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Western Desert Force:
Brave Men, Iron Coffins

By William Sariego
September 2013

The Italian armed forces have received much criticism for their performance in the Second World War. While some of this has been justified, much of it has been overplayed by nationalist historians seeking to maximize their own county’s heroics. The English began this trend during the war even as the battles were being fought. Casualty lists reported from the Western Desert in 1940 highlighted the number of Italian POW’s captured and did not factor in Commonwealth casualties, only those of British troops. Such propaganda was a tonic for the home front but often concealed that battle casualties were often similar, reflecting the bravery of Italian troops. Their nominal allies, the Germans, were hardly better, both during but especially after the war. Failure was often due to the shortcomings of their Italian ally, it was never the fault of the Aryan Warrior Race.

The overall failings of the Italian army can be discussed elsewhere, and they certainly had issues in logistics, equipment and training. This small article will concentrate on the quality of the armored fighting vehicles that fought in the Western Desert from 1940 until 1943 and specifically in the time frame of Western Desert Force. The fighting qualities of Italy’s armored formations in North Africa were an exception to the general perception of the Italian military. The performance of the Ariete Division and others were often praised by both friend and foe. This good fighting record was made all the more remarkable by the very real failings of the AFVs available.

A brief synopsis is given below of all the vehicles which served in North Africa, along with their variations which did the same. Common to all Italian vehicles was the use of riveted, rather than welded armor. Of all the major powers in the Second World War only the Japanese would copy that fallacy. While easier to manufacture, riveted plates were not nearly as strong and even a glancing blow could tear holes in the armor. All the tracked vehicles had poor cross-country performance which hampered their use in the sands of North Africa. The tanks also ran on diesel fuel, making them burn easily if the diesel had reached a high enough temperature (which it usually did under the North African desert sun).

Autoblinda 40 & 41
The armored car used by the Italian army was in some ways its most successful vehicle. The Germans would put to use all they could seize after the Italian surrender and even produce more from the factory. The original model, the AB 40 would mount an 8mm MG in a revolving turret and one at the rear. The latter might seem odd but the AB had two driving positions, one at the rear! This was quite handy in getting out of tight places. Only 42 machines were built before the need for an upgraded armament was realized, and surviving AB 40s were easily converted. The AB 41 had a 20mm Breda model 35 cannon in the turret along with a co-ax MG. Some 550 were produced by the Italians and records indicate a little over 100 were manufactured by the Germans.

Crew:  4
Max Speed: 49 mph
Weight: 7.5 tons
Max Armor: 17mm
Engine: 6-Cyl 80 HP
Rounds: 456 x 20mm; 1992 x 8mm

Carro Armato L6/40
This vehicle began as a replacement for the CV 35 (see below) when the latter’s shortcomings became evident. Many versions were tested and rejected, including twin machine gun turrets and a hull-mounted 37mm gun. The final version that would see production featured the same 20 mm cannon used on the AB 41 with a co-axial 8mm machine gun in an off-set turret. The resulting vehicle was small and thus quite useful for reconnaissance but by the time it was deployed to Africa in numbers it was already an outdated vehicle. Only 283 L6/40s would be produced. This vehicle used petrol rather than diesel.

Crew:  2
Max Speed: 26 mph
Weight: 6.7 tons
Max Armor: 30mm
Engine: 4-Cyl 70 HP
Rounds: 256 x 20mm; 1560 x 8mm

Carro Armato M11/39
The first Italian medium tank design owed much to the British Vickers, especially in the suspension system. The inadequacy of the armament layout was recognized almost immediately. This featured twin 8 mm Breda machine guns in an offset turret and a 37/40 anti-tank gun mounted in the hull, a layout also used by the contemporary Lee tank designed in the United States. Only 100 were built and all were committed to Africa, 72 to Libyan formations and the rest to East Africa. All in North African theater were destroyed or captured by the end of 1940.

Crew: 3
Max Speed: 21 mph
Weight: 11 tons
Max Armor: 30mm
Engine: V-8 105 HP
Rounds: 84 x 37mm; 2808 x 8mm

Carro Armato M13/40 & M14/41
The M13/40, the standard Italian tank of the war, has been much maligned, but not always deservedly so. When introduced in 1940 it was a decent vehicle and comparable to most medium tanks deployed by other armies. However, it was still the main tank used by Italian armored formations in 1943, by which time it was a barely-adequate light tank. The main gun, a very good 47mm anti-tank gun, was turret-mounted with a co-axial machine gun. Twin Breda machine guns were mounted in the hull. Often platoon command tanks would have an anti-aircraft machine gun for the commander, this giving the tank a great deal of potential firepower in an infantry-support role. After the initial deployment to the desert in December, 1940, shortcomings to the engine were recognized. The M14/41 differed only in a more powerful engine which although did not increase speed greatly, did improve reliability and off-road performance in the harsh conditions of the North African desert. A little more than 3,000 were produced, of which a third were the improved M14/41.

Crew:  4
Max Speed: 20 mph (M 14/41 21 mph)
Weight: 13.8 tons (M14/41 14.3)
Max Armor: 40mm
Engine: V-8 125 HP (M14/41 V-8 145 HP)
Rounds: 104 x 47mm; 3048 x 8mm

Carro Veloce 33 & CV 35
This vehicle originally saw action in the Spanish Civil War. When used as a mobile machine gun platform in the infantry support role, it actually performed well. When used as a light tank, as often was the case, it failed miserably. The original model had only a single 6.5mm machine gun, though twin guns became the norm quickly. The CV 35 would feature the more powerful 8mm machine gun. The vehicle was mass produced with over 2,500 built. Variations existed, the most common being a flame thrower version. The flame projector would replace one of the machine guns and a towed trailer carried the fuel. Another variant featured the 20mm Solothurn anti-tank rifle in place of the machine guns. Both variants saw limited use in Africa.

Crew:  2
Max Speed: 26 mph
Weight: 3.2 tons
Max Armor: 14mm
Engine: 4 CYL 43 HP
Rounds: 3200 x 8mm or 3800 x 6.5 mm

Semovente 47/32
The Semovente 47/32 was an attempt to give better mobile anti-tank capability to the armored forces. This was the standard anti-tank gun employed by the Italians in the war which had a huge defect for its crew: there was no gun shield. This mobile tank destroyer was quite effective in some terrain, especially that which would be found in Tunisia. It was open-topped and the gun was hull-mounted on the L6/40 chassis, making it quite concealable. Some 300 were built and like the L6/40 it used petrol.

Crew:  2
Max Speed: 26 mph
Weight: 6.5 tons
Max Armor: 30mm
Engine: 4-Cyl 68 HP
Rounds: 70 x 47mm

Semovente 75/32
Recognizing the limitations of the M13/M14 ‘medium’ tanks, the Italian high command rushed this vehicle into service until heavier tanks could be designed. Arriving in January, 1942, the first 60 would be based on the M13/40 chassis and the subsequent 162 used the M14/41. Roughly equivalent to the German StuG III, the Semovente 75/32 proved to be an excellent vehicle. The armament was quite versatile, being effective in both direct and indirect fire. Though not standard, some vehicles were fitted with a roof-mounted 8 mm Breda for anti-air defense.

Crew:  3
Max Speed: 20 mph
Weight: 17 tons
Max Armor: 50mm
Engine: V-8 125 or 145 HP
Rounds: 44 x 75mm

Conclusion
The quality of the armored fighting vehicles detailed above is a mixed lot. With the exception of the Semovente 75/32 and the AB 41 armored car, all were generally inferior to those of their Allied foes or soon would be after deployment. The Italian armaments industry was simply not geared for total war or even for the rapid change that the conflict dictated. The “heavy” P40 tank (equal to the PzKw IV or Sherman) never saw Italian service, nor did the long-barreled 75mm version Semovente, due to production delays. The few of both vehicles produced were used by the Germans. Two vehicles that were used by the Italian army in Sicily/Italy were not available in time for North Africa. These were the M15/42 tank with a longer, higher-velocity 47 mm gun and better armor, and the massive Semovente 90/53 self-propelled gun. The former would be used be used by the reconstituted Ariete Division against the Germans after the surrender and the latter to devastating effect against Allied armor in Sicily. For his part in the war, the Italian tanker fought bravely for a bad cause in his iron coffins.

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