Fascist Tank Licenses
Fascism as a political system emphasizes
the melding of government and business interests.
In practice, this meant the eventual subordination
of major corporations to the Grand Council
of Fascists. Important government leaders
held directorships at the leading arms manufacturers,
including the huge Fiat-Ansaldo combine.
Fiat-Ansaldo held a practical monopoly on
Italian tank manufacture. It was a slow process,
as the combine was also involved in every
other aspect of Italian re-armament from shipbuilding
to aircraft to artillery. Fiat-Ansaldo often
resisted licensing foreign designs, as this
limited the profit potential of new contracts.
Since leading generals and War Ministry officials
had close ties to the company, Italy did not
seek outside designs very often. In 1935 a
license was purchased from the Austrian firm
Böhler for their 47mm anti-tank gun.
The next major military license acquired
by Fiat-Ansaldo was for the Daimler-Benz DB.601
aircraft engine, the power plant for many
German warplanes. With this excellent engine,
Italian designers crafted fine fighters like
the Mc.202. But the license was not signed
until 1940, and many Italian fliers would
die at the controls of severely underpowered
planes before the switch could be made.
Fiat-Ansaldo received instructions to prepare
a new medium tank in 1936, but the resulting
M11/39 was not ready for production for three
years. In the interim it had become hopelessly
obsolete, and Fiat lacked the capacity to
produce many of them. The Italian army ordered
the establishment of three armored divisions
in late 1938, but slow deliveries of the new
tank meant that the new divisions’ tank
components had to be cut in half, and when
Italy went to war in June 1940, only Ariete
had the new tanks (70 of them).
During the years between the wars, Italy
tested eight new tank designs and accepted
four of them. Britain tested 26 and accepted
9; the United States tested 28 and accepted
five, and Germany tested 13 of which 4 were
accepted. The monopoly held by Fiat allowed
the company to “waste” fewer resources
in dead-end design and development, but meant
that the Esercito Reale had far less choice
in its vehicles than its European peers.
The M11/39 proved unsuitable for combat
almost immediately, and a new design came
out in 1940. The M13/40 was much more capable,
but still not up to the standard of other
nations’ tanks. The same program that
produced the M13/40 was supposed to provide
a heavy tank as well, but the P26/40 did not
enter production until 1943.
The army understood its inferiority, and
a copy of the British Crusader tank, known
as the “Sahariano,” began development
in 1941 but was not ready until 1943, by which
point it was out of date.
The logical source for better tank designs,
Italy’s ally Germany, proved a difficult
bargaining partner. The driving economic philosophy
of Nazi Germany was autarky: complete economic
self-sufficiency. The rest of Europe would
be a source of labor and raw materials. Providing
machine tools and modern designs to Italian
factories only produced competitors for the
post-war world. The Nazi barons did not intend
to win the war only to lose the peace.
When that attitude combined with Fiat’s
powerful reluctance to pay license fees, the
result was a very slow movement toward Italian
production of German designs. Only in 1943
did Fiat buy a German design and the tools
with which to make it, when the PzKw V Panther-D
was acquired for production by Fiat-Ansaldo.
Daimler-Benz, the tank’s manufacturer,
had concluded the successful deals for the
DB.601 aircraft engine with Fiat and also
with the Japanese. A license for the Panther
would eventually be sold to Mitsubishi, but
the sample tank never made it to Japan. Unlike
most other German firms (including the rest
of the tank makers), Daimler-Benz saw licenses
as a profit center and sold the Panther license
even before its own plants had turned out
their first production model.
No Italian-built Panther rolled off the
line before Italy changed sides in September
1943. But given a willingness to make a deal,
the precedent existed for Fiat to obtain German
weapon designs. Material shortages would still
have limited the number of tanks built, but
Italian tankers need not have driven their
M13/40 tanks into battle in 1942 long after
the vehicle had been exposed as inadequate.
In November 1941, the best potential German
vehicle was the PzKw IV with a long-barrelled
75mm gun. This vehicle, the PzKw IVG, was
scheduled to start production in May, 1942.
But the startling reports of the Soviet T-34/76
tank’s great fighting abilities caused
the modification to be rushed forward. The
new gun entered production in March instead,
replacing the short-barrelled 75mm gun in
the last 175 PzKw IVF built.
The other German tank about to enter production
in late 1941 was the PzKw IIIJ, with a long-barrelled,
60-caliber 50mm gun planned to replace the
42-caliber model. This gun would priove less
useful against the T-34, but was perfectly
adequate against British tanks in Libya and
Daimler-Benz was the lead contractor on
the PzKw III, and why the tank was not offered
to Fiat when the DB.601 deal was concluded
is unclear; Fiat-Ansaldo and the Italian generals
still apparently thought the M11/39 was adequate
for the army’s needs. With more push
from the army, a license should have been
possible in 1940 as part of the same contract
that brought the aircraft engine to Italy.
The PzKw IV contract would have been more
difficult. Krupp made that tank, and did not
have Daimler-Benz’s relationship with
Fiat-Ansaldo. With government, political or military
pressure on the combine a deal with Fiat no
doubt could have been arranged, but neither
the German armed forces nor the civilian government
nor the Nazi Party showed any concern for
assisting their allies.
It’s doubtful that Fiat-Ansaldo would
have sought both licenses, or had the capacity
or desire to manufacture both vehicles simultaneously.
Fiat could not manage to bring the “heavy”
P26/40 into production (a vehicle only slightly
larger than the PzKw IV), and struggled to
produce assault guns on the M13 chassis. Germany
produced many different weapons because the
feudal nature of Nazi economics prevented
efficient choices. Italian fascism, for its
part, precluded competition.
Using the Italian system, the M22/41 is
the PzKw IIIJ (medium tank, 22 tons, 1941).
The P23/41 is the PzKw IVF2 (heavy tank, 23
Don’t wait to put Blackshirt Division on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to add it to your collection!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.