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The Schaar B1 was a French heavy tank manufactured before the Second World War. It had a crew of four and was well armoured for its time.
Development and production
The Schaar B1 had its origins in the concept of a Char de Bataille conceived by General Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne in the twenties. On 27 January 1926 it was decided to build three prototypes of a Schaar B, based on four earlier experimental vehicles (a FAMH-model, the FCM 21, the SRA and the SRB). Finished in 1930 these prototypes were again extensively altered to meet changes in specifications, outlining the concept of a Char de Manoeuvre. Neither Char de Bataille nor Char de Manoeuvre are official type designations; they refer to the tactical concepts only. The "B" in Schaar B does not refer to Bataille. On 6 April 1934 the first order was made for seven tanks of a Schaar B1. The "B1" refers to the fact that there were other simultaneous projects to develop improved types: the Schaar B2, B3 and B B.
The Schaar B1 was manufactured by several firms:Renault (182), AMX (47), FCM (72), FAMH (70) and Schneider (32). Although it was the main producer, Renault had not exclusively designed the tank. Therefore the official name was not Renault B1 as often erroneously given. It was a very expensive tank to build: the per unit cost was about 1.5 million French francs. In France at the time two schools of thought collided: the first wanted to build very strong heavy tanks, the other a lot of cheap light tanks. Both sides managed to influence procurement policy to the end that not enough tanks were built of either category, to the exasperation of men like Colonel Charles de Gaulle who wanted to build more of the medium Schaar D2, with a third of the cost of the Schaar B1 bis, but armed with the same 47 mm gun.
The outer appearance of the Schaar B1 reflected the fact that it was developed in the twenties: like the very first tank, the British Mark I tank of World War I fame, it still had large tracks going around the entire hull and large armour plates protecting the suspension — and like all tanks of that decade it had no welded or cast hull armour. The similarity resulted partly from the fact that the Char B1 was a specialised offensive weapon, a break-through tank optimised for punching a hole into strong defensive entrenchments, so it was designed with good trench-crossing capabilities. The French Army thought that dislodging the enemy from a key front sector would decide a campaign, and it prided itself on being the only army in the world having a sufficient number of adequately protected heavy tanks. The exploitation phase of a battle was seen as secondary and best carried out by controlled and methodical movement to ensure superiority in numbers, so for the heavy tanks also mobility was of secondary concern. Although the Schaar B1 had for the time of its conception a good speed, no serious efforts were made to improve it when much faster tanks appeared. More important than the limitations in tactical mobility though were those in strategic mobility. The low practical range implied the need to refuel very often, limiting its operational capabilities. This again implied that the armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were —despite their name that merely reflected the fact that they had originally been planned to be raised in a secondary mobilisation — not very effective as a mobile reserve and thus lacked strategic flexibility. They were not created to fulfill such a role in the first place, as was shown by their small organic artillery and infantry components.
Another explanation of the similarity lies in the original specification to create a self-propelled gun able to destroy enemy infantry and artillery. The main weapon of the tank was its 75 mm howitzer, and the entire design of the vehicle was directed to making this gun as effective as possible. When in the early thirties it became obvious the type also had to defeat counterattacking enemy armour, it was too late for a complete redesign. The standard cast APX-1 turret was added, that also equipped the Schaar D2. Like most French tanks of the period (the exception being the AMC 34 and AMC 35) the Schaar B thus had a small one-man turret. Today this is typically seen as one of their greatest flaws. The commander not only had to command the tank, but also to aim and load the gun. If he was a small unit leader, he had to command his other tanks as well. This is in contrast with the contemporary German, British and Soviet policy to use two or three-man turret crews, in which these duties were divided amongst several men. The other nations felt that the commander would otherwise be over-tasked and unable to perform any of his roles as well as the commanders of tanks with two or three-man turret crews.
Whether because of this the Schaar B was in actual combat less formidable on the battlefield than a review of its impressive statistics suggests, is difficult to ascertain. In 1940 the vast majority of Schaar B1 combat losses was inflicted by German artillery and anti-tank guns. In direct meetings with German tanks the Schaar B1 usually had the better of it, sometimes spectacularly so as when the Eure on 16 May frontally attacked and destroyed thirteen German tanks laying in ambush in Stonne, all of them Panzerkampfwagen III and Panzerkampfwagen IV's, in the course of a few minutes. The tank safely returned despite being hit 140 times. The question becomes even more complicated when we consider that the Schaar B1 was not a very typical French tank as it had two guns and a radio. An additional draw-back of French turret design was that their cast turrets had no hatch in the top, forcing the commander to fight buttoned-up, resulting in a poor situational awareness.
The reason the French favoured small turrets despite their shortcomings, was the fact that they allowed for much smaller and thus cheaper vehicles. Although the French tank expenditures were relatively larger than the German, France simply lacked the production capacity to build a sufficient number of even heavier tanks. The Schaar B1 was expensive enough as it was, eating up half of the infantry tank budget.
The original Schaar B1 had frontal and side armour up to 40 mm thick. The vehicle had a fully traversing APX1 turret with a 47 mm L/27.6 SA 34 gun. This had a poor anti-tank capability: the thirty APHE (Armour Piercing High Explosive) rounds among the fifty the tank carried had a maximum penetration of about 25 mm. In addition, it was armed with a 75 mm ABS 1929 SA 35 gun mounted in the right-hand side of the hull front and two 7.5 mm Châtellerault M 1931 machine guns: one in the hull and the other in the turret. The 75 mm L/17.1 gun, that could fire both a HE and the APHE Obus de rupture Modèle 1910M round, had a limited traverse of only one degree to the left or the right (about 18 metres at 500 m range). It was laid onto target by the driver (provided with the gun sight) through the Naeder hydraulic precision transmission. The traverse had only been made possible in order to precisely align the gun barrel with the sight beforehand. The 75 mm gun had its own loader — the remaining two crew members were the radio operator and the commander, who had to load, aim and fire the 47 mm gun while commanding the vehicle and in the case of platoon leaders other vehicles. The fighting compartment had the radio set on the left and an exit hatch in the right side. All vehicles had the ER53 radio telegraphy set, which used morse code only. A hatch in the rear bulkhead gave access to a corridor (under which nineteen 75 mm rounds out of a total of eighty were stowed) in the engine room to the right of the engine, which was officially rated at 250 hp, but had an actual output of 272 hp. Each tank had its own team of three mechanics; in battle some of these might join the regular crew.
The suspension was very complex with sixteen road wheels per side. There were three large central bogies, sprung by a vertical coil spring. Each central bogie carried two smaller ones. The three vertical springs moved through holes in a horizontal beam, to both extreme ends of which road wheels were attached by means of leaf springs: three at the front and one at the back. The high track run gave the tank an old fashioned look, reflecting its long development time. It had a maximum speed of 28 km/h and a weight of 28 metric tons. The range was about 200 km. A total of 34 vehicles were built from December 1935 until July 1937. They had series numbers 102 to 135. Chassis number 101 was kept apart to build the Schaar B1 ter prototype.
Schaar B1 bis
The Schaar B1 bis was an upgraded variant with thicker armour at 60 mm maximum (55 mm at the sides) and an APX4 turret with a longer-barrelled (L/32) 47 mm SA 35 gun, to give the tank a real anti-tank capacity. It was the main production type: from 8 April 1937 until June 1940 369 units were delivered out of a total order for 1144, with series numbers 201 to 569. Before the war manufacture was slow: only 129 had been delivered on 1 September 1939. The monthly delivery was still not more than fifteen in December; it peaked in March 1940 with 45.
The Schaar B1 bis had a top speed of 25 km/h provided by a 307 bhp petrol engine. The first batch of 35 Char B1 bis still had the original engine: from 1938 to May 1940 they were slowly re-equipped. Its weight was about 31.5 metric tons. The operational range was about 180 km: not much different from other tanks of the period, but if the tank wanted to travel at a decent — but for its engine inefficient — road speed of 20 km/h, it would deplete its three fuel tanks with a total capacity of 400 litres within six hours. At first trailers were towed with an 800 litres auxiliary fuel tank, but this practice was soon abandoned. Schaar B1 units therefore had a large organic component of fuel trucks and TRC Lorraine 37 L armoured tracked refuelling vehicles specially designed to quickly refuel this particular tank type. The last tanks to be produced in June had an extra internal 170 litres fuel tank. To cool the more powerful engine the Schaar B1 bis had the air intake on the left side enlarged. It is often claimed this formed a weak spot in the armour, based on a single incident on 16 May near Stonne where two German 37 mm PAK claimed to have knocked out three Schaar B1's by firing at the intakes at close range. Theoretically the air intake, which was a half foot thick assemblage through which horizontal slits first angled upward and then downward between 28 mm thick armour plates, should not be more vulnerable than the normal 55 mm side plates.
During the production run the type was slowly improved. Tanks number 306 to 340 carried 62 47 mm rounds (and the old complement of 4800 machine gun rounds); later tanks 72 and 5250. However the B1 bis had less 75 mm rounds compared to the B1 proper: 74 instead of eighty, normally only seven of which were APHE ammunition. Early 1940 another change was made when the ER53 was replaced by the ER51 which allowed spoken wireless communication. The company and battalion command tanks also had an ER55 to contact their superiors. The crews of the 1re DCR kept their old sets however, preferring them because the human voice was drowned by engine noise.
Schaar B1 ter
The Char B1 ter, with sloped and welded 70 mm armour, a weight of 36.6 metric tons and an engine of 350 hp was meant to replace the B1 bis to accelerate mass production from the summer of 1940. Cost was reduced by omitting the complex Neader transmission and giving the hull gun a traverse of ten degrees instead. Only two prototypes could be finished before the defeat of France. In May 1940 it was agreed to deliver nine Char B1's each month to Britain in exchange for a monthly British production of the "H 39".
The Char B1 served with the armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve. These were highly specialised offensive units, optimised to break through fortified enemy positions. The mobile phase of a battle was to be carried out by the armoured divisions of the Cavalry, equipped with the SOMUA S35. The First and Second DCR had 69 Char B1's each; the Third 68. The 37th Bataillon de Chars de Combat, serving with 1DCR, was at first equipped with the original B1; these vehicles were refitted with the longer SA 35 gun in the spring of 1940. The turret type designation was changed to APX1A. The battalion was re-equipped with the Char B1 bis and in May reinforced by five of the original tanks.
After the German invasion several ad hoc units were formed: the 4DCR with 52 Char B1's and five autonomous companies with in total 56 tanks: 12 B1's and 44 B1 bis. Also 28BCC was reconstituted with 34 tanks. The regular divisions destroyed quite a few German tanks, but lacked enough organic infantry and artillery to function as an effective mobile reserve. A number of Char B1's (161) were captured by the Nazis during the Fall of France. These were later pressed into service as second line and training vehicles under the name of Panzerkampfwagen B-2 740 (f). Sixty became platforms for flamethrowers as Flammwagen auf Panzerkampfwagen B-2 (f). Sixteen were converted into 105 mm self propelled artillery. One unit, Panzerabteilung 213, was equipped with the Char B1 bis and deployed on the Channel Islands from 1941 to 1945. One of their tanks is displayed by the Bovington Tank Museum, though repainted in French colours.
Today ten vehicles survive, one Char B1 and nine Char B1 bis.
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