French Tanks and AFVs in Indochina, 1919-45

This page was last updated on 25/09/1998

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Here are some very incomplete notes on French armoured might in Indochina. They are necessarily fragmentary since very few of the Indochinese archives survived the 1945 Japanese take-over (the whole French army archives for the period fit in 8 cartons !) and photographic evidence is scarce. This is compounded by the fact that military units in Indochina were under the control of the Ministry of Colonies leading to what few archives remain being scattered beyond belief.

As French armoured vehicles saw some limited action during the border war with Thailand, Danny O'Hara's page on Thai AFVs of the 1940-41 War makes a good counterpart to this one.

The first French tanks in Indochina were a platoon of five Renault FT 17s [click here for their serial numbers] of the 16e BCL (Bataillon de Chars Légers - Light Tank Battalion) commanded by Captain de Cuverville sent for trials in Tonkin in December 1919. These trials proved successful enough for the tanks to be permanently stationed in Hanoi and administratively attached to the 9e RIC (Régiment d'Infanterie Coloniale - Colonial Infantry Regiment). The FT 17 was found to be nearly ideal for colonial service because its low weight allowed it to use most bridges in Indochina or to be transported by boat or truck while its cross-country mobility wasn't gravely impaired by the North Vietnamese terrain. Its main role however was internal security and it was never seriously meant to face opposing tanks in combat . The only pressing modification for Indochinese service was the replacement of the wooden idler wheels with metal ones because of the detrimental effects of the tropical climate on such vital parts.

In early 1920, several FT 17s abandoned in Vladivostok were repatriated and used to create a Cochinchina platoon, stationed in Saigon under the command of Lieutenant Barrière (part of the Vladivostok FT 17s were also sent to Mandchuria where they formed the nucleus of Marshall Tchang-Tso-Lin's armoured forces). In April 1922, an armoured car platoon equipped with three AM Peugeot Mle 1915 was also created in Hanoi.

In April 1927, the Cochinchina tank platoon was sent to strengthen the defence of the French legations in Shanghai and replaced by a newly formed platoon (another two platoons were sent to Tien Tsin from France the following year) . From August of the same year, the Tonkin armoured car platoon became a squadron (company) with two platoons of AM White Mle 1918 and one platoon of AM Peugeot Mle 1915 attached to a battery of the 4e Régiment d'Artillerie Coloniale (RAC - Colonial Artillery Regiment) while another armoured car platoon was raised in Cochinchina.

In March 1928, both the Tonkin and Cochinchina tank detachments were increased to company size and the thirty or so tanks were attached to the artillery command, even though they still belonged to the Infantry branch, with the Tonkin company attached to the 4e RAC and the Saigon company to the 5e RAC.

By the mid-thirties, most of the armoured vehicles in Indochina were not only obsolete but also barely roadworthy. In late 1936, general Billote, then Inspector-General of Colonial Troops, reported that "the tanks are completely exhausted. Those of Saigon only come out for the 14th of  July parade [...]. Those of the Tonkin are no longer repairable. They are only scrap metal. Except for two platoons, the armoured car units only have completely run down equipment..." (1).

In January 1938, the armoured vehicles were grouped into two Détachements Motorisés (Motorised Detachment) and one armoured car squadron :

Thus it appears that on the eve of the Second World War about twenty FT 17 tanks remained (most of them apparently armed with the 37mm gun 3), along with at least three to five Citroen-Kégrese P 104, six to ten AM White Mle 1918 and six to ten unidentified auto-mitrailleuses de cavalerie (apparently Laffly-White AM 50 although some sources mention an enigmatic "Panhard 1928" 4).

At the outbreak of war, these vehicles were reorganised into three motorised detachments :

These motorised detachments were apparently organised into one tank platoon and an unknown number of armoured car and mechanised infantry platoons (probably one of each). The armoured cars seem to have been Laffly-White AM 50s with some older AM White Mle 1918 while the mechanised infantry used armed Renault UE 2 carriers. These vehicles bear a striking resemblance to the ten armed UE variants bought by China in 1936 although the casemate which houses the Chatellerault LMG differs in several respects. It is not known whether these are the result of a June 1940 order for AMX armoured casemates or of a specific 1939 contract with the Ministry of Colonies. Neither are the exact numbers in service (at least twelve are mentioned in Tonkin around 1945) nor the date of their arrival in Indochina known but there is photographic evidence of at least two surviving in Cambodia as late as 1945.

A Détachement Motorisé de la Légion (DML - Foreign Legion Motorised Detachment) was raised in May 1940 and attached to the 5e Régiment Etranger d'Infanterie (REI - Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment). However, this unit had no armoured vehicles and used only motorcycles (both solo and combinations), field cars and light trucks.

Besides the vehicles already reported, one source (6) mentions the DMC's use of lightly armoured trucks during its January 1941 operations against Thai forces while another (7)  indicates that these in fact belonged to the 9e RIC's 20mm Oerlikon AA platoon. In any case, their effectiveness led to several Ford trucks being armoured by the artillery workshops and permanently armed with with the Oerlikons after the Franco-Thai border clashes.

Also, two locally armoured trains (8) were available in Indochina, one based in Tonkin and one in Cambodia. These were mainly useful for securing the railways during internal uprisings. The Cambodia armoured train seems to have been used to patrol the narrow gauge line between Phnom Penh and Poipet during the war with Thailand although it didn't see any action. Both of them survived until 1945 but nothing else is known about these trains.

Given the harsh climate and terrain, wear and tear took a heavy toll of vehicles. As soon as he heard that the armistice negociations were about to start (9), Governor Catroux, fully aware that Indochina would soon be totally cut off from Metropolitan France, requested the immediate shipment before the armistice was signed of 100 Renault R 35 tanks (enough for two full battalions !), 50 Renault AMRs and 8 Panhard AMDs along with their crews.

In January 1941 (10), Governor Decoux renewed this request in the face of mounting Thai military pressure and asked that 62 armoured cars, 260 motorcycles and motorcycle combinations, enough tanks to equip one medium and two light companies and 78 tractors and armoured supply carriers be sent from France or Madagascar to defend the colony. The German armistice commission refused such a transfer and he was told by the Vichy government that the only remaining option was "that of direct purchases from the United States" (11) who, not surprisingly, declined to oblige.

By 1942, most of the remaining FT 17 tanks were no longer fit to move under their own power and appear to have been dug in as pillboxes. It is thus no surprise that Admiral Decoux gratefully accepted an offer of eight tanks from the Shanghai and Tien-Tsin legations made in May of the same year by the French ambassador in Peking. These old tanks were welcomed as useful reinforcements because of the "extreme local weakness in armoured vehicles" although it seems that there was also a shortage of trained personnel by then (12) . While I haven't found any confirmation of their transfer, it seems that it was carried out since a December 1944 report (13) mentions that sixteen armoured cars and twenty-one FT 17 were still available in Indochina at the time although 35% of all vehicles were described as unserviceable.

In March 1945, the following motorised units of the Division du Tonkin were attached to the Groupement Motorisé du Tonkin (GMT - Tonkin Motorised Group) based in Tong and commanded by Captain Fournier :

All the remaining armoured vehicles in Indochina were destroyed during the fighting that followed the Japanese take-over on 9 March 1945.

Notes :

(1) General Billote report to the 23 December 1936 seesion of the Consultative Council on Colonial Defense. [ back ]

(2) Only twelve Citroen-Kégrese P 104 halftracks (nine APCs and three turreted armoured cars) were ordered by the Ministry of Colonies in 1933 and it is possible that they were all intended to equip the Indochinese detachments. At least two Citroen-Kégrese P 104 halftrack (APC version) are known to have served in the DMT in 1940-41. A request for P 104 replacement tracks and running gear was made in February 1942 and some parts seem to have been shipped from France later. While this does confirm the P 104's presence, no number are mentioned and it is possible that they were no longer serviceable after that date. Cable n° --- of 24 February 1941 from Vichy Ministry of Colonies to Governor Decoux. [ back ]

(3) Again, this is not very clear : Jacques Sicard's article mentions twenty surviving gun-armed tanks while a photograph of the 11 November 1938 parade in Haiphong clearly shows two tanks with machine-guns in the platoon. It is possible that all surviving tanks had their armament replaced by guns at a later date although the Colonial Infantry Regulations say that the ratio of MG- to gun-armed tanks in the platoon is the same as in mainland France (i.e. 2 to 3). [ back ]

(4)  Unclear is the catchword in case you haven't noticed ! No Panhard armoured car seems to have ever used this designation. The two most likely candidates are in fact : the AMC Schneider P 16 Mle 1928 which used a Panhard engine (French sources of the period often identify armoured vehicles by the manufacturer of the engine !) or the Citroën-Kégresse P 28, a designation which may at some point have been mistakenly interpreted as Panhard 1928 (much as the R 35 is a Renault 1935). No photographic evidence for either vehicle's presence is known and all of the ones which were yused overseas appear to have served in North Africa or the Middle-East. [ back ]

(5) This unit was later designated as Groupement Mécanisé (Mecanised Group) or Escadron Mixte Blindé (EMB - Mixed Armoured Squadron). Indochina motorised units designation seems to have been rather loose in any case. [ back ]

(6) Professor A. Angladette in his account of the operations in the Yang Dang Khum area, written in 1941 and reproduced in Indochine 1940-1945, pages 110-122. Professor Angladette took part in the counter-attack as a reserve lieutenant in command of the Cambodia subdivision's signals. [ back ]

(7) Claude Hesse d'Alzon, La Présence Militaire Française, page 105 note 6. [ back ]

(8) Yes, Greg ! I finally found a way to mention armoured trains somewhere on this site. [ back ]

(9) Cables of 17 and 21 June 1940 from Governor Catroux to Ministry of Colonies. [ back ]

(10) Cable n° 365 of 21 January 1941 from Governor Decoux to Vichy Ministry of Colonies. [ back ]

(11) Cable n° 373 of 29 January 1941 from Vichy Ministry of Colonies to Governor Decoux. [ back ]

(12) Strangely enough, General Mordant requested that these tanks be operated by a reduced crew of two when the FT 17 was in fact a two-man tank ! Cables n° 336 of 23 May 1942 and n° 585 of 22 August 1942 from Governor Decoux to Vichy Ministry of Colonies. [ back ]

(13) Situation des approvisionnements - Note n°212/RB/Cab./FEFEO of 19/12/1944. [ back ]

(14) See note 3 above for the "Panhard" armoured car. "Dodge" could refer to locally armoured trucks or maybe to a White armoured body on a Dodge chassis (unlikely but not impossible). [ back ]

(15) The original designation "auto-chars" doesn't make much sense (literally "self-propelled tank" or "car-tank"). This could perhaps refer to Citroën-Kégresse P 104 armoured cars. The description "engins blindés aménagés" seems to imply some sort of modified vehicle. These were probably the locally armoured Ford trucks with a 20mm Oerlikon gun mentioned above. It could, of course, be something entirely different again... [ back ]

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