Tank Building: Italian Tanks


Tanks were born in Europe,
and their development was shaped primarily
by the experience of wars in Europe. However, there were exceptions. For example, the Japanese
designed their vehicles with an emphasis
on transportability by ship. The Italians had their
own peculiar assumptions about where their tanks
would have to fight. And, as it turned out, the Italian
tanks had a unique battle record, fighting many of their
battles far from Europe. The history of the Italian armored
force began more than 100 years ago. Italy was a young
nation—just 50 years old. Italy’s dynamic development included
a push to establish colonies in Africa. In 1911, Italy launched
a war against the Ottoman Empire for the territory of Libya. In this war, the Italians became
the first to use armored cars in battle. One of the first Italian
armored cars, if not the first, was the Isotta Fraschini armored car. I think it was a car
with 4 mm armor plating. Successful use of armored cars sparked
the development of new vehicle types. What started as a handicraft
industry turned into mass production. Italy’s war in Africa ended in 1912. But two years later, another
war broke out near its borders. This wasn’t just a colonial conflict. It was the First World War—a titanic
clash between the major powers of Europe. Italy entered the war quite late,
after a long period of hesitation. Who to support? In 1914, the country was
a member of the Triple Alliance. But its territorial claims were
not against France or Great Britain, but against Italy’s partner in the
Triple Alliance—Austria-Hungary. A political debate
ensued within Italy. Eventually, in 1915, Italy entered the
war on the side of the Triple Entente. Along with the rest
of her armed forces, Italy brought a decent-sized
armored force to the fray. The Italian army used two main types
of armored cars in both world wars: the Ansaldo Lancia IZ
and the AB 40/41. Both vehicles
had good characteristics— comparable in performance
to the best foreign models. In particular, the AB 43,
which we see parked here, was also used by the
German Army from 1944 to 1945 and remained in service in the
Italian Army in the post-war years until the 1960s. The railway engineer regiment
used it to protect the railways. Italy fought its bitter
enemy, Austria-Hungary. But its formidable armored cars
were not widely used during this war. The front line was in the mountains, where armored cars
could not be used effectively. And where there were no mountains,
there were strong, layered defenses. Armored cars lacked both
terrain-crossing capacity and firepower. By the summer of 1915, it became clear that Italy
needed a tracked fighting vehicle. The Italians were moving in the
same direction as other countries. Accordingly, the requirements
developed by General Martini in 1915 were right on a par with
the requirements of other countries that were starting to develop tanks. The first projects were
much like those of the French, the British, or the Germans. We might call it an
armored train or a land fortress. Two companies developed
and produced armored vehicles— automotive company FIAT
and engineering company Ansaldo. The history of Italian tank building
would be connected with those companies until the end of World War II. The Ansaldo company,
namely, engineer Turrinelli, began work on the
first design in 1916. The vehicle was not adopted. The FIAT engineers
succeeded in their attempt. They built the first mass-produced
Italian tank—the FIAT 2000. This was a 40-ton vehicle
with a very interesting design. Basically, it was the first
tank with a rotating turret. And it had the world’s first chassis specifically created for
a medium or heavy tank. Before that, everything was
derived from agricultural tractors. The work on the vehicle
started in October 1916. But just as the FIAT 2000 was
being perfected, World War I ended. That’s why only
four vehicles were built. It took three years for the Italians
to go from the start of development to the first mass produced tank. The British with their
Mark I did it in a year. So did the French with their Renault. But the Italian Front had
some specific complicating factors. Although the Italian Army appreciated
the characteristics of the FIAT 2000, they didn’t put it on service,
preferring light tanks. During War World I, the front line remained situated in
mountainous terrain in northern Italy, and it was thought that heavy tanks
wouldn’t perform well in mountains. As a result, the Italian Army
focused on the Renault FT-17. It was a light tank;
they purchased five of them. It was tested in Italy and
deemed acceptable, even perfect, to use in the mountains of Italy. Italy weren’t able
to purchase any more Renault tanks. The French were giving
everything to their own army. So the Italians decided
to start production at home. The FIAT engineers
made some creative choices. Instead of fully
copying the French tank, they built a vehicle that was lighter
and faster, with the same armor. The tank was
designated the FIAT 3000. Unlike its French precursor,
the FIAT 3000 had a transverse engine, allowing the hull
length to be reduced. Also, it had one road
wheel less than the Renault. The FIAT 3000 was the most
successful derivative of the Renault FT. It was quite a good
vehicle for the time. Its armament was good and became
even better after modernization. It had an option for modernization
that the French did not have. Its turret was more
successful in terms of vision. As a result, a tank that
was planned for the Italian army was eventually purchased by
the armies of many other countries. The first prototype of the
FIAT 3000 underwent tests in 1920, and the tank entered
service a year later. The production run
was only about 100 vehicles. However, the tank stayed
in the Italian Army for a long time. In 1930, it was upgraded: some vehicles
were equipped with 37 mm guns, others received radio sets. The machine gun version
had the designation L5/21. The cannon version was the L5/30. The FIAT 3000 had
a very long history starting in 1923, staying in service through 1943, when several tanks were used against
American forces landing in Sicily, the Allied invasion. The reason for the
small production run and long service of the
first Italian tanks was funding, or more precisely, the lack of it. World War I was not
very successful for Italy. On the one hand, Italy was
among the victors at the end. On the other hand,
the pointless bloodshed had created discontent
among the Italian people, and the country was
locked in economic crisis. In 1922,
Benito Mussolini rose to power. The dictator set out
to create a great Italian Empire. To do so,
he needed a strong army, which was already
unthinkable without tanks. However, there was
no money for tanks. So the Italians turned to a different
type of armored vehicles—tankettes. In 1929, they purchased a license
for Carden-Loyd Mk. VI from the British. Based on this design, the Ansaldo
company developed the L3 light tank. In 1933, the Italian Army
started using a fast tank that was also later called
a lightweight 3-ton tank. It was a copy of another
vehicle, the CV29, a fast tank, Model 29 of the British production. In fact, it wasn’t
a tank but a tankette. It was a very light vehicle
armed with a single machine gun; a second machine
gun was added later. It had a crew of just two,
and it was meter and a half high, so it couldn’t compete with tanks
armed with cannons in any way. Nevertheless, the Italian Army gave
a lot of credit to this light vehicle and launched its mass production. The tankette first saw combat
in 1935 and 1936 in Abyssinia, and was later used from 1936
through 1939 in the Spanish Civil War. This small, maneuverable tank
worked well in rough terrain. In addition, it could be
used as an artillery tractor. Versatility was a very important feature for the vehicles of
a relatively poor country. Almost half a dozen countries
bought the L3, including Brazil. The vehicle saw
combat in Spain and China. The Hungarian Army even
drove them into the Soviet Union. The L3 was a successful
vehicle of its type. But it couldn’t be the basis
of a full-fledged armored force. The Italian Army needed
real tanks, not tankettes. And there were more than
just financial obstacles to that. The engineers were struggling to meet the contradictory requirements
of the design specifications. Italian military doctrine
between the world wars envisioned a fight in the north
of the Italian Peninsula and the Alps. That’s why the military wanted tanks that could operate on narrow
roads and cross small bridges. They tried to solve this problem the
same way they had with tankettes— learn from foreign experience. Italy purchased one
Vickers Mk. E tank from the British. But the best light tank of the time
didn’t inspire the Italian military. But then the Spanish Civil War caused the Italians to take another
look at the Vickers Mk. E concept. As did the Germans,
the Italians first of all realized that the time of the
machine gun tanks had passed, because the first combat use
of German and Italian light tanks coincided with the use of the T-26. At extreme distances, the T-26s
could do anything they wanted against the Italian and German tanks. As a result, the Italians started
developing a turreted version of the L3 that later evolved
into the L6 light tank. This vehicle was a high point
of Italian light tank development. The design of the L6 was both outdated
and forward-thinking at the same time. Its hull and turret were riveted,
but the front was up to 30 mm thick— quite good for a 7-ton vehicle. The tank was
equipped with a torsion bar in combination with road
wheels mounted on bogies. A turret was equipped with
the 20 mm Breda autocannon. These were excellent
characteristics for a pre-war tank. Unfortunately, the army
got the L6 only in 1942, when the era of light
tanks had passed. For several years, the Italian
designers had put all their efforts into the development
of heavier vehicles. After the Spanish Civil War, the Italians creatively mixed
their military requirements with the design solutions
of the British Vickers tank to build their own medium tank. The result they came up with
was the Carro Armato M11/39. This was an 11-ton vehicle with
a diesel engine and a strange layout. Its hull was both riveted and bolted. For the time, it was
already rather outdated. A 37 mm gun
was mounted in the hull. The turret was equipped
with coaxial machine guns. It’s not that the
Italians were strange. Once again, they were looking
at the experience of other countries. They’ve got a neighboring
country, France. The French General Estienne developed
the concept of the Char B tank. Basically, it was the M11,
but had a bigger gun. Generally, they copied
the conclusion of the French. During the war in Spain, small-caliber autocannon presented
the greatest threat to tanks. 30 mm of front armor reliably protected
the Carro Armato from such weapons. Maybe that’s why the
awkward layout of its armament didn’t scare away
the Italian military. They ordered 100 M11/39 tanks. They were the only type of
medium tanks Italy had in service at the time the country
joined the Second World War. The military considered the M11/39 a transition model
to more advanced vehicles. As early as December 1937, the requirements for a tank
with a 13-ton combat weight and a 47 mm gun were specified. The fighting vehicle was
designated Carro Armato M13/40 and entered production in late 1940. At the time, the main theater of
operations for the Italian Army was Africa. The M13/40 and its variants
became the main tanks of this war. In the development
of a more modern M13 tank, the main drawbacks
of the M11 model were corrected. The new vehicle was equipped
with a 47/32 caliber gun. It had a diesel engine
and wasn’t very fast, but performed well during
military operations in Libya in 1941. During the famous Battle
of Bir el Gubi in November 1941 the Ariete Division entered a battle
against the British 22nd Armored Brigade. It managed to cause serious
damage to this large enemy formation and stopped the British advance by destroying about
thirty of their Crusader tanks. The main problem of the M13/40 was
that its hull and turret were riveted. However, all Italian tanks of
World War II had this disadvantage. Historians had tried to find
the reasons for this situation. And there were a lot of them:
from political to production, from the quality of steel available
to the location of the steelworks, and the Fiat-Ansaldo monopoly. This solution was highly unsuccessful. It was connected with an idea
the designers thought was practical. The engineers had the idea
that if one of the plates took a hit, it could be replaced, and the
tank could return to the battle. But this simply didn’t work in practice. Despite its flaws, the M13/40 became
the most produced Italian tank. 710 vehicles were built. Later,
another 695 of an improved version, the Carro Armato M14/41, were built. In 1940 and 1941, the Italian tanks fought the British
cruiser tanks on almost equal ground. If we’re talking about armored forces,
there was almost parity between them. To be honest, the British tanks
of the early war period weren’t better than
the Italian ones, to put it mildly, including their reliability. For example, the failure rate of the
Cruiser Mk. II was more than 50%. If it weren’t for the Matilda, who
knows what might have happened. The Matilda tanks behaved even
cheekier than the Tigers in 1943. The Italians didn’t have
anything to stop these tanks. All they could hope to do is
to knock off a track or jam turrets. Nothing more. The Italians knew that the
M13/40 and M14/41 were outdated and tried to replace them. An upgraded version of the
tank was prepared—the M15/42. Its front armor
was increased to 45 mm. A more powerful
engine was installed. Unlike the other tanks of the M
series, it had a gasoline engine. The gun caliber
remained the same, 47 mm, but the barrel length was increased. The muzzle velocity increased by 30%. Its shell now could penetrate 40 mm
of armor at a range of 500 meters. It became the last in
the series of M13/40 modifications and the best Italian
medium tank of World War II. 194 vehicles of this model
were produced by September 8, 1943. When the M15/42 was developed,
it was already at least a year overdue. Since the fall of 1942, the British Army
had been using the M4 medium tanks, or the Shermans
as the British called them. They outmatched
the Italian tanks in every way. The M15/42 gun could penetrate
them only at point-blank range. Despite this inferiority, Italian
tankers faced the enemy in open terrain, suffering serious losses,
especially in the battle of El Alamein. Counting only military
personnel engaged in combat, the Italian armored forces
suffered heavier casualties than any other branch of their army. It’s worth noting that almost
all, or even all, Italian tank aces who earned the top honor—the Medal
of Military Valor—had similar exploits. That is, they fought in the M13/40
or M14/41 and, in almost every case, they went into an assault
with almost no chance of survival. Italian engineers
tried to develop a machine suited for the fighting in North Africa. The result was the Sahariano, an
18-ton vehicle with torsion suspension, low silhouette,
and high maneuverability. While working on it, the Italians copied
a range of elements from the T-34. Even its tracks are essentially
identical to those of the T-34. And that’s not surprising, because the Germans loaned one of their
trophy T-34s to the Italians for testing. A development prototype
was ready in the spring of 1942. But its characteristics were not
impressive enough to justify adoption. Two years later,
the Sahariano was dismantled. The Italian tanks couldn’t
compete with the Allied machines and couldn’t change
the course of the war. In Libya, Italian troops waved the
white flag at Cap Bon on May 13, 1943. Two months later, Allied forces landed
in Sicily. The invasion of Italy began. In late July,
Benito Mussolini was overthrown. The new government
signed an armistice with the United States
and Great Britain on September 3. After that, the Germans
occupied Italy, disarmed its army, and created the Italian Social Republic. The factories where
the Italians were about to start producing a new heavy tank
passed to the Germans. The new tank never went into
service with the Italian army. Eventually, about a hundred tanks
that were ready at the factory were used by the Germans,
who occupied the territory of Italy and made local manufacturers
work for the Wehrmacht. Roughly speaking, they were
comparable to the Panzerkampfwagen IV. The Italians had started developing
a heavy tank back in December 1938. First, they designed a tank taking
the German Neubaufahrzeug as an example. The vehicle had several turrets. However, they quickly
gave up on this scheme. Development shifted to the
Carro P. Much like the Sahariano, it was influenced by the Soviet T-34. You can see that influence
in the shape of the hull and turret. The final P40 variant, known as the
P26/40, had a combat weight of 26 tons. The armor can be called adequate
and its armament relatively powerful, but only compared to medium tanks
of that time. Its hull was still riveted. The lack of a powerful engine
was the factor that limited the development of Italian
armored vehicles most of all. Even the P26,
a well-known heavy tank, never went into
service with the Italian army. Its development was badly delayed
because of the lack of a powerful engine. The one that was
available, a petrol engine, was not powerful enough
for a tank of that weight. The Germans suffered
from the same issue. The Italians planned
to continue developing heavy tanks. Based on the P40, they designed
a more advanced tank—the P43— with higher weight and thicker armor. Development got
as far as the mockup stage. An even more interesting project,
the P43 bis, reached the same stage. This project was a true heavy tank. It had a combat weight
of 34 tons and a 90 mm gun, a shortened version
of an antiaircraft gun. Another P43 bis project had
a Sahariano-type running gear and a more powerful gun. After World War II, a number
of restrictions were imposed on Italy. Among other things, development
of military machinery was limited. American and British vehicles became
the core of the Italian armored forces. In the late 1950s,
Italy resumed tank development. By early 60s, the country joined
the Standardpanzer Program, which resulted in
a significant tank, the Leopard 1. The C1 Ariete
became the greatest success of the Italian tank-building
industry in the postwar period. The tank was developed in
cooperation with German companies and was based on the Leopard 2.
200 tanks of this type were produced. Today, the C1 Ariete is the
backbone of the Italian armored forces. The Italians make big
money off vehicle modernization. And also wheeled vehicles. Their wheeled vehicles
are among the most advanced. The history of the Italian
tank building was short. Currently, there’s little impetus
for building a new tank in Italy. If one is created in the near future, it will probably be
a multinational project.