Before World War 2, the nation of France was the world's second producer of combat tanks behind only the Soviet Union. However, the German invasion of France and subsequent years of war destroyed all manner of French pride, infrastructure and armored vehicle output. It was only after the liberation of Paris proper in 1944 that attention was quickly given to the re-establishment of serial tank production to promote France as a viable military power once again.
Major hurdles greeted such an initiative for French armored doctrine and design lacked much when compared to her contemporaries. Even before the war, few of the available French tanks were capable of matching the offensive doctrine of the German Army. Many of these were designed with the lessons learned from World War 1 and French armored warfare rules drove many of these designs to failure at the hands of the Germans - even the fabled Char B1 heavy tank series, one of the most powerful of its day but a riddled with tactical liabilities. Now with Germany cleared out of the French capital, attention was paid by to the formation of a new heavy tank design headed by specialists from APX and AMX with production to be handled by ARL. As such, the tank would be christened the "ARL 44" to mark both manufacturer and year. New concepts being proven throughout the war would be factored into the tank's design to make a more modern end-product.
In February of 1945, the design was fleshed out to dictate a heavy tank system of 48 tons, heavy sloped armor measuring some 120mm thick and a proven large-caliber main gun in a traversing turret. By May of 1945, the war in Europe had drawn to a close and the Empire of Japan collapsed in August to bring about an end to World War 2 altogether. Regardless of the world situation, the French heavy tank program continued with whatever resources could be obtained. The French government commissioned for sixty ARL 44 heavy tanks and work began on pilot vehicles required to prove the ARL product sound. ACL produced the turret, which initially mounted an American 76mm main gun - available in some number by this stage in the post-war world. While this selection of main gun was adequate by then-modern standards, it severely lacked the penetrative powers of other guns being fielded by the Germans, Soviets and the British. As such, a new turret - this based on the Schneider Char F1-type turret - was installed to mount a more potent 90mm DCA45 main gun. The 90mm DCA main gun was, in fact, based on a naval warship anti-aircraft cannon and packed a greater punch than that of the American 75mm. The selection of the 90mm armament delayed development of the required turret, thusly delaying the ARL 44 program in whole. Key to the success of the ARL 44 was to be its selection of powerplant. As war-torn France - and its aching military industry - still reeled from the German occupation, it was decided to use captured German Maybach gasoline-fueled engines. Armor was 120mm at its thickest and the tank would be crewed by five personnel - a driver, commander, gunner, loader and machine gunner/radio operator - with point defense handled by a pair of MAC31 Chatellerault machine guns. With the main armament now finalized, the initial pilot vehicle was rolled out for formal evaluations in March of 1946. The French concerns of FAMH and Renault were also tabbed with production of hulls beginning in 1946.
Externally, the ARL 44's design was more akin to a tank design of the 1920s and 1930s than a modern post-war initiative. The design was characterized by its multi-wheeled, long-running track systems straddling either side of the sharp-lined hull. The turret was set at amidships an sported a long-barreled 90mm main gun system capped by a single-baffled muzzle brake. The turret featured slightly sloped sides with an overhang at the rear facing for improved internal space. As completed, the vehicle weighed in at 55 tons and was given a 35.5 foot running length, an 11.6 foot width and a 10.5 foot height. Power was supplied by a single Maybach HL 230 series gasoline-fueled engine of 575 horsepower, yielding a top vehicle speed of 35 kmh and an operational range of approximately 350 kilometers. The vehicle utilized a vertical spring coil suspension system which limited top speed and cross-country qualities.
The delay in turret design and develop led to delays in actual turret production even though plenty of ARL 44 hulls had been readied within time (these ending up in storage for the time being). The first ARL 44 hull did not have its turret installed until 1949 by which time the French ARL 44 concept was evermore obsolete by world standards. As such, serial production of the type was severely limited despite the need for a capable indigenous fighting vehicle. The ARL 44 led a short and rather uneventful existence in the history of armored warfare and made an appearance in 1951 on parade to celebrate Bastille Day. By 1953, all sixty ARL 44 Heavy Tanks were retired from French Army service, these being directly replaced by the American M47 Patton series of medium tanks from America - being offered on free lease to Allies in Europe with the arrival of the M48 Pattons. Nevertheless, both French engineers and heavy industry took away valuable lessons learned in her design, development and construction - forging a new direction in French Cold War tank design for decades to come.
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