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Iron Coffin, Mark One

The Royal Italian Army entered the Second World War with many modern ideas about the employment of tanks, but few modern vehicles with which to apply these concepts. As we’ve seen in a previous installment, fascist melding of government and business gave Fiat-Ansaldo a monopoly on Italian tank construction and little incentive to provide better vehicles.

Italy’s first production tank, the Fiat 3000, was still in use in 1940 despite a design dating to the First World War. An improved version of the widely-used French Renault FT17, the Fiat machine was very slow and not armored against modern anti-tank weapons. When ordered in 1918, the tank was quite modern and the French provided 100 FT-17 machines to speed crew training. The Italian Army planned widepsread use of tanks, and ordered 1,400 of them from Fiat, with delivery to begin in May 1919. Production slowed with the war’s end in late 1918, and the first machines arrived in 1921. This model had two 6.5mm machine guns, and a slightly better speed than the Renault original.

A pair of Fiat 3000 tanks on manuevers.

In 1926 a tank detachment took a number of Fiat tanks to Libya for use against the Senussi tribesmen fighting the Italian army deep in the desert. The tanks took part in several actions, but afterwards were shipped back to Italy. Italy’s first experience of armored warfare was not particularly successful.

The tankers wanted a more powerful armament, and in 1929, eight years after the army first demanded a better vehicle, Fiat finally tested a 3000 with a 37mm gun in place of the machine guns. (Here the fascist system was showing its efficiencies; Ansaldo’s president, Ugo Cavallero, had been de facto Minister of War before going to the boardroom and would become Chief of the General Staff after returning to uniform.) This improved version went into production in 1930 as the 3000B; it also sported a better suspension and more powerful engine — but due to poor gearing the tank’s speed actually dropped (Cavallero faced charges of selling the army poor material but used his connection to Mussolini to avoid conviction). Albania, Ethiopia and Latvia bought the tanks as well.

Italy formed five small tank battalions in 1927, using the 100 Fiat 3000 models built in 1921. The 48 Fiat 3000B models delivered in 1930 appear to have been mixed in among the older models. By 1940 the 131st Centauro and 133rd Littorio armored divisions each had two medium tank battalions still fielding the Fiat 3000 or 3000B, now called the L5/21 or L5/30 respectively in the new Italian system.

Centauro took its L5 tanks to Albania in April 1939 when the Italians invaded and overthrew their former puppet-king. The division also deployed some of them against the Greeks in October 1940, though it left over half of them in its depots as the engines had completely worn out.

Fiat 3000B models on parade.

The 132nd Ariete armored division had been formed and trained with the old Fiats (inherited from 2nd Armored Brigade) but turned them over to Littorio in 1939, to await new-production M11/39 medium tanks. Littorio took them into battle in June 1940 when it attacked the French in Piccolo San Bernardo Pass, but they saw little action on the battlefield, again due to mechanical failures. In the spring of 1941, Littorio received new M13/40 medium tanks and passed the relics on to training units.

Two of those companies took the ancient armor into action in June 1943 against the Americans on Sicily. The same models had fallen victim to Greek machine-gun fire in 1940; against American bazookas they stood no chance.

Just to show how much worse Italian tank technology was before the M13/40, we’re presenting a free download of L5/21 and L5/30 tank counters for our Panzer Grenadier: Afrika Korps game, that you can download here. They also play a maor role in our Deluxe Beda Fomm expansion kit.

Try out the L5 in place of the M13/40 pieces in the Beda Fomm or Babini scenarios. It will eventually appear in some game so we can present some Greco-Italian and Franco-Italian scenarios, but you can get an early start.

Click here to order Afrika Korps now!

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.