There are a few must-see museums for armor enthusiasts in Europe and the Musée des Blindés in Saumur, France, is definitely one of them. I’ve visited this museum two times, in 2008 and 2012, and I felt like a little boy in a huge toy store. The unique collection is more than impressive. 250 vehicles are presented but the museum owns almost 900(!) vehicles of which approximately 200 are in running condition! The museum takes great pride in reconstructing, restoring and preserving armored vehicles from WWI onward. Every year in July the city of Saumur celebrates its equestrian and military tradition at the Carrousel de Saumur. Numerous vehicles of the museum take part in this dynamic presentation.
Excited yet? Let’s see the inside! Admission charges are reasonable (€ 9,50 for adults) but visitors also have to pay € 5,- for permission to take photos and/or videos. That’s a bit steep if you ask me but as long as the money goes into restoration I was happy to pay this amount. The museum is divided into different halls (“salles” in French) which display vehicles of certain eras beginning in WWI.
In this blog post you will learn more about the items displayed in the “Salle 1914 – 1918” and “Salle France 1940”.
Salle 1914 – 1918
Upon entering this hall you’ll stumble over a couple of field guns (“canons” in French) used in or after WWI. The 37 mm gun of the Renault FT 17 is based on the same gun used by the Marine. From the barrel a shutting brake and recuperator were adapted to allow firing from the inside of the tank.
Schneider CA 1916
The Schneider CA 1916 was the first French assault tank designed by Colonel Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, it was built by the Schneider firm. The assault vehicle was designed solely for launching a surprise attack on the enemy trenches. Its mission was to open the way for infantry by crushing barbed wire and bringing firepower to support. However, poor trench crossing performance led to disappointing results in combat. The American Holt type tractor chassis and a boxy, rather unwieldy, superstructure proved inadequate for operational use. At Berry-au-Bac in Aisne, on the 16th of April 1917, 76 out of 132 engaged Schneider tanks were either destroyed by German artillery or abandoned by their crew. 400 Schneider tanks were made.
|Armament||A 75 mm Schneider gun and two 8 mm Hotchkiss M1914 machineguns|
|Armor||11 – 17 mm|
The Saint-Chamond heavy tank was the second tank produced by France during WWI. It was manufactured by FAMH (Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d’Homécourt, Mécanique Creusot Loire) in Saint-Chamond. Despite 400 vehicles being produced this tank was not a success as its substantial size limited its maneuvers on the battlefield. However, WWI ended before it was completely replaced by the Renault FT 17 tanks and British heavy tanks.
|Armament||A 75 mm L12CTR gun and four 8 mm Hotchkiss M1914 machineguns|
Renault FT 17
Analyzing the failure of the heavy tanks French General Estienne designs a small tracked machine, relatively agile and easy to build. It’s the Renault FT 17 which becomes operational during the summer of 1918, just in time to have a determining role in the final victory of WWI. It is the world’s first combat tank fitted with a 360° revolving turret. For crossing wider trenches a spur was fitted at the rear. As of 1931 the original 8 mm Hotchkiss 1914 machinegun was replaced by the displayed 7.5 mm Reibel machinegun. 4,000 were built in several versions, it was still in service in 1940.
|Armament||A 8 mm Hotchkiss machinegun (725 m/s) or a Puteaux SA 18 37 mm gun|
This Renault truck was used as an artillery tractor for the 75 mm field gun. Another version was dedicated to the transport of the FT 17 light tank. This truck is powered by a Renault gasoline engine with an output of 60 hp and has a top speed of 18 km/h.
Salle France 1940
The Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) introduced this two-man light tank for infantry support in 1935. Unlike its competitors from Renault and Hotchkiss this tank was made of welded steel plates and was driven by a diesel engine, both prefiguring the next generation of tank designs. A single series of 100 vehicles was built. The FCM 36 main armament, a short 37 mm model 18 tank gun, proved inadequate for anti-tank use. In 1943 the Germans converted 48 FCM 36 tanks in self-propelled gun mounts.
|Armament||A 37 mm Puteaux SA 18 gun (388 m/s) and 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Châtellerault modèle 1931|
Renault AMR 33
The armored car AMR 33 was developed from a fully tracked chassis sacrificing armor for superior mobility. Designed as a tracked vehicle for the reconnaissance units of the French Cavalry, the Renault AMR 33 was only built in small numbers (123) and entered active service in 1934. The Spanish civil war would demonstrate the operational limitations of lightly armored vehicles (as it was the case for similar German and Italian designs when facing resolute anti-tank defenses).
|Armament||7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel (850 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Châtellerault modèle 1931|
Panhard AMD 178
In 1940 the armored car Panhard AMD 178 model 1935 was considered as the absolute gem of the materiel issued to French Cavalry reconnaissance units. The “Pan-Pan”, as it was then nicknamed, was much appreciated by the troops. Captured vehicles were used by the Germans throughout the war under the designation Panzerspähwagen P 204 (f).
|Armament||A 25 mm SA 34 gun (920 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Renault B1 bis
The Renault B1 bis heavy battle tank was the most powerful combat vehicle engaged by the French Army in 1940. It featured a 75 mm gun in the bow which clearly introduced similar designs on the British Churchill infantry tank and the American M3 series. An estimated number of 380 B1 bis was produced. The 75 mm gun in the bow was traversed laterally with the assistance of the Naeder hydraulic system which required the engine to be running for working properly. The active range of the B1 bis was thus severely limited in combat.
|Armament||A 47 mm SA 35 gun (660 m/s), a 75 mm ABS SA 35 howitzer and two 7.5 mm Mitrailleuses Reibel|
Renault R 35
In the early 1930’s the French Army requested a replacement for the FT 17, a veteran of WWI still in service with the French tank battalions in great numbers. The hull and turret were made of cast steel which provided adequate protection for the two-man crew. Suspension system was typical of French light tanks with five bogies. Designed solely for supporting the advancing infantry the Renault R 35 performed well considering its initial purpose. 1,600 of these were produced between 1935 and 1940.
|Armament||A 37 mm SA 18 gun (388 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Renault ACG1 (AMC 35)
Appeared in 1935 the AMC 35 (Automitrailleuse de Combat Renault modèle 1935) had a Renault engine identical to that of the B1 bis but with four cylinders instead of six. Its 47 mm gun was a very good weapon. Unique in France during the forties, the turret was manned by two persons. Produced in only 100 copies, 17 of which fought for France. The few devices which participated in the battle of June 1940 performed well: A first unit of ten vehicles fought under the orders of captain Audigier in Serches (Aisne). A second unit of seven vehicles, ordered by captain Neuchèze, participated in battles with the Cadets of Saumur from the 19th to the 21st of June 1940.
|Armament||A 47 mm SA 35 gun and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Somua S 35
Well protected by rounded cast armor and fitted with the powerful 47 mm SA 35 gun the Somua S 35 was one of the best battle tanks of its time. Almost 500 of these were issued to the French Cavalry. The particular shape and cast armor type certainly inspired the designers of the American Sherman tank. Most of the German captured Somua tanks were used as command vehicles or towing tractors for their artillery.
|Armament||A 47 mm SA 35 gun (670 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Laffly V 15 T & Canons
Derived from the Laffly 6X6 W 15 T the 4-wheel drive V 15 T stands out from its predecessor by its lower figure and its independent front wheels. Its engine produces 55 hp and top speed is 58 km/h. 100 specimens were ordered by the French Cavalry principally to tract the 25 mm anti-tank gun (APX SAL 37).
Hotchkiss H 39
This tank was an upgraded version of the Hotchkiss H 35 thus featuring improved engine performance and better anti-tank capabilities thanks to the long 37 mm model SA 38 tank gun. To increase trench spanning capability some vehicles were equipped with a spur at the rear. In 1943 120 H 39 tanks were converted into self-propelled gun mounts for the needs of the German armored artillery. The example at the museum has also been modified by the Germans who fitted a cupola hatch.
|Armament||A 37 mm SA 38 gun (680 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Renault R 39 & Renault UE 31 & Side Gnome & Rhône AX2 800
Designed for replacing the Renault R 35 light tank the R 39 was fitted with a more powerful engine. The longer 37 mm model 38 gun was built into the APX turret thus providing serious anti-tank capability to the R 39. The French Army however was not interested in upgrading the R 35, which was considered satisfactory in its infantry supporting role, but would only work on the inadequate suspension system of the R 35. Thus the R 40 with better AMX type suspension was chosen and the R 39 remained a prototype.
|Armament||A 37 mm SA 38 gun (680 m/s) and a 7.5 mm Mitrailleuse Reibel|
Designed from the popular Carden-Loyd universal carrier, the Renault UE 31 armored tracked carrier was, contrary to other related designs, not armed and solely used as ammunition carrier for resupplying advanced positions. Hence it’s featuring an armored trailer which could be unhitched from within the driver’s compartment.
This concludes part I of the visits to Musée des Blindés blog posts. In part II we will move on to the infamous German WWII hall (Salle Allemande Seconde Guerre Mondiale).