Italy’s capitulation in 1943 left a huge political and military vacuum in Yugoslavia. More importantly, plenty of military equipment and weapons were left for the taking. For the Yugoslav Communist Partisans, this was a great opportunity to come into possession of various equipment and weapons which they desperately needed. Thanks to this, they would manage to acquire a number of varied vehicles, including Italian L6/40 light tanks.
The Carro Armato L6/40
After the Ethiopian War (1935-36), the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) understood that the Carri Veloci or CV (English: Fast Tanks) were now obsolete. The Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino or FIAT (English: Italian Automobile Company of Turin) and Ansaldo already started the development of new tanks on the CV tank series chassis, such as the Carro d’Assalto Modello 1936 (English: Assault Tank Model 1936) presented in November 1935. The results were mixed. The prototype was equipped with a new torsion bar suspension that performed excellently, but the rest of the vehicle was not satisfactory.
In April 1936, the same two companies presented the Carro Cannone Modello 1936 (English: Cannon Tank Model 1936), a totally different modification of the CV33. Still, this vehicle was abandoned even after some drastic changes. The development of the Carro Armato L6/40 started in December 1937. The project was financed by the private funds of Ansaldo and FIAT.
On 26th October 1939, the Carro Armato M6T was presented to the Regio Esercito’s High Command. It had a new hull with torsion bar suspension and a single-man turret armed with two 8 mm medium machine guns. The vehicle was quickly rejected by the High Command because the Spanish Civil War, in which Italian light tanks were involved, showed the Italians that modern armored vehicles needed light cannons to fight against enemy armored vehicles. Also for this reason, General Cosma Manera ordered the adoption of a new turret armed with a 20 mm automatic cannon capable of engaging both flying and armored targets. A new prototype was presented with a one-man turret armed with a 20 mm automatic cannon, which, contrary to the specifications, could not elevate enough to engage flying targets.
After some tests carried out until early 1940, the light tank was officially adopted in April 1940 with the name Carro Armato L6/40, short for Carro Armato Leggero da 6 tonnellate Modello 1940 (English: 6 tonnes Light Tank Model 1940). Over 400 were produced and deployed in all theaters of war, such as the Balkans, southern France, North Africa, the Soviet Union, and the Italian peninsula, with questionable results.
The L6/40 was developed on the base of the CV33 and CV35, now renamed Carri Armati L3/33 and L3/35, and was meant to fight in narrow and soft mountain roads. The majority of the time, it was used as a reconnaissance tank in open fields like the North African deserts, not its intended role.
The only task that the L6/40 was able to perform with good results was anti-partisan operations. Until 1943, this meant fighting against the Yugoslav Partisans and, after 1943, also against Italian Partisans that hid in the mountains to avoid Nazi-Fascist capture.
Axis invasion of the Balkans
After Italy’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece, Benito Mussolini was forced to ask his German ally for help. Adolf Hitler agreed to provide assistance, fearing that a possible Allied attack through the Balkans would reach Romania and its vital oil fields. In the path of the German advance towards Greece stood Yugoslavia, whose government initially agreed to join the Axis side. This agreement was short-lived, as the Yugoslav government was overthrown by an anti-Axis pro-Allied military coup at the end of March 1941. Hitler immediately gave an order for the preparation of the invasion of Yugoslavia. The war that began on 6th April 1941, sometimes called April War, was a short one and ended with a Yugoslav defeat and the division of its territory between the Axis powers.
L6 tanks In Yugoslavia
Following the partition of Yugoslav territories, a general uprising led by two resistance movements caused huge chaos in the ranks of the occupiers. In order to respond to this new development, the Italians began increasing the number of armored vehicles operating in Yugoslavia. While these were mostly obsolete and improvised vehicles, some were new designs, including the L6/40.
The precise date when the Italians introduced the L6 in Yugoslavia is not quite clear. The 1° Gruppo Carri L ‘San Giusto’ (English: 1st Light Tank Group), which operated in Yugoslavia from 1941 with 61 L3s split between 4 squadrons, may have received its first L6/40 tanks in 1942 together with some AB41 medium armored cars. In reality, these probably arrived sometime in early 1943. The first evidence of their use in Yugoslavia is May 1943 according to Partisan reports. In them, they referred to the Italian tank as “Large tanks”. The term “Small tanks”, which they also used at this point, likely referred to the smaller L3 tanks. Given the general Partisan lack of knowledge about the precise names of enemy armor, these and other names should not come as a surprise.
Another Italian unit that operated the L6 in Yugoslavia was the IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ (English: 4th Armored Group). This unit had 30 L6/40 tanks and was deployed in Albania, with headquarters in Berat.
In occupied Slovenia, during August and September 1943, the XIII Gruppo Squadroni Semoventi ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’ had some L6 tanks. While the L6/40 was used in Yugoslavia by all warring parties, it was less common than its anti-tank Semoventi version which shared the same chassis.
In Communist Partisan Hands
Following the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the German Wehrmacht launched Fall Achse (English: Operation Axis) in the hope of capturing as many Italian weapons and territories as possible. During this operation, over 20,000 Italian soldiers were killed and over a million were disarmed and captured. The Germans also captured 977 Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), of which about 200 were AB41 armored cars. They were not the only ones to do so. After the collapse of the Italian armed forces in Yugoslavia, despite German attempts to prevent Italian weapons and vehicles from falling into the Partisan’s hands, many in fact did. In part thanks to their quick response, the Partisans managed to acquire a number of Italian armored vehicles.
After the collapse of Italian forces defending the town of Split, the Partisans captured a fairly large number of armored vehicles. These included 22 L3/33 and L3/35 light tanks, 7 armored cars and armored trucks, at least one Hotchkiss H-39, and two L6/40 tanks. From these, the Partisans formed the Tenkovski Bataljon Glavnog štaba Hrvatske (English: Tank Battalion of the High Command of Croatia) on 24th September 1944. One of the first actions of these vehicles was to fight off attacks from the German 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division ‘Prinz Eugen’ (English: 7th Mountain SS Volunteer Division) which was tasked with capturing Split. After heavy fighting with the Partisan defenders, the Germans had to temporarily abandon their attack, losing a few armored vehicles in the process. Despite having a rather strong armored unit, the Partisans decided to use these in small numbers attached to individual units.
In this area, another unit that operated the L6/40s was the elite Partisans 1st Proletarian Division. Most, if not all, L6/40s captured in Croatia would be lost shortly after the large German counter-offensive in late 1943. This offensive’s goal was to destroy the large concentration of Partisan forces in Croatia. While the Partisans suffered great losses in manpower and equipment, the German offensive failed in its main goal of completely destroying the opposing forces.
The 13. Proleterska Brigada (English: 13th Proletarian Brigade) also operated two L6/40 tanks. What is interesting is that these two tanks were part of the 2nd Company of the 1st Battalion of the 31° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista, whose men actually joined the Partisans. They were assigned to an armored unit under the command of the I Korpus (English: First Corps) of the Partisans. Not much is known about their service, apart from the fact that they were operated by their previous Italian crews.
After this point, most Partisan L6/40 tanks were actually captured from the Germans or their Croatian allies, which had operated them in smaller numbers in occupied Yugoslavia. Few other Partisan units managed to capture more L6/40 tanks. One of them was in the tank unit of the High Command of the Slovenian Partisans. These were used to harass vital German supply lines.
In Summer 1944, the 5th Partisan Corps formed a tank company named Lazo Martin, equipped with three tanks: a Hotchkiss and two L6/40 tanks. In September 1944, due to poor mechanical condition, two tanks were out of service and had to be abandoned. The surviving L6/40 was used during the attack on Banjaluka in Bosnia. The city was defended by at least three Croatian tanks. As the Partisan L6/40 was driving toward its target, it ran over a mine and was damaged. After repairs were made, the single tank proceeded toward its objective. While managing to penetrate the enemy defenses, the tank soon had an engine breakdown. After even more repairs were made, the tank continued on. Interestingly, during the fighting with the enemy, the commander of the sole Partisan tank, Lazo Martin, managed to somehow convince the crews of two Croatian tanks to switch sides. In October, the tanks from this unit participated in the fight for Travnik. After that action, the L6 was not used in combat again until to early 1945.
In late 1944, using the various captured equipment in liberated Serbia, a crew training center was opened. In its inventory, it allegedly had between 2 to 3 L6/40 tanks. Some more L6/40s would be captured from the retreating German and Croatian forces in Slovenia at the end of the war.
L6 Tanks after the War
Following the end of the war, the newly created Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija (English: Yugoslav People’s Army) incorporated in its inventory a vast selection of different armored vehicles, including a few L6/40s. While most of these would remain in limited service in the years after the war, the fate of the L6/40 is not clear. Given their weak firepower and protection, their use, if any, may have been limited at best.
The L6/40 was one of many different armored vehicles operated in occupied Yugoslavia. It would see service with all sides, including the Croatians, Germans, Italians, and Partisans. Despite being an obsolete tank design by the standards of 1942, the L6/40 was surely a welcome addition to the Partisans, who often only managed to capture the weaker but more numerous L3 fast tanks.
Carro Armato L6/40 in Yugoslav Partisan Service specifications
|Dimensions||3.82 x 1.80 x 1.175 m|
|Total weight, battle-ready||6.84 tonnes|
|Crew||2 (driver and commander/gunner)|
|Propulsion||FIAT Tipo 18 VT 4-cylinder 68 hp at 2,500 rpm with an 165 liter tank|
|Armament||one Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 and a 8 mm Breda Modello 1938|
|Armor||6 to 40 mm|
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