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In May 1940, many experts regarded the S35 as the best medium tank in the world. The vehicle was designed and manufactured by Société d'outillage mécanique et d’usinage d’artillerie (SOMUA) of St. Ouen, a subsidiary of the Schneider firm. An initial specification instigated during the French tank-building program of 1931 called for a 9-tonne Auto-mitrailleuse de cavalerie (Cavalry Armoured Car; AMC – all French cavalry armoured fighting vehicles were called armoured cars even if, like the S35, they were true tanks) with a range of 200 km (124 mi) and a top speed of 30 km/h (19 mph). On June 26, 1934 the requirement was updated to specify a vehicle of 13 tonnes (14 tons) with 40mm (1.57in) armour and a 47mm (1.85in) cannon as main armament. On July 16, 1934, representatives of the French government formally accepted a draft design that SOMUA had proposed two months earlier, before the June specification had even been approved. In November, SOMUA began work on a 17-tonne (19-ton) prototype, somewhat heavier than first envisaged, initially known as the AC2. The S35, as it was now known, began trials in the spring of 1935 at the trials establishment at Vincennes, where it attracted almost immediate attention.
The French cavalry quickly accepted this new vehicle and France ordered 50 examples from SOMUA in March 1936. Officially designated the char de cavalerie (cavalry tank) SOMUA modèle 1935 S but often retaining the S35 identifier, this was the first tank to be fully manufactured from a casting process and the first to incorporate sloped armour. Its four large castings could be assembled very quickly.
The vehicle was extremely well armoured for its small size and weight and it could achieve speeds of 40 km/h (25 mph). The cast APX1 CE turret was similar to the APX1 turret mounted on the B1, but with different optics and a widened turret ring. The APX1 CE sported the superb high-velocity 47mm SA 35 cannon that, with relative ease, could penetrate any enemy armoured vehicle of the time up to 800 m (2,625 ft) away.
The body of the S35 consisted of three main pieces of cast iron bolted together to form a rigid structure. The hull was an open, flat-topped container for the engine, transmission, and controls. Suspension assemblies were bolted to its left and right sides. The other two pieces, bolted together inside the tank, made up the superstructure; one piece covered the fighting compartment and the other covered the rear engine compartment. The hull was then mated to the superstructure and bolted together on the outside. The one-piece, cast APX 1 CE turret was lowered onto the fighting-compartment cover to complete the assembly.
The commander/gunner sat to the left inside the turret and had access to a rotating cupola for observation. The commander controlled and fired the 47mm SA 35 main gun, on the right hand side of the turret, with a right-handed trigger and hand-wheel mechanism. He aimed the gun in azimuth by controlling turret traverse with a similar mechanism by his left hand. A Ragonot 12-volt electric motor powered the traverse. The commander fired the turret-mounted 7.5mm Reibel machine gun with a handgrip that allowed a limited traverse relative to the main gun of 10 degrees each way.
Crew entered the vehicle through a large door cut into the superstructure's left side. Escape hatches were provided in the right rear of the turret and in the floor behind the driver's seat on the left. The driver controlled the vehicle by means of brake, accelerator, and clutch pedals along with a steering wheel. The radio operator/loader was situated behind and to the right of the driver and was able to pass 47mm ammunition to the commander from a rack fixed to the side of the superstructure on his right. His principal task, however, remained the operation of two wireless sets, one mounted below the front glacis plate and the other to his right in the pannier above the right-hand track.
As in most French tanks, a fireproof bulkhead separated the crew from the engine compartment. Behind this, on the right side, sat the self-sealing petrol tank. On the left was the SOMUA V-8 engine with power train running back to the gearbox. The driver steered through a double-differential steering system with dry-plate clutches, operated by cables from the steering wheel. This used epicyclic gears to slow the drive to the inner track and simultaneously increase the speed of the outer track with minimum loss of power and speed. A cooling fan was mounted in a sloping position to the left above the clutch housing, and was driven by a shaft from the engine. The radiator was mounted on the opposite side of the engine compartment, also in a sloping position, so that cooling air was drawn down through the radiator and expelled through the grill above the fan.
The track and suspension system resembled that found on the Czech-manufactured PzKpfw 35(t). Each side bore two assemblies of four bogie wheels, mounted in pairs on articulated arms. These were in turn controlled by semi-elliptic leaf springs. A ninth bogie wheel at the rear rode independently on a coil spring. Fixed armour plate protected the lower parts of the suspension which could be accessed by raising the hinged armour plates over the upper parts.
By May 1940, the French army had over 400 S35s in service with the Régiments de cuirassiers (Cuirassier Regiments) and Régiments de dragons (Dragoon Regiments) – essentially identical Régiments de combat (Battle Regiments) - in its Divisions légères méchaniques (Light Mechanized Divisions; DLMs). Each DLM was assigned two of these armoured regiments, each of which was composed in turn of two squadrons of 23 S35s and two squadrons equipped with 23 Hotchkiss H35 or H39 light tanks. Including command tanks, a full regiment contained 48 S35s and 47 Hotchkiss tanks.
France boasted three DLMs when the Germans attacked on May 10, 1940. They all took part in the fighting, mostly at Hannut in Belgium, and acquitted themselves extremely well. The S35's thick and relatively well sloped armour made it extremely difficult to kill. The shells from the high-velocity 37mm cannons in tanks such as the PzKpfw III and 38(t) and the smaller calibre German anti-tank guns could not penetrate the S35's armour. French forces lost S35s in combat to well placed 8.8cm FlaK guns employed in the anti-tank role and to marauding ground-attack aircraft such as the Stuka dive-bomber. Other S35s simply broke down and were abandoned. Elements of the 3ème DLM took part in the mainly British-led counterattack at Arras, France on May 21 and again acquitted themselves extremely well. Others took part in the attack on Abbeville as part of De Gaulle's 4e DCr. The 47mm SA 35 cannon proved extremely effective against any enemy vehicle out to extreme ranges.
The S35's major design drawbacks were the lack of a functioning radio and a one-man turret that resulted in a slow rate of fire. An extra crew member in the turret would have allowed the commander to leave himself free from gunnery duties and command the tank. German armour, all fitted with radios, frequently achieved local superiority in numbers and generally outmaneuvered and outsmarted the French through superior tactical leadership, command, control, and communications. French armoured formations often found themselves bypassed, then surrounded, and once cut off from their supply and communication lines and their control structure - sadly lacking to start with, usually - most simply surrendered in the face of an utterly impossible situation.
SOMUA had started to produce a modified version of the S35 in 1940 called the S40. It incorporated a 220-hp (164-kW) diesel engine and a new suspension system, among other small refinements. Only a few were produced before France fell in June. Had France not signed the Armistice, it is likely that the United States would have manufactured the S40 in large quantities. Another development of the S35 was to mount a 75mm (2.95in) high-velocity APX gun, with limited traverse, in the hull beside the driver while retaining the turret. Called the Char automoteur (Self-Propelled Tank) SOMUA 40 (SAu40 for short), only one prototype was built, after which France gave up on the troublesome 75mm cannon and on May 1 ordered Sau40s with a hull-mounted 47mm SA 37 instead. The German attack halted development of the SAu40, and the French lost the sole 75mm-armed prototype in battle. It can be regarded as one of the very few artillery weapons of the period mounted to a modern, armoured, tracked hull.
After the June 1940 armistice, the Germans, impressed with the S35, pressed some 300 capture examples into service as the PzKpfw 35S 739(f). One of the few German units to take the S35 into pitched battle was Panzer-Abteilung (Armoured Battalion) 211, which fought in Finland in 1941. Other S35s were used against partisans. Later, German S35s found work as training vehicles, towing vehicles, and munitions carriers. Some fought the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and ironically eventually returned to French hands to be used to mop up pockets of German resistance. The few S35s that remained in French hands were sent to Africa by the Vichy regime. Eventually they saw action against Axis forces during the battle of Tunisia.
When strictly viewed in a one on one tank versus tank situation, the S35 was superior to its opponents in most respects, but tactical considerations and limited command and control let it down in combat.
The Somua is a very fine tank, with good speed, pretty good armor for the early part of the war, and a decent anti-tank gun. The real-life complexities of loading a gun are rationalized into the rate of fire, while all players effectively have two-way radios, so the factors that strongly hampered this excellent vehicle in real life are mostly absent and it shows in game with the S35 enjoying pretty reasonable success in tank to tank combat.
Somuas are very successful tanks, able to deal directly with German medium tanks and win if the odds are not stacked against them. In an S35, you have the speed to flank the enemy, and enough armor not to worry too much about what he’s doing while you flank him. The S35 is particularly vulnerable to rear-engine shots, and you need to remember to check your rear quarter and just keep your wits about you when in close range combat, because like all tanks you are never invulnerable even if you are largely effective. Just don’t give anyone that shot, and the S35 will live up to its promises.
In the S35 the driver has no periscope, and closing view slit armor plate blocks view completely. The commander is in a top turret cupola, and he cannot unbutton. Make sure you don’t accidentally open the gunner’s port. On other tanks, this would leave a very small vulnerability in the mantlet or front turret armor plate; on French tanks it opens a large rear turret hatch on the entire back of the turret leaving your turret members entirely exposed to any and all enemy fire even that of small arms from infantry in the vicinity.
If you use the S35 in Battleground Europe, you have an effective and useful counter to the enemy’s armor especially in the earlier part of the war. Later on, when the enemy gets bigger guns and more armor, things become a little more difficult - but this is true of almost any tank at any stage of the conflict.
The S35 is available from tier 0.