russia. Maybe one day its history will be revealed.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok

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