Meet Italy's Weird World War II Tanks: Were They Any Good?

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Meet Italy's Weird World War II Tanks: Were They Any Good?

Let's take a look.

With new, more potent armored fighting vehicles expected in the late 1930s, Italian armor doctrine continued to mature. In 1938, General Edoardo Quarra, commander of the Tank Regiment from 1933 to 1936, urged the use of tanks en masse with artillery and infantry support to both break the enemy’s line and exploit that penetration. In 1937, General Carlo di Simone, chief of the 2nd Armored Brigade, advocated the addition of more truck- borne or mechanized infantry to the armored unit. He also suggested the attachment of motorized artillery and antitank weapons and ready air support. He stopped short of calling for the creation of an armored division since the absence at that time of a medium or heavy tank precluded such a formation from having the punch it needed.

If General Simone was wary of forming full armored divisions, his ideas did spur the Italian Army to embrace mechanization, which would greatly impact its future armor doctrine. In late 1938, General Alberto Pariani introduced the concept of guerra di rapido corso (high-speed mobile warfare). It announced a new doctrine, which put the tank, used en masse, at the heart of all offensive operations. Infantry and artillery were to act as support for the tanks and not vice versa. The exploitation of a breakthrough in enemy lines became a key role for armor.

As progressive as it was, the new doctrine failed to address the issue of tank versus tank combat. Nevertheless, the new policy created a single Corpo d’Armata Corazzato (Armored Corps) made up of two armored and two motorized infantry divisions. A tank worthy of the new theory was needed. The proposed M13/40 seemed to provide the solution.

Favorably Compared to the Venerable German Mark IV Panzer, the P40 Never Saw Service During the War Due to Manufacturing Delays.

The M13/40 medium tank had its inception in the desire to replace the hull-mounted 37mm cannon on the M11/39 with a higher velocity 47mm Austrian Bohler gun housed in a rotating turret. Experimentation began in 1938, but suffered numerous setbacks. It was then decided to make a variant of the M11/39. A revolving turret with the 47mm gun was fitted onto a chassis that was almost identical to the one used for the M11/39.

Armor protection was not increased, but for better protection of the four-man crew steel plates were bolted to a steel frame. The M11/39 engine, suspension, and transmission were used in the new model, which, due to the added weight, made the M13/40 sluggish. Its top speed was no more than 19 miles per hour on the road and 11 cross-county. Its height, width, and length were a little larger than the M11’s. Each tank was fitted with a radio, and the 47mm gun proved to be comparable to the two-pounder used by the British. The new tank did not see action until 1940, and by the end of its production run in 1942 over 800 had been produced.

With the arrival of the M13/40 expected, the Italian Army decided to create armored divisions. These new formations were to contain one tank regiment and motorized infantry regiment supported by two groups of artillery, a company of antitank guns and two batteries of antiaircraft guns. Italy’s three armored divisions entered World War II in June 1940 with a complement of 7,500 officers and men, 184 tanks (the majority L3/35s), and 24 75mm field guns each.

Even before the M13/40 was deployed, the Italians started working on a heavy tank design, the Carro Armato P40. The 26-ton vehicle had a diesel engine providing a top speed of 16 miles per hour. Its 75mm, turret-mounted gun was very effective, but for antipersonnel defense there was only one 8mm Breda co-axial machine gun. The crew of four was surrounded by 50-60mm of armor plate at the front, 40mm on the sides and rear, and 20mm on the underside. Favorably compared to the venerable German Mark IV panzer, the P40 never saw service during the war due to manufacturing delays.

In March 1943, the Army decided to end production of all its medium series tanks. Their poor performance since 1940 convinced the military that the best way to fight a tank was with an antitank gun, not another tank. This shift in tactics was reinforced by the presence of a formidable self-propelled gun, the Semovente da 75/18 Su Scafo M41, in the Italian arsenal. First making its appearance in North Africa in mid-1942, the Semovente was based on the German Sturmgeschutze III infantry assault self-propelled gun and manufactured by the Ansaldo Company. Using an M13/40 tank chassis, a short 75mm howitzer in a ball mount was fitted to the front of a low superstructure. The model’s early trials proved it was reliable and easy to maintain. Ninety were ready for service by February 1941, with another 120 slated for production.

The new self-propelled gun perfectly suited the Army’s longtime belief that artillery was the best antitank weapon. It also could act as mobile artillery, which would be used to create holes in enemy lines to be exploited by the infantry and tanks. Further, it fit well with the Army’s artillery doctrine, fuoco da manovra (maneuvered fire), which called for the employment of massed antitank guns and field artillery fire close to the front.

The Semovente was manned by a crew of three: a driver, loader/radio operator, and commander/gunner. In almost all dimensions it was identical to the M13/40, except it was two feet lower in height, making it a more difficult target to spot. Its superstructure, frontal, and side armor was 25mm thick, while the mantlet was 50mm, and the top a thin 9mm. It carried 44 howitzer shells and proved to be a threat to Allied armor in the battles in North Africa. First used in small groups in direct support of armor and infantry, by late 1942 batteries of up to 16 vehicles were being employed for both support and independent missions.

In late 1942, the Semovente was upgraded by using an M42 tank chassis. About 200 of these were produced. Soon after, a new model carrying a 105/25 su Scafo M43 howitzer entered service. Built by Ansaldo, armor protection was 50mm all around. This was the most formidable armored fighting vehicle fielded by the Italians during the war. Thirty of them entered service before Italy left the conflict.

The armored fighting vehicles of the Italian Army during World War II have remained somewhat obscure. Their overall performance during the conflict must be assessed as less than spectacular.

Arnold Blumberg has conducted extensive research into armored fighting vehicles of World War II. He resides in Baltimore.

This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons