Renault FT Light Tank (France)

The Renault FT was the most advanced tank of the First World War, and was the first production tank to be equipped with a turret capable of rotating through 360 degrees. It was produced in large numbers during the First World War and remained in front line service well into the Second World War.

Development

The father of the French tank force was Colonel J. E. Estienne, who was responsible for the development of the original Schneider tank. He had first suggested the production of tracked armoured vehicles in December 1915, and after getting official support approached a number of industrial concerns. At this time Louis Renault turned down the project, as his firm was already heavily committed to other military contracts. The first French tanks were thus the Schneider CA and the Saint Chamond.

In July 1916 General Estienne approached Louis Renault, and convinced him to begin work on a new light tank. This was a very different type of vehicle to the standard British and French tanks of the period, which were sizable vehicles with large crews.

By October 1916 Renault had produced a wooden mock-up of the new Char mitrailleur (machine gun vehicle) design. While General Estienne struggled to get funding for the type, Renault produced a second wooden mock-up and then began work on a single prototype. Soon afterwards official funding was provided for one prototype. This was followed in December 1916 by an order for 100 production machines.

The prototype was completed by January 1917. It underwent factory tests at Billancourt in February 1917 and official tests at the Centre Artillerie Spéciale at Champlieu in April 1917, completing both sets of tests successfully.

The prototype was generally similar to the production vehicles described below, although it had a one piece cast turret armed with a Hotchkiss machine gun carried in a ball mount.

Description

The FT was a very modern looking machine for the time, especially when compared to the nearest British equivalent, the Whippet light tank, which carried its machine gun armament in a fixed superstructure.

The most advanced feature of the tank was the fully rotating turret. The turret was mounted at the front of the main superstructure. The majority of FTs used either a moulded steel turret or eight sided riveted turret, and the initial version was armed with an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun.

The first one hundred machines were completed with the one piece cast turret used on the prototype. This could only carry the Hotchkiss machine gun, and had a built in cupola.

The eight sided turret had slightly sloped sides, with a cupola at the back-left and access via a split hatch mounted on the back-right of the turret, with one door on the rear plate and the other on the back-right plate. The steel plates were screwed to a frame. It had a gun mantlet 270mm wide and 210mm high on the front of the turret. The cupola was covered with an armoured hood. This turret was designed by Louis Renault, and could carry either the Hotchkiss machine gun or a 37mm Puteaux cannon. It was known as the 'Omnibus' turret because it could carry both types of gun.

The moulded turret was designed at Berliet in 1918, and was thus often known as the 'Berliet' turret. It was built of two parts - a forged turret ring that resembled a flattened cone (giving the turret slightly sloping sides) and a 16mm cast roof. A cupola was mounted at the back-left of the turret. Access was via a split hatch in the rear of the turret.

It had a flat sided hull, with a pointed nose and box-like superstructure that extended along the rear two thirds of the tank. This had flat sides from the turret to the rear of the tracks, then tapered in towards a pointed tail, which continued on past the back of the tracks.

The 18hp Renault engine was mounted in the rear of the superstructure.

A tail made up of a flat plate supported by a number of beams was attached to the rear.

A lower hull section continued forward from the superstructure to the front of the tracks. The top of this section was actually a split hatch that could open up to the sides, and the front panel of the superstructure could be raised up to almost totally open up the driver's position.

The tracks had a large front idler wheel at the front, leaf spring suspension, and vertical coils to provide tension for the upper track run.

The road wheels were carried below a support beam that was attached to a hull bracket near the front of the tank with suspension provided by a coiled spring and that pivoted at the rear. The road wheels were mounted on four bogies (one carrying three road wheels and three carrying two wheels) attached to the support beam and with suspension provided one leaf spring for each pair of bogies.

The return run of the track was supported by an upper beam that pivoted at the rear and supported on a 280mm spring at the front. It had four return rollers.

The steel rear drive wheel was smaller than the idler wheel, and as a result the return run of the track sloped down from front to back. The large idler wheel was made of wood with seven steel spokes and a 12mm thick steel rim.

The FT carried a crew of two, with the commander/ gunner/ loader in the turret and the driver in the front of the superstructure, just below the turret, with his legs and the controls extending into the lower nose.

Steering was done by declutching one or the other tracks and applying the brakes on that side.

Production

The FT was ordered into production in December 1916, when 100 tanks were ordered. This was increased to 150 tanks in February 1917, as the prototype was undergoing factory test, to 1,000 in April 1917 and to 3,500 in June 1917. By October 1918 a total of 7,820 tanks had been ordered, and production had been split between Renault, Berliet, SOMUA and Delaunay-Belleville, with much of the armour built in France.

By the end of the First World War 3,532 FT tanks had been built and 3,177 accepted by the Ministry of Armament. Renault had built 1,850, Berliet 800, SOMUA 600 and Delaunay-Belleville only 280. Renault built another 570 after the end of the First World War, although many of these tanks were exported.

The FT was produced in machine gun, gun and wireless versions.

The Americans also planned to put the FT into production in the United States, as the Six-Ton Tank M1917. Work on this project was slow, with delays in France and in the United States. Production finally got underway in October 1918. Only 64 tanks were completed before the Armistice, and the first two finally reached the AEF at Bourg on 20 November 1918. The type finally entered mass production after the end of the war. Eventually 952 of the 4,400 tanks that had been ordered were completed. Of these 374 were armed with US 37mm guns, 526 with machine guns and 50 were radio tanks. The M1917 was the main US light tank until 1931.

Variants

The standard FT was armed with an 8mm air cooled gas operated belt operated Hotchkiss Model 1914 machine gun. Each belt carried 30 rounds, and they could be linked to increase the rate of fire. 4,980 rounds were carried in 166 belts.

Some sources differentiate between the FT-17, with the octagonal turret and the FT-18 with the cast turret, or between the FT-17 with machine guns and FT-18 with 37mm gun, but this isn’t supported by wartime records, which only refer to the Renault F.T.

The Char-canon FT was armed with a 37mm SA 18 L/21 Puteaux gun carried in both the angled-riveted turret and the cast turret. 1,830 were ordered. Gun armed machines normally carried 200 HE fragmentation rounds, 25 armour piercing rounds and 12 canister rounds to be used for short range defence.

The Char-canon, Renault BS (or Char FT 75 BS), carried a short-barrelled 75mm gun in a seven sided riveted turret. A turret bustle had to be added to allow for gun recoil, and the escape hatch moved to the left. Only 30 rounds could be carried. 970 were ordered, but none were completed before the end of the First World War. A handful were completed after the war, and some were used against the Allies during Operation Torch.

The Char Renault TSF was a command tank, which had the turret replaced by a box like superstructure, with a radio mast on top. The TSF carried a crew of three - driver, radio operator and observer. The TSF was used in some numbers between the wars.

First World War Combat

The FT was used to equip nine tank regiments (Nos.501 to 509) each with three battalions. Each battalion had three tank companies. At full strength each company had one 37mm armed HQ tank, three platoons of five tanks, a reserve of five tanks and a recovery platoon with three tanks, for a total of 24 tanks each. Another three tanks were kept as a battalion reserve, giving each battalion a full authorised strength of 75 tanks (rarely achieved once the units had been committed to combat). 

The Renault FT was used as an infantry support weapon, taking on German machine gun positions and flattening barbed wire. They were available in much larger numbers than the heavier tanks. 

The FT made its combat debut with the 501st Tank Regiment (supporting General Mangin's 10th Army) on 31 May 1918, during the final German offensives of the war. The 501st fought in the Foret de Retz, south-west of Soissons, during the German advance on Paris. All three battalions were used, and they were committed in small batches to support counterattacks being launched by Moroccan troops.  The FT had a successful debut, and proved to be flexible enough for use in the forest, where the larger assault tanks would have been unable to operate.

On 20 July 480 FTs smashed the German lines near Soissons, during the Aisne-Marne offensive, the great Allied counterattack that marked the end of the German offensives and the start of the Allied advance to victory. The tanks advanced four miles in a single day, but the breakthrough couldn't be exploited.

The French recorded 4,356 FT engagements between 31 May and 11 November 1918. 746 tanks were lost during this period, just under one in every six engagements, or 23.4% of the total accepted. 440 were totally destroyed, with 356 of these destroyed by field guns.

At the end of the war the French had 1,991 tanks in front line units and 386 in workshops, a total of 2,377.

During the First World War the FT was also used as the main equipment of US tank battalions on the Western Front. The British used a small number as command tanks, although these were normal tanks and not the TSF variant.  

By 11 November 1918 3,187 FT tanks had been delivered. Of these 2,720 had been accepted by the French Army, 220 were being delivered, 514 had gone to the American Expeditionary Force and 16 exported to other countries.

Interwar Period

Production continued after the war, and eventually 4,517 were built. This included 40 Char Canon de 75S and 100 TSF radio tanks.

After the war a number were used in Italy from 1918-20, in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1924, in Spain from 1920-40 and in Belgium, Brazil, China, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Sweden, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands.

The Poles formed their 1st Tank Regiment in France in 1919, where they were given training. Later in 1919 the unit moved its 120 tanks to Poland, where they played a part in the Polish victory in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. Only seven FT tanks were lost during this conflict. The Poles later built the FT under licence (including 26 or 27 mild steel training vehicles), and also purchased six of the radio tank variant. The FT remained the most important tank in Polish service until the early 1930s when it was joined by the British Vickers E tank. Some FTs were still in use in September 1939.

In Italy the FT was developed into the Fiat 3000.

In Russia it was used by the White Russians, who inherited them from the Allies, and later by the Red Army, which captured them from the Whites.

By 1921 the French army still had 3,737 Renault FT tanks in service. This included 2,109 with 8mm machine guns, 1,246 with the 37mm SA gun, 39 with a short 75mm BS gun, 188 wireless tanks and 155 training vehicles.

A number of attempts were made to improve the basic design. In 1924-25 it was tried out with Citroën-Kégresse running gear and rubber band tracks, in an attempt to make it faster and quieter. One company used these tanks in operations against the Rifs in Morocco, but the tracks proved to be prone to coming off on rough ground, and repairs too took long.

In the mid 1920s Renault worked on a modified version of the FT, the Renault NC, which appeared in two versions (NC.1 and NC.2), but neither was ordered by the French Army. The NC was then further developed into the larger Char D1, which was produced in some numbers.

During the 1930s the remaining French machine gun tanks were re-armed with new Reibel 7.5mm model 31 machine guns. This used drum ammo instead of belts and was felt to be more practical for use in tanks.

At the end of 1934 3,499 were still available for service.

In March 1936, when German reoccupied the Rhineland, nine tank regiments, each with three battalions of 72 tanks, were still equipped with the Renault FT.

Second World War

On 1 September 1939 the French Army still had some 1,600 FTs in service. When used in the infantry support role each platoon was to have two cannon armed types and one machine gun armed type. By 1940 the short range, low speed and thin armour made them effectively useless in combat. In May 1940 a total of 480 were still in use with units attached directly to the field armies. They equipped eight battalions and three independent companies. In an acknowledgement of their obsolete nature, those battalions equipped with the FT had 63 tanks each, compared to 45 in units equipped with more modern tanks.

The Germans captured 1,704 FTs, of which around 500 were restored to working order, pressed into service, and used them for security purposes. Other tanks had their turrets removed and used as observation cupolas on the Atlantic Wall.

In September 1939 there were 163 Renault FTs overseas, 41 armed with the 7.5mm machine gun, 89 with the 37mm gun and 33 with the 75mm BS howitzer. 105 of these tanks were in North Africa and the rest were split between Syria and Indochina.  

Vichy France was allowed to increase the number of FT tanks in North Africa to 320, mainly used to defend isolated posts, airfields or for coastal defence. Most of the extra tanks came from stockpiles already overseas. Another 45 were based in Syria and about twenty in French Indochina, the same as in September 1939.

Names

Stats
Production: 4,517
Hull Length: 13.25ft (excluding ditching tail)
Hull Width: 5.67ft
Height: 7ft
Crew: 2
Weight: 6.5 tons
Engine: 18hp Renault 4-cylinder gasoline engine (some sources say 35bhp)
Max Speed: 4.8mph road, 2.2mph cross-country
Max Range: 22 miles
Armament: 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun or 37mm gun in most First World War production
Armour: 6-22mm

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (11 January 2016), Renault FT Light Tank (France), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_ft17.html

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