Sunday, November 1, 2015
Renault FT 17
The Renault FT, frequently referred to in post-World War I literature as the "FT-17" or "FT17", was a French light tank that was among the most revolutionary and influential tank designs in history. The FT was the first production tank to have its armament within a fully rotating turret. The Renault FT's configuration – crew compartment at the front, engine compartment at the back, and main armament in a revolving turret – became and remains the standard tank layout. Over 3,000 Renault FT tanks were manufactured by French industry, most of them during the year 1918. Another 950 of an almost identical licensed copy of the FT (the M1917) were made in the United States, but not in time to enter combat. Armoured warfare historian Steven Zaloga has called the Renault FT "the world's first modern tank."
The FT was designed and produced by the Société des Automobiles Renault (Renault Automobile Company), one of France's major manufacturers of motor vehicles then and now.
It is thought possible that Louis Renault began working on the idea as early as 21 December 1915, after a visit from Colonel J.B.E. Estienne. Estienne had drawn up plans for a tracked armoured vehicle based on the Holt caterpillar tractor, and, with permission from General Joffre, approached Renault as a possible manufacturer. Renault declined, saying that his company was operating at full capacity producing war materiel and that he had no experience of tracked vehicles. Estienne took his plans to the Schneider company, where they became France's first operational tank, the Schneider CA.
At a later, chance meeting with Renault on 16 July 1916, Estienne asked him to reconsider, which he did. The speed with which the project then progressed to the mock-up stage has led to the theory that Renault had been working on the idea for some time.
Louis Renault himself conceived the new tank's overall design and set its basic specifications. He imposed a realistic limit to the FT's projected weight which could not exceed 7 tons. Louis Renault was unconvinced that a sufficient power-to-weight ratio could be achieved with the production engines available at the time to give sufficient mobility to the heavy tank types requested by the military. Renault's most talented industrial designer, Rodolphe Ernst-Metzmaier, generated the FT's detailed execution plans . Charles-Edmond Serre, a long time associate of Louis Renault, organized and supervised the new tank's mass production. The FT's tracks were kept automatically under tension to prevent derailments, while a rounded tail piece facilitated the crossing of trenches . Because the engine had been designed to function normally under any slant, very steep slopes could be negotiated by the Renault FT without loss of power. Effective internal ventilation was provided by the engine's radiator fan which drew its air through the front crew compartment of the tank and forced it out through the rear engine's compartment.
Renault's design was technically far more advanced than the other two French tanks at the time, namely the Schneider CA1 (1916) and the heavy Saint-Chamond (1917). Nevertheless Renault encountered some early difficulties in getting his proposal fully supported by the head of the French tank arm, Colonel (later General) Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne. After the first British use of heavy tanks on 15 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, the French military still pondered whether a large number of light tanks would be preferable to a smaller number of superheavy tanks (the later Char 2C). However, on 27 November 1916, Estienne had sent to the French Commander in Chief a personal memorandum proposing the immediate adoption and mass manufacture of a light tank based on the specifications of the Renault prototype. After receiving two large government orders for the FT tank, one in April 1917 and the other in June 1917, Renault was at last able to proceed. However his design remained in competition with the superheavy Char 2C until the end of the war.
The prototype was refined during the second half of 1917, but the Renault FT remained plagued by radiator fan belt problems throughout the war. Only 84 were produced in 1917 but 2,697 were delivered to the French army before the Armistice.
About half of all FTs were manufactured in Renault's factory at Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris, with the remainder subcontracted to other concerns. Of the original order for 3,530, Renault accounted for 1,850 (52 per cent), Berliet 800 (23 per cent), SOMUA (a subsidiary of Schneider & Cie) 600 (17 per cent), and Delaunay-Belleville 280 (8 per cent). When the order was increased to 7,820 in 1918, production was distributed in roughly the same proportion. Louis Renault agreed to waive royalties for all French manufacturers of the FT.
When the USA entered the War in April 1917, its army was short of heavy materiel, and had no tanks at all. Because of the wartime demands on French industry, it was decided that the quickest way to supply the American forces with sufficient armour was to manufacture the FT in the USA. A requirement of 4,400 of a modified version, the M1917, was decided on, with delivery expected to begin in April, 1918. By June 1918, US manufacturers had failed to produce any, and delivery dates were put back until September. France therefore agreed to lend 144 FTs, enough to equip 2 battalions. No M1917s reached the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) until the War was over.
The Renault FT was widely used by French forces in 1918 and by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in the later stages of World War I.
The battlefield debut of the Renault FT occurred on 31 May 1918 east of the Forest of Retz, near Chaudun, between Soissons and Villers-Cotterets, during the Second Battle of the Marne. This engagement, with 30 FTs, successfully broke up a German advance, but in the absence of infantry support, the vehicles later withdrew. From then on, gradually increasing numbers of FTs were deployed, together with smaller numbers of the older Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond tanks. As the war had become a war of movement during the summer of 1918, the lighter FTs were often transported on heavy trucks and special trailers rather than by rail on flat cars. Estienne had initially proposed to overwhelm the enemy defences using a "swarm" of light tanks, a tactic that was eventually successfully implemented. Beginning in late 1917, the Entente allies were attempting to outproduce the Central Powers in all respects, including artillery, tanks, and chemical weapons. Consequently a goal was set of manufacturing 12,260 Renault FT tanks (including 4,440 of the US version) before the end of 1919.
After the end of World War I, Renault FTs were exported to many countries (Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Iran, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Yugoslavia). Renault FT tanks were used by most nations having armoured forces, generally as their prominent tank type. The tanks were used in many later conflicts, such as the Russian Civil War, Polish-Soviet War, Chinese Civil War, Rif War, Spanish Civil War, and Estonian War of Independence.
Renault FT tanks were also fielded in limited numbers during World War II, in Poland, Finland, France, and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, although they were already obsolete. 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 equipped with machine guns. These were put to use after most of the modern equipment was lost in earlier battles.
Many smaller units assembled after the start of World War II also used the Renault FT. This usage gave 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 best French units were cut off by the German drive to the English Channel, the complete French materiel reserve was sent to the front as an expediency measure; this included 575 FTs. Earlier, 115 sections of FTs had been formed for airbase defence. The Wehrmacht captured 1,704 FTs. They used about a hundred for airfield defence and about 650 for patrolling occupied Europe. Some were used by the Germans in 1944 for street-fighting in Paris, but by this time they were hopelessly out of date. Vichy France used Renault FTs against Allied invasion forces during Operation Torch in Morocco and Algeria. The French tanks, however, were no match for the newly arrived American M4 Sherman and M3 Stuart tanks.
Much confusion surrounds the name of this tank.
It is sometimes stated that the letters FT stand for the French terms faible tonnage (low tonnage), faible taille (small size), franchisseur de tranchées (trench crosser), or force terrestre (land force). None is correct. Nor was it named the FT 17 or FT-17; nor was there an FT18.
All new Renault projects were given a two-letter product code for internal use, and the next one available was 'FT.'
The prototype was at first referred to as the automitrailleuse à chenilles Renault FT modèle 1917. Automitrailleuse à chenilles means "armoured car with tracks." By this stage of the War, automitrailleuse was the standard word for an armoured car, but by the time the FT was designed there were two other types of French tank in existence and the term char d'assaut (from the French char - a cart or wagon, and assaut; attack or assault), soon shortened to char, had at the insistence of Colonel Estienne, already been adopted by the French and was in common use. Once orders for the vehicle had been secured it was the practice at Renault to refer to it as the "FT." The vehicle was originally intended to carry a machine-gun, and was therefore described as a char mitrailleur. Mitrailleur (from mitraille; grapeshot) had by this time come to mean "machine-gunner."
Many sources, predominantly English language accounts, refer to the FT as the "FT 17" or "FT-17." This term is not contemporary, and appears to have arisen post World War One. In Estienne's biography, his granddaughter states, "It is also referred to as the FT 17: the number 17 was added after the war in history books, since it was always referred to at Renault as the FT." Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Malmassari (French tank officer and Doctor of History) states, "The Renault tank never carried the name FT 17 during the First World War, although the initials F.T. seem to appear in August 1917." Some confusion might also have been caused by the fact that the American version of the vehicle, produced in the USA under licence from Renault, was designated the M1917.
When it was decided to equip the FTs with either cannon or machine-guns, the cannon version was designated char canon (cannon tank) and the latter, in accordance with French grammar, renamed char mitrailleuse (machine-gun tank).
It is frequently claimed that some of these tanks were designated FT 18. Reasons given for the claim include: it distinguished tanks produced in 1918 from those of 1917; it was applied to FTs armed with cannon as opposed to those with machine-guns; it distinguished FTs with a cast, rounded turret from those with a hexagonal one; it referred to the 18 horsepower engine; it indicated a version to which various modifications had been made.
However, Renault records make no distinction between 1917 and 1918 output; the decision to arm FTs with a 37mm gun was made in April, 1917, before any tanks had been manufactured; because of various production difficulties and design requirements, a range of types of turret were produced by several manufacturers, but they were all fitted to the basic FT body without any distinguishing reference; all FTs had the same model 18 hp engine. The Renault manual of April, 1918 is entitled RENAULT CHAR D'ASSAUT 18 HP, and the illustrations are of the machine-gun version. The official designation was not changed until the 1930s, when the FT was fitted with a Model 1931 machine-gun and renamed the FT31. By this time the French Army was equipped with several other Renault models and it had become necessary to distinguish between the various types.