The mechanical beast which appeared out of French tank factories towards the end of the First World War remains the largest operational tank ever seen, but if ever there was a physical example to go with the phrase, size isn’t everything, it was the Char 2C – sometimes referred to as the FCM 2C.
This heavy tank was absolutely colossal and yet it lumbered painfully with a low-power output that made cross-country travel a nightmare. Perhaps because of this, it was never actually used in combat and some say that it was simply a propaganda tool to showcase the might of the French Army – there’s a phrase you don’t hear too often.
If you’re looking for the best tank of all time, then you’ve come to the wrong video. If you’re looking for a gargantuan lump of metal with two engines, plenty of guns, a weight equal to 10 elephants and an inability to move quickly – then you’ve come to the right place. This is the Char 2C – the largest tank ever to rumble into operation.
During World War II, tanks were utilized to devastating effect, but in World War I, things were much more rudimentary. It was of course the first war in which this mechanical cavalry first appeared but the early examples often came with more problems than benefits.
The first tank was the British ‘Little Willie’ which began rolling off the production line on 6th September 1915 and went on to become the Mark 1, which fought for the first time during the Battle of the Somme on 15th September 1916.
These were far from great tanks. Many of them broke down, some of them got stuck in bomb craters, but a few managed to get all the way to the German lines – 9 of 32 to be exact. Their debut had been patchy, to say the least, but it proved to be the starting gun of a tank building race that would continue until the end of the war – and well beyond.
While the British may have pioneered the tank, it was the French who had built more than any other country by the end of the war, but again, the numbers don’t tell the true story. The French tank industry, especially during the early days, was made up of numerous competing production lines that resulted in a much more fragmented setup than in Britain.
This, combined with a general lack of understanding by military officers regarding the design and construction of tanks, meant that the first French tanks were poor. The Char Schneider CA was the first out of the gates and suffered terribly from reliability and mobility issues. The second French tank, which wasn’t ordered by the military and instead appeared thanks to France’s powerful military lobby, was the heavy Char St Chamond, which came with a 75 mm gun (2.9 inches) – a size that remained the largest tank gun until 1941 – and a petro-electrical transmission, which in theory should have provided an easier steering experience, but had been rushed through development and was quite clearly not ready – and certainly not for the battlefield.
Char 2C Development
To begin the story of the Char 2C, we need to backtrack a little. While the French had been aware that the British were developing a prototype tank, the effect it had taken them by surprise. By the time the Mark 1 appeared on the battlefield, the bloody Battle of the Somme had been ongoing for a few months and already the casualty rate was beyond anything ever seen. The swagger that the British and French forces once possessed was well and truly gone and public morale back home was beginning to crumble.
Tanks were suddenly seen as the new hope – even though as I’ve already mentioned they were often little more than lumbering mechanical oafs at the time – but the public didn’t necessarily know that. Fearing that they would fall behind, General Léon Augustin Jean Marie Mourret, the Subsecretary of Artillery at the time, began looking into the state of France’s own tank development – or near lack of it as he quickly discovered.
In desperation, Mourret turned to Renault to assist the tank builders at the Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) – a shipbuilding company pressed into service to build tanks. Renault might seem a strange choice, but the car manufacturer had already submitted several proposals to build a heavy tracked mortar which had all been rejected but was already well underway with designing and building one of the most revolutionary tanks of the war, the Renault FT.
When Mourret placed an order for a prototype on 20th October 1916 nobody was quite sure what would appear. To make things even more complicated for the production team, Anglo-Franco rivalry meant that the French were just itching to build a tank that was bigger and better than their British chums across the channel.
Luckily for the French, the team at Renault were quite remarkable and while they had been developing the Renault FT, several workers had set aside time to begin developing the basic concepts of a heavy tank. So when Mourret came a calling, the principals had already been set out.
On 13th January 1917, Subsecretary of State of Inventions Jules-Louis Breton visited the factory and was presented with a wooden mock-up of what would go on to be the Char 2C, which he took an immediate shine to and presented the design to the Consultative Committee of the Assault Artillery on 16th and 17th January 1917.
Difference of Opinions
By this time, the design for the Char 2C was one of several under consideration. The Renault FT, a light tank, was already making waves in the military. Commanders, and in particular Brigadier Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, were hugely impressed with its manoeuvrability and felt that French production should be concentrated on these, rather than the far larger, but unreliable heavy tanks.
Mourret completely disagreed and actively tried to slow production of the Renault FT in favour of the Char 2C. So on one side you had seasoned military commanders backing the light tanks and on the other, you had politicians with murky connections to the powerful industrial lobby championing these next-generation heavy tanks.
But as is often the case, the politicians got the final say and under Mouret’s instructions, three separate prototypes were ordered,
The lightest was the “A” version, weighing thirty tons and with a length of 6.92 metres (22.7 ft). The design also included a suspension with twenty-nine double road wheels, four main bogies and five top rollers, which would all be powered by two Renault 200 hp engines and would carry a 75 mm (2.9 inches) gun
The “B” version was larger at forty-five tons and also longer at 7.39 metres (24.2 ft). It too would have a 75 mm gun (2.9 inches), but also an additional two machine guns. Its suspension had thirty road wheels, five main bogies and six top rollers, powered by a new 380 hp engine and a petro-hydraulic transmission.
Lastly, the “C” version weighed 62 tons and had a length of 9.31 meters (30.5ft). The suspension came with forty-five road wheels, six main bogies and nine top rollers, along with four engines of 110 hp combined with a petro-electrical transmission. It would have also come with a 75 mm (2.9 inches) gun.
But all of these options seem to have a detrimental effect on the whole project. France was in the middle of the most serious war it had ever fought but personal rivalries and grievances, along with a frantic rush to get these heavy tanks into the battlefield, slowed the entire process. The first engagement using French tanks, the Nivelle Offensive on 16th April 1917 had been an abject failure and called into question the entire dogma surrounding the use of tanks on the battlefield. Production across all models was halted, then restarted discreetly by Mouret while his boss was away, an act of insubordination which promptly got him fired.
The following year saw a quite unbelievable level of bureaucracy as the entire project stalled, fell over, got back up and stumbled drunkenly forward. The public was clamouring for these heavy tanks, but the politicians fought bitterly over versions, numbers, armaments and just about everything you can imagine. Delay followed delay, but finally, an order for the first Char 2Cs materialized – but by that point, they weren’t even needed.
The Char 2C
The irony that the largest tank ever built was ready almost exactly around the time the First World War ended was certainly not lost on many. In the blackest of comedic moves, the order for the long-awaited Char 2Cs was cancelled – then restarted just a few years later, with 10 of the tanks finally appearing in 1921.
Technically speaking, what rolled out of the factory was the world’s first, and still only, operational super-heavy tank – a term used to describe a tank that has been purposely made much heavier than other tanks during the same period.
And it was a true giant, weighing in at 69 tons with a length of 10.372 metres (33.7 ft), a width of 2.95 metres (9.6ft) and a height of 3.8 metres (12.4ft). It carried the thickest armour ever seen at that point with 30 mm (1.1 inches) at the front, 22 mm (0.8 inches) at the sides, 13 mm (0.5 inches) at the top and 10 mm (0.3 inches) underneath. In the early 1930s, the frontal body armour was beefed up even further to 45 mm (1.7 inches).
The vast beast came with two separate fighting compartments, the main turret and the second at the back with a Hotchkiss 8 mm (0.3 inches) gun. The main turret could accommodate three people and houses a shortened 75 mm (2.9 inches) field gun of the Canon de 75 modèle 1897 type. The tanks came with three additional 8 mm (0.3 inches) machine gun positions, one at each side and one to the right of the driver at the front, that would be used to fend off infantry assaults.
The Char 2C was the first tank to use dual engines, one for each track via an electrical transmission. The first engines used were the Chenu type with 210 hp but in 1923 these were changed to the German 6 cylinder 200 hp Mercedes engines which brought a giddy top speed of 12km/h (7.4mph). The engines were located on the right and left-hand side of the tank with a corridor running between them used by two mechanics needed to constantly maintain these delicate machines. It also came with seven fuel tanks and could carry a combined 1,260 litres (332 gallons) of petrol which gave it a range of 150 kilometres (93.2 miles).
The Char 2C had a crew of twelve: driver, commander, gunner, loader, four machine gunners, mechanic, electrician, assistant-electrician/mechanic and a radio operator.
This tank appeared at precisely the wrong time. While they no doubt seemed quite impressive in the early 1920s, the 1930s saw their stock plummet. The French began developing significantly better tanks and while they couldn’t compete with the Char 2Cs in terms of size, military confidence in them was always far greater.
With the outbreak of World War II creeping closer in 1939, the ten tanks were assigned a unit – the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. No doubt to galvanise public support, the tanks were given names that corresponded to the names of the ancient regions of France, so the tanks became, Poitou; Provence; Picardie; Alsace; Bretagne; Touraine; Anjou; Normandie; Berry and Champagne.
The clumsy propaganda got even worse when instead of participating in actual fighting, the tanks were involved in highly patriotic films, leaving the French public in no doubt that these super tanks would soon hurl Adolf back across the Rhine never to be seen again. But the truth was very, very different. French commanders knew full well that the Char 2Cs would stand little chance against the German Panzer tanks and they ordered them to be kept well clear of the fighting.
If you’re hoping for some kind of defiant final stand taken by the ten Char 2Cs, I’m sorry to say but this is certainly not that story. When the Germans breached the French lines on 10th June 1940 and began streaming across the country, the decision was taken to evacuate the tanks southwards out of harm’s way.
Two of the tanks didn’t even make the train journey and were destroyed while the rest made a frantic – and less than heroic for a tank – escape south to evade the incoming Nazis. After a series of stops, the escapees came across the fiery remains of a train that was blocking their path. With no hope of continuing their journey, the quite unbelievable, and yet probably completely practical decision was taken to destroy the remaining tanks.
The crews set a series of charges and in an instant, the pride and joy of France were completely obliterated. Well, almost. It appears as if one tank, Champagne, survived relatively intact and was later taken to Berlin with the Nazis parroting to the world that the Luftwaffe had destroyed these mighty French tanks. The truth, however, was far more inglorious than anybody knew. The sad tale of the French super-heavy tank ended without a whimper or even a single shot fired in combat.
An Ignominious End
So there you have it. The largest operational tank ever built was never even used in combat and suffered a truly humiliating end as the French government desperately tried to preserve these gargantuan machines.
The truth is, had they been sent into battle against a Panzer division, it would have been an absolute blood bath. This was a tank that never found its time or its place in this world and was instead used as a bungled propaganda tool which probably raised French hopes far higher than they ever should have been. With the Germans pouring through France, many must have wondered why their glorious super tanks weren’t present to halt the Nazi charge. Had they known they were fleeing on board a train heading south away from the fighting, French morale would probably have been a whole lot worse.