The Buzz

France’s Monstrous Char B1 Tank Ate Hitler's Best Tanks for Breakfast

Once he had destroyed the entire company—11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs in all—Billotte continued his advance and added two 37-millimeter anti-tank guns to the tally. By 7:00 A.M., Stonne was back under French control and would remain so for the rest of the day. The same day, the tank Riquewhir would charge into a column of enemy infantry, its blood-stained tracks causing the German 64th Schutzen Regiment to panic and flee an entire sector of Stonne.

At five o’clock in the morning on May 16, 1940 a company of the 8th Panzer Regiment lay in an ambush position along a rubble-strewn street of the French town of Stonne. The day before, the unfortunate village had changed hands several times as French troops attempted to stem the tide of German armor headed toward the English channel, threatening to trap Allied forces in Belgium.

Three squadrons of Stuka dive bombers ravaged Stonne, as well as both French and German artillery. That morning, the Panzer IIIEs and IVDs—then the best tanks in German service—deployed to stave off a French counterattack.

Suddenly, a squat green tank lumbered around a street block directly before of the German unit. This was Eure, a 31.5-ton Char B1 bis tank commanded by Capt. Pierre Billotte. His driver, Sergeant Durupt, triggered the 75-millimeter howitzer fixed in the front hull roared, smashing the Panzer III to the rear of the column. At the same time, Billotte swiveled the smaller 47-millimeter high velocity cannon in the turret and picked off the lead tank—a mere 30 meters away.

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The wrecks trapped the Panzer company in a head-to-head confrontation with the Gaelic behemoth. 37-millimeter rounds cracked from the long barrels of Panzer III tanks and ricocheted off Eure’s turret. Low-velocity 75-millimeter shells made basso thuds as they spat out the stubby guns of Panzer IV tanks, only to shatter in clouds of shrapnel against the French tank’s glacis.

More than 140 shells cratered Eure’s armor—but none penetrated. Billotte coolly blasted one Panzer after another.

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Once he had destroyed the entire company—11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs in all—Billotte continued his advance and added two 37-millimeter anti-tank guns to the tally. By 7:00 A.M., Stonne was back under French control and would remain so for the rest of the day. The same day, the tank Riquewhir would charge into a column of enemy infantry, its blood-stained tracks causing the German 64th Schutzen Regiment to panic and flee an entire sector of Stonne.

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For the first time, the Wehrmacht had encountered a tank that completely that outmatched its own.

France will of course go down in history for being defeated by tanks in World War II, but it was not due to lacking tanks—the French army fielded nearly 4,000 tanks of more than a dozen different types, most of them well-armored. Rather, poor organization, confused doctrine and disastrous operational conduct defeated the French military.

The Char B1 was conceived only a few years after World War I as an infantry support tank with a heavy assault role. The “battle tank” would tackle enemy fortifications, artillery and tanks head-on, prevailing through superior firepower and armor. The slow heavies would punch holes allowing faster “cavalry tanks” to penetrate behind enemy lines.

The resulting design revealed its World War I-era pedigree with huge tracks as tall as the hull intended to ford trenches with ease—as well as its multiple cannon armament. A heavy 75-millimeter howitzer was fixed with only vertical traverse in the hull for blasting pillboxes. It was operated by the driver via a sophisticated Naeder hydraulic system for precise aiming, and serviced by a loader. Additionally, a small turret on top mounted a 47-millimeter gun for hunting tanks. There were also machine guns in the turret and hull for close defense against infantry.

It took nearly a decade and a half before the first B1 was ready to enter production in 1937. A short initial run of 35 Char B1s was quickly superseded by the B1 bis model, with higher-velocity SA35 47-millimeter gun for busting enemy tanks and a 300-horsepower engine. Most notably, the B1 bis boasted 55 to 60 millimeters of armor on all sides, leaving it virtually without major weak points. For comparison, the Panzer III and IV had only 20 to 35 millimeters of armor.

Despite completely overmatching its peers in firepower and armor, the B1 had major flaws. It could only achieve a maximum speed of 17 miles per hour while contemporaries typically averaged 25 miles per hour. The B1’s range of 110 miles wasn’t actually worse than that of German medium tanks, but it required tons more fuel. The French army even experimented with having the B1s tow extra fuel supplies in a trailer, then decided to rely on fuel trucks, which were vulnerable and in short supply.

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