Char Léger MLE.1935 R/ Renault R35 Light Infantry Tank

The Char Léger Renault R35 was the most numerous French infantry tank in 1940, but it was outclassed by most German tanks and was mainly used in infantry support units scattered along the entire front line.

In the 1930s the French Army decided to replace the increasingly obsolete Renault FT, in its time one of the best tanks of the First World War. In 1933 three categories of tanks were specified. Light tanks were originally to weigh 6 tons or less and be able to resist light anti-tank weapons. The weight limit was soon raised, but even the higher limit still restricted the competitors for this contract to two man tanks. The modified specifications of May 1934 were for an 8 ton tank (without crew and ammo), armed with either two 7.5 mm machine guns or one machine gun and a 37mm gun, 40mm armour, and a top speed of 15-20kph.

Renault responded with the Renault ZM of 1934, a two-man infantry support tank with 30mm armour (taken from the original 1933 specs).

The Renault ZM underwent trials early in 1935, and was ordered into production in July 1935 as the best of the 1933 programme light tanks.

Production versions of the tank were given 40mm armour, in response to the German introduction of a 37mm anti tank gun. The R35 was armed with a 37mm SA 18 gun, and powered by an 82hp Renault engine. It used Cletrac geared differential and brakes. Like the FT it only carried a crew of two, with the driver in the hull and the commander/ gunner/ loader in the turret. The cast APX-R turret had hand traverse gear only. Vision was provided by one visor and three periscopic binoculars in the turret walls.

Suspension was the same as on Renault AMR 1935 cavalry tanks, with 'scissors' horizontal coil springs. The R 35 had five road wheels on each side. All of them were carried on bell cranks. The front wheel was carried individually, the other four were carried in pairs (the 'scissors'). Horizontal rubber springs were mounted between the top of the bell cranks in the 'scissors', while the single front wheel got its own spring.

The driver sat on the left-hand side of the tank. The engine and transmission were on the right. The tank commander normally stood on the floor of the fighting compartment, but did have a seat that rotated with the turret. Access to the turret was via a door at the back of the turret. The engine was at the right-rear, behind a fire-proof partition, with the fuel tank at the left-rear.

In August 1936 the French government partially nationalised many of the large armament firms. Renault’s tank division became the Atelier de Construction d’Issy-les-Moulineaux, or AMX. One of the tasks carried out by the new concern was construction of the Renault R35.

The new industrial arrangement took time to have any impact, and at first production of the R35 was slow. The 500 tanks ordered in 1935 and 1936 weren’t completed until April 1938.

On 7 September 1936 General Gamelin’s four-year rearmament plan was accepted. This included the creation of fifty battalions equipped with the R35 and FCM-36 light tanks, intended to support the infantry.

In total eleven sizable orders were placed for the R35, although deliveries of the final five batches were never completed. In 1940 a new version of the tank, with improved suspension, entered production as the AMX 40 or AMX R40. 

Date

Number

Delivered

July 1935

300

March-September 1936

September 1936

200

December 1936-August 1937

September 1936

95

July 1937-June 1938

February 1937

205

March 1938-September 1939

May 1938

500

February 1939-January 1940

September 1938

110

January 1940-May 1940

September 1938

50

February 1940-June 1940 (not completed)

October 1938

100

January 1940-June 1940 (not completed)

December 1938

20

February 1940-June 1940 (not completed)

December 1938

20

February 1940-June 1940 (not completed)

March 1940

300

March 1940-June 1940 (not completed)

On 1 September 1939 the French army had 1,670 light tanks of the R35 and H35 types.

By May 1940 this had risen to 2,691 light tanks, a mix of the R35, AMX R40, H35 and H39.

By 1940 around 1,600 R35s had been produced, making it the most numerous French infantry tank when the Germans attacked. Most of them were allocated to the support battalions that were directly allocated to infantry units (810 tanks serving with the 1st to 9th Armies. Another 135 were serving with the newly formed 4th DCR (infantry armoured division), which used whatever tanks were available.

In combat the R35 proved to be rather ineffective. The two man layout made it difficult to operate. It was posted in small groups scattered along the entire French line and was almost always outnumbered by its German opponents at key moments. Its 37mm gun wasn't able to penetrate the armour of most German tanks. Those serving with the 4th DCR did take part in de Gaulle's attack on the German bridgehead over the Somme near Abbeville on 29 May, but after making some progress de Gaulle's tanks were stopped by mines and artillery and a lack of infantry support.

After the fall of France the Germans used the R35 with occupation units and at training units. About 200 were used as reconnaissance vehicles during the invasion of the Soviet Union, as the Pz Kpfw R35 (4,7cm). Later in the campaign many were pressed into service as artillery tractors or ammo carriers, as the Traktor or Munitionpanzer 35 R (f). These had their turrets removed.

Those tanks that remained in France were often split in two, with the turrets embedded in the Atlantic Wall and the hulls used to carry self-propelled artillery or anti-tank guns.

The R35 was also exported to Poland (50 tanks), Turkey (50 delivered), Romania (41 out of 200 delivered) and Yugoslavia (54 delivered).

Vichy France was allowed to keep twenty six R35s in North Africa and another 95 in Syria.

The tanks in Syria were made up of 39 tanks allocated to the 63e BCC and the 68e BCC, which was equipped with a battalion worth of tanks that were on their way to Poland when the country surrendered. These units were based in Beirut and Homs. They saw action against the British and Allied troops that invaded Syria in the summer of 1941.

Most of the tanks in North Africa were based in Morocco, where they briefly clashed with US troops during Operation Torch.

Names
Char Léger MLE.1935 R
Char Léger Renault R35
Renault R35

Stats
Production:
Hull Length: 4.20mm/ 13.77ft
Hull Width: 1.85mm/ 6.06ft
Height: 2.37mm/ 7.8ft
Crew: 2 (Commander/ gunner, driver)
Weight: 10 tonnes
Engine: 82bhp at 2,200rpm Renault 4 cylinder petrol engine
Max Speed: 20kph/ 12.4mph
Max Range: 140km/ 92 miles
Armament: 37mm SA 18 gun and one co-axial 7.5mm machine gun
Armour: 40mm max

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 February 2016), Char Léger MLE.1935 R/ Renault R35 Light Infantry Tank , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_char_renault_R35.html

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