Char 2C – The Biggest Operational Tank Ever Built

The French Char 2C is a super-heavy tank that despite being over 100 years old, holds the title for the largest tank ever. To be more precise, it is the largest tank to have ever reached operational status, although it still beats out many prototype vehicles in some metrics, like being longer than both the Maus and TOG 2.

At the time of its introduction, the Char 2C weighed twice as much as the heaviest British tank, and had much more armor and a large gun in a rotating turret. Even the German Tiger II was unable to beat the Char 2C’s weight more than two decades after it entered service.

Inside this behemoth was a crew of 12, operating two turrets, four machine guns, two engines and a large main gun.

Like so many other “super” tanks though, the Char 2C was quickly made obsolete and spent its service pretending to be much scarier than it was as a propaganda tool.

Contents

Background

At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 during the First World War, Britain became the first nation to use a tank in battle. They were developed as a means of traveling through no-man’s and attacking the enemy’s position to break the stalemate of trench warfare.

As they were the first to do it, the British hold the title of the inventor of the tank. However, France had been working on tanks in secret at the same time as the British, but was unable to bring them into service as quickly, in part due to a lack of military and political will.

That all changed in the latter half of 1916 though, when the British unleashed their steel beasts at the Somme, instantly revolutionizing warfare. While their tactical impact was quite limited, they captured the public’s imagination and had a huge effect on morale.

Mark I tank in World War I.
A British Mark I tank.

Suddenly, French citizens wanted to see their own nation’s tanks, motivating politicians and military leaders to pour more resources into their development.

In September 1916, Renault and shipbuilder FCM were tasked with joining forces to develop a heavy tank.

The development of a heavy tank was a tough one, as some feared that it would interfere with the Renault FT project, which was almost ready for service. In addition, building a tank of this scale was difficult for France’s immature tank-building industries.

Around a year later FCM revealed the FCM 1A, a prototype that was the largest tank in the world at the time, and made great efforts to catch up to Britain’s work. It had a 105 mm gun, and its interior conditions were much better than those on British tanks.

FCM 1A prototype.
Despite being smaller than the Char 2C, the FCM 1A was still a massive tank.

The FCM 1A impressed Allied observers during trials near the end of 1917, but FCM used what it had learned with its development and began work on an even larger tank: the Char 2C.

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However, due to more disagreements and outright resistance to such vehicles, no Char 2C would be built by the time the war ended. Even so, there was still pressure to see France manufacture and field its own purpose-built heavy tanks, so an order for 300 was still placed in 1919.

The Char 2C

What they built was the largest tank to have ever entered production. At 10.3 meters in length, it was longer than the TOG 2, the Maus and even the USSR’s T-35. It was over 4 meters tall with its cupola attached, and 2.95 meters wide.

Its size was not just for looks though, as it served a practical purpose. During this era tanks needed to be able to cross trenches. The British pioneered this with their rhomboid-shaped tanks; the longer the track contact with the ground, the wider the trench that could be crossed.

The Char 2C’s great length allowed it to cross 4.5-meter wide trenches, much more than the 2.7-meter limit of the British Mark I.

Char 2C length display.
The Char 2C’s length enabled it to cross very wide trenches

At the same time though the Char 2C had to be transportable by rail, hence its rather thin width of 2.95 meters.

It is often regarded as a silly tank that was a waste of time, but this opinion has come from the tank being compared to much later vehicles. When compared to other tanks of the period, the Char 2C is actually a very forward-thinking design with a number of advanced features.

The vehicle’s interior can be divided into two main sections; the front fighting compartment and the rear fighting compartment.

At the front was the main turret, which contained a 75mm APX 1897 cannon, and three crew members; the commander, loader, and gunner. This was the first time a three-man turret had been used on a tank.

Below and in front of this turret was the driver, situated at the front left of the hull. To his right was a machine gunner.

75 mm APX 1897 gun.
The 75 mm APX 1897 cannon on the Char 2C.

On both front corners of the hull were two more machine gunners who operated 8 mm machine guns in ball mounts.

At the back was another turret, which housed an 8 mm machine gun and a single crewman. Both this turret and the main turret were unable to rotate a full 360 degrees due to obstructions on top of the tank.

Connecting the front and rear sections was the engine room, which contained two diesel engines. These were initially 6-cylinder Mercedes engines that produced somewhere around 200 hp, but they were later swapped with more powerful 250 hp Maybach diesel engines after the originals wore out.

Each engine drove its own generator which sent power to an electric motor that drove one of the tracks, giving the tank an early form diesel-electric drive.

Char 2C back end.
The rear of the Char 2C. Note the rear turret, with a stroboscopic cupola on top.

Directly above the engines was a large radiator. The housing around it gives the tank its distinctive hump on top of the hull roof.

A literal corridor ran between the engines, allowing the crew to move between the front and rear portions of the tank.

Another three crew members were present inside the tank for maintenance purposes; these were a mechanic, an electrician, and a technician assistant. Finally, there was the radio operator, bringing the crew total to twelve.

Conditions inside were not fantastic, but they were certainly better than British designs. For starters, the Char 2C actually had sprung suspension! Now, this was no Rolls-Royce Wraith, but for 1919 it is an impressive addition, especially considering British tanks did not have any cushioning in their running gear at all.

The 2C's interior.
The front compartment of the Char 2C. To the left is the driver’s position, and at the top of the image is the bottom of the main turret.

Initially, communication between the Char 2C’s crew was with physical signals, but in the 1920s the tanks were fitted with a radio intercom system – again, an impressive feature for the period.

On the roof were two stroboscopic cupolas. These were comprised of an outer shell and an inner cylinder. Each had many tall, thin slits around its circumference that were too thin to be used conventionally. However, when the cupola was spun at high speed it created a stroboscopic effect, enabling the viewer to see outside while remaining relatively protected.

One of the most impressive features of the Char 2C was its armor protection. Usually, for a tank of this size, armor has to take a back seat, as seen with later vehicles like the British A1E1 Independent and the Soviet T-35.

In contrast, the Char 2C was one of the most heavily armored tanks in the world at the time, with 45 mm on the front of the hull and 35 mm all around the main turret. The sides were 22 mm thick, and the roof was 13 mm thick.

Char 2C size comparison.
Note the size of the tank compared to people in this image.

Overall this monstrous vehicle came in at an eye-watering 77 tons. This was over twice the weight of Britain’s Mark IV, and ten times heavier than the Renault FT.

In fact, this tank was so heavy that it wouldn’t be rivaled by another operational tank until 1944 when the Tiger II entered service.

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Despite its weight, it had respectable mobility for the time, with a top speed of 7.5 mph. This was almost twice as fast as the Mark IV, which had a top speed of 4 mph while weighing half as much.

Service and Fate

Shortly after the original order for 300 in 1919, the amount was reduced to just ten.

All ten Char 2Cs were delivered in 1921, and the type entered service that year.They were each named after a French region: Berry, Provence, Touraine, Poitou, Picardie, Normandie, Alsace, Bretagne, Anjou, and Champagne.

There is arguments to be made that the Char 2C was the most formidable tank in the world at the time of its introduction. However, by 1930s standards, it was too slow, too heavy and had poor armor.

Unsurprisingly, they were also found to be unreliable, with the tanks frequently withdrawn for repairs. Their size meant they couldn’t be transported by road and therefore had to go by rail. But they were too tall to be simply placed on a flatcar, so a special car was made that suspended the Char 2C by both ends to lower its height on the train.

Char 2C on train car.
A Char 2C on its specialised rail car.

Upgrades and modifications were made to them over the years, including fitting Champagne with a 155 mm howitzer, but for the most part, they were used as a propaganda tool at parades. Its career was very similar to the Soviet T-35, which spent years driving up and down parades and featuring in propaganda films using its physical appearance as a symbol of strength.

Although the French military was aware of its obsolescence, it remained in service for two nearly decades.

At the start of the Second World War, it looked increasingly like the Char 2C was going to have to put its money where its mouth is and actually engage in combat. This was not a comforting proposition, as by 1940s standards the Char 2C was completely out of date.

Its gun may have been effective against lighter vehicles, but its armor was no match for the latest anti-tank weapons. One vehicle, Lorraine, had received large quantities of extra armor in 1939, becoming one of the most heavily armored tanks in the world, but the rest had not received these upgrades.

When war with Germany broke out in June of 1940, the Char 2C’s were still regarded as propaganda tools and the French military quickly made efforts to move them away from the fighting. Six were loaded onto their specialist train cars and sent south, but German actions further up the line forced the train to stop.

To stop these well-known tanks falling into German hands, the Char 2Cs’ crews loaded them with explosives and destroyed them. Others had been destroyed before the trip as they experienced mechanical failures.

Char 2C Berry destroyed.
Berry after being sabotaged by its crew.

When the Germans discovered the wreckages of the Char 2Cs, they found that Champagne was still relatively intact. Knowing the propaganda value of capturing this famous tank, it was transported back to Berlin where it was displayed as a war trophy. The tank was then captured by the Soviets, before disappearing to an unknown fate.

This rather pathetic combat record concluded the service life of the largest tank to ever reach production.

Today no Char 2Cs survive, but there is a fascinating rumor that has persisted over the decades that Champagne still exists. The story goes that when the Soviets entered Berlin, they discovered Champagne and transported it back to the USSR. Knowing that France would want it back, its existence was kept a tight secret. If true, this means that a Char 2C may still be somewhere inside Russia today.

The tank remains a symbol of the early, exploratory years of the tank that produced some of the weirdest tracked armored fighting vehicles ever made. While it is mostly regarded as a failure, the Char 2C should be judged in the correct context; which is in the immediate years after the First World War.

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From this perspective, the Char 2C was one of the most capable tanks in the world. It is important to remember that at this time, no one knew what a tank should look like, so engineers were essentially writing the book as they went. Considering this, we believe history has not treated the Char 2C fairly.