Ahhh, the Char B1. Was there ever a tank so uniquely French? It’s a simple enough pre-war concept – take a 75mm howitzer, slap an engine and a bunch of armour on it, and use it to break through enemy defensive positions to make a hole for the infantry to exploit. Oh, and give it a turret-mounted 47mm anti-tank gun as well – that’ll come in handy! On the face of it, it’s actually very similar to the British Churchill I, but the Char B1 bis owes far more of its existence to the lessons of the First World War than the expectations of what the Second would bring. Nevertheless, it’s an iconic French armoured vehicle, and no self-respecting Bolt Action Francophile is without one (or two, or three!) in their collection. Even German players can get in on the act – but we’ll discuss that in a moment!

A child of what has to be considered the ‘Wild West’ era of tank development, the inter-war years, the Char B1 was an interesting beast. Designed as a purely offensive weapon, it was initially conceived as something of a cross between a First World War tank and what would later become known as an assault gun. A protracted development left it with many somewhat archaic features, most notably the track system which ran over the top of the hull, and an all-riveted armour construction (although this was still the norm at the beginning of the war). The turret-mounted 47mm gun (with the longer-barrelled version being fitted to the B1 bis) was very much an afterthought, and much has been made of the fact that the vehicle’s commander was expected to command (obviously), as well as load, aim, and fire the 47mm gun, as well as potentially commanding other vehicles and liaising with supporting infantry – not a job for the easily distracted or faint of heart! This, combined with a number of other issues, including production costs and high fuel consumption, significantly detracted from the combat performance of what was on paper a seriously capable machine.

B1 Bis “Chambertin” of the 3ème DcR, France, May 1940.

The definitive variant of the B1 that we represent in Bolt Action is the B1 bis. Up-armoured, re-engined, and armed with a longer 47mm gun, it saw significant service during the Battle of France, and was regarded as an effective tank – when it was present! Strategic issues with their deployment and an inability to conduct long road marches meant that they were often unable to be where they were needed to counter the onrushing Germans, although when they did encounter enemy Panzers they proved to be absolutely capable of holding their own, and if they could engage German tanks away from supporting infantry and anti-tank elements would often be the favourites – unfortunately this was an all-too-rare occurrence.

Over 150 would be captured by the Germans after the Fall of France, and like much French equipment, they were pressed into second-line service with the Wehrmacht. Of note are the 60 converted into mobile flamethrowers (Flammpanzer), while many also received a number of German improvements, most visibly a new, German-style commander’s cupola. In this configuration, they would serve throughout the war in Europe (most famously opposing Operation Market Garden in 1944) with some even being re-captured by the French Resistance and turned on the Germans. Totally obsolete by the end of the war, they were swiftly phased out by more modern types, including large numbers of American surplus vehicles. Today, 11 survive in museums around the world.

A French tank commander scans the surrounding countryside.

On The Table

So, that’s the history – but what’s it like on the Bolt Action tabletop? Well, for 245 points you get a Regular 9+ Damage Value medium tank with a hull-mounted light howitzer and medium machine gun, plus a turret-mounted light anti-tank gun and co-axial machine gun. That’s a reasonable amount of dakka, and the Armoured All Round special rule means it’s seriously durable, particularly when your opponent only has the typical early-war light AT on hand. Of course, the Slow and One Man Turret rules aren’t exactly conducive to rapid mobility, but no-one ever accused the French of making a perfect tank! Personally, I really like the standard B1 bis for its ability to do a bit of everything, and for how nicely it meshes with the French army. Remember, with the Forward Artillery Doctrine special rule, you can bring two medium howitzers if you like. Add them to the light 75 on the B1, plus a medium mortar, plus plenty of VB launchers and your opponent will be dodging high explosive nastiness all game long!

French Army Char b1 bis.
Char B1 bis in colours of famed French commander Pierre Bilotte.
Char B1 bis in German service.

Moving over to the Axis, we have a couple of options, both of which are included in the awesome plastic boxed set. With your opponent’s consent, you can simply bring a standard B1 bis, as the Panzerkampfwagen B-2 740(f), perfect for getting that ‘second-rate’ feel to a heavily themed force. Alternatively, there’s the Flammpanzer B2(f) flamethrower tank. Two variants were produced, mainly differing in having French or German-style commander’s cupolas, and components are included for both in the kit. Flamethrower tanks are an odd bunch, and certainly not the all-conquering death machines they could be in First Edition Bolt Action (to sighs of relief from all and sundry!). The additional risk of explosion is always a concern, but a 12″ flamethrower on a 9+ DV chassis is absolutely nothing to sniff at, particularly when there’s also a light AT gun and MMG to provide extra firepower. The full gamut of B1 bis special rules still apply, meaning it’s not going anywhere fast, but for 235 points at Regular it’s a cool choice that can definitely catch out an unwary opponent.

Early Version Flammwagen auf. Panzerkampwagen B-2 (f).
Late Model Flammwagen auf. Panzerkampwagen B-2 (f).

French Starter army

The Char b1 bis can also be found as armoured support in the new French Starter Army alongside the brand-new plastic French infantry. The highly detailed multi-pose plastic infantry can be assembled and painted as regular infantry, fortress troops, chasseurs a pied, engineers or colonial troops, making it one of our most versatile plastic infantry kits to date. Alongside the Char, a medium mortar, medium machine gun and 25mm anti-tank gun provide additional firepower to these brave sons of France.

Char B1 bis Platoon

While one Char B1 is cool, three are definitely cooler, especially with the German variants on hand as well! The platoon boxed set is a great way to get a fantastic deal on a trio of these uniquely French vehicles, perfect for some early Tank War, or spreading between your armies!

A column of heavily armoured Char B1 bis tanks.

Bring the Char around – it’s time to depart!

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