When the Regio Esercito (English: Royal Italian Army) entered the Second World War in 1940, it did not have in its ranks a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG) to equip its units. During the North African Campaign, this problem became evident, and some anti-aircraft vehicles were produced in a rather rudimentary fashion in Libyan workshops to defend Italian supply convoys and armored divisions from air attacks. For this, the Breda 20 mm cannon was mounted on various truck chassis, both Italian and British, the latter captured during the first months of the war. These vehicles were built to partly relieve this problem while waiting for vehicles specially designed for this task.
The North African Context
After the Italian declaration of war against Britain and France on 10th June 1940, the Regio Esercito began some campaigns in Europe against France and Yugoslavia. It was only on 13th September 1940, that the North African Campaign began, when Italian troops commanded by General Rodolfo Graziani crossed the border between Libya, an Italian colony, and Egypt, a British protectorate.
It was immediately clear to the Italian generals that the Regio Esercito needed, as soon as possible, reconnaissance armored cars and armed vehicles to support Italian units.
Despite the participation of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), the Italian Royal Army did not receive adequate quantities of these types of vehicles, and the troops in Africa had to make do with what they had. In mid-1941, the Italian High Command made the decision to take some trucks and tractors and use them as reconnaissance and support vehicles, arming them with various artillery pieces.
The Canadian Military Pattern (CMPs) trucks were a standardized type of truck built by the General Motors, Ford, and Chevrolet branches in Canada for the needs of the Commonwealth Army. The long hundredweight or centum weight (abbreviated to CWT) is a British imperial unit of weight equivalent to 50.8 kg.
The CMP light trucks had a payload equivalent to 760 kg; the CMP medium trucks had a payload of 30 CWT, equivalent to 1,525 kg; and the CMP heavy trucks had a payload of 60 CWT, equivalent to 3,050 kg.
The Ford 15 CWT trucks used the Ford 239 B9-99A Flathead engine, with a capacity of 3,916 cm³ delivering 95 hp at 3,300 rpm. The CMP vehicles built by Chevrolet had the 3,540 cm³, 6-cylinder, in-line OHV 6 (OverHead Valve) engine delivering 85 hp at 3,400 rpm.
The vehicles had a 93 liters fuel capacity that guaranteed a range of around 460 km. Their top speed on-road varied from 64 km/h to up to 80 km/h, depending on the specific vehicle.
The more powerful 3-ton Ford F60 truck entered service in 1941 and was equipped with a more powerful 270 hp GMC V6 petrol engine, with a 112-liter fuel reserve.
The CMPs came with 4×2 configuration, respectively called Ford F15 and Chevrolet C15, and all-wheel drive configuration called Ford F15A and Chevrolet C15A. Apart from this, they were the same and maintained the wheelbase of 2.56 meters. The Ford F60 was always 4×4.
The Ford and Chevrolet trucks had the Canadian standard right-side drive cab design, which evolved over the years of production. The first was designed for Ford by Sid Swallow. These designs were called Number 11, No. 12, and No. 13.
The main difference from the No.11 consisted of the radiator grille in the cab of No. 12. The final No. 13 cabin, an entirely Canadian project used from the end of 1941 until the end of the war, had the two flat panels of the windshield slightly tilted downward to reduce glare from the sun and to avoid strong reflections that would have been observable by airplanes. All the designs of the CMP cabs had a ‘cab forward’ configuration that gave CMP trucks their characteristic ‘crushed muzzle’ profile.
The CMP vehicles had some problems. Due to the rear wheel fairings, the cargo bays were small and cramped. These trucks, together with the Morris CS8, which had the same payload capacity, were the backbone of the supply lines of the British Army for the entirety of the war, together with heavier trucks, such as the Ford F30, Chevrolet C30, Ford F60, and Chevrolet C60.
The No. 11, 12 and 13 cabins were combined with a variety of standard chassis, transmissions, and bodywork. The vehicles built by Chevrolet could be recognized by the mesh of the radiator grille that was diamond-shaped, while those built by Ford had a square mesh.
The dizzying variety of variants included general services, troop carriers, fuel/water tank carriers, recovery vehicles, ambulances, dental clinics, mobile laundries, HQ radio vehicles, workshops, welding stations, transports, artillery tractors, and anti-tank portées.
The Italian troops appreciated the qualities of these light Canadian lorries, their off-road driving performances, and the ease with which they could be modified. In fact, during an official meeting, General Gastone Gambara proposed a vehicle exchange to German General Erwin Rommel. The Germans would swap captured Commonwealth light trucks, with a single Regio Esercito’s FIAT or Lancia heavy truck for every 2 Commonwealth lorries received.
The Italian troops captured many of these vehicles, including F15, F15A, C15, and C15A in Cyrenaica in 1940, along with many other vehicles, such as the Morris CS8. Photographic evidence suggests that the majority were F15s though.
Due to the inadequate number of supply trucks in the Italian ranks, all the captured vehicles were quickly put in service with the supply units of the Regio Esercito.
General Gastone Gambara, commander of the Corpo d’Armata Mobile (CAM) (English: Mobile Army Corp), understood the flaws of the Italian Army. In 1941, he ordered the workshops of the Autofficine del 12° Autoraggruppamento AS (English: Workshops of the 12° Vehicle Regroupment North Africa) to modify some of the British light lorries, arming them with old 65 mm Italian support guns. These would become the Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8.
In Italian, the word ‘Autocannone’ (Autocannoni plural) designated any type of civilian or military truck equipped with a field, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, or support gun mounted on the cargo bay.
In the Italian official nomenclature, these vehicles were referred to as both as ‘Autocannoni’ and ‘Camionette’, even though the camionette were vehicles designed for reconnaissance and not armed support. This article will sometimes use designations such as ‘Autocannone da 20/65 su CMP’. This nomenclature was never officially used by the Italian Royal Army, but, in some photos, it is impossible to distinguish exactly which Canadian Military Pattern variant was used as a base for the vehicle.
This solution proved to be really successful and the Autofficine del 12° Autoraggruppamento AS started to convert other British vehicles, beginning with the 15 CWT Canadian Military Trucks. Due to the small cargo bay it was decided to turn the CMPs into anti-aircraft autocannoni, mounting 20 mm autocannons on their rear platforms.
The cabs were cut off under the windshield, permitting 360° traverse to the main gun. On the loading bay, all the tarpaulin rods and other unnecessary parts were removed.
The cargo bay was modified, adding a support in the center to mount the autocannon’s trunnion, but no seats for the main gun crew were added. Supports for 6 20 liters cans were added: four below the cargo bay, just behind the cab on the right, and one for 2 cans on the loading bay’s rear.
In some cases, these 120 liters of fuel would extend the range of the vehicle to 1,400 km. On other vehicles, the number of fuel cans transported was higher. For example, sometimes, 2 20 liters cans were transported between the driver and commander’s seats, increasing the range even more. However, some of those cans were used for drinkable water, which was more valuable than fuel when operating in the desert. Between the loading bay and the cab, where the spare wheel was previously located, some ammunition boxes were added.
Thanks to the tonnes of British material captured, the tires were not changed and remained the British desert type because there were enough spare wheels. Sapper tools, such as pickaxes and spades, were also added on the loading bay’s rear and two unditching grilles were mounted on the sides.
Even the Germans appreciated the Canadian Military Pattern qualities and, using the Italian workshops, they turned some of the CMPs that they had managed to capture into self-propelled anti-aircraft guns mounting German FlaK 30 or FlaK 38 anti-aircraft automatic cannons on their loading bays.
Ironically, during the North African Campaign, Commonwealth troops managed to capture several Italian 20 mm autocannons, which the Australians mounted on their own CMP light trucks.
From photographic evidence, the vehicles used by the Commonwealth troops were not in any way modified, having the Italian guns simply resting on the cargo bay, making them technically portées.
The number of vehicles converted by the Commonwealth forces in North Africa is not clear, but the guns were placed on Chevrolet C15 and C15A, Ford F15, F15A, and F60 chassis, but may have been more.
The Italians also converted a number of CMPs into anti-aircraft autocannoni, but with twin 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT aeronautical machine guns mounted on a 360° support instead of the 20 mm autocannon.
The crew of the Autocannone da 20/65 su Ford or Chevrolet was composed of four soldiers. The driver was on the right-hand seat of the cab, the vehicle commander on the left side of the cab, and a gunner and a loader were placed on the cargo bay, probably sitting on the wheel fairings.
When the gun was operated, the commander and the driver left the cab. The commander spotted targets while the driver served as a second loader to speed up the gun’s rate of fire.
Not much is known about the total number produced. Nico Sgarlato, in his book ‘I Corazzati di Circostanza Italiani’, says that a total of 30 Autocannoni da 20/65 su Ford, Chevrolet and Morris chassis were converted, plus others produced in 1943 and used in Tunisia. However, this Italian writer does not mention his source and it seems that no other book or source mentions the number of Ford or Chevrolet that were modified.
The main gun of the autocannone was the Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65, mainly the Modello 1939 version, but some vehicles were also equipped with the Modello 1935 version.
The Breda was a gas operated autocannon chambered for the powerful 20 x 138 mm B cartridge, the same as the German FlaK 38 and the Swiss Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifle.
Its theoretical rate of fire was 500 rounds per minute, but the practical one was about 220 rounds per minute. It had a muzzle velocity of 830 m/s and a practical range of 2,000 meters in the anti-aircraft role and a practical range against ground targets of about 3,000 meters.
The Breda Mod. 35 had a depression of -10° and an elevation of +80°, while the Mod. 39 had an elevation of +90° thanks to its manual aim. It used 12-round feed strips that were loaded manually by the loader.
The Modello 1939 was the fixed gun version, made mainly for the Milizia della Difesa Territoriale (English: Militia for Territorial Defense), essentially the equivalent of the British Home Guard.
The 72 kg autocannon was mounted on a particularly shaped trunnion that offered 360° traverse and simplified the use of the gun. These guns were probably taken from the fixed anti-aircraft positions around the Libyan cities, such as Tobruk or Tripoli.
The Modello 1935 was the towed variant of the autocannon and was lower than the Modello 1939, equipped with a seat and aiming wheels. It was the most produced variant and was the most used by the Regio Esercito during the war. It was also used also on the cargo bay of medium trucks as anti-aircraft portée, using chassis such as the FIAT 626 and SPA 38R.
One problem with the Italian modification was the removal of the water-proof tarpaulins that protected the cargo bay from rain, but more importantly from desert sand and dust. When not in use, the 20 mm Breda’s breech and barrel had to be covered by small waterproof tarpaulins. Otherwise, there was a risk of jamming the weapon with disastrous consequences for the entire battery.
The ammunition was transported in metal boxes placed between the cab and the cargo bay, on the right side. In total, the vehicle carried 240 rounds for the gun, even if it was common practice for crews to transport more ammunition within wooden crates loaded in the cargo bay or wherever there was sufficient space. More ammunition was transported by the battery’s supply trucks and ammunition carriers.
Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns were urgently needed in the Italian ranks to protect the ‘Batterie Volanti’ (English: Flying Batteries), composed of Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8 or other Italian autocannoni that operated in the vast desert plains to provide support to the Italian units. These had proven vulnerable to air strikes. To give an example, in November 1941, a Junker Ju. 87 ‘Stuka’, mistaking some Italian autocannoni for British vehicles, attacked them, destroying four Autocannoni da 100/17 su Lancia 3Ro and a battery of Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8, killing 7 Italian soldiers.
The Breda cannon was, in fact, well known to Allied ground attack pilots, who often aborted attacks in order to avoid significant damage to their aircraft, as some US documents confirm.
The Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8 equipped the 1ª to the 6ª Batteria Volante plus the 11ª Batteria Volante Indipendente (English: 11th Independent Flying Battery). The Canadian Military Pattern trucks armed with the Breda autocannons were assigned to some of these batteries, providing anti-aircraft defense to the batteries, but also defending them against infantry attacks.
The batteries were equipped with three Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8 and two anti-aircraft vehicles, 20/65 su Ford 15 CWT, or Chevrolet 15 CWT, plus other supply trucks and command cars.
In total, 16 Batterie Volanti were formed by the Italians during the North African Campaign and the anti-aircraft autocannoni equipped the majority of them. Of the hundreds of vehicles that composed these units, 71 were captured British-produced vehicles reused as autocannoni, ammunition carriers, or command trucks.
The 1ª, 2ª and 3ª Batteria Volante were assigned to the I° Gruppo (English: 1st Group), while the other three, from 4ª to the 6ª Batteria Volante, were assigned to the II° Gruppo (English: 2nd Group). These were later renamed XIV° Gruppo and XV° Gruppo (English: 14th and 15th Groups), respectively.
In March 1942, the XIV° Gruppo was completely destroyed by the British, which launched an attack on their positions. The soldiers of the group were killed or taken prisoners.
In the following weeks, the XIV° Gruppo was rebuilt with the soldiers and vehicles of the 3° Gruppo Autoblindo ‘Nizza’ (Eng: 3rd Armored Car Group), equipped with AB41 medium reconnaissance armored cars, four Autocannoni da 65/17 su FIAT 634N, an Italian heavy-duty truck, and others on Morris CS8 chassis, with some Ford chassis autocannoni as well.
In May 1942, the batteries were renamed Batterie Autocannoni. In June 1942, given the arrival of new material from the Italian mainland, the autocannoni production was stopped and the surviving Batterie Autocannoni equipped with 65/17 su Morris CS8 were reorganized.
After June 1942, each Batteria Autocannoni had a command unit, 3 batteries for a total of 12 autocannoni da 65/17, four autocannoni da 20/65 su Ford, Chevrolet or Morris chassis, a staff car, 4 armored trucks, 10 light trucks, 13 motorcycles, 4 machine guns, four 20 mm wheeled anti-aircraft guns, and two RF2 radio stations with a staff of 13 officers, 7 NCOs, 137 artillery crew, and 56 drivers.
From January 1943, the three renamed batteries were assigned to the 136º Reggimento Artiglieria (English: 136th Artillery Regiment) of the 136ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Giovani Fascisti’ (English: 136th Armored Division) and remained in the division for the rest of the African Campaign, fighting with tenacity during the battles in Tunisia.
Autocannone da 20/65 su Ford F60
The Italians also captured a number of Ford F60Ls and F60Ss that were reused for different purposes, such as infantry transport, fuel and water transporter, artillery tractors, and ammunition carriers. Thanks to their usefulness and bigger loading bays, only a few were used as autocannoni.
Some of the vehicles that were modified into autocannoni lost most of the cargo bay, of which they retained only part of the floor onto which the usual Breda was mounted.
The cabin of some models was cut, while others kept the windshield, and others did not receive any modifications. The crew of the gun were seated on a bench fixed behind the cab facing the rear during the march. The back of the bench was a large box where the ammunition of the cannon was stowed. On the vehicle were also hooked two racks for 3 jerrycans each, fixed under the cannon platform. Next to the racks were two more boxes for ammunition or tools.
From the existing photos of these vehicles, it seems that not all were modified in an ‘official’ way by the 12° Autoraggruppamento AS workshops, but that some were modified by the Italian soldiers on the front line.
The Autocannoni da 20/65 on Canadian lorries were some of the dozens of autocannoni produced by the Regio Esercito workshops in Africa. These vehicles, greatly appreciated for their dual anti-aircraft and infantry support capabilities, were extensively used even if in small numbers. Unfortunately, for the whole duration of the North African Campaign, the Regio Esercito did not receive purposely built self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, and the autocannoni da 20/65 on captured trucks or other chassis were the only serviceable vehicles for this fundamental role.
20/65 su Ford F15 Specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||5.18 x 2.13 x ~2 m|
|Total weight, battle-ready||3.235 tonnes|
|Crew||4 (driver, vehicle commander, gunner, and loader)|
|Propulsion||Ford 239 V8 Flathead 3,916 cm³, petrol 95 hp|
|Maximum speed||70 km/h|
|Main Armament||Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 or 1939|
|Total production||Unknown number of vehicles converted|
20/65 su Ford F60L Specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||6.21 x 2.23 x ~2 m|
|Total weight, battle-ready||4.33 tonnes|
|Crew||4 (driver, vehicle commander, gunner, and loader)|
|Propulsion||V8-cylinder, 3.917 cm³ displacement, carburetor, liquid-cooled with 112 liters tank|
|Maximum speed||75 km/h|
|Main Armament||Breda 20/65 Mod. 1939|
|Total production||Unknown number of vehicles converted|
Italian Truck-Mounted Artillery in Action – Ralph Riccio and Nicola Pignato
Le artiglierie del Regio Esercito – Filippo Cappellano
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano Volume II Tomo II – Nicola Pignato and Filippo Cappellano
I corazzati di circostanza italiani – Nico Sgarlato
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta