France France (1917-18)
Tow and supply vehicle – 330 built

Schneider Char de Dépannage

The French phrase ‘camion de dépannage’ translates to tow-truck. The Schneider CD was a WW1 tow truck that used the same Holt chassis as the Schneider CA1 tank. It was fitted with a winch. There is a dispute as to the reason why the letters CD were used. Some sources state that it was just a standard Schneider factory product code, just like the Renault FT tank’s FT letters were just a two letter code, having no other meaning.

The Schneider CD's winches can be seen above the driver's compartment and at the rear - Source: François Vauvillier
The Schneider CD’s winches can be seen above the driver’s compartment and at the rear – Source: François Vauvillier

During the planning and construction stage of the Schneider assault tank, it was given the factory code name ‘Tracteur Estienne’ after the project leader, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Estienne, but later had the official designation of Schneider CA. The letters CA stood for ‘char d’assaut’ which translates to ‘assault tank’ in English. It seems the argument for the letters CD being an abbreviation of the French term ‘Char de dépannage’ is quite strong.

But, on a Schneider factory produced manual front cover the vehicle is called ‘Tracteur A chenilles (Type CD)’ which translated simply means a caterpillar tractor. This appears to favour the argument that the letters CD are a factory code, but the use of the word ‘type’ in front is ambiguous. It could mean that this ‘type’ of caterpillar tractor is a CD ‘Char de dépannage’ tow truck. We still do not know for sure.

Design and Production

By 1915, some of the French WW1 offensives had managed to breach the German front lines. The infantry attack across ‘no man’s land’ had been preceded by days of artillery bombardment to ‘soften-up’ resistance. This had turned the battlefield into a churned up lunar landscape covered in muddy shell craters. To support the breakthrough, the French artillery needed to be able to move their gun batteries, otherwise they would be out of range. Artillery barrages were needed to disrupt and hopefully stop German counter-attacks.

Most French artillery guns were drawn by a team of up to six horses. The terrain was just too difficult for them to move across. A new answer had to be found. The French Army looked towards an agricultural solution. For a number of years, French farmers had been using tracked steam driven tractors and tracked tractors powered by petrol engines. They were purchased by the Army and put to use towing howitzers to the front lines.

Tracteur Schneider CD instruction book
This is the front cover of a Schneider CD manual. The vehicle is called ‘Tracteur A chenilles (Type CD)’ which translated means caterpillar tractor (type CD).

Agricultural tractors like the early Holt built tractor were slow and found it difficult to tow the heavier artillery howitzers. They also did not have any onboard storage. They had to tow trailers to deliver artillery ammunition and supplies. The French Army needed a heavier more powerful vehicle to move and service the heavy guns adequately. Once the guns were in position, the Army wanted the same vehicle to be able to transport ammunition from the supply dump to the battery’s new location.

The French Renault EG and Latil TAR large 4-wheel drive trucks were capable of carrying the heavy artillery shells, that ranged in weight from 40 kg to 100 kg, along the muddy roads to the front lines. They could not cross the churned up battlefield. The proposed tracked artillery tractor had to be capable of collecting these shells from just behind French lines and take them across the churned up, scarred landscape without getting stuck in the mud.

Le tracteur d'artillerie chenillé Schneider CD
A tracteur d’artillerie chenillé Schneider CD being loaded onto the back of an articulated transport lorry

The French manufacturer Renault decided to submit a design for a fully tracked artillery tractor but decided to build a vehicle that could carry the gun rather than just tow one. This ‘en portee’ vehicle would only be able to carry light field howitzers and not the heavier guns. The small size of the flat wooden deck at the rear of the vehicle limited the size of weapon it could transport. The prototype was given the factory code Renault FB: the letters FB were not an abbreviation. It did not meet the French Army’s requirements.

The Schneider CD was built using a Schneider CA char d’assaut tank’s lower chassis. It had a large storage area behind the driver’s cabin. The design used a lengthened Baby Holt tractor suspension and caterpillar track. The front of the tank was shaped like the front of a ship. The idea was that this feature would help free the tank from the side of a muddy trench wall. This design was replaced by a driver’s cabin at the front with a strong curved metal lower shield ‘skid’ that could slide up muddy embankments and the sides of shell craters. The rear metal ‘skid’ used on the tank was not fitted to the Schneider CD, but the tractor used the same engine and transmission.

There was room for a crew of four in driver’s cabin but seats for just two of them. The two in the back would have to sit on the boxes. It would not have been a pleasant vehicle to operate in cold and wet weather conditions The only protection they had was a canvas hood. There were no side doors or front windscreen. The heat from the engine would help keep them warm but they would be at the mercy of the biting winds, rain and snow. In the summer, the canvas hood could be folded back.

At the back of the drivers cabin, a large cable stowage reel was mounted. It had a handle attached to the side for manually winding up the towing cable. A powered revolving cylinder with a vertical axis was fitted to the rear of the vehicle and used for winding up and letting out the towing cable. This capstan winch was powered by the engine.

Schneider CD driver's position
The Schneider CD was apparently difficult to drive over rough ground but it proved to be tough and reliable – Source: François Vauvillier

After a successful demonstration of the prototype, Schneider received an initial order for fifty vehicles. In October 1916, that order was increased to five hundred. In December 1916, General Robert Georges Nivelle, a French artillery officer, became Commander in Chief. Priorities changed and Schneider was told to put all efforts into completing the order for the artillery tractor and supply vehicle at the expense of meeting the Schneider CA1 tank production targets.

In August 1917, the first production Schneider CD artillery tractor was completed. Only 20 vehicles had been delivered to the French Army by the end of December 1917. This averaged at a production figure of five vehicles a month. In 1918, this figure rose to an average of eight vehicles produced each month. By the end of the war, on 11th November 1918, Schneider had only delivered 110 Schneider CD artillery tractors, failing to reach the 500 vehicle target.

Le tracteur d'artillerie chenillé Schneider CD
A tracteur d’artillerie chenillé Schneider CD off to the front – Source: François Vauvillier

Post WW1 service

The French Army continued to receive Schneider CD tracked tractors after the war. Deliveries stopped after the 200th vehicle was delivered. Schneider manufactured a further 130 vehicles for civilian use on farms, by civil engineers and by forestry workers. The Schneider CD was still in French Army service when the German Army attacked in May 1940.

Many were captured and used by the German Wehrmacht as towing and supply vehicles. The rear capstan winch and cable reel behind the driver’s cabin were removed on many of the vehicles. A few were used after WW2 but only one is known to have been saved from the scrap heap. It was used by the company Barthez until the 1950s. It was rescued and restored by a private collector and can occasionally be seen by the public at exhibitions of classic vehicles in France.

The Schneider CD3 Char de dépannage

In December 1917, the French Army also issued a requirement for a tracked artillery tractor that was capable of towing the very heavy 9 ton howitzer. Schneider built a prototype based on the extended chassis of the Schneider CA3 tank. The company had designed an improved version of the Schneider CA tank with a longer chassis and slightly more powerful engine.

To improve weight distribution on soft ground, the track width was increased to 45 cm wide rather than the original 36 cm wide track link. The initial order for two hundred of these tanks was cancelled in favour of building a tank fleet of lighter, more agile, Renault FT tanks.

The crew cabin canvas cover was removed and a long metal arm was extended, at an angle, over the front of the engine. It was held in place by an ‘A’ shaped metal support. At the end of the metal boom there was a pulley, over which ran the powered winch tow cable. On the left side of the vehicle, Schneider fitted a small crane. This was used to hoist up the trail legs of the guns over the back of the vehicle.

Development took a long time. The prototype finally underwent trials in October 1918. Different artillery pieces like the 7.45 tonne 220 mm TR Schneider howitzer and the 3.3 tonne 155 mm L Mle 1917 Schneider field gun were attached to the rear of the vehicle and driven across the undulating proving ground course. It successfully completed these tests. Although not designed to transport heavier guns, it was found that it could tow the 13 tonne Canon de 155mm Grande Puissance Filloux (GPF) mle.1917 howitzer.

Schneider CD Char de dépannage
Schneider CD3 Char de dépannage – Source: François Vauvillier

Although it passed all the French Army requirements, Schneider was not given a production order for the new Schneider CD3 tracked artillery portee vehicle.

Schneider CA1
The Schneider CA-1 tank


Schneider CD, artillery grey livery


Schneider CD in later brown-sand livery. Only one is known to have survived and it is in a private collection.


In WW2 the German Army captured a number of French Schneider CD tracked vehicles. They removed the winch system and used them as tracked supply vehicles that had a towing capacity. They added a camouflage livery scheme.

Gallery

Schneider CD towing an artillery gun up to the front in muddy conditions.
Schneider CD towing an artillery gun up to the front in muddy conditions. This was the task it was designed for – Source: François Vauvillier

Schneider CD on the back of a transport lorry.
Schneider CD on the back of a transport lorry – Source: François Vauvillier

Schneider CD with canopy up
There was a crewman’s position at the front of the vehicle on the left. The driver sat on the right. The bad weather canopy could be folded back – Source: François Vauvillier

Schneider CD being loaded on to an articulated lorry
Schneider CD being loaded onto an articulated lorry. Notice its two-tone camouflage – Source: François Vauvillier

WW2 German Army Schneider CD tractors

Captured Schneider CD
The soldier in this photograph appears to be wearing a German uniform. This would suggest that some Schneider CD artillery tractors were captured and used by the German Army – Source: François Vauvillier

Schneider CD being towed by a German Tractor
The prime mover tractor unit in this photograph appears to be a WW2 German ‘FAMO’ 18-ton tractor unit halftrack (Sd.Kfz.9). This would suggest that some Schneider CD artillery tractors were captured and used by the German Army. Notice that the winch at the back of the driver’s cabin and at the rear have been removed – Source: François Vauvillier

Surviving Schneider CD

Surviving Tracteur Schneider CD
The only surviving Tracteur Schneider CD is in a private collection and is rarely seen in public – Source: Yalta Productions

Tracteur Schneider CD brass makers plate
The Tracteur Schneider CD brass makers plate – Source: Yalta Productions

Tracteur Schneider CD Cabin
The Tracteur Schneider CD’s Cabin – Source: Yalta Productions

Tracteur Schneider CD brake levers and winch
The Tracteur Schneider CD driver’s brake levers and winch capstan at the rear of the vehicle – Source: Yalta Productions

Specifications

Dimensions (L x W x H) 6.32 m x 2.30 m x 2.05 m
(20ft 9in x 7ft 6in x 6ft 9in)
Total weight 13.6 tons
Crew 2
Propulsion Schneider 4 cyl petrol, 60 hp (45 Kw)
Speed 8 km/h (5 mph)
Range on/off road 80/30 km (50/19 miles)
Load Capacity 3,000 kg
Total production 330

Sources

François Vauvillier “Des Tracteurs à Chenilles pour l’Artillerie I – Les Caterpillars Remorqueurs Holt, Baby Holt et Schneider CD” in “Histoire de Guerre Blindés & Materiel” No. 86, Jan-Mars 2009, pp. 54-63.
François Vauvillier “Des Tracteurs à Chenilles pour l’Artillerie II – Les Caterpillars Porteurs Renault FB et Schneider CD3” in “Histoire de Guerre Blindés & Materiel” No. 87, Avril-Juin 2009, pp. 80-87.
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