Post-WWII French Tank Development


The ARL-44, first postwar French tank, conceived during the occupation by a clandestine team. Only a few were built, kept in service for ten years or so.


The AMX-30 (here a B2) was France’s Main Battle Tank from 1965 to the arrival of the Leclerc in the 1990s. More than 3500 were built and it was also exported to many other countries and built under licence by Spain. There is still 17B2s kept for training today, and some derivatives like the ARV are still partly in service.

In contrast to the continuity of tank development in Britain and the other major participants in the Second World War, their development in France was interrupted by the defeat of 1940 and was only resumed four years later. However, even before the whole of France was liberated, its government decided that it should produce a tank more powerful than the US built M4 Shermans with which the re-created French armoured divisions, of which there were three, were equipped at the time.

The development of such a tank began before the end of 1944 from the basis of clandestine studies pursued under the German occupation, and the first was built in 1946 at the the Atelier de Rueil arsenal, after which it was designated ARL 44. Production of 600 was planned, but only 60 were actually built between 1947 and 1949. One tank regiment was equipped with them in 1950, but their service life was short as they did not prove entirely satisfactory, being a mixture of new and old components rapidly put together. The former consisted of an adaptation of a 90mm anti-aircraft gun, which made the 50-tonne ARL 44 well armed while the latter were exemplified by the obsolete type of running gear that resembled that of the Char B of the 1930s and made ARL 44 look distinctly old fashioned. Nevertheless, ARL 44 served to restart French tank industry as a char de transition.

The stopgap nature of ARL 44 was emphasized by the fact that even before the first was built, development began of a much more modern and powerful tank, the AMX 50. Work on it started two months before the end of the war and it was incorporated in the French Army’s post-war re-equipment programme. It was included in the latter as the only type of battle tank and represented therefore an advance on the policies pursued by the Soviet, US and British armies, which did not give up dividing their tanks between medium and heavy categories for several more years.

The design of AMX 50 was heavily influenced by the German Panther and Tiger II tanks and was aimed at a tank that was as mobile as the Panther and at least as well armed as the Tiger. It even incorporated components, such as the engine and transmission, developed for one or the other of the two German tanks and it could draw on further experience with the Panthers, as from about 1946 to 1950 one French tank regiment was equipped with them. However, AMX 50 incorporated at least one major novelty in the shape of an oscillating or trunion mounted turret. Unlike conventional one-piece turrets, this consisted of two parts, the upper being mounted on trunions in the lower part and with the gun mounting fixed to it, so that the gun was elevated or depressed with it. This greatly simplified gun sights and made possible the installation of a relatively simple automatic loading system in the turret bustle, since there was no relative movement between it and the gun mounting.

The first prototype of AMX 50, which was completed in 1949, was armed with a 90mm gun comparable to the 88mm gun of Tiger II, but a year later both this and a second prototype were re-armed with 100mm guns. Then, in 1951, it was decided to arm AMX 50 with a 120mm gun, and one of the three prototypes that had been built by then was re-armed with a gun of this calibre capable of firing the same ammunition as the US M103 heavy tank. Two more prototypes armed with 120mm guns were built after this, one of which was much more heavily armoured and consequently weighed 70 instead of the 59 tonnes of the standard version.

Production of about 100 was envisaged, but by the mid-1950s the development of AMX 50 was abandoned, mainly for financial reasons. In addition, enthusiasm for very heavy tanks of its kind had waned as the value of their heavy armour was reduced by the development of shaped charge weapons, and the French Army began to receive several hundred M47 tanks under US military aid programmes. As a result of this, from 1952 onwards the M47 replaced the M4 Sherman tanks with which French armoured forces were still equipped, although by then their M4 tanks were of the improved type armed with 76 instead of the original 75mm guns.

Although AMX 50 was abandoned, its original features, namely the oscillating turret and bustle autoloader, were perpetuated in the AMX 13 light tank that was also developed as part of the French Army’s post-war re-equipment programme. AMX 13 was conceived in 1946 as a well-armed air-transportable light tank that could be flown, when required, in the projected Cormoran transport aircraft to French overseas territories. As it happens, Cormoran was never built and the idea of deploying AMX 13 by air was not very realistic, but its combination of gun power with light weight made it one of the outstanding tanks of the 1950s. Its 75mm gun was actually as powerful as that of the German Panther and yet its weight was only 14.5 tonnes instead of 43, and thanks to its autoloader, which contained two six-round magazines, it was operated by a crew of three instead of five.

The first prototype of AMX 13 was completed in 1949 and the second a year later, when it was sent for trials in the United States, where its turret attracted considerable interest and later inspired the design of experimental tanks with similar turrets. Its production was launched in 1950 with US financial support and led to the first 23 being completed in the early part of 1952, which was a remarkable achievement, all the more so in view of the state of the French industry after the ravages of the Second World War and the novel features incorporated in the AMX 13.

As soon as it appeared, AMX 13 attracted worldwide attention and during the following two decades it was procured by a dozen different countries, the first being Switzerland, which ordered 200 even before it began to come off the production line. Eventually, the total produced for the French and other armies reached 2,800 tanks.

Sixty AMX 13s were obtained in 1955 by Israel and were successfully used by it during the 1956 Suez campaign but when used again 11 years later during the Six Day War it was found that their 75mm guns could not defeat the armour of Soviet-built T-54 tanks, which the Egyptian Army had by then acquired. The French Army had already considered in 1954 the possibility of replacing the 75mm gun of AMX 13, which still fired the traditional full calibre armour-piercing projectiles, with a more effective 105mm gun that fired the newly developed Obus G – a projectile with a shaped charge mounted on ball bearings within the shell that prevented it being degraded by the spin imparted to the shell by the rifling of the gun. A prototype armed with the 105mm gun was built in 1958, but the French Army did not adopt this version of the AMX 13. However, it was taken up by the Netherlands Army, for which it began to be produced in 1963, and it was subsequently also procured by Ecuador as well as Argentina and Peru.

For its part, the French Army decided in 1964 to re-arm its AMX 13 with a new 90mm gun firing fin-stabilized shaped charge projectiles. In that form AMX 13 was allocated to mechanized infantry units to augment their anti-tank capabilities, while those of the armoured units were increased by the allocation to each tank regiment of a squadron or company of AMX 13s with four SS-11 anti-tank guided missiles mounted on the front of their turrets, which constituted the first if rather crude use of guided missiles as tank armament.

Some of the AMX 13s re-armed with 90mm guns were used by the French Army until 1987, but others, still armed with the original 75 or 105mm guns, continued to be used into the 21st century by other armies, including those of Indonesia and Singapore, which became their largest scale users. In addition, the most important feature of the AMX 13, which was its oscillating turret with an automatically loaded gun, was perpetuated by the SK 105 Kurassier produced in Austria.

Kurassier was developed as a result of the peace treaty imposed on Austria after the Second World War, which among other things banned it from acquiring anti-tank guided missiles and made the Austrian Army look for alternative ways of improving its anti-tank capabilities. This led to a decision to develop a ‘tank destroyer’ by mounting the turret of the AMX 13 with its 105mm gun on a much modified chassis of an armoured personnel carrier already being produced in Austria by the Saurer company. Development of the resulting 17.7-tonne SK 105 Kurassier began in 1965, and the first pre-production vehicles were delivered four years later. By that time the Saurer company was taken over by the Steyr-Daimler-Puch company, which produced 286 Kurassiers for the Austrian Army. More were produced for Tunisia, Morocco, Argentina, Bolivia and Botswana, and as late as 2000 17 Kurasiers were ordered by the Brazilian Marine Corps, which brought the total produced to about 700 tanks.

When production of the Kurassier was under way, Steyr began to consider arming it with a more powerful gun than the one it inherited from the AMX 13 and prompted Rheinmetall to develop a low recoil force version of the widely used 105mm L7 tank gun. This was fitted with a muzzle brake and provided with recoil travel twice as long as that of the standard gun, which reduced the recoil force to one third of what it was and made the gun compatible with a tank as light as the Kurassier. A low recoil force gun was consequently installed in a prototype of a new SK 105 A3 version of the Kurassier, which was built by1988 but which was not put into production. However, Rheinmetall’s development of the low recoil force 105mm gun inspired the construction during the 1980s and 1990s of several experimental light tanks armed with similar guns.

In the meantime the French Army had acquired another type of tank. This originated with an agreement reached in 1957 between France and Germany to develop a standard European tank. The agreement led to a specification that envisaged a tank of 30 tonnes armed with a 105mm gun and a decision to build prototypes based on each country’s design. The prototypes were subjected to competitive trials in 1961 and 1962 but in 1963 each country decided to produce its own design, which in the case of France became the AMX 30.

The first two were completed in 1965 and they were followed by quantity production, which led to the entry of AMX 30 into service in 1967, when it began to displace the US-built M47 tanks that until then formed the principal equipment of French armoured units. Production continued until 1977, by which time 1,084 were built for the French Army. More than 600 were also built for Saudi Arabia, Greece, Venezuela and other Arab and South American countries, and 399 more were built under licence in Spain.

AMX 30 weighed 36 tonnes, which made it lighter than the Soviet T-54, but it was less well armoured. In contrast to AMX 50 and AMX 13, it had a conventional instead of an oscillating turret, the advantages of which came to be considered outweighed by its greater weight and the difficulty of sealing it against radioactive dust and airborne chemical agents as well as against water during submerged crossing of rivers. The turret mounted a 105mm gun rifled gun firing Obus G that could perforate the armour of contemporary battle tanks and that was more accurate at long range than the fin-stabilized shaped charge or HEAT ammunition developed in the United States. But it was expensive to produce and AMX 30 was not provided with any kinetic energy armour-piercing ammunition, in particular with APDS, because this was considered unnecessary and required rifling with more twist than that adopted to suit Obus G.

In service the transmission of AMX 30 proved troublesome, and this and other problems led to an improved version that incorporated a new transmission and an integrated fire control system with a laser instead of an optical rangefinder. Moreover, its gun was provided with APFSDS ammunition fired with a muzzle velocity of 1,525m/s, which was being recognized as the most effective type of anti-armour ammunition. The first of the improved AMX 30 B2 was delivered in 1982 out of a total of 166 newly built tanks, while previously built tanks were gradually brought up to B2 standard.

To improve their protection, particularly against shaped charge weapons, some AMX 30 B2s were fitted in the mid-1990s with explosive reactive armour, which involved the installation of 112 ERA cassettes and an increase in weight of 1.7 tonnes. However, this improvement was confined to the tanks of only one regiment, which were designated AMX 30 B2 Brenus.

A very different attempt to improve the effectiveness of the AMX 30 was made several years earlier, when it was fitted with a new turret mounting a short-barrelled 142mm gun launcher that fired ACRA anti-tank guided missiles as well as fin-stabilized multi-purpose projectiles. This was comparable to the contemporary development of the M60A2 with the 152mm gun launcher in the United States, but the ACRA missile was basically superior to the US Shillelagh missile as it used laser beam riding guidance instead of command-to-line-of-sight guidance. However, development of the ACRA missile and the 142mm gun launcher was abandoned in 1972 because of their complexity and cost as well as the advances in the accuracy of gun systems, which made them less attractive as tank armament than they appeared when their development started in the mid-1960s. A similar conclusion was reached in the United States but not apparently in the Soviet Union.

While work on converting AMX 30 into AMX 30 B2 was still under way, studies began in 1975 of the possibility of further improvements to its design and this led to AMX 32, which was aimed at the export market. It was similar to AMX 30 B2 but for a number of improvements, the most important of which was more effective spaced armour instead of solid steel armour, which increased its weight to 38 tonnes. The first prototype was completed in 1979 and three more were built in 1986, but AMX 32 was not adopted by any army.

The same fate befell a further development of AMX 30 for export, which was designated AMX 40. Its principal features were a 120mm smooth bore gun, which fired APFSDS ammunition similar to that of the guns already adopted for the German Leopard 2 and US M1 tanks, and a more powerful 1,100hp engine that more than compensated for an increase in weight to 43 tonnes. But, for all its gun power and increased agility, AMX 40 did not advance beyond four prototypes built between 1983 and 1985. However, it served to advance French tank technology beyond that of the AMX 30 and in some respects paved the way for the next French tank, although the latter represented a much greater advance.

Studies of the next tank were initiated in 1975 and included a critical analysis of the future role of tanks, which reaffirmed their position as the engin principal de combat or EPC. To explore the range of possibilities, in 1977 four different designs were produced of a tank of about 40 tonnes with a three-man crew and an automatically loaded 120mm smooth bore gun mounted in different turrets on front and rear engined chassis. But two years later French and German authorities entered into discussions about the development of a common tank, which came to be called Tank 90 or Napoleon. This led to two years of further studies at the end of which the two countries parted company again, largely because the proposed tank would have little French content.

As a result, more studies were carried out for a purely French tank which included designs with overhead gun installations and the crew located in the hull. But in the end the choice already made in 1983 was confirmed. This amounted to a tank of 56 tonnes with a conventional configuration but with a two-man turret and a bustle autoloader with 22 rounds. Its design was finalized in l986, when it was called Leclerc, and the first of six prototypes was completed three years later.

Production of the Leclerc resulted in the commencement of its deliveries to the French Army in 1992 and continued until 2006, when 406 were completed. A year after the first Leclerc was delivered to the French Army it was also adopted by the United Arab Emirates, which ordered 388. Tanks ordered by UAE differed from the French Army version in being powered by MTU MT 883 diesels of 1,500hp instead of the SACM V8X of the same power. The former was the most successful of the turbo-charged diesels developed for tanks since the 1970s and was as compact as the latter, which was more complicated, incorporating as it did the Hyperbar supercharging system that was comparable to the addition of a small gas turbine, and which consumed significantly more fuel.

Both versions of the Leclerc enjoyed the advantage over other contemporary Western tanks of having an automatic loading system, particularly when it came to firing on the move. Their autoloader could also accommodate a wider range of ammunition than the carousel-type autoloaders of the Soviet tanks, including projectiles with longer penetrators. They could also accept larger calibre ammunition. This was demonstrated in 1996 when, as a result of earlier decisions that a 140mm gun might be necessary to defeat future enemy tanks, a Leclerc was successfully modified to mount a gun of this calibre, even to the extent of containing the same number of rounds in its autoloader as the standard 120mm gun version.

The inherent advantage of the Leclerc in this respect was not exploited, as the change in the political situation resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the need for 140mm guns. Instead, Giat Industries (now Nexter), the manufacturers of Leclerc, addressed the problem of tank operation in urban areas brought out by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This led to improvements to Leclerc in all-round observation and protection, particularly against attack at close quarters, or in what were called Actions en Zone Urbaine, AZUR.

The number of Leclerc tanks retained by the French Army was also reduced to 208 as a result of the changes in the political situation, which represented the strength of its remaining four tank regiments.


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