Republic of Egypt (1955 – 1967)
Medium tank – 50 built
The M4A4 FL-10 was one of the last major modifications of the US Medium Tank, M4 in the mid-1950s. This modification was carried out by France for Egypt, which needed a more powerful vehicle to counter the fierce Israeli armored forces, which, although inferior in numbers, were superior in firepower and training.
The new vehicle, developed on the basis of a French project of a few years earlier, the M4A1 FL-10, entered into service in 1955 and remained operational at least until 1967 participating in two of the most important wars of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Six Day War of 1967.
The Sherman in the French Army
During the Second World War, the Free French Army used a total of 657 vehicles based on the US M4 Medium Tank chassis. In addition, other vehicles on the Sherman hull were delivered by the US Army to the Free French Army to replace losses during the war.
After the war, another 1,254 vehicles based on Sherman hulls were delivered to the new Armée de Terre (Eng: Land Army) and were used by many French armored units until the very early 1950s.
To simplify the logistic line, the Armée de Terre commissioned the Atelier de Construction de Rueil (ARL) to modify all Sherman models with the Continental Motors R-975C4 engine, originally mounted on the M4 and M4A1, creating the so-called Char M4A3T and M4A4T Moteur Continental, where ‘T’ means ‘Transformé’ (Eng: Transformed).
In early 1951, the modern AMX-13-75 light tank was accepted into French service and the Sherman was gradually removed from service in favor of more modern vehicles. The Armée de Terre removed the Sherman from service in 1955, while the Gendarmerie did not remove the last Sherman until 1965.
Attempt to Upgrade
By 1955, there were over a thousand French Shermans waiting to be sold to other nations or dismantled. That year, the Compagnie Générale de Construction de Batignolles-Châtillon created a project to modify the French Shermans to make them competitive against more modern Soviet vehicles. This would also mean they would be easier to sell on the international market as more and more third-world nations were buying second or third-hand vehicles.
The Prototype: the M4A1 FL-10
The easiest way to improve the ability of the Sherman to deal with more modern enemy vehicles was to replace the main armament, just as was being done in France at the time with the M-50 prototypes for the Israelis.
But modifying the Sherman’s turret was very expensive. Thus, it was preferred to directly install the FL-10 Type A early production turret of the AMX-13-75 on the vehicle. This was lighter and less armored than the standard Sherman turret. The main armament would be the same as on the AMX-13-75 and the M-50, the CN-75-50 cannon.
The prototype was built based on an M4A1(75)W ‘Large Hatch’ hull, but Compagnie Générale de Construction de Batignolles-Châtillon planned to produce this Sherman variant on any type of Sherman hull, from the M4 to the M4A4, depending on the buyer’s requirements.
The Armée de Terre was not impressed with the new modified Sherman prototype. The vehicle’s characteristics, apart from the armament, remained roughly equal, if not inferior to, a standard Sherman (76)W.
The problem with the upgrade project was the attempt to combine the characteristics of the modern AMX-13-75 light tank with the older M4 Sherman medium tank. The French tank was a small vehicle with very thin armor, meant to be as light and fast as possible, reaching 60 km/h on roads. It had a very low silhouette to facilitate camouflage and to make it a less visible target. The armament was however among the most powerful in service, able to penetrate the frontal armor of the hull of a T-54 at a distance of almost 1,000 meters.
The M4A1 FL-10 had a maximum speed of only 38 km/h and was a very tall tank, 3 meters exactly, thus losing two characteristics of the AMX-13-75, speed and concealability. Another problem was that the turret was too light and poorly armored, which would have affected the ballistic protection of the vehicle, resulting in it being unable to resist even smaller caliber weapons, such as 20 mm Armor Piercing (AP) rounds.
The project was therefore abandoned by the Armée de Terre and was proposed to the Israelis as an economic alternative to their project of arming the Sherman with CN-75-50 cannons.
It is unclear whether or not Israeli technicians participated in any tests on the M4A1 FL-10, but it is certain that they considered the automatic loader as a negative part of the vehicle. In fact, for many years, the Israeli doctrine preferred a human loader to an automatic loader.
After the clear Israeli refusal, France received a request for help from another Middle East nation that had to update its Shermans.
The Egyptian Shermans
The Kingdom of Egypt attempted to get its first shipment of Shermans from Great Britain in January 1947. The British tried to deliver 40 surplus Shermans of the US Army that were crammed in a warehouse in Ismailia, but without success.
During the Israeli War of Independence, in August 1948, Egypt signed a contract with Italy for the purchase of 40-50 ex-British M4A2 and M4A4 Shermans that remained on Italian soil after the Second World War and were awaiting scrapping.
Italy, which had secretly sided with the newborn State of Israel by supplying tanks, weapons, and ammunition, tried to refuse but, because of a British intervention, had to accept. However, they slowed down the delivery as much as possible, so the Shermans arrived in Egypt in 1949, when the war was over.
By 1952, Egypt took possession of another 50-70 Sherman from British stocks in Egypt and Europe. Most were M4A4s, although some M4A2s and several specialized variants, such as Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARVs), dozers and self-propelled guns, were also acquired.
After the July 23rd, 1952 coup, which removed King Farouk, the Egyptian Army had a total of 90 Shermans assigned to three armored battalions plus a number, estimated at less than 20, used for training, in addition to self-propelled guns and ARVs.
The Egyptian interest
In 1955, the Egyptian Army was looking for modern equipment with which to re-equip itself after the bitter defeat suffered during the Israeli War of Independence. Not siding ideologically with either the Warsaw Pact or NATO countries, Egypt was able to purchase military surplus from various nations on either side.
By 1955, it had bought and received 200 Self Propelled 17pdr, Valentine, Mk I, ‘Archers’ from the United Kingdom, the first shipments of SD-100s (Czechoslovak license copy of SU-100) from Czechoslovakia, of which Egypt would buy a total of 148 by the end of the 1950s, and also the first batches of T-34-85s that Egypt bought from Czechoslovakia, receiving a total of 820 tanks until the early 1960s.
In 1955, however, Egypt had few medium tanks (only 230 T-34-85s were in service in 1956, the rest would arrive after the Suez Crisis) and needed large quantities of material to outclass the Israeli armored forces in a hypothetical clash with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops.
Even if they were already working with Israeli technicians on the M-50 prototypes, the French had no problem working with Egypt in order to improve on the old Sherman. After contacting the French, the Egyptians asked them to re-engineer their M4A4 fleet.
The French proposed to upgun the Egyptian Shermans, mounting the FL-10 turrets to cut the cost of turret modifications. All Egyptian M4A4s were re-engined and, over the course of several years, some fifty M4A4s were rearmed with the FL-10 turret.
Hull and Armor
The Egyptian Shermans were all M4A2(75)D and M4A4(75)D tanks, all equipped with dry storage racks and small hatches. From photographic evidence, all 50 vehicles that were converted with the FL10 turret were M4A4(75)D variants. The frontal armor was 51 mm thick sloped at 56°, 38 mm at 0° on the sides and 38 mm at 20° at the rear. The lower armor was 25 mm thick, while the roof armor was 19 mm.
Welded to the sides of the vehicles, near the side ammunition racks, were armor plates 25 mm thick armor plates one on the left side and two on the right side, giving a total thickness of 63 mm.
Some M4A4 FL10s received three plates per side to increase protection. This modification was probably done by the Egyptians after the French modifications of 1955.
The gasoline Chrysler A57 Multibank 30-cylinder, 20.5-liter engines of the M4A4s, delivering 370 hp at 2,400 rpm, were by this point very worn out due to being in service for over 10 years, the poor maintenance given by inexperienced Egyptian technicians, and the abrasive Egyptian sand. The French were asked to replace them with engines that had easier maintenance and that were diesel.
It was decided to power all the Egyptian M4A4s with the diesel engines of the M4A2 in order to offer a logistical commonality between the two vehicles.
The engine of the M4A2 was the General Motors GM 6046, which actually consisted of two 6-cylinder engines coupled together, with a total capacity of 14 liters, delivering a gross power of 410 hp at 2,900 rpm.
The exhaust system was removed and replaced with two M4A2-style mufflers. The old ‘C’ shaped deflector mounted on the rear armor plate of the hull, which could be raised and lowered to deflect the exhaust gases upwards, thus avoiding raising too much sand during desert travel, was not removed.
The amount of transportable fuel remains unknown. A standard M4A2 had tanks with a capacity of 560 liters of diesel for a range of 190 km. It can be assumed that, thanks to the increased size of the engine compartment of the M4A4, which was 30 cm longer, the capacity of the fuel tanks was larger, along with the range of the new vehicle.
The late-production oscillating FL-10 Type A turret type mounted on the Egyptian Shermans needed a modified hull turret ring to be mounted. The turret ring of the AMX-13 was smaller in diameter than that of the Sherman and it was necessary to bolt a circular steel plate to the roof of the hull which decreased the diameter to 180 cm, the diameter of the new turret.
Like all oscillating turrets, the FL-10 had an upper part that could move vertically and a lower collar that rotated the entire structure through 360°.
The lower part was mounted on the Sherman chassis and was equipped with the turret basket with 75 mm ammunition, the radio equipment and the turret rotation mechanism.
The upper part was equipped with the commander’s and gunner’s seats, the main gun, the coaxial machine gun, various optical systems and the automatic loader. The advantage of such a turret is that, at any elevation, the gun, the breech and the automatic loader will always be on the same axis, making the functioning of an automatic loader far simpler.
The front part of the turret, where the two parts overlapped, was screened by a rubber cover. Two of the negative aspects of the oscillating turret design are the risk that water could easily pass between the two parts and the impossibility of sealing the vehicle for deep fording or to defend from toxic, chemical and bacteriological gases. Small, but not impossible, was also the risk that small arms fire could block the elevation of the gun on the battlefield.
The commander’s cupola was equipped with eight periscopes, while the gunner had two periscopes in addition to the gun optics and a hatch above him.
The rear bustle contained the automatic magazine aligned with the axis of the cannon breech. The automatic magazine consisted of two 6-round cylindrical revolvers that could be loaded from the outside through two upper hatches or, less conveniently, from the inside.
The cannon mounted in the FL10 turret was the CN-75-50 (CaNon 75 mm Modèle 1950), also known as the 75-SA 50 (75 mm Semi Automatique Modèle 1950) L.61.5, with a 4.612 m long barrel. This powerful French high-speed gun was curiously derived from the 7.5 cm Kampfwagenkanone 42 L.70 of the Panzerkampfwagen V ‘Panther’.
Developed by the Atelier de Bourges in 1950, it was the best 75 mm anti-tank gun of the time and managed, albeit by a small margin, to beat the US M1 76 mm cannon, the British 17-pdr and the Soviet Zis-S-53 85 mm guns. The elevation was from -6° to +13° with the oscillating turret. The automatic magazine allowed a rate of fire of 12 rpm or one round every 5 seconds, twice the rate of fire of an Israeli M-50. The high rate of fire could be sustained for the 12 rounds stored in the two autoloader drums in the turret’s rear.
The secondary armament consisted of a Browning M1919A4 30.06 caliber machine gun in the hull, in a spherical mount used by the navigator, and another coaxial machine gun.
The model of the coaxial machine gun is a matter of debate. Some sources mention the use of the French MAC Modèle 31C (Char) caliber 7.5 x 54 mm MAS machine guns produced by the Manufacture d’armes de Châtellerault (MAC), while other sources instead state that the coaxial weapon was a Browning M1919A4 mounted to standardize the ammunition carried on the tank.
From photographic evidence, it can clearly be seen that the slot for the coaxial machine gun was slightly modified, thus suggesting that the coaxial machine gun was not the standard MAC Mle 31C.
Externally mounted were four Modèle 1951 1ère Version 80 mm smoke launchers that could be activated from inside the tank.
The CN-75-50 fired 75 x 597R mm projectiles with 117 mm rimfire.
A total of 60 rounds of 75 mm ammunition were carried. 20 in two 10-round racks on the bottom of the hull, 10 rounds on the rack on the right side of the hull, 9 on the left side, 9 ready-to-use in the turret and, finally, 12 in the two rotating drums on the back of the turret.
Five thousand rounds were carried for the Browning M1919A4 machine guns. At least 4 smoke grenades were carried in a rack inside the vehicle.
The crew consisted of 4 soldiers: driver and navigator, respectively on the left and right of the transmission, while the commander and gunner sat on the left and right in the turret. Thanks to the short stature of the Egyptian soldiers, the tankers did not have many comfort problems inside the turret designed for crews with an average height of 173 cm.
Due to the poor training of the crews in the use of the tank, during the few short actions of the M4A4 FL10s, the results were very poor if not disastrous, leading to the defeat of defending units against unmodified M4 Shermans at short range.
Due to the poor maintenance of the automatic loader and the poor Egyptian training, the rate of fire decreased disastrously, and the Egyptians were not able to fully exploit the potential of this system.
The first M4A4 FL-10s were delivered to the Egyptian Army in late 1955, almost coinciding with the arrival of the first M-50 Degem Aleph (Eng: Model A) to the Israeli Defence Force.
12 M4A4 FL-10s were able to participate in the Suez Crisis, a war fought between 29th October 1956 and 7th November 1956. The conflict broke out after Egypt declared the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Whilst the canal was the property of the Egyptian government, European shareholders, mostly British and French, owned the concessionary company in charge of administering the canal and earning a considerable amount from the canal’s profit.
France, Israel, and the United Kingdom secretly planned actions against Egypt. Israel would invade Egypt while France and the United Kingdom would intervene to cease hostilities by creating a demilitarized perimeter on both sides of the Suez Canal taking control of the canal zone and the economies derived from it.
On the day of the beginning of hostilities, Egypt had at its disposal in Sinai three companies of Shermans assigned to the 3rd Armored Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division, with a total of 40 M4A2s and M4A4s with diesel engines, 12 M4A4 FL-10s, 3 M32B1 ARVs and 3 Shermans with dozer blades. One of the companies of 16 tanks was positioned in Rafah, along the border between the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Israel, while the other two remained in El Arish.
At dawn of October 30th, 1956, the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade, under the command of Uri Ben-Ari, began the attack, starting Operation Kadesh.
The city of Rafah was defended by 17 Archer tank destroyers, 16 Shermans and various artillery units, including British 25-pdr, 105 mm guns and mortars as well as minor infantry units. Around the city, the Egyptians had erected 17 outposts, well defended by minefields, tank destroyers and artillery.
The Israeli 77th Division had the 27th Armored Brigade equipped with the first batch of 25 M-50 Degem Aleph (Eng: Model A). This Brigade also had two companies equipped with M-1 ‘Super’ tanks, one half-tracked company equipped with M3 half-tracks, a Motor Infantry Battalion and a light reconnaissance battalion with AMX-13-75 tanks. Also present was the Golani Brigade and various engineering, medical and other units.
On the night of October 31st, members of the Golani Brigade, supported by the half-tracks of the 27th Brigade, attacked the Rafah crossing from the south, capturing it by morning. This allowed the tanks to pass through the North Road and enter Sinai, heading towards El Arish.
The next day, the 27th Armored Brigade succeeded in overcoming the minefields in Sinai under heavy Egyptian barrage and established a perimeter along the eastern outskirts of El Arish. On November 2nd, the 77th Division entered El Arish, occupied it and took possession of all the military depots. The division advanced further, arriving only 20 km away from the Suez Canal.
During the advance towards El Arish, an M4A4 FL-10 was knocked out of action, remaining in place, as a witness of the battle, for many years. Egypt recovered it in the early 2000s, restored it and today it is exhibited at the Museum of the Battle of El Alamein. Another M4A4 FL-10 was knocked out or abandoned while retreating from El Arish towards the Suez Canal.
Vehicles Captured by the Israelis
There is a lot of photographic evidence showing the capture of some M4A4 FL-10s by the Israelis, along with about fifty T-34-85s, all the M4A2 and M4A4 Shermans at El Arish and Rafah not destroyed and other armored vehicles, logistics vehicles, artillery pieces and small arms. Some sources claim that as many as 8 out of 12 M4A4 FL-10s were captured intact.
Israel had already dealt with AMX-13-75s and their turrets and was not satisfied with them. The M4A4 FL-10s were judged inferior to the M-50 Degem Aleph and had a very interesting fate.
The Israeli M-50s were based on all kinds of hulls, from the M4 to the M4A4, remotorized with Continental Motors R-975C4 radial engines and turrets modified to accommodate the CN-75-50.
All captured Egyptian M4A2 and M4A4 Shermans were converted to this standard, even some of the 8 M4A4 FL-10s. These received a suitably modified standard Sherman turret in place of the FL-10.
These M-50 Degem Alephs were almost identical to other M-50s and are recognizable only by the three 25 mm plates welded to the sides of the tanks. Their use in service is unknown, although at least one served in a tank school in Israel.
They were probably later upgraded to the Degem Bet (Eng: Model B) standard in the early 1960s, receiving a new Cummins VT-8-460 Turbodiesel delivering 460 hp engine and HVSS suspension, remaining in service with the IDF until 1975.
Six Day War
After the military defeat during the Suez Crisis, Egypt stopped buying NATO vehicles and started to buy Soviet equipment, ordering 350 T-54s and 150 T-55s between 1960 and 1963.
At the outbreak of the Six Day War, 4 mixed companies of Shermans were deployed in the Sinai and Gaza Strip by the Egyptian Army, for a total of about 80 vehicles on the Sherman hull. Their employment was very limited and affected by poor reliability due to poor maintenance and a lack of spare parts.
The Six-Day War was the military Israeli response to the deterioration of diplomatic relations with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (which had always been very turbulent). After a series of provocations from the three Arab nations, the Israeli Defence Force made a surprise attack on June 5th, 1967.
The Israeli southern attack towards the Sinai foresaw, as in the 1956 war, an attack on Rafah and, from there, a move westwards on the Northern Track passing through El Arish.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had required that only Rafah and its surroundings be attacked, ignoring the rest of the Gaza Strip.
In Rafah, the Egyptians put up a strenuous resistance, losing more than 2,000 men and 40 Shermans, of which about half were with FL-10 turrets. They caused the 7th Israeli Armored Brigade significant losses.
During the battle, some Egyptian artillery pieces and tanks that were in hull-down positions, instead of turning their guns in the direction of the attacking Israeli forces, opened fire on the kibbutzim (a type of settlement which is unique to Israel) of Nirim and Kissufim in the Negev Desert.
After this attack on the Israeli civilian population, the Israeli Head of State, Yitzhak Rabin, ordered the 11th Mechanized Brigade, under the command of Colonel Yehuda Reshef, to enter the Gaza Strip and occuped it, thus ignoring Moshe Dayan’s orders. Needless to say, the fight between the Israeli forces and the Egyptian and Palestinian troops was very fierce.
At sunset, the Israelis had conquered all the central southern part of the Strip and had occupied the Ali Muntar Ridge that dominates Gaza, but a first attack on the city failed.
On the morning of June 6th, the 11th Brigade, supported by the 35th Brigade of Paratroopers under Colonel Rafael Eitan, succeeded in conquering the whole strip, losing a total of almost 100 soldiers dead.
During the fighting in Rafah and in the Gaza Strip, some M4A4 FL-10s were knocked out or captured still in their defensive positions along the border line.
During the attack in the Sinai, which lasted from 5th to 8th June, the Israelis occupied the entire Sinai peninsula. They defeated four armored divisions, two infantry divisions and one mechanized division, totaling 100,000 Egyptian soldiers, 950 tanks, 1,100 Armored Personnel Carriers and 1,000 artillery pieces killed, destroyed, captured or wounded.
On June 7th, a mixed Egyptian unit attempted a counter-offensive to repel the attackers. This poorly planned and uncoordinated action ended up breaking against the Israeli lines without causing major damage to the IDF and causing even more losses among the Egyptian troops. In this attack force, there were also some M4A4 FL-10s which were easily destroyed by the Israelis.
This was the last action of the M4A4 FL-10s. Those that were not destroyed by the Israelis were captured in the Sinai or Gaza Strip warehouses intact and probably converted into self-propelled guns, since the M-50s were no longer in production.
The few remaining M4A4 FL-10s in Egypt were removed from service in favor of more modern vehicles of Soviet origin. Egypt, however, did not remove all Sherman from service. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, indigenous versions of Sherman bridge-layers were still in service and the Egyptian Army is known to have used ARVs on Sherman hulls at least until the 1980s.
It can therefore be assumed that the hulls of the last M4A4 FL-10s were either used for special versions or disassembled and used as spare parts for special versions of the Sherman.
The M4A4 FL-10 in Film
In the 1969 Italian film I Diavoli della Guerra (Eng: The Devils of War), set in Tunisia in 1943, 6 M4A4 FL-10s were used to play the role of German tanks, while the role of US tanks was played by 9 Egyptian M4A2s and M4A4s.
Another film, in which 3 M4A4 FL-10s were disguised as German tanks of World War II, was Kaput Lager – Gli Ultimi Giorni delle SS (Eng: The Last Days of the SS), also shot by an Italian in 1977.
The M4A4 FL-10 was a good fallback vehicle with mediocre quality. However, it was economically viable for third world countries or nations that could not afford latest generation vehicles. Egypt did not use these to their full potential because of poor training of tank crews and the poor maintenance given to the vehicles.
It was, on paper, equal or superior in many aspects to the Israeli M-50 Degem Aleph, but because of these problems, it never managed to achieve the same success as the Israeli vehicle on the battlefield.
M4A4 FL-10 specifications
7.37 x 2.61 x 3.00 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
31.8 tons battle ready
4 (driver, machine gunner, commander and gunner)
General Motors GM 6046 with 410 hp at 2,900 rpm
75 mm CN-75-50 with 60 rounds, a 7.5 mm MAC Mle. 31C and a 7.62 mm Browning M1919A4
63 mm hull front, 38 mm sides and rear
40 mm turret front, 20 mm sides and rear.
Socialist Republic of Vietnam (2016 – present)
Main Battle Tank – 305 planned to be converted
The T-54M3 is a joint Vietnamese-Israeli project which began in 2009 that led to the development of two distinct prototypes with similar characteristics but produced with different budgets. The two vehicles have the same teams behind them. However, in this article, the Israeli T-54M3 and the Vietnamese T-54M3 will be treated as two separate projects.
The new MBT (Main Battle Tank) aims to keep the Vietnamese T-54s and T-55s in service by making them more competitive against vehicles of their generation or more modern ones.
A total of 3 prototypes were produced, one by Elbit Systems, and 2 by the Z153 Vietnamese industrial plant.
After the development phase was finished, 3 pre-series examples were built, which were practically identical to the finalized serial version. The People’s Army of VietNam (PAVN) has requested the upgrade of 305 T-54s and T-55s that are still (as of June 2021) being delivered. Delays have occurred due to the Covid-19 pandemic and bureaucratic problems.
People’s Army of Vietnam
After the Vietnam War (1964-1975), Vietnam operated a fleet of 70 T-62s, a few thousand T-54s and T-55s, hundreds more Type 59s and a large number of T-34-85s and SU-100s. These were accompanied by a small group of M41 and M48 Patton tanks captured from the US Army and the Army of the Republic of VietNam (ARVN) and returned to service after overhauls.
During the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979) and the occupation of Cambodia (1978-1989), the PAVN realized that most of its equipment was no longer able to face a war against other comparable or larger nations.
In the following years, due to the high cost of maintaining such a fleet of armored vehicles, the number of tanks was reduced to 850 T-54s or T-55s, 300 PT-76s, 50 T-34-85s (used for training) and a small number of ASU-85s. The numbers of T-62s and Type 59s remained unchanged. The other vehicles were put in reserve.
During the late 1990s, it was decided to try to upgrade the fleet of T-54s and T-55s. Around 2015, purchase negotiations began with Russia for the acquisition of a total of 64 first-hand T-90S and T-90SK, all delivered by February 2019. In 2020, the People’s Army of Vietnam announced its intention to buy several T-72B1MS. It is unclear if, given the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiations are moving forward or if the funding has been canceled to prioritize medical research and prevention.
Vietnam did not have any local options for the development of upgrades for its outdated fleet of T-54, T-55 and Type-59. Thus, it turned to foreign countries.
In the early 90s, the Slovenska Vojska (Slovenian Army) started an upgrade program of its T-55s with the support of the Israeli Elbit Systems. This led to a new version called T-55S1, equipped with Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA), a 105 mm gun, a new engine, a new Fire Control System (FCS) and other modifications.
After several attempts with other nations, Vietnam turned to Israel. At an unknown date and an unspecified location in Israel, Vietnamese representatives were presented with an example of the Tiran-5Sh.
The Tiran series were updated Israeli versions of the T-54, T-55 and T-62 captured from the Arab armies during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. The Tiran-1 to Tiran-5 were modified T-54s or T-55s, while the Tiran-6 were modified T-62s.
However, Israel was not satisfied with the 100 mm D-10T rifled guns of the T-54/T-55, so it developed the “Sh” version. This version, applied to the Tiran-4, Tiran-5 and Tiran-6, the tanks were deprived of their old Soviet 100 mm or 115 mm guns and re-equipped with surplus British Royal Ordnance L7 or US M68 105 mm guns that fit very well in the small interior space thanks to the rounded breech.
Israel hoped to sell its Tirans, which were slowly being removed from service, to Vietnam. However, Vietnam already had a large number of such vehicles and was not interested in buying new vehicles except for some spare parts.
The Vietnamese were impressed by the Tiran-5Sh and immediately showed interest in asking Israel to produce an updated T-54 prototype. Bureaucratic delays and probably some internal resistance from the People’s Army of Vietnam slowed down the request.
There is also a possibility that a Tiran-5Sh was sent to Vietnam at some point in the 1990s for testing and evaluation. This hypothesis is supported by a photo with a Vietnamese caption of a Tiran-5Sh in Vietnam, probably the same one that was analyzed by Vietnamese officials in Israel.
Despite the existence of the picture, there is no concrete evidence to prove this hypothesis. The IDF has never claimed to have sent a Tiran to Vietnam and Vietnam has never claimed to have a Tiran.
Another fact that supports this thesis is the signing in the 1990s of a contract between Israeli firms, such as Elbit and NIMDA, and the Vietnamese army for the development of a package of updates for the now obsolete M113 Armored Personnel Carriers of the PAVN.
The Israeli prototype: the T-54M3
In 2009, Vietnam finally requested a prototype upgrade of the T-54 from Elbit System. With the help of NIMDA, Elbit started to develop the design starting from the previous Slovenian T-55S1. In 2010, images began circulating of the Israeli-produced prototype that had been presented to Vietnam a few months earlier.
The new T-54M3 significantly improved the T-54 and T-55 vehicles. In addition to a number of modifications and a different camouflage scheme, the Elbit Systems prototype can be distinguished by the serial number 153 on the sides of the turret.
As on the Tiran Sh, the Israelis removed the Soviet D-10T2S and the tank was rearmed with a 105 mm cannon. The origin of the gun, however, is very uncertain. Some sources mention the use of the British Royal Ordnance L7 or its US version, the M68. However, a decision from Elbit to use a foreign 105 mm gun would be odd, as the Israeli Military Industries (of which Elbit is a subsidiary) produces the M64 L71A L.52, also a copy of the Royal Ordnance L7. This was the main armament of the Merkava Siman I and II tanks. It is probable that some journalists were unaware or ignored the existence of the Israeli-produced cannon.
Whatever 105 mm cannon the T-54M3 employs, it can fire any type of 105 mm ammunition developed by NATO. The gun is equipped with a thermal jacket to prevent the thermal distortion of the barrel.
The anti-aircraft machine gun was replaced with a more modern 12.7 mm NSV of Soviet origin. The coaxial machine gun remained the original 7.26 mm PKT.
On the left side of the turret, a 60 mm C07 Commando mortar was mounted externally, as on the Tiran, Magach, M-51, and the Merkava Siman I. The mortar can be used to fire fragmentation ammunition against infantry, illuminants for night actions, and smoke to create smoke screens at up to 1,800 m in order to support the actions of other units or to indicate a target to artillery.
The smoke launcher system mounted on the rear side of the turret is the IMI CL-3030 IS-6 Self-Screen Laying System. This fires 12 smoke grenades (six per side) with a charge of 850 grams of Red Phosphorus (non-toxic), creating a smokescreen lasting 1 to 2 minutes at 50 meters from the tank, 4 to 8 meters high and about 60 meters long (obviously, all these values depend on the wind speed).
This system is connected to a Laser Warning Receiver (LWR) that automatically activates the smokescreen in case the vehicle is illuminated by a laser beam or through the control panel of the tank commander, who can activate the system manually.
On the roof of the turret is the MAWS6056B (Military Automatic Weather Sensor) Idram-SA anemometer of Swiss origin (the same one mounted on the Leclerc MBT). This can be lowered and raised in order to measure the wind speed, the wind direction, the ambient temperature, and the atmospheric pressure. The data it captures is used to automatically adjust the cannon fire and can be sent to other armored vehicles in the area of operations to increase the accuracy of all vehicles.
At the back, there is slat armor meant to defuse HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warheads with piezo-electric fuzing, usually fired from the RPG family of anti-tank rocket systems
Attached on the lower side of the slat armor are the Venus Hair Ferns, steel chains with steel balls at the end. These chains were also used on the Merkava MBTs and are also meant to protect against RPG rounds.
At the front, both the hull and the turret are probably protected by Self-Limiting Explosive Reactive Armor (SLERA) of the latest generation, very similar to that mounted on the Israeli Merkava Siman IV.
The protective qualities of the SLERA are not known. Being derived from the armor of the Merkava, it can be assumed that it is capable of resisting ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) such as 9K111 Fagot or 9M113 Konkurs. Composite material skirts were mounted on the sides of the hull to protect the running gear and lower the amount of dust kicked up by the vehicle.
Some surfaces of the vehicle, such as the front of the hull and the turret, are covered with Anti-Reflection Coating aesthetically similar to sand on the surface of the tank. This lowers the amount of light reflecting off the surfaces and offers a good grip for the crew climbing into the tank. The vehicle is then painted with low IR paint to decrease the thermal signature.
The radio system was replaced with a new one of Russian origin, the compact RF2050 multi-band system with increased resistance against radio-electronic warfare.
Due to the increase in weight, now estimated at 40-42 tonnes, the engine was replaced with a German one. Information is lacking except for the power output, which is 1,000 hp.
This is probably an MTU 881 8-cylinder diesel engine of 1,000 hp at 2,700 rpm, guaranteeing a higher speed than a standard T-55 thanks to the 200 hp more.
The new engine is connected to a transmission and gearbox of Ukrainian origin, although the data and models are unknown.
A driving computer system is also installed, allowing the vehicle to calculate the tilt and the speed of the vehicle. That computer is installed on the driver’s position, with a hydraulic power steering system allowing the steering column, brakes, and clutch to be much easier to operate.
For the safety of the crew, the fire suppression system was replaced with a new automatic system capable of self-diagnosis, also of Russian origin.
New powerful Fire Control System
The Fire Control System is the TIFCS-3BU, stabilized on two axes, produced by the Spanish Indra Sistemas. The system includes a TSGS-54BU laser rangefinder, also stabilized on two axes, and a thermal camera for day and night vision in the 3-5 um or 8-12 um range. The commander has the possibility to see the view from the gunner’s optics and, in case the gunner is out of action, to aim and shoot. Finally, a complex update of the servomechanisms for faster movement was undertaken.
The old TDP-K or T-S optical sights (depending on the tank version) are retained in the remote event that the FCS gets incapacitated.
All of these upgrades significantly increase the chances of hitting a target at any range, day or night and in any weather, even on the move. According to VietDefense, this new FCS has similar characteristics to that of the more modern T-72B3. Indra Sistemas has specially developed the FCS to take up little space and to be mounted without having to modify the turret structure of several Soviet T-series tanks.
Unfortunately, Indra Sistemas did not give any information about the possibility of the new FCS to fire ATGMs of the 3UBK10-1 and 3UBK23-1 series, as on the T-55M.
The vehicle was tested with excellent results in late 2011, when it proved to be able to sustain high speeds and to be able to fire even on the move with high accuracy.
The Vietnamese T-54M3
The Israeli project was too ambitious for the People’s Army of Vietnam, as the price was estimated at between US$3 and almost US$4 million per unit. This price was slightly lower than the cost of the T-90S and T-90KS that the PAVN has in service for some years now.
Israel and Vietnam decided to ‘simplify’ the project by canceling the adoption of the Royal Ordnance L7 gun, partly because Vietnam still has significant stocks of Soviet 100 mm ammunition. The adoption of the new gun would have meant the purchase of new ammunition stocks. The thermal sleeve was retained.
The side skirts and Self-Limiting Explosive Reactive Armor also cost too much. It was therefore decided to replace the modern Israeli SLERA with a less expensive version of ERA produced by the Vietnamese Institute of Propellants & Explosives (IPE), developed after 2009.
The development phase of the Vietnamese ERA ended in 2015-2016, but the ‘first generation’ weighed too much and barely protected the armored vehicles from RPG-7s. Thus, Senior Lieutenant Hoang Trung Kien along with Major Nguyen Vu Hung’s team (which had developed the first generation) developed the Second Generation ERA allegedly capable of resisting 9M14 Malyutka ATGMs.
The ERA is divided into 30-cm explosive bricks weighing 3.5 kilograms, with a 550-gram RDX explosive charge. According to the IPE, this new ERA is capable of nullifying the penetrating effect of an anti-tank projectile or ATGM with a maximum penetration of 500 mm. The second-generation ERA is also much lighter than its predecessor. The IPE estimate is that the additional weight on the tank is just over 1,000 kilograms.
The decision to retain the 100 mm cannon and use a less expensive ERA resulted in a decrease in vehicle weight and consequently a modest increase in top speed. To decrease the price even more, the PAVN removed all the equipment considered superfluous, such as the CL-3030 IS-6 smoke launchers, the C07 Commando external mortar and the 12.7 mm NSV, keeping the old DShKM.
Before the start of production, the new Vietnamese-made ERA had to be completed, which required significant effort and caused delays. Once the development and testing phase was over, the Z153 plant, controlled by the Vietnamese government, produced two prototypes of the Vietnamese version of the T-54M3 and T-55M3. Once these passed tests, three pre-series examples were produced in 2016. The People’s Army of Vietnam has allocated funds for the conversion of 305 T-54s and T-55s, the equivalent of 10 armored battalions.
Delivery to PAVN
It is not known at what exact time the vehicles finished assembly, but the first examples were delivered to training schools. Around April-May 2019, the official delivery to the first armored units took place.
On June 26th, 2019, the first official firing test took place. This was captured by Vietnamese National Defense Television cameras. During these show tests, the vehicle demonstrated excellent maneuverability and increased engagement power compared to the standard T-54 or T-55 models.
The delivery rate was slowed down in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and due to bureaucratic issues. Vietnam had only ordered 105 FCS from Indra Sistemas to equip the Vietnamese prototypes and 3 pre-series vehicles, while the other 100 were for production vehicles. As the PAVN order was for 310 units, Vietnam has had to order another 205 FCS in different batches from the Spanish company with the relevant spare parts and production time.
In late 2020, production resumed at a steady pace. Despite the lack of FCS, the Z153 plant continued to convert T-54s and T-55s and some are still awaiting FCS before they can be delivered to the Army. Dozens of photos of updated T-54s and T-55s flooded the web in early 2021. The conversion of all the 310 vehicles will probably be finished in early 2023.
The units that received the new vehicles immediately began an intense cycle of training to learn how to use the new Fire Control System. This is many generations ahead of that used on the standard T-54 and T-55 and very different from that of the T-90S.
One factor that is often overlooked is the use the PAVN intends for these armored vehicles. Detractors of vehicles such as the T-54M3 and T-55M3 or the Korean Chonma often do not consider their role within the Army.
The People’s Army of Vietnam, in case of war with a neighboring nation, plans to use its updated T-54s and T-55s in an infantry support role. They are also intended to support the actions of the more modern T-90S (and, in the future, perhaps also to the T-72B1MS). It is not expected that they will face other tanks. If they do, the new FCS will allow them a much-improved chance of hitting the target first, even on the move.
Camouflage and markings
The Israeli prototype had an interesting and unusual three-tone camouflage scheme, dark green base with black and orange stripes. This pattern has never been used by the IDF or the PAVN.
The Vietnamese prototypes and production examples are painted in a three-tone camouflage scheme quite common on Vietnamese vehicles: light green, dark green and black spots, very suitable for the rainy environments of Vietnam.
As mentioned earlier the tanks were covered with Anti-Reflection Coating and painted with special paint to decrease the thermal signature.
On the turret, the symbol of the PAVN, a yellow star in a red circle with yellow border with the identification number, in white, are painted on the side.
On the Israeli prototype, the PAVN symbol was replaced by a prominent yellow star.
The Israeli T-54M3 is a very expensive upgrade to the T-54 and T-55 that makes the vehicle capable of dealing with Armored Fighting Vehicles much more modern than venerable Soviet tanks. The Vietnamese T-54M3 and T-55M3, on the other hand, are cheaper versions of the Israeli T-54M3. While not nearly as powerful, they mitigate some of the obsolescence of the ‘T’ series tanks within the budget of Vietnam and will keep these vehicles in service.
9.00 x 3.37 x 2.40 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, commander, gunner and loader)
Unknown, German origin, 1000 hp
100 mm D-10T2S rifled cannon, 1x 7.62 mm PKT 1x 12.7 mm DShKM
Explosive Reactive Armor front and turret sides
310 planned, including 2 prototypes and 3 pre-series vehicles
Republic of Rhodesia (1976 – 1980) – Light Landmine Detection Vehicle – 76 built
Special thanks to Konsta Pylkkönen who provided data on the mechanical part thanks to his knowledge of Volkswagen vehicles.
The Pookie was a Light Landmine Detection Vehicle with Mine Protected Armored Vehicle (MPAV) features developed by the Republic of Rhodesia in November 1976. It was used by the Rhodesian Army during the final stages of the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) for road demining tasks.
Between 1996 and 1999, an example was modified by Mine Tech International to be used to demine some impassable areas of Eritrea.
In 1960, the Conservative British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made a speech in Cape Town, in South Africa, stating that the United Kingdom would not stand in the way of the independence of their African colonies.
The colony of Southern Rhodesia, under the control of the white minority, took steps to become independent. However, in 1964, the new Labour British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, stated that he did not intend to grant independence to colonies governed by a white minority unless a democratic constitution was introduced instead of meritocratic and segregationist policies.
The Rhodesian Front, the right-wing party of the colony, led by Ian Smith, opposed this decision of the British government. After a series of negotiations that led to nothing, Smith proclaimed, on November 11th, 1964 the independence of Southern Rhodesia from the United Kingdom with an unilateral declaration of independence. This officially created the Republic of Rhodesia.
Immediately, the United Nations Security Council met to draw up a resolution inviting all member states not to recognize the Republic of Rhodesia and not to provide it with any kind of assistance. Subsequently, heavy economic sanctions were imposed, prohibiting trade and financial negotiations with the nation.
Israel, South Africa, some Arab nations, Iran, and Portugal (until 1974), which shared a border with Rhodesia in its colony of Mozambique and was ruled by a far right regime, helped the new nation by providing military material or financing without being officially involved.
Obviously, the majority black population did not stand by idly. The pro-Chinese Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo and largely made up of Africans from the Ndebele tribes, and the pro-Soviet Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe and largely made up of Africans from the Shona tribes, formed their military wings, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) respectively.
The People’s Republic of China provided equipment to ZIPRA, while the Soviet Union provided equipment to ZANLA. These fought on two fronts against the Rhodesian Army, in some cases even fighting each other.
History of the project
During the Rhodesian Bush War, ZIPRA and ZANLA guerrillas mined the roads that were periodically traveled by both civilian and military convoys. The white population (estimated at 290,000 out of 6.93 million inhabitants in 1978) was not concentrated in a single region, but in various settlements scattered throughout the nation. These settlements had to be periodically supplied with food or other raw materials and the convoys that transported them were easy targets for ambushes, mines or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
At the beginning of hostilities, simple civilian Nissan or Mazda pickups armed with Browning M2HB 12.7 mm machine guns with shields or homemade armor were enough to defend the gunners. Simple Land Rover Defenders armed with Browning M1919s or soldiers of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) armed with FN FALs were also used to deter ambushes.
As the war progressed, some militiamen were trained in a camp near Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in the use of explosives and, back in Rhodesia, began to implement the tactics taught to them by the Koreans.
The guerrillas used mines as a cheap strategy to isolate garrisons and settlements, terrorize the civilian population, and block or delay supply convoys. It was a successful tactic. In fact, a poorly or not at all trained guerrilla equipped with a simple shovel and a mine could destroy a civilian truck loaded with precious materials or a military vehicle, killing or injuring several soldiers.
At first, the IEDs and mines that were placed on the roads were not very powerful and caused only the destruction of the wheel that passed over them, sometimes, with the consequent overturning of the vehicle. Between 1971 and 1972, only 3 vehicles were hit by IEDs or mines, two military and one civilian. One of the two military accidents occurred on December 23rd, 1972 and caused the death of Corporal Norman Moore, while 3 other soldiers were seriously injured. It was later estimated that, between 1972 and 1980, there were 600 Rhodesian victims of anti-tank mines on the roads, many of them civilians.
At the beginning, it was thought that the guerrillas only mined the ‘soft’ earth or sand roads, so the Rhodesian government responded by asphalting the roads. This expedient, however, did not work as hoped. At night the guerrillas drilled holes in the asphalt with pickaxes, placed the mines and then covered them with elephant dung (very light) and tar fragments.
This led to the modification of some vehicles,especially Land Rovers, with roll bars. In case of an explosion and subsequent overturning, the passengers were not crushed by the vehicle.
In time, however, more substantial supplies of explosives arrived, which allowed guerrillas to increase the power of the IEDs. More supplies of Soviet made TM-46 mines, along with the more powerful IEDs, destroyed cars, trucks or buses that passed over, causing dozens of deaths even among civilians.
Even the vehicles equipped with roll bars became useless and the Rhodesian engineers moved to produce vehicles on the chassis of the Land Rover Defender that resisted mines. Thus, in 1973, the ‘Moon Buggy’ appeared. This was an MRAP that had a crew consisting of a driver and 4 passengers. The crew compartment or capsule was mounted 72 cm above the ground and the floor had a V-shape so that, if a mine exploded under it, the shock wave would be dissipated and pushed to the sides.
In the following years, other vehicles were born based on Jeep or light truck chassis. These were the Leopard in 1974, the Rhino, an evolution of the Moon Buggy, in 1975 and the Ojay in 1976.
These vehicles proved to be very useful. In several cases they saved the lives of the occupants and even managed to open a gap in the minefields to allow supply convoys to pass.
The Rhodesian Army, however, needed vehicles that could detect mines without having to damage or destroy the vehicle in order to detonate a mine. Also, there were often unprotected civilian vehicles that fell victim to mines. The need for a vehicle that was protected from explosions and that could detect mines was born, leading to the Pookie.
As previously mentioned, Rhodesia had developed mine resistant vehicles. However, after an explosion, these vehicles needed very expensive and very long repairs that put a strain on the now empty state coffers.
Another major problem was the psychological damage. The soldiers inside the vehicle and those in the vehicles behind the vehicle were often left terrified by the experience.
The Rhodesian Mine Warfare Committee needed a vehicle that would find mines without detonating them. South Africa supplied Rhodesia with Milton Landmine Detecting Pans that were tested by mounting one in front of a Bedford truck.
The result was bad because the Milton pan had to be mounted at a certain distance from the vehicle to allow the driver to stop in time if the detector detected a mine. The support that held it was subject to too many vibrations even at small speeds, slower than a human’s pace. The vibrations caused continuous false alarms, making the system useless. The same thing happened on a Leopard Security Vehicle. The driver would have had a minimal margin of time, even at that speed, to stop the vehicle in time.
The University of Rhodesia was brought in to find a solution, and it became clear that the only way to solve the problem was to find a vehicle with a minimum ground pressure to drive over mines without detonating them.
The brilliant Rhodesian electrical and mechanical engineer Walter Ernest Konschel (Twickenham, UK, February 20th, 1920 – January 1st, 2010) designed the Pookie (nickname given to the Galago, a nocturnal primate with big eyes).
In mid-1976, the Pookie was officially tested in front of the high command of the Rhodesian Army, the Rhodesian Air Force and the Police by passing over a TM-46 mine without detonating it.
On the prototype, however, only one Milton Pan was mounted on the front arm. It was later decided to mount it on the sides of the vehicle.
Frame structure and engine
Incredibly, the base of the Pookie was the Volkswagen Kombi Typ 2, better known in the common imagination as the ‘Hippie Van’.
The Republic of Rhodesia had a large number of Volkswagen Kombi purchased from Brazil before independence and an additional then received through South Africa. Some Kombi modified into ambulances were officially donated by South Africa as medical aid to the nation.
Ernest Konschel used the chassis of the Volkswagen Kombi Type 2 T1 (produced between 1950 to 1967) and T2 (produced between 1967 to 1979) to develop the MPAV (Mine Protected Armored Vehicle) Leopard Security Vehicle, 700 of which were produced, and then another 76 for the Light Landmine Detection Vehicle Pookie.
Obviously, all parts of the body of the bus were removed along with the frame. The only parts that the Rhodesians used were the suspension units, steering system, trailing-arm torsion bars and the engine.
The original Volkswagen Typ 1600 4-cylinder, 1,584 cm² horizontally opposed petrol engine delivering 68 hp, weighing just over 100 kg, was kept mounted at the rear, above the rear axle. It was on the outside, for better ventilation. It was protected from impact by steel roll bars.
This engine was excellent, easy to maintain, and had a respectable military background. In fact, the German Kubelwagen, Schwimmwagen, and also the later Type 181 jeeps were equipped with nearly identical engines.
The air cooling gave a great advantage, in fact, there was no risk of leakage of flammable coolants that would have been a big risk in case of detonation of mines.
The Kombi’s original 4-speed transmission was also kept unchanged. The top speed of the Pookie was 100 km/h. Surprisingly, the speed at which it operated during mine detection operations was 80 km/h, a record speed still unbeaten today.
The trailing-arm torsion bars were essential on this vehicle. In fact they exerted less downward thrust than conventional coil springs used on Land Rover Defender based vehicles. Another feature was the distance between the wheels and the frame. In case of explosion, the wheels would not impact the capsule. This meant they would not risk breaking it or overturn the vehicle.
To provide even more safety, each part attached to the frame was bolted with special shear bolts. In case of detonation, the component impacted by the explosion would be blown off, decreasing the risk of overturning the vehicle.
The four wheels, the engine and the fuel tanks were fixed to the capsule with shear bolts.
The cylindrical fuel tank had a capacity of 40 liters and was placed on top of the engine. The 10 liter lubrication oil tank, which was also cylindrical, was placed on top of the fuel tank. The two tanks were placed at the extreme rear of the vehicle to avoid being involved in any explosion, which would normally hit the front side of the vehicles.
The brake lights were attached to the outer edges of the petrol tank. On some vehicles, the oil tank was placed on the back of the pod.
At the end of the modifications, the Pookie weighed less than 2 tonnes battle ready, so it did not even strain the original mechanical parts of the Volkswagen Kombi. In the van version, fully loaded, the Volkswagen also weighed just under two tonnes.
A Pookie cost only 11,000 R$ (17,600 US$ with the 1975 exchange rate), while the repair of a vehicle damaged by a mine cost on average 17,000 R$ (27,200 US$), making a Pookie the best and cheapest choice for Rhodesia.
The big difference between the Leopard and the Pookie, in addition to the adoption of a single-seater frame on the Pookie, were the characteristic tires mounted on the Pookie. In order to reduce the ground pressure of this landmine detection vehicle, Formula 1 tires were mounted.
On March 6, 1976, in Kyalami, the XXII Citizen Grand Prix of South Africa was held, where the Ferrari 312 T2 of Niki Lauda won. After the race, dozens and dozens of Formula 1 tires remained in South Africa, which sold them for a few cents of a dollar each to the Republic of Rhodesia.
Thanks to these low-pressure tires, the Pookie, weighing just under 2 tonnes fully loaded, had a ground pressure of only 0.21 kg/cm, less than a human foot. This pressure was so low that it did not even activate anti-personnel mines as it passed, making it a perfect vehicle for mine detection.
Even today, the Pookie holds the record for being the only vehicle capable of passing over a pressure-activated anti-tank or anti-personnel mine without activating it.
Another great advantage of Formula 1 tires was their width. This was, in most cases, greater than the diameter of the hole that the militiamen dug for the mine. Consequently, the tire passed over the excavated ground without even touching the pressure fuse of the mine.
The capsule was lifted 70 cm off the ground. Soviet mine explosions lost their destructive power at about 50-60 cm above the ground.
The 55° ‘V’ shape was meant to better deflect mine or IED explosions and protected the driver even more. The lower sides were angled at 62.5° and were made of steel plates welded together and 6 mm thick. The vertical upper sides and the front were 10 mm thick. The front windscreen and the side and rear windows were made of 40 mm thick bulletproof glass.
The capsule was accessed from the rear via two steps welded to the rear side. There was no roof, an expedient that helped the driver in the hottest days of operation, but there was a roll bar on the back to protect the driver and help get him out in case the vehicle overturned. A waterproof tarpaulin was placed on some supports to protect the driver and electrical components from rain.
The interior of the capsule was very simple. There was a simple padded seat with a seatbelt, a gearshift in the middle, between the driver’s legs, and clutch, accelerator and brake levers on the floor.
At the driver’s front was the steering wheel. The steering column connected with the steering wheel came out of the front plate of the Pookie and was connected to the front axle by a pair of universal joints.
On the left side, at elbow height, was the rectangular compartment protruding from the vehicle’s outline. This was for the lithium battery connected to the starter on the outside, the mine detector, the headlights and the dashboard mounted on the left side of the steering wheel.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the South African Milton Landmine Detecting Pans mounted on the sides of the capsule. When not in use, they were lifted off the ground by two steel chains operated directly by the driver inside the capsule.
To protect them from shocks, splinters or dust, the detectors were protected by very thin rectangular steel plates that did not interfere with magnetic waves or acoustic signals. The problem with this protection was that it caused vibrations even if mounted on the sides of the Pookie (obviously less compared to the long arm mounted in front on other vehicles). This caused some false alarms that slowed down the convoys. In addition, at high speeds, the detectors acted like two ailerons.
Mike Pelham, Commander Rhodesian Corps of Engineers, realized that cylinders made of non-ferrous materials would have reduced the vibrations even more and would not have the aileron effect.
The South African company that produced the Milton Landmine Detecting Pans was asked to produce them with a cylindrical guard, but the company refused and Mike Pelham had young engineers at the University of Rhodesia design a circular guard.
As he predicted, the Milton Landmine Detecting Pans vibrated less while driving, causing far fewer false alarms. We do not know the theoretical effectiveness of Milton Pans. In practice, from the reported data, it seems that they never failed to detect a mine. The TM-46 anti-tank mine, the main mine that they had to detect, was largely made of steel.
The ZANU and ZAPU militias were also given anti-tank mines by the Chinese and the Soviets that were largely made of plastic, but in very limited numbers compared to the TM-46. Despite the minimal steel content, the Milton Landmine Detecting Pans never failed to detect them either, apparently.
The Pookie’s camouflage was two-tone, the same camouflage used by the South African National Defense Force, which supplied Rhodesia with paint drums to camouflage their armored vehicles.
The Pookie was developed without armament, but some later models were equipped with Spider Anti-Ambush Weapons.
The Spider was nothing more than a series of barrels fixed in an arc (from 90° to 360°) on a central support. The caliber was 12 Gauge (18.53 mm) and shotgun shells were loaded with sub-projectiles.
In the 360° model, there were 12 barrels. 3 overlapping rows could be mounted, for a total of 36 barrels.
The simple and robust weapon was mounted on the roof of vehicles, military or civilian, and was activated by the driver or a passenger in case of ambush by pulling a simple lever that would unleash 12, 24 or 36 shells loaded with sub-projectiles against the attackers in less than a second.
A special version of the Pookie was developed to fire only in the frontal arc, because a Spider on the roof would have hindered the entry and exit from the capsule. The Pookie version was equipped with 8 or 12 barrels per row for a maximum of 2 mountable Spiders.
The Spider proved to be deadly and very useful for the Pookie which, in some cases, operated isolated on Rhodesian roads. The only flaw was that it was not reusable and reloading required exiting the vehicle.
Due to the limited space inside, the drivers could not carry the Belgian-made FN FAL battle rifle for close defense, so they were forced to use pistols or the few available Israeli IMI UZIs carried on their legs during the drive.
Entering service in late 1976, the Pookie was extensively used by the Rhodesian Security Forces to demine the roads. Its first use was along the infamous Mount Darwin – Mukumbura Road, famous for being the most heavily mined road in Rhodesia and littered with exploded vehicle parts.
The Pookie, commanded by Lieutenant Patrick Gericke in this operation, found 12 mines, two land mines within five kilometers of Mount Darwin. Pookie drivers began escorting convoys, traveling 200 kilometers a day and finding at least one mine for every convoy escorted.
Two different strategies were implemented to use the Pookie. The first one, only feasible if the Rhodesians had control of the surrounding territory, foresaw that the Pookie would proceed alone, at a great distance from the convoy, be it civil or military, that it had to escort.
With a maximum speed of 80 km/h during mine detection, the Pookie could easily stay ahead of the convoy and at a safe distance. In case of mine detection, the driver could remove the mines or explode them before the convoy arrived, thus avoiding slowing it down, reducing the risk of ambushes and speeding up the arrival of supplies at the destination.
A second strategy involved the use of the Pookie escorted by a unit that defended it in hostile territories or where attacks by socialist militias were expected.
The Pookie operated in front of the convoy at a distance of 50-100 meters. On its right and left side, at a safe distance, operated dog units with mine dogs trained to find mines. The dogs proved to be very useful, as the Pookie could detect mines on a width of about 3 meters, leaving some portions of the road (normally between 4,5 meters and 5 meters wide) undetected.
On the sides, in the bush at the sides of the road, two squads of heavily armed infantrymen were placed to avert the risk of ambushes or at least to not allow insurgents to approach the road to throw hand grenades at the vehicle.
The first vehicle of the column was an Armored Personnel Carrier equipped with a heavy machine gun, meant to respond effectively to possible ambushes. On the second vehicle, other mine dogs were transported to relieve those behind the Pookie every 20 minutes.
Thanks to these strategies, between 1976 and 1979, the Pookies found a total of 550 mines without ever detonating any.
The 100% effectiveness against pressure mines was exceptional and, in a short time, the ZIPRA and ZANLA militia realized that the Pookie allowed the Rhodesian Security Forces to find all the mines they buried at night. They had to find a solution, resorting to using remote controlled mines.
11 Pookies were lost to IEDs or remote controlled mines, but the excellent design of this vehicle resulted in the death of only one driver under unclear circumstances.
Another Pookie was lost during an ambush. An RPG-7 rocket that destroyed the vehicle and killed the driver. There are no reports of other Pookie ambush victims.
Mine Tech International Pookie
After 1979, a few Pookie mine detection vehicles were used to clear inaccessible roads and were subsequently dismantled. A few remained rusting in warehouses in the new Republic of Zimbabwe from 1980 onwards.
It has been estimated that millions of mines are still buried in 22 African countries, causing civilian casualties every 20 minutes on average. In 2019, there were 3,059 mine casualties in addition to another 3,837 injured. Of these 6,897 victims, 54% were children.
In 1999, the British MineTech International company was looking for a vehicle that would exert a minimum ground pressure in order to install a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) at the front. It was meant to detect unexploded mines in some African countries torn by years of civil war.
In 1996, MineTech International had signed a contract for a three-year collaboration with Germany’s Tricon for the development of a GPR that was first tested in Mozambique on a Land Rover. There, it successfully detected any type of mine, metal or not, up to 0.5 meters deep in the ground. In late 1999, a Pookie was recovered and refurbished to be able to mount this new mine-detection system.
The Milton Detecting Pans were removed, the low-pressure racing tires were replaced with new racing tires and the vehicle was repainted white. At the front, a 1.5-metre wide mount was fitted with five 40-centimetre wide GPRs that could detect mines on a width of up to 2 metres.
To operate the radars, two 12 volt lithium batteries were mounted and connected to the engine starter and headlights. The first test of the Pookie with the GPR took place in Somaliland in 2000, resulting in an excellent combination of old and new technology. However, the engine, due to about 20 years of inactivity, gave many problems with mechanical reliability.
The problem was solved by mounting a new engine produced by the German Henz company, giving out 40 hp. It did not perform as well as the previous one. The steering system also did not work well, being replaced by a hydraulic steering system that allowed a maximum speed of only 20 km/h. During mine clearance operations, the maximum speed was 5-10 km/h.
The new front radar mount did not increase the weight of the Pookie significantly, but MineTech International’s new race tires were smaller in size than those used by the Rhodesian Security Forces in the 1970s. The smaller surface area translated into a ground pressure of 0.28 kg/cm² that was still very low, allowing the Pookie to cross minefields without danger of detonating even the smallest landmines.
Finally, in 2001, the new Pookie, thanks to funding from the German government, was sent to clear the roads of Senafe, 130 kilometers south of Asmara in Eritrea, with the support of the Eritrean Mine Action Centre. This first operation was to test the Pookie in an operational theater.
In 11 days of work, the Pookie scanned 89,436.2 square meters (0.08943620 km²), revealing 79 anomalies in the roads around Senafe.
However, all proved to be false alarms, and no mine was found by the Pookie. In 6 hours of operation, the Pookie checked about 10 kilometers of road at a speed of 5 km/h. In fact, the roads were between 4,5 meters and 5 meters wide, forcing the Pookie to make three passes to completely check the ground.
A tachometer (a small wheel) was mounted on the back of the Pookie to measure where on the road the anomaly was detected by the GPRs and then send a bomb squad to check it out. The tachometer had an error of ±1 meter per 1,000 meters.
The experiences in Eritrea led to the need to modify the Pookie. The racing tires were not suitable to operate in rocky terrain and therefore had to be replaced with other tires of smaller size that increased friction, allowing the vehicle to overcome obstacles. At the same time, this increased the pressure on the ground even if they never detonated mines accidentally.
A trailer was also recovered in order to move the Pookie. The vehicle’s maximum speed of only 20 km/h was too low to take it from the base to the area of operations.
In general the Pookie performed very well, demonstrating how a technology developed in desperate circumstances with few means available was still useful 26 years after its development.
MineTech International still used the Pookie in Eritrea for mine detection with good results.
In 2002, it was planned to recover a second vehicle to replace the first one in case of accidental detonation or in case the first one needed maintenance that would have forced it in the workshop for a long time.
The Pookie proved to be more than effective. Of the 76 vehicles produced, none accidentally detonated pressure mines, detecting over 550 mines in about 3 years and losing only 1 driver in 11 incidents with remotely controlled mines or IEDs.
Even in 2001, the vehicle was still effective, 25 years after its development by the brilliant engineer Ernest Konschel.
When the United States Department of Defense began the MRAP program in 2007, they studied the Rhodesian and South African experiences with their Mine Protected Armored Vehicles to develop the new vehicle class.
4.3 m x 3.2 m x 2.9 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
Volkswagen Typ 1600 4-cylinder petrol engine, 68 hp, 40 liters fuel tank
Around 100 km/h
76 plus a prototype
Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction Volume 6 Issue 2. August 2002 – William Lawrence
Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction Volume 17 Issue 1 April 2013
Italy (1943 – 1945)
Self-Propelled Gun – 121 built
The Semovente FIAT-Ansaldo M43 da 105/25 was an Italian self-propelled gun developed by FIAT and Ansaldo. It was based on the M42 da 75/18 and used in limited numbers by the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) before the armistice of 8th September 1943. After the armistice of Cassibile and the occupation of the center and northern parts of Italy by the Germans, the Semoventi were captured and used by the German Army and by the new Italian Collaborationist Army.
After the entry into service of the Semoventi (singular Semovente) armed with 75 mm L.18 cannons, based on the chassis of the tanks of the ‘M’ series (Medi, Eng. Medium), the M13/40 and M14/41, it was found that the vehicles were adequate for infantry support and anti-tank vehicles. However, the Regio Esercito needed something more heavily armed and armored to be able to fight against the more modern vehicles put into service by the Allies. By this point, the Italians were fighting the latest versions of M4 Sherman.
A specification was issued in mid-1942 for a Semovente that could support the infantry, but also fight against such modern threats using the heavy Italian Cannone da 105/23. At that time, Odero-Terni-Orlando (OTO) and the consortium Ansaldo-FIAT, two Italian tank manufacturers, proposed two different self-propelled gun prototypes. The OTO proposal was to mount the 105/23 cannon on the hull of the heavy tank P26/40, which was still under development and entered into service only after September 1943.
However, FIAT-Ansaldo could build a prototype of their vehicle faster because the project was based on the already under construction M15/42 Italian medium tank hull. This had already been tested in February-March 1943 and under construction since April of that same year.
At the same time, the FIAT-Ansaldo project was also chosen because the manufacturers had mastery over the components involved. It also required only small modifications to the assembly lines. This meant it could be put into production very quickly. The Italian Army evaluated it positively for two simple reasons. Firstly, because there were already existing courses for the training of new crews (and mechanics) of self-propelled guns on almost identical chassis. Secondly, because a self-propelled gun based on the modified M15/42 chassis was lighter than a self-propelled gun on the P26/40 hull, which meant that the FIAT-Ansaldo self-propelled gun needed a less powerful gasoline engine. This was a big advantage for the Italian Army that had to replace diesel engines with gasoline engines after 1942 due to the limited resources available.
A prototype was built between 16th and 28th January 1943 and was armed with a prototype of the 105/23 Mod.1943 cannon. It was first examined by the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (Eng. Inspectorate of Motorised and Armored Troops) and the Ispettorato dell’Arma d’Artiglieria (Eng. Inspectorate of the Artillery Corps) on 1st February. It was presented to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Eng: Centre for Motorisation Studies) in Rome on 27th February for official testing. Early photos of the prototype show that the vehicle initially lacked a radio antenna, racks for the 20-liters cans, and headlights, which were fitted before the presentation in Rome. In particular, 6 racks were mounted on the prototype, two on the front, two on fenders, and two more on the rear of the vehicle.
The testing of the prototype took about a month. In the end, the Regio Esercito was very impressed by the firepower of the 105 mm cannon. On 29th March 1943, the High Command of the Regio Esercito ordered 130 vehicles divided into two batches, the first batch of 30 and a second of 100 self-propelled guns. It was now officially renamed as the ‘Semovente FIAT-Ansaldo su scafo M43 da 105/25’, abbreviated to ‘Semovente M43 da 105/25’ (Eng: Self-propelled gun FIAT-Ansaldo on hull M43 armed with a 105/25). It was nicknamed “Bassotto” (Eng: Dachshund) by the crews for its lower and larger profile.
In addition to the first order of 130 units placed in March 1943, the FIAT and Ansaldo consortium received new contracts from the Regio Esercito for the production of 105 mm-armed self-propelled guns. On 10th May 1943, the total order was increased to 200 vehicles, and then to 454 in June. Some sources mention 494 units ordered in July 1943, but this can not be confirmed due to the partial loss of the Ansaldo Archives following the armistice of September 1943.
The first vehicles produced in the gigantic Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente, near Genoa, Northern Italy, were completed at the end of May 1943. They were delivered to the Regio Esercito at the beginning of July. According to the records, by 30th June, a total of 30 M43 105/25s had already been completed. After the Armistice of Cassibile and the occupation of the central and northern parts of Italy by the Wehrmacht, production was initially interrupted. However, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng. Inspector General of the Armed Forces) quickly evaluated the self-propelled gun, and, judging it positively, production was restarted.
By the end of 1943, the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Genoa had produced another 24 M43 self-propelled 105/25 vehicles for the Germans. However, in 1944, only 67 more were produced due to bombing, lack of raw materials and strikes. The production was not continued in 1945 because of heavy Allied bombing that stopped the production of most of the plant and because the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen, together with the Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion (Eng: Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production) in Berlin, had decided to discontinue production of all Italian vehicles except the Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i), Panzerspähwagen Lince 202(i) and the Sturmgeschütz M43 mit 75/46 852(i) self-propelled vehicle which they considered adequate.
The total production of the Semovente М43 da 105/25 was 121 units between April 1943 and December 1944.
Design of the “Bassotto”
Hull and armor
The M42 hull was 14 cm longer than the previous M40 and M41 hulls. The new M43 hull (also called M42 ‘Lungo’ – Eng. ‘Long’) was even longer, with 4 cm more than the M42, reaching a length of 5.10 m (18 cm more than the M41), 17 cm wider (2.40 m compared to 2.23 m of the M42) and 10 cm lower (1.75 m compared to 1.85 m of the M42). Finally, the flameproof armor plate separating the engine compartment from the fighting compartment was moved back 20 cm, increasing the space for the crew. All these modifications brought the total weight of the vehicle to 15.8 tonnes battle-ready compared to the 15 tonnes of the M42.
This made the vehicle’s silhouette more elusive and also allowed the cannon to be positioned in the center of the superstructure, instead of being moved to the right, like on the previous chassis.
The armor was both bolted to an internal frame and partially welded (a great innovation for Italian vehicles) and had great thickness compared to Italian standards. The hull armor was 50 mm on top and 25 mm on the bottom. The superstructure had an armor plate 75 mm thick (some sources mention 70 mm) frontally, 45 mm on the sides, while the rear was protected by a plate 35 mm thick. A plate of the same thickness protected the back of the engine compartment.
The roof and floor of the vehicle were 15 mm thick. New to the vehicle were the side skirts that were divided into three parts. These were presumably 5 mm thick. They partially protected the sides of the vehicle. The side skirts had a hole in the back to allow the crew to be able to reach the track tension adjuster.
In general, the protection was increased compared to the 50 mm frontal, 35 mm side, and 20 mm on the rest of the frame of the previous M42, or the 50 mm frontal, 25 mm lateral, and 15 mm rear of the M41, even if the Italian industry was not able to provide ballistic steel of good quality. In fact, the Italian armor was fragile compared to the armor of equal thickness of other nations involved in the war. When an enemy round hit Italian armor, the armor often broke or splintered even without being penetrated, causing damage to the vehicle and/or crewmembers and leading to the need to send the vehicle to specialized workshops to replace the damaged armor plates.
On the roof, on the left side, there was the radio antenna, a fully rotatable periscope and an opening for the cannon. The commander was equipped with an optical sighting system produced by Ansaldo and weighing about 13 kg. On the left front mudguard, there was a support for the jack. On the sides of the superstructure, there were two headlights for night operations. The engine deck had two large inspection hatches equipped with grills for engine cooling. Behind them were the fuel tank cap and two grills for radiator cooling. At the rear, there was a spare wheel, a hole for the engine crank, the towing hook and a smoke grenade launcher system consisting of a launcher and a rack carrying smoke grenades to reload the launcher.
On either side of the engine deck, on the rear fenders, there were two storage boxes and the mufflers covered by a steel shield to protect them from impacts. Six racks for 20-liter cans were placed on the sides of the vehicle, three on each side, just like other Italian self-propelled guns and tanks. In fact, from 1942 onward, the racks were factory fitted on all vehicles, as most would have gone to operate in Africa, where the cans would have increased the range of the vehicle. It should be noted, however, that in the majority of cases, on the Semoventi M43 da 105/25, the cans were not transported because, in Italy, it was not that difficult to find fuel.
The suspension was a semi-elliptical leaf spring type. On each side, there were four bogies with eight doubled rubber road wheels paired on two suspension units in total. This suspension type was obsolete and did not allow the vehicle to reach a high top speed. In addition, it was very vulnerable to enemy fire and mines.
The tank had 26 cm wide tracks, with 86 track links per side. The drive sprockets were at the front and the idlers and track tension adjusting mechanism were at the back, with three rubber return rollers on each side. The small surface area of the tracks (20,800 cm²) caused a ground pressure of 0,76 kg/cm² (to give an example, the Soviet SU-100 had 0,56 kg/cm² and the German StuH 42 0,92 kg/cm²), increasing the risk that the vehicle would bog down in mud, snow or sand.
The main armament was a Cannone da 105/25 (sometimes also called Mod. S.F. ‘Serico’ for Spherical) produced by Ansaldo. It was developed on the basis of the Obice da 105/23 Mod. 1942, a howitzer developed by OTO-Melara as a prototype for divisional artillery together with the Obice da 105/40 Mod. 1938.
Unfortunately, the two prototypes were produced and tested by the Regio Esercito too late. 600 of the Mod. 1938 were ordered, but only a few were delivered before the Armistice of Cassibile. The Mod. 1942 was not ordered in time.
At least two prototypes of the Obice da 105/23 Mod. 1942 were produced. One, or perhaps more, were on a fielded carriage and one was on a spherical support meant for the prototype of the Semovente M43 da 105/25.
The field version of the gun had a maximum range of 13 km and a practical range of 2,000-2,500 m for anti-tank ammunition. It had a practical firing rate of 8 rounds per minute. Obviously, inside the narrow fighting compartment of the self-propelled gun, this dropped dramatically.
The gun weight is not given in the sources, but we can assume that it did not exceed one tonne together with its spherical support. The Cannone da 105/28 Mod. 1912, also produced by Ansaldo (and with which it shared the ammunition) had a barrel length of 2.987 m (compared to 2.6 m of the 105/25) and weighed 850 kg.
Thanks to the enlargement of the vehicle, the cannon’s spherical mount was centrally placed on the front plate. The gun had a horizontal traverse of 18° to the right and 18° to the left, as well as an elevation of +18° and a depression of -10°.
After the war, some 105/25 guns were used as anti-tank artillery in the bunkers of the fortification line called the “Alpine Wall”, on the border with Yugoslavia, in the early years of the Cold War.
No other data is available on this artillery piece due to the few units produced and their limited use.
The secondary armament consisted of a Breda Mod. 38 medium machine gun, a vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by the Italian infantry. The machine gun weighed 15.4 kg and was chambered with the 8×59 RB Breda cartridge. It was specially developed for Italian machine guns in 1935 and had a muzzle velocity of 775 m/s. The Breda Mod. 38 had a theoretical firing rate of 600 rounds per minute, which in practice dropped to about 350 rounds per minute. One of the advantages of this machine gun, in addition to its reliability, was its small size. In fact, the machine gun was only 89 cm long, taking up little space when stowed inside the vehicle.
Some sources claim that, due to the lack of Breda machine guns or for simple convenience, some German crews who received these self-propelled guns replaced the Breda Mod. 38 with German-made machine guns, such as the MG34 or MG42. This would have greatly increased the anti-aircraft firepower of the vehicle, but there is no photographic evidence or data confirming the use of Mauser machine guns on the self-propelled vehicles.
Although lacking interior space, the crew brought onboard the Semovente M43 their Carcano Mod. 91 rifles, MAB 38 submachine guns and OTO, Breda or SRCM Mod. 35 hand grenades or their German counterparts for close defense against enemy infantry.
The 105/25 Cannon could fire a wide range of projectiles:
Maximum Range (m)
Penetration at 1,000 m
Cartoccio Granata da 105 Mod. 32
Cartoccio Granata da 105 Mod. 36
Proietto Perforante da 105
72 mm at 90°
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto Speciale M43
9,400, effective 2,000-2,500
120 mm at 90°
The Cartoccio Granata da 105 Mod. 32 and the Cartoccio Granata da 105 Mod. 36 were almost identical, but the Mod. 36 with ADE M32 or ADE M36 nose percussion fuze could detonate the ammunition on impact or in the air.
Information about the anti-tank ammunition is provided only by some accounts. The muzzle velocity of the Armor-Piercing, Capped – Tracer (APC-T) was 500 m/s and it could pierce a maximum of 90 mm of ballistic steel inclined at 90° at 100 meters, 80 mm at 500 meters and about 60 mm at 2,000 meters.
The penetration and muzzle velocity of the Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds are unknown. The Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto Speciale M43 had a muzzle velocity of 510 m/s. It could pierce a 120 mm plate inclined at 90°. The maximum range was of 9,400 m with anti-tank effectiveness at a maximum distance of 2,000-2,500 m.
There were also smoke and incendiary projectiles developed for the field artillery version. These were apparently almost never used on the Semovente.
The Breda Mod. 38 machine gun was fed by top curved magazines with 24 bullets. This was not ideal, because it did not allow for continuous fire against aircraft or infantry.
The standard 8 mm ammunition had a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s and could penetrate a 11 mm RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) plate at 90° at a distance of 100 m.
Although hardly ever used on self-propelled guns, the machine gun could also fire M.39 AP (Armor Piercing) shells. The bullet weighed 12 grams and could penetrate an armor plate of 16 mm at 100 m.
In the wooden rack on the right of the vehicle, there were 864 shells, equivalent to 36 magazines.
Starting from the front of the vehicle, there was the transmission connected to the braking system, which had two armored inspection hatches. These could be opened from the outside by means of two handles, or from the inside by means of a knob located on the right side of the vehicle, which could be used by the gunner.
On the left was the driver’s position with the seat with a fold-down back for easy access. In front, it had the two steering tillers, an armored slot that could be closed with a lever and a hyposcope for driving with the slot closed. On the left was the control panel and, on the right, the gun breech.
Behind the driver, there was a box rack for twelve 105 mm rounds arranged in rows of 4 rounds, with a padding on top that also served as a seat for the loader. Behind this, there was a rack of 24 105 mm rounds, also arranged in rows of 4 rounds.
The loader had, on the left, the radio system and, above him, one of the two armored hatches. In case of an air attack, the loader would also have to use the anti-aircraft machine gun.
On the right side of the fighting compartment, there was the gunner’s/commander’s seat without a backrest. In front of his seat, the gunner had the elevation and swing handwheels. On the left was the gun breech. Interestingly, the lever for opening the breech was placed on the right side of the breech. This meant that, after firing, the gunner had to rotate his torso by about 90° (a very uncomfortable action in the narrow space) and open the breech.
On his right was the support for the anti-aircraft gun (when not in use), a maintenance kit and a fire extinguisher. Behind the support was a wooden rack for the ammunition of the machine gun. In order to prevent the magazines from falling on rough terrain, the rack had a closable curtain.
Behind the gunner/commander was the last ammunition rack with 12 105 mm rounds arranged in three rows of 4 rounds.
On the rear wall of the fighting compartment, there were four cumbersome filters for air, oil and two for the fuel. The engine fan, an engine cooling water tank, the batteries for engine ignition were also there, and the transmission shaft ran through the entire fighting compartment, dividing it in half.
The Semovente M43 da 105/25 was the only self-propelled gun of World War II armed with a 105 mm gun, but with only 3 crew members. The driver was positioned on the left of the vehicle. On his right was the gun breech. The commander/gunner was positioned on the right of the vehicle and loader/radio operator on the left, behind the driver.
Some sources state that the Germans preferred to add a fourth crewman behind the gunner, who would load the gun. The loader’s seat would be occupied by the commander/radio operator and the gunner would perform only one function. Obviously, adding a fourth crewman meant reducing the quantity of 105 mm ammunition on board and, above all, operating in a fighting compartment that was already cramped with three men.
The engine of the Semovente M43 da 105/25 was inherited from the previous self-propelled guns on the M42 chassis, which in turn inherited it from the M15/42. This was the FIAT-SPA T15B. ‘B’ stood for ‘Benzina’ (Eng. Petrol). This was a petrol water-cooled 11,980 cm³ engine developing 190 hp at 2400 rpm. It was developed by FIAT and one of its subsidiary companies, the Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA (Eng. Piedmontese Automobile Company). Previously, on Italian vehicles such as the M11/39, M13/40 and M14/41 and the self-propelled guns on their chassis (M40 and M41), the engine was a diesel. Due to the scarcity of fuel as early as the beginning of 1942, the Royal Italian Army converted to gasoline with the M15/42. However, due to the size of the 307 liter gasoline tank (compared to 145 liters-tanks of the previous diesel engined tanks) and the fire extinguishing system, the chassis was lengthened by 14 cm (5.06 m compared to 4.92 m of previous models).
The engine was quite reliable, with a power-to-weight ratio of 12 hp/tonne and was connected to the Fiat 8 F2 transmission (the same as on the previous vehicles) with four forward gears and one reverse gear. This guaranteed a maximum speed of 35 km/h and a range of 180 km.
The radio onboard the Semovente was the standard Italian tank equipment, the Magneti Marelli RF1CA produced in Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan. It had a weight of 13 kg. The transceiver had the possibility of adjusting the sensitivity of the amplifier by a two-position switch, ‘Vicino’ (Eng: near) for distances not exceeding 5 km and ‘Lontano’ (Eng: far) for distances between 5 and 12 km, the maximum range of the radio.
The equipment was placed on the left side of the hull, above the fender, under its standard 1.8 m high antenna that could be lowered 90° to the rear by means of a knob. The 8 watt radio transformer and four Magneti Marelli 3NF-12-1-24 batteries were on the radio’s right. Further to the right was the driver’s instrument panel.
The first Semoventi M43 da 105/25 were completed at the beginning of May 1943. The first self-propelled gun, plate number ‘R.E. 5846’, was delivered on 2nd July 1943, after testing at the tank crew School of the Royal Army in Nettunia, about fifty kilometers from Rome.
It was foreseen by the Regio Esercito that these vehicles would be used in Gruppi Corazzati (ENG. Armored Groups) of 12 self-propelled guns, subdivided into 3 platoons of 4 vehicles. These would have the task of supporting the actions of the P26/40, then at the beginning of production, and of the P30/43, which was still under development.
Five Armored Groups were created by the Regio Esercito, the DC° Gruppo Corazzato, DCI° Gruppo Corazzato, DCII° Gruppo Corazzato, DCIV° Gruppo Corazzato and DCV° Gruppo Corazzato.
On 25th July 1943, Mussolini was arrested by order of the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III d’Italia, and the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo (Eng: Grand Council of Fascism). The new government, presided over by Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio, ordered the Army to continue to fight alongside the Axis powers even if, almost immediately, in secret, it tried to negotiate an armistice with the Allies.
This situation brought much confusion to the soldiers who, in many cases, were not even informed about what had really happened in Rome.
Only the DCI° Gruppo Corazzato and the DCII° Gruppo Corazzato stationed at Nettunia for crew training received all 12 vehicles.
From what is reported, the DCI° Gruppo Corazzato, assigned to the 135ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete II’ (Eng. 135th Armored Division), was the only one to participate in military actions of the Regio Esercito, participating in the Defense of Rome on 9th September 1943.
As mentioned, Italian Prime Minister Badoglio tried to sign an armistice with the Allied powers and succeeded in his intent only on 3rd September 1943.
The official proclamation was made by U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower on Radio Algiers at 6.30 p.m. and then repeated by Pietro Badoglio in Italian on Radio EIAR at 7.42 p.m. on 8th September 1943.
Needless to say, this threw almost all units of the Royal Army into chaos, as they did not receive precise orders and were forced to act on their own initiative.
Immediately after the Armistice, the German command, which had foreseen the Italian defection, launched Fall Achse (Eng. Operation Axis), meant to take apart the Italian Royal Army.
On 9th September 1943, the morning after the radio announcement of the Armistice, the 135th Armored Division engaged German troops in the city of Cesano, and on the Via Ostiense leading to Rome.
It is not clear in which part of Rome they took part in the fighting, as the Armored Division fought in every neighborhood of Rome supporting the 21ª Divisione fanteria “Granatieri di Sardegna” (Eng. 21st Infantry Division) at Porta San Paolo, the members of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Eng. Italian Police of Africa) and the 18° Reggimento Bersaglieri (Eng. 18th Bersaglieri Regiment) near the Colosseum.
During the fighting, four Semoventi M43 da 105/25 of the DCI° Gruppo Corazzato were destroyed. It is not clear whether they were all destroyed by German weapons or whether some were sabotaged by the crews before escaping and joining the Italian partisan resistance or returning to their homes.
Immediately after the Armistice, the Germans launched Fall Achse, which lasted until 19th September 1943 and resulted in the deaths of between 20,000 and 30,000 Italian soldiers, the capture of just over one million Italian soldiers, 2,700 anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, 5,500 howitzers or field guns, 16,600 trucks or cars and 977 armored vehicles.
Among the 977 captured armored vehicles were the 26 surviving Semoventi M43 da 105/25, which were later renamed Beutepanzer Sturmgeschütz M43 mit 105/25 853(i) (Eng. Captured Assault Gun with 105/25 gun Italian).
For the duration of the war, the Germans received another 91 StuG M43 mit 105/25 853(i) produced after the Armistice. This means that the Wehrmacht used a total of 116 M43 mit 105/25.
While the Germans operated relatively large numbers of M-series tanks and some older Semovente in the Balkans for anti-partisan operations, the more modern Semovente M43 da 105/25 were only used in Italy. By the end of September 1943, the German units had around 221 (both 75 and 105 mm) Semovente at their disposal.
At the end of 1943, the 26th Panzer Division had 7, the 356th Infantry Division had 20 and the Panzer training unit Sued had two Semovente M43 da 105/25 vehicles. The greatest concentration of these vehicles was allocated to the SturmGeschütz Brigade 914 (Assault Gun Brigade) and SturmGeschütz Brigade 21. By February 1944, the 914th Brigade had some 31 Semovente da 105/25 in its inventory. The 21st Brigade continued to operate the Semovente da 105/25 up to the war’s end. By mid-March 1945, it had 56 such vehicles, three of which were given to this unit by the 356th Infantry Division.
The M43 da 105/25 was used by the German mainly in anti-tank roles when possible. The Italian vehicles, in general, were plagued by the lack of spare parts and ammunition. So the relatively large number of vehicles did not always necessarily mean that all were operational, as most would be often stored at the rear for much needed repairs. One occasion where the M43 da 105/25 was used was by Panzer Regiment 26 which attacked the Allied positions at Mozzagrogna at the end of November 1943. The attack was spearheaded by 6 Semovente (three 105 and three 75 mm) and five flame tanks (likely based on the CV series). The attack succeeded with the loss of one flame tank. The unit was later on attacked by Allied ground attack planes and decimated, with only one Semovente M43 da 105/25 managing to survive. The Germans were generally satisfied with the Semovente vehicles, but noted that these lacked proper observation sights, had insufficient frontal armor and a cramped crew compartment.
When production resumed, the Germans ordered the vehicles to be modified by adding four large teeth to the sprocket wheel, which decreased the risk of the tracks falling off or coming loose. Some sources also mention that the Germans had replaced the Italian radio system with a German one and also the machine guns, but there is no evidence of these changes.
Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano
After 8th September 1943, the Germans freed Benito Mussolini and took him to Germany to discuss the continuation of the war alongside the Axis with Adolf Hitler. On 23rd September, he returned to Italy as ‘Duce’ and founded the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng. Italian Social Republic), a collaborationist state in the territories not yet occupied by the Allies. Some Italian prisoners who had remained loyal to Mussolini immediately joined the new Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, ENR (Eng. National Republican Army).
This new army was armed with few armored vehicles, artillery pieces and any other type of military equipment because, after the armistice, the German soldiers no longer trusted their Italian allies.
A good part of the units of the new army and of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR (Eng. Republican National Guard), had to arm themselves as best they could. They produced several homemade vehicles or recovered abandoned vehicles in very bad condition from former Regio Esercito depots.
One of these units was the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ (Eng. Armored Group) which, during the last two years of the war, was equipped with only 7 L3/35 light tanks, 1 L6/40 light tank, 5 tanks of the ‘M’ series (4 M13/40 and 1 M15/42) and a Semovente M43 da 105/25, the latter from February 1945.
It is not clear how the unit took possession of the self-propelled gun. It is supposed that it was one of the examples in service since February 1944 with the 1° Deposito Carristi (Eng: 1st Tanker Depot) in Verona, where it would have been used for the training of tankers. According to the Army Staff, this vehicle had damaged optics.
The vehicle, part of the Squadrone Comando (Eng. Command Squadron), received the nickname ‘Terremoto’ (Eng. Earthquake) painted in capital letters on the front plate. It also had an Italian tricolor and, on the sides, a lion holding between the paws the fascio littorio, symbol of the Partito Fascista Italiano (Eng: Italian Fascist Party) and Italian flags.
From January to the first days of April, the vehicle was not used in anti-partisan actions, but only for training and was stationed in Polpenazze sul Garda, 130 km east of Milan, at the headquarters of the Armored Group. In April 1945, when the situation was desperate, the Command Squadron was stationed in Milan, avoiding the popular strike and insurrection, but without the Semovente. On the night of 24th April 1945, the day of the partisan insurrection that, in a few days, would lead to the complete loss of the main cities of Northern Italy, such as Turin, Genoa and Milan, a unit formed of the five ‘M’ series tanks, some light tanks and the Semovente, under the orders of the Armored Group Commander Gianluca Zuccaro, moved towards Milan.
During the night, an Allied aircraft noticed the column and attacked the unit repeatedly, but only with machine guns. It disabled an ‘M’ tank that was abandoned on the roadside the morning of 25th April.
After receiving orders to surrender from the Armored Group Headquarters, the tank crews sabotaged the vehicles near Cernusco sul Naviglio, 100 km from Polpenazze and surrendered to the partisans.
Semovente M43 da 75/34
This was a self-propelled gun built on the same hull, but with the Cannone da 75/34 cannon Mod. S.F., the same as on the Semoventi M42M da 75/34. Only 29 were built and they were only used by the Germans in tank destroyer Regiments in Italy and the Balkans. It had more internal space due to the smaller dimensions of the 75 mm cannon breech. The total number of rounds transported was 45, giving the crew more space.
Semovente M43 da 75/46
Developed in 1943, with heavy armament and armor, the main armament was a powerful Cannone da 75/46 C.A. Mod. 1934 and the welded armor had a maximum thickness of 100 mm on the frontal plate, the only Italian vehicle with this thickness. Eleven were built during 1944-1945 and only used by the German Army in one tank destroyer Regiment in the defence of the Gothic Line. One was captured by Brazilian soldiers in Piacenza and one was captured by partisans in Milan. None survived the war.
The Semovente M43 da 105/25 was produced in small numbers during the war and could make little contribution to the Axis forces during the war. Most were used by the Germans, but the lack of supplies and ammunition hindered their use. Their gun proved to be an excellent anti-tank artillery piece. Unfortunately, no M43 has survived to the present day.
Kingdom of Italy, 1942-1945, Medium tank – 167 built
The Carro Armato M15/42 was the last variant of the Italian ‘M’ tank series. It was in service from late 1942 to 1945 in small numbers. For the most part, it was used by the Wehrmacht. Compared to its predecessors, the M13/40 and M14/41, it had a much more powerful engine and a gun with greater anti-tank performance.
Development of the M15/42
In order to discuss the M15/42, its predecessors must be taken into consideration. The ‘M’ series was born in 1938, with the M11/39 (Medium 11 tonnes, Model 1939), itself developed from the Carro di Rottura da 10t (Eng. 10-tonne Breakthrough Tank). This vehicle was, in turn, inspired by the two Vickers 6 ton tanks that the Regio Esercito purchased from Britain in 1932.
Imagining that a hypothetical future war would be fought like World War I in the mountainous terrain of northern Italy, the designers developed a very light vehicle. This was done in order for it to cross small bridges and traverse narrow mountain roads. It had the cannon in the casemate because it was deemed that it was less likely to be attacked from the side in the mountains.
The vehicle was still a long way away from the shape of the M15/42, but the lower hull and suspension were almost unchanged between the two vehicles.
The M11/39 was armed with a 37/40 Vickers-Terni cannon in the casemate. It had a limited traverse range. There was also a single-seat turret equipped with two Breda Mod. 1938 machine guns. The vehicle, although modern, did not impress the Regio Esercito, which ordered only 100 units, produced between July 1939 and May 1940.
Considering the limited firepower of the M11/39 and its ineffectiveness in facing other tanks, Ansaldo modified the vehicle by equipping it with a two-seat revolving turret armed with a 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon. The previous gun position in the hull was replaced with a ball mount for two Breda Mod. 1938 machine guns.
The new M13/40 (Medio 13 tonnellate Modello 1940 – Medium 13 tonnes Model 1940) was presented in October 1939. After some modifications, it was accepted into production by the Regio Esercito. In November 1939, 400 units were ordered, with the first ones delivered only in July 1940.
The engine of the M13/40 was more powerful than the 105 hp FIAT SPA 8T of the M11/39. This improved power plant was the FIAT SPA 8T Mod. 1940 11,140 cm³ V8 diesel engine delivering 125 hp at 1,800 rpm, allowing a speed of 32 km/h for the M13/40. The tank had a weight of about 14 tonnes.
In August 1941, the first M14/41 (Medio 14 tonnellate Modello 1941 – Medium 14 tonnes Model 1941) came off the assembly line. It differed from the M13/40 in having reinforced fenders, some small external modifications, and the new FIAT SPA 15T Mod. 1941 11,980 cm³ V8 diesel engine delivering 145 hp at 1,900 rpm.
The ammunition supply remained unchanged, with 87 rounds for both the M13/40 of the third series and for the M14/40. A total of 710 M13/40s were produced in three different series and 695 M14/41s in two different production series.
In the winter of 1940 and 1941, the Regio Esercito, in great difficulty due to the numerous defeats on the various war fronts, turned to its closest ally, Germany, placing an order for 800 French tanks captured during the French Campaign.
Given the German difficulties, the order was later reduced to 450 French tanks that arrived in even smaller numbers. 109 Renault R35s, out of 350 ordered, and 33 Somua S35s, out of 50 ordered, were received, while the 50 Char B1 heavy tanks were never delivered. The 142 vehicles were delivered in 1941, but the lack of spare parts and ammunition did not allow their use and the Regio Esercito was forced to look for another solution.
Another request for help was sent to Germany in June 1941, which responded by proposing that FIAT purchase the production license for the Panzer III, at that time the Wehrmacht’s leading tank. FIAT agreed in August, but a clause was added that armament and optics had to be purchased from Germany, as well as half of the raw materials needed to produce the vehicles.
These restrictions led to the cancellation of the contract, as FIAT convinced the High Command of the Royal Army that they should not allow Germany to interfere in the Italian industry.
Also in June 1941, the Regio Esercito tested the Czechoslovakian Skoda T-21 medium tank. Due to pressure from Ansaldo and FIAT, the Army was forced to give up on the evaluation and possible production.
In order to avoid losing the monopoly on the production of armament for the Regio Esercito, Ansaldo and FIAT announced in the summer of 1941 that they would be able to put the P26/40 tank into production by the spring of 1942. This was the same period foreseen for the production of the first Italian Panzer III or Skoda T-21 tanks under license.
However, the Royal Army needed a new tank. This time, it no longer relied on FIAT and Ansaldo, but tested foreign material. The two leading companies in the Italian sector set to work in order to distract the High Command of the Royal Army from its research into alternative vehicles.
The two companies began to work together on the Carro Armato Medio Celere (Eng. Fast Medium Tank) ordered by the Royal Army at the beginning of 1941. Until then, it had remained in an embryonic state.
In June 1941, Ansaldo presented the mock-up of the Carro Armato Medio Celere, now called Carro Armato Celere Sahariano (Eng. Saharan Fast Tank). This was produced in a hurry by mounting a wooden superstructure on an M14/41 hull.
The project was slowed down by the development of Christie suspension and the prototype was ready only in the spring of 1942. The tests lasted until 1943, showing that the vehicle was well designed, but it was too late. The North African Campaign was coming to an end and the vehicle lost its purpose.
Due to delays in the production of the vehicle, FIAT and Ansaldo had to devise a stratagem to prevent the Royal Army from canceling the contract in favor of a foreign vehicle. In fact, in February 1942, Germany once again proposed the production of the Panzer IV under license.
After August 1942, the official Regio Esercito nomenclature for tanks changed from vehicle type, weight in tonnes, and year of production to type and year of production. For example, the M13/40 became the M40, the M14/41 became the M41, and the M15/42 became the M42.
Thus, the correct name for this vehicle would be M42. However, it was still called the M15/42 by the crews, and many book sources and contemporary companies call it the M15/42. In keeping with the popular usage, this article will use the M15/42 designation from here on.
History of the Prototype
In 1941, a 47 mm L.40 cannon was mounted in the turret of an M14/41, but continuous delays slowed down the project. Finally, in 1942, with the experience gained with the Carro Armato Celere Sahariano that mounted the same gun, it was possible to modify the turret to resist the firing recoil.
The M14/41 hull was also modified by lengthening it to accommodate a new gasoline engine with greater power than the FIAT SPA 15T. The side access hatch was also moved to the right side of the vehicle. After testing, the first batch of the new M15/42 Tank (Medio 15 tonnellate Modello 1942 – Medium 15 tonnes Model 1942) was ordered in October 1942.
In October 1942, after tests, 280 units were ordered, stopping the production of the M14/41.
In 1943, however, with the planned start of production of the P26/40 and with the obvious backwardness of the ‘M’ series, the High Command of the Royal Army decided to rely only on heavy tanks and self-propelled vehicles. They cut the order of M15/42s to 220 in March 1943.
Entering production in autumn 1942, the first vehicle was registered on November 21st, 1942, with plate number R.E. 5022, and assigned to the Centro Carristi di Civitavecchia on November 28th in order to train new crews.
The data on the production of the M15/42 are very discordant. Some sources claim numbers even beyond the two hundred units produced during the war.
An Ansaldo source states that the first batch of 103 vehicles was produced in 1942 and a second batch of 36 by March 1943. A third batch of 80 was due by December 1943 but was never fully completed.
The number of 103 vehicles produced between October and December 1942 seems slightly exaggerated given the short period of time and state of the Italian armament industry. According to this document, 139 M15/42 were produced by March 1943, plus another unspecified number between March and September, before the armistice.
After the armistice, 28 M15/42 were produced for the Germans in 1944. The total number of M15/42s produced should be at least 167, while the maximum number could be at most 248 (considering the entire last batch was finished in addition to the German vehicles).
At the front, the rounded transmission cover had two hooks and a towing ring. There were also two inspection hatches above the clutch. The two hatches could be opened or closed from the inside of the vehicle even while driving by means of a lever located on the right side of the chassis. This allowed the driver to better cool the clutch while driving if needed and when not in combat.
On the right side, the front superstructure had a ball mount armed with two machine guns. On the left side, there was a slot for the driver, who also had a hyposcope for use when the hatch was closed. For night driving, there were two headlights on the sides of the superstructure.
On the left side of the superstructure, there was a pistol port behind the headlight, used for close defense. Three canister holders were mounted on this side. These were used to carry fuel to increase the range of the vehicle. On the right side, there was a large hatch for crew access. It was also equipped with a pistol port for close defense.
On the rear side of the superstructure, there were two more pistol ports and an air intake. On the mudguards, behind the superstructure, were a glove box on each side and the mufflers behind. These were equipped with a heat sink.
In order to make room for the new engine, the engine compartment was lengthened by 14 centimeters (5.06 meters length compared to the 4.92 meters of the M13/40 and M14/41). Because of the lengthening, extra armor plates were added and the track tensioning system was modified. The engine deck received inspection hatches which could be opened at 45°. Cooling grills were added. Between the two inspection hatches there were the tools, including a shovel, a pickaxe, a crowbar, and a track removal system.
The rear of the vehicle was completely redesigned compared to previous ‘M’ series tanks. The radiator cooling grills were much larger and the rear was much more sloped. The rear had a towing ring and two hooks, two spare wheels, and a license plate. There was a brake light on the left side.
During production, a smoke launcher was added to the rear. In order to make room for it, one of the two spare wheels was removed. The jack that was previously positioned on the back was moved to the front, on the left fender, in front of the superstructure. This was like on the M13/40 first Series.
The armor thickness was slightly increased compared to the previous models of the ‘M’ series. The frontal armor of the transmission cover was rounded and 30 mm thick. The frontal plate of the hull, inclined at 12°, was 42 mm thick. The sides of the hull and superstructure, inclined at 8°, were 25 mm thick. The back of the superstructure was 25 mm thick, while the back of the hull was 20 mm thick.
The turret, on the other hand, had a maximum armor of 50 mm on the mantlet and 45 mm frontally inclined at 13°. The sides and the back were 25 mm inclined at 20°. The roof of the hull and of the turret and the engine deck had a thickness of 15 mm, while the floor of the hull had a thickness of only 6 mm.
The armor was bolted to an internal frame, making the structure more fragile but with faster replacement of damaged armor plates than models with welded or cast armor.
The armor was produced with low-quality steel because, while the demand for ballistic steel to produce armored vehicles had increased since 1939, the Italian industry was not able to supply very large quantities of high-quality steel. This was further worsened because of the embargoes that hit Italy in 1935-1936 due to the invasion of Ethiopia and the almost total isolation after 1940.
In fact, the Kingdom of Italy counted on the fact that, in case of entry into the war on the German side, their new allies would supply the majority of raw materials needed to produce high-quality steel. Obviously, starting in 1942, Germany could not supply these large quantities of raw materials since it had to replace its own losses.
The suspension was of the semi-elliptical leaf spring type. On each side, there were four bogies with eight doubled rubber road wheels paired on two suspension units in total. This suspension type was obsolete and did not allow the vehicle to reach a high top speed. In addition, it was very vulnerable to enemy fire or mines. Due to the lengthening of the hull, one of the two suspension units was mounted a few inches back.
The tank had 26 cm wide tracks with 86 track links per side, 6 more than the other tanks of the ‘M’ series due to the hull lengthening. The drive sprockets were at the front and the idlers with modified track tension adjusters at the back, with three rubber return rollers on each side. The small surface area of the tracks (20,800 cm²) caused a ground pressure of 0.76 kg/cm², increasing the risk that the vehicle would bog down in mud, snow, or sand.
The two-seat turret had a narrow mantlet armed with a 47 mm cannon and a coaxial machine gun on the left. There was a turret basket attached to the turret, with a support connected to a circular platform above the transmission shaft. Two folding seats for the loader and the commander were welded on the same support.
In addition to the gun breech and the machine gun, the gunsight was on the right, while a small rack for 13 magazines for the machine gun was on the far left.
On the roof of the turret, there was a rectangular split hatch, two panoramic monocular periscopes produced by the company San Giorgio, a bulge that allowed better depression for the cannon and a support for the anti-aircraft machine gun.
On the sides were two pistol ports for viewing the exterior and for close defense. At the back were stowed ready-to-use 47 mm rounds in two different racks.
The main armament of the M15/42 was the Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938. It was a significantly more powerful cannon than the 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon used on the Semovente L40 da 47/32 and the previous M13/40 and M14/41 medium tanks.
This cannon was also used on the AB43 ‘Cannone’ and the Carro Armato Celere Sahariano. It was developed starting from the 47/32 Mod. 1935 in 1938 and was produced only for vehicles. It was made by the Ansaldo-Fossati factory of Genoa. The elevation in the M15/42 turret was +20° and the depression was -10°. The maximum firing rate, thanks to the semi-automatic breech, was 14 rounds per minute. Due to the reduced space inside the vehicle, in practice, this dropped to about 8-10 rounds per minute.
The cannon had a maximum range of about 9,000 m, but its effective anti-tank range was only 1,200 to 1,500 m.
In addition to the 38 cm longer barrel (1.88 meters compared to 1.5 meters), the breech was larger. This meant that it could fire round with a longer casing, increasing the muzzle velocity, the accuracy at long range, and penetration.
The secondary armament consisted of four 8 mm Breda Mod. 38 machine guns, one mounted coaxially on the left side of the gun, two in the hull’s spherical mount, and a fourth which could be mounted on the anti-aircraft support on the turret roof.
These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by the Italian infantry and had a top curved 24-round magazine.
In 1943, smoke grenade launchers were introduced. Smoke grenades were stored in a box mounted on the right side of the rear of the engine compartment. A box for carrying smoke grenades was also mounted on the rear of the superstructure, above the protective plate of the air intake.
When activated, the box would drop a smoke grenade, masking the position of the vehicle. It is unclear how effective this rear-mounted system was, but it was fitted to all vehicles produced from 1943 onwards, including the last series of AB41 and AB43 armored cars.
The Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938 used the same ammunition as the previous Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935 gun, but its cartridges were 10 centimeters (32,8 centimeters versus 22,7 centimeters) longer. This increased the muzzle velocity by 43%. This also increased precision and penetration.
The ammunition types consisted of:
Cartoccio Granata da 47 mod. 35. High Explosive (HE) with percussion fuze mod. 35 or mod. 39.
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. This allowed the use of 328 mm long shell casings, instead of the 227 mm ones on the previous gun. 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.
The Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto Speciale could penetrate 112 mm at 100 m and 43 mm at 1,000 m, instead of the 30 mm at 1,000 m of the 47/32 Mod. 1935 round.
The M15/42 carried a total of 111 shells onboard in three different racks. The first two unprotected racks were in the turret and contained 9 rounds each. The third, containing 93 47 mm shells, was positioned on the bottom of the hull.
None of the racks were armored. Often, when the racks on the back of the turret were hit, the result was a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the machine. The same thing is true for the rack in the hull even if, because of its lower position, it was rarely hit.
For the Breda machine guns, there were 108 magazines of 24 rounds each, for a total of 2,592 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, 54 on the left side and 41 on the right side, with 13 more carried in the turret.
At the front of the fighting compartment were the transmission and the braking system. On the left side of the superstructure was the driver’s seat, which has a folding backrest to facilitate access. In front of this position, the driver had a large slit with a lever used to open or close it. Above the slit was the hyposcope.
The driver also had two tillers to move the vehicle. The handbrake handle was on the left, while the gearshift was on the right. On the left side was the dashboard, a box with spare hyposcopes, and the pistol port. Behind the dashboard, there were racks for machine gun magazines.
On the right-hand side was the machine gunner, who also sat on a folding seat. In front of the machine gunner were the machine guns while, on the right, there were some magazines for the two weapons and the radio.
In the middle of the right side was the access hatch. On the lower side was the storage place for the anti-aircraft machine gun, which was fixed to the hull with straps. In the middle of the vehicle was the transmission shaft, which was largely covered by the circular platform which served as a floor for the two crew members in the turret.
On the left side, at the bottom of the hull, was the largest 47 mm ammunition rack. The rear of the superstructure had two large cylindrical filters and the engine coolant tank. On the floor and on the sides of the superstructure were more racks for machine gun magazines.
The engine of the M15/42 medium tank was inherited from previous tanks of the ‘M’ series. However, in addition to the increase in displacement that increased the overall performance of the vehicle, the novelty was that the new engine worked on gasoline. The change of fuel from diesel to gasoline was due to the fact that the Italian diesel reserves were now almost completely exhausted.
The new FIAT-SPA T15B (‘B’ for ‘Benzina’) petrol water-cooled 11,980 cm³ engine developed 190 hp at 2,400 rpm. It was designed by FIAT and one of its subsidiary companies, the Società Piemontese Automobili, or SPA (Eng. Piedmontese Automobile Company). It gave the vehicle a maximum velocity of 38 km/h on-road and 20 km/h off-road. It had an on-road range of 220 km and an off-road range of 130 km, or 12 operational hours.
Thanks to the increased space in the engine compartment, the tank’s fuel tanks were increased to 367 liters in the main tanks, plus 40 liters in the reserve tank. This gave a total of 407 liters. The fuel consumption was almost two liters of gasoline per kilometer.
The engine was better suited to the new vehicle, with a power-to-weight ratio of just under 13 hp/tonne. It was connected to a new transmission produced by FIAT, with five forward and one reverse gears, one gear more than the previous vehicles.
The crew was composed of four. A driver on the left side of the hull and machine-gunner/radio operator on his right. Behind them, sitting in the turret, were the tank commander/gunner on the right and the loader on the left.
The crew of 4 was insufficient. The tank commander had to perform too many tasks, having to give orders to the rest of the crew, examine the battlefield, find targets, aim at them, and fire.
The Regio Esercito received about a hundred M42s by September 1943. However, the Army was never able to use these vehicles, except during the clashes against the Germans between September 8th and 11th 1943. In Sicily and Southern Italy, the M15/42 was never sent to fight the Allied troops. The Regio Esercito used them only for the training of the crews and in the new armored units it had created after the loss of Tunisia.
85 M42s were assigned to the 135ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete II” (Eng. 135th Armored Division “Ariete II”) together with 12 M42 Centro Radio,164 other tanks (medium and light) and self-propelled guns, and 80 AB41 armored cars and AS42 and AS43 trucks. This unit was formed in July 1943 and was part of the Corpo d’Armata Motocorazzato (Eng. Armored Motor Corps). It was stationed in Rome.
After the fall of Benito Mussolini on July 25th, 1943, at the behest of the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II, the Italian Marshal Pietro Badoglio was brought in to command the army. He continued the war on the side of the German allies but secretly tried to make contact with the Allied powers to surrender.
The Chief of Staff of the Royal Army, Vittorio Ambrosio, moved the Armored Corps to Rome for two reasons. The first was to defend the capital from a possible Allied landing. The second was to defend Rome from a possible coup attempt by the fascists still loyal to Benito Mussolini.
The Armored Motor Corps was formed from the 10ª Divisione fanteria “Piave” (Eng. 10th Infantry Division “Piave”), the 136ª Divisione Corazzata “Centauro II” (Eng. 136th Armored Division “Centauro II”) (not considered loyal to the King, but to Mussolini) and the 21ª Divisione fanteria “Granatieri di Sardegna” (Eng. 21st Infantry Division “Granatieri di Sardegna”). It was equipped with 11 self-propelled guns and 31 tanks of the ‘M’ series (probably including some M15/42s).
Obviously, there were other units in Rome, such as the 220ª and 221ª Divisioni della Difesa Costiera (Eng. 220th and 221st Coastal Defense Divisions), 103ª Divisione fanteria “Piacenza” (Eng. 103rd Infantry Division “Piacenza”), the X° Reggimento Arditi (Eng. 10th Regiment Arditi), as well as smaller units, such as those of the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali (Eng. Royal Carabiners Corps), the Corpo della Regia Guardia di Finanza (Eng. Corps of the Royal Finance Guard) and the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Eng. Italian African Police). This totaled 88,137 soldiers, 124 tanks, 257 self-propelled guns, 122 armored cars and trucks, and 615 cannons and howitzers in the capital.
The proclamation of the surrender was made by Pietro Badoglio on Radio Algiers at 0745 pm, on September 8th, 1943, catching the Italian troops unprepared, as they did not expect the surrender.
The Germans were, however, not unprepared for the Italian defection. They had already prepared Fall Achse (Eng. Operation Axis). In the north of Rome, they had at their disposal about 25,000 soldiers, 71 tanks, 54 self-propelled guns, 196 armored cars and 165 cannons.
Already by 1000 pm, the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division “Ramke” (Eng. 2nd Parachute Division “Ramke”) attacked the airport of Pratica di Mare, which was 30 km south of Rome. During the morning of September 9th, German units repeatedly attacked a stronghold of the 135ª Divisione corazzata “Ariete II”. This position resisted throughout the day, losing 4 tanks and 20 soldiers.
Other units of the 135ª Divisione corazzata “Ariete II” were in the area between Bracciano and Menziana. They blocked the 3. Panzergrenadier Division, which had to give up the attack against Rome, heading towards Naples.
The men of the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division succeeded in forcing the Italian troops to retreat inside the city on September 9th and restarted the attack on September 10th. The 21ª Divisione fanteria “Granatieri di Sardegna” had established itself at Porta San Paolo, part of the ancient Roman walls, together with some groups of Allievi Carabinieri and other units of the Royal Army. They were also supported by several civilians who took to the streets either unarmed or armed with hunting weapons.
The 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division was slowed down significantly and, only at 1700 pm managed to penetrate the rather poorly organized Italian defenses.
In the fight for the Porta San Paolo and in the defense of the nearby Forte Ostiense, some ‘M’ series tanks of the 135ª Divisione corazzata “Ariete II” were damaged or destroyed by German troops. The numbers and the exact model of the vehicles are unknown, it can only be assumed that there were some M15/42s among them.
During the clashes of Porta San Paolo, a Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger hit an ‘M’ tank of an unknown model. Only one member of the crew survived, saved by a young civilian woman who, under German fire, climbed into the vehicle, pulling him out of the turret and carrying him to safety.
At 1600 pm on September 10th, 1943, the Italian command proclaimed Rome an “Open City”, even if some Italian units fought until the evening. Most of the Italian soldiers surrendered to the Germans while others, along with civilians, fled the city to form the first partisan nuclei.
In the battle for Rome, 1,167 Italians died, of which between 200 and 400 were civilians. 597 Italians fell at Porta San Paolo, of which 414 military and 183 civilians.
The fate of the Italian vehicles present in Rome was threefold. Most were captured by the Germans or were handed over intact by the units that surrendered. Others were sabotaged by the crews before surrendering to the Germans. A small number were hidden from the Germans, waiting for the right time to use them.
In addition to Rome, the Regio Esercito defended itself also in Piombino, a Tuscan seaside town, where the Germans had landed on September 9th to occupy the city. The XIX Battaglione of the 31° Reggimento Carristi (Eng. 19th Battalion of the 31st Carristi Regiment), equipped with 20 tanks of the ‘M’ series (among which probably some M15/42s) and 18 M42 self-propelled guns contained the German troops until September 11th with heavy losses.
The CCCCXXXIII Battaglioni Complementi Carri M (Eng. 433rd Tank Complement Battalions ‘M’), which had training duties, was in Fidenza. After receiving news that the Germans were besieging Parma, at 0100 pm on September 9th, in the absence of orders, the unit unilaterally took the decision to support the troops in Parma. At 0530 PM, the unit left with 1 M15/42 tank, 7 Semoventi da 75/18 and 12 Autocannoni da 20/65 su SPA Dovunque.
Having had training duties, the vehicles had racks full of target practice rounds and had only 5 live rounds on board. The Germans discovered the column and organized an ambush outside Parma, knocking out 3 self-propelled guns and capturing another one.
The other vehicles managed to enter the city, creating a defensive perimeter until 0800 am, when the ammunition ran out and the CCCCXXXIII Battaglioni Complementi Carri M was forced to surrender after having sabotaged the vehicles.
Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano
After the Armistice, the Fall Achse operation, which lasted until September 19th, 1943, resulted in the killing of between 20,000 and 30,000 Italian soldiers and the capture of just over one million Italian soldiers, 2,700 anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, 5,500 howitzers or field guns, 16,600 trucks or cars, and 977 armored vehicles.
A small part of Italian soldiers immediately sided with the Germans but was deprived of their armored vehicles. The majority of Italian soldiers were captured and placed in prison or concentration camps until September 23rd, 1943, when Benito Mussolini returned to Italy after his release. He founded the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng. Italian Social Republic) in Salò, in the province of Brescia.
Many Italian soldiers loyal to Mussolini and fascism adhered to the new republic, joining the new Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (Eng. National Republican Army). They were then released from prison and re-equipped.
Given previous events following the Armistice, the German soldiers did not trust the Italians and they re-equipped them with few Italian tanks, preferring to keep the captured tanks for themselves and, where possible, to replace their own losses.
The Italian soldiers were thus forced to re-equip themselves with the few armored vehicles not seized by the Germans, by looking for vehicles abandoned and hidden by the crews after September 8th or by repairing some damaged ones.
The Gruppo Corazzato “Leoncello” (Eng. Armored Group “Leoncello”) was established in September 1943 with the aim of defending the Ministry of the Armed Forces in Polpenazze del Garda, in the province of Brescia. It was commanded by Captain Gianluca Zuccaro.
Initially named Battaglione Carri dell’Autodrappello Ministeriale delle Forze Armate (Eng. Tank Battalion of the Armored Group of the Armed Forces Ministry), it was established without the authorization of the Germans. The group recovered armored vehicles from almost everywhere in Lombardy, Veneto, and Piedmont.
At the end of 1944, it received 5 tanks of the “M” series from the 27° Deposito Misto Provinciale (Eng. 27th Provincial Mixed Depot) of Verona. Four M13/40s and one M15/42s were used only in training and exercises until April 1945.
On the evening of April 24th, 1945, General Graziani himself called at Polpenazze del Garda and ordered the Squadrone Comando (Eng. Command Squadron), which had the 5 tanks of the “M” series, a Semovente da 105/25 M43 and some L3 light tanks, to move towards Milan.
During the night march, one of the five ‘M’ tanks was abandoned due to a breakdown following an Allied air attack (with only machine guns). In the morning, at Cernusco sul Naviglio, 100 km from Polpenazze, the squadron received the order to surrender, managing to sabotage two ‘M’ tanks and the Semovente M43 before surrendering to the partisans.
It is not clear if the M15/42 was sabotaged or was hit by the aircraft, but the two vehicles captured by the partisans were M13/40s.
Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana
For the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR (Eng. Republican National Guard), the situation was more drastic, as the ENR, some soldiers in prison camps swore allegiance to Mussolini and Nazi Germany, and those who did not join the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano joined the GNR but only the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” (Eng. Armored Group “Leonessa”, not to be confused with “Leoncello”) was able to recover some ‘M’ series tanks.
Some were recovered from Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia Romagna. According to some German documents, about thirty ‘M’ tanks were recovered from a unit in Milan before being dismantled.
Of these thirty or so tanks recovered in Milan, at least five were put back into service, while the others were used for spare parts. In total, the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” had 33 tanks of the “M” series (of which only a small number were M15/42s) and two M42 command tanks.
The 33 tanks were deployed with the four companies of the unit located in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia Romagna.
There is only one record about the M15/42s of the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa”, from December 16th 1944 in Milan. There, a large parade was held in honor of Benito Mussolini visiting the city. After the parade, Mussolini paid a visit to the Distaccamento di Milano (Eng. Milan Detachment) that had at least 2 M15/42s. He climbed on the turret of the M15/42 under the command of Vice Brigadier Donati, haranguing the gathered soldiers and people.
The units that used them in Yugoslavia also had other M-series tanks in their inventory, which may sometimes lead to confusion. Another quite common issue with determining the precise type of tanks was the poor knowledge of the Partisans in identifying the enemy armor. Being that the Italian M-series tanks were quite similar to each other, distinguishing them was not always an easy task.
Some M15/42 used by the Panzer Abteilung 202 were used to defend the vital Belgrade-Zagreb railway line during mid-1944. During skirmishes against partisans, many M15/42s were also damaged or lost by anti-tank gunfire.
During the Battle for Belgrade, there was an accident when a Soviet T-34 rammed an M15/42 and completely turned it on its side.
From late October 1944 onwards, Panzer Abteilung 202 would be involved in the German defense line on the so-called Syrmian Front in the northern parts of Yugoslavia.
At the end of the war, what was left of the equipment of Panzer Abteilung 202, which was attempting to evacuate from Yugoslavia, was captured by the Partisans in Slovenia.
Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 was another unit stationed in Yugoslavia from 1941. It was heavily involved in fighting the Partisan forces there. At the beginning of March 1944, Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 was in the process of reorganization and the older French tanks were slowly being replaced with Italian-built vehicles. By April 1944, there were some 42 Italian-built M15/42 tanks in use by this unit.
Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 had some 33 M15/42 tanks reported in October, which were reduced to 15 vehicles by the end of the following month.
The M15/42 tanks employed by the Germans in Yugoslavia were plagued by a lack of spare parts, ammunition and fuel. Many tanks were not used in combat, as they needed constant maintenance and repairs, and, too often, these would be simply cannibalized for spare parts.
Another unit that used M15/42s was the SS Panzer Abteilung 105, which was part of V-SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps. It was involved in fighting Bosnian Partisans during 1944.
At the end of 1944, when the unit was recalled to Germany, it had 5 M15/42 tanks in its inventory. While the unit fought the Soviets in the defense of Frankfurt, it is unknown if by that time it still possessed any M15/42 tanks.
Yugoslav Partisan service
The Yugoslav Communist resistance movement managed to capture a number of M15/42 tanks. Some of these were probably used in combat, while smaller numbers were even used as training vehicles. The M15/42s were also used in military victory parades, like the one held in Kragujevac in May 1945. Following the end of the war, the M15/42s, together with other captured vehicles, was employed by the new Yugoslavian People’s Army. Their use would be quite limited due to the general lack of spare parts and ammunition. Nearly all would be scrapped a few years later, with one vehicle being preserved at the Belgrade Military Museum.
Camouflage and Markings
The Italian Royal Army received most of its M15/42s in Kaki Sahariano (Eng. Saharan Khaki). Only in late 1943 did some M42s receive the Continental three-tone camouflage (Eng. Continental). This was a Kaki Sahariano base color with dark green and reddish-brown spots.
Some photos show an unusual two-tone camouflage, quite surely applied independently by some crews during training in Italy in the summer of 1943.
The vehicles of the Gruppo Corazzato “Leoncello” were painted in standard Saharan khaki camouflage with the department’s coat of arms on the sides of the turret, a tricolor on the sides of the turret and on the front plate of the hull.
On one vehicle, on the front plate, the nickname “DERTHONA” (name of the Tortona soccer team) was painted in capital letters, along with the name Silvio Pelati, perhaps a dead comrade, a footballer or the name of the driver.
The M15/42 and M42 command tanks of Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” were painted in standard Kaki Sahariano with the symbol of the unit, a red M with the fascio littorio, symbol of Italian Fascism, and the inscription GNR until late 1944. After that, all vehicles were repainted with a three-tone camouflage called Continentale, in some cases covering the symbol of the department.
In the case of the M15/42 of the Distaccamento di Milano, in addition to the ‘M’, a white thunderbolt whose meaning is unknown was painted on the turret.
Wehrmacht troops repainted captured vehicles in Saharan Khaki with two- or three-tone spot or line camouflage, depending on the unit employing them. The 28 vehicles produced for the Germans, on the other hand, received Continental camouflage at the factory. Pz.Abt.202 camouflaged its vehicles with dark green spots. This unit also received newly produced vehicles.
Carro centro radio
Like in previous versions, the M15/42 chassis was used for a modified command tank variant (carro centro radio/ radio tank). For the modification, the turret was removed, the superstructure’s twin-machine guns were sometimes replaced with a 13 mm heavy machine gun, and, lastly, extra radio equipment was added. By the time of the September Armistice, some 45 M15/42 CC vehicles had been built. An additional 40 vehicles were built after September 1943 under German control.
The M15/42 was also used as a field modification by replacing its original turret with one taken from a Panzer 38(t). This vehicle is quite a mystery regarding who made it and why. What is known is that it was built during 1944 or in early 1945.
Semovente M42 da 75/18 and M42M da 75/34
Due to the general ineffectiveness of their tank designs, the Italians introduced a series of vehicles called Semovente. These used tank chassis (starting from the M13) by replacing the superstructure and turret with an enclosed casemate and a 75/18 mm gun. The M15/42 chassis was also used in this manner. By the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943, around 200 vehicles were built. Under German supervision, an additional 55 vehicles were built with the materials available on hand.
The Semovente based on the M15/42 was further improved by adding the longer 75/34 gun. By May 1943, some 60 vehicles would be completed by the Italians. An additional 80 new vehicles would be built by the Germans after the Italian Armistice.
In total, thirteen M15/42s have survived to this day. Only three are outside Italy.
One of those three is at the Musée des Blindés of Saumur, France. Another is exhibited in the Belgrade Military Museum, in not a great condition. The last M15/42 outside Italy is in a private collection in the San Marino Republic and is in running condition.
In Italy, of the ten vehicles that survived, eight are conserved in military barracks around Italy. One is at the Caserma “de Carli” of the 132º Reggimento carri in Cordenons, Friuli Venezia Giulia. One is at the Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare in Cecchignola, near Rome, and another one is in the Museo Storico Italiano della Guerra in Rovereto, northern Italy.
The M15/42 was built by the Italians as a makeshift solution to their need for a better tank design. While it offered some improvements over the previous M13/40 and M14/41 series, by the time it was ready for service, it was already obsolete. Its armor and firepower were simply insufficient in comparison to the enemy tanks that would be used against. While less than 200 would be built, ironically, their use by the Italians was minimal at best.
The Germans managed to get their hands on nearly all M15/42s. These were used against the Yugoslav Partisans in the Balkans. Their performance was limited, due to many factors, including a lack of spare parts and frequent breakdowns, which prevented many vehicles from being used in combat. They did achieve some success against poorly armed Partisans, who lacked proper anti-tank weapons. Once the Soviets started to closely support these fighters with modern tanks, the M15/42 was unable to do much.
In the end the M15/42 proved to be a quick solution to the Italian need for a proper tank, but it ultimately failed in this regard.
Semovente da 75/18 specifications
5.06 x 2.28 x 2.37 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
15.5 tons battle ready
4 (Commander/gunner, loader, machine gunner and driver)
FIAT-SPA T15B, petrol, water-cooled 11,980 cm³, 190 hp at 2400 rpm with 407 liters
Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 38 with 111 rounds and 3 or 4 Breda Mod. 1938 with 2,592 rounds
Germany 1943 – 1945, Light Self-Propelled Gun – 194 captured and produced
The Semovente L40 da 47/32 was an Italian light Self-Propelled Gun (SPG) developed as an infantry support vehicle. It entered service in 1942, immediately proving to be obsolete. The Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army) used it until September 1943, when the Cassibile Armistice was signed, the Italian Royal Army was disbanded and the Italian peninsula not yet under Allied hands was occupied by the German troops.
After the armistice, from 1943 to 1945, all the surviving Semoventi (Italian world for self-propelled guns, Semovente singular) that were deployed, not only in Italy, but also in the Balkans, were captured by the armies or militias in the area.
The Semovente L40 da 47/32
The development of a new light infantry support gun that could support the assault of the Bersaglieri units (Eng: Italian Light Assault Troops) started in the late 1930s, but the first two prototypes were not accepted into service.
Another prototype development started in January 1941. On May 10th, it was presented to the Royal Army. After the tests, the Italian Royal Army High Command requested some changes to the prototype. It was renamed Semovente Leggero Modello 1940 da 47/32 or Semovente L40 da 47/32 (Eng: Lightweight Self-Propelled Gun Model 1942 armed with 47/32).
A total of 402 vehicles were produced under Italian and German control based on the hull of the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank.
German Operation Achse
After the arrest of Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Partito Nazionale Fascista Italiano (Eng. Italian National Fascist Party), on July 25th 1943, the Germans had foreseen the Italian surrender. They planned Fall Achse (Eng: Operation Axis), which they launched on September 8th when the signing of the Armistice of Cassibile (which had been secretly signed on September 5th by the Italian Royal Army and Allied Forces) was made public. In 12 days, the German troops managed to occupy all the Italian command centers and divisions in Italy and in the other occupied territories.
The Germans captured all the Italian factories that produced armaments or military equipment. They also captured 977 Italian armored fighting vehicles, of which about 400 were tanks and self-propelled guns, 16,631 trucks, over 5,500 artillery pieces, 2,754 anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, over 8,000 mortars, 1,285,000 rifles, 39,000 machine guns, and 13,000 submachine guns. They imprisoned 1,006,730 Italian soldiers stationed in Italy, the Balkans, Greece, and France.
By October 1st, 1943, Wehrmacht documentation stated that German units had captured 78 L40 da 47/32s in all occupied territories (including the 20 L40s produced before the Armistice and not delivered). In German service, this vehicle was known as the Sturmgeschütz L6 mit 47/32 770(i). For this reason, some sources wrongly call it Semovente L6 or StuG L6.
In addition, many former Italian factories, such as FIAT, Lancia, Breda, and Ansaldo-Fossati, were also under German control. With this and with the acquisition of many spare parts and materials, it was possible to restart the production of nearly all Italian vehicles. This was the case with the Semovente L40 da 47/32, with the Germans producing 74 new Sturmgeschütz L6 mit 47/32 770(i).
Under German control, another 46 Command and Radio Center vehicles on the L40 hull were produced, which brings the total number of L40 produced by the Germans to 120 units.
Operational service in Italy
While the Semovente L40 da 47/32s were available in some numbers, their use in Italy by the Germans was limited. The units that had this vehicle in Italy were the 305. and 356. Infanterie Divisionen, Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 590, 114. Jäger Division and the 20. Luftwaffe-Field-Division.
The 305. Infanterie Division fought between September 8th and 10th to occupy the port of La Spezia. It was transferred in the following weeks to near Rome, where it was supplied with some Italian vehicles, among which were some L40 from 47/32s.
The 305. Division then defended the Gothic Line and the Gustav Line before surrendering, together with most of the German divisions that remained after the Battle of Bologna, on the Po River.
The 356. Infanterie Division fought in anti-partisan actions between November 1943 and January 1944. It was transferred to Anzio and was provided with the self-propelled L40 vehicles along the way.
The unit fought fiercely for the defense of the region together with the Italian Republican National Army units until they were forced to retreat along the Gustav Line in March 1944. After the Gustav Line was broken through, the unit fought in Tuscany. retreating to the south of Florence in July 1944. In January 1945, it was transferred to Hungary but, according to the surviving documents, it was no longer equipped with Italian self-propelled vehicles.
The Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 590 was used from June 13th to September 14th, 1944 to secure central Italy. In order to perform this task, the unit was provided with some L40 self-propelled vehicles. From September 15th, 1944 to January 15th, 1945, the unit was involved in defensive combat in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Due to the scarcity of artillery towing vehicles and the obsolescence of the self-propelled L40 variants, many self-propelled vehicles were modified by removing the cannon to be used as artillery tractors.
From April 22nd to May 2nd, 1945, the unit was involved in the fighting retreat, desperately battling against the Allied forces.
The 114. Jäger Division was transferred to Italy from Yugoslavia in January 1944. It was supplied with material captured from the Italian Army, including some L40 self-propelled vehicles. After the Battle of Anzio, the unit was employed only in anti-partisan roles. It was responsible or co-responsible for three different massacres in the region of central Italy against innocent civilian victims. The unit was completely annihilated in April 1945 during fighting with Allied forces.
Panzer Ausbildung Abteilung Süd (a training tank battalion) was equipped with the Semoventi L40s, but these were used mainly for crew training. Organization Todt, which was present in Italy, operated an unknown number of L40 da 47/32s, but mostly as tractor vehicles without their guns.
In May 1944, the 20. Luftwaffe Field Division (20. LwFD), previously employed in Denmark, was sent to Italy, more precisely to Lazio. There, it was re-equipped with a number of Semoventi L40 da 47/32s and immediately participated in hard clashes with the U.S. Army units in the Terracina area. On June 1st, the unit assumed the designation of 20. Luftwaffen-Sturm-Division.
The division retreated to Tuscany and established defensive positions near Roccastrada. From there, at the end of June, it was again engaged in heavy clashes against U.S. forces.
After fighting house by house for the control of Siena against the units of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Italie (Eng: French Expeditionary Force in Italy), in July 1944, the division withdrew to the area of Volterra. It was then withdrawn from the front to be sent to the rear to guard the coast between Viareggio and La Spezia, where it absorbed the remains of the 19. LwFD. In mid-September, the division received orders to move to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, facing the Commonwealth forces between Rimini and Santarcangelo di Romagna and then south of Cesena.
After the killing of their commander in Bologna by the partisans and further heavy losses in the fighting between Cesena and Forlì, the division was disbanded on November 28th, 1944 and its survivors were reassigned to other German units.
Operational service in Balkans
In the Balkans, the L40 da 47/32s saw extensive use against Yugoslav resistance movements. Several German units were equipped with them. Some of these were the 117. and 118. Jäger Divisionen, 11. Luftwaffe-Field-Division, and the 181., 264. and 297. Infanterie Divisionen. Many police units of different sizes (such as the 13. Verstärkt Polizei Panzer Kompanie, 14. Panzer Kompanie, 4. SS Polizei Division) were also equipped with this vehicle. Some smaller units were also supplied, such as SS Panzer Abteilung 105. and Panzer Kompanie z.b.V 12.
In 1944, due to the availability of Italian armored vehicles, it was possible to resupply many German units which fought in Yugoslavia with them. The Germans did not form dedicated Panzer units with these vehicles. Instead, these vehicles were usually used to equip reconnaissance or anti-tank units (Aufkl. Abt and Pz.Jag. Abt.). By May 1944, German forces operating in Yugoslavia had at least 165 Semovente 47/32 vehicles.
By the end of 1943, Panzer Kompanie z.b.V 12 had in its inventory 12 operational Semoventi L40 da 47/32s and 4 in repair. In early 1944, it received an additional 14 Semoventi da 47/32, one L6 light tank, and 4 M13/40s. By February 1944, there were only 2 operational Semoventi da 47/32 and 2 in repair. On March 1st, 1944, some 10 were operational and 3 in repairs. These were allocated to the 2nd Company, which took action against partisan units around the city of Kraljevo. In July, the number of Semoventi da 47/32 was increased to 15 vehicles. The reason for the large monthly oscillations in available numbers is not clear. It could be either a mistake in sources or, because of the poor mechanical reliability, some vehicles were simply not listed. By September and October 1944, while this unit still had 16 such vehicles, they were replaced in order to increase the number of M15 tanks.
The 14th Panzer Kompanie was another example of a German unit using the Semovente L40 da 47/32. This unit, which was active in Slovenia in September 1944, was reinforced with two 8 vehicle strong platoons equipped with the Semovente L40 da 47/32. One smaller unit with four such vehicles was kept in reserve.
While fighting the Partisans in the Balkans, the L40 da 47/32s were usually dispersed and used in smaller groups. The usual tactical employment was that one vehicle would advance while the remaining vehicles provided cover.
By the end of 1944, on the Yugoslavian Front, the Germans and their allies had less than 80 Semoventi L40 da 47/32. Near the end of the war, in March 1945, the numbers were reduced to less than 40.
In German hands, the Semovente L40 da 47/32 was modified in order to improve its performance. As the L40 da 47/32 was initially only armed with the main gun, it was less effective against infantry attacks. For this reason, the Germans added machine gun mounts that were protected with an armored shield at the front. The machine gun models used included the Breda Mod. 37 and Breda Mod. 38, both 8 mm caliber, and, in some cases, MG34s or Fiat-Revelli Mod. 14/35. Additional armor plates were added to the side of the superstructure, and in some cases, even on the top. Additional spare part boxes were also sometimes added.
Also, as previously noted, a significant number of these vehicles were modified to be used as towing tractors or as training vehicles. For these modifications, the main gun was removed. In the case of the training vehicles, a wooden shield was simply added where the gun was.
The SS Polizei-Regiment 18 Gebirgsjäger was equipped with two Italian armored cars and at least five Semoventi 47/32s when it was relocated from Greece to the northern regions of Serbia in October 1944. It was engaged in a failed German attempt to stop the advancing Soviet Forces in Vojvodina and suffered heavy losses, probably losing all its vehicles.
In general, the German view of the L40 was very negative. It was small and narrow and the cannon was not able to face the most modern opponent vehicles. In anti-partisan actions in Italy and in the Balkans, it proved relatively effective, as its small shape and weight allowed it to climb very steep mountain roads, where only mules could pass. The cannon, even if almost useless against the armor of Soviet or American tanks, had a good High Explosive round that was effective against infantry.
The Germans, as well as the Italians, realized that the vehicle was very vulnerable to ambushes. Consequently, German tankers learned to wear the Stahlhelm helmet and carry MP40s and hand grenades inside the vehicle for close defense.
The Germans repainted the L40s that they captured from the Italians or that they received after November 9th with a three-tone camouflage, depending on the unit that used them.
For example, Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 590 repainted its L40 da 47/32s with dark green and dark brown stripes on a standard khaki base. SS Polizei-Regiment 18, stationed in Greece, repainted its vehicles in three-tone camouflage, dark green, and brown spots on standard khaki. The 20. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division, which used some L40s in anti-partisan duties in central-northern Italy, camouflaged its self-propelled guns vehicles with patches of green and dark brown.
The Semovente L40 da 47/32, while cheap and small in size, was by 1943 standards generally an obsolete vehicle. For the Germans who were at this stage of war becoming ever more desperate to find any additional armored vehicle, it was a welcome addition. The use of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 by the Germans in its original role against the Allied forces in Italy was limited. They did see service in other secondary roles for example crew training or as armored tractors. They were more deployed in combat against the Partisans especially in the Balkans where the enemy had limited anti-tank capabilities.
Semovente da 75/18 specifications
3.82 x 1.92 x 1.63 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
3 (commander/gunner, driver, loader)
Fiat SPA, 6 cyl. gasoline, 68 hp
(road) 42 km/h (off-road) 20/25 km/h
200 km on-road
Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935, 70 rounds
30 mm front, 15 mm sides and rear, and 10 mm floor
74 Semoventi L40 da 47/32 captured and 120 produced under German control in all variants
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1948-present)
Medium tank – ~ 2,000 purchased from Soviet Union
After fighting during the final stages of World War II, from the spring of 1944 until May 1945, the T-34-85 was then supplied to states under the influence of the Soviet Union, such as Poland, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Thanks to these supplies, by 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its army, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), were able to equip themselves with relatively modern medium armored vehicles capable of far outclassing the troops of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) of the southern Republic of Korea (ROK).
The T-34-85s were used extensively in the first phases of the Korean War, where they were the only medium tanks used by the Chinese and North Koreans along with a few T-34-76s.
Foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Exactly 3 months after the end of the hostilities in Europe, on August 8th, 1945, Stalin declared war on Japan. On August 15th, the troops of the Soviet Red Army crossed the border that separated the Soviet Union from Korea, advancing without meeting Japanese resistance and entering victoriously into Pyongyang on August 24th.
As previously agreed with the Western Allies, the Soviet troops ended their advance about halfway down the Korean peninsula, where the 38th parallel passes through. There, they waited for the US troops that landed on the peninsula on September 8th.
After an attempt to reunify the two states failed, on August 15th, 1948, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the south, with its capital at Seoul and president Syngman Rhee. On September 9th, 1948, the birth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the north, with its capital at Pyongyang. This embryonic Stalinist state was guided by the first of a dynasty, the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il-sung.
The Korean People’s Army
The T-34 was the standard medium tank of the Red Army in World War II and was produced in two major versions, the T-34 and T-34-85. The first version, armed with a 76 mm gun, had 35,120 units produced between 1941 and 1944, but during operational use, some defects were found. Chief among them were ergonomic problems with the initial two-man turret, clutch, gearbox, suspension and the fact that the 76 mm guns were eventually outmatched and deemed ineffective against the new German tanks.
The T-34-85 was the latter version of the famous Soviet T-34 medium tank, the most produced WW2-era design. 44,380 units were produced from January 1944 to early 1950. Another 3,185 were produced by Czechoslovakia from 1952 to 1958, 1,980 by Poland from 1953 to 1955, and 7 by Yugoslavia after 1950, for a total of 48,952 T-34-85 produced. About 95,855 vehicles were produced on the T-34 chassis.
The new model had a turret ring diameter of 1,600 mm, compared to the 1,425 mm of the previous models. This allowed it to mount a larger and wider turret that housed three crewmen and a new 85 mm D-5T cannon (later ZIS-S-53) which greatly increased the anti-tank characteristics. It was, for example, able to penetrate the frontal armor of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger at a distance of about 1,000 meters.
This cannon could fire four different types of ammunition.
The engine was a V-2-34 38.8-liter V12 diesel with an output of 500 hp. This propelled the tank to a maximum speed of 55 km/h and a range of 300 km, thanks to the 556-liter internal fuel tanks. With the 5 external fuel drum-tanks with 95 liters each, this reached a total of about 1,030 liters of fuel, increasing the maximum range to around 550 kilometers.
The armor was of adequate thickness for a medium tank of the era. *Values taken from Engineering analysis of the Russian T-34/85
During World War II, the Soviet Union began developing new armored vehicles to replace the T-34-85 as the main medium tank in the ranks of the Red Army. The first design was the T-44, which retained the turret fitted with an 85 mm gun, but had a new hull with torsion bar suspension and thick, well-sloped frontal armor. However, mechanical problems and the inability of mounting a new turret armed with a 100 mm cannon that would increase anti-tank performance meant that the project was abandoned after only 1,800 units were produced.
The second vehicle on which the Soviet Union focused was the T-54. This entered production in 1946, although, due to the defects found, by the end of 1947, only 25 had been made. In 1948, production of the T-54-1 began, but this was once again interrupted due to the defects of the vehicle and the low quality of materials used to make it. In 1949, the production started again, this time with the T-54-2, with 423 units produced by the end of 1950. This was not enough to be supplied to Korea or China for the Korean War. In fact, these started arriving in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1958.
According to a CIA analysis titled Engineering analysis of the Russian T-34/85 written in September 1951 and made public on April 18th, 2000, some T-34-85s and engines which had been captured in Korea and arrived in the United States in late March 1951. The T-34s were considered good vehicles by their American reviewers, even if not without defects.
One of the vehicles in question, called ‘G812’, was analyzed in detail. It was produced in the Soviet Union in late 1945 and captured in Korea in mid-1950. During the analysis, some defects were found, such as the gears being hard to shift, a lot of noise in the crew compartment, the lack of a turret basket, and the quality of the armor fabrication. Specifically, the welds between the plates of armor were criticized, even if it should be noted that the same CIA report states that some are not critical defects, but simply that some features were not up to the minimum standards required by the US Army.
The same report, however, praised the armor, stating that it was composed of materials that were, in some cases, better than those of US armor. Also, it was noted that it was forged by unskilled workers and turned out to be harder than U.S. armor, at 413-460 BHN for Soviet steel compared to 280-320 BHN for US steel.
The abbreviation BHN – Brinell Hardness Number (unit of measurement kg/mm²) is a figure used to determine the hardness of a material from a hardness test. The harder a steel is, the better it will be at resisting shell impacts, but would also be more vulnerable to shattering. In this case, the two values were adequate for ballistic steel, even if, obviously, the T-34 armor had less ductility.
On the battlefield, this increased the crew’s chances of survival against certain types of impacts at the expense of the vehicle’s structural integrity.
The same report emphasized that, despite the less malleable armor, the lower quality, and more fragile welds, Soviet vehicles should not be underestimated. With a well-trained crew, they could be very difficult targets.
Another detail to be mentioned was the cost and time of production. In 1945, a T-34-85 cost 142,000 rubles. During World War II, this was equivalent to about US$26,000 dollars. Considering that an American M4 Sherman cost between US$45,000 and US$64,000 dollars and that the T-34 was produced in about half the time of an M4 Sherman, the T-34 was both quicker and substantially cheaper to manufacture. However, given the disparity between the economic and industrial powers of the US and USSR, the US could still outproduce the Soviets, which they did during WW2, during which time there were more Shermans built than T-34s.
Most of the T-34-85s that arrived before and during the Korean War were late production versions. Most had been produced in the months immediately after World War II, between May 1945 and August 1946, when it was no longer necessary to produce vehicles in the shortest possible time and save on money and raw materials. This increased the quality of the armor and the strength of the welds.
Before being sent to the DPRK in 1948, the worn-out engines, automotive components, and guns in the vehicles were replaced with newly manufactured parts, thus providing the Korean People’s Army with an efficient and almost brand new vehicle.
With the KPA’s coat of arms
Before the Korean War
At the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union supplied the DPRK with several thousands of tanks, including a batch of about 170 SU-76M self-propelled artillery vehicles, an unknown number of T-34-76s, and 258 T-34-85s. These T-34-85s were mostly late production vehicles of the latest batch, produced between late 1945 and early 1948.
While the first Korean People’s Army Ground Force (KPA-GF) soldiers were training at the KPA School No. 2 for Officers in Pyongyang and the KPA Military Academy for the education of both political and military officers, the first North Korean tankers were trained in North Korea. After 1949, they were also trained in China on US and Japanese-made tanks, and on some T-34-85s from the Soviet Union.
In 1948, before Soviet vehicles arrived, the Soviets helped form the 15th Tank Training Regiment under the command of Tu Lying Su, a former Korean Red Army Lieutenant and the brother-in-law of Kim Il-Sung. The regiment was stationed in the village of Sadong, near the DPRK capital of Pyongyang.
This training unit was equipped with only two T-34-85s and consisted of a squad of 30 veteran Soviet volunteer tank officers. Of these, most did not speak Korean and needed to be constantly followed by interpreters, which were in short supply.
All of the recruits had previously served in Korea’s anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare, while the officers and NCOs had served in the Red Army or the Chinese Liberation Army as volunteers.
In May 1949, the regiment was reorganized and the cadets were all promoted to officers and NCOs of the newly formed 105th Armored Brigade, the first armored unit of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In the original plans, the 105th Armored Brigade was to serve as a breakthrough unit against South Korea and was (and still is) considered the elite armored unit of the Korean People’s Army. It is still equipped with the best vehicles in the possession of the KPA and the best training.
At its founding, the brigade consisted of five regiments, of which the 107th, 109th, and 203rd Tank Regiments were equipped (grades were not completed until October 1949) with 40 T-34-85s each. The 206th Motorized Infantry Regiment was equipped with Soviet-made trucks. The 303rd Motorcycle Reconnaissance Battalion and the 308th Armored Battalion had 16 SU-76Ms self-propelled assault guns. This gave a total of 120 medium tanks, 16 self-propelled guns and, according to Soviet and US documents, a total of 12 ZIS-3 76 mm field guns, 28 M42 45 mm Anti-Tank guns, 18 82 mm mortars, 12 37 mm K-61 Anti-Aircraft cannons, 12 DShK and DShKM heavy machine guns, 59 trucks, 201 cars and artillery tractors, 218 motorcycles and 8,442 officers, NCOs, and soldiers.
Prior to the war, the ranks of an armored regiment consisted of 40 T-34-85 tanks divided into three battalions, with one command tank and 13 tanks per battalion. Each battalion was then divided into three companies of four tanks plus one command tank.
Some sources state that the ranks of the armored battalion of an infantry division or a mechanized division would contain a minimum of 25 up to a maximum of 33 tanks. It is not specified if these were formed by T-34-85s only and what their structure was.
Thanks to the training of experienced Soviet veterans, at least at the beginning of the war, the North Korean tanks tended to fight in pairs, so that they could support each other in case of an attack by enemy soldiers.
From what is reported, however, only the 105th Armored Brigade had formed such ranks. In fact, due to the immediate need for vehicles and soldiers at the front, the crews of the other brigades received little training, often no more than one month per crew. Before being sent to the front, the full personnel complement was not completed.
At the outbreak of the war, the 41st, 42nd, 43rd, 45th, and 46th Armored Regiments were in training, but they did not receive more than 15 T-34s tanks each. Two other tank brigades were formed, the 16th and the 17th Armored Brigades, but they were formed only on 23rd June 1950, two days before the start of the war, and could not take part in the first battles.
A very interesting fact about the organization of a Korean Armored Brigade was discovered through documentation captured from the enemy during the war. The unit in question was the 17th Armored Brigade, which never received its full complement of T-34-85s.
Formed on June 23rd, 1950 at Sŭngho-ri, 19 km east of Pyongyang, it had only 43 T-34-85s and 16 SU-76Ms in its ranks. Of the 280 tankers, only 20 (promoted to officers) had 8 months of training and the rest barely exceeded 2 months. The brigade commander was Senior Colonel Chong Pir-u, who had served in the Red Army as a tanker, participating in the Battle of Berlin. For the first 2 months of the war, until August 23rd, the unit continued to train with the help of four Soviet trainers. Essentially, the 16th and 17th Tank Brigades were formed only to free up space in training camps where new tankers could be trained to replace losses.
At the end of August, the brigade (now renamed 17th Tank Division) had a staff of 4,200 soldiers under the command of a Headquarters commanded by the now promoted Major General Chong Pir-u. The change from rifle to tank division neither increased nor changed the number of T-34s and SU-76Ms available to the unit. It kept the 1st Tank Battalion with 21 T-34-85s and the 2nd Tank Battalion with 21 T-34-85s. There were also the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, a Self-propelled Artillery Battalion with 16 SU-76Ms, an Artillery Battalion with 16 ZIS-3 76 mm cannons and 4 122 mm M30 mortars, an Anti-tank Battalion equipped with 16 45 mm guns and 18 PTRD-41 Anti-Tank rifles, and an Anti-Aircraft Battery with 18 DShK machine guns.
The 1st Tank Battalion, commanded by Major Kang Hui-il, had, in addition to 21 tanks, 141 tankers, and 8 trucks, just like the 2nd Tank Battalion of Major U Pong-hak. The numbers painted on the T-34-85s were progressive and ranged from 700 to 742. T-34-85 number 700 was that of General Chong Pir-u, 701 was that of the 1st Tank Battalion Commander, Major Kang Hui-il, 702 was the T-34-85 of the 1st Company commander, and 703 was that of the 1st Platoon leader. T-34 number 705 was that of the 2nd Platoon leader and 707 was that of the 2nd Company commander.
Following this reasoning, the 722 was the T-34 of the 2nd Battalion commander, Major U Pong-hak, and 723 was the tank of the 1st Company commander of the 2nd Battalion.
The training unit was equipped with 30 T-34s and renamed the 208th Tank Training Regiment. Colonel Kim Choi Won, a veteran of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was put in charge.
The Korean War
North Korean Attack
At the outbreak of the Korean War, on June 25th, 1950, the forces of the Korean People’s Army were divided into two armies. The 1st Army, under the command of General Kim Ch’aek, consisted of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 6th Infantry Divisions, and the 105th Armored Brigade. They were ordered to take the Ongjin Peninsula and Seoul, the capital of the ROK.
The 2nd Army, commanded by General Kim Kwang-hyop, was instead composed of the 2nd, 5th, and 7th Infantry Divisions, with the task of invading the central-eastern part of South Korea, in the direction of Inje.
The 208th Tank Training Regiment was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division with its full complement of 30 T-34 tanks.
In total, in the first phase of the invasion, there were about 150,000-200,000 KPA soldiers, 150 T-34-85s (120 from the 105th Armored Brigade), and 120 SU-76M assault guns. In addition to these units, there were another 30,000 soldiers and 105 T-34s available in reserve. Thus, at the outbreak of the war, the KPA had in its ranks 255 T-34-85s out of 258 delivered by the Soviets.
At the beginning of the war, the North Korean vehicles were unrivaled, as the ROKA had no tanks and only a few 2.36 in (60 mm) Bazookas and some 57 mm anti-tank guns. These turned out to be useless against the T-34s because of the poor training of the servants, who in some cases had never fired a single shot before the war.
The only vehicles the ROKA was equipped with were around 200 M8 Greyhound armored reconnaissance cars, some Dodge WC54 ¾ ton truck-based technicals armed with 57 and 75 mm recoilless rifles and some M3 and M5 Half-tracks.
Moreover, the lack of training of ROK Army troops in fighting armored vehicles allowed the T-34s to act practically undisturbed in the early stages of the war.
The 105th Armored Brigade divided its regiments to support the infantry units in the assault. Under the command of General Choe U Sik, the 107th Tank Regiment, supporting the troops of the 4th Infantry Division, attacked to the west, along the lines controlled by the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division of the ROKA at Kaesong. Kaesong would be conquered at 0930 hrs in the morning, after only five and a half hours from the start of the war. The ROKA 13th Infantry Regiment was stationed near a ford on the Imjin River, near Korangpo. During these battles, many US military advisers were captured before the South Koreans were able to organize a defense.
The troops of the ROKA 13th Infantry Regiment claimed to have destroyed a total of 11 T-34-85s during the battle, but it was later discovered through the testimony of captured North Korean tankers that no T-34s were destroyed that day, although several were damaged.
Although the offensive in Korea was immense in scale, US Ambassador in Seoul John Muccio phoned the White House only at 0900 hrs, catching everyone unprepared. Some US generals did not believe the Korean People’s Army would be a problem and took the attack lightly.
Meanwhile, two Yak-9s from the Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) attacked the residence of South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who decided it was time to leave Seoul. John Muccio managed to convince him that if he left Seoul, the ROKA would be demoralized and collapse in less than a day. Together they began to organize the evacuation of politicians, foreign citizens and others.
To counter the T-34s, TNT charges and improvised demolition charges were used. These did not provide the desired effects, not destroying a single T-34 and costing the 1st Infantry Division 90 soldiers. According to some unconfirmed sources, the high number of losses was also due to the attempt to destroy the tanks using improvised suicide teams. According to Joseph C. Goulden‘s book Korea, the Untold Story of the War, the anti-tank suicide teams were created because South Korean soldiers were so poorly trained that they did not even know how to use the simple anti-tank mines of US origin.
Despite the ineffectiveness of ROKA’s anti-tank weapons and tactics, Radio Seoul continued to read made-up war bulletins throughout the day, claiming that President Syngman Rhee‘s troops were advancing north of the 38th Parallel towards Pyongyang.
Between 25th and 27th June, the KPA 107th Tank Regiment destroyed most of the South Korean 7th Infantry Division and advanced eastwards, meeting up with the 109th Tank Regiment in Uijeongbu, 20 km north of Seoul. From Uijongbu, the attack towards the South Korean capital started that same day.
On June 26th at 0900 hrs, Kim Il-sung sent a message to his citizens stating that the war they were fighting was necessary to unify the Korean peninsula. At 1100 hrs, Radio Seoul stated that the “Fierce Tiger” unit commanded by Maengho Dae (belonging to the 17th Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Kim Chong Won, a former sergeant of the Japanese Imperial Army, who fled North Korea in 1945) liberated the city of Haeju north of the 38th Parallel and continued its advance, having killed 1,580 soldiers of North Korea.
Some of the South Korean regiments were commanded by Korean soldiers who had participated in the Second World War as soldiers or NCOs for the Japanese Imperial Army. They were, therefore, well organized and trained, but not even they could do much against the communist T-34-85s.
On June 26th, 700 American civilians were embarked on a Norwegian ship at the port of Incheon under Ambassador Muccio’s supervision. That night, President Rhee, his collaborators, and their families fled from Seoul on a train without saying anything to the Americans.
General Douglas MacArthur still believed that the ROKA could repel the KPA, even though Ambassador Muccio informed him that North Korean cannon explosions could be heard from Seoul.
On June 27th, Muccio also fled the city trying to get to President Rhee in his Jeep. Panic was rampant in Seoul, even though Radio Seoul claimed that ROKA troops were besieging Pyongyang. Refugees and soldiers fled Seoul on the Han River bridges that were rigged with explosives 2 days earlier by Republic of Korea Army troops.
US war advisors and South Korean General Chae wanted to wait before detonating the charges. Due to his refusal to blow up the bridge, General Chae was replaced by General Jung Il Kwon, a former captain of the Japanese Imperial Army. He obeyed the command to blow up the bridge at 0215 hrs, killing several hundred soldiers and refugees and trapping some 10,000 ROK 5th Infantry Division troops.
For this reason, the engineer who detonated the charges was executed. General Chae died a few days later in unclear circumstances. Kim Paik, the Minister of Defense who issued the order, never received any blame.
On June 29th, after very light fighting, the troops of the Korean People’s Army conquered Seoul, even though Radio Seoul continued to report ROKA victories north of the 38th Parallel.
Not everyone in Seoul was desperate. Some civilians cheerfully welcomed the communist troops. General Song Ho Song, commander of ROKA’s 2nd Infantry Division, offered to create a volunteer army with South Korean POWs, while many young students and workers volunteered for the Korean People’s Army.
The vehicle that first entered Seoul, the T-34-85 312 of the Commander of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the 105th Armored Brigade, is still preserved at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It is treated as a valuable relic (like the T-54 that first entered Saigon, Vietnam in 1975) together with the DPRK flag that the soldiers hoisted on the Seoul government building and the Korean flag with 105th Armored Brigade’s colors.
After the excellent work done in liberating Seoul, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions were renamed “Seoul”, while the 105th Armored Brigade was promoted to the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division.
In only five days of war, the ROKA lost 70,000 soldiers dead, wounded, prisoners, or which had deserted. It still had only 22,000 men who managed to resist until the American intervention.
Two days after the beginning of hostilities, on June 27th, the United States entered the war on the side of South Korea by sending a contingent of the 24th Infantry Division, Task Force Smith (named after commander Charles Smith) by ship from Japan.
Their armored component consisted of only M24 Chaffee light tanks. In fact, the U.S. occupation forces in Japan was equipped almost exclusively with M24s, as heavier vehicles could not transit the Asian nation’s bridges and roads.
After the intervention started, M4 Shermans and M26 Pershings arrived in the Pacific. These had been rusting for 5 years in warehouses or used as gate guardians in front of barracks. They were hastily put back into service and sent to Korea in the following weeks.
The Republic of Korea Army troops were so unprepared for war and demoralized that, according to some US officers, they abandoned their positions without even fighting. On some occasions, however, they resisted to the last, such as at the Battle of Suwon.
After the capture of Seoul, the Republic of Korea Army tried to maintain a line along the Han river. This was broken through by the Korean People’s Army between 3rd and 4th July 1950, as they resumed the advance towards the South.
In order to continue to slow down the lightning advance, ROKA General Jeong Il-kwon ordered the 1st Infantry Division to defend Pungdeokcheong, 5 kilometers north of Suwon, where the rest of the ROKA was attempting to create a defensive perimeter.
After exhausting the ammunition that had arrived in the previous days, the troops of the 1st Infantry Division, commanded by Kim Hong-il, tried to slow down the T-34-85s of the KPA with tree trunks laid along the road, but with little success.
Sensing the failure of the plan, Jeong Il-kwon withdrew with the bulk of his troops and headquarters from Suwon to Pyeontaek, leaving a small contingent in Suwon. These barricaded themselves in the Hwaseong Fortress built in 1796.
US warplanes bombed the ROKA army headquarters in Suwon, along with ROKA armored vehicles and trains loaded with ammunition that were still in the hands of the South Korean Army in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Communists in the following hours or days. Korean police committed mass killings in Suwon with the connivance of United States Air Force intelligence officer Donald Nichols and US troops.
About 1,800 political prisoners were shot dead by the retreating ROK Military Police. After the massacre, two US bulldozers buried the victims.
At the Hwaseong Fortress, in the beginning, commander Choi Chang-sik ordered that the North Gate, called Janganmun, be blown up. Later, thanks to the intervention of Colonel Lee Jong-chan, the destruction of this historical relic was avoided by creating a defensive perimeter along the North Gate.
Instead of undermining the north gate, it was decided to place 20 M15 Anti-Tank blast mines that had arrived from Japan a few days before.
In the afternoon of 4th July, the troops of the Korean People’s Army arrived in Suwon and began the attack. During the attack, 2 T-34-85s were destroyed because of the mines. One was Number 208 of the Commander of the 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division, while the second is unknown.
ROKA sources state that another T-34 was destroyed by a 57 mm anti-tank gun. However, in his report, Vladimir Nikolaevich Razuvaev, a Soviet military advisor in the DPRK, did not mention any T-34s destroyed by anti-tank weapons. It is possible the vehicle was only damaged. The use by the ROKA of anti-tank guns in Suwon is not certain. Despite great effort, the fortress was abandoned at 1700 and the north gate was destroyed either by manually placed explosives or by T-34-85 fire.
Ascertaining that the two vehicles could not be repaired after the battle, the KPA removed the tracks and other parts that could be reused and abandoned them.
The citizens of Suwon later went to retrieve other parts of the tanks at night and used them in various contexts. Some parts of the engine deck, for example, were used by the town blacksmith.
Unfortunately for the civilians, the ROK Military Police considered that the possession of tank parts, cannon shells casings (used as lanterns), helmets (used as bowls), or other kitchen or work utensils made from vehicle parts or parts of military equipment, equated to being leftist subversives, communists, or worse, supporters of the North Korean regime. Those found in possession of such items could even face summary execution without trial.
The first battle between the KPA and the US Army was fought on July 5th, 1950 at Osan, 50 kilometers south of Seoul. Two regiments of the KPA 4th Infantry Division (about 5,000 men) and the 107th Tank Regiment of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Tank Division (36 T-34-85s, although some sources claim 33) attacked the 406 soldiers and 136 servants of Task Force Smith. The Americans were equipped with a battery of 105 mm howitzers, some 60 mm mortars, a 75 mm M20 recoilless rifle with 12 rounds, and 6 60 mm bazookas, the latter of which fired 22 rockets without effect.
The outcome of the battle, which lasted more than 3 hours, was a foregone conclusion. Before retreating due to the exhaustion of ammunition, the Americans managed to inflict losses on the North Korean tanks. Thanks to the 105 mm cannons and their six High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) projectiles, the US troops succeeded in destroying a T-34-85, damaging 1 other and stopping the other 2, as well as killing 42 Korean soldiers and wounding 85 more. This was in exchange for the loss of 60 American soldiers, the wounding of 21, and the capture of 82 others.
The North Korean army advanced further. Under the command of Lee Kwon Mu, the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments of the 4th Infantry Division and the 107th Tank Regiment of the 105th Armored Division defeated the South Korean 34th Infantry Regiment in the Battles of Pyeongtaek and Chonan. During a battle in a district of the city, the commander of the US 34th Infantry Regiment, Colonel Bob Martin, was killed after hitting a T-34-85 with a Bazooka rocket that did not penetrate.
By July 9th, the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division had lost only four T-34-85s, two by mines and two more during the previous battles with Task Force Smith. It also lost 7 SU-76Ms during the Chunchon Battle.
In the Battle of Chochiwon, the Americans put up a strenuous resistance. On the mornings of July 9th and 10th, a series of air attacks succeeded in destroying some vehicles approaching the city of Chonjui.
The Koreans did not give up the offensive and, on July 10th, they attacked the village of Chonjui, where some US mortars were positioned. The Americans requested an air attack. However, due to the fog, this attack did not destroy a single T-34 but accidentally destroyed A Company’s radios. The soldiers on the front line of Company A of the 21st Infantry Regiment that were under attack could no longer request the support of 155 mm guns. These instead began shooting blindly, hitting allied positions.
Also on July 10th, the North Korean 2nd Corps, led by General Mu Jong, advanced south along the west coast of Korea without encountering much resistance. The 6th Infantry Division commanded by Pang Ho San conquered Chinju.
Before the war, there had been communist uprisings against the government in that region. The guerrillas who had escaped the ROKA massacres came out of their hiding places and joined Kim Il-sung’s troops.
In the afternoon of the same day, during a counterattack, the first tank vs tank battle of the Korean War was fought. Three M24 Chaffee light tanks of Company A of the 78th Heavy Tank Battalion fought against some T-34-85s, probably of the 107th Tank Regiment. The small and fast US reconnaissance vehicles were inadequate for fighting against the Soviet-made medium tanks and two of them were destroyed, in turn knocking out one T-34.
The fighting continued throughout the afternoon and night, and, by the morning of July 11th, the North Koreans were only 3 kilometers from Chochiwon. In the morning, an attack was launched by 4 T-34-85s of the 107th Regiment and about 1,000 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division against the US 3rd Battalion, which was almost totally annihilated, together with 3 other M24 Chaffees.
On July 12th, 2,000 North Koreans attacked the US positions at Chochiwon, forcing them to retreat towards Taejeon, destroying another 3 M24 Chaffees. By August, of the 14 M24 Chaffee tanks of Company A of the 78th Heavy Tank Battalion, only 2 remained operational. Some had also been knocked out by 14 x 114 mm PTRS-41 Soviet anti-tank rifles.
The other two tank companies in Korea at the time, Company A of the 71st Tank Battalion and Company A of the 79th Tank Battalion, had similar losses by August, causing a fall in morale for the troops who could not stop the advance of the Korean’s People Army.
During the Battle of Kum River, fought between July 14th and 15th, 1950, the KPA troops were not supported by tanks. After July 16th, T-34s of the 107th Tank Regiment took part in the fighting.
On July 19th, the North Korean 3rd and 4th “Seoul” Infantry Divisions and the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division, with a strength of about 20,000 men and about 50 tanks attacked Taejeon. They captured about 80 vehicles and several artillery pieces of the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion on the first day alone.
The plan was to encircle the city. Despite continuous attempts to break the attack, even with the support of M24 Chaffees, the North Koreans managed to encircle the US units. They destroyed most of the enemy’s food and ammunition stores rapidly thanks to the suggestions of South Korean citizens and their own agents, who continually sabotaged US units by mixing with the civilian population.
On July 20th, while the US troops of the 24th Infantry Division engaged the Korean People’s Army on the north and west defensive lines, some T-34s penetrated a point in the lines, entering the city.
At six o’clock in the morning, General Willian F. Dean was awakened by his orderly, Lieutenant Clarke, who informed him that some enemy tanks were advancing isolated towards the city. The General, his interpreter, and Lieutenant Clarke decided to join an Anti-Tank team to destroy those tanks.
When the general arrived in the area of operations, two T-34s lay destroyed, along with a U.S. ammunition truck, in the intersection in the center of town. A third tank lay motionless in an open field near housing built for US soldiers during the occupation between 1945 and 1948.
Dean’s team, with a ¾ ton truck, probably a Dodge WC64, equipped with a 75 mm M20 recoilless rifle, fired 4 or 5 rounds at the T-34 without hitting it once. Fortunately for them, the vehicle was already knocked down or abandoned.
In the afternoon, Dean and his two comrades joined an anti-tank team with a Bazooka that had only one rocket left. Two more T-34s were positioned in the same street where lay the previous two-tank wrecks destroyed in the morning and the ammunition carrier were still burning because of the white phosphorus rounds it carried.
After being targeted by machine guns, without casualties, the team went around the two tanks, passing behind the houses, coming to only 15 meters from the two tanks. The crews of the vehicles, probably sensing the danger, retreated and the shot fired by the soldier armed with the Bazooka did not hit. At that point, General Dean drew his .45 caliber pistol, firing at the two retreating vehicles.
In the evening, a T-34 that had bypassed the US defenses from the left side entered the city from the south and passed at low speed through the main street of Taejeon. It passed in front of the headquarters where General Dean was and in front of some artillery positions without firing a single shot and without the shocked American soldiers shooting at it.
At the northern edge of the city, the vehicle turned around and drove back, passing again in front of the headquarters. It then positioned itself about 800 meters from the headquarters, in a street, protected by some riflemen, probably North Korean agents infiltrated in the city with civilian clothes.
After several attempts to get around the vehicle, William Dean, the Bazooka man, and the rest of the group (consisting of cooks, messengers, and radio operators) entered a house that was right in front of the tank.
The General, in his book, General Dean’s Story, tells that he was only a few centimeters from the cannon barrel when he leaned out of a window to tell the Bazooka man where to hit the tank.
Three shots were fired against the T-34. The first one hit the turret ring. It did not set the vehicle on fire, even if the chilling screams of the crew were heard. The second and the third shots hit the turret ring again, making the screams inside the tank stop and starting a fire.
By July 21st, the withdrawal of US and ROKA troops from the city was being organized, but sabotage by North Korean infiltrators slowed it down. A locomotive connected to wagons loaded with ammunition was stolen. When a second locomotive was brought to Taejeon, rifle shots killed the train drivers.
Eventually, a third locomotive, protected by riflemen along with a few M24 Chaffee light tanks of the A Company of the 78th Tank Battalion, arrived. The tanks were not used for a counterattack, but to escort the convoy of trucks and guns out of the city.
This column, however, was ambushed by elements of the 3rd “Seoul” Infantry Division, which were hidden in the houses next to the street. Several trucks and jeeps were destroyed. General Dean, who was among the last to retreat, managed to escape from the city aboard his jeep but was still captured sometime later, after rescuing some wounded soldiers.
The city was occupied by the North Koreans after losing a total of 15 T-34-85s (the highest number since the beginning of the war). 7 of these were destroyed by American anti-tank teams. This battle cost the US Army a high price, with the 24th Division losing 30% of its soldiers, some M24s, and losing almost 3,000 prisoners, including General William Dean.
After the battle, KPA troops exhumed the corpses of 7,000 political prisoners and former guerrillas captured in the years or months before the war. These had been executed by the ROK Military Police before the North Korean’s arrival.
It was now clear that the North Koreans could no longer be pushed back. Thus, on July 20th, it was decided to hold them back as long as possible in order to create a defensive perimeter on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, the ‘Pusan Perimeter’. This 230 km long defensive line along the Naktong River defended the extreme south-eastern tip of the Korean peninsula.
During this period, due to the poor quality of the roads, the T-34-85s of the KPA began to suffer wear and tear of the mechanical parts after almost a month of intense use.
The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division had to cannibalize some of its running T-34s for spare parts.
On July 22nd, the Battle of Yongdong began, where US Army troops, with their M20 rocket launchers, managed to disable at least 3 T-34s and others were lost in the minefields. The battle, which lasted until July 25th, cost the lives of about 300 U.S. soldiers, another 700 who were taken prisoners, and 11 M24 Chaffees who were captured or destroyed.
The North Koreans were slowed down quite a bit by the Battle of Hwanggan, fought until July 29th, which cost the US Army nearly 500 dead, wounded, and prisoners. On the other side, 3,000 North Koreans were dead, wounded and missing, as well as 6 T-34-85s damaged or destroyed. Five of these destroyed T-34-85s were lost as a result of air attacks with napalm and missiles.
The first use of the M26 Pershing during the Korean War was on June 28th, in Chinju. 3 M26s that had been recovered from a US Army depot in Tokyo were put in operational condition and shipped. The platoon that used them, along with some M24s, was forced to abandon them on June 28th. It is not clear if all three broke down irreparably during the fighting against the 6th Infantry Division of the KPA or if they were destroyed by T-34-85 fire.
Between the end of July and the beginning of August, the KPA continued to push back the ROKA and US Army troops as far as the Pusan Perimeter but suffered many losses. Of the 120 T-34-85s in service at the beginning of the war in the 105th Division, at the beginning of August, only about 40 remained, although some others were waiting for repairs in the rear.
On August 4th, 1950, a very fortunate event happened for the US Army. A 230 kg bomb accidentally dropped by a US fighter exploded on the roof of an abandoned factory 25 km from Pusan.
The headquarters of the Korean People’s Army was placed in that abandoned factory. The explosion injured General Kang Kon, Chief of Staff, and almost killed General Kim Chaik. The equipment was less fortunate. The bomb destroyed the radio room and left only a single radio still working. This slowed down the attack on Pusan, losing the golden opportunity to oust the US and its allies from the peninsula.
Between August 19th and 23rd, 1950, the 17th Tank Division was finally ordered into action.nThe 43 T-34-85s of the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions, plus that of Major General Chong Pir-u, went from Sungho-ri. There, they were stationed at the Mirim-ni railway station near Pyongyang, where they were supplied with extra ammunition and fuel and loaded onto flatcars to await departure for the front.
Because of continuous air attacks, the division, in order to avoid losses, moved slowly at night, hiding during the day inside railway tunnels. The Division repaired the rails when they were damaged by air attacks by itself or with the help of the civilian population. They arrived in Seoul only between 23rd and 27th August (the tanks arrived first, then it was the turn of the other regiments of the division).
Regrouping in Seoul, the division left by train and crossed the Pyongjomgo-ri railway bridge at night. From there, it went to Wonju and then to Yongju under the command of Lieutenant General Mu Chong. There it was finally attached to the 8th Infantry Division under the command of II Corps, with headquarters in Mun’gyong.
The 1st Tank Battalion, under the command of Major Kang Hui-il, together with part of the division’s anti-aircraft battery, arrived in Yongju on August 28th, unloading its tanks and moving at night and moving towards Andong, Uisong and, finally, Uihung. During the last leg, between September 1st and 2nd, the battalion lost 3 T-34-85s to an air attack.
For the 2nd Tank Battalion, under the command of Major U Pong-hak, more precise data is available thanks to the testimonies of some prisoners of war that were interrogated.
It arrived in Yongju between the 29th and 30th of August 1950. In the evening, all the T-34s were unloaded from the flatcars and moved about 8 km away to Pyongun-ni, and parked on the sides of the road and camouflaged within 0600 hrs. At 1800 hrs the unit resumed its march, following the 1st Tank Battalion, arriving at Uihung on 1st September with only 6 T-34-85s. 5 were destroyed by airstrikes or had mechanical failures along the way.
On September 2nd, 4 more late T-34s arrived, followed by others, but the total number is unknown. Moving towards Sinnyong to support the 8th KPA Infantry Division’s attacks against the 6th ROKA Infantry Division, the unit arrived at 0300 hrs on September 3rd.
Three T-34-85s crossed a 10-meter long bridge while the fourth collapsed the bridge under its 32 tons of weight. This incident slowed down the attack, forcing the three tanks on the south bank of the river and the six on the north bank to camouflage themselves for the day. After a ROKA artillery bombardment that lasted for half a day, until 1500 hours, ROKA troops of the 6th Infantry Division captured the four tank crews that were south of the river, while the other six tanks fled north and were damaged in an air attack launched against them at 1600 hours.
It can be supposed that the data provided to the UN intelligence about this unit came from the tankers of the 4 tanks captured on September 3rd. From hereon, the information becomes fragmentary. It is known for sure that, between September 3rd and 15th, the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions supported the attacks of the 1st and 8th Infantry Divisions of the 2nd Corps.
UN defense and counterattacks
In the Battle of Masan, a series of skirmishes that lasted from August 5th to September 19th, 1950, North Korea lost at least twenty T-34-85s and about 11,000 men, including dead, wounded, missing, prisoners, and deserters.
The situation remained in a stalemate, as every attempt by the KPA to break through the perimeter was in vain thanks to the arrival of new US and British troops. The USAF (US Air Force) destroyed most of the bridges, refineries, fuel depots, harbors, ammunition depots, etc. in DPRK territory between August and September. It also reduced daytime traffic of supplies to the KPA soldiers on the front lines to practically nil.
The damage to the logistic lines of the KPA was so serious that some prisoners later told that the soldiers had to move at night riding bicycles full of ammunition and hand grenades or fishing boats armed as best they could and loaded with ammunition if they were in areas near the coasts. These actions were needed in order to supply the North Korean soldiers on the front line. In other cases, weapons and equipment captured from ROKA troops or the US Army were used.
In addition to destroying North Korean supply lines, the USAF, available 24 hours a day, was called in to repel any attack attempted by the KPA on the UN lines. The North Korean lack of supplies during the Battle for the Pusan Perimeter was a great advantage for the UN troops, which were able to overwhelm the KPA. The North Koreans suffered losses of about 63,000 dead, wounded, missing, and 3,300 prisoners.
The UN forces, for their part, lost about 60,000 soldiers (40,000 of the ROKA) but managed to maintain their positions. In fact, thanks to continuous air support, from August 2nd, 1950 onwards, UN forces began to land in force. By the end of August, these reinforcements in the Pusan Perimeter came to about 500 tanks, split between M4A3 (76)W Shermans, M26 Pershings, and M46 Pattons. In September, the UN troops in the perimeter had risen to about 180,000 soldiers against the 90,000 of the Korean People’s Army.
By the end of 1950, U.S. troops had received 1,326 tanks, of which 138 M24 Chaffees, 679 M4A3 (76)W HVSS Shermans, 309 M26 Pershings, and 200 M46 Pattons.
The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division crossed the Naktong river on August 12th. The next day, the 109th Tank Regiment, which remained in the rear, was targeted by several US airstrikes at Chonjui, losing over 200 vehicles, including 20 tanks, and many others damaged.
Another series of targeted airstrikes along the Naktong River dispersed the T-34-85s of the Korean People’s Army, which did not attack the Pusan Perimeter en masse, but in small tank units (more difficult to detect by scout planes) which attacked towns along the perimeter.
On 15th August, 21 T-34-85s from the Sadong Tank Training Center arrived to reinforce the units at the front and to replace the losses. It is not clear if they were the only replacements that arrived during the battle. During the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, the KPA received another 100 (some sources claim 150, due to the impossibility of checking North Korean sources, it is impossible to say which number is correct) T-34-85s from the Soviet Union. About eighty of those went to arm the 16th that had just finished the training phase of the crews and were still in North Korea, while the remaining twenty had to replace the losses of the 105th Armored Division. According to some sources, almost all were destroyed by U.S. airstrikes before reaching the front.
Battle of No Name Ridge
On the evening of 17th August 1950, thanks to the reinforcements received, the 2nd Battalion of the 109th Tank Regiment of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division launched an attack on the positions of the 9th Infantry Regiment, which was supported by a platoon of Company A of the 1st Marine Tank Battalion.
The 1st Marine Tank Battalion was called to duty on July 7th, 1950, but at the time it was equipped with only M4A3(105) HVSS for infantry support. An unknown number of M26 Pershings were recovered from a depot in Barstow, California, and shipped to San Diego, where the unit was quartered.
Due to the limited time available, while the majority of the M26s were unloaded from the trains, two were taken to Camp Joseph H. Pendleton, where the crews were briefly familiarized with the tanks.
On 11th July 1950, the 1st Marine Tank Battalion sailed aboard USS Fort Marion LSD-22 towards Korea. During the transfer, the crews serviced the M26s that had been lying in storage for a long time. Arriving in Pusan on 2nd August, they were deployed for a series of actions. They were not employed against T-34s during these.
The unit that took part in the Battle of No Name Ridge was commanded by Lt. Granville Sweet, who had under his command four M26 Pershing tanks at ‘No Name Ridge’, also known as the Obong-Ni ridge. These four tanks were supported by a company of M20 75 mm recoilless guns and some anti-tank teams.
The attack of four T-34-85s was first intercepted by the anti-tank teams on Hill 125, but they did not stop the advance. Their effect was limited to causing the burning of the external 90-liter tanks on the enemy tanks in some cases.
The T-34-85s advanced again until they reached a turn in the road covered by a hill. Sweet’s tanks were behind it. Three of them were lined up side by side so, in case the T-34s destroyed them, they could not pass further, and the fourth tank was behind them.
When they received the order to prepare to repel the Koreans, the tank crews were filling up their tanks. Alarmed, they hastily ended the operation, spilling fuel on the tanks. As soon as they saw the T-34-85s peeking out from behind the hill, M26 number 34, commanded by Sergeant Cecil Fullerton, fired the new Hyper Velocity Armor Piercing (HVAP) M304 ammunition. When the tank opened fire on T-34 Number 322 (2nd Battalion Commander), the spilled fuel on the M26’s engine deck caught fire without damaging the vehicle.
The US soldiers who witnessed the battle were astonished. The M26 Pershings were on fire and so were the T-34-85s and, yet, no vehicles had been knocked out.
After the first round, M26 number 34 fired two other rounds, one into the turret and two into the frontal armored plate, causing the T-34 to start burning.
M26 number 33 of Sergeant Gerald Swinicke opened fire on the second T-34, hitting it the first time with a HVAP round in the turret. The Korean tank did not stop, so tanks number 33 and 34 shot it with four APC (Armor-Piercing Capped) rounds, all piercing the frontal plate.
Surprisingly, the Korean tank was still advancing and opening fire. The two M26s shot it with another HVAP, 2 APC and 4 HE rounds, destroying the T-34-85 by detonating 85 mm rounds in the turret.
The last T-34-85, Number 314, managed to get away but was destroyed by fire from the same Bazookas that had set fire to its external tanks earlier.
On September 5th, the North Korean troops launched an attack on the same road, but with only two T-34-85 supported by two SU-76Ms. This time, the North Korean vehicles had more luck and destroyed two M26 Pershings that were caught unaware and had their turrets turned towards other targets. All four KPA vehicles were later knocked out or destroyed by fire from anti-tank teams.
During the Battle of Kyongju, which took place from August 27th to September 12th, 1950, the 17th Armoured Brigade of the KPA was employed. On the evening of September 3rd to 4th, when the threat of air attack was minimal, 3 T-34-85s succeeded in destroying an artillery battery and put to flight two battalions of the ROK at P’ohang-dong, managing to reoccupy the city during the night.
Later, while advancing towards Kyongju, other T-34-85s of the 17th Armored Brigade managed to hit and damage (apparently by breaking the tracks) three M46 Pattons before being destroyed by US artillery fire.
That same day, an airstrike hit the KPA positions, weakening them and forcing the North Korean forces to give up the attack on the city of Kyongju. However, some infantry attacks forced some ROK units to retreat.
The United Nation forces advanced with the support of some tanks up to the vicinity of P’ohang-dong, meeting a group of 5 SU-76Ms. In the clash that followed, one self-propelled gun was destroyed, while the others were destroyed during an air attack that occurred shortly after.
In the afternoon, other North Korean armored forces blocked the American advance in the city, allowing the KPA troops to evacuate ammunition and other material from the nearby Yonil airport.
In the area east of Yongsan on September 4th, the Marines M26s knocked out T-34s and found a fifth abandoned T-34.
During the night between September 5th and 6th, 1950, the city fell back into the hands of the KPA, which created defensive positions with which to resist the successive attacks of the Americans and the ROKA.
The bad weather conditions of those days did not allow significant use of airstrikes in the area, allowing for several days during which the KPA units were able to repel any attack.
Between September 11th and 12th, thanks to the improvement of the weather conditions, the UN units were able to drive the KPA out of P’ohang-dong, forcing the North Korean soldiers to retreat towards Kyongsang. The KPA lost 13 T-34-85s and 5 SU-76Ms during the battle.
The Incheon Landing
The Incheon Landing (Operation Chromite) consisted of a series of landings by the X Corps, composed of the 1st and 7th Marine Divisions, X Corps, aboard LVT Amtracs. They landed on three beaches. To the West, the 7th Division supported by the 73rd Tank Battalion landed on the Red and Green beaches and would then take possession of the Wolmi-do Peninsula and Blue Beach. This allowed the 1st Division, supported by the 1st Marine Tank Battalion, to take the Incheon Peninsula to cut off any supply to the North Koreans in the peninsula.
At 0633 hrs, the 3rd and 5th Battalion of the Marines landed at Green Beach on Wolmi-do Island. The armored detachment of 1st Marine Tank Battalion, equipped with two M4A3(105) HVSS with dozer blades, six M26 Pershings, a flamethrower tank and an M32A1B3 Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) from Company A, landed with the third wave on board of Landing Ship Utility (LSU).
During the Incheon Landings, no Korean armored vehicles were sighted, except for a BA-64 reconnaissance light armored car on Wolmi-do island. It was observed when the 1st Marine Tank Battalion had organized the defence on the causeway that connected the island to the Incheon harbor. Obviously, the armored car was rapidly obliterated by M26 Pershing Number 34 of Sergeant Fullerton.
In the Seoul area, on September 16th, 1950, the Korean People’s Army had only the 42nd Mechanized Regiment, a recently formed unit with very inexperienced crews. As soon as news of the landing was received, the High Command of the Korean People’s Army ordered the 43rd Tank Regiment, equipped with only 12 or 15 T-34-85s, to move to the area of operations from Wonsan in the north east, a distance of 180 km. The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division was ordered to withdraw to the north to avoid being trapped by the troops of the X Marine Corps.
On September 16th, 1950, a company of 6 T-34-85s from the 42nd Mechanized Regiment, without knowing about the landing, was advancing on the Incheon-Seoul highway when it was ambushed by the M26 Pershings of the Marines.
The first tank was destroyed by a Bazooka team that also managed to damage the second one, while the M26s promptly finished the work. At the end of the skirmish, the bodies of 200 Koreans lay on the battlefield while, on the US part, only one Marine was wounded.
The same day, an F4U Corsair pilot claimed to have destroyed another six T-34s in a napalm airstrike.
Another 6 T-34-85s were destroyed on the morning of September 17th. The crews were taken by surprise while they were out of their vehicles, probably cooking breakfast. The last T-34s attempted a counter-attack when the US Marines were already advancing towards Seoul, but the anti-tank teams drove them back. Between September 16th and 20th, the KPA lost 24 T-34-85s to the X Marine Corps.
Many of the new 24 T-34-85s of the 42nd Mechanized Regiment were lost in the battles against Company A and Company B, equipped with M4A3(76)W HVSS Shermans of the 73rd Tank Battalion in support of the 7th Marine Division near the city of Suwon, 30 km south of Seoul.
On September 20th, in fact, B Company lost an M4 under North Korean tank fire but destroyed eight T-34s along the western road to Suwon.
Company B also destroyed three more T-34-85s during the battle for control of the city’s airport, losing only four Jeeps crushed by T-34s. Company A destroyed a total of 8 T-34-85s, four in Suwon and four on the road between Suwon and Osan.
On September 22nd, the attack on the South Korean capital began. It was poorly defended by KPA troops, mostly recruits, and T-34-85s of the 43rd Tank Regiment. The battle, which lasted until September 28th, saw the U.S. Marines victorious and cost the KPA an unknown total of casualties and 12 T-34s in the city, 7 of which were destroyed by Marine Corps tanks.
From the breakthrough from the Pusan Perimeter to the Second Battle of Seoul
The 17th Tank Division was involved in skirmishes against the 6th and 1st ROKA Infantry Divisions which launched several attacks after September 15th, 1950.
The 9 surviving T-34-85s of 1st Company of the 1st Battalion were deployed at Kusan-dong (3 tanks), Uihung (2 tanks), and Kunwi (4 tanks), while the 11 surviving tanks of 2nd Company were deployed in well-camouflaged hull-down positions along a defensive perimeter near Uisong.
Of the 2nd Tank Battalion, it is only known that its tanks were used for defensive purposes north of Sinnyong. After 17th September, however, the division was ordered to move as quickly as possible towards Seoul.
A document captured by the UN intelligence reports that, on September 18th, 1950, the 17th Tank Division had at its disposal 26 tanks, 18 trucks, 37 motorcycles, 1 car, 440 rifles, 519 submachine guns, 26 light machine guns, 3 heavy machine guns, 5 Anti-Aircraft machine guns, and 6 mortars.
The 1st Tank Battalion had only 14 T-34-85s capable of moving when it began to retreat. The retreat to Andong was hampered by continuous F-51 airstrikes that destroyed or immobilized 10 tanks.
According to the testimony of a prisoner of the KPA, the 4 surviving T-34s arrived in Andong on 25th September. On 26th September, along the road to P’unggi, another 2 T-34s were destroyed. The last two vehicles were hidden in a tunnel and the surviving tankers met with Major Kang Hui-il, who informed them that they would go to retrieve more tanks. The major left with about 80 men but never returned.
The 2 surviving vehicles plus two more T-34-85s, possibly two 1st Battalion tanks that had been repaired or two surviving T-34s from the 2nd Tank Battalion (which arrived in P’unggi that night along with the division headquarters), continued their retreat to the north. In the meantime, the T-34-85 of U pong-hak, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, remained to fight the UN troops and was subsequently killed in action.
The 7th Tank Division, or what remained of it, continued its retreat northward, never reaching Seoul. It had to divert towards the 38th Parallel, arriving there on September 28th and almost immediately taking defensive positions between the villages of Korangp’o-ri and Mojon-ni.
As already mentioned, on September 17th, the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division began its retreat towards Seoul, together with the other KPA forces, including the 16th Armored Brigade that had suffered many losses in the previous days.
During the retreat, all the T-34-85s that had been stranded due to engine or suspension failures and had not been repaired due to lack of spare parts during the advance some months before were buried and camouflaged in strategic positions. They were used as bunkers to slow down the UN advance.
During the first day of the Pusan Perimeter Offensive, which began on September 16th, UN troops captured a total of 19 artillery pieces, 18 anti-tank guns, 9 mortars, and a self-propelled SU-76M gun that was fully operational.
On September 18th, after crossing the Naktong River, ROKA units, supported by some tanks, attacked Hill 268 south of Waegwan, which was defended by the forces of the 3rd Infantry Division of the KPA, together with some T-34-85s of the 105th Armored Division. During the evening, ROKA forces managed to capture the hill after repeated air attacks that dropped napalm and rockets on the North Korean units.
On September 19th, 1950, UN troops entered Waegwan after the North Koreans retreated. They had left on the field 22 45 mm cannons, 10 mortars, an unspecified number of small arms and 28 tanks. Those 28 tanks consisted of 27 T-34-85s destroyed or damaged and an M4A3E8 Sherman previously captured by the North Koreans and used against its former owners.
Between September 20th and 21st, the KPA lost several armored vehicles. Regiments of the North Korean 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division managed to cross the Naktong with only 23 T-34-85 and SU-76M tanks. The 107th Armored Regiment had only 14 tanks on the north bank, while the 203rd Armored Regiment had only 9 tanks. These few armored vehicles, along with a few anti-tank guns, covered the retreat of other KPA forces to Kumch’on.
On September 17th-18th, the US 70th Tank Battalion lost 10 tanks, six in minefields, two destroyed by T-34-85s, and two by Soviet-made 76 mm cannons. In one action, US tanks destroyed two out of three KPA hull-down tanks.
The fighting on Hill 351 around Tabu-dong saw another clash of armored vehicles that cost heavy losses for the US forces of the 70th Tank Battalion. On September 20th alone, this unit lost 7 armored vehicles, although North Korean losses are not known.
On September 22nd, the offensive ended with the complete defeat of the KPA units, which began a disorganized retreat towards the north.
The same day, the US Marines arrived near Seoul and began the occupation of the city on September 25th.
Before the war, Seoul was a city of about two million inhabitants, most of whom lived in shacks and huts on the outskirts of the city. The center was very modern, with concrete buildings worthy of the most famous European cities, especially along the Ma Po Boulevard, the main street of Seoul.
The approximately 20,000 Korean People’s Army soldiers of the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Tank Regiment, and the 107th Security Regiment, who were ordered to maintain the city, wasted no time. Before the US landing, they had created dozens, if not hundreds of barricades and anti-tank obstacles in the city’s streets to slow the advance of the UN troops.
Everything was used, bags filled with sand, stones, rubble, and, in some extreme cases, rice. Furniture and other furnishings and vehicle hulks These usually had a height of 2.5 meters and a depth of 1.5 meters. The distance between obstacles was about 200-300 meters.
The barricades were protected by barbed wire, mines and covered by 45 mm M1942 anti-tank guns and heavy machine guns. In some cases, these were M2 Brownings captured from UN troops during the advance.
The Marines arrived on the outskirts of Seoul on September 18th, starting the attack on the town of Yongdungpo west of the capital and Kimpo Airfield to the northwest. Communist resistance in Yongdungpo was heavy and only the airport was captured on 19th September.
On the night of September 19th-20th, the Marines launched a nocturnal amphibious assault from the south coast of the Han River, south of the city. Halfway through, the LVTs were hit by intense fire from the KPA troops barricaded on the fortress at Hill 125. The attack was canceled and the fortress was bombed until dawn.
At 0645 hrs, the 1st Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines attacked the hill and conquered it after 3 hours of fighting. UN troops were now less than eight miles from downtown Seoul.
Also on the morning of September 20th, in Yongdungpo, the troops of the 1st Marines, commanded by Colonel Lewis B. Puller, repelled the attack of 5 T-34-85s and the 87th regiment of the 18th KPA Infantry Division, which lost 300 soldiers.
On 21st September, given the very strong resistance of the 87th North Korean Regiment, the Marines fired white phosphorus ammunition and their planes dropped napalm bombs, razing most of the barracks to the ground and testing the North Korean resistance. However, the North Koreans did not relent until the evening, when due to the losses suffered, the scarcity of ammunition, and the low morale of the troops, the commander of the regiment ordered an organized retreat to the north.
Taking the city of Yongdungpo, the 5th Marines was able to start advancing towards Seoul from the west, while the 1st Marines organized the landing on the north coast of the Han River.
The Communist soldiers, far from leaving their positions, had occupied Hill 296. Under the command of Colonel Chan Wil Ki of the 25th Infantry Brigade, they had created a defensive line defended by about 10,000 soldiers and blocked the 5th Marines‘ way.
This was an ideal defensive position. During the Second World War, the Japanese troops stationed in Korea had used the hill and the surrounding terrain for training, so the KPA troops also had the advantage of already prepared positions.
The 5th Marines began the attack on Hill 296 at 7 am on September 22nd, with the 3rd Battalion of the US Marines, the 1st Battalion of the ROKA Marines, and the 1st Battalion of the US Marines. The 2nd Battalion of the US Marines was in reserve.
After a full day of fighting, Company H had reached the crest of Hill 296, but Chan Wil Ki‘s forces continued to hold the line south and east of the hill. The ROK Marines and 1st US Marines Battalion had to advance over open ground. Constant air support of the Chance Vought F4U Corsairs of Marine Aircraft Group 33 continued to lead the way for the Marines throughout the day.
Some pilots, under the command of Major Arnold A. Lund, stationed on the escort carrier Badoeng Strait, flew up to four sorties per day per aircraft.
As night fell, due to the difficulty of releasing napalm on KPA positions without risking hitting the Marines, the planes stopped the bombing. This left room for the 11th Marines artillery that riddled the positions throughout the night, weakening the KPA troops. These surrendered only at the first light of dawn on September 22nd.
Before continuing the advance on Seoul, the hills to the northeast of the city were cleared. The conquest of the hills meant the Marines lost 2 days and almost 200 men. The Koreans lost an unknown number of soldiers. US troops counted 1,500, but this is a partial number.
Most of these men were killed by napalm or US artillery and were from the 25th Infantry Brigade or 78th Independent Infantry Regiment. Their officers and NCOs had participated in World War II or the Chinese Civil War.
On September 25th, a symbolic date marking 3 months since the start of the war, US troops began entering Seoul from the south and west, as the ROK 17th Regiment moved east in an attempt to outflank Kim Il-sung’s barricaded troops in the city.
It took the Marines an average of an hour to clear each barricade, armed with anti-tank guns, anti-tank rifles, and heavy machine guns and protected by barbed wire and mines, as well as a few sporadic T-34s and SU-76Ms.
The Marines were slowed down by continuous shooting from Korean snipers, Molotov cocktails thrown at tanks, PPSh-41 bursts from house roofs and trees. Some sources mention the use of North Korean “suicide squads” which jumped out from the corners of houses against US tanks, but this information is not confirmed. This could have been a one-off or a desperate defense technique that is not mentioned by other sources.
By the evening of September 25th, the Marines had advanced less than 2 km, albeit with the constant support of artillery and close airstrikes that destroyed entire blocks. Despite the little progress, at 1400 hrs, it was said on radios and TVs around the world that Seoul had been liberated.
On September 26th, at around 2000 hrs, the majority of the Korean People’s Army troops started to withdraw from the city. This had by now been 65% destroyed, with thousands of civilian deaths due to dozens of air and artillery attacks.
Not all the troops withdrew, however. Some launched a counterattack against the 5th Marines, 3rd Battalion on the hills to the west and against the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines which was advancing towards the city center from Ma Po Boulevard.
The 25th Infantry Brigade had counterattacked in the city center with the last tanks and self-propelled guns available, managing to stop the Marines from advancing but losing 4 tanks, 2 SPGs, and 250 soldiers.
Before dawn on September 26th, KPA troops also counterattacked positions on Nam-san Hill south of Seoul, occupied by the US 32nd Division. Colonel Beauchamp‘s men remained on the hill and drove the Korean soldiers back with heavy casualties.
Throughout September 26th, there were clashes along the Ma Po Bulevard with the Marines. The Americans, despite continuous launches of napalm and white phosphorus on the positions of the Communists, advanced less than 1,000 meters.
Even though, by the morning of the 27th, the Marines controlled half of the city, the conquest of the heart of the city was still long and exhausting. The main city targets, such as the embassies, the city hall, and the seat of government were falling under the control of the United Nations forces one after another.
The 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, recaptured the French embassy at 11 am on the 27th. That afternoon, the Marines retook the US embassy, and the Seoul train station was also recaptured during the heavy fighting of that day. The 5th Marines took the Government building in the middle of the afternoon.
The clashes lasted until the evening of September 27th. By the next morning, almost all North Korean soldiers had been killed or taken prisoner, even though small pockets of resistance remained in the northeast.
On September 29th, when all was quiet, General MacArthur triumphantly arrived in the city with South Korean President Syngman Rhee, symbolically returning the city to him.
The casualties of the battle between 20th and 30th September 1950 were 1,716 dead and wounded between the US Marines and ROK, for an unknown number of North Koreans. The death toll of the Korean People’s Army between 15th and 30th September was 14,000 dead and 7,000 prisoners.
The loss bulletins did not count civilians killed by napalm, white phosphorus, and artillery fire and the ones executed by ROK Military Police on charges of being communists, without having taken part in the clashes.
In the subsequent counter-offensive of the UN troops, fought between September 23rd and 30th 1950, Task Force Dolvin (an elite unit organized ad hoc for the offensive) alone destroyed or captured 19 armored vehicles, 16 anti-tank guns, 65 tons of ammunition, and captured or killed 1,100 KPA soldiers, losing only 3 tanks to anti-tank mines.
In the same period, Task Force Lynch, created on September 21st, with 7 M4A3E8 Shermans of Company C of the 70th Tank Battalion, captured 4 T-34-85s, 50 US trucks (previously captured by KPA troops), about 20 artillery pieces, and a total of about 500 KPA prisoners, losing only two Shermans hit by a 76 mm gun at Naksong-dong.
During the night of September 26th, the 3rd Tank Platoon of Company C of the 70th Tank Battalion, under the command of Task Force Lynch, met the Marines of X Marines Corps south of Suwon, but lost contact with the other units of Task Force Lynch, which ended up under attack.
The 2nd Tank Platoon was attacked by 10 T-34-85s that had accidentally encountered the US troops. Two M4A3E8 Shermans were quickly knocked out by 2 T-34-85s but were later destroyed by a third M4. The first T-34-85 just happened to end up in the middle of the advancing column of US vehicles. The crew wasted no time and started to crush at least 15 vehicles, including Jeeps and trucks under the 32 tons of the vehicle, but they were stopped by a 105 mm howitzer which hit it at very close range, only 11 meters.
Four more T-34s were destroyed by the fire of anti-tank teams and the last three tanks fled, two of which were destroyed by tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion along the road between the villages of Habung-Ni and Pyeongtaek.
On September 23rd, the American 24th Division attacked towards Taejon-Seoul, but was ambushed by the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armoured Division, which cost the Americans three M46 Pattons. In the afternoon of the same day, the Koreans lost 3 T-34-85 in an air attack.
Between September 23rd and 24th, some North Korean reinforcements arrived from the north to Kumch’on along with some T-34s, and the battle for the control of the city began. Six M46 Pattons were lost during the battle, while the KPA lost 5 T-34s in an air attack and 3 during the clashes between armored vehicles.
In the city of Taejon, the fighting was very violent and US reports of North Korean losses were unclear and exaggerated. The US ground forces reported 13 tanks of the Korean People’s Army destroyed (3 by Bazooka fire) while the USAF reported 20 tanks destroyed.
On September 28th, 10 T-34-85s were encountered in the vicinity of the city of P’yongt’aek. 5 were destroyed by airstrikes and 2 by anti-tank ground fire.
Breakthrough the 38th parallel and Pyongyang conquest
On September 30th, the US and ROKA offensive against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began with the crossing of the 38th parallel. The North Koreans put up a strenuous resistance by any means, even if the US advance seemed unstoppable.
On October 12th, a group of North Korean tanks attacked the positions of B Company of the 70th Tank Battalion near Songhyon-ni. Lieutenant D. Brewery, the tank commander of an M4A3E8 Sherman, reported that his vehicle fired at a T-34-85 at 50 m without penetrating it, then at 20 m again without penetrating it, then the Korean tank collided with the Sherman. As soon as they recovered from the collision, the driver of the Sherman reversed and moved back a few meters, allowing the gunner to fire a third shot, which surprisingly again did not penetrate the frontal armor of the tank but damaged the gun.
The North Korean crew did not lose heart and, although their vehicle was on fire, they accelerated again and hit the Sherman for a second time, but the fourth shot put it out of action.
On 11th October 1950, after a brief confrontation with the 1st ROKA Infantry Division, the 17th Tank Division was forced to retreat to the north again. The division arrived in Sinanju with stops in Pyongyang and Sukch’on. On October 18th, the unit was reorganized and shipped south to the banks of the Ch’ongch’on River.
After a joint US-Commonwealth attack on October 23rd, 1950, which led to the conquest of Sinanju and a brief firefight against the 27th Commonwealth Brigade, the 17th Division retreated again, crossing the Taeryong River and repositioning itself in Chongju to defend the Pakch’on-Chongju road.
According to documentation captured at the time, the Korean People’s Army17th Tank Division possessed 20 T-34-85s, 12 SU-76Ms and 7 76 mm ZIS-3 guns. 4 T-34s and some SU-76Ms were in a defensive position along the west bank of the Taeryong River, opposite the Pakch’on town.
The 2nd Infantry Battalion, with some SU-76Ms and some 76 mm cannons, defended the north bank of the Taeryong River.
The 3rd Infantry Battalion, with 10 T-34-85s, defended the coast near Chongju from possible amphibious landings. The Logistics Brigade, with the remaining SU-76Ms, defended Chongju and the headquarters. 6 reserve T-34-85s were positioned at a height halfway between the two cities.
The first clash took place on the night between 25th and 26th October, when the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade crossed the Taeryong River, meeting at 0400 hrs with a reconnaissance unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kim In-sik in the Battle of Broken Bridge. Companies A and B of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) were attacked by North Korean troops supported by two T-34-85s of the 17th Armored Brigade. The North Koreans managed to create havoc among the Australian units that could not counter the tanks because the rocket ignition system of their 2.6-inch Bazookas jammed due to poor maintenance. Despite the lack of bazookas, after several hours of fighting, the North Korean troops withdrew, losing 150 soldiers, of which 100 were killed and 50 taken prisoner.
UN sources report that, just south of Pyongyang, the Australians of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, supported by D Company of the 70th Tank Battalion, encountered two T-34-85s and a SU-76M. One T-34 camouflaged in a haystack was destroyed by Sherman fire, while the other two vehicles were abandoned by their crews after the firefight.
In 5 days of fighting along the 32 km of the defensive line between Chongju in the west and Pakch’on in the east, the 17th Tank Division lost all 23 T-34-85s (some arrived in the following days to support the resistance) and six SU-76Ms. performing an excellent slowdown action of UN troops.
The 3rd RAR War Diary states that North Korean resistance in the region was admirable. The T-34-85 commanders were able to exploit the terrain to their advantage and camouflaged their vehicles so as not to be seen even a few hundred meters away in broad daylight.
The Battle of Chongju, fought between October 29th and 30th, 1950, saw fighting between the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment supported by the US 89th Tank Regiment equipped with M4A3E8 Shermans and the North Korean 17th Tank Brigade. The battle began at 1000 hours on November 29th. Due to the dense bush in which Korean tanks defended themselves, air support was immediately called in. By 1400 hours, F-51s of the No. 77 Squadron RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) reported having destroyed 7 T-34-85s and 2 SU-76Ms, although these claims seem to have been exaggerated. A number of T-34s were destroyed by M4A3E8 Sherman tanks on the ground, one was destroyed by fire when the Australians hit its external fuel tank and three others were destroyed at short range by 3.5 in. Bazooka fire.
In total, that day, 11 T-34-85s and 2 SU-76M were destroyed.
On the evening of October 30th, the 21st Regimental Combat Team of the US 24th Infantry Division advanced west from Chongju. It got to about 2 km west from Kwaksan when it ended up in an ambush that soon turned into a skirmish that lasted all day and led to the destruction of 7 T -34-85s, 1 SU-76M, seven 76 mm guns, about 50 dead and 2 T-34-85 captured on flatcars along a railroad.
The 21st Regimental Combat Team continued the advance towards the coastal road going northwards, arriving at Ch’onggo-dong on 31st October.
On 1st November, the KPA counterattacked with approximately 500 troops and 7 T-34-85s. In the ensuing clash, all seven Korean tanks were destroyed or knocked out by US tanks, and about a fifth of the soldiers were lost to US fire.
The 21st Regimental Combat Team found it difficult to maintain the position and retreated further south, arriving north of the Ch’ongch’on River. The 17th Tank Division had managed to slow down and eventually stop the UN troops by denying them access to Sinuiju. There, the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division was re-equipping and retraining. All this came at the cost of 39 T-34-85s, 7 SU-76Ms, 7 ZIS-3s, and about 1,000 soldiers lost in 7 days.
During the defense of Pyongyang, between October 17th and 19th, only a few T-34-85s were encountered, some in hull-down positions outside the city and a few others inside the capital.
Company A of the 6th Tank Battalion, equipped with M46 Pattons, encountered 8 T-34-85s and a SU-76M on October 22nd, destroying them all in a short firefight and capturing 8 other T-34s abandoned by their crews shortly before.
On October 23rd, at Kunu-ri, the 6th Division of the Republic of Korea Army captured two KPA trains carrying ammunition, food and a total of eight tanks. A little further north, at Huich’on, that same night, the 6th Division captured 20 T-34s abandoned in a depot, almost all of them intact.
The Chinese intervention and the KPA counteroffensive
On the same day on which Pyongyang was conquered, the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army (PVA), commanded by General Peng Dehuai and 270,000 men strong, crossed the border between China and Korea, fording the Yalu River in great secrecy. On October 25th, the PVA clashed for the first time with UN troops, defeating the troops of the 10th Infantry Regiment of the 6th Infantry Division assigned to the ROK II Corps. Later, in the Battles of Unsan and Ch’ongch’on, it managed to defeat U.S. units and other UN forces.
In the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, supported by the 17th Tank Division, defeated several UN units, forcing them to retreat. Some of them included the US 1st Cavalry Division, 24th Infantry Division (including the 21st Regimental Combat Team), 27th Commonwealth Brigade, the Turkish Brigade, and the 6th, 7th and 8th ROKA Infantry Divisions of the South Korean II Corps.
From this date onwards, while the armored forces of the Korean People’s Army took part in subsequent battles, the amount of vehicles used, their actual use, and losses in the field are not known exactly. Many sources report the numbers of tanks destroyed without mentioning whether they were Chinese or Korean.
On October 28th, during the Battle of Chongju, the 3rd RAR destroyed 3 T-34-85s with Bazookas. A fourth one was destroyed by Private John Stafford, who fired his Bren gun at the external tanks of the tank, setting them on fire.
On October 29th, it was reported that an armored regiment of the Korean People’s Army supported the actions of soldiers of the Chinese 124th Infantry Division. During the following days, “two North Korean tanks” (unsure if they were KPA or PVA vehicles) were destroyed by an F4U airstrike near the city of Kilchu that was just recaptured by the Communist troops.
On November 7th, a USAF pilot reported the destruction of 6 tanks, 3 BA-64 armored cars, and 45 unarmored vehicles near Pakchon. According to some sources, these were vehicles of the 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division.
By November 17th, it is reported that 7 more T-34s and two SU-76Ms were destroyed thanks to airstrikes and supporting fire from US ships anchored near the east coast of the Korean peninsula.
Not much information is available regarding North Korean use of other T-34-85s prior to the counteroffensive south of the 38th parallel.
Almost all the KPA units, thanks to the intervention of the PVA, could be reorganized. They were recalled to the fields of Sinuiju in the west, Kanggye in the center, and Hoeryong in the east of the DPRK for new training and re-equipment.
Offensive South of the 38th Parallel and Third Battle of Seoul
During the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River, fought between November 25th and December 2nd, 1950, the UN troops suffered a defeat and retreated south of the 38th parallel. Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic of China, then became convinced that he could force the enemy troops to retreat to the coast of the South and ordered Peng Dehuai to cross the 38th parallel in pursuit of the enemy.
Between December 11th and 31st, there was a cease-fire that was interrupted by the Chinese offensive. The ROKA forces stationed on the 38th parallel suffered heavy losses and, by January 1st, 1951, they were all annihilated or forced to retreat.
In the third battle for Seoul, the fighting mostly took place against Chinese PVA troops and it is not clear whether the KPA forces that took part in the battle included armored regiments equipped with T-34-85s. Out of fear that the Chinese and Koreans could outflank the UN troops in the city, the evacuation began as early as January 1st.
The Communist troops managed to knock out or destroy several Cromwell Mk. VII tanks (even managing to capture some of them), and at least one Churchill Mk. VII of the 29th Infantry Brigade.
By January 4th, UN forces had been pushed back to a defensive line 9-12 km south of the Han River and the city of Seoul. The order was to hold out until the troops and ammunition were cleared from Incheon and then the engineers destroyed any remaining structures or equipment, including 6 million liters of fuel, 12 rail cars full of ammunition, and some tanks that could not be evacuated due to lack of space on ships docked in the harbor.
The conquest of Seoul was a great victory for the communist troops of the Korean People’s Army and the People’s Volunteer Army. It gave even more confidence to the Chinese generals, even if the supplies available were no longer enough to support an advance. In fact, at the end of January, the UN troops had stopped the communist advance, and, with Operation Thunderbolt launched on January 25th, they were able to advance again.
Between February 20th and March 6th, during Operation Killer, they were able to return to the banks of the Han River, even if Seoul remained firmly in the hands of the Chinese and the North Koreans.
In mid-November, the 17th Tank Division, which had until now followed the PVA, was recalled to Sinuiju to replace the losses. New recruits were assigned to the division, which was renamed 17th Mechanized Brigade, along with 20 new T-34-85s, 10 BA-64s, and some 82 mm mortars.
After a rest period in mid-January, the new 17th Mechanized Brigade was assigned to the 1st Corps and shipped south via Pyongyang and arrived in Seoul in February. It remained in Seoul until mid-March, acting as a reserve for the 1st Corps and being equipped with new material, becoming the 17th Mechanized Division, with only 20 T-34-85s, 6-12 SU-76Ms, and some 120 mm and 82 mm mortars.
In the furious battles of Operation Thunderbolt, Operation Killer, and the subsequent Operation Ripper between March 7th and April 4th, which led to the recapture of Seoul on March 16th, there are no precise numbers on how many armored vehicles were lost by PVA or KPA troops.
Obviously, the 17th Mechanized Division withdrew along with the rest of the Communist troops north of the Imjin River, being replaced in the first line by the 19th Infantry Division. It was then assigned to the IVth Corps, with anti-landing duties along the west coast of the peninsula. On 6th July 1951, the unit replaced the 19th Infantry Division in the 1st Corps but remained on its positions on the east coast.
The division was now under the command of Major General Chong Ch’ol-u. It maintained its positions, receiving few more materials. By November 1951, according to UN intelligence, it had risen to 6,600 men, but had few tanks and SPGs.
In the subsequent Chinese-Korean offensive between April 22nd and May 20th, 1951, which failed to recapture Seoul, tanks were rarely encountered by UN troops. In the few cases where they were encountered, they were under Chinese insignia and command. A notable exception to this was the Battle of the Injim River, where Centurion Mark III tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and some M24 Chaffees of the 10th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea resisted the North Korean and Chinese attack supported by T-34-85s.
To this day, the battle is a source of contention. The UN troops were defeated with 158 casualties and approximately 1,000 prisoners but managed to slow the Chinese and North Korean troops enough to create a defensive line around Seoul.
On May 20th, the UN Counter Offensive began, which lasted until July 1st, 1951, and was the last major offensive of the Korean War before the two-year stalemate. During the Offensive, the 1st and 2nd Corps and the 5th Korean People’s Army Corps took part in the clashes. Within these corps, there were armored regiments equipped with T-34-85s, but due to previous defeats and the difficulty faced by the North Koreans in supplying fresh troops, none of these regiments had a complete staff. It is assumed that some of these units were not really equipped with armored vehicles but kept the name for propaganda purposes.
Period of stalemate
On July 1st, 1951 began the so-called phase of stalemate that lasted for two years, until July 1953. The front lines had arrived approximately where they were at the beginning of the war. In the east of the Korean peninsula, the front lines of the UN forces were north of the 38th parallel, but in the west of the peninsula, the communist troops held firmly a part south of the 38th parallel.
During the stalemate phase, US strategic bombing of the area north of the 38th parallel continued weakening the already exhausted armies of the Korean People’s Army and the People’s Volunteers Army, hitting supplies and any depot or factory that was detected.
In 1951, while waiting for the Soviets to re-equip them, the armored units of the KPA were reorganized. The 105th ‘Seoul’ Armored Division was renamed the 105th ‘Seoul’ Mechanized Division and the 10th Mechanized Division was formed, but it was not yet equipped with tanks.
According to a Soviet report from December 1951, the 17th Mechanized Division was dissolved and its materials transferred to the 105th “Seoul” Tank Division. According to UN intelligence, the unit remained active until February 1952, when its tank battalion was transferred to the 10th Mechanized Division. The rest of the division was then dissolved. It is more plausible that, after the removal of the armored unit, the division became the 17th Infantry Division.
The Soviet reinforcements were not as large as hoped and, in 1951, the KPA had only 77 T-34-85s and 63 SU-76Ms at its disposal. It was therefore decided to dissolve the divisions and create six tank regiments to be included in the ranks of six infantry divisions.
The Chinese could not supply many armored vehicles to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In fact, by May 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had only 300 T-34-85s, 60 IS-2s and 40 ISU-122s.
Most of the armored vehicles sent to the front were destroyed by bombing before they even arrived, so there was little fighting between armored vehicles between July 1951 and July 1953.
The only noteworthy battles in which KPA forces took part, probably supported by T-34-85s (even if western sources do not mention ‘tanks’), were the Battle of Bloody Ridge fought between August and September 1951, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge between September and October 1951 and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, one of the last battles fought between April and July 1953.
On 27th July 1953, the day of the end of the Korean War, the units of the armored forces of the Korean People’s Army had increased to 7 armored regiments, the 104th, 105th ‘Seoul’, 106th, 107th, 109th, 206th, and 208th, with a total of 255 T-34-85s and 127 SU-76Ms, and approximately the same personnel numbers as at the beginning of the war.
According to this data, the T-34-85 was, at least in theory, superior to tanks such as the Cromwell Mark VIII and the M24 Chaffee, at about the same level as the M4A3E8 and the Comet and obviously inferior to other UN tanks, like the M26 and Centurion. The Churchill was an exception, because it was inferior to the T-34 in firepower, but its armor made it a tough opponent. In practice, the matters were very different. The tankers of the Korean People’s Army and the Volunteer People’s Army were poorly trained compared to their UN counterparts and this unbalanced every battle in favor of the UN troops.
To give an example, the possibility of hitting a target on the first shot for the KPA troops was 50% within 320 m, 23% within 680 m, 25% within 1,000 m, and nill over 1,000 m. For the Americans, the possibility of hitting a target on the first shot was 84% within 320 m and 16% over 1,000 m.
In some cases, the Chinese and Korean T-34 crews were so poorly trained that, during combat, they fired HE rounds instead of armor-piercing rounds at the enemy thanks they were engaging.
Obviously, there were other vehicles during the Korean War, such as the M4A2E8 Sherman and some 17-pdr. SP Achilles (M10 GMC rearmed with 17-pdr cannon) in service with the Canadian Army and the M36 Jackson in service with the ROKA, but the former had the same characteristics as the M4A3E8 Sherman and the latter did not participate in any major action in the war.
Data on Korean tank losses
After the UN Pusan Perimeter Offensive, in the period from September 26th to October 21st, 1950, seven teams traveled every road that could be traveled by armored vehicles from the Pusan Perimeter to the 38th parallel. This survey was meant to discover the number of armored vehicles lost by the Korean People’s Army between June 25th and October 21st, 1950. It revealed 239 destroyed or abandoned T-34-85s tanks and 74 self-propelled SU-76Ms guns since the war began. The same survey counted 136 U.S. tanks destroyed and unrecovered.
The survey found that airstrikes destroyed 102 T-34-85 tanks (43%). Of these, 60 (25%) were knocked out by napalm bombs. 59 T-34-85s were abandoned (25%) with no visible evidence of damage. 39 T-34-85s were destroyed by UN tanks or artillery (16%) and Bazooka fire destroyed 13 tanks (5%).
Of the remaining 26 (11%) T-34-85s destroyed, 12 (4.6%) were destroyed by cannon fire from US Navy ships, a very small number had been disabled or destroyed by mines, and the remainder were lost “not to military causes”.
By April 1952, another 57 hulls were identified, for a total of 296 T-34-85s known to have been destroyed in South Korea. It should be noted that the Bazooka fire had actually hit many more vehicles and put them out of action but, often, the UN armored forces on the battlefield mistook them for working vehicles, hitting them again, often destroying them completely.
In general, pilots of the United States Air Force (USAF) also often hit North Korean T-34-85s that had already been destroyed by infantry or tanks on the ground, mistaking them for working vehicles because of the speed at which they flew over the ground. This type of error was exacerbated by poor visibility on the ground, which could also cause pilots to mistake trucks or armored cars for tanks.
For these reasons, in 1950 alone, USAF pilots claimed to have destroyed 857 tanks, which became 1,256 destroyed and 1,298 damaged by June 1952. Marine Corps pilots claimed another 123 destructions and, finally, 163 tanks destroyed and 161 damaged were reported by US Navy pilots.
The credited number of UN tanks destroyed between July and September 1950 was 136, of which 95 (70%) were destroyed by Soviet-made North Korean anti-tank mines.
The number of armored vehicles destroyed during the UN Offensive in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is unclear, although some sources state that another 313 tanks were knocked out, destroyed, or captured and then blown up so as not to end up back in Communist hands. At first glance, this may seem like an overestimate or exaggeration, but when one considers that UN troops captured several North Korean depots where many T-34s lay intact and abandoned, this number is plausible.
A US Army report from 1954 states that, in total, there were 119 tank vs. tank actions, of which 104 involved US troops and 15 involved US Marine Corp armored vehicles against KPA and PVA forces during the Korean War. From these encounters, some 97 T-34-85 tanks were reported to have been knocked out and another 18 considered probable against 4 M24 Chaffees, 16 M4A3E8 Shermans, 6 M26 Pershings, and 8 M46 Patton tanks knocked out, of which only 15 were irreparable.
Of those 119 actions, only 24 were fought against more than 3 T-34-85s together. In terms of which UN tanks were most likely to engage in tank vs tank combat, the breakdown in the report was that 59 were fought with M4A3E8 Shermans (50%), 38 with M26 Pershings (32%), 12 with the more modern M46 Pattons (10%) and, finally, 10 with the light M24 Chaffees (8%), which proved too vulnerable.
The M4A3E8 was credited with destroying 41 T-34-85s between August and November 1950.
After the War
While the few ISU-122s received from China after the war were quickly decommissioned from service in the Korean People’s Army due to the few spare parts available and the small number in Korean possession, the T-34-85s, the few T-34-76s, and 12 IS-2s continued to serve in the ranks of Kim Il-Sung’s army.
In the years after the war, the Soviet Union supplied the DPRK with other batches of T-34-85s. It is estimated that, by the end of the 1950s, the Korean People’s Army had about 1,000 T-34-85s in service, remaining the main (and only) tank of the KPA. If this figure is true, it can be assumed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea received a total of about 1,800-1,900 T-34-85s in the decade between the late 40s and the late 50s.
This high number of vehicles was kept in service at least until the mid-1960s when large numbers of T-54s, T-55s, and Type 59s began arriving in the country. This allowed some T-34s to go into the second line, although a very high number remained in service into the 1970s, joining the more modern T-62s from 1971 and the Chonmas in 1978.
In 1985, there were still about ten armored battalions equipped with T-34-85s in the ranks of the Korean People’s Army, which means that about 400 tanks were still in service. Other sources mention 650 T-34-85s still in service in the mid-1980s.
Some sources claim that, in the years following the war, the Korean People’s Army converted some T-34s into Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARVs) by removing the turret. This theory could be another wrong one, exactly like the one that claims that the KPA owns 100 SU-100. It cannot be demonstrated with photographic evidence.
More modern times
After 1969, the same road wheels produced after the Second World War in the Soviet Union appeared on the T-34-85s, called ‘Starfish’ models, with a larger diameter. Apparently, the North Koreans produce an indigenous version without visible differences from the Chinese one.
In the last years of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the few T-34-85s still in service were modified by the Korean People’s Army with all-steel tracks produced in Korea, also used on the North Korean copy of Soviet and Chinese Main Battle Tanks, along with new sprocket wheels. The hull and turret received slat-armor mounts to increase the tank’s protection against High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) projectiles and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM), also mounted on the T-54s and T-55s still in service.
The Soviet-era radio system was probably also replaced with a more modern one. A snorkel system that could be mounted on North Korean T-34-85s was also developed. Looking at the ball mount for the machine gun in the hull, it can be seen that the barrel does not look like the usual DT-27, so it can be assumed that the machine gun has been replaced with a more modern model to increase the rate of fire (as some KPA units still use DP-27, infantry version of DT) or that the machine gun has been removed and the barrel is fake.
As far as it is known, the KPA never developed a new range of 85 mm ammunition. It is still using or producing under license the same Soviet 85 mm ammunition that was almost certainly used on the M1981 Shin’heung light amphibious tank and on the tank destroyer variant of the 323 Armored Personnel Carrier.
In 1996, according to some sources, there were still about 250 T-34-85s in reserve. As of 2021, it seems that there are still some used for training, even if the exact number and location remain unknown.
Although in the collective imagination, ‘North Korea’ may seem an almost absurd nation, based on the most extreme nationalism and the cult of personality, its army is not devoid of common sense. It is hard to imagine that even the most indoctrinated of KPA generals do not know that T-34-85s are now more than obsolete for modern warfare and can envisage what would happen if they ever came face to face with an M1A2 Abrams or a K2 Black Panther. This begs the question as to why there are still a number of them in reserve in 2021?
There are many ways in which a T-34-85 can be used in the event of war. Firstly, for training duties, as they are cheap and easy to maintain. In the event that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea declares war on the Republic of Korea, thinking of T-34-85s crossing the Demilitarized Zone on the front lines supported by artillery fire is a bit anachronistic, but, using them to patrol newly conquered territories to keep any rebel groups at bay, escort convoys of supplies, in urban locations, for police duties, patrolling against paratroopers in the area north of the 38th parallel or for hypothetical support of more modern vehicles in some actions would not be so absurd.
Another plausible scenario is a possible defense of the peninsula north of the 38th parallel in case it is invaded. Taking advantage of the terrain of the peninsula, the T-34-85s could be positioned in well-camouflaged hull-down positions and ambush the assailant troops, forcing them to fight for every meter of land, thus leading to a kind of asymmetrical war that is often seen in the Middle East. A very clear idea of how this scenario could be is the Soviet-Afghan War fought between 1979 and 1989, where a well-organized militia managed to resist one of the best armies in the world using to its advantage the terrain and taking advantage of every possibility to inflict the greatest number of losses to the Soviets.
In the early years of the new millennium, North Korean T-34-85s were rarely seen. The last public appearance of an armored unit equipped with these vehicles was in 2009, when it participated in a military parade on Kim Il-sung Street in Pyongyang. In 2012, a T-34-76 was seen during a DPRK documentary during an urban combat exercise.
According to analysts, since 2017, the T-34-85 has been removed from service in the Korean People’s Army, although some examples will likely still be in service with the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (Paramilitary militia for civil defense founded in 1959) or in reserve.
The DPRK is not the only nation to have in service or to have withdrawn from service a few years ago the T-34-85. In fact, at least the following nations still have in service a certain amount: 45 are still used by the People’s Army of Vietnam for training, Guinea still has 30 operational, 10 are used by Guinea-Bissau Army, and Cuba also still has a certain number of them in active service. Other nations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia have a number of T-34-85s in reserve and finally, in Yemen and Syria, some T-34-85s have also been seen engaged in their ongoing and bloody civil wars.
Although the T-34-85 had a balanced speed/armament/armor ratio, the poorly trained Korean People’s Army did not know how to use it against their enemies during the Korean War, leading to the Western misconception that the vehicles were inferior to their US counterparts.
A key factor that affected North Korean losses was the almost constant threat from the air. Airstrikes by UN pilots proved to be very effective on almost every occasion. Kim Il-Sung’s Army was also forced by the scarce amount of tanks provided by the Soviets and the Chinese to use the T-34-85 in small assaults often composed of less than 3 tanks, canceling the advantages the tank had over some of the UN tanks it would go up against.
8.15 x 3.00 x 2.72 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
5, driver, machine gunner, commander, gunner and loader
12 cylinders diesel engine V-2, 500 hp with 556 liters
55 km/h on road
85 mm ZIS-S-53 L/54.6 with 60 rounds; 2x 7.62 mm DT machine guns
47 mm hull front, 46 mm sides and rear.
90 mm turret front, 75 mm sides and 52 mm rear.
20 mm roof and floor.
The Autoblindo Monti-FIAT armored car was a vehicle built in Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa). It was constructed by the Officine della Compagnia Monti (Eng: Workshops of the Monti Company) of Gondar in Ethiopia for the troops of the Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Italian Army).
Its operational use is almost unknown, but its dimensions make it one of the most peculiar vehicles used by the Italians in the East African campaign that took place between June 10th, 1940 and November 27th, 1941.
Italian colonialism of East Africa began in 1890 with the formal creation of Italian Eritrea, which included the Eritrean territories near the sea shores. In the same year, the Protectorate of Somalia was created, which grew in size in 1925, following the agreements that the Kingdom of Italy had signed with the Triple Entente to enter the First World War in 1915.
In December 1934, the Incident of Walwal (in Italian: Ual Ual) occurred, where Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed near the Walwal water wells in Ethiopia. This was the pretext with which, on October 3rd, 1935, the Kingdom of Italy invaded the Ethiopian Empire of Emperor Haile Selassie, born Ras Tafari Maconnen.
The war lasted 7 months, during which the Italians used every means at their disposal, even toxic gases, and were able to conquer the nation, forcing the emperor to flee into exile in London.
After the declaration of war on France and the United Kingdom by Benito Mussolini on June 10th, 1940, the United Kingdom took measures by closing the Suez Canal to Italian merchant ships and warships. This caused the Italian colonies of Italian East Africa, composed of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somalia, to be totally isolated and surrounded by the British colonies of Sudan, Kenya and British Somalia and the French colony of French Somalia (now Djibouti).
As far as provisions were concerned, the civilians and the military had no problems. The serious shortages concerned armaments and logistics. In fact the Royal Army in the AOI had only 670,000 rifles, 5,300 light machine guns, 3,300 medium or heavy machine guns, 57 45 mm mortars, 70 81 mm mortars and 811 field guns available.
While these numbers may seem adequate, it must be considered that most of the weapons had been produced during World War I, if not earlier. All field artillery had been produced during 1915-1918, with some cannons produced in the 1800s. The medium machine guns were mostly Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07/12 captured from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914, both produced during the First World War. The most modern machine guns were Breda 30, universally known for their inefficiency due to the necessary maintenance.
In the colonies of Italian East Africa, in addition to the Royal Army, there were the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Eng. Voluntary Militia for National Security), a paramilitary corps of the Partito Fascista Italiano or PFI (Eng. Italian Fascist Party), the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali (Eng. Royal Carabinieri Corps) with police duties at home and in the colonies, the Corpo della Regia Guardia di Finanza (Eng. Corps of the Royal Finance Guard) with duties of economic and financial control, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Eng. Italian African Police), with police and security duties in the colonies, and, finally, the Compagnia Autocarrata Tedesca (Eng. German Motorized Company) composed of 144 German volunteers.
The colonial troops were commonly known by the word Àscari, which is the Italianization of the Arabic word ‘ʿaskarī’, meaning Soldier. This corresponded to the rank of simple soldier of the Royal Army. However, the units of the colonial troops were also composed of Zaptiè from Zaptiye ‘Police’ in Turkish, colonial policemen under Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza command and Dubad in Arabic “White Turbans”, a paramilitary fascist militia used in second line duties.
The colonial troops formed 13 Colonial Divisions composed of 29 brigades, 17 Autonomous Colonial Battalions, 8 Colonial Cavalry Squadrons with camels and, finally, 22 poorly armed and trained groups or regular and irregular bands.
According to the report of the commanders of the troops in AOI drawn up at the beginning of the campaign, the ammunition reserves were for “one year of war” for artillery and the ammunition reserves for small arms were only for “six or seven months of war”.
As for the vehicles, whether combat or transport, the situation was not good. The troops had at their disposal only 24 M11/39 medium tanks and 39 light tanks of the L3 series (L3/33 or L3/35), about 30 armored cars, 10 FIAT 611 and about 20 Lancia 1Z and 1ZM dating back to the First World War, 96 armored trucks or trucks with handmade weapons and a total of 5,300 other trucks. To the detriment of the Italian Fascist policy of Autarchy, or rather the self-sufficiency economic system, in the colonies of Italian East Africa, the trucks used were, in addition to nationally produced models, mostly Ford V8, Chevrolet, Bussing, or GMC trucks. These had been purchased in 1935 to participate in the conquest of Ethiopia.
The behavior of Benito Mussolini and the High Command of the Royal Army was very ambiguous. In fact, up until the day before the Kingdom of Italy entered the war, Italian merchant ships could pass through the Suez Canal undisturbed, but there was never an order to send war material or fuel to the colonies of the Italian East Africa.
On June 10th, 1940, for all these military vehicles in the AOI, there was a small reserve of fuel equivalent to only “six or seven months of war”, while the reserve of tires was significantly smaller, “only 2 months of war”. The roads of the colonies were in very bad condition and, for example, in a round trip from Asmara (capital of Eritrea) to Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia), 700 km as the crow flies, an average of 10 tires burst per truck.
Prince Amedeo’s request for reinforcements or equipment was rejected by the Royal Army because the merchant ships would have had to circumnavigate Africa, becoming easy targets and costing Italy a great deal of money.
However, the request to receive logistical supplies, such as truck wheels and fuel, from Japan was authorized. Japan agreed by illegally sending merchant ships that would unload the equipment in great secrecy.
Ironically, whoever gave the order to the Japanese from Rome probably got the measurements wrong and the merchant ships unloaded in Italian East Africa hundreds of tires of different sizes from those used by Italian trucks.
Between June 13th and August 19th, 1940, the Regio Esercito, with the limited supplies of ammunition and supplies, despite the order from Rome to maintain their positions, attacked the British troops in Sudan, Kenya, and British Somalia. They defeated the British troops, penetrating several tens of kilometers into the territories of Sudan and Kenya and conquering British Somalia in only 16 days of fighting, between August 3rd and 19th, 1940.
This advance was not a waste of precious resources. In fact, Prince Amedeo of Savoy launched targeted attacks to conquer the major British ports in the region, decreasing the risk of British landings and taking possession of the few resources available in their warehouses.
In November, after a considerable influx of British men and equipment, not only from Great Britain, but also from colonies such as South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand, the Commonwealth troops counterattacked but were unable to defeat the Italian troops which, worn out, were forced to fall back nonetheless.
By January 1941, the Italian troops had increased their numbers to approximately 340,000 Italian soldiers and Àscare troops. In fact, due to the isolation, many Italian citizens and natives had lost their jobs and there was nothing left for them to do but enlist. In the same month, the Commonwealth troops could count on 230,000 soldiers.
The second British counterattack of January 1941 was decisive. In Eritrea, in the north, they faced a lot of resistance that slowed down the progress. However, in the south, because of the long front of 600 km, the British easily defeated the Italian troops and indigenous troops, which were poorly armed and worn out by months of isolation.
Mogadishu was conquered by the British on February 25, while in March, they were already in Ethiopia.
On April 17th, 1941, the Viceroy of Ethiopia, Prince Amedeo di Savoia, commander of the Italian forces, barricaded himself together with 7,000 soldiers, 3,000 of whom were Ascaris, on the mountain of Amba Alagi. There, the British troops of General Alan Cunningham, 39,000 strong, besieged them for a month, until May 17th, when the Italian troops surrendered due to lack of ammunition.
The British gave the honor of arms to the Italian troops and to Prince Amedeo. On April 6th, Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was captured and on May 5th, after 5 years of forced exile, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the capital.
Despite the surrender of Prince Amedeo in the Gondar region, 40,000 well-organized Italian and Acehnese soldiers resisted the British assaults that began on May 28th, 1941, and ended on November 27th with the surrender of Italian forces in Italian East Africa.
The FIAT 634N Truck
In 1930, FIAT developed two heavy trucks, the 632N, and the 634N. The letter N stood for ‘Nafta’ or diesel in Italian. These were the first two heavy-duty diesel trucks made in Italy.
The 634N truck was officially presented to the public in April 1931, during the Milan trade fair. The 634N was then the largest truck produced in Italy, with a maximum weight allowed by law of 12.5 tonnes. It was nicknamed ‘Elefante’ (Eng: Elephant) for its robustness, power, and load capacity. Its production, in three versions, ran from 1931 to 1939.
After model number 1614, the wheel rims were replaced with ones with six spokes made of cast steel. After strengthening the rear axle, the chassis, and the leaf springs, the vehicle could carry more weight, from 6,140 kg to 7,640 kg, thus reaching a maximum total weight of 14 tonnes, with an empty weight of 6,360 kg. These modifications gave birth to the FIAT 634N1, which also had the front fenders connected to the bumper. The FIAT 634N1 was produced from 1933 to 1939.
In 1933, the FIAT 634N2 version was born with a modified cab to increase aerodynamics, a drop-shaped radiator grille, angled windscreen, and more rounded shapes. Load capacity and speed remained unchanged compared to the N1 version. The FIAT 634N2 was produced from 1933 to 1939.
This was the first truck in Europe to be equipped with bunks for the crew. The back of the seat could be raised to form two bunks and, on request, there was a modification available to provide a third bunk.
As an example, the second company to provide a berth in the cabin was Renault with its three-axle Renault AFKD with a load capacity of 10 tonnes, which entered service only in 1936. The third was Lancia with the Lancia 3Ro in 1938.
The wooden platform was 4.435 meters long and 2.28 meters wide. The foldable sides were 0.65 meters high, with a maximum load allowed by law of 7.640 kg, while the maximum transportable did not exceed 10 tonnes. The lateral and rear sides were foldable.
In the N1 and N2 versions, it was possible to tow a two-axle trailer for the transport of materials, reaching a maximum weight allowed by law of the truck + trailer of 24 tonnes.
During the war, the FIAT 634N successfully towed tanks of the ‘M’ series and self-propelled vehicles on their chassis in the Rimorchi Unificati Viberti da 15t (Eng. 15 tonnes Viberti Unified Trailer).
Most of the trucks received a cab from FIAT, but Officine Viberti of Turin and Orlandi of Brescia also built bodies for some chassis. The military version was called FIAT 634NM (Nafta, Militare – Diesel, Military), but its characteristics were almost identical to the civilian versions.
During the Second World War, due to the Royal Army’s need for logistic transport vehicles, a total of 45,000 civilian vehicles in Italy were requisitioned, overhauled, repainted, re-plated, and put back into service as military vehicles.
The big difference between the civilian and military versions was the windows; in the military versions, the truck had fixed windows, different headlights and lacked of the triangular placard on the roof of the cab used in the civilian models to indicate the presence of a towing trailer.
Several versions were produced on this truck chassis. There were at least 4 tanker versions for fuel or water produced by Officine Viberti and SIAV, a mobile workshop composed of three different FIAT 634Ns which carried the necessary equipment to set up a fully equipped field workshop, at least two versions for the firefighters, a horse carrier version for the army, a sand truck with tipping platform, a gas version and three different Autocannoni. These were the 102/35 su FIAT 634N, with 7 produced, the 76/30 su FIAT 634N, with 6 produced by the FIAT workshops in Libya during the North Africa Campaign, while in the AOI, some Autocannoni 65/17 su FIAT 634N were produced in an unknown number of units by Officine Monti in Gondar.
The military version could carry up to 7,640 kg of equipment per law, although the maximum transportable came to almost 10 tonnes of ammunition, provisions, or almost 40 fully equipped men.
The cargo bay could comfortably carry an Italian light tank, such as the L3 or L6/40, or the 47/32 L40 self-propelled gun. The Rimorchio Unificato Viberti da 15t could tow any tank of the ‘M’ series (M13/40, M14/41 or M15/42) and all self-propelled guns on their chassis.
The turrets mounted on the armored cars were those of a Lancia 1Z armored car. This old vehicle was produced from August 1915 until the end of World War I in 137 units.
It was produced in two models. The Lancia 1Z was equipped with two superposed turrets, one armed with two machine guns and the second armed with a single machine gun of the same model.
The other version, produced between 1917 and 1918 in 83 examples, had a single turret armed with two machine guns and a third machine gun of the same model in the hull, at the rear.
The Lancia 1Z was armed with three Vickers-Maxim Mod. 1911 6.5 mm machine guns in the turrets and four Fusil Mitrailleur Modèle 1915 CSRG Chauchat 8 mm caliber guns to be used through the slits positioned around the hull. The Lancia 1ZM was armed with three Saint Etienne Mod. 1907 8 mm machine guns and four Carcano Mod. 1891 6.5 mm caliber guns, as the Chauchats had reliability problems.
In both models, the ammunition reserves were 15,000 machine gun rounds plus 4,800 rounds for the rifles.
The machine guns in the turrets were independent of each other and were placed on articulated mounts. This allowed the vehicle to fire in two directions simultaneously.
The FIAT frame was left intact, but the cargo bay and cabin were removed. An armor with an estimated thickness between 8 and 10 mm was mounted. This was produced not with ballistic steel, but with leaf spring suspensions taken from scrapped trucks. These were disassembled and used for spare parts due to the reduced fuel reserves. These springs were quite elastic (Carbon Steel 5160 or Steel 1050), which allowed greater resistance within 200 meters.
Above the engine compartment, which was equipped with front slits for the radiator, there were slits for the driver and the vehicle commander, as well as two other slits for machine guns.
To the side, there were two slits on each side and, above them, two crew entrances. The turrets and rotation mechanisms were welded to the roof of the armored superstructure, increasing the height of the vehicle by quite a bit.
The Lancia 1Z had a serious problem: the two turrets raised the center of gravity, causing the vehicle to tip over. On the new vehicle, the problem was probably less pronounced. The Lancia 1Z was 1.49 meters wide, while the FIAT 634N was almost one meter wider, at 2.4 meters.
The crew consisted of 15 men, a driver, a commander, 11 gunners, and 3 servants in charge of reloading weapons. Given that 15 people had to operate inside a vehicle of this size, in a narrow space and in the desert, the conditions inside were probably atrocious.
There was also a radio station of an unknown model, 3 days of food for the 15 crewmen, ammunition for 11 machine guns, fuel, and water.
The total height of the vehicle is not certain, but it was around 3.5 meters. In one of the few existing photos of the vehicle, the workers of the Officine Monti of Gondar are in front of the vehicle. They are standing and it can be seen that the armored car is about twice as tall.
In another photo, a FIAT 500A car can be seen next to the Monti-FIAT armored car. The FIAT 500A is about half the height of the hull of the armored car. The FIAT 500A was 1.37 meters high, so the hull of the Monti-FIAT was around 2.6-2.7 meters high. The two turrets were 92 centimeters high, bringing the total height of the armored car to 3.5 meters.
Using the same principle with the FIAT 500A’s length of 3.21 meters, the Monti-FIAT should be about 8.2 meters long, 80 centimeters more than the FIAT 634N.
Engine and suspensions
The FIAT 634N was powered by a FIAT Type 355 diesel engine with six cylinders in line. It had a capacity of 8312 cm³, delivering 75 hp at 1700 rpm, developed independently by the company thanks to the experience gained with marine engines.
From the 1086 model onward, the engine was replaced by the FIAT Tipo 355C with a capacity of 8355 cm³. The power was increased to 80 [email protected] rpm thanks to an increased bore and stroke.
All three truck versions had a total of 170 liters of diesel in two tanks. One reserve tank was located behind the dashboard with gravity feed, while a pump brought the fuel from the main 150-liter tank which housed on the right side of the chassis. These gave a range of about 400 km. In order to start the engine, two electric motors were used on the right side of the vehicle, operated by an external crank.
The clutch was a multi-disc dry clutch connected to a four-speed plus reverse gearbox with a “Libyan” type reduction. It was equipped with four-leaf spring suspension units. The drum brakes were activated by a pedal through three servo pressure brakes.
The mastodonic Monti-FIAT was equipped with 11 loopholes, three in the two turrets, two in the front, two in the rear, and two on each side. All the loopholes were equipped with water-cooled FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 machine guns or 6.5 × 52 mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifles fed by strip-fed boxes of 50 or 100 rounds.
The FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 was developed between 1910 and 1914 by FIAT and designer Abiel Revelli. It fired the same ammunition as the standard rifle of the Regio Esercito, the Carcano Mod. 1891. It had a rate of fire of about 500 rounds per minute, a muzzle velocity of 800 m/s, and a maximum range of 3,000 meters (practical 700 meters).
47,500 were produced between 1914 and 1920, 10,000 by FIAT of Turin and 37,500 by Società Metallurgica Bresciana (Eng: Brescian Metallurgical Society) of Brescia. The weight of the machine gun was 21.5 kg with 4.5 liters of water in the sleeve.
In Italy, the machine gun had been largely replaced in infantry units by more modern medium machine guns, such as Breda Mod. 1937, FIAT-Revelli Mod. 14/35, and Breda Mod. 1930 light machine gun. In the colonies, where the adversaries were mostly poorly organized troops of indigenous guerrillas, machine guns such as the FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 or the Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07 /12, of which tens of thousands were captured during and after the First World War, were more than sufficient.
If necessary, the portholes were used to fire the crew’s personal weapons. Some FIAT machine guns were possibly replaced by Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07/12 8 × 50 mm R Mannlicher. The ammunition quantity carried is unknown, but it can be assumed, since some parts of the vehicle were taken from a Lancia 1Z, that the wooden ammunition racks were also taken from that vehicle.
It is not known if there were other weapons on board, such as rifles for the crew, Breda mod.1930 light machine guns or hand grenades.
Only a single Monti-FIAT was built in late June to early July 1941 in the Monti Company Workshop, at about the same time as two other armored tractors. The vehicles were produced at night because of the frequent British aerial reconnaissance during the day.
Like the two armored tractors called Culqualber and Uolchefit, very little is known about the Monti-FIAT armored car. As soon as it was finished, “OFFICINE MONTI GONDAR” (Eng. Monti Workshops in Gondar) was painted behind the frontal wheel. The two known photos of the vehicle were taken shortly after, one with the team of workers who worked on the project and the owner of the workshop and the other in which they compared the huge armored car with the small FIAT 500A car of the owner of the Workshop.
From then onwards, nothing more is known about the armored car. It was probably used to escort columns of supply trucks that were continuously attacked by Arbegnoch (Eng. Patriots). These were Ethiopian partisans loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie and allied to the British troops, who had been sabotaging the Italians since 1936, weakening them and waiting for the moment to take back their homeland.
The armored car was probably lost due to a lack of fuel or a mechanical failure before the arrival of the British troops in the Gondar region. No British source mentions the Monti-FIAT armored car.
The Monti-FIAT was an armored car of circumstance, not dissimilar to the smaller but famous Lancia 3Ro Blindato used a few years later in Italy for almost identical purposes.
Nothing is known about it apart from some technical data.
It was probably useful as a deterrent against attacks by Ethiopian patriots, as its size and armament would have intimidated even the most organized British troops. Speed, however, would have been an Achilles’ heel, making this vehicle like a turtle, relatively well protected, but slow on the terrible Ethiopian roads.
15, driver, commander, 11 machine gunners and 3 servants
Republic of Chile, (1978-2006)
Medium tank – 119 acquired from Israel
After their valiant successes in two Arab-Israeli wars against more advanced Syrian and Egyptian tanks, the Israeli M-51s ended up in Chile. There, from 1978 to 2006, they finished their service history, sometimes lasting over 60 years.
They did this 13,000 km away from Israel, in a terrain very similar to the dusty Sinai peninsula and the mountainous Golan Heights and in a nation that, like Israel, was politically alone and was surrounded by belligerent nations.
In South America, just like in the Middle East, the M-51s proved to be very reliable and suitable for the needs of the Ejército de Chile (Eng. Chilean Army).
Chile’s Political Situation
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Chile drew near the United States and its economic policy, which led to many wealthy American and Chilean tycoons to invest large sums of money in the development of some industries in Chile.
The poorest social classes of the nation, mostly farmers and workers, to whom the investments brought little else but more exploitation, increased their support of the leftist parties. In 1970, Salvador Guillermo Allende, the candidate for Unidad Popular (Eng: Popular Unity), a coalition between the center-left and left wing parties Partido Radical de Chile (Eng: Radical Party of Chile), Partido Comunista de Chile and Partido Socialista de Chile (Eng: Socialist Party of Chile), was elected as president. Allende implemented major reforms for the country to help the population including increasing literacy rates, decreasing rents and food costs, funding for public health services and the nationalization of some major industries. In addition, the new administration was substantially closer to socialist nations, such as Cuba and the Soviet Union, and moved away from the United States and its economic policy.
The Chilean affluent classes did not see these reforms favorably and with some funding from the CIA they financed dissident members of the Ejército de Chile.
A first attempt to topple Allende took place on June 29, 1973 when the soldiers of the Regimiento Blindado N.º 2 commanded by Lt. Col. Roberto Souper arrived in Santiago de Chile and surrounded the Palacio de la Moneda, the residence of Salvador Allende.
This coup has become known as ‘el Tanquetazo’ (from the Spanish word for tank – tanque) because of the many tanks used. 22 people were killed but Allende was not deposed.
A second coup, commanded by General Augusto José Pinochet, overthrew the Allende government on September 11, 1973.
Between September 1973 and March 1990, the nation was commanded by General Pinochet, who was accused of crimes against humanity, including the murder of thousands and the unlawful imprisonment of houndreds of thousands under his totalitarian regime.
His political conduct accentuated the problems between Chile and Peru and destroyed the bond of peace with Argentina by reigniting border disputes.
The three nations launched a race for the most modern weaponry that the three South American nations could financially afford. Fortunately, this never resulted in a real war, but conflict was barely avoided.
In January 1978, Argentina denounced the decision of an external tribunal composed of 5 judges (chosen by Chile and Argentina) and of the Court of Justice of The Hague regarding the Chilean ownership of the islands of the Beagle Channel. Argentina began to prepare for a military offensive.
Argentina planned to launch the Operación Soberanía (Operation Sovereignty) on December 22, 1978, in two phases. The first phase involved aerial bombardments of Chilean Tierra del Fuego and of Chilean military airports, and the second one was a huge ground attack along the 5,150 km long border with Chile.
At that time, due to the embargo, Chile was in no position to attack the technologically superior Argentinians, and prepared to defend its territory. In fact, the element of surprise was lost because the Chileans constantly monitored the moves of the Argentine fleet and could identify the buildup of Argentinian soldiers along the border.
Fortunately, on December 22, 1978 a storm slowed down the operations of the Argentine fleet, allowing Pope John Paul II to negotiate a peace.
The Argentine operation was aborted 6 hours before the start of the landing of troops in Tierra del Fuego.
Chilean military situation before the M-51
Between 1947 and 1952, thanks to the good relations with the United States, Chile received a total of 48 M4A1E9(75)D Shermans equipped with VVSS suspension with larger tracks to reduce ground pressure. These came along with seven M32B1 Armored Recovery Vehicles, nicknamed ‘Panchotes’ by the crews, and a first batch of 21 M24 Chaffees.
These medium tanks formed the backbone of the Chilean Armored Corps for about 20 years.
The M4A1s were withdrawn from service in the late 1970s, while the M32B1s and some reconditioned M24s were not retired until the early 2000s.
Between 1964 and 1970, Chile also received a total of 60 M41A1 Walker Bulldogs which, together with some M4A1s, were employed during the 1973 coup d’état.
After the coup, two other great developments shook the Chilean military in the first half of the 1970s. The first was the acquisition by Peru of over 375 T-54s and T-55s between 1973 and 1975. The second was the condemnation by the UN and the embargo on military equipment caused by Pinochet’s bloody dictatorial regime.
The Chilean Army could only count on 21 modern tanks, the AMX-30, purchased from France.
In fact, the order had been for 80 vehicles, but due to the embargo, the French did not send the remaining 59 vehicles. The few units received had a very short operational history because there was a shortage of spare parts that did not arrive until the 1990s, when the embargo was finally lifted.
To overcome the lack of adequate armored vehicles needed to face the Argentinian and Peruvian threats, the High Command of the Chilean Army tried to buy additional armored vehicless. They were interested in the Austrian SK-105 Küraissier, British Centurion, Brazilian EE-9 Cascavel and the light French AMX-13-75. However, apart from the EE-9s, of which 83 were bought, the other nations were not interested in selling their vehicles to Chile in order to avoid diplomatic incidents or not undermining military and economic relations with the United States.
Chile turned to Israel, which accepted the request for help by proposing several vehicles to the Chilean Army.
The critical lack of funds and the US military embargo, in addition to the lack of Israeli availability, did not allow the purchase of military vehicles of newer generations, such as Centurions or M60 Pattons. Thus, Chile was forced to fall back on less modern vehicles.
Another great problem of the Chilean Army was that, even in the 1970s, the Cavalry Corps (equipped with light and fast tanks, such as the M24 Chaffee and M3 Stuart) was completely independent from the Armored Corp (equipped with medium tanks, such as the M4A1E9 Sherman and M41A1 Walker Bulldog). With different training schools, with officers and NCOs with different training and with different doctrines of employment, effective cooperation between the two units of the army was difficult. This made joint operations between armored forces and infantry very complex, as it was necessary to coordinate three different forces, Cavalry units, Armored units and Infantry units.
After its creation in 1948, the State of Israel was able to purchase dozens of M4 Medium Tanks of all kinds from various nations. These formed the first heterogeneous Israeli armored fleet, armed with 75 mm, 76 mm and 105 mm guns, all types of engines and suspensions.
The Israeli generals soon realized that the standard M4s armed with the 75 mm gun and the 105 mm support version were not able to effectively fight against the Soviet-made tanks supplied to Egypt and Syria. Thus, they asked France for help.
With French support, between 1954 and 1956, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) developed the M-50, a medium tank based on the M4 hull rearmed with a French CN-75-50 75 mm cannon (the same as on the AMX-13-75) in a modified turret.
The new vehicle was used with excellent results during the Suez Crisis of 1956, but the IDF soon realized that, in order to face future threats, a 75 mm gun would not be enough. In 1960, again with French support, another version of the M4 rearmed with a 105 mm gun, the D.1508 L.51, was developed. This was a shortened version of the 105 mm Modèle F1 L.56 (the same of the AMX-30) that could not fire APFSDS-T ammunition because of the reduced muzzle velocity.
Unlike the M-50, the M-51s were produced on M4 chassis originally armed with 76 mm M1 guns (or their upgraded versions), because the T23 turrets had more internal space to better accommodate the breech of the powerful French gun.
Another big upgrade was the engine. In the 1950s, due to logistical reasons (following the French example), all Israeli M4s were re-powered with the Continental R-975 C4 delivering 420 hp. Also for this reason, most of the M-51s were based on M4A1(76)W Sherman hulls, and in some rare instances on M4A3(76)W hulls with radial Continental engines. It was immediately realized that the radial engines and VVSS (Vertical Volute Spring Suspension) suspension could not cope with the weight increase of the M-51s, which came in at 39 tonnes.
Immediately, HVSS (Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension) was introduced and, as soon as they were available, the new 460 hp VT-8-460 Turbodiesel diesel engines of the Cummins Engine Company were installed, which increased the vehicle’s range and speed.
The M-51s fought alongside the M-50s in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were obviously more than outdated in the latter war, but still able to face enemy armored vehicles, such as the Syrian and Egyptian T-34-85, SU-100 and more modern T-54s and T-55s. In some cases, they even destroyed some T-62s of the Arab armies.
The success in the Arab-Israeli conflicts was not only due to the technical superiority of their armored vehicles (which were fewer and, in the case of the M-50 and M-51, were less modern than most Arab vehicles) but, above all, to the excellent training of their tank crews. These far exceeded the training of the Egyptian and Syrian tank crews in many respects.
In the mid-1970s, Chile and Israel were concluding negotiations for SAM missiles and electronic equipment when Chile requested to also purchase armored vehicles.
The exact number of M-51s that arrived in Chile was 119, but some sources mention 85, 117 or even as many as 150 units.
Following logical reasoning, it is easy to understand that 150 units could not have arrived in Chile. Of the 180 units produced by Israel, some were destroyed in the Sinai or in the Golan Heights in 1967 or 1973, 6 were supplied to Lebanon in 1975 and another 6 ex-Israeli units are exhibited in museums or used as monuments.
The 119 M-51s that arrived in Chile in 1978 were of the fourth series, the last upgrade package of the Israeli M-51s. This variant was also in service in Israeli Army between 1978 and 1990 and had important innovations for urban combat. These included a 60 mm mortar mounted between the commander’s cupola and the loader’s hatch, which was usable only by leaning over one of the two hatches. The Browning M2HB 12.7 mm caliber machine gun was dismounted from the commander’s cupola support and was mounted on a support on the 105 mm gun barrel. A 7.62 mm Browning M1919 caliber machine gun was mounted on a new scissor mount near the commander’s cupola.
A box for the 60 mm mortar ammunition was then mounted to the right side of the turret counterweight.
These modifications were made after the experiences of the Lebanese in the Lebanese Civil War in order to increase firepower. The modifications were very useful in fighting in urban environments, especially with militias fighting with guerrilla strategies.
A great novelty was also the adoption of a rudimentary night vision system. Night vision periscopes were mounted on the driver, commander and loader’s hatches, as well as an Infrared (IR) intensifier on the hull.
The engine deck was also modified. The previous versions had added air intakes and the exhaust system in the lower part, while for the new version, the upper part was modified to increase the air flow and therefore improve the cooling of the engine compartment.
In 1977, Chile and Israel signed a contract that provided for the purchase of tanks, other vehicles of various types and for the dispatch of Israeli technicians and specialists commanded by General David Elazar to train Chilean tankers.
A first batch of 10 M-51s arrived by sea in 1977 and was transported to the Atacama Desert, where the Chileans evaluated them. The other 109 M-51s were shipped in 1978 and arrived in Valparaíso in the same year.
Of the 119 Chilean M-51s, between 6 and 12 were on M4A3(76)W hulls. Unfortunately, precise data is not available.
From there, they were transferred to the Training School in Peldehue, near Santiago de Chile. There, they were modified by the Chileans by removing the 60 mm mortar from the turret, the 12.7 mm caliber Browning M2HB machine gun from the support on the barrel of the cannon and the 7.62 mm caliber Browning M1919 machine gun from the scissor mount on the turret. In a hypothetical conflict in South America, urban clashes would have been very rare and Chile would have been on the defensive. As a result, the urban warfare kit was seen as not necessary.
It is worth mentioning that the removal of the machine guns was not a standardized affair. The 7.62 mm caliber machine guns were refitted almost immediately on the scissor mount near the commander’s cupola. In some cases, a 7.62×51 mm Rheinmetall MG3 was fitted instead of the Browning. On some M-51s, the 12.7 mm caliber machine guns were still mounted until 1990.
One M-51 was totally dismantled to train mechanic teams and to permit local factories to produce spare parts together with the 105 mm ammunition.
Rangefinder lasers were added to the M-51s of the platoon commanders, so that they could direct the fire of the M-51s under their command.
In some cases, the machine guns in the ball mounts in the hull were remounted. The Browning M1919A4 machine gun placed there on the regular M4 Shermans was removed by the Israelis in late ’60s and early ’70s because they did not have enough crewmen to equip all the tanks they owned and in order to free up more space for ammunition. The Israelis brought their Sherman-based crews down to four men, increasing the number of soldiers available for other tanks.
The reinstallation of the machine guns in the hull, as can be seen from some photographs, was done only on a few vehicles for a reason not yet clarified. It is possible they were only reinstalled on Platoon and Company Commander’s vehicles.
On some M-50s, the crews placed a fridge to store drinking water or a rack with extra 60 mm ammunition on the right side of the gearbox, where the machine gunner’s position was previously located. It is very likely that similar changes were made on the M-51s without a hull machine gun.
Sequential numbers were welded in Peldehue onto the frontal plate of the hulls. This allowed the vehicles to be identified in case an explosion or fire erased the serial numbers painted on top of the camouflage.
Proposed Update of 1978
The Israeli companies Nimda Co., Israel Military Industries (IMI) and National Aluminum and Profile Co. (NAPCO) developed an upgrade for the M-50 and M-51, regardless of the model to be sold to Chile, following the example of the Norwegian NM-116.
The project involved taking CN-75-50 guns, reboring the barrel to bring the caliber from 75 to 90 mm and modifying the breech and muzzle brake. On the M-51s, this would have involved replacing the gun mantlet in order to fit the 90 mm cannons. This expedient 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.
The gun would then be mounted on the M-50s and M-51s along with a new engine, the Detroit Diesel SV-71T, mated to a new Allison HT 700 5-speed automatic transmission, new sand filters, cooling system and exhaust system. The Shermans, after the upgrade, would have had the same weight but a top speed of about 46 km/h and a range of about 300 km with the original 606-liter tanks.
The decision to develop this version armed with a 90 mm low-pressure cannon was made because, in 1976, the Chilean Army was interested in the 90 mm cannon. When Israel decided to help them upgrade their M24s in 1979, the Chileans asked to mount a 90 mm cannon on it, as in the Norwegian project. Chile already had the 90 mm low-pressure cannon in use with the Brazilian Engesa EC-90 of the EE-9 Cascavel (which was a copy of the Belgian Mecar 90 mm). Thus, there would be no need to buy new stocks of ammunition, spare parts and so on.
Due to the embargo, however, Chile was not able to receive new 90 mm cannons from the Brazilians or the Israelis. Due to diplomatic problems with France, they could not be provided with French 90 mm cannons. Apparently, Belgium preferred not to sell 90 mm Mecar cannons to avoid souring international relations.
The upgrading project was then abandoned for a few years but was restarted when Peru was interested in purchasing the more modern Soviet T-62 MBTs (never purchased in the end).
When the news came, Israel proposed the cannon developed by IMI and the Italian company OTO-Melara, the 60 mm L.70, for the M-50.
Crew Training and Structure
With the combat tactics and training from experienced IDF instructors, the Chilean crews greatly appreciated their M-51s, which the soldiers nicknamed ‘Burritos’, little donkeys.
In addition to training the Chilean crews in long-range firing and doctrine for the employment of the M-50 and M-51 in the Atacama Desert, the Israelis also created a doctrine for the employment of the Chilean armored forces that, up to December 31, 1981, had been divided into Armored Corps and Cavalry Corps.
As an example, after World War II, the Italian Army also had separated Cavalry and Armored Corps. Only in 1951 were they united into the ‘Armored and Mechanized Corps’, later renamed Armored Corps. Italy was one of the last nations in Europe that had this problem.
Due to the creation of the Armored Cavalry Corps of the Chilean Army, the Israeli instructors and the High Command of the Chilean Army had to help modify all the staff structure.
A new school for the training of officers for armored units or the retraining of cavalry officers and NCOs was formed in Quillota, and the one in Peldehue was converted.
Almost all cavalry regiments were renamed and became armored cavalry regiments.
Apart from these big organizational changes, the training was quite quick and easy. Chile already owned a number of Shermans and already had crews trained to use them, teams of mechanics trained to repair them and some spare parts. This was another reason why Chile decided to buy M-50s and M-51s in 1979 instead of continuing to try to buy more modern vehicles.
Because of the length of Chile, about 4,200 km from North to South, and the obvious logistical problems that derive from it, some regiments kept the five IMI UZI caliber 9 mm Parabellum submachine guns that the Israelis had installed as weapons for close defense, as well as the personal weapons of the crew, usually FAMAE FN-750 pistols. In some other cases, the crews removed the UZIs and installed five Italian Beretta PM12S of the same caliber.
To effectively train its crews, the Chilean Army purchased the Simfire Tank Gunnery Simulator (TGS) from the Swiss company Solartron Analytical.
This realistic crew training system was composed of several subsystems, like a low intensity laser beam projector mounted above the gun barrel connected to the gunner’s trigger. Behind the projector, above the turret, a pyrotechnic launcher was mounted that, when the gunner pulled the trigger, launched a grenade simulating the flash and sound of a gunshot. There were also four detector units that intercept the laser beams coming from the “enemy” projectors. On the roof of the turret, behind the launcher, was mounted a radio transceiver with its own antenna to connect the firing vehicles and the one that was hit.
There was also a red smoke generator connected to the detector units. It was set off when the vehicle was hit by the laser beam of an opposing vehicle to show the tank was destroyed. An amber light also flashed when the vehicle was hit, which was very useful for night operations or in very foggy areas of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
The number of Simfires purchased is unknown, but they were certainly also used by the Chileans on their M41A1 Walker Bulldogs and probably on the M24 Chaffees rearmed with the 60 HVMS.
This allowed the Chilean crews to train in a more than realistic way. In addition to buying these systems from Switzerland, in 1978, Chile ordered and purchased 4 T-54s and T-55s (arrived in 1979) from Israel to train their crews in an even more realistic way, making them familiar with the opponent vehicles.
The Simfire was used also by British Army to train their crews on the Scorpion light tanks and Centurion and Chieftain Main Battle Tanks.
The M-50s and M-51s had four French-made 80 mm smoke launchers on either side of the turret. These were used extensively during service with the IDF. When the purchase contract with Chile was signed, the ammunition for the smoke launchers was not supplied because Israel had gotten rid of them years earlier.
Asking France for smoke grenades stocks was out of the question due to the embargo and it was no longer possible to remount the 60 mm mortars on the M-51 turrets. The crews were provided with the same smoke grenade mortar that the Chilean infantry used and the smoke grenades were stored in the same box as the Israeli 60 mm mortar ammunition.
Chilean modifications in 1990
In late 1990, Chile began an upgrade program for the M-51s called “Proyecto-T” (Eng: Project-T).
Project T was based on the proposal of the Israeli companies from 1977, with some modifications. The gun modification proposal was not changed, but a new 8V-71T diesel engine giving 350 hp at 2,100 rpm from the Detroit Diesel Company was fitted. The old Cummins engines were no longer able to achieve the same performance as in the past and, moreover, it took too long to ignite as the diesel preheating chambers could not quickly bring the fuel to the combustion temperature, a problem already encountered by the Israelis, but exacerbated by wear due to prolonged use of almost thirty years.
The upgrade involved a modified engine deck. The exhaust system was mounted on the left side with the exhaust pipe facing downwards and covered with a curved perforated grille.
Unlike the 1979 upgrade package, the new Allison Transmission HT 700 gearbox was not fitted. The original Cletrac gearbox was retained.
The gunner’s optics were updated but, due to the limited internal space, the Browning M1919A4 coaxial machine gun was removed.
As for the armament, the D.1508 cannon remained unchanged. However, laser rangefinders were added on many M-51s and the gun mounts were repaired. These, due to the stress of recoil and continuous use, showed signs of aging and degradation, with large cracks.
The first 12 upgraded M-51s were delivered to the Chilean Army units in February 1995 and the last in February 1998.
In 1990, only 100 were upgraded as part of Project T. The other 17 (and the one that fell in the ocean) were used for spare parts, which means that, between 1995 and 1998, the regiments’ M-51 organic strength probably decreased, although the data is not clear.
Service in the Chilean Army
Of the 117 M-51 owned by Chile that were left because of the two lost vehicles, one dismounted and the other fell into the ocean.
The M-51s were delivered to four Armored Cavalry Regiments of the Chilean Army.
One of the regiments that used the M-51 was the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 9 “Vencedores” (Eng: 9th Armored Cavalry Regiment), at first located in Arica, on the Chile-Peru border. In 1987, it was moved to San Miguel de Azapa, a few kilometers further south.
This regiment employed its M-51s extensively, also receiving at least one M32 ‘Panchotes’ and two M-51s on M4A3(76)W hulls.
The M-51s (the regiment was the only one that also used the M-50) remained in service until 2002, when they were replaced by the Leopard 1V and, in 2007, by the Leopard 2A4.
It is noteworthy that, between 2002 and 2006, Chilean crews trained on both Leopard 1s and the old Shermans.
The regiment had three different accidents with their Shermans. The first occurred in 1988, when a Mercedes-Benz truck carrying an M-50 on a trailer overturned. The second took place in similar circumstances but at an unknown date, when an M-51 with a mine clearing device overturned during transport on a paved road in the desert. In both cases, there were no casualties and the Panchote was used to lift the vehicles.
During maneuvers in the 1980’s, one of the M-51’s of this regiment, for an unclear reason, fell off a cliff in the region of La Portada, near Iquique. The M-51 remained at about 40 m underwater for several weeks, after which it was finally recovered, disassembled and used for spare parts. The fate of the crew is unknown.
The Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 4 “Coraceros” (Eng: 4th Armored Cavalry Regiment) stationed in Osorno, in mid-Chile, also had M-51s. They were used until 2006, when the regiment was disbanded and the barracks was transformed into a Training School. The vehicles probably ended up in storage or were scrapped.
The Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 6 “Dragones” (Eng: 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment), stationed in the Punta Arenas Barracks, in the extreme south of Chile, on the Brunswick Peninsula in Patagonia, also received M-51s. In that region, there were some border disputes with Argentina, which claimed sovereignty over the Picton, Nueva and Lennox islands in the Beagle Channel.
Although the dispute was slowly being resolved thanks to the Papal State, the Chilean government preferred to send troops on the border as a deterrent against possible Argentine attacks.
The M-51s were used in this region until at least 2002, when the vehicles, probably more worn than those used further north because of the difficult terrain in which they had to operate, were put in reserve until 2006.
The Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 8 “Exploradores” (Eng: 8th Armored Cavalry Regiment) stationed in Antofagasta, northeastern Chile, received M-51s later than the other armored cavalry regiments, between 1984 and 1985.
Their employment is not well documented and, unfortunately, there is not much information about the service of the M-51s stationed in Antofagasta. However, on more than one occasion, the crews trained with those of the Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 9 “Vencedores” .
The Regimiento de Caballería Blindada Nº 10 “Liberadores” (Eng: 10th Armored Cavalry Regiment) had received some M-51s after the modifications of 1990. The crews trained with M-51s from the early 1990s until 2000 and received them for a short amount of time but, when the first Leopards purchased began arriving in Chile, the regiment’s crews were redirected to the Leopards, abandoning the M-51s.
Within the regiments, the M-51s equipped a homogeneous company consisting only of M-51 tanks, armored personnel carriers (of various models) and reconnaissance vehicles. It is not clear how the M-51 companies were structured. The book Serie Terrestre No°2 M4 Sherman (the only one which talks about the the structure of the M-51-equipped units in the Ejército de Chile) mentions that, thanks to the Israeli instructors, the Israeli organic structure was maintained, i.e., 3 platoons of 10 tanks that formed a company plus a company commander’s tank for a total of 31 M-51 per regiment. It is unlikely that each regiment received 31 M-51s. The total number of M-51s in the regiments would amount to 124 which would have meant the Chilean Army would not have had any M-51s in reserve or in schools for training. This leads to the supposition that the Israeli unit scheme of 3 platoons of 10 tanks was not maintained.
It is difficult to make assumptions based on the very little data available on this subject and on the poor records of the Chilean Army. Another hypothesis is that there were 20 vehicles plus the tank of the company commander for each regiment. This would mean a total of 84 vehicles plus 35 in reserve and in training schools, a hypothesis much more plausible than 31 tanks per regiment.
M-51 Mine Clearance
For mine-clearing duties, Chile used M-51s equipped with KMT-5M roller mine clearing devices.
The 7.5 tonne heavy mine-clearing system has a very complex history. It was manufactured in East Germany for the Soviet Red Army in the 1960s, and was sold to the Syrians and Egyptians for their T-54s, T-55s and T-62s.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israelis captured several dozens of these, keeping them in service on their Tirans or selling them to Brazil (which later resold them to Argentina, which mounted them on its Sherman ‘Repotenciados’) and Chile. The Israelis also developed their own improved variant for the Merkava and Magach.
At least eight were received by the Chilean Army in 1983, along with a stock of ammunition and other military equipment.
Since they were not designed for the Sherman hull, the Israelis modified them by adding a mount to fit the Sherman hull, also allowing the system to be lifted off the ground before the vehicle approached the ground to be cleared.
The KMT-5M was used on M-51s based on both M4A1(76)W and the few on M4A3(76)W hulls. It should be pointed out that the mount developed by Israelis for the M-51 was better suited to welded hulls. Therefore, when they could, the Chileans mounted the KMT-5M on M-51s based on M4A3 hulls.
Due to the small number of devices received, only platoon commanders’ M-51s were equipped with this device.
The M-50s did not receive the anti-mine devices because they were considered too important due to their new gun. Furthermore, the 105 mm gun of the M-51s could provide the necessary support in the demining phases.
The M-51s arrived in Chile in the standard IDF ‘Sinai Gray’ camouflage, which the Chileans liked very much for two reasons. Firstly, the Sinai Gray was well suited, as the training of the Chilean crews was held in the Atacama desert. Secondly, the camouflage paint decreased the vehicle’s IR signature.
The Chilean Army, however, had not taken into account that the Atacama Desert is the driest in the world because of the very high salt content. This corroded the Israeli-made paint.
The Chilean Army High Command ordered local commanders to repaint their M-51s, but without giving instructions on which camouflage schemes to apply. Local commanders then purchased paints from civilian vendors and applied camouflage patterns to their M-51s at their own discretion.
Most were repainted in a monochrome sand-colored scheme, lighter or darker, depending on what civilian stores could offer.
In the Punta Arenas area in the extreme south of Chile and in the Training School in Peldehue, the camouflage adopted was very similar to the US MERDC (Mobility Equipment Research and Design Command), with a sand yellow base with dark green stripes and some black lines.
There was also a variant with a white base, dark green lines, sand yellow spots and black outline used in Punta Arenas.
During the 1994-1998 upgrades, many M-51s were painted in MERDC sand yellow, dark green and black outlines, while the remainder retained their sand yellow monochrome camouflage.
The M-51’s Fate
The fate of the Chilean M-51s has been a sad one. Only 7 of these veterans, with more than 60 years of service onboard, have been saved. One has been exhibited since 2008 at the Museo de Tanques del Arma Caballeria Blindada in Iquique. Another one has also been exhibited since 2008 at the Museo de Tanques del Arma Caballeria Blindada in Quillota. Two, one of which is equipped with the KTM-5M anti-mine device, are at the museum of Rinconada de Maipúe. One is the gate guardian of the military base of Antofagasta. One is exhibited in another Chilean museum and the last one is a gate guardian in the headquarters of the Batallon Logístico Divisionario.
All other M-51s were held in reserve until 2006 and decommissioned by 2008. Some were used in the Atacama Desert as targets for Leopard fire, while others were sold as scrap and dismantled.
According to some unconfirmed rumors, there are still between 10 and 15 of them abandoned in some military depot in Chile, ready to be sold to museums or private collectors.
The M-51s arrived in Chile about forty years after their construction and twenty years after the conversion to the M-51 standard. They proved to be worthy combat vehicles for the Chileans. The Chilean crews appreciated their mechanical reliability and their robustness.
Although they were not the most modern vehicles in service in the Ejército de Chile, they were the ones most used between 1980 and 1990.
Many Chilean tank officers still serving on the Leopard 1V and 2A4CHL today learned the tactics and trained on the ‘Burritos’ and were then assigned to more modern vehicles when the M-51s were removed from service.
The Chilean M-51s were not the longest-lived vehicles in the Sherman family to remain in service. The oldest M4s to be removed from service were the M4 Sherman ‘Repotenciado’ the Paraguayans only just removed from service in 2018.
Chilean M-51 specifications
6.15 m x 2.42 m x 2.24 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
5, driver, machine gunner, commander, gunner and loader
Detroit 8V-71T 350 hp diesel with 606 liters tank
D.1508 with 47 rounds, 1-2 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 1943-1945
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
Germany (1943 – 1945)
Medium Tank – over 100 operated
During the Second World War, the Germans operated great numbers of enemy combat vehicles that they had managed to capture. These were mostly French and Russian tanks. These were usually pressed into service in their original role or modified for other roles. For example, many were converted as ammunition transport vehicles or as self-propelled anti-tank guns. From their former ally Italy, the Germans also managed to capture a relatively huge stockpile of various war materials. This also included a number of tank designs, including the M15/42 medium tank. While this tank was already obsolete before its introduction, the German nevertheless put them to use against the Yugoslav Partisans. There, they would be used up to the war’s end.
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 by some 15 cm compared to the M.13 Series tanks. The standard 8 mm Breda anti-aircraft machine gun was removed and the access hatch was repositioned to the right side. A new 4.7 cm main gun with a longer barrel was installed, producing a more effective anti-tank gun, albeit still inadequate by that 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, this production order was never fully achieved. While some of them were issued to Italian troops, their operational service life with them was limited.
The M15/42 had introduced some improvements, but it was generally outdated by the time it was put into service. Nevertheless, it would remain in service up to the end of the war, mostly with its new German owners, although some would also serve with Italian Fascist troops of the Italian Social Republic (RSI – Republicca Sociale Italiana).
In German service, the M15/42 was known as the Beutepanzer M15 738(i) or Pz.Kpfw. M15/42 738(i). For the sake of simplicity, this article will use the original M15/42 designation.
In German hands
In September 1943, due to the Allied invasion and internal pressure, Italy sought to negotiate peace with the Western Allied powers. The Germans were expecting this and sought to occupy as much of Italy as possible. With the occupation of most of Italy, the Germans came into possession of a number of armored vehicles, but also arms and weapon production facilities, with many vehicles that were awaiting assembly, from their former Ally.
The Germans managed to acquire, either by capturing or producing, over 100 M15/42 tanks. The Italian equipment, including tanks, was mainly used to replace the older French captured vehicles which were operated in the Balkans fighting the Partisan forces there. Note that the number of M15/42 tanks is difficult to pinpoint precisely, as sources have different numbers. The units that used them in Yugoslavia also had other M-series tanks in their inventory, which may sometimes lead to confusion. Another quite common issue with determining the precise type of tanks was the poor knowledge of the Partisans in identifying the enemy armor. Being that the Italian M-series tanks were quite similar to each other, distinguishing them was not always an easy task.
One of the first units to be equipped with the M15/42 tanks was Panzer Abteilung 202. This particular unit was formed in early 1941, mostly equipped with French captured tanks. In September 1941, it was relocated to the Balkans to fight the Partisans there. By early 1944, it was reinforced with Italian armored vehicles in order to replenish the older and worn-out French tanks. Elements of Panzer Abteilung 202 were used to defend the vital Belgrade-Zagreb railway line during mid-1944.
On September 10th, 1944, this unit was transported to Belgrade. Some elements of Panzer Abteilung 202 were dispatched to the city of Valjevo, which was surrounded by the Partisans. They, together with other support units, managed to free the surrounded Germans. Two M15/42 tanks were damaged in the process, but recovered. Due to significant Partisan pressure, the Germans retreated to the north. On September 20th, some 15 tanks engaged with the Partisans near Šabac and Obrenovac, west of Belgrade. During the following skirmishes, one tank was destroyed and a second was damaged but later recovered by the Germans. The Germans managed to repel the Partisan attempts to liberate Šabac, as these were ill-prepared to engage tanks. Nevertheless, the Germans eventually abandoned Šabac in late October, moving with a group of 15 to 20 tanks north, toward Srem.
Other elements from Panzer Abteilung 202 were also engaged with Partisans forces in the area of Srem (north of Belgrade). At the start of October, at least three tanks of Panzer Abteilung 202 were attempting to repel the Partisans around Grabovci. The Partisans, using an anti-tank rifle, managed to destroy one of the three tanks. Two more tanks were lost in a Partisan ambush on October 11th.
Despite its obsolescence, the M15/42 could be used with some success against the Partisans, which often lacked proper anti-tank weapons. The situation for the Germans, who were holding the Yugoslavian capital Belgrade and eastern parts of the country, became desperate once the Soviet forces advanced to help the Partisans. During the Battle for Belgrade, which lasted from October 12th to 20th, 1944, Panzer Abteilung 202’s M15/42 tanks performed poorly against the Soviet T-34s (both 76 and 85 mm armed versions) and other armored vehicles. The M15/42’s armor was also noted to be unable to stop any Soviet anti-tank fire, including the anti-tank rifles. Many were lost during this battle, either destroyed in action or simply left behind. There was an accident when a Soviet T-34 rammed an M15/42 and completely turned it on its side.
From late October 1944 onwards, Panzer Abteilung 202 would be involved in the German defensive on the so called Syrmian Front in the northern part of Yugoslavia. By the end of 1944, Panzer Abteilung 202 had some 30 M15/42 tanks, of which only 18 were fully operational. Due to attrition, the number of available tanks was further diminished to 13 operational and 12 in repair. The effectiveness of these vehicles was greatly reduced due to heavy wear down and the increasing presence of Partisan anti-tank guns of various calibers. The lack of fuel and spare parts often meant that the M15/42s were of limited use and only on short distances. At the end of the war, what was left of the equipment of Panzer Abteilung 202, which was attempting to evacuate from Yugoslavia, was captured by the Partisans in Slovenia.
Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 was another unit stationed in Yugoslavia from 1941 on. It was heavily involved in fighting the Partisan forces there. At the beginning of March 1944, Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 was in the process of reorganization and the older French tanks were slowly being replaced with Italian built vehicles. During this time, the first M15/42 tanks began to arrive. By April 1944, there were some 42 Italian built M15/42 tanks in use by this unit. An additional M15/42 tanks built by the Germans would be allocated to Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12. During the summer of 1944, Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 was moved to Serbia to reinforce the desperate attempts to keep the transit roads to Greece open. These roads and rails were vital for the evacuation of German forces stationed in Greece. Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 would not be used as a single unit, but instead would be divided into smaller groups and allocated to various German units stationed in Serbia at that time.
At the start of July 1944, the number of M15/42 tanks in this unit was increased to 59 vehicles, but only a third were fully operational. In October and November 1944, the unit saw extensive action against the Partisans, losing many vehicles in the process. For example, during the German defence of Niš, elements of Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 were present. The Germans were eventually forced to retreat, losing a number of tanks in the process, including at least one M15/42 which was captured by the Partisans. Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 had some 33 M15/42 tanks reported in October, which were reduced to 15 vehicles by the end of the following month. Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12 would remain in Yugoslavia up to the start of 1945, when it was recalled to Germany. What was left of their equipment was given to Panzer Abteilung 202.
The M15/42 tanks employed by the Germans in Yugoslavia were plagued by a lack of spare parts, ammunition, and fuel. Many tanks were not used in combat, as they needed constant maintenance and repairs, and, too often, they would be simply cannibalized for spare parts. The vehicles used in Yugoslavia often received a large storage box placed behind the turret. In addition, spare track links would often be placed around the vehicle to act as limited extra protection.
SS Panzer Abteilung 105, which was part of V-SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgskorps, also operated the M15/42 tank in small numbers. It was involved in fighting Bosnian Partisans during 1944. In May 1944, it participated in the German Operation Rösselsprung (Eng. Knight’s Move), an attempt to liquidate the Partisan leaders, including Josip Broz Tito, at Drvar. To help achieve this, smaller parts of Panzer Abteilung 202 were also present. There is a possibility that some M15/42 tanks were used during this operation. At the end of 1944, when the unit was recalled to Germany, it had 5 M15/42 tanks in its inventory. While the unit fought the Soviets in the defence of Franfrukt, it is unknown if, by this time, it still possessed any M15/42 tanks.
The 12. verstärkte Polizei-Panzer-Kompanie, which was meant to be moved to Yugoslavia, had 14 tanks. At the end of 1944, it had some 8 M15/42 tanks, with only one operational. This police unit would be repositioned to Hungary from early 1945 onwards. It would be lost, with its equipment, during the siege of Budapest, fighting against the Soviets.
M15/42 with a Panzer 38(t) turret
The M15/42 was also used as a field modification by replacing its original turret with one taken from a Panzer 38(t). This vehicle is quite a mystery regarding who made it and why. What is known is that it was built during 1944 or in early 1945. On one of few existing photographs of it, during what appears to be some kind of parade, it has the marking of the German puppet state of Croatia (large capital U, which was used for Ustaše Croatian units). The problem is that the Croat forces, while infrequently supplied by the Germans and Italians (and even Hungarians) with armored vehicles, never operated any M-series or Panzer 38(t) tanks. The Croatian Army possessed some limited industry, as they managed to locally build a small number of armored trucks. The relatively easy task of placing a new turret on a damaged M15/42 could be achieved. Another issue with this theory is the fact that the vehicle would be captured by the Yugoslav Partisans at the end of the war on a train together with other German-operated armored vehicles. There is a chance that the Germans may have supplied the Croats with these vehicles, but this seems unlikely. The Germans barely had spare parts and ammunition for the M15/42 for themselves, let alone sharing these with the Croats.
More likely, the creators of this modification were the Germans. Firstly, they used both M15/42 and Panzer 38(t) tanks. The M15/42 was used in its original configuration. The Panzer 38(t) tank, on the other hand, was mainly attached to armored trains by the Germans and rarely used outside of that. Two units that may have built this vehicle were either Panzer Abteilung 202 or Panzer Abteilung z.b.V.12. While, due to lack of information, it is almost impossible to determine the creator, it is likely that it was made or at least operated by Panzer Abteilung 202. The reason for this is that the captured train transporting these vehicles also transported a number of vehicles belonging to this unit. Of course, this by itself is not a direct proof of it, as a number of other vehicles not belonging to the Panzer Abteilung 202 area were present on this train.
Yugoslav Partisan service
The Yugoslav Communist resistance movement managed to capture a number of M15/42 tanks. Some of these were probably used in combat, while smaller numbers were even used as training vehicles. The M15/42s were also used in military victory parades, like the one held in Kragujevac in May 1945. Following the end of the war, the M15/42s, together with other captured vehicles, were employed by the new Yugoslavian People’s Army. Their use would be quite limited due to the general lack of spare parts and ammunition. Nearly all would be scrapped a few years later, with one vehicle being preserved at the Belgrade Military Museum.
By the time the M15/42 was developed and put into production, it was already an obsolete design. It had poor armor protection and insufficient firepower as a medium tank by late-war standards. For fighting the Partisans, which lacked tanks or even anti-tank guns, this was a good opportunity to use an otherwise useless vehicle and free up more important vehicles. The Germans were in desperate need to find a tank that was available in some numbers that could be used to replace the older and generally worn out French equipment. Unfortunately for them, the M15/42’s overall performance was poor, as the majority were mostly stored awaiting repairs. In addition, once the Soviet Army reached Yugoslavia, they had little chance against more modern armor. But, despite these drawbacks, the M15/42 was certainly a welcome addition for the desperate Germans, who, by this time, did not have the luxury of being too picky. Given the fact that nothing else was available, the M15/42 saw use until the end of the war.
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 thePanzer 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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