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Top 25 Historical French Experimental Weapons

The Canon de 75mm mle. 1897 is an excellent example of the French military's constant drive for experimental arms - none of them here however, were as successful.

The Canon de 75mm mle. 1897 is an excellent example of the French military's constant drive for experimental arms - none of them here however, were as successful.

France has a long history of coming up with odd, unusual, and bizarre weapons. Not always necessarily better or worse, but a distinctly different way of doing things. Maybe they just enjoy being different from everyone else. Some weapons however, were too quirky, even for France, to produce, or the vagaries of fortune meant that it was impossible to place them into service. This is a list of 25 of the most unusual, potentially effective, and technologically advanced missed opportunities, and what might have happened if they were brought to fruition.

25 - FCM F1

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France in the Interwar had a continuing love affair with the superheavy tank, which would be the king of the battlefield that the French envisioned in a future war. Heavy fortifications, massive usage of artillery, extensive trenches, and methodically planned, somewhat ponderous operations would make lighter tanks vulnerable, and require superheavy tanks ot traverse them. It was the only nation to place a real superheavy tank into somewhat large-scale production and operational use: the Char 2C,which weighed in at a staggering 70 tons (about the weight of a modern M1A2 Abrams), and the largest tank ever used in terms of size. Versions of it received 155mm howitzers or up armoring to 90mm frontal armor and 65mm side armor, in both cases increwasing weight to 75 or so tons. Other proposals included a 600 ton tank and various other proposals such as the Char d'arrêt also had thoroughly massive sizes.

This interested had hardly disappeared in the build up to WW2. France had a formidable tank park with the crown jewel being the Char B1, the most produced heavy tank in the world at the time, but for the prospect of ultimately attacking the heavy German fortifications of the Siegfried line, with large anti-tank ditches and heavy AT guns, even this would have been insufficient. Something bigger, more heavily armored, and more heavily armed was needed: the FCM F1.

Multiple projects were toyed around with, but the FCM F1 most likely seems the one which would have seen production. Given the priority on crossing large AT ditches, length would have been a stunning 10.5 meters, while the weight would have reached 140 tons. Two turrets, the back one shooting over the front, would have had a 47mm gun in the front and a 90mm gun in the back, while the armor would be 120mm frontally, sloped, and 100mm on the side, giving a great degree of protection against even German 88mm guns. There would have been two machine guns on the sides, in sponsoons, in addition to those in turrets. Moving such a massive machine would have required 2 550 horsepower engines, with an electrical transmissions. Although its speed would doubtless have been slow, the great length would at least have permitted it to cross trenches easily.

If France had survived the German invasion of 1940, it seems like the lesson in modern warfare, with its increased mobility, the usage of airpower for fire suppoort, and the open right flank of the German defensive lines once fighting coursed back through Belgium and the Netherlands, outflanking the strongest section of the Siegfried line, would have made the FCM F1 a less attractive and necessary option. But if it was built it would have probably performed reasonably effectively at penetrating the German defensive lines - just a cost entirely out of proportion to its utility.

24 - AMX 50

The AMX 50 100 - later evolving into the AMX 50 120 and various variants

The AMX 50 100 - later evolving into the AMX 50 120 and various variants

France after the Second World War embarked on some extremely radical ideas to rebuild its tank forces. Oscillating turrets, autoloaders, airmobile light tanks, massively powerful gas turbine engines so that heavy tanks could race around the battlefield at breakneck speed: French tanks design is like someone on heroin, with incredible leaps of enthusiasm and energy followed by boring, unconventional despondency, as exemplified by the 1950's projects being followed up by the thoroughly normal AMX-30.

But during this time in the 50s, great hopes were placed on the AMX-50 main battle tank, providing a heavy counterpart to the light AMX-13. The AMX-50 went through many variations, but in its original vision it was to be a main battle tank, highly mobile, and armed with a highly effective, very high velocity 100mm anti-tank gun, automated in an oscillating turret. But other versions included a 120mm heavy tank, also armed with an oscillating turret, and a 120mm armed tank destroyer.

Very tall indeed in some variants!

Very tall indeed in some variants!


The AMX-50 almost was ordered at several points, but always was blocked by something - American re-armament provided plenty of medium tanks for Europe such as the M46-48 Patton series, leaving little room for the AMX 50 100, and the AMX 50 120 series required extremely powerful gas turbine engines to achieve the desired speed, while their horsepower was never really able to live up to the expectations. And by the 1950s there were alternate hollow charge, HEAT weapons that could be used against enemy armor instead of requiring the ultra powerful 120mm gun, and so the heavy, massive, AMX 50 120 had become a tank searching for a role. If it had been ordered, it probably would have been built in relatively small production, perhaps a few hundred tanks like the Conqueror, before lighter and more effective vehicles took over its role.

23 - MB. 162

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France in the 1930s underwent a radical change in bomber design. At the beginning, it had slow, ungainly designs like the Amiot 143 or the unfortunate like of the BCR (bomber - combat - reconnaissance) multi-use planes, and its fighter designs chose to sacrifice speed for other factors, such as pilot visions. by the end, French bombers ruthlessly emphasized speed, and the fast, sleek, modern, French aircraft like the LeO 45 and Amiot 354 bombers were supposed to fly so fast that they would have been nearly impossible to intercept, or pursuing fighters would have to approach from a narrow arc- where the French had quite helpfully stationed a 20mm defensive cannon.

The French heavy bomber at the beginning of the decade was just as odd and un-aerodynamic looking as any of the other French monstrosities. The Farman F.220 might have mounted its four engines in pusher-puller arrangements in two engine nacelles, but whatever drag reductions this achieved must have been largely lost through extensive bracing struts. The F.220's top speed in its improved F.222 variant hit just 360 kilometers per hour, which would have made it easy prey to enemy fighters, even when mounting 20mm cannon.

Something was needed to replace it, and the most probable candidate would have been the MB.162. This sleek and elegant four-engined bomber was developed from the MB.160 long-ranged civilian transport, and it would have had a top speed of up to 551 kilometers per hour at 5,500 meters. Its history as a conversion from the MB.160 would probably have made it less strucutrally sturdy, but the high speed and a potent defensive armament, including 20mm cannons, would have improved survivability.

France had other options for heavy bombers, including importing B-24s from the United States - planned by the French in the Anglo-French purchasing commission. These would probably have formed the mainstay of the French heavy bomber force.

22 - Meunier Rifle

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France has been a major innovator in rifle technology historically, and particularly in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The Minie ball rifle provided the first effective muzzle loading rifle that could be used by regular troops en masse, the Chassepot the first modern, bolt action, rifle, and the Lebel rifle was a revolution in the introduction of a smokeless powder, magazine-fed rifle which enabled a dramatic increase in firepower.

Unfortunately, such an eagerness for new technology sometimes left the French with new and revolutionary weapons that nevertheless quickly showed shortcomings compared to more mature designs developed elsewhere - such as the Lebel, whose 8mm bottle-necked ammunition meant that conventional ammunition clips and magazines were extremely problematic and it did not stack easily, and in particular whose tubular magazine which held 8 rounds under the barrel was a dramatically inferior arrangement as regards long-term firepower compared to other bolt action rifles. The French did introduce the Berthier carbine, but its 3 round clip was inferior to other firearms which generally had at least 5 round clips. So almost from the time when the Lebel was introduced, in 1886, the French were already experimenting with the next big thing - a semiautomatic rifle.

This ultimately led, after what would become a common and somewhat depressing theme of French big armament design, a huge delay, to the Meunier rifle, finished in 1912 and with production starting in 1914. This rifle was a long-recoil operated rifle firing 7mm ammunition, and most importantly semi-automatic. The new ammunition would have enabled much more effective machine guns to be introduced in the army as well, and infantry firepower to greatly increase. Unfortunately for the Meunier, 1914 was also the start of WW1, and the new rifle had only been produced to around a thousand examples when the war broke out, requiring arsenals to switch back to more tried and true designs. If it had entered production a few years earlier, it probably would have given French infantry a significant advantage in the early fighting in 1914, but been less effective in the trenches due to greater mechanical complexity.

21 - MAS-40

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The First World War didn't end French ideas about mass utilization of semi-automatic rifles: even if the Meunier rifle was off the table, the RSC 1917, using as many standard Lebel rifle components as possible but with a 5 round box magazine, and semi-automatic, was produced to the tune of some 80,000 examples, and was slated to be improved and produced further with the RSC 1918 - but then the war ended. After the war, the French arms projects envisioned a new infantry machine gun, a new ammunition round, and also a new rifle - with a bolt-action version for rear line troops, and a semi-automatic for regular troop. The former would ultimately enter service as the MAS-36, in well, 1936, but the latter one would become the MAS-40 and only had seen some limited use among the troops during the Battle of France before the defeat of France put an end to this project.

With its gas impingent system the MAS-40 obviously has clear similarities and comparisons to the M1 Garand, although with magazines instead of clips, and enjoyed high reliability during testing. It ultimately saw adoption as the MAS-44 and post-war refinement with the MAS-49. But if it had been more quickly adopted and manufactured in the 1930s it could have been a great boon for French infantry soldiers.

20 - AMX-30 ACRA and AMX-10 ACRA

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The world of tank design in the 1960s and 1970s was transfixed, in the Western world at least, by the idea of large caliber guns firing both HEAT and long-ranged, guided, anti-tank missiles. The Sheridan, M60A2, and MBT-70 show this on the American side, and the idea made a lot of sense: there was not an effective counter to HEAT ammunition at the time, and the large caliber guns could both pack a tremendously large HEAT (or HE) warhead, and still be able to fire out to long ranges where their otherwise mediocre shell velocity would cause them to lose accuracy through the usage of guided missiles. The French were quite taken by the logic, and in the 1970s explored the prospect of a 142mm guided missile both on the AMX 30 MBT, and as a casemate assault gun/tank destroyer on the AMX-10 tracked chassis.

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In 1967, a prototype of the AMX 30 ACRA was finished, with the smoothbore 142mm gun and a new turret, while new guidance systems were installed and the range of engagement could reach up to 3 kilometers. There was a program as well to put it on the AMX 10 chassis, which would have also carried a turreted 20mm gun.

However, the cost of the missile and guidance would have been prohibitive, and in the 1970s regular guns were becoming far more accurate and ultimately deadly, making the idea of a tank-fired ATGM less useful in the Western armies (even if it did see service in the USSR and its aligned states). If the AMX 30 ACRA had been procured, it would probably have been rather like the M60A2 Starship - an interesting project, but ultimately a dead end.

19 - Surcouf-class submarine

A scale model of the Surcouf

A scale model of the Surcouf

The Washington Naval Treaty included many exceptions and potential loopholes to its otherwise strict limitations. Although battleships and cruisers were limited in their technical specifications, lighter ships and submarines were limited neither in technical elements nor in tonnage, and nations had every incentive to build ingenious and original designs, or simply to cheat. One of the more peculiar designs was the French cruiser-submarine: a long-ranged, gun-armed (alongside the torpedoes), submarine, which would carry a large enough crew for dispatching prize crews to attached ships, and with thoroughly massive range. This is the French submarine Surcouf.

France was one of the most vigorous users of submarines in the Interwar, and viewed them as vital to its coastal and colonial defense. It was to a great extent due to French pressure that a British proposal to ban submarines was defeated during the Washington Conference. The idea of a raiding cruiser submarine was attractive to France, offering a ship which could prey on British shipping in case of a war, and its powerful armament would enable it to overcome lighter escorts.

The Surcouf was unique as the largets submarine in the world, up until the Japanese I-400 carrier submarines, packing long-range diesel engines and massive (for a submarine), 203mm guns in a twin-turret. It also had a floatplane, although the requirement for the wings and floats to be detached for storage in the hangar mean that its potential effectiveness was reduced. Still, it would have permitted a very significant range increase, from the 12,000 to 16,000 meter range which was practical up to the maximum 26,000 meters range.

Initially intended to be part of a class of three ships, the signing of the London Naval Treaty rendered designs like the Surcouf illegal, and no more were built. Surcouf would be the only one of its kind. In the Second World War, it rallied to the Free French, but ultimately was sunk under mysterious circumstances in the Caribbean in 1942. Unfortunately, it was the wrong war for the ship, without the possibility of being used as a submarine raider as intended.

18 - HEAT rifle grenades

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France was a leader in sub-caliber ammunition in the Interwar, produced by the Brandt armament company, which developed a range of sabot, APDS, and HEAT rounds. The French army was also greatly enamored with the rifle grenade, and so it must have seemed like a wonderful idea to combine the two! The proposed HEAT grenade would provide 40mm of penetration, with a range out to 100 meters. This might not sound that impressive by the standards of later WW2 equipment, but in 1940, it would have been a godsend for French infantry. Indeed, it received limited testing on June 10th, 1940, but was never issued to the troops.

If such rifle grenades had been introduced by 1940, they would have been of tremendous use against German tanks, given that they would be able to penetrate any armor on the German side and would be an omnipresent, portable, tank hunter tool. In situations of being overrun by tanks, it would have been very useful, and would be especially potent in the hedgehog defenses of the French army during Fall Rot.

The HEAT grenades would go on to influence the development of the American equivalents, serving to help in producing the M9 AT rifle grenade and the Bazooka's HEAT rocket, while also 300,000 were produced for Vichy.

17 - Joffre-class aircraft carrier

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French naval engineering has both its marvels and its catastrophes. The French aircraft carrier Béarn belongs definitively to the latter category. To be fair, in the context of only being a slow battleship available for conversion, and designing one's first carrier, it is not surprising that errors would be made, but the Béarn seemed to make all of them: slow, a small aircraft contingent, and whose slow lifts and odd clamshell doors meant that its plane sortie generation rate was drastically slower than other carriers. In addition, the air group was thoroughly obsolete by WW2.

A new ship was needed to replace Béarn, and even if the French admiral continued to place much emphasis on battleships, carriers also figured in the fleet construction plans. The Joffre class would have been the answer, modern designs weighing in at 20,000 tons, and Joffre was laid down in 1938, while Painlevé, the second one, hadn't been laid down when France capitulated. Their air group would have probably incorporated a navalized D.520, as well as twin-engined torpedo bomber and reconnaissance/dive bomber aircraft. It would have been fast, with decent aircraft capacity, and reasonably well armed even if various bugs would have had to be worked out in the armament, although with inadequate aviation fuel capacity, and the arrangement of the arrestor cables would have prevented deck parks.

While the Joffre and Foch were never laid down, they do bear a distinct resemblance to the post-war French carriers Clemenceau and Foch.

16 - 75mm AT gun L/53 TAZ

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France’s AT gun park in the 1930s was divided into two types of weapons, other than static emplacements: the guns serving with the infantry or mobile forces, and the divisional anti-tank guns, attached to the artillery. The former had light guns, the second heavy guns, the 25mm and 47mm AT guns respectively. Early on, converted 75mm field guns served in the role of the heavy AT guns, but their high stature, low muzzle velocity (relatively at least), excessive weight, and muzzle flash made them less than optimal for the role. The French did not give up however, and the conversion of the mle. 1934 AA gun, married to an AT carriage, with AP rounds, was supposed to offer the next generation of heavy AT firepower. It would have had an armor penetration of 80mm at 1,000 meters, which would have risen further with Brand sub-calibre shells as well as HEAT projectiles.

The most unusual feature would have been the 360° mounting. This was starting to appear on a number of guns in the late 1930s, such as on the British 2 pounder, and an experimental French 47mm carriage, and now on the 75mm. On smaller guns, this was probably not worth it, since it increased weight when infantry could simply cart the lighter guns around with their own muscle power anyway (and notably could not do the same with the more complicated 360° traverse guns). But on a 75mm gun, infantry would have found it impossible to move them on their own power regardless of the carriage, so the additional weight wouldn’t have been as big of a drawback. It would have made a useful AT weapon, against heavy tanks, much like the German Pak40, although it is unlikely that France’s war with Germany, if France had not fallen in 1940, would have seen tank progression on the German side that would reach the point of making tanks heavy enough to be worth this degree of armor penetration. But a war against the Soviets would have been greatly served by having such a gun, since T-34s and KV-1s would require such heavy AT weapons to counter them.

15 - Lyon-class battleship

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France’s battleship designs during the early dreadnought era had some interesting quirks. The French expected combat ranges to be very limited between battlefleets, just some 10,000 meters. This produced some odd quirks, such as the Bretagne-class having the distinction of the 138mm secondary guns having superior range than the 305mm main battery guns, due to limited elevation on the main guns! Another oddity was the introduction of the quadruple turret, planned on the Normandie-class battleships. A preference for short-range combat, the introduction of the quadruple turret, and the length of time needed to develop a more powerful gun and thus the decision to increase gun numbers to make up for it led to one of the oddest battleship designs: the Lyon-class.

This battleship was supposed to have 4 main battery turrets, all quadruples, mounting the 340mm /40 cannons that the Normandie and Bretagne classes carried. 16 340mm guns would have made it the battleship with the most guns ever built, exceeding the British Agincourt, ex. Brazilian Rio de Janeiro, with its 7 twin turrets mounting 14 305mm guns. The rest was relatively conventional - a main belt of 300mm, 21 knots speed, and the ubiquitous French 138mm secondary armament.

How effective would the Lyon-class have been? Unfortunately, despite the large number of guns, I suspect not very. 340mm guns would have had rather limited effective range, especially before the French increased turret elevations (which would quickly become necessary), against a new range of opponents like the Italian Francesco Caracciolo-class, German Bayern, or British Queen Elizabeth and R-class battleships. It would also lack both armor and speed. Unable to control the engagement range, kept at distance and its armor cut through by more powerful enemy guns, and unable to bring its larger but individually weaker main battery into play. But it certainly would have been original!

14 - François Fabre's Explosive Shells

Paixhans, the inventor of the shell-firing naval cannon, was much inspired by François Fabre

Paixhans, the inventor of the shell-firing naval cannon, was much inspired by François Fabre

France in the 1830s invented the Paixhans gun, capable of firing an explosive shell at enemy ships, and was the first truly revolutionary naval weapon in nearly two centuries ever since the ship of the line was invented, and which started the beginning of a long revolution in naval weaponry which continues to today. BUt this was just the conclusion of decades of interest for shell fire in naval warfare: the French had responded to the British carronade with short-ranged naval howitzers firing explosive shells, very effective but rejected for being too dangerous to their crews. In the 1790s, during the French Revolution, in the context of a naval war - and a losing one - against Great Britain, there were proposals by French scientists to provide shells to regular cannons.

These came to maturity with the French officer François Fabre, who succeeded in producing a shell being able to be fired from a cannon without exploding in the barrel from the shock. A mixture of incendiary and explosive shells was ordered by the French government, to the tune of 300,000 shells, in the middle of 1794.

These shells proved to be quite effective, and in a combat off of Corsica, the battle of Cape Noli on 24 March, 1795, a French frigate took on and incapacitated 3 British ships. Again, very effective, but still probably too dangerous for its crews, with the quality of fuses and the presence of explosives, plus facing resistance from the conservative French naval high command, and so ultimately, despite the manufacture of the shells, they saw no further use. Paixhans however, was heavily influenced by this, so the idea did not die but rather grew to prominence in the 1820s.


13 - Engin K

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The French didn't seem to have the sense of humor that the Germans had when naming their self-propelled, remote-controlled, explosive breaching vehicle, the Engin K, and the Véhicule P, but the Engine K, named after Alphonse Kégresse, was the inspiration for the later German Goliath tracked mine. In 1940 the French had some large projects about remote controlled offensive guided mines, with the Véhicle P receiving 2,000 orders, but only 11 constructed, the Engin K 12,000 built, and some 300 Renault FT-17s slated to be converted to guided demolition tanks controlled by R-35 command tanks. Unfortunately, events overtook them, but they would have been interesting to see in use during attacks on say, the Siegfried line.

12 - Matériel à très longue portée

A 224mm /150 piece which achieve the highest range of the TLP program.

A 224mm /150 piece which achieve the highest range of the TLP program.

In 1918, the Germans bombarded Paris from a massive distance, more than 120 kilometers, with the “Paris Gun,” a 210mm cannon. Although damage was relatively slight with this huge gun, it did impress the French enough for them to launch their own long range artillery program after the war, the projet à très longue portée - the very long range project. This started in 1918, on May 29th when a commission was formed to study the matter, which would be active with a whole range of different cannons over the next decade.

This went through a long succession of different guns, starting of with initial small scale models with 37mm cannons at 110 to160 calibers, 145mm guns, and then finally using sleeves on the French 340mm former naval guns. All of the last group would be mounted on railroad gun mounts of some type.

Range

Canon 340/240 de 65 calibres

53,590 meters with a theoretical maximum of 60,000 meters

Canon 340/224 de 100 calibres

97,500 meters

Canon 340/240 de 150 calibres

127,800 meters

While the TLP project was never used, it did provide for an export sale to Japan, of a 210mm railgun which was stationed first at Tokyo for coastal defense and was later moved to Manchuria, where it may have seen usage against the advancing Soviet army in 1945. There was also a consideration to build 20 when war with Germany broke out in 1939, and the material was still stocked at Saint-Quiberon. They were never used: probably simply not worth it, given the barrel wear in firing, limited payload of the shells, and the rise of bombers as an alternative, as well as French fear of their cities being destroyed if they started a strategic bombardment war with Germany. It would have certainly been interesting to see them in use, bombarding German targets like the Saar coal mines from safe distances in French territory!

11 - B1 ter

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France's B1 heavy tank had undergone a substantial evolution by the late 1930s, compared to its initial design in the 1930s. From the initial plan of a 25mm armored tank with a 75mm or 47mm gun, it had been upgraded to the standard B1 with a 4 man crew, 40mm armor, a 75mm gun, and a 47mm turreted anti-tank gun, albeit one of marginal effectiveness. Then the B1 bis had come along with 60mm armor, a better AT gun, and an improved engine. There were numerous studies however, and the B1 bis was supposed to be upgraded once more, to the B1 ter.

The B1 ter would have incorporated further improvements in armor, increasing armor protection up to 70mm, with 70mm frontally while the sides would have incorporated 25 degree sloping to enable the 70mm armor to match the front's sloping. The tin mud guards would have been replaced with armor protection for the tracks, which would have raised the possibility of them being stuffed with mud, immobilizing the tank, while the crew's lives would hardly have been improved by the crew doors opening downwards instead of to the side. With such heavy armor it would be dreadfully difficult to push them back up, while the space to come in and out would have been reduced. They would however, have received an additional member, a "mechanical", who probably would have been used in addition with providing some help with the task of handing shells to the gunner and commander. The turret's ring increased size, to 1,218mm instead of 1,022mm, would have enabled it to be a 1.5 man turret, with another crew member handing up shells and somewhat assisting with loading, like on the Somua S35 with its 1,130mm turret ring.

Overall weight would have grown to 36.6 tons, but a more powerful engine, 350 horsepower, would have compensated for this. Suspension would probably have posed a bigger problem, since while it was reinforced, there would doubtless have been problems with its introduction. However, the Naeder transmission - an extremely complex and precise transmission required to lay the 75mm hull gun exactly, since it had no traverse - would have been replaced with a more conventional transmission, significantly reducing costs of the tank, and the gun would receive 5 degrees of traverse to the left and right instead.

These were real improvements, but the question is to what degree they would have been worth it. Production was planned to switch from the B1 bis to the B1 ter initially at the 715th tank, but this was later changed to the 1,333rd tank, which given French tank production numbers for the Char B1 would have taken a very long time indeed to reach. Even with production accelerating, it would probably have been 1941 by the earliest that the switch over would have taken place. On the 1941 battlefield, the B1 would clearly be showing its age compared to foreign tank designs that were starting to be developed, such as the Soviet's T-34 and KV-1. But in the context of a war with Germany, it is unlikely that Germany would have been able to introduce any significantly improved tanks given its historical 1941 tank park, especially in the context of limited resources from the Anglo-French blockade and without the conquest of Western Europe, and so the B1 ter would have been an improvement, especially with some of the improvements in production capacity afforded by the more simple transmission system - although this was partly thrown away by the sloped side armor panels, of doubtful effectiveness. Compared to designs like the Char G1 in its more advanced iterations, the B1 ter was clearly a less effective and effective design. But as a break through tank to fight heavy German fortifications during the advance into Germany, it would have serve reasonably well.

10 - C.450 Coléoptère

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The 1950s and the several following decades saw tremendous interest in VTOL aircraft, or those capable of operating from highways and roads, since this would eliminate the dependence of aircraft on vulnerable runways that could be suppressed by enemy bombers, artillery, and missiles. One of the projects to get around this was the French C.450 Coléoptère, meaning beetle in French, which would have had a circular wing around it and would have launched vertically, like a rocket.

An advantage to this design would be that the wing would be able to function as a ramjet, take up less space, and eliminate wingtip vortexes - enabling the speed of the aircraft to exceed Mach 2. To move from vertical take off to horizontal, there would be deflected thrust, and triangular wingtips would provide for control when flying horizontal, plus fins on the front to help the transition. Theoretically, it would be a revolutionary design. Unfortunately, the transition between vertical and horizontal flight proved extremely difficult, hovering lead to slow spinning on the axis, and it was very hard to land and always required power. Perhaps nowadays, with computer aid and assistance, such a project could work, although it seems likely that the entire idea of VTOL planes will tend to be too much of a compromise than it is worth outside of some exceptional needs.

9 - ELC Project

The 90mm-armed version with both crewmembers in the turret

The 90mm-armed version with both crewmembers in the turret

France has turned out many an innovative and terrifyingly overgunned light vehicle, but few reach the level of overgunning present on the ELC project. This French 1950s project envisioned an extremely light tank, under 7 tons, which would in its various versions include a 90mm armed vehicle, another 90mm armed unit but with a different turret, a twin 30mm autocannon vehicle, an ATGM carrier, and a quadruple 120mm recoilless rifle vehicle - or in some versions of it, an autoloaded recoilless rifle vehicle.

The 30mm autocannon-armed variant

The 30mm autocannon-armed variant

Most of these were envisioned as anti-tank units or as infantry support vehicles, although the 30mm autocannon-armed vehicle was perceived purely for the anti-infantry role, and not as a SPAAG as might be thought as being its purpose for the era. Unfortunately, none were adopted, probably because the French military, with the Panhard EBR, the AMX-13, and the AML 90 (which received its turret from one of the rival designs), already had plenty of such light vehicles.

8 - Panhard AM 40 P

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France came out with some very odd designs for armored cars throughout the 1930s to today, with a proclivity for powerfully armed and capable vehicles. Its Panhard 178, principal armored car of the French cavalry in the 1930s, was an excellent reconnaissance and fighting vehicle, superior to most French tanks in the era in fighting power, thanks to its 4 man crew, the 25mm AT gun, and substantially better mobility. Post-war designs such as the Panhard EBR incorporated oscillating turrets and autoloaders, while the AMX-10 is an armored car whose gun, a 105mm cannon, is capable of rivaling main battle tanks for firepower. But one vehicle which is often missed in this lineage is a late 1930s design, the Panhard AM 40P or Panhard 201.

France's military was obsessed with the idea of heavy armor on tanks in the 1930s. Since they assumed that any battlefield in Europe would be utterly dominated by the presence of artillery, aircraft, AT guns, and firepower, there would be a need for any front line combatant on the battlefield to have a very heavy armor scheme indeed. The AM 40P would have been an armored car for sure, with definite emphasis on the armored part - with heavily sloped 60mm armor, the equivalent of France's Char B1 battle tank! It would have had an oscillating turret, a first for French designs, and would have carried either the 37mm SA 38 cannon or the 47mm SA 35, as well as a machine gun. It would have had 8 wheels, with 2 in the front and 2 in the back being bulletproof pneumatic wheels, while the 4 in the center would have been metal, capable of being raised when driving on roads and lowered for off country performance. Overall, it would have been a revolutionary design, supposedly capable of high speeds, capable of withstanding almost any AT gun on the battlefield frontally, with a powerful armament to defeat any enemy tank, and an extremely low profile, just 1.8 meters, which would make spotting it difficult and for it to be easy to hide.

There would be some downsides however. The AM 40P would be a regression compared to the Panhard 178, as the Panhard 178 had a crew of 4, with a front driver, a back driver and radio operator, a commander, and a gunner, while the AM 40P would only have 2 men. Vitally, it would lose the radio that the Panhard 178 had, a bizarre decision for an armored reconnaissance vehicle. The French military was extremely concerned with gas proof armor, and an oscillating turret is not easy to protecting against this, although historically this would not have mattered. While supposedly faster than the Panhard 178, its power to weigh ratio would be substantially lower. While a prototype was built, tested, and adopted in May, 1940, it is probable that if France had survived the Battle of France that there would have had to be substantial redesigns of the vehicle, increasing it to at least a 3 man or a 4 man crew, a minimum for the era, as well as a radio. If this was done, it could have been a very potent vehicle by 1941. Regardless, it is a revolutionary armored car which shows the clear pre-war heritage of post-war designs like the Panhard EBR.

7 - AMX-40

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Without doubt one of the oddest looking tanks that even the French developed, the AMX 40 would have been a French cavalry tank, a new medium tank which would possibly have supplanted vehicles like the Somua S35. Its big changes were a new armor scheme, with rounded armor all over the tank, a two man turret, a diesel engine, a Christie suspension, and an optical rangefinder. These were significant advances which would make it more mobile in rough terrain (although it would have needed a better engine to maintain the same mobility), better protected, and better commanded, but compared to the tank revolutions happening elsewhere in the late 1940, would probably have meant that without significant changes, such as a 75mm gun, a 3 man turret, and better vision systems and a cupola, it would have fallen behind other tanks in the rank race, but it does show that the French tank designers were not ignorant about some of the requirements for future vehicles.

6 - 37mm mle. 1935 Zénithaux

The 37mm automatic AA guns as mounted on the French patrol sloop Amiens

The 37mm automatic AA guns as mounted on the French patrol sloop Amiens

The French navy entered the Second World War with a throoughly atrocious anti-aircraft suite on its ships. Although its heavy AA guns were mostly decent, with the proviso that the 130mm dual-purpose armament on the Dunkerque-class battlecruisers was mostly mediocre, and the 152mm dual purpose armament on the Richelieus completely in advance of technical availabilities available at the time, it is in lighter anti-aircraft armament that the real problem emerges - the 8 and 13.2mm machine guns were the only close-in weapons available, other than a semi-automatic 37mm gun offering truly awful performance, firing only 20 rounds per minute. While slow to respond, the French navy was not entirely ignorant of this deficiency and was developing, and deploying in very limited numbers, an automatic 37mm anti-aircraft gun. A variant of the 37mm mle 1935 would have been the 37mm zénithaux, the subject here.

This envisioned a usage which was principally intended against dive bombers. The platform for the gun would have been mounted at a 45 degree angle, positioned below deck, and loaded underneath. Although not capable of depressing to vertical, and requiring deck penetration on the ship, they would have been very easily able to maintain high rates of fire at a high angle against enemy dive bomber attacks, and would have definitely been an improvement over the miserable AA armament that French ships had!

5 - ARL V39 and Somua SAu 40

The Somua SAu 40

The Somua SAu 40

The ARL 40 V39

The ARL 40 V39

France had major plans for the mechanization of its army and the incorporation of self-propelled guns in 1940, shown by the ARL V39 and Somua SAu 40 projects. These were assault and self-propelled guns initially intended for the infantry and cavalry respectively. The ARL V39 was built on the chassis of the ARL 40, a version of the Char B1, while the Somua SA 40 was on the chassis of the Somua S35 tank. Both were to carry a 75mm gun, a version of the canon de 75 mle. 1897, a rather powerful weapon in 1940, viewed as a "high powered" weapon, which it rather was in the context of 37mm to 47mm anti-tank guns and a speckling of low velocity 75mm support guns. Its role would have been to provide a combination of direct and indirect fire support, functioning in the second wave of assault forces, with stereoscopic rangefinders in their top turrets to provide for range and direction firing. Ultimately trials showed that the ARL V39 was the superior vehicle and it would have taken over the role entirely, but the Somua SAU 40 was still ordered as a tank destroyer, mounting a long 47mm mle. 1937 anti-tank gun.

These machines look rather similar to the German StuGs - larger and heavier perhaps, starting out with more powerful guns (although the StuGs were later themselves upgraded with substantially more powerful 75mm guns, and most importantly an enhanced capability for indirect fire. How effective would they have been? I suspect decently, but not as much as the French would have hoped, since their tall turrets would take away from one of the StuG's great advantags, its lower height. It would also complicate production, since the great advantage of the casemate design, other than being able to mount a bigger gun, was that they were cheaper without the need for a turret and turret ring. in the indirect fire role, the 75mm would be substantially less potent than most self-propelled guns, which tended to be significantly larger. As far as weight goes, it is thus somewhat inefficient. It generally seems that a complicated, direct and indirect fire vehicle like the ARL V39 or Somua SAu 40 was unnecessary and too complicated for a WW2 environment, where designs like the StuG or Su-100 were simpler and could still carry out the indirect fire role reasonably well. But they would still have served decently in the fire support role for French mobile forces.

4 - Javelot AA Tank

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Most anti-aircraft systems boil down to two essential ideas: either fire a round out of a gun at a target, the anti-aircraft gun approach, or fire a missile, the surface to air missile. But what about rockets? The French Javelot rocket launcher system would have been an anti-aircraft rocket launcher system installed on an AMX 30 chassis, equipped with a magazine of 64 spin-stabilized rockets, 40mm and around 1 kg each, capable of achieving a speed of up to 1,100 meters per second to an effective range of 1.5 - 2 kilometers with 400 gram warheads. It would fire rockets in salvos of up to 8, 16, or 32 rockets at a time, with the possibility of the magazine being reloaded in 30 seconds - by simply switching out the rocket container. Catulle, a naval variant, also existed. This project was funded by the United States while the French did the conception work.

Ultimately, the system didn't offer sufficient advantages over traditional SPAAGs and couldn't match the longer range of SAMs, but it is still a fascinating diversion.

3 - Verdun-class aircraft carrier

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France's naval staff had ambitious plans for the post-WW2 renaissance of the French navy, planning the construction of multiple battleships, a powerful fleet of carriers, and their associated escorts and supporting ships. A curious plan given the rise of naval airpower and the nature of most colonial wars which France would be fighting, although not as bizarre or conservative as it might seem, given that battleships were still useful in night fights or bad weather where carriers could not operate. But the bad state of France's post war finances as well as the heavy resources required by fighting in wars such as Indochina or later on Algeria quickly put paid to these plans. Something of it must have been left hower, in the form of PA 58 or PA 59 - the Verdun-class, intended to be France's third aircraft carrier alongside the Clemenceau and Foch. This significantly larger aircraft carrier design would have reached 45,000 tons at full load, and would have been an effort by the French navy to attempt to win its own part of the nuclear strike role for France. It would have vitally been able to operate the Mirage IV strategic bomber.

The protection of the carrier would have been assured by 8 100mm anti-aircraft guns, as well as two anti-aircraft Masurca missile launchers. Aircraft onboard would have been the Mirage IV, the Super Vautour if it was retained, and an all-weather fighter. Speed would have reached 33 knots - through conventional propulsion, although some of the first French proposals for nuclear propulsion were mooted for the design. If built it would have been a useful tool for the French navy, although not notably altering their capabilities or historical deployments.

2 - MB.157

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The MB.150, built by the Bloch aircraft company and famous French postwar designer Marcel Bloch, later Dassault, proved to be a disappointment as a fighter. Speed trials for it heavily exaggerated its performance, and the revelation that it heavily underperformed came as a terrible shock to the French Air Force’s leadership when they were informed, as they had been counting on it for a significant part of their new, high performance fighters. But there was hope for improvement, first with the MB.152, with a more powerful engine, and ultimately with the MB.157, trialed in 1942 for the Luftwaffe. The MB.157 incorporated a 1,700 horsepower engine, as well as an improved armament of x2 20mm cannons and x4 7.5mm machine guns.

Part of the myth surrounding the MB.157 is about the recorded top speed - 710 kilometers - which is incredibly high. This top speed is probably a result of some sort of miscalculation or conversion problems to imperial units, since it was only matched by fighter designs years later and is out of character with the aircraft’s engine power and aerodynamics. But even assuming more reasonable speeds (most likely around 620 kilometers per hour with the increased speed coming from a confusion between nautical and statue miles) it would have been a very fine aircraft, very fast, well armed, and rugged and sturdy like the earlier versions of the MB.150 series.

1 - Char G1

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Tracing the development of the Char G1 tank into the future is a difficult task, since there were so many different variants and proposals from it, from a wide number of French companies. The Char G1 was supposed to be a 20 ton medium tank for the infantry, and there were a whole range of different proposals put forth, from Renault, BDR, Somua, SEAM, Fouga, and lorraine. They varied wildly in their descriptions, but the most ambitious, most commonly discussed, and most probable design was Renault's - the Char G1R.

This tank itself went through a lot of variations, starting out with a high powered 47mm gun (more powerful than the 47mm SA/35 which was the contemporary French 47mm tank gun), reaching 800 meters per second. But after competition from other variants, it ultimately evolved into a 75mm armed tank, with 60mm armor, a 4-man crew, torsion bar suspension, and mobility provided by a 280-450 horsepower engine - in effect, the equivalent of other medium tanks such as the T-34 or M4 Sherman. But there would have been more advanced technical features, such as a rangefinder and a stabilizer - although doubtless these would have delayed the project further. But if France hadn't fallen, it would probably have been able to enter production and service by 1941 and proved to be a very capable vehicle.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on September 22, 2021:

I had not realised how many developments France had come up with for the military. It makes sense though when I remember that they were involved in the design of Concorde.

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