Kingdom of Italy 1943-1945
Heavy Armored Car – 1 prototype built
The AB43 ‘Cannone’ (Eng: Cannon) was a prototype version of the AB armored car series armed with an anti-tank variant of the standard 47 mm support gun of the Italian infantry. It was meant to improve the anti-tank and support features of the ‘AB’ armored car series.
The single prototype was developed and produced by Ansaldo and FIAT for the Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army). The AB43 ‘Cannone’ prototype was only able to take part in trials before September 8, 1943, when the Cassibile Armistice was signed, effectively putting Italy out of the war.
In the weeks after the Armistice, German troops captured the prototype. Considered of little use by the Germans, the vehicle was then stored in the Ansaldo factory warehouse.
Why an armored car armed with a 47 mm gun?
At the beginning of World War II, most armored cars were armed only with machine guns, and only in some cases with 20 mm or larger cannons (most notably the Soviet 45 mm equipped heavy armored cars). Their armor ranged from 7 to 15 mm depending on the model and the nations that used them.
During the Spanish Civil War, Italian volunteer soldiers, who fought for General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, captured several examples of heavy Soviet-made BA-6 armored cars and Republican Blindados B.C., both armed with 45 mm guns. Many were reused by Italian or Nationalist Spanish soldiers, while one was sent to Rome to be studied by Royal Army engineers, together with a BT-5 tank.
During the drafting of the report on the efficiency of the vehicle, the Italian engineers understood that the AB40, the progenitor of the ‘AB’ series, armed with three medium machine guns and protected by 8.5 mm of armor on all sides, was not able to face heavy armored cars of potential enemies. It would be necessary to arm the Italian armored cars with more powerful weapons.
The AB41 was an excellent initial solution. It was armed with a 20 mm cannon developed for an anti-aircraft role, but also efficient against light armored vehicles. It could penetrate 38 mm of armor at 100 m, more than enough to face the British armored cars and also some light tanks of the time.
With the continuation of the war, however, the British developed wheeled vehicles armed with 40 mm guns that could not only perform reconnaissance tasks, but also support the infantry and do limited anti-tank duties.
The Regio Esercito decided to adopt a vehicle with similar characteristics but using the same chassis of the AB40 and AB41 armored cars in order to optimize production times and, above all, save time and money on the preparation of new assembly lines.
History of the project
At that time, FIAT and Ansaldo, which had collaborated on the design of the AB armored cars, were trying to solve the various problems encountered on the AB41. They accepted the new request and started to develop a new vehicle.
As usual, FIAT and its subsidiary SPA (Società Piemontese Automobili) worked on the mechanical and propulsion parts, while Ansaldo engineers worked on the armament and the armor of the vehicle.
The idea was born to arm the AB41 with the same gun as the ‘M’ tanks, the Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935. This weapon could deal effectively with light and reconnaissance vehicles.
History of the prototype
The first attempt by FIAT and Ansaldo
The 20 mm cannon, in addition to not being able to deal with better-armored threats, had explosive ammunition that was not effective against fortifications or machine-gun nests. Therefore, Ansaldo developed, by order of the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (Eng. Armored and Motorized Troops Inspectorate), a vehicle on the chassis of the AB42, with the superstructure of the AB41 and with a more powerful armament.
The turret and the roof of the superstructure of the vehicle were removed and the sides of the superstructure were vertical in order to increase the space inside the combat compartment. The front of the vehicle and the frontal driving position were not changed but, behind the driver, a 47 mm 47/32 Mod. 1932 cannon was mounted. It was fitted with a large shield that protected the gun servants from enemy small arms fire from the front.
The ammunition supply consisted of 100 rounds of 47 mm caliber. The vehicle was not equipped with any secondary armament.
Presented in December 1942 and first completed in early 1943, this prototype was never accepted into service due to the poor crew protection, its height and the limited traverse angles of only 30° to each side.
After the failure of this project, in 1943, Ansaldo and FIAT tried to modify a standard AB41, powering it with the engine of the AB42, with a new superstructure with vertical sides and arming it with a larger and wider turret armed with a more powerful 47 mm cannon. This was the ‘AutoBlinda Modello 43 Cannone’ or, more commonly, AB43 ‘Cannone’ or ‘Anticarro’ (Eng: Anti-tank).
The new riveted enneagonal (nine sided) turret of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was very low and wide enough for two crewmen. The loader sat on the left side and the commander/gunner on the right side.
The access hatch was mounted in the middle, behind the cannon breech. In front of it was a protuberance that allowed the cannon to depress more.
On the right side, there was a periscope for the vehicle commander, which allowed a 360° view of the battlefield.
The armor was the same as on the Mod. 1942 turret, 22 mm on the frontal side and 8.5 mm on the sides and rear. The roof was 6 mm thick.
Externally, the hull was similar to that of the standard AB41. The sides of the superstructure were modified, becoming vertical in order to increase the internal space necessary for the new larger turret. The armor was the same on the previous AB41, with 8.5 mm on all sides of the superstructure and 6 mm on the roof and bottom. This was enough to protect the crew from small arms fire and grenade splinters.
The machine gun in the rear of the superstructure was removed to facilitate crew entry and to increase interior space.
The machine gun was replaced with a slot from which, in case of need, the crew could defend themselves with their personal weapons.
The side doors were similar, made in two parts and with one pistol port for defense. On the sides of the hull were hooked two spare wheels and sapper tools, exactly as on the other armored cars of the ‘AB’ series.
An important note is that Ansaldo developed this version of the AB43 for the North African theater. However, when it was presented to the Italian Army, the African campaign was drawing to a finish. During testing, the vehicle was equipped with ‘Libia’ tires developed by the Milanese company Pirelli for the desert theater.
On the left side, the 3 m radio antenna connected to the RF3M radio system produced by Magneti Marelli was mounted. The radio was mounted on the left side of the superstructure wall. The antenna could be raised by a crank mounted inside the vehicle and could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum radio range of 60 km and 25-35 km when only 3 m high.
Engine and suspensions
The engine mounted on the AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was the same as that of the AB42 and AB43, a FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder water-cooled petrol engine with a displacement of 4,995 cm³. This developed a maximum power of 108 hp at 2,800 rpm and was an improved version of the previous ABM 1 of the AB40 and ABM 2 of the AB41, with the same capacity of 4,995 cm³.
Performance was not bad. In fact, the 8-tonne AB43 ‘Cannone’ reached a top speed of 81.4 km/h, compared to the 90 km/h of the 6-tonne AB42 and the 88 km/h of the 7.6-tonne AB43.
The suspension for each wheel was independent. The wheels were all driven and all steered, allowing the vehicle to have good off-road performance even on sandy or rough terrain.
Thanks to a complex steering mechanism, the armored cars of the series ‘AB’ could change direction by pulling a lever. They had two drivers, one at the front and one at the rear. This allowed the crew to retreat quickly without having to make complicated maneuvers to change direction.
The engine was paired with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment, the same as on the previous armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, the L6/40 light tank, and the Semovente L40 da 47/32. The muffler was positioned on the rear right sponson.
The fuel was stored in three different tanks, totaling 495 liters, with a range of about 400 km. Five 20 liter jerry cans were carried, two on the front fenders, two on the right side, and one on the left side. These increased the range to 480 km.
The problem of the ‘AB’ series armored cars that was not solved in this model was the absence of a firewall between the engine compartment and the crew compartment.
The main armament of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was the Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938. This was also mounted on the Italian M15/42 medium tank. It was a significantly more powerful cannon than the 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon used on the Semovente L40 da 47/32 and the M13/40 and M14/41 medium tanks.
The cannon was developed in 1938 and produced only for vehicles. It was made by the Ansaldo-Fossati factory of Genoa. The elevation in the AB43 was +18° and the depression was -9°. The firing rate was about 8-10 rounds per minute due to the reduced space inside the vehicle. Thanks to the semi-automatic breech, the 47/40 cannon could, with trained loaders, fire up to 28 rounds per minute.
The cannon had a maximum range of about 9,000 m, but its effective anti-tank range was only between 1,200 and 1,500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of an 8 mm Breda Mod. 38 machine gun mounted coaxially on the left side of the gun. This machine gun was a vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by the Italian infantry and had a top curved 24-round magazine.
It was planned for mass production vehicles to mount a support on the turret roof for an anti-aircraft mount for the Breda MG. It is unclear if a second machine gun would have been carried in the vehicle or if the crew would have to disassemble the coaxial machine gun when under air attack.
The 47 mm cannon used the same ammunition as the previous 47 mm L.32 gun. The ammunition types consisted of:
Cartoccio Granata da 47 mod. 35. High Explosive (HE) with percussion fuze mod. 35 or mod. 39.
Proietto Perforante mod. 35. Armor-Piercing – Tracer (AP-T) with percussion fuze mod. 09 and tracer.
Proietto Perforante mod. 39. Armor-Piercing Ballistic Capped – Tracer (APBC-T) with percussion fuze mod. 1909 and tracer.
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto. High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round with internal fuze mod. 41, distributed after 1942.
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto Speciale. High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) with IPEM front fuze, distributed in early 1943.
The advantage was that the new gun had a larger breech that allowed the use of 328 mm long shell casings instead of 227 mm on the previous gun. This meant the muzzle velocity was about 43% higher. For example, the Proietto Perforante mod. 35. fired from the 47/32 Mod. 1935 had a muzzle velocity of 630 m/s, while the same ammunition fired from the 47/40 Mod. 1938 gun had a muzzle velocity of 900 m/s.
That round could penetrate 112 mm at 100 m and 43 mm at 1000 m instead of the 30 mm at 1000 m of the 47/32 Mod. 1935 round.
The 47 mm rounds were carried in two large box racks on the floor of the crew compartment.
It is not clear what material the two racks were made of, but it can be assumed that they were made of wood (like the other racks of the ‘AB’ series armored cars). This did not provide much protection in case of fire or penetration by enemy bullets.
The Breda machine gun had 27 magazines of 24 rounds each, for a total of 648 rounds. The 8×59 mm RB Breda cartridge had two types of bullets. These were standard ammunition and the M.39 AP (Armor Piercing) that weighed 12 grams and, with a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s, could penetrate a 16 mm RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) plate at 90° at a distance of 100 m. The standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
The Breda magazine racks were mounted on the sides of the superstructure.
The prototype was presented to the High Command of the Royal Army on May 21, 1943, and satisfied the officers involved. 380 vehicles of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ and AB43 armed with 20 mm cannons were ordered.
Unfortunately, the Royal Army did not order the AB43s until August 16, 1943, less than a month before the Armistice of September 8, 1943.
When the Germans occupied the Ansaldo-Fossati factory in Genoa after the Armistice, they captured the prototype and gave it the designation “Panzerspähwagen Fiat/SPA Typ AB43(I) mit 4,7 cm kanone im Drehturm” (Eng: Armored Reconnaissance Car Fiat/SPA Type AB43 Italian with 47 mm cannon in turret).
The German Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng. Inspector General of the Armed Forces) considered the AB43 ‘Anticarro’ not suitable for their purposes because the gun was not of anti-tank quality compared to the guns mounted on similar German vehicles, such as the Sd.Kfz. 234/2 ‘Puma’. They preferred the standard AB43, which were called Beute Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i) (Eng. Captured Armored Reconnaissance Car AB43 203 Italian) in German service. The Cannone prototype was kept for over a year in some factory warehouse to rust.
It is not clear under what circumstances but, in June 1944, the 90. Panzergrenadier-Division was sent to Genoa to reorganize itself after the losses suffered during the defense of Rome. On this occasion, it was assigned 16 AB43s, of which one was the prototype of the AB43 ‘Anticarro’.
Unfortunately, there is no information on the use of the AB43 ‘Cannone’, but the operational history of the 90. Panzergrenadier-Division can be traced.
On October 15, 1944, the division was ordered to move further south to defend the retreat of the German divisions towards Bologna.
In the following weeks and months, the division fought furiously against the Allied divisions that were trying to advance with the final objective of conquering Bologna. During these battles, the battalions of the division suffered very high losses, being reduced to little more than 200 men per battalion.
In March 1945, the division was assigned to the reserve and was able to reorganize itself until the first days of April. In fact, the division participated in the Battle of Bologna, fought between April 9 and 21.
The AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was probably lost in one of the battles fought between January and March 1945, as, on May 28, 1945, when the division surrendered to the Allies, it had no more vehicles available. The use of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was not reported during the defense of Bologna.
The only version of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was the AB43, an AB41 chassis with a new Mod. 1942 turret (the same from the AB42) and a new ABM 3 engine which allowed a top speed of 88 km/h, compared to the 80 km/h of the AB41.
102 AB43s armed with a 20 mm cannon were produced and assigned exclusively to German units. Some vehicles were captured by the partisans during the war and some were reused after the war by the police of the Italian Republic until 1954.
The AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was a project developed to face the more armored Allied reconnaissance vehicles, mainly in the vast deserts of North Africa. There, it would have probably been quite effective thanks to the adequate anti-tank gun and with sufficient speed that would have allowed it to engage the enemy and retreat quickly.
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,28 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner/vehicle commander, loader and rear driver)
FIAT-SPA 6 cyl, 108 hp with 195 liters tank
Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938 with 63 rounds and one 8 mm Breda 38 with 648 rounds
8,5 mm all hull sides, 22 mm turret front and 8,5 mm sides and rear, 6 mm roof and bottom
The Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausführung J, also known as Gerät 550 or Sonderkraftfahrzeug 161/2, was the last variant of the famed Panzer IV. It was produced from January 1944 to the last days of April 1945 in the Nibelungenwerk (Ni-Werk) factory in Sankt Valentin, northern Austria.
This variant was characterized by many modifications made to the previous models in order to speed up production and save on valuable raw materials.
The Panzer IV was the only medium tank to remain in production from before World War II until 1945. Its total production number, more than 8,500 vehicles from variant A to variant J, represents 30% of the tanks produced by Germany.
At the beginning of the war, the Panzer IV was the most powerful vehicle the Wehrmacht could count on, but it was almost immediately realized that the short-barrelled 7.5 cm KwK 37 (KampfwagenKanone 1937) L/24 (1.76 m barrel length) guns were not able to fight against more armored enemy vehicles. However, they were not meant to, as the Panzer IV was designed as a support vehicle for the Panzer III, destroying fortifications and enemy emplacements, not enemy tanks.
The Panzer IV Ausf. F2 was introduced in March 1942, armed with the 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/43 with a 3.22 m long barrel. The new variant proved to be very effective and able to face even the most armored Russian tanks, such as the T-34 and KV-1.
After the production of only 179 units, the Ausf. G entered into service three months later in June 1942, armed with the same cannon but with a maximum frontal armor of 80 mm, with 1,735 being produced until June 1943.
These two long-barreled variants of the Panzer IV were the most powerful tanks of the Wehrmacht until the introduction of the Tiger I in September 1942.
In April 1943, the production of the Ausf. H, armed with the longer 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/48 cannon with a 3.70 m long barrel, began. This variant entered service in July 1943 and 2,322 were produced until July 1944.
The losses suffered by the German armored divisions were considerable by 1942. Fighting against the Red Army, 502 Panzer IVs were lost in 1942 alone. In 1943, 2,352 Panzer IVs were lost.
The main companies producing the Panzer IV were Krupp, Vogtländische Maschinenfabrik, or “VOMAG” in Plauen, and Nibelungenwerk. Nibelungenwerk produced 1,378 Panzer IVs in 1943.
In May 1943, Adolf Hitler ordered the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng: General Inspector of the Armoured Corps) to increase the production of tanks, increase the repair of damaged armored vehicles at the front and in specialized workshops in Germany, and ordered a substantial reduction in the production of “secondary” vehicles, such as the Bergepanzer and Munitionspanzer.
Following Hitler’s directives, in December 1943, Krupp modified its assembly lines to produce the Sturmgeschütz IV. In the spring of 1944, VOMAG converted its assembly lines to produce the Jagdpanzer IV.
Nibelungenwerk remained the only company producing the Panzer IV. There is a disagreement among the secondary literature over the total number of Panzer Ausf. Js produced. According to Peter Chamberlain and Hilary Doyle (Encyclopedia of German WWII Tanks) and Kevin Hjermstad (The Panzerkampfwagen IV Medium Tank, 1939-1945), 1,758 Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks were built. In Panzerkampfwagen IV: The Backbone of the German Armed Forces of World War II, David Doyle speculates that as many as 3,000 tanks with an additional 200 chassis of the Panzer IV Ausf. J were produced.
According to Panzer Tracts 4-3, 179 Ausf. J tanks were produced by VOMAG, from frame number 86,384 to 86,573. Nibelungenwerk produced 3,433 until March 1945, from frame number 89,531 to 90,600, from 91,300 to 93,250 and finally from 110,001 to 110,415, plus another 15 Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks produced in April 1945. To these Panzer IVs are added about 260 chassis for vehicles such as the Sturmpanzer IV and another 28 Panzer IV Ausf. J built immediately after the war under Soviet control.
The Panzer Ausf. J production lasted about 16 months, during which they received some modifications that sped up production and saved raw materials needed for other purposes.
The turret of the Panzer IV Ausf. J was the same as that of the Ausf. H, with a turret ring diameter of 1.60 m. The only substantial modification was the adoption of the Nahverteidigungswaffe grenade launcher (close-in defense weapon) on the right side of the smoke extractor. In vehicles manufactured after May 1944, the Maschinenpistolen Stopfen (gun ports) on the back of the turret and on the side access doors were removed, as were the vision ports. However, this modification was not carried out on all vehicles. Some Ausf. J tanks with the pistol ports came off the assembly lines in 1945 because not all the companies that produced the Panzer IV turrets had removed these details.
In June 1944, three sockets were added on the roof of the turret for the assembly of a 2-tonne winch to lift parts of the vehicle or of other vehicles in the vicinity of a Panzer IV for maintenance and replacement. The commander’s cupola hatch was replaced after October 1944 with a pivoting hatch, very similar to that of the Tiger and Panther.
The cover of the smoke extractor was modified after November 1944 to allow a 360° use of the Nahverteidigungswaffe. The bracket for the Orterkompass 38 type II, a navigation compass mounted, when required, outside the tank, was welded over the smoke extractor. Inside the vehicle, the steel plates did not allow the compass to find the North Magnetic Pole.
The Fliegerbeschussgerät 42 (anti-aircraft machine gun support) mounted on the commander’s cupola was also modified to speed up production and to adapt to the new pivoting hatch.
After January 1945, three Lost-Erkennungstafeln (poison gas detector cards) were fixed, one on the barrel of the cannon and two on the back sides of the turret. These cards measured the pH of the air and notified the crew if poison gas was being used.
The crew, as in the other versions of the Panzer IV, was composed of 5 men. In the hull, these were the driver and machine-gunner/radio operator, on the left and right of the transmission, respectively.
The other three members of the crew were placed in the turret. The gunner was on the right of the breech of the cannon, the loader on the left, while the tank commander was in the middle, behind the breech.
Each of the five crew members had a hatch through which they could enter or exit safely. Communication inside the vehicle was via an intercom system connected to the FuG 2 radio. In general, the crews did not appreciate the Panzer IV Ausf. J, considering it inferior to the Ausf. H because of the numerous measures used to speed up its production, making it less ergonomic for the crew. To give an example, they disliked the lack of an electrical system for the turret rotation or the absence of vision ports in the side doors of the turret.
Hull and Interior
The hull was divided into two parts, the fighting compartment that included the front and middle parts of the vehicle and, separated by a steel firewall, the engine compartment.
The driver had at his disposal a slit with an armored shutter to see the battlefield. To his right, he had the transmission, the gearshift, and above the transmission, the dashboard. In front of him, he had the two driving levers and 3 pedals: clutch, brake, and accelerator, while in front on the left was the steering brake. Behind him, there was an ammunition hold.
The machine gunner/navigator had in front of him a ball mount for an MG34 with a K.F.Z. sight. In front of his legs, there was the other steering brake. On his right, inside some racks, was the FuG 5 radio, while behind it there were transformers and, under his seat, an evacuation hatch.
The armor of the Ausf. J was unchanged compared to the Ausf. H. The hull and superstructure maintained a thickness of 80 mm at the front, 30 mm on the sides, and 20 mm on the engine compartment and rear.
The turret kept a thickness of 50 mm at the front and 30 mm on the sides and rear. The gun mantlet was also 50 mm thick, while the commander’s cupola was 90 mm thick. The armor of the hull roof remained 11 mm while the one of the turret was thickened, from the 16 mm of the Ausf. H to 25 mm of the Ausf. J, while the hull floor remained 10 mm.
Until June 1944, Face Hardened Armor (FHA) steel developed by Krupp in 1893 for naval use and used on all German tanks was also used on the Panzer IV Ausf. J. During that month, an Allied bombardment seriously damaged Panzerfirma Krupp in Essen, the largest producer of FHA steel for the Panzer IV. It was therefore chosen by Waffenprüfämter 6, or WaPrüf 6 (Weapons Testing Authorities), to switch from FHA to Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA), which was less resistant but faster to produce, reducing the raw materials used and time of production.
As on Panzer IV Ausf. H, the first Ausf. Js were equipped with 8 mm thick Schürzen (skirts) mounted on the turret, and 5 mm thick on the sides of the hull.
This spaced armor was introduced in June 1943 to defend German tanks from Soviet PTRS-41 and PTRD-41 14.5×114 mm anti-tank rifles.
Until September 1944, the Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks were supplied with Schürzen II. The armored skirts on the sides of the hull were attached by handles to an iron carrier rail welded to the hull by four support brackets (Aufbau). After September 1944, Drahtgeflechtschürzen (Wire Mesh Skirts) were supplied to save precious steel.
This armor, sometimes called ‘Thoma’ after its developer, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Inspector General of the Panzer Troops) Wolfgang Thomale, was fixed by a tubular carrier rail and modified support brackets.
These side skirts were produced with 5 mm thick welded iron wire with a 15 mm distance between the wires. They were 600 kg lighter than the standard Schürzen.
Around December 1944 and January 1945, Drahtgeflechtschürzen panels were applied on the top, between the side skirts and the hull to prevent anti-tank grenades, such as the Soviet RPG-43s or improvised explosive charges, from being thrown and adhering to the fenders or sides of the hull.
A Thoma panel was also attached to the back of the turret, attached to the rear toolbox so that, if anti-tank grenades were thrown, they would bounce and not detonate on the rear sides of the turret.
Due to the desperate conditions of the Wehrmacht in the last months of the war, many Panzer IV Ausf. J remained equipped with the old Schürzen even in 1945 and did not receive these improvements or, as was the case for unluckier, they were never added.
Engine and Suspension
As on the other versions of the Panzer IV, the engine was a Maybach Hochleistung (HL) 120 TRM, V-12 11.9 L gasoline motor that produced 265 hp at 26,000 rpm. The fuel tanks were placed in the double bottom of the crew compartment floor. These held 470 liters for a range of 210 km on roads, with an average consumption of just over 2 liters of fuel per kilometer.
After July 1944, an additional 200-liter tank was mounted in the crew compartment instead of the engine for the automatic turret rotation system, which increased the range to 320 km.
The turret rotation mechanism was equipped with a second reduction gear to allow the crew to manually rotate the turret even on slopes.
The maximum speed of the Panzer IV Ausf. J was 38 km/h. The average speed at which it operated was 25 km/h on the road, while the off-road speed decreased to 15 km/h.
The transmission was the ZF S.S.G.76. It had 6 forward and 1 reverse gears and was the same one used by the latest versions of the Panzer III. Due to the 25 tonne weight of the vehicle, it was always under heavy stress.
The running gear was composed of 8 road wheels per side coupled with leaf spring suspension. The sprocket wheel was at the rear, the idler was at the rear and there were four return rollers. These were cut down to three after December 1944 to increase the production speed.
The tracks were composed of 99 track links and were 40 cm wide. They were of a dual central guide single dry pin type produced completely out of steel.
The new Drahtgeflechtschürzen introduced for this version received modifications to the supports to be further spaced from the hull. This allowed the Ostketten tracks to be mounted. These were 56 cm wide and developed to increase mobility on muddy or snowy terrain of the Eastern Front.
On the back of the hull was mounted the muffler. On the first vehicles produced, it was identical to that of the previous models, while, from August 1944 onward, it was replaced by two Flammatüter (flame suppression) exhaust mufflers.
The easiest method to identify a Panzer IV Ausf. J from a Panzer IV Ausf. H is the absence of the rectangular exhaust muffler of the turret rotation engine mounted on the left side of the back of the hull.
The main armament of the Panzer IV Ausf. J was the 7.5 cm KampfwagenKanone 1940 (7.5 cm KwK 40) L/48 (48 calibres long). The cannon weighed 750 kg. The elevation and depression of the cannon were 20° and -10° respectively. The maximum firing range was 7,700 m. The operational life was between 5,000 and 7,000 rounds and the gun could reach a rate of fire of 10 to 15 rounds per minute with a well-trained loader. It was a rather precise cannon, capable of hitting targets on the first shot even at a 1,000 m distance. The optical sight used was the high quality Turmzielfernrohr 5 f (abbreviated to T.Z.F.5f). It had a magnification of 2.5x, a visibility arc of 25°, and was mounted to the left of the cannon. The gunner could adjust the range by moving an “arrow” in the optics. The reticle was graduated at intervals of 100 m up to 2,500 m for the PzGr.39, 1,500 m for PzGr.40, and 3,300 m for SprGr.34.
The accuracy values in “Training” were obtained in a controlled environment and knowing the distance to the target which was 2 m high and 2.5 m wide. The values for the “Action” section were calculated by doubling the dispersion values. Obviously, this is an approximation. In fact, in combat, multiple errors could be made that could have affected the precision values. Source: “Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf. G, H and J 1942-45”, Hilary Doyle and Tom Jentz.
The secondary armament consisted of two or three 1934 Maschinengewehr (abbreviated to MG34) and a Nahverteidigungswaffe grenade launcher.
A machine gun was coaxial, positioned to the right of the cannon, and shared the same optics. The second one was in the hull in a ball mount. Its depression and elevation angles were -10° and +20°, with 15° of traverse to the right and left. It was fitted with a Kugelzielfernrohr 2 optics (1.8x, 18° angle). A third machine gun could be mounted in the anti-aircraft support on a rail fixed to the commander’s cupola.
When available, the Panzer IV Ausf. J could have a Nahverteidigungswaffe grenade launcher mounted in the turret. It could fire explosive, smoke, or flare ammunition. All of these rounds were fired from a 360 degrees-rotating projector mounted at a fixed 50-degree inclination angle.
The Panzer IV Ausf. J could carry 86 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/48 rounds in total, stowed in 8 different racks. One was placed behind the driver, holding 23 shells. Another one, with 24 rounds, was on the right side, divided into three 8-round sub-racks.
A total of 27 shells were carried in three 9-round racks, two on the left side of the vehicle and one on the right side. In front of the right side ones, there was a lower rack with 2 rounds.
Another 6 round rack was placed above the 23 round-rack behind the driver and, finally, 4 rounds were stored on the floor of the turret basket, under the breech of the cannon.
86 rounds were more than enough by the standards of the time. The problem was that these took a lot of space inside the vehicle. In fact, it should be remembered that the Panzer IV was designed to carry the shorter ammunition of the KwK 37 and not that of the KwK 40. The new cannon rounds had a larger casing and consequently were much more bulky and prone to explode.
In the last vehicles produced, between February and April 1945, the racks were slightly different, carrying only 80 rounds. This was achieved by removing the 2-round rack on the right, decreasing the rack behind the driver from 6 to 4, and the rack in the turret basket from 4 to 2 rounds.
Panzergranate 1939 (PzGr. 39)
Panzergranate 1940 (PzGr. 40)
Sprenggranate 1934 (SprGr. 34)
Hohlladung pattern C grenades. (Gr.38 HL/C)
Penetration (RHA angled 30° from vertical)
106 mm at 100 m; 85 mm at 1000 m
143 mm at 100 m; 97 mm at 1000 m
Out of 86 rounds, it was recommended to the crew by the instructors to carry PzGr. 39 and SprGr. 34 in equal numbers and, when available, some PzGr. 40 for use against heavily armored targets.
3,150 rounds for the MG34s were carried. These were the 7.92 mm Spitzgeschoss mit Kern or S.m.K.(pointed bullet with core) and Spitzgeschoss mit Kern, Leuchtspur or S.m.K.Lspur (pointed bullet with core, tracer) belted in 150 round bags.
Several types of shells for the Nahverteidigungswaffe could be carried:
Schnellnebelkerzen 39 (quick smoke rounds) and Rauchsichtzeichen orange 160 (orange smoke). The first was used for concealment, the second for signaling targets for air or artillery attacks.
Leuchtgeschossen R (Illuminating rounds) which could be used to illuminate the battlefield during night missions or to call for help.
The Sprenggranatpatrone 326 Lp (Explosive grenade) was designed to protect the vehicle from enemy infantry at very close ranges. It was fireable out to a range of up to 10 meters and operated on a one-second delay. The grenade exploded in a zone between 0.5 and 2 meters from the ground with a fragment radius of up to 100 m, lethal to nearby troops.
The Panzer IV Ausf. J entered service with the Wehrmacht in February/March 1944. It was immediately used on the Eastern Front. In June 1944, there should have been 1,502 tanks available but, due to production delays and losses in combat, there were only 605 Panzer IVs of different models on that front.
On April 30, 1944, an Allied bombardment of the gearbox factory in Friedrichshafen slowed down the productivity of many German tank factories, as it slowed down deliveries of essential components. Hitler, therefore, ordered to bring the production priority of the Sturmgeschütz to the same level as that of the Jagdpanzer and to increase the production of fighter planes.
The Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, noted that the orders for armored vehicles in 1944 amounted to 40,300, but the actual production numbers at the end of the year were only 27,340 vehicles.
In July 1944, the 1944-45 production plan came into force, which provided for the production of three types of vehicles: Panzer 38(t) hull vehicles, 25-tonne vehicles (Panzer III, Panzer IV and self-propelled guns on their hulls) and the Panther, Tiger I and II.
In October, Speer proposed to Hitler to remove the “25-tonne vehicles” from production in order to focus only on light and heavy vehicles. In addition, he proposed to convert the factories that produced the HL 120 TRM to produce aeronautical engines.
On October 17, 1944, an Allied bombardment hit the Nibelungenwerke in Sankt Valentin, stopping production until November 4.
Due to the desperate conditions in Germany, the number of armored units was reduced on November 1, 1944. Consequently, each Armored Company (Panzerkompanie) had only 17 (2 tanks for the command company and three platoons of 5) or 14 (2 tanks for the command company and three platoons of 4) Panzer IVs, compared to 22 tanks for each Company in 1943. Many Panzer Divisions returned to 2 companies equipped with Panzer IVs, as in 1939. With the war progressing, the losses increased and, on April 1st, 1945, each company was reduced to only 10 tanks (1 tank for the command company and three platoons of 3).
In June 1944, 11 Panzer Divisions were waiting in the north of France in anticipation of the expected Allied landings, with 863 Panzer IVs (out of 965 tanks). Obviously, there were many Panzer IV Ausf. Js that took part in the clashes with the Allies which landed on the French coast. On June 11, 8. Panzerkompanie of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment of the 12th. Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ counterattacked the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment near Mesnil-Patry, reoccupying the town and putting out of use or destroying 37 Shermans with the loss of only two Panzer IVs, forcing the Canadians to suspend their attack.
Willy Kretzschmar, commander of the 12. Panzerkompanie (equipped with Panzer IVs) of the same division, claimed to have destroyed 15 enemy tanks during the Battle of Normandy in his Ausf. J tank.
During the winter of 1944, some 260 Ausf. J tanks were delivered to the Panzer Divisions stationed on the Western Front. All of these took part in the Ardennes Offensive. The Panzer IV was the most used Wehrmacht vehicle in that operation. During the weeks of the offensive, many Panzer IVs were lost to enemy fire. However, more were lost due to a lack of fuel and spare parts than due to the action of Allied anti-tank weapons or tanks.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the 6. SS-Panzerarmee had at its disposal a total of 73 Panzer IV Ausf. H or J, out of a total of 178 tanks. Although less armored and equipped with a less powerful gun than the Panther and Königstiger (also assigned to the 6. SS-Panzerarmee), they were faster, allowing for rapid deployment on the battlefield. Above all, compared to the other German tanks of the offensive, they consumed less fuel, which was now a precious resource for Nazi Germany.
The offensive began on December 16 with the German attack at dawn, after an artillery strike that lasted over 90 minutes. Because of the ineffective armored support on the first day, the Germans were not able to achieve great success.
On December 17, during the battle for the villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath (also known as the Battle of the Two Villages), there was a clash between M4 Shermans and Panzer IVs (probably Ausf. J). Two Shermans of the 741st Tank Battalion supporting the 23rd Company at a roadblock in the forest were knocked-out, forcing the US troops to retreat towards the two villages.
The next morning, the Germans broke into Krinkelt, where some Panzer IVs and four Jagdpanzer IVs clashed with a number of M4s and M10 Tank Destroyers, suffering some losses due to ambushes with Bazookas in the narrow streets of the town.
According to German records (which are incomplete), by December 18, the 12. SS-Panzer-Division “Hitlerjugend” (part of the 6th Panzer Army) had lost 32 of its 41 Panthers, 12 of its 34 Panzer IVs, and 21 of its 40 tank destroyers, claiming only five 57 mm anti-tank guns, three M4 Shermans, and three M10 Tank Destroyers.
On December 18, the Germans attacked a farm under U.S. control near Krinkelt. In the fight, a Panther and a Jagdpanther were knocked-out by 57 mm anti-tank guns, while eight Panzer IV Ausf. H and J tanks managed to neutralize the anti-tank guns.
During the battle that followed inside the perimeter of the farm, two M4 Shermans were knocked out by the eight Panzer IVs, which suffered the loss of two tanks.
During the morning, two more M4 Sherman were neutralized while an attempt to advance by three of the six Panzer IVs in the farm was repulsed by a single 3 inch GMC M10 Tank Destroyer that destroyed all three. In the afternoon, four M36 Tank Destroyers intervened in the area, forcing the retreat of the three surviving Panzer IVs of which two were destroyed during the retreat.
Further south, on December 18, the 5.SS-Panzerarmee entered the city of Marnach with 12 Panzer IVs (Ausf. H and J) and a Panzergranadier unit equipped with 30 Sd.Kfz. 251 half-tracks. The defending U.S. forces attacked with the few tanks available, destroying four Panzer IVs but losing three M4 Shermans.
Unfortunately, due to the incompleteness of the records, there is not enough data to determine how many Panzer IVs took part in the actions of the following days and how many losses there were.
Between August and December 1944, Hungary, the last standing ally of Germany, received 77 Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks. Of these, 20 were requisitioned by the German Command in Hungary to replace the losses suffered by the Panzer Divisions. With regards to the 57 remaining Panzer IVs, nothing is known about their operational use.
Finland bought 20 Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks in 1944 for 4,500,000 Markkas each. These vehicles were part of the first Ausf. J production series. Another 40 were ordered but were never supplied. These vehicles arrived without German instructors and too late. By the time they arrived, the Moscow Peace Treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union had already been signed.
Finland took possession of 15 Panzer IVs (the fate of the last 5 is not known) and they were then used by the Finnish against their manufacturers until April 27th, 1945, when the so-called Lapland War between the retreating Germans and the Finns ended.
After the war, the Ausf. J survivors were used for training and nicknamed by the crews ‘Ravistin’ (Shaker) because of the vibrations to which the tank was subjected during off-road driving. They were withdrawn from service around 1955.
The Soviet Union captured hundreds of Panthers, StuGs, and other Panzers on the battlefields during the war and stored them in warehouses. After the war, the Soviets finished the production of 28 Ausf hulls. J remaining in the Nibelungenwerk for Bulgaria.
The exact number of Panzer IVs, renamed by the Soviets as the T-4, captured is difficult to determine. 165 were supplied to Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1946. The other T-4s that were crammed into rusting warehouses were probably dismantled in the 1950s.
Like the Soviet Union, France captured many abandoned Panzer IVs in varying conditions from the retreating Wehrmacht. At least 11 Panzer IV Ausf. G, H and J were used by the Besnier Regiment during the war, although not much is known about their use.
40 Panzer IVs in poor condition, out of a total of about 60, among which were the 11 of the Besnier Regiment, were sold to Syria between 1950 and 1952.
In the post-war period, Bulgaria received 28 Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks from the Soviet Union. This brought the total number of Panzer IVs in service in December 1945 to 102. By 1950, the number had dropped to 69, used mostly as bunkers or strong points in their defensive lines on the borders.
In late 1943, Germany began a program to rearm Romania. The program, called Olivenbaum (Eng: Olive tree), involved the supply of armored vehicles of German origin to Romania to create an armored division and three mechanized divisions.
Between October 1943 and August 1944, Romania received approximately 120 Panzer IVs of various models (called T-4 by the Romanians) and 108 StuG III (called TAs), as well as an unknown number of Sd.Kfz. 222 and AB41 armored cars.
After the coup d’état of August 23rd, 1944, Romania allied with the Soviet Union to fight the Axis forces. To replace the losses suffered by the Romanians in the fighting, the Soviets supplied the Royal Romanian Army with many Panzer IVs captured during the advance, in varying conditions.
The Panzer IVs and StuG IIIs were used after the war together with other materials that the Soviets supplied during and immediately after the war. On November 15th, 1947, the Romanian Army still possessed 13 Sd.Kfz.222 armored cars, 7 light tanks of various types, 54 T-4 tanks of various models, 13 Panthers, and 31 TAs assault guns.
After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had to reequip its army. The desired help from the Allies did not arrive and not even Stalin could help. The Soviet Union supplied Czechoslovakia with 165 Panzer IVs of various versions and under various operating conditions between 1945 and 1946. A Czechoslovakian commission of technicians visited all the warehouses, German workshops, and battlefields in the country and managed to find another 102 Panzer IVs in various operating conditions and many spare parts.
Přelouč and ČKD reconditioned the vehicles and managed to bring a total of 82 Panzer IVs to operational conditions in 1949. These were 21 Ausf. G, 43 Ausf. H and 18 Ausf. J. The others, found to be irreparably damaged or with other problems, were dismantled and used for spare parts or at fixed locations.
It is interesting to note that the repairs led to the modification of not only Panzer G, H, and J, but also other versions that were rebuilt with the longer barreled 7.5 cm guns. This is the case of the hull of an Ausf. J (renamed by many sources “Frankenstein”) that was re-equipped with the turret of an Ausf. D rearmed with the 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/48 cannon.
The Czechoslovak Army renamed them Střední Tank T-40/75″ (medium tank T-40/75) regardless of the version. Some of these Panzer IVs received support brackets for a Soviet-made DShK anti-aircraft machine gun.
80 Panzer IVs went to form the 1st Tank Regiment in Strašice, while the last two remained at a tanker school for training. ČKD proposed a replacement of the steering system, which was considered a defect by the Czechoslovakian Army. However, the entry into service of the T-34/85 made the project redundant.
The gradual decrease in the availability of spare parts caused them to be withdrawn from service in 1955-1956. They remained in reserve until 1959 when they were used for various purposes. 55 were sold to Syria and some were used in movies (and one was destroyed during shooting). Another one was tested as a bunker, but tests showed it was too vulnerable. Another turret was tested on a gunboat while two others ended up in an armored train.
The remaining Panzer IVs became artillery targets and only one was kept as a monument in the Lešany Armor Museum.
Syria received 40 Panzer IVs from France between 1950 and 1952, 55 Panzer IVs from Czechoslovakia in 1956, and, finally, 17 Panzer IV Ausf. H tanks from Spain in 1965. We cannot extract the exact number of Ausf. Js received by the Syrians because of the lack of details in the Syrian sources.
The Czechoslovakian Panzers cost the equivalent of 4,500 British pounds each. They arrived in Syria in November 1955, already overhauled with ammunition but few spare parts.
In 1958, another 15 Panzer IVs were purchased from the Czechoslovak. These were not operational and were used for spare parts. 16 Maybach HL120 TRM engines were also bought due to the serious mechanical problems of the tanks supplied by the French.
The only Syrian modification was the replacement of the MG34 with 7.62 mm DT machine guns, and in some cases, the coaxial machine gun was replaced with the 12.7 mm Berezin UB machine gun. In an anti-aircraft mount, a DShK or a Breda-SAFAT 12.7 mm machine gun of Italian origin was mounted.
The Panzer IVs were used together with other German production vehicles, T-34/85s and a few SU-100s against the Israelis in the Six-Day War. At the beginning of the hostilities, there were 25 operational and 10 partially operational Panzer IVs. 12 were destroyed by the Israelis and another 4 were captured. They were taken to Israel to be evaluated and then put on display.
After the war, a careful analysis led the Syrians to remove all Panzer IVs and German-made vehicles from service for two reasons. The first was that, of the German tanks used against the Israelis, not one hit an Israeli vehicle. Secondly, the Soviet Union offered to rearm the Syrians with more modern vehicles, such as T-34-85s and T-54/55s.
In February 1943, 60 vehicles were produced. These were built by Bismarckhütte, which produced the superstructures, and Nibelungenwerke, which produced the hulls. These were based on the chassis of 52 Panzer IV Ausf. G and eight modified Ausf. E and F tanks.
Another 80 Sturmpanzer IVs came out in May 1944 based on the Ausf. H hull. The last 166 examples of ‘Brummbär’ were produced by Deutsche Eisenwerke in Duisburg in two lots of 24 and 142 vehicles. These were based on the Ausf. J hull.
The Schmalturm was hexagonal in shape and had heavier armor than the regular Panther turret. The front plate had a thickness of 120 mm while the gun mantlet had a maximum thickness of 150 mm. The sides and back of the turret were 60 mm thick. The turret mounted the 7.5 cm KwK 42 L/70 of the Panther, renamed KwK 44/1. It had a shorter recoil system to better fit the turret, allowing the cannon to maintain a +20°/-8° degrees of elevation/depression.
After March 1944, the command variant of the Panzer IV Ausf. J was produced. There were two variants, the Sd.Kfz. 267, which was modified by removing 15 75 mm rounds and installing an additional radio system including cables, transformers, and junction boxes. In addition, a GG400 auxiliary electric generator was also added.
The new radio sets were the Fu 8 (medium wave receiver) and Fu 5 (ultra short wave receiver). A Sternantenne D (Star aerial) for the Fu 8 was mounted on the rear of the hull, while the classic 2-meter antenna for the Fu 5 was mounted in place of the Nahverteidigungswaffe on the roof of the turret. A T.S.R.1 observation periscope and an SF14Z periscope scissor were also mounted.
The SF14Z could only be mounted inside the cupola so the commander could see the battlefield from inside the vehicle with the hatch open. The T.S.R.1 was a long stick periscope mounted on the roof of the turret, near the commander’s cupola, and could be extended by a pivoting support.
The Sd.Kfz. 268 variant differed from the 267 by mounting a Fu 7 transmitter/receiver for aerial communications instead of the Fu 8 radio set.
Only 17 Panzerbefehlswagen IV were produced from scratch, while 88 others were converted from already built Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks.
Other vehicles based on the Panzer IV hull received modifications to speed up production similar to those on the Panzer IV Ausf. J, such as the Sturmgeschütz IV and the FlaKpanzer IV ‘Wirbelwind‘, ‘Ostwind‘ and ‘Kugelblitz’. The Panzer IV/70(A) tank destroyers also received similar modifications such as the adoption, in the last vehicles coming out of the factories, of the Drahtgeflechtschürzen.
The Panzer IV Ausf. J was a variant of the Panzer IV that cannot be declared a straight-out improvement. Its ease of production was much improved, with almost 3,500 being produced in 16 months at the time when the German industry was being destroyed by bombing, with fewer and fewer specialized workers available and with an acute shortage of raw materials.
On the battlefields, it was still dangerous for opposing vehicles, even if it was vulnerable to the T-34-85 and M4 Shermans armed with 76 mm cannons. However, the loss of the automatic turret rotation mechanism had led to a significant reduction in capabilities.
5.92 m x 2.83 m x 2.68 m
Total weight, battle-ready
5 Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator/hull machine gunner, and driver
Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12, water-cooled gasoline 320 HP at 3000 rpm
Max.38 km/h, on-road 25 km/h, cross country 15 km/h
Chile (1983 – 2006)
Light Tank Destroyer – 21 upgraded
The M24 with 60 HVMS was an upgrade developed by Israel and Chile to transform the aging fleet of Chilean M24 Chaffees into light tank destroyers and extend their operational life as a stopgap solution before a modern vehicle could be obtained. At a time of political isolation and international condemnation, alongside a poor financial situation, the M24 HVMS were forced to remain in service until the very early 2000s, with the last ones being retired from service only in 2006, 62 years after the first M24 Chaffee entered service.
Context – Isolation: Chile’s political situation in the 1970s
In 1970, Unidad Popular (Eng: Popular Unity), a popular front electoral alliance of the major left and center-left parties, including the Partido Comunista de Chile (Eng: Communist Party of Chile) and the Partido Socialista de Chile (Eng: Socialist Party of Chile), led by Salvador Allende, won the presidential election by the slightest of margins.
In the three years that he governed Chile, Allende began a policy of nationalization without compensation of the industries and a program of the expropriation of agricultural land, while also building new schools, new hospitals and reducing rents.
Under Allende, Chile distanced itself from its former economic and military partner, the United States, whilst forging relationships with communist or socialist nations, including Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Allende’s reforms antagonized large elements of Chilean society, including powerful landlords and industrialists, and the armed forces. The USA was also not keen on Allende and had gone to great lengths to stop him from becoming president. Whilst they had been successful in the 1964 presidential election, they did not have the same success in 1970.
Allende’s opposition did not take time to take action. On June 29, 1973, the Regimiento Blindado N.º 2 [Eng. Armored Regiment No. 2], under the command of Lt. Col. Roberto Souper, took to the streets of Santiago to try and depose Allende. The coup, which has since been known as the ‘tanquetazo’ due to the large number of tanks used (one of the words in Spanish for tank is ‘tanque’), failed, but the situation was, nevertheless, still one of crisis. To calm the situation and reaffirm his position, Allende had the intention of calling for a plebiscite on his position as President of the Republic.
However, this was not to be. From August, a newly planned coup was in the works, which, unlike the tanquetazo, could count on all the branches of the armed forces. On September 7, 1973, Augusto Pinochet, the new Commander in Chief of the Army, had been convinced to join the coup by Vice Admiral José Toribo Merino and General Gustavo Leigh. Pinochet had previously been considered a loyal and apolitical officer. In the early morning of September 11, 1973, the Chilean fleet took Valparaíso. By 10 o’clock in the morning, tanks were yet again on the streets of Santiago and, just before noon, Hawker Hunters of the Chilean Air Force bombed the Palacio de la Moneda. Allende committed suicide and, by the end of the day, a military junta had taken control of the country. Whilst the exact role of the USA and Nixon administration in the September coup is unclear, what is clear is the CIA’s covert spending in Chile, US$8 million in the three years between 1970 and September 1973, with over US$3 million in 1972 alone.
Within a year and a half, Pinochet centralized all power around his figure and unleashed massive repression against those who had supported Allende. In all, conservative estimates state that during his regime, 3,000 people were murdered, alongside at least 35,000 people tortured, and 300,000 people detained.
Pinochet introduced neoliberal economic policies influenced by Milton Friedman and carried out by the Chicago Boys. In the early years of Pinochet’s rule over Chile, there were good relations with other military despots in the continent, especially with the Brazilian military junta.
Earlier, in 1975, tensions with Peru over granting Bolivia a stretch of land which would give them access to the sea almost led to a full-blown war. Peru sent its T-54s and T-55s of the 18.ª División Blindada (Eng. 18th Armored Division) to its border with Chile. A coup in Peru averted the war, but relations between the two countries would not improve.
In May 1977, the UK arbitrated a long-standing border dispute between Argentina and Chile and gave Chile sovereignty over the Picton, Nueva, and Lennox islands in the Beagle Channel. Less than a year later, in January 1978, Argentina rejected the arbitration and claimed sovereignty over the islands. The year 1978 was a tense year and both countries undertook a military build-up with the potential to boil over into war between the two nations. In December 1978, Argentina was ready to launch Operación Soberanía, which would capture the Picton, Nueva, and Lennox islands alongside a number of other islands it claimed and mount two attacks on Chile. However, an eleventh-hour Papal mediation ended the conflict just as Argentinian troops were ready to go into action.
Following a number of diplomatic embarrassments and the election of Jimmy Carter in the 1978 US Presidential Election, Chile became increasingly isolated.
Chile’s Military Situation in the 1970s
For the period between the Second World War and Allende’s presidency, the USA had been the main armor provider for Chile. The earliest vehicles to arrive were a batch of M3 and M3A1 Stuarts between 1943 and 1945. These were followed by M8 Greyhounds and M3 half-tracks. With the end of WWII, Chile received a total of 48 M4A1E9(75)D Shermans equipped with VVSS suspension with larger tracks to reduce ground pressure. They also received seven M32B1 Armored Recovery Vehicles, nicknamed ‘Panchotes’ by the crews, and Chaffee light tanks. These modern light and medium tanks formed the backbone of the new Chilean Armored Corps for about 20 years.
Between 1964 and 1970, Chile also received as many as 60 M41A1 Walker Bulldogs, alongside 3 M578 ARVs, and 60 M113A1 APCs from the USA as military aid. The Walker Bulldogs would go on to play a role in the tanquetazo coup attempt of June 29, 1973, firing upon the Palacio de la Moneda.
After the coup, two events shook Chile and its military in the first half of the 1970s. The first was the acquisition of over 375 T-54s and T-55s by Peru between 1973 and 1975. The second was the UN’s condemnation of Pinochet’s dictatorial regime and the subsequent embargo on military equipment.
In 1976, the assassination of former Chilean politician and Allende minister Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. led to a diplomatic fallout between Chile and the USA, its closest ally. The consequences of this, alongside the election of Jimmy Carter and the subsequent realignment of US policy towards Latin America, pushed Chile to increased political isolation, economic stagnation, and without an international military provider.
Towards the end of the 1970s, at the height of tensions with Argentina, another important development shocked the Chilean regime. With French support, Argentina modified 120 of its approximately 200 Sherman ‘Fireflies’ into Sherman ‘Repotenciados’ (1978). During the same period, with assistance from the German firm Thyssen-Henschel, Argentina began the Tanque Argentino Mediano (TAM) project, though the first of these would not enter frontline service until 1980.
To face the new threats posed by its neighbors, Chile searched the market for a new tank, considering the British Centurion, the French AMX-13, and the Austrian SK-105. However, these were refused and Austria even went on to sell the proposed Chilean batch to Argentina and Bolivia. In 1980, an agreement was reached to buy 50 AMX-30s from France, with 20, plus a recovery vehicle on the same chassis, arriving the following year. Due to political pressure, France canceled the delivery of the remaining 30. The AMX-30s had a short operational life because of a shortage of spare parts that did not arrive until the 1990s, once the embargo was lifted.
Thus, Chile turned to Israel, which accepted the request for help by proposing several vehicles to the Chilean Army. The critical lack of funds and U.S. military embargo, in addition to the lack of Israeli availability, did not allow the purchase of military vehicles of the latest generation, such as the Centurion Mark V and the M60 Patton. Chile was forced to fall back on less modern vehicles that had given great proof of their value in the hands of experienced crews in previous years, the M-50 and M-51 Shermans.
The US M24 Chaffee
The program that would lead to the M24 Chaffee was born in the United States in early 1943. It was meant to replace the M3 and M5 Stuart with a faster and more maneuverable vehicle for reconnaissance operations and better armed to support the infantry.
The development took a long time because the first product, the M7, was rejected.
The Ordnance Committee then requested a vehicle armed with a 75 mm cannon, like that of the M4 Medium tank, that was suitable for both infantry support and anti-tank fighting.
In April 1943, work began on the vehicle, initially named Light Tank T24, with a crew of five. The driver and machine-gunner were in the hull, seated left and right of the gearbox, while the rest of the crew were placed in the turret. The gunner was seated on the left, in front of the commander, while the loader was on the left side with his personal hatch.
The tank was equipped with torsion bar suspension, a 75 mm M6 gun with 48 rounds, two 7.62 mm Browning M1919A4 machine guns, one coaxial and one in a ball mount, with a total of 3,750 rounds carried, and a 12.7 mm Browning M2HB on an anti-aircraft mount with 440 rounds.
To keep the weight of the vehicle within 20 tons, the armor was kept very thin, a maximum of 25 mm inclined at 60° on the front of the hull and 38 mm only on the gun mantlet.
The vehicle was powered by two 8-cylinder Series 44T24 Cadillac engines dispensing 220 hp at 3,400 rpm. This gave the tank a maximum speed of 56 km/h and a range of 160 km, thanks to its 420-liter tanks.
In October 1943, the prototype was tested and accepted in service as the M24 ‘Chaffee’, in honor of US General Adna R. Chaffee, who was one of the main proponents of the use of mechanized forces during the interwar years
Production began in May 1944 and the first 34 vehicles arrived in the European theater in November 1944.
The production of the vehicle ended in August 1945, after having produced 4,731 M24 Chaffees. The U.S. Army was not particularly impressed with it. It was obviously a great step forward compared to the M5 Stuart, but the very thin armor proved too vulnerable against German weapons. The gun was ineffective against German vehicles, the gyro stabilizer mounted on the gun was also ineffective and, finally, the two coupled engines proved very complex to maintain.
The vehicle remained in service after the war, especially in the US divisions deployed in West Germany. The others were used with poor results in the Korean War in 1950 against the North Korean T-34/85s or provided to allied nations. The most notable were France, which received 1,200 M24s that were used in the Indochina War and in Algeria, 500 that went to Italy, which was the third nation by number of M24s in service, 130 to Pakistan, which still used them in 1971 against India, and Norway, which received 120 in the 1950s.
The M24 Chaffee in the Ejército de Chile
Chile received its 21 M24 Chaffees in 1952, arriving in Antofagasta, a port city located in North-Central Chile. The vehicles had probably been decommissioned from a training school in the United States, as the Chaffees were retired in 1953 with the arrival of the more modern M41 Walker Bulldogs.
Some of them were slightly modified by welding an anti-aircraft mount in front of the commander’s cupola for a 12.7 mm Browning M2HB and installing a 7.62 mm Browning M1919 machine gun, operable by the loader, on the already present support, bringing the total number of machine guns to four.
The M24s were then assigned to the Destacamento Blindado N° 2 (Eng: 2nd Armored Detachment) of Antofagasta, where they served for 17 years, until 1969. Then, the barracks where they were stationed became the Escuela de Blindados (Eng. Armored School) until 1975.
During this period in which they served as training vehicles, the mechanical parts of the vehicles were worn out due to the dozens of training courses for new crews. In addition to suffering from mechanical problems due to low maintenance, the vehicle’s problems began to be noticed, namely its gyro-stabilizer and coupled engines.
There were so many problems that five vehicles, the hardest to repair, were abandoned in storage to rust and a sixth, in a similar condition, was placed as a gate guardian in front of the barrack entrance.
In 1975, the Armored School was moved to the Santa Rosa Barracks in Santiago de Chile. With the removal from service of the M3 and M3A1 Stuarts, vehicles were swapped from some regiments. All M24s were taken, including those abandoned in storage and the gate guardian, and transported by train to Santiago de Chile.
After an intensive overhaul by army technicians, the problems with the engines, the gyrostabilizer, and the worn-out guns were resolved and, unexpectedly, all 21 M24 Chaffees were restored to a condition where they could still operate as training tanks.
They were stationed both in the Santa Rosa barracks in Santiago de Chile and in the Escuela Militar in Peldehue, where a number of vehicles were sent after overhaul to participate in the Alféreces Blindados training courses.
However, it was immediately clear that the overhauls would keep the vehicles operational for a short period of time, especially considering their use as training tanks, i.e., subject to greater wear and tear due to student errors.
Thus, Chile began to look at other nations’ projects to buy some upgrade packages or, at least, to copy them.
In the early 1970s, Chile was interested in upgrading their M24 Chaffees because they were obsolete against almost any other vehicle they would face. In 1975, the Kongelige Norske Hæren (Eng: Norwegian Army) put in service its upgraded M24 Chaffee (Stridsvogn M24) renamed NM-116 Panserjager, rearmed with a French 90 mm D/925 low-pressure gun, Detroit Diesel engine, laser rangefinder, night vision, and smoke launchers.
The Chilean Army was very impressed by this upgrade and was interested in producing its own variant. However, due to the military embargo, the Norway-Chile joint project could not develop. The Army, not being able to upgrade the armament of its Chaffees, decided to at least upgrade the propulsion system.
First Chilean upgrade
When the fear of a Peruvian invasion increased, Chile launched a tender that did not violate the U.S. embargo to replace the engines of the Chaffees. The German company Mercedes-Benz, the American Cummins Engine Company, and a joint project of the companies Detroit Diesel and MACO Pvt. Ltd responded to the tender.
The three projects were tested by modifying three different M24 Chaffees of the Escuela Militar. These underwent many tests to evaluate the mechanical reliability of the engines and the range of the tanks.
At the end of 1978, the joint MACO-Detroit Diesel project was chosen as the winner and the 21 M24 Chaffees were re-engined with the Detroit Diesel 6V53T, a 6-cylinder turbo-diesel delivering 275 hp at 2,800 rpm and weighing 770 kg. The same engine was used on the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier and the Canadian LAV-25 Light Reconnaissance Vehicle.
It can be assumed that the Chilean Army preferred the Detroit engine because it was already in use in the Chilean ranks with the M113.
The engine compartment was not modified because the 5000 cm³ engine could fit without any problem, allowing the original 420-liter tanks to be kept unmodified. The only modified part was the engine deck, which received more air grilles to facilitate air circulation. This was a very useful expedient, as these M24s were used in a desert environment. A new radio station of an unknown model with a new antenna on a support on the right side of the turret was also added.
The automatic hydramatic transmission with 8 forward and 4 reverse gears was probably replaced with an Allison HT 700 5-speed (5 forward and 1 reverse) automatic transmission, later proposed for upgrades on other Chilean vehicles. The top speed increased slightly to about 60 km/h, while the weight increased from 18.4 to 19 tons. The new engine had a cold ignition system that pre-heated the diesel fuel, allowing the new M24s to operate at temperatures of -30°C, a necessary expedient if the Chilean Army intended to operate the M24s in the Patagonian territory. The vehicles then received a new overhaul that brought them from a mediocre mechanical level to a more than acceptable one.
Obviously, it was clear that the upgrade would not cover all the problems of the M24 Chaffee. The 75 mm M6 guns were too worn out, decreasing their accuracy and effectiveness. The Chilean Army needed something more powerful, but because of the military embargo, it could not buy the new vehicles that it desperately needed and was forced to deploy very old and worn-out tanks on the borders with Peru and Argentina.
The need for more powerful armament was resolved when, in 1979, Israel was contacted and had no problem in violating the US embargo to help the Ejército de Chile.
Chile tried to buy some vehicles from Israel, such as the M60 Patton and Centurion, but, due to the poor Chilean finances and the Israeli impossibility to supply such modern vehicles, as the IDF needed them, the idea was abandoned.
Israel proposed the purchase of its M-50s and M-51s that, although outdated when facing modern threats, such as the T-62 or T-72, were more than suitable for fighting the Peruvian T-54 and T-55 and the Argentinean Sherman ‘Repotenciado’.
The Chileans showed interest in the purchase but they also requested to upgrade their M24s like the Norwegian NM-116s.
Due to the impossibility of purchasing 90 mm low-pressure cannons from France, Belgium, and Brazil, the companies NIMDA, Israeli Military Industry (IMI), and NAPCO found another solution. Because the M-50s also needed their guns replaced, due to the wear and tear of their 75 mm CN-75-50 cannons, an upgrade was developed that could also be applied to the M-51 (if the D.1508 105 mm cannon was replaced with the CN-75-50). The barrel of the gun would have been rebored, bringing the caliber from 75 mm to 90 mm. This expedient measure would have allowed the gun to be brought to the level of the GIAT CN-90-F3 low-pressure gun mounted on the AMX-13-90.
It was also decided to modify the M24s with the same guns to increase the anti-tank performance of the light tanks.
Second Chilean upgrade
In 1980, the first M-51s arrived in Valparaiso. The first batch of 60 mm cannons for the M24 Chaffees of the Chilean Army had to wait until 1983 when they arrived along with 65 M-50s, as well as other materials of various types.
The vehicles and the guns arrived in Iquique where the Chaffees were modified, adding the 60 mm HVMS to the M-50s and M24 Chaffees. The new gun was also tried on a MOWAG Piranha.
The Chileans, following Israeli directives, replaced the M6 cannons with the new 60 HVMS, with new firing systems and obviously a new gyro-stabilizer.
There is no certain data but it can be supposed that the M24 HVMS received, like the M-50 HVMS, a Fire Control System (FCS) developed by the Israeli companies Elbit and EL-OP which guaranteed a very high precision even at long range and a moderate precision even on the move.
In addition, a travel lock on the transmission cover plate was added for the new longer barrel gun.
The vehicle increased in weight, reaching more than 20 tons (some sources mention 22 tons) battle-ready. This led to a decrease in top speed, which returned to 56 km/h, the maximum speed of the standard M24 Chaffee.
This version of the M24 is often called the “M24 Super Chaffee”, following the example of the updated Israeli Shermans being called M-50 or M-51 ‘Super Sherman’. In fact, neither the Israeli nor the Chilean Army ever called the 60 mm rearmed M24 Chaffee or the M-50 and M-51 ‘Super’. The nickname ‘Super’ comes from the Israelis, who gave it to their M4 Shermans armed with 76 mm cannons, which they called M-1 ‘Super’. The nickname has probably been misreported. Even if respected authors such as Tom Gannon call it ‘Super’, this nickname was probably created by model companies or uninformed journalists.
From the sources available, it seems that all 21 M24s were rearmed.
Unfortunately, the exact quantity of ammunition carried by the vehicles is unknown. Given the reduced space onboard, these would not have been more than fifty rounds, as in the original M24 Chaffee.
Before receiving the upgrade, the M24s underwent a new check-up, eliminating the mechanical problems of these vehicles, which had now had 36 years of service.
It can be supposed that Israel supplied Chile with some spare parts for the M24s, as Israel was on good terms with Italy, which had decommissioned the last M24 Chaffees in the early 1970s. This is only a supposition with no factual backing. What is certain is that the 21 Chilean M24 Chaffees remained in service for over 60 years in total, an enormous amount of time for vehicles that were used extensively for training (therefore worn out faster) and in desert environments that tend to wear out mechanical parts of armored vehicles. In addition, it should be noted that Italy, like Israel, ignored the U.S. embargo, and sold infantry weapons, such as the Beretta PM12 submachine guns, and 60 mm ammunition to Chile.
It was also planned to modify the M41A1s with a 60 mm gun and a more powerful engine, but the project was canceled after the production of a prototype due to the high upgrade costs.
The 60 HVMS gun
The 60 mm Hyper Velocity Medium Support L.70 gun was developed in 1977 by the Israeli Military Industry and the Italian company OTO-Melara to provide the infantry with a towed or Infantry Fighting Vehicle-mounted gun that could provide excellent anti-tank fire and adequate anti-infantry support. It was tested by Israel on a modified M113 with a turret and by the Italians on the VBM Freccia prototype and on a modified VCC-80 Dardo, but was not accepted in service.
In fact, the 60 HVMS IMI-OTO (known in Italy as the HVMS 60/70 OTO-Melara) had excellent anti-tank performance and was able to penetrate, with its M300 APDSFS-T (Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot – Tracer), 120 mm of Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) angled at 60° at a 2000 m range. This was the equivalent of the frontal armor of a Soviet T-62.
In one test, it allegedly managed to penetrate the side armor of two T-62s from side to side at 2000 m. As an example, a 105 mm APDSFS-T projectile from the Royal Ordnance L7 penetrated the same armor at the same distance. However, the 60 mm gun weighed 700 kg with a total projectile weight of only 6 kg and a length of 62 cm, while the Royal Ordnance L7 weighed 1,200 kg with projectiles weighing around 18 kg and a length of about 95 cm.
The tungsten penetrator of the APDSFS-T projectile weighed 0.87 kg with a diameter of 17 mm and a total length of 292 mm. It had a muzzle velocity of 1,620 m/s thanks to the high-pressure barrel, giving it very good accuracy up to a 2,500 m range.
The HE-T (High-Explosive – Tracer) projectile weighed 7.2 kg.
The ammunition purchased from Chile was produced by MECAR in Saneffe, Belgium. It was then transported to Italy, from where it was then transported by ship to Chile. It is not clear to what extent Belgium was aware of the destination of the ammunition. A few years earlier, it had refused to sell the 90 mm MECAR to Chile to avoid diplomatic incidents with the United States.
Unfortunately, there is very little information about the operational use of the M24s armed with the HVMS gun. It is known that, during tests, the new vehicles performed better than the M-50 with 60 HVMS, beating them in speed and maneuverability, even if they were more vulnerable to anti-tank mines or to fire from weapons such as 20 mm cannons.
Because of the poor armor, Chile devised a doctrine of employment much more akin to that of a tank destroyer than a light tank. The tactic was to use them in hard to access territories, preparing ambushes for the enemy in the few points where armored vehicles could pass or to employ them in a hull-down overwatch position and engage the enemy at long range, thanks to the high precision of the cannon and the good accuracy at long range, and then retreat to other positions before the adversaries have a chance to engage.
They were sent to Punta Arenas on the Brunswick Peninsula in Patagonia, South of Chile, to the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 5 “Liberadores” (Eng: 5th Armored Cavalry Regiment). The Regiment used them together with 20 M41A1 and A3 Walker Bulldogs, an unknown number of M113A1 Armored Personnel Carriers and MOWAG Piranha 6×6 (called Piraña by the Chileans).
When they were used during training with the M-51s and AMX-30B1s of the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 6 “Dragones” (Eng: 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment), also located in Punta Arenas, they proved to be more effective than the M-51 and more maneuverable than the AMX-30. They were also much more accurate at long range, having a greater possibility of hitting the target with the first shot than the 105 mm ammunition (produced by MECAR) of the D.1508 L.51 and CN-105-F1 L.56 guns at a range of 2500 m.
They remained in active service until 2002 when, together with the M-50s and M-51s, they were removed from active service, although they were still used for training activities at least until 2005.
With the arrival of the first Leopard 1V to the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 6 “Dragones”, the AMX-30B1s of the regiment were transferred to the “Liberadores”, which could retire the worn-out M24 Chaffees 61 years after their production and after 53 years in the Chilean Army.
The M24 Chaffee 60 HVMS was the last upgrade of the M24 Chaffee. By the 1980s, the chassis was too old to be upgraded. However, due to the impossibility of procuring new material, Chile was forced to equip itself with what it had, just like Israel did thirty years before.
The result was satisfactory. The new design did not upgrade the armor, which remained vulnerable to fire from autocannons, but provided the vehicle with an armament capable of dealing on equal terms with an MBT and have a greater chance of hitting it at 2000 m.
Chile could only afford to have a 40-year-old vehicle and spend little to upgrade it so that it could face much more modern and much more expensive vehicles and have a chance of succeeding.
7.06 m x 3 m x 3.77 m
Total weight, battle ready:
5 (Commander, gunner, loader, driver, bow-gunner)
Detroit 53T6V 275 hp diesel with 420 liters tank
Top Road Speed
~ 56 km
60 HVMS IMI/OTO, 3x Browning M1919 7.62 mm with 3,750 rounds and a Browning M2HB 12.7 mm with 440 rounds.
25 mm frontal and sides hull and 19 mm rear. 38 mm mantlet, 25 mm front, sides and rear of the turret.
The M-51 was a medium tank developed on the M4 Sherman chassis for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to support the M-50s with a more powerful gun.
It was used in the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and later in the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 2000. It was also used by Chile, which used it until 2006, making the M-50 and M-51 the second longest-lived Sherman-hulled vehicles in the world.
History of the Project
Although the new 75 mm gun-armed M-50s and other IDF Shermans enjoyed success during the Suez Crisis in 1956, there was a need for more modern (and better armed) combat vehicles. Although no Egyptian IS-3Ms or Centurions had been encountered by IDF forces, the threat of such vehicles, as well as the sale of modern armored vehicles to surrounding countries, including Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, meant that Israel needed a counter to these threats should another war break out.
To this end, initial attempts were made to secure more modern tanks, albeit with limited success. A request for M47s from the United States was rejected by the US for fear of upsetting the military balance of power in the Middle East. The British, after having rejected numerous requests for the Centurion dating all the way back to 1953, finally relented in selling Centurions to Israel in 1959. Although only armed with the still respectable 20 pdr. cannon, they were at least a step in the right direction given that the most modern vehicle then in IDF service was the AMX-13-75 light tank.
However, the IDF recognized that these Centurions would not be acquired in sufficient numbers for some time, and the lack of a more powerful 105 mm armament was still a concern. Thus, in 1959, a more expedient solution was desired to help bolster the IDF’s anti-tank capabilities in the short term. Given their past collaboration with Israel on the M-50, Bourges Arsenal in France was asked to help design the new vehicle based on Israeli requirements. Their past experience meant that the Sherman was once again chosen as the basis for this new vehicle. After a relatively short development, the M-51 would enter IDF service in 1962.
History of the Prototypes
There are two known prototypes of the M-51 project. Both of these known prototypes used standard 76 mm-armed M4A1 Shermans as a basis, featuring the same Continental R-975 C4 petrol engine that the IDF would standardize on for its initial M-51s. While the M-51s in Israeli service were all equipped with the Horizontal Volute Suspension System (HVSS) and wider tracks as standard, the prototypes still used the older Vertical Volute Suspension System (VVSS) units and narrower tracks. The French refer to these modified Shermans as ‘Revalorisé’, meaning improved or upgraded, although it is unknown if this was a proper name, or merely used by the French to differentiate them from unmodified Shermans.
Where these two prototypes differed from each other was in the armament. What is believed to be the first prototype featured a cannon that remained relatively unchanged from that of the AMX 30‘s 105 mm, albeit featuring a ‘T’-shaped muzzle brake. This proved to be a failure, and it can be inferred based on the changes made to the final version of the cannon that the older Sherman could not handle the stresses of firing such a modern armament. The second known prototype used the eventual version of the cannon, the D.1508. Featuring a shorter L/51 length barrel and a more efficient muzzle brake, this prototype would prove successful at meeting Israel’s needs, and would be standardized in IDF service as M-51.
Given the goal of the project was to get a powerful and modern 105 mm cannon into service as quickly as possible, more restrictions were put into place than on the M-50 project. It was decided to standardize on a single hull type, that of the M4A1, as this offered a larger internal volume for ammunition stowage compared to other Sherman models. Likewise, the turret chosen was the 76 mm armed ‘T23′ turret, as this provided the best chance of success for the new cannon to work.
The outdated Continental R-975 radial engine was kept, despite already being replaced in the M-50s. The reasoning was simple however, Israel needed this new vehicle in service as soon as possible, and there were already problems getting enough M-50s converted over to the Cummins VT8-460 diesel engine that Israel could not afford any delays. To make up for this shortcoming, the wider HVSS was chosen for production vehicles, thus mitigating some of the weight gain without an unacceptable loss in mobility.
When talking about M4(76)Ws, the number ’76’ means the gun caliber, 76 mm while the ‘W’ stands for ‘Wet’ meaning that the ammunition were stowed in racks with water decreasing fire risks.
Between 1961 and 1965, a total of about 180 of those M4 Sherman variants were converted in different Israeli workshops over to M-51 standard. These would take part in the 1967 Six Day War (5th June – 10th June) and the 1973 Yom Kippur War (6th October – 25th October), with surviving vehicles either sold to Chile, converted to non-combat roles, or relegated to training and reserve units.
While initial plans called for more vehicles to be converted, by the mid 1960s, vehicles such as the M48 and Centurion were entering more widespread IDF service. In addition, the acquisition of the 105 mm L7 cannon for use on the Centurions and M48s meant that the M-51 was already obsolete. This, combined with deteriorating relations between Israel and France, meant that conversions stopped in 1965.
During their operational life, the M-51s were constantly upgraded with a succession of small changes. In total, four different versions can be discerned. The first one was in service from 1962 to 1970, the second one from 1970 to 1975, the third one from 1975 to about 1981, and the fourth from 1981 to 1990, when the M-51 was finally withdrawn from the IDF reserve.
The turret was modified (already heavily modified in the ‘Revalorisé’ model) by adding a cast iron counterweight on the back to balance the weight of the new cannon. The mantlet was modified to accommodate the larger 105 mm cannon in the turret.
All these modifications made the standard Sherman ‘T23’ turret, meant to be armed with the 76 mm cannon, almost unrecognizable.
Like on the earlier M-50, other changes to the turret of the M-51 included the addition of four French production smoke launchers (already mounted in the second Revalorisé prototype turret), a large lamp mounted in the mantlet for night operations, the US SCR-538 production radio flanked by another French production radio inside the counterweight, the installation of another antenna on the roof, a ventilator positioned on the counterweight, and the fixing of an M79 support for Browning M2HB .5” calibre heavy machine gun on vehicles without this support.
The turrets were then mounted on the chassis of M4A1 Shermans, although in rare cases M4A3 Shermans were used. These same tanks had originally been received from France throughout the late 1940s through to the mid 1950s.
The HVSS, with its 21 inch (53.3 cm) wide tracks, was mounted on all vehicles, while additional equipment was fixed to the sides of the hulls in two main configurations. The first one was the same used on the M-50, with six jerry can racks, two spare road wheels on the left, one spade on the right, and one big box and three track links for each side. The second configuration is different from the M-50, featuring six track links on the turret sides in front of the smoke launchers, and the installation of another smaller box on each side.
In addition, on the engine deck were mounted the travel locks that were of two types: one made from tubular steel, the other of welded bars. On the rear plate were mounted another jerry can support and a telephone connected to the crew’s intercom system to keep communicated with the infantry cooperating with the vehicle.
The hull armor of the M-51 was left unchanged. The thickness of the front plate was 63 mm and the slope was 47° to accommodate bigger hatches.
The turret, with a frontal armor thickness of 76 mm, and the gun mantlet with 89 mm of thickness were left unchanged. On the back of the turret, the addition of a heavy cast iron counterweight significantly increased the thickness, although this was probably not made of ballistic steel.
Engine and Suspension
Before 1959, the Israeli Army had decided to re-engine all its Shermans with the Continental radial engine. The first M-51s, produced from 1961 to early 1962, were (as on the M-50 model, called the Mk.1 version) powered by the 420 hp Continental R-975 C4 American engine. In 1959, the IDF tested a new engine produced by the Cummins Engine Company on an M4A3. It was accepted and the first engine batch arrived in Israel in 1960.
The second version, the Mk. 2, was produced up to 1965, powered by the new 460 hp Cummins VT-8-460 Turbodiesel engine. It is not clear when the firsts vehicles were re-engined but, by 1965, all the M-51s were powered by the Cummins engine.
The new 40-tonne M-51 had a maximum speed of 40 km/h and a range of about 400 km thanks to the new suspension and the new diesel engine.
Beginning sometime in the 1950s, France began development of a new, more powerful 105 mm cannon. This cannon, D.1507, and all subsequent derivatives, were L/56 in length (56 times the caliber of 105 mm) and featured muzzle brakes. The final evolution of this cannon would be the D.1512, more commonly known as the 105 mm Modèle F1, which was standardized as the main armament of the AMX-30 main battle tank. The hydraulic aiming system was the SAMM CH 23-1, very similar to the AMX-13 ones.
During the testing and evaluation of this cannon, a prototype version was fitted to the T23 turret of a 76 mm M1-armed Sherman, resulting in what is believed to be the first M-51 prototype. Featuring a T-shaped muzzle brake reminiscent of the AMX 13’s 75 mm CN-75-50, this did not prove successful. In order to achieve a smaller, albeit still acceptable muzzle velocity and reduce recoil impulse the cannon was shortened to L/51 in length, bringing the muzzle velocity down to just over 900 m/s. A new, more efficient muzzle brake was also fitted, this time resembling that of the 90 mm DEFA D921 from the Panhard AML-90. This new cannon was designated D.1508, and would be trialed in a second prototype that did prove successful.
Manufactured in France and then shipped to Israel for mounting, many of these cannons would have their breeches marked CN_105.L_51_IS, followed by a serial number, and, lastly, the arsenal and year of manufacture. So, in the following example, CN_105.L_51_IS No 125 ABS 1964, is the cannon number 125 and was made at the Bourges Arsenal in 1964.
One of the benefits of this cannon sharing an evolutionary path with that of the AMX-30’s 105 mm was the ability to use the same ammunition. Predominantly firing High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) and High Explosive (HE) ammunition, these cannons would be withdrawn from Israeli service before modern Armor Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) projectiles were developed for the AMX-30, and it is unlikely the tank would be able to handle such projectiles given the modifications originally needed for the cannon to work in the first place.
The secondary armament consisted of two 7.62 mm Browning M1919 machine guns, one coaxial and the other in the hull, plus a 12.7 mm Browning M2HB in an anti-aircraft position on the turret roof.
In the second version, between the Six Days War and the Yom Kippur War, the machine gun in the hull was removed and sometimes mounted in an anti-aircraft mount and used by the loader.
In the third version of the M-51 modified in 1975, the 12.7 mm machine gun was mounted above the cannon, on the same support where the searchlight was previously fixed, while the 7.62 mm Browning was mounted in an anti-aircraft mount near the commander’s cupola. This was sometimes flanked by another Browning M1919 used by the loader, for a total of 4 machine guns transported, considerably increasing the firepower of the tanks. With the fourth version, a 60 mm mortar was fixed on the turret roof like on the Sho’t and Magach tank, in the space between the commander’s cupola and the loader’s hatch.
The mortar was mounted after the experiences in the Yom Kippur War when in the Sinai Desert Israeli vehicles were often isolated from the infantry becoming an easy target for enemy anti-tank teams.
The mortar allowed crews to hit these teams even if they were hiding behind a sand dune or other obstacle, as well as providing support fire for the infantry operating with the vehicle by firing smoke, fragmentation, and illuminating ammunition.
For the main armament, there were 47 rounds (some sources claim 55). Forty were in two armored racks in the hull and the other seven were positioned in the turret basket.
During the first years, the ammunition was produced in France and only subsequently entered license production in Israel.
The secondary armament’s ammunition was composed of 4,750 rounds for the 7.62 mm machine guns and 600 rounds for the 12.7 mm gun. This ammunition was placed in the hull and in the turret basket.
In addition to the personal weapons of the crews, the M-51s were modified to carry five IMI UZI with 900 9 mm Parabellum rounds for close-quarters defense. Three were in the turret and the remaining two were positioned above the transmission instead of the US-made M3 ‘Grease Gun’ used previously by IDF tank crew for example, on the first M-50s. Twelve hand grenades of various models were also carried. Two incendiary and four smoke grenades were usually transported in a box on the left wall of the turret, while the other six fragmentation grenades were transported in another box under the gunner’s seat.
After removing the machine gun in the hull and its machine gunner in the second version, the 7.62 mm ammunition stowage was left unchanged, but an IMI UZI was removed. For the fourth version, on the right side of the turret was mounted a small box for the 60 mm mortar grenades.
The crew of the M-51 consisted of 5 men, as in a standard M4 Sherman. These were the driver and machine gunner in the hull, to the left and right of the transmission respectively, the gunner on the right of the turret, in front of the tank commander, and the loader operated on the left side.
Many photos show M-50 and M-51s without the 7.62 mm machine gun in the hull. As mentioned, from the second version onward, after the Six Day War, the IDF decided to remove this position in order to better allocate the limited numbers of soldiers at its disposal. The machine gunners removed from the M-50 and M-51 were reassigned to other tanks to increase the number of crews available to the IDF. As already mentioned, in some cases, the Browning M1919 machine gun was mounted on the turret and used by the tank commander or the loader.
It should be noted that IDF’s MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat) rations (Manot Krav or ‘Battle Food’) were developed for tank crews and therefore divided into groups of 5 individual rations. Only after the Yom Kippur War were they reduced to 4 individual rations because, apart from the vehicles on Sherman hulls, all the other Israeli tanks had 4 men crew.
There were four different versions of the M-51, but this upgrade did not concern only the armament, but also the engine exhaust system and vision system.
The first version, the standard one, was in service from 1962 to 1970. It had a new engine deck, with the upper part having protection for the air filters and the lower one with a normal armor plate and used only one M4A3-style exhaust pipe.
The second version, from 1970 to 1975, modified the cooling system on the engine deck with two air intakes on the normal armored plate. The exhaust system was left unchanged.
The third version was developed after the Yom Kippur War, modified in 1975 and in service until 1978-1981. Again, it concerned the exhaust system that was moved to the lower engine deck roof while the M4A3-style exhaust pipe was removed.
On the fourth version, the upper part of the engine deck was modified for better cooling, while the exhaust system remained unchanged on the lower engine deck.
The turret was then modified, adding a 60 mm mortar and an external box for its rounds. A large box was added to store more equipment, placed on the rear plate, between the left jerry can rack and the infantry telephone. A Browning M2HB was mounted on a support on the cannon barrel and a Browning M1919 on a support near the commander’s cupola. The small spot lamp of US production was moved from the front to the left of the loader’s hatch. Infrared periscopes for the commander and the driver and an IR intensifier were added on the left hull front, near the head lamp.
Another noteworthy modification is the one that appeared on an unspecified number of M-51s of the first version, produced between 1961 and 1965. Due to the immediate need of the IDF for a powerful cannon, these entered service in 1962 still equipped with the unmodified M4A1 Sherman engine deck and Continental R-975 C4 Radial engine.
It is not known how many of these early versions were produced, nor for how long they remained in service with the IDF in this configuration before being upgraded to use the Cummins VT-8-460 and thus having their engine decks modified accordingly.
Another unknown is if the exhaust system remained the one from the M4A1 or if it was replaced by the M4A3-style single exhaust pipe on the left side.
In the summer of 1964, 90 M-51s were converted. During the Six Days War, in 1967, the IDF had 177 M-51s in service out of a total of 515 vehicles on a Sherman hull.
The M-51 was presented for the first time in 1962 during a parade in Tel Aviv. Thanks to its cannon, it was considered very effective when fighting against tanks such as the T-34-85, T-54 or T-55. However, in the following years, the British 105 mm L.52 Royal Ordnance L7 guns became available, with which the M48 Patton, the renowned Magach (Eng. battering-ram) and the Centurion, renamed Sho’t (Eng. whip), were armed. The M-51s, together with the M-50s, were then used in the Armored Brigades to support the actions of the more modern tanks or for infantry support.
The Six Day War 1967
The largest use of the M-51 was in the Six-Days War fought between 5th and 10th June 1967. The Six Day War was a conflict between Israel and its neighbors, the United Arab Republic (the short-lived political confederation of Egypt and Syria), Jordan, and Iraq. In the months prior to June 1967, tensions between Israel and Egypt became dangerously heightened. Israel reiterated its post-1956 Suez Crisis position that the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping would be a casus belli. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced in May that the Straits would be closed to Israeli vessels, and then mobilized Egyptian forces along the border with Israel, ejecting the United Nations Emergency Force. On 5 June, Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Egyptian airfields destroying the majority of the Egyptian air force, initially claiming that it had been attacked by Egypt, but later stating that the airstrikes were preemptive.
The Israeli armored forces relied on a few Megach and Sho’t tanks and large units of M48A2C2, M48A3 Patton, and Centurion Mk 5. The brigades armed with Shermans had mostly support or reserve duties, although there was no lack of operations carried out by units equipped with upgraded Shermans.
About a hundred M-51s were deployed in the war, half in the Sinai Desert offensive against the Egyptians and the other half in the Golan Heights offensive against the Jordanians, while the rest remained in reserve.
During the Sinai offensive, launched at 0800 hours on June 5th, 1967, the M-50s and M-51s played a marginal role in the first but crucial actions against Egyptian tanks in northern Sinai. Israeli Pattons and Centurions advanced hundreds of kilometers into the Sinai Desert, disorganizing Egyptian troops and creating major logistical problems for the Israeli Army.
One of the most important actions was carried out by more than 60 Shermans of the 14th Armored Brigade which, together with about 60 other Mk. 5 Centurions of the 63rd Armored Battalion and the Mechanised Reconnaissance Division Battalion that had an unknown but limited number of AMX-13s. These 150 tanks attacked the Abu-Ageila Stronghold which controlled the road to Ismailia.
The Egyptian defenses consisted of three lines of trenches 5 km long and almost one km apart. They were defended by 8,000 soldiers and many ‘hull down’ tank positions that were not used. Soviet 130 mm cannons providing support for the fortification were stationed at Um Katef, a nearby hill, and the Egyptian reserves at the rear, which were ready for action, including an armored regiment of 66 T-34-85s and a battalion with 22 SD-100s or SU-100Ms. These were two versions of the SU-100 Soviet destroyer tank. The first was produced under license in Czechoslovakia after World War II, and the second was a version modified by the Egyptians to more efficiently adapt the SD-100 and SU-100 to desert operations.
The Israeli attack, planned long before because the defenses in the region were well known to the Israeli General Staff, was launched on the night between the 5th and 6th June in order to use the cover of darkness. The No. 124 Paratrooper Squadron was taken to the vicinity of Um Katef Hill by helicopters and attacked and destroyed the 130 mm cannons. The Shermans of the 14th Armored Brigade advanced hidden and covered by artillery barrage fire and darkness they struck the Egyptian trenches.
Throughout the night, the infantry, supported by M3 half-tracks, cleared the trenches while the Shermans, after breaking through the trenches, supported the Centurions which had circumvented the Egyptian positions by intercepting the reserves advancing for a counterattack.
During the battle between the tanks, fought between 4000 and 7000 hours, the Egyptians lost more than 60 tanks, while the Israelis lost only 19 tanks (8 during the battle, while the other 11 Centurions were damaged in the minefields), resulting in the deaths of 7 tank crewmen and 42 soldiers during the attack. The Egyptians had a claimed total of 2,000 losses.
When the Egyptian Army High Command learned of the defeat of Abu Ageila, Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Amer ordered his soldiers to retreat to Gidi and Mitla, two strongholds just 30 km from the Suez Canal.
The Egyptian units that received the order withdrew in a disorganized manner to Suez, often abandoning weapons, artillery or tanks in their defensive positions. On the afternoon of 6th June, Algeria sent military aid to Egypt, including MIG fighters and tanks, so the general retreat order was canceled. This created even more confusion among the troops which, except in rare cases, were demoralized and continued their withdrawal to Suez.
Sensing the situation, the Israeli High Command ordered its units to block enemy access to the Suez Canal by trapping most of the Egyptian Army with its equipment in the Sinai. This strategy would allow the capture of hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, and thousands of weapons, which would economically burden the Egyptian Army.
Due to the rapid advancement of the first three days, many Israeli tanks were left with little fuel and ammunition, which is why most Israeli armored units were forced to wait for supplies as they could not move immediately to the canal.
To give an idea of the problem of the lack of fuel, the IDF of Sinai had a total of 700 tanks. However, the road to Ismailia was blocked by only 12 Centurions of the 31st Armoured Division. The unit had at least another 35 Centurions with empty fuel tanks. Of these twelve tanks, some ran out of fuel during the march and the other crews were forced to tow them to the predetermined place to block the road.
Another example is Lieutenant Colonel Zeev Eitan, commander of the 19th Light Tank Battalion, equipped with AMX-13-75 light tanks. Since his vehicles were the only ones in the area with full tanks and ammunition supply, he was given the task of stopping an enemy attack with his light reconnaissance tanks. Eitan left with 15 AMX-13s and positioned himself on the dunes near Bir Girgafa, waiting for the enemy.
The Egyptians counterattacked with 50 or 60 T-54 and T-55 tanks, forcing the AMX-13s to retreat after suffering many losses (mainly because of the explosion of an M3 half-track carrying ammunition and fuel for the AMX-13 Battalion) without destroying a single Egyptian tank.
The 19th Light Tank Battalion, however, slowed down the Egyptians long enough to allow some M-50s and M-51s of the 14th Armoured Brigade to refuel and intervene in the area. These, by hitting the Egyptian tanks on their sides, managed to destroy many of them, forcing the others to retreat to Ismailia. The Egyptian counterattack then ran into the 12 Centurions of the 31st Armored Division, which totally destroyed them.
On the late afternoon of June 6th, the Israeli 200th Armored Brigade attacked the Egyptian positions in the center of the Sinai Peninsula. Their task was to conquer the Jebel Libni airbase, previously rendered unusable by Israeli Air Force (IAF) bombardments. This base was defended by the Egyptian 141st Armored Brigade and the elite ‘Palace Guards’ of the Egyptian Army, the latter armed with modern T-55s. The Egyptians began firing as soon as they sighted the Israeli tanks, but their crews were not trained in long-range shooting and so the result was only to alarm the Israeli crews. These, being better trained, opened fire and started hitting the Egyptian tanks.
However, the distance at which the two forces faced each other was large and the Israeli shells bounced off the well-inclined armor of the T-55s, forcing the Israelis to get closer to be able to penetrate the armor.
The 200th Armored Brigade, supported by the 7th Armored Brigade and having the advantage of darkness, began the approach and the circumvention of the Egyptian stronghold. During the night the battle continued furiously. In the end, 30 Egyptian tanks remained on fire in their positions while the survivors fled west.
In Sinai, before the war, the Egyptian Army had about 950 tanks of various models ranging from the modern T-55 to the obsolete T-34. During the fighting, they lost over 700 tanks, 100 of which were captured intact by the Israelis, as well as an unknown number that were repaired and put into service in the IDF in the following months as Tirans.
The Israelis lost 122 tanks, about a third of which were recovered and repaired after the war.
The Jordan Offensive
The 10th Harel Mechanized Brigade, led by Colonel Uri Ben Ari, attacked the hills north of Jerusalem on the afternoon of June 5th, 1967. Composed of five tank companies (instead of the three standard ones), the 10th Brigade had 80 tanks, of which 48 Shermans (most M-50s), 16 Panhard AMLs, and 16 Centurions Mk. 5s armed with the old 20 pdr cannons.
The narrow mountain roads and mines scattered everywhere slowed down the advance of the motorized brigade. The sappers and tanks of the unit were not equipped with mine detectors because they were all supplied to the units fighting in the Sinai. To detect the mines, the Israeli soldiers had to probe the ground for hours with bayonets and individual weapons.
In a few hours, the Commander’s M3 half-track and 7 Shermans were disabled by mines. None of the vehicles were fully lost because, after the offensive, they were recovered and repaired.
Another huge obstacle was advancing in the dark. During the night, all 16 Centurions got stuck in the rocks or damaged their tracks by hitting the rocks of the mountain roads and could not be repaired or helped because of the Jordanian artillery fire.
The first noteworthy action that night was an assault by Israeli mechanized infantry, that destroyed the Jordanian artillery, allowing repairs to begin in daylight the following morning.
Only six Shermans (sources mention the tanks as ‘Shermans’ only, it is not clear whether M-51s participated as well), some M3 half-tracks and some Panhard AML armored vehicles arrived at their destination the following morning, but were immediately greeted by Jordanian fire. Two Jordanian armored companies had arrived during the night, equipped with M48A1 Pattons. A Sherman was immediately knocked out by 90 mm cannon fire.
The remaining Shermans circumvented the Jordanian Pattons by hitting them in the outer fuel tanks or flanks, knocking out six in minutes. The Jordanian tanks that survived the battle retreated to Jericho, abandoning eleven more M48s along the way due to mechanical failure.
Further north, in the border town of Janin, the Jordanians had prepared a defense with 44 M47 Patton tanks and, further inland, was the 40th Armored Brigade placed in reserve, with M47 and M48 Patton tanks.
The Ugda Brigade, equipped with 48 M-50 and M-51s, was given the primary task of destroying the Jordanian artillery in the sector, which was hitting a nearby military airport from which air raids against Jordan had been carried out and destroyed forces in the town of Janin.
The Israeli unit advanced rapidly during the day, putting the crews of the Jordanian 155 mm howitzer Long Tom guns on the run. The first problems were encountered in the evening. Most of the vehicles ended up on narrow mountain roads and were forced to wait for the light of day to continue the advance.
Six or seven M-50 and M-51s climbed Burquim Hill. On the night of June 5th and 6th, while advancing among the olive groves, the platoon commander, Lieutenant Motke saw something move ahead in the darkness of the night. Turning on the spot lamp mounted above his Sherman’s cannon, his platoon were amazed to find themselves face-to-face with an entire Jordanian armored company armed with M47 Pattons, less than 50 meters away. The Israeli tanks opened fire on the Jordanian forces, which were also stunned, destroying more than a dozen tanks to the loss of just one M-50 and no Israeli tank crew losses.
The fighting in the area was very furious for the rest of the campaign. The Jordanians stubbornly resisted the Israeli advance by launching several ill-organized counterattacks which were all repulsed by the IDF tanks. Although the 90 mm cannons of the M47 and M48 Patton were very effective against the armor of the Shermans at any distance, their crews were not well trained, especially in long-distance shooting.
The Israelis, in addition to superior training, could count on almost unlimited air support, which proved to be very effective at both day and night.
Between 9th and 10th June, the commander of the 40th Jordanian Armored Brigade, Rakan Anad, staged a counterattack with the aim of targeting Israeli refueling vehicles that carried fuel and ammunition to the tanks on the front lines.
Initially, the attack launched in two directions in order to confuse the Israelis. This was quite successful, succeeding in destroying some M3 half-tracks and trucks that were going to the front line to supply the Israeli tanks.
The Israelis, however, managed to intercept and stop Anad’s counterattack, starting a clash between the Israeli Shermans and Jordanian Pattons that lasted several hours.
A small force, made up of AMX-13s, twelve Centurion Mk. 5s, and some M-51s of the 37th Israeli Armored Brigade went up a very narrow road (considered unusable by the Jordanians) and attacked the rear of the enemy by surprise. In addition to some Pattons, this force also hit several vehicles that brought supplies to the Jordanian tanks. Commander Anad, along with his forces, was forced to retire due to the lack of ammunition and fuel without being able to attempt further attacks, abandoning another 35 M48 Pattons and an unknown number of M47 Pattons on the battlefield.
The Golan Heights Offensive
Due to political problems, ground attacks against Syria were not immediately authorized by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. However, the 8th Armored Brigade commanded by General Albert Mendler and included 33 Shermans, which should have been deployed in Sinai, was sent to the border ready for battle.
In the following days, a company of Shermans (total 16 tanks) of the 37th Armored Brigade and another of the 45th Armored Brigade arrived in the area. Other Shermans were split into the 1st Golani Infantry Brigade, 2nd Infantry Brigade and the 3rd Infantry Brigade, ready for battle.
After pressure from the villagers who lived in the area, tired of the periodic Syrian bombing, after a whole night of reflections, at 6000s hour on Friday, June 9th, 1967, the commander of the Israeli forces at the border with Syria, Brigadier General David ‘Dado’ Elazar, received a telephone call from Dayan authorizing the attack on the Golan Heights.
From 6000 to 1100 hours, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) continually bombed Syrian positions as army sappers cleared the streets. Their operations were facilitated because, in the weeks before, heavy rains had dug up the Syrian mines.
The advance of Israeli armored vehicles, mainly M-50s, M-51s, and M3 half-tracks, began at 1130 hours. Hundreds of armored vehicles made their way behind a civilian bulldozer, under the incessant fire of the automatic weapons of the Syrian infantry.
Strangely, the artillery, which had periodically struck Israeli villages near the border for years, did not fire a single shot to hinder the Israeli advance, preferring to continue bombing the Kibbutzim (Hebrew settlements).
At the top of the road, at a crossroads, the forces of Colonel Arye Biro, commander of the column, split. Divided into two columns, they attacked the stronghold of Qala’, a hill with 360° defenses with bunker and anti-tank guns of Second World War Soviet origin.
Six kilometers north, Za’oura stronghold, another defensive hill, supported Qala’ with its artillery fire, blocking Israeli vehicles and not allowing Biro’s officers to see the battlefield. The situation confused several officers who, without clear information and unfamiliar with the terrain, advanced towards Za’oura convinced they were attacking Qala’.
The battle lasted over 3 hours and the information available is very confusing, as many Israeli officers died or were injured during the battle and were evacuated by medical personnel.
Lieutenant Horowitz, the officer who commanded the assault on Qala’, continued to command while injured and with his M-50’s radio system destroyed by a Syrian shell.
During the approach, he lost most of the Shermans under his command. Only about twenty of them remained effective when he arrived at the base of the hill.
The ascent to the top was hindered by ‘dragon’s teeth’ (concrete anti-tank obstacles) and heavy anti-tank artillery fire which, at that distance, was very precise.
Of the approximately twenty Shermans, most were hit by anti-tank guns and knocked out, although most were recovered and repaired after the war.
At 4000 hours, Za’oura stronghold was occupied, while Qala’ was occupied only at 6000 hours, when it began to get dark. Only three Shermans and a few M3 half-tracks arrived at the top of the hill, including that of Horowitz. These easily overcame the barbed wire and the trenches, forcing Syrian soldiers to flee after throwing hand grenades from the turrets of their tanks into the trenches.
An hour after Arye Biro’s attack, the 1st Israeli Golani Infantry Brigade climbed the same road and attacked the Tel Azzaziat and Tel Fakhr emplacements that had hitherto hit the Israeli villages.
Tel Azzaziat was an isolated mound 140 m above the border. There, four Syrian Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks in a fixed position delivered an ongoing fusillade into the Israeli plain below.
The Tank Company of the 8th Armored Brigade, equipped with M-50s and M-51s, and the Mechanized Infantry Company of the 51st Battalion, equipped with M3 half-tracks, attacked this position. They quickly managed to silence the cannons of the Syrian Panzers. In doing so, and 22 years after the end of the Second World War, Shermans and Panzer IVs were fighting each other once again, albeit in a very different context.
The conquest of Tel Fakhr was far harder. Five kilometers from the border, two companies attacked it with 9 M-50s and 19 M3 half-tracks. Due to the intense artillery barrage being endured, they made a mistake on the road and instead of circumventing it, they ended up with all the vehicles in the center of the fortifications, under heavy anti-tank fire. In the middle of the minefields and under fire, all of their vehicles were soon destroyed, forcing the Israelis to attack the fortification with infantry alone.
During the night, Israeli reinforcements arrived, consisting of the rest of the 37th Armored Brigade and the 45th Armored Brigade armed with Sherman tanks and a few Centurion Mk. 5s.
The following morning, the 3rd Infantry Brigade and the 37th Armored Brigade met with the 55th Paratrooper Brigades near the town of Butmiya, over 100 km from the Israeli border.
At the end of the battle for the Golan Heights, the Israelis occupied all their objectives but lost a total of 160 tanks and 127 soldiers. Although many of the tanks were recovered after the war and repaired, returning to service a few months later, these losses are much higher than the 122 tanks lost in the Sinai Offensive and 112 lost in the Jordan Offensive.
On the Golan Heights, the M-51s, with their powerful 105 mm cannons, had no difficulty handling the Syrian T-34-85s and the last Panzer IVs. In the short-medium range battles, they managed to keep up with the more modern Jordanian M47s and M48 Pattons of US production and the Syrian and Egyptian T-54 and T-55.
By June 10th, Israel had completed its final offensive in the Golan Heights, and a ceasefire was signed the day after. Israel had seized the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights, adding strategic depth and protection from its adversaries.
The Yom Kippur War (1973)
On October 6th, 1973, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis were caught unprepared from the Syrian and Egyptian attack. They deployed all the reserves available to them, including about 341 M-50 Mk. 2 and M-51 tanks.
The war began when the Arab coalition of Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Israeli positions, on Yom Kippur, a widely observed day of rest, fasting, and prayer in Judaism. Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, respectively. Egypt’s initial war objective was to use its military to seize a foothold on the east bank of the Suez Canal and use this to negotiate the return of the rest of Sinai, lost during the previous Six Day War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union initiated massive resupply efforts to their respective allies during the war, and these efforts led to a near-confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers.
During the first hours of the war, the Syrians had occupied a part of the Golan Heights. Therefore, the Israeli high command had to mobilize all the reserves and, in just 15 hours, all the vehicles and men available were sent to the front in a desperate race against time to stop the invaders.
Many crews were assigned to armored vehicles on which they had not been trained. Some M-51 crews had to mount the secondary armament during the march or refuel at civilian fuel pumps, as they did not receive enough fuel supply in the military bases. Other Shermans went into battle without having aligned their cannon optics.
The Sinai Sector
In the Sinai Desert, the Egyptians, after disembarking on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, attacked the Israeli Bar-Lev Defensive Line. About 500 or 1,000 meters behind the defensive line were the positions of the Israeli tanks, which, due to the situation, numbered only about 290 along the whole front, of which only a few dozen were M-50s and M-51s.
The Israeli tanks made a valuable contribution to the first hours of the war, but the Egyptians consolidated their positions and deployed 9M14 Malyutka missiles, known under the NATO name of AT-3 Sagger, which caused heavy Israeli tank losses.
Information about the use of the Shermans in the Sinai Campaign is scarce. About 220 M-50s and M-51s were employed in the battles against the Egyptians, with unsatisfactory results. The M-51s had a marginal role. Its front armor was too light and, in the early days of battle, it became too easy a target for the Egyptian anti-tank missiles.
An Israeli tank position behind the Bar-Lev Line, the most northerly in the Sinai peninsula, called ‘Budapest’, held up for the duration of the Egyptian assault. On the afternoon of October 6th, an Egyptian unit consisting of 16 tanks, some Jeeps armed with recoilless rifles and 16 APCs attacked ‘Budapest’ (which, according to sources, also had some M-51s). The Israelis opened long-range fire, putting eight APCs and seven tanks out of action. After being surrounded by the Egyptian Commandos for four days, the Israelis continued to fight until, short of ammunition, on October 10th, an Israeli supply column commanded by General Magen managed to reach it.
The Israeli Shermans then took part in the great Israeli counter-offensive that began on October 14th, 1973, shooting at long range against the Egyptian anti-tank missile positions. Here, the Shermans managed to provide support for the more powerful Sho’t and Magach tanks that were able to attack the Egyptian Armored Brigades, succeeding in destroying or knocking out 250 tanks in just one day for only 12 Israeli tank losses.
In the Yom Kippur War, Israel was again victorious, but their initial losses in the Sinai demonstrated that the outstanding victory in the Six Day War had created a sense of overconfident security. In the end, the effectiveness of the Israeli counterattack turned the tables in the war, putting Damascus and Cairo in danger. After the war, now fearing Egypt’s military, Israel sought a peaceful resolution of the conflict with its neighbors, paving the way to the historic Camp David Accords of 1978.
The Golan Heights Sector
At the outbreak of the war, the Israelis could count on two Armored Brigades with a total of 177 S’hot Kal tanks with 105 mm L7 cannons in front of the Golan Heights. These faced off against three Syrian armored divisions with a total of over 900 Soviet production tanks, mostly T-54s and T-55s, with a few old T-34-85s, SU-100s, and an unknown but limited number of modern T-62s.
On October 6th, a few hours after the start of the war, the 71st Battalion, made up of students and instructors from the IDF Armored School, a force of about 20 tanks, including some M-50s and M-51s, was sent to the front line.
On October 7th, the Syrians attacked the positions held by the 77th OZ and the 71st Battalion, trying to circumvent Israeli defenses. After several hours of battle, in the afternoon, the Syrians were forced to desist from their intentions, withdrawing and leaving over 20 destroyed tanks on the battlefield.
Around 2200 hours, the Syrian 7th Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division, which had night vision equipment, and a part of the 81st Armored Brigade, equipped with the few powerful and modern T-62s armed with 115 mm smoothbore cannons, attacked again.
The Israelis, deploying a total of 40 tanks in fortified ‘hull down’ positions without night vision devices, were able to withstand a wave consisting of 500 Syrian Army tanks. During the second attack, at 4000 hours, the Syrian commander, General Omar Abrash, was killed when his T-62 tank from where he commanded his troops was hit by an Israeli shell.
The loss of the general slowed the offensive in that sector, which only resumed on October 9th. Syrian tanks attacked the now exhausted Israeli soldiers of the 71st and 77th Battalions of the 7th Armored Brigade. After several hours of fighting, the Israeli commander, Ben Gal, was left with only 7 tanks that had managed to shoot hundreds of rounds.
Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Ben Hannan, who was in Greece at the outbreak of the war, arrived in Israel and rushed back to the Golan Heights where, in a workshop in the rear of the battlefield, he found 13 tanks that had been damaged during the fighting in the previous days (including at least a couple of Shermans). He quickly assembled as many crews as he could (volunteers, often injured, and even some soldiers who ran away from hospitals to fight), took command of this hastily improvised vehicle company, and moved to the front line to support the 7th Armored Brigade.
When they reached the 7 surviving tanks, they counterattacked, hitting the left flank of the Syrian Army, destroying another 30 Syrian tanks.
The Syrian commander, believing that the 20 tanks of Ben Hannan were the first tanks of the Israeli reserve, gave the order to withdraw from the battlefield.
After 50 hours of battle and almost 80 hours without sleep, the survivors of the 71st and 77th Battalions, which claimed to have destroyed 260 tanks and around 500 other vehicles, finally managed to rest. The real Israeli reserves were already on their way to the front and it did not take them long to get there.
During the night between 6th and 7th October, many Israeli tanks arrived on the Heights. They were mostly without orders due to the death of many officers. They began to fight according to the initiatives taken by the tank commanders.
The last actions of the Shermans were to take shots from short and medium distances against the Syrian armored vehicles that attempted a last desperate counterattack.
After the war, the surviving M-51s were gradually removed from service and put in reserve. Most were sold to Chile. A scant handful were sent to Lebanon to support the Christian militias. A small number were modified or used for testing while the rest remained in the IDF reserve until the early 1990s when they were completely withdrawn from service and scrapped.
In 1979, Chile, which was in good relations with Israel, bought 118 second-hand M-51s to improve its Armored Corps.
Arriving by ship a year later, these were all of the fourth version, armed with the Browning M2HB 12.7 mm over the main gun, Browning M1919 for the commander, and the 60 mm mortars. The Chileans called them the M-51 ‘Burritos’ – ‘little donkeys’ in Spanish They removed the machine guns and the mortars. The Brownings over the cannon barrel were re-installed in the classic anti-aircraft position on the M79 mount near the commander’s cupola.
Another modification was the installation, in the free space previously occupied by the hull machine gunner, of a fridge for the drinking water for the crew. The Chilean M-51s were intended to be used in the Atacama, the driest place on Earth.
Between late 1994 and February 1998, 100 Chilean M-51s were upgraded, installing a new transmission, the new Detroit 8V-71T Turbodiesel 360 hp engine, and an improved exhaust system mounted on the left engine deck side. The suspension and optical systems were refurbished, removing the old US-built optics.
The first 12 units were ready in February 1995 and are recognizable by the absence of the coaxial machine guns.
These vehicles were considered by the Chilean Army to be inferior to the M-50s armed with the 60 mm cannon. In fact, the 105 mm cannons of the M-51 had anti-tank characteristics inferior to the modern hyper-velocity 60 mm cannon. The Chilean M-51s were therefore relegated to the second line duties or as infantry support vehicles, with their more powerful high explosive rounds, as well as for clearing minefields using KTM-5 anti-mine devices captured by Israel during the Yom Kippur War and later sold to Chile.
All of the M-51s were taken out of service until 2006, being replaced by hundreds of second-hand Leopard 1V tanks. Some were preserved as monuments on various bases or in museums, but most of the surviving vehicles were relegated to target ranges in the Atacama Desert.
Other users of the M-51
On April 13th, 1975, a civil war broke out in Lebanon because of internal problems between Muslim Lebanese and Christian Lebanese. In the conflict that lasted 15 years, the Christian militias were supported by Israel and the Muslim militias were supported by Syria.
Israel supported the Christian militias to avoid the Islamisation of the country, which had been ruled by Christians until then, while Syria wanted to bring Lebanon under its military and cultural influence.
In support of the Lebanese Christians, Israel supplied 75 M-50 tanks and an unspecified number of 100 mm armed Tirans, M3 half-tracks and M113 APCs.
The militia that benefited most from these supplies was the South Lebanese Army (SLA), which received a total of 35 M-50 tanks that, in some cases, were repainted in different blue shades.
In 2000, nearly ten years after the end of the civil war, the SLA disbanded, and the surviving M-50s were returned to Israel to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
In 2017, in the second edition of the book ‘Israeli Sherman’, the author, Tom Gannon, reported an interesting discovery. One of the two M-51s exposed in the Armored Corps Memorial Museum at Latrun had, in some places, such as the inside of the telephone box and canvas mantlet covers, been painted in a light shade of blue, similar to that used by SLA. By author Tom Gannon’s estimation based on his own knowledge, at least 6 M-51s were sent to Lebanon during the civil war years in the 1970s and, in 2000, four of them were returned to Israel with the dissolution of the South Lebanese Army. The IDF then repainted them in the usual Israel camo and put them in depots, with at least one of these ending up in the Latrun Museum. Information on these SLA M-51s is almost non-existent and remained something of a secret until 2017.
An intelligence document from the Ejército de Tierra (Eng. Spanish Army), dating from November 1982, examines the modifications and modernization of existing armored vehicles then being proposed for the foreign market and export sales. Among the numerous proposals detailed in the document, including for more modern vehicles such as the M48 Patton, M60, and Leopard 1, an interesting proposal by the Israeli NIMDA company is mentioned. The Israeli company, a subsidiary of the Israeli Military Industry (IMI), was planning to upgrade the M-50 and probably also the M-51 with the installation of a new 360 hp Detroit Diesel V8 Model 71T engine connected to a transmission system with mechanical clutch or to an Allison TC-570 torque converter with modified gearbox. After the conversion, the tank would have a top speed of 40 km/h and a range of 320 km with the standard two 303 litre tanks left. The new powerpack also included dust filters and an improved cooling system that could be housed in the existing engine compartment without any structural modifications.
In addition, the company also proposed to upgrade the armament, replacing the D.1508 L.51 cannons with CN-75-50 75 mm cannons, rebored from 75 mm to 90 mm caliber. This new gun would likely have similar anti-tank performance and characteristics to the French-made CN-90-F3 90 mm L.53 cannon, the same mounted on the AMX-13-90. With a potential muzzle velocity of around 900 m/s, it would likely have fired existing French 90 mm ammunition already in Israeli use, such as the rounds for the GIAT D.921 cannon of the Panhard AML armored car, i.e. 90 mm HE and HEAT-SF ammunition that could penetrate about 300 mm of armor.
This project was most likely proposed to Chile in 1983, but they opted to mount the IMI 60 mm Hyper-Velocity Medium Support 60 (HVMS 60) cannon which was more effective in anti-tank combat on the M-50 and not to modify the M-51 because the 90 mm HE rounds were less effective in the infantry support roles than the 105 mm D.1508 HE rounds.
Camouflage and markings
In the early 1950s, the IDF tested the ‘Sinai Gray’ on some M-3 Shermans, which was accepted into service shortly before the crisis in Suez, in the early 1960s. All the M-51s were painted in the new Sinai Gray which, however, as can be seen in many color photos of the time, had many shades.
Armored Brigades stationed in the south, on the border with Egypt, had a yellowish shade of Sinai Gray for use in Sinai, while vehicles used on the Golan Heights and on the borders with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon had a darker or brownish color. Obviously, over the years, these vehicles with different shades mixed with the various Israeli armored units or were repainted with another shade.
The markings painted on M-51s were introduced by the IDF in the 1960s and, although they may seem randomly painted, they identified the vehicle within its unit.
On some vehicles, a symbol identifying the armored brigade to which the tank belonged was painted.
The white stripes on the cannon barrel identify which battalion the tank belongs to. If the tank belonged to the 1st Battalion, it only had one stripe on the barrel, if it was the 2nd Battalion, it had two stripes, and so on.
The company the tank belonged to was determined by a white Chevron, a white ‘V’-shaped symbol painted on the sides of the vehicle, sometimes with a black outline. If the M-51 belonged to the 1st Company, the Chevron was pointing downwards. If the tank belonged to the 2nd Company, the ‘V’ was pointing forward. If the Chevron was pointed upwards, the vehicle belonged to the 3rd Company, and, if it pointed backwards, it belonged to the 4th Company.
The company identification markings had different sizes according to the space a tank had on its sides. The M48 Patton had these symbols painted on the turret and were quite big, while the Centurion had them painted on the side skirts. The Shermans had little space on the sides, and therefore, the company identification markings were painted on the side boxes, or in some cases, on the sides of the gun mantlet.
The platoon identification markings were written on the turrets and were divided in two: an arabic number, from 1 to 4 (in most cases) and one of the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet: א (Aleph), ב (Bet), ג (Gimel) and ד (Dalet). The Arabian number indicates the platoon to which a tank belongs to and the letter, the tank number inside each platoon. Tank number 1 of the 1st Platoon would have painted on the turret the symbol ‘1א’, tank number 2 of 3rd Platoon would have painted on the turret the symbol ‘3ב’, and so on.
The platoon’s command tank only has the arabic number without the letter. Gimel (ג) with no number is the Company Commander and Dalet (ד) is his second in command.
Gimel with 10 (10ג) was the Battalion Commander and ‘11ג’ was the second in command, while ‘20ג’ was the Brigade Commander and ‘21ג’ was his second in command.
In pictures of the M-50s, these symbols are not always visible, as pictures taken during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 show many M-51s that had already been withdrawn from operational service, repainted and kept in reserve.
On some photos taken before the standardization of this system of markings, three white arrows can be seen on the sides of the vehicles in service in the Sinai, the markings of Israeli Southern Command. Others also had a number painted on the front that identified the weight of the vehicle. This was done to indicate if the tank was able to cross certain bridges or for transportation on trailers. The number was painted in white inside a blue circle surrounded by another red ring.
Crews sometimes painted the brigade insignia on the front and rear fenders, sometimes also indicating the battalion number.
In some cases, not very often, the battalion insignia was painted on the right rear fender and the brigade insignia was moved to the right end of the fender.
As mentioned, some M-51s were delivered to the South Lebanon Army, which repainted them in blue. It is likely that like the M-50s painted in blue by the Lebanese, the M-51s also received the symbol of SLA, a hand holding a sword from which came out cedar branches (symbol of Lebanon) in a blue circle painted on the frontal glacis.
The 85 M-51s Chile received arrived in Sinai Gray camouflage. The Ejército de Chile (Eng. Chilean Army) greatly appreciated the camouflage, because in the Atacama Desert, where Chilean crews were training, it was very useful, and also because of the low-infrared signature. After a short time, however, they decided to switch to other paints because the dust and salt (the Atacama Desert is the driest on earth because of the very high salt content) were affecting the Israeli paint. Not a single camouflage scheme was decided for the entire army, but it was the local commanders who chose the scheme and bought the paints. Many of the camouflage schemes remain a mystery, but there is information about those used by the Grupo Blindado No. 9 ‘Vencedores’ of the Brigada Accorazada No. 1 ‘Coraceros’ used in northern Chile. This unit painted its M-51s and some of its M-50s in a light sand yellow color and others in gray. In the end, in 1991, all the Shermans of the Brigada Acorazada were repainted in light sand yellow.
The Regimiento de Caballería Blindada No. 10 ‘Libertadores’ of the Regimiento de Infantería No. 22 ‘Lautaro’ had some M-51s with two-tone camouflage, sand yellow and dark green, and others in light sand yellow.
Grupo Blindado No. 6 ‘Dragones’ of the Brigada Acorazada No. 4 ‘Chorrillos’ had a more elaborate camouflage, painting its M-51s in 1982 with a camouflage pattern similar to the US MERDEC (Mobility Equipment Research & Design Command) camouflage in light sand yellow, dark green with black lines. It is not clear if all the Shermans of the ‘Dragones’ were painted like this but, in 1983, some of the tanks of the ‘Chorrillos’ were painted in a camouflage scheme with sand yellow, dark green and white with black lines.
Grupo Blindado No. 8 ‘Exploradores’ of the Brigada Acorazada Nº 3 ‘La Concepción’ repainted its tanks in light sand yellow. The only M-51s that remained in Sinai Gray (at least until 1984) were those destined for the Escuela de Blindados (Eng. tank training school) of Peldehue.
Myths to dispel about the M-51
The ‘Sherman’ nickname given by the Second World War crews to their Medium Tank M4s, which has since entered the common language of video games, films or military enthusiasts was never used, officially, by the IDF. The IDF always called their M4 Medium Tanks after the name of its main guns, ‘M-3’ for all the Shermans armed with a 75 mm M3 cannon, ‘M-4’ for all the Shermans armed with a 105 mm M4 howitzer, and so on.
For the M-51 however, a new system of naming major Israeli modifications was introduced that superseded the earlier Sherman naming convention. Since even the M-50 was still named after its armament (and indeed, the first M-50s were entirely French vehicles), the M-51 was named as such to denote it being the next major variant in Israeli service after the M-50. This system would appear again several decades later, following the introduction of the Magach 7, the first major Israeli upgrade/rebuild of foreign-supplied Magach 6 (M60) tanks.
The nickname ‘Super’ was actually only used for Sherman versions armed with 76 mm cannons which remained in service until 1968-69, in honour of being the only version at the time capable of facing the T-34-85. It was the only one to receive this nickname from the IDF.
The other nickname, ‘iSherman’ or ‘ISherman’ (aka Israeli Sherman) was never used by the Israeli Army to indicate any vehicle on the Sherman chassis and is a wrong term used by the media, video games, and model kit manufacturers.
Chilean vehicles armed with the 60 mm cannon were never called, either by the Chilean Army or by the Israeli Army, ‘M-60 Sherman’. They were known in the two armies only as ‘M-50 with HVMS 60’. The same happened with the Chilean M-51. They were never called by the Chilean Army ‘M-51 Super Sherman‘.
The M-51 was born as a vehicle of necessity for the Israeli Army, which needed to take already obsolete Shermans armed with 76 mm guns and up-gun them with powerful French cannons to create a new and capable tank as quickly as possible.
While excellent against existing threats at the time it was created, by the early 1970s, advances in battlefield technology, including the prolific use of man portable anti-tank missiles, meant the M-51’s days in Israeli service were numbered.
Despite no longer being effective in Israel, the M-51 did find a new, albeit brief, lease of life in Chile, where it was given a new engine and used much as it was in Israeli two decades before; to help keep Chile safe until more modern vehicles could be acquired. To this end, it proved to be invaluable, and demonstrated not only the versatility and adaptability of the Sherman chassis, but also of Israeli (and French) ingenuity at keeping a completely outdated vehicle relevant and viable for decades after its original service.
6.15 m x 2.42 m x 2.24 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
5, driver, machine gunner, commander, gunner and loader
Cummins VT-8-460 460 hp diesel with 606 liter fuel tank
D.1508 with 47 rounds, 2 Browning M1919 7.62 mm with 4,750 rounds and a Browning M2HB 12.7 mm with 600 rounds
63 mm frontal hull, 38 mm sides and rear, 19 mm top and bottom.
89 mm mantlet, 73 mm front, sides and rear of the turret
Kingdom of Italy 1943-1954
Armored Car – 102 built
By late 1941, the crews of the AB41 armored cars had reported many problems and issues with the vehicle. In order to solve these and to provide the Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army) with a long-range reconnaissance armored car suitable for use in the desert, in early 1942, the lighter and faster AB42 was designed by FIAT-SPA and Ansaldo.
The cancellation of the AB42 project due to the Axis defeats in the North African Campaign in late 1942 did not discourage the Italian designers. In a few months, they designed a new vehicle, the AB43, on the same chassis as the AB41 but with a new turret and a new and more powerful engine.
The AB43 was immediately tested but the Royal Italian Army did not have time to start production due to the Armistice of Cassibile signed on September 8, 1943. In late November of the same year, production started, though this time for the German Army, who really appreciated the new armored car and produced a total of just over 100 until 1945.
History of AB40 and AB41 armored cars
During the First World War, the Royal Italian Army was impressed by the performance of its armored cars and, after the war, it kept them in service alongside the cavalry and the companies of Bersaglieri motorcyclists. The only model of an armored car developed and produced until 1937 was the FIAT 611, 46 of which were made for the Corpo Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza (Eng: Public Security Corps) and requisitioned by the Army in 1935 for the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
To replace the old Lancia 1ZM and FIAT-Terni-Tripoli armored cars produced during the First World War and the unsuccessful FIAT 611, in 1937,the Italian companies FIAT and Ansaldo began the design a new armored car for use in Africa by the Royal Army and the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng: Italian African Police).
The first project presented in May 1939 was the AB40, an armored car of a modern design, weighing 6.8 tonnes, with a double steering system, with a Mod. 1940 turret armed with twin 8 mm machine guns and a third 8 mm in the hull, 9 mm armor on all sides and on the turret and a FIAT-SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder petrol engine that provided a top speed of 78 km/h and a range of 400 km. 5 pre-series and 24 standard vehicles of this first version, which went into production in January 1941, were produced. Due to its light armament, it was replaced by the 7.4 tonnes AB41 with the new Mod. 1941 turret armed with a 20 mm Breda cannon and two 8 mm machine guns. Total AB41 production was 435 units with the ABM 1 engine and 232 with the new 88 hp FIAT-SPA ABM 2 engine, which increased the speed to 80 km/h.
History of the Prototype
At the beginning of 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army requested FIAT and Ansaldo to better adapt the AB41 armored car for service in the North African Theatre. A new version of the AB armored car produced in a single prototype in 1942 was the AB42, developed exclusively for use in the North African environment. The superstructure was completely redesigned with more inclined 8.5 mm armor and more space for the crew. The 8 mm rear machine gun was removed, as was the dual steering system, reducing the crew to 3 men and the weight to 6 tonnes.
FIAT-SPA developed a more powerful engine, the FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder, while Ansaldo developed a new superstructure and the new Mod. 1942 turret which was wider and lower than the Mod. 1941, armed with the same 20 mm cannon as the AB41. The new vehicle had a speed of about 90 km/h and a range of 460 km.
The prototype was presented at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Eng. Centre for Motorisation Studies) in September 1942 and tests were immediately started to evaluate its effectiveness.
After the defeat during the Battle of El Alamein on November 11, 1942, the AB42 project was no longer considered a priority and was shelved.
Ansaldo then came up with a brilliant solution that saved the factory a lot of money, but at the same time allowed the Regio Esercito to have a vehicle to replace the AB41. To avoid financing the design and construction of new prototypes, Ansaldo’s technicians, together with FIAT, took the turret and the engine from the AB42 prototype and mounted them on the chassis of one of the last series AB41 hulls produced. After miraculously escaping an Allied bombardment at Ansaldo’s factory in Genoa, the vehicle and another prototype on the chassis of the AB armored car were presented at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione in August 1943. The vehicle with the Mod. 1942 turret was accepted in service by the Royal Army under the name of AutoBlinda Mod. 1943 (Armored Car Mod. 1943) or more simply AB43 while the second vehicle, developed on the chassis of the AB41 but equipped with a two-seater turret armed with a powerful 47 mm anti-tank gun was renamed AB43 ‘Cannone’. The AB43 and the AB43 ‘Cannone’ were ordered in 360 units each, but the Cassibile Armistice of September 8, 1943 did not allow Ansaldo to deliver even one unit to the Royal Army. After a few months, on November 13 of the same year, production was resumed under the control of the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng. Inspector General of the Armed Forces) for the German Army, which considered the AB43 suitable for use, ordering 100 exemplars and canceling the order for the AB43 ‘Cannone’. In total, due to bombardments, scarcity of raw materials, delays in the supply of engines and other parts, and strikes of the workers who worked at the Ansaldo factory in Genoa, production was about 6 AB43 per month with a total of 60 armored cars produced in 1944 and 42 others completed by March 1945.
After the Italian surrender and the German capture of the north of the country, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen immediately evaluated the armored cars suitable for use in the Wehrmacht and ordered 100 AB43s. Production began in November 1943, but the first vehicles were delivered in the first months of 1944. Due to the lack of raw materials, coal, energy, delays in the delivery of engines, radios and guns and, finally the strikes of the workers, in the whole of 1944, only 60 AB43s were produced, i.e. only 5 per month. In 1945, production increased and, by the last days of March, the last 42 AB43 armored cars were delivered as per contract.
In a message dated April 9, 1945 sent from the headquarters of the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen in Milan to the Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion of Berlin, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen proposed, following the completion of several contracts for the production of Italian vehicles, the conclusion of new contracts for three vehicles which the Wehrmacht considered suitable for the war: Panzerspähwagen AB43, Sturmgeschütz M43 mit 75/46 and Panzerspähwagen Lince. According to this document, the Ansaldo factory in Genoa stated that it could produce 10 AB43s per month until August 1945, when it would increase production to 50 per month. It is obviously not certain that these figures were possible because the Ansaldo-Fossati factory in Genoa had been hit by heavy bombardments in early 1945.
Hull and armor
In general, for the tasks the armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry light weapons fire. The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates on an internal structure. This arrangement did not offer the same efficiency as a mechanically welded plate but facilitated the replacement of armor elements in case they had to be repaired. The hull was 9 mm thick at the front, sides, and rear while, on the Mod. 1942 turret, the bolted plates reached a maximum thickness of 22 mm on the front plate and 8.5 mm on the sides and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires.
On the sides of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided into two parts that could be opened separately, first the upper one and then the bottom. The upper part had a slit so that the crew could use their personal weapons for close defense. On the left was mounted the antenna, which rested on a support at the back of the superstructure. In fact, to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna a few degrees.
On the right, two horns were placed at the front, a pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe, of the same model used on the last built AB41, was placed on the rear fender. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the “Ferroviaria” (Eng. Railway) version, the support in the fairing was modified to allow to attach two wheels on each side. Above the engine compartment, there was the engine deck with two air intakes on two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back, were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
The Mod. 1941 turret mounted on the AB41, the same as mounted on the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank , was too narrow to easily load the 20 mm cannon. Its silhouette was very high, over 50 cm, and made it easier to locate the armored car even at a long distance. On the new AB43 armored car, the new lower and wider Mod. 1942 turret developed for the AB42 armored car was mounted.
The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches: one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof, divided in two separated doors, and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament during maintenance operations. On the sides, the turret had two slits and on the roof there was an anti-aircraft machine gun support, the same used on the P26/40 heavy tank, and a periscope for the commander next to the hatch, which allowed him a 360° view of the battlefield. Due to the size of the turret, only 35 cm high, a protuberance was bolted on the turret roof, which contained the top-mounted curved box magazine of the coaxial Breda Mod 38 machine gun, allowing the cannon to reach a depression of -9°.
The main armament was the same as on the AB41 and on the AB42, the Cannone da 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 developed as an anti-aircraft cannon, but also used with great success in an anti-tank role. It had a theoretical rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute but, due to the reduced space inside the turret, the practical rate of fire decreased to about 200 rounds per minute. The cannon and the coaxial machine gun were installed with a x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio optics factory of Genoa. The elevation was +18° while the depression was -9°. The Breda cannon could fire a variety of different shells mostly developed for anti-aircraft use. The ammunition used for anti-tank and support tasks were the Armor Piercing (AP) and High Explosive (HE) rounds of Italian production, with a 20 x 138 mm B caliber, but also those used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun, which increased the anti-tank capacity of the cannon. With the Italian armor-piercing shells, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 m with the AP rounds. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate RHA inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted, as on the AB41, of two Breda Mod. 38 8 mm caliber machine guns. The first one was coaxial to the cannon, on the left, and the second in a ball support on the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by Italian infantry and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds and a fire rate of 350 rounds per minute due to the space of the turret.
The machine gun at the rear had a x1 San Giorgio optics on the right and could be disassembled from its spherical support and used in an anti-aircraft position mounted on the roof support.
A smoke grenade launcher was fitted to all vehicles on the right side of the engine compartment and a box containing the smoke grenades was added to the rear of the armored car, extending the shape of the vehicle by 20 cm. There are no photos of the grenade launcher or its ammunition, and it is not clear whether the last AB41s delivered to the Royal Army were also equipped with it or whether only the vehicles produced for the Germans after September 1943 had them mounted.
The ammunition on the AB43 consisted of 57 magazines with 8 rounds each, for a total of 456 20 mm rounds and 83 magazines of 24 rounds, for a total of 1,992 8 mm rounds. In the book “Italian Armoured & Reconnaissance Cars 1911-45”, however, Filippo Cappellano and Pier Paolo Battistelli state that the ammunition transported by the AB43 was reduced to 408 20 mm rounds, which meant 51 magazines, and 1,704 8 mm rounds, which meant 71 24-rounds magazines. This source has neither been denied or confirmed by other evidence. The magazines were placed in wooden racks, increasing the risk of fire. They were painted white on the sides of the hull. 24 20 mm magazines and 40 8 mm magazines were placed on the left side together with the commander’s intercom panel. The remaining 33 20 mm magazines and 45 8 mm magazines were placed on the right side. Many sources and videogames mention the use of 8-round magazines instead of the common 12-round magazines. It is unclear whether these magazines were actually produced or whether they were modified in the battlefields by the crews to facilitate loading into the narrow turrets of the AB series armored cars. Almost all AB43s were equipped with German-made 20 mm shells which increased the anti-tank performance and, in some cases, the guns were modified by German crews to load the 24-round magazines of the FlaK 38 anti-aircraft cannon.
Although more spacious, there was no space for a loader in the single-seater turret and it was the commander of the vehicle who had to load the cannon in addition to commanding and firing. It was not rare, however, that one of the two drivers, when not driving and not using the radio, passed the magazines to the commander to speed up the loading.
The interior of the armored car remained unchanged between the AB41 and AB43. On the front was the 57-liter secondary tank, the steering wheel, with the dashboard on the right side. The front driver had a large front hatch and a periscope. On the right side, he had the gear lever with 6 forward gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the directional control lever. On the left, at the top, there was a crank for the raising or lowering of the radio antenna. On the sides, the driver had two light fairings with armored hatches that could be raised or lowered by two handles.
Behind the driver, who had a seat with a backrest that could be lowered to facilitate entry, there were racks on the sides with ammunition for the cannon and machine guns. In the left wheel fairing was mounted the radio system, while on the right wheel fairing, at the bottom, there was a large box inside which generally carried the jack, tools for repair and maintenance of the vehicle, and personal belongings of the crew. However, it was not uncommon for crews to carry extra ammunition for the cannon inside the box. On the outside of the box were secured with straps one or two spare barrels for machine guns.
In the middle of the crew compartment was placed the single-seater turret with a folding seat and a support for the two firing pedals.
On the back, on the sides of the two ammunition racks, there were storage boxes on the left and two fire extinguishers on the right. On the back were placed the rear driver’s seat on the left and the rear gunner on the right.
Both sat on reclining seats to facilitate entry and exit from the vehicle. In the middle, between the two, was the transmission with the four-speed lever gear. The directional control lever was above the dashboard.
The steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw that allowed for easy access to the interior of the vehicle. Behind the steering wheel, there was an engine cooling water tank and, on the right, the 20-liter reserve tank.
In front of the pilot there was a slit. On his right, in the middle, was mounted the panel of the intercom and finally, in front of the rear gunner was mounted the rear machine gun in a ball mount.
In the engine compartment, the engine was placed in the center, on the right was fixed the exhaust system and the fuel filter and finally, behind the engine were mounted two fans and the radiator.
The crew consisted of four: the front driver, who also operated the radio when not driving, placed in the front; the vehicle’s commander, who was in the turret in the middle of the vehicle, who was overburdened with giving orders to the rest of the crew, operate the guns in the turret, turn the turret, and control the battlefield; the rear driver was on the left of the rear; and the machine gunner/radio operator to the rear driver’s right. These two crew members, due to the limited space available to them while driving off-road, bumped into each other continuously as well as bumping into the roof of the combat chamber. Throughout the war, the lack of a loader for the main gun negatively affected the performance of the armored car, significantly reducing the rate of fire of the 20 mm cannon.
The engine of the Autoblinda Mod. 1943 was the powerful FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine giving 108 hp produced by the Società Piemontese Automobili (SPA), a subsidiary of FIAT.
Its volume was 4,995 cm³, the same as the ABM 2, but the maximum power was 108 hp (other sources round this number to 110 hp, others mention a maximum power of 115 hp) at 2,800 rpm.
The engine was paired with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment.
The weight of the vehicle increased to 7.6 tonnes, bringing the maximum speed to 88 km/h on the road and about 35/40 km/h off-road. The range was increased from the AB41 ones, from 400 to 460 km.
On the AB43, as on the other armored cars of the AB series, there were three fuel tanks for a total of 195 liters. The main one, with 118 liters capacity, was placed between the crew compartment floor and the armored bottom of the armored car. The 57-liter secondary tank was mounted in front of the front driver above the steering wheel, while the 20-liters reserve tank was placed under the machine gun position in the rear.
The crew compartment and engine compartment were not separated by an armored bulkhead, a very serious shortcoming because the reserve tank was placed right in front of the engine, and in the event of a fire in the engine compartment, the 20-liter tank immediately caused major fires inside the vehicle. To reduce the risk of fire, the crews began, during the North African Campaign, to not fill the rear 20 liter tank, preferring to carry a 20 liter jerry can outside the vehicle. Another problem found in the desert was the heat emitted by the engine forced the crews to keep the doors and the hatches open to allow them to properly breathe.
Radio system and electrical system
On the inside left fairing wall of the superstructure was the model RF3M radio system produced by the Magneti Marelli factory in Sesto San Giovanni near Milan, which was installed on all vehicles of the AB series from March 1941 onwards. It consisted of the transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, were placed the power supplies. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one which was used by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. A folding radio antenna with 6 beams was used. It could reach at most 7 meters high and had a radius of 60 km. When partially raised, however, it was 3 meters high and had a radius of 30 km. When the vehicle was moving with the antenna raised to 3 m the radius was about 20/25 km. This antenna could be lowered to 90°.
It is not clear whether during production or after delivery to the units, some AB43s received German Funkgerät or FuG radio equipment. It is unclear how many armored cars received the German radio equipment and whether the AB41s they captured received them as well.
To operate the starter system, the four armored car headlights and the radio system, between the floor of the crew compartment and the armored bottom of the AB43 were a Magneti Marelli 3MF15 battery and four accumulators produced by the company in Sesto San Giovanni. Two were on the left side, under the gunner’s seat, connected to the starter system and headlights, while the other two accumulators were connected to the radio power supplies and mounted under the rear driver’s seat.
Mention should be made of the fact that there were no electric cables in the turret, so the triggers of the guns were connected to the commander’s fire pedals via ‘Bowden’ type cables, the same as on bike brakes. The only version of the AB that received an electrical cable inside the turret was the “Ferroviaria” version that had a headlight located on the right side of the turret that could be controlled from the inside.
The tires used on the AB43 were the same used on the other vehicles of the AB series. They were produced by the Pirelli factory in Milan, as were almost all the tyres on Italian military vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rim used on the TM40, AB series armored cars, SPA-Viberti AS reconnaissance vehicles, and other transport vehicles.
A whole range of tyres was produced for use on sandy soils but was never used on the Autoblinda Mod. 1943 since, by the time the AB43s came into service, the North African Campaign had been finished for several months.
For use on European terrains, such as Italy and the Balkans, the AB43s instead used the Pirelli “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), “Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata” (Eng: Claw With Increased Section) 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm) with larger treads for better grip and finally, from 1942 onwards, the Pirelli “Sigillo Verde” (Eng: Green Seal) tires. Due to the troublesome supply lines of the Wehrmacht, the crews were not always supplied with spare wheels and the AB series armored cars were sometimes fitted with the AS42’s tires and vice versa. Some photographs show armored cars with non-standard tires of a suitable size.
The Germans began production of the vehicle in November 1943, renaming it Beute Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i) (Eng. Captured Armored Reconnaissance Car AB43 203 Italian) and used it in Italy and the Balkans, mainly for anti-partisan duties.
In the days of the Armistice of September 1943, the 65. Infanterie-Division captured or received 10 AB41 armored cars and, in the following months, received two AB43 and 6 Lancia Lince. These 18 armored cars were used in the Battle of Anzio until May 1944 and then in Rome. After June 1944, the division was employed in anti-partisan actions in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, where the division committed several war crimes against the Italian civilian population. In April 1945, it participated in the Battle of Bologna with its last armored cars, including an AB43. On April 22, it surrendered to the Allies on the banks of the River Po. The 334. Infanterie-Division received nine AB41 and AB43 armored cars which were used for the defense of the Gothic Line and later in the Battle of Bologna, when the division surrendered to the Allies.
The 356. Infanterie-Division used five AB41 and AB43 armored cars on the Gustav Line and on the Gothic Line. The 362. Infanterie-Division employed a total of six AB41 and AB43 at Anzio. One was employed in Piedmont where, in April 1944, it took part in a massacre of Italian civilians. After the retreat from Anzio, it was used on the Gothic Line and then in Florence and Bologna, where it surrendered on April 23rd to the Allies. The MG-Bataillon “Feldmarschall Kesselring” used 16 AB43s. The 90. Panzergranadier Division used many AB series armored cars and, in January 1945, it still had 15 AB43s available and also the prototype of the AB43 ‘Cannone’. The division was completely annihilated while covering the retreat of the other German forces in Bologna before the battle of April 1945. The 162. ‘Turkistan’ Infanterie-Division received six AB43s and six Lancia Lince, the last ones in April 1945 before surrendering in Padova after the signing of the Resa di Caserta surrender on April 29, 1945. The 8. Gebirgs Division employed two AB43s in the defence of the mountain passes in the Apennines until it surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945. The 42. Jäger-Division received at least three AB43s in July 1944 and used them during the Ronchidoso Massacre in October 1944, when 66 Italian civilians were executed.
The 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division received some AB41, AB43 and Lancia Lince and was sent in January 1944 to fight the Allies in the Battle of Anzio. It withdrew in June 1944, first to Rome, then to Siena and then to Florence, where we know that two vehicles of the 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division fought on August 18, 1944.
After this battle, the division fought against the British 8th Army in Rimini in August, but was forced to retreat to Bologna in December of the same year. In April 1945, it began its retreat again, fighting in Ferrara, Verona and Bolzano, until it surrendered on May 2, while trying a desperate escape from Bolzano to the city of Vicenza. The Fallschirmjäger-Division had its Italian armored cars driven by members of the Raggruppamento paracadutisti “Nembo” (Eng. “Nembo” Paratroopers Group), Italian paratroopers loyal to Benito Mussolini who fought alongside the Germans until September 1944, when the group was disbanded because of the losses suffered.
The SS-Polizeiregiment “Bozen” which, since February 1944, was stationed in the province of Belluno, made eighty-five anti-partisan operations between the Biois Valley and Mount Grappa between March and December. Between August 20 and 21, the men of this battalion under the command of Marshal Erwin Fritz were involved, together with some units of the Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1 “Hermann Göring” and of the SS-Gebirgs-Kampfschule, in the Massacre of the Biois Valley. In that operation, they used at least eight armored cars, one Sd.Kfz. 232 and seven armored cars of the AB series, of which at least a pair were AB43.
The 12. Panzer Abteilung Besondere Zwecke Verordnung (Eng. Tank Battalion for Special Purpose) of the Panzergrenadier-Division ‘Brandenburg’ received some AB43 which were used in the Balkans for anti-partisan duties.
The last German unit known to have used AB43s was the SS-Karstwehr-Bataillon, composed of Italians of German origin and Croatian, Ukrainian, and Serb soldiers, which received some AB41 and AB43. The division was later renamed the 24. Waffen-Gebirgs ‘Karstjäger’ Division der SS and employed in anti-partisan actions in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
The armed resistance of the Italian partisans began on September 8, 1943, when Roman citizens took to the streets to defend their city from German soldiers. Many of them were badly armed and in some cases their only weapons were the stones with which the streets of Rome were paved.
The Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale or CLN (Eng. National Liberation Committee) was founded on September 9, 1943 in Rome and, in the following months, the first cores of resistance were formed in the part of Italy under Nazi-Fascist control.
The partisan units were commanded by the CLN but were affiliated to several clandestine political parties.
The Brigate Garibaldi, the most numerous, was affiliated to the Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI (Eng. Italian Communist Party) and numbered 575 throughout the north of the Italian peninsula. The Brigate Autonome (Eng. Autonomous Brigades) were the only ones not affiliated to any party or political ideology, often founded by former soldiers of the Royal Italian Army who escaped capture, however, they followed the directions of the CLN. They numbered a total of 255 units. The Brigate Giustizia e Libertà (Eng. Justice and Freedom Brigades) were affiliated to the Partito d’Azione (Eng. Action Party), a liberal-socialist political party and numbered 198 units. The Brigate Matteotti belonging to the Partito Socialista Italiano or PSI (Eng. Italian Socialist Party) numbered 70 in total. Finally, the Brigate del Popolo (Eng. People’s Brigades), that were affiliated to Democrazia Cristiana (Eng. Christian Democracy) political party, numbered 54. There were also many other minor partisan brigades such as the Brigate Bruzzi of anarchist ideology, the Brigate Badogliane (named after Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio) of monarchist ideology and the Brigata ‘Bandiera Rossa’ (End. ‘Red Flag’ Brigade) following the Trotskyist ideology.
The Partisan Brigades were structured in a scheme very similar to that of an army: partisan groups of 10 to 20 men formed a squadra (Eng. team), three teams formed a compagnia (Eng. company), and three companies formed a battaglione (Eng. battalion). Three battalions formed a brigata that could have between 270 to 540 partisans, and finally three brigades formed a divisione (Eng. division) that could reach 1,600 partisans. Their equipment varied greatly. At the beginning of the resistance, the only weapons that civilians who joined the resistance possessed were hunting rifles or pistols, while the former soldiers of the Royal Army had their personal weapons. During the almost 20 months of resistance, the partisans captured many weapons and vehicles from the Nazi-Fascists. The Allies also provided the partisans with weapons and ammunition. A general insurrection was organized by the CLN for April 25, preceded by a huge strike of the workers in the factories that produced military equipment. About 100,000 partisans took an active part in the insurrection, half of them in Piedmont. In Lombardy, about 9,000 partisans took part in the liberation of the main cities, the most important of all being Milan, where the partisan troops, commanded by the future President of the Italian Republic Sandro Pertini, fought fiercely against the last Italian soldiers loyal to Mussolini and the few German soldiers still in the city.
The battle was fought by the partisans of the 81ª Brigata Garibaldi Volante “Silvio Loss” (Eng. 81st Flying Garibaldi Brigade), a division with about 1,400 partisans who, before the insurrection, had participated in the foundation on June 11, 1944, and in the defense of the Partisan Republic of Valsesia, one of the twenty-four autonomous republics founded by the partisans on the territories torn from the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng. Italian Social Republic), the republic founded by Benito Mussolini after the armistice of September 8, 1943. The Republic was dependent on the CLN and was situated between the Piedmont region and the Lombardy region. The partisans of the division, at an unspecified moment, probably a few days before the battle, took possession of an AB43 which they used after having painted on the sides with white paint the name of the division and on the front the inscription ‘W LA LOSS’. It was used to free the city and, the next day, it was used together with other vehicles in the partisan parade in the streets of the city.
After the War
After the war, the AB43, together with other Italian vehicles of the Second World War, went to arm some units of the Polizia di Stato (Eng. State Police) and the Arma dei Carabinieri (Eng. Arm of Carabiners) in an unknown number of vehicles.
The use of armored vehicles was required in the period immediately after the war because of the potential violence that could develop in any intervention, on the occasion of strikes, demonstrations or factory seizures by workers or the fight against anti-Republican movements, and this without counting the continuous threat of an insurrection by the thousands of members of the Partito Comunista Italiano. Since the Carabinieri were not sufficient for the needs and the Italian state wanted to avoid as much as possible the use of the new Esercito Italiano (Eng. Italian Army) to quell these demonstrations, it was indispensable that the Police had the suitable instruments to face any eventuality. For this reason, many Italian cities (especially where there were factories with many workers), first of all Turin, Milan and then Rome, Bologna, Udine and Genoa, many armored vehicles, even tracked ones, were supplied to the police.
The few surviving armed and armored vehicles of the former Regio Esercito, of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (Eng. Republican National Army) and the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (Eng. Republican National Guard) of the Italian Social Republic, even if by now obsolete for wartime use, could still be used for public security roles. In this way, with the consent of the USA, the clauses of the Peace Treaty which forbade the Italian Army from owning many tanks were circumvented. If necessary, these armored vehicles, although obsolete, would still be an aid at the time of the dreaded Communist coup d’état. After these first years, the need for armored vehicles disappeared. Even in the most turbulent years of the protests of 1968, demonstrators lined up in front of the forces of law and order and, however fierce they were, they could be faced with riot gear.
In the early 1950s, the L3 and L6/40 tanks were withdrawn from the police service, as were the few M13/40s. Between 1954 and 1956, the Italian production armored cars, such as the AB41, AB43, Lancia Lince and SPA-Viberti AS42 were withdrawn. British and American production vehicles, such as the Humber Mk II, Bren Carrier and Staghound T17E1 were still used for anti-terrorism and airport patrols until the first half of the 1970s. The Allied vehicles were replaced by the FIAT 6614 armored cars, which are still used today for counter-terrorism tasks but whose use, by law, is subject to very strict constraints.
Not much is known about the service of the AB43s. After the war, they were overhauled in the FIAT factories in Turin that also managed to repair some damaged vehicles.
Together with the AB41s, they formed a Reparto Celere (Eng. Fast Department) in Turin and the Nucleo Celere di Pubblica Sicurezza (Eng. Cast Core of Public Security) in Rome until 1954 or 1955. No other police units are known to have used AB43s. Some others were put in service with Reparti Mobili (Eng. Moving Departments) of the Carabinieri, repainted in NATO green. Those ABs were still in service until 1953. For some years after the war, the Italian Army used some AB43 for training and eight AB43 were built after the war by the FIAT factory in Turin as AB43 ‘Ferroviaria’ and used until 1955 in the Railway Engineering units.
The AB43s in service with the State Police were all withdrawn from service in 1955 after many years of inactivity, interspersed only with rare exercises or exits to temporarily guard some sensitive targets.
Versions – AB43 ‘Cannone’
In the early months of 1943, Ansaldo proposed a new version of the AB armored car series armed with a 47 mm cannon called AB43 (also known as the AB43 ‘Cannone’). The AB41 superstructure was modified with straight sides and removing the rear machine gun. The larger and shorter turret was armed with a powerful 47/40 Mod. 38 cannon, the same as on the M15/42 medium tank. The ammunition capacity was 63 rounds for the cannon. Due to the weight increase to over 8 tonnes, the same 108 hp engine on the AB42 was installed, which allowed the armored car to reach a speed of 88 km/h. Approved in May 1943, the armistice blocked the plans of the Royal Army, which had ordered 360.
Six AB43s survive to this day, one at the Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare in Cecchignola near Rome, one in poor condition at the Museo Storico dell’Arma di Cavalleria in Pinerolo, one at the Museo di Guerra per la Pace Diego de Henriquez in Trieste and the last AB43 at a museum is an armored car used by the State Police, now under renovation and which will be exhibited at the Museo Memoriale della Libertà di Bologna. An AB43 is on display as a monument at the Grosseto Barracks “Beraudo di Pralorno”, headquarters of the 3º Reggimento “Savoia Cavalleria”. Only one AB43 is in running condition, often presiding over many exhibitions and historical reenactments throughout Italy. It is owned by Fabio Temeroli and exhibited in his private collection in the Republic of San Marino.
There is an AB43 ‘Ferroviaria’, the only ‘Ferroviaria’ armored car of the surviving AB series, on display at the Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare in Cecchignola.
The final version of the AB armored car family was mounted on the chassis of the AB41, but many defects were eliminated thanks to the new engine and turret inherited from the AB42. It was a very successful vehicle, appreciated by German crews during the war and by Italian policemen after the war. Unfortunately, the few examples produced were not able to satisfy the number of armored cars needed by the German Army to form autonomous reconnaissance companies. In fact, these effective armored cars were always forced to cooperate with Lancia Lince and AB41 armored cars that were not able to fill the gap.
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,30 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner/vehicle commander, loader and rear driver)
FIAT-SPA 6 cyl, 108 hp with 195 liters tank
Breda 20/65 Mod.1935 with 456 rounds, two Breda 38 by 8x59mm machine-guns with 744 rounds 2040 rounds
hull 9 mm front, sides and rear. Turret 22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear mm
Kingdom of Italy 1942-1945
Railway Armored Car – 20 Converted
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 12 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were modified in 1942 to patrol the Yugoslav railways. This special version was called ‘Ferroviaria’ (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’ (Eng: 1st Light Tank Group) station in Karlovac and the 2° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Marco’ (Eng: 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 (Eng: 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 626 and 665, and AB41.
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 (Eng: 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 (Eng: 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 Mod. 1940 (Eng: 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 Mod. 42 (Armored Railway Truck), based on the chassis of the Autocarretta OM 36 DM, 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 41 armored cars were used to form platoons consisting of 5 vehicles. These were used by the 2° Raggruppamento Genio Ferrovieri Mobilitato (Eng: 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’ (Eng: 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 AB 40/41 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 AB 40/41 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 Operation ‘Achse’ (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 (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 (Italian Army) employed some AB “Ferroviaria” in its Railway Engineering units. These were an unknown number of AB41s 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, probably by the same FIAT plant (from Turin) that, four years earlier, had produced the ABs that went to fight in Yugoslavia.
These armored cars remained in service with the Italian Army until 1954 or 1955 and, like all the vehicles of the time, they were repainted in NATO Green and received new plates. 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
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,29 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner, second driver and rear machine gunner)
FIAT-SPA ABM1 6 cyl, 78 hp with 145 l tanks
three Breda 38 by 8 x 59mm machine guns with 2040 rounds
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 AB 40, history of the project and operational service.
Italy (1989 – present)
Wheeled tank destroyer – ~493 built
The concept of a fast tank destroyer for the Italian Army was conceived during the Cold War in order to replace some vehicles then in Italian service, such as the then obsolete M47 Patton. Such a vehicle was also meant to support the slower M60A3 Patton and Leopard 1A2 tanks in the defense of Adriatic coast areas (where the armies of the Warsaw Pact could have landed if war had broken out), defend the rear lines from paratrooper landings as well as to attack Armored Fighting Vehicles that had broken through the NATO lines towards the heart of Italy. The Consortium IVECO-FIAT – OTO-Melara (CIO) at that time was working on projects for new light Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV). In order to save on costs on the project, CIO tried to create a tank destroyer starting from the Fiat 6614 and 6616 prototypes, armed with a 90 mm cannon in turret on a modified hull.
In 1983 and 1984, CIO presented the Esercito Italiano – EI (Eng. Italian Army) three different prototypes. Two were IFVs using a 4×4 configuration, the AVL 6634 (Armored Vehicle – Light) and the AVM 6633 (Armored Vehicle – Medium) developed from the Fiat 6614. The last one was a 6×6 tank destroyer armed with a Cockerill Mk. III 90 mm low pressure gun in a new OTO-Breda turret, the AVH 6636 (Armored Vehicle – Heavy).
The AVL 6634 prototype was accepted and, after some modifications, became the 4×4 VBL Puma (Veicolo Blindato Leggero – Eng. Light Armored Vehicle). The AVH 6636, however, was not accepted and the Italian Army began thinking that developing a wheeled tank destroyer instead of a new light tank that supported the MBTs would save lots of money. The army requested that the vehicle should mount a standard Main Battle Tank (MBT) 105 mm cannon instead of the 90 mm one.
In order to speed up the development and production of the vehicle, the High Command of the Army decided to spend most of the research budget available on this project by slowing down or canceling the development of other vehicles, such as the MBT C1 ARIETE and the OF-40.
In order to meet the needs of the Italian Army, the turret was redesigned and it was realized by CIO that a six-wheeled hull was no longer able to withstand the weight of the new turret and the new cannon. Thus, the CIO technicians ‘stretched’ the hull, adding another wheel axle and transforming the vehicle into an 8×8. This was the first prototype of the B1 Centauro. It was lightly armored but fast, wheeled and armed with a powerful cannon equivalent to those of first-line MBTs in service during this period.
At the end of 1984, the first nine prototypes were ready. After long tests of firing stability, moving through rough terrain and protection (one was destroyed in shooting and mine resistance tests at a shooting range in Sardinia in 1986), the new vehicle was presented to the Italian Army High Command. The presented prototype of the wheeled tank destroyer was armed with the Cannone OTO-Melara 105/52 gun and would become the B1 Centauro. The first pre-series model was shown for the first time in 1987 at Monteromano, in the north of Rome, during an exhibition of new Italian weapon systems, along with the VBL Puma 4×4 and the C1 ARIETE MBT, at the time called “TRICOLORE”.
Adopted in 1989 with the name ‘B1 Centauro’, the tank destroyer was delivered to Italian Army regiments only in 1992 due to financial problems and some changes. Production for the Italian Army ended in 2006 and saw 400 vehicles produced, of which 141 are no longer in active service. The Ejército de Tierra (Eng. Spanish Army) has 84 vehicles designated VRCC-105. In August 2008, the Royal Guard of Oman made an order for 9 vehicles of a second version with a different turret armed with a 120/45 mm gun and a 650 hp engine. In 2014, the 141 B1 Centauros decommissioned by the Italian service were sold at a favorable price to Jordan.
Armament and ammunition
The Centauro remains, along with the Japanese Type 16 MCV and the United States M1128 MGS, the only tank destroyer adopted which uses a 105 mm cannon. There are other wheeled vehicles armed with 105 mm cannons in use around the world, such as the Taiwanese CM-32, the Chinese Type 11, the Finnish Patria AMV, the Canadian LAV-105, the Austrian Pandur ll, the Swiss MOWAG Piranha, the French AMX-10RC, and others, but these are primarily meant for other duties and tank destroying forms a secondary role.
The Centauro’s main armament consists of a 105 mm L.52 high-pressure cannon, the Cannone OTO-Melara da 105/52 LRF (Low Recoilless Fitting) produced by OTO-Breda of La Spezia. This gun offers the same firepower as some of its Western-influenced contemporary tanks, such as the Leopard 1, the M1 Abrams, the Merkava ll and the AMX-30. The cannon can shoot different types of ammunitions produced in Italy and all NATO standard ammunition types: two APFSDS-T (Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot – Tracer) shells which use tungsten instead of depleted uranium, the M735 and the DM33, the M456 HEAT-FS (High Explosive Anti-Tank – Fin-Stabilized) round and the HESH (High Explosive Squash Head) M393 round. In addition, it can fire the L-28 and L-35 rounds of the British Royal Ordnance L7 cannon from which the cannon was developed.
The cannon has 14 ready-to-use rounds placed on the left side of the turret basket and another 26 in the hull, in two removable 13-round side racks. Beginning from the first production vehicles, the barrel of the cannon is covered by a thermal sleeve, to prevent distortions, and with a smoke extractor, which prevents smoke from entering the fighting compartment after firing, intoxicating the crew.
At the end of the barrel, over the ‘pepperbox’ muzzle brake, there is a characteristic multi-chamber flame arrester that reduces the recoil by 40% and reduces the muzzle flash, making the shot harder to observe by the enemy. The main gun elevation is from -6° to +15°, and the turret can make a 360° turn in 11 seconds. A rate of fire of 8 rpm can be achieved and the gun is stabilized on three axes for precise shooting even when driving over rough terrain.
The secondary armament consists of two or three 7.62 mm Beretta MG42/59 or Rheinmetall MG3 machine guns. One is coaxial to the gun and the others (which can be shielded) are on anti-aircraft mounts on the roof, operated by the vehicle commander and by the loader. The ammunition for the machine guns consists of 4,000 rounds in 16 belt magazines.
The big difference between the Rheinmetall MG3 and the Beretta MG42/59 (both derived from the German Mauser 7.92×57 mm MG42 rechambered for 7.62×51 NATO) is the rate of fire. The Beretta MG42/59 mounted on the Italian vehicles is less maintenance intensive due to the wear of the slower rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute, while the Rheinmetall MG3 has a rate of 1,300 rounds per minute and, in prolonged combat, there is a risk of overheating the barrel. During many clashes with the Somali rebels in Mogadishu, where the Centauros were often not allowed to use their main armament but only machine guns, the MG42/59s were very useful, as they could shoot hundreds of rounds before they overheated.
In addition to these weapons, the B1 Centauro is equipped with eight smoke launchers positioned in two groups of four on the sides of the turret. These are the 80 mm GALIX self-defense system produced by the French company Giat-Lacroix Defense (the same ones mounted on the Leclerc) controlled by the BASCU (Basic Automatic System Control Unit). The launch tubes weigh 3.9 kg and have an elevation arc of 11°. They can be loaded with various types of grenades, ECL illuminating, FUM smoke grenades, special FUM-B smoke, LACRY anti-riot with tear gas, AP-DR anti-personnel with two shrapnel submunitions, AP-TCP anti-personnel with shrapnel and flash-bang charge, and LEUR to trick infrared-guided missiles.
The most common GALIX grenade used on the B1 Centauro (and possibly the only ones bought by the Italian Army) is the FUM-B. Each launcher is equipped with three rounds, each able to create a smokescreen for 60 seconds at 60 meters from the vehicle. 0.2 seconds after activation, in mid-air, the first anti-IR submunition disperses very fine metal dust, making the B1 Centauro invisible to IR visors for 30 seconds. At 0.5 and 0.7 seconds after firing, the other two smoke-producing submunitions explode, creating a smokescreen that makes the armored car invisible to classic optics for a minute.
On prototypes and pre-series vehicles, 76 mm Kraus-Maffei Wegmann smoke grenades taken from the Leopard 1 and 2 were mounted. These were then replaced with the GALIX-80s.
Turret and Fire Control System
The turret was produced by OTO-Breda of La Spezia and was supplied fully prepared for installation on the hull. It has two hatches for the vehicle commander and loader. The commander has four periscopes, while the loader has five periscopes on the sides of the turret.
The main armament is stabilized on three axes and has the same Fire Control System (FCS) as the MBT C1 ARIETE, the third generation TURMS OG-I4 L3 (Tank Universal Reconfigurable Modular System – Officine Galileo) computer developed by Officine Galileo Avionica which is supposed to guarantee excellent firing performance.
For supervising the battlefield and directing the gunner, the vehicle commander has a model SFIM SP-T-694 two-axes stabilized panoramic binocular periscope developed by SFIM and Officine Galileo. It is mounted on the right of the turret and controlled with a joystick. It has a 16-bit fully digital microprocessor with a magnification from 2.5x to 10x on the day channel and from 2.5x to 6x for the night channel. This periscope was developed for the self-propelled anti-aircraft gun produced by OTO-Melara, the OTOMATIC, and after that was modified, improved and mounted on the C1 ARIETE and B1 Centauro. This is integrated with a high performance FCS project by SEPA, with an infrared viewer/night camera that can rotate independently from the turret. This can rotate a full 360° and has an elevation from -10° to +60°, with a field of view of 20° at a magnification of 2.5x and 5° at 10x. If the gunner’s sight is broken or has some problem, this periscope can be aligned with the axis of the main cannon and used to aim.
The commander of the vehicle can find and identify targets without rotating the turret by using the independent panoramic sight. He can also use it to aim the main gun in order for the gunner to engage (if the cannon is not already used in another operation by the gunner). This permits the B1 Centauro’s crew to work on engaging more than one target at a time, day and night and in all weather conditions. While the gunner neutralizes the first target, the tank commander can find others, identify them one at a time and send the data to the computer. As soon as the gunner has eliminated the first target, the targeting computer will turn the gun automatically to the second target which can be engaged once the loader has finished the loading operation.
The TURMS has a ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) system using a SELENIA HgCdTe detector (positioned on the right side of the turret, in front of the tank loader’s hatch). This system can find targets of a size of about 2.3×2.3 m at a distance of about 3 km. It can do accurate rangefinding up to a distance of 1800 meters and can identify and aim with a first-hit probability of 100% at 1,500 meters. With the anemometer that provides TURMS with data on the outside temperature, air humidity and wind speed (data necessary for shooting accuracy), the system makes the necessary corrections to aim the gun and provide a very high possibility of hitting the target the first time even at distances of over 1,500 meters.
The gunner’s sight is stabilized and has a magnification of 10x. It includes a thermal camera equipped with wipers and armored doors that open or close in 0.7 seconds to protect it from shrapnel, bullets or dust. The camera is divided into two parts, with a LWIR (Long-Wave Infrared Radiation) lens and a MWIR (Mid-Wave Infrared Radiation) lens for the day and night channel and laser telemeter. The thermal images from this detector can be seen by the commander on a special display built by Larimart SPA. The digital shooting computer COSMO MP501-D (D for Digital), built by Marconi (now SELEX), manages all the data received from the various external sensors and the many commands from the gunner and the vehicle commander. COSMO is able to reconfigure itself to take over the tasks of any secondary equipment that is damaged or broken.
Furthermore, the vehicle is equipped with various other systems. Such a system is the auxiliary telescopic sight produced by Officine Galileo, the OG C-102 with 8x magnification used in case the TURMS FCS breaks or stops working. It is located on the right, coaxially with the cannon. There is also a gyroscopic device that verifies the attitude of the vehicle, a display for the gunner, a control panel for the loader, a intercom cables set, an anemometer, and an MTL-8 Nd-YAG Laser Transceiver Module (MTL). This is produced by Alenia and is able to accurately measure the distance up to 10 km away using a Laser Transceiver Unit (LTU) and Laser Electronic Unit (LEU). There are also two commander displays, a warning system for the number of rounds stowed in the vehicle, the MRS (Muzzle Reference System) which allows the gunner to constantly check the alignment of the cannon with the axis of the line of sight and correct it, and a second joystick with safety device for the commander which allows him to rotate the turret to open fire, bypassing the gunner in case he is no longer able to do his tasks.
The interior also contains a panel for the deployment of the smoke grenades that has two modes of use (manual or automatic), a panel for the commander which allows him to manage or modify different settings of some systems, such as the CBRN system (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear). As on the C1 ARIETE, there is the possibility of shooting even when the vehicle is moving thanks to the three-axis stabilization of the cannon and the FCS. This cannot be done at maximum speed though, being capable of doing so at speeds up to 30/35 km/h depending on the terrain, as the TURMS system takes into account the speed of the vehicle on which it is installed, the speed of the target and compensates for the effects due to the delays and non-linearity of the main weapon, giving the crew a high chance of hitting the target.
The back of the turret has supports for two antennas. In fact, already during the production phase, the radio system was updated with one that used only one antenna, but the second support remained. The antennas can be disassembled and placed in a special tube-shaped support on the back of the turret roof. The system connected to the antennas is the modern SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) model of American design, but the first Centauros had the old-fashioned dual antenna system based on RV3 and RV4 stations.
The anemometer measures the wind speed, humidity and outside temperature and is used by the FCS. The passive vehicle defense system is produced by SELEX and consists of a laser alarm receiver, or RALM, connected to the TURMS laser transceiver. When the RALM identifies a laser beam aimed at the vehicle, the onboard computer automatically activates the smoke launchers, which in a few moments create a smokescreen around the vehicle. At the same time, it rotates the periscope of the commander in the direction from which the laser beam came. This allows the crew to protect themselves from such a threat and, at the same time, allows them to respond as quickly as possible.
The Centauro hull is divided into two parts. The forward compartment contains the engine, gearbox, and main fuel tank, with the fighting compartment to the rear. The fighting compartment contains the driver’s position and the turret basket. The rearmost part of the fighting compartment holds the ammunition racks.
The hull has two entrances. The driver’s hatch leads to his position and is equipped with 3 periscopes. Only the forward-facing one has night vision, using the VG/DIL 186-B1 sight produced by Meccanica per l’Elettronica e Servomeccanismi (MES), composed of a binocular VO/IL 186 for night vision, a daytime coupled MES 82/1 model and interface system for the optics. The VG sight has a visual field of 38°.
The two M17/1 periscopes with daytime vision to either side give the driver a total field of view of about 110°.
The driver’s seat is hydraulic and allows him to drive with an open hatch. In front of the driver are the steering wheel, the brake, and accelerator pedals. On the sides, he has displays with various driving data readouts and vehicle status monitors.
At the rear of the hull, there is an armored door which allows access and exit for all crew members and ammunition reloading.
The B1 has no amphibious capacity due to its weight of over 24 tons without the add-on armor kit.
The B1 Centauro is made of welded steel, the thickness is secret but, its values guarantee protection from 14.5 mm armor-piercing bullets all around and from 25 mm rounds on the front arch at undeclared distances.
Almost immediately, it was realized that the armor of the Centauro was too light. IVECO-OTO-Breda, in collaboration with German and Belgian companies, researched additional panels of ceramic armor that can be applied to the sides and top of the turret and on the hull. With the additional 15 mm spaced armor, the level of protection also extends to 57 mm rounds.
In 1993, Royal Ordnance along with the Italian industry created an ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) pack for this vehicle as a precaution. Ten B1s were thus equipped and sent to Somalia to support other Centauros already there for UNOSOM (United Nations Operation in Somalia) with the result that no Centauros were lost. This package is known as ROMOR-A armor. These are made from Demex 200 plastic explosive that reduces the power of 125 mm HEAT ammunition by up to 95% and can counter Soviet-built rocket launchers like the RPG-7 (with PG-M and the more modern PG-7VR rockets) and RPG-29 (with TBG-29V rocket). This reactive armor is not vulnerable to light weapon hits. Ten more B1s were equipped in the same period, but they remained in Italy for training.
For peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, such as KFOR (Kosovo Force), some B1 Centauros received an armor kit composed of special 15 mm thick ceramic plates that protected part of the sides of the hull, partially the last two wheels of the vehicle and also the back of the hull. With this add-on armor, the B1 had a weight of about 27,5 tonnes.
The (Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, and Nuclear) CBRN system, produced by the Roman company SEKUR, is placed in the turret and allows the Centauro to operate in theaters contaminated with various agents. It has an external detector that warns the crew of danger through the acoustic system and automatically activates the fan and air filters of the air system. There are two types of filters mounted on the B1 of which one deals with larger impurities. The other one one contains activated carbon and an overpressure device which, once purified air is introduced in the vehicle, increases the internal pressure, preventing the entry of air from the external contaminated environment.
In the event of a breakdown of the CBRN system, individual emergency systems exist to allow the crew to operate safely and, in the event of breakdowns of the vehicle, abandon it in total safety. In addition, the B1 is equipped with two manual fire extinguishers.
In addition to the RALM system connected to the GALIX-80 smoke grenades, the B1 Centauro has other safety systems, such as a fire and explosion protection system consisting of a total of 5 tanks, each with a capacity of 4 liters, that have to cover an internal space of less than 10 m³. The tanks are filled with a pressurized mixture of flame retardants and Halon 1301 (Bromotrifluoromethane) gas in sufficient quantity to fill the internal volume of each compartment (10m³). Halon has been used for many years in fire extinguishers, but has been found to be harmful to the environment and, for this reason, prohibited from production in the European Union since 1994. The tanks, however, have only 4% Halon, which does not endanger the health of the crew members and can allow the extinction of a fire in a very short period of time. One tank is positioned on the side of the ammunition stowage. Two others are used for extinguishing fires in the engine compartment, and the other two tanks are fixed in the turret and are used to extinguish fires in the crew compartment.
The system is also composed of optical detectors and heat-sensitive cables connected to the activation mechanism, for a total of six detectors and three cables. The system can be activated automatically by the sensors or manually by the driver or by the vehicle commander or from the outside. A red handle is placed on the left side of the vehicle, which activates the fire-fighting system from the outside.
In the event of a fire, the system will immediately discharge two retardant tanks (from the crew compartment or the engine depending on the location of the fire). It will signal that the operation has been carried out on the display of the commander with a red LED and send an acoustic emergency signal through the intercom system. After two seconds, it will activate the fans and filters of the CBRN system to purify the air inside the vehicle. In case of failure to extinguish the fire, a new fire or an explosion, the system will empty the other two tanks in the compartment concerned and light another red LED on the commander’s panel.
Engine and transmission
The Centauro has a 520 hp IVECO 8262 V6 engine, the same as the VCC-80 DARDO. This engine can use two types of fuel, diesel or JP-8 (Jet Propellant 8, NATO name F-34). At an average speed of 70 km/h, the Centauro has a road range of 650 km. It has an automatic transmission, the ZF 5 HP 1500 (AT), produced under license by FIAT, which has five forward and two reverse gears. The steering axles of the vehicle allow it to have a turning radius of only nine meters.
The suspension is of the McPherson type. The pneumatic Michelin 14.00R20 tires are of the run-flat type which allow the vehicle to move even with all eight wheels perforated, obviously reducing the maximum speed for over 80 km. The wheels have a CTIS (Central Tyre Inflation System) to allow the driver to control the tire pressure and adapt it to the terrain, from 1.5 bar to 4.5 bar permitting the B1 Centauro to operate in the most extreme terrains. The vehicle’s low ground pressure allows it to maneuver over rocks, sand, mud, snow, and, generally, on most soft and rough terrain. Its maximum speed is about 130 km/h with a road cruising speed of 110 km/h. It can handle a maximum gradient of 60% and ford, without preparation, 1.5 m of water. The Centauro can overcome vertical obstacles with a height of 0.6 m.
The Centauro was developed for reconnaissance and for use against tanks in Italy. However, it has been deployed in different environments, being used in the harsh winters of the Balkans and in the hot African deserts with good results.
The first vehicles were delivered to the Reggimenti di Cavalleria (Eng. Cavalry Regiments) in 1992 which until now have employed them in various operations:
2° Reggimento “Piemonte Cavalleria”
In the months of May and June 1999 and in the same period of 2000, the regiment was deployed in Hungary and Poland for carrying out joint exercises with mechanized and armored forces of other nations.
From July to November 2000 and from March to August 2001, a squadron of volunteers was sent to SFOR (Stabilization Force) for peacekeeping in Bosnia.
After 2006, the regiment has been sent several times to Operation Leonte in Lebanon. In 2015, it participated in the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) for the Malian Army.
In 2017, the Regiment again sent a battalion to Mali for the European Union Training Mission and another battalion participated in the Clever Ferret Exercise 2017 in Hungary. There, on the Varpalota range, with the 7° Reggimento Alpino, it worked together with Hungarian and Slovenian forces of the “Multinational Land Force” in activities never previously carried out jointly.
3° Reggimento “Savoia Cavalleria”
On 6 April 2004, during the Battle of the Nassiriya Bridges in Iraq, eight Centauros were used to support four companies of Italian soldiers (two from the 11° Reggimento Bersaglieri, one from the Reggimento Anfibio “San Marco” and the last from the 132° Reggimento “Ariete”) with the order to capture the three bridges over the Euphrates River. The B1s were used to capture the last of the three bridges, ‘Charlie’, the furthest away from the city and the most heavily protected.
As soon as the Centauro and the VCC-1s (Italian license-built M113s) carrying the Italian soldiers arrived, they were hit by intense fire from Iraqi militants. The only target for the Centauros 105 mm guns was a building occupied by sniper militiamen, but only after they made sure of not hitting any civilian targets. Five vehicles opened fire for a total of six rounds fired, which completely destroyed the building eliminating the threat. The militiamen, in order not to have to surrender or retreat, began to use hostages.
After three hours of negotiations between the Italian Army and the terrorists, an agreement was reached and the hostages were freed.
6° Reggimento “Lancieri di Aosta”
From 2001 to 2006, one squadron of the regiment took part in NATO operations in the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo). In 2006, all the squadrons were sent to Kosovo and Metohija (32 Centauros in total). It also took part in Operation “Leonte 6” in Lebanon, within the framework of the United Nations Interim Force mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL), deployed with the 132ª Brigata Corazzata “Ariete”. In particular, the Regiment was given the task of controlling the south-western area of the West Sector of UNIFIL, where the Blue Line, the armistice line between Lebanon and Israel, is located. The soldiers of the regiment had the task of guarding the only point of international passage between the two countries.
8° Reggimento “Lancieri di Montebello”
The regiment was the first deployed to Somalia with eight Centauros, on September 23, 1992. Over four months, these covered an average of 8,400 km each. They were employed as part of the UNOSOM mission (United Nations Operation in Somalia).
On July 2, 1993, after a weapons-gathering mission called “Canguro 11” in Mogadishu, a mechanized column composed of VCC-1 and VM-90 was blocked on the street near an abandoned Barilla pasta factory (hence the name, ‘Battle of Checkpoint Pasta’) by protesting civilians. Shortly afterward, militiamen of the Somali National Alliance arrived and began firing on the Italian soldiers with light weapons and RPG-7Ds. After heavy fighting, another column of Italian vehicles also reinforced with eight B1 Centauros came to the rescue of the first.
The rules of engagement for the armored vehicles denied them the use of their main armament in order to avoid civilian casualties, so the B1s opened fire with their machine guns. After having rescued some wounded soldiers from a VCC-1 hit by rocket launchers, the last B1 Centauro was about to retreat with the rest of the vehicles in the direction of the international bases. It was at this point that Second Lieutenant Andrea Millevoi, commander of the Centauro battalion present in the battle, was hit and killed by a Somali sniper while shooting his MG42/59 to cover the retreat.
19° Reggimento “Cavalleggeri Guide”
In 1992, the regiment was sent to Somalia, where it took part in the Mission ITALFOR (the Italian component of the UNOSOM mission). During a patrol, in unclear circumstances, one of its Centauros overturned, causing the death of one of its crew members.
Later, in the Balkans, the regiment took part in the Missions Implementation Force (IFOR) and SFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1995 to 2004.
The 1° Reggimento “Nizza Cavalleria”, 4° Reggimento “Genova Cavalleria”, and the 5° Reggimento “Lancieri di Novara” participated in 2002 in an exercise in the Egyptian desert along with other Italian regiments. From 2006 to 2007, they were deployed in Lebanon.
Versions of the B1 Centauro
The basic version of the vehicle, of which 485 were produced. The first 100 vehicles did not have the spaced armor (at the time not yet produced) used in Somalia and after the adding of the armor used to date. Twenty vehicles have been upgraded with the application of additional ROMOR-A type armor to make up for the poor protection.
The second version was produced with removable additional 15 mm armor on the sides of the hull and on the standard turret. This second version encompassed the vehicles from 101 to 250. The third and last version, from 251 to 400, while also having the turret additional armor, was lengthened by 22 cm at the back (and therefore defined as Lungo “long” long in English). This allows the Centauro to transport 4 infantry on folding seats after removing the two ammunition racks inside the hull.
B1 Centauro 120 mm
Version with a HITFACT-1 turret (Highly Integrated Technology Firing Against Combat Tank) produced by Leonardo Defense Systems. Prototyped sometime after 2000 but not accepted for service in the Italian Army. It is armed with an OTO-Melara 120/45 cannon and new protection against 40 mm armor-piercing rounds. The total amount of ammunition carried is unknown, but a CIO Brochure of this wheeled vehicle stated that the turret basket holds nine 120 mm rounds instead of the fourteen 105 mm rounds in the normal Centauro.
The vehicle was presented at IDEX 2003 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and in the same year Oman ordered nine with a 650 hp engine. This model helped CIO to develop the B2 Centauro.
Centauro II MGS or B2 Centauro
On 19 October 2016, CIO officially presented the new Centauro II MGS 120/105 model of which 136 will be produced for the Italian Army under the name of B2 Centauro. The new version features a completely redesigned steel body specially designed to better resist IED and mine explosions. It has a new 720 hp V8 engine and a Cannone OTO-Melara da 120/45 LRF main gun (which can be replaced on demand with an old 105/52) in a new HITFACT-2 turret. In July 2018, a contract was finalized for the acquisition of the first 10 units of B2 Centauro.
Centauro 155/39 LW
In the late ’80s, CIO developed a self-propelled howitzer version of the B1 called Pegaso, armed with a FH-70 155/36 cannon without a turret. It was a bit longer and heavier than the standard B1. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the project was abandoned until 2007, when IVECO-FIAT and Leonardo-Finmeccanica (new name of the OTO-Melara) designed a new self-propelled howitzer for the international market. This vehicle is meant to equip armored divisions with a powerful mobile self-propelled gun. A prototype was completed at the end of 2010, mounting a latest generation 155/39 gun based on the German FH-70 howitzer. It can shoot up to a distance of 60 km with a muzzle velocity of 800 m/s, but it can only carry 8 rounds. The turret has an automatic loader with fully electronic rangefinders and alarms. The commander and the gunner each have a computer at their disposal. The gunner’s computer calculates and sets the elevation of the gun to hit the targets and gives indications (and applies them) on what type of ammunition should be used to inflict the maximum damage to the target.
B1 Centauro SIDAM-25
In 1979, in order to protect mobile units of the Italian Army from air attacks, the Sistema Italiano di Difesa Aerea Mobile, 25 mm, or more simply SIDAM-25 (Italian Mobile Air Defence System, 25 mm) project was born. It entered service in 1987.
Developed by OTO-Melara, it consists of a turret with a weight of about 3 tons and armed with four Oerlikon KBA-BO2 25/80 caliber Oerlikon guns with a firing rate of 2,400 rounds per minute. Each 108 kg cannon has a magazine of 150 rounds for a total of 600 shells ready to use.
The Oerlikon cannons can fire SAPHEI (Semi-Armor Piercing High-Explosive Incendiary) and HEI (High-Explosive Incendiary) anti-aircraft ammunition and APDS (Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot) that can destroy lightly armored vehicles, such as APCs and IFVs.
The maximum range for anti-aircraft fire is 2,500 m, while the effective range normally drops to 1,800/1,500 m. The turret has a two-man crew consisting of the commander and the gunner.
OTO-Melara proposed the turret to the Italian Army, mounted on the hull of the M113 APC and the OTO-Melara C13 multi-purpose vehicle. The turret was also presented to the Spanish Army, which tested it on an appropriately modified BMR-600 6×6 APC.
OTO also presented to the Italian Army a study proposing the SIDAM-25 turret on the B1 Centauro chassis.
This vehicle would have had three crewmen and a considerable ammunition supply on board. The weight was reduced to about 21 tons and the speed and range were increased.
The Italian Army, however, rejected the project together with another one, also proposed by OTO-Melara, of a missile self-propelled anti-aircraft on the B1 Centauro chassis.
The vehicle would have been armed with MIM-146A ADATS (Air Defense, Anti-Tank System) missiles mounted on a 4-ton turret developed by Oerlikon-Contraves, able to sight air targets at a distance of over 24 km.
The missiles, designed by Martin Marietta, weighed 51 kg, with a diameter of 15.2 cm and a length of 2.05 m. They could reach a speed of over Mach 3 (over 3675 km/h) and had an anti-aircraft range of 10 km and 6 km for anti-tank duties.
The extraordinary peculiarity of these missiles was their versatility. Thanks to their HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warhead, they could be used both against heavily armored targets and aircraft.
OTO-Melara never built prototypes and the projects were abandoned after the refusal by the Italian Army.
The DRACO anti-aircraft turret was developed by OTO-Melara as a private project. It is a further development of the previous OTOMATIC SPAAG developed in the mid-1980s. When designed, the OTOMATIC was ahead of many anti-aircraft artillery systems of the time in terms of the range and caliber of the cannon, however, it was never accepted into service. The DRACO was first unveiled in 2010. Currently, this system is offered to potential customers but has not received any production orders to date. The DRACO is a remote-controlled turret armed with a Cannone OTO-Breda da 76/62 rapid-fire naval gun. The cannon is equipped with a revolver-type automatic loading system. It can use all the NATO-standard 76 mm anti-aircraft ammunition types and also modern guided ammunition developed by OTO-Melara. It can also use the Davide/Strales anti-missile system, the 42 mm sub-caliber DART anti-missile shells that can adjust their trajectory. The rate of fire is 85 rounds per minute for the ‘Compact’ version and 120 rounds per minute for the ‘Super Rapid’ version, with a muzzle velocity of 1,300 m/s.
The ammunition revolver contains 12 ready rounds and can switch from one type of ammunition to another. Twenty-four additional rounds are contained in the autoloader, located in the hull. Modern SPAAGs are usually equipped with cannons with a caliber between 20 and 40 mm. This large caliber cannon has been selected because of its long-range. In fact, it can hit targets accurately at up to 6-8 km (depending on the target’s speed). The DRACO can attack enemy helicopters or planes before they release their anti-tank guided weapons that normally have a range of less than 6-8 km but, in the event of a successful missile launch, the DRACO can also neutralize the missile in flight thanks to its anti-missile guided rounds.
The previous OTOMATIC anti-aircraft turret system was much heavier and needed to be mated with a tank chassis. The weight of the DRACO turret has been significantly reduced due to improvements in electronics over the past twenty years. It also uses a more compact on-board NA-25X radar that allows the Davide, C-RAM and DART rounds to be radio-controlled. The secondary armament consists of a single 7.62 mm MG3 or 12.7 mm Browning M2HB coaxial machine.
The DRACO weapon system is intended to counter air targets, such as helicopters, airplanes, UAVs, and airborne weapons. It can also be used against land targets such as APCs, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and in some cases MBTs thanks to its powerful APFSDS-T ammunition. This air defense weapon can be used for combat support operations, defense of supply convoys, point defense, or for coastal defense. The maximum firing range against naval or land targets is 20 km. The unmanned turret can withstand 7.62×39 mm armor-piercing bullets and artillery splinters. An additional protection kit can be installed for added protection.
The DRACO turret requires a crew of two people, commander and gunner. In the case of the system being used on the B1 Centauro hull, the crew increases to three with the addition of a driver.
The DRACO turret can also be installed on 8×8 wheeled vehicles, tracked vehicles, heavy trucks, boats or cemented in shelters.
The DRACO was the first vehicle to mount the SCUDO defense system.
Variants on B1 Centauro chassis
The Medium Armored Vehicle (Veicolo Blindato Medio – VBM) VBM Freccia, “Arrow” in Italian (factory name is “Centauro AIFV Freccia”) is an infantry fighting vehicle derived from the Centauro’s hull developed in 1996 by CIO. It is equipped with a Leonardo-Finmeccanica HITFIST-25-Plus turret with a complement of Net-Centric Systems similar to those on the B2 Centauro, like the LOTHAR fire control system and the ATTILA panoramic periscope. It is capable of carrying three crew members (a driver, a gunner and a vehicle commander) and eight fully-equipped infantrymen.
There are several versions in service with the Italian Army, such as the basic vehicle armed with an Oerlikon KBA B03 25/80 cannon and one or two 7.62 mm machine guns (190 vehicles in service), an anti-tank version with the same turret but armed with two SPIKE MR/LR missiles (36 vehicles), a Command Post vehicle with a taller hull but lacking a turret, armed with a remote control machine gun (2 vehicles), a mortar-carrier with a 120 mm THALES 232M (or TDA 2R2M) mortar (21 vehicles) and one prototype anti-tank version armed with an OTO-Melara T60/70A turret armed with a High-Velocity Medium Support (HVMS) 60/70 OTO-Breda cannon and a less powerful version of the TURMS system.
The Italian Army owns 249 Freccias, delivered between 2008 and 2017, in all versions. In 2018 another 381 Freccia VBMs were ordered by the Italian Army. 261 will be the already mentioned versions and 120 will consist of two new versions for reconnaissance that are currently only prototypes. These are the Freccia E1 “Far” with LYRA 10 radar and two mini-UAV launchers and the Freccia E2 “Close” equipped with a JFF (Janus Full Format) sensor, one UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) and four SPIKE anti-tank missiles.
Centauro VBM Recovery
The Centauro VBM Recovery is a new Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) version of the Freccia infantry combat vehicle, intended to serve as an engineering vehicle and for the recovery and repair of damaged armored vehicles on the battlefield.
The vehicle can be equipped with two 7.62 mm MG42/59 or MG3 machine guns for self-defense purposes. The vehicle is equipped, like the VBM Freccia with NBC protection, anti-IED protection, rear ramp and anti-mine seats.
In addition has 100 meter-long hydraulic winch, hydraulic crane, anti-mine device, front blade for clearing rubble or front stabilizer, eight 80 mm smoke grenades, laser alarm system, etcetera. The Centauro VBM recovery vehicle is powered by an IVECO 8262 6V with turbocharger diesel engine with a nominal output of 550 hp. The Spanish Army is the only operator for this version, with 4 vehicles called Vehículo Acorazado de Recuperación y Reparaciones Centauro (VCREC).
The Viatura Blindada Transporte de Pessoal – Média de Rodas (Eng. Armored Personnel Carrier Vehicle – Wheeled) or VBTP-MR ‘Guaranì’ is a 6×6 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) developed by IVECO in collaboration with some Brazilian companies for the Brazilian Army. It was designed paralel to the SUPERAV, and as such resembles it. Both the Guarani and the SUPERAV were based on the Freccia hull.
Its main armament is composed of a 12.7 mm machine gun in a remote-controlled turret. There are also proposed versions equipped with 120 mm mortars, anti-tank versions with 105 mm gun (planned on an 8×8 hull).
In the standard version, it can transport 8 fully equipped soldiers, the driver, the commander and a gunner.
It has a maximum road speed of 110 km/h and can achieve about 12 km/h (6.5 nmi) at sea.
The Guaranì is used by the Brazilian Army, which has more than 500 in service and about 1,500 more are under construction. The Lebanese Army currently has 10 of them in service.
The IVECO VBA SUPERAV (Amphibious Medium Vehicle – SUrface PERformance Amphibious Vehicle) is an AAV (Assault Amphibious Vehicle) developed from the VBM Freccia and was developed paralel to the Guaranì by IVECO, to replace the old AAV-7/A1 in service in the Italian Army.
It is an 8×8 amphibious vehicle, with a similar hull to the VBM Freccia . In the APC version, it is armed with a 7.62 mm, 12.7 mm or 40 mm grenade launcher HITFIST remote controlled turret and can carry 12 fully equipped soldiers plus the driver and the commander. The IFV version is armed with a 40 mm MK44 Bushmaster IV gun in a remote control turret and can carry 8 fully equipped soldiers plus the driver, the commander and the gunner. Its maximum speed on road is 105 km/h, while at sea it reaches 11 km/h (about 6 nmi).
IVECO has provided for as many variants as for the VBM Freccia: a taller command post with HITROLE turret, an ambulance with three stretchers, a mortar carrier with a 120 mm THALES 232M or TDA 2R2M mortar and an anti-tank version with a pair of rocket launchers for a total of four SPIKE MR/LR missiles.
The SuperAV is produced under license by BAE Systems under the name ACV 1.1, but with some changes, such as just 11 soldiers in the APC version and the lack of mounts for the SPIKE missile launch ramps on the turret in the IFV version.
With the support of IVECO, in 2018, the ACV 1.1 won the competition to replace the US Marines’ AAV-P7s. The US Marine Corps plans to build 400 ACV by 2020 and then move on to produce an updated version called ACV 1.2, still under development. The Italian Army and the Italian Navy are testing some IVECO SuperAV prototypes. If they are accepted into service, they will be produced by IVECO in Italy in Command Post, IFV and anti-tank versions, totaling 40 vehicles, replacing the AAV-7s and Arisgator (Italian amphibious version of the M113).
Spain bought 84 B1 Centauro tank destroyers for the Ejército de Tierra to replace some of the older obsolete tanks then in service. The Spanish call them Vehículo de Reconocimiento y Combate de Caballería or VRCC-105 (English – Reconnaissance and Cavalry Fighting Vehicle). 22 vehicles were bought in 1999, all built in Italy and delivered between 2000 and 2001. In 2002, another 62 vehicles were ordered, delivered between 2004 and 2006, but some of the mechanical and electronic parts were made in Spain, built by the Spanish CIO consortium subsidiaries, OTO-Melara Iberica and IVECO-Pegaso and Amper. Among these are the PR4G radio and Rovis digital intercom equipment, so as to have compatibility with other equipment in the Ejército de Tierra.
In 2007, the first 22 vehicles that were bought were brought to the level of the others with the addition of the last generation thermal sleeve, the ROVIS intercom system and rearmed with two or three Rheinmetall MG3 7.62 mm machine guns. In 2010, 4 Centauro VBM Recovery were purchased.
The Spanish version is different from the Italian one in some details. An additional spaced armor plate is present on the lower frontal hull, the eight smoke launchers are placed on the sides of the turret, covered by 15 mm spaced armor. The 7.62 mm ammunition boxes for the machine guns are fixed outside the storage rack, on the backs of the new supports for two 20 or 25 liters cans. Also, as already mentioned, the Spanish vehicles use Rheinmetall MG3 machine-guns and not Italian Beretta MG 42/59.
The 84 VRCC-105 are used in three different regiments, 28 at the Regimiento de Caballería “Pavía” No. 4, 28 at the Regimiento de Caballería “Lusitania” No. 8 and another 28 at the Regimiento de Caballería “España” No. 11. They were initially delivered to the Regimiento de Caballería “Lusitania” No. 8 as they are part of the Fuerza de Acción Rápida, a unit destined for rapid deployment by air.
Prototypes of the LT-105 Light Tank, a ‘Direct Fire’ version of the ASCOD IFV (Austrian Spanish COoperation Development) with the HITFACT-2 turret armed with the OTO-Melara 105/52 LRF or the OTO-Melara 120/45 LRF were designed, produced and tested by the Spanish company Santa Bárbara Sistemas.
Oman has purchased a total of 9 B1 Centauro with HITFACT-1 turrets armed with 120/45 mm guns. They were ordered in 2008 and received in two shipments of 6 and 3 vehicles that were taken over by the Royal Oman Guards and used as heavy support vehicles.
Jordan received 141 B1 Centauro decommissioned by the Italian Army. 24 working vehicles were donated in 2014 and 117 non-functioning were bought in 2015 at a favorable price of 5.58 million Euros (6.2 million dollars).
In November 2017, Spanish Company SDLE (Star Defense Logistic and Engineering) won the competition to modernize around eighty of these tank destroyers. The modifications will concern the modernization of the optics, thermal sleeve and the anti-aircraft machine guns with one or two Browning M2HBs. The armor will certainly be increased with add-on kits and perhaps with reactive armor. The contract also includes maintenance of the vehicles and the training of the Jordanian B1 Centauro crews.
The United States government rented 16 Centauros in 2000 for evaluation and to gain experience for the United States Army with heavy armored cars due to the introduction of the M1126 ICV Stryker and the M1128 MGS armed with the 105 mm M68A1E4 cannon.
The vehicles were all returned in 2002 after the American personnel completed their training.
In 2011, the Italian and Russian defense ministers signed an agreement for the transfer of a Centauro B1 “Lungo”, a 25 mm armed VBM Freccia, a 30 mm-armed VBM Freccia and a B1 Centauro with the HITFACT-1 turret armed with a 120/45 cannon.
The vehicles arrived in Russia in the summer of 2012. In October, tests began and the vehicles received favorable reviews from the Russian crews, especially concerning comfort, precision on the move, low recoil, high speed, and excellent driving characteristics even at 110 km/h. In the cold Russian winter, however, there were some problems due to the fact that the vehicles had spent almost a year in storage without moving and revisions. The spare parts that were transported in Russia were few in quantity.
The Russian soldiers who operated these Italian vehicles appreciated them, because their BTR-80 and BTR-82A, similar to the Freccia, are cramped and uncomfortable (despite having more interior space than the Freccia). In addition, their armament is similar (14.5 mm KPVT and 30 mm 2A42 against Oerlikon KBA 25 mm and 30 mm ATK Mk 44). According to the Russians (who could not carry out destructive tests on the Centauro because the contract signed did not allow it), the vehicles were not able to resist an IED explosion. However, even in this respect, Russian soldiers preferred the Freccia and the Centauro as they have better anti-mine characteristics than their BTRs.
Due to the European embargo to Russia for involvement in the War in Donbas, the Italian technicians and vehicles had to be repatriated.
If the project had been completed, as in the case of the IVECO LMV, the Russians would have tested the vehicles with turrets armed with 100 and 125 mm cannons of local production.
In 2012, the Colombian Army and government created a special commission to inspect armored vehicles (armored cars and tanks) for the modernization of the Ejército Nacional de Colombia (Eng: National Colombian Army). The Centauro, in all its versions, was found to be one of the favorite vehicles for its mobility characteristics that were judged adequate for the Colombian terrain. It is not yet known which vehicle will be chosen, as the commission is still touring Europe, Asia, Russia and North America and the verdict will be issued at the end of the inspection. However, if an order does come through, it will amount to 40 armored cars and 60 tanks from different companies.
In May 2001, a B1 Centauro was tested by the Exército Brasileiro (Eng: Brazilian Army). The vehicle arrived in Brazil together with four technicians, one from FIAT, one from IVECO and two from OTO-Melara, and three other personnel who came for the shooting tests.
During the off-road driving tests, the vehicle impressed the Brazilian staff and gave great proof of itself on the rough and muddy terrain. On May 27th and 28th, the shooting tests took place in the sandbank of Marambaia, Rio de Janeiro, also with excellent results.
While stationary, the vehicle fired at a Bernardini Self-Propelled Anti Aircraft gun prototype on a M3 Stuart hull. The ammunition used was APFSDS supplied by the Brazilian Army which originated from a 1973 British supply. Of the various rounds fired, all performed very well, hitting the target at a distance of 1,520 m.
Subsequently, the B1 Centauro fired on the move, targeting a German Marder, which had been tested some years before by the Brazilian Army. Several shots were fired from distances between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, all hitting the target.
The Brazilian Army did not purchase any vehicles eventhough it was offered to Brazil multiple times, but tests showed the obsolescence of some Brazilian vehicles, such as the EE-9 Cascavel.
Conclusion and future
In its career, the B1 Centauro has proven to be a robust vehicle, fast and appreciated by the crews and soldiers who operated it. It has also proven to be a very adaptable platform with several different versions and variants spawning from it. It has even been an export success, albeit moderate, with the B1 Centauro seeing service in other armies around the globe.
For now, the Italian Army is not scheduled to phase out their remaining 259 B1 Centauros. In the coming years, they will be joined by the B2 Centauros in the Cavalry Divisions for reconnaissance and support missions in Lebanon where the Italian Cavalry Divisions are called to intervene.
B1 Centauro specifications
8,48 (7,63 hull) x 3,05 x 2,73 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
24.7 tons in standard version 26,8 tons with additional armor plates on turret
4, driver, commander, gunner, and loader
IVECO MTCA 8262 V6 diesel by 520 hp
OTO-Breda 105/52 LRF with 40 rounds, 3 MG42/59 or MG3 7,62 mm MGs with 4000 rounds
493 B1 Centauro (9 with 120/45mm cannon) excluding the 9 prototypes
North Korea (2020)
Main Battle Tank – at least 9 built, probably more
10th October 2020 marked the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the far-left party of the totalitarian one-party Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This took place in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, through Kim Il-sung Street. During this parade, new and very powerful nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), which shocked the North Korean population and the whole world, as well as a new Main Battle Tank (MBT) that has intrigued many military analysts, have been shown for the first time, arousing great interest.
Unfortunately, not much is known about this vehicle yet. The Chosŏn-inmin’gun, or Korean People’s Army (KPA), has not yet officially presented the new tank or given a precise name, as it does for each vehicle of its arsenal due to the North Korean strategy of not revealing any details about their military equipment. Thus, throughout this article, the vehicle will be referred to as “New North Korean MBT”.
However, it is an almost completely new design that seems to have very little in common with previous MBTs developed in North Korea. It is also the first vehicle developed after the Songun-Ho was presented in a parade, in the same place, in 2010.
North Korean tanks
In the very last phases of the Second World War, between August and September 1945, Iosif Stalin’s Soviet Union occupied, in agreement with the United States, the northern part of the Korean peninsula, going as far down as the 38th parallel.
Because of the Soviet occupation, which lasted for three years and three months, the charismatic Kim Il-sung, who had been a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese during the occupation of Korea in the ’30s, and then continued to fight the Japanese during their invasion of China, became captain of the Red Army in 1941, and, with this title, in September 1945, he entered Pyongyang.
Under his leadership, the newly formed country quickly broke off all relations with South Korea, under U.S. control, and became increasingly close to the two communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and the newly formed People’s Republic of China, which had recently ended its bloody civil war.
Most of the North Korean military’s early equipment was of Soviet origin, with thousands of weapons and ammunition and hundreds of T-34/76s, T-34/85s, SU-76s and IS-2s and Soviet-made aircraft arriving in North Korea.
The outbreak of the Korean War, which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, completely broke any relationship with South Korea, pushing North Korea to become even closer to the two communist regimes, even if, after Stalin’s death, the ties with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate.
The Kim family’s MBTs
In the following years, North Korean armored formations’s core of T-34s started being largely supplemented by T-54 and T-55s. In the case of the T-55, as well as the PT-76, local assembly at least, if not full production, was initiated in North Korea from the late 1960s onward, giving a head start to the country’s armored vehicles industry. Bolstered by those Soviet deliveries, as well as Type 59, 62 and 63 from China, North Korea built a large armored force from the 1960s and 1970s onward.
Towards the late 1970s, North Korea began the production of its first “indegenous” main battle tank. The first tank produced by the North Korean nation was the Ch’ŏnma-ho (Eng: Pegasus), which started as a mere T-62 copy with minor and obscure modifications. Interestingly enough, despite some rumors of the contrary, North Korea is not known to have acquired any significant number of T-62s from abroad.
The Ch’ŏnma-ho went through a large number of evolutions and versions from its introduction to this day; in the west, those are often rationalized under the designations of I, II, III, IV, V and VI, but in truth those are nebulous, with quite a lot more than six configurations and variants existing (for example, both the Ch’ŏnma-ho 98 and Ch’ŏnma-ho 214 could be described as Ch’ŏnma-ho V, while on the other hand the vehicle described as the Ch’ŏnma-ho III has never been photographed and is not actually known to exist).
The Ch’ŏnma-ho have been in service since the last years of the 1970s, and while the obscure nature of North Korea means an estimation of their numbers is hard to come by, the tanks have obviously been produced in very large numbers (with some early models even being exported to Ethiopia and Iran) and have formed the backbone of North Korea’s armored force in the last decades. They have known considerable evolutions, which have often confused enthusiasts; the most notable example of this being the so-called “P’okp’ung-ho”, in fact the later models of the Ch’ŏnma-ho (215 and 216, first observed around 2002, which has led them to sometimes be called “M2002” as well), which, despite having added another roadwheel and numerous new internal and external components, remains Ch’ŏnma-hos. This has lead to considerable confusion when North Korea actually introduced a tank that was mostly new, the Songun-Ho, first seen in 2010, which featured a large cast turret with a 125 mm gun (whereas late Ch’ŏnma-hos had adopted welded turrets which appear to have mostly retained 115 mm guns) and a new hull with a central driving position. It ought to be noted that the later models of the Ch’ŏnma-ho as well as the Songun-Ho are often seen with additional, turret-mounted armaments; anti-tank guided missiles such as the Bulsae-3, light anti-aircraft missiles, such as locally-produced variants of the Igla, 14.5 mm KPV machine-guns, and even dual 30 mm automatic grenade launchers.
All of these vehicles have a clear visual, design and technological descendance from Soviet-style vehicles; it ought to be noted, however, that particularly in the last twenty years, the North Koreans vehicles have evolved quite considerably from their roots, and can hardly be called mere copies of vintage Soviet armor anymore.
Design of Kim’s new tank
The layout of the new North Korean MBT is, at first glance, reminiscent of standard Western MBTs, deviating significantly from previous tanks produced in North Korea. These older vehicles have obvious similarities to Soviet or Chinese tanks from which they are derived, such as the T-62 and T-72. In general, these tanks are of a smaller size compared to Western MBTs, designed above else to contain costs and for rapid transport by rail or air, while NATO MBTs are, as a rule, more expensive and larger providing a greater comfort to the crew.
The three-tone light sand, yellow, and light brown camouflage is also very unusual for a North Korean vehicle, reminding of the camouflage patterns used on armored vehicles during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Recently, North Korean armor has had standard one tone camouflage of a shade really similar to the Russian one and a three camouflage, brown and khaki on a green base.
Analyzing the vehicle in detail, however, shows that, in reality, not all is what it seems.
The hull of the new tank is completely different from previous North Korean MBTs and is very similar to the modern Russian T-14 Armata MBT presented for the first time during the parade for the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War on 9th May 2015.
The driver is placed centrally at the front of the hull, and has a pivoting hatch with two episcopes.
The running gear is composed, as on the T-14, of seven large diameter road wheels protected not only by usual side skirts, but also by a polymer skirt (the black one that can be seen in the picture), both present in the Armata. On the North Korean tank, the polymer skirt almost completely covers the wheels, obscuring most of the running gear.
As on nearly all the modern MBTs, the sprocket wheel is at the rear, while the idler is at the front.
The tracks are of new style for a North Korean tank. In fact, they seem to be a double pin rubber padded type of western derivation, whereas in the past, these single-pin tracks with rubber-bushed pins like the Soviet and Chinese ones.
The rear of the hull is protected by slat-armor. This type of armor, which protects the sides of the engine compartment, is often used on modern military vehicles and is effective against infantry anti-tank weapons with HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warheads that have piezo-electric fusing, such as the RPG-7.
On the left side, the slat-armor has a hole to access the muffler, just like on the T-14. The only difference between the two tanks’ slat-armor is that, on the T-14, there are two mufflers, one on each side.
In the parade videos, at a certain point, one of the vehicles passes over a camera and it can be seen that the vehicle has torsion bar suspension.
The rear of the vehicle also reminds of the T-14 one, being higher than the front. This was probably done to increase the space available in the engine bay, probably in order to house an upgraded version of the 12-cylinders P’okp’ung-ho engine delivering, according to estimates from 1000 to 1200 hp.
Obviously, specifications such as maximum speed, range, or weight of the new MBT are unknown.
If the hull, in its shape, reminds the T-14 Armata, the most modern MBT in the Russian Army, the turret vaguely reminds of that of the M1 Abrams, the standard MBT of the U.S. Army or the Chinese MBT-3000 export tank, also known as the VT-4.
Structurally, the turret is very different from that of an Abrams. In fact, the lower part of the turret has four holes for some grenade launcher tubes.
It can therefore be assumed that the turret is made of welded iron and equipped with composite spaced armor mounted on it, as on many modern MBTs (for example the Merkava IV or Leopard 2). Consequently, its internal structure is different from the external appearance. The armor of some modern tanks, such as the M1 Abrams and Challenger 2, is made of composite materials that cannot be removed.
A detail that hints at this is the evident step that is visible between the sloped armor at the front and the roof, where there are the two cupolas for the vehicle commander and the loader.
On the right side of the turret is mounted a support for two missile launcher tubes. These can probably fire a copy of the 9M133 Kornet Russian Anti-Tank missiles or some anti-aircraft missile.
On the roof of the turret, there is what looks like a Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV) on the right, in front of the commander’s cupola, a Gunner’s Sight just below it, a Remote Weapon System (RWS) armed with an automatic grenade launcher in the center and, on the left, another cupola with a fixed front episcope.
Above the cannon is a laser rangefinder, already present in that position on previous North Korean vehicles. On its left is what looks like a night vision camera.
There is also another fixed episcope on the right of the commander’s cupola, an anemometer, a radio antenna on the right and, on the left side, what may look like a cross-wind sensor.
On the rear, there is a space to put the crew’s gear or something else that covers the sides and rear of the turret and four smoke launchers for each side. On the rear and on the sides are three hooks to lift the turret.
We can deduce that the main armament is, like in the case of the Songun-Ho, the North Korean copy of the 125 mm Russian 2A46 tank gun and not the 115 mm North Korean copy of the Soviet 115 mm 2A20 cannon. The dimensions are obviously larger and it is also unlikely that the North Koreans would have mounted an older generation cannon on what appears to be such a technologically advanced vehicle.
From the photos, we can also logically assume that the cannon is not capable of firing ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), which Russian 125 mm guns can do, because the vehicle is equipped with an external missile launcher.
On the barrel of the gun, in addition to the smoke extractor, like on the C1 Ariete or the M1 Abrams, is mounted an MRS (Muzzle Reference System) that constantly verifies the linearity of the main gun barrel with the gunner’s sight and if the barrel has distortions.
Another assumption that can be made is that the cannon is not equipped with an automatic loader system because there are three crew members inside the turret. The tank commander is behind the gunner, on the right side of the turret, and the loader on the left side. This can be assumed due to the fact that the CITV and gunner’s sight are one in front of the other on the right side, as on the Italian C1 Ariete, where the commander is seated behind the gunner and has similar positions for the optics.
The loader is seated on the left of the turret and has his personal cupola above him.
The secondary armament is composed of a coaxial machine gun, probably a 7.62 mm, mounted not in the gun mantlet but on the side of the turret, and an automatic grenade launcher on the turret, probably 40 mm caliber, controlled from inside the vehicle.
The vehicle appears to have ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) on the side skirts, as on the T-14 Armata and composite spaced armor covering the front and side of the turret.
There are a total of 12 grenade launcher tubes on the lower sides of the turret, in groups of three, six frontal and six lateral.
These systems are probably a copy of the anti-missile subsystem of the Afghanit APS (Active Protection System) of Russian production mounted on the T-14 Armata and on the T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle (HIFV).
The Russian Afganit is composed of two subsystems, a generic one consisting of small charges mounted on the roof of the turret, covering a 360° arc, that shoot small fragmentation grenades against rockets and tank shells, and an anti-missile one consisting of 10 large fixed grenade launchers mounted (5 per side) on the lower part of the turret.
Connected to the twelve grenade launchers, there are at least four radars, probably of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) type. Two are mounted on the frontal composite armor and two on the sides. These are meant to detect incoming AT missiles aimed at the vehicle. If an AT missile is detected by the radars, the system automatically activates the APS that fires one or perhaps more grenades in the direction of the target.
There are also two devices mounted on the turret sides. These could be Laser Alarm Receivers used on the modern AFV or other sensors for the Active Protection System. If these are actually LARs, their purpose is to detect laser beams from enemy rangefinders mounted on tanks or AT weapons that are aiming at the vehicle and automatically activate the rear smoke grenades to hide the vehicle from the opposing optical systems.
The Starving Tiger
Communist North Korea is one of the most peculiar countries in the world, with an army to match. The country, often called the Hermit Kingdom, is currently subject to almost worldwide sanctions due to its ongoing nuclear program and nuclear bomb tests. This has largely deprived the country not only of the economic benefits of trade but also of many resources required for tank construction, most importantly foreign weapons, weapon systems, and minerals which the country cannot extract from its limited resources.
While North Korea has found ways of circumventing these sanctions and engaging in limited trade (including selling weapons to foreign countries), the country has an annual GDP of only 18 billion dollars (2019), more than 100 times smaller than that of South Korea (2320 billion dollars in 2019). The GDP of North Korea is close to that of such war-torn countries as Syria (16.6 billion dollars, 2019), Afghanistan (20.5 billion dollars, 2019), and Yemen (26.6 billion dollars, 2019).
In terms of GDP per capita, the situation is similar. At $1,700 per person (Purchasing Power Parity, 2015), the country is overtaken by such powerhouses as Haiti ($1,800, 2017), Afghanistan ($2000, 2017), and Ethiopia ($2,200, 2017).
Nonetheless, despite these worrying economic indicators, North Korea spends a massive 23% of its GDP (2016) on defense, which amounts to $4 billion. This is closer to more developed countries, such as South Africa ($3.64 billion, 2018), Argentina ($4.14 billion, 2018), Chile ($5.57 billion, 2018), Romania ($4.61 billion, 2018), and Belgium ($4.96 billion, 2018). It must be noted that none of the countries listed in this comparison are capable of developing a brand new MBT able to compete with the most modern Russian and American tanks.
North Korea is a massive weapons manufacturer, proving able to build thousands of MBTs, APCs, SPGs, and many other weapon types. They have also made many improvements and adaptations of foreign designs. While it is clear that the North Korean versions are definite improvements over the originals, the originals are usually half a century old. No serious institution, except, of course, the North Korean propaganda machine, can claim that the North Korean vehicles are superior or even comparable to the most modern vehicles from other countries.
Furthermore, the North Korean electronics industry is not in a position to produce the expensive and technologically complicated electronics systems (and their associated software) needed by modern MBTs. Even the local production of LCD screens involves acquiring many components and parts directly from China and then assembling them in North Korea, if not buying them whole from China and just stamping them with North Korean logos.
Given all these factors, it is rather curious that the otherwise feeble North Korean economy and military industry could develop, design, and construct an MBT with comparable characteristics and systems as the most modern and powerful vehicles from the United States and Russia.
The Soviet Afghanit system which the New North Korean MBT is trying to emulate was based on decades of Soviet experience in the field starting from the late 1970’s Drozd and going through the 1990s Arena. Similarly, the first American MBT to field APS protection is the M1A2C from 2015, which uses the Israeli Trophy system which entered production in 2017. Given that the USA, the largest economy in the world and the largest military spender in the world, did not develop its own APS system, it is extremely unlikely that the North Koreans were able to do so and emulate a highly advanced system such as Afghanit. While there is a chance that North Korea might have acquired this system from Russia, there is nothing to indicate that the Russians would be willing to sell this highly advanced system, let alone to a pariah state such as North Korea. A more likely import source would be China, which also has locally developed hard-kill APS.
Similar arguments can be made for the New North Korean MBT’s Remote Weapons Station, Advanced Infrared Camera, advanced composite armor, and main sights. It is highly unlikely that North Korea was able to develop and build these systems on its own. This leaves only two possible options: either these systems were acquired from abroad, most likely from China, which does seem improbable nonetheless, or that they are simple fakes meant to deceive its enemies.
The Lying Tiger
As in most nationalist-communist countries, propaganda plays a very important role in the ongoing functioning and perpetuation of the North Korean regime. It is spearheaded by the cult of personality for the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and for his forefathers, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and of Korean exceptionalism. North Korean propaganda makes full use of the full censorship of information from the outside to paint all the rest of the world as a barbaric and monstrous place, from which the North Koreans are sheltered by the ruling Kim family and the North Korean state.
While North Korean propaganda plays an important role in perpetuating the North Korean regime internally through the vilification of the rest of the world, constant lying about the achievements of North Korea, and some outright fantastic claims (such that North Korea is the second happiest country in the world), its annual military parades are becoming more and more targeted to the outside, projecting North Korea’s power and dangerousness to its enemies.
These military parades have become a nearly yearly occurrence under the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Furthermore, they are broadcast live through the Korean Central Television, one of the state-owned broadcasters in North Korea. Furthermore, the television channel is broadcast for free outside North Korea’s borders. This is how the world found out so quickly about the new North Korean MBT presented in the 2020 parade.
However, this has allowed the military parades to become more than just an internal show of strength and military power. They are now also a way for North Korea to publicly broadcast its capabilities and intimidate any potential enemies.
What must be remembered at all times is that a military parade is not an accurate representation of the military power of a country nor of the capabilities of the vehicles presented. It is a show meant to present the army, its units, and its equipment in the best and most impressive light. The equipment presented does not have to be in use, fully developed, or even real to appear on a parade.
North Korea has a long history of being accused of presenting fake weapons on its parades. In 2012, a team of German military experts claimed that the North Korean KN-08 ICBMs presented at a parade in Pyongyang were just mock-ups. They also mentioned that the Musudan and Nodong missiles presented in a 2010 parade were just mock-ups and not the real thing.
Similar accusations emerged in 2017 from former military intelligence officer Michael Pregend, who claimed the North Korean equipment presented during a parade that year was unfit for combat, highlighting the AK-47 rifles with attached grenade launchers.
However, the fact of the matter is that it can not be proven either way. There is no way for actual military researchers to get access to North Korean technology and the North Koreans refuse to publicly release any information on their equipment. With parades being the only way to get a look at the newest North Korean military technology, it must be kept in mind that there is no guarantee that the systems shown are operational or fully developed or that they have all the capabilities that are presented. The information that can be gleaned from a parade is superficial, with most details that are crucial to understanding the capabilities of a modern weapon system being either inaccessible or obscured.
As with all new North Korean vehicles, it was immediately assumed that the vehicle was a fake to arouse astonishment and confuse Western analysts and armies. According to some, this is actually a Songun-Ho modified to fit new tracks and a seventh wheel in the running gear, but with a dummy superstructure.
Others claim it really is a vehicle of a new conception, but with the more advanced systems being fakes, either to deceive or to act as stand-ins until the real things are developed, like the remote weapon turret with a grenade launcher, the APS and its radars. In fact, these systems would be a big upgrade for North Korea, which has never showcased anything like this before.
With the entry into service in 2014 of the K2 Black Panther, North Korea also had to present a new vehicle that would be able to cope with the new South Korean MBT.
It could therefore be a mock-up to “scare” their southern brothers and show the world that they can militarily match more developed NATO armies.
The vehicle presented by Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, seems like a very modern and technologically advanced vehicle. If Western analysts are not mistaken, it will be able to effectively confront, in a hypothetical conflict against NATO nations, the most modern Western vehicles.
Its profile is completely different from previous North Korean vehicles, showing that even North Korea, perhaps with the help of the People’s Republic of China, is able to develop and build a modern MBT.
However, it must be considered that, no matter how advanced the vehicle may be, North Korea will never be able to produce enough of them to be a threat to world security. The real threat from North Korea comes from its nuclear weapons and its vast conventional arsenal of artillery and missiles. The new tanks will be used as a deterrent against a possible South Korean attack.
A detail not to be underestimated is that the nine models presented on 10th October 2020 are probably pre-series models and that, in the coming months, production vehicles should be expected if this vehicle is really meant to see service.
Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans – The Armed Forces of North Korea: On the Path of Songun
In 1941, the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) realized that the performance of its modern AB41 armored cars was not able to meet the operational demands of the African Campaign. It was therefore decided to modify the AB41 to better adapt it for use in North Africa. Thus was born the lighter and faster AB42, a single prototype of which was produced in 1942. It was not accepted in service due to the changing war situation at the end of 1942 when the North African Campaign turned to the disadvantage of the Axis forces and a long-range reconnaissance vehicle with the characteristics of the AB42 was no longer necessary.
Development of the project
Between the end of the First World War and 1937, in the Kingdom of Italy, projects for new armored cars were shelved in favor of light tank projects. The Royal Army considered the Lancia 1ZM and the FIAT-Terni-Tripoli produced between 1915 and 1918 still effective until 1937, when it sent 10 Lancia armored cars together with the Corpo Truppe Volontarie (Eng: Corps of Volunteer Troops) to support General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
After the first clashes it was clear that, although the Lancias were still able to provide support to the infantry, its low speed, light armor and, finally, the poor off-road driving characteristics did not allow it to still provide the long-range reconnaissance capabilities that the Royal Italian Army High Command demanded.
The Italian Army and the Italian African Police, the police corps of the African colonies, which employed the FIAT-Terni-Tripoli, issued two separate orders for new vehicles meant for reconnaissance. FIAT and Ansaldo responded by producing two prototypes of an armored car, then called ABM, one for the Army and the other for the Police. After numerous tests and some modifications, the two vehicles were consolidated into one to speed up production. Thus was born the AB40, the first modern Italian armored car armed with two machine guns in the turret, one on the back of the hull, an all-wheel steering system, maximum armor of 17 mm, and a FIAT-SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder 78 hp petrol engine that gave the vehicle a maximum speed of 80 km/h and a range of 400 km.
From the very first tests, it was clear that the primary armament was not powerful enough for its long-range reconnaissance and infantry support tasks. As soon as production began in early 1941, Ansaldo began developing a prototype with a new turret.
In the end, in order to save time and money, a new, slightly larger and more powerful engine, the FIAT-SPA ABM 2, a 6-cylinder 88 hp petrol engine, was mounted on the armored car, along with the same turret as that of the L6/40 light tank, armed with the Cannone da 20/65 Mod. 1935. With the new engine, it could reach a top speed of 80 km/h and had an unchanged range at 400 km.
The new version, called AB41, replaced the AB40s on the assembly lines and, between 1941 and 1945, more than 667 units were produced. 12 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were also converted into AB Ferroviaria for patrolling the Yugoslav railways with various external modifications to adapt them to the rails.
Even the AB41 was not exempt from defects. The problem of the armament was solved, but the chassis had other problems. The steering system was very delicate and forced the crews to constantly overhaul it to keep it operable, especially in a desert environment where dust and sand damaged the gears. In addition, the mechanism that allowed dual steering took up a lot of space inside the crew compartment of the vehicle.
The armor, thick enough to defend the crew from light infantry weapons, was adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle. However, due to the lack of adequate vehicles and the lack of organization of the Italian Army, the AB41 was often used as a breakthrough vehicle.
Obviously, this caused a lot of losses, in fact, these long-range reconnaissance vehicles were an easy target even for the British Boys anti-tank rifles, which could penetrate the armor of the AB series armored cars at a distance of more than 100 m.
When having to attack enemy positions, the crews often advanced with their vehicles facing backward. The rear-facing machine gun could provide increased firepower and the presence of the engine at the rear increased the protection for the crew. However, this made the vehicle more vulnerable, increasing the fire risk.
The vehicle was equipped with dual steering to allow it to retreat quickly from a firefight. The narrow streets of the Italian mountains or those of the villages in the African colonies meant that normal vehicles had to make complicated and time-consuming maneuvers to be able to withdraw. This system, which also became very useful even when the vehicle was in the middle of a minefield, was practically useless in North Africa, where the vast expanses of sand did not hinder any retreat. Another problem encountered was the lack of space for the four-man crew inside the vehicle, also due to the four-wheel steering system. The rear machine gun, inherited from the old Lancia 1ZM (which had the same armament configuration as the AB40) in North Africa was almost never used in its original arrangement, but was often taken out by the crews and hooked up to anti-aircraft supports built by the crews to defend themselves from the raids of the RAF’s aircraft. The weight of 7.52 tonnes in combat order often caused the vehicle to be silted up on the sandy ground, forcing the vehicles to travel on the few dirt roads in the desert. Realizing the necessary modifications to be made to the AB41 in desert environments, the Italian Army looked for an economical and fast solution.
History of the prototype
At the beginning of 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army requested that FIAT and Ansaldo design a new radical modification of the armored car to better adapt it to the service in the North African Theatre.
The Royal Army’s specifications were: removal of the double steering, which had proved to be of little use in the desert, the rear machine gun, and its rear ball bearing. They also required the installation of a more powerful engine to increase the speed of the vehicle on roads and the development of a new turret. Finally, it was required to increase the armor but, at the same time, lighten the vehicle.
As in the previous vehicles, FIAT-SPA was responsible for developing a more powerful engine and removing the dual steering system, while Ansaldo was responsible for developing a new superstructure and a new turret with the same 20 mm cannon as the AB41.
At first, it was attempted to modify the AB41’s superstructure by increasing the hull size, but the weight would have been too high and the Ansaldo technicians preferred to start developing a new superstructure from scratch.
In order to meet the Royal Italian Army’s requests to reduce the weight of the armored car, on the project dated 3rd June 1942, it was decided to slope the armor of the vehicle much more. The space inside the vehicle was redesigned, reducing the crew to three and keeping the ammunition capacity unchanged. The design work was very fast and, after the production of a wooden model of the vehicle, a prototype of the new armored car called Autoblinda Alleggerita Mod. 1942 (Eng. Lightweight Armored Car Mod. 1942) or, more simply, Autoblinda Mod. 1942, abbreviated to AB42, was immediately produced.
The High Command of the Royal Italian Army made an order on 19th July 1942 for between 200 and 300 examples of the new armored car to be produced after the tests at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione Militare (Eng. Centre for Military Motorisation Studies), which were scheduled for late November 1942.
The prototype was ready by 7th November 1942 and it was planned to send it to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione Militare a few weeks later. However, due to the defeat of the Italian forces at El Alamein on 11th November 1942, and the costs associated with modifying the assembly lines, the project was no longer considered a priority by the Italian High Command and the prototype was shelved.
In the following months, Ansaldo recovered the engine and the turret from the prototype, which went to be mounted on the chassis of an AB41, giving birth to the more powerful Autoblinda Mod. 1943 or, more commonly, AB43. After this recovery, the rest of the prototype was probably scrapped because the chassis was now useless. At the date of the Armistice of Cassibile, 8th September 1943, the AB42 prototype was not in any register.
The crew consisted of three, one less than on the AB40 and AB41. The driver was seated in front and had a steering wheel, an episcope, a slit, and a seat with a folding backrest to allow access to the vehicle to other crew members. Behind the driver, in the single-seater turret, was seated the vehicle commander, who also acted as the gunner, and finally, behind him was the loader. Due to the limited space on board, he could not reload the cannon and could only deliver the ammunition to the vehicle commander. In addition to the loader function, the third man in the crew was also the radio operator. The reduction of the crew and the redesign of the interior space increased the space available to the crew, who could thus operate more comfortably inside the vehicle.
Engine and suspensions
FIAT and its subsidiary, SPA, designed the new engine by upgrading the engine of the AB41, the FIAT-SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder petrol water-cooled engine with a displacement of 4,995 cm³. This developed a maximum power of 88 hp at 2,700 rpm and was itself derived from the FIAT-SPA ABM 1 with less displacement and a maximum power of 78 hp, which was mounted on the AB40. The new engine for the AB42 was improved. The displacement remained unchanged at 4,995 cm³, but the maximum power recorded was 108 hp (other sources round this figure to 100 hp or 110 hp, whilst others mention a maximum power of 115 hp) at 2,800 rpm. This significantly increased the speed on roads to about 90 km/h, compared to 80 km/h of the AB41 and 78 km/h of the AB40.
Apart from the removal of the dual-drive system and rear controls, the chassis, also used on the SPA-Viberti AS42 “Sahariana”, was no longer modified by FIAT-SPA. Though few, the modifications lightened the chassis, which nevertheless maintained the 4×4 configuration, the possibility of steering with all four wheels, and independent suspension for each wheel.
There is no clear information about the fuel and other liquids tanks of the vehicle. It is clear that the 57-liters tank in front of the driver was moved and replaced by another larger tank. The 118-liters tank between the floor of the combat compartment and the bottom of the vehicles was not changed. On the AB41, a serious problem was the lack of a bulkhead between the crew compartment and the engine compartment and the presence in front of the engine of the 20-liters reserve tank which often caused violent fires inside the vehicle. It is not clear if a bulkhead was installed on the AB42, but surely the reserve tank was moved.
The armored car had a range of 460 km thanks to the new fuel tank and the lighter total weight. To further increase the range, five jerry cans mounts were added externally on the left side of the prototype of the new armored car, which contained a total of 100 liters of fuel and increased the range to over 500 km.
The enormous fairings for the spare wheels were removed to increase the interior space of the vehicle and, on the right side of the vehicle, a support for only one spare wheel was fixed.
The prototype was fitted with the tires developed by Pirelli specifically for desert terrain, the Pirelli “Libya” type (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm). Obviously, the rims were not modified and the vehicle could have mounted all the tires produced by Pirelli for the 24″ rims also mounted on the other AB series armored cars and the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42.
The Mod. 1941 turret mounted on the L6/40 light tank and on the AB41 was narrow, making loading operations very uncomfortable and did not allow the commander to rotate the panoramic hyposcope 360° due to the limited space inside. Another problem was the height of the armored car, 2.48 m, of which about 50 cm were the turret. Ansaldo designed a new turret, called Mod. 1942, which was lower (35 cm) and wider than the Mod. 1941.
On the sides of the turret, the two air intakes were removed (it is not clear, however, whether a smoke extractor was added). The two slits on the sides remained, as well as the rear hatch used to facilitate the removal of the 20 mm Breda cannon during overhauls. On the roof of the turret was mounted a two-piece hatch, the usual panoramic hyposcope with 360° field of view, a new anti-aircraft support and, finally, a protuberance that contained the top-mounted curved box magazine of the Breda Mod 38 machine gun, allowing the cannon to reach a depression of -9°.
This turret, although lower, had more interior space than the Mod. 1941, making it easier for the commander to load the weapons on board.
In addition to the considerable advantage of the increased interior space, the new turret was also more balanced than Mod. 1941, which in fact needed a rear counterweight. It is interesting to note that, on the mock-up of the Lightened Armored Car Mod. 1942, the air intakes mounted on the sides of the Mod. 1941 turret were also mounted.
Hull and armor
The hull was completely redesigned by increasing the sloping of the armor in order to increase protection. Previously, the slit, the driver’s episcope, and, lower down, an unprotected headlight for night driving were placed on the front armor plate. The front mudguards were slightly modified to a more angular shape. On the two well-inclined sides, just behind the front wheels, there were the same armored doors mounted on the AB40 and 41 armored cars, divided into two parts. The upper part had a central slit for close defense with the use of personal weapons. On the left side, behind the door, there were five jerry cans, two on the upper row and three on the lower row. On the right side, there was the horn and, behind the armored access door, the spare wheel of the armored car and the radio antenna which was mounted at the rear. The antenna could be lowered to horizontal during movement. When raised, it was 3 m high but could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum range of 60 km and 25/35 km when it was 3 m high. The rear of the armored car was sloped and had two large hatches.
The engine compartment was completely redesigned, with two large square inspection hatches with air intakes and the tank cap. On the back, in addition to the large radiator fan grille, two large air intakes were present. On the two rear mudguards, there were two storage boxes. The one on the left was smaller because of the muffler, which was fixed to the mudguard.
The tools were probably transported inside a big box inside the armored car, like on the AB41, except the shovel and the pickaxe. The pickaxe was placed between the jerry cans and the rear fender while the shovel, in the wooden mock-up of the vehicle, was placed transversely on the left side and was probably not mounted on the prototype in order to make room for the jerry can supports.
The radio equipment of the armored car was probably a Magneti Marelli RF3M, already present on the AB40, AB41, and later on the AB43. It consisted of a transmitter, a receiver, two power supplies, and two batteries.
The armor of the vehicle was bolted to an internal structure. This made the vehicle dangerous because, when the armor was hit, the bolts shot away, becoming dangerous for the crew, but it made it easier to replace only one part of the armor in case of damage.
The hull armor was 8.5 mm on the front, sides, and back. The new Mod. 1942 turret had a front armor of 22 mm, while the sides and back were 8.5 mm thick. The roof and floor were 8.5 mm thick, while the engine deck was 6 mm thick.
The main armament was the Breda Mod. 1935 20/65 Breda Cannon, developed as an anti-aircraft gun. Due to the smaller space inside the armored car, it had a rate of fire of about 200 rounds per minute. It had a depression of -9° and an elevation of +18°. This cannon was more than suitable for the roles that Italian armored cars had to play. It was effective, easy to replace, and with excellent anti-tank characteristics. It fired 20 x 138 mm B caliber ammunition, i.e. the same caliber as the German FlaK 38 anti-aircraft guns and the Swiss Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifles.
The ammunition produced in Italy was of different types, but most had been developed for anti-aircraft use and therefore High Explosive (HE) and the Armor Piercing (AP) were used on the AB. The AP Mod. 1935 had a muzzle velocity of 840 m/s which could penetrate 38 mm of armor at 100 m and 30 mm at 500 m. With German production shells, such as the Pz.Gr. 40, with a muzzle velocity of 900 m/s, the gun could penetrate 50 mm of armor plate at 100 m and 40 mm at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of a Mod. 38 caliber 8 x 59 mm RB Breda machine gun with a top-mounted curved 24 rounds magazine. This machine gun was the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 infantry machine gun with a theoretical firing rate of 600 rounds per minute but, due to the reduced space inside the turret, the firing rate dropped to about 350 rounds per minute.
In case of an air attack, the machine gun could be dismounted and used on the anti-aircraft support on the roof of the turret. The machine gun could fire different types of bullets, such as the M.39 AP bullets, with a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s. These weighed 12 grams and could penetrate a 16 mm armor plate at a distance of 100 m. Standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
In total, the vehicle carried, as on the AB41, 57 magazines with 8 rounds for the main cannon, for a total of 456 rounds, probably transported in wooden racks on the sides of the vehicle and at the back. Unfortunately, the amount of 8 mm ammunition transported by the AB42 is unknown, although it can be assumed that they were, as on the AB41 and the subsequent AB43, around 1,992 rounds, i.e. 83 magazines with 24 rounds.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’
In 1942, a prototype of a Camionetta (in Italian, the word “Camionetta” describes a four-wheeled vehicle, with particular characteristics of robustness, capable of traveling over rough terrain, and generally equipped with protective elements) on the hull of the AB42 was presented to the Italian High Command, for a similar task as the AB42. The SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’ was a large vehicle with a central fighting compartment and the same engine as the AB41 at the back. This Camionetta was used for long-range reconnaissance, ambushes and to counter the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
These vehicles could be armed with several weapons, including the Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 automatic cannon, the 47/32 Mod. 1935 anti-tank gun or the Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifle and a maximum of three Breda Mod. 37 or 38 medium machine guns. The vehicle had 9 mm of armor on the front and around the combat compartment, while the engine compartment had only 5 mm of armor. The AS42 had a range of 535 km and could carry up to twenty-four 20-liter jerry cans (20 with petrol and 4 with water), giving it a total maximum range of over 1,200 km. Another difference was the absence of the rear driver position and double steering, which was done using only the front wheels because the vehicle was designed also to participate in skirmishes against other similar vehicles, not only for reconnaissance.
Another version of the vehicle, called AS42 ‘Metropolitana’, used for ‘continental’ soil, differing only by the adoption of two huge boxes of ammunition instead of the rows of ten petrol jerry cans. These vehicles were used in Italy, the Ukrainian steppes, France and Germany.
In total, of the two versions, about 200 vehicles were produced. The sources are not very clear, as production records were destroyed during the war. These vehicles fought in North Africa, Italy and, after 8th September 1943, were captured by German forces and were used by Italian soldiers under German command until the end of the war. After the war, these were produced in small numbers and used by the Italian police until 1954.
Shortly before the Armistice, the last project, called AB43, was proposed by the Ansaldo to the Wehrmacht. This vehicle was based on the normal chassis and superstructure of the AB41, but with the new turret of the AB42 and the more powerful FIAT-SPA ABM 3 engine. The amount of ammunition transported was the same, the maximum speed was increased compared to the AB41, and the range was reduced to about 400 km. It was immediately tested and accepted for service but, due to the Armistice, FIAT and Ansaldo did not have time to build even a single one. In November 1943, after being judged suitable by German technicians, production began for the German Army. About 100 vehicles were produced for the Wehrmacht and used in anti-partisan duties in northern Italy and the Balkans. After the war, some surviving AB43s were employed by the Italian State Police until 1954, and eight vehicles were also used by the Italian Army Railway Engineers in the ‘Ferroviaria’ version.
The AB42 was a version of the AB series armored car developed for use in the North African Campaign, lighter and faster than the AB41. Due to the defeats in Africa and the cost of retooling the assembly lines, it was decided to continue to produce the AB41, which remained the main reconnaissance and infantry support vehicle until 1943 with the Royal Army. Fortunately, some of the systems developed for the AB42 were reused on the AB43, which kept the chassis and superstructure of the AB41 but had the new and more powerful engine and the turret of the Lightened Armored Car Mod. 1942.
5.2 m x 1.93 m x 2.24 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
3, driver, gunner and commander
FIAT-SPA ABM 3, 6-cylinders 110 hp engine
1x 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 1x 8 mm Breda Mod. 38
8.5 mm front, sides and rear
22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear
I mezzi blindo-corazzati Italiani 1923-1943 – Nicola Pignato
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano – Nicola Pignato e Filippo Cappellano
Le autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43 – Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo
La Meccanizzazione dell’ Esercito fino al 1943 – Lucio Ceva e Andrea Cerami
Kingdom of Italy 1940, Armored Car – 24 with Model 40 turrets and 435 with Model 41 turret built
The AB40 armored car was the most innovative reconnaissance vehicle of the Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Italian Army) developed before the Second World War. FIAT and Ansaldo collaborated to respond to two requests for new armored cars: the first was to replace the old Lancia 1ZM, FIAT-Terni-Tripoli and FIAT 611 armored cars in service in the Royal Italian Army; whilst the second, was to replace the Lancia 1ZM in service in the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng: Italian Police in Africa).
Development of the AB40
The High Command of the Royal Italian Army considered armored cars fundamental to its modern warfare doctrine, firstly in the long-range reconnaissance role and, secondly, for infantry support tasks. The Italian Army was one of the first armes to test armored cars, with the FIAT Arsenale in 1912. Later, during World War I, the Italians were positively impressed by the capabilities of the Lancia and FIAT armored cars.
In the mid ’30s, the Royal Italian Army realized that the Lancia 1ZM and FIAT-Terni-Tripoli armored cars produced during the First World War, while still moderately effective in the infantry support role, were by now poorly armed, poorly protected and with substandard off-road driving characteristics.
In 1932, the FIAT 611 was produced. This armored truck was based on the FIAT 611C chassis with a speed of 28 km/h and a range of 180 km, but this low speed and short-range did not impress the High Command and less than 50 were produced. In 1937, ten Lancia 1ZM were sent to assist the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, where it was clear 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 PAI, the police corps in charge of the security of the Italian colonies, still used the old Lancia 1ZM, which were not very suitable for desert use, and also improvised armored cargo trucks to face the anti-colonialist groups in Libya and Ethiopia. In 1935-1936, the PAI tested some light tanks, but they were not appreciated for their short-range, which was considered unsuitable for the required tasks. In 1937, out of their own accord, the command of the PAI requested Italian companies the development of an armored car prototype for long-range reconnaissance.
History of the Prototype
FIAT and Ansaldo collaborated on the project, deciding to combine the two requests and to produce a single vehicle that would meet the needs of the PAI and of the Royal Italian Army. Thus, the AB40 was born. A first wooden model of the armored car was presented to Army officers during their visit to the Ansaldo factory in Genoa on 11 April 1938. The mockup was very similar to the final vehicle, with four-wheel drive, 4 steered wheels with independent suspension, petrol engine, armament composed of three 8 mm machine guns, and 4 crew members.
After the production of the wooden mock-up, two prototypes of the armored car, then called AutoBlindoMitragliatrice, or ABM (Eng: Machine gun Armored Car), were built. There is no precise date for the construction of the first prototype, but available photos are dated 5 May 1939 and the prototype was registered as ‘Autoblinda RE’ (for the Regio Esercito). The configuration of the front armor on this first prototype and on the prototype of the armored car destined for the PAI (initially registered “Polizia Coloniale 0021”) would be the one maintained on the final model. However, the headlights were not yet in the fairings inside the superstructure and the maintenance hatches on the engine hood were without air intakes.
The official presentation of the two armored car prototypes for the colonial police and the army took place on 15 May 1939, on the occasion of the inauguration of the FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin. Then, these were shown for the first time to Benito Mussolini, the Army High Command and the PAI commanders. Mussolini was very impressed by the new vehicle and appreciated its silhouette. Some Italian newspapers of the time wrote that the Duce of Italy defined the vehicle as an “example of Italian elegance”.
The two vehicles differed in some details. The colonial police version was equipped with a large headlamp fixed on the roof of the turret and had a vertical radio antenna fixed on the front right of the superstructure, a siren on the rear part of the hull and an armored plate covering the spare wheels. The version intended for the army, provisionally re-registered as “Test TO.64”, was distinguishable by the inclination of the armor at the front of the superstructure and the fact that the spare wheels were unprotected. Compared to the prototype identified in the photos of 5 May 1939, during the test in May/June 1939, the Royal Army prototype had the air intakes on the engine deck. On both vehicles, all headlights were fitted with armor. It is not clear if the prototype of 5 May 1939 and the one with the “Test TO.64” plate are the same vehicle, but the FIAT archives in Turin do not mention the production of other prototypes.
The first prototype of the version intended for the army registered “Test TO.64”, was sent to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Eng: Centre for Motorisation Studies) in Rome in June 1939 to undergo evaluation tests. The vehicle then participated in the maneuvers of August 1939 in Piedmont. It then received the rear registration plate “RE 3” on a triangular plate.
At the end of the tests, the engineers at the Centre for Motorisation Studies suggested some modifications and improvements, in particular, to simplify the shape of the mudguards and incorporate the front headlights into the front plate of the superstructure to prevent them from restricting visibility on bends. The sides of the front of the superstructure were modified, taking the example of the first version of the prototype to facilitate construction.
Tests on the prototype intended for the PAI, re-registered “Polizia Coloniale 0501”, were conducted in the operating theatre. The vehicle, sent to Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa), modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, disembarked in Massawa in Eritrea on 3 June 1939. From there, it left for a 13,000 km test run before returning to Massawa on 12 September. Despite the difficult weather conditions, the armored car was deemed a success. It was then sent back to Italy accompanied by a favorable report containing some proposed modifications: addition of an anti-aircraft machine gun mount on the turret, replacement of the enormous fixed headlight on the turret with a smaller one which could be maneuvered by the commander, installation of a system that allowed the radio antenna to fold up on the right side of the superstructure and removal of the spare wheel protection. After receiving these improvements, the prototype, called AB 6, was sent to the PAI training centre in Tivoli near Rome. In the summer of 1940, it was re-registered as “Polizia Africa Italiana 0501” and then sent to Libya.
The tests showed that the vehicle had excellent off-road driving characteristics and armor more than adequate for the role for which it was intended. Some modifications for speeding up production and eliminating some defects were made.
However, tests showed that the armament, composed of three medium machine guns, was not suitable for infantry support, but the imminent entry into the war and the need for new vehicles forced production to start anyway, while FIAT and Ansaldo technicians developed a new version. The thickness of the armor proved to be more than adequate to defend the crew from infantry fire and the hull proved to be very versatile and adapted to the requirements. The designers tried to modify the turret to mount a more powerful main armament. On 18 March 1940, the designation was changed and the vehicle received the name AutoBlindo Mod. 1940 or AB40 (Armored Car Mod. 1940).
A last prototype of the AB40 was produced, with the RE 116B registration plate. It can be distinguished from the earlier vehicles by the absence of a headlight on the turret, the elimination of the two rear air intakes on the turret, the adoption of new wheel rims, and the addition of a Notek headlight on the front of the superstructure. On the standard model of the AB40, the anti-aircraft gun mount and the Notek headlight were not mounted, the front fenders were shortened while a second horn was added to the right front fender.
Mass production began in January 1941 and the first 5 AB40 pre-series (registered 117B to 121B) were completed in March of the same year. By July 1941, 17 armored cars had been delivered and another 80 chassis were waiting to be equipped with turrets.
The most important specifications for the Italian designers were the off-road driving characteristics. The vehicle was built starting from the chassis of the TM40 artillery tractor (Medium Tractor Mod. 1940), a vehicle with four enormous wheels used to tow medium artillery pieces, in development since 1938 and which only entered service in 1942.
One of the major issues with previous armored cars was the time needed to disengage from a firefight. In order to withdraw, these old armored cars had to make complex and slow maneuvers that were often not feasible in the narrow streets of African villages. The problem was solved by adding another driving position on the right side of the back of the crew compartment of the new armored car. The steering system was then modified, allowing both the front and rear drivers to steer with all four wheels.
Engine and Suspension
The vehicle was powered by a FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine giving out 78 hp. It was positioned in the rear of the hull, with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment. The engine was designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The AB40 had a speed on roads of 80 km/h, while the range was about 400 km. There were three fuel tanks. The main one, holding 118 liters, was placed between the floor of the crew compartment and the bottom armored plate, the secondary 57-liter tank was placed in front of the driver while the reserve one with 20-liters was mounted under the machine gun at the back. The total was 195 liters.
The vehicle had four-wheel drive and all steering with independent shock absorbers on each wheel, which gave excellent off-road mobility to the armored cars. Also, the spare wheels, placed on the sides of the hull, were left free to rotate to help the vehicle overcome obstacles.
Hull and armor
The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates 9 mm thick. The turret also consisted of 9 mm thick plates on the front, sides, and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires. The bottom had protection of 8 mm while the hull and turret roof received 6 mm plates.
In general, for the tasks the light armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry weapons and shrapnel. The hull of the armored car had an internal structure on which the plates were bolted. At the rear of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided in two parts that could be opened separately. The upper part had a slit to use the crew’s personal weapons for close defense.
On the right, the horn was placed at the front, the pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe was placed on the rear mudguard. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the ‘Ferroviaria’ (Eng: Railway) version, the support in the fairing was modified to allow two wheels to be attached on each side instead of one. Above the engine compartment, there were two air intakes and two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
Not much is known about the radio system of the AB40 pre-series, except that it was not the same system as on the standard AB, as the antenna was mounted on the right side of the vehicle.
On the standard vehicles, the radio system model RF3M produced by Magneti Marelli was placed on the left wall of the superstructure, in the middle. After March 1941, this was installed on all vehicles of the AB series. It consisted of a transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, the power supply was placed, while the batteries were placed in the double bottom of the floor, near the main fuel tank. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one usable by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. On the left was placed the antenna, which rested on a ‘V’ support welded at the back of the superstructure. The mounted antenna could be lowered to be horizontal. When ‘hoisted’ up, it was 3 m high, but could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum range of 60 km. In fact, in order to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna by a few degrees.
On the front of the armored car, the front driver had, apart from the slit and the hyposcope for driving, the steering wheel, the dashboard, and, in front of the steering wheel, the 57-liter fuel tank, and brake fluid tank.
On his left was the gear lever with 6 gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the control lever which, when lowered, allowed the rear driver to take control of the vehicle. On the right, at the top, there was a crank that allowed the raising or lowering of the radio antenna and a box with a spare hyposcope. The driver’s backrest could be lowered to allow him to access his position.
On the two sides, above the wheel fairings, there were two headlights with armored doors that were raised and lowered by the driver with one lever.
Behind the driver’s seat, in the turret, there was the position of the vehicle commander/gunner. There was no turret basket, but there was a support with pedals which fired the machine guns.
On the sides of the hull were the ammunition racks that occupied most of the free space. On the floor, on the right, there was a large container that held machine gun barrels and equipment.
Behind the racks, there was enough space for a couple of small containers for equipment, and one fire extinguisher on the left side.
At the back were the rear driver on the left and the machine gunner on the right. Their seats were foldable and the steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw and was easily removable, to facilitate crew access and exit. Between the two seats were the dashboard, gear lever with four gears, hand brake, and the direction control lever. The intercom panel was between the vision slit and the machine gun ball support. Between the two crew members and the engine compartment, there was not an armored bulkhead, but two tanks. On the right one was a 57-liter fuel tank and, on the right, one for the engine cooling systems with water. The problem of the lack of a bulkhead was never solved and the risk of fire was always very high.
Under the machine gunner, was the vehicle’s power battery and to the right of the machine gun were headphones and the radio microphone.
At the back of the vehicle was the engine compartment, which was not easy to access for maintenance because it had only two access doors. Behind the engine, there was the radiator and the oil tank.
The turret of the AB40 was called Mod. 1940, was developed and produced by Ansaldo and was the same used on the L6/40 prototype, called M6T. The single-seater turret was octagonal, with one hatch on the turret roof for the vehicle commander/gunner. On the sides, the turret had three slots on the sides and one in the rear and two air intakes to avoid the risk of intoxication of the crew, as the vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors. On the roof, there was a periscope of the tank commander next to the hatch, which allowed a view of the battlefield and could rotate 360°.
The armament was composed of three 8 mm caliber Breda Mod. 38 machine guns. These had curved 24 round magazines placed on top. This machine gun was derived from the Breda Mod. 37 medium infantry machine gun. The maximum elevation of the machine guns in the turret was +18° while the depression was -9°. The third machine gun was positioned on the right side of the vehicle, oriented to the back, and placed on a ball mount. The rear machine gun could be dismounted and fitted on an anti-aircraft support, the same as that used on the ‘M’ series tanks, on the roof of the turret. From the photographs, however, it can be seen that only the pre-series armored cars received the anti-aircraft mount.
In total, there were 2,040 rounds of 8 x 59 mm RB Breda ammunition loaded in 85 machine gun magazines stored in wooden racks painted in white. 45 were stored on the right side of the hull and 40 on the left side.
Although hardly ever used, the M.39 AP (Armor Piercing) shells were available for the machine gun. The bullet weighed 12 grams and, with a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s, could penetrate a 16 mm RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) plate at 90° at a distance of 100 m. Standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
This armament was not ideal, especially because the magazines carried only 24 rounds, which did not allow for continued suppressing fire.
The tires used on the AB40 were produced by the Pirelli Factory in Milan, as were almost all the tires on Italian vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rims used on the TM40 transport vehicles and also AB series armored cars.
Three types of tires were used. In the African theatre, “Libia” (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm) tires were used. For use in Europe, such as Italy and the Balkans, “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm) tires were used.
The third type was used on the “Ferroviaria” version, the wheels used were train wheels modified by FIAT to adapt them to the AB40 rim.
PAI AB40 Prototype
The PAI prototype, of which there are several photographs, was different from the standard AB40. The wheel rims were more elaborate. In order to speed up production, these were replaced by a more resistant six-spoke model. The slit for personal weapons on the side door was not installed, in its place there was only a less sophisticated slot used for the same role.
Another obvious detail was the radio antenna that was mounted on the left side. On the AB40 and the later AB40/41 hybrids, the antenna was mounted on the right side. The radio system of the prototype is unknown. The turret had four air intakes but no slots and, as on the prototypes, a fixed headlight was mounted on the roof of the turret. On the right side, near the door, was fixed the jack that on the standard models was transported inside the large box on the right side of the vehicle. The mudguards were longer and larger to protect the wheels from enemy fire. However, often, when driving off-road, the mudguards would hit obstacles and bend. In some cases, the bent part would cut the tire.
The testing of the prototype of the armored car in Africa and the study of a Soviet BA-6 heavy armored car captured intact during the Spanish Civil War, supplied to the Spanish Republican Army by the Soviets, made the Italian High Command understand that the three machine gun armament inherited from the Lancia 1ZM was no longer suitable for the needs of modern warfare. Production was started anyway while a solution was being considered. Ansaldo quickly proposed to install a new turret, called Mod. 1941, developed for the standard version of the L6/40 light tank, on the chassis of the AB40. Due to the weight increase from 6.8 to 7.4 tons, after some time, FIAT-SPA proposed to replace the engine with an enhanced version, the FIAT SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder giving out 88 hp. This version was not immediately tested, but when it was accepted in service, the new version had some problems.
In order to produce the SPA ABM 2 engine, the company had to modify the assembly lines and this took time. For a time, the old SPA ABM 1 engine was still mounted on the chassis of the AB armored cars fitted with the Mod. 1941 turret. This version is sometimes known as the AB40/41 hybrid, although it was never officially called that. The registers of the Ufficio Autonomo Approvvigionamenti Automobilistici Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Army Autonomous Automobile Procurement Office), which lists the vehicles produced with their registration, chassis number and engine number, mention the AB40 version as a vehicle still produced in 1941 and early 1942. According to these registers, the armored cars registered from 116B to 551B would be AB40, i.e. 435 units produced. Those registered from 552B to 784B, i.e. 232 vehicles, would be AB41s. This means that a large number of the AB40s actually had the mod.1941 turret mounted.
The AB40 in action
As soon as the production order was received, FIAT started to build the assembly lines and to produce the new armored cars. 5 pre-series vehicles were finished in March 1941 and were delivered to the Armored Car Training Centre of Pinerolo for crew training. Another unknown number of pre-series vehicles, slightly modified with the addition of a searchlight on the roof of the turret and a littorio beam (symbol of the Italian Fascist Party) on the front of the hull, were sent to the Training Centre of the Italian African Police in Rome.
Polizia dell’Africa Italiana
Due to the entry into the war, the PAI did not receive many ABs, which went to the army instead.
When the African Campaign began on September 13, 1940, the PAI supported the 132ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete” (Eng: 132nd Armored Division) of the Royal Army with motorcyclist companies. In 1941, all the armored cars it owned, 60 AB40 and AB41, were used to equip 5 Armored Car Companies and were sent to Africa.
On the first day of the war, a company with 10 old armored cars crossed the border with Egypt. After a few kilometers, almost all the vehicles were destroyed by friendly fire.
From that moment, all the PAI’s AB40 and AB41 armored cars had the Italian flag painted on the sides and on the front of the superstructure in order to distinguish them even at a distance. When they were not in use, they stayed in barracks in Benghazi and Tripoli.
For the rest of the African Campaign, the ABs of the PAI fought alongside the units of the Royal Army. It is not clear when but, before the Tunisian Campaign, due to the losses suffered, the PAI police officers and the very few survivors were aggregated into the army units. The PAI men and some AB41 armored cars fought in Rome during the days after the Armistice of 8 September 1943.
The Royal Italian Army used AB40s only in Italy and the Balkans. In Italy, the first 5 pre-production units, one of the two prototypes and an unknown number of units were used in the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo ( Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo near Turin. There, in March 1941, the training courses of the crews on the new armored cars began. The first crews of the Royal Army that employed the AB40 and AB41 at the outbreak of the war did not have a specific training for the new vehicles but were trained to fight on the old Lancia 1ZM.
The AB40 was used extensively by the students of the training center, together with the AB41s (probably AB40/41 hybrids), after the Cassibile Armistice of 8 September 1943. Their fate remains uncertain.
In 1942, the Royal Army took from the Armored Car Training Centre 12 armored cars, 8 AB40s and 4 AB41s, which were taken to the FIAT factories in Turin, where they were modified to be used on the railways. These armored cars, nicknamed “Ferroviarie” (Railways), were used to prevent sabotage by Yugoslav partisans on the railway lines of the territories occupied by Italians in the Balkans. The 12 armored cars were replaced by AB41s in the following months.
Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana
After the Armistice, the Germans occupied the factories of FIAT and Ansaldo and also captured or requisitioned all the Italian vehicles used by the Royal Army. The confused days after the Armistice brought the Italian soldiers, left without orders and officers, to take decisions autonomously in all the occupied territories and also in Italy. Some decided to fight against the Germans, joining the Allies, others, loyal to Mussolini, continued to fight together with the Germans, and others deserted, returning to their homes or joining the partisan brigades. This led the Germans to be very suspicious of Italian soldiers. The Germans also needed to replace the vehicles they lost in battle with anything available.
On 23 September 1943, Benito Mussolini founded the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng: Italian Social Republic) in the Italian territories still under fascist and German control. Many Italian soldiers still loyal to Mussolini and fascist ideology joined the RSI and joined his new army, the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (Eng: National Republican Army). The German Army provided the new Italian Army with a few tanks and armored cars that formed the armored nucleus of the ENR. The divisions of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana or GNR (Eng: National Republican Guard), the fascist military police, however, were forced to rearm themselves without any assistance by building improvised or rudimentary armored cars, such as the Lancia 3Ro Blindato of the XXXVI° Black Brigade “Natale Piacentini” or by searching in warehouses and stores for any vehicle still able to fight.
The Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” (Eng: Armored Group “Lioness”), operating in Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, managed to take possession of dozens of transport vehicles, which were used in anti-partisan actions and were armored, such as the SPA-Viberti AB43 armored cars. The ‘Leonessa’ also managed to employ 18 AB41 armored cars found in northern Italy. According to an unconfirmed source, some of these armored cars were recovered from the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo di Pinerolo. However, it is not clear why the use of AB40 is not mentioned in the ranks of the “Leonessa”. Two hypotheses have been made, the first is that the AB40s were disassembled and used as spare parts because, by then, the armament was obsolete. The second hypothesis instead states that the turrets of the armored cars were replaced with Mod. 1941 turrets supplied by the SPA factory in Turin.
The AB40 was a revolutionary armored car for the Royal Italian Army, with some very modern features, such as double driving positions and independent suspension for each wheel. However, its armament was insufficient for the infantry support role. This deficit led FIAT and Ansaldo technicians to develop a new version, the better-armed AB41 and other vehicles on the same chassis. The few examples produced were mostly used to train the crews of Italian armored cars.
5.20 m x 1.92 m x 2.29 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
FIAT-SPA ABM 1, 6-cylinders 78 hp engine
3x Breda 38 by 8x59mm machine guns with 2040 round
17 mm front, sides and rear
22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear
3 prototype, 5 pre-series and 24 vehicles finished and delivered to the Royal Army. 435 AB41 armed with the SPA ABM 1 engine
I mezzi blindo-corazzati italiani 1923-1943. Nicola Pignato.
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano. Nicola Pignato e Filippo Cappellano.
Le autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43. Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo.
Kingdom Of Italy (1943)
Self-propelled anti-aircraft gun – 1 or 2 built prototypes
During the Second World War, the Regio Esercito (Italian Royal Army) lacked an anti-aircraft vehicle that could protect its armored formations from enemy air attack. Sometime in 1942-43, the Italian Royal Army began development of an anti-aircraft vehicle based on the new M15/42 tank chassis. As its development began too late, only one or two prototypes would be built. Sadly, due to insufficient sources being available, very little is known about this vehicle.
During the fighting in North Africa, the Italian ground armored forces were often subject to Allied fighter and fighter-bomber attacks. The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) lacked modern fighter designs and was thus unable to provide sufficient aerial protection. One solution was to mount anti-aircraft guns on a mobile chassis. There were some attempts to mount 20 mm anti-aircraft guns on available trucks. These proved to be insufficient due to many factors like poor mobility, weak firepower, and no armor protection for the men or vehicle.
Due to the ineffectiveness of these truck-based vehicles, the Royal Army moved on to the idea of using a tank chassis for this role. With only limited time and resources, it was decided against developing a brand new chassis and to instead use the available tank production capacities. As the M15/42 was entering production during 1942, it was decided to use it for this modification. During early 1943, one prototype was completed and presented to the Royal Army. The only visible change in contrast to the original M15/42 was the introduction of a new polygonal turret equipped with four 20 mm Scotti cannons. According to D.Nešić, (Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Italija), this vehicle was built using the command version of the M15/42, which lacked the hull machine guns and had an extra radio set.
Due to the increasing obsolescence of the M13 Series (including the M14/41) and the slow development of the heavy tank program, the Italians were forced to introduce the M15/42 medium tank as a stopgap solution. The M15/42 was mostly based on the M14/41 tank, but with a number of improvements. Most noticeable was the introduction of a new 190 hp FIAT-SPA 15TB (‘B’ stands for Benzina – Petrol) engine and a new transmission. With the installation of the new engine, the tank hull was lengthened compared to the M.13 Series tanks by some 15 cm. The standard 8 mm Breda anti-aircraft machine gun was removed and the access hatch door was repositioned to the right side. The removal of the anti-aircraft machine gun on the turret may appear odd given Allied air superiority of the time and the threat it posed, but a single 8 mm Breda machine gun was almost completely ineffective in the anti-aircraft role and was seen as a waste of resources and weight. Most noticeable for the M15/42 was the installation of a new 4.7 cm main gun with a longer barrel, producing a more effective anti-tank gun, albeit still inadequate by this point in the war. The armor protection on the tank was also slightly increased, but this too was still inadequate to keep up with newer and better Allied tanks.
The Royal Army placed an order for some 280 M15/42s in October 1942. However, due to attempts to produce more Semovente self-propelled vehicles, the order for 280 was reduced to 220 tanks. These were built by June 1943 and an additional 28 tanks would be built under German command after the September Armistice was signed with the Allies. The M15/42 had introduced some improvements, but these tanks were generally outdated by the time they were put into service. Nevertheless, they would remain in service up to the end of the war, mostly with their new Germans owners (known as PzKpfw M15/42 738(i)), although some would also serve with Italian Fascist troops of the Italian Social Republic (RSI – Republicca Sociale Italiana).
Just like the earlier M13 Series tanks, a command tank variant (carro centro radio/ radio tank) of the M15/42 was developed. On these vehicles, the turret was removed and some were rearmed with 13 mm heavy machine guns instead of the two 8 mm machine guns and extra radio equipment was added. By the time of the September Armistice, some 45 M15/42 CC vehicles were built. An additional 40 vehicles were built after September 1943 under German control. There were also a few different Semoventi vehicles based on the M15/42 built.
Various sources give many different names for this vehicle, including: Semovente (self-propelled) M15/42 Antiaereo (anti-aircraft), Carro Armato Medio Antiaereo (anti-aircraft medium tank), M15/42 Antiaereo or Contraereo (M15/42 anti-aircraft), M15/42 “Quadruplo” (M15/42 Quad), Semovente Antiaereo M42 (self-propelled anti-aircraft gun M42), Semovente da 20/70 quadruplo, among others.
In Italian service
Not much is known of this vehicle’s development history. What is known is that the first prototype was completed sometime in early 1943. It was presented to the Italian Army at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Study Center of Motorization). If the Army showed any interest in it is unfortunately not known. In March 1943, the prototype was stationed in Cecchignola (Rome) and given to the VIII Reggimento Autieri (8th Driver Regiment), possibly to be used for evaluation.
Some sources (mostly on the internet) suggest that this vehicle was shipped to Tunisia for field combat tests and that it would remain there until the Axis surrender in May 1943. This seems highly unlikely, mainly due to the lack of evidence and photographs of it in the theater. If it was captured, its unusual construction would have certainly sparked some interest among the Allies and they would have certainly taken photographs or mentioned it in their documents. The more realistic fate of the M15 anti-aircraft vehicle (or vehicles) was that, after the Italian capitulation in September 1943, it was seized by the German forces.
Being an obscure vehicle and rarely mentioned in sources in more detail, the precise technical characteristics are hard to come by. What is known with certainty is that it was based on a slightly modified M15/42 tank or the command version of the same vehicle. Most parts of the tank, including the suspension and hull, were unchanged. The only visible change to the hull was the removal of the two machine guns which were replaced with an armored cover. If the armor thickness was changed there is no information about it, but it seems likely that it remained the same in order to save development time.
The most obvious change was the introduction of a new turret equipped with four 2 cm Scotti cannons. The new turret had a polygonal shape and was made using a frame on which (unusual for the Italians) armor plates were welded.
For the main weapon, four Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/70 autocannons (generally known as Scotti, after their designer, Alfredo Scotti) were chosen. This type of gun was intended to be cheaper and easier to build compared to the Breda Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 modello 35. But, despite its simplicity, a higher rate of fire, and being lighter, its performance was not much better than its counterpart. In all, some 300 were built either as static emplacements or with a twin-wheel carriage. The Germans also managed to capture a number of these guns, where they were known as 2-cm Scotti(i). The Scotti had a 250 rpm rate of fire with a maximum range of 2,100-3,500 m (depending on the source). It had a barrel length of 1,540 mm and the muzzle velocity was 830 m/s. Elevation was -10° to +85°, with a rotation of 360°.
The Scotti anti-aircraft guns that survived the war would be used by the new Italian Army for some years on. These would mostly be used to equip navy ships. An unknown number of quadruple-gun systems would also be built after the war, with some even supplied to Israel in the late forties.
Prior to their installation into the new turret, the four Scotti cannons had to be modified and a specially designed mount had to be developed. The most obvious change to the cannons was the feed mechanism. This type of cannon had two feed options, by a clip or by drum magazine. Both of these were unusable due to the cramped space of the turret, and for this reason, a new type of fed system had to be adopted. The manufacturer of this cannon, Isotta Fraschini, developed a new ammunition supply system that consisted of a metal belt feed with disintegrating mesh which allegedly also increased the rate of fire up to 600 rpm per gun. The elevation of the new turret installation was -5° to + 90° with a full traverse of 360°. How the main armament was mounted inside the turret is, due to a lack of information, unknown. The armor thickness is also unknown, but would most likely have been very light, in order to provide protection at least from small-caliber weapons while keeping weight down.
Interestingly, in some photographs, the front part of the new turret is lacking armor plating. The reason why is not known. It could potentially be that it was not yet completed or due to some problems with the main weapon mount that required more working space.
According to the few sources available, the crew consisted of three crew members. While they are not listed, an educated guess can be made. At least one crew member had to be the driver. The second crew member would be the commander who was probably also the gunner and his position would likely be behind the main gun installation. The last crew member was probably a radio operator (if a radio was ever to be used on this vehicle) or a loader.
The mobility of the M15/42 Antiaereo was probably similar to that of the original tank configuration. The new turret and weapons would have probably been similar to the weight of the previous turret and gun, giving a total weight in the vicinity of 15.5 tonnes. The speed and the operational range were probably also similar. Some of the dimensions, such as the length of 5.06 m and width of 2.28 m, were almost assuredly the same but the vehicle may have been somewhat higher than 2.4 m.
How many were built
The precise number of built vehicles is unfortunately not known. What is known with certainty is that at least one prototype was built and tested. According to the few available photos, there is a possibility that at least one more vehicle was built. This vehicle has German markings, camouflage paint, and lacks the frontal turret armor. Of course, there is the possibility that this was simply the first vehicle just slightly modified by the Germans. Author D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Italija) quotes that a few were built but does not mention how many precisely.
In German hands
The Germans managed to capture the M15/42 Antiaereo prototype during their occupation of Rome. Interestingly, in one photo, this vehicle is lacking some front turret armor plates, despite having pictures of it with them. This may be additional proof that at least another vehicle was built beside the one prototype.
What the Germans did with it is not completely clear. According to a few sources, it appears that the prototype was transported back to Germany for evaluation. It also allegedly saw service against the Soviet Forces in 1945 in the Teupitz area (Germany). At that time, it was supposedly attached to the 5th SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps (Mountain Armored Corps).
The Germans did use large quantities of Italian captured weapons and thus had available spare parts and ammunition, making it plausible that this information has some merit. By 1945, the Germans were trying desperately to stop the Soviet offensive, and in their desperation they used any available weapons that they had on hand, perhaps including the M15/42 Antiaereo prototype. Of course, on the other hand, due to insufficient sources, the information about its use by the Germans could easily be incorrect or even fake.
After seizing a number of Italian production factories, the Germans produced small numbers of some Italian equipment, mostly self-propelled Semovente vehicles. Why the Germans did not bother producing more Antiaereo, even as they were themselves in great need of such a vehicle, is unknown.
It is relatively common to find claims that, after the M15/42 Antiaereo, was seized by the Germans, it influenced their development of anti-aircraft tanks like the Flakpanzer IV (2cm Flak 38 Vierling) ‘Wirbelwind’. Does this assumption have any merit? First, it must be taken into account the fact that this vehicle was completed in the first months of 1943 and captured by the Germans later that year, after the Italian capitulation. This meant that it would have been shipped out to Germany after September 1943.
The issue is that the German had already begun (in early 1943) to develop their own anti-aircraft tank based on the Panzer IV. This vehicle had a completely different design, simply installing the 2 cm Flakvierling anti-aircraft system on a Panzer IV chassis, protected by large metal plates that could be folded down during combat situations. As the 2 cm caliber was deemed weak by the Germans, it would be later replaced with the 3.7 cm gun and put into production as Flakpanzer IV (3.7cm Flak 43) “Möbelwagen”. Also, even earlier in the war, the Germans had tested the anti-aircraft tank concept on the Panzer I and later Panzer 38(t)chassis.
The Semovente M15/42 Antiaereo was certainly an interesting vehicle that was developed for the Italian army. It also represents a modern concept of an anti-aircraft vehicle based on the tank chassis. The installation of its main weapon in a fully enclosed turret had important benefits, as it would provide sufficient protection for the crew. In practice, this was not easy to achieve and often came at the cost of reduced visibility, and not many anti-aircraft vehicles were built during the war that used an enclosed turret.
N.Pignato (1978) Le armi della fanteria italiana nella seconda guerra mondiale, RIVALBA,
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