The Char Léger Hotchkiss H39 was an improved version of the Hotchkiss H35 light tank, with a more powerful engine and slightly improved main gun. It was produced in larger numbers than the H35 and served with both the Infantry and the Cavalry in 1940.
The Char Léger Hotchkiss H35 was developed in the early 1930s as the French army began to modernise its tanks. It was a small two man tank, armed with a short barrelled 37mm gun and powered by a 75hp engine.
The H35 was developed as an infantry tank, but produced as a cavalry tank. It was under powered for the role, and the cavalry didn’t like its one man turret or 37mm main gun. Around 400 were completed before production moved onto the Hotchkiss H39.
The H39 kept the basic layout of the H35. It was still a two-man tank, with the same suspension, hull and turret as the earlier version. Most were given a longer barrelled 37mm gun, the 37mm model 1938, although only 500 of these guns were produced, and they had to be shared with the AMX R40. The H39 used the same APX-R turret as the Renault R35 and R40. This had a rotating domed cupola, with a visor viewport. The H35 had rubber road wheels but these wore out fairly quickly, so on the H39 steel rims were added. The tracks were widened from 25cm to 27cm.
Hotchkiss called the new version the Char Léger mle.1938 series D, but the army called it the Char Léger mle. 1935 H modifié 1939. It was thus officially simply a modified version of the H35. The various names have since caused some confusion, with some sources incorrectly referring to tanks with the 120hp engine but short gun as the H38 and tanks with both the 120hp engine and new gun as the H39.
The most important change was the introduction of a 120hp engine, which increased the tank's top speed by almost 5mph. The new engine was larger, and so the engine compartment at the rear of the tank was increased in size by giving it an almost level raised rear deck (the H35 had a sloping rear deck).
Hotchkiss received the first order for the H39 in July 1938, and eventually 400 were ordered for the cavalry. More than half of these tanks went to the Infantry, where they were allocated to the new armoured divisions (DCR). Another batch of 80 tanks was ordered in April 1939, and once again went to the infantry. After the outbreak of war in September 1939 the H39 was selected as a standard type of light tank, and the total number of orders reached 900 before the fall of France.
240 H39s had been delivered by the outbreak of the Second World War. About 433 more had been delivered by the end of May 1940, for a total of 673.
By May 1940 the French Army had 2,691 light tanks, a mix of the R35, AMX R40, H35 and H39. All of the H39s in use had entered service since the outbreak of the Second World War. At first they were issued to platoon leaders, but later enough were available to spread them more widely.
In May 1940 the H39 was split between the infantry and cavalry. In the infantry the first three armoured divisions (1st to 3rd DCR) each had 90 H39s in two battalions to operate alongside the Char B1 bis. In the cavalry 140 had been issued to the 3rd DLM, 32 to the newly formed Divisions Légères de Cavalerie (DLC) and 30 to the GRDI reconnaissance groups attached to infantry units.
In combat it proved to be a mediocre design. The two man layout meant that the commander also had to act as gunner and loader, making each tank less effective in combat. In 1940 even the longer 37mm gun wasn't powerful enough to take on the better German tanks.
The H39's combat debut came during the Norwegian campaign. The 342e CACC was sent to Narvik, but the surviving ones were soon forced to withdraw.
In May 1940 the 3rd DLM advanced into Belgium with the French northern armies, acting as an advance guard and covering force. It was thus caught up in the disastrous fighting in the northern part of the front that ended with the evacuation from Dunkirk. Some of the tanks with the DLC also got caught up in the same battle. Those in the three infantry armoured divisions (DCR) rarely got used in large numbers. 1st DCR ended up being destroyed by the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions west of Dinant on 15 May. 3rd DCR never managed to concentrate, and had to fight in small packets south of Sedan. 2nd DCR was also scattered, but managed to reunite towards the end of May. It then carried out an attack on the German bridgeheads over the Somme near Abbeville on 4 June, fighting alongside the 51st (Highland) Division, but this attack made little progress.
After the French surrender some of the surviving H39s were taken into German service, as the PzKpfw 39-H 735(f). They were used by occupation units and second line troops, and some saw combat in the Soviet Union in 1941. The Germans also used the H39 chassis to carry anti-tank guns.
Some H39s were overseas when France fell. They ended up being split between Vichy and the Free French, and some saw combat in Syria in 1941. Some of these Middle Eastern tanks were later used by the Israeli army.
Vicky France was allowed to keep 16 H39s in North Africa. These had arrived in North Africa in February 1940.
Enough H39s were in Britain after the end of the Narvik expedition to allow the formation of a single Free French tank company. This company was used during the invasion of Syria in 1941.
Char Léger Hotchkiss H39
Length: 4.22m/ 13.85ft
Width: 1.85m/ 6.07ft (AFV); 1.95m (Weapons WWII)
Height: 2.14m/ 7.02ft
Crew: 2 (commander/ gunner, driver)
Weight: 12 tons
Engine: 120bhp at 2,800rpm Hotchkiss 6 cylinder
Max Speed: 36km/h/ 22.4mph
Max Range: 150km/ 93 miles radius of action (AFV), 120km (Weapons WWII)
Armament: 37mm SA 38 L33 main gun, co-axial 7.5mm machine gun
Hull front and sides: 40mm
Hull top: 18mm
Hull floor: 20mm
Turret: 45mm max