And If France Had Not Fallen? Weapons of the French Army and Air Force After 1940
The Battle of France is often presented as the ending period of a teleological evolution of France, although in the context of the Second World War it is passed over as almost a side note in popular conception. But at the time it was a shocking defeat, one greatly unexpected. This raises the question : how would things have been different if the French hadn't fallen? A general strategic answer points out that the French and British would have probably eventually won and defeated the Germans. But along the way the French would have greatly changed and upgraded their military. This article refers to the military equipment that France was in the process of procuring and developing in 1940, and which would have been either dramatically expanded in utilization and production, or entered into service of the war with Germany had continued.
Infantry Weapons and Small Arms
French infantry had a deficit in direct, organic firepower, compared to their German counterparts in 1940. Reservists, snipers, grenadiers, and certain colonial units carried old Lebel rifles, but the main weapon was the Berthier, a solid if unspectacular carbine. The new MAS-36, a very good bolt action rifle, had been introduced recently but at "only" a few hundred thousand examples produced did not arm more than part of the army. The German lead in machine gun firepower and had better finished updating their bolt action rifle complements with a more uniform allotment. A variety of French measures were intended to close the gap.
One of the principal changes which was intended for French infantry was the introduction of a semi-automatic rifle, giving French infantry a firepower advantage over their bolt-action rifle equipped German counterparts. France had had a long record with semi-automatic rifles, being the only power to deploy them in large quantities in the Great War with the RSC 1917, and the Meunier rifle which had been intended to be a standard issue semi-automatic rifle before the Great War broke out. This continued after the war, and the French had long intended to have a semi-automatic rifle for their troops. This appeared with the MAS-40, supposedly equivalent to the M1 Garand. It had high parts commonality with the MAS-36, which was supposed to be a bolt-action rifle for rear-area troops. It was being tested and some initial distribution to troops happening in 1940, but the defeat of France prevented this. While the Germans would still enjoy a superiority in machine gun firepower (the French had a slightly greater total number of machine guns, but much of this was composed of light machine guns with fixed barrels and without belts, which were capable of less firepower than the German MG34 universal machine guns that had both) at least the French would have an important advantage in rifles, just like American troops against the Germans historically.
50 mm mle 37 MAC mortars were supposed to replace rifle greandes (the French had a great obsession with rifle grenades) at the platoon level. They had much greater range, at 695 meters compared to 80-170 meters (rifles) and 145-215 meters (carbines). Furthermore their light mass meant they could be carried essentially in the same fashion as a rifle, and they had a good rate of fire. These 50 mm mortars served in the Vichy army later.
HEAT anti-tank rifle grenades were in the process of being developed and deployed. These had ranges of around 100 meters and armor penetration of 40 mm, which would make them effective against German tanks in 1940. It was later used by the Vichy army and had some role in the development of the US M9 AT rifle grenade.
120mm mortars were another development (essentially the M1938 mortar used by the Soviets, the Soviets based it on the French one), and were to be provided for regimental fire support. Theoretically every French regiment would have 2 of them. It weighed 240 kilograms in firing position, 350 kilograms in march, had a range of more than 7 kilometers, and fired 13 and 15 kilogram shells, with a rate of fire of 6-12 rounds per minute. The French lacked heavily in mortars and other fire support for their infantry compared to the Germans, having significantly fewer mortars and no infantry guns. The introduction of a 120mm mortar would have gone some way to fixing this.
For transporting the infantry, the French were introducing the VBCP 39L, improving on the Lorraine 38L to provide a mechanized personnel carrier. The Lorraine 38L was a tracked personnel carrier, but relied upon towing a trailer with troops in it. By contrast, the VBCP 39L looks very much the picture of a modern mechanized troop transport, for the French dragons portés (French mechanized cavalry).
France had a very sophisticated set of anti-tank guns in 1940, with a mix of 25 mm, 47 mm, and 75 mm anti-tank guns. Their new introductions were in line with increasing tank protection which necessitated increasing anti-tank firepower. Combined with an increase in the guns which they already had, to fill out units with insufficient guns, and the French anti-tank capability would much improve.
The French had an excellent 47 mm mle. 1937 anti-tank gun, capable of piercing any tank on the battlefield in 1940 at long range, while still being mobile and with a low profile. Penetration figures might be incorrect for it, but some French army trials showed it with 106 mm of penetration at 100 meters at 0 degrees. German trials gave it 57 mm at 100 meters at a slope of 30 degrees from vertical, which was quite comparable to their own 5cm Pak 38. Regardless, by the standards of 1940, this made it a very powerful anti-tank gun, capable of penetrating all tanks on the battlefield. The Germans used it as a captured gun, including against the French to stop the French Char B1s. These 47mm anti-tank guns were to to receive a new carriage with the 47mm SA39 TAZ, with 360 traverse and a higher towing speed.
75 mm L/53 Mle. 1939 gun with TAZ mount with 360 degree traverse was another French anti-tank gun. It shared a barrel a barrel with the French L/53 75mm anti-aircraft gun. It would probably have been assigned to the divisional anti-tank batteries with the artillery regiments, while the divisional anti-tank companies were expanded and filled out with 47mm guns, although this is purely speculation. The French had used 75 mm guns based on the Canon de 75 mle. 97, due to an absence of sufficiently large numbers of 47 mm guns. These performed reasonably well in their role although they were much heavier than the smaller 47 mm guns, with a larger profile, and produced more smoke when firing, and had a lower muzzle velocity which made aiming them harder. But the 75 mm as a dedicated anti-tank gun would have corrected this, providing an extremely powerful anti-tank gun, especially when equipped with advanced new anti-tank munitions which the French were developing.
The French had advanced sub-caliber munitions for their 37, 75, 155 and 203mm (the last two being for the navy) guns, which gave good performance, but would require valuable tungsten. Also they had a 29mm squeeze bore AT gun for mountain units and airborne companies, which was light and had reasonable penetration of 56mm /30 degrees @ 400 meters. but required tungsten as well. Thankfully, the French had access to the world's markets, and so would probably have been able to acquire as much tungsten as needed. Historically tungsten was a vicious battle between the Allies and the Germans, particularly over Spanish and Portuguese supplies; but without a German conquest of France there would have been much less opportunity for the Germans to gain control of supplies.
The French were sorely lacking in anti-aircraft guns. A previous post of mine covers this.
- The Weaknesses of the French Army in 1940
France's 1940 army was a more powerful force than it is as remembered as, but also suffered from serious shortcomings.
There were a large number of 75mm cannons, but light anti-aircraft guns were marginal in numbers at best. Medium anti-aircraft guns were lacking heavily. There were only a few automatic 37mm guns, only used in small numbers by the navy and in the defense of Paris. However, 40mm Bofors production was being set up in France, while the French 37mm L/48 mle. 1935 (some documents give it as having had a length of 70 calibers, rather than 48 calibers) had finally been deployed by the French navy, and the Canon de 37mm Mle1930 was being deployed as well, in the defense of Paris as mentioned. Around 20 of them had been supplies as of May 10. Thus, light and medium anti-aircraft guns would have risen greatly.
There were also heavy anti-aircraft guns. The French had already had a 90mm anti-aircraft gun, the Canon CA 90mm mle. 1939, which was used in defending Paris and was capable of being utilized in direct anti-tank fire. 130mm anti-aircraft guns were used on ships, but supposed to be deployed on land eventually.
- Weaknesses of the French Air Force in 1940
For those interested, I have also written an article about problems plaguing the French Air Force in 1940.
Beyond any changes in actual air force strength, one of the most important developments which would have occurred for French fighters was the introduction of effective radar and air control. Historically in 1940 the French were plagued by an incapability to command the fighters they had, to respond to German raids, and to mass their forces. French fighters sent out on patrols to intercept German aircraft could do nothing else than simply fly a sortie along the sky and hope that they encountered a German fighter unit: a good intercept rate would be akin to 30 to 40% of the time the enemy being encountered. By contrast, during the Battle of Britain, the British radar and most importantly the integrated air control system meant that the British were able to achieve rates as high as 100% of intercepts being successful - every time they went out a fighter sortie, it found the enemy. There was some indigenous French radar development for air search radar, which would be put to use such as an example being deployed on the French battleship Richelieu for the defense of the Dakar, but the British had also set up radar stations in France. These historically were not very useful as they lacked the sophisticated air command network that was needed to really make use of them, but with additional time French air defense would have grown much more effective at being able to use the aircraft they had.
The D.551 was a racing adaption of the French D.520, equipped with a more powerful 1,100 horsepower engine, which might have reached around 650 kilometers per hour with x1 20mm cannon in the nose and x6 7.5 mm guns, or x3 20m cannons and x4 7.5 mm guns. This would have made it a fast and well armed aircraft, retaining as well the characteristic range of the D.520 series. Other projects for the D.520 had included a floatplane variant, which might have been useful for the French Navy.
Similarly, the French light fighter program had given fruit to the VG 33 series. Built largely of wood and equipped with x1 20mm cannon and x4 7.5mm machine guns, a large variety of different engines were projected for the aircraft, ranging from 860 horsepower to 1,600 horsepower and even the British Merlin engine.
Another French aircraft was the Bloch 150. This was a sturdy aircraft and a good gun platform, but it had a variety of problems, not the least of which was being underpowered. Such a difficulty would certainly not have been a problem for the later Bloch 157 equipped with a 1,700 horsepower engine. Unfortunately speed is difficult to actually tell for this aircraft, as its supposed 710 kilometer per hour top speed is probably an error made in conversion of its numbers. However, even in the corrected form at around 620 kilometers as an estimate, it would have made for a fast, sturdy, and powerful fighter : the D.520 might be compared to the Mustang, but the MB.157 to an Fw-190 or Thunderbolt!
The SNCASE SE.100 was a new French heavy fighter, with 2 1,080 horsepower engines that provided a fast 580 kilometer per hour speed, equivalent to the BF-109 E and Spitfire, and enabled it to carry up to x6 20mm forward firing guns, x2 20mm in dorsal and x2 20mm ventral turrets
Presumably other significant improvements would have been an increase in the number of pilots available, and in spare parts supplies. French pilots were highly competent and effective in 1940, but the French air force had a shortage of them. Another year would have gone some way to correcting this. Spare parts were another crippling problem for French air strength in 1940, and even delivered planes might lack crucial elements like gun sights, defensive machine guns, bomb sights, radios, or even spare propellers! Another year to sort out the French aeronautical industry would have done much to resolve these problems.
It must be mentioned that by 1940 the French had a good selection of medium bomber designs already, in the form of the Amiot 354 and the LeO 51, as well as the Breguet 693 which appeared a capable close air support aircraft, and the fast MB.175 reconnaissance-bomber. Their problems were not designs, but rather lack of the aircraft designs that they already had. Thus, the French were in little need of additional medium bomber designs, with the main projects being different engine set ups for their medium bombers, such as using imported American or British engines, or more powerful engines of their own. In addition, the French had large import programs, for Martin 167-F level light bombers, DB-7s (the later A-20 Havoc, principally intended as a bomber), and possibly even the B-24 Liberator. Some of the French aircraft that were significant enough to possibly have a major change in the future of the war are listed below.
The LN.42 was development of the French LN.401 naval dive bomber. It dispensed with the inverted gull wing design of the LN.401, and provided a 1,000 horsepower engine instead of the original 690 horsepower engine, thus yielding better speed and payload. It would probably a good dive bomber, if the concept was continued with, although given the heavy losses that French dive bombers suffered in 1940 and the limited interest which the Western powers had displayed in the concept for land operations, it might not have been.
SNCAC NC.150 was a high altitude twin-engined bomber with supercharged engines, high speed. If adopted it might have made for a plane able to overly the Germans with little possibility of being intercepted, although from such altitude its accuracy against ground targets would be abysmal.
The MB.162 was strategic bomber, which had some defensive cannons (x2 20mms, in addition to x2 7.5mm machine guns) a long range, and a payload of up to 3,600 kilograms, but most importantly it importantly was very fast, at 550 kilometers per hour. Bomber losses correlate sharply with speed: the faster the plane, the lower the casualties. Whether there would be any need for it though, in the context of a purely Franco-German war, is perhaps doubtful: there would be little need for strategic bombardment. Furthermore the French had considered buying American B-24 Liberators, which would provide an alternate capacity for strategic bombers.
There were some twin-engined carrier craft as well, for the new French carriers of the Joffre-class.
France used armored cars extensive in 1940, attaching them in large numbers as reconnaissance aspects in various armored units. French armored cars were for the time, quite the advanced and capable type with their mainstay Panhard 178, equipped with good anti-tank armament (the French 25 mm anti-tank gun was mounted on the Panhard 178, which meant that its anti-tank capacity would be sufficient to kill any German tank in 1940, although admittedly it would struggle at longer range), a two-man turret and a four-man crew overall, and a top speed of 72 kilometers per hour, effectively making it into a more combat capable vehicle than most French tanks!
A Panhard 178 with a 47mm cannon was one development that sought to further improve the French armored car park. The normal Panhard 178 armored car, it progressed with a new turret which could mount a 47 mm gun instead of a 25 mm gun. The need for greater firepower had become clear as the 1940 campaign continued.
The Panhard 201 was a truly bizarre French armored car, only a 2 man crew, an oscillating turret , 37mm high velocity gun, 60 mm arrmor, and supposedly 80 kilometers per hour speed despite only having an 85 horsepower engine on 9 tons. It possessed a low profile as well, with a height of but 1.8 meters. It had 8 wheels. The French ordered 600, for delivery by 1942... the order being filed on May 1. Naturally, they did not see combat. Given the their 1 man turret, they probably would have run into severe difficulties, but the concept was a promising one which was the precursor of the post-war Panhard EBR.
Another armored car entering into service would be the AM Gendron Somua 39, a light armored car equipped with a 25mm gun and a 7.5mm machine gun.
French in 1940 had more tanks than Germany. There are often debates over their relative quality, but while in my opinion the idea that the French tanks were superior in quality ignores various drawbacks in their design, they were nevertheless formidable and equivalent to their German counterparts. Some of the French planned improvements for their tanks were evolutionary, such as the Somua S40, or the upgrades with the Hotchkiss H39 from the H35 which provided a more powerful engine and armament as well as various other projects such as radios, and there were also similar mobility and armament improvements for the Renault R35. But some of the more interesting changes were new vehicles which the French were considering introducing.
The pride of the French tank fleet was the Char B1, which was a heavy tank (technically a battle tank and not the real heavy tank, which would be a superheavy tank design). Already having been improved from the B1 standard to the B1 bis, alongside constant small modifications, the B1 bis was to be improved to the B1 ter heavy tank. It would be a B1 with a cheaper transmission, replacing the extremely precise but costly Nader transmission, a more powerful engine at 350 horsepower engine, 75mm armor with sloped panels on the side, a 2 man turret (although some controversy exists over this, the turret ring was to be expanded), 5 man crew (with a mechanic), and a traverse on the main 75mm gun of 10 degrees. Three of the examples of the tank were sunk in 1940 when being evacuated on a ship. Although the concept of a hull gun and turret was a dead end, by the standards of any 1940 and 1941 battlefield, it would have remained a potent vehicle.
The Somua S40 was an improved version of the Somua S35 with better suspension, a more powerful engine, a new turret, lowered hull, welded turret (combined with the hull to decrease cost and improve armor homogeneity), and later programs had included more turret armor. During the war the French had a 3-man turret proposal for it, and one with a 75mm gun (SARL 42). Presumably if the war had continued the French would have placed greater focus on producing them than lighter vehicles which proved relatively ineffectual.
SAu 40 self-propelled gun, utilizing a 75mm gun mounted in a casemate as an assault gun, but principally designed for indirect fire. There was as well the ARL 40/ARL V39 based on BDR G1B (a proposed medium tank design which was rejected for the Renault G1R) hull for another SPG, serving the same function, with the SAu 40 being used by the cavalry and the ARL V39 being used by the infantry.
Most impressive of the French designs was the Renault G1R, which was a Renault competitor in the French program for a medium tank. Various proposals exist for its development as there is some confusion, but in optimistic ones it would have seen a 32-35 ton tank, with a 400 horsepower engine, 75mm l/29 gun, good armor and some neat technological features like a rangefinder and two-axis gun stabilization.
There was as a heavy tank project the Char B40 with a 40-45 ton tank with a 47mm SA 37 (higher velocity than the SA 35 at 855 meters per second) in a turret and a 105mm howitzer in the hull, later replaced with a 75mm gun in a three man turret in response to combat experience in 1940.
Famous, perhaps for its impracticality, was the FCM F1, with two turrets, one mounting a 47mm gun and the other a 90mm gun, 6 machine guns, a weight of 140 tons, 100-120mm armor, a length of over 10 meters, crew of 9, and an 1,100 horsepower engine. Supposedly the French eventually planned for 2 of these vehicles to be produced per month, but it seems likely that they would have realized how impractical such a design is.
The French created the radio-controlled breeching vehicles that later became the German Goliath. These were the Engin Ks, vehicle Ps, and a proposed Renault FT 17 guided demolition tank.
© 2017 Ryan Thomas