Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

When someone tells that there was no successful French tank, especially in WWI - don't you believe him!

The Renault FT or Automitrailleuse à chenilles Renault FT modèle 1917, inexactly known as the FT-17 or FT17, was a French light tank; it is among the most revolutionary and influential tank designs in history. The FT was the first operational tank with an armament in a fully rotating turret, and its configuration with the turret on top, engine in the back and the driver in front became the conventional one, repeated in most tanks until today; at the time it was a revolutionary innovation, causing armour historian Steven Zaloga to describe the type as "the world's first modern tank".

Studies on the production of a new light tank were started in May 1916 by the famous car producer Louis Renault. The evidence strongly suggests that Renault himself drew up the preliminary design, being unconvinced that a sufficient power/weight ratio could be achieved for the medium tanks requested by the military. One of his most talented designers, Rodolphe Ernst-Metzmaier, prepared the final drawings.

Though the project was far more advanced than the two first French tanks about to enter production, the Schneider CA1 and the heavy St. Chamond, Renault had at first great trouble getting it accepted. Even after the first British use of tanks, on 15 September 1916, when the French people called for the deployment of their own chars, the production of the light tank was almost cancelled in favour of that of a superheavy tank (the later Char 2C). However, with the unwavering support of Brigadier General Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne (1860–1936), the "Father of the Tanks", and the successive French Commanders in Chief, who saw light tanks as a more feasible and realistic option, Renault was at last able to proceed with the design. However, competition with the Char 2C was to last until the very end of the war.

The prototype was slowly refined during the first half of 1917. Early production FTs were often plagued by radiator fan belt and cooling system problems, a characteristic that persisted throughout World War I. Only 84 were produced in 1917 but 2,697 were delivered before the end of the war. At least 3,177 were produced in total, perhaps more; some estimates go as high as 4,000 for all versions combined. However, 3,177 is the delivery total to the French Army; 514 were perhaps directly delivered to the U.S. Army and three to Italy - giving a probable total production number of 3,694.

The tanks had at first a round cast turret; later either an octagonal turret or an even later rounded turret of bent steel plate (called Berliet turret after one of the many coproducing factories). The latter two could carry a Puteaux SA 18 gun, or a 7.92 mm Hotchkiss machine gun. In the U.S., this tank was built on a licence as the Six Ton Tank Model 1917 (950 built, 64 before the end of the war).

There is a most persistent myth about the name of the tank: "FT" is often supposed to have meant Faible Tonnage, or, even more fanciful: Franchisseur de Tranchées (trench crosser). In reality, every Renault prototype was given a combination code; it just so happened it was the turn of "FT".

Another mythical name is "FT-18" for the guntank. A 1918 maintenance manual describes the FT as the Char d'Assault 18HP, a reference to the horsepower of the engine.

FTs captured and re-used by the Germans in World War II were re-designated Panzerkampfwagen FT 18. Either of these might have led to the confusion. Also in "FT 75 BS", the "BS" does not mean Batterie de Support but "Blockhaus Schneider", a reference to the short 75mm Schneider gun with which it was fitted.

The FT was widely used by the French and the US in the later stages of World War I, after 31 May 1918. It was cheap and well-suited for mass production. It reflected an emphasis on quantity, both on a tactical level: Estienne proposed to overwhelm the enemy defences by a "swarm" of light tanks, and on a geostrategic level: the Entente was thought to be able to gain the upper hand by outproducing the Central Powers. A goal was set of 12,260 to be manufactured (4,440 of which in the USA) before the end of 1919.

After the war, FTs were exported to many countries (Poland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Japan). As a result, FT tanks were used by most nations having armoured forces, invariably as their first tank type, including the United States. They took part in many later conflicts, such as the Russian Civil War, Polish-Soviet War, Chinese Civil War, Rif War and Spanish Civil War.

FT tanks were also used in the Second World War, among others in Poland, Finland, France and Kingdom of Yugoslavia, although they were completely obsolete by then. In 1940 the French army still had eight battalions equipped with 63 FTs each and three independent companies with ten each, for a total organic strength of 534, all with machine guns.

Many smaller units, partially raised after the invasion, also used the tank. This has given rise to the popular myth that the French had no modern equipment at all; in fact they had more modern tanks than the Germans; the French suffered from tactical and strategic weaknesses rather than from equipment deficiencies. When the German drive to the Channel cut off the best French units, as an expediency measure the complete French materiel reserve was sent to the front; this included 575 FTs. Earlier 115 sections of FT had been formed for airbase-defence. The Wehrmacht captured 1,704 FTs. A hundred were again used for airfield defence, about 650 for patrolling occupied Europe. Some of the tanks were also used by the Germans in 1944 for street-fighting in Paris. By this time they were hopelessly out of date.

Renault FT TSF fitted with propeller. Captured French tanks were used by the Luftwaffe as aerodrome snowblowers

The FT was the ancestor of a long line of French tanks: the FT Kégresse, the NC1, the NC2, the Char D1 and the Char D2. The Italians produced as their standard tank the FIAT 3000, a moderately close copy of the FT:

The Soviet Red Army captured fourteen burnt-out Renaults from White Russian forces, and rebuilt them at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory in 1920. The Soviets claimed to have originally manufactured these Russkiy Reno tanks, but they actually produced only one exact copy, named 'Freedom Fighter Comrade Lenin'. When Stalin began the arms race of the Thirties, the first completely Soviet-designed tank was the T-18, a derivation of the Renault with sprung suspension:

In all, the FT was used by Afghanistan, Belgium, Brazil, the Republic of China, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, France, Nazi Germany, Iran, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, the Russian White movement, the Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Two interesting variants:

And numerous attempts to mount a 75-mm howitzer or gun on this small platform:

More successful variant, the FT 75 BS with a howitzer in the turret:

FT meets the famous 75-mm Schneider gun:

Text: Wikipedia

Images: chars-francais.net, ww1drawings, myrideisme (US M1917 tank)

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Comment by lord_k on June 16, 2011 at 12:23pm
My pleasure, Jacob.
Comment by Jacob Savage on June 16, 2011 at 12:20pm
Even though the French did definitely have their problems, I must admit, I love this little Plunker of a tank! Thanks so much for doing an article on it!
Comment by Lejon Astray on June 14, 2011 at 8:05pm

When you consider the number of dead ends and out-right failures of early tank design, the FT-17 is a shining example getting things right.

As for the poor application of armored theory post war, they did have the disadvantage of having been victorious in  the Great War, and thinking themselves very clever indeed.

Comment by lord_k on June 14, 2011 at 5:08pm

List of French sins is long and homiletic. Let me name some:

  • they developed too many tank classes, often for political and/or economic reasons, beginning with the ill-fated St.Chamond;
  • they invested too much money and effort into their monstrous Char 2C project;
  • developing new tanks in the Interbellum they did not care to develop adequate engines - most of their AFVs came out underpowered;
  • and concentration, of course - or better to say, the total lack of it.
Comment by Leviathan on June 14, 2011 at 4:30pm
French were unfortunate in the fact that, after the war, they messed up tank doctrine, changing it too often, undermining mobility of their armoured forces and ignoring the principle of concentration.

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