Italy became a nation-state belatedly - in 1861 when the city-states of the peninsula and Sicily were united under King Victor EMMANUEL. The Fascist dictatorship of Benito MUSSOLINI that took over after World War I led to a disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany and Italian defeat in World War II. Revival followed. Italy was a charter member of NATO and the European Economic Community (EEC) and joined the growing political and economic unification of Western Europe, including the introduction of the euro in 1999. Persistent problems include illegal immigration, the ravages of organized crime, corruption, high unemployment, and the low incomes and technical standards of southern Italy compared with the more prosperous north. - U.S. CIA World Factbook


Nomenclature of Italian Tanks

The Italian system of designating tanks, self-propelled guns, and armored cars followed a basic pattern, but there were variations. Italian tank designation consisted of three elements - a letter denoting the type of tank (light, medium or heavy), a number expressing the approximate weight in tons of the tank, and two digits denoting the year of design, adoption or introduction of the tank. The M13/40 nomenclature signified a Medium tank of 13 tons introduced in 1940. Sometimes, tanks were referred to simply by the letter and tonnage nomenclature, such as "M.13", or simply by letter and date, as in "M.42". In the case of the P.40 (heavy tank), the reference to tonnage was dropped completely in the official designation. The CV 3/33 and CV 3/35 are another special example. The CV designation referred to a special class of tank - in actual fact a tankette and both types of CV were later classified together as the L.3 and often referred to simply as the "Carro L". A final nuance was the use of either an oblique or a period between the letter and the number when using either of the abbreviated forms, as for instance, reference to the M/13 or M.13.

The Italian designation of weight categories did not equate to either Allied or German categories. The P.40 "heavy" (P is short for Pesante) tank compared to German and Allied mediums in weight, Italian medium tanks were in the same weight range as U.S. and German light tanks, and their light tanks were, with respect to both weight and armament, what other nations classified as reconnaissance vehicles.

Self-propelled guns were identified by reference to the type of tank chassis they were built upon, followed by reference to the type of gun mounted on the vehicle. The "Semovente M40 da 75/18" was a 75/18 gun/howitzer mounted on the chassis of an M.40 (M 13/40). The period or oblique was omitted in the self-propelled designations. In the case of the M42M da 75/34 and M42L da 105/25, the letters following the hull designation denoted a gun of medium length (M) and a long-barreled gun (L), respectively. Self-propelled guns were most frequently referred to by gun type alone, however; hence, references to the Semovente da 47 or da 47/32.

Armored cars that were produced in series were identified very simply by the abbreviation AB (autoblinda) followed by the last two digits of the year of introduction, as with the AB 40. An exception to this system was the designation of the Lince armored car, identified by name, and the experimental Vespa armored car, identified by name only.

Development of Armored Vehicles

Italian interest in tracked laying armored vehicles dates back to September 1916, when the first British appeared. The Italians succeeded in obtaining a Schneider tank from France shortly afterwards, and tests of the tank sparked Italian imagination. Due to military requirements on the Western Front, requests for more tanks from France met with negative results until 1918, when another Schneider and three Renault FT tanks were delivered to Italy. In the interval between the acquisition of the Schneider and the second delivery, however, Fiat had undertaken the building of a tank of its own design, known as the Fiat 2000, of which 2 (some sources state 6) were built. The 2000 weighed 40 tons and was armed with a 65mm gun in a turret and seven machine guns in the hull. It was powered by a 240hp engine (high for it’s day) which moved it along at 6 mph.

In 1918, Fiat received an order for series production of a modified version of the French Renault FT17. Designated as the Fiat 3000, one hundred were delivered to the Italian Army. After their delivery in 1921 and up to 1929, when Italy acquired a British Carden Loyd tankette, all development seems to have halted. From 1929 to 1935, development centered around the carro veloce, as the Italian-produced version of the Carden Loyd was known. The Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 - 36 pointed out a need for a heavier tank, and the Italian Army General Staff called for development of a new medium tank. An eight-ton turretless carro di rottura (breakthrough tank) armed with a short-barreled 37mm gun was built in prototype, but the design was not accepted. In 1939 the M 11/39 was adopted followed shortly by the L 6/40 light tank.

During WW2, Italian tank development suffered from a variety of causes, ranging from a critical lack of raw materials to a gross miscalculation by Mussolini as to when the war would begin. The main problem was that at the Italians had little experience in designing their own armored vehicles. The Italian automotive industry was continually pressured by the war effort to provide the major components that were needed. An example is though the Italian Army realized the need for a tank heavier than the M.13, no priority given to the development of such a vehicle. As a result, when the P.40 was finally projected, the engine as well as the vehicle itself had to be designed from the ground up. The time lag between design and production stages was long. Another plan to manufacture of German tanks in Italy seemed to offer a solution but plans to build the PzKpfw III in Italy came to naught.

During the course of the war, Italian industry showed its ability to improvise with what was at hand in order to effect more rapid production of armored vehicles. The self-propelled guns built upon tank hulls clearly illustrate that, given something basic to work with (the tank chassis), the Italians were capable of making effective modifications on short order. By far the greatest part of all combat vehicles built or projected in Italy during the war were built by the Fiat/SPA and Ansaldo-Fossati combination, with other manufacturers being Breda, Lancia and Alfa Romeo. Virtually all tracked armored vehicles were Fiat/Ansaido products. Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) or SPA (Societa Ligure Piemontese Automobili), which was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fiat, provided the engine, transmission and all other running gear for the vehicles, whereas Ansaldo-Fossati provided the armor and armament for the vehicles.

The two principal areas in which Italian armored vehicles fell short of their German and Allied counterparts were in the quality of their armor plate (steel) and in their horsepower-to-weight ratio. The armor plate was prone to crack or split when hit, and generally speaking, the deficiency in the quality of the steel was not compensated for by added thickness. This was probably due to a high sulfur content in the steel. Brittle steel was the same problem that plagued the ocean liner Titanic. Italian tank crews tried sandbagging and affixing track links to vital areas in order to improve their chances of survival, but to infer that this practice was an Italian monopoly would be totally misleading. Both Allied and German tankers resorted to the same type of field expedients. The principal difference was that Italian tanks, without improvised protection, would not stand up against those weapons which most Allied and German armor could withstand.

Production models of Italian tracked vehicles suffered from an unfavorable horsepower-to-weight ratio throughout the war. Efforts to increase horsepower, as in the case of the M.15, did not significantly enhance the speed or mobility of the vehicles, and parity with Allied or German vehicles was never achieved in this respect. Another factor was increasing power and speed caused failures in the suspension and tracks thereby negating any gains. What good was it to have a powerful motor when the track links broke. Italy desperately needed new designs, improved steel, experience, and time – and she had none of them.

Italy did enjoy some bright spots. The armament mounted on Italian vehicles was quite another story! The 47mm gun of the M.13 was a good weapon. The 75/18 gun/howitzer of the self-propelled gun was a reliable and accurate weapon which, although not designed as an anti-tank weapon, was used as such with excellent results. The 90/53 gun on a self-propelled gun is another example of a first-rate weapon.

Organization of Armored Units

The organization of Italian armored units and of self-propelled gun units was modified continuously throughout the war. This was due to a variety of reasons, among them the destruction or disbanding of some armored units, and the introduction of new types of armored vehicles in operational units. As an example, in June 1940 there were 326 light tanks in Libya assigned to three corps. One corps of three divisions had 142 tanks, and the other two corps, each of two divisions, had 138 and 46 tanks respectively. About three months later, at the end of August (by which time 70 M 11/39 tanks had also arrived in Libya), all tank units there were consolidated under a single armored command composed of two raggruppamenti, one composite battalion, and one independent light tank battalion. In this case, each raggruppamento was equivalent to about a reinforced regiment, with one battalion of medium and three battalions of light tanks each. One raggruppamento was assigned to the XXIII Corps and the other to the Gruppo Divisioni Libiche (Group of Libyan Divisions). The composite battalion, with one company of light and one company of medium tanks, was assigned to the Raggruppamento Maletti, and the independent light tank battalion, minus one company, was assigned to the XXI Corps.

Italian armored divisions were not armor-heavy, but rather, were an almost equal mix of armor, artillery and infantry. At the outset of the war in June 1940, Italian armored divisions consisted of one Bersaglieri regiment, a tank regiment (four battalions of L.3 tanks totaling 164 tanks), and an artillery regiment. In early 1941, the armored division that was sent to Libya consisted of a tank regiment with three battalions of L.3 tanks, a Bersaglieri regiment, an artillery regiment with two groups, and an engineer company. The strength of the division was approximately 5700 men, with II 7 light tanks. By the end of 1941, organization of the divisions had changed to a tank regiment (equipped with M.13s), a Bersaglieri regiment, an artillery regiment with six groups (two of which were self-propelled), an engineer battalion, and supporting service units. Now strength had increased to 8600 men and 189 medium tanks. Further organization of the divisions and actual composition of the regiments varied from time to time, depending on the availability of issue equipment and the phasing in of new equipment.

The 75/18 self-propelled gun groups were incorporated into the artillery regiments of the armored divisions, and initially consisted of two batteries with a total of eight gun vehicles and four command vehicles per group. The signing of the armistice put an end to plans for replacing the 75/18 with the 75/34 self-propelled gun in the armored divisions and reassigning the 75/18's to infantry divisions. The 47/32 self-propelled guns were organized in independent battalions and were assigned to both the armored and motorized divisions in North Africa.

At the beginning of the war, each of the three Italian cavalry divisions (divisioni celere) had a support group (a battalion equivalent) of four light tank squadrons having three platoons of four L tanks each. Later in the war the armored groups of the defunct cavalry divisions were equipped with armored cars or L 6/40 tanks and assigned to the armored divisions in Africa.

Benito Mussolini atop a CV33 light tank.

Italian Armored Divisions

Of Italy's more than 70 combat-effective divisions during the war, only four were armored - the 13Ist Centauro, 132nd Ariete, and 133rd Littorio. A resurrected Ariete was organized in April 1943 and designated as the 135th Ariete Armored Cavalry Division. Plans to convert a cavalry division, the 2nd Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro, to an armored division designated as the 134th Freccia Division were never implemented. The 136th Giovani Fascisti Division was at times referred to as an armored division, but it was nothing more than an infantry division with some of its artillery mounted on trucks.

Centauro was stationed in Albania in 1940 and took part in the Italian actions against Greece, Yugoslavia, and North Africa. The division was being resurrected in Italy in mid 1943, with German equipment and SS instructors, when the armistice between Italy and the Allies was announced. German equipment assigned to Centauro included the Sturmgeschutz III assault gun and the PzKpfw V Panther. The division was disbanded on 12 September, and the Germans put the equipment to their own use.

Littorio participated in action on the Alpine front during the short campaign waged, by Italy against France in June 1940. In 1941, along with Centauro, it campaigned in Yugoslavia. From 1942 to 1943 it was engaged in North Africa, operating with Ariete and the German armored elements of Afrika Korps (]5th and 2]st Panzer Divisions). In November 1942, after having been nearly destroyed at the battle of El Alamein, what was left of the division was absorbed into the Ariete Tactical Group.

Ariete was probably the most notable of all Italian armored divisions. Ariete fought in North Africa from January 1941 until November 1942, at which time its remaining elements, along with remnants of Littorio and of the Trieste Motorized Division, were formed into the Ariete Tactical Group, which fought into Tunisia. Throughout the period of its activity in North Africa, Ariete fought in conjunction with, or subordinate to, the German forces in the desert and was praised by Field Marshal Rommel himself, who recognized the division as, having outstanding fighting qualities. A resurrected Ariete division was constituted in Italy in 1943, and fought against the Germans on the outskirts of Rome immediately after the declaration of the armistice in September. It was disbanded by the Germans after its surrender.

After the armistice between Italy and the Allies, no Italian armored units were authorized by the Allies to operate with the co-belligerent Italian combat units. Original planning had envisaged the use of a limited number of L.3 tanks, in the flame-thrower version, in support of the 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato Italiano. The army of the RSI, however, had two armored groups, the Gruppo Corazzato Leoncello and the Gruppo Corazzato Leonessa.

Italian armored units fought on all fronts - from Russia to Tunisia, with most of their activity was conducted in North Africa. The performance of Italian tank and armored artillery crews was superior to the end, especially when one considers the relatively inferior equipment that the Italians were forced to work with.

'We Will Return" - Perhaps the most confusing warposter ever made! What is the messge here? Are the Italians returning or just leaving? Why is an Italian soldier standing among Italian dead? Why is the Italian flag shreaded but the British flag looks intact, but down? Why does the ghostly image appear to have his hands in his pockets? Why do the soldiers look like they are whistfully dreaming instead of a steely, gritty, warrior appearance?


 

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Witold J. Lawrynowicz
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Author of
Renault FT Tank

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Dr. André Louis Maurois

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Dr. Georg V. Rauch
Author of
Conflict in the Southern Cone

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Ionica Fonosch

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Last Update: Tuesday, March 04, 2003