The Renault Char D1 served the French Army for a time leading up to World War 2. Her origins and use lay in a World War 1 mentality and, by the time of the German invasion of France, the Char D1 was wholly outclassed by the speedy nature and technologically superior German machines. Of the systems that fought for the French mainland, more than half were lost to combat and over a dozen were captured. In the end, the Char D1 proved too heavy for use as a light tank and too expensive to produce in greater numbers than the war required. It was not long before the Char D1 was fully replaced in French Army service.
The Inter-War Years
During and after World War 1, many ground commanders still saw the value of a tank as nothing more than infantry support with the British leading the way in terms of development and tactics. The French fielded a few notable designs during the war and eventually produced the hugely successful Renault FT-17 series light tank. The diminutive system went on to be copied, license-produced and purchased by nearly every major world power of the time - including the Soviet Union and the United States. As such, the FT-17 was in large supply during the following post-war years and this success allowed France to boast the most modern and powerful armored force in the world.
The Renault NC1
The successes of the FT-17 ultimately showcased a period of complacency within the French government, allowing parties to sit on their laurels. Budgetary constraints soon worked well to hamper anything in the way of future tank development in France. When it came time to modernize its aging force, the French mind-set remained the same and called for a cheap-to-produce, light-class infantry support vehicle to work in conjunction with infantry divisions. Renault responded by evolving their NC1 prototype (from the 1923 "Renault NC" tank project) into the "Char D". The prototype was revised to include a 74 horsepower engine (up from a 65 horsepower system), reallocated exhaust pipes and a larger internal fuel tank for improved range. Ten pilot vehicles were delivered for testing which ultimately revealed some inherent design shortcomings but none of these proved detrimental to a French production commitment.
The Char D1
The end-product of the program became the most modern tank available across France at the time. She was heavier and more expensive than initially anticipated. As her ST1 turrets had yet to be cast, she was fitted with surplus FT-17 turrets instead. Once her ST1 turrets became available, these were rejected by the French military for their overly cramped interior. The Schneider firm submitted a pair of replacement turrets and the roomier ST2 series w selected - this serving to increase the vehicle's operating weight further.
Even while the D1 was still getting her legs under her, the French government contracted Renault to develop a pair of similar tank designs known under the designations of "Char D2" and "Char D3". In response, the base Char D was now assigned the official designation of "Char D1". Initial orders were placed on December 23rd, 1930, for seventy lead vehicles. Production began in 1931 and a follow-on order for thirty more vehicles was places on July 12th, 1932. On October 16th, 1933, an additional fifty were ordered. Production ran until 1935 to which some 160 total examples were ultimately delivered - a far cry from the thousands of FT-17 models delivered during wartime.
Char D1 Walk-Around
Design-wise, the Char D1 was conventional, even by today's standards. The engine was held at the rear of the hull with the crew compartment amidships and to the front (including the turret). The vehicle was manned by a crew of three personnel in a rather cramped setup. Power was delivered by way of a single Renault4-cylinder gasoline engine of 74 horsepower. Top speed was 12 miles per hour while range maxed out at 57 miles. Primary armament revolved around the SA34 47mm "Short" main gun mounted in a high-profile traversing turret. A pair of mle 1931 7.5mm machine guns served as anti-infantry defense, one fitted co-axially in the turret with the main gun and the other operated by the driver in a bow-mounted position. The Char D1 was developed at a time when tanks were still sporting a rather tallish profile and the D1 proved no exception, fitting her rounded turret atop a superstructure which, itself, was mounted atop the hull. A set of tracks straddled either side of the hull, uncovered across the top and partially hidden along the sides by armor skirts. Road wheels were fitted as pairs and suspension for these was by way of vertical springs. Vision ports were found along the superstructure and turret facings but vision proved less-than-stellar. Of note were three rectangular hinged access hatches along the glacis plate.
Despite her intended design as an infantry support vehicle, the Char D1 would never serve as such. Instead, she would be fielded as a fighting tank based on the developing situation and her modern qualities. Ongoing rearmament from neighboring Germany and the looming war clouds over all of Europe forced the Char D1 to operate as a frontline unit. Early production models left much to be desired when officially operated by army personnel and some were returned to the factory for desperate repairs - the Char D1 did little to endear itself to her crews.
By their peak usage, it was already decided to send the problematic Char D1's to French-held interests outside of the mainland. By 1937, they were in operation with French colonial forces in North Africa. By the May 1940 "Battle for France", some 43 Char D1s were recalled back to the mainland for the patriotic fight - Char D1s arrived in France by June of that year and formed up with the intended French defense. Of all the Char D1s placed into combat action during the ensuing battle, more than half were destroyed by the Germans and an additional 18 were captured. Captured Char D1s were placed back into service against their owners under the new German designation of Panzerkampfwagen 732(f). their combat role under the German banner is unclear.
Char D1s remaining in North Africa saw action following the events of Operation Torch. Operation Torch was the first major offensive invasion by the Allies and proved the first real baptism of fire for the Americans. Liberated French Char D1s were placed into the "Brigade Legere Mecanique" for the duration of their tenure until replaced by the improved Valentine infantry tank of British origin. Char D1 crews were credited with the destruction of at least one Panzer IV during the fighting at Kasserine Pass. Beyond this record, the combat legacy of the Char D1 was rather limited - perhaps for the better.
The Char D2
The Char D2 was already on the drawing boards by the time the Char D1 was ramping up. Prototypes were soon made available - these also with the FT-17 turret - but final production forms sported the APX-1 turret with heavier armor throughout. Armament remained the SA34 main gun with a pair of 7.5mm machine guns. Later models were known to be fitted with a "long" main gun version designated as the SA35. Externally, the Char D2 fielded a much-more modern design featuring a good blend of sharp angles and contoured curves. A large antenna stem protruded from the rear right corner of the superstructure. The glacis plate was more vertical than on the D1 and the driver's vision port could easily be identified. Mudguards now covered the track top facing. Only 100 of these tanks were ever produced.