Saturday 7 May 2022

French Guns of 1940

I have spoken before of the Chain of Command WWII skirmish rules from the TooFat Lardies, which we played a lot 5- 10 year ago. My favourite army of the period, quirkily enough, is the French army of 1940. (It's "the joy of arcane knowledge" of course.) I ended up making a properly-organised rifle platoon for both sides, but also a complete repertoire of heavy weapons and equipment to choose their support from. Today's subjects are taken from that range. The guns themselves vary from 60% to 100% scratch built, the accompanying gear is all hand-made too, and the figures are more or less conversions from every available range of French figures.

First off is the well-known 25mm antitank gun, Model SA34. This was capable of dealing with the thinly-armoured tanks of 1940 and because of it's tiny size and the muzzle flash hider it was ultra difficult to spot when firing. In Chain of command, unlike most skirmish rules, the crews are of a realistic size: five figures plus an NCO to command them.

Squeezing six chunky figures around such a tiny gun led to some careful though about basing. I put each figure on a 1p coin base, but one or two crew are modelled on the same base as the gun. The latter base was made in what I call "amoeba style", so carrying the gun, but cut away in curves which allow the crew to be placed in close around it.

The next gun is less well-known. The Model 1916 "Tir Rapide" infantry gun was in real life a half-scale version of the famous "75", mounted on a light tripod and used in WWI for taking out stubborn machine gun nests. Each regiment had a platoon of three. The gun was accurate and did indeed fire rapidly, but had only a modest anti-tank capability by 1940 so was supposed to have been phased out just before then. Some were still around however, often filling slots where 25mm antitank guns were lacking.

The basic gun was a tiny thing on a tripod you can hardly see here between the crew and the long grass. It could have a shield fitted, a large flash-hider and/or an axle with small wheels, which you see being trundled away here. The whole gun was light enough to be carried over a couple a hundred yards by it's crew, or could be horse-towed behind a limber, or disassembled and loaded onto pack mules. The commander here observes through Model 1936 periscopic binoculars.

And now the very recognisable M1914 Hotchkiss machine gun. Here it's accompanied by the Model 1925 range-finder which formed part of every MG platoon. Sophisticated techniques of long-range fire, even indirect fire, were part of the plan for MG's in every army at the start of WWII, but by the end they left this kind of thing to mortars, and only the British MG battalions retained these skills.

The Hotchkiss could fire from a belt but was better know for blasting off 24-round clips, twelve of which fitted the tall narrow ammunition box. The Hotchkiss was heavy and unsophisticated, but a robust, reliable weapon which was reported to cause casualties over a mile away on occasion. A French infantry battalion had no less than 16 such guns.

Finally for today, the glorious, the legendary "Soixante-Quinze", the 75mm quick-firing field gun. When introduced around 1900 this was revolutionary in its design, in a dozen different ways. It played a big role in the Great War and still gave good service in WWII, being actively used as an anti-tank gun by the US army in Tunisia as late as 1943, mounted on half-tracks.

The gun and limber comprised an integrated system for producing exceptionally rapid shellfire. The first element was the limber, which was flipped onto its rear in action, the armoured doors thrown open and the fuse-setter (for inputting the bursting range of shrapnel) folded down. Two crew pulled shells out as fast as they could, setting the range on a pair of shells in about a second and passing them to the loader.

Here you can see how each round passed successively from limber to fuse-setter, to loader, to breech and downrange to the German recipient. The 75 could and did fire 20 to 30 rounds a minute like this, as shown by surviving film clips.

Another new feature when the 75 was introduced was the degree of crew protection. As well as the large gunshield, the base of the limber and its doors were armoured, thus when set up producing a continuous shield against bullets or shrapnel.



  1. Some beautiful artillery models and crew on display here John - fabulous work as always!

  2. Thanks, great modelling and an interesting read. I hadn't realised the limber was armoured

  3. Wonderful work there John and some nice info too on the French units. I too didn't realise that the limber was armoured. I really like the Model 1916 "Tir Rapide" which I'd not heard of before.

    1. Thanks guys, and you've made me think about the limber! The vehicle I have modelled here is in fact the *caisson*, ie ammunition trailer. Each 75 comprised two teams of six horses pulling a conventional wooden limber, on which rode three gunners. One of those limbers towed the gun itself and the other towed the armoured caisson. Once unlimbered the caisson was tipped 90 degrees, so that it's steel floor was presented to the enemy, and the towing bar folded down out of the way, as you see in the last photo here. The steel doors were opened to the sides, increasing protection, and the fuse-setting device folded down.

      The entire system was highly ingenious and hence top secret. On introduction it gave the French army a major advantage, and "revanchist" officers (those who were hell-bent on recovering Alsace-Lorraine) argued that France should seize this advantage to make war on Germany before they caught up! More peaceful councils prevailed, at least for the time being...

    2. Very interesting information--and a lovely group of models. Fantastic!