On 10th May 1940, 80 years ago today, the German army launched Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), the invasion of France and the Low Countries. The result was that by the end of June 1940 Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg were occupied, a large portion of France was overrun, the French government had signed an armistice with Germany and British forces had withdrawn across the English Channel.
I’d been planning a wargame to mark this event since early last year and 2019 saw me get quite a bit done on early war German tanks. With the COVID-19 lockdown still in place in the UK, I can’t see that I’ll get a chance for a wargame just yet, but I’ve been working on getting my French forces ready anyway. At least I’ve been able to follow Mark Morin’s progress in the US with his France 1940 tank games because he was way more organised than me and got loads of armour for this campaign painted last year (and you can check some of that out here).
I should maybe warn you that this is not likely to be a short post!
My intention was to build a French tank-only force for skirmish-type wargames and that was the approach I’d used with both British and German forces I’d already painted. In 20mm/1:72 scale most of the French tank types in 1940 are available, but I did end up having to pick and choose how I built the force up. So whereas the first problem was deciding which models to buy, this paled into insignificance when compared to deciding on what colours to paint them! To cut a very long story short, I’ve gone with what I consider to be the most up-to-date and reliable sources on the subject (but to illustrate a point – colour plates of the same Somua S35 vehicle in two recent books have a small, but obvious, variation in the camouflage scheme applied). French tank camouflage tended to vary according to the tank model, its year of manufacture and the factory involved, so I opted to have all my models in different camouflage schemes. Since I don’t quite understand all the subtle variations in platoon and company markings, particularly in relation to vehicles in cavalry units, I’ve not bothered with any of these markings.
OK, on to the tanks! First up is the Char B1 bis heavy tank (shown above and below), a well-armed and well-protected vehicle that proved quite difficult to knock out, assuming the reliability problems associated with its steering and power train allowed it to get into combat in the first place!
When I looked at available models, I found it was cheaper to buy Dragon assembled-and-painted plastic vehicles than it was to buy any of the other available models (three finished Dragon models for the same price as two metal/resin kits). This meant trading off the simpler paint finish against cleaning up, assembling and painting a kit, but the Dragon models are nice and you know what you’re getting. From my research, the paint and marking schemes of the three models I bought all appeared authentic.
First of the tanks I built and painted myself were two Hotchkiss H35 light tanks (shown above), both resin vehicles from Frontline Wargaming. One of these had been stashed for years waiting to be turned into a captured vehicle used by the Germans, but in the end I bought another one and painted them both as French vehicles. I painted them in different schemes and made the decision to change the way I paint multi-tone camouflage – usually, I’d paint the whole vehicle and slap a dirty brown wash on it to shade and mucky it, but this time round I left the wash and carefully shaded around the raised areas in darker colours before drybrushing a sand highlight over it. Tracks and running gear were just painted brown and drybrushed. I bought some decals so that I could add national red/white/blue roundels and tactical numbers (the latter are on the turret rear sides, so not visible here) and they were an absolute nightmare to apply! I think I ruined at least one roundel for every one I got to go on properly, but I got there in the end!
Next were two Somua S35 cavalry tanks, again both Frontline resin models (shown above). I’ve never had a model of this tank before and I was surprised how small it was for a medium tank. These two really did cause me the most headaches as far as colour schemes were concerned, since there were at least six variations applied during the manufacturing run! One of them needed a non-standard darker green applying and both had the camouflage bands edged in black like the H35s – I paint this with a fine brush since I doubt I’d be able to keep a drafting pen steady enough on a 3-D model! The only change I made to the tactical numbers was to place them on the flat forward sides of the turrets, rather than trying to get the decals to go on over raised vision ports. I didn’t really like the colour schemes at first, but once I’d got the shading and weathering finished I was quite happy with them.
Last of the models to get painted was a Laffly W15 TCC tank destroyer (shown above). I had the choice of getting a metal model of this but opted for a 3-D print from Shapeways – again, that’s because I know what I’m getting from Shapeways and it only needed painting! These were improvised tanks destroyers rushed into production after the German invasion, so it carries the simpler green/brown camouflage scheme of this later period. The grainy finish of the printed model picks up the drybrushing, but the picture makes it look more obvious than it is in real life. I think the chassis rear and gun mount are simplified to some extent, and I could do with some crew figures, but otherwise it’s a nice model.
Another of the reasons for not using a mucky brown wash on the models I painted myself was because the match between the colours on the Dragon Char Bs and my own vehicles was really good (see picture above and below). I was also fortunate in having the right colours handy.
Last are a couple of models dating from pre-history! These are two Renault R35 light tanks (see below).
Way back in the late ’70s I built myself a WW2 Hungarian army, with Turan tanks scratchbuilt from card with infantry being WW2 plastic Germans painted khaki! Hunting round for extra tanks to use, I assumed (incorrectly as it turns out) that the Hungarians would have been given some ex-French vehicles, so I built two R35s. These were very simple, with plasticene hull fronts and cupolas and plain paper bands for the tracks! In the early ’80s I re-purposed them for an early war French force, although it turns out they were the only models I had for the French! I added some extra details like the unditching tail and the long 37mm gun, although I still left the tracks as plain bands. They were painted in what were accurate colours in sources available at the time, interesting in that the only colour that has significantly changed in my 2020 vehicles is the tan/sand colour. Needless to say, these vehicles were given the mucky wash that was standard for me at the time. Although they’re a bit basic and simplified by today’s standards, they’re still quite usable models and they have their sentimental value if nothing else!
So, that’s me got my French tank force ready for a post-lockdown wargame! The only slight problem is that I’ve now got more French tanks than German ones! C’est la vie!