The French-originated Hotchkiss H35 Light Tank was developed to fight alongside infantry units.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
Credit: Rear right side view of a Hotchkiss H35 light tank at rest
Like other powers of the 1930s sensing future regional unrest across Europe, the French enacted a modernization program of their military inventory. Among these modernization efforts was a move to upgrade the status of their armored corps. At this time, the French followed the understandably accepted practice of forming their infantry and cavalry elements as separate battlefield entities. However, this also was reflected in the period's tank design practices due to the speeds at which the two elements functioned apart from one another - infantry actions were less mobile whilst cavalry actions were, of course, faster in nature. This resulted in tracked vehicles designed specifically in support of either infantry or cavalry.
Such was the case in the design of the Hotchkiss H35 light tank. In 1933, a requirement for a light tank system weighing in at six tons and armored with up to 30mm of protection was filed. The light tank would be called upon to support the infantry and work in conjunction with the upcoming SOMUA S-35 cavalry tank. Three prototypes were contracted to the French firm Hotchkiss while other contractors were encouraged to submit proposals. Renault became one such competitor and unveiled a quick prototype to which French authorities shown a keen interest in. It was not until 1935 that Hotchkiss presented their first prototype for evaluation. The Hotchkiss design was more akin to the "tankettes" popularized in the 1920s and 1930s as small, two-man, turretless tracked vehicles for the budget-conscious military. A second similar design was unveiled and both were rejected amidst changing requirements which now stipulated armor protection no less than 40mm. A third prototype, this featuring a traversing turret and the required armor increase was offered and subsequently accepted by the French Army after extensive trails lasting until the middle of 1935. The French government placed an initial procurement contract numbering 200 examples in November to which the first serial production model was delivered on September 12th, though this in 1936. Follow-up orders were soon netted within time.
However, French Army officials soon found the Hotchkiss redesign to be too underpowered with serious steering issues particularly across uneven terrain. This steering issue was deemed unacceptable in the specific confines where working in conjunction with infantry formations were concerned. As such, the tank was formally rejected as an infantry support vehicle and instead offered to cavalry formations where it might find some use due to her inherent operating speeds. The French Army formally accepted the original Renault prototype (as the "R-35") for its infantry tank needs, leaving the Hotchkiss design to find new life with the cavalry corps as the "Char de Cavalerie 35H".
The 35H was of a conventional light tank design by 1930s standards. The series was crewed by two personnel made up of the driver, seated in the forward hull, and the tank commander, seated in the turret. One major negative in its design was the fact that the commander had to act as the gunner, making tactical decisions on-the-fly all the while having to reload, train and fire the main gun himself. Armament centered around a then-capable 37mm SA 18 main gun but this quickly proved useless against the tougher German tanks to come. The main gun was backed by a 7.5mm self-defense, anti-infantry Reibel type machine gun. The turret offered up full 360-degree traverse and sported rounded-edge, slab armor facings. The main gun protruded from the forward turret face but was very short in nature, coming out as far as the superstructure roof over the driver's head. The superstructure was integrated rather elegantly into the hull and sported sloped facings for some ballistics protection. The driver managed forward vision through a vision slit ahead of his position. The glacis plate was well sloped to the point of nearly being completely flat. Tracks were set to either hull side and consisted of three pairs of double-bogied, rubber-tired wheel units. The drive sprocket was set at the front portion of the tracks with the track idler at the rear near the engine compartment. Two track return rollers ran under the upper portion of each track. Suspension was managed by horizontal helical springs. Armor protection for the crew included 40mm thickness at the turret and 34mm thickness across portions of the hull. Power was supplied by a single Hotchkiss 1935, 6-cylinder gasoline engine delivering approximately 78 horsepower. This allowed for a top road speed of 17 miles per hour with an operational range equal to 80 miles, putting her on par with other similar light tank systems of her day.
It was only later that the French Army revised their stance on the 35H and introduced it alongside their infantry formations as the "H-35". However, tank output across France was forever a slow endeavor and numbers never rose to acceptable levels before the German invasion of France. After approximately 400 examples of the H-35 series had been produced, the type was more or less supplanted by the arrival of the improved "Char Leger Hotchkiss H-39" model in 1936. The H-39 sported a 120-horsepower engine in a revised hull and a longer barrel 37mm main gun of all-new design.
The H-35 was pressed into combat action in May of 1940 during the German invasion. While proving to be capable light tanks in their own right, French leadership were more often than not lacking in the tactical know-how to properly use their armored corps. The French learned little of the lightning-fast German battlefield concepts, which overwhelmed with massed armor. Instead, the French Army broke their armored forces down into groups and utilized them solely in support of infantry as opposed to the infantry supporting the tank units. As such, the French ground defense floundered (for other reasons as well) leading to the loss or capture of many capable H-35 systems to the Germans. Success of the H-35 was proven in a few instances where French tankers could make surprise, calibrated actions on unsuspecting invaders but these proved too rare to make much impact.
With all-out war on their hands, the Germans also recognized a good system when they saw one and were not shy about reconstituting even French hardware for their own use. The H-35 therefore became the "PzKpfW 35-H 734(f)" in the German Army inventory and were fielded with reserve units and garrison elements soon after, often times policing captured territories to free up more capable German light and medium tank systems elsewhere. Within time, the German Army found a need for make-shift anti-tank platforms and sought to remove the turret assemblies of some of their captured H-35 tanks, instead fitting them with anti-tank hardware. These end products proved handy for their mobile qualities and improved tank-killing prowess. Some German H-35 tanks were even placed into emergency service across the East Front once the invasion of the Soviet Union was underway and every tracked, armored system proved a valuable commodity to the German Army.
What H-35 tanks that did not fall into German hands were fighting for either the newly-founded Free French forces or the Nazi-backed Vichy French. Some saw combat in the North African Campaign in Syria during 1941. Regardless, the excellent light tank persevered until the end of the war despite seeing her numbers rapidly dwindle in the onslaught of better firepower and bigger tanks fielded by all sides. It was mostly the examples fighting in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East (some abandoned by Vichy French forces) that went on to see extended service lives even after the war. Some H-35 tanks served with the burgeoning Israeli Army up until 1956, seeing combat during the War of Independence - an excellent testament to their fine and useful design. In several ways, the H-35 served to provide these tankers with their first taste of armored warfare.
In all, some 400 35H/H-35 light tanks would be completed by war's end, making her an extremely rare find in any tank park today. In fact, only some 10 are known to be in existence anywhere in the world today.
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