The AB series armored cars were the main reconnaissance vehicles of the Italian Royal Army during the Second World War, with over 700 being produced between 1940 and 1945. Used on all the fronts of the war, after 1943, 120 were also used by the Germans and, after the war, by the Italian Army until 1954.
A total of 20 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were modified in 1942 to patrol the Yugoslav railways. This special version was called ‘Ferroviaria’ (English: Railway). After the war, another group of AB41 and AB43 vehicles were modified to be used to patrol the Italian railways.
History of the project
In an attempt to emulate the rapid German territorial expansion, Italy declared war on Greece in late October 1940. Due to unexpected Greek resistance, the Italian offensive was stopped and even reversed. The Italian situation in North Africa was also dire, and for these reasons, Mussolini had no choice but to seek help from his German ally. Hitler was not initially interested in the Mediterranean theater, being more preoccupied with the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, worried by the possibility of a second front being opened to the south in Greece by the British while the German forces were assaulting the Soviet Union, he reluctantly decided to send German military aid to help the Italians. The Germans quickly made combat plans for the occupation of Greece, which counted on the neutrality of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia wanted to preserve neutrality and signed the Tripartite Treaty on 25th March 1941. Two days later, Air Force General Dušan Simović, with the support of other military officers staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the government. Hitler was furious about this event and ordered that Yugoslavia should also be occupied. This event would lead to the short so-called April War, during which Yugoslavia was defeated by a coalition of Axis forces which also included Italy. After this short war, the Yugoslavian territory was divided between different Axis forces. The Italians got part of Slovenia, Kosovo, part of Macedonia, Montenegro, and parts of the Adriatic coast.
While the war was over, the Axis withdrew most forces from this area, as it was thought to be pacified. However, two resistance movements, the Royalist Chetniks and the communist Partisans, would start a general uprising against the occupying forces only a few months later. In order to suppress these two resistance movements, the Germans and Italians began once again increasing their presence in Yugoslavia, which included armored vehicles.
The introduction of the AB40
After the occupation, the initial Italian armored force in Yugoslavia consisted of two groups of light tanks: the 1° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Giusto’ (English: 1st Light Tank Group) station in Karlovac and the 2° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Marco’ (English: 2nd Light Tank Group) stationed in Trebinje and Dubrovnik. These groups were each equipped with 4 squadrons, with a total of 61 L3 light tanks. In order to better protect their positions in Yugoslavia, in July 1941, the 31° Reggimento di Fanteria Carrista (English: Tank man Infantry Regiment), which also was equipped with the L3, was also sent to Yugoslavia. These units were mostly deployed to protect the Adriatic coast territories. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, the Italians initially did not expect any serious opposition. But, in June 1941, the communist movement began to be active even in Slovenia, which forced the Italians to pay attention to this part of the front as well. The Italian high command in Yugoslavia issued orders for the troops to arm and armor their trucks and to arm nearly all personnel.
In 1942, new armored equipment was brought to Yugoslavia by the Italians. This included the flamethrower version of the L3, the L3/38, and new types of armored cars, like the SPA-Viberti AS37, FIAT 626NM, FIAT 665NM Scudato, and AB41 armored cars.
The Italians employed a tactic of forming a large number of well-defended strong points. Their defenses often discouraged Partisans from attacking them. At the same time, they were left isolated and unable to efficiently coordinate attacks or defenses against the Partisans. This tactic led to an overextension of the supply lines. These strong points were also highly dependent on well-defended supply lines (like roads or rails), which were often prone to Partisan attacks. The rail tracks and trains were favorite targets of the resistance fighters. For the protection of these strong points, it was proposed to use armored trains and armored draisines to be used in the occupied territories of Yugoslavia. Interestingly, the rare AB40 was also operated there by the Italians.
The sabotage carried out by Yugoslav partisans, which increasingly hit sensitive targets such as bridges, communication points, and railways considerably slowed down the convoys and supply columns directed to the strong points controlled by Italian soldiers. The Regio Esercito (English: Italian Royal Army) was forced to find a solution quickly. It was first proposed to use armored trains and armored draisines to protect convoys heading for the Italian strong points, It was immediately clear that, although it was a good idea, building entire armored trains would take too long, and the army did not have the time necessary.
The order to build armored trains was given to Ansaldo, which began the development of new railway vehicles, while FIAT proposed to use the AB series armored cars, which were very useful for Italian soldiers to patrol the occupied territories.
In order to design this railway version, FIAT engineers asked for help from the experts of FIAT Ferroviaria, a subsidiary of FIAT which produced trains. After a very short time, it was decided to replace the tires of an AB40 with slightly modified steel wheels used by the Italian locomotives. Other minor modifications were made and, in January 1942, the AB40 ‘Ferroviaria’ was presented to the High Command of the Italian Royal Army. A few days later, some vehicles were taken from the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo and modified in the nearby FIAT factory of Turin. In total, in less than a month, 12 armored cars of the AB series were converted. These were eight AB40s that the Regio Esercito considered unsuitable for the reconnaissance role and were, in fact, used for training, and four AB41s that were used in armored car companies and command platoons.
In the months before the Armistice of September 1943, another order was placed for the conversion of 8 more AB41s.
In the mid-30s, the Royal Italian Army realized that the Lancia 1ZM armored cars produced during the First World War were by now poorly armed, poorly protected, and performed poorly off-road. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, some Lancia 1ZMs were sent to Spain to support General Francisco Franco’s army. After their use in battle, it was clear to the Italian High Command that, although still efficient as support vehicles, they could no longer carry out reconnaissance activities. In late 1937, the Royal Army decided to issue an order for the development of a new armored car for long-range reconnaissance.
In the 1930s, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (English: Italian Police in Africa), the police corps in charge of the security of the Italian colonies, still used the old Lancia 1ZMs, which were not very suitable for desert use, and also handcrafted armored cargo trucks to face the anti-imperialist resistance in Libya and Ethiopia. After testing light tanks with little success, in 1937, the PAI command autonomously requested the development of an armored car prototype for long-range reconnaissance.
FIAT and Ansaldo cooperated to produce two prototypes with many compatible parts that could meet the requirements of the Italian Royal Army and the Italian African Police. After almost two years of development, the two prototypes were presented in Turin on May 15, 1939. One of them was tested in East Africa, while the other one remained in Italy. For mass production, it was decided to unify the two vehicles, which later became the AutoBlinda Modello 1940 (English: Armored Car Mod. 1940), more commonly known as the AB40.
From the beginning, the AB40 was evaluated as being poorly armed. When production began, it was decided to develop a version armed with a 20 mm cannon. 24 AB40s were produced until March/April 1941 plus 5 pre-series vehicles and two prototypes. The next version was the AB41 which had the same hull and the turret of the light tank L6/40. About 600 of this new version were produced for the rest of the war, until 1945.
The AB40 was designed for reconnaissance and not combat, so it had 9 mm armor all over the structure and turret. Another interesting feature were the dual driving controls, with one driver at the back and one at the front. This allowed the vehicle, in case of involvement in a firefight, to withdraw from combat without complicated maneuvers.
The crew consisted of four soldiers: front driver, vehicle commander/gunner, rear driver on the left and rear gunner on the right.
For the AB40, the armament was composed of two Breda Mod. 1938 machine guns in the turret and another Breda Mod. 1938 mounted in a ball bearing on the rear plate. This latter gun was removable and usable on an anti-aircraft support which was not always supplied to the crews. The ammunition stack was 2,040 rounds in 85 magazines of 24 rounds each, kept in the racks on the sides of the hull.
The radio equipment of the first vehicles produced was unknown. In March 1941, the RF3M radio produced by Magneti Marelli began to be installed. The vehicles with the radio apparatus of the first type are recognizable because they had the radio antenna on the right side.
The suspension was quite advanced. The vehicle had four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, with independent shock absorbers on each wheel which gave excellent off-road mobility. The engine was a FIAT-SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine developing 78 hp. This engine was designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The AB40 had a speed of 80 km/h on road, while the range was about 400 km.
The AB41s received the new Mod. 1941 turret, armed with a 20/65 Breda Cannon Mod. 1935 caliber 20 mm and a Breda Mod. 38 coaxial machine gun and new racks that allowed the transport of 456 20 mm bullets. The last modification was the introduction, due to the weight increase from 6.8 to 7.4 tons, of a more powerful version of the SPA ABM 1 called ABM 2, which was able to deliver 88 hp of power.
Due to production problems of the new engine, many armored cars were equipped with ABM 1 engines and Mod. 1941 turrets, giving birth to AB40/41 hybrids. These armored cars, impossible to distinguish externally from the normal AB41, had a slightly lower top speed and range than the AB41 due to the lower engine power.
FIAT chose to keep the AB’s dual driving arrangement for the railway version, which allowed for a change of direction without turning the vehicle. Another vehicle of the type was the Autocarretta Ferroviaria Blindata Modello 1942 (English: Armored Railway Light Lorry Model 1942), based on the chassis of the Autocarretta OM36DM, a small truck suitable for the transport of about 900 kg of material, of which 20 were produced in late 1942. This particular vehicle did not have a double drive and, in order to drive at normal speeds backward, it needed to be lifted by a hydraulic jack and turned manually by the crew members. This was dangerous during possible ambushes by partisans.
In the ‘Ferroviaria’ version, the armored car was only modified externally. First of all, the steel wheels of the FS ALn 556, an Italian locomotive produced by FIAT Ferroviaria that entered service in 1938, were adapted to the armored car. On each fender, a box full of sand connected to the armored car’s braking system by a ‘Bowden’ cable (the same used on bicycle brakes) was mounted. When the braking system was in operation, some sand was released through a tube coming out from under the box’s floor and flowed on the rails increasing the grip of the steel wheels on the rails.
Four slightly raised skids were mounted in front of the wheels to prevent small objects, such as stones and branches, from slipping between the wheels and derailing the vehicle.
Much importance was given to the possibility of patrolling both railways and roads. On the hubs that supported the two spare wheels on either side, three fixing pins were added to mount a second spare wheel on each side. A steel cable was mounted on the superstructure to prevent the wheels from freeing themselves from the supports due to strong jolts. The steel cable was hooked to the superstructure when not needed. In order to prevent the cable from cutting the tires due to the tension, a wooden wedge was put on the wheels.
The modified AB40 and AB41 armored cars were used to form platoons consisting of 5 vehicles. These were used by the 2° Raggruppamento Genio Ferrovieri Mobilitato (English: 2nd Group of Mobilized Railway Engineers) stationed at Sušak, east from the Croatian city of Rijeka. By mid-1942, the AB40s were operating in the area of Western Slovenia, Gorskog Kotara, Like, Krajine Primorske, and Dalmatia. These were used to protect the vital rail supply system. They were usually acting as train escort and support vehicles or for close proximity reconnaissance.
In July 1942, during the anti-partisan Operazione ‘Aurea’ (English: Operation ‘Golden’) near Biokov, the Italians also operated at least six AB armored cars (possibly the rail version).
In 1943, the Italians increased their presence in the area with more armored trains and by increasing the number of rail armored cars to 20 (which precise types were used is not clear). During the first half of 1943, the Litorina Blindata railway locomotive, with a diesel engine produced by Ansaldo and equipped with two M13/40 medium tank turrets armed with two 47 mm cannons, 6 machine guns, two 45 mm Brixia mortars and two flamethrowers Mod. 1940, was introduced. These were meant to support the units operating the AB rail armored cars stationed in Sušak. These were used to patrol areas in Slovenia and Croatia.
During 1943, the Partisans made over 120 attacks on the Sušak-Karlovci area. Of these, six attacks were aimed at the Italian armored trains. Interestingly, due to poor knowledge of the precise name of the AB40/41 rail armored cars, in Partisans documents these were simply called small railroad armored cars. In late February 1943, one railroad armored car was reported to have struck a Partisan mine near Ogulin.
During the night of 22nd August 1943, due to a Partisan mine, No.3 armored train and an armored car (most likely an AB) were heavily damaged. The explosion was so powerful that the shockwave knocked off the rail track, the locomotive, several wagons, and the supporting armored car. The last use of the Italian armored formation (including 4 armored cars) in Slovenia was in early September 1943 against the Partisans in the area of Krvava Peč and Mačkovec. If the Germans operated the modified AB40/41 in its rail protection role after 1943 is not clear. The German forces stationed in Slovenia in 1944 and 1945, due to increased Partisan activity, relied more and more on armored trains for troop and supply movements. It is possible that some ABs were still operational and used by the Germans at that time. In a Partisan attack on the German trains, one ‘rail tank’, which may have been an AB, was destroyed on 8th January 1945.
After the capitulation of Italy, their units still located in Yugoslavia found themselves in a state of chaos, as all fighting sides were racing to capture their territories and weapons. The Germans were anticipating the Italian capitulation and launched Fall ‘Achse’ (English: Operation Axis) to seize the Italian Balkan held territories as fast as possible. They managed to disarm 15 Italian divisions in Albania and Greece and 10 more in Yugoslavia. The Germans captured many Italian AB armored cars, which were usually given to reconnaissance units, like the Aufklärungs-Abteilung 171 (English: Reconnaissance Battalion) and some police units.
The Yugoslav Communist Partisans were also quick to take advantage of the situation and captured a large number of Italian prisoners and weapons. During the period of 8th to 25th September 1943, the Partisans managed to capture at least over 7 armored cars. Sadly, it is difficult to determine the precise type of these cars, as the Partisans had trouble naming them properly in the sources, but we can assume that some were of the AB series. These armored cars were used against the Germans with some success until October, by which time most were either destroyed or hidden due to lack of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition. They also captured some Litorine Blindate, which were used to assault some Italians strongpoints before being destroyed by partisans to avoid being captured by the Germans.
Even the forces of the German puppet state of the Independent State Croatia managed to capture some weapons from the Italians, which included 10 armored cars. Partisan reports stated that the Croatian capital Zagreb was defended, from late 1943, by units equipped with ‘special’ armored cars (with some 7 to 10). These were described as being able to be driven in either direction (backward or forward) and had a turret. By this description, it is highly likely that at least some were of the AB series. In addition, at least one AB41 was operated by the Croat forces around the city of Varaždin.
After the end of the Second World War, the new Esercito Italiano (English: Italian Army) employed some AB ‘Ferroviaria’ in its Railway Engineering units called Reggimenti Genio Ferroviario. These were an unknown number of AB41s survivors of the war converted into ‘Ferroviaria’ and at least eight standard AB43s that were built after the war. These later vehicles had been taken from the army and modified in 1946 at the Arsenale di Torino (English: Turin Arsenal) that four year early had produced the ABs that went to fight in Yugoslavia.
These railway armored cars remained in service with the Italian Army until late 1960s and, like all the vehicles of the time, they were repainted in NATO Green and received new plates. In October 1961 the Arsenale di Piacenza (English: Piacenza Arsenal) rearmed three AB43s with 12.7 mm Browning M2HB removing the 20 mm autocannon.
One AB43 ‘Ferroviaria’ survives and is preserved at the Museo della Motorizzazione in Cecchignola near Rome.
At least one AB rail armored car was operated after the war by the new Yugoslav People’s Army. The precise use and fate of this vehicle is unknown, but, by 1955, nearly all available captured armored vehicles were earmarked for scrapping. It is possible that the single AB was also scrapped at that time due to insufficient firepower and lack of spare parts.
The AB ‘Ferroviaria’ vehicles were produced to make up for the lack of armored trains in service in the Italian Royal Army. Fundamental for the patrols of railroads, preventing sabotage, and avoiding ambushes on the Italian supply trains, these special armored cars were used extensively even after the armistice of September 1943 by the Germans, who also reused them as normal armored cars. They also saw service post-war with the new Italian Army.
AB40 ‘Ferroviaria’ specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||5,20 x 1,92 x 2,29 m|
|Total Weight, Battle Ready||7 tons|
|Crew||4 (driver, gunner, second driver and rear machine gunner)|
|Propulsion||FIAT-SPA ABM1 6 cyl, 78 hp with 145 l tanks|
|Armament||three Breda 38 by 8 x 59mm machine guns with 2040 rounds|
|Armor||9 mm front, sides, and rear|
|Total Production||8 AB40, (surely) 4 AB41 and 8 AB43|
Bojan B. D. and Dragan S.(2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
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Bojan B. Dumitrijević (2010), Modernizacija i intervencija, Jugoslovenske oklopne jedinice 1945-2006, Institut za savremenu istoriju
Le autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43. Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo
Italian Armored & Reconnaissance Cars 1911-1945. Filippo Cappellano e Pier Paolo Battistelli
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The article was written by Arturo Giusti, who wrote the parts concerning the design and operational service, and by Marko Pantelić, who wrote the parts concerning the introduction of the AB40, history of the project and operational service.