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Trackstory No.13, Le Char B1. By Pascal Danjou, with illustrations by Eric Schwartz. Soft covers, ?? x ??-inches, 62 pages plus inside rear cover. Contains 56 archival B&W photos, two contemporary line drawings, 10 color profiles, two pages of color art-work, one table, glossary and bibliography. ISBN 978-2-917661-15-4.
It has been almost seven years since Trackstory published a booklet on the entire Char B series (Number 3, Les Chars B), which covered the B1, B1 bis and B1 ter. Not to be confused with the earlier title, this latest addition to the series presents nearly exclusive coverage of the initial tank, the B1. It does mention the B1 bis and B1 ter, but only in general terms so that coverage is balanced. To reiterate: the 35 B1s built are the main focus here.
Before I go any further, modelers should temper any excitement this booklet might generate. Simply stated, it is not a matter of swapping armament or even turrets that will make a Tamiya B1 bis into a straight-up B1. There are many more subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two. These are all explained on pages 15 and 16 in Trackstory Number 3. This is probably the main reason why an after-market company such as Blast has not seen fit to produce a conversion set for the Tamiya kit. But I digress.
What this latest title does is describe, in more detail, the development, production and deployment of these early versions of the penultimate French tank of 1940. Beginning in the years immediately following the end of the Great War, the godfather of the French tank, General Estienne, proposed a new design for a heavily-armed and well-armored breakthrough tank that would smash enemy field fortifications thus allowing the infantry and lighter cavalry tanks to pour through the rupture and exploit a local tactical advantage, possibly gaining an operational victory. This was a bold idea for the time for several reasons. Firstly, France had been bled white by the Great War and a hard-earned pacifist sentiment permeated the countrys society. Secondly, Frances economy would not support a modernization of their tank force, which was already equipped with relatively large numbers of the revolutionary if obsolescent Renault FT. Finally, such French re-armament programs eventually became an issue when the ultimately impotent League of Nations came into being.
Yet, studies continued and prototypes were built and tested. From the outset, Estienne also envisioned a co-operative industry effort with the best features culled from each manufacturers prototype later to be incorporated into the final design. Thereafter, each company would manufacture a set number of tanks, to a single specification. Because a casemated gun was part of the original concept, a special steering mechanism was designed and employed. The gun could elevate independently, but for it to be traversed, the entire tank had to be turned. This required a rather complex mechanism, called the NaŽder System, which when properly maintained was indeed up to the task. Initially, the tank was to have a small fully-rotating turret armed only with twin machine-guns; this was later changed to an anti-tank weapon of 47mm in caliber with a co-axial MG. Eventually after a rather long gestation period, a total of 35 Chars B1 were built, with many of them seeing operational service in the 1940 campaign.
This author ably describes the story in parallel French and English text (and captions), with some extra help regarding the details of the NaŽder System provided by M. Pierre Clavel. The translation from French-to-English was well-managed by Mr. Lawrence Brown. The text is supported by a glossary at the beginning of the book and a bibliography on the inside back cover. There is also a table that lists the names and radio call letters/numbers of these tanks in two time periods, 1936-1939 and 1939-1940.
The photographs are all well-reproduced and represent a fine selection of relevant images. Several have been seen in the original Trackstory booklet, but most are new for this title. They are well-captioned and well-reproduced. Most take up a half of a given page so details are easily ascertained. One of the line drawings covers the re-supply trailer; it is a repeat from Vol.3, but it is reproduced at about twice the size, providing mor access to its details. Another line drawing presents a cut-away section of the NaŽder System. The photos themselves cover all of the different prototypes from the various manufacturers, the prototype hulls (101 and 103) and the production tanks. The latter are seen in pre-war exercises as well as deployed during the 1940 campaign. One of the new images shows the previously-withdrawn supply trailer in use during the campaign; another shows the trailer and the tank (this was seen in Vol.3, with the tank cropped out of the frame). Some others show images of the prototype B1 ter, which was, in fact, the B1 prototype hull number 103 in a re-worked condition. The remaining images show various developmental and deployed tanks, including some re-armed with the later longer 47mm gun in the turret.
The fine color art work by Eric Schwartz starts off with profiles of the B1 in its various camouflage schemes. There are seven different schemes shown, including those seen on the so-called modernized B1s. The next page has profiles of the Delaunay-Belleville, FCM-21, FAMH, SRA-Renault and SRB-Renault-Schneider presentation vehicles from 1924yes, it took more than a dozen years to develop the B1. The remaining color plates feature profiles of 11 operational B1s. In typical fashion, each half-page profile is accompanied by the archival image upon which it is based; this is also a half-page. This format ensures that what the artist presents is based upon the interpretation of the best information available.
Altogether, this booklet is an excellent addition to this series. It provides probably the best coverage we are ever likely to see of this particular member of the Char B family, all in a compact, well-informed and excellently illustrated format. Students of the fascinating AFVs fielded by France in this time period will not be disappointed.
Frank V. De Sisto
Minitracks magazine, Trackstory, Centurytracks and Focus publications are available direct from the publisher at: www.minitracks.fr.