The Divisions Légères de Cavalerie (DLC - Light Cavalry Divisions)
Part 1 : Organisation

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 Last updated on 25 October 1998
[ The 1932 DC
[ The 1940 DLC ] [ DLCs on 10 May 1940 ] [ Spahis Brigades, 10 May 1940 ]

Although the French army of 1939 was very reliant on the horse for its logistics (1), a characteristic shared with all major European armies with the notable exception of the BEF, mounted combat units were fast disappearing from its ranks. Still, the increasingly mechanised Cavalry branch did not relinquish the horse altogether and five Divisions Légères de Cavalerie (DLC - Light Cavalry Division) were fielded in metropolitan France in May 1940 (a sixth weaker DLC was created in North Africa in June 1940 and will be treated separately).

In 1922, there were five Divisions Légères (DL - Light Divisions) combining horses, armoured cars and bicycles to carry out the traditional cavalry missions of strategic reconnaissance and screening of the main force. The French Cavalry's attitude to mechanisation was very mixed. It was enthusiastically embraced by part of the officer corps who saw it as the means of regaining their arm's traditional advantages of shock and mobility. On the other hand, a strong body saw in the horse "the only true cross-country and amphibious vehicle". As a result, some of Cavalry's divisions formed the basis of the Divisions Légères Mécaniques (DLM - Light Mechanised Division), armoured divisions in all but name, while the combination of horse and engine was seen as retaining its usefulness and was embodied by the experimental Divisions de Cavalerie type 1932.

The 1932 Division de Cavalerie  [ Top of Page ]

In 1932, the Divisions Légères were reorganised into five Divisions de Cavalerie (DC - Cavalry Divisions) with two Brigades de Cavalerie (BC - Cavalry Brigades) each with two regiments, one Groupe d'Autos-Mitrailleuses (GAM - Armoured Car Group), one Bataillon de Dragons Portés (BDP - Mechanised Dragoon Battalion) and one Régiment d'Artillerie (RA - Artillery Regiment) of three battalions. Division de cavalerie, 1932

While the cavalry brigade was still entirely reliant on the horse, the supporting reconnaissance, infantry, artillery and engineer components were already fully mechanised.

The GAM's 64 armoured vehicles were the unsatisfactory Panhard-Schneider-Kégresse P 16 halftrack armoured car as autos-mitrailleuses de combat (2), the rather similar Citroën-Kégresse P 28 as autos-mitrailleuses de reconnaissance and the Laffly 50 AM as autos-mitrailleuses de découverte.

During the 1930  manoeuvres an experimental motorcycle squadron had performed very successfully and both the GAM and the BDP each boasted one such squadron for reconnaissance duties.

The Bataillon de Dragons Portés (3) was lavishly (!) equipped with 99 Citroën-Kégresse P 19 unarmoured halftracks : 11 in the battalion staff, command platoon and headquarters support squadron, 32 in each infantry squadron and 24 in the heavy weapons squadron.

In accordance with the 1929 artillery motorisation program, the fully motorised artillery regiment boasted a total of 115 Citroën-Kégresse P 17 halftracks : four for the regimental HQ, four with radio trailers in each battalion HQ and four gun tractors, six ammunition caissons tractors and one radio trailer tractor in each battery.

However, combining mounted and mechanised units was far from satisfactory. Very different manoeuvre speeds (8 km/h and 30 km/h respectively) and supply requirements made the Divisions de Cavalerie unwieldy units, derisively nicknamed "pétrole-picotin" (oil and oats) or "crottin et cambouis" (horse dung and dirty grease) divisions.

Accordingly, the 4th Division de Cavalerie was transformed into the 1ere Division Légère Mécanique (DLM - Light Mechanised Division) in 1935 and the 5eme DC became the 2e DLM a year later. Another DC was to be disbanded in September 1939, leaving two Cavalry Divisions with a total of four horse cavalry regiments, one independent Brigade de Cavalerie, three independent Brigades de Spahis (BS - Spahi Brigade) and some one hundred and five partially mounted battalion-size Groupes de Reconnaissance (GR - Reconnaissance Groups) in mainland France.

The 1940 Division Légère de Cavalerie  [ Top of Page ]

The obsolescence of the Divisions de Cavalerie was quickly recognised and General Staff studies undertaken in early 1939 heralded yet another reorganisation. The two main weaknesses were identified as high vulnerability to air attacks and low anti-tank capability. It was also recognised that strategic reconnaissance and screening on the modern battlefield were obviously roles that could no longer be carried out by horse cavalry. As a result, a new lighter organisation was devised for these units whose role was to be restricted to reconnaissance, security duties and, when reinforced, screening in mountainous and wooded areas.

General Gamelin's staff, where cavalry was not held in high esteem, even considered stripping its armour away to put it to better use but did not go through with this so as not to further weaken its already limited anti-tank capabilities.

The projected Division Légère was to be built around the Brigade de Cavalerie, with one Régiment d'Autos-Mitrailleuses (RAM - Armoured Car Regiment), one Régiment de Dragons Portés (RDP - Mechanised Dragoon Regiment ) and one artillery regiment of two battalions in support. Plans were finalized in July 1939 with the new Divisions Légères to be formed by the end of the year. At the same time, strengthening the Brigades de Spahis with a motorised Groupe de Reconnaissance  (GR - Reconnaissance Group) of two squadrons, one artillery battalion, one engineer and one signal company was also considered.

At the outbreak of war, the Divisions de Cavalerie were mobilized according to their 1932 organisation. However, the Phoney War period was used to implement the planned changes and five Divisions Légères were created from the Divisions de Cavalerie and independent or new units in February 1940 and renamed Divisions Légères de Cavalerie the following month. The Brigades de Spahis on the other hand remained unchanged (4).

Division Légère de Cavalerie, 1940
The new Division Légère de Cavalerie had a binary structure with one Brigade de Cavalerie and one Brigade Légère Mécanique (BLM - Light Mechanised Brigade) supported by a reduced artillery regiment. The engineer component was also reduced to a company of three platoons, one mounted, one on motorcycles and one on halftracks. Doing away with the bridging company reduced the division's bridging equipment to the two light bridges held by each cavalry, armoured car and mechanised dragoon regiment's HQ support squadron. A somewhat peculiar decision given the DLC's normal deployment in rough terrain.

The Brigade de Cavalerie (BC)

The main strength of the DLC was still seen to be the Brigade de Cavalerie. The cavalry brigade only made the slightest of concessions to motorisation (some of the supply echelons were issued with light trucks) and its combat units were entirely mounted (5) with a total of slightly more than 1200 horses.Régiment de Cavalerie

Each of its two cavalry regiments (see chart on the right) was made up of four cavalry squadrons, divided into two groupes d'escadrons, one heavy weapons squadron and one escadron hors-rang (headquarters support squadron). These regiments came from any of the four types of metropolitan French cavalry regiments (cuirassiers, dragons, chasseurs or hussards) whose only difference, by then, was the size of the horses they rode.

The cavalry squadrons each had four platoons of thirty-six men. These were organised into one platoon HQ of four men, two thirteen-man groupes de combat (sections), each with two half-sections of six men, one of fusiliers (riflemen) with a Chatellerault FM 24/29 light machine-gun and one of éclaireurs (scouts) with a VB rifle grenade launcher, commanded by an NCO plus one extra escouade (half-section) of fusiliers per platoon.

The heavy weapons squadron was organized into two machine gun platoons with a total of eight 8mm Hotchkiss Mle 1914 machine guns mounted on Mle 1911 m.38 horse-drawn carriages, two groups of horse-drawn anti-tank guns with a total of four 25mm Mle 1934 guns each with a Mle 1937 cavalry limber and one mortar platoon with four 60mm mortars carried on pack horses.

As can be seen, the cavalry regiment was not a particularly powerful unit, its firepower being barely that of an infantry battalion, even though it did have a limited anti-tank capability.

The Brigade Légère Mécanique (BLM)

The armour and mechanised infantry were grouped in a Brigade Légère Mécanique, together with one Escadron Divisionnaire Anti-Chars (EDAC - Divisional Anti-Tank Squadron) of twelve 25mm AT guns towed by Laffly/Licorne V 15 T 4x4 cavalry light tractor and one maintenance squadron .

The Régiment d'Autos-Mitrailleuses (RAM)

The Régiment d'Autos-Mitrailleuses was made up of two groupes d'escadrons (battalions) organised along the same lines except that one was equipped with Panhard 178 autos-mitrailleuses de découverte and one with Hotchkiss H 35 autos-mitrailleuses de combat. The signals elements of these two units' headquarters were issued with an unarmed variant of the Panhard 178 fitted with with a long-range (80 to 150 km) ER 27 radio (6). Régiment d'Autos-Mitrailleuses

The autos-mitrailleuses de combat should in fact have been the Renault AMC cruiser tank but the first models, the AMC 34, proved totally unsatisfactory and were shipped off to Morocco while the improved AMC 35 (ACG-1) suffered from long development delays. Only 47 AMC 35 were delivered to the French army by May 1940 and proved to be only marginally better than the previous model. As a result, all the DLCs were issued with Hotchkiss H 35 tanks instead.

Each motorcycle squadron was organised into four platoons of one command group of six men, including one rifle grenadier, with three motorcycle/sidecar combinations and two groupes de combat (section) of ten men with two Chatellerault FM 24/29 LMGs and one VB rifle grenade launcher mounted on five motorcycles with sidecars. In addition one 60mm mortar with a crew of four men, mounted on two motorcycle/sidecars or one requisitioned commercial car and two solo motorcycles, was held at squadron level.

The usual motorcycle used with sidecars was a 750 cc René Gillet K1 or G1, Gnôme & Rhône XA or Terrot VATT . The total number of vehicles came to 11 solo motorcycles, 55 motorcycle and sidecar combinations, 2 staff cars, 2 lorries and 4 light trucks per squadron.

The Régiment de Dragons Portés (RDP)

The division's mechanised infantry component, the Régiment de Dragons Portés (type DLC), was in fact little more than a reinforced battalion. In order to turn the peacetime Dragons Portés battalions into regiments, the battalions were reduced from two to a single squadron of fusiliers although the regiment as a whole did benefit from an increase in support weapons and the addition of the division's AMR reconnaissance squadron. However, due to shortages of dedicated cross-country vehicles, the second battalion was equipped with light trucks instead of Citroën-Kégresse P 19 halftracks (7). For the second battalion, simply substitute light trucks instead of P 19 halftracks in the description below.Régiment de Dragons Portés

Each Bataillon de Dragons Portés (type DLC) was made up of one mixed reconnaissance squadron, one fusiliers squadron and one heavy weapons squadron.

The mixed reconnaissance squadron had two reconnaissance platoons each of five Renault AMR 1933 VM (8) and two motorcyclist platoons organised in the same way as those of the Régiment d'Autos-Mitrailleuses.

The fusiliers squadron was organised into one command and services platoon, three fusiliers platoons, one machine gun platoon and one 60mm mortar group.

Each fusiliers platoon was in turn divided into one platoon command group (eight men, including one VB rifle grenadier,  mounted on one P 19 halftrack and one motorcycle combination) and three groupes de combat (sections) of twelve men each. The groupe de combat was made up of one staff sergeant in command, one corporal, one Chatellerault FM 24/29 LMG gunner, one LMG loader, three ammunition bearers (pourvoyeurs), two scouts (éclaireurs), one VB rifle grenadier and two drivers carried in two P 19 halftracks. Both of these vehicles mounted an additional Chatellerault FM 24/29 and this second LMG was manned by the two scouts when the section's firepower needed to be increased.

The machine gun platoon, organised in the same manner as those of the heavy weapons squadron, had thirty-one men, five Hotchkiss machineguns, two halftracks and one motorcycle combination. The mortar group was made up of seven men and one 60mm mortar in one P 19 halftrack and one motorcycle combination.

The heavy weapons (mitrailleuses et engins d'accompagnement) squadron had one command platoon of forty-one men, two MG platoons, one 81mm mortar platoon and two 25mm anti-tank groups .

Each machinegun platoon was organised into one command goup and two machinegun groups. The command group was made up of one officer and seven men carried with one Citroën P 19 halftrack (mounting a machine gun for AA use) and one motorcycle combination. Each machinegun group had two Hotchkiss Mle 1914 MGs, twelve men and two halftracks.

The mortar platoon was likewise organised into one command goup of nine men, one halftrack, one solo motorcycle and one motorcycle combination and two mortar groups. Each mortar group had two Brandt Mle 1927/31 81mm mortars and twelve men carried by two halftracks.

Finally, each anti-tank group had one command goup of five men, one halftrack, one solo motorcycle and one motorcycle combination and two Hotchkiss Mle 1934 25mm anti-tank guns. Each of the guns was crewed by seven men plus two drivers and a motorcycle dispatch rider. Initially, the anti-tank guns were towed by a specific version of the Citroën-Kégresse, the P 19BT tractor which had a slower speed of 32 km/h (9), but in 1937 the 3e BDP developed a method for carrying the guns on their halftracks. These canons portés (later adopted by the British as portee guns) proved altogether more satisfactory since they could keep up with the rest of the unit while being able to fire from the vehicles. As a result, each gun was mounted, facing forward, on a modified Citroën-Kégresse P 19 which also carried the gun commander, the firer and loader besides the driver. The ammunition and its four bearers were carried by a second halftrack. Given the shortage of halftracks, the second battalion's AT guns were most probably towed instead.

The Régiment d'Artillerie (RA)

As part of the general lightening of the Cavalry Division, the DLC's artillery regiment lost one of its two 75mm Mle 1897 gun battalions and its 105mm gun battalion was reequipped with 105C Mle 1936 105mm howitzers. These were deemed more suitable for the broken terrain in which the division operated and the Cavalry Inspectorate initially planned to convert both artillery battalions to howitzers but the Artillery's favourite, the soixante-quinze, could not be dislodged. Note : Stéphane Ferrard states that the DLMs and DLCs were in fact issued with 105mm L mle 1936 S Schneider field guns (yet another thing I'll have to check...). Régiment d'Artillerie

Both battalions were organised into one command and services battery and three firing batteries of four guns or howitzers each, with new UNIC P 107 halftracks replacing the nearly worn-out P 17s.

In order to increase the division's weak anti-tank capability, an anti-tank battery with two sections of four APX 47mm mle 1937 guns each was added to the regiment. Pending the delivery of modern wheeled light tractors, these were towed by redundant Citroën P 17s withdrawn from the artillery battalions. However, due to production delays most anti-tank batteries soldiered on with the obsolete P 17s throughout the campaign.

In recognition of the divisions vulnerability to air attacks, an additional anti-aircraft battery of six Hotchkiss 25mm Mle 1939 was to be attached to the regiment. In fact, only the 1st and 5th DLCs had AA batteries attached but the 1st DLC's battery was unable to join it throughout the campaign. As with the anti-tank battery, these were towed by Citroën P 17s.

The Groupe Aérien d'Observation (GAO)

Like the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve (DCR - Armoured Divisions) and the Divisions Légères Mécaniques, each DLC was to be supported by an organic Army Cooperation Squadron of Mureaux 117 and Potez 63.11 reconnaissance aircraft. In fact, only the 1st, 2nd and 5th DLCs had a squadron attached. In any case, these proved short-lived in the following campaign and were soon separated from their parent units.

Believed to be more balanced and more mobile than the Divisions de Cavalerie which they replaced, the Divisions Légères de Cavalerie were in fact to prove ill-balanced and too weak. These weaknesses were soon to become fully apparent as they ran head-on into the armoured spearheads of the German offensive into Luxembourg and Belgium.

... to be continued in Part 2 : the DLCs in combat ...

 Notes :

(1) In 1939, France mobilised more than 520,000 horses and mules. Heavy losses during the first winter provided additional impetus to the motorisation program but this remained a slow process due to a limited industrial base and the sheer size of the task. [ back ]

(2) All armoured fighting vehicles of the Cavalry branch were initially named auto-mitrailleuse (armoured car). Three categories were defined in 1931 : auto-mitrailleuse de découverte (AMD - deep reconnaissance armoured car), a fast wheeled vehicle, lightly armoured but well armed with a crew of three and a powerful radio ; auto-mitrailleuse de reconnaissance (AMR - reconnaissance armoured car), a fully tracked tankette, fast but weakly armoured, crewed by two men and armed with a single machine gun ; auto-mitrailleuse de combat (AMC - combat armoured car), cavalry or cruiser tanks. With the selection of the SOMUA S 35 and Hotchkiss H 39, the AMC designation was dropped and these were simply referred to as tanks (chars). Also, by 1938, the weakness of the AMR was well recognised and both AMD and AMR categories were to be combined into a projected auto-mitrailleuse puissante (heavy armoured car).  [ back ]

(3) The BDPs were created in 1928 with the gradual motorisation of the Groupes de Chasseurs Cyclistes. Apart from the fully mechanised 4e BDP, there were still some bicycle-equipped troops with in the other four battalions until 1932-33. [ back ]

(4) The North African Brigade de Spahi was organised in the same way as the DLC's cavalry brigade. See below for composition of Spahis brigades in May 1940. [ back ]

(5) This is not quite true since a shortage of horses led to two cavalry squadrons of the 5e DLC being issued with... bicycles. Something of a throwback to the late twenties ! [ back ]

(6) These vehicles looked very much like the standard Panhard 178 but had their turret replaced by a fixed superstructure of similar shape. Only twenty-four were built by June 1940 and all were issued to the DLMs and DLCs. [ back ]

(7) Les Grandes Unités Fançaises states that the 5e DLC was issued with brand new US 6-wheeled trucks, presumably 2.5 tonnes GMC ACK 353s in which the cavalry saw an "affordable Laffly", but it is unclear whether only the second battalion or the whole regiment was thus equipped. [ back ]

(8) The wartime establishment tables state that each platoon commander's vehicle was equipped with an E.R. 29 radio. As a general rule, the AMR 1933 VM were assigned to the DLCs while the Renault 1935 ZT went to the DLMs although there were exceptions as with every rule. [ back ]

(9) The maximum speed of the regular Citroën-Kégresse P 19 was 46 km/h. This had to be reduced because the Hotchkiss Mle 1934 carriage was originally developed as a horse-drawn gun, could not withstand the higher speeds of motorised towing and had a tendency to disintegrate in the process. By 1937, an improved carriage was introduced on the Hotchkiss gun and the 25mm APX model of the same year. [ back ]

Divisions Légères de Cavalerie in metropolitan France, 10 May 1940 [ Top of Page ]
1ere DLC 2e DLC 3e DLC 4e DLC 5e DLC
Cavalry Brigade 2e BC 3e BC 5e BC 4e BC 6e BC
Horse Cavalry Regiment  1er Chasseurs  18e Chasseurs  4e Hussards 8e Dragons 11e Cuirassiers
Horse Cavalry Regiment  19e Dragons 5e Cuirassiers 6e Dragons 31e Dragons 12e Chasseurs
Light Mechanised Brigade 11e BLM 12e BLM 13e BLM 14e BLM 15e BLM
Armoured Car Regiment  1er RAM 2e RAM  3e RAM  4e RAM  5e RAM 
Mechanised Dragoon Regiment 5e RDP  3e RDP 2e RDP 14e RDP  15e RDP
Divisional Anti-tank Squadron (a) 1er EDAC  2e EDAC  3e EDAC  4e EDAC  none
Divisional Maintenance Squadron 1er EDR 2e EDR 3e EDR 4e EDR none
Artillery Regiment 75e RA (c) 73e RA (e) 72e RA 77e RA 78e RA
Divisional Anti-tank Battery (b 10e Bie/75e RA 10e Bie/73e RA 10e Bie/72e RA none 10e Bie/78e RA
Anti-Aircraft Battery 711/409 Bie (d) none none none 715/409 Bie (f)
Engineers Company Cie 46/1 Cie 48/1 Cie 49/1 Cie 33/1 Cie 34/1
Mixed Signals Company Cie 46/84 Cie 48/84 Cie 49/84 Cie 33/84 Cie 34/84
Horse Transport Company Cie 46/21 Cie 48/20 Cie 49/21 Cie 33/9 Cie 34/9
Motorised Transport Company Cie 146/21 Cie 148/20 Cie 149/21 Cie 133/9 Cie 134/9
Divisional Quartermaster and Finance Group GED 46/22 GED 48/20 GED 49 GED 33/5 GED 31/9
Divisional Medical Group GSD 46 GSD 48 GSD 49 GSD 33 GSD 34
Army Cooperation Squadron  G.A.O. II/551 G.A.O. 2/520 none none G.A.O. 507

Notes :
(a) Armed with 25mm Mle 1934 AT guns. [ back ]

(b) Armed with APX 47mm Mle 1937 AT guns. [ back ]

(c) With two towed 75mm Mle 1897 gun battalions. [ back ]

(d) Attached on 1st May, 1940 but never joined the Division. Armed with Hotchkiss 25mm AA guns.  [ back ]

(e) With one towed 75mm Mle 1897 gun battalion and one towed 105 C Mle 1936 howitzer battalion. [ back ]

(f)  Attached on 24 May, 1940. Armed with Hotchkiss 25mm AA guns. [ back ]

Spahis Brigades on 10 May 1940  [ Top of Page ]
1ere Brigade de Spahis
2e Brigade de Spahis
3e Brigade de Spahis
4e Régiment de Spahis Marocains
7e Régiment de Spahis Algériens
2e Régiment de Spahis Algériens
6e Régiment de Spahis Algériens
9e Régiment de Spahis Algériens
2e Régiment de Spahis Marocains

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