The French Army in World War II

Light Mechanized Divisions 1931-40


The SOMUA S-35 cavalry tank (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

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Digesting the lessons of the First World War, the French Army concluded—with some reluctance and many caveats—that the days of horse cavalry were numbered. In 1931, therefore, the long process of mechanization of the cavalry began. The 4th Cavalry Division was selected for conversion and in 1935 the divisional elements that had so far been mechanized received a separate identity as the 1st Light Mechanized Division (1er Division Légères Mécanique or 1st DLM). At the beginning of the war there were two DLMs in the Army’s order of battle, with one more in process of formation.

The designation light for these divisions was something of a misnomer, denoting their ability to deploy rapidly rather than their size or equipment. In fact they were comparable to the German Army’s panzer division. The DLM embodied two brigades: one armored with two tank regiments and one mechanized with an armored reconnaissance regiment and a motorized infantry regiment. All regiments bore a cavalry identity, e.g. the infantry were dragons portés (motorized dragoons). The motorized artillery regiment had two battalions with 24 x 75mm field guns and one battalion with 12 x 105mm howitzers, plus a motorized antitank battery with 8 x 47mm AT guns and an antiaircraft battery with 6 x 25mm antiaircraft guns. There were also the usual divisional service units, all motorized: engineer, signal, transportation, supply and medical.

It had been intended to equip the regiments of the armored brigade with the SOUMA S-35 medium tank: an excellent design with good armor, armed with a high-velocity 47mm gun. But production bottlenecks made this impossible, and so each regiment had two squadrons equipped with the S-35 and two with the Hotchkiss H-35 infantry tank. The latter had good armor but its short-barreled, low-velocity 37mm gun was of limited effectiveness in the antitank role. Accordingly an improved design, designated H-39, entered production in 1939. It was armed with a new high-velocity 37mm gun, which was also retrofitted to many H-35s. By May 1940 the 1st and 2nd DLMs each had 48 x S-35 tanks and 47 x H-35 tanks—some of the latter retrofitted with the high-velocity 37mm gun. The 3rd DLM, which began forming in February 1940 received the H-39 in place of the H-35.

The Hotchkiss H-35 cavalry tank, armed with the original short-barreled 37mm gun (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

The reconnaissance regiment of the mechanized brigade was equipped with 48 x Panhard 178 armored cars armed with a 25mm gun. It was organized in two groups, each with one squadron of armored cars and one of motorcycle infantry. The motorized dragoon regiment had three battalions, each with an armored reconnaissance squadron, two motorized infantry squadrons, a motorcycle infantry squadron,  and a motorized heavy weapons squadron. The armored reconnaissance squadron was equipped with machine gun-armed AMR35 light tanks, scheduled to be replaced by H-39 tanks when available. (The reconnaissance regiment of the 3rd DLM received the H-39 in place of the AMR35.)

The DLM, therefore, had 95 x gun-armed medium tanks, 69 x machine gun-armed light tanks (164 x gun-armed tanks for the 3rd DLM) and 46 x gun-armed armored cars. By way of comparison the German 7th Panzer Division had 34 x Panzer I (machine guns) 68 x Panzer II (20mm gun), 91 x Panzer 38(t) (former Czech tank; 37mm gun) and 24 x Panzer IV (75mm gun)—and this was one of the better-equipped panzer divisions. Though the DLM had fewer gun-armed tanks, they were superior to the Panzer I and Panzer II, and the S-35 was superior to all of the German tanks except the Panzer IV. Even the DLMs’ armored cars with their 25mm gun could destroy the Panzer I and Panzer II.

As for artillery, the panzer divisions had a slight advantage over the DLM: All of the former had 24 x 105mm howitzers and some also had 12 x 155mm howitzers. On the other hand the DLM’s motorized dragoon brigade was stronger than the panzer divisions’ motorized infantry regiment.

The principal weak spot of the DLMs was a lack of radios for their tanks. Though squadron and company commanders had radio- equipped tanks for communication with higher headquarters, company and platoon commanders had to pass their orders by flag or hand signals. But every German tank was radio equipped, and this gave the panzers a decided advantage in a fast-moving engagement. Plans to equip all tanks of the DLMs with radios had been drawn up, but this program had barely gotten underway by May 1940. Moreover, the smaller crew size of the S-35—commander/gunner, loader/radio operator and driver—was less efficient than the four- or five-man crews of German medium tanks.

Motorcycle troops of a motorized dragoon battalion (Photo: Musée de l'Armée)

More serious was the French Army’s lack of a unified tactical/operational doctrine for the employment of armor. Unlike the German Army, in which all tanks belonged to a single arm of service—the Panzerwaffe—the French Army made a distinction between “cavalry” tanks (embodied in the DLM and the Division Légère de Cavalerie or light cavalry division) and “infantry” tanks (embodied in the Division Cuirassée or armored division and the Groupe de Bataillons de Chars or independent tank group). The two formations were differently organized and equipped, and had different missions. The DC was conceived as a breakthrough force, its heavy tanks supporting the infantry in the attack, while the DLM was conceived as a mobile exploitation force. The DLM and the DC were not intended to operate together and could not easily have done so, given their quite distinct characteristics.

The 1st and 2nd DLMs, which had been raised before the war, were well-trained regular units. The 3rd DLM, raised in early 1940 with mobilized reservists, was not so well trained but on the other hand it received the latest equipment. In the 1940 campaign the light mechanized divisions served in the First Army Group, fighting in Belgium and giving the good account of themselves. They proved to be a match for the panzers in a stand-up fight, and in retrospect it seems clear that the French Army made a great mistake by not providing itself with more of them. All three of these fine divisions were lost in the debacle suffered by the Allied armies in May. A number of DLMs were reconstituted and fought in the second stage of the campaign, but none exceeded the strength of a brigade.

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Organizational Diagrams


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