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Blackshirt Division:
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 Egypt.

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 tons, 1941).

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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.