While France fell quickly to Germany after the invasion of Belgium in 1940, there were pockets of troops that proved French technology and martial prowess, including the crew of a Char B1 tank that slaughtered an entire German Panzer company while shrugging off 140 enemy rounds.
A French Char B1 tank in running condition at the Saumur Tank
For France, the hostilities technically began in September, 1939, when they declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. But September to the following May is referred to as the “Phony War” because of the small amount of fighting that actually happened.
There were some battles, though, including a 1939 armored advance past the Maginot Line where some of France’s newest tanks, B1 Chars, proved themselves to be nearly invincible. They had thick, sloped armor over their entire body and a turret which German tanks simply had no means of penetrating — except at point-blank range.
The foray past the Maginot Line was short-lived, however. Not all of the French forces were impervious to damage, and the generals saw an attack against massed German forces as a waste of men and resources while the war was so limited.
A German soldier inspects an abandoned French B1 Char tank. The things were near unkillable by German armor, but suffered from a huge need for fuel during combat.
And so widespread deployment of the B1, of which France had manufactured almost 800, was limited until the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. Even then, the B1s were generally held in reserve unless it was clear they were needed because their exorbitant cost and huge fuel consumption made it risky and costly to send them out.
But when they encountered German units, they were devastating. They could only be killed by a group of Panzers working together to get the 75mm gun on a Panzer IV into close range, or by coordination with Stuka dive bombers and German artillery.
German artillery crews had the power to punch through French Char B1 tanks, but they needed someone to tell them where the enemy was.
And that takes us to May, 1940, when German forces invaded through the Ardennes Forest and other fronts into France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Allied forces expecting the first thrust to come in through Belgium rushed there only to find out they needed to fend off multiple attacks, none of which were currently in Belgium (the attack on Belgium came in August).
French forces were split up. Infantry and faster tanks were the first thrusts against German advances with slower tanks, like the B1, serving either in reserve or as “plugs” to stop gaps in the line. On May 15, the French town of Stonne became the site of major fighting with French and German forces sawing back and forth over the beleaguered people.
The following morning, German tanks set an ambush along a road through the town, hiding behind the crumbling buildings and planning to slaughter any French tanks that pushed forward. It was an entire company with 11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs, all ready to engage the first tank that entered their sites.
A Panzer III, an overall great tank but undergunned against the Char B1.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A few hours before dawn, a low vibration rumbled through the buildings as a single French tank rounded the corner. It was Eure, a Char B1 bis, an upgraded version of the B1. It was clearly itching for a fight, and it got one.
The French tank triggered its two strongest guns almost simultaneously, hitting one German tank with a 75mm shell and a second with a 47mm shell. Both German tanks were destroyed. One was the rear-most tank in the street, the other was the furthest forward.
Whether the Germans liked it or not, they were now trapped with a pissed-off Char B1. German rounds flew at the French tanks as the 11 surviving German tanks opened fire, but the Panzer IVs were too far away for their rounds to penetrate, and the Panzer IIIs were under-gunned.
A German Panzer III lacked the gun needed to penetrate the armor of the Char B1.
(Unknown photographer, edited by Cassowary Colorizations)
Round after round, 140 in total, slammed into Eure, deforming its armor and chipping off chunks of steel, but not penetrating, and not hurting the crew.
Meanwhile, the French crew reloaded their guns and kept firing, picking off German tank after tank after tank until all 13 were destroyed. And then it rolled on, because the Char B1 was a beast. It took out enemy guns as the other French tanks, including additional B1s, entered the town and secured it.
Before sunrise, Stonne was back in French hands. And it remained so for the entire day. The Germans simply couldn’t find the Chars with anything strong enough to kill them.
A Char B1 tank destroyed by its crew, likely after it ran out of ammo or fuel.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
But Chars cost 10 times what other tanks did, and consumed fuel at a much faster rate as well. They could only cruise for six hours without resupply from fuel trucks. Most of them were either killed by German bombers and artillery or were destroyed by their crews when they ran out of fuel or ammo.
The Germans eventually did come through Belgium, then France, and then they captured Paris. A few dozen B1s remained in Allied control, serving in Free French forces, but even more were captured and pressed into German service, fighting out the war in their opponents’ hands.
Today, 11 survive as museum pieces — one of the original B1s and ten of the upgraded B1 bis design.