The FCM 36 was one of three primary tank designs adopted by the French Army during the mid-1930s, prior to its formal commitment in World War 2 - the other two becoming the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35. Design work, to a French Army specification, began in 1933 with the program goal to produce a low-cost combat vehicle intended for the infantry support role (hence known as an "infantry tank"). The type would be well-armored and well-armed with a 37mm cannon main gun within a traversing turret while featuring a two-man crew. Several competing designs were entertained before the Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranee (FCM) proposal was selected to join the Hotchkiss and Renault submissions. FCM already held experience in production of Char 2C Super Heavy and Char B1 Heavy tanks prior and utilized their knowledge in the development and production of their "FCM 36" series.
After evaluation, the prototype proved limiting in several key areas. Its operational weight proved heavier than requested and her overall speed was decidedly slower than anticipated. The prototype also lacked cannon armament which was a necessity on the modern battlefield. The suspension system proved weak under normal operating stresses. As such, the design was reworked with a new, reinforced suspension system, lighter armor protection with decreased operational weight, a 37mm L/21 SA-18 series cannon fitted in the turret alongside a 7.5mm coaxial machine gun and a bolt-on panel over the engine compartment for quick access in maintaining and repairing. After further testing, the original armor thickness of 30mm was ordered increased to 40mm by way of welded-on 10mm armor plates - this addition allowed the new tank very good protection values by 1930s standard. French Army authorities granted the type adoption in July of 1936 with the designation "FCM 36" assigned. Its formal designation was "Char leger Modele 1936 FCM". 100 initial vehicles were ordered by the French War Ministry as war clouds loomed over Europe amidst Hitler's rise to power and consolidation of the government and military.
The FCM 36 joined the Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35 light tanks in the French Army inventory during 1935-1936. While the competitors proved relatively inexpensive to produce compared to the FCM 36, the FCM product held long-term promise to French authorities and additional experiments were run through the chassis even as serial production was underway. A follow up order for 100 more FCM 36 vehicles was made on May 12th, 1938 and this, itself, was then followed by another 100 unit production order on February 3rd, 1939. Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939 and officially began World War 2 and, within time, France was drawn into world war all over again.
The legacy of the FCM 36 was one of an average tank design limited by ongoing labor issues and a preexisting commitment by FCM to produce the Char B1. This forced manufacture of FCM-36 vehicles to stall to the point that French authorities then cancelled further production of the series in full with only the original 100 examples completed by the time of the German invasion of France in May of 1940.
The Battle of France lasted 1 month and 12 days, from May 10th to June 22nd before the French government capitulation that saved Paris from destruction. Prior to the invasion, the FCM 36 stocked the French 4e and 7e tank battalions with 50 vehicles apiece. After the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939, the two battalions were consolidated under the banner of the 503e French Second Army reserve. The FCM 36's most notable moment would be in attempting to counter the growing German presence at a bridgehead being set up along the Meuse River at Sedan. As the two sides met, initial results for FCM 36 crews were promising as their 37mm main guns dealt with the lightly-armored German vehicles adequately. However, the arrival of the Panzerkampfwagen III Medium Tank proved a match for the FCM 36 and her crews and losses began to mount on the French side. Despite their better armor protection, FCM 36s soon fell to the German guns and subsequent attacks involving FCM 36 examples fared no better in the weeks that followed. It was only when FCM 36 units were sent to engage lesser foes did the system prove capable - but World War 2 would become a war of tanks.
With the fall of France, roughly 50 FCM 36 examples remained in operational service (some having been fitted with the slightly improved 37mm L/33 SA-38 gun by then). The Germans took control of 37 remaining systems to help bolster their forces around France and assigned these vehicles the designation of "Panzerkampfwagen 737 FCM(f)" - "f" used to indicate their French origins. These vehicles were fielded "as-is" under normal German tank units up until 1943 when the war need dictated that the chassis be used to support "Marder I" tank destroyer production. Ten chassis were modified as such. Another twelve were then used to become the 10.5cm leFH 16/18 (Sf) auf Geschuetzwagen self-propelled gun (SPG) conversion.
The FCM 36 was a case study of a complicated product rushed into war for the French. The vehicle never entirely worked out its defects, some of which were apparent from the start. The vehicle was slow and French armor doctrine proved poor when compared to the Germans. The FCM 36 was eventually under-gunned and under-powered by the late-1930s and all of the listed factors eventually ensured a rather swift end.
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Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranee (FCM) - France Manufacturer(s)
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